Sometimes when I look back over the past few books I’ve read, I notice a common thread running through them. Might be a particular time period or historical event, a theme whether big or small, or frequently, a locale. And that’s why one corner of The Front Table is currently draped in the green, white and red colors of the Italian flag.
When I was a teenager, I loved coming home from school to catch the afternoon’s classic movie on television. My favorites always featured laughing people on puttering Vespas or in tiny Isettas racing through a sun-drenched, if black-and-white, Italian landscape. Those films left me with the desire to go there, then. To Capri, but Capri in the 1950s. To Amalfi, but before the tourist hordes. Rome, but Audrey Hepburn’s Rome. Christina Lynch’s The Italian Party (St. Martin’s Press, $25.99) starts out with that same sense of innocence and joy, but it doesn’t take long at all to see that Mr. And Mrs. Messina, a beautiful young American couple newly arrived in the ancient city of Sienna, are not quite who they appear to be. Beneath their sunny faces they each are harboring secret lives, not unlike the complicated tangle of old feuds and simmering politics that lurks just below the beauty of the Tuscan countryside. The Italian Party is great fun, textured with leisurely lunches, the pageantry of Sienna’s famed horse race, and a dashing Italian aristocrat or two. It is also a suspenseful, cleverly woven tale of international intrigue and the complicated politics of Cold War Europe. So find yourself a sunny spot, pour a glass of Prosecco, and settle in to enjoy a trip there, back then.
Isolde “Poldi” Oberreiter has retired at age sixty to the sunny shores of Sicily with the intention of slowly drinking herself to death while enjoying the glorious view. Things do not go according to plan. Rather, as the unlikely heroine of Mario Giordano’s Auntie Poldi and the Sicilian Lions (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $24.00), she finds herself looking into the mysterious disappearance of her handsome young handyman. When his body is discovered, Poldi’s insatiable curiosity and generous self-confidence land her in the middle of a murder investigation, regardless of some shady characters, a spot of danger, and a rather sexy police detective. She knows instinctively how to get to the heart of the matter, even if her methods are not exactly conventional and her deductive path is a little circuitous, making her way through the case with humor, charm and an indomitable will. Mystery fans will love getting to know Poldi, a wonderful blend of Miss Marple with a drink in her hand and Precious Ramotswe wearing a formidable wig, and The Sicilian Lions marks a great start to a promising new mystery series.
Two of my favorite books from last year (neither of which have anything to do with Italy) are now available in paperback.
The first is Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk (Picador, $16.00), by Kathleen Rooney. On New Year’s Eve, 1984, eighty-five-year old Lillian Boxfish is making her way on foot around Manhattan, visiting places of particular importance from her long life in New York and thinking about the past. How fortunate it is that we get to walk along with her, watching the years unspool as Lillian contemplates family, love, ambition, success and heartbreak, as well as the noticeable changes to the city she has come to love so much. Despite her public achievements of becoming the highest paid woman copywriter in the male-dominated world of advertising and publishing several popular volumes of playful poetry. Lillian has always been a private person, carefully guarding pieces of her past even from those she most loves. Which is one of the things that makes this novel so delicious – as we stroll along with Lillian on this one wintery night, she tells us everything, letting us in on all her secrets, all her regrets. The result is a full-bodied portrait of a remarkable woman, and a deeply emotionally satisfying novel.
I love dictionaries, real dictionaries. I love the heft and authority, the nuanced declarations and careful if concise distinctions in a full, unabridged tome. I happily turn to one for information and clarification, and accept what I find on those pages to be the definitive truth. So it’s a little odd that I’ve never given much thought to who, exactly, wrote all those double-columned pages and pages of entries. A committee, a cabal, a machine, or do those definitions come directly from the hand of God? Kory Stamper answered all my questions and so much more in her wonderful memoir Word by Word: The Secret Life of Dictionaries (Vintage Books, $16.00). Stamper takes us inside the idiosyncratic offices of Merriam-Webster and introduces us to the dedicated, if not downright obsessive, people behind each and every entry in that company’s esteemed dictionaries, both print and on-line. A single word may take months of deliberation to define; in fact, just choosing what words to define can result in fierce lexicographic skirmishes between otherwise peaceful colleagues. This is my favorite type of non-fiction, a book that offers enlightenment, entertainment and some surprising insight into something so familiar as my worn old copy of Webster’s Collegiate sitting on my desk.
As always, visit or call your favorite local independent bookstore for these books, and be sure to check out what they have on their front tables, too.
Kristine Kaufman is a retired bookseller and forever bibliophile. She was a co-owner of Snow Goose Books and Frames, which was in Stanwood, WA.