Take the Cannoli (nonfiction - 2000) by Sarah Vowell -- I borrowed this older book from outside our library district because I’d seen the author on TV and she was not only nerdy but funny. This particular book is a collection of personal stories intertwined with American history. (I barely noticed the history.)
What was particularly interesting to me as a native Chicagoan was that even though she was born and raised in Montana, she spent a considerable amount of time living in Chicago. And she got it … she got Chicago! She fully expressed what I always felt (but could not articulate) whenever I stood on the bridge near the corner of Michigan and Wacker avenues. She explained the multitude of turning points in Chicago’s history that stem from that spot above the Chicago River. She’s quirky in a lovable way and if you listen to any of her books on tape, be prepared for a most unusual voice.
Her book led me to download (for free) on my Kindle The Jungle by Upton Sinclair, a book about Chicago’s meatpacking industry (see below).
3 of 4 stars on Take the Cannoli, only because some of the topics were a bit dated (i.e., mixing tapes of songs for friends).
The Jungle by Upton Sinclair (fiction 1906) – It’s good to visit the classics occasionally. The Jungle is one of those classics often assigned in school that somehow escaped my attention. Many people know the book is set in the stockyards on the south side of Chicago (which is where I grew up … not in the stockyards, but close enough to catch their odor if the wind blew from the north). And many people know that the author wrote it to expose the terrible working conditions, not only in the meat industry, but everywhere in the U.S. during the turn of the century.
If its setting wasn’t enough to interest me, the family it focused on really piqued my interest ... they were newly arrived immigrants from Lithuania (I’m one-half Lithuanian). My grandparents arrived here in 1895 and settled on the south side of Chicago. My grandfather worked for the railroad, which I understand was no picnic either. While reading, I kept thinking thaat The Jungle is a good response to Ayan Rand's Atlas Shrugged. The latter continues to be an argument for laissez faire capitalism; the former an argument for the necessity of unions to protect workers from greedy capitalists. Of course a balance of both is what makes our society hum.
Poor Upton Sinclair though – he wanted to expose the working conditions and get to the hearts of people reading about them. Instead, readers only focused on the unsanitary conditions of the meat and rose up against the food issue rather than the people issue. My stance on both the philosophies (capitalism and protection of the workers) is rooted in a phrase my mother often repeated – moderation in all things. We need both, but they must be in balance. 4 of 4 stars
Major Pettigrew's Last Stand (fiction) by Helen Simonson -- The Major, a widower, leads a quiet life valuing the proper things that Englishmen have lived by for generations: honor, duty, decorum, and a properly brewed cup of tea. But then his brother’s death sparks an unexpected friendship with Mrs. Jasmina Ali, the Pakistani shop keeper in the village. Even though she’s lived in England nearly her entire life, she is still treated as though she’s a foreigner. What I really liked about reading their story was how respectful they were to each other and everyone they came in contact with. It reminded me of Mr. J.L.B. Matakoni and Mme. Rotswe of The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency series by Alexander McCall Smith. The other fun part was the Major’s wry observations, not only about others but
particularly about Americans. Yes, I laughed out loud many times during the read. I’m not much into fiction, but if they were all like this, I could change my mind. 4 out of 4.
Nancy Solak is the author of A Footpath in Umbria: Learning, Loving and Laughing in Italy. For details about her and her book, visit her A Reluctant Traveler web site at: www.areluctanttraveler.com