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Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Eternity Street: Violence and Justice in Frontier Los Angeles (2016) by John Mack Faragher

Book Review
Eternity Street: Violence and Justice in Frontier Los Angeles (2016)
by John Mack Faragher
WW Norton & Company

John Mack Faragher is one of America's foremost popular-academic historians, serving as a history Professor at Yale University, and also writing top shelf narrative history on subjects ranging from the explosion of the Arcadians (today's Cajuns) from Canada and a biography of Daniel Boone.  Faragher is more than a synthesizer of academic history journals, if Eternity Street is any indication (and I'm sure it is) he (and his research assistants) are also doing original research based on primary records.  Here, Faragher draws heavily on the written court records of 19th century Los Angeles.  In doing so he has written an extraordinary work of popular history and illuminated a little known but important time in California, and by extension American, history.

  Even if you know California history, Los Angeles in the 19th century is a bit of a blur.  You could be well conversant in the subject and forgiven for knowing, essentially, nothing about the 19th century history of Los Angeles, let alone even the broad outlines of the development of Spanish/Mexican Southern California.   Faragher's narrative, which extends back fully into the mid 19th century, is a rich depiction of a violent border community, with a combustible mix of domesticated and wild Native Americans, a land owning class of "gentes con razon" (people of reason) and an underclass of "gentes sin razon" (people without reason) that contained Spanish/Mexicans, both types of Native peoples, African-Americans (free), mixed race Mexican/Indians and increasing numbers of Anglos, most of whom came from the South, but who also contained an important minority of Boston based traders, some of whom became Mexican citizens and married into the existing land owning class, others of whom maintained their American citizenship and resisted integration.

  Although the path that the history takes is of course familiar to anyone on the planet, the details of that path are what concerns Faragher, particularly the difficulty of establishing the rule of law as we understand it in the United States, a process that was not fully complete for decades after California became a state.  The meat of Faragher's narrative concerns issues with lynch mobs and vigilante violence, and the difficulty that the state had establishing control of that behavior.

  In this way Faragher is plugged in to larger trends in American history outside the history of the West- books that point out the incredible comparative lawlessness of post-Civil War America.  Faragher makes it clear that yes, mid 19th century Los Angeles was an incredibly lawless place, with a per capita murder rate that ranks it among the most violent societies of all time.  He documents examples with court records, from testimony and coverage of the press.  Frequently the stories end with the perpetrators being dragged out of their cells and lynched just outside of downtown.

  I could go on for pages about it- and the other subjects.  Faragher is from Southern California- he went to UC Riverside for undergraduate, and Eternity Street is a rich and valuable contribution to the history of this area.

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Love's Work: A Reckoning with Life (1995) by Gillian Rose

Book Review
Love's Work: A Reckoning with Life (1995)
by Gillian Rose

  Gilliam Rose was a serious philosopher- English- of Jewish heritage.  She played an important role in English language discussion of Continental philosophical figures like Theodor Adorno, Marcuse and Derrida. The was also diagnosed, at a young age, with ovarian cancer, and she died from it.  Love's Work is a slim book about her experience.  It is, of course, philosophical but also incredibly sad and moving, and clearly a work of literature with canonical value even though it is nothing like a novel or really any other book that the editors chose to include in the 1001 Books list.   While I enjoyed it- particularly her matter-of-fact description of having a "stoma" after a cancer related colon surgery.  I'll spare the uninterested the details of what, exactly, a "stoma" is, but if you know, you also know that it is probably one of the most disturbing things that can happen to a human.

  Death is not something most people chose to think about- thoughts about death that last for long periods or that become overwhelming are a frequent sign of mental illness in the healthy, and as Rose points out in calm detail, there are many, many, many ways that a human diagnosed with cancer faces a frightening ordeal when seeking treatment.


The Reader (1995) by Berhnard Schlink

Image result for kate winslet the reader
Kate Winslet received an Oscar nomination for her portrayal of Hanna Schmitz in his movie version of The Reader by Bernhard Schlink
The Reader (1995)
by Berhnard Schlink

  The front of Bernhard Schlink's 1995 novel The Reader has "Oprah's Book Club" written above the title and "#1 National Bestseller."  It sold half a million copies inside Germany, made the New York Times Best Seller list in the United States(the first German language book to top the New York Times best seller list, says the wikipedia page), and spawned a  moderately well-received Stephen Daldry directed, Kate Winslet starring film version that received five Oscar nominations.  The Reader is a clear member of the "international best seller" genre of literature from the 1980's onward.

  The Reader covers the familiar (to anyone who stays apace of German language fiction that gets translated into English and released in the US and UK) psychological territory of German struggling to cope with the aftermath of World War II, and their roles before, during and after that conflict.  It would, frankly, be a little shocking to read a German language book from this period that doesn't- especially one that has been translated into English for an English language audience.

  The crux of The Reader is the relationship between 15 year old narrator Michael Berg and Hanna Schmitz, a 36 year old woman who, when Berg meets her, is working as a conductor on the public transit system in a moderately sized West German city.   Hanna has no husband, no children, no friends. The first portion of The Reader, dealing with Berg and Schmitz's technically illicit love affair is handled explicitly but delicately. 

  Next it is revealed that Schmitz has been accused of being a guard at Auschwitz and a smaller satellite camp- or rather, was- Berg narrates the trial portion from the present, as he remembers past events.  The title refers to the fact that an important part of Berg and Schmitz' relationship was that she would have him read to her.  Later, witnesses testify that as a Nazi guard, Schmitz would pick out weak inmate on the verge of being weeded out and sent to the death chambers and have them read to her, in the same way that Berg read to her as a boy.

  Schlink provides a satisfying resolution that was obviously a huge part of the success of The Reader in it's translated form.  I would say that the very commercial success it enjoyed taints in terms of long term canonical status.  BUT if you are actually into Holocaust literature The Reader is a five star must, that definitely earns a place on the Holocaust lit shelf of your collection.

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