27 February 2009

15. One Thousand White Women

One Thousand White Women, The Journals of May Dodd - Jim Fergus

I took a while to read this book because life happened. It had nothing to do with the book. I really enjoyed reading it.

The story is formed mostly through a series of journal entries. The protagonist is a white woman from Chicago. She has volunteered to take part in a two year government program where white women are to become brides to Cheyenne Indians, live with the Cheyennes, and to have mixed race babies. Does that sound far fetched and stupid? It sounded pretty darned stupid to me.

Then I found that the way it was all stitched together made the story believable. Not probable, but believable anyway.

I have no idea whether this is true or not, but the author's note at the beginning of the book says the inspiration for the novel was from an actual historical event. He says that "in 1854 at a peace conference at Fort Laramie, a prominent Northern Cheyenne chief requested of the US Army authorities the gift of one thousand white women as brides for his young warriors. Because theirs is a matrilineal society in which all children born belong to the mother's tribe, this seemed to the Cheyennes to be the perfect means of assimilation into the white man's world."

The author took liberties with and greatly expanded upon that incident. I can imagine the laughter from the Army at the time. No way in hell would that be allowed to happen.

Well...it does happen in the book. May Dodd is one of the brides. Her story is fascinating. The descriptions of the "savage" way of life is quite revealing. Yes, they repeatedly call the Indians savages. It is not a politically correct book. That is on purpose.

I found this book to be very interesting. The interactions between the different brides, the brides and the warriors, the brides and the squaws, the Army and the Cheyenne people, all very interesting. The relationships between Catholics, Protestants and others were interesting.

Some of the characters were a real pisser. The Kelly twins and their Irish accent and street wise ways. Gretchen, a large and very strong Swiss woman with another heavy accent who marries a lazy and fearful guy who she "controls" in some humorous ways. Euphemia, a black "white" woman who is an escaped slave and is an amazing story in her progression to becoming a warrior herself. There were more than a dozen different characters that were well developed and I got a sense of who they really were.

I very much enjoyed this book. Some of the subject matter, the events of the book, are pretty unsettling (war, raids, racism, sexism, etc) but the book was a lot of fun to read.

I think the thing I liked the most about the book were the descriptions of the land, the wildlife, the places. I could see it. I could smell it. I could imagine it. It made me long for it...and made me wonder if that was the place Chris McCandless was seeking. I imagine it was.

13 February 2009

14. Lolita

Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov

This is a very well written book. The words flow brilliantly and the vocabulary is tremendous. The descriptiveness of so many details is amazing. I am thoroughly impressed, especially since English is not Nabokov's first language.

Then...I am disgusted. You see, I have a 12 year old adopted daughter who happens to be quite beautiful. I have a 19 year old and a 4 year old also, but I will use the 12 year old as my example because Lolita was 12. Anyway, is my daughter a nymphet? I am quite sure there are people out there that think exactly that. That thought is revolting to me and in turn makes this book very hard to stomach.

I have seen the blurb that says it is a love story. I think that is total bull. This was not love. This was obsessive animal instinct in a man with zero self control and no idea what a father is. He is a very smart, cunning and calculating individual who deludes himself into thinking he is in love. He just pretended to be a father in order to corner his conquest in a situation where he was the authority, the provider, the security, the safety net. He used those to take advantage of this young girl.

I have seen where others have said that the words somehow make them feel sympathy for or empathetic toward the plight of Humbert Humbert. I never felt any of that. Then man was making conscious decisions and actively pursuing a self-proclaimed deviant lifestyle. From the moment he kissed Annabelle as a young man he was looking for a situation exactly like he was able to form with Dolores. Even when Dolores was under his control and after she was gone he was still watching and making comments about other little girls. He saw Dolores crying every night and did not care except for his own will and wishes. She would continually say "Oh no" when he made his advances. She flat asked him when they could stop traveling, stop doing disgusting things and live like normal people. She was just a little girl who was all alone and being used.

I also read a comment about moral relativism. What is done in other societies and during other periods of time does not make any difference. Nabokov was alive in the 19th century living in Europe and America. The book was set in America in the 1940's. I read this book in America today. That framework is what is relevant to this story, not some 15th century aboriginal tribe in New Zealand that says it is OK for a father to rape his 12 year old daughter.

I am thankful that Nabokov chose never to write about the actually sexual actions that the reader is left to imagine. This book is in no way pornographic.

One last thing, I don't speak, read or understand french. It is used so much that I feel that part of the story was lost on me. Do I care? Not very much.

I loved the writing but the subject matter is repulsive to me and therefore I cannot say in good conscience that I recommend this book to anyone but a die hard literature lover. I will say it is good because it is so well written.

I am glad I am finished with this one.

08 February 2009

13. The World According to Mister Rogers

The World According to Mister Rogers; Important Things to Remember by Fred Rogers
This book is a collection of quotations from Fred Rogers. They are from his famous PBS TV show, interviews, speeches and his writings. It was a very quick read and is full of nice guy wisdom...exactly what I would expect from Mr. Rogers.
Some short examples:
"Solitude is different from loneliness, and it doesn't have to be a lonely kind of thing."
That reminded me of something my father said once when he was trying to show me the difference between being lonely and being alone. They are very different.
"All life events are formative. All contribute to what we become, year by year, as we go on growing. As my friend the poet Kenneth Koch once said "You aren't just the age you are. You are all the ages you have ever been."
"Children who have learned to be comfortably dependent can become not only comfortably independent, but can also become comfortable with having people depend on them. They can lean, or stand and be leaned upon, because they know what a good feeling it can be to feel needed."
"There is no normal life that is free of pain. It's the very wrestling with our problems that can be the impetus for our growth."
"Peace means far more than the opposite of war!"
Lots and lots of quotes.

07 February 2009

12. The Jungle

The Jungle by Upton Sinclair
This book is categorized as political and historical fiction. There are good reasons why.
The book is credited with being a catalyst for real change. It is very rare when a work of fiction creates a real-world problem to be corrected. Published in 1906 and revealing the "wage slavery" and corruption within the meat packing industry, this book literally caused an uproar in America. This book put the disgusting practices of the industry in a public form and people reacted. Sales of American meat took a nosedive following publication. People were scared of eating diseased meat. The meat packing industry ended up lobbying the federal government to help them show the world that the meat was safe. This lobby and the public outcry are why President Theodore Roosevelt initiated an investigation that led to the passage of the Meat Inspection Act and the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906 (which later became the FDA).
"I aimed at the publics heart, and by accident I hit it in the stomach."
The quote above is what Mr. Sinclair says about the reaction to his book. Why did he say this? Upton Sinclair was an outspoken Socialist Journalist. He was a muckraker extraordinaire. He had an agenda and he pushed that agenda all of his life (into the 1960's). His point in writing this book was not to fix the meat packing industry. His point was to show the ungodly working and living conditions of the people. His goal was to have the workers organize and promote a Socialist agenda. The public reaction didn't really care about that at all. They cared deeply about the meat on their own tables being safe. I think the quote is very appropriate.
The story itself is about a Lithuanian immigrant family that comes to Chicago in pursuit of the American dream. The story is a never ending stream of misery and misfortune. Try as they might, these poor people keep falling down again and again. The system is designed to make them feel like they have a chance. Just enough of a chance to try. To try very hard. The problem is that they really never have a chance from the very start. It is made for them to perpetually lose.
From the very beginning I felt bad for these people. Time after time I would think, yes, that is the direction you should take...do that...and they would. Time after time there was something that happened and caused them to be even worse than they were before. There were times when I physically had a tear in my eye. (Damn you Upton Sinclair!)
So, life sucks repeatedly, until Jurgis (the main character) is exposed to and joins the Socialist party. Well, isn't that just amazing how nothing goes bad from that point. Life is wonderful and everything just happens to fall in place. Yeah, right. The last 80 pages or so of the book is really a very ling dissertation about the strengths of Socialism. Amazingly, while reading it I thought it sounded really good. What a wonderful idea. Yes, that makes sense. But, I know it is missing parts that are really needed for the system to work.
Mr. Sinclair wrote this whole misery and agony novel in order to show the reasons why Socialism was a better option. He exposed more than just bad business policy in the meat packing industry. He showed the real truth about how the businesses, governments, big company trusts (oil, railroad, coal, etc) colluded to hold men down, and much more. The American people got pissed about dirty meat, acted on that, and then chose to mostly ignore the rest.
The book was a good read. Sometimes, I felt like I was reading a very long article in a newspaper. That makes sense because Sincalir was a journalist for the now defunct Socialist paper Appeal to Reason. It went into very graphic detail throughout the entire book. It was descriptive enough to give me a mental image of everything described.
My only problem with the book (besides the conclusion dragging on and on about the benefits of Socialism) was all the Lithuanian names (Jurgis, Ona, Elzbieta, Marija, Jokubus, Jadvyaga, Tamoszius, etc etc). They were difficult to follow because they were unfamiliar. It took a while to get them all straight. Other than that it was a damned good book and I am glad I read it.
PS...I am not going to argue the pros and cons of Socialism in this blog.

01 February 2009

11. Slaughterhouse

Slaughterhouse: The Shocking Story of Greed, Neglect, and Inhumane Treatment Inside the U.S. Meat Industry by Gail A. Eisnitz

The second book I read recently that has to do with the U.S. meat industry, slaughterhouses, the USDA and the failures of all of the above.

This author came from a different angle than the fast food book. Her concerns are based on inhumane acts and animal rights. She does not feel that cattle, hogs, chickens, sheep, etc, should be tortured before or during the butchering process.

To tell you the truth, I did not care all that much about the animal rights part of the book that she emphasized. Yes, I would prefer that a cow was "stunned" properly and was not conscious while being slaughtered. It is the "law" that is should be that way. I would rather the animal did not feel the pain. On the other hand, I also understand that the business is there to make a profit. Stopping the line costs money. I understand not stopping the line for an animal. Call me a heartless bastard for that if you like.

On the other hand, when the company does things that cause the animals to be alive, I have a problem with them. The "knocker" is supposed to stun the animal. When you use a smaller bolt in the stunner or turn down the air pressure/current it will not function as advertised. When this is done on purpose to increase throughput it puts us all at unnecessary risk.

An animal hanging from the hook alive is thrashing and kicking. That makes it difficult to get a clean cut. That causes things to get cut that shouldn't. That causes things to fly around that normally wouldn't.

Also...it creates a very dangerous work environment. If you are supposed to make a cut on 1200 bulls each day and 25% of them are alive, well, that is an awful lot of wrestling huge animals, with razor sharp knives in your hands, in tight quarters, on slippery surfaces, under intense managerial pressure to perform. That is where I really start to care. Those are people taking those risks.

And then there is the USDA/FDA angle to the story. It opened my eyes to a few things. Under Reagan and Bush this industry was deregulated. The USDA already had minimal authority to do anything, now they had even less and had bigger problems. Clinton made it even worse because he was in the pockets of the Tyson guys who helped get him elected. All kinds of laws are passed. All kinds of new standards are initiated.... but none of them work. They don't work because the meat packing companies are running the show.

It is a very interesting read. I sat down at my mother-in-laws dinner table last night. She had a steak on my plate. Normally I would have just ate it and enjoyed. This time I looked at it and thought... "Was this cow alive when they pulled off it's hide?" "Did this piece of meat come in contact with manure?" "Was the person who cut this steak an illegal alien who is afraid to speak up about the horrors in his workplace?"

I am not a big union supporter. I think they have passed the period when they were most useful and create problems in many instances. Some unions are different though. Some are needed. Is one needed here? Should the AFL/CIO be representing these people? Yes! Yes, they should be.

Meat packers used to be unionized. They got broken up. Most shops now have employee turnover rates so high that the people are not around long enough to organize. That and many are the type of folks who are "non-persons" as far as wanting any attention.

The USDA is a joke also. Talk about a fox in a hen house. The USDA leadership came from the meat-packing industry. What the hell should we expect? We put the guys in charge of inspecting the work when the same guys are in charge of maximizing profit.

No wonder the rates of infection have increased dramatically in the last 25 years.

Fast Food Nation convinced me there is shit in your meat. Slaughterhouse showed me there is not only shit, but worms, maggots, abscesses, puss, urine, and countless other things that are definitely not "meat".

I doubt I will look at a hamburger the same way again.

Gail Eisnitz now works for the Humane Farming Association. See their site for more info.

Next book: The Jungle by Upton Sinclair. Both Fast Food Nation and Slaughterhouse state that this novel created such a stir in 1906 that President Teddy Roosevelt investigated and made wholesale changes to the U.S. meat packing industry. I am wondering what that novel said. Then I will move on and get away from the whole meat and animals stuff for a while.