Book Review: That Summer in Sicily

In this atmospheric, evocative memoir, Marlena de Blasi draws us into a mysterious Sicilian villa, a world apart and a world with its own secrets. Ultimately, its own love story.

De Blasi went to Sicily with an assignment in the summer of 1995: Write an article about Sicily’s interior, for a scholarly magazine. She and her Italian husband venture forth, with appointments and plans in place, for several weeks in the south. There, they hit a wall of silence. She was stood up for every appointment. In the heat of summer, baking in the Sicilian highlands, the assignment was abandoned. They decided to seek a couple of days’ refuge, an inn or pensione, and rest befor returning to Venice.

A policeman directs them to Tosca, the owner of the Villa Donnafugata, the house of the fleeing women. A world apart, where black-garbed women chant while washing their laundry against stones. Where crenillated towers and juliet balconies stand guard over wheatfields and goatpens that would have looked the same a hundred or a thousand years ago.

And there, intending to leave nearly every day, but drawn or induced or wooed to stay for weeks, de Blasi hears Tosca’s story. You should hear it too, and I can only urge you to read this book.

I read it during the first couple of days of a vacation to the tropics, and I’m glad I did not have a work schedule to maintain, as it would have gone by the wayside for the higher priority of Tosca’s story. Her transformation from nine-year-old starving peasant girl to mistress of a villa supporting dozens of laborers who are her closest friends is a journey worth taking.


BOOK REVIEW: Stolen Figs

Have you ever wanted to visit the ‘old country’, wherever that may be for you–the land where your parents, or grandparents, or great-grandparents, spent their childhood?

So did author Mark Rotella. After years of listening to his family’s stories of life in Calabria, he convinced his reluctant father to accompany him to the village of Gimigliano, for just a day. When they unexpectedly connect with distant relatives, Rotella becomes immersed in the life he previously only heard about, returning to Calabria again and again.

A memoir and travel story combined, Stolen Figs lets us share Rotella’s discoveries in clear, inviting language. He shares the flavor of his experiences–the aroma of homemade soprasetta, the taste of fresh artichokes on pizza, the tingling fear of driving unfamiliar backroads that seem hostile.

Rotella had the advantage of speaking Italian as he ventured through Calabria, but still ran into communication issues with the Calabrian dialect. He also describes a visit to a Greek-speaking village, an area mentioned in last week’s post.

I enjoyed his adventures, and recommend his book–a mini-escape to Calabra.

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: 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!