Vulpes Libris

A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.

Strange Italian worlds

frisch_headFrisch & Co, a German publisher specialising in e-books in English translation, has an eye for quirky novelists writing in languages that anglophones rarely explore. I read two of their Italian offerings, The Combover by Adrian N Bravi, and I Stole the Rain, by Elisa Ruotolo. They’re good books; well-written, nicely translated, absorbing, and also very short. But as e-books they had a lot of work to do to claim my attention.

I have to read e-books for work when no print edition exists, or is ridiculously expensive, but this is an ordeal for me: reading this way is sore on the eyes, too heavy on the wrists or lap with the weight of the Device, and deeply frustrating. So reading e-books for pleasure is the biggest oxymoron in my life. After I received a very nice Nexus for my birthday, I gave e-reading another try, but it hasn’t improved. Perhaps I chose the wrong apps: the Kindle app is adequate as an interface between me and a novel, but is still rather hit and miss. Moon Reader Pro is just awful, I cannot believe how much irritation and frustration it generates in the simple act of (failing in) finding the last chapter read, or seeing how many pages are left. And that is just in the simple act of reading: there is a great deal more in the reading experience of a printed book that an e-book cannot offer. I get really annoyed when the battery runs out: no book has this problem, not does it take 8 hours to recharge! I miss the softness, lightness and tangibility of paper. I miss the simplicity and ease of moving through the book rapidly and in full control, looking at two or more pages at once, flipping back and forth at will. I miss the information on the copyright page, the extra bits about illustrations or maps, the advertising about forthcoming books, the info about the author and their previous works, the back page blurb, even the cover artwork, because all this imprints the story, and the emotional and intellectual impact of the words and their narration, in my memory. An e-book simply imprints frustration, and a burning desire to never read this way again.

BraviSo, Bravi and Ruotolo were working against a considerable amount of negative energy when I began to read their stories. Bravi’s The Combover (translated by Richard Dixon) is very very short: I was taken by surprise at its ending, when it seemed to be just getting into its stride. It’s the story of Arduino, a university lecturer who cherishes his father’s proud tradition of the sculpted combover, and finds his life going off the rails when an Argentinian student approaches the podium one day in mid-lecture, and detroys the professor’s lacquered coiffure by flipping it down into his eyes. Naturally the professor flees, back to his home village, and escapes into the woods to live as a hermit, contemplating the nature of free will, and how he will find his way to Lapland, where he has decided that he will find spiritual freedom. Naturally his arrival in the district attracts attention, and before the week is out Arduino and his carefully maintained combover are attracting devotees who wait patiently for their faith healing properties.

This is very visual fiction of the absurd by a screenwriter and a comedian. Bravi makes the reader adopt the world view of Arduino by offering no alternative point of view. It’s hard work to remember that the off-kilter rural Italian setting is possibly alive and well, and above all normal, right now in the heart of Italy, since they seem as bizarre as the rest of the plot. It felt cruel to laugh at Arduino’s obsessions, and it was appalling to read his meltdown at home, and the treatment of his wife. This is a strange, haunting oddity, with nagging questions about why we choose the hairstyle we do.

RuotoloElisa Ruotolo’s I Stole the Rain is translated by Lisa McCreadie, and is a set of three shortish short stories, with the same grim, poverty-threatened daily existence as a setting. ‘I Am Super Legend’ is told in flashback by a bar owner married to an illegal immigrant. But the fake marriage and his hopes for finally owning the bar are a tiny detail compared to the passion and richness in the backstory of his rise to village football league stardom, and his shocking failure to shine in basic training at a football academy, in a different culture that follows the offside rule. I remember watching Italian village football matches during one summer in the 1980s, when I was on an archaeological dig near Naples, and this story rings very true, with the primitive conditions and the traditional social politics. ‘The Child Comes Home’ uses the same technique of the tiny detail to frame a story about something completely different: a son who disappeared at the age of nine causes the mother’s miserable marriage to be destroyed by her refusal to accept his death. In parallel, she continues her illiterate grandmother’s business as a black-market seller of gold jewellery, despised by her batty sisters-in-law, and cautiously finds love again with an elderly friend. ‘Look At Me’  is the saddest of all, the cruel story of Cesare who cannot speak, his forceful adoption by the narrator’s father, and the awful trick played on him that destroys the creaking arrangements built up around a family without a wife or mother, and with a housekeeper without a reputation.

These are stories with characters that will not leave you, and will return at the slightest mention of a gold brooch, or a goalpost, or even a broken radio. In the end, the medium of the stories didn’t affect my appreciation. I will never willingly read an e-book again, but I would be happy to read more by Bravi and Ruotolo. Sorry, Frisch & Co …

Adrian N Bravi, The Combover, originally published by Edizioni Nottetempo, published by Frisch & Co 19 November 2013, ISBN 978-0-989-12674-8, $5.99

Elisa Ruotolo, I Stole the Rain,  originally published by Edizioni Nottetempo, published by Frisch & Co 15 October 2013, 978-0-989-12673-1, $5.99.

Kate podcasts about books that cause emotional upheavals on

About Kate

Blogger, lecturer, podcaster, writer, critic, reviewer, researcher, and publisher (, in and on British literary history. Preferred occupation while listening to podcasts: cooking or knitting. Preferred soundtrack while reading: the sound of silence.

6 comments on “Strange Italian worlds

  1. Truehobbit Monika
    January 8, 2014

    Interesting sounding books. 🙂
    While I understand preferring and actual book for the feel and (for me) esp the smell, as well as the ease of moving around in it and referring to pages forwards and backwards, it does appear to me that the problems you mention with your e-reader suggest you might be using a somewhat poor device? Because I’ve never experienced any of the problems you describe.

    I don’t know the Nexus at all, but my kindle weighs 170 grams, as opposed to a whopping 420 of the paperback novel I’m currently reading, and even the humble Pratchett by my side here comes to 215 grams – so, books are definitely heavier. I do sometimes find myself clasping the kindle in a more forceful way than necessary (probably from a sense of it from slipping from my hands) which makes my hand a bit crampy – but, then, most books these days (due to cheap binding I guess) need to be held open forcefully, either with the thumb, which can result in crampiness, too, or by using both hands to read, which makes having a cup of tea while reading a bit of a problem. 😉

    The battery on my (now 2 years old) kindle lasts about three weeks (switch that wifi connection off!), and takes about three hours to fully re-charge; the machine warns you of low battery when there’s still hours of life in it, so it’s pretty impossible to get caught in mid-reading with the battery dying. It always remembers where you’ve stopped reading, no matter how many other books you’ve opened in between.

    The quality of e-books themselves varies greatly. In a well-made e-book, you can move to the beginning of a chapter with a single click, footnotes are links, as are the items on the index of chapters, and although it’s true e-readers don’t do page numbering, measuring percentage read isn’t so bad either, I find. Even e-books usually do have a copyright page, very often they have the info on the author and the cover illustration, plus any illustrations or maps from inside the book – on mine, as it’s the basic model, only in black and white, though. Of course, the cover isn’t as visible as in a real book, where it’s always there first thing, and I do like that – so, yes, the cover is another thing about a book I enjoy and miss on the kindle, . However, the back cover info is the one thing in books I loathe and avoid like the plague, so good riddance. 😀

    I realise there are lots of things to be said against the kindle as a representative of a monopolising corporation etc, but from how you describe your Nexus I dare say there might be a reason they are the market leaders.

    (Oh, and I forgot the one great, formidable thing that e-readers have and books don’t and that I’ve come to miss sorely in my actual books: inbuilt dictionaries! 😀 Ah, the luxury of going to any word in a text with a few clicks and getting its meaning, ethymology and sometimes even pronunciation! ❤

    Sorry about this being so long – but I thought you should know that many of the problems that make you suffer from using e-readers aren't really the norm. 🙂

  2. Annette
    January 8, 2014

    I agree with Monika’s comments about reading on a Kindle. I’d add that I don’t have problems with eye-strain either – reading on one of the e-ink Kindles (not the Kindle Fire) is as easy as reading from paper. I wouldn’t want to read for very long from a tablet, phone or laptop though.

    I do like the tactile qualities of books, but some are so heavy or badly bound that it’s easier to hold a Kindle.

  3. jillaurellia
    January 8, 2014

    Since you began with all the reasons you dislike ereaders, I haven’t read your reviews yet but I will. I want to emphasize that I have not encounted any of the problems you mention. I have used the kindle app on my phone and tablet, and a Kindle Fire. The one feature not mentioned by the previous posters is the ability to change font size. Bigger is frequently better. Now I will read your reviews.

  4. Jackie
    January 8, 2014

    Now, now, Kindles aren’t the only ereader out there. My Nook does many of the same things and was less expensive than a Kindle. I do have to agree with the others, Kate, in that it sounds like your ereader is defective or something to give you so many difficulties. Most of them are not like that & maybe if you had another kind, you would be better disposed towards ereaders in general.
    However, to the actual point of your review, these books do sound very different than the usual reading fare and I applaud the company for introducing us to such stories. You did use the word “quirky” and they certainly are. “The Combover” might be a little too out there for me, but people who don’t mind exaggerated world might enjoy it. “…Rain” is more appealing, though sadder, I would like to find out what happens to the people you mentioned.
    And finally, I am impressed at your experiences on an archeology dig. How cool! You’ve had an adventurous life!

  5. EJ Van Lanen
    January 8, 2014

    Kate, before you give up on ebooks completely, have you tried Readmill on your Nexus?

    Thanks for the reviews!


  6. Pingback: How can we fail to see that this change from the combover to the shorn head is a sign of our declining society? | Pechorin's Journal

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  • (The header image is from Aesop's Fables, illustrated by Francis Barlow (1666), and appears courtesy of the Digital and Multimedia Center at the Michigan State University Libraries.)
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