Friday, November 03, 2006


Here begin reviews of the other books I read from 1949; books that I chose because of the author or because they are still good literature.

Nineteen Eighty-Four, George Orwell, Harcourt Brace and Company, 1949, 314 pp
This is the classic, chilling, effective portrait of life in a totalitarian society. It is all very controlled, no strong emotions are allowed, all is duty to the society. There are continuous wars occuring (how much like today), history has been officially "reinterpreted" and of course not a hint of dissent is permitted.

The main character works as a sort of civil servant. He has memories of the past and in fact is involved in his job as a cog in the wheel of the alteration of history. He has a love affair with a woman who is more subversive that he in her thoughts. (This is the book from which we got such expressions as Big Brother Is Watching You, thought police, double-think, etc.) They are found out, he is busted, tortured and brought back into line.

When I was young, we used to sort of joke about this book. Then 1984 came and went, duly noted but still not taken seriously. I am taking it seriously now. The invasion of privacy, the attempt to control thinking and demand a slavish attitude ("whoever is not with us is against us"), the continuous wars and the sense that there is some overall authority who is running all this without the consent of the people. Especially the carefully edited "news" of what is going on in the world. In Nineteen Eighty Four, the "proles" (meaning the lower class, uneducated, everyday people, whom I think of as the WalMart people) are left alone. This was also true in Margaret Atwood's Oryx and Crake. I found myself wondering if somewhere amongst these common people is the spirit that will save us.

The Fires of Spring, James A Michener, Random House Inc, 1949, 436 pp
I read this book back in 1998. It made a big impression on me. I have since gotten the idea that it is not thought of highly by some literary people. I don't care. From the first page, I never wanted to stop reading it. It is the story of the first 26 years of David Harper, a boy raised in a poorhouse near Philadelphia, PA, who grows up to be a writer. He comes across as a true hero.

The book is bursting with life, the characters and David himself are so appealing. It is a coming of age story, a tale of overcoming humble beginnings and I now know that it is fairly autobiographical and now realize that it was highly influenced by Charles Dickens. In fact, it hit me the way David Copperfield hit me. I am still reading Michener with pleasure.

Wise Blood, Flannery O'Conner, Harcourt Brace & Company, 1949, 232 pp
Here is the female Faulkner. I hope she wouldn't mind me calling her that. This is dark stuff, not for the unstable of mind, not for the easily depressed. It is a novel without hope.

The two main characters become what they abhor, especially Haze, a man who meets a terrible end. All the characters are highly disturbed and out of touch with other people. She shows how madness carries on from parents to children because the madness creates very bad parents. Also how overbearing, oppressive, fanatic Christian teaching can create madness, how loneliness can create madness.

I was highly impressed. When the dark side of humanity is portrayed with such powerful writing, we do not need horror novels or movies. It would be good though to have a workable plan to deal with this dark side. It would be fatal to ignore it or pretend it does not exist or let ourselves be lulled into thinking it can be electric shocked, lobotomized or drugged out of us.

Hunter's Horn, Harriette Arnow, Macmillan, 1949, 568 pp
I have read Arnow's most well known book, The Dollmaker, at least twice and will probably read it again when I get to 1954, when it was published. It is one of my favorite books of all time. I hadn't realized that she wrote anything else until I came across this novel in a used bookstore. What a powerful book! What a great writer.

Nunn Balew, a poor white Kentucky farmer, is obsessed with hunting a fox. He cannot win or get ahead as a farmer and has realized this and run out of hope. But he feels that if he can get that fox his life will change and he will somehow be able to build up his farm. He sacrifices the comfort and happiness of his wife and five children to do it. And he actually gets the fox and is able to establish his farm, yet loses the love of his family by not fully communicating to them.

The end of this novel is devastating. I doubt that I will ever forget it.

The Beginning and the End, Naguib Mafouz, Doubleday, 1949, 412 pp
Naguib Mafouz passed away just recently. He won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1988 and was one of the first authors to write novels in Arabic. He has written a long string of books which only began to be translated into English in the 1980s.

In this book, an Egyptian family in Cairo falls into poverty after the father dies and they lose his income. They were only barely middle-class when he was alive. The mother stoically keeps the family going and the daughter must go out and earn money as a seamstress, which is a source of dishonor for a woman in 1930s Egypt. Two of the sons finish school and assume positions; one in the ministry of education and the youngest in the military. A third son has always been a reprobate, but he finds income through unsavory connections with crime and drug dealing and is the one who puts up the money to get the other boys started in life.

All of the children have various love interests, but it is the middle son who sacrifices his own wants to help his younger brother and yet finally finds a wife, while all the others lives end in tragedy. The story is a study in the degrading effects of poverty on otherwise fairly normal people. Each one has a character trait that becomes emphasized all out of proportion by circumstances. In that respect, the novel becomes universal rather than only Egyptian.

The Godseeker, Sinclair Lewis, Random House Inc, 1949, 415 pp
This was a fine book and much better than I expected. Aaron Gadd is the son of the dour deacon of a Congregational church in a small New England town in the 1840s. The family also farms. Aaron is raised in an atmosphere of gloom and doom, sin and hell fire, coldness and cruelty. But he is an irrepressible lad, so he leaves home and becomes a successful carpenter in a nearby town. He has friends, he drinks and even has a lover. His upbringing haunts him though and at a Revival he gets the fervor to go out West and become a missionary to the Indians.

The West for Aaron becomes Minnesota and the story becomes a history of the settling of that state, complete with trappers, traders, missionaries, Indians and heavy weather. All of that is good, but the real story is about a young man finding his own beliefs about God, people, love, work and society. Aaron finds in himself a purpose to bring about understanding amongst all races. While he matures and faces the world as it really is, he keeps trying to do his part.

The characters are distinct, the story telling is masterful and the message comes through without much preaching. I don't know why these later novels of his are considered inferior to his early ones because I think they are excellent.

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