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La forma dell'acqua: Why I Abandoned It

This week I gave up on an Italian novel I had been trying to read. I'd had high hopes for La forma dell'acqua, since the author is super popular in Italy and is widely read in translation around the world. It's the first novel in a series involving a detective, and that's very much the sort of stuff I like.

Since the book takes place in Sicily, I had expected there to be a fair number of Sicilian expressions in the dialogue. I was prepared for that, and planned to use some online resources to look up words as needed. I did not expect to find them in the narration, though. Worse, it turns out that the author likes to create new words by taking Sicilian roots and giving them Italian endings, making it impossible for a non-native to look them up at all.

The author is so popular that you can actually find out what a lot of the words are by doing a web search because many Italian readers like to debate what they actually mean. Unfortunately, if you are a student of Italian hoping to improve your vocabulary, these are not the sort of "words" you want to be learning.


January 21, 2015



Hope you find a new book, and good luck on your studies.


I'm reading "Seta" instead. It's even easier then Sostiene Pereira was. If I like how the story turns out, I may end up suggesting it as a good first novel for people. It's a 2008 novel set in the 1860s and it's about a guy trying to save the French silk business by smuggling silkworm eggs. I'll probably have a review for it in a week or two.


I'll be interested to hear what you think of it. My Italian penpal recommended me a couple of books by the same author (I bought Oceano Mare, which I haven't read yet) but she specifically warned me against Seta. I'll have to check back in her email to see why.


I can imagine it's like trying to read Ian Rankin (a Scottish mystery writer) as a non-native English speaker. His books are fantastic, but with lots of Scottish slang. I cannot imagine trying to read one as an English learner! I guess the choice of what to read is super-important.

By the way, I bought Sostiene Pereira for my Kindle on your recommendation. I'm going to wait until I am a bit more advanced in my Italian study to read it, but hopefully that won't be too far down the road.


Are you from Scotland?


No, not at all - just a massive mystery novel fan.


Yes, when you're a native, you can generally figure it all out. Or if you read an SF or fantasy novel with lots of made-up words part of the fun is figuring them out. But when you're not a native speaker, that's a burden you just can't cope with. Not until you're a solid C1 working on C2, at least.


I'm rather intrigued now to see how my Italian would measure up against La Forma dell'Acqua :-). One variable factor in these reading experiences is how tolerant you are to not understanding everything. More novels become readable if you content yourself with just getting the gist of the most difficult passages. But of course mystery novels are precisely the genre in which you don't want to be skipping details...


Tut tut, these authors! I believe that even Shakespeare made up several hundred words ( or was it several thousand?)


Shakespeare made a few thousand. Two thousand words and phrases of his are still popular today. Although Jay-Z has made up more.


I love Camilleri, but I strongly advise not to read it if you are not a native speaker (and even then...). It's little known, but for his first book the editor asked him to include a glossary at the end of the book, since without it it would have been impossible for a reader to understand it. Yet, when he gained success (also via the TV series) some of his expressions became so popular that no glossary was needed anymore.

All in all, it is not your fault, you just make an unfortunate choice :) Baricco is much easier, even though his language is not always straightforward. Good luck!


What I recommend for people like me who love murder mysteries, and are looking for a first novel is to start out with the short story compilations like Crimini, Crimini Italiani and Giudici which not only give you a taste of some of Italy's best contemporary crime writers, but also gives you an opportunity to see who writes in passato remoto and who doesn't. Not a big deal if you've finished your tree, but makes reading a challenge for those who haven't. The stories are also short enough that if you can't get the books on Kindle from Amazon.com or co.uk, you can buy them in paperback from Amazon.it and not be overwhelmed by the number of words you have to look up. I'm currently reading Quer Pasticciaccio Brutto de Via Merulana by Carlo Emilio Gadda which is considered one of Italy's great novels, and a murder mystery, but it's full of Roman dialect and it's killing me.

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