ROSA LEE: A MOTHER AND HER FAMILY IN URBAN AMERICA (1996)
A very absorbing factual account of four years (1990-1994) in the life of Rosa Lee Cunningham and her family. Rosa was an African-American woman living in Washington, D.C., but with roots in rural North Carolina. The book covers several generations of her family in an attempt to trace the pattern of drug use, shoplifting, prostitution, and poverty.
It is particularly noteworthy that, of Rosa's eight children, only two escaped from the "underclass" world of drugs, crime, and poverty from which they came, and that seems to have been because each encountered a person who influenced them at an early age (a teacher for one, a social worker for the other).
A question might be raised about this author's approach. Why focus on people who exemplify such a negative stereotype as most members of this family? In these times, is the (African-American) author helping the cause of seeking racial justice? Isn't he just adding fuel to the fires of those who oppose civil rights?
I'm not sure that that is really a valid criticism. The author treats his subjects with respect and dignity--but without getting totally immersed in their lives himself. He demonstrates that Rosa Lee made many bad choices in her life, but he also points out the limitations on her own ability to see that she might have had a wider range of choices than she knew. This was a woman who, while living in the nation's capital, was totally unaware of President Clinton's inauguration--or even of who he was. She and most of her family did not regard the political system as in any way connected to their lives. "What difference would participation make? Everyone knows that the white man is always going to come out on top" is the attitude.
The glimpses this book gives of the very old African-Americans still in North Carolina--their memories of their lives as sharecroppers and of their almost total subjection to the whites who owned the land--are remarkably telling and heartbreaking.
This book has an important subtext. One of the main obstacles in the lives of Rosa Lee and her family has been their functional illiteracy. Ashamed to admit that they cannot read well enough to understand a typical document, they find themselves signing contracts without knowing what they have committed themselves to. And yet they might have been passed along through the primary grades in school ("socially promoted"), and no teacher or school system is held accountable for this colossal failure to do its job.
The author mentions two works by Gunnar Myrdal that he found helpful in understanding the problems of race in the U.S.: American Dilemma and Challenge to Affluence. However, Rosa Lee is not a sociological tract and is not larded with quotations or footnotes. It is a straightforward work of reporting, readable and clear in spite of numerous details that might have been confusing in the hands of a less capable writer.
This nonfiction account by a Washington Post reporter ran in a somewhat different serialized version in the Washington Post in 1994. There was also a PBS-TV "Frontline" special, "The Confessions of Rosa Lee," based on this work.
3 September 2002
DAVIS, HOPE HALE
GREAT DAY COMING: A MEMOIR OF THE 1930s (1994)
Hope Hale Davis, who died at the age of 100 in 2006, has left a very absorbing memoir of her life in the 1930s, when she was working for the US government while also being a member of the American Communist Party. She and her husband were willing to follow the Party's orders, though as time went on they seemed to realize that adhering to a structured ideology was compromising their independence.
Her husband's hospitalization for schizophrenia occupies a large part of this memoir, and it is heart-breaking. He was in two different institutions, though whether he was hospitalized against his will is a question--because the doctors and his family, including his wife, conspired to deceive him into accepting hospitalization.
By some carefully orchestrated maneuvers, this confused and deeply troubled man was strongarmed into a situation where he was held prisoner--for his own protection, of course, but the fact of being shut up was very nearly intolerable for him.
Just as he was starting to make progress with the (then new) insulin shock treatments (which his family had to fight very hard to get for him), he was left unattended in the hospital--and killed himself.
Just as Hope Hale Davis and her husband had been docile in their acceptance of Party directives, they were equally docile in accepting whatever the hospital authorities and psychiatrists told them. As time goes on, though, the author of this memoir became less willing to do as she was told and began to speak up.
This is a remarkable book and well worth reading.
DAVIS, LINDA H.
BADGE OF COURAGE: THE LIFE OF STEPHEN CRANE (1998)
This seems to be a thoroughly researched and balanced biography of the American author, Stephen Crane, who died very young (of pulmonary tuberculosis) but who had produced several remarkable contributions to American literature.
This study contains interesting details about the writing of many of Crane's works--including his well-known short story "The Open Boat," which, we learn, was based on an experience Crane himself had.
He was admired by and a friend of several very notable writers: Joseph Conrad, Henry James, and Ford Madox Ford (Hufer), and he knew Theodore Roosevelt personally--though not always amicably.
If Crane doesn't quite come alive in the pages of this biography, it is probably because of a lack of self-revelatory material. He was apparently not a diarist or letter-writer, and the common-law wife who survived him (Cora, who was a madam of a brothel) doesn't seem to have been inclined to communicate much, either.
THE SINS OF BROTHER CURTIS: A STORY OF BETRAYAL, CONVICTION, AND THE MORMON CHURCH (2011)
The author documents in considerable detail the case of Frank Curtis, who died in 1995 at the age of 92 and who spent his later years as a respected member of the LDS Church (Mormons) and molested some 20 children, mostly boys, in his capacity as a Boy Scout leader and Mormon elder.
At first we are told about Jeremiah Scott (b. 1999), whose case ultimately became a case against the LDS Church, a legal battle that went on for 4 years--until Jeremiah Scott had had enough of the legal wrangling and decided to settle for the $3 million being offered by the other side in spite of his lawyers' urging him to continue the litigation for the sake of a more substantial amount in punitive damages. Later it was determined that he might have actually received less of an award had he chosen that course.
Astonishingly, very little seems to have been known about Brother Curtis's background when the LDS Church placed its confidence in him and relayed that confidence to the unsuspecting parents who entrusted their children to him. As the author reveals, Brother Curtis had spent considerable time in prison in his younger days--and over the age of 70 had had two penile implants, in connection with prostate surgery.
He moved around, too. Most of his child molestations occurred in Portland, Oregon, but there were intervals involving other child molestations in Grand Rapids, Michigan, and in Wyoming.
The book establishes that these molestations occurred and that they were often repeated over years with a single boy. It is also established that the Mormon bishops who were involved knew of this man's record of child molestation (though perhaps not of his prison record) and chose not to let the parents know.
It is a shameful, sad story. The author makes it clear that the boys' lives and often those of other family members were ruined or badly troubled by the molestation experiences. That some of his victims went on to molest children themselves she sees as part of a known pattern in this troubling crime--what the child learns to expect in childhood may be what that child will pass on to others in adulthood. This pattern of recurrence has been observed in cases of child abuse in general as well--a parent who has beaten a child may have produced an adult who will go on to abuse his or her children. The tragedy is that this cycle can't be stopped unless child molesters are caught and prevented from repeating their crimes.
The Mormon church has successfully hid many of its records from public view on the grounds that it is a religion, protected by law. It has also maintained that someone like Brother Curtis, who presented himself in good faith, seemingly, to the LDS community and who did what was prescribed to rehabilitate himself, was accepted as having been cured of his pedophilia and therefore capable of resuming normal activities in the community.
Including child supervision and living in households with children, sleeping in the same bed with them, bathing with them. What the Mormon Church seems to fail to have recognized is that statistics have been showing that child molesters often aren't cured:
The Mormon Church seems to have had more faith in Brother Curtis than the society at large would have done, but then the Latter-Day Saints believe in the perfectability of the human beings in their midst and have argued that information given by Curtis to one or another of the bishops involved is confidential in the same way that a Roman Catholic's statements to a priest in the confessional are beyond the reach of the law.
It seems as if The Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter-Day Saints is losing this battle but very, very gradually. In the meantime, there have been other instances of pedophiles within its community who have gone unchallenged for years while committing acts of pedophilia.
This book doesn't make organized religion look good at all but it is free of any polemical passages. It presents the facts that are known and does an excellent job while dealing with very complicated issues and presenting the reader with a long list of people to keep track of.
MURDER IN ITALY: THE SHOCKING SLAYING OF A BRITISH STUDENT, THE ACCUSED AMERICAN GIRL, AND AN INTERNATIONAL SCANDAL (2010)
Amanda Knox received considerable news coverage at the time when she was accused of having murdered (or having aided in murdering, depending on what news story you were reading) a housemate in Perugia, Italy, where they were both living as foreign students--Amanda from Seattle, WA, and the housemate (Meredith Kercher) from the UK. From the start it was difficult to follow the facts of the case. The two students had been living in a house occupied by four young women on one floor and four young men in the lower level, all living somewhat casual lives with visitors coming and going easily and at all hours.
I was hoping that this book would clarify what did happen, for Amanda Knox went to prison but was eventually released, and all along she was protesting her innocence, and her family and friends kept insisting that she could not have done what she was accused of doing.
Candace Dempsey, a Seattle-area reporter, makes a strong case for extremely inept police work, including bungling of the crime scene and the handling of important evidence.
What did happen and who exactly killed Meredith Kercher may never be known. The situation may be too confused.
THE ARTIST OF DISAPPEARANCE (2011)
Three novellas, each about people who live apart from the mainstream. In "Translator Translated," Prema, an English teacher who hasn't enjoyed her work, develops an enthusiasm for translating a book in her native Indian language partly because the process of translating it takes her back to her childhood, but she runs into trouble when she goes on to make editorial changes in the original work.
30 January 2015
FASTING, FEASTING (1999)
This is a beautifully told novel about an Indian family. The parents (seen as one entity--"Mamapapa"--by their children, so united is their front) are very determined not to lose face, to keep their status, regardless of the consequences. The son is sent to the United States to college in Massachusetts. His perspective on the American scene is clear-headed and bitingly critical at the core, without being overtly preachy.
2 August 2007
EVICTED: POVERTY AND PROFIT IN THE AMERICAN CITY (2016)
The author, a sociologist, spent time living among the poor in Milwaukie, Wisconsin, and this book calls attention to the "drastically shrinking supply of affordable housing" in US cities by showing us, up close, what happens when renters are evicted: how the process typically works and how it affects those renters and their families, the ripple effect it has on a community.
Desmond points out that the poor are often caught in a no-win situation, what with groceries costing up to 40% more in the inner city than in more affluent neighborhoods, and practices such as docketing a judgment--whereby the money judgment resulting from an eviction proceeding can be slapped onto a tenant's credit report. Then there are the hidden charges that often come as a very unpleasant surprise to tenants, as when one evicted tenant thinks she can afford the fee for locked storage of her evicted belongings, then learns that she must buy a lock and insurance.
Desmond, whose focus is often on a particular trailer park, shows us the greed and meanness of the people who are caught up in eviction situations. He points out that
90% of landlords are represented by attorneys, and 90% of tenants are not. Low-income families on the edge of eviction have no right to counsel, but when tenants have lawyers, their chances of keeping their homes increase dramatically.
"Their homes." Many of these homes are overcrowded and are apartments, not free-standing structures. The real-estate business seems to prefer to reserve the word "homes" for houses or at least for dwellings that have to be bought, not rented. But the concept of a "home" is not really so limited. A home is a place, whether it is a tent or a cave or an apartment or a trailer, where a person usually sleeps, probably eats, and feels safe enough to keep his belongings. The people who have been evicted who are described in this book have lost their homes.
The author argues strongly for the concept of a right to housing. Desmond would like to see a universal housing voucher program, along the lines of the current Section 8 program. In the present political climate, the idea is unlikely to get very far, but the swelling numbers of homeless persons in this country should tell us something about how tragically the housing situation has failed.
A book like this is long overdue. It is doubtful that the greed that drives our society will cease to be as important as it is but a study of this kind might alert its readers to the magnitude of this urgent problem.
June 7, 2017
OUR MUTUAL FRIEND (1864-65)
Our Mutual Friend is a long and uneven novel. I thought it was going to be “about” greed, but no sooner had I come to this conclusion than Dickens began turning it into a rather sappy love story in which he pulled rabbits out of hats every which way just so that the plot could somehow be contrived to work out to the readers’ satisfaction. Several conflicting wills, people in disguise, and cheap melodrama are all piled on at the end.
There are some important characters he can’t seem to make up his mind about. It’s hard to swallow the inherent goodness of Eugene and Mortimer, the two lawyers, towards the end after we’ve seen them under a cloud through most of the book. And what are we to make of Bella and her family? The apparently lovable Bella, so kind and agreeable towards her father and others, nevertheless has no compunction about declaring herself entirely mercenary in her pursuit of marriage, and she gets her wish—a rich husband, with all the trimmings. This whole plot line and the way it evolves into a “happy” ending seems thoroughly to undercut the argument about money’s being the root of all evil and greed’s being one of the most pernicious poisons to the human spirit. Dickens can’t allow the “happy ending” without considerable folderol at the very conclusion about how it isn’t “really” John Harmon’s money now but Mr. Boffin’s (however, it is carefully noted that John Harmon has received a goodly sum through Boffin’s generosity—quite enough for Bella and the insufferable baby to have their fancy house, etc.) and even about how much of the last third of the action—Boffin’s change toward miserliness, etc.—was all trumped up just to teach Bella a lesson about the worst aspects of money and greed.
This is very hard to take. I felt cheated at this point, for I was taking Boffin’s miserliness and its consequences very seriously all along. Furthermore, it is hard to believe that Bella has been chastened and taught the lesson when she comes away with all of the trappings money can buy. Is money an evil, or isn’t it? Or is it only an evil in the hands of someone who hasn’t learned Bella’s lesson? If that is the point, it seems a very weak point to hang 900 pages on.
A better ending, one more in keeping with many of the very grave issues raised by other incidents in the story, might have been for none of the likable, sympathetic characters to end up rich. But I gather Dickens’s own life showed a conflict between a social conscience and an impulse to make money, which he did rather successfully. Our Mutual Friend has some elements of the potboiler, in fact: the violent scenes, the pie-in-the-face type of revenge, the contrived plot.
Still, it contains what must be one of the more sympathetic treatments of a Jew in the literature of the time.
And Dickens apparently intended the portrait of Betty Higdon as an expression of outrage at the Poor Laws. I’m still unclear about why she refused to go to a doctor when that was suggested, but she sticks in the mind as a telling example of the plight of the poor and homeless, and the author’s postscript makes it clear that the arguments then being advanced in favor of not helping the destitute were a source of outrage to him.
As a matter of fact, the same arguments are still circulating today, in these “enlightened” times: there are no really poor, and if there are any, it’s their own fault for not being enterprising enough to succeed. But the whole matter of Betty Higdon gets lost in the mire of plot contrivance, murder and mayhem, and saccharine love stories that closes the book.
A book that purports to be an outcry against the way the unfortunate are treated ought not to reward any of its characters with wealth—unless such rewards are meant as an ironic underscoring of the point about poverty. Here, they don't seem to have that function
HARD TIMES (1854)
Mr. Josiah Bounderby is a wealthy and boastful manufacturer who owns a factory employing Stephen Blackpool--an honest, hard-working power-loom weaver, married to a dissolute, drunken woman. Mr. Thomas Gradgrind runs a school, where Mr. McChokumchild is a teacher. Sleery’s circus troupe also figures in this memorable novel, a tale that reflects the author’s bitter outrage at the horrors of industrialization and of the education system.
The sentence "Coketown was a triumph of fact" appears in this novel, introducing an unforgettable paragraph of graphic description of the growth of a slagheap to the detriment of the town life.
THE UNCOMMERCIAL TRAVELER (1869)
An interesting collection of essays that probably need considerable annotation. Dickens shows a typical Victorian fascination with death--he visits a Paris morgue and is haunted and sickened by the image of one drowned man he saw there, for instance. He is at his most charming when he deals with annimals (dogs, birds, donkeys). Among the pieces is one about being on board ship with 800 Mormons who are emigrating to Salt Lake.
5 July 2008
AMERICAN NOTES (1842; 2004)
Dickens, traveling with his wife in the United States and Canada for six months, published his comments, and some twenty-five years later returned to America and gave a lecture, which is appended to this book.
In between the two visits the Civil War had taken place but his lecture doesn't allude to it--even though his notes about his 1841 trip seem permeated with forebodings about catastrophic trouble brewing for the United States because of slavery.
Traveling was a rugged, hit-or-miss experience for him even though he was probably given the special treatment accorded a visiting celebrity, at least at times. He describes the rough spots, which were many and unpleasant, but seems to have taken them all with a good spirit and is unfailingly grateful to the Americans for their courtesy.
What comes through in this narrative is the compassion and tolerance of this man, observing the customs of a people whose ways often strike him as alien and inexplicable. He finds the Americans to be a somber lot, humorless and too preoccupied with business. Visiting a Shaker community, where he isn't allowed to see their worship service, he finds the Shakers especially "wooden" and "cold." He makes it clear that he's a more fun-loving sort than would feel comfortable among such a pious group.
Whether he is visiting an insane asylum or solitary-confinement prisons, or interviewing Laura Bridgman (who was both blind and deaf), he reacts with understanding and empathy.
He often comments negatively on the universal habit of chewing tobacco and spitting, and makes observations about the frequently present pigs. He objects to the Americans' poor hygiene and recommends more attention to public health.
He sees no particular majesty in the Mississippi River, and indeed at the time it may have been the sorry sight he describes. But he does rhapsodize about Niagara Falls--as did many visitors to the United States.
The book ends with a chapter about slavery--an impassioned essay, citing instance after instance drawn from newspaper notices describing runaway slaves to show how severely mutilated--and shackled--slaves often were, and following that list up with another list of incidents involving violence between Americans. He becomes especially concerned about an incident involving a couple of boys in their early teens and a gun.
His point seems to be that Americans are a violent people and that the inhuman practice of slavery just gives them more opportunities to be violent toward their fellow man.
We in the United States should probably be very glad that this beloved English author chose to spend so much time observing us--at a very critical period in our history.
This account should be more widely read. It gives a very concrete picture of some of the evils of slavery and its comments on Americans as a people are well worth reading.
Also, much material from this trip was used in the author's novel Martin Chuzzlewit (1843-44).
Also, much material from this trip was used in the author's novel Martin Chuzzlewit (1843-44).
DOCTOROW, E. L.
SWEET LAND: STORIES (2004)
Anything I might say about this collection of stories amounts to saying I just don't seem to like E. L. Doctorow--which points up the general uselessness of most literary criticism, come to think of it, since what one person likes isn't necessarily what another person would like, and there's often no very good reason why one person's preferences should carry more weight than another's....
These stories are about dysfunctional people. But the stories treat their people in an unpleasant way, or so it seems to me. Doctorow may have made a better sociologist than a writer of fiction. Often he seems to be showing how worldly-wise he is. And he looks at his characters with a superior sneer that he's trying hard to conceal, but it's still there.
THE BOOK OF DANIEL (1971)
Novel based on the Julius and Ethel Rosenberg case, emphasizing its effect on the two children--a boy and a girl in the story. The writing style is frenetic and hard to take.
29 May 1998
ALL THE LIGHT WE CANNOT SEE (2014)
This novel has received considerable attention, favorable and unfavorable, and has been a prize-winning best-seller. That it seems eminently filmable may or may not have been part of the author's objective--and in any event what modern-day fiction writer wouldn't wonder about a cinematic adaptation while writing? After all, cinema is there, and novels are often adapted for it.
The novel involves a possibly very valuable diamond, and of course the handling of it throughout the story would make for captivating movie scenes--as would the story's location in a picturesque walled city (Saint-Malo) in Brittany. There would be scenes in Germany and Russia as well.
A far more serious criticism that has been made (New Republic, Forward) concerns the story's apparent neglect of the Holocaust--and of the presence of Jews in Germany in general. It gives us a young German boy eager to escape his certain future in the mines that killed his father--a boy who joins the Hitler Youth and is lured into ending up in the Nazi military.
Considerable attention is given to the training he receives, and here is one of many places where I wished I knew how thorough Anthony Doerr's research was. Even if he did very little research, though, and merely imagined the type of training a young Nazi might have received, he makes it highly believable, and his account goes a long way toward answering a question many must have had in the decades since the war: How could an ordinary German, not a pathologically disturbed one, have been swept up so completely in the Nazi ideology as many must have been?
Part of the answer may lie in the oft-quoted remark (attributed to St. Francis Xavier, Aristotle, and the Soviet leadership, among others): "Give me the child until he is 7, and I will show you the man." Werner, the German child in the novel, may have been somewhat older than 7 when he joined the Hitler youth but we see how impressionable he is--and how assiduously the Nazi authorities must have been planning his future development, molding him by obliging him to aspire to the prestige and glory they dangled in front of him and to accept a world of cruelty and indifference to suffering, a world where the "weakest" are destroyed systematically.
As time goes on, Werner misses the life he abandoned--his sister Jotta, the people who had been kind to the two of them even though they were orphans. That he sees the catastrophic mistakes he has made isn't stated but implied. When he takes enormous risks by helping the blind French girl, Marie-Laure, several times (as she points out later on by enumerating them), we see more evidence that he is serving a system he no longer trusts.
Marie-Laure is actually helping the Resistance though Werner probably isn't aware of it. Since she is French, though, he has been taught to assume that she isn't to be trusted. And yet, as one human being to another, he does trust her.
The book takes a long time getting to the time when Werner and Marie-Laure meet but the reader knows all along that sooner or later these two will be brought together.
There is a rape scene (not involving Werner) but it is described with a minimum of matter-of-fact detail. In fact, war atrocities generally are treated in a muted way. But the brutal training to which Werner is subjected as a boy is at the center of several very specifically detailed scenes.
Maybe if a reader comes to this book without having the question I have had--"What could make ordinary people, people who always tried to do the right thing and not hurt others, go along with the Nazis?"--the story being told might seem to be painting past horrors "with a gauzy, more pleasing brush," in the words of the Forward reviewer. There's nothing pleasing about Werner's horrifying early training, where young boys have to witness one of their number being bludgeoned brutally as part of a routine disciplinary measure.
It seemed to me that All the Light We Cannot See isn't so much downplaying the horrors as it is looking at the time from a different angle. Doerr seems fascinated by the changes in the world of communication that have occurred ever since the advent of the radio, and in this story the importance of communication underlies every aspect of the action. If your world is being blown to smithereens, maybe you can still get radio communication, and the people who knew how to make that possible and had the necessary materials were among those who mattered most in the devastation of 1940-45.
Werner was highly valued by his Nazi overseers precisely because he had an exceptional gift for working with radio communication. The transmission of radio communication--what can be done with it, how remarkable it is--is at the core of this novel.
It may be much too soon for anyone to be objective about any work of art dealing with World War 2. In a hundred years the human race will have more perspective on it. As of now, our emotions and our own experiences are getting in the way of any objective assessment.
So I can't say whether this book is good. It held my attention--though I found the way it jumped around from one time and place to another in the form of very short unnumbered chapters annoying. It seems like an honest, unaffected statement of a narrative that might have happened.
22 January 2016
TO PROTECT AND TO SERVE: THE LAPD'S CENTURY OF WAR IN THE CITY OF DREAMS (1994)
This is a fairly comprehensive account of the Los Angeles Police Department, including a considerable section on its history. The author is a journalist, and this book is based on a series of articles he wrote for the Los Angeles Weekly.
The beating of Rodney King receives close attention. The author clearly believes that the Los Angeles Police Department is an example of law-enforcement personnel who have entirely too much power and are abusing it.
This book is instructive reading for anyone concerned about police brutality and the increasingly militaristic posturing of our nation's urban police departments.
One carping criticism: I wish the author had stayed away from the phrase "equally as." It crops up more than once.
10 August 2004
DUBUS, ANDRE III
TOWNIE: A MEMOIR (2011)
I've read a couple of stories by this author's father, Andre Dubus. Though I didn't particularly like his fiction, I decided to read Andre Dubus III's account of his life as the son of a noted writer.
Andre III's parents divorced, and Andre and his siblings were brought up by an inattentive single mom in a rough atmosphere in Haverhill, Massachusetts. Andre learned to fight and became skilled at boxing. The book is replete with accounts of his fights with people he had differences with.
Towards the end of the book he is starting to express some misgivings about his pugnacious attitude, as it occurs to him that these are--gee whiz!--real people he's beating up on.
His father (the author), an ex-Marine, eggs him on and is clearly very proud of his son's battles.
The book goes on in this vein, tiresomely, for all too long. A macho man has produced a macho son.
A thin veneer of devout Catholicism starts appearing towards the end of the account too, as it turns out that "Pop" (Andre Dubus II) goes to daily mass and says rosaries and Andre III indulges in some religious speculations.
Somehow this didn't go down very well after such extensive descriptions of repeated episodes of brutality.
19 February 2013