Sunday, July 24, 2016

Escape From the Soviets

Escape From the Soviets, by Tatiana Tchernavin

To update, I still have three UK trip posts to write, and a large pile of books.  My girls went to camp this past week, which gave me some wonderful quiet time, so I sewed a lot of quilt blocks and did a good bit of blogging in the first part of the week, but I had a talk to write, so pretty soon I had to just focus on that instead of blogging.  I delivered my talk today, and I did OK, so now I am back here and ready to go.

My mom gave me this book and it's been on my TBR for a little while, but I've been really excited about it, partly because this was written much earlier in the history of the USSR than most things I've read.  It was published in 1933, and my copy, which is from the seventh printing (1934) contains only an outdated photo of the author's son at age five (he was 12 or so by then) and a note that no photos of the author or her husband could be printed "as they fear that this might enable the OGPU agents in Finland to trace them."

Title page of my copy. 
Tatiana Tchernavin and her husband Vladimir were already adults and married at the time of the Bolshevik Revolution, and their son was born in September 1918.  They had not really had much objection to the Revolution; they were liberals and figured anything was better than the autocratic rule of the czar, but like everyone else, they had no idea of what could happen.  Famine was looming just as their son was born, and they were soon desperate for food.  No matter how they (or anyone else) worked, they could not earn enough to buy food, and soon their baby was suffering badly.  Luckily, Vladimir was able to get work at the Agronomical Institute, where they paid wages partly in milk.  They survived three years of famine.

Husband and wife were of the intellectual class; Vladimir was an ichthyologist and Tatiana a historian.  They thought they would be able to find work, and the Bolshevist hostility towards their class took them by surprise.  Tatiana found work for a good long time at the Hermitage, a museum in Saint Petersburg, and loved the job, but was eventually pushed out.  Her husband had to go out to Murmansk for long periods of time.  

They did pretty well for about five years, but then in around 1925, the purges started.  Bolshevik methods of farming and production weren't working, and famine was imminent.  Somebody had to be blamed.  Intellectuals and trained experts in all fields were arrested and forced to confess to 'wrecking,' that is, sabotage of the Communist project.  It wasn't long before most of their friends were gone, and they lived in daily expectation of arrest by OGPU agents, which came soon enough.

How the little family survived arrest, prison, and Vladimir's sentence to a gulag, and how they then managed actually to escape and hike to Finland, makes for a gripping memoir.  I read the whole thing in a day or two, and I think if you're interested in Soviet history it's a must-read.  She actually wrote it while in a Finnish hospital, recovering from the escape.

Later on, Vladimir also wrote a book, I Speak for the Silent, about the Soviet prison system.  I just discovered that it's quite cheap on Kindle, so now it is mine and I look forward to reading it.  Escape From the Soviets is also on Kindle for 99 cents, so you can easily read it if you like!

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

UK Trip XI

This was Bath day!  We drove to another park and ride, which was again a great and inexpensive way to get into town.  We got dropped off on Milsom Street--where the Tilneys lodged in Northanger Abbey--and walked south to the Roman Baths and the Pump Room.

Roman Baths from street level

The Roman Baths now has a giant underground museum, showcasing parts of a temple/bath complex that is largely a fairly recent discover; much of this was not known even 20 years ago.  They are discovering more all the time, which is really exciting.  When we went down to the large Roman pool, we found a docent about to give a tour, so we joined him, and he turned out to be incredibly knowledgeable.  I think we listened to him for nearly an hour.  My poor 13-year-old was less fascinated than the rest of us, but he talked about how the baths were used and what was happening at the time and the latest was really neat.

Model of Roman temple/bath complex--what they know so far

These blocks were the front of the temple; light showed the whole thing

The water still streams through these tunnels

All the Roman stuff was pretty much buried in mud, under the current ground level, and totally unknown until Victorian times, when the large bath was dug out.  So Jane Austen and other folks in the Regency era wouldn't have known about it at all.  When it was excavated in the 1800s, they built that sort of balcony thing that you can walk around, made the pillars tall again, and placed Roman-style statues of heroes and emperors around.  That's what you see today.

We walked through the large (and crowded) underground museum complex, which goes right through the old ruins, over the source of the waters (tons per day!) and over the original brick tunnels built by the Romans, which are still channeling the water.  There were signs warning us not to drink or even touch the water, though I couldn't tell why I shouldn't touch it once it wasn't boiling hot.  Somebody said something about toxicity, but it didn't make a lot of sense to me.  So if anybody knows why we shouldn't touch the water, I'd like to know!   Anyway, it was all pretty wonderful.

Another pool; the source possibly?  (Can't remember now)

After the museum, you go up some stairs and end up at the back of the Pump Room, which is currently a rather fancy restaurant.  Tourists can go in and sample the waters, which issue from a fountain with fishes.  I would like to know how old the fountain is; could it possibly be the original?  Or is it a modern replica?  We tried the water, which is very warm, smells like boiled eggs, and tastes pretty terrible, just as I expected.  It was kind of awkward standing around this posh restaurant, dressed as the tourists we were, but I certainly wasn't going to miss out.

Pump Room, full of people eating, and a music quartet

Neat fishy fountain!

Bath Abbey, a very large church that is no longer an abbey, is right next door to the baths.  Once again, it was full of flowers and flags for the Queen's birthday that weekend.  It's a beautiful church and the girls and I particularly liked how there were grates in the floor so we could see the Norman pillars underneath, holding the place up.  There was also a very beautiful display along the walls, diptychs of calligraphy and textile art illustrating scripture verses from the life of Christ.  We thought the Abbey must have a very talented embroidery guild and calligraphy group, but it turned out to be only a part of a larger series produced by one woman, the artist Sue Symons.

Bath Abbey

We then walked up to the Assembly Rooms, which is where public balls were held in Jane Austen's day.  You have to imagine Captain Wentworth walking around, or Catherine Morland dancing with Mr. Tilney.  There are three major rooms: the ballroom, the tea room, and the octagon, where older folks would play cards.  We could peek into these elegant rooms, but we couldn't enter, because there was a wedding scheduled for 3pm and the rooms were full of chairs, tables, and so on.  So we just looked around for a bit, and I couldn't take many pictures.  There is also a fashion museum in the basement, but we didn't visit it; there was too much else to do that day.

Ballroom, ready for wedding

Young ladies feeling the Austen groove
Looking around Bath was interesting; it's obviously still a fairly upscale place, with a lot of very posh shops and classy restaurants.  There were a lot of people out for a party kind of a day, and several groups of women wearing 'hen party' sashes (a hen party is the English version of a bridal shower, only I think more like a bachelor party really, a night on the town) as well as groups of men that just had to be bachelor parties.

We walked across the Circus, a circle of road edged with curved row houses, and went to the Royal Crescent, which is a long row of more elegant curved row houses.  They were the fanciest residences in town, and I expect they still are.  One has been turned into a museum of late 18th century life, and while my mom and older daughter wanted to go in, my younger daughter did not.  So I went with her into the park and we rested and enjoyed the park for a while before joining back up again.

Royal Crescent--very fancy houses!
The next thing to find was William Herschel's house, which is now a museum.  It's not too far away from the Royal Crescent, in a very ordinary street.  Herschel was an astronomer and scientist, and his sister Caroline was his assistant, and became a respected astronomer in her own right.  In this house, William built telescopes, discovered the planet Uranus, and used a prism and a thermometer to discover infra-red light.  It was really neat to see the workshop, the garden where Uranus was first sighted, and even the very prism that revealed infra-red light.  The rest of the house was also neat to see, and I liked seeing a dress that belonged to Caroline (who was very tiny).  Caroline made comets her specialty and discovered many of them.

While we were at the Herschel house, I kept up a steady stream of photos to my long-suffering husband, who would have loved it.  I hoped it was fun for him and not tortuous!

In Herschel's garden

Teeny garden, but the first spot on earth where someone saw Uranus

Workshop flagstones all cracked from lab explosions

Workshop so tiny you can't believe it could hold anything

The prism and thermometer that proved infra-red, and lenses Herschel made.

By now the day was almost over, and we were hungry and tired.  Snacks perked us right back up, though, and we didn't want to leave yet.  We found a Waterstones in Milsom Street, and then wandered over to St. Michael's Without Church.  Without what?  my 15-year-old had wondered, and while we thought it might have been without the city walls (yep, it was), we decided to go see.  An older man and a young guy were hanging out on the steps by the open door, and when we thought we might go in, they said it was actually closed.  They were bell-ringers, and they were going to ring a quarter peal for Her Majesty's birthday, and they were just waiting for the last member of the group to arrive.  I asked what they were going to ring, and the gentleman told me (of course I can't remember now) and asked if I knew anything about bell-ringing.  I said not really, but I'd read The Nine Tailors, and he lit up--when he'd read it at age 12, he'd been inspired to take up bell-ringing.  (He said that Dorothy Sayers didn't really know anything about it from personal experience, but she'd done a very good job with the book just with her research.)  Then, he invited us to go up and see the bell-ringing chamber!
St. Michael's Without

Up the stairs!

Of course we were very excited about that and accepted.  We climbed up a steep, narrow stair (not spiral, but tight enough that it had a rope instead of a banister) and popped out into the chamber, which had spot rugs under each rope and a few chairs in the corners.  We sat out of the way as the ringers very kindly explained how it all worked and demonstrated with a peal or so.  They also had a nice little working model of a bell that answered some of my questions.  Eventually the last ringer arrived, and we went off to catch a bus, but not before sticking around to listen to the bells for a while.

On Milsom St, across from Waterstones

When we got back to Chippenham, it was about time to get some gas.  This car was so big and so efficient that we actually hadn't managed to use a whole tank yet--we still had about 3/8 left.  British gas stations turned out to be a little daunting at first.  I couldn't figure out how to pay and the attendant explained that you pump first and then go pay in the shop...which I remember doing 20 years ago, but it's been so long since everybody switched to paying first that I had forgotten!  Also, this car took diesel, and the color coding system is different; in the US, green means diesel, but in the UK it means regular gasoline.  Diesel is black.  (And red means premium.  I couldn't believe the octane; UK regular is 95 and premium is something like 97 or 98.  At home, I buy 87.)  I also thought to ask the attendant why my German car in a country that sold liters of petrol was telling me my gas consumption in miles per gallon, just like at home.  I was quite pleased, of course, because it was easy for me, but it was kind of puzzling.  He explained that it just became the international standard, despite the fact that nobody was ever too sure what it meant!

Monday, July 18, 2016

Three Chestnut Horses

Three Chestnut Horses, by Margita Figuli

Remember how I read the classic Bulgarian novel, the one everybody reads in high school?  Someone commented that it would be neat to have a list of all the 'classic books everybody reads in high school' for lots of different countries, and I think that would be a fabulous project!  I would read that list.  I have no idea how to put such a thing together, though, so if anyone has contacts in, say, 50+ countries and wants to help me, let me know!  Meanwhile, this is one of the books that every Slovakian kid reads in high school.  It's a basic classic of Slovakian literature.

Published in 1940, Three Chestnut Horses was an instant hit.  People loved it.  It continued as a beloved classic throughout the years of Communist control, though it was edited to take out religious content (and it must have been fairly heavily edited!); the introduction hints that this was done without Figuli's permission.

This is a simple tale on the surface, set in a rural recent past that could have been anytime in the last hundred years--or quite recent.  The narrator is Peter, who has always loved Magdalena, his childhood playmate.  Orphaned fairly young, he has had to work hard as a traveling horse wrangler, and he hasn't seen her in several years, but he hopes that she loves him and that he can win Magdalena's parents' approval despite his poverty.  Instead, when he arrives to court Magdalena, he finds that her greedy mother is about to force her into a marriage with a loutish but wealthy ruffian. 

This is a delicate, elegant novella that I really enjoyed.  I'd really like to read more of Figuli's works in future, but it doesn't look like much of her work has been translated into English, or that the books that have are very easy to get in the US...

Sunday, July 17, 2016

Palace of Illusions

Palace of Illusions, by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni

I had the opportunity to meet Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni a few months ago, which was a very exciting event, and so I decided that it was high time I finished the only Divakaruni novel I had not read--Palace of Illusions.  I got about halfway through it several years ago, and I was convinced that something completely terrible would happen to Panchaali, the protagonist, and I just couldn't keep reading!  But this time I did it, and it's a great novel.

This is a retelling of many of the events of the great Indian epic, the Mahabharata, from the point of view of Draupadi (or Panchaali, as she is called here), the wife of the five Pandavas.  If you're not familiar with the basics of the story, it's about two sets of cousins: the five Pandava brothers, who are rightful heirs to the kingdom of Hastinapura.  Their uncle, the blind king Dhritarashtra, wrongfully appoints his son, the eldest of the hundred Kauravas, king instead, sparking a dynastic struggle that results in a massive war.  It's a massive, sprawling tale, and it seems that everyone in it has a miraculous story.  Draupadi is born miraculously from a sacred fire, grows up to marry five husbands at once, and is a catalyst for the war.  What would the story look like from her perspective?

I've always had a bit of an interest in Draupadi, though I didn't really know anything much about the subject.  I had some Indian comic-book versions of famous stories when I was a kid, and one featured a pivotal moment in Draupadi's life.  Her eldest husband is wise and calm, except when he starts gambling.  One night he loses control and forfeits his entire kingdom, his brothers, and his wife.  The rotten cousins decide to humiliate her by pulling off her sari, but when she calls upon Krishna, she is miraculously clothed in sari after sari.  This scene made enough of an impression on me that I really wanted to read Draupadi's story and find out more about her.

Not the one I had, but I want it now!
Divakaruni brings Draupadi to life, showing her as an ambitious but heedless girl who longs to do something important.  Surely being born from a sacred fire means that she'll have adventures, but it seems that her father plans to marry her off like anyone else.  She does get her adventures--and a name change to Panchaali--but they come with a higher price and more hardship than she ever thought possible.  Panchaali lets her experiences embitter her, and she becomes obsessed with exacting retribution for her sufferings.  She pushes her husbands into action, and does things that have terrible consequences.

This is a great novel, though I still found it hard to read because terrible things do happen, just like I thought they would.  Well worth reading!

Saturday, July 16, 2016

UK Trip X

After the wonderfulness that was visiting the Manor at Hemingford Grey, we packed up the car and hit the road.  Google said it would take a couple of hours to get to our hotel at Chippenham, but I didn't really believe that.  Possibly it would have for somebody more used to the British roads!  We took a little longer, largely because we somehow turned Fiona's voice off right before we needed it most, and we missed the turnoff to the M25.  Instead we fell into the hideous vortex of suburban London, freeway edition.  It took us an hour to get out again.

After that we did pretty well, really.  The roads were very good.  From then on there were usually tall hedges on either side, so we couldn't see much of the countryside.  There are now these really convenient turnoffs that just provide services to travellers; you just get off the road at the right place, and bam, there's a gas station, a motel, and a food court with eight choices and restrooms like what you get at Nevada truck stops, only much nicer.  Fabulous.

We got to our reserved motel and all squished into a family room, which is a regular room with a double, a single, and an extra bed shoved in.  This was our arrangement for the rest of the trip; squishy, but cheap.  Ish.

Stones along the edge of Avebury ring

The next day, we went to Avebury, which is a wonderful place to visit.  It's a Neolithic ring-fort with a lot of standing stones arranged around it, and a village built in the middle.  Avebury is actually a bit older than Stonehenge, and the stones are rougher in shape--plus they've been kind of beaten up over the years.  Many of the stones were buried a few hundred years ago and had to be re-set in their places.  Others were broken apart to be used for building material.  In order to break or bury the stones, people would generally set large fires at the bases and then pour cold water over them so they would crack.  Somewhat fewer than half the stones are still there; they ring the fort and once marked a road out, and there are some really big ones just placed around.  There were once smaller rings inside the large one.  The stones tend to fall into two general shapes and are called male (tall and rectangular) and female (more lozenge-shaped).

The ditch is part of the ring fort

Path around the edge--all chalk

Really quite large stones

We also looked through two museums, one in a large, dark barn (to keep the bats happy) that shows a timeline of when things were built, and another small one that collects the various artifacts found in archaeological digs.  There is also a manor (with dovecote!).

The church is in the middle of the ring-fort and is neat, with Saxon bits, a Norman font and door, and a Tudor rood-loft preserved from destruction by intrepid parishoners.  It's one of the few rood-lofts left.  (A rood-loft looks like a balcony.)  The church was full of ladies busily arranging flowers for the weekend celebration of Queen Elizabeth's 90th birthday.  They were planning quite a celebration, and were very nice about letting us pick our way around them.

Avebury church

Church door with sawtooth design

Norman font!

Rood-loft, plus Saxon arches on the sides

After getting some sandwiches and pasties in a shop, we ate lunch sitting on a log-bench in a field.  My older daughter, always eager to try new things, bought some dandelion burdock lemonade that nobody really liked very much, and we wished we'd tried the rose lemonade instead.  We also got very strong ginger-beer--we drank a lot of ginger-beer on this trip!

We drove off to Silbury Hill, which is nearby.  It's a massive conical hill built of layers of chalk and gravel, for no discernible reason that I can see except that it's kind of neat.  (Mom theorizes that it was mostly for showing off--we can make it bigger!  Now let's make it bigger again!)  You cannot climb Silbury Hill; it's too fragile for that, so you just look at it for a bit.

Silbury Hill

The next Neolithic monument to visit is West Kennet Long Barrow, which is fantastic.  You park at a tiny lay-by on the highway and hike across a field--not very far--to the Barrow at the top of a non-steep hill.  The great thing about this is that you can actually go inside.  The inner chambers are made of stone--there's a passage with two rooms on each side, and then a final room at the end.  They've recently re-done the roof, which used to have large skylights; now there is just a hole that brings in very little light, so my flashlight was handy (my husband is a big believer in flashlights and made sure we each had one--thanks honey!).  I think it's probably a big improvement, though I didn't see it before.   People had left a couple of little tealight candles, some flowers and a strawberry as offerings of a sort.  It was really neat.  The barrow outside is much bigger than it is inside; it's been built up to be longer than just the chambers are.  We walked all over it, enjoying the breeze and the view.

West Kennet Long Barrow

Towards the entrance
Looking inside

Along the top
And that wasn't all; we then drove on to a final site.  This one had a tiny parking lot and serves as a starting point for a hiking trail too.  From there, we could see five round barrows (it was once seven), the Sanctuary, and the end of Kennet Avenue, which goes from Avebury to the Sanctuary.  The Avenue was once lined with stones, but none were in sight.  The Sanctuary was across the road, and crossing felt like a pretty dangerous exercise.  The visibility really wasn't all that great.  It's just a field with markers in it; once there was a henge with both wood and stone elements, but now it's all gone and you just look at the arrangement.  There's a great view from the field, though.

View of a barrow from on top of another barrow

The Sanctuary -- red is wood and blue is stone
Just as we were about to leave, a giant tour bus pulled into the tiny parking lot.  It became apparent that a whole lot of teenagers were about to start some kind of long hike.  I thought we'd be stuck there for a while--the bus was right behind our car--but we tried pulling out.  It was very scary indeed, but with the encouragement of two of the bus guys, we got out of the lot....and found that getting on to the road was an even scarier proposition.  Every time I thought we were clear, a giant truck would appear from one side or the other.  The visibility just really was not good enough.  Finally a van stopped in one lane and held up traffic to let us out, and it was still terrifying.

We also stopped on the way back to town to admire a chalk horse.  This was the Cherhill White Horse, and it dates from the 18th century.  Which is easy to tell, really; the pose looks exactly like an 18th-century horse portrait.  Near the horse, on the crest of a hill, stands a tall obelisk monument and we had no idea what that was, but my phone came to the rescue.  It's a memorial to one Sir William Petty, ancestor of the 3rd Marquess of Landsdowne, who put the thing up in 1845.  Okay then.

View of horse and monument
Cherhill Horse

Please enjoy this music video, in which you can see the horse, the monument, and Avebury! I've always liked this song, and just now I blew my kids' minds by showing this goofy video to them.

It was still only early in the afternoon, which was great because we also wanted to visit Lacock.  This was my mom's idea and it was really something!  Lacock is a little village with a manor next to it, and it still looks pretty much the same as it did 200 years ago.  Apparently one of the lords decreed that no modernization was to occur, or something, which must have been very annoying at the time, but now it's a goldmine.  People still live in the houses, but it's mostly owned by the National Trust, and it's frequently used for movies with a historical setting.  When the Bennett sisters walk into town in Pride and Prejudice (1995), they're in Lacock.  Quite a few Hogwarts' locations are also at the manor.

We started with the manor, which is Lacock Abbey.  Much like Northanger Abbey, it's a manor house built upon what was once a prosperous abbey, until the Dissolution came along.  There are lots of wonderful abbey ruins to wander around in, a cloister, and so on.  Catherine Morland would have swooned with joy.  The chapter house survives in very good shape!  Harry Potter fans could enjoy posters showing Professor Quirrell standing in a room and a small Hermione bustling down a cloister passage.

Here is a little video demonstrating Lacock locations for Harry Potter movies. The music is terrible and you should mute it.

Cloister walk

Cloister yard

Chapter house
The manor itself is great too and has two attractions.  It's an interesting manor house in its own right, with an impressive drawing room, half a mantelpiece in a contrived bathroom, and a strange large hall filled with terracotta statues and painted with coats of arms--it was a fashionably Gothic room, but the children used it to play badminton.  AND it was the home of an important figure in the development of photography, William Henry Fox Talbot.  There were displays of his lab and photos, and a lot of wonderful information about him.
Lacock Abbey
A dim, blurry drawing room.  I liked the books.


Bathroom with handy mantelpiece

Hall full of random statues
While we were wandering around the Abbey, it started raining.  Pouring, really; everyone was pretty stuck until the rain slacked off.  We hung around the Gothic hall for a while (and found a statue of, apparently, Gandalf) and then made a run for the next place, which was the museum of photography.  That houses copies of Fox Talbot's early photographs, the story of his work, and a general history of photography.
Gandalf?  No, Diogenes the Cynic

Oldest extant photograph, 1835.  Lacock Abbey windows
After a while the rain really went away and we ventured out to the village.  It's pretty amazing; the whole place looks like time stopped about 200 years ago, except that the streets are lined with parked cars.  Throw a bunch of dirt over the paving, and you can film a Regency romance, or Cranford.  We wandered around and admired the buildings and shops.  Half the houses had little homemade things for sale on the honor system--jars of jam, that kind of thing.

One church looked to be open for visitors, so we went inside.  Here, more church ladies were preparing for the Queen's birthday celebration with flowers, but this time it was a little different.  Somebody had had the idea that each lady could make an arrangement showcasing an aspect of Her Majesty's life.  There was a floral crown and an orb, a floral arrangement with a lot of hats, one for the Coronation with a cape, tiara, and a memento of the Hillary Everest expedition (which success was announced at the same time), one for the Christmas Speech, and so on.  A floral Corgi reposed in a tiny chapel to the side.  The Balmoral display was perhaps the most stunning, involving a tartan rug, blooming artichokes (which are giant thistles), and an animal skull representing hunting.  My 15-year-old could not quite wrap her head around the concept of decorating a church with flowers for the Queen's party.

Lacock church
Coronation robe!



Balmoral.  This one really stunned my kid.  Me too.