Wednesday, September 24, 2014

The New Men by John Enfield

"You have money, Mrs. Abramoff. Enough for better, and I'm afraid I must know where it has gone. Me Ford wishes everyone to share in the profits, but he will not five profits where they will disappear into nothing." He held his hands up to forestall protest. "Now, if you have a sick mother in Vladivostok, or a starving nephew in St Petersburg, or a drunken brother-in-law in Hamtramck who needs care in a sanatorium..."

Set at the turn of the century, Job Enfield's The New Men explores a little known cubby of American history, that of Henry Ford's profit-sharing program and his Educational department. In a nutshell, Ford was looking for a way to retain employees and so decided to institute a $5.00/week salary for his employees, on the condition that they would allow their bank accounts, their lodgings, their recreation--everything, really--to be regularly inspected and critqued by Educational, a group of largely idealistic employees who saw their job as a way to help create the titular "new men", men who would be productive, relatively well-off members of society.

This historical aside is paralleled by the life of Antonio Grams, an Italian immigrant who comes to America with his family after the death of his father. Initially (mostly) optimistic and idealistic, his decline mirrors the decline of Ford's Educational, as changing social mores and economic necessity turn the profit-sharing program from a well-intentioned social welfare program into an invasive organization which roots out Commies and slowly pushes out minorities.

This information is mostly place-setting though, as the story itself follows Tony through said changes in the country. With his friend, Ross, a slightly-shady newspaper reporter and his lover/ice queen Thia, he struggles to keep his head above water during the seismic shift of the industrial revolution. The well-researched and interesting setting make The New Men a good choice for fans of historical fiction, if Grams, ultimately sympathetic but frequently pretty awful, doesn't put them off.

My only real complaint about The New Men was its tendency at points to overexplain its symbolism.  can't find the exact passage, but there's one point where Tony is sitting at a table, a picture of his dead father hanging at one end, and a picture of his dead sister at the other, and he thinks, "I guess in some sense, the dead are always watching us. I just don't like it be so literal." If it makes him feel any better, neither do I.

There are some particularly strong points as well: Thia herself is an interesting character--initially coming off as an unusually uninhibited Manic Pixie Dream Girl, Enfield slowly turns the tables, revealing a tragic past and ruthless behavior that would be badly out of place in Garden State. It's also worth noting that Enfield sticks the landing, tying all the story threads up in a satisfactory way and managing to draw significant pathos from even some minor characters--something that's not necessarily a given in literary fiction. Or book reviews.

Saturday, September 20, 2014

Erewhon by Samuel Butler

The reader will have no difficulty in believing that the laws regarding ill health were frequently evaded by the help of recognized fictions, which every one understood, but which it would be considered gross ill-breeding to even seem to understand.  Thus, a day or two after my arrival at the Nosnibors', one of the many ladies who called on me made excuses for her husband's only sending his card, on the ground that when going through the public market-place that morning he had stolen a pair of socks.  I had already been warned that I should never show surprise, so I merely expressed my sympathy, and said that though I had only been in the capital so short a time, I had already had a very narrow escape from stealing a clothes-brush, and that though I had resisted temptation so far, I was sadly afraid that if I saw any object of special interest that was neither too hot or too heavy, I should have to put myself in the straightener's hands.

Samuel Butler's Erewhon is frequently referred to as one of the earliest dystopian novels, though it has less in common with The Road or 1984 with the satirical imaginings of Gulliver's Travels.  Erewhon, a country apparently deep in the recesses of New Zealand (where Butler was once employed in the sheep-herding business) looks mostly like Victorian England, with a few curious inversions, and of course that is the way we are supposed to perceive it.

There are two main hallmarks of Erewhonian culture: The first is that they consider physical illness to be a moral failing, but actions we would consider morally objectionable they treat as if they were an illness.  Butler's unnamed narrator complains to one host that he has a cold, and she upbraids him for his wickedness; later he learns that another host was discovered embezzling huge amounts of money, which has earned him the pity and condolences of everyone in Erewhon.  Butler has a good deal of fun describing the particulars of this system, including the prevalence of "straighteners," who, like doctors, prescribe treatment for their patients, which usually includes a number of lashings.  But the satire is pointed toward Victorian notions of crime and punishment, and meant to challenge his audience's notions of guilt: Do we, like the Erewhonians, do anything to reform those convicted of crimes?

The other is a Luddite-like aversion to technology, inscribed in Erewhonian law, which prohibits any technology developed after a certain point in Erewhonian history.  The narrator lands in hot water immediately for possessing a wristwatch (though Butler never really explains why this criminal act doesn't land the narrator in a hospital, instead of arousing the suspicion of the king).  Butler includes a long section called "The Book of the Machines," which is ostensibly the narrator's translation of a historical Erewhonian text.  This passage, though it underscores the way in which Erewhon is more an extended riff on imaginary social mores than a plotted story, is one of the more interesting parts of the book.  It lays out an argument for thinking about machines as a species with their own systems of reproduction and which may one day come to exert power over mankind.  Butler is writing about steam engines and railroads, not computers or artificial intelligences, but his argument is spookily prescient of the fears we have about technology today.  It's not clear how satirical "The Book of the Machines" is--I get the impression that Butler believed in this argument, despite how silly it must have seemed to Victorians--but if one imagines information technology to be a "descendant" of Industrial Revolution-era technologies, it's not far off the mark.

The plot of Erewhon is bare bones: the narrator discovers the country, becomes something of a guest and something of a captive, and ultimately hatches an escape, taking the daughter of his host with him back to England.  The ideas are mildly interesting, but neither funny nor insightful enough to really make Erewhon engaging.  Perhaps the most cutting moment of satire in the whole thing occurs in the very end, when the narrator declares his intention to return to Erewhon and both enslave and Christianize the Erewhonians.  At the height of the British Empire, the profound grossness of the narrator's wish to eradicate the culture he'd been a part of for several years must have rang pretty true.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee

"You want to be a lawyer, don't you?" Our father's mouth was suspiciously firm, as if he were trying to hold it in line.

Jem decided there was no point in quibbling, and was silent.  When Atticus went inside the house to retrieve a file he had forgotten to take to work that morning, Jem finally realized that he had been done in by the oldest lawyer's trick on record.  He waited a respectful distance from the front steps, watched Atticus leave the house and walk toward town.  When Atticus was out of earshot Jem yelled after him: "I thought I wanted to be a lawyer but I ain't so sure now!"

I haven't read To Kill a Mockinbird since high school; then, I thought it was a good book.  When Brittany was reading the book, she told me I needed to re-read it because I would fall in love.  I expected her to be right--what I didn't expect, though, was how right she would be.  Reading this book, now, was a religious experience and nearly brought me to tears multiple times.  On some occasions I would have to stop reading because the writing was so beautiful that I needed to let the feeling linger before I moved on.  So, yes, I loved this book.

Despite having a plethora of reactions to this book, I want to focus on a question that readers of this blog will (surely) have an opinion about: What is the difference between a great book and a good book.  Here's what I've come up with:

First, To Kill a Mockingbird is universal in a way that even good books are not.  Lee accomplishes this using Scout's innocence.  By filtering the narration through Scout's ostensible innocence, the novel's narrator is relatable.  It's easy for any reader to envision viewing the world the way Scout does.  However, I write "ostensible innocence" because there's an illusion here: the narrator is writing through the eyes of an innocent young girl, but often uses diction or conclusory, reflective statements to remind the reader that this is a narrator remembering back.  For example, when Atticus tells Scout to go to bed after she'd been listening to a long conversation between him and Uncle Jack: "I scurried to my room went to bed . . . . But I never figured out how Atticus knew I was listening, and it was not until many years later that I realized he wanted me to hear every word he said."  So, at the same time that Scout is relatable, the reader benefits from Scout's hindsight ruminations.

Second: Lee's writing is remarkably beautiful. I use the adverb because the writing here is beautiful in way that surpasses other writers..  Consider this line, describing the childrens' performances of plays during the summer, "But by the end of August our repertoire was vapid from countless reproductions, and it was then that Dill gave us the idea of making Boo Radley come out."  I have never seen "vapid" used in this context and I love it.

Or, this:
We know all men are not created equal in the sense some people would have us believe--some people are smarter than others, some people have more opportunity than others, some ladies make better cakes than others--some people are born gifted beyond the normal scope of most men.
But there is one way in this country in which all men are created equal--there is one human institution that makes a pauper the equal of a Rockefeller, the stupid man the equal of an Einstein, and the ignorant man the equal of any college president.  That institution, gentlemen, is a court . . . Our courts have faults, as does any human institution, but in this country our courts are the great levelers, and in our courts all men are created equal.
This passage, beautiful in its own right, also reflects a motif spread throughout the novel: the inequality of the world contrasted by the idealism of equality.  We see it again when Miss Maudie describes Atticus's talent with guns:  "If your father's anything, he's civilized in his heart.  Marksmanship's a gift of God, a talent--oh, you have to practice to make it perfect, but shootin's different from playing the piano or the like.  I think maybe he put his gun down when he realized God had given him an unfair advantage over most living things."

Finally, Atticus is himself a character that makes the book remarkably good.  Atticus is presented as heroic, and it's easy to accept it whole-heartedly.  I love this image, captured by the movie:

I also love this introduction of Atticus in the beginning: "His first two clients were the last two persons hanged in Maycomb County jail.  Atticus had urged them to accept the state's generosity in allowing them to plead Guilty to second-degree murder and escape with their lives, but they were Haverfords, in Maycomb County a name synonymous with jackass."  Notably, even in this early description of Atticus, he's the voice of reason.

Anyway, this review's too long and reeks of someone trying to say too much without focus.  So, my question, friends: what makes a great novel?  And, is To Kill a Mockingbird a great novel?

Thursday, September 11, 2014

American Born Chinese by Gene Luen Yang

The school where I teach sent me a copy of American Born Chinese over the summer.  In October, I have to lead a conversation about the graphic novel with a group of kids as part of a schoolwide conversation about respect.   I'm an English teacher, that doesn't faze me, but I can see why others might be anxious over talking about the book with young kids; one of the three narratives contained within the book traffics in some pretty horrific stereotypes: Danny, an All-American kind of high school kid, is mortified when his cousin Chin-Kee, a cartoonish Chinese figure, comes for an extended visit:

Chin-Kee swaps his L's for R's and vice versa, eats dog, shows off in class, and generally makes Danny's life miserable.  There's a method in this, of course; Chin-Kee represents the kind of self-image that young Asian-American students fear carrying around with them, but I expect younger kids might not have the foresight to anticipate the way Yang expresses this idea late in the book.  The fact that Danny is white makes it even more difficult to figure out exactly what Yang is aiming for, at first.

Its significance is tied to the two other narratives in the book: The story of the Monkey King, who wants to be anything but a monkey, and the story of Jin, who is fearful of associating with a more recent Taiwanese immigrant to his class.  Jin's story especially shows clear parallels with the story of Danny and Chin-Kee, and together they become a larger narrative about the need to fit in and the pressure to abandon one's cultural heritage.  In the end, Yang ties these three stories in a way that is clever and tidy; in this way the book rewards patient readers who are willing to wait for the relevance of Chin-Kee to become clear.

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Blade of the Samurai by Susan Spann

I pretty much never read straight-up mystery novels, but when I was contacted about Blade of the Samurai, I was intrigued by the setup: an undercover samurai, Hiro Hattori, solves mysteries with Father Mateo , the Catholic priest he's been commissioned to protect. Sounded like an interesting spin on the detective story, and I figured I'd at least enjoy the setting, so I picked it up.

The mystery this time is as follows: Saburo, a cousin of the shogun, has been stabbed to death in his quarters, and the apparent perpetrator is Kazu, a longtime friend of Hiro's. Because of their connection, he's called to investigate the case, which must--will--be closed before an important diplomatic attache arrives, even if it means executing a man who may not be guilty.

I'm happy to say that, on the samurai detective front, it delivered. Blade of the Samurai tells a pleasantly diverting little yarn with bursts of good humor and some fairly sharp characterization. I enjoyed the interactions between Hiro and Father Mateo, but moreso, I enjoyed the reactions of the Japanese with whom Father Mateo came into contact with. While many authors might have played the cultural differences for fish-out-of-water japery, Spann takes them seriously for the most part, culminating in a scene where Father Mateo is scolded and subsequently repentant for treating peasants the same way he treats the hoi-poi.

This scene encapsulates the other thing I wanted from the book and didn't quite get: a more thorough examination of the relationship between Father Mateo's faith and Hiro's ancestral religion. I'm a sucker for Catholic novels, but besides the fact that Father Mateo spends about 25% of the novel offscreen, Spann mostly doesn't focus too much on his inner life--and, to be fair, that's my own baggage coming into the book. Still, I would have liked a little more.

Overall, however, the mystery moved quickly, especially when supporting characters start biting it in the back half, and the killer wasn't obvious to me--I can't speak for more experienced mystery fans. It was fun, and if you like mysteries or find the setting of feudal Japan interesting, check it out.