Saturday, July 25, 2009

Book Ten: Fordlandia by Greg Grandin

This sounds like an urban legend gone bad (do any go good?), so I had to read about Henry Ford's attempt to build "the American Dream" in the jungles of Brazil. The financial impetus was to grow rubber for tires and other auto parts, but by the time he started rubber prices were low and the need was no longer there. But Ford still decided to create a town to help civilize the jungle and bring American happiness worldwide. It failed of course. The most interesting part of this book is the issue of Ford trying to create the ideal small town his production line had ruined. Thanks to affordable cars the American dream was on the road and Ford never seemed to reconcile with himself for killing what he loved.

Building towns was something of an occupation for Ford. Alberta and Iron Mountain in Michigan are two industrial examples, and his Greenfield Village was nothing less than his American version of his Fordlandia experiment -- sans rubber. Other companies had done this as well, but Ford was committed to recreating the Midwest in Brazil. He wanted straight roads, Cape Cod houses, a church, a town square, and a dance hall for all those square dances. He made the people overseeing it get rid of the thatched roofs and put on tin roofs, thus creating a plethora of house-sized ovens. I could go on, but picture everything you think ridiculous in such an attempt and it probably occurred.

Of course, the rubber plantations did not work out either. Rubber trees grow wild in the Amazon, but put them in a plantation and they share bugs and diseases quickly. Not that he gave up easily. In fact he never did give up -- it was his grandson who finally gave it all back to Brazil nearly 20 years after they started.

Grandin does a good job of avoiding the obvious themes of humanity vs nature, or the unbridled ego of a man who thinks his way of life fits elsewhere. Instead, he focuses our attention back on Ford in the U.S. and parallels how his failed attempts at building in Brazil mirrored the erosion of his company and the life he held dear.

Unfortunately, Grandin spends too much time on subplots and at times the book is a stuggle to read. He tends to repeat the same information too much, and if I read one more time about Henry Wickham's stealing of rubber tree seeds to create the Southeast Asia rubber industry, I swore the book was going threw the window. (Besides, what can you expect from a man sharing the same last name as the villain of a Jane Austen novel!) In one chapter he makes a half-hearted attempt to draw an analogy with Conrad's Heart of Darkness, but fails to make it stick. He is a professor and has done his research, so he figures he might as well share it with us. A bit more focus on the project without the extras would help.

However, all this gave me a fuller and much less pleasant understanding of Ford than I previously had. Grandin presents a balanced portrait of a bright, entrepurniaral person who cared about his workers on one hand, but was anti-Semitic and not opposed to having a union symphathizer beaten. Ford is a man of great contradictions who, because he had the resources, could make those contradictions into realities which everyone but him seemed to see. In the end the book is a tragic tale of Ford himself, with Fordlandia being just one of a list of things which went wrong in the final decades of his life.

If you are interested watch this 15 minute interview with Grandin and you'll get the gist of the book and the Fordlandia project.

Read this review at Blogcritics.

Reading Challenges
No doubt about, I thought I was going to fail this week. This was a tough book to read with a lot of information I was not all that interested in. Fortunately, just when I thought I would give in, Grandin would get back into it and I was interested again. The week itself was not too busy, so I'm glad I had the extra time needed to read this one. I can say that if I was not doing the book-a-week I would have either given up or at least spent another week on it. After my "reading high" of last week it felt a bit more like homework this week.

But the last two days brought an added bonus. Reading glasses! I'm already officially old, but now I have the glasses to prove it. The eye doctor told me reading glasses would do the trick and to save money by buying them at the drugstore. So I bought a pair and found the reading to be MUCH less tiring. Of course, my three-year-old still thinks I'm just goofing around when I put them on, but he'll adjust.

Next Up
So after a tough week I'm hoping Susan Choi's American Woman is a easy and enjoyable read. Choi is coming to Hope College this year as part of the Visiting Writers Series and I always try to read what our guests are writing (so I can tell people to attend with good reason).


Happy reading!

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Book Nine (and Nine B): Drinking Coffee Elsewhere by ZZ Packer

...and Galway Kinnell's Strong Is Your Hold.
First, Drinking Coffee Elsewhere. This has one of best opening lines I've read in a long time. "By our second day at Camp Crescendo, the girls in my Brownie troop had decided to kick the asses of each and every girl in Brownie Troop 909." Clearly, Packer is not one to pull punches and this collection of short stories reflects life well -- there is humor, horror, and people good and bad. Packer is African American and her stories focus on African Americans working their way through the world. The ass-kickin' Brownie troop above is an African American group responding to a racist comment never uttered. It takes nerve to open her collection of stories with one showing African Americans "using" their status to create an issue, but that is one of Packer's strengths. Throughout the stories Packer calls everyone to account regardless of race, gender, age, religion, and just about any other category you can create.
She is a realist in the sense that she describes how life is, meaning she is not a writer to look to when you need a lot of hope. There is hope in the stories, because there is hope in life. Just not an overwhelming amount.

Her best story (and longest -- she knows how to develop a story) is "Speaking in Tongues." In the story of runaway church girl from the country looking for her estranged, drug-addicted mom in Atlanta, we see the ease in which a child is almost brought into prostitution. But we also see the courage of others when several prostitutes go after the pimp in order for her to escape their life. This is a story which takes us deep into despair and then brings us hope.

"Brownies," from which we get the opening line, explores the racial understanding of young children and how they are already responding differently. One interesting aspect of this story is that the main character and narrator is actually ostracized by the group, and has been for years. It made me wonder how often we see stories from the point of view of someone who has little impact on the narrative direction, yet avoids the third-person perspective.

No story in the collection is bad, although a couple did not have the punch of the rest ("The Ant of the Self" has potential, but just did not cut it in the end for me). Packer has the potential to create an impact down the road, and this first (and only) book has brought in a number of awards and a great deal of recognition. Visit her website to read about her and find some of the stories online.

Galway Kinnell's Strong Is Your Hold. Kinnell is quite simply my favorite poet, evidenced by the fact that I return to him again and again. This is his latest collection (2008) and I was pretty excited to find a version of it which includes a CD of him reading it for $3 (new!) on Ebay -- including postage. Poetry should never be that cheap, but I'll take it (I also scored Donald Hall's collection of past and new poems for just a few dollars as well). I have two Galway Kinnell stories I tell and should put into writing. The great poet and teacher Jack Ridl introduced me to Kinnell when I was a student at Hope college. The first story actually deals with Tom Andrews, a fellow student who went on to be a great poet and who passed away much too soon. Many of our class were poets-in-hoping and dressed the part, but Andrews always looked like he got lost on the way to an engineering class. But could he write! I'd hear his poems and think, well, I guess I could do something else in life. So it came time to read Kinnell and I was completely blown away by his earthiness, his directness, his un-pretentiousness. Andrews and I were talking before class about "The Bear" (my all time favorite poem) and he said "when I got to the part where he climbs into the bear I just had to put the book down and walk away -- I couldn't even finish it." I thought the poem was really "cool," but Andrews was physically moved by it. Probably why he was a great poet and I've been told that I could write great Hallmark cards.

My second story (in case anyone is reading). Jack (Ridl) created a phenomenal writing series (which now carries his name and I have the joy of working with, although I do NOT get to select the writers) and I told him please let me know if you ever get Kinnell to Hope. Sure enough, a few years later I'm in charge of housing at Hope College and Jack sends me a note saying he has Kinnell coming in. I was so excited, and then realized it was same day/time all the women on
campus came to a large room and selected their housing for the next year -- a very stressful event. I had already sent out all the information, but I made the decision to change the housing selection time to later and I sent a letter to every woman on campus explaining what I was doing and why. Over 800 women learned that poetry is more important than shelter. Not a single complaint, I got to see Kinnell read, and my signed copy of his Selected Poems is still my most prized book. (But my supervisor at the time was a bit confused by my actions!). [If you are not familiar with Jack Ridl, or even if you are, visit his website and read some great stuff].

Okay, so now I come to Strong Is Your Hold. Kinnell is aging and his writing reflects the life and concerns of an older man who still loves life and people. Don't get me wrong. He is not a "happy" poet, but one who truly values what he has.

I, who so often used to wish to float free
of earth, now with all my being want to stay... ("The Stone Table")

He writes of his children (as always) and his grandchildren, nature and sex, and a range of other topics. What strikes me about Kinnell is that he treats all subjects equally. Children have as much to offer as nature which has as much to offer as good wine. He draws and learns from everything, seemingly without judgment expect on himself. He is a humble writer, but he writes with such power it is easy to miss.

"Pulling a Nail" is a wonderful rumination on pulling a nail his father drove into wood the year Kinnell was born. He does not miss these interesting intersections of present and past, and in doing so he transcends time to create a now. In the hands of a lesser poet this scene could be one of my Hallmark cards, but Kinnell relishes the struggle as much as the connection.

Death is always a theme for Kinnell, and this volume includes works to friends that have died. But without a doubt the most moving, most challenging poem is his 9/11 response entitled "When the Towers Fell." You can read this poem online. The poem shows Kinnell's strengths: his unflinching gaze into evil, his empathy, his anger, his humility. This is not a polite poem. For people who lost friends in the towers it would be difficult to read. Thus his greatest strength: honesty.

In other words, another great book by Kinnell.

Reading Challenges
Another easy week to meet my goal and I got to read Kinnell's work (twice), although I had read it before. What has been happening the last couple of weeks is I find myself reading ahead of my schedule -- the reading is very enjoyable and is making life more focused (or put into perspective). I thought by now I would be getting tired of this idea, but at the moment I have not intention of stopping. My list of books to read grows longer and I'm excited about what I have on the list. In fact, I'm more willing to "risk a read" since I'm not committing to weeks of reading, just one week.

What is Next?
Back to some nonfiction which sounds fictional. Greg Grandin's Fordlandia, about Henry Ford's failed attempt at building the U.S. Midwest in the jungles of Brazil. The plot would be a bad novel, but since it is true it should be pretty interesting. In going through the introduction I've learned about other companies doing similar things (e.g. Hershey in Cuba), but not with Ford's plan to simply drop our lifestyle unaltered in the midst of another world. Suburbia Brazil?

Happy reading!

Saturday, July 11, 2009

Book Eight (and Eight B): Sherlock Holmes Was Wrong by Pierre Bayard

...and the Hound of the Baskervilles by Arthur Conan Doyle
I had high hopes for my reading this week and my expectations were exceeded. In preparation for Pierre Bayard's Sherlock Holmes Was Wrong I returned to my childhood favorite reading. Granted, the Hound has never been my favorite Holmes story, but I found it to be a fun, exciting, and an interesting read. The story is steeped in the gothic tradition with the large estate, deadly moor, oppressive fog, and desolate landscape. Doyle succeeds in creating a character out of the landscape in a way that Willa Cather's does (and you try fitting those two in the senetence.) The ending still tends to just fizzle out, but the steps in getting to the end are worth the effort. Most people know the story in one way or another (my oldest said he remembers it best as a Wishbone episode -- for fans of the literary dog), but just in case: Holmes is called in when a member of the Baskerville family dies. Although it appears a simple heart attack, a doctor and friend of Baskerville thinks he was frightened to death by a giant hound which has haunted the family as a curse. With a new heir arriving can Holmes solve the mystery of the hound before the next (and last) member of the Baskerville family dies? Watson plays a major role in this book in part because some scholars assert the novel was originally written without Holmes -- this was written after Doyle killed Holmes off and before he returned him in "The Empty House." When the publisherr offered double the royalties, Holmes was inserted. Doyle even throws in an insane murderer haunting the moor to throw everyone off track and there are is no shortage of clues to build a case upon. But I leave the ending to you.

Which leaves us Bayard's assertion that Holmes is wrong in this case. His book is in part a look at the Hound, but it is more a lively exploration of literary theory. His has applied his theory of "detective criticism" to Agatha Christie as well and what is appealing is his willingness to apply his theory to practical interpretations. Bayard's theory in general is not original: texts cannot be objective references since every reader completes the story with his/her own background. In fact, the same reader cannot read the same book twice since the second reading will be changed by the first (e.g. you cannot step in the same river twice). In practice someone employing "detective criticism pays close attention to the way the facts are presented, accepting no testimony without reservation and systematically calling into question everything that is reported to him" (70). He then calls into question much of what Holmes concludes and what Doyle writes. The Hound is not a tightly written novel, but then Doyle could not even keep the location of Watson's war wound in one spot -- details are not his strength, which make his success as a detective writer even more surprising. Without spoiling the ending, let it be said that Bayard falls prey to some of the same mistakes he charges Doyle as a writer and Holmes as a character with -- his idea of the real "murderer" has too many holes as well. In some ways Bayard is having fun, so I do not take his reading of the Hound too seriously -- is was an easy target for him.

One of the most interesting chapters is "Does Sherlock Holmes Exist?" in which he explores the the long standing debate about if fiction and reality can intersect. He places himself in the extreme side of the "integrationists," in which he believes that "literary characters enjoy a certain autonomy"(114). I tend to disagree rather strongly, but the disagreement has less to do with what he sees as opposed to how he interprets it. Bayard can argue that the outcry Doyle heard when he killed off Holmes shows the intersection of fiction and reality and thus makes the character autonomous. While I'm happy to play the literary theory game, I also know when people like their stories to continue and characters they like to live (see: Potter, Harry), but this does not give a separate life to the characters. In fact, the argument fails because they are dependent on the readers for the reaction. But his whole discussion of characters who seem to exist independent of their works is very interesting.

As you can see this book got me thinking and was one of the more creative approaches to literary theory I've ever read -- wish they gave me this one to read in my lit. theory class!

Reading Challenges
Dare I say, none? I read Hound of the Baskervilles in two nights and Bayard in another two. Both quick, enjoyable, and easy reads.

Next Up
ZZ Packer's collection of short stories, Drinking Coffee Elsewhere. I got a great deal on some books through Daedalus Books and this was one. I know next to nothing about her, but was intrigued by the strong blurbs she had, including John Updike saying "ZZ Packer tells it like it izz." Guess he could not resist the double zz.

Saturday, July 4, 2009

Book Seven: The Known World by Edward P. Jones

Slavery is an abhorrent reality that is hard to imagine being more despicable than what most of us have already learned about the "peculiar institution." Edward Jones throws a new twist at us when he writes a book about a slave-owning black man. Indeed, there are instances in which this did occur, but Jones notes in an interview (in my edition of the book) that it was likely rare.

This book is an intricately weaved story which breaks from a straight linear plot indicating that ideas are more important than the timeline. Henry Townsend is the slave owning black man and the book opens with his death, but his life comes back to us as times. He is, interestingly enough, a former slave bought from slavery by his father, who had earned his own freedom and that of his wife years before. These are people who understand the nature of slavery and have endured it, so the fact that Henry would choose to enslave others is surprising to say the least. We never get a good understanding of why he does this other than that is what people do -- it is not an issue of race, but of power.

His first slave and a central character is Moses, a person who embodies what slavery can do to a person's character. Jones does an outstanding job with how we as readers see Moses throughout the story, and the change we see can be attributed to us either learning more about him, or the fact that the person we see is changing. Either way, Jones avoids stereotypical portrayals of people throughout the novel which makes it more difficult to dismiss someone as ignorant because we disagree with them.

The new question this leaves us (okay, me) with is whether slavery is any more evil when practiced by a former slave? It seems especially insidious for someone who has served as a slave to subject others to this status. Yet what we see in this story and other narratives were that many slaves accepted the institution as a part of life, so why not continue in it from a power perspective when able? I return again to the idea of race vs. power. It was not the racism inherent in slavery which bothers Henry, it is the lack of power. If he focuses the experience as an individual struggle then he can simply see his position of master as evidence of someone overcoming the odds. If he were to focus on the nature of the institution, he could not rationalize what he has done -- he would now be a contributing member of an evil institution instead of a successful businessman.

A book well worth reading for many reasons. First, learning more about slavery makes us more aware of how our country was built. This book does not offer many happy endings, which is more reflective of slavery than some stories would have us think. Second, this is a well written book. As I mentioned, Jones does a great job with characters. He also has a knack for the well written sentence. It is not an "easy read," but it is a full read. Third, the book raises new ways to consider "old" issues, such as race and power. Fourth (and finally), anyone looking for strong women characters will find an abundance in this book (although I failed to mention them of course).

Reading Challenges
This turned out to be tougher than I thought and for a while I was worried I would break my one book per week goal. I was on vacation this week and that actually makes things tougher. Of course, visiting Traverse City where we had 49 hours of rain in the 48 hours we were there (with a high temp. of 60) meant that no one had a reason to stay up late so I was able to keep up. I spent more hours reading this book than any other one in the past couple of months and I've learned to steal 30 minutes here and there.

Next Up
A little fun and two books to boot! I'll be reading The Hound of the Baskervilles and then a book called Sherlock Holmes was Wrong about how Holmes messed up the Baskerville case. I went off on my Sherlock Holmes fascination last week so I'll not repeat it, but I'm looking forward to these two books.