10 of my favourite Italian-themed books

People are always asking me for Italian book recommendations and after I recently posted my favourite movies I knew I will have to also write a list of book recommendations.

I’ve tried to avoid huge commercial successes and clichè building monsters as I want to give everyone something different and challenging to read.

So excuse me while I go ahead and write yet another a self-indulgent blog post, which I hope will give you something new to read.

I will always be biased towards Sicily, as it’s where I live, and I adore Sicilian writers and literature. I think I may have read nearly everything possible about Sicily, except for the never ending stream of travel guides and cookbooks published every year.

1. Lisa Clifford: The promise

Also from Lisa Cliffors: Death in the Mountains, Naples a way of love.

Lisa Clifford is an Australian writer and journalist who has been writing and living in Italy for four decades. Her books are excellent reads and reflect her ongoing love affair with Italy.

The promise is about her journey back and forth from Italy to Australia and the long-distance relationship with her then-Italian boyfriend.

While Death in the Mountains is a murder mystery set in the Tuscan countryside based on a story from her husband’s family history.

And her latest book Naples a way of love, explores the nature of life in the South of Italy.

2. Penelope Green: When in Rome and See Naples and die

Penelope Green is another Australian writer, and her books are very popular and are great summer reads all about her first steps living and working in Italy with an excellent gun-ho attitude and the enthusiasm of youthful naivety.

3. Tim Parks: Italian Neighbours, Italian education, A literary guide to Italy and Italian Ways.

Time Parks is an English ex-pat who has been living in Italy since 1981. 

Today he is a well-established academic, novelist and translator who writes wonderfully detailed books and essays about Italian literature and travel. 

Italian Ways is about rail travel in Italy, while his literary guide to Italy takes us on a journey through its most celebrated writers. 

But at the beginning of his time in Italy, he was merely a spellbound ex-pat. He shared his experiences in Italy through keen and hilarious observations of Italian Neighbours and Italian education.

4. Grazia Deledda: Reeds in the wind

Grazia Deledda is an Italian Nobel Prize-winning novelist from the cusp of the 19th and 20th Centuries. Most of her novels are set in her native Sardinia and are lovingly crafted portraits of this ancient and mysterious Italian island.

Reeds in the wind follows the down spiralling destiny of the aristocratic Pintor family and are filled with Sardinia’s vibrant language, landscape and eternal voice.

5. Vitaliano Brancati: Il bel Antonio and Don Giovanni in Sicilia

Brancati’s novel Il Bel Antonio (Beautiful Antonio) was developed into a movie starring Marcello Mastroianni, becoming a classic of Italian Cinema. 

The novella Don Giovanni in Sicily is a rich caricature of the Sicilian male, which is taken to strange extremes in a modern parable with a core of honesty that goes beyond any form of realism. 

Vitaliano Brancati has a way of creating a new type of contemporary fable, filled with elaborate farce, humour and eloquent twists of fate.

6. Elio Vittorini: Conversations in Sicily

Conversazione in Sicilia is an enigmatic work that is a difficult read thanks to its experimental style, filled with a stream of conscious-like conversations. 

The pleasure of the honest discussion between an elderly mother and a grown-up child, Sicily and a migrant Sicilian, is lovely to read. It captures the cadence and flow of a natural conversation. 

Yet other times, it is easy to get lost in the complicated connections, the shorthand, repetition and long-windedness of the social contexts in Sicily, like overhearing a conversation and not understanding the complex interrelationships. 

Like many real ones, these conversations are fleeting, flippant, and mundane, and they slip beyond our grip and understanding—an intriguing book to read.

7. The Garden of Finzini Conti by Giorgio Bassani

Il Giardino dei Finzi-Contini is a historical novel which chronicles the relationships between the narrator and the children of the wealthy Italian Jewish Finzi-Contini family with the rise of antisemitism and Fascism at the beginning of world war two. 

It is a beautiful, sad story about a dark period in Italian and world history. The novel captures the eerie ambience in the northern town of Ferrara as Italy loses its innocence before the evils of the Holocaust. 

8. The Dark Heart of Italy by Tobias Jones

In 2003 English journalist Tobias Jones published The Dark Heart of Italy. He described the sinister character of Italy’s complexities, focusing on the post-World War II period right up to the Berlusconi years.

After the book’s publication, Jones was hounded by the Italian press for being a preachy Englishman who didn’t know what he was talking about.

Apart from a little Berlusconi bashing, Jones’s experiences and observations about Italy are insightful, even if they are sometimes a little superficial. It is a truthful book expressing the frustration many foreigners feel while adjusting to living in Italy.

9. Elizabeth Street by Laurie Fabiano

This book came from a wonderfully poignant personal family history and was a labour of love written by the great-granddaughter of Calabrian migrants to America.

Elizabeth Street is an epic tale and covers a journey which includes the vibrancy of 1900s New York bustling with immigrants, the Messina earthquake, Mafia bombings and kidnappings.

The lovingly way the intimate details of this family’s journey through different generations creates a narrative that what stays with you after you live this rich reading experience.

It is a cinematographic story worthy of Scorsese or Ford Coppola.

10. Jhumpa Lahiri: In other words

This fantastic book is an extended love letter dedicated to the Italian language. 

In Other Words is at heart a love story of a long and sometimes tricky courtship and a passion that verges on obsession: that of a writer for another language. 

For Jhumpa Lahiri, Italian first captivated her during a trip to Florence after college. 

Seeking total immersion, she moved to Rome with her family for “a trial by fire, a sort of baptism” into a new language and world.