Monday, May 3, 2021

Red Harvest by Dashiell Hammett


For this year's 2021 Back to the Classics Challenge - choose a twentieth century classic - I went with Red Harvest by Dashiell Hammett published 1929 and to cut to the chase in no way can I recommend this novel.  No plot, no characterization, rival gangs gunning each other down on every other page, what was the author thinking?  

I ask because Dashiell Hammett is a major twentieth century writer.  Along with Raymond Chandler and James M. Cain he pretty much invented hard boiled crime fiction.  Hammett is the author of such classics as The Maltese Falcon and The Thin Man and what attracted me to him is that I had read one of his short stories many years ago and it was excellent.  And so maybe the problem with Red Harvest is that it was his first novel.  

I should add at this point that over at Amazon.com, Red Harvest has received 392 reviewers, the majority of which are 4 and 5 stars.  I don't get it but as with The Sound and The Fury by William Faulkner, I am probably missing something.  Therefore, I will definitely be reading more from Dashiell Hammett, maybe the Maltese Falcon, and I will put the Red Harvest experience behind me.

Sunday, April 4, 2021

The Call of the Wild by Jack London

It occurred to me as I was trying to compose this review that in the past few years I have read three books with the word "Wild" in the title.  Into the Wild by Jon Krakauer, Wild by Cheryl Strayed and now The Call of the Wild by Jack London published 1903.  I didn't plan on it. I chose The Call of the Wild for example because it fits this year's Back to the Classics category - choose a classic about an animal.  And yet something drew me to all three of these adventure books in which man, woman and dog go on their separate and dangerous journeys into the harsh wilderness.  

For Chris McCandless of Into the Wild it ends in tragedy.  But for Cheryl Strayed of Wild and Buck the Saint Bernard in The Call of the Wild it is a life changing experience.  Cheryl Strayed finds in herself the strength she went searching for and Buck whose journey into the Yukon is not voluntary nevertheless locates a part of himself he didn't know was in him, his ancient wolf nature.  As to whether the reader will be happy about how Buck changes that's another story.  I myself was not happy but that is not a criticism of the novel which is an amazing piece of literature, well deserving its classic status. It is violent though, "beautiful and savage" as one Amazon reviewer described the book.

And so, The Call of the Wild begins in the late 1890's on a ranch in Santa Clara, California owned by a wealthy judge and his family.  All kinds of animals reside on Judge Miller's property but Buck the family's four year old Saint Bernard/Scottish Shepard is special: 

"Buck was neither house-dog or kennel-dog.  The whole realm was his.  He plunged into the swimming tank or went hunting with the Judge's sons; he escorted Mollie and Alice, the Judge's daughters, on long twilight or early morning rambles; on wintry nights he lay at the Judge's feet before the roaring library fire ... Among the terriers he stalked imperious and Toots and Ysabel he utterly ignored for he was king --- king over all creeping, crawling, flying things of Judge Miller's place, humans included".

But despite Buck's pampered life danger is heading his way. Gold has been found in the Yukon, a northwest Canadian territory bordering Alaska.  Tens of thousands of prospectors from around the world are heading there to seek their fortune and big strong dogs are in high demand to pull the sleds and transport the goods.  At 140 pounds Buck is just the sort of dog they are looking for and one night he is lured outside, kidnapped by strangers, beaten, forced into a cage and put on a train that will eventually make its way to the Yukon. 

Buck's mistreatment at the hands of cruel masters both on his journey to the Yukon and once he arrives is hard to read.  Once he arrives in the Yukon he becomes part of a team of sled dogs and these dogs are worked to the bone, forced to haul mail and goods weighing hundreds of pounds for hours and hours with very little rest and often not enough food.  It's a violent world that Jack London conveys in The Call of the Wild. And many of the dogs are too soft and gentle and they don't make it. But Buck from the start is a leader who as the book tells us possesses cunning and imagination. He decides he wants to be the lead dog on the team pulling the sled and viciously kills Spitz his rival who has been the lead dog up to then.  And as we go deeper into the novel ts clear that despite the hardships and tough terrain Buck has taken to his new life:

"This ecstasy, this forgetfulness of living, comes to the artist, caught up and out of himself in a sheet of flame; it comes to the soldier, war-mad on a stricken field and refusing quarter; and it came to Buck leading the pack, sounding the old wolf-cry, straining after the food that was alive and that fled swiftly before him through the moonlight. He was sounding the depths of his nature, and of the parts of his nature that were deeper than he, going back into the womb of time". 

When the novel ends, Buck is not the same dog we were introduced to at the beginning of the story.  He is a wolf-like creature.  Any resemblance to the domesticated dog who lived contentedly with Judge Miller's family is gone although one could make the case that even back at the ranch in California there was an arrogance about Buck, an aloofness and cunning intelligence that the wild simply brought to the surface.  It's hard to know which version of Buck Jack London approved of or maybe he was just telling the story as accurately as he could of how a dog like Buck would transform himself given the circumstances he was faced with.  Either way, Jack London did a magnificent job with this novel and though no one can really know what dogs are thinking, London's creation of Buck rings quite true.

Monday, March 15, 2021

A Jury of Her Peers: American Women Writers from Anne Bradstreet to Annie Prouix by Elaine Showalter

Elaine Showalter is an award winning literary critic and biographer who has spent her career focusing on women's literature.  A prior book she wrote in 1977, A Literature of Their Own: British Women Novelists from Bronte to Lessing  was very well received and in 2009 she published A Jury of her Peers: American Women Writers from Anne Bradstreet to Annie Prouix which centers around US women novelists, poets and playwrights from the 19th and 20th century.  

And what you discover after the first few pages of A Jury of Her Peers is that it's very difficult for most people to name 19th century American women writers after one gets through mentioning Louisa Mae Alcott, Emily Dickinson, Harriet Beecher Stowe and Kate Chopin.  Were no other US women publishing novels and poems between 1800 and 1899?  

A Jury of Her Peers is the book that fills in the blanks and not in a boring list sort of way in which each writer starting with the poet Ann Bradstreet gets a few sentences and then you are on to the next writer who gets a few lines.  Elaine Showalter is too good a writer for that.  A Jury of her Peers (the title is taken from a famous short story by Susan Glaspell) reads like a novel and it's a book not only of American women's literature but also American history itself. You learn such interesting facts.  For example in 1791 Susanna Rowson published Charlotte Temple.  It would remain the biggest bestselling novel in the US until Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin published in 1852.  

We learn about Lydia Maria Childs and Catherine Maria Sedgwick who in the 1820's published really fine novels: Hope Leslie and Hobomok. Childs and Sedgwick were passionate advocates for Native American rights and people may know Lydia Maria Childs as the author of the classic children's song "Over The River and Through the Woods" but there was much more to her story.  The 1850's spurred on by the overwhelming popularity of Jane Eyre saw a real flowering of American women's fiction.  Not everyone was pleased, particularly Nathaniel Hawthorne, although to his credit he knew good writing when  he saw it, hence his remarks about Fanny Fern's novel Ruth Hall published in the 1850's:

"The woman writes as if the devil was in her and that is the only condition under which a woman writes anything worth reading. ,,. when they throw off the restraints of decency and come before the public stark naked ... then their books are sure to possess character and value". 

We learn about the late 19th century and how regional writing and the short story came into fashion in the US with such writers as Rose Terry Cook, Sarah Orne Jewett,  Mary Wilkins Freeman, Helen Hunt Jackson, Kate Chopin, Alice Dunbar Nelson etc and then we move to the 20th century and such writers as Mary Austin, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Susan Glapell, Zora Neal Hurston, Anzia Yezierska, Ellen Glasgow, Nella Larsen, Dorothy Parker and so many others.  

And as we get deeper into the 20th century the women novelists mentioned in A Jury of Her Peers and the time periods they lived through become more familiar and the impulse might be to put the book down and go on to something else.  But I am glad I didn't do that because the life stories of Flannery O'Conner, Shirley Jackson, Carson McCullers, Grace Metalious, Sylvia Plath and Amy Tan to name a few are worth reading about.  I did not know for example that Amy Tan's mother fled China and an abusive husband before the Communist revolution took over, leaving her three daughters behind.  But you can see from that real life story where the inspiration came for The Joy Luck Club.

They say that books lead you to other books and certainly that is true with A Jury of Her Peers. And what is even better is that practically all of the novels Elaine Showalter mentions are available via one's kindle at reasonable rates and sometimes at no cost at all.  Of course a number of these books are obscure for a reason, they are simply not that good, and Elaine Showalter doesn't shy away from saying so.  She makes an excellent guide as we go on this journey with her through American women's literature and American history as well.  

Sunday, March 7, 2021

Into the Wild by Jon Krakauer (reposted from my archives 8/8/2017)

In 1993 bestselling author and adventure writer Jon Krakauer wrote an article for Outside magazine about a young hiker who in April 1992 walked into the wilds of Alaska.  He carried with him a hunting rifle, a ten pound bag of rice, a few books and very little else.  His name was Christopher McCandless and his plan was to live in isolation, hunting his own food and communing with nature.  Four months later McCandless' body was found by a group of hunters who had stumbled upon the abandoned bus he had been living in.  

Chris McCandless had starved to death.  The Alaskan river he had crossed to make his way into the wilderness was passable in April when he arrived but when the summer came and the ice melted, the river swelled making it impossible for Chris to cross back into civilization, effectively trapping him where he was.  He was only 24.

Jon Krakauer wrote the article for Outside Magazine but couldn't let go of the story.  He decided his article needed to be a book. The result is Into the Wild (published 1997) an engrossing and thought provoking read.

Who was Christopher McCandless and why two decades on are many still fascinated by his story?  Most of us do what is expected in life and when we are young and finished with school the next step is the job market.  Sure we would like to live a carefree existence but there are consequences to that kind of life and so we conform.  Chris McCandless was different. After graduating with honors from Emory University he decided he would not do what was expected.  He took the $24,000 his parents had given him for Law School and donated it to charity.  He then set out on a two-year penniless hitchhiking journey throughout the American West which would eventually lead him to Alaska. 

Jon Krakauer went back and interviewed the people Chris met during his two-year odyssey and they are interesting.  Many parts of the American West are filled with people who have fallen off the grid, hippies, seekers, drifters, eccentrics.  But even though many of the people Chris met were living on the margins, they were worried when Chris shared his Alaska plans. Some tried to talk him out of it. Others tried to get him to let his parents know where he was since he had not written or called them in two years.  But Chris would not listen.  There had been a falling out between Chris and his parents over a secret his father had been keeping.  Chris in addition to being very bright could be very judgemental.  

I heartily recommend Into the Wild.  Jon Krakauer is a fine writer and he not only writes about Chris McCandless' life but he tells us about other explorers and adventurers from the 19th and 20th century.  Young men who also set out on journeys they did not adequately prepare for.  Jon Krakauer quotes from Chris' journals and letters which gives you an indication of why he chose to live the way he did.  Krakauer doesn't shy away from how badly Chris hurt his parents.  The people Chris met on the road were also shaken by his death.  It's probably a major reason people don't skip town, change their names and set out on risky adventures, our obligations to others.

Sunday, February 28, 2021

Cravings: How I Conquered Food by Judy Collins

"When I was controlled by food my soul shrank and my fear grew.  When I was abstinent, my soul grew and my body shrank.  When I was in the depths of my eating disorder, not only was I obsessed with food but my mind never stopped. The chatter, the talk, the back and forth, the internal argument was never-ending.  The peace of mind, quiet and serenity that I prayed for from the depths of my illness came with surrender.  It is something for which I am eternally grateful".  - Judy Collins

I have never been a smoker or had a problem with alcohol or drugs but I understand people who do because my addiction since I was a teenager has been food.  My weight is not good.  It's not healthy and over the years I have tried reading diet books and overeating memoirs but when it comes to sticking to a diet I have nothing but false starts.

And so a few weeks ago I was watching an interview on PBS with the legendary folk-singer Judy Collins.  She was very insightful in talking about her life and the current times we are living through.  After the interview I went to Amazon to see if Judy had written any books and it turns out she has written several.  One of her books, Cravings: How I Conquered Food published 2016, stood out in particular and so I decided to give it a read.   

It's a marvelous memoir about Judy Collins' life long struggle with food and bulimia and it's not every memoir that can boast a favorable review from the historian Ron Chernow and a starred review from Publisher's Weekly.  What makes Cravings so good is first Judy's writing.  She is not afraid to dig deep regarding her eating disorder and the answers she ultimately found with the 12 step program. 

Cravings is structured in an interesting way.  Chapters that deal with Judy Collins' life alternate with chapters devoted to the history of dieting.  I didn't know for example that  Lord Byron devised his own diet plan which consisted of tea, slices of toast, vegetables and chain smoking or that William the Conqueror fashioned his version of the liquid diet which involved drinking ale, beer, wine and nothing else.  

Fortunately as the centuries rolled on more medically sound nutritionists arrived and Judy tells their stories. Gaylord Hauser, for example, known in the 1940's as the Nutritionist to the Stars, Dr. Alfred Pennington who in 1953 published A New Concept in the Treatment of Obesity in the journal of the American Medical Association, Jean Nidetch the founder of Weight Watchers, Dr. Robert Atkins, Dr. Andrew Weil's Spontaneous Healing.  These diet plans began to show a pattern, eliminating starch, white bread, pasta, potatoes and drinking plenty of water.  Exercise and vitamins began to be added as well.

But Cravings is primarily a memoir of Judy Collins' personal struggles with food and also about her life.  She had a remarkable father, Charles Thomas Collins, blind since he was four but graduated with honors from the University of Idaho.  He was a fun loving man who inspired Judy to follow her dreams.  But he was addicted to alcohol and was never able to stop.  Judy writes about her mother, her siblings, the romances in her life, her friends and her music teacher, Dr. Antonia Brico, a famous musician in her own right, who was heartbroken when Judy as a teenager abandoned the piano to take up folk music and the guitar.  They would reconnect years later when Judy made a film about Dr. Brico, honoring her career.  

In Cravings Judy Collins is very generous to all the people she has known.  If she is hard  on anyone it's herself. Her life has been one of triumph and tragedy but today she is at peace, happily married for twenty-five years, a grandmother and she still tours, although at 82 not as often.  And because Judy wrote Cravings to help others she also includes the diet she has been following for many years.  It's strict but very simple.  I also like that her daily routine includes meditation.  Judy's life was changed years ago when she read Autobiography of a Yogi by Paramahansa Yogananda.  The older I get the more fascinated I too become by meditation, Buddhism, past lives.  

Who should read Cravings?  I think anyone with an eating disorder or any form of addiction would benefit from Judy Collins' hard earned wisdom.  But I would expand that and say if you are stuck in your life, looking for a new path, you can also benefit from this book. I know I am going to try to incorporate what I learned from Cravings in my life but ultimately the teacher can provide the way but it's up to the students to follow through.

Sunday, January 31, 2021

Here is New York by E. B. White

In 1948 E. B. White (the author of Charlotte's Web, Stuart Little, and The Trumphet of Swan) was asked by Holiday Magazine, to write an article about New York.  White was living in Maine at the time and didn't like traveling all that much but he agreed to stay at the Algonquin and spend a few weeks walking around Manhattan recording what he saw and how the city had changed since he had last lived there in the 1920's.  The result was Here is New York a classic essay later published as a book and described by critics as one of the great love letters written about the city: 

"New York is peculiarly constructed to absorb almost anything that comes along (whether a thousand-foot liner out of the East or a twenty-thousand-man convention out of the West) without inflicting the event on its inhabitants; so that every event is, in a sense, optional, and the inhabitant is in the happy position of  being able to choose his spectacle".

"Every block or two, in most residential sections of New York is a little main street.  A man starts for work in the morning and before he has gone two hundred yards he has completed half a dozen missions: bought a paper, left a pair of shoes to be soled, picked up a pack of cigarettes, ordered a bottle of whiskey to be dispatched in the opposite direction against his home-coming ... So complete is each neighborhood, and so strong a sense of neighborhood, that many a New Yorker spends a lifetime within the confines of an area smaller than a country village".  

But is that still true about New York?  I haven't been there in a decade but I would guess that the newsstands where you could buy a newspaper and a cup of coffee have gone out of business and who gets their shoes soled these days? The Automat, Chock Full of Nuts and Scrafft's where you could sit down and have a nice lunch are long gone and let's not even start on what's happened to the bookstores. 

E. B. White understood all this and reflected in the 1940's that New York was becoming more crowded, louder and more hectic. The landmarks were being torn down and newer taller and more impersonal buildings were going up.  But White reminds us that New York is always changing and yet never quite loses it's magic and sense of possibility.  And anyone reading Here is New York today will be struck by how prescient E. B. White was in 1948 about the future:  

"The subtlest change in New York is something people don't speak much about but that is in everybody's mind.  The city, for the first time in it's long history, is destructable.  A single flight of planes no bigger than a flock of geese can quickly end this island fantasy, burn the towers, crumble the bridges, turn the underground passages into lethal chambers ... this lofty target scraping the skies and meeting the destroying planes halfway, home of all people and all nations, capital of everything, housing the deliberations by which the planes are to be stayed and their errand forestalled".  

Here is New York is about 50 pages and it's very Manhattan centric but it's packed with keen observations and insights about what makes the city tick.  Anyone who has ever lived in New York or is planning a visit will benefit from reading E.B. White's ode to the Big Apple.  Here is New York fulfills the 2021 Back to the Classics category - choose a travel classic.

Wednesday, January 20, 2021

The Secrets Between Us by Thrity Umrigar

I don't regret focusing on the classics these past few years.  It's been a rewarding experience.  But if there is one drawback it's that I don't get to read as much contemporary fiction as I would like and so I am not sure who is out there right now worth reading.  Fortunately my good friend Iris has been keeping tabs on the new and talented authors and she has wonderful judgement.  Some time back for example Iris suggested The Secrets Between Us published 2018 by the Indian-American award winning novelist Thrity Umrigar.  Iris found the book excellent and I completely agree. This is not a book you want to miss.

The Secrets Between Us is set in present day Mumbai, India and tells the story of two elderly women, Bhima and Parvati who form a suprising friendship.  I say suprising because Bhima and Parvatti are very poor and rhey have been hurt badly by life and are not open to trusting others.  Bhima lives in a one room shack with her granddaughter Maya who she is trying to put through college.  She had a secure job for twenty years working as a house keeper for the wealthy Dubash family.  But when the family's son-in-law took advantage of Maya, Bhima could not continue working there and at age 60 Bhima worries where her next job is coming from.  

Parvati is a few years older than Bhima.  When Parvatti was twelve her father sold her to a house of prostitution where she stayed for many years until a disfiguring lump on her neck forced her to leave.  She married an abusive husband who when he died left her penniless.  When the novel begins Parvati earns her living selling vegetables on the street.  She barely has enough to feed herself.  

The lives of Bhima and Parvati and the betrayals they have faced can be hard to read.  Your heart breaks for them and what they've gone through but these two women are also strong, smart and feisty.  Parvati in particular can be quite funny in a bitter way.  After a rocky first meeting the two women decide to go into business together selling fruits and vegetables and a real bond develops.  

Two other characters in the book are Sunitra and Chitra a lesbian couple that Bhima  works part time for and at first Bhima doesn't know what to think.  But she begins to realize that Sunitra and Chitra are kind and good women who love each other and who treat Bhima not as a housekeeper and cook but as a friend. They are eager to help Maya succeed in college by offering their apartment so she can study.  All of the women in this novel are keeping secrets that separate them from others and a happier life.  As Bhima says to Parvati at one point:

"Parvati. Do all human beings keep secrets from one another?  Today you tell me about your life.  And then ten minutes later I run into Serabai.  And she -- she is being killed by the secrets she is keeping.  And Chitra baby says her own father and mother don't know that she moved to Mumbai for Sunitra.  Why do we all walk around like this, hiding from one another"?    Parvati's thumb circles the lump in a fast motion as she ponders the question.  "It isn't the words we speak that makes us who we are.  Or even the deeds we do.  It is the secrets buried in our hearts".  She looks sharply at Bhima  "People think that the ocean is made up of  waves and things that float on top.  But they forget -- the ocean is also what lies at the bottom, all the broken things stuck in the sand.  That, too, is the ocean".

Goodreads has called The Secrets Between Us "a dazzling story about gender, strength, friendship and second chances".  And though the poverty depicted is intense and there are scenes, particularly surrounding Parvatti's life, that are heartbreaking, The Secrets Between Us is an inspiring tale.  It's a novel that shows us the power of friendship to transform people's lives and that friendship is only possible when we reach out to others and not judge.  The Secrets Between Us is a sequel to Thrity Umrigar's bestselling 2006 novel The Space Between Us but both are stand alone books and I enjoyed The Secrets Between Us so much that I would advise you read it first.  Thank you Iris for a great reading experience.