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« Styles of Thought: Personal Evolution | Main | A Ton of Books »

July 25, 2006


Donald Pittenger writes:

Dear Blowhards --

* When I was young -- call it high school or college age -- and read biographies, I wasn't much interested in the material leading up to the point where the subject got to doing what he became famous for.

And by the time I reached my mid forties, say, I became a lot more interested in the subject's formative years.

Nowadays I suspect it was a big mistake to have sloughed off the early bits when I was of an age where some of the information might have done me some good. [Sigh]

* Last weekend I spied a young fellow wearing a Mohawk haircut of the greased-spike variety.

I've been seeing the occasional Mohawk since I was a kid, so the act of getting one can't be termed an act of creativity. My take has been that it's a way of showing off or perhaps rebelling against adulthood or something.

But I can't be sure. You see, I've never had a friend or acquaintance who ever wore a Mohawk, so haven't been able to ask with the expectation of getting an honest answer.

* Before we went to Russia last year, Nancy read some Tolstoy to get in the mood. First she read Anna Karenina and later dug into War and Peace, finally finishing it a few months ago.

Come September we'll be off to Poland, Budapest and Prague, amongst other places, and she's hoping to find equivalent reading material.

So far, she hasn't had much luck. I've been of no help, that's for sure. Unlike Michael, I'm not a lit guy. But I suspect that even lit folks might have a little trouble coming up with a good read or two related to the places just mentioned. Oh, and Kafka doesn't count!



posted by Donald at July 25, 2006


"With Fire and Sword" by Henryk Sienkiewicz, the story of Polish-Cossack warfare.

Posted by: Dennis Mangan on July 25, 2006 12:21 PM

I'd never heard of Bohumil Hrabal (spelled Hrabl on occassion) nor his fabulous book I Served the King of England until introduced to it by Mr. Whisky Prajer. A very funny take on ambition, "business", and the always interesting human condition, Czech-style. Along with Whisky Prajer, I'd highly recommend it. If more laughs and the idiocy of war are desired, can;t say too much about Good Soldier Svejk. Personally, I think everyone in the world should read this book; peace may break out yet. And, of course, there's at least one Milan Kundera to be read. I'd suggest Immortality, but all of his stuff is excellent.

These folks are all Czech; sorry I couldn't help out with Bulgarian writers.

Posted by: DarkoV on July 25, 2006 12:33 PM

???Bulgaria?? Don;t know where I went on that one. One pseudo-Hungarian writer that may be interesting for your wife could be Tibor Fischer. I've read and enjoyed Under the Frog. Almost finished and didn't enjoy as much his The Thought Gang

Posted by: DarkoV on July 25, 2006 12:39 PM

On the Mohawk

It is interesting when I see someone with a mohawk. For some reason it makes me kind of happy. I thought it was a throw-back in the 80's. It is interesting that it pops up still. I never had a mohawk although I did know people who did. I don't think you could get a proper answer from an owner. I would suggest that it is an honest attempt to allign with the way he wishes the world to be. Maybe that is a rebellion against adulthood. Do you think it is connected to body art and a "noble savage" fantasy?

Posted by: John on July 25, 2006 12:41 PM

Although it's historical fiction, try James Michener's Poland.

Posted by: Tom on July 25, 2006 1:29 PM

Non-fiction/history of Poland:

Norman Davies "Poland: God's Playground"

John Radzilowski: "A Traveller's History of Poland"

Posted by: PA on July 25, 2006 2:06 PM

For the Czech Republic, try Milan Kundera's novels. I prefer the earlier ones, specially "The Joke" and "The Book of Laughter and Forgetting". Or, on a lighter tone, try "The Good Soldier Svejk" by Jaroslav Hasek.

The only Polish author I've ever read is Czeslaw Milosz. A poet (and a very good one at that), he also wrote at least one novel (The Issa Valley or something like that). Not beach reading, but rewarding.

Posted by: Andrew on July 25, 2006 2:19 PM

Look up Joseph Conrad's reminiscences of his childhood. It's great and fascinating writing.

Posted by: John Mansfield on July 25, 2006 2:35 PM

Also, for Poland, you might want to see Krzysztof Kieslowski's "The Decalogue".

Posted by: PA on July 25, 2006 3:17 PM

When I lived in Kirkland, WA, for a year, I had a rather nicer apartment than I usually do, but I shared an outdoor landing with a single mother who had teenagers, including a girl with a taste for the tough. One night I went out the door to go to a meeting and found myself with a tall young male wearing a Mohawk. I hadn't turned on the landing light, so I only saw this rather scary spiked silhouette. I was about to flee back inside and lock the door, when a car pulled up downstairs. A "soccer mom" rolled down the window and yelled, "John, you get in this car this minute! Your supper is getting cold!"

Then I realized this scary guy was about twelve years old. And that his Mohawk was bright purple. They say it takes Elmer's Glue to make it stay stuck up in points like that.

Prairie Mary

Posted by: Mary Scriver on July 25, 2006 3:39 PM

Donald, you are in your 50s or 60s, yes? And you saw people with Mohawks when you were a kid? Unless you are referring to actual Mohawk Indians, I'm surprised. I always thought Mohawks on white people came about thanks to Taxi Driver and the English punks.

As for Mohawks today, it's a thing kids do to align themselves with "true punk rock," or to make an ironic statement about "true punk rock." Of course, by adopting an aesthetic that is 30 years old (ancient in pop culture standards), they are being slightly less than rebellious. Which is fine by me. My oldest is 13 and quite interested in my wife's and my old punk albums. It's a stance we understand well and therefore, it isn't scary for us. If and when he discovers something truly new and provocative is when we will get nervous

Posted by: the patriarch on July 25, 2006 3:42 PM

To understand that area, it's good to read about 1) the history of the Hapsburgs and their empire; and 2) Bismarck's seizure of much of their power.

BTW, if we hadn't destroyed the Ottoman Empire and established Israel after WWI, would we be having all this trouble? Before anyone complains, let me add that I fully support Israel's right to exist.

Posted by: john on July 25, 2006 4:59 PM

When I was in 8th grade, I dyed my hair purple, then rose red; then in 9th grade it was bleached blonde with purple bangs. That became too much hassle, so I got a Taxi Driver-style mohawk in my natural dark brown color. (I wore a field jacket & jeans too, but I hadn't seen the movie at the time!) That was too much up-keep as well, so I buzzed it off and grew it back normal.

Mohawks I guess are for the more peacocky of young guys in their punkish phase. Actually, most sub-cultures are big into their own looks & fashion, despite their protestations against fashion. Frat boys: that's who really lack fashion or any interest in it.

Posted by: agnostic on July 25, 2006 5:23 PM

Keep those reading suggestions coming -- thanks for the info.

(I need to hop in here to reply to Patriarch on the Mohawk cut timing.)

Patriarch -- I can't remember when I first saw a white kid sporting a Mohawk, but I'm pretty sure that it was sometime around my Junior High days, give or take a few years. That would put it in the early 1950s.

Mohawk cuts were rare indeed back then, but they existed. (This is a rough guess -- I didn't take notes at the time -- but I might see a Mohawk cut once every two years or so.) The Punk people simply aped earlier behavior. What is relatively recent, so far as I know, is the spiking and dying; those Mohawks I saw as a kid involved natural hair.

Posted by: Donald Pittenger on July 25, 2006 6:05 PM

I think there might have been a minor trend for Mohawks in the airborne forces in WWII, but I don't know whether I remember that from period photos or just from Hollywood.

That said, after Whoopi Goldberg's Jumpin' Jack Flash, whenever I see one these days all I can think of is, "A tropical fish and its mate!"

As to your trip, I'll second the recommendation that you look for information about the Hapsburgs. Maria Theresa is a particularly interesting figure living in a particularly difficult time.. I've read and particularly enjoyed The War of the Austrian Succession, by Reed S. Browning, but it might be a bit dry for someone looking for historical fiction rather than a history.

Posted by: Doug Sundseth on July 25, 2006 6:25 PM

I say, Searchie is you best bet on tips on Poland. Where is she?

I tried to look up classic Polish literature, and it seems very litle is translated into English, according to this list.

In poetry the most translated is Adam Mickiewicz, Polish Lord Byron, a national Polish treasure.

A general outlook is here.

My personal favorites - Jerzy Lec, Stanislaw Lem, Wieslawa Szymborska and Janusz Korczak

Hungarians didn't empress me much, and Czechs...only Gacek I can read and reread many times.

Massengale: "we"? Who are those "we" that established Israel? "If something bothers you, go and scratch yourself". From an Anti-Soviet joke.

Posted by: Tat on July 25, 2006 8:56 PM

On a second thought:

I'll try to display some patience and give Massengale this link to read, on this disturbing [him] topic: Israel, its creation and its right to self-defense.

Posted by: Tat on July 25, 2006 9:03 PM

The Mohawk did indeed get its first revival in the Airborne in WWII. They also yelled Geronimo when they lept.

(Which reminds me: I've always wondered why Indian sports mascots are considered such an insult. It is after all a compliment to their fighting spirit, in the same way as the Mohawk and Geronimo and suchlike. And didn't the Indians dress in the skins of bears and wolves for the same reason, to gain their adversaries' courage by osmosis as it were? I suspect, like with most PC issues, the complainers are just another example of "showing the fleet"; the incentives of our current system mean there's more money and power in being offended than in being complimented.)

On the other thing, Poland has a lot of filmmakers. One of the best and least known is Andrei Wajda. His early trilogy about the second world war (Generation, Kanal, Ashes & Diamonds) is readily available. Also check out early Polanski.

You might also check out Vaclav Havel's plays, which are a bit like Tom Stoppard meets Kafka.

Posted by: Brian on July 25, 2006 10:53 PM

Prairie Mary, A guy years ago with a particularly extravagant long and spiked Mohawk told me he used Knox gelatin to dress it. Nosey me just HAD to ask when I saw him and he seemed quite pleased to tell.

Posted by: bradamante on July 26, 2006 9:02 AM

No familiar with Czech writer Gacek. Googling doesn't help much, surprisiningly. Could you provide some more details or links?

Posted by: DarkoV on July 26, 2006 9:21 AM


Jaroslav Hacek, perhaps?

Posted by: yulinka on July 26, 2006 12:21 PM

On the Mohawk thing, and this seems to tie in with what Mr. Pittenger remembers... When I was a kid (so we're talking nine-year-olds about 45 years ago) in my small town in central Ohio, it was not unknown for a boy to get a Mohawk haircut at the barber shop a day or so after school let out for the summer. That is, head shaved except for a strip of short hair up and over the cranium. So far as I recall, the remaining hair was not styled with goop to make it stand up, but I could be wrong on this point. I think the idea was that Junior's whim could be indulged during summer vacation when it wouldn't bring disapproval from school authorities, and the rest of his skull had three months to grow a new crop of hair before school started. A quick trip to the barber's just before Labor Day for a trim and the little barbarian was ready for civilization again. I was never tempted to go that route myself (and never even understood the appeal), but I knew of boys in my day camp who had such cuts.

Posted by: Dwight Decker on July 26, 2006 12:54 PM

There is a truly great historian of Hungarian extraction, John Lukacs, who wrote a book titled (I think) Budapest:1900. It is not only about that city but also about the triumph of the bourgeoisie in the golden period before WWI brought it all down.

Posted by: ricpic on July 26, 2006 1:39 PM

Svejk is wonderful, but Parrot's english
translation is awful. There's a new translation
(Sadlon, I think) of the first volume which is much better. Bohumil Hrabal is nice (I served the King of England is good), but kind of modernist-- if you like Faulkner or Joyce, you may like him.

Michal Viewegh is post-communist, and popular now in Prague. He's had one book translated-- fun light reading, not complete fluff. Maybe also try Jan Hrebejk's films for something contemporary. Horem Padem was good, reminded me a lot of Soderberg.

Czeslaw Milosz and Ryszard Kapuscinski are both
well-worth reading, and seem typically Polish in
outlook, though Milosz writes about the 50s, and Kapuscinski travels.

Posted by: lukas w on July 26, 2006 3:13 PM

You're probably right that it's Svejk's author,Jaroslav Hacek, who Tat was referring to. I'll just emphasize again, as I did at the top of the comments, that Good Soldier Svejk is a must-read for any world citizen.

Love your blog; except I started drooling on the keyboard. The Chocolate-Covered Sirki entry was especially a killer.

Posted by: DarkoV on July 26, 2006 6:34 PM

Darko: yes, of course. I always make that mistake, damn it. G vs.H, J vs Y. Typical.

Also, look up Karel Capek (not the dreaded R.U.R. and the robot novel)
This, for example, is the funniest book of and for amateur gardeners.
One of my cherished treasures is his book of fairy tales which are not entirely for children. And the one about the foxterrier, Dashenka, with his brother's illustrations.

Posted by: Tat on July 26, 2006 10:23 PM

Totally aside: syrki (not sirki; stress on the last syllable) are readily available from my neighborhood Russian Deli, in 6 flavors. Made in Latvia, Brooklyn and Moscow. Come and I'll treat you to all 6.

Yulinka, you're overdoing svekol'nik.
Instead of boiling beets first and grating them later, do this speedy method (especially gratifying when temperature in the kitchen is 89 deg):

Grate raw beets while you have 2 peeled and cubed potatoes boiling in the pot of water. Add 1/4 of your shreded beats. Add juice of 2 lemons (you can add pickle juice, I suppose, the same chemistry, but I never tried it) and 1 teaspoon of white vinegar. Put 3/4 of the beets into a drainer for a fine pasta (smallest holes possible). Immerse into the pot (when your potatoes are almost cooked). Make sure the beats are covered with water but not let them escape. They will release their bright color and flavor into the borsch. When beats in your drainer become pale, throw them away.
This method lets you keep more vitamins in the liquid due to a speedy cooking and you have a space in the plate for all the filler later on.

Posted by: Tat on July 26, 2006 10:45 PM

If you're willing to fund my airfare to wherever these sirki are sold (NY, I presume), I'll gladly sample all 6 and more.

Grating raw beets is more work than I can handle, I'm afraid. Ya belarychka! And I like grated cooked beets in my svekolnik.

Posted by: yulinka on July 27, 2006 3:17 PM

[That's beloruchka and syrki. You transcribe Russian into English just like my son, phonetically.]

Svekol'nik: there are as many variations as aspiring homemakers, I guess.

Trip to NY: look at it as an investment in self-education.

Posted by: Tat on July 27, 2006 4:54 PM

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