Rocketjk's Ever Hopeful Off-the-Shelf Quest

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Rocketjk's Ever Hopeful Off-the-Shelf Quest

Redigerat: dec 31, 2022, 3:51 pm

OK! I'm back for more fun. Two years ago, given my second full year of retirement and first year of Covid, I hit an amazing 82 books read, 31 of which I counted as "Off the shelf." Last year, my reading totals and my "off-the-shelf" reading, were off somewhat, in part due to the fact that I took on quite a few longer books and because I joined a reading group for the first time in my life, and none of the group selections counted as "off the shelf" for mine, except the two I selected myself. Anyway, my 2021 totals were 67 books read, with only 22 off-the-shelfers, well short of my 30-book O.T.S. goal. This year I'll challenge myself to make it to 25 books read from my very crowded shelves. Cheers, all!

Book 1: Our Lady of the Flowers by Jean Genet
Book 2: First Harvest by Vladimir Pozner
Book 3: The Tenth Man by Graham Greene
Book 4: Sense and Sensibility by Jane Austen
Book 5: Turning Angel by Greg Iles
Book 6: Northwest Passage by Kenneth Roberts
Book 7: The New Breed: The Story of the U.S. Marines in Korea by Andrew Geer
Book 8: Good Rockin' Tonight: Sun Records and the Birth of Rock 'n' Roll by Colin Escott with Martin Hawkins
Book 9: The Owl in the Attic and Other Perplexities by James Thurber
Book 10: Going to Meet the Man by James Baldwin
Book 11: Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave by Frederick Douglass
Book 12: Song of Solomon by Toni Morrison
Book 13: The Family Moskat by Isaac Bashevis Singer
Book 14: Show - The Magazine of the Arts, July 1962 edited by Robert M. Wool
Book 15: Boy in Blue by Royce Brier
Book 16: Falling Toward Forever by Gordon Eklund
Book 17: Ruling Over Monarchs, Giants and Stars: Umpiring in the Negro Leagues and Beyond by Bob Motley
Book 18: The Background of Our War by the United States War Department Bureau of Public Relations
Book 19: The Boys in the Boat by Daniel James Brown
Book 20: Tropic of Capricorn by Henry Miller
Book 21: Vinegar Hill by Franklin Coen
Book 22: The Black Jacobins: Toussaint L'Ouverture and the San Domingo Revolution by C. L. R. James
Book 23: Rough Translations by Molly Giles
Book 24: Watch Czechoslovakia by Richard Freund

jan 3, 2022, 4:36 pm

Good luck with this year's goal! Here's hoping that reading and life gets a bit more back on an even keel this year.

jan 3, 2022, 4:53 pm

Welcome back!

>Book 1: Nothing to See Here Yet by Still Pending
HA! You almost got me :)

jan 3, 2022, 5:36 pm

Welcome back and have a great reading year!

jan 4, 2022, 2:21 am

Hi Jerry, good to see you back for another year of ROOTing. It was a strange year indeed. I noticed several people struggling with readingslumps and I was one too. Lots of time but no urge to read. I hope things will be better. I'v got my third shot last Friday.

I will follow your reading adventures in 2022.

The only things you have to do now is join the group and copy your ticker to the ticker thread.

jan 4, 2022, 4:59 am

Welcome back and Happy ROOTing!

jan 7, 2022, 2:48 pm

A Happy New Year of reading, Jerry.

jan 30, 2022, 3:23 pm

Book 1: Our Lady of the Flowers by Jean Genet

Well, I've finally read an "off the shelf" book!

I found Our Lady of the Flowers to be a profoundly rewarding reading experience. The narrator, "Jean Genet," a habitué of French prisons, tells this tale from inside a prison cell, telling us that he is doing so and also telling us that he is spinning his tales and creating his characters out of his imagination. These characters, most predominantly Divine, Darling and Our Lady of the Flowers, are members of a Paris shadow world of homosexual grifters, thieves, prostitutes and pimps. The membrane of the narrative is porous, however, for though most often we read about these figures in the third person, frequently we get the idea that Divine is Genet (or Genet is Divine). The narrator's imagination takes us back and forth in time, as we get, especially, Divine's origin story and see the ways in which his (her) sense of difference and isolation as a child push him (her) to the fringes of society as time goes on. We see how the characters simultaneously depend upon and prey upon each other. And sometimes this shadow world collapses entirely and we land back with "Genet" in his jail cell, back to the source of this whirlpool of storytelling. All of this comes to us through what I found to be a powerful lens of poetic language and surrealist imaginings. And it all works because, as fractured as it is, as often distasteful as the characters' actions make them, Genet renders them entirely human, people we end up feeling for despite their crimes and betrayals. At heart, what they desperately need out of life is what we need.

jan 31, 2022, 5:07 pm

Glad you're back!

jan 31, 2022, 5:08 pm

>8 rocketjk: You're on your way, Jerry!

Redigerat: dec 20, 2022, 5:52 pm

Book 2: First Harvest by Vladimir Pozner (translated from the French by Haakon Chevalier)

The author of this novel about the German occupation of a small French Channel Coast village is not Vladimir Pozner, the contemporary journalist, but Vladimir Pozner, the French/Russian Jewish writer and intellectual. He was born in France in 1905, where his Russian/Jewish parents had fled after publicly supporting the failed Russian Revolution of 1905. In 1909, the family returned to Russia after a general amnesty was declared. Pozner studied in Leningrad, and in the meantime his parents gathered a literary community around themselves. Pozner returned to Paris in 1921 to study at the Sorbonne. He remained a Communist and socialized with the prominent Russian expatriate writers (and continued writing himself) who had gathered in in France. With the rise of Hitler, Mussolini and Franco, Pozner became a vocal anti-Fascist. He either did (the book's flyleaf) or didn't (Pozner's Wikipedia page) serve in the French Army during the German invasion. Either way, a fascinating life, which I've learned about only because somewhere along the line I purchased this beautiful first edition copy and somewhat randomly decided to pull it down off my shelf and read it last week. So, now maybe, finally, I should actually talk about the novel itself!

The novel takes place, as mentioned above, in a small, Channel Coast French village under occupation by the German Army. For the bored occupiers, there is very little going on except cold, rainy weather. For the villagers, what's going on is malnutrition, as their cattle and crops are requisitioned by the Germans. A plan is underway among the villagers to hide their wheat crop, but where? This malevolently placid setting is interrupted when a German enlisted soldier turns up missing and the occupiers look to the occupied for answers. There is a mist of unreality throughout the proceedings, particularly in the novel's first half. The characters are not fully drawn. The Germans in particular seem almost cartoon like in their foolishness. There is a degree of fable telling in the narrative, perhaps. At the beginning, I thought once or twice of the book, The Good Soldier Schweik, although here the comedic element is much more subdued. During the book's second half, however, as the tension and sense of menace mounts, any comedic sense still maintaining serves only to underscore the cruelty of the situation. This novel, one could say, is about the banality of evil. This is not a great novel. Although we do come to know and care about several of the villagers, the relative shallowness of the characterizations drains some impact from the proceedings. But the power of the situation itself has rendered this novel a very memorable one for me. I should mention that the book was published in 1943, so it was very much a novel of the moment.

mar 5, 2022, 5:27 am

Hi Jerry! I've been away from LT Threads for a while. Too much going on in my life the last months.

I love the reviews!

Redigerat: mar 6, 2022, 1:27 pm

Book 3: The Tenth Man by Graham Greene

This short novel by a very sharp storyteller provides a very interesting and readable morality play. During the Nazi occupation of France, group of 30 Frenchmen are being held by the occupiers in a large jail cell as hostages. The day after two German soldiers in the town are killed by resistance fighters, a German officer enters the cell to announce that three of the hostages are to be shot the next morning, and it is up to them to decide which three it will be. They decide to draw lots, and the results of the drawing have consequences that echo dramatically into the years after the war. I don't want to give away any more of the plot than that, other than to say that in the set-up, the characterizations and the book's final act, Greene's debt to Conrad is apparent (in theme and narrative construction, though not in writing style, of course).

Also interesting is the book's backstory, which I will simply quote from my copy's back cover: . . . "A short novel that {Greene} wrote in the 1940s for MGM as the dry run for a screenplay, and that remained untouched in a studio file until its discover in 1983." Greene writes in his introduction that he had no memory of writing the story. Because he had been under contract to MGM when he wrote the manuscript, the person who bought the rights to it upon its discovery owed writer's royalties to MGM rather than to Greene. However, Greene says, a) upon reading the manuscript so many decades after writing it, he found that he liked it enough that he couldn't object to its publication and b) the person who owned the rights generously agreed to co-publish the book with Greene's own publisher, meaning that Greene did see some money out of it after all.

On a personal reading note, my first three off-the-shelf books this calendar year all take place in France: The Tenth Man, Our Lady of the Flowers and First Harvest. The first two have to do with French townspeople held hostage by the Nazis during World War Two, and all three of them take place entirely or partly within prisons! It's not a theme I envisioned for myself beforehand.

Redigerat: mar 27, 2022, 1:53 pm

Book 4: Sense and Sensibility by Jane Austen

In all my long years of reading, the only Jane Austen novel I'd ever read was Emma, which I'd loved, so I felt it was finally time to get to another, so brought my long-owned nice old hardcover copy of Sense and Sensibility down off the shelf. And I did, indeed, enjoy the reading of this novel, though not quite as much as I'd remember enjoying Emma. Sense and Sensibility is, of course, a satire of manners about the landed gentry of late 18th-Century England. The real joy for me in reading the story was in soaking up Austen's use of language, and especially her sly wit in taking down the mostly idle men and women of this essentially obsolete class. They seem to my 21st Century eyes a holdover from an earlier version of the English economic system, no longer serving any discernible function, and it seems clear that Austen thought so, too. (I must admit that I've read very little about Jane Austen and have never studied her works in an academic setting.) The descriptions of the fools and knaves among the characters, and their actions, take a while, sometimes, to fully unfold, but once you see where Austen has been going all along in a paragraph, you end up with a delightfully humorous stiletto job. The problem with the book, or at least with my experience with it, is that mostly the story is static. We wait with our heroines, the Misses Dashwood (Elinor and Marianne) and their widowed mother, for the men in their lives to either get their acts together or reveal themselves as irredeemable rascals. Elinor in particular is the sensible and discerning rock upon with the family fortunes depend. And while I have no doubt that the situation of women in Austen's time was very much as described here, the two main characters' condition of relative stasis did take some of the air out of the plotting. In some ways, the dastardly schemer Lucy, Elinor's main foil throughout the book, is the most interesting character in the lot. She has no scruples and more than her share of malevolence, but she is certainly capable of taking action in her own selfish service. At any rate, I did enjoy the reading. Austen's sense of humor and turn of phrase make up for the slow points I experienced in the narrative.

apr 24, 2022, 11:45 am

Book 5: Turning Angel by Greg Iles

This is the second book in Iles' Penn Cage mystery series. Cage is a former prosecutor turned author who, in the series' first book, The Quiet Game, returned from Houston to his native Natchez, Mississippi, to help his father, a beloved local physician, and along the way solve a decades old cold case of the murder of an African American man by a white supremacist. I remembered that first book, which I read several years ago, as being quite good. In Turning Angel, Cage, who has stayed in Natchez, gets involved in helping a longtime friend out of a tough legal jam. It turns out his pal, also a beloved local physician, has been having an affair with a high school senior, the town's golden girl, who turns up murdered on page 1. The problem with the story, of course, is that Iles has to go through all sorts of logical and emotional gyrations to make his friend's actions, and his friends, anything but reprehensible to Cage and to the reader. The way does that strains the willing suspension of disbelief. Of course, once Cage starts delving into matters on his friend's behalf, all sorts of other sordid details about the town surface, including some very nasty drug dealers. Well, is there any other kind? There are other implausible plot elements, as well. Giving Iles the benefit of the doubt due to what I remembered as the quality of The Quiet Game, I still found Turning Angel enjoyable. Iles writes pretty well, his dialogue is OK, his pacing is good, and the Penn Cage character is one I can abide with. He's often the smartest person in the room, but not always. Also, Iles makes a decent effort to include the town's history of inherent racism into the narrative. So, I don't know . . . I'm eventually going to continue on with the series, hoping we get back on more plausible ground going forward. I couldn't recommend this book as a stand-alone, but I'll let you know when I move on with the series whether I think this book is the rule or the exception for the series, plausibility-wise.

maj 5, 2022, 7:11 pm

Book 6: Northwest Passage by Kenneth Roberts

Sometimes I'm just in the mood for a good, long, old fashioned historical novel, and Northwest Passage certainly filled this bill for me. Young Langdon Towne just growing into adulthood in 1750s Maine, wants to be an artist. He wants to go west and paint Indians. This ambition runs him afoul of his straight-laced father and, especially, of his beloved Elizabeth's father, a hell and brimstone, status seeking minister. When Towne further gains the enmity of the town's petty tyrant, he hightails it out of town with a friend with an aim to join the army, thinking it fairly safe, as the major battles of the English and their American colonists against the French and their Indian allies (i.e., the French and Indian War) seem to be mostly over. Running into the charismatic figure of Sergeant McNott in a nearby pub, however, Towne and his friend soon find themselves joining the famed Rogers Rangers, led by the larger than life Major Robert Rogers. Adventure ensues, you'll not be surprised to learn, 709 pages of adventure, to be precise, along with romance and political intrigue. Towne's superior abilities as an artist stand him in good stead throughout. This novel is a lot of fun, and even, in some places thought-provoking. The descriptions of the hardships endured by the Rangers, and the countryside they travel through, are vivid (descriptions of nature and weather are a strength throughout), as is the violence of the massacre they perpetrate an Indian village, a retaliation, we are told, for the outrages these Indians themselves have perpetrated on nearby English homesteaders. Our hero at first tells us of his opinions that Indians are, when push comes to shove, basically "savages." But as the book moves along and Towne matures, and he learns more about the Indians and about the villainy that Europeans perpetrate on the natives, so do his perspectives and his sympathies. Which is not to say this is an even-handed treatment, narratively. The book is a product of its time, for sure. Jews don't come off too well, either. That said, the plotting and characterizations in this novel turned out to be more nuanced and complex that I was expecting. Heroes turn out to be flawed, sometimes gravely so, expectations regarding stereotypical romantic historical fiction plotting are often subverted, as well. So while there are parts of this long novel that move along less briskly than we would wish, overall I found this to be a very entertaining reading experience.

This book was first published in 1937, and we find it listed in the post for that year in the old, mostly deserted but still interesting to peruse Bestsellers Over the Years group. In fact, according to the book's "Bibliographical Note," including the book's first appearance on June 25, 1937 and the printing of the copy I own on August 30, 1938, there had been 26 printings!

maj 12, 2022, 3:55 pm

>16 rocketjk: I really enjoyed your comments about what you noticed as you read -- the actual history illuminated meta to the historical fiction.

maj 12, 2022, 4:18 pm

maj 17, 2022, 5:38 pm

Book 7: The New Breed: The Story of the U.S. Marines in the Korea by Andrew Geer

This book was not what I was expecting. It was written while the Korean War was still going on. On the book's front cover flap, we're told that the author, a WW2 Marine veteran who'd returned to duty for the Korean conflict, serving in 1950-51, "had access to the complete file of Marine combat reports and was able to gather material at firsthand as an active Marine field officer during the dreadful spring and summer of 1950-51 in Korea. He interviewed 697 Marines individually in preparing this history." It was those 697 interviews that gave me the impression that the book was going to be a series of oral histories about frontline life and combat during the war. What Geer did instead was lean more on those official combat reports to create detailed narratives of the troop movements, battles, down to individual skirmishes, throughout the Marines' first years of combat in Korea. Geer's accounts get very, very detailed, down to orders given and followed by individual rifle companies on a day-to-day basis. Battle scenes are often detailed by the acts--frequently the heroics--of individual enlisted men, non-coms and officers during battle, including the specifics about what individual Marines were doing, or attempting to do, when they were killed, and what they said just before their deaths. I assume that these details come from those 697 interviews. The time period related here spans from the Marines' first entry into Korea shortly after the beginning of hostilities, their fight to liberate Seoul, their march northward to the Chosin Reservoir, where they became surrounded, and their fight to break through this containment and make their way to the sea and evacuation. The enervating and deadly cold and the effects of frostbite and malnutrition, as well as the horrifying attrition as Marines are wounded or killed, are described in detail effectively enough to give the reader a feel, even from the remove of decades, of what the men experienced.

You won't find much if anything here about the politics or larger command strategies of the Korean War. Instead, this is a report of the day to day experiences of soldiers within a hellish cauldron of war. It should be noted that as realistic and well written as the book is, it's also essentially a work of propaganda. No matter how poorly a particular battle goes, for example, it is never described as having been the result of a strategic mistake. And while there are occasional references to "slackers" or "stragglers" among the Marines, for the most part, everyone is a hero. There is, I am grateful to be able to say, no description of the war as a noble cause. The war is simply taken for granted as an assignment. So while the Korean War is not glorified, life in combat, it seems to me, is, albeit tacitly.

Redigerat: jun 1, 2022, 11:45 pm

Book 8: Good Rockin' Tonight: Sun Records and the Birth of Rock 'n' Roll by Colin Escott with Martin Hawkins

This is a fun, briskly written history of one of the seminal record labels in American popular music and it's founder and driving force, Sam Phillips. Phillips, in his relatively primitive Memphis recording studio, had an ear for unique, forceful--even raw--singers and musicians. His genius was that what he wanted to do was not to make these musicians fit popular molds, but instead to highlight each musicians raw qualities, to enhance the elements that made them stand out. Rather than smooth over the rough edges, Phillips wanted to make that roughness stand out in sharp relief, and he was skilled at getting the best of these musicians in the studio. He would listen to anybody, always hoping to find a diamond in the rough. In this manner, Phillips, through his famed record label, Sun, first brought to national prominence such stars as Howlin' Wolf, B.B. King, Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis and, most famously, Elvis Presley. None of them stayed very long with Phillips and Sun--his inability to promote more than one or two musicians at a time saw to that, as did the larger contracts that national record labels could offer once a musician's initial contract with Sun had run its course. But many of these musicians made their best and most enduring music in their early recordings with Phillips.

In the course of relating the rise and fall of Sun (though not Phillips, who went on to do just fine for himself in a slew of endeavors after his recording and promoting days were over), the authors also give us a revealing snapshot of the inner working of the popular music industry in America during the mid-1950s through mid-60s. In addition, there are fascinating thumbnail biographies of many of the most famous (and also the lesser known) musicians who came recorded for Sun to lesser or greater ultimate success. Also, the curtain is lifted on the creative recording process of these musicians, as Phillips and his musicians moved from blues and R&B, through country music, into the earliest days of rock and roll, and pop music as well. The book was published in 1990, and many of the musicians, technicians, promoters and producers who worked with Phillips were still around to be interviewed, as was Phillips himself. (He passed away in 2003 at the age of 80.) The authors seem to have done plenty of interviewing, in fact, and they also quote from the work of other music writers to round out their accounts. This is not the most in depth account one might read, I guess, though on the other hand, I don't know if there are any others. At any rate, it is a fun book for anyone interested in the topic.

jun 2, 2022, 7:35 am

>20 rocketjk: Sounds like a good one! I recently read the first volume of Peter Guralnick's Elvis biography, Last Train to Memphis and it had quite a bit on the history of Sun and Sam Phillips.

I visited the Sun studios when I was in Memphis back in the mid 1990s, and have the T-shirt to prove it. :-) It was really interesting.

jun 2, 2022, 10:42 am

>21 rosalita: Thanks! I'd love to visit the Sun studio now. I haven't been to Memphis since the mid-80s. I was there on a writing assignment that didn't leave me time for that sort of thing. I did get to visit the Motown studio in Detroit, though. That was a lot of fun.

Redigerat: jun 2, 2022, 10:54 am

>22 rocketjk: Yes, the Motown studio/museum is fantastic! I visited it in 1999 when I was in Detroit for a back-to-back Springsteen concerts. Adding to the excitement was Garry Tallent (Springsteen's bassist) showing up while we were there. I guess he was also killing time before the concert that night. :-D

jun 2, 2022, 3:07 pm

>23 rosalita: Now that is cool, indeed!

jun 3, 2022, 1:12 pm

Book 9: The Owl in the Attic and Other Perplexities by James Thurber

This is an amusing but slight entertainment from Thurber. Although I spread it out and read it through little by little, it could really be read through in an afternoon's sitting or two. The book has three parts: "Mr. and Mrs. Malone," "The Pet Department," and "Ladies' and Gentlemen's Guide to Modern English Usage."

"Mr. and Mrs. Malone" is a series of vignettes about the couple of the title, middle class and, as far as I can remember, childless. He is bumbling and dim, she is loving but long-suffering and perpetually bemused, even by his attempted infidelities. Every once in a while, Mr. Monroe turns out to have been correct about something. The problem is that, in many of the stories, at least a third, Mr. Malone is actually too dim for the tales to be humorous. Those fall stories fall flat.

"The Pet Department" is a series of tongue in cheek responses for an imaginary advice column on pets. Each of these come with a Thurber cartoon drawing. They're mostly fun in a whimsical sort of way.

"Ladies' and Gentlemen's Guide to Modern English Usage" is the most amusing section of the three. Here we have Thurber's tongue-in-cheek descriptions--full of amusing digressions--of syntax and parts of speech such as "Whether," "Who and Whom," and "The Split Infinitive." These also come with fun Thurber drawings. Anyone who's grabbled with these syntactical elements as a teacher or a writer or both will enjoy these. Sadly, "The Split Infinitive," which would otherwise be the best section of the lot, includes a brief but dismaying suggestion of the violence against women that is wince inducing, to put it mildly.

I wouldn't go out of my way to find this collection, but if you ever run into it at a thrift store or garage sale, it might be worth picking up, as a curiosity if nothing else.

jun 5, 2022, 8:58 am

Hi Jerry. I've been neglecting the ROOTers for some time. Live, sunny days, babysitting the grandkids and doing volunteer work for the library at Lonne's school. And reading of course. Today is a rainy day with some thunderstrokes. A perfect Sunday for reading al those neglected threads.

Good to see you are still reading those ROOTs, keep it up.

jun 14, 2022, 1:25 pm

Book 10: Going to Meet the Man by James Baldwin

The last four stories of this eight-story collection are among the most powerful short stories I can ever recall reading. Those stories are "Sonny's Blues," "This Morning, This Evening, So Soon," "Come Out the Wilderness," and "Going to Meet the Man." The first three stories of that quartet embed us* into experiences and perspectives of Black Americans in 1950s/60s American as they navigate both implicit and explicit prejudice and try to manage the constant psychological and external pressure these constants create for them. The last of the four puts us inside the head of a Southern sheriff during the days of the Civil Rights movement, as well see how his experience of a lynching in his childhood has helped fuel the rage that explodes behind the blows of his baton as he goes after Blacks lined up to register to vote. The beauty and power of Baldwin's writing, I think, has always been greatly enhanced by the compassion built into his world view, even for that sheriff as he stands in a jail cell over the man he has just beaten bloody. My emphasis of the final four stories isn't meant to imply that the first four tales aren't excellent. They focus on childhood, and are all quite good in many ways, especially as they describe the only partially controlled rage with which many of the adult male characters seethe. They just weren't quite as powerful for me. I don't think it's a stretch, or at all original, to say that Baldwin was one of the very greatest American writers of the 20th century.

jun 26, 2022, 6:09 am

Sounds lovely, Jerry.

jul 5, 2022, 5:17 pm

Book 11: Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave by Frederick Douglass

I've waited far too long to finally read this classic and powerful testimony of the evils of chattel slavery in America. Douglass tells in straightforward fashion his story of the frequency of whippings, the demeaning and demoralizing nature of living life enslaved and the daily pains and degradations endured by the enslaved men, women and children he knows as a youth. Enslaved from birth, Douglass, once he became old enough to understand the full ramifications of his situation, acquired and retained a determination to find freedom. His first step was to surreptitiously learn to read. As such, this is also a testament to the enduring possibilities of the human spirit. Anyone with a doubt as to the absolute evil of American slavery will be disabused of such doubts after reading these searing 126 pages.

jul 13, 2022, 2:01 pm

Book 12: Song of Solomon by Toni Morrison

Nobody needs a lengthy review of Song of Solomon at this late date from the likes of me. I fully enjoyed my reread of this modern classic, decades removed from my initial exposure to it. On this second reading, I did have a little bit of trouble settling completely into the narrative at the outset. Initially, none of the characters are particularly likable, including the book's protagonist, Milkman. But as we begin to see more of these characters' lives, often as they explain themselves to Milkman or, in the case of Milkman himself, though his own experiences, they begin to gain dimension, and we begin to attain perspective. At this point, I became wholly invested in the story. The skillfully drawn themes of Morrison's narrative begin to emerge: the dangers of personal isolation, the holding of grudges and the assumption that there isn't more to be learned about the people around you; the prices paid of living a life in Diaspora; the power of mythology and legend; the slow-dripping, corrosive poison of hatred and revenge seeking; the redemptive powers of forgiveness and the liberating nature of learning one's own family history. All this is framed within the rewarding, perhaps somewhat larger-than-life, portrayal of African American culture, both in the rustbelt north, where Milkman's story begins, and in the isolated mountains of Virginia, where Milkman goes searching for treasure. I'm very glad to have reread this now.

Redigerat: aug 3, 2022, 7:05 pm

Book 13: The Family Moskat by Isaac Bashevis Singer

The Family Moskat is Isaac Singer’s second novel, published originally in 1950, or approximately 15 years after Singer’s immigration from Poland to the U.S. The novel portrays the at first gradual and eventually rapid collapse of the Jewish community of Warsaw in particular and of Poland in general, from the early years of the 20th century through the German invasion in 1939. The novel ends with bombs falling over the city.

The book is alive with detail and movement. Life, fear, lust, squalor, crowds, noise and smells. Near the beginning of the narrative, Singer propels us into the midst of a marketplace in the Jewish quarter of Warsaw as if ejecting us from a carriage with a boot to the small of the back. In an instant we are in the midst of a rousing blast of striving and clamor.

The tale is told through the lense of the life of the titular family. As the book opens, Menshulam Moskat is the late-middle aged financially successful patriarch of a sprawling family. Adult children, in-laws and grandchildren abound, though Menshulam’s right-hand man in business is not a family member at all, but a retainer named Koppel Berman. The family is a mixed bag. Some are still pious Jews, even Chassidim, while others have become more secular, gradually or entirely turning their backs on the old religious ways. At the beginning, the tale of the feuding, fractious but insular family is told in almost comic fashion. And into the mix comes young Asa Heshel Bennett, who comes to Warsaw to get away from the smothering Jewish culture of a small shtetl town on the Polish-Belorusse border and instantly falls in with Abram Moskat, Menshulam’s most ne’er do well son who takes the young newcomer under his wing.

As the decades go by, the family’s fortunes deteriorate, as does the coherent nature of Polish Jewry, as younger generations increasingly (but certainly not entirely) turn their back on old ways. Many become socialists, Communists, Zionists, hedonists, academics . . . the whole range within the whirlpool of European intellectual life in the 20s and 30s.

Singer looks at these phenomena with a complex mix of understanding, criticism and sadness. In his own life, Singer was the son of a Warsaw rabbi and saw these developments at first-hand, himself turning from the religious to the secular/intellectual. I’ll finish up with a lengthy quote that in many ways sums up the sadness that, understandably, runs through The Family Moskat. Here, Asa Heshel has returned to his hometown village to visit his mother:

After the meal . . . Asa Hershel walked off along through the village. For a while he stopped at the study house. Near the door, at a long bare table, a few old men bent over open volumes dimly illuminated with flickering candles. From the shul Asa Hershel turned into the Lublin Road. He halted for a moment at a water pump with a broken handle. There was a legend current in Tereshpol Minor that although the well underneath had long since dried up, once during a fire water had begun to pour from the spout, and the synagogue and the houses around it had been saved from destruction.

He turned to the road that led to the woods. It was lined with great trees, chestnut and oak. Some of them had huge gashes torn in their sides by bolts of lightning. The holes looked dark and mysterious, like the caves of robbers. Some of the older trees inclined their tops down toward the ground, as though they were ready to tumble over, tearing up with them the tangled thickness of their centuries-old roots.

Redigerat: aug 8, 2022, 1:56 pm

Book 14: Show - The Magazine of the Arts, July 1962 edited by Robert M. Wool

Read as a "between book" (see first post). This is another entry from the stack of old magazines sitting at the bottom of my closet that I'm trying to gradually read through. I tried running an online search to learn the history and duration of this publication, but couldn't find anything. I must admit I didn't spend a lot of time on it. At any rate, this July 1962 edition of Show provided a very rich selection of reading, indeed. The central theme of the edition was the Japanese film industry. Among the articles on this topic were an interesting profile of Akira Kurosawa and his movies and a humorous piece on the many openings in Japan for Americans and Europeans (no acting experience necessary!) to play movie villains. But there were many fascinating pieces above and beyond that central theme. For example, we have a long entry from Somerset Maugham's memoirs describing his unfortunate marriage but also his activities working for the British government during World War One. Also, an evocative and absorbing memory essay from Joseph Heller describing the Coney Island of his youth. Another was a fascinating essay by dancer/actor/writer Geoffrey Holder about his participation in an American government sponsored cultural expedition to Lagos. And Leonard Feather writes about the health of the jazz festival. These are some of the most interesting pieces, and also on hand are reviews of movies, plays, music, books visual art and more, all providing a snapshot of the American world of the arts in 1962. I love these old magazines for the pictures and knowledge they provide of the eras in which they were published.

aug 8, 2022, 1:55 pm

Book 15: Boy in Blue by Royce Brier

Here is an obscure but highly readable novel about the American Civil War. Boy in Blue was published in 1937. Doing the math, this means that it was published 85 years ago, but "only" 72 years after the end of that war. The author, Royce Brier, was a reporter for the San Francisco Chronicle who three years before this book's publishing had won the Pulitzer Prize in Reporting "For his account of the lynching of the kidnappers, John M. Holmes and Thomas H. Thurmond in San Jose, Calif., on Nov. 26, 1933 after they had been jailed for abducting Brooke Hart, a merchant's son."

In a way the novel is standard fare. Robert Thane, a young naive but good-hearted boy is growing up on a farm in Indiana. The Civil War has just begun. His father is a staunch Unionist and abolitionist, but his uncle's sentiments are with the Confederacy. Robert has an older brother who is soon to enlist with the Federals. In the meantime, Robert is in love with the pretty girl living on a nearby farm. She returns his affections, but he is too shy to do much about it. Soon, of course, events send Robert off to the war as well. Well, it seems that every Civil War novel, and many another historical novel in general, begin more or less in this way. A reader must simply determine to plow through the opening to get to the real action of the story. However, Brier was a pretty good writer, and he does a good job of using this opening act to set the stage of Robert's attitudes about the war. And while we see him as naive at the beginning, he comes to see his father's passion for the principles that have set the conflict in motion as being the real naïveté. We may or may not agree with that, but we can understand the soldier in the midst of the conflict thinking so.

Robert's early army days entail a lot of training, and then months of marching hither and yon, up and down Tennessee, without seeing much action. As readers, we know, of course, that there must be a climactic battle coming at the end of all this. Still, the descriptions of those dreary months of marching and discomforting struggle are rendered quite well and we do feel that we're getting a believable close feel for the experience of an army in the midst of its perplexing (to the foot soldiers) wanderings. Brier was very good with the sights and sounds and physical toils of the marching, rain soaked or sun beaten days and weeks going by, with just enough characterizations of Robert's marching comrades to fill in the spaces around him. The flyleaf tells us that Brier spend a long time walking the Cumberland Valley trails that the Federal army traversed during the weeks leading up to the battles fought there, and we can certainly believe it.

The battle, when we finally get to it, takes up around the final 60 or so pages of the book. We do not know whether Robert will survive. It is a testament to Brier's skill, I think, that the ending, whether it's to be happy or tragic, is not telegraphed. So, all in all, I am happy to have read this novel, though it doesn't surprise me too much that it's become forgotten and obscure. My copy, a first edition, is one of only four copies listed here on LT. I've had it on my shelf since before my LT "Big Bang," which is to say before I first began posting my personal collection here in 2008.

aug 8, 2022, 4:05 pm

>32 rocketjk: I really enjoy Joseph Heller -- and I see that his Coney Island essay is collected in Now and Then, which I've wishlisted, thank you.

aug 8, 2022, 5:07 pm

>34 detailmuse: You're welcome! It's really a wonderful, evocative and heart-felt piece of writing.

sep 3, 2022, 7:10 am

Hi Jerry, Just waving and reading your reviews!

sep 3, 2022, 10:57 am

>36 connie53: Thanks for dropping. Hi, back!

sep 3, 2022, 11:19 am

>33 rocketjk: Obscure indeed, Jerry. I've certainly never heard of this one, though it sounds interesting.

sep 3, 2022, 11:36 am

>38 rosalita: It is definitely an interesting novel, Julia, and pretty good reading. It's interesting, as well, to consider why a book like this one would have disappeared so thoroughly. It is perhaps not sensationalized enough, too much day-to-day experience and not enough grand adventure, to have caught the general mass culture imagination. But also, while it's certainly readable and engaging, I wouldn't really call it compelling, which is my standard adjective for books that really pull you along almost in spite of yourself. Thanks for stopping in!

sep 16, 2022, 2:27 pm

Book 16: Falling Toward Forever by Gordon Eklund

Sometimes you just need one from the pulp paperback shelf, especially when there are a couple of long plane rides in the offing, and so it was with my decision to take this fun science fiction novel along on my recent vacation. Falling Toward Forever was published in 1975. Two soldiers are fighting on the same side in an anti-colonial war in an unnamed African country. One, Ahmad, is a black man fighting to free his own country. Waller is a white mercenary, a former Vietnam War prisoner of war and torture victim. Embittered by the experience and the hypocrisy of the U.S. government, he was turned soldier for hire, willing, so he says, to fight for any insurgency against any established government. Although Ahmad is suspicious of Waller's motives and what he believes to be Waller's death with, the two have respect for each other as fighters. In the heat of a battle, Waller comes upon a woman who is trying to hide from the fighting. But she has a gun that she fires at Waller, hitting his arm. Just as he is about to return fire, Ahmad runs up from behind and yells at Waller not to shoot. Suddenly, all three of them are snatched from the spot by an unseen force and dropped down in a wholly alien environment. Where are they and what has happened to them? The rest of the novel, of course, brings the trio trying to sort out their circumstances and deal with the people whose time and place they have suddenly entered.

Eklund seemed to be attempting to add at least a touch of social awareness to his story. It's hard to miss the fact that our trio of heroes include a white man, a black man and a woman. The leadership and planning, and the best ideas and plans, ebb and flow between all three characters throughout the story. On the other hand, the leadership often does default to Waller, and we are expected, it seems, to see this as natural. Well, I don't want to make too much of all that. This is, after all, a pulp novel, and it appears Eklund was at least aware of these issues in his storytelling. At any rate, Eklund's writing is pretty good, here. The plot itself gets more implausible as things go along, and the ending is rushed, but what the heck, I had fun reading the tale, which was just right for vacation reading.

okt 10, 2022, 12:28 pm

Book 17: Ruling Over Monarchs, Giants & Stars: Umpiring in the Negro Leagues & Beyond by Bob Motley

Bob Motley certainly led a fascinating life. Motley was a Black man born in the early 1920 in Jim Crow polluted Alabama. His dream was to be a ballplayer, but his talents couldn't keep up with those dreams. When World War II broke out, Motley became one of the first African Americans accepted into the Marines and saw combat, and a lot of it, in the Pacific theater. After the war, Motley decided to stick with his dream of making a living in baseball, but now as an umpire, for which he felt that his combination of Marine toughness and natural flamboyance made him suited. In fact, after many years of umpiring sandlot and semi-pro games, Motley made it to the top of the profession, at least as it existed for African Americans in the 1950s, a job umpiring in the Negro Leagues. By the 1950s, Major League Baseball had been somewhat integrated, as more and more Black players had joined the Major League ranks after Jackie Robinson, Larry Doby and several others had first integrated the game in 1947. Umpiring, however, was another story. I guess the difference was MLB's willingness to have Black players, in positions, despite their obvious talents, of relative subservience to management, but not, as umpires, in positions of relative authority. In other words, it was one thing for a Black man to be able to strike out a white player with fastballs and curves, another for a Black man to call a white man out on a borderline pitch or a close play at first base. And not only were the Major League umpiring ranks still segregated, but even the minor leagues as well. Motley kept pushing, however, and eventually was hired as the second African American to umpire in the Pacific Coast League, a very high minor league. Motley, all these years, had also had a full-time job at the General Motors plant. He gives the company high grades, in fact, for allowing him lots of leeway in terms of taking time off to go on the road to umpire during baseball season. By the late 50s, Motley had been promoted into GM's management ranks, and finally decided to give up umpiring in order to concentrate on enjoying life with his wife and two growing children. So he finished short of his dream of managing in the big leagues.

So the story that Motley has to tell is, obviously, fascinating. A constant thread throughout the memoir is the pervasiveness of Jim Crow, from his childhood days of having to duck down out of sight when the Klan came roaring through his family's poor Alabama small-town neighborhood to the dangers and humiliations the Black players experienced during their barnstorming journeys through the South, right into the 1950s. The memoir does have some flaws, though. For one thing, Motley was already in his 80s when he finally sat down and told all these stories to his son, Byron, who then produced this "as-told-to" narrative. As Motley says himself near the book's conclusion, many of the specifics of time and place had faded for him by then. So in the reading, there are times when recollections that you wish would be more detailed and specific remain general, and the narrative is often somewhat flat, with cliches relatively common. People are often "thrilled," and they "marvel" and so on. In addition, Motley umpired in the Negro Leagues at a time, post MLB integration, when the Negro Leagues were beginning to implode, with teams folding and investment waning for lack of interest. So I'm a bit dubious of Motley's claims that there was no diminishing of the quality of play over the seasons that the Negro Leagues gradually shrank from three full leagues to one four-team league. Nevertheless, many of the tales Motley does tell are fascinating. He doesn't add much to my knowledge in describing his impressions of Hank Aaron, Ernie Banks and Willie Mays, who as young players came through the late Negro Leagues, but his stories of umpiring behind the plate when the great Satchel Page was pitching are priceless. And many others of his recollections of events both on the field and off make this memoir well worth reading, particularly, though not necessarily exclusively, for baseball fans. This is, overall, an American story.

nov 1, 2022, 12:26 pm

Book 18: The Background of Our War by The U.S. War Department Bureau of Public Relations

The U.S. War Department (now known rather euphemistically as the Department of Defense) put this book together immediately after the attack on Pearl Harbor that finally brought the U.S. into World War 2. The War Department evidently assumed that cadets at the U.S. Military Academy (a.k.a. West Point) needed to be brought up to speed about what had been going on in the world over the past 10 years or so. The book contains a chapter apiece about the war up until that time. The Japanese invasion of China and other pre-Pearl Harbor activities in the Pacific get a couple of chapters, and there's a chapter each for the Nazi invasions of Norway, Poland and France, the Battle of Britain and the Battle of the Atlantic, among others. There will be very little that's new here for folks who are up to speed on their WW2 military history, although the book might serve as a good primer for those who haven't read much on the topic. The writing and explanations are generally clear and straightforward. There's more than a bit of a propaganda element going on here, you won't be surprised to learn. The snafus that were part of the English Army's attempts to help the Norwegians fight off the German invasion and the inept defense of France are both pretty much whitewashed, for example. At any rate, copies of this book were evidently handed out to West Point cadets. It's unclear to me whether there was any further distribution of the book, although if not, the volume does represent a pretty impressive effort all told for such a small (in numbers, anyway) an audience.

Book note: This volume has been on my Military History shelf since 2010. So, a while. I have no memory of purchasing it, but most likely in some thrift shop or antique store somewhere. According to the penciled in price on the inside cover, I paid a dollar for it. According to the inscription written in ink, the book originally belonged to

Cpt. A.W. Brooks
Co. F-1, U.S.M.A

Redigerat: nov 5, 2022, 11:03 am

Book 19: The Boys in the Boat by Daniel James Brown

Everybody with an affinity for this sort of book was reading it when it first was published several years ago. I still owned my used bookstore in those days and I couldn't keep the book on my shelves. And I can understand why that was, now that one my reading group buddies assigned the book for last month's reading. It's a rags-to-glory tale of the group of mostly working class young men who endured personal hardships galore as well as a grueling training regimen of several years' duration to bring honors to themselves and to the University of Washington while rowing crew in an 8-man boat. Not only did they manage to defeat the upper class teams who rowed at Cal Berkeley and the elite Eastern Seaboard schools, but they went to Nazi Germany in 1936 and embarrassed Hitler by winning an Olympic Gold Medal.

The central focus of the book is one of the rowers, Joe Rantz, whom the author met very late in Rantz's life and was able to interview at length. Rantz's personal story, especially his early years, would have made a good book even if he'd never touched an oar. He grew up in Depression-era rural Washington and, at age 15, was abandoned by his family and left to fend for himself.

Brown does a good job of describing Rantz's youthful experiences, and also a very good job of describing the gathering of the crew team, and the harrowing winnowing out phase of the boys who turn out to audition for the freshman crews. Other figures who come into play are the team's coaches and George Pocock, the boat builder, part-time coach and philosopher who comes to have a great influence on the team as a whole and on Rantz in particular. The details of rowing, and what it takes to turn nine young men (eight rowers and a coxswain) into a smoothly running boat with "swing" are also handled extremely well. Also, Brown takes pains to show us the ways in which, simultaneously to all this training and effort and pain, Hitler is working feverishly to turn the 1936 Olympics into a showcase for the new Nazi regime. Finally, the minute-by-minute excitement of each individual race the boys row is presented in very engaging fashion.

So, as I said, I can certainly understand the book's success. The flaws, such as they are, come for me in Brown's breathless style and, in particular, in his overuse of cliche. People are "thrilled to the core," they decided to do things "here and now," they "marvel" at events and observations. These sort of glitches pop up several times per page. And while the description of the buildup to the Olympics and the frantic efforts on the part of the Nazis to turn the events into a propaganda bonanza for themselves is well done, there is basically no attempt made to describe any connection between all that and the Washington rowing team. If they had any idea of what was going on there, and what they were getting into, or of what their impressions of it were once they arrived in Germany, we get no hint of it. As readers we understand the context in which they won their medal, but the boys' knowledge and/or experience of it is entirely missing. Certainly, at least the coaches, whose perspective we are given throughout the book, were at least somewhat aware of it all. And again, at least the coaches had to know about the large movement within the U.S. to boycott the Olympics due to the Nazi's anti-Semitic policies and actions. That movement is described, but as readers we'd think that nobody in the state of Washington had ever heard of it.

So, anyway, I'd call this a good book all in all. Brown's success here was deserved. The reservations I've described above knock it down to 3 1/2 stars for me.

nov 5, 2022, 9:17 am

>43 rocketjk: A very thoughtful review - you've certainly given me something to ponder when I pick up The Boys in the Boat.

nov 5, 2022, 11:07 am

>44 Caramellunacy: Thanks! Just a note that nobody else in my reading group experienced any of the drawbacks that I did, so results clearly do vary. All the best!

nov 6, 2022, 3:38 pm

>43 rocketjk: Your comments are excellent. I liked it a lot, 4.5 stars, but remember some tediousness. I especially liked listening in part on audio, read by the fabulous Edward Herrmann.

nov 6, 2022, 4:22 pm

>46 detailmuse: Thanks. I've posted this review, more or less intact, in a couple of other groups I'm in, and you are the second person to speak of the excellence of Herrmann's audio version.

Redigerat: nov 27, 2022, 2:14 pm

Book 20: Tropic of Capricorn by Henry Miller.

This famous book, which appears both on many a "Banned Books" list and also on the list of 1001 Books to Read Before You Die, is in turns exhilarating, hilarious, thought-provoking, tedious, irritating and, for its misogyny, deeply disturbing. Miller was, as I understand the situation, intent on breaking away from standard forms of narrative and plot, and so his books are considered relatively significant in the timeline of the evolution of prose writing. The book is at its best when Miller is describing his disgust with the dog-eat-dog, hurly-burly, money-driven, industry-riven, heartless, dirty tumult of American life as experienced in New York City during the 1920s and 30s. We are meant to see the desperation of the Depression flattened individuals he encounters in his job hiring and firing delivery staff for a telegraph company as poignant despite the relentlessly comic/satiric nature of Miller's description of it all. But Miller has also created his first-person narrator, also named Henry Miller, to be not just a commentator on, but also a product of, the society he is intent on exposing. As such, we are made to see him as almost entirely amoral, a determined ne'er-do-well. Even his frequent generosity is executed with an eye toward subverting the despised dominant paradigm. And that amorality definitely extends to Miller's sexual adventures, which are relentlessly frequent and basically heartless. Women are mostly to be conquered and used, then walked away from. There is a rape scene near about the 1/3 mark of the book that is the nadir of this element of the book. I read this book essentially "blind," meaning I have read essentially no literary criticism, either contemporary with the book's publishing or in the intervening years, and have very little knowledge of Henry Miller the person and his attitudes about all this, and/or his purposes for sprinkling the book with these scenes. I assume he was attempting to present the narrator's gleeful depravity as a characteristic of the bankruptcy of American society. Even the narrator who sets himself up as critic is wrent through and through with the same poison. Even if this were true, it's still really hard for a modern reader, and I'm sure for women since the day the book first saw print.

The writing comes down to earth only when Miller, the narrator, is describing his childhood in the fondest of terms, and later bemoaning the inevitable changes in the neighborhood streets where that childhood took place. Miller also leaves earth quite frequently, and for long stretches at a time, with pages-long passages that essentially turn into language poems. I essentially began to just skim these sections. The language was fun, the imagery was clearly (well, to me, anyway) describing a desire to break free and fly above the mundane, to rise above the ordinary and expected experiences and duties of culture and even of artistic endeavors. But in terms of being able to make sense of the individual images and metaphors, I mostly skipped off them. Or maybe that was the point. At any rate, I'm glad I read this book, more or less for the experience, for the filling of another hole in my reading arsenal. I did skim a few of the LT reviews of this book, and many of them commented that its predecessor, Tropic of Cancer, is actually the better book. I very strongly doubt I'll be reading it, though. I've got the idea, and I think one is enough for me.

Book note: I bought this book quite recently at an annual used book sale held to raise money for a local volunteer fire department. My decision to select this book was informed mostly be this edition's vintage and place of origin. It is an edition printed in 1958 (a later printing of a 1957 edition) by the famed Obelisk Press in Paris.

dec 20, 2022, 5:49 pm

Book 21: Vinegar Hill by Franklin Coen

I often buy old books that are in good condition and that I've never heard of if the cover descriptions make them sound interesting. You take a chance on quality, of course. There's a reason you've never heard of the book, right? But they can be fun to read. Such was the case with my latest book read, one that had been sitting on my shelf since before my LT "Big Bang" (the year I first started entering my collection here) in 2008. Vinegar Hill by Franklin Coen is not to be confused with the relatively well-known novel of the same name by A. Manette Ansay. Coen's book was published in 1950. It is the story of a conflict in an unnamed Southern town (in an unnamed Southern state) between a group of small farmers, most of whom are WW2 veterans, and the entrenched monied interests in the town who are trying to pull off a lucrative land grab. The issue is where the new highway is going to go through the area, who is going to make money off the land rights, and who is going to be served (or not served) by the new road. The powers that be, of course, have the sheriff and his deputies in their pockets. In the very opening pages, one of the leaders of the "troublemakers" is murdered. The storyline revolves around what is going to be done about that, and by whom. The storyline is interesting enough, and the book is a relatively quick read. There are many points of view presented, and Jim Crow is not left out of the equation, either. There's even some sections of very nice writing. Things never really come together coherently, however, and the ending is mostly a hash. So I can see why this novel sank into obscurity, to the extent that there are only five LT members, including me, who have this book listed on LT. I will say, though, that the book was entertaining enough in the reading.

I did a little research about Frankin Coen and discovered that he was actually a well-known screenplay writer. Here is his credits page on IMDB:

I went looking for a review of the book and couldn't find anything via a simple online search. So, as I'm a NYTimes subscriber, I decided to use the Times website search engine. I found, there a very short review to the effect that while the writing was good, the characters were essentially set pieces. I actually though the characterizations were a little better than that. However, I also found a link to a short article about a lawsuit Coen had filed having to do with Vinegar Hill.

Warners is Sued by Franklin Coen
Warner Brothers Pictures has been named defendant in a $250,000 plagiarism suit filed in Superior Court on behalf of Franklin Coen. The complaint alleges that "Storm Warning," the wild starring Ginger Rogers and released early this year, infringes on a story of the same title submitted in screen treatment form by Mr. Coen to the studio about five years ago. The company rejected the story, according to the author's attorney . . . and then Mr. Coen rewrote it into a novel called "Vinegar Hill," published in 1950.

I couldn't find any online reference to how the lawsuit came out. The Wikipedia page for the movie ( doesn't mention the suit at all. The description of the movie here makes it sound like the movie was quite a wretched affair. It also featured, by the way, Ronald Reagan and Doris Day!

But all that does make sense in terms of the book itself. It's easily seen as a novel produced by someone more adept at screenplay writing.

dec 22, 2022, 8:59 am

Hi Jerry, Visiting your thread and reading your reviews. Very interesting things you wrote here.

I want to wish you and yours all the best voor 2023 and Happy Holidays!

Redigerat: dec 22, 2022, 12:18 pm

>50 connie53: Thanks for the kind words about my reviews and for the holiday greetings. Happy holidays and Happy New Year to you, as well. Cheers!

Redigerat: dec 30, 2022, 1:58 pm

Book 22: The Black Jacobins: Toussaint L'Ouverture and the San Domingo Revolution by C. L. R. James

The Black Jacobins is a fascinating study of the Haitian Revolution and the ascent, leadership and eventual downfall of its most powerful character, Toussaint L'Ouverture. Haiti, or San Domingo as it was known until its independence, was the most lucrative colony among France's possessions and the most lucrative colony of any in the West Indies. As such it was endlessly coveted by England. The money came from the sugar plantations, and the sugar plantations were run on the backs of African slaves. James opens the book with a long section describing this slavery, by his account more cruel even than what was experienced by the enslaved on American plantations. Then came the French Revolution, with its eventual claims of Liberty and Equality for all. But even in its most radical days, the Revolution, as described by James, was never free of the influence of the powerful merchant classes and landowners, not just the plantation owners, but the shipbuilders, import/export merchants and slavers, all of whom relied in one way or another on the sugar coming out of San Domingo for their fortunes.

In San Domingo itself, the society was fractured along class/racial lines. There were the rich white enslavers/plantation owners, plus the merchant class. Also there was a large group of mulattos, children of mixed parentage between enslavers and enslaved. The mulattos were free, some even being plantation owners and enslavers themselves and always, regardless looking down on the Blacks, the enslaved. Many of the slaves in San Domingo had come over on the Middle Passage themselves. They had more of African heritage than any sort of the European heritage that might have rubbed off on them over several generations. Arose from this boiling cauldron of resentment and distrust an ex-slave, Toussaint L'Ouverture, a born leader and military strategist who was able to inspire unquestioned loyalty from fellow officers and foot soldiers. A much shortened and simplified account of all that went on: the Blacks took up arms to throw off slavery; the mulattos took up arms to defend their property and social rights from the whites and, especially, the colonial forces of the French and, for a time, the English who landed when they thought the colony was ripe for the picking, not understanding how well the local Blacks and mulattos, lead by Toussaint, would fight them off in defense of what they saw as the principles of the Revolution that would eventually lead to their emancipation by the French, but never by the English.

In the end, the fighting came down to Toussaint and the Haitians against the forces of Napoleon, who sent a large army to subdue the Haitaians once his war against England had been (temporarily) concluded. Toussaint saw Haitian independence as a mistake. He wanted the island to have the benefit of European learning and civil institutions. And he never could come to the conclusion that Napoleon had left the ideals of the Revolution behind him and, dependent on the money and power of the French merchants, had come with the purpose of reinstitution slavery, which the Revolutionary councils had abolished throughout the French empire less than a decade before. So Toussaint vacillated in his campaign against these French forces, still hoping to make Napoleon understand that he was not aiming at separation from France but merely freedom for his people. It took a more clear-sighted leader, Dessalines, to understand that Toussaint's equivocation was causing confusion among the Haitian masses, and that he would have to supplant his leader. In a way we can see Toussaint as sort of a Moses figure, ascending the mountaintop but not reaching the promised land himself (though James never makes this reference). Eventually, the repeatedly defeated French, with their armies decimated by battle losses and by yellow fever, gave up and left, and Haiti became an independent country. James ends his narrative, abruptly, here.

James outlines the cruelties and massacres perpetrated by all sides in this conflict. He also gives vivid illustration of the bravery of the slave forces who sometimes charges guns and cannons with nothing more than rocks and metal-tipped pikes. He also described Toussaint's growing autocratic side. For example, during lulls in the fighting he insisted that the slaves return to their former plantations and continue working under their former masters, though with strict rules on treatment and with the workers now receiving one fourth of the plantations' profits. The idea was to keep the island's economy and revenue production from grinding to a halt. This was not a vision embraced by all, but Toussaint had the power to ensure the policy would be carried out. Similarly, Toussaint tried to keep mulattos and slaves from carrying out reprisals against their former enslavers, thinking that their expertise would be needed after the wars were over. But, says James, Toussaint, in his growing autocratic ways, never felt compelled to explain his motivations, assuming that his orders would simply be carried out whether understood or not. But the workers who made up his army became confused. One minute Toussaint was protecting white landowners and praising France, the next he was calling for them to take up arms to fight against the French. Which was it?

James was a lifelong and eminent Marxist, and we receive this extremely readable history through that strong Marxist lens. For example, at one point we read:

It is Toussaint's supreme merit that while he saw European civilization as a valuable and necessary thing, and strove to lay its foundations among his people, he never had the illusion that it conferred any moral superiority. He knew French, British, and Spanish imperialists for the insatiable gangsters that they were, that there is no oath too sacred for them to break, no crime, deception, treachery, cruelty, destruction of humanlike and property which they would not commit against those who could not defend themselves.

I have absolutely no argument with the statement (other than the fact that there did seem to be times that Toussaint held out hopes that the French would, indeed, stick to the oaths of their own Revolutions) and no beef with James' including these sorts of observations throughout his history. In fact, I found James' straightforward inclusion of his own perspectives a refreshing change from the normal historical "objectivity" that so many historians strive for. I also enjoy the fact that James places the history within the context of the times in which he was writing. The book was originally published in 1938. My copy is a second printing of the book's republishing in 1971. In a new introduction, James says that he's only made a few small changes in the text to excise short passages that further research had shown to be inaccurate. But often in the original text (occasionally with footnotes adde to remind us that the ideas had been written in 1938), James makes reference to the Spanish Civil War and the rise of anti-semitic laws in Nazi Germany. More frequent, and more to the point, are James' references to what he sees as the coming (in 1938) anti-imperialist revolutions in Africa.

I flew through this history's 400 pages. It is a compelling and detailed narrative about a section of history I knew very little about, extremely well told and clearly written, with additional insights that put the events in a valuable historical context.

dec 30, 2022, 8:05 pm

Book 23: Rough Translations by Molly Giles

This is Molly Giles' first short story collection, originally published in 1985. The stories are all well written, though overall the collection is not as satisfying as a later collection of her I read some time ago, Creek Walk and Other Stories. Well, that's what I get for reading the later collection first. The stories in Rough Translations all have female protagonists. For the most part, they are in, or relatively recently out of, unhappy marriages. Their husbands, care more about their jobs than their marriages, spend their weekend afternoons watching football to the exclusion of all else, undervalue them, condescend to and/or despise their wives and so forth. The women lack in confidence, though they'd once expected much more of themselves. In other words, despite the stories' individual effectiveness, resonating as they do with real life, there is a sameness to them that drains the collection as a whole of effectiveness. There are two or three that rise above these factors, and the final story, the title story, in fact, is a tour de force.

Perhaps we can see these tales as stylistic period pieces of mid-80s short fiction. At any rate, I found the stories in Creek Walk to be much more diverse and imaginative. I should say that Giles was an instructor at San Francisco State University when I was a grad student in the Creative Writing Department, there. I never had a seminar with her there, but she did sit in as instructor when one of my teachers had to take sick leave. She was an extremely popular and effective teacher, by all accounts.

dec 31, 2022, 3:51 pm

Book 24: Watch Czechoslovakia! by Richard Freund

This is a very short book, written in 1937, just months before the infamous Munich Agreement that allowed the German Army to occupy Czechoslovakia without a shot fired. The book is, at its heart, an examination of the conflicts within the country between the Czechoslovak majority and the German minority, the use that Nazi Germany might be likely to make of these conflicts, and the very important reasons why they would care. I could find very little information about the book's author. I did find a couple of contemporary book reviews online. Freund is referred to in one as an "Anglicized Austrian journalist" and in another as an "Anglo-Austrian journalist." At any rate, he seems to have known his business. He describes at one point an interview he had with Edvard Beneš, who had been the country's president since 1935 and would serve in that capacity again after the war. In between, Beneš led the Czech government in exile during the Nazi occupation.

Freund give a thumbnail sketch of Czechoslovak history and describes the geographic and economic factors that have made the country of such strategic importance in Central Europe throughout the centuries. As Freund wrote:

"Four points should be remembered: (1) the Western mountain arch, pointing towards the heart of Germany; (2) the 50 miles' gap in the northern range which, as the "Gateway of Moravia," has played an important part in the migrations of the European races for thousands of years; (3) the long sweep of the Carpathians pointing towards Rumania and Russia; (4) the Danube in the south.

The Bohemian basin with its mountain walls has been coveted by ambitious nations from the dawn of history, because its possession gives to a strong military power a strategic basis for operations over vast tracts of the European Continent."

Given the strategic military use Hitler and his generals were obviously likely to make of occupying the country, it's astonishing in retrospect that Neville Chamberlin could have every supposed that the result of the Munich Agreement would be a significant period of peace. It's all fascinating information, especially given the fact that it was written at the moment, and as educated conjecture rather than as history. It took me only a single rainy afternoon to race through the book's 112 pages. I have no idea when and where I found this volume. It's been sitting on my history shelf since before I first started posting my library here on LT in 2008, as its entry date in my LT collection is March 1, 2008. It's in perfect condition with dust jacket intact. Finally, there are exactly three LT "members" listed as having this book. Me, something called Czech Center Museum (which provides no information on its LT profile page as to where or what it actually is*) and Ernest Hemingway!

* Possibly this place in Houston:

And with that, I wrap up my 2022 reading. Sadly, I fell one book short of my 25 Off the Shelf Books goal. I'll have a 2023 thread up here soon, and probably a similar goal. On the one hand, I've got several of my "between books" (anthologies, collections, etc. that I read one entry at a time between the books I read straight through) that I'm almost finished with, and quite a few of them will count as off-the-shelfers, which will help my 2023 total. On the other hand, my wife and I are planning a trip that will take me away from my shelves for quite some time. So we shall see. All the best, and Happy New Year!

dec 31, 2022, 4:13 pm

>54 rocketjk: Wow, that one sounds absolutely fascinating!

Happy new year to you and yours, and see you on the 2023 thread.

dec 31, 2022, 5:34 pm

>55 Jackie_K: Thanks! And, yep, see you in 2023-land!