Saturday, January 28, 2012

FORDLANDIA by Greg Grandin ✰✰✰

Fordlandia was a long haul for me, but having said that, I would like to make one clear statement: Greg Grandin is a wonderful writer, and his talent carried me through this book.  My issues with the work stem from my general boredom with all things economic and philosophical-what made me think that reading a book about an attempt to build not only a rubber plantation, but also a transplanted model American town, in the middle of the Amazon would be appealing, I do not know.
The book, in my opinion, is somewhat misleadingly titled, as at least half of the book gives a history of Henry Ford.  Not only his business theories are explored, but also his experiments with social engineering.  Those two things were inescapably entwined for him, because if a worker agreed to work for Ford, who paid the best wages of the day, they also subjected themselves to having much of their personal lives overseen by him.  Ford’s company had a Sociological Department whose employees visited private homes of workers to verify that proscribed levels of hygiene, neatness, and nutrition were being met.  Workers could be fired if they were found to be frequenting bars, smoking, or participating in illicit conduct.  Think new industrial feudalism, and that about sums it up.  It brought to my mind the Vice and Virtue police in modern Islamic societies.
Exactly what lead Ford to go into Brazil and attempt to establish a rubber plantation is still open to speculation.  Some argue that he honestly thought that he could apply his industrialization process to agriculture.  Others say that it was more of a social experiment: could he take the bygone small town America (which his own organized mechanization was largely responsible for eradicating) that he pined for and re-create it in the middle of the Amazon.  
The way the plantation was run is nothing short of startling to a modern, North American reader.  Admittedly, some things were good in some ways.  He provided great medical care in the middle of the jungle, but his doctors refused to respect local customs.  Healthy meals were provided in the mess hall, but workers were forced to eat the American foods that were served there and pay for the privilege.  Perhaps the most incomprehensible aspect was housing.  Initially, palm walled huts with thatched roofs were built; these were nice homes to the indigenous workers, and they were pleased with them.  Ford disagreed.  At his order, Michigan style Cape Cod bungalows were built.  The concrete floors and the tin roofs combined to turn them into what a local priest called “galvanized iron bake ovens”.  Rather than Amazonian housing built for the climate, Henry Ford, who had never been to the Amazon, insisted that his American styled village must have American styled homes.  Another item that was controlled by Ford was entertainment.  A dance hall was built, but the steamy Latin dances were expressly forbidden; a dance instructor and acceptable music were shipped in from Michigan and the laborers learned to dance with the only contact between the partners being the touching fingertips of one hand, and the tips of the man’s left forefinger and thumb resting on the woman’s waist.  Movies were also provided, but were vetted first by Ford managers.  
Perhaps the most amazing thing about the quest to grow rubber trees was the refusal of Henry Ford to bring in any kind of agricultural experts.  Ford had a long standing aversion to experts, believing that any man could learn any task, and refused to believe that loggers sent from Michigan to the Amazon couldn’t figure it out.  Like I said-Ford had never been to the Amazon.  I love reading about entomology and botany, so I enjoyed this section of the book, but if bud and crown grafting (yes, they did eventually convince Henry that an expert was needed) make your eyes glaze over the way that the effect of various wage structures on the economy do mine, this might not be your favorite aspect of the work.
Other events which are covered in the book include the Great Depression, World War II shifts in production, the rise of the unions (and Ford’s relations with them), Ford company changes as Henry aged (remember I said he was a contradictory fellow), and the effect of various governments-both American and Brazilian-on the whole enterprise.
I knew very little about Henry Ford when I picked up this book.  His breaking down of production processes into thousands of orderly parts, performed in turn by individual workers is well know and was more or less the extent of my knowledge.  Reading this I came to realize what a complex, contradictory, and idealistic individual he truly was.  As I read through Greg Grandin’s superb ending to his tale, in which he does an excellent job summing up what happened both in Michigan and the Amazon after Ford’s death, what struck me most forcefully was that in the end those things which meant the most to Ford became the greatest ironies.  Only the immediate history of the company after Ford is covered, but a brief look at the economy and fate of the Amazonian region around Fordlandia covers up until publication of the book in 2009.  It was an excellent, but heart-wrenching conclusion to a very odd story.
Overall, a three, maybe three and a half star read for me.  I did enjoy it because I learned a tremendous amount about a subject of which I knew nothing, but there was a fair amount of economic theory, philosophy, and social engineering-all elements that do not combine to make for a higher ranking read for me personally.  If you are a reader who enjoys business history with an undeniably interesting twist, or who has no aversion to my issues and is fascinated by Ford and/or the Amazon, this work will likely rank much higher with you, as Grandin’s research and writing truly are outstanding.

Thursday, January 26, 2012

IMPERIAL WOMAN by Pearl S. Buck ✰✰✰✰

This is definitely a book which forced me to read from the viewpoint of another time and place.  It tells the story of Tzu-Hsi (pronounced “Tsoo Shee”), born in 1835, and her rise from a middling Manchu family to the throne of Imperial China.
In novelized format Pearl S. Buck engagingly portrays this woman who, at the age of seventeen became a concubine to the emperor.  Giving him his only son placed her in a position of power, which she exploited to the fullest.  A crafty woman who was a devoted friend and a dangerous enemy, Tzu-Hsi continued to rule China as regent to her son after the death of his father.  I did some research on her after I finished the book and learned that many historians believe that her refusal to allow China to interact with world traders and diplomats-attempting to continue the isolationist policies of the rulers before her-despite the new world economy that was evolving, very likely led to the end of any likelihood of a modernized Imperial China and thus opened the door to communism.
She did, towards the end of her rule, have a softening in her stance, as a result of the Boxer Rebellion of 1900.  A new willingness was expressed for social reform, to the extent of extending the possibility of a constitutional monarchy; unfortunately, her evolving position came too late for it to be willingly embraced by her people.
Author Buck does a wonderful job with Tzu-Hsi’s character, clearly showing her evolution from naive country girl to woman of power to aging ruler trying to rectify her mistakes.  Everything that I read about the empress after reading Buck’s novel shows that the novel is well researched and factually correct.  The author’s love and knowledge of China shine through in this novel; cultural issues are dealt with even-handedly and with perfect instinct for what a western reader might need to have further explained.
I listened to the new audio which Oasis put out last year.  It was ably done-not one which will make my top audio of the year, but very good nonetheless-for audio readers I definitely recommend it.
Overall I would say that this is a wonderfully absorbing tale about a fascinating woman living in a traditional country on the cusp of the modern age.  I think that most readers of historical fiction would find her life’s journey an interesting and enjoyable read.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

THE COUNT OF MONTE CRISTO by Alexandre Dumas ✰✰✰✰✰

I think that one of the things which makes a book a classic is the ability to read it all over again and have it feel like it is your first visit.  The Count of Monte Cristo was just such a book for me.  It has been some twenty odd years since Dumas and I spent time together, and while I remembered most of the highlights, the many subtle shifts and machinations of plot and character felt absolutely fresh and new.
This, credited by many to be Dumas’ masterpiece, was for me a page turner as I read in anticipation of those culminating moments which make the novel so memorable.  I remembered the main theme of revenge which provides the motivation in the plot as Edmond Dantes reinvents himself as the Count of Monte Cristo and seeks vengeance for the injustice done him.  There were two elements which I had forgotten, the first of which was the foil of goodness that shows the other, softer, side of a character who might otherwise be overcome by hatred and thus an ugly, unlikeable personage.  The second was an element which didn’t come into play until the end of the novel, when Edmond begins to question whether or not his vengeance was sanctioned by God or not and whether the good that he has done will ultimately weigh in balance with his revenge.
The characters in the novel are amazing.  I do not think I have ever seen a better example of clear character development than that of Edmond Dantes as he becomes the Count.  In addition, despite the length of the novel, the total number of characters is quite manageable, giving ample time for each to be well realized and the reader ease in keeping the cast straight.
As with all books which I read in translation, I would like to say a word about the edition which I chose.  After a good deal of research, and despite owning a alternate copy in both print and ebook, I settled on Penguin’s newer work by Robin Buss.  Mr. Buss stated in his introduction that he believes that the translator’s job is to convey the flavor of the novel in readable prose, as opposed to a word for word rendering which fails to give the reader a sense of what it feels like to read the author’s own writing in his original language.  I do not read French and therefore can not attest to how well he succeeds in his intention, but I can say that this is a beautifully written translation which never felt choppy or gave me the feeling that I was not reading in the language in which the book was originally written.
Yes, at 1,152 pages the book is a commitment, but I would highly recommend it for three reasons.  It is a masterpiece of plotting and therefore just plain fun to read and, second, it will bring alive the culture of France in the early 19th century like few other works.  Finally, Dumas, in addition to being a literary craftsman, is also very witty, which comes through in his snappy dialog.  Unless you are a reader who dislikes long, well developed novels-I realize there are many who simply find them a drudge-I cannot recommend this one highly enough.

Sunday, January 8, 2012

THE VANISHING ACT OF ESME LENNOX by Maggie O'Farrell ✰✰✰✰1/2

This book was so much better than I thought it would be.  The premise, a modern Scottish girl who finds herself responsible for an elderly relative entombed and forgotten in a hospital for the mentally ill, seemed rather predictable to me.  
Instead of the usual young girl learns about life from an elderly woman-in fact, I found myself wishing that there was more of that between the two main characters-this one threw in a number of surprises.  I hate to compare it to Ian McEwan’s Atonement, a book which I personally found weak, but this novel revolves around a very similar theme: a young person making mistaken and selfish choices only to find that the consequences for others are catastrophic.  Only this plot was much, much better and executed with far more suspense and deft unpredictability.
O’Farrell makes use of two separate narrators, one in third person and the other a wandering stream of consciousness voice in the first person of the elderly aunt.  Generally, I loathe stream of consciousness, but it was the perfect device for conveying the aunt’s Alzheimer's and bringing to the surface threads of foreshadowing and threads of resolution.
There was one plot line which I felt was filler and did not really tie in with the main story, but not so much that it felt distracting.  Part of my issue with that thread might simply have been that I felt the characters it was written around were very flat.  I loved the main characters, for the most part, and found them well developed and consistent. 
The best part of the book was the ending.  Even as the reader begins to piece things together throughout the course of the novel, I doubt the ending will be expected.  I would recommend this book of family secrets for most readers; since I did the audio of this one, I can also say that Anne Flosnik does an excellent job narrating, and I would definitely recommend it for those who like to listen to their books.

Thursday, January 5, 2012

THE FALL OF LIGHT by Niall Williams ✰✰✰✰1/2

Many thanks to Natalie at In Spring it is the Dawn for giving this away on her lovely blog and mailing it all the way from Japan!

Covering a span of years that encompasses the Potato Famine, this is the tale of Francis Foley, his wife Emer, and their four sons, as their lives drift apart and re-converge in 19th century Ireland.

At times I felt that the plot held a few too many coincidences to be veracious, but that is the single factor which kept this book, which I gave four and a half stars, from being a five star read.

The prose itself was laden in pathos, gorgeous.  I fell in love with Niall Williams’ writing in a way I have not fallen in love in quite some time.  The style was absolutely perfect for the subject matter.  It is very seldom that I quote from novels in my reviews, but this time I really want to share:

“He thought of the old man’s boast that their country was bigger than the map-makers had drawn it and he suddenly saw it so.  He saw the vastness of the sea was itself part of that wild country as was its great and million-starred sky and he dropped to his knees there in the sand and felt the despair of loss.  He put his hands together to pray and turned to the constellations that were cold and impassive and falling through the darkness ages away, and, knowing no God, who knew him, he looked to Pegasus in the south and to it prayed the wordless prayers that rose off his soul.”  (page 80)

“He imagined them, those gaunt figures with ghosthood already immanent, their long thin arms holding cradled the bundle of their world, their hunger and frailty, the mewling of their children, the ragged faded worn quality of their spirits as they journeyed homeless toward the impossible idea of home.” (page 224)

A reader who wants a plot that moves quickly towards a crashing climax will not find that here.  This book is carried by luminous wordsmithing and characters that draw you along on their wrenching journey.  For the right reader in the right frame of mind, it is an unforgettable experience, and I highly recommend it.

Sunday, January 1, 2012


This was really difficult this year! I have read an absolutely unprecedented eighty-three books! Normally I read fiction and non-fiction in pretty much equal amounts, and many more in print than on audio. This past six months I have been plagued by migraines, so I have listened to a lot of, mostly fiction, books. My final total is twenty-nine nonfiction and fifty-four fiction titles for the year, of which forty-one have been audio and forty-two in print.

2011 Top Ten: 
Since I read in unequal amounts, I have given four slots to nonfiction and six slots to fiction.  Books are in order of preference for each category.  Click on the book's title to link to its review.

Best Nonfiction:

1. Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand (World War II Pacific theater/biography: fantastic writing; story so amazing in parts it is difficult to believe it is not fiction)
2. The Fear by Peter Godwin (Contemporary Zimbabwe: possibly the most powerful book I have ever read)
3. Plastic: A Toxic Love Story by Susan Freinkel (history, science, balanced environmental moving and very accessible)
4. The Devil in the White City by Erik Larson (1893 Chicago World’s Fair: serial murder and the story of the fair itself)

Best Fiction:

1. The Book Thief by Markus Zusak (World War II Germany: an ordinary German neighborhood...narrated by “Death”...profound)
2. The Forever Queen by Helen Hollick (Saxon England, early 1000’s: Emma of Normandy...very accurate history, fast paced plot, wonderful love story)
3. Schindler’s List by Thomas Keneally (World War II Poland: story of German industrialist Oskar Schindler’s efforts to save 1,300 Jews...very well written and researched)
4. Tess of the D’Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy (1800s rural England: deep characters, gorgeous writing)
5. Parrot and Olivier in America by Peter Carey (Post French Revolution Europe and America: characters you can’t help but root for and a fun plot)
6. Remarkable Creatures by Tracy Chevalier (early 1800s, Lyme Regis, England: lovely character portraits, excellent picture of science in the society of the time)

Best Audio:
I listened to so many audio books that I could not pick just one favorite-I loved these two in equal measure.

Parrot and Olivier in America by Peter Carey
(narrated by Humphrey Bower, who does such an excellent job with Parrot’s and Olivier’s voices that I thought there were two separate narrators)
The Book Thief by Markus Zusak
(narrated by Allan Corduner, who is absolutely pitch perfect as the narrator, “Death”)