Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Review -- "Only in Naples"

I don't think I have ever reviewed a book on my blog. But I've done quite a few things in the last four years that I have never done before so let's get right to it!

There are lots of books written about Italy. Lots of books. You could even say tanti.

But this book by Katherine Wilson, which was published by Random House earlier this year, stands out for several reasons.

First of all, it's about Naples. Not over-exposed Tuscany or well-documented Rome (though Rome does appear in the book) or even Milan, which Americans have begun to visit more frequently in recent years.

Nope. It's about Naples.

(And she began doing her research long before Elena Ferrante's books spawned literary tours of the Southern Italian city.)

Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, this woman, Katherine (or 'Ketrin', as her Neapolitan in-laws call her) knows Italy.

She knows a very specific part of Italy but that doesn't change the fact that she's one of the few American authors of memoirs to truly penetrate Italian society and learn its every molecule.

She also has a unique story on her hands: she loves her mother-in-law. Her Italian mother-in-law.

And what's not to love?

Click 'continua a leggere' to read the rest....

Her name is Raffaella and almost from the first moment she meets Katherine, she just wants to feed her and introduce her to everyone she knows. Sounds like every other Italian grandma, right? But this woman is absolutely gorgeous, by Wilson's recounting!

And she's funny. Wilson describes showing Raffaella measuring spoons during a trip to America and explaining, "They're for measuring quantities." To which Raffaella responds, with a bewildered tone, "In cooking?" Wilson writes, "She then shook her head and laughed. 'Americani! Americani!' Yes we're a wild and crazy people."

The book is full of seemingly hundreds of small observations about Italian life that make me laugh, and which, oddly enough for Italy, which has been chronicled in American magazines and newspapers ad nauseam, don't often make it into print.

For example, she says Americans used hand gestures that are "large, sweeping and general. And they vary from person to person. In Naples, they are so specific that there is even a dictionary of gesti." Then she tells a story about asking the doorman at her first apartment building in Naples whether she had any mail. And everyday rather than say yes or no, he would form a gesture with his hand that looked like a toy gun being spun quickly back and forth. So she would ask again, Any mail for me? She finally learned the gesture means "niente." No go. That's the kind of miscommunication that happens all the time in Italy and which makes navigating Italy in Italian so delightful.

In another chapter, she describes when food is offered at bars and cafes in Italy. If she goes out shopping after work in Naples, she might have an espresso but not anything substantial to eat. "Why would you want to eat 5:30 p.m.? Pastries are put out fresh in the morning and desserts are displayed after dinner." These are the rules!

To sum up, this book is a love letter to Naples, and to her adopted Neapolitan family. As Wilson puts it, "Goethe said, 'See Naples and die.' I saw Naples and started to live."


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