Posts Tagged Italy

Beautiful Ruins: book review

Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walter. Publisher: Harper (June, 2012). Literary fiction. Hardcover. 352 pages. ISBN: 9780061928123.

For eight months after his father’s death, this was the sum of Pasquale Tursi’s life. And if he wasn’t entirely happy, he wasn’t entirely unhappy either. Rather, he found himself inhabiting the vast, empty plateau where most people live, between boredom and contentment.

Mediocrity. That rut in which most people exist in oblivion. Going to work. Going home. Working out. Eating dinner. Watching television. Going out to dinner and to the occasional film, play or concert. Existing. Then there are those people who want a bit more than an average life. Beautiful Ruins focuses on those people. Every character in this novel wants to be in a better position than she or he is in at the present but seems stuck in some way.

Despite the gorgeous cliff side landscape on the cover, Beautiful Ruins focuses more on character and less on landscape. Before reading this I’d just finished Portrait in Sepia by Isabel Allende and if you want landscape that’s a formidable read. Author Jess Walter features Old World Charm tangling with New World wonderment as an American actress, Dee Moray, in the 1960s stays at a small hotel on a small island run by the young Pasquale Tursi. Suddenly Pasquale’s quiet world turns topsy-turvy because Dee Moray works on the famed production Cleopatra with Liz Taylor and Richard Burton and she holds a big secret. Something to do with the stomach ailment that brought her to the island and Richard Burton . . . so cinematic.

Not to take away from the beauty that is Italy–one-third into the novel– Walter describes the war ruins found on the cliffs—the crumbled rocks and boulders and war bunker amidst lovely cliffs and trees with the vast blue ocean below and beyond. Both Pasquale and Dee seek solace in the ruins. In the ruins one expects major events to happen when sometimes only ordinary or minor events occur in the middle of a major historic event—in this case WWII. The inside of the bunker has been painted with drawings of two soldiers and a woman. Something that many may never see. Who are these soldiers and who is the woman Dee ponders?

Much becomes lost in translation between the pair and that’s part of the fantastical, magical story. I liked how Walter interspersed Italian words into sentences without any interpretation or need for elucidation. The words just made sense. You understood them in their placement. These little touches really enriched the reading experience. Pasquale and Dee suffer language barriers but sometimes you don’t need to say anything to have a connection with someone, whereas with many people you speak the same language but never develop a strong connection. This bond lasts 50 years as Pasquale travels to Hollywood to find Dee.

Walter deftly travels between past and present to tell Dee and Pasquale’s story. In present day there’s a cerebral, eager production assistant Claire Silver, her boss the well-known Hollywood producer Michael Deane [who worked on the Italian production of Cleopatra]—once a legendary figure now resorting to producing awful reality programs. An Italian speaking young man named Shane happens to run into Pasquale on the lot and becomes the interpreter. There’s nothing overly sentimental about it. Instead it’s a sweet reminder of love and friendship. Beautiful Ruins satirizes tourism, war, Americans, Italians, Hollywood and the film industry. It’s a truly creative and unique read that I immensely enjoyed and didn’t want to put down.

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purchase at Amazon: Beautiful Ruins: A Novel

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Divorce Islamic Style: book review

Divorce Islamic Style by Amara Lakhous. Publisher: Europa (April 2012). Literary fiction. Trade paperback. 144 pages. 978-1-60945-066-3.

“I have to constantly remind myself that I’m Tunisian, and this neighborhood is full of Egyptians. Many people don’t know that there are rivalries among the Arabs. For example, it’s not smooth sailing between Syrians and Lebanese, between Iraqis and Kuwaitis, between Saudis and Yemenis, and so on and so on. It’s why they can’t come up with a plan for unity, in spite of common history, geography, Arabic, Islam, and oil. The model of the European Union will have to wait!”

In the superb novel Divorce Islamic Style, two characters narrate and propel the events in Rome: Christian, a Sicilian who speaks fluent Arabic and works as an operative for the Italian government; and Sofia, an Egyptian immigrant who runs a hair salon in defiance of her strict Muslim husband.

Christian’s assignment is to uncover a terrorist cell in the Viale Marconi neighborhood. Going by the name of Issa and changing his appearance and mannerisms he infiltrates “Little Cairo” as a Tunisian. He rooms at a boarding house with numerous other immigrants and takes a job washing dishes at an Italian restaurant run by an Egyptian, who turns out to be Sofia’s husband.

I’ve acquired certain habits, like sleeping nude, temperature permitting, or reading before I go to sleep; I love biographies of famous people. Here it is not a good idea to be the self-taught immigrant and passionate reader.

At a hangout spot where people watch Al Jazeera and make calls home, Christian meets Sofia who attracts him with her striking looks and mannerisms. Surprising to Christian, she wears a veil, uncommon in Rome, in Italy, in many Western countries. He discovers that Sofia neither acts conventionally or predictably. Several days before her wedding, Sofia’s husband asked her to wear the veil.

“Put on the veil? Maybe I hadn’t understood. Were we going to live in Italy or Iran? Is the veil compulsory in Rome?
The real problem is that we live in a society where the male is both the opponent and, at the same time, the referee.”

In writing about Sofia’s plight, author Amara Lakhous astutely provides a feminist perspective to this novel in a natural and provocative manner. He brilliantly depicts Rome’s Arab community “Little Cairo.” He satirizes the immigrant community as deftly as modern day Rome and its idiosyncrasies and fears.

I understand the comfort level of creating one’s own community after immigrating to another country. Beyond that though I don’t understand why some immigrants do not assimilate more by learning the new language or befriending natives. Lakhous explains the minutiae within the Arab community and what motivates many to move to other countries. Much can be explained in looking at opportunities in Western countries versus Arab countries where rules might be stricter and prospects fewer. Some Arabs stay in these Western countries and become citizens while others work for a while to better their family situations in their home country.

Born in Algiers in 1970, Amara Lakhous earned degrees in philosophy and cultural anthropology. He now lives in Italy. I adore Divorce Islamic Style so much that I’ve mentioned it several times in casual conversation. I want to recommend it to everyone. It’s fantastic. Snappy. Sharp. Intelligent. Humorous.

–Amy Steele

purchase at Amazon: Divorce Islamic Style

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Lifetime TV Movie review: Amanda Knox– Murder on Trial in Italy

Who wasn’t riveted by the case of “Foxy Knoxy,” the American exchange student in Perugia, Italy accused of murdering her housemate? It had it all: kinky sex, an Italian boyfriend, a brutal stabbing. What we knew little about was Amanda [Hayden Panettiere] herself and how she spent her time in Italy prior to this sensational case. Is Amanda guilty or has she been framed up by her boyfriend, the police, circumstantial evidence and shoddy police work. Amanda Knox. Murder on Trial in Italy leaves everything really open-ended so the viewer is wondering if Amanda was involved in her housemate Meredith’s vile murder.

The movie considers the two months before the murder. It shows how Amanda got along with the housemate Meredith [Amanda Fernando Stevens] as well as how she met and started to spend much of her free time with Italian boyfriend Raffaele Sollecito [Paolo Romio]. There’s one point where Amanda and Meredith fight because Meredith accuses her of not cleaning up in the apartment enough. But then at another time, Amanda confides in Meredith that she met a guy that looks like Harry Potter and they were from completely different cultures but she felt it was destiny. Once Amanda’s arrested, her mom [Marcia Gay Harden] flies in from Seattle. Marcia Gay Harden is always good in any role and this is no different. She’s strong and never takes no for an answer as Amanda’s distraught mother.

Hayden Panettiere [I Love You, Beth Cooper, Heroes] does a commendable job in making viewers completely confused as to Amanda’s innocence or guilt. It’s a serious role for her and allows her to show range in the conflicted, often detached nature of Amanda, who still remains a mystery to most Americans. As my mom said [she’s my Lifetime movie-watcher companion]: “This girl is a little strange about it all.” As Amanda, Hayden uses facial expressions and wordplay to make us wonder if Amanda was there or not while Meredith was being raped and stabbed. Of the 40 cuts, bruises and stab wounds [including the lethal severed carotid artery] found on Meredith’s body, the police say, “It’s almost like they were toying with her.” Some of the DNA didn’t get collected for weeks. The crime scene seemed corrupted and there’s much circumstantial evidence but as most Americans know, Amanda Knox is sitting in an Italian jail right now.

Amanda Knox: Murder on Trial in Italy leaves viewers with many questions about Amanda’s role in her housemate’s murder, while providing insight into Amanda’s unusual behavior and nonchalant personality.

Amanda Knox: Murder on Trial in Italy premieres Monday, February 21 at 9PM ET/PT on Lifetime.

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