Book Report: New book looks at good and bad of Italy

My wife and I love to travel to Italy. We love the landscape, the architecture, the food and the people.  We’ve just completed our eighth trip to Italy where we stayed at the Tuscan estate of our longtime acquaintances, Caterina and Aurelio Pellegrini.

I brought along a book to read in the cemetery adjacent to our quarters in a 14th century convent.

The book was a real eye opener called “Good Italy, Bad Italy,” by Bill Emmott (Yale University Press, no price).

Emmott points out that all is not perfect in that country that emerged from World War II into a new found prosperity that held promise, but is now teetering on the edge of bankruptcy as you might have noticed in the day’s headlines.  We know what’s good about Italy but what’s bad?

Lots of things.  Political scandal, for instance, highlighted by the outrageous behavior of its former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi.

Backward universities. What a tragedy that is when one considers the country boasts some of the oldest universities in Europe. Today, at formerly great schools like the University of Bologna get most of their foreign students from Albania.

And then there’s the matter of the economy.  Emmott places its stagnation squarely at the feet of the country’s trade unions and the mafia.

Several years ago, I asked an Italian if the government ever planned to build a bridge from the mainland to Messina in Sicily, a very short distance that now requires tourist to take an ungainly car ferry. She shrugged her shoulders and said, “It all depends on what the mafia wants to do [suggesting that the mafia owns the car ferries].”

As a former union member, I don’t like to say bad things about such organizations, but Emmott’s examples of the Italian versions are very convincing.

In the south 30 percent of Fiat’s Italian production workers are involved in unscheduled stoppages every day.

Despite these problems, Emmott has hope for Italy in the new technocratic government of Mario Monti and new developments at smaller universities that aren’t overburdened with entrenched faculty, where a new era of cooperation with industry and business has seen modest successes.

Let’s hope things go well, lest that lovely peninsula revert to the days when there was no Italy, not so long ago, before the days of the 19th century when the country was organized.

Editor’s note: Dave Wood is a former book review editor of the Minneapolis Star Tribune. Phone him at 715-426-9554.

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