Thursday, October 20, 2016

My Brilliant Career by Miles Franklin

Waltzing Matilda is a song I taught my students when I was a music teacher at a Title One public school years ago (Title One means over a third of the school population lives under the poverty line).  We sang it as we learned to play the guitar.  Waltzing Matilda is the unofficial national anthem of Australia.  You can listen to Slim Dusty singing it here.

You can learn the meaning and origin of the song here. was an interesting book. I read it on the recommendation of an Australian blogger I follow because I have not read much, if any, Australian literature. (You can visit Carol's blog, Journey and Destination "down under" or click on the link here.)

Therefore, I do not know whether Franklin's book reflects Australian culture or just or her own thoughts and ideas.

Amazingly, she wrote this while a teenager. The writing is wonderful. Her descriptions of farm life and the Australian countryside are fantastic! But then again, that might explain the immaturity of the protagonist.

The story takes place in the 1890s and is about a young girl, Sybylla, who is sixteen and hates her life. Well, don't all sixteen year old girls.

But Sybylla is slightly different. She hates living on a farm, hates the work, hates the people she's surrounded with. She's a "thinker" and they're not. Her mother is beautiful, but thinks the highest ideal for a woman is to marry and have children. This is anathema to Sybylla who has dreams of a brilliant career. I'm not sure in what, writing or music I suppose.

Her family's farm goes under and Sybylla shakes her fist at her father and at God and all of life. Her mother talks of sending her out to work somewhere. But then her grandmother invites her to come live with her. She meets her aunt Helen who persuades her she is not as ugly as she believes herself to be.

Her life is full of tea parties, dinners, and flirtatious young men. To most of them Sybylla is rude if not out right odious. Her Grandmother and Aunt Helen find her behavior shocking but her Uncle Jay Jay thinks its hilarious.

There is one man, Harold Beecham, who stands up to her challenge, although why he bothers with her I don't know, because she acts like a perfect imp to him. And I'll stop right there so as not to give away anything.

I really did not understand this novel. Sybylla is a nasty brat with no redeeming character as far as I can see.

The story is supposed to have a wonderful feminist message. Well, if hating men and believing the only way a woman can be strong and independent is to never get married or have a family, and thinking you're smarter than everyone else, it does.

But I wonder where that thinking comes from. I am strong and independent and the greatest joy I receive in my life is my family. I wouldn't give my husband or son up for anything.

In my view, strong and independent by Sybylla's terms means to be self-absorbed and rude.

I'd be interested in other people's opinions because it is possible I'm missing something.

On a side note, Miles Franklin was so upset to realize that readers thought she was basing her story on her real life that she removed the book and did not allow its publication until after her death.

Unfortunately for her, she got to expose her immature teenage years to the world while the rest of us get to blissfully forget about them.

View all my reviews

Thursday, October 13, 2016

The World of Rome by Michael Grant

I'm listening to some lovely piano music, a Variations on a theme by Pierre Rode composed by Carl Czerny.  You can listen to Vladimir Horowitz playing the piece here.
I work out at a gym and because I find stationary exercisers terminally boring I have to read while using them.  Therefore while I jog away on the elliptical or step on the stair aerobics machine, I have a book on hand to while away the time.  This is especially helpful on the stair stepper which would be hard to get through if I didn't have my mind on something else to block out the sound of my calves and thighs squealing in pain.

Usually I can't read fiction because reading literature is not something to gulp down.  I read to savor the art of word choice, sentence construction and expression of ideas.  One can do that while toiling away on an exercise machine, I suppose, but I find it easier to read non fiction where I can just focus on the facts.

Hence, I just finished the World of Rome by Michael Grant.  Ever feel as though you uncovered a gem in the sand?  That is what this book is like.  It is one of the best histories of Ancient Rome I have ever read.

The book was published in 1960 and has stood well the test of time. I have had a hard time finding information on Grant today, because there is a popular YA author by the same name and his information kept popping up.

The back of the book says that Grant was President and Vice-Chancellor of the Queen's University of Belfast. He was a graduate of Harrow and Trinity college, Cambridge and is "universally acknowledged as one of the most eminent scholars of the classical Roman era."  I've added more information at the bottom of the post.

Grant is very even-handed in his study of Ancient Roman culture.  After giving a historical overview he breaks down every level of the society:  the rulers, citizens, subjects and slaves; their religious beliefs; and their art.

Part III, their beliefs was especially interesting to me.  He adequately compares and contrasts the different religious beliefs by people who believed in fate and the stars to those who were religious and also the philosophers.  Of course he shows the obvious Greek influence and also fairly compares the Christian and Jewish beliefs and their place in the Roman world.

One part that I found fascinating and I formed a conclusion (Grant does not say this in his book):  When Julius Caesar decided to overthrow the Roman Republic and established the rule of the Caesars, he guaranteed not only brutal despotism, but also the murder of every Caesar.  If a Caesar is appointed for life, then how are you going to get rid of him since you can't vote him out?  Really, shouldn't they have seen that coming or were they all too power hungry to think objectively? 

I am currently reading Suetonius' account of the Caesars and I think perhaps a good many of them were insane.  But then again,  were they any more insane than any of us would be without any checks and balances to stop us from gratifying every selfish whim?

Another provoking statement concerned Roman entertainment.  The Caesars knew if they could keep the population occupied with mindless entertainment, the coarser the better, they wouldn't bother thinking about how effective or adept their governing body was. 

Cato the younger, as well as more opportunistic politicians, had felt that the only sound and safe policy was to keep the populace quiet by entertaining them and subsidizing their food supply. (pg. 106 Part II. State and Society Chapter 3, Citizens of Rome)...

All subsequent emperors agreed that this dual formula of 'bread and entertainments' was the right one and participation in politics the wrong one, for the Roman proletariat. (pg. 107)

Hmmmmm......  Entertainment around the clock and free stuff...where have I seen that?  

I highly recommend this book to anyone interested in the subject.  It is a book I plan to return to again. 

Michael Grant has written several books, a few of which I have since ordered and eagerly look forward to reading.

Michael Grant CBE (21 November 1914 – 4 October 2004) was an English classicist, and author of numerous popular books on ancient history. His 1956 translation of Tacitus' Annals of Imperial Rome remains a standard of the work. Having studied and held a number of academic posts in the United Kingdom and the Middle East, he retired early to devote himself fully to writing. He once described himself as "one of the very few freelancers in the field of ancient history: a rare phenomenon".  His hallmarks were his prolific output and his unwillingness to oversimplify or talk down to his readership. He published over 70 works.  from Wikipedia

Thursday, October 6, 2016

The Good Soldier by Ford Madox Ford

I'm listening to the Wind Quintet Op. 43 by Carl Neilson as I write.  You can listen here.

I bought this book on a whim.  I had not heard positive things about Ford but then again, my only source was Ernest Hemingway who despised Ford.  But then Hemingway despised a lot of people, especially those that helped him get his start.  As my husband said, "You can afford to be mean when you're good (at what you do)."

I'm not sure Hemingway could afford it, considering his own ultimate ending.  At any rate, I wasn't inclined to read The Good Soldier.  I allowed an unreliable source to prejudice me.  Furthermore, when I read the reviews on Amazon, the only thing anyone could say about the book was how very sad it was.  This inclined me even less.

But there it was in the Indie bookshop in Shreveport, in such an appealing edition and at such an appealing price that I whipped it off the shelf and handed it to Josh who brought it to the cashier.  (After thirteen years of living off of a single mom's income, I can't tell you how much I enjoy doing that.)

The book is not long.  I read it in a couple of days.  For a short book, it has a powerful impact.

 Before continuing let met say that I was reading the blog by a literary agent who decried people who wrote "spoiler alerts" because they were going to give away key elements of a story.  I understand her point if one is writing a review of a contemporary author and the point of the review is to give potential readers (and buyers) the ability to make informed decisions.

However, this book has been around for a hundred and one years and even if you don't know the story already,  the first person narrator does not tell the story as the events occurred; he tells you the ending of his sad tale at the front.  

Also, I want to be free to analyze the story without avoiding important points.  There is no plot to speak of, just the musings of a dazed and confused man trying to make sense of the tragedy of his life and the others in his sad tale.

The protagonist,  John Dowell, is telling us the story.  Later in the book he explains that he sat down in his English country manor and wrote the story down over eighteen months.  He explains to the "silent reader" that he knew nothing of what was happening as it happened and only discovered the reality after two of the people involved were dead.

Dowell elopes with his wife, Florence via a ladder at the window from her aunts' house.  The aunts try to warn Dowell about marrying her but he replies that he doesn't care if she "robbed a bank", he was going to marry her.

So they do marry and sail for Europe.  Florence had sailed once before with her Uncle and a young man, Jimmy, some years previously.  We are made to understand that perhaps Florence's relationship with Jimmy was not respectable but back then Dowell was blind to subtle hints.

After they land in Europe, Florence informs John through several doctors that her heart is so delicate that she will not survive a return trip to America so must stay in Europe. 

They meet a British couple, Leonora and Edward Ashburnham.  The four become friends and see each other over the next nine years.  

For nine years, Dowell gives us to understand that his life was serene.  He does not reveal any passion he shared with his wife but apparently things sailed along smoothly.  None of his life looks serene to us because he is informing us of how things really were after he discovered it through a blunt, thoughtless comment from Leonora who assumed he knew as much as she did.

Dowell has given the previous nine years a lot of thought and is trying to piece together the reasons and motives each player had for acting as they did.  He is attempting to explain to the reader and to himself how and why everything came about.

He comes to understand that Florence had it in her mind to return to the country of her ancestors, England, and acquire an English manor.  Dowell was simply a vehicle of means. 

Ford relates this story from the perspective of an American, even though he is English, and he explains that Americans of old aristocratic ancestry valued their lineage and it was important to them to maintain a class distinction even though they lived in America.  Florence wanted more than that.  She wanted to be the English Lady.  This is all the more ironic as we learn how "classy" she really was.

She gets Dowell to bring her to Europe immediately after eloping.  As soon as they get to Europe she devises a reason to stay in Europe.  As it turns out her heart ailment is a fabrication and a manipulating tool to ensure a permanent home in Europe.

We later find out, through Dowell, that Jimmy soon enters the picture and right under his nose, Jimmy and Florence continue their previous affair.  Jimmy, we are made to understand, is a sleaze ball of the highest order.  As if someone who would sleep with another man's wife would be anything but.  This also allows us to appreciate the true quality of Florence's character.

Dowell, believes that Florence tired of Jimmy fairly soon and got rid of him by having an affair with Edward Ashburnham who no doubt gave ol' Jimmy his walking papers in no uncertain terms.  Florence also saw in Edward the means to achieving her object of becoming the Lady of an old English manor and all the status that would accompany it.  Of course, Leonora, his wife was an impediment but Florence figures she can manage that.  

She does this by flaunting her relationship with Edward  in front of Leonora, hoping to push the envelope ever farther until Leonora admits defeat, but Leonora is made of sterner stuff.  She lets Florence know what kind of whore she thinks her and that she is never going to divorce her husband.  This discourages Florence but slightly. 

But here Florence's fictitious heart ailment backfires on her.  Because if she is too ill to travel abroad, she cannot cross the English Channel.

Edward Ashburnham is a weak, tepid individual who tries to break out of his own iced over shell by engaging in passionate affairs.  This only gets him into trouble and bankrupt.  One of his affairs that almost financially broke him was with a Spanish woman called "La Dolciquita".  He falls passionately in love with her but discovers that, after the first night, her love was to be had at a price.  A very expensive price.

By the time Leonora discovers everything, he has wasted a fortune.  But Leonora is up to the task.  She puts herself in control of his finances and puts a tight rein on him.  She is unable to keep him faithful, but she puts herself in control of his love affairs as well.

Ashburnham's last affair is with a young charge, Nancy Rufford.  She is staying with them fresh out of convent school because her parents are unstable and abusive.  She is too naive to understand his overtures even when he passionately declares his love for her on a bench outside a casino.

Florence, who has followed them and overhears everything, understands perfectly.  She realizes she's never going to have that English Manor (she even tried to persuade Leonora of a kind of polygamous relationship).  She rushes back to the hotel where she finds her husband in the lobby with a  man who recognizes her from her days traveling with her uncle and Jimmy.  She realizes that her husband is going to find out everything so she goes up to her room and commits suicide.

Dowell, is still clueless, he finds her body and believes that her heart finally failed her in the end.  It is not until after the funeral of Ashburnham that he discovers the truth about everything when Leonora informs him.  

"That's how I got it.  Full in the face."

That is the point in time when he realizes that he has been the most clueless cuckold in the history of mankind.  So here he is at his desk writing everything out trying to make sense of it.

I read one commentary that suggests that Dowell is really the evil one, playing the passive voyeur refusing to interfere with his wife or Edward's suicides but I didn't gather that myself.

What I saw was a man who married a woman for passionless reasons and a woman who married him to meet her ambitions.  Her character was that of a degraded reprobate who didn't even have the courage to live after seeing her desires come to futility.

I saw Leonora who lived a life tormented by her husband's lack of passion for her and forced to witness his own attempts at passionate experiences through a series of adulterous affairs.  Trying to gain some control of her life she managed his finances and even his affairs.  

Leonora, although acutely aware of the plays transacting around her is in denial in her own way.  She has in her mind that her husband will finally return to her and love her with the passion he seeks from others.

After seeing him fall in love with Nancy she wakes up and in despair drives her husband to despair as well.  She offers to divorce him so he can have Nancy.

Edward, according to Dowell, had by this time begun to develop a sense of self-loathing.  He edges toward despair as he realizes that he can never find meaning or passion in the relationships he seeks and his wife's final offer seems to put a cap on it.

That seems to be what the entire story is about.  A group of people trying to achieve some kind of significance or meaning in their lives and failing.  Every one of them seems to be groping blindly about, snatching whatever their hands touch but dropping it as soon as they realize that what they are clutching fails to satisfy.

Ford's writing technique is effective.  He tells you the basic story, then he tells it too you again from another character's perspective.  He brings you forward and then backward as he re tells the story several times from each person's vantage point. 

 Or rather from Dowell's perspective of their vantage point.  Again, the question arises as to Dowell's reliability as a narrator.

As Dowell finishes his story but he has not achieved any kind of resolution.  

The ending is filled with ironies. 

 Dowell, who did not want the English Manor, buys the Ashburnham's after Edward's death.  He does so with Florence's money, which he has inherited.  So he acquires what Florence spent so many years conniving for.

Leonora marries a neighbor who loves her deeply so she receives the passion that her husband never gave her and what he never received from any of his affairs.  Dowell is somewhat denigrating about Leonora and her new husband but I think that is sour grapes on his part.  He admits that he is jealous and wished that perhaps he had acted a little more quickly.

A final irony is that he also gets Nancy, someone Edward wanted but never got.  But in an irony within an irony, Dowell cannot marry her because she has become insane so instead he serves as her caregiver in his nice, big English Manor.

When reading the story one realizes that John Dowell, changes his opinion about the incidents as he retells the story.  One wonders: is he changing his mind as he gives the matter more thought or does he not know what he thinks or is he, in fact, being manipulative?

Sometimes he describes Edward, Florence, Leonora and even Nancy as innocent, trying to act nobly without any intentions to cause harm.

Then he turns around and insists that all of them are evil, selfish or at the least, willfully stupid.

One thing he certainly achieves is showing how adultery destroys the mental health and emotional stability of everyone involved.

Ford wrote this story based on his own real life circumstances.  I think this is fairly clear because I don't believe anyone could write with such perspicuity on a topic like this from the outside. 

I'm not sure why Ford titled the book "The Good Soldier."  Edward is a soldier but that hardly comes into the story.  Perhaps because he tries to be (sort of) honorable in the end?  Or is John Dowell considering himself to be a kind of "good soldier" because he "stiff upper lips" his tragedy and carries on with endurance?

In The Good Soldier, Ford introduced writing techniques that influenced later writers, like Graham Greene.  He is credited with pioneering Literary Impressionism with his non-chronological story line, and also employing the "unreliable narrator".

If anyone has read this book I would be interested in their opinions as to how reliable they think Dowell is.

Thursday, September 29, 2016

Gaudy Night by Dorothy Sayers; A Moveable Feast by Ernest Hemingway; Ernest Hemingway by Carlos Baker: A Life Story and TinTin Au Congo by Herge

Antonin Dvorak's Czech Suite is playing and I must once again breeze through four books in order to shelve the pile of books that is becoming higher on my dining room table.  Hopefully this does not diminish any analysis I am able to give, but I do find that I do better when I try to be succinct when writing book reviews so as not to blather.

My parents had come to visit me and I read this book to my mother, who has mostly peripheral vision due to Macular Degeneration (we read a lot of books together).  We started the book here in Texas and finished it in Florida where I drove my parents back to their home.  I tell you this to say that as much as I enjoyed reading, the enjoyment was doubled because I was experiencing the story with my mother.  It was a real pleasure to read a chapter then discuss it with someone who had as many strong opinions as I had.

Without appearing too gushing, I do not believe I can exaggerate how much I love Dorothy Sayers.  I didn't always feel this way.  The first book I read, "Whose Body" didn't impress me at all. I felt Lord Wimsey was rather callous in his glee at discovering a dead body in the bath and Oh boy! another murder to solve.  How considerate of the murdered man.

Sayers is a complicated person and I have a couple of biographies of her waiting for me and I will be very interested to get more information on what I so far am finding to be a fascinating individual.  

What little I know of her already leads me to believe that "Gaudy Night" has some autobiographical overtones in it. 

We have a woman in her thirties, Harriet Vane, who has come to an occasion at her Alma Mater, Oxford.  The occasion is called a "Gaudy", which according to the Web, is a college feast that also serves as a reunion for past students.

Harriet does not want to go for a number of reasons.  She lived with a man without marrying him, which in those days was condemned as much it is approved today (unless you're a homosexual, then a marriage license is necessary, judging from recent lawsuits. Sorry, moving right along...). 

To make matters worse, her lover got murdered and she was the primary suspect until Sir Peter Wimsey saved the day.  Wimsey, a social butterfly, finally alights and falls in love with Harriet, but she is unable to trust anyone.  This theme is thread throughout the book and thus the book serves as both a mystery and also possible romance, neither of which is resolved until the end.

So Harriet returns to Oxford for the Gaudy.  Now, without giving anything away, this story is not so much about a murder as it is about people and human relationships.

The first chapter sets the stage and we meet Harriet's previous friends and colleagues.  We then meet the faculty and later the students.

Each chapter is a careful study in the characters, flaws and foibles, personality traits of the different people populating Oxford:  Faculty, students, and hired help.  These chapters were sufficient in themselves to make a very interesting story without any adventure at all.

The story does not follow a usual formula.  At first it seems someone is playing amateurish pranks.  Ugly drawings with obscene subject matter, dresses and gowns stolen to be turned up later in effigies of a hanging.  But the pranks become increasingly sinister and attack all sorts of people from the professors to the students.

The Head of the Women's college does not want publicity, so she asks Harriet to stay at the school as if she were doing research but in reality to catch the culprit.

Harriet is not a detective only a detective story writer.  So she now has the double task of solving a growing threat at Oxford while trying to meet a deadline.  We get to hear Harriet struggle through the challenges of making a mystery story both logical and believable.  Not an easy task.

Harriet wishes Peter were available to help her but he has gone abroad so she is stuck with using her powers of deduction, usually reserved for writing a mystery novel.

I won't reveal the rest of the story but know that it is a lot of fun to read with all the ingredients that make a story so enjoyable:  mystery, suspense, character development and, of course, romance.  The book is longer than a lot of mystery novels and by the time you get to the home stretch you are chomping at the bit to discover who the guilty party is.

Again, without revealing anything I will also say that I found the motives to be an interesting example of hating and seeking revenge for crimes that have not been inflicted on the perpetrator, but rather for crimes that the guilty party cannot own up to and have projected on to everyone else.

"A Moveable Feast is a memoir that Hemingway wrote towards the end of his life about the beginning of his life.  Or at least the beginning of his writing career in Paris.  Some of the chapters are sweet, tender memories of his time with Hadley, his first wife.  One gets the impression that at the end of the day he concludes that his problems started with the abandonment of the woman whom he seems to have regarded as his first and true love.

Other chapters are not so tender.  He does not have fond memories of anyone else.  Gertrude Stein comes across as an arrogant, writer "wanna be" and he includes some highly unflattering episodes of her, one of which is rather disturbing and he could have left it out and the reader would have been none the worse.

He also writes of other people he once knew in Paris in unflattering terms at the least and brazen skewerings at the worst.  One wonders if he was trying to avenge himself on everyone who ever slighted or wronged him.

A couple of chapters are devoted to F. Scott Fitzgerald.  I do not know how reliable Hemingway's version of Fitzgerald and his wife Zelda are.  He must have hated Zelda because she comes across as a Troll Queen bent on destroying her husband out of jealousy for his writing.  Maybe this is true, maybe Hemingway hated her as he seemed to hate a lot of women.  Perhaps she reminded him of his mother?  Fitzgerald himself comes across as a helpless infant lost in the clutches of drink.

Interestingly Hemingway presents himself as a the norm by which to measure others.  Methinks he was not being entirely honest.  Other sources indicate he wasn't quite so innocent.  Which brings us to the next book:

This book, at 672 pages, is quite a marathon to finish but it thoroughly writes each detail of Hemingway's life with an objectivity that is neither flattering nor smearing.  I have another biography to read but based on this one I conclude that Hemingway was an extremely strange individual who was either playing a role all his life or was a brute.

According to Baker, Hemingway hated just about everybody.  The more established writers liked him and helped him, the more he held them in contempt.  Not everyone.  He loved James Joyce and Ezra Pound, but he roasted Sherwood Anderson, in a parody and did pretty much the same to Ford Madox Ford in his memoir.  T.S. Eliot comes across badly even though he supported his work.

Then there were the victims who had done nothing to him except befriend him.  This was most evident in his first successful novel, "The Sun Also Rises."  OK.  He hung around an immoral bunch of people, but who appointed him as judge over them and how was he any better?  I know, I know,  he includes himself as an impotent jerk but Baker describes an unfathomable glee Hemingway took in exposing this "badly behaving" group (I take this from a recent biography titled, "Everyone Behaves Badly").

And he was always challenging men to boxing duels.  If they didn't like what he said or wrote about them they could duke it out with him in the ring.  I mean, really, Ernest?  Are you a man or a thirteen year old boy in a state of arrested development?

Then there was his appalling selfishness toward women.  He was married to Hadley, but that didn't stop another woman, Pauline from moving in and taking over, even though Ernest and Hadley had a young son at the time.

When I say moved in I mean both figuratively and literally.  Pauline moved into their house, then followed them across Europe and to America.

How does that work?  You see a married man with a small child and think, "I want to marry him and I'm going to get what I want."  That kind of mentality is inexplicable to me.  At least it kept me from feeling sorry for Pauline when it happened to her years later, although I thought it was too bad for her two boys.  I guess what's best for children isn't taken into consideration.  All three boys paid a price, judging from their own sad lives.

Another disturbing trait of Hemingway's character, is his lust for killing animals or watching them die.  He loved it. He really, really loved it.  He couldn't enough of the bull fight and describes with glee, the slow, tortuous death of the bull as well as gored horses and even injured fighters.  He writes with the same enthusiasm of his own hunting expeditions in Africa.  It's not enough to say he killed a beast.  He has to describe their roaring and bleeding.

He also enjoyed bear hunting and baiting them with the carcasses of horses that he rode and didn't like.

Are you disgusted yet?  

Yet I've read most of the man's novels and all of this short stories.  I like the precise weight with which he measures his words.  The sentences don't plod but the step with aim and determination.  Some of his stories are quite wonderful, others are repulsive.  

One feature of Hemingway's stories were his travels.  He lived in Paris, Spain, Austria, Italy, Africa, Cuba, the Florida Keys and the America mid and northwest that his stories hold a lot of colorful variety and cultural diversity because of their national backdrops.  That is one of my favorite attributes of his work.

After reading his biography I wonder if I would have been better off simply reading Hemingway rather than reading about Hemingway.  I definitely need to read other sources before I form firm conclusions about this complicated man.

And finally,

I read this book primarily to practice French and I like TinTin. However, I must say that this book is a rather appalling reminder of just how racist people were towards Africans not one hundred years ago. And also the callous cruelty to animals that apparently are not so unique to Hemingway's stories as I thought.

The story is not without its fun and adventure and I think it was useful to read it in order to remember history so as not to be doomed to repeat it.

I still love TinTin and I must remember that Herge was a product of his time period. He would probably not write such a story today.

Thursday, September 22, 2016

Many Masks: A Biography of Frank Lloyd Wright by Brendan Gill

In a previous post I reviewed a book that focused on a particular time and circumstance in Frank Lloyd Wright's life.  Death in a Prairie House by William R. Drennan gave the reader a fairly thorough account of the events in Wright's life leading up to the grisly murder of Wright's mistress and others in his original Taliesin home.  

Brendan Gill's biography fills in the facts before, during and beyond this event, allowing us to get a fuller portrait of the man considered the greatest American Architect of the twentieth century.  Gill knew Wright personally and conducted a number of personal interviews with him as well as with his wife and children.  He also had access to many of Wright's letters, which he quotes at length.

Wright's relationship with his domineering mother, narcisstic personality and philosophy of elephants and ants (the elephants may do as they like, including stomping on the ants; guess which animal Wright considered himself) have largely been explored in Death in a Prairie House and is not glossed over in Gill's book, but Gill wisely understands that these topics are charted territory so he comes from a different angle.

Many Masks takes the reader through the main building projects of Lloyd, his relationship with his clients and the final result of his schemes.

I call them schemes because Wright projects seemed to follow a  pattern, whether he was building a hotel in Tokyo, a Prairie House for a wealthy family, a church, or a business building.

Initially, the client would have a vision for his business building (or house, or church or synagogue) and decide who they would like to design and build it.  Sometimes someone would recommend Wright, sometimes the client would ask him and more than a few times, Wright suggested himself.

The client's reaction would tend towards awe and disbelief.  The great Frank Lloyd Wright would deign to  undertake his (sometimes her) project?  Why yes.  I, the great Frank Lloyd Wright, would be inclined to acquiesce to your request.  

The reality was Wright needed the money because he could never hold on to it.  He fully believed in his right to an outrageously extravagant lifestyle, regardless of his financial situation.  He was forever in debt, huge debt, and so yes, he most certainly was inclined to acquiesce to any wealthy person's request.

But acquiesce is a really a farcical word to use here, because apart from taking the contract, Wright acquiesced to nothing else.  Every project Wright took he viewed possessively and proceeded to incorporate his own vision at the client's expense.

One such project was Unity Temple in Chicago.  The Congregation wanted a religious ediface focused on the worship of God.  Wright made a temple to Man worshipping Nature.  To the dismay of  the members of Unity Temple, his intention was unmistakable.

The most famous example of this would Fallingwater, a residence built by Wright for the Kaufmann family.  The family owned property in western Pennsylvania in a mountainous area near a waterfall.  The family envisioned a home where they could enjoy the rural environment, including a spectacular view of the waterfall.

What they got was a house right on top of the waterfall.  Wright, in his ingenuity, put the house in the one place where no one could see the falling water.

But they could hear it.  I have not visited the place, but I've read that it is rather loud inside of the residence due to the roaring waters rushing underneath.

This, however, was not Wright's concern.  His intention was to create something so stupendous that people would remark of it for years.  He succeeded.  All of Wright's creations were about announcing his genius to the world.  Gill called this one of Wright's many masks.

Con man was another mask.  Wright could reel them in and then hook them, leaving the poor battered client practically bankrupt.  This is how he did it:

 Invariably Wright would estimate a modest figure for the building and equally invariably the project would cost much more. It's would be hard to exaggerate how much Wright underestimated the cost.  An original cost projection that would be, say ten thousand dollars, would end up running into hundreds of thousands and even millions of dollars.

You'd think his reputation would precede him, but Wright had a wonderful mask to wear, that of snake charmer.  His clients were so over awed by his genius and then charmed by his affability and eloquence, especially in his letters, that he got away with it every time.

The tug of rope contests between Wright and his clients, while of the same cloth, each have their own individual color and are fun to read about.  

A good example of this is the history behind the Guggenheim Museum.  Solomon R. Guggenheim, who commissioned the project wanted a place to house his collection of modern art.

The museum is cylindrical in shape and is wider at the top than the bottom.  There are no stairs inside.  Visitors walk up a slow spiral while observing the art.

On a side note, I attended the Guggenheim with my mother and it was more fun to watch my mother's reactions to all this modern "art" than to look at the art itself. Probably because in order to appreciate it, one had to use a good dose of personal imagination. At least I did.  

My mother was a little more concrete and deemed the whole lot of it a "bunch of pretentious tripe!"  I only wish she hadn't spoken her mind in the museum.  Or so loudly.

But back to Wright.  As per usual, the museum cost far more than the architect's beginning price and was completed some years after Solomon Guggenheim's death.

A final sad fact on his buildings:  the roofs had a propensity to leak.

Frank Lloyd Wright's houses are often easy to identify.  They are blocky, as though modeled after a child's wooden building blocks, but with poured concreted and lots of overhanging structures jagging out.

This sounds unflattering, but I like his houses. No one has made concrete an aesthetic art form like Wright. They are unique for his concern for the interior was as thorough, and as domineering, as the exterior.

The other aspect of Gill's book are Wright's personal relationships.  After the death of Mamah Cheney, the lover he left his wife for, Wright married Miriam Noel.  Noel was a domineering drug abuser that caused more grief and anxiety than any joy.  After much publicized drama, they divorced and Wright married Olga Hinzenburg.  Hinzenburg was  an equally dominating force in his life and introduced him to mysticism.  This is only hinted at in this book but I believe other books describe this eerier attribute, which also characterized his Taliesin school.

Which leads us to his final mask, that of teacher.  Many students, with plenty of disposable cash, dropped out of other colleges to become a part of Wright's Taliesin fellowship. This was a needful source of income for Wright especially during the Depression. For the right sum of cash, wealthy young people got the privilege to serve Wright as grunt workers doing menial tasks, such as copying out blueprints and buffering irate clients and other dirty work.   How much training they got is debatable.  Not many of them became notable architects.  However, the Taliesin Fellowships still continue today at the Frank Lloyd Wright School of Architecture.

In conclusion, Wright the person was probably not someone I'd want to know, but his architecture is groundbreaking and enduring and, to me, beautiful. I have another biography by Meryle Seacrest in the wings.  It will be interesting to see what she has to say about this brilliant, if astounding man.

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

The Poetic Wonder of Isaac Watts by Doughlas Bond, Medieval Monsters by Damien Kempf and Maria L. Gilbert; A Night on the Moor and Other Tales of Dread by R. Murray Gilchrist

Listening to Beethoven Symphony Opus 21, Symphony no. 1. Beethoven wasn't 28 years old when he wrote it.  You can listen here.

As usual the books are piling up so I will attempt to give you a drive by review on three of them. 

 Here we go:

The Poetic Wonder of Isaac Watts by Douglas Bond

 I read this book out loud to my parents while they were visiting here in August much to everyone's delight.  We all grew up attending traditional church and singing hymns.  So learning about one of Christianity's major hymn writers was a treat.

Isaac Watts is considered the creator of the English hymn and perhaps second only to Martin Luther to constructing Protestant hymnody. 

Like Beethoven, Watts was a child prodigy, writing poems at the age of eleven.  Watts grew up in a Puritan family and as such was not allowed into the Anglican Universities like Oxford or Cambridge but studied at what was then called a "non conformist" or "dissenting" university, Newington Green Academy.

Watt's never married, but wanted to, once.  He wrote extensively with a young lady who fell in love with him through his letters.  Upon meeting the very short, homely-faced man, she fell out of love with him but remained friends.  Watts spent most of his life with the wealthy Hartopp family, teaching their children and writing hymns.

Watts introduced the radical notion that one could create their own poetry put to music and sing it in the context of formal worship.  This seems normal to us, but back then only Psalms from the Bible was deemed appropriate for church service.

Watts wrote other things besides hymns.  He was also a powerful preacher and put many essays in book form.  Some of his books are definitely going on my to be read pile.  Being alive during the Enlightenment, Isaac believed that it was every Christian's duty to use their intellect.  One of his books is titled:  Logic:  or the Right Use of Reason in the 
inquiry after Truth with a Variety of Rules to guard against error in the Affairs of Religion and Human Life, as well as in the Science.  Quite a title.  Not pithy back then, were they?

Other books include:  An essay towards the Encouragement of Charity- Schools, for teaching the Children of the Poor to read and write;  The Doctrines of the Passions Explained,  Discourse of the Love of God and the Use and Abuse of the Passions in Religion etc..

This book adequately conveys the beauty and eloquence of Watts' thought and how he expressed his great love for God in the form of poetry.  It also gives a history as to how Watts came up with some of the more famous hymns he wrote.  After reading the book, I flipped through a hymn book to look at the hymns by Watts included.

Even more briefly:,204,203,200_.jpg
Medieval Monsters by Damien Kempf and Maria L. Gilbert

I simply adore Medieval art and this short volume gives pithy, if not always accurate, explanations of monsters painted in art.  It gives the legends, Biblical stories and histories to different mythical beasts.  The best part of the book is the colorful photos of the art it discusses.

And finally:

A Night on the Moor and Other Tales of Dread by R. Murray Gilchrist.

I bought this book at a used bookstore thinking I had stumbled across a new author of scary and suspenseful stories of the 19th century, along the lines of M.R. James and E.G. Swain.  Well, yes and no.

Gilchrist, never married but lived with his mother and a male companion his whole life.  Perhaps that explains the misogynistic overtones of his stories.

The positive:  Gilchrist paints a lovely picture.  I can see the mists across the moors of England, the valleys, woods with dark verdure, and the unearthly beauty of the women who star in every tale.

Then there's this:  Every woman dies in a gruesome way. Oh sure, not in the same way and it's quite suspenseful. Occasionally the man dies at the hands of the woman.  In fact, most of the stories make you think that it is the man who is walking into a trap.   If that's your cup of tea, by all means get the book.  I'll mail you my copy.

The book did raise an interesting question.  Stories that take place on the Moors of England often refer to the supernatural or the residuals of past pagan beliefs of fairies, imps, and "little people".  We see this in books by the Bronte sisters, even Virginia Woolf as well as other writers.  Perhaps it is a part of the cultural heritage and make up of the people who were raised there.  As the American South is known for its Gothic tales and Ghost stories, maybe it's in the native north Englander's blood.

Certainly a topic worth exploring.

Well, that helped me catch up a little.  I think the next review can be about just one book.  Have a wonderful week.

Wednesday, September 7, 2016

One of the Few: A Marine Fighter Pilot's Reconnaissance of the Christian Worldview by Jason B. Ladd

I opened an e mail one day that stated the following:


Please let me know if you would be interested in receiving a copy and providing a review on Amazon and Goodreads.

How could I refuse a request like that?  Besides, being a Military Brat, not to mention living in Texas, a state that probably produces more Marines than all the other states combined, these sort of stories always hold a place in my heart. (My husband has just informed me that California produces the most marines, then Virginia; Texas is third but I don't believe it.)

Because I know that burgeoning authors are trying to sell their product, I went ahead and bought Jason's book for $2.99 on Kindle.

The following review is entirely my own opinion and I wish Jason professional success.

The downside of reading a Kindle is that I do not know how to turn back to specific pages to get my quotes or incidents correct; therefore this is going to be a generalized overview of the book with the intention of giving the reader as informed a review as possible.

One of the Few is a non fiction account of Ladd's  spiritual journey from growing up nonreligious, developing questions as to whether there is an afterlife and finally embracing Christianity.

Jason grew up in a Military family, met his wife in high school while stationed in Japan and became a Marine.  He eventually got accepted into flight school and became a Marine fighter pilot.

That right there is the stuff adventure stories are made of.  Anyone in the material world is thinking: "Hoo yah! Captain America in the flesh!"

Ladd was deployed to Iraq and there are plenty of good stories here that rival anything Marvel's comics come up with, the more so because it's true.  

However, Ladd wasn't satisfied with adventure and valor.  There was something else he yearned for and felt was missing in his life.  Risking life and limb brought the subject of death up more than once and Ladd began to wonder just what happened when a person died.

"'What do you think happens when we die?' Karry asked.

'I don't know.  Nothing?  Blackness?'"(From the book)

Why are any of us alive?  I remember once I called a fighter pilot a "flight jock" to his face as a joke.  His expression told me that he didn't think that term was appropriate or funny.  Probably because he was a family man (I taught his son piano) and a church goer.  I feel certain that Jason Ladd wouldn't appreciate the term either. (And I've never called anyone that again.)

Because "flight jock" has connotations that someone is "macho" and "permiscuous" and not a deep thinker.  Jason Ladd's book shows that he is none of the first two traits and all of the last trait.

Each chapter begins with a quote from a secular thinker as well as a Christian thinker.  The comparisons are challenging and interesting.  Here are a few quotations:

"I've begun worshiping the sun for a number of reasons.  First of all, unlike some other gods I could mention, I can see the sun."  George Carlin

"I believe in Christianity as I believe that the sun has risen, not only because I see by it, but because by it I see everything else."  C.S. Lewis

"We are survival machines-robot vehicles blindly programmed to preserve the selfish molecules known as genes."  Richard Dawkins

"It is the very act of self-sacrfice that demonstrates that there is something more noble than mere survival."  Ravi Zacharias

Ladd describes the training he receives to become a Marine and eventually a fighter pilot.  He sees many parallels between his earthly experiences with spiritual truths.  He lists a number but I will only list a couple:  

After challenging his Sergeant to a pugil stick match, he makes the comparison that we cannot pound people who oppose our world view but must "display a life of love and service to everyone you wish to reach."

He goes on to describe getting bloody boots because he focused only on his toes and not on his heels.  He makes the analogy that "some worldviews focus only on the possibilities ahead and fail to address the damage they may leave behind."  And when, during training, one is walking through the woods half asleep we sometimes need to "be jolted awake in order to ask important questions."

A lot of what Jason Ladd discovers I had already arrived at so some of his conclusions were not new to me, like discovering that our present social climate does not respect the Christian world view.  This can be a challenge when you are used to being respected every time you walk into a building wearing that flight suit.  Ladd proves, however, that authentic faith overrides any concern over society's opinion.

Ladd has obviously read the Bible in depth, judging from his  references to it and one chapter is devoted to the need to read the Bible over and over again.  He compares it to flight training:  "Study tactics, fly by the book, and repeat.  Read, fly, repeat.  Read the Bible, live by the Book, and repeat.  Read, live, repeat."

"...(Man's) origin, his growth, his hopes and fears, his loves and his beliefs, are but the outcome of accidental collocations of atoms..."  Bertrand Russell

"A human being is a collection of atoms in the same way that Shakespeare's plays are collections of words, or Beethoven's symphonies are collections of notes."  Dinesh D'Souza

If you are interested in Military culture and how one man came to faith in Christ inside of that culture;  if you like to read modern war stories and how a fighter pilot comes to reconcile his worldly mission with his spiritual one, this is an excellent book and one I highly recommend reading.

Jason B. Ladd is an award-winning author, US Marine, and Iraq War veteran. Ladd served on active duty with the Marines for fourteen years and has flown as an instructor pilot in both the F/A-18 and the F-16 fighter jets. He is the founder of Boone Shepherd, LLC and creator of, the largest live online database of book promotions results built by authors. He and his wife, Karry, are the parents of five children.

His book One of the Few was awarded as Finalist in the 2016 Next Generation Indie Book Awards.  (
From Amazon)

The following are links for further information on Jason and his books: