Thursday, January 28, 2010

Memories of Annapurna

My writing has been getting even more than usually whiny and trivial of late. One has to fight this mindset, so I am going to try to overcome it by doing some posts on hyper-manly topics.

When I was a boy, there was a picture in my set of old encyclopedias that always especially disturbed me. By good luck I have found another reproduction on the internet: This picture is actually quite a bit less disturbing than the one in my encyclopedia. For one thing the bottom finger on the left hand, which has the most grotesque growth of ice on it, is cut off in this image, and the light contrast of the ice on the other fingers in general is much more vivid in the encyclopedia picture. This gentleman is Maurice Herzog, a French mountaineer. In 1950 Herzog led a team of Frenchmen, along with eight sherpas on a climb to the top of Mt Annapurna in Nepal, which is over 26,500 feet high. At the time it was the highest mountain known to have ever been scaled by men, though of course since then most of the top peaks have reached many times, and some are even getting crowded. For people to whom the metric system means something, this was also the first mountain over 8,000 meters to be conquered. This seems to have been a big deal at the time.

The trip up seems to have gone well enough, but as often happens in mountaineering and travel to remote places, the way back was not so good:

"Many of the men suffered frozen feet and hands, and Herzog lost his gloves, which is almost the worst thing that can happen. The party was caught in an avalanche at one time. The doctor had to cut off most of Herzog's fingers and toes, because they had been frostbitten. Some of the men had to be carried most of the way."

That little section really worked on my imagination..."the worst thing that can happen...the doctor"...How did Herzog lose his gloves in such extreme conditions? Did he drop them over the side of a cliff? Did they fall into a swirling whirlpool of snow where they were impossible to find? Did the doctor stretch Herzog out on the ice on the trail and cut his fingers and toes off? Did he use a saw? Who else had to be carried? Why did some of the guys not have to be carried? Unbeknownst to me all the years of my youth these questions may actually be answerable, for when Herzog returned to France, he wrote an account of the journey, no doubt in the elegant pithy style all French schoolboys of his generation learned to write in, which sold over eleven million copies worldwide and remains to this day the biggest-selling book about mountaineering ever written:

Not surprisingly, enlightened contemporary opinion is that Herzog took great liberties with the truth in the book (translation: the expedition was much more boring and prosaic than its earlier renown made it seem). Herzog, remarkably, it appears is still alive, at the age of 90. If the United States is the best country to be (and stay) exorbitantly rich in, France seems to be the best country in which to be and stay renowned, at least if you are fond of recognition and being celebrated for your contributions to your nation. Herzog is a Grand Officer of the Legion d'Honneur, as well as a kind of emeritus member of the I.O.C., the former Minister of Youth and Sport for France, as well as the former mayor of the elite Alpine and Olympic town of Chamonix. Despite the loss of most of his extremities, he seems to have lived an enviably full life and achieved a high degree of self-realization. This is the kind of thing a strong cultural and educational upbringing and continued awareness of and attention to throughout life can do for a person, which very few people in positions of authority in America seem to have any sense of. There is a flaccidity, a lack of solid purpose or meaning in the details of American day to day life, as well as minute to minute thought, that one feels the lack of immediately in reading a few sentences of purposeful French writing or in an account of some commonplace activity, regardless of how otherwise annoying or tiresome the account may be.

My wife gets the family out during the summer to hike various mountains around New England, nothing so far much above 2,000-3,000 feet. At first I admit I was not overly enthusiastic about this kind of exercising--I frequently used to daydream about being in cafes in Paris and that sort of thing while on these hikes--but I am starting to develop a feel for what you are supposed to do, think about, notice, etc, on them. My spirit seems to be deficient pretty much all around, and that part of it that is acted upon by nature definitely needs to be cultivated, though I feel that part of me is still relatively small, and would just be an additional aspect I could draw on in work and social settings if I were fully developed in the ways most congenial to my temperament.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Brideshead Revisited (1945)--Part IProbably because of the popular television dramatization that was made of it during the 80s, which I have not gotten around to seeing yet, I had been aware of and interested in reading this book someday for most of my life. Waugh remains a highly regarded writer in many circles, especially certain rightish ones, to this day, and he was a member of that celebrated generation of English authors that included Orwell, Graham Greene, Anthony Powell, and numerous other well-known names, whose careers and writing styles I have often applauded in these pages. I was anticipating a spare, wry, surgical, casually erudite and consistently funny read. I am still not exactly sure what it was that I got; for while it was all of these things in places, there was also an astonishing amount of flaccidness in it, and many parts of it did not hold together at all. Overall while I was reading it I thought it was one the more unattractive portrayals of this milieu. Much has been written about the brand of Catholicism which the Flytes affect. I am not a real Catholic myself, but I didn't like it, and I think it is insulting in some way to the many people, however misguided or ignorant one may think them, who have lived very strictly and sincerely in accord with what they believe to be Catholic teaching. The characters here strike me as being too spiritually damaged, too ultimately comfortable with their behaviors in the past that led to this damage, and not at all transformed by their religious practices in any kind of biblical or medieval sense. It is Catholicism as a purely aesthetic or philosophical entertainment, and adornment. I am surprised the author seems to mistake it for something else because the characters are sophisticated and socially attractive. Waugh himself seemed in later years to regard great swathes of the book with regret--the edition I read actually was the revised edition of 1959, in which apparently the revisions were not minor, the original book thus being even more indulgent and oddly deficient in a sense of being the product of a mature and considered intellect.

Nonetheless Brideshead has always been his most popular book by far with the general public; indeed it may be the only one that is widely known therein. I enjoyed it too though I don't think it is great literature, especially the second half. Still, it is a nostalgic book about a way of life that, largely because of literature, has meaning for hundreds of thousands of people, including me, who have nothing to do with it except at fourth or fifth hand. That is in great part why I still think there will always be a role for this kind of fictional writing, if it is done well enough. Some say the novel is dead, but why should it not come back again? Can any art form be said to be dead absolutely, never to be revived in any kind of interesting new way? The drama, to name one example, has appeared to die any number of times, not only during the entire millenium between the decline of secular high Roman culture and the stirrings of revival with the morality and mystery plays in the late Middle Ages, but between the retirement of Sheridan in 1780 and the emergence of Shaw and Wilde in the 1880s I cannot think of one spoken (as opposed to operatic) drama written in English that is considered important literature now. And the European theater had been almost equally moribund for 30-50 years when Ibsen emerged around 1860. The novel does too many important things better than other forms of expression that have been devised for humanity to discard it entirely. Writers will learn how to employ the medium as real communication to real readers again, and it will suddenly appear as if reborn.

If I am one of this party, a suave London writer up for the weekend, whose desirability to the ladies is a fact long-established, going all the way back to Harrow even, whose bedroom am I going into in the middle of the night once the rest of the house has fallen silent? I guarantee you at least half the people in this picture were total sex maniacs until well into middle age. I'm thinking maybe the second one on the left. The one beside her on her left, our right, looks like she was probably the most good to go overall, but she isn't really my type.

Another surprise, given the affection right-wing culture aficiondos such as the crew at the frequently interesting and always breathtakingly virulent New Criterion often express for Waugh, was what a rather pathetic specimen of a human being the celebrated character Sebastian Flyte turned out to be. Call me American for reducing everything to utilitarian terms, but he is utterly useless. Dissipated. Luxurious. Idle. Whiny. Sickly. He exhausts most of what remains of many centuries' worth of his family's wealth, and does nothing to generate more. At least he doesn't support socialism--he does abhor the vulgar classes and laments their rise--and he was charming in school, which I guess if you go to the right schools, especially in England and France at least, carries a great deal of weight all through life. In Powell there is a similar witty and good-looking school friend, Charles Stringham, that being a product of modern America the reader like me projects into adulthood as being a dynamic fellow in a glamorous position where he is utterly comfortable and revered. In 1920s and 30s England, however, he too ends up, rather inexplicably given his apparent talents, a drunken and feeble loser, though always retaining the affection of his more aristocratic friends.

There is a funny or otherwise quotable line on almost every page of this. I promise I will be choosy and try to pick only the very funniest. This is for example from the Preface to the revised 1959 edition, page 1:

"It was a bleak period of present privation and threatening disaster--the period of soya beans and Basic English--and in consequence the book is infused with a kind of gluttony, for food and wine, for the splendors of the recent past, and for rhetorical and ornamental language, which now with a full stomach I find distasteful."

Prologue, p.5 "Here at the age of thirty-nine I began to be old." Oh God.

Sebastian Flyte of course is famous for, among other things, the teddy bear he always carries around with him. This made a bigger impression in 1945 than it would now, I suppose.

After giving some other reasons for keeping certain overwrought passages intact in the new edition (I have returned to the Preface now) he adds that "also...many readers liked them, though that is not a consideration of first importance."

Book I, Chap. I. Oxford: "In her spacious and quiet streets men walked and spoke as they had done in Newman's day; her autumnal mists, her grey springtime, and the rare glory of her summer days--such as that day--when the chestnut was in flower and the bells rang out high and clear over her gables and cupolas, exhaled the soft airs of centuries of youth." In another writer this might come across as a bit mushy, but Waugh having established himself already as a bit of a crank, it comes off as genuine feeling, and therefore beautiful.

"Does anyone feel the same kind of emotion for a butterfly or a flower that he feels for a cathedral or a picture?" I admit, I don't. Why? Because the things of nature are more accessible to me? I think it is because I have been trained to think of really lofty human accomplishment as an incredibly rare triumph, requiring centuries of cultural development matched to the individual geniuses that are the culmination of that development. This is something in which most people have no part whatsoever. Oxford in the 1920s was at the very least much closer to that level of human achievement and possibility than all but the most creative and energetic scenes that are known to us.

"'I like this bad set and I like getting drunk at luncheon;' that was enough then. Is more needed now?...Looking back, now, after twenty years, there is little I would have left undone or done otherwise." I bet the real social elite still talks like this. Or if they don't, they should.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

My Son Georgie Loves This Song

If I'm going to equal my 113 posts of 2009 I'm going to have to have a few cheapies in there.

96.7 FM in Brattleboro has a geezer hour on Sunday mornings where some ancient guy spins the forgotten and much-maligned popular hits from approximately the '46-'54 era. Most of the songs are truly terrible, though "Buttons and Bows" is I think a rare winner from the period. The DJ put this on last Sunday and then about 20 seconds in had a change of heart and decided he wanted to listen to something else, which choice did not sit well with my 3 year old son, who repeated "I want that song back!" about fifty times, and was not appeased by any of the later selections. I wanted to call the station and put him on to discuss his dissatisfaction with the host personally, which would have been a good encounter. On a side note, these Paleface movies look really bad. I'm not going to claim that I wouldn't have wanted to have sex with Jane Russell, but her film persona is more of the more absurd I have ever seen. One of these big-breasted bombshells that came in after the war was supposed to have an IQ of 175 or something. It may have been Jane Russell, although she doesn't look particularly intellectual in these snippets here.

My father was apparently a fan of Bob Hope, which is inexplicable to me given what I know of both of them, but someone gave him tickets to one of Bob Hope's live comedy shows in Philadelphia sometime in the 60s, and my father said he was really, really funny in that setting. I trust his judgement in matters of humor, so I'll take his word for it.

Friday, January 22, 2010

Back to the Movies

I've been reading some of James Agee's film writing this past week, so maybe that will have some positive influence on this post. His essays make some good reading, especially the ones about the silent era, the comedians, D.W. Griffith, and such, though I'm not sure I would have included them in the Library of America series alongside Melville, Faulkner, Henry James, The Federalist Papers, and so on, where they now are. Most of the book consists of weekly columns, many of which were clearly dashed off in a hurry, from the Nation and Time magazines. Most of these are about insignificant and long-forgotten movies to boot. Compared to modern film writing there is not a great deal of analysis either of films' meanings or of the filmmarker's technique. Agee's persona, as it were, is as a literate commentator who responds, or doesn't respond, to various experiences he gets from movies; the main question for him is where a film works and doesn't work, and why, which answer he usually either does not seem to find difficult, or at least does not make difficult. He makes great use of one of my favorite techniques, which is to expostulate on the ten or fifteen egregious flaws intellectual types will be sure to point out in a film such as Casablanca or The Best Years of Our Lives, to cover himself, and then confess to liking them a great deal anyway. In this way I find him engaging, though perhaps I don't learn much from him, for we have both a similar approach and often a similar response. When a particular actress moves or excites him, he writes about her with a kind of heartfelt tenderness that it is almost impossible to imagine a professional critic expressing today. He had a good eye in these matters too. Here he is, for example, on my old favorite:

"I cannot, however, resist speaking briefly, anyhow, of Teresa Wright. Like Frances Dee, she has always been one of the very few women in movies who really had a face. Like Miss Dee, she has also always used this translucent face with delicate and exciting talent as an actress, and with something of of a novelist's perceptiveness behind the talent. And like Miss Dee, she has never been around nearly enough. This new performance of hers (Best Years...), entirely lacking in big scenes, tricks, or obstreperousness--one can hardly think of it as acting--seems to me one of the wisest and most beautiful pieces of work I have seen in years. If the picture had none of the hundreds of other things to recommend it, I could watch it a dozen times over for that personality and its mastery alone."

How about the young Judy Garland, before she became a thoroughly sad, campish ruin of a human being:

"Girl Crazy has nothing in it I can recommend unless...(actually names 2 other things)...and unless, like me, you like Judy Garland. Miss Garland is a good strident vaudeville actor too; and has an apparent straightness and sweetness with which I sympathize."

And two years later, on the now-forgotten wartime movie, The Clock:

"There are quite a few things wrong with this picture--some of them basic. The average lonely soldier in New York doesn't have the good luck to pick up Judy Garland, or true love, or anything remotely resembling either. But it could be justly argued that such things do occasionally happen--and ought to happen more often."

When Jean Simmons came on the scene Agee was so gaga and unrestrained in his enthusiasm for her that he is still made fun of for it by writers today:

No, she's nothing special, just looks like somebody's overly well-behaved girlfriend or daughter. Probably boring too. Not sexy like the Kardashian sisters or whomever.

Agee doesn't seem to be taken as much by Deanna Durbin however, for whom I have a lot of (heretofore) secret affection.

Pretty much all the articles in the book date from 1941 to 1948. Such immortal classics as Bathing Beauty, Butch Minds the Baby, Two Girls and a Sailor and His Butler's Sister are well-covered, while Orson Welles, whom Agee doesn't seem to like, is alluded to only in passing, except for the 1946 film The Stranger (which is about a Nazi who escapes and hides out as a teacher in a New England prep school, in case you were wondering), which gets a review. Casablanca is only mentioned in passing, usually with the sense that the author is still trying to justify the fact that he liked it, and It's a Wonderful Life also gets one of those I-liked-this-movie-even-though-my-friends-won't-and-there's-also-a-myriad-of-problems-with-it assessments, with a promise that a longer review is coming next week, which review either never got written or didn't make it into the collection.

I find Agee a more aimable writer about movies than such celebrated and provocative later critics such as Pauline Kael, Andrew Sarris, Richard Corliss, and pretty much anybody who ever reviewed films for the Village Voice. Obviously Agee generally allows people like me to remain comfortable and doesn't challenge us much either about our preferences or our way of seeing and thinking about what the artists are intending for us to see. He talks about what he likes, and why, but doesn't seem very interested in attacking or trying to change the habits even of his readership. let alone the mass of the population. Part of this no doubt was due to the time in which he wrote--there was a rather refreshing break during the war years from publicly bashing ordinary people's bad taste given that most of them were sacrificing in some way, though even in 2010, it is fairly obvious that most people are not and never will be interested in movies that set out primarily to provoke questions of any kind of difficult or abstract nature, or that depend on subtle rather than easily identifiable pleasures. They like the production and packaging, the professional polish and shine, of the big studio releases. The problem I have with the Village Voice school isn't so much that they criticize this, but that one gets the sense that if one isn't a chosen member of their club, who sees things in their way, etc, like things and people that they (in some cases unjustly) despise, etc nothing you do is ever going to be acceptable to them, so at a certain point I began to tune them out. Even when I like the movies with edgy sex, violence and subversive attitudes such as these critics favor I inevitably don't, and can't, respond to them at the level that they really require, for unlike the Old Hollywood comedies and romances I tend to favor, there is not a lower base of simple entertainment built into the overall artistry that is O.K. to enjoy. You cannot emerge satisfied from a Robert Altman or Cassavetes film without a substantial understanding of human sexuality, art, ambition, and the dark motivations of capable people such as are wholly foreign to the lives of about 92% of the population; if you tried to claim that you did anyway, that you were entertained on a simple-minded level, the directors and their fans act as if they would rather punch you in the face than graciously accept your compliment. This however is an attitude that a lot of smart, fed-up people seem to approve of, and one they seem to believe it is necessary to cultivate if society has any hope of ever being generally improved--in their sense of the word improved, it should be added.

All right, on to the reviews. You may have noticed if you have been following me for a long time that there has been a general movement backwards in time with the films I've been watching. I tend to make lists of about 40 or 50 movies I want to see, and then go through them from the present day backwards. As you can see I am getting near the end of one of these lists, as today we finally make it back all the way to the silent era. But first there is one last talkie:

All Quiet on the Western Front (1930)

I had never seen this. This is one of those films of course that is iconic historically, referred to as much in textbooks and surveys of history as those of cinema. It's one of the earliest talking films, and the plot and dialogue are a little stilted (Agee referred to it, or quoted someone else who referred to it as 'a good Phd thesis'). The battle sequences are excellent and vivid however even by modern standards, and are played very matter-of-factly and convincingly by the actors, which experience tells me is not easy to do. When characters get wounded and are screaming or have to demonstrate exhaustion after several hours of relentless machine gun firing, there is absolutely nothing that feels phony about it. There are several sequences where there are a solid 10 or 15 minutes of loud machine gun activity and screaming that is truly technically impressive (I watched this on the Saturday night before Christmas; my wife was in the next room wrapping presents, and she commented in one of these parts that the movie was really getting her in the Christmas spirit, though I think this was supposed to be sarcastic).

It is interesting to me that a film dealing so comparatively honestly with the evil aspects of the First World War came out just 12 years after it ended. Of course there had been poems detailing its particular horrors even as it was going on, and the novelists and memoirists were publishing books about it in pretty vivid detail before the movie. This is in a pretty sharp contrast with World War II, most films about which stuck largely to a heroic or even comic (i.e. 'Hogan's Heroes') treatment (U.S. & Britain) or made references to it obliquely (Europe/Japan) well into the 60s, with comparably graphic or 'realistic' depictions, particularly with regard to the Holocaust, not really beginning to come out in force until 25 or 30 years later. One of the main differences is, I think, first, that World War I, while horrible, was not especially personal. The guy who killed you in most cases was not usually in any more privileged position then you, he probably didn't despise you, and he was not personally humiliating you to gain some advantage he didn't need. In many instances he probably suffered the same fate a few days, or even a few minutes, later. Conditions seem to have been equally bad and absurd among all the various armies in the conflict, with the exception of the Russians, (where they were actually worse). The ruling classes who supported the war were by 1918 so discredited and weakened, if they hadn't been overthrown, that these could hardly have been said to have benefitted by the disaster either. During the 20s it wasn't in the interest of any government or ideology to play up the war as necessary or heroic, and play down the more unsavory aspects of it, the way it was for the U.S. to do in the decades after WWII. In any case, the veterans of 1918, as well as the ruling interests of the time, were much more amenable to unrosy and unheroic depictions of that war than seems to have been the case in wars since then.

My Deanna Durbin Picture Got Out of Order. Oh Deanna!

The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928)

It states right on the box that critics from Roger Ebert to the Vatican have declared this the greatest of all silent movies, and that Maria Falconetti in her role as Joan is widely considered the greatest filmed performance of all time; so you know when you put this movie on that you are going to see some of the greatest cinema you will ever see in your life, and can only hope you are ready to profit by it. On top of that it is, like the Third Man, a veritable smorgasborg of top flight international talent; the director is the Danish genius Carl Theodor Dreyer, the cinematographer Rudolph Mate was one of those subjects of the Austro-Hungarian empire who dwelled and worked in many countries and among many peoples throughout his life, and in addition to Falconetti the French cast includes Antonin Artaud, almost the eidos of an avant-garde French artist and intellectual, and the author of the book The Theater and Its Double, which is on my reading list, though it doesn't look like I'll be getting to it for ten or fifteen years at least.

I had seen this once before, perhaps at St John's--this seems like the kind of thing they would have shown there, and at the time they were very partial to classic French cinema generally. It was doubtless one of those inferior prints the serious cinephiles will say invalidates whatever experience of the film you may have had, though I'm sure I still knew it was good--I mean it's pretty obvious that it's good. Is it one of my favorite/most beloved movies of all time? Not yet, nothing has clicked for me in that regard. It has great intensity, especially religious intensity, and you have to be in the right frame of mind, alert, with good concentration, and so on, to follow and be swept up by this. I think this film is one that would be especially helped by viewing it in the theater and feeding off the energy of the people around you (it is, indeed, both rather theatrical and rather Catholic mass-like in presentation now that I think of it). At home, after a long day, without dialogue, without a lot of movement and with only a medieval-inspired musical composition for sound, I find it rather hard to stay awake and fully riveted by the movie at this particular time, which I find regrettable.

Of course I did a series on Joan of Arc a couple of years ago, having read 4 plays about her that I wrote on, and it is natural to wonder what I think of this film in comparison to those. Interestingly, 2 of the 4 plays (Brecht and Anouilh) date from after this movie--which is itself based on a 1925 novel by a man named Joseph Delteil--and a 3rd, the Shaw, was only 4 years older than this film. It isn't really comparable to any of them, that I can remember. The Anouilh perhaps would be the most similar, but even that, as I remember, is not as confined and straightforward with regard to action and story as this is. The plays of course have lots of dialogue, and this has very little, the emphasis here is on the passion, passion in the religious meaning of the drama of the execution of a martyr, and you have to be into that idea, and feeling it, to get this.
Storm Over Asia (The Heir to Genghis Khan)--1928

I had been really jacked up to see this for a number of years, as it has 1) one of the greatest titles of all time, 2) it's the early Soviet avant-garde, which nobody is either too cool or too sophisticated for, and is always never less than outrageous in some way at the very least, and 3) I actually thought it was about Genghis Khan and the Mongols storming across Asia in the 13th century raping and pillaging, which, combined with the Soviet avant-garde touch, was something I evidently wanted to see. So I have to say that although it is a great movie in completely different ways, I was overall a little disappointed. First off it is set in the Russian Revolution, and the heir to Genghis Khan is a hunter who lives in a yurt who has to drive some foreign capitalist fur traders and their military backup out of the region. Secondly it is rather slow moving, with (often extremely beautiful) long shots of desolate landscape or ritual dances or capitalists decking themselves out in expensive clothes and jewelry, and I again found myself drifting in and out of sleep after about a half hour over two nights. I would like to see this again sometime, if not in a theater, than at least when my concentration and stamina will be better than they are now, because I am quite sure I missed a lot. I don't know if this is the first occasion in cinema where the motif of the stoic, put-upon Asian guy who goes apeshit at the end and wreaks all manner of havoc is used, but that was definitely operating on my mind throughout the movie.

Not Had Enough? How about some quickie reviews of recent movies. I watch a lot of movies in December and January. It's dark 15 hours a day and freezing most of the time where I live. The Diving Bell and the Butterfly I had been avoiding because I thought it was going to be pretentious, but it really wasn't. Actually it was outstanding, in a minimalist kind of way, and the cinematography was first-rate. It is very rare that I see anything new that either doesn't annoy me or doesn't seem stupid. I also saw The Hangover, the dialogue of which isn't going to make anyone forget the Marx Brothers or the young Woody Allen (anyone who hasn't forgotten them already, that is). It at least showed something of an instinct for real comedy, which you don't see much of these days either. I didn't fall asleep, and I laughed enough (bought very cheap, admittedly) to keep me going in anticipation of more of the same. Still, while I like to see the kinds of things guys my age and a little younger are up to, I could easily go another year without seeing anything else like this. I've gotten my annual dose of bachelor party/weekend in Las Vegas/slovenly, vulgar, hopeless modern male pictures.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Train Show

In my recent grappling with current events types of things, the events seem to be getting the better of me with more and more ease, so I am going to step back from them for a few days. I also realized I hadn't done any pictures for a while for this page, and I had a good series lying near to hand of the most limited general interest, but that I still liked, so I figured I would put them up.

These go all the way back to Thanksgiving--being behind is one of my trademarks--and as I wrote about either last year or the year before when I went to Pennsylvania for Thanksgiving, the local model train society always has a display of their goods on the Saturday of that holiday weekend in a defunct station in the neighborhood. The last time we went I was not armed with a camera, but the case was different on this occasion.

My family lives for the most part in Cheltenham/Abington/Elkins Park, Pa. Last weekend the New York Times wedding page featured a bride from Elkins Park, which was described as "a Philadelphia suburb of historic stone houses and artistic families" where the bride "learned the art of composure". This is not entirely a lie, I suppose, except for the bit about composure, which doesn't make any sense, but it is not any way I would ever have thought to describe it. It certainly does not give an accurate flavor of the area as a whole. This is a good reminder to me of just how exaggerated most stories exalting the kinds of people the NYT approves of probably are. These are the kinds of people are geniuses at writing resumes, and this kind of thing is nothing more than an extension of the type of resume which a person inhibited by any sense of modesty or realism about the quality of his accomplishments would not be able to put forth with a straight face. But I digress. This area, though a crowded suburb, is an old suburb, and has pretty trees and some dignified architecture, as well as a light which especially in autumn and winter I have always felt to possess what the food experts call perfect amplitude. Below is the view of the old Ogontz Station from the bottom of a hill.

Son Oscar looking like a recognizably thinking being in the parking lot before the show.

The approach to the station. The trains still run past all day long, they just don't stop here anymore, so while the station is forlorn, it is still surrounded by industry and vital beauty.

Another view of the same, more wires and sky, which are the kinds of things I have spent a good many hours of my life gazing and pondering upon, so that the image is always a powerful one to me, appears in dreams, and so forth.

Inside the show. The model landscapes are taken after iconic Pennsylvanian features and scenes. Rugged mining and industrial towns, mountains, tunnels, massive ironwork bridges far above the ground, lots of railroads, mini cities a la Philadelphia/Bethlehem/Scranton that have rather pinched, dowdy, down at heels airs about them.

Amusement park, 1950s era.

This is supposed to be 30th Street Station in Philadelphia, I think. I don't know whether there was ever a parking lot like that in front of it (there is an expressway where that parking lot would be now).

A lot of people used to work for the railroads in Pennsylvania, among other lost occupations, and passed their lives among such scenes as this.


Well, I have my first post ever that has generated as many as five comments. Of course none of them are real comments, but we have to start somewhere. Reading over that old post I am struck that it is pretty awkardly, even unlikeably written in places, though the sentiments are more or less what I wanted to say. I am the kind of person who needs to do ten or fifteen revisions and rewrites minimum of everything before I submit to the press, which doesn't make me a good fit for the blogging medium, or, I suppose, most of what comes under the heading of professional or advanced amateur writing; even though all the experts exhort you to revise, revise, revise, I don't think they expect you to need 20 revisions to report accurately on where you went on vacation, or what your general impression of a book was.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

My Antonia--Part 3

Book II, Chap. XII "One dream I dreamed many times, and it was always the same." Wasn't this line in the movie Risky Business? The dream was about Lena Lingard, incidentally.

Chap XIII. The narrator gives the oration at high school graduation and the pretty immigrant girls stop him on the street and say kind things about it. One embraces him with genuine emotion. "I have no success that pulled at my heartstrings like that one." That is an honest sentence. It's not cool to have many feelings, especially warm ones, towards people one grew up and went to high school with--the necessity of moving on and all that. In a way I am sympathetic to the susceptibility to strong and sweet emotions which one has in those years, but there is also the case to be made, and which is made by most of the top people in all societies, that succumbing to such emotions distracts at least intellectually promising youths from developing properly, part of which proper development consists of mastering all manner of weak and unmanly attitudes and sentiments such as continually molest one in the teenage years.

I wrote a largely incoherent note about this being one of the most detailed depictions of the nature of the United States in literature that I have read, though I will add, that I have not read a lot in that vein. The sense of the winter, the bees, the flowers, is very easily and unobtrusively done. There is no great trick in the writing, the author seems to be just marking down what she has seen, it is just that she has seen more and seen better, and in a more seemingly natural way, than is usual.

Book 3, Chap I. We are now at the University of Nebraska. The narrator has for a mentor "a brilliant and inspiring young scholar...Gaston Cleric" who "introduced me to the world of ideas". This is a common passage in books generally, but always pleasant and comforting to be reminded of.

Chap II. Those immigrant girls don't stray far from his mind though. "It came over me, as it had never done before, the relation between girls like those and the poetry of Virgil. If there were no girls like them in the world, there would be no poetry." To be honest, this is really a pretty middling insight. What works is that the setup, the setting, the backstory, the general movement of society at the particular time, prepares you to feel something of the exhiliration that would have incited this particular chacracter to say and feel this.

Book 3 was short. Already we go to Book 4, and Chap II of that. This chapter begins with a rather extraordinary paragraph about the youth's returning to the old town either just after college, or perhaps a few years out, and being inspired by all the development, industry, taming of the land, civilization, and so on. "The changes seemed beautiful and harmonious to me; it was like watching the growth of a great man or of a great idea." This was to be the purest distillation of the contrast between what goes on in the minds of a people or a nation in its youth, and that when it is hitting or perhaps starting to move a little past midlife, as the descendants of the kind of people depicted in this book are doing now. It is this genuine, totally unself-conscious, totally unstraining affection for the other members of the community, and belief in their abilities, not to mention of the common civilization, that is so jolting to the contemporary reader. There is a tone, a generosity of spirit in this that, while I won't say people don't have it now, it isn't something they seem readily eager, or even able, to show, in writing or otherwise.

This was the book I was thinking of when I wrote in a previous post about relentless sexual pressure on young, attractive women being a fact of life. This is one of those cold truths about life that grows bigger and bigger to me as I get older and realize more and more what kinds of things other people have done in their lives. Since I haven't done much in my own life in any way, getting some kind of grasp on these sorts of things and understanding their place, proper and improper, in the world, is one of the main issues I am dealing with at this time in trying to go forward with my writing, or really, anything else of an intelligent nature. A very thorough alternative intelligence can cover for the lack of a seducing nature well enough in most artistic areas to salvage something, I suppose, although the level of it that is needed to do so is a lot higher than I had allowed myself to believe.

Is this the best book ever written that is set in Nebraska? I am inclined to think so.

Oddly, I haven't written anything or made many notes about the character of Antonia, who is supposed to be the center of the whole story. She never quite emerged for me as the supreme person she is depicted as being any more than Lena Lingard, who had a much smaller part in the story, did. Among other things, Antonia always came across in print as just a little too sturdy and robust. I even like sturdy and robust to a degree, but she went a little past that degree.

Book 5, Chap I. "There wasn't a tree here when we first came. We planted every one, and used to carry water for them, too--after we'd been working in the fields all day." My wife is fond of planting trees, and then, after a year of two of their getting bigger, of deciding she doesn't like them where they are and transplanting them. All this requires my assistance. The project delineated in the story sounds like hard work to be dreaded to me, though I am sure it is nothing to most people.

Chap II. Antonia's husband "was still...a city man. He liked theatres and lighted streets and music...He liked to live day by day and night by night, sharing in the excitement of the crowd. --Yet his wife had managed to hold him here on a farm, in one of the loneliest countries in the world." This almost sounds like me. Except nobody takes me for a city person, let alone a cosmopolitan who really should be living in Paris. That would be way too flattering an impression to hold of me. I did once have somebody inquire of one of my acquaintance if I were like Forrest Gump or someone like that (i.e., retarded).

I got the feeling at the end of this book that I was really leaving the particular world in it forever. I probably won't ever read it again, and I doubt very much that my reading will ever bring me back to Nebraska circa 1890 the way I can always count on returning to Edwardian London or some manor house in the 18th century English countryside. It was a little sad.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Economics Update

Most astute Republicans, and all Libertarians, will tell you that one of the biggest problems with people like me is that we lack the brainpower to get our heads around the tenets even of basic economic theory. As fun as it must be to sit back and make sport of such absolute and colossal ignorance, it unfortunately is the kind that, according to these rational, rigorous thinkers, has consequences, not least among them the destruction of the very foundations which have undergirded the superior way of life the people of this country have always heretorfore enjoyed.

I have to own that I was wholly ignorant of economics, and its centrality to every aspect and detail of all our lives, until I was well into my 20s. When I was a child in Pennsylvania even as late as the 1970s there were still plenty of people who had jobs like working in coal mines, steel mills and factories. Among the many confusions which the existence of these occupations caused me was the circumstance that almost everybody I knew viewed the main object of a young person to be to avoid getting stuck having to work having to do this kind of job while at the same time seeming to believe that most people who had white-collar jobs were paper-pushers who were essentially getting off easy in life; certainly it could not be said of them that they worked, in the sense that a coal miner worked, regardless of how much each got paid. Nowadays of course these horrible industrial jobs, even coal mining, that were presented as a kind of cruel punishment for people who couldn't figure out how to get away and do anything else, are lamented almost hourly in some depressed, meth-ridden corner or other of the once proud and mighty Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. This was an outcome that no one seems to have seen coming. The existence of these jobs, and especially their in retrospect relatively decent levels of pay and security, were taken for granted, as the kind of permanent bottom, or last refuge, of the male employment ladder, but a floor at least beneath which anybody willing to make the effort of turning up every mind-numbing day for 40 years was guaranteed not to fall. This was a rather foolish assumption--I excuse myself because of my status as a child--but the point is that the existence of even these living wage jobs tended to make money and career-savviness themselves much less of a consideration to me growing up than they are to this generation. I knew there were certain people around who were considered by my parents to be well off to the point of occupying a stratum of society where the likes of us were unwelcome, but I didn't have any very good sense of what that had to do with me, or that the acquisition of money really was a serious matter that one was supposed to spend one's formative years preparing to spend one's adulthood doing, until I was pushing 30.
As if this wasn't bad enough, I find as I get older and require ever more money, that I feel I deserve it, based on what I am doing to receive it, less and less, which is probably the worst attitude for embarking on midlife in this country that it is possible to have. In the arrogance of youth I at least considered my time to be highly valuable, and even in situations where I was a poor or indifferent worker, felt myself entitled to be well compensated for having to sacrifice some of it. I could have been doing so many other things, after all, most of which centered around socializing or missed opportunities to get girls, though I suppose if I could ever have gotten any girls at work like other people did that would have made all the lost Saturday nights a little less painful to endure. Now however I have lost the sense that my time in itself is particularly valuable, especially as employers know that at my age and in my situation I have to pimp it out to one of them, and calling out forever because I wake up and feel like going to the beach with my friends is no longer a choice which I can flaunt before them. When I calculate how much money the company is paying me each day to show up, sit in their offices for eight hours, and basically make sure that various forms are organized and in order and procedures followed, it seems an excessive sum, though in fact it is not very much by the standards of contemporary society; however, since I do not have such much in excess to pay to someone else, the thought of doing so strikes me as rather astounding. Also I have the old vestiges of that Pennsylvania attitude towards paper-pushers, a term by the way I have not used derogatively, and which applied to lawyers, accountants, and all kinds of people viewed as respectable and necessary professionals today, since around the time Reagan became president, as well as guilt about people with 'real jobs', and consider that people who pick fruit or stack shelves at Wal-Mart all day do a great deal more work than I do and usually for quite a bit less compensation.

Before I start wondering how I can live with myself, however, I take note of the attitudes of the people one reads about in August publications like The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and Us Magazine, where all that matters is the number of dollars one can extract from what one does, not its relative actual value either in itself or in comparison to other forms of work. Getting one's head around this and accepting this, that the value the market sets and that you can get from the market, is the only and absolute value, as well as that what one personally does merits an especially high level of compensation, is the key to breaking through every barrier of class that is thrown up before one until one attains the top. I was very much struck by this in reading not merely about bankers and top businessmen but in the next level, or next but one level, that of the people who cater to their peculiar requirements. Many of the crowd involved in the Tiger Woods scandal for example seemed to me to be awfully well-compensated for such tasks as organizing exclusive parties, keeping secrets, finding and providing numerous available women of the high roller's preferred type, all of which people have to be paid, but in such a manner as to somehow insist that a level of respectability and even gentility is being maintained. The market dictates that such specialized skills are in much higher demand than those of ordinary shelf-stocking, or clerking, and therefore one ought never have any guilt or shame about how came upon one's money. I remember coming upon an episode of Sex and the City, which I thought a satire on modern civilizational decline, but apparently this is not obviously the intent, in which the lead character is taken to bed in a posh hotel by a rich man, who rises early the next day while our heroine is still sleeping in the luxurious bed, leaving behind an envelope with $2000 or something in it. The heroine is briefly--very briefly--insulted by the gesture, which we are to understand is a blow to her ego more than anything else. I think she proceeds to buy some shoes and treat her friends to lunch at the Ritz or something like that. It is no secret, of course, that this program is written by male homosexuals of a particularly narcissistic strain, a group which unfortunately a lot of intelligent young women seem to look up to, amusing though they may be in (very) small doses.

There is an exercise I have seen going around the internet where you are supposed to turn to page 56 of the nearest book to hand and write down the 5th sentence on the page. In the name of self-promotion I decided to look at the volumes of my own novel and see what this experiment turned up:

Volume 1: A few of the harsher women had stood in the shadows to the side by a row of berry bushes and ridiculed her, but she had known nothing of that.

Volume 2: I feel sorry for him, but am I going to break into tears about it?

Not bad. I have one baby crying and a three old banging on my keyboard as I desperately try to finish this post. I may have to give up this blog soon. It's getting to the point where it's really hopeless to write anything, and the articles that get done aren't well-written nor even make any sense. Someday, I have to believe, I will get my old semi-clear, semi-placid mind back again, but that is looking like years away at this point.

Friday, January 08, 2010


I am going to tell some moldy Prague stories today. Why this has been on my mind lately, I don't know. Perhaps because I have turned 40, and it reminds me of a time when my mind was more attuned to the world around me and the actual things I was trying to do than has been the case in the last few years. Besides, reader traffic is as slow as ever.

As you can probably guess, I am always a latecomer, and usually a somewhat unwilling one even then, to technology, only adapting when necessity dictates, i.e., it has become difficult to do things in the ways I have always done them because everybody else has moved one to the newer way. I had the fortune, perhaps for ill but in some ways, admittedly not easily perceivable, I think probably for good, to spend the formative years of my 20s in a couple of places that were just enough years behind the computerization of all aspects of daily existence that I managed to make it to around age 27 or 28 without spending any appreciable amount of time using those infernal machines. I have written elsewhere on this site that I must surely be one of the last people to go all the way through college without having, or really needing, a computer that had any capacity beyond word processing; I was in college from 1990-94, a period in which at other schools I am quite certain developments in computing were followed, and encouraged, with much more interest than they were at my school, where, as far as I could tell, any anticipation of the nature and scope of the coming revolution was kept under the hat of the anticipator (but lest you think I am mocking, I would not personally have wanted it any other way. I cannot fathom how different going to school must be now with all the popular kids having 1200 friends on Facebook and never being out of texting or cell phone range. How could someone like me even hope to compete for anybody's attention in such an environment?). A couple of years after finishing school, I went to Prague for a year in '96-'97, in which I must have been one of the last people to have the quintessential 20th century experience of spending a year in Europe blithely unaware of the Internet and all that that entails; e-mail, the ability to make reservations and buy tickets for trains and museums ahead of time, in English, if you are good-looking and cool arrange incredible social hookups, with a few taps of the keys and without having to speak to anybody (I know the Internet was going strong in '96-97, but honestly I knew nothing of it, and if anybody I knew was using it, whatever advantages they were deriving from it made no impression on me). One of the biggest differences the Internet brings to the Anglophone staying for an extended time in a non-English speaking country is in bringing to any computer user pretty much an unlimited supply of reading material in English where a genuine paucity existed just 13 and 14 years ago.

I mention this because it sounds funny now to think about how precious any printed matter in English we could get our hands on was to us. You have to know that besides not having the Internet we did not have any television either. It is not that there was no reading material available. Of course the major newspapers and magazines were sold at the main train station and in tourist areas, but even the USA Today or International Herald Tribune would have been quite expensive to buy everyday on Czech wages, and these didn't amount to more than 15-20 minutes of reading total, maybe 35-40 if you read every article including the Business section, perhaps an hour if you did the crossword puzzle too. Every couple of weeks a tourist would leave one of these papers on the subway and I would be able to scavenge it. There were a couple of bookstores that stocked English language books (also expensive), one of which was a real hangout where you could sit and read for several hours if you wanted, drink coffee, scope girls, etc, and I did go there a couple of times a week--though between walking to the metro, changing trains once and then walking again on the other end it was a 45-60 minute trip each way from my apartment. I had brought some books with me, Volume I of the Norton Anthology of English Literature, of which I actually read quite a lot (I still had at that time some vague idea of maybe going to graduate school when I returned home), various travel guidebooks which I must have read backwards and forwards 20 times apiece, several novels, I remember reading Great Expectations and David Copperfield, Slaughterhouse-Five, 1984 (a great conversation starter in that part of the world), and The French Lieutenant's Woman there, along with some Kafka and Hrabal and a few other stories of local interest. One of the students worked for the Prague Post, which was the weekly English language newspaper specializing in Czech and European news, events calendars, bar and restaurant reviews, movie listings, gossip and other matters of expat interest, and would bring us a free one every Tuesday or Wednesday, whichever was the day it came out. That was a big night; I would crack upon a few 1-liter pilseners and fire up some Marlboros (I forget what was wrong with the Czech cigarettes, but nobody who belonged even tangentially to the postmodern world smoked them, even the very coolest people--it literally marked you as a member of the Communist party or something) and spend a couple of hours reading the Post, even though they rejected several articles I submitted to them myself. I realize now that it was a semi-professional operation, run by people who had worked in real newspapers in their various countries of origin, had gone to journalism school, and so on. I put the word out to all my Czech acquaintances that if they ever came across any reading material in English that nobody wanted I would be grateful for it. One guy brought me a copy of Robert Fulghum's All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten ("This looks like some good adwices" he said) and I even read that, or some of it anyway.

One thing I should add, to explain this inexhaustible craving for reading material, is that while we went out and did things in the evening 3 or 4, occasionally perhaps even 5, nights a week, we couldn't afford to go out every night, nor would we even probably have desired it; even when we did go out I always usually needed to wind down for an hour or two before going to bed unless I had had a very great deal to drink and needed simply to collapse, which didn't happen very often (the night at the Lucerna ballroom may have been such a night, though most of that damage would have been done after the dance was over). I also did not work but intermittently; looking back, I should have recognized this difficulty in getting on in comparison with pretty much every other foreigner in town as a sign that I was probably in serious trouble as far as my long term career prospects went, and I did worry a little, but at that time I was still deceiving myself that I had talent and that talent would, indeed must, find its way. The point is, I had a lot of downtime to wander around, ride the trams, drink beer, which only cost about a quarter a pint at most taverns outside of the main squares downtown, but also to read and write. Those are the sorts of things I do in my free time, or did before I had children and lots of possessions and cars and other things to organize.

Another thing I took away from my time in the Czech Republic and the old Soviet bloc generally, though it hasn't served me terribly well in the United States of the 1997-2010 period, is that being intelligent, curious, and decently educated really does have existence, and even value, when separated from wealth, which to be honest it can at times be hard to believe in this country. I know there are many intelligent people in the United States who are poor, who are marginalized, who do not have friends or a respected place in society, and in the back of your mind, almost as if automatic, the thought is either that they in fact must not be smart or, that something is wrong with them, they are diseased. I have developed the same instinct when considering my own case. In the former Eastern bloc there are, or I guess were, since the ambitious have options to better their material condition now, lots of pretty intelligent people who didn't have much money, but they did and talked about the kinds of things and had the kinds of interests and sensibilities that made them pleasant to be with. Most of these people probably would have been successful if unleashed in youth into a system like ours, being smart, well-adjusted, capable on the whole, but some of them would not have been. Perhaps they would still have been happier, if less happy than their more naturally winning comrades. I don't know. I wish I could believe either that attaining money is truly the greatest good both for the individual and the society around him, or that depriving people of most of their wealth would be their own as well as the collective group. I can't believe either, and I can't figure out where exactly the balance needs to be set. Not where it is now, I am pretty certain of that.

Tuesday, January 05, 2010

My Antonia--Part 2

There is a notorious and horrible story in the first part of the book involving an incident with a Russian sledding party that was set upon by wolves that resulted in a couple of men's having to flee their village and emigrate to Nebraska. Apart from the horrors of the story itself, it struck me as an illustration of the dangers that can exist when people are dependent on animals (i.e., the horses' reaction to the wolves) rather than machines, which I had never really considered before.

Chapter IX: "Fuchs had been a cowboy, a stage-driver, a bartender, a miner, had wandered all over that great Western country and done hard work everywhere, though, as grandmother said, he had nothing to show for it...they were the sort of men who never get on, somehow, or do anything but work hard for a dollar or two a day."

Chapter XIII: "All day the storm went on...That afternoon the kitchen was a carpenter shop; the men brought in their tools and made two great wooden shovels with long handles." This is what I should do the next time one of my mass-produced cheap plastic shovels breaks. I go through a lot of them. I don't seem to have the woodworking instinct--I have no idea how one would go about doing such a thing--but oh wouldn't certain people be impressed if they found out I had made my own shovels? Well, probably not actually.

Chapter XIV: On the prospect of taking one of the horses out for a hard ride in a bad winter to take food to a starving family: "This is no time to be over-considerate of animals."

Chapter XV: "It was impossible not to admire his frank, manly faith." This passage I evidently found inspiring, and thought it was a excellent reminder of the real benefits of reading, that it helps to keep us in some contact with various heights attained by the human spirit as well as intellect, etc.

Chapter XIX: Opening paragraph about the corn fields of Kansas and Nebraska being "one of the great economic facts...which underlie all the activities of men, in peace or war" is a good one. I am sure all men and women who are not of an utterly sour disposition like to read beautiful, optimistic accounts of their own country and people.

Book 2, Chap. II: "With Charley, who was not interested in business, but was already preparing for Annapolis, Mr Harling was very indulgent." The Great Books program not having yet been instituted at SJC at this time, I presume 'Annapolis' refers to the Academy. I like how that is what is offered to a young man as an alternative to business. Really, as hard as it is, they ought to be bred up to something. I wasn't bred up to anything, and it does put one in a rather hard state in one's 30s and 40s. I have four boys myself now, and I really need to use my noggin to try to figure out what ought to be, or even if anything can be, made of them according to the somehow highly stringent requirements of the current world.

Chapter VI: "I can remember how glad I was when there happened to be a light in the chuch, and the painted glass window shone out at us as we came along the frozen street." Memories of youth in an old frozen town! Even decrepit middle age has its charms in such towns, but to be young, and I imagine especially to be young and beautiful in such a place, imagining yourself in your current state of greatness both realized and still waiting eagerly to be tapped as formed in large part by the vagaries of the climate, now that is a cause for warm and happy sentiments!

Chapter VII. A black singer passes through town. The description of him, alas, fails the racial sensitivity test: "It was the soft, amiable Negro voice...with the note of docile subservience in it. He had the Negro head too; almost no head at all; nothing behind the ears but folds of neck under close-clipped wool. He would have been repulsive if his face had not been so kindly and happy." Otherwise, the importance of music and pianos in the life of this isolated outpost is positively well-conveyed in this chapter.

Same chapter: "...he thought his wife a wonderful woman; he knew that without her he would hardly be more than a clerk in some other man's hotel." This is more or less what people say about me, if they bother to say anything at all.

Chapter IX. Now we are getting into high school and dances and desiring people and all that, which never fails to get me into a lather too. Now it is no secret, and is pretty obvious to anyone reading the book in our enlightened times, that Willa Cather is solidly of the lesbian persuasion, an issue she handled somewhat ingeniously in this novel by making her narrator a male. While in the author's imagination it is probably safe to assume that the sturdy farm girls the narrator prefers to the delicate, less physically active daughters of the local professional class tend more toward the stoutish, butchish side than most straight males have a taste for, it is not written in such a way that one cannot project a very attractive idea of one's own upon the descriptions of these girls that are given:

"All the young men felt the attraction of the fine, well-set-up country girls who had come to town to earn a help the father struggle out of debt, or to make it possible for the younger children of the family to go to school."

"When one danced with them (the more pampered high school girls) their bodies never moved inside their clothes; their muscles seemed to ask but one thing--not to be disturbed." I frequently had a similar sensation on the rare occasions when I could get girls to dance with me.

"...sometimes a young fellow would look up from his ledger, or out through the grating of his father's bank, and let his eyes follow Lena Lingard, as she passed the window with her slow, undulating walk, or Tiny Soderball, tripping by in her short skirt and striped stockings." Oo la la! I can't even decide which one I would want first!

Although Willa Cather was not an immigrant, this book is largely an immigrant story; they have the energy, the drive, they are for the most part the people who are in the ascendant in the book. I admit I am a sucker for a good, positive immigrant story, as long as with the contrast between the hard working, optimistic newcomers and the spoiled, lazy, ignorant native population is kept to a modicum. Unfortunately my own immigrant relations, the ones anybody can remember anyway, largely Lithuanian, seem to have been dull as dust, and, while hard-working and well-behaved enough, there was nothing especially spectacular about them. They were not vibrant, in other words, which is one of the qualities immigrants are said to be continually contributing to American life, which would otherwise be stagnant and lifeless, though probably still functional. My grandparents and great-grandparents went straight to stagnant and functional, skipping vibrant altogether.

Chapter XI. Here is the money-lender who took in Swedish serving-girls, which sounds like the kind of thing I would not mind doing myself: "He was notoriously dissolute with women. Two Swedish girls who had lived in his house were the worse for the experience. One of them he had taken to Omaha and established in the business for which he had fitted her. He still visited her." Wow.

Chapter XII. This would have been me in Red Cloud, Nebraska, circa 1890: "...often went down to see the night train come in, and afterward sat awhile with the disconsolate telegrapher who was always hoping to be transferred to Omaha or Denver, 'where there was some life'. He was sure to bring out his pictures of actresses and dancers. He got them with cigarette coupons, and nearly smoked himself to death to possess these desired forms and faces."

1 more short post on this outstanding book.