Today is the anniversary of the day in 1929 when the stock market crashed, plunging the country (and eventually much of the world) in the Great Depression.
The Writer's Almanac reminded me of that anniversary this morning. Here's how some major literary figures dealt with the problem:
"The Great Depression inspired many writers. Raymond Chandler lost his job as an oil company executive after the stock market crash, and he started writing detective stories to make a living. Eudora Welty took a job with the WPA photographing farmers affected by the economy, and they inspired some of her first short stories. John Steinbeck wrote about the migrant Dust Bowl farmers in his masterpiece The Grapes of Wrath (1939). But the best-selling book of that decade was Margaret Mitchell's Gone with the Wind (1936), which apparently helped everyone forget their own troubles."
Ok, everybody, listen up. If you have not yet read Gish Jen's Mona in the Promised Land, DO SO AT ONCE.
One of the things I look for in a novel - listen for, really - is narrative voice. Is the book in the first person? Is that person male or female, young or old? Is it a disembodied voice we hear or a concrete, wise guy, slangy narrator telling us this story?
The narrative voice in Mona in the Promised Land is one of the most crisp, amusing, sly, knowing, and generally hilarious voices I've heard for a long time. Of course, this voice has a great donne to work with, as Henry James would say. The Chang family, Chinese, have just moved to Scarsdale - excuse me, Scarshill - and to the Jewish neighborhood at that. And it's 1968 when the Changs were still Orientals. It was only 10 years later that they became Asians. And Mona has decided to become Jewish.
So here I am, the narrative-voice maven, reading along, chuckling, loving it all, and I get to page 69 and suddenly I realize that this book is written in the present tense. I hate books written in the present tense. And I don't even notice for 69 pages. Now that's what I call an engrossing book.
The trail that leads to Phil Spector is long and winding. My recent reading history is this: I bought a book a while back because I loved the title - Wilfred Sheed's The House that George Built: With a Little Help from Irving, Cole, and a Crew of About Fifty. It was, of course, about the great American songbook, the songs that were popular from the turn of the last century to the rise of Rock.
From there I went on to Ken Emerson's Always Magic in the Air: The Bomp and Brilliance of the Brill Building Era (try saying that three times fast.)
I was about to look for a book about Berry Gordy when I spotted this biography of Phil Spector in the library and since he had been mentioned often and intriguingly in Always Magic I borrowed it and found myself mesmerized by this truly awful man as portrayed by Nick Brown in Tearing Down the Wall of Sound: The Rise and Fall of Phil Spector.
This biography capitalizes on the fact that the author, Nick Brown, was granted an interview with Spector shortly before a dead woman was found in his house and he was arrested for murder. That is the least interesting part of the story.
All three books are terrific. And if you are a fan of Ronnie, Darlene Love, the Righteous Brothers, or even of John Lennon, George Harrison, or Ike and Tina Turner, you will find Tearing Down the Wall of Sound most informative. As I said, it's mesmerizing.
I realized a couple of weeks ago that I had never read Raold Dahl's children's classic, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. So I borrowed it from the library.
It has been languishing in my "To Read" pile while I've been reading a book about the sad state of book reviewing in America (blogging is the only place where there's life and hope in that field), War and Peace, a life of Phil Spector (don't ask), Clarence Thomas' memoir, and a book about the Nazis and "The final solution."
I needed a break. And I got a delightful one. What a scrumptious book this is. One of my godchildren has been telling me to read Dahl for ten years or more -- I should have listened to him. If the fog and the overcast skies and the cold and the falling leaves have you down, this is just the pick-me-up you need.
Books available on line are Increasing almost daily and if you can read on a computer screen there is wealth out there to enjoy. I have recently discovered Arthur's Classic Novels, which has the text of most of the best selling novels from 1900 to 1919. I have just finished reading a short novel I found there by Mary Elizabeth Braddon called Good Lady Ducayne.
This is a simple and simply written story about a poor girl who languishes while in Italy in the employ of a very old lady. She suffers from terrible dreams and is particularly susceptible to mosquito bites, which seem always to become infected. She has only one friend, a young woman whose brother is a newly minted doctor, but the friend and her brother go off to tour and our heroine's health declines dreadfully as the months go by. Will she ever see them again?
It has arrived, my copy of War and Peace newly translated by husband/wife team Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky. And it's a beautiful thing, all four and a half pounds of it. (I weighed it.) It has 1273 pages, not counting the introduction and list of characters.
Hold on everyone! I'm about to dive into the new translation of War and Peace, of which I have heard so much that is positive and so little that is critical. There was a piece by one of the translators in the NY Times yesterday that pushed me over the edge.
I've ordered a copy which will be sent tomorrow, the release date.
Is there anybody out there who's going to read it soon? If so, let me know and we can read it together.