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Pauline's Picks - Recommended Books about Italy

Pauline Kenny

Reading memoirs and novels about Italy is a good way to prepare for your trip. You get very different information about Italy than from the guide books. There is more about day to day life, how things work, what it feels like to live there. This page contains my favorite books. All reviews are my own. I have listed them by regions of Italy with the ones I liked best first. My not-so-favorites are on another page.

All of Italy

Paul Hoffman, That Fine Italian Hand, Henry Holt and Company, 1990

Paul Hoffman writes books about Italy that are part travelogue, part guide book. They are wonderful to read. He was the N.Y. Times correspondent for Rome. Some of his books are more guidebooks, some are more memoirs. I recommend all of his books.

That Fine Italian Hand has wonderful details about life in Italy. I must read it again.

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Barbara Grizzuti Harrison, Italian Days, Ticknor & Fields, 1989

A detailed and well-written travel journal covering most of Italy. But I have to admit I never finished it - but loved what I read. I must get back to this one. I was sad to read that Barbara Harrison died recently.

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H.V. Morton, A Traveller in Italy, DaCapo Press, 2002

A rerelease of a book written about Italy in the 1950s. I have just started reading it. Many people on the message board highly recommend it.

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Goethe, Italian Journey {1786-1788}

A journal of Goethe's 1796 trip through Italy. Some wonderful parts, some boring parts where he gets into detailed discussions of rocks. Well worth reading (if you can get all the way through it).

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Henry James, Italian Hours

Great travel journal written in 1909. Read this to get a flavor of Italy a century ago.

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Paul Hoffmann, The Seasons of Rome: A Journal, Henry Holt and Company, 1997

Another one of Paul Hofmann's great books about Italy. Lots of good details about Rome, where he lived for many years.

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Alan Epstein, As the Romans Do: An American Family's Italian Odessey, William Morrow, 2000

A delightful book of essays about living in Rome by an American writer who moved to Rome with his family. Originally published as "As the Romans Do: The Delights, Dramas, and Daily Diversions of Life in the Eternal City". Epstein has a new book coming out in 2003.

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H.V. Morton, A Traveller in Rome, DaCapo Press, 2002

A rerelease of a book written about Rome in the 1950s. I have just started reading it, but many people on the message board highly recommend it.

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Paul Paolicelli, Dances with Luigi: A Grandson's Search for his Italian Roots, Griffin Trade Paperback, 2001

I loved the book. It is well written and interesting. Paul Paolicelli, an American journalist, spent 3 years living in Rome and tracking down his Italian relatives. He found the villages where his maternal and paternal grandparents were from - in the Abruzzo and in southern Italy. First published as "Dances with Luigi: A Grandson's Determined Quest to Comprehend Italy and the Italians", Thomas Dunne Books (St. Martins Press), 2000.

Paolicelli believes that Italian Americans turned against Italy during the second world war when Mussolini declared war on America - they did not teach their children Italian, they did not tell them about Italy, they cut their ties with their homeland. He feels that German Americans went through the same experience. He compares that to Chinese Americans who keep their language and some cultural things.

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Marlena de Blasi, A Thousand Days in Venice: An Unexpected Romance, Algonquin Books, 2002

I LOVED THIS BOOK! This is my kind of book - a warts and all description of moving to Venice (and of falling in love). It is the most unlikely story. The author is in her 50s, living in the US, a cookbook and travel writer and a cook, travels to Italy regularly. She falls in love with a man her age from Venice, gives up her life in the US and moves to Venice. He is not a rich Italian - just a normal, sort of unhappy (until he met her) man who works for a bank - has worked there all his life - and lives in a boring apartment on the Lido.

The story starts when they meet, follows her move to Venice and their wedding. She give wonderful details of life in Venice - what things cost, how things are done. The details of ordering her custom made wedding dress are very interesting. There are recipes at the back of the book. Her eating is very meat-oriented but she has many vegetarian recipes. A few more notes...

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Donna Leon writes in English and her books are published in England. Only some are available in the US. They feature the detective Guido Brunetti and are set in Venice.

Donna Leon, Death at La Fenice, Mass Market Paperback, January 1995

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Donna Leon, Acqua Alta, HarperCollins, 1996

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Marlena de Blasi, A Thousand Days in Tuscany: A Bittersweet Adventure, Ballantine Books, 2005

This book follows her "A Thousand Days in Venice". Marlena and her husband leave Venice and move to southern Tuscany, near San Casciano dei Bagni, where they live in a rough farmhouse. The book covers a year of their living there (not 1000 days) and goes into detail of village life and local festivals.

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Eric Newby, A Small Place in Italy, Lonely Planet, 1994

Eric Newby has been writing travel books for decades. I always enjoy his writing. This is a wonderful book. Eric Newby and his Italian wife lived in England, but owned a vacation home in Italy for 25 years. He writes about those years. His house was in that part of northern Tuscany that borders on Liguria, in the mountains east of La Spezia.

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Frances Mayes, an American woman from San Francisco who bought a house in Italy (outside Cortona) in the early 90s, writes about her experiences renovating and decorating her home. Some recipes and some travel journals are included. The books are fun to read, but really give an upperclass view of Italy. We found her villa (if you read her early magazine articles you will find exact directions to the house) and this is not a humble little cottage! It is big and beautiful. Read her books because everyone else has read them and they are fun to read.

Frances Mayes, Under the Tuscan Sun: At Home in Italy, Broadway Books, 1997

Of course I read this book the day it came out. Of course I have read everything else she has written. But, I am not the biggest fan of this book. Very well written, but I felt that the book didn't hang together - part renovation story, part boring travelogue, part cook book. Still - if you are going to Tuscany, you have to read it.

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Frances Mayes, Bella Tuscany: The Sweet Life in Italy (1999, Broadway Books)

This book followed Under the Tuscan Sun. It is more of a diary - more personal, more interesting. I think the time period that the book covers includes the time that we were first in Cortona in 1997. I was pleased to read that we had done a couple of the exact same driving trips that they did during that time.

We went to see Frances Mayes give a lecture in the San Francisco area in February, 2000 and really enjoyed seeing and hearing her. The audience was full of devotees. Her husband Ed, sitting in the audience, got huge applause (because we all feel that we know him).

Note: We also got a copy of this book on CD and recently listened to it on a car trip. This time it seemed to be much more a story of an upper class woman decorating her house and planting her garden. We turned it off after her 20 minute discussion of used linens.

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John Mortimer, Summer's Lease, 1991

I think this is the first book about Slow Travel. A British family rents a villa in Tuscany (Chianti) for the summer. The story reveals what it is like to live in someone else's house - the mysteries associated with it. This book introduced the Piero della Francesca trail to many of us.

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Ferenc Mate, The Hills of Tuscany: A New Life in an Old Land, Albatros, 1998

Good book about a Canadian and his wife who buy a house near Montepulciano and live there. Many details about life in Italy. Also great details about look for and finding his house. I heard recently that he sold this house to a relative and now lives outside Montalcino.

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Matthew Spender, Within Tuscany: Reflections on a Time and Place, Penguin Books, 1992

I read this years ago and only remember that I liked it. I must read this again. It was one of the first popular memoirs about living in Italy. Matthew Spender is an artist living in Chianti, near Lecci. His sculptures were featured in the movie "Stealing Beauty".

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Isabella Dusi, Vanilla Beans & Brodo: Real Life in the Hills of Tuscany, Simon & Schuster UK, 2002

Isabella Dusi and her Italian husband moved to Montalcino from Australia. This book is a detailed account of life in Montalcino, a beautiful village in the Tuscan countryside.

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Isabella Dusi, Bel Vino: A Year of Sundrenched Pleasure among the Vines of Tuscany, Simon & Schuster, 2006

A sequel to Vanilla Beans & Brodo about life in Montalcino and Tuscany by Isabella Dusi.

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E.M. Forester, A Room With a View

Wonderful story about a young English woman and her chaperone who go to Florence. The story takes place in Florence and in England. The movie made from this book is also excellent.

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E.M. Forster, Where Angels Fear to Tread, 1920

His first novel about a young woman who travels to Italy and marries an Italian. The story takes place in England and in Monteriano (a fictional town based on San Gimignano). The movie made from this book is also good. The wonderful quote about visiting the small towns is on the first page.

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"...it is only by going off track that you get to know the country. See the little towns - Gubbio, Pienza, Cortona, San Gemignano, Monteriano."

Kinta Beevor, A Tuscan Childhood, Pantheon Books, 1993

Great book about Florence and northern Tuscany from 1900 - 1950's. Most of the story takes place in a small town in the mountains north of Lucca.

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David Leavitt and Mark Mitchell, In Maremma: Life and a House in Southern Tuscany, Counterpoint Press, 2002

A beautifully written book full of great information about buying and renovating a farmhouse in southern Tuscany, near Saturnia. Leavitt and Mitchell are a gay male couple from the US who lived in Florence for a number of years before buying this house. They are both writers. I didn't like their earlier book about Italy (Italian Pleasures) but this one was a good read.

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Paul Gervais, A Garden in Lucca: Finding Paradise in Tuscany, Hyperion, 2000

Paul and his partner Gil, two Americans, bought a villa near Lucca in the early 80s. The book is about the villa and how he created a large, formal Italian garden. There were a few too many garden details for me, but I really enjoyed the book. You can even rent their guesthouse - www.agardeninlucca.com

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Nancy Shroyer and Richard Mello, In a Tuscan Castle, Jones Alley Fine Press, 1997

A great story about an American couple who buy a second home in Chianti. They live in Colorado for half the year and spend the spring and fall in Chianti. The wife wrote the book and her husband did the drawings that accompany the story. She says she will not say which village they live in, but she slips up in one of the later chapters and mentions the name - Lecchi. We were staying near Lecchi on our 1999 trip, so we went into the village and easily found her house. There was a car outside with Colorado license plates! (I am not sure how this is possible.) And we had the most fabulous Sunday lunch at the nearby restaurant. I found this book in an Italian store in New York City. It is not listed on Amazon.


Paul Hoffman, Umbria: Italy's Timeless Heart, Henry Holt and Company, 1999

A must-read if you are visiting Umbria. Great details about the major towns. A lot of information about Assisi. Hotel and restaurant lists.

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Gary Paul Nabhan, Songbirds, Truffles, and Wolves: An American Naturalist in Italy, Pantheon Books, 1993

Nabhan walks in Italy outside of Florence to Assisi, a trail called the Franciscan Way (nearly 200 miles). He talks about the state of nature in Italy. I read this book before our first trip in 1996 and all I remember is that the Italians kill (and eat) all the songbirds. I have just started reading it again.

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Lisa St. Aubin de Teran, A Valley in Italy: The Many Seasons of a Villa in Umbria, HarperCollins, 1994

A memoir of the first year of buying a wreck of a villa in Umbria and restoring it. She doesn't say exactly where her house is and uses a fictional town name, but, from reading the book and trying to put together the clues, I think it is a small town up in the hills south-west of Citta di Castello.

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Barry Unsworth, After Hannibal, Doubleday, 1997

This is a novel about people living in a small town north of Lake Trasimeno on the Umbria/Tuscany border. They either have vacation homes there or who have moved there from England and the US. This novel will convince you to drop your plans to buy a second home in Italy.

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Geoffrey Luck, Villa Fortuna: An Italian Interlude, New Holland (Australia), 2000

I got Villa Fortuna when we were in Italy and I liked it (except that the author Geoffrey Luck called the region around Lake Trasimeno the "Dress Circle" of Italy - I don't know about that!). But it is a good informative book and I took it with me to the Monte Olivto store when buying herbal tinctures because he has a good section about the different kinds. The author is from Australia and buys a house in Paciano, the next town over from Panicale where we spent 2 weeks back in 1999 - so it was fun to read for that too.

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Annie Hawes, Extra Virgin: Amongst the olive groves of Liguria, Penguin Books, 2001

I LOVED THIS BOOK!! The writer and her sister, young women from England, go to a village near San Remo to work in the 1960s or 70s (not quite sure when) and end up buying a very rustic country house for very little money (a few thousand pounds). This is the story of their time there - spread out over 10-20 years. How they fixed it up, how they lived, their impressions of the people they met and of living there. The writing is beautiful, the story excellent and her insights into Italian habits and lifestyle teach us a lot about Italy. This book was a delight to read. I was sorry when it ended. Read it if you are going to Liguria or even if you are not.

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Elizabeth von Arnim, The Enchanted April, 1922

Four British women escape the rain and spend a month in a villa on the Ligurian coast. The movie made from this book is excellent.

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Northern Italy

Tim Parks wrote two good books about living in Italy. He also writes great novels and short stories. I loved his novels "Europa" and "Destiny" and his collection of short stories "Adultery". His earlier novels "Juggling the Stars" (published in the UK as "Cara Massimina") and "Mimi's Ghost" are murder mysteries set in Italy that are very funny and a great read.

Tim Parks, Italian Neighbors or, A Lapsed Anglo-Saxon in Verona, Grove Weindenfeld, 1992

A wonderful story of a British man married to an Italian-born woman who move to a town near Verona. Insightful, funny and full of great details about living in Italy.

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Tim Parks, An Italian Education: The Further Adventures of an Expatriate in Verona, Avon Books, 1995

The story from Italian Neighbors continues. Even more great details about life in Italy, including the typical summer beach vacation on the Adriatic.

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Tim Parks, Juggling the Stars, 2001

Published as "Cara Massimina" in the UK. Part mystery, part comedy about a bungling Brit who lives in Italy and kidnaps an Italian girl. Lots of great details about Italy. Set in Verona, Rimini, Sardinia. Mimi's Ghost is the continuation of this story.

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Tim Parks, Europa, 1997

The story of an English man teaching at Italian university and the end of a love affair and a marriage. The story takes place on a bus trip from Milan to Strasbourg for an EEC meeting. One of my favorite books. Shortlisted for the Booker Prize.

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Tim Parks, Destiny: A Novel, 1999

The story of an English man married to an Italian woman during the time when their adult son commits suicide. Story takes place in England and Italy.

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Tim Parks, Adultery and Other Diversions, 1998

Short stories about life and attitudes in Italy.

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Wallis Widle-Menozzi, Mother Tongue: An American Life in Italy, North Point Press, 1997

Very interesting book about an American woman living in Parma.

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Michael Rips, Pasquale's Nose, Little, Brown & Company, 2001

An American and his family move to the Lazio town of Sutri and live there. The husband is a writer and spends most of his time hanging out in the caffe. His wife is an artist. This is a small book with some interesting stories about daily life. He goes into details about the strange characters that live in this town. I liked it because it is set in Sutri and we visited the town in Fall 2002 (good town) and because the stories were interesting. But, my friend who has a house in Sutri, tells me that some of his historical information about the area is not accurate.

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Joan Marble, Notes from an Italian Garden, Doubleday, 2000

This book was recommended to my by Judy from Italy who knows Joan Marble and lives near her in the Lazio region. The book is well written, with some good information about buying an old house and renovating it, but there is too much about the garden for me. Although it did inspire me to do some new plantings. Read this if you are a garden person!!

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D. H. Lawrence, D. H. Lawrence and Italy, Penguin

Stories written about Italy in the early 1900s. One section is about the Etruscan areas in Lazio.

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Daphne Phelps, At House in Sicily, Carroll & Graf, 1999

Wonderful book about an amazing woman who moved to Sicily after WWII to a house built by her uncle and has lived there all these years.

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Mary Taylor Simeti, On Persephone's Island: A Sicilian Journal, Vintage Books, 1986

Interesting story of an American woman moving to Sicily in the 1960's, marrying a local man and raising her family. Good details about life in Sicily.

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Peter Robb, Midnight in Sicily, Vintage Books, 1999

I have not read this yet, but it is on my "to read" pile and it comes highly recommended.

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Lily Prior, La Cucina: A Novel of Rapture, HarperCollins, 2001

A good novel set in Sicily with a story revolving around food, family and sex.

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Consider These

Shirley Hazzard, Greene on Capri: A Memoir, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2000
Nice memoir about a literary couple who lived on Capri from the 60's on and meet frequently with Graham Greene. Lots of good information about Capri.

Fiona Pitt-Kethley, Journeys to the Underworld, Chatto & Windus, 1988
Interesting journal of a woman's trip through Italy. Many of her adventures were sexual. I bought this book in England and haven't seen it in the US.


The Collected Traveler: Central Italy, Tuscany and Umbria

Susan Cahill (edited by), Desiring Italy: Women Writers Celebrate the Passions of a Country and Culture, Fawcett Columbine, 1997
Collection of stories by women about Italy.

Anne Calcagno (edited by), Italy: True Stories of Life on the Road, Travelers' Tales Guides, 1998
Collection of travel stories about Italy.

Alice Leccese Powers (edited by), Italy in Mind, Vintage Books, 1997
A collection of writings about Italy.

Notes from A Thousand Days in Venice

A Thousand Days in Venice: An Unexpected Romance, Marlena de Blasi, Algonquin Books, 2002.

Hotel: Pensione Accademia - this is where she liked to stay.
Bar: In the Monaco near San Marco. She likes the bar and the bartendar named Paolo.
Restaurant: Il Mascaron in Santa Maria Formosa
Bar: Cantina do Mori in a quiet ruga off the Rialto market's center.
Restaurant: La Vedova behind Ca d'Oro.
Restaurant: Diavolo in Torcello.

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