The Scruffy Rube’s #CBR5 Review #37: The Falcon In the Glass

Here’s the part where I plug my personal blog, and hope someone, anyone goes to check it out.

It’s not the most memorable of plot lines or characters, but the commitment and appreciation of setting is a tremendous boon. Set in a Renaissance Venice glass blower-y, The Falcon in the Glass captures a young adult’s struggle to find their place in a world that doesn’t involve a single school (but has a big chunk of teaching), that has no cliques, but definitely deals with class and sectarianism.

It’s rare to find really well done historical YA fiction, let alone historical YA fiction that delves into long past times. To capture both the universality of teenage education, social conflict and family trouble and the unique experience of Renaissance Venice is tremendous to find. Chances are it’s not propping up any island displays in your neighborhood Barnes & Noble, and it won’t grab much attention. But if you have a young reader with a hunger for history, you could do a lot worse than this book.

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Owlcat’s CBR V review #21 of The Light In the Ruins by Chris Bohjalian

Chris Bohjalian is one of my favorite authors, so I always look forward to reading his newest novel.  Recently, he has occasionally drifted away from the New England locales of most of his novels, for which he has been criticized, although I continued to enjoy his stories like Skeletons At the Feast, with the theme of a defeated Germany in WWII,  and The Sandcastle Girls, with a theme of the Armenian genocide that few Americans know much about.  The latter was particularly good.  Therefore, when I read that The Light in the Ruins was another historically based novel, I did not expect that would be problematic for me.  However, although this was an interesting story and basically well written, somehow the author missed his mark and I came away from it feeling disappointed.

As is typical of many novels these days, there are parallel stories going on, with one story ultimately affecting the other.  In this case, Bohjalian is telling the story of a noble Italian family, the Rosatis, in Tuscany during WWII in 1943/44, who have for many years during the conflict managed to avoid and ignore the worst of it, until the war began turning against the Italian allies, Nazi Germany.  When Germany discards their facade of being allies with Italy and essentially become their occupier, and as a result there is conflict and turmoil within the Rosati family.  Two sons are in the Italian army, Marco in Sicily and Vittore in Florence. The assumption by their family is that they are in “safe” locations. Marco, however, experiences first hand, the Allies’ invasion of Italy and the real horrors of the war.  Vittore convinces himself he is protecting the Italian art world as he works with the Germans and their art thievery. At the villa, called Chimera, the remaining family refuses to recognize the reality of the war that they have so far been able to ignore, living with what they consider some minor inconveniences, and attempting to continue living as much as possible as they always have. They believed the family would be reunited when the war ended and they could resume their prior lives of comfort and wealth.  At the villa are Antonio Rosati, the patriarch of the family, his wife, his son Marco’s wife and two children, and his daughter Cristina.

Gradually, however, the war invades their quiet, “normal” lives. The Germans have intruded on them and neighbors and townspeople are beginning to resent the family’s having German guests at the villa, and become even more suspect when one of them and Cristina begin to fall in love begin to have a relationship. The Germans at the same time, begin to feel nothing but disdain for the family and the villa becomes a distortion of the safe haven it had once been for the family.

This story of the Rosati family is told through chapters that alternate with the story of monstrous murder in 1953 of two family members.  This part of the story is partially narrated by the murderer himself, though the reader has no idea who the murderer is.  I made several guesses and until the end, wasn’t even close.  The other part of this murder mystery focuses on Serafina Bettini, a female homicide detective who had previously been a partisan during the war.  She is badly scarred both physically and emotionally but a good detective, and the Rosati killings result in her own demons resurfacing, so this becomes a story within a story within a story.

As usual, Bohjalian’s characters are well developed, well defined, and each a dichotomy of good and bad.  In other words, they are normal people, if somewhat flawed, dealing with extraordinary circumstances. Even some of the Germans are portrayed with a conscience and conflict within, although some are portrayed as pure evil.  Everyone, including Rosatis themselves, as well as a number of the Germans and even the partisans, are forced by their situations as a result of the war to make choices that are nearly impossible to make.  A good author asks the reader to question themselves as to what they would do in a similar situation, and in this, Bohjalian hits his mark.

Overall, however, I came away from the story tired of the alternating chapters, feeling it was a contrived gimmick, and since the story was told within a 10-year span, don’t think it was a necessary tool to move it along.  A more linear approach would have worked better for me.  I also did not like the murder’s narration, which was generally at the beginning of several of the 1953 chapters;  I found it distracting and not particularly creative. I have noticed a tendency with Bohjalian, too, more recently to focus on the physical horrors within a story to the point that he is beginning to become too graphic and much less subtle than he has been over the years.  Reading this book would make me a little more hesitant to read his next one as a result.  So, I can’t really recommend it and feel badly that I can’t.  I am hoping he returns to his more insightful self-discovery stories and style, which he could still pursue with historical based novels, if those are his choice.  I’m hoping this book was more of an experiment to see what his readers would tolerate and/or enjoy.

Katie′s #CBR5 Review #24: Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walter

Title: Beautiful Ruins
Author: Jess Walters
Source: from publisher for review
Rating: 
Review Summary: I was completely blown away by the reality of this novel, with its intense emotion; believable characters; and insights into human nature.

To explain all the things this book is about would require a long summary, such as that on goodreads, but here is my best attempt at a shorter description. Beautiful Ruins  involves two main stories. One, set in 1962, describes a meeting between a young, Italian innkeeper named Pasquale and a beautiful American actress named Dee. The other story follows Pasquale as, fifty years later, he tries to find the actress he felt such a connection with. In between, we get to know the many people who become part of their story, including a young assistant producer becoming disenchanted with Hollywood and a young man struggling to find his place in life.

Read more at Doing Dewey…

Katie′s #CBR5 Review #23: Under the Tuscan Sun by Frances Mayes

Title: Under the Tuscan Sun
Author: Frances Mayes
Source: library
Rating: 
Review Summary: This is a wholesome, lovely, refreshing read with lyrical prose describing a beautiful location but it is a little undirected.

First let me tell you what this book isn’t. It’s nothing like the movie; it’s not a romance; and it isn’t even a book with much of a plot. Instead, it’s a beautiful collection of anecdotes loosely tied together by the progression of time. The primary focus is on the author’s experiences restoring a Tuscan villa, but her focus on food is a close second. Some of her experiences as a tourist remind me of a travel memoir, but I particularly enjoyed the other parts that describe the experience of actually living in Italy.

Read more at Doing Dewey….

narfna’s #CBR5 Review #13: Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walter

beautiful-ruinsHonestly, my very first reaction to this book was that I was disappointed that Jess Walter is a man. What with the girly script and New Girl’s Jess Day fresh in my mind (did you guys see what happened yesterday?!) I just automatically assumed that Jess Walter was a lady author. I was wrong. There was a very prominent and chiseled fancy man pictured on the back cover flap.

Luckily, I got over it pretty quickly and my disappointment in the author’s gender didn’t hinder my enjoyment of his story. This book was lovely. I read it all in one day, the largest chunk of which I spent pigging out at Pita Jungle, eating shawarma and baklava and drinking tangy fruit-flavored iced tea. It was a good day.

The plot of Beautiful Ruins is hard to describe. There’s a young Italian man in a very small village who watches as a beautiful dying American actress comes to stay at his villa. There’s a Hollywood film producer and his increasingly jaded assistant in the present day. An aging musician halfway around the world has a midlife crisis. And in the 1960s, Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton are shooting that famous disaster of a film, Cleopatra, as their affair is splashed all over the headlines. There are a bunch of characters and plot threads and time jumps in this story, but the way that Walter weaves all of them together into a cohesive whole is one of the main pleasures of the book. I got this sense of elation as everything started coming together near the end that only happens with the really good stuff.

This story was sad and happy and joyful and terrible and wonderful, and I loved it.

(My only complaint was that something about the ending felt . . . off. And I can’t figure out what it was. I was all set and ready to give this five stars (I could feel it in the build up), and I still might when I come back for the inevitable re-read, but for now only four and a half because the ending kinda jarred me out of the lovely little funk I was in reading it almost straight through, for hours and hours. Either way I’m on a roll with books this year. So many great ones right out of the gate — 4.5 stars.)

xoxoxoe’s #CBR5 Review #1: Rome: A Cultural, Visual, and Personal History by Robert Hughes

Recently released in paperback by Vintage, Rome: A Cultural, Visual, and Personal History, is the art and culture critic’s last published book. Hughes died in August 2012.

Hughes has always been good at mixing history with an entertaining story, and Romedoesn’t disappoint–but it is a dense read. There is a lot of information in its almost 500-page length. Luckily there are also many color illustrations to aid the reader with unfamiliar artists or architecture.

Rome is undeniably one of the world’s great cities. One can learn of its amazing history, from its Etruscan roots, to its Imperial grandeur and fall, to its Renaissance glory, to its 20th century cool. But there is nothing like actually visiting the city, and being able to experience the collision of all of those eras, sometimes on one street corner, or Roman encounter. Hughes (Shock of the New, Barcelona, Culture of Complaint) tries to capture all of Rome’s glory and contradictions in his rambling, yet entertaining narrative.

Hughes tries to convey, in only the way he does, how he views the city of Rome. “In other places fountains are special events,” he notes, “but in Rome they are simply part of the vernacular of city life; you notice them, you see them as exceptions to the surfaces of stone or brick, but it seems that they are there to be breathed, not just seen.”

Throughout Rome he gives his very personal, mostly chronological history of the city, highlighting the art and people that he deems most important or interesting. Hughes starts off by taking the reader through Rome’s beginnings, the Roman Empire and all of the magnificent art and architecture that resulted from Emperor Augustus and his successors, through the city’s shift to becoming the center of Christianity.

In his chapter on the Renaissance Hughes is truly in his element, focusing on art and architecture. He tackles not only the creation of probably Rome’s most well-known artwork, Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel ceiling frescoes, but also the more modern controversy around whether they should have been cleaned. He has always stood firmly in the “yes” camp on that issue and reiterates his position here.

Jumping ahead to Rome in the 17th century and its Baroque period of art, Hughes enjoys talking about “bad boy” artist Caravaggio as well as Spanish painter Diego Velasquez. Velasquez only stayed there a year, but Hughes believes he was profoundly influenced by the city and its art.

When he reaches the 20th century Hughes highlights the connection between Mussolini’s fascism and art, reiterating the commonly held view that the political movement’s roots can be found in the poetry of famed Italian poet and war hero Gabriele D’Annunzio. As Hughes tells it, only in Italy, only in Rome, could art and politics mix so fully.

He ends his tour of Rome with the cinema of the 1950s and ’60s. Film studio Cinecittà (also with links to Mussolini, who founded the studio to produce propaganda films in 1937) turned the city into a filming destination, both for location and subject, hosting religious epics like Ben Hur, and Quo Vadis. Native efforts with more contemporary themes, especially Fellini’s iconic La Dolce Vita changed and influenced modern cinema. He enjoys dropping fascinating tidbits such as producer Dino DiLaurentis’s desire to have Paul Newman play the character of Marcello in La Dolce Vita (sacrilege!)

The overall effect of Hughes’ Rome is like the eternal city itself. If you have never been there, whether you are diving in or just sampling, this book will make you want to visit. If you have already been to Rome in the past, Hughes easily and entertainingly reminds you why you need to return.

You can read more of my pop culture reviews on my blog, xoxoxo e

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