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BOOK REVIEW

Discoveries

August 10, 2008|Susan Salter Reynolds

Woman of Rome

A Life of Elsa Morante

Lily Tuck

Harper: 272 pp., $25.95

IF ELSA MORANTE and her husband, Alberto Moravia, had been French rather than Italian, "they would have been as much celebrated as Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir," according to Lily Tuck.

It was Morante's most famous novel, "Arturo's Island," about a motherless boy growing up on an island, that made Tuck realize she wanted to be a writer. Tuck, who has written some wonderful novels -- "The News From Paraguay," "Siam, or the Women Who Shot a Man" and others -- spent much of her childhood in Rome with her filmmaker father.

Morante and Moravia lived in a mountain hut during World War II but returned to Rome in the heady postwar years when it was considered by many to be the film capital of the world. Their friends included the likes of Luchino Visconti and Bernardo Bertolucci and literary figures such as Carlo Levi, Italo Calvino and Natalia Ginzburg. Tuck is fascinated by Morante's drive to continually reinvent herself and blends memories of her own childhood into Morante's story, memories that add texture and a sense of honesty to the biography.

Unpacking the Boxes

A Memoir of a Life in Poetry

Donald Hall

Houghton Mifflin: 196 pp., $24

When Donald Hall was 5, he decided to become a carpenter. At 12, inspired by an interest in girls and Edgar Allan Poe, Hall wrote a poem about death, the first of many poems about death to come.

Poetry, he discovered, "was secret, dangerous, wicked and delicious." In college, writing poetry gave him an outsider status that suited him. Later, it gave him a community: His friends on the Harvard Advocate literary journal were Robert Bly, Adrienne Rich, Kenneth Koch and John Ashbery.

In 1975 Hall returned to his family's farm in New Hampshire with his wife, the poet Jane Kenyon. "I traveled to solitude with Jane in the New Hampshire house, to a life of poetry."

The Craftsman

Richard Sennett

Yale University Press: 326 pp., $27.50

In THIS book, Richard Sennett, who has written for decades about work and culture and character, explores the role of craftsmanship in our relationship to things. Craftsmanship is an "enduring, basic human impulse," a vital connection between the head and the hand, an "anchor in material reality." Poor craftsmanship is a "barometer of other forms of material indifference"; it reveals a kind of despondency.

"Making physical things provides insights into the techniques of experience that can shape our dealings with others," Sennett writes. Through craftsmanship we learn how to express ourselves and handle resistance: "This is true of making a pot; it is also and equally true of raising a child."

Dumbfounded

A Memoir

Matt Rothschild

Crown: 302 pp., $24.95

MATT ROTHSCHILD was raised by his fabulously wealthy grandparents on New York's Upper East Side in a 19-room apartment on Fifth Avenue. They were the only Jewish family in the building and in spite of his wealth, Matt's grandfather never transcended his desire to prove himself to his neighbors -- refusing, for example, to ride in the white Rolls-Royce after Labor Day. Matt's grandmother, on the other hand, was fierce and outspoken, refusing to cater to the "oil paintings," as she referred to their WASP neighbors. Matt's mother left him with his grandparents when she went off to Italy to marry her fourth husband. Matt was chubby. He liked to wear his grandmother's clothes. He was repeatedly kicked out of tony schools and was sent to boarding school. His tone is funny and defiant. "For my grandparents," he writes in the dedication. "It's just a book. Relax."

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susan.reynolds@latimes.com

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