For our list on great books about Italy, we’re going to keep it lighthearted - no heavy tomes, no dense, exacting reads; life in quarantine is already hard enough.
The books we selected are witty, fun, will give you a glimpse into the the mind and lifestyle of the Italians or transport you to Italy. We suggest you turn off the TV, stop bingeing on the news (it will only make you feel even more discouraged), leave social media aside for a while - grab one of these books instead! You’ll have fun.
1. “Italian Ways” by Tim Parks
British novelist Tim Parks moved to Italy in 1981, and has lived in the Bel Paese ever since. As a regular train commuter from Verona, his town of residence, to Milan, where he taught at university, Parks spent a lot of time on trains and realized how much of the country and of Italians he could experience and understand riding trains. Thus he wrote Italian Ways, an entertaining journey around Italy by train. In the words of the author himself: “The whole experience of trains, the way the stations operate, the way the ticketing works, the pervading atmosphere of train travel, how people relate to each other, how social classes, locals and immigrants, mix, or don’t mix. All at once I realized, that you really could write a very amusing book about Italy this way.” You will laugh out loud for the many humorous observations.
2. “La Bella Figura: A Field Guide to the Italian Mind” by Beppe Severgnini
Hilarious yet revealing, this is a great book for those who want to go beyond the stereotypes to understand the Italian psyche. In La Bella Figura, Italian journalist and columnist Beppe Severgnini takes you to places where Italians show how they really are: the good, the bad and the authentic. With this travel guide of sorts, we go to the small town, to the airport (“where we discover that Italians prefer exceptions to rules”), to the highway (“or the psychopathology of the stoplight”), the office, the roads, and so on. “First of all, let's get one thing straight. Your Italy and our Italia are not the same thing. Italy is a soft drug peddled in predictable packages, such as hills in the sunset, olive groves, lemon trees, white wine, and raven-haired girls. Italia, on the other hand, is a maze. It's alluring, but complicated. In Italia, you can go round and round in circles for years. Which of course is great fun.” Great fun just like this read.
3. “Only in Naples” by Katherine Wilson
- “Goethe said, 'See Naples and die.' I saw Naples and started to live.” So writes American-born Katherine Wilson in the introduction to her memoir, Only in Naples – Lessons in food and famiglia from my Italian mother-in-law. Fresh out of college, Katherine arrived in Naples from Washington DC in 1996 for a three-month internship at the U.S. consulate. She met a Neapolitan family, the Avallone, soon after moving, and something clicked; without knowing why, she immediately felt at home. The book is a witty account of Katherine's immersion into Neapolitan culture and life and how the experience changed her for the better; coming from a very efficient and rational culture, Naples taught her to relax, to be more receptive to all of our senses, to approach life with a more 'carnale' (carnal, of the flesh) attitude: “There is a chaotic, vibrant energy about Naples that forces you to let go and give in,” Katherine writes in the book, which will make you want to visit Naples, even if your perception of the city so far has been negative. We also had the pleasure to interview Katherine, read it here.
4. “The Shape of Water” by Andrea Camilleri
We chose this specific novel from the ‘Inspector Montalbano’ books because it is the first in this internationally acclaimed series, published in 1994 (if you’ve already read this one, you can choose among another 30 Montalbano novels or so). The books have been turned into a hugely popular TV show, which is how most people are familiar with Salvo Montalbano, the police investigator who deals with mafia crimes, murders, kidnappings, and the most varied cases of local crimes in the fictional town of Vigata, Sicily (the TV series is shot in south-eastern Sicily). Thanks to his intuition and investigative acumen, and with the help of his team of quirky characters, Montalbano always manages to solve his cases. This is a mystery novel that takes you to Sicily, with its descriptions of the countryside and phrases in Sicilian dialect, while Montalbano is a character you won’t forget, with his mix of humor, cynicism, compassion, and love of good food.
5. “A Dream of Italy” by Nicky Pellegrino
Raised in Liverpool by an Italian father and a British mother, novelist Nicky Pellegrino has been immersed into Italian culture and lifestyle since she was a child, when she spent her summers with relatives in southern Italy. She has written 11 novels set in Italy, the latest being A Dream of Italy, which is set in southern Italy, in a “dilapidated medieval town” that attracts a few characters, each with their own motivation, when its houses are put up for sale for €1 in an effort to save it from abandonment. The novel is inspired by the current trend of promoting houses to buy in remote villages in southern Italy for €1, and is a deliciously escapist read. “I get lots of messages from readers who say they dream of visiting Italy but can’t, for one reason or another, and that my books have taken them there,” Pellegrino told us in this interview.
What books on Italy are you reading now and or have you particularly enjoyed?