Wednesday, 28 March 2012

Christopher Hibbert, "Benito Mussolini" (1962, rev. 1972)

The sub-title for this classic is "The Rise and Fall of Il Duce."

Hibbert's book appears to be one of those great British cheap paperback reprints about facets of the Second World War that seem to have been produced in great scads during the 1970s.

I don't know nearly enough about Mussolini, other than that he is presented as the somewhat buffoonish Italian parallel to Hitler. Of course, he came to power before Hitler, and was really the leading Fascist politician (hence the name for the ideology that derives from an classic Roman reference) before Hitler began to pursue his search for German lebensraum.

I was somewhat surprised to learn of his early socialist ideological roots, ideas that to some degree stayed with him even to his death. Much like Hitler, however, the allure of power spoke loudly to Mussolini, leading him to increasingly radical solutions where political success to priority over other values. Upon rising to power, Mussolini's desire for grandeur and power led him into a series of ill-advised foreign military adventures: against Egypt, Albania, France, and Greece. The unequivocal disasters that these invasions were compelled Mussolini to repeatedly seek out the assistance of Nazi Germany, diminishing Mussolini's capacity to debate, question, or redirect Hitler's political visions for Europe and the Mediterranean.

Hibbert's book, particularly in its last third, looks at Mussolini from a far more personal perspective than political. This makes sense given that he fell from grace - was rescued by the Nazis and returned to power as the head of the puppet Salo Italian government - and then captured again, and killed with his mistress.

Lauren Kirshner, "Where We Have To Go" (2011)

Kirshner's book is one of the rare forays I've made into fiction in the last year. I must admit, at the outset, that I know Lauren, I know her partner, I've hung out in her apartment and played with her cats. So... I won't offer much of a critical assessment, in large part because I feel ill-equipped to comment on the quality of fiction writing outside of my own gut response to it.

Essentially, the book tells the story of a teenage girl, Lucy Bloom, who lives in Toronto with her fractious parents (for at least part of the story). I couldn't help but wonder, given the 'girl coming of age-type narrative, whether the protagonist's name was a nod to Judy Blume, author of 'preteen girl-books' such as Are You There God, It's Me, Margaret. I've never read Blume's books, so I could be far off the mark here.

As someone who grew up male, in a rural environment, it's intriguing to think about how the city where I live now might be seen by a teenage girl living twenty-five years ago. By that time I was coming here as a wide-eyed teenager, thrilled at the glass and steel, second-hand record stores, and roti shops.

The most troubling aspect of the book was the handling of time. The narrative seemed to move in fits and starts, leaping over periods with little warning, then dwelling for what seemed inordinate periods on stories that did not seem to be resolved. Perhaps this is part of the post-modern turn in fiction that I'm simply missing. As an infrequent fiction reader, I found it distracting.

The German edition cover is way cool.

Saturday, 17 March 2012

Philip Roth, "Our Gang" (1971)

Roth has written very, very thinly veiled political satire. His novel focuses on US President Tricky Dixon, who has been preceded by Lyin' B. Johnson, and John F. Charisma. The first few chapters outline 'laugh-out-loud' policy discussions regarding the need for, and benefits of, extending voting rights to yet-to-be born children. An unforeseen consequence of the President's policy decision is a violent riot by Boy Scouts who have taken offence at Dixon's advocacy of sex (how else could babies be conceived?). Faced with a difficult decision, Tricky's advisors debate the best solution for the riot, and decide upon sending in the military, and shipping off the Scouts to a camp in Arizona. In the end, Tricky is assassinated, but bounces back to campaign in hell for the position of Devil.

The book started off with such promise, but forty years after the fact, with Nixon dead, and with moral and ethical errors by politicians seeming to be the norm rather than the exception, the joke got stale before it hardly began.

This 1971 review captures the book well, although it is a bit more effusive than I would have been:

This review will give you a fairly good plot summary, in case you don't want to read the book yourself: