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.

Elizabeth von Arnim, Vera

September 15, 2014
Elizabeth von Arnim

Elizabeth von Arnim

I read Vera on my Kindle, so instead of the book cover, here is a picture of the author herself. She is not young like Lucy, the romantic heroine of her novel. Instead, she looks like a woman who has lived long enough to see the dangers of first and unconsidered love.

Beware of the grieving widower. Wemyss meets young Lucy just days after the sudden death of Vera, his wife of 15 years. He is annoyed by the inconvenience of his situation, so his comparison of the two women is not favorable to Vera.

 Vera had never understood him, not with fifteen years to do it in, as this girl had in half a day. And the way Vera had died,—it was no use mincing matters when it came to one’s own thoughts, and it had been all of a piece with her life: the disregard for others and of anything said to her for her own good, the determination to do what suited her, to lean out of dangerous windows if she wished to, for instance, not to take the least trouble, the least thought…. Imagine bringing such horror on him, such unforgettable horror, besides worries and unhappiness without end, by deliberately disregarding his warnings, his orders indeed, about that window. Wemyss did feel that if one looked at the thing dispassionately it would be difficult to find indifference to the wishes and feelings of others going further.

As Wemyss takes over Lucy’s life and thoughts, I was reminded of du Maurier’s Rebecca, but even more strongly of the film Gaslight, in which a smooth-talking Charles Boyer tells the young and very in-love Ingrid Bergman everything she should think and feel and do. We knew he was up to no good, but in Vera we are somewhat in suspense about Wemyss. Is this all an evil scheme? Did her perhaps murder Vera? Many things are possible, but the thriller elements are secondary to a psychological study of the relationship between Wemyss and the naïve but hopeful Lucy. She enjoys his caresses, but even more she enjoys his certainties.

 But mentally he was more than comfortable, he was positively luxurious. Such perfect rest, listening to his talk. No thinking needed. Things according to him were either so, or so. With her father things had never been either so, or so; and one had had to frown, and concentrate, and make efforts to follow and understand his distinctions, his infinitely numerous, delicate, difficult distinctions. Everard’s plain division of everything into two categories only, snow-white and jet-black, was as reposeful as the Roman church. She hadn’t got to strain or worry, she had only to surrender.

Surrender is dangerous. I found the feminist themes in this novel much more compelling than in von Arnim’s better-known Elizabeth and Her German Garden. Elizabeth’s “man of wrath” [husband] is annoying enough, but he is far from dictating Elizabeth’s opinions. Lucy, on the other hand, is in mortal danger of losing her very soul to a man who knows he is fully entitled to possess that soul.

A Boy Leaves Home

September 10, 2014

My grandfather, reflecting on his long and interesting life.

If you come here for books and silver, my apologies. I am still reading and would like to comment more fully, but my writing energies have been taken up by my grandfather, whose life story I am transcribing for my Greider Clan blog.

In the next chapter of my grandfather’s story, he tells how he left home permanently at the age of 16 to find work as a farm laborer. Click here for From Dawn to Dusk: Will.

The way out of town for young Will.

The way out of town for young Will.




From Dawn to Dusk

September 5, 2014
Emily Tichenor Greider and William Henry Greider, Topeka, KS. circa 1941

Emily Tichenor Greider and William Henry Greider, Topeka, KS. circa 1941

They sit facing each other, calmly, in the garden of their Topeka home. They are my father’s parents and my paternal grandparents. He is retired from teaching and she, being a homemaker, can never retire. They have four grown children and 11 grandchildren. The pose tells us much. They are rather formally dressed — these are not gardening clothes. Both wear glasses and hold books. They look at each other, not at the camera. She has a faint half smile, while he frowns slightly in concentration. Their lives have brought them from pioneer farms in Indiana and Kansas to respected lives in this Midwestern city.

Emily Tichenor Greider died in 1941. After her death, William Henry Greider spent time with each of his children and then settled permanently with his daughter, Ruth Greider McCandless, in California. He wrote his life story and entitled it From Dawn to Dusk. Aunt Ruth typed it up and we have copies today. The old typescript does not scan well, so I am transcribing it into digital form and will be adding it to my Greider Clan blog a chapter at a time. While we lack early pictures of my grandfather, we do have some pictures to suggest the times and places he knew.

Begin his story here by clicking on From Dawn to Dusk.

What I Read in August 2014

September 2, 2014

DreiserTragedyTheodore Dreiser, An American Tragedy. Like a long and very affecting opera this novel builds the story of a young man striving to get ahead and achieve the good things in life in 1920’s America. He fails.

ThreeSoldiersJohn Dos Passos, Three Soldiers. This novel needs a different title, perhaps, One Soldier Who Hates the Army More than the Enemy. If you are looking for a good novel about World War I, choose a different book.

WigsNancy Mitford, Wigs on the Green. Mitford’s novelistic takes on the English upper classes are always witty and fun to read. This one may be over the line, however, with its total defiance of political correctness. Are British fascist Jackshirts really all that funny?

Philby_0001Bruce Page and others, The Philby Conspiracy. This 1968 investigative report tells the stories of English spies Burgess, Maclean and, best of all, Kim Philby. When I see how poorly the Establishment protected itself from one of its own, I am doubtful of the effectiveness of today’s Establishment to correctly perceive reality.

WoodenHatJane Gardem, The Man in the Wooden Hat. This is the middle book of Gardam’s Old Filth trilogy, and it may be the best of them all. It is the story of Betty Mackintoch (“Miss Raincoat”) who married Old Filth, even though other possibilities caused trouble from time to time.

HeartEarthIvan Doig, Heart Earth. In this memoir, Doig reconstructs his parents lives — especially his mother’s — from the letters she wrote to her brother during World War II. Doig’s mother died when he was only six, so the letters helped him to understand her in a way that was not possible when he was a small boy.

armeniaVasily Grossman, An Armenian Sketchbook. Grossman, the author of Life and Fate, traveled to Armenia to assist with a translation. Although Grossman describes the landscape, the people and his experiences, this is  not a travel book. It is a meditation of the life and values Grossman found important as he neared the end of his own life.

AusterlitzW. G. Sebald, Austerlitz. In this novel, Sebald tells the decades-long story of how Jacques Austerlitz found his identify. Taken as a child to England at the start of World War II, he grew up not knowing who he was, but he knew he was from some other time and place.

OverlookMichael Connelly, The Overlook. In this selection from Connelly’s works, LAPD detective Harry Bosch works with FBI agent Rachel Walling to solve a crime which is being depicted as a terrorist threat. Nice go here at patriotic paranoia and its political results.

IMG_0001Simon Winchester, The Professor and the Madman: A Tale of Murder, Insanity, and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary. The subtitle pretty much says it all. Winchester recounts the stories of two remarkable men, James Murray, the first editor of the great dictionary, and Dr. Minor, the criminal lunatic who contributed thousands of useful entries.

IMG_0002Ian McEwan, Sweet Tooth. Naive young Cambridge graduate joins MI5, messes up big time. McEwan is up to his old narrative tricks, with an ending which cheapens the effect of an otherwise well-told story.


W. G. Sebald, Austerlitz

August 31, 2014

AusterlitzWhen Austerlitz was six he lost everything – his parents, his home, even his name and language. Sent to England to escape the Nazis, he was fostered by parents so silent and cold that he never identified himself with them. His story is told, in pieces and over the years, to an unnamed narrator who reports it to the reader. Why Austerlitz, who has so few friends or connections, relates to the narrator is not explained. Their most apparent bond is a shared interest in architecture and its history. Sebald does not hesitate to pause the narrative for architectural insights.

In the practice of warfare, however, the star-shaped fortresses which were being built and improved everywhere during the eighteenth century did not answer their purpose, for intent as everyone was on that pattern, it had been forgotten that the largest fortifications will naturally attract the largest enemy forces, and that the more you entrench yourself the more you must remain on the defense, so that in the end you might find yourself in a place fortified in every possible way, watching helplessly while the enemy troops, moving on to their own choice of terrain elsewhere, simply ignored their adversaries’ fortresses, which had become positive arsenals of weaponry, bristling with cannon and overcrowded with men.

That is all one sentence – in case you didn’t noticed – and is quoted as a fair example of the Sebald prose style. Because of this style and a certain evasiveness, some people find Sebald difficult to read. Not so difficult really, if you accept the premise that the story must be told at its own pace.

 Time, said Austerlitz in the observation room in Greenwich, was by far the most artificial of all our inventions…. [much more omitted]

Every river, as we know, must have banks on both sides, so where, seen in those terms, are the banks of time?

No banks and no limits, but as Austerlitz reclaims his name and tries to find his past, that past time does indeed flow into the present and change his perceptions of himself.

I enjoyed the way the story is constructed, bit by bit, but was disappointed by the remoteness of Sebald, his narrator, and Austerlitz from each other and the world around them. To read of a man’s loss in childhood and his growing knowledge of the fate of his parents should be emotionally affecting. It was not. I too stood remote from events and Austerlitz’s reaction to them. That may have been Sebald’s intent. If so, he succeeded.

Vasily Grossman, An Armenian Sketchbook

August 19, 2014

armeniaIn 1961 Russian writer Vasily Grossman went to Armenia to work on the “translation”—actually the editing of the literal translation – of a popular novel from Armenian into Russian. Two years later Grossman was dead of cancer and An Amenian Sketchbook (Dobro vam) was not published during his lifetime, too many cuts having been demanded. As the Introduction explains, “By then Grossman had come to feel deeply ashamed of the many compromises he had made in the course of his life…” Grossman was also angry. Life and Fate, his great novel of the Battle of Stalingrad and of World War II had been “arrested” by the KGB and all known copies destroyed.

Vasily Grossman traveled to Armenia and he describes it: the houses of stone, the people – who respected their own Armenian writer much more than any visiting Russian – and even a village wedding. I don’t think what Grossman put into this book is Armenia; what Grossman puts into this book is himself. He tells us what he thinks. In Chapter 4 of this edition, a chapter which was entirely deleted by the censor, he writes of nationalism and national stereotypes. He concludes that seeing only the glories of your own people or nation is to harm yourself.

 Whether or not Tunanyan really is finer than Pushkin, or Garni finer than the Acropolis, is of course beside the point. What is sadly apparent from these claims is that poetry , architecture, science, science and history no longer mean anything to these people, They matter only insofar as they testify to the superiority of the Armenian nation. Poetry does not matter; all that matters is to prove that Armedia’s national poet is greater than, say, the French or the Russian national poet.

But Grossman sees more to the problem.

 But I understood that this excessive sense of self-importance could, for the main part, be blamed on those who throughout long centuries had trampled on Armenian dignity.

Grossman’s great strength, just as in his novels and in his war reporting, is to tell us what he sees, and he sees with a knowing eye. In Yerevan, Soviet Armenia’s capital, he finds the obligatory statue of Stalin.

 Stalin wears a long bronze greatcoat, and he has a forage cap on his head. One of his bronze hands is tucked beneath the lapel of his greatcoat. He strides along, and his stride is slow, smooth, and weighty. It is the stride of a master, a ruler of the world; he is in no hurry. Two very different forces come together in him, and this is strange and troubling. He is the expression of a power so vast that it can belong only to God; and he is also the expression of a coarse, earthly power, the power of a soldier or government official.

Stalin was dead by then and in many places they were pulling his statues down, as they did eventually in Yerevan. Grossman foresees this probability. He is hopeful, for times have changed, but he is also depressed because he knows his great book – his depiction of a brave and resilient people – may never be read by those who could understand it.

For more details about Grossman and his book, see Lisa Hill’s appreciative review of An Armenian Sketchbook.

The Man in the Wooden Hat

August 13, 2014

WoodenHatDon’t be put off by the title of Jane Gardam’s novel. The man in the hat is not important to the action, but I’ll leave it to the reader to discover who he is and what the hat means.

Jane Gardam has written three novels with the same cast of characters: Old Filth, The Man in the Wooden Hat, and Last Friends. They narrate the lives of Edward Feathers, Betty Mackintosh and Terry Veneering – their loves, their marriages, their friends and acquaintances, including the “last friends.”

By pure happenstance I did not read the books in order, but it doesn’t matter very much, and I believe I saved the best for last. The Man in the Wooden Hat is the middle book of the series and told mostly from the point of view of Betty Mackintosh, married to Feathers (Old Filth) and in love with (at times) and loved by (always) Veneering. Not the simple triangle you might imagine; these people have standards and regard for commitments made.

This is a story of a world that used to be. Britannia ruled the waves – until she did not any longer – and English law ran in many places where it runs no more. Betty, Feathers and Veneering are intelligent people who have status and money, which did not come to them automatically, but were based on that world. They have known many places and many cultures. They understand it’s all over for Britannia and for them, but that doesn’t change where they came from and who they presently are.

If not always a good world, it was always a small one. From Hong Kong they take a trip into China. When the bus stops,

 A very old English couple held hands, without looking at each other. “We were born here,” they said. “We’ve been away a long time.” “I was born in Tiensin,” said Betty. “I grew up in Shanghai.” They looked at her and nodded acknowledgement. “We are displaced people,” said the old woman and Filth said, “I suppose you don’t know Judge Willy?” “What, old Pastry? Of course we did,” and they all smiled.


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