Saturday, January 28, 2012

The Jungle

Title: The Jungle
Author: Upton Sinclair
List: #45 on Radcliffe’s Top 100 20th Century Novels
Worth reading? Yes.

I think The Jungle is one of those books that everyone who was educated in the United States either heard about or read in high school. I remember it being thoroughly discussed in my American History class as the start of “muckraking” journalism and as the book that led to reforms in the food industry. What I didn’t realize was that, instead of being a journalistic non-fiction account of the Chicago Stockyards, the book is a work of fiction that describes the struggles of a family of Lithuanian immigrants.

The novel starts out on a high happy note describing the whirlwind of commotion that is the wedding of the main character, Jurgis, to his wife, Ona. However, even in that scene of happy tumult, there are signs of stress as Ona worries about the expense of the wedding feast, and the other female family members worry about the guests who came and ate but did not contribute any money to the new couple during the money dance.

After this scene, the author jumps back in time to describe how Jurgis and Ona, with Jurgis’s father and nine of Ona’s family members immigrated to America with hearts full of hope and minds dreaming of comfort and riches. Unfortunately, they soon find that all is not rosy in America because high wages are joined with high prices, and they fall prey to the wiles of con men. Their lack of English and overall illiteracy, as well as a series of bad decisions, contributes to a growing debt that they cannot possibly pay off.

Added to these troubles is their naivety when it comes to the world of the Chicago Stockyards. For example, Jurgis is strong and gets a job almost immediately, and he thinks that this strength will continue and allow him to keep his position. However, he has not reckoned with the practice of “speeding up,” whereby the owners and supervisors insert new, fresh workers into the line to speed up the whole process until everyone works faster and faster and faster. As can be imagined, this practice leads to less careful work, which leads to accidents. Even Jurgis is not infallible and ends up twisting an ankle, which does not heal properly, and which causes him to miss several months of work. And, of course, after that he is much weakened and cannot get his old job back. Not to mention that without his wages, the family sinks even further into debt.

Because they are spread in various jobs throughout the stockyards, Jurgis and his family also learn the other secrets of meatpacking, like the practice of using rotten meat in sausage and canning, distracting inspectors so tubercular beef and pork can be used, using the waste on the floor in meat products, and a variety of other disgusting and unhealthy practices. Everything is geared towards making the most profit for the owners. And if someone in any position of power can get a little extra money, for example when he has an opening and the opportunity to hire someone, he takes it.

And so the family suffers along, and even sending the children to sell newspapers and Jurgis’s sick and elderly father to work does not help their situation. It also doesn’t help that no one gets sufficient nutrition because everything they buy, including milk, get doctored so that the products do not have close to the nutritional content that they should have. And because of all these odds stacked against them, family members start to die of causes that, if there was adequate nutrition or money to pay for doctors, would have been preventable.

The novel is a stunning exposé of conditions in the Chicago Stockyards and the food industry in general. It also reveals the plight of new immigrants to America in the early 20th century and the difficulties they faced in escaping the wiles of con men and companies designed to take advantage of naïve and illiterate immigrants. And as you can probably gather from this description, the wedding scene in the first chapter was the only high note of the novel and everything was gloom and doom from that point forward… until the end, when Jurgis finally discovers a reason to hope. But despite the somber theme, the novel is definitely a must read, if only to understand why we have and need government regulation of the things we depend upon to nourish ourselves.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Memoirs of a Geisha

Title: Memoirs of a Geisha
Author: Arthur Golden
List: #62 on BBC Top 100
Worth Reading? Yes!!

I read this book several years ago, really enjoyed it, and would heartily recommend it. However, it has been too long since I read it for me to write a coherent post, so I asked Scott to write a guest post:

I first read Memoirs of a Geisha in 2005 prior to the release of the movie adaptation. When I decided to re-read it, Natalie asked me to write a guest blog and I happily agreed. If you are not familiar with the plot, this book is about a young girl from a small fishing village in Japan who is sent away to Kyoto to become a geisha. I love this book for many reasons but I would recommend reading it for two.

The story begins in the years leading up to World War Two, in the geisha district of Kyoto. In an age where a society is straddling two identities, one firmly set in tradition and one marching onward into the future, the author is able to effortlessly transport the reader back in time. I have no desire to visit the sprawling cities of Japan today, but when I read Golden’s description of the tea houses and ceremonies, the geisha’s kimonos and superstitions, it is sometimes hard for me to remember that the setting he is describing no longer exists. These descriptions make me long to be able to visit the unspoiled, exotic locations of the book, even though that would require time travel.

At the same time, this book has a foreboding shadow hanging over much of the story. The narrator, Chiyo, is very honest about the time period. As the years pass, peace erodes for the Japanese as the Empire invades China and attacks Pearl Harbor, and as the war in the Pacific proceeds. And although many of these events aren’t told by the characters, in my mind at least the peacefulness presented is somewhat tainted by the knowledge that these events are occurring in history. It is like waiting in the calm before a storm: you want to relax and let your guard down, but you know that something dangerous is lurking around the corner.

The second reason I would recommend reading this book is because of the prose used by the characters. Describing a scene in the geisha district, the main character says, “Among the men in Western style business suits and kimono, several geisha stood out in brilliant coloring just like autumn leaves on the murky water of the river.” This book is full of these little tidbits, each of them conveying the scene perfectly from the perspective of this young uneducated girl who is experiencing life fully.

Some might describe this as a romance novel, or a love story, but I would describe it as a story of growth, exploration, and learning. And I would highly recommend it to anyone.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Ender's Game

Title: Ender’s Game
Author: Orson Scott Card
List: #59 on Modern Library Readers’ Top 100 20th Century Novels
Worth reading? Yes.

Ender’s Game is a science fiction novel in many ways strongly reminiscent of Starship Troopers, which I read shortly before starting this blog. It takes place in a future where humans have narrowly escaped destruction by an insect-like alien race and have formed an international military unit to defend Earth from future attacks. This military unit apparently fears that another war with the “buggers” is imminent and is searching for a commander to lead the human forces to victory.

The interesting part is that the military is searching for this commander among children. These children, who are as young as five or six, are enrolled in a space station military training facility, called the Battle School, where they are trained as fighters. After Battle School, the children go on to Command School to learn how to lead forces, mainly spaceships, into battle.

The main character, Andrew “Ender” Wiggin, is a prodigy sent to Battle School just before his sixth birthday. There the “game” begins where he fights other children as part of one of the school’s armies in the school’s zero gravity war games league. Most of the novel consists of Ender’s personal struggles but military successes at Battle School. In that respect, the novel is very male-oriented, violent, and militaristic.

However, the psychology behind the concept of training young children is quite intriguing, as are descriptions of how Ender adapts to zero gravity. The novel explains how Ender recognizes that in zero gravity he can decide for himself what is up and what is down and how that completely reorients his perspective on action that takes place in zero gravity. This reorienting of perspective is something that the other children have difficulty grasping and that Ender must try to teach his peers. Although the author describes this perspective change very well, I couldn’t help but think the concept would be much better explained visually. And then I found out that there are plans for a movie, set for release in March 2013. I hope that the filmmakers deal with the concept as well as the author intended.

As far as sci-fi novels go, most of Ender’s Game really isn’t that stellar or different. What sets it apart is its focus on children and an interesting twist at the end that I only predicted a couple pages before it was revealed. This twist is what makes the novel worth reading and the militarism worth slogging through.  As for the rest of the series, I haven't started any of them yet and the novel works quite well by itself.  However, I have heard from several sources that the second book clears up some questions from the first one so I may read that at some point in the future.