Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Reading Log, February 2007

I didn't plan it, but it turned out that a good deal of my reading this month revolved about WWII and the immediate post-war years. To keep my mind from being completely stuck in the 1940's, I also have a couple of Victorian era choices, and one futuristic novel. After hardly finishing any books in January (though I read a good deal), I finished seven in February. As I said earlier, I doubt I will be able to maintain this much reading all year, but it has been fun.

Dracula, by Bram Stoker--I listened to this as an audiobook from Librivox (I love those folks). In the end, I decided I didn't have much to say about it. Gothic horror isn't exactly my cup of tea, but at least now I can say I've read the book. If anyone asks. I don't want to give away any spoilers, but I thought the beginning was the very best part. In my opinion, the ending dragged on too long and was anticlimactic. I got a lot of crocheting done while I listened, however.

Lily's Crossing
by Patricia Reilly Giff--This was my easy children's lit book for the month. This one is set in the US during WWII and one of the characters is a European refugee.

The Secret by Eva Hoffman--I finished this book and I'm halfway through the autobiography. I can hear the author's "voice" in both books, and I will be looking for the other titles published by this author.

Lost in Translation by Eva Hoffman--This is the one I may have read before, but I have not encountered anything that is so familiar I am entirely convinced. I guess I'll have to take my husband's word for it. Much of this book takes place in post-war Poland.

Diary of a Nobody by George & Weedon Grossmith--This hilarious spoof on a Victorian middle-class working family has been a welcome counterpoint to the heavier reading I've been doing. I'm almost finished with this one, and I'll write more about it when I'm done.

W Pustyni i w puszczy by Henryk Sienkiewicz--I have made progress in my Polish book this month, although I'm only about 1/4 of the way through it. When I finish this, I'm going to watch a Polish film based on the book, and then choose a modern book to read, instead of 100-year-old literature. I think it will be more practical from the standpoint of improving my Polish, which is the main reason for doing this.

Turnabout Children by Mary McCracken--I've enjoyed Mary McCracken's stories about teaching children since I was about 11 years old, and this book was no exception.

Death at the Dolphin by Ngaio Marsh--I had a good time with this mystery, but when I finished it I realized I'm really not in the mood for mysteries. I will read more of her books (especially since I can check them out of the library in Krakow), but not for a while.

School Education by Charlotte Mason--A stimulating dose of educational philosophy every week, by one of the the most intelligent and widely-read women I've ever known. I'm reading and discussing this with the CM Series list.

The Literary Discipline by John Erskine--I finished another essay in this book entitled "The Cult of the Natural." Erskine's frank discussion about literature as an art is challenging. I'll include a quote at the end of this post.

Dawn to Decadence by Jacques Barzun--This is my year-long reading project and Barzun's unsentimental discussion of history, religion, art, and people continues to engage me. This very long book has a surprisingly conversational tone, without being at all "dumbed down." Unfortunately, to stay on schedule, I should be up to page 120, and I'm only on page 70. I will need to pick up the pace in March, but the reading is so dense it's hard to read much in one sitting.

Night by Elie Wiesel--Yes, the book just came in the mail yesterday. Yes, I read it already. I have to let it sink in a bit before writing about it, however.

The Time of Green Ginger by Armstrong King--I will finish this book today and probably write about it one more time. It is another post-WWII book, but its contemporary significance caught me off guard.

And now, after explaining that art is in some way an evaluation of life, Erskine says this:
For the special service of art is to make us live more intensely in the very life which art sifts and selects--in fact, the sifting has for its conscious purpose a more vivid realization of what we live through, and a novel or a play is successful, from the standpoint of imaginative literature, only in the degree to which we enter the work, become ourselves the hero, fall in love with the heroine, hate the villain. In this sense the dime novel and the melodrama, though carelessly branded by the theorist as bad art, are likely to be very good art indeed, and the over-reasoned story, though adorned with subtle reflection and refinements of diction, is in fact poor art, as the average person in his heart knows, for in such books the reflection upon life is paid for by a failure to represent what the reflection is about. If the author would only share with us the adventures that caused him to reflect, we could do our own reflecting upon them, but if he will not share the secret which inspires him, we do not care much what philosophizing he does.

Tuesday, February 27, 2007

New books!

My last couple of posts have been on the dark and depressing side, so I thought it was time for something more cheerful. And lo and behold, to assist me in having something cheerful to blog about, I got a box of books in the mail today! These are my most recent Zooba choices, which have to be mailed to a US address first, and are later sent on to me (in batches).

First, we have Night by Elie Wiesel. This is another Holocaust survivor story. I have read many, and I think they are important because of the insidious propaganda that the Holocaust never happened. The author won the Nobel Peace Prize for this book.

Next is another non-fiction book, The Book of Lost Books by Stuart Kelly. This is supposed to be a fun look at some of the "might have beens" in literature, as well a memorial to some things that were written and subsequently lost. I peeked into the beginning, and it seems the whole project got started because the author, from childhood, was a bit obsessive about having all the books in a series--be it the childish "Mr. Men" or Agatha Christie mysteries. When he realized that he could not have a complete collection of Greek plays because many of them had been lost, he turned his attention to tracking down other missing books.

And the only fiction in this lot is Digging to America by Anne Tyler. I have only read one other book by Anne Tyler, which I cannot recall at all. I read a good many reviews of this book last year, and I decided to read it because it involves international adoption, another one of those quirky subjects that I find interesting.
And with all these new books tempting me to read them, will I ever finish the current works in progress? Oh yes, by all means. I'm nearly finished with The Time of Green Ginger, and I will probably write about it one more time before putting it to rest. I thought the book was going to be interesting because of the historical aspect, but the deadly relevancy to current affairs caught me by surprise.

So, if you were me, would you dip into these new books, or would you resolutely pull out War and Peace and get the last 300 pages of that read? Finally.

Monday, February 26, 2007

They say history repeats itself

I am working my way fairly quickly through The Time of Green Ginger by Armstrong King (although I still don't know what the title means). I don't think I could call this book a classic. It seems to fall squarely into that category of books I consider "timely" rather than "timeless." However, it is now "timely" again in a current fashion. Chillingly so.

The characters in the book are fictional, but the historical events are factual, and some of them are so vividly described, I can easily believe the author was present during the time, which he was. This description, of the bombing of the King David Hotel in Jerusalem, made my blood run cold. I don't know what I'd have felt reading this prior to September 11, 2001, but I know that reading it now recalled vivid images to my mind that match, almost word for word, what King describes. (Warning: This is graphic.)

Tamar and four military clerks had been the last to die. Their office on the top floor had lingered long second before crumbling down in thunder on top of the already collapsed four storeys beneath it. A complete corner section of the hotel, comprising much of the military offices, was totally destroyed, cut out from the main building like a piece out of a cake. Ninety people lay flattened, maimed and ruined under the vast wreckage. Military, civilian, Christian, Arab, Jew, squashed and mauled to death. Dust soared in brown clouds and dirtied the blue sky. When, after days, they dug Tamar out, her head had been crushed into a grotesque and evil-smelling pancake three times its normal size, riddled hollow with maggots.

Within minutes Jerusalem was agog and jubilant. Within minutes cables were singing news flashes. But the ninety victims lay irretrievably broken and lost. Within minutes troops had been posted around the area. Within minutes London was considering the news. And the dead had already begun to decompose. Chaos reigned. At the shock of explosion visitors and military in other parts of the building had rushed in all directions, terrified by enclosing walls, mad for the safety of outside. Those who fled in the wrong direction found corridors running off jagged into the blue sky, and floors sloping away into space; they found steel and concrete hanging down broken and smashed, and everywhere, rubble, disaster, ruin.

The King David Hotel stood mutilated in the sun and the heat of July. Huge heaps of debris had poured across Julian's Way, blocking all traffic. Troops from the Allenby Barracks were set swarming over the rubble, as though their efforts could bring back the dead.

Change the date, the location, and the number of victims...and I wonder why we were so shocked by September 11th, why we thought it was the first time something like that had happened?

But being reminded of the September 11 attacks in the US was not what disturbed me. The truly horrifying part comes later, when you realize that tactics such as this worked, and because they worked--because the acts of terror resulted in authorities bending to the will of the terrorists--those actions were repeated. This particular act of terrorism was perpetrated by radical Israeli nationalists because they had seen Arabs do similar things, and the British had made concessions to them. The Israelis wanted the British to makes concessions to them, so they followed the familiar formula.

Terrorists have been around for a long time. I don't think they are going to go away. And history says...sometimes, at least, they get what they want. "Terrorism works" is not a cheerful message. I don't know if there is any response at all that will stop people from doing things like this in order to manipulate and terrorize. I don't know if there is any way to "win the game." It goes on...and history repeats itself. I hope someone is paying attention.

Saturday, February 24, 2007

Prawo do narodzin

In the states, we think a lot about our rights--the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, the right to bear arms, the right to free speech, and so on. The world at large has picked up on the vocabulary, and "human rights" are everywhere spoken of. I've seen a "Patient's Bill of Rights" posted in a hospital. The United Nations has drafted a "Child's Bill of Rights," too. But I don't think they included this one.

I saw a large billboard last week, featuring this picture. Large letters proclaimed "Prawo do narodzin," and proposed a constitutional amendment to guarantee this right do ka┼╝dego dziecku. Translated, they are suggesting that the Polish constitution should guarantee the "right to birth" to every child. What's sad is that it should be necessary at all.

Poland is already one of the very few countries of the world in which abortion is illegal--and not just abortion. Sterilization surgeries for both men and women are also illegal. Maybe no one remembers what a society looks like under these conditions, so let me describe it briefly.

First of all, single mothers are extremely rare. But you mustn't think that no access to abortions curtails promiscuity. By no means. So what does a young girl do when she find herself pregnant? You may find this shocking, but...she gets married. Both sets of parents generally insist on the wedding, and it is extremely usual for the young couple to continue living with one set of parents or the other, because they are not in a financial position to support themselves.

And yet, they get married. The grandparents help look after the baby. A few years down the road, they move into a place of their own. They often have a second child. And they don't get divorced very often either. Does this sound anachronistic? It's 2007 here in Poland, too. Virtually every man, woman, and child over the age of eight carries a cell phone, wireless internet permeates the city, and the cinemas are showing the same blockbusters that your local theaters are showing. The plain and simple fact is that family values have not been entirely abandoned, and young people are expected to take responsibility for their mistake--and they do consider pregnancy before marriage a mistake, but not one that the innocent should suffer for.

I think some elements in Poland feel threatened by the values (or non-values) of the European Union, and want this constitutional amendment to provide some insurance that Poland can continue directing her own society without interference. I don't know how much hope they have. Like the unborn, they don't have a lot of defenses against the "big guys."

Thursday, February 22, 2007

Some lighter reading

As a bit of relief from some of the heavier reading I've done this month, I read a bit of children's literature--Lily's Crossing by Patricia Reilly Giff. This book, published in 1997, won a Newbery Honor Medal, although I never heard of it until I found it while browsing in the bookstore.

I'm not sure I really like Lily very much, but I suppose in many ways she is a real girl. She is capable of acting both generously and selfishly. She tells lies, but she feels guilty. She adores her father, but hurts him horribly. She is fiercely loyal to her friends, but takes her grandmother for granted. A real girl, with good traits and bad ones, who would rather sneak into the movie theater than pay for a ticket, even when she has the means, just for the thrill of it.

As might be expected, she gets into trouble, but it all comes out okay in the end. I didn't find the plot especially remarkable, nor the characters exceptional. I'm not sure why this earned a medal, although it is a good enough story. What I found most pleasant was the description of a lifestyle and childhood that is no more--a time when ten-year-olds could wander around town by themselves, swim in the ocean with friends, and row boats along the shore. A time when ordinary people could afford to spend the summer at the beach, and a girl could sleep on a porch which rose on stilts from the water. That world seems as remote as Connecticut, which is a very, very long way from Krakow.

Small decorating interlude

For those of you who find this site because you've googled "Arte Prima", I'm showing off a corner of my dining room, where we finally (today!) hung the little leaf plaques I bought during the Christmas fair. Aren't they cute?

If you click to enlarge the picture, you can sort of see that they were made by impressing the clay with real leaves.

The plate hanging above the leaves is genuinely "retro," as it is dated 1968. I'm not sure what to make of the fact that the colors and design match my decorating taste so well, but there you go.

Monday, February 19, 2007

The Time of Green Ginger????

Okay, sometimes I feel a little left out as I read around the blogosphere, and everyone seems to be reading the same books and authors, and I'm not. I don't have access to a library that buys all the latest releases. There are a few sources here that sell new English books, but again, the selection is very limited and Dan Brown gets a lion's share of the limited shelf space. Anyway, I cannot afford to buy every new book that comes out and also sounds somewhat interesting. This is doubly true when I have to order the book and pay overseas postage.

I do just fine. Let no one feel sorry for me or think that I am hurting for reading material. I have more books on hand than I have time to read in the next six months. (That's because I planned ahead and bought a lot of books while I was in the US in 2005.) But sometimes, I do feel a little left out because I can't read what you are reading.

So, to "get my own back," as they say in the UK, let me tell you about a book that I'm reading and you, dear blog reader, probably cannot.

While browsing in the foreign language library here, I found a book from 1964 called The Time of Green Ginger by Armstrong King. I have never heard of this (British or Australian) author, and this appears to be the only book that he published. I could find absolutely no information about him or this book on the internet, although there are a few stray copies for sale floating out there in the cyber-flea-market.

So what is the big deal? I picked up the book because the blurb on the inside jacket says "The violent events in Palestine between 1939 and the final withdrawal of the British forces in 1948 are in themselves the plot of this extraordinarily powerful first novel. Jewish, British, Arab and minority groups are caught up in a maelstrom of antagonism, terrorism and counter-terrorism." Whoa. Sounds timely, doesn't it?

I find that particular period of history in that particular part of the world quite interesting, and that is really why I selected the book. I was unprepared for how relevant to current events the book would be. I am particularly amazed that King, who we must assume could best understand the British perspective, writes sympathetically about all three perspectives. He lets us see into the hearts of Jews, Arabs, and the British soldiers stationed in Palestine, so that each group is portrayed in a manner that lets the reader empathize. When you empathize simultaneously with three dramatically opposite perspectives, you begin to understand the utter futility of trying to reconcile them. Forty years after King wrote this, and 60+ years after the events occurred, I can't honestly say we are any closer than they were then to resolving the ubiquitous "confict in the middle east."

I wish I knew more about Armstrong King. He write so explicitly about Jerusalem and its environs because he actually lived there until the British evacuation in 1948--that is, during the period in which the book takes place. He seems to have moved to Australia and languished unknown after publishing this single book, proclaimed his "first" on the book jacket.

I'm roughly one-fourth of the way through this story, and I remain fascinated. I can't help wondering if one of the three perspectives will eventually be portrayed as the "one correct view," or if the story will continue to reflect sympathetically on every perspective. It is an intriguing book. If you feel inclined to read it, try interlibrary loan. Maybe some remote little branch library with a meager budget for new books has allowed it to remain on the shelf for forty years.

When (IF!) I figure out what the title is supposed to mean, I'll let you know.

Sunday, February 18, 2007

A great teacher

Long before I ever thought about being a teacher, long before I had any interest in educational philosophy or practice, and long before I even married or had children, my interest was captured by one teacher who can tell a great story. Actually, I think I was about eleven years old when I first read Lovey: A Very Special Child by Mary MacCracken. Later, I read her books Circle of Children and City Child. Mrs. MacCracken was a teacher in a school for emotionally distrurbed children, and later she worked with children who had learning disabilities. In all cases, she worked very closely and individually with children--she did not have a classroom of 30 children to "manage" as well as teach.

I recently finished a fourth book she wrote--Turnabout Children--in which she shares the stories of several children she taught--children who overcame learning disabilities through hard work and love and perseverance. I wrote a long post about this book a few days ago (the one blogger lost).

If you were to go looking for a teacher, you'd want to find one like Mary MacCracken. She has a heart for each child as an individual.
Few understand the courage it takes for a child to return to a place where he failed yesterday and the day before and, in all probablility, will fail again the next. I was moved and again by the bravery of these children and joyous when they realized that they could learn and be successful. I loved them without reserve.

Mrs. MacCracken set up a sort of clinic or learning center in her home, a safe place where children who needed extra help, special diagnostic testing, or intensive one-on-one attention could learn. She also closely involved parents in everything she did, because she knew that they knew their own children best. In Turnabout Children, she tells the story of a few of her young students. Their stories are touching and personal, and at the same time, representative of different types of learnings disabilites.

Interspersed throughout the book is information about diagnostic testing, ways of evaluating test results, and illustrations of how to develop individual approaches that meet the needs of each child. I'm not a huge fan of labels for children, and I know that "learning disabled" has come to be virtually meaningless. However, this book was written back in the 1980's, when a lot of our knowledge about learning disabilities was relatively new, and it had not yet become common to paste labels on children and give them drugs to keep classrooms more peaceful. Mary MacCracken, at least, was only interested in providing specialized help for those children who needed it--sometimes only for short period of time.

The end of Alice's story goes like this:

"You know what I've been thinking lately?"


"Well, what I think is that maybe the reason I was so easy to fix is that there just wasn't that much wrong with me in the first place."

Hallelujah! Hallelujah! Hallelujah! A hundred choruses went off inside my head simultaneously. Some days I think I'm going to work forever.

I think this is good reading, whether you have any particular interest in education or not. Any one of Mary MacCracken's books will open your eyes about the individual worth of every child, and give you a glimpse of what it is possible for one dedicated teacher to accomplish. If you have a child with learning disabilities, I recommend her books even more highly.

Saturday, February 17, 2007

The makeover of a city

I can't remember the chain of links that led to this article, but it coincides with something I've been meaning to write about Poland.

If you look at the pictures in the article, you'll have a pretty good idea of what communist-era buildings look like. Closely-packed neighborhoods of cookie-cutter concrete buildings are ubiquitous in former "iron curtain" countries. This article suggests that, rather than updating the energy systems, the buildings should be torn down and built anew.

I am aghast at the idea. I agree that they are ugly, and those neighborhoods are virtually dehumanizing in their stark, grey, sameness. But there are other ways. My husband and I have recently discussed the different "face" of Krakow, as we are coming up on the ten year mark since we first moved here.

Ten years ago, the area around the older part of Krakow was clogged with such neighborhoods. I wish we had pictures of what it looked like then, since "before" and "after" pictures would be so eloquent, but I shall do my best to explain in words why it looks different now.

Picture several rows of identical, 11-story, unpainted concrete buildings, blackened by decades of steel pollution. Now picture the same buildings, in the same configuration. But the first building is red, with tan trim. The next is done in two shades of gold. The next one is a light green/dark green combination. The next one is a deep rust color with beige trim. One of the buildings is lighter on the top and darker on the bottom, but the line between is not straight--it is a wide, contemporary wave. No two buildings are the same color, although some have the same painting scheme in different shades.

You cannot imagine, unless you have seen it, what a difference this makes to the appearance of the city. Neighborhoods that looked grim, stark, and unappealing now resemble modern condos. Also, the buildings have not only been painted. At the same time they were painted, they had a type of insulation wrapped around the building. Basically, about five or six inches of hard styrofoam is screwed onto the exterior, then plastered over and attractively painted.

While this renovation is taking place, the inhabitants are subjected to some inconvenience--the noise, the presence of scaffolding and workers nearby (imagine how peculiar it would be to have someone working outside your sixth-floor window), and the styrofoam "snow" that floats in the air and litters the ground. But all that is temporary, and no one is rendered homeless in the meantime.

Housing is at a premium in this city, although I cannot speak for anywhere else. New construction is going on all the time, and the newly available apartments (often no bigger, by the way, than the ones in the old buildings) are immediately occupied. I can't imagine turning out the hundreds--in some cases thousands--of residents of a single building so that it can be torn down and rebuilt, let alone doing that with all those hundreds of old buildings. Where, exactly, do the authors of that article suppose they will live in the meantime?

Krakow looks much nicer today than it did ten years ago. My own old neighborhood is hardly recognizable. Sometimes fixing up what you have is a better idea than tossing it out and buying something new. In this case, it is certainly more efficient and humane.

Friday, February 16, 2007

Bits and Pieces

I wrote a long, careful post about about a book I finished, and blogger made it disappear. That was two days ago, and I haven't had the time or inclination to blog much since. Now I feel like I'm playing catch up.

Family--I'm potty-training a reluctant two-year-old. She's going to be three soon, and the though of a three-year-old in diapers is harrowing to my soul. I'm never in a hurry to potty-train my little ones, and I have less patience than ever about the process at my "advanced" age. I am daily reminded of why I am never in a hurry to do this. It would be like excitedly marking off the days until your root canal. Said two-year-old is also finally beginning to speak. I think the latest remarks added to her repertoire are "I don't know" (ah-no-no) and "Let go!" (letTOE). I used to speak fluent two-year-old, but I'm really rusty.

Ministry--I'm hosting a ladies' tea in my home next Friday, during which I will be giving a short devotional in Polish. We've invited some new people, so hopefully we'll have a nice group.

Minor Annoyances--My books keep disappearing. Every day for the past week, I have been asking, "Have you seen W pustyni i w puszczy?" or "Have you seen The Diary of a Nobody?" I even lost Dawn to Decadence one day, and that book is huge. I found my Polish book under the couch, and later, I found the Diary behind the Polish book on the shelf.

Small Blessings--My husband took me out to a Chinese restaurant for Valentine's Day. Afterward, we were browsing, and I found this fantastic collection of movies based on Jane Austen's novels. Being the confirmed Austen fan that I am, I was thrilled to purchase these DVD's. I have a few homemade videos (taped from BBC, actually), but I've always wanted to have them in a nicer form. Plus, this is a version of Sense and Sensibility that I haven't seen. Fun, fun. Those Polish covers are irrelevant--the movies have their original English soundtracks. What a great find!

Books and Reading--I am loving all my reading right now, but I'll save most of it for individual posts. In spite of being a short month, I have a feelingI may end up with more books read in February than any other month of the year. (I can't imagine keeping up this pace.)

See ya later!

Monday, February 12, 2007

Some secrets, we might not want to know

For the past several days, I've been reading The Secret by Eva Hoffman. Yes, the same Eva Hoffman who wrote the autobiography Lost in Translation that I might or might not have read before. I put that one on hold when I acquired a copy of her fiction, and for the moment I'm glad I did.

This book really deserves a worthy, thoughtful review rather than a quick summary, and so I shall do my best, but there are spoilers, so be forewarned. It takes place in the not-so-distant future, about 20 years or so. The world is recognizable as our world, but it is like looking into a mirror with cracks in it. You may still recognize the features, but they don't fit together the way you think they are supposed to. Global temperatures are increasingly uncomfortable, every part of the body can be replaced to prolong life or heal, and your fast-food meal comes with a (presumably) harmless "feel-good" pill. Everything that looks a little different in this futuristic world is recognizable as a potential, if not inevitable, step from where we are today.

I like my fiction laced with philosophy. This book explores some profound, fundamental questions about the nature of man. What, exactly, is a person? When I read non-fiction, I keep a pencil in my hand, and freely mark my book. I virtually never do this with fiction, but I found myself unable to resist making comments in the margin of the The Secret. Is a person only physical substance? How do emotions fit into that model? If we are more than physical, what is the nature of the "more," and how can it be recognized?

If Frankenstein was a "monster," and Dr. Moreau's dreadful "human" animals were monsters, would a human clone be a monster? Would a human clone feel like a monster? Would a human clone resent his origins?
"How could you do what you did?...You never thought about me, did you?" I said quickly, "You never thought about what it would be like for me."

"Why..." he said again, looking baffled, "it was what your mother wanted. We did it with your mother's full consent."

"But what about me? I said. "Didn't anybody think, didn't anybody imagine what it would be like to be me?"
This exchange made me shiver a bit, thinking about what our society currently allows "with a mother's full consent." I felt it was a reminder that the mother is not the only person to be considered.

The story also considers the question of knowledge. We cannot undo our knowledge. Never can we do that. The great question, when it comes to science has always been, "What can we do?" Far, far too rarely has science asked the question, "what SHOULD we do?" If our knowledge empowers us to act in a certain way, does that mean it is okay to do that? We already know that the knowledge of how to build and detonate nuclear weapons does not mean we are not constrained by other things--moral reasons--not do use them. We should be asking the same kinds of questions about other areas of science too--just because we "can" clone a human does not mean that we should do so.

Throughout this book, which looks at the idea of cloning in its infancy, I had visions of Huxley's Brave New World in my head. One of the things they are able to do in this book is create live pets "to order." That is, if you can imagine some kind of pet, it can be biologically engineered and brought to life. Never spoken, but simmering beneath the more direct questions this book asks, is the possibility that such engineering could be used on humans--to make us smarter, stronger, longer lived...or stupid and docile?--a labor force to serve the whims of a despot? (We've all seen Star Wars, right?)

Perhaps we've begun to die already, from knowing too, too much. This sentence struck a chord with me--a reminder of the Eden story, in which it is the temptation to gain knowledge that brings death into the world. I would not say that this book is written from a Christian worldview--not at all--and yet this theme is foundational to the story. Scientific and material knowledge does not answer all our only gives us more questions.

Another powerful theme in this book is the division between artificiality and reality. We already have so much "virtual" reality in our lives, it can't have been hard for the author to imagine more and more ways in which artificial things replace real things. This not-so-distant future world has virtual tours that allow you to "walk" the streets of foreign cities without leaving your home. People don't even write real books!
I asked him cautiously if he knew that nowadays anyone could put together their own perfectly good novel in practically no time at all, and to their own specification...Most kits came with templates for the basic plots, sub-plots and suggestions for a few variants. The fun was in trying to find new combinations or twists which made sense, but didn't resemble the old ones too much.

In this world of no-reality, Iris struggles to find meaning for her own life, and the lives of everyone else around her. As humans have changed the world, have they also changed themselves? The Secret is a frightening and sad way of looking at life. And yet...on so many tells the truth. Because if we want to remain human, we have to accept our limitations. I could say so much more about this book, but I must stop somewhere.

I could not say to anyone, "Rush out and read this book immediately." It is a serious, philosophical book. I like to think about these questions, though, and I appreciate an author who isn't afraid to ask hard questions and take a probably unpopular position--one of skepticism--toward some of the scientific "advances" we hear about every day.

Friday, February 09, 2007

Somewhere in the middle

Beginning new books is a pleasure exceeded only by finishing them. I am in the middle of so many books, I decided to make a brief list of them.

The Literary Discipline by John Erskine--I picked this up again this week and continued reading about Erskine's opinions of art. I was struck by the way his comments about art, nature, and primitivism resonate with what some of what I've been reading in Dawn To Decadence. Not surprising, I suppose, since Barzun was a student of Erskine's in some sense.

For art is the use of the materials of life for human benefit, a method employed for a premeditated end in a world which except for art might seem given over to chance. Because it is a rearrangement and a control of nature to effect the will of man, life itself, so far as it becomes civilized, becomes an art.

Next, of course, I should mention Dawn to Decadence by Jacques Barzun. I'm only on page 57 of some 800 pages, but it feels as if I've already traveled a long way.

For natures inclined to mysticism, Plato satisfied a strong desire akin to the Reformers' for a pure faith. Michelangelo, for example, whose hand was subdued to matter like any ditch digger's, valued his works not for their artistic merit, as we do, but for the ideal beauty that he put into them and that, for him, made their materiality disappear....To all this the materialist opposition says that the ideal does not exist apart from the natural, the abstract from the concrete.

I am, of course, also in the middle of my Polish book, W pustyni w puszczy by Henryk Sienkiewicz, but I shall spare you all a quote from that book.

Yet another non-fiction book I am reading is School Education by Charlotte Mason. She has so much to say, so many principles to discuss, and she brings them all to the table and applies them to education. If you find that sort of thing's fascinating.

The abuse of authority gives us the slave and despot , but slavery and despotism could not exist except that they are founded upon elemental principles in human nature. We all have it in us to serve or to rule as occasion demands.

In addition to being in the midst of several non-fiction books, I am in the middle of fiction, too.

The everlasting War and Peace has been in my "current reading" pile since June of last year. Pierre has been my favorite from the beginning.

Pierre had been educated abroad, and the soiree of Anna Pavlovna's was the first he had ever attended in Russia. He knew that all the intelligentsia of Petersburg was assembled there, and like a child in a toyshop, he was dazzled and continually fearful of missing any clever conversation there was to be heard.

I've started and set aside A can of Peas by Traci DePree, because, in spite of the fact that this novel plays around with time, weaving the past into the present (a device I always enjoy), I find much of the story trite to the point of absurdity.

"You see this field??"

Peter nodded as the scent of dark, rich earth and fresh-cut peas lingered in the air.

"People are like these here peas. They come in all sizes, you know. Some are big, some small. There's floaters and sinkers, but it takes all kinds working together and helping each other out. That's what makes a family, a town, work."

I'm also reading The Secret, by Eva Hoffman--the same Eva Hoffman who wrote Lost in Translation, which I mentioned a few days ago. Although I began this book most recently of the pile, it also most likely to be the first one finished.

But then he let on that the Project was actually a novel. When I could bring myself to ask him what it was about, he answered in an insulted voice that it wasn't "about" anything. It was itself. He'd only say it was called The Supreme Fiction, and that it had epic scope and a large and varied cast of characters. His ambition was to create people so three-or-more-dimensional, so undeniably vital, that they'd put the poor shallow creatures we'd become to shame. They'd show the reader the extent of our diminishment.

I suppose you could technically say that I'm in the midst of Henry Esmond by Thackeray as well, but I'm not sure it counts if you don't plan to finish the book, and I really do think I'm abandoning it.

Instead, for my Victorian lit fix, I'm reading The Diary of a Nobody by George and Weedon Grossmith, which is a hilarious "diary" of a lower-middle class Victorian clerk with delusions of grandeur...and intelligence...and taste...and pretty much every other kind of delusion you can imagine.

I felt as if we had been invited to the Mansion House by one who did not know the Lord Mayor himself. Crowds arrived, and I shall never forget the grand sight. My humble pen can never describe it. I was a little annoyed with Carrie, who kept saying, "isn't it a pity we don't know anybody?"

And with all that whirling around in my head, I have no business casting a greedy eye at the to-be-read stack, nor thinking about starting yet another book of any kind. However, some of these books are long-term projects that aren't intending to be finished soon, and others, like The Diary of a Nobody, are being read in measured portions. I will soon be ready to begin another novel or biography.

I feel quite surrounded by riches of literature, history, and philosophy. Sometimes being in the middle can be good, too.

Thursday, February 08, 2007


My last post was about a book I've read, and I commented there about the association with the theater. This is one of those circumstances that makes you pause and think, "How peculiar!" I know very little about the theater in general, and nothing at all about Polish theater, but it appears that I am going to become acquainted with it.

A lady who teaches at the university on the subject of Polish theater wants to be prepared to give a series of lectures in English. She is going to write out her lectures and deliver them to me (an audience of one) so that I can correct her grammar or vocabulary as needed. Her English is quite excellent (better than my Polish, I think), but she wants her lectures to be spot-on, 100% perfect, and that is difficult to achieve in a foreign language, no matter how fluent you are.

We and met and visited over a cup of tea this afternoon, and I am looking forward to this fellowship. She is a reader, so among other things we discussed books. She is the very first person who has told me that she reads in English for pleasure, and not just to improve her language abilities. That gives me some hope that perhaps I may eventually be able to read Polish for pleasure as well, rather than as a mere exercise. She has read Jane Austen in Polish, but Charlotte Bronte in English.

And, like every Polish person I have ever met, she laughed when I told her about Anielka. They all have to read it for school, like The Red Badge of Courage or something, and wouldn't dream of reading it by choice.

We are going to meet once a week for English conversion and theatrical lectures, and perhaps another time for Polish conversation. I am always looking for ways to work on my Polish without working too hard, and I think chatting with a well-read, book-loving professor of Polish drama will be more fun than work.

Oh--and the other connection. The theater mystery Death at the Dolphin involved a very particular glove, and when my guest left, she had to come back just a minute later. Because she had forgotten her gloves.

Another Mystery

Not long ago, I read my first mystery by Ngaio Marsh, considered to be one of the divas of British detective fiction in the 20th century. There are a few of her books available at my library here, and I just finished my second read, Death at the Dolphin.

I had only read a couple of chapters when I realized that the general setting of the novel involved theatrical people. I thought that was a bit of coincidence, as the central character in the last novel was a theatrical person as well. I may have been wrong. Chapter five begins, Alleyn was not altogether unused to the theatrical scene or theatrical people. He had been concerned in four police investigations in which actors had played--and 'played' had been the operative word--leading roles. Perhaps it wasn't coincidence at all

So I know that at least a few more of the Superintendent Alleyn mysteries involve the theater, but I am left wondering if that is true of all 32 that Ngaio Marsh wrote? Does anyone know?

I enjoyed the story well enough, but I'm not in the mood for mystery right now, so I won't be reading any more in a hurry. I have a stack of absolutely fascinating books shouting for my attention, and some of them are getting downright hoarse from calling so long. That makes them vulnerable to being drowned out by the ever-so-loud newest purchases. I want to read everything all at once!

But if you like mysteries that also peek into the British theatrical world, and if any reference to Shakespeare makes your blood quicken, you might like this one.

Wednesday, February 07, 2007

This saves time

I was planning to link to this article, and share my thoughts about reading slowly and thoughtfully. However, the Deputy Headmistress did such a terrific job of doing that very thing, I'll just send you over there. It's definitely worth a read, and I was going to make the same connection to Charlotte Mason that she did.

Instead, I will simply leave you with this bit of trivia. Did you know that Jacques Barzun would have been about 16 years old when Charlotte Mason died?

And here's my favorite quote from the article, by Lindsay Waters:

The role of literature is to mess with time, to establish its own time, its own rhythm. A new agenda for literary studies should open up the time of reading, just as it opens up how the writer establishes his or her rhythm. Instead of rushing by works so fast that we don't even muss up our hair, we should tarry, attend to the sensuousness of reading, allow ourselves to enter the experience of words.

Most definitely.

Tuesday, February 06, 2007

Surely this cannot be

A few days ago, I bought this book, Lost in Translation by Eva Hoffman. It is the biography of a woman who was born in post-war Poland and lived in Krakow until she was 13, when her family emigrated to Canada. She later attended school in the United States and eventually became an author and a book critic for the New York Times. I was quite enthusiastic about the book, and was describing it to my husband later that same evening. The conversation degenerated into something like this:

Him: You've read that book!

Me: What!? No, I haven't.

Him: Yes, you've read that book before. You checked it out from the library here and read it a few years ago.

Me: That's impossible. I would remember it. (Wouldn't I?)

Him: You told me all about it at the time--I remember it made an impression on you. How come I remember the story you told me but you don't remember reading it?

Me: It must have been some other book. I've read other biographies. I read a bit here and there, and it didn't seem as if I'd read it before. No, it's just not possible.

Him: (giving more details of book) You've read it before. The cover even looks familiar.

Me: I refuse to believe it.

I'm still not entirely convinced, but it may be horribly true. I read this book and it was completely erased from my brain by...aliens! That's it! No, not aliens. Age, I suppose. Or...I've got it!...pregnancy! Somewhere along the line, perhaps I lost the brain cells that remembered reading this book.

Even if it is true that I read this book some years ago, I'm not sorry I bought it and I'm still looking forward to reading it. I'm not hurt by reading the book a second time, but I am aghast at the thought that I could so completely forget a book--a book that, according to my husband, made a definite impression on me at the time.

So the big dilemma is this: do I count this as a new book read or a reread?

I wonder if there is a category for half and half?

Sunday, February 04, 2007

In which I go shopping for thread.

Who slipped away to Galeria Krakowska this afternoon because she needed more thread for her crochet project?

Who bought two balls of green thread, some guinea pig food, and a bottle of cooking oil, and then slipped into the bookstore? (Just to look around, of course.)

Who bought three brand-spanking-new books today?

That would be me.

I seem to be sabotaging my planned reading every time I turn around, but I'm not really sure when I'll get to read these two.

The first is Lost in Translation by Eva Hoffman. This is the autobiography of a girl who grew up here in Krakow. Born after WWII, she lived here during some very tough years, before her family emigrated to Canada. I was happy to find that she uses the occasional Polish word, and the Polish appellations "Pani" (Mrs.) and "Ciocia" (aunt). I will have to grit my teeth over the spelling of Krakow--she spells it Cracow--throughout the entire book. I can understand why she changed the spelling of her name from Ewa to Eva--I did that myself with the nickname "Krakovianka," which is spelled "Krakowianka" in Polish. But you don't have to spell Krakow as "Cracow" to pronounce it correctly.

Language quibbles aside, this promises to be a fascinating book. I love biographies, and I am particularly delighted to read a book which will give me a little glimpse into the history of this city, which I love so very much.

The second book is The Diary of a Nobody by George & Weeden Grossmith. I'm not sure I've ever heard of this book. I know know nothing about it. But it's an inexpensive Wordsworth Classic, so I'm willing to take a chance when the back cover says: The roar of laughter which greeted the first serialised publication of The Diary of a Nobody in the magazine Punch in the late 1880s has continued and scarcely diminished ever since.

I generally enjoy Victorian literature, and I could use something funny. I'm looking forward to this one, and may read it slowly as it was serialized in the first place.

The third book...well, I can't tell you about that. I bought that one for my husband and I'm saving it for a present...but he reads this blog. You can imagine that I've stacked the books up, and although you can see the titles of the top two, you can't quite make out the bottom one. Maybe I'll mention it another time.

And I did buy thread.

Saturday, February 03, 2007

This makes me feel better

After reading what others have written (and especially quoted) from Skepy Cynamonowe aka Street of the Crocodiles by Bruno Schulz, I feel much better about my own failure to apprehend the stories in Polish. They aren't all that easy to understand in English, either.

Friday, February 02, 2007

Theory of Aspect

Jacques Barzun mentions the Theory of Aspect in From Dawn to Decadence. He says, "It would state that an object or idea is rarely seen in the round. Like a mountain, it presents a variety of faces."

I have been thinking about this for several days. This theory could explain a lot of things. If an idea is like a mountain, and we can see only one aspect of it at a time, it is our own present position which will determine which face of the idea that we see. The mountain isn't going anywhere, and in order to view other aspects or faces of the same mountain, we are the ones who have to move.

In the case of a real mountain, we might drive from one side to the other, or climb a hill, or hike along a ridge on one mountain to get a better view of a second. Once, I flew from Phoenix to Chicago, and we flew over flat, flat land from which jutted surprisingly sharp and high mountains, and from above we could see them in entirety.

In the case of ideas, if we wish to view other faces of the "mountain," we will have to remove ourselves from one place to another mentally. I cannot imagine any better way of doing that than reading a book. Read a book written from the point of view of a general and of a common soldier, and you will see the same battle from more than one location. Read books about the Civil War from both a "northern" and a "southern" perspective. Read books written by men, and books written by women. The more "views" we are able to get of an idea, the better able we will be to grasp the entire truth, rather than just a part of it.

The whole thing resonates with something I read recently in Charlotte Mason's School Education.
Some such principle stands out luminous in the vision of a philosopher; he sees it is truth; it takes possession of him and he believes it to be the whole truth, and urges it to the point of reductio ad absurdum. Then the principle at the opposite pole of thought is similarly illuminated and glorified by a succeeding school of thought; and, later, it is discerned that it is not by either principle, but by both, that men live.
Charlotte may not have seen the whole mountain, either, but she knew it was there.

And sometimes I think we are like the blind men who wanted to know what an elephant was like. You know the story? One grabbed the trunk, and said, "An elephant is like a snake!" Another felt the leg, and cried, "No! An elephant is like a tree." A third held the tail and asserted, "An elephant is like a rope." Sometimes I think we shut our eyes and are willfully blind to any aspect of an idea except the one we choose to see. We get settled too comfortably in one mental location, and the view is fine, and we think it is enough.

But we will never see the whole mountain that way. The other faces are there, but they can only be seen if we move ourselves out of our comfort zone, and mentally hike to another location.

I may just be rambling...but that's what has been on my mind for the past few days.