Monthly Archives: March 2013

Books that Changed My Life: Atlas Shrugged and The Grapes of Wrath

Originally Published on October 21, 2011 on Daily Kos.

My mother was the real reader in our family.  Although she left when I was very, very young, some of my earliest memories are of her huge towers of books.  She was always reading something.

My father, on the other hand, claimed to have read only one book which he read religiously every year.  That book was John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath.

When my father married my stepmother she brought into our family an infant daughter whose name was Deena.  As the two girls, we were expected to share everything.  This did not always work out well since I was four at the time and still dealing with the trauma of Mommy never coming home again.  But as the childhood years slowly passed, I learned to call my stepmother Mom and Deena Sister.

And then one January day when she was eleven, Deena died of a massive cerebral hemorrhage.  What I did not know until her death was that Deena was born out of wedlock. My stepmother plunged into a deep depression after her death, feeling that it was God’s judgement on her “immoral” behavior that resulted in Deena’s death. She received therapy and seemed to improve for a while. Then she discovered Ayn Rand.  First The Fountainheadand then Atlas Shrugged.

Naturally, when you have one parent who is an avowed socialist and another who is an objectivist, conflict is likely to occur.

As a bystander to the intellectual argument, it appeared to me that they weren’t even speaking in the same language.  Words of contempt from one of them was a badge of pride to the other.  You could not insult her by calling her selfish because she thought it was a virtue.  You could not insult my father by saying that he wanted to live off of the labor of others because he would boast of being proud to do so, feeling that it was society’s obligation to help those who couldn’t help themselves.

Oh yeah, that was an interesting spring.  The marriage did not survive Deena’s death and my stepmother’s new found philosophy.  By the time they divorced in July of 1965, I had already read some of Steinbeck’s most popular works.  Within a few years I read all of Rand’s work, including the non-fiction.

I think I understand Rand’s appeal for someone like my stepmother who suffered a culturally dictated guilt.  Growing up in a society that sometimes seemed to be based on “motherhood and apple pie,” guilt was a frequent visitor to my heart as well, since I must have been a very bad little girl if my mother left me behind, and Ayn Rand seemed to shift the blame from the individual to the Christian society.  (Which may be where it belonged in our cases.)

Ironically, Rand and Steinbeck condemned some of the same things:  greed, incompetence, and corruption.  Their utopias are strikingly similar. Galt’s Gulch was peopled with industrious, self respecting folks who refused to give or accept charity.  The government camp had the same type of occupants.  They both had a similar take on how charity or the acceptance of the unearned, had a dehumanizing effect on the recipient.

“Las’ winter; an’ we was a-starvin’ – me an’ Pa an’ the little fellas.  An’ it was a-rainin’.  Fella tol’ us to go to the Salvation Army.”  Her eyes grew fierce.  “We was hungry — they made us crawl for our dinner.  They took our dignity.   They — I hate ‘em!  An’ — maybe Mis’ Joyce took charity.  Mis’ Joad, we don’t allow nobody in this camp to build himself up that-a-way.  We don’t allow nobody to give nothing to another person.  They can give it to the camp, an’ the camp can pass it out.  We won’t have no charity!”  Her voice was fierce and hoarse.  “I hate ‘em,” she said.  “I ain’t never seen my man beat before, but them–them Salvation Army done it to ‘im.”

In Atlas Shrugged, Ayn Rand envisioned a factory operated under the theory that each would give according to his ability and receive according to his need. Dagny Taggart, the novel’s heroine listened as an old bum told her how it worked as the rewards were divided amongst the six thousand workers:

“It took us just one meeting to discover that we had become beggars — rotten, whining, sniveling beggars, all of us, because no man could claim his pay as his rightful earning he had no rights and no earnings, his work didn’t belong to him, it belonged to ‘the family,’ and they owed him nothing in return, and the only claim he had on them was his ‘need’ — so he had to beg in public for relief from his needs, like any lousy moocher, listing all his troubles and miseries, down to his patched drawers and his wife’s head colds, hoping that ‘the family’ would throw him the alms.  He had to claim miseries, because miseries, not work, that had become the coin of the realm — so it turned into a contest among six thousand panhandlers, each claiming that his need was worse than his brother’s.  How else could it be done?  Do you care to guess what happened, what sort of men kept quiet, feeling shame, and what sort got away with the jackpot?”

In The Grapes of Wrath, the migrants worked hard, when they could find work, but were never rewarded with living wages and had to turn to self-righteous charities like the Salvation Army (ironically, that was where my stepmother turned as a young unmarried pregnant woman in 1953).  In Atlas Shrugged, people voted for a system that would pay a basic pittance and then had to beg for any additional support.  The only real difference was the self inflicted nature of the situation in Rand’s book.  But regardless of how they got there, people tend to react the same way when honest work is not rewarded in an honest manner.

According to Steinbeck:

And all the time the farms grew larger and the owners fewer.  And there were pitifully few farmers on the land any more.  And the imported serfs were beaten and frightened and starved until some went home again, and some grew fierce and were killed or driven from the country.  And the farms grew larger and the owners fewer.
…And the great owners, who must lose their land in an upheaval, the great owners with access to history, with eyes to read history and to know the great fact:  when property accumulates in too few hands it is taken away.  And that companion fact:  when a majority of the people are hungry and cold they will take by force what they need.  And the little screaming fact that sounds through all history:  repression works only to strengthen and knit the repressed.  The great owners ignored the three cries of history.  The land fell into fewer hands, the number of the dispossessed increased, and every effort of the great owners was directed at repression.  The money was spent for arms, for gas to protect the great holdings, and spies were sent to catch the murmuring of revolt so that it might be stamped out.  The changing economy was ignored, plans for the change were ignored; and only means to destroy revolt were considered, while the causes of revolt went on.

To Rand:

“We’ve heard so much about strikes,” he said, “and about the dependence of the uncommon man upon the common.  We’ve heard it shouted that the industrialist is a parasite, that his workers support him create his wealth, make his luxury possible  — and what would happen to him if they walked out?  Very well.  I propose to show to the world who depends on whom, who supports whom, who is the source of wealth, who makes whose livelihood possible and what happens to whom when who walks out.”

In Atlas Shrugged, the owners were the victims of nasty criticism by those lacking their uncommon talents and intellect.  In The Grapes of Wrath they were intentionally blind to their own destruction and that “when a majority of the people are hungry and cold they will take by force what they need.”

Although Ayn Rand’s world has never existed, Steinbeck’s did.  It did in the thirties and seems increasingly likely to recur once again in this century.

There is a crime here that goes beyond denunciation. There is a sorrow here that weeping cannot symbolize. There is a failure here that topples all our success. The fertile earth, the straight tree rows, the sturdy trunks, and the ripe fruit. And children dying of pellagra must die because a profit cannot be taken from an orange. And coroners must fill in the certificate- died of malnutrition- because the food must rot, must be forced to rot.The people come with nets to fish for potatoes in the river, and the guards hold them back; they come in rattling cars to get the dumped oranges, but the kerosene is sprayed. And they stand still and watch the potatoes float by, listen to the screaming pigs being killed in a ditch and covered with quick-lime, watch the mountains of oranges slop down to a putrefying ooze; and in the eyes of the people there is the failure; and in the eyes of the hungry there is a growing wrath.  In the souls of the people the grapes of wrath are filling and growing heavy, growing heavy for the vintage.

The Randian philosophy appears perfectly suited to those who feel somewhat guilty about the fact that today they can feed their children, while others go hungry.  (And fear that tomorrow they may not.)  It assures them that they don’t need to help their neighbor because selfishness is good and compassion is bad.  It stokes their anger and fear and justifies them by labeling those less fortunate as moochers and looters who, if given the chance, will prey on their hard work.  It gives them an answer that I can’t accept, but which perhaps allows them to continue to survive as best they can.

These are the books that changed my life.  Between them they helped tear apart the family I grew up in.  But they also taught valuable lessons.  Ideas matter and have the real power to change lives.

They taught me to look for the other side in conflict.  It makes it hard sometimes to know exactly where I stand on any given issue, because I do try to listen to both sides.  Not always successfully, but I do realize that well meaning people can arrive at totally different conclusions.

And that words matter.  Even though the same word will have a different meaning to others than it does to me.  The passion displayed by my parents when they discussed these two books and their underlying philosophies, coupled with their inability to communicate, with understanding, their meaning to each other taught me yet another lesson.  Probably the most important and yet hardest to remember;  that what appears to me to be so crystal clear can appear to another to be written in Greek.

Books that Changed My Life: The Glory and the Dream: A Narrative History of America 1932-1972

Originally published on Daily Kos Dec 2, 2011

In the fall of 1965, I took a required course in American History.  Yes, we were required, not to simply take a test, but to actually learn about our history in Illinois.  I had the misfortune to be assigned to Mr. Waters’ class.  At the time, he was in his 30s, I would guess, which meant that he might have served in the Armed Forces during the Korean War.  Maybe.

He was one of those who would be comfortable at any modern day Tea Party, feeling that if he wrapped himself in an American flag he could hide his ignorance behind his dogma.  And his sign would read: “America, right or wrong.”

Our greatest conflict arose in class one day when I had the temerity to suggest that the US federal tax code punished those who worked hard and made a lot of money by taxing them at a higher rate then everyone else. The top rate in those days was 70%.  Mr Waters called me a Communist for my views.  Yeah, a communist for expressing a sentiment of Ayn Rand. (He just glowered some weeks later when I did my required class presentation on the conditions on Native America Reservations to the music of Buffy St. Marie.)

My love of history did not arise from the influence of any special teacher in my high school days.  The real spark was reading Gone With the Wind in the seventh grade, even though my well written book report received a D because GWTW was considered a “trashy” novel.  It may have been, but it led me to Bruce Catton who did awaken a real thirst to understand our Civil War that eventually led to Douglas Southall Freeman.

But before Freeman, there was William Manchester.

It was during the 70s, while living in San Francisco that I stumbled upon William Manchester’sThe Glory and the Dream: A Narrative History of America 1932-1972.  I devoured that huge work, with an incredible joy.  This was history, not in black and white as so many histories are, concerned mostly with names, dates, and battles, but in full living Technicolor.  A rainbow of information of what life was like.

It was from Manchester that I learned of the Bonus Expeditionary Force, and the response of General MacArthur, and the future President Eisenhower, who was his aide. As his only aide, Eisenhower’s desk was separated from the Army’s Chief of Staff by a single slatted door. Did you know that Eisenhower would draw trolley tokens down the hall of the Executive Office Building, to travel up Pennsylvania Ave to the Hill?  I didn’t, and found the image fascinating.

This was history the way I only dreamt it could be: interesting and alive.

Throughout this wonderful volume are insights into what people were doing, how they were living during the 40 years between 1932 and 1972.  It is by no means a true comprehensive history of this period, because even at 1300 pages, it is not long enough.  But he does a masterful job of fleshing out these years, and peopling them with names that my generation will find familiar.

Walter Reuther, head of the UAW, who demanded that the big three auto makers increase wages while not increasing prices.  “He didn’t get it, but he altered the concept of labor-management relations all the same.”  Edward R Murrow gets an American Portrait as well, as does Norman Thomas, Benjamin Spock and a young Ralph Nader.

And each era gets a montage of pop culture that includes phrases from songs being sung, slogans and headlines of the age that help make it more immediate.  And more like today.

Manchester spends the first quarter of the book on the Depression and the New Deal, showing how one led to the other in a time of desperate need.  He illustrates just how close the United States was to a full scale revolution, with farmers blockading Sioux City, Iowa, refusing to sell milk, pouring it onto the highways, “taking up arms against a system that paid them two cents a quart for milk that distributors sold for eight cents in Sioux City.”

His discussion of the politics of the thirties is as alive as ours is today.  Consider this passage

And over and over there were the cliches:  That Man, That Fellow, trying to destroy the American way of life, you can’t spend your way out of a depression, our children’s children will be paying, half the people on relief are foreigners anyhow, cut the relief rolls and enlarge the police and let trouble come, John L. Lewis has a key to the back door of the White House, That Man’s smile has been grafted on his face by plastic surgeons, he has never earned a nickel in his life and just lives off his mother’s income, and he’s only a Jew anyway, descended from Dutch sheenies who changed their names, nothing but a New York kike.  (An elaborate genealogy was worked out for this last, going back to a fictitious Colonel van Rosenfeld.)

There is some comfort to be found from the fact that we survived this era.  The biggest difference between then and now is that it was the wealthy upper class members described by journalist Marquis W. Childs as the “2 percent” who were spewing this talk, not the politicians.

Someday people will read about how all of you teachers were expected to, and did, bring supplies into your classrooms paid for from your own, almost empty, pockets.  And they will be shocked at your dedication, as I was, at the tales of the sacrifices teachers made in 1932.

The story of the Chicago schools was a great Depression epic.  Rather than see 500,000 children remain on the streets, the teachers hitchhiked to work, endured “payless paydays” — by 1932 they had received checks in only five of the last thirteen months — and accepted city scrip to be redeemed after the Depression, even though Chicago bankers would not accept it.  Somehow the city found money to invest in its forthcoming World’s Fair of 1933, when Sally Rand would gross $6,000 a week, but it turned a deaf ear to the Board of Education.  A thousand teachers were dismissed outright.  Those who remained taught on at immense personal sacrifice.  Collectively the 1,400 teachers lost 759 homes.  They borrowed $1,128,000 on their insurance policies and another $232,000 from loan sharks at annual rates of 42 percent, and although hungry themselves, fed 11,000 pupils out of their thin pocketbooks.

Even while drowning you in statistices, Manchester manages to illuminate the human story behind the numbers in the clear, sparse prose of a journalist.

Nuggets of history

…asked if fascism would come to America, Huey Long said, “Sure, but here it will be called anti-fascism.”

Of the Marines at the Chosin Resevoir in Korea:

And Colonel Lewis B. “Chesty” Puller told his regiment, “The enemy is in front of us, behind us, to the left of us, and to the right of us.  They won’t escape this time.”

On the new era of numbers:

On July 1, 1963, the Post Office Department, while announcing an increase in first-class postage from four cents to five, sprang the zip code system on a stunned and resentful public.  The triumph of the digits moved one step closer with the conversion of the White House telephone number from NAtional 8-1414 to 456-1414.

Of 1970 he writes:

As America entered the 1970s, the swing generation was in, or about to enter, its fifties, the age at which men begin to discover that the world they have loved is disintegrating.  That year the impression carried special force, for there seemed to be an unusual number of reasons for feeling wronged, among them inflation, pollution, crime, the war, the stock market, the generation gap, immorality, riots, cyclamates, traffic, insulting bumper stickers and decals, strikes against the public, racism, and new skyjackings.  Nothing worked as it once had.  “Not only is there no God,” said Woody Allen, “but try getting a plumber on weekends.”

I want history to tell me more than what happened at any given time: I want it to tell me what life was like.  I want to taste the food, hear the music, smell the smoke.  I want to, from my armchair, visit with people that have been dead for hundreds of years.  I want to know how they lived, what they learned and what they wore.  What lullabies did they sing to their children?  How did they prepare their meals, and what did they eat?

William Manchester filled this gap for a brief forty year segment.  The main outlines, dates, names and battles I had studied or learned about elsewhere, but he made them all come alive for me and showed me how they led inexorably, from one to the other

More than all of this however, The Glory and the Dream taught me a fundamental truth about history.  That it is now.

You see, I was involved in some of the episodes that were included in this book.  I read some of the best sellers, saw some of the movies and sang some of the songs.  And I saw the reality of history.  It is what we do with our lives today that will determine the history that our children and our grandchildren learn.  Which is a cliche only because it is true as is the fact that it is going to happen whether or not you are there to participate.

But history happens on multiple levels.   Yes, the OWS movement is historic, but so is the latest Lady Gaga song.  And the road your brother-in-law is working on.  Or the vote you cast next year.  Or don’t cast next year.

William Manchester changed the way I see history.  No longer was it the story of famous people doing important things, it was instead a rich tapestry of many colored silks, that is still being woven today.

The Keeper of Lost Causes

 

Originally published on Daily Kos Nov 21, 2011

Okay, I will admit right at the start that I have a hard time with stories that include graphic descriptions of physical torture committed by twisted creatures of evil.  I can no longer watch an entire episode of Criminal Minds even though I have enjoyed some of the shows in the past.  Perhaps as I age I become too aware that sick minds do exist and that they have control over bodies that do unspeakably evil things to others.  It is not all fiction.  Sadly.

That said, The Keeper of Lost Causes hooked me at the first page. Heck, the first sentence of the Prologue did it:

She scratched her fingertips on the smooth walls until they bled, and pounded her fists on the thick panes until she could no longer feel her hands.

“She” is Merete Lynggaard, a member of the Danish legislature known as the Folketing and the novel alternates between her story and that of the detective who works to solve the mystery of her disappearance five years earlier.

I tend to judge a book by how many times I think about it when I am not actually reading it.  Can I identify with the characters and their concerns pop into my mind when I am folding the laundry or driving the car?  And when I read the last page do I immediately begin the search for a sequel?  Lacking a sequel, do I immediately begin re-reading the book?

I always preferred Jane Marple to Hercule Poirot because i could more easily relate to her.  Hercule always seemed too weird and one dimensional for my taste.  Aside from his mustache the only thing I knew for sure about him was that his ego was truly obese.  John Rebus I like, but often found myself wanting to give him a good swift kick in the butt and insist that he develop a little self awareness.  Fortunately, he operated in Edinburgh and I can put up with a lot to imagine myself back there again.  I love Charlotte Pitt and her husband Thomas, unlike Kurt Manning, whom I try to tolerate.

Carl Morck is the type of detective I enjoy.  A complicated man, he is recovering from a shooting incident that killed one of his team and paralyzed another but left him with only a bullet graze.  And the sinking guilt that he survived and never drew his weapon.  Police work has lost its appeal for him and he is simply marking time.

Difficult to work with before the shooting, returning from sick leave he finds himself exiled to a basement office and assigned cold cases under a new program dictated by the Danish Folketing.  He found the reassignment less than upsetting:

He was still going to do exactly what he wanted to. Which was, as much as possible, absolutely nothing.

But the curiosity and skill that made him such an outstanding detective in the past that his “eternally skeptical eyes and caustic remarks” were overlooked by his superiors surfaces in an old case that his assistant subtly urges on him.

Oh yes, in addition to a freshly painted basement office, Hafez el-Assad is assigned as his assistant.  Intriguing in his own right, Assad is hired to make coffee, clean the basement and drive Morck in his assigned departmental Peugeot 607.  He brings a bit of his native Syria into the basement with his fragrant spices, teas, music “reminiscent of the bazaar in Sousse,” and his prayer rug.  The relationship between the two men grows throughout the story and provides an occasional smile.

Divorced, but still in contact with his ex-wife, Carl shares his home with his teenage stepson who lives upstairs and favors heavy metal music at full volume, and a lodger who lives in the basement and enjoys operatic arias which also need a high volume.

Just as the two competing musical styles create a certain level of tension in the Morck household, the two competing tales told in alternating chapters create a tension in the reader.  We are introduced to Merete in 2002 at the very beginning of the book when she is locked in a room from which she appears unable to escape.  As we follow her struggles, we learn, through flashbacks, of the accident that took her parents life and left her to raise her brother who was severely injured and suffered brain damage.

The novel alternates between Merete and Carl stories in a thoroughly satisfying manner.  The pacing is taut enough to keep the reader turning the pages and the plot complex enough to engage the reader’s mind.  The main characters are fully realized and easy to identify with although the lesser characters are not as fully drawn.  But then, this is a detective novel, and they don’t really need to be.  The joy is in the mystery and the steps to its solution.

This is part of the wave of Scandanavian mysteries that has been hitting our shores since Stieg Larsson’s Millenium trilogy made such a big hit here in the States.  Although some readers have long been familiar with the genre, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo created a new audience with an appetite for Nordic Noir.

“Jussi Adler-Olsen is Denmark’s premier crime writer. His books routinely top the bestseller lists in northern Europe, and he’s won just about every Nordic crime-writing award, including the prestigious Glass Key Award-also won by Henning Mankell, Stieg Larsson, and Jo Nesbo. Now, Dutton is thrilled to introduce him to America.” – Amazon

The Kindle edition is translated by Lisa Hartford.  Unfortunately, it is the only work of Adler-Olsen that has yet been translated into English.  And this, the first of four novels in the Q series, was published in August of 2011 four years after its Danish publication.  So I guess it will be a while before the rest of them are available unless one can read Danish.

Death on the Nile

Death on the Nile

Originally published at Daily Kos on Nov 7, 2011

I can’t think of Agatha Christie without some Art Deco image coming immediately to mind.  It may be as a result of the era she wrote about and in, or it may simply be the style of the covers that I remember from my youth.She will always, for me, bring to mind elegant elongated women in fur or feathered boas and turbans, and draped with long strands of pearls in flapper skirts posed with cigarettes in extended holders.  And the men will always have side-parted, slicked back, black hair and be dressed in white dinner jackets while holding clear martini glasses with one olive.  With music by Scott Joplin.Death on the Nile is filled with such people.

The Cast

Linnet Ridgeway Doyle the beautiful, charming heiress to a great American fortune living in England and appearing to enjoy the best of everything.

Joanna Southwood, “a tall thin young woman of twenty-seven, with a long clever face and freakishly plucked eyebrows,” apparent friend to Linnet.

Jacqueline de Bellefort (Jackie), a friend of Linnet’s from their days together at school.  Her father lost the family money during the 1929 crash, leaving her in reduced financial circumstances.

Simon Doyle, an Englishman, the love of Jackie’s life and her fiancee, who goes to work for Linnet as a land agent and within three months becomes her husband.  (He is blond, but I’m willing to bet he wears his hair parted and slicked back.)

Mrs. Allerton, a cousin of Joanna Southwood, of whom she disapproves, and her son, Tim, who appears enjoy Joanna’s correspondence more than her company, and is devoted to his mother.

Mrs Otterbourne, who writes erotic novels and wears dreadful turbans and her daughter,Rosalie, repeatedly described as being sulky although pretty.

Andrew Pennington, Linnet’s American trustee who races to Egypt to meet Linnet when he hears of her marriage.

Louise Borgett, Linnet’s maid,

Signor Guido Richett, Italian archeologist

Miss Van Schuyler, wealthy American snob, her young poor relative and traveling companionCornelia Robson, and her nurse, Miss Bowers.

Jim Fanthorp, nephew of Linnet’s English solicitor, although unknown to her personally, he is sent to Egypt when his uncle learns of the presence of Pennington.

Mr. Fergusson, a rather outspoken, shabbily dressed anti-capitalist.

Dr. Bessner a German physician travelling on the Karnak.

Colonel Race, “a man of unadvertised goings and comings. He was usually to be found in one of the outposts of Empire where trouble was brewing.”  He joins the Karnak at the Second Cataract.

The Story

Agatha Christie is at her usual best, weaving multiple sub-plots in and out of the murder mystery that drives the novel.  Although her books have never been character studies, the people are drawn with just enough depth to make them appear real, if slightly stereotypical.

Seeming to already have everything, but lacking a love of her own, Linnet Ridgeway steals her friend Jackie’s fiancee, Simon Doyle.  Deciding to honeymoon in Egypt, they are followed everywhere by Jackie de Bellefort.  Always polite and never directly threatening, Jackie even appears on the Karnak for the Nile cruise.

Hercule Poirot is on the same ship as part of his planned vacation and encounters the Doyles and the other characters (except Joanne Southwood, who is the only one not on board). Before sailing he has a chance, at Linnet’s request, to try to disuade Jackie from stalking the Doyles.  During their conversation, she indicates that she would very much like to shoot Linnet in the head and shows Hercule the small handgun she carries in her purse.

While onboard the Karnak, Linnet Doyle is shot in the head exactly as Jacqueline de Bellefort described.  But Jackie was in her cabin supervised by Miss Van Schuyler’s nurse, Miss Bowers, at the time of the murder, having just shot her ex-fiancee, Simon Doyle, in the leg during a quarrel.

So, who killed Linnet Doyle?  And what secrets do the others hide?

My Favorite Quote

“There’s no reason why women shouldn’t behave like rational beings,” Simon asserted stolidly.
Poirot said dryly: “Quite frequently they do. That is even more upsetting!”