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Friday, July 20, 2018

Behemoth: A History of the Factory and the Making of the Modern World (2018) by Josh Freeman

Book Review
Behemoth: A History of the Factory and the Making of the Modern World
 by Josh Freeman
Published February 2018
W.W. Norton

  Any thorough understanding of day-to-day economic news requires a background in the industrial revolution, its causes and effects, the basic dates involved, places, some personalities.  Historians, Economists and (especially) economic historians have all contributed to the body of knowledge surrounding the industrial revolution, although cutting edge dialogue is often focused on the semantics of the terms involved (was there one Industrial Revolution or were there several interrelated phenomenons interacting over time?) and less on developing themes that might interest a more general audience.

  Enter the the writers and artists who are interested in the aesthetics of the industrial revolution.  Examples are varied and numerous, from Russian and Italian futurists of the early 20th century, to the large format factory and industrial site photography of Edward Burtynsky.  Less common are those who have sought to link the economic historic view to the aesthetic impact, which is why Behemoth: A History of the Factory and the Making of the Modern World is interesting, because Freeman is attempting to link the two.

  Freeman is clearly writing for a general interest audience.  Each chapter is like a summary of a different related subject, often an individual- Henry Ford, Margaret Bourke White and architect Louis Kahn each get their own mini-biography.  These chapters give way to two larger subjects near the end of the books: the industrial revolution in Communist Russia (which was hugely influenced by American industrialists, if you didn't know that already) and a concluding chapter on the modern factory system of China and South Asia.  Since I read this book, I read an article about how the largest factory in the world just opened in India.

  One of the major themes of Behemoth is that the size of factories gives rises to oppositional forces, particularly the organization of labor forces at large sites, that reduce the cost savings and favor dispersal, rather than concentration, of factory operations.  This observation is perhaps obvious to those who either have directly experienced the phenomenon in places like the American mid-west or those who have studied the subject in school, but for the general reader Behemoth is a welcome introduction to the subject.

Tuesday, July 17, 2018

A Question of Power (1973) Bessie Head

Book Review
A Question of Power (1973)
 Bessie Head

   Bessie Head is the most well known novelist from the southern African country of Botswana.  Her back story is incredible, born in 1938, the result of what they then call a "union" between a wealthy white South African woman and a black African.  Head's mother was quickly and decisively sent to a mental institution and she may or maynot have been insane as well.  It's unclear what actually happened to Head's mother.  Head came of age in South Africa where she briefly married an African political activist and got on the bad side of the South African government.  She left, permanently, for Botswana and A Question of Power is a work of biographical fiction about a mixed-race woman living in super-African Botswana, while struggling with the burden of mental illness.

 The description of  Elizabeth, the protagonist/Head character's repeated descent into the throes of mental illness is astonishing.  It's hard to make an accurate diagnosis- Botswana, at the time of A Question of Power has one western trained psychiatrist, who sees the institutionalized Elizabeth early on in the book, once, and dismisses her as "difficult."  Elizabeth is outsider in multiple senses: She's half white, which is essentially unheard of in Botswana.  She is educated, though Botswana in the 1960's and 70's was not the place for rarified discourse, especially for women.  Head's Elizabeth is a woman without family, without anyone, living, essentially at the end of the Earth.  A Question of Power is an extraordinary achievmant in that regard- almost impossible to imagine it being written, let alone published, though I suppose simply receiving something by a Botswanan author writing in English would be enough to get a review for publication.

  The fact that Head wrote this book while she herself struggled with similar mental health issues is enough to make the most cynical reader just stop and consider.   I think the way the literature from the post-colonial global south has developed, the conflict between western-intellectual psychology and non-western cultures either already has taken or will take center stage.  A Question of Power, written in 1973 in a trail-blazer.

The 42nd parallel (Book One USA Trilogy)(1919) by Jon Dos Passos

Book Review
The 42nd parallel (Book One USA Trilogy)(1919)
 by Jon Dos Passos

   Jon Dos Passos wrote the USA Trilogy between 1930 and 1936, and all three were published in one volume in 1938.  Today, the books, perhaps because of their length, as treated more often as stand-alone titles, or at least published that way. I'm not a huge fan of Dos Passos, so I skipped the trilogy a few years back when I was reading through this portion of the 1001 Books list.  To fill in this particular blank I elected to check out the Audiobook edition, which, given the experimental portions of The 42nd Parallel, I worried would be a disastrous decision.  As it turned out, the audio-ness of it was the only thing that kept me going through a work that has otherwise aged poorly.

  Dos Passos is hardly alone in the gallery of early 20th century American authors who have aged poorly- Sinclair Lewis is another one for you.  Frank Norris. While it is clear that Dos Passos is either an outright socialist or sympathizer, it also become clear that Dos Passos is a member of the east coast elite who seems to believe he is doing everyone a favor by writing about "America."

  American as seen through the eyes of white-ethnic immigrants or their children- who comprise the different narrators of The 42nd Parallel.  Portions of straightforward narrative are interspersed with  stream-of-consciousness collections of headlines and popular songs as well as portions taking the point of view of a movie camera.   Towards the end of the book, some of the characters overlap, but as the introduction says, it is hard to say that The 42nd Parallel has a plot, per se. 

Sunday, July 15, 2018

The Poisonwood Bible (1998) by Barbara Kingsolver

Book Review
The Poisonwood Bible (1998)
by Barbara Kingsolver

   I bought The Poisonwood Bible in an airport book shop, on the theory that it is one of a very few number of 1001 Books titles that one can buy in an airport book shop.  The fact that this book, of all books, is one of a small handful- alongside books like The Lord of the Rings and Catcher in the Rye, off the list that you can find in any English language airport in the entire world should tell you that The Poisonwood Bible has a huge audience- still, a full twenty years after the initial publication in 1998.   The Poisonwood Bible also had critical acclaim- finalist for the Pulitzer Prize and generally laudatory reviews.  Still there is no dressing up the fact that The Poisonwood Bible is about the adventures of a family of white, southern women who are transplanted to the Congo months before the chaotic onset of indepence by their preacher-man father.

 Kingsolver splits the narrative between all the female members of the family, all of them have a different perspective on an admittedly difficult situation.  The circumstances of The Poisonwood Bible famously mimc Kingsolver's actual biography.   When one imagines the horrors that were faced by the actual native populations of the Congo, The Poisonwood Bible is a decidedly PG affair.  At 550 page, the traumatic events surrounding Congolese independence function as a mid-point in the narrative.  Afterwards, the mom of the family retreats entirely from narrator duty and the daughters take over: One becomes a doctor specializing in infectious disease, one marries a Boer South African and then leave him for a French diplomat before settling down as the widowed owner of a hotel for foreign businessmen.  The third daughter marries a boy for the village, who becomes a teacher and later a political prisoner in Mobutu's Zaire.

  There's no denying the incredible audience that Kingsolver found for her life-based tale. She is also the rare American writer who writes about something other than America. Very rare in American literary fiction!

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