Tuesday, July 3, 2018

The Color Purple by Alice Walker

Book 6 of 100 on the Great American Read list.

I read The Color Purple at University in the UK for a feminist literature class. And I am ashamed to report that I didn’t remember much about it. Rather like Squeak I did smoke a lot of reefer at the time, so maybe that’s why. It’s more likely that I just lacked the context to be able to read it deeply.

After ten years in America, I have a slightly better idea of the context for The Color Purple. I've read more black authors, learned more black history, listened to black activists and I’m trying to see a big picture. The picture is huge. As big as the world. I doubt I’ll ever see all of it because I'm not black and I’m not American. So bearing in mind that my understanding of the context is still imperfect, here’s what I thought this time I read The Color Purple.

Never in the history of anything has a book that begins with the sexual abuse of a child contained so much joy and life.

The Color Purple is told through the prayers and letters of Celie and her sister Nettie. The two girls grow up together in the South in the 1930s, Celie stays in Georgia, while Nettie becomes a missionary in Africa. Mostly, the plot rests with Celie, we only hear from Nettie when Celie gets access to her letters. And Celie's life is hard. Raped by her supposed father, her children are taken from her and then she's worked relentlessly by an abusive husband who's name she doesn't even know. It's a disturbing story. But then her husband brings home an old flame, the jazz singer Shug Avery and Celie's relationship with this dazzling woman restores her humanity and her faith in god. Eventually, Celie turns on the abusive husband, becomes a successful business woman and is reunited with her sister and children. And when she does, it is incredibly cathartic.

Why is it on the list? Because reading it is an affirmation of being alive. Because there should always be stories about black lesbian feminists on school reading lists. And because it’s an incredible work of historical fiction.

Alice Walker crams a lot of African American history into The Color Purple. It's sometimes hard to remember that it was written as late as the 1980s. In the West African letters Nettie is amazed to discover the history of the African Kingdoms. She also sees white colonization with her own eyes when the rubber road arrives to destroy the Olinka village. Meanwhile in Celie's letters, her friend Sofia experiences something similar to being a house slave, even though the book is set post-slavery. There’s also the history of the influence of black culture on America in the juke joint, Shug Avery’s rise to fame and fortune and black female entrepreneurship. Religion, hair, sexuality, lynching, language, toxic masculinity, colorism, incarceration, mental health and communal child rearing are also here, along with probably much more that I’m missing because I’m still learning.

The Color Purple feeds and enriches American culture. The book won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1983 and was made into a movie in 1985. The movie was nominated for 11 Oscars (although it didn't win any of them). The film launched the career of Whoopi Goldberg and truly established Oprah Winfrey as a force to be reckoned with. I see references to The Color Purple in Beyonce's Lemonade. On the flip side The Color Purple ranks high on the ALA list of 100 most banned or challenged books.

I can’t think of a better book to help me understand America.

(A small note, I thought long and hard about capitalizing Black here, but after some research I landed on the side of those who wish to acknowledge the diversity of blackness and not reduce it to a monolithic culture. Although, the arguments here also make sense to me.)

Tuesday, June 5, 2018

The Book Thief by Marcus Zusak

Book 5 of 100 on the Great American Read list

My boss loves The Book Thief it's her favorite YA book of the last 20 years. I asked her why she loves it and she gave me many reasons including the clever narrative structure and the memorable graphic novel elements. Mostly though, she likes the narrator, because she likes Death’s sense of humor.

I started out listening to The Book Thief as an audio book, so it took me a while to figure out that the structure was like a shelf of stolen books, each with a contents page of chapter headings. Then my boss told me about the graphic elements and I realized I was definitely missing something. I ran out to the library and borrowed a copy. Having a real copy of The Book Thief in your hand is essential to reading and understanding it.

What’s it about? The Book Thief is a young girl named Liesel Meminger, she is nine years old when we first meet her and 17 years old at the end of the story.  She’s growing up in a small town in Nazi Germany with her foster parents and a childhood trauma that gives her nightmares every night. As the Nazi Party grows in power so does her desire to read, which leads her to steal books from a graveyard, a bonfire and a library. The family shelter a Jewish man named Max who writes books for Liesel on pages torn from Mein Kampf and painted over with white house paint. When the Allied bombs start to fall, Max must escape, Papa must go to war and Death, who narrates this book, must be busy.

Is it any good? Yes. Definitely. It’s one of those books with haunting images that you carry around with you for a long time after you finish reading. The “parades” of “Jews and other miscreants” shuffling tiredly down the road toward Dachau. Rudy Steiner standing waist deep in freezing water to retrieve a book and standing there longer to ask Liesel for a kiss. The Standover Man, the book written by Max while he hides in the basement, with the text of Hitler’s book showing through in places beneath the paint.

And my boss is right, Death is an excellent narrator with a dark, ironic and fatalistic sense of humor. After a day of small victories for Liesel, Death tells us:

“The day had been a great one and Nazi Germany was a wondrous place.”

And he never lets his readers hope for a happy ending to this story.

“I know what happens and so do you”.

Despite his best intentions Death ends up paying considerable attention to the stories of the humans whose souls he will inevitably gather. He’s an empathetic character, although he’s tortured by that empathy.

“I am haunted by humans.” Is his final sentence in the book. And honestly, I am haunted by them too.

Why is it on the list? I recently talked to a colleague of mine who is a Senior in High School, she told me that in Junior year her whole class have a reading list the students call “Death and Destruction” and The Book Thief is on that list. It’s high on the list of popular books for Book Clubs on Goodreads and to date has sold 16 million copies worldwide. It’s a crossover book, read by adults and teens alike. The Book Thief is big news everywhere.

What interests me is the The Book Thief’s window into reasons for emigration to the US from war torn Europe. I expected there to be an influx of  Jewish refugees to America, although I was surprised to learn that the American government initially turned away boatloads of people until the Displaced People’s Act of 1948. The Book Thief introduces us to a German population, starved, terrified and oppressed. No wonder they left Germany.

From 1941 to 1950, 1,035,000 people immigrated to the U.S., including 226,000 from Germany, 139,000 from the UK, 171,000 from Canada, 60,000 from Mexico and 57,000 from Italy.[50]

Perhaps this is one of the reasons for the continued worldwide popularity of this book. Many families left the old world after World War II, so to read about their ancestors reasons for leaving must be powerful indeed.

The Book Thief inspires empathy and compassion in its readers, so the popularity of the book is heartening. After all, if Death can manage all the feels, then so can American readers.

Friday, June 1, 2018

The Great Gatsby by F Scott Fitzgerald

Book 4 of 100 on the Great American Read list

I have started reading The Great Gatsby on three previous occasions and each time I’ve stopped before the end of the first chapter. The characters in that first chapter are white supremacist rich people, who lie around in a mansion and whine. They drink disinterestedly while our narrator impassively reports on them as though they were perfectly normal. It’s kind of nauseating.

So this time, I downloaded an audio book version and went for a walk. I am happy to say that I made it past the first chapter and into the second. Here it becomes clearer that the author also feels sickened by his characters. When Tom Buchanan breaks Mrs Wilson’s nose with the flat of his hand at the end of chapter two, there is no longer any doubt; these people are awful.

What’s it about? The Great Gatsby is the story of a summer spent among the super rich of the 1920s. One man Jay Gatsby gives extravagant parties at his Long Island mansion every weekend, but has a mysterious past. Another power couple struggle with infidelity. There are at least three murders, an underground crime syndicate and a deeply disturbing obsession.

Is it any good? As a work of satire against the unfeeling upper classes, The Great Gatsby hits its mark hard, The book is full of excellent one-liners, including a dismissal of the white supremacy from chapter one as “impassioned gibberish” and the nasty complement “her voice is full of money”. But it’s not just the rich who feel the sharp edge of Fitzgerald’s wit. Mrs Wilson is firmly middle class despite her aspirations and everything about her character from her speech pattern to her violent death is grotesque. Gatsby himself doesn’t escape criticism and is also the victim of a violent death.

Which brings me to the wider theme of the book. Yes, the indolent rich are awful, but they will get away with it. The only people who suffer and die in The Great Gatsby are those born without money, born outside the elite society and whether they shun riches or desire them, the money will kill them in the end.

Why is it on the list? The answer is probably High School reading lists. The book is short, the themes are simple and numerous, the language is rich, the parties are exciting, the deaths are gruesome and there are a number of movie versions of the book to help out students who are hard-of-reading. It’s a very teachable book. I can imagine numerous lesson plans and I’m only a bookseller.

I also think The Great Gatsby is on the list because of America’s complex relationship with money. American society requires money for everything. Healthcare, retirement and other social safety-nets found in first world countries are just not available in America. But if you have enough money to escape the metaphorical wasteland, the continued pursuit of greater and greater wealth often looks less gorgeous than the things you can buy with it.

That’s a pretty depressing take-away for a book with some funny drunks and exquisitely detailed parties.

Tuesday, May 29, 2018

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith

Book 3 of 100 on the Great American Read list.

A few years ago, I decided to read the classic American children’s books that my bookseller colleagues had read when they were young and when I lived in another country. I began asking around for what should be on the list. It varied considerably, E B White and Lloyd Alexander, A Cricket in Times Square and Tuck Everlasting. But one title that came up again and again was A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. My female friends were especially enthusiastic, as one said “I’m jealous that you get to read it for the first time”.

Well, now I’ve read it and I know what she means.

This is the story of Francie Nolan, as she grows up in Brooklyn during the first two decades of the twentieth century. Her family are poor, her father is a drunk and her mother is harried but proud. She has a brother who is her protector and friend and later she has a baby sister. A Tree Grows in Brooklyn is her impressions of the world and her journey toward understanding more of it.

The writing is extraordinary, one particularly atmospheric passage evoked my early memories of the local public library, a Victorian building not unlike a church which, like Francie, I treated with greater reverence. While I was reading A Tree Grows in Brooklyn I repeatedly found myself stopping to cry or write down a perfectly crafted sentence. I also enjoyed looking up the slang and archaic language 23 Skidoo was a particular favorite.

What I find extraordinary is that the reader gets a glimpse into the heart of every female character in the book. Francie has a wild aunt, a funny aunt and an aunt who is a nun and I loved them all at least a little bit. The women talk like actual women, the hazing Francie gets at her first factory job is a masterclass in female-centric politics. And I never found myself questioning a female character's motives, because the women are complex but open books.

Why is this book on the list? It was published in 1943 and although it never won any awards, it’s been a popular read ever since. There are only two bestselling books from the 1940s that made the 100 Great American Read list. One is A Tree Grows in Brooklyn and the other is The Grapes of Wrath, although that stayed in the top ten for fewer years. At various times A Tree Grows in Brooklyn was a movie, a musical and a tv show. It was even printed as an Armed Services Edition during the Second World War.

I think another secret of the success of this novel is the target audience, because A Tree Grows in Brooklyn is a YA Book. Long before anyone thought of young adults and possibly before teenagers were invented, here is a book which covers the life of a girl between the ages of eleven and sixteen and a half. And it isn’t a charmed life either, it’s hard, angry, bloody and sad. Francie struggles against her upbringing just as it informs her aspirations. She must find out who she is, without rejecting her family. Exactly like the heroine of every YA novel published today. And Francie is a reader, a prodigious reader, reading is her escape, her education and eventually her job. There is nothing that young readers like better in a character than a bookishness to match their own.

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn is also the most American book I’ve read to date. I began this undertaking to better understand American culture, I didn’t expect to find everything right here in the third book I read. The whole Brooklyn community is a mess of immigrants, religion plays a huge role, but so does hope and aspiration. Francie counts every penny when she’s poor and tells us about every dollar when she starts working. There’s even a gun and some expectedly corrupt politics. This is America. But I might not even stop there. It’s also a semi-autobiographical story, told 30 years after the fact. We must assume that it is at least a little rose-tinted. The way it should have been. So what does that tell us about America’s pride in it’s white working class and the American Dream. Perhaps that it never really existed?

I loved this book. I'm glad I've read it and I look forward to reading it again.

Friday, May 25, 2018

1984 by George Orwell

Book 2 of 100 on the Great American Read list

In 2017, the first year of Donald Trump’s presidency, we first heard the phrase “Alternative Facts” and the classic dystopian novel 1984 became a bestseller once again. According to Amazon 1984 was the 17th bestselling book of 2017, in 2016 it was the 94th best selling, in 2018 it has yet to show up on the 100 bestselling books. Maybe now we’re all too busy living in 1984 to read about it.

At the time, I remember thinking that reading 1984 wasn’t the best choice of preparation for resisting Trump and his party. I’d never read the book, but I knew it was based on the paranoid semi-socialist ideology of Stalinist Russia. I felt that there were more pertinent dystopias out there, either The Handmaid’s Tale or The Hunger Games would have been closer to the oppressive despotism we had been promised by the president’s campaign speeches.

But now I’ve read it and I’ve lived under the Trump administration for a while and I can definitely see some parallels. Mostly in the use and abuse of the facts. Donald Trump has a famous disregard for the truth. If a lie suits his current narrative then he will not only use that lie, but repeat it and defend it. And his supporters will repeat that lie too. The truth no longer matters, what’s important is the belief in the lie. Which is exactly the point of 1984.

Winston Smith lives in an oppressive society under the control of The Party and Big Brother. His life, like the lives of all his comrades, is closely watched for loyalty and conformity. But he privately questions the reality presented by The Party of constant war and successful three year plans. He finds a temporary escape through an elicit relationship with a young woman called Julia. Almost a third of the book deals with his arrest, torture and reprogramming to make him a loyal party member who believes every lie of The Party.

Is it any good? The short answer is yes, it’s compelling, disturbing and an accurate indictment of humanity at it’s worst. Orwell also managed to invent some terms in 1984 that are now commonly used in the English language and that’s no small feat. Big Brother, Room 101 and SexCrime are all with us now because of this book. However, 1984 does have flaws, the biggest being that it’s a work of political philosophy wrapped in an adolescent love story. So, perhaps not the best novel ever written.

Why is it on the list? I think the main reason 1984 is here is High School reading lists. The book is short, packed with teachable content and there’s a wealth of resources to help bring the book to life for teenagers. But it’s worth thinking about why this is such a popular book with American teachers. The Party is modeled on soviet Russia and this ideology has long been in opposition to all that America stands for. It’s important to remember that 1984 was published in 1949, just in time for McCarthyism and the Red Scare when the US government went after anyone who might have any communist/socialist/non-capitalist sympathies, in a way that would put Big Brother to shame.

America’s relationship with socialism may continue to be fraught and complicated. America’s relationship with 1984, seems to be much more comfortable.

Tuesday, May 22, 2018

Siddhartha by Hermann Hesse

Book 1 of 100 on the Great American Read list.

(In which I begin this endeavor with something I know very little about.)

When I first came to America ten years ago, I worked for a charming neighborhood bookstore in San Francisco. Over time I started to know which authors were popular and which classic books sold well. What I couldn’t figure out was why a book by a prominent Third Reich Nazi was such a popular title.  So I googled “Siddhartha Hesse” and discovered that Rudolf Hess and Hermann Hesse were NOT the same person.

And while I’m sharing embarrassing misconceptions. I always thought this was a book about Buddha in his youth, when he was Prince Siddhartha. Turns out I had that wrong too.

It’s actually the story of a lifetime’s spiritual journey, undertaken by a man named Siddhartha. It begins with Siddhartha as a boy learning Hindu teachings and rituals with his Brahman father, then he hitches a wild ride with the aesthetics as a traveling pilgrim, giving all that up for a rich life of sex and money and finally finding peace in a simple middle way as a ferryman who listens to and understands the river. Along the way he often interacts with his best friend from boyhood Govinda and tangles with Buddha himself.

Is it any good? Yeah, it’s alright. It’s stacked high with flowery imagery and as a fictionalization of a religious ideology it does a great job getting across the central idea of Buddhism that the enlightened must live in the world, without becoming consumed by it. It’s also got some good sexy bits in it.

Why do I think it’s on the list? Well, it’s definitely a favorite for AP World Literature lists and I think that’s important. High school students with their futures ahead of them might read this and identify with the protagonist who searches for spiritual answers while he also searches for a physical place in the world. I understand why this would leave a lasting impression on students.

There are some obvious cultural issues here which I can’t ignore. Siddhartha is a work of fiction based on teachings and legends from the Buddhist religion, but it was written by a white European author. Religious texts are not included in the Great American Read list, otherwise perhaps we’d see The Sutras or The Bhagavad Gita in this list. But this is the only example of Eastern philosophy on the list and it isn’t written by someone native to that culture. I think Siddhartha is an excellent example of Orientalism, a long-standing tradition in the West to use Eastern culture as inspiration, in a mostly patronizing way.

A more generous interpretation is that Siddhartha makes Eastern philosophy accessible to Westerners, particularly Americans, because the book is vastly more popular in the US than in the UK. There are only 16 editions of Siddhartha available on Amazon in the UK, but 35 in the US (normally there are similar numbers of editions published in the two countries). I think this popularity can be explained by the American inclination toward religion and self-determination.

According to the Pew Research Center 3% of Americans identify as Atheist and although new research shows that the actual figure may be higher, it’s still lower than the roughly 50% of non-believers in the UK. I think it must be difficult to be an American atheist. Perhaps Westernized Buddhism as described in Siddhartha serves as an actual middle way between organized religion and nothing. Mindfulness and meditation are incredibly popular and can be arranged into a loose set of philosophies to attract those who want to be spiritual (because spirituality is important in America), but want to determine their own path to enlightenment (because self-sufficiency is also a key American character trait).

I might be making this too complicated, so here’s something simple Siddhartha sells in California. It promotes the idea of self-discovery through experience of life and nature, which aligns happily with the hippy and surfer cultures for which California is famous.

Wednesday, May 16, 2018

The Great American Read

I am a Brit. I'm also an immigrant, non-citizen living in California and I spend way too much time trying to understand America and Americans.

What does it mean to be American? I have no idea and a million ideas:

Apple Pie, cowboys, racism, Independence, Hollywood, freedom of speech, guns, social justice, Disney, country music, confidence, straight teeth, eagles, slavery, ignorance, innovation, incarceration, money, Jesus.

That doesn’t answer the question. But it does demonstrate that America is all things to all the people living in it and those people are massively different.

So when I saw that PBS had commissioned YouGov to poll Americans and find their 100 favorite books I was instantly intrigued. The resulting list is the basis of a tv show called The Great American Read which producers hope will spark reading and conversation about books. This is a noble cause and one for which (as a bookseller), I am grateful.

Then I read the list.

The list makes NO sense at all. British and Russian classics sit next to contemporary YA series while second tier works by great contemporary authors vie with Christian and Buddhist morality tales. And then there’s Ghost, by Jason Reynolds. I love it, but I don’t know how it got here. The list is exactly like the random list of Americana above.

I have a degree in English Lit. from a UK university and I’ve been an bookseller for 15 years, but at the time the list was published I’d only read 24 of these 100 titles.

So I’m going to read the list, (or at least most of the list).

This isn’t an attempt to enrich my life by reading more. I already read 10-20 books per month. Instead I hope this will help me understand America through reading what Americans love, or at least, what they claim to love.

Every time I finish reading a book from the list, I’ll write a little something about my gut reactions to it and my thoughts about how it got on the Great American Read list.

Wish me luck, I’m going in.