“What will you be reading in Italy?”

By the time you read this blog, I hope to be on the receiving end of the gracious services of airline personnel as we wing our way to Italy on a long-awaited trip.

This trip has been four years in the making, starting with my husband learning Italian (thanks Mango Languages!), followed by library colleagues making all sorts of wonderful suggestions on what to do and where to stay (whilst others provided terrifying horror stories of things that could go wrong), and one dear colleague who helped my husband get conversation practice by meeting us for coffees and setting him up with an Italian pal for chats. Thanks one and all.

But now for the really important question on everybody’s lips: “What will you be reading in Italy?”

The Music ShopA friend’s suggestion: The Music Shop by Rachel Joyce. “For your trip” she said sliding it across the café table. From the author of The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, I thought I’d get home and just read the first couple of pages. Within two days I had read the whole book. It is every bit as good as Harold Fry, with the same complex characterisation, the same zingy dialogue, the same fullness of heart. But with a more complex resolution of plot. All that this book is missing is a soundtrack list. I loved it, but now it can’t come to Italy with me.

A Florence DiaryA book from my must read list: Dianne Athill is a favourite author of mine – she is one of that breed of really old women (she is now aged 99) who still writes. If you’ve not done so yet, read her book Alive, Alive Oh! which asks the question, should you live to be 100 years old, what will you remember? One of the things Diana hopes to remember is sex! I’ve had her A Florence Diary on one of my must-read lists, and it’s time has almost come. It is a small book on her trip to Florence with her cousin when she was a young woman. I shall read it in that city. Into my case it goes.

The LoversA serendipitous find: How could I resist The Lovers’ Guide to Rome by Mark Lamprell. This one crossed my path in the course of a day’s work and it felt as if it were meant to be. What I love about the first few pages is that they include quite an arty little map of Rome. My husband and I both love maps, they form part of the early folklore of our relationship. It turns out that  “the Eternal City has secrets only lovers can glimpse.” This one is coming with, and as an eBook on my iPad!

JohannesburgA book which has nothing to do with Italy at all: A possible antidote to all this Latin charm is the in-your-face 2017 novel entitled Johannesburg by Fiona Melrose. Here were my first thoughts: Nobody writes novels about Johannesburg. No-one even calls the city by its full name any more. The library won’t have this book, and even if they did no one in New Zealand would read it. Wrong, wrong, wrong and wrong. Set in Joburg in the twenty-four hours after Mandela’s death, the first few pages convinced me that this is a brilliant book.

And if I do read this book in Italy, I think we can safely say I will be the only person in the whole of that country reading an English novel set in South Africa and with the title Johannesburg. And there is something about that which I find perversely appealing!

Too old to risk buying unripe bananas

If, like me, you are sick of hearing that sixty is the new fifty and fifty is the new forty,  then fear not – for I come bearing glad tidings: ninety-nine is not the new anything. It’s just very old and very precious.

And I should know, I’ve just spent a lot of time with some real oldies at my mum’s 99th birthday. It got me thinking about old age and writing. And there is no shortage of  candidates – from Mary Wesley who started writing when she was 70 to David Lodge who still writes well into his eighties and in his latest novel Deaf Sentence has a very endearing elderly main character in professor Desmond Bates.

There are also plenty of older authors writing about old age, like Norah Ephron who goes for the jugular in I Feel Bad About My Neck and her latest brain teaser – I Remember Nothing.  But it is hard to top Diana Athill, who at 90 wrote her expose on growing old – Somewhere Towards the End, in which she talks of (amongst other things) a declining interest in sex. Say no more!

Inspired by all this bounty, I offered to fetch my mother some new reads from her local library. She smelt me coming a mile off and lifted her large print saga quite defensively. On its cover was a winsome lass dressed in plaid in the arms of a bearded laird – set against a background of soft lavender hills, with a little croft and its lazily smoking chimney. “Don’t get me any of that newfangled stuff” she said. “I’m already old and it’s not that interesting!”

I was quite taken aback. If old people aren’t reading the books that I was recommending, this begs the question – who is?

That’s when I told the group of oldies that I would blog on this. It proved to be more difficult than you’d think to explain blogging to the hard of hearing and technologically naive.  But this is it Ma, a blog – and I wrote it just for you!

By the way, the headline is a quote from a character in a Stanley Middleton novel.