Alice Hoffman is one of those writers I always keep my eye on, eagerly awaiting new novels to shut myself in a room and gobble up. When I saw that her newest novel was set in Coney Island (and during the heyday of the boardwalk) I just couldn't wait to get it in my hands. Simply put, the novel is about Coralie, a mermaid in her father’s Museum of Extraordinary Things and Eddie, a Russian immigrant, ex-factory worker turned photographer and the tragic events that unite them. But, that is putting it too simply. The Museum of Extraordinary Things is a tale of New York City at the turn of the 20th century- its burgeoning growth and the victims of cruel and unregulated labor practices; a vivid view of the Coney Island boardwalk during the time of “freak shows” and a portrait of those so-called freaks.
The nine stories of Francesca Marciano’s The Other Language (Pantheon, $24.95) feature characters in foreign lands during transitional times in their lives. In one, a middle-aged married couple on holiday in India makes spontaneous decisions that affect the rest of their lives. In another a recently divorced woman has just purchased a house in a small Italian village; hoping for serenity, she is instead confronted by her fractured familial relationships, an eccentric villager with a remarkable talent, and a movie star who just won’t go away. The collection perfectly encapsulates the bittersweet, lonely feeling of traveling or living abroad. Marciano is a natural storyteller, and reading her work is like listening to a friend talk about people she knows. As well as being conversational, Marciano’s language has an almost cinematic quality—I was utterly engrossed in each scene as it played out before me. Whether you’re going on vacation or just dreaming about one, I can’t imagine a more atmospheric book to accompany and inspire you. I simply love this book.
A country’s transportation system can be surprisingly illuminating, and in Italian Ways (W.W. Norton, $15.95) Tim Parks takes the Italian railroad region by region, telling the country’s history by that of its railway. His engaging and informative tour includes a look at nonsensical laws that are as frequently enforced as they are blatantly ignored, and the political and economic implications of the controversial form of transportation (yes, controversial!). From the tickets that state they require stamping but in fact don’t, to the Sicily-bound train that has to be dismantled, carriage by carriage (a twelve-hour process), and ferried to the island because there is no bridge, the reader sees what Parks means when he says that “Italy is not for beginners.” All this is riveting, and Parks makes the book unputdownable with his own personal accounts of traveling by Italian rail. Here are first-hand glimpses homecoming soldiers smothered in maternal kisses and the loud and boisterous soccer fans waving team flags from the windows—you will walk away from this book with a few laughs and a deeper understanding of Italy’s people and culture.