Sunday, April 22, 2018

Eastern Redbuds

Around fifteen years ago, the city planted quite a few trees along this block. Many are scarlet oaks, but some are eastern redbuds  (Cercis canadensis), and this is their time to flower:

This winter the city, unless it was the National Park Service, planted two or three at the corner of 16th Street and Arkansas Avenue NW.

Sunday, April 15, 2018

One Tree, Nine Weeks

In early February, I took a picture of this tree on 16th Street NW

for the beads of water on it caught my eye. Today I noticed it again:

Friday, April 13, 2018

Quickly Read

With a trip to California coming up, I thought it well to stop by Second Story Books to find something that would last for one cross-country flight or two, and could be left behind in Los Angeles if desired. I had in mind either On the Road, the scroll edition, or Happy All the Time by Laurie Colwin, the former because we were traveling, the latter because W.M. Spackman gave it a good review in one of the essays collected in The Decay of CriticismHappy All the Time was slimmer, had no preface, and cost $5 and tax, so I bought it.

After a few dozen pages of Happy All the Time, it struck me that of course Spackman enjoyed it: it was his own novel Heyday brought up to date, the well-born, well-educated, and well-heeled pairing up, but in the prosperous 1970s rather than the Depression, and with the women having attended the same colleges as the men. Still, I enjoyed Heyday, and I enjoyed Happy All the Time. I have objected to novels that seemed to be about what might have happened to people the author went to college with. On reflection, I see that what matters is what the author can do with the material, and Colwin was adept. The book might have lasted the flight had I not started reading it beforehand.

Idle Time Books had a copy of The Brass Ring, a memoir of youth and military service by Bill Mauldin. Those who have not heard of Bill Mauldin should try an internet search for him. The book is readable throughout, though Up Front and Willie & Joe: The WWII Years have more of the cartoons that made him famous. Most curious perhaps is a pair of  blurbs on the back cover:
Mauldin's contribution to understanding of the war and how the G.I.s saw it is unique."
  General James M. Gavin

"If that little son-of-a-bitch sets foot in Third Army I'll throw his ass in jail."
  General George S. Patton
Gavin seems to have represented the opinion among generals better than Patton. Mauldin tells of hearing at second hand of an endorsement from Theodore Roosevelt, Jr.,  and of passing on an autographed original to Mark Clark.

Tuesday, April 10, 2018

Descanso Gardens

Over brunch in Pasadena on Sunday, friends suggested that we visit Descanso Gardens. We did, and were glad that we did.

In 1942, the founder of the gardens purchased about 100 thousand camellias from Japanese nurserymen facing internment, evidently at a  fair price. The gardens do have plenty of camellias, and many were in flower

as were many other plants, some of whose names we knew, for example clivia

and calla lilies

some unknown

some new to me but identified by the signs

The gardens had many visitors, though they did not seem crowded. Some visitors were there for "TOMATOMANIA!", said to be the world's largest tomato seedling sale, and had seedlings in hand. Most just strolled through, taking pictures now and then.

Saturday, March 31, 2018

Being Told at Dictation Speed What He Knew

About two thirds of the way through Kingsley Amis's novel The Old Devils, the leading character, Alun Weaver, is being lectured by a stranger in a pub:
"Yes, I know." Alun's life was coming to consist more and more of being told at dictation speed what he knew.
I first read this in my early thirties, and enjoyed it. I did not then guess how often I would have occasion to think of it in my fifties and sixties. Conversations are not the worst for this, for there one sometimes has the chance to talk back, to clarify or cut the explanation short. The stores are full of books that assume that the reader knows nothing of the subject, and then get everything from details to the premise badly wrong.

Tuesday, March 27, 2018

Red Notice

Some of the last chapter of Peter Pomerantsev's Nothing is True and Everything is Possible: The Surreal Heart of the New Russia is set in London, in a world of Russian expatriates. There are hustlers and presumed crooks, there are the polished children of wealth come by dubiously. In this setting Bill Browder is an anomaly: an American, and a man not out to get more money or to swap some of it for status, but out to find a measure of justice for Sergei Magnitsky, a lawyer murdered by the Russian legal system for exposing the frauds committed against Browder's companies. Pomerantsev gives a respectful picture of Browder and his lawyer Jamison Firestone, but they come off as a bit obsessed.  Pomerantsev's producers found the segment about them did not fit into the narrative of a TV show on Russians in London

Browder's own book Red Notice gives his story and Magnitsky's in great detail. He is in fact obsessed, and one cannot blame him. Rather than summarize the book, let me say that it is inexpensive--$17.00 US before tax--readable, and quickly read. If you have read newspapers or perhaps just listened to NPR, you may remember many of the details of the story. I did, but apart from the details I had never heard or had forgotten, I found it well worth reading..

Saturday, March 17, 2018

Barnacles and Ships

At Kramerbooks this week, the name in the subtitle of On The Decay of Criticism: The Complete Essays of W.M. Spackman made it worth a look. A passage on one of the first pages I opened it to shows why I had to buy it:
... I have not yet grown used to a kind of intellectual asthenia and rooted habit with which Latinists, for example, tackle reform. The data seem plain as daylight. Latin's working vocabulary is extremely small, its irregular verbs nearly nonexistent, its grammar point for point our own (except that Latin is far more regular), and the reading-matter could hardly be more literal-minded--in short, I cannot think of an Indo-European language easier to learn. On this simple structure, there merely happens to have been raised some of the most hair-raising Wissenschaft in the history of man--imperfects of dephlogistication, subjunctives of discontinuous contingent speculation, and every  kind of ablative we can crowd on the point of a pin. But surely there is not the slightest mystery possible about what is wanted--or does someone propose we expound the nature of barnacles when our students have come to us to learn about a ship?
("The Menace to Curriculum Reform")

Perhaps; but I'm not sure that a commitment to philology has been the true weakness of Latin instruction, then or now. A couple of generations have been born and passed through school since the essay was written seventy years ago, and of such as studied Latin, many understood it as punishment or at best discipline, one more thing to be got through to get out of school. It seems likely that Spackman was one of those with the knack for instruction,  and prevented by his own gifts from understanding the common case.

How the book came to be published by Fantagraphics, which describes itself as "Publisher of the World's Greatest Cartoonists", I cannot guess. But I am grateful to Fantagraphics for making an exception for Spackman. Dalkey Archive Press seems to have let Spackman's Complete Fiction go out of print.