Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Feasts of Love

I've been in a particularly sentimental mood lately. Perhaps I needed a break from all the political upheaval and anger that's always brewing inside me. For whatever reason, I was so ready for the movie last week, The Feast of Love. I remembered how much the book by Charles Baxter had delighted me but I couldn't have told you the plot if my life depended on it. Ah fickle memory. I only knew that I put it down with a feeling of deep satisfaction and that sense one gets now and then that all's right with the world.
I had the same sensation (and I believe that Andrea did too) when we sat at the end of the movie, credits rolling, unwilling to get up and plunge right back into the real world. Baxter's book, you see, is a celebration of love in all its manifestations. It doesn't make judgments, it acknowledges hurt, loss, the pain of a "wrong" decision, a misplacement of trust, but it also espouses a philosophy that has kept me on an even keel in the past, which is that all of our choices, at least when it comes to love, are better than not giving it at all. There's no room for bitterness in the human heart.

That same theme is evident in all the writing of Robert Hellenga, another favorite of mine. I just burned through The Italian Lover in record time, at least for me. This book is a follow-up to Hellenga's The Sixteen Pleasures, the story of Margot Harrington, then an American college student, a "mud angel," who went to Florence to restore books after the terrible flooding of the Arno in the 1960's; a flood that decimated so many of the great works of art which had been displayed or housed in the churches and convents of this wonderful Renaissance city. Margot, Sandro, her much older Italian lover, and the city of Florence were equally compelling characters in the earlier book and Hellenga's cadre of fans were more than ready for "the rest of the story."

Margot, twenty-five years later, is a renowned book conservator whose life story is being made into a movie, The Italian Lover, by Esther Klein, a tough-talking, recently divorced producer. Esther is hell-bent on proving herself to the Hollywood power brokers who control the purse strings and to her ex-husband, the love of her life, who has left her for a twenty-something. She hires Miranda, a young insecure ingenue, to star alongside the much more sophisticated Italian actor Zanni, and brings in director Michael, who is quietly dying from prostate cancer. With him is his wife of many years, Beryl, an accomplished woman used to being able fix anything. As this menagerie decends upon Florence, filming in the convents, eating at the nearby restaurants and hiring local grips and cameramen, readers realize that Margot is the only one who doesn't understand that her dramatic screenplay is about to be turned into a romantic comedy.

There's no doubt that Hellenga is in love with Italy. He writes of each piazza and alleyway so that we can smell the garlic emmanating from the doorways. Even if you've never been there yourself, you can perfectly visualize the dogs romping outside Margot's apartment in the Piazza Santa Croce. But more than this, Hellenga loves his characters. Each quirky, self-absorbed, bright, caring person in Hellenga's books is someone you already know or truly want to know. They make decisions about their relationships that we may not understand but, as with Charles Baxter, there are no judgments put forth, no punishment for mistakes, just human beings trying to love one another as best they can. Finishing this book I felt the same deep satisfaction that I got from The Feast of Love. I sighed audibly.

Thursday, October 4, 2007

Thoughts on a few books....

I just finished a deceptively simple little novel recommended by my former boss (that sounds weird, doesn't it? Boss seems to have such a negative connotation) Linda Holland. She thought it might make a good choice for our book discussion group and I suspect that, even though I can't really say that I liked the book, she's right and it would.

A Hatred for Tulips by noted newpaper correspondent Richard Lourie is one of those books that asks a morally ambiguous question that can't be answered in a right or wrong way. The story revolves around two brothers. Joop, the narrator, has grown up and lived in Amsterdam, harboring a guilty knowledge that has affected his every waking minute for the past sixty years. His younger brother Willem left Amsterdam with his mother after the devastation of World War II and has led a fairly privileged, very American life.

Reunited after all these years, Joop and Willem sit down over drinks and try to find any common ground between them, something that would indicate that they are even related. In the course of the afternoon's reminiscing, Joop reveals his secret for the first time. Readers may be disturbed, even horrified, by what Joop has done, but the questions arise: how far will a person go to feed his starving family, to gain love and acceptance from one person in a world gone mad with bombing raids and death camps? No, I didn't "like" this book but it will make for a great discussion!

I may have mentioned previously in this blog that some of my friends and I are playing around with an online book discussion group. We very virtuously agreed that we'd all wanted to read Gabriel Garcia Marquez at some point in our reading life. A couple of weeks ago, albeit after a couple of glasses of wine and a heavy dinner, I sat down expecting to fall in love with 100 Years of Solitude. Snore. How does one get to be 58 years old and still have guilt because a "good" book doesn't knock one's socks off? Could it be that recovering Catholic thing? I was soooo relieved when I read on our discussion blog that my very intellectual friend Laura had the same reaction. Whew! She commented that magical realism definitely isn't her thing and the irony is that, in the hands of Laure Esquivel or Isabel Allende, I've always enjoyed that unusual convention. But with Marquez, not so much.

On the upside, I'm about half way through a deeply felt book by another author, one I'd often heard about but never read. Andre Brink's Before I Forget is a literary, erotic paean to women. Chris Minaar, a lawyer, political activist and writer, now in his 70's, examines the meaning of his life through the curtain of memory. Disheartened by the state of the world, the war in Iraq being the centerpiece, and numb over the recent death of a lover, Brink, through Minaar, offers the reader a glimpse into the heart and soul of a thinking man and it is a wondrous sight. Oh, would that I could even remotely dredge up such facility with the English language! I'm not even sure that it can be learned.

I'd love to quote some lines from this book but I'm at home and Brink is on my desk at the library. I may slip it in sometime tomorrow. Meanwhile, I've got to head to Muvico to meet Andrea for The Feast of Love - one of my all time favorite books and one of the many that are being brought to the "big screen" this fall. Yes, yes, it only got 2 stars in the "No-News News-Press" but we are nothing if not optimistic!