About Time I Read It: The Italians by John Hooper

For as long as I’ve been done the European Reading Challenge I’ve included a book about Italy. Last year it was Tobias Jones’s The Dark Heart of Italy and in previous years I spotlighted works of historical fiction like Tariq Ali’s A Sultan in Palermo and Dasa Drndic’s Trieste to nonfiction fare like Douglas Preston and Mario Spezi’s The Monster of Florence and John Berendt’s The City of Falling Angels. In 2014 it was In the Sea There are Crocodiles, Italian writer Fabio Geda’s novelization of Afghan refugee Enaiatollah Akbar’s five-year journey from Afghanistan to Italy. Chances are, if I’m doing the European Reading Challenge, I’m gonna read a book about Italy.

John Hooper’s 2015 The Italians had been on my radar for the last three or four years before I borrowed a Kindle copy through Overdrive. Like Tobias Jones, Hooper is also a British journalist, having worked for both the Guardian and Observer newspapers and now covers Italy and the Vatican for the Economist. Also like Jones, Hooper has written a book that paints Italy in broad yet nevertheless revealing strokes – and entertaining ones.

According to Hooper, Italy is nation of contradictions. Proudly Catholic and home to the Vatican, it’s also fiercely anticlerical. Judging by the country’s declining birthrate many Italians are ignoring the Church’s prohibition on birth control. For a nation that fought long and hard to unify itself in the 19th century, the wealthy and industrialized North still can’t stand the impoverished South and visa versa. Organized crime syndicates like the Sicilian Cosa Nostra and Neapolitan Camorra plague the country but also generate 10 percent of Italy’s GDP, and yet a 2009 European Commission report revealed the United Kingdom’s violent crime rate was eight times that of Italy.

No other example from The Italians sums up both Italy’s reputation for bureaucratic lunacy as well as its national pastime for fantasia, a word Hooper translates as meaning “somewhere on the permeable frontier between imagination and creativity” like the case of the Italian army battalion Terzo Corpo designato d’Armata. In 1950 with the Cold War in full gear and Stalin’s armies firmly in control of Eastern Europe many feared the Soviet-dominated Warsaw Pact would soon invade America’s NATO allies like Italy. To deter them, the Italian high command secretly created an army of 300,000 troops based in Padova. However, even with a real commander-in-chief this army existed only on paper. Over the years tons of paperwork was generated in the form of promotions, payroll records, procurements and the like. If any Soviet spies operating in Italy picked up even snippets of this information they’d report back to Moscow the existence of a 300,000 man army and perhaps think twice about invading.

If any of you plan on traveling to Italy for your next vacation, do yourself a huge favor and read Hooper’s The Italians before you leave. You’ll be glad you did.

 

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About Time I Read It: 1924 by Peter Ross Range

I’ve always been fascinated by the interwar period. With the old Eurasian powers Russia, Germany, Austria-Hungary and the Ottoman Empire vanquished a host of new countries and territories emerged from the aftermath. Many across Europe rejected the old monarchial order blaming it for starting the Great War. Other went further, loudly proclaiming the challenges of widespread unemployment, political instability and ethnic tension called for new styles of authoritarianism like Communism and Fascism. In Germany, conservatives and reactionaries seethed, blaming the nation’s Jews, socialists and liberals for stabbing their once mighty nation in the back by surrendering too easily and signing the Treaty of Versailles. One of these bitter malcontents, an impoverished army veteran by the name of Adolf Hitler found comfort in a small, radical group called the Nazis, rising quickly within the organization before becoming its leader.

Thinking the German people deserved a better form of government, Hitler and his fellow Nazi’s believed it was time to take over. After failing in their attempt to overthrow the Bavarian government, march to Berlin and seize control of the fledgling German state he was tried, found guilty and sentenced to five years in Landsberg Prison. Languishing in prison and his treasonous movement crushed, Hitler should have faded into oblivion just like any other failed political figure. But as we all know, he didn’t.

I’d been thinking about borrowing an Overdrive copy of Peter Ross Range’s 1924: The Year That Made Hitler for the last few years and only recently got around to doing so. Like so many books, I kicked myself for not reading it sooner.

According to Ross Range, failing to overthrowing the German state was the best thing that could have happened to Hitler. At his trial, he unleashed his oratory skills on those in attendance, winning admiration from friend and foe alike, resulting in a relatively light sentence which included the possibility of parole after one year. During his time in prison Hitler flourished. He read extensively, wrote the first volume of Mein Kampf, and engaged in endless rounds of political discussion with his imprisoned fellow Nazis. Landsberg Prison became in essence a Nazi Party training facility as Hitler and his men dined together (with Hitler at the head of the table) and conducted themselves with military like discipline. By the time he was released after just nine months, Hitler had formulated a new plan. Instead of violently taking power the Nazis would work within the political system, using legal means to become masters of Germany. Sadly for Germany, Europe and the rest of the world it worked.

1924 is one of those great history books that’s a pleasure to read. Don’t be surprised if it makes my year-end list of favorite nonfiction.

20 Books of Summer: The Wild Blue by Stephen E. Ambrose

It might surprise some of you, but I’ve never read anything by Stephen E. Ambrose. You’d think after hearing so many good things over the years about Undaunted Courage, Band of Brothers and Citizen Soldiers I would have read at least some of his stuff, but alas I have not. Maybe that’s why I couldn’t resist grabbing a copy of The Wild Blue: The Men and Boys Who Flew the B-24s Over Germany  when I found a copy at the public library last week. Hoping it would be, at the very least, a descent book about the air war over Nazi Germany I’m happy to report The Wild Blue met or perhaps exceeded my modest expectations.

Published in 2001, The Wild Blue tells the story of the brave American men, their B-24 Liberators and their missions over Germany and occupied Europe during the Second World War. One of these men was former presidential candidate George McGovern, who successfully piloted his B-24 (dubbed Dakota Queen in honor of his wife Eleanor) 35 missions, earning a Distinguished Flying Cross for his bravery under fire.  For the most part Ambrose focuses on McGovern and his bomber crews and the dangers they encountered on their missions over enemy territory.

According to Ambrose, flying in a Liberator was no picnic. The planes weren’t pressurized so crew members needed oxygen masks, heavy bomber jackets and plug-in heaters to function. With flight controls slow and cumbersome it was a nightmare to fly. Lightly armored, crews were sitting ducks for enemy aircraft fire. Initial take offs were especially risky since the bombers were heavily leaden with bombs and full fuel tanks. Flying over heavily defended targets deep in Nazi Germany US bomber forces took brutal losses, sometimes approaching 50 per cent.

The Wild Blue delivered the goods and inspired me to read more of Ambrose’s books, especially the three mentioned earlier. So expect to see Undaunted Courage or Band of Brothers featured on my blog.

20 Books of Summer: Empty Planet by John Ibbitson and Darrell Bricker

For a relatively small country, population-wise Canada has produced some impressive writers, especially in the field of politics. Weighing in on opposite sides of the immigration debate are Bruce Bawer with While Europe Slept: How Radical Islam is Destroying the West from Within and Doug Saunders with The Myth of the Muslim Tide: Do Immigrants Threaten the West? Back in 2011, before 4chan became a platform for QAnon’s absurd conspiracy theories Jonathan Kay explored and debunked the dark world of conspiracy theories in his book Among the Truthers: A Journey Through America’s Growing Conspiracist Underground. Lastly, even the ultra-conservative pundit Mark Steyn, author of a host of books including America Alone: The End of the World As We Know It is Canadian, even if he currently resides in the United States.

In that regard America’s neighbor to the North continues to punch above its weight. A few weeks ago at the public library I picked up a copy of Darrell Bricker and John Ibbitson’s Empty Planet: The Shock of Global Population Decline. With their 2019 book the two Canadians make a bold and compelling claim: In the near future the world’s population will not explode but precipitously decline.

After being told for years we’ve been sitting on a ticking population bomb at first it’s hard to take the two authors’ claim seriously. You ask why is global population going to decline within the next 40 to 50 years? The answer is everyday, the world is becoming more and more modern.

A key component of modernization is urbanization. The bulk of the world’s population resides or is  predicted to reside not on farms or in villages but in cities. Urban families aren’t engaged in labor intensive farm work, so families are smaller. Living in cities makes it’s harder for conservative elements like their parents and in-laws, churches and mosques to pressure them into having lots of children. It’s also easier for city-dwelling women to obtain reliable birth control and receive helpful family planning advice. Lastly, more and more cities around the world are joining the global economy, leading to an explosion of service sector “knowledge jobs” throughout the world, especially in South and East Asia. These jobs require an educated workforce, prompting more women to delay marriage in order to attend college. Once in the workforce, many women continue to delay marriage and with it motherhood since it’s seen as a career impediment. So, as the world urbanizes it starts having fewer children. Once a country dips below the birthrate of 2.1 children per couple its population begins to contract, then collapse.

According to Bricker and Ibbitson, there’s both good and bad things on the horizon. Lower population should put less pressure on the environment, resources and the global food supply. Potentially, it could also lead to lower unemployment, since there’d be less competion for jobs. With fewer global births, the population ages and the authors speculate this could lead to a “geriatric peace” since there’ll be fewer young hot-heads in positions of power.

On the other hand, without a huge pool of young workers it will be harder for countries, especially in Europe and East Asia to generate the taxes needed to pay for the retirement and medical expenses of a ballooning population of seniors. On a related note, the United States, Canada and the countries of Europe will no longer depend of young immigrants to replenish their employment rolls and help prop-up their birthrates. (This could get worse if today’s anti-immigration sentiment leaves a lasting legacy around the developed world.)

If, after reading Empty Planet you’d like to get another perspective on where the world might be going, I’d encourage you to read Ian Bremmer’s Us vs. Them: The Failure of Globalism. I suspect Empty Planet is one of those books that will be embraced, debated, attacked, and in the end highly influential. That alone is enough for me to recommend it.

20 Books of Summer: Smilla’s Sense of Snow by Peter Høeg

I’ve yet to jump on the Nordic noir/Scandinavian crime bandwagon, but after reading the grandaddy of them all, Peter Høeg’s 90s whodunnit Smilla’s Sense of Snow maybe it’s finally time. In search of something for Rose City Reader’s European Reading Challenge, not to mention just a fun piece of fiction, I borrowed a copy through Overdrive and gave it a try. Before long I was sucked in and couldn’t put it down.

On the surface, things look simple. One night in Copenhagen a young Greenlandic boy is found dead after falling off the roof of an apartment building. The responding police deem it an accident but one of the late boy’s neighbors, Smilla, a 30-something loner of mixed Danish-Greenlander heritage thinks otherwise. Based on her extensive knowledge of snow, stemming from not just her early childhood in Greenland but also her time as a snow and ice scientist, suspects foul play. (Smilla also knows he was deathly afraid of heights and thinks it’s odd he’d be on the roof in the first place.) Her quest to know the truth will take her from the corridors of Denmark’s wealth and power to her ice-covered childhood home in Greenland.

Smilla is a great character. Intelligent, misanthropic, dogged and not afraid to throw a punch or two if needed she reminds me a lot of Krysten Ritter’s Jessica Jones character from the Netflix series of the same name. Fitting for such a broken individual, your knowledge of the character is slowly revealed bit by bit over the course of the novel.

This novel is dark, seasoned with memorable characters, complex (to quote the Dude from The Big Lebowski “there’s so many levels, man” ) and pulls you along like a freight train to the bitter end. It’s easily one of the best novels I’ve read this year.

20 Books of Summer: Dancing with the Devil in the City of God by Juliana Barbassa

When it comes to books about fascinating places, I’m a big fan of what I call insider/outsider’s perspectives. These are by former residents (almost always journalists or former journalists) who, after being away for significant periods of time, return home to write about everyday life in their place of origin . With a blend of familiarity and objectivity they serve as our personal tour guides to cities like Detroit or Mumbai, or countries such as Iran or Zimbabwe.

A few weeks ago I was in the mood for one of these books. Luckily for me, I spotted at the public library an available copy of Juliana Barbassa’s 2015 book Dancing with the Devil in the City of God: Rio de Janeiro on the Brink. I’m glad I read Dancing with the Devil because honestly, I didn’t know a lot about Rio or even Brazil before diving into her book. (My Latin American politics class in college covered Brazil, but that was a million years ago and I’ve pretty much forgotten everything I learned. On a more positive note, I have fond memories of the Brazilian movies City of God and Central Station. The Brazilian documentary Bus 174 is grim, but good.)

In 2010, not long after it was announced Rio would host the 2016 Summer Olympics Barbassa, a journalist and Brazilian national, after spending 20 years abroad moved back to her childhood home of Rio in order to cover the county’s run-up to the 2016 Games. Whenever a country is entrusted with hosting the Olympics, especially the Summer Games it’s a sign that country has joined the roster of elite nations. But was Rio and the rest of Brazil ready? And if it wasn’t did it have the political will and resources to address the nation’s lingering challenges like pollution, urban poverty, corruption, and drug-fueled gang violence before 2016? Besides needing a multitude of new sports arenas and Olympic-related facilities Rio’s fractured infrastructure was long overdue for a massive upgrade. (A higher percentage of Rio residents have access to cell phones than do clean water.) Oh, if that wasn’t enough, in 2014 Brazil is also hosting the World Cup.

So, with all that in mind Barbassa spent the next four years or so running around Rio interviewing countless people including hard-line police chiefs, low-level gang members, transgender prostitutes, political and social activists, and environmentalists to see if Brazil and the city of Rio is able to overcome the many deep-seated obstacles standing in the way of successfully hosting the upcoming Olympics. While doing so Barbassa explored Rio’s politics and society in depth,  addressing issues related to gender, sexuality, race and class. And perhaps above all, the nation’s obsession with soccer.

I’m happy to say I enjoyed Dancing with the Devil and came away with a deeper understanding of Rio and Brazil. If you follow my lead and end up reading this book I highly recommend you also check out the series of eight articles posted on the online news publication The Intercept dealing with Operation Car Wash, a high level Brazilian political scandal that sadly has been largely ignored by American media.

20 Books of Summer: North of Ithaka by Eleni Gage

I planned on reading I.F. Stone’s The Trial of Socrates this summer, as one of my 20 Books of Summer and for Rose City Reader’s European Reading Challenge. The more I thought about it however, the more I wanted to read something about modern Greece as opposed to Ancient Greece. My search for the right book led me to Eleni N. Gage’s 2005 memoir North of Ithaka: A Granddaughter Returns to Greece and Discovers Her Roots. (If you ask me if the author’s pretty picture gracing book’s cover influenced my choice, as an American I’ll refuse to answer that question on the grounds it would incriminate me.)

There’s lots to like about North of Ithaka. For starters, you have to admire Gage, who in her 20s decided to take a sabbatical from her New York based magazine job and move half way around the world to rural Greece to rebuild her family’s farmhouse in the small village of Lia. (The same one where her grandmother was tortured before being taken out and executed by Communists during the Greek Civil War.) While there immersed herself in the local culture (made easier by her fluency in Greek and deep roots to the area) and gained a deeper understanding of Greece’s history, politics and society. With a convert’s zeal she re-embraced her family’s Greek Orthodox faith, enthusiastically participating in its rituals and traditions. Even as an agnostic I enjoyed how she actively took part in all the Church had to offer, thereby enriching herself.

Above all, North of Ithaka is a likable memoir because Gage, first and foremost is a talented writer. It makes a nice follow-up read to Nikos Kazantzakis’ classic 1964 novel The Fratricides, as well as a suitable offering for the European Reading Challenge.