Dragon’s Teeth, by Upton Sinclair*****

dragonsteethDragon’s Teeth is the third in the Pulitzer-winning Lanny Budd series. Set in 1942—the present, at the time it was written—it provides the reader with a fascinating, well-informed, hyper-literate view of Europe during the years before and during Hitler’s ascent to power. While it requires a fair amount of prior knowledge in order for the reader to keep up with the story, history lovers, political philosophers, and especially those fascinated by the period in question will find it riveting. Thank you Open Road Integrated Media and Net Galley for allowing me a DRC. This title is available for purchase digitally now.

Sinclair, himself a socialist of the Utopian variety, shows us the ideas of the “reds and pinks” that were plentiful and active—yet in the end, not active enough to prevent a Fascist takeover—during this period. Budd is the heir to a munitions-maker’s fortune, and so his is the life of the idle rich. He amuses himself by hosting salons, popular at the time, which were group discussions regarding alternative political ideas. His wife Irma is heir to an even greater fortune, and is uncomfortable hosting these odd people that speak of redistributing wealth, but in time she relaxes, understanding that this is just one of Lanny’s hobbies and is unlikely to ever affect her personal comfort level. And indeed, Lanny is never going to sully his hands by taking to the streets with working class militants; in fact, apart from buying and reselling artwork, he’s never going to even hold down a job, reasoning that it would be wrong of him to take a job he does not need when someone else really does need it. He is amused and comfortable in his role as armchair socialist and angel financier to a leftwing newspaper. Yet the idea of actually taking power…hmmm.

“It seemed to have begun with the Russian Revolution, which had been such an impolite affair.”

Nobody writes setting like Sinclair. The story begins in Italy following the First World War; Mussolini has risen to power, and we can almost hear the hard heels striking the cobblestones. Budd is somewhat concerned for Hansi, his brother-in-law who is Jewish, but he also believes that money talks, and any unpleasantness can probably be squared away with a donation here and a greased palm there. As long as the seas are safe, the family considers simply waiting out all the unpleasantness on the family yacht, hoping that things will be settled down by the time they want to dock somewhere.

Hitler is out and agitating, but no one really thinks he will take over the world; if he were going to do that, he surely wouldn’t stand in the streets and scream about it, now would he? And we feel, through Lanny and his family, the stark startled horror when his power increases and his Storm Troopers become an official government organization rather than simply a pack of street thugs. At the same time, we also experience his and others’ perplexity at the name chosen by the NSDAP, because it invokes the name of Socialism for a system that is actually far-flung from it, and it calls out to the working class even as it pounds their unions to dust and sends their leaders to concentration camps.

While the working class of Europe starves or stands on line at a soup kitchen, the Budd family has the traditional six meals daily; when they are not at home, they do the charitable thing, and instruct the servants to find some “worthy poor” to consume the unused meals. Well…not in the house, of course. Somewhere else.

At times, the tone is satirical, and in a few places made me laugh out loud, mostly in the beginning. Later the tone changes and is sharper, angrier. I found it deeply satisfying.

Particularly fascinating is the statement that “He who could get and hold the radio became God.” In one form or another, this has been true since the radio was introduced into first-world homes nearly 100 years ago. Major media sources had the monopoly on information, apart from the printed press. The radio, then television…only recently have ordinary people had the means to record and disseminate information on the phone they carry with them everywhere. And it’s interesting to see the changes that result.

Perhaps your thoughts will travel in different directions than mine did in reading this interesting nugget, but it is bound to make you think. If you are looking for some escapist material to take to the beach or curl up with by the fire, this isn’t it. This is fuel for the brain, fierce material that came from a time when all of Europe had to decide which side they were on.

For those that love history, literary fiction, or political science—or all three—highly recommended!

The All-Girl Filling Station’s Last Reunion, by Fannie Flagg *****

Big, big fun! I recently read this wonderful new work by the famous and always hilarious Fannie Flagg. One of Flagg’s hallmarks is that she spins over-the-top characters so real you can almost see them, but then she sneaks in subtle metaphors and other devices so clever that for me, it takes awhile to sink in.

As she did in Fried Green Tomatoes (a personal favorite), she morphs back and forth between the present and the bygone era of World War II, homing in on the WASPs–women who served as pilots for the armed services, ferrying planes from one part of the country to another so that all military male pilots could do other things.

The story starts in the present with the key protagonist, Sookie, who is informed one day by mail that she is adopted. Given that she is already having a few anxiety issues, this is the last thing she needs. As women go, she feels like a failure; she is a little finch, and does not stand a chance of fulfilling the thunderous expectations of her adoptive mother, who was a Blue Jay from the get-go. When the bomb drops on Sookie, she realizes that she has been reading the wrong horoscope all this time! Her mother has made such a fuss about family bloodlines and heredity, and it turns out that her long-gone ancestors are “total strangers”! She is about ready to come unstuck.

I won’t spoil the rest of it for you. In a completely entertaining manner, Flagg drives home the inequity dealt women pilots during this time period, who received no veteran status, medical benefits, or pension for their service to the country. The 39 who died on the job had no death benefits, either. I salute Flagg (oh, sorry, bad pun!) for putting her literary muscle behind a feminist cause at a time when many sneer at feminism as a thing of the past.

One minor detail that I mention for those who are Japanese-American, Japanese, or close to someone who is: because Pearl Harbor is mentioned here, vintage (but nevertheless painful) use of the “J” slur is used here. It is contextual, and it passes by quickly, but just as many folks blanch at reading Twain’s fiction for the “n” word, so do those who are stung by the “J” word (myself among them) need to know it’s coming. It just helps to be prepared. It isn’t done in a mean-spirited way, and I am glad I read it. But sometimes it helps if you can brace yourself.

The plot is well-paced and is less complex than Fried Green Tomatoes, which hosted a variety of settings that required the reader to carefully scan the heading on the first page of a given chapter in order to be properly oriented. This is more of a quick back-and-forth. It was my fun, light reading at bed time. My only real regret is that it’s over.

Get a copy right away if you love Fannie Flagg as I do!