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.


Centaurs

May 12, 2015

CentaurIn the world of myth we meet human and animal combinations. Man and goat combine to form satyrs who rape. The sirens are not seductive women as we now tend to think, but rapacious birds with women’s heads. Or put the woman’s head on a lion and add some wings and we make a sphinx who will ask us terrible questions and eat us if we give the wrong answer.

In this mythic world, the centaur has been a puzzle to me. Comprised of a horse’s body with the torso and head of a man, the combination seems less fearsome than those other creatures, yet danger is implied. I have been thinking about centaurs while reading Marianne Nichols’ Man, Myth, and Monument. In it she does what I attempted less skillfully in some of my Greek lectures: examine history, prehistory, archeology and myth to see the connections. How do archeological diggings and myth explain each other? “Is there some interrelatedness between myth, monument and history?” Nichols asks, and answers, “I think yes.”

Nichols clearly identifies the problem I sensed when thinking about centaurs. After pointing out that the centaur’s “very looks suggest a blurred image of horse and rider,” she does on to say:

He has the head and torso of a man; the body, legs, tail, and hooves of the horse. The duality in his appearance is consistent with a duality between his animal or natural attributes and his human or acculturated ones. Never are both sets of characteristics combined in one centaur myth; instead, stories and centaurs alike tend to fall into two groups. The first group lives beyond the northern limits of the cultivated mainland…. These centaurs are wild, anarchic figures, likely to bring chaos into settled living habits.

Not all centaurs are wild.

Best known of all the centaurs is Cheiron, who personifies the contradiction of all these natural or horselike qualities. He is gentle, law-abiding and wise; skilled in the arts of the bow and the lyre; a healer, a prophet, and the famous teacher of famous heroes.

Cheiron with the young Achilles

Cheiron with the young Achilles

These remarks follow on a careful analysis of the early settlement of Greece. The earliest settlers were farmers; their domestic animals were sheep and goats. Then tribes who spoke Greek came, and with them came horses.

It is impossible to overstress the impact of the horse. The changeover from purely agricultural pursuits to those of aristocratic warfare was massive and nearly instantaneous. The impact of horses on the imaginations of the Greek peoples themselves must have been equally overwhelming. For Greek myths are filled with horses.

Not just the Greeks! One is reminded of Cortez and his men, few in number but with armaments and horses, and how they intimidated the natives of Mexico.

ParthenonCentaurI can take this insight to Greece’s surviving monuments. On the east side of the Parthenon the metope panels above the outer columns depict scenes of the battle between the centaurs and the Lapiths, when the centaurs violently disrupted a wedding feast. They represent disorder, as seen by a settled people following established custom.

There are no benign centaurs on the Parthenon, but there are horses. These horses have human riders and take part in the procession depicted in the frieze above the inner columns. The horses are vigorous but well controlled as they take part in an orderly process. Some of the scholars who dispute the interpretation of the procession as the one at the time of the Panathenaic Festival point out that horses did not, in fac,t participate. Maybe so, but the horse and rider combined represent the power of the Greek warrior and are included in the celebration.

ParthenonFrieze


To the Finland Station

May 3, 2015

finlandA couple of years ago I got involved with Emma Goldman and her anarchist friends  and their efforts to achieve a better world for everyone. I liked Emma for her feminism and her literary directness, but anarchism not so much. I engaged, not very successfully with a commenter who didn’t think I got anarchism right.

It was fun while it lasted, but I don’t want to go there again. I learned that in order to achieve political anarchy we need a revolution. Now comes Edmund Wilson with To the Finland Station to give us 500 pages packed with revolutions (starting with the French), the historians of revolutions, the theorists of revolutions, as well as of Marxism and its actors and interpreters. His portraits of Marx, Engels, Lenin and Trotsky are compelling, but don’t hold me to the details of what they thought and did. I surely have not got it right.

The title, To the Finland Station, is a reminder of Lenin arrival by train in St. Petersburg during World War I. Lenin came to bring clarity to a confused situation, insisting single-mindedly on peace, bread and land. Wilson published his book in 1940; he speaks of Trotsky in the present tense, so this must have been before his murder in Mexico. Still he knows that there are problems. In an after-summary he says, “Marxism is in relative eclipse. An era in its history has ended.”

Based on his own book, Wilson should not have been surprised. He is at pains to show that a successful revolution benefits some group or class. The revolutionary leaders promise much, but then restore order in their own favor. A bourgeois revolution may overthrow the control of the aristocracy but do little for the working class. Also, a revolution is followed by a reaction. The pendulum swings.

Wilson divides To the Finland Station into three major sections:

  • The historians of the French Revolution
  • The development of Marxist communism in 19th century Europe
  • The leaders of the Russian Revolution.

I gained something from each of these topics, but probably not what the author intended.

Let’s start with the French. Wilson is less interested in the Revolution itself than he is in the historians’ reactions to it. Their descriptions and appraisals reflected their own biases as to what France out to be. Further, during this period, the very idea of what a revolution is shifted.

The French bourgeoisie, who in the great Revolution had seized power from the feudal aristocracy, had, through all the readjustments of the forms and accouterments of government and in the teeth both of monarchist reaction and of socialist working class revolt, maintained its position as the dominant class…. The word “revolution” was coming to connote working-class interference from below with bourgeois property arrangements. The nineteenth century in France was a great literary period…. But this literature, for all the immense range in it of the social imagination, was no longer a revolutionary literature.

I don’t know French literature well enough to dispute what Wilson says, but I have been reading novels in Zola’s great cycle set in the time of Napoleon III, and Wilson has helped to understand them better. Zola clearly portrays the conflicts of the various classes and their ideologies. I was moved, for example, by his description of the Paris commune and the fighting in Le Debacle. He understands the working class and their needs but he knows, as he writes, that their revolutionary efforts are doomed to failure.

In the section about the development of Marxist theory, Wilson carefully describes the various hairsplittings and then points out that all is based on the Hegelian dialectic and that, in turn, is a matter of faith. (And some critics say that Wilson has got the dialectic all wrong. Sounds theological to me.) So too is the invoking of “history” as both an explanation and a moral guide. If the inevitable workings of history are going to proceed as they must – rather like the Greek concept of Fate – then why are we obliged to do anything? If I learned anything from the chapters on LaSalle, Marx, Engels, Bakunin and others, it is that socialism is a complex beast with multiple brains and appendages, from which we choose those we find most compatible. Wilson summarizes Babeuf:

The cause of revolutions is the bending beyond what they can bear of the human springs of society. The people rebel against the pressure, and they are right, because the aim of society is the good of the greatest number. If the people still finds itself bent double, it doesn’t matter what the rulers say: the revolution is not finished yet.

Not much dialectic there.

The final section is not so much about the Russian Revolution of 1917 as the Russian revolutionaries who came to the fore during at that time, Lenin and Trotsky especially. The biographical account is fascinating. I had been charmed by the Trotsky portrayed in the movie Frida, where he has an affair with the Mexican artist Frida Kahlo and Barbara Kingsolver’s novel The Lacuna about the same affair and Trotsky’s subsequent murder. Wilson’s Trotsky is not charming, but rigid, scary and doctrinaire.

Lenin was moved to rebuke Trotsky during the period of which I have spoken and which was the occasion of their only serious falling-out, for his addition to “intellectualistic formulas that fail to take in account the practical side of the question”…. And it is as a hero of their faith in Reason that Trotsky must figure for us…. But Marx. After all, is not Euclid, you may be able to calculate to some extent in moments of revolution what Trotsky was so fond of describing as the parallelogram of social forces; but to mold the living growth of society you must be aware of what people want.

To the Finland Station is a rich plum cake of a book from which the reader can pull out many things. I couldn’t digest everything I found in it, but some parts rewarded my attention. Marxism repeats the problem I had with anarchy. I relate to the people and their literature, but the ideas not so much. Philosophy courses taught me that every system has flaws. We choose on an ethical or human basis, not because we are persuaded by the logical beauty of the dogma.

 


What I Read in April 2015

April 30, 2015

sweetheartKaren Joy Fowler, The Sweetheart Season. I very much enjoyed this entertaining account of the girls from the cereal test kitchen and their season on out-of-any-league girls’ baseball. The year is 1947 and the men are scarce in this small town. Maybe girls from out of town in snappy uniforms will attract them.

withoutusAlan Weisman, The World without Us. No one doubts that human beings have changed the planet. If we were to suddenly disappear, would it revert to some earlier natural state? Weisman performs the thought experiment and it is a compelling story. But we are not leaving — at least not right now — so we have to continue to live in the world as we have made it.

LadyAudleyMary E. Braddon, Lady Audley’s Secret. She is young and beautiful and charming too, if you like them girlish and a little bit silly. So what is Lady Audley’s secret? In this mid-Victorian thriller, a diligent young man seeks the answer because she is as dangerous as she is beautiful.

scarecrowMichael Connelly, The Scarecrow. I am continuing my project to read the complete works of Michael Connelly. Now I am up to 2009. This is not a Harry Bosch mystery, but does feature reporter Jack McEvoy and FBI agent Rachel Walling, both of whom we have met before. The Scarecrow did it.

romania-kingfisher_00426709Rumer Godden, Kingfishers Catch Fire. A young English widow takes her children to live what she expects will be a simple and inexpensive life in a Kashmiri village. She is not a villager and they know it. Godden’s novel depicts cultural misunderstanding as it works itself out in the lives of real people.

BechJohn Updike, Bech: A Book. Updike, a productive writer from Massachusetts by way of Pennsylviania and a Protestant enjoys adopting the personna of Bech, a no-longer-productive writer from Manhattan by way of Manhattan and a Jew. It is amusing enough, but not convincing. As a long time Updike fan, I know he can do better than this. Also this book has one of the ugliest covers I have seen in a long time.

nymphMargaret Kennedy, The Constant Nymph. Novelist Kennedy has me in her spell and this is the third of her novels I have read. It is the best known, but I thought Together and Apart had more bite. Reviewers treat this book as the story of a great love, thwarted, but I read it as a portrayal of the artistic temperament, a compelling mixture of beauty and cruelty.

iceageMargaret Drabble, The Ice Age. It is England in the mid 1970’s, the ice age for liberal hopes and middle class dreams. Marriages, plans and lives are rearranging themselves in view of the advances of an indifferent icy progress. Well told, but failed to engage me strongly.

finlandEdmund Wilson, To the Finland Station. Comes the revolution, Wilson’s account of the after-effects of revolutions beginning with the French and proceeding through the Bolsheviks in Russia has prepared me for the inhabitable disappointments experienced by all true believers. The history and personalities are fascinating, the minutiae of Marxist theory are not.

 

 

 

 


The World without Us

April 24, 2015

withoutus

In recent programs celebrating the Hubble telescope we see how absurdly big the universe is and how absurdly small we are within in. Yet we have the arrogance to take those pictures and speculate about what they mean to us tender creatures on our small planet. In his “thought experiment” The World without Us Alan Weisman asks what it is that we mean to planet earth. If we were all six or seven billions of us to quietly and bloodlessly disappear, what would became of the planet then?

I have lived in New England for many years. The hills here are thickly wooded and only the very best valley land is farmed. It all looks very natural, with succession growth and the return of deer and wild turkeys. Since the wolves have been exterminated in the East, coyotes have come by way to Canada to take their place. Walk in the woods and you see cellar holes and stone fences and old apple trees, apples not being native to this part of the world. Once people farmed here and Connecticut was over 80% cut over before better land in the Midwest made farming unprofitable and the woods returned. It all seems benign. We leave; the trees come back. An ecologist explains,

It’s fortunate, he adds, that New England’s farmers left before nonnative plants flooded America. Before exotic trees could spread across the land, native vegetation again had a roothold on their former farmlands. No chemicals had been spaded into their soils; no weeds, insects, or fungi here had ever been poisoned to help other things grow. It’s the nearest thing to a baseline of how nature might reclaim cultivated land….

When you examine present-day industrial agriculture, which has changed the soil and related ecology in drastic ways, you understand that New England’s reforestation will not be repeated.

Weisman takes us to many places to consider how we have changed things and whether the changes may be long lasting. Subway tunnels will fill with water. Bridges will fall. Dams will collapse. A few hundred years of decay eliminate many of our proudest works and leave us with a few bronze statues.

The new 97.6 percent zinc penny will leach away if tossed in the ocean, dooming Abe Lincoln’s visage to be filtered by shellfish in a century or so. The Statue of Liberty, however, which sculptor Frederic Auguste Bartholdi hammered from copper sheeting not much thicker, would oxidize with dignity at the bottom on New York Harbor should glaciers ever return to our warming world and knock her off her pedestal.

The changes reflected in urban collapse are quick and easy. Not so quick and not so easy are the fate of nuclear power plants and nuclear waste, however it is stored, and the ocean waters themselves. The oceans are full of plastic and as it degrades to smaller and smaller particles, the organisms eat them until the entire food chain in involved. No one knows the consequences.

If we were leaving, the die off of ocean life would not affect us. But we are not leaving, and that is the terrifying message of The World without Us. The world is with us, and the effects we are having on it are not easily reversed. Just ask anyone who believes that climate change is real and that human activity is causing it.


My Grandfather makes his own way and finds his life work.

April 20, 2015
Emily Tichenor Greider and William Henry Greider, Topeka, Kansas, c. 1940

Emily Tichenor Greider and William Henry Greider, Topeka, Kansas, c. 1940

My father’s father, William Henry Greider, was very much a self-made man. Coming from an abusive home, he left as a teen ager to support himself as a farm laborer in rural Illinois and Kansas. He  sought an education and became a respected teacher and served as a physician in France during World War I. In his old age, he wrote his life story. I am transcribing it, chapter by chapter, for my Greider Clan blog. I have just posted a new chapter. Click here to read his story from the beginning.

FloraTownshipMap

My grandfather worked on the farm of Ira Dickinson [ Section 29] near Manchester, Kansas, and eventually married the girl next door.

As my grandfather continues to tell his life’s story, he changes his name to indicate his growing maturity. He works hard, learns much and chooses his lifelong vocation. If you want to read this new chapter in his life, Click here for From Dawn to Dusk: Bill.


Do You Write?

April 16, 2015
Teaching, not writing, but it satisfies a creative urge.

Teaching, not writing, but it satisfies a creative urge.

“Do you do any writing?’ my daughter asked.

“Yes,” I said, “I write for my blog, probably about six times a month.”

“Oh.” She sounded disappointed. She meant, I think, did I write for publication, did I think about writing a book. I pointed out that my blog was a publication and it brought responses, giving me some sense of who was reading my short essays and how they felt about them. Books? I pointed out that I had self-published four books about American silver. Somehow that didn’t satisfy her. Well, did I ever want to write fiction – a novel? Perhaps at one time, but not now. Again she was puzzled. Why had I lost the desire to be creative? I had majored in English in college, so I must have wanted to be involved with literature.

This entire conversation had taken me by surprise and left me unsettled. There are no short answers to my daughter’s questions. I am 83, soon to be 84. While my inner core is the same inner core I had at 16, my understanding of the world I live in and my attitude toward it have changed a great deal. At 16 I had intellectual aspirations and a very fuzzy focus. I loved to read and my response to literature was strong. By majoring in English I could read, learn of the world of books and also explore other interests – history, philosophy, psychology, art. Growing up in a financially-secure family in a conventional community, I had no career ambitions. I would, I assumed, make a middle class marriage and my husband would support me. Teaching? My family was full of teachers and I was sure that was the last thing I wanted to do.

I wrote poetry, much of it imitative, but with an occasional good phrase. When required, I wrote a story or two. Characters came, dialog was fun, but plotting was difficult. Yet I fancied that someday I would be a writer. Recently, reading Stephen King’s account of his boyhood I saw the striking difference in our attitudes. He always wanted to write, to tell stories, and he darned well needed to make a living at it. I was lah-de-dah about making a living and wrote on assignment – or in an occasional poem when strong emotions overcame me.

One of the things I learned in college was that I did not want to continue with academic literary criticism. It was the time of the New Criticism. One must study the text, and only the text, carefully analyzing every word and ignoring the time, the place, the writer and the public. I learned close and critical reading from this, but I wanted something much broader. I loved the text, but I loved it even more when I looked into where it came from and why. I decided to pursue graduate studies in history because historians can investigate everything, including literature.

Then, in my mid twenties, life got in the way, and in a very big way. I married (too young) and had two children (also too young, but they turned out well just the same) and a constant need to bail a leaky financial boat with any job that came to hand. We had no time or resources for academics or for writing, creative or otherwise. During those hard years I had a concept for a novel. I knew how it started and how it ended; I just had to figure out the middle. But again, I had no time or resources, much less the emotional energy for such a project.

I wrote, however, for my work. I wrote letters, memos, reports, proposals, marketing schemes, and procedures for administrative tasks. I learned to respect the need to be clear, to be not misunderstood. Then, when I became a teacher, I wrote course materials, first for myself and increasingly for others to use. A day of training must have an orderly progression with basic concepts, illustrations, exercises, and then a step up to the next level of complexity. Teaching critiques you in the best way possible. You write it, you use it with live students, you find out what works and what does not work. Then you rewrite and go around again.

Skipping over some years best forgotten, I found myself in my fifties with a secure job, a new husband, a comfortable amount of money, and a little free time. Did I go back to that novel? Not at all. Having moved to Connecticut I began collecting silverplate. It was a major industry in the State at one time and now in a rapid decline. As a would-be historian I was fascinated to be able to acquire and study its artifacts, and so cheaply too. You can learn from objects as well as from words. By the time I retired I was eager to write articles for antiques publications and to assemble my research results into self-published books. This is not creative in the way that a novel or poetry is creative, but the effort to conceive, research, write and publish satisfied my need to create something that no one else had ever made.

We learn by doing. As I became successful at writing articles on subjects as varied as hand-painted china, Shaker chairs, and Arthur Rackham illustrations, I began to feel that I could write something more personal, to slay those demon hard years. I took a series of memoir – or “creative non fiction” – courses. The creative writing courses I had taken in college were very loosely organized – it was up to us to find what we had to say. The courses I now took were more directive. For example, a typical assignment would be to write about an important decision you have made. We read our drafts in class. Since we were all in this together, class members were invariably supportive, but also acute at spotting weaknesses. I did indeed write about conflicts, troubles and decisions. My writings did not conform to any grand plan but they created a distance from past painful events. I put them on the page so that I could let them go.

My final project during those early retirement years was to write an account of my husband’s experiences. Born in a prosperous Hungarian Jewish family, he lost his mother and brother during the Holocaust and barely survived himself to come to this country after the war. Because I had traveled to Hungary with him and met many members of his extended family, I felt I could tell his story as a demonstration of survival. The family has appreciated it, and posting it on the Internet has brought us into contact with several additional relatives.

Then, several years ago, I became a blogger. I started by listing the books I was reading at a book discussion site. The reactions were stimulating and I increasingly added comments about my reading. At that time I was also maintaining a website devoted to my silver books and research. Six years ago I decided to combine my book lists and silver posts into one blog, which became Silver Season/Silver Threads. My business name was Silver Season because we once had an age of gold, but this is the silver season. Silver Season thus became my user name but, when I came to title my blog, I thought Silver Threads was more appropriate for the variety of subjects there. The resulting confusion continues. Later I added a second blog, Greider Clan, as a place to publish family documents, pictures and stories.

My daughter, not surprisingly, wants to write. My advice: you have to figure out what you want to say and who you want to say it to. What I myself want to say is something you may not know or may not have noticed. You don’t know what a spreadsheet is? Wonderful. That makes it possible for me to tell you and to show you. You never heard of Sarasatak? Real people lived there. You are reluctant to read that book? This is what I found in it. I have told it to my students, to my fellow collectors, to my classmates, to my family and, now through the blog, to anyone who will listen. It scratches my own creative itch. I hope that my daughter will find as good a way to scratch hers.

April 14, 2015


Karen Joy Fowler, The Sweetheart Season

April 8, 2015

sweetheart

This novel appears to be about a team of girls who play baseball in 1947, but it is not. It is about the sheer joy of life and language and how things look when you are 19 years old and see neither an available future nor an available (and attractive) husband. It was so much fun to read that I am tempted to go back and start over but will instead immediately seek out another of Karen Joy Fowler’s novels.

I was inching my way through a much-praised novel by one of those Latin American magic realism authors in which young men are sitting around in cafes and having endless conversations and drinking and talking about politics and drinking some more and planning to do whatever it is that their fathers do not want them to do and ogling women and speculating about sex. I realized on page 47 (of 601) that I could not continue. They annoyed me and, what’s worse, they bored me. My own liberation theology tells me that my time is valuable and life is short and I should have some fun. So I took The Sweetheart Season off the shelf and had a wonderful time.

The narrator is telling the story of her mother, Irini, who was a member of the team. It’s not quite a biography because the narrator is not committed to telling us the truth. What she doesn’t know, she will make up. Of her mother,

She was a good parent for the kind of kid I was. Another mother might have believed, and might even have convinced me, that I was untrustworthy, tricky, or evasive. In fact, I was all these things. But was driven primarily by a love of drama. My mother always made it seem like a gift.

We are in small town Minnesota. The War is over, but the men have not come back. A generation of young women work in the cereal mill – and in the Good Housekeeping type kitchen where recipes are developed – and wonder what will become of them. The mill owner forms them into all-girls team to play in neighboring towns as good publicity. They eat a bowl of his cereal before every game and will have an ape as a mascot just as soon as he can sign one up. They usually lose, but that’s not the point. They will wear uniforms and they will travel and these attributes are known to be very attractive to men.

Fowler gives us a wide range of characters, quietly understated. Since Irini’s mother had died years before, she is being brought up by her optimistic but alcoholic father. He takes certain responsibilities seriously and finds it easier to meet them when playing catch.

“…This is the big story, the story of humanity. Throw in a few wars and a few diseases and a few acts of God and you have the history of the world.”

“I just can’t believe that everyone would do that. I don’t believe it. I can’t believe that you believe it.”

….

“So the man makes a lot of sperm and he makes it in his penis. You took your eye off the ball again.”

“Did you say peanuts?”

“No.”

“Oh. I thought you did. Throw me another high one.”

“The woman makes an egg inside her body, but she needs sperm from the man. When the sperm reaches the egg, the egg can begin to grow into a baby. Every baby starts with sperm and an egg. No other way. No exceptions. On a high fly, you have to move to the right like that, but it’s a good idea to practice catching on the right so you learn to catch across your body. On a line drive you won’t have the time to move.”

As previously stated, this is not a novel about baseball. It is about growing up and a small town where all the people who know each other, and what they know is sometimes more than they really want to know, but they have to deal with it or ignore it, usually the latter. Yes, many of them are eccentric but they are seen straight on. It’s up to the reader to do the labeling.

The small problems of their lives are much more interesting than all that muddle in the café. For example, Irini and her friend have their hair done by the local expert.

Margo always looked pretty and Irini’s hair would be all right when she’d had the chance to comb it out for herself. Mrs. Tarken favored hair that didn’t move from one appointment to the next. She used repeated applications of hair spray to achieve the effect, letting each dry before the next coat, as if she were shellacking a table. It would take a boar bristle bush and plenty of muscle to loosen thing up.

Irini has the necessary muscle, developed while playing catch with her father.


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