Saturday, January 10, 2015

Bus 64 - Roma by Umberto Bartolomeo

This collection of 48 short stories is by far the best self-published book I have read to date.  The quality of writing is inspiring and on par with award-winning literary short-story collections.  The appeal for Italophiles is that the author brings Rome, Italy, and Italians to life for the reader, with literary skill and a deep understanding of the human heart.

After just the first few paragraphs, I felt like I was in strong, capable, literary arms.  I love the conversational yet authoritative tone, and all the local lore, history, humor, erudition, psychological understanding, and heart that enrich the stories about people, not caricatures, and about daily life in Rome.

Here is the premise behind the collection of overlapping stories:
Welcome aboard this book about a bus...
Our narrator is a passenger on Rome's Bus 64, and he invites us to join him for the ride from beginning to end.  Along the way, expertly drawing us along with him, he introduces us to the driver and some of the other passengers, letting us into their hearts and minds, into their lives and professions:  a businessman, a restaurateur, an architect, a housewife, mother, servant, the unemployed, tourists, immigrants, the pensioned... 

Have you read The Canterbury Tales, or The Decameron?  This is a modern-day version written with Kurt Vonnegut-esque wit, with the characters mingling and showing their best and worst sides to our omniscient narrator, and through him, to us.


Rome is a character in the stories, too.  We are treated to snapshots of Rome:  her bridges, streets, monuments, filth and crowds.
Too many monumental structures that are too close together, too heavily embellished, constructed too ambitiously for forever.
And we get to meet Rome's people:
...some people here seem to have stepped through a time-warp -- old Romans being recycled with a mere change of costume.
The author takes us on a journey from the stories Rome--Caput Mundi and Waiting for our Driver, to The End of the Line and Buona Notte!! on "...a public bus, frill-less and elemental...".  We feel the press of messy humanity around us in Rome, with people from all over the world, coming together on a city bus. 

With Chekovian psychological subtlety, the author helps us explore Rome's and the characters' sights, visitors, smells, frailties, passions, sins, rigid thoughts, biases, bowels, dreams, sins, goals and mortality.  He exposes to us the characters' various world views.

There is much humor to lighten the tales that roam "...Rome's video-game streets..." but it is the author's way with words, his ability to turn a phrase, that is the greatest pleasure on this journey from the Vatican to the Stazione Termini.
"...loafing in the easy chair of one's body."

"...fraternitas, the civic bond that men needed if they were to live together like true men?"

"This was a feigned mildness, though, the mask worn by the immigrant."

"Death's time-worn road was well paved now, it seemed."
Characters, once introduced in their own stories, sometimes outside of the bus, return within stories about other passengers.  By the end of the collection, we have become part of a small community of players, acting and interacting on the author's mobile stage:  Bus 64.

Some themes connect the stories, such as the recurring sense of time passing, eras changing, cultures clashing, personalities exerting their uniqueness to the frustration of other characters. 

The author demonstrates a wise awareness of the human condition that goes beyond time and age and experience, suggesting that he is not like the character in the book whom he describes as:
She had passed her whole life as does everyone, rushing and dreaming in blind, deaf refusal of the miracle of each moment.
While never indulging in pathos, the reader will feel their heart warn to a few of the characters, like the rose-selling street-woman.
We know nothing about this old woman, while her twinkling fox-eyes seem to know very much about us.  They know about our car and our flat with its lock and its furniture.  About our refrigerator humming, stocked and waiting.  Our paychecks and savings, our pillowed bed and television, our vacations and insurance, our watch, thermostat and wardrobe.  As we take the rose from her hand, we see her wizened face against the starry sky.  And she sees us.  And she is watching, closely watching. ... it was through her that we stepped somehow, for brief moments, out of time.  [excerpt: Pantheon Rose]

If you enjoy reading quality, polished, moving, expert, psychologically astute writing, then Bus 64 - Roma is the book for you.  Take your time with the stories.  Embrace the diverse characters.  I promise you that by the end of the collection, you will feel that you have been a passenger on Bus 64, and that you have met and known several dozen Romans and visitors to Rome.  Travel virtually to the Caput Mundi.

I'll leave you with a quote from a story about a man who lives in one of the government-housing apartment buildings on the periphery of Rome, with the families stacked in cubicle-like housing reminiscent of ancient Rome's insulae:
From a dozen other windows came the anchor-man's stern voice, with the latest details of what you already knew:  that the world was in chaos and that war, crime and money were the sun, moon and stars.

From the book's description:
Rome's notoriously crowded BUS 64 crawls from the Vatican, through the historic center, to Stazione Termini... crammed inside are the priest, butcher, tourist, gypsy, secretary, business tycoon, homeless schizophrenic, African immigrant... all pressed much too close for comfort.
Teeming with the thoughts, dreams and passions of modern Romans, and the sights, sounds, and smells of the Eternal City, the 49 stories in BUS 64 continually shift gears between elegy, satire, whimsy, shocking realism, fable, and more... each style riveting in its quite different way.
As the loaded bus plods on, readers will catch whiffs of authors ranging from Boccaccio to Steinbeck, Henry Miller to Hans Christian Andersen, all fused in a mature literary voice all its own. Filled with wit and acute perceptions - emotional, psychological, physical and spiritual - this high-spirited portrait of Rome has got edge, heart, guts, and verbal artistry. Above all, it has the FEEL of Rome.
If you know and love Rome, BUS 64 will delight you. And if you haven't been there, a ride through this book is almost as good as a visit.

Here are direct links to the book at

This review is by Candida Martinelli, of Candida Martinelli's Italophile Site, and the author of the cozy-murder-mystery novel AN EXTRA VIRGIN PRESSING MURDER, and the young-adult/adult mystery novel series THE VIOLET STRANGE MYSTERIES the first book of which is VIOLET'S PROBLEM.

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