Books are a forest and it’s hard to see the trees, except the tall ones or the old ones. But when you enter the forest, it’s the new growth that emits the sunlight....

Monday, April 2, 2012

The Jungle, desk hazards, and reviews: Tom Winton and L. Anne Carrington

It was about time I read The Jungle.  Having grown up in a town where meat was slaughtered and having some knowledge about the history of Chicago, I put this book off.  As a vegetarian most days, I thought the historical expose would be a multiple whammy.  Then I came across a used copy and opened the first page.

What I wasn’t expecting was the fine writing, remindful of a Russian novel. Though much of The Jungle is gritty, even infernal, the fabulous style and portrayal of the characters makes it very readable, as Dostoyevsky is.

Upton Sinclair delved into every turn of a man who, at first, would rather have worked than pursued an education or even information about the United States. His capacity for experience, the gruesome jobs he has in Packingtown, his roaming as a hobo, and his attempts to survive in the mob, give a formidable background to the final political tone of the book.


Compared to the work risks in The Jungle, desk work doesn’t seem to have hazards.  Yet as I finished The Jungle,  I felt as if my computer mouse had given me “the arm electric.”   My new cat Curdie tossed the mouse to the floor a few times.  But checking around, I found that my “arm electric” exactly fit the symptoms of carpel tunnel syndrome. 

I’d known people who had surgery for carpel tunnel; that’s indicated for 50 percent of its sufferers.  I recalled that the condition had to do with tendons but didn’t realize that the electric sensations were from a tendon pressuring a nerve. A few days with support under my wrist convinced me that my problem could be improved.  After buying a wrist splint at the drugstore and wearing it at night for two weeks, that electric feeling has become more and more infrequent.

I wondered if many writers were suckers like Jurgis in The Jungle, having become addicted to a dream, writing fiction during an unemployed year. 
While working at a used book and antiques store, I began collecting inkwells.  If my writing hobby had turned into a kind of boomerang with editors, all that desk work was nothing to what writers did with an inkwell and pen. 

I’d developed osteoarthritis, both in my toes from my habit of walking miles, and in my finger joints.  I don’t know when mentholated preparations like Ben-Gay were developed but I could obtain weeks of relief from one application.  I bought a jar for about $5 four years ago and I still have half the jar.  The doctor told me to just keep walking and typing.  I guess the bones grind where the joint cushion is worn, creating space and eventually relieving the pain.

Why do writers become so obsessive that they will put up with painstaking secretarial work?  Tom Winton in Beyond Nostalgia shows how life experience lead his protagonist to write. 

High school romance, at the outset of Beyond Nostalgia, is well-orchestrated and exciting. While Dean and Theresa are relieved to have found each other, discoveries about their mothers' sad psychologies hinge their relationship. Winton has a flair for setting and detail in every scene. The New York City romance, the Copacabana after prom, the chukka boots, stir the senses and nostalgia for the era. Dean Cassidy's attachment to Theresa, even after their break-up, develops into a believable obsession about first love.

This alternates with his disillusionment about being drafted and about his regular work after he marries a woman who exemplifies selfless love for him. Dean's skepticism about the working man's role in America, what leads to his writing, results in a brilliantly elaborated conflict between his married life and the Eden of his first love experience.


Many women feel that life experience has left them injured by the time they are fifty – if they are too nostalgic about their pleasures and their health before that.  L. Anne Carrington has written a delightful book for those who don’t like to look ahead, entitled Fifty.

What is at once satisfying about Fifty is the voice of Randi, the fictional adviser. Sometimes it's caustic, often it comprehends the media and the trends of our time, mostly it is inspiriting. Randi causes a post-fifty woman to re-evaluate her life and its opportunities. Yet she is prepared for our replies, the sort of thing that's said under the breath. You feel that you're not alone in having sentiments that sometimes can't be said aloud.

The book covers single women, working women, bodily conditions and grooming, children, finances,  and of course, men. I especially liked her chapter about the treatment of women by other women, on the job or socially. That subject isn't often handled although during our fifty years or so, women came out of the home and interacted with the world and each other.

I felt ready for anything after reading Fifty and enjoyed Randi's night out celebration.


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