For information about American silver and for slide shows related to my courses, see the Pages listed on the right.
Bill Bryson, One Summer: America, 1927. Charles Lindbergh flew from New York to Paris, non stop. Babe Ruth hit over 60 home runs. Calvin Coolidge refused to run again. Sacco and Vanzetti were executed. (If they didn’t do what they were accused of, they certainly were anarchists and many people thought they deserved to die.) Bryson mixes fact with commentary in a mix that keeps you reading. What will happen next? What did the public think about it at the time? Do we understand it any better now?
Irene Nemirovsky, Suite Francaise. Namirovsky wrote the first two parts of a planned suite of five pieces in occupied France, in the early years of World War II. Her world and her writing stopped in July of 1942 when she was taken to Auschwitz and gassed. The novel is moving both for what it is and what it could have been. Part I dramatizes the refugee flight from Paris, some of it reminiscent of scenes from Zola’s Le Debacle. Part II was more moving for me: life in a village occupied by German soldiers. Many feel that it is only realism to accommodate and survive while others are unwilling to do so. All suffer and hope for a better day, including the occupiers.
Penelope Fitzgerald, The Blue Flower. This is an unusual and engaging novel, a recreation of the life and romance of Fritz von Hardenberg, who became the poet Novalis. Engaged in philosophy and also aspiring to a remunerative career, he also engaged himself to Sophie. She was 12 when they met, 13 when they were betrothed, and 15 when she died. She was his “Guardian Spirit”. How do you qualify for such a role? You don’t; instead you are chosen by one who has a need for such a spirit. The book is full of wonderful dialog and the characters of two large families who almost become united by marriage.
Dorothy Hughes, Ride the Pink Horse. Described as an example of “terror” from the tough-guy era I found this novel to be a better example of a psychological study of the tough-guy mind itself. A thug from the streets of Chicago seeks his payoff at fiesta time in Santa Fe. The pink horse is a feature of the carousel and anyone may ride who has the money. Our tough guy fails to understand fiesta and, worst of all, he fails to understand himself.
Anthony Trollope, The Vicar of Bullhampton. This novel is middling good Trollope, with its several plots lines braided together in the village of Bullhampton and the activities of its Vicar. The vicar is a righteous man but somewhat prone to irritated, even angry, response to those who just don’t get it. My feminist spirit was irritated, even angered, by Trollope’s gingerly handling of the daughter of the honest miller, a fallen woman who has gone astray in some unspecified sexual away. She seems to have had little pleasure from it and moans too much about how bad she is. Maybe at that time her response would have been so, but Trollope didn’t need to apologize for her quite so much.
Geraldine Brooks, Caleb’s Crossing. In this historical novel, Brooks imagines the story behind the first graduation of an Indian student from Harvard. Caleb crossed over from native American life to an education preparing him to be a Puritan divine, including Latin, Greek and Hebrew. We do not see the world through his eyes, however. This is also the story of Bethia, the young girl who befriends Caleb in boyhood. They do, in fact, befriend each other and he expanded her world view every bit as much as she did his. I found the book moving, but not entirely persuasive.
Lawrence Goodwyn, The Populist Moment: A Short History of the Agrarian Revolt in America. Goodwyn’s account of the late 19th century agrarian populist movement reminds me of the many ways in which history can be reported and interpreted. The failure of populism to achieve its goals was a failure of American democracy, in Goodwin’s view. This failure was caused by the same powerful forces which control political responses today. Control is by obvious means — subversion of the voting process, denial of credit, misleading stories in the press — but most effectively by social assumptions and setting the limits of public discussion.
Ngaio Marsh, When in Rome. If you are Inspector Alleyn, when in Rome you collaborate with the highest levels of the Italian police to trace drug dealers and identify murderers. The local atmosphere of churches and excavated temples is effective and the usual suspects are interrogated in a most gentlemanly way. Marsh has some good-natured fun too, mostly at the expense of the conventional foibles of English tourists and Italian bureaucrats.
Elizabeth von Arnim, The Pastor’s Wife. This novel by the author of Elizabeth and Her German Garden is not about religion. The pastor is a German Lutheran whose only interest is the effect of manure on crops and the wife is an English bishop’s daughter who is delighted to get away from home. Neither understands the other, not in the beginning and not after 10 years of marriage. It is a witty and sad story with plenty of accurate hits on both German and English social idiosyncrasies.
Kingsley Amis, Lucky Jim. Somehow I missed this humorous academic novel from the 1950s the first time around. Now I find it disappointing. The joke of the drinking and its effects becomes wearisome and academia could be any mismanaged work environment — and there are plenty of those. David Lodge, Mary McCarthy, Philip Roth and Alison Lurie have all done it better.
Thomas Hardy, A Pair of Blue Eyes. This is an early Hardy novel, written as a serial before Far from the Madding Crowd. Hardy is at his best when he give us a cast of local characters whose speech and interactions he gets just right. The book is disappointing, however, with its incredibly stupid and naive heroine, the deception of the pig-headed lover theme (reminiscent of Tess, but less effective), and its contrived ending.
Brian Kiteley, Still Life with Insects. This novel is structured on an interesting concept: one man’s records of collecting beetles over the years. Each entry in his journal is associated with a place and with his relationship with his wife, sons, and fellow workers. The writing is insightful, but failed to engage me as the author probably intended. Perhaps I craved more people and fewer bugs.
Mircea Eliade, The Sacred and Profane: The Nature of Religion. My edition of this classic suffers from the author’s obtuse language or from an inept translator. The ideas draw me. What is a sacred time, a sacred space, what is the original nature of “religious man”? Eliade proceeds by telling us what ancient and primitive myths and monuments meant to their human creators. His conclusions are more speculative than he admits and the language suffers from unnecessary Latinisms and awkward terms such as cosmiciation and homologized.
Nancy Mitford, The Blessing. That’s “the blessing” on the cover of Mitford’s entertaining depiction of a marriage between a proper English woman and a very French Frenchman. Money is not the problem, but culture and differing interpretations of fidelity certainly are. The couple are blessed with a son they must raise as a French boy or an English boy or a bit of both. This book is great fun and just when the joke is wearing a bit thin, Mitford has the good sense to supply a happy ending.
Beryl Bainbridge, Forever England. This is not the patriotic paean the title suggests, but Bainbridge’s account of the lives and prospects of six families in the 1980’s England of Margaret Thatcher. Three are in the North and three are in the South; their stories are intermixed with Bainbridge’s own memories of growing up in — and leaving — Liverpool in the North. Family loyalties remain strong but jobs have disappeared and neighborhoods are disintegrating. Some of the cultural and local references puzzled me, but the picture is clear: people are just trying to stay afloat in a sea of change.
Laura Lippman, Life Sentences. Although set in Baltimore, this low-key mystery is not one of the popular Tess Monaghan series. A successful writer of memoirs sets out to write about real people she knew in childhood — and what happened to them. She encounters inconsistent memories and unexpected perceptions. Overly complex plot with too many characters and a rather choppy narrative structure make this less satisfying than Lippman’s other books.
Anne Zouroudi, The Messenger of Athens. I picked up this offbeat mystery because of the setting on a Greek island. The author plays, not too successfully, with the concept of a mysterious stranger who investigates a death and promises justice for a wronged woman. Is investigator Hermes a god in disguise? Does he achieve justice or revenge? The concept does not work and the setting is more depressing than magical.
Diane Johnson, Lulu in Marrakesh. My expectations were high because I enjoyed Johnson’s other novels which delivered shrewd and humorous social comedy, mostly regarding the French and their ways. Lulu goes to Marrakesh as a spy, but I never believed for a minute that any serious agency would employ such an incompetent undercover agent. It is not clear whether Lulu’s reactions to the realities of women’s lives in Morocco are meant to be amusing or just plain sad. They are certainly naive.
Lisa Genova, Left Neglected. The author of Still Alice, Genova uses the novel form to set out the plight of brain-injured sufferer of Left Neglect, the failure of the right side of the brain to perceive signals from the left. Half a picture exists or half a line of print. Only your right leg knows where it is. The characters used to dramatize this situation are mostly convincing. The story is a compelling one and made me realize how fortunate I am to experience both sides of the whole world.
Agatha Christie, And Then There Were None. I picked up this classic Christie (also known as Ten Little Indians) because I recently saw a dramatic production of the ten people isolated on an island and picked off one by one by an unknown executioner. Christie’s narrative techniques of short sentences and paragraphs with action on every page keep you involved in the mystery. The ending of the stage production — obviously changed — was more satisfactory than the message-in-a-bottle ending of the book.
Molly Ivins, Letters to The Nation. Molly Ivins, political writer without peer, provided a series of “Letters to the Nation”, mostly about that animal-that-must-be-explained, the Texas politician. Here is the collection for your delight. About George W. Bush:
You can go along for long periods thinkin’ to yourself, “Don’t agree with him about dog, but he seems like an amiable fellow.” And then he says something that sort of makes your teeth hurt.
Julius Lester, The Autobiography of God. Rabbi Rebecca reads his autobiography and meets God face-to-face. She challenges him about evil in the world, just as Julius Lester challenges us and our theological conventions in this stimulating novel.
George Howe Colt, The Big House. The big house was a summer house on Cape Cod, the seasonal center for a large Boston clan, who found themselvs with more family than money as the generations moved along. This offers us an absorbing picture of what tradition can mean. A diagram of the many cousins would have helped.
Garison Keillor, We Are Still Married. And he is still the voice of Lake Wobegon in this rich mixture of stories, sketches and poems.
Willard Uphaus, Commitment. Uphaus, a peace activist and director of a summer camp in New Hampshire went to prison for a year in 1960 rather than give the names of his guests to investigators. He spent his 70th birthday in jail. Was it worth it? He explains.
Pat Murphy, Falling Woman. A female archaeologist exploring a Mayan site is joined by her daughter — and by a shadowy priestess from the past. Who is crazy here? With good realities of excavation and character and an admixture of appropriate fantasy, Murphy suggests an answer.
Anne Tyler, A Spool of Blue Thread. I enjoy Tyler’s novels of family life in Baltimore. Her voice continues in my head long after I close the book. This is a rare gift in an author, not explainable. With George Eliot, for example, the characters resonate but not the voice. With Dickens, it’s the other way around. This one is middling good Tyler. Her admirers should read it and those who don’t know her work should start with The Accidental Tourist.
Anne Lamott, All New People. Coming of age novel, set in California where everything in changing — ticky tacky houses, parents’ marriages, youthful friendships, time and troubles.
Graham Greene, The Quiet American. A rereading of this classic novel of foreigners in Viet Nam brought some new reactions this time. The beautiful Vietnamese woman seems a cardboard figure now. Can anyone get it right in this unfortunate country?
Myerson & Shealy, eds., The Journals of Louisa May Alcott. Here we have the complete journals, so far as they can be reconstructed from various sources. Like most of us, Alcott enjoyed her life when it worked out as she wanted, felt down when illness took away her pleasures and her ability to work.
M. L. Stedman, The Light between Oceans. Janus, a lighthouse named in honor of the god who looks both forwards and back, is the setting for a story of love and loss. Affecting, but at times contrived and improbable, a baby is lost and then found, loved and then lost.
Julius Lester, Lovesong. Lester, a successful black writer, often seen as a civil rights activist converted to Judaism in mid life. It was an expression of who he was, not a contradiction. Others did not see it that way. In this memoir, he explains.
How long have I been blogging here? I looked back at old posts and find that I started in 2009, more or less. I had been posting some comments at an earlier group site but became dissatisfied with it, so started Silver Season/Silver Threads. In March and April of 2009 I pasted in my reading lists from the earlier site and started blogging here. I also transferred silver reference material from a previous website. That was over six years ago.
Every month I open a draft post and enter each book as I complete the reading. My earlier ambition to post a longer comment on each book faded rather quickly, but for a long time I posted perhaps eight times a month, then six and, more recently about four. I’m reading about as much as ever, but talking about it less. This month I celebrated my 84th birthday. Yes, celebrated, because if you can live this long and and be reasonably compos mentis, it is an occasion to celebrate. Still, I think it is time to mostly retire. I expect to continue to post monthly reading reports — they are a convenient way to look back and see what I have read. I’ll continue with family posts at my other blog greiderclan.wordpress.com. If there is something I really want to say, I may say it here, but don’t expect too much.
It has been my great pleasure to meet other book lovers here and at other blogs. Look out! If I am currently reading your blog, I may have more energy now to comment at length. Meanwhile. you can still stop by once a month to see what I have been reading.
World Fellowship is an adult camp near Conway, New Hampshire. Every several years, my husband and I spend a few days there, enjoying the mountain air, the good food, and the fellowship of others also interested in world peace, equal justice under law, and preserving the environment. Speakers address a wide variety of topics from why we should not invade Iraq (before we did) to the welfare of local loons (birds, not people). All of this was too radical during the McCarthy era and Louis Wyman, the then attorney general of New Hampshire, began an investigation of World Fellowship and its director, Willard Uphaus.
Willard Uphaus was a peace activist, working with and for church groups and labor organizations, who became director shortly after the camp was founded. During Uphaus’ meetings with Wyman he answered his questions and invited him to World Fellowship. Wyman demanded a great deal of information, including a list of all those who had been guests of World Fellowship. Uphaus refused.
“The attempt of the attorney general of New Hampshire to use the State Subversive Activities Act of 1951 to harass and intimidate me and to destroy the work of the World Fellowship of Faiths by demanding the names and addresses of our 1954 guests, the identity of our employees, and the correspondence with speakers, is utterly contrary to the cherished tradition of religious freedom and peaceable assembly enshrined in the First Amendment of the Constitution of the United States. This action is a direct invasion of Christian conscience, an authority higher than that of the State, because my conscience tells me that to give the names and addresses of people who, to my knowledge, have never done anything to injure their country and who came to World Fellowship solely for vacation, recreation and friendly discourse, would turn me into a contemptible informer. To do so would subject them to possible harassment and embarrassment and add to the general suspicion and hysteria that prevail.”
He took his stand on conscience like Thoreau and Gandhi and Martin Luther King and, like them, he had to pay the price for his civil disobedience. He lost in the New Hampshire courts, the New Hampshire Supreme Court and, finally in the U.S. Supreme Court. In his dissent in the case, Justice Black said,
“My guess is that history will look with no more favor upon the imprisonment of Willard Uphaus than it has upon Udall, Bunyan or the many others like them. For this is another of that ever-lengthening line of cases where people have been sent to prison and kept there for long periods of their lives because their beliefs were inconsistent with the prevailing views of the moment.”
At the age of 69, Uphaus entered Boscawen prison for a year, having his 70th birthday there. In the tradition of other prisoners of conscience, while there he wrote Commitment. He explains his commitment by telling the story of his life, born on a farm in Indiana, teaching and attending college, exploring religious studies at Yale, and working in and for a variety of good causes. The opening sections of the book are quite interesting, a very American story of an unsophisticated but intellectually curious young man exploring the world and deciding what it means to him. The middle part drags – too many organizations, too many names, too many causes and petitions – but certainly gives a strong sense of a man who is both a worker and a dreamer. The final portions of the book are a moving account of how the court system failed him and how his experiences in prison enlarged his views. Uphaus looked upon his fellow prisoners as more subject to injustice than he. Uphaus had legal representation as well as friends to fight for him; they did not. When asked to say grace for the prisoners on Thanksgiving, he said it this way.
Oh, Lord, we pray for a society that calls itself Christian, yet blights the flower of youth, and then casts off those who have fallen by the way. Somehow, O God, touch the callous of heart, who, seeing the fallen victims of our social sins, pass coldly by on the other side without penitence for their share in a common woe. Our Father, give us the strength and vision to recast the foundations of our present order so that all may be upheld by the sense of sharing in the good life. Give us the wisdom to see life whole.
Willard Uphaus is gone now, but I can sadly report that not much has changed. His words still speak to conscience today.
This post is dedicated to all those who have ever read The New Yorker.
If you know Garrison Keillor only through his News from Lake Wobegon on the radio or perhaps by seeing him in the movies or on TV, you have missed him as a writer. This collection of over 70 stories, sketches, poems and pieces is impossible to sum up. In most of them I hear his voice behind the words; in some I hear another voice. Sometimes I like it, but sometimes I prefer the one from Lake Wobegon.
Here is a teaser from a piece called The Talk of the Town Squad. He imagines a great community celebration and parade honoring “óur own industry, the unsigned-writing trade”:
A fine autumn day in busy Midtown, the smell of burning pretzels in the air, and as we trudge east on 44th, slightly slumped from months of bending over the crop, the sight of crowds behind police barricades and of television crews and the strains of journal music put a spring in our step, we run a comb through our hair, we begin to walk tall: our day of days, come at last. The honor guard of editors swings by, carrying ceremonial carbines and Old Glory (with a few stars and stripes deleted), and the Newsstand Bank, playing the “Washington Post March,” followed by crack typing-drill squads, their Underwoods draped with fresh ribbons. Then come dozens of marching units from all segments of the anonymous-print industry: advertising men and women jogging hup-hup-hup-hup in their smart gray parachute pants and name-brand T-shirts; authors of catalogue copy, instruction manuals, form letters, autobiographies of famous illiterates; Times editorial writers, in their familiar long black robes rented by the hour; an army of editorial assistants and researchers; the Obituary Guild; the book-jacket brigade; the bumper-sticker battalion; the press-release regiment; and, toward the tail end of the procession, us, our bunch, the tiny Talk of the Town squad, marching triple-spaced and chanting, “Roses are red, so are
If you ask me whether or not I believe in God, sometimes I say yes and sometimes I say no. It depends on what I think you mean by “god”. Is it the old man with the beard and the outstretched hand shown to us by Michelangelo or it is something like a New Age aura? Once, when I tried to explain to a friend the Eternal that I believed in, she said in the scornful tone of one for whom true faith was hard work, “Why anyone can believe that!” Right. Time will pass and the earth will spin and gravity – whether Newton or Einstein’s version – will continue to gravitate.
So what god does Rabbi Rebecca Nachman meet in Julius Lester’s novel, The Autobiography of God? First, before we meet god, we get to know Rebecca, who has discharged herself from her dwindling congregation and become a counselor at a liberal, secular college in Vermont. She was wounded as a child, and it still shows in a limp. I sense a certain defiance in her reluctance to explain, her interest in dressing fashionably.
Was it not adorning God when she adorned herself? Despite her limp, and the nose that was a little too large, the hair just a bit too curled, the eyes that were a little too round, the lips that were a little too full, and yes, the breasts that seemed ready to burst with too much milk (though that would never happen), she took the time to take what God had given her and transform it into a vessel of beauty.
In her Vermont life, Rebecca maintains a symbolically empty house, refusing to engage, until events engage her. A Torah scroll arrives; she is visited by a representative of the dead Jews who once possessed it; she is challenged to read the autobiography which God has prepared just for her, written in Biblical Hebrew on the finest parchment.
Gradually, over centuries, I watched as humans learned that they were spirit as well as material, and they saw me as the source of that spirit. In every language they were ascribing names to me – Legba, Elohim, Shaddai, Zeus, Brahman, Atman, Juno, Athena, Zarathustra, and on and on.
Rabbi Rebecca is not the only lonely one.
Seeing people murdered in the name of God and Love made me lonelier than I had ever been.
Loneliness led to self-expression.
Writing is a bridge from one solitude to another, and that was what I craved – to be relieved of the burden of my aloneness and share the truth of who I was with another.
What was the truth of who he was? I won’t tell you. To meet god face-to-face with Rebecca and hear his explanation of the problem of evil in the universe, read this novel.
It is a very nervy book. Maimonides says that we should not try to define or describe God because we may get it wrong and then we will be worshipping a false god, an idol. Yet, Lester, a black male writer who converted to Judaism, offers us a fantasy in which god finally appears in unexpected form to a white woman who was born Jewish. As I said, it’s a very nervy book. Lester partakes fully in the Jewish zest for scriptural disputation and I enjoyed it thoroughly.
In our family we take cousins seriously. The son-in-law of my husband’s second cousin recommended Julius Lester to me. Thank you, Cousin Sol.