Posts Tagged ‘male writers’

Bestsellers: Popular Fiction since 1900 (book #128)

27 July 2014

Bestsellers: Popular Fiction since 1900
Clive Bloom, 2008.

This is the second edition, revised from the 2002 edition, and reads at times as if the revisions were done rather hastily.

Talks about the difficulty of establishing what the bestsellers actually were. “The British lists were only regularised in the late 1970s.” Before that, he quotes a 1969 article, the lists “‘were produced on a whim by a panel of bibulous bookmen‘, using booksellers whose ‘cynical’ replies were sometimes merely an attempt to sell slow movers”. “There are also no cumulative bestseller lists”, so there is a difficulty about books which over time sell in bestseller numbers, but do not achieve bestseller numbers in any one year.

Bit simplistic at times about reader response – for instance, saying Cartland and Miss Read “attracted women to whom liberal values did not appeal”.

Rather a misogynist comment about Blyton.

Sometimes badly written or edited – this second sentence is hard to understand: “Perhaps hard and fast category distinctions [between adult and child literature] are breaking down in some areas. The growth of teenage literature, R. L. Stine’s extraordinary success in the field of horror is certainly indicative and Philip Pullman’s work, a complex web of ideas and imagination challenges adult beliefs as well as moulding children’s imaginations.”

Bloom seems to dislike commas, as in “The story follows Eragon a poor boy who finds a blue stone in the forest that turns out to be a dragon’s egg”. There are some longer sentences that become breathless because of this.

About half the book is short entries, alphabetical by period, on the bestselling authors. I need to read Berta Ruck.

There are some slightly random comments. For instance, he talks about James Hadley Chase and other paperback thriller writers of the 40s and 50s setting books in America though most of the writers hadn’t been there. ” … few travelled outside the UK. This is still the case with authors today. Stef Penny was prevented from going to Canada by agoraphobia but it did not prevent her from winning a major prize for The Tenderness of Wolves, set in Canada.” Not sure how useful it is to compare the first group of writers with the contemporary Stef Penney (not Penny) who had a different reason for not travelling.

There are a lot of typos, including the splendid “Jonathan Livingstone Seagull is the story of a bird who files for the love of it rather than the necessity.” I can visualise the photographs – JLS against faded vintage office cabinets and wooden library index card drawers.

Books read since my last update:

A Stepmother for Susan of St Bride’s, Ruth Adam (which has some kittens that save the day, which is always good).
Margaret Finds a Future, by Mabel Esther Allan.
Thai Dye, Monica Ferris.
A Lady Awakened, Cecila Grant.
Treachery in Death, J D Robb (re-read).
In the Bleak Midwinter, Julia Spencer-Fleming.
I’m Taking My Eggs and Going Home, Lisa Manterfield.

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Life and Letters on the Roman Frontier: Vindolanda and its people (book #111)

31 July 2011

Alan K Bowman, 1994.

Quotes Auden’s poem Archaeology:

The archaeologist’s spade
Delves into dwellings
Vacancied long ago,

Unearthing evidence
Of life-ways no one
Would dream of leading now,

Concerning which he has not much
to say that he can prove:
the lucky man!

Knowledge may have its purposes,
But guessing is always
much more fun than knowing.

Refers to the letters of Claudius Terentianus, an Egyptian who was in the Roman army in the second century. These were sent mostly to his father and were excavated at Karanis in Egypt. I like the list of things he sends his father in one letter:

a bag well sewn, in which you have two mantles, two capes, two linen towels, two sacks and(?) a linen covering. I had bought the last together with a mattress and a pillow, and while I was lying ill on the ship they were stolen from me. You have also in the bag a cape of single thickness; my mother sent this to you. Receive also a chicken coop, in which you have sets of glassware, two bowls of quinarius size, a dozen goblets, two papyrus rolls for school use, ink (for use) on the papyrus, five(?) pens, and twenty Alexandrian loaves. I beg you, father, to be content with that. If only I had not been ill, I was hoping to send you more, and again I hope so if I live.

(ref)

And this letter explaining that he is going with the army to Syria:

Since they were nothing to me – (I say this) in the presence of the gods – but words, I conceived a hatred(?) of no one. I went . . . by boat, and with their help I enlisted in the fleet lest I seem to you to wander like a fugitive, lured on by a bitter hope. I ask and beg you, father, for I have no one dear to me except you, after the gods, to send to me by Valerius a battle sword, a . . ., a pickaxe, a grappling iron, two of the best lances obtainable, a cloak of beaver skin(?), and a girdled tunic, together with my trousers

(ref)

And this description in another letter:

Saturninus was already prepared to leave on that day when so great a quarrel broke out. … He paid no more attention to me than to a sponge stick, but (looked only) to his own business and his own affairs.

(ref)

I like the vulgar phrase “no more attention than to a sponge stick”.

To go back to Vindolanda, here is a sock excavated there:

Vindolanda sock

Words about Pictures: The Narrative Art of Children’s Picture Books (book #107)

21 June 2011

Perry Nodelman, 1988.

Most of the books he discusses are American, so there were a few I hadn’t heard of. One was Trina Schart Hyman, who – among other books – illustrated Snow White with romantic images, some of which are here. There is an interview here, and a bibliography and biography on the same site, wch also has information on other women illustrators of children’s books.

I also found the Sur La Lune Fairy Tales Blog when looking for this, wch is worth a read.

Another book I haven’t read he talks about is Maurice Sendak’s Outside Over There – about a child stolen away by goblins and rescued by her older sister. The Amazon reviews describe it as dark and frightening. He says

Before she was two, my own daughter insisted that we read her Outside Over There again and again. She did not express the same obvious delight in it that she took in other books and could not be persuaded to discuss the book or her response to it, but she always listened to the story with great attentiveness and carried the book with her wherever she went for some weeks. While many adults find such books disturbingly difficult, they seem to speak to children directly, presumably to a part of them that is eventually numbed by experience of the world and that may exist only below consciousness in adults.

I like the imagined dialogue here – the writer saying to the two year-old, “now, discuss the book and your response to it”.

Interesting stuff about Mr Rabbit and the Lovely Present, wch I have read and wch is also illustrated by Sendak. He says that

“as Mr Rabbit and the girl discuss different colors, the green of the landscape around them is suffused with light of the color they discuss. As they discuss red the woods behind them contain red foliage … but as they discuss yellow the woods are lit with yellow-orange, and they walk towards a brownish-yellow road”.

He thinks that this results in a “calm serenity [tautology] … because of the unified concord created by their suffusion with tones of one secondary color”. He also says that the impressionist style Sendak uses contributes to a “calm peace” [again with the tautology] that balances some of the negativity of the text –

“a slightly nasty snippishness in both Mr Rabbit and the girl … she always seems to be accusing him of being a little stupid, and he always seems to be just a little sarcastic about how of course her mother only likes birds in trees”.

In the same way, he analyses how the illustrations by Garth Williams for Charlotte’s Web counter the lack of action in the text; it is “a surprisingly inactive novel – in fact, it is about how violent action is prevented, and it is filled with poetic descriptions that retard the action”. Williams “shows just about every occasion in Charlotte’s Web where people or animals are swept off their feet – Lurvy toppling over Wilbur, Wilbur in midair as he tries to spin a web, Avery turning a handstand at the fair. Even in less frenetic moments … Mrs Arable clutches nervously at her purse … Fern’s hands always seem to imply a hyperactive clutching or grasping”.

I like his description of “the matter-of-fact tonelessness common in European fairy tales”.

Talks about different ways boys and girls are depicted. “Those who smile and invite the gaze of viewers are most often female, the others usually male” – as in Shirley Hughes’s Lucy and Tom’s Christmas: “Tom looks in his Christmas stocking while Lucy sits on the bed and smiles out at viewers”. Nodelman calls this complicity with our gaze the act of “willing victims”.

The book also discusses whether picture books use techniques from films, and finds that mostly they don’t – “most pictures in most picture books are middle-distance or long shots, showing full figures in settings, usually seen at eye level”.

Talks about some pictures requiring more “reading” than others, and quotes Lamb on Hogarth: “His graphic representations are indeed books: they have the teeming, fruitful, suggestive meanings of words. Other pictures we look at – his prints we read” (source here).

Mentions Richard Redgrave’s painting The Poor Teacher, wch I hadn’t come across before.

The book ends by quoting from Peter Rushforth’s novel about the Holocaust, Kindergarten, a description “of a picture in a fictional picture book: an illustration made by a character in the novel for the tale of ‘Hansel and Gretel'”:

The little boy, and the younger girl, stood hand in hand at the edge of an immense dark forest, towering high above them, dressed in the fashion of the 1930s, the little girl with an elaborately woven shawl around her shoulders. They filled most of the picture, standing in the centre of the scene. The girl was looking in front of her, into the forest, and seemed frightened. The boy was looking over his shoulder, back the way he had come, looking straight into the face of anyone looking at the picture. The details were as intensely-observed as in a Victorian genre-painting, and the boy’s open, unguarded face could be studied in a detailed way that one could only give a face to in a painting or a photograph, or the face of someone who was loved, and who returned that love.

Nodelman follows this by saying that “the joining together of the objective detachment of art and the vulnerability of love say more about what picture-book art offers children than I could say in many pages”.

Albion’s Seed: Four British Folkways in America (book #104)

20 June 2011

David Hackett Fischer, 1989.

This is a fascinating account of four ideological and/or economic migrations to America in the 17th and 18th centuries and the ways the migrating communities took their own folkways with them, creating distinctive traits in different regions of America.

There’s a Wikipedia page on the book. There are extracts from the section about the emigration of people from the Scottish Borders and Northern Ireland to the “back country”, the Appalachian mountains, Maryland, Virgina and Carolina here. There’s another extract here (PDF) particularly about the environment of the regions to which the first three of the migrations Fischer discussed went. I like the image of some of the Puritans having “have had their overgrown beards so frozen together that they could not get their strong-water bottles into their mouths” (not sure what strong-water is – spirits?).

Here’s a list of criticisms of the book, including suggesting that he overstates his case and that sometimes he gives no sources or outdated sources (wch I had noticed). I’ve also found that quotes where I can find another source online sometimes differ from what appears to be the original text (“perswade” where he silently corrects to “persuade” in the ballad below, for instance, and “Nashun” in an account of a sampler where he corrects to “Nation”) and occasional minor inaccuracies (he says the Filmer family seat in Kent is now “a school for wayward girls” – in fact it hasn’t been since 1947, though it was still a school for boys at the time Fischer was writing; and see comments on the William Blundell quote below).

Fischer’s list of folkways is useful to bear in mind if you are creating imaginary societies:
Speech ways
Building ways
Family ways (both in ideal and in actuality)
Marriage ways (including courtship and divorce)
Gender ways (customs regulating social relations between men and women)
Sex ways (including the treatment of sexual deviance)
Child-rearing ways (again, in ideal and in actuality)
Naming ways (favoured forenames and the descent of names)
Age ways (attitudes towards age)
Death ways
Religious ways
Magic ways (beliefs and practices about the supernatural)
Learning ways (attitudes towards literacy and education)
Food ways (including patterns of eating and fasting)
Dress ways
Sport ways (including attitudes towards recreation and leisure)
Work ways
Time ways (attitudes towards time, the rhythms of life)
Wealth ways (attitudes towards wealth, wealth distribution)
Rank ways (rules by which rank is assigned, the roles it assigns, relations between ranks)
Social ways (conventional patterns of migration, settlement, association and affiliation)
Order ways (ways of ensuring order, forms of disorder)
Power ways (attitudes towards authority and power, patterns of political participation)
Freedom ways (ideas and customs about liberty and restraint)

Here’s part of a ballad about the Puritan migration to Massachusetts:

The Zealous Puritan

For Company I fear not,
There goes my Cousin Hannah,
And Reuben so persuades to go
My Cousin Joyce, Susanna.

With Abigail and Faith,
And Ruth, no doubt, comes after;
And Sarah kind, will not stay behind;
My Cousin Constance Daughter.

(from An American Garland: Being a Collection of Ballads Relating to America, 1563-1759).

During this migration, “the cost of outfitting and moving a family of six across the ocean was reckoned ad £50 for the poorest accommodation, or £60 to £80 for those who wished a few minimal comforts. A typical English yeoman had an annual income of perhaps £40 to £60. A husbandman counted himself lucky to earn a gross income of £20 a year”.

In Puritan Massachusetts, “in nuclear families that were persistently “disorderly” – a word that covered a multitude of misdeeds – the selectmen were required to remove the children and servants and place them in other homes. Thus, in 1675, Robert Styles of Dorchester was presented for many sins, and ordered to “put forth his children, or otherwise the selectmen are hereby empowered to do it, according to law”. According to this site (wch has other good quotations about life in colonial families), his sins included “not attending the public worship of God, negligence in his calling, and not submitting to authority”.

In this society no-one was allowed to live alone. There were laws against it in Connecticut and Plymouth:

In 1668 the court of Middlesex County, Massachusetts, systematically searched its towns for single persons and placed them in families. In 1672 the Essex County Court noted:

Being informed that John Littleale of Haverill lay in a house by himself contrary to the law of the country, whereby he is subject to much sin and iniquity, which ordinarily are the companions and consequences of a solitary life, it was ordered…he remove and settle himself in some orderly family in the town, and be subject to the orderly rules of family government.

[He was] given six weeks to comply, on pain of being sent to “settle himself” in the House of Correction.

This custom was not invented in New England. It had long been practiced in East Anglia. From as early as 1562 to the mid-seventeenth century, The High Constables’ Sessions and Quarter Courts of Essex County in England had taken similar action against “single men,” “bachelors,” and “masterless men.”

Death customs in Puritan Massachusetts discouraged outward displays of grief, except for a weird custom following the funeral:

After the funeral, food and drink were served. Then suddenly the restraints were removed on one of the few occasions when New Englanders drank to excess. Entire communities became intoxicated. Even little children went reeling and staggering through the bleak burying grounds. There are descriptions of infants so intoxicated that they slipped into the yawning grave.

(This is one of the things he gives no source for.)

I like this print of Yale in 1807 he mentions, with the “students in beaver hats and swallow-tailed coats playing football on New Haven Common, while an elder … looked on with an air of disapproval”.

A ballad from the 17th century migration “of indentured servants and distressed cavaliers” to Virginia:

The Lads of Virginia

Come all you young fellows wherever you be,
Come listen awhile and I will tell thee,
Concerning the hardships that we undergo.
When we get lagg’d to Virginia. …

When I was apprentice in fair London town,
Many hours I served duly and truly,
Till buxom young lasses they led me astray.
My work I neglected more and more every day,
And to maintain them went on the highway.
By that I got lagg’d to Virginia. …

When I was in England I could live at my ease,
Rest my bones down on soft feathers,
With a jug in my hand and a lass on my knee,
I thought myself fit for all weathers.

But now in Virginia I lay like a hog,
Our pillow at night is a brick or a log,
We dress and undress like some other sea hog,
How hard is my fate in Virginia.

Old England, Old England, I shall never see you more.
If I do it’s ten thousand to twenty;
My bones are quite rotten, my feet are quite sore,
Fm parched with fever, and am at death’s door.
But if ever I live to see seven years more.
Then I’ll bid adieu to Virginia.

(Also from An American Garland.)

He writes “Gentlemen took pride in the firtility of their women and their animals – sometimes in the same breath. A seventeenth-century gentlement named William Blundell expressed delight in his ménage, when within 24 hours his wife was delivered of a son, his prize cow produced a calf, a sow dropped fifteen piglets, a bitch gave birth to sixteen puppies, a cat had four kittens, and his hen laid fifteen eggs”. He gives the sources as A Cavalier’s Notebook but in fact the actual text reads “in or about the year 1673 there happened in one family in Salford, within the space of twenty-four hours, these several births following, viz. : the wife of the house was delivered of a son, a cow of a calf, a sow of fifteen pigs, a bitch of sixteen whelps, a cat of four kittens, and a hen hatched fourteen eggs. All this I took in writing from Mr. Samuel Andrews, and he professed that he had it credibly affirmed to him by persons in the same neighbourhood”. Fischer implies that this relates to Virginia, but in fact this is an English source, isn’t about the author William Blundell’s family, and there are a couple of other minor discrepancies. Still a good story though – should be a nursery rhyme.

There’s a good list of North Midlands (Cheshire, Derbyshire, Lancashire and Yorkshire) vocabulary that travelled to America, including the following:

budge
cattawumpus
cuddle
dither (upset)
expect for suppose, as “I expect that’s so”
find (provide for)
flabbergasted
good grief
mad (angry)
quality folks (gentry)
shaggareen (untidy person)
sneezlepoak (hesitating person)
swatch (fabric sample)
thingamajif
upsa daisy

Thomas Budd’s proposal for education in Quaker schools in Pennsylvania, 1698: boys were to be “instructed in some mysetery or trade, as the making of mathematical instruments, joinery, turnery, the making of clocks and watches, weaving, shoemaking or any other useful trade”. Girls were to learn “spinning of flax and wool, and knitting of gloves and stocking, sewing, and making of all sorts of useful needlework, and the making of straw work, as hats, baskets, etc”. He also said “to the end that the children of the poor people, and the children of Indians, may have good learning with the children of the rich people, let them be maintained free of charge with their parents”. Penn himself wrote “I recommend the useful parts of mathematics, as building houses, or ships, measuring, surveying, dialing, navigation: but agriculture especially is my eye. Let my children be husbandmen and housewives”. But Fischer writes that there was little Quaker support of public education, and “on the subject of education, no public laws of any importance were passed in Pennsylvania from 1700 to 1776”. Not sure what “dialing” is.

On Quaker food, Fischer says that the migrants brought with them a method of food preservation through boiling. This included cream cheese (Philadelphia) wch was partly dehrydrated sour cream, apple cheese, plum cheese, pear cheese, walnut cheese (there are some recipes for this online but none of them seem to be about boiling), lemon cheese (can’t find a recipe for this except ones that look like lemon curd or are in fact a type of cheese) and orange cheese or orange butter (can’t find this either, though Fischer says it is still a Christmas dish in Quaker families).

More death ways, this time from Carrickfergus – Fischer argues that these traditions were taken by emigrants to Appalachia:

On the death of a person, the nearest neighbours cease working till the corpse is interred. Within the house where the deceased is, the dishes, and all other kitchen utensils, are removed from the shelves, or dressers; looking glasses are covered or taken down, clocks are stopped, and their dial-plates covered. Except in cases deemed very infectious, the corpse is always kept one night, and sometimes two. … If a dog or cat passes over the dead body, it is immediately killed, as it is believed that the first person it would pass over afterwards would take the falling sickness. A plate with salt is frequently set on the breast of the corpse, and is said to keep the same from swelling.

Source. Fischer gives this as 17th century, but the text is from 1839.

I Shall Wear Midnight (book #103)

23 May 2011

Terry Pratchett, 2010.

Mysterious omens could wait. Witches knew that mysterious omens were around all the time. The world was nearly always drowing in mysterious omens. You just had to pick the one that was convenient.

and “‘there are times when ye should stick your head up a duck’s bottom rather than talk'”.

A book about responsibility, scheduling, and the odd bit of magical happenings.

The songs sung at the Baron’s funeral are: The Larks They Sang Melodious (also known as Pleasant and Delightful and as Charming and Delightful). YouTube. Dance, Dance, The Shaking of the Sheets (link has interesting reference to variant by William Cobbold, 16th/17th century composer). Dull version by Faran Flad here. Down in the Valley. Lyrics. Rather plodding YouTube.

Amsterdam: A brief life of the city (book #101) + stuff

10 May 2011

Let’s get the stuff out of the way first. No-one wants the stuff.

I was playing a pretend game with the H and the M today to keep them occupied whilst adult stuff (or dull stuff, wch is often the same thing) happened. I was a taxi driver (we were in the car) driving them along the beach. I noticed different responses from them. When I said anything was happening that the M didn’t like, she said “let’s not have that”. So at one point I said the H had nearly fallen out of the car but just saved herself, the M said “let’s not have her having fallen out”. And at another point I said we’d passed their parents on the motorway and they were looking sad because they were going to work, and she said “let’s not have them looking sad”. The H did some complicated bits of entering into the spirit of. So at one point I handed them imaginary bottles of water and she passed it back to me saying it was too difficult to open. And when they had imaginary ice-creams she handed the cone back saying she didn’t want to eat that part of it.

So I guess I’m reading that as the M identifying things as “bad” and editing them out and the H being particularly free with imagination. Who knows.

I always feel squicky writing about writing. I mean, if I were doing successfully I wouldn’t need to mention it, would I? And it’s salutary / terrifying / needs further analysis that there are 402,000 Google results for “really trying to write”. Though some of that is about lyrics, homework, or randomness, rather than writing-writing. Anyway, having got the shame markers out the way, I’ve been “really trying” to write – that is, to type rather than scribble, as for me however much I scribble the writing up and redrafting on the computer is more important in moving the story along. That’s partly because I can’t easily read my own handwriting in bulk, so if I write more than a few pages by hand it gets difficult for me to get a sense of it quickly. Also for some reason I tend to write far too much dialogue when I’m writing by hand, and need to type it up to incorporate the descriptive stuff I’ve written in my head and invent the moving-the-plot stuff that is always hardest for me. Wch is an involved way of saying the typing-up / writing on computer bit is important to me. For some reason it’s also the bit I am finding really hard at the moment. I don’t know if it’s because it adds another level of earnestness or Taking Myself Seriously or something. So I can, and do, write reams of stuff in notebooks, as long as it’s in fairly short bursts, and don’t have any problems revising it either, but as soon as I sit down to type it it sets off moderately extreme panic attacks. By wch I mean I’ve had worse, but the last three of these have taken around 6 hours to come down from, wch is a lot of time to waste. And of course once you start seeing a pattern with PAs you’re pretty much doomed. Tried writing on different computers, different places, no change. Tried fict and non-fict. Anyway, I could probably have slipped “I” in a few more times in that download.

The book’s by Geert Mak, 1994, trans Philipp Blom, 1999.

The usual dump of Bits I Liked:

The description of the structures of older houses remaining inside newer ones. “during demolition … opposite the Central Station, an almost pristine wooden skeleton of the house of a medieval merchant came to light, complete with the usual rigging construction”. It was from the 14thc and has apparently been put into store, whatever that means.

The description of the inner and outer parts of Amsterdam houses.

a clear division between the private and the public in the Amsterdam house itself. We know the “voorhuys” or front house well from the paintings of Jan Vermeer, Jan Steen and other seventeenth-century artists. It was high, light and open, and normally used as a shop, merchant’s office, or workshop, and also as a living space. In the summer, the shutters and the door would be left open at all times, though the lower half of the door might be kept shut on account of the many stray dogs roaming the city. The inner hearth, however, was intimate and enclosed. Here Amsterdammers hid themselves away from the cold and from their hard lives. Such drawings and paintings of those inner rooms as have come down to us breathe an air of blissful indolence: pipe-smoking men and knitting women. The dual nature of this domesticity was to characterize the city for centuries to come: on the one hand the cordial openness of the merchant who meets his customers in the front house and will close neither shutters nor curtains at night, on the other, the contained, private life of the inner hearth, that curious atmosphere which the Dutch delineate with the word gezelligheid, the smugness which is soft on the inside and hard on the outside.

Some details from the interrogation of Meyns Cornelis, a maidservant, in 1555. She was accused of witchcraft, tortured and burned to death. This is obviously not a cheery story but I did like the first strange events she said she had come across. “While she was sitting alone by the fire one evening, ten or twelve cats had suddenly come in and had begun “to dance for about half an hour, paw in paw”. When she retired to bed, she discovered one of the cats lying under the covers. Grabbing the beast by the scruff, she threw it out of the upper door into the canal, but when she crept back to bed it was lying there again, now dripping wet. Fearing for her life, she had asked her master and his wife to allow her to sleep downstairs for a few nights.”

The reproduction and discussion of a painting possibly by Dirck Jacobsz (Jacobszoon). I had some difficulty finding the image online and the reproduction in the book is not great, so I’ve uploaded the image from the database of the Amsterdam Historical Museum here:

Image possibly by Dirck Jacobsz

The picture was previously thought to be of the merchant and burgomaster Egbert Gerbrandz (Gerbrandzoon) and his wife Gerrit Janszoon Peggedochter. Now it’s described just as a merchant couple and the attribution to Dirck Jacobsz is also doubted. The year, 1541, seems to be fairly certain. Here’s the link to the page on the museum site. Mak says:

They stand behind a table on which we see objects heavy with symbolism: an hourglass, an accounts book, a handful of gold coins, an inkpot, penknives, a ball of spinning thread. In the background we look through a window on to a landscape in which Christ hangs upon the Cross, and in the foreground there is a chapless skull. On the right-hand side of the painting are two more symbols of domestic industry: a shelf full of business letters on which one can read, just, the name of the man, and on the wall the woman’s broom.
In order to accentuate even more the transience of our existence, the couple are pointing demonstratively to the hourglass and the gold, for work one must, time is running out, and one should not indulge in vanity. Cedit Mors Nemini, death spares no one, is painted on the wall behind the merchant, while behind his wife is a maxim for later generations that can be summed up as: life is short; live honestly and as Christians; and if you are rich, you are duty bound to share your possessions – on pain of the fires of Hell.

Mak later discusses the Women’s Uprising, a group of rich women who travelled to Brussels to appeal to Emperor Maximilian – unsuccessfully – about the city’s plan to put a commercial building in the courtyard of Amsterdam’s Holy Place, the site of a fourteenth-century miracle. One of these women was Gerrit Janszoon Peggedochter, whom Mak thinks is the woman in this painting: someone who “ranked [her] religious sisterhoods and ties more highly than [her] social status” (though of course her social status may have been fairly tied in with her religious behaviour), and he quotes the text from the painting: “Therefore let us accomplish what God has elected us to do, which is all the work of charitate“.

Interesting account of a lecture the writer gave in 2003 (Google translation).

Victoriana (book #99)

25 April 2011

James Laver, 1966.

An ornate loo:

Domestic scene, no source given:

Photograph of Victorian family

(Impossible not to read the darker side of family life into pictures like this, I find.)

Baking powder ad (year not given):

Ad for Czar baking powder

Mentions Augustus Egg’s Past and Present, reproduced and discussed here. I do like a narrative picture or three. There’s an interesting article about his work Travelling Companions here.

I like this desk:

Mackmurdo desk

Details on the designer, A H Mackmurdo, here.

The Lost: a search for six of the six million (book #98)

4 April 2011

Before I do the book thing, to let you know that I’ve had a lot of internet connexion probs over the last month (and one or two other things that have got in the way), so if I haven’t got back to you yet, that’s why.

Daniel Mendelsohn, 2007.

The book has a Wikipedia page. There’s a review by Elie Wiesel. Review from the Independent. A blog review. Daniel Mendelsohn’s brother has a site with details of the family history and good photographs of the places in the book. There is a facinating podcast in which Mendelsohn talks to Adam Phillips.

I rarely recommend that anyone reads a particular book, except on AskMetaFilter if people actually want recommendations. But I would recommend this, with a whole load of caveats of course. You have to be prepared to let this one take over your life for a bit. And you have to be interested, if not in the Holocaust specifically, in history, research, stories, how we know what we know of other lives and societies. You also have to be prepared, as one might expect, to read about sickening events.

Briefly, this is the story of a quest the author undertakes to discover what happened to his great-uncle’s family. Daniel Mendelsohn’s grandfather was born in 1902 in what is now a town in the Ukraine called Bolekhiv, which was then Polish. He emigrated to America before the war. His oldest brother, Shmiel, born in 1895, briefly lived in America in 1912 to 1913 but returned to Bolechow (as the town was then called). He and his wife, Ester Schneelicht (born in 1896), and their daughters Lorka (b. 1920), Frydka (b. 1922), Ruchele (b. 1925) and Bronia (born around 1929) died in the Holocaust. The author was from childhood somewhat obsessed by what happened to them, and even as a child corresponded with all his surviving relatives to try to find out. This obsession is partly because, as he says at the start of the book, when he was a small child relatives would sometimes cry when they saw him, because, they said “Oy, er zett oys zeyer eynlikh tzu Shmiel!” – “Oh, he looks so much like Shmiel!”. After his grandfather’s death Mendelsohn finds letters Shmiel wrote to his (the author’s) grandfather in 1939, and which his grandfather carried with him for the rest of his life. As part of Mendelsohn’s search he visits Bolechow several times and also tracks down and visits Jews from Bolechow who survived the Holocaust and now live in Australia, Israel, Minsk, Stockholm. The book incorporates the stories of these people as well as Mendelsohn’s relatives. He also discusses the effect his quest has on people around him and on his relationships with his family.

The book is written in an often allusive way and one has to be prepared to hold parts of it in one’s head until later information helps to make sense of them, and to hold described events or facts knowing that later information may contradict them. Mendelsohn finds that even survivors who knew the family well disagree about basic facts such as the number of daughters there were in the family, let alone the dates and manner of their deaths. He establishes that some truth is unreachable or unknowable. He discusses for instance the survivors’ accounts, which are backed up by other sources, of the ferocity of the violence from Ukrainians living in the town towards Jews, and can’t reconcile this with the stories he hears from surviving Ukrainians about being brought up in harmony with the Jewish population, and the warmth with which Ukrainians greet him and try to help him in his search.

I want to quote a couple of paragraphs from the concluding pages of the book. This section follows on from a discussion of the chances that led Mendelsohn finally to discover what happened to Shmiel and his daughter Frydka, and to see the place where they hid and the garden where they were murdered. The specifics in the second paragraph are things people have told him about Shmiel, Ester and their daughters.

So there is the vast mass of things in the world and the act of creation that cuts through them, divides the things that might have happened from those that did. I did not and do not believe that the long dead and disintegrated Shmiel and Frydka somehow reached out from the ether and pointed us, that day, to Bolekhiv and then Stepan and then Prokopiv and then the house and then the women and then the hiding place, the hole in the ground, the awful box, where they had once cowered in the cold and failed, finally, at their bid for survival. But I do believe in some things. I, to whom a friend had listened, quietly and sometimes in tears, one night in September 2001, when I’d just returned from our first trip to the Ukraine and was telling the story of what we’d found there after all that time; had listened to me weeping and finally said, I’m crying because my grandfather died two years ago and now it’s too late to ask him anything; I did and do believe, after all that I’ve seen and done, that if you project yourself into the mass of things, if you look for things, if you search, you will, by the very act of searching, make something happen that would not otherwise have happened, you will find something, even something small, something that will certainly be more than if you hadn’t gone looking in the first place, if you hadn’t asked your grandfather anything at all. I had finally learned the lesson taught me, years after they’d died, by Minnie Spieler and Herman the Barber [who were relatives / family friends whom he overlooked and did not ask things because he did not think they were worth talking to]. There are no miracles, no magical coincidences. There is only looking, and finally seeing, what was always there.

For everything, in time, gets lost: the lives of peoples now remote, the tantalizing yet ultimately vanished and largely unknowable lives of virtually all of the Greeks and Romans and Ottomans and Malays and Goths and Bengals and Sudanese who ever lived, the peoples of Ur and Kush, the lives of the Hittites and Philistines that will never be known, the lives of people more recent than that, the African slaves and the slave traders, the Boers and the Belgians, those who were slaughtered and those who died in bed, the Polish counts and the Jewish shopkeepers, the blond hair and eyebrows and small white teeth that someone once loved or desired of this or that boy or girl or man or woman who was one of the five million (or six or seven) Ukrainians starved to death by Stalin, and indeed the intangible things beyond the hair and teeth and brows, the smiles and frustrations and laughter and terror and loves and hunger of every one of those millions of Ukrainians, just as the hair of a Jewish girl or boy or man or woman that someone once loved, and the teeth and the brows, the smiles and frustrations and laughter and terror of the six million Jews killed in the Holocaust are now lost, or will soon be lost, because no number of books, however great, could ever document them all, even if they were to be written, which they won’t and can’t be, all that will be lost, too, their pretty legs and their deafness and the vigorous way they strode off a train with a pile of schoolbooks once, the secret family rituals and the recipes for cakes and stews and gołąki, the goodness and wickedness, the saviours and the betrayers, their saving and their betraying: most everything will be lost, eventually, as surely as most of what made up the lives of the Egyptians and Incas and Hittites has been lost. But for a little while some of that can be rescued, if only, faced with the vastness of all that there is and all that there ever was, somebody makes the decision to look back, to have one last look, to search for a while in the debris of the past and to see what only what was lost but what there is still to be found.

Mendelsohn makes the point that 48 people are known to have survived from the pre-war Jewish population of Bolechow of 6,000 – 0.8%.

The Yiddish Policemen’s Union (book #93)

3 January 2011

Michael Chabon, 2007.

Bina [the wife of the protagonist, who is a policeman in the alternate reality of a Jewish, Yiddish-speaking state in Alaska] never stopped wanting to redeem the world. She just let the world she was trying to redeem get smaller and smaller until, at one point, it could be bounded in the hat of a hopeless policeman.

Great British Bus Journeys: Travels Through Unfamous Places (book #91)

3 January 2011

David McKie, 2006.

Mentions memorial in Uttoxeter to Mary Howitt, who wrote “The Spider and the Fly”. Wikipedia. The Fossil Elephant.

James VI of Scotland “took such a fancy to Royston that he built what was called a palace (though it was really not much more than a hunting lodge), knocking down at least two pubs in the process. … an account of the king’s devotion to Royston: ‘King James finds such felicity in the hunting life that he hath written to the council that it is the only means to maintain his health, which being the health and welfare of us all, he desires them to take the charge and burden of affairs, and see that he be not interrupted or troubled with too much business.’ This must be one of the grandest sick notes in history. But not everyone wanted him there. In 1604 a petition was prepared by people ‘adjacent to the town of Royston’ telling him, in effect, to behave himself better. The king sent the petitioners away, but he allowed them to present their address to his council. Later the king’s favourite dog disappeared, and when it returned a message was found attached to its collar. ‘Good Mr Jowler,’ it said (that was the name of the dog), ‘we pray you speak to the King (for he hears you every day, and so he doth not us) that it will please His Majesty to go back to London, for else the country will be undone; all our provision is spent, and we are not able to entertain him any longer.’

Also in Royston he mentions a cave with mysterious carvings, found in 1742. Here’s the home page with a panoramic video. The Guardian said

Dug out by hand – probably in the 13th century (the chalk can’t be carbon dated) – it’s like being inside a huge underground bell.

However, it’s the astonishing array of carvings that send a shiver down the spine: St Katherine, holding the wheel on which she was martyred; St Lawrence grasping the gridiron on which he was allegedly burned alive; multiple crucifixion scenes. But look closer and there’s something odd going on. Is that the Grand Master of the Knights Templar being burned at the stake? Why does a queen have a crown hovering above her head? And what’s a brazen sheela-na-gig doing there?

The cave may have been anything from a storage place to do with the market to a religious site. This later article is about the caves being at risk. This article is interesting about the reaction in the eighteenth century to the cave.