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La Bella Figura: A Field Guide to the Italian Mind Paperback – June 12, 2007
"Rebound" by Kwame Alexander
Don't miss best-selling author Kwame Alexander's "Rebound," a new companion novel to his Newbery Award-winner, "The Crossover,"" illustrated with striking graphic novel panels. Pre-order today
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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 an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
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 an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
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Turns out that books about countries like Greece, Spain and Italy are best left to English writers who can clearly see everything that’s wrong, but can’t help falling in love with everything that’s right. What we have here is pretty much the converse. An Italian explains to us that everything is actually fine if we look at it from his angle. He takes you through the logic of running a red light, the fine art of drinking without getting drunk and the right way to go about sex tourism, which of course is the Italian way.
Italian school is apparently quite awesome too. There’s no such thing as private school apparently, which means the smart poor kids can bag the daughter of the industrialist all while becoming true Italians in this cauldron of identity formation. The fact that it’s been half a century since the Nobel was awarded to a scientific discovery that took place in Italy is a small price to pay for this privilege, no doubt. Severgnini addresses the minor issue of Italy’s current economic and social malaise by explaining that Italy’s been around for a couple thousand years and has always found a way around its problems, so if you want to find out how they get out of the current bind all you have to do is wait for it and cheer them on when they do.
So as a reader, I’m left with a dilemma. Perhaps this is all tongue-in-cheek and the sarcasm was lost in the translation from Italian to English. On the other hand, the English of the translation is impeccable, witty and crisp. Could the translator have missed the actual mood of the book? And would the author, formerly of the Economist, not have noticed?
I don’t want to totally trash the book, I learned tons from it, the author is most evidently well-read and he often does succeed in entertaining. And it’s about Italy, the most magical place on Earth.
But I must say I don’t get it. I don’t get the main idea, I don’t get why it’s structured like a tour of ten locations (the effort to discuss them, rather than some other way Italians are awesome –did you know ALL of them are amazing cooks?—is minimal and regardless manages to appear contrived) and I really don’t get at all who he thinks is the audience.
Probably other smug Italians like himself.
History in the 8 years since this was published has not been kind to them. But here’s to hoping the other types prevail. The passionate, the modest, the generous and the welcoming Italians you meet everywhere around this amazing country.
The format of his brief entries recalls earlier journalists who used the newspaper column as a feuilleton to entertain the reader, while providing a gentle dose of wisdom or insight along with wit. The brevity of this style, on the other hand, can reveal its shortcomings. He wants to provoke laughs and knowing nods, but it needs more profundity. As "a field guide to the Italian mind," while this lacks the depth of more serious reports such as Tobias Jones' "The Dark Heart of Italy" (2003) or "The Italians" by John Hooper (2015), it does have the advantage, as Severgnini strives to attain, of balancing "love with interest"; in his first chapter, the author distinguishes modern accounts as either "chronicles of a love affair, or diaries of disappointment." The love affairs tend to be American women "who display love without interest" as they gush over a "seasonal Eden." British men "show interest without love" as they castigate the feckless populace "governed by a public administration from hell." Instead, Severgnini presents "an offbeat purgatory" able to churn out "both Botticellis and Berlusconis." (3) His 2005 book, translated smoothly by Giles Watson, as these phrases show, sparkles with journalistic flair and style, but it skirts superficiality.
When explaining the power of the family to slow maturity among its coddled children, enable nepotism to clog their hiring and delay any firing, this book works well. Similarly, it documents how the national mood endures to cut "la bella figura" in public so confidently, despite increasing traffic, economic stagnation, unresolved immigration, and economic malaise. This spirit inspires Severgnini to take comfort in this anarchic civility, with annoying but endearing pride. But this book falls short when it tries to examine Botticelli's power on display, or the reason Berlusconi's takeover of the media and then his nation succeeded. Severgnini sidles into discussions of sexuality, feminism, Catholicism (I like how this book cites not only Updike, Orson Welles, and Thomas Aquinas, but also Yogi Bear), and suburban sprawl, but whenever he begins to open up promising directions demanding investigation, he steps aside and rushes on, as if his word count reached, whirling to another topic.
So, while I did enjoy this casual but heartfelt series of reflections, I closed this with the sense one might have after conversing with an intelligent local, perfectly bilingual (thanks to translation here), who had much to hold forth on, but who, the morning after, left not as much to ponder as the previous night's discussions might have led one to expect. Yet, I did turn the pages with pleasure, and the flow of information proves easygoing. I recommend this book with some reservation. I'd supplement it with fellow journalist Hooper's post-Berlusconi report, even if he's one of those proper "British men."
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.