Saturday, February 17, 2024

The Mountains of Umbria – Return to Valetto by Dominic Smith

It's always a joy to find a "new" writer and learn that they have already published multiple books of interest. That's especially true for me when the books are set in Italy, my favorite country abroad, and in other atmospheric and appealing locations. 

Return to Valetto revolves around history professor Hugh Fisher, a widower with a grown daughter. His Anglo-Italian family, the Serafinos, are some of the last residents of Valetto, a dying village in Umbria. His grandmother, a centenarian, and his three elderly aunts reside in a large villa there with a small cottage on the property that he inherited on the death of his mother, who was the youngest sister.

There's a problem, however: a woman, Elisa, is "squatting" in the cottage, which she maintains was bequeathed to her family by Aldo, Hugh's grandfather, who left his family during World War II as a partisan fighting the Nazis in Italy's north and never returned. Elisa's mother was hidden as a child at the villa during the war, and later returned to her own village where Aldo, wounded in the war, was cared for by her family. In gratitude, he wrote a letter that explained his wishes, but the Serafinos doubt its authenticity.

When Hugh comes to Valetto for a visit, he is thrust into the middle of this conflict, and over the course of its resolution, uncovers the secrets of his family and the village, and its affect upon both over the decades since the war. 

The book is richly atmospheric, and engaging with vivid descriptions of the setting, the characters, and their stories, yet is deceptively subtle as it pulls the reader deep into their hearts and minds. 

I'll be looking for more novels by Dominic Smith on my next library visit. For readers looking for a comparative author, his style reminds me a bit of the work of Mark Helprin, another favorite writer whose historical novels include one set in Italy (A Soldier of the Great War), or of the rich atmospheric detail of Helene Wecker's The Golem and the Ginni. 


Saturday, February 10, 2024

Eighteen Voices – A Paris All Your Own: Bestselling Women Writers on the City of Light, edited by Eleanor Brown

A mixed bag of essays on Paris by women writers. Some were certainly more appealing (at least to me) than others. 

My picks, alphabetized by author:

Investigating Paris by Cara Black

Thirty-four Things You Should Know About Paris by Meg Waite Clayton

My Paris Dreams by M.J. Rose

The Passion of Routine by Jennifer L. Scott

Paris Alone by Maggie Shipstead was my favorite: The author writes about a time when she had received funding for residency in a Paris complex for artists and writers, where she could write her book, and she did, indeed, while spending nearly all of that time alone with her work and thoughts, something she was quite comfortable with and that I can completely understand. When speaking of social encounters at cocktail parties, trade events, and other events of the publishing life, she quotes another author, unnamed, who tells her, "You're a gregarious shy person," ... "You can do the sociable thing, but you don't draw power from it the way real extroverts do. It takes something out of you." The next time someone asks me if I am an introvert or an extrovert that is what I'll say – I'm a gregarious shy person.

Paris Is Your Mistress, by Ellen Sussman

A Myth, a Museum, and A Man by Susan Vreeland 

Generations of History – The Night Travelers by Armando Lucas Correa

This novel is about four generations of women and has multiple settings: Nazi Germany, Cuba during both the Batista and Castro regimes, New York, and the reunited Germany after the fall of the Berlin Wall and into the near present.

Ally is a beautiful young German poet in Berlin who has a relationship with Marcus, a Black German jazz musician, while Hitler and his Fascism is sweeping the country. Marcus eventually disappears and is presumed dead. Ally has given birth to a daughter, Lilith, a brilliant child whom she realizes she must hide away since the child is a Mischling – of two races – and forbidden and hated by the Nazis and their policy of racial purity. The two go out only by night where Lilith's darker skin tone and hair texture are not on display. 

Very painfully, Ally concludes she can only protect Lilith by sending her away, and the child joins the Herzogs, a Jewish couple on the ill-fated SS St. Louis on its way to Cuba, where they are some of the very small number allowed to enter that country, despite its promise to take in the ship's large number of Jewish refugees. The St. Louis will also be rejected by FDR's government, and returns to Germany, where its remaining passengers will be murdered in the concentration camps.

Lilith is raised by the Herzogs and eventually she and her closest friend, Martín, fall in love and marry. Martín is a Cuban air force  pilot and his family is close to the Batista government. The two have a daughter, Nadine, but Martín is killed when Castro takes over. Lilith, through contacts in the Catholic church, follows her mother Ally's path, and arranges for Nadine to be sent to Queens, New York where she is raised by a couple there – the man is a veteran of World War II, and his wife is a German immigrant he met while serving abroad. The wife hides a terrible secret.

Nadine inherits her mother's intelligence and becomes a scientist. She is multi-lingual and moves to Germany, where she marries Anton. They have a daughter, Luna, whose skin color echoes her grandmother's. As an adult, Luna, always a voracious reader and writer, convinces Nadine to explore her family history, something she has long avoided.

This is a complex story – part family saga, part historical epic, part study of the complexity of racial, religious, ethnic, and sexual preferences. It's beautifully written, and examines many difficult, challenging topics many authors, and readers, may choose to avoid, but there is much to learn here. 

I would also encourage readers not to skip the Author's Note following the end, which provides  background on some of the issues raised in the text, the first two paragraphs of the Acknowledgements, and the extensive Bibliography. This author truly did his homework... 

Sunday, February 4, 2024

Ooh, la, la! Let's Eat Paris!: The Essential Guide to the World's Most Famous Food City by François Régis-Gaudry

I devoured this extraordinary guide to everything food-related (and more) in Paris. It is an incredibly enjoyable volume filled with everything you could ever possibly want to know about the city's food culture, restaurants (all levels and types), markets, the city's classic dishes, cheese, fruits and vegetables, bread and pastry, wine, and so much more.

It covers where to see and do all the things that would appeal to anyone who wants to experience Paris in all its culinary and cultural glory. There are maps, lists, timelines, insider information and how-to's. And yes, there are a number of signature recipes included.

This is not a guide to take with you as it is a big, heavy book and there is no Kindle or other digital version available as of this writing – read it before a trip, and take pictures of the most essential pages. Or if you are an armchair traveler, just read it for the fun of it and then go and eat, or cook, your favorite French dish, and follow it with a Paris-based movie or two. Suggestions from a very long list: Paris Blues (Paul Newman, Joanne Woodward, Sidney Poitier, and Diahann Carroll), Forget Paris (Billy Crystal, Debra Winger), Midnight in Paris (Owen Wilson), La Vie en Rose (Marion Cotillard), Before Sunset (Julie Delpy, Ethan Hawke), Paris When It Sizzles (Audrey Hepburn, William Holden)...

Saturday, February 3, 2024

Violence Against Girls and Women – When the Stars Go Dark by Paula McClain

Due to the subject nature (abducted/missing young girls and teens), this was a tough book to get through. There is some violence, a lot of emotional stress and accounts of emotional abuse, and the suspense of the dark plot details. The book is set in 1993, during the search for abducted and murdered Polly Klaas, a young girl from Petaluma, CA.

Anna Hart is a San Francisco detective, specializing in missing persons. After a personal tragedy, unrevealed till much later in the book, her husband insists on a separation. Anna heads to Mendocino, the small California town where she grew up with foster parents Eden and Hap, who were kind and nurturing to her after the very difficult past of her earlier childhood. She finds a small cabin in the woods to rent, and acquires a dog.

Anna becomes embroiled in the search for Cameron, a missing girl, one of a few concurrent cases in Northern California, including the Klaas case, which is receiving a lot of media attention, partly because actress Winona Ryder, who grew up in Petaluma, has taken a personal interest. 

Cameron, the adopted daughter of a former actress and her producer husband, is a beautiful but sad girl who is dealing with early trauma, much of which is unknown to her parents. During Anna's intensive detective work on the case, she uncovers much about Cameron's early childhood, and finds Cameron's protective older brother, Hector, from whom she was separated when she was adopted.

While searching for Cameron, Anna is confronted with her own unresolved, unreconciled personal tragedies, both her current situation, and the earlier ones that haunt her. She becomes reacquainted with Will, the sheriff and an old friend, and Caleb, another, whose twin sister Jenny disappeared during their high school days.

The multiple threads of Cameron's case, and that of another girl named Shannen, and Anna's inner search for resolution with her past coincide and collide throughout this novel, but it never descends into melodrama, as the situations described are all too common, and in the Klaas case, real. 

By the end, nearly all of the tensions and conflicts reach a conclusion, though author Paula McClain does leave one untied thread...which I found both surprising and disappointing.

This subject matter is very disturbing, and since we read and hear about similar cases every day, it's also an important, urgent topic, one that certainly should not be diminished or dismissed by some of our political structures, which seem, in some cases, to care less about the ongoing care and nurturing of children, than than they do about their so-called "pro-life" stance, which ends once birth takes place. Those politicians, who are limiting the rights of women and girls, and who refuse to provide adequate funding to local governments who need help combatting the type of crime addressed in this book, need to be voted out. Please think about that in this very important election year.


A Food Journey from Iran to Italy – Pomegranates & Artichokes by Saghar Setareh

This beautiful book will take the reader (and cook) on a journey around the Mediterranean, the Middle East, and through history. Many of the recipes are mouthwatering, the photographs by the author are both enticing and sensitive, and the commentary of her life journey from her Iranian homeland to a new life in Italy is both joyful and poignant.

Away and Back – The Train Home by Dan-ah Kim

Every so often I come across a picture book that's intended for children but touches me as an adult, and this is one of those stories. Set in Brooklyn, NY, along the route of the F train (not disclosed in the text, but I easily recognized it), it's the tender and poignant tale of Nari, a young girl in an immigrant family, who's feeling a bit frustrated by her crowded apartment home, and the city environment with all of its noise and tensions.

Her "escape" is on the elevated train that passes by her window. She imagines a ride to multiple destinations – flower gardens, woods, museums, under the ocean and up to the stars. Eventually, just like Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz, she realizes that there's "no place like home" and that her happy place is there with her family.

The illustrations are charming, and the text is just enough of a story to delight both young children, their parents, and grandparents.