Book Week: Siren Land by Norman Douglas

I cannot call this week’s post a book review, because I have been unable to read the book. Have you read Norman Douglas? If so, please share your experience with me.

I want to read it. Norman Douglas’s travel books on southern Italy are said to be classics of the genre. So I bought a paperback of Siren Land (a 2010 edition of a book first published in 1911, a sure sign of a classic) and have made several attempts.

This is not light reading, not the kind of travel book for hotel and restaurant reviews.

Norman Douglas in 1935

Granted, some might say I am a lazy reader, but Douglas writes dense, complex prose. He cites snippets of Latin, and uses Italian phrases, with no translation for the benefit of readers like me. He alludes to obscure mythologies and little-known historical events.

According to the introduction, Douglas said that the reader of a travel book is entitled to “all one would wish to know about the subject–features of landscape with their associative history, geology, zoology, botany, archaeology, etc.–but also that author’s ‘mind worth knowing'”. And Douglas has supplied these things, some of them in six- and eight-line sentences that require reading three or four times to disentangle the meaning from the words.

Truthfully, he lost me in the very first chapter, titled Sirens and their Ancestry. I tried to pick up on a topic of particular interest to me, his third chapter, The Siren Islets, and lasted a little longer.

His chapter On Liesure opens with this sentence: “Come, let us discourse beneath this knotty carob tree whose boughs have been bent earthward by a thousand gales for the over-shadowing of the Inspired Unemployed, and betwixt whose lustrous leaves the sea, far down below, is shining turquoise-blue in a dream of calm content–let me discourse, that is–for if other people are going to talk, as Whistler used to say, there can be no conversation–let me discourse of leisure, the siren’s gift to men.”

Who knew leisure would be such hard work? And that’s just the first sentence!

So this week, I would especially like to hear from anyone who has read Norman Douglas, with any hints or encouragements to help me through his book.


BOOKS: Must have this book!

For people like me, with a freakish interest in the medieval Angevin Kingdom of Naples, there are some books we must have. Only recently I learned that a Bible has surfaced, after mouldering for half a millennium in the Low Countries somewhere, a Bible which was created at the court of Robert the Wise in Naples, and presented to his granddaughter Joanna, who would succeed him to the throne of Naples and rule for more than forty years.

The Anjou Bible: A Royal Manuscript Revealed was published last year by Peeters Publishers. At 350 pages, it weighs 4-1/2 pounds and costs about $100.

I don’t care. I want it.

All the illuminated folios are reproduced in the book, as well as information about the illuminator who signed the work in the early 1300s. Historical information about the Angevin dynasty in Naples–a family I have researched for more than 25 years–sounds as beautiful to me as the illuminations.

The fourteenth century Bible is now owned by the University of Leuven in Belgium, the oldest existing Catholic university in the world. The manuscript was disassembled, cleaned, digitized, and displayed for twelve weeks  in 2010 before being rebound and returned to the vaults for long-term storage.

This book is definitely on my Christmas list!!

BOOKS: Ann Cornelisen’s books bring southern Italy to life

Ann Cornelisen wrote several books about the Italian south. The best known is “Torregreca”, first published in 1969, and re-released in 2002 to further good reviews.

First edition cover of Torregreca

Reading Torregreca brought me a new understanding of the emigrants of southern Italy. Her work, setting up nurseries for Feed the Children, was carried out in various places throughout the region. The living conditions, poverty, and social practices she describes in Torregreca are based on her experiences in a village in Basilicata, but apply to much of the rural south. She worked in the region for about twenty years beginning in 1954. The lives of many in the rural south at that time was unchanged from earlier centuries.

Cornelisen’s books: “Torregreca: Life, Death, Miracles” (Little, Brown, 1969),  ”Women of the Shadows: Wives and Mothers of Southern Italy” (1976), ”Vendetta of Silence” (Little, Brown, 1971), ”Strangers and Pilgrims: The Last Italian Migration” (Holt, 1980), ”Any Four Women Could Rob the Bank of Italy” (Holt, 1983) and ”Where It All Began: Italy, 1954” (Dutton, 1990).

Her books would provide excellent background research for a historical novelist (like me) who wanted to set a story in rural southern Italy of an earlier era. I’m glad some of her books are available in new editions. They provide an insightful record of southern Italian culture for English language readers.

Cornelisen died in 2003. In her obituary, the New York Times says: “The strength of her work was partly her feeling of place. ‘The South is not the gentle, terraced landscape of Renaissance painting,’ she wrote in ”Women of the Shadows: Wives and Mothers of Southern Italy” (1976). ‘It is a bare, sepia world, a cruel world of jagged, parched hills, dry riverbeds and distant villages where clumps of low houses cling together at the edges of riverbanks.”’

I recommend her fine, clear prose and keen observations to anyone interested in recent Italian history. Only a couple of her books are currently in print, but all are available through used book sources.


BOOK REVIEW: Blood Washes Blood

Blood Washes Blood: A True Story of Love, Murder, and Redemption Under the Sicilian Sun by Frank Viviano  (Washington Square Press, 2002)

Do you love a juicy murder mystery combined with a journey of self-discovery? To top it off, make it a true story set in Sicily. Frank Viviano, foreign correspondent, pursues the barest of clues to find the truth about his great-great-grandfather’s murder, and subsequent events that allow him to see his own family and past in a new light.

Viviano’s melancholy suits the languid landscapes of rural Sicily, and carried me along, as I hoped for the next breakthrough in his search, celebrated each unexpected revelation taking him a step closer to finding his ancestor’s murderer. Family legends and whispered suspicions draw him beyond the limits of officially documented history, beyond the cultural code of silence, beyond the head-banging disorganization. And once in a while, in the midst of the story’s dark longing, comes a laugh-out-loud moment that breaks the tension and makes the journey bearable. Years of research, of wavering between patience and despair, eventually lead Viviano to a discovery he never imagined

Using the best kind of history—history revealed through personal story—Viviano explores the longer history of Sicily, the development of the Mafia, and the social and political forces that made it prosper.

I have recommended Frank Viviano’s memoir more than any other book about southern Italy that I have read. I’ve loaned out two or three copies, never to be seen again. So I cannot offer to lend you the book, but I do encourage you to read it, and to let me know what you think.

BOOK REVIEW: The Lady Queen by Nancy Goldstone

Nancy Goldstone touches on my favorite era of southern Italian history–the Angevin period–in her book The Lady Queen: The Notorious Reign of Joanna I, Queen of Naples, Jerusalem, and Sicily. Goldstone’s lively prose brings Joanna to life and immerses the reader in the challenges and triumphs of her exceptional reign of nearly forty years.

Joanna was born in 1326, during the rule of her grandfather, Robert the Wise. Joanna’s father died when she was two years old, leaving her heiress to the kingdom. Soon afterwards, her mother died, and Joanna was raised in the court at Naples.

At 17, she became Queen when her grandfather died. Threats to her rule came from within and without her kingdom, persisting through four marriages, and Joanna faced them with courage. Goldstone engages her readers as she presents background and historical context which add significance to Joanna’s accomplishments.

The book is written for a general audience, but the endnotes, bibliography, and detailed index provide guidance for further study of the reign of Joanna and the lives of those who influenced her. If all history was written like this book, a lot more people would be interested!

According to her website,, she is working on a book about Joan of Arc which is expected out in 2012. The Lady Queen was published by Walker Publishing in 2009. I can also recommend the book Four Queens, which touches on southern Italy. In Four Queens, Goldstone tells the story of four daughters of the Count of Provence who all became queens during the 13th century. One of them, Beatrice, married Charles of Anjou who later became King of Naples.

Goldstone shares her enthusiasm for Joanna in a YouTube video which also appears on her website:

BOOK REVIEW: Head over Heel

Head over Heel: Seduced by Southern Italy by Chris Harrison, 2009, Nicholas Brealey Publishing

Head over Heel by Chris Harrison, recommended by


Australian writer Chris Harrison captured me first with his opening quote from Luigi Barzini: “In the heart of every man, wherever he is born, whatever his education and tastes, there is one small corner which is Italian… ”  In my family, there is a low-brow version of Barzini’s sentiment: There are only two kinds of people in the world—Italians and those that want to be. This book made me glad I am a little Italian. It also strengthened my urge to return to the sunny Italian south.

Harrison’s memoir draws us into Andrano, the village in Puglia he moved to after a love-at-first-sight encounter, and long distance romance with an Italian woman. In Andrano he learns to tolerate being wakened by the amplified voice of the vegetable seller roving through town in his truck, and to navigate the governmental obstacle course for residency and a driver’s license.

His stories rang true with my own experiences in southern Italy’s small towns, and colorful detail brings them to life: the festivals both religious and gastronomic (he favors the latter), the tragicomedy of nearly every interaction with the local carabinieri, and the challenges of teaching English to the most apathetic students.

Personal relationships have their own challenges, and Chris and Daniela discover when they move to Milan for work, and live with her brother. Daniela’s father wanders in a fog of Alzheimer’s disease, and her mother cares for him. Her family doesn’t always understand Chris and his Australian ways.

Entertaining all the way through, Harrison’s book also carried me back to Italy as I read. The south, and Puglia, are not often the subject of such books, and for me this added to the appeal. I found myself reading excerpts to my husband, and thinking of various friends who might also enjoy reading the book. You might enjoy it too–I recommend it!