Separati in Patria (Seperated within the same Country) by Giovanni Floris

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Giovanni Floris, a journalist by trade, hosts one of the best weekly programs on Italian television. The format of BallarĂ² is just varied enough not to bore the viewer. The majority of the transmission is centered around five or six guests, made up mostly of politicians but also professors, business leaders, and journalists arguing with each other in typical Italian fashion. It is Floris' role to weave together the questions, responses and debates into something cohesive. He does a fine job. There are interludes in the arguing in the form of 5-10 minute investigative journalism pieces put together from various locations in Italy.

Seeing how Floris often has little occasion to state his own opinions, I was curious to read his recently published book on one of the most significant issues affecting Italy, the enormous economic differences between the north and south of the country. The subject is of personal interest to me for several reasons, one being that a large part of my undergraduate thesis was dedicated to the Southern Italy's economic difficulties. And like most things in Italy, it is not an easy matter to unwind due to the economic, sociological and historic factors all at play. The largest failure of Floris' book is that he touches on each of these fields but fails to sufficiently address any of them.

The first part of the book looks at the socioeconomic statistical differences between northern and central Italy compared to the South. For starters, removing Southern Italy, the GDP per capita of the country would be higher than Germany, UK, France or Spain. The vast majority of business leaders and politicians at the national level come from the North. Residents in the North read more books than those South and supposedly speak more Italian and less local dialect - though I missed any figures supporting this claim. It appeared to me that his main thesis was built on the belief that the differences between the regions of Italy are strictly economic and less cultural as many people are likely to believe.

One example which proved to be most interesting in supporting his central thesis was the favorable benefits five autonomous regions - regione a statuto speciale (Sicilia, Sardegna, Valle d'Aosta, Trentino-Alto Adige and Friuli-Venezia Giulia) received, i.e. money. While the island regions of Sicilia and Sardegna are part of the south, the remaining three are located in the north. These three regions receive more money from the state than they delve out in taxes. Other northern regions instead are left fitting the bill, receiving or spending much less than what they generate in tax revenues and seeing enormous amounts of capital flow south as well to these smaller, northern regions. It was not clear to me Floris' position on the matter. Certainly their are cultural idiosyncrasies in these special regions, for example the majority of residents in Trentino-Alto Adige speak German as their mother tongue. However, Italy in itself is made up of very local cultural entities. Is Floris claiming that these regions play up the cultural distinctiveness in order to protect the economic benefits they receive? Though the example was a fascinating one, I missed his message.

Another point Floris touches on, though briefly, is that the northern regions are in a geographically favorable position as they are much closer to other, rich, European markets. Though Floris did not mention it, it is important to see how on the other hand many parts of Southern Italy are closer in distance to countries such as Croatia, Tunisia, Albania, and Libya - not exactly enormous consumers of foreign goods and services - than they are to Milan.

What was lacking was a discussion on more of the geographic and climatic aspects present that greatly favor the north. If only Floris had seen my thesis paper! The land in the north is much more fertile compared to the south. Anyone who has seen The Passion of Christ (filmed in Matera) or remembers the scenes of a young Al Pacino in The Godfather walking through the arid country side, can recognize it to be a difficult place to grow stuff. Also, it is simply more difficult to work in hot weather.

These points are not meant to serve as excuses for southern Italy's inability to improve its condition. All indicators for me see the situation deteriorating. The infrastructure is far below average European levels. Investing in the region is risky (and costly) which makes the decision to put a new factory in Croatia as opposed to Puglia a more sensible decision. This same argument also loosely applies to tourism, an area which should be one of the foundations of the the southern Italian economy. However, without a clearly defined strategy for this industry most parts of the south are left in a dangerous middle position. Unable to compete on cost with other sunny destinations such as Egypt or Turkey and lacking the infrastructure to support a more high class type of tourist, an area with incredible food, beaches and people sees the majority of tourism from other European countries go elsewhere.

As the length of this post continues to grow, it becomes apparent the difficulty an author has when writing about such a broad subject. Focus too much on one field and you find yourself in a silo ignoring other equally important factors. Attempt to touch on all of them and leave the reader with more questions than answers as interesting arguments are raised only to be quickly hurried through to get at the long list yet to be addressed. Floris chose the second approach and was not successful in putting together a well-structured and well-argued book.


Couples by John Updike

Monday, July 13, 2009

The characters in Couples sure do drink a lot - cocktails, often gin based. Though gin came from the UK, I consider it to be the red, white and blue of spirits. Even though the main focus of this wonderful novel centered on adultery, I was more intrigued by the role alcohol played in American life from post World War II up until today.

I have the impression so much of the dionystic fury during the booming post-war decades was fueled by booze: the 5 pm cocktail on the porch, the late summer neighborhood BBQ kicked off with martinis , or the boat drinks while idling on some vessel in the harbor. The cocktail in se represents this period of iconic bliss which is not as prevalent now as it was before. Though the consumptions of spirits is certainly something better done without, I do see a small reflection of our society in the splinters of ice floating atop of stub glass.

was written in 1968, long before I was even born. Yet, it still brought back memories of my own childhood spent in the late summer months on the East Coast.

The story is based on a series of families living in a small community south of Boston. These young, educated couples spend incredible amounts of time entertaining each other with dinner, drinking, and pick-up basketball games that then lead into beers then dinner and more drinking. The stresses of long commutes, grueling travel schedules, or duel working parents, did not seem to be too relevant in these carefree times. Instead, the majority of the characters mental resources were dedicated to plotting their next extramarital affair. The detail and description of these sexual encounters is risque at times, hilarious at others.

The setting in the small town above the long beaches of the Atlantic accompanied my own sand filled vacation very nicely.


Cathedral by Raymond Carver

Sunday, July 12, 2009

The stories in Cathedral are longer compared to those in the previous two collections. I am not the first to say it, but after having read through a series of Carver's works, one can see the development he made as a writer. There were many Carver readers who saw signs in Cathedral of something larger than a short story ready to come out if we had not lost this great American writer at such an early age.

After having read through several dozen stories, I was eager to settle down with a more substantial piece of literature. John Updike's Couples proved to be exactly the type of novel which I was in need of.


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