Thursday, July 30, 2009


Oil!by Upton Sinclair, the author of The Jungle,caught my eye at the library. I'm so glad it did.

Oil! is a brilliantly constructed satire or exposé of the oil industry in the early part of the 20th century, with many parallels with recent history, sadly. Sinclair makes each character realistic and flawed. He has great insight into people and how they muck things up because they're too soft, too greedy, too idealistic, too divisive, etc.

The main relationship is between Bunny, who is a young teenager, and his father, an oil man who's driven to make more and more money and to give his son a good life. The father feels that school doesn't teach much of importance so when Bunny's middle school age, he travels around with his father learning how things are done. (When there's time a tutor comes to get the boy, who eventually does go to high school and college, up to speed on the three R's.) The father is a self-made man who can sincerely justify any short cut in business. He reminded me of the first Richard Daley, since he was more street smart than book smart and really often came across as clueless about how things should be done.

Bunny, is a refined, nice boy, who attracts some interesting friends. There's Paul a boy about his age, who's run away from home and trying to escape a father who's a religious fanatic, while earning money for his siblings' food. There are Socialist friends at college and a movie starlet girlfriend. Since he's a sympathetic person, Bunny becomes associated with people from all walks of life, often on very different sides of the era's burning issues. He uses the money his father earned from fields fleeced from families like Paul's to pay Paul's bail when his friend cum hero is arrested by instigators his father's associates hired to put an end to unionizing. There are many shades of gray though it's clear some are far darker than others to Sinclair.

Through this story which follows Bunny as he matures, Sinclair skewers business, government, religion, Socialism, academia, college sports, the movie industry, well just about every institution in the society with the exception of the food industry, which he tackled previously in the 1903 novel The Jungle.

There are many history lessons in this novel as Dad is one of the men who funded or bought Harding's way to the White House.

This book is action-packed and witty. It reads fast, but it's no longer in print, even though it was the inspiration for the film There Will be Blood. It should be at your library though.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Living Gently in a Violent World

I'd read other books by Jean Vanier and have been blown away. Living Gently in a Violent World: The Prophetic Witness of Weakness had such a promising title for our times, but it wasn't what I expected. I had thought there'd be references and anecdotes about living in L'Arche, the community Vanier helped start to connect with people with disabilities. I thought it would then provide insights for people who don't live in that community to deal with the violence, large and small in our society.

It really doesn't. Instead Vanier and co-author Hauerwas describe Vanier's life and times in L'Arche and add some theology to shed light on our attitudes towards those with disabilities. It never offered enough about life in other settings. It was just too limited for me in that regard. Also, I could have done with out Hauerwas' chapters since they seemed so distant and theoretical.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Book Geek

This is a much more interesting book list thingie than the "15 Books" or "page 56" ones that are out there -- Thanks to Jan for posting it! I look forward to reading the answers from all my book friends (you know who you are) .... (And I love the "Don't italicize" instruction!)

Rules: You have received this note because someone thinks you are a literary geek [not that that's a bad thing!]. Copy the questions into your own note, answer the questions, and tag any friends who would appreciate the quiz, including the person who sent you this.

Don't bother trying to italicize your book titles, even though we know you want to...

This took a lot of thought - I bet I'd change this every year.
  1. What author do you own the most books by?
    Thomas Merton or Jane Austen

  2. What book do you own the most copies of?
    Japanese - English dictionaries

  3. Did it bother you that both those questions ended with prepositions?

  4. What fictional character are you secretly in love with?
    Mr. Darcy springs to mind

  5. What book(s) have you read the most times in your life?
    Pride & Prejudice (Jane Austen)
    Catcher in the Rye (J.D. Salinger)
    The Great Gatsby (F. Scott Fitzgerald)

    The Doll's House (Ibsen - took a lot of classes that required that)
    Gulliver's Travels (Jonathon Swift - see above)
    King Lear (Shakespeare - see above)

    Actually something by Dr. Seuss or a fairy tale would probably be right since kids reread a lot
    I'm not much of a rereader. I intend to go back and reread, but there are too many good books I haven't read.

  6. What was your favorite book when you were ten years old?
    The Little Princess (Frances Hodgson Burnett)

  7. What is the worst book you've read in the past year?
    The Crazed (Ha Jin)

  8. What is the best book you've read in the past year?
    A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (Betty Smith)

  9. If you could force everyone you tagged to read one book, what would it be?
    The Flounder (Grass)
    A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (Betty Smith)
    Factory Girls (Leslie Chang)

  10. Who deserves to win the next Nobel Prize for literature?
    Haruki Murakami

  11. What book would you most like to see made into a movie?
    The Republic by Plato - actually it could be a good play
    Maybe The Flounder could be a good movie

  12. What book would you least like to see made into a movie?
    Ulysses (James Joyce)

  13. Describe your weirdest dream involving a writer, book, or literary character.
    Can't think of any

  14. What is the most lowbrow book you've read as an adult?
    Who Moved the Cheese? (Or is it "my cheese'?)

  15. What is the most difficult book you've ever read?
    In Search of Lost Time (Marcel Proust - worth the effort)

  16. Shakespeare, Milton, or Chaucer?
    Tie Shakespeare & Milton

  17. Austen or Eliot?

  18. What is the biggest or most embarrassing gap in your reading?
    Can't think of one.

  19. What is your favorite novel?
    Hard to choose. The Adventures of Augie March (Saul Bellow), Soul Mountain (Gao, Xing Jian and The Flounder (Gunther Grass), Brideshead Revisited (Evelyn Waugh), The Great Gatsby (F. Scott Fitzgerald)

  20. Play?
    Our Town

  21. Short story?
    In Dreams Begin Responsibilities (Delmore Schwartz)

  22. Work of non-fiction?
    Mountains Beyond Mountains (Tracy Kidd) or Working (Studs Terkel or anything by him)

  23. Who is your favorite writer?
    Can't limit to one: Proust, Austen, C.S. Lewis, Gunther Grass, Salman Rushdie, Thomas Merton, Parker Palmer

  24. Who is the most overrated writer alive today?
    John Grisham?

  25. What is your desert island book?
    Grimm's Fairy Tales

  26. And ... what are you reading right now?
    Oracle Bones (Peter Hessler)
    Oil! (Upton Sinclair)
    Symposium (Plato)
    Living Gently in a Violent World: The Prophetic Witness of Weakness (Stanley Hauerwas, Jean Vanier, and John Swinton)

  27. Who's your favorite children's author? (I'm adding this one)
    E.B. White

  28. And on the immediate to-read list (meaning I have the copies in hand):
    Through the Painted Desert (Donald Miller)
    An Area of Darkness (V.S. Naipal)
    Winning the Race (John McWhorter)
    The Discovery of Heaven (Harry Mulisch)
    Never the Bride by [Cheryl McKay (from Act One) & Rene Gutteridge - it's enroute from]

Saturday, July 18, 2009

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn

My July book club selection was A Tree Grows in Brooklyn,which I didn't realize was almost 500 pages when I alloted 10 days to read it. In the beginning I didn't get into this. I was impatient with so many details and found Betty Smith's off-hand racist comments offensive. I realize she wrote this in the 1940's but I wasn't able to let her off the hook. Luckily, there weren't many slurs, etc as the book progressed.

Smith's Francie Nolan and all her family did win me over as they struggle amidst poverty moving from one tenement to another. The characters were smart, witty, (often) diligent, kind and worthy of respect. They were drawn warts and all including Johnny, the idealistic, dreamer alcoholic father and Sissy, an aunt who went through men in a hurry. Sissy was one of my favorites. She couldn't read, but she did outsmart Francie's teacher when felt her niece needed someone in her corner. She posed as Francie's mother and confronts and fools a snobbish teacher who Sissy sized up immediately.

It was interesting to read as a sociological portrait of a culture with descriptions that I came to relish. For example, in Brooklyn they used to celebrate Thanksgiving as we do Halloween with kids dressing up and going to different stores begging for treats. Since kids were the did so much of the shopping ("Here's a nickel go to the store and get two loaves of bread) smart merchants catered to them (frugally) to win their loyalty. Smith provided so much insight into how people doctored up old bread and left overs to last days. I also loved how dignified the Nolans were, how they wouldn't accept charity and always found a way to survive.

Francie has interesting relationships with all her family members. It was fascinating to see how honest and open Katie (the mother) was about sex and boys when Francie was a young teen, how she didn't sugar coat romance, how she was always practical even when Francie broken hearted.

The story got more vital and witty as I went through it. It's really got everything: injustice, jealousy, endurance, murder, weddings, births, deaths, success and failure. When I started reading, it felt like a homework assignment. Now I'd definitely read more Betty Smith.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Factory Girls

Leslie Chang's Factory Girls: From Village to City in a Changing China fascinated me. Chang is a journalist for the Wall St. Journal posted in China. In this book, Chang spends years getting to know two girls who migrate from their villages to factory cities, where they pursue fortune and opportunity. It's the story of the people who make the glue for our shoes, the molds for the plastics we use, our Coach bags, well, more or less everything we touch in a given day.

Chang becomes their confidant and thus learns all about their work, their bosses, the struggles to survive in a society that promotes movement and makes long term friendship or trust seem foolish. Chang discovers how dating works or doesn't in modern China. What do these women look for in men, how do they find it and how do they make do till the man with the apartment and good job come along?

The first part of the book centers on life scrabbling in the city how fresh off the bus or train, these girls, some as young as 15, manage to survive in spite of little education, no contacts, and no experience. I was completely engrossed to read about how the girls quickly succeeded and failed. Chang accompanies them to "finishing schools" that train workers in public speaking, success, people skills, bluffing your way through a job interview, and all the skills needed to make it. Chang also returns to the village with her subject to see the family and home. As a young Chinese-American who speaks the language fluently, Chang blends in well and is very much a fly on the wall, privy to everything. Both girls Chang follows are completely candid about all their desires and means of attaining them.

These girls may lack education, but they soon show themselves to be shrewd and bright. While they are exploited, this never stops them. One day, they're ripped off, the next they're off to the next opportunity without looking back.

Any language teacher will appreciate the chapter on "Assembly Line English," a new method developed as a get rich quick scheme by a man who's never taught and holds the
guiding principle that treating people like machines was the key to mastering English. After learning the alphabet and the phonetic sounds of the language, a student sat at machine while columns of English words rotated past. The student read aloud each word and wrote it down without knowing what it meant, week after week, until he attained the highest speed. He (sic*) then proceeded to another machine that showed the Chinese definitions of words; next he advanced to short sentences. At each stage, he wrote the word or sentence in English and said it aloud without comprehending its meaning.
once the student could reach "top speed" i.e. 600 sentences an hour could she start to learn basic grammar. studnets would work eleven hours a day on this and yes, they paid handsomely for such lessons.

My only criticism, and it was a real annoyance, was the two and a half chapters on Chang's family history. While her grandfather's story is interesting and significant, it belongs in another book. Once I'd turn a page and see the next part was about her relatives I slowed down, sighed, promised myself that soon I'd get back to the girls' story. I have no idea why an editor would let her keep these sections in.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Taking Woodstock by Elliot Tiber

Not for the prudish or homophobic.

But so long as you don't belong to either of those two groups, this book appeals.

Many of the anecdotes beg disbelief and, of course, since most of the players are deceased, there's no real fact checking to be done but Tiber's story is an aspect of Woodstock that hasn't been previously explored.

How and why The Woodstock Music & Art Festival ended up 50 miles from Woodstock is yet another piece in the improbable, nay, impossible event that took place nonetheless.

As a baby boomer who was 7 years old at the time, my knowledge of Woodstock was woefully lacking and Tiber's book is an intriguing, if at times appalling, introduction.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

The Widows of Eastwick by John Updike

Um, not so much.

Much more graphic sexually than the original, not as interesting and really just blah.

Updike's last novel and certainly not his best (although what do I know, having only read this one and the Witches of Eastwick?).

Every once in a while, his descriptions caught me up short but for the most part, I was reading for plot, in a hurry to get it over with and find out what happened to the three friends.

If not for the plane ride, I still wouldn't be done with it.

Friday, July 10, 2009

From Today's Writers' Almanac

It's the birthday of a man whose entire reputation is built on one novel that is more than 3,000 pages long: Marcel Proust, (books by this author) born in Auteuil, France (1871). His parents were well off — his father had been born poor but had worked his way up to become a respected doctor. Marcel was a sickly child, prone to asthma attacks, and he was in and out of school. He studied law and philosophy, but he was most interested in writing and in his own social ambitions.
He published stories and essays in literary magazines, and he started work on a long novel, but after writing several thousand pages he was frustrated and gave it up.

He continued to live with his brother and parents in their apartment. Finally, his father insisted that he get a job, so he found work as a volunteer and almost immediately applied for sick leave, and never went back to work.
But then, within a couple of years, his brother got married and moved away from home, and both his parents died. After his mother's death, he spent awhile recovering in a sanatorium. When he got out, he started to write again — supported by a large inheritance left him by his mother — and he set out to write his great novel.

And he spent the rest of his life working on The Remembrance of Things Past, which is sometimes titled In Search of Lost Time, a more accurate translation of the French.

In one of the most famous scenes in the novel, the narrator, Marcel, tastes some cake with tea:
I raised to my lips a spoonful of the tea in which I had soaked a morsel of the cake. No sooner had the warm liquid mixed with the crumbs touched my palate than a shudder ran through me and I stopped, intent upon the extraordinary thing that was happening to me. An exquisite pleasure had invaded my senses, something isolated, detached, with no suggestion of its origin. And at once the vicissitudes of life had become indifferent to me, its disasters innocuous, its brevity illusory — this new sensation having had on me the effect which love has of filling me with a precious essence; or rather this essence was not in me it was me. I had ceased now to feel mediocre, contingent, mortal. Whence could it have come to me, this all-powerful joy? I sensed that it was connected with the taste of the tea and the cake, but that it infinitely transcended those savours, could, no, indeed, be of the same nature. Whence did it come? What did it mean? How could I seize and apprehend it?

Monday, July 06, 2009

Looks Good

I saw Ms. Moyo, the author of Dead Aid: Why Aid Is Not Working and How There Is a Better Way for Africaon CNN yesterday. She's got an interesting perspective. A former World Bank economist, Moyo believes that aid does more harm than good in Africa. She feels if the aid stopped, so would the corruption and new, innovative solutions to serious problems would result. I remember a class in grad school with a woman from South Africa who asserted the same idea. I'll read this once I finish the stack of books I got today at the library.

With Moyo yesterday was the author of The Blue Sweater: Bridging the Gap Between Rich and Poor in an Interconnected World, who did strike me as well-meaning but ineffective.

15 Books

This can be a quick one. Don't take too long to think about it. Fifteen books you've read that will always stick with you. First fifteen you can recall in no more than 15 minutes. Tag 15 friends, including me because I'm interested in seeing what books my friends choose...

1. The Flounder by Gunther Grass
2. The Adventures of Augie March by Saul Bellow
3. Pride & Prejudice by Jane Austin
4. The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald
5. Our Town, Thornton Wilder
6. Wild Sheep Chase, Murakami Hiruki
7. American Dreams Lost & Found, Studs Terkel
8. Charlotte's Web, E.B. White
9. The Procedure, Harry Mulisch
10. Brideshead Revisited, Evelyn Waugh
11. In Search of Lost Time, Marcel Proust
12. Seeds of Contemplation, Thomas Merton
13. The Enchiridion, Epictetus
14. Seven Story Mountain, Thomas Merton
15. The Bible, a whole slew of folks

It's really hard to think of just 15. Fifteen authors might be easier. This list just gives you a feel of the scope of things I really like. And I tagged more than 15 people since I know a lot of readers.

Sunday, July 05, 2009

Red China Blues

I found Jan Wong's Red China Blues: My Long March From Mao to Nowso compelling. It's a memoir of Wong's relationship with China. In the late 1960's Canadian-Chinese Wong convinced her dismayed parents to let her go to Maoist China to learn the language and soak up some Maoism. They couldn't fathom why their daughter wanted to go back. Why would a middle class girl opt for bad food, cold showers and deprivation?

But that's what Wong wanted. She donned the whole Mao look from cotton Mao jacket to black cloth shoes. She and a Chinese American Yale student were the two first foreigners to study in the new China. She lobbied against the comforts like a private dining room to the dismay of the staff. Who'd want to eat gruel twice a day? It was fascinating to read about her relationships with her roommate, other students, teachers and the administration. She begins very idealistic view of Maoism early on, and holds on to it for quite some time, but does question her beliefs as she bumps into the secrecy, restrictions, sexism and hypocrisy that was part of this system.

Her one year language immersion becomes a longer stay as she is allowed to enter Beijing University as a bona fide exchange student. Her studies coincide with the Cultural Revolution and she participates in the peasant labor and marching that entailed.

Eventually Wong marries another Sinophile, an American man who'd grown up in China. As she becomes fluent in the language and can pass as a native, she gets a position as a New York Times reporter. Except for a brief stint in the U.S. when she and her husband get graduate degrees she remains in the country to witness the end of the Cultural Revolution, the Tienanmen Square protests and massacre, and the beginning of China's economic boon as a reporter for Toronto's Globe and Mail.

She provides fascinating background on both the personal and political events she experiences. Readers learn about Chinese history and her firsthand experiences working at Big Joy farm, about such issues kidnapping and selling brides and her travails getting the interviews with these girls. There's no comparison between Wong's description of the Tienanmen protests and the tepid account by Jin in The Crazed. Clearly, Wong lived the experience and it changed her. Jin must have just heard about it - third hand.

The question of what was all the suffering during (and due to) Mao's tenure which sought in part to eliminate inequality, exploitation and materialism plagues Wong and I think must at least nag at outsiders like me who now see the new China. If you know the history, you have to ask that.

This book was absorbing. If you're curious about China, read it.

What to read for an encore? That is a dilemma but I'm a quarter of the way through Lesley Chang's Factory Girls: From Village to City in a Changing China. So far it's just as engaging and even better written in my humble opinion.