Those Italians

My son gave me a clever Mother’s Day gift. He adopted an olive tree for one year in the Nudo La Monla grove near Abruzzo, Italy. In the fall I will receive a bottle of olive oil from “my tree.”

 He knows I am fond of all things Italian. My father’s family came from southern Italy. His was the classic story of the first-generation immigrant boy who dropped out of school early to help support his mother and siblings, but through hard work and an optimistic outlook, rose from errand boy to own the company. When I traveled to Italy for the first time in college, it was a revelation. Everybody looked like my aunts and uncles!

A new book by Tim Parks reminds me about how much I enjoy learning about Italian character and culture. The book Italian Ways: on and off the rails from Milan to Palermo (W.W. Norton & Co., 2013) describes Parks’ experiences while riding trains throughout the country. He details the exasperating network of bureaucracy that governs train travel. Just buying an annual season ticket from Verona to Milan requires hours of standing in line and complicated negotiations. The train system is representative of larger inefficiencies—how do things ever get done? Parks writes with impatience, affection, and wonder that somehow trains move and people reach their destinations. Parks, from Manchester, England, has lived in Italy since 1981, wryly notes “Italy is not a country for beginners.”

 Other enlightening books about life in Italy by Tim Parks include Italian Neighbors (Grove, 1992), An Italian Education (Grove, 1996), and A Season with Verona (Arcade Publishing, 2002).

 American-born author Donna Leon like Tim Parks has lived in Italy over 30 years. And like Parks, her love for Italy encompasses passion and frustration. A book of essays called My Venice and Other Essays, coming out this year, includes vignettes from her life in Venice. I found the essays a little lackluster compared to her superb mystery series featuring Commissario Guido Brunetti. Brunetti deeply loves Venice, and the descriptions of its beauty are lyrical, if threaded through with despair over its worsening condition. Meanwhile, there are mysteries to be solved, and the labyrinth of Italian bureaucracy to be dealt with.

 In The Jewels of Paradise (Atlantic Monthly Press, 2012), Donna Leon introduces Caterina Pellegrini, a native Venetian and musicologist. Pellegrini, hired to examine the contents of two locked trunks of a composer rumored to have hidden a fortune, finds herself entangled in a mysterious and threatening situation.

 Reading these books makes me want to hop a plane to Verona or Venice tomorrow.

 These books are available at your local public library and Parnassus Books, Nashville.

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