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Not quite what it says on the tin
on 2 December 2011
I bought this on the basis of the title and Kindle sample which both seemed to indicate that the focus of this book was indeed the language of Italy with its abundant quirks and curious history as a relatively recent national tongue.
That is part of what this book does, and I enjoyed that aspect of it and the fairly cosy and anecdotal approach of the author. Clearly, the chapter about literature is relevant to the development of the language and she gives broad brush accounts of Dante, Boccaccio, Petrarch and others. My disappointment began to develop round about chapter 5 when the book morphs into a fairly superficial history of aspects of Italian culture, the very things I know a bit about and which have spurred me on to learn the language. The art history chapter, for example, strikes me as more than a little too stereotypically from the 'Renaissance art means Italian art' angle: Vasari is the guide (Vasari is very interesting and important!) but he is a hugely partisan figure who mythologises almost as much as he reveals in his desire to place Italy, and more particularly Tuscany, at the centre of all good things. For me that mythologising is at least as interesting as the myths, but she makes no reference to that, which is a pity as that impulse is relevant to a book on Italian cultural history. And the focus on language is lost.
Other chapters explore food, music, love and other rather sentimental aspects of the country's 'persona', and I felt just a little shortchanged as the book increasingly fails to live up to its title. I, personally, found these chapters less and less interesting as I her judgements became more sentimental and superficial: I raced through the last couple of chapters because it was beginning to be tiresome. I'm sure it will be perfect for lots of people approaching it with different expectations and interests (the ratings so far illustrate that and I don't argue with the judgements expressed). Not a terrible or boring book by any stretch of the imagination, (to be fair, the writer gives much interesting information for those new to Italian culture) but from my perspective, just a little disappointing: I wanted more on the language!
3.5* really, but rounded down to 3 to offer a contrast to the more positive reviews.
(I would have to recommend 'The New Italians' by Charles Richards, and Tobias Jones 'The Dark Heart of Italy', each of which takes a less saccharine, and in my view far more interesting, view of this endlessly fascinating culture. The latter is the more up to date and acerbic.)