Monday, 29 June 2015

The day of the owl, Leonardo Sciascia

A man is shot, just before he steps into a bus. When the police arrives, there are no witnesses left. On Sicily people know better than to get involved in these things. The witnesses who did not manage to slip away on time did not see anything and know nothing.

The new captain of the Carabinieri must try to solve the case. He is not trusted much, since he is from the mainland and he used to be a partisan during the war, so he must be some sort of communist. Despite this the captain knows to get information and an informer even gives him two names. Unfortunately the informer is shot shortly after.

The interrogations continue, but everyone tries to wiggle their way out of it. And although the captain knows what happened, it will never go to court, since the people higher up the chain get involved and make sure there are alibis where there were none and witnesses come to the conclusion they were mistaken.

The captain hits a wall, the wall of not knowing, not wanting to talk and the refusal to acknowledge the mafia exists.

This book by Leonardo Sciascia was published in 1961. When you watch a modern series like Squadra Antimaffia, you realize nothing much has changed. The mafia still influences building, trade and politics and its tentacles reach all the way to Rome.

Leonardo Sciascia was born in Sicily and knew the influence of the mafia. At the end of his book he gives an afterword where he states that he was not so free to write this story as a writer should have been.

The day of the owl is a book about a murder and the solving of that murder, but it would not be fair to call this book just a thriller or a detective. The way is it written, the dialogues but especially the captain’s musings make it to a literary and often almost philosophical book.

Original Italian title: Il giorno della civetta
Published in 1961

Friday, 26 June 2015

Home fires (2015-)

I have said it before and I will say it again, nobody makes better historical television series than the British. The combination of attention for period details, great actors and good stories is irresistible.

Home fires begins in November 1939 in the village of Great Paxton. WWII just began and people are unsure of what the future holds. The very British Women’s Institute is divided in what road to follow. 

Joyce Cameron wants to shut the doors of the WI for the duration of the war, and another group of women, with Frances Barden in the lead, wants to keep the WI open. This because the war will not just be a struggle for the men who go to fight, but also for the women who stay behind and keep the home fires burning.

In six episodes we follow a couple of these women and their families and what happens to them in these first months of the war. Women who have to go on  alone because their husbands joined up, or women who try to prevent their sons from joining the army.
The WI selling home made jam. 
New regulations for farms, war marriages, handing in metal, houses commanded for the army, a conscientious postman and the building of an air raid shelter are all situations that have to be dealt with. Insecurity and fear for the future also play a part, and nobody knows how long the war will last.
Waiting in the shelter for an air raid to end 
Home fires is a beautiful series, and all the different components of life in those days are brought to the screen very well. The attention to clothing and props is amazing.

Ruth Gemmell (Waking the dead, Silent Witness), Samantha Bond (Downton Abbey) Clare Calbraith (Downton Abbey, Vera) and Fenella Woolgar (Cheerful weather for the wedding, Bright young things) are all excellent actresses and these are just a few names I mention, almost the entire cast are excellent actors and actresses.
Picking berries to make jam
The focus in Home fires is on the women, but the men and the parts they played are certainly not forgotten. The series is based on the book Jambusters by Julie Summers, about the role of the WI during WWII. 

I really recommend Home fires, it is a great series and I was very glad to hear a second series will be filmed this Summer. 

Monday, 22 June 2015

My sunshine away

Growing up is not exactly easy, as every teenager knows. And there are many things children do not understand and adults think they do understand, too many experiences that only fall into place when the child has become an adult.

When something happens during your childhood that is horrible to understand, it is even more difficult to find your way and learn how to deal with that.

In 1989, in Baton Rouge in Louisiana young Lindy was raped. Nobody knows who did it, but there are many suspects. The criminal neighbor’s son, a weird neighbor and his stepson and the main character, who was only 14 at the time of the attack. 

The reason he is a suspect is because he was obsessively in love with Lindy at the time. In the years that follow he tries everything he can to get closer to Lindy, although he never really gets to know her.

The rape, how horrible it was, is not the main theme in this novel. It is only the starting point for our main character to become an adult.
My sunshine away is about growing up, loss, the pain of your first love, coping with your own grief and the grief of others and quilt and trying to make up for past mistakes.

Beautifully and insightful it becomes clear how the innocence of childhood is replaced by knowing, although knowing is never the same as understanding. Add to that the fact that teenagers are full of hormones and usually only obsessed with their own lives and it is no wonder communication is so difficult sometimes. When do we ever really listen to eachother?

I loved the way the Louisiana Summer was described, I felt the heat and saw the azaleas in bloom and the many mosquitoes. When we learn in the last pages why the boy, who was only 14 at the time, did what he did, we understand.

M.O. Walsh knows the South, he studied in Mississippi and now works at the university of New Orleans, where he teaches Creative writing. My sunshine away is his debut novel, but in my opinion a very good debut.

The story is written and composes very well. The story never becomes boring and there is not a scene too many. Some events return later, only in a different light and certain threads return, only in a different connection.
When I finally knew who the main character is telling his story to, I was touched.

In short, I will certainly look out for a new book by M.O. Walsh and I hope there will be many.

Published in 2015

Friday, 19 June 2015

La meglio gioventú (2003)

La meglio gioventú (the best of youth) is an epic story about two brothers, their family and their friends against the background of the Italian history.

We meet them in the sixties. Both Nicola and Matteo are studying at university and the family has especially high expectations of Matteo. Both brothers want to go to the Northcape to see life outside of Italy.

Matteo volunteers in a psychiatric hospital and meets patient Giorgia. Psychiatric care was not very good in Italy in those days and Matteo cares for the girl. Nicola also gets involved and both decide to take the girl out of the hospital to bring her home. Unfortunately this does not go according to plan and Giorgia is taken back to the institution.
Giorgia and Matteo, when they first meet
For Matteo this is a breaking-point. He decides to drop out of university, to not go with his brother to Norway, but to join the army instead.
Nicola is furious and goes to Norway on his own, but he returns to Italy when a flood threatens the city of Florence to help with the rescue-work and here he meets Matteo again who is in Florence with the army to help.
Matteo and Nicola in Florence in 1966

Nicola also meets here the love of his life, Giulia. He now stays in Italy and studies medicine, to become a psychiatrist. Giulia and he are involved in the student protest-movement, but where Nicola is getting more serious about his work and reforming the psychiatric system, Giulia is getting more radical and eventually even leaves Nicola and their daughter to join the Red Brigades.

Matteo in the meantime has left the army and has become a policeman. He is not a happy man. The structure of the army and the police force give him some peace of mind and in his free time he can read all the books he wants, but he does not feel connected to his family and the world around him.
This changes when he meets the photographer Mirella, but Matteo is convinced this happiness will not last and makes a decision that will impact everyone who knows him.

We follow both brothers, the family and their friends from the sixties up to the end of the century. All important moment in Italian history are there, through the eyes of the experiences of the people we get to know so well.

The flood in Florence in 1966, the student protests of 1968, the years of led, the Red Brigades, the mass unemployment at FIAT, the reforms in the psychiatric care and much more. These defining moments are never the main focus, but we get to know about them through the characters. That is why it is never boring and why it never feels like you are watching a documentary.

The same actors play the characters in 1965 and in 2000 and this is done really well, you can see the characters age and act and walk different than they did before, their age but also their experiences changes them.

La meglio gioventú is almost 6 hours, and for me, this is not a problem. For me, this is one of the most beautiful films ever made, and the whole 6 hours I am glued to the screen, watching these excellent actors play their parts, no become the people they  portray.

Alessio Boni as Matteo is my favorite, he knows to give Matteo something so broken and so fragile, yet so frustrated and angry at the same time, that my heart breaks for him. The last 1 ½ hour of the film I cannot watch without crying.
Other amazing actors are Luigi di Cascio as Nicola, Sonia Bergamasco as Giulia and Jasmine Trinca as Giorgia. I also really liked Maya Sansa as Mirella, and I wished things could have worked out for her and Matteo.

So, if you haven’t seen this film yet, do not get frightened by the fact it is almost 6 hours long, but just watch it, enjoy it and submerge yourself. 

Monday, 15 June 2015

In the light of what we know, Zia Haider Rahman

Two men became friends during their studies at Oxford. They both ended up working for a bank, although one of them became a lawyer later.

Both are from completely different backgrounds. The main character, whose name we do not know is from a high-class family from Pakistan. His grandfather was a diplomat, his father is a scientist.

Zafar, his friend, comes from Bangladesh. His birth is surrounded by the shame of what happened there during the war of independence of 1971. He wants to belong, but he does not know where, he wants knowledge and has little respect for social codes.

The story begins in 2008 when the man who tells us the story gets an unexpected visit from his friend Zafar. He himself has a good job at a bank and enjoyed the financial wealth that came with that. He was responsible for messing with the mortgages to make more money for the banks.
Now he has an empty house, a marriage that is not working and a job he will probably lose because his bank will pin their problems on him.

Although they have not seen eachother for years, there is still their connection and not before long they have long conversations in the kitchen when Zafar tells what he did in the previous years.

In the light of what we know is a very clever story. Somewhere on the first pages we hear about the theory by Kurt Gödel that in every system there are things that are true, although they cannot be proven. That is something to remember when you read this book.

Jumping though the time we come to know what happened to Zafar, the story leads us from his childhood and years in Bangladesh to his relationship with Emily Hampton-Wyvern, a mental institution and finally Kabul in Afghanistan. This story is set against the story of the other man, who never really questioned things, but does have some huge problems now.

The class-system, education, the splits immigrants are in, knowledge and ignorance, the support religion can offer, the manners of the English upper-class, western ngo’s in a bombed country, post-colonial feelings, the casualties of war, in short, the whole world post the eleventh of September 2001 is captured in this book.

Zia Haider Rahman
There are many great things to be found in this book; the way the story is built, the references to writers and scientists and books, and even some mathematic theories (not so you can’t understand). In some books this is done to show the reader how very intellectual the writer is, but luckily not in this book. The many references fit quite naturally into the story and it helps that the main character also does not know certain things. He tells us Zafar told him this, and that he looked it up later.
Some metaphors are a bit too obvious, but on the whole most of them give a beautiful and deeper dimension.

Only halfway through the story I felt it fell a bit flat, and at that point the pedantic conversation between Zafar and his friend, that had not only the axolotl, the ponte vecchio but a hundred other things in it, irritated me immensely.  

I was glad the story picked up after that, especially since I wanted to know what the matter was between Zafar and Emily and what happened in Afghanistan. There were some surprises here, and it made me like Zafar even more. 

Zia Haider Rahman studied in Oxford and worked as a banker before he became a lawyer who specializes in international human rights. In the light of what we know is his first novel and it has been a huge success worldwide.
Well-deserved, I think!

Published in 2014

Friday, 12 June 2015

How I get that Italian feeling, at home

Some of the best Italian novels (in Dutch translation)
In my dreams, I have a little apartment in the old centre of Rome, with the Piazza Navona on walking distance. Every day I would go to the market to get the ingredients for my dinner that evening and I would soak up the Italian atmosphere. In reality I do not live in Italy, but in an apartment in The Netherlands.
So, how do I try to hold on to that Italian feeling here in my own home?
Read books by Italian authors, there are so many beautiful books written by Italian authors. Sandro Veronesi, Margaret Mazzantini, Elena Ferrante, Paolo Giordano, Fabio Genovesi, Alessandro d’Avenia and Antonio Pennacchi are just a few. Not all of them are translated into English, but many are.
They have some good thriller writers as well, Roberto Costantini is one of my favorites.

Read about Italy, I have a subscription to a magazine that is devoted to Italy and all things Italian and each time I find it in the post, I take the time in the next days to read it carefully and to enjoy the beautiful photographs.
I also read blogs by people who live in Italy or come there regularly. And I try to familiarize myself with the names and events in Italy, what is happening in Italian politics, who is famous etc.

Listen to Italian music. I have a few cd’s with Italian music, mostly pop, but they also have rock, jazz, and classical Italian music.
And if you want to go really Italian, watch the San Remo music festival J

Cook Italian. The Italian kitchen is more than just spaghetti with tomato sauce. It is versatile and divers and it can be as simple or as complicated as you want. Invest in some good cookbooks and start cooking.
I love my Italian cookbooks and I try out a new recipe regularly. 
My Italian cookbooks
Learn to speak Italian. It is, I think, the most beautiful language in the world. I have been learning Italian for some years now and although I do understand written texts to some extent, I am sorry to say I am not capable of a conversation in Italian. Mainly because I have a beautiful Italian sentence in my head, but it never comes out that way. And I am terrible in grammar, always have been (even in Dutch).
But do not let those things keep you from trying, I continue with my lessons and each visit to Italy I find I am a little bit more fluent.

Surround yourself with souvenirs from Italy. All around my house you can find things I bought when I was in Italy. On my bookshelves you can see the treasure box with shells bought in Florence, the paiting of a cat from Rome and the travertine animals from Rome. On my walls I have paintings and drawing from different Italian cities, the reproduction from the drawing by Rafael I bought in Florence is a real eye-catcher.
Really great are the holiday photographs in my bathroom. It makes going there much more fun, I can assure you! 
Photographs from Rome, Venice and Florence make going here much more fun. 

Try some Italian style. I try to think more before I put on some clothes and when I have my sunglasses and my scarf, wear my hair down and carry a great handbag, I feel just that little bit more Italian and it is great for my self-confidence. 

Monday, 8 June 2015

Out in the open, Jesús Carrasco

This is a book I read last year in Dutch translation, and now finally it has been translated into English.

A dry plain without shadow or shelter, without people or water, and a burning sun without mercy. A boy is on the run, over that plain. We do not know who he is, or why he is on the run. Slowly we realize that he is running from his village, but that a couple of men are determined to bring him back. 

Luckily the boy gets the help from an old man and his herd of goats, who roam the plain, looking for food and water. He takes the boy under his protection, although he cannot prevent that the men who chase the boy catch up with them. Then they will have to make choices, even over life and death.

Out in the open is the first book by Spanish author Jesús Carrasco, and it has already been a huge success throughout the world. The reason I bought the book in the first place was because I loved the Dutch cover, with a white goat against a white background. It reminded me of the cover of 'The specter of Alexander Woolf' by Gaito Gazdanov (a white horse on white background) and I thought I would like this book as well.
Yes, I know, a very arbitrary reason to buy a book, but in this case it paid off, I loved this book.
The Dutch cover

Out in the open is beautiful and gripping. I wanted to know what would happen, although at certain places I could hardly read on, because it is so awful what happens with the boy. I was happy that the boy got help from a kind man, who shows him kindness without asking anything back, showing the boy there are other things than violence and evil.

When I finished the book, I could not start in another book right away, this one had to sink in a little.

Out in the open is not a cosy read. Read it when you have the time and the energy to emerge yourself in it and let it take you out in the open.
Original Spanish title: Intemperie
Published in 2013

Friday, 5 June 2015

Balcony ready for Spring, 2015

Last Autumn, I did clean my balcony and threw away plants that were dead. A few plants looked like they might survive the Winter, so I let them stay.
The whole Winter, this is what my balcony looked like:
It looks even more depressing since it was raining and misty that day I took the photograph. And yes, it was a mess.

The Spring and even the Summer that is coming near, made me want to do something about my balcony and make it clean and ready for Spring. So I cleaned the pots, threw away the dead plants, that hadn't survived the Winter and last Saturday my mum and I went to the garden centre to buy some plants. I also wanted a table and two chairs, so I can sit on my balcony withouth having to get a chair from the study every time I want to sit outside.
This is the gardenset I bought. I was worried that I might not be able to get it all into my car, but the table was in a box and had to be assembled and the chairs fit onto the backseat. So no problem there. On the table I have a geranium in a pot.

In the right corner there is a fuchsia and the high blue flowers are I think called Veronica in English. In front is a little white snapdragon.

In the left corner of my balcony I have placed these flowers.
A large fuchsia on the left, a bowl with petunias on the chair. Then a group with lavender, a small cosmea and I have no idea what the purple flowers on the right are.
The chair is not very good anymore, but with these flowers on it, it still looks lovely and it makes a pretty sight.

I decided not to grow vegetables this year. I have tried to do that these past years, but the results were very minimal. Last year I had five beans, three tomatoes and a paprika that was so deformed, I did not dare to eat it.

The plants I have now are beautiful and easy to manage, and I cannot wait for some sun so I can sit on my new chairs and read on my lovely balcony.

Wednesday, 3 June 2015

Monday, 1 June 2015

A Tuscan childhood, Kinta Beevor

A childhood spend in a Tuscan castle. Sleeping in hammocks in the roofgarden during the Summer, tickling trout so you can catch them, buying fresh produce from the local market and the festivities that are organized when the grapes are picked.

Kinta and her brothers John and Gordon had a great childhood, just after WWI. Their parents were writer and journalist Lina Duff-Gordon and Aubrey Waterfield the painter. Aubrey bought the castle at the beginning of the 20th century and he and his wife enjoyed the life in Tuscany. They were those typical eccentric and upperclass English who entertained artistic friends such as D.H. Lawrence and Robert Trevelyan who were writers and Rex Whistler who was a painter.

Lina and Aubrey were caught up in their own endeavors and did not pay much attention to their children. The only one who did look after them was Lina’s aunt, Janet Ross who lived on an estate near Florence.  She was the unofficial leader of the Anglo-Florentines who came to live in Florence since the late 19th century. 

Janet Ross was a formidable lady who wrote several books and was not afraid of strong opinions. She even managed to put Virginia Woolf in her place when she came to tea once.
She lived at Poggio Gherardo, that was mentioned by Boccaccio in his Decamerone. Janet Ross and her husband bought the estate in 1888.
Janet Ross
When aunt Janet died in 1927, she left the use of the estate to Lina, and the Waterfields moved to Florence. The castle was now only for vacations.

Kinta grew up as a young woman in an Italy where the fascists got more and more powerful. 

After her marriage she left for Engeland, but her parents stayed in Florence, even though Lina was not popular with the new regime, due to her critical newspaper articles. When WWII broke out, Lina and Aubrey managed to get to England just in time, on the last train to France before war was announced.

After the war Lina went back to Poggio Gherardo and lived there for several years, Aubrey had died during the war. Kinta and her family would visit Italy every Summer.

The castle in Aulle
Kinta Beevor brings back her childhood memories in A Tuscan childhood, about the things she did, the dishes that were cooked, the customs of Tuscany and the relations between the English and the Italians. She manages to do so without any sentimentality, but tells it just how it was.

On the other hand there is the nostalgia that you get when you realize that this is a world that has vanished. Building the country again after the war changed society and the estate and the castle would be sold eventually. The fate of the castle is quite sad, the government purchased it and a commission said it had to brought back into its original state, so the roof and the roofgarden were completely demolished.

A Tuscan childhood is not just a recount of her childhood, it also tells us about the Anglo-Florentine community and aspects of the history of Tuscany and Florence. This makes that the book is not merely a recollection of arbitrary memories, but it gives an image of a generation and that gives it depth and significance

A very interesting book.  

Published in 1993, this paperback edition in 2015
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