Archive for July, 2016

Fordlandia / The Rise And Fall Of Henry Ford’s Forgotten Jungle City / Greg Grandin

Greg Grandin is a professor of history at New York University. In this book he presents a fascinating account of Henry Ford’s attempt to create a plantation to grow rubber in the Brazilian Amazon. In 1927, Ford bought a tract of land twice the size of Delaware where he built a city that became to be known as Fordlandia. It represented an early attempt to tame the jungle by developing an American town, complete with a golf course, ice-cream shops, indoor plumbing, and paved streets.

From its start, this settlement became the site of an epic clash. On the one hand, there was the car magnate who had revolutionized industrial production, armed with a fortune to achieve his dream of applying a system of regimented mass production on an inhospitable landscape. Yet despite his expensive attempt to force his will on the natural world, the Amazon emerged the victor in this particular contest.

While Grandin’s account of the creation of Fordlandia and its surrounding plantation is gripping, so too are the parts of the book that focus on Ford and his life story. Despite his invention of the assembly line, which caused a great urban migration in America, Ford represented a deep strain of midwestern Puritanism that hoped to preserve an earlier time period in American history. While his invention of the assembly line led to the destruction of the world he knew in his childhood, throughout his life Ford wanted to put the genie back into the bottle. As he aged, Ford longed for a return to simpler times.

A complex figure, Ford opposed war and yet used his factories to produce armaments in both World Wars. He was a conservative who was an early Nazi supporter, and while he claimed his workers were content with the wages paid them, he was strongly anti-union and used armed goon squads to keep his employees in line. Late in life, he became even more determined to try to create a utopian society that fit his political beliefs.

As this account shows, truth is often stranger than fiction. Fordlandia is an unforgettable account on one man’s attempt to create an industrial utopia in an inhospitable landscape. Highly readable, Grandin’s book still has sad resonance today as the Amazon continues to face an industry’s relentless onslaught. Ford’s cultural crusade to export the American way of life to the Brazilian jungle in the 1930s might have proved a failure, but the seeds of his exploitation continue to take root to this day. This little known episode highlights the results of one man’s hubris, highlighting how such efforts can unleash ecological forces that no amount of industrial ingenuity can control. It is a book that I highly recommend to anyone interested in the effects of global warming. Ford may have failed in his attempt to create a Brazilian utopia, but the footprints he left were just the first steps of a journey we are still on today.

Mao’s Great Famine : The History Of China’s Most Devastating Catastrophe, 1958-1962 / Frank Dikötter

In 1958, in an attempt to have China catch up and overtake Great Britain economically in fifteen years’ time, Mao Zedong announced a program called the Great Leap Forward. Mao believed this push would lift his country to become an equal among the world’s superpowers and prove that its brand of communism was superior to Russia’s. The program failed miserably and led to the death of 45 million Chinese who were worked, starved, or beaten to death in its implementation.

In this detailed chronicle, Frank Dikötter delves into the archives of the Communist Party to show how the Great Leap Forward propelled the country in the opposite direction of its intended results. In the book’s opening chapters, he presents the story of how Mao came up with the program and rushed forward its implementation. It was meant to quickly increase agricultural outputs and industrial production. To do so, Mao forced the country’s citizens to contribute their possessions and labor in projects meant to increase the country’s exports. He stifled dissent among his advisors and empowered local party leaders to use bullying tactics to make the peasants and workers take part. Anyone who resisted faced loss of status, arrest, or were beaten.

The programs instituted were ill conceived from the start and riddled with corruption. Citizens were enlisted en masse to contribute labor to State sponsored projects such as dam building, new agricultural techniques, and steel production. This meant that farmers often had no time left to plant their own crops or attend to the necessities of life. Most of what they produced was claimed by the State and did nothing to contribute to local economies. As a result, the economy collapsed and this led to a nation-wide famine.

In an effort to meet impossible production targets, local Party officials terrorized the populace and inflated production numbers to ensure they kept their jobs. Even after the famine become evident to all, Mao and his associates refused to provide assistance to lessen its effects. Instead, they doubled down and demanded even more from the citizenry, feeling the glory of the country’s achievements was more important than lives lost.

Dikötter’s book relies heavily on statistics to show the devastation caused by the Great Leap Forward. By its end, I felt overwhelmed by all the numbers presented. Mao’s Great Famine would have been helped by focusing more on the human side of the story. The author does attempt to personalize the famine’s toll on families, but since his work is based on government documents, the presentation remains clinical in nature. For the most part, the sufferers remain nameless, mere statistics on the page.

Even so, the author has done an amazing job of uncovering and deciphering documents that the Communist Party has long tried to keep hidden. It is a coherent record that condemns the Great Leap Forward’s spasm of revolutionary extremism. Some catastrophes cannot be avoided; this man-made one sadly occurred because of Mao’s vanity and the greed and cowardice of other Party leaders. Unfortunately, more than half a century later, the world is still threatened by totalitarian states ruled by leaders whose thirst for power too often has led their countries to ruin.

The Golden Bowl / Henry James

Published in 1904, The Golden Bowl was James’ last completed novel. Set in England, it is a complex study of a marriage complicated by adultery. It centers around the tangled relationship between a daughter and her father and their respective spouses.

It is a novel thin on dialogue, focusing instead on the consciousness of the book’s two main characters. Prince Amerigo is an impoverished Italian nobleman in London who marries Maggie Verver. She is the only child of the widower, Adam Verver, a wealthy American financier and art collector. Before the marriage, a third person is introduced into the scene, Charlotte Stant, a young American who was a former mistress of the Prince when he was living in Rome. Maggie and Charlotte have been friends since childhood, although Maggie has no idea that her friend has had a past relationship with Amerigo.

To complicate matters, Maggie, fearing her father is feeling lonely after her marriage to the Prince, convinces him to propose to Charlotte. Charlotte accepts, even though she is still enamored with the Prince. This presents Charlotte and Amerigo the opportunity to reignite their affair. As Maggie begins to suspect the pair, her fears are heightened when she buys a golden bowl and learns from the seller that Charlotte and the Prince had together admired the piece, considering it as Charlotte’s wedding gift for Maggie’s marriage to Amerigo. Since the two were together without her knowledge, this confirms to Maggie that her husband has been unfaithful to her.

James clearly intends this golden bowl to be a representation of Maggie’s and Amerigo’s marriage. While a lovely piece, it has a flaw that means the bowl can be easily broken. When Maggie confronts the Prince about the affair, the two collude to keep Adam and Charlotte in the dark about her discovery of the secret. Amerigo breaks off his relationship with Charlotte without informing her why. This leads to Charlotte and Adam deciding to relocate to America, leaving Maggie and Amerigo behind in England. At the story’s end, James provides no hint of whether Maggie and the Prince will be able to survive as a couple in the absence of Adam and Charlotte.

There are many who praise this novel’s intense dramatization of the stresses inherent in married life. It’s a vivid portrayal of how a wife and husband may attempt to sidestep a problem when the integrity of their relationship is threatened. And I understand why this book has won high praise through the years. James is a master of creating dialogue that suggests one thing on the surface, and quite another in the currents beneath. Even so, his prose is so plodding at times that I despaired of any action actually taking place. The marriage of Maggie and Amerigo struck me as so suffocating that I longed for an explosion that would finally let some air into their lives. To James’ credit, I did begin to care about the characters in this book. But reader beware: the book’s rewards come only after one’s patience has been seriously tested.

The Horses

The horses sense
the storm before the sun
knows it’s imperiled.
Their nostrils flare and
aim skyward,
radar cataloging a change
in the gradient
of atmospheric pressure.
Restless, they
gather and slowly gravitate,
compelled, not
into their cobwebbed barn,
rather, toward
the safety of a lightning rod.
That lone oak
offering the only splash of
dappled shade.
Dark and waterproof,
their hearts at
full gallop, they will ride
out the storm
with tangled manes in
the wind’s grasp.

Floorboards

In a house this old,
the doddering floorboards speak for
no discernible reason.
Awakened by a creak not repeated,
to still a racing heart,
the blame is placed on the wind,
a shifting foundation,
some anxious four-legged creature
d
scurrying overhead.
Anything safely locked outside.
But like reason,
daylight’s infusion of bravery
wears thin in the dark.
The adrenaline of doubt whispers,
who can be sure?
Be it by moon or streetlamp,
illuminated shadows
seem to breathe and lengthen
into a ghost town
of remembered childhood fears.
Floorboards assume
the weight of ancient complaints.
And yet, if the past
is still alive, in sleep it escapes
into fictitious dream.
Or so morning reassures when
silent seams concur.

If Given The Choice

If given the choice,
I would choose to die on a humid
summer afternoon,
one becalmed in a sea of lethargy.
On a day so heavy with
humidity that even the mosquitoes
lacked ambition’s bite.
Joined by drowsy neighbors, I will
fall asleep without having
to bother to close my eyes and
keep them shut.
The crickets’ drone would be
the perfect shroud,
a wall of white noise that a soul
could wrap itself in.
If there were to be a ceremony
to mark my passing,
let it be in evening as clouds
clash, with jagged
lightning emptying a grieving sky.
In the following calm,
there will be the gift of knowing
I absorbed myself
in the season that I liked best;
a seed taking root.

Sleeping Dog

That shaggy old mutt napping in
a doorway looks
harmless enough. Sun-drenched,
carpeting the entry,
the bark’s been baked out of him.

Even in his prime, he failed to
strike fear into
the cagey hearts of trespassers.
Communicating mostly
with eyes and a wagging tail,
he has always
seemed more a welcome mat.

He is not one to hastily judge.
Even so, take care,
sleeping dogs can be deceptive.

Steeping in the pungent motor-
cade of passing feet,
he dreams that today might be
the day he wakes
to chase down a passing bus.
See how his leg
twitches at the possibility of it.

Bike Trail

Scorched by a bone-dry August,
a dust plume blooms
in constant pursuit behind you.
Autumn has already
left its calling card: the weeds
singed a rusty orange.
The frantic spiders have begun
to curtain the spaces
in between with their flung webs.
After so many summer
rides you know every curve and
dip, become immune
to breathlessness on rising hills.
On this gravel path
there are only two directions,
but nonetheless,
both still carry a person forward.
Whether coming
or going, no matter the season,
you’re in transit
against time’s opposing wind.

Finding George Orwell In Burma / Emma Larkin

Emma Larkin, an American writer, was drawn to write about Burma because of George Orwell. Orwell’s mother was born in that country, and as a young man he returns there when working for the British Imperial Police. In this book, Larkin contends that his family history and experiences in Burma not only played a major role in shaping his political beliefs, it also also influenced his writings throughout his life. The three novels she highlights as examples are his first novel, Burmese Days, which is set there, as well as Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four.

While she presents an interesting case to support this theory, it is not an entirely convincing one. What makes her book special is the story of a year spent traveling in Burma during the early 2000s. It is a country ruled by a military elite that is truly “Orwellian” in its control of the populace through the use of censorship, torture, and an attempt to control every aspect of the daily life of its citizens.

In a country where the military junta used spies and informers to keep the Burmese under its heel, it is her interactions with the average citizens on the streets that elevates the book to a “must read.” She presents fascinating “behind the scenes” glimpses into the thoughts and desires of a population longing to be free. More importantly, she vividly captures a culture that, at the time, was mostly closely off from the rest of the modern world.

In the book she follows the footsteps of George Orwell, visiting the various locales where he was stationed during his time in Burma. While an interesting hook to draw the reader in, what proved captivating was the spirit of the citizens she interacted with during her exploration of the country. Larkin shows in stark detail their determination to not blindly buy in to the all-pervasive propaganda their government continually bombarded them with. Throughout, it is clear the junta has failed to stamp out their longing for a democratic state.

Emma Larkin is a pseudonym for this American journalist who was born and raised in Asia. In school, she studied the Burmese language and this gave her the fluency needed to get to know and interact with the country’s citizens. Larkin ends her book, written in 2003, with news reports indicating that the military was cracking down on dissent and that the future for democracy seemed bleak. Fortunately, things have changed for the better in recent years. Nonetheless, this book provides the reader with an introduction to a marvelously diverse culture. It captures its hopes and dreams in living color, and shows the citizens’ determination to survive, thrive, and ultimately overcome the oppression that clearly has failed, despite its use of thought control, to create a Ninety-Eighty Four style of governance.

The Good Soldier / Ford Maddox Ford

When published in 1915, the reviews for The Good Soldier were mixed, at best. This is is not surprising since it involves subjects that were considered taboo at the time, extra-marital relationships and suicide. Since then, the critical opinion of the book has shifted and it is now considered not only Ford’s masterpiece, but also a tour de force in the style of writing that came to be called impressionism. The book’s title is misleading. Picking it up, one might think they were about to read a story related to a soldier or the military. Ford had wanted to call the novel “The Saddest Story,” but his publisher changed it, fearing a book with that title would not attract an audience. However, the original title does much better represent what the reader will encounter between its covers.

Five main characters are featured, two married couples and a young girl who enters the picture and changes their dysfunctional relationships, already precariously balanced, for the worst. The story on the surface is certainly melodramatic. It is a rambling account of a passionless man whose wife (already earlier unfaithful) and best friend become lovers but are divided when the best friend falls in love with an innocent young girl; the guilty wife kills herself when her sins are made public; the best friend, frustrated with his wife’s manipulations to control his life, kills himself with a penknife; the young girl goes mad; and in the end she is left under the care of the passionless husband.

The book’s narrator happens to be the passionless husband. Duped by his wife, his best friend and the best friend’s wife, he hardly seems the appropriate person to retell the events that led to two deaths and madness. And yet it is this digressive account that elevates the melodramatic elements to comic irony.

What makes this novel important is Ford’s use of impressionist techniques to present his story. Writers who adhere to its principles present the action while events are occurring, concentrate on the emotional landscape of the setting, and avoid a chronological telling of the story, leaving the reader to puzzle together the book’s jumbled pieces.

Ford in his numerous novels tried to adhere to all these rules, and in the The Good Soldier he succeeds on all counts. And in this reader’s case, he kept my interest throughout. This novel not only has artistry, but it rings true to life on every page as it unravels a psychological analysis of its five main characters. While some might be put off by the book’s unrelenting presentation of personal tragedy, Ford’s intriguing presentation makes it much less a tragedy than a cautionary tale of what occurs when people who are basically decent and well-meaning remain in marriages that lack the spark of compassion and acceptance.