To celebrate World Book Day, I thought I’d share some of my favourite books about Italy. Whether insider/outsider accounts of the ever interesting Italian character, novels set in ancient Rome or the present day, I can’t get enough of Italian stories.
Appropriately titled Extra Virgin, this was the first book I ever read about living in Italy years before I even thought about making the place my home.
Annie Hawes’ tale of life lived in the hills of small town Liguria taught me from the start the importance of following, or at least knowing, the Italian rules. The pitfalls of a cheery ciao to old men in the local bar and the dangers of coffee at the wrong time or bare arms before June. A study of the normal and everyday that to me seemed extraordinary.
Robert Graves’ autobiographical novel about the rise of Roman Emperor Claudius, from lowly, ignored scholar in the Imperial family to the most powerful man in the empire brings to life the scheming heart of Imperial Rome. This is how I learn my history. The problem is, as with all historical fiction with me, I now genuinely believe that the characters made so vivid by Robert Graves are as they really were. But the sign of a story well told?
Delizia! Is the epic history of Italians and their food. How, the author asks, did the Italians learn to eat so well? His explanation takes us from the overflowing tables of the renaissance Popes and princes to the beginnings of the slow food movement in Turin exploring the stories, cooks, recipes and myths behind some of Italy’s favourite dishes .
Storia – History or Story in English – is a wonderful, dark novel of Rome set during and immediately after the Second World War. It tells the tale of Ida and her two very different sons and above all the impact of war, the effects of these huge historical events on the real life characters who are bound to live through them.
I love journalist John Hooper’s list of his own favourite books about Italy. His number one is Luigi Barzini’s 50 year old classic The Italians which he describes as, outdated in parts, yet full of insights into the Italian psyche, as apt today as they were in 1964: “Dull and insignificant moments in life must be made decorous and agreeable with suitable decorations and rituals. Ugly things must be hidden, unpleasant and tragic facts swept under the carpet whenever possible.” Hooper’s own Italians was released last year and provides an updated account of the family, furbizia and la bella figura.
I’ve just finished the fourth and final novel (I think) in the mysterious author’s Neapolitan series which follows the lives and friendship Elena and Lila through the gritty streets of Naples – their loves, marriages, divorces, successes, work, politics and family spanning over the last 50 years of the 20th century. I bought all four books for my mother for Christmas and she loves them. I still haven’t quite decided. Intriguing and infuriating, they are novels that stay with you. But the dolls … I need a fifth book.
Tim Park’s entertaining account of his experience of raising children in Italy. How does an Italian become an Italian, particularly when they have an English parent? From the nonni, bedtimes, to the over-informative nursery (think daily poo reports) this is a non-clichéd account of some of the culture clashes which in the best cases keeps the magic and your love of Italy (and your particular Italian) alive.
This book perfectly describes village life in the small Tuscan town of Montalcino and the writer’s efforts to understand and adapt to her new home. I made my own pilgrimage there and wasn’t disappointed – wonderful Brunello wine, scenic walks around the medieval walls, smell of woodfire smoke and those views.
Penelope Green introduced me to life as a single girl in Rome. Moving here aged 30 with no job, no friends in the city, nowhere to live and no Italian we shared many similarities in making Rome our home. The flatshares, the struggles with the Italian language, the excitement at starting a new life in the eternal city soon became my reality too. The first apartment I ever viewed was on Via Urbana where she lived, I loved a bar on Campo dei Fiori just because she’d worked there. Bit of a crush.
Dianne Hales’ book is a must for anyone learning the Italian language. Her love affair with the world’s most enchanting language is infectious. The book is an enthusiastic journey through the history of the Italian language from its Latin roots, to Dante and Boccaccio, to the Italian of opera, art, food and film. It’s been a while, I’m going to read it again.
My next job will be to read those that the Italian consider their favourites, I’ve started three. What better day to finish them.
Any of your Italian favourites that should be added to the list?