Thursday, May 26, 2011

The Foreign-ness of Simplicity

Dolce far niente, sweet to do nothing. What an Italian saying. How sweet it is to do nothing. This is the lifestyle that Frances Mayes immerses herself in in her book, "Under the Tuscan Sun". Italians live in a way that is so foreign to we Americans. Three hour breaks in the middle of the day? Only having seasonal ingredients? Workers who don't show up when they say they will? Having a mini farm in your backyard? What are all these strange concepts? Foreign, yes perhaps, but after reading Mayes book, I can't think of anything that sounds better.

If you have seen the movie, "Under the Tuscan Sun", please put it out of your mind. Yes there are similarities, but the movie is a different beast from the book. The book is a work of travel nonfiction about Mayes and her current husband buying and refurbishing an old, neglected house and the few acres that come along with it. Mayes is a lover of food and cooking, so there are also chapters about her favorite recipes and she talks about the exquisite meals and wines she makes and eats. The book is not a romance, unless you consider the love of a house and place romantic.

I enjoyed the first half of the book describing the work done on the house. It was invigorating to hear about how it went from point A to point B and all of the time and love that Frances and her hubby put into this project. But it was not only the house that had to be updated. The land had olive, fig, and pear trees on it, a wall that needed to be finished, and pruning and planting to be done. This is a lifestyle where living is encouraged, and simplicity has never seemed so complicated. All you do is sit and eat for three hours? Pears and gorgonzola are a stunning combination? It's so simple! I found myself getting bored after about the first half of the book once most of the work on the house was complete. After that, many of the chapters were about places that Frances and her husband visited. Sure some of it was interesting, but I was into the lifestyle of the house and the locals.

Overall, this book made me long for Italy, for a country house in a foreign land where I can make friends with locals, grow food that I can pick off the trees and eat, take on a house and win. It made me want to rediscover life. Frances talks about how different her life is in San Francisco, where she lives most of the year, and Tuscany, where she spends her winter and summer breaks. She talks about how going to Bramasole, the Tuscan house, is like going home. It is like becoming the better version of yourself. I want that.

This is a good read for the most part. It makes you want to get up and do things, rediscover life, cooking, gardening, renovate something, anything! I loved the culture that was unfurled throughout Frances's book, but there were places that I felt she blathered on, and I lost interest. If you love traveling and different cultures, give it a read. Don't get too carried away, however. You wouldn't want to end up with a house in a foreign countryside, or would you?

Friday, May 13, 2011

The Meaning Behind Words

Nazi Germany1939-1943. We all know what was happening at that time and in that location. A nation who had previously been squelched and left in the gutter in a past war finally found a leader to pull it up by the boot straps. Unfortunately, in order to bolster the German spirit, it was deemed necessary to find a target, an outlet for resentment and bitterness. But just because one man's words struck the Germans dumb doesn't mean that every German was taken in by his hateful words.

"The Book Thief" is about words. Liesel Meminger is a young girl who becomes the foster child of Hans and Rosa Hubermann. While dealing with her own past haunts, Liesle discovers the love of a silver-eyed man, a wooden spoon wielding woman, a lemon haired boy, and a boxing Jew. The struggle and success she finds through learning to read and becoming a bibliophile turns into her true love. In order to cultivate her passion for reading, Liesel begins stealing books. Liesel discovers that although the words in her books transport her to better places, the words spoken and written in Hitler's Germany decimate the lives of thousands. The dual nature of written and spoken words are examined throughout this novel.

Death narrates this novel, which creates a unique aspect. 'Well that's morbid', you may think, but it's WWII, so death surrounds everything, and it is an inspired idea in this novel. Death is not portrayed as a cold or heartless being in the writing. Instead, his narrating encompasses Liesel's story and that of the other characters and happenings throughout the war.

"The Book Thief" by Markus Zusak is an easy, touching, emotional read for young adults and adults alike. The story is compelling with many different aspects and characters to learn to love. I've heard many people speak of this book fondly and I must agree. It is a good read and gives a different side to the war than other novels.

Monday, May 2, 2011

You Survived the War, Now Survive the Homecoming

Never date a military man. That is the lesson "You Know When the Men are Gone" by Siobhan Fallon taught me. The book is a collection of short, loosely tied together stories. They are all about the relationships of military personnel and the families of these persons. Perspectives change from story to story, but the themes run deep from frustration, fear, hurt, heartbreak, hope, loss, disappointment, love, and longing as individuals make their way through their deployment or that of a loved one in Iraq.

The stories circle around Fort Hood, a military base in Texas, where wives wait for their men to return from war. The men overseas dream about the women who they believe are yearning for them. Here is a book that opens your eyes to the complications of living an army life and the strain it puts on personal relationships. How fragile relationships are and how even the strongest men have weaknesses. The one thing you think you can rely on, your love and family, become twisted and complicated. It's not just the distance affecting the relationship and sometimes love isn't enough to make it work.

This is a fascinating read. Fallon held my attention from page to page, story to story. One of my worries was having to get to know each new narrator, but I found myself drawn into each character. The stories are captivating. Since the author is a woman, I expected all the stories to be from the female perspective, but was happily surprised to find many stories from the male point of view as well. However, you could tell that this is a woman writing because the stories got into the emotional world of each character in a way that I rarely see men tap into. You won't want to put this one down. I highly suggest reading it.