To me, travel would only be half as much fun without taking the time to read books. I am even happy about long train rides or ferry passages because they allow me to read for a few extra hours
I should have started this a long time ago, but hey, better late than never: from now on I will compile a reading list for each country that I will live in. Italy will be the first. It will list all the books relating to Italy which I have read and which I am reading. For the books that I’d like to read, please have a look at my wishlist.
I hope that future travellers will find this useful and I look forward to your comments and additional recommendations.
For an introduction to Italian history, I read The Pursuit of Italy by David Gilmour. It’s rich in detail, but never boring. For the wealth of information it contains, it is rather readable and enjoyable. Gilmour focuses on the political development that led to a united Italy, of course, but does not fail to mention geographic, economic and military factors as well as the effects on arts, literature and legislation.
Wishing to find out more about the Allied campaign to liberate Italy in World War II, I turned to The Liberator: one World War II soldier’s 500-day odyssey from the beaches of Sicily to the gates of Dachau by Alex Kershaw, but came away disappointed.
A much better book about World War II was Operation Mincemeat by Ben Macintyre. It’s the true story of a British decoy operation which led Germany to believe that the Allied attack in the Mediterranean would take place on Sardinia, Corsica and in Greece, thus providing cover for the actual attack on Sicily. Written like a novel, but a true story about a dead body that washes ashore in Spain with forged papers.
Only the last chapter of this book takes places in Italy, but the protagonist lives here now: In the Sea there are Crocodiles by Fabio Geda recounts the 6-year journey of a refugee from Afghanistan through Pakistan, Iran, Turkey, Greece and finally Italy. A moving, heart-breaking, beautiful book written in a youthful tone that reminded me of The Catcher in the Rye. A book I will remember for a long time.
The first example of Sicilian literature I read was Conversations in Sicily by Elio Vittorini and boy, was it boring and bad. Nothing much is happening and the dialogues are even slower than whatever it is that is not happening. A son returns to Sicily after 15 years and visits his mother. Their dialogues are so slow and repetitive that sometimes the same sentence is repeated across half a page. “You cook the best potatoes, Mum.” “I cook the best potatoes, son?” “Yes, you cook the best potatoes.” “Well, if you say so, then I cook the best potatoes.” “Yes, you do, Mum.” Even though it’s only a short novella (130 pages) and I was almost at the end, I gave up. Terrible.
The second example of Sicilian literature was a collection of short stories: The Wine-Dark Sea by Leonardo Sciascia. Wow! Some of these short stories are brilliant. They are witty, smart and fabulously written. The exact opposite of Vittorini. Even if you are not interested in Sicily or Italy, you should read these stories. They are among the best short stories I have ever come across.
I also enjoyed the crime novella Equal Danger by the same author, despite its unsatisfactory ending.
When I read Sciascia’s Day of the Owl years later, it made me miss Sicily again.
I was reminded at times of Sciascia’s style when I read The Shape of Water by Andrea Camilleri. This first book with Inspector Montalbano laid the groundwork for a whole series of crime novels which more of you might know from TV rather than the original books. Like with Sciascia’s books, you also gain an impression of political and social life in Sicily through these crime stories.
Friedrich Christian Delius makes an attempt at describing Rome during a day in World War II in Portrait of the Mother as a Young Woman, but fails. An unnecessary, boring book.
In History, Elsa Morante describes the life of a woman in Italy during World War II. To make matters more complicated/dangerous for her, of a partly Jewish family and has to bring up two children by herself, one of whom is the result of being raped by a German soldier. Her older son finds fascination with the Fascists at first. The book offers an interesting contrast between the battles and political developments which are outlined at the beginning of each chapter, and with Ida’s daily struggle to survive and to keep her children alive. Beautiful descriptions of characters, very moving, but I personally stopped reading after two thirds because I found it too slow. Maybe I should have had more patience.