Book Review: My Italian Bulldozer by Alexander McCall Smith

Title: My Italian Bulldozer
Author: Alexander McCall Smith
Publisher: Abacus
Publication date: April 4, 2017
Length: 240 pages
Genre: Contemporary fiction
Source: Library
Rating:

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

The best-selling author of the No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series returns with an irresistible new novel about one man’s adventures in the Italian countryside.

Paul Stuart, a renowned food writer, finds himself at loose ends after his longtime girlfriend leaves him for her personal trainer. To cheer him up, Paul’s editor, Gloria, encourages him to finish his latest cookbook on-site in Tuscany, hoping that a change of scenery (plus the occasional truffled pasta and glass of red wine) will offer a cure for both heartache and writer’s block. But upon Paul’s arrival, things don’t quite go as planned. A mishap with his rental-car reservation leaves him stranded, until a newfound friend leads him to an intriguing alternative: a bulldozer.

With little choice in the matter, Paul accepts the offer, and as he journeys (well, slowly trundles) into the idyllic hillside town of Montalcino, he discovers that the bulldozer may be the least of the surprises that await him. What follows is a delightful romp through the lush sights and flavors of the Tuscan countryside, as Paul encounters a rich cast of characters, including a young American woman who awakens in him something unexpected.

A feast for the senses and a poignant meditation on the complexity of human relationships, My Italian Bulldozer is a charming and intensely satisfying love story for anyone who has ever dreamed of a fresh start. 

Once again, a book group selection is responsible for me reading a charming book that I probably never would have encountered otherwise. Yay, book group!

In My Italian Bulldozer, writer Paul Stuart heads to Tuscany for a few weeks of rest and relaxation while finishing his newest foodie book. His girlfriend of four years has just dumped him, and he’s in need of a change of scenery, so what better choice than to head to the site of the delicious food and wine he’s writing about?

The trip does not go as planned. Immediately upon arrival, he has some rather comical mishaps with the rental car company. When no cars are available, a new acquaintance connects him with a commercial vehicle rental agency, which is able to offer him the only rental they have: a bulldozer. With no other option, Paul sets off on the road to Montalcino, the rural hilltop village where he’ll be staying, enjoying the vantage point of his rather odd ride.

Once settled in Montalcino, Paul begins to meet the locals, who seem to take a shine to him right away. He quickly becomes a regular at the coffee houses and restaurants, and also meets an American woman who sparks his interest. Picnics, meals, and all sorts of outings via bulldozer make up his days, and he also makes great progress with his book.

My Italian Bulldozer isn’t exactly a plot-heavy book. It’s a peaceful, calming story about a man’s encounter with a quieter way of life, giving him time to think and reflect on what really matters and what he wants. It’s sweet, charming, and quirky, a quick read, and altogether a very good book for the holiday season.

Describing a book as “nice” doesn’t really sound like great praise, but this book really and truly is nice. The people are sympathetic and likable, the setting is lovely, the food and wine sound delicious, and the adventure is on the mild side. I had a nice time reading My Italian Bulldozer. It didn’t make me work hard to enjoy it, it went by fast, and was enjoyable all the way through.

Perhaps not (definitely not) the most exciting book I’ve read all year, but I’m glad I read it, especially as a way to cleanse my palate after some heavier, less pleasant reading. I’d recommend My Italian Bulldozer as a sweet diversion for when you’re looking for a pick-me-up.

Book Review: The Light in the Ruins by Chris Bohjalian

lightHave I mentioned lately how much I love the Outlander Book Club? Without the OBC’s Book of the Month discussions, I might have procrastinated about reading this book for a while longer… but instead, I read The Light in the Ruins by Chris Bohjalian for our February BOTM pick, and loved it!

The Light in the Ruins is historical fiction set in Italy, with two alternating timelines: 1943-1944, when we meet the Rosati family and learn of their experiences during World War II, and 1955, when the surviving members of the family are being hunted down and brutally murdered by a serial killer with a vendetta.

The Rosatis own a beautiful, luxurious estate, Villa Chimera, in the Tuscan hills, where they live in upper class splendor, enjoying their vineyards, horses, swimming pool, and sweeping vistas. They are linked to museums in both the local town nearby and in Florence by the discovery of Etruscan tombs on their property. The tombs attract the attention of the Nazi officials whose job it is to steal rare and valuable Italian artwork for the benefit of the Reich (or, as they put it, to “protect” the artwork from the war by sending it all back to Berlin for safekeeping).

One Rosati son, Vittore, is a museum curator, and the Germans he works with begin to visit the villa more regularly, at first just to view the tombs, but then as a place to take visitors and enjoy some pampering. The Rosatis are viewed with suspicion and more by the neighboring villagers and gain a reputation as collaborators. Were they forced and intimidated into entertaining the Nazis, or are they enjoying the extra rations and other benefits of staying on the Nazi officers’ good sides?

Meanwhile, youngest daughter Cristina enters into an ill-advised love affair with a young German officer, and daughter-in-law Francesca, known for her sharp tongue and abrasive ways, waits anxiously with her two small children for news of her husband Marco, fighting on the front lines against the Allied invasion.

Cut to 1955, and the Rosatis are being gruesomely murdered, one by one. I won’t go into detail about which family members have survived the war and which are the murder victims. You’ll find all this out in short order if you read the book, and it’s all quite devastating. The investigating police detective is a woman named Serafina, who fought as a partisan during the war and whose wartime experiences and awful injuries intersect with the fate of so many members of the Rosati family.

Meanwhile, in between the 1943 and 1955 chapters, we get snippets of first-person narration told by the killer in a chilling, detached voice, explaining just how he or she butchered his first victim and what he or she has in store for the rest.

The Light in the Ruins has a grim, inevitable feel to its escalating tragedy. The war story is the more compelling of the two storylines, and it becomes increasingly difficult to read as we progress through the books. From the 1955 chapters, we know fairly early on which family members died during the war, and we spend the rest of the book building up to the awful events resulting in their deaths. The writing is all the more powerful because of the dread in each scene; we know something very bad is coming, and can even guess some of it, but it’s still shocking and horrible to read when it arrives.

That said, The Light in the Ruins is an incredibly well-written and smartly paced book. The plot is constantly moving forward, despite the time shifts, and the clues and revelations pile up in a way that feels organic and well-ordered. Interestingly, I didn’t particularly like many of the characters, even the ones we theoretically should feel more sympathetic toward, but that in no way meant that I didn’t feel horror at their fate and their suffering.

Perhaps the only story thread that I didn’t particularly care for was the love story involving Cristina and the German officer, but it’s only one of many pieces of the whole. Otherwise, I found the connections and relationships among the many characters fascinating. If anything, I’d have liked to know a bit more about Serafina, and would be curious to know what her future holds.

The author does not shy away from describing the terrible events that occur in either timeline, and I suppose some readers will feel that the descriptions might be too graphic. I didn’t feel that way — I felt that it was important to know and understand exactly what happened in order to experience the terror of the characters and get a full sense of the tragedy. Still, for readers who are more squeamish or prefer not to see every last detail, this might be good to keep in mind.

As I was reading The Light in the Ruins, I was often reminded of the wonderful book A Thread of Grace by Mary Doria Russell — and was delighted to see Chris Bohjalian’s praise of that book in his acknowledgements. For more reading on Italy during WWII, I highly recommend A Thread of Grace.

Summing it all up: Is there anything Chris Bohjalian can’t write? I’ve now read, written by him, a legal/medial drama (Midwives), a post -disaster first-person story with a teen girl narrator (Close Your Eyes, Hold Hands), one of the spookiest ghost stories I’ve ever read (The Night Strangers), and with The Light in the Ruins, outstanding historical fiction. Clearly, I need to read much more of his work and see what other worlds and genres are contained within his books!

Meanwhile, for an excellent but heart-wrenching slice of historical fiction, I absolutely recommend The Light in the Ruins.

_________________________________________

The details:

Title: The Light in the Ruins
Author: Chris Bohjalian
Publisher: Doubleday
Publication date: July 9, 2013
Length: 309 pages
Genre: Historical fiction
Source: Found at a book swap!

Book Review: Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walter

Book Review: Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walter

If not for all the rave reviews out there, I might never have picked up Beautiful Ruins on my own. And that would have been a shame.

Based on the dustjacket flap, this didn’t really sound like a book for me. Hollywood producers. Scandal on the set of Cleopatra in the 1960s. Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor, for God’s sake. Do I care about any of this?

As it turns out, the answer is yes. Beautiful Ruins is a vast book, in terms of subject matter if not actual page length. (For the record, the book is 337 pages long). What sounded to me like a relatively simple story of worlds colliding is in actuality a tale that spans decades and continents, with a cast of characters so large that it shouldn’t work — but it does.

Beautiful Ruins starts in 1962 in a small Italian fishing village — so small that neighboring villages look down at it, so isolated that arrival by boat is the only access, a place so not of note that no one arrives here by accident, ever. Into this village comes Dee Moray, a young beautiful wannabe starlet, believing herself to be dying and awaiting a final assignation with her lover. Dee is sent to stay at the one hotel in the village, run by Pasquale, son of the recently deceased innkeeper, come home to fulfill his father’s unrealistic dream of turning the family inn into a tourist attraction.

Dee has been sent packing to Porto Vergogna from the set of the Burton/Taylor movie fiasco, Cleopatra. The reasons for her exile unfold throughout the story, and all is not as it seems. Pasquale is smitten and finds a new purpose in championing Dee’s tragic cause.

Meanwhile, in modern-day Hollywood, a young assistant on the verge of walking away from her job with a legendary producer and giving up on the business once and for all is roped back in by the sudden appearance of an old man seeking a woman once encountered, briefly but intensely, fifty years earlier.

Adding to all this, we see bits of screenplays and manuscripts, a stage play and a movie pitch, and meet people across the years, from 1960s to present, with stops in Seattle, Idaho, Edinburgh, Rome, and Florence. Bit players come and go; some have a huge impact on the unfolding drama, some appear only long enough to spin events off into a new direction.

Amazingly, it works. What I’d initially thought would be a story following two main plot threads evolved into a story with seemingly endless characters and lives, all taking different trajectories, separate but connected by coincidences and happenstance. The characters’ intersections are fascinating, and I couldn’t help wondering at the dexterity with which the author keeps all of the plot points moving forward and continuing to matter.

My quibbles, if any, are that there are a few minor characters whom I would have like to learn more about and seen fleshed out to a greater degree, such as the shiftless musician we encounter midway through the book, and others whose role is so minor that fewer pages devoted to them might have been better, such as the self-deluding young screenwriter who ends up functioning as translator throughout the book. Likewise, a subplot concerning the Donner party (of all things!) was a bit overplayed and seemed unnecessary.

Still, Beautiful Ruins was both absorbing and moving, and I found myself completely engrossed in the characters’ lives. Ultimately, for many of the characters, a choice (or several choices) had to be made. Pasquale reflects, late in the book, on a childhood memory concerning a decision he once had to make, and remembers his mother’s advice:

“Sometimes,” she said, “what we want to do and what we must do are not the same.” She put a hand on his shoulder. “Pasqo, the smaller the space between your desire and what is right, the happier you will be.”

For the characters in Beautiful Ruins, navigating this space is what forms the core of the choices they must make, and the decisions they make and the actions they take set the course for their chances of happiness. Seeing these choices play out is what makes this book so fascinating.