When I was approached about writing a review for a book titled Speak the Culture: Italy, I groaned-loudly. Writing about culture is hard. Writing about national culture in a land where no one feels particularly national about anything is even harder. The list of authors and editors boasted an abundance of Anglo names, which usually means you’ll get one of two things: a complaining and often condescending portrait of the Italians’ contemporary failures; or a sappy and equally condescending take on Italians and their ‘dolce far niente’ lifestyle spent flitting from one hilltop villa to the next.
Imagine my surprise when I opened Speak the Culture: Italy…and liked it. Divided into eight sections-identity; literature and philosophy; art, architecture and design; music, theatre, dance and comedy; cinema and fashion; media and communications; food and drink; and living the culture-the book focuses on cultural fluency. The emphasis on ‘speaking,’ being able to communicate intelligently about Italian culture, is refreshing. Its style is light but not flippant, smart but not remotely pedantic, modern but not obtuse. It is not a sociology text-it offers no introduction or conclusion.
Blessedly free of any high-minded claims about the future of Italy, the book is exactly what it purports itself to be: one in a series of volumes designed to offer a look at a country’s culture in order to provide readers with the tools to help them further explore it. The idea is that culture matters in our rapidly shrinking and increasingly globalized world-and a better cultural understanding can only lead to a more genuine understanding of a country’s people and how they live.
Sidebars are informative (Garibaldi: an Italian hero) and sometimes irreverent (Brunelleschi’s wet dream). Its graphics are modern and fresh (my favorite is a pop-artish drawing of Marcello Mastroianni in all his La Dolce Vita glory, with the caption, ‘So handsome it hurts’). Readers will come away with the basics on everything from Italy’s Roman origins to the Risorgimento, the trallaleri singers of Genova, neorealist film, Lega Nord and mamma’s boys. The text is straightforward and entertaining while managing to stay unbiased and egalitarian-an extraordinarily rare feat especially when dealing with the intricate world of Italian media and politics.
Astute, intelligent, fun. Speak the Culture will help sort through the complex and complicated and put you on the path to cultural fluency whether you’ve been in Italy a week, a year or a lifetime.
Speak the Culture: Italy
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