So What Are You Reading?

Reviews of Books.

Saturday, May 28, 2011


Looking Backward by Edward Bellamy.
Looking Backward, while written over 120 years ago, is about what the author envisioned the 21st century could have been like if the USA had embraced Socialist principles. Very popular when it was written (right up there with Uncle Tom's Cabin and Ben Hur), it is about a young 19th century upper class white man's surprising re-introduction to society when he wakes up from a 113 year nap at the dawn of the 21st century. Similar to Washington Irving's "Rip Van Winkle" and Woody Allen's Sleeper in plot structure but told without parody or humor, in Looking Backward the world has changed dramatically while our hero slept.

Bellamy's hero is awakened by a retired doctor and his wife and daughter when they find him sleeping in a chamber under their garden. This family slowly introduces him to the wonders of a modern Socialist state where the nation is the only employer and the people's army works for the common good. Each chapter explores a different aspect of this modern cooperative society. Chapter 15 describes Bellamy's vision of the future of publishing, 16 discusses art, 19 is devoted to law, and 20 to education. The ideas are mostly presented through dialogs with the doctor with few actual visits and interactions. Economic progress is stressed over technological change.

Written before the Great Depression, Communism, National Socialism, two World Wars and the Holocaust, Bellamy's book blames much of the world's problems on social inequality and the pursuit of personal gain. He envisions the United States leading the world into a just brotherhood where humans work together for the common good. It is interesting to read today Bellamy's vision of looking back from an alternative world that never came into being although fervently desired by many at the time. For Bellamy and his readers the enemy was Capitalism and salvation was to be had in Communism and National Socialism. He envisions a world where these ideas were embraced by the USA instead of Stalin and Hitler and led to a Utopian society.

Monday, May 02, 2011

The 1909 novel Aunt Jane's Nieces at Work by L. Frank Baum writing as Edith Van Dyne, is the fourth volume in the Aunt Jane's Nieces series. The three young women, Louise Merrick, Beth De Graf, and Patsy Doyle, met in the first volume of the series on the estate of their Aunt Jane, who was dying and trying to decide which niece would receive her inheritance.

In this fourth book of the series Kenneth Forbes, the young man who inherited Aunt Jane's estate, is now running for the state legislature, in what he thinks will be an easy election against a corrupt politician. He is the richest man in this poor district but inexperienced in the ways of the world. When he starts to have a rough time, and it looks like all hope is gone, his three cousins decide to go to work for his election They show up with their rich Uncle John and, even though women can't vote in 1909, they organize an effective campaign. This is an interesting story that describes the type of political maneuvering of 100 years ago. Baum's mother-in-law was the famous women's rights activist Matilda Joslyn Gage, and I feel she would have been proud of her son-in-law's characterization of these three young political women.

Sunday, May 01, 2011


Charlie Chan: The Untold Story of the Honorable Detective and His Rendezvous with American History by Yunte Huang

Yunte Huang was born in China, came to the US in 1991, and is now an English professor at UC Santa Barbara. Charlie Chan is a fictional Chinese police detective created by the White American author Earl Derr Biggers, who wrote six popular Charlie Chan mystery novels. Biggers based Charlie Chan on a real Honolulu Chinese detective named Chang Apana who was a respected member of the department. Hollywood made 47 Charlie Chan movies with White actors in "yellowface" makeup playing the Chinese detective. Many Chinese find these movies to be racist and offensive.

In this book the author looks at Chang Apana, and the literary and film versions of Charlie Chan, and puts them into the context of very negative American attitudes and perceptions of the Chinese over the past 150 years. This survey of America's troubled relationship with its Chinese population is what gives this book its broad value. It also sets into context the stereotyped Chan and the use of "yellowface" actors to portray him in the film industry. When seen against the much more negative images and attitudes that also existed at the time, the author makes Charlie Chan seem like a positive portrayal of the Chinese in American popular media.

This book leaves unasked an interesting question. Are the original Charlie Chan novels fatally flawed because they were written by a White American author? The White American author James Patterson writes novels about a Black Washington DC detective Alex Cross. His books have been made into movies with Morgan Freeman playing the lead. Could a Chinese actor play Charlie Chan in a way that would reflect the racial tensions of the 1920s?