Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Her Father's Daughter: A eugenic dream

Thinking I might enjoy something along the lines of Laddie, I downloaded another by Gene Stratton-Porter from Project Gutenberg. I'd recently finished Catherine: A Story by William Makepeace Thackeray, which was written to deliberately alienate the reader from all characters; none were sympathetic. Since Little Sister and her brother had charm to spare, I thought Her Father's Daughter would be along the same lines. I couldn't be more wrong.

Yes, there were sympathetic characters, but perhaps not the ones intended by the author. When, in the first speech by the heroine, she refers to a student at the head of her class as a "Jap," I tried to think, well, that may have been normal for the time, much as other terms have come and gone out of polite use. I read on only to find it got worse. She really meant it in the derogatory sense.

Once she got going, there was little question of her hatred for the Japanese. I'll give just one sample:
There is just one way in all this world that we can beat Eastern civilization and all that it intends to do to us eventually. The white man has dominated by his color so far in the history of the world, but it is written in the Books that when the men of color acquire our culture and combine it with their own methods of living and rate of production, they are going to bring forth greater numbers, better equipped for the battle of life, than we are. When they have got our last secret, constructive or scientific, they will take it, and living in a way that we would not, reproducing in numbers we don't they will beat us at any game we start, if we don't take warning while we are in the ascendance, and keep there.
Repulsed by this attitude, I kept reading on the off-chance Stratton-Porter would lead her heroine -- a precocious high school student -- to a change of viewpoint. The benefit-of-my-doubt was not rewarded. Subsequent speeches -- and there are a lot of them for someone who is portrayed as 17-going-on-18 -- are peppered with phrases about white supremacy, "white blood," "America for Americans," "yellow menace," "they all look alike," and so on. Clearly, she ascribed to the idea that biology is destiny, that personality traits are passed through the blood, and embraced Margaret Sanger's doctrine of "more from the fit, less from the unfit."

One might be able to argue that since her heroine appreciates and collects Native American methods and lore she must be open to races beside her own, but I'm not sure Stratton-Porter was aware of this hypocrisy. While saying that only the white race has produced anything of value to the world, her protagonist profits handsomely by publishing Indian recipes that make use of locally-grown wild plants. She had acquired their culture!

Other ironies include:
  • A villain with a name as Anglo-Saxon as they come
  • Another antagonist who uses hair dye to achieve ideal Aryan looks
  • This second villain, nevertheless, has a redemptive awakening by the end of the book -- which should have been impossible, according to the author's point of view, because she was tainted by "bad blood."
Eugenics may have been fashionable back when this was written, but I don't think there's now a need to defend these views as Peter Eickmeier does in "A Closer Look at Gene Stratton-Porter and Her Father’s Daughter." He attempts to prove that, contrary to being a racist, Stratton-Porter was actually an early civil rights activist! . . . that a "closer analysis" reveals "subliminal" messages that uplifted non-white races and enlightened young readers. Maybe I just take things at face-value too much, but I think you'd have to live in Bizarro World to reach that conclusion. The novel read like a tract for limiting immigration to western Europeans. Janet Malcolm's "Capitalist Pastorale" in The New York Review of Books reassured me that I wasn't seeing things that weren't there.

There are other things not to like about this book: didacticism and triumphalism, to name a few. I grew annoyed at the main character's know-it-all bossy-ness -- apparently a trait of her creator.

For those interested in a biblical view of race (that there is only one human blood), I leave you with a link to Answers in Genesis' helpful collection of writings on the subject: http://www.answersingenesis.org/get-answers/topic/racism.

Friday, July 6, 2012

The End of America: Letter of warning to a young patriot, a citizen's call to action

I read Naomi Wolf's book before leaving on vacation, and marked many pages. It's a book worthy of jotting down a few thoughts on the blog. Wolf is an avowed progressive, but one that conservatives can admire for her candor. Anyone can appreciate the warnings put forth in this book. Her premise:
There are ten steps that are taken in order to close down a democracy or crush a prodemocratic movement, whether by capitalists, communists, or right-wing fascists. These ten steps, together, are more than the sum of their parts. Once all ten have been put in place, each magnifies the power of the others and of the whole. Impossible as it may seem, we are seeing each of these ten steps taking hold in the United States today [2007]. (page 11)
What are the 10 steps?
  1. Invoke an external and internal threat
  2. Establish secret prisons
  3. Develop a paramilitary force
  4. Surveil ordinary citizens
  5. Infiltrate citizens' groups
  6. Arbitrarily detain and release citizens
  7. Target key individuals
  8. Restrict the press
  9. Cast criticism as "espionage" and dissent as "treason"
  10. Subvert the rule of law
She terms what she sees happening in America as a "fascist shift." By retracing the steps that took Germany, Italy, Russia, and other countries down the road to totalitarianism, she shows how simply and quickly it can happen. She notes just how tenuous our grip on liberty is:
We tend to think of American democracy as being somehow eternal, ever-renewable, and capable of withstanding all assaults. But the Founders would have thought we were dangerously naive, not to mention lazy, in thinking of democracy this way. This view -- which we see as patriotic -- is the very opposite of the view that they held. They would not have considered our attitude patriotic -- or even American: The Founders thought, in contrast, that it was tyranny that was eternal, ever-renewable, and capable of withstanding all assaults, whereas democracy was difficult, personally exacting, and vanishingly fragile. The Founders did not see Americans as being special in any way: They saw America -- that is, the process of liberty -- as special. (page 25)
. . . The Constitution and the Bill of Rights were set forth not as a flag flying merrily but as a bulwark: a set of barriers against what the Founders and their fellow countrymen and women saw as people's natural tendency to oppress others if their power is unchecked. (page 26)
. . . The authors of The Federalist Papers [Hamilton, Madison, Jay] . . . saw all people as corruptible and so set up the system to keep anyone from having unconfined power. It was a truism to the Revolutionary generation that if the fragile mechanism became unbalanced, American leaders too -- of course -- would revert to brutality. We are so removed from the tyranny that the nation's first patriots experienced personally that we have  not only forgotten this crucial insight, forgotten to consider how obvious it was to the fathers and mothers of our country. (pp 28-29)
Of course, if we had not abandoned the doctrine of total depravity everyone would know this. Ironically, it's doubful Ms. Wolf would cater to that belief. Or maybe it's more ironic that a progressive would have to be the one to reteach us an appreciatin for this doctrine.
At times I felt the author failed to establish her point because perhaps she was rushing it to print. It takes the form of a letter to a young friend upon his taking the citizenship oath, and is fairly brief. This helps make it readable without getting bogged down in too much proof, but I felt she probably was taking some of her proofs from memory and sort of "piling on." A few times she alludes to something that goes unexplained. It would have also helped her case if she'd dug a little deeper in order to cite some conservative voices in support of her premise. I am confident they are there.
Frequently, she makes a statement about what was going on in America at the time the book was written -- 2007 -- that, given what has happened since then, strengthens her case or (at times) may weaken a point. For instance, on page 36, she says, "Free citizens will not give up freedom for very many reasons, but it is human nature to be willing to trade freedom for security." Then she goes on, "But we are not wracked by rioting in the streets or a major depression here in America today." What a difference a few years make! We've had a major financial meltdown and a protest movement known as Occupy has grown. Wonder what she would say now?
On page 109 she notes the various student uprisings around the world that have led to democratic reforms, but should she pin her hopes on American students? Academia in this country is so one-dimensional, so non-diverse in its thinking, that it's hard to believe universities could be considered bastions of freedom.
On page 116 she offers an example of media manipulation, supposedly by the Bush administration or conservatives in Congress, but what did she think of NPR's firing of Juan Williams?
A few pages later she worries about the "current of lies" in the information stream and the average person's difficulty sorting through all the messages. Does she have the same qualms now, in the age of Twitter, Facebook, and Wikileaks? I wonder what she wrote about the Arab spring. In fact, on page 151 she despairs of the treatment of activists in Egypt, but look what happened in Tahrir Square this past year!
Nevertheless, her warnings have resonance. One page 23 she recounts how people living under the threat of a fascist shift "adapt to fear through complicity. . . . [W]hen a minority of citizens is terrorized and persecuted, a majority live out fairly normal lives by stifling dissent within themselves and going along quietly with the state's acts of violent repression. . . . [F]ascist regimes can be 'quite popular' for the people who are not being terrorized."
We should be concerned about point number six. It is a serious matter. From her current post as a writer for the UK's Guardian, Wolf reported on the striking down of a section of the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) – "which had been rushed into law amid secrecy and in haste on New Year's Eve 2011, bestowing on any president the power to detain US citizens indefinitely, without charge or trial." US district judge Katherine Forrest declared "facially unconstitutional" language that the Bush administration initiated and the Obama administration perpetuated.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Kasztner's Train: In a word, devastating

Kasztner's Train, by Anna Porter, is the "true story of an unknown hero of the Holocaust." This was a tale I didn't know, not only because it centered on a man I'd never heard of -- Reszo Kasztner -- but because it took place in Hungary. I'd read stories of that era from Germany and Poland, France and Britain, Holland and America, but never Hungary. Events in the newly formed state of Israel provide a subtext as well -- and many of them were also unknown to me.

I won't go into the details of Kasztner's epic, one that should stand alongside those of Oscar Schindler and Raoul Wallenberg for having saved 20,000+ Jews from the death camps. What interested me equally was the story of the Nazi's whom I found to be enormously bloodthirsty. This was and remains unimaginable to me, as it sadly did to so many who stood in their direct path. Indeed, it is this unbridled imagination for killing that set the Nazis apart, and an equal but opposite inability to imagine the horrors they intended that rendered their victims so helpless. And the Jews' would-be saviors so hapless.

As I read, I marked many passages that illustrated both points.

Page 19 describes the attitude of nations who could have helped -- unwilling to put themselves out. Canada would only take "certain classes of agriculturalists" -- a ranking that would save few. "Brazil would only accept those who could show certificates of baptism." And so on.

Page 63 records Schindler's recollection that "Himmler was disappointed with the rate of the killings" at Auschwitz. Page 66, that "corpses are used for chemical raw materials." Page 74 - lifts removed the bodies from the gas chambers and the "kapos" made quick work of removing gold teeth, hair ("used as insulation on torpedo warheads"), and hidden baubles. Page 75 - Himmler is now satisfied. The crematoria at Auschwitz had reached the "initial goal of 4,400 human bodies a day, or more than 120,000 people a month." (Sounds frighteningly similar to the figures of a few years ago for America's abortion holocaust.)

On page 96, Eichmann was worried. Transportation to the gas ovens could handle "only 12,000 people a day" at full capacity. The 100,000+ refugees waiting for deportation would "put undue stress both on the gas chambers and the crematoria."

Sadly, it wasn't just German cruelty highlighted here. Page 118 - Romanians "were the people who had thought it a grand idea to hang Jewish bodies in butcher shops."

Page 131 - "Final Solutions" abounded in the Nazi mind. Why not march Russian Jews into the Pripet Marshes? But those proved too shallow, so "survivors were herded into gassing trucks" and their bodies driven to nearby ditches. "The idea was to spare German soldiers the horror of listening to the children's screams." Euphemisms hid what was going on from the average soldier.

Page 137 details the Nazi commitment to the annihilation of the Jews. Some officers "argued that rail lines should be used for troops and their provisions," but Eichmann's representative overruled them and "established the fact that the Reich considered the elimination of Jews to be its top priority, even as bad news continued to arrive from the frontline." All Hungarian Jews were to be transported to Poland (Auschwitz).

Meanwhile, Jews hoped for the best. Page 158 - "Very few tried to escape. Families stayed together, still imagining they were being resettled in another part of the country. Life would not be easy, but they would survive." They thought Germany needed workers, and that "when this madness was over, everyone would come home."

The book is punctuated by statements like this, from page 162: "By the end of May 217,000 people had been deported from Hungary, a daily average of 12,056, or 3,145 per train." Page 184 - "By the end of June, more than 400,000 Hungarian Jews had been deported to Auschwitz, and most of them were dead."

Lack of imagination prolonged the suffering. Page 182 - "The Red Cross had not been helpful to Europe's Jews until now, reasoning that the organization's function was to help prisoners of war; Jews were prisoners in their own countries, or in countries allied with their own, and therefore they were outside Red Cross jurisdiction." As Bergen-Belsen was being liberated, the storehouse was found to contain "mountains of Red Cross food parcels, medication, and clothing; none of it had been distributed to the inmates." (page 289)

The endless categorization of people into national and ethnic groups at Bergen-Belsen, a work camp, was described by an inmate this way (page 207): "It was as if some crazed people had given vent to a maniacal, pointless collecting passion. And even now that there are few Jews left to categorize, the insane collecting and sorting goes on unabated."

Essentially what Kasztner did was bargain with the Germans -- Eichmann himself -- for the lives of as many Jews as he (backed by Jewish agencies) could buy. Page 219 - "He was convinced that the Germans were negotiating in relatively good faith, that they had been ready to sell what they called 'valueless human material' in exchange for goods of value to them" -- trucks, cash, etc.

The international community continued to worry about what to do with so many Jews (page 218, 229). The U.S. had filled its quota. Some nations were afraid of an influx of Jews, others refused to take any at all. Some accepted a paltry few.

Page 246 - "In mid-October, Captain Alois Brunner began to empty the Sered camp of it's almost twenty thousand Slovak Jews. . . . The rest, including all the children, were murdered in Auschwitz. Brunner had always taken great pleasure in the murder of children." Later in the book he is said to have been "fond of saying 'it is more important to kill Jews than to save German soldiers.'"

Page 274 - "The war in Europe was obviously coming to an end, but Hitler and his generals made a last, desperate move to enlist everybody in to the defense of the tottering Reich. They also continued with their plan for the destruction of the Jews."
Hitler's last will and testament, dictated in the bunker where he killed himself, "laid the blame for the millions of dead on everyone except himself and exhorted all Germans to continue murdering Jews." (page 293)

Dieter Wisliceny was the last person to have seen Eichmann, who told him "he would gladly jump into the grave happy because he had killed six million Jews." "That gives me great satisfaction and gratification," he said before disappearing. (page 309)
Even more shocking than the cruelty of the Nazis and lethargy of other nations was the attitude of "old settlers" in Palestine toward the new arrivals after the war's end. "The Yishuv wished to maintain its hard-won image of itself as a distinct, proud, uncompromising people belonging to this land through history and love -- unlike the frightened, beaten Holocaust survivors who kep arriving and claiming their share of a common future." They were known by the slang term "sabon," soap, referring to the "Nazi's alleged practice of making soap from the boiled bodies of their victims." (page 314)

Page 315 - "The quasi-governmental Jewish Agency was not interested in immigration for the sake of the survivors; rather, as Ben-Gurion said, it wanted people . . . to help win the war and to build a country."

Israelis were indifferent to what had happened during the Holocaust. "Survivors seemed embarrassed to discuss their experiences. The Yishuv certainly did not want to hear about them." Polite conversation around kibbutz dinner tables revolved around any other topic. (page 317) "Nobody likes to remember that he was saved. Nobody wants to be grateful for his life. It's a terrible feeling to owe someone your life." (page 328) That's why, after he emigrated to Israel, Kasztner felt unappreciated by the people whose lives he had spared from certain death.

About ten years after the war, Kasztner was accused of having hidden information about Auschwitz, collaborated with the Nazi's mainly to save himself and his family, and personally profited from the negotiations. A long, painful trial for libel ensued, which he lost. Hansi Brand, his mistress, theorized the nation needed someone to blame for their shame (page 343, 345). Kasztner wanted to know, "How can someone who never faced the Nazis judge those who did?" (page 347) A ruined man, he was shot and killed by zealots, but later his memory was exonerated on appeal.

At his trial, after his initial defense of the charges against the accuser, and after his own ill-chosen words were thrown up at him, he fell into a stunned silence. It was as if the paralysis of disbelief had finally infected him too. He couldn't imagine why this was happening to him, after all he had risked.

Reflecting on the Holocaust, one survivor said, "We didn't want to know what we knew." "In Israel . . . the political leadership scrambled to dissociate itself from the 'Jewish lambs.'" He went on, "The heroes were the paratroopers and the people who revolted in the Warsaw ghetto. Poor Rezso was an antihero. Who would stake his Israeli leader image on supporting a man who saved lives by negotiating with the Germans?"(page 376-377)

I've brushed over the story to focus on the details that leave one shaking one's head in wonder and bewilderment. How could it happen? How could these things be done? Why couldn't anybody stop it? In a word, the effect of this book is devastating.

  • Holocaust survivor Wiesel returns Hungarian honour
  • Captain Witold Pilecki: The Auschwitz Volunteer - Fascinating story. He got himself rounded up and sent to Auschwitz so he could document what was happening. In fact, I can't recall, but he may have been mentioned in the book about Kasztner. No one believed him.
  • A long shadow: Nazi doctors, moral vulnerability and contemporary medical culture - From the abstract: "More than 7% of all German physicians became members of the Nazi SS during World War II, compared with less than 1% of the general population. In so doing, these doctors willingly participated in genocide, something that should have been antithetical to the values of their chosen profession. The participation of physicians in torture and murder both before and after World War II is a disturbing legacy seldom discussed in medical school, and underrecognised in contemporary medicine."

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Review of Eat Pray Love

Eat Pray Love is the story of a woman's search for self-awareness. In an age of self-aggrandizement, it's surprising she waited so long. What Elizabeth Gilbert does at the age of 34 is make work to grow up - by not doing any work for a year, pursuing pleasure in Italy, devotion in India, and balance in Indonesia. To her credit, she does a good job of sharing her adventures and lessons; her writing is interesting, endearing, honest, and funny. I applaud her for getting off anti-depressants, facing the beasts within, and learning to cope. There's no difficulty reading this book, but when you get to the end, there's also no sorrow that it's over.As much as I appreciate Ms Gilbert's ability to write about her journeys - both geographic and emotional - I have to say Eat Pray Love lacks the depth necessary to make its impact last.
Of course, maybe that's not her goal. After all, she's writing about Herself. The goal of her pursuits is to find Herself. But this is exactly the downfall. She tells little of the countries she visits or the people she meets except as they relate to Herself. Not even religion/spirituality can lift her from her self-centered focus. (But then, if your god is within, I guess that's where you have to look.) If there's anything here to lead readers to gain an understanding of the world, appreciation for their place in it, or help to overcome their own obstacles, it's hard to find.
Near the end of her book Ms Gilbert has a revelation: "Many times in romance I have been a victim of my own optimism." (chap 96) Indeed, optimism to the extreme - not only about romance but life as well, and at the cost of truth. Let's hope she's no longer her own victim.

Saturday, April 28, 2012

Next up: Two books about food

You are invited to a feast for the senses and the spirit! In The Spirit of Food, 34 adventurous writers open their kitchens, their recipe files, and their hearts to illustrate the many unexpected ways that food draws us closer to God, to community, and to creation. All bring a keen eye and palette to the larger questions of the role of food—both its presence and its absence—in the life of our bodies and spirits. Their essays take us to a Canadian wheat farm, a backyard tomato garden in Cincinnati, an organic farm in Maine; into a kosher kitchen, a line of Hurricane Katrina survivors as they wait to be fed, a church basement for a thirty-hour fast; inside the translucent layers of an onion that transport us to a meditation on heaven, to a church potluck, and to many other places and ways we can experience sacramental eating. In a time of great interest and equal confusion over the place of food in our lives, this rich collection, which includes personal recipes, will delight the senses, feed the spirit, enlarge our understanding, and deepen our ability to "eat and drink to the glory of God." Contributors include Lauren Winner, Luci Shaw, and Wendell Berry. Edited by Leslie Leyland Fields.

Our other selection -- from what is likely to be a completely different perspective -- is Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert. The Los Angeles Times' reviewer said: “Gilbert’s journey is full of mystical dreams, visions and uncanny coincidences…Yet for every ounce of self-absorption her classical New-Age journey demands, Gilbert is ready with an equal measure of intelligence, humor and self-deprecation…Gilbert’s wry, unfettered account of her extraordinary journey makes even the most cynical reader dare to dream of someday finding God deep within a meditation cave in India, or perhaps over a transcendent slice of pizza.”

In honor of the subject matter, we intend to meet at a restaurant for our May meeting. What shall it be -- Italian, Indian, or Indonesian?

Review: The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

Good book; good discussion. Rebecca Skloot ably presents a story that spans decades, changing values, and a spectrum of emotions. It's a story of scientific discovery intersecting with family tragedy. And while readers somewhat know the end of the story, our understanding unfolds in much the same fashion as the truth about Henrietta's cells dawns on the Lacks family.

Rebecca Skloot's color-coded system for arranging the three narratives.
The author's interest in Henrietta Lacks as the source of the famous HeLa cell line began in high school, and she tracked it for more than a decade. The tale could have been told in an unwieldy and dry consecutive order. Skloot chose to "braid" three narratives: the life of Henrietta and her family, the scientific legacy, and her own involvement in bringing the family and Henrietta's cells together. The chapters are brief, and the story moves back and forth between threads. What's remarkable is how what she leaves us with at the end of one chapter leads to the subject of the next, although the timeframes can be separated by many years.

Skloot explains her writing process -- years of research followed by years of writing and rewriting -- in this YouTube video. In this interview, she also discusses her process and the decision to insert herself into the narrative. (Her rationale turns out to be much more sound and her technique more skillful than that of Mary Roach; here the "intrusion" helps tell the story, while in Stiff  it hinders.) There's another lengthy interview with the author here.

Our discussion revolved around our own impressions and some of the questions provided on the author's website. We were interested in the issue of informed consent, and also on the history of science. We remarked on how uneven and tainted the progress of knowledge has been. Critics like to blame religion for many wrongs, but what they replace it with is hardly pure, as we've also seen in Stiff and The Genius Factory. There's an allusion to another of our past reading subjects, Charles Lindbergh, in his dubious connection with eugenist Alexis Carrel (he of the "immortal" chicken liver).

The science could have gotten heavy, but this nonfiction book reads like a mystery novel. Because I don't want to forget why Henrietta's cells are so remarkable, why they still make news, I'll close with the explanation here:
Scientists knew from studying HeLa that cancer cells could divide indefinitely, and they'd speculated for years about whether cancer was caused by an error in the mechanism that made cells die when they reached their Hayflick Limit [the lifespan of normal cells being preprogrammed]. They also knew that there was a string of DNA at the end of each chormosome called a telomere, which shortened a tiny bit each time a cell divided, like time ticking off a clock. As normal cells go through life, their telomeres shorten with each division until they're almost gone. Then they stop dividing and begin to die. This process correlates with the age of a person: the older we are, the shorter our telomeres, and the fewer time our cells have left to divide before they die.

By the early nineties, a scientist at Yale had used HeLa to discover that human cancer cells contain an enzyme called telomerase that rebuilds their telomeres. The presence of telomerase meant cells could keep regenerating their telomeres. The presence of telomerase meant cells could keep regenerating their telomeres indefinitely. This explained the mechanics of HeLa's immortality: telomerase constantly rewound the ticking clock at the end of Henrietta's chromosomes so they never grew old and never died. It was this immortality, and the strength with which Henrietta's cells grew, that made it possible for HeLa to take over so many other cultures -- they simply outlived and outgrew any other cells they encountered.
Another mystery solved: The Lacks Cancer Center at St. Mary's Hospital in Grand Rapids, MI, is not named for Henrietta but Richard J. Lacks, a prominent area businessman. In 1999, his family pledged $10 million toward the construction of the new center if the hospital raised addition funds.

Saturday, March 31, 2012

Review of Death Comes to Pemberley, by PD James

Death Comes to PemberleyDeath Comes to Pemberley by P.D. James
My rating: 1 of 5 stars

What were the professional reviewers thinking when they all praised this book? Had they actually slogged through it or only read the promos? Were their employers so in debt to Knoph that they couldn't breathe a word of criticism? I was relieved to find the sane comments of real readers on GoodReads (link above). My thoughts echo many of theirs.

I had such hopes for this book, a combo of two delicious elements like chocolate and peanut butter. What could be better? What could go wrong? Sorry, dear Dame, but you should stick to Inspector Dalgliesh.

View all my reviews

Friday, March 23, 2012

April title: The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

One reviewer said of Rebecca Skloot's book: "Intimate in feeling, astonishing in scope, and impossible to put down, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks captures the beauty and drama of scientific discovery, as well as its human consequences. Another said, “HeLa cells been the source of profound advancements in medical, biological and genetic research, but up until now the story of Henrietta Lacks and her legacy has never been heard. Her story served as the spur for reform movements in medical ethics and patient privacy, and Skloot shares the details with both candor and sensitivity.” I'm intrigued.

Author information and reading group guides

Review of The Blue Star

The sequel to Jim the Boy is considerably more grown up, and we found it to lend perhaps more insight than we wanted into a teen boy's mind. Nevertheless, Tony Earley is capable of transporting us into that mind and another time.

We like to think youth is a simpler time than adulthood, small town life than the big city, or the 1940s than the 2010s, but The Blue Star blows those fallacies/fantasies out of the water. What could be more fraught with hazard than love in any age? Or war, conscientious objection, and race relations?

Similarly, who could be under more pressure (peer or otherwise) than a high school senior or a pregnant teen? Who's life is more at risk than an impoverished, beautiful woman? Who is more dangerous than a powerful, jealous man?

There is little of the boy Jim's charm in the teenager he became, except at his most awkward moment late in the book the the kitchen with his girlfriend's mother. Parts are very strange (Jim's dream/vision during the truck ride up the mountain with Bucky's coffin, conversations with Dennis Deane).

A discussion question asked whether Jim was our favorite character in the novel, and why or why not. I'd have to say not, because, as in the earlier novel, the uncles stand out. Here are men who've passed through all that teenage angst, know themselves, are assured of their place in society, and accepting of their responsibilities. They have honor -- a virtue that we barely recognize.

Jim is just learning what love costs the beloved. In this sense, The Blue Star is anti-romance, and maybe that's the male perspective shining through. A worthy perspective.

Saturday, February 18, 2012

March selection: The Blue Star

We read Tony Earley's charming Jim the Boy the first year of this club's existence. Now we turn to its sequel, The Blue Star. About the two books, a New York Times reviewer wrote:
In an interview eight years ago, Earley described Jim the Boy as “a children’s book for adults,” and The Blue Star has a similar feel. It’s such a deceptively simple strategy — to take the unembellished storytelling style of children’s literature and to bend it to adult themes — that many novelists will feel like smacking themselves on the side of the head for not having thought of it themselves. But it is no easy feat, especially to stay inside the hazard lines of sentimentality.
USA Today says:
I'm happy to report that Earley's The Blue Star works as a sequel and a lovely coming-of-age story that can be savored on its own.

Earley's debut dealt with a year in the life of 10-year-old Jim Glass, guided by a widowed mother and three bachelor uncles in a tiny North Carolina town during the Depression.

The sequel covers Jim's senior year in high school. He's come to "appreciate that there were no older boys. He and his friends were it." It opens in the fall of 1941, three months before Pearl Harbor. World War I still is thought of as "The Great War."
Discussion questions