Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Slow Roots

I'm taking a bit longer on this book than I should.

It's been 3 weeks since I began my journey and I'm only 60 pages in. But what a journey it has been. Not in the book, but in the impact that the book has today. But let me explain. When I first told people I was going to read this book I got mixed responses. Some people were excited, some people didn't care, and several people told me that Alex Haley lied in his book.

The last response I thought was incredibly stupid, after all the book is a work of fiction - historical fiction but fiction nonetheless. Now I did do some research, and I am aware that the man plagiarized. But come on, its not like he's a qualified historian who plagiarized from several books, and there have been one or two well known ones who've done this. He admitted he plagiarized the bits about Africa so lets just move on with it.

But that's not really the problem I've been having with the book. For example, last week a coworker saw that I was toting Roots around with me when I went to switch shifts with him. (I say toting because not much reading is being done.) His response was to sneer and say, "Oh, you're reading Roots. Historical fiction." Which was a ridiculous response because this particular co-worker was carting a young adult fantasy romance novel - which I happen to know is in the Twilight style. Besides I've seen him toting around historical fiction himself. Which means, I thought later that evening, that he is not sneering at Roots because it is Historical Fiction. No, he is sneering at it because it is written by an African American writer.

I've never known this coworker to be obviously racist, but towards this book he clearly is. Which brings me to the topic of what the book is about. Firstly, the book is about an African family - the Kinte's and specifically the journey of Kunta Kinte's line to the Americas through the process of slavery. White guilt, which is ridiculous but does exist, leads whites to feel like they themselves are responsible for the actions of their ancestors towards other people. Surprisingly this is mainly seen in America dealing with slavery. I certainly don't see any evidence of German guilt concerning their actions in World War II. Or French and English guilt for owning slaves. I suspect this has little to do with the actual guilt of owning slaves than with the continued treatment of a group of people long after slavery ended. Excellent blog on a similar subject here. But I have sidetracked.

This book must have made quite the splash when it was published let alone the splash it still makes today. If I needed any proof that racism was still alive, the book would have proved it. I wasn't surprised to have one of my friends tell me that the book was worthless since the author lied. I've already observed her repeated racial prejudice. But to have a coworker that I respected act like that, I'm disappointed. Although, after his comment, it makes me more determined to read the book all the way through.

Monday, July 7, 2014

Code of the West - Follow up

What an utter disappointment.

I was really geared to like this book. This is the book I was looking forward to the most after Mr. Blettsworthy.  The opening caught your interest, the descriptions of the landscape made me nostalgic (grew up in El Paso, TX), but the characters were so flat they just couldn't follow through. To be honest, instead of reading about Georgiana and Cal, I would've like to hear more about Enoch and Mary - Georgiana's sister. But let me back up a few paces here.

Here's a synopsis of the story from, which I probably should have read but in the interest of this project I'd like to go into these books as unbiased as possible. Georgianna Stockwell, a free-spirited young woman from the East, moves to the wilds of the Tonto Basin in Arizona and she creates a violent culture clash. She revels in a whirlwind of flirtations and coquetry, outraging the proud Western folk and violating their Code of Honour, Her presence is provocative to all young men in the Basin, but to Cal Thurman in particular she is "like a firebrand in prairie grass." Through Cal she finds a love she does not expect - and a heritage of violence she cannot control. 

Sounds exciting right? A Violent Culture Clash? What is that! I'll tell you though, its not half as interesting as it sounds. The violence is barely existent until the last 30 - 20 pages of the book. Like I said earlier, the story starts out great. Mary Stockwell plays a joke on the boys at the ranch she boards at by asking them to pick up her dour looking sister. Of course, Georgiana is absolutely gorgeous but the boys don't know that. The book is all fun until Georgiana arrives, and then it goes downhill from there. Now granted by the time he wrote Code of the West, Zane Grey was pumping out books at a pace of 1 to 2 books a year. Naturally when you're producing books at that rate, the quality is bound to flag. But once Georgiana arrives, every single person in the book loses any semblance of a character. Cal is a sullen cowboy in love, Georgiana is a flirtatious urban girl, and every other person in the book - except Tuck Merry - is a cowboy looking for trouble.

Perhaps even worse than the bad storytelling, is the insult the book makes towards feminists. One minute Georgiana is all full of fire and feminism, set on having her way. But the second that Cal acts like a caveman and literally kidnaps her to make her marry him, she has a change of heart and can suddenly understand why western women are the way they are. Suddenly she understands how to manage the home and she was made for that her whole life. Also, she's completely unable to be angry at Cal for kidnapping her and forcing her into marriage and she grows to realize she's always loved him.

In the midst of this pathetic dribble is the violence of Cal beating another young cowboy Bid Hatfield for saying slanderous things about his "now" wife. (Well more like trying to beat.) When he returns home bruised and broken, Georgiana resolves to make everything right that her scandalous flirting has ruined! On the one hand, her actions are satisfying because she takes Tuck Merry and has her say about Bid Hatfield right there in front of his boss. Way to stand up for herself! On the other hand, Tuck Merry beats the living daylights out of Bid, so so much for the strong girl rectifying everything on her own.

I will most likely never read another Zane Grey novel again. Luckily, there are no others on my list. I like to think that my Great Grandfather also didn't care for the books. But I figure that's rather modern wishful thinking. Although, from the small time I knew him, my Great Grandfather did seem like a forward thinking man. I leave that question to be settled for the next book, Roots by Alex Haley. As it has been on my own list for a while I can't wait to cross it off.

'Till the next book, patient readers.

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Zane Grey

With Pictures!

So last time I said that I would be reading Zane Grey's Code of the West and I am currently halfway through the book. So far I'm really enjoying reading the book, though the going has been slow because of the prose and my personal commitments. Not that I don't like the prose but after a few pages filled with how glorious the Arizona landscape is, you get a little tired. There are some problems I'm having with the book - mainly the slight patriarchal line running through it but I can accept that as a product of its time. (1923) It is nowhere near the level of the Decameron. That being said, I decided I wanted to do a little research on Zane Grey since I'm halfway through this novel.

Pearl Zane Gray was born in 1892 in Zanesville, Ohio. That is how every single biography starts about him online. Apparently Zanesville is named after his mother's family, who settled it. The family's name was changed to Grey sometime after Zane was born. It did not take him long to drop the Pearl from his name. I would like to argue that his books about the west, very geared towards rugged masculinity, might have something to do with him being named Pearl. But that might be a more modern interpretation of it. Perhaps the name Pearl was considered a masculine name in the 1890s.

Zane Grey lived a very interesting life, full of the excitement of fishing, writing, baseball, and dentistry. To appease his dentist father, Zane Grey got into the University of Pennsylvania's Dentistry Department on a baseball scholarship. He graduated and went on to play semi-professional baseball with an occasional dabbling in dentistry. He married Lina Elise Roth, who he decidedly renamed Dolly. (Personally I know that I should be like "Oh! How sweet. He had a pet name for his wife," but since everything from then on refers to her as Dolly I am slightly insulted. She had a name for crying out loud.)
Zane and Dolly on the Delaware. Courtesy of the National Park Service.
His wife made him famous, mostly because she pushed him to write and (before they were married) paid him to publish his first novel. His third novel, his first western, became the novel that launched him into stardom. I have no idea how many books he wrote but when he died he left behind 20 manuscripts which were all published. There is no doubt that Zane Grey was a prolific author. He also dabbled in film, owning a company that produced films of his novels but it was eventually sold to what would become Paramount Films.
Zane Grey at the Filming of Riders of the Purple Sage.
Courtesy of the National Park Service.
Fun to note, Zane Grey was so popular that there was a museum made out of a house that he owned in Lackawaxen Pennsylvania. It is currently owned by the National Park Service as part of the Upper Delaware Park. I found a picture at the National Park website and now I kind of want to go check it out. 
Zane Grey Museum. Courtesy of the National Park Service.
Grey was definitely an interesting man and today has a huge following. Mostly by people who can't accept change and who think that the Simple West (which never existed, historically) is an ideal that we should try to live by today. There is a website, I looked through it, I'm not sharing its address because it annoyed me. But boy did they try to push living by a western code.

It is interesting to note that the response by these people to our modern times almost exactly mirrors the response of Grey's ranch hand characters in Code of the West to the freedom of the 1920s. The things that stay the same. That being said, with feminism on the rise - much like it was in the 1920s, and the insistence for increasing regulation - much like in the 1930s - its not surprising to see people today turning to books like Zane Grey's to grasp a concept of simplicity and rightness. After all, in the west you follow your own law, guns are necessary, and women mind the home in the homestead. (The last is actually something the lead character said to the lead heroine.) 

The correlations between this book's setting and my own is slightly unsettling. I wonder if my great grandfather did read this. Was it simply an interest in westerns? Or was it simply boyhood reading, since his version was a second reprint in 1934. I wonder what he thought about the book?