Saturday, March 31, 2007

Lady Susan by Jane Austen

By the time I had read letter number five of this epistolary work, I already intensely disliked the title character, Lady Susan. As I continued reading, I realized that Jane Austen intended exactly that, so I didn't feel too bad about it.

I was a bit surprised by the epistolary style, as I hadn't expected that. It seems to me a difficult way to tell a story, but Jane Austen (and I'm not at all surprised) manages it handily. The interesting aspect of the letter form is that that characters reveal more about themselves than what the letters actually say.

Most of the letters are from Lady Susan herself, and one would suppose that by telling her own story, she would be able to cast it in a most favorable light. But even if the only letters we had were Lady Susan's own, her true character, her duplicity, and her artfulness would be revealed, simply because she has one friend with whom she is completely candid about her schemes.

Lady Susan is as clever as Elizabeth Bennet, as self-willed as Lady Catherine DeBurg, as fond of matchmaking as Emma Woodhouse, and as generally pleasing as Elinor Dashwood. Unfortunately, her principles are those of Lydia Bennet, or perhaps Maria Bertram, which is to say, in short, that the ends justify the means. I think Mary Crawford might have been like Lady Susan, if she had been poor. My apologies to anyone who has not read all of Jane Austen's books, as these references will not make much sense, but I couldn't help comparing Lady Susan to other Austen characters.

As a matter of fact, I wasn't very fond of any of the characters in this story, and I don't think Jane Austen was, either. All of her books have a little touch of satire in them here and there, but this seems more like a full-fledged farce--a delicious little parody of some of the "types" Jane observed in society. I felt a little sorry for Frederica, but she wasn't exactly a shining character, and Reginald....well, Reginald should have known better.

The shortness of this story doesn't allow for the character development I'm used to with Jane Austen, but for the length of the work, I think she has done a marvelous job. Jane Austen never disappoints.

I wish I had more time to write about this here, but I'm late posting as it is. I read this book to join in the Slaves of Golconda discussion, so if you are interested in other opinions, check out what others have written.

Friday, March 30, 2007

Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons

I saw this book on a list of popular books that made the rounds recently. (Sorry for not linking, but it was a few weeks ago, and I saw it on several blogs.) Although I didn't post about it, I did make a mental tally, and discovered that I had read 50 of the 100 books on the list. Now it is 51. I had never heard of this book before. (I should have, as it is part of the Ambleside Online curriculum that my children use, but I suppose I wasn't paying good attention to that bit. But I digress.) For some reason, however, the title caught my eye (maybe I really did have a subliminal memory of its being in the curriculum), and when I ran across it at the library I picked it up.

I have been accused of having no sense of humor, but it is not true. I do. And this book appeals directly to it. I found myself laughing out loud and snickering at the blunt, matter-of-fact tone of Flora. Actually, I think there is just something peculiar to British fiction from this 1930's era--a certain casual, sophisticated tone. It's hard to explain, but I know what I mean.

At any rate, orphaned at the tender age of nineteen, and left with slender means to support herself, Flora writes to all her relations to request a home for a little while. She chooses the dubious invitation from Cold Comfort farm rather than submit to sharing a bedroom with a cousin or a parrot, or living with a bed-ridden uncle in a remote, lonely house. Child, child, if you come to this doomed house, what is to save you? Perhaps you may be able to help us when our hour comes.

From the moment of her arrival at Cold Comfort farm, which is chock-full of eccentrics, Flora sets out to do just that--help them. She schemes and manages and arranges (her favorite word) so that everyone gets exactly what they want. When the day comes that she decides to leave the farm (for a very good reason), it is hardly recognizable as the decrepit, miserable place to which she arrived. Flora figures out what everyone wants, and then she finds a way to get to it for them, from itinerant preaching to a film contract to a wedding.

This was light, fun reading, worth a look if you have a quirky sense of humor that would appreciate cows named Aimless, Feckless, Graceless, and Pointless.

Thursday, March 29, 2007

Bits and Pieces

The lack of posting for the past several days is a reflection of the fact that 1) I have been busy doing other things and 2) blogger lost my post when I did take the time to write one. Grrr.

In the interest of "catching up on things" without going into too much depth, this is what life looks like right now.

Family and Ministry: I have five major events between now and the first week in May. Two birthdays, one ladies' tea, Easter, and a gathering of families from different areas of Poland. Yes, I am beginning to panic a bit. Tonight I tried to write the wording for a Redwall birthday party invitation in Polish and find a template to make a maze on the driveway. Not much, but I've got to start somewhere.

House and Garden: The arrival of spring makes me want to go out, and I've spent the past two afternoons in the yard, trying to clean up the winter litter and prepare for planting next month. I've got the blisters to prove it, too. I haven't planted anything yet, but I did put some protection around the upcoming peonies, and decide to move the tulips that are being trampled by kids. (I suppose I could try to move the kids, but the tulips really are all over the yard.)

Homeschooling: Yes, we still do that. I'm discussing volcanoes with my 4th grader, Gene Stratton Porter with my 8th grader, and future college plans (yikes!) with my 11th grader. I'm still potty training the soon-to-be-three-year-old. (She's got one of the birthdays coming up soon.)

Books and reading: I'll post a "books read in March" post in a few days, and you'll see what I've been reading. I haven't found the time to blog about everything, but I will. Soon. Suffice it to say, I'm never too busy to read. I've even cracked War and Peace this month!

Miscellaneous cool trivia: I love learning the origin of words, including Polish words. It was unusual, however, to discover the origin of a Polish word while reading Dawn to Decadence by Jacques Barzun. He writes
The bird misnamed turkey (in French d'inde = from India and for a while in Britain Indian fowl) also made its appearance, these names being another indication of the long ignorance about America.

And the Polish word for turkey, probably derived from French, is indyk. Who knew? You never know what you might learn from Jacques Barzun.

Things that make you go "hmmm:" K. often has friends play in our yard, and not infrequently a parent or older sibling comes calling at the gate for them. I made K. give our telephone number to her friends' parents, thinking that it might be easier on them just to call us when they want their kids to come back home. Since then (yesterday), K. has received no less than four telephone calls from her friends. Someone got their wires crossed...

And last, but not least,

What toddlers look like when they put on their own shoes:


Tuesday, March 20, 2007

More fun reading

Have you ever read A.A. Milne? No, not those books, but anything else? I don't think he is really remembered for anything but Winnie the Pooh, and that's legacy enough for anyone. However, he did, apparently write a great deal of material that appeared in magazines and journals on both sides of the Atlantic. Also plays, novels, and more poetry than appears in Now We Are Six. I had not read any of that material, however, and was not actually aware that it ever existed.

I've been scouring my bookshelves, gathering materials for J. and E. to read for new school terms. At the same time (surprise, surprise), I ran across quite a few non-fiction books that I had wanted to read, but stashed and forgot. Among them, I found Year In, Year Out by Milne. I remember that I bought this because I was intrigued to read anything by Milne besides the ubiquitous Pooh books.

I've had the book sitting around on my desk for a few days, and I've been puzzling over just where I acquired it. It's a hardcover ex-library book, stamped "Free Public Library, Springfield, N.J." But where did I buy it? At Half-Price books? At a library sale (where? Not New Jersey, certainly.) At a garage sale? Finally, I found the clue in the penciled price inside the cover--22,00. I did not pay $22 for this book, and anyway, we mark our prices with a decimal point, not a comma in the US. Problem solved! I bought this book here in Krakow, of all places, and there is only one place that might have been--Massolit, the used bookstore on Ulica Felipianek (in case anyone reading this blog wants to find the only bookstore in Krakow specializing in used English books).

I put the book away when I bought it, because it is arranged by months, and I thought it would be fun to read each month throughout the year. Too bad I forgot to start it in January. However, that means I can catch up on those months, and it is very fun light reading. I've been missing the little touch of comic relief afforded by Diary of a Nobody ever since I finished it, and this will fill its place nicely.

This is a book of miscellaneous essays which the author admits just didn't fit anywhere else. For example, on writing thank-you notes:
It may happen that, being yourself newly betrothed, you will receive from an absent-minded married friend the identical ornamental match-box which you chose so carefully for her own wedding present two years before. How shall you thank her for it? You don't want to be rude--at least, you do want to, naturally, but you think it would be inadvisable--and yet you don't want her to get away with it altogether.


Darling Sheila,
How sweet of you, I simply love it. I saw one exactly like it at Peter Jones two years ago, and positively yearned for it, but had to give it to a friend who was getting married, and have been regretting it ever since. How I have really got it for myself, and you can imagine how pleased I am.


There are loads of tongue-in-cheek references to rationing, communism, Alice In Wonderland, Shakespeare, sundials, horse racing, and who knows what more? This is a purely eclectic collection and nothing is sacred.

This is going to be fun.

Monday, March 19, 2007

Fiction and Philosophy

I love to read a good story that simply is a good story. But there is something even more compelling about about a good story that is also a foray into philosophy. Not long ago, I wrote about The Secret, by Eva Hoffman. I was extremely interested in the philosophical questions raised in the book, and Sherry from Semicolon suggested that Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro might be interesting because it considered similar questions.

There are some minor spoilers here for both books, so be forewarned.

As it happens, Ishiguro is a popular enough author to be carried in English at the biggest Polish bookstore in Krakow (Empik, if you want to know), and so I picked up a copy to read and compare. The narrator of the story is a young woman who has been cloned--the same arrangment used in The Secret.

In The Secret, individuals are cloned by choice--commissioned, you might say. In Never Let Me Go, individuals are cloned for the sole purpose of harvesting their organs for transplants. The cloned children are raised together, apart from society. As adults, they continue to live in their own small communities and are trained to be "family" to each other so that they can support each other through the process of donating organs, which eventually, of course, results in "termination."

The narrator of The Secret always felt like an outsider looking in at the real world, in spite of being a part of the world. The narrator (and her colleagues) of Never Let Me Go always seemed to feel that she was a real, normal person and couldn't understand why anyone would doubt it. It's hard to say which of these two reactions would be most likely.

Without entirely giving away the plot of the book, I would say that Never Let Me Go reaches somewhat different conclusions than The Secret. I found it to be less plausible in many ways. Ishiguro's book shows us a world which denies (for its own convenience) that cloned humans have souls, although they certainly do. Hoffman's book questions whether anyone at all has a soul, but concludes that clones have as much of a soul as anyone else. Never Let Me Go never really lets you see the world outside of the cloned humans' experience, and they are not a part of society at large. I found it difficult to imagine reality matching the setting. The Secret showed a world that was entirely too plausible--easy to imagine, but not a reality I would want to materialize.

Overall, I definitely preferred The Secret to Never Let Me Go, but both books are worth reading, and I am interested enough in Ishiguro's work to want to read more. Both of these books raise interesting questions to think about and discuss. Books like these are certainly a symptom of our postmodern world, which is full of uncertainties and questions, and denies that answers are even possible.

Being fully convinced, as a Christian, of the intrinsic existence and value of the human soul, I find it interesting that such post-modern books as these reach the same conclusion--that man has a soul.

Forcing Forsythia

If you are in a place where it is still cold and gray, and you are wondering if spring is ever going to come, you need to try this. I learned about forcing forsythia some years ago, from an older Polish woman. In the dreadful days of February or March, you can cut a handful of dead-looking forsythia branches and bring them home. (It doesn't matter how closed the buds are.) Put them in a vase of water and be patient for another few days. I cut these on Monday.
By Friday, I had a vase full of sunny yellow blossoms and a room full of spring. Yes! If you've got a forsythia bush nearby, you don't have to wait for the weather to bring it to life. Cut a few branches and help it along.

Friday, March 16, 2007

North and South by Elizabeth Gaskell

I can't remember now exactly who recommended North and South, but I read about it on one or two blogs last year, and picked up the Penguin Popular Classic version when it came in my way.

Since I was planning to read it anyway, I made it part of the "Chunkster Challenge." It only has 520 pages, which makes it only 1/3 as long as War and Peace. It didn't really feel long as I was reading, however. The story drew me right in, and I was carried along rapidly. The heroine, Margaret, was rather nice for a Victorian heroine. She was good, of course, but not too good. Not perfect. Mrs. Gaskell endows her with perfectly normal Victorian class sensibilities, and then proceeds to knock them out of her. Hurrah for Mrs. Gaskell.

The social commentary part of the book definitely had a more feminine touch than Dickens would have wielded, but the sentiments were pretty much the same. A hard-working, self-made man deserves respect, regardless of whether he is a factory hand, a factory owner, or a "gentleman." I had to chuckle over Mrs. Gaskell's careful literary lesson that some things are more important than money. I'm sure she believed it. However, she did arrange everything neatly so the hero and heroine would have no lack of it by the end of the book.

I will certainly read more of Elizabeth Gaskell's writing when I have the chance. She isn't Jane Austen or Charlotte Bronte or Charles Dickens, but she has a Victorian voice of her own that is good enough to pursue further.

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Party fun

We interrupt this blog to bring you a commercial. Sort of.

A few years ago I started a family tradition which I now have to keep up. It's not too strenuous, most of the time. As a general rule, we celebrate children's birthdays with a family activity, a homemade cake, and a dinner (also home cooked) of the birthday child's choosing. I also allow the birthday child to choose one box (bag, in Poland) of whatever sugary breakfast pulp they like. This works well, and everyone is satisfied.

Somewhere along the line, I decided that a 10th birthday merited a real invite-your-friends party. At that age, the child is old enough to participate in the work and planning, as well as old enough to remember the event. At the same time, the child is still young enough to have a real "kid's" party with gimmicks, games, costumes, or whatever seems fun. Because I only have four children (three when I invented this idea), and there are several years between them, the planning and expense is not a burden. None of my kids have had a problem understanding that this one birthday is exceptional, and will not be repeated.

But this is one of the years I have to do this. In fact, next month K. will be ten years old. We discussed all kinds of ideas for her event, and finally decided to hold the party at home, and have a theme party based on the Redwall series by Brian Jacques. I'll let you know later how the party goes, but this is where my commercial come in.

While searching for party games and ideas, I ran across this very interesting site. Joe Dean has planned and organized themed events professionally, and has put together some packages of great ideas for various themes (pirates, medieval, etc...). That's interesting, but the best part, I think, is the complete treasure-hunt packages he has designed. He has set them up for various levels (from non-readers to adults), and each treasure hunt can be adapted for whatever space you have available (a home, a church, a park, or a whole town or city). He explains how to adapt the hunts for longer or shorter versions, too.

These are not free, but they are reasonably priced, and you have the instant gratification of downloading an ebook. (Great if you are pressed for time at the last minute.) You can also reuse and adapt the same treasure hunt for different occasions. Because most of our birthday guests will be Polish-speakers, I selected a medieval treasure hunt for non-readers (no translation needed). I will be able to stage the treasure hunt indoors or out, depending on the weather.

He also has some "games" or "adventures" that are meant to be played while viewing a movie, such as "The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe," and "Indiana Jones." That looks fun too, and might be great for a rainy-day event or a sleepover.

Of course, you could do all the work of designing your treasure hunt clues yourself, and for some people that would be half the fun. But these come ready made with logic and deduction puzzles, and all you have to do is add your locations. Maximum fun for minimal work. In my humble opinion, that's well worth the price.

Pictures and reports of the success of the party will be forthcoming, after April 17th.


Monday, March 12, 2007

Book gluttony

That is what I have been guilty of for the past week or so. I have not read books; I have devoured them. I have devoured them in great gulps, scarcely chewing at all before swallowing, and forking in the next bite without pause for breath. Therefore, I have finished five books I have not had time to write about. Because of course, no matter how fast I read them, they are all worth a little time and trouble to blog about.

But who has time to write when there are more books to read?

I am going to put the brakes on now, and limit my reading for the rest of the month to Dawn to Decadence and War and Peace (because I really need to finish it before I forget what already happened). Okay, I am in the middle of four other non-fiction books, and I will allow myself to work on them. But no more fiction. None. Until I catch up on all the blogging. Or, if I must read fiction (and I think that may be the case), I will reread something. I have plenty of things I would enjoy rereading.

If you want a hint about what I read...well, one book was part of the chunkster challenge (yes, a whole chunkster in less than a week), and one was suggested by a blog comment in response to a another recent book I read. Another appeared on a "what books have you read?" meme that I enjoyed around the internet, but didn't blog about. One is a genuinely "new" book from the Zooba pile, and the last is the latest selection for the Slaves of Golconda (which I won't write about until the 31st).

I must catch my breath now. I probably shouldn't have been so greedy with my books. No, I certainly shouldn't have been. But sometimes, when the mood strikes, I just can't help myself. All lofty ideals about slow, careful reading are blown away by the wind created when I turn the pages so quickly. Really.

Saturday, March 10, 2007

"Poetry and education", or, "How I made a fool of myself for an entire semester"

Once upon a time, when I was in college, I took a course entitled "Oral Interpretation of Poetry." This was a requirement for English majors such as myself, but--if only I'd known what this meant!--it was also a required course for Speech majors. The semester I was enrolled, there was only one other English major in the class (and I think he was a speech minor!). The remainder of the class were Speech majors--you know, the ones who would have the leads in the all the school plays for the entire time I was student. Those kinds of people. Outgoing people with Stage Presence and the ability to Project.

The class was conducted quite simply. We all had to memorize and recite (perform) our poems in front of the class. All class time was taken up with this kind of activity--practices with copies of the poem, memory checks, and final performances. When we were not reciting, of course, we were the audience. We were entitled to choose our own poems, but I don't recall having any kind of input or suggestions on the topic. That was fine with me--I was a poetry-enthusiastic English major, and I was happy to choose my own poems. I was also an idiot, but I had not yet learned that.

The first poem I chose was "Song" by John Donne. You know, the one that goes

GO and catch a falling star,
Get with child a mandrake root,
Tell me where all past years are,
Or who cleft the devil's foot,
Teach me to hear mermaids singing,
Or to keep off envy's stinging,
And find
What wind
Serves to advance an honest mind.

If thou be'st born to strange sights,
Things invisible to see,
Ride ten thousand days and nights,
Till age snow white hairs on thee,
Thou, when thou return'st, wilt tell me,
All strange wonders that befell thee,
And swear,
No where
Lives a woman true and fair.

If thou find'st one, let me know,
Such a pilgrimage were sweet;
Yet do not, I would not go,
Though at next door we might meet,
Though she were true, when you met her,
And last, till you write your letter,
Yet she
Will be
False, ere I come, to two, or three.

I hope didn't you lose your composure, imagining me standing in front a small class at a Christian college and reciting that. Everyone else, of course, selected narrative, story-telling poems that were far more appropriate for "oral interpretation" than the Song. If I recall accurately, I received a "D" for that performance, and that was probably a generous grade, based upon the fact that I recited the correct words in the correct order from memory. I thought I'd learn from my mistake and choose a more narrative poem for my next turn. Robert Browning wrote narrative poetry, right? And I found one that was all about a book--how fun. And thus, still wallowing in my stupidity, I "performed" a poem with the glorious title "Sibrandus Schafnaburgensis."

Plague take all your pedants, say I!
    He who wrote what I hold in my hand,
Centuries back was so good as to die,
    Leaving this rubbish to cumber the land;
This, that was a book in its time,
    Printed on paper and bound in leather,
Last month in the white of a matin-prime
    Just when the birds sang all together.
Into the garden I brought it to read,
    And under the arbute and laurustine
Read it, so help me grace in my need,
    From title-page to closing line.
Chapter on chapter did I count,
    As a curious traveller counts Stonehenge;
Added up the mortal amount;
    And then proceeded to my revenge.
Yonder’s a plum-tree with a crevice
    An owl would build in, were he but sage;
For a lap of moss, like a fine pont-levis
    In a castle of the Middle Age,
Joins to a lip of gum, pure amber;
    When he’d be private, there might he spend
Hours alone in his lady’s chamber:
    Into this crevice I dropped our friend.
Splash, went he, as under he ducked,
    —At the bottom, I knew, rain-drippings stagnate;
Next, a handful of blossoms I plucked
    To bury him with, my bookshelf’s magnate;
Then I went in-doors, brought out a loaf,
    Half a cheese, and a bottle of Chablis;
Lay on the grass and forgot the oaf
    Over a jolly chapter of Rabelais.
Now, this morning, betwixt the moss
    And gum that locked our friend in limbo,
A spider had spun his web across,
    And sat in the midst with arms akimbo:
So, I took pity, for learning’s sake,
    And, de profundis, accentibus lætis,
Cantate! quoth I, as I got a rake;
    And up I fished his delectable treatise.
Here you have it, dry in the sun,
    With all the binding all of a blister,
And great blue spots where the ink has run,
    And reddish streaks that wink and glister
O’er the page so beautifully yellow—
    Oh, well have the droppings played their tricks!
Did he guess how toadstools grow, this fellow?
    Here’s one stuck in his chapter six!
How did he like it when the live creatures
    Tickled and toused and browsed him all over,
And worm, slug, eft, with serious features,
    Came in, each one, for his right of trover;
When the water-beetle with great blind deaf face
    Made of her eggs the stately deposit,
And the newt borrowed just so much of the preface
    As tiled in the top of his black wife’s closet?
All that life and fun and romping,
    All that frisking and twisting and coupling,
While slowly our poor friend’s leaves were swamping
    And clasps were cracking and covers suppling!
As if you had carried sour John Knox
    To the play-house at Paris, Vienna or Munich,
Fastened him into a front-row box,
    And danced off the Ballet with trousers and tunic.
Come, old Martyr! What, torment enough is it?
    Back to my room shall you take your sweet self.
Good-bye, mother-beetle; husband-eft, sufficit!
    See the snug niche I have made on my shelf!
A.’s book shall prop you up, B.’s shall cover you,
    Here’s C. to be grave with, or D. to be gay,
And with E. on each side, and F. right over you,
    Dry-rot at ease till the Judgment-day!

Now, that's funny enough in its own way, but not exactly good oral fair. The whole semester went on like this, while I tried to imitate my speech-major-classmates' dramatic performances. Sometimes I pulled off a "C," but as often as not, I continued to receive the "D's" when it was my turn to perform. We had to turn in a written analysis for each poem, and I always received these back with "A's" and glowing comments, but that didn't happen in front of the class, you know?

For the final project, we had to select a single poet and recite several poems. And I'd think I would have learned something by this time, but noooo...I chose Matthew Arnold. I recited Dover Beach and The Buried Life, and something else I don't remember. It was torture to me, and I'm sure, to all my listeners. When my uneven performance and analysis grades were tallied up, I received a B, I think. Or a C. I can't remember after all these years, except that I passed and didn't have to go through it all again.

Kudos to anyone who read all through those poems. There is nothing wrong with them if you don't try to "perform" them in front of a bunch of leading-role speech majors. Now, here's what I finally figured out, after all these years. I should have mined the pages of Anne of Green Gables or Little House on the Prairie and recited the things that Anne and Laura recited. Too bad I didn't figure that out 22 years ago.

Friday, March 09, 2007


Suppose you were a bride--a Hungarian princess bride named Kinga, to be explicit--about to be married to a Polish king. You want to present your bridegroom with a valuable gift, and so you tell your father you want to give your new husband a salt mine. He tells you to drop your ring into the nearest salt-pit, and so you do. When you arrive in Poland, a trimphant bride, you direct a few servants to begin digging, which they do. They find your ring, encased in salt, and that marks the discovery of one of the oldest salt mines in the world, still in operation today.

That's the legend, anyway. Who can really remember what happened in the 13th century?

The salt mines in Wieliczka (just outside Krakow) are extensive. There are kilometers and kilometers of underground passages, underground salt lakes, winding staircases, vast eerie chambers, and amazing scuptures carved from rock salt. The salty air is supposed to be healthy, so a spa is operated on the premises, and tens of thousands of tourists visit the mines every year. They are probably more lucrative than the salt.

If you wonder why a salt mine would be such a valuable thing in the first place, consider the time of its inception. Salt was highly prized for its preservative power, and very valuable. The Polish kings received much of their wealth from these vast, productive mines. It could not have been pleasant to work in them, and part of the interest of the tour is to observe the evolving methods of mining the salt. At one point, they even had horses living underground to work in the mines!

Artists carved salt statues, bas-relief salt pictures, and made salt chapels. One enormous chamber has been fashioned into an underground cathedral. It looks as if it were paved with marble, but the floor is carved from the salt. The crystal chandeliers are made from salt crystals. There really isn't anything in this mine that isn't salt, and if you lick the walls, they will taste salty. (At least, that's what the tour guides tell you. And my kids.)

I realize that most of my readers will never get to visit this unique place, but if you like, take a virtual tour. Here's a short slide show featuring statues of "the finding of Kinga's ring" and one of the salt chandeliers. Here's a couple of film clips that will show you part of what the tour is like, including the small passages and the huge cathedral. (Click on the picture links at the bottom of the page.) You'll also hear spoken Polish.

If you visit Krakow, this is a must-see place, unless you are physically unable to manage the tour, which is a bit taxing. You begin by walking down about 430 steps, but you descend many more as the tour continues, and walk about 3 kilometers through the passages. Thankfully, they have an elevator (albeit an old mining elevator, unlighted, so you ride up in the dark) to take you back to the surface.

Take a look and tell me what you think! I've been there several times, but not recently.

(Oh, and P.S.--please say "Vyeh-LEECH-kah")


Thursday, March 08, 2007

The Time of Green Ginger by Armstrong King

This book made a deep impression on me, in a way that I did not expect. I already wrote some of my impressions here and here, but I can't let it go without sharing a few more things from the book and telling you about the ending. (I don't feel too badly about the spoilers, because I have strong doubts about the likelihood of anyone finding and reading this book.)

I never did figure out what the title means, so if they give awards for obscure titles, this books is a strong candidate. I don't even know if "green ginger" is a particular kind of ginger, or if it means "unripe ginger." I don't understand the significance of the "time" of green ginger. I'm guessing that it's either an Australian expression, or a dated expression from the 1930's or 40's, with connotations long since lost.

None of the characters were memorable or finely drawn, but they weren't meant to be. Each character is pretty much "everyman," or rather, "everyjew," "everyarab," or "everybrit." They stand in for their type, so it is not necessary for them to grow or change as characters, only to act in character.

As I mentioned before, every perspective is given even treatment, and so, though the book, we understand how each group feels. Whether we agree with their methods or not, we understand to some extent why they act as they do, and we feel along with them that the difficulties are too complex to unravel. When dialogue takes place between groups, one character usually misunderstands another, or one is deliberately concealing something, or just blatantly lying. "Aggressive negotiations" rule the day. Please forgive the non-pc nature of the following quotes.

Spoken by one of the British:

"I'm told nobody stays straight here. Either you build the Arab up into a paragon of virtue, or you see him as a stinking wog. As for the Jew, he's always the devil or the saint. Everybody sees what he wants to see in this country--at least, that's what they tell me."

From a British soldier musing on God's working in Israel and historical precedent:

How was one to reconcile death and mutilation with a Divine Plan? He poured another whiskey. Terrorism was cowardly and easy when you knew the victim would swallow his anger and smash no skulls. What would happen if the hot-heads were allowed to fight terror with terror? It would be easy, so despicably easy, to mine Jewish homes, schools and synagogues; to fight fire with fire. He knew what the Romans would have done--the furor Romanus, like the furor Teutonicus, would have left no stone standing.

The rational of a Jewish terrorist, concerning the bombing of the King David Hotel:

This was to be the big demonstration, this was to direct the eyes of the world upon a Britain which refused, even at this late hour, to open the floodgates of Jewish immigration. This was to the be most spectacular breakthrough in modern publicity; this was to take fire into the lion's den, and bring down approbation and contempt upon a blustering Army.

The thoughts of a potential Arab terrorist upon seeing Britain's forbearance after the bombing:

"Is it possible that great and mighty Britain, who has given our country away, is nothing more than a pregant camel, a rotten pumpkin? All these years we have sat at a graveside, deeming it a fortress!" And they howled derision at all things British, declaring by the very God himself that the British were afraid of the Jews! "For how can it be otherwise?" they asked. "How can it, when the British sit in their army camps and no man's hand is raised in revenge?"

Toward the end of the book, a few minor characters wandered back into the story to remind us that, in addition to the British, the Jews, and the Arabs, there was a helpless minority in Palestine as well--Christians who belongs to neither of the other groups, who viewed Palestine as home, but were neither Arabs nor Jews. They knew they were hated by both larger groups, and would have no protection after Britain withdrew.

One of these characters is an old man, who has spent his life building a stone wall around his property, which sits on a hill. He finishes the wall just before he dies, and is buried near it. The British have been using his property as an outpost, and on the day the British are withdrawing from Palestine, a few British soldiers are saying their farewells to some Arab friends while they wait for transport. Before their own trucks come, Jewish fighters arrive and take them prisoner, hoping to establish themselves on the protected hillside. Thus, Brits, Arabs, and Jews are behind the wall when Arab fighters from below begin launching mortars over the wall. Explosion after explosion kills them all--the enemies die together, and the carefully constructed wall is no protection at all. And that is the end. I'm not saying any of this eloquently, but the message could not have been clearer if it had been written out in black and white.

I wasn't expecting a happy ending, and I already knew that the author did not strongly favor one group over another. He seems to have seen the difficulties, and believed that mutual destruction was the most likely end to the situation. I found the book so timely because of the frank discussion of terrorism, various responses to terrorism, and the results of those responses--all free from the jargon and baggage of our own political climate.

I don't think it would be easy to acquire a copy of this book, but I say without hesitation that it would be worth the time and trouble--not because it is great literature, but because it has a message from the past that directly addresses an important issue for our time as well, and that message is delivered in a manner that carries more weight than any political rhetoric could ever hope to do. And it would make a great movie. Should I draft a screenplay?

Wednesday, March 07, 2007

Night by Elie Wiesel

Do indulge me in one pooterish paragraph, so that I may venture to speak about...ahem...atmospheric conditions. Spring has brushed the hem of her skirt across Krakow and stirred the earth, revealing crocuses. I saw blooming crocuses today, which made me almost dizzy with delight. It was very warm--the warmest day we've had so far--but I remember with perfect recall that there was not a single day in March last year during which which the temperature rose even 1 degree above freezing for even the merest fraction of a second. Snow and ice reigned supreme, and spring, when she finally came, crept in late and bedraggled. But this year, on March 7, we have crocuses!

Okay, paragraph over. I'll to move on to something profound now, although I'm not sure anything is more profound than the first blooms of spring.

I didn't mean to read Elie Wiesel's Night in one day, within 24 hours of receiving it in the mail, but that's what I did. I have mentioned before that I am fascinated by holocaust survivor stories--those individuals who lived through the worst of the worst that anyone could imagine and retained their spirit and humanity, and went on to live productive, even happy lives.

In some ways, I wish that I had read this book some other year, and not this year, when I have a 16 year old son. As Wiesel relates, almost dispassionately, the horrors of his holocaust experience, I kept thinking that he was the same age as J. when he went through all that.

One of the most poignant segments of the book relates his shame and grief he feels in connection with his father. He saw other sons negect, abandon, and even abuse their fathers as they succumbed to hunger themselves. He did not want that to happen to him--he did not want to be tested for fear he would fail the test--and when he did lose his father, his shame at feeling relief (because it was such a burden to try to care for his father in the conditions they were in) was as great as any grief he felt. And I thought of my son. But they were all somebody's sons.

If you have never read holocaust stories, this isn't a bad first choice, because it is short and somewhat detached in tone. It might be easier to bear than some of the other stories I've read. I've been to Auschwitz, and will probably go again sometime, and when I do, I know that Elie Wiesel's voice will join the other voices in my head, saying "Remember us, remember us." I'm glad books like this are still in print.

Monday, March 05, 2007

The Diary...of a Nobody

Parody and tongue-in-cheek humor were perfected in Victorian Britain, and found their outlet in the popular magazine Punch. The Diary of a Nobody was published serially by two brothers. Both George and Weedon Grossmith wrote the story, and Weedon Grossmith drew the illustrations.

Charles Pooter takes his diary very seriously, and keeps a careful record of the family trials, honors, and insults, as well as jokes made by him and unappreciated by anyone else, except for his wife.

Poor Mr. Pooter tries to behave himself with dignity, but he invariably slips on the dance floors, trips over the carpet, or finds himself taken advantage of by his cocky son or less-than-genteel friends. He relates in excruciating detail his dealings with cabmen, shopkeepers, and the after-affects of too much champagne. Still, he valiantly soldiers on and is rewarded at the end, according to the nature of his character. His dignity may be wounded from time to time, but never entirely overcome.

He's a good sort of fellow, if a bit ridiculous, and his name has given rise to the expression "pooterism," which basically means going on at length about mundane matters, in the mistaken belief that your listeners (or blog readers) are interested in all those little details.

Because this book was serialized, I read a chapter a day (they are rather short) for the last month or so, and it has been a lot of fun. My book has all the original illustrations, and nobody was as good at making fun of themselves as the Victorians.

Friday, March 02, 2007

Benvenuto Cellini encourages middle-aged bloggers

It is a duty incumbent on upright and credible men of all ranks who have performed any thing noble or praiseworthy to record in their own words the events of their lives. But they should not undertake the honorable task until they are past the age of forty.

Hat tip to Jacques Barzun, since I lifted this from From Dawn to Decadence

Thursday, March 01, 2007

Money, money

You all probably know, although I didn't until a few days ago, that the US is going to begin issuing new $1 coins, featuring each president in chronological order. As usual, there's always a discussion about whether anyone will actually use the new coins, or only collect them (which is partially the point, isn't it, since each one is only issued for a few months?).

I think the only way to make Americans use $1 coins is to give them no choice. You'd have to get rid of the paper dollar. Here in Poland, our smallest monetary note is 10 Polish złoty. (Please excuse me--I am constitutionally unable to write or speak "zlotys.") Since hundreds of products cost far less than 10 złoty, we obviously have smaller denominations, but they are all coins. There are nine in all, which makes the standard US four coins seem pretty meager. A $1 coin would only bring the total to five!

We have coins in the amount of 1, 2 and 5 złoty, and 1, 2, 5, 10, 20, and 50 groszy. It does make for a lot of change. It seems to be standard practice for stores to run out of change, because when you pay cash (and I usually do), they always, always ask for exact change if you can possibly give it to them.

The last state quarter I saw was California, and I don't expect to be seeing any of these $1 coins anytime in the near future. I wonder if they'll still be circulating the next time I'm in the states, or if they will all have been tucked into collector's albums? The US mint has come up with a real money maker, I think. It must be working with the quarters, so why not do it with nickels (I saw those Lewis and Clark nickels!) and dollars?

By the way, my kids have no trouble keeping all those Polish coins straight, but they are as likely as not to ask, "How much is a quarter worth?"