“I know some things,” he said. “In Urbino, some things we all know.”

“So tell me.”

Later she would regret those words, and she’d realize how difficult it was to recognize the moment before something was destroyed. She could remember the beginning of her father’s Alzheimer’s, but not the last time she’d seen him normal. All the cranky small moments that had led to the end of her relationship with Ivan were recorded indelibly, but she had never woken in their railroad apartment and considered that she was beginning the last good day. And just the same, she said those words now blithely, easily, completely unaware that what Gianfranco had to tell her was the start of a loss.

Natalie Danford’s Inheritance reminds me of how much I loved my trip to Italy six years ago this month. Truth be told, my memories of it are at this point random details and vague impressions, and I doubt that at this point the scrapbook I started afterwards will ever be finished. It is, however, the only foreign country I’ve visited and I came away with a new-found love for it.

The book is a double story. After her father dies of Alzheimer’s, Olivia finds amid his belongings an old iron key and the deed to a house in Italy. Though he spoke Italian with her, he never mentioned his native country or the family he left behind when he migrated to the States at the end of the war. As a way of healing from her father’s death, and her own failed relationship, Olivia decides to visit his hometown of Urbino. It is a small town, boasting only a ducal palace and the birthplace of Raphael, catering to tourists in an effort to survive. Because of her father’s history and estrangement, Olivia feels simultaneously a resident and outsider. She finds a warm welcome but no answers from her cousin Claudia; the young lawyer who agrees to look into the deed may be able to provide her with both. The truth, however, may not be what Olivia is looking for.

Inheritance alternates between Olivia’s current visit and various parts of Luigi’s life. In the wrong hands it could be trite or overdone, but because we meet Luigi first he is a well-rounded character for us. The reader must piece together elements from Luigi’s own story, Olivia’s memories, and what she now learns. Can we know the exact truth? According to one character, “history is written by the survivors,” and the bare facts of any event might be open to numerous interpretations depending on factors like motive and circumstance.

There is a scene about halfway through the book  with Luigi and Olivia’s cat that I found very disturbing and unnecessary as I read. Upon later reflection, however, I realized that it showed us the contradiction between different versions of an event, the breach between intention and outcome, and the thoughts and actions Luigi is capable of. In a sense, it presents many of the story’s themes in a microcosm. The result could have been achieved differently, but I appreciate Ms. Danford’s subtlety.

She carries this light touch throughout the book, so that readers don’t feel a heavy-handed Moral of the Story. Instead I was left pondering the cracks and filters through which we view any history, whether large-scale or our own. At the same time, Ms. Danford skillfully weaves the threads of the “truth” of why Luigi left Urbino, leaving the reader guessing until the end. Olivia braves the Pandora’s box of knowing her father as a real person, with faults and flaws. In some ways this can be a good thing; my grandmother died when I was thirteen, and I feel I know more about her as a person now that I did when she was still alive, by going through all the things I have from her. On the other hand, I’m sure there are things about my parents that I would rather not know. Would I love them any less? Certainly not. Even knowing the truth can help you love a person all the more.

As much as I adore mysteries and suspense, the literature geek in me really enjoys a book with themes and thinking. Inheritance was such a book for me. It would get my recommendation even without the evocative Italian setting.

Published in: on June 30, 2011 at 11:36 pm  Leave a Comment  
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The Pirate Captain’s Daughter

The Pirate Captain’s Daughter, by Eve Bunting, was another library whim. I usually don’t even browse the YA section anymore, but this one was part of the new books display by the check-out counter.

15-year old Catherine has known for a while that when her father leaves for his business trips at sea, he is really captaining a pirate ship. After her mother dies, she begs her father to let her accompany him, eager for the romance of a life at sea rather than stuffy days with a forbidding aunt. Females, however, are notoriously bad luck on board and a direct violation of the code. If Catherine is discovered, she risks both her life and her father’s. She must cut her hair, change her name to Charlie, and play her flute in the pirate band. Being on board the ship is a big adjustment not made any easier by two crew members. One is the hulking giant Herc, whom Catherine recognizes as the man who broke into her house looking for something the night before they left. The other is William, the handsome cabin boy who has decided to watch over the captain’s son.

This is my first YA book in a while and there are times when I really do feel too old for the genre, especially as I teach high school. I think this book was one of those times. I used to read a lot of Eve Bunting’s books, and I don’t want to say she’s just getting older because The Pirate Captain’s Daughter really is well researched and has good characterization. I think the problem is more with me.

In some ways I’m a lot like Catherine–the premise of pirates promises lots of romance, but the reality is crude and cruel. Eve Bunting creates a vivid and realistically unglamorous portrayal of life on a pirate ship, down to the harsh language and magotty bread. I really am way too much of a girl to handle that kind of lifestyle (which explains why I never liked The True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle, either). However, I think she was very smart to have Catherine be part of the ship’s band rather than try to pass as a cabin boy. It made it much more believable for her to go undetected. I hadn’t even known that most pirate ships did have constant music for when they were working, though I suppose it makes sense to lighten the tasks.

The romance between Catherine and William was what made me decide to check out the book (I’m a sucker for Williams since Pirates of the Caribbean). For most of the book, however, it does take a back seat to the rest of the plot, understandably so since William doesn’t know Catherine is a girl. Eve Bunting makes us wonder early on if he is a just pirate, like Catherine’s father, or simply another ruffian out for blood and gold.

For pirate fans The Pirate Captain’s Daughter would be a great read, and timely with the fourth Jack Sparrow movie. If, like me, you prefer swashbuckling to grit, it might be better to search elsewhere.

Published in: on June 30, 2011 at 11:27 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Things Fall Apart

When he walked, his heels hardly touched the ground and he seemed to walk on springs, as if he was going to pounce on somebody. And he did pounce on people quite often. He had a slight stammer and whenever he was angry and could not get his words out quickly enough he would use his fists. He had no patience with unsuccessful people. He had no patience with his father.

I’ve always loved the title of Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, long before I had the faintest idea what is was about. This past fall I helped a girl at the tutoring center where I work write an obituary for Okonkwo as a English project, so I knew some of the details of the plot. The way a ninth grader tells the story is much different from the way the author actually does! I knew I wanted to read it then for real.

image from Amazon

Things Fall Apart is the story of Okonkwo, one of the respected men in the village of Umuofia in Nigeria. His father was lazy, so he learned at an early age that the drive for success came from within. He cared for his mothers and sisters single-handed, and when the time came for him to start his own yam farm he proudly approached his neighbor and requested to sharecrop for a few years. He defeats all opponents in the wrestling matches, so that all the girls admire his strength and physical prowess. Over time he is able to take three wives, and also rise to the second-highest rank in the village.

Okonkwo’s history of success is relayed in the first chapter. Because of achieving all this (or more likely the other way around) he cuts an imposing figure. He is a proud man who  displays little emotion other than resolution or anger, only occasionally letting down his guard. He believes that anyone who has less initiative is weak, even his own son Nwoye; only his bold eldest daughter Ezinma is comfortable around  him. Ultimately he is a man that everyone,  including his family, both respects and fears.

When an Uumofia woman is murdered by men from a neighboring village, Okonkwo helps lead the war party seeking justice. The ransom includes a new wife for the widower, and a young boy named Ikemefuma. It is agreed that he will stay temporarily in Okonkwo’s compound until his fate is decided. Okonkwo begins to feel fondly towards Ikemefuma, even regarding him as his own son, so that when the decision is handed down he is torn about what to do. His critical actions here seem to affect his fate for the rest of the book, and his pride will in the end become his own downfall.

“The white man is very clever. He came quietly and peaceably with his religion. We were amused at his foolishness and allowed him to stay. Now he has won our brothers, and our clan can no longer act like one. He has put a knife on the things that held us together, and we have fallen apart.”

Later on in the book, the problems Okonkwo faces are magnified by issues affecting the whole village. White missionaries have come to Nigeria to spread Christianity. They preach against the native spirits and practices like killing twin babies, while teaching the Bible. Some Uumofians like Nwoye join up, but they are more on the fringe of the village and the leaders simple shake their heads. Soon, however, the rift grows greater as each side feels that their beliefs are threatened.

Chinua Achebe was a native Nigerian, though he is now distinguished professor in New England. He writes with a familiarity of the land, explaining the Uumofian ways in a manner that neither glorifies nor condemns them. We see customs for day-to-day life, for weddings and other ceremonies, for family and farming. What stands out to me the most is the rhythm of the writing. It’s different from British or American literature, but compelling.

The back cover of this copy compares Okonkwo’s story to the Greek tragedies, which is certainly true. He comes across as a larger than life character who struggles for what he wants but is blind to his own flaws, especially hubris. It also reminded me of other stories like The Mayor of Casterbridge or Maestro Don Gesualdo with other similar leads (I hesitate to call them heroes). We don’t necessarily like them, but we feel for them and pity their inevitable fate.

This is on the Guardian list (State of the Nation) and on the 1001 Books list. I can’t believe it’s only my third this year. I want to read more classics, but somehow they’re never the first thing I reach for. I’ll have to work on changing that.

Published in: on June 23, 2011 at 6:47 pm  Leave a Comment  
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