Tuesday, November 25, 2014

The Disunited States, by Vladimir Pozner

Seven Stories Press, 2014
(originally published as  “Les États-Désunis,” 1938)
302 pp


"Life is service. The One who progresses is the one who services his fellow human beings a little more, a little better, by working a little more, enslaving themselves a little better all the time." (26).

"Beginning and end, and beginning again." 

I've tried to write about this book three times here and it just comes across very stupidly to my ears. So I'm just going to offer a few insights into this book without really "reviewing" it.  You'll find  my favorite review of this book here at Words Without Borders, written by Scott Borchert who provides great analysis.

French author Vladimir Pozner was touring America in 1936,  and as he went from coast to coast and back again, he got a firsthand look at what was actually happening in this country at the time.  In his Les États-Désunis, published in 1938, he chronicled the time spent here along with his observations. His book is now published by Seven Stories Press in a translation by Alison L. Strayer.  After I read it, my immediate reaction was to think that in spite of all of the "progress" this country has made since that time, some things have barely changed -- a very discouraging  thought  if one considers the implications for a large number of Americans as this nation moves into the future.

Since I'm not really writing what I'd consider a "review,"  I'd like to point out a few parallels between Pozner's observations in 1936 and our current society in 2014.
  •  In 1936, the prevailing philosophy in America  ran somewhere along these lines, and should sound familiar to our modern ears:
"Every American, wretched though he may be, can become a billionaire or president, if he is frugal, industrious, pious, etc. If you are poor and old or young and unemployed, you have only yourself to blame."  
  • As Pozner traveled coast to coast, he discovered a nation in crisis -- a nation of people caught up in social, economic and class turmoil, racial prejudice and disparity, and a great deal of social unrest.  Sound familiar?
  • He  discovered  that the owners of  giant corporations had little to no disregard for the environment, worker health, worker safety, and the law. Case in point:  that of Union Carbide, which started work on a "thirty thousand-horsepower hydropower station at Hawk's Nest, West Virginia." The work would entail digging a tunnel (32 ft diameter) between Gauley Bridge, West Virginia and Hawk's Nest, with the added bonus of harvesting silica for other uses. After only a few months working underground, men who were happy to even have work started becoming ill, and when they went to the company doctors, they were told they had "tunnelitis," a non-existent disease, or "high blood pressure," even though the contractors knew the men were suffering from silicosis. Doctors were forbidden to use the word, and handed out pills that did no good. Workers began dying, new ones were brought in immediately to take their places.  When the company was finally sued by three hundred workers after an autopsy on a dead man revealed silicosis, the contractors in charge of the project lined up their own witnesses, gave jurors rides home each day, and ultimately settled after a hung jury.  White workers' families received more in redress than black workers' families, and of course, just like today, that was after the lawyers considered their own fees and handed out a sum of their own choosing.  To make matters worse, families who received settlement money (which was pretty much nothing) were threatened with being cut off from federal relief programs.   The company's political connections helped when its representatives were called upon to answer to Congress, and of course, they denied any knowledge of wrongdoing.  Its profits, by the way, skyrocketed. Sound familiar?
  • Another "sound familiar" moment: the author discovered that "gangsters" have their own capitalistic empires that reach far and wide throughout the country -- that "gangsterism is the crime industry in the era of monopoly, and its largest branch, racketeering, is nothing but the continuation of capitalist competition by other means." Gangsters had police, judges and other state officials in their pockets. More importantly, he finds that gangsters come mainly from "poor big-city neighborhoods," have had "no professional training," and that
"unemployment and its consequences -- enforced idleness, giving up the pleasures and necessities of life -- can lead certain people to a life of crime."   
Pozner uses  a wide array of different media to examine this America in crisis:  interrogations and testimony, newspaper articles, speeches, letters, songs, interviews, chats etc all serve to  illustrate this point. It also made me think that the forces put into place to protect  free-market capitalism and the flow of corporate profits to help stimulate the economy were (and still are)  in some large measure responsible for some of the nation's woes. Here's one further example at work:  one of the most intriguing parts of this book came from an interview with an unemployed shoemaker relating how the Pinkerton Agency (unbeknownst to him)  hired him  to get into a particular company and spy on other workers, often having him speak up about union organization, strikes and Communism  to see how other his fellow employees reacted. Arrests were made and people lost their jobs in the process, and worse.

In Boston, Pozner speaks with William H.L. Dana, grandson of Longfellow, who takes him on a tour of  an "itinerary of events" from this country's Revolutionary War period, then on to Concord, to Cambridge, and finally back to Boston, where Pozner wants to discover 
"What has become of the descendants of the patriots, the Minutemen who inscribed in the US Constitution the inalienable right of all to "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness."
Ironically, he finds that some of them have become members of the conservative establishment, now calling for area teachers to sign a loyalty oath or lose their jobs.  As he also learns, "From its glorious past, this crowd retains only the memory of witches burned near Boston two and a half centuries ago.”  But the good news, at least for Pozner, was that in "Real America," there were people who were trying in their own ways to actively protest against the system. 

I absolutely loved this book, and I will add that  Pozner's observations should not be disregarded simply because of the point of view from which he writes.  Highly, highly recommended. 

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Childhood: The Biography of a Place, by Harry Crews

University of Georgia Press, 1995
182 pp
with drawings by Michael McCurdy


"Nothing is allowed to die in a society of storytelling people."

In the opening pages, author Harry Crews  offers his readers one reason why he started writing this book -- it was because, as he says, "I have never been certain of who I am."  He goes on to say that he's "slipped into and out of identities as easily as other people slip into and out of their clothes;" that by the "third or fourth tape" of interviews he's done, he's  noticed that his voice would "become almost indistinguishable from the voice of the person" with whom he'd been speaking.  But he knows for an absolute certainty that whoever he is "has its source" in Bacon County, Georgia, and that
"... what has been most significant in my life had all taken place by the time I was six years old." 
He also notes that in organizing  a "search" for those six years, he needed to rely not only on his own memory, but that of others as well. What he's put together here, he says, is "the biography of a childhood which necessarily is the biography of a place, a way of life gone forever out of this world."  With an old shoebox full of photos by his side,  Crews goes on to tell of a hardscrabble first six years of life first on a farm in Bacon County, his "home place," then in a brief move to Florida, and finally back again to Georgia.

I haven't had the pleasure of reading any of Crews' novels yet -- I wanted to read this book before opening  the one book I bought to try him out (Feast of Snakes), but my guess would be that themes that will be found in any of his writing are probably found in here as well.  Here are a few I've discovered:  the power and art of storytelling,  poverty,  family, "courage born out of desperation and sustained by a lack of alternatives," fantasy/myth as an integral part of survival, alcoholism, women, and fathers.  And then, of course, looming over all of those likely candidates, there's the American South, which is why whether or not all of the events depicted here in Harry Crews' young life are true isn't really an issue here.  It is, after all, a "biography of a place," and somehow, he manages to pull it off without roaming into the usual poor-South stereotypes, and does it in such a way that humor manages to come through the worst of harsh and tragic. I come from Southern stock on one side -- and the people in this book are about as realistically described as anyone my grandparents ever told me about from their own lives, which also started out under some of the same conditions as the people in Bacon County experienced in this book.

The only thing left to say, since this is a book best experienced on one's own, is that the quality of the writing drew me in pretty much immediately. I know it's cliché and even trite to say this, but frankly, I was just spellbound all the way through it.   Reading this book was an experience on its own -- it was so very easy, even without the help of McCurdy's drawings, to imagine it all in my head, as if Crews was writing and illustrating all at the same time. It was also very easy, once I got the reading rhythm going, to see just how his small  world made sense to him.  As just one example, take this scene of young Harry looking through the Sears Catalog with his friend Willalee Bookatee:
"I first became fascinated with the Sears catalogue because all the people in its pages were perfect. Nearly everybody I knew had something missing, a finger cut off, a toe split, an ear half-chewed away, an eye clouded with blindness from a glancing fence staple. And if they didn't have something missing, they were carrying scars from barbed wire, or knives, or fishhooks. But the people in the catalogue had no such hurts. They were not only whole, had all their arms and legs and toes and eyes on their unscarred bodies, but they were also beautiful. Their legs were straight and their heads were never bald and on their faces were looks of happiness, even joy, looks that I never saw much of in the faces of the people around me.
Young as I was, though, I had known for a long time that it was all a lie. I knew that under those fancy clothes there had to be scars, there had to be swellings and boils of one kind or another because there was no other way to live in the world. And more than that, at some previous, unremembered moment, I had decided that all the people in the catalogue were related, not necessarily blood kin, but knew one another, and because they knew one another there had to be hard feelings, trouble between them off and on, violence, and hate between them as well as love."  (58)
 When I read this, something clicked inside of my own head about how well Harry understood his universe, even at such a young age. It's probably likely that at the time he wouldn't have used those words or even been able to describe his thoughts in those terms, but the feeling that he fully comprehended the unreality of the people in the catalog as juxtaposed against his experience comes through loud and extremely clear. The entire book is written like this, sucking you in to this childhood of his along with all of its scars, its violence, and the love of his family he could always count on no matter what.  Very highly recommended.

Monday, November 3, 2014

The Daphne Du Maurier Companion, ed. Helen Taylor

Virago, 2007
424 pp


In the introduction to this book, editor Helen Taylor notes that the goal of this volume is to
 "demonstrate the scope of her concerns and achievements -- hopefully to quell for ever the myth of a humourless, Cornish cliff-walking upper-middle-class recluse who wrote only one good book."
And while it is true that a very large section of this book consists of introductions to other works by du Maurier (all of the Virago editions),  it seems to me that the work most fully written about here continues to be her most famous book, Rebecca, sort of thwarting that goal. 

The Daphne du Maurier Companion is divided into five different sections. The first part, "Daphne du Maurier, by the People Who Knew Her," begins with an interview with her children, moving into a couple of pieces by an editor, Sheila Hodges, who worked with du Maurier for just under fifty years.  Part two is all about Rebecca's "lasting reputation and cultural legacy."  Part three (in part) takes on the other novels, but it only consists of introductions to Virago's editions of du Maurier's books. There is also a look at her short stories by collection (again, introductions to Virago editions)  but to be really honest, there are only a few out of her rather large selection of short stories that are discussed in any sort of  breadth. Part four, "Daphne Du Maurier in Adaptation" focuses on the movies made from her books -- again, with more written about Rebecca than any other novel or short story. Part five introduces a "rediscovered short story" entitled "And His Letters Grew Colder."

Considering that this book was published in the "centenary year of Daphne du Maurier's birth" (what would have been her 100th birthday), as a  "commemoration"  of her incredible output over the years, it's a pretty good general guide to her work, and there is much to glean from its contents.  It's a good book to have around while reading du Maurier as it does offer some insight into the woman herself, i.e. where she was coming from at different stages of her life as her writing career progressed.  I suppose you could argue that it does draw attention to her work outside of Rebecca, but because there is so much focus on that very well-read and well-loved book, my own opinion is that it actually does the opposite. My favorite part of the book was in part one,  where the interviews with her children and the articles by her editor made du Maurier more or less come to life as a real person rather than just an author.

I read one review that stated that it seems like The Companion is a sort of "make-book" for the occasion, and well, that's obviously true considering what I noted in the preceeding paragraph about the centenary. However, even though you're not going to get a lot of depth in this volume,  it's still a great place to start if you're considering reading any of du Maurier's work. I'd recommend it with the caveat that it's  more of an overview rather than a book that actually goes into great detail. But what is there is both interesting and insightful.