September 24, 2006

Book 31: Bread Givers

Bread Givers
Anna Yezierska

The immigrant experience in America during the so-called Roaring Twenties was quite different than the middle-class jazz craze we tend to hear so much about in our history classes. I was thus intrigued by this rather unconventional novel, which depicts life in New York's Lower East Side Jewish ghetto during the period. It straddles between believable elements of tenement life and rather unrealistic expectations of the upward mobility of American society but finds its place as a coming-of-age tale.

The story of the book is one of a lonely Jewish girl, Sara Smolinsky, who watches her Old World father study Torah endlessly (and without income) while she, her mother, and her sisters struggle just to make ends meet, which of course they rarely do. After watching her sisters get married off one by one to men they do not love, Sara decides to reject tradition and heritage and find her place as an American. Sara shuns her family and struggles to make it through night school and an all-American college. Unfortunately for Sara, her stilted English, which comes through brilliantly in the narration, means that she can never make it as a genuine American. She comes, in time, to reaffirm her identity as an American Jew, although this is never quite defined properly in the novel and the ending makes the reader wonder whether Sara is actually happy with this newfound identity.

The novel sends some mixed messages, but these generally fit in with the plot's theme of confusion in the New World. How does one balance the customs of the shtetl with the chaos and squalor that is the Lower East Side? Why is it acceptable for the women in Sara's family to go out and work while they are generally considered worthless and completely dependent by Sara's father? The novel doesn't provide sufficient answers to these questions, but I would suggest that this adds to the novel's power. The reader is forced to go over these questions after putting the novel down.

Yezierska forces her readers to consider how an immigrant's new identity is created by describing a realistic environment of conflicting pressures. While Sara's Jewish father is over-the-top, he still manages to be believable as a reactionary bastion of tradition in the face of oppressing change. Sara's rise through the ghetto is a bit fanciful yet forgivable in light of the fact that the novel's ending is a question mark rather than a big group hug. Sara doesn't end up in misery, exactly, but in a way she comes full circle. Usually an unresolved plot line like this would drive me crazy, but in Anzia Yezierska's thoughtful novel the lack of a resolution gives the story power. This book paints a good picture of the darker side of the Roaring Twenties, and it is definitely worth a read.

Grade: A-

September 17, 2006

Book 30: Beowulf

Translated by Michael Alexander

Ah, Beowulf, legendary warrior and king of the Geats. You're going to have to forgive me here; I haven't had the official rundown of this yet and a lot of it sailed right over my little modern head. However, I think I got the gist of the legendary epic. I was surprised to find that Beowulf wasn't just a heroic warrior doing the right thing for his people. His hubris is consistently hailed as his greatest quality throughout his dealings with evil. As he goes forth to conquer Grendel, he reassures his troops that he will be fine singlehandedly and unarmed against the foe who has consistently outmatched the entire Danish fighting force. An unbeliever who dares question Beowulf's might is set in his place with an unashamed rendition of Beowulf's daring exploits handed down by none other than the man himself.

In fact, Beowulf even alludes directly to the power of honor by claiming that the only reason people should ever fight is to gain reputation and to bolster their pride. At least he's fighting for an ideal, and not just for riches. The riches he does gain he gives duly to his kings with hardly a thought to his own bank. This makes Beowulf a good warrior, always deferring to the will of his superior and willing to fight the biggest menance for his own reputation. The end is always in sight for Beowulf.

As far as historical accuracy, though, I must say that the constant references to God seem misplaced and anachronistic. It seems to me that someone may have fiddled with this and inserted some good deference to the (presumably Christian) Lord. These people are way too pious to be in Jutland in the very first years after Christ. The constant references to God break up the flow of the poem and seem unnatural and contrived, as if placed only to conform to some sort of quota.

It must be remembered, too, that the saga goes beyond Beowulf and recounts the history of the Geats (southern Swedes, I think) and Danes. The first few pages pass in a blur as they recount the exploits of several unimportant and irrelevant kings. Background information on each episode in Beowulf's colored life is provided in a roundabout and familiar fashion, often very confusing to the humble college literary scholar.

Aside from all of the extras packed into this remarkably short poem, the actual action gives the reader a good idea of the values and lifestyle of the people of the period. Pride is encouraged and valour is everything. Loyalty to one's king is essential to a successful career as a warrior. Beowulf embodies all that is good to the ancient peoples of Europe, and he wields his sword bravely time and again to cement his place in the epic of Old English.

Grade: B

September 10, 2006

Book 29: The Celts

The Celts
T.G. E Powell

I would like to welcome you to the first of my books required for the semester. Here we kick off the new year with a highly informative but rather dry textbook of sorts, an entry into the foreign and ancient world of the Celts. The writing isn't particularly illuminating, but for a textbook the prose is actually quite enlightening. The book focuses on the Celts from a mainly archaeological perspective. See, you may think of the Celts as the Irish and Scottish, but most of non-Scandanavian Europe north of Italy and west of Poland was once Celtic land; it's just that the culture has been preserved in Ireland because of the limits of Roman expansion.

The book starts off with a bang, keeping the reader totally engaged before slowly descending into a barely comprehensible section on archaeological specifics that, unfortunately, are jibberish to the plebian eye. Unfortunately, there are a few inside references to random cultures that aren't properly explained and the reader gets lost in the technical jargon. Overall, though, this section is informative at the times when the reader catches up and turns on the light bulb.

The other three sections of the book explore the actual lives of the Celts, mostly through their archaeological remnants, though the occasional passage shows up in the works of Julius Caesar or Herodotus. Though the writing is rather technical, describing most conclusions scientifically and as conjecture, the actual revelations are interesting. The trick is picking them out of the dense prose. The writing goes on to discuss Celtic supernatural beliefs and rituals and the Celtic legacy in Europe today.

All told, this book is an excellent comprehensive introduction to an ancient people. The writing, however dense, goes by pretty quickly as many pages are illustrated with examples of artifacts. If the reader can excavate meaning out of the thick jargon, much will be gleaned about the prehistoric people of Western Europe.

Grade: B