Tag Archives: Italy

This is not a bookstore review

On a recent trip to Roma, I’d planned to visit an English bookstore to pen a review for this site, the Open Door Bookstore in Via della Lungaretta. However, I was caught up in the history of the Eternal City. I managed to conquer all the major sights, but ran completely out of time.

Fortunately, I came across a hidden find on a pilgrimage to the Spanish Steps. I headed to this area to re-trace the steps of the fictional character Mrs. Stone in the magnificent short story by Tennessee Williams, The Roman Spring of Mrs Stone.

The Roman Spring of Mrs Stone

The Steps are atmospheric and full of tourists and singing troupes of European school children. Think a punk version of the Von Trapps from The Sound of Music. It is here that the poet John Keats died of consumption in 1821, at the age of just 26, in a tiny room overlooking the steps.

spanish-steps

But alas, I digress. I stumbled into Caffe Greco for an espresso fix impressed by the charms of its shop front. I was indeed pleasantly surprised to find a cove of autographed portraits, busts and statues. For the café has been a favourable haunt of writers and artists since 1760. It boasts a customer list that has included Goethe, Baudelaire, Casanova, Gogol and Hans Christian Anderson. The Piazza di Spagna has been a magnet for artistic souls, with Byron, Balzac, Wagner and Liszt also exploring this rich area.

Caffe Greco

I did need a literary fix during the holiday though, as I quickly got through Helen Walsh’s The Lemon Grove, a kind of twist on the Lolita myth with a Mum having a complete infatuation on her stepdaughter’s 17 year-old boyfriend. Shades of Anais Nin and lush descriptions of the Mediterranean setting. So I visited the international book store at Termini, close to my hotel, where I picked up a copy of a Philip Roth that I had not read, Deception. (Had to pay a striking 15 Euros, but when in Rome and all that).

termini book store

A clever dialogue between two adulterers before and after their meetings, sheer debauched, intelligent and humane. I can always rely on Roth to challenge and entertain at the same time. The cashier, who served me without making eye contact, appeared to be engrossed in a book under the counter, hence her lack of acknowledgement.  Sadly she was busy texting. Damon Albarn sings it quite rightly in his latest offering,

We are everyday robots on our phones.

I found myself wandering around open book stalls that sold volumes of Italian novels. I recognised authors translated into Italian by their cover artwork. The little market-like emporium also sold vinyl LPs (long player records) and grossly explicit pornographic DVDs with front covers on full display. Bizarre indeed!

book stalls

I did chuckle to myself thinking, I may not have made it to the book store I had planned to, but I had managed to experience a literary café, a literary supermarket and fall upon an alternative type of entertainment centre.

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Manituana by Wu Ming

Having been bowled over by ’54’ from the four writers who make up the Italian collective known as Wu Ming, a book which weaves a tale around the defeats and compromises of post-war Italian politics via a supporting cast including Cary Grant, Lucky Luciano and Tito, I was keen to get my hands on the English translation of their latest, Manituana.

As ambitious in scope as their earlier novels, expertly translated by Shaun Whiteside, Manituana concerns itself with a period of history I was shamefully ignorant of until reading this novel, the bloody birth of the United States and the unravelling of alliances between the British Empire, its colonists and the Six Nations of the Iroquois.

Again weaving the histories of real people – such as the Mohawk war chief Joseph Brant and his supernaturally gifted sister Molly – into those of an array of allies and enemies, Manituana moves from the ancient forests of America through dank and dangerous London streets to Westminster audiences with British Royalty, before returning to the land so filled with opportunity that it seems it cannot be left in the control of its original owners for long.

‘Fire gives life, and yet it consumes’, remarks Joseph Brant’s friend and ally Philip Lacroix, and those who set the fire are not always saved from the flames. As war becomes inevitable, no side escapes unharmed, atrocities and betrayals are met with fierce reprisals until the soil of the new country runs red. No hand remains unstained. The parallels between this beginning and more recent episodes of nation-building by Americans in Iraq have been commented upon by the writers. Promising to be the first of a trilogy of books to explore this neglected or airbrushed period of history, Manituana manages, despite achieving its epic ambitions, to be a fast-paced and entertaining read, one not to be missed.

Now the only thing to do is to see if I can wait patiently for the next part.

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