Saturday, January 02, 2010

My cousin Jenna's book reviews are online--and inspire my own reviews of books I'm reading

My cousin Jenna, the radical librarian, has a website about which I had not previously known. I am adding it to the links to the right of the posts. Her book choices are very different than mine, and reflect her more culturally liberal/radical views. Less charitably, I found many of her book choices* to run toward what I admit to calling "navel gazing" because the books strike me as written by people who did too much writing about themselves and who are far too personally narrow in their focus (and her strong interest in vampire books was an amusing surprise). Others, of course, may find her book choices for reviews more compelling.

* Two exceptions are the magisterial Jackie Robinson bio by Rampersad and Meredith Tax's novel of early 20th Century Jewish immigration and the socialist-labor movement...And Jenn, please give Jackie Robinson some slack on the Nixon-Kennedy election as Nixon supported civil rights more than JFK during the late 1950s, particularly the admittedly weak 1957 Civil Rights Act. JFK was simply not interested in civil rights when running for president, and his call to Martin Luther King's jail was simply a crass political move that worked more because the press guys loved JFK from the beginning. I have often believed that if Nixon was elected in 1960, it would have been a far more liberal Nixon who would have worked with LBJ to pass the type of Civil Rights legislation that was passed in 1964 and 1965.

If I was to list what I've been reading, it would be an alternating set of fiction, history and other non-fiction, with books by late 19th Century and early 20th Century mostly white writers. I am, for example, on a Booth Tarkington run right now, and find him to be surprisingly sharp as a social critic--and his prose even more surprisingly modern, yet beautiful. The Magnificent Ambersons (1918) is an extraordinary attack on the rising automobile culture, and the decline of the late 19th Century upper class families who did not have money invested in the latest industries of the time. The book is marred, however, by the use of the word "darky" to describe the black servants in the Indiana household of the Amberson family, which made me wonder whether Tarkington was a racist in that Woodrow Wilson sense. However, I am less sure of that opinion after reading The Gentleman from Indiana (1899), with the title character a young newspaper man of liberal, reformist ideas who runs afoul of what is a thinly disguised Ku Klux Klan (the book refers to them as the "white caps"), and The Two Vanravels (1902), where the hero is an 1840s era abolitionist and the bad guy is the father of the woman he loves, and which father is a pro-slavery fellow who wants us to go to war with Mexico so there would be more slave holding states. For those who think most Americans admired abolitionists in the 19th Century, even after the Civil War, think again...And as Tarkington sets his novels in his home State of Indiana, a State with a deep racist history, Tarkington is acutely aware of the racism of where he lived. He was therefore conscious of his choices for his heroes.

What has been most surprising to me is how fluid a writer Tarkington is, and how well he helps us understand what it meant to ride in a horse-driven carriage and live and work without electric lights and the other modern appliances which render us closer to the Jetsons than those who lived 150 years ago.

Before this run, I was reading a spate of Thomas Hardy works, including two sets of his sharp, funny, poignant and witty short stories, Wessex Tales (1888) and Life's Little Ironies (1894), which anticipate most strongly Steinbeck's The Pastures of Heaven, and his later works, Tortilla Flat and Cannery Row, in colorfully bringing to life the working class folks in all their glory, hubris and ability to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory.

Earlier in the last year, I enjoyed Hardy's Far From the Madding Crowd (1874) and A Pair of Blue Eyes (1873), both of which showed early on Hardy's recognition that the life of a female in a modernizing England and Europe was fraught with contradictory and oppressive admonishments and requirements, and that men behaved either boorishly, ridiculously or cruelly in various ways toward women--even the "nicer" guys. Hardy's prose reflects his love of poetry. His prose literally jumps into one's mouth as well as mind.

Ironically, I believe Hardy made his point about these matters better in these earlier novels than even his last novels, Tess and Jude the Obscure, because his early editors refused his desire to be more open in his feelings about the oppressive ways in which marriages were arranged and maintained at the time. Of the two earlier books, A Pair of Blue Eyes knocked me out and was a most astonishing read.

For my non-fiction reading, I've been reading Gandhi's Autobiography, which is outstanding in its still fresh, yet formal prose, and its brutally honest sensibility. Before that, I read a delightful and profound book of essays of Henry Adams first published in the 1870s. Adams' insights are remarkable considering he was only thirty when he was writing them, and the subjects range from the coming of the American Civil War, the fight over the Legal Tender Act of 1862, "The New York Gold Conspiracy" (eerily prescient for our present woes wrought from the corruptions of financiers) and the need for Civil Service Reform. The book of essays also includes Adams' controversial essay on Pocahantas and Captain John Smith that I found riveting in its historiography and lawyerly persuasion (yet, I found a recent debunking of Adams' analysis somewhat persuasive, too, though I strongly disagree with the professor's ascribing a base motive to Adams as that is far too speculative and inconsistent with other things I have known about Adams...). The essays are compelling to us almost a century and a half later, and I found myself wondering what old Henry would have thought of the ridiculous haggling going on with regard to health insurance reform.

I'm currently enjoying the new biography of Marcus Aurelius by Frank McLynn, and am learning far more about antiquity than I had thought I would learn, as McLynn does an outstanding job in weaving the context of the various decades and even centuries before and after Marcus' reign. I had so enjoyed Gore Vidal's Julian (1964) when I finally read it in early 2009, and feel that I will be better prepared to enjoy Vidal's Creation after I finish McLynn's lively, polemical biography of a relatively sensitive, intelligent, thoughtful and tolerant Roman emperor. And, not to keep myself too mired in antiquity, I just started Melvin Urolsky's Brandeis: A Life, which was just released several months ago. It is a fun and insightful read thus far...

I indulge myself in writing about my choices of some of the books read over the past year, as it strongly contrasts with my cousin Jenna's choices. I revere my cousin Jenna, however, and more power to her!



At 5:38 AM, Blogger Steve said...

Cool - Thanks for posting that...Steve

At 7:21 AM, Blogger Mitchell J. Freedman said...

We'll see how my cousin Jenna feels after she reads this post...She may not be "cool" in a different way perhaps...? :-)

At 7:22 AM, Blogger Mitchell J. Freedman said...

I meant to say she may be "cool" in a different way...It's too early in the morning out West as I type this...

At 9:39 AM, Anonymous Jenna said...

I'm adding your blog to my feed reader.

As for what you think of my book choices, I don't mind. I try not to judge what people read. I read for pleasure. I love the crazy range of books I read, from introspective zines that will one day be history's unmediated view into the lives of today's young women, to novels and memoirs by women of color that open my mind to how other people experience the world--and are experienced by it, to paranormal fiction that is just fun, to sports biographies and political novels that make me cry, and to celebrity memoirs that make me laugh.

The more political part of my blog, the Library of Congress Subject Heading analysis I think works because it's tempered with playfulness, as well. Yippies, Mickel!

I appreciate the Nixon-Kennedy analysis. It amuses me to imagine you thinking all this up as a three-year-old in 1960. I wouldn't put it past you!

At 10:58 AM, Blogger Mitchell J. Freedman said...

Have you ever seen the photo of me as a 3 year old with the JFK for President plastic hat? It is quite funny in that "Isn't that cute?" sorta way....That is a true story!

At 11:06 AM, Anonymous Jenna said...

I think you need to find that picture and post it here!


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