Judith Works knows Italy, so as part of my new guest blog series about best books, I asked her to send me her recommendations for books set there.
Whether you’re planning a trip to this land of wine, food, and romance or just want to travel there from your comfy armchair, you should check these out!
A Soldier of the Great War – Mark Helprin
A young aesthete from a privileged Roman family, Alessandro Giuliani, found his charmed existence shattered by the coming of World War I. The war led to an onerous tour of duty, inadvertent desertion, near-execution, forced labor, service high in the Italian Alps, capture by the enemy, and return home, dispossessed of most of his friends and family. Along the way, he gains, loses, and eventually rediscovers love.
What Publisher Weekly says: Energetic prose, poetic images of great intensity and an antic imagination combine in this gripping moral fable narrated by a septuagenarian irrevocably altered by WW I.
What Judith says: There are many books about World War I that focus on the trenches in France and Belgium. This one movingly captures the horrors of front-line mountain warfare in Italy. Both sad and hopeful, I found the story unforgettable.
A quote from the book: “The war has put an end to many things. One cannot expect the forms of the past to prevail, but will you marry this man?” Ariane tightened her lips and pulled-in the lower one somewhat, as she often did when she dealt with a difficult question. “I hope, Madame, that he will not be killed.”
Pompeii – Robert Harris
Attilius promises he can repair an aqueduct near Pompeii after a reservoir mysteriously runs dry. But Pompeii proves to be a corrupt and violent town, and Attilius soon discovers powerful forces – both natural and manmade – threaten to destroy him.
What the London Sunday Times says: Blazingly exciting…Pompeii palpitates with sultry tension…Brilliantly evoking the doomed society pursuing its ambitions and schemes in the shadow of a mountain that nobody knew was a volcano.
What Judith says: I dug out a map of Pompeii to follow the action and I hoped the ending really happened. I loved every moment and couldn’t put it down. Harris is a genius at telling a good story.
A quote from the book: Suddenly the edge of the cloud, which had seemed to be almost half a mile away, appeared to come rushing toward them. The sky was dark and whirling with tiny projectiles and in an instant the day passed from afternoon sun to twilight and he was under bombardment. Not hard stones but white clinker, small clumps of solidified ash, falling from some tremendous height. They bounced off his head and shoulders. Women screamed. Torches dimmed in the darkness. His horse shied and turned. Attilius ceased to be a rescuer and became just another part of the panicking stream of refugees, frantically trying to outrun the storm of debris…
The Gallery – John Horne Burns
Set in occupied Naples in 1944, The Gallery takes its name from the Galleria Umberto I, a bombed-out arcade where everybody comes together in pursuit of food, drink, sex, money, and oblivion. One of the first novels to look directly at gay life in the military, this story poignantly conveys the mixed feelings of the men and women who fought the war that made America a superpower.
What SF Chronicle says: Burns has a brilliant facility for reproducing the sights, sounds, color, feel, and smell of the places he has seen. He uses this to startling effect to recapture what many Americans beyond the frontiers of their antiseptic homeland for the first time found in exotic and warped war centers as Casablanca, Fedhala, Algiers, and of course the twisted and diseased Napoli itself.
What Judith says: This was a daring book for its time, written by an author who was dismissed as a homosexual drunk and who died young. After visiting Naples and the Galleria Umberto I myself, it was easy to picture the dissolution of those who inhabited it: winners of the war but losers in life.
A quote from the book: Father Donovan blushed. There was a cyst of delicacy in him that made him itch and sweat when things didn’t run smoothly. Some of our champagne? He said to the airplane driver.
A Farewell to Arms – Ernest Hemmingway
Written when Ernest Hemingway was thirty years old and lauded as the best American novel to emerge from World War I, A Farewell to Arms is the unforgettable story of an American ambulance driver on the Italian front and his passion for a beautiful English nurse. Set against the looming horrors of the battlefield—weary, demoralized men marching in the rain during the German attack on Caporetto; the profound struggle between loyalty and desertion—this gripping, semiautobiographical work captures the harsh realities of war and the pain of lovers caught in its inexorable sweep.
What The New York Times says: The definitive edition of the classic novel of love during wartime, featuring all of the alternate endings: “Fascinating…serves as an artifact of a bygone craft, with handwritten notes and long passages crossed out, giving readers a sense of an author’s process”
What Judith says: A masterpiece. I read all the alternate endings. The selection he chose underscores the desolation at his loss. I wept as I did when I watched the film.
A quote from the book: I kissed her and saw that her eyes were shut. I kissed both her shut eyes. I thought she was probably a little crazy. It was all right if she was. I did not care what I was getting into. This was better than going every evening to the house for officers where the girls climbed all over you and put your cap on backwards as a sign of affection between their trips upstairs with other officers.
Memoirs of Hadrian – Marguerite Yourcenar
A fictional autobiography written by the Roman Emperor Hadrian (76-138 AD) to his seventeen-year-old grandson, Marcus Aurelius, who eventually becomes emperor himself (and wrote his famous Meditations).
What Orville Prescott (former book reviewer for The New York Times) says: In her brilliant ‘psychological novel and meditation on history, Marguerite Yourcenar has written an imaginatively daring and artistically persuasive ‘self-portrait’ of Hadrian. No one should mistake Memoirs of Hadrian for a historical novel.
What Judith says: I was swept into the ancient world of the Roman Empire. I was especially fascinated by the emperor’s lover, Antinous, whom he made a god and erected statues of him all over the empire. (He’s very recognizable by his thick curly locks and sensuous lips) The book is timeless.
A quote from the book: I rested for some time in Sidon, where a Greek merchant lent me his house and his gardens. In March those inner courts were already carpeted with roses. I had regained my strength, and was even discovering surprising resources in this body which at first had been prostrated by the violence of the initial attack. But we have understood nothing about illness so long as we have not recognized its odd resemblance to war and to love, its compromises, its feints, its exactions, that strange and unique amalgam produced by the mixture of a temperament and a malady.
Artemisia – Alexandra Lapierre
The story of a powerful love/hate relationship between master and pupil, father and daughter, and a talent that overturned the prejudices of the day, her paintings winning the admiration of the elite including the Medicis.
What Les Echoes says: A book bristling with adventure, noise, passion, and color that re-creates Baroque Italy in all its diversity, from the ballrooms to the torture chambers, from trials to marriages, from drinking parties to underground conspiracies.
What Judith says: An intense study of the struggles women artists face to be recognized, and of the Baroque period with all its contradictions – the fabulous art and architecture mixed with the great filth and violence of the Counter-Reformation.
A quote from the book: “To think a woman should paint such ghastly things,” whispered the Grand Duchess’ favorite dwarf…An entire troop of female dwarves, tricked out like dolls, scurried and squawked around Artemisia’s Judith. The fashion for farthingales made them seem even shorter. At court their deformity was a reminder of the relativity of all things, and beside it the imperial bearing of Marie-Madeleine of Hapsburg was emphasized. (The painting is the violent Judith Slaying Holofernes, which you can see in Rome.)
Blood and Beauty – Sarah Dunant
Cesare Borgia is Pope Alexander’s greatest, though increasingly unstable, weapon in his quest for power. Lucrezia, Cesare’s sister, is the prime dynastic tool. Twelve years old when the novel opens, she survives three marriages as she moves from childish innocence to painful experience, from pawn to political player.
What The Miami Herald says: Like Hilary Mantel with her Cromwell trilogy, [Sarah] Dunant has scaled new heights by refashioning mythic figures according to contemporary literary taste. This intellectually satisfying historical saga, which offers blood and beauty certainly, but brains too, is surely the best thing she has done to date.
What Judith says: What a piece of work those Borgias were, their insane lust for power unquenchable. I was surprised that Lucrezia is depicted as a peacemaker, not a poisoner.
A quote from the book: That hair, along with the scandalous smoke of her marriage, is the stuff of the latest Roman gossip: Mary Magdalene and Venus fusing into the same woman in a cardinal’s boudoir.
La Cucina: a Novel of Rapture – Lily Prior
Simmering in the heat of a Sicilian kitchen, a saucy tale of sex, recipes, and murder. A magical evocation of life’s mysterious seasons and the treasures found in each one. It celebrates family, food, passion, and the eternal rapture of romance.
What People Magazine says: Succulent saga with a sensuous tone, a folkloric narrative style and a most original set of characters, La Cucina could well satisfy the hungriest of appetites.
What Judith says: You will never again think of Italian cooking without picturing the scenes in this novel.
A quote from the book: He had produced a marvelous ragù with meat, tomatoes, and lots of garlic. As I watched, he mixed in the sauce with the spaghetti. After making sure it wasn’t too hot, he ladled it onto my body. What a mess it made.
Judith Works is a writer living near Seattle. She is a graduate of Lewis & Clark Law School and is retired from the United Nations World Food Programme, headquartered in Rome, Italy. She is the author of a memoir recounting adventures and misadventures during her ten years in Rome, Coins in the Fountain. A novel set in Rome will be forthcoming this spring, and she’s working on a second novel. She also enjoys writing flash fiction and has had several pieces published in literary journals.
Coins in the Fountain can be found through local bookstore or on Amazon. You can find Judith in a multitude of places:
Writing Blog: ReadingAndWritingInTheRain.wordpress.com
Travel Blog: ALittleLightExercise.blogspot.com
***If you’re a writer and would like to contribute to my “8 Favorite Reads” guest blog series, please send me a note. Happy reading!***