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: The Time Machine

Book Review: The Time Machine by H.G. Wells

H.G Wells (1866-1946) was not the first science fiction author, nor even the first one to write about time travel.  But he was the first writer in English to produce multiple important works in what would become the science fiction genre.  The Time Machine was published in book form in 1895, reworking a magazine serial The Chronic Argonauts, that first ran in 1888 and was then revised and updated in 1894.

The Time Machine

The guests at a dinner party are skeptical when a philosophical discussion of Time as the Fourth Dimension (after length, breadth and depth) is revealed to be practical.  Their host claims to have invented a device for moving through the chronal dimension, a “time machine.”  He demonstrates a small model, which appears to work, and announces that he plans to have a full-scale one ready for the next party.

That next week, the host is late to his own party, and appears in great dishevelment, shoeless and limping.  Once he’s tidied himself up and dinner has been eaten, the Time Traveller (as he is called) spins a fantastic tale of the future he has seen.  The narrator visits him again later, only to apparently miss his friend’s departure–the Time Machine is also missing, and neither ever appear again.

This story is a distinct departure from earlier time travel tales, which tended to feature either “visions” or suspended animation as the travel mechanism, and were in the “Utopian” mold.  The traveler would be ushered around the shiny (or horrific) future by a friendly guide that explained everything.  This story has the Time Traveller able to navigate at will while on his machine, and he must draw his own conclusions from his observations, as no one speaks English in the year 802,000+.

To be honest, the Time Traveller is, despite his scientific prowess, kind of a stumblebum.  It doesn’t occur to him to pack for a time voyage, or even put on sensible shoes.  He loses the Time Machine overnight, and only gets it back as an indirect result of accidentally starting a forest fire that probably kills the one person in the future who actually likes him.  He’s also far too fond of the word “incontinently”, using it at least six times in this short narrative.  He makes and discards hypotheses about what has happened to create the fey Eloi and the nocturnal Morlocks; he admits that his final guess could be completely wrong,

Those who have seen only the movie adaptations should be aware that the romance with Weena isn’t really in the book.  The Time Traveller isn’t even sure if she’s biologically female, and being “not a young man” seems to consider her somewhere between a granddaughter and a really smart pet.  He also gets over any compunctions about killing Morlocks very quickly.

We also see glimpses of story ideas Wells had and discarded; the Very Young Man’s second thought for using a time machine is to make himself rich, and one of the potential hitches in the plan is mentioned.

The last couple of chapters are very somber, as even the last traces of humanity have evidently vanished from the far future Earth, and the Time Traveller finally reaches a cold darkness that convinces him it is time to return to the present.

I received this book as part of an anthology of Wells’ major works for Christmas, thanks, brother!  It remains a classic well worth looking up; as it’s in the public domain, you can probably download it free on the internet, or find an inexpensive edition in used bookstores.

Book Review: The Jungle

Book Review: The Jungle by Upton Sinclair

Jurgis Rudkos is a Lithuanian immigrant who has come to America with his fiancee Ona and their families to seek the good jobs advertised in his poverty-stricken homeland.  It’s tricky for people who don’t know English or the local customs to get around, but finally they make it to the Packingtown district of Chicago, and a countryman who can give them advice.  Soon, the adults of the family have jobs in the slaughterhouses and related businesses, and they move into a house together.  Times are tough, but if everyone works hard and saves their money, things will surely get better.

The Jungle

But the naive immigrants have no idea just how much worse things can get in a world where the law of the jungle prevails, and each is pitted against each.

This (in)famous novel was originally published as a serial in The Appeal to Reason and One-Hoss Philosophy, Socialist publications.  In order to get it published as a book by a major publishing house, Mr. Sinclair had to tone the story down quite a bit, and it was still considered immensely shocking.  The version I read is called “uncensored” but would more rightly be called “unexpurgated”, with the text as it was written for the serial.

An introduction by Kathleen De Grave explains what was cut for the 1906 version, and how that affects the tone of the story.  For example, it’s left in that the slaughterhouse workers spent their lunch time in saloons, but left out is the explanation that there were no other places to get food in walking distance of the plants.  If you wanted to have a warm place to eat, you must buy alcohol.

In either version, this is a depressing story.  The odds are stacked against Jurgis and his family from the very beginning, with grifters ready to swindle the immigrants any way they can, from phony officials asking for fees that don’t exist to “pesticides” that are completely inert.   One of the central heartbreaking examples is the house the immigrants “rent to buy.”  It is not at all as advertised, there are fees in the lease contract that are not disclosed until well after the family has settled in, and miss even one payment, and you are out in the street.

Which would be fine if everyone stayed in work.  But what if you get sick or injured and they fire you for missing work?  What if your boss fires you because he’s found someone who will do the job for two cents less an hour?  What if the entire factory just closes down for a month or three?  Even the relatively nice employers have no compunctions about getting rid of workers who become inconvenient.

And while the slaughterhouse scenes are as horrific as advertised, don’t think the vegetarians are going to get away unscathed.  Fruits and vegetables and milk are all adulterated, the clothing sold in the stores the poor have access to is thin shoddy (and overpriced at that!) and you can drown in the streets during the rainy season.

The misfortunes that Jurgis and the others undergo are all real, but probably happened to a half-dozen different families that Mr. Sinclair talked to while researching this book.  Here, it’s all visited on one unlucky group of immigrants, and particularly Jurgis.  The rule of thumb is that if Jurgis gets a couple of pages where things are looking up even a little, the hammer is about to come down even harder, sometimes by Jurgis’ own ill-considered actions.

While Jurgis is initially a decent man, who tries to do the right thing, by the time everyone he ever loved is dead, he is ready to chuck conventional morality.  He sinks lower and lower, becoming in turns a mugger, a political operative, and worst of all, a scab worker.

Even when the novel ends on a hopeful note, as the Socialists gain votes (for the only way the world can be saved is to smash capitalism and adopt socialism), Jurgis himself is being carted off to prison for attacking the politically protected man who raped his wife.

Yes, there’s (off-camera) rape in the story, and child abuse (by Jurgis!) and a fair amount of other things that could be triggery, even if you can keep your lunch down during the slaughterhouse scenes.  The last few chapters are nigh unreadable for the opposite reason, as they devolve into sermons (at least one literal) on the benefits of socialism.

There’s early 20th Century ethnic prejudice, racism and sexism on display; it’s up to the reader to decide how much of it is a realistic depiction of the attitudes of the times, and how much Mr. Sinclair being unable to fully rid himself of unworthy cultural blinkers.

It’s also worth considering how things have changed since this book was written, and how little things have changed.  Too many pundits and plunderers would gladly have us go back to before “onerous” government food regulations, minimum wage laws and other protections for workers.  They think that of course they would be immune to the dangers of the Jungle, but in the end, the Jungle consumes everything within it.

Book Review: In the Wet

Book Review: In the Wet by Nevil Shute

This is rather an odd book by the author of On the Beach and A Town Like Alice.  It starts as the story of Roger Hargreaves, an aging Anglican priest in Northern Australia in the 1950s.  In the course of his parish duties,  Father Hargreaves meets a colorful local character, an old drunk named Frankie.   Frankie may have some sort of precognitive abilities, or maybe he just got a lucky guess.  Still, there’s more to Frankie than meets the eye.

In the Wet

During the rainy season, (as the locals call it, “in the wet”,) Hargreaves receives word that Frankie is dying.  Along with a local medical woman, he hurries to the remote cabin Frankie is staying in.   They lose their medical supplies in the floods, and the lamp fuel is almost gone.  There’s not much to be done for Frankie but allow him to smoke opium to dull the pain.   To distract Frankie, Hargreaves asks the dying man to tell the priest about himself.

But the story Frankie tells is of Wing Commander David Anderson, an Australian test pilot who is asked to become a member of the Queen’s Flight (kind of like Air Force One for us Yanks.)  As the story continues, it becomes clear that Anderson lives in the 1980s, a time of crisis for the Commonwealth.

After this paragraph, I’ll be going into SPOILER territory, and also some racially charged language.  For those who don’t want to see that, I’ll say that this is an interesting book, but On the Beach was better.  Some very nice sketches of North Australian life in the 1950s at the beginning and end, though, and the aviation scenes are excellent.

SPOILER WARNING

1980s Britain is not, in many ways, like the one in our timeline.   For starters, there’s still food rationing.   Rosemary Long, our hero’s love interest, has a good job at Buckingham Palace and can afford her own good sized sailboat, but has never seen an intact pineapple before, let alone had enough meat to worry that it might spoil.  (In real life,  rationing officially ended in 1954, with many items being derationed well before that.

Also, Britain is largely Socialist, with Labour having been in power almost uninterrupted for the last thirty years.  (Evidently, Mr. Shute did not have confidence in Winston Churchill’s ability to hold onto the Prime Minister job.  In real life, he was able to swing the voting to the Conservative party for quite some time.)  This has resulted in the Prime Minister, Iorweth Jones being a barely disguised Communist, (Communism having gone out of favor after “the Russian war”) with a class warfare mentality.  Also, the Secretary of State for Air is so out of touch with the state of aeroplane technology that he is unaware planes have things called “radios” now.

One thing Mr. Shute did get right was that Queen Elizabeth II is still on the throne, with Charles as the Prince of Wales.  Charles is married and has two sons.  Well, he does on page 111.   A daughter pops up as well on page 181.

We don’t get much information about the Russian war; it was a few years ago, Commander Anderson spent most of it in the Philippines, it evidently did not go nuclear, and there’s no mention whatsoever of the Soviet Union.  As mentioned above, the end of the war discredited Communism as a viable government style.

Britain is also undergoing a population crash, due to heavy emigration (in our timeline they mostly had immigration from the former colonies and Commonwealth.)   Things have gotten bad enough that the government nationalized housing after the 1970 crash and hasn’t given it back since.  Rosemary has never seen a new house being built, to her memory.

Meanwhile, Australia’s been doing great, thanks to the new multiple vote system.   Every adult gets one basic vote.  if you get higher education, you get a second vote (Anderson got his for officer school.)  Working outside the country for two years gets you the foreign travel vote (Anderson admits this is pretty much a racket so military veterans get an extra say.)  Getting married, staying married and spawning two children who you raise to at least fourteen gets you a family vote.  (Divorce, widowry or your kids dying or disappearing means starting all over.)

There’s also a business vote for anyone with an earned income over a certain amount (and it’s substantially high) and a religious vote for anyone holding an office in an approved Christian church.  That last one would never fly in America!  Finally, there’s the Queen’s Favour vote which you get in much the same way you would a knighthood.  Thus a truly dedicated person can have up to seven votes; somehow this has led to Australia getting a better class of politicians.

By the end of the book, England is looking to install the same voting system.  Notably, England had had a similar thing called plural voting up until 1948 in real life, when it was reformed for a one person one vote system.  Instead of multiple voting, real life Australia went with “preference voting” instead, where you rank candidates in order of how much you like them.

In other political oddness, the Queen seems much more involved with ruling the Commonwealth than the largely figurehead role she had in the real 1980s.  She even moves the Royals to Australia, and appoints a Governor General for England as it’s clear Parliament can’t handle the job.

Oh, and what will be truly horrific to some of you, rock and roll never caught on, and ballroom dancing with live orchestras is still the thing.

And then there’s the racism weirdness.  Mr. Shute was against racism, especially Southern United States style racism, but it’s expressed oddly here.  Commander Anderson is mixed race, being one-quarter Aborigine, and apparently is light-skinned and fine-featured enough that most people assume he just has a tan.  He goes by the nickname “Nigger,” and insists all his friends call him that.

You can sort of see that, as a way of “reclaiming the word” and apparently Commander Anderson’s worried that people will think he’s trying to “pass” if he doesn’t bring up his ancestry directly.  But it’s still very jarring.  Especially when he uses the phrase “nigger in the woodpile” unironically.  It’s clear that most of the characters consider his deeds more important than his ethnicity, and indeed, he’s the only one to ever bring it up.

The sections set in the 1950s have more obvious casual racism.  There’s a bit of author blindness to sexism; the Queen rules but all the other speaking women in the 1980s are secretaries, telephone girls,  stewardesses and maids.  Rosemary majored in history and paid special attention to the suffragette movement, but otherwise seems content with a 1950s style romantic relationship.

If you’ve read the book and have some comments, by all means let me know.

Book Review: Stitched Up: The Anti-Capitalist Book of Fashion

Book Review: Stitched Up: The Anti-Capitalist Book of Fashion by Tansy E Hoskins

Disclaimer:  I received this book through a Goodreads giveaway on the premise that I would review it.

Stitched Up

Fashion…isn’t something I notice a lot.  I buy clothes when I have to, and try to wear matching socks, but I don’t know a lot about fashion as a subject.  This book may or may not have helped with that.

Early on, Ms. Hoskins defines fashion as “changing styles of dress and appearance adopted by groups of people” so that she can talk about the entire clothing and accessories industry, as opposed to just haute couture.  She chooses to view the industry through an “anti-capitalist” lens, which yes, does take its roots from Marxism.

The book primarily deals with the modern fashion industry, from the Industrial Revolution on, and doesn’t dwell too much on the early history.  The first few chapters provide an overview of the industry, from the wealthy owners through the fashion press to the exploited factory workers.  It should be noted here that this is a British book, and this influences the examples given.

Then there is a section about the many problematic issues involving fashion, such as environmental damage,  body image and racism.  (The recent film biography of Coco Chanel cut off before World War Two for a reason.)  There’s  a fair bit in here that I already knew, but I had no idea of just how bad it actually was.

The final chapters of the book deal with ways in which people are resisting, and trying to reform fashion, but Ms. Hoskins believes that all the problems with the fashion industry are at their roots caused by capitalism.  Therefore, revolution to smash capitalism is the only true solution.

The last chapter goes into some detail of what post-capitalist fashion might involve.  The author points out the (sadly short-lived) blossoming of the arts and textile design in the post-revolution Soviet Union.  However, the cautionary tale of Cultural Revolution China is also mentioned, where a simple outlawing of “reactionary” fashion led to nationwide conformity because the Mao suit was the only thing everyone could agree was not reactionary, and therefore safe to wear.

Ms. Hoskins is thinking that revolution should instead lead to more of a democratic socialism…or something.  Anyway, smash capitalism, and everything else should work out okay.

The striking illustrations are by Jade Pilgrom.  There are extensive end notes, a bibliography and index.

I’d recommend this book to students of fashion, budding Socialists and people who have always wondered what the big deal is with fashion, anyway.

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...