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Italian Hours (Penguin Classics)
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3 of 4 people found the following review helpful
I bought this book of Henry James's travel writing prior to a trip to Sorrento last week, remembering how I'd previously come across stimulating extracts from it in a compilation (Venice: The Most Triumphant City) on a previous visit to that country. Originally published in 1909, James assembled the present book from essays that he'd written for periodicals over a period of almost forty years, adding a couple of new pieces and a preface. It's an interesting and pleasant collection, although - given the author's well-known occasional fondness for verbiage - not the easiest holiday read. I have to say that my attention was wandering in places (which I don't remember happening the last time I picked up one of his books - specifically The Portrait of a Lady, which I found completely engrossing), but there are rewards for perseverance: until reading this, I hadn't been aware of James's expertise in the visual arts (in fact, it's mentioned on p xxi of the introduction that John Ruskin wanted Cambridge to offer James the post of Slade Professor of Fine Arts while James was only in his thirties), and he devotes a lot of his time in Venice and Rome to criticism of the paintings and sculpture he finds in the churches and galleries.

There are also less technical passages about his impressions of carnival in Rome and Florence, the papacy (the period covered by the essays includes Victor Emmanuel's capture of Rome from the Pope, which resulted in Italian unification) and the countryside around Rome. And occasionally a very light touch shows through in his eye for detail, as in a charming description (p 224) of a little boy in Siena eating a water-ice and having his spoon taken away from him by his mother ("he was no friend, it appeared, to such freedoms; he was a prefect little gentleman and he resented it being expected of him that he should drink down its remnant").

Finally, it should be said that - no doubt inevitably - the book's geographical coverage is uneven: most of the pieces are about Venice, Florence and Rome, and James only ventures south of Rome in the final essay ("The Saint's Afternoon") in which, happily, I was able to read about his impressions of Capri just a few hours after we'd been there.
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1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
on 10 December 2010
I bought this to give me some impressions of Italy before going there on holiday. I also bought Dickens, Pictures from Italy, for the same reason.
The Henry James book is by far the more detailed and artistically critical (much discussion of paintings and churches) but James' writing style is very complex and sentences go on and on.It is however interesting - more so when re-reading it after my holiday.I would recommmend it with the proviso that one needs to take one's time to read it.
Dickens on the other hand is entertaining and much more easy to read without being trite or boring.
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2 of 4 people found the following review helpful
on 13 April 2011
I am struggling with Henry James these days - when I first read Portrait of a Lady I thought it was a marvelous insightful book with richly described characters and an understanding of a young woman's need for freedom of thought and expression - now - when I know a little more about the man himself and how he shrunk from intimacy and female signs of affection I see him more as a spider sitting in the corner just watching life and being afraid to engage with it himself - maybe I should feel sorry for him - this book is a good example of how perceptive the spider was - his descriptions are mellifluous - and to his credit - he genuinely loves Italy - but he does lack passion!
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