One Summer: America 1927

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by Bill Bryson

Published 2013

Okay, so we all know that I’m a super lazy reader.  Even though I have plenty of nonfiction books on their own, special TBR Non-Fiction List, that list just doesn’t seem to move along as quickly as it ought.  But I will say that One Summer ended up being a fantastic read, a book that I thoroughly enjoyed and hated to put down (which rarely happens with nonfiction), and, on a not unrelated note, made me laugh out loud on multiple occasions.

While this book is mostly about 1927, Bryson does an excellent job providing background and tying everything together, including tidy summaries of what happens in The Future.  One of the biggest impressions that I took away from this book was what a small world it is, and was – just the interconnectness of everything and everyone.  Bryson does an excellent job with that aspect, throwing out little tidbits of “who later became so-and-so’s father-in-law” or whatever (almost too much, honestly, because names kept reappearing and I wasn’t always 100% sure who it was I was supposed to be remembering, so I may have missed some irony here and there).  This is, by the way, a heavily ironic book.  1927 was just as full of inconsistencies and confusion as the present, and Bryson is unafraid to make a mockery of things that seem ridiculous.  While entertaining much of the time, I couldn’t help but feel a bit ruffled as two of his favorite mockery-people were two of which I am quite fond – Charles Lindbergh and Herbert Hoover.  Nonetheless, while Bryson writes the former off as an awkward, uneducated farm boy-turned-Nazi (not completely true) and the latter off as a selfish, manipulative, feelingless machine (also must be taken with a grain of salt), he does at least grudgingly admit that they may, possibly, have contributed some good to the world.

Overall, while Bryson’s writing is a great deal of fun (as you will read below as I can’t resist quoting him extensively), I was occasionally annoyed by his insistence on dragging up every bit of dirty laundry/negative information he could find about everyone.  It seems that there’s no one out there who isn’t on drugs, or is a drunk, or sleeps around, or, if nothing else, is dreadfully prosy and dull.

But my favorite bits were about society in general, rather than specific people.  For instance, a couple of paragraphs on theater in the 1920s –

Plausibility, it seems, was not something that audiences insisted on in the 1920s.  Katy Did, which had opened the previous week at Daly’s 63rd Street Theatre, involved a waitress who, according to the plot summary, falls for ‘a dishwasher and parttime bootlegger who turns out to be the exiled King of Suavia.’ …  It wasn’t all froth and melodrama, however.  Eugene O’Neill produced his longest and densest play in 1927, Strange Interlude, which took five hours to perform and gave audiences an expansive, not say exhausting, look at insanity, abortion, heartbreak, illegitimacy, and death.  Audiences watched the first part of the play from 5:15 to 7:00 p.m., had a break for dinner, and then returned at 8:30 for a further three and a half hours of punishing gloom.

Every time I read history, especially as I’ve been focusing on early 20th century history, I am so entertained to find context for other reading/movies/etc.  For instance, there is a fantastic scene in one of the Marx Brothers movies (I can’t remember which – Animal Crackers?) in which Groucho has these “strange interludes” with a monologue with himself (“I see figures.  Straannnnnge figures.  Weeeeeird figures”) which is apparently a mockery of O’Neill’s play, something Groucho’s contemporary audience would have likely recognized right away.

One of Bryson’s habits throughout is to introduce someone, and then give a synopsis of the person’s life.  I find it entertaining to realize how strange we all are if someone only picks out bits and snippets.  Although in some cases, the strangeness may be legitimate:

Ruppert’s most arresting peccadillo was that he kept a second home in Garrison, New York, where he maintained a shrine to his mother in for the form of a room containing everything she would need if she came back to life.  This may go some way toward explaining why he never married.

You can practically hear the rim shot.

Bryson talks a great deal about the changes of technology in the 1920s, especially the advent of radio, television, and the talkies.  It’s mind-boggling to realize how relatively new these things are.

Productions at even the larger [radio] stations tended to be more than slightly amateurish.  When Norman Brokenshire, a broadcaster for WHN in New York, found himself with a long lull to fill and nothing more to say, he announced:  ‘Ladies and gentlemen, we bring you the sounds of New York City,’ and thrust the microphone out the window.

That’s less than a hundred years ago!

Prohibition comes in for its fair share of mockery, mainly because it was a ludicrous failure no matter how you look at it.

Prohibition bred great volumes of hypocrisy, too.  In the summer of 1926, Colonel Ned Green, Prohibition administrator for Norther California, was suspended after it emerged that he held cocktail parties in the Prohibition administration offices in San Francisco.  ‘I should have been suspended long ago,’ he amiably told reporters.

Of course, the rise of the automobile was one of the greatest events of the decades, and Bryson dedicates a chunk of his book to Henry Ford and his competitors (but mostly Ford because, let’s face it, he was the biggest character).  One fun fact that I found intriguing –

One central characteristic of the Model T now generally forgotten is that it was the first car of consequence to put the driver’s seat on the left-hand side.  Previously, nearly all manufacturers placed the driver on the outer, curb-side of the car so that an alighting driver could step out onto a grassy verge or dry sidewalk rather than into the mud of an unpaved road.  Ford reasoned that this convenience might be better appreciated by the lady of the house, and so arranged seating for her benefit.

Setting aside the fact that Ford obviously assumed women wouldn’t be driving, I’m consistently impressed by his simple practicality.  Everything about the T screams it – just the vision that normal, everyday people would own cars was something no one else was really considering at all.  Bryson says that Ford produced almost 11,000 Model T’s their first full year, which was more than anyone else had ever made of a car.  They were up to 250,000 by 1913-1914, and a staggering 1.25 million annually by 1920-21.

The ludicrous opulence of the 1920s is another intriguing facet of the decade.  Bryson talks about various buildings, especially theaters, that were built during that time.  (We still have a couple in Columbus, and nothing beats going to see a play at the Southern!  Although it was built much earlier, it was renovated in the 20’s, and you can tell!)  My personal favorite description, however –

At the Tivoli in Chicago the marbled lobby was said to be an almost exact copy of the king’s chapel at Versailles except presumably for the smell of popcorn.

Overall, what Bryson does is make the 1920s, through the focus on 1927 especially, come to life by tying together so many individuals and their stories, and he does it with humor and a strong sense for the ironic.  I definitely recommend this book as a fascinating glimpse into the decade, despite his rather cynical attitude towards, well, everyone.

In closing, despite the fact that this review has been quite quote-heavy, I can’t resist this fascinating tale –

[In 1927 Liveright] brought over from London a play that had been a big success there:  Dracula.  For the American production, he selected a little-known Hungarian actor named Bela Lugosi.  Although Lugosi had been in America for six years, he still spoke little English and learned his lines phonetically, without really understanding what they meant, which gave him interesting diction.  … [Dracula] was the making of Bela Lugosi, who devoted the rest of his career to playing Dracula.  He starred in the 1931 movie and a great number of sequels.  …  professionally he did almost nothing else for almost thirty years.  Such was his devotion to the role that when he died in 1956, he was buried dressed as Count Dracula.

The world, my friends, is made of many fascinating people.

 

The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe

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by C.S. Lewis

Published 1950

Gaaaaaaaaahhhhhhhhhhh where do I even begin?!?!  The Chronicles of Narnia are very, very high on my list of all-time favorite books.  (It’s a mental list, by the way.  That way I can make it be whatever I want whenever I want.)  I first read these books when I was pretty young, probably 8 or 9 I started reading at a tender age, not to bore you with personal history, but the point is that I was reading legit chapter books by about the age of 5, and while overall I think this was positive, I think that it also sometimes meant that I read books that I wasn’t really mentally ready for even though I was capable of reading them, if that makes sense.  That definitely happened with the final book in the Chronicles, The Last Battle.  As a young child, I hated that book, so much so that even though I would read the other books frequently, I didn’t read that last book again until probably ten years later – and now I think it may be my favorite.  But that’s a different story for a different time.

Point is, the Chronicles are fantastic.  They are humorous, exciting, fun, and, somehow, plausible.  I know for a fact that I’m not the only person who’s wondered about the existence of Narnia.  :-D  The traditional, original drawings by Pauline Baynes are fantastic overall (although every now in again I get exasperated because it’s not how imagined it!), as well.

Okay, I think we’ll start by getting my rant out of the way.  My rant has to do with the fact that the  book pictured above has a “2” on the spine.  UNACCEPTABLE.  I am SO ANGRY at the fact that these books are now published in the wrong order.  Narnia should NEVER be read chronologically (at least, not the first time that you read them!).  You miss SO MUCH reading them chronologically instead of in published order, especially when people read the chronologically-first book, The Magician’s Nephew, before reading The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe.  I don’t even understand how The Magician’s Nephew makes SENSE when you read it first.  I am EXTREMELY PASSIONATE about this.  Some people drag up a supposed quote from Lewis in response to a letter written by a young reader of his, but it’s pretty apparent that the reader is asking if the books can be read chronologically and he says yes, that makes sense, but not in a AND OH HEY PLEASE REPUBLISH ALL MY BOOKS IN THIS ORDER FOREVER.  My gosh.  Ridiculous.

Okay, so, anyway, if you’ve never read the Chronicles, or if it’s been a long time, please read them in their published order:

  1. The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe
  2. Prince Caspian (Which, by the way, is subtitled Return to Narnia, which doesn’t really make a whole lot of sense if the book isn’t, you know, the return to Narnia, instead of the third time around.)
  3. The Voyage of the Dawn Treader
  4. The Silver Chair (These four books, by the way, are chronological to each other, and have many of the same characters.)
  5. The Horse and His Boy (Which takes place during the reign of Peter, Susan, Edmund, and Lucy, so somewhere towards the end of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe)
  6. The Magician’s Nephew (Which is about the creation of Narnia, and truly would be super confusing if you didn’t already know about Narnia.)
  7. The Last Battle

Alrighty, so The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe…  there has been loads of stuff written about this book.  It’s been made into movies.  I’m not going to tell you anything about it that you don’t already know, other than my own opinions.  The Chronicles aren’t books of incredible depth and description like The Lord of the Rings.  These stories are for younger readers, and are somewhat simple in scope.  However, there are many layers, and even if you aren’t a Christian and don’t like the allegorical aspect to the tales, I think that that overarching story, of a god willing to sacrifice himself for someone completely undeserving, is still an excellent tale.

I’m not sure that I can explain what has drawn me back to Narnia time and again, but I know that these are books that have withstood the test of time for me – I have easily read them twenty or more times, and they never disappoint me.  I never fail to find something new, to underline some different sentence that hadn’t struck me before.  The redemption of Edmund is so beautiful (Edmund is one of my favorite fictional characters of all time), the resurrection of Aslan, the battle with the Witch – I love it all, down to the best advice for running a country that I’ve found yet:

And they made good laws and kept the peace and saved good trees from being unnecessarily cut down, and liberated young dwarfs and young satyrs from being sent to school, and generally stopped busybodies and interferers and encouraged ordinary people who wanted to live and let live.

If only all rulers were so wise!

In conclusion: if you’ve never read these books, you absolutely must do so.  If you haven’t read them since childhood, pick them up again, because they will not disappoint.  They are just as magical for me at the age of 31 as they were when I first read them as a very young child.  Return to Narnia – just make sure you do it in the correct order.  ;-)