WW Norton, 2008, $21.95
Some places are especially freighted with enchantment. Just the word Italy has a sensuous fluidity on the tongue, a hint of wine and warmth and operatic passions, deliciously foreign. And if that sounds like a nice change, but you can’t quite muster the time and/or funds, take comfort: Sicily and Capri—two of the most Italian of places—are no farther than the nearest bookseller’s.
Woodstock resident Gioia Timpanelli, a master oral storyteller, won the National Book Award for Sometimes the Soul. Her Sicily is a place steeped in a sort of free-range magic of the everyday, and her clever and good-hearted hero Joseph definitely lives in its flow. Poverty and family conflict complicate young Joseph’s life, but he’s a fortunate child, and when the murder of his best friend and the perfidy of brothers and politicians gets him exiled to no man’s land, he carves a niche for himself.
He’s been raised with the wisdom of elders and old tales, so when he sees a chance, he takes it. Meeting an ally in the person of a gruff, tough genius of an old woman, he recognizes and reveres her. (“Not a fairy godmother, no, not that kind, but one who knows how to battle demons. Lucky me, who found such an old woman in a den of theives and murderers, but then where else would I have found her?”) Taking the lore of the ancients to heart, Joseph brings his adventure to a fruitful conclusion, relating this story as an older man looking back on his life. Ah, yes—courage and cleverness, loyalty and hard work, the virtues the old tales paint so vividly. What makes a reader lucky? A new Timpanelli tale to get lost in.
The Night Villa
Random House, 2008, $14
Goodman’s exotica is also a time trip, jumping all the way back the eve of the eruption of Vesuvius in the year 79, after an opening that could have been yanked from last week’s headlines: “Bitter Ex-Boyfriend Opens Fire at Texas Campus.” It’s to get past this trauma that Goodman’s likeable college professor protagonist, Sophie, heads off to Capri on a research expedition.
The expedition is fated to be an adventure from the very first, with a twisted cast list including Agnes, the shy student with whom Bitter Ex was obsessed; Elgin, the studly professor who once floated Sophie’s boat (and may now have his eye on vulnerable young Agnes); the Mysterious Rich Sponsor; the taciturn older woman of uncertain loyalties. Just watching this gang cavort around a villa might be entertaining, but as this is written by award-winning mystery author Carol Goodman, plots thicken. A series of ancient papyrus scrolls reveals an equally engaging set of characters in the first century, about to enact mystery rites, with no clue that they will soon be engulfed by ash and molten lava.
There is skullduggery afoot in both eras and plotlines, and an enormous good time. Former Hudson Valley resident Goodman accelerates smoothly, leaving you hanging on for dear life through a series of hairpin turns in ancient underground tunnels with your hair standing on end.
Like a mountain road experienced in a Ferrari with a real pro at the wheel, both books leave the reader exhilarated, with a sense of time well spent.
Gioia Timpanelli will read from What Makes a Child Lucky at Oblong Books in Rhinebeck on October 3 at 7:30pm.