Ah, Italy – land of la dolce vita, history, art, music, culture, food, and wine. Also impenetrable politics, labyrinthine bureaucracy, organized crime… I could choose 10 books for each of those categories. But I have to stick to 10. Think of it as a starter list.
1. La Bella Figura: A Field Guide to the Italian Mind by Beppe Severgnini
Who better to show you the Italian mindset than Beppe Severinini, writer, journalist, and regular columnist for Corriere Della Sera, one of Italy’s biggest newspapers? To Italians, La Bella Figura means cutting a good figure or being seen in the best possible light. Severgnini goes behind the façade for a look at modern Italy, the good, the bad, and the bella. “Italy is the only workshop in the world that can turn out both Botticellis and Berlusconis.”
2. Italian Ways: On and Off the Rails from Milan to Palermo by Tim Parks
I recommend all of Tim Parks’ Italian-themed books but I love train travel so this makes the list. Parks is an Englishman who has lived in Italy for most of his adult life. He’s a university lecturer, translator, and accomplished novelist. Italian Ways explores how modern Italy was shaped by the development of its railways. And no, Mussolini didn’t make the trains run on time, he just took the credit.
3. Midnight in Sicily: On Art, Food, History, Travel and la Cosa Nostra by Peter Robb
Australian Peter Robb has a keen eye for scandal. Sicily may be in the title but Robb’s brilliant book casts its net wide, rather like the Mafia, into big cities, small towns, and the backrooms where the deals are done.
4. The Garden of the Finzi Continis by Giorgio Bassani
Bassani’s novel, set in Ferrara, is the story of a young man who falls love with a young woman far above his station. That’s not the worst of it. The Garden of the Finzi Continis is set in the Fascist era, and the narrator and the girl he loves are Jewish. The shadow of the Holocaust steals so slowly over Ferrara that no one notices the danger until it is too late.
5. Benevolence and Betrayal: Five Jewish Families Under Fascism by Alexander Stille
Mussolini’s racial laws, introduced in 1938, prohibited Jews from doing many things; one of them was publishing their writings. Stille’s father, took the pseudonym Ugo Stille to get around the laws so it’s not surprising that Alexander chose to write about this period. He follows the lives of five Italian Jewish families and how they survived, or didn’t, under Mussolini’s rule.
6. Marcovaldo or The Seasons in the City by Italo Calvino
Calvino’s collection of 20 short stories centers on Marcovaldo, a poor agricultural worker who relocates his family to a big industrial city. While there is a fair amount of humor at Marcovaldo’s expense, there is also poignancy and reflection on the changes in post-war Italy.
7. Travels with a Medieval Queen by Mary Taylor Simeti
This book is a medieval road trip through the highways, byways, and backroads. Taylor Simeti has always been fascinated by Constance of Hauteville, the 12th century Sicilian princess who married a German king and returned to Sicily, at age forty and pregnant for the first time, to rule as queen.
8. Francesco’s Italy by Francesco da Mosto
Another royal road trip but this time in a red convertible. Da Mosto is a Venetian count, architect, and historian who is fascinated by his homeland’s different landscapes, dialects, architecture, culture, and traditions – he calls this il bel casino or ‘the great confusion.’ He leaves his city on the lagoon and heads south to his mother’s birthplace of Palermo.
9. Living in Italy: The Real Deal — How to Survive the Good Life by Stef Smulders
Stef and husband Nico found their slice of la dolce vita in the wine growing region of the Oltepò Pavese, south of Milan. This is their story of surviving dodgy real estate agents, belligerent contractors, and Italian bureaucracy. It’s funny, wry, and there’s a glossary of Italian terms – handy if you are ever tempted to do the same.
10. Lonely Planet Italy by Lonely Planet, Cristian Bonetto, Abigail Blasi, and Kerry Christiani
While it’s great to free range and ask locals for recommendations, I prefer to hedge my bets, if only to make sure I don’t miss out on something. Lonely Planet guides incorporate both information from experts and suggestions from travelers.
So, plenty to read. All you need now is a to learn to ride a vespa, as they say, “When in Rome…”
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