The Scribe of Siena by Melodie Winawer
Medieval Italy comes to life in this debut historical novel about a neurosurgeon who time travels. Beautifully detailed descriptions of the people, places, and food of modern and 14th century Siena add appeal to a moving story about love, loss, and the Plague. Beatrice Trovato keeps meaning to visit her brother Ben, a historian, in Siena, but is too busy working as a neurosurgeon. Looking at her brother’s research about the history of Siena, exploring the city and its art, she travels back in time to 1347, the year before the Plague will arrive in Siena. Amazingly, she finds work as a scribe, and also meets widowed fresco painter Gabriele Accorsi, who’s a witness to a killing by one of the early Medicis. Beatrice, trying to figure out how to get home before the plague, falls in love with Gabriele and Siena. Readers who can accept the idea of time travel and some unlikely coincidences will be enchanted.
Conclave by Robert Harris
In the near future, the Pope has died in his sleep, and Cardinal Jacopo Lomeli, Dean of the College of Cardinals, must lead the conclave of cardinals to select a new pope. Once the conclave begins, the cardinals under the age of 80 eat and sleep at the Casa Santa Marta and vote by secret ballot in the Sistine Chapel, secluded from the outside world. Lomeli welcomes 117 cardinals, worrying about the homily he must preach the next day, only to meet Vincent Benitez, secretly named Cardinal and Archbishop of Baghdad by the pope. This might not sound like an exciting book, but it is an absorbing thriller that is hard to put down, with an ever intensifying pace, with hints of violence in the outside world, as the cardinals have trouble reaching a two-thirds majority in the early ballots. The beautiful paintings by Michelangelo contrast strongly with the humble rooms at the guesthouse and the mediocre food served by nuns in blue habits. Lomeli is investigating some of the leading contenders, hoping to avoid future scandals. There are a lot of characters, but Harris focuses on just a few. Tedesco is an Italian traditionalist, favoring a return to mass in Latin. Tremblay is an ambitious French Canadian who met with the Pope a few hours before his death. Bellini, the Vatican Secretary of State, is the solid liberal choice, while conservative African Adeyemi has a chance to become the first black pontiff. In the first ballot, Lomeli is surprised when he gets a few votes, as he has always been a manager, never a pastor, and has been having trouble praying and sleeping. Also, the unknown Benitez gets a vote. The author is best known for his books about World War II and Imperial Rome; I thought his novel Pompeii was very interesting. If you’re looking for a fast-paced, satisfying thriller with little violence, this is an excellent choice.
Four Seasons in Rome by Anthony Doerr
I really enjoyed reading this memoir of the year the author spent in Rome with his wife Shauna and their twin babies, Henry and Owen. The day the twins were born in Boise, Idaho, Anthony learned that he won the Rome Prize, providing an apartment, a writing studio, and a stipend for a year. He is best known for his Pulitzer prize-winning historical novel All the Light We Cannot See. Part of that novel was written during that year, but Rome kept distracting him. The subtitle is very descriptive: On Twins, Insomnia, and the Biggest Funeral in the History of the World. Their apartment was in walking distance of St. Peter’s Square, and Pope John Paul II died while they were living in Rome. Struggling to communicate in Italian, the family is charmed by the warmth of the Italians they encounter, and stunned by the beauty and history of Rome. The struggles of writing are well detailed, but the main topics are Rome and life with young twins. I plan to read more of Doerr’s stories and essays, especially involving further travels with his family.
The Light in the Ruins by Chris Bohjalian
Cristina Rosati is 18 in 1943 when the war comes to Villa Chimera in the Tuscan hills south of Florence. Her brother Vittore works in Florence, trying to keep Italian antiquities safe and out of Germany. Brother Marco is an engineer with the Italian army in Sicily while his wife Francesca and their two children live with Cristina and her parents at the villa, where she swims, rides horseback, and plays with the children. After the Germans learn that there is an Etruscan tomb at Villa Chimera, they start visiting, and she meets a handsome German lieutenant. Also 18, orphaned Serafina is working with the Italian Resistance and is injured in an explosion. She has a connection to Villa Chimera that she’s forgotten, and is now a detective in 1955 Florence, where a murderer has begun stalking the Rosati women. The Rosatis had no easy choices to make during the war, and they didn’t all survive. Cristina and Serafina don’t know what secrets from the past may be haunting the Rosatis now. The most interesting part of the book for me was descriptions of life in Italy in 1943 and 1944. Some of the characters were more developed than others, such as Cristina’s father and brother Marco. The pace of the story intensifies, as the killer gets closer and the reader learns more of the events of 1944 at Villa Chimera. Beautiful settings, some appealing characters, with a story that kept my interest, but darker in tone and more gruesome than I expected.
The Big Read Selection for 2013 is The Shoemaker’s Wife by Adriana Trigiani, a novel about Italian American immigrants in the early 1900s. Here are some more novels you might enjoy:
Alcott, Kate. The Dressmaker. Titanic survivor in New York City.
Cohen, Paula. Gramercy Park. Set in the 1890s, famous Italian tenor rents house near Gramercy Park while singing at the Metropolitan Opera, falls in love.
Duenas, Maria. The Time in Between. Spanish fashion designer stranded in 1930s Morocco, opens dress shop.
Forster, E.M. A Room With a View. Written and set in early 1900s, an Italian pensione caters to British tourists.
Gentle, Mary. The Black Opera. Nineteenth century Italy, opera librettist.
Mazzucoo, Melania. Vita. Two children from southern Italy try to survive in New York City’s Little Italy in 1903.
McDonnell, Adrienne. The Doctor and the Diva. Early 1900s opera singer seeks treatment for infertility.
Mignola, Mike and Christopher Golden. Father Gaetano’s Puppet Catechism. Young priest teaches orphans at a convent during World War II, redesigns old handcrafted puppets to tell Bible stories, but the puppets come to life in this horror novella.
Moser, Nancy. An Unlikely Suitor. Italian American dressmakers in 19th century NYC and Newport, Rhode Island.
Olafsson, Olaf. Restoration. Set in Tuscany in 1944.
Pezzelli, Peter. Home to Italy. Recently widowed Peppi returns to his native Italian village and finds that his old friend and fellow mountain biker Luca now owns a candy factory run by his lovely daughter Lucrezia.
Russell, Mary Doria. A Thread of Grace. Northern Italy in the 1930s and 1940s. Many thousands of Jewish refugees fled here during World War II.
Schoenewaldt, Pamela. When We Were strangers. Italian American immigrant finds work as seamstress in 1880s Cleveland and Chicago.
Trigiani, Adriana. Lucia, Lucia. Italian American seamstress looks back on her life in NYC.
Trigiani, Adriana. Very Valentine. Family owned shoe company in New York City, started in 1903 by Italian American immigrants.
Walters, Jess. Beautiful Ruins. 1960 Italy and modern day United States.
The Swerve: how the World Became Modern, by Stephen Greenblatt
A fascinating look at the birth of the Renaissance, particularly the rediscovery of a poem written around 50 B.C. In 1415, papal secretary and scribe Poggio Bracciolini is out of a job when Baldassare Cossa, Pope John XXIII, is deposed. Cossa was one of three men at the time claiming to be pope. Poggio was a humanist and bibliophile, as well as a scribe praised for his elegant and legible handwriting. Friends and patrons interested in items of antiquity such as sculpture and Latin manuscripts funded Poggio’s search for lost Latin texts. Monastic libraries were a likely source, as monks were required to read every day. In 1417, probably in the remote Abbey of Fulda in central Germany, Poggio discovered several lost works, including De Rerum Natura, or The Nature of Things, by Lucretius. Lucretius wrote about Epicureanism, the often misunderstood philosophy about avoiding pain and seeking tranquility and pleasure without overindulging. One central them was about atoms, the smallest particles of matter, which clash in an infinite void. I though atoms were discovered in modern times, not theorized over 2000 years ago. I was also surprised to learn how much is known today about one man’s life in the early 15th century, even that Poggio had 14 children with his mistress, and later married and had 6 more children. Poggio also became chancellor of Florence.
Poggio had the manuscript copied, and eventually copies began to circulate in and around Florence. When Lucretius published De Rarum Natura, Virgil and Cicero both admired it, but it had been lost for several centuries before Poggio found it. Its rediscovery influenced many people, including the painter Botticelli, the Jesuits, Machiavelli, Galileo, Isaac Newton, and the 16th century French essayist Michel de Montaigne. Sarah Bakewell’s recent book, How to Live–or–A Life of Montaigne, has led to renewed interest in Montaigne’s Essays, and the publication of Swerve has led to a reprinting of Lucretius’ work. By a strange coincidence, Lucy Hutchinson, a Puritan woman in 1675, translated Lucretius into English, all the while abhorring its non-Christian worldview. I listened to the audiobook, narrated by Edoardo Ballerini, who is fluent in English and Italian, and found it very absorbing.
When We Were Strangers, by Pamela Schoenewaldt
Irma Vitale is a plain young woman in Opi, a small mountain village in Italy. She has no good marriage prospects, and life is difficult at home since her mother died. Her aunt and priest encourage her to follow her brother Carlos to Cleveland, even though Carlos has never written to tell them he arrived safely. Irma sews and embroiders well, and hopes to be a dressmaker. With the help of friends made along the way, she gets to Cleveland. While she finds work and makes friends in Cleveland, she makes very little money and works long hours sewing collars. With great difficulty, she travels to Chicago and eventually finds work for a dressmaker, although few employers want to hire immigrants. After a tragedy, she is asked to assist Sophia in a free clinic, and eventually moves to San Francisco with her friend Molly, where Irma can see hills and ocean again. Set in the 1880s, Irma’s story makes for excellent reading. This is the first novel by Pamela Schoenewaldt, who lived for ten years in Italy.