Tuesday, January 26, 2016

"WRITING IS NOT COOKING"






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A good friend who spent time in Sicily led me to Andrea Camilleri’s Inspector Montalbano crime novels. As she had promised, I found THE SHAPE OF THE WATER, THE TERRACOTTA DOG, and THE SNACK THIEF delightful. These are cozies with an edge. Montalbano comes through crisply and clearly as a hero focused on solving crimes despite the paralysing rules of Italian bureaucracy. Neither his clerk Catarelli, an inveterate mutilator of the of the Italian language, nor his policemen, the nebulous Fazio or the serial adulterer Mimi Augello compete with him for center stage. His boss, the melodramatic Police Comissioner Benetti-Aldeghiri attempts to do so, but succeeds only in chewing the scenery.
Landscape often seems more important than people in Camilleri’s stories and Vigata, the town where they are set, is redolent of salt water. The sea ever present. In good weather, it is is only a few feet from the terrace of Montalbano’s house. In bad weather it is too terrifyingly close for comfort. Less threatening and far more predictable are the lighthouse at the of jetty and the harbour where he often walks after gargantuan meals of seafood at Enzo’s trattoria. This is his real territory. This is where he goes to puzzle out crimes and to ponder the vagaries of his heart.
A cozy with an edge demands a lack of vagaries. It demands short sentences spoken in a gruff voice. Montalbano, for all his quoting of Petrarcha’s Canzioneri and Umberto Saba’s poems, is no effete intellectual. He talks tough, as it is expected of him. Just in case anyone should be tempted to think he is a wimp, he refers to his testicles with great regularity. Sometimes the reader wonders if they led a separate and more important life than any of his other organs.That could be due to a remnant of Latin machismo according to which Ho testiculiI have testicles, rather than Ho un cervello, I have a brain, is an affirmation of personhood. But Montalbano does use his brain most of the time. For example, he chooses girlfriends who live away from Vigata, thus keeping them from interrupting the flow of action. And if action is measured in lento time, well, such is the nature of cozies. There must be time for the author to insert introspective monologues–not too heavy, mind you–and culinary porn.
Food plays a stellar role in the Montalbano stories. Generally, it is prepared by Angelina, a shadowy housekeeper whose only proof of existence is the  casseroles she leaves in the oven. She cooks pasta ‘ncasciatta, which, according to Diana Darrow’s blog A Year in Recipes, includes  “layers of pasta, meat sauce, fried eggplant, caciocavallo cheese, salami, hardboiled eggs, basil, and grated parmigiano…” and  platters of fish.These Montalbano consumes in staggering quantities, a death defying feat for a man who is in his fifties and who rarely exercises.No salads or fruit mar these Lucullan feasts.
After reading the first three Montalbano novels, I plunged into THE AGE OF DOUBT (L’ETTA’ DEL DUBBIO) expecting it to be the delicious voyage I needed t distract e from  the snow storm that buried  the village where I live under forty inches of snow. No such luck. Camilleri’s short sentences are still there, repeated references to testicles remain, the apparently dyslexic and mentally impaired Catarelli continues to speak a form of Italian that forces translator Stephen Sartarelli to commit painful assaults upon the English language. Commissioner Benetti-Aldeghiri continues to be a drama queen. Neither Fazio nor Mimi have evolved.Montalbano, however, has undergone a transformation. He has fallen madly in reciprocal love with Laura Belladona, a lieutenant with the Port Authority.His love sickness leads him to mope, to write letters to himself, and to blunder in the pursuit of the love object. Luckily, his emotional state does not interfere with crime solving. Only rarely does it stop him from gorging on double portions of capponata, ‘ncasciatta, pasta alla norma or with broccoli, aubergine parmegiana, nervetti with vinegar, heaps of “mullet and calamari that could have fed the station.” He devours seafood antipasto and “..since the nunatti were crisp he ordered a second side dish of them. He continue(s) with a generous helping of spaghetti in squid ink.And he end(s) with a double portion of mullet and striped sea bream.”
One of Camilleri’s flaws is that he describes food with greater clarity than he describes women with much clarity. Montalbalno’s inamorata is “beautiful… a knockout.” Wat is beautiful? What is a knockout? Another character, that of an older woman,  “…must have been close to fifty but looked forty.” Whatever does that mean? Perhaps it means that as so many older women in western fiction, she is a man eater, “a mincer,” who takes one lover after another and then discards them, the bad girl. She is central to the plot, but what seems most important about her is her sexual voracity, not her possible participation in criminal affairs. Her foil is a mousy girl who only turns into a beauty at the end of the story when it is far too late to tempt Montalbano. He is in enough trouble with his long term girfriend, his dithering lieutenant Belladona, his qualms about embarking into a sexual adventure.
“Was it right, was it honest to to be wise in the face of love’s richness?”He is so very  tempted t say no. After all, “In matters of love reason either resigns or it sits back and waits.If it is still present and functioning, and forces you to consider the negative aspects of the relationship, it means that it is not true love.” Never mind that. Forget the plot. Find a place where you can order ‘ncasciatta a la livornese and lavish servings of tabisca.If you want to read Camilleri at his best, begin with the first three books of the series.

Thursday, January 21, 2016


When I got a copy of  Mary Ellen Taylor's THE VIEW FROM PRINCE  I thought it would transport me to Alexandra, Virginia, a place not too far from where I live. It is alovely section of Virginia and it has a longand rich history. surely that history included fascinating people. It was that place I hoped to see and those people I wanted to meet in tis novel. I read several chapters without happening upon the sense of place that I find so important in fiction. Alexandria was a pale backdrop to equally pale characters. Halfway through  the story, I gave up trying to like it.

Taylor is no novice. She the author of four other novels. Why this story, which centers on a psychologist burden with guilt, did not engage my attention may be simply a matter of personal taste. Another reader might love the no-frills prose, the earthy characters who dwell in mind numbing trivia.   I did not. I found that the characters competed with each other in trying to have the most exciting career and in the end, neither Lisa, the protagonist reputed for her heart of stone nor the supporting characters had much to say that would convince me to keep turning the pages. There was much intercutting of contemporary scenes with those of an an earlier. Separate the the characters from the former from those of the latter and there is no significant different--none come alive, none evokes much beyond boredom.

It is not my intention to write mean spirited reviews. I am well aware of much more effort it takes to produce a novel. But I did not start this blog to offer praise when praise is not due. In my opinion, THE VIEW FROM PRINCE STREET is not praiseworthy. I hope I will find Taylor's next book more enticing.

Sunday, December 20, 2015

A RENAISSANCE STAR SHINES BRIGHTLY











History was unkind to Marguerite de Valois, daughter of France's queen Catherine de Medicis. It condemned her along with her  violent  family for the Saint Bartholomew Massacre. That event, which took place five days after Marguerite's wedding to King Henri of Navarre, in August of 1572, precipitated France's Wars of Religion during which Catholics slaughtered thousands of  Huguenots—Calvinist Protestants. But was not only historians  who painted Marguerite in unflattering tones. Fiction by Alexandre Dumas and Michel Zevaco presented her as as lascivious and possibly incestuous bubble head. Though these writers credited her with saving  a few Huguenots, they focused on lurid aspects of her sex life such as he  affair  with the Duke Henri of Guise—the alleged murderer of admiral Coligny--and the countless  dalliances that followed it.

Sophie Perinot's MEDICIS DAUGHTER sets the record straight with a   Marguerite with the vast  intelligence and tact needed to navigate safely the perilous political currents of the French court. Aside from the occasional beating from her mother, Madame la Serpente, and vicious sibling, this Margot  transitions from  adolescent longing for love to a determined quest for control of  her own destiny. She evolves from political pawn to a capable diplomat intent in forging an  alliance with her Protestant husband.

Perinot's  Marguerite escapes from from a flat and colourless canvas to emerge as an endearingly   complex, very literate, tolerant, strong and capable woman. Her reward is the sweet give of independence. There is much more to her story--romance, peril, violence, elegance and grace. But the best way to get to know Marguerite is to read MEDICIS DAUGHTER. Richtext recommends it as one of the best reads in 2015.

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