With a hundred years of hindsight, we've learned so little.
Upton Sinclair's The Jungle is famous for disgusting America with its tales of meat packing workers falling into vats and rendered into lard, and all the things that went into sausages and tinned beef. (Cigar butts and poisoned rats not even being the most disgusting ingredients...) But as Sinclair said about his most famous book, "I aimed at the public's heart, and by accident I hit it in the stomach." The Jungle is not primarily about the problems of an unregulated meat industry. It's about the crushing brutality of capitalism, and the problems of unregulated accumulation of wealth. No wonder that Americans prefer the less political vegetarian version.
Although Sinclair was a muckraking socialist with an obvious agenda, The Jungle is still a compelling novel in its own right. Jurgis Rudkus is a Lithuanian immigrant who comes to America with his young wife Ona and his extended family of in-laws. Initially believing they have found the promised land of opportunity and plenty, they are quickly taken in by various schemes meant to impoverish, indebt, and enslave immigrants like them. At first only Jurgis has to work in Chicago's meatpacking district. He is young and strong and believes hard work will be rewarded, and those who warn him of how the meatpackers will use him up and dispose of him are lazy whiners. Of course, he soon discovers otherwise. The family undergoes one mishap after another, until within a year, even the children are reduced to selling newspapers on the street and still they are all barely staying alive.
Then things get worse, and worse, and worse. Jurgis is a modern-day Job, with no God to blame his troubles on, only capitalism. He has several ups and downs, but every time he catches a break, it's quickly followed by yet another brutal smackdown. Sinclair was trying to make the reader feel sorry for Jurgis and his poor family, all of whom end up dead, prostituted, or beggars by the end of the book, and you will. The poor man just cannot win, and if he makes mistakes and chooses the less noble path when given a choice, it's pretty hard to judge him if you've never been homeless on the streets of Chicago in the wintertime.
The Jungle is a grimly detailed look at early 20th century America. Sinclair was muckraking, so obviously he's showing the ugliest bits of America he can, but history proved that most of what he was alleging was true, even if his conclusions were questionable. Even if you are strongly anti-socialist, The Jungle is an eye-opening story, and still relevant after all these years. If you think that the horrors depicted in this book are relics of a previous era, just remember that to the extent that the very worst of these abuses are now curbed (somewhat) by government regulations, those government regulations are exactly what "free market" advocates hate and want to abolish.
4 stars. Knocking one star off because while Sinclair mostly kept his didacticism in check throughout the book, using gripping drama and only a little bit of exposition to arouse the horror he intended, the last chapter was nothing but socialist sermonizing, making it less a climax than the author climbing onto a soapbox to deliver his moral.
I have to ding this version for the unfortunate choice of narrator: I've enjoyed several of Audible's Signature Performances, but Casey Affleck's reading was monotonous and completely lacking in passion. His voice lacked distinction, and he sounded like a schoolboy reading a book aloud to the class. Not every celebrity actor makes a good audiobook narrator.
I kind of don't want to give this book 5 stars. I'm going to, because it was epic. Seriously, it's a really, really good read and Margaret Mitchell is a really, really good writer. She captures the feel of a generation that is lost and a bygone world and makes it real, pulsing with life and bittersweet memory and pride. Her characters are wonderfully vivid and complicated and conflicted, larger than life archetypes symbolizing the different elements of society each one represents. And the story is sweeping and grand. If you've seen the movie and thought it was gorgeous and epic, Hollywood only barely did justice to the source material. Gone With the Wind is deservedly one of the greatest Civil War novels ever written.
But... there is a really big "but" here:
"Here was the astonishing spectacle of half a nation attempting, at the point of bayonet, to force upon the other half the rule of negroes, many of them scarcely one generation out of the African jungles. The vote must be given to them but it must be denied to most of their former owners."
There are a few things that Hollywood rather prudently left out in the cinematic version, and one of them is the fact that every white male character joins the Klan to oppose Yankees and freedmen in the period of Reconstruction following the war. And this is described in approbatory terms by the narrative viewpoint. Indeed, throughout the book, Mitchell compares African-Americans to monkeys, apes, and children, describes slavery as a generally benevolent institution in which kind slave owners took care of their "darkies," and when the slaves are freed, society crumbles because black people are destructive children who can't function without white people telling them what to do. Reconstruction (in which the South learns that yes, you really aren't allowed to own slaves anymore and yes, you really did actually lose the war) is a horror beyond enduring, but we're meant to mourn the lost world of balls and barbecues attended by rich white plantation owners and their loyal, happy slaves.
Now, you may be saying, "Well, sure, the characters are racist, of course former Confederates are going to be racist." And that's true, I wouldn't have a problem with the characters being racist and flinging the n-word about. That's just historically accurate. But the authorial viewpoint makes it very clear that Margaret Mitchell shared the POV of her characters. Everything about the antebellum South (except its sexism, which is treated with satirical amusement and thoroughly lampooned by Scarlett in everything she does) is glorified and painted in a rosy hue. All sympathy is with rich white Southerners when Reconstruction destroys their world. Their former slaves? The author takes pains to describe how much happier and better off most of them were before being freed. Black characters are all offensive racial stereotypes who are constantly described (not by other characters, but in the narrative POV) as apes, monkeys, and children.
I don't think you have to be overly "politically correct" to find Gone With the Wind to be a hard book to get through at times, with really glaring evidence of the author's Southern sympathies and unquestioned racism.
And yet I'm giving it 5 stars. I suppose in the interests of political correctness I should knock off at least a star, but I have to be honest: I was just enthralled by this long, long novel from start to finish. Even while I was sometimes gritting my teeth at the racist descriptions and all the "Wah, wah, poor plantation owners, the Yankees took away all their slaves, life is so hard for them now!" I wanted the story to keep going and going. I wasn't bored for one moment.
The protagonists, of course, are what make this a timeless love story. Note that's "love story," not "romance," because there's very little romantic about Scarlett O'Hara and Rhett Butler. Scarlett is an evil, conniving drama queen who if she had been raised in a society where women were actually allowed to do things would rule the world, but since she wasn't, she just learned to wrap the world around her finger and tell it to go to hell. She is absolutely the most self-centered character you will ever meet: in her mind, she is literally the center of the world. She sees nothing, understands nothing, and cares about nothing that isn't of direct and immediate importance to herself. And yet within her narrow, blindered view of the world, she's brilliant and adaptive and resourceful and unstoppable. The destruction of that glittering world of ball gowns and parties and negroes waiting on her hand and foot, in which she was raised to expect the world to revolve around her, is harrowingly depicted in her trials during the war and after it, and in her downright heroic accomplishments keeping not only herself but her extended family alive. Never mind that she never actually cares about anyone but herself, she does what has to be done, which is largely why her sister-in-law, poor Melanie Wilkes, believes until her dying day that Scarlett is a wonderful, noble, loving sister, even while the entire time Scarlett was hating her and coveting Melanie's husband Ashley.
Then there is Rhett Butler. The most brilliant Byronic rogue ever. Rhett kicks Heathcliff and Rochester's prissy white English arses and ascends to the top of the literary man-mountain as a first class scoundrel and anti-hero with a dark, brooding swoon-worthy heart. Because he's ruthlessly pragmatic and mercenary, smart enough to know right from the start that the South has started a fight it can't win, and he makes millions as a "speculator," enduring the wrath and hatred of his peers and gleefully, smugly giving them the finger, and yet in the end he goes off to be a hero. And survives, and becomes a (very, very rich) scoundrel again, and his reputation keeps going up and down throughout the book. He is the only man who is a match for Scarlett, because as he points out, they are so much alike. Like Scarlett, he's awesome and caddish and hateful and the best character ever.
Scarlett and Rhett's relationship is so much more tempestuous, conflicted, and compelling than in the movie. Every time they are together, it's like watching two grandmasters drawing knives and sparring. They were truly made for each other, they deserve each other, they could be happy together, and yet how could it end in anything but tears?
Oh yeah, I loved this book. Parts of it are so offensive, it will not bear scrutiny to modern sensibilities (it was pretty darn offensive when it was written, even if they did make a toned-down Hollywood movie based on it a few years later), and if you can't stand reading Mark Twain and all his uses of the n-word, then Gone With the Wind will probably make you want to throw the book against a wall (which will make a big dent, because this is a big book). But it is powerful and moving, the drama is grander than any epic fantasy doorstopper, the romance is hotter than anything I've ever read (I am not a romance fan and I don't usually describe romances as "hot," okay?), and the characters are fabulous and melodramatic and you care about every one of them, even (especially) the African-American characters, despite Mitchell's offensive treatment of them.
This is certainly not the only "problematic" book I've ever enjoyed, but never have I so enjoyed so problematic a book. If it weren't so damned racist, I'd give Gone With the Wind my highest recommendation. If it weren't so damned good, I could castigate it as a well-written but really offensive book whose author misused her gifts. But it's both, so I recommend it, but my recommendation comes with a big fat warning label.
Linda Stephens, as the narrator, truly does this book justice. For a book full of Southern characters with different regional accents, and with such strong characters of different races and genders, good narration is critical, and Stephens does a wonderful job, even with the flat, nasal Yankee accents. Her Scarlett and Rhett now sound more to me like the "real" ones than Vivien Leigh and Clark Gable. Absolutely a top-notch reading. So if you're looking for a long, long book to engage your attention for many hours, you can't go wrong here (keeping all the above caveats in mind).
This is my first time reading the notoriously difficult Faulkner. I did not find Light in August to be particularly difficult, though it's also said to be his most accessible work. Faulker writes in a sort of sparse poetry that reminds me a little of Cormac McCarthy (though it's probably more appropriate to say that McCarthy reminds me of Faulkner). Faulkner is not as sparse, though; his prose requires a fair degree of sophistication to grasp and he weaves many, many themes through this novel, so I can see why he's considered a challenging read, especially in the era of YA ascendancy.
I was captivated by that prose very early. I was prepared to fall in love with Faulkner. The first act of the novel is compelling: the simple tale of a naive young woman named Lena Grove who leaves home in pursuit of the ne'er-do-well who done left her in an expectin' sorta way, possessing an almost childlike faith that it was all on account o' him not knowin' the situation and planning to send for her anyway once he's all settled, so once she catches up with him, the Lord will see to it that they is married like a couple with a baby comin' ought.
Yeah, right, and pigs will fly.
While the writing remained beautiful and poetic throughout the book, the third act, in which Faulkner wraps up all his themes, ties up all the loose ends, and brought it all home, dragged to the point that I thought he spent quite a few pages just indulging himself in the portentous importance of his own ponderous prose. It didn't diminish the genius of his writing, but it did wear on me, as someone who has developed a much greater appreciation for literary writing in the past few years, but still prizes storytelling as an essential ingredient in a great novel. The flashbacks and stream-of-consciousness chapters pile on, never becoming less finely written, but I started to see why Faulkner is considered "challenging"; the book starts out as a fine Southern tragedy, but dumps us deep in literary Faulkner-land by the end.
Also, this book is squirm-inducing in its beautiful and poetic rendering of the rankest misogyny and racism. The n-word abounds and yes, it's set in a time and place in which it would be unbelievable not to hear it flung about freely, but I found myself uncertain to the end just where Faulkner stood and what he was trying to say about his racially ambiguous anti-protagonist Christmas, who spends his life reflecting the world's contempt and abuse back at it. Joe Christmas grows up hard and mean and who can blame him? What I also found as horrific as it was authentic was the multi-layered hatred of all womankind, expressed through every single male character in one way or another, even the relatively sympathetic ones. Women in Light in August are the enemy even when they are self-sacrificing martyrs, oppressing men by the very act of martyrdom. I know it's fashionable to dismiss authorial intent, Death of the Author and all that, but man, methinks Faulkner had some issues with women. One of the most compelling passages in the book was the one explaining Christmas's solidarity with the unloving, hated adoptive father who beat him against his doormat of an adoptive mother who did nothing but try to comfort him. It was hard and true and ugly, and just left me awed at such prose that could fill me with such disquiet.
“She is like all the rest of them. Whether they are seventeen or fortyseven, when they finally come to surrender completely, it's going to be in words.”
This was really quite an experience. One has to have a taste for Faulkner, I think, and I suspect people will have wildly varying emotional reactions to him. I was drawn into Light in August enough that I will certainly read Faulkner again. 4 stars, because the prose is truly Nobel-caliber, but the story became abstruse and, for me, hard to love by the end.
A fine performance by Will Patton, whose accent is Southern enough to be authentic without being so thick as to hinder clarity.
I enjoyed this book, although I'd call it a memoir rather than a novel. I say that because it doesn't have much dramatic structure, and it consists in a series of remembrances. The characters portrayed are lively; the detailed account of how life was for children Nebraska around the beginning of the twentieth century is interesting. Cather can certainly bring a world to life in pose. My one criticism was that I found it sometimes a bit sappy. Yes, some bad things happen to people; there is poverty, depression, suicide and unwanted pregnancy. But the constant nostalgia--of the Bohemians for their old country and of the narrator for his childhood--can grow wearing. The narration is very good.