Reviews of books on Italy
From Classics to Comics. Books we have read that are either about Italy, or set in Italy. Or by Italian authors. A couple renegades set in France but have texture of time spent abroad that reminded me of moments in Italy. Eclectic, but alphabetical. By author’s last name.
|A . B . C . D . E . F . G . H . I . J . K . L . M . N . O . P . Q . R . S . T . U . V . W . X . Y . Z|
Il Delfino. Sergio Bambarein. An Italian Jonathan Livingson Seagull with a dolphin. Tiny, in Italian but simple, easy to read, Italian. Good for beginner students of the language.
The Garden of the Fizi Continis. Giorgio Bassini. You may have seen the classic De Sica film. I had a copy of the film I watched dozens of times. Just hooked on it. Sad, but inspiring Jewish life in Ferrara pre WW2. The book is a masterpiece Translated by our son Zak’s advisor and friend at Bard College, Wm Weaver who we have had the pleasure of meeting a couple times. Book may even be better than the movie. Why choose, enjoy both. The book is about thoughts and self analysis. Author/central character has total knowledge of himself and how he and the world are screwing up. Spectacular writing, so many dark places, caves, tombs, shadows, shadows of bad things yet to come. Book of languid regret. It is a wonder de Sica could make his movie of this cloth.
L’airone. Giorgio Bassini again. Also translated from Italian by Wm Weaver. People said “don’t read it, too dark” even the intro basically said that. Oh well, forewarned is forearmed. I thought it was fine, detailed personality sketch of a real person, a loner, a detached outsider. A person with everything – except a real reason to live. He owns a lot of property and he is very passive, but his workers hate him. That eats at him, but he does nothing about it, may be dying of boredom.
A Tuscan Childhood. Kinta Beevor. WW2 historical but biographical and personal. Another British lady, with egocentric artist husband living in castle in Italy. Pretty wonderful almost fairy tale life, but warm and real. They all lived in this dream with a extended Italian family at the castle until the war and what the war didn’t wreck the Italian government sort of did in its effort to make it a sterile government display. We went to visit it and it is still wonderful but the personality they brought to it is gone. Incredible story and a commentary on the uselessness of war. Iris Origio lived in the villa next to theirs in Fiesole.
Corelli’s Mandolin. Louis de Bernieres. Beautifully, sad WW2 love story. Barrels of characters. Lot of Greek tragedy, Italian tragedy, too.
Bonelli comics. In Italian. The world of Italian fummetti. And a strange world it is. Fumetti means little smoke, relating to the cartoon balloons as smoke clouds. Smaller format, color covers, often black and white inside. Sergio Bonelli series have been huge part of the “culture” since the 1950’s. New titles available monthly in all news stands, train stations etc. A great way for visual people to study contemporary Italian conversation. So much more obvious with all the pictures. Visual aids!
If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler. Italo Calvino. Very pretty, very wild writing. Very much about the writing. Had to be a challenge to translate. William Weaver, Bard professor does much of his translating.
Invisible Knight/Cloven Viscount. Italo Calvino. Incredible word play, but too bloody and bloody gloom and doom predictable at a certain point.
The road to San Giovanne. Italo Calvino. Collected memory exercises gathered posthumously by his widow. Pretty in touch kind of guy. Can write anything he chose. The title story was worth the price of admission alone. Just me, but think she (Mrs. Calvino) should have left the title of the collection be his working title Passaggi Obligatti. Translated by Tim Parks.
The Ciano Diaries. 1939-1943 The complete, unabridged diaries of Count Galeazzo Ciano. Italian minister for Foreign Affairs, 1936-1943. Historical. His boss and father in law was il Duce himself. A tough thug for this cultured, educated man to answer to. A view from the inside of the Fascist machine. An amazing book and one I found by accident. Based on the manuscript smuggled out of Italy by his wife after the Nazis executed the author. Being Mussolini’s son in law didn’t cut any mustard with them. A completely new perspective on the war. Sad as all of them, just different.
The Italian Way. Mario Costantino and Lawrence Gambella. Customs, Holidays, Helpful hints.
The Great Infidel. Joseph Jay Deiss. Biographical novel about Fredrick the Second of Swabia. Not a very Italian sounding name you say? Yes, but as you read all things Italian, his name comes up over and over and in Italy Frederico il secondo is a name to be reckoned with. Poet, scholar, linguist, bon vivant, free thinker, King of Sicily and Jerusalem, Holy Roman Emperor in the 1200 AD period. Grandson of Barbarossa on one side and King Roger II of Sicily (a French Viking, ok Norman freebooter) The world would surely have been a better place if there were more like Fred who seemed the ultimate, rationale man. But the popes won in the end and his legacy died.
The two lives of Charlemane. Einhard and Notker the Stammerer. History from a historic point of view. Helped me understand the relative time line of Jesus, Rome, Charlemane, Fredrich II, Leonardo. History in 500 year intervals. These histories were written centuries ago when they were still history but closer to the moment they happened. Like fables about someone real. They knew Charlemane it appears.
Amore mio Uccidi Garibaldi. Isabella Bossi Fedrigotti. In Italian. Historical. Love story in war letters from wife to husband and husband to wife. A war between Italy and Germany. Precursor to WW1. Amazing pathos and good history lesson.
By the Way. Agnes Green Foster. 1903. 30-year-old American lady on a one year tour. She climbed every mountain, every tower. You can project yourself there with her narrative but sad to think of all that happened to Europe that she could not have imagined.
16 Pleasures. Robert Hellengas. Read it on a plane to Italy. Takes place after the great flood of 1966 in Florence. An event and a place of great interest to me but honestly I may only have gotten one or two pleasures out of it. Strange and narrow of me, but I couldn’t get used to a woman’s words (protagonist) coming out of a man’s mouth (author). Hey, be a man. Write what you know. Especially sex scenes with the woman having sex with a man and the main character always being where no man can go, a nunnery. Where their treasure was a porno classic left to the nuns by a liberal Medici. Seemed to try too hard in that sense. Seemed disjointed. Problems with job, dad, boyfriend, art world, life. I counted less than 16.
A soldier in the Great War. Mark Helprin. Didn’t want this one to end. When was the last time 700 pages flew by? WW1 mostly in Italy. Great characters revealed through main character’s entire life. Life, loves, loyalties.
In the Valley of the Fireflies (An Englishman in Umbria). Peter Hobday. British radio news anchor goes to Umbria buys house, delights in quaint neighbors, well, you know the story, but there you have it. We share the same immobiliare, the famous Giancarlo Caponeri. It was out of print but www.bookfinder.com found it in Australia and it was on my doorstep in a couple days. Isn’t technology grand? He’s no Mayes so if you haven’t read her, skip him until you’re really out of Italian things to read like I was.
Umbria-Italy’s timeless heart. Paul Hoffmann. He lives in Rome but his heart belongs to Umbria. He was bureau chief of the New York Times. It isn’t poetry but good facts, interesting facts and details that make you want to visit new places or revisit old ones with new eyes. Read it with an Umbrian map at hand because his maps aren’t worthwhile or helpful. Cities he praises aren’t even on it.
The seasons of Rome: A journal. Paul Hoffman. Again, good facts if you are going to the Eternal City. I only sort of liked it and gave my copy away.
That fine Italian Hand. Paul Hoffman. The ins and outs of daily Italian life as seen by an outsider living there. Plus a lot of history and background of the country.
When in Rome (a journal of life in Vatican City). Robert J. Hutchinson. Catholic press writer moves to VC to sample the high holy life and instantly hits a wall of omereta. A reporter’s life is a hard life here, Byzantine, complex and butt covering. He laughs it off and usually falls on what he is searching for by accident. Good gossip. Ancient gossip, but good anyway – some of it. My favorite was the lesbian, ex Lutheran, ex queen of Sweden, Christine, who moved to Rome and rocked the house for many years. Author is a dyed in the wool believer and believer in all things Catholic but highly irreverent at the same time. Thought it was fun to see that one of his other books was a beginner’s guide to gambling.
Shylock’s Daughter. Erica Jong. Actress in Venice conjures up Wm. Shakespeare and they have most excellent adventures. Lot of Jewish Italian history, Venetian history, etc. Think it would make a fun movie.
Brunelleschi’s Dome. Ross King. Building the dome of Santa Maria del Fiore (il duomo) in Florence with all the competition between jeweler Brunelleschi and artist Ghiberti. Most excellent read. I felt like I was there hanging off the edge of the half finished vault suspended in space. Made me hike up through the inside of the dome the very next time I was in Firenze. It was the largest unsupported dome in the world when it was built and a miracle of the time. It is still a wonder and so it the book.
Il Corvo. Mario Lodi. World War seen through the eyes of a reluctant young soldier. In Italian.
Villa Fortuna. Geoffry Luck. Australian living in Paciano falls in love with Italy, buys and restores old house. Aren’t the natives quaint, picturesque, cultured, other? Pick one. Where have we heard this before? He actually did it pretty well and I learned things about the area I did not know. He did get into it with the authorities and seemed to have a bit of a superiority about all things good and perfect in the land down under. Sort of opposite of Mayes in that way.
The Prince. Niccolo Machiavelli. Good historical observations from the times of the Medici. What it takes to get ahead in the Renaissance. Fairly misunderstood, especially by me. Smarter people say its just strictly about the Borgias and what worked for them in the times. Not especially kinder gentler folk.
Death in Venice. Thomas Mann. Protagonist escapes to Venice (from Germany) to get over the stress of being a writer. And just sort of snaps? I know it is supposed to be a classic and it has moments of beauty but some parts just seem so purposely twisted. To be in Venice and miserable.
The Hills of Tuscany. Ferenc Mate. He writes, she paints. Some good and funny stories about expats moving to the charming Tuscan countryside outside Montepulciano.
Under the Tuscan Sun. Frances Mayes. Probably the most famous of the “move to Italy” genre. Recently divorced San Francisco professor meets other profs and they move to Tuscany for the many school vacations. Find and restore dream house. Olives, grapes, stone walls, Roman road to town for coffee by foot. Pretty cool, inspirational. Some people think she comes off smug, I think she’s just over the top happy.
In Tuscany. Frances Mayes. Less on words, more on pictures. Both were pretty. Sometimes she gets so effusive it comes off as Italy/good, America/tacky. Kind of like anything, depends where and how you are looking.
Italy. True stories of life on the road. Frances Mayes, Tim Parks, etc. Snippets of this and that British or American authors in different parts of Italy.
Bella Tuscany. Frances Mayes. I liked it as much as her classic Under the Tuscan Sun. Its not deep and you sense her using a guide book when she starts talking about towns she claims to have visited on trips. She mentions one castle town but what she wrote about it could have been written by someone who has never been there long enough to have coffee. Very nice overall. Doesn’t pull a lot of punches and make herself the hero. You can do that when you are the author, you know? If she was a doofus in a story she is telling she says so anyway.
A year in Provence. Peter Mayle. OK, its not Italy, its British ad guy escaping to sunny France. Its where Frances Mayes got her plot. Change France to Italy, Brit to American, take out the humor and add food and you see where they are cousins but Pete was first. And funny. His home building trials are the funnybest.
The Chateau. Wm. Maxwell. Americans in France for four month postwar 1948 honeymoon. All that feeling of elation and dislocation of being abroad and knocked over by everything. You are fluent and everyone is your new best friend. And then no one is and you can’t buy a bus ticket without help. Great characters. It was France but I felt like I had had days like this in Italy.
Stones of Florence. Mary McCarthy. Robert Kaplan in his classic Balkan Ghosts recommended this book as the ultimate in what was then a new wave of tour books. A book that he hoped to emulate. I didn’t see the resemblance, maybe he was just name dropping? She was edgy, as in uncomplimentary to her subject now and it made me so put out with her I left the book in Monte Stigliano on purpose, but found myself quoting her later and wish I had it back for reference. History.
The Kidnapping of Edgardo Mortara. David Kertzer. David is a former Bowdoin prof that we knew from the Tavola Italiana the college holds once a week. He had been on sabbatical in Bologna and that is where this story came to his attention. Very cool piece of research and storytelling. A Jewish baby was reportedly baptized by its Christian nurse, which led to the boy being taken from the family and raised by the church. This had been going on for centuries but this time the court of world opinion came down hard on the pope and he dug in and lost. Kept the boy, who in fact became a priest, but the pope, as a landowner ended up giving up half of Italy and being confined to the Vatican in the process. The pope was fairly annoyed that the Jews caused him this problem and some sight this episode as part of the attitude that led to the disasters of WW2. Story takes place in the same time period as Child Life in Italy. Historical. Also see La Popessa.
La Popessa. Paul I. Murphy. Story of sister Pascalina Lehnert and Eugenio Pacelli Pope Pius XII. He was a snooty Roman aristocrat and she was his peasant Bavarian housekeeper and conscience when he would let her. She was behind everything he did but unfortunately he didn’t do much. His sins of omission were many. He was complex and odious, passive aggressive kind of pope who didn’t like to make waves on one hand but on the other didn’t care what people thought of him and how cowardly he appeared to be on every issue. He also loved all things Germanic. The language, the people including Hitler personally. The classic wrong person in the wrong job at exactly the wrong time. Pascalina had her hands full. WW2 Historical.
Italy, the fatal gift. Wm. Murry. Adventures of a young single American in Rome post war.
Living, working and studying in Italy. Neighbor and Larner. A how-to book by two people who had done it the hard way: without a clue. Ideas, hints, references abound.
The English Patient. Michael Ondaatje. Mysterious war victim in an abandoned wartime villa in Tuscany mulling over his life, in an out of body sort of way, observing characters around him. Read the book, rent the movie. Enjoy.
War in Val d’Orcia (an Italian War Diary 1943-44) Iris Origo. More WW2. Dad was British earl, Mom was old New York money. She married an Italian Marchesse. Together they spent their lives trying to help people. They moved to an area of Italy now very desirable (near Montepulciano). At that time, the people there needed new farming skills to just eke out a living. They stayed during the war and took in British prisoners, and kids from bombed out northern cities. Book is very matter of fact and of the moment. It puts you there.
Merchant of Prato. Iris Origo. Scholarly book written from awesome reference materials The merchant wrote and wrote and kept and kept everything he ever wrote and made his underlings in Spain, France and around Italy do the same. 14th century. He built a fine house he was proud of but had no children so he gave the house to the city and amazingly it is still there. And even more amazingly, so were all his papers, which were discovered 100 years ago.
Secret Book of Grazie dei Rossi. Jacqueline Park. Based on a couple real documents from the 1500’s in Italy. About being Jewish in Italy during those times. Somewhat Forrest Gumpish-ish in its effort to make all of Jewish history in Italy happen to one family, but it hung together and seemed really researched to death. Novel but historical.
Italian Neighbors or a Lapsed Anglo-Saxon in Verona. Tim Parks. A classic. British expat with Italian wife. He is there to stay but in bemused culture shock.
An Italian Education. Tim Parks. Same loveable but laconic Brit. Loves and is completely confused by Italy. Probably thinks about it too bloody much instead of just taking it for what it is. Italians, even his wife and kids are strange and foreign to him. “They” do this, “they” do that. Can’t complain too much he’s figured out a way to write about it and get us to buy the books that support him there in Italy. If I could write, would I strike a happier tone or would it come out of me as laconic irony too? Come il povero “Augustino” alla spiaggia in Park’s book.
Immortal Village. Donald Culross Peattie. France. But talks to the timelessness of the european village riding out the waves of time. Bought this old copy for its illustrations.
A Valley in Italy. Lisa St AubinDeteran. Free spirited British woman buys an old but strangely unfinished castle in Italy. Must be near Umbertide. It has been written up in the House and Garden magazines. She must be a force of nature and or handy with a checkbook. Her castle had no roof, no windows, incomplete sets of stairs. And she has a useless, self- centered artist twit husband around her neck. For months they have no car at all until he brings out his silver sports car for a family of 5. On one hand they “have no money” and on the other hand they don’t work, have 2 nannies who don’t work and a classic Rolls in heated storage that can never ever come to where they are at the end of dirt road. They fight for years to get items out of England and through customs in Italy only to finally have them delivered to a house still without windows. Items like 17 pianos. Certifiable. Nice to know there are some real crazies left in the world. Love to check them out in person.
Hill Towns. Anne Rivers Siddons. A soap. A beach book. But a beach book with an Italian setting makes it all sort of worth while. In a People magazine kind of way.
Within Tuscany. Matthew Spender. British sculptor living his whole adult life in Tuscany. Kind of lost hippie, reflecting on life. Lot of lovesick crush on Victoria, which must have bugged his wife, not named Victoria. Artists. Can’t live with them …
Gallileo’s Daughter. Dava Sobel. Author of most excellent Longitude An uphill battle with the church by someone who loves the butt headed, power crazed church. The more he tried to play by their rules the worse it got for him. He was born as Michelangelo died. Who knows what he could have done in a more friendly environment.
Sketches and Studies in Italy and Greece. Volumes I, II, III. John Addington Symonds. Master of Italian detail. History, art, gossip. He revels in them all. Contemporary of Oscar Wilde etc. Translator Wm Weaver as a very young man knew an old man who had known him. The torch passes. Both translators, Italophiles writers who have lived the Italian life years at a time. Read very much about Italy and you’ll notice his name coming up. This is the classic. Extremely readable today in the 21st century for a book written before the turn of the previous century. The books are all old but his subject Italian cities and art are even older so it isn’t dated at all. And he has opinions and shares them. If he likes a place, like Siena, he says so. It isn’t like a travel guide that tries to say something syrupy sweet about every hell hole in the area they were assigned to write about. Or grumpy like D.H. Lawrence could tend to be. They were both traveling in Italy when traveling was a real adventure. Forget jet lag, they’re on horse and burro back. How he got all his facts at hand was a miracle of academic wonder to me. No internet, he had to go to library in person and dig. Or church by church by foot or carriage. Just amazing and especially for a man who had such a wild, frightened life on the run. The penalties for being gay back then were many and he didn’t want any of that persecution and still wanted to be married and still party like there was no tomorrow but his life was a torture for him and yet the books are free of that and worth any effort to find. Lives of artists and scoundrels.
Renaissance in Italy. J. A. Symonds. He knows his art and his artists. 1888. At a certain level he is quoted by everyone who writes about Italy. He, in turn, quotes Varsi constantly, but with reservations. Would love to see one Symonds book with pictures referencing the art he is discussing so eloquently.
Rimini. Pier Vittorio Tondelli. Beach book about being at the beach. In Italian. Non vale la pena unless you’re really bored.
After Hannibal. Barry Unsworth. Funny tone at the beginning. Very bleak, pessimistic. As they say on that Seinfeld episode “don’t go there, there are no rooms to rent in Tuscany” Actually, this is just over the border in Umbria. So near Frances Mayes’ Cortona, but the book as very little of the attitude of Under the Tuscan Sun with its “we are in the promised land”. Unsworth fires a few warning shots about la dolce vita over your head and threatens to deflate your dream of sun drenched villas, rolling green hills and fine wine in hand. Maybe he just doesn’t want us to live there too! Some very funny characters and unforgettable disasters.
Child Life in Italy. Emily H. Watson. From 1874. It wasn’t clear, but it seems the author was a relation of and/or paid teacher to the family of American sculptor Thomas Crawford. In the old copy I have the pages were still uncut. Some I left like that and peeked back to the time of Napoleon. A first hand look at French occupied Rome. Soldiers drilling in the piazza in front of their home. Olive oil burning in the street lights. Needing a passport to get in and out of the city gates. An overlooked time machine.
A tent in the world. Wm. Weaver. Recently re-released novella of his time in post war Naples. Living with a friend and getting oriented to Italian life.
The Lovers. Morris West. More soap please. Sort of like Hill Towns but soap on the water in a yacht. If you are in an anti-intellectual mood …
The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone. Tennessee Williams. Fading beauty doesn’t want to fade gracefully or at all. A former movie star and now a rich widow she is looking for love in all the wrong places. 1950s. Short but good.
The Medici. G.F. Young. Modern Library Giant Book from 1933. 800 pages annotated to death, fold-out family trees. Most comprehensive. Every Medici who ever lived, in chronological order. The history of Italy is often bound tightly with the history of this family. Love them or hate them, author seemed determined to be journalistically fair to the family and maybe clean up their reputation a bit. He felt they had been unjustly vilified by some other writers, including Symonds.
A coin in nine hands. Marguerite Yourcnear. French writer living in Maine. Was this set in Italy? Series of stories of several (9) people touching the same coin.
Adrian’s Memoirs. Marguerite Yorcnear. Takes place in Rome. Imperial Reflections. An Italian architect friend recommended it. Maybe too introspective for some.