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.

What I Read in July 2014

July 31, 2014

McPheeJohn McPhee, Table of Contents. This is a collection of eight pieces by McPhee, all from the early 1980s — and all just as relevant and just as much fun to read today as they were then. Topics include New Jersey bears, the practice of family medicine in Maine, entrepreneurial efforts to use old dams and millponds to make hydropower, and exploring wild Maine with the other John McPhee.

elizabethgarden25Elizabth von Arnim, Elizabeth and Her German Garden. Elizabeth has money, a place in the country, three lively daughters, a husband (the Man of Wrath) and a garden which constitutes her principal joy in life.

DerbyDayD. J. Taylor, Derby Day. Taylor must have read a lot of Trollope because, in this novel with its Victorian setting, he gets the tone just right. The story is only peripherally about a horse; it is very much about the characters and conniving which revolve about a horse who will run on Derby Day.

ProfessorPhilip Roth, The Professor of Desire. A writer professes desire, except when he doesn’t feel any and then he professes his desire for desire. The novel is insightful, but sometimes rather juvenile. Or is that the Professor’s problem and this novel just reflects that?

ARnoldBennettThe Journals of Arnold Bennett, Selected and Edited by Frank Swinnerton. Interesting and wide-ranging excerpts from the journals Bennett kept from 1896 to 1929. We learn about literature and the struggles of a writer. Bennett was compulsively hard-working and he tells us a great deal about that, but very little about his personal life or what drove him.

Maugham_0002W. Somerset Maugham, The Moon and Sixpence. In which an aspiring artist rejects his conventional life and seeks to paint in Paris and Tahiti. Very loosely based on the life of Paul Gauguin.

FullerJohn Matteson, The Lives of Margaret Fuller. This biography of the famous female intellectual and writer sets her firmly in her times and tells not only her story, but also the stories of her family and friends.




Good and Evil

July 29, 2014

I’ve discovered I don’t know what evil is, or goodness either.

arendt My confusion started with Hannah Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem, in which she describes “the banality of evil.” The book is very good – the account of the trial, what Eichmann actually said, the exploration of his psychology – but banality of evil irritated me. What is this evil? Is it some sort of cloud which descends on a person? Is it an inborn trait like lefthandedness?

I turn it the other way and also ask, what is goodness? Does it have any separate existence out there somewhere? To say that an act is good or a person is good is a metaphor. When we say that food is good, we identify a property of the food. It may be good in the sense that it is not poisonous or is nutritious. It may be good because eating it gives us pleasure. Nutrition is testable and the taste of the food is a sensory experience, so our assignment of goodness to the food is based on an outcome. It is not a separate, discrete quality of the food.

Similarly, we may speak of a good deed. In the case of the deed, is its goodness intrinsic, so that a certain act is always good, or is it situational? It is good to feed the hungry, but when the survivors of concentration camps were fed, some died because their systems could not handle the sudden food. Those who gave the food had good intentions and the food itself was good, but the consequences were bad. Can there be any deed that in inherently good? It is always good to tell the truth, except when it is not. When the Gestapo asks you where your Jewish friend is hiding, is it good to tell the truth?

If the result of a deed may be good or bad, then deeds are situational. But how about bad deeds – the banality of evil? The consequences of Eichmann’s deeds were good for him, in the short term at least. He fulfilled the requirements of his job and was praised and promoted. The consequences were bad/evil only for others, not for him. Perhaps that is what Arendt means by banality: the day-by-day performance of what you conceive to be your duty has terrible effects on other people. Where is the property of evil here? Is in the deed, which might be innocent or even “good” if it had a different outcome? Is it in the doer, who does not consciously desire to do harm? Is it only in the result?

Eichmann did not claim to have no knowledge of the result; he said that the result was not his choice or his responsibility. If Eichmann was correct, then he was not evil and his deeds were not evil. It is a familiar ethical dilemma and brings me no closer to understanding whether evil is banal, or even it if has any separate reality at all.

A Good Day at the Pequot

July 27, 2014

pequot_library_summer_book_sale_opening_day_high_resI went on the second day of the big book sale in Southport, Connecticut. That’s the Pequot Library behind all the tents — a wonderful Richardson-Romanesque building which looks as good inside as outside. Any traveller coming this way should save time for an amble through the Southport historic district. It is a veritable museum of 19th century domestic architecture, from simple Federal through Greek Revival and Second Empire to Stick and Shingle, all well and expensively preserved. I can’t afford to live there, but I can certainly enjoy.

PequotBooksTo the books. I found five for my husband and six for myself, grand total = $15. Here are mine:

  • Bruce Page and others, The Philby Conspiracy. With new books coming out about British upper class spies, I want to look into the subject.
  • John Le Carré, A Most Wanted Man. I thought I had read them all, but must have missed this one.
  • Nancy Mitford, Wigs on the Green. Supposedly “lightheartedly skewers the devoted followers of British fascism.” Lighthearted? We’ll see.
  • Jane Gardam, The Man in the Wooden Hat. Since reading Old Filth a couple of years ago, I am working my way through Gardam’s novels, in no particular order.
  • Ivan Doig, Heart Earth. After a recommendation by a fellow blogger I read my first Doig, devoted to the building of the Fort Peck Dam. He knows the West and takes you there. Time for more.
  • Penelope Lively, Cleopatra’s Sister. I don’t think I have read this novelist before, but she comes highly recommended by people I respect.


The Moon and Sixpence

July 25, 2014

Maugham_0002Quite a few years ago I attended a play by W. Somerset Maugham. I don’t remember its name, having never heard anything about it before or since. Nor do I remember much about its plot, just how it kept me entertained despite its many improbabilities. Wow! Here was a man who could make a well-constructed play.

With that memory I expected a similar experience from Maugham’s well-known novel – on which was based a better-known movie – rather loosely based on the life of artist Paul Gauguin. Yes, Gauguin is the one who threw up the conventional life in France and went off to Tahiti, only to go native and die there, becoming famous after death. The book left me disappointed. The narrator tells us of his acquaintance over the years with Strickland, an English (not French) would-be artist who throws up his conventional life and goes off to Paris and then Tahiti, goes native, dies there and becomes famous after death. The narrator and Strickland knew each other in London and Paris and had important interactions in Paris, after which the narrator never saw Strickland alive again. Instead, he picks up the thread of the story many years later in Tahiti where various people tell him of the artist’s last years there. This loses all the immediacy of the earlier part when the narrator gave us his first hand observations. The novel ends on a subdued note.

Nevertheless, Maugham is fun to read. His narrator reminds me of some of those you meet in Henry James. All the while he says he is telling you a story about somebody else, he doesn’t hesitate to let you know about his own life and opinions.

 But there is in my nature a strain of asceticism, and I have subjected my flesh each week to a more severe mortification. I have never failed to read the Literary Supplement of The Times. It is a salutary discipline to consider the vast number of books that are written, the fair hopes with which their authors see them published, and the fate which awaits them. What chance is there that any book will make its way among the multitude? And the successful books are but the successes of a season. Heaven knows what pains the author has been at, what bitter experiences he has endured and what heartache suffered, to give some chance reader a few hours’ relaxation or to while away the tedium of a journey.

That is just what I think every time I survey the crowded tables at a local library book sale and see how many books there are that nobody wants, especially memoirs by members of past political administrations. Yet those writers suffered much in order to have something to say to us.

Post Scripts

  1. The title of the novel is nowhere explained. Some have said it comes from a proverb about how, when you are looking for a sixpence on the ground, you miss seeing the moon up in the sky. I take it the other way. If you hold a sixpence close enough to your eye, you can block your view of the moon, no matter how large it is.
  2. Regular readers of this blog may remember my interest in Uncle Cicero. You can now click here to read entire story of Our Uncle Cicero at my other blog.

Uncle Cicero and Me

July 15, 2014

Fitz Randolph Gate at Princeton University

In 1752 Nathaniel Fitz Randolph donated some money for the founding of Princeton College, as well as the land for the original campus. I am related to that Nathaniel Fitz Randolph and the beautiful gate erected in his honor. I owe this knowledge to my mother’s Uncle Cicero who researched and wrote two books on the family history.

It works out like this.

Cicero Pangburn McClure, 1847-1926

Cicero Pangburn McClure, 1847-1926

The daughter of Nathaniel Fitz Randolph was Hannah Fitz Randolph.
Hannah Fitz Randolph married Stephen Pangburn, thus joining the Pangburn family line.
The son of Stephen Pangburn was Isaac Pangburn.
The daughter of Isaac Pangburn was Nancy Pangburn.
Nancy Pangburn married James McClure, thus joining the McClure family line.
The sons of James McClure were my great uncle, Cicero McClure, and Frank McClure, my grandfather.

This establishes that Nathaniel Fitz Randolph was my g-g-g-g grandfather. Now when you go that many generations back you have a lot of great grandparents, 32 in fact. With the number of ancestors doubling with each generation, before you get even 20 generations back you have over a million ancestors. At some point your calculation exceeds the population of the earth at that time. There must have been some duplication.

Genealogy as an accumulation of ancestors does not interest me much. Family stories, on the other hand, I find very compelling. My brother Bill and I are trying to link the stories we remember with the family documents that have come to hand. In Randolph-Pangburn – William Pangburn and His Wife Hannah Fitz Randolph (1909) and  The Pioneer McClure Families of the Monongahela Valley (1924) Uncle Cicero sets out what he could discover about his roots in colonial America and the settlement of western Pennsylvania.

Uncle Cicero must have spent hours checking census records, visiting cemeteries and talking with old timers. I am sure he would have loved the Internet. For example, I find this 1876 Butler Coal Company map which shows the location of the farms of Uncle Cicero and my grandfather.


1875 Map of Forward Township, Pennsylvania. The area marked “Jas. McClure” was Cicero’s farm and the area marked “F. Ketchum” was my grandfather’s.

My brother and I visited our grandparents on the farm in the 1930s and ’40s. We heard the family stories, but did not record what we heard. Now we are trying to reconstruct those stories and post them at our family blog.  It will be a small repayment for what Cicero has left for us. Click here for a full account of My Uncle Cicero.

FrankMcClure_c1902 - Copy

Harvest Time on the Frank McClure farm, c. 1902

Arnold Bennett reads L’Oeuvre

July 11, 2014
Arnold Bennett

Arnold Bennett

I have been reading The Journals of Arnold Bennett. Made up of excerpts selected and edited by Frank Swinnerton, the journals represent over 30 years of Bennett’s opinions on a range of literary subjects. Bennett respected Zola as a fellow realist.  In 1905, he commented:

I have just finished reading L’Oeuvre. It has taken me a long time, because I left in the middle to read Wells’s Kipps. What a colossal affair it seems by the side of Kipps, so serious, tremendous, and imposing. The middle parts seem rather carelessly done; the detail piled up without sufficient attention to the form. But the final scene between Calude and Christine — the fight between love and art — is simply magnificent; it moved me; it is one of the finest things in Zola. It is overdone, it goes farther than the truth; but purposely; Zola has stepped into the heroic in this scene, as he does now and then. All the close of the book is most affecting.

Kipps, by Wells, is a worthy book, also realist in tone but devoted to the life and problems of a rather shallow young man who unexpectedly inherits some money. In depicting the struggles of an artist, Zola was developing a much more significant theme. Some people would say that Bennett was closer to Wells than to Zola in his own writing, so it is striking that he can appreciate what Zola was doing in L’Oeuvre.

For more about Zola, visit our Reading Zola blog.

The Flat in Tel Aviv

July 5, 2014



The books in the flat were the German classics.

The books in the flat were the German classics.

“My grandmother lived here for 70 years as if she had never left Germany.”

So Arnon Goldfinger says as he surveys her flat in Tel Aviv. His Tuchler grandparents left Germany in the 1933; after the war they made repeated trips back to Europe, including to Germany. Their children and grandchildren are Israelis, who now understand how little they really knew this distinguished couple.

One of the unexpected pleasures of seeing movies streamed on our new TV is finding films we would not otherwise have known about, much less seen. First, we saw Hannah Arendt, and that sent me off to read Eichmann in Jerusalem. Then perhaps because I liked the Arendt film, Netflix recommended The Flat, a documentary about Goldfinger’s investigation of his grandparents’ past.

The family secrets, although never discussed, were not concealed. Goldfinger finds newspaper articles and letters tying his grandparents to Leopold von Mildenstein. The Tuchlers accompanied him when he made a trip to Palestine in the 1930s and wrote about the desirability of Zionism for the Nazi press. Von Mildenstein urged a Zionist approach to making Germany Judenrein – free of Jews. He hired Adolph Eichmann to help him implement this policy. Eichmann, who considered himself a Jewish “expert,” embraced the goal of emigration. If the Jews emigrated, where better place to go than Palestine! All of this is reported in Arendt’s account of the evolution of Eichmann’s role in the final solution.

Goldfinger’s movie is outstanding in its exploration of knowledge and its consequences. The first generation, those who experienced the war, is gone. The second generation – Goldfinger’s mother and von Mildenstein’s daughter Edda – learned not to ask questions. By not pressing for information they could believe the past was not important. It is the third generation, comfortable in their identities, who can ask. I was touched by the ambiguity of the scenes in Germany, the interviews with distant relatives (only partly Jewish) and the Mildenstein family. I saw the pain of those who have chosen not to know and now must hear answers to the questions they never asked.

Goldfinger tries to understand his grandparents, why they went back . One explanation was that when they left Germany their identity was German. To be rejected by their people, their culture, was so painful that they looked for evidence that the rejection was not universal, that “good Germans” still accepted them. In his journals I Will Bear Witness, Victor Klemperer reports something similar. Barely tolerated in Dresden, walking the streets wearing the yellow star, he treasures each friendly remark as a sign that some Germans sympathized with his plights.

Finally, the saddest scene occurs near the end of the film. It shows us the present created by the past. Goldfinger and his mother walk in a Jewish cemetery in the rain looking for the grave of her grandfather, who died a natural death in Germany. They cannot find it. The cemetery is spooky, with trees that have grown up among the headstones, many of which have sunk into the foliage. There are no Jews alive now in the town to maintain this place of memory.

Gerda Tuchler's gloves, symbols her reluctance to abandon older ways of living.

Gerda Tuchler’s gloves, symbols of her reluctance to abandon older ways of living.


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