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Top 6 books that try to explain Italy

Top 6 books that try to explain Italy

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I remember back in early 2008 when I was working in an art warehouse in the midst of an industrial wasteland in Newark, New Jersey, I would get through the day by reading all the news I could about Italy online. I mostly read John Hooper’s articles for The Guardian  reading about the April general elections and Berlusconi running again for prime minister, the rubbish crisis in Naples, Alitalia on the brink of bankruptcy and the circus surrounding the Amanda Knox trial in Perugia.

During that time, I was preparing to move to London to study for a masters degree and I remember asking myself why I was obsessed with reading about what was happening in Italy. And I asked myself the question even though I knew it was because I was preparing myself to move to Italy. London was just the first step, what I really wanted was to move to Italy and stay there forever. (In hindsight, I could have taken a more direct route by doing a masters in Rome, but I was compelled to take a more poetic, meandering journey which, as you know, hasn’t stopped yet. Going directly to Italy was too obvious.)

Anyway, I did, I moved to London, then to Rome and then back to London again where I’ve been for the past 5 years plotting a way to go back and stay back. And in the meantime, I’ve been continuing my Italian education, talking, writing and reading in Italian, watching movies, listening to podcasts, and going back to Italy any chance I can get to hang out with family and in-laws.

Ischia panoramica Hotel Europa

First hand experience with Italian culture and learning from friends and family is important, but I’ve found that reading books about Italy, especially those written by writers who want to untangle the mysterious, chaotic and paradoxical Italian culture, helps me enormously. I’ve found that these books have explained a lot of my upbringing and have helped clear the murkiness I felt whenever I asked questions about Italy to my parents and they couldn’t really answer.

Ischia caffe

So here is a list of books that I recommend for those that are planning to move to Italy, those that want to understand their heritage, and for those that just love Italy and want something that goes deeper than the dolce-vita-let’s-buy-a-ruin-in-tuscany-and-renovate-it-and-look-at-the-view-and-be-seduced-and-get-down-to-our-basic-instincts. (Although I love those books, too).

In no order:

  1.  A History of Contemporary Italy: Society and Politics 1943-1980 by Paul Ginsburg: This is a completely thorough historical analysis of post-war Italy replete with appendices with charts and data. I read this while I was living in Rome and it completely opened my mind. Suddenly the names of the streets had meaning like viale Palmiro Togliatti that cuts through Rome north via south. (The street’s named after the leader of the Communist Party who helped put together a new government at the end of WWII. Pretty cool that the Italians would name a street after a Communist leader. You wouldn’t see that in the States.) This book has helped me pick up on tons of cultural and historical references that are found in films and song lyrics. It helped me place stories told to me by family, friends and acquaintances within a historical context. It’s a dense read, but very worth it and will ease a sense of isolation if you’re living in Italy.
  2. An Italian Education by Tim Parks: Tim Parks is a British writer and translator that has been living in Italy since 1981. His books about Italy are witty, educational, and endearing and he has that great British self-deprecating humour. In this one, he writes about his children going to school and growing up in Italy, but by the time you reach the end you realise that he’s really writing about his own education and how his children who are more Italian than English are teaching him what it is to be Italian
  3. The Italians by Luigi Barzini: This book came out in 1964 by the Italian journalist and has been in print ever since. Even though it’s outdated in parts and spends a bit too long chronicling the views foreigners had on Italy from the Renaissance through to the 19th century, it really tries to understand the psyche of Italians and how they try to make the dull facts of life beautiful and ceremonial while hiding the ugly and the tragic from public view. (Is that why so many things are unsaid and unshared in my family and we carry the agony and difficult things alone in our guts?
  4. The Italians by John Hooper: Hooper is the Italian correspondent for The Economist and a former foreign correspondent at The Guardian covering Italy and Spain. Taking the title of Barzini’s book, The Italians is a fun and perceptive look at contemporary Italian culture and Hooper dismantles a lot of the stereotypes and uses facts to explain parts of Italian life like their reluctance to use a dishwasher, changing attitudes to sex, corruption and the mafia, and why there’s not word in Italian for hangover.
  5. Five Quarters by Rachel Roddy (also known as A Kitchen in Rome in the US): This is a cookbook that I have to throw in here because she tells stories about her life in Rome using food. Rachel Roddy is a former actor and present British food writer that lives in Rome with her partner and son. I devour her weekly column in The Guardian and I love this cookbook. Her recipes are simple and while I’m aware of already and have made a lot of the recipes that she writes, the stories that go along with them, such as stealing lemons from a tree that hangs over the wall or a particular lazy morning at home in her flat, make Rome come to life and I can feel it like I’m back there again. She makes connections with the people in her neighbourhood, the market vendors, restaurant chefs and shop-owners and you can feel what it’s like to be part of the city, not just as an ex-pat who is observing life from the outside. She’s my favourite food writer.
  6. La Bella Figura by Beppe Severgnini: I’ve seen this book everywhere in bookshops across Italy and in the UK. When I was living in Rome, I saw this book in the English section every time I went to La Feltrinelli in Largo Argentina and I never ever picked it up to read the back of the cover. The cover looked stupid and it took me 7 years to finally read it and damn, it would have made things better for me when I was in Rome. It’s similar to The Italians by Barzini in that it seeks to explain to foreigners things such as the theatrical spirit of life in Italy, the Italians relationship to the traffic light, the importance of the beach, and the furnishings of a typical apartment. La Bella Figura is funnier than Barzini’s The Italians and gives a modern view of what life in Italy is like today. You can read more of Severgnini’s work in The New York Times. He also has a regular column in Il Corriere della Sera called Italians written for Italians abroad.

Other books:

Here’s a list of other non-fiction books and memoirs about Italy that I’ve read. I’ve put a star next to the ones that I particularly liked.

*The Land Where Lemons Grow – Helena Atlee (about the history of lemon groves in Italy)

*La Bella Lingua – Dianne Hales (about the Italian language)

Head over Heel – Chris Harrison (about living in Puglia)

Italian Hours – Henry James

*In Other Words – Jhumpa Lahiri (about learning Italian, written in Italy and translated into English)

Under the Tuscan Sun – Frances Mayes (living in Tuscany)

The Stones of Florence and Venice Observed – Mary McCarthy

Italian Neighbours – Tim Parks (living outside Verona)

*Italian Ways – Tim Parks (about traveling through Italy by train)

*Midnight in Sicily – Peter Robb (about Sicily, the history of the mafia, and the political climate from the 1970s to 90s)

Reflections in Blue Water – Alan Ross (living on the Italian islands)

*My Italians – Roberto Saviano (series of essays about various aspects of Italian society, translated in English)

Bitter Almonds – Mary Taylor Simeti and Maria Grammatico (about the story of Maria Grammatico and her pastry shop)

Only in Naples – Katherine Wilson (about living in Naples)

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