Sunday, June 28, 2020

Means to an End by John Rowan Wilson

Listening to Debussy's piano music.

Means to an EndMeans to an End by John Rowan Wilson

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

John Rowan Wilson is one of those accidental discoveries, which has led me on a quest to find all of his books. This is not easy because the author is long gone and his books are all out of print.

In Means to an End we see the dark underbelly of the business world. Chris Marshall has inherited a job with his father's corporation. He doesn't like the job, but after a failed attempt to make it as an artist in Paris, he has largely been drifting through life.

He knows and the rest of the company knows that he is there as fluff. He contributes nothing to the business, yet out of the blue, the boss wants to send him to Europe to deal with their wings in London and Paris.

This is strange, because he does so little here, what is he going to do there? Nothing, as he soon finds out. Everyone is smiley and polite, but their attitude is basically, don't you worry your pretty little head about anything, we've got everything covered.

And then an employee in Paris kills himself. Why? No one cares. Except Marshall. What is going on? He finds the widow and talks to her. It turns out that her husband was getting underpaid for his work, and finally lost his head and shot at the French head of the Paris branch of the company.

Marshall finally sees something he can deal with. But he makes some discoveries that shatter his belief in the goodness of human nature. Apparently the company has not been dealing honestly and has even been involved in illegal activities on an international level. Marshall is about to be both boat rocker and whistle blower.

But he is absolutely alone. His own father started the business, taking advantage of post WWII Europe's financial straits. Everybody else in the company, including his brother, are more concerned about keeping peace, their job and comfortable livings.

If this were a movie, everyone would behave like superheroes and have above board morals. When reading the book, I could not help but wonder, just how brave would I be in such a situation. I can think of times in my own work where I chickened out when I knew something was not right. I also had to quit because it was killing my morale. It's not so easy to be a superhero without a script guaranteeing a soft landing.

Wilson is British, but his protagonist is American. I was impressed with how deftly he nailed the voices of his American characters. He didn't make parodies out of them, as too many British authors are tempted to do. They were human. Flawed, heavily flawed, but still human beings. So were his British characters. Those are easy to parody too...stiff upper lip, hip, hip...I walk and act like this because I have a pole up my rear...the British and Americans were people you could despise but also feel for. They were real.

So were the French characters as far as that goes. Existential, fatalistic...but that's how 20th century French writers describe their own people.

Finally, Wilson showed great knowledge and insight into the international business world, even though he was educated and trained as a Doctor.

This is my second book by him and I hope to read more.

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Sunday, June 21, 2020

The Burning Secret by Stefan Zweig

Here is another discovery:  Ivor Gurney:  A Gloucester Rhapsody

I really hit the jackpot this past week.  I went to my library to find that they were giving away a lot of their history books.  I began to help myself.  A librarian came out and I was embarrassed, because I was greedily and brazenly emptying the shelves.  But she told me to take all I wanted and brought me a couple of more bags.  All in all I got over 40 free books.  Score!

As you can see it is mostly American History.

But with some Russian History and also some books about the Middle East.

Berfore writing my review on Goodreads, I read another man's review of the same story.  I should have known I would not like his review, because his abrasive posts had already caused me to unfriend him.  So you will see that some of my review is colored by my reaction to the other review.

The Burning Secret (Stefan Zweig Collection)The Burning Secret by Stefan Zweig

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I'm somewhat nonplussed at some of the loutish reviews over this story. At least one of them. Maybe the reader has never known loneliness. Maybe he's an insensitive clod. Maybe he yawns over the fact the author took his own life.

Whatever the reason he found all the characters contemptible. I found this story moving and at times heart-wrenching.

The story centers around a young boy. He's twelve but mature-wise he's much younger, more like a nine year old. Probably that was normal back in a time when the culture wasn't so hyper-sexualized as it is today.

The boy and his mother are at a resort for the boy's health, which is delicate. You read that a lot in literature written before the discovery of antibiotics. We'd all be delicate back then; those of us that survived our infancy, that is.

The boy has always been introverted and socially awkward, not finding it easy to interact with his peers. This naturally results in a great loneliness on his part.

Then, he is befriended by a man at the hotel. He is an officer on vacation. At first the boy is surprised, diffident and then overjoyed at the attention this man gives him. Because I have worked closely with children, I understand how so little effort on an adult's part towards them has huge consequences in their life. Yet most adults throw this opportunity away, even with (especially with) their own children.

The boy becomes obsessed with the officer. His waking moments are to see this man, at the restaurant, everywhere. Because Zweig writes the thoughts of his characters, we gain such an acute insight into their motives, not only theirs, but human nature in general. Of course if you aren't really interested in other people you could find this style of writing uninteresting. Sorry, I'm still chaffed about that other review.

But the boy comes to a tragic realization. The Officer is, in fact, not interested in him at all, but instead was using him to meet his mother with whom he hopes to have a brief affair. A week long amusement to alleviate the boredom while he is on vacation.

At first the boy is heartbroken. Then he recovers. He's angry and his anger and hatred make him remorseless. His innocence prevents him from understanding what is truly going on, but he understands enough to realize he has a certain hold over his mother and the Officer. Both of them regard him with a certain fright because of how he could expose them.

The story continues and concludes, but I won't reveal anymore, in case you want to read it for yourself.

I wonder if Zweig himself was this young boy and his own hypersensitive nature is what compelled him to write stories like this as well as commit suicide.

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Sunday, June 14, 2020

Vlad the Impaler: The Real Count Dracula by Enid A. Goldberg and Norman Itzkowitz

Here is a new work for me:  Florida Suite by Frederick Delius.

Vlad the Impaler: The Real Count DraculaVlad the Impaler: The Real Count Dracula by Enid A. Goldberg

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This short book was packed with interesting information about Vlad Dracula, the real man who inspired Bram Stoker's vampire novel.

Reading about the life of this real Dracula, if I had to choose between the two, I'd take the vampire over this real life tyrant.

Vlad Dracula was the son of Vlad Dracul senior and was "Dracula" which means "little dragon" or more appropriately, "little devil", except there was nothing little about the monstrosities Vlad Dracula committed against friend and foe alike. Who was friend or foe depended on who Dracula believed would help him attain and keep power. These would switch back and forth fairly rapidly.

He came by this philosophy honestly. When his father was in power, the area that later became known as Romania in Transylvania was wedged between the Holy Roman Empire and the Ottoman Empire. As a last ditch effort to stay in power, Vlad Senior sent Vlad Jr. and his brother Rudi to the Sultan of the Ottomans as prisoners in exchange for his help to fight the Western Europeans.

Vlad and Rudi spent several years in prison with the Ottomans. After Vlad's release he returned home under the promise he would help the Sultan's cause in bringing Transylvania under Ottoman rule. Vlad did not keep his promise. This was a habit with him.

After the death of his father, Vlad Dracula took over, at times fighting the Ottomans, which included his brother who chose to stay with the Ottomans, killing other brothers and former friends. Other times he fought with the Ottomans against the soldiers of western Europe. It all depended on who would help him stay in power.

He was also vengeful. The ruling class in Transylvania, the Boyers, were responsible for killing his father. He invited them to a feast after which he had them all impaled and their bodies left to rot on stakes. This was called The Forest of the Impaled. There is a wooden engraving showing Vlad eating a meal among this horrible forest.

As for the older men, the women and children, he forced them to climb a mountain and build a castle, called Castle Dracula, which can still be seen today and has probably been used in horror movies. These builders were literally worked to death and the trail to the mountain top where the castle resides is paved with the skeletons of the builders.

Furthermore he created a severe police state where even minor infractions were punished by death. Whole villages were murdered in Vlad's determination to maintain control. His subjects feared him more than they feared the Turks.

Vlad seemed not only to be capable of heartless, violent pragmatism, he was also sadistic. It was not enough to make his victims die. He enjoyed watching them suffer as they died slowly.

Some historians say Vlad Dracula killed as many people as the Bubonic plague which also ravished Europe around the same time. While that may be an exaggeration, it is estimated that his death toll may have approached a hundred thousand or more.

And his reign only lasted seven years. Eventually, Dracula was overpowered by soldiers of the Roman Empire, killed and beheaded. His truncated body is buried beneath the floor of the Comana Monastery, surrounded by swampland in Romania.

While this book can seem gruesome, it provides and interesting an informative account of life in middle Europe during the 15th century. While life during these unsettling times was violent and cruel by any account, still Vlad took it to a whole other level that turned him into a nefarious legend and, an inspiration for many vampire legends.

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ᐈ Bran castle stock pictures, Royalty Free dracula castle ...
Castle Dracula

Sunday, June 7, 2020

The Zoo on the Road to Nablus: a story of survival from the West Bank by Amelia Thomas

Here is Ralph Vaughn Williams' In the Fen Country.  Williams is one of my favorite composers.  His music makes me think of lush landscape paintings.

The Zoo on the Road to Nablus: A Story of Survival from the West BankThe Zoo on the Road to Nablus: A Story of Survival from the West Bank by Amelia Thomas

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

There is a rarity among non fiction writers to engage the reader as Amelia Thomas has. I found this book refreshing in that it serves as a documentary of the lives of both human and animals in one of the political hotbeds of the world, while showing the goodness, the sadness, the uncertainty and harshness of a place far away from the imagination of the western mind.

Qalqilya is on the border of Palestine and Israel, about an hour north of Jerusalm. I probably passed it without knowing it last October during my stay in Israel. Pity.

A Palestinian veterinarian, Dr. Sami has great dreams for his zoo. Once it was a beautiful place with a luscious environment for exotic animals for the British overlords to enjoy. Now it is a dilapidated facility with a few animals fighting for survival. The political tensions between Israel and Palestine make the zoo's existence low on anyone else's list of concerns.

Through Thomas, we follow Dr. Sami around as he fights, begs, cajoles and pleads with city officials, other zoos in Egypt and Israel to help populate his forlorn zoo and keep the animals alive and healthy.

He seems to be fighting a losing battle. His animals die, some because they weren't viable to begin with, some because keeping wild animals alive in enclosures is hard and costly and some, it turns out, because somebody was poisoning them.

The reader gets a glimpse of a country whose value on human life has become numb due to violence and a fatalistic philosophy. Animals are not accorded that much respect. His daughter comes home to find out an odious aunt has killed her beloved pet chicken and roasted it for her personal culinary delectation. She refuses to speak to her father for two weeks.

But Dr. Sami loses neither optimism nor resourcefulness. He takes under his wing and into his office newborn bears, ibexes, and monkeys who, in spite of being nursed by Dr. Sami still suffer a high mortality rate. He travels to Egypt to possibly procure some animals from a similarly neglected zoo, where the animals are treated even worse, because the keepers won't even feed the animals unless the zoo visitors pay them.

While the animals are seen with no rights respecting treatment, neither are the humans. The zoo's manager, due to his own stupidity, is ravaged by a camel. He ends up several weeks in the hospital and comes out a withered man. However, the camel is not destroyed.

Not that an attempt on the camel's life is not made. The manager's son creeps in at night and shoots the camel in the jaw. He is not arrested or charged, but his father disowns him because of the shame. It's a different world.

My personal opinion is that, while I understand that children in Palestine deserve a place to go to to alleviate the dreariness of a war torn country, I don't think it should be at the expense of suffering animals. Thanks to the high mortality rate of his animals, Dr. Sami has quite a taxidermy collection going. Maybe it would be better to show the children a museum of stuffed animals. They could see exotic animals and stuffed animals would be easier to maintain.

As sad as this story was, I'm glad I read it and appreciate Thomas' combination of writing skill and compassion in writing this little known zoo's story.

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Sunday, May 31, 2020

Chess Story by Stefan Zweig

Here is Max Bruch's Symphony no. 2

Chess StoryChess Story by Stefan Zweig

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This moving story reaches humanity on a number of levels.

Spoiler: I'm not giving away the ending but I do describe the essence of the story.

A man from Austria is on a ship to South America. On the ship is a young Russian man who is a Grand Chess Master and is on his way to play a tournament with another master.

Zweig spends the first chapter or so focusing on this young Russian. An ignorant peasant boy, orphaned at an early age is raised by the village priest. While watching the priest and another man play chess, he shows his own aptitude for the game. He soon rises among the ranks until he is a world champion.

What is interesting about the Russian is how Zweig makes him out to be little more than a savant. He has no interest in any other intellectual pursuit, reading, math, philosophy etc...he apparently is as concrete as a cinder block. His only talent is chess, which seems to be a natural ability. His only strange defect in the field is that he has to see the players on the board. He cannot imagine games in his head.

This one talent makes the youth insufferably arrogant. Like many stupid people, he treats everyone else with contempt, but is careful to engage only people on his intelligence level, knowing that if someone were to try to speak on any subject out of his league, he'd be at a loss. And since chess is the only thing he knows, any other topic of discussion would be beyond him.

At this point I have to wonder. Other than an idiot savant, is it really possible to be intelligent at only one thing? I would think that the mental skills required of chess strategy would transfer over into other areas.

Yet I do know some people like this. And I have found it a mistake to think that because someone is brilliant at, say, math, that they are interested or capable of delving into art, music or philosophy. Of course it could also be argued that someone like, say, me who is a professional musician is even slightly adept at math. I am very much a right-brained musician.

But for most of us, or at least a lot of us, we don't hold to any delusions of grandeur. We enjoy what we know, we accept what we don't and we are not so ignorant as to look down on others, or, as a couple of odious people I know, think that putting down other people would disguise a mediocre mind.

But that is a major digression. I merely wanted to relate what thoughts the first part of the novel provoked.

The story then takes a turn as the Austrian narrator relates how he and a group of men on the ship came to challenge the Russian Chess Master. It looked very bleak for them, made worse by the fact that the Russian was so insolent about beating them.

Then, out of the blue, another man who was watching the game started telling them where to go. I should mention the Russian would play and then walk across the room so the men could discuss among themselves their next move.

That game ended in a draw. Later the Austrian looked up the man who had helped them win. He was also from Austria. In his cabin he told his story.

He had been held by the Nazis to divulge information. This he refused to do. Their form of torture was to keep him in a room by himself without any stimulation. His only contact with others was during interrogations. He found this maddening, but one day while waiting to be interrogated, he came across a book on chess.

The man goes on to describe how he committed all the games to memory and when he became bored with that, he began playing games in his mind against himself. This eventually led to a form of madness. In fact he told our narrator that he feared if he played another game of chess, he would succumb to permanent insanity.

I'll stop there, but I must say what I value most about this story was the character sketches of both men. Both suffered from a type of mono-mania, but for different reasons and their outcome was dramatically different as well.

There's so many things to analyze in this story. The Russian man was free but limited by his mental narrowness. The Austrian man was brilliant and his imprisonment stretched his mind to even greater heights, but at the cost of his own sanity.

This story will stay with me for a long time.

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Sunday, May 24, 2020

Treasure Island and The Rajah's Diamond by Robert Louis Stevenson

I like to listen to music while I paint and I happened upon Frederick Delius.  I hope you learn to enjoy him as much as I do.  This work is called, timely enough, "A Song of Summer."

I told you last week I lost my precious Sophie.  Last Thursday I came home to a note on my door that said, "fellow Bird Lady."  A woman wanted to give me her cockatiel.  I didn't have to think about it.  I've never had a cockatiel before and I would like to get a couple more, because this one is so cute.  His name was Roosevelt, but to me he looks like a Percy so that's what I've been calling him.

The lady told me he needed to stay in his cage a week before meeting the other birds.  He was so agitated in the cage I couldn't stand it.  Here is Percy after letting him out of the cage.  He stayed there for most of the day.

Naturally he took to my husband first.

But the person he immediately bonded with and would not leave, just singing and chirping and preening her hair all afternoon, was my friend Felicia.

He was not happy when she left.  I would consider giving Percy to her, but she has three dogs, two of which would not mind eating a little bird.

Treasure IslandTreasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I had read this story years ago to my son when he was a boy and I either did not realize or had forgotten what a rollicking good adventure story this was.

Stevenson knows how to create tension, suspense and relief where in the end evil loses and goodness wins, but it's quite a gauntlet to race through to get there.

A young boy, Jim Hawkins lives at an inn his parents run when an old pirate by the name of Billy Bones comes to stay. It turns out that Bones has something of great value to a lot of other pirates who are willing to get it from him.

There are many close calls and almost-caughts, almost killeds in the beginning, but finally Jim, a Dr. Livesey and the district Squire, Mr. Trelawney acquire a ship and crew and embark to the island that carries a treasure according to the map Jim, accidentally, procured from Bones.

Unfortunately, Trelawney, who is a bit of a nimbus, has not been discreet or discerning and without realizing it has hired a bunch of black-hearted pirates to run the ship, all lead by Long John Silver.

I don't wish to ruin the story for people who haven't read the book so that's all I'll say, but I do not think a movie could ever do this written narration justice. Stevenson is such an eloquent writer and so much depends on the first person narration. Movies are largely limited by showing rather than telling.

For all the youngster both child and adult, this is an adventure story everyone should read.

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The Rajah's DiamondThe Rajah's Diamond by Robert Louis Stevenson

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I did not read the Kindle Edition of this book, but that's the only edition I could find in English on Goodreads.

This was a fun serial adventure told in third person-limited from a variety of people. A foolish young dandy of a man, after quite a series of episodes of fun and danger comes across, without intending to, an infamous jewel called the Rajah's Diamond.

He is chased around town by nefarious characters without realizing what they are after. But he loses the diamond after all, in an innocuous place where it is found by someone else. This person has been passed the ball and now his journey begins, although this person is not quite so innocent as the dandy.

But he's just as foolish and soon, he has been divested of the diamond as well. The diamond passes through a number of hands. Many turns and twists and as many chase scenes as a Buster Keaton silent film occur before the matter is resolved.

I've only given the bare bones of the story. If you want to read the sort of adventures our different diamond bearers have, you'll have to read the book.

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Sunday, May 17, 2020

Mata Hari: the True Story by Russell Warren Howe

Here is a youtube video called the Best of Chopin.  The first piece on it, Ballade no. 1 in G minor, was the very first work by Chopin that I learned.  What a wonderful introduction.

Mata Hari, The True StoryMata Hari, The True Story by Russell Warren Howe
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
This is another book that started out strong, but lost its momentum somewhere in the middle.

Howe gives us chapter after chapter of Mata Hari, whose real name was Margaretha Geertruida Zelle, rose from poverty, created a legend for herself, introduced the world to the strip tease act and ultimately was executed as a German spy during WWI.

Zelle was born and grew up in Holland with a father who ruined her mother by leaving her for a mistress and ruined his family financially by his extravagant tastes for luxury.

Margareth Geertruida turned out to be not so unlike her father and one has to respect her grit. In a certain way she reminds me of the character Scarlett O'Hara in Gone With the Wind. Despite adverse circumstances she fought her way through poverty to become a notorious stripper, but ultimately was made a WWI scapegoat.

When she was eighteen she married a British Lord, Rudolph John MacCleod, and moved to Indonesia with him. There they had two children, one whom mysteriously died while still a boy. It was suspected that their servant, in revenge for MacCleod sending away her lover (so he could have her for himself) poisoned the boy.

While in Indonesia, Zelle, now MacCleod, learned the art of exotic dancing as well as the language of the people. She used this back drop after she left MacCleod for his drunken rages and blatant infidelity, to create a saucy temptress that procured for her numerous lovers.

She accomplished this by leaving with her daughter to Paris because, according to her, "Where else could a divorced woman hope to make a living?" Later MacCleod retrieves their daughter and Maragetha never sees her again.

Mata Hari, as I shall now call her, became known for her so-called Indian (she now claimed to be the daughter of an Indian Princess and a European man) dance routines, which involved taking off her scarves until she was completely naked. Well, not completely. She never uncovered her breasts because they were so flat. I think that's kind of funny, but maybe that's just me.

Her life is one of traveling from man to man and living far beyond her or any of her lovers' means. Finally, at forty, she decided she needed a cool million to finally retire and settle down. Plus she had a twenty year old Russian lover, a soldier in the Russian army, who she wanted to spend the rest of her life with.

She offered her services as a spy to the French.

To read Howe's telling, she was a complete incompetent and accomplished nothing. The Germans didn't take her seriously and the French didn't know quite how to use her, so they hired her as a "free lance" spy.

Nevertheless, she was eventually arrested and convicted of spying for the Germans.

Half of the book is not very interesting. It mainly consists of Howe describing every hotel and restaurant Mata Hari checked into, who she met, who she spoke to, who she slept with. It reads as fascinating as a grocery list.

However, Howe is convinced that as bumbling as Mata Hari was as a spy, she was not guilty of working for the Germans. She was rather a convenient scapegoat for the French who, perhaps to commander incompetence, lost thousands of French soldiers.

Perhaps this is true, but I have another biography I hope to read and see if I can glean another viewpoint before I make my own conclusion.

In addition to Mata Hari's life, this is a good history of life before and during WWI in Europe.

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