‘You may have the universe, if I may have Italy’

Who am I to disagree with Giuseppe Verdi? I am, in fact, in total agreement and have been for, oh, more than half a century. And every year, usually in spring, I long to be there. These days, however, I don't manage to visit as often as I would like so have to settle for spending some time with my nose in a book, or books, about Italy. This year, the Italy-yearning surfaced in late September and certain books in the waiting-to-be-read pile beckoned . . .

The first, a novel set mainly in Rome and which had garnered enthusiastic reviews, was somewhat disappointing, with characters whose dialogue I never found wholly convincing. I won't name it, not least because I do appreciate the effort that goes into writing a novel and then actually having it published, although you may be able to work out the title from the 'Read 2015' list on the right.  

So I moved swiftly on to Elena Ferrante, for whom I had been saving myself – and I was holding my breath. There had been so much publicity and speculation about the reclusive author and so much praise heaped upon her novels that I could hardly bear the thought of a second disappointment. My relief, as soon as I started to read My Brilliant Friend was palpable. I loved it and have ordered the second, third and fourth of the Neapolitan novels from my local library; Ferrante, I feel sure, will carry me through an English winter.

I did have one or two qualms about the occasional Americanism in Ann Goldstein's translation but, having read this interview with her on Lizzy's Literary Life blog, I now appreciate the challenges she faced in translating Ferrante.

My Brilliant Friend is a wonderful evocation of adolescence – and adolescent friendships – in post-war Naples. Some of its themes are particular to the time and the place; others are universal and I can understand, completely, how Ferrante's work has suddenly captured the imagination of so many readers beyond Italy. 

Although I try to avoid too much self-referential thinking when reading, the setting for some of the most significant moments in the narrative – the shoeshop owned by Lila's father – took me straight back to a particular time in my own post-war adolescence. It was 1961, I was 14, staying in Liguria in northern Italy, and made friends with a girl of my age called Marisa. Her family owned a shoeshop in a narrow street in the centre of the town and I had visited the shop with my mother to buy some sandals. Marisa served us and we embarked on a  fractured conversation, she in her limited English and I my limited Italian. But the spark of friendship was there and I was soon spending every spare moment that I could with Marisa, initially at the shop, and then with some of her friends and family, including Alfredo, who worked at a nearby hotel and, a cousin, Giacomo, who was a student at the University of Turin. We went to an open-air cinema and although I can't remember what film we saw – and my Italian certainly wasn't up to the task of following the dialogue – it was all very heady romantic stuff for a impressionable young teenager from the west London suburbs . . . and it left an indelible mark.


I had grown up listening to fragments of Italian; my father had been a prisoner of war in Italy during WWII. He and his sergeant had escaped after bribing a guard, then lived a hand-to-mouth existence in the mountains, moving from safe house to safe house, sheltered by partisans for four months – until they sought shelter in a house that turned out not to be safe. (They ended up in another prisoner-of-war camp, this time in Germany.) It's amazing how proficient one can become in a foreign language when it is a matter of life or death.  

So, I was already familiar with a cluster of familiar words and phrases, although 'we're exhausted'; 'is there somewhere we can sleep?'; 'we are very, very hungry'; 'can you spare something to eat?', and 'we have nothing' were not going to get me very far on the Italian Riviera in 1961 . . .*

I learned more with Marisa and, at 16, I had the opportunity to study Italian O-level and A-level at school. If it is possible to fall in love with a language, I did; I'd already enjoyed studying French and Spanish but Italian was something else. It became a passion. Something similar happened to my daughter a couple of decades later when she spent a summer as an au pair in Florence and took Italian language classes; she went on to read Italian at university.

I try not to let my Italian turn to rust and, despite Ann Goldstein's mention of the challenges of Ferrante's language and sentence construction, I'd like, some day, to attempt to read Elena Ferrante in the original. 

Reading about Lila and her family and the calzature made me wonder what had happened to Marisa; we stayed in touch for a while, via postcards but, by the time my Italian was up to letter-writing standard, we had lost contact. However. . . it seems that the family still has a shoeshop in the same town but it is larger, grander and in a more fashionable location. A very smart sign hangs above the entrance to the shop. 


*Although I was aware of the bare bones of my father's escape from the prisoner of war camp, I knew few of the details, and I certainly did not appreciate how gruelling those four months hiding out in the mountains would have been. Not until, that is, I read Iris Origo's War in Val d'Orcia: An Italian War Diary 1943-1944 a few years ago. I realised that I had had no idea but, by then, it was too late to ask the questions . . .


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Sep 13, Grand Remembrances

Today is Grandparents Day in the United States. Being a Grand is a special honor. I feel very blessed that my wife and I have two grandchildren. We were able to visit them today. Yes, we are still being cautious with the coronavirus, but we also find it very difficult to not see them when they live so close. So today we did drop by to visit Jacob (age 10) and Sophia (age 7) along with their parents. We brought donuts and caught up with them. Our grandchildren are still pretty young and this is a precious time in their lives – and ours!

I wish I had known my grandparents better. We never lived in the same place. Dad was a career Air Force pilot, so we moved around a lot. But we did get to see them once in a while when they would visit us, or we them.

A Plague of Giants

There are five known magical ‘kennings’ or types: air, water, fire, earth, and plants. Each nation specializes in of these kennings, and the magic influences the society. There’s a big pitfall with this diversity of ability and locale–not everyone gets along.

Enter the Hathrim giants, or ‘lavaborn’ whose kenning is fire. Where they live the trees that fuel their fire are long gone, but the giants are definitely not welcome anywhere else. They’re big, they’re violent, and they’re ruthless. When a volcano erupts and they are forced to evacuate, they take the opportunity to relocate. They don’t care that it’s in a place where they aren’t wanted.

I first read Kevin Hearne’s Iron Druid books and loved them (also the quirky The Tales of Pell), so was curious about this new venture, starting with A PLAGUE OF GIANTS. Think Avatar: The Last Airbender meets Jim Butcher’s Codex Alera series. Elemental magic, a variety of races, different lands. And it’s all thrown at you from page one.

But this story is told a little differently. It starts at the end of the war, after a difficult victory, and a bard with earth kenning uses his magic to re-tell the story of the war to a city of refugees. And it’s this movement back and forth in time and between key players in this war that we get a singularly grand view of the war as a whole. Hearne uses this method to great effect.

There are so many interesting characters in this book that I can’t cover them all here. Often in books like this such a large cast of ‘main’ character can make the storytelling suffer, especially since they don’t have a lot of interaction with each other for the first 3/4 of the book–but it doesn’t suffer, thankfully. And the characterization is good enough, despite these short bursts, that by the end we understand these people and care about what happens to them.

If there were a main character it would be Dervan, a historian who is assigned to record (also spy on?) the bard’s stories. He finds himself caught up in machinations he feels unfit to survive. Fintan is the bard from another country, who at first is rather mysterious and his true personality is hidden by the stories he tells; it takes a while to understand him. Gorin Mogen is the leader of the Hathrim giants who decide to find a new land to settle. He’s hard to like, but as far as villains go, you understand his motivations and he can be even a little convincing. There’s Abhi, the son of hunters, who decides hunting isn’t the life for him–and unexpectedly finds himself on a quest for the sixth kenning. And Gondel Vedd, a scholar of linguistics who finds himself tasked with finding a way to communicate with a race of giants never seen before (definitely not Hathrim) and stumbles onto a mystery no one could have guessed: there may be a seventh kenning.

There are other characters, but what makes them all interesting is that they’re regular people (well, maybe not Gorin Mogen or the viceroy–he’s a piece of work) who become heroes in their own little ways, whether it’s the teenage girl who isn’t afraid to share vital information, to the scholars who suddenly find how crucial their minds are to the survival of a nation, to the humble public servants who find bravery when they need it most. This is a story of loss, love, redemption, courage, unity, and overcoming despair to not give up. All very human experiences by simple people who do extraordinary things.

Hearne’s worldbuilding is engaging. He doesn’t bottle feed you, at first it feels like drinking from a hydrant, but then you settle in and pick up things along the way. Then he shows you stuff with a punch to the gut. This is no fluffy world with simple magic without price. All the magic has a price, and more often than not it leads you straight to death’s door. For most people just the seeking of the magic will kill you. I particularly enjoyed the scenes with Ahbi and his discovery of the sixth kenning and everything associated with it. But giants? I mean, really? It isn’t bad enough fighting people who can control fire that you have to add that they’re twice the size of normal people? For Hearne if it’s war, the stakes are pretty high, and it gets ugly.

The benefit of the storytelling style is that the book, despite its length, moves along steadily (Hearne is no novice, here). The bits of story lead you along without annoying cliffhangers (mostly), and I never got bored with the switch between characters. It was easy to move between them, and they were recognizable enough that I got lost or confused. The end of the novel felt a little abrupt, but I guess that has more to do with I was ready for the story to continue, despite the exiting climax.

If you’re looking for epic fantasy with fun storytelling and clever worldbuilding, check out A PLAGUE OF GIANTS.

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The Artwork Of Gary Choo

Gary Choo is a concept artist/illustrator based in Singapore. I’ve know Gary for a good many years ( 17, actually ), working together in animation studios in Singapore like Silicon Illusions and Lucasfilm. Gary currently runs an art team at Mighty Bear Games, but when time allows he also draws covers for Marvel comics, and they’re amazing –

The Art Of Gary Choo
The Art Of Gary Choo
The Art Of Gary Choo
The Art Of Gary Choo
The Art Of Gary Choo

To see more of Gary’s work or to engage him for freelance work, head down to his ArtStation.

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