Wednesday, November 6, 2019

Current Reading

Just some of the latest stuff I've been reading.

First: Calypso by David Sedaris [SPOILERS BELOW]

If you don't know already, David Sedaris is a wildly popular US-American humo[u]r writer. I've read four of his other books and I've enjoyed them all. Calypso is a little bit different from his droll, dry, absurdist, hilarious (at times) usual fare. In this one we're given some of the darker aspects of his family and his reflections on the realities of ageing.

For instance, ... haunting most of the book is the spirit of his sister Tiffany, who committed suicide. Tiffany Sedaris is described as a difficult person who had obvious mental problems. Towards the end of her life she lived in squalor, engaging in dumpster-diving and making art out of found-objects. On the internets you can find other sources who say that David Sedaris does her a disservice in his description of her and that she was a beautiful, creative spirit. But Sedaris doesn't claim to be the last word on who his sister was. He describes her as he knew her. And it's pretty obvious that he isn't writing with pride about how the last time he saw her he closed the door in her face when she showed up at one of his book readings.

We learn that Sedaris must have gotten much of his talent for observation and story-telling from his mother as he recounts how all the children lingered around the dinner table after eating to listen to her tell her stories about the people and events she'd experienced during the day. She'd also offer her observations on their own stories. But then Sedaris informs us that his mother became an alcoholic in her last years. That she was an embarrassing raging drunk. Sedaris has already told us how his mother died of cancer when she was 62, but in Calypso he begins to reflect on the fact that he's closing in on 62 himself. One day soon he'll be older than his mother was when she died.

Finally, Sedaris tells us about his father. Previously his father has been described as a devastatingly witty fellow. He was an IBM engineer in the 1960s. He still is (in his nineties) a jazz music aficionado. Sadly however, like many an older white male, he's become a consumer of right-wing rage TV and radio. Moreover (and one of the reasons for his mother's drinking) he's been a hoarder for decades. The Sedaris household was a dilapidated shambles. All the rooms crammed with papers and junk his father had brought home. It's bizarre how his father is obviously still a highly functioning individual while engaging in this nonsensical behaviour.

This is a touching, sad book that still manages to make you smile. Sedaris's response to finding out about "fit-bits" or describing himself as looking like a hand-puppet when wearing a shirt three-times too long for him. Whatever their "eccentricities," Sedaris's parents created a very original set of kids.

Next up is Robert Dallek's Franklin D. Roosevelt: a political life.

This is one of the first general histories of FDR following the release of the personal papers of his cousin and confidante Margaret "Daisy" Suckley who died in 1991 at the age of 99. FDR played his cards very close to his chest for his entire life and very few people knew him. He has occasionally been referred to as a "sphinx" for his inscrutability. Suckley's correspondence gave historians the first glimpse at the inner Roosevelt; his stresses and strains, agonies, intimacies and his passions.

Dallek's book was my first reading of FDR's life in its entirety so I really don't have anything to compare it to. But I will say that it makes me more sympathetic to the man. Roosevelt can obviously be criticized for being an elitist and an imperialist who preserved the inhuman system of capitalism. But it also has to be said that he was a few steps in the right direction for social justice and the welfare state. And, given the strength of reactionary forces in the USA then (and now) he was probably the best that anyone could seriously have hoped for. Reading a biography of Eleanor Roosevelt I found out about several times when FDR purposely confounded the progressive ideas of his wife and her supporters. But reading Dallek it's clear that while he wasn't as forward thinking as his wife, his personal views were farther along than his public utterances.

For instance; he was fairly sympathetic to the labour movement. But the famous sit-down strikes by the Congress of Industrial Organizations were extremely unpopular with both the business class (obviously) as well as the general public. Roosevelt appears to have been perfectly willing to simply let both sides work it out between themselves and would have been happy either with the status-quo or (more importantly) victories for labour. But he couldn't say this. When asked for his opinion he attempted to avoid the question, but was eventually forced to say "A pox on both their houses." This was actually politically courageous because (as I said) public opinion and ruling class opinion) was definitely on the side of business. By saying what he said FDR showed that he would not take the side of employers against workers. However, saying this infuriated CIO leader John L. Lewis whose organization had given large sums to Roosevelt's 1936 re-election and now felt betrayed.

FDR's apparent conservatism was really political prudence. The forces of reaction were far too strong. Considering the hostility of the owners of the media, most of the business elites, and the Southern racists who comprised the strongest bloc within his own Democratic Party, FDR achieved as much as he could and probably more than anyone else could have at the time. And he did it successfully enough to win an unprecedented four presidential elections. (Although without the war both the voters and he, himself, would probably have preferred he be only a two-term president.)

But Dallek missed a few important things. The one that stands out the most was his failure to mention that FDR and Eleanor met while she was working at a settlement house in New York City. He was impressed and charmed by her work among the poor and she, in turn, was impressed with his stated desire to help improve social conditions as a politician. This patrician devotion to social justice was one of the building blocks of their early relationship.

I also just re-read Ernest R. May's Strange Victory: Hitler's Conquest of France. I read it again because it's extremely well-written as well as being about a very important topic. Also, the first time around, all of those new German and French names and bureaucratic institutions overtaxed my soggy brain and I felt the need to give it a second go.

The book is described by its author as a re-examination of ideas presented in an earlier French work titled Strange Defeat written in 1940 by Marc Bloch. In that work, Bloch describes the failure of (among other things) the French high command, who had failed to understand the transformation of warfare since 1918. In Strange Victory, May argues that France wasn't really all that ill-prepared for war in 1939 and that Germany wasn't all that better prepared. Given the forces on either side, the French and the British had good reason to believe in eventual victory. What produced Germany's "strange victory" was a daring strategy of a feint through Belgium with the main armoured thrust going through the Ardennes Forest, combined with French and British intelligence failures to recognize the signs that this was going to happen, and, furthermore, the failure of the French to quickly respond to the new reality when it was obvious.

May makes it very clear that the war could have been over with a defeat for Germany in 1940 if only a few things had been different. (And that therefore, the world would have been a very different place.)

Next I've read Toronto writer Jess Taylor's Just Pervs.

This is a collection of short stories about women's sexual and romantic lives. I'm introducing some female characters into my graphic novel and I've decided that I should read women writers rather than rely on my own half-assed observations of female behaviour and portraits of female characters by male authors.

Taylor is a good writer. Good at describing urban interiors and states of mind. And sequences too I guess. The story that moves from a party boat to an apartment to a pharmacy just flows right along.  I could picture all the small apartments and Toronto bars as she described them. The themes are generally grim. About unrequited love, bad choices, insecurities, delusions and failures.

Finally, I'm almost halfway through E.P. Thompson's The Making of the English Working Class.

I should have read this book a long time ago but it wasn't on my university reading lists and for one reason or another I always put off reading it independently. It's a monumental work of over 800 pages detailing the political and social and economic aspirations and realities of ordinary people in late-18th and early 19th-century British people, from agricultural workers to textile workers to skilled artisans and shopkeepers. I'm not sure what I could say that hasn't already been said more eloquently by other reviewers over the last 70 years. I'll just say that it is eminently readable and comprehensible and scholarly.

So that's what I've been up to lately.

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