La Bella Figura: A Field Guide to the Italian Mind Paperback – Jun 12 2007
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From Publishers Weekly
Severgnini—Italian newspaper columnist and author of the pesce-out-of-water memoir Ciao, America!—must have wanted to emulate Luigi Barzini, author of the 1960s classic The Italians, in this somewhat tepid sociological look at his countrymen. Severgnini writes pleasantly enough (and Giles Watson's translation is smooth, for the most part), but his observations are anything but sharp. He organizes this overview as a kind of geographical "tour," with a chapter about car sex in Naples and another on the Italian countryside in Tuscany. Sweeping statements, such as "Italians have the same relationship with food that some Amazonian people have with the clouds in the sky—one glance and we know what to expect," abound, and they have the ring of truth, but they're rarely backed up by supporting anecdotes. In today's shrunken world, jokes about how Italians love to see half-naked women on television ("The new Italian icon is the Semi-Undressed Signorina") and abuse their cellphone privileges simply aren't new. The collection ends with the hoariest of devices: a letter from an imaginary American friend who has taken Severgnini's tour and reminisces about the beautiful "girls" in a Milan disco. Barzini, too, often wrote in generalities, but he had the advantage of coming first. (Aug.)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.
Severgnini attempts to plumb beneath the mask (the title's bella figura) that Italians present to the world, especially to tourists, to reveal the truth about modern Italian minds and hearts. He begins with the Italian "apartment," the place most Italians call home. For him, this is a cramped, well-guarded portion of real estate where one has little room for oneself and where one is constantly vigilant against neighbors' predations. He rails against Italian men's sexism and women's lack of serious opposition to discrimination in the workplace. Severgnini's Italians prefer bank tellers to impersonal ATMs. His Italians delight in talking about other people's money while maintaining secrecy about their own finances. He longs for equivalent reticence when Italians travel by trains, where, thanks to the cell phone, they share their most intimate secrets with their compartment mates. Severgnini holds -American-inspired Italian shopping malls in special contempt for his fellow countrymen's manic shouting at one another across their walkways, confusing modern mercantile halls with their ancient piazzas. Mark Knoblauch
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.
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That's the type of Italian bravado and confidence that Beppe Severgnini conveys to his readers in "La Bella Figura." [Typical passage: "We are the consummate professionals of culinary consumption...The French know what they're talking about, but they're sliding into affectation...Note that I'm talking about all Italians...There is a spontaneous gustatory proficiency that cuts across social classes, age groups, income brackets, education and geographical boundaries."]
Now, there are some good things in here, as the other reviewers here can readily attest to. My lukewarm review stems from the fact that the book's awkward format never grabbed me. Severgnini's schtick here is that he's taking us (figuratively) on a ten-day tour so we get lines like "that's the ocean there in front of you...that sand you see was the city council's idea.' Cute idea, but it got old and grating very quickly.
However, if you can get past the clunky presentation, the Italophile in you will be rewarded with an incisive and comprehensive dissection of the national character.
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