Mercury Pictures Presents, by Anthony Marra

I’ve come to expect great things of Anthony Marra, after being absolutely blown away by his debut A Constellation of Vital Phenomena and The Tsar of Love and Techno. Mercury Pictures Presents has some of the same elements as those other books—meticulously recreated historical setting, characters who are called on to sacrifice themselves to save others, epic plots—it has something I haven’t seen before. This book has an acid sense of humor. So many character descriptions and bits of dialogue had me chortling despite the dangers faced by the book’s cast of characters. I hope Marra starts to get more critical and bookish attention; he is a treasure.

Mercury Pictures Presents is all about facades: emotional, physical, and documentary. Every one of the major characters (and nearly all of the minor ones) presents a front to the world that hides their fears, sorrows, regrets, and anger. We, the readers, are among the few who get to see behind the facades to understand what’s really going on. The narrative takes us from pre-World War II Italy to wartime Los Angeles to the end of the war. The first protagonist we meet, Maria Lagana, is a young girl who hasn’t learned to be wary of the world. In an effort to protect her communist father, she attempts to burn drafts of legal documents he’s written to try and free people who’ve been caught on the wrong side of Mussolini‘s regime. She is caught before she can finish but her father pays the price. Once the authorities learn what’s in those papers, Giuseppe Lagana is sent into internal exile, from Rome to rural Calabria. This sharp, brutal lesson in the necessity of keeping secrets shapes Maria for the rest of her life, even after she emigrates to the United States with her mother.

Adult Maria gets a job at the struggling Mercury Pictures. Mercury used to be great but they’re fighting a losing battle against Hays Code censors and the major studios. They’re barely hanging on to B-grade status. Maria excels at marketing and sneaking things past the censor. That said, she wants more. She wants to be a producer. She wants to have a better relationship with her mother. She wants her Chinese American boyfriend to have better roles than the awful typecast characters that are the only thing on offer for actors of Asian descent. She wants to know if her father, who she hasn’t seen in over a decade, is alive or dead.

The rest of the cast in this book are all connected to Maria in some way and they are also all struggling between keeping up appearances and their own dreams. Her boss, Artie, is always trying to return Mercury to its glory days. We see his latest attempt: turning the studio into a propaganda machine to earn money from the War Department. Meanwhile, an old acquaintance from Italy has to hide under an assumed name and dodge restrictions on enemy aliens to try and become a great photographer. A hapless (and hilarious) detective in fascist Italy scrambles to protect people from his own government. Maria’s boyfriend Eddie Lu begins to loathe himself for sacrificing his integrity in order to get work. All of these plots and subplots are beautifully executed. Marra is a master of psychologically rich character development.

This summary doesn’t come close to accurately conveying the scope and depth of Mercury Pictures Presents. I hope something here sparks your interest because, as I mentioned above, I don’t think Marra is getting nearly the attention he deserves for his incredible, emotionally wrenching, and highly entertaining novels.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley, for review consideration.

The Patron Saint of Second Chances, by Christine Simon

Sometimes, you just need to read something silly, something that puts a smile on your face and lets your brain relax. The Patron Saint of Second Chances, by Christine Simon, is exactly that kind of book. This book has one of the most ludicrous plots I’ve ever read and I enjoyed every page of it. I wasn’t worried about what would happen in the end—because like so many of the characters—I had faith that it would all work out. I don’t consider myself nearly as religious as protagonist Nino Speranza (whose surname means hope in Italian), who searches out saints to help him with his various problems, but I do believe that there’s someone looking out for fools trying to do good deeds.

Speranza is the mayor of the declining Italian village of Prometto (“I promise,” in Italian), although the villagers come to him with problems about their dogs more often than they do about real problems. As The Patron Saint of Second Chances opens, Speranza is dealing with an actual problem. An official has just found serious problems with the village’s plumbing. If Prometto can’t pay the 60,000 Euro repair bill, its water supply will be cut off and the villagers relocated elsewhere. Prometto would be no more. Speranza breaks into a desperate, furtive panic that lasts nearly the entire course of the novel. He decides not to tell anyone as he works out a way to save Prometto. This turns out to be a good thing as Speranza’s plan is, essentially, lying his ass off to everyone in the village.

The big lie Speranza tells is that Dante Rinaldi, the current hunk-du-jour of Italian cinema, is coming to Prometto to make a film. (This lie is based on a story a sketchy friend tells him about a neighboring town that experienced a surprise boom when it was rumored that George Clooney was going to buy a house there.) Like all big lies, Speranza’s story quickly spirals out of control. His assistant at his vacuum repair business transforms himself into a screenwriter and director and actor (standing in until Dante arrives). His daughter offers to do make-up. The richest man in town is conned out of most of the cost of the repair for the promise that Speranza will put his most handsome son in the movie. The first person to start asking questions is the village priest, but Speranza becomes very adept at dodging his old friend.

I know that there’s no way that Speranza will get away with his mad scheme, of course, but I hoped that he would be able to get along with it long enough to be able to save Prometto for at least a few more years. He tap-dances just as fast as he can and he, along with his assistant Smilzo, seem to have just enough daft luck to make it possible that they might be able to pull it off. I won’t ruin the ending and tell you all whether or not that happens. Instead, I’ll just say that the ending is the cherry on top of this confection of a novel.

If your brain needs a little getaway to small-town Italy, I recommend The Patron Saint of Second Chances.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss for review consideration.

The Latinist, by Mark Prins

Ever since she was a teenager and fell in love with Roman poetry, Tessa has wanted to be a Classics scholar. By the time we meet her in The Latinist, by Mark Prins, Tessa is about to complete her Ph.D. at Oxford University after climbing her way up the academic ladder. Once she has her Ph.D., she can get a position at another university and make her mark on the scholarly scene. Except that no one seems to want to hire Tessa, despite her stellar track record, and she seems trapped in a highly ironic retelling of the story of Daphne and Apollo. I was utterly hooked by this book. I raced through it because I just had to know if the story would end differently this time.

Tessa lives a life that would seem circumscribed by non-academic standards. She tutors students studying the Classics at Westfaling College (a fictional college at Oxford University). She works on her dissertation about Ovid’s version of the Apollo and Daphne story in Metamorphoses. And she assists Chris, her thesis advisor, as he continues to expand his reputation as a pre-eminent Classicist. She’s either at Westfaling, the Bodleian Library, or her apartment. She lives an ordinary, scholarly life until she receives an anonymous email claiming to contain the real version of Chris’s letter of recommendation that’s been going out with her job applications to British and American universities. It is a devastating document that, if true, is torpedoing her academic career before it even begins. It also detonates Tessa and Chris’s relationship; she no longer trusts him to help her climb the academic ladder.

Bernini’s Apollo and Daphne, 1625 (Image via Wikicommons)

What follows is (at least for me and other fans of university lit) a gripping, dramatic chase between Tessa and Chris. Because part of this story is narrated by Chris, we know that he loves Tessa. He doesn’t want her to leave him. Even worse, we learn that Chris has been breaking some rules in order to get closer to Tessa. The letter of recommendation is Tessa’s first clue that not everything is as it seems with Chris, but he starts to unravel when she starts to ask questions. His behavior drives Tessa away and, in another ironic twist, pushes her towards an incredible academic discovery that will help her eclipse her mentor. Because I knew that Tessa’s story was supposed to be a retelling of Daphne’s, I felt a lot of tension as I waited for the dramatic transformation that would either mean that Tessa will be free of Chris or destroyed by him.

The retelling at the center of The Latinist is not the only thing going on. There are side plots and Tessa’s deeply satisfying discovery, meditations on mortality and honesty, true love and ironic love and infatuation, the scholarly record, sexism, and so many other topics that I would love to delve into someone. There was so much going on—and I was reading so fast—that I’m going to have to read this book again. And I was so entertained by it that I know I won’t mind a bit.

I really, really enjoyed this book.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley, for review consideration.

The Vietri Project, by Nicola DeRobertis-Theye

Gabriele’s life has been on hold up until now. Sure, she’s got a college degree, a steady boyfriend, and had a decent (if low-paying) job at a bookstore. But when that steady boyfriend suddenly proposes marriage at the beginning of The Vietri Project, by Nicola DeRobertis-Theye, something becomes unmoored in Gabriele. She dumps the boyfriend and follows a wild hair to Rome. This novel is a slow journey not just to Rome but also to Gabriele finally realizing who she wants to be.

Years ago, right about when she turned twenty-five, Gabriele’s mother developed schizophrenia. It takes her some time to figure it out, but Gabriele finally recognizes that she’s been avoiding big commitments until she hits her own twenty-fifth birthday. The surprise marriage proposal that Gabriele doesn’t want to accept sends her out of the apartment she was sharing with her boyfriend and into a strange project: to find the Signor Vietri of Rome who ordered hundreds of strange, obscure books from the shop where she used to work. All Gabriele can remember is his address. She’s never directly corresponded with Signor Vietri, let alone talked to him over the phone. But she just has to know what Vietri wanted with all those books.

The descriptions of Vietri’s reading list hooked me on The Vietri Project. So it was surprising to learn—after the first chapter or so—that this novel was not about a book mystery. Instead, we see Gabriele arrive in Rome, fail to find Signor Vietri, and instead end up reconnecting with her mother’s family and learning to live beyond age twenty-five. I was a little stunned by this literary bait-and-switch. I was a little irked. (I really wanted to know what Vietri was up to with all those books of the dead and spiritualist books.) Once I let got of my expectations and let Gabriele follow her inclinations, I started to enjoy her quirky journey.

The Vietri Project is unlike most journey-of-discovery stories I’ve ever read. The plot sneaks up on you, because I’m fairly sure that Gabriele didn’t know what she was doing when she climbed on a plane for Italy. Because I had no clue what Gabriele was going to do next, I felt myself slowing down and looking around the scenery like the protagonist was doing. Reading The Vietri Project was almost like going on a bookish vacation myself.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley, for review consideration.

The Marquise of O—, by Heinrich von Kleist

Trigger warning for references to rape.

The only good thing I can say about Heinrich von Kleist’s The Marquise of O— is that it’s short. Originally published in 1808, this book is very much a product of its time. Modern readers will, at best, describe this book as problematic and unfeminist. Others, like me, will call it rape apologia. I picked this book up because I had hoped it would tell me an unusual story of a woman taking charge of her circumstances. The ending of this story put paid to that hope by doubling down on shame and keeping up appearances.

Julietta, the eponymous Marquise, is a widow with two children, living with her brother and parents in M—. M— is attacked by a troop of Russians one day as part of what I’m pretty sure are the Napoleonic Wars. In the attack, Julietta is assaulted by Russians, then rescued by Count F—, who is described in heroic and dashing terms. Nothing is explicit in this section of the book, but we know what happened (even if Julietta does not) because the Marquise finds herself pregnant. When the pregnancy is confirmed by a doctor and a midwife, Julietta’s father throws her out of the house and tries to take her children away from her. All of this happens while Count F— is trying to get Julietta to marry him, claiming that he is passionately in love with her.

All of my sympathy in this book is with Julietta. Count F— throws up red flag after red flag while he pursues Julietta in spite of her many refusals. A little background reading in Wikipedia revealed that The Marquise of O— is an example of a genre trope that has rightly be abandoned to history: the forced seduction. I hoped and hoped that Julietta would be allowed to live independently, free of the social conventions that push her into marrying her rapist. Von Kleist, apparently, was not brave enough to break those social conventions even in fiction.

I do not recommend this book. Leave it to history’s bookshelf, way at the back, behind all the better books that don’t try to turn rape into a love story.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley, for review consideration.

Lavinia, by Ursula K. Le Guin

When I was an undergraduate, I took a classical literature class in which I read the Iliad, the Odyssey, and the Aenied (at least, enough of the content to get the gist of things, otherwise I would have gone blind). What I remember is a lot of stabbing, gods ex machinaing, and women being treated like pawns. I was not a fan. So when I heard that Ursula Le Guin gave voice to a woman who wasn’t given dialogue in The Aenied in Lavinia, I jumped to read it, to see what she would say for herself.

Lavinia is a historical figure, but between Virgil and Roman founding myths, we don’t know much about it. Le Guin discusses in her notes at the end of the book that, even with all the research she did, she still had to exercise her imagination to fill in the gaps. Then, she added a layer of Le Guin master story-telling. Near the beginning of Lavinia, the woman herself begins to hear the voice of a dying poet who tells Lavinia what’s going to happen to her in the coming months and years. We know that this poet is Virgil. (I loved the comment by the poet about being in a dark, dark wood.) All Lavinia knows is what’s expected of her as the daughter of the king of Latium. She knew that she would be married to another high-ranking man…and she is not thrilled with the choices. The words of the poet, who told her that she would marry a powerful man from the defeated Troy, comes as a relief to Lavinia. That said, she’s not thrilled when she finds out that her marriage to Aeneas will also launch a devastating war.

Lavinia, from De mulieribus claris de Boccace c. 1360s (Image via Wikicommons)

There are a couple of points in Lavinia, when Lavinia asks a man why they’re fighting over such small things or why being a soldier is so glorious. More than once, she’s told that these are women’s questions. Virgil recounts who will kill who and how in a litany that strongly reminded of passages from the Iliad. I can easily imagine ancient Greek and Roman men listening, nodding their heads and admiring at the acts of heroism. For Lavinia—and me as a reader—I just saw violence and senseless death. In contrast, Lavinia is a different kind of hero. She’s the kind of hero who asks why, who asks what the right thing to do is, and who helps pick up the pieces after things go to hell more than once. Of course, no one thanks her for this.

I wish that Lavinia had had a few more intertextual elements. These get lost as the novel progresses and I missed them. I really got a kick out of Lavinia talking back to Virgil and seeing how Virgil’s words played out in Lavinia’s reality. She introduces herself as a fictional creation, but this idea got lost as Le Guin brings Lavinia back to technicolor life. I’m only picking at this nit because I, personally, love stories about stories and about choices authors make about what to include. I daresay there are more readers out there will enjoy this book because of what it is: a chance for a woman who once existed, who we only know because of a poem, to finally speak for herself.

The Oracle of Cumae, by Melissa Hardy

Melissa Hardy’s hilarious novel, The Oracle of Cumae, is set up as a story, within a story, within a story, and sometimes within yet another story. It begins with a very old woman sending for a priest. She doesn’t want to confess. Mariuccia Umbellino is very clear about that. She just wants to tell her story before she passes away. Her story is later transcribed, a generation or so later, by a woman who tells us she doesn’t believe a word of it.

Before Mariuccia became the 99-year-old matriarch of the Bacigalupo clan and business, she was a young girl from the mountains of central Italy. Her family raised goats and harvested olives. They had a good life, considering they never really left their mountain. Part of their good luck came from the fact that the ancient Oracle of Cumae (yep, still alive) fled to their mountain caves over a millennia ago. The Cumaean Sibyl dispenses advice and wisdom to the women of the mountain, though it doesn’t always work out the way it should.

Mariuccia’s comedy of errors begins when a cranky priest and a pompous merchant show up at their farm, with orders from the pope to dynamite the Sybil’s cave and exorcise the elderly oracle. Of course, the family and the villagers can’t allow this…but Mariuccia’s mother also sees the arrival of outsiders to marry off her eldest daughter, Mariuccia’s sister. And that’s where things start to go sideways. Terribly and hilariously sideways.

The Oracle of Cumae is one of the funniest, most unexpected book I’ve read in a long time. If you’re looking for a bit of goofiness with a wonderfuly down-to-earth protagonist, I strongly recommend this book. I read it yesterday afternoon and I’m still grinning.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley, for review consideration.

Journeys, by Stefan Zweig

Stefan Zweig’s writing seems to be everywhere since The Grand Budapest Hotel came out. Zweig was an essayist, journalist, and short story writer who, sadly committed suicide in 1942 after being exiled from his native Austria in 1935. His sensitive writings don’t have quite the quirkiness fans of the Wes Anderson movie, but I have found them to be an incredible view into European life before World War II and World War I. In Journeys (excellently translated by Will Stone from the collection, Auf Reisen). I think this is the third or fourth collection of republished Zweig writings I’ve seen since 2014.

In Journeys, Zweig takes us along on his travels around western Europe from 1902 to 1939. The earliest essays (although feuilleton might be a better description of these short pieces of nonfiction) show us Ostend, Bruges, Avignon, Arles, Seville, London, and Antwerp before World War I, when the cities were summer vacation spots for the upper classes. Zweig attempts to capture the character of each place (Bruges felt isolated and somewhat melancholy, apparently) or reflect on how its history brought it from a major city to a backwater (Avignon).

After a gap from 1915-1917, the tone shifts. In one piece, “Requiem for a Hotel,” Zweig laments that an inn that has run since medieval times in Zürich has been turned into a tax office. In the next one, “Return to Italy,” Zweig grows even more nostalgic that the old ways of traveling and vacationing have been industrialized and lost much of their charm. While Zweig seems to find a few remaining pockets of local individuality in places like Dijon, he seems saddened by the fact that people are going to these amazing places simply to have been to those places rather than to experience them in the moment. Visiting the Louvre or the Leaning Tower of Pisa are seen by these tourists as box to tick rather than objects to marvel and ponder.

In the last two pieces, both sent in London and written in the late 1930s, Zweig gives us something completely different. Where the first essays were focused on relaxation and enchantment, it’s clear that war is not just coming to change everything again: war is already here. Reading from almost 80 years remove, we know what’s going to happen and can lament with Zweig that whatever vestiges of old Europe still remain might not last another terrible conflict. These pieces were also tough for me to read because I knew how Zweig’s own journey would end.

After reading Journeys, I think I would have loved to stroll the streets of pre-war Arles or look for medieval remnants in Antwerp or Seville with him as he occasionally pointed out a bit of history or asked a question about a city’s mood. Zweig never struck me as a lecturer. Instead, he’s a thoughtful man who sees cities as alive as he travels through them. I would definitely recommend this collection to readers who wonder what life was like in Europe before the wars. Even limited to paper, Zweig is a wonderful guide.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley, for review consideration.

A postcard of Ostend (“The beach and the grand hotels”), c. 1915 (Image via Wikicommons)

Notes for bibliotherapeutic use: Recommend to readers who are looking to practice mindful reading. This book is perfect.

The Map of Knowledge, by Violet Moller

In The Map of Knowledge, Violet Moller traces the transmission of knowledge from the ancient Mediterranean, via the Abbasid and Umayyad caliphates and centuries of scholars and translators, from 500 CE to the European Renaissance. This summary might sound a little dry, but Moller’s semi-conversational style and the content made her overview of a thousand years of history highly readable. Outside of academia, I don’t know that many people know how much of a debt we Westerners owe to the ancient world. The ancient Greek and Graeco-Egyptian scholars gave us (again, Westerners) our start on the scientific method, philosophy, geometry, medicine, and so many other topics. We would have lost so much if it hadn’t been for medieval Arab scholars and translators. At the same time, however, I lament what we lost anyway to time and deliberate destruction.

Moller was inspired to write this book while working on her dissertation. She visited the library of Dr. John Dee, an Elizabethan polymath, who helped create an English translation of a hugely influential book: Euclid‘s The Elements. She started to think about the long journey the text had taken for the centuries and dug into the historical and bibliographic history of The Elements; The Almagest, an astronomical text by Claudius Ptolmey; and the physician Galen‘s enormous body of work. Even though Ptolemy and Galen have been subject to heavy revision since the Renaissance, these three books represent the ancient foundation of a lot of Western science and thought. Moller begins her chronology in Alexandria, an early center of scholarship and learning—as well as a particularly aggressive book acquisition program that makes me, as a librarian, blush.

From Alexandria, which collapsed as a place of scholarship by 500 CE, Moller begins her historical journey around the Mediterranean and the Middle East. She charts the rise and fall of what she begins to call, Houses of Wisdom, after the name of a loose confederation of scholars and scientists in her first stop after Alexandria: Baghdad, the capital of the Abbasid caliphate. Moller takes us from Baghdad to Córdoba, the Umayyad capital; to Toledo; Salerno, Italy; Palermo; and finally Venice. As she jumps time and place, Moller gives us the names (as far as we know) of the people who made it possible for us to have as much as we do of our ancient texts. She finishes up with the European invention of moveable type and printing, a critical innovation that helped fuel the Renaissance.

As she makes her way through time and space, Moller develops her thesis of what is needed to create new knowledge on the scale of ancient Alexandria. She argues that tolerance, political stability, and a strong support for learning are vital to create communities like what is now called La Convivencia, a period of time when Córdoba flourished under the Umayyads. Sadly, these convivencias seem to last shorter and shorter periods of time (at least in this account) as outside invaders or internal strife tear it all down. I wondered more than once where we would be now, as a species, if these cultures hadn’t been interrupted all the time or if later translators hadn’t erased the new knowledge and corrections Arab scholars had added to the ancient texts.

The Map of Knowledge may not be for everyone. For bookish folk with a historical bent, however, this is a wonderful read. Even for me, who fits that bill, I enjoyed this book more than I expected. I appreciated that Moller doesn’t talk about these texts as objects for book hunters—who tend to value books because they are old or rare. Instead, she very much keeps her focus on the value of the content. It shouldn’t matter what language they’re in or if they in a beautiful binding or not; the words are the most important thing because they are what transmit knowledge through time and make it possible for us to “stand on the shoulders of giants.”*

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley, for review consideration.

The Mosque-Cathedral of Córdoba, Spain (Image via Wikicommons)

*Quote attributed to Bernard of Chartres.

The Temptation to Be Happy, by Lorenzo Marone

Trigger warning for domestic violence.

Lorenzo Marone’s The Temptation to Be Happy (excellently translated by Shaun Whiteside) is masquerading as grump lit*. The book opens with an old widower who doesn’t get along with just about anyone. Cesare Annuziato’s life turns around when he decides to start helping people out—in his own off-kilter fashion. Even though this book gets darker than most of that genre, it still ends on an uplifting note. I needed a book like this after reading The Wolf and the Watchman.

Cesare is seventy-seven years old when we meet him, living alone in his apartment in Naples. His children have moved on with their lives. His son, Dante, is gay and everyone knows, except he hasn’t officially come out to Cesare. Sveva is a clearly unhappy lawyer, mother, and wife. His neighbors include the cat hoarder, Eleonora; his old co-worker, Marino; and the newly arrived Emma and her abusive husband. As The Temptation to Be Happy rolls on, we learn more about each and watch as Cesare is finally drawn into their problems as he comes out of his asocial shell—more out of irritation than altruism, because he can’t stand to see people keep screwing up their lives anymore.

This book is very much about happiness, but in ways that belie Tolstoy’s truism about happy and unhappy families. For a long time, Cesare chased happiness. He believes that a new job or a new lover would do the trick. It never did, so he fell back into his old job as an accountant and his family life. Nothing, he finally learned, could really make him happy so much as the little pleasures of life. The pages in which Cesare lists the things he likes at the end of the book are incredibly moving after the turmoil and sadness of the book up to that point. Nothing makes everyone happy. Everyone has their own individual joys in life; we just have to find them.

In addition to its lessons about the individual, occasionally selfish nature of the pursuit of happiness, The Temptation to Be Happy also has a lot to say about not wasting time on white lies, not speaking up for yourself, not tolerating rudeness, and accepting that we can’t save someone who doesn’t want to be saved. This was a wise book, wrapped up in stories that feel emotionally honest to stop the whole thing from being mawkish or facile. I enjoyed it so much I just devoured the thing.

* Think of A Man Called Ove, by Frederik Backman, and books like the ones on this list from Get Literary.