14 July 2011

At the Speed of FedEx

It’s a tiresome truism – the virtual world makes the other world, the so-called “real” world real small, really fast. In the virtually real world I talk to my Italian teacher in real time on my real computer, even though she lives in Istanbul within sight of the Bosporus, and I live near the sea at the western edge of California.

Electrons have carried us closer. Out in the world of tangible things, things with weight, that must be moved around by hand, conveyor belt, airplane, truck, and feet – in the world of wine, flowers and dirty sinks – things here also are changing quickly.

This afternoon the FedEx driver showed up in our driveway with a small package. Inside was a book I ordered online from Italy two days ago. Two days ago! It was shipped from Via Verde 8 in the small town of Settala, near Milan, Italy on July 12. It walked down my driveway at 1 pm on the afternoon of July 14. These things can happen, even in the Real World.

I would have ordered this book from my local independently owned bookstore if they dealt in books in the Italian language, published in Italy, but they don’t. I hope the Gods of Shopping Local forgive my electronic order, but don’t the Gods want us to be happy? In my personally made-up religion they do.

By the way, the book looks fascinating, and when and if it’s translated into English I will recommend it to you. It’s titled Canale Mussolini or “The Mussolini Canal” and it’s a novel by Antonio Pennacchi. He recounts the story of the fictional Peruzzi family, from the end of the Great War to the Second World War, their struggles to survive in those crazy years.

The book so far reads like a fable told around a mythic fire, and indeed there are references back to the ancient Greeks (the main character is named Pericles). What makes this novel important to Italians is the way the story snakes through the convoluted track of recent Italian history. With the compelling honesty of a great novelist, Pennacchi demonstrates how local families get caught up in the ‘isms’ of their day. He explores the very idea of  fascism and questions the meaning of collaboration. Who, if anyone, can behave honorably in such strange and harrowing circumstances?

Canale Mussolini won the Strega Prize in 2010, awarded annually since 1947 to the best novel of the year in Italy, judged by a jury of 400 literati including former winners of the competition. Pennacchi came to writing late in life, after a workingman’s career and as a political organizer. Each of his prior novels won at least one major literary prize after a great number of early rejections.

About this novel, he writes, “Beautiful or ugly as it may be, this is the book that I was born to write. Since childhood I have always known I would have to capture this tale – the stories in fact are not the invention of the author, but seized out of the air – to tell the tale before it vanished. Nothing else. Only this book.”

By the way, I purchased the novel from ibs.it, who call themselves The Internet Bookshop, the best source I’ve found for books in Italian other than visiting the Italian Bookstore in London, or traveling to Italy itself.

The 2007 film My Brother is an Only Child is based on Pennacchi’s novel Il Fasciocomunista. (The Fascist-Communist).

Returning to books written in English, it turns out that a book I mentioned dipping into last week is a novel you might want to read at the beach, say, while you’re reclining in the shade on a self-made puddle of sun screen, slippery cold drink to hand. The Singer’s Gun by Emily St. John Mandel is a fine read, worth your time. The story unfolds in Brooklyn, in downtown Manhattan and on the island of Ischia in the Bay of Naples.

On the first page Alexandra Broden, investigator for the State Department, Diplomatic Security Service Division, is listening to a ten-second intercepted phone call:

“The recording began with a click: the sound of a woman picking up her telephone, which had been tapped the day before the call came in. A man’s voice: It’s done. There is a sound on the tape here – the woman’s sharp intake of breath – but all she says in reply is Thank you. We’ll speak again soon. He disconnects and she hangs up three seconds later.”

Typical thriller, right? Maybe, maybe not. Alexandra Broden pretty much disappears from The Singer’s Gun until the final chapter. In the pages between there is some funny stuff – a twice-canceled engagement superimposed on a strangely disconnected romantic relationship, some travel adventures, and some danger, and some erotically strange doings in a Manhattan office building, and, well, pop open another one and get reading.

You will be entertained and beyond that, you may learn a few things you didn’t know about human nature under stress.


Canale Mussolini by Antonio Pennacchi. Mondadori (publisher website) paperback 14 Euro. ISBN 9788866210085.

Antonio Pennacchi has a Facebook page and a personal home page... both in Italian, easy to translate using Google Translate or similar services.

The Italian “Internet Bookshop”

The Singer’s Gun by Emily St. John Mandel. Unbridled Books paperback $14.95. ISBN 9781609530426. The author’s home page.

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