Saturday, September 29, 2007

The Worst Hard Time, by Timothy Egan

An extraordinary book about the dust storms on the High Plains in the 1930s. This book takes us into the lives of several people who made up the "nesters" - farmers, along with cowboys, ranchers, doctors, teachers, and newspapermen. We follow the history of the plains from the early twenties, when land was free or cheap and hopes were high, when government policy fed the ambitions of the settlers, on into the 1930s and the worst of the storms.

It is clear from our present perspective that the horrors of the "dust bowl" were man-made. It took a few years and some gutsy thinking people to get that message out during the worst of it and to start the process that would lead to some recovery. Not that these plains have ever fully recovered.

Of particular interest are the extraordinary details. What the storms did to people, animals, buildings, and what happened on the rare occasions when it actually rained. While in the air (which was most of the time) the dust created such static electricity that people were afraid to touch each other. The touch could knock them across a room. The electricity shorted out engines and started fires. The dust destroyed just about everything it touched, killing the natural animal and plant population while bringing in insects that thrived on what was left. Millions of acres of land were left sterile, while the swarms of dust moved into the cities, over other parts of the country, and into the ocean. The storms even reached New York City and Washington, D.C. on occasion.

How the government responded is another fascinating tale, featuring a president who couldn't think of anything to do - Hoover - followed by one who did everything possible - Roosevelt. It's possible that the biggest hero of the time was the person who took on a new governmental position under Roosevelt, Hugh Bennett, and came up with ways to hold the soil down. He didn't stop there, of course. He took his mission to the loners who made up the plains settlers and convinced them that they had to work together to fight this thing.

The story is devastating and often heart-breaking. And so very readable.

What Came Before He Shot Her, by Elizabeth George

I categorized this book as a "mystery" but Elizabeth George is heading into new territory here. Another reviewer calls it a "whydunit", a good description.

George has written several books (all of which I have read) about Thomas Lynley and Barbara Havers of New Scotland Yard and Lynley's close friends and oft-used consultants. The books are written sequentially, and significant events take place in the primary characters' lives. In other words, they do not stand still.

In the book previous to this one, With No One As Witness, Lynley's pregnant wife is shot. She lingers on life support while Lynley decides what to do about the baby inside her. The shooting is apparently random and was done by two young black men, one very young.

What Came Before He Shot Her is the tale of the 12-year-old who found himself facing Helen Lynley with a gun. The story starts, as the title suggests, well before the act and explains what circumstances led him there.

The story follows his family, a struggling group that consists of Joel, the 12-year-old, Toby, his eight-year-old brother, who is "not right", Vanessa, Joel's older sister, and their Aunt Kendra. The children have survived horrific experiences on the streets of London and in their homes. They have learned the ways of the street and the wisdom of keeping their own counsel. It isn't safe to "grass" on another, no matter how much trouble that other causes.

And so it is that Joel, in a desperate effort to protect his little brother from another boy who has threatened him, heads down a path that gets darker and darker. And so it is that he cannot tell anyone what he is doing.

The bones of the story are clear enough. What really places George in a different category is that she rounds everything out, adds the details and experiences that make the characters truly lifelike and sympathetic.

She devotes much of all of her novels to details that have no bearing on the final outcome, the discovery of the criminal. But over time, over several books, the details add up. So it is with this story. All of the family members have a life and a story to live. We follow each one as he or she tries to make a way in the world. We also follow the efforts of some governmental and private individuals who can see past the obvious and find real people, worth helping, in this family unit. In the end we see what looks like failure, but I'm sure it doesn't end there.

I can't wait to get my hands on the next chapter.

Friday, September 14, 2007

The Dream Life of Sukhanov, by Olga Grushin

The Dream Life of Sukhanov is a rare, beautifully-written book that explores a fundamental theme: where the choices we make in our lives take us.

Sukhanov, a 56-year-old art critic in Moscow in the mid-1980s, who long ago "sold out" to have a peaceful, comfortable life in a country that does not respect true art, begins to find that his walled-off past is starting to invade the present. Little by little, triggered by incidents in the present day, he faces the choices he has made over the years. The wall does not come tumbling down neatly, brick by brick, but rather like it has sprung occasional leaks. Sukhanov races to repair the damage again and again, reasserting his stuffy, arrogant self each time.

The attacks from his past come in the form of dreams, both while he sleeps and when he is awake, and without warning. The drifting into dreams become more frequent, and we begin to enter Sukhanov's mind ourselves, as the third-person narrative increasingly slides into the first.

While the dreams threaten to take over, the present does not stop trotting along, plunging Sukhanov into a world he had for so long tried to avoid. Assailed from the present as well as the past, Sukhanov eventually finds escape.

In addition to exploring Sukhanov's personal demons, Grushin brings us into the world of art, particularly surrealist and impressionist art. As other reviewers have noted, the writing itself is often impressionistic and nearly surreal. Just as the great impressionist painters were able to bring their visions to a diverse audience, so is Grushin able to paint so that we understand, and at the same time we sometimes gasp with wonder.

The Mouse That Roared, by Henry Giroux

I would have been able to read this little book in one or two days if it had been written in English. It is written in a sociological jargon, heavy with repetition. It's possible to open any page and find writing like this:

...Disney's view of innocence had to be constructed within particular maps of meaning in which children and adults could define themselves through a cultural language that offers them both modest pleasure and a coherent sense of identity. This suggested that Disney define innocence as part of the logic of home entertainment and also, pedagogically, as a set of values and practices that associate the safeguarding of childhood with a strong investment in the status quo and in the market as a sphere of consumption.

Or how about this:

Pedagogically, this suggests the need for educators, parents and others to analyze critically how the privileged dominant readings of Disney's animated films generate and affirm particular pleasures, desires, and subject positions that define for children specific notions of agency and its possibilities in society.

Frankly, this book is not well-written, which is a shame because it takes on an important topic. The dramatic title suggests that we are to be treated to a definitive analysis in plain language, but instead we get what reads more like a college term paper (I notice that the title is very similar to one of the magazine articles cited in the book; it's therefore not even particularly original).

The overuse of these words tip us off that the writer has bought the idea that jargon somehow adds meaning: “text” and “narrative”, as in “The Disney text” or the “Disney narrative”, “maps of meaning”, “discourse”, "pedagogical" (two particular favorites) and “public memory”. Throughout the book Giroux refers to "culture workers" without once defining the term, and takes time to define "pedagogy" in a late chapter, after having used it in almost every paragraph up to then. The author also makes frequent use of source material that is no more than the opinions of others, a trick typically used in term paper writing.

The oft-repeated theme of the book, that the Disney corporation's products educate our children to become consumers who are malleable, unpolitical and who accept an idealized view of the past, is an important one. Yet repetition in the muddied sociological language Giroux uses does not provide the emphasis or clarity needed. Nor does Giroux back up his charges with real examples most of the time. Perhaps the most interesting part of the book is the dissection of two Disney-funded films: Pretty Woman and Good Morning Vietnam. In these analyses we can actually see how the films represent specific viewpoints and ignore reality.

The last chapter outlines general suggestions for countering the effects on our culture of Disney and other large corporations. These suggestions are on the order of staging protests or writing letters to congress. There isn't a single suggestion that goes beyond a fuzzy feeling. I am not one who insists that everyone who points out a problem should be required to offer stunning solutions. But if you go there, take it seriously. I don't think Giroux does that.

Because the book was so wrapped in the fur of jargon, I found it very difficult to take away specific concerns in such a way that I could repeat them myself. An important topic, poorly presented.

2-1/2 out of 5 stars