In the 44 Scotland Street series, The Importance of Being Seven is titled for Bertie, who is indeed about to turn seven and still trying to escape the domination of his controlling mother (he does manage to bring his baby brother to school, unassisted, in this episode!). But it also stars his old teacher, now married, whose first pregnancy ultrasound brings many blessings, and a remarkable holiday in Tuscany by a group of friends, who bears a suspicious but entirely charming resemblance to My Italian Bulldozer.
The first author of Tears of Salt: A Doctor’s Story is a physician on the small Italian island of Lampedusa, where many migrants from Africa arrive, some healthy and others almost or completely dead, as they try to reach Europe. He gets to treat the sick and autopsy the dead, and often sees the children, relatives, and friends of the people he so recently pronounced dead. It’s not an easy life, and it’s not an easy story. The solution to the problem cannot be as simple as what he seems to suggest (open the border) and at the same time the personal stories are heart-wrenching.
Alexander McCall Smith must have given himself a nice trip to a lovely Tuscan trip to prepare to write My Italian Bulldozer. Good for him (and considering how fast he writes, he may written the whole thing from a lovely pensione in Montalcino, which he calls Fiore in the book), and good for us, since the story is delightful, starring a depressed Scottish writer and the unexpected bulldozer with which he ends up driving from the airport to said pensione. He will find an ambitious winemaker, trouble with his ex-girlfriend, and unexplained uses for the bulldozer. It’s fun and unpretentious, unlike other Tuscan travelogues.
The Story of a New Name follows My Brilliant Friend and takes the two friends through high school and college, for the writer, and for her friend through a fraught marriage, motherhood, separation, and back to a tough working life. I found the plot to be less trite than the one in the first book, and with more unexpected twists, especially as the newlyweds fight, cheat, storm out, plot against each other, and generally despise everything the other does. Still, despite the period details, some of the petty fights and rivalries get tedious.
My Brilliant Friend is the first book in a series I was enticed to read by a very favorable review of the last book in the series, and it was certainly good enough for me to proceed to book #2, but I could not quite discern why a reviewer would swoon so based on this one… Certainly the story of the mysteriously self-possessed best friend of the narrator (herself rather awkward, if academically gifted), replete with interesting secondary characters and Southern Italian ambiance, is cleverly told in recursive flashbacks, but the plot did not go beyond a pretty standard coming-of-age tale. We shall see how she fares with her rich husband in the next installment…
The Double Life of Liliane is billed as a novel, although it may be more of a biography, and despite the heroine’s many trips between Europe and the US, between an estranged father and a self-involved mother, I found it all quite dull, often reading like a (very skillful) weaving together of historical research, classic novels in multiple languages, and current events, with not much of a plot beyond fantastic details (was her father really saved by Josephine Baker during WWII?) that do not build to any kind of an apex.
I had very modest expectations when I picked up Italian Ways: On and Off the Rails from Milan to Palermo. I thought it might be another happy and naive memoir of a tourist who falls in love with Italy, but I was very happily surprised to find that it was written by a British professor who has lived there for decades but continues to be able to describe, mostly kindly, the mores of Italians, whether their inability to leave him alone when he’s reading a book on a train or the complete lack of a rational process for selling train tickets (rather too much on this particular point, in my mind, but so eloquently said).
Don’t expect a rational, one chapter-one topic approach but allow the narrative to bring up topics as diverse as the poor treatment of immigrants, the disdain of Northerners for Southerners and vice-versa, the ill-considered investments in obscure railway routes by the European Union, the Olympic games victories of the city of Crotone, née Kroton (in the fourth century BC!), and its status as the host of the Pythagoras school, yes, that Pythagoras. As I said, messy, but erudite and yet most pleasant to read.