Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Schumann on Music (Selected Essays) by Robert Schumann

Source of book: I own this.

One of the great resources for musicians is Dover Publications. They are well known for their affordable scores, but they also have a rich library of public domain works on music, including such gems in my own library as Berlioz’ treatise on orchestration. I should also mention that they reprint obscure classic literature for affordable prices too. One of my favorite quirky companies.
Anyway, this book was discounted, so I decided to buy it. 



Schumann was known during his lifetime every bit as much for his writing as for his composing. He edited a musical journal, Neue Zeitschrift für Musik, which was influential both in its time and afterward. In addition to his work as an editor, he wrote hundreds of essays and other articles, the best of which are collected in this book.

I didn’t plan it this way, but this season, the Bakersfield Symphony Orchestra will be performing three works by Schumann. For our October concert, we will play the Manfred Overture, and the Piano Concerto. In the spring, we will play the 2nd Symphony, including the murderously difficult second movement. (Schumann loved the diminished arpeggio, which is awkward on stringed instruments.)

One of the joys of this book is reading about the composers of the past as they were experienced for the first time. Some of them are still popular today, while others have mouldered in the dustbin of history. Schumann wrote about them all, sometimes with admiration, other times with aggravation or dismissal. His judgment was pretty good, although not infallible. He wrote glowingly about Chopin and the young Brahms, approvingly of Mendelssohn and Berlioz, but disliked Meyerbeer, Wagner, and Liszt intensely. His opinions of the works of lesser lights were perceptive, both of strengths and weaknesses.

Throughout, his writings are full of wit, insight, and charm, even when discussing persons that nobody remembers.

Perhaps the best known line from Schumann’s essays is one which appears in an early review of Chopin’s Variations on 'La Ci Darem la Mano'. Schumann writes using a favorite technique, that of a conversation between fictional characters representing facets of Schumann’s own personality. The one bursts in, spreads out a score, and announces, “Hats off, gentlemen, a genius!”

Another interesting bit was a series of “letters” between Schumann’s alter egos, Eusebius and Floristan, and another fictitious character,  regarding a performance of works by Mendelssohn, conducted by Mendelssohn himself. Schumann was definitely not a fan of a certain newfangled invention, the conductor’s baton.

For my part, I was disturbed, both in the overture and in the symphony, by the conductor’s baton, and I agreed with Floristan that in a symphony, the orchestra must be like a republic, subordinate to no higher authority.

Every orchestral player at this point doubles over in uncontrollable laughter. Yeah, that really worked out for you, didn’t it?

I won’t quote from it, but the essay on Symphonie Fantastique is quite good.

Also excellent is the short musing on the characteristics of the various key signatures. I believe he attains the balance between the fact that keys cannot be entirely pigeonholed, but that they do make a difference, and matching the mood to the key is a skill that great composers have always had.

There is much to be enjoyed in this collection, particularly for the musician or lover of classical music.

Note on Schumann:

It is difficult to think of Schumann without thinking of tragedy. First, he injured a finger which never recovered, preventing him from becoming a top-tier pianist. His compositions never became popular enough to provide a reliable means of support. He married his wife against her father’s wishes, having to engage in a legal battle in order to do so.

Most of all, however, was his tragic end. He suffered increasingly from some form of mental disturbance, and attempted suicide. (He was plucked from the Rhine by a boatman.) He then voluntarily entered a mental institution, gradually declining over the next two years until his death at the young age of 46.

Exactly what caused the illness is the subject of debate. One possibility is syphilis, which was all too common in those days. (It probably claimed the life of Schubert, and caused Smetana to lose his hearing.) For many men, they contracted it in their youth, from prostitutes. It is easy to forget it now, but for many years, it was the normal thing for young men to lose their virginities in a brothel - only females were expected to be chaste.

Another possibility is mercury poisoning. Mercury was a commonly administered “medicine” for a variety of ailments.

Others have suggested a brain mass, which is supported by some evidence from the autopsy, although the medical technology of the times prevents a solid conclusion.

Finally, he may well have suffered from a garden variety mental illness such as bipolar disorder.

Whatever the case, it claimed his health and life far too early.

Schumann’s compositions are often unjustly neglected as well. I find them to have an admirable emotional depth, and a melancholy beauty. Since he wrote so extensively for piano, I assume pianists tend to be more familiar with his works. We have played the first two symphonies at various times, but I am glad to have the chance to play Manfred, which is really quite delightful. 


Note on Clara Schumann:


Clara, Robert’s wife, was one of the most amazing women in history. She was quite famous and admired as one of the greatest concert pianists of all time. She was the primary breadwinner for her family from a young age, with her performance fees contributing to her father’s income while she was a child, later outearning Robert during the marriage - and then continuing to support their young children after his death. She even raised some of her grandchildren after the death of their parents.

She is considered one of the pioneers of concert performance as we know it today, memorizing her selections before it became common practice - beginning at age 13.

She also composed, but lost confidence in her ability, believing that women were not able to rise to those heights. In recent years, her compositions have regained their popularity and reputation.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

The Daughter of Time by Josephine Tey

Source of book: My wife owns this.

“Truth is the daughter of time.” ~ Old proverb

William Shakespeare committed at least one great slander during his illustrious career. The victim was Macbeth, who could hardly be called a villain according to the standards of his time. Far from murdering good king Duncan in his sleep, he defeated and killed him on the field of battle after Duncan invaded his territory. Also, Duncan was quite young, not the old, benevolent man portrayed in the Scottish Play.

In this book, Josephine Tey uses the vehicle of fiction - a murder mystery - to make her claim that Shakespeare also slandered a second victim: Richard III. Whether she succeeds depends on one’s belief about the fate of the princes in the tower, of course. Winston Churchill was not convinced by Tey’s book (he made a dismissive remark about it) nor by Horace Walpole’s more scholarly work. Peter Hitchens, on the other hand, considered it one of the most important books ever written. Your mileage may vary. More about the controversy below.

The Daughter of Time was the last work published during Tey’s lifetime, and was written near the end of her life. It features Scotland Yard detective Alan Grant, who is featured in several of her other books. Grant is recuperating from a broken leg in a rather dismal hospital, and decides to tackle the question of the fate of the princes as a diversion from his boredom. To this end, he enlists the help of a young American researcher, Brent Carradine, who assist him in locating primary sources. 

Richard III

As Grant quickly discovers, the very concept of “objective” history was hardly even considered back in the era of Richard III. History was primarily the propaganda of the victors to ensure their continued grip on power - and life for that matter. After all, as Henry IV would say in his own Shakespeare play, “Uneasy lies the head that wears the crown.” That head could easily be removed by a rival, and public opinion could be a fickle support to rely on.

The primary histories of the reign of Richard III were written by the historians of the Tudors, the first of which was none other than Henry VII, who defeated Richard and took his place on the throne. Thus, they naturally portrayed Richard as evil, and the Tudors as good. Likewise, Shakespeare wrote his play - and most of his others - during the reign of Elizabeth I, the last of the Tudors. Since he wished to keep his head firmly attached to his neck, he had to, shall we say, walk a fine line. This consideration also played into his portrayal of Macbeth and his associates - particularly the character of Banquo, who was an ancestor of James I, the ruler at the time of the Scottish Play’s writing.

Even now, history tends to be written by the victors, and it is only recently that historians have tried to see the other side, written by the victims, the downtrodden, and the powerless.

In Tey’s book, Grant comes to the conclusion that Richard was innocent of the murders of the princes, and posits that another person with weaker rival claims was the guilty party.

A significant portion of the argument centers around motive. Would Richard have significantly benefited from a secret murder? Would someone else have benefited more? This is the strongest part of the argument, particularly when combined with the way that Henry VII - and even more so, his son Henry VIII - ruthlessly eliminated all rivals.

From my point of view, the one thing that Tey does extraordinarily well in this book is point out the way that events are manipulated for political purposes. Alan Grant dwells extensively on the Tonypandy Riots, which were spun to achieve a particular objective, in direct contradiction to the actual facts. He eventually coins the term “Tonypandy” to describe any mythological spinning of an event. It would be highly useful if we could get this term admitted into the general vernacular. Anyone want to join me in this cause?

The other event that gets a good mention is the so-called “Boston Massacre,” a similarly mythologized event in our nation’s history. It was, as any serious student of history knows, absolutely nothing approaching a massacre. Furthermore, it was started by an insult to a soldier, and was substantially escalated by the colonists, already incensed about political grievances.

Let’s just say, to draw a modern political analogy, that had the incident occurred, say, in Ferguson, there would have likely been far more bodies - and it would have been largely agreed that the killings were justified. Seriously, read the account and think how it would go down today.

It was a bit of an aside within the book, but I thought it was a particularly compelling passage, in which Grant notes that a lot of the “martyrs” of the Covenanter movement in Scotland in the 1600s were better described as common criminals - or even as we might define them today, mobsters. No doubt, there have been plenty of genuine martyrs in history. Even today, one could certainly place the victims of ISIS in this category. But there are plenty of others who became “martyrs” more for a political cause than for a genuine moral one. A good way to tell is whether the “victim” would afford freedom to others who believed differently, something the Covenanters - and other religious movements of the time, such as the Puritans - were unwilling to grant to others. The claim that religious “freedom” included the right to slaughter or at least oppress those who believed differently was endemic to the time - and has never really gone away

A few other things that are worth mentioning from this book:

I don’t think Tey much liked hospitals. Not that I do, despite the fact that my wife practices her profession at one. A great line is, “[I]n hospitals symmetry ranked just a short head behind cleanliness and a whole length ahead of Godliness. Anything out of the parallel was hospital profanity.”

Also good was the description of “The Midget,” Grant’s moniker for the small nurse who was one of his attendants. She reminded me a bit of my own favorite nurse, the lovely (and crazy strong) Amanda. “The Midget” was a mere five foot two inches, but “She tossed the mattresses around with the absent minded grace of a plate spinner.” My own wife is barely bigger than that, but she routinely turns 400+ pound patients. (True story: before I asked her out, she helped me move an old refrigerator out of my kitchen to the curb. Don’t mess with her…)

Tey also writes a terrific send-up of genre fiction. With the exception of the murder mystery - my weakness - I have a low tolerance for pulp genre fiction, so I heartily agreed with Grant’s snarky dismissal of these books.

The top one, with the pretty picture of Valetta in unlikely pink, was Lavinia Fitch’s annual account of a blameless heroine’s tribulations. In view of the representation of the Grand Harbour on the cover, the present Valerie or Angela or Cicile or Denise must be a naval wife

And:

The Sweat and the Furrow was Silas Weekley being earthy and spade-conscious all over seven hundred pages. The situation, to judge from the first paragraph, had not materially changed since Silas’s last book: mother lying-in with her eleventh upstairs, father laid-out after his night downstairs, eldest son lying to the government in the cow-shed, eldest daughter lying with her lover in the hay-loft, everyone else lying low in the barn. The rain dripped from the thatch, and the manure steamed in the midden. Silans never omitted the manure. It was not Silas’s fault that its steam provided the only up-rising element in the picture. If Silas could have discovered a brand of steam that steamed downwards, Silas would have introduced it.

That makes me laugh every time I read it.

Tey’s ultimate argument may or may not be convincing. There is evidence that she does not bring into the book - and may well have not been aware of when she wrote it - that goes against her thesis. But she does write a good story, and makes a remarkably strong claim.

So, when did the princes in the tower permanently disappear? And who killed them? Was it Richard, the last of the Plantagenets? Or was the whole tale a concoction of the Tudors? Read it and decide for yourself.

Note on Richard III:

If you haven’t read - or better yet, seen live - this play, I highly recommend it. A number of years ago, my wife and I saw this at Bakersfield College, with the title role played by professor Randall Messick. Amanda took a few Shakespeare classes from him while in school, and he is always a pleasure to watch. He was delightfully lugubrious in this role. (I also remember him being memorable as Sir Andrew Aguecheek in Twelfth Night, and as Friar Lawrence in Romeo and Juliet.)

My favorite line from the play is this one, spoken by Richard as he plots to destroy his rivals and justify it as moral.

But then I sigh and, with a piece of scripture,
Tell them that God bids us do good for evil;
And thus I clothe my naked villainy
With odd old ends stolen out of Holy Writ,
And seem a saint when most I play the devil.

Thus have all villains done since the dawn of time.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

My Ten Most Influential Books - as of 2014 at least...

Recently, a few friends and colleagues tried to recruit me to do a “10 most influential books you have read” challenge on Facebook. The problem is, I couldn’t bring myself to just post a list. I wanted to explain each selection a bit. It was hard to limit myself to a small number of books, and I undoubtedly will think of egregious omissions later. I have added a few at the bottom as honorable mentions.

Keep in mind that this is a “most influential” list. A list of favorites would look much different, as would a list of books that best illustrate human psychology - both of which would be fun to compile.

1. The Bible


Sure, it’s sometimes a cliche, but I was raised on this book, and it is, after all, the book of my faith. To us, it is the remarkable record of God’s dealings with mankind. Earthy and human, it is filled with the sordid, the inspiring, the best of good and the worst of evil. Often beautiful in language, touching on every human emotion, it is by no means a safe book. It has been the inspiration for the most noble of men and women, but also for some the most base and oppressive.

More than anything, it contains the history of the one who turned the world upside down. Who dared to assert the existence of an upside down kingdom, one where the greatest is a servant, where enemies were to be loved rather than hated, where children were closer to God than wise men, and the greatest commandment was love.

2. Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain


My mother, who stretched my mind during my childhood by introducing me (and my siblings) to all kinds of classic books during our childhood. We read this one together. I am including it because of chapter 31

Huck considers turning in his friend (and runaway slave) Jim, feeling that his religion compels him to do so. (Indeed, many preachers of the era spent sermons on this topic.) Huck eventually, however, cannot bring himself to do it, even though he believes he will be damned if he doesn’t do the “right” thing.

"All right, then, I'll go to hell"- and tore it up.

This quote has been a bit of a guiding light to me in my own life. I do not believe God calls me to ignore either my brain or my conscience. Like Huck, I would indeed choose hell over doing evil.

3. Family Happiness and The Kreutzer Sonata by Leo Tolstoy


I know, I am totally cheating here and counting two novellas as one book. However, I read them back to back, and I would say they influenced my views of marriage and sexuality in a huge way. (I read them during high school.)

Family Happiness is believed to be Tolstoy’s “fantasy” of what would have happened had he married a younger girl he was infatuated with at one point. In his imagined version of the story, told from her point of view, the passionate romance comes off the rails as they discover their inherent incompatibility. She likes the city, the parties, and the excitement; while he prefers a sedate country life. Is this difference due to age? Or is it personality? In the end, the couple settles down to a life (largely on his terms), and she resigns herself to a form of “happiness” akin to deep unhappiness. The book ends with what I believe to be one of the most devastating closing lines in literature:

That day ended the romance of our marriage; the old feeling became a precious irrecoverable remembrance; but a new feeling of love for my children and the father of my children laid the foundation of a new life and a quite different happiness; and that life and happiness have lasted to the present time.

That image has haunted me, and made me determined that I would never inflict that sort of “happiness” on a woman.

The Kreutzer Sonata should be required reading, in my opinion. Tolstoy tells a tale of a murder of a wife by her jealous husband after he catches her (possibly) having an affair. But the tale itself is mostly a vehicle for Tolstoy to argue his view of sexual intimacy as an evil to be avoided. In the narrator’s view, the murder was accomplished, not when he killed his wife, but when he slept with her, which was in itself animalistic violence. Tolstoy seemed incapable of an understanding of sexuality that led to mutual bonding and closeness, rather than selfish use of the other.

Let us stop believing that carnal love is high and noble and understand that any end worth our pursuit -- in service of humanity, our homeland, science, art, let alone God -- any end, so long as we may count it worth our pursuit, is not attained by joining ourselves to the objects of our carnal love in marriage or outside it; that, in fact, infatuation and conjunction with the object of our carnal love (whatever the authors of romances and love poems claim to the contrary) will never help our worthwhile pursuits but only hinder them.

When I read this book, I was not expecting this at all, being familiar with Tolstoy primarily from his short stories of morality, ethics, and mysticism. It was my first real experience with a highly sex-negative religious viewpoint - although I have since encountered it in various forms since, particularly among some followers of Christian Patriarchy. From Doug Wilson’s view that sex cannot be an “egalitarian pleasure fest,” but needs to be about dominance and submission; to an acquaintance of my wife’s family who worried that he was “lusting” after his wife; to a friend who vowed never to inflict sex on his wife, not realizing she might enjoy it. Tolstoy’s twisted vision is alive and well.

Both of these books greatly influenced how I approached dating and marriage. I was determined to avoid these scenarios, going so far as to have some pretty involved discussions about sex with my wife before I ever asked her out. I also made it my goal to make marriage a source of true happiness for my wife, not a tolerable state of “happiness.”

4. Watership Down by Richard Adams


I was given this book by an aunt, who really loved it herself. I must have been in late elementary school, or maybe Jr. High. I wore out my original copy through the years. Definitely one of the books I read the most times as a minor.

The book is both an adventure story (with some parallels to the great Roman and Greek epics) and a parable of totalitarianism. It put a human rabbit face on command and control societies in a way perfectly understandable to a young person. Although Watership Down suffers from the same lack of strong female characters as Tolkien’s works, it nevertheless is high adventure, amusing mythology, and provocative commentary on human society.

5. The Ball and the Cross by G. K. Chesterton


Although I was introduced to Chesterton by his Father Brown stories, this was the first longer work of his that I read. I could have chosen Orthodoxy or Heretics, and I was sorely tempted to put The Flying Inn here, but as much as I love those books, The Ball and the Cross gets the prize as most influential. It is the one that led me to acquire and read the others, and the one I find myself referring to most often.

The book starts with a seemingly mundane incident. An atheist posts a provocative slur against Christ, and the devout protagonist objects. Soon, however, the two realize that they have more in common than not, because even though they violently disagree, at least they both care, unlike the vast mass of humanity which never even thinks of the ultimate questions.

6. All About Electricity by Ira M. Freeman


Yeah, this is a weird one to put on the list. However, it is the one book I read more than any other during my elementary school days. It is a kids’ introduction to the science of electricity written in the 1950s. So, it ends with an optimistic statement that those newfangled transistor things might just revolutionize the world. Ya think?

All About Electricity was my gateway drug to a lifetime love of science. From there, I went on to harder drugs, like my Growing Up With Science encyclopedias (still a beloved part of my library), electronic kits and a soldering iron, and a steady stream of books from the library on scientific topics.

The nature of this book also gave me a fascination with those mysterious devices, known as valves or tubes, depending on what side of the pond one comes from. Although horribly out of style in the 1980s, when I was a kid, they have made a comeback in recent years. As a music snob, I firmly believe that nothing sounds like a real tube guitar amp driven hard. Eventually, I was able to purchase my own little amp, the underrated Peavey Prowler, and I can set the filaments aglow to my heart’s content.

7. No Name by Wilkie Collins


There were quite a number of options for influential novels that I read in high school. I selected this one, because it was the first I read with an unconventional female protagonist who defied the conventions of Victorian society.

What the audacious Magdalen Vanstone does in pursuit of justice for herself and her sister seems shocking, even in the 21st Century, but it must have been even more so at the time it was written.

However, she goes no further than any number of male heroes, and that is why it is disconcerting. Her active role contrasts with the passive stereotype of women and the rules that society places on them. It was a great introduction to the idea that there should be more for women than a command to marry a reasonably wealthy husband.

8. Why Societies Need Dissent by Cass Sunstein


As good as Nudge was, I think this one is better and more influential on my thinking.

The discovery that those who only associate with “likeminded” persons become more extreme than any one of the group was before they got together was mind-blowing. It explained so much of my observation of polarized groups - and also a lot about our increasingly isolated and polarized society.



Although I was already familiar with the concept, Aron’s book on the essentially religious nature of totalitarianism was an amazing discovery. Aron focuses primarily on Communism (particularly in its Stalinist form), and points out that it lacks only the traditional supreme being to be recognized as a religion - and a cult at that. The priesthood, the mythology of origins, the moral code, the demand of loyalty, and even the belief in a form of the apocalypse (the “end of history”) parallel the traditional theistic traditions. Did I mention that Aron was non-religious? Aron’s argument against the likes of Sartre, who excused Stalin’s purges as necessary to create a better world remains valid today. Totalitarian systems, whether overtly religious or the opposite, have more in common than one might think at first glance.

10. Animal Farm by George Orwell


Another book my mother introduced me to as a kid. Although it is commonly cited as an argument against Communism, it also works well as an indictment of a more endemic problem: those who come to power in any system tend to exploit it for their own gain, oppress those below them, and justify it all as “equality.”

Or, as the Who put it, “Meet the new boss, same as the old boss…”

11. The Rest Is Noise by Alex Ross


“This list goes to ELEVEN!”

Even though I have been a classical musician for over 30 years, I never really warmed to 20th Century classical. Other than a few mainstream composers like Copland and Prokofiev. This book really, really helped me understand the different directions that modern music went, and opened my eyes to a world of music that suddenly made more sense.

I reviewed the other book by Ross, Listen to This, which is also excellent - but not as influential.

Honorable mentions to:

You knew I couldn’t stop with 11…

He Knew He Was Right by Anthony Trollope, The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne, The Octopus by Frank Norris, The Great Divorce and The Chronicles of Narnia by C. S. Lewis, To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee, any number of Dr. Seuss books, Measure for Measure by William Shakespeare, Are Women Human? by Dorothy Sayers, A Day In the Life of Ivan Denisovich by Alexander Solzhenitsyn, Blink by Malcolm Gladwell, "The Grand Inquisitor" from Dostoyevsky's Brothers Karamazov.

I’m a little disappointed at how few female authors made the list, because I really do love many books written by women. A list of “favorite books” would contain more - as would a list of favorite poets.

You knew it was coming:

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

The Moons of Jupiter by Alice Munro

Source of book: Borrowed from the library

Last year, I read and reviewed Yiyun Li’s short story collection, Gold Boy, Emerald Girl. A regular commenter suggested that I also read some Alice Munro as well, given some of the similarities. I figured Munro was a natural fit for me. After all, I love short stories. I enjoy female writers. I don’t find regional fiction or small towns to be boring - although I have nothing against city stories. (I own and have read the complete O. Henry.) Even the name was promising. I am a big fan of Hector Hugh Munro (no relative to Alice), better known to the world as Saki. 



I cannot recall exactly how I settled on The Moons of Jupiter, but it may have been because it was checked in at the library when I put it on the list last year. Who knows? It’s not her best known collection, and I have no idea how representative it is.

That said, it was a good read, full of interesting characters and psychological insight. Like many Munro stories, these are primarily set in small Canadian towns, and involve ordinary people. There isn’t much of a plot to most of the stories, in the traditional sense. In some, a moment is presented, and nothing more. The “action” isn’t in the events, but in the inner life of one or more characters. As often as not, there is no resolution, and the story ends before one can determine what happened. All that is certain is that a character has changed in some way. This technique seems common enough now, but it was unusual when Munro pioneered it at the beginning of her career.

A significant reason for Munro’s long success as a writer surely must be her characters. Despite simple language and spare descriptions, they are easily pictured in the mind - and resemble people I know. The large, intimidating maiden aunts in the first story, “Chaddeleys and Flemings,” for example.“Old Maids was too thin a term, it would not cover them,” as the author puts it. Several faces - and figures - spring to mind.

Munro focuses on middle aged women in this book, and - not coincidentally - on loss, regret, and uncomfortable transitions. By the time she wrote this book, she had already divorced and remarried, giving her plenty of material. The questions are universal: what does one do after one’s world has changed? When the kids leave the house, when a relationship crumbles, when one becomes old and disabled? How does one rebuild, when one’s very sense of self has been revealed as a facade?

I have been ruminating on a few of the stories in particular. “Accident” is the rare one (in this collection) that covers a longer period of time, and has a resolution of sorts. The protagonist becomes involved with a married co-worker, whose marriage is crumbling. The stasis of the triangle is disturbed when the man’s son is killed in an accident, and his wife’s relatives descend en masse, leading him to realize that he cannot live like that anymore. I do find this kind of story interesting, because Munro understands that the vast majority of failed marriages are not cut and dried, victim and wrongdoer. As the saying goes, “It’s Complicated.” Fourteen years of work in family law has proven this true. The moral ambiguity in this story is heightened by the awful tragedy of the inciting force. In a Victorian story, either the death of a child would save the marriage and make everything end happily (except for the wanton woman, who would die in misery - can’t leave her unpunished), or the sinners would at least pay for their sins. Yet, there is no note of triumph either. Indeed, it isn’t even clear if the relationship is a good one, but what happens happens. “Two roads diverged in a yellow wood…”

Another story that hit close to home was “Mrs. Cross and Mrs. Kidd,” a tale of two women in a nursing home, thrown together again after going to school together, although they traveled in different social and class circles back then.

A number of the stories are about a visit - a really awkward visit. There are several in “Chaddeleys and Flemings,” but two other stories make the visit the central incident. In “Visitors,” it is the visit from a brother not seen for the past 40 years that makes up the story. The brother, his puritanical wife and her equally puritanical sister visit their rather free-and-easy relatives. The contrast between the approaches to life, and even their size and shape, makes for an interesting study in discomfort. I have certainly experienced a few awkward encounters of this nature. Even the food becomes a source of contrast, with the sisters ordering small vanilla ice creams, while the less inhibited sister-in-law gets a double rum raisin and praline cream.

In the second story, “Labor Day Dinner,” an entire family of less-than-healthy characters visit neighbors barely more functional, and even good intentions cannot make things quite right.

I’ll mention a few good lines from the book.

One is an extended bit on the views of homosexuality in this particular setting. (From “The Turkey Season,” one of the few in this book about a young woman.)

There wasn’t any idea then - at least in Logan, Ontario, in the late forties - about homosexuality’s going beyond very narrow confines. Women, certainly, believed in its rarity and in definite boundaries. There were homosexuals in town, and we knew who they were: an elegant, light-voiced, wavy-haired paperhanger who called himself an interior decorator; the minister’s widow’s fat, spoiled only son, who went so far as to enter baking contests and had crocheted a tablecloth; a hypochondriacal church organist and music teacher who kept the choir and his pupils in line with screaming tantrums. Once the label was fixed, there was a good deal of tolerance for these people, and their talents for decorating, for crocheting, and for music were appreciated - especially by women. “The poor fellow,” they said. “He doesn’t do any harm.” They really seemed to believe - the women did - that it was the penchant for baking or music that was the determining factor, and that it was this activity that made the man what he was - not any other detours he might take, or wish to take. A desire to play the violin would be taken as more a deviation from manliness than would a wish to shun women. Indeed, the idea was that any manly man would wish to shun women, but most of them were caught off guard, and for good.

Part of the fun of this passage is that I see myself in it. I have been mistaken for gay more than a few times, and I’m sure the violin playing, crocheting, and cooking were significant factors.

Another really fun bit was from the tale of why a character’s father ran away from home at a young age.

“It was this way. They always carried the feed to the horses, pail by pail. In the winter, when the horses were in the stalls. So my father took the notion to carry it to them in the wheelbarrow. Naturally it was a lot quicker. But he got beat. For laziness. That was the way they were, you know. Any change of any kind was a bad thing. Efficiency was just laziness, to them. That’s the peasant thinking for you.”
“Maybe Tolstoy would agree with them,” I said. “Ghandi too.”
“Drat Tolstoy and Ghandi. They never worked when they were young.”
“Maybe not.”

I’ve had a moment or two with that sort of person, and it is particularly maddening to me. Maybe I am lazy.

One final one, a bit bitter, perhaps, but nonetheless true.

They were all in their early thirties. An age at which it is sometimes hard to admit that what you are living is your life.

I’m a pretty optimistic and positive person, even if I can be kind of introspective and moody in my blogging. Still, there were those moments with very small children when it was impossible not to feel that way. One’s life often does seem less scintillating than it looked when one was anticipating adulthood. On the other hand, it is in many ways much better too. It’s just those days with too many diapers and too little sleep.

So there you have it, my initiation into Alice Munro, and my thoughts thereon.

Notes on other female short story writers:

Lest anyone suggest it, I have read a good bit of Flannery O’Connor. A bit frightening sometimes, but nonetheless a brilliant writer.

I also like Willa Cather, but haven’t read anything of hers since I started the blog.

I have read - and reviewed - the following:

A Curtain of Green by Eudora Welty
The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros