Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Why I Review Old Books Written by Dead Authors

Here's one reason to review old books written by dead authors: When the author doesn't like the review and starts posting nasty comments and demands that the review be taken down. Here's a post about what happened. Here's the review and the authorial melt down in the comments.

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Graham Greene's England Made Me

As promised, I have now read Graham Greene’s 1935 novel England Made Me. England Made Me is the story of Anthony Farrant. Anthony is a ne’er-do-well and a rake who has been a failure at one job after another all over the world. Anthony has a very close relationship, which borders on incest, with his twin sister, Kate. Kate is the personal secretary and mistress to Erik Krogh, a wealthy Swedish businessman. Through Kate’s influence, Anthony obtains a job as Krogh’s bodyguard.

Krogh is ruthless and amoral in his pursuit of more wealth and power. A central theme of this book is internationalism. Krogh has no allegiance to any country. His only loyalty is to himself and his fortune. There is a good bit of talk in this novel about how nations and borders will be a thing of the past in the modern world with quick travel by airplane and instant communication by telephone and radio. In retrospect, the premise that nationalism is on the way out is kind of laughable for a novel published in 1935, two years after Hitler took power in Germany in 1933 and four years before the outbreak of World War II in Europe in 1939. However, it's no more laughable than reading things published in the 1990s after the Soviet Union fell that opined that we had entered a new era of world peace and prosperity.

Krogh is engaged in all kinds of shady business deals to sell worthless stock and defraud shareholders. Krogh also lies to a labor union leader to avoid a strike and then frames the man for wrongdoing and ruins his reputation before firing him. Krogh’s closest thing to a friend is Hall, who has known Krogh since they were both poor young men. Although Krogh has treated Hall badly through the years, Hall is fanatically loyal to Krogh and would do anything for him. Just as Anthony and Kate’s relationship borders on the incestuous, Hall’s infatuation with Krogh borders on the homoerotic.

By far the the most interesting character in the entire novel is Ferdinand Minty, an expatriot Englishman who is employed as a reporter by a Swedish newspaper. Minty is wonderfully eccentric. He lives in a seedy tenement and wears a wrinkled old coat and suit. He is a sadist who tortures a spider by watching it under a glass until it dies. He constantly refers to himself in the third person and is a diehard Anglo-Catholic who is constantly praying to obscure saints. Minty is an alumnus of Harrow, the English public school. When he sees Anthony wearing a Harrow school tie and begins to ask him questions, Minty almost immediately recognizes Anthony as a fraud. Minty’s assignment from his editor is to report on Erik Krogh, so Minty offers to bribe Anthony to leak information to him.

Since this is an obscure 76 year old novel, I think that I won’t be hurting much by spoiling the ending. Anthony is appalled by Krogh’s amoral business practices and decides to leak the information to Minty and then return to England where he plans to have a true relationship with his current mistress whom, up to now, he has used merely as a sex object. When Anthony leaks that Krogh is planning to marry Kate, Krogh realizes that Anthony is about to ruin his reputation and wants to prevent Anthony returning to England. Hall engineers a late night poker game to attempt to have Anthony run up large gambling debts and be unable to leave Sweden. After being foiled in this plan because Anthony already has tickets to sail to England, Hall murders Anthony whose death is made to look like an accident. The End.

If the above plot summary seems lame, let me assure you that this book is just as lame as it sounds. This is not one of Greene’s better novels. In fact, I daresay that if Graham Greene wasn’t Graham Greene, this novel would be long out of print and forgotten. However, England Made Me is still of interest because of the view of the world it presents. In 1935 the world was in the midst of the Depression and no one knew that the world stood on the edge of the abyss of the bloodiest war in human history. This novel is also of interest because it is one of Greene’s early efforts which shows the master honing his craft. Like It’s a Battlefield, the technical execution of England Made Me is very good and there is some excellent writing in it in places. As a whole, though, it just doesn’t really work. Once again, I think that Greene was trying too hard to write a “serious novel” and it just doesn’t deliver the goods.

Book Blogger Hop at Crazy for Books.com

Book Blogger Hop

This week the Eclectic Reader is participating in the "Book Blogger Hop" at Crazy for Books.com.

As a condition of participating, I am supposed to write a blog post answering the question, "If you could physically place yourself in a book or series, what would it be and why?"

Here's The Bad Catholic's answer: If I could place myself into a book series it would be Ian Fleming's James Bond novels, because he gets to drink lots of shaken and not stirred martinis with lots of fabulously beautiful women.

Friday, March 18, 2011

Anzia Yezierska's Bread Givers

Anzia Yezierska (1881 - 1970) was the daughter of Russian-Polish Jews who immigrated to the United States in the early 1890s. Her father was a Talmudic scholar who engaged in full time study of the holy books while her mother struggled to support the family. Yerzierska worked in sweat shops to put herself through Columbia University. Yezierska became a popular novelist and short story writer during the 1920s before slipping into relative obscurity during the Great Depression of the 1930s. She died in 1970.

Bread Givers (1925) is Yezierska’s most well known novel. Bread Givers is the story of Sara Smolinsky, like Yezierska, a Polish Jew whose family has immigrated to the United States and are living in poverty in a seedy tenement in New York City. When the novel opens, Sara is about twelve years old. Sara is one of a family of four daughters. Her father, a rabbi, spends all of his time either praying at the synagogue or studying the Torah. The mother and the daughters are expected to work and then turn their wages over to their father to support him in his holy work. Therefore, the women are the “bread givers” of the title.

Sara watches as each one of her sisters in turn brings home boyfriends whom her father rejects. Reb Smolinsky then arranges marriages for each of Sara’s three sisters which turn out to be disasterous. Upon receiving a little money from one of the new son in laws, Reb Smolinsky immediately wastes it in a business deal where he is taken advantage of by a con man. Finally having had enough, at age 17 Sara leaves home and strikes out on her own. Her father is, of course, outraged since he expects Sara to work to support him until he decides that it is time for her to marry when he will find her a husband.

Sara works long hours in a laundry and goes to night school until she is able to apply to college. Yezierska shows the struggle to survive of a young woman on her own in New York City in the early years of the twentieth century. Landlords are reluctant to rent rooms to single women. In cafeterias the men are given larger portions and the best cuts of meat. Finally, after much struggle, Sara is able to leave New York City and go away to college. Once again she has to work long hours in a laundry and a canning factory to support herself. As a poor immigrant she is an outsider who is ostracized by the other students.

Finally Sara graduates and returns to New York City to work as a public school teacher. Just when things are looking up for her, her mother dies. Reb Smolinsky marries a widow who lives upstairs who is only interested in him because of the insurance money he has gotten after his wife’s death. When the life insurance money runs out, the new wife becomes a nag.

Eventually, Sara becomes engaged to her school principal, another Jewish immigrant named Hugo Seelig. Hugo asks to study Hebrew with Reb Smolinsky and invites him to live with him and Sara. Sara is the first of Reb Smolinsky’s daughters to bring home a boyfriend that their father approves of. Hugo tells Sara “As for your father, I know just the kind of an old Jew he is. After all, it’s from him that you got the iron for the fight you had to make to be what you are now.” So after spending years trying to escape her father, Sara and her new husband will honor him and take care of him during his last years.

Bread Givers
is a beautiful book. Since the novel is semi-autobiographical, the descriptions of the life and culture of the Jewish immigrants is very true to life. This is a short novel (297 pages in the Persea edition), but very quickly one feels totally immersed in the life of Sara Smolinsky and her milieu. The book is emotionally very powerful and the reader is carried along with Sara during her struggles. Bread Winners is a classic novel which is still well worth reading.