Monday, July 28, 2014

Adventures in "giallo" literature

I believe in getting to the airport early for an international flight, but for various reasons I was outrageously early for my flight out of Fiumicino, meaning that I got to investigate all the shops at my leisure (and my wallet's peril). This included a Feltrinelli's outlet -- the Waterstones or Barnes & Noble of Italy -- which had a single, but generous, table of books in Inglese. This is an interesting thing, the forty or so titles in English that make up the selection in an airport bookstore; what would you choose and/or expect? In this case, there were the usual sorts of things, I guess, the supernatural romances, the pinky-purple chick lit, the conspiracy thrillers, the award short-list titles; but also, and I thought this was a nice touch, a selection of novels with Italian connections, whether written by Italians or simply set in Italy. And among these was a detective novel translated from Italian which sounded pretty interesting, but I virtuously chose not to spend my money in such a fashion (and promptly went and spent four times as much-- look, I don't have to explain myself to you). Having arrived home, I tried asking google what that book was so I could look for it at the library, and google suggested the Inspector Montalbano series by Andrea Camilleri. Now, I think the Big G is wrong, I don't think Camilleri is the author I saw at the airport--

"Wish you had Glass now, eh?" - no, really no
--but Camilleri was readily available at the library and so I took out The Shape of Water, the first of this apparently much-loved series.

A man is found dead of a heart attack in his car, parked in an area notorious for prostitution. But of course, the dead man was a political heavyweight, this is Sicily, and it's a crime novel, so it's not so simple as all that.
"Wonderful, eh?"
"I'm sorry, I don't understand."
"It's wonderful, that is, that someone in this fine province of ours should decide to die a natural death and thereby set a good example. Don't you think? Another two or three deaths like Luparello's and we'll start catching up with the rest of Italy."
I found it interesting that the tagline on my edition is a novel of food, wine, and homicide in small-town Sicily, which makes it sound sort of travelogue-esque; plenty of murder mysteries trade on readers'/viewers' interest in the setting, serving up atmosphere along with a puzzle.* In fact, The Shape of Water is a fairly sordid little story of sex, politics, scandal, and death, and while food features from time to time, I wouldn't say it's particularly prominent. The tagline may be drawing on the series as a whole rather than this particular installment.

I didn't call the book "gritty" there because the writing seemed a little too spare for that particular adjective. The quotes on the back compare Camilleri to Hammett and Chandler, so I have a vague notion that this is a matter of style. It wasn't my favorite; in a couple of places it felt flat rather than taut or hard-bitten or whatever. Nevertheless, there were parts that stood out, including passages that were genuinely funny, which as we all know is not easy to do.

At the end of the book I discovered endnotes which explained some of the political references and undercurrents and gave rough dollar values for the lire quoted in the text -- these notes were minimal and genuinely useful, or would have been if there were any indication in the text that they existed! Seriously, no asterisks or anything. Hopefully that was corrected in later editions; pity the translator who went to the trouble of compiling them if not.

In sum, this book didn't totally win me over but then it didn't turn me off either. I have another volume in the series (not the second one, but a later one) and I'm still going to read that one too. I didn't see anything here that would make me particularly love this series the way that readers in other languages apparently do, but neither did I dislike the book. Certainly Sicily makes a unique environment for crime stories, and I thought it was handled really well; I mean, I don't know what would actually be "realistic" but this didn't feel didactic or exoticized. I suppose that's one value of reading a translated book.

* Has anyone else seen Endeavor? The second series just aired on PBS. I never liked Inspector Morse much (although Lewis I like), but Endeavor is pretty gorgeous.

Saturday, July 19, 2014

Nothing to declare

I am back!

You probably didn't even know I was gone, but I was: two weeks in Rome. It was grand. (Unintentional Grand Tour pun? No one will believe it.) I had this fine book with me, letting me impress my friends with borrowed knowledge:

It's a bit heavy, being printed with colored pictures on nice paper, and the author sometimes seems to assume that just telling you the name of the architect or artist is enough, but it was a lifesaver enough times to make lugging it around worthwhile. The pages on the Vatican Museums were essential (omigosh the Vatican Museums are ENORMOUS) and unlike most guidebooks I looked at, this one gives plenty of time to all the zillions of churches you're obviously going to want to visit.

Even better, I bought this book with the gift card from when my Something Other Than God post won the drawing at Conversion Diary.

It's a major award!
Even if I had spent my own money though: worth it. I think I will be revisiting the Blue Guide series for future travels.

Now, I must get unpacked, do the laundry, and get reading something so I can post again in a reasonable interval. Hashtag: summer.