Online Reading Challenge – Wrap Up

Challengers! How did your reading go this month? Did you find a gem? Or was the month a clunker for you?

I read A Thread of Grace by Mary Doria Russell. It is quite good, a can’t-put-down, I’m-still-thinking-about-it that follows a lesser-known part of World War II. It’s also pretty grim and includes some gruesome scenes. It’s not a light read, but it is well worth the effort.

It’s 1943. Mussolini has been defeated and Italy has broken with Germany and made peace with the Allies. Thousands of Jewish refugees struggle over the Alps, away from Eastern Europe toward what they believe will be a safe place to wait out the war. Instead, they discover that the war is still very much present in Italy with the Nazis’ arrival, the Resistance battling them, Jews forced to flee or go into hiding again and ordinary citizens simply trying to survive. The Nazi rule is harsh and unrelenting – anytime a German soldier is killed by a Resistance fighter, 20 (or more) citizens are killed in retaliation. Sweeps are enacted regularly searching for hidden Jews or Resistance fighters; any that are found are killed or deported (to death camps) as are those that hid or aided them. Food and fuel are scarce. And then the Allies begin bombing the tiny villages and towns in an effort to break the weakening German Army.

A Thread of Grace follows a variety of people living in this Italian valley including a priest, a Resistance leader, an Italian Jewish family, a German doctor, Eastern European Jews who have fled to Italy, an Italian soldier and several Catholic nuns. Each has suffered great losses and struggle to continue against impossible odds. There is despair and sorrow and anger, but there is also fellowship and kindness. The Italians, whether Jewish, Catholic or atheist, open their homes to the Jewish refugees without hesitation, often risking their own lives, hiding, feeding and clothing them with no expectation of repayment.

You get a real sense of what the war meant in this Italian valley – the desperation, the randomness, the cruelty. The kindness of strangers is breathtaking – Italian soldiers helping the refugees over the mountains by carrying their luggage or a tired child, nuns hiding orphan refugee children among their other charges, helping a sick German doctor, a deserter, even though he has caused thousands of deaths, and confusing and distracting soldiers at checkpoints to smuggle someone past.  Although this is fiction, Russell spent several years researching this part of the Italian campaign. It has often been overlooked once the Allied invasion began and attention shifted to Normandy and France. In fact, the war continued in Italy, with a devastating toll, until May 1945.

I did have some trouble keeping the large cast of characters, hailing from various families and nationalities, straight but there is a list of the major players at the beginning of the book. This book is often difficult to read, but it is well worth the effort, an eye-opening look at both the worst and the best of humans.

Now it’s your turn. What did you read this month?

The Tuscan Child

Rhys Bowen’s newest mystery, The Tuscan Child, is one of those books that starts out a bit slowly. But when there is a change of locale, the book really hits its stride. Alternating chapters are set in either the 1970’s  or in the 1940’s.  The 1970’s chapters begin when Hugo Langley’s daughter, Joanna, first learns of her father’s death. She then travels to Tuscany to find out more about his experiences  during the war, and this is when the book really takes off.

The novel goes back and forth between Joanna’s visit to Italy and  the period when her father was  shot down  in the remote hills of Tuscany.  Not only must he brave the elements, hiding in a ruined monastery, but he is nearly immobilized by a broken leg.

The suspense really builds as the reader is excruciatingly aware of the danger faced by those who helped Allied servicemen. The Germans threaten to kill everyone in the village if they find proof that one of them has been aiding the pilot they suspect is still in the area. Bowen supplies lots of detail about life in these towns overrun by the Germans, as well as about the groups of men who resisted.  Even though these groups were anti-Fascist, they could also pose a threat to civilians caught in everchanging alliances that made any kind of trust dangerous.

There is  suspense even in the 1970’s as there are long-held secrets about the war and how the villagers had to deal with the German occupation. Another mystery is the relationship between Hugo and Sofia. Joanna’s impetus to visit Italy is a letter from Hugo to Sofia, the young woman who fed and helped to hide Hugo. Sofia’s son, Renzo, still lives in the village and Joanna wonders if he is, in fact, her brother.  (This would be awkward as there is some romantic tension between the two).

There are many appeals to the substance and the style of the novel.  There is the enjoyment of learning lesser-known facets of history, such as how war impacts civilians, both during the actual conflict and how it resonates decades afterwards. The novel’s structure highlights the contrast between Hugo in his final years and Hugo as a young man. It’s a compelling illustration of how death and loss can change a courageous and generous hero into an embittered man.

Another thread of the plot deals with artistic masterpieces and how, tragically, many were destroyed or went missing. This is given extra relevance because Hugo is a gifted artist, himself.

I love the way information is slowly discovered by Joanna. You get a sense of the terror of the wartime, and why families would not want everything to be known, even 30 years later. It did bother me a bit that one final mystery was never revealed – the fate of one of those villagers who was key to the story. Perhaps Bowen will revisit San Salvatore, and the intriguing cast of characters who live there.

 

Making of the Mob: New York

making of the mobIn The Making of the Mob: New York, AMC has created an eight-part docu-drama series that begins in 1905 and traces the rise of the American Mafia for over fifty years. This series examines the lives of Charles “Lucky” Luciano, Meyer Lansky, Benjamin “Bugsy” Siegel, Frank Costello, Vito Genovese, and several other notorious gangsters as they all struggle for power when the mafia starts becoming more organized. The amount of attention to detail that went into the establishment of the five major heads of the family, also known as the Commission, and Murder, Inc., the group of Jewish hitmen who killed around 1,000 people in ten years, shows that the new mobsters rising up in the ranks were definitely looking to run the mafia as more of a business with set consequences and an elected representative board.

This docu-drama looks into the five main families of the American Mafia and goes into great detail showing how organized crime came to exist and flourish in America. What I found to be the most intriguing part of this series was that it included interviews from former politicians, mobsters, actors, and other influential people, as well as actual archival footage  and sound recordings of the actual mobsters alongside the actors’ dramatic interpretations of what was happening. The inclusion of actual footage and interviews really drew me into this docu-drama and had me fully invested in the lives of the mobsters, the shady deals they were doing, and the specific individuals and governmental organizations who were working to bring down the American mafia.

Politics of Washing by Polly Coles

politics of washingThis is the story of ordinary life in an extraordinary place.

The beautiful city of Venice has been a fantasy land for people from around the globe for centuries, but what is it like to live there? To move house by boat, to get a child with a broken leg to hospital or to set off for school one morning only to find that the streets have become rivers and the playground is a lake full of sewage? When Polly Coles and her family left England for Venice, they discovered a city caught between modern and ancient life – where the locals still go on an annual pilgrimage to give thanks for the end of the Black Death; where schools are housed in renaissance palaces and your new washing machine can only be delivered on foot. This is a city perilously under siege from tourism, but its people refuse to give it up – indeed, they love it with a passion.

The Politics of Washing is a fascinating window into the world of ordinary Venetians and the strange and unique place they call home. (description from publisher)

The Tuscan Sun Cookbook by Frances Mayes

In all of Frances Mayes’s bestselling memoirs about Tuscany, food plays a starring role. This cuisine transports, comforts, entices, and speaks to the friendly, genuine, and improvisational spirit of Tuscan life. Both cooking and eating in Tuscany are natural pleasures. In her first-ever cookbook, Frances and her husband, Ed, share recipes that they have enjoyed over the years as honorary Tuscans: dishes prepared in a simple, traditional kitchen using robust, honest ingredients.

A toast to the experiences they’ve had over two decades at Bramasole, their home in Cortona, Italy, The Tuscan Sun Cookbook evokes days spent roaming the countryside for chestnuts, green almonds, blackberries, and porcini; dinner parties stretching into the wee hours,  and garden baskets tumbling over with bright red tomatoes.

Lose yourself in the transporting photography of the food, the people, and the place, as Frances’s introductions and headnotes put you by her side in the kitchen and raising a glass at the table. From Antipasti (starters) to Dolci (desserts), this cookbook is organized like a traditional Italian dinner.

Frances and Ed also share their tips on stocking your pantry, pairing wines with dishes, and choosing the best olive oil. Learn their time-tested methods for hand rolling pasta and techniques for coaxing the best out of seasonal ingredients with little effort.

Throw on another handful of pasta, pull up a chair, and languish in the rustic Italian way of life. (description from publisher)

The Bicycle Runner by G. Franco Romagnoli

Like all boys growing up in Rome during the 1930’s and 40’s, the author was expected to join Balilla, Mussolini’s Fascist Youth Organization in Italy.  An unwilling participant, he counters this activity by becoming a bicycle runner, secretly delivering pamphlets and other materials to members of the Resistance.  Later, near the end of the war, after Italy has surrendered to the Allies but is still controlled by a puppet German government, Romagnoli flees Rome to avoid military conscription.  Hiding in the remote mountainous countryside, he becomes even more dangerously involved in the Resistance, working with both American and British soldiers.

But The Bicycle Runner, which covers his life from ages 14-25, is much more than a war story.  In fact, it reads much more like a coming-of-age novel, full of the usual adolescent angst weaved together with plenty of humorous anecdotes.  Examples include his descriptions of fearful confessions to the local priest (which the entire congregation can hear)  to his first experiences with love and lust.

The author may be better known for co-hosting the first American television program on Italian cooking, The Romagnoli’s Table, for which he  coauthored two companion books.  Though he passed away in December of 2008, the love for his native land and culture comes through strikingly clear;  the subtitle, A Memoir of Love, Loyalty and the Italian Resistance, is perfectly appropriate.

Enchanted April on DVD

Enchanted AprilLong available only on VHS tape, Enchanted April has finally been released on DVD. Fans of beautiful scenery, charming stories and happy endings rejoice!

Two middle class English housewives, feeling downtrodden and forlorn, decide to rent an Italian villa for the month of April. To help with expenses they include two strangers – an elderly woman and a beautiful socialite. Leaving England in the rain, they are somewhat discouraged to find it still raining when they arrive in Italy, but the next morning reveals the countryside in all its beauty.  Soon the sunshine, warmth and quiet solitude work their magic; friendships are forged, marriages healed, memories made.

This is a light – and yes, enchanting – movie filled with humor and heartfelt stories. It is beautifully made (filmed on location in Portofino) and the cast is stellar (Polly Walker, Joan Plowright, Miranda Richardson, Jim Broadbent, Alfred Molina, Josie Lawrence) This is the perfect ancedote to a hectic or rainy day, or any day that you just want to feel good.

The Armchair Traveler – Italy

Armchair TravelerEscape with the Armchair Traveler to beautiful Italy. These are not all “travel” books per se, but they will transport you from the frigid Midwest to warmer climes.

Without Reservations: the Travels of An Independent Woman by Alice Steinbach

Steinbach immerses herself in the neighborhoods and culture of European cities she travels to, but she is at her best when describing the thrills, hardships and annoyances of traveling alone.

As the Romans Do: The Delights, Dramas, and Daily Diversions of Life in the Eternal City by Alan Epstein

Again, Europe is seen through the eyes of an American, so the smallest of details of daily life are recorded and celebrated. Epstein describes the communal lifestyle of Rome (hanging out in the piazzas and raising children as a community) He revels in the elegant and beautiful art of conversation and sense of style that is particular to Romans.

Italian Journey by Jean GionoVenice

Written right after WWII, this is an elegant and elegiac view of northern Italy, and Venice, in particular.

An Italian Affair by Laura Fraser

Suddenly single, the author decides to take a trip to Italy where she begins a romance and a journey through Italy. An unsentimental but sensuous memoir.

The Fall of the Sparrow by Robert Hellenga

This novel merges the midwest and Italy, as a classics professor travels to Italy to attend the trial of terrorists responsible for his daughter’s death. (the author teaches at Knox College in Galesburg).

The Dark Heart of Italy by Tobias Jones

Jones balances his love for Italy with the realities of political corruption, Italy’s obsession with soccer and beauty, and Silvio Berlusconi

Next week: the Armchair Traveler visits New York City.