Hellas merda no. 1
Photo by the bbp used under a Creative Commons license.

Tim Parks, A Season With Verona (Arcade, 2003).
Parks, an English writer, had lived in Verona for two decades when he decided to spend a season following Hellas Verona, the city’s team in Serie A, the top flight of Italian professional soccer (or football, as you prefer).  Previously a serious fan, Parks heightened his commitment by joining the small crew of zealots who follow the team to all of its away games.  A sharp observer of Italy, Parks uses football as a window on many facets of Italian life — cultural, economic, political.  Those who care less for soccer will enjoy this book less than I did, but I liked it quite a bit.

Here is Parks’s website. Here is a brief bio. The New York Times provides the first chapter, albeit with some coding glitches. Google Books lets you take a look. Parks incorporated the material in this 2001 column into the book. Chris Rose (Spike) says it is consistently provocative, intelligent and funny. Chris Maume (The Independent) says Parks tackles the Italian dichotomies between peity and profanity, right and left, fat-cat north and yokel south. Martin Matusiak, clearly a soccer fan, recommends it only for fans of Serie A.  Harry particularly liked Parks’ account of a bus-ride to Bari for an away game. Jesse Berrett says it gives you a truly deep sense of how Italianness intertwines with soccer culture, particularly the regional rivalries and endless fatalism of the people. Inge lauds its insight into the intricacies of Italian football and its place in the Italian psyche. Robert MacFarlane (The Observer) calls it addictive reading, for its acute cultural criticism, for Parks’s ability to evoke the ‘choral pandemonium’ of live football, and for its brilliant narrative rhythm. Leslie Myers says it is part travelogue and part psychological study of the culture of being a fan of Serie A. Via Myers, here is the transcript of an interview of Parks by ABC’s Amanda Smith. Robert Winder (The New Statesman) thinks Parks balances the literary and the football adroitly. Vera Marie Badertscher says Parks captures the ferocity of soccer fans and provides a vocabulary lesson you won’t get at a school. Russell Davies (The Telegraph) thinks Parks has gone native. Michael Veseth liked Parks’s descriptions of political and economic facets of soccer (scroll down). Mando recommends it, as does Vadim. Dr Zen read it and would like to live in Italy.

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Pinocchio Army
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Carlo Collodi, Pinocchio (NYRB, 2008).
You may think you know the story of Pinocchio, but likely what you know is Walt Disney’s 1940 film adaptation. This is a Geoffrey Brock’s new translation of the original book, with a brief introduction by Umberto Eco and a longer afterword by Rebecca West. As translated by Brock, Collodi’s original is very different from the 1940 Walt Disney film — it is more complex and it lacks the sentimentality, but it races along nicely.  I would say it’s darker than the Disney film, but West’s afterword points out that all but twelve minutes of the film take place at night or in the dark.  Suffice it to say that Collodi’s story is no cartoon.

Google Books lets you take a look. NPR has an excerpt from the first chapter. Here is Wikipedia’s page on Carlo Collodi, the pen name (after the Tuscan town) of Carlo Lorenzini. Wikipedia’s page about the book is worthwhile. Here is Brock’s bio. Tim Parks’ long review in The New York Review of Books is worth reading.  He says Brock conveys Collodi’s zany spirit of Tuscan humor, a Pincchio who swings alarmingly between lies and candor, generosity and cruel mockery, good intentions and zero staying power. You can also listen to an interview with Parks. The NYRB Classics Editor, Edwin Frank, calls it a brilliant evocation of the promise and precariousness of childhood, when the world is both new and immemorial and everything is possible and yet, because one is a child, nothing is. John Powers says the book’s reality reflects the harshness of life in Collodi’s Tuscany, a place driven by hunger, brutality, greed, and social injustice. Chelsea Bauch (Boldtype) says Brock revives Collodi’s sardonic wit and pitch-black humor. Cathleen Medwick (O) calls it a tale of gumption and greed. Elizabeth was disappointed initially, and surprised that that her expectations did not match what she was reading. Jennifer says it’s both an adventure story and a moralistic tale. Bob Rini has some neat links. Here is a 1927 translation (by an unidentified translator) with illustrations by Frederick Richardson. Here is the original trailer for the Disney movie. If you’re in Tuscany, you can visit Parco di Pinocchio di Collodi.

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mosaic detail
Photo by chrisjohnbeckett used under a Creative Commons license.

Mary Beard, The Fires of Vesuvius (Belknap Press, 2008).
Beard, a Cambridge professor, summarizes what historians and archeologists have learned about the Roman town of Pompeii, famously destroyed when Mount Vesuvius erupted in AD 79. Beard has the background to describe academic work authoritatively, but she also has the gifts to explain it lucidly to a wider audience — and to point out where conclusions have been drawn with little or no basis.  One myth debunked is that the eruption gave us a city frozen in time; it appears rather than most of the residents escaped, and that they took many of their possessions.  Also complicating interpretation are Roman salvage efforts, the crude archeology of earlier centuries, and Allied bombing during World War II.  Still, there is a wealth of material for Beard to relate. There are quite a few plates and illustrations, though still more would be nice. If you were to read one book about Pompeii, it is hard to imagine that this shouldn’t be the one.  (Note that it was published in England under the apter title, Pompeii: The Life of a Roman Town.)

Here is Wikipedia’s page about Beard, and here is her bio at Newnham College. Steve Coates (The New York Times) says it’s a wonderful book for the impressive depth of information and easygoing erudition. Marjorie Kehe (The Christian Science Monitor) says Beard restores Pompeii in all its bustling everydayness. David Walton (The Plain Dealer) calls it an excellent account of what the ruins can and cannot tell us. Judith Harris (California Literary Review) owns 130 books on Pompeii and would read this first. NS Gill’s quibbles. Jarrett A. Lobell (Archeology) says Beard conveys detailed information about life in the city. Beard takes the Page 99 Test. Herodotus calls it engagingly mischievous. Laure Paquette calls it an easy read. Amy particularly appreciated Beard’s skepticism. You can listen to Beard and Sasha Weiss talk about Roman humor in a NYRB podcast. Or watch her discuss her the book here and here. Beard blogs for the Times Online. Her fans are on Facebook.  update: The book won a Wolfson History Prize for 2008.

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A new day in Tuscany
Photo by andrew chang used under a Creative Commons license.

Ferenc Máté, The Hills of Tuscany (Albatross, 1998).
In the late 1980s, Máté and his wife decided to relocate from New York to Tuscany, knowing little Italian and giving themselves four weeks to find a house. They moved into a well-worn farmhouse called La Marinaia not far from the town of Montepulciano, and began to settle into a new life in an old place. This book is the story of their first year there: buying a house, meeting neighbors, shopping in Montepulciano. The house comes with land fit for grape vines, and they learn to gather mushrooms in the woods nearby. Food and drink receive much attention. Máté is certainly enthusiastic, the danger being that you, too, will want to move to the Tuscan hills.

Here is Máté’s site, which has all sorts of stuff on it, including photos of Tuscany. Here is a podcast with him. Entertainment Weekly‘s Megan Harlan was not fond of the awkward, purplish prose. It’s on Faith Harper’s list of books about living in Italy. Alessandra Stanley (The New York Times) says Máté is a copycat of Frances Mayes (ouch — but I haven’t read Mayes, so I have no idea). It’s one of Tea’s favorite foodie books. For Loily, the book was research for a dream of living there. Máté’s second book about Tuscany, A Vineyard in Tuscany, receives much more attention on the web, for whatever reason.

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Marsala salines
Photo of Marsala, Sicily, by debsilver used under a Creative Commons license.

Andrea Camilleri, The Shape of Water (Penguin, 2005).
THS pal Stacy recommends the Inspector Montalbano series, of which this is the first:

I found these books irresistible, engaging and downright witty. These books evoke a modern day Sicily, but with a certain nostalgia for days gone by. The smells, colors and landscapes of Sicily come to life as Inspector Montalbano leads us down the back streets of [the fictional town of] Vigata whilst searching for clues to solve his cases or in his seemingly endless quest to partake of the perfect meal.

At once funny and clever, Camilleri’s novels are a welcome distraction from other less intellectual contemporary mystery writers (Kellerman, J.D. Robb, et. al.). Once one dives into Camilleri’s labyrinthine Sicilian backstreets, you will be in for a treat. And you will be begging for more. One might even be tempted to learn Italian just to devour those novels which as of yet have not been translated into English….

Here is Wikipedia’s page on Camilleri. Paul Bailey writes about him in The Guardian, and Michele Parisi writes about him in Best of Sicily magazine. Frank Bruni profiled him for The New York Times. This page, from a Camilleri fan club, gives a taste of his writing. Hillary Frey (The Nation) reviews the first four books in the series. Stephen Sartarelli translated the book jacket and this review by Carlo Vennarucci. Here are more reviews from Maxine Clarke, raidergirl3, Sue Magee, Orrin, Ayo Onatade, KarenC, Divers and Sundry, yan, adambowie, Yulian Suwanda, and Shonna Froebel.

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Upside down
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Barbara Grizzuti Harrison, Italian Days (Ticknor & Fields, 1990).
Something like a cross between a journal and collected essays, with eight chapters about Harrison’s time in Milan, Venice, Florence, Rome, Naples and the Amalfi coast, Molise and Abruzzo, Puglia, and Calabria. Venice gets 30 pages and the last two chapters are about 20 pages each. Harrison is an American with relatives in Italy, whom she visits in the last third of the book. I liked this book so much that I am hard-put to explain why. Harrison is such a sharp observer and a good writer that there is more of Italy to be found reading this book than in some of the days I have spent there.

Here is Google Book Search, with the opening pages and more. Wikipedia’s entry on Harrison is relatively lengthy as these things go. Douglas Martin wrote this obituary when she passed away in 2002. Here are reviews from Eva Hoffman (The New York Times), Andrea Lee (The New York Times), and here is bloggy goodness from Kelli, Robin Reagler, and Katie.

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Photo of the Paraguay-Argentina border by used under a Creative Commons license.

Anne Whitehead, Bluestocking in Patagonia (Profile, 2003).
National Geographic Traveler recommends this book:

In 1895, young Australian schoolteacher Mary Jean Cameron set sail from Sydney to join an experimental socialist utopia deep in the interior of Paraguay. Traveling alone via mailboat, paddle steamer, steam train, and horseback, hers is an extraordinary journey-and that was just the beginning of her adventures. Author Whitehead follows in the footsteps of this fascinating woman who ended up spending six years in South America, first in Paraguay and then Argentina-and whose portrait now appears on the $10 Australian bill.

Ann Skea reviewed the book. Sarah Macdonald reviewed it for the Sydney Morning Herald. Robin Osborne reviewed it for The Northern Rivers Echo. Frank Bongiorno reviewed it in Australian Literary Studies, and Nick Smith reviewed it in Geographical, but to read them you’ll have to sign up for free trials (I didn’t). Jennifer Strauss reviewed it for Australian Book Review. Or you can listen to a BBC story about Whitehead and Gilmore.

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Villa Romana del Casale, Piazza Armerina, Sicily, Italy
Photo of Villa Romana del Casale by Neil Weightman used under a Creative Commons license.

Giuseppe Di Lampedusa, The Leopard (Everyman’s Library, 1991).
Set in the 1860s, this is the story of Don Fabrizio, Prince of Salina, with a long lineage of Sicilian aristocrats. The backdrop is the Risorgimento, the advent of a unified, democraticized Italy, a shift that threatens the Prince’s way of life. Poignant and elegant, The Leopard describes Sicilian life and society, painting portraits Don Fabrizio and those around him. A chronicle of historical change, and an elegy for old ways. Di Lampedusa spent years writing this, his only novel, only to see it rejected by publishers during his life. It was published in 1958, a year after his death, and has become a classic. (N.B. – There are different editions of this book, and I cannot recommend one over another. I gather they all use the same translation.)

In The Guardian (UK), Jonathan Jones writes:

“Lampedusa’s book has become a morbidly seductive guidebook to the island, its glamour and despair; the sensual revelling in decrepit palaces, burnt landscapes studded with temples, sugary pasticceria (Lampedusa spent a lot of time in cake shops) and the magnificent ball in a gilded Palermo salon that is so gloriously visualised in Visconti’s just re-released 1963 film of the book, make you breathe Sicily.”

Here is a bio of Di Lampedusa. Random House offers this excerpt. Wendy Lesser wrote about The Leopard recently in Bookforum. Others writing about it include Nick Owchar (in the LA Times), David B. Kenner, William D. Reeves, dovegreyreader, Jules Roskams, Bhupinder Singh, Welshcakes Limoncello, and Tom.

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Lisbon Windows
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Robert Wilson, The Company of Strangers (Harvest, 2002).
Andrea Aspinall, a English mathematician and spy, meets Karl Voss, a double agent in the German Legation to Portugal, one of the few neutral countries in Europe throughout World War II. When they meet, the Allied landings in Normandy and Hitler’s atomic weapons programs are the backdrop. Their affair may be brief, but its effects last long into the Cold War, and after the collapse of the Berlin Wall. Wilson, an Englishman, lives in Lisbon. More of a spy novel that some of his earlier works.

Reviews from Mostly Fiction, Curled Up, Marilyn Stasio (The New York Times) (scroll down), J. Kingston Pierce at January (scroll down) and his blog, Marius Silke (iVenus), and Erica Hanson.

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Photo of Brescia by Giorgio Baresi used under a Creative Commons license.

Peter Demetz, The Air Show at Brescia (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2002).
In 1909, Louis Bleriot, Glenn Curtiss and other early pioneers of aviation flew to Brescia for the Circuito Aereo — the Air Show. Other attendees included Franz Kafka, on vacation from his job with a Prague insurance company, as well as authors Max Brod and Gabriele D’Annunzio, and composers Arturo Toscanini and Giacomo Puccini. Demetz, a professer emeritus at Yale University, captures something of the excitement and novelty of early flight and of an Italy before the Great War that now seems like another world.

Richard Bernstein reviewed the book for The New York Times. Radio Praha interviewed Demetz. Back on August 31, 1909, The New York Times previewed the show.

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