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.


Trollope on the Net

July 25, 2015

TrollopeNetI took a graduate school course in Victorian Literature, English of course, and dead white male almost exclusively. We read Matthew Arnold and Robert Browning intently and fussed over Carlyle. There was very little interest in what people at that time were actually reading; instead, we looked back from our present wisdom to decide the relevance of what the Victorians chose to write about. The Bronte sisters, George Eliot and Charles Dickens were mentioned, grudgingly, but we didn’t sample their work. Thackeray was modestly admired and we were encouraged to read Vanity Fair.

If the name of Anthony Trollope was ever spoken in graduate school, it went by so quickly it did not register. I had to discover him 20 years later when Public Television broadcast The Pallisers, a couple of dozen episodes of costume drama with superb dialog based on his political novels. I started with the first of them, Can You Forgive Her? and never looked back. I was delighted to find that Trollope wrote so many books because I could anticipate many years of reading pleasure.

As followers of this blog may remember, I recently wrote about Ruth apRoberts’ The Moral Trollope and recommended it to those who want more insight into how Trollope created his narrative magic. Now I recommend another book about his writings, Trollope on the Net by Ellen Moody. The premise of the book is a bit of a gimmick because “the Net” is the Internet.

In October 1995 I proposed, to those people who were on a Trollope list I was on who might want to, that we read a novel by Trollope at the same time. We would do this in a way that would enable us to talk about the novel with a vivid shared memory of the same parts of the text.

The group chose the books to discuss – after much prior discussion of what to discuss – and usually some 20 to 30 readers commented and responded to comments. What Moody offers in her book is a fascinating account of the reading experience itself, as the various participants responded to different events, such as the seduction of a female character.

It was then conversation became vigorous. People care about their views about what is morally good and bad, and they identify with characters in ways that are often shaped by particular, private and sometimes painful experiences: they may be anxious to distance themselves from a particular character or to integrate that character’s experience into their own; they may feel personally threatened or hurt lest something precious to them to taken away if their view of a character is not validated by other readers.

Moody reports on the group response to the following works by Trollope: The Macdermotts of Ballycloran (his first novel, set in Ireland), He Knew He Was Right, The Claverings, Lady Anna, An Autobiography and Can You Forgive Her? Each of these discussions brought to light aspects which I had not considered during my solitary reads and, clearly, this is one of the benefits of group reading and exchange, whether live or on the Net.

Although the group preferred to work from the same editions of each book, this is usually not possible and, in the end, led to an examination of the various 19the century illustrators and what they added to the readers’ reactions to the books. the pictures are line drawings, suitable for black and white reproduction. Early examples tend toward caricature, while in later ones illustrators skillfully use lines to achieve shading and other effects. Some illustrations enhance the text, while others “disrupt” it.

Nevertheless, the sets of drawings I have seen contain memorable detailed expressions of the general images Trollope meant an imagined reader’s mental eye to visualize, and visualizations of subtle ideas Trollope meant his reader to reach for while reading his words. Trollope wrote that John Everett Millais’s illustrations impressed him so strongly that they led him to find and develop implications in his own stories of which he would not have been aware, and many of Millais’s pictures are exquisitely lovely.

Moody includes examples of successful illustrations and goes beyond the Internet discussions to “read” the illustrations for us, showing how the composition and lighting bring out the mood of the illustrated passage.

millais


Willa Cather, The Troll Garden and Selected Stories

July 18, 2015

TrollGardenI have read most of Willa Cather’s novels and have enjoyed them all, but was less acquainted with her short stories. This book includes all the stories in her first published collection (1905), as well as four earlier stories not included in that collection.

The young Willa Cather really felt the need to escape. In story after story the central character leaves the prairie Midwest or returns to it very reluctantly – or when dead. In “The Bohemian Girl”, the renegade son returns, but decides not to claim the land which is his inheritance because he does not want to stay. In “The Sculptor’s Funeral” the body of the sculptor is returned for burial. His success elsewhere is not recognized in his home town, and his father is mocked for having supported him.

He spent enough money on Harve to stock a dozen cattle farms and he might as well have poured it into Sand Creek. If Harve had stayed at home and helped nurse what little they had, and gone into stock on the old man’s bottom farm, they might all have been well fixed.

In “A Wagner Matinee”, the young man in the city honors the aunt who prepared him for life away from the prairie, a life she herself could not escape.

Cather is often described as a writer who celebrated the strength and virtues of prairie life, but there is little of that in this collection. Perhaps she had mellowed by 1913 when she wrote O Pioneers! although, upon reflection that is not a mellow book either. The father of the Alexandra Bergson is broken by the demands of the life and she, when she has restored the family fortunes, is set upon by her narrow-minded and grasping brothers. The man who understands her is the one who escaped to another life. The prototype of Alexandra is found in “The Garden Lodge”. A young woman rejects not the prairie, but poverty and an unstable life. With great self control she succeeds, but her present comfortable life comes at a price. She has a dream,

In the last hour the shadows had had their way with Caroline. They had shown her the nothingness of time and space, of system and discipline, of closed doors and broad waters…. The horror was that it had not come from without, but from within. The dream was no blind chance, it was the expression of something she had kept so close a prisoner that she had never seen it herself; it was the wail from the donjon deeps when the watch slept.

Caroline has harmed herself by not seizing life when she was young, binding herself to a material goal instead. The stories abound in various artistic types – writers, sculptors, painters, singers, composers – who respond to the need to create, to do and be what their inner life directs. The need for escape is twofold. It is the need to leave a harsh environment where there is little grasp of any value but getting and spending. It is even more the need to seek a time and place where the creative force can express itself.


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.

Fallingwater

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.

OakParkHouse

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.

Guggenheim

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.

FLW


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.


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