The American Dream, exported.

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Jende Jonga of Limbe, Cameroon, follows his dream of a better life to New York City. Two years later he brings over his wife, Neni, to follow her dream of becoming a pharmacist, with their six-year old son.

Jende strikes gold by getting a job as chauffeur to Clark, an investment banker and a child of privilege, for a $35,000 annual salary.

This is just before the crash of 2008 and Clark, a good man, can see it coming and Junde overhears him trying and failing to convince his co-workers to the do the right thing. In the meantime, Clark’s elder son is turning his back on the West and immigrating to India to follow his bliss, to the consternation of both Clark and his wife, Cindy.

Some items:

Jonde lies like a rug to get into the country.

“How long do you plan on staying in New York City?” the consulate had asked him.

“Only three months, sir,” he had replied. “Just three months, and I promise I will return.”

…He was leaving Cameroon in a month! Leaving to certainly not return after three months. Who traveld to America only to return to a future of nothingness in Cameroon after a mere three months?

After Cindy forces Clark to fire Jonde, Neni outright blackmails Cindy with evidence Cindy’s abusing drugs and alcohol, for a $10,000 payoff.

Jonde hires a shady lawyer to convince a judge that he needs to be granted asylum from the murderous attentions of his father-in-law, which is a lie.

And when Jonde makes his decision and Neni disagrees, he beats her, in front of their son.

They aren’t monsters, they are both intelligent, motivated, and hard-working, but these are not the most admirable people you ever met between the pages of a book, either.

SPOILERS FOLLOW.

Jonde decides to return to Cameroon. Between blackmail and their savings they have quite the little nest egg and he has plans to start businesses of his own. I don’t know what his marriage is going to be like back in Limbe but he is intelligent and a very hard worker so I’m sure he’ll become a successful entrepreneur and a big man locally. It’s not the American Dream denied; it’s the American dream exported.

Neni’s dream is totally denied. She can’t go to school back home and her plans upon their return consist mostly of making sure she is properly dressed and made up so as to lord it over the women back home who might dare to pity her.

Mbue shows us these two families side by side, Jonde and Neni and Cindy and Clark and their respective children, and I think part of her intent is to underscore how at least Jonde and Neni have a functional, supportive family, whereas Cindy and Clark have anything but. And perhaps that American society began its decline when we became so mobile and disconnected from our families? I don’t much like the ending because I felt that when Jende beat Neni, and when she made herself complicit with it, that they were returning to a traditional patriarchal society where the men rule and the women serve. Neni’s father absolutely refused to send her to school in Cameroon, which was one of the reasons she was so happy to move to America.

My friend Pati recommended this book to me, with the comment that our nation is in decline. By which she meant people used to emigrate here to build a better life, and Mbue is saying they should stay home and build their own better life there. If Pati and Mbue are right, we are witnessing the beginning of the end of the American empire, which was founded and fueled by immigrants. If we’re no longer the destination of choice for immigrants, we’re done.

But no law ever said the American empire lasts forever.

This would be a terrific book for a book club discussion.

More of my Goodreads reviews here.

 

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The Real Master and Commander

Chances are you’ve already heard of Horatio Hornblower, Jack Aubrey, even Frank Mildmay. But how about Thomas Cochrane, the real life British naval officer upon whose life and career all of these fictional characters are at least in part based?

That’s what I thought. Don’t worry, David Cordingly’s Cochrane: The Real Master and Commander has got you covered.

The best biographies illuminate not only their title character but the time and place in which that character lives, and this book does that in spades, with some eye-opening revelations. For one thing, I had no idea that the British Navy during the Napoleonic Wars were on the whole, well, pirates.

Oh yes, they were, and I’ll tell you why. The British Navy was essentially a money-making proposition in those days. Whenever a British ship caught an enemy ship, it would be sent back to England where it would be assessed by the Admiralty and assigned a value, one-eighth of which was then shared among the officers and crew of the capturing ship. The more enemy ships they captured, the more prize money they made, and Cochrane, whose improvident father had cost the family the hereditary estate, was forever in a row with whoever was in charge about getting full value for the ships he captured.

An eye ever to the main chance Cochrane may have had, but he was also by everyone’s account, even his enemies’, of which he made many, a master mariner. Cordingly writes that some of Cochrane’s actions, described in full in you-are-there prose, are still cited by naval historians as the best of their kind. He was his own worst enemy on land but at sea he was unsurpassed. He wreaked havoc with Napoleon’s navy up and down the coasts of France and Spain, and not for nothing did the French call him “le loup de mer,” or the Seawolf.

Ashore, though, he involved himself in radical politics and made enemies of people in power, especially in the Navy. He was intemperate and mouthy, which, allied with a burning and fatal desire to achieve better pay and conditions for his officers and men, started the downward spiral. The British Admiralty just wasn’t there yet. When, inevitably, he made England too hot to hold him, he went to South America, where as, sequentially, chief of naval operations for both countries he was instrumental in Chile and Brazil’s wars of independence with Spain, and later and less gloriously in Greece’s war of independence with Turkey.

He had a keen scientific curiosity and the patience for experimentation which caused him to spend a great portion of his aforesaid prize money on experimenting with, among other things, lamps, steam engines and bitumin (aka asphalt). He was a passionate and faithful husband to his not always worthy wife, and what money he didn’t spend on scientific experimentation and petitions for reinstatement in the British Navy was employed to bail their worthless children out of hock.

This book is beautifully produced, with many detailed maps, marvelous cutaway illustrations of two of Cochrane’s ships so you can practically walk the decks at his side, three sections of contemporary paintings of friends and colleagues, including many portraits of Cochrane himself at every age, ships of his time, seascapes of sea battles and ports of call and scenes of engagement. There is even a glossary at the back to teach you the difference between bombarde and bumboat, and more illustrations throughout, such as a reproduction of the recruiting poster Cochrane had made up to entice a ship’s crew to the Pallas. “My lads,” says the poster, “The rest of the GALLEONS with the Treasure from LA PLATA are waiting half loaded at CARTAGENA…Such a Chance perhaps will never occur again.

That was appealing to their better natures, all right.

Cordingly’s Cochrane is a rousing tale, all the more astonishing because it’s all absolutely true. A wonderful read.

Romance, plus.

There is some excellent storytelling going on over in the romance genre nowadays, as I was telling my friend Janice in book club last month. I started recommending titles to her and then I thought, why not just tell everybody?


Anything for YouThis may be the best romance novel I’ve read in, I don’t know, the last five years? It has everything you could possibly want and then some: a complicated, totally believable heroine, one of the sexiest heroes walking around fiction on two legs, terrific dialogue, a plot with a couple of truly hair-raising reveals, the best brother-sister relationship I’ve ever read (two, actually), and one of the best ensemble casts ditto. And then there is Davy, the FAS brother Jessica is parenting. Higgins pulls no punches here, making the entire novel un-put-downable from beginning to end. Closed door, mostly.


Sustained

Read this for Jake’s relationship with the six kids. Funny and poignant, and very much open door.


Good Boy

The hero is so damn delightful, but his mom, oh, his mom. Great dialogue, too. Door way open.


Steadfast

A lost-and-found relationship where the hero is a recovering addict, which Bowen handles superbly without letting it take over the storyline. Door open.


Crazy for You

One of the scariest villains you will ever read, all the scarier because Crusie puts the reader in his head and we get to watch his obsession with the heroine increase one completely rational–to him–step at a time. Shiver. Closed door.


 

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“Ownership is an entirely human construct.”

high-tideIn Barbara Kingsolver’s collection of essays, High Tide in Tucson, the title piece refers to Buster the hermit crab, who hitched a ride to Arizona from the Bahamas and takes up residence in the desert. “He is in every way the perfect housemate,” Kingsolver writes, “quiet, entertaining, and willing to eat up the trash.” In “Making Peace,” javelinas invade Kingsolver’s home and garden, which leads to a discussion on private property versus territoriality. “Ownership,” she writes, “is an entirely human construct.” In “Confessions of a Reluctant Rock Goddess” she sings backup for Stephen King and Dave Barry in the Rock Bottom Remainders: “You have to picture the whole thing: in our jitters, the men have turned to alcohol and the women to makeup.”

“Postcards from the Imaginary Mom” is her account of a book tour. “Four days out,” she writes, “and I’m hard pressed to remember where I’ve been.” The tour ends with her locking herself out of her hotel room, dressed only in T-shirt and cowboy boots, and receiving aid from a dignified, silver-haired matron in the hallway, who then, of course, appears in the front row at that evening’s event.

atlasThe most haunting essay is “In the Belly of the Beast,” when she takes a tour of a decommissioned atomic missile silo. “For years I have wondered,” Kingsolver writes, “how anyone could willingly compete in a hundred-yard dash toward oblivion… Throughout the tour I kept looking…for what was missing in this picture: some evidence that the people who ran this outfit were aware of the potential effects of their 150-ton cause. A hint of reluctance, a suggestion of death. In the absence of this, it’s easy to get caught up in the internal logic of the fuel capacities, circuitry, and chemical reactions. One could even develop an itch to see if this amazing equipment really works, and to measure success in purely technical terms.”

Later? She goes to Hiroshima. “What they left out of the Titan Missile Museum was in plain sight in Hiroshima,” she writes. “I looked at things a human being can understand: …The pink dress of a girl named Egi-chan, whose blackened pocket held a train ticket out of the city. The charred apron of Mrs. Sato, who was nursing her baby.”

Alarming, amusing, always interesting and very well written, Barbara Kingsolver’s High Tide in Tucson sets the standard for the personal essay.

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It was, of course, all about the money.

When Everything Changed: The Amazing Journey of American Women from 1960 to the PresentWhen Everything Changed: The Amazing Journey of American Women from 1960 to the Present by Gail Collins

I was too young and also incredibly lucky to have been raised by a mother who never said “You can’t do that, honey, you’re a girl” to be paying enough attention to the women’s rights movement. So it’s lucky Collins wrote this definitive history, so I can read about Lois Rabinowitz getting thrown out of a NYC courtroom in 1960 because she’s wearing slacks, and about Tahita Jenkins, fired from her job as a New York City bus driver in 2007 because she wouldn’t wear pants.

The greatest irony of the celebration of forty years of suffrage was that it seemed that once women had gotten the right to vote, they never got anything else.

writes Collins, and takes us into the lives of women like Lorena Weeks who after an interminable, impoverishing legal battle forced Southern Bell to stop being a company where the lowest-paid man made more than the highest-paid woman, and other women who were fired and laid off for working while female, or ignored because they were female and black. It was, of course, all about the money.

After the war [WWII], the economy didn’t just improve. It exploded. Americans were producing half the world’s goods in the mid-’50s, even though they made up only 6 percent of the world’s population…In the 1960s, as the economy was constantly creating employment, two-thirds of those new jobs went to women…That year [1966] President Johnson urged employers to consider hiring women (along with teenagers, the handicapped, and immigrants) to fill their openings. Large firms such as IBM and Texas Instruments targeted stay-at-home moms in recruiting campaigns…The fact that the percentage of married women in the workforce kept quietly going up was really the key to women’s liberation.

and

The nation’s ability to direct most of its college-trained women into the single career of teaching was the foundation upon which the national public school system was built and a major reason American tax rates were kept low.

I can say, wow, I didn’t know that, and then I remember Laura Ingalls’ first teaching job, which paid twenty dollars a month and board.

and

Young unmarried women did not have widespread access to the Pill until the early 1970s–which not coincidentally was the same time they began to apply to medical, law, dental, and business schools in large numbers.

And still are. The ability to have children in one’s own time, or not to have them at all, is a hard-fought right of American women and one to be cherished and protected, and it’s never more clearly explained than in this book.

One of the most eye-opening stories is that of Phyllis Schlafly, the anti-women’s rights activist who nearly singlehandedly caused the failure of the Equal Rights Amendment. “I’d like to burn you at the stake,” Betty Friedan told her to her face, I must say with some justification, because, Collins writes, quoting Robin Morgan, in private Schlafly

readily admitted that without the doors opened by the women’s movement, she would never have been able to achieve so much. “But she would never repeat that in public,” Morgan said.

Toward the end Collins illustrates where we are now with a matter-of-fact narrative of the 2008 election, using Hilary Clinton and Sarah Palin as her models, with the best defense of Palin’s vice-presidential candidacy I’ve yet seen:

…the failure of her candidacy [Palin’s] was not a failure for women. At the very minimum, it was a triumph that voters did not seem to regard her floundering as a commentary on anything but Palin herself. On a more positive note, she won over many voters who had tended in the past to be hostile to the whole concept of a woman in the White House. She had a special affinity with younger working-class men. They liked the way she talked about hunting and hockey, and introduced her husband as first dude…Younger men with no college education were the people who had always been most threatened by women in the workplace and often the ones most resistant to any idea of being bossed by a woman anywhere. In a somewhat roundabout way, Palin made many of them converts to a new way of thinking. “They bear us children, they risk their lives to give us birth, so maybe it’s time we let a woman lead us,” a former truck driver told a reporter during a Palin rally in North Carolina.

A book that should be required reading in every American high school history class, along with its prequel, Collins’ America’s Women. Both highly recommended.

Click here to read all my Goodreads reviews

Old Sam and Murray Morgan

This is one of those happy instances of the law of unintended writing consequences.

On page 271 of Though Not Dead, Old Sam tells Pappardelle, “I served in the Aleutians during the war. There wasn’t a lot to do, so every now and then to keep the enlisted out of trouble the brass would get the big idea to have educational talks by anyone they could sucker out of the ranks…One night this Signal Corps guy from Tacoma — what was his name? Morgan, that was it. Anyway, Morgan was some kind of writer or professor or something in real life and he gave us a talk about how the last shot fired in the American Civil War was fired in the Aleutians.

Murray Morgan was a real person, and lo and behold, I log on to my website one morning to find this message from Murray Morgan’s daughter, Lane:

A friend just told me that my dad, Murray Morgan, is a minor character (or a referenced person) person in Though Not Dead. Very cool. He was indeed in the ASC in the Aleutians at the same time as Dashiell Hammett. I look forward to reading the book and wish Murray were still around to see the reference.

It turns out Morgan wrote long letters home from the Aleutians and Lane has been posting them on line here.

This guy just lived and breathed good writing. I met him through his book, Confederate Raider in the North Pacific, which tells the story of the last shot fired in the Civil War, fired, yes, by Confederate Navy Captain James Waddell who was disrupting the enemy’s economy by sinking Yankee whaling ships in the North Pacific. It is full of delightful prose and terrific little word pictures of the characters involved. One example from page 14:

Richard Wright was not the type of man usually involved in conspiracy. A Liverpool merchant, prosperous and proud of his family, he had a burgher’s respect for safety and six per cent.

Another from page 26:

Charles Francis Adams, the American Minister to Great Britain, was more a precision instrument than a human being. A brilliant, polished New Englander, the son and grandson of presidents, compressed to the hardness of a diamond by the accumulated weight of family tradition, he served as the cutting edge of American diplomacy.

And this about Captain Waddell from page 38:

Waddell was startled by the dissension. A romantic, a believer in the glory of war, he could not understand men who were untempted by adventure.

There are many more similarly wonderful prose portraits, especially of Waddell and his crew, who are parfit, gentil knyghts without sacrificing any attention to their mission, which they fulfill to admiration while murdering no man nor outraging any woman. One of my favorite stories is the whaler which is under the command of the captain’s wife, the captain having died on the voyage. She has preserved his body in a barrel of whiskey so she can take him home and bury him in the family plot. Waddell sinks her ship, but he sees the lady and her pickled husband both landed safely on shore afterward. Marvelous stuff.

Due to what I’m beginning to believe is the almost suicidal shortsightedness of American publishing, Morgan’s book is no longer in print, but fear not because there are used copies galore available on Bookfinder.com. This is the best book written on this subject, and it is well worth the extra effort to acquire. Accept no substitute.