Sunday, April 24, 2011

Just finished reading...

...EVERY DAY IN TUSCANY, the third and most recent installation of Frances Mayes' books about life in Italy.

In anticipation of my upcoming return to Tuscany in a few weeks, I read Frances Mayes’ third installation of her on-going “life-in-Italy” series and, like her other books in the series, I found it engaging but uneven. I don’t want to start this post by giving the impression that I did not enjoy EVERY DAY IN TUSCANY, because I did. But I think I am more in tune with her—and by extension, her writing’s—flaws now that I have had a chance to really delve into her oeuvre. She is clearly a talented writer, a well-read person, and someone who seems to be in touch with an inner and outer sense that good writer’s need access to in order to create. But she has a habit of what I referred to in another review here about her second book as “skimming.” Now I see what the problem is when she does that: she flits, skips and skims and it works when she is being poetical, when she is rhapsodizing, or when she is using a sort of free association technique. But this does not serve her when she is conveying facts or a narrative within a sequence. Where are we now, I asked myself several times in EVERY DAY IN TUSCANY, are we at her main house Bramasole, or at her newer second house, Fonte de Foglie? What town are we in now, the one she was just describing in the last sentence? Oh, no, turns out we are in a new town. I often had to go back and decode her narrative shorthand, to figure out exactly what was happening. She also has a tendency to tell instead of show. Maybe she is trying to condense, and fit a lot of experiences and sensations and thoughts into too small of an area; I think the material would be better served if she concentrated more on less, so that what she is writing about has some breathing and elbow room to be explored, both by her and by us, her readers. I know she knows how to do this: there are some lovely sections that slow down, where she allows herself to contemplate, ruminate, and make mental connections, as when she takes some lavender to place on the grave of a recently deceased friend, but she is unable to find his spot. The associations and larger meanings she allows are touching and heartbreaking.

Again, let me say that even though I may have these criticisms, I did enjoy the book. Interestingly, there was one section where she was the most alive, the most engaging, and the most immediate and clear she has ever been and that is when she was describing a grenade (along with a threatening note promising five more grenades in her house next time) she found in her driveway, left by someone trying to persuade her and her husband Ed not to block a proposed community pool project at the end of their neighborhood. She had started a petition to have a planned large civic center pool moved to a more accessible and sensible area and the local ruffians took to thug tactics. The act of recounting this frightening ordeal clearly raised her adrenaline level and the result is some of the best writing she has ever done. It sparkles, it moves, it is alive, and it is vital. These things are lacking a bit in her “ordinary” writing. Unfortunately it took a scary and near-violent episode to bring this out of her.

Some of the criticism I have seen leveled at her about this book include the opinion that because she mixes her personal thoughts and history with information about Luca Signorelli, her favorite Renaissance artist, and recipes for classic Tuscan food, the book “doesn’t know what it wants to be.” I personally had no trouble with the book rolling all of this together. I felt it was charming, and the recipes are always directly related to what she has just been talking about, whether it is a feast at a neighbor’s villa, or hearty winter dishes she and Ed prepare for each other.

Recommend? If you have read the other two, of course you must read this one. It is a nice tapestry of impressions for anyone about to visit Tuscany, and indeed, it is a nice examination into the ways, both ancient and modern--and a curious, Italian mix of the two--of all aspects of life in Tuscany (whether you are about to visit or not). It is a light, breezy read. Try the whole series… they go fast.

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