Monday, December 5, 2011

"Was it better to be cool and look at a waterfall, or to be hot and look at Saint Mark's?...Was it, in short, ever well to be elsewhere when one might be in Italy?" These words of Edith Wharton -- from a book entitled Edith Wharton's Italian Gardens by Vivian Russell that I recently read -- are so quotable that I had to share them with you, and they also reminded me that I have a number of books to recommend since the publication of my Tuscany and Umbria book last year. I've been saving the list as a way to honor the 150th anniversary of the unification of Italy, which was on March 17th, 2011. Here is a handful of titles, in no particular order, a few relating to Italy and others specifically devoted to Tuscany, that are not only good immersion reading but are great gifts for an Italy enthusiast as well:

How Italian Food Conquered the World by John F. Mariani, foreword by Lidia Bastianich (Palgrave Macmillan, 2011). Mariani is the food and travel correspondent for Esquire, wine columnist for Bloomberg News, and the author of several books, including The Dictionary of Italian Food and Drink and, with his wife Galina, The Italian-American Cookbook. (He's not the John Mariani who founded Banfi Vintners in 1919.) He's also been referred to as "the most influential food-wine critic in the popular press," so it will not come as a surprise to know that he tells the story of how, indeed, Italian food has conquered the world with great spirit and wit. As Mariani writes in his Introduction, we can go to a restaurant anywhere in the world today and chances are very good that we'll find Italian dishes listed on the menu. Mariani has witnessed, over the last four decades, how the status of Italian food has gone from a "low-class, coarse ethnic food to the most recognizable, stylish, and influential cuisine in the world." And how this happened "has as much to do with changing ideas of ethnicity and a surging interest in wholesome ingredients as it does with taste and fashion." He shares the stories of a great number of people, restaurants, and products, such as Mamma Leone's, Elaine's, Patsy's, Sirio Maccioni, Mario Batali, Pizzeria Uno, Ernest and Julio Gallo, Robert Mondavi, Alfredo's Ristorante, Mary Ann Esposito, Marcella Hazan, London's River Cafe, Sophia Loren, Rice-a-Roni, and Chef Boyardee -- did you know the name derives from Italian immigrant Hector Boiardi? He worked as a chef in Cleveland and then opened his own restaurant, called the Italian Immigrant, and began canning his own sauces and then spaghetti. He provided the U. S. military with canned spaghetti with tomato sauce during World War II, and after the war he made new labels for the cans featuring his photo. He also changed the name to a phonetic spelling so Americans could pronounce it easier -- Chef Boy-AR-Dee (but most Americans still mispronounced it as Chef Boy-Ar-DEE, as they do today). "Italian food," says Bastianich in her Foreword, "is simply gratifying, effortlessly delicious, and nutritionally sound...It is safe to say that Americans have a love affair with Italy and its food and that they aspire to live the Italian style and eat the Italian way." This is absolutely true, but it wasn't very long ago that Italian food was considered inferior, especially to French cuisine. Mariani notes that Italian food just about everywhere outside of Italy was "regarded as little more than macaroni with red sauce, chicken parmigiana, pizza, and "dago red" wines. I highly recommend his enjoyable chronicle of a now nearly universally loved cuisine. (One small quibble: this book would have benefited from the services of a good copyeditor as there are a number of annoying typos.)

The Reluctant Tuscan: How I Discovered My Inner Italian by Phil Doran (Gotham Books, 2006). This is one of those Tuscan memoirs that I was prepared to dislike simply because I didn't like the title. And, as I note in my book, do we really need another Tuscan memoir? Like others I didn't think I'd like, this one, too, proved me wrong, so yes, I've added it to my (sagging) shelves and I'm recommending it to you. Doran was, as you may know (I admit I didn't recognize his name), a successful Hollywood screenwriter and producer whose wife, Nancy, a sculptor, saw their life together heading in a dead-end direction so she went to Italy and bought a crumbling farmhouse for them to fix up. She didn't consult Doran first, so right off the bat you can imagine how at least some of this story goes. But you can't imagine how truly hilarious their straniere in Paradiso story is, and how lovely, and beautiful, and memorable. In the telling of the story, Doran also enlightens readers to numerous Italian traditions, customs, and vocabulary, which I particularly love. So for the word cantina he notes that this is the "heart and soul of every Tuscan home," and if we think it's the equivalent to the American den, the English drawing room, or the French parlor we're wrong. "Every Tuscan home, no matter how humble, is guaranteed two things by law: a forno for baking bread and a cantina where the family can make wine. No one is guaranteed a bathroom, but every citizen must have their pane e vino." Initially, Doran really has no intention of actually living in Tuscany, let alone fix up a house and deal with all the local bureaucracy and the village personalities. But eventually, he warms to Tuscany, writing that "there is a fabric of life here, a texture that enfolds you in a way that as a young man I might have found smothering." He also comes to understand how much a sense of place can shape a person, and he believes there is no greater difference between Italy and America than the relationship to our natural surroundings. Though Tuscany is much older than America, it is actually more unspoiled, Doran writes, and "Tuscany is the reality, where our suburbia is the re-creation of that reality." So our neighborhood parks are really just re-creations of meadows, our malls are re-creations of villages, and swimming pools are re-creations of ponds. All of which has the effect of making our experiences one step removed from the immediate impact of life. "Our lives in the 'burbs are clean, efficient, well organized, and essentially soulless. And I would have never understood that if I hadn't come to live in Italy."
There is one tale I won't spoil here but will only say that it involves one of the workmen, Umberto, and 'The Sopranos,' and when I read it I was practically gasping for breath I was laughing so hard (and when I read it aloud to friends they were laughing, too). Yes, you really do need to read one more Tuscan memoir.

Edith Wharton’s Italian Gardens by Vivian Russell (Bulfinch, 1997). Edith Wharton’s lifelong love affair with Italy began at the age of 4, when her parents took her to Rome for a year. Russell set out, nearly a century later, to visit the gardens that Wharton had visited. Some gardens were no longer, and others denied permission to photograph; so Russell focused on those “whose stories could still be told in a visually provocative way.” The gardens featured are in Lombardy, the Veneto, and those around Rome, as well as those near Florence (Villa Castello, Boboli Gardens, Villa Petraia, and Villa Gamberaia) and those near Siena (Vicobello and Villa Cetinale – the cover photograph, in fact, is of Villa Cetinale). She relates a priceless vignette of Iris Origo (author of War in Val D'Orcia and The Merchant of Prato, two of my most favorite books) who accompanied her mother around Italy in 1911: “The sight of a cypress avenue leading to a fine villa or the mere mention of its existence in a guidebook, was to my mother irresistible.” I couldn’t agree more!

In a lovely book called The Garden Visitor's Companion (Thames & Hudson, 2008), author Louisa Jones opines that “gardeners are a curious lot. They want to know what is happening next door, down the road, in the next country or county.” I think this is absolutely true as people I know who are gardeners are interesting, curious, and passionate. They also have a wonderful ability to notice a thing of beauty in the most unlikely places. They are very much glass-half-full kind of people, as opposed to those pesky glass-half-empty kind of people. Jones also relates in her book that when she asked some gardeners in France what they particularly liked about gardens, they gave answers like this one: "You open the gate to a garden as you would open the first page of a new book, with the hope of living a moment of happiness in the discovery of a place, a story, a human adventure, a time to dream away from the bustle of everyday life, dream and escape…a moment outside of time." I just love that, and a book called Tuscany Artists Gardens by Mariella Sgaravatti, with photographs by Mario Ciampi (Verba Volant Ltd., 2004) is a large hardcover that is surely an embodiment of this sentiment. The book is beautiful and I recommend it not because it's very helpful in planning a trip (it isn't, unless it inspires you to include gardens in your itinerary); rather, it’s a book that highlights 30 artists who live (or lived) in Tuscany and illustrates what they brought to Tuscany and what Tuscany gave to them. It’s interesting to see how each artist interacted with the Tuscan countryside, and as Sgaravatti says, “I hoped to discover the connection between the artwork and the magic of the Tuscan landscape.” Among the artists included are Maro Gorky and Matthew Spender, Sandro Chia, Fernando Botero, Niki de Saint Phalle, Beverly Pepper, and Robert Morris. My most favorite is Sandro Poli’s Garden of Arcipressi, in the Marignolle hills outside of Florence – the photograph on page 82 is extraordinary: looking out from the pergola, covered with a grape vine, the dome of Santa Maria del Fiore (the Duomo) is seen in the distance, behind a stretch of green trees. It’s a magical view, and not one you can reproduce at home, but this book may still be inspiration to anyone who gardens or is an artist.

The Last Supper: A Summer in Italy by Rachel Cusk (Picador, 2010). "We decided to go to Italy," Cusk writes, "though not forever. Three months, a season, was as much of the future as we cared to see." In the novels Cusk read, "people were forever disappearing off to Italy at a moment's notice," for various reasons, and Cusk and her husband and their two kids left England for Italy as well, for their own various reasons. This is a book filled with many passages to ponder over and is a great read for anyone planning to spend an extended time in Italy (specifically Tuscany, Umbria, the Amalfi Coast, Rome, Naples, the Cinque Terre). Cusk also details the family's drive to Italy, through France, and I admit I didn't much care for this early part of the book because I just wanted to focus on Italy and I didn't make many connections between the "getting there" and the "being there." But on page 38 readers arrive at 'Italian in Three Months,' which is the name of a new textbook Cusk is studying, and the family's Italian adventure begins. Cusk's retelling of her family's sojourn is not filled with a lot of humor but rather with great attention to wonderful details, like those about Tintoretto's painting of the Last Supper in Lucca's duomo (an absolutely fabulous painting that I love but is rarely given the attention it deserves in my opinion). Cusk writes that "perception is stronger than belief, at least for an artist, who sees such grandeur in the ordinary. In this it is the artist who is God. And it is a strange kind of proof we seek from him, we who are so troubled by our own mortality, who know we will all eat a last supper of our own. We want the measure of the grandeur taken. We want to know that life was indeed what it seemed to be."

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