December 24, 2016

It Can’t Happen Here — Sinclair Lewis

Posted in Uncategorized tagged , , , , , , , , , at 10:46 pm by chuckredman

“Aw, shoot, Dad—and you too, Julian, you young paranoiac—you’re monomaniacs! Dictatorship? Better come into the office and let me examine your heads! Why, America’s the only free nation on earth. Besides! Country’s too big for a revolution. No, no! Couldn’t happen here!”

I just read the most amazing book I’ve read since 1984 (the book, not the year). Possibly the most amazing since 1973 (the year, not the book). Actually, Sinclair Lewis’s novel It Can’t Happen Here, which was published in 1935, predated 1984 (the book, not the year) by fourteen years. Which means that Lewis did not have the benefit of hindsight when he recognized what too few people seemed to recognize around the middle of the Great Depression. Sinclair Lewis saw what was happening in Europe. He also heard frighteningly similar rumblings in this country. His book, written half a decade before the true magnitude of European fascism could be witnessed and understood, was a chillingly accurate forecast.

So did Lewis also predict what we in the U.S. have just witnessed and are struggling to understand: the election as President of a populist demagogue, in the mold of Senator Buzz Windrip in the novel? Well, Lewis’s protagonist, liberal journalist Doremus Jessup, listens only half-concerned to the national radio broadcast of the nominating convention, but the similarity is striking:

. . . every delegate knew that Mr. Roosevelt and Miss Perkins were far too lacking in circus tinsel and general clownishness to succeed at this critical hour of the nation’s hysteria, when the electorate wanted a ringmaster-revolutionist like Senator Windrip.

Though Lewis begins his book in satirical tone, we’re not too many chapters in before we realize, along with Doremus, that this story—the rise of a political movement based on anger, hate and false rhetoric—is no joke. It is nearly, in fact, as powerful and sobering as Orwell’s 1984. Here is how Doremus saw Senator/President Windrip’s quasi-official partisans, the “Minute Men”, or “M.M.”, which protected Windrip’s surging popularity by terrorizing the general population and appealing to its basest impulses:

They had the Jews and the Negroes to look down on, more and more. The M.M.’s saw to that. Every man is a king so long as he has someone to look down on. . . . Their mutter became louder, less human, more like the snap of burning rafters. Their glances joined in one. He was, frankly, scared.

Could Lewis have had the Nazi SS in mind? Seems likely.

I just realized that, for better or for worse, many of my favorite books are about the oppression of large segments of society by vindictive, self-righteous governments or ruling classes. A Tale of Two Cities, The Grapes of Wrath, In Dubious Battle, Mother, Doctor Zhivago, Homage To Catalonia, Fahrenheit 451, and the two brave books discussed above. You should probably read these books, all of these books, while they’re still on our shelves. Before they start hurling them into big piles in our city squares and torching them. Which is what happened to Doremus Jessup’s personal collection of books. Which could happen here.

 

September 6, 2016

Follow-up to preceding post re: The Help

Posted in Uncategorized tagged , , , , , , , at 7:25 pm by chuckredman

Kathryn Stockett’s The Help seems to provoke thought by those who read the book and even those who don’t. On my bus ride home tonight, about the time we got to Ventura County, the fellow sitting behind me leaned forward and apologized if his brief phone call had bothered me. It hadn’t. I’d apparently been engrossed in the book. I’m almost finished. We talked about the book and the movie, and he was very familiar with both, despite having personally perused neither. “I don’t wanna read anything about those times. I lived through it, that was enough.”

He’d grown up in Memphis, Tennessee and, being about the color of Minny in The Help, had experienced Jim Crow first hand. “I read Tom Clancy,” he told me. He loves the action and geopolitical intrigue.

I hinted at the irony that he could read about war and the world on the brink of destruction but not about the plight of maids in 1960’s Jackson, Mississippi. He shrugged, and I assured him that I understand completely.

August 24, 2016

Book, film, life

Posted in Uncategorized tagged , , , , , , , , , at 9:21 pm by chuckredman

Last week at the Los Angeles Central Library, as I entered the Literature department I saw that their monthly display was books that had been adapted for film. Traditionally I don’t like to read the book if I’ve already seen the movie, but lately I’ve changed. I’ve seen too many films based on books well worth reading but that haven’t been read by me. Kathryn Stockett’s The Help is one of those that has been in my mind, and there it was on the display shelf. A minute later there was an empty spot in that display.

I’m more than halfway now and it didn’t take many chapters for the book to garner a solid place on my short list of best American novels of the past 25 years. What a remarkable book, on a human level and societal level. It’s as funny as it is thematically groundbreaking. Stockett blends her fictional characters so seamlessly with the historical events of that time and place, and the result is chilling. Besides its insights into Southern society and race relations, the novel is worth the read simply for its exploration of family relationships and child development.

I’m spending this week at a big suburban house. The owner is at work all day and I’m reading The Help. It’s the day that the cleaning lady comes. She’s a petite Salvadorean woman who cleans the huge upstairs while I read downstairs. She seems very sweet and refined. Her English is limited. When she comes down to do the kitchen and family room, I evacuate to the large backyard where the waterfall splashes into the pool. I catch glimpses of her mopping the hardwood kitchen floor. My mind is wandering and I’m stalled on a page of dialogue between Aibileen and Skeeter. I don’t feel much like petting the little dog of the house while she cleans because she might see and taste the irony.

May 30, 2016

The difference between money and Gold

Posted in Uncategorized tagged , , , , , , , , , at 7:58 pm by chuckredman

“No one can go through the shame and humiliation of the job-hunt without being marked for life. I hated my first experience at it, and have hated every other since. There can be no freedom in the world while men must beg for jobs.”

Perhaps it’s a novel in the very strictest technical sense, but you will find Jews Without Money, by Mike Gold (published 1930), to be pure memoir. And that is fine, because the book is a valuable and unusual piece of memoir that everyone really ought to read, regardless of your religion or ethnic background. The book is not about a particular race or religion. It is about poverty, and all the various immigrant groups that were squeezed onto New York’s Lower East Side shared equally in that tale of misery. In fact, Gold’s overriding philosophy throughout his life as a socialist/Marxist journalist was simply that poverty is the root of all evil, and that its scars never heal. The corollary proven by his book was that money is the root of all poverty. (**My blog entries for April 6, 2014 and January 11, 2015 discuss other fine works of fiction dramatizing the plight of the American working class in the early 1900’s.)

Besides the gritty, unadorned frankness with which Gold told the story of his childhood, all its squalor and heartbreak, there is also artistic value to the book. Gold’s writing style is not just journalistic narrative. He puts things so succinctly and stunningly that his book reminds me more of Walt Whitman than any writer of prose from Gold’s era. Alfred Kazin’s introduction to Jews Without Money admires the book and its effective style greatly, but takes a dim view of Gold’s native intellect, reluctantly calling the author “not very bright”. I disagree: it takes a special type of genius to write something so powerful with such spare language. I think the book was a pioneering achievement, as a piece of history and a literary groundbreaker.

June 15, 2015

Small leaps of fate

Posted in Uncategorized tagged , , , , , , at 7:27 pm by chuckredman

Fact #1: My favorite piece of music in the whole world has always been, and I suspect always will be, Polovtsian Dances by Alexander Borodin.

Fact #2: I’ve been wanting to read Joseph Heller’s “other” novel, Something Happened, for quite a while. I’ve also been wanting to read some of Henry James’s shorter works, like Daisy Miller, etc. 

Last night we were walking past a thrift store and noticed large stacks of books for sale in the front aisle, something I hadn’t noticed before in that store. We browsed, and there were only a few books of fiction, most were art books. Among the few items of fiction were: Something Happened, by Joseph Heller, and a collection of short works by Henry James, including Daisy Miller. I bought them both, fifty cents each.

Today we got in the car, I turned on the radio, and the announcer was just beginning his introduction of Borodin’s Polovtsian Dances, and we were able to enjoy the full recording as we drove across town. 

I don’t think I really believe in fate, in a mystical sense, but oftentimes there it is, in living color, too actual and improbable to ignore. How otherwise do we explain these things?

Maybe, before the day is out, I should buy a lottery ticket.

February 22, 2015

Stephen Crane’s legacy

Posted in Uncategorized tagged , , , , , at 6:08 pm by chuckredman

“Stop that, Jim, d’yeh hear? Leave yer sister alone on the street. It’s like I can never beat any sense into yer damned wooden head.”

That short passage from Stephen Crane’s story Maggie, a Girl of the Streets may seem trivial, at first glance. But after reading Maggie, that bit of banal dialogue proved to be a perfect window into the icy irony and social criticism that Crane put into that classic story, and into his body of work as a whole. There is no question that Crane broke new literary ground in two important ways, at least if we consider this side of the Atlantic.

His prose, in the words of Hamlin Garland, was “astonishing”. He wrote in a style more modern and, I think, more poetic, than any earlier or contemporary American prose writer. He almost certainly inspired the next generation or two of story writers, and they were an innovative bunch indeed.

The other quality that Crane pioneered was the gritty realism of his settings and subjects. He told it like it was, long before that expression became a cliché. He had the most amazing ear for vernacular speech. Add to that a sharp understanding of human nature. The characters and their dialogue are so lifelike that one can’t help but enter their world and identify with their problems.

Despite illness and death at 28, Crane left us a sizable collection of novels and stories. We all read The Red Badge of Courage in high school. I remember nothing about it, sadly, and did not read other Stephen Crane works until now. That is my loss. Besides Maggie, I have now read many of his collected short stories. The Monster was powerful and ahead of its time in social consciousness, and The Open Boat was impossible to put down. In a very few short but prolific years, Stephen Crane made himself into one of the best American writers, of any era.

 

January 25, 2015

Reading Upton Sinclair

Posted in Uncategorized tagged , , , , , , , , , at 8:47 pm by chuckredman

It’s technically considered fiction, but it’s really more a biography or a history. It doesn’t matter. Whatever you call it, it’s pretty darn magnificent. It’s Upton Sinclair’s book The Flivver King (1937), and, like his more renowned book The Jungle, it almost single-handedly reformed an American industry. *[See my previous post for more recommended reading on the subject of capitalist exploitation of labor.]

The so-called Flivver King was Henry Ford, and Sinclair depicts in substantial detail the life and times of that titan of industry, as well as two generations of a fictional family that worked for him. While I knew that Henry Ford was a powerful industrialist with a reputation for conservative politics and narrow-mindedness, I had no idea of the extent of all those features. Neither, apparently, did the American public during Ford’s lifetime, at least until Sinclair’s book appeared. When it was published, it helped to make the United Auto Workers a viable union, and other industries and unions followed suit. Can you imagine how many peoples’ lives have been drastically improved by this one small book?

Now, you might think such a book would make for less-than-scintillating reading. But in fact the book is enthralling, even chilling, and Sinclair’s subtle brand of irony spices it beautifully. I read The Jungle in my sophomore year of college, and never picked up another book by Upton Sinclair until now. Shame on me!

January 11, 2015

A World to Win

Posted in Uncategorized tagged , , , , , , , , , at 8:42 pm by chuckredman

My blog entry for April 6, 2014 (scroll down a few months) discusses three top-notch works of fiction dramatizing the plight of the American working class in the early 1900’s. I have just finished a fourth, which deserves equal credit for a powerful portrayal of the exploitation of industrial workers from a Marxist perspective. There is no doubt in my mind that A World to Win, by Jack Conroy (published 1935), is one of the best books I’ve read in a decade, and one of the great novels of his era. I can’t judge Conroy’s body of work because I had never heard of him before I came across A World to Win in the library. The book had been out of print for several decades, but recently republished by the Univ. of Illinois Press’ series called The Radical Novel Reconsidered.

Conroy’s novel is the story of two brothers who grow apart as post-World War I America goes through expansion of industrialization, Prohibition, the Great Depression, and the rise of world fascism. Each brother, in his own way, discovers firsthand the unremitting hardships endured by blue collar workers and the hopelessness which clouds the future of an entire class. Conroy’s characters and their dialogue are as real and colorful as if we were walking those picket lines ourselves. There is little to distinguish A World to Win from the best of Steinbeck. Steinbeck’s prose may have a sharper, more naturalistic edge to it, but Conroy has an earthy Zolaesque frankness in which no subject is taboo, and the sordid details of these humble lives sit side by side with the mundane.

One of the most brilliant devices of this novel is role reversal, and Conroy skillfully utilizes that device not once, but twice, between the two Hurley brothers. The dynamic sibling relationship between these two strong characters is an unforgettable metaphor for the sort of crisscrossing journeys that workers and intellectuals made during some terrible and tormented periods of our history. These journeys, this history, deserve to be made more familiar to the generations of today, and A World to Win deserves to be read and appreciated as a key exponent of this critical process of familiarization.

June 22, 2014

Frank Norris’s Octopus

Posted in Uncategorized tagged , , , , , , , at 3:03 pm by chuckredman

I’ve just finished one of the notable novels about the American West, The Octopus by Frank Norris. Norris, also a talented short story writer, finished the book around the age of thirty and, sadly, only survived the book’s 1901 publication by a year or two. Even so, I believe he proved himself one of the great novelists of his era. In its scope and Naturalism, The Octopus clearly paved the way for later generations of Western writers, like Steinbeck in The Grapes of Wrath, or Wallace Stegner in The Big Rock Candy Mountain.

The Octopus is a fictionalized saga of the conflict between the wheat farmers and the railroad monopoly that raged in California’s San Joaquin Valley in the two decades preceding the book’s publication. Although some critics may be right in finding Norris’s style occasionally too flowery and repetitive, those flaws did not spoil for me the superb storyline and character development. Those wheat farmers and their families became so real and important to me. Much of Norris’s prose is stunning and, though certainly less lyrical than Dickens or Eliot, I believe he may possess as great a command of the English language as any writer in any era – including a fair number of words I had never seen before in my life.

So, if you enjoy reading about the West, right versus might, progressive politics, and even a bit of romance thrown in, The Octopus would be high on my list of suggested novels. As a great novel should, it held my interest continuously, never flagging in its realism and humanity.

May 31, 2014

Didion’s trumpet

Posted in Uncategorized tagged , , , , , , , , at 7:34 pm by chuckredman

     I mean maybe I was holding all the aces, but what was the game? — Joan Didion, Play It As It Lays (1970)

     I doubt if any portrayal of the sordid side of Hollywood (the entertainment industry) equals the brutal scathing honesty of Joan Didion’s 1970 novel Play it as it Lays. Certainly Didion built upon Nathaniel West’s Day of the Locust, which gave us a gritty, grainy portrait indeed of Hollywood’s fiends, misfits, and lost souls. Presumably other works such as James M. Cain’s The Postman Always Rings Twice helped lay the appropriate setting and mood for Didion. But she reached new heights (depths actually) in her dramatization of the ruthlessness and decadence that we have come to associate with the so-called Hollywood lifestyle. Play it is a book of intense realism, heightened by its understated narrative. In that respect, and also in its structure and use of alternate narrators, it reminds me of Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury. But Didion’s prose is much more accessible than Faulkner’s, and nothing is lost by its unadorned frankness. I was altogether “blown away” by this stark little Hollywood gem.

April 6, 2014

A FLASH of insight

Posted in Uncategorized tagged , , , , , , , , , at 2:54 pm by chuckredman

     My son Josh gave me a book for my birthday: It’s called Flash, by a young writer named Jim Miller. The book was published by AK Press, which mainly puts out books relating to anarchist themes. Although stylistically Miller’s novel may not be best-seller material, conceptually and morally the book is a very compelling piece of literature. Anyone interested in California political history, labor issues and human rights might appreciate the book. It delves into the I.W.W. (the Wobblies) and other revolutionary or anarchist movements in the early 1900’s. That historical period is skillfully juxtaposed with present day. Miller’s book makes a good companion, subject-wise, to two of my favorites: Steinbeck’s In Dubious Battle and Wallace Stegner’s The Preacher and the Slave (alternately titled Joe Hill). Read any of the above, and you will have a deeper appreciation for the hardships and courage of the workers of the world.

December 7, 2013

A book you can put down

Posted in Uncategorized tagged , , , , , , , , , , , at 9:22 pm by chuckredman

I generally like to read one book at a time. Switching back and forth wrecks my concentration, such as it is. But I’m in the middle of a book that I read only infrequently, and I’ve finished dozens of other books, of all kinds, in the meantime. The book is Can You Forgive Her  by Anthony Trollope. I can pick it up after weeks of neglect and feel that it’s all still fresh in my mind. And I intend to finish it. Eventually.

It’s one of those Victorian novels that’s like walking in an English country garden on a day with intermittent spells of clouds and sunshine. It’s all utterly pleasant, the story moves at a snail’s pace but you’re in no hurry because it’s so peaceful and you want it to last. Nothing really bad happens, there’s plenty of English wit and polish. Reading a book like that is therapy, and cheap therapy at that!

If you want a book that’s hard to put down, and, along with Catch-22, might just be one of the two best American novels of the last 50-odd years, you could pick up Little Big Man, by Thomas Berger. I saw the movie with Dustin Hoffman when I was a teenager, but didn’t get around to reading the book until 2 months ago. It’s sensational, a real work of genius. A great movie, and an even better book.

Happy holidays, Happy reading, and PEACE to all.