January 7, 2010

My comments are mostly about books and reading. I don’t do comprehensive reviews. Instead I write about some aspect that gets my attention.

For information about American silver and for slide shows related to my courses, see the Pages listed on the right.

The Brothers Karamazov

December 15, 2014
Courtesy of Wikipedia

Courtesy of Wikipedia

I love the Russian novelists. I have had hours of pleasure in the company of Turgenev, Tolstoy, Chekhov and Gogol, hours spent in a culture which is different from the one I know, but where the people are as real to me as my next-door neighbors. Still, some instinct told me that I wasn’t ready for Dostoevsky and that he would not be like the others. My instinct was a good one: I was not ready for Crime and Punishment when I read it a few months ago, and now I am not ready for The Brothers Karamazov.

I hope this will change. I like to pause partway through a long book and record my impressions before I know how it will all turn out. A recent example is The Magic Mountain. It was a hard climb but worth the effort and I hope that those brothers – Dmitri, Ivan and Alexey – will lead me on to a better place than the one in which I find myself now.

The people of Karamazov are different from the passive but well-meaning folk of Turgenev and the conflicted souls of Tolstoy. Here are some of the things which bother me about Dostoevsky’s characters.

Everyone is so extreme. They are always jumping up and yelling and slapping and kicking and running out of the room. Except when they are kissing and sighing and fainting and feverish with hysterics, the women especially.

They are sneaky. Mothers listen behind doors; daughters spy through cracks; brothers lie in wait for other brothers.

Money is everything and money is nothing. They scheme for money and then throw it away.

Sometimes they are playing a part. Lise writes a love letter, then says it is a joke, then says it is not a joke. Alexey, who receives the letter agrees that it is a joke, then says he knew it was not a joke. Everyone gets very worked up about it.

Self dramatization is the way they express themselves. Katerina Ivanona is betrothed to Dmitri who is dumping her for someone else – except that perhaps he doesn’t really mean it – but she will continue to be the ground beneath his feet, whether he wants her or not. What’s in it for her? Here is Ivan’s interpretation. Maybe he means it or maybe he is just joking.

She revenged with me and on me all the insults which she has been continually receiving from Dmitri ever since their first meeting. For even that first meeting has rankled in her heart as an insult – that’s what her heart is like! She has talked to me of nothing but her love for him. I am going now; but believe me, Katerina Ivanovna, you really love him. And the more he insults you, the more you love him – that’s your ‘laceration.’ You love him just as he is; you love him for insulting you. If he reformed, you’d give him up at once and cease to love him. But you need him so as to contemplate continually your heroic fidelity and to reproach him for infidelity. And it all comes from your pride. Oh, there’s a great deal of humiliation and self-abasement about it, but it all comes from pride.

It is unclear whether Katerina Ivanovna is a noble soul or a total fool.

What I have enjoyed so far in The Brothers Karamazov is the discussion of religion, totally unlike the spirit of most English novels where religious adherence is a social matter and private issues and doubts remain mostly private. Early on, the narrator speaks of the relationship between external facts and faith.

The genuine realist, if he is an unbeliever, will always find strength and ability to believe in the miraculous, and if he is confronted with a miracle as an irrefutable fact he would rather disbelieve his own senses than admit the fact. Even if he admits it, he admits it as a fact of nature till then unrecognized by him. Faith does not, in the realist, spring from the miracle, but the miracle from faith.

We see this in the long scene between Ivan the realist and Alexey, the man of faith. Ivan presents his story of The Grand Inquisitor in which he mocks what religious orthodoxy has done. I was more impressed by the sincerity of Ivan’s objections to undeserved suffering in God’s creation.

What good can hell do, since those children have already been tortured? And what becomes of harmony, if there is hell? I want to forgive. I want to embrace. I don’t want more suffering. And if the suffering of children goes to swell the sum of sufferings which was necessary to pay for truth, then I protest that the truth is not worth the price.

The truth is not worth the price! Admirers of Dostoevsky will find me naive in my reaction to his extremism, but I do get the message about truth and suffering. I look forward to seeing how he develops this theme in Parts Three and Four of The Brothers Karamazov.


Creative Disruption in Paradise

December 6, 2014

ParadiseOn-line commentators have now discovered creative disruption – or, more aggressively, creative destruction – the price of progress as new technology and methods disrupt the comfortable status quo. The innovation is not usually the result of customer demand, but of imaginative foresight by some entrepreneur. As Henry Ford is said to have said, “If I asked the customer what he wanted, he would have said ‘a faster horse.’”

You can find a startling example of 19th century creative disruption in Emile Zola’s The Ladies’ Paradise (Au Bonheur des Dames), published in 1883, but set in the time of Louis Napoleon about 20 years earlier. Baron Haussmann is dismembering the old Paris of narrow streets and opening up the broad avenues we enjoy today. Light, air, fast movement – shopping! An ambitious young man,Octave Mouret, foresees how it can be and comes into the resources to make it happen. Don’t stock your goods and wait for your price – turn them over once, twice, thirty times a year, taking a small profit each time. The system depends on volume and volume comes from wooing the customer, giving the ladies (for whom this paradise has been designed) reasons to return again and again. The individual shopper may feel seduced, but Mouret has actually created a machine oblivious to humane desires.

But the furnace-like heat with which the shop was ablaze came above all from the selling, from the bustle at the counters, which could be felt behind the walls. There was the continuous roar of the machine at work, of customers crowding into the departments, dazzled by the merchandise, then propelled towards the cash-desk. And it was all regulatedwith the remorselessness of a machine: the vast horde of women were as if caught in the wheels of an inevitable force.

Some critics, including Mouret’s fictional enemies, believe that he really hates women and his retail machine is a form of revenge, but I don’t think it is as simple as that. As he tours his emporium, Mouret expresses joy in the successful logic of his creation. He has power and he has been able to work his will to control a great enterprise. He is satisfied to be what he is.

He repeated that he was a man of his own time. Really, people would have to be deformed, they must have something wrong with their brains and limbs to refuse to work in an age which offered so many possibilities, when the whole century was pressing forward into the future.

Young Denise, the naïve sales girl from the country works in the Paradise and experiences it with a total lack of the control which gives Mouret such pleasure. She sees what it costs, yet regards it as inevitable.

While pretending to joke, Denise produced sound arguments: the middlemen – factory agents, representatives, commission-agents – were disappearing, this was an important factor in reducing prices; besides, the manufacturers could no longer exist without the big shops, for as soon as one of them lost their custom, bankruptcy became inevitable ; in short, it was a natural development of business, it was impossible to stop things going the way they ought to, when everyone was working for it, whether they liked it or not.

Although Denise sees the Paradise as a natural development, a single destination where everything is for sale, she alone is not for sale. She never really explains why except to say that that is what she is, just as Mouret is what he is. You must read the novel to see how Zola successfully maneuvers the final disruptions of the relationship between Mouret and Denise.


Back to the Classics ~ Wrapup

December 2, 2014

BACK TO THE CLASSICS BUTTONI read quite a few blogs regularly, but don’t do many challenges or read-alongs. I like to march to my own drummer — plus do my best to reduce the number of unread books on my shelf. Still, any challenge involving the classics is a natural for me, so here is my report on meeting the challenge.

The two I enjoyed the most were Dead Souls and The Magic Mountain. I was disappointed by Three Soldiers and Quiet Flows the Don.

I have also read several books which qualify in optional categories:

According to the rules, I am entitled to two entries for the final drawing — one for the six required categories and one for the three optional one. Whatever I draw, the true reward is in reading the books and sharing my reactions with my fellow readers.

Note: I have replaced an earlier selection which was published too recently to quality.

What I Read in November 2014

November 30, 2014

NewHopeRuth Suckow, New Hope. In this novel by the Iowa writer, two children experience two years in the life of the growing town of New Hope. Published at a time of war, this book celebrates the small pleasures of growing up in an optimistic and peaceful community.

ReturnoftheNativeThomas Hardy, The Return of the Native. A subtitle for this novel might be “That Which Can Go Wrong Will Go Wrong, ” as Hardy’s well-drawn characters misunderstand each other and proceed to make terrible mistakes in their lives. They live in the ancient environment of Egdon Heath, a world in which there almost no prospects for happiness.

IMG_20141115_0001Carlo Levi, Christ Stopped at Eboli. A political prisoner of the Mussolini regime, Levi was exiled to a village in one of the poorest parts of southern Italy. He learned that “there are no Christians here.” Why? Christ Stopped at Eboli. A writer and painted, Levi both studied and painted the gentry and peasants of this isolated place. He found that he preferred the peasants.

IMG_20141117_0001Philip K. Dick, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? If you can’t afford an genuine live sheep, then you settle for an electric simulation, and no one mistakes it for the real thing. Androids are different. They are created copies of human beings, so perfect in function and detail that we find it difficult to distinguish them from ourselves. Animals have the right to live, and this dystopian novel mourns the loss of animals on this dusty earth. But do androids have such a right? A bounty hunter is shocked to discover that he is beginning to have feelings for androids.

BrooklynColm Toibin, Brookyn. I didn’t think anyone wrote books like this any more. In this perfectly calm small novel, an Irish girl comes to Brooklyn to make a new life. She is what she is, but she also finds herself changing. The worlds of Ireland and Brooklyn are changing also. We experience this via Toibin’s serene prose. The tone reminds me of a much earlier book, Smith’s A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, which also saw life steadily and saw it whole.

CrimeBeatMichael Connelly, Crime Beat. This collection of stories from Connelly’s time as a crime beat reporter was somewhat disappointing. Partly, there is too much repetition as the stories develop. More important, unlike a detective fiction in which the crime is solved and all details are revealed, in real life detective work there are many loose ends and unanswered questions.

RothFlightJoseph Roth, Flight without End. A strange short novel about an Austrian officer, unsettled by his capture by the Russians during World War I, returns to a world he doesn’t recognize. Most of all, he doesn’t recognize himself as he waits to find out who he is. Roth’s ironic prose suits his subject perfectly.

view40floorTheodore H. White, The View from the Fortieth Floor. In this 1960 chicanery-in-business novel by an author better known for his political reporting, we learn of the imminent demise of a great publication — and one man’s frantic effort so save it.

The View from the Fortieth Floor

November 26, 2014

view40floorIn the 1970s, I had an office in the Chrysler Building on the 34th floor, facing the old Commodore Hotel (now encapsulated within the Hyatt). My view was six floors less elevated than the view Ridge Warren had in Theodore H. White’s novel, but high enough that I could not see whether it was raining. I learned to lean my forehead against the glass and look down at the people on Lexington Avenue. If the umbrellas were up, it was raining. Warren’s view did not include the pedestrians below.

The snowclouds were indistinct in the night. Yet every now and then a black veil of cloud would drift low between the windows from which they watched and the silhouette of other distant buildings, so that the buildings rose from a pit of darkness without foundations.

Theodore H. White’s novel is set in 1960, a year I remember. I had come to New York from Michigan with my young family in 1957 and did clerical work for several years in the lower floors of those buildings and at the same time when White’s hero, Ridge Warren, had the view from the top. My role was to be expected. What other options were there for a young woman with a cum laude degree from a well-regarded Midwestern university and a strong need to put food on the table? It is well to be reminded of those years from a loftier view, even if some of the memories cut close to the bone. “Good girl!” Warren exclaims to his faithful secretary when her actions please him.

So. In White’s novel it is 1960, and long-established magazines are in serious trouble. Readership is down and advertisers are transferring their dollars to television. Warren’s ambition is to turn things around, to survive and then to prosper again. He knows the situation is bad. (A reader 50 years later knows that it was hopeless). Warren sees that the world is changing, and it is not just magazine which are in trouble.

The smell of cranberries simmering on the old iron stove was the first fragrance of the holiday season. But now cranberries happened all year round, slung out of cans at restaurants, hotels, dinner parties, drugstore counters, at once more common and more elegant…. Just the way everything got redesigned from the back of a steer’s rump to the breastbone of a turkey, to the taste of mustard and pickles so that the greatest absorption of the redesigned product in the over-all market could be engineered right into product quality. They claimed they could engineer everything for a broader market by knocking the highs and lows of the taste spectrum. But when it came down to cranberries, what they really meant was just adding more sugar.

With this romantic view of the past, Warren wants to establish the importance of his magazine, The Trumpet, as a political and social influence.

Nat, for the past fifty years anything this country has done, the magazines kicked them into doing – the magazines closed up the trusts, cleaned up the cities, put through the food-and-drug acts, amended the Constitution, closed off immigration, with this magazine leading the way!

thwhiteIn 1960 where can Warren lead The Trumpet? I did not think of Theodore H. White at a novelist, much less a chronicler of a business tycoon. He is best known for his Making of the President series, beginning with Kennedy’s successful campaign in 1960. You can find a clue in to his thinking and Warren’s problems in his Author’s Note.

In my time of reporting, I have witnessed, from within, the collapse of three great publishing enterprises and have observed, from the close fringes of friendship, at least as many other disasters.

White was a reporter and he had been there, seen that. This is his report from the 40th floor.

Brendan Gill, Many Masks: A Life of Frank Lloyd Wright

November 13, 2014


Masks, Faces, Belief and Community

Some time ago, I read and enjoyed Meryle Secrest’s admiring biography of Frank Lloyd Wright (Frank Lloyd Wright: a Biography, 1992). I am also an admirer of Wright, and check out his viewable buildings whenever I travel. All these years, another biography, Brendan Gill’s Many Masks, has sat on the shelf unread. I understood that Gill revealed the “truth” behind Wright’s public persona and believed that the title Many Masks implied deliberate deception on Wright’s part.

I was wrong about Gill; he admires Wright’s works as much as I do, and appreciates the many faces that Wright turned toward the world. These faces are not masks — false identities assumed to deceive — but aspects of his complex personality. And, yes, he could usually turn the display on and off at will. Once you get past the ethics of Wright’s treatment of his many wives and children, his troubled relationships with clients, his irresponsibility about money and obligations, you see a brilliant man who used both his virtues and his faults in service of an architectural talent which was the one thing in which he always believed.

28007169_wrightWright called architecture “the great mother-art, the art behind which all the other arts are related.” He may or may not have been correct about its importance, but that is what he believed and so he knew something of the power of belief. During his long career, Wright designed a number of buildings to celebrate belief and enable worship. I have been able to visit six of them:

  • Two Unitarian churches
  • One non-denominational chapel
  • One Protestant church
  • One Greek Orthodox church
  • One Jewish Synagogue

Wright was a member of a family of Unitarians (“the God-almighty Joneses”), so it is appropriate that early in this career he designed the Unity Temple for a Unitarian congregation in Oak Park. From outside, the building appears fortress-like and much larger than it really is.


Unity Temple, Oak Park, Ill., 1904

The scale inside is intimate. From any section you feel you can reach out to touch the other congregants. While one has no strong sense of sacredness or mystery, the design brilliantly enables discussion and togetherness.


Interior of Unity Temple. Two-dimensional photographs fail to show the skill of Wright’s manipulation of space.

Forty years later, a Unitarian congregation in Wisconsin, received from Wright an startlingly different interpretation of their requirements.


Unitarian Church, Shorewood Hills, Wisc., 1947

The sharp angles, the down-folded roof, the look of the prow of a ship – these are effects which now seem familiar because they have been imitated so much. Inside and out, the major forms, as well as the design details, repeat geometric motifs of the triangle, the diamond, and the chevron. Gill says of the interior:

The meeting house contains some perennially incorrigible Wright flaws: a choir loft too small for any choir to sing in (it now contains organ pipes) and too extreme a cantilevering of a portion of the great roof. Where it swoops down over the front entrance as a daringly unsupported porte cochere, the roof’s supports have sagged for any member of the congregation more than six feet tall it hints not at a cozy welcome but at decapitation.


Interior of Unitarian Church. The scale is smaller than the photograph suggests.

My own reaction to the space was that it is pleasant and the details are clever, but I felt neither emotional involvement nor spiritual lift. Gill calls it “a good time place.”

pfeiffer chapel fsc frank lloyd wright

Pfeiffer Chapel, Florida Southern College, Lakeland, Fl., 1938

Gill likes better the non-denominational chapel that Wright designed for Florida Southern College.

The most interesting building at Florida Southern is Wright’s enchanting Annie Pfeiffer Chapel. Its auditorium is a late and more exquisite version of the auditorium of Unity Temple, providing a similar intimacy between speaker and audience and promising an even greater intimacy between earth and heaven (or, at second best, sky). The glass in the pierced blocks of the side walls of the chapels strikes a note of pagan joy – a note more pagan, indeed, than the go-getting ministerial [college president] may have counted on.

That is how I felt also. The use of color and light is warmer, more enthusiastic, than in the churches described above, Under their influence, you can give yourself up to the experience, whatever it may be.


First Christian Church, Phoenix, Arix., 1950, 1971

Wright designed the First Christian Church in Phoenix in 1950, but it was not built until a dozen years after his death. This use of the triangle motif, the notched spire echoed in a separate bell tower, and the conventional interior layout seemed less successful to me than the designs of the other churches I visited. Gill did not much like it (and similar structures) either:

In most of these structures, we sense a marked resemblance between their interiors and the interiors of theaters; Wright manipulates the volumes of space at his disposal to create an effect that is first of all dramatic and then, perhaps rather grudgingly, reverential.

Also, at the time of my visit the windows were softened by blue draperies which could not possibly have been Wright’s intention. He was well known for visiting homes he had designed and returning furniture and accessories to his chosen locations.


First Christian Church interior

The Annunciation Greek Orthodox church, a late-Wright design, looks like a space capsule which has alighted in a garden.


Annunciation Greek Orthodox Church, Wauwatosa, Wisc., 1956

It is nothing like the little Orthodox chapels I visited in Greece with their darkness, icons, and smoky odor of mystery. Inside, Wright has kept the dim light and the icons, but the overall feeling is quite different and takes little from the past. It has a complex interior, based on the circle and the ellipse. I would like to attend a service there to observe how a live congregation interacts with it.


Annunciation Greek Orthodox Church interior

Annunciation Greek Orthodox Church altar screen with icons

Annunciation Greek Orthodox Church altar screen with icons

So far as I know, Wright designed only one Jewish synagogue, the one in suburban Philadelphia.


Beth Shalom Synagogue, Elkins Park, Penn., 1954

It is the religious building in which I felt the strongest connection to the absent congregation. Gill likes it too.

In the Wright ecclesiastical oeuvre, the Beth Shalom Synagogue is unprecedented for the extent to which the reverential takes precedent over the theatrical. One would not guess this, however, from its exterior, which (like so many of Wright’s buildings) flies in the face of his own teaching: instead of being of a hill and not on it, the synagogue leaps aggressively skyward from its site at the top of a steep hill, and by its great height and peculiar tepee shape dominates an otherwise low-roofed suburban environment.

I have visited synagogues in Europe where deliberately bland exteriors intend not to provoke the neighbors, but wonderfully rich interiors evoke the people who worshiped there. Perhaps, in Elkins Park, the congregation enjoys asserting their confident place in the New World. The official explanation of the “peculiar tepee shape” is that it represents Mt. Sinai, the place where Moses received the Ten Commandments. I think it looks like a cocked hat.


Beth Shalom Synagogue at night

When I visited St. Paul’s Cathedral in London, I approached a massive grey stone building, large and impressive, but not particularly moving. Then I stepped inside and felt a surge of wonder and joy in that great domed space. That is architect Christopher Wren’s message to me. To step into the interior of Wright’s synagogue is to experience warmth and community and the need to reach out. Photographs cannot give you that feeling; it comes only from being within the building itself.


Beth Shalom Synagogue interior

In the picture above, the space looks large. It is large, but it doesn’t feel that way. The seats surround the ark and reading desk in a gently sloping bowl, and from any seat you feel close to them and to those around you. Judaism puts a high value on group prayer — that’s why a minyan of at least 10 is required for some prayers — and this layout brings the congregation into a community for that purpose.

Interior details of roof and color.

Interior details of roof and color.

The glass roof admits softened natural light during the day, enhancing the touches of color. The design motif is the triangle, but the repeated triangles do not dominate the overall effect. It is less clever than some of Wright’s designs and benefits from his restraint.

Gill observes the difficulties of judging this or any other building:

…I find myself introducing an old and vexatious distinction between architecture, defined as having a function, and art, defined as being functionless. Since any substantial work of architecture is also a work of art, one feels obliged to judge it by two sets of standards, employed simultaneously even when they are bound to be at odds with each other. In responding to a certain arrangement of forms in three dimensions, why should we care whether the Taj Mahal, the Getty Tomb, and the Medici Chapel have or haven’t functions: whether they are mausoleums or comfort stations? Nevertheless, it turns out that we do care. The essential impurity of architecture as an art – the impurity of its being charged with a stated purpose – seems to force us, against our will, to take into account the degree to which it succeeds or fails in carrying out that purpose.

And Frank Lloyd Wright, that man of many masks, could he combine art with purpose in his buildings? Yes, sometimes. Wright the showman could provide drama. Wright the intellectual could provide analysis and discussion. Wright the cultist of hearth and home could offer warmth and community. Wright the proud egoist found it more difficult to suggest humility and worship, yet he aspired to create. What he created In Elkins Park shows us what we rarely see, not a mask but a human face behind it.

What I Read in October 2014

October 31, 2014

BrownZolaFrederick Brown, Zola: A Life. This weighty biography relates the life of Zola, as well as the lives of his friends and colleagues along with the ups and down of French politics and society during his lifetime. Complete, almost overwhelming.

SteamboatHerman Melville, The Confidence-Man: His Masquerade. A man travels down the Mississippi to New Orleans on a steamboat. He meets many people and is himself, in fact, many people. If you give him your confidence, you may also have to give him your money.

ZolaPotEmile Zola, Pot-Boulle / Pot Luck, translated by Brian Nelson. The inhabitants of an apartment house in Paris display a variety of form of corruptions, financial and sexual. This modern translation leaves nothing out.

Dr_Jekyll_and_Mr_Hyde_poster1-croppedRobert Louis Stevenson, The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. In this very Victorian novel, a doctor creates a second self to express the evil and violent side of his nature.

ManyMasksBrendan Gill, Many Masks: A Life of Frank Lloyd Wright. A lifelong admirer of Wright’s work, I thoroughly enjoyed Gill’s account of both the life and work of this distinguished American architect. If you live in the greater New York City area, you have limited access to examples of his work, but here are a few: Wright in Our Neighborhood.

At this point an unexpected illness interrupted my blogging, but the following two books cheered me in the hospital. Maybe I can return later to write more about Wright.


I read this on my Kindle, so here is a suggestive image.

Ada Leverson, Love’s Shadow. I knew before I read this entertaining novel that Leverson was a contemporary of Oscar Wilde, but I was not surprised later to learn that they were friends. This depiction of a shadow on the love of a young married couple is very Wildean, with witty dialogue. They are silly, of course, but you forget that most of the time. A flaw was in the presentation of the other couples in the book, especially of Edith and her husband. He became more and more childish as the story progressed, and this was never resolved.

LyndonMargaret Kennedy, The Ladies of Lyndon — thanks to the generosity of blogger Kat at Mirabile Dictu. Like all the best social comedy, this one had one foot (but only one foot) in reality. A beautiful girl marries a wealthy man. She is 18; he is 30. Both are from the same world of mannered courtesy and great wealth. It works, but only for a short time. After all, whose character is perfectly developed by 18? So the fun begins, with the various ladies of Lyndon making their own matches with a variety of consequences, all accompanied by dazzling dialogue. Be careful what you wish for because, if you are beautiful and perfectly prepared to marry great wealth, you may be unprepared for any other life.




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