I had my most reading productive month of the year so far with April. Finishing five books, and nearly finishing a sixth. I’m glad I didn’t finish that sixth, Doctor Zhivago, until May 1st, because it would have been difficult to decide between that and my other book of the month which was…
East of Eden by John Steinbeck
What can I say about East of Eden? It had me gripped more fully than any book has for a long time, which isn’t to say that what I’ve been reading hasn’t been great, only that East of Eden is something else. Steinbeck uses this story to address the fundamental question of good and evil: is it merely a matter of fate, are the evil just born that way? It’s a question that, though ancient, must have had a newfound freshness – it was not, after all, too long since the world had been given a new personification of evil, one that remains unrivalled in the public consciousness to this day.
Every character is manipulated by the author to make some point toward that central question and in that way are mere pawns. Despite that, or perhaps because of it, it is the characters that are the main attraction; they are all clearly defined and easy to care about. Steinbeck’s treatment of certain characters is surprising considering when he was writing. Lee, a Chinese servant introduced speaking pidgin English is revealed to be a highly capable philosopher, among other things, and his sub-plot sees him dealing with belonging to two worlds (Chinese and American) and thus, to a degree, neither.
The majority of Steinbeck’s women are portrayed as suits the times: as mothers, wives, daughters etc. Despite adhering to this tradition, the work seems to critique the state of affairs, acknowledging that it is a state of affairs that ignores the individuality, even the internal world, of those women. Further departing from the tradition is the fact that East of Eden’s embodiment of evil is a woman. Cathy Ames has all the traits that we, today, would instantly call psychopathy, and it is the narrator’s opinion that Cathy was just born wrong. We don’t have to agree with him, however: we can ask whether Cathy’s limited options in the “normal” way of life, as lived by all the other women, led her down the path the narrator calls “evil”.
Whether Steinbeck is describing nature, giving opinions on the times and progress, or making his characters engage in lengthy philosophical discussions a la Dostoevsky, it is always beautifully written. By the end of the novel it feels as if every question in life has been addressed, in some way; and whether one agrees with the book’s conclusion on the fundamental questions, it’s easy to lose oneself in the argument. I know there must be people who do not like this book, because there are people who don’t like every book; I simply can’t imagine how or why.
(Goodreads rating: 5 Stars)
The Five: The Untold Lives of the Women Killed by Jack the Ripper by Hallie Rubenhold
Rubenhold’s closing remarks are to the effect that the women killed by Jack the Ripper need to be viewed as individuals. But as much as The Five is a biography of five individuals, it is a social history of many. Despite unique beginnings, the five all ended up meeting the same fates, even before their deaths. The ways they got there were different in the particulars but similar: drink, divorce, grief, shame, all usually played a role.
A conclusion, obvious from the facts presented by Rubenhold, is that the Ripper was not killing prostitutes but vulnerable women. Vulnerable because invisible, “fallen women”. They were, therefore, “just five women”, they could have been any five others, and there were many others available. Rubenhold brilliantly articulates the world that the five inhabit it as they lived it, while always contrasting it with the way it was presented by the media and, therefore, how it was seen by the upper classes.
The press are a particular presence in the book. The number of journalists increased massively during the murders, tabloids took advantage and sacrificed accuracy for sensation. Since the five were prostitutes in the media, they were prostitutes in the public imagination, and the image stuck.
It’s a completely engaging read.
(Goodreads rating: 4 Stars)
Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media by Edward S. Herman and Noam Chomsky
Manufacturing Consent is an interesting read. Chomsky and Herman propose a framework for understanding the U.S. mass media (which at the time included television, newspapers, and radio), a ‘propaganda model’.
The first chapters set out this model, which sees the “raw material” of news (i.e. what actually happened) pass through a series of five “filters” before publication. The effect being that the media – as a result of free market forces, rather than conspiracy as we might immediately think of hearing propaganda – does not publish news that would be detrimental to “special interests”. The chief “special interest” is the state itself, the image of America as the bastion of freedom, the spreader of democracy.
It’s a convincing model, and those who are interested only in the model can really get away with reading the first two chapters alone. The remainder of the book is evidence in support of the model, Chomsky & Herman draw on reporting from a number of cold war events – most prominently the Indochina Wars: Vietnam, Laos & Cambodia. The evidence paints an unrelentingly bleak image of the media, to say nothing of the U.S. government; and there is a lot of it, it can become a bit repetitive and overwhelming.
It feels a little quaint that the authors should go to such lengths to convince us of something that the modern reader is perfectly primed to accept. Yes, the media serves interests, on all sides. We all know that, don’t we? Even still the conclusions here are damning: the U.S. media completely failed to question the narrative of the American government, despite evidence being readily attainable (through, y’know, journalism) and despite conflicting accounts being reported abroad, by America’s allies! They were subservient to “official narrative” to a degree that exceeded even what the proposed ‘propaganda model’ would predict.
I do recommend reading this one; but I definitely think that, especially if you have little to no interest in the cold war, that only the first couple of chapters are essential reading. A page-turner this is not, but the ideas are definitely worth knowing.
(Goodreads rating: 4 Stars)
The Call of the Wild by Jack London
I’m not squeamish; I didn’t want to cry or vomit; but as an ardent advocate for the “John Wick Defence”*, Call of the Wild was an unpleasant read. At the very start Buck, the St Bernard mix, is dognapped, brutally beaten into submission and carted off to the snowy Yukon territory. There he is forced to work as part of a team of sled dogs, and like the rest of the dogs, reconnects with his primordial roots (i.e. before dogs were domesticated).
I don’t really know what to make of it. It’s beautifully written and London does make some interesting observations….
“Death, as a cessation of movement, as a passing out and away from the lives of the living, he [Buck] knew…”
“There is an ecstasy that marks the summit of life, and beyond which life cannot rise. And such is the paradox of living, this ecstasy comes when one is most alive, and it comes as a complete forgetfulness that one is alive.”
The lyricism of London’s writing aside, however, I can’t think of much else to recommend Call of the Wild. Whether Buck is taken at face value – as a dog – or as analogy – a human – I disagree with London’s premise that either of those things would be happier in their primitive settings. The latter, first, I think is quite simply absurd – society, as I see it, as I understand it, does not necessarily diminish what its means to be a person, an individual; humans are the social animal, to be a human in the absence of others, is not to be human at all.
Dogs, though, I can appreciate the argument more. I’ve often thought about it myself: would my dogs be happier “out there”? The answer is no. Their ancestors, Buck’s ancestors, may well have been. But modern dogs? Canis familiaris? No. Yuval Noah Harari points out the dog was first domesticated at least 12,000 years ago, and it has since been subject to such selective breeding that it really doesn’t make sense to suggest that the modern dog belongs in the wild. They simply don’t; no more than a tiger belongs in a cage.
To London’s credit he does make much of the link between man and dog, both ancient (in trippy visions) and modern (in the wonderful character John Thornton); but he portrays that cross-species love as a hindrance to the dog. And, well I just fundamentally disagree.
I’d recommend reading Jack London, perhaps The People of the Abyss, his account of London’s slums. And I’ll happily praise his writing here, but I just don’t think Call of the Wild was worth the time – and that’s saying something because it’s a really short book.
* The “John Wick Defence”
1. If a person (A) commits an offence against a person (B), it shall be a complete defence if person A demonstrates that they were acting in defence of or revenge of A’s dog from attacks by B.
2. There shall be a complete defence if A commits an offence against a person (C), if C were attempting to prevent A from taking measures against B.
— (a) This latter defence is only available if C has been given the opportunity to get the hell outta A’s way.
(Goodreads: 3 Stars)
A Prayer Before Dawn by Billy Moore
Well, I don’t know what I am meant to do with this book. It’s an easy read with a healthy amount of things happening. But it’s not for me, truly I don’t think it’s for anyone but Billy. In this book he comes to terms with himself, his past, his mistakes — but there’s little of philosophical value, say, to anyone who was not trapped in similar circumstances as Billy.
He belonged to that “real men don’t cry” group, he invalidated his emotions and in doing so broke himself. The book is him putting himself back together. But the lessons are obvious, only really suited, as I say, to others in the “real men don’t cry” mould. Perhaps, also to those who just enjoy a very routine drug addiction and prison story – I mean, seriously, you have seen this story countless times in countless films (probably books too, but I don’t read this type of thing).
I suppose I have nothing against A Prayer Before Dawn, it’s written okay, it moves at a brisk pace; it just didn’t give me what I want from a book. Isn’t it strange how mediocre can often seem worse than awful?
(Goodreads: 3 Stars)
And that was April, started off incredibly with East of End, got a bit grim for a while with dog abuse and the horrors of Vietnam; but ended on a high with most of Doctor Zhivago. Which is enthralling, and unless I’m much mistaken will be my book of the month in May – I can’t see anything topping it.
Thanks for reading!