Friday, November 30, 2018

The Hermitage Cats by Nicolai Gol & Maria Haltunen

Source of book: Gift from a friend.

This is a bit of an unusual book for the blog - it falls in the category of “coffee table book” although it is a good bit smaller than that image invokes. It is heavy on the pictures and light on text, more for perusing and enjoying, than spending time engrossed in a narrative. This isn’t a bad thing, obviously. Different books for different purposes.

Let me start out by disclosing that I am a cat person. I have had cats nearly continuously since age 5, and seriously love them. I love how they purr, I love the soft spot behind their ears, I love the way they sleep in specific shapes I dub “catiforms” (like cuneiform, but with cats…), and I like the way they aren’t perpetually needy. This is not at all to say I hate dogs. I actually like most dogs - just not Pomeranians, with which I have a long history of mutual dislike - and dogs mostly like me. I’m just a cat person.

So anyway, a friend picked up this little book for me last Christmas, and I read it.

The Hermitage is the State Hermitage Museum of St. Petersburg, Russia. This museum was founded by Catherine the Great as a place to house her private collection. She located it next to her winter palace in St. Petersburg. Later, it was opened to the public. These days, it has expanded to five interconnected buildings - including the palace itself.

The Hermitage is famous for its cats. Famous enough that the cats have their own press secretary. Originally brought in by They live in and around the museum, keeping the rodents at bay, and entertaining visitors. In addition to the living cats, the museum also has a number of works of art featuring cats, many of which are reproduced in this book.

The text portions of the book cover the history of feline domestication around the world. (Russia was a rather late adopter.) The history of humanity is largely one of agriculture - and with agriculture came granaries - and with granaries came rodents. Hence, the need for cats, to protect the precious grain from the insatiable rodents. It has long been known that cats have been domesticated for at least the last 5,000 years - the Nubian breed is a point where the wild crossed into domestic. However, more recent discoveries show that cats and humans go back much further. A grave in Cyprus has both human and feline bones dating back 9,500 years. This is highly unlikely to be a coincidence: wild animals were not buried with humans.

Obviously, Ancient Egypt gets some love. There are plenty of cat-themed artworks from there. Europe was interesting for a different reason. While Pope Gregory I reportedly had a kitten he carried with him everywhere, by the Middle Ages, cats were viewed as in league with the Devil, and thus mistrusted. And of course, they were equated with witches. Cats were burned at the stake along with women. We still see this in the trope of the “catty woman.” Even now, in certain circles, cats are viewed as “feminine” pets, with dogs as the “manly” companion. 

 The Nativity of St. John the Baptist, Tintoretto (1554)
Note the allegorical cat trying to kill the chicken.

The art followed the views. Even during the Renaissance, cats are depicted as malevolent creatures. Later, the prejudice softened, and cats are pictured as a normal part of domestic scenes.

I found the section on China to be interesting. The primordial cat was named Mao - both phonetical and interesting in light of later politics. In China, as in Egypt, the relationship of rodents, food, and cats is depicted in some rather striking artwork. 

 The Cat Hills, China. Late 19th - early 20th Centuries

Japan too viewed cats as royalty. None less than Muhammad taught that cats had a special place in paradise. (I for one would find a paradise deficient without a cat.)

One final bit that was pretty interesting was the various Russian tales of cats and mice. Usually the cats win, but more memorable are the tales in which the cat is finally caught by the mice. They throw an elaborate funeral. Sometimes, the cat is indeed dead and the mice celebrate. Other times, the cat awakens and eats the mourners.

The book is short and fun, and does make me want to visit The Hermitage some day. 


And, because I know you want to see a couple more cat pictures, here is my little companion. Chocolate Chip is ostensibly my youngest daughter's cat, but she knows a cat person when she sees one. She likes to purr and cuddle while I am reading after the kids go to bed. And, while I typed this post, she took up half my chair.
Come on, scratch behind my ears again...

What? You think you get the whole chair?

Sunday, November 25, 2018

Walk Two Moons by Sharon Creech

Source of book: Audiobook from the library

This book is part of our haphazard exploration of Newbery Award winners and runner-ups. Walk Two Moons won the award in 1995. Literature seems to go in cycles. There was a time in the 1970s when it seemed like books were sad or troubling, and then again in the 1990s. This book leans in that direction, although it isn’t nearly as dark as The Giver, which was pretty triggering for me given my background. Walk Two Moons isn’t creepy, actually, just filled with, as the main character puts it, “the birds of sadness.” That said, despite the tragedy, grief, trauma, and conflicted emotions, the book is also full of hope and love. 

I am kind of hesitant to give much of a plot summary, as some of the really important details aren’t revealed until late in the book. I’ll try to avoid any major spoilers.

The book is divided into three narratives, which are interwoven. The first is almost a framing story: Salamanca, aka Sal, a 13 year old girl, is traveling with her grandparents on an epic road trip from Ohio to Idaho. Sal’s mother, after suffering a traumatic miscarriage and hysterectomy, has questioned her identity, and taken a road trip to see a cousin in Idaho. She has not returned. Sal dances around the reason why until near the end of the book. While on the trip, Sal tells us the story of her parents and her former life on a farm in Kentucky. She tells her grandparents the story of her life in Ohio, where her dad has moved with her after her mom’s departure. That story centers around her friend Phoebe, whose own family is coming apart at the seams. Each of these threads is unfolded as the book goes along. Sal essentially has to process her own emotions and experiences through each thread.

One of Sal’s discoveries is how different marriages work - or don’t. Phoebe’s mom is uptight and conventional, pouring herself into being the perfect wife and mother. But her family doesn’t really appreciate her, so she is dying inside, as Sal can see. Neither parent is horrible, but they are dysfunctional, and can’t seem to really connect. In some ways, this mirrors her own parents, although they have different personalities. Her mom is a bit of a free spirit, but feels she cannot live up to the perfection of her husband, who is kind, gentle, and thoughtful. Basically two good people who are too insecure to be truly happy.

In contrast are a couple of other marriages. Sal’s friend Mary Lou’s parents preside over a somewhat chaotic and low income household, but the home is filled with love. They embrace anyone who comes their way, including their nephew Ben, whose mother is in a mental institution. The other is that of Sal’s paternal grandparents - the ones she is taking the trip with. They are goofy, eccentric (they once got arrested for borrowing a wheel off a police car, among other capers), and not quite normal, but they are, 50 years later, still madly in love with each other.

Throughout the book, it seems that Creech contrasts the straitlaced, uptight sorts with the free spirits. Apparently, this is one element she drew from her own life. (The road trip is also drawn from her experiences. As is her complicated relationship with her mother.) I rather suspect she had relatives who fell on both sides of this issue, and perhaps struggled with where she would fit in.

Overall, a well written book. My kids found the humorous sections fun, and didn’t seem to mind the sadder stuff. Your mileage may vary.

Saturday, November 24, 2018

Devil in the Grove by Gilbert King

Source of book: Borrowed from the library.

This has to be one of the hardest books I have ever read. Not because it is difficult, but because it is so horrifying - particularly in the difficult times we are in right now. The events in this book took place a little over 70 years ago - during the lifetimes of some of my parents’ generation. And, sadly, the last few years have proven that we haven’t moved forward all that much since then either.

On the one hand, this book is about great heroes. It is about the hope that people can change their minds and become better. But it is also about the unfortunate fact that the good people do not always win. And also that humans can be simply horrid: full of hate, prejudice, and easily incited to murder by whatever means they have at hand.

My older daughters have each had to read To Kill a Mockingbird for freshman English - they had already read it, so they had a head start. I remember my mother reading it to us. I read it for myself the first time in junior high, and again as an adult. It never gets easier; it is still one of the most moving and horrifying stories in the canon. It is precisely because it is all too true that makes it horrifying.

The events in Devil in the Grove likely inspired Harper Lee’s novel, although she certainly had her pick of judicial lynchings to choose from. This particular case is interesting in part because Thurgood Marshall played a role in it. As a result of his involvement, the FBI did a series of investigations into aspects of the case. Sadly, political realities kept the findings of these investigations secret for decades afterward, and the truly guilty parties went to their graves without paying any meaningful penalty for their roles in the murders. Gilbert King was able to access these files, and illuminate what really went down - information which Marshall lacked during the trials, and which could have changed the course of a number of lives.

The underlying story is one repeated thousands of times across the Jim Crow south: a white woman cries rape, some young black men are arrested, beaten into confessing, and either lynched, or given a sham trial and executed. Never mind any exculpatory evidence. Never mind rock solid alibis. Never mind due process. The honor of all white women must be avenged, and human sacrifice committed.

In the Groveland case, two of the men had indeed had brief contact with the woman and her semi-estranged husband. But their behavior afterward looked nothing like that of men who even suspected a charge of rape would be made. The other two men, believe it or not, could not possibly have committed a rape. In one case, he was clearly out of town long before it could have been done, while the other was...wait for police custody when the rape was alleged to have occurred. But never mind, blood sacrifice was needed.

These facts were generally known at the time of trial. But there was more. The behavior of the alleged victim afterward was completely inconsistent with that of a rape victim. Multiple witnesses saw her and talked with her, and her appearance, story, and actions were at odds with her later story. Even more damning: she was given a medical exam, and no semen or signs of force were discovered. This fact was withheld from the defense, and the judge refused to let the doctor be called as a witness. (Just one of many obvious actions by the judge to guarantee a conviction. Seriously, as a lawyer, it is astounding that this sort of stuff happened routinely. I guess this is the sort of judge that Le Toupee thinks we should have…)

After the arrests, the three defendants were beaten nearly to death. Two of them confessed - including the one, a mere teen, who was in custody at the time of the alleged crime. The third never did confess, but the sheriff made sure the newspapers printed that all of them had confessed. (Yep, more tampering with justice.) The fourth defendant was gunned down by a posse.

And then, the KKK showed up - from other towns. A few unsuccessful attempts at gaining access to the prisoners to lynch them, they went and blew up and burned down most of the African American neighborhood. The sheriff stood by and watched it happen, and then refused to identify any of the perpetrators. In addition, the local head of the NAACP, Harry Moore, and his wife were murdered by a bomb put under their house. Again, no arrests were ever made.

Although Thurgood Marshall was involved in the preparation for the first trial, it was Franklin Williams and Alex Ackerman who actually tried the case. Both deserve props for outstanding work. Williams as a young black attorney taking a huge personal risk by even appearing in court in Florida, and Ackerman for essentially sacrificing his political career for the sake of justice.

Unsurprisingly, the verdict was guilty. However, in the case of the teen who was clearly not guilty, the jury recommended only life imprisonment. That’s as close to an exoneration as an African American could expect in Jim Crow Florida in the 1940s.

Marshall then appealed the case, barely keeping ahead of the prosecution’s efforts to have the defendants executed without delay. Eventually, the Supreme Court heard the case, and reversed it.

Prior to the second trial, however, the sheriff took the two defendants (only those two cases were appealed, for strategic reasons), drove them to a remote location, and shot them, claiming they tried to escape. One of them survived, however.

The second trial - now for just one remaining defendant - went about the same, despite Marshall’s personal involvement in the case. During the appeals of this second sham trial, Florida elected a new governor, one more eager to shed Florida’s reputation as a racist hellhole in order to attract investment from wealthy Yankees. The death sentence was commuted to life. And yet, despite this, while out on a temporary parole, this defendant was found dead under suspicious circumstances. It was rule “natural causes” and that basically ended the matter.

So yeah, a really sad story. The silver lining, to the extent there was one, was in the fact that this case played a key role in galvanizing the Civil Rights Movement. The open murder by the sheriff and the railroading of justice by a corrupt judge led to outrage in the North, and shined a light on the festering evil that thrived in places like Florida. Bad publicity eventually led to political pressure to change.

The other positive was that a few characters in this book - including Mabel Norris Reece, a journalist who originally was staunchly against the defendants - changed their minds as a result of seeing Southern “justice” in action. Sadly, many more stuck to their views even when it became obvious that the authorities had murdered innocent men.

If I had read this book a few years ago, I probably would have felt relief in the idea that things are a lot better now. And in some ways, yes they are. In other ways, though, things are much the same. Our whole discussion of the Black Lives Matter movement is nothing more or less than a continuation of this story. The casual murder of unarmed black men (and sometimes women) by police, with a weak “I was afraid” used to justify it, even in the face of video evidence to the contrary continues. Protestors are still demonized (including by the most powerful politician in America), and “ungrateful” is just another term for “uppity negro.”

For that matter, the KKK hasn’t gone away. Sure, it is unusual to see white robes and hoods in public. But the new white hood is the red MAGA hat. And the new euphemism is the “Blue Lives Matter” response to BLM. It’s still the same argument. Most discouraging was to read statement after statement dehumanizing blacks, and realize that while we don’t usually use the N-word anymore in public, the statements are largely unchanged. It isn’t even a shock anymore to see a Florida candidate warn the public about “monkeying it up” by electing an African American candidate. And of course the racist white guy won, because Florida hasn’t changed that much.

I do think, though, that the book does point to some ways to fight back against hate and the KKK. First, those who do not subscribe to these ideas need to stand up and say it out loud. We also need to keep exposing the evil. Over and over as often as necessary. As young(er) people, we need to remind our “racist uncles” that their words and behavior are not acceptable to us, and that they will not be coddled. And, of course, VOTE! One reason we have the KKK in the White House is that too few of us decent people showed up - particularly in the swing states.

While the entire book is exceedingly quotable, a few things stood out to me. First is the history of the NAACP and Thurgood Marshall. I was 15 when Marshall retired from the US Supreme Court. I remember watching the announcement with my dad, and his chuckle at his line, “What’s wrong with me? I’m old!” (See 3:20 in this clip from his press conference.) At the time, even though I was reasonably informed about law and politics, I didn’t really grasp just how much of a legal badass Marshall was. Once I got to law school, obviously, I saw him in a new light. Arguing (successfully) Brown v. Board of Education while he was with the NAACP was obviously a highlight, but he had a whole string of cases that chipped away at the foundation of Jim Crow. 

Likewise, the work done by the NAACP and its legal branch was singularly impressive. I jotted down the three criteria used to determine if they would get involved in a criminal case:

Marshall issued a memorandum that established three rules to be applied “to the types of criminal cases we accept…(1) That there is injustice because of race or color; (2) the man is innocent; (3) there is a possibility of establishing a precedent for the benefit of due process and equal protection in general and the protection of Negroes’ rights in particular.”

Rape cases presented a particular problem. King gives a few examples of contrasting cases. Often, when a consensual liaison between a white woman and a black man was discovered, she cried rape rather than face the scorn of her fellow whites. These charges were often impossible to defend against. Furthermore, as in the case of Joseph Spell and Eleanor Strubing, she actually abused her position to blackmail him into sex. (All too similar to Joseph and Potiphar’s wife…) In many states, a rape conviction meant a death sentence for a black man.

In contrast, even if a white man was convicted of raping a black child, he would get off with a fine or time served. Even worse if the white rapist was wealthy and/or powerful. An extended quote from The Mind of the South by W.J. Cash is interesting:

“[T]he actual danger of the Southern white woman’s being violated by the Negro has always been comparatively small...much less, for instance, than the chance that she would be struck by lightning,” it was “the most natural thing in the world for the South to see it as very great, to believe in it, fully and in all honesty, as a menace requiring the most desperate measures if it was to be held off.” In Cash’s estimation, the Southern rape complex “had nothing immediately to do with sex,” but rather with the feeling among Southerners that if blacks were allowed to advance beyond their severely circumscribed social station, they might “one day advance the whole way and lay claim to complete equality, including, specifically, the ever crucial right of marriage.”

This is why a rape accusation was so incendiary: the entire honor of all white women was at stake. As the crooked prosecutor in the Groveland case argued, (white) women valued their chastity more than life itself, and cited an apocryphal case of a woman throwing herself into the river rather than be raped. (Personally, given the choice between rape and death, I’d stay alive. Since I haven’t been raped or murdered, though, take that for what it is worth, I guess…)

It is not an accident that Le Toupee claimed that immigrants were “rapists.” This is deliberately loaded language aimed at dehumanizing minorities, and making racism into a “noble” defense of white chastity. And of course, has used such “desperate measures” as tearing children from their parents as punishment for seeking asylum. As I said, we have the KKK in the White House right now.

Those “desperate measures,” by the way, included flagrant misconduct. King tells of another of Marshall’s cases, where he and the defendant got the prosecutor to admit that he was literally present at the beating given to induce a confession. The prosecutor was literally shaking when Marshall was done with him. And yet. He still got a guilty verdict. The jury recommended a light sentence, though, which was as close as they could come to an acquittal. The greatest victory out of that case, though, was that the father of the (white) murder victim himself decided that the defendant was innocent and said so. And actually joined the NAACP.

Another thing which really struck me was the fact that the Civil Rights Movement has always been slurred by accusations of communism. Today’s Right does the same thing, of course, claiming everything is communism or socialism, whether or not it actually is. But it is a “conversation ender.” Accuse the other side of being communist, and that ends discussion. And thus it was in the 1940s too, except being accused of communism got you arrested or blackballed. (Ah, the halcyon days of McCarthyism…) I think this book actually explains pretty well why this happened. Under the name of “L. B. DeForest,” a young woman seeking to abolish the death penalty came to Lake County. She was also doing a bit of investigation for the NAACP in this case. What she heard was enlightening. Some church ladies offered their opinion of the case:

One of the ladies noted that “Negroes are o.k.,” but if they “step out of their place...they’ll burn.” Another said, “The Notherners spoil them and treat them like equals.”

I think this is ultimately the issue. “Communism” means, at an emotional level, that class and race get leveled. That prospect is, perhaps, the most terrifying. And also why racial equality is seen as “communism.” In that sense, nothing has changed. I myself have been accused of being a communist, which seems rich considering I have blogged extensively against communism and totalitarianism in general. But, if racial equality and public infrastructure that benefits all is communism, I guess I am one.

Speaking of the way things used to be - and still are - how about the connection between the KKK and violence against Jews? A few weeks ago, a Jewish center in Pittsburg got attacked by a White Supremacist gunman. Who was also racist against others. Well, same thing in the 1940s. The KKK gave equal attention to bombing Jewish targets along with the African American ones.

One other thing that was quite interesting was the way that certain historical figures came off. Douglas MacArthur has always been, shall we say, complex. On the one hand, he did some rather heroic things in war, and may have been right about Korea. (I still wonder if he had been allowed to march to Beijing, if we might have avoided Vietnam later.) But. But he was a thoroughgoing racist. Even after the Supreme Court in ordered the military desegregated (and president Truman concurred), MacArthur refused. Once he was relieved of command - for other reasons - the Army was desegregated in a few weeks. (A note here: I love air shows. One of the things I love about them is that our military men and women look a heck of a lot like America. Our finest young people are of all colors, and it makes me proud to be an American when I see them.)

Also not appearing particularly well was FDR, who seems to have been lukewarm at best to the idea of racial equality.

Eleanor Roosevelt, on the other hand: my goodness, what a magnificent woman. After Harry Moore’s murder - the first assassination of a civil rights leader - she came out with a prescient warning.

“That kind of violent incident will be spread all over every country in the world, and the harm it will do us among the people of the world is untold.” Indeed, stories in newspapers as far off as Asia and Africa reported the “violent incident,” and editorials in the world’s most influential newspapers condemned it.

Oh yes, this is so applicable to our own time. When even the most loathsome regimes can point to us and mock our own violence and hatred, we have a problem. (Hint: this is what you get when you elect a narcissist with a deep racist streak. Just saying…)

I’ll end with a quote from a pastor, Donald Harrington. I cannot help but think that if white pastors across our nation had had the courage to stand up and condemn the growing racism and xenophobia within their congregations, things would look different now. Anyway, here is a key part of his speech:

“Our whole country stands blackened and discredited in the eyes of the world because of Florida’s failure to protect the lives and liberties of all her citizens….I am ashamed of Florida, I am ashamed of the white race...I am ashamed of all the churches of Florida and elsewhere that have turned their eyes away from what has been going on in Lake County for these past years, and passed by on the other side while their fellow-Americans of a darker skin were being denied the most basic American and human rights and privileges. I weep for my country’s sacred honor.”

Amen, pastor Harrington. Amen. I too share that deep sense of shame at what so many of my race and religion have done to those who do not share their skin color. And how they justify racism, xenophobia, and hate by misusing the very name of God.

This book really should be required reading. It is horrifying, but it is all too true. The evils of racism continue in our society - where we really have never fully accepted the idea of true equality, where we value other people’s children like we do our own. We still live in a world where the KKK wields disproportionate power, and rogue sheriffs, prosecutors, and judges (see, respectively, Joe Arpaio, Jefferson Beauregard Sessions, and Roy Moore) work to terrorize non-whites while carefully maintaining white supremacy. But we also have the power to fix this. We are indeed in the middle of an epic civil rights battle. It is time for a renewed Civil Rights Movement, dedicated to the premise that all are equal under the law, and are entitled to social, political, and economic equality. Thurgood Marshall and many others fought for nothing less. We owe it not just to our children, but everyone’s children, to leave them a world in which this is not merely possible, but reality.

Friday, November 23, 2018

The Marsh King's Daughter by Karen Dionne

Source of book: Borrowed from the library

This was this month’s selection for our “Literary Lush” book club. One of the things I enjoy about this club is that I end up reading interesting books that I never would have discovered on my own. This book is definitely one of those. 

The author (who I might add, is an acquaintance of a friend of mine), drew inspiration from two sources. The first is the Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale, The Bog King’s Daughter, which is quoted at the beginning of each chapter. The other is the recent cases wherein a young woman or girl was kidnapped, and kept as a sex slave/concubine by a man determined to have his dream spouse/slave. Say, Elizabeth Smart, or, even more to the point, Jaycee Dugard.

The premise of The Marsh King’s Daughter is thus: the narrator is the daughter of a kidnapped girl and her kidnapper. She was born and raised out in an abandoned cabin in a swamp in Michigan’s upper peninsula. Eventually, as a teen, she becomes aware of the outside world. After an outsider stumbles upon them, and is tortured by the narrator’s father, she takes her mother and escapes. Years later, after her father kills two prison guards and escapes, she has to track him down and prevent him from trying to repeat the experiment with her own children.

So, basically, in the “thriller” genre. However, I found it to be well written, and an interesting read. In particular, the psychology of the connection that the narrator has with her parents is fascinating, and all too realistic. The narrator has grown up with only her parents as human contact. She is temperamentally more similar to her father - although she obviously lacks his narcissism - and her mother never really bonds with her. Her mother is also so damaged by her trauma that it doesn’t appear she is able to move beyond it at function at much of any level, let alone an adult one.

The father, on the other hand, is “functional” in the sense that he is able to live his life as he wants, and stay alive. But he is incapable of actual love. Everything is about him, and people are mere objects to be manipulated to meet his goals.

Obviously, this makes for some problems for the narrator. She loves her father, even if he doesn’t love her in any real way. She has a bond, even though she knows he is evil and dangerous. She does what she has to in the end, but she nearly waits too long, waiting for that final sign of his approval.

This led to a rather interesting discussion with my wife. She is less emotional and sentimental than I am, and has blood of ice in a crisis. For her, she was frustrated by the protagonist, because she would have just killed him far earlier. (By the way, I totally believe her on this. She is a good, compassionate person, but she is also an ICU nurse, and deals with death every day. She would kill to protect herself or her family without a second thought. It would be harder for me.) I, on the other hand, totally understood the protagonist’s agony. I could understand her bond with her father, horrid as he was, and the reason why she struggled over cutting him off. I think this is one of the strengths of the book: the discussion of motives, emotions, and the difficulties of these relationships really brought out the personalities of all of us.

The book is written in an interesting format. The narrator/protagonist alternates between the present (he father has escaped and is coming for her), and the past - telling the story of her experiences. This required a very careful plotting to be sure that secrets were not revealed until their due time. We are on edge over the present story, while burning with curiosity over her past. A certain number of key experiences are teased, but not actually revealed until near the end. I appreciated the work that went into the pacing and the careful reveals.

One of our book club members lived in the area the book was set, and confirmed that he felt he was back in his old haunts. Me, not so much in that sense, but I also, as an outdoor enthusiast, felt that the writing was well informed.

There was a lot more that we discussed - I wish I could remember all of it. I am writing this after a vacation followed by a strenuous hike, so the lapse of time and a bit of fatigue is probably making me forget stuff that I will remember a week from now and slap my head. Oh well. It is an intriguing book, and a worthy read. I’m not really a genre fiction guy, so take that as a complement. And give the book a chance.  

Monday, November 12, 2018

The Possessed by Elif Batuman

Source of book: I own this.

The Possessed should not be confused with Dostoevsky's book of the same name. Okay, the “Book Formerly Known As The Possessed” by Fyodor Dostoevsky. The title is usually translated Demons these days, or The Devils. It also should not be confused with the movies of that title in 1977, 2009, and 2018. This book is a memoir written by Elif Batuman, and is named in reference to the novel, which does make an extended appearance in the book.

My wife bought this book a number of years ago - probably close to when it came out, although I don’t remember exactly how she discovered it. She read it, and found it interesting, so I put it on my list of books to eventually read. It seemed to fit in between other books this year. (I try to avoid reading books on the same topic consecutively. I prefer to have a balanced diet. And, to be sure, this book was like nothing I have read this year.)

Batuman is the child of Turkish immigrants, graduated from Harvard and Stanford with an eventual doctorate in comparative literature, and wrote extensively for the New Yorker and Harper’s Magazine. This year, she released a novel (which is kind of ironic, considering her musings on novel writing in the memoir.) 

The book is about her time as post-grad student studying Russian literature. It is a rewrite of several essays in magazines, along with some new material.

In what is a pretty ironic twist, Batuman failed in her primary goal, which was to get paid to study Russian literature in Russia. Instead, she ended up settling for studying Uzbek literature in Samarkand. In some ways, this made sense. Batuman is fluent in Turkish (although perhaps in Russian too now), and Uzbek is essentially a Soviet amalgam of Turkish dialects from the area.

What follows in this book is her story of her adventures and misadventures on this trip. From her host, who pretty systematically cheated her out of any amenity including working plumbing, to her visits to sites connected with the great Russian novelists, to the eccentric and interesting people her area of study brought into her life, the book is filled with engrossing incidents. There are also sections where she discusses different Russian classics (including the title work) and how they fit with both her experiences and her evolving view of life, literature, and writing.

I’m not even going to try to summarize it beyond that. It is a fairly rambling, episodic memoir - which is kind of how life is anyway. I would say it helps to be familiar with the major Russian writers: Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Pushkin, Gogol, and their major works. It also doesn’t hurt to have some knowledge of literary theory, as well as history.  I am by no means an expert (and have yet to read some of the books mentioned), but I have spent some time with many of the books. I would say that this book has been some incentive to make sure I put some Russian authors on my list every year.

One thing that I learned from this book was that Turkish and Russian are related - I am not a language scholar, so this connection wasn’t something that I was aware of. Apparently, the Soviets (the Russian ones, naturally), weren’t eager to acknowledge this fact, and tried to cover it up.

Also fascinating in this connection was the origins of the various countries which seemingly magically appeared after the fall of the USSR. (I remember sitting with my brother, going through our very first version of Microsoft Encarta and reading about all these “stans” which constituted south-central Asia. Kyrgyzstan had both the best paucity of vowels and the most interesting tune for its national anthem.) These never really showed up on a map before the rise of the USSR. So where did they come from?

Batuman explains at the time that England was colonizing India, Tsarist Russia decided it needed to make a countermove. It took over the fringes of the Ottoman Empire - a region of tribal groups speaking various Turkish dialects known to outsiders as “Turkestan,” and classified the residents according to a fairly fictional and arbitrary set of groups. The “Uzbek, Tajik, Turkmen, Kazakh, and Kyrgyz” didn’t really exist in any recognizable way, but the Russians nonetheless pounded these round pegs into square holes, and annexed the whole thing. These groupings became geographical SSRs, and when the Soviet Union disintegrated, these newish nations emerged as the closest thing to modern nations these regions had known. As part of this, the Uzbek language (and others, I believe) were essentially created from an awkward mashup of dialects, and forced on the people. Not that this is much different from the way national boundaries in the Middle East were drawn by the Allies after the world wars.

I’ll mention a few passages that I particularly found amusing, although these are by no means all of them.

One concerns Isaac Babel, who I wasn’t familiar with - probably because he was exterminated in Stalin’s Great Purge, despite being part of the Communist revolution, and his name and works removed from Soviet records. (This came to light in the 1990s. Also, he ran afoul of the regime primarily because he had an affair with the wife of an NKVD boss. Not his most intelligent move.) Anyway, Babel’s works are mentioned throughout the book. One really stuck with me. Batuman was reading Red Cavalry while baking a Black Forest cake. Apparently, the cake was a disaster.

As Babel immortalized for posterity the military embarrassment of the botched 1920 Russo-Polish campaign, so he immortalized for me the culinary embarrassment of this cake, which came out of the oven looking like an old hat and which, after I had optimistically treated it with half a two-dollar bottle of Kirschwasser, produced the final pansensory impression of an old hat soaked in cough syrup.

Leaving aside the great word picture, I noticed it because my wife makes a fantastic Black Forest cake, complete with a more moderate amount of Kirschwasser, which is pretty much everything this cake was not.

There are a number of quotes from Uzbek (for lack of a better word) poets in this book. After all, Batuman was ostensibly in Samarkand to research Uzbek literature. As noted above, this was a total misnomer, and she had to settle for the writers native to what would eventually become Uzbekistan. One of these is the poet Navoi. I am not sure exactly how these poems sounded in the original language, of course, but there is a certain unintentional comedy factor as Batuman renders them. And I am someone who has a love for poetry. Here is an example that made me smile.

Was it my heart - a bird - that was caught in your locks that unfortunate night,
Or was it bats of some kind?
Remember, the sultan dooms to death even his closest friend
If he learns the latter has secreted away money from the treasury.
Speak, Navoi, if love has not yet crippled your soul -
Why do you spew blood whenever you sob?

There are a few more quotes throughout the book, and they are a bit unusual to say the least, to someone who is more familiar with the English poetic tradition.

I’m still not quite sure what to make of this book. It was interesting, amusing, and kept my interest. But it is also not for everyone. There are certainly moments where I think she might have been a bit more concise. And also moments when I think she wallows in her personal feelings and romantic drama. But it is a memoir, so you expect that along with the fun stories.


For what it’s worth, I read a bunch of Tolstoy short stories in my teens - mostly the parable or religious ones. Since then, I have continued to read from my collection. You can read my impression of his stories about the Crimean War here. A couple years ago, I finally got to War and Peace. I hope to read Anna Karenina one of these days.

But, the strongest impression was when I read his three best known novellas. The Death of Ivan Ilych was good, but it was Family Happiness and The Kreutzer Sonata which marked me deeply, upending a lot of what I had thought about sex and marriage. It was really my first introduction to a viciously anti-sex and anti-woman philosophy - except that after I read it, I couldn’t help noticing how much negative influence Tolstoy (and St. Augustine) had on Evangelical teachings on sex and sexuality. These books also rather confirmed my suspicions that marriage wasn’t just a matter of following the right formula or gritting one’s teeth and being loving. Compatibility - sexual and otherwise - was crucial. It is no accident that I intentionally talked about the philosophy of sex before I ever asked my wife out. Fortunately, she is both a good sport and a fellow lover of books, literature, and deep discussions. We are, shall we say, a match.

My brother and I both read The Brothers Karamazov in our late teens, and both enjoyed and found ourselves a bit bewildered by it. I listed the chapter “The Grand Inquisitor” as an honorable mention in my list of most influential books. I have returned to that chapter multiple times, and think that it is still the best thing ever written on toxic religion. I have also read Crime and Punishment and Notes From Underground, both of which were fascinating.

I still have yet to read Gogol and Pushkin. They are on my list.

Whatever my deficits in Russian Literature, I have played a fairly good number of the great Russian classical works, both 19th Century and Soviet era. Comparing the literature to the music is a fun exercise.

Probably the oddest Russian book I have read, though, is The Master and Margarita.

Sunday, November 4, 2018

Bus Stop by William Inge (Empty Space 2018)

Bus Stop is one of those plays that you know exists, at least in the form of a Marilyn Monroe film which borrows the name, setting, and very little of the plot. We decided to go see it at local theater The Empty Space this weekend. William Inge, who was once heralded as the next Tennessee Williams, had a few hits, but not many after the 1950s, wrote this one in 1955, and set it the quintessential 1950s location: the diner. The idea is a bit of a classic too: random strangers are thrown together in a single location by bad weather.

There are eight total characters, and none of them are minor. Each has his own story, and role to play in the drama. The characters are divided up into the locals, and the strangers. Grace is the owner of said diner, and a “grass widow,” as she describes herself, meaning a woman whose husband is away most of the time. She employs Elma, a naive high school girl. Since the bus route stops in town, and the diner is about all there is, Grace knows the bus drivers really well. In some cases, extremely well, wink and nod. Carl is the driver on duty at the time of the action. Will, the local sheriff, is kind of an Andy Griffith sort, but in a town that isn’t as whitewashed and “wholesome” as the fictional Mayberry.

The bus contains four strangers, on their way west. Gerald, a former professor, is, it turns out, was run out of Kansas City for his attempts at seducing young girls. He is also urbane, smooth, and a lush. Young rancher Bo is accompanied on his way back to his Montana ranch by the other two characters. Virgil is an older farmhand, who has kind of taken care of Bo after he was orphaned. He is the voice of reason and experience in the play - although Will plays that role to a degree as well. The final character is Cherie, a young lounge singer who has had a hard and promiscuous past. She finds herself dragged against her will by Bo, who is convinced that since they had sex (his first time), they were going to marry.

There are, therefore, three romantic/sexual pairings with their own tensions. Grace and Carl, who get more than the customary 20 minute quickie. Elma, the object of Gerald’s less-than-honorable advances, and Bo and Cherie, whose story arc probably played better in the 50s than it does now. These three threads to the story are interwoven, and each comments on love and human nature.

The two young characters are the ones with the most to learn. Bo needs to figure out how to treat women like humans, not as property. He needs to figure out how to apologize for the first time in his life. And he, for the first time in his life, loses a fight, and has to learn that he can’t always get what he wants.

Elma gets a crash course in real life. Older men who seem a bit too interested and nice usually aren’t looking for an adopted child. Not everyone is happily married like her parents. People have affairs that are sexual but not romantic. Domestic violence and coercion are real. Life is complicated.

There are, as I hinted, a number of things about the play that seem a bit dated. In the era of #metoo, the tolerance of coercion and threats seems an off note. Kind of like much of the plot of The Taming of the Shrew, come to think of it. Both plays are worth performing in part because of these dynamics. We like to pretend that we are better - and we are in some ways - but we also have a long way to go in overcoming the sexism of the past. There were also a number of lines that assumed a certain gender essentialism - fairly benign, but still wince-worthy.  

On the other hand, a lot of this play felt relevant and modern. The problem of old (usually) men preying on vulnerable young people certainly hasn’t gone away. (Hmm, thinking of people from Bill Gothard to Doug Phillips to Roy Moore…) The messiness unhappy marriages remains a timeless theme, as does infidelity. And, in its own way, the problem of men who feel entitled to women. Bo would play well as an “incel” these days. He is (or considers himself) good looking, reasonably wealthy, educated enough to read and write, and as he insists, “kinda tidy.” He deserves the woman of his choice, right?

The play combines serious moments with humor, and at the moments of greatest discomfort, shifts to a gentler, philosophical bent. In this sense, I think it was a good one for the kids (who went with me), as it didn’t go over the line, but also looked some difficult issues square in the face.

My favorite line in the play is by Virgil, who may be quiet and soft spoken, but probably knows more than everyone but Will combined. Bo is stewing over his rejection by Cherie, and Will’s intervention preventing him from coercing her.

VIRGIL: ...Now why don’t ya go over to the counter and have yourself a the perfessor.
BO: I never did drink, and I ain’t gonna let no woman drive me to it.
VIRGIL: Ya don’t drink. Ya don’t smoke or chew. Ya oughta have some bad habits to rely on when things with women go wrong.

The kids liked the terrible rendition of the Romeo and Juliet balcony scene, with the drunk and overacting Gerald paired with the not particularly talented Elma. They also liked Bo’s insistence on raw hamburgers, and his ludicrously long food order.

The acting was quite good in this production - it was all Empty Space regulars, and since each part was significant, each actor got his or her chance to shine. The actors seem to have found parts that fit their preferred styles.

Cory Rickard went with her signature sassy and flippant style in portraying Grace. It came off as both worldly wise, but a little goofy and unpredictable. It has to be well over a decade that I have been enjoying Rickard’s work in local theater, and I always smile to see her in a cast list. (The Two Gentlemen of Verona earlier this year, and as Friar Lawrence last year come to mind.) 

 Carl (Jared Cantrell) and Grace (Cory Rickard)

Victoria Lusk has played a number of memorable characters over the years, from the hilarious Launce (in Two Gentlemen) to the sexy Inga in Young Frankenstein. Her short stature worked well for the teen character, and she certainly made the balcony scene hilarious. She’s another actor that I love to see on a cast list because she makes any part she is given come alive.

Speaking of Frankenstein, the last time I saw Steve Evans, it was as the Monster. I would not have recognized him in this play - the makeup does make a difference. Playing the straight man is never easy, but Evans was thoroughly credible as the good natured, even tempered, and wise sheriff. Our real life law enforcement could sometimes take a lesson in how to defuse a volatile situation. I also loved the bit near the end where he casually mentions Carl’s boots left outside Grace’s apartment. It wasn’t mean-spirited, but it was a good dig. 

 Will (Steve Evans) confronts Bo (Carlos Vera)

Jared Cantrell has been a couple of eccentric characters lately: Uncle Jack in Dancing at Lughnasa, and Teddy in Arsenic and Old Lace. Carl was obviously not as over-the-top, but it required some skill at getting the bus driver persona right. Which he did: I half expect to see him driving the GET one of these days.

Trayvon Trimble Fletcher (he has used various combinations since his debut as Othello) brought his understated style to the part of Virgil. Soft spoken, homespun, and a man of few words but deeper thoughts. 

 Virgil (Trayvon Trimble Fletcher)

For the part of Bo, it was pretty inevitable that Carlos Vera would end up playing the part. He has been in far too many local productions over the past few years to name, but he brings a kind of simmering rage and aggression to most of his parts. The Empty Space is a small venue, but he can fill larger ones as easily. I won’t blame Vera for this, but he was more believable as the violent and controlling Bo than as the softer, gentler version. But that’s the fault of the script - it is too unbelievable to think that someone would change that fast or that the change would be permanent.

As the former professor, Daniel Korth was a bit disturbing. That’s a compliment. Korth is one of my favorite actors, and was brilliant in both The Woman In Black and in Angels In America. Korth just sounds naturally sincere, urbane, charming, likeable, and genuine. He’s super at doing that. But then, you watch him putting the sincere charming moves on a teen girl, and...ick. Which is the point. It was far too easy to see how Gerald kept getting these young girls - and that too is true to life. 

 Gerald (Daniel Korth) puts the moves on Elma (Victoria Lusk)

Finally, there is Ellie Sivesind, who has taken over for her husband Brian as executive director of TES. (Brian is teaching theater at Bakersfield College, and doing a fine job, so I imagine he is busy.) Ellie has a knack for playing innocent characters - hence Desdemona in Othello and Harper in Angels in America. She has a rather young and innocent looking face, and portrays vulnerability well. That’s an art as much as playing a stronger female. I enjoyed her work in this one as well. 

 Cherie (Ellie Sivesind)

Really, looking at that list again, just a solid list of reliably excellent local talent, which is what brought this play alive.

I should also mention that my youngest was quite impressed with the set. TES is a small venue, so space is at a premium. Nevertheless, they had a diner with a counter and kitchen and everything. And real food. I liked all the vintage details - my wife knows her antiques, and I have gotten a bit of an education about period glassware and similar items. This is standard fare for TES: small space, modest budgets, but careful attention to detail, high artistic values, and strong acting.

Bus Stop runs two more weekends, so locals may wish to make reservations and go see it. for more information.

Friday, November 2, 2018

O Pioneers! by Willa Cather

Source of book: I own this.

It has been far too long since I read some Cather - before I started this blog, actually. My Antonia was thoroughly enjoyable, so I really should have gone back and read another of her books. Too many things to read, too little time.

O Pioneers was Cather’s first real hit. She had written a few short stories, mostly about “bohemian” young people in the city. She didn’t really find her voice until she went back to her roots and wrote about her immigrant pioneer ancestors and the communities she grew up in. The genesis of O Pioneers was a set of three short stories, which were eventually blended into a single narrative to make the book. In some places, the seams still show just a little, and having read My Antonia, I think that this book shows some signs of being a first novel. That is not to say it is bad, just that it isn’t as polished as her later books. 

As soon as I started it, I realized that I had read the first chapter back in high school as part of American Literature. (Along with a chapter from So Big by Edna Ferber.) It is that iconic scene with Emil and his cat, and his first introduction to Marie, which will turn out to be all too fateful.

The true hero of the book is Alexandra, the big sister who is competent, visionary, and has a deep love for the land. Soon after this opening scene, their father dies, and the kids (well, Alexandra is in her 20s) and mom are left to fend for themselves. As drought forces other neighbors to leave, she sees the potential and scrapes together enough to buy several other farms. When the story resumes later, we find that she has prospered. Two of her brothers are not thrilled with this, even though they too have gained from her efforts. Emil, in the meantime, is in love with Marie - who is unhappily married to another man.

Alexandra remains alone as she grows older. She has a thing for Carl Lindstrom, who left with his family years ago. When he returns for a visit, they have chemistry, but he has nothing financial to offer her. This freaks out the brothers, who think that “the land should stay in the family.” Meaning they should get it rather than Carl. Because a married woman doesn’t count as a person, obviously.

Oscar spoke up solemnly, “The property of a family really belongs to the men of the family, no matter about the title. If anything goes wrong, it’s the men that are held responsible.”

The utter disrespect Oscar and Lou have for their sister is astounding. They bring up that she didn’t do the level of fieldwork they did - as if she just sat around. She certainly did not, any more than my farming pioneer ancestors did. If anything, she probably outworked them. It is clear enough that she was the real brains behind the success anyway, and that seems to rankle their egos.

The book ends with both a tragedy and a positive ending. In essence, the circumstances of the land and of love affect different characters in unique ways. Some, like Alexandra, thrive in the task of taming and working the land. Others, like her brothers, succeed, but do not thrive in any true sense. Others, like the violent and morose Frank Shabata, become embittered by both the land and love.

Still others, like the eccentric Ivar, who understands the land instinctively, and protects the wild birds which visit his farm, exist as part of the land as much as anything.

It’s not original with me, but I agree that Cather uses groups of three throughout the book, reflecting the three threads of the story. In particular, there are three types of love and lovers. Emil and Marie have a destructive passion that cannot last, but only destroys. Two of the farmhands have a love that is full of possessiveness and fear - it is based on roles and patriarchy, not mutuality. Finally, there is the love of Carl and Alexandra, that lasts in the face of difficult circumstances. I particularly enjoyed the way this love story was written. Despite their feelings, circumstances keep them apart until Alexandra is nearly 50. Yes, you read that right. A middle aged romance where the author assumes that passion is as genuine as it is for younger people. But it is also counter to expectations. Alexandra is a bit older than Carl, and she is far wealthier. Carl isn’t a gold digger by any measure, however. Their mutual love and respect for each other is delightful.

In contrast is the toxic marriage of Frank and Marie. He had a woman who loved him, and he completely poisoned the relationship. By the time the narrative introduces him, he is a jealous, controlling wreck. An extended quote is fantastic:

Frank's case was all the more painful because he had no one in particular to fix his jealousy upon. Sometimes he could have thanked the man who would bring him evidence against his wife. He had discharged a good farm-boy, Jan Smirka, because he thought Marie was fond of him; but she had not seemed to miss Jan when he was gone, and she had been just as kind to the next boy. The farm-hands would always do anything for Marie; Frank couldn't find one so surly that he would not make an effort to please her. At the bottom of his heart Frank knew well enough that if he could once give up his grudge, his wife would come back to him. But he could never in the world do that. The grudge was fundamental. Perhaps he could not have given it up if he had tried. Perhaps he got more satisfaction out of feeling himself abused than he would have got out of being loved. If he could once have made Marie thoroughly unhappy, he might have relented and raised her from the dust. But she had never humbled herself. In the first days of their love she had been his slave; she had admired him abandonedly. But the moment he began to bully her and to be unjust, she began to draw away; at first in tearful amazement, then in quiet, unspoken disgust. The distance between them had widened and hardened. It no longer contracted and brought them suddenly together. The spark of her life went somewhere else, and he was always watching to surprise it. He knew that somewhere she must get a feeling to live upon, for she was not a woman who could live without loving. He wanted to prove to himself the wrong he felt. What did she hide in her heart? Where did it go? Even Frank had his churlish delicacies; he never reminded her of how much she had once loved him. For that Marie was grateful to him.

While Marie bears some blame for cheating, Frank destroyed the marriage long before. In our own time, she likely would have left him years ago - they had no children, so why not? But back in the 1800s, this wasn’t an option for her.

Speaking of the past, this book is to a degree about my past. My family’s past. The Bergesons - Alexandra and family - are part of the same great migration that my own family participated in. They are Swedish, like my paternal grandfather and his family, and came to the Great Plains to farm under the Homestead Act. The branches of my family settled in Montana and Kansas - the story is set in between, in Nebraska.

There, like in the book, there were multiple communities within the greater community. The Swedes. The French. The Germans (again, my ancestors). The Czechs. What is particularly enlightening about the stories in this book is that they accurately reflect the immigrant experience. A common complaint by xenophobes today is that “the new immigrants aren’t assimilating.” But this charge was leveled at past immigrants too - particularly the Irish, but also the Swedes, and the Germans, and….

But guess what? Things were about the same back then. As Cather tells it, the first generation didn’t learn English. Their native languages were spoken at home, church, and at stores owned by the same language groups. The second generation (Emil and Alexandra, for example) was bilingual, speaking Swedish at home, and English at school and everywhere else. By the third generation, Swedish was largely forgotten.

That is exactly how it was with my ancestors. My great-great grandparents spoke Swedish or German, respectively, and never really learned English. My great-grandparents (one of which I got to know a little) could still speak a bit of the “old country,” while my grandparents had completely forgotten what little they once knew. Thus it is with today’s immigrants. The real “assimilation” issue is that immigrants from Latin America or Africa can’t just blend in with the whites like my ancestors eventually did with the other European Americans. Even the Irish were eventually accepted as “white,” rather than “white n----rs” as they used to be called.

I found this book to be thoroughly enjoyable. I really do need to read more Cather. I like her gentle perspective, and keen perception of human nature. This book is a good place to start, but definitely read My Antonia as well.

Thursday, November 1, 2018

Bud, Not Buddy by Christopher Paul Curtis

Source of book: Audiobook from the library

This book is part of our somewhat random and unsystematic project of reading or listening to Newbery Award winners and finalists. Bud, Not Buddy was the winner in 2000. This book was also part of my goal that my children experience books by authors of color. I believe it is crucial to moral development to hear a variety of voices - particularly those who have historically (and too often in the present) been marginalized.

Bud, Not Buddy tells the story of an orphan boy, Bud (not Buddy - that is important) living in the Great Depression. After his mother dies when he is age 6, he bounces around between an orphanage and various foster homes. After one final disastrous experience in a foster home where he is tormented by the son and disbelieved by the parents, he runs away, and strikes out to find the man he believes is his father: the famous touring musician Herman E. Calloway. After trying to locate his favorite librarian (who has married and moved far away), he finds the local Hooverville, fails at jumping a train, then attempts to walk 200 miles to Grand Rapids. He is picked up by Lefty Lewis, a “red cap” who is out making an emergency delivery of blood to the hospital. Lewis assists him in finding Calloway, after which Bud discovers the truth of his family history.

That’s a pretty vague summary, and intentionally so. There are some fun twists along the way, which I didn’t want to completely spoil.

However, I do want to mention a few things about the book. First, just like I mentioned in my review of How To Create The Perfect Wife, in times of economic stress, the number of abandoned children skyrockets. During the Depression, parents literally had to choose which of their children to watch starve to death. So many did the “compassionate” thing and dropped a child or two at an orphanage, with the hope that they would at least survive, even if they never saw each other again. Pregnancy could literally mean death for someone when there is insufficient food. Bud notes this - he was literally orphaned, before the Depression, so he sees the rapid influx. As in other times past, this led to a push to place children with families, as this was cheaper than building more orphanages. Families might take on a foster child for the money. It wasn’t much, but it was steadier than employment at the time. This led to some unpleasant situations, as Bud experiences.

Bud has clearly lived a hard life for the last few years. One of the central recurring elements in the book is the collection of wisdom that Bud intends to publish some day: Bud Caldwell’s Rules and Things for Having A Funner Life and Making a Better Liar Out of Yourself.

These little aphorisms are sprinkled throughout the book, and every kid - or former kid - knows just how true they are. How to know when bad things are going to happen from stuff adults say - many have this theme. Others have to do with street smarts, common sense, and above all, the difficulties of navigating human relationships when you are relatively powerless and a mere child. The author shows deep perception of human culture and society in writing these. I’d almost say they were the best part of the book. Almost.

Before I mention the best part, there are a few other things that struck me. The description of the “Hooverville” was outstanding. In our own time, Hoovervilles are proliferating (Los Angeles is believed to have between 50,000 and 100,000 homeless), although low wages and high housing costs are driving the increase this time, rather than catastrophic unemployment. (With an assist from untreated mental illness and addiction - although those are a constant, not a new problem.) During the Depression, these sprang up all over as well. People do what they can to stay alive. What was particularly interesting in this book was the way that people worked together in the encampment. For the most part, everyone pitched in, shared, and formed, well, a society. Which is what humans do, in pretty much every situation. It is our one trait that has enabled us to survive and thrive where most primates struggle.

But not always. One of the most haunting scenes in the book is of the one family which refuses to join the rest of the group. They are not thriving, and the baby is dying of starvation and illness. They lack the things that the rest of the group has, and would clearly benefit from sharing with others. But they refuse. Why?

Because they are white and racist - they won’t contaminate themselves by sharing with “negroes.”

The author is correct about this, by the way. At the very bottom of society, racial prejudice is a luxury that most can’t afford. And during the Depression, there was a lot more racial cooperation in the Hoovervilles than many realize. (For what it’s worth, Doctor Who had a great portrayal of this in “Daleks in Manhattan.”) I love that Curtis isn’t heavy handed about this. He just shows a hurting family that would benefit if they would just swallow their pride and racism long enough to be helped.

I also love that the author found ways of showing basic human decency among many of the characters. There is the family (I forget the name) who lies and says that Bud is their son, so that he can share a meal at the soup kitchen, even though he is late. There is the white librarian who helps Bud research stuff, smuggles him some food, and shows the sort of compassion that is all too rare. There is Lefty Lewis, who, along with his sister, takes care of Bud during Bud’s darkest hour. They are realistic, memorable, and inspiring characters. Curtis has a knack for writing characters and dialogue; it was sad when Lewis left the story for good as the narrative moved on.

As a musician, I also found the description of the band to be fascinating. Calloway is a bit of an archetype: the jazz musician who got his start in the Harlem Renaissance, and managed to make a decent living even in the depths of the Depression. As with many bands of the era, the fictional “Herman E. Calloway and the Dusky Devastators of the Depression” had one white member so as to escape some of the restrictions of Jim Crow. The white member would make the arrangements - and the musicianship of the band would smooth over the hurt feelings. It’s also a reminder that one of the first and most important breaches of the Jim Crow barriers came through music. Art recognizes art, and artists have always been the consciences of humanity. While I give due credit to the integration of the military, the Civil Rights Movement (and the laws that resulted), and the many decent people who fought segregation, I believe music played a crucial role in bringing about the end of Jim Crow.

Let me end with the best part of the book. Whether you read or listen, be sure to include the afterword by the author, which is fantastic.

The story itself is purely fictional, although it is certainly historical fiction. However, there are two characters who are based significantly on real people. Curtis based Lefty Lewis and Herman Calloway on his own grandfathers - who were indeed a Redcap (and Negro League pitcher) and a musician, respectively,  during the depression. The personalities are drawn from those men, not just their professions. Also, the name of the band - which is pretty awesome. Curtis laments that he was too young and stupid to take time to listen to the old stories these two men told - now, he would have written as much down as he could. But he nevertheless did remember some, and he incorporated what he remembered into the story.

In my opinion, this is the best part. No wonder these two men seemed so real. They, in many ways were real, even though the story is fiction. I thought this was a worthy book, with good writing and characters, and a compelling story. It is yet another example of the rather excellent children’s literature published in the last 20 years.


The late James Avery narrated the audiobook. Solid job, well suited to the book.