Summer Dog Days–Time for Streaming & Reading August 2023 All Things Italy 

July 28, 2023 / Etta Madden / Subscribe

Dear Friends: 

Since returning from Italy last month, I’ve hunkered down in Missouri. On a neighborhood walk this week, I saw some local grapes fattening up, which recall the little babies I saw in Tuscany in late June. But rather than spend lots of time in the sun with fruits and veggies–with the heat of summer upon us, days of record-breaking temps, and the realities of climate change–I say it’s time to enjoy being in the shade with books and videos.  

Grapes in the Missouri Ozarks, late July 2023
Grapes in Italy’s Tuscany, late June 2023

Whether inside with the a/c or, outside on the porch with a book, I like this time of year for relaxing with words and images. (I’m not one to stream videos outside. But I never watched a long one on my phone until last night. So who knows how my habits might change in the future?) In this issue of All Things Italy, I discuss a couple of videos. And I also share a couple of book titles. Additionally, I have some updates on Engaging Italy reviews to share. 

Crime in Southern Italy?

This past weekend a friend passed along an article from the UK Express about organized crime in Sicily. Specifically, the article discussed street crime in Catania, one of the island’s major ports. (You can read the article here). This friend knows that I had lived in Catania as a Fulbright scholar and professor in 2009. He didn’t know that I returned to Catania several times since, out of love for the city and the island. I visited in 2019 and again earlier this year for the Festival of St. Agata and some vacation time. (I wrote about Catania in the March issue of All Things Italy.)

An early February view of one of Catania’s narrow streets in the historic center

I am passionate about Catania, even with its problems. The Express article points to a rash of muggings and car theft. It quotes tourists disappointed by what the streets look like around their nicely curated hotels and vacation apartments. I am not going to deny the appearance of the streets around the train station and the port, which the article mentions. And I can’t speak for the facts about crime the article shares. But I can say that the changes I’ve seen in Catania since 2009 include an increase in gentrification of many properties in the historic center. And there seems to be an increase in tourists. (Thank you, White Lotus, and other purveyors of Sicily’s beautiful spots!)  

The article prompted my friend and me to take a dive into what’s to love about southern Italy. He sent a link to a highly-recommended documentary: Zampogna: The Soul of Southern Italy. (See screenshot from the Youtube video below). I determined to watch the video, produced by David Marker in 2008, to see what new information it might provide me about southern Italian culture. It turns out that I learned A LOT–so much that I want to write about the documentary next month. But in short, the zampogna is like a bagpipe, handmade from goatskins. It has it roots in the pastoral landscape of sheep and goat tending. Men have made and played and sung along with the instruments for centuries.  

This male-dominated musical tradition of the rural mountain people strikes a strong contrast to stories of organized crime.

The Good Mothers of Calabria

In fact, this month, to further the point of contrast, I am going to encourage you to watch a short series on the organized crime of southern Italy’s ‘Ndrangheta, which my husband and I watched earlier this year. Set primarily in Calabria, The Good Mothers is based on a true story and taken from Alex Perry’s well-reviewed 2018 novel of the same title. The series, classified as true crime/drama rather than documentary, depicts the cycle of engagement with organized crime which is almost impossible for women to break.

The cycle of engagement with organized crime . . . is almost impossible for women to break.
On The Good Mothers

The multiple heroines of the series resonate with viewers for their physical and emotional strengths—especially in light of what they face as women in a culture long ruled by patriarchy and omertà, loosely translated as homage to family.

Two of these women, if they can be called heroines, are a mother, Lea, and her teen daughter, Denise. With no spoilers here, I will say that Denise, on the cusp of womanhood, grows up way too quickly, as many girls in difficult family situations do. Another quasi-heroine is Giuseppina Pesce, a mother of three younger children, who works long and hard hours for her children and for the crime circle. And yet another is Anna Colace, a public prosecutor working in a man’s world but is clearly out to help the women the male crime leaders oppress.

Screenshot from HULU The Good Mothers

Should it seem by the title and my description of heroines that The Good Mothers is all about women—fear not. There’s a heavy dose of masculinity driving this narrative. The story is as much about how young men, like Carmine, who works for Denise’s father Carlo, are also swept up in the cycle of generations of family crime. Even the older Carlo is trapped in his hypermasculine behavior of violence and manipulation. And these two men are not alone.

The drama is brilliantly written, and the acting is phenomenal. Unfortunately, the storyline is terribly dark. Making it even darker, of course, is its origin in recent history. Due to the darkness, my husband and I could not binge the entire series in one sitting—even though the drama usually seduced us into watching two episodes back-to-back until we finished all six. The series is available as a Hulu original.

Why would I recommend such a dark show to anyone? Series like The Good Mothers remind us that Italy is not all the glam of glitzy cities and charming villages which most travel photos depict. Nor is it all the consumption of good and beautiful food which Stanley Tucci portrayed in his recent HBO series. Like other parts of the world, Italy has its less-than-beautiful parts. These reflect an ancient and rigid social structure—invisible to many outsiders—supporting a system many wish would change. This social fabric seems at times indestructible, although at other times it seems to be fraying around the edges.  

When The Good Mothers is watched in close proximity with the zampogna documentary, it’s hard to believe the two could possibly be films about the same parts of the world. More on that topic next month. If you watch both, please send me your thoughts. 

Reading Rather Than Streaming

I often opt for books rather than videos, allowing my vivid imagination to create its own pictures. (I also often prefer the silence of the page, which is soothing to me). What Italy-related titles are on my shelves now? After last month’s account of the group “pilgrimage” I led in June, a friend recommended Tim Egan’s A Pilgrimage to Eternity (2019). In it Egan writes of his hike on the Via Francigena, the ancient route from Canterbury, England, to Rome. During his journey, Egan dug into his own and his family’s faith. I’ve retrieved my university library’s copy. I plan to do some vicarious traveling with Egan this month. 

Another friend and I have been discussing Pulitzer-winner Jhumpa Lahiri’s forthcoming collection of short stories in English—her first since The Unaccustomed Earth (2008). (I still recall driving from Missouri to New England and listening to that collection as an audiobook. So powerful!) Lahiri has been writing her Roman Stories in Italian. The collection appeared as Racconti Romani last year. She discussed one of these stories, “P’s Parties,” published in The New Yorker this summer, in a July interview with Cressida Leyshon here.)  

Each of the stories is connected to Rome in one way or another, according to the publisher Alfred A. Knopf’s Tweet and a March essay on the topic by Janet Manley in LitHub. Knopf’s October release will be in English. Lahiri and her editor at Knopf are responsible for the translations. The same friend and I watched Lahiri give a talk on translation in late May at the American Academy in Rome. (We watched via Zoom–my screenshot is below). Fascinated by her willingness to draft in a language not her primary, I also wrote about Lahiri’s 2016 memoir, In Other Words, in one of my earliest blogs.    

Lahiri discusses the powerful work of translation at the American Academy in Rome, May 2023

Although I’ve not read either Lahiri’s or Egan’s work yet, the titles have been welcome additions to my TBR list. Of course, I would love to hear your thoughts about these and about other titles, as I enjoy these dog days. 

Engaging Italy: Some Recent Reviews

Since Engaging Italy: American Women’s Utopian Visions and Transnational Networks appeared in 2022, I’ve been anxious to see reactions. One of the most challenging parts of authorship, after bringing a project to completion, is awaiting reviews. There are initial reviews, provided before a book or article goes to press. But those that come afterward often take a while. The wait can be nerve rattling. 

One newsletter subscriber (you know who you are!) shared this picture on social media after receiving his copy of Engaging Italy last summer.

Thanks to all of you who have bought copies and shared photos of and with them. Those social media posts and private messages have been very supportive. But additionally, this past month I’ve seen published reviews with enough positive vibe to make me feel ok about my decade of work on the book. (Yes, a decade. Amazing what time research and writing take, especially when there’s another day job demanding attention.) One review includes language I find especially heartwarming. Professor Ilaria Serra of Florida Atlantic University wrote of my accounts of Caroline Crane Marsh, Anne Hampton Brewster, and Emily Bliss Gould: 

“Madden blows off the dust of time and peels off the layers of their societal limitations, making them shine in well-documented pages. She communicates a closeness with her subjects, derived from the intimate knowledge of their handwriting and their turn of thought.” 
Professor Ilaria Serra, in Tulsa Studies in Women’s Literature (Spring 2023)

She concluded, “Besides its obvious archival and scholarly importance, Madden’s book succeeds in spreading the diffusive light of these women, who did more than their times expected of them.” 

And Allison Scheidegger wrote for the Mark Twain Journal: “Cleverly drawing on the dialogic nature of More’s Utopia, Madden foreground the conversations and networks these three women engaged in to review how their ‘vocations’ to write about Italy opened new alternatives and freedom for them.” 

If you have a copy of Engaging Italy, it’s not too late to post a review—simply a few words or phrases—on Goodreads or Amazon. Your comments need not be “academic” writing. I’d love to have you share a few thoughts about any part of the book you’ve read.  

If you don’t have a copy, it’s also not too late to buy one or to request that your library buy one. The book is still available through SUNY Press (hardcover, paper, and e-verions). The press often runs sales with coupon codes, and I share those on social media as often as possible.  

Of course, if you and I organize a talk, I’ll arrange to have paperback copies of Engaging Italy available there for purchase and signing.   

Trips & Talks

A few days ago I had dinner with friends who wanted to discuss adding three or four days before a group tour they have booked for Tuscany and Liguria. Our conversation roamed from airports to luggage and packing light, to laundry and day trips.

But more important was that we got together to talk about how best to spend those few days. Should they stay in Rome and then travel north by fast train to meet their group? Should they stay only a day or so in Rome and then explore Florence prior to connecting with the others? In either city, where should they stay and what should they see, given the limited travel time?  

Sometimes even two small bags can seem too much luggage when transferring from train to train. I rolled these with me during my two months in Tuscany & Liguria in 2022.
Waiting for an update in Florence, Italy’s, Santa Maria Novella train station

Of course, there’s no simple answer to those questions. I often respond with another question or two: What kinds of activities do you most enjoy? How do you like to spend your time while traveling? What are your priorities in lodging? As we chatted about the possibilities—I felt the strong urge to head back to Italy. Alas, for now I’m sitting still in the Ozarks and enjoying videos and books. And these conversations about travel. 

Please don’t hesitate to reach out, should you have questions about your potential travel to Italy. I know it’s possible to get all kinds of questions answered online. And I know that I’m not an official agent (although I’ve thought about taking that step).  But I also know that sometimes it helps to work through your thoughts with someone you know. I’m happy to be of help, as much as I am able. 

Also, remember that if you’re part of a group looking for speakers, one of my research topics may be of interest to you. (See more on my website). We can discuss a presentation for 2024 or, possibly, sometime this fall. The cooler weather, hopefully, will be here before long. 

Until then, stay cool, and divertiti bene. Enjoy yourself!

Etta Madden