13. In Dubious Battle

by John Steinbeck

This is one of Steinbeck's novels about migrant labor strife. And an awesome one. Apporoximately 1,500 workers arrive at California apple orchards to find that the orchard owners had decided to cut their pay. With the help of the protagonists, two labor organizers, better knows as reds or radicals, they strike and all hell breaks loose. The rapacious landowners will stop at nothing to get their apples to market (besides paying a decent wage; they'd rather kill) and the starving, angry migrant workers have absolutely nothing left to lose. The violence- and there is a great deal of it throughout- was nothing short of apocalyptic.

A gripping, tense novel. I'd go on about Steinbeck's extraordinary social vision and perfectly natural voice but we all know about it. Still, this being my foourth Steinbeck novel I am beginning to think he's a friggin' Shakepeare.

12. Honky

by Dalton Conley

This one is a memoir written by a white dude who grew up in the projects of the lower East Side, in Manhattan. In fact, he and his sister where the only white kids to grow up there. Conley, now a sociologist, draws on his experiences being the "other" in an environment where race and class as social determinants are impossible to ignore. As he argues, if Whitey wants to witness the gap between white priviledge and black and latino social obstruction, he/she move to the projects.

The book is a fairly interesting look at identity development in terms of race and class, two undeniable factors when brought up amidst members of underclasses. I liked it as a memoir but a not sure it holds much water as a sociological study. After all, the very act of writing one's memoir is the act of constructing a reality, not observing one. But I even like the problems this poses him as a sociologist. How does such a person tell the "truth" when he is so damned close to it?

A good read and a great catalyist for many inevitably heated discussions.

Sandy's 50 (so far)

Sandy doesn't want to start a blog but she has been quitely rocking the 50 book challenge. Here is what she has read since January 1:

1. Until I find you by John Irving
2. The God of Small Things by Arundati Roy
3. To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
4. Finbar's Hotel by a consortium of Irish writer
5. Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha by Roddy Doyle
6. How to Practice by The Dalai Lama
7. More Rootabaga Stories by Carl Sandburg
8. Morning, Noon and Night by Spalding Grey
9. Border Passages by Leila Ahmed
10. Pegagogy of the Oppressed by Paulo Freire
11. Persepolis by Marjan Satrapi
12. Monster by Walter Dean Myers
13. Interpreter of Maladies by J. Lahiri
14. Slaughterhouse Five by Kurt Vonnegut
15. The Known World by E. Jones
16. Born on the Fourth of July by Ron Kovic
17. Jarhead by A. Swofford
18. A Parrot in the Oven by V. Martinez
19. The Feminine Mystique by Betty Freidan
20. Don't Play in the Sun by M. Golden
21. Chickamagua by S. Foote
22. Ladies Night at Finbar Hotel
23. The Bluest eye by Toni Morrison
24. Sundiata by D. T. Niane
25. Fist Stick Knife Gun by Geoff Canada
26. Reading Lolita in Tehran by Azar Natisi
27. Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger
28. Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen

11. In Cold Blood

by Truman Capote

Wow. This was quite a compelling read. Like most readers I knew the story beforehand but it didn't matter. Capote has written an outstanding piece of non-fiction, or "creative non-fiction" as he called it. He writes about a real life multiple murder in rural Kansas but in a style that explores the humanity of it. Yes, the goodness and usefulness of the family that was slaughtered but also the humanness of the killers. It is compelling because Capote is able to bring all characters to life. One effect is that the murderers are not the usual distant cardboard monsters. They are also not the product of a slack-jawed liberal writer striving to make excuses for them. Instead, In Cold Blood explores their lives- and everyone they have crossed paths with- in extraordinary human detail.

Never have I come to know so many characters so intimately: each member of the Clutter family, the local sheriff, the killers, the Clutter family's friends and loved ones, state investigators, etc. It's written so well that I feel like I met them during that aweful time.

Here is an example of Capote's ability to combine the results of extensive interviews with the people involved in the case and his creative abilities. In this part, the two killers, Perry and Dick, are chatting. Perry is telling Dick of a dream he had the night before. In it Perry is being attacked by a snake. Perry cuts the story short whe he realized Dick was uninterested and would likely not understand the rest.

"Dick said, 'So? The snake swallows you? Or what?"

"'Never mind. It's not important.' (But it was! The finale was of great importance, a source of private joy. He'd once told it to his friend Willie-Jay; he had described to him the towering bird, the yellow 'sort of parrot.' Of course, Willie-Jay was different- delicate minded, 'a saint.' He'd understood. But Dick? Dick might laugh. And that Perry could not abide: anyone's ridiculing the parrot, which had first flown into his dreams when he was seven years old, a hated, hating half-breed child living in a California orphanage run by nuns- shrouded disciplinarians who whipped him for wetting his bed. It was after one of these beatings, one he could never forget ('She woke me up. She had a flashlight, and she hit me with it. Hit me and hit me. And when the flashlight broke, she went on hitting me in the dark.'), that the parrot appeared, arrived while he slept, a bird 'taller than Jesus yellow like a sunflower,' a warrior angel who blinded the nuns with its beak, fed upon her eyes, slaughtered them as they 'pleaded for mercy,' then so gently lifted him, enfolded him, winged him away to 'paradise.'

"As the years went by, the particular torments from which the bird delivered him altered; other- older children, his father, a faithless girl, a sergeant he'd known in the Army- replaced the nuns, but the parrot remained, a hovering avenger...")

I think this is a good example of Capote's mode of "creative non-fiction." He sat with Perry Smith- the real Perry Smith- for hours upon hours each visit for years. In fact, Capote sat with everyone involved in this case and nearly everyone in Holcolm, Kansas and the surrounding towns. The result is a writer (who was already a sucessful novelist and journalist) who knew all parties so intimately that it was nearly impossible to write without compassion for and understanding of the humanity revealed in this single event. What we have in In Cold Blood is not simply a re-telling of a heinous crime, but a very deep exploration of the lives of those effected by the event: victims and murderers, their families and friends, a confounded and eventually triumphant law enforcent, the local postal worker... You name it.

Of course, the book does pose problems for those who tend to cling to factual truth. But there are other kinds of truth that artists try to reveal.

I highly recommend this book.

10. Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting by in America

by Barbara Ehrenriech

A good read. Sort of what you might expect from of a now privileged prolific political writer who cares deeply about struggling people. She reports on her passable job of trying to exist economically working some of the more low end jobs. Her gift is her sensitivity and willngness to write about her very personal struggles trying to cover the costs of rent and food while working as a house cleaner, hotel room service worker and a resaraunt waitress. Turns out that it can't be done for very long.

Problem is that she approaches it half-heartedly. What I mean is that that she allots herself a rental car, health care and a certain distance from her "subjects." These amenities render her incapable of experiencing the most critical aspects of these people's lives: the falling. What happens when the car breaks down? What happens when you really can't make the rent? What happens when you don't have health insurance for a long period of time? These are the concerns that drive this class of people. The fact that there is no safety net. The fact that economic as well as emotional crisis are imminent, a guarantee.

I think the book is a good report from one member of the upper middle class to others of the same class but I'm not sure of its effectiveness as a catalyst for change.

But she does criticize Wal-Mart, although even that is a soft punch.