Canadian weather – snow one day, double digits the next.
This month, let’s escape to somewhere where the weather is consistent, if not the traditions – Italy.
“As they walked through the city, Robertino solemnly explained that cappuccino was never drunk after lunch because that much milk was considered too heavy late in the day. Tisana was a healing tea. You must never grate cheese on a dish containing seafood – considered a disgusting combination. Ice in a drink would cause a heart attack. Stepping in dog doo was good luck; seat nuns behind the wheel was unlucky. All stores closed from one to three p.m. Or sometimes four so that everyone could go home for lunch. Lunch was at one, never at two or three, and dinner was no earlier than eight p.m.
“’For a seemingly anarchist culture,’ Scottie pointed out ‘you have a lot of rules, and most of them seem to be related to digestion.’
“’Nothing is more important than eating,’ said Robertino, and Scottie felt as if an import piece of her Italian education had just fallen into place.”
We learn those rules about Italy and Italian culture in The Italian Party by Christina Lynch ($36.99, Raincoast Books, St. Martin’s Press). The book is set in 1956 when a newly married American couple, Scottie and Michael, travel to Siena where Michael sells tractors, but who is also a spy, attempting to save the world from communism. Scottie knows nothing about her husband’s other life, but when Robertino, her teenage Italian teacher, disappears, she learns more him, herself and her country.
Heat is also a constant in Italy.
“’By the way, what’s with all the shutters?’” asks Scottie. “Each window had wooden inside panels that closed out the light and fitted over the glass. Then there were the slatted outdoor shutters. She noticed that all day long, every window on the piazza but hers had been shuttered. ‘Are you Italians vampires so you have to live in total darkness?’… ‘Yes,’ (Carlo) said. Those of us who are not werewolves. But the shutters are for the heat.’
“’It’s so dark,’” Scottie said
“’But cool,’ said Carlo. Then at night you leave the outside ones open but close the indoor wood panels so your neighbours can’t see you. There is nothing to do in Siena but gossip, I’m afraid, and we Italians love to spy.”
In The Dark Angel by Elly Griffiths ($30.57, Raincoast Books, HMH Books), Dr. Ruth Galloway returns to Italy on the request of her friend, archaeologist Angelo Morelli who asks for her help in identifying bones found on the hilltop of the Liri Valley. Ruth, too, recalls the heat of Italy, particularly in the summer.
“Ruth thinks of this when they have landed and battled through customs and baggage reclaim to find themselves in a car park with white-hot heat pouring down on their heads. She had forgotten when August in Italy was like. She got used to thinking of sunny days in Norfolk as hot, but those benevolent rays are nothing compared to this killer heat, which seems to skewer them to the spot, leaving them unable to move or even speak.”
And while Ruth is surprised by how dirty some parts of Italy are, that is quickly replaced by beauty.
“They pass roadside shrines and farm buildings, olive groves and fields of sunflowers. They have to stop once to let a wild boar cross the road…Then they see it, on the top of the highest hill: turrets and towers, crenelated walls, rooftop upon rooftop. It’s a terracotta fortress, every shade from dark orange to the palest pink and, above, the sky is a perfect azure. ‘Castello degli Angeli,’ says Graziano. A few more turns of the road and the Alfa seems to drive straight at a wall. Ruth shuts her eyes. When she opens them again they are in a cobbled square with a fountain playing in the centre. Behind them are the walls of the castle and in the foreground, there is a church, so beautiful and symmetrical that it looks like a stage set.”
As Ruth goes for a late for her, but normal dinner for Italians, she gets to see more of this beautiful location, which she noticed seems to be built on top of itself, elaborate balconies, pillared entrances, Hobbit-like doors and the sounds – pianos playing, children arguing with their parents, pots, and pans clanking as people prepare meals. There is also the smells.
“Ruth goes out onto the balcony, trying to clear her head. After the heat of the day, the air is pleasantly cool and smells of herbs and lemons.”
Throughout both books, we learn the history of the country, see traditions unfold and explore various beautiful locations from the Monte Cassino to the beaches of Formia and various historical places in Siena, including seeing the statue of Pauline Borghese through the eyes of Michael in The Italian Party.
“The statue of Pauline Borghese in the Borghese Gallery was Michael’s favourite. Life-size in snow-white marble, she lay on one hip, topless, a drapery discreetly covering her from waist down. As tourist milled around them in the still summer air, Michael stared at Pauline, taking in her bold but emotionless stare, the casual way she hefted an apple in her hand, as if she might throw it at a servant who was slow with her coffee. …She was, thought Michael, utterly disloyal, amoral and without any merit beyond beauty.”
A copy of these books was provided by Raincoast Books for an honest review. The opinions are my own.
Lisa Day has a passion for books – owning them, reading them, writing about them and talking about them. She carries at least one, maybe two or three, books with her at all times and when she isn't reading, she is writing about them. You can also find her on Twitter at @LisaMDayC; Instagram at @LisaMDayReads, Facebook at www.facebook.com/BookTime584 and GoodReads at http://bit.ly/ldgoodreads