Wednesday, September 15, 2021

Report of the Committee on Agriculture (II)

Most of this year's butternut squash crop has now been harvested. I grew two types, both of which are hybrids. The tan ones shown above are a variety called Canesi; the others, which can be either mottled green or a two-tone combination of mottled green and yellow-orange, are Autumn's Choice. The colors on the latter variety tend to fade eventually after they're picked.

I planted three or four hills in an area of our yard that hadn't been used for growing anything but grass and weeds for some time. When I dug into it I discovered old cinders, broken glass, and other indications that it had formerly been a household dump, perhaps a century ago, but the soil was apparently suitable for vegetables. About ten or twelve vines emerged, and although at first they were slow to develop once they got going they were quite rampant. The dreaded squash vine borers that are endemic in our area either let them be or did minimal damage; butternuts, which are Cucurbita moschata, are less affected than other squash species. A deer made it over our fence one evening and did some minor damage, but once the fruits themselves started to develop I swathed them in row cover every night and that proved successful. There are still a few squash on the vines but all in all we'll have a good eighty pounds or so of winter squash, which should keep us well supplied with pumpkin pies and side dishes throughout the winter. (Butternuts store for months.) We've shared a few with neighbors already and may wind up giving away more.

I have a few packaged seeds left of both varieties. Since they're hybrids and won't "breed true" there's no point in saving seed from this year's harvest, and Autumn's Choice is becoming hard to find, so next year may be the last for that one. The average size of the squash I harvested this year was in the range of five to seven pounds, which is a bit on the large side to be practical for a small household, so I'll probably mix in a smaller variety next year, perhaps one that is "open pollinated" and can be saved from each year's harvest.

Autumn's Choice proved delicious in previous years, but I won't know about Canesi until they have a chance to cure for a few weeks. Certainly they look appetizing.

Monday, September 13, 2021


This novel set in a fictitious Eastern European country was published in 1983, that is, the year after the death of Leonid Brezhnev, but superficially at least it's very much a book of the "Brezhnev era" and also of the Margaret Thatcher years. The Iron Curtain and the Iron Lady are both long gone, of course, so I was curious to revisit the book now, having liked it so much when it first appeared.

The central character of Rates of Exchange is a British academic named Petworth who is dispatched on a two-week lecture tour sponsored by the British Council. He arrives in a country that has been "pummelled, fought over, raped, pillaged, conquered and oppressed by the endless invaders who, from every direction, have swept and jostled through this all too accessible landscape." The official language spoken in Slaka is a farrago of Slavic and Romance elements as well as loan words from English and other tongues, and it's prone to overnight shifts in dialect as different political factions in the country vie for influence. Much deft comedy is had from all this and from the inevitable misunderstandings that go along with travel and with translation, and Malcolm Bradbury is nothing if not fluent and witty about all that. But there's more here than simply mocking foreign ways. Petworth never knows whom he can trust among the officials and cultural figures who wine and dine him and usher him around the country, but he himself is an unsettled figure, a middle-aged man of middling accomplishments, with a muddled marriage, in short, he can scarcely be regarded as "a character in the world-historical sense" as one of his interlocutors puts it. He is no more in control of his life than are the people he meets, all of whom are either working for or looking over their shoulders at (generally both) the ubiquitous state security apparatus. The book is suffused with an uneasy melancholy that doesn't go out of date with geopolitical changes. If it's true that one can't really imagine this novel being written today, it nevertheless hasn't lost one bit of relevance.

Saturday, September 04, 2021

The Lowest of the Low

A Josef Škvorecký novella set in wartime Czechoslovakia led me to this droll 1985 BBC documentary about the bass saxophone and its players, who seem a genial lot, comfortable with the humorous effect the instrument tends to have on people but also very much in earnest in their devotion to it. Škvorecký himself appears as one of the interviewees.

One of the masters of the bass saxophone was the multi-instrumentalist and bandleader Adrian Rollini (1903-1956), who can be heard below leading a lively combo that includes a young Buddy Rich.

Rollini largely abandoned the instrument in his later career. He opened a hotel in the Florida Keys and died in a hospital in ghastly circumstances, apparently after having run afoul of the mob. Ate van Delden's Adrian Rollini: The Life and Music of a Jazz Rambler is the definitive biography.

Thursday, September 02, 2021

"The nastiest Christian I've ever met"

And some books are just not meant for one ... I picked up The Idiot because I was more or less housebound for a few days and tired of dipping half-heartedly into insubstantial books I had already read. I hadn't looked into Dostoevsky at all since re-reading Crime and Punishment fifteen years or so ago, and The Idiot was one of the few long novels in the house I had never read. I knew even less about it than I do about the author's other major late works, The Possessed (to use its most familiar title) and The Brothers Karamazov, neither of which I own.

I don't exactly regret reading it, now that I've finished, and nothing stopped me from tossing it aside halfway through (I didn't), but it hasn't raised my estimation of the author. (The gratuitous title of this post, by the way, is a mot of Turgenev's.) For 600 pages various infuriating characters, including the feckless hero Prince Myshkin, rant and rave, shift emotions with little prelude or logic, and essentially do nothing (until the final pages). In his rare moments of coherence Myshkin reveals himself as the worst kind of spiritual reactionary, engaging in anti-Western (and vehemently anti-Catholic) tirades that embarrass even his not exactly progressive social circle. Granted some cultural differences (and exasperation on the part of the reader), but I found it difficult to follow and mostly not worth the trouble. To be fair, there are some brilliant set-pieces, but they can't redeem the novel as a whole.

I can, however, see why Kafka regarded Dostoevesky highly, and in saying so I don't mean to sneer at either writer. Strip Dostoevsky of the political and religious baggage, a few dozen patronymics, and a few hundred pages, and you have the core of a potentially interesting existential or psychological novel, even if the result might turn out to be deemed ultimately unsuccessful. But everything in this novel speaks of artistic force, and nothing of artistic control.

I would have been amused, however, if Edward Gorey (who did cover art for a few of Dostoevsky's other works) had been given the opportunity to illustrate this one. His gentle satirical eye would have provided welcome relief.