Young Bloomsbury: The Generation That Redefined Love, Freedom, and Self-Expression in 1920s England
Atria Books (December 6, 2022), 303 pages
Kindle edition $14.99, Amazon hardcover $29.00
As a Star Trek fan I am tempted to call this book Bloomsbury: The Next Generation. I believe author Nino Strachey was wise not to choose that title.
Plenty has been written about the original Bloomsbury group that centered around Virginia and Leonard Woolf, but Young Bloomsbury covers material less well documented. In addition to the Woolfs, the original group included the author Lytton Strachey and his longtime companion the artist Dora Carrington. Also part of that group was Ralph Partridge. The three of them formed a consensual household. Lytton preferred young men, but valued Carrington’s companionship. (Dora went by her more gender-neutral last name.) Ralph preferred women, and the two eventually married for convenience. The three presided at Lytton’s country estate that was frequented by younger visitors.
One of the regular visitors to Strachey’s estate was the sculptor Stephen Tomlin. Although he and Lytton were regular lovers, Tomlin (“Tommy”) fell for Julia Strachey, Lytton’s niece. They eventually married, but the relationship was a stormy one. Ultimately, they lived separate lives, although they never divorced, something that was rare in the Bloomsbury group. John Strachey, Lytton’s younger cousin, was one of the few to do so. He was also one of the few members of that circle to engage in politics, although Leonard Woolf wrote pieces for the Labour party.
Another of Lytton’s lovers and a regular visitor to the compound was the novelist and music critic Eddy Sackville-West. In fact, most of the men in the Young Bloomsbury group were gay. It was a dangerous time for these young men as homosexuality in England was illegal, and one could be arrested for cosmetics or attire that might simply suggest such an orientation. But for these men Lytton’s estate and home in London provided refuge.
Those of us who were around in the late sixties and early seventies thought we were being progressive regarding sexual and moral matters, but the Bloomsbury crowd was ahead of us by half a century. No one blinked an eye at the Strachey/Carrington/Partridge arrangement, and no one had any judgments about the same-sex relationships of the younger generation. The author says Virginia Woolf “provided a sympathetic adult ear in a period when same-sex love was open to hostile challenge.” Wolf did, however, observe the activities of men like Tommy and Sackville-West with a certain bemusement, as quotes from her letters and diary show. Such opinions, though, were without negativity or judgment.
As a member of the Strachey family, Nino Strachey was granted open access to archives and records. And as she states in the beginning of the book, she has another reason for her interest in the subject. She tells us she has an offspring who identifies as gender fluid.
Young Bloomsbury is fascinating reading and adds a new dimension to the history of a rich period in twentieth century British arts and letters.
Today is Epiphany, when Christians, especially those in the liturgical tradition, observe the arrival of the Wise Men in Bethlehem. I often see this famous Howard Thurman quote around Christmas Day, but to me it really belongs on Epiphany. After all, the Wise Men, the kings and princes, didn’t encounter the Christ Child until twelve days after his birth. In any case, we are well-advised to heed Thurman’s words.
When the song of the angels is stilled,
When the star in the sky is gone,
When the kings and princes are home,
When the shepherds are back with their flock,
The work of Christmas begins:
To find the lost,
To heal the broken,
To feed the hungry,
To release the prisoner,
To rebuild nations,
To bring peace among brothers and sisters,
To make music in the heart.
Metaphysical Animals: How Four Women Brought Philosophy Back to Life
Clare Mac Cumhaill and Rachael Wiseman
Doubleday (May 10, 2022), 416 pages
Kindle edition $13.99, Amazon paperback $21.99
Metaphysical Animals is a joint biography of four women who studied and taught philosophy at Oxford. The authors investigate the lives of Elizabeth Anscombe, Mary Midgley, Philippa Foot, and Iris Murdoch.
The book examines the lives of the women as undergraduates at Oxford in the days before World War II. This was a time when women were rather grudgingly accepted as students there. The authors then describe their time at Oxford during the war when there were very few men present. Later in the war they had to leave Oxford as women were conscripted to perform civilian tasks in order to assist with the war effort. All four of them returned to Oxford after the war, taking on various teaching roles.
The narrative is bookended with a prologue and epilogue that center on Oxford’s desire to give Harry Truman an honorary degree and Elizabeth Anscombe’s efforts, ultimately unsuccessful, to block that honor on account of Truman’s responsibility for Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The obsession of the authors with this incident is rather puzzling as it has little to do with the material in the rest of the book. Nonetheless, Mac Cumhaill and Wiseman cover a lot of territory in the decades that this book covers.
Given that we are talking about Oxford, there is a lot of attention paid to the classics, and these women studied with professors whose works I read as an undergraduate at Pitzer College. I knew Gilbert Murray and his treatment of Greek Tragedy and E. R. Dodds who wrote the assigned text The Greeks and Their Gods. (Dodds, I did not know, was interested in the paranormal and a member of the Society for Psychical Research.) They also studied with Gilbert Ryle, with whose work I became acquainted in a philosophy class.
One philosopher who gets a lot of attention in the book is Ludwig Wittgenstein. Although he taught at Cambridge, he was in London during the war and Elizabeth met with him regularly. After the war she continued to study with him. In fact, she translated his final work from the German after his death and took his former Chair at Cambridge University.
The final quarter of the book is less biography than an exercise in “doing philosophy.” I took two philosophy classes during my first two years at Pitzer where we did philosophy. That was a long time ago and engaging in this kind of mental gymnastics is a different way of thinking. I admit to having had trouble absorbing this material.
Oddly, I did not see evidence of the claim in the subtitle that these women “brought philosophy back to life.” It is only in the book’s Afterward that the authors clearly detail the significant accomplishments that the group left behind. I would like to have seen those accomplishments more clearly described in the body of the book.
However, those interested in the academic history of mid-twentieth century Britain and those who love the process of philosophy will find Metaphysical Animals worthwhile reading.
Great Piano Works Explained
Catherine Kautsky, DMA
$49.95 when on sale at The Great Courses
if it’s not on sale check back: the sale price will come around again
or stream the course with a Wondrium subscription
This course covers the entire history of the piano. It begins with Bach and ends with twenty-first century music. Instructor Catherine Kautsky is an accomplished pianist, so she not only provides the history but also samples of the music. She obviously loves what she does and has a warm smile. In fact, I’ve never seen a Great Courses instructor smile so much.
Kautsky begins with Bach, explaining that Bach wrote before the time of the modern piano, so his music, written for instruments like the harpsichord, would have sounded rather different in his time. She goes on to Hayden and Mozart, and then to Beethoven, whose instrument was much closer to the modern piano. From there she treats the romantics, including the likes of Schubert and Schumann. She discusses (and plays) Chopin, Brahms, and Liszt, and then proceeds to the Russian pianists. Reaching the twentieth century, she explains Schoenberg, Berg, and Debussy, then Ives, Prokofiev, and Bartok. She concludes with lectures on marginalized composers and composers writing in the current century.
Our instructor not only talks about the good qualities of classical music, but its shortcomings. She devotes a lecture to the plight of woman composers, the only lecture in which I did not see her smile. She discusses Clara Schumann (Robert Schumann’s wife) and explains that while she was permitted to perform (and she had quite the career as a performer) she was given short shrift as a composer, even though she was very capable, and her husband admired her work. Kautsky also discusses Fanny Mendelssohn, sister of Felix Mendelssohn, another woman who did not get the credit she deserved.
In her lecture on marginalized composers she discusses Ruth Crawford Seeger, married to Pete Seeger’s father. Seeger wanted to compose but gave it up to raise her children. By the time her children were grown and she was ready to go back to composing she had cancer and died before she could produce anything. Florence Price, on the other hand, was an African American woman who met with some success.
I enjoyed most of the lectures and the music, though I could have done without her complete rendition of Francis Poulenc’s retelling of the Babar the Elephant story, something she admits can easily be seen as a colonialist parable. I could, however, have benefited from an introduction to the technical side of music. Kautsky talks a lot about notes, chords, and scales, assuming knowledge that I don’t have.
That said, Great Piano Works Explained is both entertaining and informative.
Baseball is instituting several new rules for the 2023 season. I wrote about them before the 2022 season when they were just proposals, but now that they are official and set in stone I thought they were worth revisiting. I thank Jorge Castillo for his article on the topic in the Los Angeles Times last week.
- Pitch clock. I’m not sure how I feel about this. It may be OK, but it depends in part on whether the clock will be visible to the television viewer. I’ve seen this in women’s college softball and found it distracting. Still, I regularly watch women’s college basketball where the shot clock is an integral part of the game (as it is in all of basketball). So perhaps it will be all right.
- Pickoff limit. This is a limit on the number of times a pitcher can throw to first when a runner is on base. Castillo says this is tied to the pitch clock. I think this makes sense. It should help speed up the game.
- Ban on the shift. I like this one. What in the hell is the third baseman doing over there between first and second base? Let’s ensure that the players play their positions.
- Larger base size. The idea is to make it easier for the baserunner to steal a base. To me this removes some of the finesse from the game. Baseball needs finesse.
As a Dodger fan, I suppose I need to comment on Trevor Bauer, the elephant in the room. My take: Do not bring him back. Do not even think about it. End of discussion.
Dodgers pitchers and catchers report on February 13 or 15, depending on whether or not they are participating in the World Baseball Classic (WBC). I am counting the days. Speaking of the WBC, don’t get me started on that. I hate it. It distracts from spring training and team cohesion. Opinions differ, but I believe it can have lingering effects into the regular season.
What’s important, however, is that we have a full season of baseball in 2023. I’m looking forward to that.
Declassified: A Low-Key Guide to the High-Strung World of Classical Music
Arianna Warsaw-Fan Rauch
read by the author
Penguin Audio (October 11, 2022), 6 hours and 48 minutes
$14.62 for Audible members, more for nonmembers
purchased with an Audible credit
The reviewer in The New York Times Book Review who wrote that this audiobook was delightful to listen to had it right. Declassified, part memoir and part classical music primer, is eminently listenable and thoroughly enjoyable.
Arianna Warsaw-Fan Rauch’s father was a professional musician, and Arianna got her love of music sitting underneath her father’s piano as he played. This led to her getting a violin and lessons at age two. Rauch writes about her relationship with the violin and music. She writes about her various violin instructors (some of whom she loved and some of whom she hated), and the path of her music education. Rauch initially auditioned for Julliard but was turned down, so she went to Northwestern. She again auditioned at Julliard for her junior year where she was accepted, and where she got her bachelor’s degree followed by her master’s. The author mentions her stormy relationship with a man she refers to only as Golden Violin Boy or GVB, and how she broke up with him right before a performance. She tells us about a much healthier and more stable relationship with a non-musical German.
Intermixed with the memoir Rauch writes about the world of music in a lighthearted manner filled with wit. She discusses the stories she heard about competition and sabotage at college music programs and how that compared to the reality. (The competition was friendly and the sabotage was a myth.) She playfully lists the stereotypes of various musicians and their instruments. But Rauch writes less playfully about conductors, most of whom (except for the first one she worked with) she held in low esteem. She discusses the relative selling price of various instruments in the orchestra and tells stories about composers and their romances. Rauch provides an overview of the various genres in classical music and offers advice on how to listen to it.
The author does not hide her biases. For example, she hates medieval music. (I personally rather like Gregorian chant). Because Simon and Garfunkel’s “Scarborough Fair” uses a similar musical framework, she also hates their music. Nor does she hide the fact that she is a movie fan. Movie references abound throughout the book, culminating with a list of classical music related movies at the end of the book.
Interestingly, what prompted Rauch to write this book was not her life as a professional musician, but her giving up that life. She writes about a Mendelson violin concerto which
set me down the path of becoming a serious violinist, a path that would ultimately take me away from my early love of music and into a prison-like labyrinth of technical pressures and demands.
After learning that she was pregnant she completed one last concert tour and then put her violin away in favor of becoming a listener and teaching her child an appreciation of music.
Accompanying the audiobook is an extensive PDF that provides comprehensive resources on genres, composers, works, and movies. I assume all of this content is somehow integrated into the print and e-book editions.
If you are acquainted with classical music you may find some passages rather basic and simplistic, but any classical music lover would, to my mind, find it difficult not to enjoy this book.
Like most Los Angeles Dodgers fans, I was delighted with the team’s 111 regular season win record in 2022. And also, like most Dodger fans, I was disappointed, ticked off in fact, at their collapse in the division series. The team certainly didn’t seem engaged or have any sense of urgency in that series.
Yes, they did re-sign Clayton Kershaw. That was good. But they let Trea Turner get away. And they failed to exercise the club option on Justin Turner. They could have signed him to a contract at a lower salary, but they did not seem inclined to do so. Instead, they awarded a one-year contract to former Boston Red Sox designated hitter J. D. Martinez. Say what? And Justin Turner? He signed a two-year deal with Boston. The teams essentially swapped designated hitters. That makes no sense.
So where does that leave the Dodgers? Not exactly looking like they will cruise to a National League West championship in 2023.
We will be there. We will watch. But we will not be happy with management.
A Line in the World: A Year on the North Sea Coast
translated by Caroline Waight
Graywolf Press (November 1, 2022), 184 pages
Kindle edition $9.99, Amazon paperback $15.99
Dorthe Nors is apparently a highly regarded author in Denmark. I’m glad that translator Caroline Waight has made this memoir for available to English-speaking readers. Nors writes she was planning to work on her next novel when her publisher asked her to write a travel book about the coast of the North Sea. The result is A Line in the World.
Nors covers a lot of territory in this book. She writes about her childhood home and how the government evicted her family because the site of their home was planned as an exit on a new expressway that was being built. (I can’t help but think of the earth being destroyed to make way for a new galactic superhighway in Douglas Adams’s The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.) She then turns to history and discusses the Viking invasion of England, but from a Danish rather than a British or American perspective.
The author describes her family’s summer cabin where she goes to write. It has no electricity and no running water, but it is, she says, a good place for her to be productive. Nors also describes how the cabin is located across the bay from a former chemical plant. That plant was responsible for a lot of pollution, as bad as the pollution from some plants in the United States. That surprised me, given my preconceptions about Scandinavia. On a completely different note, Nors writes about a day trip she took with a friend to look at frescoes in rural churches so her friend could draw them in her sketchbook.
Nors devotes one section to the past of a remote community where the men were often away at sea. When, as sometimes happens, a man didn’t return, Nors explains the women banded together to take care of the one who lost her husband. Over time they developed a sort of uniform whose configuration depicted a given woman’s status: married or unmarried. She writes the longtime locals do not like city folk replicating those uniforms at a present-day annual festival.
Nors segues from a discussion of how birds navigate to a reflection on her experience of a private retreat at the edge of the Wadden Sea. She comments on how one brings all of oneself to a retreat, demons included, despite one’s best intentions.
I have no way of knowing, of course, how Waight’s English compares with Nors’s Danish, but the English flows beautifully. The spelling in A Line in the World is British as are the idioms, but that is not a distraction. In fact, it seems appropriate given the relative proximity of the British Isles to Denmark.
For a readable memoir or travelogue, one could do worse than A Line in the World.
I had not intended to review this book here. I always keep a couple of books on my iPhone to read at odd moments during downtime or while waiting somewhere. When I saw Writers and Their Notebooks on sale I thought it would fit nicely into this category. It did.
The editor asked several published writers to document how they used notebooks. There were a variety of responses, but some common themes. A few writers talked about having a small notebook they carried with them to write down thoughts. Many talked about having a journal in which they wrote their reflections. Several discussed having a diary as a child or teenager. A lot of the respondents described how the particular format was important to them. They used a very specific type of notebook, and often a particular kind of pen.
The editor divided the book into five parts, all beginning with “The Journal as…” Her categories are tool, survival, travel, muse, and life. The essays in each section describe how the writer used their journal in that particular fashion. Authors in the tool section, for example, turned to their journals to extract plot points for their fiction. One writer in the travel section wrote he was not a regular journal keeper, but when he received this assignment he decided to keep a journal on an upcoming foreign trip.
There was a consensus that these journals were for the writer’s eyes only. One author wrote that her journals were not to be made public after her death. Another writer threw all of his journals into the trash compactor in his apartment building. It was the rare exception who suggested that blogging had replaced journal keeping.
I was a serious journal keeper for the two years I remained in Claremont after I had graduated from college. Those blank books at B. Dalton Bookseller where I worked were just too tempting. (I may still have those in a box somewhere in the garage.) I also kept carbon copies of typed letters sent to friends in a three-ring binder. These days I am one of those people for whom blogging has replaced writing in a journal.
The editor provides some resources in the back of the book. An appendix entitled “Use Journaling to Spark Your Writing” seemed a bit directive and overdone to me. More useful are two bibliographies, “Published Journals and References” (there are those authors who are happy to make their journals public) and “Books on Writing.”
For someone wondering how journal writing might be helpful for them Writers and Their Notebooks might be a useful tool.
Constructing a Nervous System: A Memoir
Pantheon (April 12, 2022), 209 pages
Kindle edition $12.99, Amazon hardcover $22.95
I added Constructing a Nervous System to my stack of Kindle samples when the book first came out in April. Its appearance on the 100 Notable Books of 2022 in The New York Times jogged my memory and I decided it was time to read it.
The book is called a memoir, but it really consists of a series of essays on various topics. The opening chapter is a stream of consciousness recollection about the author’s younger years, including memories of the end of her mother’s life. The rest of the book is a collection of essays on a variety of topics.
Jefferson is angry. Given that she is an African American woman she has every right to be. She writes, “The destiny of our people was tracked through the male line.” She goes on to say that although everyone knew about the lynching of Black men, Black women were lynched as well. She notes she was not aware of this until college.
The author devotes several essays to entertainers. She discusses Ella Fitzgerald and her struggles, saying, “You labored to be beautiful. You earned your diaphoresis, day by day, night by night, rehearsal by rehearsal, tour by tour.” She writes about Hattie McDaniel in her role as Mammy in Gone with the Wind, which won her an Oscar. (And Jefferson notes that her mother and friends flocked to their local theater to see the movie, while feeling guilty about doing so.) Jefferson engages in a detailed discussion of Josephine Baker about whom she seems to have mixed feelings. On one hand the author admires Baker’s joining Martin Luther King Jr.’s March on Washington. On the other, she seems disdainful of Baker’s deliberate strategy of making herself provocative.
Jefferson also writes with mixed feelings about the novelist Willa Cather. When she first encountered Cather the author appreciated her feminism, but Jefferson later understood how seriously racist Cather was. In the realm of politics, Jefferson does not look kindly on Condoleezza Rice and her admiration of the second President Bush.
I’m embarrassed that I was not aware of Margo Jefferson before finding this book. (She has won a Pulitzer, after all.) But I’m happy to have discovered her here, with her insights and superb writing skills.