[Review] The Italians by John Hooper

3 Feb

I’m often solicited to review books regarding Italy before they’re released, and to be perfectly honest, I almost always politely decline because—and granted, I do realize I’m making a sweeping and unfair generalization here, but so it is—I can’t stomach any more books about restoring old farmhouses or finding the love of your life on the back of a Vespa.

And so, I was unexpectedly pleased and surprised when I was contacted by Viking to preview journalist John Hooper’s new release The Italians.

Rome hosts a number of truly world-class international correspondents working at the very pinnacle of their craft, and Hooper is among them. I’ve been aware of and admired John’s work for some time, as I follow several of the locally-based English-speaking foreign correspondents here in Rome on social media and their respective mastheads online. To hear that he was finally throwing his hat into the ring of Italian compendiums was welcome news.

If you’re looking for the typical “foreigner romanticizing Italy” tome or, on the other end of the spectrum, a work condemning the perennially-dubbed “country with no future,” look elsewhere, as this book does well to defy easy categorization in tackling the absolutely impossible-to-categorize bel paese.

Rather, if I had to try to succinctly categorize this book, I’d say it’s a broad-based yet in-depth sociological study of modern Italy filled with anecdotes about the amusing and often baffling ins and outs of daily life, customs, and culture. The book is refreshingly comprehensive, with an academic and fact-based authority owing in large part to Hooper’s long service as Italy correspondent for The Economist and southern Europe editor for The Guardian and The Observer.

And yet thankfully, it also achieves the difficult task of presenting both story and history in an unembellished yet compelling way that warmly engages the reader to join in and bravely venture into the labyrinth of contradictions and impossibilities that comprise Italy, both past and present.

The first clue that you’re about to delve into something that stands out from the pack is this: as you crack the spine and turn to the beginning of the book, you’re greeted with not one—but two—maps of Italy.

The first wisely delineates “Italy After 1815,” an important distinction given that Italy’s technical unification, which most scholars agree began in 1815 with the Congress of Vienna and the end of Napoleonic rule, is a tactical date that doesn’t necessarily reflect unified feelings in citizens who are to this day largely tied to their own individual provinces and towns.

The second map shows modern Italy and its various regions, a helpful geographical primer that anyone approaching the famed “boot” should have as a point of reference, as north-south divisions and regional politics shape and frame much of what goes on culturally.

With those maps as both preamble and passport, Hooper guides his readers skillfully through Italy’s culturally diverse history, building a backdrop that sets the foundational context to modern-day questions and challenges. Italy’s history, like its politics, is wildly complicated, yet thankfully here Hooper gives a well thought-out narrative of the geographic and cultural changes that have taken place over recent centuries. The last paragraph of Chapter 2, in fact, is quite possibly my favorite quip of the book. It reveals Hooper’s enjoyable wry wit and sharp eye for historical detail and context shaping modern Italy:

Almost fourteen centuries elapsed between the deposing of the last Roman emperor in the West and the unification that followed the breaching of the Aurelian Wall near Porta Pia in 1870: sixty generations, more or less, of disunity and vulnerability to the whim of foreign rulers and the might of foreign armies. Such things leave their mark on a people.

But now, let’s get down to business: truth be told, when I read a book on modern-day Italy, I’m a bit of a tough customer. Having lived in Rome for 14 years, and having immersed myself fully into the culture in these years to become a *wee* bit of a cultural authority myself, I’m not reading a book on Italy to get tips about how to order an espresso or to admire the author’s stealth in finding the “perfect” antique table for outdoor lunches at the country house in Tuscany.

No—I’m looking for clues, insights, stories, and facts to help me understand topics that, despite my imbedded status in this culture and country, I still struggle to grasp.

Before I started reading, I made a list of topics in which I hoped to glean something new:

Politics – has always been a tangled and inapproachable mess for me

Mafia – are they really Goodfellas who have taken over government of the country?

Women – their status, treatment, and cultural norms surrounding them in the country that The Economist once called “the land that feminism forgot”

The Italian Male – is he really a forever hopeless Peter Pan/mamma’s boy? 

Jobs – and why on Earth there never seem to be enough to go around

Raccomandazioni – the uniquely Italian-style spoils system

I found new insights in each of the categories. I would love to reveal them to you, but, that would be an unfair spoiler.

I will say that as to women, we get an entire chapter, number 10. That was lovely and unexpected. Same goes for the mafia, 16. Mamma’s boys, go directly to page 164, do not pass go, do not collect $200.

As to the rest, well…you’ll just have to trust me on this one. If I learned something(s) new, you will, too, even if you’re a seasoned veteran expat like me, or just a cynic, or both. Each chapter is written to flow into and introduce the next.

Oh, and also? This book actually has an index.

An index, people!

So, I happily endorse this work, but with one important caveat that I’m sure my readers will be pleased to hear (intelligent and curious and all-around superior as they are) — this book is actually something I’d classify as intellectual.

Not dull or dry intellectual, mind you. But: it isn’t fluff.

You’ll walk away enriched and enlightened. [Read: you’ll learn quite a bit more than how to buy an antique table for your Tuscan farmhouse.]

You’ve been forewarned!

The Italians by John Hooper



8 Responses to “[Review] The Italians by John Hooper”

  1. Catherine February 3, 2015 at 2:34 pm #

    Sound and useful review – I’ve read Hooper’s work and I think I’d trust anything written by him. Thanks Shelley!

  2. Tom February 3, 2015 at 2:58 pm #

    Thanks for this. I read a review of his book in a recent Guardian weekend supplement (or it might have been the Observer, which is prety much the same). It appealed to me, and I’m pleased to read your review from a different perspective.

    Incidentally, have you read “The Pursuit of Italy” by David Gilmour (not the guitar player, btw)? It’s a canter through Italian history (perhaps better expressed as ‘… The history of the Italies’), with a major focus on the unification and afterwards. His general view is probably in sympathy with those who argue that unification was a mistake – there’s no real reason for ‘Italy’ to have been unified, there wasn’t much real unity of language or culture beforehand, and the view that there was is a post-unification act of propaganda. I enjoyed it – I learned a lot of things from it.

  3. Sharon, Ticket to Travel February 3, 2015 at 5:15 pm #

    Thanks, Shelley. Your review is worth a review itself. Very well written and so engaging! My wonder is about the impact on native Italians who read this book…how do they respond, react, etc. Would be interesting!

  4. Gil February 3, 2015 at 11:00 pm #

    Thanks for this nice review. Something I hope to read when things slow down.

  5. Sam February 3, 2015 at 11:34 pm #

    Thanks for your review, a book I look forward to reading.

  6. Catherine Vignale February 18, 2015 at 11:56 pm #

    Just finished the Italians by Hopper and I loved it. It’s honest and fair and for those of us who love Italy with all it’s flaws will certainly enjoy reading it.

  7. Catherine Vignale February 19, 2015 at 12:02 am #

    Sorry for the typo: should be Hooper of course.

  8. Angie Kemenade February 28, 2015 at 10:28 pm #

    I have been looking for reviews on John Hooper’s Italians but most of the articles I have read were just too generic. I am glad you made a review yourself. Thanks for the nice article you posted. Very profound review indeed.

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