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Originally published July 28, 2013 at 5:07 AM | Page modified July 28, 2013 at 7:10 AM

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‘Italian Ways’: a not-quite-travel book on Italy’s railroads

English author Tim Parks’ new book “Italian Ways” looks at the character and history of Italy through the quirks and peculiarities of its extensive railway system.

Special to The Seattle Times

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“Italian Ways; On and Off the Rails from Milan to Palermo”

by Tim Parks

Norton, 261 pp., $25.95

Look at a nation’s railroad system, and you’ll comprehend its soul — or at least its foibles.

That’s the gist of Tim Parks’ not-quite-travel book “Italian Ways:

On and Off the Rails from Milan to Palermo,” in which he tries to get to the bottom of the Italian character by riding its trains.

The British novelist (“Tongues of Flame,” “Europa”), who’s lived in northern Italy more than 30 years, has tackled this territory before, mostly memorably in his 1990s memoirs “Italian Neighbors” and “An Italian Education.” “Italian Ways” doesn’t have the symphonic fullness of those earlier books, but it offers vivid snapshots of a 21st-century Italy well off the tourist path.

That, in part, is because Parks — in the first half of the book — isn’t writing as a traveler but as a long-distance commuter. His home is outside Verona and his teaching job is in Milan, roughly 100 miles away.

Parks doesn’t say why he and his family didn’t move closer to Milan, but in staying put in Verona he was conforming to the habits of his adopted country.

“Italians,” he explains, “like to live where they live — where they were born, that is — with Mamma and Papà. Then they commute. Even when it offers no work, your hometown is always the best town; a thick web of family ties and bureaucracy anchors you there.”

Being a commuter makes Parks the polar opposite of being an inquisitive, Theroux-style traveler. His aim when he boards the train is to read or write, so he tries to find the quietest traveling companions he can.

He fails, of course. Chatterboxes, cellphone gabbers and panhandlers are a continual distraction. And then there are the train conductors, enforcers of a “whole culture of ambiguous rules” that regularly trip up passengers, including Parks.

As he gripes, however, he also fills in details on the creation of Italy’s rail system in the 1860s and ’70s (“feats of engineering beyond anything that had been done in England or Germany”) and presents a picture of Italy you won’t get from any tourist board: “A tiny vineyard, just three rows of a dozen vines each, is choked between two cathedral-size warehouses of prefabricated concrete panels. ... Here and there, like postcards stuck on a cluttered backdrop, fragments of the old picturesque Italy hang on.”

Parks can get mired in the detail of his commuting snafus, but when he takes off on an actual trip — to southern Italy where he’s never been — his eye grows more curious and his encounters with his fellow travelers become more sympathetic and lively.

“Italian Ways” is perfectly pleasurable, but Parks is a novelist foremost. Though his books are published regularly in the U.K., U.S. publishers haven’t been keeping us up with his fiction.

“Dreams of Rivers and Seas” (2008) is a brilliant study of a man who will never be to his parents what they are to each other. “The Server” (2012) is a droll take on a troubled young woman’s attempt to find answers at a Buddhist retreat. “The Server” (retitled “Sex Is Forbidden”) will be published here in October. Let’s hope “Dreams” follows.

Michael Upchurch is an arts writer for The Seattle Times.

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