Tag Archives: Simon Carnell

Travels From My Sofa: Walking in the Mountains of Italy, Switzerland and Austria,

Walking is the thing that’s helped keep me sane – so far – throughout the pandemic. That and blogging with its virtual community, still there when I can’t see my other friends. I’ve resisted The Dolomites - near selvausing the term ‘lockdown’ because, for me, that would have meant the end of the permitted daily exercise outside the house and I’m not sure how I’d have coped with that. Mountain walking wasn’t something I did until my late twenties, although I did start in a big way when H and I spent a few months travelling which included trekking in Nepal. There are three countries much closer to home of which I have fond hiking memories to revisit. If you fancy a bit of virtual exercise with the odd city break plus links to a few reviews thrown in, you’re welcome to join me. We’re off to Italy first.

It was on our way to the Dolomites that the idea of railway holidays took root having flown to Munich where we spent a very pleasant evening before catching the train into Italy. The destinations listed on the Munich station departure board held out the tantalising prospect of a bit of real travel. We’d booked two hotels for this trip, the first of which was in the tiny village of Badia and very smart in a laid-back kind of way it was too. TheVia Garibaldi (Genoa) second was in Selva, still a village but it felt almost like a city after a week in Badia. The walking was all we’d hoped for although there were a few too many cyclists intent on keeping their stats up rather than avoiding us on the paths around Badia. The wildflowers were gorgeous as was the pudding buffet on offer in our second hotel, recced every night by a few anxious diners even before they tucked into their starters.

Our most recent visit to Italy had nothing to do with walking but I loved the city of Genoa with its splendid mansions and mosaic lined colonnades so much I can’t not give it a mention. Not nearly so crowded as the likes of Florence, where I spent a wet Cover imageNovember week years ago, or Venice, which I’ve been lucky enough to visit twice, and it offered a glimpse of real Italian life.

Italian travels from my sofa: The Eight Mountains, Ties, Three Light-Years, My Mother is a River

We could go either way over the border to Switzerland or Austria but let’s take the Swiss route as H and I did a couple of years back, revisiting the sweet little town of Adelboden. Many of the walks were familiar from a previous holiday but just as gorgeous with spring rather than summer wildflowers to enjoy plus a bit of marmot-spotting. This time we managed to fit in a visit to the immaculately kept church opposite the delicatessen whose sculpted cow View from Adelboden (Switzerland)moos now and again advertising the cheese counter inside. With its richly coloured stained-glass windows and stars painted on its wooden beamed ceiling the church is a little gem. Its central window was designed by Augusto Giacometti, a relative of the sculptor Alberto Giacometti. This was the church where we’d seen a freshly married couple picked up and seated on top of some hay bales before being carried off on a very small tractor last time we were there.

Swiss travels from my sofa: Housefrau, Sweet Days of Discipline, Year of the Drought

Cover image for A Whole Life by Robert SeethalerOff to Austria for two more weeks high in the mountains above Zell am See where more marmots were spotted. We’d been hoping for another Adelboden but Zell has suffered from a little too much tourism losing some of its charm on the way. Oddly, it’s become a destination for young Saudis, some in traditional dress looking a little out of place against an alpine backdrop. The walking was so enjoyable we never got around to exploring nearby Salzburg. Apart from a brief stop in Innsbruck while hitching around Europe, back in the day, when we turned up to find everything closed on a Saturday afternoon, my other two visits to Austria have both  been to Vienna, once on a winter break when I was struck by how conservative the city felt and the second in the summer at the end of our first Central European railway jaunt when it seemed entirely different. What a difference a season makes.

Austrian travels from my sofa: The Tobacconist, A Whole Life, The Empress and the Cake, Me and Kaminski

I hope that’s stretched your virtual legs a bit. Any vicarious travels you’d like to share?

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.