Tag Archives: book reviews

bookmarked for fall

As we slide into fall and I pull out my warm socks – not for today but a future and cooler California afternoon –  I’ve got an evergrowing list of books I’m looking forward to diving into.

I just finished “Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet” by Jamie Ford as part of my book club selection. I couldn’t put it down.


A debut novel for this author, it’s a story of friendship and young love between a Chinese boy and Japanese girl and the struggle of family and cultural conflict between generations. The story is set in Seattle and recreates the city’s history during WWII, the part it played in the internment of Japanese Americans and how the internment affected its people, city and jazz scene.  I was so moved by the book that immediately after finishing it, I located the author’s email and dropped him a note about how much I loved the book and how wonderful it would be to see as a movie some day. Jamie Ford emailed me right back thanking me for my message and wrote that he is close to selecting a film option, although there is never guarantee for the actual production. He did say, however, that this weekend he would be in Seattle for the opening of a stage adaptation of the novel, so if any readers live in the area, it’s worth checking out!

Next up….

Jess Walter’s “Beautiful Ruins” has been given excellent reviews by both the NY Times and NPR and many literary blogs I read. The book is described as “constantly surprising” as the reader follows the tangled lives of characters aspiring for love and success. The story bounces seamlessly between past and present across a span of 40 years  – from 1960s Italy to Hollywood,  Edinburgh and Idaho. “A dazzling, yet deeply human, roller coaster of a novel”….It’s caught my attention!

As a sort of follow-up to Adam Gopnik’s “The Table Comes First” that I recently read, I am looking forward to getting a copy of “La Seduction: How the French Play the Game of Life”. Written by Elaine Sciolino, a former Paris bureau chief for The New York Times, it explores why seduction (the term used broadly – for a person or a baguette) and pleasure is the heart of French life.

Thanks to ciao domenica blog’s never-to-disappoint book recommendations, I am adding to my already full shelf of Edith Wharton books by including Jennie Field’s “The Age of Desire” on this list. The novel imagines Wharton’s illicit affair at age 45 with young journalist Morton Fullerton. I have been drawn to Wharton’s writing since my early 20s because of her social insight, irony, travels and her escape for expat life.

And, last, I am planning to read this season any travel book about Quebec City and the environs where we will be heading next summer when we visit Eastern Canada. Any suggestions, do share!


la bella lingua

One of the best things about being back in Italy was speaking Italian again. Like riding a bicycle, words we haven’t spoken in years were plucked up from somewhere deep down, and we found ourselves effortlessly communicating again in our adopted language at dinner parties, restaurants and other countless conversations with old friends. My Italian isn’t too sophisticated –  I often take the easy road by constructing  sentences around the easier grammar tenses while my husband is much braver – but it was back. Using the formal Lei without a missed beat. Extending long greetings when you say goodbye to someone. Buon Giorno, salve, ciao, ci vediamo, grazie a lei, arriverderci, a  domani!  Getting in a heated argument- which feels even better in Italian – at the best place for a fight, a ticket booth line at an Italian train station. The Italian language is old, complicated, challenging, and different depending where in Italy you are  – but pays off as the most beautiful, expressive and delightful language to speak.

Confirming my love for the Italian language, I just finished “La Bella Lingua” by Dianne Hales.

“Learning a new language is like growing a new head…You see with new eyes, hear with new ears, speak with a new tongue.” – La Bella Lingua

  Right before our trip, I picked this book up at our local bookstore with the intimate knowledge that it’s always a gamble when choosing a novel from the travel section. But this is the real deal.

Ms. Hales has done her homework (and more). The book is a love story to the Italian language, providing anecdotes through her experiences living and traveling in Italy and pursuits in studying the language. Her über thorough research reveals interesting and little known aspects of Italy’s history, literature and culture, and demonstrates how several key Italians and scholarly groups – past and present – have contributed to helping the language develop and survive.  This book has inspired me to search at the local library for “The Divine Comedy” (or “Divina Commedia”)  by Dante Aligheri,  any film by De Sica, and the opera Madama Butterfly (which I was surprised to learn  opened in 1904 at Milan’s La Scala and bombed, then reopened in Brescia,  where we lived for several years, to then triumph in Paris and around the world!) 

Hales makes the point that while a unified Italy is fairly new, the Italian language  – which has served as  the great unifier – is very old. The 14th century dialect of Florence – the language of Dante Aligheri himself – is little changed and what is taught and spoken in Italy today.  English may be the language everyone needs to know, Hales writes, but Italian is the language people want to learn. With only 60 – 63 million native speakers Italian barely eclipses Urdu, Pakistan’s official language for 19th place as a spoken tongue. Yet Italian ranks fourth among the world’s most studied language. (Only four countries other than Italy recognize Italian as an official language.) The soaring popularity of the language is hardly surprising, she writes, with its exported food, fashion, art, architecture, music and culture … and I’ll add, Italian boyfriends.

For lovers of Italian – those of us who have lived or traveled to Italy and keep going back, who are fascinated with Italy’s history and culture and protagonists, and consider ourselves lifelong students of Italian,  “La Bella Lingua” shares our passion and provides a new perspective and adventure through the world’s most enchanting language.

Next up: My favorite study Italian abroad schools in Italy

discovering expats of the 1920s

This summer I was stuck in 1920s Paris.  Not a bad place to be really. It started when I saw the movie Midnight in Paris, and next, reading the wonderful historical fiction book, The Paris Wife, about Ernest Hemingway and expat Paris life through the imagined eyes of his first wife, Hadley Richardson Hemingway.

While it’s a welcome break from Renaissance Italy (see my previous post about my favorite books set in Italy ), I admit I  go completely crazy overboard have the slightest tendency to obsess when it comes to learning and reading about a particular period in history, especially when it 1)happens in one of my favorite European cities and 2) is filled with writers, cafes and expats.

So because I am completely intrigued by Hemingway at the moment (I know there must have been a sensitive soul behind the game hunting, boxing, and bullfighting), and I love his spare writing and consider myself a part of the expat community  (past and present), I’m reading anything I can get my hands on from him about  “the lost generation” – those expat artists and writers of the ’20s that changed American art and literature.

The expat lifestyle is charmed,  I think those of you who are expats (or ex-expats like me) would agree. You meet people you normally don’t. You do things and have special privileges you wouldn’t back home .I found myself playing croquet in all white, at a villa that belonged to Mussolini. (hello?) But present day expat life doesn’t hold a candle to what was going on in Paris in the 1920s. Picasso. Dali. Zelda and F. Scott Fitzgerald. Ezra Pound. Hemingway.  The Murphy’s Villa America in the Cap d’Antibes.They hung out in cafes and ate oysters, and wrote, and partied. Apparently, the American dollar went much farther in those days. They drank absinthe.

Here are some of my favorite reads and resources to start discovering fellow expats from the 1920s through the eyes of Ernest and Hadley Hemingway.

The Paris Wife

Hadley Hemingway, Ernest Hemingway’s first wife (or “Paris” wife) was with him prior to publishing his first book, when they were poor, or as Hemingway says, before the rich arrived and everything changed. (she is in the middle of the picture). Through this book, we can imagine Ernest Hemingway as seen by his first wife, who adored him, but later was forced to let him go when he fell in love with another woman (how dare you, Pauline??).

The Moveable Feast

This book was written much later in Hemingway’s life as a memoir of sorts about his time in Paris in the 20s,  It is a series of sketches  about other famous writers, artists, and those in the Paris expat social scene from Hemingway’s point of view (and memory). It’s also tragic,  as it reads as a sort of love poem to first wife Hadley about a life he clearly idealized with her. Many years later he acknowledges he “wishes he died before he loved anyone other than Hadley.”  Note: There are two published editions. The most current is supposed to be the most accurate, since the book was not completed before he took his life (and his grandson believes the editor, Hemingway’s wife at the time, did not represent his work as he would have wanted). And if you only read one chapter, read the one when he first met F. Scott Fitzgerald and later they go on a road trip together outside Paris. It is hilarious.

The Hemingway Project (web site)

I found this web site when trying to research more about Hadley. You can listen to actual audio tapes of Hadley (as an older woman) talking about her life with Ernest Hemingway in the ’20s. Hearing her voice over the crackles of an old audio cassette, is thrilling, particularly after reading The Paris Wife. Other than this website and the book, I can’t find an image or other information about her following her marriage with Hemingway, which leads me to believe she  lived a very private life in her later years. (UPDATE** I have found two photos of Hadley as an older woman in the biography, Hadley, by Gioia Diliberto)

The Sun Also Rises 

 Published in 1926 and one of Hemingway’s first successes-  The Sun Also Rises is another book that allows you a peek into the lost generation, based on a 30-something reckless group of American and British expats (sound familiar?) traveling to Spain to watch bullfighting. The characters are based on real people and action based on actual events.

Midnight in Paris teases us about the very human tendency to be nostalgic for the past, with a gentle reminder to live in the present. I plan to do that. Right after I move on to Gertrude Stein.