Mary's Library

Saturday, September 30, 2006

What I’m Reading

I’m supposed to be reading a lot of things. Mrs Gaskell’s Gothic Tales, in which I’m bogged down near the end. The Professor by Charlotte Bronte, a discussion of which I’m leading during October. The Duke’s Children, the next book on my online trollope group schedule. The Moral Trollope, by Ruth apRoberts, which I’ve borrowed on ILL and which is due soon.

But I’m spending all my time immersed in a book called Pot Luck by Emile Zola. My not-trollope group is going to read Zola’s The Ladies’ Paradise next month. (This is a prediction, but I feel certain this is the book we will choose.) And since Au Bonheur des dames (1883) is a kind of sequel to Pot-Bouille (1882) I decided to take a look at the latter before beginning to read the former.

185 pages later and I’m still looking. The book is about the bourgeoise families living in a pretentious but crumbling apartment building in Second Empire Paris. The main character, Octave Mouret, will go on in The Ladies’ Paradise to build the world’s first department store. But in Pot Luck he is a 24-year old newcomer to Paris working as a clerk in a draper’s shop.

I haven’t read much French literature. I’ve made my way through Proust and I’ve read and re-read The Count of Monte Cristo. The Three Musketeers, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, a little George Sand, a little Anatole France.

All of which in no way prepared me for the “naturalism” of Zola. For the first time I understand why the good middle class English parents in the novels of Trollope forbid their daughters to read French novels.

This isn’t simply a risqué novel. It’s not just a book about adultery and infidelity and money. It’s saturated with sex and greed and filth. You can almost smell the offal the servants throw from the kitchen window into the courtyard, a concrete manifestation of the incredible corruption in the lives of their masters and mistresses.

I’m shocked. And this is only Zola. What unimaginable horrors must be awaiting me in Balzac!

Friday, September 29, 2006

What Wilhelm is Reading Now

I don't usually refer to myself in the third person. This is, however, Mary's Library, so I figure that the pronoun "I" in the titles of posts should be reserved for use exclusively by Herself. Thus, you now have Wilhelm on what Wilhelm is reading.

In my pursuit of recreational tax law, I am now reading International Taxation (2nd ed., 2005), by Joseph Isenbergh. The international taxation provisions of the Internal Revenue Code are, perhaps, the place where our rococo tax code becomes truly baroque. You have all of the usual tax issues, plus an array of international issues (differing depending upon whether you are talking about "inbound" or "outbound" tax rules), overlayed by tax treaties with many nations. So far, I have learned why accountants tell wealthy foreigners not to spend more than 121 days a year in the United States. Apparently, this can cause serious complications when planning annual ski trips to Vail.

I am also reading Ghost Wars: The Secret History of the CIA, Afghanistan, and bin Laden, from the Soviet Invasion to September 10, 2001 by Steve Coll (2005 revised edition). (Hat tip to the Gentleman Farmer and Glib & Superficial). This is the book that I probably should have read before reading Cobra II. In any event, this book is fascinating and provides an extraordinary history of the subject. It reads like an international thriller, and is all the more frightening because it is true.

Thursday, September 28, 2006

Romantic Affinities

“‘This is the sort of book which will drive the professors mad,’ begins Richard Holmes’s enthusiastic review of Romantic Affinities in the Evening Standard. ‘It is a history of the Romantic Movement, told in the episodic style of an inspired, intellectual soap-opera.’

“The book opens as the young Andre Chenier dashes off his last poem—on the brown paper used for wrapping dirty linen – before he is carted off to the guillotine, and concludes as a restless band of students and artists – shouting and stamping – waits five hours in a cold, dark Comedie-Francaise for the opening of Victor Hugo’s Hernani. In between, Paganini plays a violin whose G string is said to have been made from the innards of his murdered mistress; the poet Holderlin shrouded in a white sheet frightens a servant in the middle of the night; and Coleridge, Shelley, and Byron mingle on the page – as they never did in life – with the likes of Goethe, Kleist, and Madame de Stael.

“These are the characters who people the tales of long walks, failed love, bank loans, slammed doors, seedy hotels; who play out the scenes of moments that changed lives, of bitterness choked back, of music heard over the water, and of notes scribbled at attic windows. Theirs are the stories of hunger, lies, and carnage; of waiting beyond the appointed hour; of running down empty corridors; of confronting death and grasping at joy.

“‘Both scholarly and funny’ – again in the words of Richard Holmes – Romantic Affinities is ‘a brilliant, sultry evocation . . . a flamboyant work of popularization . . . a stylish, spirited, and provoking extravaganza. The professors may rail, but it is well worth cramming.’”

Romantic Affinities: Portraits from an Age, 1770-1830 (1988) by Rupert Christiansen. From the jacket.

Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Cobra II

The war in Iraq has become so divisive, and reactions to it so hardened and extreme, that I wonder how much interest there is in a detailed, dispassionate examination of the facts. For anyone with such an interest, though, Cobra II: the Inside Story of the Invasion of Iraq (2006), by Michael R. Gordon and General Bernard E. Trainor, is indispensible reading.

The book covers the run up to the war, the military campaign to overthrow Saddam Hussein's Baathist regime, and the military and political events following the fall of Saddam.

Despite the lack of discovery of weapons of mass destruction, the rationale for the war was not clearly wrong, and Saddam's own actions contributed to the conflict. Saddam played a dangerous game of attempting to deter foreign enemies (especially Iran) and internal enemies through a policy of creating uncertainty as to whether he had WMDs. This policy ultimately made it very difficult to say whether Saddam had the weapons or not. On the other hand, the Bush administration was so intent on regime change, that it is questionable whether a verified lack of WMD would have made any difference. And the removal of Saddam was, in itself, not a bad thing.

Unfortunately, the planning for the war and for the post-Saddam situation was very seriously flawed. It has become almost a cliche to blame these problems on Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld. Cobra II amply documents that this cliche is, actually, quite correct. While Rumsfeld was not alone in making serious misjudgments (L. Paul Bremer contributed his share), Rumsfeld's leadership was simply disastrous. Rumsfeld's view of military modernization emphasized technology, speed, and mobility rather than numbers of troops. This led to planning based on using the least number of troops to get the job (the overthrow of Saddam) done. Further, Rumsfeld incorrectly believed that fewer, rather than more, troops would be needed in Iraq following the fall of Saddam. These mistakes, combined with thoroughly wretched intelligence from the CIA (which had previously performed well in Afghanistan), were a recipe for disaster.

Whatever the ultimate outcome in Iraq, the current situation was not inevitable. The world's misfortune, and especially the misfortune of the Iraqi people, arose because of the ignorance regarding Iraq and the ideological blinders of Secretary Rumsfeld and a few others.

This is an important book. If you don't have the time or inclination to work your way through all 500 pages, at least read the 10-page epilogue.

Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Virginia Woolf

Yesterday, for the first time in history, I gathered all my Virginia Woolf books together on one shelf. For the last 40-odd years as their numbers grew they have been scattered around in the bedroom, the living room, the guest room, the family room, my library, and in Boxes 113, 125, 136, 206, and others. There was even one in among my cookbooks, Quentin Bell’s Virginia Woolf: A Biography.

I have more than 40 books by and about VW, if you count Nigel Nicholson’s Portrait of a Marriage, a biography of Lytton Strachey, and a couple of other peripherals. I even have the five volumes of VW’s diary and the six volumes of her letters

And yet, when I decided to read along with the informal “Woolf for Dummies” course Susan Hill is doing on her blog, I had to order two books for just the first part. How could I own more than 5,000 books and not have Jacob’s Room?

Monday, September 25, 2006

Sam Insull

John Wasik's The Merchant of Power: Sam Insull, Thomas Edison, and the Creation of the Modern Metropolis (2006), is a classic rags to riches to rags story. Insull is now largely forgotten. During the 1930s, though, after the collapse of his utilities empire, he was as reviled as were Ken Lay and Enron in recent years. The similarities between Insull and Lay, however, don't go much further. Insull, for all his faults, was a remarkable innovator who contributed greatly to the technical and financial development of the electric power system. Although indicted after the collapse of his businesses, he was acquitted of all charges. And, Insull lost his fortune when his businesses failed during the depression.

As a young man, Insull came to the United States from his native England to work for Thomas Edison. Insull quickly grasped the potential of electrification of cities. He understood (unlike Edison) that alternating current, which can be transmitted long distances, and the creation of a power grid were essential to providing efficient electrical service to metropolitan areas.

After leaving Edison's employ, Insull moved to Chicago and built an extensive utility system in the Midwest. In a largely unregulated business environment, Insull created a mind-boggling system of utility holding companies. These holding companies enabled Insull to control a huge financial empire with a relatively small investment. But while this system worked well during the boom years of the 1920s, it was unable to withstand the economic downturn of the 1930s.

Insull was especially reviled because financial disaster overtook him at a time when the fight between public and private utilities was at its height. Franklin Roosevelt, when he was Governor of New York, was very interested in public hydro-electric power generation. As President, Roosevelt continued to pursue public power with the creation of the Tennessee Valley Authority, the Bonneville Power Administration, and the Rural Electrification Administration. The magnates of the private utilities were considered arch enemies by the Roosevelt administration. Insull was a prime target of reforming zeal. The failure of Insull's utilities empire, and Insull's acquittals in his criminal trials, provided impetus for the enactment of securities and utilities laws during the New Deal. Those laws, along with the electrical power grid, are Insull's legacy.

Sunday, September 24, 2006

Body Language

Using research in pupillometry done at the University of Chicago, they were able to help Revlon increase sales of its lipstick by enlarging the pupil size of the models in the catalogs. I’m hard pressed to think of a better example of science at the service of humanity.
– Christopher Buckley, in a review of The Definitive Book of Body Language by Allan and Barbara Pease, in today’s New York Times Book Review section

Friday, September 22, 2006

What I'm Reading (cont)

Various Haunts of Men (2004) by Susan Hill. This is the first of the author’s Simon Serrallier detective stories. It’s a cut or two (or three) above the rest. I look forward to many more mysteries in this series.

The Fugitive, the sixth novel in Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time (aka The Remembrance of Things Past.) This book, first published in French in 1925 as Albertine disparue, has been newly translated by Peter Collier.
If you have had trouble reading Proust in the past (and who of us hasn’t), it’s time to brush off your New Year’s Resolution from 1963 and give it another go as the entire work has been re-translated into English, each book by a different person. So far I’m finding it much superior to the old Moncrieff and Kilmartin translation.

Gothic Tales by Elizabeth Gaskell. I’m not much for short stories or for the paranormal or gothic, but these stories are pretty good. A couple are very good.

The Professor by Charlotte Bronte. This novel was written in about 1846 but not published until 1857, after Bronte’s death. It’s the sort of book about which we English majors want to pose a dozen essay test questions per chapter:

How reliable is the narrator?
Why does his brother treat him harshly?
Describe the conflict between the man of inherited wealth and the self-made man. Which does Bronte favor?
What part does the Industrial Revolution play in the plot?
What does the mysterious Hunsden represent?
Why was Bronte unable to get the novel published?

And so on and on. I could list a lot more juicy exam questions. It's that kind of book.

Thursday, September 21, 2006

Chief Joseph (1840-1904)

On September 21, 1904, Chief Joseph of the Wallowa band of the Nez Perce died on the Colville Indian Reservation in northern Washington State. Joseph became Chief of the Nez Perce in 1871, at the age of 31, upon the death of his father. His years as Chief were heroic and, ultimately, tragic.

For years, the Nez Perce had lived in peace with white settlers in Wallowa Valley in Northeastern Oregon and in Idaho. At the time Joseph became Chief, however, the Nez Perce and the United States Government were in conflict over efforts to force the Nez Perce from their homeland in the Wallowa Valley and onto a much smaller reservation in Idaho. Although many Nez Perce settled onto the Idaho reservation, hundreds of Nez Perce in the Wallowa Valley resisted.

War broke out in 1877 between members of the Wallowa band who refused to go to the Idaho reservation and the troops sent to force them onto the reservation. Chief Joseph skillfully led his people in a long retreat, trying to find refuge, and fought a series of defensive battles attempting to fend of U.S. Cavalry forces led by General Oliver O. Howard.

On October 5, 1877, Joseph and the Nez Perce were forced to surrender. The defeated Nez Perce were sent to Kansas and then to the Indian Territory (later Oklahoma). In 1885, Chief Joseph and a few his surviving Nez Perce followers were allowed to return to the Pacific Northwest. They were sent, though, to the Colville Reservation in Washington and not to Nez Perce reservation in Idaho or to their homeland in Oregon. Joseph never again saw his Wallowa Valley.

Joseph's words, upon his surrender, marked the death of a way of life:

Tell General Howard I know his heart. What he told me before, I have it in my heart. I am tired of fighting. Our Chiefs are killed; Looking Glass is dead, Ta Hool Hool Shute is dead. The old men are all dead. It is the young men who say yes or no. He who led on the young men is dead. It is cold, and we have no blankets; the little children are freezing to death. My people, some of them, have run away to the hills, and have no blankets, no food. No one knows where they are - perhaps freezing to death. I want to have time to look for my children, and see how many of them I can find. Maybe I shall find them among the dead. Hear me, my Chiefs! I am tired; my heart is sick and sad. From where the sun now stands I will fight no more forever.

A new book on Chief Joseph has been published. Chief Joseph & the Flight of the Nez Perce: The Untold Story of an American Tragedy (2005) by Kent Nerburn It's going on my wish list.

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

What I'm Reading

At the moment I’m reading eight books, which for me is modest. I routinely juggle 15 or 20 books at a time. I’ll post the rest of the titles later, but for now here are four of them.

Victorian London: The Life of a City, 1840-1870 (2005) by Liza Picard. Judy mentioned the book favorably in my not-trollope group and her advice is invaluable. The book is excellent.

The Moral Trollope (1971) by Ruth apRoberts. Acquired on Interlibrary Loan (ILL.) it’s tough sledding so far, with all those Latin terms and references to Cicero . . .

The History of England by Thomas Babington Macaulay, published between 1848 and 1855. I’m only dipping into this; I’m not reading all 5 volumes.

I Promessi Sposi by Alessandro Manzoni, written in 1825-26 but set in the 17th century. Believe it or not, I first read this book when I was about 8 years old. (I knew you wouldn’t believe it.)

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

A Woman Walks Across America

On the 5th of May in 1896 a Spokane woman, Helga Estby, headed eastward along the railroad tracks intending to reach the town of Mica by the end of the day. She was taking up a challenge from “the fashion industries,” who offered to pay $10,000 if she would walk from Spokane to the east coast.

Finances were tight for the Norwegian-American and her family and she saw this as the only way to save their farm. And so Helga, accompanied by her teen-aged daughter, Clara, left behind her other eight children and started walking eastward.

This astonishing story is the subject of a recent book by Linda Lawrence Hunt called Bold Spirit: Helga Estby’s Forgotten Walk Across Victorian America (2003.)

I won’t tell you any more of the details of this expedition, some exhilarating and some tragic. You must read it for yourself. It’s a laugh-and-cry sort of book, suspenseful, gratifying, heartbreaking, unputdownable.

With thanks to Vickie Munch for telling me about this first-rate book.

Sunday, September 17, 2006

A Writer Needs a Cat

"A catless writer is almost inconceivable. It's a perverse taste, really, since it would be easier to write with a herd of buffalo in the room than even one cat; they make nests in the notes and bite the end of the pen and walk on the typewriter keys." - Barbara Holland

Friday, September 15, 2006

"I don't know how to kill Harold Crick"

If you have read my Blogger Profile, then you have seen that one of my interests is listed as "recreational tax law". I used to do tax law for (not very much) money. Now I dabble in it purely for fun. Well, at least I don't pull the wings off of insects, so it could be worse. But now I have hope that tax-related entertainment is going mainstream. This November, Stranger Than Fiction, a movie about an IRS agent, will be released.

The agent in the movie is a fellow named Harold Crick (played by Will Ferrell). Harold leads a remarkably boring life. Then, he starts hearing a voice. This voice, which no one else can hear, is narrating his life very accurately. When he consults with a psychologist (Linda Hunt), she asks him: "You have a voice talking to you?" He replies: "About me. Accurately. And with a better vocabulary".

The voice turns out to be that of novelist Karen Eiffel (Emma Thompson). She is writing a book about a character named Harold Crick. Her narration, as she writes her book, is taking control of the real Harold's life. That is enough of a problem for Harold, but the situation becomes potentially disastrous when the voice announces "I don't know how to kill Harold Crick." But killing off Harold in the novel, and inadvertently in real life, is just what she intends to do.

Can't wait to see it.

Hat tip to TaxProf.

Thursday, September 14, 2006

Theodore Roosevelt

On this date in 1901, the United States received one of the most invigorating bursts of fresh air in its history. Theodore Roosevelt was inaugurated as the 26th President, following the death of President William McKinley. At 42, he was the youngest President ever and he joyfully embraced a vigorous life.

I first became totally hooked on Theodore Roosevelt when I read Edmund Morris's brilliant The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt (1979). Although I have read many books by and about TR since then, The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt remains my favorite. The book not only chronicles well TR's life up to his inauguration as President, it brings to life TR in all of his vitality.

Before becoming President, TR had been a New York State legislator, a rancher, an author, a U.S. Civil Service Commissioner, a member and then chairman of the New York City Police Board, Assistant Secretary of the Navy, colonel commanding the 1st U.S. Volunteer Cavalry Regiment (the Rough Riders), Governor of New York, and Vice President of the United States.

As President, TR built up the United States Navy, promoted conservation of natural resources, backed pure food and drug laws, and made the United States a major force in world affairs for the first time. His facilitating of the negotiations that ended the Russo-Japanese War brought him the Nobel Peace Prize.

From "Citizenship in a Republic," Speech at the Sorbonne, Paris, April 23, 1910:
"It is not the critic who counts: not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles or where the doer of deeds could have done better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood, who strives valiantly, who errs and comes up short again and again, because there is no effort without error or shortcoming, but who knows the great enthusiasms, the great devotions, who spends himself for a worthy cause; who, at the best, knows, in the end, the triumph of high achievement, and who, at the worst, if he fails, at least he fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who knew neither victory nor defeat."

From A Book-Lover's Holidays in the Open, 1916:
"Defenders of the short-sighted men who in their greed and selfishness will, if permitted, rob our country of half its charm by their reckless extermination of all useful and beautiful wild things sometimes seek to champion them by saying the 'the game belongs to the people.' So it does; and not merely to the people now alive, but to the unborn people. The 'greatest good for the greatest number' applies to the number within the womb of time, compared to which those now alive form but an insignificant fraction. Our duty to the whole, including the unborn generations, bids us restrain an unprincipled present-day minority from wasting the heritage of these unborn generations. The movement for the conservation of wild life and the larger movement for the conservation of all our natural resources are essentially democratic in spirit, purpose, and method."

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

A First Class Cup of Tea

The NY Times had an article today about high-end teas and how they are now being sold in teabags. These aren’t the usual tea dust that we have come to appreciate in America, having for centuries been drinking the dregs from the holds of tea clippers after the good stuff was offloaded in England.

These are whole leaf teas, put into nylon pyramid shaped tea bags that can set you back two bucks apiece. I was fortunate to have been given some of these treasures for Christmas (in a tin box, of course) from Wilhelm's folks, so after reading the story in the Times I went upstairs and made myself a cup of the best tea I’ve had since the last time I made myself a cup from one of these tea bags a month ago.

Of course you know where this leading: to a book. I pulled off the shelf a book I had begun reading a while back, The History of the World In 6 Glasses (2005), by Tom Standage, the technology editor of the Economist. But I had read only only the beer section before my attention was drawn elsewhere.

However, judging from the beer and tea sections the book is a treasure. (The other glasses are wine, spirits, coffee, and Coca-Cola.)

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Only Yesterday

While sorting through some of my books the other day, I came across my copy of Frederick Lewis Allen's classic Only Yesterday: An Informal History of the 1920s (1931). This book was published as something of an instant history of the United States in the 1920s, when that era was still fresh people's minds. In this case, the "Twenties" is chronologically tweaked a bit. The book traces American life from the end of World War I in 1918 through the stock market crash of 1929. It ends with a coda covering the Great Depression years of 1930 and 1931.

Our local newspaper recently ran a story on "technology fatigue" -- the condition caused by incessant technological changes in our everyday lives. While this is a problem for us, the typical American of the 1920's certainly experienced similarly overwhelming changes in many aspects of life. The changes chronicled by Allen are stunning. In many ways, American life today reflects trends that largely started in the 1920s. With the coming of commercial radio broadcasts (nonexistent before 1920, but reaching the vast majority of Americans by the end of the decade), mass production of automobiles, and the seemingly endless increase in prosperity, the 1920s became the first decade of real mass culture and of instant communications. It was an era of celebreties, scandals, and crazes -- President Harding, Tea Pot Dome, Aimee Semple McPherson, Sinclair Lewis, Mah Jong, crossword puzzles. There has never been anything really like it before or since -- and it all came crashing down with a vengeance. The trends that the Twenties set in motion, however, proved unstoppable in future decades.

Many of the specific persons and events described in a thematic tour de force in Only Yesterday are now no more than footnotes to history. Nonetheless, this book is an invaluable resource (and a great read) for anyone wanting to know how the world got to where it is today. Even now, the 1920s is still only yesterday.

Monday, September 11, 2006

Cousin Henry

My online Trollope group is reading one of Trollope’s lesser known and mildly controversial books, Cousin Henry, written in 1879, three years before his death. The book is very short, which alone makes it unusual among Trollope’s oeuvre. We associate the name of the author with thick, 800-page novels with half a dozen subplots and half a hundred characters.

Cousin Henry is different. The plot goes like this: The old Squire of Llanfeare is dying and he has decided to leave the estate to his niece, Isobel, who has for a dozen years been like a daughter to him, managing his household and taking care of him in his illness. But he is a conservative man and it bothers him that he should leave the estate away from the male line of the Jones family. Unfortunately, the male heir, one Henry Jones, is a thoroughly inappropriate choice to be squire of Llanfeare.

The squire wants Isobel to marry Harry Jones, but she despises the man and refuses. The old man, reluctantly and in great sorrow, makes a new will leaving the estate to Cousin Henry. Cousin Henry arrives for a visit to the squire and Isobel leaves for a visit to her father and his family.

Then the squire dies, Isobel having hastened back to be at his bedside.

When it’s time to read the will, two tenants report that the squire made another, later will leaving everything to Isobel. But that will is nowhere to be found, despite a thorough search of the house. The estate passes to Cousin Henry.

And here the story warms up. Isobel, who interpreted her uncle’s last words to mean that he had changed his mind and that she was to inherit, believes, along with the rest of the populace of the estate and the nearby town, that Cousin Henry has either burned or hidden the will. He certainly acts like it, being unable to look anyone in the eye, sweating when asked about the whereabouts of the latest will, sitting up late in the evening alone in the book room, hardly eating, and wandering about Llanfeare in a distressed state.

Then the newspaper starts a crusade. In every issue they come closer to accusing him outright of a crime until finally Cousin Henry’s lawyer, Mr ApJohn, bullies him into suing the editor for libel.

Cousin Henry has not burned the will, nor actively hidden it, but he knows where it is and he knows that the estate is not rightfully his. Under the pressure of the people’s dislike and the newspaper’s accusations, he suffers terribly from this knowledge. All he wants now is to be rid of the burden of this ill-gotten estate. But he is unable to force himself to burn the document, hand it over to the lawyer, or fake a dramatic “finding” of it, even as the days go by and the date when he will have to testify in public as to what he knows about the true will comes ever closer.

There you have it. The reader knows from the first that there is a valid will leaving everything to Isobel. We know that Cousin Henry is keeping the information from the authorities. We even know where the will is located and how it got there. And yet for me this book has more suspense than one of the thrillers on the best-seller list. It is mesmerizing to watch a not-very-good man without much courage, beset by the distain and disrespect of his tenants and neighbors, wrestle with his sin and search for a way to escape his predicament without either going to jail or being forever condemned by God.

Not your run-of-the-mill Victoriana. But well worth reading for a glimpse into the places that Trollope could have taken us if it hadn’t been unfashionable to write this sort of thoughtful novel.

Sunday, September 10, 2006


Today I had the choice of beginning work on an incredibly minor household repair project (that has been awaiting my attention for about a year) or doing today's post for Mary's Library. Since you are reading this, you already know what my decision was.

When I do projects around the house, the results are either comic or tragic (although it is not always possible to tell which). I'm usually at a loss regarding minor projects. I won't even consider tackling a major project, which, by definition, includes anything involving pipes or wires.

I operate at a level of sophistication in these matters that is about on par with that of the lady who once called on her neighbors who were avid do-it-yourselfers. As the lady and Mrs D-I-Y sat down to a cup of coffee, Mrs D-I-Y announced that her husband could not join them because he had gone off to the bathroom "to spackle and grout." The lady was sympathetic. "That's awful! My whole family had it last week."

Because I am posting this in lieu of performing home repairs, I suppose that I should mention the only home repair book that I've ever read all the way through. That is an early classic of the works of Dave Barry The Taming of the Screw (1983), with illustrations by Jerry O'Brien. The book starts out by describing tools and why they want to hurt us, and goes on from there. The most useful information in the book is the explanation that no matter how badly wrong things go, you must always tell your wife "It's supposed to do that."

Well, I can't put off my project forever. I can be thankful that it will involve no pipes, no wires (at least not intentionally), and no power tools. With any luck (but there never is) I should be done with this by next weekend. Shortly after that, real professionals will start doing some serious projects around our house. Projects that involve pipes, wires, and power tools. My role will be confined to my specialty of check-writing.

Saturday, September 09, 2006


A gentleman is one who can play the bagpipes, but doesn't. --Rory O'Farrell, Trollopian

Friday, September 08, 2006

The Coes

We’ve had a little flutter of excitement here in Spokane this last week as Kevin Coe, the “South Hill Rapist,” was brought to the city jail for a hearing about his future. He was found guilty and sentenced in 1981 and has just become eligible for release.

Coe was convicted of raping four of the many women who have asserted that he attacked them. He went off to jail avowing his innocence, with his mother, Ruth, backing him up. But not many people believed them, and now that he could get out of jail there’s a buzz about what might happen.

Something tells me that even if they let him go he won’t stay here where he is so well known and so well hated. A hearing will be held in six weeks to determine whether he is a sexual psychopath and should spend the rest of his days in a secure psychiatric facility. Not many folks are rooting for his release.

All of this is being reported on the evening news and curiosity has sent me to re-read Jack Olsen’s 1983 book about the affair called “Son:” A Psychopath and his Victims. I have to quit reading it at about 2 PM or I wouldn’t sleep at night. He’s a scary guy.

His mother, by the way, didn’t like the verdict and tried to hire somebody to kill the prosecutor and the judge. That didn’t do her son a lot of good and landed her in jail, too.

Thursday, September 07, 2006

Opera Uber Alles

Today's New York Times brought two pieces of welcome news from the opera world.

First, The Los Angeles Opera has received a very generous gift to enable it to present Wagner's complete Der Ring Des Nibelungen. The starting date is uncertain and the four music dramas will likely be presented over two seasons.

Second, The New York Metropolitan Opera is making arrangements to broadcast operas live in movie theaters in the United States, Canada, and the United Kingdom. This is especially good news for those of us who live some distance from a major opera company.

Mary has been an opera fan much longer than I. On the other hand, I did get Mary enthralled by Wagner. Our favorite opera performance is the Bavarian National Opera production of Das Rheingold that we saw in Munich in 2002. We still maintain our membership in The Wagner Society of Washington, DC.

For those of you who have not yet been captivated by the operas of Wagner, check out Wagner Without Fear: Learning to Love -- and Even Enjoy -- Opera's Most Demanding Genius, William Berger (1998). This is an entertaining and informative guide to everything you need to know about Wagner and his operas.

Wednesday, September 06, 2006

Small World

My interlibrary loan prayer for Susan Hill’s first Simon Serrallier mystery has been answered. I picked up The Various Haunts of Men today at the South Hill Library (no relation) and I’m having a really hard time leaving it alone while I do some necessary chores.

I heard about Susan Hill from my pal dovegreyreader, who talks about SH in her blog and has made me eager to get my hands on some of the Serralier novels. I thought about buying the books from England but the site where they are offered says nothing about the US and I fear the cost of postage would be prohibitive. (I know, I could buy them secondhand, but I try to make a good faith effort to buy new books before resorting to a transaction from which the author earns nothing.)

dovegreyreader sent me to Susan Hill’s blog, which I read pretty regularly these days. I wonder how the woman has time both to blog well and write good books. She must sleep 2 hours a night.

This book is singing to me. Unassuming black cloth cover, no dust jacket, gold print on the spine, ILL sheet wrapped around it warning me to get it back to the library by the 29th of September OR ELSE. The book came to me all the way from the library at The College of William and Mary in Virginia. Small world.

Tuesday, September 05, 2006

To Fly

I have long been fascinated by aviation and its history. Perhaps this is the natural result of having spent my youth in something of an Air Force town. When I was growing up on Spokane's Northside, heavy bombers would fly overhead every day on their way to land at Fairchild Air Force Base.

Or, maybe it comes from living in a State where the Boeing Company is a major employer. During my college days in Seattle, I never got tired of driving down I-5 and seeing rows of 747s lined up at Boeing Field, painted in the liveries of airlines from around the world, and awaiting delivery.

Perhaps most of all, though, this love of aviation comes from reading a book. To this day, I still believe that the best book about aviation ever written is the memoir by Ernest K. Gann (1910-1991), Fate is the Hunter (1961). (Hollywood appended the name of this book to a thoroughly dreadful movie. Please steer clear of that.) Gann recounts his early interest in aviation during the 1920s and his career as a commercial aviation pilot in the 1930s and 1940s. He also includes an account of his wartime experiences as an air transport pilot.

The book is filled with memorable passages. The one I recall best, though, is his account of flying a DC-2 to Newark, New Jersey, in the late 1930s when he was still a young co-pilot and flying with an eccentric (and sometimes apparently sadistic) captain by the name of Ross.

Then as we start the turn for the final descent, which is always the most complicated and demanding in accuracy, Ross takes a box of matches from his pocket and lights them one after another under my nose. I gasp a protest. I am heavily engaged in trying to hold course and altitude exactly according to the book. This is the real thing. It counts.

"What the hell are you doing?"

I am bewildered. If I were not so extremely busy I would brush the flame away. It is difficult to see the instruments beyond the flame, and Ross holds it just close enough to make breathing difficult.

I blow out the match. Ross at once lights another. I am fifty feet too low, the compass is swinging in a direction it should not, and my speed is falling off.

"Steady . . ."

Ross's voice is calm and without malice or mischief. Then what in God's name is he up to? The performance, on which I was just about to congratulate myself, is rapidly going to pieces.


As one match after another flares before my eyes I become infuriated with Ross. He is a sadist, sick with weird complexities. He is afraid I will do a good job. To Hell with him! I will keep everything as it should be regardless of his jealous interference.


As we turn for the final descent I shove the propeller controls to full low pitch. We are exactly at required altitude, the speed is right, and also the course.

Ross shakes out his match and sits back in his seat. I glance at him, my resentment doubling when I discover him smiling. We will have this out on the ground!


When the engines are stopped I complete the logbook in wounded silence.


I snap the logbook shut and am about to stand up when I feel his heavy hand on my shoulder. My grip on the metal logbook tightens. If he tries one of his playful swings ---

But his voice is surprisingly tired and so is his smile. "Anyone can do this job when things are going right. In this business we play for keeps."

A few years later, when Gann had to deal with a fire in the cockpit during a wartime flight, he fully understood the worth of Ross's unorthodox lesson.

Monday, September 04, 2006

Katie Fforde

I was rearranging some of my books today and came across my Katie Fforde novels.

Fforde is an English writer whose airily charming books have given me many hours of pleasure. At Fantastic Fiction

they tell us that “Katie Fforde lives in Gloucestershire with her husband and some of her three children. Her hobbies are ironing and housework but, unfortunately, she has almost no time for them as she feels it is her duty to keep a close eye on the afternoon chat shows.”

My favorite of her books is Stately Pursuits (1997), in which a young woman, dumped by her boyfriend and out of a job, agrees to house-sit a stately home and pulls the entire town together to save the house.

Jasper Fforde tells me he is her nephew. With a name like Fforde they had to be related. How many Fforde families can there be?

Sunday, September 03, 2006


The average pencil is seven inches long, with just a half-inch eraser -- in case you thought optimism was dead.
-Robert Brault, software developer,writer

Friday, September 01, 2006

Election Day

There is an old story that might even be true, about the pollster who asked an English lady for whom she would be voting in a coming election. She replied, "Vote? I never vote. It only encourages them."

Here in the Evergreen State, we are in the midst of a primary election. Election day is September 19th, but the "election day" has now been supplanted by something of an election season. Spokane County has adopted all mail-in voting. The ballots have been mailed out to the registered voters and are to be marked and mailed back by the 19th. This prolonged voting period creates a semi-eternal campaign season. By election day, the voters will likely be so fed up with being perpetually inundated with campaign materials that they will be more inclined to hunt down the candidates and beat them with sticks, rather than to vote for them. So, we'll mark our ballots promptly, mail them back, and then lie low with good books until the campaign ads go away.

One book that is always a good bet during an election year is Christopher Buckley's The White House Mess (1986). This is the funniest satirical political novel I've ever read. The account of the U.S. invasion of Bermuda alone is worth the cover price. If you've never read it, you are in for a treat.

In the alternative, you can amuse yourself with a book that is not about politics, but is by a politician (or, more accurately, by a non-politician who is running for office). Kinky Friedman has had a career without ever actually having had a job. He has had a musical career as the leader of Kinky Friedman and the Texas Jewboys. Then, he began writing a series of comic mysteries featuring himself and his cat. These include Armadillos and Old Lace (1995). Now, Kinky is active in animal rescue work and is running for Governor of Texas as an independent candidate. His campaign slogan is "How hard can it be?" Now, there is a candidate.