The Possessed

The Possessed coverThe Possessed: Adventures with Russian Books and the People Who Read Them
Elif Batuman
Narrated by the author
Penguin Audio, March 14, 2017
Print edition: Farrar, Straus and Giroux (February 16, 2010)
$24.46 for Audible members, more for nonmembers
purchased with an Audible credit

I had read and enjoyed Elif Batuman’s novel The Idiot and picked up this volume based on a brief mention in The New Your Times Book Review. Batuman specializes in Russian literature, as you might surmise for the book’s subtitle. As to the book’s content, the subtitle does not mislead.

Batuman opens the book describing the beginning of her post-graduate studies at Stanford, and how she came under the influence of the leading scholar of the Russian author Isaac Babel, of whom I had never heard until listening to this book, and how said scholar hooked her into the study of Babel. Babel wrote in the first part of the twentieth century but fell afoul of the Soviet authorities and was executed in the Stalin era. Batuman writes about her encounter with Babel’s two daughters, who are invited to Stanford for a Babel conference. I learned far more than I cared to about Isaac Babel.

She also writes about a summer spent in a language immersion program in Uzbekistan, about lost luggage, and the people she encounters there. Passing off her boyfriend, who wanted to tag along, as her husband caused her to make up some fabrications about their nonexistent marriage.

We hear a lot about other, better known, Russian authors and their writing: Tolstoy, Chekov, and Dostoevsky. Since Russian writers write a lot about grim topics such as illness, poisoning, and death we hear a lot about those topics. Too much. I didn’t know that there was a debate about whether Tolstoy’s death was due to poisoning or that depending on one’s own views one could be labeled a Tolstoyan (or not).

Batuman writes about academic politics, the unsettled lives of graduate students at Stanford, and her own untidy personal life. Although I did not enjoy The Possessed nearly as much as her novel, the book was nonetheless interesting reading, especially since we hear it in the author’s own voice.


A Thousand Ships

A Thousand Ships coverA Thousand Ships
Natalie Haynes
Harper (January 26, 2021), 368 pages
Amazon hardcover $19.28, Kindle edition $10.99

There have been some excellent retellings of classical mythology by women published in the last couple of years. Madeline Miller wrote both Circe and The Song of Achilles. Now Natalie Haynes has released A Thousand Ships, which tells of the events (mostly) after the Trojan War through the perspective of women. It was originally published in the United Kingdom in 2019, but Harper just published it in the United States this year. Terry got to the book before I did, buying it at Barnes and Noble, so in this instance I read the hardcover rather than the Kindle edition.

Haynes opens the novel with the sack of Troy by the Greeks after the Trojans brought the famous wooden horse inside the city walls. This is interesting because the Iliad does not mention the Trojan Horse at all. The Odyssey mentions a “hollow horse” three times in passing, in such a way that Homer must have assumed that his audience knew the story. It is only later sources that provide us with any sort of full account.

Nonetheless, this approach works because Haynes tells the story mostly from the Trojan perspective, from the viewpoint of the losing side, and in particular by the women of the losing side. She does not, as you might guess, portray the Greeks in a positive light.

We encounter a lot of women in the book. Some women we meet only in a single chapter, and others intermittently throughout the book. Then there are the Trojan women as a group, drawn from the chorus in the Euripides play by that name, who sit on the seashore awaiting their fate by the conquering Greeks. We see them several times.

Helen, the cause of all the fuss, has no chapters of her own and plays a very small role in the novel. In Haynes’s world Helen had willingly headed off to Troy with the Trojan Paris, though the mythology we have is ambiguous as to whether she really was infatuated with Paris or whether he took her to Troy against her will.

The one Greek woman Haynes features prominently is Penelope, wife of Odysseus, waiting for him at home in Ithaca. She becomes increasingly snarky as she writes him letters after hearing the stories from the bards of his long, circuitous journey home. She is neither understanding nor patient.

Also impatient is the muse Calliope, who wants the poet to pay more attention to the women and less to the men and the fighting. What Homer doesn’t do Haynes fulfills.

We are all the better for that.


the end of the road for my internet radio

When I tried to tune in to 70s on 7 on my Grace Digital internet radio on Saturday it displayed a message saying it could not contact the SiriusXM server. This was not a huge surprise to me as I had received an email from SiriusXM some months ago saying that “it has come to our attention that you may be streaming SiriusXM at home using a Grace device” and telling me that my Grace Digital device would no longer be supported. When I went on to Google to confirm that I had remembered correctly I saw that I had, but I also saw that my radio would be completely inoperable by late May. It’s a first-generation device that uses a third-party service and that is all going away. (“The managed shut down…will be completed by May 21st, 2021.”) That was a surprise.

We had purchased two Amazon Echo devices, one for the bedroom and a second for the kitchen and dining area as our ancient Recoton 900 MHz wireless devices kept performing less and less well. But, I thought, I still have my internet radio for my office. Guess not.

internet radioI bought my Grace Digital internet radio in January 2014 while we were still in Gilroy to replace another internet radio that used a rather unreliable technology. I kept it in my office and loved it, as over-the-air radio reception in Gilroy was less than optimal. It moved south with us in 2015 and remained in my office here, where over-the-air radio reception is also far from ideal.

There was rarely a day when I was in my office, either there or here, when I did not turn on that radio. And attached to the Recoton 900 MHz transmitter we used it every single evening with the Recoton wireless speakers in the dining area and the bedroom until we replaced them with our Echo devices.

So now what? I thought about getting a current generation Grace Digital radio, but I don’t quite trust those folks, and was not encouraged by the misused words (“effected” instead of “affected”) and other typos on their support web page.

I realized that an Amazon Echo device (our third) could do everything an internet radio could do, plus a lot more. I have always relied on my internet radio for a quick glance at the time when it was not playing, so I needed a visual display. I decided to buy a new Echo Show 10.

It’s supposed to be here tomorrow. I’ll let you know how it works out.


Summer People

Summer People coverSummer People: A Novel
Marge Piercy
Open Road Media (April 12, 2016), 477 pages
originally published by Summit Books, a Simon and Schuster imprint (June 1, 1989)
Kindle edition $10.99

After finishing my previous nonfiction book I was looking for something countercultural. I knew I could find that by turning to Marge Piercy. I selected Summer People and was not disappointed. Now this was not sixties counterculture. The narrative in the novel takes place roughly contemporaneous with the publication of the book in 1989. Piercy mentions the amber screen of a computer. Many computer screens running the good old DOS operating system (yes, I know that’s redundant) in those days had black-and white or blue-and-white screens, but my computer at home in 1989 had an amber screen.

This counterculture existed (in the novel) on Cape Cod. Susan and Willie were married. Susan was a seamstress and fashion designer. Willie was a sculptor and carpenter. Dinah, a musician and composer, moves into the house next door, which shared the driveway with Willie and Susan’s house. They quickly ended up in a three-way relationship. All went well until Susan, with her misperceptions and inflated sense of self-importance, insisted that the arrangement end. That triggered a domino effect that drives much of the novel’s action.

I wouldn’t refer to Piercy’s work as literary fiction, but she knows how to develop a plot and create believable, three-dimensional characters. The women are strong and not dependent on men. Piercy’s novels have always had a strong feminist tone, and her women take ownership of their own sex lives and responsibility for birth control. (One male character, in fact, provides his own condom).

The title Summer People is a bit of a misnomer, as the book is not about the people who arrive at Cape Cod in time for Memorial Day and leave right after Labor Day, although they do play a role. It’s the year-round residents, Willie, Susan, and Dina that are central to the novel.

So while not great literary fiction, Summer People is enjoyable reading with a serious message about how people treat each other, even if the conclusion ties things together just a little too neatly.


Butter Chicken

I love Indian food, as you may know if you’ve been reading this blog for a while. Sadly, my options are limited these days. Our local Indian restaurant here in Hemet was short-lived, though Terry and I did all we could to support it. We could drive thirty minutes south to Temecula and go to an Indian restaurant there called Mantra, but their primary business is buffet, and such service is, as you well know, not currently allowed in California. (Besides, neither Terry nor I are comfortable with restaurant dining right now.) And then, to add insult to injury, some time back my favorite brand of frozen Indian lunches, Tandoor Oven, disappeared from the freezer cases of the two stores here that carried it.

So what’s left? Right. Fix it yourself.

Butter ChickenI have a lot of Indian dishes in my recipe database, and multiple versions of some, such as Chicken Tikka Masala and Butter Chicken (two recipes that are hard to distinguish from each other). Last week I decided I had gone too long without Indian food and planned Butter Chicken for Friday. I chose a version that recently appeared in Food Network Magazine.

I didn’t follow the recipe exactly; I rarely do. The recipe called for sautéing an onion while adding some of the spices, but I can’t do that as Terry is allergic to onions. The recipe called for tomato, so I blanched and peeled a fresh one. I threw the tomato into our Dutch oven along with tomato paste (in the recipe), and a small can of tomato sauce (not in the recipe). I then added all the specified spices.

I had previously browned the chicken with the indicated spices. I cooked the tomato mixture down, threw it in the Vitamix, and put it back in the Dutch oven. I put the chicken back in and let it simmer for a while. At the last minute I added heavy cream and butter.

Meanwhile, I had been cooking a cup of Basmati rice on another burner.

The result? I was happy. Terry was pleased. If you can’t go out for Indian food you can certainly make it at home. It is a lot of work, but the finished product is well worth it.


Dusk, Night, Dawn

Dusk, Night, DawnDusk, Night, Dawn: On Revival and Courage
Anne Lamott
Riverhead Books (March 2, 2021), 223 pages
Kindle edition $11.99, Amazon hardcover $15.61

Reading an Anne Lamott book is like reading a book by an old friend. I have been reading her books for many years, and she was a regular guest on the late, lamented West Coast Live radio program in San Francisco.

She wrote this book before the change of administration in Washington, so perhaps there is a bit of a pall over it that wouldn’t have been there had she finished the book after January 20. Nonetheless, Lamott is not about negativity; she writes about hope and help.

If you’re familiar with Anne Lamott you know she is a recovering alcoholic, and she speaks honestly about addiction and recovery. She writes about how she has been helped, about she has helped others, and about how we can help each other. Lamott (who is less than a year younger than me) was married for the first time in 2019, and she worries her husband may discover that she’s not the person he thought he married. He seems to not be troubled by that.

Anne has a way of putting things in perspective, even when the world seems impossibly difficult:

quoteThe search for the holy grail has been called off. No grail to find, no code to break. All along, it turns out that there was only the imperfect love of a few trusted people and that in troubled times, like heat waves, epidemics, and blackouts, most people bring their best selves. No ultimate answers, only the blessings of friendship and service; silence and music, the beauty of the seasons and skies, creation, in art and life’s phases—birth, death, new life. Sigh.

Lamott tells us, “Maybe the poet was wrong when he said the center cannot hold. Maybe it can and does hold. Maybe the center paradoxically holds everything, like the gravity well in which our teeny galaxy is held.”

She writes, “Terrible losses befall those we love, and yet we are saved again and again by a cocoon of goodwill, evolution, and sweet milky tea. That is plenty of center for me.”

And for me too.


A History of European Art

History of European Art coverA History of European Art
William Kloss, M.A.
Independent Art Historian
Instant video purchased on sale at $69.95
If the course is not on sale, check back. A sale price will come around again.

This is a very long course at forty-eight lectures. Most Great Courses packages are twenty-four or thirty-six lectures. But then it covers a lot of territory. The survey begins with Carolingian and Ottonian art in the late Middle Ages and goes all the way through to art in the twentieth century between the two world wars.

There was a lot of interesting material in this course. It was amazing to learn how much art moved around. Works that were designed as altarpieces were taken down and moved elsewhere, sometimes simply to the museum on the site of the church, sometimes to another country. If the altarpiece was made of multiple panels it was often cut up into its separate components.

I had learned bits and pieces about European art here and there, but I’ve never taken a comprehensive course. I had never thought about how much of late medieval and Renaissance art was on one of two themes: either classical history and mythology or biblical material. I noticed that the art in that period bore a stronger resemblance to the physical world than that beginning in the late nineteenth century with the advent of impressionism. The subject matter also changes as artists began to paint based on their own inner ideas rather than on commonly known topics. As Professor Kloss says, “We have left the world of shared meaning behind.”

Kloss is knowledgeable but has an odd manner of presentation. He almost never looks at the camera, but looks at his notes or computer monitor, or seems to peer off into the middle distance. Nonetheless, he knows his stuff and is well qualified to present this engaging material.


Our Anniversary

Terry and I celebrate our twenty-seventh anniversary today, and we’re still as crazy about each other as ever.

decadent dessertCelebrating our anniversary the last couple of years has been interesting. Two years ago, for our twenty-fifth, I had just gotten out of the hospital after a setback following my surgery, and was very limited in what I was allowed to eat. Last year we were in the early days of the pandemic, but as I recall what got in our way was the weather. We had planned on going to Dattilo’s, the first-class Italian restaurant on the other side of town. We had ben hit with some heavy rain, however, and didn’t want to drive across town with flooded streets and intersections. So we had dinner at the bistro in the lodge here at Four Seasons. It was a Thursday, which just happens to be their Italian night, so that worked out.

This year, still in the midst of the pandemic, we are limited to outdoor dining if we want dinner in a restaurant, and it’s too wet and cold for that. Our plan is to have dinner from Dattilo’s at home courtesy of Grubhub. Terry found a marvelous decadent dessert at the grocery store. That will work well.

The Jewish Passover Seder contains the words, “Next year in Jerusalem!” My thought for our anniversary: “Next year in Cambria!” (With dinner at the Sea Chest, of course.)


Always a Song

Always a Song coverAlways a Song: Singers, Songwriters, Sinners, and Saints: My Story of the Folk Music Revival
Ellen Harper
Narrated by Janina Edwards
Chronicle Prism, January 26, 2021
$24.91 for Audible members, more for nonmembers
purchased with an Audible credit

I follow my alma mater, Pitzer College, on social media. One recent post mentioned an interview on NPR’s Fresh Air with Terry Gross that featured Ellen Harper and her son Ben Harper. Ellen married Leonard Harper, who was an administrator at Pitzer College in the seventies. He was in some respects a pioneer, as an African American in a college administration role early in that decade. Ellen is a graduate of Pitzer through the New Resources program, which offers a degree path to people who are past traditional college age. Her son Ben is a famous musician (of whom I had never heard until listening to the interview). Ben’s younger brother Joel is a Pitzer graduate as well. Ellen and Ben were on the show to promote Ellen’s new book, Always a Song. There were so many familiar names and places mentioned in the interview I knew I had to get the book.

Ellen’s childhood began in Massachusetts in the fifties when the House un-American Activities Committee was active and people were busy trying to root out Communists. Her father was a schoolteacher who had associations with the Communist Party. He eventually lost his job because of that. Both parents had lives focused on music. Her father repaired musical instruments and her mother gave banjo and guitar lessons. Family friend Pete Seeger (yes, that Pete Seeger) suggested that they move to California and set up a shop to repair musical instruments. They did just that. Thus the Folk Music Center in Claremont, a place with which I was quite familiar during my years there, was born.

It amazed me to read about the prejudice in Claremont in the late fifties and early sixties. Ellen’s mom went looking for a house to rent with the kids and found one place that looked ideal. The landlady looked at them and said that she had rented it. When her dad called the landlady on the phone she said, “Oh, you’re Jewish, that fine. I thought they were Mexican.” The family had an African American neighbor who was a doctor. He faced a great deal of prejudice. When he was renting a house in town he was barely tolerated, but when he bought a lot on which to build a house he received serious threats. Scripps College, the women’s liberal arts school of the Claremont Colleges, expelled a stellar student in the early sixties simply for having a same-sex relationship with a graduate student. Not the Claremont that I loved so much in the early and mid-seventies.

Ellen eventually married Leonard Harper. What I didn’t know, what very few if any of us knew at the time, was that Leonard was an alcoholic and abused Ellen. They had three sons together, but she eventually left him and raised the kids on her own. The Leonard Harper we knew at Pitzer was a popular administrator who was well-liked by the students. Sadly, he died an alcohol-related death at a young age.

Music pervades this book. Ellen herself played the guitar and gave lessons. Growing up she worked the front counter at the Folk Music Center. Well-known musicians regularly showed up there and were guests in the home of Ellen’s parents. Ellen never knew what well-known musician she might find in her in her living room when she came home from school. Perhaps a traditional folk musician in the lineage of Lead Belly, or perhaps the likes of Jackson Browne. Joan Baez’s father taught at the Claremont College’s science and engineering school, Harvey Mudd, for one year. One day a high school-aged Joan showed up at Ellen’s doorstep wanting to see her parents. She was upset because traditional Dad wouldn’t let her boyfriend spend the night with her at their house.

When her sons were grown, after getting her B.A. at Pitzer Ellen did the additional work to get her teaching credential. She was successful and popular as a schoolteacher. Ellen went on to get an advanced degree and moved into teacher training. She describes her frustration at dealing with the bureaucracy in the Bush II administration’s No Child Let Behind program. Ellen doesn’t use the term, but I can’t help but thinking that she would appreciate the label the late, incisive Molly Ivins gave to the program: “No Child Left Untested.”

Janina Edwards reads the book capably and effectively. After the first hour I felt I was listening to Ellen herself. I found Always a Song to be a delightful listen.


getting acquainted with Alexa

Terry and I have for many years listened to music in the bedroom while the source of the music was elsewhere in the house. We use a Recoton 900 MHz transmitter with a compatible speaker. The transmitter is connected to the internet radio in my office. We listen to jazz on KCSM in San Mateo six nights a week and a station serving up NPR’s Classical 24 on Sunday evenings. The speaker, obviously, is in the bedroom.

Now this is not exactly new technology. It was, in fact, old technology twenty years ago. Back in Gilroy, around 2001 or so, I had to scrounge around on eBay to find additional speakers and transmitters. So replacing components these days is hardly an option.

I had been following the rise of smart speakers like the Amazon Echo for a while, but never had felt the need to buy one. My brother, who was at least at one time a self-admitted Luddite, had two Echo devices when we were at his house for Thanksgiving in 2019. Apparently my dad (we miss him) bought at least one of them for him. Why Dad bought Brian an Echo and not me I have no idea. But that’s another matter.

Fourth Generation EchoIn any case, I was getting along quite well without a smart speaker. But the Recoton speaker in the bedroom had its problems. It would make awful static noises when I would try to adjust the volume, and I would have to spray the knob with contact cleaner, making something of a mess. That worked for a while, but at some point I would have to repeat the process. Then, one recent Saturday evening I really got tired of the snapping and popping which we would experience periodically. I opened the Amazon app on my iPad and started searching for Echo devices. There were cheaper models, but I wanted quality sound in the bedroom, so I ordered a fourth generation Echo with premium sound, and, of course, Alexa.

It has been a genuine delight. It recognizes all of our favorite radio stations, and I can ask Alexa to play the NPR hourly news or Writer’s Almanac. I can ask for a local weather forecast and get it. I have even connected my SiriusXM account so I can listen to The Bridge, which is where my car radio is set most of the time. I can also listen to my Pandora channels. The sound quality is impressive, and the device on the table in the bedroom is much less ubiquitous than that big honkin’ black speaker we had for so long (and still have in the dining area).

Of course, once you have one Echo device…

Amazon Echo DotAfter enjoying our Echo in the bedroom it occurred to me that it would be useful to have an echo in the kitchen. (Naturally Amazon reinforced that idea with the many “ways you can use Echo” emails that they kept sending me.) But I thought that when I’m in the kitchen fixing dinner or emptying the dishwasher it would be nice to have an Echo so I can listen to NPR or music or continue with my audiobook.

So I did, I bought a second echo for the kitchen. It is a third-generation Echo Dot, smaller and a lot less expensive than the fourth-generation model in the bedroom, but perfect for the kitchen. One review I read said that the only difference between the third and fourth generation Dot models is the design. That’s fine. I much prefer the smaller third-generation disc design in the kitchen as opposed to the globe design in the bedroom.

I often listened to my audiobooks with my iPhone in the kitchen, but since the sound went through my hearing aid, Terry didn’t know when I was listening and would start to talk to me. She would then get irritated when I asked her to wait a second so I could pause the audio book. Now, listening to my audiobooks in the kitchen with the Echo Dot, that’s no longer a problem.

Of course Amazon can’t stop there. They kept trying to tempt me with a $24.99 smart plug at a “new Echo owner” price of ninety-nine cents. I finally gave in, so now when we sit down to dinner we can tell Alexa to turn on the floor lamp in the dining area.

We have even connected Alexa to our Shark robot vacuum cleaner and I have it set up so I can ask Alexa to play the radio broadcast of a Dodgers game. We’ll see if that latter works: the first spring training game is Sunday.

It’s all a bit unnerving, but wonderfully convenient and enjoyable. I think the millennials are correct when surveys say that they have no expectation of privacy, but I guess that’s the price we pay for convenience and instant access, Amazon’s claims about privacy with the Echo notwithstanding.