Tuesday, January 28, 2020

Suddenly It's not Politically Correct to Read "American Dirt"

As I mentioned in previous posts about Jeanine Cummins’ American Dirt, I still haven’t gotten my hands on a copy of what has become a rather controversial novel. As of this date, in fact, I’m still number thirty-eight on my library’s hold list, exactly where I was a few days ago when I was suddenly bumped back eight spaces on the list. But only three days after my enquiry as to how that could happen I was back at number thirty-eight, making me wonder if the line-jumpers have now been placed back at the end of the line - where they should have been in the first place. Never, of course, will the truth be known.

I’m more interested than ever in reading American Dirt because of all the controversy the book has generated, and what I think is the unwarranted criticism it has suffered since publication. Immediately after publication, American Dirt seemed certain to dominate the bestseller lists for a long time. Oprah Winfrey gave it her blessing, the Hollywood clique gave its gushing (with that crowd it’s either gush or rant, nothing in between) approval, and the novel was generally being hailed as a real eye-opener, a game-changer even, in the politically charged open-border argument. And then some of those same people were saying the exact opposite about the book while throwing around words and phrases like “cultural appropriation,” “stereotypes,” and “melodramatic.”

Jeanine Cummins
I believe that the criticism has more to do with political correctness and peer-intimidation than it does with the quality of the book. The author’s writing is being ripped apart, many admit, because as a “white person and a Puerto Rican,” Cummins has dared to write a heartfelt novel about Mexicans who attempt to cross the southern border of the United States illegally. That genius Salma Hayek has even apologized about her initial praise of the book, in the process exposing the fact that she didn’t even bother to read it before praising it. In other words, Hayek just went along with the crowd and fully expected her Hollywood buds to award her a few brownie points for her efforts. Then the buzz did its 180 degree turn and the genius decided that she’d best go along with where the crowd was now going. Brilliant, just brilliant, Salma.

The book still, I’m happy to see, has its defenders, among them one of my favorite authors, Ann Patchett. In Patchett’s estimation, all of this sudden criticism may have more to do with “sexism than concerns about the author stepping into a culture and identity she doesn’t understand.” Patchett told the Los Angeles Times that “There’s a level of viciousness that comes from a woman getting a big advance and a lot of attention. If it had been a small advance with a small review in the back of the book section, I don’t think we’d be seeing the same level of outrage.”

Jeanine Cummins herself, at least to this point, has been relatively silent about the nasty criticism. It will be interesting to see how the whining impacts sales of the book in the long run because this kind of thing often backfires on those doing the criticizing or boycotting. Only time will tell.

As for me, I’m hoping that the book does well. It is about a middle-class Mexican woman and her young son who are desperate to escape the drug cartel members who killed her journalist husband in revenge for the articles he was writing about the cartel. Her best hope is to escape into the United States. This is a very pro-immigrant book, and the politically correct whining it has generated caught me by surprise. If the critics don’t like what this “white Puerto Rican” has written and how she has portrayed their culture, let’s see them do it better. I’ll be happy to read their books, too, but I’m not going to play their kill American Dirt game.

Sunday, January 26, 2020

Alas, Babylon - Pat Frank

Pat Frank’s Alas, Babylon was published in 1959, and I first read it as a sixteen-year-old in 1964. This is the first time I’ve read it since, but that initial reading impressed me so much that I still have that particular paperback copy of Alas, Babylon on my shelves. To understand why this one made such an impact on me, it helps to remember just how deeply implanted into the minds all of us growing up in the fifties and sixties the relative likelihood of a nuclear holocaust was. We were part of that whole “duck and cover” drill process that was going on in schools all across the country in those days. We took it seriously because the adults all around us took it seriously.

So along comes Pat Frank in 1959 with a 315-page novel about what would happen if Russia started firing missiles at the United States and Western Europe in an attempt to win a nuclear war via a devastating first strike that would cost millions of lives in a matter of hours – and suddenly, our worst fears were easier than ever to picture in our minds. It all seemed very real to someone my age because, after all, the Soviet Union was already winning the space race, and catching up seemed to be beyond the capacity of the U.S. space program.

But, as it turns out, Alas, Babylon is not at all the pessimistic and terrifying book it might have been. Yes, millions do die, whole cities are wiped out in minutes, and millions more will die in the months following “The Day,” but those in little Fort Repose, Florida, are not prepared to give up even then. Randy Bragg is not going to let them. Mark Bragg, Randy’s brother, is an officer in SAC Intelligence, and Mark manages both to evacuate his wife and children from Omaha to Florida and to give Randy a 24-hour heads-up about the impending doomsday. That little head start would make a difference.

Pat Frankb
The core of Alas, Babylon is, as would be expected, the community’s common effort to survive the aftermath of being completely cut off from the rest of civilization. Suddenly responsible for their own food supply, safety, health care, and the like, the people of Fort Repose soon learn that they will have to depend upon each other if any of them are to survive the long term – and that thieves will be subject to the harshest penalty there is. Fans of dystopian novels will find much here to please them. It can be argued in fact,  that books like Alas, Babylon, Nevil Shute’s On the Beach, Eugene Burdick’s Fail Safe, and Peter George’s Red Alert created the pattern for most every dystopian novel that would follow.

Pat Frank’s message, however, is a bit different than the message sent by most dystopian novels. Frank does not shy away from showing the reader exactly what the carelessness and stupidity of the political class might cost the world one day. He doesn’t linger in the gore, but he does paint a clear enough picture of what would be lost – perhaps lost forever. Frank focuses more on how much we are going to miss all the things we destroy, and just how suddenly thousands of years of human advancement could be made meaningless. Pat Frank, though, has one more message for his readers, a message of hope - hope that those who survive will be able to claw back as much of the past as is humanly possible, and that civilization will survive the worst.

Bottom Line: I’ve seen a few reviews of Alas, Babylon claiming that the novel is so racist and misogynistic that it is barely readable. All I can say to those reviewers is that they just don’t get it. The novel was written in 1958 or 1959, a period during which racism was more obvious than it is today. Pat Frank makes that racism part of his story, particularly the way that everyday conversation often included casual racial and religious slurs, even to using the infamous “N-word” on numerous occasions in the book. Frank’s main characters, Randy Bragg and his family, though, are anything but racist in attitude and action. The author uses the Bragg family to make his points about racism and racists; he doesn’t preach tolerance, he shows it in action, and he makes sure that one of the key families in Fort Repose’s survival is a black family, a family that is totally accepted in the new world in which they find themselves. Read between the lines, people.

Friday, January 24, 2020

Library Queues and Line-Jumpers - Part II

A quick follow-up to yesterday's post about line-jumping at my local library:

I was in the library this morning (January 24) and couldn't resist simply asking the lady at the circulation desk for an explanation of my question from yesterday because it has become apparent that I'm not going to get a written response from anyone within the system. 

I told her what my theory was (preferential treatment for library employees), and she basically said  that she couldn't answer that question for me. She then thought a minute and came up with something that does make some sense, saying that our county system has recently merged its database with the county just north of us. That means that most everyone would have dropped back a few spaces as the two queues were merged. Now, if that's the case, I do have to wonder why the system still shows only one copy of the book being available in all of two counties. Perhaps, however, that's just a problem with the merging process.

Even if this is what caused the system suddenly to bump me eight places, two of which I've now recovered (indicating that there has to be more than one copy of American Dirt in circulation), I am still a little disconcerted to learn, more or less, that the Hold queue can be bypassed by any librarian that takes a liking to a book I've already been waiting weeks for. The person I spoke with today did not confirm my suspicion, but she would not go so far as to deny it either.

So there we have it...number 44 in line and wondering how many months it will be before I get my hands on a library copy of American Dirt. At this rate, the paperback may be out before that happens.

Thursday, January 23, 2020

Library Queues - Who Are These Line-Jumpers?

I am throwing this out primarily as a question for any of my librarian friends who may see this post, but also to enquire of others if they have ever noticed something like this happening at their own libraries. (I have formally asked my own library to respond, but so far my request seems to have dropped into some sort of black hole.)

Two or three weeks ago I electronically placed American Dirt by Jeanine Cummins on hold, and I started out on the list at number 40 because I was a little late in becoming aware of the novel. For some strange reason, the library system shows that only one copy of the novel has been purchased for the county despite the fact that we have near a dozen branch libraries under the county umbrella. I realized that the wait would be painfully slow, and sure enough, I had only moved up to number 38 in the queue as of two days ago. I decided to check my status again last night and found that I had suddenly dropped back to number 46 in that same queue. 

Now, how could that be? Who are these eight line-jumpers and why were they allowed to push me backward like this? Are they library employees who suddenly clicked to the controversy surrounding this particular novel (absurd claims of cultural appropriation are being made against its author) or are they friends of librarians, etc.? Frankly, I can’t think of a legitimate reason for something like this to happen, but as indicated by my email enquiry to the library, I’m willing to listen.

So it’s a simple question, folks: What am I missing here because surely there’s a good explanation for this practice?