During the last months I found myself reading two very different books about personal pilgrimages to Italy. I found the first book, Italian Days by Barbara Grizzuti Harrison, a Brooklyn-born second generation Italian immigrant and acclaimed writer (New York Times, The Republic and several books), in a very unlikely place. I was leading a mission trip to an inner city church in El Paso, TX and pulled it off the shelf in the room where I was sleeping. I wasn't able to finish the book during my stay and had to leave it behind. But I was so engaged by the book that I procured a used copy on Amazon.com as soon as I returned home.
Harrison's book grabbed hold of me for several reasons. First, it is a travel memoir without being a travel guide. Some memoirs read like a Lonely Planet book. That's good if you are looking for that one particular panetteria in Rome or you would like to know the best places to park outside of Venice. Italian Days, thankfully, is nothing like this. Right from the start the author lets us in on what she is doing and where she is going. It's clear--from the first paragraph--that this book is far from a straight forward tour through Italy:
"1985. The Alps make you feel all starched and clean and clean as you fly into Milan--they punctuate the long transatlantic sleep of a nighttime flight; groaning bodies stir and strengthen and come to morning life as the mountains exert a rosy magnetic pull that won't allow you not to pay them the compliment of being crisply awake."
Second, the book is personal without being self-indulgent. We've all read those books where you think you might want to explore the inner workings of the author's soul with him--until you get 45 pages into it and want to slap him or harm yourself. Where she could allow herself to navel gaze, Harrison stops short, giving her reader access to whatever experience she's describing by broadening it. Here's an example, her description of Rome:
"I am happy here, when I or others have bruised my life, I close my eyes against the hurt and think of Rome: as possibility, and hope. And I feel more related to my environment and to my circumstances in Rome than I do anywhere else on earth...for the rest of my life I will love Rome and and think better of my life for having known Rome. Rome, rooted and ethereal, stretching from earth to heaven, casts aside so little and embraces so much--there's room for me. It is everything; it is elegant, robust, common, spectacular, vulgar, exquisite, and above all rare."
Third, this book is a travel memoir of the best order: It is a quest not a tourist trap. It is a book about a woman's return to an unknown ancestral homeland, her quest to understand the land, the people (her people) and, ultimately, herself. As such, the book makes clear how and why Italy impacted the author, not merely how she found (translation: ate through, saw the sites in) Italy. Harrison acquaints the reader with Italy (and secondarily, with Harrison herself) through its substance, its character. The book is full of questions and insights about Italy's Catholic history and beliefs, its myths, philosophies, architecture, art, and even recipes. She quotes everyone from Augustine to the Godfather films to the graffiti at the Uffizi and the effect is powerful. We discover that Italy may be Harrison's personal quest, her homeland, her destiny, but it also has room for us, too.
Somehow the author manages to reveal--teach us-- various aspects of Italian culture and history without our minding it and, it seems, without her even intending to. This is not easy to do in a non-textbook publication (the reader either feels dumb for not knowing it or irritated that he's being taught instead of entertained). Harrison manages the trick, I think, by using a poetic style. She's light-handed, breezy, even rapturous, at times. That said, I imagine it is precisely her style that will frustrate and put off some readers. An example of to what I'm referring can be found in her description of Bergamo:
"The piazza contains shops, a taverna, and several houses; it is not a stage set...young boys play soccer; it is a stage set...a fat priest with a bald pate, his brown tunic belter with rope, waddles by."
My overall impression of Italian Days is that it is honest. It really is about Italy and also the author's many splendid (and a few not splendid) days there. Harrison's knack for making this book located and locatable in Italy (she experienced particular places and we can too), while also setting Italy for us against the illuminating backdrop of art, philosophy, theology and archaeology makes this work stand out from the myriad of books on the subject.
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