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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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: 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: The Divide by Matt Taibbi

If a book leaves me angry and depressed, it usually means there’s something wrong with the it. But in the case of Matt Taibbi’s The Divide: American Injustice in the Age of the Wealth Gap that’s not the case. Taibbi did a fine job researching, writing and making a compelling if not convincing case that we have two seperate tracks comprising the criminal justice system. There’s one for the rich and powerful and one for the poor and marginalized. It’s just after reading his book and seeing the depth and scope of the problem you might find yourself feeling a bit sick. And if you’re a decent and caring person that’s probably how you should feel.

In looking at the rapidly enlarging gap between America’s rich and poor, Taibbi took a novel approach. Even as more and more Americans slide into poverty, the nation’s crime rate is the lowest its been in decades. Yet, strangely our prisons are full. On the other hand, it’s been over 10 years since the greedy fat cats of AIG, Lehman Brothers, Countrywide Financial and Washington Mutual (to name only a few) committed countless high crimes and misdemeanors and triggered a world-wide recession that toppled governments, wiped out 40 per cent of the world’s wealth and threw millions out of work. And not a single one of those fraudsters spent a day in jail.

According to Taibbi, thanks to years of institutionalized prejudices and overaggressive policing practices vulnerable groups like the working poor, single parents, people of color and undocumented immigrants face countless uphill battles when arrested, detained, or applying for public assistance. Even harmless activies such as commuting to and from work or standing on a street corner can result in arrest or a trip to an ICE detention facitilty. But if you’re a high-level coporate executive accused of gross financial crimes your high powered legal team cuts a deal with the feds, your company pays a fine and you walk away scott free.

The Divide makes a worthy follow-up to Dark Money, The New Jim Crow and Weapons of Math Destruction. It’ll piss you off. But that’s what it’s supposed to do.

20 Books of Summer: Richistan by Robert Frank

I’ve said before and I’ll say it again, even though I live in a rural area, I’m blessed by having not one, not two, but three surprisingly good public libraries all within a short drive. Like any good library, they’ve exposed me to books I’d might never have discovered had I not spent many a Saturday morning wandering about their shelves. One such book is Robert Frank’s Richistan: A Journey Through the American Wealth Boom and the Lives of the New Rich. Every weekend for close to two years I’d see Frank’s 2007 book sitting on the shelf before a few weeks ago I finally decided to borrow it. I leisurely made my way through Richistan and upon finishing it concluded on one hand it’s one of those books that won’t make my year-end best list. But on the other hand, it’s one of those decently written, well researched pieces of investigative nonfiction that delivers the goods by serving up a detailed and intimate look at America’s superrich.

These are are not your grandfather’s superrich. Instead of an endless parade of robber barons and blue blood aristocrats in Richistan introduces us a mulitude of highly wealthy indivuals, most of them newly minted. According to Frank, as the world becomes more globalized it creates new oppportunities for financiers, hedge fund managers and the like to create unprecendented wealth. (Governmant deregulation, for good or for bad, both at home and abroad also helps.) Technologically speaking, those who are clever and lucky enough to build a better mouse trap in the Internet driven, high tech dominated world can profit handsomely through not only their inventions, but also if they’re able to start a company, orchestrate an IPO and then at the end sell out to the highest bidder.  As a result, the world has never seen so many recently created superrich.

And in many ways it’s changing America. Thanks to the exploding population of superrich there’s a huge demand for household staff to not just cook and serve meals but also pay bills, coordinate family outings and oversee support personnel like gardeners, maintenance people and tutors. Demand is so great there’s now a “butler school” in Denver run by a former military officer who spent years as a personal aid to high ranking Army generals. There’s also support groups modeled after the 12 step variety where the anxious wealthy can come together and commiserate about ungrateful children, underperforming finacial ventures and mid-life crises. For the young adults of the superwealthy there’s even seminars to help them handle everything from freeloading “friends” to prenuptial agreements.

Just as I mentioned at the onset, these aren’t your grandfather’s fat cat idle rich. Many are relatively young and not by any stretch politically conservative. Over a decade ago, four of them in Colorado set out to dethrown the state’s ruling Republican party and were ulitmately successful after a cascade of electoral victories.  Many are big Democratic Pary doners and a number are philanthropically active, giving generously in hopes of fighting poverty and disease throughout the world.

Again, this book won’t make my year-end best list. Heck, it probably won’t even earn an honorable mention. But I can say without reservation it’s a decent book. And that my friends is always a good thing.

20 Books of Summer: War on Peace by Ronan Farrow

When chosing a book to read I usually take backcover praise with a grain of salt. But when Ian Bremmer says it’s a “must-read” I take notice. That’s all it took for me to grab a copy of Ronan Farrow 2018 insider’s look at the State Department War on Peace: The End of Diplomacy and the Decline of American Influence when I spotted a copy at the public library.

Over the course of his career, Farrow has worn at least two hats, one as a State Department Iawyer and the other as an investigative journalist. Thanks to the author’s diverse background War on Peace could be seen as two books in one. As a former State Department official Farrow recalls the time he spent at the agency, much of it working for veteran diplomat Richard Holbrooke. (Through Farrow’s eyes anyway, the late Holbrooke comes off as an overly driven figure so eccentric I suspect he resided somewhere on the Autism spectrum.) Utilizing his talents as an investigative journalist allowed Farrow to serve up a no-holds barred look at the messy world of international diplomacy. To pull off this feat he interviewed every living former State Department head. Farrow must have some serious street cred becuase he’s able to sit down with Kissinger, Albright, Clinton, Kerry and Tillerson.

Overall, War on Peace is pretty good. I especially enjoyed what Farrow had to say about Afghanistan, Pakistan and those countries’ role in the “War on Terror.” (Regarding Pakistan’s level of dedication in fighting al-Queda and the Taliban, let’s just say it’s no coincidence Osama bin Laden lived comfortably for years in a fortified compound a stone’s throw away from the nation’s top military academy.) The behind the scenes look at the Iranian nuclear deal was another favorite of mine. Lastly, while it angered and depressed me, Farrow’s depiction of the State Department being gutted by the Trump administration made for excellent reading.

2018 European Reading Challenge Wrap-Up

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, I’m a huge fan of Rose City Reader’s European Reading Challenge. Over the years she’s encouraged us to read as many books as possible that are set in, or about different European countries or by different European authors. With one country per book and each book by a different author, over the course of the year participants find ourselves moving from book to book across Europe, like some post-modern armchair version of a Bella Époque grand tour of the Continent.

Last year was a pretty good year for me since I read and reviewed 18 books. Unfortunately, this year I didn’t do as well with only 15. Just like in past years, a variety of countries are represented, ranging from large counties like Russia and Germany, but also smaller ones like Croatia, Lithuania and even the micro-state of Vatican City. Unlike last year, this year’s selection is almost exclusively nonfiction with only The Hired Man, The Lady and the Unicorn and The Little Book being works of fiction. As for the nonfiction, a lion’s share of the books deal with World War II and the Holocaust or the Cold War or both. Lastly, The Little Book made my year-end Favorite Fiction list while The Book Smugglers and God’s Secretaries made the Favorite Nonfiction one. Overall, from top to bottom it’s a great assortment of quality books.

  1. The Book Smugglers: Partisans, Poets, and the Race to Save Jewish Treasures from the Nazis by David E. Fishman (Lithuania)
  2. The Dark Heart of Italy: An Incisive Portrait of Europe’s Most Beautiful, Most Disconcerting Country by Tobias Jones (Italy)
  3. The Last Palace: Europe’s Turbulent Century in Five Lives and One Legendary House by Norman Eisen (Czech Republic)
  4. Shepherd of Mankind: A Biography of Pope Paul VI by William E. Barrett (Vatican City)
  5. The Hired Man by Aminatta Forna (Croatia)
  6. In the Darkroom by Susan Fuladi (Hungary)
  7. The Man with the Poison Gun: A Cold War Spy Story by Serhii Plokhy (Ukraine)
  8. The Lady and the Unicorn by Tracy Chevalier (Belgium)
  9. The Bielski Brothers: The True Story of Three Men Who Defied the Nazis, Saved 1,200 Jews and Built a Village in the Forest by Peter Duffy (Belarus)
  10. God’s Secretaries: The Making of the King James Bible by Adam Nicolson (United Kingdom)
  11. The Nazi Officer’s Wife: How One Jewish Woman Survived the Holocaust by Edith Hahn Beer (Germany)
  12. The Retreat: Hitler’s First Defeat by Michael Jones (Russia)
  13. The Little Book by Selden Edwards (Austria)
  14. The Alps: A Human History from Hannibal to Heidi and Beyond by Stephen O’ Shea (Switzerland)
  15. A Secret Life: The Polish Colonel, His Covert Mission, And The Price He Paid To Save His Country by Benjamin Weiser (Poland)

Like I said at the start, I’m a huge fan of this challenge and encourage all you book bloggers to sign up. Trust me, you won’t be disappointed.