Monday, September 30, 2019

Photos from New Orleans and biography of Shirley Jackson: A Rather Haunted Life by Ruth Franklin

Here is Mozart's Quintet for Piano and Winds in E-Flat Major K. 452 performed by the incomparable Alfred Brendel at the piano.

St. Louis Cathedral on Jackson Square in the French Quarter of New Orleans

Over Labor Day weekend Josh and I scuttled down to New Orleans.  It was so hot and sticky and crowded and just the favorite city we have visited so far.   It had everything I love:  history, architecture, book stores, cemeteries...

 Here are a few photos.  You may notice that I like cemeteries. 

 These photos are from St. Louis Cemetery no. 1, which is the only one you have to reserve a place in a tour in order to visit.  It's worth it.  The guide will tell you all sorts of lore, real and imagined.

William Faulkner's house.  It took some searching.  It was hidden away in a back alley around the corner of St. Louis Cathedral off of Jackson Square

It was one in the afternoon and I had not had anything to eat or drink all day.  We waited in a very long line at a cafe for some cafe au lait and beignets, but by the time we got a lovely table in the courtyard, it was time to go on our cemetery tour.  Luckily, just next door to our meet up was this gentleman's shop.  I got a iced coffee and orange juice.  The shop was practically empty but  refreshing after the heat and crowds outside. 

No food, though.  I was waiting for my beignets.  After our tour, we waited in a long line at Cafe du Monde, just across the park from Jackson Square.  We found out it was cash only, but luckily there was an ATM across the street.  Also, you don't wait to be seated, you find a table.  The waiter will find you, clean it off and take your order.  Don't you wish you had some?

While waiting for our order I read from a book I got at the Faulkner House.  It is an anthology of the lyrics to all the famous blues songs.  I thought it was the thing to buy to remember my time in New Orleans and the thing to read while drinking Cafe Au Lait and eating Beignets.

While walking along the Riverwalk next to the Mississippi River a man came up and offered to shine my shoes.  I told him I had no cash, which was true.  He said that's OK and fell to his knees and in a matter of seconds, squirted polish on my shoes and worked it in with his hands.  Then he jumped up and shook our hands and said, "God bless you."

I emptied my coin purse and handed him the change.  It was only a couple of dollars worth in quarters and dimes, but what else could I do?

You know, I wonder if he was an Angel Unawares because my feet felt so good after he was done, as if he massaged them.  And don't my shoes look good?  They were grey with dust before.

A last coffee before we head back to our Bed and Breakfast at a Retro decorated Cafe.

This was on the sidewalk on our way to our room.

From the top of the staircase at our B and B.

Our room.

And us, cheesing it up riding the Natchez, one of only two steam run paddle boats in the country.  The other one is on Lake Tahoe.  I rode that one too.

And here's my review:

Shirley Jackson: A Rather Haunted LifeShirley Jackson: A Rather Haunted Life by Ruth Franklin
My rating: 2 of 5 stars
I listened to this via hoopla, which freed me up to paint and also give my eyes a rest. My ophthalmologist said they were strained, for some strange reason, and maybe, just maybe I might want to reduce the amount of time I read. Hence, audio books have become a part of my repertoire. And I have discovered that my local library has an excellent digital library. I'm already on my next book.

Shirley Jackson wrote darkly, Gothic stories. Her people live in perpetual twilight zones and nightmarish realities. "Out of the mouth comes the overflow of the heart" and reading this biography of Jackson, one realizes that her stories were the outpouring of Jackson's soul.

From her domineering, psychologically abusive mother, to a society she could not conform to, to a husband who never pretended to be faithful, plus an ever losing battle with drug and alcohol addictions added to an eating disorder, guaranteed a short life. She died at forty-seven.

The chapters flow back and forth from the events in Jackson's life to analyses of her work.

My only complaint, well, there are two. One, I got tired of the feminist slant. The whole "women are oppressed and forced to get married and have children" theme got tiring. The assumption is women are somehow free or better off if they stay single and the only reason they would get married is to conform to external societal pressures.

That's a bunch of bunk. Speaking as a woman, I got married and had a baby because I wanted to. To indicate otherwise is to insult my intelligence and imply that I am not a free agent.

Besides, Jackson really could have chosen her life partner better. Stanley Hyman told her from the get go he was a womanizer and had no plans to change. But because she was a "free thinker", she married him anyway. This choice, a choice as a free agent and intelligent person, although maybe not so wise, was her decision, not society's. It was not getting married that caused her no end of misery, but who she married.

The other complaint is the narrator. I really got tired of her whiny voice and especially when she was quoting. For some reason she went into a high, child-like character when speaking as Shirley Jackson.

I have now started another audio book and it is also very good. I do have one complaint, however. It uses the same narrator.

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Sunday, September 22, 2019

Agent 110: An American Spymaster and the German Resistance in WWII by Scott Miller

I'm kind of going off the rails here, but this song used to really move me when I was in middle school: George Harrison's What is Life?

Agent 110: An American Spymaster and the German Resistance in WWIIAgent 110: An American Spymaster and the German Resistance in WWII by Scott  Miller
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
This was a very interesting book for a number of reasons.

First up is the reason why I bought the book. It was about espionage, always exciting. Secondly, it takes place towards the end of WWII, a time period I have been enjoying reading about and all you fellow fans of Foyle's War would enjoy the book for that reason.

Finally, Miller presents information of which I was not previously aware.

Allen Dulles is an agent for the U.S. in the O.S.S., the precursor to the C.I.A. He has been assigned to Switzerland to flush out any Germans disenchanted with Hitler and the Nazi's and persuade them to provide essential information to the Allies leading toward defeating Hitler and his regime.

Dulles is able to contact the German resistance movement, a group of Germans who are trying to overthrow Hitler internally. They were responsible for several failed assassination attempts on Hitler's life. Dulles and the cooperative Germans work together through the final year of the war.

Miller sheds new light on the fact there was a significant internal resistance to Hitler throughout the war and on more than one occasion, the Allies unintentionally thwarted their attempts at organizing the Germans against Hitler, which might have lead to the overthrow of Hitler from the inside. This was no doubt due to a lack of awareness that such an organization even existed on the Allies' part.

There are several reasons for this, but you'll have to read the book, because it's too involved to try to sum up here.

The book is non fiction but reads like a high action suspense novel. Many of the resistance members were actually part of the Nazi regime, which is why they were able to access valuable information and carry it to Dulles. When Hitler fell, many of them were racing to escape and some of them ended in prison until Dulles could come to the rescue and explain their real role in the war. Some of them were later used as witnesses against other Nazis during the Nuremberg Trials.

Miller writes in a way that shows us the lives of each player involved on both sides of the war. He also provides a follow up at the end of the book to let us know what happened to each of the major players after the war up to their death.

I think this book is an excellent and unique source of WWII history.

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Sunday, September 15, 2019

We by Yevgeny Zamyatin

Here is another Schumann:  Sonata no. 11, The Peharia.

I found my copy at a book fair and it was cheap.  You can tell it's pretty beat up so I'd like to get a better copy.  The problem is, from what I've read this is the best translator.  Penguin is probably my favorite paperback edition, but they have a different translator.  Maybe I'll buy it anyway, just to have an attractive copy, and, anyway, I can compare the two translations and see which one I like better.

Can I be a little snarky?  Years ago, I had a friend from Switzerland who, while I liked very much, if she thought you said something stupid, she could be quite sarcastic about it, in order to make you feel stupid.

I was mentioning that my mother liked to read a few translations of the same Russian novel to see which she liked better.

"Oh?" My friend asked with a sarcastic smile.  "Your mother speaks Russian?"

I was too busy feeling stupid to realize that she misunderstood me.  I didn't say my mother was comparing translations for accuracy, and my mother didn't have to know Russian to know which English translation she liked better.  

It does bring up something that does bother me.  Which is the best translation of a book?  The one that is the most literal or captures the essence of the meaning.  There are ways we express ourselves in one language that simply doesn't translate into another, so one needs to find an appropriate idiomatic equivalent.

I suppose we have to accept that a large part of an author's writing style will be lost.  Ah, well.

Here is my review as I published it on Goodreads.

WeWe by Yevgeny Zamyatin
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
I saw this book for a dime at a library book fair and I've read other people's reviews about it so I felt I should give it a go.

This is a science fiction/dystopian novel that is as chilling as it is fascinating. The narrator is living in a reality that has become perfect, thanks to basing it on mathematical principals. There is no "I" only "We". Each person has their identity buried in the whole, like a cog in a machine.

Things that make life worth living, like human relationships, romance, are replaced with satisfying physical urges, like sex. You don't even have to work up an artificial premise like at a bar. You simply take a number of the person you want to have sex with and a time is set up.

No one has a name, only a number. One's purpose in life is to make sure the "whole" is working. There is no soul. If you find you have one, you undergo an "operation" to remove it.

The narrator talks in delirious hyperbole to describe how absolutely wonderful life is under the "Benefactor", but cracks start to appear. The logic he has lived by isn't following through. Loose endings increasingly appear as he more and more desperately tries to resolve or suppress them.

His Achilles Heel is love for someone else. A woman. Her name is I-330, as his is D-305. Love does not fit into the equation set up by the Benefactor, only existence.

The story is beautifully written. I can see how the premise was the inspiration for George Orwell's 1984, but while I found Orwell's more understandable and consequently more bleak, Zamyatin's novel is far more poetic, but also harder to understand.

I found his metaphor's and vivid imagery rich and colorful, but I also wondered at times what was going on. The descriptions were psychedelic, to say the least. I had a hard time knowing whether the author was using metaphor or literal descriptions when stating that she "pierced me with the spears of her eyelashes." Or whether when I-330 spreads her pink gills out like wings....does she really have gills? Or what is he saying?

Maybe it was the translation. Mirra Ginsburg was the translator and from what I've read, she's the best. However, I am curious now to read another. Not that she wouldn't be the most accurate, but I wonder if I would find another translation equally mystifying.

At the end of the day, I am glad I read it and maybe I'll understand it better with a different translation or when I'm older and, hopefully, wiser.

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Here's a photo of a postcard that I sent across the world to a pen pal buddy.  Vintage photography is my favorite!

Sunday, September 8, 2019

The Cheltenham Square Murder by John Bude

Here is Rachmaninoff playing his own Piano Concerto no. 2.

I had the sprinkler on for four hours, naturally this happened as soon as I turned the sprinkler off.  Ah well.  The modern American rain dance is washing your car or watering your lawn.

The Cheltenham Square MurderThe Cheltenham Square Murder by John Bude
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
It's always exciting to discover a new author. Of course, I always find books exciting, but coming across this book was an unexpected pleasure.

Josh and I were in Austin haunting all the independent bookstores there. I came across the Cheltenham Square Murder in a bin for a dollar. I did not know the author, but the British Library Crime Classic edition was appealing, and also, the author died in 1957, which meant his books were written during the Golden Era of mystery writing. Besides, if the book stunk, I was only out a dollar.

John Bude is now an author whose books I am going to hunt until I have them all. There's about 37 of them so I'm going to have fun for a while.

Summary, no spoilers: Meredith has come to Cheltenham to visit a friend who is a mystery writer. While there an accident occurs where a stray arrow seems to have shot through a window and unfortunately hit a man in the back of his head and killed him.

As events develop and clues emerge, it becomes apparent that perhaps it was not an accident but a murder. But who and why?

What did I like about this story? It was very well developed. Unlike many mysteries that deliver a punch at the end, Bude's characters are thinking through every new clue, every unexpected event and, even though there were quite a few turns...previous "facts" turned false because of newly uncovered evidence, which cause the suspect list to change like the colors on a chameleon.

Consequently the story really pulls you along as you keep "solving" and "re-solving" the mystery as new facts and events emerge.

Also, everybody and every action was believable. There was never a sarcastic "Right. Like that would happen" moment.

At first I was afraid the characters were going to be one-dimensional, and while the supporting cast was less developed, the main characters were immensely likable.

Which brings us to the final and probably most important reason I liked this book. The main characters, Inspector Long and Superintendent Meredith are interesting, smart, and insightful. They respect the other characters and have a good sense of humor at their own expense as much as anybody's.

I'm happy to find that Meredith will be the detective in all the other mystery stories Bude wrote. Interestingly enough, he also wrote science fiction and fantasy as well. Those aren't my favorite genres, but I'm encouraged to give Bude's work a try.

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