Sunday, September 20, 2015

Frances Perkins: The Woman Behind the New Deal (An Interesting Book Discovery)

The Woman Behind the New Deal: 
The Life of Frances Perkins,
FDR's Secretary of Labor and 
His Moral Conscience
Hardcover, 480 pages
Nan A. Talese
March 3, 2009
(first published January 1, 2009)
American History, Biography, Feminism, 
Nonfiction, Politics

Last Sunday, I again tuned in to the PBS program, "Well Read", and was rewarded with another book treat!

This time, hosts Mary Ann Gwinn and Terry Tazioli discussed a book that was actually released several years ago, one I would probably never have heard of, either, had it not been for this program. It's a biography of Frances Perkins, the woman behind Franklin Delano Roosevelt's New Deal. She was the U.S. Secretary of Labor from 1933 to 1945 (longer than any other Secretary of Labor), and was also the first woman appointed to the U.S. Cabinet.

I'll admit that I'm sadly remiss when it comes to reading biographies or books centering on history or politics. That's because I've always been more interested in fantasy than in reality. However, I realize that, as a reader of nonfiction as well as fiction books, I must strive to strike a balance. After all, that's the reason I started this blog in the first place. Besides, I do love to read books about intellectual topics, and this is certainly one such book.

Growing up, I never heard about Perkins. She was never mentioned in my high school history classes; my history text certainly contained no reference to her. This doesn't really surprise me; throughout history, women's contributions to intellectual fields have been downplayed, or ignored altogether. At the time I was in high school, however, there had already been a resurgence of the feminist movement, so I would have thought that things had changed. Not so. It appears that school texts lag way behind social changes, which is unfortunate as well as deplorable. Children are not being given the full historical truth in their classes or textbooks.

I must add, however, that it was partially because of Perkins's own reticence and lack of interest in the limelight that she's not well-known today. She never sought out journalists for interviews, never tried to get her name out there. Still, she had a bit of fame in the 1940s, in spite of her attitude toward being in the public eye. Her name began to fade into obscurity in the 1950s, however.

So I grew up with the mistaken impression that FDR was the sole creator of the New Deal, with perhaps a bit of help from his wife, Eleanor. Thus, I have long admired FDR as one of our country's greatest presidents. At a time of social upheaval, of devastating losses in the economic sector, he pulled the United States up by its bootstraps, so to speak. I thought he had been the one to end the Great Depression with his sweeping New Deal projects. Furthermore, I compared him with the previous president, Herbert Hoover, who had done absolutely nothing to solve the economic downturn the country was going through. If Hoover was a total dud, Roosevelt was the complete opposite -- a social and political dynamo. 

Now it turns out that he didn't bring about the miracle of reversing the effects of the Depression all by himself. A woman was behind it all! (And so the saying goes, "Behind every great man.....")

The reforms proposed by Perkins went far beyond just bringing about economic recovery. I had always thought that such things as the minimum wage, a federal child labor law, the 40-hour work week, unemployment  compensation, Social Security, and workers' compensation were all created by either Roosevelt or the Democratic Party of the time. They are in fact all the brainchildren of Frances Perkins. For instance, she drafted the Social Security Act of 1935.

I am certainly glad I happened to tune in to PBS when I did last Sunday! I will do so again today, to see what other fascinating books are discussed on this program that caters to book lovers!

Meanwhile, I have placed Downey's book on one of my several Amazon wish lists -- the one dedicated to biographies and memoirs -- and have also added it to my Goodreads shelves.

This is an important book, not only for history buffs, but also for feminists of all stripes -- radical, pro-life, moderate, and any other type there might be.

While researching this article -- which is not a review, although I know it probably sounds like one -- I came across another Downey book about Frances Perkins, which I also want to read. It deals specifically with Perkins and Social Security.

A Promise to All Generations: Stories and Essays About Social Security 
and Frances Perkins
Edited by
Kirstin Downey & Christopher Breiseth
Hardcover, 220 pages
Frances Perkins Center
January 1, 2011
American History, Feminism, Politics

I am extremely grateful to Kirstin Downey for correcting my previous, erroneous perceptions of the New Deal, and for acquainting me with a woman of such importance in the history of the United States.

 Online Links For Frances Perkins


Tuesday, September 8, 2015

Spiritual Memoirs: Spirituality and the Self

While channel-surfing at home last Sunday, I stumbled upon a hugely fascinating segment of the public TV program, "Well Read", which is part of an online book club by the same name. The subject was 'Spiritual Memoirs'. Co-hosts Mary Ann Gwinn and Terry Tazioli interviewed Peter Coyote, the well-known actor, author, director, and narrator of films, theater, television, and audiobooks. 

The book discussed was Coyote's spiritual memoir, The Rainman's Third Cure: An Irregular Education, published on April 14, 2015. In this book, Coyote refers to, among other things, his discovery of Zen Buddhism, and how this revolutionized his spiritual life. He revealed that he was eventually ordained a lay Buddhist priest.

I was totally fascinated as I watched. I remember reading Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance several years ago, although unfortunately I don't recall much of it. Although it's a novel, written by Robert M. Pirsig,  it reads like a spiritual memoir. The protagonist travels across the U.S. on a motorcycle, accompanied by his son and a couple of friends, while ruminating on life's fundamental questions.

Although I have always considered myself to be a spiritual seeker, I have not read many such books. Sadly, I have always intended to, but have not done so due to the many reading interests I have that vie for my attention. Watching this program has made me aware of the sobering fact that I should indeed incorporate more of this type of book into my reading schedule, if such I can call it. I have never really sat down and planned on what I would read next, simply allowing mood and/or the reigning intellectual concern of the moment to guide me. This is because, quite honestly, schedules, rules, and discipline have never been my forte. I am a curious combination of emotion and intellect, and these are frequently at odds with each other.

In regards to this subject, I find that I cannot be pigeonholed into a specific category of spiritual seeking. Although my worldview is basically Christian (I was brought up Catholic, and have also attended Protestant churches), I do recognize the fact that spiritual longings, as well as spiritual experiences, are universal. Hence my interest in exploring the experiences of seekers from other religious faiths. 

What attracts me to spiritual memoirs is the very obvious fact that the authors of such books write about their own personal experiences in dealing with spiritual longings, as well as of their own encounters with the Divine. It fascinates me to learn about other people's thoughts and opinions regarding such longings and experiences, precisely because they're at the heart of what it means to be human. No other creature on the planet is endowed with the capacity to reflect on the possible significance of spiritual matters.

Different writers write about these deeply personal things differently, of course. Pirsig used the metaphor of motorcycle maintenance, connecting it to Zen Buddhism and philosophy. Coyote refers to Native American spirituality as well as Zen Buddhism, and somehow connects the two.

The Trappist Catholic monk, Thomas Merton, chronicles his spiritual quest in The Seven Storey Mountain, which has been compared to The Confessions of Saint Augustine. Although written in different centuries, both books deal with spiritual conversion, within a Catholic Christian framework.

Merton has written several books on spiritual matters, although The Seven Storey Mountain (the title comes from Dante's The Divine Comedy) is considered his most important work. Interestingly, he, too, refers to Zen Buddhism in some of his other books.

Former Catholic nun Karen Armstrong, whose 1993 work, A History of God:The 4,000-Year Quest of Christianity, Judaism, and Islam first brought her to the attention of the public, has also written two spiritual memoirs. The first, Through The Narrow Gate: A Memoir of Spiritual Discovery, is an account of her convent experiences. In the second, The Spiral Staircase: My Climb Out of Darkness, she recounts her life after emerging from the convent, and how she finally found her true calling through her study of comparative theology.

Another fascinating spiritual memoir I would love to read is Black Elk Speaks: Being the Life Story of a Holy Man of the Oglala Sioux. Written by poet and writer John G. Neihardt, this book is not only a life story, but an account of Black Elk's remarkably prophetic visions.

In Traveling Mercies, Ann Lamott chronicles her everyday experiences and troubled past, as she struggles, and eventually succeeds, in finding  a sustaining faith in God.

Through a combination of text and beautiful photographs, Roger Housden immerses the reader in the spirituality of various sacred places, located in the Middle East, Asia, and the U.S. The book, titled Sacred Journeys in a Modern World, details experiences from various faiths, including New Age spirituality.

Ultimately, the reading of spiritual memoirs, whatever the religious faith may be, brings up the question of what it is that prompts some people to uphold belief in the Divine, in the supernatural, while others adamantly deny the existence of any reality beyond the earthly one. Furthermore, what prompts some people to just as adamantly cling to their professed faith, while others -- like me -- are willing to investigate the numinous experiences of adherents of other religions?

These interrelated topics necessarily bring up yet another important point: the role of psychology and neurobiology in spirituality. Do our spiritual longings, and even our spiritual experiences, stem from our temperaments, and/or brain processes?

For some time now, I've been wondering whether some people are simply naturally endowed with more spiritual longings than other people. Do these human beings have some sort of 'spiritual gene'? 

I've done some Googling regarding this possibility, and thereby discovered that there's a 'God gene' hypothesis, which was put forth by Dean Hamer, the director of the Gene Structure and Regulation Unit at the U.S. National Cancer Institute. Hamer presented this hypothesis in his 2009 book, The God Gene: How Faith is Hardwired into our Genes

This hypothesis has been tested scientifically. According to Hamer, the gene in question has been identified; it's VMAT2.

Of course, there has been criticism of this theory, coming both from scientific and religious circles. Hamer has responded that, although the existence of this gene does not conclusively prove the existence of God, it is not incompatible with a belief in a personal God. He states: "Religious believers can point to the existence of God genes as one more sign of the Creator's ingenuity -- a clever way to help humans acknowledge and embrace a divine presence." (The Washington Times article, Nov. 14, 2004)

Whether or not there is such a gene, the fact still remains that there are those who are inexorably pulled in the direction of the spiritual, and those who seem to get along just fine without pondering such matters.  I would need to explore this matter further in a future post.

In addition to reading and reviewing these books, I would also recommend them to anyone reading this blog post who feels as I do about the existence of the Divine, and the concomitant spiritual experiences. I would also recommend them to those who uphold no spiritual belief, as well, for the purpose of satisfying curiosity, or perhaps even considering the possibility that there might be a spiritual world, after all.

Online Links

Sunday, September 6, 2015

Book Review: Wuthering Heights, by Emily Brontë

Wuthering Heights
Emily Brontë
Trade paperback, 416 pages
HarperCollins Children's Books
May 1, 2009 
(first published 1847)
Classics, Gothic Fiction, Historical Fiction, Literary Fiction, Psychology

Book Synopsis: An intriguing tale of revenge in which the main characters are controlled by consuming passions. This novel was once considered such a risk by its publishers that Emily Brontë had to defray the cost of publication until a sufficient number of copies had been sold.

My Review 

When it was first published, Wuthering Heights elicited strong criticism. Although Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre also received its share of negative criticism, it was not as markedly disliked as her sister's book. As time went by, the pendulum swung in the opposite direction, and it was Emily's book that eventually came to be hailed as superior to Charlotte's, particularly as the 20th century got under way.

I have read the book three times. It was part of a high school English Lit assignment, and that was the first time I read it, or tried to, rather. To be quite honest, I could barely stomach the book back then. It was too strange, wild, and terrifying to me. The second time I read it, several years ago, I was much older. Thus, I was able to more readily appreciate its masterful prose style and brilliant characterizations. In fact, it was these two factors that kept me reading until the very end. I read it yet again not too long ago. Once more I was hypnotized by this horrible tale of people whose lives went so very wrong. It was one character in particular who exerted a rather puzzling pull on me -- Heathcliff. I read almost against my will, hoping against hope that I would be able to find some good quality in him. Of course, I vaguely remembered the plot from the second reading, so I knew that I would not find any such thing.

This book, in its entirety, is really about Heathclif. It's about how the abuse he suffered at the hands of his benefactor's son, Hindley Earnshaw, twisted him into a demonic caricature of a human being. Therefore, it is definitely not a pleasant read. However, it does serve as a testament to Emily Bront
ë's genius. That such a hideous creature sprang from this young woman's imagination is nearly unbelievable, considering her background. Something dark and cruel stirred in the nether recesses of her mind. M. L. Von Franz, a Jungian analyst writing in Man and His Symbols, edited by Carl Jung, mentions Heathcliff, describing him as Emily Brontë's animus; this is the masculine part of a woman's psyche, according to Jung. The animus can be evil or good. Heathcliff is demonic. The author brings him to life with great vividness, and this undeniably displays her great talent for making a character truly live in a reader's mind.

Therein lies the rub. Heathcliff is so repulsive, so utterly demonic, and so overpowering, that he makes the book sheer torture to read. His influence is strongly felt on every page. The one redeeming quality he possesses -- his love for Cathy -- turns into a sick obsession toward the end of the book.

While I can admire the powerful way the author delineates character, as well as her obvious command of writing style, I simply cannot say that this book is one of my favorites. I find it especially strange to see it referred to as a love story, and tagged as "romance" on Amazon. There is little to none of that in this novel. The supposed "love story" between Heathcliff and Catherine Earnshaw is sketchy at best. They are separated for three years, due to her stubbornness, as well as his pride. When he suddenly reappears, determined to see her, she is already married to another man, one whom Heathcliff despises as a weakling, due to his passionless nature. (At least, this is how Heathcliff sees him.) Yet, it is that very man who treats Catherine with kindness, catering to her every whim. Had she, instead, chosen Heathcliff, things might have been very different. Such a tumultuous relationship could very well have ended in tragedy. Had Bront
ë taken the story in this direction, the book could, indeed, be classified as "a dark romance". As it stands, however, it certainly cannot, nor should it be.

Catherine Earnshaw herself is not a wholly pleasant character, either, although she never descends to the depths of depravity Heathcliff does. She is, however, a very self-centered creature; her sole reason for marrying Linton is so that she won't be brought below her station by marrying Heathcliff. She attempts to rationalize her decision by claiming that she can use Linton's money to "help" Heathcliff, but this is a rather flimsy excuse.

Through Heathcliff, this also becomes a tale of family dysfunction, and of how that dysfunction poisons anyone who comes into contact with that family, whose most disturbed representative, Heathcliff, engages in a very elaborate plan of revenge throughout the latter part of the book.

Although, again, the writing is brilliant, the book does have one major creative flaw, in my honest opinion, and that is the plotting. Characters are killed off when they are no longer necessary. Now, I do agree that a writer has to include sad and unhappy events in a novel, even if he or she is writing within the parameters of the modern romance genre. However, having characters die every few pages or so is just too contrived. 

Some reviewers have objected to the narration-within-a-narration technique Brontë uses, also. Actually, I found this quite intriguing. This is one of the aspects of the book that actually maintained my interest. Nelly Dean turns out to be a very shrewd, highly perceptive observer, with an especially keen eye for nuanced detail, and I enjoyed her narration.

All in all, although I do recognize the greatness of Emily Bront
ë as a writer, I have to say that I consider her sister's novel, Jane Eyre, far superior, with a more polished plot structure.  Furthermore, Charlotte's story is, indeed, a love story.  Although the relationship between Jane and Rochester is just as tumultuous as that between Heathcliff and Cathy, it is satisfactorily resolved as a tale of romance, instead of degenerating into one of twisted, perverted evil. 

Online Links