Book Review: The Transplanted

Book Review: The Transplanted by John Bodnar

This volume, written in the 1980s, is a survey of patterns of immigration into urban areas of the United States between 1830-1930 (approximately.)    It covers those who came to stay, those who just came to get a nest egg to improve life in their home country, and those who intended to go back but just never got around to it.  Mr. Bodnar was and still is a professor of history at Indiana University.

The Transplanted

The general theme of this book seems to be “it’s complicated.”  The immigrant experience was not uniform, with their reactions and outcomes varying considerably depending on their initial motivations for emigration, the areas they came from, their initial social class and starting capital, and what part of America they ended up in.  Trying to fit the immigrants into a single narrative that fits a particular philosophy doesn’t really work, according to Professor Bodnar.

It’s pretty dry stuff, starting with a chapter on the countries immigrants came from and focusing on when various regions had their largest numbers go.  This isn’t a book for the casual reader.

The most interesting chapter for me was on religion and how their faiths both influenced how immigrants adapted to American life, and were forced to adapt themselves.  Often there were clashes between those who felt they were (ethnicity) first, (religion) second, and those (especially religious leaders) who felt the reverse.  One example was Slovak immigrants who were suspicious of their priests and ministers who preached in favor of Hungarian rule of the homeland.  (It was later confirmed that the Austro-Hungarian Empire did indeed pay off religious leaders to spout pro-Hungarian propaganda in the U.S.)

Another conflict that often came up was between the urge to embrace Americanization and blend into their new society, and the fear of losing the unique cultural elements of their homeland or religious beliefs.  This often led to a preference for parochial or ethnicity-based schools rather than putting children into the public school system.

There are extensive end notes, a bibliography and index, as well as a handful of black-and-white pictures.

Again, this isn’t a book for the casual reader, but is best suited for college students and up who are doing serious research on the subject of immigration.  For most people, I’d recommend one of the many fine memoirs of immigrant families available at your local library.

Book Review: Rad Women Worldwide

Book Review: Rad Women Worldwide by Kate Schatz

Right up front, I have to say that the title is the most annoying thing about this book.   Did anyone ever use “rad” as an adjective unironically?  That said, “radical” is not an unfair term to apply to many of the women whose short biographies are written in this volume.  There are forty stories set around 30 “countries”, starting with Enheduanna of Mesopotamia, the first named author that we have records of, and wrapping around the globe to Emma Goldman, born in Russia, anarchist and advocate for worker’s rights.

Rad Women Worldwide

This is a sequel to Rad American Women A-Z by the same creators; the greater scope allows them to have more variety.  There are scientists, athletes and entertainers, politicians and even a princess!  The book is written for middle-grade girls, but some of the subject matter may be difficult for more sensitive readers.  (A couple of these biographies moved me to tears.)  Many of the women covered I had heard of before, but a few were new to me.

The papercut illustrations by Miriam Klein Stahl give the book a distinctive, rough-hewn look; it also ties the appearance of the volume together better than a mix of photographs and paintings might have, as there are both historical and contemporary women covered.

This book also wears its politics on its sleeve, obvious in the selection of women to write about.  Politically conservative parents might find it uncomfortable that Kasha Jacqueline Nagabasera (fights for gay rights in Uganda) and Buffy Sainte-Marie (anti-war activist) get full entries while such right-wing icons as Margaret Thatcher and Mother Teresa don’t even make the 250 honorable mentions in the back.  The poem about “the stateless”, refugees, exiles and others torn from their homelands includes the line “No human being is illegal.”

As is common in collections of short biographies, only the highlights of any given woman’s life are included, and edited according to the author’s intent.  Many of these women were controversial during their lifetimes, and some of them are still controversial now.  A reader who takes a particular interest in one of the subjects would be well advised to seek out more complete biographies.  I’ve previously reviewed biographies of King Hatshepsut http://www.skjam.com/2016/01/20/book-review-the-woman-who-would-be-king-hatshepsuts-rise-to-power-in-ancient-egypt/ and Queen Lili’uokalani http://www.skjam.com/2014/02/21/book-review-lost-kingdom-hawaiis-last-queen-the-sugar-kings-and-americas-first-imperial-adventure/ , for example.

I expect that this book will end up in  a lot of elementary school libraries.  I’d also recommend this volume to parents of middle-grade kids (yes, boys too, to go with their many books about famous men) with the caveat (or bonus!) that you might want to sit down with them to discuss some of the topics that will come up.

Disclaimer:  I received a copy of this book from Blogging for Books for the purpose of writing this review.  No other compensation was offered or requested.

Book Review: The Woman Who Breathed Two Worlds

Book Review: The Woman Who Breathed Two Worlds by Selina Siak Chin Yoke

This is the life story of Chye Hoon, a Nyonya (Malaysian woman of Chinese heritage) who lives between 1878 and 1941, a time of great change in her homeland.  Initially a willful child who wants to break out of her culture’s tradition (why shouldn’t a girl get the chance to go to school like her brother?), Chye Hoon grows into a young woman whose reputation for temper and independent spirit seem to doom her prospects for marriage.

The Woman Who Breathed Two Worlds

But an enterprising matchmaker brings her together with a Chinese immigrant named Wong Peng Choon.  Despite this being an arranged marriage and the pair never actually meeting until the wedding, things work out well.  Peng Choon appreciates Chye Hoon’s cleverness and unwillingness to be cheated, and in return is a good husband.  The young couple moves to Ipoh, a rapidly growing tin mining town.

The next decade or so is good to the couple; Peng Choon is much in demand as an accountant, and Chye Hoon has ten children!  But then Peng Choon must return to China to take care of some family business.  He perishes in that far-off land; while he was careful to make sure that Chye Hoon had enough capital for a couple of years, she knows that raising ten children will soon drain that, and jobs for widows with no formal education are few and low-paying.

Chye Hoon applies her cleverness and cooking skills to the problem, becoming an entrepreneur in the field of tasty kueh (Nyonya cakes of both sweet and savory varieties.)  There are many difficulties involved in making the business a success, but she and her servants make a go of it.

Meanwhile, Chye Hoon must also raise her children, facing times of joy, times of heartbreak and times of great frustration.  In this last category is the increasing  influence of the British over the Malay States as they take firmer control of the government, and increasingly the young people adopt Western ways.   Chye Hoon has become a traditionalist who fears that her people’s heritage will be forgotten in the rush to modernize.

Chye Hoon is based loosely on the author’s own great-grandmother, and apparently many family stories were woven into the narrative.  The parts of the book that give a sense of the time and place are fascinating.  Less helpful is that quite a few of the large cast are underdeveloped or vanish from the story–a couple of the sons get brief mentions at times just to remind us they’re still alive but not doing anything relevant.

The author has made some interesting stylistic choices; uneducated characters use traditional Malayan syntax, while those with formal schooling speak British English.   (Even when they’re clearly not using that language.)  There’s also frequent usage of traditional Malayan filler words and interjections, and the author has chosen to use the older transliteration of some words, as well as some language that is now considered pejorative.  In places, this works well, and in other places it becomes intrusive.  (It also kind of raises the question of just who Chye Hoon is telling this story to at the end.)

The story ends just before the Japanese invasion during World War Two, which gives a pretty obvious cue for a sequel with the surviving family members.

Worth checking out if you are into family saga stories, and especially if you are curious about Malaysian history and culture.

Book Review: The Financial Expert

Book Review: The Financial Expert by R.K.  Narayan

In the South Indian town of Malgudi, across from the Central Cooperative Land Mortgage Bank, there is a banyan tree under which sits Margayya, the financial expert.  Margayya (“the one who shows the way”) is an unofficial middleman who helps the unlettered villagers apply for small loans from the bank (for a small fee), arranges for people who still have good credit to take loans to help out those with bad credit (for a small fee) and gives financial advice, among other services (for a small fee.)  He works hard at his dubiously legal profession, from early in the morning to when the sun is setting.

The Financial Expert

The problem with nickel and diming poor people for a living is that at the end of the day what you have is a small pile of nickels and dimes.  Margayya is on the “needs reading glasses” side of forty, lives in half a house with his wife and preschooler son Balu, and hasn’t bought a second set of clothing in years.   When the Bank officially takes unfavorable notice of his business, and Balu playfully tosses the only copy of his financial ledger in the sewer, Margayya realizes that he needs a lot more money if he is to be treated with the respect he thinks he deserves.  But where to get it?

R.K. Narayan (full name Rasipuram Krishnaswami Iyer Narayanaswami, 1906-2001) is considered one of the most important writers of literature from India, at least partially because he wrote in English which made it easier to spread to the rest of the Commonwealth and eventually America.  His novels and stories were set in the fictional community of Malgudi, a “typical” large town somewhere in southern India, which allowed him to invent geography as needed and avoid lawsuits when he used real-life incidents as the basis for the story.

In this case, Margayya is a composite of two real-life people, one an actual middleman who performed the services Margayya does at the beginning of the novel, and a high-flying financial wizard who was incredibly rich for a short time before crashing and landing in jail for his shady practices.

In the story, Margayya makes a fervent appeal to Lakshmi, goddess of Fortune, and in the process happens to run into a writer named Dr. Pal.  Dr. Pal is interested in psychology, sociology and improving the life of his fellow humans.  He’s written a manuscript that will eventually be titled Domestic Tranquility, an important sociological work to improve married life.  To be blunt, it’s a sex manual.  He gives the manuscript to Margayya to do with as he will, and the businessman gets it printed; the book is apparently phenomenally successful.

Mostly what Margayya does with his new-found cash flow is try to get a good education for his son Balu.  Unfortunately, Balu  is not the kind of kid that the formal education system of the time served well, and since no one ever bothers finding a better way to engage him, Balu becomes a wastrel instead.  Part of the problem is that Balu has inherited his father’s habit of being sullen and silent when he has issues, and thus the two never have honest conversations instead of blowups.

Eventually, Margayya gets tired of the publishing business, where he never directly gets to see the money, and cashes out.  With a substantial capital, he can now open a formal money-lending and investment business, becoming a “financial expert” who is respected by even the wealthiest men in town.  But he again has left a single-point weakness in his business, which leads to ruin.

Margayya is not a very likable protagonist; he’s small-minded, sneaky and arrogant.  He’s good at making money in the short term but poor at long-range planning.  His relationship with his wife is more “she can’t bring herself to leave this jerk because there isn’t anything better for her in her society” than any form of mutual loyalty.  Margayya’s constantly worried that other people are taking advantage of him, while taking advantage of others whenever possible.  Margayya’s dignity is easily wounded, and he is quick to injure others’ dignity when he can.  He loves his son, but completely fails to understand him, so the rottenness in the young man’s character grows.

The Time-Life edition, which is what I read, has two introductions, by the editor (you may want to save this one for after you read the book) and by the author.  Mr. Narayan explains the background of the novel, including the economic conditions that lead to a cycle of debt, and how things had changed in India since the book was written.

There are several references to teachers striking students, and classism is often a subtext to what’s going on.

Recommended for those looking for a mostly realistic novel about life in India before independence with a not particularly sympathetic protagonist.

Book Review: The Art of Empathy: Celebrating Literature in Translation

Book Review: The Art of Empathy: Celebrating Literature in Translation edited by Don Ball

This thick pamphlet is a collection of essays by literary translators on the art of translation.  It’s a product of the National Endowment for the Arts, and is available from them as a free download (or in paper form at NEA exhibits.)

The Art of Empathy

There are 19 essays by 20 translators (one is by a husband/wife team), and each also recommends three translated works that readers may enjoy.  That married couple concentrates on collaborative translation.  Also of particular interest to me was Philip Boehm’s comparison of his work as a theatrical director to translation; both involve moving words on a page to a new form .

Chad W. Post writes about “The Myth of the Three Percent Problem, ” the idea that too small a percentage of books published in the United States each year are works in translation.  He points out that even that tiny percentage are more books than any reasonable person could read in a lifetime; the real issue is getting the worthy translations to the people who could enjoy them.

In addition to the initial recommendations by the essayists, there’s a list of other recommended reading for those who are serious about learning more.

I’d recommend this pamphlet to those interested in just what it is a literary translator does and how they approach the job.  Everyone, though, can benefit from reading translated works.  There’s an entire world of books out there just waiting to expand your horizons.

And it doesn’t have to be world classics or serious poetry if you aren’t interested in that.  There’s Norwegian crime thrillers (one coming soon), Japanese comic books, French lowbrow comedy, Chinese kung fu epics, Brazilian romance novels…something for every taste!

Tell me in the comments about a translated book you enjoyed, or that you’re planning to read because you’ve heard good things about it.

Book Review: Jewish Noir

Book Review: Jewish Noir edited by Kenneth Wishnia

Many of the themes of noir fiction, alienation, hostile society, darkness and bitter endings, resonate with the experience of Jewish people.  So it’s not surprising that it was easy to find submissions for an anthology of thirty-plus noir stories with Jewish themes.  (Not all of the authors are themselves Jewish; see if you can guess which ones.)

Jewish Noir

The volume opens with “Devil for a Witch” by R.S. Brenner.   A man caught embezzling for what he thinks are good causes has his death faked by the FBI so that he can go undercover in the Klu Klux Klan.  The title comes from an old saying about trading a known danger for an unknown one, and this assignment turns out to be perilous indeed.  The author bio mentions that this is an excerpt from an upcoming novel.

Most of the stories in this collection are appearing for the first time, but two are not.  “A Simke (A Celebration)” by Yente Serdatsky was first published in Yiddish in 1912, and this is its first publication in English.  It’s a melancholy tale of a woman whose refusal to conform to the social norms of Russian-Jewish immigrants made her popular in her youth, but isolates her now that she is middle-aged.  Harlan Ellison® contributes a story first published in 1960. “The Final Shtick”, about a comedian returning to the small town he had good reason to flee, and his feelings concerning this.

As one might expect, several of the stories concern Nazis, neo-Nazis and/or the Holocaust.  “Feeding the Crocodile” by Moe Prager is perhaps the strongest of these–a writer tells stories to a death camp commandant in hopes of surviving just a bit longer.  But the crocodile gets greedy.

There’s a fairly wide variety of protagonists in these stories.  Good people who do bad things, bad people who try to do good things, evil people who sink even lower, men and women, religious Jews and secular ones, Jews of different sexual orientations and skin colors.  Ethnic slurs and antisemitism are peppered throughout, and there is mention of child sexual abuse, suicide and rape.

“The Golem of Jericho” by Jonathan Santlofer is on the borderline with supernatural stories.  A bullied boy and his grandfather build a golem, which may or may not have killed the bullies; it’s certainly a mysterious coincidence.

The weakest story is “Her Daughter’s Bar Mitzvah: A Mother Talks to the Rabbi” by Adam D. Fisher which is just one long kvetch.  (My spell checker doesn’t flag that word, interesting.)  No crime, no hopeless ending, just complaining.

It should be noted here that this volume published by PM Press has no connection to the series of regional noir anthologies put out by Akashic Books despite the very similar presentation and book structure.

Most of the stories are good; recommended to noir fans who are willing to stretch their focus a little.

 

Book Review: A South Dakota Country School Experience

Book Review: A South Dakota Country School Experience by William E. Lass

By happy coincidence, shortly after finishing my review of a school book used in South Dakota country schools, I have found a book about being a student in one of those schools.

A South Dakota Country School Experience

Mr. Lass is a historian who attended eight grades at Emmett School in Union County, in the southeastern portion of South Dakota, during the 1930s.  (He wound up teaching history in Mankato, Minnesota for many years.)  While much of the book talks about his personal experiences, he also consulted historical records for the school and county to provide context.

The book is divided thematically, rather than chronologically, starting with a physical description of the school, then students, teachers and what they did there.  While some of Mr. Lass’ experiences are unique, Emmett School was fairly typical of a rural school of the time, and those who shared that education will no doubt be able to relate.  (He doesn’t seem to have had trouble with rattlesnakes, which were a problem in my mother’s area of South Dakota.)

It appears to have been plenty tough for teachers at these schools, teaching eight grades in the same room and trying to keep all the children busy!  For $585 a year, no less.

The book is handsomely bound and has some color illustrations, as well as black and white photos.  The language in most of the chapters isn’t too difficult, and could easily be read by a bright fourth-grader on up; the epilogue has more difficult vocabulary and is rather bittersweet.  There are reference notes and a list of suggested further reading for the serious scholar.

This would make a good gift for an older relative who went to a country school themselves, or has an interest in South Dakota, but also should be shared with younger readers to show them how school was done in their great-grandparents’ day.    Consider purchasing it directly from the publisher, Minnesota Heritage Publishing.  Highly recommended.

Book Review: Herblock’s Here and Now

Book Review: Herblock’s Here and Now by Herbert Block

Shortly after reviewing Herblock at Large, I discovered this volume in the local used book store.  It was published in 1955, and contains many of Mr. Block’s political cartoons from the early 1950s.

Herblock's Here and Now

This included his Pulitzer-winning Joseph McCarthy work; Herblock appears to have actually coined the word “McCarthyism” for the witch hunt-like anti-Communist grandstanding so popular at the time.  Mr. Block was pleased to be able to speak of the senator’s career in the past tense.

There is quite a bit more prose here than in the 1980s volume, helpful as I am less familiar with the period.  Some prominent figures who feature in multiple cartoons are lost in the mists of history now, remembered perhaps only by their hometowns.   President Eisenhower comes in for quite a bit of ribbing, but his treatment is gentle compared to that of Vice President Nixon, who is depicted as crawling out of a sewer.

The John Q. Public figure is seen quite frequently in these Fifties cartoons, a short, bespectacled fellow who is much put upon.  He seems to have vanished by the 1980s, replaced by more varied civilians.   Also a frequent visitor to the editorial page is Atomic War, a stylized atomic bomb wearing the helmet of Ares.  He’s usually grinning menacingly, always ready to threaten.

Of resonance to today’s situation are the cartoons on the refugee crisis, thousands still displaced after World War Two, and the U.S. only allowing in a trickle–and under great suspicion at that.

Copyright 1955 by Herbert Block.
Copyright 1955 by Herbert Block.

The Soviet Union was considered a huge threat, and so was covered in detail as well–but Herblock reminds us that he has no inside information, so his depictions may be highly misleading as to what was actually going on inside the U.S.S.R.  There’s also some commentary on the U.S. habit of  supporting dictators and other unpleasant people in the name of containing Communism–this would come home to roost many times in the coming decades.

There’s surprisingly little on the civil rights struggle, only mentioned as part of a broader concern for American’s freedoms under the Constitution.

This one will probably be a bit harder to find, but highly recommended for fans of editorial cartooning, and those wanting a window into the early 1950s.

Book Review: Herblock at Large

Book Review: Herblock at Large by Herbert Block.

Herbert “Herblock” Block (1909-2001) was a multiple-Pulitzer-winning editorial cartoonist.  He’s most famous for his coverage of McCarthyism and Watergate, but kept working until just before his death.  This 1987 collection covers the early years of the Reagan administration.

Herblock at Large

As might be expected, these cartoons aren’t very kind to that administration.  From an Attorney General who was more concerned with “proving” pornography caused violence than with tracking down illegal arms shipments to America’s enemies, to the heavy influence of the Religious Right on the government, to the dubious Supreme Court nominations (the Senate finally balked at Robert Bork), there were a lot of things to criticize.

Iran-Contra gets a lot of play here, as does the fact that under Reagan’s “fiscally responsible” administration, the national deficit and debt both skyrocketed.  (A feat that would be repeated by his fiscally responsible Republican successors, while the fiscally irresponsible Democrats brought down those numbers.)  The rise of televangelists also came in for several cartoons, contrasting the prosperous preachers with the poverty-stricken viewers who donated to them.

Now, of course, we know that Ronald Reagan really was having memory problems at the time, early symptoms of his Alzheimer’s.  The cartoons about terrorists hijacking airplanes also take on a new connotation since that subject came to a head.

There are also text pieces by Herblock introducing the themed chapters, clarifying his views if the cartoons weren’t pointed enough.  One bit of information is helpful for those who did not live through those times–Mr. Block often drew the Secretary of Defense with a $640 toilet seat around his neck as that was one of the ludicrously expensive trivialities the military was spending tax money on instead of servicemembers’ salaries.

Copyright Herblock 1987
Copyright Herblock 1987

One subject where we have seen improvement is South Africa; back then apartheid and anti-equality violence were still the order of the day, with Reagan refusing to do anything that might make the white minority government feel the U.S. was unfriendly to them (what with them being anti-Communist and all, which was why we were allies with a lot of nasty regimes back then.)

This is perhaps not Herblock’s best work, but it’s still very good political cartooning, and a window into the issues facing America in the early 1980s.  Recommended for those who lived through the era and need a reminder, and those that want to know about the time before cell phones.

Book Review: Insurrections of the Mind

Book Review: Insurrections of the Mind edited by Franklin Foer

Disclaimer:  I received this book through a Goodreads giveaway on the premise that I would review it.  The copy I read was an uncorrected proof, and changes will be made in the final edition.  (Specifically, a second introduction by Leon Wieseltier–an index may also be forthcoming.)

Insurrections of the Mind

The New Republic magazine has its centenary anniversary this year, so a collected volume of some of the many interesting articles that ran in the magazine is an expected celebration.  For many years, the New Republic (so named because there was already a Republic magazine at the time) has been the home of many of the leading voices of liberal political philosophy.  But in addition to politics, it covers art and cultural events as well.

After an introduction which explains the history of the magazine, its ups and downs (Stephen Glass is cited as a mistake, and his writing is not represented), the remainder of the book is essays grouped by decade.  From “The Duty of Harsh Criticism” by Rebecca West to “The Idea of Ideas” by Leon Wieseltier, this book is jam-packed with thought-provoking work.

I especially liked the afore-mentioned Rebecca West piece (I am a reviewer, after all), “Progress and Poverty” by Edmund Wilson, which contrasts the opening of the Empire State Building with a ruined man’s suicide,”Politics and the English Language” by George Orwell, in which you can see some of the ideas that went into 1984, and”Here Comes the Groom: A (Conservative) Case for Gay Marriage” by Andrew Sullivan, which is what it sounds like.

Not every writer represented here saw the future clearly–some of them guessed very wrong about the issues and people they wrote about.  But all of them are worth at least checking out.

“But Scott,” you say, “I am not a liberal.  What is there for me in such a book?”  I recommend the essays “The Corruption of Liberalism” by Lewis Mumford, “The Liberal’s Dilemma” by Daniel P. Moynihan and “The Great Carter Mystery” by Arthur Schlesinger, Jr.  Liberals are not above raking each other over the coals, after all.

The book is due on shelves by the end of September 2014.  i recommend it to former readers of the New Republic (current readers should already be aware of it), 20th Century history students, the politically-minded, and those who enjoy a good essay.

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...