The Italians Hardcover – Jan 29 2015
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“Hooper’s book, both sweeping in scope and generous with detail, makes persuasive arguments for how geography, history and tradition have shaped Italy and its citizens, for better and sometimes for worse.... ‘The Italians’ offers a wealth of information seasoned Italophiles will appreciate, but it also deals with some of the inscrutabilities that baffle casual visitors.”—Elisabetta Povoled, New York Times Book Review
"John Hooper is a supremely able and experienced foreign correspondent who has mastered a particular subgenre of his craft: the detailed and comprehensive study of individual countries....It is an admirable piece of work, unassuming but authoritative. If Hooper really were a diplomat instead of a reporter, it would surely earn him his knighthood."—Jan Morris, Literary Review
“One of the things that makes The Italians such a delight to read is that Hooper seems to believe that the Italian people are an enigma that can never be satisfactorily solved.”—Dallas Morning News
“[John Hooper’s] book is both valuable and readable, a lucid and elegantly flowing description of a people.”—Financial Times
"Hooper's range is vast and varied...in this highly readable and sparling account of Italy and its people.... Essential reading for all those who want to know more about Italy—and it shows once again that we need foreign correspondents who can interpret and report on the world for us."—Times Literary Supplement
“What's not to love? A thoroughly researched, well-written, ageless narrative of a fascinating people.”—Kirkus, starred review
“This is a fascinating study of the fundamentals and foibles of Italy’s people.”
“Hooper offers personal experiences and anecdotes from his many years living in Italy, creating a readable and entertaining work…Recommended for casual readers eager to learn more about Italian culture and people.”—Library Journal
“A sophisticated portrait of the Italians at their best and their worst: charming, imaginative, generous, full of life but also unreliable, more or less corrupt and often downright infuriating. I found myself laughing out loud at some of the humorous twists Mr. Hooper has put to his very perceptive analyses. A worthy and long-overdue successor to Luigi Barzini’s classic The Italians."—Andrea Di Robilant, author of A Venetian Affair
“John Hooper takes his readers deep into the Italian labyrinth. And they come out alive, with a smile on their faces! A remarkable achievement.”—Beppe Severgnini, author of Ciao America and La Bella Figura
“In vivid and fluid prose, John Hooper has written an indispensible guide to life in Italy past and present. His incisive portrait, at turns hard-hitting and affectionate, reveals the Italians in all their complexity, from their dolce vita and transcendent art to their gut-wrenching social and political struggles.”—Joseph Luzzi, author of My Two Italies
“Thanks to his great curiosity, his splendid comparative and analytical perspective, and a fine eye for telling details, John Hooper gets under the skin of a fascinating people in a remarkable and compelling way.”—Bill Emmott, co-author of the documentary about Italy “Girlfriend in a Coma”
“Here is the history, passion, culture, and contradictions that make Italy and Italians so fascinating. John Hooper's The Italians is as enjoyable to read as taking a trip to my favorite country!” —Ann Hood, author of An Italian Wife
“People who don’t know Italy will find this book a splendid introduction. Those who know and love the country will find much that is new as well as familiar, much that will have them nodding in agreement, some observations that will meet with the response, 'not to my mind'. It deserves to sit happily on the bookshelf beside Barzini; and that is high praise.”—Allan Massie, The Scotsman
“The author, with the fluency of the well-informed journalist, writes as he might speak in conversation over dinner, never delving too deeply into any topic but ready with relevant comment on almost everything… [he] has written an amusing and engrossing account of a thoroughly irresponsible nation.”—Brian Sewell, The Independent on Sunday
“John Hooper refuses to succumb to easy cliché while explaining the best and worst of Italy.”—John Kampfner, The Observer
“A fascinating, affectionate and well-researched study that delivers the tantalising flavour of a country as hot, cold, bitter and sweet as an affogato.”—Christian House, The Telegraph (UK)
“Hooper deftly derives a lacerating generalisation from a pungent anecdote.... This 300-page book is fuelled by scores of cracking yarns.”—Richard Morrison, The Times (UK)
About the Author
John Hooper is the Italy correspondent of the Economist and a contributing editor of the Guardian (London). He has also written or broadcast for the BBC, NBC, and Reuters. His book The Spaniards won the Allen Lane Award and was revised and updated as The New Spaniards in 1995 and 2006.See all Product Description
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Italy is complex, yet wonderful in its own ways. I had to work my way up to make it in the country. Specially Milano. And believe me, for us foreigners, there are so many things we just don't get about Italians and most of them are written in this wonderful book.
This is not a book about food, landscape or history, is a book about the people inhabiting a territory. It is a great book about people full of paradoxes.
Most of the time I read fast but this time, I went slowly, one chapter a day, digesting the words and reflecting on Italians. You will not be disappointed with this incredible portrait of a fascinating country.
The author is a journalist, so the anecdotes and examples he uses to elucidate the modern Italian's generalized character often come from recent events, interviews, or recent books by others. He even quotes from the classic book with the same title, The Italians by Luigi Barzini. To be honest, I found it a bit odd to use the same title as Barzini's classic...but to each his own.
The book begins by explaining Italy's geography, and uses it as a reason for the diversity of language and sub-cultures in Italy. The next section tries to cover Italy's 3000 year history, but as always when one tries to summarize Italian history, it passes in a blur. The sections after that address a single subject but there is much overlapping, and much jumping around in time.
Some sections will likely confuse readers, such as the one on politics, since Italian politics is a confusing mess, with hundreds of political parties each called by nothing more than their initials, which the author uses with ease, being an experience journalist. As the author admits, in Italy: ...all sorts of things are immensely complicated.
There is an inherent risk with books that attempt to describe a national character of a people: the generalizations do not fit everyone, and can be insulting to a huge swath of a country's population. The author attempts to address this, but I'm not sure he succeeds in that.
There is also a risk when focusing on one Mediterranean country to ignore the fact that most all Mediterranean countries share similar traits and problems. Many authors ascribe Mediterranean traits to Italians as if they were unique. That is not the case. The reasons for this are partly historical and partly economic. But the truth is that Italians share many traits with Greeks, Spaniards, the French, Moroccans, Algerians...
The tone of the book is chatty, with many Italian words peppering the text. If you are at all familiar with Italian society, you will not be surprised with the author's description of the low trust society centered around the family with women generally treated as second-class citizens.
I imagine the book would be most interesting to those who wish to live in Italy for some time, either for work or for pleasure. It makes a wonderful get-up-to-speed-on-recent-events sort of read. I received it as a review-copy.
I enjoyed the parts that discussed the artistic works of artists like Pirandello, Collodi, Verdi, and the elements of Commedia dell'Arte and Opera and how they related to a generalized Italian character. I did not enjoy the attempts at psychological explanations for Italian traits. Nor did I enjoy the anti-Papist bigotry and anti-faith bias of the author. But that is just me...
Please visit my full and illustrated review at Italophile Book Reviews.
Having received this work just yesterday I became completely absorbed in it. Full disclosure the aforementioned family and friends were primarily from Calabria and did not have the privilege of much education or the knowledge of their pedigree, however they have all done quite well and prospered in spite of the stereotypical prototypes that made _The Godfather _ and the _Sopranos_ cultural icons.
To the point I was as guilty as any red blooded American of mindlessly buying into these memes. Goodness I'm seventy two and did not know that Italy did not become a country until 1871. Ashamedly I only found this out when I was in my fifties.
This beautiful work by Mr. Hooper et al is doing so much bring my loose ends together, make me aware of how little I knew about my "pedigree",
bring smiles to my face and tears to eyes and most importantly give me infinite respect for my forebears who struggled so mightily to give the opportunity to discover all this in the land of the golden bough.
Thanks again for illuminating my ignorance and enlightening me simultaneously.
This heritage casts a long shadow; "sudden breaks with the past have rarely been for the better," he concludes, after introducing us to the geographical diversity and historical legacy which attract so many to visit Italy's dramatic setting and splendid landmarks. Underneath this charm, as with other British male observers, as Beppe Severgnini's "La Bella Figura: A Field Guide to the Italian Mind" has noted (2005), Hooper tends to promote wise skepticism about the ability of Italians to cope, given their slippery nature to evade the truth or to multiply its meanings as deemed fit.
"The real truth will remain unresolved, and may well even be different"; this observation by the presiding judge at the Amanda Knox murder trial could be inscribed in marble, Hooper avers, memorialized in the center of Rome. Truth is relative, and all the players in the Italian game have their own version to peddle. Politics, a system of nepotism, a preference to hire one's own, a delay in leaving home by children in their late twenties, and a reliance on cheap immigrant labor to do tasks the natives do not wish to carry out all weaken, Hooper reveals with care and statistics and anecdotes, the Italian power nowadays to cope and to carry on in staying ahead in a difficult European economy.
He finds meaning in the small quirks of its culture. A SIM card that allows two phone numbers both to be used reveals Vodafone's app Alter Ego as an Italian "local market initiative." One can switch numbers, or identities, to ease cheating. Masks appear as models of how people portray themselves.
Mixing "menefreghismo" with "furbizia," a "toxic blend" of mistrust brews. People deliberately try to run you down, look through you, and don't give a damn. When children are called "ragazzi" (kids) and addressed in the familiar "tu" form continues to about the age of 27 in his estimate, we can see how the close-knit family comes first, while the rest of us may be treated disdainfully and amorally.
Chapters roam around sport (the odd influence of the English endures as soccer coaches are called "Mister"; we learn why the Azzurri wear blue), language, customs, food, and the crucial "furbi" (the pushy, ballsy schlemiel who is despised but also grudgingly admired) and the "fessi," (the put-upon schlimazel maybe, the one who never gets any respect, the one plagued by bad luck and line-jumpers). This dichotomy of characters, for Hooper, forms a "vincolo esterno" or "external constraint" needed if Italy can rule itself effectively, given the tension of those who turn too cleverly to force their own way forward at whatever cost. Bureaucracies and evasions, meanwhile proliferate.
All wish to defend their own turf, and get under the counter what they hide from the authorities. While the "bella figura" endures as the epitome of how one should act no matter what, the "brutta" figura reminds Italians of their complicated past, when dictators and despots deluded many of them.
Hooper demonstrates how "il tavolo" stands for the table, but "la tavola" for all the abundant food heaped upon it, and the Mediterranean contexts old and new contributing to its cuisine and kitchens. "Gnocchi on Thursday" as stubborn habit reminds Italians of a tendency to find comfort in such food.
Other traditions, as with religion, may be fading as secular and consumer identities crowd out piety. But as with the tricky impact of feminism and sexual liberation, Hooper finds Italians still juggling habits as well as novelties in an attempt to integrate them. Meanwhile, as he shows poignantly, the suburbs encroach and the classic landscapes recede as retail stores overshadow steeples and towers.
Less romantic traditions also persist. Corruption, patronage, graft permeate society. Everyone can be bought. Justice is open to suasion. National identity itself breaks into a north-south division as dialects fade, but as other tendencies harden, while unhappiness seems to spread around the nation.
"Pinocchio is not just a moral tale about the perils of lying. It is also a cautionary tale about the dangers of innocence." Hooper shows how foreigners are often misled, by the seemingly casual nature of exchanges outwardly, to use "Ciao" without understanding the informality of this and the intimacy meant, as opposed to more respectful and formal terms of address, and for the time of day. And that in turn shifts, as outsiders give away their lack of knowledge, for regional differences endure here as in many aspects of life. Social boundaries remain in place, to keep titles firmly established, and to perpetuate class distinctions and honorific forms of address by status or degree.
This book conveys a lot of information and supports Hooper's reflections with many current sources. It reads often as if extended features from the press for which he writes, and it may have had some of its origins, I suspect, in his day job in journalism. But it updates Barzini's attempt to explain his people to the rest of us; it fills the need for a book of general interest which can serve as a reference, about a richer nation joined to Europe and to Africa more tightly than it had been fifty years ago.
He ends with an explication of the 2014 Oscar-winning film "La grande bellezza," which may be about Rome's decline as well as life's lack of purpose. While it speaks to today's subdued mood there, Hooper suggests a sly moral in its last scene, where the monologue admits: "Beyond, there is what lies beyond. I don't deal with what lies beyond." Life promotes itself, even if it all ends in death. This is a lesson applicable to a global audience, certainly, far beyond its setting on a rocky Italian shore.
I get the impression that Hooper would be a good dinner guest since the book reads like a fascinating dinner conversation. Sections on the country’s early history, religion, the attitude to women, and the mafia are probably those that hold together most tightly. At other times, I found myself being pulled along a less linear path, spotting themes as they weave their way through the book. These themes, when you put it all together, are what increase your understanding of this culture - discussions of tradition and beauty are two of my favourites.
The book is extremely well written and a pleasure to read, and I have no doubt that he has an understanding of Italians and an acutely critical vision that few people ever develop. But in the end, while the author tries to sum up some common ground in this divided culture, I still remain with some itchy questions, mainly why Italy is doing so badly now. Admittedly, nowhere does the book state that this is what it will do, but given the current economy, I'd have expected it might do as much.
*Disclaimer: an advance copy of the book was provided to me by the publisher for an honest review on my blog www.arttrav.com