Thursday, October 30, 2014

Stranger Than Fiction: James Smithson's Legacy

The Stranger and The Statesmen by Nina Burleigh has a subtitle "James Smithson, John Quincy Adams, and the making of America's Greatest Museum, The Smithsonian." So when I saw it at the book sale at the West Branch library I had to pick it up.

"Not another John Quincy Adams book" groaned my husband.

There is precious little John Quincy Adams in the book. JQA saw the Smithson bequest as an opportunity to fulfill one of his presidential goals: to build an observatory. Or at least a center for scientific research and public education, something badly needed in America at the time. It was an uphill battle. No one really cared. The money was spent in buying bad bonds and was nearly lost. The intellectual Adams understood the need. Being the champion of lost, but "right", causes was his forte. He took on the role of defender of Smithson's intention.

There is not a whole lot about James Smithson (born James Macie) because little is known about him. All of his papers were destroyed in a fire at the Smithsonian before they were cataloged and studied. The man was an enigma in his lifetime. He was the illegitimate son of the man who became Duke of Northumberland and a wealthy widow named Macie. James was small, a loner, in poor health, intelligent, and intensely focused on his narrow interest in the chemistry of rocks. No records of relations with women exist. He loved gambling. He spent most of his life on the continent.

No one has ever understood his decision to give his inheritance to a country with which he had no connections. Young America was no haven of the arts and science. The people were pragmatic and more interested in practical and applied science.

The books offers a detailed view of Smithson's times. There are plenty of strange characters and lots of amazing insights into society of his time. I cringed and guffawed, truly glad I did not live in such a barbaric time when children were thrust into cold baths to "harden" them, women went nine weeks between hair arranging, tuberculosis left men medical eunuchs, and the White House had an outdoor privy.

Burleigh's writing is lively and she keeps things interesting. But the book is limited in scope, and incomplete in its history of the museum. We learn more about Smithson's society than about his legacy.

For a CSPAN interview with the author see
For an excerpt that appeared in Smithsonian Magazine see

The Stranger and The Statesman
Nina Burleigh
William Morrow 2003
ISBN 0060002417

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

How Books Helped Win WWII: The American Services Editions

When Books Went To War: The Stories That Helped us Win World War II by Molly Guptill Manning concerns the 1,200 paperback book titles printed by the War Department for distribution to American troops through the American Services Editions (ASE). The impact of this program was enormous. It finessed a new format for books that increased sales; by 1952 paperback sales exploded and by 1959 outpaced sales of hardbound books. Books previously ignored or forgotten were propelled into best-sellers. People who had never read a book for pleasure became lifetime readers and were inspired to take advantage of the GI Bill's college education. In 1947-48 half of college students were veterans.

What book-loving reader could resist a book about how books became more valued than chocolate by soldiers? An Army medical officer contended that the ASE were the greatest "improvement in Army technique since the Battle of the Marne."

The author places the conception and growth of the program against a concise description of the historical context and progress of the war. Hitler's massive book burnings purged Germany of books which did not support his policies and beliefs. WWII was a "war of ideas" and the dissemination of books was a proper response.

What started out as a book drive turned into a special format publishing program that distributed thousands of books. Contemporary fiction was in most demand. Authors who especially appealed to the men included Katherine Anne Porter's stories and A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith.  As was pointed out in Why We Read, The Great Gatsby was 'rediscovered' through it's inclusion as an ASE book. Books that recalled to mind their lives back home, made them laugh, or helped them deal with the deep emotional responses to their situation were valued.

Studies dating to WWI had shown that books had a "therapeutic" quality, enabling people to understand the difficulties and experiences they had experienced. Recent studies have concluded that reading literature, as opposed to genre fiction or non-fiction, increases one's empathy and emotional intelligence.

The material in the book is well researched. A list of the 1,200 books and their publication dates is included. My son (writer of the blog Battered, Tattered, Yellowed & Creased) had already told me the basic information. It motivated me to request this book when I saw it on NetGalley. I very much enjoyed this book--it is a "feel good" ride for book lovers! Books save the world!

I had picked up a copy of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn a few years ago, not having read it since I was a teenager. After reading how it was much in demand among the tropps I decided to put it on my to be read shelf.

When Books Went To War: The Stories That Helped Us Win World War II
Molly Guptill Manning
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
ISBN 9780544535022
Publication date: December 2, 2014

Monday, October 27, 2014

Gridlock: Giddyup Political Quilt

I have been working on a new quilt that uses vintage handkerchiefs and linens--and a new flag bandana. It is inspired by "Gridlock", a"Giddyup" donkey block I received in exchange for a unicorn linen. I have had this quilt in mind for many months. 
The Know Your Presidents handkerchief stops at Eisenhower, as does the Republican Presidents handkerchief. The Democrat Presidents handkerchief ends with L. B. Johnson.
 The linens are from 1952--a special year to me.

I was going to use two more political handkerchiefs. But I decided to keep to the red, white, and blue color scheme.

I am considering one more set of borders, likely pieced.

Saturday, October 25, 2014

Caleb: A Novel by Charles Alverson: Rise from Slave to Union Hero

Bostonian indentured servant Caleb has been sold into slavery. Boyd Jardine buys Caleb on a whim, later discovering that Caleb is more than strong--he is educated and intelligent. Jardine grooms Caleb for tasks befitting his skills, and eventually Caleb is running the plantation. In the evenings he cozily reads the newspaper to his Master.

 Jardine treats him well, even providing a "wife". The likelihood of escape is small with bounty hunters combing the countryside for runaways. But Caleb wants freedom badly. Master Jardine proposes a win-win situation: Caleb will go into boxing and keep his winnings, while Master Jardine places bets to win more money--which he will split 50-50 with Caleb. This way Caleb can buy his freedom.

Life after freedom offers limited opportunities for an educated free black man. War has broken out, and Caleb finds himself in the Union army.

I read this book in two sittings. The writing keeps the reader's interest and the later half is action-packed. Reader reviews are generally positive.

Caleb feels like a mythic or legendary character, or a character from a Graphic Novel. As historical fiction this book has little realism. This slave world is just too comfortable. Master Jardine is a trusting and enabling master and Caleb is a veritable Frederick Douglas clone. This is a tidied up version of the "peculiar institution" that brought about the United State's most important crisis. There is no surprise to the ending.

The book a lot of action, and good characterization. The worst violence is in the boxing matches, and there is no graphic sex scenes. Overall, it was a good read, but not impressive literature.

Caleb by Charles Alverson
Lake Union Publishing
ISBN-13: 9781477826232; ISBN-10: 1477826238
Publication date:

Charles Alverson is a prolific writer who was a reporter for the Wall Street Journal and Rolling Stone magazine and who wrote the screenplays for Jabberwocky and Brazil.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Anna Karenina, a New Translation by Rosamund Bartlett

When I saw that Oxford University Press had a new translation of "Anna Karenina" available on NetGalley I decided it was time to revisit the novel. Rosamund Bartlett is a Tolstoy scholar and her translation was remarkably readable.

The novel explores marriage through the stories of several couples.

The title character, Anna, is a remarkable woman with great inner and outer beauty who wins everyone's love and esteem. But she has never loved her husband, a workaholic man twenty years her elder. When the debonair Count Vronsky falls in love with Anna and pursues her she resists for a year then gives herself to him. Eventually Anna leaves her husband. Even when her husband forgives Anna he won't divorce her, believing that divorce would leave her unprotected should Vronsky abandon her. Unable to wed, Anna and Vronsky cannot appear in society as a couple, leaving and Anna feels isolated and alone. Plus, Anna has been separated from her son. She becomes emotionally frail and dependent on morphine, her insecurity and neediness pushing Vronsky away.

Levin loves Kitty who rejects his proposal because she thought she was being wooed by the more exciting Vronsky-- until Anna came along. Levin returns to his farm and struggles with the meaning of life before he and Kitty are reunited and married. Marriage is a struggle, full of clashes and misunderstandings, and yet the marriage survives and Levin finds a kind of faith and happiness.

The fading Dolly is married to the philandering Oblonsky, Anna's brother. She struggles to provide for her children while her husband spends money he does not have, enjoys society, and enjoys his women.

Anna should have been happy having the man she loved, a man who loved her. She frets constantly: should she ask for a divorce; she feels the loss of her son; she chafes at the isolation of her position. She reads and educates herself and takes on a ward and enjoys being her teacher. She and Vronsky have a daughter together. Vronsky badly wants to marry Anna and give his name to their children. Anna decided not to have more children, fearing it will ruin her figure and compromise her sexual attractiveness to Vronsky. Jealously and doubt are fed when Vronsky needs a life beyond a happy home and he enters into local politics.

Everyone knows how the story ends. We first see Anna when she arrives by train to help her sister and brother-in-law's marital troubles. A man is killed when he falls in front of her train--a very obvious foreshadowing.

What stuck with me this reading was Anna's use of drugs to sleep, and the question of how much her addiction affected her. Was her anxiety, depression and eventual suicide a result of cocaine use? Tolstoy does not address this issue. Drug addiction to morphine was not uncommon in the 19th c. My brother and I read From The Narrow Passage by David T. Gochenour, a distant relative. His wife was a secret addict when they married, and her unreliable behavior sent him to practice medicine on a ship for many years, traveling to Alaska and the Philippines.

It is hard to understand why an intelligent woman, living with the man she loves, and with no concerns of health or money, would fall prey to her imagination. From today's perspective, the use of drugs helps to explain her vulnerability. But it was not an issue dwelt on by Tolstoy.

Anna Karenina has long chapters that reveal Levin's position as a landowner, employer and farmer, which were hardly engaging to read. I just could not get into agricultural reform and labor problems after the freeing of the serfs. Sorry, Levin. I appreciate that Tolstoy included Levin's interests as part of his quest for meaning and faith. Attitudes of the characters on these issues reveal their values and personality. And it was in this work that Levin finds solace and meaning.

I was surprised to come across the stream-of-consciousness passages when Anna was at the train yard looking for Vronsky, and where she ultimately opted for suicide. This was a new device in literature. I felt the method very well illustrated Anna's internal conflict, her inability to focus and control her feelings or reason.

Broiderie Anglaise from
Kitty nurses Levin's dying brother, bringing her Brodiere Anglaise needlework with her. It was not a term I was familiar with. "English embroidery" was a whitework embroidery involving punched holes in the fabric finished with satin stitch. We are quite familiar with the mass produced versions--eyelet cutwork lace.

Articles on this translation say it is closer to Tolstoy's original, revealing his style and word choice better than previous translations. I did notice times where a word was used three times in two sentences, and it bothered me. I was interested to learn that it was Tolstoy's choice.

I am glad I read Anna Karenina again. I am not sure I will read it again in my lifetime. This was a good translation for my rereading.

Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy
Translated by Rosamund Bartlett
Oxford University Press
ISBN 9780199232086
Publication date November 15, 2014

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Art, Friendship, Love, Sex and Inventing Modernism

Vanessa and Her Sister_cover.jpgBefore reading Priya Parmar's book Vanessa and Her Sister I knew very little about the Stephen family and the Bloomsbury Group. I had read many books by Virginia Woolf and E. M. Forster. I recognized the names of Roger Fry and Vanessa and Clive Bell, and knew that Lytton Stachey wrote Eminent Victorians. John Maynard Keynes I knew was an important economist. But I had never studied them. I requested this book from NetGalley hoping to learn more.

The story is presented through the fictional pages of a diary kept by artist Vanessa Stephen, sister of Virginia Stephen (who later married Leonard Woolf). Their brother Thoby Stephen brings home his Cambridge University chums and they form a weekly meeting to discuss art and life and to gossip about their friends. They each go on to prominence as artists, writers, publishers, art critics, and philosophers. Interspersed with the diary entries are letters and telegrams to other group members, sent by Roger Fry, Leonard Woolf, and Lytton Stachey. The Bloomsbury men shifted their relationships between friend and lover, some later entering into relationships with women as well.

I was quite charmed from the first by Vanessa's voice. Although she tells us that Virginia insists she is not a "word" person, Vanessa is lyrical and visual in her descriptive language. Virginia needs careful handling; she can be charming and witty, cruel and selfish, and is prone to emotional breakdowns. She has also perfected the art of manipulation, and is always self-centered. Vanessa raises doubts about her sister's sexual orientation, and some thought that Virginia only ever loved her older sister Vanessa.

At first their gatherings seem splendid and full of fun with Thorby as the center. After his loss things go awry, and relationships alter. Vanessa marries Clive Bell, and Virginia jealously tries to inveigle herself between them. Alliances shift, lovers trade off, stodgy 19th c values are flaunted. We think the 1960s were radical? This group was breaking all the rules in the first decade of the century!

The novel ends rather in the middle of things, with the author offering a brief description of what became of the major players. The more well known group members included the author E. M. Forster; author Virginia Woolf ; artists Vanessa and Clive Bell; biographer Lytton Stachey; art critic Roger Fry and artist Helen Fry; artist Duncan Grant; poet Rupert Brooke; economist John Maynard Keynes; Leonard Woolf, Civil Service and later publisher and husband to Virginia.

I went online to research and learn more, and there was a lot more to learn. I suppose all books have to end somewhere. I would have liked to read about another decade or two about them. It was like a soap opera bred with High Art to produce a tale about geniuses throwing themselves against all the 'artificial' boundaries, trying to reinvent art and life.

The Virginia Woolf Blog has articles on Virginia and Clive Bell's flirtation. See Vanessa's paintings at

Vanessa and Her Sister: A Novel by Priya Parmar
Random House Publishing House-Ballantine
Publication Dec 30, 2014
ISBN 9780804276378

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

There and Back Again

This past weekend we went to Grand Rapids, MI and stayed with friends. My husband attended a seminar on self-publishing and my friend and I went to all of her favorite thrift and consignment shops. I found some great vintage fabric.
vintage polished cotton

Four yards of this cute folksy print
 I had to get this cotton towel.

On our way home on Sunday we stopped at the Williamston Antiques Market. I bought some vintage handkerchiefs.

There were quite a number of quilts, nothing uncommon or mint. They also had loads of glassware, china, and pottery.

How about a bathing costume? 

We stopped at the Tanger outlet mall near Howell where I found some cute fox oven mitts at the Corelle store. Shiba Inu owners like foxes because Shibas are so fox-like in appearance. So of course I bought a set!

Last stop was Ray's ice cream, a local store with it's own ice cream. I had Coconut with dark chocolate sauces. Yummy!

I received my order of Gatsby fabric. I had ran across this line while noodling around online last week. I have it in mind to make a Gatsby quilt. More on that later.