Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Sinclair, Martel, Cannon

Oil! by Upton Sinclair
This book got a lot of attention with the release of There Will Be Blood in 2007, which is how I became familiar with it. However, the movie is very loosely based on just the 100 pages or so of Sinclair's novel. I don't think that the makers of the movie had any desire to re-create the story that Sinclair presents, but gathers some inspiration and similar themes.

I'm only familiar with one other book written by Sinclair (The Jungle), but in both he does a marvelous job of framing a story with social commentary, specifically social injustice and economics, which I'm naturally attracted to.

The story follows an oil tycoon rise to prominence and wealth through a number of shrewd land acquisitions sitting on oceans of oil. Motivated by greed and fueled by corruption, Mr. Ross becomes influential in local and national politics to protect his industry. Ross's un-admirable characteristics allow him to succeed in his business and are contrasted by his son (Bunny) idealistic but naive perception of how the world should work. Bunny comes to idolize Paul Watkins, a friend whose attraction stems from his worldly exposure and free thinking. This due to his time spent in the military in Russia and comes to sympathize with the workers of the Bolshevik Revolution--he then attempts to re-create this within the United States and specifically among the oil workers, which threatens Ross's business and livelihood.

To me, the brilliance of this book is the dynamic between Bunny and his father (Ross). Bunny, who very impressionable, buys into Paul's "radical" ideas and comes to actively work on behalf of oil workers and to damage his father's business, while at the same time living extravagantly and taking advantage of his inherited wealth. Ross, despite his character flaws, gains the readers sympathy by funding his son's idealistic philosophy and finances bailing Paul out of prison time and time again.

Equally as interesting is the role of religion, played by a preacher (Paul's brother) who takes preys on his congregation to become as wealthy and influential as Ross in the local community. Ross sees through the hypocritical, paper-thin theology of the preacher but continues to involve him in the business and decisions as they affect the local town. It's a fascinating comparison of showing church as a business-- showing religion requiring just as much greed and corruption as Ross's oil industry.

Life of Pi by Yann Martel

I read this book about three and a half years ago while living in Taiwan based on the recommendation of the two good friends I was living with at the time. I think its one of the most entertaining, thoughtful books I've read. I think I could re-read it several times and take new things away from it every time and have different interpretations of the ending.

The book's prelude starts out with the author describing how he came across the tale, including an ambitious statement saying that this story will make you believe in God. I'm not sure it lived up to that promise (I believe in God most days but for other reasons than this book), but its got interesting things to say about the mysticism and unknown aspects of spirituality.

The basic premise of the story revolves around an Indian boy (Pi) and a Bengal tiger (Richard Parker) end up on a lifeboat following a shipwreck. Pi, the son of a zookeeper, and his family are moving from the India to Canada, which gives you some context of how the story is set up.

The first hundred pages follow Pi's religious experiments with Christianity, Hinduism, and Islam and weighing each of their admirable characteristics and drawbacks. I remember three years ago when I read this being intrigued by this part of the story. I have really grown to appreciate the strengths and appealing parts of other religions. For instance, the social consciousness of Hinduism and the faithfulness and dedication in prayer of Islam are all concepts I admire. In the end, my theology ends up closer to Christianity than the others, but I think its healthy habit to appreciate the strengths of the religions, political views, people that you don't agree with rather than focusing on what you the differences.

I guess I'm really not sure how much more I feel comfortable sharing on this blog about the book because the ending is certainly the crux and I'd hate to remotely hint at it. I've always wanted to participate in a book club that studies this book cause I would love to hear other people's insights and thoughts on it. If you have read this book, I'd really value your take on it.

Revolutionary Cuba by Terence Cannon
The first non-fiction book to make the list! After reading Islands in the Stream and having my interest re-ignited in Cuba, my mother suggested this historical book for me to read. My mother grew up in Cuba and her parents were Methodist missionaries there around the time when Castro was coming into power and I'm beginning to look into PhD programs in economic history looking at the Cuba's economic development history. I mentioned before that I thought Iran was one of the most misunderstood countries and I would include Cuba on that list as well. Of course, part of that is their own fault for creating such closed, restrictive societies.

This book was written in 1980 and Cannon comes across as very sympathetic to Castro and how the Cuban Revolution developed in the late 1950's and throughout the 1960's. I found the economic history of Cuba incredibly interesting--beginning from its colonization by Spain to its dependence on the Soviet Union. Indeed, I think a proper understanding of this is necessary to figure out how the foreign policy of the U.S. is shaped towards Cuba--which I think to be one of the most backward, misconstrued relationships we have with a country.

Cannon suggests that Cuba was exploited through colonization and it become an economy that relied exclusively on sugar and, to a lesser degree, coffee exports. For the rest of its goods and services, Cuba heavily relief on imports from the United States, thus tying the standard of living on trade with the U.S. When the trade embargo was put into place, Cannon implies that Cuba had little alternative but to turn to the Soviet Union to substitute the goods it had previously imported from the United States.

Cannon's presentation of the Cuban Revolution, Castro, and his motives for replacing Batista is quite gracious and I think he makes several good points. Writing in 1980, Cannon seems very optimistic about Cuba and Castro's leadership and the direction of the economy. Of course, thirty years later with the benefit of hindsight, the reader can't help but feel like Cannon is driving blind towards a cliff. Clearly, Cannon misdiagnosed the scenario but this serves a useful commentary the economy, history, and Revolution.


  1. I love that you're doing this. It seems that you read more than me, and hearing you talk about these books motivates me to read more, and gives me some ideas of books to check out.

    (By the way, isn't Oil! written by Upton Sinclair, not Sinclair Lewis?)

  2. Oil! is one of my favorite books and I wholeheartedly agree that the movie was a complete disappointment.

    Great blog, Tim. I enjoy these book reviews a lot. I've added a link at pjwb.blogspot.com which is my 'cover' blog.

  3. Thanks Aaron! good looking out..

  4. @Peter... I actually loved There Will Be Blood as a movie but it just doesn't follow the book and, as I understand it, wasn't meant to. I think the makers of the movie were very aware of this from the beginning.

    Thanks for your comments!