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Under the Tuscan Sun
by Frances Mayes

Under the Tuscan Sun is a lyrical description of the writer's dream – buying and renovating a home in Tuscany, namely Cortona, one of the lovely hill towns in Italy. Mayes is a poet and it shows in her writing. A sense of humor and a joyous appreciation of "most" things Italian lends this book, along with others she has written on Italy, its charm. Frances is a friend of mine, so I am a bit biased, but given the popularity of her books, I am not the only one who enjoys Mayes' writing. Under the Tuscan Sun will heighten your senses and open you to the wonderful sights and flavors of Italy. Mayes includes several of her favorite recipes to try when you return home.

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"Under the Tuscan Sun is a true pleasure and will make everyone a lover of Italy. Frances Mayes may find us all on her doorstep one day." – Diane Johnson

"The house, only two kilometers from town, feels like a deep country place. We can't see any neighbors, although we hear the man way above us call vieni qua, come here, to his dog. The summer sun hits like a religious conviction. I can tell time by where the sun strikes the house, as though it were a gigantic sundial. At five-thirty, the first rays smack the patio door, routing us out of bed and giving us the pleasure of dawn. At nine, a slab of sunlight falls into my study from the side window, my favorite window in the house for its framed view over the cypresses, the groves in the valley, and out into the Apennines." – Under the Tuscan Sun, Chronicle Books, 1996 edition.

The Ides of March
by Thornton Wilder

This book was such a favorite of our book club that we named ourselves after it: The Ides of March Book Club. We meet each month on the Thursday closest to the ides (the 15th). On our 20th anniversary we read the book for a second time and we all agreed it aged well. If you are going to Italy, especially Rome, this is a great book to take along, or read before you go. It gives the reader a sense of ancient Rome during the last days of the Roman Republic and the characters that made up the political backdrop of Caesar's time, including Cleopatra. "The Ides of March," of course, was the day Caesar was murdered in the senate.

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"Mr. Wilder has brought to his character the warmth which was totally lacking in the Caesar of the schoolbooks and Shakespeare." – Atlantic Monthly

"... vivid, glowing, and powerful ... no one but a boldly imaginative writer would have ventured to do this, and no one without Mr. Wilder's extraordinary literary power ... would have succeeded so brilliantly." – The New York Herald Tribune

"Cleopatra can never do a thing without pomp. She asked to be permitted to bring a court of two hundred and a household of a thousand, including a large royal guard. I have cut down these numbers to a court of thirty and a retinue of two hundred, and have told her that the Republic will undertake the responsibility of guarding her person and her party. I have directed, also, that outside of her palace grounds ... she may not employ the insignia of royalty except on the two occasions of her official welcome on the Capitoline Hill and of her official leave-taking." – The Ides of March, Avon, 1975 edition.

Death at La Fenice and other Mysteries
by Donna Leon

Death at La Fenice is the first of Donna Leon's captivating mystery series which takes place in Venice. Detective Guido Brunetti is the chief homicide Commissario in Venice and loves to eat. Pick up any of her mystery novels and you will enjoy the ride (mainly on gondolas). The plots are complex, the Commissario, sophisticated and wry. You will get to know the backstreets of Venice, the houses along the canals, and much about Italian food when Brunetti goes home to his Professor wife who always manages to cook and serve a magnificent mid-day meal including a glass of Proseco. For those times when you just don't feel like a "literary" read, you will enjoy these well-written "who-done-its."

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"Deftly plotted and smoothly written." – Kirkus Reviews

"The third gong, announcing that the opera was about to continue, sounded discreetly through the lobbies and bars of Teatro La Fenice. In response, the audience stabbed out cigarettes, finished drinks and conversations, and started to filter back into the theater. The hall, brightly lit between acts, hummed with the talk of those returning to their seats. Here a jewel flashed, there a mink cape was adjusted over a naked shoulder or an infinitesimal speck of dust was flicked from a satin lapel. The upper galleries filled up first, followed by the orchestra seats and then the three rows of boxes." – Death at La Fenice, HarperCollins, 1995, Kindle edition.

The Leopard
by Guiseppe di Lampedusa

The Leopard, set in the 1860's in Sicily, recounts the story of Don Fabrizio and his family before the coming of the Italian Revolution and the uniting of Italy. The Italian aristocrats know the inevitable is about to happen, but struggle to understand how to let go the old ways and become a part of the new society. A sadness pervades the novel, sadness in the knowledge that the past is finished and the future is unknown. This is a brilliant historical novel, replete with intricate details of life in Sicily. Ironically as one travels through Sicily now, many of the old manors are still there, and hints of old Sicily can be seen around every corner. De Lampedusa describes Sicily's terrain: "... comfortless and irrational, with no lines that the mind could grasp, conceived apparently in a delirious moment of creation; a sea suddenly petrified at the instant when a change of wind had flung waves into frenzy." Who would not wish to visit Sicily after reading these lines?

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"This tale of the decline and fall of the house of Salina, a family of Sicilian aristocrats, first appeared in 1958, but it reads more like the last 19th century novel, a perfect evocation of a lost world." – Rachel Donadio, The New York Times

"The daily recital of the Rosary was over. For half an hour the steady voice of the Prince had recalled the Glorious and the Sorrowful Mysteries, for half an hour other voices had interwoven a lilting hum from which, now and again, would chime some unlikely word: love, virginity, death; and during that hum the whole aspect of the rococo drawing room seemed to change, even the parrots spreading iridescent wings over the silken walls appeared abashed; even the Magdalen between the two windows looked a penitent and not just a handsome blonde lost in some dubious daydream, as she usually was." – The Leopard, Pantheon Books, 1960 edition.

Pompeii
by Robert Harris

Robert Harris writes very readable, well-researched fiction that is filled with an interesting mix of fictional and historical characters. I read this book after visiting Pompeii and was sorry I had not read it before. The history of the eruption of Mt. Etna is fascinating as is the life in and around Pompeii. This book certainly stirs the old Roman Empire to life. Standing looking down toward the Mediterranean one can imagine the town of Pompeii before the eruption, a town full of villas, even a tourist attraction of the times. One of the great disasters of history beautifully re-created.

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"It's a testament to the tightly wound structure and entertaining detail that Harris has built into his idiosyncratic historical-volcanological mystery that, even though you know how his story ends, you still can't put it down as the inevitable comes closer." – Daniel Mendelsohn, The New York Times

"It was that time of day, an hour or so before dusk, when the people of the Mediterranean begin emerging from their houses. Not that the town had lost much of its heat. The stones were like bricks from a kiln. Old women sat on stools beside their porches, fanning themselves, while the men stood at the bars, drinking and talking. Thickly bearded Bessians and Dalmatians, Egyptians with gold rings in their ears, redheaded Germans, olive-skinned Greeks and Cilicians, great muscled Nubians as black as charcoal and with eyes bloodshot by wine – men from every country of the empire, all of them desperate enough, or ambitious enough, or stupid enough, to be willing to trade twenty-five years of their lives at the oars in return for Roman citizenship. From somewhere down in the town, near the harbor front, came the piping notes of a water organ." – Pompeii, Ballantine, 2004 edition.

Torregreca
by Ann Cornelisen

The subtitle of Ann Cornelisens' book Torregreca is "Life, Death, and Miracles in the Southern Italian Village". Ms. Cornelisen moved to a poor area in Italy in 1959 and stayed on to become acquainted with the residents, establish a school and adopt the area as her own. The people and the landscape come alive in this wonderful memoir.

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"When I read Torregreca, I knew it was one of those blessed books that I would reread from time to time, teach from, and pass around to friends." – Frances Mayes

"Summer in Basilicatath – the ancient region of Lucania – ends abruptly with the first cloudburst of October. For seven months damp and chill wrap themselves around our hilltop, around Torregreca, and around our lives there. The high rolling plateaus sink away under a blanket of fog, and no house or tree gives sign of life. The fields of summer, like patches of yellow velvet rubbed one way and then the other, have been plowed into quagmires. Towns that shimmered on distant pointed hills disappear into an icy cocoon of rain and sleet. Only the mountains, their jagged peaks veined with tracings of snow, are clearer than before. " – Torregreca, Steerforth Press, 2002 edition.

Memoirs of Hadrian
by Marguerite Yourcenar

I must admit I never get enough of reading about ancient Rome. This book, along with The Ides of March, allows the reader to listen in to voices from the past and reflect upon the timelessness of the human mind and condition. This novel, written in the form of a letter from the Emperor Hadrian to his successor, Marcus Aurelius, presents us with a reconstruction of the 2nd century in Rome. When one visits Rome, despite its chaotic modernity, one cannot escape the past. Go down a side street and you find a Roman well, a crumbling wall, or an archeological dig. This book enlivens the characters and the thought processes of the ancient Romans.

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"Yourcenar gathers not just the round-cheeked boys and the fire festivals but also the less glamorous materials – the tax abatements, the judicial reforms – into sentences that throb and glow like rising suns. This is more than beauty; it's morals." – Joan Acocello, The New Yorker

"I watched Rome ablaze. Those festive bonfires were surely as brilliant as the disastrous conflagrations lighted by Nero; they were almost as terrifying, too. Rome the crucible, but also the furnace, the boiling metal, the hammer, and the anvil as well, visible proof of the changes and repetitions of history, one place in the world where man will have most passionately lived. ...xThese millions of lives past, present, and future, these structures newly arisen from ancient edifices and followed themselves by structures yet to be born, seemed to me to succeed each other in time like waves; by chance it was at my feet that night that this great surf swept to shore. ...xThe massive reef in the distance, perceptible in the dark, that gigantic base of my tomb so newly begun on the banks of the Tiber, suggested to me no regret at the moment, no terror nor vain meditation upon the brevity of life." – Memoirs of Hadrian, Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1981 edition.

The Path to Rome
by Hilaire Belloc

Hilaire Belloc, born in 1870, although not well known today, was one of the better-known writers in England in the early 20th century. The Path to Rome is a joyful and delightful book, and one to take a dip into as you travel through Italy, or anywhere for that matter. He describes colorful characters, the Alps, and villages in the era before World War I, with clear and sparkling language. This is a book for those who love the whole idea of travel.

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"The Path to Rome is the product of the actual and genuine buoyancy and thoughtfulness of a rich intellect." – G.K. Chesterton

"... takes the reader on a journey into himself and out of himself, a voyage of discovery which Home and Exile are interwoven in a mystical dance of contemplation. " – Joseph Pearce, author, Old Thunder: A Life of Hilaire Belloc

"Next morning I had fine coffee and bread and butter and the rest, like a rich man; in a gilded dining room all set out for the rich, and served by a fellow that bowed and scraped. Also they made me pay a great deal, and kept their eyes off my boots, and were still courteous to me, and I to them. Then I bought wine of them – putting it in my haversack with a nice white roll, left them to wait for the next man whom the hills might send them. ...xThe clouds, the mist, were denser than ever that early morning; one could only see the immediate road. The cold was very great; my clothes were not quite dried, but my heart was high, and I pushed along well enough, though stiffly, till I came to what they called the Hospice, which was once a monk-house, I suppose, but is now an inn. I had brandy there, and on going out I found that it stood at the foot of a sharp ridge which was the true Grimsel Passx...x." – The Path to Rome, The Echo Library, Kindle edition.

Twilight in Italy
by D.H. Lawrence

This book of travel sketches contains three main sections: one an account of Lawrence staying near Lake Garda; in a second "Sea and Sardinia" he relates the old ways of Sardinia; and thirdly in "Etruscan Places" he brings to life the Etruscan culture. He and his wife Frieda traveled through Italy in the early 20th century, yet they found ancient Italy everywhere they went. The writing is typically Lawrence, very graphic and close to the earth. In "Etruscan Places" he visits several Etruscan sites as well as the painted tombs in Tarquinia, and some credit him with bringing interest in the Etruscans back to life. If you are a Lawrence fan you will enjoy going on this journey with him.

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"The imperial road to Italy goes from Munich across the Tyrol, through Innsbruck and Bozen to Verona, over the mountains. Here the great processions passed as the emperors went South, or came home again from rosy Italy to their own Germany. ...xThe imperial procession no longer crosses the mountains, going south. That is almost forgotten, the road has almost passed out of mind. But still it is there, and its signs are standing." – Twilight in Italy, Penguin Books, 1997 edition.

 

The Garden of the Finzi-Continis
by Georgio Bassani

This masterful novel by Georgio Bassani was made into a film by Vittorio De Sica in 1971. The film is absorbing but read the novel first. The story takes place just before World War II in the provincial town of Ferrara, and follows an aristocratic Jewish-Italian family as the war suddenly encroaches and changes their world. This is basically a delicately written love story between two young Jewish friends, who might have been happy without the dire circumstances of history about to involve them. The slow spread of Fascism in Italy is detailed through these characters, and of course, its terrible outcome. The translation by William Weaver is excellent.

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"And life, as Bassani sees it, is complex, rich, comic, and very dangerous. Above all, individual motives and the actual behavior of groups never coincide neatly with the great ideological divides of the time. This is the source of the all-pervasive irony in his writing." – Tim Parks, The New York Review of Books

"Oh, it still took very little to be offended by it! It was enough, say, to pass along the endless outside wall ... or else ... overlooking the park, to peer through the forest-like tangle of trunks, boughs, and foliage below, until you could glimpse the strange, sharp outline of the lordly dwelling, and behind it, much farther on, at the edge of a clearing, the tan patch of the tennis court: and the ancient offense of rejection and separation would smart once more." – The Garden of the Finzi-Continis, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1977 edition.

The Stones of Florence
by Mary McCarthy

When visiting Florence there could be no better book to have with you than The Stones of Florence by Mary McCarthy. She writes with wit and verve following the history of Florence from its beginnings and how it came to be one of the major art centers of the world. She introduces the great writers and artists from Dante to Michelangelo and their participation in the building of the city's reputation. McCarthy obviously loves Florence, despite the flaws, which she seems to find pleasure in pointing out, and so will we after reading her book.

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"Miss McCarthy is not only well versed in the subject but her taste is sure and her style – cool, astringently witty, yet eloquent – seems tailor-made for depicting the brilliant, mercurial, skeptical Florentines." – Carlo Beuf, The New York Times

"This is one of the few cities where it is possible to loiter, undisturbed, in the churches, looking at the works of art. After the din outside, the churches are extraordinarily peaceful, so that you walk about on tiptoe, fearful of breaking the silence, of distracting the few old women, dimly seen, from their prayers. You can pass an hour, two hours, in the great churches of Brunelleschi – Santa Spirito and San Lorenzo – and no one will speak to you or pay you any heed." – The Stones of Florence, Mariner Books, 2002, Kindle edition.

City of Fortune: How Venice Ruled the Seas
by Roger Crowley

Roger Crowley has written a subtle, absorbing history of the Venetian Empire: a 500-year history from the Middle Ages on. Anyone visiting Venice will find this book a marvelous companion. Reading City of Fortune we are immersed in many of the tempests of history and the people who built the city and gave it her churches, art and culture. We understand better the beguiling draw of this city.

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"... a fantastically fast-paced historical narrative and a welcome read. Mr. Crowley's vivid pairing of broad historical themes with interesting historical characters leaves the reader grappling with the problem of the construction of Venetian identity and the confusing means that Venice situated itself in the emerging modern world." – Dr. Lydia Pyne, New York Journal of Books

"Roger Crowley chronicles the peak of Venice's past glory with Wordsworthian sympathy, supplemented by impressive learning and infectious enthusiasm." – The Wall Street Journal

"On the threshold of the new era, the city stood finely poised between danger and opportunity. Venice was not yet the compact mirage of dazzling stone that it would later become, though its population was already substantial. No splendid palazzo flanked the great S bend of the Grand Canal. The city of wonder, flamboyance, and sin, of carnival masks and public spectacle lay centuries ahead. Instead, low wooden houses, wharves, and warehouses fronted the water." – The City of Fortune: How Venice Ruled the Seas, Random House, 2012 edition.

The Aspen Papers
by Henry James

The Aspern Papers, a novella, is not one of Henry James’ better-known works, but would be a marvelous introduction to James. The intriguing plot follows an editor’s extreme machinations to obtain the letters of a long-dead poet from his supposed mistress, an aging American who has become a recluse in Venice. James has a lovely sense of both humor and irony. The descriptions of Venice are just as valid today as they were in 1888 when it was published. This would be an ideal short novel to enjoy while sitting at a café alongside one of the canals, or in San Marco’s Piazza.

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“… I don’t know why it happened that on this occasion I was more than ever struck with that queer air of sociability, of cousinship and family life, which makes up half the expression of Venice. Without streets and vehicles, the uproar of wheels, the brutality of horses, and with its little winding ways where people crowd together, where voices sound as in the corridors of a house, where the human step circulates as if it skirted the angels of furniture and shoes never wear out, the place has the character of an immense collective apartment, in which Piazza San Marco is the most ornamented corner and palaces and churches, for the rest, play the part of great divans of repose, tables of entertainment, expanses of decoration. And somehow the splendid common domicile, familiar, domestic, and resonant, also resembles a theater, with actors clicking over bridges and, in straggling processions, tripping along fondamentas.” – The Aspern Papers, Serenity Publishers, 2008 edition.
 

Christ Stopped at Eboli: The Story of a Year
by Carlo Levi

In 1935 Carlo Levi was banished to a small village in the south of Italy for his opposition to Fascism. He was sent to Gagliano, a tiny town far south of Eboli. He took advantage of his “prison” and wrote beautiful lyrical descriptions of the land and people in an Italy barely touched by civilization. This book would be a perfect choice for a trip into Italy’s southern reaches. Levi observes the people, their work and their customs with loving care. An unforgettable book.

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“ … a sensitive and gifted writer with a great sense of style.” – Alfred Kazin

“Many years have gone by, years of war and of what men call History. Buffeted here and there at random I have not been able to return to my peasants as I promised when I left them, and I do not know when, if ever, I can keep my promise. But closed in one room, in a world apart, I am glad to travel in my memory to that other world, hedged in by custom and sorrow, cut off from History and the State, eternally patient, to that land without comfort of solace, where the peasant lives out his motionless civilization on barren ground in remote poverty, and in the presence of death. ‘We’re not Christians,’ they say. ‘Christ stopped short of here, at Eboli.’ – Christ Stopped at Eboli, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2006 edition.


 

My Brilliant Friend (Neapolitan Novels Book I)
by Elena Ferrante

My Brilliant Friend is the first of Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan series. I loved every one of these books. Reading them I felt completely immersed in the teeming, rich life of Naples after World War II. It is not necessary to commit to all four books as each one stands alone, however, I can almost guarantee you will read them all. These novels follow two women, Elena and Lila through their childhood, middle and old age. Their friendship is complicated by class, sex, ambitions, families and neighborhood squabbles. When I finished this series I felt as though I had lived in Naples myself and experienced intimately the difficult, and passionate life of the streets.

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“When I read (the Neapolitan novels) I find that I never want to stop. I feel vexed by the obstacles my job, or acquaintances on the subwaythat threaten to keep me apart from the books.”  – Molly Fischer, The New Yorker

 “Elena Ferrante is one of the great novelists of our time. Her voice is passionate, her view sweeping and her gaze basilisk … .” – Roxana Robinson, The New York Times Book Review

“My friendship with Lila began the day we decided to go up the dark stairs that led, step after step, flight after flight, to the door of Don Achille’s apartment. I remember the violet light of the courtyard, the smells of a warm spring evening. The mothers were making dinner, it was time to go home, but we delayed, challenging each other, without ever saying a word, testing our courage.” – My Brilliant Friend, Europa Editions, 2011.