A Week in Italy and What I Read

We’re relieved to be back in the balmy UK after a sweltering week in northern Italy. Though our sixth-floor Airbnb apartment in Milan suited our needs perfectly, it was a challenge to keep it minimally comfortable. Eventually we worked out that it was essential to get up by 6:30 a.m. to close the balcony doors and shutter. The bedroom happened to be shaded, so I could set up my laptop in there and work until noon, when it was time to close out the heat of the day on that side. In the afternoons I read and napped on the divan, and then sometime between 6 and 10 p.m., depending on how sunny it had been during the day, we could fling the windows and doors wide open again. Fans helped, but we still passed some horribly muggy nights.

My husband was at his conference for four of the days, so we only braved the city centre itself on Monday morning, touring the Duomo and climbing the steps to the roof. This was well worth doing for views over the city. Afterwards we walked through the associated museum (mostly underground, and blissfully cool with air conditioning) and Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II, a luxurious nineteenth-century shopping arcade filled with designer fashions.

Two day trips by train got us out of the city and into slightly cooler temperatures: on Wednesday we explored Varenna and Bellagio on Lake Como, and on Saturday we took a bus and cable car from Lecco into the mountains at Piani d’Erna. We took full advantage of one-euro espressos and glasses of wine, and ate lots of pizza, pasta and gelato.

After much deliberation, this is the book stack I actually packed for our trip. I got through the first half of the Orwell, an excellent account of working as a dishwasher in Paris hotels and having to scrape together enough money to ward off starvation. I’ll be writing it up as my Classic of the Month in a couple of weeks. I also read Sunburn by Laura Lippman, which I’ll hold in reserve for a summer-themed post, and (on Kindle) So Many Rooms by Laura Scott, a debut poetry collection coming out in October that I’ll review here at a later date.


Two of my other Kindle reads ended up being perfect for the setting:


From Scratch: A Memoir of Love, Sicily, and Finding Home by Tembi Locke: This was the perfect book for me to read during the week in Italy. Not only is it set largely in Sicily, but it ticks a lot of boxes in terms of my reading interests: food, travel, bereavement, and the challenges of being an American overseas. During a semester abroad in Florence, Locke (an actress I was previously unfamiliar with) met and fell in love with Saro Gullo, an Italian chef. His parents could hardly accept him marrying someone from outside of Sicily, let alone a black woman from Texas, and refused to attend their wedding. But as the years passed they softened towards Locke, who gradually became accepted in Saro’s hometown of Aliminusa.

In fact, after Saro’s death from bone cancer in 2012, she became like a second daughter to Saro’s mother. The book focuses on the three summers in a row when she and her adopted daughter Zoela traveled to the family home in Sicily to stay with Nonna. I particularly appreciated the exploration of what it’s like to live between countries and cultures. This is one of three Reese Witherspoon book club books I’ve read so far (along with Where the Crawdads Sing and Daisy Jones and the Six), and all have been great – Reese’s recommendations are proving as reliable as Oprah’s.


A mudslide blocked the route we should have taken back from Milan to Paris, so we rebooked onto trains via Switzerland. This plus the sub-Alpine setting for our next-to-last day made the perfect context for racing through Where the Hornbeam Grows: A Journey in Search of a Garden by Beth Lynch in just two days. Lynch moved from England to Switzerland when her husband took a job in Zurich. Suddenly she had to navigate daily life, including frosty locals and convoluted bureaucracy, in a second language. The sense of displacement was exacerbated by her lack of access to a garden. Gardening had always been a whole-family passion, and after her parents’ death their Sussex garden was lost to her. Two years later she and her husband moved to a cottage in western Switzerland and cultivated a garden idyll, but it wasn’t enough to neutralize their loneliness.

Much of what Lynch has to say about trying to find genuine connections as an expatriate rang true for me. Paradise Lost provides an unexpected frame of reference as Lynch asks what it means for a person or a plant to be transplanted somewhere new, and what it takes to thrive. Her elegant writing reminded me of Diana Athill’s and Penelope Lively’s, and the exploration of the self through gardens is reminiscent of Allan Jenkins’s Plot 29.


Other successful reads:


Confessions of a Bookseller by Shaun Bythell: This picks up right where The Diary of a Bookseller left off and carries through the whole of 2015. Again it’s built on the daily routines of buying and selling books, including customers’ and colleagues’ quirks, and of being out and about in a small town. I wished I was in Wigtown instead of Milan! Because of where I was reading the book, I got particular enjoyment out of the characterization of Emanuela (soon known as “Granny” for her poor eyesight and myriad aches and gripes), who comes over from Italy to volunteer in the bookshop for the summer. Bythell’s break-up with “Anna” is a recurring theme in this volume, I suspect because his editor/publisher insisted on an injection of emotional drama.


City of Girls by Elizabeth Gilbert: There’s a fun, saucy feel to this novel set mostly in 1940s New York City. Twenty-year-old Vivian Morris comes to sew costumes for her Aunt Peg’s rundown theatre and falls in with a disreputable lot of actors and showgirls. When she does something bad enough to get her in the tabloids and jeopardize her future, she retreats in disgrace to her parents’ – but soon the war starts and she’s called back to help with Peg’s lunchtime propaganda shows at the Brooklyn Navy Yard. The quirky coming-of-age narrative reminded me a lot of classic John Irving, while the specifics of the setting made me think of Wise ChildrenAll the Beautiful Girls and Manhattan Beach. The novel takes us to 2010, when Vivian is 90 and still brazenly independent. I was somewhat underwhelmed – while it’s a fairly touching story of how to absorb losses and make an unconventional family, I wondered if it had all meant much. I’ll be expanding this into a Shiny New Books review.


Judgment Day by Sandra M. Gilbert: English majors will know Gilbert best for her landmark work of criticism, The Madwoman in the Attic (co-written with Susan Gubar). I had no idea that she writes poetry. This latest collection has a lot of interesting reflections on religion, food and art, as well as elegies to those she’s lost. Raised Catholic, Gilbert married a Jew, and the traditions of Judaism still hold meaning for her after husband’s death even though she’s effectively an atheist. “Pompeii and After,” a series of poems describing food scenes in paintings, from da Vinci to Hopper, is particularly memorable.


Not-so-successful reads:


Vintage 1954 by Antoine Laurain: Dreadful! I would say: avoid this sappy time-travel novel at all costs. I thought the setup promised a gentle dose of fantasy, and liked the fact that the characters could meet their ancestors and Paris celebrities during their temporary stay in 1954. But the characters are one-dimensional stereotypes, and the plot is far-fetched and silly. I know many others have found this delightful, so consider me in the minority…


As well as a few DNFs…

What Dementia Teaches Us about Love by Nicci Gerard: I’ve read a lot of books about dementia, both clinical and anecdotal, and this doesn’t add anything new. (11%)

The Great Railway Bazaar by Paul Theroux: I read the first 32 pages, up to when Theroux arrives in northern Italy. He mostly describes his fellow passengers, as well as the details of meals and sleeping arrangements on trains. The writing struck me as old-fashioned, and I couldn’t imagine getting through another nearly 350 pages of it.

Out of the Woods by Luke Turner: Attempts to fuse nature and sexuality in a way that’s reminiscent of Hidden Nature by Alys Fowler. The writing didn’t draw me in at all. (5%)


24 responses

  1. Weather does not sound fun 😦 I’m really looking forward to City of Girls, but doubt I will purchase it in hardback. I also hated Out of the Woods so glad you felt similarly.


    1. If it weren’t for my husband’s conference, we would much sooner have gone to Italy in April or October, and not to Milan (though I’m really glad I got to see the Lakes). We’re not sun-lovers, or city people! But we made the best of it and tried to do some holiday-ish things.

      City of Girls is solid, but nowhere near as good as The Signature of All Things. I think Gilbert is trying to make a point about slut-shaming being nothing new, but that didn’t resonate with me as much as the theme of friendship did.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Conferences are not always convenient 🙂 Looks beautiful though.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. I can’t see you being an Antoine Laurain fan – I enjoyed Vintage 1954, but it’s probably his least good yet. I remember enjoying the Theroux many years ago, but I have no desire to revisit. Out of the Woods has been getting so much press – not one for me, but strange that you and Laura both disliked it. City of Girls sounds much more my kind of thing, so I’ll look forward to your full review.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I thought the Laurain sounded like lighthearted fun, and I don’t usually mind magic realism. And yet it’s my only 1-star rating this year!

      I had been interested in Out of the Woods for a while and finally started it after it made the Wainwright Prize shortlist. I think Paul liked it.


  3. I’m glad you managed to find a way to cope with the heat, Rebecca. I’ve yet to go to Milan but it’s on my list, perhaps tied in with a spring break in the lakes.

    I have City of Girls to look forward to but perhaps I’ll leave the Laurain for the charity shop.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes, do go in spring rather than summer! It was April when we went to Tuscany and that was perfect. Varenna was the highlight of this trip for me. I’ve had Lake Garda highly recommended as well, but didn’t make it there this time.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. A shame about Theroux, he is a marmite read, I fear! And it was HOT when we went to Lake Como but fortunately we had aircon in our hotel room and it was cooler by the lake. A few of those books look really good however I slipped terribly today in Oxfam (metaphorically) so I fear I shouldn’t even note them down!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. We only found A/C on one metro line, one train, and the Duomo museum. (My husband also had it at the uni where the conference was held.) It was difficult to do without!


  5. Thanks for sharing pictures. It’s a dream of mine to travel to Italy.

    I enjoyed City of Girls but not as much as Signature of All Things either. I found it pretty uneven… the beginning underwhelmed me to the point where I was considering setting it aside. But once Billy showed up and the play took off, things got much more interesting. I got all emotional at the ending. A good read but not great, though there are many things to commend, such as the friendships you mentioned.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I would highly recommend Florence and Tuscany if you ever get a chance to go.

      I found the opposite: that the first 3/4 or so of City of Girls was pretty absorbing, but the last quarter, when she catches up on the whole rest of her life, seemed like a bit of a throwaway.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Keen reader as I am, I wouldn’t be able to spend so much tim reading with so much exploring to be done. But I’m glad you found ways to defeat the heat.


    1. It was far too hot for city exploring, nor would I have had the confidence to do so on my own while my husband was at the conference. The nice thing about an Airbnb is that you have your own home away from home for a week, so once I got the temperature just about alright it was a good place to do my usual working and reading.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Sounds perfect then!


  7. I’m very jealous! I haven’t been to Milan but would like to. And I will lower my expectations re: City pf Girls.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I think you’re more of a city person than I am, so you may well like it, especially if you’re into fashion.

      City of Girls is more of a frothy summer read than I was expecting, perhaps. It’s good fun.


  8. What a great opportunity to travel to Italy. Too bad it was so hot, though. Sitting here reading about it on one of our hottest days of the summer so far, I know I would not want to go to Italy in the summer. I think you handled it very well though, shutting yourself inside with your books – very sensible! 🙂
    It sounds like City of Girls is a very different book to her last one. I will probably read it anyway!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’ve heard about the heat wave you’ve been having! It must be tough to deal with.

      My conclusion was that City of Girls doesn’t hold a candle to The Signature of All Things, but it’s still a fun read.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. The Signature of all things will be tough to top!


  9. Found your blog because I was searching from From Scratch that I bought earlier today. Excited to see your review of the Beth Lynch book. My family was Swiss and I have been fortunate to live in Zurich. Frosty locals and convoluted bureaucracy is a good description LOL. Would never have known about it without this site. It’s nested in my cart ready for purchase.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for stopping by, Miriam! I’m so glad you found a book that appealed to you. That’s what I’m here for 🙂


  10. […] readalikes: From Scratch: A Memoir of Love, Sicily, and Finding Home by Tembi Locke, My Salinger Year by Joanna Rakoff, and […]


  11. […] settings. Quick and enjoyable. (I’ve never been hotter than during the July week we spent in Milan in 2019. This is one of the books I read on that […]


  12. […] there through Shaun Bythell’s The Diary of a Bookseller. (I’ve also reviewed the follow-up, Confessions of a Bookseller, which was an enjoyable read for me during a 2019 trip to Milan, and 2020’s Seven Kinds of People […]


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