Papa's Got A Brand-New Bookshelf,

or, what I've been reading and why.

Last update July 21, 2006. Back to main page.

Constantino, Mario, and Gambella, Lawrence. The Italian Way. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1996.
This is a cultural introduction to Italy that was well worth the read for me, launching an extended stay.

Sobel, Dava. Galileo's Daughter. London: Fourth Estate Limited, 1999.
I read Latitude years ago and came to appreciate Sobel's style even then. What a great book! I have now had the pleasure of seeing Galileo's Gioiello on the (former) outskirts of Florence. All the better for having read this wonderful account of the epoch, its culture, and the father of modern science.

Hibbert, Christopher. Rome: The Biography of a City.  London: Viking, 1985.
Now THAT'S a tour. It's hard to compress more than 2500 years of history into a single volume, let alone the history of the caput mundi. But what a book! The author sometimes has to dispense with several popes in a paragraph to keep within the covers, but he zooms in frequently to create a vivid timeline that has helped me to understand the city and especially Romans.

Nicholl, Charles. Leonardo Da Vinci: The Flights of the Mind. Penguin Books, 2004.
A little heavy, sometimes pedantic, but evenly thorough. It is clear that the author is passionate about the subject: Through Nicholl's writing, his strenuous effort to bring himself, and the lucky reader, closer to Da Vinci and the context of his Italy.

Preston, Richard. First Light. Random House, 1987.
This was a jump away from The Peninsula, this delightful account of the observatory at Palomar and the people who make it the far-seeing (and ever more far-seeing, despite it's relatively advanced age as optics go) instrument that it is. It is a reminder of how cool, how fun, how exilerating hacking around with technology can be! And what marvellous portraits of the passionate and interesting scientists it paints.

Harr, Johnathan. The Lost Painting: The Quest for a Caravaggio Masterpiece. Random House, 2005.
Caravaggio was kinda cool. A painter who revolutionized his art and got in knife fights, that sort of thing. It's a rotten shame that when he finally was pardoned by the Pope and allowed to turn to Rome... he died of malaria on the way.

Kurlansky, Mark. Salt: A World History. Penguin, 2003.
It's a fascintating book, but this guy needed better editing to organize it. It does not hang together as it might, given the compelling and consistent themes it describes. It was a great read, though, for here in Rome, not just because the Roman Empire gets its due from the author, but also because it is a book about durable, even inviolable rules of human and societal behavior - and Rome is nothing if not a mirror of these.

Moore, Peter. Vroom With A View. Bantam, 2005.
Some light reading for a cold visit to Lucca. By chance, the very B&B at which we stayed was also Peter Moore's (along with his girlfriend) on his exciting scooter-borne journey. He did a nice job, I think, of capturing and reflecting some of the complexity of Italian hospitality and  culture, especially it's good parts, all from near by, or right on, the seat of the venerable, iconic, and beautiful Vespa scooter. The fact that I had to emply similar legal but complicated means to be an vehicle owner here in Italy resonates with me still.

Robb, Peter. Midnight in Sicily. Vintage Books, 1999.
I have been to Naples, and we are planning to go to Sicily. Robb's book makes them seem familiar and mysterious at the same time. He's a veteran writer whose creative non-fiction is mostly beautiful and moving. In this book more than the others, the idea of a second, less-seen and far more complicated Italy is coalescing.

Hawes, Annie. Extra Virgin.  Harper Paperbacks, 2002.
It is intersting to me that this funny and light-hearted (compared to the last book, anyway)  story of a woman and her sister who become property owners in a relatively remote corner of Italy should do so much to help the crystallization of my ideas of a less-seen second Italy. She's a brillant raconteur and an astute observer of character.

Edmundson, Mark. Teacher. The One Who Made A Difference. Vintage Books, 2002.
This was a book I was supposed to have read before coming back to school last fall. I had the luxury of putting it off, and the good luck (good sense? not likely) to have finally picked it up. I liked it for many, many reasons, including that I grew up near Boston and I liked the rich picture it painted of the time and place. Best of all, it presented a picture of a modern warrior-poet, a testosterone-driven teen-aged male who was also a bright and curious participant in his own education. The scholar-athlete, the philosopher king, the poet who understands savagery is everywhere in classical literature, and harder to find in the present.

Hawes, Annie. Ripe for the Picking. Gardners Books, 2003.
Second in the series. It continues the story brilliantly. Her descriptions of trying, with every bit of energy and wit she has, to understand the subtle (or missing) cues in social and business interactions in her adopted home in Lighuria, are worth reading for anyone out of his or her element, from a new country to a new job, it's relevant.

Brown, Dan. Angels and Demons. Pocket Stars, 2001.
Fast-food for the brain. What a book! I have more thoughts about it in this essay.

King, Ross. Brunelleschi's Dome.  Pimlico, 2005.
I've been meaning to read this for years - my father couldn't say enough about it. A story about  a 500-year-old construction project that is anything but dry... not only because the subject is fascinating (or subjects, because Brunelleschi, the church, Savonarola, the Medici, and so forth... they all figure) but also becuase the author is a good story teller.

White, Michael. Machiavelli: A Man Misunderstood. Abacus, 2004.
I don't think he was all that minsunderstood, after all, but the point that Machiavelli wasn't entirely machiavellian way is well expressed. But Machiavelli certainly admired Cesare Borgia, Alexander VI's psychotic and brilliant warrior son, and, as a pragmatist of the first order, he also saw the effectiveness of the murderous Duke Valentino. Machiavelli also happened to be better known for his poems and satirical plays than his statecraft during his lifetime... not quite so machiavellian, there. Machiavelli knew Popes, Medicis, Leonardo da Vinci, Michaelangelo (whom he hired to run errands when the artist was young), the King of France, Savonarola, and on and on... it's another axis along which to approach the miraculous Italian Renaissance. The towering and iconic Niccolo' Machiavelli is worth a read, and this author is worth reading.

Hawes, Annie. Journey to the South. Gardners Books, 2005.
Third in the series. It continues brilliantly, and, as the name implies, has somehting to teach about Calabria, the "toe of the boot." Her astute observations and story-telling skills are as delightful as they are (further) edifying on the subject of the "other half" of Italy, the half that had a history almost separate from the north. She is the coolest.

Barzini, Luigi. The Italians. Penguin Books, 1968.
This book is as applicable in understanding Berlusconi's attempts to remain in power right now, even though it was published in 1964. This is the first author I have read who puts a start date on the beginning of an Italian inferiority complex: the Battle of Fornovo, 1495

Follain, John. Mussolini's Island. Hodder and Stoughton, 2005.
I picked up this book because we were headed to Sicily. I knew that Hitler's "Fortress Europe" was first prised open by the Allies here in Sicily, and I wanted to know more.

What a thing. What a brutal, ugly thing. Most details are horrifying, depressing, or both. A few are fascinating. (Operation Mincemeat falls under the "fascinating" heading: it's the story of The Man Who Never Was, a corpse dressed in a Royal Marines uniform and carrying a briefcase full of disinformation dropped in the Atlantic from a submarine near Andalucia in SW Spain with a life-jacket and an overturned dinghy. It was disinformation which Hitler believed, though Mussolini did not, that the Allied invasion would come as a double kick  at Corsica and Greece with a feint at Sicily.)

It would be the largest invasion in history until Normandy a year later, and it cost dearly, and didn't buy the Allies much. 60,000 Germans and their erstwhile Italian allies made 450,000 British and Americans work for nearly a month to get acrosss the island to the toe of the boot of Italy, and made the march up the peninsula no less easy. It is worth noting that the Italians fought hard when the Allies first landed, but by the end of the month, Mussolini was a prisoner and Italy had given up the war. (What a pickle: Nazis at your back, letting you take the shots, and the Allies coming up the road...)

And the collaboration with the likes of Lucky Luciano and his American confederates and the locals of similar stripe on the island made for the post-war recovery of an organized crime dynasty and facilitated their international collaboration. (Note, though, that in Barzini's book, I learned that the Sicilians swindled Luciano out of a small fortune while sharing all sorts of  back-slapping comeraderie. They take care of themselves.)

King, Ross. Michaelangelo and the Pope's Ceiling. Pimlico, 2002.
The same lively narrative that characterized Brunelleschi's Dome is at work in this precursor. As much about the second Rovere pope, the warrior Julius II (nephew to the first Rovere pope, Sixtus IV, and successor to Alexander VI, who was Rodrigo Borgia, Lucrezia and Cesare's father), this is another fascinating tour of the explosively ruch decades before and after 1500. From Alfonso d'Este (Duke of Ferarra, husband of Lucrezia Borgia, and a tactical wizard with the now-evolved cannon who gave Venice's sea power, and thus Venice, the twilight of her power) to the Spanish "warm-up" atrocities against soldier and civilian alike at Prato (the Sack of Rome, 1527, was the logical successor) to the artistic explosion itself, on the heels of Leonardo and with Raphael a few rooms away at the Vatican... what an epoch. Now I guess I have to go back to the Sistine Chapel to look at what I know more about. It's one of those things, isn't it... the observed won't have changed, but the observer has. You can't step in the same river twice.

Just back from Sicily, I can't help but have in mind that the carnage at the 1512 Battle of Ravenna between the Holy League's Spaniards and the French previews the kind of indiscriminant and horrific death as the island would witness in 1943. Warfare, by and large a sort of gentlemanly game until that critical period, would never be the same.

Moulthrop, Daniel; Calegari, Ninive Clements; Eggers, Dave. Teachers Have It Easy: The Big Sacrifices and Small Salaries of America's Teachers. The New Press, 2005.
"Teachers don't get paid enough." Bang, done. End of story. But is it?

These guys wrote a great book that thoroughly and heartbreakingly describes this nation's sorry state of support for public school educators. They also visit the forces that keep it this way, and explore the vicious-cycle consequences of this state. It's a great book, and it makes obvious something that most of us know already. Passionate, level-headed, well-supported and compelling: a good read.

I think of this as a tight module that goes a long way in describing where to turn your attention first when you finally decide that you want to improve public education. The catch is this: "we," Americans, haven't decided that we want to improve public education. From the cynical end, who benefit from the existence of unskilled, manipulable masses, to the timid, who can't imagine taking on such a problem, to the complacent, who vote down tax increases proposed specifically and only for schools just becuase they don't have school-aged children, the logical step before going after the problem hasn't been made.

The authors make a pointed, however brief, analysis of the social and economic costs of the current state of affairs and the vast benefits that would come from improving the situation. Perhaps these able authors can be convinced to write the "prequel..." convincing us that weak public education is costly and dangerous for us all. ("Think education is expensive? Try ignoriance!" the bumpersticker says.)

Jeffers, H. Paul. Freemasons: Inside the World's Oldest Secret Society. Citadel Press, 2005.
Ever since I saw the Simpsons episode with the Stonecutters (featuring the voice of Patrick Stewart... Stuart?), I just knew the Masons ran the world! Simpsons writers can be trusted implicitly, after all.

Seriously, though, this is a book of modest claims and thorough research. Jeffers is an academic, and it shows. This is a guy who could never write for the Enquirer: He's far too respectful of the truth, and far too hesitant to draw conclusions based on scant evidence.

What this book is: a seemingly comprehensive survey of facts about The Freemasons and their history. Jeffers takes up some of the sensational chapters in their history, like conspiracy theories around Jack the Ripper's murder spree (spoiler: no scandalous connection to the Masons) and darker epochs, like their villification by the Nazis. And Jeffers, himself not a Mason, did a great job of collecting information about rites and other secrets of the secret society.

What this book is not: an expose' of the upper eschelons of The Freemasons, showing their involvement with anything and everything. Jeffers did a superb job of cataloging the mundane, but he didn't (because, it seems to me, he couldn't, with reason) describe the truly arcane parts of the business.

From this book, I am left feeling happily better informed, and satisfied that it is more likely kind of neat that so many important figures in history were Masons, rather the fact that so many important figures in history were Masons is evidence of some kind of global and continuous conspiracy.

Hey! Maybe that's just what they want me to think!

Duncan, David Ewing. The Calendar. Fourth Estate, 1998.
Like Rome: Biography of a City (see above), this book is one of these great historical sweeps with a worthy backbone of a theme. There's a second resemblance, too: the author is welcomingly comfortable with his subject. 

I loved this book. Lots of detail. Lots! I can imagine another reader complaining that there are parts too like laundry-lists to be enjoyable, or data too arcane to have been included. I, however, found immersion in the 333 pages of breadth and depth like a refreshing soak.

The author "is a writer and traveller... documentary film producer, and special correspondent and producer for ABC News." Characteristics of all these show in his prose. And this book has it all: history of religion, culture, medicine, astronomy, mathematics; biographical sketches of influential individuals; myth-busting story-behind-the-story detail; fascinating parentheticals and footnotes.

Another reason I enjoyed this book is the "review" dimension. Duncan doesn't limit himself to Western History, but it is mostly a recapiluation of Western History, and I am delighted to give it all another once-over, refreshed, as it is, by this particular theme of hamnkind's pursuit of precision and understanding in the measurement of time.

Severgnini, Beppe. Ciao, America! An Italian Discovers the U.S. R.C.S. Libri & Grandi Opere, 2001.
What a great book! Not only is it fun from the point of view that it's an Italian talking about America (a switch from my diet this year of non-Italians parsing the culture of Italy), but for two other reasons as well.

First, it is (except for the epilogue) about an Italian's American experience in 1995, and it's fun to revisit the zeitgeist of ten years past in general. (Seems like it should be longer back to then!) Even better, though, is the fact that I know Italian culture well enough now to enjoy the layering of perspective in this book. Knowing America as I do, it is even more of an education about Italy to know what Severgnini, as an Italian, finds perverse, amusing, respectable, frustrating, or appealing about my country and culture.

He's also a good writer, and must have had a good translator, too. (The book was in print in Italy for six years before it was translated and published in English.) Severgnini makes wonderful observations, has a good knack for selecting examples, and enlivens his text with his gentle and generous sense of humor. His prior experience with the UK and British English (he has a few books on these subjects) make his perspective all the more discriminating. As Tom Magliozzi would say, "you really want to have a cup of coffee with this guy."

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