Category Archives: Books

The Door: On keeping your house, and letting others go

I’m reading “The Door” by Magda Szabo, a book from the 1980s that was only recently translated from Hungarian into English.

So far, a great slice of life from that country, and that period (inclusive of the decades leading up to it) centered around an educated writer and the eccentric and opinionated anti-intellectual woman who becomes her housekeeper. Great tastes of “peasant” perspective vs. educated citizenry during tumult in Eastern Europe. Their relationship is wonderful in its complexity and its mutual challenges.

Anyway, I’ve been poor at recording favorite things about books as I read them, so here are a few snippets of lovely language and concepts I wanted to save (all emphasis mine).

On Keeping Your House As You like

“So extreme was the overall impression created by the apartment that our visitors reacted in one of two ways. Either they were paralysed with amazement, or they were overcome with laughter. Even the walls of our kitchen were something else. Instead of wallpaper or paint, we had oilcloth covered in squirrels, geese and other poultry.

Most of our visitors were artists. For them, the place was a familiar world of gentle lunacy. My ultra-correct relatives, with no fantasy life of their own, I had written off long ago.”

On Letting Others Go

The housekeeper, Emerence, explaining herself after the writer is shocked to realize Emerence knew their elder mutual friend Polett was going to commit suicide after years of feeling lost:

“Have you ever killed an animal?”

I said I had never killed anything.

“You will. You’ll put Viola [their dog] down. You’ll have him injected when the time comes. Try to understand. When the sands run out for someone, don’t stop them going. You can’t give them anything to replace life. Do you think I didn’t love Polett? That it meant nothing to me when she’d had enough and wanted out? It’s just that, as well as love, you also have to know know how to kill.”



100 Books of 2012

Dog ball
“Stop reading. Please?”

Nice, wish-list-filling* collection via The New York Times.

Well go on, get reading then.

*I have fewer and fewer gift requests as time goes on, so I just end up giving people book titles. Still working my way through my Borders closeout pile.

Currently reading (but not on that list, and not from 2012 anyway): “Half Moon,” Douglas Hunter’s book on Henry Hudson’s wild, orders-defying journey to probe the Atlantic coast for a Northwest Passage.

Great stuff with nice explorer history and Spain-Portugal-Dutch-Papal-English geopolitics and New York geology and oh-hey-I-know-that-coast maps thrown in.

That Kind of Experience Will Change a Man

I was told that I can better relate to (and sometimes write for) a colleague because of some shared Eastern European heritage. (The colleague is directly from there, as was my father.)

I didn’t disagree. “They are more direct,” it was suggested — and this too I generally find to be true. Eastern Europeans tend to possess a more blunt approach, or at least one that doesn’t tiptoe around other people’s feelings. (This does not describe me, yet I somehow appreciate it in others.)

Anyway, I’ve long theorized that part of this tendency, as well as — in Czechs, at least — a more fatalist, absurdist sense of humor, stems from generations and generations of being tread on by forces (invading empires, usually) well beyond their control.

I compare it to family members who had lived through the Great Depression in the U.S. “They’re different,” people would say, whether referring the tendency to save paper bags and twist ties and anything else, or to a generally more cautious outlook on life. And that’s just one generation that lived through the Depression. Imagine if generation upon generation lived through Turkish invasions, Austro-Hungarian domination, the occasional German occupation, and throw in a World War or two for good measure. Maybe even a mass human rights atrocity or two.

Anyway, I’ve been reading “The 900 Days” by Harrison Salisbury, the definitive (and uplifting!) book about the German siege of Leningrad, when they literally attempted to blockade, freeze and starve all of Leningrad into submission. (As we would later learn about the Germans in World War II, slaughtering an entire block of civilians was just part of the playbook.) The book is also a major source for the excellent fictional novel, “City of Thieves.”

In the middle of the winter siege, a radio man showed up for duty to find a new T-shaped broom handle, which his boss told him was to support him at the microphone in case he was too weak to stand. “And you must read,” the director said. “In thousands of apartments they are awaiting your voice.” (More on this in a moment.)

‘The First Violin is Dying’

The following is descriptive of what I’m talking about in many ways, and reminiscent of any random, casually melodramatic health update my father ever gave me:

“The wooden T was not just a gadget. Vladimir Volzhenin, the poet, had collapsed in the studio from hunger after reading his verses to the Leningrad public. He died a few days later. Aleksandr Yankevich, his face black, and breathing with difficulty, read Makarenko’s “Pedagogical Poem” over the radio, although he was so ill [a colleague] stood by in case he was unable to finish. Ivan Lapshonkov sang a role in Rimsky-Korsakov’s ‘Snow Maiden’ … he was so frail he had to support himself with a cane. By nightfall he was dead.”

That passage goes on and on. The dedication is admirable, the description almost amusingly matter-of-fact. (Maybe it’s only amusing if you’ve had your dad describe a cough and two broken femurs with equal levels of passive it’s-fine-but-no-it’s-horrible.)

Another echo of my father’s matter-of-fact approach to jarring news (as long as it wasn’t news that shamed the family; then it was avoided like a censor), is when they would dictate the:

“…regular weekly report on the condition of the orchestra: ‘The first violin is dying, the drummer died on the way to work, the French horn is near death.'”

When power was finally cut to the radio transmission in this city populated by an ever-decreasing population of starving, freezing, dying people:

“People from all ends of the city began to appear at Radio House, to ask what the matter was and when the station would be back on air. An old man tottered in [from the other side of town]: “Look here,” he said. “If something is needed, if it is a matter of courage — fine. Or even if it is a matter of cutting the ration. [Note: They’d cut rations repeatedly all winter. People resorted to eating wallpaper to supplement their daily slice of bread.] That we can take. But let the radio speak. Without that, life is too terrible. Without that, it is like lying in the grave. Exactly that.”

‘Nothing-to-Do Was More Terrible Than a Bombing Raid’

Okay, one more excerpt that really gets to the heart of art and human response under such repressive conditions, which was sadly just a different kind of repression than they faced under Soviet totalitarianism:

The surviving writers of the city would spend days planning a “Leningrad Speaking” or “One Day in Leningrad” kind of book that would depict all the people went through during the siege. Merely conceiving the book helped them survive. When it became apparent no censor would approve of actually creating the book, one writer said:

“Tell him that writers are dying without this work, that they cannot live without it.

Ketlinskaya knew this. Living in the cold, hungry, dark city, people themselves together by the consciousness of being needed. They began to die when they had nothing to do. Nothing-to-do was more terrible than a bombing raid.

But try as she would she could not get permission for the book. She became convinced that though no one really opposed the book, no one wanted to take responsibility for approving it; the old Russian problem: bureaucracy.

Yeah, and for many Eastern Europeans, that was just the peacetime problem.

Revisiting the Canyon, Where Young Males Do Silly Things

Boy, that's eep
Where nature infuriatingly imitates postcards

So at long last, after wondering what it would be like to go back, I saw the Grand Canyon again. I was not disappointed. I’ve always wanted to take Mrs. Fall of Because there, and we went with BH, our dearest mutual friend in the world, so it had the vibe of one of those “trips of a lifetime.” We weren’t able to hike down below the rim much at all, so this was a taste good and long enough to make sure she comes back for more.

I keep telling myself I’ll write more on the experience — I’m overcome with so many feelings when I visit that place — but for now I just have time to record a bit about a book we bought when we were there.

Continue reading Revisiting the Canyon, Where Young Males Do Silly Things

Reichstagsabgeordneter, or fun with long German titles

Cemetary in Prague
Very old cemetary in the Jewish Quarter of Prague

Picture…sent back live
Picture…spangled new age
Letter…on your doorstep
Called up…for your country

Horror…can’t believe your eyes
Mommy…they’re taking me away

~ Killing Joke, “Tomorrow’s World

I’m reading this book, “The Vertigo Years,” about Europe between the turn of the century and WWI, capturing the weird mood and fast-changing age and anxiety before the old aristocracy “led” thousands of poor saps into a lengthy pointless war, the effects of which the world spent the rest of the 20th century poorly cleaning up.

(If you consider that WWII was the 20th century’s most far-reaching event — Cold War, nukes, Holocaust, military-industrial complex, yada yada yada — and then consider WWII wouldn’t have happened without WWI and its absurd conclusion, and then consider WWI happened because a bunch of landed rich dudes who’d ruled Europe for centuries were ill-equipped to adjust to life where capital became ever-so-slightly more diffused to people who actually produced things rather than people who were just born out of the right womb…then you totally get the ironies of the human condition that make me enjoy Killing Joke so much.)

Here is a nice review of the book in The Guardian, including this fair statement:

The vertiginous atmosphere of a tumbling prewar society – at the same time exciting and frightening – is described with atmospheric clarity. The combination of easily worn scholarship, fascinating character studies and fluent story-telling that is often very funny makes this a hugely enjoyable and illuminating book.

Anyway, I post today to quote something completely less significant but really funny, about how Germany’s growing middle class was increasingly less impressed by nobility and more by civil titles [bracket notes are mine]:

While many middle-class people were imperialists and believed in the greatness of their culture and their fatherland, the recognition they were striving for was not the Emperor’s to give [Note: i.e. not nobility titles like duke and baron and all that tripe.] German businessmen were more interested in the title of Kommerzialrat, the civilian, non-noble title of “Commercial Councillor,” an emblem of dependability and honourable conduct, than in knighthood. Medical doctors had an eye on the title Sanitätsrat; lawyers and judges hoped to attain the grade of Justizrat, and so on. […] This hierarcy of civilian titles […] were taken so seriously in Germany that even wives were addresses with their husbands’ titles: Frau Professor, etc.

Moreover, with proverbial German industriousness, these titles could be multiplied, in which case they would be used in full at every official occasion. Thus, a simple medical student could dream of working his way up to a practice, teaching at a university and receiving an honorary degree there, being eventually elected to the Reichstag and then retiring, at which point he would become known (and regularly addressed in writing) as Herr Reichstagsabgeordneter a.D., Sanitatstrat Professor Doktor Doktor (honoris Causa), and even further, as far as his enthusiasm for committees, exams and official posts would carry him.

In a characteristically German way, the burghers had emancipated themselves from the constraints of the old hierarchy by creating a new one.

Awesome. (Well, it’s awesome to me, anyway.)

Brain Dump

Brain Dump
The vernal equinox is here, and I’m cherishing the very pollen-filled air that will soon be is already poisoning my sinuses. Work is piling up, both full-time and freelance, but another issue of the newsletter is done. And ‘tis the season to carve a little more time so I can bike to work. I cannot complain. Except…

…So many threads going through my head lately, none of which I’ve been able to coherently put down on paper (or screen, as it were). It’s funny, when I started the proverbial “blog,” it wasn’t in response to the random requests from friends to put their pet topics online (“You should start a site about ____ and get it out there!”): Be it politics, hockey, organizing a weekly soccer game, or the maddening inadequacies of Hanes undershirts, I just didn’t think I could dig up the time nor conjure the passion to give a single issue the attention it deserves.

Instead, I started with the purpose of processing all the random musings that build up in my head with no place to go. “All topics herein” is, of course, the recipe for an unread blog. But that is both not the point and also hopefully keeps away the cultists whose sole existence is to flame others online. The Alliance of Armed Basket Weavers won’t sacrifice the time to bother you if you don’t bother to cover basket weaving often enough, even if all you do is rip them on the occasions you broach the topic.

Alas, I’ve become addicted to this form of self-therapy. Now whenever I get too busy or brain dead to process things in written form, all this crap backs up in my brain even worse than before. Without this fix, I’m a mental mess. Vonnegut said the problem with humans is their brains are too big, and I believe him. God, I believe him.

But ready or not, I need a mental fix. So here’s a brain dump of recent issues and threads that need unloading, some of which I hope will prod me to revisit later on. It’s mortality, music, myspace, and human origins, to name a few…

Last week P-Lisa’s uncle died suddenly of a heart attack while he was mowing the lawn. He was able to call 911 but that was it. He was 64. His son, an only child, was not ready for this (obviously!), having recently married and looking forward to the next phase of life with his dad. In situations like this, it always feel like it came “too soon.” But he gave a courageous, touching eulogy. It was clear father had passed his life’s messages on to his son before it was too late.

…and Dad-ing
Then you have the father who speaks of dying like it’s resealing the deck: it’s gotta be done someday soon, dammit — not before dinner with the Czrviks, of course, but perhaps afterward. Yes, that’s right, my dad called again last week and threatened to come for a Stateside visit in May. He’s made this threat each of the last four years without delivering, but this time he sounds serious. He’s got dates. His health, which has been variously and vaguely fading in recent years, has apparently rebounded. Which concerns him, of course. He said, “I’m afraid I will need a new reason to be dead before I am 80.” He’ll be 79 this year.

Perhaps not coincidentally, this man who says he cannot read our letters without a NASA-level magnifying glass (bought from the catalog, “Things You Never Knew Existed!”) claims he hopes to be able to drive a car when he visits. “To kill visit people and run errands,” he says. I would advise staying off the roads of St. Louis in May. If you live near a thoroughfare, you might move to a friends’ for a few weeks, too.

I swear if he really comes this time, I’m taking him on a grand show-and-tell to all my friends just to prove that he is real.

Requiem Music
Amid the death shock and post-funeral malaise, Arcade Fire has again played prominently on the personal soundtrack. Not just their first album (titled “Funeral,” no less) but also their new one, which I just bought, which features epic pipe organs in one song, “Intervention.” It’s great to have in your arsenal a song that features awe-inducing church organs without the standard package of hymn-like fire-and-brimstone lyrics. Easy tears. As a fallen Catholic, I consider it an achievement to use a pipe organ in a way that doesn’t make me immediately feel repressed and reach to protect my appendages from flogging.

I Am Neither Young Nor Hip
But apparently Arcade Fire is already overhyped. I was unaware of this, and it’s honestly kind of funny to have my interests overlap with the Avenues of Hype for once. It’s like discovering you and the annoying water-to-your-oil stiff down the hall both like mountain biking, and finding out by running into them at your favorite trail: “Wait, you…and I…both arrived at the…same place…how strange.”

I also recently learned that Arcade Fire is apparently part of a rock trend in which sonic grandeur is filling the one mainstream niche rap doesn’t own. Mmmkay. Not sure about that theory, but the article has some nice descriptions of the group’s better songs.

I Lack Hundreds of Friends
Reason #253 for my ever-evident unhipness is my failure to jump on or appreciate the myspace/friendster/facebook environment. I might lump the Second Life thing in there, too. Tellingly, I share my skepticism with at least two (Slate) columnists (NYT) nearly twice my age.

Now, I understand how teenagers and college students can consume hours upon hours on the whole social networking scene. And I am by no neans knee-jerk against forming person-to-person relationships online. But to peruse the friends-for-a-penny arena of these sites is to discover how each site’s success depends on the frivolity of quite shallow interpersonal connections. Sure, you can find people of meaningful like interests online, but do you have to weed through hundreds of trolls and spammish “friends” – it obliterates the meaning of the word – to get there? I shudder when I find a band’s myspace site with the administrative stat: “You have 4,563 friends!” It’s high school, online.

I wonder if these high school clique-like norms of communication will continue into these kids’ post-grad years, and how it will change the communication norms for the next generation of 30-somethings. The Slate column brilliantly asked if this is another revolution or a granfalloon (the great Vonnegut term)? And the NYT piece nicely compared this environment of hundreds of “friend
s” to a denial-of-service attack: You get queries from so many “friends,” from all over – queries whose depth consists of saying “whassup” and “laterz” – that it leaves no time to get things done. Unless you weed them out and block them…sort of like real life. So what was the point of the online friend hunt, again?

On second thought, I’ve been to bars and meat-market clubs…duh, it’s the same as it ever was, now new-but-not-improved, online. The lesson, as usual, is that I’m a crotchety grouch who lacks the credentials for membership in any presently defined generation.

Confluence of Formative Ideas
After two totally unrelated recommendations of it just days apart, I’ve been reading and liking “Ishmail.” Also, “Triumph of the Nomads” (referred by this excellent travel journal through Outback Australia), and “Alphabet Versus the Goddess,” which theorizes that the advent of written language leveraged the differences in our brains to launch male-dominated cultures.

It’s a bit overwhelming to tackle all of these at once, which is one reason it’s taking me a while to get through them, as well as a reason my head’s been filled with muck. But as I advance through one book, I keep wanting to put it down so I can revisit related ideas in one of the others.

Meanwhile, the biological origins of human morality inch ever closer to the surface. All of these topics relate…at least in the worldview to which I subscribe for explaining why we’re here, how we got here, why we act the way we do, and why I don’t fit in Western society as it’s currently constructed. It’s all making more and more sense…to me, anyway!

At Age 6, W Finally Told ‘No’
Finally, of course I’m following the U.S. attorney firings scandal. After six years of corrupt, cynical, party-loyalty first, “just try to catch us” M.O., it’s a bit of a relief to finally see W’s administration receive some push-back, even a little mainstream exposure to their tactics. You know it’s bad when a Republican chooses the New York Times Op/Ed page to detail how he got royally screwed by this manipulate-all-laws-in-our-favor squad of crooks. Fired for not using his office to conduct a pre-election witchhunt of Democrats. Wow. And Jesus, they really pulled out the passive “Mistakes were made” line again?

But I’m spent. I’m still reeling that it took six years of this jackass hijacking our government before enough people kinda woke up and thought maybe it was wrong, enough to narrowly put the other party in power, so now they could start subpoenaing these bastards. The temptations of party loyalty and power just shred what’s left of our democracy. When the “balance of powers” are all tipped for one party and one party only, we get screwed.