Tag Archives: Paolo Cognetti

Books of the Year 2019: Part One

It’s that time again. Books of the year lists are being wheeled out right, left and centre. I’d love to tell you I’d managed to trim mine to a single post of gems but I’m not the Cover imagedecisive type so I’m afraid it will be the usual four, falling roughly into quarters, all with links to reviews on this blog. For those of you who think I’ve jumped the gun, I’m still a bookseller at heart, hoping to help out anyone desperate for gift ideas for their book-loving friends.

My reading year got off to a flying start with Oyinkan Braithwaite’s My Sister, the Serial Killer whose premise is irresistible. A woman is about to sit down to supper when her sister calls. She’s killed another man and needs Korede’s peerless cleaning skills. Set in Lagos where Korede is a nurse and Ayoola charms men, My Sister, the Serial Killer is a short, darkly funny novel, an enjoyable caper with a sharp edge and a page-turning pace. I was delighted when it turned up on both the Booker Prize longlist and the Women’s Prize for Fiction shortlist.

Two books stood out for me in February, each very different from the other. Given my country’s preoccupation with Brexit, Robert Menasse’s The Capital was something of a bittersweet read. This sprawling novel takes a sharply satirical view of the European Commission, exploring its many accumulated weaknesses before returning to the founding values which make me want to remain part of the EU’s flawed club. Rather like the institution it’s satirising, Menasse’s novel is not without faults but there’s much to enjoy.

Entirely different, Joan Silber’s carefully constructed Improvement reads almost like a series of tightly linked short stories which explore the ripple effectsCover image of a car accident through a range of sharply observed characters. Silber’s writing is subtly understated leaving her readers to draw their own conclusions. Sadly, Improvement is her only book published here in the UK: all I can say to her publishers is ‘more please’.

Leapfrogging March into April, Laila Lalami’s The Other Americans also explores the fallout from a hit and run accident which kills a Moroccan immigrant who had been running his restaurant in a small Californian desert town for decades. Lalami tells her story in short chapters through a diverse set of characters whose backstories are meticulously sketched in. It’s a quietly powerful novel which seemed to have had less coverage than it deserved here in the UK

The second of April’s treats is a bestseller which left me wondering why I hadn’t already read it. Paolo Cognetti’s beautifully expressed The Eight Mountains is about the friendship between two men who meet as boys when they’re eleven years old: one who has never set foot outside the mountains in which he was born, the other a city boy from Milan whose father yearns for a return to his own mountain roots. It’s a beautiful novel, a testament to friendship and a loving tribute to a challenging but gorgeous landscape.

Cover imageRounding off April’s favourites, Ayelet Gunder-Goshen’s lusciously jacketed Liar tells the story of a seventeen-year-old Tel Aviv girl who becomes caught up in a scandal after an exchange between her and a fading reality TV star is misinterpreted then seized upon by a media hungry for sensation leaving her trapped in an untruth she’s allowed to take root. A thoroughly enjoyable novel with a clear message: lies tend to lead to a deeper deception that can only end in tears. Politicians take note. Rare for a lesson in morality to be delivered with such acuity and style.

There, I seem to have ended 2019’s first quarter with politics, something which I’ve been trying (but failing) to avoid since mid-way through the year when I though I might be about to spontaneously combust with fury. Let’s see if I can stay away from it in the second instalment which will cover May and June.

The Eight Mountains by Paolo Cognetti (transl. Simon Carnell and Erica Segre): Enduring friendship

Cover imageI wrote a post about friendship a little while ago, part of my Five Books I’ve Read series, beginning it by saying how few novels there seemed to be about friendship, and fewer still about male friendship, at least in my reading experience. Paolo Cognetti’s The Eight Mountains offers a corrective to that. At its heart is the friendship between two men who meet as boys when they’re eleven years old: one who has never set foot outside the mountains in which he was born, the other a city boy from Milan whose father yearns for a return to his own mountain roots.

The Guasti family first visit the mountain hamlet of Grana in the summer of 1984. Exacting and taciturn, Pietro’s father is determined to pass on his love of the mountains to his son but seemingly unable to communicate it. His mother sets about making the little rundown house homely, quickly becoming acquainted with the family to whom it belongs. It’s at her urging that Pietro talks to Bruno, the son of a local stonemason who no longer lives with him. Over the years Pietro and Bruno become firm friends. Eventually, as teenagers do, Pietro finds reasons to spend his summers in Milan. When his father dies, Pietro is in his early thirties, struggling to make a living as a documentary maker. Gianni has left him a small patch of land in the mountains on which to build a house. Reluctantly, Pietro takes himself off to Grana where Bruno offers to help. Over that summer, their boyhood friendship is renewed and Pietro comes to understand his father in the way that Bruno always has. Over the next decade, each will live their lives as mountain men in very different ways: Bruno as a farmer, taking care of his beloved cows; Pietro pursuing a career which takes him to Nepal. Both will remain the lynchpin of each other’s lives.

Hard not to gush about this novel, not least because its beautiful descriptions took me back both to alpine holidays and to Nepal whose mountains were the first I properly walked in. Cognetti writes evocatively of the landscape and how deeply Pietro’s father and Bruno are rooted in it –  one torn from it by circumstance, the other determined to pursue the old ways despite great personal cost

In its woods that fire was still ablaze: on the flanks of the mountain the gold and bronze flames of the larches were lit against the dark green of the pines, and raising your eyes to the sky warmed the soul

There’s a quiet poignancy about Cognetti’s writing, both in its depiction of Pietro’s relationship with his father, a man made angry by city life, and in its portrayal of the enduring bond between two men who are very different from each other, the one unable to help the other. It’s a beautiful novel, a testament to friendship and a loving tribute to a challenging but gorgeous landscape.

Paperbacks to Look Out for in March 2019: Part Two

Cover imageThe first batch of March’s paperbacks fell neatly into a time sequence whereas this one jumps about all over the place both in terms of period and theme. I’ll begin with a one of my 2018 favourites: Donal Ryan’s From a Low and Quiet Sea, a carefully crafted, moving novella which explores love, loss and connection through the stories of three very different men, bringing them neatly together at its end. Farouk is a bereaved refugee, Lampy helps out at the local care home, spending much of his time in a rage, and John is fixer, bent on the corruption of good men. It’s a tricky manoeuvre to tell your characters’ stories in discrete parts then merge them as subtly as Ryan does here but he pulls it off beautifully, writing in prose which has a lilting rhythmic beauty.

A description which could also be applied to many of the stories in Helen Dunmore’s Girl, Balancing, a posthumous collection put together by her son Patrick Charnley. Many of the themes running through these stories will be familiar to Dunmore fans. Family, friendship, memory, love and passion, and, of course, women and their place in the world, are all adroitly explored. As ever with Dunmore, so much is said in a few precisely chosen words. There’s not one dud in this collection which captures its author’s wonderful facility with language and acute observation.

Curtis Sittenfeld’s first collection, You Think It, I’ll say It, is another treat for short story lovers. its overarching theme is the gulf between our perception of ourselves and other people, and theirs of us. Characters’ initial impressions are often proven entirely, sometimes comically, wrong. Gender is firmly to the fore – women and childcare, expectations of female beauty, distribution of domestic chores are all deftly and effectively handled. Altogether an intelligent, satisfying collection which neatly skewers modern social mores with a sly, occasionally waspish wit.Cover image

Chloe Caldwell’s Women is so short – a mere 130 pages – that it could almost pass as a lengthy short story but for all that it took me far longer to read than I’d expected. It charts her narrator’s passionate, destructive affair with a woman much older than herself, ending just a year after it began. There’s a feverish intensity about the first-person narrative which makes it feel raw and confessional, all the more so given that Caldwell has made no secret of drawing on her own experience for this book. For me, it was a book to admire for its stripped down, meticulously crafted writing rather than enjoy.

Tortured relationships are also the subject of Tayari Jones’ An American Marriage. Ray and Celeste are staying in a hotel when he is hauled off in the middle of the night, falsely accused of rape just eighteen months into their marriage. Jones charts the effects of his imprisonment on their relationship from both Ray’s and Celeste’s perspectives. Racism, class and marriage are put under the microscope as are absent fathers and attitudes towards women in this tightly controlled, powerful novel.

I’ve yet to read James Wood’s Upstate in which two sisters – one a philosopher, the other a record executive – are still coping with the emotional fallout of their parents’ bitter divorce. When Vanessa suffers a crisis, Helen and her father travel to upstate New York where over six days the family struggles with life’s big questions. ‘If, as a favourite philosopher of Vanessa’s puts it, “the only serious enterprise is living”, how should we live? Rich in subtle human insight, full of poignant and often funny portraits, and vivid with a sense of place, Upstate is a perceptive, intensely moving novel’ say the publishers of what sounds like a weighty piece of Cover imagefiction.

Finally, Paolo Cognetti’s The Eight Mountains has a particularly appealing premise: two very different Italian boys meet in the mountains every summer. Pietro is a lonely city boy who comes to the Alps for his holidays while Bruno is the son of a local stonemason. These two explore the mountains together, becoming firm friends but take widely diverging paths as they become men. Annie Proulx has described Cognetti’s novel as ‘Exquisite… A rich, achingly painful story’. It sounds right up my street.

That’s it for March’s paperbacks. A click on the first five titles will take you to my review or to a more detailed synopsis for the other two, and if you’d like to catch up with both the first instalment and March’s new titles, they’re here, here and here.