Monday, June 27, 2016

Midnight in Siberia by David Greene; Michelangelo by Yvonne Paris, The Colosseum by Peter Quennell

It is 10:46 pm and Pour la Piano no. 3 by Claude Debussy is rippling in the background and I am going to attempt to write three book reviews in half an hour.

David Greene is host of NPR's Morning Edition.  He spent over two years in Russia as NPR's Moscow Bureau chief.  While there he traveled the Trans-Siberian Railway in order to interview people from all walks of life in big towns and small.

This is exactly my sort of book.  It is simply about normal people, what is going on in their lives and what they think.  He met young and old, yet there were definite things they all had in common.

Outside in public, they were all impersonal in a Bradbury-esque dystopian way. No one smiles or makes eye contact.  The author saw two girls get hit by a car, but no one stopped hurrying by.

Yet, the author found that inside their houses they were the epitome of hospitality, welcoming you like a family member, loading food on you, drinking lots of alcohol (that the author felt obligated to join) and talking hours into the night.

He also encountered horrible bureaucracy for the simplest of things. Getting a train ticket or checking into a hotel  required mountains of paperwork.  He also noticed that he was followed everywhere.

Life is very, very hard in Russia.  There is grinding poverty, although some people have huge wealth.  Almost every woman Greene met was a single mom because she either kicked out her drunken husband or she was widowed because he drank himself to death.  Depressing.

Also depressing is how corrupt the police force is and even more depressing is how every Russian he talked to decided that democracy didn't work and they needed another Stalin.

"The government took care of us under Soviet times," they said.  "We had enough to eat and a place to live.  Now it's different."

It's like listening to the Israelites long for Egypt.  They seem to forget they were slaves.

This book allowed me a taste of present day Russia. Greene writes very well and obviously cares about the people he lived with for a few years.  If you like hearing people tell their life stories, especially from a country as fascinating as Russia, you will enjoy this book.

I have been submitting stories to magazines and have noticed that there are quite a few that want travel stories.  Therefore I am writing up my own experiences when I traveled overseas and plan to submit them when I get the essays in finished form.  While writing, I had to hearken back to books about the art and places I saw to get details correct.  Consequently I ended up reading two coffee table books about Italy and Rome.

Michelangelo by Yvonne Paris has plenty of big, glossy pictures of all the Master's works.  Paris works meticulously over the history of Michelangelo's life and when and where he created each work.  She quotes many other biographers which offers a compilation of different scholars' research and analysis of one of the greatest artists known to us.

The final book is The Colosseum.  This is a wonderful book, not only for it's history of Flavian's Amphitheater, as it was known, but also for the information it provides about the Caesars and writers of ancient Roman history.  It follows the rise of the Holy Roman Empire and the various European leaders across the years who impacted Roman history. The last part lists writers from Goethe to Lord Byron to Charles Dickens and even Longfellow who came and wrote of the Colosseum.

For me particular interest was the fall of ancient Rome, the barbaric invasions, as little as 500 hundred people populating the ruins, and how Rome slowly grew again to be a city of influence.

The games are described, not in excruciating detail, but cannot but be gruesome because of the total waste of life.  By the sixth century:

...many noble species of wild animals had vanished from the Roman Empire:  North Africa had lost its elephants; Nubia, its hippopotami; Mesopotamia, the powerful lions...Hyrcani, its famous Caspian tigers..All had been chased out of their natural habitat or slaughtered for the delectation of a Roman audience. (pg.51)

And that's not including the carnage of human life.

Both books are filled with photos and give good overviews of Italian history, with many references for someone, such as myself, who would want to read more literature on the subject.  Before I had finished either book I had ordered the Life of Michelangelo by Vasari (a contemporary of the artist) and Suetonius' The Twelve Caesars.

You'll be reading reviews of those books in the future.

My son and Moses

Monday, June 20, 2016

The Zimmermann Telegram by Barbara W. Tuchman,204,203,200_.jpg

I am a big fan of harpsichord music, although I understand not everyone is.  As a wedding present, a friend of mine bought me the complete works of William Byrd on keyboard.  This includes not only performances on the harpsichord but also the smaller clavier and organ.  Anyway, this is what I'm listening to.  Here's a link if you'd like to listen along. 

The Zimmermann Telegram was written in 1958 by Barbara W. Tuchman.  It is about the pivotal point that finally propelled a reluctant President Wilson along with a largely pacifist U.S. population that elected him twice to join a war effort barely before it was too late.

If no one has made a movie out of this they should, Tuchman's writing is superb.  A Tom Cruise action-packed movie couldn't move at a faster pace.  I also learned a lot that did not come up in my high school history class.

In high school we were taught that WWI came about unintentionally due to the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand, as allies and axis lined up against each other due to agreements that if this country went to war we would go to war with it etc.. so what should have been a local tragedy turned into a World War.

According to Tuchman's book, that is not quite what happened.  She lays the blame fully on the shoulders of the German Kaiser Wilhem.

The Kaiser invented the concept of "The Yellow Peril" to invoke paranoia and racism in Europeans and Americans in order to manipulate them against the Japanese, but, as it later turned out, he was also willing to negotiate with the Japanese as well as Mexicans to divert American interests from Europe and keep them out of WWI.

In short, WWI could have been avoided if the Kaiser was not power hungry for world dominion.  Yet he had the support of the Germans.  The seeds of Aryan superiority existed years before Hitler came to power.  Hitler simply knew how to fan the flame.

I learned more about Woodrow Wilson than I ever knew, at least as far as his attitude toward war and world war with Europe.  

He was the only president with a PhD and taught at several colleges, including Cornell and Princeton.  He was an intellectual and approached issues from a progressive, cerebral point of view.

Which goes to show that things can look academically good on paper and have little correlation to reality.  This includes his pacifist philosophy.  He tried to the very end to work for world peace, ignoring the real threat of Mexican dictatorships and  war hungry Germans.  He was fairly obtuse on this point, waiting until U Boats bombed American ships with heavy loss of life.  And then the Zimmermann Telegram.

British Intelligence, through a set of fortuitous circumstances as outlined in the book, received a code book the Germans used and were able to consequently intercept German communications to  the German Ambassadors in America and Mexico.  One of these was the Zimmermann Telegram.  Arthur Zimmermann was the Foreign Secretary of the German Empire.  His telegram was a communication to Eckhart, the German Ambassador in Mexico.  In it he anticipates unrestricted submarine warfare against the United States and a proposed alliance with Mexico.

The Kaiser had already been stirring things up with the Mexican dictators as well as the Japanese in order to occupy the Americans stateside so they would not have the resources to enter into the war and assist Britain and France.   He anticipated taking over these countries as well as carving up the States (with his little helpers, Mexico and Japan) after America could no longer defend herself.

Much of this was known or suspected by many of the Cabinet members in the U.S. House and Senate.  Wilson's personal advisors pleaded with him to realize how dangerous the situation was becoming.  Theodore Roosevelt stormed, fumed and threatened to "skin Wilson alive".  

But all to no avail.  Wilson held his pacifist philosophies too dear.  In this he reminds me of President Carter.  

When the Zimmermann Telegram first came to light, Wilson's supporters, American pacifists and even the Hearst newspapers laughed it off as a hoax, probably invented by the British to manipulate Americans into the war.

All that was put to rest when Zimmermann himself admitted to authoring the telegram.  No one knows why he admitted it, when he could have easily denied it. 

But for whatever reason, no one could any longer deny that Germany was planning on attacking the U.S. and Wilson, after years of dilly dallying, believing he could created world peace, jumped on board and WWI began.

I couldn't help comparing the events in this book with current events and human nature.  

For one, I observe the  groundless belief some people and unfortunately people in key positions of power hold that power hungry people don't exist.  They refuse to believe that evil exists and that there are powerful people in the world that passionately devote their lives to destroying whole civilizations for personal gain, profit and lust for dominion.  I have personal friends and family members that believe with all their heart that every war and act of terrorism is just a big misunderstanding and if we would lay down our weapons, so would they and...and...then we could all join hands and sing, "Let There Be Peace on Earth".

History has shown us again and again that this isn't true and our present day course doesn't look much different but there is a stubborn persistence in clinging to the ideology that "everyone wants peace."

That is what I find so disheartening about our present situation: our current leaders' refusal to be realistic about terrorism.  To call people paranoid when attack after attack transpires.  When our leaders' only reaction is to tell us to stop being "phobic" and "irrational" instead of telling us what they are going to do to keep their citizens safe, I feel that people are one day going to look at this time period the way history looks at President Wilson.

I suppose I got a little editorial there but those are the thoughts this book provoked.

But, to return to the book, I highly recommend this book for the insight it provides into one of the most important historical epochs of the last century. 

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Rome: Day 3 The Roman Coliseum, Palatine Hill, Ancient Ruins and the Roman Forum

The Coliseum
Yesterday we spent the day walking around the Roman Coliseum, Palatine and the Roman Forum.  Lots and lots of walking in the heat but absolutely worth it.  I took a lot of pictures of the amphitheater.  The floor no longer exists so the lower level where the prisoners, gladiators and animals were kept was exposed. 
You could get your photo with a Roman Soldier.  This one was taking a break.

Underground where the animals, gladiators and prisoners stayed while waiting their fate.


Derek is sitting outside a small shop where we had lunch and the best gelato in Rome.

Palatine Hill

From there we walked around the Palatine which is on a hill next to the Coliseum.  It was once a palatial garden with a mansions where the emperor entertained.  The magnitude is incredible.  It's amazing what slave labor can accomplish. There are also a lot of Roman remains where excavators are still digging and uncovering artifacts.  The columns are incredible.

Head of colossal statue of the Emperor Constantine

Little Car. Wonder how many mpg it gets.

There must be as many motorcycles in Italy as there are cars.

The above and following photos are of the Palatine Gardens
and Roman Ruins being excavated.

The Roman Forum where the politicians of the ancient Roman Republic used to debate and give speeches.
 This was our last day in Rome.  From there we traveled to Florence.  Next week photos of our travels through Tuscany and the things we saw in the city that was the birthplace of the Renaissance.

Monday, June 13, 2016

Shirley Jackson: Novels and Stories

I have happily discovered how to streamline my local classical music station from my computer.  Yes I realize that makes me the last person on the planet to figure this out,  but since our Classic Radio station is in Shreveport and I can't seem to get it on any radio in my house without white noise this is indeed a happy occasion.

So far I haven't been able to find the listings to tell me what I'm listening to but it is some sort of violin concerto from the classic period and either the first or third movement is playing because it is energetic and robust.  

I am going to try to write this with guinea pigs running around the table.  It's raining outside and I can't put them out yet and they've been inside all night so I'm letting them play a little so they won't be bored. Let's see how strong my powers of concentration are midst the "week week weeking".

Shirley Jackson belongs to a group of American writers dedicated to a writing style known as "Gothic".   I looked that word up in order to better understand why this genre is known by that term and this is what I found on a google search:

adjective: Gothic; adjective: Gothick; adjective: gothic
  1. 1.
    of or relating to the Goths or their extinct East Germanic language, which provides the earliest manuscript evidence of any Germanic language (4th–6th centuries AD).
  2. 2.
    of or in the style of architecture prevalent in western Europe in the 12th–16th centuries, characterized by pointed arches, rib vaults, and flying buttresses, together with large windows and elaborate tracery.
  3. 3.
    belonging to or redolent of the Dark Ages; portentously gloomy or horrifying.

    "19th-century Gothic horror"
  4. 4.
    (of lettering) of or derived from the angular style of handwriting with broad vertical downstrokes used in western Europe from the 13th century, including Fraktur and black-letter typefaces.
  5. 5.
    of or relating to goths or their rock music.
noun: Gothic
  1. 1.
    the language of the Goths.
  2. 2.
    the Gothic style of architecture.

    I believe for Jackson's literature we are looking at the third use as an adjective:  "portentously gloomy or horrifying."

    Jackson seems to take a sadistic delight in keeping the reader on edge hoping against hope that nothing bad will happen to the innocent protagonist (s).  Sometimes she's just teasing and the story ends rather innocuously.  Other times  we're not so lucky.  Jackson enjoyed her little power trips.

     Some of those stories are interesting for taking us back to a  time period that doesn't exist anymore.  Where women did not work outside the home, but largely focused their energies on raising their children and, according to Jackson, keeping precise and socially acceptable appearances.  Jackson shows a lack of mercy in her characters.  Anything outside the accepted norm is not tolerated and sometimes punished in cruel ways.  (No, I'm not even talking about the Lottery.  Yet.)
    Most of her stories are taken from the perception of a woman.  We read her thoughts as she tries to work her way through life.  They are poignant because they reveal inner struggles and a pervading loneliness that women suffer in various walks of life-the single woman seeking love, friendship- or the married woman trying to fit in with her neighbors, acquire friends...or sometimes the opposite:  the woman who is determined to protect her family from anything or anyone that deviates from her insulated world.

    How much of this is an accurate portrayal of American culture in the forties and fifties and how much of it is a caricature drawn in charcoal by Jackson is up for discussion.  I personally believe that any form of expression, including writing, is the overflow of the heart and mind of the communicator.  I had a similar argument with some people about the photography of Diane Arbus. 

    Jackson's most powerful works in this book are the two novels:  The Haunting of Hill House and We Have Always Lived in the Castle.

    I am going to be careful describing these stories because if you haven't read them, you don't want to be told the ending because they are startling.  The ending for Hill House I found myself coming back to again and again.  Just the last sentence.  I wish I could tell you, but it would be stealing to deprive you of that last, unexpected shock.

    Four people come to stay at Hill House, an abandoned dwelling outside a small dead-end town in New England.  One, Dr. Montague wants to conduct scientific research on the strange "energy" the house seems to possess so he carefully selects a couple of women who seem to possess some sort of sensitivity to metaphysical phenomena.  The fourth person is Luke whose family owns the house.  Luke is something of a ne'er do well and he was sent to keep  him out of trouble as well as keep a watch on the others.

    The two women, Eleanor and Theodora are very different people.  Theodora, vivacious, bubbly, attractive, came on a whim after a falling out with her room mate but Eleanor is seeking meaning and purpose to her life.  Single, lonely, living with her sister because she had nowhere else to go after years of caring for her mother who eventually died, Eleanor is trying to break out of an empty, boring shell.  

    She steals the family car and races out to Hill House against the will of her sister.  She hopes to be able to spend the summer there before getting caught.

    At first it seems as though Theodora and Eleanor are going to become good friends, so much so that Eleanor decides that after Hill House she will go to live with Theodora.  When Eleanor shares this sentiment with Theodora, Theodora begins to distance herself.

    It's a sad commentary on someone who has never fit in with society and because of their circumstances,which created a certain isolation, they don't know how to fit in and worse, society won't let that person in.

    Meanwhile, the house is watching and seeking to absorb Eleanor.

    The story is suspenseful with no relief or respite (unless you put the book down and go think about something else).  The ending leaves you chilled.

    The other novel, We Have Always Lived in the Castle  is chilling in a different way.  Two sisters, Mary Katherine (called Merricat) and Constance live in a large house on the outskirts of town. Initially we see Merricat in town buying groceries.  She is treated with open hostility, she walks back to her house surrounded by jeering children who are encouraged by their parents.  

    At first this seems to be the same commentary that Jackson makes in her other stories.  Someone a little different is rejected by the greater whole, but as the story progresses we realize that, in fact, the townspeople have good reason to hate Merricat and her sister.

    The sisters used to live with their parents and other relatives in the house but they were all poisened.  The only ones who survived was an Uncle who felt ill and didn't eat the meal. Merricat had been sent to her room and also didn't eat the meal. Constance doesn't eat sugar and it was the sugar that was poisoned. I say all that because the murderer isn't necessarily who you think it is.  
    Constance was tried for murder but acquitted.  The town feels this injustice keenly and vents their rage against the two sisters when they can.

    As a result, Constance won't leave the house and Merricat only goes into town every couple of weeks for supplies.

    Throughout the story the sisters regard each other with great affection and engage in light banter about mundane things concerning housekeeping, cooking, baking, gardening; they have created an artificial world where everything is always perfect and they only need each other.

    But there is an underlining current that is sinister, revealed through the ramblings of the Uncle who is ill and mentally unstable, as the reader slowly learns the horrible thing that happened in the house which makes the two girls' playacting all the more disturbing.

    Things finally come to a head (I won't spoil the ending) and the outer reality comes crashing down, but the girls remain undefeated.  They continue to live as though nothing has happened, determined to play their charade to the end.

    The Lottery I won't comment on since everyone knows it and it is the one story that propelled Jackson's writing into every American anthology and required school reading for high school.

    What I will say is that my edition, the Library of America, includes Jackon's reasons for writing The Lottery ("it was just a story I thought up when pushing my daughter in her stroller to and from the store") and the backlash she received by outraged readers.  She includes some of the letters and some of them are really funny and sarcastic.

    My edition also includes a brief biography and chronology of Jackson's life, but I hope to read a good biography because I want to learn more about this lady who, with her writing, pierces the window of the human soul and shows us sadness, as well as strangeness- but not without a puckish humor.

Monday, June 6, 2016

Isle of Lewis Chess Men

 As you can see I have a few books on chess lined up.

Mozart's Violin Sonata No. 32 in  B-flat Major is playing as I write.  Mozart is great for focusing and collecting one's thoughts.  Metallica is great for driving your car at 1 am in the morning and you're trying to stay awake. Here's a link if you'd like to listen while you read today's post (to Mozart, not Metallica).

But currently I am awake and writing my latest post.  

 My Isle of Lewis Chess Set

I can't remember when I first learned about the Isle of Lewis Chessmen, I don't watch Harry Potter so I didn't see them there, even though apparently there is a scene where the characters are playing chess using  Lewis Chessman figurines.

But learn about them I did and with my usual enthusiasm at discovering something new, I couldn't gather enough information fast enough.  There are some great videos about them on youtube.  I am providing links at the end of this post.

The Lewis Chess men were discovered accidentally on the beach on the Isle of Lewis, Scotland in 1831.  Theories abound but the most likely is that they came from Norway and was brought by ship but for reasons unknown to us, were buried on the beach.

They are one of the oldest surviving chess sets and can be dated and placed by  the Bishops.  The Bishops tell us that they were created after Christianity spread throughout Europe.  Originally he was an elephant or an armed attendant mounted on an elephant revealing Chess' Indian origins.  The hat on the Bishop tells us that the pieces were made during the 12th century because the hat design before and after this century was different.

The pieces are believed to come from Norway because there are statues that look unmistakably like the Queen pieces and the Berserkers. The Queen's forlorn expression is probably what moves me the most about this set.  War is not a happy occasion and her expression shows it.  There are four or five different Queens with different hand positions but all carry the same tragic expression.

The original pieces number 78, indicating that the collection is a compilation of several sets.   I chose a Chess set that had different kinds of Kings, Queens, Knights and Rooks.  One of the more fascinating pieces is the Berserkers.  

The Berserker is another reason the pieces undoubtedly came from Norway.  Berserkers were Viking warriors that whipped themselves into a drug-induced trance before going into battle.  They fought naked and supposedly in a dangerous, insane condition.  Above you can see my Berserker is biting his shield and fully dressed. Now I better appreciate why enraged people are said to go berserk.  I like that word and intend to use it at every opportunity.,204,203,200_.jpg

A good concise book to read is The Lewis Chessman: Unmasked by David Caldwell.  He lists all the theories as to their origins, provides maps of the Isle of Lewis, the reasons why the pieces ended up where they did and best of all, includes good photos of every type of piece.

Another book I also finished is Chess: An Illustrated History by Raymond Keene.,204,203,200_.jpg

Keene is a Chess Master and what he says about the history of chess, starting back in India and the Middle East; and especially his timelines starting in the 19th century of International Chess tournaments is fascinating.  But the real gem of this book is the large, glossy color photos of chess sets from all over the world. The photos are alone worth the price of the book (which I got dirt cheap, used on Amazon hee, hee).

Another good resource is  They have a great video on youtube about the Isle of Lewis Chess men and also their products, from which I  bought my own pieces because they provided the greatest variety.  Every other site only offered pieces where the pieces from each side exactly mirrored each other. has different queens, kings, bishops etc for each side.  Each rook is different from each other and includes a berserker.  Their site is worth checking out.  They have a lot of different chess sets as well.

After buying my pieces I had to buy a board, which wasn't easy because the colors I chose was light pink and gray (they come in a variety of colors, the original pieces are made of walrus tusk and pale) so I had to find a board with complementary colors.  Then I had to find a table, which my husband and I did this weekend at an antique barn.

 A nice little nook in which to play chess.

My intention is to read the other books which provide strategies and hopefully improve my own feeble skills.  

A final link I'm providing is the game Bobby Fischer played against Donald Byrne.  Bobby was 13 years old at the time and the game is famous because he sacrificed his Queen.  The video is twenty minutes long and very interesting even if you're not that into chess.

Below are links about the Isle of Lewis set created by the British Museum where most of the pieces currently are on exhibit.

Isle of Lewis Chessmen part 1

Isle of Lewis part 2

British Museum web site

Bobby Fischer vs Donald Byrne