April 2015: My Reading

Italy

A full two weeks of the April were spent in Italy – most of the trip was spent in Perugia, a town located in Umbria before having a few nights in Rome – and I tried to read appropriately for (and during) the experience.

River of Shadows by Valerio Varesi is not my usual genre, in fact, I seriously doubt that a ‘police procedural’ has ever graced my beside table but when in Italy one needs to devour some crime fiction. The blurb will give you the idea:

In a bleak valley in Northern Italy, the River Po is swollen to its limits. The thick fog that usually clings to the town, blurring its surroundings and plunging its inhabitants into near-blindness, has been driven out by the raging storm. So when an empty barge drifts downriver, the fact the owner is missing does not go unnoticed.

It is a very good read, well-crafted from beginning to end and undoubtedly a successful translation from Italian. The protagonist, Commissioner Soneri, certainly matched my preconceptions about the likely clichés inherent in these kinds of stock characters  – cynical, brusque, irritable, womanising, divorced and a maverick who likes a drink – but his delight in all things culinary was almost as unexpected as his sexual peccadilloes.

The 20th century political history of Italy is in explored through the characters past lives and the crimes of both communists and fascists are not easily escaped. The fog slowly dispels and Soneri works it all out, as one would expect. For me, this political/historical dimension added a depth that may not be always present in the genre and will lead me to read more.

This is the fourth book in the Commissario Soneri series and the first one to be published in English. One does wonder why the first three have not. I surprised myself by enjoying my first Varesi and have started Dark Valley with Gold, Frankincense and Dust on the pile.

I am not sure I can do the popular Italian tv adaptation though. 😉

On my recent school exchange, I carried A Traveller’s History of Italy by Valerio Vintner long after I’d finished, hoping to talk a student into reading it. No luck. In my experience, it is a rare student who reads histories of countries; I guess they perceive it as boring. Vintner’s book is perfect for the traveller, especially this one whose knowledge  of Italy has big gaps. I feel relatively expert in Roman history, especially the late Republic and early principate. Italian unification I studied at school but other than that, only some sketchy, incomplete knowledge about the Italian Renaissance and the Medici family was on board. I found the prehistory and Etruscan sections of the book interesting and also enjoyed the post-WWII survey. The book really assisted my to better understand Italy’s regionalism and relationship with religion. It is a great read while travelling. The book has been republished many times and this was the eight edition, suggesting others have felt similarly.

I read most of Rome: A Cultural, Visual, and Personal History by Robert Hughes shortly after it was first published a few years back, admittedly, I took Mary Beards advice at the time and started at page 200. This time I listened to the audiobook and thoroughly enjoyed the opening too, although, I agree, it is not the best part of the much-criticised book. I have loved Hughes’ life, tv shows and books since I first read The Fatal Shore as a university student and this tome was a good choice for a trip to Italy. I finished it on the long plane trip home. It was perfect, just perfect to return with Hughes whispering in my ear.

Tom Holland

Before departing for Italy I unexpectedly read Rubicon: The Last Years of the Roman Republic by Tom Holland. I picked it up and started browsing and was completely ensnared. From the fall of the Roman Republic to the rise of the Julio-Claudians is one of the periods of history I know best and Holland’s book was like visiting an old friend or more accurately, looking out on a favourite, special vista. I highly recommend to both the uninitiated and those familiar with the era. 

One of the reasons why the previous book fell into my hands was that I bought Holland’s recent translation of Herodotus: The Histories. and was looking interestedly at his Persian Fire: The First World Empire and the Battle for the WestI am yet to tackle this new, well-reviewed, translation of Herodotus but certainly found Persian Fire good background. I have started Holland’s latest, and altogether more (stupidly) controversial book that looks at the end of the ancient world and the rise of monotheistic faith as well as the sense of the divine, In the Shadow of the Sword: The Battle for Global Empire and the End of the Ancient World.*

Tom Holland is a new author to me and one whose achievement impresses. He writes engagingly and makes the past live in numerous ways, not just with his prose but also his analysis of our contemporary context. A highly recommended author.

*Whoever named his latest book needs to have a rethink though.

Photography

“If you want to make more interesting pictures, become a more interesting person.”   Jay Maisel 

I have been flipping through my library of photography and art books recently in search of creative inspiration. There are so many great photographers and artists to discover, or re-discover with new eyes. A recommendation from Amazon led me to find a great new old photographer, a New Yorker with an attitude about his art that makes sense to me. It’s Not About The f-Stop and Light, Gesture & Color by Jay Maisel are joys to behold and much better than your average book about shooting better photos. 

The photography and the artistic insights are genuinely original and stimulating. Maisel has been snapping since the 1950s and his list of achievements are impressive but I like his attitude better. Yes, he has photographed Miles Davis and Marilyn Monroe but the everyday is where he lives.

Here are some quotes from his books that delighted:

“If you’re not your own severest critic, you are your own worst enemy.”  

“There is no bad light. There is spectacular light and difficult light. It’s up to you to use the light you have.”  

“Money and fame that photography can bring you are wonderful, but nothing can compare to the joy of seeing something new.” 

The following video displays some of his stunning photography:

You?

What have you been reading or is on currently on the top of the pile?

Here’s my reading shelf for this month and so far for 2015.

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