So What Are You Reading?

Reviews of Books.

Friday, December 30, 2011

North of the Danube

This travel book of a visit to Czechoslovakia in 1939 is one of three books Erskine Caldwell and Margaret Bourke-White collaborated on. In this book she photographed and he wrote separately, and they combined their efforts although they did not attempt to match the text to the photos.

Czechoslovakia, which was formed in 1918 in the aftermath of the First World War out of the old Austro-Hungarian Empire, was 20 years old and about to be divided up in 1939 between Nazi Germany, Poland and Hungary. Maybe the authors gave a geographic title North Of The Danube to their book because of the uncertainty of the continued existence of the nation.

Bourke-White's cameras capture beautiful portraits of the local people, landscapes and architecture in their last year of peace before the war, including a couple of photos showing the new Nazi presence. Photos used in this book are dated from April 1937 through August 1938 on the Life Magazine website

While Erskine Caldwell is a great writer, his lack of knowledge about the region is obvious. His text is full of vivid descriptions with very little context. As travel book it is good, but it lacks the depth of analysis he was able to bring to You Have Seen Their Faces which he wrote with Bourke-White about tenant farmers in the southern states of the USA. What is evident as they move towards Germany in the eight chapters of this book is the increasing Nazi influence that troubles the Czechs and Slovaks they meet.

They traveled from east to west starting in Uzhgorod which is now the capital of the Zakarpatskaya oblast of Ukraine and end their visit in Prague and Bohemia. At Uzhgorod they hire a chauffeur to drive them to a remote mountain village called Uzhok where years ago the peasants supposedly ate their seed wheat and have no bread, living on oat meal mush. Then they take a train across Slovakia from Kosice to Zilina where Caldwell reports on badly behaving German travelers. They visit almost every corner of this young country and Bourke-White's photos are a snapshot of the country in the two years before the war.

It is not obvious from the book itself how completely their travels were since there is no map and place names are often small towns and villages, some whose names have changed over time. This inspired me to write a Map Review of the book using Google Maps. You can see the completed map review here:

Saturday, December 24, 2011

You Have Seen Their Faces

You Have Seen Their Faces, by Erskine Caldwell and Margaret Bourke-White
In the early years of the Great Depression, the author Erskine Caldwell and the photographer Margaret Bourke-White spent 18 months in the American Southern states of Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina, and Tennessee interviewing and photographing tenant farmers, commonly known as sharecroppers. This book, published in 1935 is the result of their work. Caldwell wrote about sharecroppers barely scraping a living from land drained of all fertility, the landlords who kept 10 million Southerners in economic slavery to produce cotton, and the politicians and ministers who supported the system rather than reform it. While he interviewed, Bourke-White sat quietly with camera ready to photograph them. It includes 75 mostly, full-page pictures taken by her that portray the destitute life of the tenant farming families. This is an amazing depiction of Southern poverty in words and pictures that I found very moving in spite of its age.

Friday, December 23, 2011

Blood Done Sign My Name

This book is based on a racially-motivated murder in Oxford, NC in May of 1970. A white man and his two sons beat and shot a black man because they claimed he talked disrespectfully to the white wife of one of the sons. Despite eye-witnesses, the men were not convicted. Timothy Tyson was a friend of the younger brother of the murderers and the 10-year old son of a liberal white Oxford Methodist minister at the time of the shooting. He is now a professor in African-American Studies at the University of Wisconsin - Madison. He first told this story in his Duke University master's thesis: Burning for Freedom: White Terror and Plack Power in Oxford, North Carolina. This book is much more than the facts behind a murder. It lays out the events of the murder in two settings. The first is his one life as a son of a liberal minister growing up in North Carolina. The second is the context of race relations in the South since the beginning of slavery. White authors can only dimly understand the effects of racial prejudice on Black Southerners, but Dr. Tyson does a good job of laying out some of the events that created the segregated North Carolina that existed at the time of the Oxford murder. I found it a most profound statement of the effects of racism in North Carolina. One small incident stands out to me as a librarian in North Carolina. In researching his thesis and this book, Dr. Tyson sought out copies of the Oxford Public Ledger only to find the Oxford Public Library's microfilm copies for the era had mysteriously disappeared. The newspaper's own copies were also missing. He even claims that the North Carolina State Archives copies are missing and says: "Someone had gone to considerable lengths to destroy the paper trail" (Page 295).

Sunday, December 18, 2011

The Age Of Revolution

The Age Of Revolution is volume seven of a ten volume series called The Illustrated History of the World which is based on Roberts' 1993 History of the World. The first volume covered the origins of the human race through the first civilizations of Mesopotamia and Egypt. The second volume in the series reviewed the early cultures of India and China and then moved on to discuss Greek civilization. The third volume covered the rise and fall of the Roman Empire, from 800 BCE to 600 CE. The fourth volume surveyed the rise of Islam, the Arab empires, the decline of the Byzantine Empire, and the beginnings of modern Europe. The fifth volume offered a first look at Japanese, African, and American cultures and also brings the stories of India, China, and Europe up to the 18th century. The sixth volume looked at the forces that formed the modern face of Europe and colonialism's effects on the whole world. This seventh volume is focused on Europe and North America. It starts with the Enlightenment, the Industrial Revolution, and Urbanization. Then it explores the French and American Revolutions, the Napoleonic reforms, and the nationalist revolutions of the mid-Nineteenth Century, and ends with the US Civil War and British political reform. Sadly, the rest of the world is left out, and no mention is given to the great struggle for women's rights. This is a book filled with beautiful color illustrations. Every page has at least one and most are photographs of artifacts, art works, or scenes. The text is well written and emphasizes brief summaries rather than scholarly examination. This makes it a good basic introduction and outline, but may be less useful to someone who wants to look at these subjects in greater depth. The lack of any bibliography of further readings is also a drawback for those wanting to seek more information. A two-page time chart of the period helps to put events in perspective. The chapter contents are confusingly placed at the end of the book, but they are well done and helpful for getting an overview of the author's approach. A two page listing of all the books in the series with their section and chapter titles helps to put the material into the broader view of all world history. All in all this is a great brief introduction to European and American 18th and 19th century history. However the emphasis is decidedly European and white male. The type face is large and the lines are amply spaced. Couple this with the copious illustrations and the book is actually a very quick read for its size and length. It is a few steps above the approach of Dorling Kindersley books that are predominately illustrations with supporting text. With Roberts, the text is the major part, but the illustrations are definitely more than an after thought. This is a good introduction for the general reader. It is not going to be a lasting reference book that you will turn to again and again.