Sunday, November 26, 2017

The White Rose: a novel by B Traven

After reading this I have only one Traven novel yet to read. Actually two, but his final novel that came some years after the others is not yet translated to English and I don’t read German. I clearly really like his stuff.

The White Rose is a study in contrasting worldviews. The main players, symbols of their classes, are an indigenous man who through family tradition holds the title to a large Mexican hacienda. This is presented as more of a long standing commune rather than a feudal set up. It’s as if the egalitarian, sharing, roots from hunter-gatherer times have somehow survived in this instance into a stable, and atypically fair, agricultural system. Things are shared and it is taken as a given that the title holding family has a duty to the other families as caretakers of the property. They are not seen as winners entitled to profit from this ownership of things that everyone shares. All the people are very close to the land.
They are of the land, the human creatures who emerge from the land, live by it, and return to it in constant cycles of renewal.

The contrasting entity is a USA businessman who has maneuvered himself into a position of enormous power heading an international oil company. He is portrayed in a way that highlights his need for status among his peers. Part of his aura involves his outside women and their needs. The fact that he has outside of marriage women is seen as a positive status symbol among the board members of his corporation. He has to procure symbols of wealth for his main lover. She wants a nice car, but then it needs a garage, but the garage must be attached to a house and not an ordinary house, a mansion. So our oil man has to go through a lot of money for this stuff. I also want to mention that the woman is shown as being more intelligent, and better educated than her lover. She is not a dumb airhead floozy like we see often in movies about this sort of situation, like in Citizen Kane. The big time businessman is not at all involved in the land, other people take care of all that. He is a modern North American. Except he needs land for drilling oil.
And he needs the hacienda, Rosa Blanca, The White Rose.
There is the contrast and the conflict of the novel.

The industrialist is driven by emotions: Fear, Greed, how others see him.
The indian is contained in love for the land and the people and things from it and the wish to see it go on for the sake of the people of the past who took care of it for the people of the present. They must care for it to assure the survival of those to come.

In The White Rose Traven approaches storytelling devices of mystery and suspense, the day just might be saved. It was good to hope that the miserable inevitable might somehow, through law, caring people, not occur.

Although it is clear where Traven’s heart lies in the conflict, his style is not particularly agitprop. He is not rallying comrades behind a particular banner. He is rather coolly showing the situation from various sides. There is no feeling of soft peddling the issues. He describes in detail what is going on rather matter of factly no matter how horrible, cruel, unjust, or plain nasty, that might be.
I like this tone. I feel I am asked to go along and look through his eyes rather than be verbally rhetorically persuaded. I read him with a recurring sarcastic edge that I think he intended.

B Traven was an outsider. The man who only wanted to be known for the work was not a Mexican and although distorting whatever his real biography was with USA root claims, he was not an American. Perhaps witnessing first hand events in German in the early part of the 20th Century and then landing in Mexico in the mid 1920s and absorbing that world, doesn’t put one in a mind that “if just this or that happened all would finally be well”.
He presents people who have lived a certain way for many years being suddenly confronted and challenged by international modernity, the machine that rode the rails that conquered Norte was on the next little  stop in it’s global voyage, and gathering endless momentum.
The book is from 1929. Surely I would look upon it as quaint and a period piece, if he offered me an easy solution to the complicated intricacies of modern global life that dazzles us with wonders and the endless brutalities that come with it.

We are in uncharted extremely complicated territory and anyone who is offering an answer to making things better, like the old days, or some glowing vision, ought to be viewed with suspicion.
Nobody knows what to do.

Sunday, November 19, 2017

By Blood: A novel by Ellen Ullman

This is an unusual concept novel. We have a first person narrator who in the course of the story reveals very little about himself other than being from somewhere other than the San Francisco setting.  He also has some problem in the past.
He rents an office. Next door is a head doctor, a psychiatrist or psychologist. One patient doesn’t like the white noise machine that is used to keep the sessions private. This enables our narrator to overhear and he gets very attached to what he is hearing.
The skill of the storytelling prose allows one to suspend natural disbelief in the situation and it’s duration.
The novel is also about issues of adoption and extreme adoption in this case coming out of the events of the Nazi holocaust, exile, and extermination of the Jewish people. While telling that fictional story Ullman addresses actual historical happenings in the period just after WWII, the liberation of concentration camps, and the impulses and personalities of Zionism leading to the establishment of Israel.
The novel is a personal story in the setting of these past earth shaking events. It is a period piece written in 2012 but set in the 1970s.
It flows nicely. Somewhat of a slow suspense piece which holds interest.

I came to Ullman via seeing her interviewed about her new memoir on Booktv Cpsan 2.

Thursday, October 19, 2017

McTeague: A novel by Frank Norris

McTeague by Frank Norris

I come to this through the classic movie Greed by Erich von Stroheim. This is a silent movie that is notorious as one of the movies cut into a shorter version by it’s production company.  We don’t have the whole vision of the director and much of the footage was discarded. Nevertheless it’s a great movie and I have watched it more than once, but this novel that the movie was adapted from is so much more and beyond the film in greatness.

This supports my notion that film is a step back as an art form compared to novels. Film is rather good with action of any sort, with it’s old standbys, sex and violence. But it is terribly clumsy when it comes to the subte in human life, like our rich lives of thought. Fiction writing can easily present thought while film often must revert to writing to show thought in the form of narration. Of course text is not thought, but another representation. What is thought? I’m not exactly, sure but text seems best at expressing it.
If one wants to read this fine novel and are interested in the movie Greed too, I would suggest first seeing Greed and then reading the book. I think there is less disappointment with that mode of consumption since movies are most always less than, a sort of graphic comic of the original.

Greed was not a bad name for the movie. The novel is all about greed, the love and lust for money. It is a very American story set in San Francisco, about as far as one can get in the westward stomp across the conquested continent. California had a big push of white settlement after the gold strikes there 50 years before the publication of this 1899 novel. It’s characters are the typical immigrants and their heirs still at it, still wanting to add gold, money, status and meaning to empty lives and hurting one another in the process.
I looked into the biography of Frank Norris. He died very young, at 32 of appendicitis. McTeague is the product of a man in his 20s. It is also a landmark in Naturalism in USA literature.
I am drawn to Naturalism. I have read all of Theodore Dreiser’s fiction and love his work. I probably ought to look into Zola.
With McTeague the social realism of the piece is never overtly political, he is not pitching a particular political point of view, such as, say, Upton Sinclair with Socialism. Frank Norris just lays it all out there and let’s the reader come to their own conclusions with hints of conditioning and life setting having driven the characters to be what they are.
It is a brilliantly involving and pleasurable read even with all the misery. The tale he tells is a worthy one and remains relevant into the 21st Century almost 120 years since publication. That is because the issues remain and people are as they were and maybe even worse now.  Anyone who has been in a relationship with unequal economic assets might find something to relate to here. The major plot line involves one partner having money but afraid, or for whatever other reason, will not or cannot share with her husband McTeague who is a big not so smart uneducated man who had a good income before a change that ruins his life. This can be deadly in a relationship which the novel illustrates in no uncertain terms. The novel contains serious and violent marital conflict. McTeague abuses his wife who cannot share her money. She is driven to live in poverty to “save” more.  

This is a product of the 1890s and does contain some of the stereotypes of the era. There is a greedy “Jew” rag merchant, but everyone else is greedy too and he is not rich or controlling anyone. Just another victim of a systematic insanity.

It’s my first reading of Norris and I loved it. I will return to him later for sure.

Wednesday, October 4, 2017

John Bunny - Film's 1st King of Comedy

John Bunny - Film's 1st King of Comedy
A video documentary written and directed by Tony Susnick

Who was John Bunny?
Well, he was an actor who became a very early cinema star. By early, I mean from 1910 to 1915.


I very much enjoy silent movies and have for years, but most of my attention has been to post-1920 product. My notion being that people didn’t really get to making fine quality movies until around then. I know that is just unsupportable laziness. I've never even watched Tillie’s Punctured Romance and I adore Chaplin’s work.


The scenes from Bunny films in the documentary indicate that he shot in a different style. To show his main performance tool, his face, the scenes were all shot in ¾ body, basically their legs are off and we see their upper bodies and faces. This isn’t the Keystone Cops running around with the model Ts doing Hollywood donuts, not that there is anything wrong with that, but this is more chamber work with only up to four people in the frame, tight like that, talking.


The documentary tells us that Bunny was a rather successful stage actor when he went to Vitagraph Studio in Brooklyn and offered himself. He ended up making many films there and achieved the type of fame only accessible through early movies, our first moving picture mass medium.


The film gives us an informative vignette, the story of Vitagraph Studios.


The documentary production is enlivened by some tasteful animation of old stills all done by Tony Susnick himself which besides the content is another indicator that this video is a labor of love.


We hear the words of John Bunny in voiceover. Particularly of interest is the final reading of Bunny’s writing in which he expresses in no uncertain terms an awareness of what he was doing in working in a medium that has the power for the first time ever to transcend time. That was a “Wow” moment for this viewer sitting here 100 years beyond Bunny’s life span watching his mugging shadow. We are the first people to see moving images of our ancestors from over 100 year ago.


The film is narrated by Mark 'Big Poppa' Stampley who does an excellent job with the big voice professional narrator role. Until I checked I kind of thought it was one of the big names who commonly land this sort of gig.
The DVD of the film comes with 4 of Bunny’s films accompanied by Ben Model who has been very active in silent preservation and presentation for years. I don’t have the DVD. I saw the movie on a FACEBOOK video presentation of the movie in celebration of Bunny’s birthday.

Nicely done, with a brisk pace and coming in and less than an hour, this sweet documentary is worth a look for those interested in film history.

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Kinship of Clover by Ellen Meeropol

Kinship of Clover by Ellen Meeropol

This novel has characters that extend from Ellen Meeropol’s first novel House Arrest.
They are both under 300 pages and I would recommend reading

House Arrest first although Kinship of Clover can probably stand on it’s own if House Arrest is not available. On the other hand even House Arrest only refers to certain traumatic event as happening in the past, these events are more re-enacted here.

The story is set 12 years after twin boys have a traumatic event occur in the cult they were born into. The novel tells the story of Jeremy, now in college, experiencing unexplained psychological emotions that cause him to feel and see plant vines growing around him and through him until he gets lost in them.

  It also tells a story of someone on the other side of life with dementia getting worse. Here Flo is losing herself. She had a strong individual identity but is losing it.
Does Jeremy want to get lost, become part of the plants, and Flo want to hold to what she was, not ready to drop ego and become one with nature? She’s an activist, about The People.
I liked that about the atmosphere of the novel. A multi-generational activism is assumed, or at least a natural part of life.
Both of these stories affect the people connected to Flo and Jeremy. Meeropol creates characters with convincing real family connections so the feelings connected to the human difficulties of the main characters reverberate through the others. The emotions of human connection are familiar to this writer, she knows how to work with them, present them convincingly. The difficulties, the dementia and the hallucinations, are drawn with detailed composition and regarded as the mysteries they are. She creates families that are believable and like that found in the world:”OK, we are no longer married but I'll live in the upstairs apartment and help out with the kid.”


It is not all about family stuff. There are big issues out there and committed activists struggling in one way or another, for change. It is hard for the young and innocent Jeremy to properly read the intentions and tactics of the people he is getting involved with.

Jeremy's hallucinations are told in a way that shows them as interesting and scary at equal proportions. This seems realistic. Does the patient wish to drop this fantastic part of himself for the sake of some normality standard?


Sunday, July 23, 2017

A Good Country by Laleh Khadivi

This novel is a snapshot of current affairs, the emotional environment of USA, and we who inhabit it.
The USA is not really a easy place to find a feeling of home and community. Some of us feel that is made worse by clever marketing strategies of international corporate interests that have learned that divide and sell is a profitable business model. I don’t mean to suggest that there was necessarily a conspiracy meeting of big business cabals that came up with this, but rather it is a result of mass media run as for-profit business by for-profit businesses and supported by the backing of for-profit business, naturally supporting its interest. We are set against one another to sell things. The buying choice of children is not understandable to parents, this aids in moving product and causes more alienation from one another since we have little to identify ourselves with other than our product purchase choices.

This novel is not about business and mass media, but this has set the mood.
It is simply a story of teens in Los Angeles area, Southern California and blowback of US imperialism. The man figure of the novel is Raz, the USA born son of middle aged Iranian immigrants. In a way it parallels the stories of early 20th Century European immigrant children whose parents have made the very bold and radical move to an attempted a new better life in America, once A Good Country, only to find their children groundless, between worlds, subject to abuse by the children of the those who came here a generation or so before them, looking for a place to belong and susceptible to conscription in street gangs.

Here the setting is not the tenements of the Lower East Side with its poverty, but the children of very successful immigrants in fine houses with swimming pools in Laguna Beach, yet still lost, abused by religious intolerance made far worse by religious fundamentalism global terrorism that is a result of USA’s and The West’s century of manipulations in the mid-east. And what does popular USA
corporate secular culture offer? It is apparently void of a spiritual center, or even basic community. This environment is ripe for the fundamentalist fringes, of whatever origin, religious, or political, to come to the rescue.

The novel is really a very simple story, lucidly and believably told, of a bright sweet teen boy’s final high school years and his yearning for a place to belong with loving partners, friends.
The novel is written by a woman who is very good at creating the world of a young man including his sexuality and the casual marijuana use of him and his young friends.

In the news terrorist attacks cause the plot to shift toward tragedy in this engaging yet simply plotted novel.

Friday, July 7, 2017

Dangling Man by Saul Bellow

This was Bellow’s first novel.
It is set in Chicago during WWII.
The character, Joseph, writes about his life in first person journal entries. He is in his 30s. He is dangling because he might get drafted into the army soon. Since he might be drafted he is not working. He is married and his wife is working. He is basically just hanging out. They are living in a rooming house.They lost their apartment because of a dispute he had with the landlord.

It is a short novel of one of those extended times between things, before something big might happen. In this case being called up into a war that one might get killed in. The novel is mostly internal dialogue of someone in one of these in between times, and a very stressful one. It is also a portrait of a man without an exterior structure to control his time and actions. It is a place that many find difficult to find comfort. It is easier to just let someone else tell one what to do, show up here, at this time, do this job for this long, eat at this time, etc. He is dangling outside of that structure for a time, that place where one has to be self motivated, or self contained enough to be at peace when the order of the day is to run with the crowd. The novel shows that this can be a difficult place where one needs to be very strong, assured of oneself enough to go on.

There is not much mention of the war.  A war, that at the time of the novel’s composition no one knows  what is going to happen, how long the war will go on, how many will die, or who will win. The book contains that tension that hangs right there alongside that dangling man. It is an extreme time of “we are all together” which can be harder than usual on the temperamentally alienated.
Joseph visits family. His prosperous brother tries to give him money which creates tension. He visits his wife’s family, more tension. There is conflict in the rooming house, and between him and his wife, in the role reversal of the man being the breadwinner.

Aren't we all dangling on the edge of life on the mysterious precipice of death?
What does one do while dangling?

Good novel from a man who was later awarded The Nobel Prize (The Dynamite Prize).

The White Rose: a novel by B Traven

After reading this I have only one Traven novel yet to read. Actually two, but his final novel that came some years after the others is not...