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Book reviews

An Italian Education - Tim Parks

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Memoirs of Hadrian - Marguerite Yourcenar

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An Italian Education - Tim Parks

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An Italian Education

Tim Parks is by far the best writer about the expat experience in Italy. This lapsed Englishman moved to Italy a couple of decades ago, and has delved deep into the Italian experience. His books about Italy are about the real Italy, not charming accounts of renovating a farmhouse and amusing encounters with quaint locals, but studies of the things that really matter. Everyday life, everyday people, village life, housebuying, bringing up children, following the local football team.

In An Italian Education, Parks writes intelligently and amusingly about Italian family life, and the creation of Italians. Watching his own children grow up, Parks gains first-hand insight into Italian nurseries, schools and family rituals. Is it true that the Italian family revolves around the 'mamma'? Do parents really support their children into their thirties? Through his experiences and observations of friends and in-laws, Parks constructs a thorough picture of the complexities of modern Italian family life.

The book opens in Pescara, where the Parks family, like so many Italian families, take to the beach every summer. The author remembers nostalgically the adventurous rainy holidays of his youth in Britain, where expeditions and explorations where the order of the day. In Pescara, every day is the same - beach, sea, sun. Surveying the regimented rows of orderly sunbeds, Parks reflects 'In Italy, people are remarkable above all for their conformity'.

From everday encounters with friends, insurance salesmen, teachers, Parks extracts valuable insights about Italy and the Italians. Many of his observations will bring a rueful smile of recognition to the lips of other expats. For those who have never had the fortune/misfortune of facing the vagaries of Italian society, this book provides a thorough sociological introduction to the country. From the apparently superficial (making signs to ward off bad luck) to the underlying influences (the fascist past, religious traditions), Parks succeeds in describing and explaining the workings of society on a human level.

The author attempts to convince his children that, despite what they have learned at school, his daughter can do whatever she wants in life; his father-in-law complains that he is expected to subsidise his grown sons. Parks doesn't shy away from the facets of Italian society which are most alien to the British experience. He places these in context to draw a vivid picture of contemporary Italy, from the beach establishments of Pescara to the fishing streams of the Veneto.

Reading the book as an similar expat (terrible expression), it's the (perceived) implicit criticisms which are strongest in the book. But Parks's affection for Italy is never in doubt. He draws the country as it is, without illusion, but for all its faults, it is still the place he thinks best for his children. For the more idealistic reader, the charming pictures of village life, of chickens running about and of the strong multi-generational families may be the most resonant features of An Italian Education.

Whatever your interest in Italian society, this is a highly-recommended book to read.

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