About Time I Read It: Haben by Haben Girma

I don’t think anyone can resist a memoir by the first deafblind woman to graduate from Harvard Law School. Even though I was up to my eyeballs in library books I didn’t resist it either, grabbing a copy of Haben Girma’s 2019 Haben: The Deafblind Woman Who Conquered Harvard Law during one of my weekend library visits. A light read but far from a piece of fluff, I whipped through it quickly. I walked away from Haben with both an admiration for its author, but also a new perspective on what it’s like to live with different abilities. 

As one might guess from the book’s subtitle Girma is a pretty remarkable person. The American-born daughter of Eritrean immigrants she was born legally blind and deaf. As a child she might walk into a room and see a person sitting on a couch as a shadowy blur. But by the time she was a young adult her sense of sight had deteriorated to the point “walking into a room is like stepping into an abstract painting of fuzzy formations and colorful smashes.” Born with low frequency hearing but not high, over the years she would lose even that modest ability. But to her credit she bravely battled on, refusing to let those sensory restrictions prevent her from living an accomplished life. 

And what an accomplished life so far. In high school, Girma successfully lobbied her parents to let her to spend a summer in the African nation of Mali doing relief work. Later, instead of sticking safely close to home in the Bay Area with premier colleges Stanford and UC Berkeley in her own backyard she opted to attend Lewis and Clark in my former town of Portland, Oregon. (It’s fun to imagine I might have passed her on the street during one of her forays off campus.) Later, after graduating from Harvard Law School she would go on to serve as a disability rights lawyer and play an instrumental role in winning a landmark ADA-related case. For her successful efforts as an attorney and disabilities advocate she earned a trip to the White House to be honored by both Vice President Biden and President Obama.

Much like it’s author, this memoir is direct, passionate and a much needed challenge to our long-held assumptions of people with different abilties. 

Adriatic: A Concert of Civilizations at the End of the Modern Age by Robert D. Kaplan

I’ve been a fan of Robert D. Kaplan for over two decades, ever since that day at the library when I stumbled across a copy of The Coming Anarchy: Shattering the Dreams of the Post Cold War. His 2010 book Monsoon: The Indian Ocean and the Future of American Power is my favorite of his works, easily making that year’s list of Best Nonfiction. Later, in 2018 I read his acclaimed 2016 offering In Europe’s Shadow: Two Cold Wars and a Thirty-Year Journey Through Romania and Beyond. This time around Kaplan shifted his focus from the Indian Ocean region to a slice of Eastern Europe. Called “poetic” and “reflective” by Timothy Snyder in his review for The Washington Post, to me hinted a departure for Kaplan. After successfully tackling the wide with Monsoon, he shifted towards the deep with In Europe’s Shadow, augmenting his new approach with extra attention to historical background thanks to his research and personal experience.

His latest book, published this spring  Adriatic: A Concert of Civilizations at the End of the Modern Age is a continuation of that approach. A fusion of travelogue, history, memoir and geopolitical analysis Adriatic is a leisurely yet learned journey down the Adriatic Coast. Making his way from Trieste to Corfu Kaplan travels geographically as well as chronologically. The erudite and well-traveled Kaplan concludes the key to predicting the region’s future is first understanding its past.

For much of the 20th century the lands of the former Yugoslavia was ravaged by war, begging with the first two Balkan Wars in the years before World War I. (A war that was sparked by Austria-Hungary’s invasion of Serbia.) During World War II, German-occupied Yugoslavia descended into bloody civil war as various factions, both ethnic and ideological fought for control. Tito and his fellow Communists’ eventually victory in 1945 would lead to authoritarian, one-party rule but also a half century of peace. But with the fall of Communism the nation unravelled and the fighting returned. Today, a precarious peace prevails throughout a region populated by relatively small nation states. With many weak, both politically and economically, plagued by high degrees of corruption and ripe for border conflicts they’re easy prey for outside players ranging from organized crime syndicates to regional powers like Turkey and Russia. No surprise Kaplan and others feel the best chance for lasting stability is to bind the region into some sort of supranational entity. Possible candidates range from a kind of a neo-Yugoslavia to a more robust EU recast like a latter-day Hapsburg Empire or Holy Roman Empire.

For the last hundred years or so we’ve perceived the lands of the Adriatic, and for that matter Europe in general as geographically, culturally and politically distinct. But that always wasn’t the case. From Roman times to the early Middle Ages North Africa, together with Europe were seen as one region, anchored by the Mediterranean Sea. Only after the Arab conquests of North Africa and the Middle East did Europe did a sense of separateness sink in. 700 year later, after the Ottomans’s conquest of Byzantium and neighboring lands this notion of distinctness would only deepen.

But while Europe might have been hemmed in by Muslim forces, trade flourished. Their horizon’s broadened from the Crusades, Europeans soon developed a taste for fine fabrics and spices. Later, high end goods from China began to flow from East to West with the Adriatic a primary entry point. Not only would this greatly enrich Italian Genoa and Venice but in the process help bankroll the Renaissance.

Today, the Adriatic, along with the rest of Europe is being reconnected with the rest of the word. Wars, grinding poverty and oppression are driving refugees from across North Africa, the Middle East and beyond onto the shores of the Adriatic. Populations, for good, bad or otherwise are mixing and bringing Europe closer to its ancient neighbors. Throughout the Adriatic Kaplan noted evidence of China’s massive Belt and Road Initiative, a modern version of the storied Silk Road. Just like hundreds of years earlier, one wonders which parts of the Adriatic will once again profit handsomely from the increase in trans-Eurasian trade.

While the Middle East, the Taiwan Straights, North Korea and Ukraine might dominate our current headlines, Kaplan and others believe in the coming years major geopolitics will be playing out in the Adriatic. All the more reason to read Kaplan’s excellent book.

 

Corruptible: Who Gets Power and How It Changes Us by Brian Klaas

About a year ago political scientist and writer Brian Klaas began making the rounds on my favorite podcasts The Bulwark, Deep State Radio and The New Abnormal promoting his recently published book Corruptible: Who Gets Power and How It Changes Us. As he answered questions related to the long-purported belief that power corrupts and what, if anything can be done to keep corruptible individuals away from the levers of power I couldn’t get enough. That’s because several years ago I experienced first hand what it’s like to suffer at the hands of a tyrannical leader. I couldn’t wait to read Klaas’s book and promptly checked out his cool podcast.

Before long I used Overdrive to borrow a copy for my Kindle and eagerly went to work reading it. Employing a Malcom Gladwell-esque style Klass recalls his interviews with a wide array of individuals ranging from an African dictator to a retired American general tasked with running the occupation of Iraq to countless subject matter experts. By the end of the book Klaas showed us not only corrupt leaders looks like but how they’re able to rise to power. He also weighed in on what possible strategies we can employ to make sure they don’t always seize power and if they do, how we might reign them in.

According to Klaas, the worst tyrants, be they CEOs, third-world despots or even some out of control head of an HOA posses in varying degrees what he calls the “dark triad” of narcissism, psychopathy and Machiavellism.

Narcissists feel they’re naturally entitled to positions of authority and are willing to engage in risky behavior like breaking laws, regulations and norms because they see themselves as too clever to suffer the consequences. Typically, most dictators are eventually dethroned because their reckless misrule ends up pissing off enough, or at least the wrong people. Many a CEO lost his/her job by making heedless decisions that brought shame upon the company name .

Psychopaths, immune from experiencing empathy, are able to abuse others to pursue their agendas. An unscrupulous potentate will happily jail and torture dissidents while a toxic executive won’t hesitate to humiliate a subordinate during a meeting for a perceived shortcoming, especially if he/she is seen a potential rival or attempts to speak truth to power.

Lastly, aspiring Machiavellis will hijack whatever resources that come with their positions to further advance themselves. A power-crazed HOA president will target residents he doesn’t like with endless parades of citations. One East African strongman appointed a surprisingly number of women to his rubber stamp parliament, not because he shared their feminist values but because he wanted to send Western nations and NGOs the message he was a progressive ruler and therefore deserved of larger aid packages. Larger aid packages he could line his own pockets with.

One way to reduce the number of bad leaders is to ensure less corruptible individuals wind up in positions of authority. Applicant pools need to be widened as to attract as many capable individuals as possible, not just those with a pathological desire to control and abuse others. Hoping to attract a more kindler, gentler candidate pool a municipality in New Zealand produced a light-hearted recruitment video in which two police officers, played by women of color, pursue a purse snatcher. During their on foot pursuit they even stop for a moment to help an elderly woman cross the street. At the end when they finally apprehend the thief it’s revealed he’s just a dog. The goal is to attract helpful sorts, not Rambos or Dirty Harrys.

In the starkest of contrasts, thanks to minuscule applicant pools the demand for law enforcement officials in rural Alaska is so great police departments are resorting to drastically lowering standards and hiring convicted felons. Even those who’ve committed assaults, rapes and attempted kidnappings have been hired by short-staffed departments desperate to fill their ranks. (Despite the offenders having committed those crimes in the very communities they’re now entrusted to protect.)

Lastly, we must find ways to keep the high and mighty in line. Corporate America spends billions to closely monitor even its most loyal of low level employees through surveillance cameras, recorded phone lines and computer software to log keyboard strokes and website usage. But little, if anything is done to ensure high level executives follow the law, act responsibly or refrain from using their authority to pursue personal vendettas. With a disturbing percentage of CEOs psychopaths, and in all likelihood members of the dark triad, ways must be found to hold them as accountable as their lowest rung employees.

For all the reasons I’ve already outlined this outstanding book should be required reading for anyone who interacts with the powerful in any sector be it private or public. Please consider Corruptible highly recommended.

Book Beginnings: Afropean by Johny Pitts

Not only does Gilion host the European Reading and TBR 22 in 22 on her Rose City Reader blog but also Book Beginnings on Friday. While I’m no stranger to her European Reading Challenge, finally in 2022 I decided to participate in Book Beginnings on Friday. This week I’m back with another post.

For Book Beginnings on Friday Gilion asks us to simply “share the opening sentence (or so) of the book you are reading this week, or just a book that caught your fancy and you want to highlight.”

MY BOOK BEGINNING

When I first heard it, it encouraged me to think of myself as whole and unhyphenated: Afropean. Here was a space where blackness was taking part in shaping European identity at large. It suggested the possibility of living in and with more than one idea: Africa and Europe, or, by extension, the Global South and the West, without being mixed-this, half-that or black-other. That being black in Europe didn’t necessarily mean being an immigrant.

Last week I featured Robert D. Kaplan’s 2022 Adriatic: A Concert of Civilizations at the End of the Modern Age. Before that it was the 2014 rerelease of Paul D’Amato’s 2006 The Meaning of Marxism. This week it’s Johny Pitts’s 2019 Afropean: Notes from Black Europe.

I’m embarrassed to say I can’t remember which blogger recently introduced me to Afropean. (If it’s you, let me know in the comments section and I’ll give you a well-deserved shout-out.) Yesterday, I borrowed an ebook version through Overdrive and so far Afropean is shaping up to be an excellent read. Called a Best Book of 2019 by The Guardian, New Statesman and BBC History Magazine here’s what Amazon has to say.

Afropean is an on-the-ground documentary of areas where Europeans of African descent are juggling their multiple allegiances and forging new identities. Here is an alternative map of the continent, taking the reader to places like Cova Da Moura, the Cape Verdean shantytown on the outskirts of Lisbon with its own underground economy, and Rinkeby, the area of Stockholm that is eighty per cent Muslim. Johny Pitts visits the former Patrice Lumumba University in Moscow, where West African students are still making the most of Cold War ties with the USSR, and Clichy Sous Bois in Paris, which gave birth to the 2005 riots, all the while presenting Afropeans as lead actors in their own story.

Book Beginnings: Adriatic by Robert D. Kaplan

Not only does Gilion host the European Reading and TBR 22 in 22 on her Rose City Reader blog but also Book Beginnings on Friday. While I’m no stranger to her European Reading Challenge, finally in 2022 I decided to participate in Book Beginnings on Friday. This week I’m back with another post.

For Book Beginnings on Friday Gilion asks us to simply “share the opening sentence (or so) of the book you are reading this week, or just a book that caught your fancy and you want to highlight.”

MY BOOK BEGINNING

The geopolitical map of Europe has moved south, back to the Mediterranean, where Europe borders Africa and the Middle East. The Mediterranean has now begun to achieve a fluid classical coherence, uniting continents. But explaining this will take time. It involves philosophy, poetry, and landscape before I get to international relations. So bear with me.

Last week I featured the 2014 rerelease of Paul D’Amato’s 2006 The Meaning of Marxism. Before that it was John Connelly’s 2020  From Peoples into Nations: A History of Eastern Europe. This week it’s Robert D. Kaplan’s 2022 Adriatic: A Concert of Civilizations at the End of the Modern Age.

I’ve been a fan of Kaplan for over two decades, ever since that day at the library when I stumbled across a copy of The Coming Anarchy: Shattering the Dreams of the Post Cold War. His 2010 book Monsoon: The Indian Ocean and the Future of American Power is my favorite of his works, easily making that year’s list of Best Nonfiction. After reading the good news he’d written a new book, I placed a library hold on an ebook and before I knew was able to borrow a copy for my Kindle. Called a “multifaceted masterpiece” by The Wall Street Journal and one of the year’s best books by The New Yorker, here’s what Amazon has to say.

In this insightful travelogue, Robert D. Kaplan, geopolitical expert and bestselling author of Balkan Ghosts and The Revenge of Geography, turns his perceptive eye to a region that for centuries has been a meeting point of cultures, trade, and ideas. He undertakes a journey around the Adriatic Sea, through Italy, Slovenia, Croatia, Montenegro, Albania, and Greece, to reveal that far more is happening in the region than most news stories let on. Often overlooked, the Adriatic is in fact at the center of the most significant challenges of our time, including the rise of populist politics, the refugee crisis, and battles over the control of energy resources. And it is once again becoming a global trading hub that will determine Europe’s relationship with the rest of the world as China and Russia compete for dominance in its ports.

Nonfiction November Week 2: Book Pairings

Last week Katie from the blog Doing Dewey kicked off Nonfiction November. This week Rennie at What’s Nonfiction has agreed to host. She invites participants to share their favorite book pairings, and takes a pretty inclusive approach. It could be a pairing of nonfiction books with fiction, podcasts, documentaries, movies or even additional works of nonfiction.

In past years I’ve been straight-forward, just pairing up nonfiction books with works of fiction. However, last year I did something new and featured Michael David Lukas’s 2018 novel The Last Watchman of Old Cairo, pairing it with a half-dozen books about the ancient Cairo Geniza and Egypt’s Jewish community. This year I thought I’d return to my old ways. I’ll be looking back at what I read in 2022, both nonfiction and fiction and select 15 books. For every work of nonfiction I’ll suggest a piece of fiction and visa versa.

Considering my reading tastes it’s no surprise I’ve included lots of history and international politics kind of stuff. For the first time doing these pairings I’ve featured books by two siblings (Masha and Keith Gessen), a pair of books by the same author (Andrey Kurkov) and two works of nonfiction by the same author (Adam Hochschild). In other firsts, close to half were translated into English from another language, with three quarters of these books written by either immigrants, expats, refugees or children of immigrants. I hope you enjoyed my post and I look forward to reading all the others from Nonfiction November.

Book Beginnings: Corruptible by Brian Klaas

Not only does Gilion host the European Reading and TBR 22 in 22 on her Rose City Reader blog but also Book Beginnings on Friday. While I’m no stranger to her European Reading Challenge, only recently I decided to participate in Book Beginnings on Friday. This week I’m back with another post.

For Book Beginnings on Friday Gilion asks us to simply “share the opening sentence (or so) of the book you are reading this week, or just a book that caught your fancy and you want to highlight.”

MY BOOK BEGINNING

Does power corrupt, or are corrupt people drawn to power? Are entrepreneurs who embezzle and cops who kill the outgrowths of bad systems, or are they just bad people? Are tyrants made or born?

Last week I featured the 2019 memoir Haben: The Deafblind Woman Who Conquered Harvard Law by Eritrean-American lawyer and disability rights advocate Haben Girma. The week before that it was the 2016 novel This House Is Mine by German writer and linguist Dörte Hansen. This week it’s Brian Klaas’s 2021 Corruptible: Who Gets Power and How It Changes Us.

I heard about Corruptible late last year when the book’s author Brian Klaas began making the rounds on some of my favorite podcasts. After experiencing first-hand the horrors of toxic leadership in the workplace, Corruptible sounded like the perfect book for me. Recently, I stopped procrastinating and finally borrowed a Kindle version through Overdrive. Instead of me blathering on, here’s what Amazon has to say:

Corruptible draws on over 500 interviews with some of the world’s top leaders—from the noblest to the dirtiest—including presidents and philanthropists as well as rebels, cultists, and dictators. Some of the fascinating insights include: how facial appearance determines who we pick as leaders, why narcissists make more money, why some people don’t want power at all and others are drawn to it out of a psychopathic impulse, and why being the “beta” (second in command) may actually be the optimal place for health and well-being.

Sunday Salon

For over a month I’ve been taking part in The Sunday Salon hosted by Deb Nance at Readerbuzz. So far it’s been a huge success and I’m striving to make it a regular feature. So here’s another post. 

Last week I started and finished the 2021 novel The Wrong End of the Telescope by Lebanese-American writer Rabih Alameddine. Currently I’m still reading Lawrence Durrell’s Bitter Lemons of Cyprus: Life on a Mediterranean Island and Dzevad Karahasan’s Sarajevo, Exodus of a CityLike I mentioned last week all three of these books are for Rose City Reader’s European Reading Challenge

Articles. With my nose buried in several books last week I managed to read just two articles. This week I’ll try harder and hopefully read more. 

Listening. Like I’ve said before, with so many things going on in the world there’s no shortage of material for my favorite podcasts. 

Watching. Right now I’m watching just one TV show and it’s Mr. Robot. Like I’ve said before it just gets crazier and crazier thanks to insane plot twists, great writing and superb acting. It’s been one hell of a wild ride. Unfortunately for me, I have only two episodes left to watch. 

Everything else. Friday, instead of indulging in my weekly ritual of fine wine and conversation at my favorite local winery I drove up to Portland. After a quick trip to Powell’s Books I proceeded to my friends’ place for an evening of beers, fun and frivolity. Our wonderful hosts fired up the grill and put on the soccer game. After watching the home team come from behind to beat our hated rivals the Seattle Sounders a few of us stayed up past our bedtimes conversing on the porch. Saturday on my way home I hit a massive church yard sale and walked away with small stack of books, almost all of which were free. Among the treasures are Pulitzer-Prize winners American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer by Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin and Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides. 

Sunday Salon

For over a month I’ve been taking part in The Sunday Salon hosted by Deb Nance at Readerbuzz. So far it’s been a huge success and I’m striving to make it a regular feature. So here’s another post. 

Late last week I finished Yann Martel’s The High Mountains of Portugal and posted my review. Currently I’m reading Lawrence Durrell’s Bitter Lemons of Cyprus: Life on a Mediterranean Island and Dzevad Karahasan’s Sarajevo, Exodus of a CityLike I mentioned last week all three of these books are Rose City Reader’s European Reading Challenge

Articles. Even with my nose buried in several books I read a number of excellent articles last week. Inspired by Paula Bardell-Hedley’s outstanding weekly feature “Winding Up the Week” on her great blog Book Jotter I’ve started incorporating article links into my Sunday Salon posts and will continue to do so in the future. 

Listening. Like I’ve said before, with so many things going on in the world there’s been no shortage of material for my favorite podcasts. But with the recent week’s FBI raid on Trump’s Florida residence many of my usual podcasts have been abuzz with commentary and speculation. This has made for some interesting listening.

Watching. Right now I’m watching just one TV show and it’s Mr. Robot. Like I’ve said before it just gets crazier and crazier thanks to insane plot twists, great writing and superb acting. It’s been one hell of a wild ride.

Everything else. In what’s becoming a Friday ritual I met my professor buddies on Friday at our favorite winery for wine, conversation and a killer view. I’ve been drinking coffee in the mornings, but in the evenings I’ve been known to enjoy an adult beverage or two with my books and articles. On Saturday I took in a football scrimmage at the local university.

20 Books of Summer: The Pursuit of Italy by David Gilmour

If Iran and Israel are my two favorite Middle Eastern counties to read about, when it comes to Western Europe my favorite is Italy. While my fascination with Iran and Israel goes back to high high school my interest in Italy is a bit more recent. It all began approximately a decade ago when I discovered the novels of an Algerian expat and a true crime thriller co-authored by a prolific American novelist and an Italian journalist.

After receiving death threats from Islamic militants  Amara Lakhous fled Algeria for Italy, eventually penning several critically acclaimed novels including  Clash of Civilizations Over an Elevator in Piazza Vittorio and Divorce Islamic Style. (Not long after the two novels’ publication he relocated once more, this time to New York City.) Through his keen eyes I was exposed for the first time to Italy’s strong regional antagonisms. Originally from the developing world, Lakhous experienced this firsthand and knew there were echoes of it throughout the dozens of newly independent countries cobbled into existence by the European powers in the 20th century.

Right after discovering the fiction of Lakhous I also read Douglas Preston and Mario Spezi’s The Monster of Florence. Billed as the authors’ quest to uncover the identity of Italy’s most infamous serial killer I had no idea the 2008 best seller was also a biting expose of Italian society, including its wildly dysfunctional politics and corrupt and capricious legal system. Like I opined before, according to Preston and Spezi “Italy resembles less a modern European democracy and longtime NATO member and more like a fractious banana republic.”

Intrigued by what I’d read, I sought out additional books on Italy. With a half-dozen or so under my belt, I felt (perhaps foolishly) confident enough to concoct a “Be the Expert” post for 2020’s Nonfiction November. More recently, after reading some great things about David Gilmour’s 2011 The Pursuit of Italy: A History of a Land, its Regions and their Peoples I requested my public library purchase an electronic edition for its Overdrive service. After a surprisingly short wait a borrowable copy became available I went to work reading it.

Impressive in scope and depth what distinguishes The Pursuit of Italy from other histories of the peninsular nation is Gilmour’s bold, almost heretical belief Italy’s crowning achievements over the centuries in music, literature, visual arts or even the glories of the Vatican are sole creations of the individual regions that birthed them. All the while, any notion of a unified Italy stretching the length of the peninsula that could lay claim to these accomplishments has never been widely accepted. Even after unification in the 19th century most Italians continued see themselves as Tuscans, Sicilians or Neapolitans and not Italians. Sadly, this weak sense of nationhood has prevented Italy from functioning effectively as modern nation station. Unable to resist fascism (or more recently, the populist authoritarianism of Silvio Berlusconi, it’s more softer form); corruption and organized crime; reduce the huge wealth gap between North and South; challenge the limited, yet enduring popularity of the communist party or reform its dysfunctional political system and bloated bureaucracy Gilmour believes things would have been much better instead of forced unification the flourishing regions of Italy had been allowed to blossom into independent nations of their own.

To begin with, Italy is a victim of geography. Conventional wisdom dictates the Alps are a mighty barrier to invasion but the truth is they’re not. In reality the mountains are little more than picturesque speed bumps posing no obstacle to conquering armies be they Hannibal, the barbarian hordes or Napoleon. (On the other hand, the Apennines which travel the length of the peninsula has effectively divided Italy from East to West.) A peninsula with one of Europe’s longest coastlines has rendered Italy vulnerable to invasion since ancient time. With every invasion came subjugation and settlement, sowing the seeds that made unification all the more difficult.

Though formally unified by the middle of the 19th century a sense of common nationhood remained elusive. Bereft of its Papal States, the Catholic Church refused to recognize the newly proclaimed Kingdom of Italy, thereby undermining fledgling kingdom’s legitimacy. (In stark contract to the role the Catholic Church played promoting national identity in Ireland and Poland.) While operatic greats like Verdi extolled the virtues of a united Italy, operas like his weren’t performed for the rank and file but a wealthy and privileged minority and their counterparts in Vienna and Paris. On the other hand, universal conscription was seen as a way to promote both common nationhood and language among the hoi polloi. Unfortunately, it didn’t take long for recalcitrant conscripts from Sicily and Naples to ditch official Italian (the Florentine dialect of Tuscan) for their native dialects whenever they needed to conceal their conversations from the inquisitive ears of commanding officers.

The chapters covering the 20th century were by far my favorites of the book. Italy’s decision to enter World War I was a poor one. Austria, an ally, made considerable territorial and political concessions towards Italy in hopes the nation would remain neutral. However, contrary to the will of both the parliament and the public the Prime Minister, Foreign Minister Sidney and king opted to instead switch sides and join France, Britain and Russia. Italy attacked its former ally to the North only to suffer a near endless series of crushing defeats at the hands of the Austro-Hungarians and their German allies. After suffering staggering losses in men and materiel the territorial gains awarded to Italy fell far short of expectations. Forced by the victorious allies to accept a “mutilated victory” many in Italy, especially on the right thought the nation needed more assertive and robust leadership, one willing to take the coveted territory by force if needed.

Five years later, these festering sentiments would pave the way for Mussolini and ending in yet another disastrous decision to go to war. Italy was outclassed and outfought from the beginning. Forced to switch sides after invaded by the Allies it was immediately attacked and occupied the Germans. After World War II the impoverished and devastated nation lost both its colonies and king. Eventually, a representative democracy arose from the ashes led by the Christian Democratic Party with the communists and socialists playing second fiddle. In the post-war decades Italian industry surged ahead, leading the world in glassware, high performance race cars and fashion. From New York City to Sydney Italian films packed arthouses, influencing aspiring young directors as far away as the United States. Once a largely rural backwater, by the 1970s Italy’s economy had surpassed that of the United Kingdom.

But by the 1980s cracks began appearing in the edifice. Corruption, an out of control bureaucracy, political violence perpetrated by both the far left and far right, organized crime, and a constant turn-over in the office of president began to take its toll. Less than a decade after Franco’s death Spain’s economy surpassed that of Italy’s. By the 1990s serious rumblings began to emerge in the nation’s wealthy, industrialized North. Led by the Northern League, a separatist movement of sorts began calling for independence. Among its many grievances was the region’s forced subsidization of the poor, lazy, crime-infested South.

Before long a public relations savvy media tycoon and soccer team owner saw an opportunity. Like so many aspiring populists Silvio Berlusconi was able to correctly assess the nation’s mood and play off its frustrations. With a vast television empire at his disposal he was able to co-op and/or out maneuver his rivals and take power. Once there he did everything possible to remain in power. In addition to his own private network, through his appointed toadies he turned the state-sponsored TV network into his own slavish mouthpiece. If his actions broke the law he pressured parliament to pass new ones that suited him. He ignored unfavorable civil and criminal rulings, preferring to run out the clock with endless rounds of appeals. A wealthy man who aligned himself with the working classes, disgruntled conservatives and rich he sought the nation’s highest public office to both satisfy his massive ego and use the levers of power to further enrich himself. Yep, you guessed it. Donald Trump is Silvio Berlusconi 2.0.

Even if Gilmour is a tad long winded at times this is an excellent book. I came away from it with a deeper understanding of Italy’s history, as well as how this incredibly interesting yet broken nation I learned about a decade ago thanks to the writing of Amara Lakhous, Douglas Preston and Mario Spezi came to be. Please consider The Pursuit of Italy: A History of a Land, its Regions and their Peoples highly recommended.