Are you a book lover and in search of new non-fiction books about Italy? Don’t look any further, read my review of 3 works published in 2020.
It’s the end of a (quite demanding) year and I thought it might to be interesting for you to have a review of newly printed non-fiction books about Italy. The books are not necessarily in English, as I wanted to give the opportunity to non-English native speakers to find something in their first language. For the reviews, though, I will keep our lingua franca ;D
NEOITALIANI. UN MANIFESTOAuthor: Beppe Severgnini
Language: Italian /Italiano
Published in September 2020 by Rizzoli Libri. 210 pages
[My copy was purchased]
In a classic Beppe Severgnini’s fashion, the book is based on his favourite ruse: lists. The book, in fact, revolves entirely around 50 bullet points, which represent the 50 reasons to be Italian. His aim was indeed to describe the qualities of this population, who too often tends to focus on the negative aspects of this country. As stated by the author, he had been planning to write about this topic for a long time and it seems like the pandemic represented the perfect inspiration, given the positive publicity our behaviour during the first wave of COVID granted us on an international level.
I have to confess it, at first this book gave me anxiety: reading about the “positive” aftermath that resulted from the first wave of the pandemic, as if we were done with it, felt sort of a joke, given that I was reading it in the middle of the second wave when the world was literally falling apart (it still is). I kept on going, despite what I was feeling, and I’m glad that I did, because I’ve found very interesting insights and things I’ve never thought about.
It’s undeniable that Severgnini has a talent in understanding and talking about Italy and I honestly think that he’s one of the best out there in this branch of literature; he’s an Italian, he’s been immersed in our culture since forever and he understands certain mechanisms that often elude foreigners. Yet he had lived and worked abroad and hence he has also been able to make comparisons, without being too biased about our homeland.
Despite the book being ill-timed, I would recommend Italians to read it, as it shows us we are not that bad and that we can work for a better future together. It’s not “consistent” (as not all bullet points are equally interesting or relevant in my opinion) and there are a couple of chapters which can also be considered slightly controversial (he tries to defend Indro Montanelli’s memory), but there are some of them which contain pearls of wisdom we should print and attach to a pinboard.
Interesting food for thought is to be found in chapter 22 (“Why North and South argue like an old couple”), chapter 32, which celebrates the brilliant invention of the Montessori method, which we have been successfully exporting yet not widely using in Italy, and chapter 38 that casts a light on the systematically forgotten youngsters (and not so young people) that leave Italy for good every year in search of better working opportunities. “A migration that has cost the country 16 billion euro and almost 1% of gross domestic product” and that nobody acknowledges.
There are also excerpts that I would love foreigners to read, but maybe some of these concepts have already been reported in the books he has published abroad. Severgnini’s writing style, however, is clear, straight to the point and lacks the unnecessary ostentation typical of many Italian writers and journalists, so, if you’re not Italian, but you have an intermediate level of the language, I think you should manage it.
ITALIEN. PORTRÄT EINES FREMDEN LANDESAuthor: Thomas Steinfeld
Published in February 2020 by Rowohlt Berlin
[My copy was purchased]
Italien. Porträt eines Fremden Landes (for those who do not speak German “Italy. Portrait of a Foreign Land”) is a book written by Thomas Steinfeld, journalist and professor, who has lived in Venice to be a reporter for the Süddeutsche Zeitung. This work totally reminds me of the book of my compatriot G.Piovene (“Viaggio in Italia”) and the one of his fellow citizen Goethe (“Italienische Reise”) as it represents some sort of Grand Tour across the country.
I found this book this past summer in a bookshop in South Tyrol as I was first attracted by the title and the beautiful cover. The index was what sold it to me. Since the first pages it’s clear that it’s not a travel diary per se, but, as the title suggests, a portrait of the Belpaese, which is both descriptive and analytical, but also rich of food for thought.
When I was reading this book, I was honestly amazed by how extremely well-researched it is: the abundance of details and the close attention the author paid to describe not just Italy’s famous attractions, but mainly the suburbs, a vital part of this country, are impressive.
This book is packed with anecdotes and cultural references, which I rarely see mentioned by foreign writers in their works about Italy, some of which, I am quite sure, even several Italians aren’t even aware of. The result is a very insightful book, which, presents an image of the country, which is very distant from the one-dimensional character purchased in the travel brochures and that, sadly, even the Italian tourism industry fells into the trap to market.
If I have to find something negative about this book, I can honestly only mention the fact that “the Gran Tour” has not been completed, as it lacks Sardinia, but for the rest it is, honestly, an excellent read.
BASILICATA. AUTHENTIC ITALYAuthor: Karen Haid
Published in August 2020 by Hiller Press
[My copy was gifted]
Basilicata, a small region identified as the “instep” of the Italian boot, is an area that, apart from the capital Matera, is always sort of under the radar. Despite having a very rich history, plenty of amazing folkloristic festivals, picturesque towns and the largest National Park of the country, there’s always little information to be found about it. For this reason I was very happy to read this book, written by the ever knowledgeable Karen Haid.
I have to be entirely honest: when I first approached Karen’s book, I was kind of taken aback by the title. Having been involved in the tourism industry for quite a while now, I have sort of developed an allergy against expressions like “off the beaten path” or “authentic” that, too often, have been abused or misused when describing places. But I have also (virtually) known Karen for quite a while and I knew she isn’t one to use words carelessly.
I wasn’t wrong: in chapter 32 I figured out why she opted for this title and I even reconsidered my stance on authenticity. Why is an old church considered more authentic than a modern building? “Authenticity can only be judged with the passing of years”, it will be time that will grant the “new authenticity” the same value of the old.
Despite having changed over time, having transformed and seen people coming and go, Basilicata is an authentic corner of the world. Yes, the capital Matera is a contrast of architectures and its historical Sassi, the grottos where local people lived in desperate conditions until the 50s, are now luxury hotels and the background of many films, but does this make the city, and its region, any less valuable?
The authenticity of Basilicata is present in the welcoming people, who go an extra mile to make a visitor feel like at home, in their connection with traditions and in their appreciation of small things. Everyone, after all, when travelling, search, at least in part, something like a sense of home. And what’s more authentic than home itself?
Apart from the sections where the local religious processions are described, which, in my opinion, are probably better to be read after having witnessed to them to fully grasp their meaning, this book is a great read to get acquainted with the region and have a general picture of it before visiting.
As the previous work of Karen, Calabria the Other Italy, this is not a travel guide in the common sense, but rather a personal journey packed with accurate descriptions and useful information, which go from the history bits to the tourist attractions to the amazing local food.
A great read for those wanting to explore less known parts of the country and definitely for those having family heritage connected with this region.
In conclusion, I have to say that I’ve been happy with all three books and that all of these mention the fact that Italy is far more complicated and layered than common people believe. As Severgnini states: “All think they know us [Italians], but they really don’t“, and it’s really the same with the country itself. That’s the price we have to pay for being an highly stereotyped country.
I hope 2021 will bring you the curiosity to explore and the desire to uncover this enigma called Italy. Happy new year, guys.