Consultation No. 3 – With John Steinbeck

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Here we are up to our ankles in yet another imagined conversation with an American writer whose work has been, and continues to be, acclaimed for the passion of his characters, even when he leaves them subject on occasion to a side-splitting, acerbic humor. Charley, Steinbeck’s dog,  has been dead some forty years on the date of this interview, and I thought it prudent to put that sad thought to rest early.

GF: First, sir, even as I express my gratefulness for your agreeing to this interview, you have our deepest sympathies. You have left Charley to us all for posterity.

JS: With a sad look toward his scuffed shoes – “Thank you. He was a dear friend and companion.”

GF: Some of your larger work is rightly accepted into the American literary canon, but I’m curious: you’ve written so many novellas, these largely eluding such recognition. Why?

JS: It’s one thing to have your work accepted for literary reasons, but to have Of Mice and Men and The Grapes of Wrath vilified by lowbrow politicians, and by doing so to excoriate me and my views of American life, is the cheapest of shots. Do you think I gained the personal popularity of writers such as Twain by my literary efforts? No! I was considered a subhuman being by politicians and the press because I professed to be a socialist, even a communist, and so – to answer your question – the novellas were relatively easy writes. I had to do them, for money to live on.

GF: After all these years, do you regret writing so many short novels?

JS: “Of course not. Not every long-winded novelist can compress the essence of a novel into two hundred pages.” Another look to his shoes. “The money, as I said. Besides, men don’t read enough; they don’t have the patience with story that women do. I wanted men to read more.”

GF: You were the best, in my opinion, at writing with such mood. You didn’t have to argue politics or social situation in your books; you let your characters speak their sadness and despair, their woundedness, even as they left your readers with hope.

JS: That hope, it’s the only thing that keeps this country going. We always believe things will be better tomorrow. We always look the other way at slavery, abusive labor, cheap wages, genocide of America’s first people, the raping of the land, and countless wars in hoping that something good will come of it all. And this hope you speak of: money, not human values, underscores it all.

GF: All right. But can you leave us with something of a positive note?

JS: With an incredulous look, he says, “But I have. My novels. The essays, the novellas, from A Cup of Gold to Cannery Row, should  continue to speak to generations of young readers who want desperately not to leave their enthusiasm and idealism behind in their pursuit of a decent life.

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Good Prose, No Win Satire

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The Sellout, by Paul Beatty

You might be in the den with some pals waiting for the Super Bowl to begin, and someone cracks a joke, then another. Then another. And you think, “Jokes and satire can’t be all that hard; maybe I could do a stand-up act, or write a satirical book.” So weeks later, it’s midnight and your idea for a novel full of witty things is a complete bust.
This, in a nutshell, is why Paul Beatty’s novel fails to complete its mission. More on that in a minute.
The author’s ambitious project here is intended to satirize nearly everyone and every institution in American life, and satirize he does. His story is of a young black man who is trying to live up to his father’s expectations as an understudy “nigger whisperer.,” i.e., someone who can calm even the most rambunctious denizens of Dickens, a black community on the outskirts of Los Angeles. The son isn’t much good at following in his father’s footsteps, so he determines to re-segregate Dickens. In the process one of his friends, Hominy Jenkins, aspires to be the young man’s slave and he sets out to accomplish that. So this is pretty much the story.

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The author has apparently decided, however, that he doesn’t need much of a story; his project is to leapfrog here and there to point out the foibles of whites through the coping mechanisms of Dickens’ black community. He easily accomplishes this, but at the expense of both races’ human nature. The “gets” are easy here; the old man’s network of ad hoc clients has abandoned him and the son isn’t anywhere near as talented as his dad at that whispering thing. So he reels from pillar to post in his quest to re-segregate Dickens and manages to be dragged before the U.S. Supreme Court for his effort.
The problem here isn’t that Beatty’s intent isn’t clear enough; rather, he sets up a mild desegregation meant to feed us and inform a precise servitude. The main issue is that his satire isn’t often funny; in fact it’s often mean spirited, with no obvious saving grace. Still, when he does manage to be amusing, his schtick is a downright thigh-slapper.
My rating: 15 of 20 stars

 

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Kid Lit, My Friend, Kid Lit

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How do you read?

What?

What I mean is – and I mean this indirectly – what do you intend to get out of what you read?

That’s a pretty general question, Bob.

All right, I’m still not being clear enough. Do you read to get the gist of the story? Do you read to understand the characters and their conflicts? Do you read contextually, i.e., do you read to understand the story and characters in light of their historical and social settings?

Yeah, all that.

Okay, that makes you an exceptional reader. So let me ask you this: How quickly do you read?

You mean do I buy a book, run home and start reading?

You know I don’t mean that. How long do you dwell on each page?

I don’t know…Jeez, Bob, you going to put a stopwatch on me, or what?

No. What I’m getting at is: Do you enjoy the act of reading? Do you savor the writer’s word choices? Do you ponder his/her choice of metaphors? Can you slip into the writer’s written voice like a new bathrobe? Do you look for and celebrate the irony there? The subtlest humor and satiric bits and pieces?

Yeah, sometimes. Sometimes the book bores the shit out of me, and so I scan it. Can’t wait to get through with it, you know?

I do indeed. I try to allude to all these things when I write a review; I try to lead the ones who read my reviews into reading the book, and I try to tell them what they can expect from reading it.

I get where you’re coming from, Bob. You’re going to try something new in your reviews, aren’t you? And you depend on your formula to get you through the weeds.

(Notice how, suddenly, the questioner becomes the questioned?)

I get that, Bob. You’re as regular as an alarm clock when it comes to putting that formula into practice. So what’s up?

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Kid lit, my friend. Kid lit.

Books for tykes, you mean.

Yes.

So why is that a challenge?

Vocabulary, for one thing. An eight-year old’s vocabulary is roughly half an adult’s. And then there’s the degree of complexity a child’s mind can handle.

So, Bob, you think a kid’s mind isn’t as well developed as an adult’s?

Well, it’s been proven. That’s why they go to school. To improve their ability to think and communicate what they think.

It’s not to learn a trade? To get a good paying job?

Now you’re getting into politics, and we both know where that ends up. Certain people scratch around in the dust long enough and greedily enough, and they end up with money. Piles of it. They become addicted to money. Can’t get enough of it. So they tweak society into training mindless automatons to do their bidding. Give them just enough mental training to have them function as human machines.

Like that old song? “A mind that’s weak and a back that’s strong?”

Exactly. You become dangerous if your mind becomes over-educated.

Is that what you want, Bob, over-educated people who cause trouble?

In a way. But what I’d say is I want people who can think for themselves – and for society as a whole. To move us all forward.

Really, Bob? Really? And how do you propose to do that?

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Get them reading. Challenge their minds that way.

And how do you get your so-called automatons to read?

Kid lit, my friend. Kid lit. Get the kids reading, and they’ll never stop.

 

End of scene. See you next week.

Dreams of a Better World

Most Blessed of the Patriarchs – Thomas Jefferson and the Empire of the Imagination, by Annette Gordon-Reed and Peter S. Onuf

 

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I’ve been fascinated for years by Jefferson, and have read most of what’s out there on this sometimes eccentric man. But this book takes a new tack. Rather than focus on his politics, his accomplishments in government as well as other areas of life, the authors let us in on the man’s psychology, the ways in which the vagaries of life drove him in one direction versus another.

Above all, Jefferson was a people person. Even late in life, he’d never turn away anyone showing up at Monticello to meet the great man. He lost his wife early in their marriage, and raised his daughters in proper fashion while attending to his responsibilities as a U.S. representative to France. He disliked politics; even so, he served admirably as Secretary of State, Vice President, and finally President, after a harrowing, revolutionary campaign. Slavery stood among his complexities; he maintained slaves at Monticello, but he worked continuously to end slavery, believing that institution would be a fatal blight on the new nation. Ever the idealist revolutionary, he dreamed of the U.S. as an ongoing citadel of freedom and equality in a world of the dominant and dominated.

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The writing here is sometimes hard to follow; at others it’s as lean and taut as the best fiction, both testifying to the authors’ love for Jefferson. I found the book fascinating and Jefferson’s inner life as portrayed here inspiring. It’s a must read for those fascinated with the Jeffersonian era and the life of Thomas Jefferson.

 

My rating: 16 of 20 stars

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Irony and Complexity

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The Orphan Master’s Son, by Adam Johnson

As is my case with most books, I warmed up to this one slowly. My warming, however, became only tepid with The Orphan Master’s Son. I like stories, you see, and defined characters within such stories. That makes me an odd fit for postmodern literature, something I’ve posted on ad nauseum. This book of that ilk branches and wanders, flitting from character to vignette randomly, much as one might experience in a dream. There is a semblance of coherent story here, so I’ll take a shot at synopsizing it;

Pak Jun Do’s father is the ruling influence of a North Korean orphanage, and the boy’s mother has been spirited away to entertain high placed personages in Pyongyang, leaving Jun Do an orphan of sorts. He eventually finds himself in the role of kidnapper for North Korea’s high-ups. In such a country it’s best to blend in, to be all but invisible, but Jun Do’s role makes this impossible, and he continually finds himself skirting torture and death. Somewhere deep in this life he encounters a North Korean-type starlet, named Sun Moon, who has been conned away from Kim Jong Il to be the mistress of yet another muckety-muck. Jun Do falls for the wryly named Sun Moon, who sets a host of characters on a path to free her from the Dear Leader.

If this sounds like an overly complicated story – or perhaps no story at all – then you have a sense of what postmodern literature has to offer.

Two things tie Johnson’s novel into a semblance of coherence: first, it depicts the difficulties of living under such a regime. Second, it contrasts that form of society and life with that of the U.S., and it does so wryly, with irony of the highest order. The manner in which the author approaches writing this novel set in this particular culture is, I think, the reason it won the Pulitzer.

Johnson seems to have little regard for reader comfort in structuring this novel, even down to the insertion of dialogue tags in his sentences, and he apparently feels no need to lead the reader from vignette to vignette. His project here is perhaps overly ambitious, and I doubt he could have accomplished in a novel all he wished to without wandering about in this manner.

My rating: 15 of 20 stars.

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A Familiar Fate For The Brave Outsider

The Black Count, by Tom Reiss

 

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By sixth grade all of us, I imagine, have read The Count of Monte Cristo, and perhaps know a little about Alexandre Dumas, the book’s author. Tom Reiss’ gift to readers, then, in this 2013 Pulitzer Prize-winning biography, is to draw connections between Dumas’ book, Dumas the author, and his swashbuckling father of the same name.

It’s tempting to tell the whole tale here, but let’s consider it enough to state the following:

The father was a well-off white farmer in Saint-Domingue (Haiti), the mother a black slave.

The son went to France with his father, and there received the best aristocratic education.

The son joined the French army as a common soldier and rose quickly to the General rank. During this time he performed a number of acclaimed military feats.

A jealous Napoleon used Dumas’ military skills toward his own ends, and following Dumas’ retirement, Napoleon withheld recognition and pension from Dumas.

 

But Reiss’ tale here is more than that of this unusual man; it’s also a complex snapshot of how egalitarian fervor following the French Revolution decayed into racism and the reinstitution of slavery under Napoleon’s dictatorship.

Such books can be a bit difficult on readers what with the abrupt gear changing from personal biography to historical backstory, but Reiss handles the task as well as any biographer . In fact it’s the backstory that will etch itself indelibly on readers’ minds. And that the Dumas family sat astride this era only ices the cake.

 

My rating: 17 of 20 stars

 

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Old Hickory Stands Tall as a Wily Mediator

American Lion – Andrew Jackson in the White House, by Jon Meacham

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Jackson was never a favorite of mine, but there are things in this Pulitzer Prize-winning book of Jon Meacham’s that has me a bit more respectful of his presidency.

Yes, he did break treaties and banish the Creek, Chickasaw, and Choctaw tribes to lands west of the Mississippi, fought two wars against the Seminoles, and later deported the Cherokee, all in the most gruesome manner possible. He also broke with fifty year-old precedent in the fledgling republic and took Presidential powers to new heights. And he introduced a new and raucous pioneer sensibility to the U.S.’s governance. But there are similarities to Jefferson that bear considering here.

Jackson took the long view that Jefferson took in preserving the new republic and protecting it from enemies without. When France reneged on its debts to the U.S., Jackson demanded payment. When South Carolina threatened to nullify certain federal laws, particularly a tariff the slave-owning plantation owners didn’t like, he went to the brink of civil war to protect the union against such erosion. Parallel to that, he had political battles with the Northeast states over Abolition, these state issuing rumblings about secession should the U.S. continue to maintain slavery. And when he thought Nicholas Biddle was using his position as head of the National Bank to fight Jackson politically, Jackson withdrew federal money from the bank, risking economic catastrophe.

Ever “The General,” Jackson fought such fights throughout his two terms in office. Meacham portrays him as a solitary sort, since Jackson’s wife, Rachel died just prior to his taking office, and Jackson never got over the loss. He did bring in family members, however, to support him emotionally and to serve politically and socially in roles necessary to his Presidency. Andrew and Emily Donelson became private secretary and White House hostess respectively to Jackson, and much of Meacham’s early tale seems rather gossipy concerning the Donelsons’ social feuds with Margaret Eaton, wife of one of Jackson’s advisors. But even here, Jackson’s aplomb under fire put oil on the intra-squabble waters.

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But why did Meacham win the Pulitzer for this book? I think for three reasons:

  1. He focused more on the man, his personality, and allowed that to dictate the history to which he was attached – rather than the other way around.
  2. Jackson’s efforts to resolve the nullification issue with South Carolina without bloodshed. He did in fact compromise with South Carolina in order to end this standoff peaceably.
  3. Meacham found new documents of historical significance, many of these regarding the social squabbles that haunted Jackson’s Presidency, and these added greatly to revealing Jackson the person, rather than Jackson the general, Indian fighter, and President.

 

My rating: 17 of 20 stars

 

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