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  • Recent Reading

    Posted by David Foster on March 4th, 2009 (All posts by )

    Since starting to blog, I’ve posted a total of five book reviews. Over that same time period, I’ve probably read at least 200 books. So maybe I’d do better to write less-comprehensive but more frequent reviews–maybe not even “reviews,” exactly, but rather notes on recent reading. Here’s an initial batch…

    1)Adelsverein–The Gathering, by Celia Hayes. (The author blogs as Sgt Mom and is an occasional commenter at Chicago Boyz)

    This novel, which I mentioned a couple of months ago, is based on some real but not-very-well-known history. In the 1840s, a group of socially conscious German noblemen conceived the notion of establishing a colony of German farmers and craftsmen in Texas. Over five years, the association dispatched more than thirty-six chartered ships, carrying over 7,000 immigrants, to the ports of Galveston and Indianola. The Gathering tells the story of this enterprise through the eyes of one family. I thought it was very good.

    Here is the Steinmetz family, leaving home on their way to Bremen, where they will meet the ship that is to carry them to America:

    At a turning in the road, Hansi’s cart halted, and Vati said, “What can be the matter already; did one of the horses lose a shoe?”

    But ahead of them, Hansi was standing and lifting Anna in his arms.

    “Look,” he called to them all. “Look back, for that is the very last that we wil see of our our old home!”

    Magda’s breath caught in her throat. She turned in the seat, as Hansi said, and looked back at the huddle of roofs around the church spire, like a little ship afloat in a sea of golden fields. All they knew, all that was dear and familiar, lay small in the distance behind their two laden carts. Really, she would slap Hansi if that started Mutti crying again. Even Vati looked sobered; once around the bend of the road, trees would hide Albeck from their sight, as if it had never been a part of them or they of it.

    The Gathering is the first book of a trilogy; I look forward to reading the other two in the series.

    2)In the Shadow of the Mill, by Rosemarie Schluga

    While we’re talking about things related to Germany, this is the memoir of a woman who was born in 1939 and grew up in a small village in Germany. (Her father was from Beloruss and for that reason, the family was not considered fully German.) While her early childhood–which she remembers remarkably well–took place during WWII, this is not primarily a WWII book, but rather a book about village life as it has been experienced by billions of people until very recently.

    Here we are in 1950 or so, on the day when the magazine salesman comes to town on his motocycle, with a two-wheeled trailer towed behind:

    He throws the canvas flap back of the trailer, takes out a packet, and walks in his buky suit to our door. Mutti and I have watched him carefuly from behind the curtains, and she meets him at the door. He is a magazine salesman, a persuasive talker, who persuades Mutti to rent four magazines in a packet for 2DM a month. Every other Monday he will come by to exchange them and collect the fee. Mutti is extremely happy and walks on air the rest of the day. Finally we can afford to rent magazines. They are two years old, but news is news, new to us anyway even if old. After our chores, we read them from cover to cover.

    Life is changing at a quickening pace. The focus on village news takes a back seat with the magazines opening up for us a little window into the big world out there, only two years behind the times. I watch Mutti’s happy face as she reads amusing stories or admires the fashionable models.

    A worthwhile read for those interested in social history.

    3)1,000 Dollars and an Idea, by Sam Wyly. Mr Wyly is a serial entrepreneur who has founded and been involved with businesses including University Computing, Datran, Bonanza Steakhouses, Michaels Stores, and Sterling Software. After working at IBM and Honeywell, he concluded that there were vast opportunities in the computing field, and that–although he respected IBM greatly–that company would be inhibited by its hubris from fully exploiting these opporunities. He was particularly interested in computer services–“buy it by the acre, then resell it by the square foot,” to use a real-estate analogy. The way he got the business started makes a great case study in overcoming obstacles…

    Problem–where to begin? Solution: start with people you know. Wyly knows some engineers at Sun Oil and Texas Instruments who are driving long distances to use scarce computer time at inconvenient hours. He also knows the director of computer services at Southern Methodist University, who is frustrated with his old vacuum-tube computer and longs for–but cannot afford–a modern transistorized machine. Maybe there is a way to put these parties together.

    Problem–computers are expensive. An IBM 7090 goes for about $3 million. Solution: Be unconventional, look at buying a machine from Control Data, for only $1.5 million. And save on real estate and electricity costs by putting the machine at SMU and letting them use it part of the time.

    Problem–$1.5 million is still a lot of money. Solution: Find a used machine for only $600,000.

    Problem–Sam only has $1000. People who sell used mainframes aren’t interested in selling $600,000 pieces of equipment on installment plans with $1,000 down payments. Solution: go see a bank.

    Problem–Banker bursts out laughing. Same thing happens at 3 other banks. Solution: get a signed contract from Sun Oil that can be shown to a bank to prove the business is real.

    Problem–While the senior engineering manager at Sun loves the idea, their financial people flatly reject it. “They said Sun takes risks on oil wells, not on whether or not some young entrepreneur will survive to meet his obligations…”

    The situation looks hopeless when the cavalry arrives in the unlikely form of an insurance salesman…

    Very worthwhile for anyone interested in business and business history.

    4)The Red Scarf, by Kate Furnivall. Sofia was born in Russia, in the early part of the 20th century, and like so many others, she has wound up in one of Stalin’s labor camps. Her best friend in the camp, Anna, is in bad health and unlikely to survive the year. The only hope for Anna is to escape and find Anna’s young love, Vasily, who has a store of hidden jewelry…wealth which might be used to bribe Anna’s way to freedom. But if Sofia manages to escape and find Vasily, will she fall in love with him herself?

    There is a subplot involving Rafik, a gypsy who may have magical powers, which I’m not sure really fits in with the rest of the story. Still, a vivid and very readable novel.


    2 Responses to “Recent Reading”

    1. Sgt. Mom Says:

      Oh, thank you David, for the link and the mention! I am so glad you enjoyed Adelsverein! And oddly enough, I did not make up very much of it… well, the bit of byplay with Carl Becker and the Comanche children – that I made up, as well as some other small details.

      I began to write novels like this over three years ago. I think that I sensed something in the air, that something bad was coming, and that we would need – more than anything else – to remember who we are, where we came from, the trials that our ancestors endured – and to recollect how very rare, how very daring and experimental this nation was, and is, when compared to other nations. (And enjoy Book Two and Book Three – they carry the story of the Steinmetzes and the Beckers through the Civil War and the tumultuous times immediately afterward.)

    2. Michael Hiteshew Says:

      Adelsverein – The Gathering sounds like a beautiful and interesting book. I may have to order that…