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Italian Ways: On and Off the Rails from Milan to Palermo [NOOK Book]

Overview

“So inviting you might find yourself tempted to give the experience a whirl and ride the Italian trains yourself, book in hand.”—Liesl Schillinger, New York Times Book Review


Tim Parks’s books on Italy have been hailed as "so vivid, so packed with delectable details, [they] serve as a more than decent substitute for the real thing" (Los Angeles Times Book Review). Now, in his first Italian travelogue in a decade, he delivers a charming and funny portrait of Italian ways by ...
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Italian Ways: On and Off the Rails from Milan to Palermo

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Overview

“So inviting you might find yourself tempted to give the experience a whirl and ride the Italian trains yourself, book in hand.”—Liesl Schillinger, New York Times Book Review


Tim Parks’s books on Italy have been hailed as "so vivid, so packed with delectable details, [they] serve as a more than decent substitute for the real thing" (Los Angeles Times Book Review). Now, in his first Italian travelogue in a decade, he delivers a charming and funny portrait of Italian ways by riding its trains from Verona to Milan, Rome to Palermo, and right down to the heel of Italy.

Parks begins as any traveler might: "A train is a train is a train, isn’t it?" But soon he turns his novelist’s eye to the details, and as he journeys through majestic Milano Centrale station or on the newest high-speed rail line, he delivers a uniquely insightful portrait of Italy. Through memorable encounters with ordinary Italians—conductors and ticket collectors, priests and prostitutes, scholars and lovers, gypsies and immigrants—Parks captures what makes Italian life distinctive: an obsession with speed but an acceptance of slower, older ways; a blind eye toward brutal architecture amid grand monuments; and an undying love of a good argument and the perfect cappuccino.


Italian Ways also explores how trains helped build Italy and how their development reflects Italians’ sense of themselves from Garibaldi to Mussolini to Berlusconi and beyond. Most of all, Italian Ways is an entertaining attempt to capture the essence of modern Italy. As Parks writes, "To see the country by train is to consider the crux of the essential Italian dilemma: Is Italy part of the modern world, or not?"

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Editorial Reviews

The New York Times Book Review - Liesl Schillinger
This reverie is so inviting you might find yourself tempted to give the experience a whirl and ride the Italian rails yourself, book in hand.
Publishers Weekly
Italy’s railways offer entrée into its charming, infuriating soul in this delightful travelogue-cum–social commentary. Novelist and British expatriate Parks (Italian Neighbors) recounts his love-hate relationship with Italian train travel in rich, hilarious detail: the crazy ticketing and scheduling procedures; the Kafkaesque Trenitalia national rail bureaucracy; the oddly ceremonial cadences of train announcements; the grand station architecture festooned with glitzy lingerie ads; the epic battles with ticket inspectors over mysterious rules; the contrast between an aspiration to sleek, fast, convenient modernity and a reality of pokey, dilapidated, frustrating laggardness in “a nation at ease with the distance between the ideal and real.” His fellow passengers—yuppie blowhards, bored teens, bitter pensioners, gypsy beggars, pushy nuns, psychos, and prostitutes—furnish him with an inexhaustible supply of piquant character sketches that bring to vivid life the warm conviviality of Italian culture. Combining wonderfully evocative prose with a wry analysis, Parks provides local color while continually seeking hidden social meaning; like a good anthropologist, he knows every wrinkle of the native culture yet is enough of an outsider to register its strangeness and particularity. The result is a fascinating portrait of a society that seems rooted in place no matter how fast it goes. Photos. Agent: Melanie Jackson, Melanie Jackson Agency (June)
Rachel Donadio - New York Times
“This mix of piercing social observation and undying affection for Italy is classic Parks.”
Ben Downing - The Wall Street Journal
“[A] treat equivalent to a ride on the Orient Express… Italian Ways is no Ferrari on rails but instead something much better: a slow train so thoughtfully appointed that one never thinks to look out the window or care about the destination.”
Andrea Lee - newyorker.com
“Fascinating [and] droll…. Parks [is] perhaps the most faithful foreign inamorato Italy has ever had.”
Liesl Schillinger - New York Times Book Review
“[S]o inviting you might find yourself tempted to give the experience a whirl and ride the Italian trains yourself, book in hand.”
Chloë Schama - Smithsonian
“[Parks is] a perfect guide—an outsider, but one with a deep familiarity and respect (plus a dash of exasperated skepticism)—to the country’s celebrated eccentricities. Parks has a charming voice and a novelist’s eye.”
John Lloyd - Financial Times
“This is not a “railway book” in any conventional sense. It is sharp-eyed and sharp-tongued about the absurdities of ‘Italian ways.'”
Mark O’Connell
“Parks sees Italian culture with the more or less detached clarity of the outsider, but has spent enough time living in the place to feel justified in critiquing it from within…. Unmistakably an expression of love for his adopted country and its people.”
Alexander Aciman - The Daily Beast
“Incisive [and] hilarious.”
Brigitte Frase - Minneapolis Star Tribune
“Relaxed, humorous, meandering [and] charming.”
Richard Eder - Boston Globe
“A movable feast to say the least.”
Micahel Upchurch - Seattle Times
“Presents a picture of Italy you won’t get from any tourist board… sympathetic and lively.”
Marjorie Kehe - Christian Science Monitor
“Parks really shines. He gives us a country that is as frustrating as it is endlessly fascinating.”
Ben Downing - Wall Street Journal
“[A] treat equivalent to a ride on the Orient Express… Italian Ways is no Ferrari on rails but instead something much better: a slow train so thoughtfully appointed that one never thinks to look out the window or care about the destination.”
Alexander Stille - New York Review of Books
“Charming and fascinating.”
Sean Wilsey
“This is the best book I’ve ever read about Italy. Never have I encountered a more insightful and hilarious insider/outsider portrait of the country at the center of Western civilization. Tim Parks should be given a villa in Rome and the title of English ambassador.”
David Shields
“There is no way that Italian Ways should work—but somehow it does work. How? Partly because the book is, as Tim Parks says, a search for the Italian character, which he evokes in dozens of gorgeously written scenes; but beyond that Parks is exploring the dynamic between tradition and innovation…Underneath everything, Parks is trying to come to a point of loving the world in all its confusion and frustration, and by book’s end he does, he does. Bravo.”
David Lodge
“Engrossing, entertaining, and wonderfully revealing about the country and its people. It makes perfect armchair travelling – a delight from beginning to end.”
Tom Vanderbilt
“Tim Parks has reinvented the narrative of the train journey with an epic voyage into the essence of Italy itself. With a novelist’s keen eye he mines absurdity and deep meaning from small, overlooked moments and gestures.”
Kirkus Reviews
English-born expat novelist Parks (The Server, 2012, etc.) pokes affectionate fun at his fellow train travelers and surveys a rapidly changing Italian landscape. Since 1981, the author has lived in Italy and supplemented his fiction with a series of charming memoirs about his experiences there, beginning with Italian Neighbors (1992). Here, he chronicles his adventures on the nation's rails, which became his preferred mode of travel while commuting from his home in Verona (his wife's native turf) to his teaching job at the university in Milan. Train travel in Italy is the ultimate leveler, Parks finds, and it provides a microcosm of what is transpiring in the society as a whole since globalization has taken root. His observations mingle travelogue, history and memoir, spanning the years from 2005 to the present. During that period, parts of the main state railway, Trenitalia, were split off into private lines; regional routes were streamlined; faster trains were added to accommodate EU travelers; and reserved and class-oriented seating was introduced, along with some bewildering ticket machines. Anyone who has ever battled a provincial government functionary in Europe will be heartily amused by Parks' anecdotes about the finer points of choosing the correct ticket from an officious clerk or getting a ticket validated with the requisite stamp. His renderings of the comical pronunciations featured in well-intentioned English public-address announcements are also funny. Parks divides the passengers into several categories: chatty; objectionable; resigned; long-suffering; pignolo, which means the stickler who obeys each rule to the letter; and (an inevitability in Italy) furbo, the sly one who tries to get around every rule. Our intrepid traveler evolves from being disoriented by the newly renovated Milano Centrale station to being capable of negotiating a trip all the way south to Otranto and back. His journeys renew his sense of being eternally an outsider in Italy, yet he also recognizes how warmly he has taken to his adopted country. Enchanting travels with the good-natured Parks.
The Barnes & Noble Review

Tim Parks, Englishman, novelist, memoirist, essayist, translator, and teacher, has been living in Italy for over thirty years. A considerable part of that time has been spent on trains and, as an adjunct, in mastering the country's byzantine canons of ticketing. In fact, one does not get far in Italian Ways: On and Off the Rails from Milan to Palermo before getting a good idea why this fine writer — shaped as he was by an Anglo- Saxon, commonsense view of the world and afflicted with a congenital streak of impatience — suffered for so many years from appalling tension-related pain in his vital parts (described in macabre detail in his Teach Us to Sit Still, 2010). The task of getting the right ticket in the appropriate form stamped correctly for the proper species of train going where you, too, would like to go involves the sort of rigmarole of which anxiety dreams are made and demonstrates as clearly as anything else in these engaging pages that, as Parks puts it, "Italy is not a country for beginners."

The taxonomy of the trains and the casuistry of their ticketing take up a good many of the book's pages — too many, you might begin to think, until you see that without entering into these mysteries you can't properly enjoy the vexations created by the intricacies and non sequiturs of the regulations. Indeed, so arcane is the science of purchasing the correct ticket from an Italian automatic ticket machine that it has spawned a small industry for Slav children who hang about, helpfully officiating over the complex ceremony for a small tip. Nor could you fully appreciate the changes being wrought to advance the global segregation of rich and poor (who had previously been treated as if they "actually belonged to the same species").

Trenitalia, the state-run system, and its trains have changed over the years — for better and for worse — as explained in ferocious, often amusing detail by Parks. Trenitalia's trains are now divided into the Interregionale or Regionale, designated unfondly by our guide as "the train of the living dead;" the express Intercity; the high-speed Eurostar; and the ultra-high- speed Freccia, which, itself, comes in two expressions of swiftness: Frecciarossa (200 mph) and the Frecciargento (150 mph). Not only does the whole system run at a mounting loss, but money has been taken from regional service and put into building the infrastructure for the ultra-high-speed trains serving wealthy people whose time is, presumably, more valuable and whose destinations are more important. This, of course, is the way of the world in the twenty-first century; but as with everything Italian, there is an entertaining exception to the preferred treatment given to the well heeled. Unlike in the U.S., where the privileges of private enterprise trump the necessities of public service, the new privately owned ultra- high-speed train, Italo, is made almost impossible to find and difficult to board, as a way of nobbling competition with Trenitalia.

Parks, who has an unmistakable taste for dualities, finds them everywhere in Italy, not least in the railway system — as good a place as any to fulfill his goal of capturing "the Italian way of doing things." In the first place, the railway both unites the country as a nation and "allows it to remain fragmented." Italy, he points out, is still essentially a collection of city-states whose citizens find a primary identity in their hometowns, places where they insist on living no matter where they may work or attend university. The result is a nation of heroic commuters living "double lives."

Strangely, for a book set in Italy, this one has little time for food — except in the form of laments over vanishing graciousness in its service for travelers — or for living arrangements, scenery, and the rhythm of days. The world outside stations, platforms, and railway carriages only becomes a real presence once Parks ventures to the South, a part of Italy that he, as a resident of Verona and like most northerners, knew little. ("The South is always present to us as an idea — a bad one.") His trip — from Rome down the coast, over to Sicily and back, hitting the instep at Crotone and the heel at Lecce — is a journey into both the past and an abortive future. Instead of encouraging tourism, the region opened itself to brute industry, now failed or environmentally disastrous. Traveling up by train from Crotone, Parks gives us a passenger's-eye view of the South:

Beaches. Bleached-white riverbeds. Mile after mile of olive groves. The Gulf of Taranto, empty sand with clear blue seas. Kiwi plants, row after endless row of them. Field after field. Broken walls. Stazione do Torre Melissa. Vineyards. Promontories with gray rock against blue sea. Stazione di Cirò. The capotreno's whistle. An ancient tower on a low hillside. Squat, square masonry. Abandoned factories. Cactuses and scorched grass. Stazione de Crucoli. Graffiti: 'Ti penso sempre, amore mio.' "
Parks's novelistic talent is much in evidence in vignettes of life aboard trains. In addition to the incidental talkers, eaters, cell- phone exhibitionists, and other villains whom he meets in his journeys, two notorious characters pop up in these pages: the "pignolo" and the "furbo." The former — whose ranks include certain railway officials with whom Parks has had vividly recounted imbroglios — is "someone who will apply the rules most determinedly, even when, or perhaps especially when, they are most inappropriate." The furbo, on the other hand, is "the sly one," whose most characteristic act is jumping the queue at a ticket window. In this country, that crime would bring out the vigilante in most people; in Italy: "Nobody shouts. There is a slow, simmering resentment, as if the people who behaved properly are grimly pleased to get confirmation that good citizenship is always futile, a kind of martyrdom. This is an important Italian emotion: I am behaving well and suffering because of that?. Mi sto sacrificando."

Parks sums up the duality that runs right down the middle of the Italian psyche in a contemplation of sometime prime minister Silvio Berlusconi's smile: "What a strange mixture it was, I thought, of comfortable self-congratulation (I'm a hugely successful man, you can rely on me) and victimhood (I am a scapegoat who has been treated badly), as if he were both a first-class Freccia traveler and a long-suffering victim standing in the corridor of a packed Regionale. Quite how Berlusconi manages to convey these contradictory impressions I'm not sure, but they seem to contain a paradox essential to the contemporary Italian mind-set: we are simultaneously well off and not well off; we deserve excellent services but we are already paying too much for them; we are confident and hard done by."

It is a prejudice and a generalization, but in a long reading life I have noticed that English writers, however critical they may be of their own country, never quite lose their native astonishment and sense of affront at foreignness, at being Abroad; but, in the case of writers with a strong comic sense like Parks, they are also aware and amused by the preposterousness of their own reactions. Parks's exasperation with his adopted country rises in brisk little gusts throughout the book, but it is abundantly clear that he loves Italy and its people, and he stands in happy wonder at the Italian frame of mind, one unfazed by inconsistency and flat-out contradiction. When he presents the resulting practical annoyances, it is with a connoisseur's relish. Italy, he says in one of his many trenchant assessments, is "a nation at ease with the distance between the ideal and the real." It is Parks's mixture of love and irritation, summary judgment and self-deprecation, acute observation and strong point of view, that makes this the wonderful book that it is.

Katherine A. Powers reviews books widely and has been a finalist for the Nona Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing from the National Book Critics Circle. She is the editor of Suitable Accommodations: An Autobiographical Story of Family Life: The Letters of J. F. Powers, 1942–1963.

Reviewer: Katherine A. Powers

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780393240559
  • Publisher: Norton, W. W. & Company, Inc.
  • Publication date: 6/3/2013
  • Sold by: Barnes & Noble
  • Format: eBook
  • Pages: 320
  • Sales rank: 129,006
  • File size: 2 MB

Meet the Author

Tim Parks was born in Manchester, England, in 1954, grew up in London, and has lived in Italy since 1981. His novels include Europa, which was shortlisted for the Booker Prize, and he is the author of several nonfiction accounts of life in Italy, including Italian Neighbors and An Italian Education. During his years in Italy, Parks has translated works by Italo Calvino, Roberto Calasso, Alberto Moravia, and Machiavelli. He is a regular contributor to the New York Review of Books, for which he blogs.
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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 4.5
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Sort by: Showing all of 4 Customer Reviews
  • Posted October 5, 2013

    Riding the Rails--Italian Style

    Tim Parks may be London-born, but for the past 30 years he's been Italian-adopted, living in Verona with his Italian wife and their children and commuting to his teaching chores at a Milan University via the nation's quirky railway system. Trains are the theme of this bright, engaging book, which tells the reader just why "Italy is not a country for beginners," and cheerfully demonstrating why the whole distance from Milan to Palermo.

    7 out of 7 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted September 4, 2013

    Luna

    Listians to les miserables and cries

    0 out of 8 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted August 7, 2013

    Kate

    She walked in. "Sorry im late i got cght up with stuff at home."

    0 out of 11 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted August 7, 2013

    Savannah

    Watched them

    0 out of 11 people found this review helpful.

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