Monday, January 21, 2019

Epigrams and Elegies by John Donne

Source of book: I own this.

John Donne and I go way back. I remember reading a sonnet somewhere in my early days of discovering poetry before age 10. He was a bit over my head at the time, but I at least became aware of “Send not to ask for whom the bell tolls…” and “No man is an island” and a few other good lines.

I experienced a larger dose in high school. As I have mentioned, I took video courses from well known fundamentalist curriculum maker, which was a mixed experience. On the one hand, Mr. Collins, who taught two years of English, was a great teacher, and I learned a lot. He also subtly undermined the worst of the flaws in the curriculum itself, which, as I have come to realize, had problems. One of the biggest gaps was the near-lack of 20th Century literature. Likewise, few non-white authors made the cut. The other problem, though, was that the necessity of making everything about their version of religion meant that the facts were often twisted so they wouldn’t undermine the preaching.

In the case of Donne, this was particularly egregious. The claim was that Donne’s life followed the preferred “conversion narrative.” In his wild youth, he chased women (true) and wrote naughty poems; but then he found God, got married, and traded his smutty poetry for exalted religious poetry. This was, technically speaking, bullshit on a stick. Donne did get married (against her parents’ wishes), had a dozen children, most of whom died in infancy, and then was widowed when his wife died giving birth to the last child. (And no wonder, really.) He then lived another 15 years, and continued to write.

At all times: his unmarried youth, his years as a husband, and his long widowhood - he wrote both devotional and risque poems. This fact was highly inconvenient, however, to fundies. After all, in their worldview, it was impossible to be both devout and incontinent, or to be religious and profane at the same time. But Donne was. 

 The young, dashing Donne.

It has been seven years since I read Donne (man, time flies!), so I was overdue to open that book again. You can read my thoughts on his Songs and Sonnets collection here.

Epigrams and Elegies is a convenient way of grouping the two sections I read. The Epigrams are somewhat tongue-in-cheek tributes to the dead. And by this I mean persons ranging from real people to mythological figures to generic characters like “Liar” to inanimate objects.

Here is an example:

“A Burnt Ship”

Out of a fired ship, which by no way
But drowning could be rescued from the flame,
Some men leap'd forth, and ever as they came
Near the foes' ships, did by their shot decay;
So all were lost, which in the ship were found,
      They in the sea being burnt, they in the burnt ship drown'd.

Or how about the wicked humor of this one?


If in his study he hath so much care
To hang all old strange things, let his wife beware.

The Elegies are quite a bit different from the Epigrams, and indeed from what you might reasonably expect. An Elegy, poetically speaking, is a poem of serious reflection, typically a lament for the dead. In many cases, they are written in rhymed couplets - many of these fit that pattern - and are expected to lament the death, but end on a note of hope.

Donne smashes this idea to smithereens, choosing to write, not about death, but about love. And not in a way which mourns with hope, but instead takes uses brutally sharp wit and satire to examine the good, bad, and ugly of love, sex, and relationships. Right at the outset, with the elegy entitled “Jealousy,” he speaks to a woman married to an abusive and controlling jealous man, who wishes him dead, and encourages her to come on over and have a little nookie at his place, where the risk is less, rather than doing the deed in the husband’s bed.

Unlike the Elizabethans before him, or the Romantics after him, Donne didn’t exactly butter women up. And when he is mean, he is mean. “The Anagram” is a good example. Donne extols the virtue of a woman that is unattractive, and thus likely to be faithful. The title refers to his description of her face as an anagram: having all the same letters as beauty, but in a mixed up order. It is worth quoting in full.

“The Anagram”

MARRY, and love thy Flavia, for she
Hath all things, whereby others beauteous be;
For, though her eyes be small, her mouth is great;
Though they be ivory, yet her teeth be jet;
Though they be dim, yet she is light enough;        
And though her harsh hair fall, her skin is tough;
What though her cheeks be yellow, her hair’s red,
Give her thine, and she hath a maidenhead.
These things are beauty’s elements; where these
Meet in one, that one must, as perfect, please.
If red and white, and each good quality
Be in thy wench, ne’er ask where it doth lie.
In buying things perfumed, we ask, if there
Be musk and amber in it, but not where.
Though all her parts be not in th’ usual place,  
She hath yet an anagram of a good face.
If we might put the letters but one way,
In that lean dearth of words, what could we say?
When by the gamut some musicians make
A perfect song, others will undertake,    
By the same gamut changed, to equal it.
Things simply good can never be unfit;
She’s fair as any, if all be like her;
And if none be, then she is singular.
All love is wonder; if we justly do  
Account her wonderful, why not lovely too?
Love built on beauty, soon as beauty, dies;
Choose this face, changed by no deformities.
Women are all like angels; the fair be
Like those which fell to worse; but such as she,  
Like to good angels, nothing can impair:
’Tis less grief to be foul, than to have been fair.
For one night’s revels, silk and gold we choose,
But, in long journeys, cloth, and leather use.
Beauty is barren oft; best husbands say  
There is best land, where there is foulest way.
Oh, what a sovereign plaster will she be,
If thy past sins have taught thee jealousy!
Here needs no spies, nor eunuchs; her commit
Safe to thy foes, yea, to a marmoset.   
Like Belgia’s cities the round country drowns,
That dirty foulness guards and arms the towns,
So doth her face guard her; and so, for thee,
Which forced by business, absent oft must be, S
he, whose face, like clouds, turns the day to night;
Who, mightier than the sea, makes Moors seem white;
Who, though seven years she in the stews had laid,
A nunnery durst receive, and think a maid;
And though in childbed’s labour she did lie,
Midwives would swear, ’twere but a tympany;
Whom, if she accuse herself, I credit less
Than witches, which impossibles confess;
One like none, and liked of none, fittest were;
For things in fashion every man will wear.

Not too different from a certain Jimmy Soul song. Although Donne’s language is much more witty.

Even meaner is “The Comparison.” It is a comparison between the narrator’s mistress (who is all good and divine and beautiful) and the mistress of the person the narrator addresses, who is the opposite. It includes such gems as:

Rank sweaty froth thy mistress’ brow defiles,
Like spermatic issue of ripe menstruous boils...

And also a comparison of her vagina to “the dread mouth of a fired gun.” Yes, Donne could be naughty and mean.

Not all the elegies are in this vein, however. An interesting contrast is this one, extolling the virtue of an older - but not decrepit - woman.

“The Autumnal”

No spring nor summer beauty hath such grace
         As I have seen in one autumnal face.
Young beauties force our love, and that's a rape,
         This doth but counsel, yet you cannot scape.
If 'twere a shame to love, here 'twere no shame;
         Affection here takes reverence's name.
Were her first years the golden age? That's true,
         But now she's gold oft tried and ever new.
That was her torrid and inflaming time,
         This is her tolerable tropic clime.
Fair eyes, who asks more heat than comes from hence,
         He in a fever wishes pestilence.
Call not these wrinkles, graves; if graves they were,
         They were Love's graves, for else he is no where.
Yet lies not Love dead here, but here doth sit
         Vow'd to this trench, like an anachorit;
And here till hers, which must be his death, come,
         He doth not dig a grave, but build a tomb.
Here dwells he; though he sojourn ev'rywhere
         In progress, yet his standing house is here:
Here where still evening is, not noon nor night,
         Where no voluptuousness, yet all delight.
In all her words, unto all hearers fit,
         You may at revels, you at council, sit.
This is Love's timber, youth his underwood;
         There he, as wine in June, enrages blood,
Which then comes seasonabliest when our taste
         And appetite to other things is past.
Xerxes' strange Lydian love, the platan tree,
         Was lov'd for age, none being so large as she,
Or else because, being young, nature did bless
         Her youth with age's glory, barrenness.
If we love things long sought, age is a thing
         Which we are fifty years in compassing;
If transitory things, which soon decay,
         Age must be loveliest at the latest day.
But name not winter faces, whose skin's slack,
         Lank as an unthrift's purse, but a soul's sack;
Whose eyes seek light within, for all here's shade;
         Whose mouths are holes, rather worn out than made;
Whose every tooth to a several place is gone,
         To vex their souls at resurrection:
Name not these living death's-heads unto me,
         For these, not ancient, but antique be.
I hate extremes, yet I had rather stay
         With tombs than cradles, to wear out a day.
Since such love's natural lation is, may still
         My love descend, and journey down the hill,
Not panting after growing beauties. So,
         I shall ebb on with them who homeward go.

That may well be my favorite of the set, although there are so many good ones. Another that caught my attention was this one, with its musing on the dream of love contrasted with reality, and the question of whether one should prefer the love of dreams, or love as it is in reality, with all its pain and difficulty. In this sense, Donne has a very practical approach to love, rather than a dreamy one. His life wasn’t sunshine and rainbows, but he deeply loved his wife, and never quite got over her loss.

“The Dream”

IMAGE of her whom I love, more than she,   
Whose fair impression in my faithful heart
Makes me her medal, and makes her love me,   
As kings do coins, to which their stamps impart
The value; go, and take my heart from hence,    
Which now is grown too great and good for me.
Honours oppress weak spirits, and our sense   
Strong objects dull; the more, the less we see.
When you are gone, and reason gone with you,   
Then fantasy is queen and soul, and all;        
She can present joys meaner than you do,   
Convenient, and more proportional.
So, if I dream I have you, I have you,   
For all our joys are but fantastical;
And so I ’scape the pain, for pain is true;  
And sleep, which locks up sense, doth lock out all.
After a such fruition I shall wake,   
And, but the waking, nothing shall repent;
And shall to love more thankful sonnets make,   
Than if more honour, tears, and pains were spent.  
But, dearest heart and dearer image, stay;   
Alas! true joys at best are dream enough;
Though you stay here, you pass too fast away,   
For even at first life’s taper is a snuff.
Fill’d with her love, may I be rather grown     
Mad with much heart, than idiot with none.

I was also struck by some lines from “The Bracelet.” The basic plot of the poem is that his mistress has lost a gold bracelet which symbolized their love. The narrator rages - but not so much at her, but at the person who stole it. He calls down a series of curses on the the thief, using his imaginative powers well. Here are a few selected lines:

NOT that in colour it was like thy hair,
For armlets of that thou mayst let me wear;
Nor that thy hand it oft embraced and kiss’d,
For so it had that good, which oft I miss’d;
Nor for that silly old morality,       
That, as these links were knit, our love should be,
Mourn I that I thy sevenfold chain have lost;
Nor for the luck sake; but the bitter cost.
But O! thou wretched finder whom I hate
So, that I almost pity thy estate,
Gold being the heaviest metal amongst all,
May my most heavy curse upon thee fall.
Here fetter’d, manacled, and hang’d in chains,  
First mayst thou be; then chain’d to hellish pains;
Or be with foreign gold bribed to betray
Thy country, and fail both of it and thy pay.

I should also mention a line from “His Parting From Her” which caught my eye. I don’t know if anyone else remembers the “Spy vs. Spy” cartoons in Mad Magazine back in the 1960s. Well guess what, Donne was there first. The narrator and his mistress have to part, and he mentions that they have kept things carefully secret from her husband: “Have we not kept our guards, like spy on spy?”

There is a line that ends “Julia” that is worth quoting. It is the one elegy which is not clearly one of Donne’s poems. There appears to be a dispute about whether he wrote it or not. I won’t get into it, but just mention that it is a screed against a jealous and nagging woman.

I blush to give her halfe her due ; yet say,
No poison's half so bad as Julia.

I’ll close with the most famous of the elegies: “On Going to Bed.” I think this may have been the first of the “naughty” Donne poems I read. At the time, it was a bit shocking, what with its reference to body parts - and erections. It is a lesson in double entendres. But it is a good one, and now that I don’t have the degree of prudery I was raised with, I find it quite enjoyable.

“On Going to Bed”

Come, Madam, come, all rest my powers defy,
Until I labour, I in labour lie.
The foe oft-times having the foe in sight,
Is tir’d with standing though he never fight.
Off with that girdle, like heaven’s Zone glistering,
But a far fairer world encompassing.
Unpin that spangled breastplate which you wear,
That th’eyes of busy fools may be stopped there.
Unlace yourself, for that harmonious chime,
Tells me from you, that now it is bed time.
Off with that happy busk, which I envy,
That still can be, and still can stand so nigh.
Your gown going off, such beauteous state reveals,
As when from flowery meads th’hill’s shadow steals.
Off with that wiry Coronet and shew
The hairy Diadem which on you doth grow:
Now off with those shoes, and then safely tread
In this love’s hallow’d temple, this soft bed.
In such white robes, heaven’s Angels used to be
Received by men; Thou Angel bringst with thee
A heaven like Mahomet’s Paradise; and though
Ill spirits walk in white, we easily know,
By this these Angels from an evil sprite,
Those set our hairs, but these our flesh upright.
    Licence my roving hands, and let them go,
Before, behind, between, above, below.
O my America! my new-found-land,
My kingdom, safeliest when with one man mann’d,
My Mine of precious stones, My Empirie,
How blest am I in this discovering thee!
To enter in these bonds, is to be free;
Then where my hand is set, my seal shall be.
    Full nakedness! All joys are due to thee,
As souls unbodied, bodies uncloth’d must be,
To taste whole joys. Gems which you women use
Are like Atlanta’s balls, cast in men’s views,
That when a fool’s eye lighteth on a Gem,
His earthly soul may covet theirs, not them.
Like pictures, or like books’ gay coverings made
For lay-men, are all women thus array’d;
Themselves are mystic books, which only we
(Whom their imputed grace will dignify)
Must see reveal’d. Then since that I may know;
As liberally, as to a Midwife, shew
Thy self: cast all, yea, this white linen hence,
There is no penance due to innocence.
    To teach thee, I am naked first; why then
What needst thou have more covering than a man.

Donne isn’t always the easiest read, and my edition retains his original spelling, which occasionally requires a pause to figure out the meaning. However, his language is so delicious, and his ideas deep and creative. I never fail to enjoy reading his words.

Sunday, January 20, 2019

American Eclipse by David Baron

Source of book: Borrowed from the library.

If you have followed my blog for the last couple of years, you know that the kids and I travelled to eastern Oregon in August of 2017 to view the solar eclipse. To say that it was a mind-blowing experience would be to undersell it. I love all things astronomical: we watch the Perseid meteor shower every year it isn’t washed out by the moon, and I have fond memories of when comets Hale-Bobb and Hyakutake appeared in the 1990s. The kids and I have viewed several of the more common lunar eclipses over the years. (Including one tonight - which sadly was somewhat obscured by clouds.) So, when I first heard that the western United States would have a total solar eclipse, I was all over it.

The 2017 eclipse counts as one of the most hyped and talked about eclipses. Certainly, it was the most discussed eclipse of my lifetime. I crossed the entire US, from Oregon to the Carolinas, and, as it turned out, the weather was outstandingly clear for most of the path.

But, before the 2017 eclipse, there was another truly “American” eclipse, which garnered its own high level of publicity and scientific attention. In 1878, the western part of the United States experienced an eclipse which went from Montana down to Texas. The young United States was at that time just starting to form a scientific establishment, and was eager to have something to show the world. The path of the eclipse went through what was then fairly uninhabited territory - except for Denver, which was a pretty small town back then. Thus, viewing the eclipse was quite the undertaking. 

David Baron’s book, American Eclipse, is a story of that event. I say “a story,” because it doesn’t purport to be a broad view of the event. Rather, it focuses on three key individuals who viewed the eclipse, whose legacies endure to this day.

The first of those three persons was astronomer James Craig Watson, who sought to prove the existence of Vulcan. (See my post about The Hunt for Vulcan, for more on that story.) He was, as we realize now, unsuccessful. However, he thought that he was successful at the time, because he (and a couple other astronomers) sighted objects where they shouldn’t have been. In time, it was realized that they were simply known stars which were slightly out of place, due to the bending of light by the sun’s gravity. This, and other observations from the hunt for Vulcan, eventually led Einstein to develop his theories of general and special relativity. As a result of his “discovery,” Watson had a brief moment of fame, before doubts crept in. He spent the rest of his life trying to prove he was right, before his death in his early 40s. His biggest legacy turned out to be his wife’s endowment of an award for scientific work, which helped rescue American science from its neglect. (See more about this below.)

The second person was Maria Mitchell, an astronomer from Vassar College, who combined a keen eye, a sharp brain, and a dedication to women’s rights. In her late 20s, she discovered a comet, and went on to teach and inspire several generations of female scientists. I found it interesting that she was raised as a Quaker (who were pretty much the most badass religious people of the 19th Century, serving the Underground Railroad, and educating their daughter, and generally doing good things), and was thus expected to be the intellectual equal of any man. And she was. Ms. Mitchell organized an expedition from Vassar, and, while she lacked some of her equipment due to a baggage issue (trains were the airlines of the day in more ways than one…), she and her assistants helped change public opinion about educated women. (See more on this below as well.) Mitchell also had a great history as an advocate for justice, refusing to wear clothing made with southern cotton due to her opposition to slavery. She helped give platforms to such luminaries as Frederick Douglass and Sojourner Truth (and some literary notables as well) via her influence and social connections. After reading up on her, I think she should be better known today than she is as a truly admirable person.

The final person featured in this book was none other than Thomas Edison, who needs no introduction. Edison is best known as an inventor - and he deserves it - and as a scientist (a title he couldn’t decide whether to embrace or not.) However, what he most excelled at was marketing, and this book definitely notes that. Edison had invented a device he called a “tasimeter,” a device to detect minute amounts of heat. He hoped to measure the temperature of the corona during the eclipse. It turned out that his device was rather useless: it could detect heat, but not really measure it, and it was too eratic to be of use, and thus has been largely forgotten. In an interesting twist, however, it does appear that Edison’s trip gave him a needed break from his work, and time to think. At some point during his trip, he appears to have had the inspiration of tacking the creation of a practical electrical grid - and an incandescent light bulb.

Baron focuses on these three, in part because they documented their experiences well, and because they each had legacies which lasted beyond the eclipse. He brings in a good number of primary sources about the backgrounds of each as well. Despite its non-technical emphasis, it is well researched.

There were a number of things that stood out to me in this book. The first was a recognizable 21st Century American tendency: the neglect and mistrust of science. A number of scientific sorts within the US government - mostly the Navy, which counted on astronomy for navigation - attempted to get funding for an official government observation of the eclipse. They asked for $8,000.00. That’s roughly $200,000.00 in today’s money. And also a clear pittance for a scientific project, and an opportunity which wouldn’t occur again for decades. Embarrassingly, but not surprisingly, Congress refused to fund it. Eventually, Watson would cobble together some funds from the college which employed him, state government, and a little bit of federal funding. But not the amount which should have been allocated to do the project justice. And Maria Mitchell, who discovered a freaking comet, for crying out loud, had to make do with even less: just a few bucks from Vassar and her own fundraising.

The good news is that there was an outcry from the media on this issue, which is the only reason Watson got some money in the end, and eventually public opinion started to turn. Looking back from my perspective in 2019, it is clear that there was a period from the dawn of the 20th Century through perhaps the 1970s when the United States supported and believed science. Those days are looking as if they are gone, at least for the political Right. There is a definite connection between the views of the Gilded Age and our present day. Then, as now, there was this idea that science was only valuable to the degree it led directly to profit. Pure science was contemned as having no economic value.

I also was reminded again of one of the great “controversies” of the 19th Century, and one of its greatest villains. In 1973, Dr. Edward H. Clarke (may his name burn in everlasting infamy), published a book which made the claim that education, because it taxed the brain, caused female reproductive anatomy to atrophy. This caused, shall we say, a big stir at the time, and, unfortunately, proved to be all too influential with those who wished to keep women uneducated and pregnant. Maria Mitchell was not a fan, to put it mildly. However, since she never married, her opinion tended to be dismissed. Of course, later research proved that women could in fact use their brains without impairing their ovaries, a fact which any number of educated and fertile women could have told said researchers in advance and saved them the money. And, fast forward to the 21st Century, and it turns out educated women are more likely to marry.

By the way, I am married to a highly intelligent, educated woman, who exercises her brain constantly. We are the parents of five children, who were conceived within a seven year period. She studied for and took her test for a critical care certification while on maternity leave for our 4th kid.

I think I can conclusively state that education and mental exertion is utterly ineffective as a method of birth control.

On a possibly related note, it is interesting that Watson, while his supposed discovery of Vulcan gave him publicity, he never really captured the public imagination. Likewise, Edison’s lectures about the eclipse were panned as technical and dry (and his machine didn’t work anyway.) It was Maria Mitchell’s description of the eclipse which drew crowds and applause. She managed to combine scientific rigor with poetic language. Plus, her stories of the misdirected luggage humanized her. In essence, she was effective in debunking Clarke’s bullcrap and changing public opinion about female education. Baron cites the differing opinions from the New York Times (and others) about female scientists, and female education before and after the eclipse. As I said, Maria Mitchell was a badass.

Speaking of poetic descriptions, Baron isn’t half bad himself. He is an eclipse chaser, and has viewed them around the world. (Yeah, I’m a bit jealous. But he is another example of the high quality of writer that NPR has managed to attract.) Here is a bit of his description:

A total eclipse is a primal, transcendent experience. The shutting off of the sun does not bring utter darkness; it is more like falling through a trapdoor into a dimly lit, unrecognizable reality. The sky is not the sky of the earth -- neither the star-filled dome of night nor the immersive blue of daylight, but an ashen ceiling of slate. A few bright stars and planets shine familiarly, like memories from a distant childhood, but the most prominent object is thoroughly foreign. You may know, intellectually, that it is both the sun and moon, yet it looks like neither. It is an ebony pupil surrounded by a pearly iris. It is the eye of the cosmos.

In a book, which is mostly competent narrative of history, this stands out as a point in which the author writes his own feelings. And damn, that’s good writing. Having witnessed an eclipse myself, he nails it. I wish I had written that good of a succinct description.

One more thing to mention, which isn’t really related to anything else, but was something that I didn’t know before reading this book. Etienne Leopold Trouvelot comes into this book because of his work as an astronomer. However, his legacy is really about something else - something seriously unsavory. Trouvelot fled from France when Napoleon came to power, and seems like a decent guy, with an inclination toward democracy and freedom. And he was a legitimate scientist, and apparently a nice guy. That said, he is responsible for a horrible amount of destruction due to an accidental mistake. He bred silkworms to try to find a way to prevent disease in them. However, for reasons unclear, he brought Gypsy Moth larvae to the New World. They escaped, and have caused severe destruction throughout the United States, unfortunately. The destruction is one of the greatest in history, alas. Unintended consequences, to be sure, but a warning to all of us that our actions might be more consequential than we expect. Tread carefully.

This book is a rather quick and easy read, well written and interesting, with a narrow focus. Don’t expect a detailed look at the eclipse, or a wide view of the overall event. Rather, it picks three individuals and their stories and impacts, and draws connections to the overall culture. For what it attempts to do, it is a good book, with solid writing, thorough research, and a clear vision. I found it quite enjoyable and definitely recommend it. But also, go see an eclipse. No words can do justice to the experience.

I originally wanted to read this book before the 2017 eclipse, but it was, for obvious reasons, on an endless request list at our local library. Now, over a year later, the furor has abated, and I was able to get it without competition.

Friday, January 18, 2019

A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles

Source of book: I own this.

A Gentleman in Moscow was one of last year’s book selections for our book club. I was unable to attend that meeting (although my wife did), so I never got around to reading it. However, she convinced me that it was really good, so I took it along on one of our trips last month. 

First of all, my wife was, as usual, right. The writing is fantastic. There have been a few books I have read recently in which there were some passages that made me wince. Even books by serious authors. But this book was unique in that I kept finding myself letting scenes wash over me, and basking in the glow of the language. Towles is just a straight-up good writer.

A number of critics have been less rosy about the book, and, after I finished it, I read a few of the reivews. I think the problem is that critics want the book to be...a different book. They want it to have a deeper, darker theme, be more “realistic” about Soviet Russia, to tackle problems. Or something like that.

This is not what this book is at all, and it doesn’t need to be. And it is not what the author intended. As he put it, in answer to the question, “Does the book have a central theme?”

I certainly hope not. In crafting a novel, I do not have an essential message I am trying to communicate. Rather, I hope to create a work of art that, while being satisfyingly cohesive, contains such a richness of images, ideas, and personalities that it can prompt varied responses from reader to reader, and from reading to reading.
In essence, I want to gather together a pile of brightly colored shards of glass. But rather than assemble these shards into a mosaic with a fixed image, I want to drop them into the bottom of a kaleidoscope where, thanks to a glint of sunlight and the interplay of mirrors, they render an intricate beauty which the reader can reconfigure by the slightest turn of the wrist.

I think that is a fine description. And a good example of Towles’ way with words.

With a few exceptions, the book takes place in an extremely limited environment. Count Alexander Rostov, a Russian aristocrat, is saved from the firing squad by his reputation as a revolutionary poet. (It turns out - spoiler - that he didn’t even write the poem.) Given his life, he is deprived of his liberty: he is to spend the rest of his life living in the Metropol hotel in Moscow, and essentially become a “former person,” with no identity. Evicted from his posh lodgings and confined to a former storage room on a top floor, his life changes dramatically. But the 30 year old Count takes it in stride, and finds a life for himself. He becomes the head waiter at the ritzy restaurant - after all, his greatest skill is in making seating charts and pairing wines - and forms friendships with staff, visitors, and foreign diplomats. Oh, and a young girl who later leaves her own daughter in the care of the Count.

The book unfolds over more than three decades: from 1922 through 1954. Towles chose an interesting, symmetric form for the book. In the first half of the book, the timeframe doubles each chapter. So the first section is one day after his arrest, the next two days, and so on, eventually giving a 15 year gap. At that point in the story, the narrative takes a dramatic turn, when young Sofia is dropped off by her mother - who never returns. From that point on, the reverse applies, with the times shrinking as they approach the final denouement.

Towles has said that he typically spends a couple years carefully outlining and plotting his books, followed by a rather rapid writing process. After this, of course, careful editing and revision is done, to polish the final product. I think this shows. I didn’t notice any plot holes, and nearly everything mentioned turns out to be important later. In this sense, Towles uses the careful technique of a mystery writer, but applies it to literary fiction.

There are so many things to mention, I am sure I will forget a lot of what I wanted to say as I was reading. (It doesn’t help that it is harder to take notes while traveling, or that it was hard to put the book down to do so.) However, I will do my best to hit some highlights.

First of all, the characters are great. They are memorable, believable, and human. I am a particular fan of books with good character-driven plots anyway. (My favorite Victorian is Anthony Trollope - true fans will understand why.) Count Rostov is, perhaps, a good bit better than the average aristocrat (and particularly than, say, the sort you find in most Russian novels), but he is no saint. He is as suave as they come, though, and is pretty admirable in the way he adapts to dramatically changed circumstances. I found him to be one of the more enjoyable characters I can remember from the last few years of reading.

There are others, too. Rostov’s friend, Mishka, the nervous, obsessive, and literary person never quite at home in the Soviet machine, despite his socialist beliefs. He is Rostov’s one friend from his youth - they were an interesting pair: Rostov the aristocrat, and Mishka the commoner.

The other members of the Triumvirate - Andrey, the maĆ®tre d’ of the restaurant (without whom, the hotel would not run), and Emile, the cantankerous head chef - are also delightful. The whole idea of the behind-the-scenes meetings of Rostov, Andrey, and Emile to plan out the important dinner parties for visiting dignitaries - while sampling the creative cooking of Emile - was genius. As was their choice of the name.

The three main female characters are also interesting. Nina first appears as a precocious young girl. She befriends Rostov, and the two of them explore the bowels of the hotel using Nina’s pass key. Nina is studious and appears to have a bright future, but something goes wrong and her husband is sent to the gulag. She pursues him, leaving her daughter Sofia behind.

Sofia is every bit as smart as her mother, but quieter and less assertive. This makes it easier for her to blend in with Soviet values. It is Sofia, more than Nina, who changes Rostov and gives his life purpose.

The final woman is Anna, the actress. When we first meet her, she is young and at the height of her fame. She is also overbearing and arrogant, and doesn’t come off well. Nonetheless, she decides to have a fling with the Count, only to get completely pissed off when he picks up the clothes she has flung on the floor. (Apparently, Towles based part of this on an incident involving her own parents…) She comes around, however, and the two of them have an ongoing affair (if that is what you call a relationship between two unmarried people) for the rest of the book. Although first impressions are negative, she grows as a character, just like the Count. In fact, the two of them essentially grow together, losing their egos and adapting to the changes of life. (Let’s just say that it isn’t easy going from beautiful starlet to senior citizen actress - few have done it.)

Speaking of the affair, hats off to Towles for his understated sex scenes. I have mentioned this before, but I think it is brutally difficult to pull off a sexy sex scene in a novel. A horrible one? Sure. Or even a humorous one. But one that is actually sexy is harder. In my opinion, the more graphic, the worse it usually turns out. Sex is a heck of a lot of fun. But it is, in a way, kind of ooky if you think about the mechanics. Hence the difficulty of writing it well. The best part about Towles’ writing in this case is that he focused on the emotional component of what starts out as a purely physical one night stand. The fallout for both characters is what matters, and forms a believable foundation for what becomes - as it turns out - a pretty epic romance.

I should also mention the villain of the book: “The Bishop.” This is the nickname given to a bolshevik who starts out as a waiter, before being promoted all the way to hotel manager, despite his lack of ability. Towles shows a deft touch here, because one comes to loathe The Bishop before one even realizes he is a bolshevik stooge. He embodies all the annoying qualities of bad waiting - he is there when you don’t want him, isn’t there when you want him, pushes expensive wines and entrees despite their unsuitability together, misses social cues, and makes a blundering nuisance of himself. One or two of these are excusable in a basic restaurant - and I don’t nitpick college students trying to pay their way, or friendly diner waitresses who face rather different expectations. But all of these, in a waiter in a fine restaurant? From a person who exudes arrogance and refuses to learn? That’s unforgivable. This is why you know what kind of a person The Bishop is right from the start. That he turns out to be the worst kind of Soviet stool pigeon can be inferred from his character.

The minor characters fill things out well. The seamstress Marina, who becomes Rostov’s confidant and co-conspirator. Osip, the mucky-muck in the secret police (which changes names throughout the book, of course) who forms a bond with Rostov after he asks Rostov to tutor him in French. Richard Vanderwhile, the American diplomat. Abram, the handyman and beekeeper. And others.

I decided to include one scene from the book in this post, just because I think it is outstanding. Sofia has become a concert pianist, and will be performing. Marina has made her a dress which Rostov, being old school, doesn’t particularly approve - it is backless. He figures Anna is to blame.

“This dressless dress. No doubt it was drawn from one of your convenient magazines.”
Before Anna could respond, Marina stomped her foot.
“This was my doing!”
Startled by the seamstress’s tone, the Count saw with some trepidation that while one of her eyes had rolled toward the ceiling in exasperation, the other was bearing down on him like a cannonball.
“It is a dress of my design,” she said, “fashioned from my handiwork for my Sofia.”
Recognizing that he may have unintentionally insulted an artist, the Count adopted a more conciliatory tone.
“It is unquestionably a beautiful dress, Marina. One of the finest I have ever seen; and I have seen many find dresses in my time.” Here the Count gave an awkward little laugh in the hopes of clearing the air and then continued in a tone of fellowship and common sense. “But after months of preparation, Sofia will be performing Rachmaninov at the Palais Garnier. Wouldn’t it be a pity if, instead of listening to her play, the audience was staring at her back?”
“Perhaps we should drape her in sackcloth,” suggested the seamstress. “To ensure that the audience is not distracted.”
“I would never counsel sackcloth,” protested the Count. “But there is such a thing as moderation, even within the bounds of glamour.”
Marina stomped her foot again.
“Enough! We have no interest in your scruples, Alexander Ilyich. Just because you witnessed the Comet of 1812, does not mean that Sofia must wear a petticoat and a bustle.”

Later, Anna can’t resist rubbing it in.

“Is it true?” asked Anna, as she and the Count walked down the hallway after the fitting.
“Is what true?”
“Did you really see the Comet of 1812?”

This is just one well conceived scene, and one which fits in with the characterization. These are exactly the lines which Marina, Anna, and Rostov would have said, and by the time they appear in the book, they form additional examples of the characterization already apparent. I think this is one sign of good artistry: the characters aren’t there to do the motions of the plot. Rather, they act in accordance with who they are, in the world the author creates for them to act.

I greatly enjoyed this book, and strongly recommend it. No, it isn’t intended to have a deep message. But it is a literary work - a work of art, beautiful for what it is, not for its lack of a message. And really, there are themes in this book. Themes like loyalty, friendship, mutual compromise, adaptation, and so on. As Towles puts it, each reader may discover different ideas and gems in the book. And that is what good art does.


There are two scenes involving music. The first is where Rostov discovers to his surprise that Sofia has been taking piano lessons from the resident conductor (a man grossly underutilized by the Bolsheviks.) She is playing a Chopin nocturne. Specifically this one:

Definitely a beautiful choice.

Another fascinating scene involves Sofia’s choice of a piece for a competition. While everyone else chooses Russian composers, she goes with...Mozart - his first Piano Sonata, written when he was still a teen. It is an interesting choice, but it works for her, and she launches her career.


If you want to read a completely different take on Soviet Russia, you might try The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov - a writer mentioned in A Gentleman in Moscow.

Monday, January 14, 2019

La's Orchestra Saves the World by Alexander McCall Smith

Source of book: Audiobook my wife found at a library sale

My kids have been a fan of Alexander McCall Smith for quite a few years now, after my wife introduced them to the Mma. Ramotswe series. McCall Smith (that’s his full surname) is a prolific writer, but seems to hit a note of thoughtfulness and nuance with most of his books, despite writing several each year. He has at least three series going right now, in addition to the stand-alone novels. 

This book is one of the later, a novel unrelated to anything else he wrote. It is set mostly in the years of World War Two, in rural England.

The title character, La (short for Lavender), is a young British woman who ends up playing a rather unremarkable role in the war effort. We meet her first in a retrospective by her stepsons, who visit her cottage in Suffolk, where most of the events take place. She is still known, years after her death, for her orchestra.

The book then shifts to La’s earlier years. She went to Cambridge (attending an all-girls college), made a disastrous marriage which ends when his mistress in France comes to light, and is gifted the cottage and an income by her former in-laws (who are embarrassed by their son.) He dies soon after, leaving her with a significant fortune. When the war starts, she searches for some volunteer work. However, as she is older and widowed, intellectually stimulating jobs are unavailable, and she ends up tending chickens in the neighborhood near her cottage. After meeting the commander at the local air base, he and she decided to found a village orchestra - to include service members looking for a diversion. Her orchestra plays through the end of the war, disbanding afterward. They briefly re-form during the Cuban Missile Crisis, causing someone to quip that they have saved the world twice.

The other main character is Felix, an ostensibly Polish airman, who joins the RAF after the fall of Poland. In reality, he has a more complex history, being the child of German parents, although he was raised in Poland from age eight onward. La and Felix have serious chemistry, but his reserve and her loyalty to country prevent them from sharing their feelings. It is hinted in the prologue that they connect years after the war, after he has had children and a failed marriage of his own.

McCall Smith has a long history with music. He founded the “Really Terrible Orchestra,” a group of enthusiastic amateurs who make music for the joy of it (and the entertainment of the audience, I am given to understand.) He plays contrabassoon, which may well say something about his personality. He also established an opera house and training center in Botswana, a country that he spent a number of years in, teaching law.

This book is all about McCall Smith’s belief in the healing power of music. I must agree. One of the things about making classical music professionally is that you connect with people from around the world. Even our little hometown orchestra has had players from around the world join us - and that is even before you get to the soloists. I have shared stands with violinists from Russia, the Ukraine, Iran, Romania, Japan, Cypress, and Spain over the years (if memory serves), and that’s just the ones I have had the chance to sit with. Music is a universal language, and it is difficult to see someone as “the enemy” after you have bonded over a Mozart opera, or a Beethoven symphony.

McCall Smith is also correct that what we fight to preserve (in a just war) isn’t merely our home or our tribe. We fight to preserve all that is transcendent and good in the world. To reduce ourselves to the idea of “kill the other people” is to lose the war, to become as vicious and animalistic as the Nazis, or any other genocidal nationalist movement. One of my Symphony colleagues had a bumper sticker: “Less Violence, More Violins.” I couldn’t agree more. (Although even as a violinist, I’d be happy with a few winds, brass, and percussion too.) Music - and the arts generally - represent our aspiration to transcend, to find common ground and meaning with the rest of humanity, and to put our energy and creativity toward beauty, rather than hate.

In general, I thought that La’s Orchestra Saves the World lacked the depth of character that you find in some of his other books - but that might be in part because it is a single book, and you don’t get to see characters unfold across a range of plots and circumstances. The book does showcase McCall Smith’s usual ethical nuances and dilemmas. Is it right to marry someone who you don’t exactly love? How should one respond to betrayal? Should you turn someone in, even if you love them, if you think they might be a spy? What if they turn out to be innocent, but suffer anyway? How do you deal with bigoted neighbors? This is McCall Smith’s best trait, is in his acknowledgement of nuance, and his gentle and non-judgmental probing of the shades of grey.


Previous posts about Alexander McCall Smith books:

#1 Ladies Detective Agency series

The Tears of the Giraffe (#2 in the series)
Morality for Beautiful Girls (#3 in the series)
The Full Cupboard of Life (#5 in the series)
Blue Shoes And Happiness (#7 in the series)

Sunday Philosophy Club series

Thursday, January 10, 2019

Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi

Source of book: We own this.

I think this is the first time I have blogged about a graphic, well, not novel, because it is more of an autobiographical non-fiction work. Neither does “comic” work, because it is rather unfunny. Tragic is the word which comes to mind.

Persepolis is the first in a two part series wherein Marjane Satrapi tells the story of her life from childhood to adulthood in a comic-book format. Satrapi lived through the Islamic Revolution in Iran, before immigrating to Europe. 

Young Marji is a child when the events of the Revolution take place. She is born into an upper class, educated, Iranian family. As she comes of age, she has to wrestle with her privilege and her future. This installment ends when she is sent to Austria to study after she has a series of run-ins with her Islamicist teachers.

Satrapi intended the book in part to reveal a side of history which we Westerners don’t tend to see. We get fed a politically convenient narrative that isn’t always rooted in reality, and this leads to many misunderstandings. Our ignorance also feeds into the xenophobic and Islamophobic propaganda that the Right in the United States uses to justify endless war. (More about that later.)

Because Marji’s family has a long history of political involvement, she is able to reveal the history behind the history, so to speak. The Islamic Revolution was a reaction against the Shaw, who, as lionized as he has often been by the West, was hardly admirable. The great tragedy of Iran is that it had a long history of stability and culture, and was well on its way to being a modern, educated country, with a belief in human rights, and a thriving economy. Sadly, a combination of European interference (in pursuit of oil), combined with battles for power and increasing oppression to retain said power, eventually led to the repressive Fundamentalist religious dictatorship that exists today.

One of the things that really struck me reading this book is that there wasn’t some change to Islam from something else. Iran was a majority-Islam country for many centuries. Rather, revolutionaries used religion (specifically fundamentalist religion) as a weapon, along with war, to justify totalitarianism. The war, of course, was the war with Iraq, which was fed by the great world powers, including the United States and the USSR, and served as both a proxy war for those countries, and as a way for both Saddam and the Iranian mullahs to tighten their grip on power.

(For how this works, I recommend Ursula Le Guin’s book, The Left Hand of Darkness.)

All the religious fanaticism, the head coverings, the repression of women, and so on, came not so much from sincere belief, but in the way that such things allowed for social control. There are so many parallels to the Religious Right in America that it is rather spooky.

While Marji’s family survives the Revolution, she loses a friend to a bombing, and acts out in ways dangerous to her safety in a fundamentalist society. Thus, at the end of the book, she is sent to live in Austria.

Persepolis was originally published in French. Satrapi was educated at the French school in Iran, so she grew up fluent in that language. In Austria, she had to learn German, but French remained her primary European language. This book was translated into English by Mattias Ripa.

Satrapi’s drawings are evocative and haunting. She chose to draw in pure black and white, no greyscale except as suggested by line shading. It is a spare, raw style, but despite its simplicity, it is surprisingly emotional. Details are left intentionally vague, except for the faces, which are cartoonish, but marvelously expressive. In fact, after I finished the book, I wasn’t sure how good the writing was (although it certainly wasn’t poor), but I could see the faces of the characters - particularly Marji - in my head so clearly. That’s good art. 

There are a couple of lines that I have to mention. One is when the fundamentalist principal of the new Islamic girls’ school comes unglued because the girls (who grew up in secular schools) are irreverent about the religious and “patriotic” stuff. The parents are called in, and they push back too. They don’t desire that the girls be covered from head to foot, or be forbidden to play as they did. The best part, however, is when Marji’s dad tells the (female) principal, “If hair is as stimulating as you say, then you need to shave your moustache!” Yes, he actually said that.

The second one is not funny at all. During the war, children were recruited to serve as soldiers. As a cousin in the army tells Marji’s family, “They come from poor areas, you can tell...first they convince them that the afterlife is even better than Disneyland, then they put them in a trance with all their songs...It’s nuts! They hypnotize them and just toss them into battle. Absolute carnage.” This is what ideology and lust for power do. They feed on their own children.

My wife found a used hardback of this book, and both of my teen daughters read it first and recommended that I read it. Because of its occasionally graphic violence and coarse language, it has been one of the most often challenged books. I think it is fine for teens, however. I also suspect that it might be challenged because it is too nuanced for the taste of some. It isn’t particularly flattering to the US and Europe - their interference and colonialist oil grabs caused many of the problems - something we are often unwilling to admit. And the book isn’t really for or against Islam, although it doesn’t paint fundamentalists in a good light. Or the Shaw for that matter. It also is ambivalent about revolutions in general.

It is definitely an interesting book, and I look forward to reading the second book as well.

Tuesday, January 8, 2019

Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness - Tear Down This Wall

"We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness." ~ Thomas Jefferson et al. (Declaration of Independence)

At the time this was written, "Happiness" didn't mean a transitory emotion, but a state of safety and wellbeing. In other words, a decent life unthreatened by starvation or violence. The writers of this declaration believed that it was a human right - given by God - to pursue a decent, safe, and unthreatened life.

Later in that declaration, one of the grievances that was that the King refused to let people...wait for it...immigrate to the colonies.

If we truly believe that "pursuit of happiness" is a god-given, inalienable right, then we have no right to call for the building of walls to prevent others from seeking that right. We have no right to insist on laws that deny others that right. We cannot claim to believe in the equality of mankind or the right to life, liberty, and wellbeing if we claim that one's access to these should be limited to those with the good fortune to be born in a particular place or with a particular skin color or economic status.

Congress and Mr. Trump: Tear down this fucking wall.

The Berlin Wall comes down...

Monday, January 7, 2019

Elephants on Acid and Other Bizarre Experiments by Alex Boese

Source of book: Borrowed from the library

At the end of the year, things get a bit crazy, between music and events and stress and whatever. So I often pick a light book or two for my late December read. Something I can pick up and put down as needed without losing the thread. 

 This year, I went with Elephants on Acid and Other Bizarre Experiments, which was recommended by a musician friend. It fit the bill. It is breezy, written in a san serif font, with headings in magenta. It gives basic details of a variety of weird experiments, which, as the author notes, often tell us more about the researchers than their subjects.

One, of course, is the title experiment. What does happen if you give an elephant LSD? Well, at a high dose, it kills the elephant, which is not a good result, to say the least. Perhaps they should have started with a low dose.

While this experiment seems more sadistic and sad, many of the experiments are in the humorous category, such as the utter failure of dogs to go for help like Lassie. The topics range from experiments in reanimating corpses to mating behaviors to poop to animal behavior, to experiments involving the soul. (See Mary Roach…)

There is a little reference to XKCD in the introduction, which sets the tone, and reminds me of just how fun What If? was.

Here are a few of my favorite bits in the book.

First is the bit on the Baby Mozart phenomenon. It turned out to be devilishly difficult to duplicate the results. (It seems that you can’t get smarter just by ingesting background noise - you have to practice. As any professional musician could have told you.) Anyway, this line cracked me up:

Many researchers reported a failure to replicate the results of the 1993 study. In response, the UC Irvine team clarified that Mozart’s music did not appear to have an effect on all forms of IQ, but rather on spatial-temporal IQ, the kind that applied to paper folding and cutting tasks. In other words, millions of parents were unwittingly priming their children to become master scrapbookers.

Another amusing experiment involved the question of whether men prefer women who play hard to get or not. Well, the answer turned out to be not that surprising to introverted guys like me. Turns out, men actually don’t tend to prefer women who play hard to get. They like women who are selectively hard to get. That is, women who are cold to other people and warm to them. This shouldn’t be a surprise. For the most part, we prefer that there by mutual desire for us, and not indiscriminate attention to everyone. I want my wife to be in to me, and not in to other men. And I suspect she feels the same.

A personal anecdote on this topic. I waited over a year after I met my wife to ask her out. Some of that was circumstance - I was in my last year of law school and just bought a house with my brother, so I had a lot on my plate. But also, I wanted to see if she was in to me first. Fortunately, she sensed this, and encouraged me. This was likewise the way it went in our courtship. She half-jokingly proposed to me months before I proposed to her, and she has never left me in doubt of what she wanted. That worked well for us. So, at least in some cases, the stereotype of the evasive female and the conquering male is more of a culturally driven myth than reality. So women, don’t be afraid to ask a guy out…

Another one which fascinated me - and was something I had never read about before - was the behavior of a certain species of ant. Many ants have specific strategies for keeping their nests dry. This one, in addition to blocking entrances with their heads, has the second layer of defense wherein ants drink up any water which comes in, then go out and pee it outside. Communal peeing, so to speak.

I also want to mention a study (a series, actually) that I am quite familiar with, but should be mentioned regularly. Experimenters found that people will do unspeakably cruel things to their fellow humans if they are ordered to do so by a trusted authority. A shockingly low number of people are resistant to this. It goes without saying that this is of relevance for how totalitarian systems of all kinds come into being and remain in power. It also goes a long way to explain why Evangelicalism seems to be in a competition with itself to see how cruel they can been to refugees, the working poor, and anyone else their political “authorities” tell them to hate. I suspect that it is in part because they have spent the last several decades purging those whose compassion might cause them to question theological - and political - orthodoxy. As one of the researchers glumly concluded in a 60 Minutes interview:

I would say on the basis of having observed a thousand people in the experiment and having my own intuition shaped and formed by these experiments, that if a system of death camps were set up in the United States of the sort we had seen in Nazi Germany, one would be able to find sufficient personnel for those camps in any medium sized American town.

Heck, we already have the children in cages. I’d say, based on my experiences of the last two years, and what I have heard even the “good” people say, I think you could staff the death camps from a handful of churches in any town in America.

Also depressing was the study involving a weird doomsday cult in the 1950s. Failure of their apocalyptic predictions didn’t change their minds. It only made them believe harder, and become more distrustful and hostile to outsiders. Also all too relevant to the politics of our time.

That’s kind of a bleak note to end on - fortunately the book goes from there to the ability of cockroaches to survive a nuclear holocaust. (There was a great Mythbusters episode on this one a few years back.) While roaches fare better than mammals, the best turned out to be a parasitoid wasp. Which begs the question of what it would live on, of course.

Despite a few depressing moments, the book was fun, light, and the sort of thing one reads when tired and wanting to decompress.