Review 1596: Her Father’s Daughter

When I was a girl, I discovered some old Gene Stratton-Porter books of my mother’s, and I just loved them. Later, in high school, I had a job at the public library, so I resolved to read all of her books. However, one of those books put such a bad taste in my mouth that I stopped reading her.

Skip forward 50 years and I found an old copy of one of her books in good shape in a used bookstore, so I bought it. I finally got around to reading it, only to discover on the very first page that this was the same book that turned me off in the first place. How did it strike me now? You shall see.

Linda Strong is in the halls of high school in Los Angeles when she is accosted by an upperclassman, Donald Whiting, who asks her why she wears such odd shoes. She in turn raises an issue with him that I will address in a bit.

Linda is an independent girl who was brought up by her father exploring the desert environs of Southern California, learning how to identify and use plants and how to live in the wilderness. Her parents died four years ago, and she has been living with her older sister, Eileen, who has been systematically robbing Linda of her inheritance to pay for her own clothes and entertainment. Hence, Linda in high school makes a shabby, eccentric appearance, but her shoes are for comfort.

Eileen has also deprived her best friend, Marian, of her boyfriend, which she did as soon as John became successful. Marian is leaving for San Francisco, where she has a job in an architect’s office and has entered an architectural contest. But the plot takes a turn when John brings over an old friend, writer Peter Morrison, who is looking for a place to settle, and Henry Anderson, an architect.

This book is really almost all subplots. I was going to say that the main plot was the relationship between Linda and Eileen, but that plot goes into abeyance for quite some time. There is a romance of some uncertainty, of course, and a plot about a stolen drawing of Marian’s. But my objection to the novel mostly concerns Linda’s issue with Donald. For this novel contains a ridiculous, racist subplot about Japanese adults being sent to attend California high schools so that they can best the American students academically and make them feel inferior. It is one of the stupidest plots I have ever read, and the book is one of the most racist I have ever read, a blueprint to the thinking of white supremacists. Not only does Linda believe all kinds of paranoid things about the Japanese, but she lets others have it as well—African Americans, Mexicans, and Communists. I usually try not to judge books out of their time, but I’ve read plenty of books from this time period (1921), and this one is just despicable. All these horrible attitudes are expressed by an otherwise appealing heroine, which I think makes it worse. I am again disappointed in this author, who has written several really good books for young adults.

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Review 1593: The Long Take

When I opened up The Long Take, which I was reading for both my Walter Scott prize and Booker prize projects, I was not delighted to discover it is mostly a poem. However, it is fairly easy to read, so my next challenge was a search for the plot.

Walker, a World War II veteran from Nova Scotia, first arrives in New York City in 1946. He haunts skid row and dive bars as he tries to find a place for himself. Later, after an invitation, he travels to Los Angeles and gets a job with a newspaper.

This novel is more atmospheric and thematic than plot-driven. It is about droves of homeless ex-soldiers occupying the downtown areas of all the large cities Walker visits. It is about Walker’s feelings about what he saw and did in the war. And it is about the gutting of downtown Los Angeles to make room for parking lots and freeways and the racism underlying the planning decisions.

The Long Take is beautifully written. It is not a noir work, as described on the cover, but it is gritty and depressing.

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Review 1452: The Library Book

The Library Book is part history, part biography, part true crime, and part journalism. It centers on the Los Angeles Central Library, an architecturally renowned building that famously burned in 1986, becoming the largest library fire in the history of the United States.

Orlean begins with her own impetus for wanting to write about libraries, her memories of library trips with her mother when she was young. Then she starts meandering through the history of the L. A. library, intermingling her chapters about that and some of its significant librarians with chapters about her experiences and findings during her interviews and visits. Yet, all of this hangs together with the story of the alleged arsonist of the library and stories about the fire and the rebuilding of the library.

This is a fascinating book that resonates with my love of libraries. Not only does it look to the past of this great library, but it examines the future of all libraries and how they are working to address the problems and opportunities that they see.

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Day 1240: The New Sweet Style

Cover for The New Sweet StyleI’ve had The New Sweet Style on my reading list for a long time now, ever since reading a glowing review. I’ve also heard Aksyonov referred to as one of the best contemporary Russian writers. (We’re being flexible with our definition of contemporary here, since this book was written in 1998.)

Sasha Korbach is a dissident theatre performer in Soviet Russia who is kicked out of the country in 1982. Famous in Europe, he comes to the United States expecting a rousing reception. However, because of a mistake about the date of his arrival, he ends up subsisting with a group of underemployed Russian immigrants. A move to Los Angeles results in an even greater comedown in the world.

Then Sasha falls in love with Nora Mansour, the daughter of a wealthy fourth cousin. Sasha scrambles to earn enough money to continue his bicoastal affair.

Told in a jokey, ironic tone, this story seems as if it’s supposed to be funny. Maybe something got lost in translation, because I didn’t find it funny at all. For some reason, we’re meant to have sympathy for this character, who seems to have no personality at all but just lets himself be helplessly battered by the plot. Even upon his first arrival, he makes no effort to contact anyone in the American theater scene and sneaks out of a performance of his own work, and he won’t accept help from his wealthy relatives. At one point, he prefers to become a drug dealer. The plot veers from the realistic to the absurdist. There is a description of his theater act that makes it sound manic and ridiculous rather than amazing, as it is received. There’s nothing really to grab onto with no sense of character, no interest in the protagonist’s adventures, just a lot of pointless mockery.

For some reason, the tone of the novel reminds me of Nabokov, with lots of literary allusions but without his breath-taking prose. Instead, the English is sometimes awkward and often sexist. Sadly, I have to report that I did not finish this novel, although I read more than half of it. It just wasn’t interesting enough to me to finish it.

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Day 439: Shanghai Girls

Cover for Shanghai GirlsIn 1937 Shanghai, Pearl Chin and her younger sister May are having the time of their lives. Thoroughly westernized and modern girls of a wealthy family, they spend their time shopping, socializing, and having their portraits painted. They are two of the Beautiful Girls, whose images appear on advertisements and giveaway calendars.

Pearl has a slight source of discontent at home, for she feels her parents favor and spoil the more beautiful May. Nevertheless, the girls are inseparable.

They are heedless to the rumblings of trouble, including the changes in their home and in their own father’s voice when he wants to tell them something. Soon he forces them to listen. He has gambled away his fortune and has arranged for his daughters to marry the sons of a wealthy businessman from the United States.

It is not long before they have met and married Sam and Vernon Louie. Sam seems pleasant to Pearl, but Vernon, May’s husband, is only fourteen and never speaks. Their father is stern and humiliates the girls on the morning after the wedding. The men leave to conduct their business and agree to meet the girls in Hong Kong before sailing, but the girls have no intention of going.

All this while there have been other signs of trouble. The Japanese are invading China and working their way toward Shanghai. The girls and their mother are forced to try to make their way to Hong Kong amid the brutality of war. Finally, they have no choice but to flee to America. A lot has already happened to the girls, but there is much more to come.

Shanghai Girls is an absorbing historical novel that examines the treatment to which Chinese immigrants were subjected for decades in the United States. The novel continues until the early 1950’s, when we learn how the Red Scare affected scores of settled Chinese immigrants, many of whom had long lived in America when China was taken over by the Communists.

I wasn’t sure how believable I found the end of the book, but it is clearly the setup to a sequel. Although I missed the delicate writing style of See’s earlier novels, her style here is appropriate for this more modern story. I am not sure I want to follow Pearl’s heedless daughter Joy into danger, but I probably will.