Reading Days

Right now I am almost finished with my first reading of The Napoleonic Wars: A Global History and 50 pages into Renia’s Diary: A Journal of the Holocaust. This weekend and Monday I shall finish Renia’s Diary, but after I complete The Napoleonic Wars, I shall put it aside and reread it later. Why? Because the history in it is dense, and difficult to understand (though I am embarrassed to admit that), and because of this difficult to remember once understood. So I shall do something I habitually did in high school: read the textbook (it was an Honors textbook) three times before the test. I shall buy Napoleon: A Biography by Andrew Roberts for a better understanding of the man behind the battles and Alexander I: The Tsar Who Defeated Napoleon by Marie-Pierre Rey, because part of my reading has to do with the book I am working on.

The reasons I want to understand the Napoleonic Wars is for a book about Russia and the Western block of countries in its orbit: Tales from the Land of the Firebird Part I. I hope to read more for Tales from the Land of the Firebird Part II, but it will be about the Balkans and Central Asia. I need to look around for my books on the Baltic region. Tales from the Land of the Firebird Part II will be a later book, however. For now I am working my way through the materials for Part I, which needs to be done so hurriedly because I want the book out in time to do Ukraine some good–if a mere book like mine can be said to do good. I believe Dickens novels did good in the way I hope to. Yet I don’t exactly have a sales record like Dickens. Still, the only way to achieve greatness is to aspire to it.

As for Renia’s Diary, I am reading it over the weekend until Monday. Though I am reading only books for Tales of the Land of the Firebird Part I during the week, on weekends (and occasionally Mondays) I have a lengthy list of Holocaust books to read. I am hoping to either teach a class, lead a seminar or lead a group based on my Holocaust reading in the fall. When I finish with them I shall pick up my books of Swedish history and literature for a separate project, A History of Frances Westin Williams. Frances Williams was my beloved Grandma, the one who was the child of Swedish pioneers; graduated valedictorian from High School; was the first female editor of the Washburn School Journal; and worked as a Social Worker before marrying my Grandpa. Alas, during her generation–she was in college in the twenties–it wasn’t feasible for her to be more than a housewife as a married woman–but even there she shown, as the parent of three college graduates and one mentally handicapped son, whom she doted on.

Wallenberg II

Raoul Wallenberg is a double enigma. The first enigma is how any man could be so good. The second is how his life’s end could be so tragic. He is both a perfect saint and a perfect martyr. More, he acted in the presence of the evil of Adolf Hitler to save Jews, only to be caught in the equal evil of Joseph Stalin and eventually be–so it appears–shot. In Stalin’s shadow, in fact, no statue honoring him could be risen in Hungary.

Wallenberg–I mentioned this last night–saved 100,000 Jews from death at the hands of the Gestapo, playing fast and loose with the rules he was supposed to follow to save them in order to save more Jews than a meticulous obeying of bureaucratic protocol would have justified. However, his life, especially how it ended, is enough to convince a person that such bureaucratic protocol might as well be counted as evil at the beginning, being–as it was–inimical to both Hitler’s destruction of the Jews and Stalin’s destruction of his own people. Perhaps when C.S. Lewis claimed that the demons in hell might as well be compared to one great bureaucracy he might have guessed truly: cold bloodedly handing down orders to do evil is what Hitler’s and Stalin’s bureaucrats are best known for doing. Even today’s social welfare agencies, good though the people’s intentions are who set them up were, are sometimes only there to mirror the gridlock of the Congress we have now with its 50-50 split in terms of how it achieves its work. Luckily, however, they at least are not known for murdering the poor outright.

Anyway, Wallenberg was one of those rare souls that working for the most rigid bureaucracies could not stem his desire to do good. Alas, it was his naïve faith that the Russians would help him survive once the Germans were just barely being driven from Budapest that led to his cruel death. Despite the fact that the U.S.S.R. was supposed to allied the United States–who had called upon Wallenberg to do his work–and his Swedish homeland being a neutral power–he was arrested by Stalin’s henchmen, and tortured for information, which he would not give them. Ultimately his value was seen as minimal–the people Sweden could have traded for him were not traded–and he was shot. Yes, I hate to record it: his immediate superiors were too spineless to save Wallenberg from a forced labor system as equal as the Gestapo. They thought that it was dishonorable to trade other prisoners for him.

Apparently the succeeding governments under Khrushchev and Brezhnev did not want to reveal the perfidy committed in the name of Communism. And so, despite credible evidence the Swedes had, claimed that Wallenberg had died of a heart attack. It was not until the post-Communist era that the truth came out, how this brave hero for humankind was murdered.

In my book Tales of the Land of the Firebird Part I, I hope to write a story: “In Search of Raoul Wallenberg” about a spy who slips into Russia hoping to find the courageous hero whom the West cannot admit is dead. I hope to quote Solzhenitsyn about human beings being half angel and half devil, but also mentioning a film I saw years ago about a Roman official sent to Israel to find Jesus’ body. The idea of that film sounds a little bizarre–and in fact it really wasn’t a good film even if you were Christian and devout (Ben-Hur or The Ten Commandments were much better even as art)– but the fact that this one soldier meets people like Pilot and his wife searching for a man everybody recognized as “good” but who is also presumed dead reminds one of Raoul Wallenberg–save that the poor man really was dead all that time, and the faceless hypocrites would not admit how he died only prolonged the agony of his friends and family.

Before I write it I will read another biography of Raoul Wallenberg and some more books on the Gulag in books like The Harvest of Sorrow by Robert Conquest and The Red Famine by Anne Applebaum.

Wallenberg, Part I

Right now I am 150 pages into the book Wallenberg: The Incredible True Story of the Man Who Saved the Jews of Budapest by Kati Marton. Raoul Wallenberg was the Swedish diplomat who traveled to Hungary during World War II and saved 100,000 Jews before being picked up by the KGB… and I have not read his fate yet, but it is grim. Yet what I am struck by, besides the tragic probability that he died in Stalin’s death camps, is his inscrutable goodness. I remember hearing a fellow classmate in High School say of Mother Teresa, “There are some people who are too darn good.” I feel that way about him, and it is because he had no private life, or if he did it only got the surface treatment. Oskar Schindler besides being a Holocaust rescuer was essentially playing a con game with the Nazis. Janusz Korczak who died with the Jewish children in one of two orphanages he ran (the other orphanage being for Polish children), was mentally ill and found children more easily understood than adults. Yet Raoul Wallenberg, without being nobler, was a man without complexity: he grew up in privilege and put off his private ambitions in order to save Jews from being killed by Hitler.

I noticed in my reading of him that he was very obdurate as a boy, and thought a “serious” girl was one whom he could talk to seriously–not the other way around. He loved hiking. Yet before he was asked to help save Jews, he was not really that easily recognized for the greatness he would show. As it turned out, he went above and beyond expectations in saving Jewish people, giving out Swedish passports to every Jew he could, including those for whom there was no “justification” for letting them go to Sweden. It was his kindness for which he deserved to be remembered–that and the fact that form him caution was not the better part of valor. To the end he showed courage and tenacity for that single goal: getting Jews out of Hungary so they could not be sent to Auschwitz or other concentration camps.

I will write my last thoughts about him tomorrow on-line. In the meantime, though, I will say that I was pleased to read that Franklin Roosevelt himself was involved in the scheme which Wallenberg was picked for. Though it was perhaps too late for comfort, it justifies some of the hero-worship I had of Franklin Roosevelt as a girl, and still do now. I have always felt that Franklin Roosevelt’s personal life often disappoints, but his love for the American people his love was real. I feel this way because my Grandma Williams lived through the Great Depression and idolized both Franklin and Elinore Roosevelt. I also learned about Wallenberg because of Grandma Williams. I was at Lindsborg, a Swedish tourist trap my family used to frequent, when I saw the book Wallenberg: The Incredible True Story of the Man Who Saved the Jews of Budapest. I simply had not read it until now.

The Common People and Literature

Right now Mom and I are having are roof redone. I have not spoken to the roofers, although I will admit that in our neighborhood people who are more social do speak to people who do that kind of work for them as friendly acquaintances. I have, however, invited our handyman, Al, to Christmas dinner a couple of times. Though I only know the name of a few of my neighbors, I am reminded of something Harry Truman said. He was visiting an acquaintance in a rich neighborhood out of town. He knocked on the door of the house which turned out to be next door to the person he was looking for. “Does so-and-so live next door to you?” he asked. “I don’t know who lives next door to me,” was the reply. Harry wrote about it, “That would never have happened in Independence!” Independence was Harry’s home town, and in Harry’s hometown everyone knew everyone.

As for those roofers… I want to believe I write for people like those roofers… In books like Poor Folk (though I suspect the roofers are middle class) and Discovering Wonderland (who despite the strangeness of the little girl and her father, are Middle Class only).  I really believe that the books people like when they start out reading are books about them.  More, I believe the people who loved Dickens were “the people” and the same is true of Twain.  Perhaps is also true about the Brontë sisters and Elizabeth Gaskell (neglected though the latter is as literature). And perhaps that is the kind of literature I prefer.  And it is not just prose: I believe as disparate poets as the Brownings, Walt Whitman, and Emily Dickenson wrote about popular causes or in their own way for or about “the people.” 

Don’t get me wrong: there are some “upper class books” I like: I like F. Scott Fitzgerald, for instance.  This Side of Paradise; The Great Gatsby; and Tender is the Night, are favorites of mine.  Despite his being a friend to Edith Wharton and leaving America, I like Henry James’ Portrait of a Lady.  I would list T.S. Eliot except I am not sure he was actually rich.  Yet having read one or two poems of Dorothy Parker, and having read The New Yorker for one year, I can’t say I like them.  And I always felt that H.L. Mencken deserved to be what he was called in the 1950’s “the most hated man in America.”

That leads to a book which I probably hated too much to be reasonable at the time in high school, but which even today I regard with mild distaste: Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence. I have never truly felt sorry for Newland Archer. I admit, Dickens did it: he dumped his wife for another woman (what Newland wanted to do but couldn’t). But at least there was more to Dickens’ life and work than being an adulterer or justifying adultery. I did not get that Newland’s problems ever went deeper than wanting a girl he couldn’t have–and I have had a similar problem: there have been lots of times when I was in love with somebody who didn’t love me. The truth is, the reason I didn’t feel for Newland was not just that, though: I didn’t get the feeling that besides being married to May and in love with Ellen wasn’t the only problem he ever had. He was so rich and spoiled in every other way. And I just couldn’t care.

In my heart I would rather write about “the common man,” the person I knew in school as a kid.  I don’t know why the plight of being “ordinary” moves me more than the plight of being “intellectual” but it does… and that is even though I have always wanted to be “intellectual” myself. I have wanted to think deeply about themes like the nature of God, the nature of morality, and the nature of art. Yet frankly as subjects for my work I am always drawn by people who “live lives of quiet desperation” as Thoreau put it. They want “more” but they barely know what it is. What I like about my character Mike Bannock is that he aspires to be more, in the end, than he is “supposed” to be… he finds God in a trailer park and not in a mansion. As Lincoln put it: “The Lord must have loved the common man, he made so many of them.”

Wichita Public Library Book Sales

On Saturday I was at the library early.  Too early, in fact.  First Mom and I had to leave to go eat breakfast.  Then I came by, and the library was open but the room where we were selling the books was closed.  However, one of the staff was kind enough to let me into the room where it would be held, and I left the books and other supplies (posters and bookmarks) in that room.  Then at 1:00 PM I went into the room and set up: 2 posters on the table; the books on top of them; and the bookmarks in front of them.

            At first I felt dejected: there were no sales.  However, one person who ran the place assured me that most sales were not done at the place itself.  And in fact I made more than one sale: one woman was so taken with the four-book set of The Bible According to Eve that she told me she wanted to buy it on-line.  She could not buy it there because she did not have cash or a check book.  So I directed her to Barnes & Noble.  The Sunflower (the W.S.U. newspaper) also took a picture of my book.  And many people took bookmarks, in fact, all of my bookmarks and one poster I gave away for free were gone when I left.

            So I am glad that I went to the book sale for local Kansas authors.

            In the meantime, I will write that at Book-o-Holic in Wichita has accepted a few books to sell at full price, and I have a contract with Watermark—a local bookstore—to do the same.  I will sign the contract and give Watermark the copies of the book on September 3.  The price for the consumer at both bookstores shall be same time.  I am hoping I can get my book at Barnes & Noble in Wichita, too.  Alas, I don’t think for now it is possible for me to ship the books out-of-town.

            I also—but this was on Friday—sent 20+ copies of my flier to different libraries in Kansas.  My eventual goal is to run off more copies of the letter I sent, get more fliers if necessary, and get them to every library in Kansas and a few to Oklahoma, Missouri and Nebraska.  Perhaps I shall get a list for Colorado.

The Business of Writing Continues

I have stuffed 31 or so envelopes of the letters I ran off yesterday to send to the different libraries of Kansas advertising my book.  This was only into about 2 or 3 pages into my list of names, but it included all of the copies of the letter I ran off.  Then I sent them off in the mail.  Mom and I are celebrating by eating out this evening.

            However, there is more: this evening Mom and I are going out this evening to celebrate my “work.”  Technically we ate out last night, but I guess we are doing it again, and I am hoping for Red Rocks, expensive though it is.

            Tomorrow for Local Author Day, I shall take eight volumes of The Bible According to Eve: The Torah to the Wichita library, and one copy each of:

The Bible According to Eve: Nevi’im I: The Histories: Eve in Search of Adam;

The Bible According to Eve: Nevi’im II: The Seers: Eve Supplants Lilith;

The Bible According to Eve: Ketuvim: The Writings: Eve Wrestles with God and Man and Prevails;

 Faust in Love.

I will have to be at the library at 10:00 AM but will shoot for 9:30 AM.  Then I will try to figure out where to put my stuff or whose help to get set up.  I am still a little fuzzy on the details.  The sales will begin around 1:00 PM.

The Business of Writing

Today has been a day in which I spent doing the necessary but least interesting part of being a writing: the business part.

I got up early.  Mom and I went to Panera Bread and ate there.  Then we went to the Nature Center.  Mom was kind enough to buy me two books: The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate (a Newberry Awards book) and Archeology on the Great Plains.  Then we went to Watermark.  I have a card that I am going to use to sign a contract so that for $50, Watermark will sell my book (The Bible According to Eve: Women of the Torah)—5 copies of it.  I can sell multiple books I have published if I want, and I can sell more than one book under that rubric, so long as it is published. I want to sell multiple sets of three.  I will have to ask if that is publishable. However, I will not be able to run off the contract for a while, because I have already been to FedEx today and Mom probably doesn’t want to go back.  More, as I will describe later, my only copies of The Bible According to Eve may be sold another way, God willing. After Watermark, I went to Book-o-Holic and they are selling three copies of my book.  I donated one of my books to the library and sent a cover letter to the library asking to take part in Local Author Day, admitting that I only have remaining 4 soft cover copies of my book and 4 hard cover copies of my book.  I do however have posters and bookmarks to hand out alongside selling The Bible According to Eve: The Women of the Torah

            At FedEx I took a list of names of libraries I had cut and pasted last night: every library in Kansas.  I had taken the zip codes late at night last night and placed them next to the appropriate addresses.  Afterwards I made a one-page cover letter, and I have a stack of fliers I shall send each library.  Alas, last night I ended up with 10 pages of 42 addresses per page.  Though I will be getting work on stuffing envelopes tomorrow (100 manilla envelopes only—I got the envelopes at Office Depot); I will have to wait till next month to stuff more envelopes after the first batch.  I do hope, however, that I shall eventually get one letter to each library in Kansas, and then I have some addresses for Nebraska, Oklahoma, and Missouri.

            I have looked at Watermark’s website and contract, but will not sign it till September, because I will need $50 and am using the 8 copies of The Bible According to Eve: Women of the Torah for Local Author Day this coming Saturday–God willing.  Tomorrow I shall stuff and send my first 100 envelopes.  However, for now I am taking a break with a root beer.  I shall read some of The Napoleonic Wars: A Global History with a root beer… perhaps Mom and I shall eat out tonight—I am letting Mom decide where. 

            The business side of writing is the least interesting, most tedious part.  Yet it has to be done if a person wants to be a serious writing, getting their work published and sold.  At the risk of sounding desperate, I hope some of the people who read my Blog will look into the books I wrote to see if there are one or two worth buying.

Recalling Grandma W.

I finished reading Russian Fairy Tales: A Collection of Muscovite Folktales this last week. It was not that long, but I had troubles concentrating. I also went to a movie today… I started thinking about the Holocaust, and about the Swedish Raoul Wallenberg, who saved 100,000 Jews from the Holocaust before being captured by the Russians (then supposedly our allies) because he worked for the O.S.S. (the organization which would later be replaced by the CIA) and the whereabouts of his death remain unnamed. I came to find myself wondering if I couldn’t do a Holocaust series at my synagogue–I haven’t asked the rabbi, next. Part of it would be listening and then discussing music from Theresienstadt–though I seldom listen to them they are beautiful, dark and mysterious, harsh as the fate of the inmates. Theresienstadt, for the initiated, was a “model concentration camp” window dressing for the Red Cross and the World, where educated, affluent Jews were taken till very close to the War’s end. Most of these people–particularly the children–died the same way as their peers who traveled to the camps before them. However, while at Theresienstadt, the adults tried to ease the suffering of the children by having them produce children’s art and children’s theater. Some people see this as collaborating. Regardless, the adults had little choice but to comply. So it was that out of this the books I Never Saw Another Butterfly and Ela Stein’s The Cat with the Yellow Star about Brundibar, a popular children’s opera during the time before the adults and children were finally sent to the camps.

Naturally enough, I thinking about Wallenberg made me think of my Swedish ancestry… and I got out some of my things… I was planning on writing a book A Biography of Frances Westin Williams. I am thinking perhaps I can somehow work on both it and work on Tales of the Land of the Firebird. Perhaps I shall read The Napoleonic Wars: A Global History. After that I shall read the histories of:

A Warrior Dynasty;
Gustav Adolphus;
Christina, Queen of Sweden;
King Carl XII;

I have some other books on Swedish American History, but most of these I shall read over weekends. In the meantime, after finishing the books about Sweden, I shall read:

Moscow and Muscovites;

The Chronicles of Novgorod;
Medieval Russia;
Peter the Great: His Life and World;
Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman;

Das Kapital;
Main Currents of Marxism;

Russian Philosophy Vol. 1-3;

Russia: Under the Recent Regime;
Revolutionary Russia (Figgs);
Stalin’s War;
A People’s Tragedy: The Russian Revolution (Figgs);
The Last Empire: The Final Days of the Soviet Union;
From Cold War to Hot Peace;
The Plot to Hack America;
The Plot to Hack Democracy;
Central European History
Iron Curtain: The Crushing of Eastern Europe;
Heart of Europe: The Past in Poland’s Present;
The Gates of Europe: A History of Ukraine;
Red Famine: Stalin’s War on Ukraine;

Surviving Katyn: Stalin’s Polish Massacre and the Search for Proof.

I have other “to-read’s” (I know the list is long) but because my book list for Grandma William’s biography is smaller, I think I can slug through them both at the same time. I feel guilty but torn: I must get all of what I want to get read for my book read. And: Mom is feeling ill and I want to make sure she sees Grandma’s book at all costs. So it is current day tragedies (like the War in Ukraine, but also the ones in Afghanistan) comingle with the primacy of honoring the woman we all treasured and loved in my mother’s family: Grandma. Luckily (?) Swedish at it’s zenith played a major role in Russia’s history and vice versa: they fought several major wars against each other. It was Peter who destroyed Sweden’s position as a world power, and it was Catherine who reduced Poland (I know; a different country) to a puppet state. Later one, scores of Swedes travelled across the Atlantic for a new home–including my Grandma’s parents and one set of her grandparents. Around that time and afterwards, the Napoleonic Wars took place. During that time I had two grandparents fighting for Sweden against Napoleon, whereas in America, I have ancestry that fought both the British (in my Grandma Alderson’s ancestry) and later one (in 1812 in my Grandpa Williams’) the British. Though my book A History of Frances Westin Williams, focuses on my Grandma Williams and her family, I will mention some of these facts in the book.

A Modern Midrash on David

Yesterday I typed two pieces, one of which I wrote Sunday (“The Magic of Elena the Beautiful”) and the other which I wrote and typed up on Monday, “The Woman Who Loved David.”  It is a story about a fictive woman plausibly could have existed but whom we had no evidence did exist. Her feelings for David resemble a woman in love, and yet the folk stories she collects about her king are supposed to be patriotic and religious only. In the short story–and I admit it is very short, a mere 7 pages–her stories are collected for a larger work The Annals of King David, which is referred to in 2nd Chronicles but is now lost to people who are familiar with the Bible today.

“The Woman Who Loved David” leaves it open to the reader how much of the unnamed narrator’s lore is actually true: What was David’s real relation to Saul?  Did David fight on other king’s (outside Israel’s) side who might have hired him to fight Israel?  Did David have a relationship with Bathsheba and was that the true reason Solomon was David’s heir?  And how much of the “real” David does the Biblical reader—or the fictive narrator—know?  Yet I also try to indicate that in a sense believing in Biblical faith makes it, so the “real” David matters less than our experience of him.  It doesn’t matter if the “real” man let us down all those years ago in Israel. We love our David.  

Our David is the David not just of 1st and 2nd Samuel, but of the Psalms and the Midrashim. He is “the Sweet Singer of the Lord,” but also a military figure. In Isaiah he is declared to be the ancestor of the messiah. In Ruth he is declared to be the descendent of a Moabite. Though the Great Hero of the Jews, Christians try to claim him, too, using him in their genealogies to prove Jesus was of Davidic descent. Of course, if he is the Great Hero, he is the Great Sinner, too: he slept with Bathsheba, his soldier Uriah’s wife. Faced with his guilt by the prophet Nathan, he shows the appropriate remorse but too late. He loses control of his own family, and his own sons Amnon and Absalom die as a result, with the previous raping his daughter Tamar and the latter raping his father’s harem. Yet David grieves for his children. In this repentance he shows us what it is like to be a human being.

Someday I hope to write about the scripture’s mystic spark which makes it live. Perhaps the stories are not the truth that fundamentalists want to believe in declaring the Bible “inerrant” but, after all, perhaps the truth of scripture mediated in the heart as well as the head. Without knowing if she died believing in God, I will quote Emily Dickinson,

Tell all the truth but tell it slant —
Success in Circuit lies
Too bright for our infirm Delight
The Truth’s superb surprise
As Lightning to the Children eased
With explanation kind
The Truth must dazzle gradually
Or every man be blind —

To Write or Not to Write

I am very proud of myself for what may seem a middling accomplishment: I wrote two stories between yesterday and today. For yesterday I wrote out a story “The Magic of Elena the Beautiful” longhand. I typed it up this morning and got 10 pages. Then this evening, I wrote out another story “The Woman Who Loved David” and typed it up and got 7 pages. “The Magic of Elena the Beautiful” is a retelling of a Russian folktale, “Ondrei the Shooter,” about a hunter who accidently comes across a bird that turns out to be a beautiful and resourceful wife. I retold the story from Elena’s perspective, beginning in the magical world where she is from.

I placed “The Magic of Elena the Beautiful” in my book Fraud on the Fairies. Charles Dickens wrote the article titled “Fraud on the Fairies” defending Fairy Tales from the abuse of overly didactic tales for children. My fairy tales will be of two varieties: retellings from a “different perspective” (“Mirror of Jealousy” or “Vasilisa’s Doll”) or ones totally made up by myself (like “The Nixie” or “Imogene’s Dilemma”) or ones inspired by traditional tales but whose retelling is far enough from the original that perhaps they deserve their own category (“The Modern Bluebird” or “The Sixth Swan”). I hope by the time I am finished with Fraud on the Fairies, it will be quite large, and I will have a good idea for an Introduction, perhaps mentioning Dickens’ views on fairy tales and social criticism.

“The Woman Who Loved David” started with the odd insight that there may have been other ancient Israelite women who were physically attracted to King David. After all, he was said to be physically attractive, and in his youth he cut such a dashing figure. My fictive admirer never tells David she is in love with him. She simply collects stories about David and tells them to the author of The Annals of David–a book mentioned in the Bible but which no longer exists today. We only know it once was because it is referred to in 1st Chronicles (I think in 1st Chronicles).