Magic, Merriment, Macabre and the Mediterranean
Under a Tuscan Sun: At Home in Italy, by Frances Mayes
Reviews have ranged from “A beautiful book overflowing with luscious imagery and warmth” to “Slightly over rated!” From “Lazy, hazy, yummy read” to “Whiny and obnoxious – Martha Stewart in Tuscany.” I loved it, but then again, I’m the type to take comparisons to Martha Stewart as a compliment.
In the same armchair-travel spirit as Year in Provence, only set in the Tuscan countryside of northern Italy, we follow Frances and her companion, Ed, as they purchase an old Italian farmhouse and renovate it to within an inch of their lives.
Frances Mayes reveals the sensual pleasure she found living in rural Italy, and the generous spirit she brought with her. She revels in the sunlight and the color, the long view of her valley, the warm homey architecture, the languor of the slow paced days, the vigor of working her garden, and the intimacy of her dealings with the locals. Cooking, gardening, tiling and painting are never chores, but skills to be learned, arts to be practiced, and above all to be enjoyed.
I loved it because a life like this is one I often envision for myself. The slower pace, the simpler needs, and a culture that places so much emphasis on food and friendship and entertainment appeals to me. The difference between Tuscan Sun and Year in Provence is that in Provence, I felt that obtaining such a life was possible. There was no question in Tuscan Sun that Mayes had a lot of money to burn.
But one can dream…
The Enchanted April, by Elizabeth Von Armin
Enchanted April is a book (or movie!) for anyone who feels stiff, unloved, or used up – a restful, funny, sumptuous, and invigorating vacation for the mind and soul. It begins one cold, rainy February afternoon soon after the end of World War I when Mrs. Arbuthnot and Mrs. Wilkins come across an advertisement for a villa in Italy to rent for the month of April. Mrs. Arbuthnot, with the “face of a patient and disappointed Madonna,” and Mrs. Wilkins, “her clothes infested by thrift,” barely know each other, yet the fantasy of a wisteria-covered Italian villa sparks something in each and brings them together. They raid their meager nest eggs, find two more women – the formidable Mrs. Fisher and the unspeakably lovely but bored Lady Caroline Dester – to help defray costs, and set off for their dream of sunshine and beauty.
At San Salvatore, remarkable changes occur. Mrs. Wilkins becomes Lotty – intuitive, sensual, self-confident; Mrs. Arbuthnot loses her religious self-righteousness. Lady Caroline finds herself with “that really rather disgusting suspicion that her life till now had not only been loud but empty,” while Mrs. Fisher starts to feel a “very odd and exciting sensation of going to come out all over buds.”
Elizabeth von Armin portrays these transformations in wickedly dry British humor interwoven with descriptions of the lush, soul-stirring terrain of San Salvatore. The effect is refreshing, charming, and romantic
Blood Dance, by James William Brown
Brown takes a Greek island so small that it’s ignored by all during WW II and makes it the setting not only for a story of passion, the past, and the invincible grip that a small community has on the individual, but a place where pagan beliefs still survive. The story is told from three different voices, beginning and ending with a commentary from the Women and Men, respectively. Like a traditional Greek chorus, they set the scene, hint at what’s to come, and provide the concluding wrap-up.
Another voice is that of Katina, a refugee from Turkish oppression who came to the island as an archeologist and stayed to marry Grigoris, the last of a noble family. She describes her life as a young wife, widow, and mother of the beautiful and independent Amalia, whose friendship with a Scandinavian tourist precipitates the defining crisis. Like the tourist, Katina has never been accepted by the villagers, who resent strangers. They jealously preserve the old ways and customs, some of which date back to pagan times.
Nikos, Amalia’s island suitor and husband-to-be, takes up the story, adding his version of what has come before, followed by Amalia herself, who offers a few snippets of her own, including her reasons for marrying Nikos–the transcending one being her belief “that love will come as a reward for waiting” for enduring the losses of her father, her secret lover, and the Scandinavian who promised to take her away with him.
Corelli’s Mandolin: A Novel, by Louis De Bernieres
This is one of the best books I’ve ever read. It was funny, touching, frightening, maddening, emotional and descriptive. The writing was just terrific and the characters so memorable, especially since each chapter, like Blood Dance, is told from a different point of view, including one chapter told from the eyes of Il Duce himself, Mussolini.
This novel, set on the idyllic Greek island of Cephallonia, follows the lives of its inhabitants from the peaceful days before World War II through the Italian occupation of the island into the present. It is funny, heartbreaking, and horrifying in its fictional testimony to the changes the war exacts on the townspeople. If you ever needed proof that war is hell, this book will provide it.
The story centers around a family that includes a widowed, enlightened doctor working on a biased history of the island in his spare time; his clever, independent daughter; and Captain Antonio Corelli, a responsible but irrepressible officer of the Italian garrison who is also a musician and leader of the latrine opera club La Scala.
I really loved both Blood Dance and Corelli’s Mandolin and recommend them highly.
The Tattooed Map, by Barbara Hodgson
At one time, Lydia and Christopher were lovers as well as travel companions; now they are merely fellow travelers. While on a trip to Morocco, Lydia notices a small mark on her hand which begins to grow and spread in thin, tattooed lines that only she can see. Eventually, the marks reveal themselves to be a detailed map of an unknown land, and Lydia begins to understand that these marks, invisible to all but herself and a mysterious Moroccan man named Layesh, will lead her on a strange and perilous journey.
The Tattooed Map is Lydia’s journal of the days and weeks leading up to her disappearance. Each page contains her daily experiences–her growing shock and fear as the map unfolds itself, her deteriorating relationship with Christopher, her conversations with strangers–as well as the memorabilia she collects along the way: maps and postcards, train tickets and postage stamps, lists of books she’s reading and souvenirs she’s bought–all pasted in the margins of the journal.
When Lydia disappears midway through the journey, her friend Christopher takes up the journal, using it first as a means of recording his search for her and then, increasingly, as a clue to her fate. A combination travelogue, mystery, and ghost story.
The Tattooed Map is a physically beautiful book. The story becomes three-dimensional because each page is decorated with all the bits of scrap paper, momentos and jotted notes, which travelers often find cluttering their pockets and notebooks at the end of a trip. I found that sometimes the marginalia was distracting me from the story; so I read through it again. It wasn’t wasted time.
Paris Out of Hand, by Karen Elizabeth Gordon
This isn’t a story, it’s a travel guide. It’s a very silly, whimsical unofficial travel guide through the Paris that is, that might be, and never was. It’s a beautiful, little red book, very entertaining with it’s own hotel-rating method, exerpts from concierge guest books, and special guest commentaries. Lots of illustrations and marginalia à la Tattooed Map.
For fun, for dreams and for lovers of Paris.
Magic and Macabre
These next three books could be categorized as “fantasy literature”, or “interactive reading”, or, as I prefer to put it, “pop-up books for adults.” They take the illustration/marginalia concept of Tattooed Map one step further. The result is a hands-on, touch-and-feel-and-participate fairy tale. Marvelous graphics, rich textures, and soft subtle messages. After reading the descriptions at amazon.com, I decided to buy them for myself instead of borrow from the library. They are beautiful books to own and give, as well as to read.
The Secrets of Pistoulet: An Enchanted Fable of Food, Magic and Love, by Jana Kolpen and Mary Tiegreen
“Far away in the remote, untraveled southwestern French countryside, there is a small village which contains two homes, an eleventh-century church, and a very special farm known as Pistoulet.”
Thus begins The Secrets of Pistoulet, a charming and beautiful little book filled with food, magic, and love. Part fiction, part cookbook, this richly illustrated book possesses a collection of letters to be removed from envelopes, and recipes tucked into their own little pockets. Drawings, photographs, snippets of diaries, and mysterious maps decorate this tale of Mademoiselle J., who arrives at Pistoulet with a broken heart. There she is welcomed by the farm’s tenants: Madame Claude; Monsieur Andre; the black dog, Marcel; and a chicken that lays golden eggs. Soon, such soul-strengthening dishes as Potage of Babble (guaranteed to cease excessive chatter), Potage of Passion (Cooks beware: this soup has been known to result in marriage proposals!), and Tart of Sunshine (sure to heat both body and soul) have Mademoiselle J. on the road to recovery.
The Legend of the Villa Della Luna: The Sequel to the Secrets of Pistoulet, by Jana Kolpen and Mary Tiegreen
The adventures of Mademoiselle J continue; after healing her broken heart at Pistoulet, she learns to open it once again to love and relationships. While a guest at a magnificent Italian seaside villa, Della Luna, Mlle. J. reaches out to a grieving man who has isolated himself inside a lighthouse after a tragic love affair.
The Griffin & Sabine Trilogy, by Nick Bantock:
(I) Griffin & Sabine: An Extraordinary Correspondence.
(II) Sabine’s Notebook
(III) The Golden Mean
The trilogy follows the correspondence between Griffin Moss, a graphics artist, and Sabine, a mysterious woman living thousands of miles away. It seems that as Griffin draws in his London studio, Sabine can see his images in her mind’s eye.
You follow their relationship through beautifully-designed postcards with their hand-written messages. Then letters on hand-painted stationery arrive, to be taken out of their envelopes and pored over. This clever method draws you into the story, and it seems to be a sweet, romantic, transcendental affair between two long-lost soulmates…then it starts getting weird. Love turns to infatuation, to obsession. All is not what it seems. The line is blurred between reality and fantasy. Is Sabine real? Is she a figment of Griffin’s imagination, or vice-versa? Who is the potter and who is the clay? Etc., etc., etc….
Open-ended, up for interpretation and extremely entertaining. The whole trilogy is on my bookshelves, if you ever feel like reading someone else’s mail! I know I will want to explore further the quirky art-fiction of Nick Bantock.