"Money was maliciously introduced in ancient times as a tool of enslavement" -
Michael Tellinger

"The present belongs to the future and future generations, and all old laws, religious and other, should be abrogated immediately. Free us!" - Vinay Gupta on Twitter

"You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete." - R. Buckminster Fuller

"You find the strangest ways to be positive!" - Diane Duane, Wizards Abroad

Friday, September 3, 2010

In honor of Labor Day: some novels, movies, and a song

For American Labor Day, here are some novels on American themes, showing people at work: journalist, farmer, academic, symbologist... symbologist? And where is the Labor Movement in this? Where indeed? After the book reviews stick around for the rally, and then bring the spirit back to your community!


Siddons, Anne Rivers. Downtown (1994). This engaging novel captures the spirit of a pivotal and extraordinary moment.  In1966 the Civil Rights Movement has opened the door to change, and the very old-South city of Atlanta, Georgia is on the cusp of transformation into the nation’s poster child of a modern, racially integrated, economically vibrant South.

In this context, individuals--writers, lawyers, activists--are challenged as well, and their lives are transformed according to the choices they make. Some, just entering adulthood, must find their maturity in the midst of all this turmoil and promise (baby boomer readers who came of age at that time might remember what that was like) and the young journalists at Downtown, Atlanta’s “city magazine,” serve as the lens through which the reader views, and understands, the special Atlanta situation. The novel has two protagonists, really--Smokey, a newly-minted young writer, and the city itself.

So much has changed since then that it seems right, now, to revisit that time, and reconsider this view of the South in a more hopeful period of social and economic progress. It wasn’t really that long ago, but it feels like a long-gone era to me right now.


Smiley, Jane. A Thousand Acres (1991). Though the time it covers is contemporaneous, more or less, with the time it was written, this reads like a historical novel as well, capturing the American Midwest in a similarly challenging period of transition. But here, the arc is from prosperity to devastation as traditional farming culture is overtaken by corporate agribusiness and individual farmers are lured into economic ruin by pressures to take out loans they ultimately cannot repay. (Those who've seen The Real Dirt on Farmer John, a fine documentary film, will be reminded of that farmer’s life, here.)

The title refers to the family patriarch’s dream of increasing his landholdings into what he envisions as a dynasty--an ambition defeated by his growing madness, by the uncooperative independence of his three daughters, and of course by an increasingly unstable economic climate. Though the parallels and references here to King Lear are obvious, I can't help feeling Lear aspect was overemphasized by critics. I read this as an “anti-Lear” in which the daughters are the main characters, and the story is not limited by the reference to Shakespeare; that is, you don't need to know anything about his Lear to read this as a complete work in itself. But certainly, Lear provides a dramatic context and much psychological and cultural resonance, as the author searches the soul of this country in the late twentieth century.

For me, in A Thousand Acres Smiley achieved that holy grail of American novelists, the Great American Novel. Beautifully written, with earthy humor, subtle insight into complex issues, and great empathy for its resilient characters, the novel won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1992.


Smiley, Jane. Moo (1995) Smiley is such a fine writer and all her books are so different from one another that she kind of amazes me. Moo takes as its starting point the classic “academic” or “campus” novel, a genre that’s usually too self-referential and claustrophobic for my taste--but here, Smiley takes a tired convention and expands it into something more universal and surprisingly original. In this story of a third-rate Midwestern university with origins as an agricultural college (hence its popular name, “Moo U”), she uses the campus as a microcosm of society and it’s a very dark comedy indeed -- delicious, satiric, witty, and far-reaching. “Moo U” provides a provocative education.


Brown, Dan. The Lost Symbol (2009). In honor of Labor Day, we’ve looked so far at novels of journalism, farming and academics. But what would fiction be without an imaginary occupation? Enter Robert Langdon, a world famous Symbologist. This is a fun job that ought to exist but doesn’t, at least not in the way that Langdon works it, and through this device, Dan Brown clearly signals to the reader at the outset that his fiction should not be read as fact, even if some of it is true (and intentionally provocative).

The author of The DaVinci Code, and a slew of similar novels, found a mother lode of material for his fiction in the rich world of obscure scholarship and minor popular arcana that lurks just beyond the consensual reality of mainstream culture. Then, with the razzle-dazzle that has become his trademark, he mashes it all up, in rather sensationalistic style, into a genre of suspense novels set in famous places.

I include this story here because it takes place in Washington, DC, and anyone familiar with our nation’s capital can appreciate the puzzle box Brown makes out of that wonderfully quirky city: it's just made for chase scenes. Here, the heroes race (for hundreds of pages at breakneck speed) through DC’s unique landmarks and historical lore in search of the secret to enlightenment (or something--it scarcely matters what), in a comprehensive if questionable tour of the (not really) “hidden” history of the city and its founders’ (purported) real intentions. As I said, it’s not factual (indeed it's larded - I suspect intentionally - with anti-facts among the true ones) but it’s a fun trip and perhaps a good choice for the last of the summer reading.

Actually, for Labor Day, I'm stumping my brain for novels I've really liked that deal with the actual labor movement. I can think of songs and movies and poems and art - but novels? Anybody?

Meanwhile, here's one of my all-time favorite lyricists, Malvina Reynolds, singing her classic "The Little Red Hen"... (with Pete Seeger and Ramblin' Jack Elliot enjoying the song):

Found that one thanks to YouTube channel of "peglegsam," who says it's from Rainbow Quest with Pete Seeger (a tv series I missed?), and the lyrics are there too:

The Little Red Hen found a grain of wheat,
Said "This looks good enough to eat,
But I'll plant it instead, make me some bread,"
Said to the other guys down the street,
"Who will help me plant this wheat?"

"Not I!" said the dog and the cat.
"Not I!" said the mouse and the rat.
"I will then," said the Little Red Hen,
And she did.

Well the sun shone bright, the rain it blew,
The grain of wheat it grew and grew,
It began to sprout, headed out,
Till it was ripe enough.
Said, "Who will help me harvest this stuff?"


She lugged it to the miller to grind to flour,
Cause the others would furnish her no manpower,
And at baking time they all declined
To help her with the job;
They were a dog gone no-good mob.


The bread looked good and smelled so fine
The gang came running and fell in line;
"We'll do our part with all our heart
To help you eat this chow!"
She said, "I do not need you now."

"I planted and hoed this grain of wheat,
Them that works not, shall not eat,
That's my credo," the little bird said,
And that's why they called her Red.

Am I saying here that the American Labor Movement was "communist"? Not a bit of it, at least in the way that the people in this country have been taught to think of the meaning of that word. I'm saying that most people still don't know they were duped on the subject. The whole "red" thing was a propaganda campaign that tragically succeeded in allowing the radical right corporate owners of America systematically to destroy much of organized labor. There are just shards of it left; look at the state the country's in now--not only for workers, but increasingly for those who "eat the chow" too--as a result of that decades-long war on us. Call it any color you like, but we need a labor movement more now than ever.

Sermon over; here are some fine documentaries that come to mind on this holiday weekend:

(This one's for Matt and Bert!)

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