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#1930Club – “But mostly U.S.A. is the speech of the people.”

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My final read for the #1930Club is perhaps a bit of a contrast to the others, but tends to reflects some of the trends in literature at the time. Author John Dos Passos is remembered as a modernist writer, and with the first part of his ‘USA’ trilogy, “42nd Parallel”, which was first published in 1930, he was certainly experimenting with style.

I’ve had this book for a looooong time, and why I’ve never read it before is unclear to me… It’s certainly a Big Book (the three works collected together here run to over 1000 pages) but the first part is 340 pages which you would think is manageable. I started it early for our club week, but have only just managed to finish in time – for reasons I’ll talk about later!

“42nd” is set in America in the early part of the 20th century and the structure is a little unusual. Parts of the narrative follow the life stories of the main characters, but these are interspersed with sections called “Newsreel” and “Camera Eye”. The main narrative is relatively straightforward; the other sections fragmented and impressionistic, building up a composite picture of the developing modern world of America at the time. “Newsreel” has fragments from newspapers and song lyrics, capturing specific historical events and grounds the narrative in a time period; “Camera Eye” is particularly stream of consciousness, capturing the thinking of contemporary characters; and interspersed with these varied narratives are potted biographies of notable and relevant people of the age.

The four main characters are themselves a varied and interesting bunch; initially we encounter ‘Mac’ McCreary, firstly as a young boy known as Fainy (from Fenian – his Irish heritage and his left-wing family have led to him being named after the Irish Republican movement) and thereafter as he grows up, makes his way in the world and becomes heavily involved in a variety of working class revolutionary movements. Then there is J. Ward Moorhouse, who again comes from a poor background but takes a different trajectory through life, following his ambitions to become rich and successful. Janey Williams is a young stenographer whose aspirations are independence and to earn her own living – a relatively new ambition for women of the time. And finally, Eleanor Stoddard is a social climber; a cold woman, again from a poor background, she’s determined to make her way into society.

He hated the newspaper office and the inclines and the overcast skies and the breakneck wooden stairs he was always scrambling up and down, and the smell of poverty and cabbage and children and washing in the rattletrap tenements where he was always seeking out Mrs Piretti whose husband had been killed in a rumpus in a saloon on Locust Street or Sam Burkovich who’d been elected president of the Ukrainian singing society, or some woman with sudsy hands whose child had been slashed by a degenerate.

In the sections bearing each character’s name, we watch their lives unfolding; the affairs, the marriages, the ups and down of business and finance, the struggle to make ends meet and the relentless mobility. The men, in particular, move from city to city; and in some cases, other countries. Mac, most notably, spends time in Mexico where he witnesses part of Zapata’s revolution; and other characters travel to Europe as well as all over the United States. They inhabit a world which is changing, where the certainties and stabilities of America’s 19th century are falling away. Each has their own aspirations and their own views of where the country should go, but the impact of the First World War begins to encroach. Towards the end of the book America enters that War and a new character makes his entrance, in the form of Charley Anderson. Charley is another character who starts out with nothing, from a poor and restricedly religious home. Although only the first part of his journey appears in “42nd”, with him enlisting to go and fight, I can see he’ll reappear in later sections of the book.

The only man that gets anything out of capitalism is a crook, an’ he gets to be a millionaire in short order…

“42nd Parallel” turned out to be an absolutely fascinating book; and for all its modernist tropes, very readable! There can be something intimidating about approaching a large work with a reputation, but once I got embedded in the story, I couldn’t put it down. When I approached reading Dos Passos I anticipated something stylistically interesting and perhaps challenging; what I hadn’t expected was such a refreshingly socialist novel! The author certainly nails his colours to the mast and you might regard the book as the novel as social history. The story demonstrates what Dos Passos sees as the pernicious effect of the American Dream; the quest for modernity, possessions and money corrupts some characters and grinds others down.There is a stark contrast between Mac’s viewpoint and that of his wife and her family with their aspirational American dream, which is built on the bones and the work of others. Even the responses to the coming of war vary, from those who see it as a money-making opportunity to those who want to fight for their country. It’s a fascinating reflection of different types of humanity, and that divide between moral viewpoints seems very modern…

As you can see, it’s a chunky volume which I’ve only read part of….

The structure of the book itself is fascinating; the individual stories exist in isolation for a good part of the book until they begin to intersect, and it’s fascinating to see one particular character from another character’s viewpoint as the different strands begin to dovetail beautifully. Although some sections are grounded in fact, the separation seems a little nebulous in places, and in fact one biography has a section which is directly attributed elsewhere. The Newsreel and Camera Eye segments act as anchors and signposts, giving the narrative context and background; and the composite structure of the book weaves a rich tapestry, building up a vivid picture of the America of the time.

Initially, I was a little uncertain as to the attitudes displayed towards the female characters, particularly the harshness in the “Mac” sequences which make up the early parts of the book. However, as the narrative developed and Dos Passos introduced female stories, I found his writing of the women reflected the difficulties they faced, the struggle to make a living and the complex negotiations with the demands of the men around them. His women are not ciphers, each an individual coping with different situations in their own way, and I’m going to be interested to see how they move through the rest of the sequence of books.

Because, of course, this is only the first book in a set of three; the whole promises to be an immensely impressive undertaking and I finished “42nd Parallel” very keen to see how events play out over later volumes! This was perhaps an ambitious read for me to launch into during a busy time at work and with a deadline of the end of the #1930Club week looming; particularly as the type is quite small and the pages quite dense, so there’s a *lot* in the book’s 340 pages. Nevertheless, I’m really glad I *finally* picked up my first Dos Passos as it was an absorbing and rewarding read, and a fitting end to a wonderful week of reading books from a really rich year in publishing! 😀

On My Book Table… 2 – The Chunksters…

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I’m pleased to report that the Reading Chair and the Book Table have proved to be a great success chez Ramblings (well done, Mr. Kaggsy!) I have spent many a happy hour sitting comfortably with a book and a beverage; though alas, I don’t think I’ve tackled a single volume featured in my previous post about the table… That’s fairly typical of me, and I do have the excuse of the forthcoming 1930 Club which has necessitated some focus on the year in question. However, I thought I would share some images of what’s weighing down the table at the moment as possible reads – and they *are* quite chunky books!!

That’s a fairly imposing and daunting pile of books, isn’t it? Shall we take a look in more detail??

These two titles are on the book table for a good reason, i.e. the forthcoming #1930Club. I’ve mention John Dos Passos before, but not the Bunting (although of course I *have* wittered on about Basil on the Ramblings). All will become clear next week, hopefully…. 😉

Now – these three have been sitting around on the TBR for a while. “Imaginary Cities” (from Influx Press!!) was a Christmas gift from my brother some years back; “Night Walking” came into the house when Verso were having one of their oh-so-tempting sales; and the John Muir was a purchase on a whim because I wanted it (so there!) Having just watched a repeat of a documentary on Muir (which I somehow missed first time round) I’m keen to pick it up soon. We shall see…

These two lovelies are a little slimmer, but still very appealing. The Binet was on my book table last time, and has been on the TBR for as long as the Muir, as they arrived at the same time. The Colette is a beautiful edition of an anthology of extracts from her work, called “Earthly Paradise”. Apparently it’s now out of print and not at all cheap to get hold of – who knew? Makes me even more certain I must be careful about which books I prune when I pass some on to charity shops.

A mixed bag here. Two are newly arrived at the Ramblings – “Seashaken Houses” is all about lighthouses (I love lighthouses) and I resisted it for ages in Waterstones and then gave in. The Cunard book sounded fascinating (I can’t remember where I heard about it) and as the local library didn’t have it, I was left with no choice… I’ve had the Shklovsky for ages and keep meaning to start it and don’t – story of my life, really…

More new arrivals, this time from the very lovely Notting Hill Editions. I reviewed John Berger’s book “What Time Is It” recently; it’s the final book of three published by NHE which he did with Selcuk Demirel. I was knocked out by “Time…” and so was delighted to receive the two earlier books “Cataract” and “Smoke” – such treats in store… The third book in the picture is a selection of Montaigne’s essays; I’d often thought of reading him and then Marina Sofia’s post pushed me over the edge. Thanks so much, NHE! :DD

Another three chunksters lurk on the table, again books that I’ve had around for a while. “Liberty” is about French Revolutionary women; “Romantic Outlaws” is about Mary Wollstonecroft and Mary Shelley; and “The Wives” is about spouses of Russian authors. I long to sink myself into all three at once, which is really not practical…

And finally, a couple of slim volumes which weren’t on the pile in the first image, but have managed to sneak into the house despite Mr. Kaggsy’s best efforts (ha! not really – I think he’s given up worrying about the books, realisiing he was fighting a losing battle…) “Nagasaki” is thanks to a post on the BookerTalk blog – I loved the sound of it and couldn’t resist. “Doe Lea” is VERY VERY exciting! It’s a limited edition chapbook short story by M. John Harrison (who is a big favourite here on the Ramblings as you might have noticed..); and it’s a signed copy, one of only 200. Goodness, I went into overdrive when I found out it was available. Most pleased that it arrived safely and can’t wait to read it, yet don’t want to because I want to savour it!

Well, there you are. The Book Table is groaning a little under the weight of all these mighty tomes, and of course “The Anatomy of Melancholy” seems to be in permanent residence there helping to add to the tonnage. With my fickle mind I may not actually end up reading *any* of these next; but it’s lovely to get my books out, have them on the table, flick through them and just *enjoy* having them around! The pleasures of being a bookaholic… ;D

Looking ahead – to the past? ;D #1930Club

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Those of you paying attention will have noticed that we’re edging ever closer to October; and during that month Simon at Stuck in a Book and I will be co-hosting one of our regular six-monthly reading Club weeks! If you’re new to these, basically we pick a year and encourage everyone to discover, read and discuss books from that year. You can review on your blog, post on other social media or just comment on our blogs. We love to hear what gems you’ve discovered or want to share, and the whole thing is great fun. Simon came up with the idea and as you can see from the different Club pages on my blog, we’ve done quite a few…:D

The next year we’re going to be focusing on is 1930, and as I usually try to read from my stacks I thought I’d have a nose around and see what I have that would be suitable. I was surprised (and not displeased!) to find that I own quite a substantial amount of books from that year and more than ever I think I’m going to find it very hard to choose what to read! Normally, I don’t share much ahead of the Club weeks as it’s fun to be surprised by what people read. However, there are so many books on the pile that I feel impelled to have a look now in the hope that some commenters might be able to recommend ones they think are particularly good. The mystery this time is going to be what books I actually choose!

A large stack of possible reads from 1930

So as  you can see, the pile of possibles from books I already own is quite large… Let’s look a little more closely!

1930 Viragos

It should be no surprise, really, that there are several Virago titles from 1930 and these are all from my collection of green spined lovelies. I’ve definitely read the Mansfield; probably the Delafield and Coleman; and possibly not the Sackville-West or Smith. All are tempting for either a new read or a re-read.

Classic Crime from 1930

Again, no surprise that there should be classic crime from 1930. Sayers is a favourite of course (yes, I have two copies of “Strong Poison” – don’t ask…) and this would be a welcome re-read. The Christies are again books I’ve already read, and I know “Vicarage” very well, so the “Mr. Quin” book would be a fun choice. Hammett too would be a re-read. Not sure here what to choose, if I end up re-reading.

1930 Russians

There are indeed Russians from 1930, which might be unexpected bearing in mind the events that were taking place amongst the Soviets in that troubled era. Certainly, Platonov was probably written for the drawer; and Nabokov and Gazdanov were in exile, as was Trotsky. Mayakovsky’s last play was published in 1930, the year he died. Well. I think I’ve read the Platonov, the Nabakov, the Gazdanov and the Mayakovsky definitely. Not so sure about the Trotsky. All are very appealing.

A selection of other titles from 1930

And here’s a pile of general titles from the year in question. The Rhys is again a book I’ve read (fairly recently); “Last and First Men” was purloined from Eldest Child who I think might have studied it at Uni; “War in Heaven” I’ve had for decades and have probably read – I do love Charles Williams’ oddness so that’s a possible. I confess that the Huxley at the top of the pile is a recent purchase, as I saw it was published in 1930. It’s short stories, in a very pretty old Penguin edition, and I’d like to read more of him.

As for the two chunksters at the bottom, well thereby hangs a tale… I’ve owned these books by John Dos Passos for decades and never read them (oops); “U.S.A.” is a trilogy of three novels, and the first of these was published in 1930. Dos Passos was known for his experimental writing and why I’ve never picked them up is a mystery to me. I’m thinking that if I can motivate myself to read the 1930 novel it might set me on the road to reading the rest – we shall see…

Oh – in case you were wondering what the paper on top of the pile of books was, it’s this:

Woolf On Being Ill…

I hoped to find some Virginia Woolf to read for 1930, but the only thing could see was her long essay “On Being Ill”. I couldn’t easily find it in the essay collections I own, but I managed to track down a scan of the original magazine publication online. I love Woolf in all her forms, so this one may well get some attention.

So what can we be sure will be on the Ramblings during the #1930Club? Well, for a start there’s likely to be a guest post from Mr. Kaggsy (which is becoming a regular occurrence!). I hope to read at least one Agatha, and also something of substance. I’d like to try to really work out which of these books I’ve actually read and which I haven’t, going for new reads instead of re-reads. Apart from that – well, watch this space to find out what I finally pick for the #1930Club! 😀

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