#43. The Italian Mission (Alan Champorcher)

Book: The Italian Mission, by Alan Champorcher

Genre and Year of Publication: Spy/thriller, 2013 (read in August; reviewed in November)

Where I got it: Free Kindle download

Length: 218 pages

Briefly, it’s an action-packed spy drama, mostly set in Italy, involving an ex-CIA agent, now working (unhappily) in the diplomatic service, who is called on to help a Tibetan monk who is on the run in Italy, to escape from the agents of the Chinese government.

Comments: This is a bit outside my comfort zone – spy thrillers are not my favourite genre.  But this one wasn’t bad.  The large cast includes Chinese, Tibetans, Israelis, South Africans, Italians, and Americans.  There are the usual car chases, dramatic escapes, double-crossing agents, governments about to topple based on the success or failure of our hero’s next move, and at the end James Bond, sorry, John Adams Conti, gets his woman.

Part of the story is set on the Via Francigena, the ancient pilgrimage path from Canterbury to Rome.  I’ve already blogged about three pilgrimage books this year [two relating to the Camino de Santiago de Compostela in Spain and one to St Declan’s Way in Ireland], so the theme interests me more than a little.  I had only just heard of the Via Francigena for the first time a couple of weeks before getting this book, and was amazed to find it referenced here, particularly in the context of a spy story!  I’d like to walk part of this route some time (can’t imagine that I’ll ever do the whole thing).  I expect that my journey would be a little less dramatic than the events recounted in this book, but the beautiful Tuscan countryside would surely be at least as good…

Challenges: Full House Challenge for the category “Setting you’d like to visit”; ebook reading challenge

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#37. The Best Way: El Camino de Santiago (Bill Walker)

Book: The Best Way: El Camino de Santiago, by Bill Walker

Genre and Year of Publication: Travel/pilgrimage; 2011

Where I got it: Free Kindle download (read in July; reviewed in October)

Length: 328 pages

Briefly, it’s another account of an American’s trek along the pilgrimage route to Santiago de Compostela in Spain

Comments: This is the second “Compostela” book that I’ve read in a couple of months, so obviously it’s a theme that interests me!  (My review of the other one is here).  Walker travelled this route in 2010, together with his 18-year old nephew.  His book follows the traditional day-by-day journal format, recounting the towns he passed through, the hostels he stayed in, the friends he made, the things he discovered about himself and others, and the final, triumphant arrival in Compostela.  I loved it.

A friend of mine is planning to undertake this pilgrimage next year.  The way Walker describes the daily battle for a place to sleep in the hostels along the way makes me realise that I will never do it myself.  The camino won’t cease to fascinate me, though.

Challenges: Non-fiction challenge, ebook reading challenge

#27. A Million Steps (Kurt Koontz)

Book: A Million Steps, by Kurt Koontz

Genre: Travel

Where I got it: Free Kindle download

Length: 212 pages

Briefly, it’s an account of the author’s pilgrimage on the Camino to Santiago di Compostela in Spain.

Comments: In 2012, American Kurt Koontz hiked about 500 miles of the ancient – and recently re-popularised – pilgrimage route to Santiago di Compostela, which he calculates comes to a million steps.  This book is not a day-by-day journal account of his pilgrimage as much as a series of reflections on various themes which formed part of his exterior and interior pilgrimage.  He writes of the people he met, the camaraderie, the various kinds of hostels, the scenery, the challenges and joys of the hike, and he shares with us his personal struggles, reflections on where he’s at in his life, and his hopes and fears for the most significant relationship in his life.  I enjoyed this book very much. 

Challenges: Non-fiction reading challenge; ebook reading challenge.

#26. Arte Metro Roma (Laboratorio Incontri d’Arte, ed.)

Book: Arte Metro Roma: Il Museo Underground di Roma – I Grandi Mosaici delle Stazione della Metropolitana, ed. Laboratori Incontri d’Arte

Genre: Art book – a guide to the modern mosaics found at the stations of the Rome Underground (Metro)

Where I got it: Borrowed from the local library

Length: 215 pages

Briefly, it’s a coffee-table style book full of gorgeous photos and other information about the 45 major and 46 minor wall mosaics which were installed at various stations of the Rome Metro between 1996 and 2000.

Comments: This is a lovely book.  It’s made up of three main sections.  First there is general information about the project: the decision to install these mosaics, how it came about, who sponsored it, how the artists were chosen, how the mosaics were produced, etc.  Most of this is in the form of speeches which were delivered by various people at the unveiling ceremonies of the mosaics.  These speeches / essays are printed in both Italian and English.

The second, central section consists of photographs, one of each of the 45 major mosaics.  They are excellent.  These mosaics are huge, and difficult to photograph.  Many are flat rectangles, but some follow the curve of a wall or even turn a sharp angle.  It seems that the photographer had special access to the stations because there are no people in any of the shots.  The lighting is also very good.  The mosaics are in a variety of styles,  but form a definite series through the materials used (glass tesserae) and the similarity of finishing.

At the Numidio Quadrato station on Linea A, in a suburb in the south of the city, 46 pillars on the station platforms are covered in mosaics, each one by a “young” artist.  The result is an amazing display of colour and design.  The book includes four photos of the platforms, and they spurred me to go and see this station for myself.

The third section of the book provides a brief biography, again in Italian and in English, of each of the 45 major artists, and the name of each of the 46 young artists together with a small photo of the pillar mosaic which is theirs.  It is gratifying to see that the proportion of women is considerably higher among the young artists (about half) than among the more established artists of an older generation (only 3 women out of the total of 45).

If anything is lacking from this book, it is a commentary on what each of the mosaics individually might signify.  Some are not so easy to interpret.  But the book certainly has prompted me to pay more attention to them in future.

Here is a photo (my own, not from the book reviewed here) of one of my favourite mosaics, by Luigi Veronesi; it is at Stazione Anagnina, the southernmost station on Linea A:

Anagnina mosaic

Challenges: Full House Challenge, for the Category “From the Local Library”; I Love Library Books Challenge; Non-Fiction challenge.

#24. A Year in Tuscany (Barbara Athanassiadis)

Book: A Year in Tuscany, by Barbara Athanassiadis

Genre: Memoir, not quite travel-style

Where I got it: Free Kindle download

Length: 178 pages

Briefly, it’s an account by a Greek artist of a year she spent in Tuscany, Italy.

Comments: Initially I was a bit put off because the section “Book Reviews of A Year in Tuscany“, which is at the beginning, is way too long (my Kindle was showing 6% and I still hadn’t got to the actual text of the memoir), and some of them are not in great English.  But it got better.  The author is an artist and has an excellent knowledge of Renaissance art, as well as of Florentine history, which makes the book really interesting.  This is not a regular guide book, it is about the daily details of living – as a foreigner – in this part of Italy.  She gives us portraits of the local people with whom she interacted, not sparing us their foibles.  She describes the magnificent Tuscan scenery and the exploratory journeys she undertook in a borrowed VW Beetle.  Her personal reasons for taking this year away from her husband and family are touched on but not laboured, which is tasteful.  I couldn’t help wondering what the local people thought of their year-long Greek guest?

Challenges: Non-fiction challenge; ebook reading challenge.

#9. A Different Lifetime: stepping back in time in the former Yugoslavia (Martin Radford)

Book: A Different Lifetime: stepping back in time in the former Yugoslavia, by Martin Radford

Genre: Travel/memoir

Where I got it: Free Kindle download

Length: 164 pages

Briefly, it’s the account of four months which the author, an Englishman, spent teaching English in Vojvodina in 2006.

Comments: This is a polite and careful account of what must have been a pretty challenging and often frustrating four months in Serbia.  Yes, Serbia – I don’t know why that name is not in the title of the book.  It’s not as if Radford gives us loads of information about “the former Yugoslavia”.  In fact, political or historical insight is not what this book is about.  He does tell us about the friends he made, what his living arrangements were like, a bit about the lives of his (adult) students, and about the river-bank walks he undertook.  But there is something missing at the level of personal feelings.  For instance, twice he mentions being give a drink of the local hooch, “fire-water”, but he doesn’t tell us what it was like, whether he liked it, or what effect it had on him.  And the way in which he fails to fight for the pay which he was due, and which was not given to him, was a bit wimpy (if it was true).

Challenges: Full House Challenge, for the category “Less than 200 pages”; ebook reading challenge; non-fiction reading challenge.