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7th Decade Thoughts

Thoughts about books, politics and history (personal and otherwise), pictures I've taken and pictures I've edited.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Thunder at Twilight: Vienna 1913/1914 by Frederick Morton

My budding interest in the Habsburgs comes from two friends, one I went to grad school with and writes me about her investigations--also suggesting that we go to Vienna which I'd love to do--and one whose mother was Austrian and is trying to capture that side of her heritage.

Two things really struck me while reading this book:
(1) How little I know of European history outside of the UK and Russia (which I know pretty well) and Germany and France (about which I know something) and Sweden and Norway (about which I learned some doing genealogical research). I have Norman Davies 1135-page Europe: A History and maybe it's time to start reading it.
(2) How little I knew about Archduke Franz Ferdinand whose assassination is commonly believed to have started WWI. I didn't even realize he was the heir to the Habsburg emperor. I think I thought he was an obscure Archduke of no real significance and that fact made the role usually assigned to his assassination particularly pathetic.

I must say here that I grew up a monarchist. Not only did I have all the princess fantasies that my granddaughters now enjoy, but my interests focused pretty squarely on the British royal family way beyond princess fantasies--and later on the Russians. There's no doubt that Queen Elizabeth (the first one, of course) was my hero and role model--vain and sexy but also a scholar and most importantly, a woman who thrived in a man's world. These days my politics are liberal and egalitarian, but that's the real world of today. I'm still fascinated by the royals of the past. I just don't know why I never paid much attention to the Habsburgs before. I even speak German--or did years ago and I don't think it would take much practice to get back to it. I have read some about the Prussian monarchs, but never had much interest.

Morton's book is fascinating because (1) he accepts the judgment that in the late 19th and early 20th century Vienna was splendid, aristocratic, artificial, decadent--the very essence of fin de si√®cle--and narrates the events leading up the the assassination and to the World War in that context and (2) because he doesn't focus exclusively on the major players, but builds a wider picture of the Vienna where Freud, Trotsky, and Hitler lived at the time and he sets the scene with the artists and musicians of the day (among whom were Koskoska and Sch√∂neberg). He also puts the reader in touch with the "people" who had they had our sensibilities would have been establishing Occupy Vienna and Occupy Budapest movements.

Morton's focus on the major characters is grand. Franz Ferdinand who always scowled and wasn't at all popular but who cared about the people in a modern sense and, ironically, wanted to give the Serbs a greater role in the Empire. Emperor Franz Joseph, the longest reigning monarch in Europe, who was in his 80ies and somehow controlled some of the more off-the-wall of his advisors. (It was an age after all when monarchs were beginning to reign but did not rule, but that transition was not complete.) General Conrad, the army chief of staff, whose main goal was to punish Serbia (even though personally he was glad to see Franz Ferdinand gone since he knew the Archduke would dismiss him when he succeeded the Emperor). The  Kaiser (Wilhelm II), characterized beautifully as vain and self-centered and foolish if still  powerful and to be appeased since Germany was Austria's main ally. Ditto, the minor characters from Freud and Hitler to the ministers of Britain and France and Russia whose fate hung in the balance as well. There are a lot of minor characters, many of whom are quite memorable in this book.

Morton sets up the assassination that almost fizzled dramatically, with bathos as he describes Franz Ferdinand (with is interest in the "people" and his championship of Serbs which the assassins did not know of) and his wife (a whole other story is connected with his marriage to an "inappropriate" countess with no royal blood who always had to walk behind him), with the sense of how nearly the plotters failed and how successful they were, at least in the short run, at disguising the involvement of The Black Hand, which financed them from within the Serb government.

This is a popular history but is very well researched and well documented, with notes on each chapter and an extensive biography. Morton is always reaching for rhetorical highs, which I both love and hate. There's no doubt that he's over-dramatic, but it's a dramatic story he's telling and I'm not after all one who insists that history be dry or  boring or unappealing to anyone not an academic historian. I suppose what I don't like is how heavily he depends on rhetorical flourishes and how predictable they become. I searched for an example, but some go on for pages, as when he sets up a set of parallels which end in an ironic "Hurrah!" and go one for pages and pages.

For me it was a great introduction to an era, a family and a place I want to read more about.

The Girl Who Fell from the Sky by Heidi W. Durrow

I found this book fascinating though I'd probably label it as a book intended for teens or young adults. I read it and immediately sent it to my teen-aged granddaughter. I suppose you'd call it a coming of age story. Not that those can't be great novels. 

What's good about this novel is first of all its point of view. Sections focus on different characters and the reader pieces together the plot by accretion. Early on Rachel talks about herself as a "new girl". She's the daughter of a black GI serving in Europe and a Danish woman she calls Mor (Danish for "mother") whom she loved and who is now gone, evidently due to some tragedy, one that left Rachel injured and in the hospital. Recovering at the beginning of the book, she is going to live with her grandmother--her father's mother--in Portland and is determined to put the past behind her and be a "new girl".


The grandmother is pretty traditional: living in a black neighborhood and going to a black church which is a huge part of her life and philosophy. She clearly hates the very idea of Rachel's mother and wants her to forget. What happened to her and to her parents only becomes clear in bits and pieces as the reader gets more into Rachel's experience as well as the experiences of others around her in the past and in the present. She's never been asked to choose which heritage she'll follow, but conventional ideas of race and class demand that she do so now.

But even though Rachel determines to embrace a new life, it's not that clear what direction she should take and how to get there. And so much is beyond her control.  She 
has trouble at school. Her experience doesn't fit her for a US school. The white girls consider her black and the black girls think she behaves like a white girl. Rachel herself is dark skinned with startlingly blue eyes, advertising not only the fact that she's biracial but that her experience and world view don't fit her for either group.

This book won the Bellweather prize in 2010, a prize started by Barbara Kingsolver and which rewards writers who handle issues of social justice. I suppose I don't quite approve of this kind of a prize, disliking the ideal of fiction (any are really) subordinated  to or used primarily as a tool for ideas. Kingsolver is a talented novelist, and if I look at her oeuvre I can see the theme of social justice, but she always made her way in the amazingly competitive world of fiction as a "serious novelist" not as an advocate for social causes.

Monday, November 07, 2011

Watership Down by Richard Adams

This was a reread and I listened to it. Surprised again how good a story it is. Bought copies for my kids to read to their kids. I'd forgotten how the rabbits made friends with other animals, particularly the gull who speaks with a Scandinavian accent. Rabbit behavior is pretty accurate I think--he uses a book on rabbit behavior as a reference-- and human psychology is not only good but uplifting. 


Hazel is the self-abnegating hero, the popular "chief rabbit" on the new warren on Watership Down (a real place in Hampshire--don't think I knew that before) and Fiver is the prophet/seer/Cassandra-type character whom Hazel learns to trust. Bigwig is the muscle, not as smart as the leaders but a warrior with a heart. Woundwort is the rabbit scared from his upbringing who knows nothing about controlling rabbits except force. 


The plot is an heroic one. Fiver predicts disaster for their current warren but the leaders don't listen so they leave. Gradually Hazel grows in his leadership position. They find a warren that welcomes them but it's "unnatural" in that they survive on the leftover veggies a farmer leaves. They find a good place to build but then need to get some does--warren won't last with no babies. But then they come up against Efrafa, a huge warren that is run almost like a prison camp by General Woundwort. Knowing Efrafa has too many does, a party goes to request immigrants from among the females. Of course, that's not allowed. Trickery ensues. Rabbits are after all traditionally tricksters and at night in the warren a favorite pastime is telling and listening to trickster stories. 


Kehaar, the gull. plays an important role in their escape from Efrafa, but the rabbits save themselves when a battle party from Efrafa comes to their new warren, led by Woundwart and bent on destruction. There's a lovely chapter near the end where a little girl on the nearby farm rescues Hazel who's nearly killed by the cat and he's returned home in the hrududu (motor vehicle). Woundwort is shown as clearly mad and disappears, assumed dead. 
Strange, but the only character I remember clearly from my first reading was Woundwort.