Monday, September 17, 2012

RESTORATION by Olaf Olafsson (fic)

"Restoration" is a good early Autumn read.  The story moves along with grace and enough interest in the characters to keep the reader engaged and compelled to read on, losing track of the time.  The story takes place in the last days of the German occupation of Italy in World War II.  The allies have landed and are pushing the last of the German troops up into the hills and mountainous regions of northern Italy. 
We follow the intertwining story to two woman, Alice and Kristin, whom fate has brought together in a lovely villa in the hills of Tuscany.  Alice is the daughter of an ex pat British family who falls in love with Claudio, a man her parents deem unworthy of her.  Claudio and Alice buy a crumbling villa and turn it into a productive farm where they grow olives and grapes, employing the locals, some of whom are partisans in the struggle against Germany.  During a period of restlessness, Alice begins an affair with an old childhood friend, which has disastrous results.
Kristin, a talented restored of old master paintings is Icelandic, trained in technique in Copenhagen and Rome.  She also has a secret that emerges as the paths of the two women cross. 
The protagonist of the story is a selfish art historian named Robert Marshall who has a hold over both women, bringing harm to them through blackmail.
Italy's struggle in the war is the backdrop to the novel as it moves to a climax in the hills outside Florence in the hills towns of Tuscany.
Although the novel could easily have fallen into the realm of soap opera, Olafsson's writing is colorful and interesting enough to avoid the cliches of a romance novel.  It is an altogether interesting read for a rainy afternoon.

Friday, September 14, 2012

CALICO JOE by John Grisham (fic)

"Calico Joe" is a departure from the type of book the prolific Grisham usually writes.  It is a short easy read and can be completed in one or two sittings.  As someone who has always been a baseball fan, I picked up the book with interest. 
It is the story of a rookie, Joe Castle, who comes from Calico Rock Arkansas, thus his nick-name.  The story is told through they eyes of a young boy whose father is a failing pitcher for the New York Mets.  Paul Tracey, our narrator, has lost respect for his mean and foul mouthed father,Warren, the protagonist of the tale.  The story takes place in 1973, a hot summer when the Cubs find themselves in a race to the top of the league, driven by the talent of the young Joe Castle.  Castle in his short career racks up legendary statistics, which seem quite impossible in the real world.
The story moves along until we reach the climax when our hero faces the bully, Warren Tracey, who is pitching for the Mets on that fateful day.  You may guess how the story plays out.  Young Paul grows up, the men grow old, and the story evolves into the feel good ending the reader hopes for, but not one likely in real time.
The book is simply written, and may be enjoyed by a young baseball fan.  An easy read for a summer's afternoon. 

LUCIA by Andrea di Robilant (non-fic) (biog)

In 1787 an aristocratic ambassador to Rome from Venice, Andrea Memmo, arranged a marriage between his beautiful daughter, Lucia, and Alvise Mocenigo, a son of one of the oldest families of Venice.  So begins the enchanting and interesting history of the life of Lucia Memmo, ancestor of di Robilant.  The story of her father, Memmo, and her lovely English mother was told in the author's previous book, "A Venetian Affair."
Lucia's story is fascinating in so many ways.  The period her life covered was immensely important politically and socially.  The American Revolution had just happened, Catherine the Great had been on the throne of Russia, the French Revolution was in full swing and, eventually, Napoleon was on the rise.  Lucia was witness to so many events which were important in Italy, France and Austria during her lifetime. 
Throughout her marriage, France and Austrian were vying for supremacy in Venice.  The once proud city state, was forced to capitulate to France when Napoleon marched into northern Italy.  For a while, Alvise was an ardent supporter of the French.  When Austria marched into Italy and took over Venice, Alvise and Lucia changed allegiances and moved to Vienna to join and active government and social life.  Then Napoleon was on the rise again and again Venice changed hands.  At that time, Lucia was appointed a lady-in-waiting to the wife of Prince Eugene, Napoleon's step-son.  His base was in Milan, and Lucia had to leave her family to take up residence there.  Eventually she moved to Paris where she was a confident of Josephine, the divorced wife of Napoleon.  This was the most interesting part of the book for me.  Lucia was a prolific letter writer and diarist, and her first hand account of the the siege of Paris in 1814 is fully absorbing.
In the middle of all this history, Lucia also carried on an affair with an Austrian officer, Col. Plunkett and had a child by him.  That child, Alvisetto was accepted by her husband, Alvise, and brought up as his own.  The only child of Lucia, Alvisetto, inherited the vast Mocenigo property, and is the ancestor of di Robilant.
I highly recommend this book as an eye witness account of history, and one which is interesting and never dull.  Lucia was a grand dame in every sense of the word, a strong woman, who kept her family together, despite the constant threat of war.  The confusing history of northern Italy, which changed hands so often in this period, was made more understandable to me, having read this well-written and interesting biography.

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

THE SHADOW CATCHER by Marianne Wiggins (fic)

Marianne Wiggins has written several interesting books, among them "John Dollar."  This book which is not new, is stylistically very interesting.  Wiggins has made an oleo of a biography, and a memoir in a fictionalized form.  Essentially her facts are real, as she weaves the strange life of photographer Edward S. Curtis with the story of her own family, inserting herself into the book as narrator. 
The story of Edward Curtis is told from the viewpoint of his wife Clara, whom he left (along with four children) for long stretches of time, and finally forever.  Curtis's disappearing act, leaving his family to fend for itself, was pathological in its consistency.  Clara's story is a tragic one, all the more so as she was clearly an intelligent woman who could have had a career of her own.  Curtis, at one time famous for his posed and stylized photography of Native Americans, came to a sad end also.  At the height of his fame, he photographed the wedding of Alice Roosevelt Longworth, she who has coincidentally played a role in three recent books I have read.  Curtis, a man of great promise, was exposed for dressing up and posing his native subjects in situations that never happened, even in clothing that belonged to other tribes and passing his photos off as the real deal.  After his 15 minutes of fame, he faded into poverty and obscurity. 
The parallel story Wiggins tells is about her own father who left his family to follow whatever vision quest spoke to him.  Marianne, the narrator, becomes involved in a wild goose chase in Las Vegas, tracking down a man who had appropriated her father's identity and was now dying in hospital.  Along the way, she meets a number of colorful characters.  Sounds complicated?  It isn't; it somehow works itself into an interesting narrative that is mostly real and impossible to tell what is not. "The Shadow Catcher" is well-written; it has to be with such an well-woven plot.  The end of the book fell a little flat for me, but it is still worth-while read.

Sunday, September 2, 2012

WATERGATE byThomas Mallon (fic)

Thomas Mallon's book on Watergate is quite a feat.  There are so many characters, 112 in fact, that I wonder how a reader who was not alive at the time of the event, can keep them straight and find them as interesting as one who lived through that politically charged time.  As I read, each character came alive for me once again.  My memory dredged up their faces, even as they and we sat through the endless hours of the Senate investigating committee meetings.  What Mallon has done with great accuracy and imagination is make this important time in our history return again. His characters show strength, weakness and humanity in their mistakes and tragedy.  Even Alice Roosevelt Longworth (at the end of her long politically involved life) makes a number of rich and wonderful appearances and always moves the action along.  Pat Nixon, always a sympathetic character, turns out to have a secret romance.  Tricia is the reserved daughter, Julie the accessible one, her father's mainstay and support.  Nixon himself is made human, suffering with his hubris and sometimes just plain muddled. 
If you lived through this time, you will recognize the names and be charmed with their resurrection.  If you lived through this time, and have an interest in politics back in the day, you will enjoy this book. I recommend it as a fascinating read.  If the story of Watergate is unfamiliar to you, I can't think how you will manage the cast of characters. If anything can make it come alive for you, it is this book. It seems so long ago now, but it did matter, and it's mystery cast a shadow across the Presidency and politics for many years.

REVELATIONS by Elaine Pagels (non-fic)

 I have found Elaine Pagels writing an interesting introduction to a subject I know little about.  Pagels is a well known and respected Biblical scholar. She introduces us to The Book of Revelation written by John of Patmos which is filled with violence and damnation.  I was interested to know the history behind such warnings of approaching apocalypse.  In this respect Pagel's book does not disappoint.  Her writing is somewhat dry, and I might have enjoyed the book more if the historical background and characters were fleshed out and made more human and interesting. 
John of Patmos was writing some time after the Jewish war with Rome when the great temple was destroyed.  He fled to the island of Patmos off the coast of Turkey.  What surprised me was the amount of bickering amongst the early Christians.  I did not know there were so many off-shoots and interpretations of the teachings of the early church fathers.  John (who was not one of the original apostles) was angry at the gentile converts, mainly those followers of Paul of Tarsus, who seemed to be able to coexist with the Romans.  John's brand of Christianity strictly followed Jewish dietary rules and dogma.  There was so much anger in this man and his writing.  The actual book of Revelation would rival a modern video game for the violence of its imagery. 
It turns out there are many Books of Revelation, a number found at Nag Hammadi in the Egyptian desert in1945, along with the Gnostic Gospels (which is a fascinating story itself).  How this particular book of John's became appended to the Bible forms a major thesis of the book.  It all comes down to politics and the power of early bishops and their jockeying for supremacy and wealth in the ancient world.  So it is a story not unlike today's:  politics, politics, politics.