I picked Four Seasons in Rome: On Twins, Insomnia, and the Biggest Funeral in the History of the World by Anthony Doerr* for my online Lit Happens group. I honestly don't remember how this came across my desk, but I never turn down a chance to read a book about Italy, especially one about Rome. And I'm glad that others were as keen to read it as I was. My husband has a book group that, I swear, they all grouse about the picks. Though, I'll be honest, I listened to half of his book this month when we were driving to visit my in-laws and it was definitely grouse-worthy. Even the boys were elated that they didn't have to hear any more of that depressing book. In any case...let's get back to the purpose of this post!
This isn't a particularly deep story or a memoir with a pointed focus or great epiphany, but it succeeds because Doerr is a fantastic writer.
"The easier an experience, or the more entrenched, or the more familiar, the fainter our sensation of it becomes. This is true of chocolate and marriages and hometowns and narrative structures. Complexities wane, miracles become unremarkable, and if we’re not careful, pretty soon we’re gazing out at our lives as if through a burlap sack" (pg. 54).
I loved his sense of wonder, his self-deprecating manner regarding his language skills, and his keen observations about life in Rome.
"At the produce stand—we learn the hard way—you’re not supposed to touch the vegetables; you point at the insalatine or pomodori and the merchant will set them on the scale. The butcher’s eggs sit in open cartons, roasting in the sun. There are no tags on any of his meat; I gesture at something pink and boneless and cross my fingers" (pg. 10).
"'Sugo di pompelmo,' I say. 'Con basilico.' She squints at me. She knows me, I think; several times she has offered Henry and Owen lollipops. 'Sugo di pompelmo,' I say. I point. Her fingers float past the jars on the shelves. 'Sugo di carne?' There are two dozen jars of tomato sauce right in front of her eyes. I speak more loudly. 'No, no. Sugo di pompelmo.' I am determined not to fail. She holds up a can of pears. I shake her off. She holds up jar of tomatoes with mushrooms. 'Questo? Pomodori? Con funghi?' 'Ecco! I say. 'Sù.' With mushrooms. Good enough. She hands me the jar. I pay. It’s not until I’m back on via Carini, halfway home, that I realize I was hollering for grapefruit sauce. Grapefruit sauce with basil" (pg. 59).
Well, it wasn't just his observations about Rome; I admired his candor about being a new parent.
"Shauna and I have meandering, sleep-starved debates: Why won’t Owen sleep? Gas? Jet lag? Italy? Having a baby is like bringing a noisy, inarticulate foreigner into your house and trying to guess what he likes to eat" (pg. 19).
And also "Cook spaghetti, peel an apple. Cut spaghetti and apple into small pieces. Place on high-chair trays. Watch Henry and Owen throw food onto the floor. Pick it up off the floor. ...If I didn’t have you, Owen; if I didn’t have you, Henry. If I didn’t have you, I would be able to eat lunch with two hands" (pg. 103).
And I appreciated the craft of his prose as much as his subject. Though I am anxious to see how this book translates to people who aren't as familiar with Rome as I am. Like Doerr, I spent four seasons in Rome...just after I graduated from college. So, it has a special place in my heart and a haunting familiarity.
"Amphorae, when they’re found whole, have thin necks, pointed bottoms, two handles. Empty, an unbroken transport amphora weighs sixty-six pounds. In the days of the Empire they’d be filled with wax or honey or linseed or grain, or—more often than not—olive oil. Then they’d be stacked in ships, floated to Rome from Spain or North Africa, dragged up the Tiber, and unloaded right below Mt. Testaccio, before the rapids around Tiber Island. The oil would be decanted into smaller jugs, and the amphorae would be cracked and stuffed with their own pieces and sprinkled with lime and stacked. All regulated, all planned, all recorded in Latin. Olive oil was the muscle, hair tonic, soap, and lamp fuel of the Empire, the flavor of its meals, the illumination of its dramas. Pliny devotes eight scrupulous chapters of the Natural History to olives and the olive tree, from seeding to picking to pressing to storing. Olive oil was rubbed on icons, bridles, kings, pregnant women, and foot sores. Want to preserve a piece of wood? Moisturize your face? Soothe a toothache, alleviate stretch marks, grease a chariot axle, cool your scalp, anoint a dead Christian?" (pg. 104)
I would pick up other books by Doerr simply because he writes well. And though I was unfamiliar with this idiom, I agree wholeheartedly. "Roma, they say, non basta una vita. One life is not enough" (pg. 201).
From the stores..."In a pasta shop—a glass counter, piles of tortellini, yards of fettuccine—I manage to buy a kilogram of orange ravioli stuffed with pumpkin and ricotta, the pasta dusty with flour. 'I suoi bambini,' the shopkeeper tells me, watching my eyes to see if I’m following. 'Sono belli.' Your babies, they are beautiful" (pg. 18).
makes six 8" pizzas (easily halved, but we love our pizza and having leftovers)
- 1 cup sourdough starter, unfed/discard
- 1 cup sourdough starter, recently fed (within 8 hours)
- 1 cup warm water
- 1 teaspoon active dry yeast
- 2 teaspoons salt
- 5 cups flour plus more for kneading
- oil for the bowl
- crushed tomatoes
- fresh tomatoes (I used halved cherry tomatoes)
- fresh mozzarella
- freshly ground salt
- freshly ground pepper
- fresh basil
- sautéed mushrooms (I used a combination of shiitake, oyster, and yellow oyster mushrooms)
Place starters and water into a large mixing bowl. Stir gently to get rid of any lumps from the unfed starter; mine is always a thick lump. Spoon the yeast over the top and let bloom for 10 minutes. Add in the flour and salt. Use a wooden spoon to combine to a shaggy dough like the photo above.