Parks (Italian Neighbors; Tongues of Flame) sets a daunting task of analyzing the life and mindset of a soccer fan in the wake of Nick Hornby’s runaway hit, Fever Pitch, which is to many one of the finer books on soccer. He takes the reader on a tour of Italy, supporting his adopted home team of Hellas Verona through a season in Serie A. Parks in part sets out to examine the Italian national consciousness through the lens of Verona supporters. “The north-east of Italy, Verona in particular, is stigmatized as irretrievably racist. It is also considered bigoted, workaholic, uncultured, crude and gross.” Hellas Verona have prided themselves on never having a black player on the pitch (until recently). Their fans shout monkey chants whenever an opposing black player touches the ball. It’s a disgraceful part of soccer behavior that is well worth exploring, and this is when Parks is at his best. “I suggest… that the frequent talk about `defeating’ racism on the terraces is a mistake. The word `defeat’ only provokes the hardliners. They don’t come to the stadium to think of themselves as defeated.” When he applies his social criticism, he is able to engage on many levels, but when Parks gets caught up in play-by-play analysis he loses focus and his story. He travels with the team’s fans in old creaky buses, singing songs and drinking beer. Parks’s fanaticism toward lowly Hellas Verona is not unique, and the supporters are not the worst of Italy. Parks’s prose often sings with the bravado of the terraces, but the result is at best a draw.
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An Italian Education: The Further Adventures of an Expatriate in Verona
When expatriate novelist Parks wrote about living in Italy in Italian Neighbors (1992), he focused on the process of acclimation and his often tricky relationships with adults. Now, in another charming and fluidly composed volume of keen observations, amusing anecdotes, and creative musings, he considers the “world of children,” especially of his own inventively bilingual son and daughter, who, Parks must concede, will grow up thoroughly Italian in spite of being half English. Childhood in Italy is a fecund topic for Parks, a perfect conduit for analyzing all the quirks of Italian society. As Parks attempts to define what exactly makes Italians Italian, he discusses everything from bureaucracy to lullabies, attitudes toward pregnancy and large families, food preferences, the worship of conformity, the “mama mystique,” typical vacations, adultery, school events, and textbooks. Thus the concept of “Italian education” works on two levels. While Parks is describing how Italians teach each other to be Italian, he’s also teaching us outsiders all about their richly textured culture. This is an intelligent and sunny book, glimmering with all the contradictions and joys of daily life.
Italian Neighbors: Or, a Lapsed Anglo-Saxon in Verona
Parks, a lively English novelist (Goodness, 1991, etc.), plunges us into the passionate but genial world of his Italian neighbors on the Via Colombare in a village south of Verona. Be warned: to enjoy Peter Mayle’s books on Provence, you need never have been there, while Parks draws you so intimately into life with his bubbling but blinkered and edgy Italians that some hands-on experience with Italy would help for full enjoyment of his pages. Parks and his pregnant wife, Rita, in minor peril from their first day, enter their new apartment and are attacked by a shouting madwoman who claims that the apartment was built for her by its late tenant. The Veronese summer stifles life until the first midnight breeze (which carries mosquitos with it into the bedroom), and the hunting dog Vega–kept ever outdoors in the backyard–howls and scrabbles the whole night through. Every night. Parks describes life at the pasticceria and what drinks one may drink during various hours of the day without being sneered at as a village idiot. On the Via Colombare, peasant life meets urban, and one’s gardening smarts are open to deep derision or mild approval. Buildings must be earthquake-proof, with ceramic-on-concrete floors that carry the sound of a dropped coin or a toilet flush in the night like an act of terrorism ringing everywhere. So it goes–and, after ten years, Parks is still there. Always zestful, sometimes gripping–but perhaps mostly for those who remember winter chestnuts toasting over a coal brazier. Much verve.
Medici Money: Banking, Metaphysics, and Art in 15th-Century Florence
Their name is a byword for immense wealth and power, but before their renown as art patrons and noblemen the Medicis built their fortune on banking—specifically, on lending money at interest. Banking in the 15th century, even at the height of the Renaissance, meant running afoul of the Catholic Church’s prohibition against usury. It required more than merely financial skills to make a profit, and the legendary Medicis—most famously Cosimo and Lorenzo (“the Magnificent”)—were masterly in wielding the political, diplomatic, military, and even metaphysical tools that were needed to maintain their family’s position.
In this brisk and witty narrative, Tim Parks uncovers the intrigues, dodges, and moral qualities that gave the Medicis their edge. Vividly evoking the richness of the Florentine Renaissance and the Medicis’ glittering circle, replete with artists, popes, and kings, Medici Money is a brilliant look into the origins of modern banking and its troubled relationship with art and religion.