Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Mount TBR #31

I read this book for the Mount TBR Reading Challenge hosted over at My Reader’s Block from January 1 – December 31, 2017. The challenge is to read books that you already own.

Pearl Buck in China: Journey to “The Good Earth” – Hilary Spurling

After finishing a 500-page biography, I wanted to stay in non-fiction but wanted a book less formidable in length. Most of this compact narrative of the life of Pearl Buck focusses on her life in China up to the writing of the novel she is remembered by. Published in 1931, “The Good Earth” was two years on best-seller lists and won Buck the Pulitzer Prize in 1932. She later became the first American woman to win the Nobel Prize for literature.

The best thing about this book is that it tells about Buck’s experience growing up in Zhenjiang (upriver from Shanghai) as the Qing dynasty’s obstructed social and economic reform in the shadow of Western trade, religion, and wars brought more and more calamities upon China. Growing up bilingual and knowing her host country better than most Chinese urban intellectuals, she witnessed social and economic trials first hand: the physical and mental abuse of women, the sale of girls into brothels and sex slavery, soldier-bandits, Yangtze floods, leper beggars, droughts, famine, typhoons, mobs, and peasant brutalization through ignorance and poverty.

The second best thing is Spurling’s re-assessment of Buck’s literary reputation. Critics in our country have disliked her use of pop fiction techniques so Buck is little read these days, except among the hardest of hard-core readers like us. Critics in China have long figured that only Chinese should write about Chinese topics. This is changing, but slowly. "She was a revolutionary," said Liu Haiping, translator of Buck’s book into Chinese and a professor of English at Nanjing University. "She was the first writer to choose rural China as her subject matter. None of the Chinese writers would have done so; intellectuals wrote about urban intellectuals. …Many of us feel we should include Buck as part of Chinese literature." 

Any reader with an interest in 20th century China, Nationalist China, or rural China should read this book. So should any reader with an interest in women authors and the hard roads that women writers have to take for their art. Finally, as an example of how a political innocent can become the object of contempt and derision from both sides, Pearl Buck stands tall as truth-teller, brave and wise.

Sunday, June 25, 2017

Mount TBR #30

I read this book for the Mount TBR Reading Challenge hosted over at My Reader’s Block from January 1 – December 31, 2017. The challenge is to read books that you already own.

W.C. Fields: A Biography - James Curtis

Anybody interested in the history of entertainment in the US should read this biography of the 1930s and early 1940s screen comedian. Curtis relates at interesting length that in his youth Fields played every performing venue from fair pavilions to circuses, burlesque to minstrelsy, travelling shows to early vaudeville theaters. Then he was a star in the Ziegfield Follies, stage, screen and radio. Fields made such an imprint on pop culture that his reputation experienced comebacks after his death on Christmas in 1946. For instance, when I was a college student in the 1970s, plenty of guys had his poster in their dorm room.

The reason for Fields appeal to youth and other crusty personalities was that he was a rebel. Therefore, directors and actors either loved or hated to work with him. An anti-authoritarian and agent of chaos down to his heels, he was always for the underdog. The crew always loved him because Fields was generous with money and assistance when they or their family members were in trouble.

This is a long book, mainly due to production stories that, to my mind, might have been snipped. I mean, wrangles over creative differences start to feel same-same to me, past a certain point. But that is what skimming and scanning are for.

The Fields estate granted Curtis access to Fields' papers, plus he went over unpublished manuscripts provided by employees or their families. Curtis also interviewed the ever dwindling number of Fields’ fellow actors and crew members. So readers who consider the research will be assured that Curtis has done his homework. The book also has many revealing photos, especially one of Fields as a15-year-old. Beaten at home by his drunken father, homeless at times, hassled by older toughs and chickenshit adults, he looks angry to bursting but determined to get his own back from the world.

Thursday, June 22, 2017

Mount TBR #29

I read this book for the Mount TBR Reading Challenge hosted over at My Reader’s Block from January 1 – December 31, 2017. The challenge is to read books that you already own.

A Spy among Friends: Kim Philby and the Great Betrayal - Ben Macintyre

Kim Philby was recruited by Soviet intelligence when he was a student at Cambridge in the 1930s. The ideological appeal of communism was that it wasn’t fascism nor was it an economic system that caused the Great Depression. His decision was purely political, he says, and so politics always trumped his personal relationships. He says it pained him to deceive and manipulate his friends and family. But then he said a lot of things. It’s just as easy to believe that he just felt jeering contempt for people he perceived as stupid and gullible enough to believe him.

His betrayal of many intelligence operations cost agents their lives. Remember too that Communists punish the family and friends of “enemies of the people.” For example, the British secret service hatched operations in which Albanian and Ukrainian patriots were infiltrated into their countries to work against the communists but they were effortlessly rolled up and executed because of Philby's advance warnings to his Soviet masters. There is no telling exactly how many people lost their lives or freedom due to Philby’s spying, but the figure must be in the hundreds. And all for a creed deservedly dead, in the trash can of history.

This is a well-written story of not only Philby but also the two Western agents he utterly took in, James Angleton of the CIA and Nicholas Elliott of MI6. During WWII, Angleton forged close ties with Philby and welcomed Philby to the US when he was assigned to DC after the war. Philby did his most serious damage from 1949 to 1951 in this job. The Americans had started to have grave suspicions about Philby, thanks to CIA employee William King Harvey, a former FBI agent, who had done research to back his doubts regarding Philby. Angleton obsessively double-checked for moles after Philby was confirmed as a Soviet mole defected to the USSR.  This obsession nearly wrecked the CIA.

Philby and Nicholas Elliott had been the closest of friends. After the truth about Philby came out, Elliott felt the betrayal bitterly. Elliott claimed he could not have prevented Philby's flight to Moscow. However, author Macintyre theorizes that Philby was allowed to defect to avoid an embarrassing trial. Embarrassing to the British Establishment, that is. This tale of the old boy network looking out for their own is right sick-making to us cosmopolitan readers that detest tribes, cliques, clans, syndicates, and secret societies that operate mainly for the convenience of their members. MI6 treated him like a gentleman even after they knew he was bad.

In the end, though, Philby remains a cipher. His egomania made him think he would never get caught, though as he aged his duplicity must have graveled him because he drank like a fish. It’s grim that somebody could feel so bad about his own country as to betray it, especially for a rotten system that meant oppression to millions.

Monday, June 19, 2017

Emancipation Day, 2017

My Bondage and My Freedom – Frederick Douglass

Born a slave, Frederick Douglass (1818 - 1895) escaped in 1838 and became a key figure in the Abolitionist movement. My Bondage and My Freedom was his second memoir, written in 1855 as an expanded version of his best-selling autobiography of 1845. I have no reservation recommending this book to readers with an interest in antebellum America, race-based chattel slavery, the Abolitionist movement, social reform in the US, or memoirs of great Americans.

Douglass examines the baleful effects of slavery from many angles and in so doing demolishes pro-slavery arguments. For instance, in 2012, Arkansas state legislator Jon Hubbard, a Republican, argued that blacks received a better quality of life as slaves in the U.S. than they would have had they stayed in Africa.  Douglas reports that in fact slaves are poorly clothed, fed, and sheltered and that their lives are in constant peril of violence, torture, and sexual exploitation. To the argument that slaves are kindly taken care of in their old age, he tells the story of his own grandmother:

[H]er present owners finding she was of but little value, her frame already racked with the pains of old age, and complete helplessness fast stealing over her once active limbs, they took her to the woods, built her a little hut, put up a little mud-chimney, and then made her welcome to the privilege of supporting herself there in perfect loneliness; thus virtually turning her out to die!

Douglass argues that slave-holders sold husbands and wives to different owners and tore babies from their mothers as deliberate policy. Breaking up families “is in harmony with the grand aim of slavery, which, always and everywhere, is to reduce man to a level with the brute. It is a successful method of obliterating from the mind and heart of the slave, all just ideas of the sacredness of the family, as an institution.”

Douglass paints a frightening picture of the total absence of law, of civil society, in slave states: “That plantation is a little nation of its own, having its own language, its own rules, regulations and customs. The laws and institutions of the state, apparently touch it nowhere.” Slavery also had a bad effect on slave owners and their families:

The poor slave, on his hard, pine plank, but scantily covered with his thin blanket, sleeps more soundly than the feverish voluptuary who reclines upon his feather bed and downy pillow. Food, to the indolent lounger, is poison, not sustenance. Lurking beneath all their dishes, are invisible spirits of evil, ready to feed the self-deluded gormandizers which aches, pains, fierce temper, uncontrolled passions, dyspepsia, rheumatism, lumbago and gout; and of these the Lloyds got their full share. To the pampered love of ease, there is no resting place. What is pleasant today, is repulsive tomorrow; what is soft now, is hard at another time; what is sweet in the morning, is bitter in the evening. Neither to the wicked, nor to the idler, is there any solid peace: "Troubled, like the restless sea."

Throughout the book, Douglass takes jabs at the work ethic that was undermined by slavery. Farms are shabby, workmanship shoddy. For all the talk of refinement and genteel manners, people are careless, stupid, ill-informed, angry, short-tempered, lacking in foresight, paranoid, and never seeing anybody outside a narrow world of uncouth stressed relatives and impatient vulgar cronies. Not to mention the whole system has to be propped up with an army of thugs such as overseers, slave breakers,  and hired kidnappers.

Ashley Wilkes, my red Indian ass. 

Race-based chattel slavery lowered and tainted everything it touched. It caused psychological, social, and economic damage. Douglass pulls no punches: “While slavery exists, and the union of these states endures, every American citizen must bear the chagrin of hearing his country branded before the world as a nation of liars and hypocrites; and behold his cherished flag pointed at with the utmost scorn and derision.”

Friday, June 16, 2017

Catfish and Mandala

This is an Asian-American's travel narrative and immigrant memoir, Catfish and Mandala: A Two-Wheeled Voyage Through the Landscape and Memory of Vietnam by Andrew X. Pham. In this account his 1996 bicycle tour of Vietnam, he sometimes sounds like any new  American who has gone back to the old country and is treated so shabbily by merchants, beggars, and bribe-hungry cops that you can’t blame him for concluding the place is stuffed with people screaming Me me me. The drunken mobs of thugs and soldiers are frightening too. But he also tells of interesting conversations that reveal the uneasy relations between those who had to escape the country in fear for their freedom and lives and those who had to stay. The other third of the book tells about his family’s tough life in the US from Louisiana and to the Santa Clara Valley. I recommend this unique book for those into both travel narratives (the food descriptions are wonderful) and immigrant memoirs. This would be appropriate assigned reading in American Pluralism courses.

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Flag Day & Army Birthday, 2017

A Revolutionary People at War: The Continental Army & American Character, 1775-1783 – Charles Royster

Royster focusses these long essays on why the Continental Army endured in spite of hardships and how Americans managed to sustain an eight-year war effort that all but did in their economic lives. One reason was idealism. People and soldiers sincerely felt that their principles and cause were just. Another reason was the development of a disciplined professional army.

Royster says that at first the rage militaire of 1775 was fueled by optimism. Many men enlisted in the army, though they distrusted standing armies as threats to republics. They did not expect to have to serve a long time because of their idealistic confidence in their own courage and Heaven’s aid would defeat the British army and navy in a speedy victory.

By 1777, battlefield reverses had dampened that optimism. Defeats in battle seemed to call the Americans' virtue and courage into doubt. Soldiers lacked discipline and decorum, especially since they were not careful with supplies. They sold provisions for cash and simply jettisoned stuff as they retreated from the field. Other problems were theft and plundering and desertion.  Terms of enlistment were a problem. Enlistees left after a year and went back to their own lives. General Washington had to implore them to stay in the army.

What held the army together? Why didn’t it simply disband? Royster argues that American soldiers were fighting for political liberties and ultimately for independence, which would have felt like a more inspiring personal cause to many people. A cause, a conviction with which people had a personal connection gave Americans, both military and civilian, endurance during the war.

I realize making an argument for idealistic convictions presents problems to readers who want hard proof for attitudes and beliefs. Royster, however, backs up his assertions with much evidence from newspapers, pamphlets, sermons, public records, journals, correspondence, and memoirs. As with Rosyter’s incredible Civil War book, The Destructive War, it seems as if he has read everything.

Another reason for victory, Royster claims, was the development of professionalism in the army. Officers developed knowledge, skill, and abilities (though at time felt like rubes when dealing with Europeans like von Steuben, Pulaski, and Lafayette). As importantly, they developed a sense of serving society and a sense of a corporate identity. However, Royster asserts, this growing professionalism accompanied anti-civilian sentiment of the soldiers (who were hungry and thread-bare and perceived well-fed civilians making money from the war). Negative feelings were reciprocated with fears among civilians that a “standing army” had developed. Some civilians also felt guilty that they had lost revolutionary virtue by doing well economically out of the war.

Like his book about the Civil War, Royster’s in-depth analysis of evidence and intricate arguments are unquestionably not for the casual reader. Royster himself warns that his book "does not lend itself to short, abstract summaries of its argument." But committed high-intermediate and advanced students of the War for Independence would get much out of this book.

Saturday, June 10, 2017

European RC #7

I read this book for the European Reading Challenge

A Nervous Splendor: Vienna 1888-1889 - Frederic Morton

This popular history tells the sad story of Crown Prince Rudolf and Mary Vetsera, but also describes the ups and downs of Viennese luminaries such as Theodor Herzl, Emperor Franz Joseph, Gustav Klimt, Johann Strauss, Gustav Mahler, Arthur Schnitzler, Hugo Wolf, Sigmund Freud, Johannes Brahms and Anton Bruckner not to mention the horrible Kaiser Wilhelm and Rudolf Schonerer. Especially interesting is the author’s overview of cultural malaise of fin de si├Ęcle Vienna. The author is first a novelist, so the literary touches may trouble lovers of footnotes and skeptics who ask “How do you know what he was thinking.” But the pleasant style and lively anecdotes are easy to read on a summer day, if that is one’s mood. This was rated as one of 10 best books about the Austro-Hungarian Empire in that cool Top 10 series by the Guardian. Any reader looking to broaden her cultural knowledge will be pleased by this book.

Wednesday, June 7, 2017

Mount TBR #28

I read this book for the Mount TBR Reading Challenge hosted over at My Reader’s Block from January 1 – December 31, 2017. The challenge is to read books that you already own

Lions and Shadows: An Education in the Twenties – Christopher Isherwood

In the introduction, Isherwood frankly warns the reader that she had better read this school memoir as a novel. Isherwood, then, writes a non-fiction novel or fictionalized autobiography to describe his checkered career at Cambridge and then his hanging out with other bohemians in London in the early Thirties. He wrote this, in fact, in the late Thirties, only a little more than a decade after the events described. So the memories are fresh and he has the right bittersweet sympathy of a 28-year-old for an 18-year-old. Readers will also be alert for fictionalized portraits of the rebels Auden and Steven Spender. It’s mainly lighthearted, even carefree, considering the time and place. This memoir ends with his decision to go live in Berlin, an experience which produced fine stories like Mr. Norris Changes Trains and the Sally Bowles stories.

Sunday, June 4, 2017

Mount TBR #27

I read this book for the Mount TBR Reading Challenge hosted over at My Reader’s Block from January 1 – December 31, 2017. The challenge is to read books that you already own.

Khrushchev: The Years in Power - Roy and Zhores Medvedev

This short overview covers the period the subject was the General Secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the USSR. That is to say, he was a dictator of the Soviet Union from 1953 to 1964. The authors were writing for a general audience so they go into interesting details about why Soviet agriculture was such a mess.  Khrushchev realized this solving the problems that dogged every step from farm to fork was the key to economic development and maintaining his own power. In clear and serious prose, the authors make fascinating Khrushchev’s fight with Kaganovich over spring or autumn wheat in the Ukraine. Also well described is the surprising collaboration between the charlatan Lysenko and Khrushchev.

However, the authors also cover de-Stalinization and the economic, administrative, and political blunders of the subject. They also point out simple bad luck – in the guise of droughts and winds – undermined reforms in his agricultural endeavours. Indeed, later leaders such as Brezhnev and Andropov were not much more successful in reforming agriculture.

On the down side, in such a short book, there is little on the Sino-soviet split from 1960 nor is there anything about the U-2 incident. A curious thing they do relate is that Khrushchev preferred being read to than reading when it came to literature. His aides persuaded him to publish Solzhenitsyn’s One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich after they choose evenings when he was in a good mood to read it to him. 

Thursday, June 1, 2017

Mount TBR #26

I read this book for the Mount TBR Reading Challenge hosted over at My Reader’s Block from January 1 – December 31, 2017. The challenge is to read books that you already own.

Roman Warfare – Adrian Goldsworthy

This brief overview tells about the development of the army that created the Empire by conquering its near neighbors, defeating its rival Carthage and overwhelming Greek territories. As its republican institutions gave way to Imperial rule by Augustus and his heirs, politicians hungry for power and glory extended empire extended from the French Atlantic coast to Syria. Later conquests – gain because military success conferred glory on unmilitary figures (such as Claudius) - included Britain and much of modern Romania. It would be a good book for readers even just mildly interested in the topic.