Best American books, part 2

PART 1     PART 3 LET US NOW PRAISE FAMOUS MEN James Agee and photographer Walker Evans The book Let Us Now Praise Famous Men grew out of an assignment the two men accepted in 1936 to produce a magazine article on the conditions among white sharecropper families in the U.S. South during the “Dust Bowl”. It was the time of U.S. President Franklin Roosevelt’s “New Deal” programs designed to help the poorest segments of the society. Agee and Evans spent eight weeks that summer researching their assignment, mainly among three white share-cropping families mired in desperate poverty. They returned with Evans’ portfolio of stark images—of families with gaunt faces, adults and children huddled in bare shacks before dusty yards in the Depression-era nowhere of the deep south—and Agee’s detailed notes. As he remarks in the book’s preface, the original assignment was to produce a “photographic and verbal record of the daily living and environment of an average white family of tenant farmers”. However, as the Literary Encyclopedia points out, “Agee ultimately conceived of the project as a work of several volumes to be entitled Three Tenant Families, though only the first volume, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, was… Continue reading

Exit Visa: how they got out alive

EXIT VISA is a factual novel about the aftermath of the Vietnam war, a vivid and gripping narrative, it chronicles the horrors experienced by those who fled after the fall of Saigon.  We have all seen movies about Vietnam, but have you ever noticed, none of them tell you what happened after the war ended? What happened to the population when the communists took over? Why did hundreds of thousands of people flee? What happened in Kampuchea that led to two million people dying?   EXIT VISA gives vivid descriptions of the last days of the Vietnam war; the murder of the Kampucheans during Year Zero; working on the Ho Chi Minh Trail; living in Saigon after the communists took over; the fleeing of ‘boat people’ from Vietnam; the boat journey to Malaysia; resettlement in Australia. This is one of the few books published (in English) that describes these events through Vietnamese eyes.    In this novel a young schoolteacher and her family flee the approaching communist army. A brutal and corrupt police sergeant bribes his way out of Saigon and onto a jet. An elderly jeweller watches in despair as the city and people he loves are destroyed. A Khmer… Continue reading

Restless in wartime

Book Review: Restless by William Boyd (2006) Although this is a novel of espionage set during the Second World War, there is little of the James Bond stuff in it. The novel deals mostly with propaganda. The main effort was to draw America into the war. Britain was under siege, struggling to fight off the Nazis. Britain needed all the help it could get. America was reluctant to get involved in another European war. Whatever Roosevelt thought hardly mattered. Congress and the public wanted nothing to do with another European war. Besides it was 3,000 miles away, it was not an American problem. The job of the British espionage unit was to convince Americans that it was not just a European problem, but a world problem. I found it intriguing the way false stories were spread. They would concoct a story —  something the Nazis were supposed to have done, something that was detrimental or insulting to Americans. Then they would get it published, or radio presented, in some minor news outlet in America. Once that was done, they would send it out again with an American dateline. Before long it would be picked up by other news agencies, no… Continue reading

– Life and death in Shanghai –

This is a wonderful story of determination and mental strength of a 51 year-old woman. A perfect book for International Women’s Day! Accused of being a spy, she survived more than six years of harsh imprisonment by the Red Guards in China. It is a story of adaptability, courage, and bravery. This is an autobiographical account of Nien Cheng who, after her husband died, became an assistant advisor to the manager of Shell Oil in China. Shell was one of the few companies that stayed on in China after the Communists came to power in 1949. Chinese by birth, Nien Cheng and her husband had been educated in England. Her husband was head of Shell Oil for many years. He died of cancer in 1957. Nien was then asked to assist in the running of Shell in China. In 1966 The Chinese Cultural Revolution burst onto the streets like the 1938 Nazi Crystal Night. It was a highly organised, political movement, aimed at removing all opposition, all disagreement to Mao Tse-tung. Anyone who showed the slightest opposition to his authority was murdered by the Red Guards. If you have read George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, then you have a very good… Continue reading