Tuesday, March 17, 2015

The Italians by John Hooper

If you are fascinated with modern Italy and modern Italians, you might enjoy this book.  If you are more interested in the achievements of past Italians in the fields of art, architecture, literature and music, this is not the book for you.  If you are a person of faith, especially of the Catholic faith, you may be offended by the author's anti-Catholic and anti-faith bias.

The author is a journalist, so the anecdotes and examples he uses to elucidate the modern Italian's generalized character often come from recent events, interviews, or recent books by others.  He even quotes from the classic book with the same title, The Italians by Luigi Barzini.  To be honest, I found it a bit odd to use the same title as Barzini's classic...but to each his own.

The book begins by explaining Italy's geography, and uses it as a reason for the diversity of language and sub-cultures in Italy.  The next section tries to cover Italy's 3000 year history, but as always when one tries to summarize Italian history, it passes in a blur.  The sections after that address a single subject but there is much overlapping, and much jumping around in time.

Some sections will likely confuse readers, such as the one on politics, since Italian politics is a confusing mess, with hundreds of political parties each called by nothing more than their initials, which the author uses with ease, being an experience journalist.  As the author admits, in Italy:
...all sorts of things are immensely complicated.

There is an inherent risk with books that attempt to describe a national character of a people:  the generalizations do not fit everyone, and can be insulting to a huge swath of a country's population.  The author attempts to address this, but I'm not sure he succeeds in that.

There is also a risk when focusing on one Mediterranean country to ignore the fact that most all Mediterranean countries share similar traits and problems.  Many authors ascribe Mediterranean traits to Italians as if they were unique.  That is not the case.  The reasons for this are partly historical and partly economic.  But the truth is that Italians share many traits with Greeks, Spaniards, the French, Moroccans, Algerians... 

The tone of the book is chatty, with many Italian words peppering the text.  If you are at all familiar with Italian society, you will not be surprised with the author's description of the low trust society centered around the family with women generally treated as second-class citizens. 

I imagine the book would be most interesting to those who wish to live in Italy for some time, either for work or for pleasure.  It makes a wonderful get-up-to-speed-on-recent-events sort of read.  I received it as a review-copy.

I enjoyed the parts that discussed the artistic works of artists like Pirandello, Collodi, Verdi, and the elements of Commedia dell'Arte and Opera and how they related to a generalized Italian character.  I did not enjoy the attempts at psychological explanations for Italian traits.  Nor did I enjoy the anti-Papist bigotry and anti-faith bias of the author.  But that is just me...

From the book's description:
A vivid and surprising portrait of the Italian people from an admired foreign correspondent

How can a nation that spawned the Renaissance have produced the Mafia?  How could people concerned with bella figura (keeping up appearances) have elected Silvio Berlusconi as their leader not once, but three times?  Sublime and maddening, fascinating yet baffling, Italy is a country of seemingly unsolvable riddles.

John Hooper’s entertaining and perceptive new book is the ideal companion for anyone seeking to understand contemporary Italy and the unique character of the Italians. Digging deep into their history, culture, and religion, Hooper offers keys to understanding everything from their bewildering politics to their love of life and beauty.

Looking at the facts that lie behind the stereotypes, he sheds new light on many aspects of Italian life:  football and Freemasonry, sex, symbolism, and the reason why Italian has twelve words for a coat hanger, yet none for a hangover.

Even readers who think they know Italy well will be surprised, challenged, and delighted by The Italians

Here is a 2 minute into to the book by the author himself:

Here is a direct link to the book at Amazon.com:

Please visit the author's website.

This review is by Candida Martinelli, of Candida Martinelli's Italophile Site, and the author of the cozy-murder-mystery novel AN EXTRA VIRGIN PRESSING MURDER, and the young-adult/adult mystery novel series THE VIOLET STRANGE MYSTERIES the first book of which is VIOLET'S PROBLEM.

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