Small Town Book Festival Goes Big – Again (Part 2)

The second part of this blog entry is about the authors I met the final day of the annual Pordenone Legge (“Pordenone Reads”) book festival in northeastern Italy. In my last post I talked about how this festival has grown over the years. This was the 19th festival, so look for the event in September 2019 to be one for the ages!

David Litt is interviewed at a bar. This is Italy.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Here are the authors I met on Sunday.

Lisa Halliday

Ms. Halliday is an American living in Milan, Italy where she works as a writer, editor and translator. She also worked for years in New York – you guessed it – in the publishing business.

Lisa Halliday at her press conference.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

She was introducing the Italian translation of her first novel, “Asymmetry.” It is an interesting work, divided into three separate parts. The first two are (at initial glance) completely unrelated, but the third is meant to provide a bridge between the two unrelated (hence the title…) stories. In the press conference, Halliday said the second part of the book was more her normal writing style than the first. I thought that was too bad as the first reminded me quite a bit of Kurt Vonnegut. I put him right up there with the best American writers ever. The second part was not bad, just in a much longer and prosaic style. It reminded me of Phillip Roth.

It turns out similarity to Roth makes sense as the two of them were “very close friends,” according to Halliday. And the first part of the book was kind of an autobiography (a relationship between an aging writer and a young woman in the New York publishing industry). She also mentioned her work was influenced by a writer named Jeff Dyer with his work “Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi.” I had never heard of it, but she confessed the idea of the structure of her “Asymmetry” came from that book. I read some reviews of that work and can definitely see some pretty serious influence.

During her press conference, she discussed some of the asymmetry that appears in the novel; different ages, different genders, different holds on power (in a relationship), different religions, beliefs, experiences, and on and on. She said she  wanted to ask if we can ever escape ourselves. and said she felt we can never really bridge the asymmetry of who we are versus who someone else is.

Me? I feel that is overthinking life way too much. I am much older than her, so maybe in my “wisdom” I have decided to not think so hard. That’s not to say I did not like her book. As I said, the first part reminded me of Kurt Vonnegut, which I mean as very high praise.

Here is a link to a review in New Yorker Magazine which gives her even higher praise.

 

David Litt

The final author I met was David Litt. This young man was one of the team of eight speechwriters for President Obama. He has just published a book titled “Thanks, Obama,” which chronicles his years in the White House.

David Litt answering a question during a press conference. He comes across as a very intelligent and thoughtful guy.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

During the press conference, I think he wanted to relate funny or poignant stories about his experiences with the President. Or he wanted to discuss the process the writing team used to translate the President’s world view into words for the masses. He was able to do that a little bit, but (mind you I am the only American in the room, everyone else is Italian) the other journalists wanted to hear if he could write for the President today. He said he did not think  the speechwriter had to agree with everything the President believes, but at least the big things. So, no he could not work in the White House today.

Since he said these days he was working with other candidates, I asked him if he thought there was anything traditional, serious political parties could do to push back against the wave of so-called populism of late. That “populism” is not only in the US, it is here in Italy, also in Poland, Austria, the UK and elsewhere. I identified Turkey and Hungary as perhaps being cautionary tales against too much populism.

He agreed with the last bit of my question but said he did not think populism is the correct way to describe what is happening politically these days. (Neither do I) He thinks the problem is demagogues as leaders, not populists. But then, in a more hopeful note, he talked about how the political landscape (at least in the US) really is changing. He pointed out the number of women and minority candidates who not only have run for office but have won elections. So he feels some push back has already started.

I have not yet read his book, but I found him an interesting and articulate and optimistic young man, so I will read it.

I spent two days at the book festival this year, which was not enough in my mind. In past editions I have visited all five days. But nonetheless, Pordenone Legge 2018 was a terrific success. Mark September 2019 on you calendars now! I know I have.

This all happened, more or less. Kurt Vonnegut in “Slaughterhouse 5”

 

Small Town Book Festival Goes Big – Again! (Part 1)

Each year the small town of Pordenone, in northeastern Italy, hosts a book festival. It’s called “Pordenone Legge” (Pordenone Reads). It just ended on September 23rd and and I was fortunate enough to visit on two of the five days of the event. Let me tell you about my experience the first day.

But first, a little bit about this festival. The town of Pordenone has a population of around 50,000. During the festival this year, an estimated 250,000 came to visit. The event is divided into various themes, which include Children’s Books, Travel Books, Art and Architecture, Current Events, Science, Philosophy, History and more. Huge tents are built where thousands of books are for sale, each day tens of thousands of people wander the charming streets in search of their favorite author.

Authors speak to the public from multiple venues ranging in size from a few hundred to a few thousand.

I love it when people wait in line to meet an author!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Authors from all over the world come to speak to the public about their latest work (generally they are talking about a book that has just been released in Italy). Those presentation venues range in audience size from 150 to 3,000. In the ten years I have participated in this festival, I have rarely seen a venue that was not completely full. I love it.

And just to give you an idea of how this small town book festival is growing in stature, in 2013 there were 263 authors present. This year there were 600. And I am not talking about authors like me who few have ever heard of. Most of those invited to present here are famous, established, well-respected and successful masters of the craft.

Irish novelist John Banville is interviewed on the streets of Pordenone.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

All of this happens in the historic downtown of Pordenone, sometimes in centuries-old palaces, sometimes right on the street. It is a very cool book festival.

Here are the authors I met on Saturday.

John Banville

Irish born Banville is a novelist, screenwriter and teacher. He was awarded the Booker Prize (UK equivalent to the Puliltzer) for “The Sea” in 2005. This year, he was presenting his latest work called “Isabel” in Italian where the English title is “Mrs. Osmond”. It is a sequel to the Henry James masterpiece “Portrait of a Lady.” I sat at a press conference when Banville was here in 2013 to present his work “Ancient Light” and found him interesting and with his dry wit, very entertaining. I am happy to say my impression has not changed.

John Banville listens as an interpreter translates a question from a journalist.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Here are a few of the gems he shared with the small group of journalists who sat with him at his press conference this year.

Social phenomenon come and go but the essentials of life remain the same. As a novelist I believe art must be permanent, even if it reflects those current phenomenon.
Writing about current events is for journalists, not novelists.
A happy ending is not how life goes, so books should end with some ambiguity.
I write novels but am not very good at ideas.

You can see he is a serious writer who does not take himself too seriously. A pretty good lesson for all of us, I think.

 

Elizabeth McKenzie

American Elizabeth McKenzie is the senior editor of the Chicago Quarterly Review, a terrific independent literary journal. Her book “The Portable Veblen” published in English in 2016 has been translated to Italian under the title “L’amore nel Tempo degli Scoiattoli” which translates to “Love in the Time of Squirrels.” It is a strange and original story about finding the source of our actions and attitudes while struggling to mesh our beliefs with the world around us.

Elizabeth McKenzie at the start of her press conference. 600 authors participated at the book festival this year.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

She had some interesting things to share at her press conference.

We thrive creatively by facing difficulty.
Writing can be a way of getting revenge.
If you have something you are angry about, that’s the start of your novel.

I confess I do not entirely agree with her on any of those observations, but her background and life experiences are clearly very different than mine. Nonetheless, this book is definitely worth reading.

 

Margaret George

Margaret George is an American historical novelist who specializes in epic fictional biographies. Her incredibly well-researched works include “Elizabeth I,” “Mary, Called Magdalene,” “The Autobiography of Henry VIII: WIth Notes By His Fool, Will Somers” and others. Each is a unique look at her protagonist, steeped in detail and written in a style that brings her subject back to life. She was presenting the Italian version of her “Confessions of Young Nero.” The sequel to that will be released in the US on November 6, called “The Splendor Before the Dark.”

Margaret George poses behind the first of her books about Nero, just released in Italian.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

She is keen to debunk the myths about Nero whom pretty much everyone pictures playing his violin as Rome burned around him. That image is completely false and she presents him as a brilliant and complex figure who has been maligned by history. I believe her as she talked about how thoroughly she researched her subject before writing more than 900 pages (the two books combined) in an effort to tell the story more accurately.

With help from a interpreter (left) and a moderator (right), Margaret George presents her first “Nero” novel to the Italian public.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

On that note, as I am working on a historical biography, I asked how she avoids becoming paralyzed by too much research. Her answer was that she follows a set rule: the first half of her work is research, the second half is writing. She gave me some tips on how, as research is gathered, to catalog things so the writing part flows more easily. I wish I had met her about five years ago when my research started, but not to worry, I am well on my way writing now!

 

Robert Harris

English novelist Robert Harris was a journalist before taking up novels. Some of his work is pure fiction (I recently finished “Conclave” which was excellent) and others are fictional accounts of historic events. That is the case in the book he was presenting, “Munich.” It is set in the Munich Conference of 1938 in which British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain met in secret with Adolph Hitler in what was probably the first example of shuttle diplomacy. As an aside, I met Harris on September 22, the 80th anniversary of that conference.

Novelist Robert Harris, with an interpreter, talks at his press conference. After, he signed my copy of “Conclave.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

He had worked for BBC and helped make a documentary on the 40th anniversary of that event, so confesses it has been something of an obsession with him.

Ideas he shared:

History gives you the facts, historical fiction tells you the story.
Do we learn from history? Maybe, maybe not. But unfortunately we do not learn to not make mistakes.
We are clearly living in a revolutionary time today. A full-blown cyber war is going on yet many do not recognize it.

Coming soon is Part 2, where I met novelist Lisa Halliday and former Obama speechwriter David Litt.

 

 

I Did it Again! Venice Film Festival part 3

This is my third and final review of movies I saw at this year’s Venice Film Festival. I have saved the best for last. Of the 18 movies I watched (don’t get excited, 14 of them were short films – each only about 8 to 12 minutes long), this was by far the best. I am not alone in that thinking, this movie scored Best Director and Best Actor honors by the jury at the festival. I am pretty sure it will also get some Oscar buzz as a nominee for Best Foreign Film. And I would not be surprised if a Best Supporting Actor nomination happens, as well.

“Bedoune Tarikh, Bedoune Emza”

That translates to “No Date, No Signature.”  Directed by Vahid Jalilvand.

This is an Iranian film and I loved every aspect of it. The synopsis from the Venice Film Festival catalog reads: “The forensic pathologist Dr. Nariman, a principled and virtuous man, has an accident with a motorcyclist and his family, and injures the 8-year old son. He pays compensation and offers to take the child to the clinic nearby, but the family declines. The next morning, he finds the same little boy has been brought in for an autopsy. Dr. Nariman faces a dilemma now: is he responsible for the child’s death due to the accident or did the boy die due to food poisoning according to the other doctor’s diagnosis?”

More to the story: the boy’s father had been buying cheap chicken for his family from the local slaughterhouse, and that did cause food poisoning in the child. The boy’s father, frantic and distraught, goes to the slaughterhouse and confronts the man who illegally sold him the bad chickens. That man later dies in the hospital so the father is arrested and charged with murder.

Now what does the good doctor do?  A moral dilemma, for sure, and a really terrific, tightly written story.

Excellent camera work throughout this nail biter really brings home the mood of despair and confusion of the characters.

Finally, absolutely superb performances by Amir Aghaee (Dr. Nariman), Navid Mohammadzadeh (the father), and Alireza Ostadi (the mother). All told, this is a really superior movie. If it comes to a cinema near you – GO SEE IT!

Until Next Year.

 

 

I Did it Again! (Venice Film Festival part 2)

This time I’ll talk about the disappointing movies I saw at the Venice Film Festival two weeks ago. I don’t like to dwell on negatives, so promise to be brief.

In the meantime, the pictures I have included in this post are shots of various pieces of graffiti I have found in Venice.

 

 

 

 

 

Normally I love short films. Unfortunately, unless you live near an art-house cinema they can be hard to find. One of my favorite features of this terrific film festival is access to many, many shorts. This year I watched 14 of them but I was not impressed. Here is a list (title, country where it was made, director’s name).

By The Pool, Lithuania, Laurynas Bareisa

Aria, Greece, Myrsini Aristidou

Tierra Mojada, Columbia, Jaun Sebastian Mesa Bedoya

Mon Amour Mon Ami, Italy, Adriano Valerio

It’s Easier to Raise Cattle, Malaysia, Amanda Nell Eu

The Knife Salesman, Australia, Michael Leonard

8th Continent, Greece, Yorgos Zois

Astrometal, Greece, Efthimis Sanidis

L’ombra della Sposa, Italy, Alessandra Pescetta

Ant Killers, Brazil, Joao Maria

Gros Chagrin, France, Celine Devaux

Himinn Opinn, Iceland, Gabriel Sanson

Death of the Soundman, Thailand, Sorayos Prapapan

Futuro Prossimo, Italy, Salvatore Mereu

 

 

 

 

 

 

My friends appreciated “L’ombra della Sposa” citing the special effects and the artistic filming. The dialog is a poem written to pay homage to the victims of a boat that sank between mainland Italy and the island of Sicily during WWII. I felt it was over dramatic to the point I stopped feeling sympathy for those victims and just wished they would shut up. But that’s just me.

 

 

 

 

 

 

The one I liked most – or more accurately disliked the least – was “The Knife Salesman.” It was comical, dealing with a door-to-door knife salesman visiting a the home of a frustrated housewife and mother. Plenty of clever sexual innuendo to keep the story fresh and interesting.

All told, though, the shorts this year were less than mediocre.

 

 

 

 

 

 

I also saw “Into the Night,” part of honoring the great director John Landis (“Blues Brothers” “Animal House” “American Werewolf in London” etc.). Made in 1985, it starred Jeff Goldblum and Michele Pfeiffer, with cameo appearances by Dan Aykroyd, Paul Mazursky, David Bowie and many others. While it was fun to see those actors young again and there were some funny bits, the story was really pretty stupid. I never cared much for Goldblum as an actor and this movie gave me no reason to change that opinion. I do think Pfeiffer is quite good, but this had to have been one of her first big roles and she was just OK. Best part of “Into the Night” was the soundtrack that featured lots of songs performed by the late great B.B. King.

 

 

 

 

 

 

NEXT:

Part 3 (the last one!): The Best Movie I Saw

Italian Book Fair (Part 3)

Part three of my series about authors I met at the Pordenone, Italy Book Fair is Peter Hoeg.

A 59-year old novelist from Denmark, Hoeg is probably best known for “Smilla’s Sense of Snow. At the Pordenone Book Fair he was introducing his newest work, “The Effect of Susan.” This is a futuristic thriller that centers on the title character’s unique talent to get others to be completely honest and open with her regarding their deepest, darkest secrets.

Peter Hoeg at a Press Conference. Before long he had us all on our feet and participating!

Peter Hoeg at a Press Conference. Before long he had us all on our feet and participating!

 

 

 

 

 

 

Well, we did not talk too much about that book. In fact the most striking characteristic about him  (to me at least) was his deep spirituality. He talked about his morning meditations being one of the most important parts of his day. At one point, he had us standing and shaking hands with each other. He described the handshake as one of the most intimate and important connections between two humans. The act of physically opening the space between two people (in order to shake hands) exposes the heart. He also described how the collection of nerve bundles in the hand sends signals to our brain, which then elicits emotions of trust and generosity.  OK.

We did discuss his writing processes, but everything he said was driven by his spiritual journey. He talked about the beauty of a book is that one lives in it. The writer lives there for three or four years while making the story. The reader lives there for two weeks while reading it. I had never thought of it that way, but then Hoeg’s world view is more spiritual than mine.

He was asked why so many of his lead characters are women. “I think it is important for men to know women very well. By understanding my fictional women, I can be closer to the real ones in my life; my daughters, my mother.”

After the conference, I asked him what was the longest it had ever taken him to finish a book. “The Quiet Girl” was a ten year journey. That journey included destroying 2,000 pages of hand-written manuscript, and then starting over.

Hearing that give me some comfort as I am in year 5 of my second novel now. Will I throw everything out and start over? Not likely. But then I am not in the same place as the fascinating Peter Hoeg.

#PoweredByIndie

 

Italian Book Fair Keeps on Giving

The second installment of my “discussions with writers who are way more accomplished than I am” deals with meeting Colm Toibin.

Born in Ireland in 1955, Toibin is probably best known internationally for “Brooklyn.” This is a gentle tale of a young Irish woman, not overly curious and never scarred by heartbreak. She travels to the United States from post-war Ireland where she will soon experience curiosity, love, tragedy and a host of emotions that make us – and her – completely human.

The Book Fair in Pordenone, Italy is the biggest event of the year for this small city.

The Book Fair in Pordenone, Italy is the biggest event of the year for this small city.

 

Toibin was at the annual Book Fair in Pordenone, Italy to present his newest work, “Nora Webster.” This one allows us to enter the life of a middle aged widow trying to keep her life on track after the premature death of her husband. Set in southern Ireland in the late 60’s, Coibin sticks with what he knows best – his land, in fact his own home town.

The conversation with Toibin was almost exclusively about the craft of writing. To be more specific, Colm Toibin’s craft of writing. During the discussion, he left me with what he considers the three most important points.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

“Show don’t tell,” he said first.  This is something everyone who studies writing hears. But the reality is most of us are not very good at it. Toibin gives a pretty remarkable illustration of it in “Nora Webster,” though. Read it. You won’t find a single overt description of the lead character. No telling us about her “long red hair.” Instead we observe as she combs her hair with slow, deliberate motions, allowing us to see her with our own imagination.

 

Dramatize, dramatize, dramatize.  “Ambiguity in relationships between characters adds a rich tension and opens the door for drama to be introduced later in the story,” Toibin explained to us. I could not have said it better, nor could I write it better than he does in both “Brooklyn” and “Nora Webster.”

 

 

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Here, Toibin is signing my copy of "Brooklyn."

Here, Toibin is signing my copy of “Brooklyn.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Finally, he stated his goal is for a reader to finish his book, put it down and think “I know her.” Having read the two novels mentioned here, I do feel if I met either character, I would know her immediately and be able to have an engaging conversation right away. So, thank you Colm Toibin, for introducing me to such interesting people.

#PoweredByIndie

Annual Italian Book Fair Delivers Again (Part 1)

Last week, the terrific annual Book Fair in Pordenone, Italy was in full swing. I’ve written about this event in the past, so won’t go into detail other than to mention what makes it really great.

Authors from all over the world are there. They meet the public, present their latest book, answer questions, walk around the charming city, and revel in the culture of reading that is so strong here.

The annual Book Fair in Pordenone, Italy involves the entire city.

The annual Book Fair in Pordenone, Italy involves the entire city.














 

I have been fortunate enough to get into Press Conferences where authors meet the media. These smaller venues lend themselves to a more animated discussion, which is exactly why I enjoy them.

The first author I met was Scottish-born Irvin Welsh who was presenting “The Blade Artist.” He is best known for his brutal but sometimes funny description of drug addiction, “Trainspotting.” When made into a grim and troubling film, movie-goers met Ewan McGregor and Robert Carlyle.

“The Blade Artist” reintroduces us to one of the characters from “Trainspotting.” Begby – played by Carlyle in the film – has (sort of) cleaned up his life, changed his identity and moved to the U.S. The death of the son he hardly knew has him return to Edinburgh where old wounds are reopened.

Welsh talked about taking a former character and changing him so completely from his past. “I just wanted to keep up with the character. His trajectory was prison or death, not very interesting for a writer. I felt the possibility for change in Begby was an interesting idea.”

But you can be sure that some of Begby’s old habits will resurface.

Welsh talked about the phenomenon of what he dubbed white male rage. “We see it all over the world and in politics too; white male rage over the democratization and liberalization that has eroded their influence. Begby is the white male rage poster boy.”

Irvine Welsh talks with (mostly) Italian media.

Irvine Welsh talks with (mostly) Italian media.

 

 

 

Other media folks in the Press Conference were Italian, therefore interested in Brexit. Welsh called it a start, not an end. “It is a debate about who we are in England right now. It is exciting politically but there will be great stress on the society. But in the end, we just can’t have super-national organizations like the International Monetary Fund dictating to democracies. When a group like that protects banks but not states, it is a problem.”

Happily, the discussion went back to writing, or to reading, actually. Welsh said unless we encourage reading in schools, we are shutting the doors on the next generations. He feels doing so will likely increase the stress of white male rage and international disagreements and intolerance across ethnicities.

All in all, Welsh presented himself with an interesting and slightly pessimistic outlook.

Coming up:  Peter Hoeg, Colm Toibin, and Pulitzer Prize winner Geraldine Brooks.

#PoweredByIndie

Three days at the annual Venice Film Festival is not enough.

Truth is I catch this festival pretty much every year. Usually I am there for five or six days, but this time I had to cut it short. However, it was a pretty lucky three days as only one of the five films I saw was one I recommend you miss.

Fans line up early to catch a glimpse of stars on the red carpet.

Fans line up early to catch a glimpse of stars on the red carpet.

Before I get to my comments on those movies, there are three new discoveries to mention.

First, (almost) affordable accommodation is becoming more and more common in Venice. You can find decent apartments through many of the on-line services such as Booking.com or Tripadvisor.com. We found ours through Booking. It’s on the island called Giudecca, so it is spared the mass of tourists. The place was called Approdo and it was pretty nice. Good location, easy access to water bus lines, and it was clean. The kitchen was missing a can opener and a cheese grater (in Italy!) but other than that, everything was good.

Second, not far from the apartment we found a ristorante/pizzeria called “da Sandro” (Calle Michelangelo 53/C). Very good, but don’t order their prosecco. Sandro and his wife were very nice and the food quite good.

The pizza at "da Sandro" is very, very good!

The pizza at “da Sandro” is very, very good!

 

Finally, on the island of Lido, where the films are shown, we found a vegetarian restaurant called Bio Sound System. I know, weird name, but it is a vegetarian/vegan restaurant with a real chef in the kitchen. Wide assortment of dishes, three of which we tried, all excellent. Even if you are not vegetarian, this place is worth it.

A true vegetarian/vegan restaurant on Lido island. YUM!

A true vegetarian/vegan restaurant on Lido island. YUM!

 

OK. Now let’s talk about the films. They are listed in the order I saw them.

Sobytie (The Event)

This is a Russian documentary about the failed coup attempt in 1991. The film is all archive footage taken over the course of a week in August of that year. Since there was very little explanation or back story, I was compelled to research the event after watching the film. But the documentary is a terrific testimony to the strength of a unified population and the real power of democracy. It is the kind of movie you’ll find only in art house cinema and it is worth the effort to go find it.

Black Mass

This is the new Johnny Depp film. I was a little disappointed. It ended up being a typical gangster movie: lots of F-bombs, lots of blood splattering against walls and windows, inept cops, psychopath gangsters. This one is different because it is based on a true story — the life of James “Whitey” Bulger, the notorious Boston mob boss in the 1980’s. Johnny Depp is usually terrific, but he’s done this kind of part before and seemed uninspired. Ladies, he put on weight for this movie, cut his hair, messed up his teeth and looks nothing like the Johnny Depp you want. Still, if you like gangster movies go see it.

Janis: Little Girl Blue

A fantastic documentary directed by Amy Berg that tells the story of Janis Joplin’s rise to and fall from fame. Let me put it this way, this was a documentary movie, and after it was done the audience gave the director a ten minute standing ovation. She deserved it. Go see it.

Soory about the quality of this pic. It is director Amy Berg during a ten-minute standing ovation.

Sorry about the quality of this pic. It is director Amy Berg during a ten-minute standing ovation.

L’attesa (The Wait)

An Italian movie shot in a beautiful villa in Sicily. Painfully slow story, plenty of very nice, artistic camera shots that had nothing to do with the story, many scenes with actresses staring off into the distance with a blank look. Really, not a good movie at all. Do not bother.

Pecore in Erba (Sheep in the Grass)

Another Italian movie, this one a “mockumentary” that satirizes intolerance, bigotry, and senseless hatred. Many references to Italian popular culture and cameo appearances by Italian celebrities and news people. Funny and moving and poignant. Yes, there is a pretty obvious message but it is delivered in a clever and witty film.

 

 

Another successful visit to Venice. Aaahhh

Another successful visit to Venice. Aaahhh

All in all, I consider the last three days a successful, but too short visit to the Film Festival.

What do you think of historical fiction?

My next big project comes from that genre.  I’ll be telling the story of a woman from the House of Savoy during the 17th century.  In the mid-19th century, the Savoy King was the driving force that unified the Italian peninsula into the country we know today as Italy.

But two hundred years earlier they were, quite literally, a house divided. Duke Vittorio Amadeo died (some believe poisoned by his enemies), leaving his wife Cristina to serve as Regent until her young son could rule the House.  She had the qualifications: her older brother was King of France, one sister was Queen of England, another Queen of Spain. Her mother was from the powerful Medici family of Florence.

Cristina, Duchess of Savoy

Cristina, Duchess of Savoy

But the fallen Duke’s two brothers Tommaso and Maurizio were not happy with the choice of Cristina. They were allied with the Spanish throne and feared her ties to France threatened their own ambitions. Spain and France were already involved in battles and skirmishes throughout Europe. The danger to the House of Savoy was very real.

Cristina, Duchess of Savoy ruled for 26 years.  She sometimes battled sometimes negotiated but won a delicate balance between Spain and France, outsmarted and outlasted her two brothers-in-law in a bloody civil war, and raised four children. She instituted political and cultural reforms, constructed roads, built hospitals, and improved the living conditions of her subjects.

Everybody has heard of Elizabeth 1 of England or Catherine the Great of Russia, but almost nobody knows the story of Cristina. I plan to change that.

She was The Royal Lady to her subjects, who loved her.

She was The Royal Lady to her subjects, who loved her.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I am nearly finished with the research phase and (almost) ready to start writing. I’ll keep you posted!

I just spent five days at an Italian Book Festival

The small city of Pordenone, Italy hosts a winning annual book fair. This year was no exception.

Pordenonelegge (it translates to “Pordenone reads”), now in its fourteenth year, has become Italy’s second most important annual literature festival. This is an impressive accomplishment for a working class town of slightly less than 50,000.

Pordenone is nestled in Northeast Italy, about sixty kilometers (35 miles) from Venice. When the Pordenonelegge book festival comes to town, the city’s characteristic medieval center transforms from a quiet community to a vibrant metropolis bustling with an enormous audience keen on culture and literature.

From 18-22 September, more than 120,000 visitors attended some 200 events, featuring 263 authors, philosophers, journalists, poets, and artists of international standing.

This was not only an opportunity for authors and publishers to sell books.  It was a lively intellectual exchange of ideas and philosophy.  It was a hands-on discussion on how to write.  And it was an exploration into the mechanics of evoking emotions through the written word.

It was a thoughtful discussion of the challenges we face as individuals (love, loss, desire, ambition, etc.) and the problems we face as a society (Syria, economics, racism, and more).

The great English novelist Martin Amis presented his newest work, “Lionel Asbo.” The title character as a very violent but not very successful criminal who wins 140 million Pounds Sterling in the English National Lottery. Amis said he tried to show how fame has become the new religion in western society, and that the only way to counteract that troubling trend is through education. Hear, hear.

English novelist Martin Amis (center) listens to an interpreter as he is introduced before receiving the prestigious "History in a Novel" Award

English novelist Martin Amis (center) listens to an interpreter as he is introduced before receiving the prestigious “History in a Novel” Award

A well-respected intellectual and author from Greece, Petros Markaris told a large audience the economic troubles threatening the European Union are not unsolvable. He went on to say the other countries in the EU should stop blaming Germany and start making their own proposals for a new European economic plan.

His words were well received by an audience comprised almost entirely of Italians. Italy is frequently described as on the brink of financial and economic collapse, and Italians generally feel their political leaders only follow the orders of German economists, rather than taking steps to reduce taxes, create jobs, and revive their economy.

The five days of Pordenonlegge featured presentations across seven different themes. Beyond Literature, experts also spoke about Screenwriting, Poetry, and Philosophy. One program, called “Aperitif with an Author” was a chance for a small group to sit with a well-known author or journalist, share a cocktail, and engage in a lively discussion. How cool is that?

One of the most popular themes was Children’s Books. School groups, from elementary school aged brand new readers to first year university students attended lectures, participated in hands-on writing workshops, and even had a chance to meet kid’s favorite Geronimo Stilton.

Another author present was Booker Prize winner John Banville (the Booker Prize is the United Kingdom’s equivalent to the Pulitzer Prize in the US).  Banville’s latest work, called “Ancient Light” is a story of obsessive love and the power of grief. His prose has been compared to poetry.

In a meeting with journalists, Banville said he felt anything “weird” in a book will not work if it is done for too long. He described “weird” as dream sequences, flashbacks, stream-of-consciousness narratives, even sex scenes. A very pragmatic writer, Banville urged writers in the audience to write to the end of their book, then go back and worry about making it readable.

Irish writer John Banville meets with a group of journalists before making his public appearance.

Irish writer John Banville (right) meets with a group of journalists before making his public appearance.

Past editions of Pordenonelegge have hosted noteworthy international authors including: Erica Jong, J.M. Coetzee, Tony Harrison, Michael Cunningham, Jeffery Deaver, and Ian McEwan.