Being an Italophile, I enjoy reading about Italy and most of this year’s offerings did not disappoint. Some were purchased on Kindle, great for reading whilst travelling or in bed at 3 am, while others came in the mail as lovely, printed books. Now both kinds of books have a place in my life, but when I buy something truly remarkable on Kindle, I regret not having a hard copy and feel compelled to buy the ‘real’ thing. Some of my treasure trove of books that narrate Italy have come my way from second-hand shops. Oh Lucky Day. Others have been purchased thanks to referrals from you, dear readers and followers.
This year’s list with star ratings:
The Politics of Washing- Real Life in Venice. Polly Collins, 2013 ( kindle ) ***
Penny, along with her husband and four children, go to live in Venice for a year. Although English, her husband is Venetian and her children are bi-lingual. This is not the usual romantic saga of renovating a house in Italy, surrounded by colourful tradesman who work on the house and help prune olive trees, the couple usually comprising an artist and writer with limited Italian language and a starry-eyed view of the country. The author takes a hard look at Venice and its residents, the school system, the nightmare that is the Italian bureaucracy and public service, and of course, the plague of tourists. As the book progresses, the writing improves. Although extremely critical of many aspects of Italian life, she finds her place in Venice and comes to love her, but is scathing of the hordes of tourists who are the cause of La Serenissima’s ( what a misnomer) awful problems and demise.
‘These days, Carnival is not a Venetian festival; it is a recent revival of the old tradition, designed to squeeze yet more money from the insatiable tourists, and is, as far as I can see, universally disliked by the inhabitants of the city. It goes on for days and has no real centre or purpose, but is a sprawling, random spread of events, among which tourists wander aimlessly in ridiculous masks.
For Venetians, Carnival is another example of their perennial, nightmarish problem: somebody has organised an enormous party in your backyard but it’s not your party and you don’t know any of the guests. All you want to do is get on with your daily life in peace, but all around you there are millions of strangers doing the opposite.
Not surprisingly, there is a mass exodus of residents from the city during these joyless festivities.’
My Brilliant Friend, 2011. The Story of a New Name, 2012. Those that Leave and those that Stay, 2013. The Story of a Lost Child, 2014. Elena Ferrante. ( kindle)***
I feel ambivalent about this series, spanning five decades, from the narrator’s childhood to her late fifties. Is it over yet? I hope so! Like others, I was immediately absorbed into the Neapolitan world of Elena, the narrator, and her captivating, provocative and mysterious friend, Lina. Easy reading and great for travelling, but after four volumes, and in hindsight, I am rather pleased to have escaped this obsessive world. Too much has been written about the mysterious author: I am yet to read a review that deals exclusively with the writing.
Sicilian Food, Recipes From Italy’s Abundant Isle. Mary Taylor Simetti. ( book) 1989- this edition, 2009.***
Although containing recipes, Simetti provides the reader with an enticing culinary and social history of Sicily through the welding together of quotations from the classical era to the present. A good book to read a chapter here and there, a good bedside book, and a fine introduction to Sicilian history.
The Italians. Luigi Barzini. 1964. (book)**
A classic social history dealing with the manners and morals of the Italians, it assumes a solid background in Italian history, politics, literature. The writing is occasionally brilliant but often dilettantish and tedious. If you have read D’Annunzio’s Il Piacere or the poetry of the decadent movement, you might relate well to the following:
‘D’Annunzio, for instance, lived like a Renaissance prince, was a voluptuary surrounded by borzois, a gaudy clutter of antiques, brocades, rare oriental perfumes and flamboyant but inexpensive jewellery: dressed like a London clubman; preferably slept with duchesses, world-famous actresses, and mad Russian ladies: wrote exquisitely wrought prose and poetry: rode to hounds. His politics were of the extreme right. In reality he was a penniless provincial character of genius, the son of a small merchant from Pescara.’
Not much is said about D’Annunzio as the first Duce and model for the ideals of Fascism.
I am still wading through this one and feel ambivalent about its relevance in a post Berlusconi era.
La Bella Lingua. My love affair with Italy and the most enchanting language in the world. Dianne Hales. 2009. ( book)****
Sprinkled with Italian phrases, the author shares her love of the Italian language through chapters dealing with the rise of the volgare, with an excellent chapter on Dante, art, eating Italian, love, swearing and so on. I plan to re-read this book as my first read was fragmented, given that I read it aloud to keep the driver awake on a long trip. It is a gem of a book and one for lovers of language.
‘I have adopted a similar strategy of ‘eating Italian’ to make the language part of me. I read aloud the lilting words for simple culinary techniques, such as rosolare for making golden, sbriciolare for crumble, and sciacquare for rinse. I revel in the linguistic pantry of pasta shapes: little ears, half sleeves, stars, thimbles and the tartly named lingue di suocera ( mother in law tongues) and strozzapreti (priest stranglers, rich enough to sate ravenous clerics before the expensive meat course). Desserts such as zucotto, ciambellone, sospiro di monaca ( a nun’s sigh) and tiramisu (pick me up) glide so deliciously over my tongue that I agree with cooks who claim they can fare respirare i morti ( make the dead breathe).’
Head over Heel, Chris Harrison. 2009. ( kindle)***
A biography in which an Australian, Chris, falls in love with an Italian girl, Daniela, as they go to live in her home town on the coast of Puglia, after holidaying with family in Sicily and attempt to work for one year in Milan. The author begins in a lighthearted vein: there are lots of comic moments in the early chapters as he exposes the insanity of the Italian bureaucracy. His best writing is serious as he examines the Italian character. In fact the book improves along the way when he shifts into a more academic mode. Well referenced and a fan of Barzini’s The Italians.
The Italians, John Hooper. 2015 (kindle)*****
This is a brilliant social history and now I must purchase a hard copy. It is current and reads more fluently than its predecessor of the same name by Barzini. Well researched and documented. As I scroll through my annoying Kindle edition, I want to quote the entire book. If you choose to read one book about Italy this year, it should be this one. My book of the year!
Falling in Love, Donna Leon. 2015 ( Kindle)*
I have around 24 novels by Donna Leon, crime novels set in Venice, featuring the charming character of Commissario Brunetti, Police Comissioner, his wife Paola, the mysterious and sketchily drawn secretary, Signorina Elettra and the nasty Vice Questore Patta. I did not enjoy Falling in Love, given the return of Flavia, an opera singer who has appeared in an earlier novel, an unappealing character. Leon generally sprinkles her novels with scathing criticism of Venetian and Italian corruption, and delightful domestic passages about food and wine, as Brunetti and his offsider, Vianello, slip into a bar for an ombra or find an unassuming trattoria for lunch. These lovely nuggets are missing from the latest two novels and the charm of Brunetti seems to have dissipated. I also note some very poor editing in the last two novels and may stop buying my annual Leon novel.
Antonia and her Daughters. Marlena de Blasi. 2012 ( kindle)**
I do enjoy de Blasi’s novels. Her characters, particularly her female characters, are strong-willed and independent, and Blasi as narrator and protagonist feels compelled to meet them and become part of their lives. As an outsider living in Italy, she often wades into situations that others might leave well alone. Her own life and those she meets are harvested, perhaps exploited to the limit, as she attempts to narrate Italy, its people, food and countryside. I preferred her earlier novels.
The Food of Love Cookery School. Nicky Pellegrino. 2013 ( kindle)
Very light, romantic chic lit. The title says it all. Pellegrino sets her novels in Italy but tends to deal in stereotypes. I have read a good novel by Pellegrino in the past. This is not one of them. No stars at all!
Seeking Sicily- A Cultural Journey Through Myth and Reality in the Heart of the Mediterranean. John Keahey.2011 (book)
In my reading pile. Review next year, which starts tomorrow.
Happy New Year, Buon Anno, and enjoy your new and old books in whatever form they come.