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.

Willie Sawdust

July 7, 2015

GrandfatherHere you see my very respectable grandfather, William Henry Greider, retired from his career as a school teacher. I am posting his life story, chapter by chapter, at my Greider Clan blog. In the next chapter of”From Dawn to Dusk,” he tells of his earlier brief career as Willie Sawdust, a California factory worker. He tells us that he triumphed over violence and ignorance.  Click here to read all about it.

Wright Language

July 2, 2015

A picture of a building is not the experience of the building. Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater – the country house built over a waterfall in the woods– owes much of its iconic status to photography. Its layers of terraces, rocks and water compose beautifully in a two-dimensional representation, but convey little of the experience of approaching over the bridge and into the interior.


Words may describe a building and the architect’s intentions, but also are not the building. Wright’s own verbiage about Fallingwater and his other important buildings are not helpful to me. They often confuse what understanding we gain from the buildings themselves.

FLWautoI have been reading the 1943 edition of Frank Lloyd Wright’s An Autobiography. Before now, I avoided it, contenting myself with the Secrest and Gill biographies and visits to as many examples of Wright’s work as I could find. Now I am deep in stories about his friends and family, accounts of his work, mystifying and vague descriptions of past legal and financial embroilment, justifications for architectural and personal mistakes – all this quite ok, but not very revealing of the man himself, as least as regards the content. I think, however, I can find something of Wright in his style, his concern that his view of language is the one that matters.

 I began to see that in spite of all the talk about Nature that “natural” was the last thing in this world they would let you be if they could prevent it. What did they mean when “they” used the word nature? Just some sentimental feeling about animals, grass and trees, the out-of-doors? But how about the nature of wood, glass and iron – internal nature? The nature of boys and girls? The nature of law? Wasn’t that Nature? Wasn’t nature in this sense the very nature of God?

Somehow I had always thought when I read the word “nature” in a book or used it in my own mind that it was meant that interior way. Not the other measly, external way.

“Fools!” They have no sentiment for nature. What they really mean by “nature” is just a sentimentalizing of the rudimentary animal. That’s why they suffer all this confusion of ideas and make all these senseless rules – foolish regulations and unwise laws.

Confusion of ideas seems to be general here. Methinks I hear my old philosophy professor say coldly, Define your terms. Nature is a rich word with different meanings in different contexts, so what matters is what Wright means by it. He seems to say that something is natural when it accords with his own sense of what nature is, when it is satisfying to him.

He does this with lots of terms: simplicity, organic, unity, sentimental. In the early parts of the book, avoidance of sentimentality is important, although he cannot explain why Truth Against the World is fitting when inscribed over a fireplace, but “sentimental” when on a door. Later in the book, he becomes more interested in simplicity.

Five lines where three are enough is stupidity. Nine pounds where three are sufficient is obesity. But to eliminate expressive words in speaking or writing – words that intensify or vivify meaning is not simplicity. Nor is similar elimination in architecture simplicity. It may be, and usually is, stupidity.

In architecture, expressive changes of surface, emphasis of line and especially textures of material or imaginative pattern, may go to make facts more eloquent – forms more significant. Elimination, therefore, may be just as meaningless as elaboration, perhaps more often is so. To know what to leave out and what to put in; just where and just how, ah, that is to have been educated in knowledge of simplicity – toward ultimate freedom of expression.

Yes, “what to leave out and what to put in; just where and just how” is the summit of artistic skill. It has little to do with the term simplicity, however defined. It is the knowledge the artist brings, the combination of manual skill and sensitive eye and feeling for form. It is not a matter of language or ideology. The more Wright tries to explain it in words, the less we understand. Consider the matter of windows. Wright’s buildings use natural light, and nothing could be more simple than a pane of clear glass. It is a commonplace that windows bring in the outdoors, but they don’t, always. In this interior from his own Oak Park home, the fretwork on the highly placed windows seems to say to me: you are sheltered here – you receive the light – but you receive the light mediated by my design. It is effective, but it is hardly simple.


The word organic, much favored by Wright and his followers, is equally slippery. A corn plant is an organic design, and a very effective one. So is a giraffe, but perhaps not so neat. But a house? A museum? Wright says, speaking of materials (the italics are in the original),

So I began to study the nature of materials, learning to see them. I now learned to see brick as brick, to see wood as wood, and to see concrete or glass or metal. See each for itself and all as themselves. Strange to say, this required greater concentration of imagination. Each material demanded different handling and has possibilities of use peculiar to its own nature. Appropriate designs for one material would not be appropriate at all for another material. At least, not in the light of this spiritual ideal of simplicity as organic plasticity.

I am doing fine with the idea of different materials requiring different treatments, but lost when I arrive at organic plasticity. Wright applies labels which do not explain, or only minimally, what he up to. Is the Guggenheim Museum organic? He has used materials to create a simulacrum of the spiral which is organic for a snail — but not for a museum and not at this scale.


I enjoy An Autobiography when Wright tells us how he evolved the design for La Miniatura in California or floated the Tokyo Hotel on a layer of mud. I also enjoy the saucy egotism of, “It was my misfortune, too, that everybody was willing to trust me.” What I don’t enjoy is a word puffery which fails to translate architecture, an art which thrives in a delicate balance between three-dimensional form and practical demands, into some sort of philosophical generalization. Artists should not use words to try to convey the essence of an art that is not verbal. If the sculpture or quartet or building cannot communicate at the non verbal level, then the addition of words will not help.


What I Read in June 2015

June 30, 2015

ambroseCitySaltAbdelraman Munif, Cities of Salt. This novel, translated from the Arabic, tells of the effects on the lives of the inhabitants of an unnamed country where oil is found and developed. The cultural differences between the local people and the foreigners make mutual understanding impossible.

Stephen Ambrose, Nothing Like It in the World. What is like nothing in the world? The transcontinental railroad, which Ambrose considers the greatest engineering achievement of the 19th century. (He puts the Panama Canal in the 20th century because it was completed then.) Linking the east and west coasts of the United States, the railroad guaranteed our continuance as a continental power.

warlegganWinston Graham, Warleggan. This is book number four of the Poldark series. Set in late 18th century Cornwall, Poldark is about to appear on Public Television in a remake of the 1975 dramatization. I haven’t watched the TV yet, but the books tell of real people living real lives, not just yes-my-lord and no-my-lord.

babylonArnold Bennett, The Grand Babylon Hotel. Do not confuse this hotel with any other. The Grand Babylon, despite its name, is in London, owned by an American and served by a pseudoFrench chef. A best-seller in its day and still an entertaining read, this novel is very different in spirit from Bennett’s The Old Wives’ Tale and Clayhanger series, with their realistic portrayal of lower middle class struggles. I read it on my Kindle but this cover shows the hotel as I imagine it.

elinorMargaret Oliphant, The Marriage of Elinor. I also read this one on the Kindle, so chose this cover for the irrelevant and misleading cover award. It has nothing whatever to do with the setting or characters or spirit of Oliphant’s rather sad novel about an intelligent but headstrong young woman’s mistaken choice in marriage.

johnbudeJohn Bude, The Lake District Murder. Here is a classic murder mystery from the 1920s with its persistent mild-mannered detective working in an environment which he thoroughly understands. Somewhat low in suspense, but high in well-thought-out clues and calculations.

WholeWorldJulia Glass, The Whole World Over. This novel, set in contemporary New York and New Mexico drew me in with its well-drawn characters. Like the great Victorians, Glass can depict interlocking lives, keeping a balance between individual affairs and the group narrative.

nikolidesRumer Godden, Breakfast with the Nikolides. This 1942 novel is set in the India her readers know from The River. The English family here is very different, however, divided by dislike and fear.Godden makes an unusual effort to give equal weight to the Indian characters and to let them tell us their views of people and events.


Stephen Ambrose, Nothing Like It in the World

June 16, 2015

ambroseNothing like what? Nothing like the American transcontinental railroad. Today, if you drive on Interstate 80 from Omaha to Sacramento you follow the route established by the Central Pacific and the Union Pacific as they raced to lay track over the mountains and across the plains to meet in May 1869 at Promontory Point in Utah, linking the United States from the Atlantic to the Pacific.

We learned about the railroad in school. Some of us learned that it was bad for the Indians and bad for the buffalo. It was. Later, some of us learned that there was great financial chicanery in its building. There was. That is not the story Ambrose tells. He marvels at the engineering skill and organizational enterprise which was able to complete the task in a “mere” six years.

The men who built the railroad loved the beautiful scenery of the West. To them, the West represented opportunity. Many of them also respected the Indians, but to most the Indians were an inconvenient obstruction.

In the eyes of the men of the UP, the Indians deserved extreme punishment and even more. President Oliver Ames came west and raged, “I see nothing but extermination to the Indians as the result of their thieving disposition, and we shall probably have to come to this before we can run the road safely.”

Since the Indians were there first, we can question who was doing the thieving. As Ambrose points out, the railroad was going to be built, whatever the cost. It represented the merger of the interests of the government, the capitalists, and the military, as well as the many settlers who had come to California and were now a six-month journey from home. That was in 1860; by 1870 one could travel from New York to San Francisco in seven days.

The Central Pacific was formed by financial interests in California. Beginning in Sacramento they surveyed, graded and laid rails going east. Encountering the Sierras early, progress was slow because of the need to blast a roadbed and tunnel through the summits. With plenty of timber, they constructed amazing wooden structures.

DaleCreekTrestleThe contractors had plenty of rock and timber, but a shortage of labor. Most of the white men they hired preferred to prospect for gold. They would work for a few days, then take off for the mines. The Chinese had come to California, also hoping for gold, but shut out of the mines. Experimentally, some were hired, then more and more, until at one point of 8000 workers, 6000 were Chinese. They worked in crews, ate their own food, and – best of all – did not get drunk on Sundays.

During a difficult period,

Crocker then decided that he wanted more experienced men for the tunneling. He sent an emissary to Virginia City, Nevada, to persuade some of the best Cornish miners to come to his site, with the lure of higher wages. They came, but instead of giving them exclusive charge of excavating the tunnel, Crocker faced them in one direction and Chinese workers in the other. “The Chinese, without fail, always outmeasured the Cornish miners,” he recalled. “That is to say, they would cut more rock in a week than the Cornish miners did. And there it was hard work, steady pounding on the rock, bone labor.” The Cornishmen quit.

While the Central Pacific was working its way through the Sierras, the Union Pacific, organized by eastern financiers, was racing across the plains of Nebraska. Since each line was paid for miles of completed track, they had every motivation to move as quickly as possible. Their rapid progress stalled in the Rocky Mountains. By then the Central Pacific was rapidly laying track in the Nevada desert. Both companies enlisted the Mormons to provide labor. They too wanted a railroad.

Stephen Ambrose tells the best kind of popular history. He has an important topic and, in giving it context, he enlarges our understanding of the development of the west.

Golden Spike Historic

The Golden Spike ceremony, Promontory Point, Utah, May 1869

Abdelrahman Munif, Cities of Salt

June 12, 2015

CitySaltThe oasis in the desert was serene. When things changed, they changed in an orderly way. The rains came or they did not come, as Allah willed it. The camel caravans arrived and left. The young men travelled and came back. Wadi al-Uyoun remained the same. In this novel Abdelrahman Munif tells how permanent change did come in an unnamed country at an unspecified time. What is specified is that the Americans came, looking for oil and finding it. One man is apprehensive – “He sensed that something terrible is about to happen” – and the apprehension spreads.

The wadi’s inhabitants, who at first viewed the three foreigners with scorn and laughed when they saw them carrying bags of sand and rock, grew more surprised when they discovered that the three knew a lot about the religion, the desert, the bedouin’s life and the tribes. The profession of faith they repeated whenever asked, and their scriptural citations, moved many people of the wadi to wonder among themselves if these were jinn, because people like them who knew all these things and spoke Arabic and never prayed were not Muslims and could not be normal human beings.

Wadi al-Uyoun is destroyed and its people go elsewhere, mostly working for the Americans. Knowledge doesn’t help. The Americans may speak Arabic and know of the religion but they remain unable to enter into the minds and attitudes of the local people. This goes on for over 600 pages as we follow the development of the country for the benefit of others.

The country is not named. Perhaps it is Saudi Arabia and the time seems to be between the wars. Electricity comes and the radio and the automobile and, finally, the telephone. Some travelers report that these devices have long been available in Egypt. The inhabitants are no more able to understand the Americans than the Americans are to understand them, but they know they are superior.

The workers’ tents were cooled by the open air every day, and the workers, who endured wordlessly as they huddled in a circle of warmth around the fire and coffeepot during the winter nights, or raised their tent flaps when the summer came after fixing the entrances to face the breezes, often sat and watched the Americans fussing with the generators, which they repaired time and time again. When their bare, burned bodies began to run with sweat, like punctured waterskins, the workers felt a mixture of wonder, joy and pity, because they enjoyed a distinction the Americans lacked.

This long novel, which fully describes the feelings of the Arabs, shows us the actions of the Americans but makes no attempt to enter into their motives for doing what they do. This is a mirror image of another novel I read recently – Eight Months on Ghazzah Street by Hilary Mantel. Her book is set in a later period, the 1970s, but misunderstanding persists. A young English wife ofa construction engineer accompanies him to an oil-rich kingdom where nothing is as it first appears. She has lived in other countries but, despite her attempts to enter into the Muslim-Arab culture, the more she tries the less she can do. The local women mean well, but the expatriates remain expatriates and the Saudi wives remain Saudi wives. Frustration engenders disdain.

Cultural disdain cuts both ways. Gender constraints as expressed in the dress code are so strict for women, that any woman from any culture who violates them is a slut. The Saudi wives think so. When Mantel’s protagonist goes out on the street, no matter how modest her dress, she is the target of vulgar comments from passing drivers. The local women say it is what she must expect. They also believe that back in England the women are sluts also, just that it is more acceptable there, which does not speak well for English culture.

A note on the translation: In Cities of Salt, the translator or editor could have done the reader an important service by clarifying the names of the characters. As in Russian literature, the same person may be referred to various ways – by full name, partial name, nickname, title, relationship. One doesn’t know which is a title and which is a proper name. Also, since the location is left unspecified, the relationships of the towns to each other and to the dessert and the sea are also confusing. One has no sense of how far apart places are or how long a trip should take.

Trollope: artist & moralist

June 5, 2015
Septimus Harding, "the warden," plays the cello for the old pensioners of Hiram's Hospital

Septimus Harding, “the warden,” plays the cello for the old pensioners of Hiram’s Hospital

This book is poorly served by its title, a title which caused me to leave it on the shelf for years while I happily browsed in Anthony Trollope’s wonderful novels and enjoyed an occasional review – if that review appreciated this master as much as I do.

Too bad, because Ruth apRoberts’ study of Trollope’s artistic techniques and moral positions is both stimulating and very, very true. I have seldom enjoyed a critic so much. (I have an English edition of the book, picked up at a book sale, while the American edition is titled The Moral Trollope. Slightly better, but less accurate because apRoberts emphasizes his art quite as much as his morality.)

I became a Trollope admirer through the back door of that great destroyer of culture, television. In the 1970’s I watched The Pallisers on Masterpiece Theater, then went to the library to find the first of the series, Can You Forgive Her? and was well and truly hooked. My college courses focused on dead white males, so Trollope should have qualified, but somehow he didn’t. Thackeray and Dickens were grudgingly admired; the Brontes were mentioned and dismissed; George Eliot and Anthony Trollope were never mentioned. Eliot I knew about because I was forced to read Silas Marner at too young an age – not too young for the necessary reading skills but too young for any sympathetic understanding. This 13-year-old girl in the Middle West concerned about the pimples on her face and whether any boy would ever like her despite the fact that she is smart related poorly to a catatonic miser in 19th century England. And Trollope? Until TV I had never heard of him.

apRoberts is aware that Trollope doesn’t get much respect. Perhaps he is too readable?

Trollope novels often so seem to open themselves, as it were. They may precisely suit out taste, but we are at a loss to say why. But this readableness, so well attested, must, after all, be an essential virtue of fiction. Whatever the novel is, this quality must be one of its strongest points, and readable novels, one might think, should be a defensible kind.

With telling examples, apRoberts develops the plea that novels be judged by the criteria of narrative fiction, not the language and symbolic requirements of poetry. She judges that Trollope’s best qualities “have been hard for us to appreciate under the early-twentieth-century critical Establishment.” This is the Establishment which values symbols and myth and emphasizes style. Good in themselves and necessary in poetry, these values may get in the way of what a novel may do most successfully. A novel is not a poem but an account of characters and experiences which can speak to the reader’s own values and understanding.

We begin to think that the fact that the Victorian novel is a pudding is its glory. Seldom has a genre been so free to be anything.

apRoberts then goes on to analyze many of Trollope’s novels. She does not see his artistry as separate from his moral code; rather, it enables our understanding. I can only sample what she says by reporting on three of the novels.

WardencoverThe Warden. apRoberts points out that Trollope does not go in for simple advocacy. He is in favor of reform of many entrenched practices of the Church of England. Yet Mr. Harding, the beneficiary of a corrupt system, is a good and innocent man. Some who advocate reform are quite heartless as they trample on others’ peace of mind, nor are they completely honest in their accusations.

Trollope is not trying to expose an abuse, nor is he trying to demonstrate the beauties of the status quo. His art lies in his carefulness to do neither, to avoid the partis pris. For it is his delight to regard the juxtaposition of the two partis. He has a Divided Mind, and it is no plight, but rather a distinct artistic advantage. The Warden involves both sides in a beautifully ironic demonstration of incongruities.

With this in mind I recently watched the BBC production of The Barchester Chronicles and was delighted to see the contentious Archdeacon tell Mr. Harding that his great fault was that he saw all sides of an issue. So did Trollope.

melmotteThe Way We Live Now. I love this novel and have read it at least twice, yet I recently saw a comment that it is one of his least successful books, being too bitter. I’m not so sure about that, and neither is apRoberts. Yes, Lady Carbury has a wastrel son and writes trivial books. We can’t like her, but sympathy grows as we see her struggle for the welfare of her children, despite considerable grief to herself. If this is Trollope’s depiction of his mother (and it probably is), then he understood her dilemma better than is usually admitted. The great theme of the book is money and how men make it and women seek it. apRoberts concedes that “in this book Trollope is more urgent and less detached” than in others.

This is how it is, he says: money is so powerful now, we can buy honesty all along the line – in literary circles, in politics, in society. ‘What would you have us do? Sic vivitur!’ [Cicero: thus we live now] By ironically pretending to accept the new mores he draws attention to what is evil in them.

senatorThe American Senator. Finally, I am happy to find an appreciation of a novel which I enjoyed, although it is rarely mentioned. The American Senator, visits England to find what he can learn from this older country, but mostly he understands that he doesn’t understand the culture, nor do his English friends understand his lack of understanding. Take fox hunting – and it’s a good subject to take because Trollope loved the sport. The hunters ride over fields and poultry yards and no one doubts their right to do so, despite the damage done.

The Senator is too much the rationalist ever to enjoy something he could not think he understood; and Trollope is too much the empiricist to deny the existence of his joy or his sure sense of its beneficence. But he very well knows the absurd aspects of hunting.

The novel also contains a well-turned romance along with an anti-romance, that is, a woman who is the hunter of a financial fox. She is a figure of fun as she pursues her game, yet Trollope makes us well aware that success is her only hope for her future security. Just as Trollope uses Septimus Harding in The Warden to demonstrate how bad institutions may benefit good men, in The American Senator he uses a visiting American to show how the English may not understand their own institutions.

It is only by trying to act the foreigner that we can evaluate our institutions. Our human institutions may seem to compound the un-reason of individual human beings, in their absurdity. And yet if the institutions have survived it is because they work just as if by rational means. And if they work, we had better respect them. For however English, absurd, or picturesque they arr, they seem to be also ‘traditionally useful.’

None of this happens by accident in Trollope’s novels. His artistry is to weave a tale which engages us but also makes – not just one point – as many points as may arise from the story he has told.


What I Read in May 2015

May 31, 2015

WeHaveAlwaysLivedInTheCastleShirley Jackson, We Have Always Lived in the Castle. I reread a book fondly remembered and find it is still my favorite Shirley Jackson. The two sisters in the castle are clearly delineated. We believe in them, and we are chilled from the opening pages right through to the end.

GreenwaldGlen Greenwald, No Place to Hide. This is the Glen Greenwald to whom Edward Snowden entrusted the files he downloaded from the NSA computers. He narrates his contacts with Snowden, including their meeting in HongKong, and summarizes what he learned from the experience. Not only is there no place for the chickens to hide, but the foxes are totally in control of the hen house.

DemelzaWinston Graham, Demelza. This historical novel is the second in the Poldark series which begins with Ross Poldark. Demelza, a miner’s daughter has become the wife of Ross Poldark, a somewhat rebellious member of the local gentry in Cornwall. It is the late 18th century. Mining is important and the Revolution is happening in France.

8monthsHilary Mantel, Eight Months on Ghazzah Street. Ghazzah Street is in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, and the eight months are during the 1970’s. An British couple live there while he works supervising a construction project and she does not work, forbidden to do that or much or anything else except brood about the culture she finds maddening and frightening. Not highly recommended to those who have loved Mantel’s other novels.

puttermesserCynthia Ozick, The Puttermesser Papers. Magical realism comes to an aging Jewish female lawyer in New York. The combination creaks a bit at its joints, and I liked the realism parts better than the magical stuff. Ruth Puttermesser is an entirely well-rounded creation in a elliptical world.

NicholsMarianne Nichols, Man, Myth, and Monument. When we compare the information from archeology, oral and written history and — most interesting of all — myth, what do we find? According to Nichols’ careful study we learn that some elements agree and other leave us with continuing uncertainty.

toodearPamela Hansford Johnson, Too Dear for My Possessing. In this early novel we hear about the early struggles of a young writer and art critic. He is in a place we have been in other novels — London between the wars and the literary set and a rocky marriage. The lost love is a bit too romaticized for my taste.

jeremyWinston Graham, Jeremy Poldark. I continue on, reading the third of the series of Poldark novels set in late 18th century Cornwall. We have mining, ship wrecks, a court trial, family feuds and more. Great characters and good reading.

drowningRoss MacDonald, The Downing Pool. Private eye, tough guy who seeks justice, corruption in California stuff. Not very enjoyable, but I tried to read it in a spirit of mockery of that tradition.

trollopeRuth apRoberts, Tollope: artist & moralist. The book shown is an English edition of a book published in the U.S. as The Moral Trollope. Whatever the title the book is an excellent survey of Trollope’s often unappreciated artistry as a novelist. I am reflecting on the many pleasures I have had from reading Trollope, and I hope to post about him soon.



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