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.
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.
Charlotte Perkins Gilman was famous as a 19th century feminist author, and apparently she's taught in a lot of feminist/women's studies courses. I was vaguely interested in her most famous story, The Yellow Wallpaper, so when this collection was an Audible deal of the day, I went ahead and downloaded.
I'm glad I did. I'll get to the title story in a minute, but I found the other short stories - which were all about a woman being presented with a choice (usually in the form of a man). Clearly there is a feminist undertone to each story, though bear in the mind this is 19th century "First Wave" feminism, so it remains largely a given that even a spirited, talented, independent-minded woman is still going to marry eventually. But Gilman was first and foremost writing short stories meant to have a beginning, middle, and end, and does not beat her readers over the head with any "message." In that respect, these stories were quite enjoyable, some of them having an O. Henry twist. I particularly , in which a moralistic, wealthy old spinster aunt promises her two nephews $50 (a small fortune, especially to children) if they forego butter for an entire year, believing butter is bad for children and too "rich." They do, and when the year is up, the old hag gives them their $50 in the form of membership pledges in a missionary society. The reader seethes with anger along with the boys at the injustice of it, but Gilman delivers a satisfying coda to the story.
Some of the stories are really just simple romances, though with a slightly feminist spin, but all of them showed that Gilman was a master of characterization and not bad as a prose stylist either.
Now, The Yellow Wallpaper is famous because it represents an early feminist look at the treatment of women and mental health. The main character is a wife suffering in the aftermath of some sort of nervous breakdown and made to stay in an upstairs room decorated with a hideous yellow wallpaper that she abhors. She wants to leave, she wants to do something, she craves mental stimulation, but her kind but egostistical and patronizing physician husband refuses to let her go anywhere or lift a finger. And so he accomplishes exactly the opposite of his intent as she slowly goes mad.
This has obvious significance as an indictment of how women with mental health issues were treated, how their concerns were not taken seriously, and how they could be reduced to powerless chattel even by the kindest and most well-meaning husband. However, as a horror fan, I submit that this story can be read completely differently...
... as a tale of Lovecraftian horror! A trapped woman slowly discovers the secret of the things that live in the in-between spaces accessible from our reality through unearthly patterns in a hideous yellow wallpaper. In the climax, her husband discovers her after she has gone insane from exposure to secrets man was not meant to know.
Seriously, read it that way and it totally works.
Anyway, I really liked these stories, even the ones that were very short and had not much in the way of conclusion.