Board Member Bio: Vartan Gregorian

Board Member Bios are extremely cursory surveys of the lives of the Modern Library board members who created The List, in hopes of discovering who they are and how or why they chose the books they did.

Vartan Gregorian | Two Hectobooks
Image borrowed from Wikipedia

Name: Vartan Gregorian

Born: April 8, 1934
Died: Still alive!
Country of Origin/Main Residence: Iran/United States since 1956

Sex: Male
Sexual Orientation: Hetero
Married?: Yes: Clare Russell Gregorian, 1960
Children?: Yes: 3
Education: History/Humanities
Religion: Armenian Apostolic

Literary Awards: None I could find for literary efforts, but many for contributions to the arts and such, including the Presidential Medal of Freedom

Vartan Gregorian was born in Tabriz, Iran, as a member of the Armenian Christian community there. His mother died when he was six years old and his father worked for an oil company, so he was mostly raised by his maternal grandmother. Gregorian went to elementary school in Tabriz, then managed to make his way to Beirut, Lebanon, for secondary school. In 1956, Gregorian moved to the United States to go to university at Stanford. He obtained a BA and eventually a PhD in History and the Humanities.

Gregorian worked as a professor for a number of years before becoming a dean at the University of Pennsylvania (Faculty of Arts and Sciences), then president of the New York Public Library, then president of Brown University. He continued teaching throughout this time. Finally, since 1997, he's been the president of the Carnegie Corporation of New York, an organization created by Andrew Carnegie a little over a hundred years ago to distribute his vast wealth.

I have to say that Gregorian has blown me away compared to the other board members I've profiled so far. This guy is driven and seems to care tremendously about education. This 2003 interview is long but worth a read. It gets into some sketchy territory at the end where Gregorian and the interviewer both start knocking vocational training a little bit, but I agree in general that arts and humanities education are more important than we're often willing to acknowledge.

From what I could tell, Gregorian has "only" written two or three books, one of which is his autobiography.

Sources: whatever I've linked within the post and also wikipedia

CANADA150: And We Go On by Will R. Bird

CANADA150 is my celebration of the 150th anniversary of Confederation. All year long I'll be reading Canadian non-fiction and posting about it with the hope of better educating myself about my country's history, and maybe enlightening some random people along the way.

It would be more appropriate to be posting about this in November this year, but I picked up And We Go On at the library before Christmas, so here we are. Before I get into the rest of my thoughts, I will say that Will R. Bird's memoir about fighting in the Great War is essential reading. This is the first time I've read a soldier's memoir about any war, so maybe any other one would've had the same effect on me, but I really think that And We Go On is special.

Britain was at war with Germany as of August 4, 1914, and because of its relationship to Britain at the time, Canada was at war with Germany as of that date as well. When the war began, it had been less than fifty years since Confederation. According to Veterans Affairs Canada, by the end of World War One (WWI), 650,000 men and women had served, 172,000 of those had been wounded, and 66,000 had lost their lives. This from a population of about 7.2 million people total, mostly British-born.

As I write this, there are no known surviving Canadian veterans of WWI.

Will R. Bird (called Bill in this book) was born in Nova Scotia in 1891. He was 23 years old when the war began. He tried to enlist in August 1914 but was rejected due to having broken teeth from playing hockey—the most stereotypically Canadian thing I've ever heard—then was rejected again that fall because his youngest brother, Steve, had already joined up and requested that Bill be turned down.

Steve went to France in September 1915 and died there the following October.
Only fragments were found of him and a dozen of his comrades. I was working in a harvest field in Saskatchewan, pitching sheaves on a wagon, when Steve walked around the cart and confronted me. He said not a word but I knew all as if he had spoken, for he had on his equipment and was carrying his rifle. I let the fork fall to the ground and the nearest man came running to me, thinking I had taken ill. I did not tell him what I had seen, but I left the field and never pitched another sheaf of grain.
That is where Bird's war experience begins. Not long after his brother's ghost appears to him in Saskatchewan, he returns to Nova Scotia and finally manages to enlist. He serves with the Royal Highland Regiment of Canada (the Black Watch—I have to admit I'm a bit baffled and haven't managed to find confirmation of this, but I think these men were actually wearing kilts in the trenches). Steve appears to his brother many more times after the catalyst episode, either by sight or touch, warning him of impending danger. Bird maintains the veracity of his brother's ghost, and I often found myself believing him. Certainly what he writes feels sincere.

Other than the ghost, the book is a straightforward account of Bird's experiences from his arrival in Britain in 1916 to his return to Canada in 1919. He missed Vimy Ridge due to a case of the mumps, but he was at Passchendaele and various other notorious battlefields, and compiled the book from diaries he kept at the time. His writing style is simple and almost Hemingwayesque. He's accompanied by a long list of brothers in arms (Mickey, Tommy, Waterbottle, the Student) who are killed with tragic regularity. There's more vitriol directed at officers and so-called "platform patriots" in this book than toward the enemy soldiers. It's not a fun read by any means, but it's vital and arresting. It's the always-necessary reminder that the men who fought in WWI and many wars since were very young men who didn't always know what they were getting into or really why they were getting into it.

I think that's the most important thing. One hundred years later, it's easy to forget that a soldier in WWI was just a young man with his own experience, his own motives, and his own imperfect understanding of war and his participation in it. On November 10, 1918, Bird was watching more of his friends dying as they liberated the Belgian city of Mons. The armistice was signed on November 11, 1918.

Canada is less tangible in And We Go On than the apparitions of Bird's brother. People they encounter seem to know that the men are Canadians, but I'm not sure how exactly, though it might have something to do with the maple leaf. Bird describes one such encounter like this:
From Fosse 10 we went to Noulles mines and were billeted in the town. The Hun shelled it the next day and killed a few of the civilians, one a little girl from the house where we were staying. I helped the mother pick her from the street. Her eyes were open, looking up, her hair thrown back from frightened, pinched features, a frail little elf, who had smiled at me and shyly called me "Canada."
Bird thinks of Canada rarely, and without much nationalist fervour or patriotism. The modern legacy of Canadian bravery in the Great War hangs uncomfortably close over the narrative.

Most of all, the book is an effort to reveal the damage done to fighting men, even if they aren't physically wounded, to express the inexpressible. Speaking to each other on the boat home to Canada after the armistice, Bird is talking to his friend Sambro about what the two of them are bringing back from the war. Bird had several "souvenirs" stolen from him at Mons, and they are looking at another soldier who has lost a leg.
"I'll let them take a leg off me or an arm, any old time," [Sambro] said, "if they'll take the pictures of the war out of my mind."

Halifax Citadel, February 2016 | Two Hectobooks
Halifax Citadel, February 2016

R48. Something Borrowed by Emily Giffin

Year Published: 2005
Pages: 388

Pairing: Lawyer and lawyer
First Sentence: I was in the fifth grade the first time I thought about turning thirty.
Climax: And then, somehow, I am having sex with my best friend's fiancé.

Something Borrowed by Emily Giffin | Two Hectobooks


It's been a long time since I got a chance to post a good rant on the blog, and I think that since I've been concentrating so hard on getting caught up lately, this is just what I've needed. I spotted Emily Giffin's Something Borrowed when I went to pick up holds at the library the other day, and I knew that it was finally time to read it.

I first heard of this book when the movie was being released five years ago. A former coworker I really respect mentioned how good the book was. Obviously I don't really respect her taste in books, because upon seeing the trailer, I instantly knew that I would need to read the book for this blog, and that I would hate it*.

The Summary

Here's what happens in the book. If I were still doing one-line plot summaries I'd describe it this way: it's ok to have sex with your best friend's fiancé as long as she's a total bitch. I suspect the average reader will have multiple issues with that.

The main character, Rachel, is feeling very sorry for herself on the evening of her thirtieth birthday. She works for a big law firm in New York and hates her job and doesn't have a boyfriend. After everyone else has gone home, she goes out for drinks with her "best friend" Darcy's fiancé, Dex, and the two of them end up falling into bed together. This happens sometime in May or June, and Darcy and Dex's wedding date is in September. Rachel is the maid of honour. What follows is that Rachel rationalizes this a bunch as being a drunken mistake that will never happen again, then proceeds to have an affair with Dex for the whole summer, while simultaneously helping Darcy with wedding plans and preparation. Rachel also manages to date two different guys, Marcus and some Englishman who she meets while visiting her friend Ethan in London. For someone whose job is supposedly terrible and all-encompassing, her social life seems pretty fucking vibrant to me.

Eventually Rachel gives Dex an ultimatum, that if they're supposedly in love, he needs to leave Darcy to be with her. At first, Dex isn't willing to do this. This is when Rachel goes to England at the drop of a hat. As soon as Rachel gets back, he meets her to let her know that he's broken off the engagement with Darcy. They're about to have sex when Darcy comes over. While Dex hides half-naked in the closet (no, really), Darcy proceeds to tell Rachel how happy she is that Dex broke off the engagement, because she's pregnant with Marcus's baby (for some reason, this allows Dex and Rachel to pretend that they were in the right). At this point, Darcy sees Dex's watch on Rachel's nightstand, and all the chips are on the table. Darcy storms out, saying she doesn't want to see either of them again. Considering that Rachel appears to have basically hated Darcy for most of the duration of their friendship, this is considered a good thing all around. Dex and Rachel live happily ever after.

Are You Kidding Me, Emily Giffin?

If there's one thing I've learned about romance novels over the course of this project, it's that they are all, also, fantasy novels. (Technically this is actually chicklit, and I apparently had that genre all wrong, because I thought chicklit was all about 30- and 40-something women finding love and fulfillment with their friends' help or whatever, not totally betraying their friends.) Morality is a secondary concern in a romance novel.

So the fact that Rachel betrays a woman who she claims to count as a friend, over and over and over again isn't necessarily a ruinous premise. When I first heard of the book, that was what shocked me most, but it has worse problems that I'm going to get into shortly.

There are a lot of gross rationalizations for the cheating happening in this novel: Darcy is terrible and selfish, she doesn't deserve Dex; Rachel knew Dex first (they're law school friends); Rachel has never felt this way about any of her previous lovers. The worst one of all comes at the end.
Then I think about the four of us: Marcus was disloyal to Dex. I was disloyal to Darcy. Dex was disloyal to Darcy. Only Darcy did something to two people, to me and to Dex. She is the only one who was doubly disloyal.

I scoffed out loud more than a few times while reading, but that was a major eye-roll moment. I guess Rachel feels that Darcy betrayed her by going out with Marcus, a guy that Rachel kissed a few times but barely cared about enough to interact with more than three times or so over the course of the book, all while she is having an affair with Darcy's fiancé.

Rachel Is The Worst

Rachel is The Worst. She may even be worse than Ana Steele, considering that she's thirty, not in her early twenties, and should know so much better than this.

It would be interesting if Rachel got some sort of comeuppance for how horrible she is at some point in the novel, or if someone acknowledged it, but no. Her actual friends, Hillary and Ethan (who are both cooler than she is), are rooting for her because they're her friends. None of the characters seem to notice that Rachel and Darcy are just two sides of the same coin.

I'm not sure I've encountered a more judgemental, hypocritical protagonist, who wasn't acknowledged to be so by the text (I'm thinking of a Carol Kennicott here, who thinks she's so superior to her small-town neighbours). Rachel whines about someone showing up to a party wearing the same dress she is, and then thinks of Darcy as being shallow in almost the same scene.
I scan the guests in the backyard, noticing all of the purple, hot pink, and orange dresses and skirts. It seems that every woman read the same "bright colors are in, black is out" article that I read. I followed the advice and bought a lime green sundress that is too vivid and memorable to wear again before August, which means it will cost me about one hundred and fifty dollars per wear. But I am pleased with my choice until I see the same dress, about two sizes smaller, on a slender blonde. She is much taller than I am [NB: Rachel is like 5'6"], so the dress is shorter on her, exposing an endless stretch of bronzed thigh. I make a conscious effort to stay on the opposite side of the pool from her.

At one point, Rachel and Darcy fly back to their hometown in Indiana for their old friend Annalise's baby shower. Rachel spends the party being angry about Darcy's attention seeking behaviour. She also spends a good amount of time wondering whether any of the attendees know that she makes six figures at her law firm job. This being the job she hates so much and complains about constantly with respect to her student loans.

I thought that maybe it would turn out that Darcy is secretly really insecure and the relationship between her and Rachel would be more complicated, but nope. Darcy's terrible and Rachel is worse.

And Speaking of Complicated Relationships

Here we get into the worst part of the book. Rachel and Darcy are childhood friends, who grew up in neighbouring houses in a town in Indiana. They went to elementary and high school together, then went to different universities, and both ended up in New York. They spent huge swaths of time together, and Darcy would stick up for Rachel. Darcy's one of those magnetic personalities, something Rachel resents but also basks in the glory of. They don't seem to have much in common, though.

I'm the same age as Rachel and Darcy are in this book, and almost nothing about their friendship rings true to me. I buy that these girls were friends in Indiana. I had a lot of friends growing up that I didn't really have much in common with, because I went to a small school in a small city**. The thing is, that after four plus years of university and working in different careers, I have lost touch with these people, and made friends with new ones. Considering the hostility that Rachel feels toward Darcy, I can virtually guarantee that these women wouldn't be close within one year of moving away to attend different universities.

For example, how dare Darcy talk to her best friend about something going on in her life:
Now she is laughing loudly into the phone, telling me another story about her day. She hurts my ears. The word "strident" comes to mind, and as I study my reflection again, I decide that although I'm far from beautiful, perhaps I have a softness that she lacks.

If there are adult women over the age of 25, living in cities with populations over 100,000, who have "best" friendships like the one portrayed in this book, I am sorry, and I hope that things change for them soon. It feels borderline impossible most of the time to make new friends as an adult, but you really really really don't need to hang on to people who make your life distinctly worse. This is the joy of life experience: realizing you don't have to be friends with people you hate. I, like Rachel, am currently the sad-sack single friend to everyone's marriages and babies. This is a hard thing, a lot of the time, but guess what? I still like and respect my friends.

In fact, there's just one thing that would make this book more believable, and I'm not sure how to write this without making it seem like I hate my sister, but that's just it. I'd buy this scenario 100% more readily if Darcy and Rachel were sisters.

Because I don't hate my sister at all, but the relationship between sisters is one that can go very, very wrong. A woman's sister, if they're close in age particularly, I suppose, is the easiest person for her to compare herself to. They are stuck together for life by family obligations, even if they don't particularly care for one another at all. There's some expectation that they'll be close. They can't escape one another.

Don't Read This

Just don't. Go out for drinks with some people you like instead.

Post Script

Three points that didn't fit anywhere else in the review:
  • Rachel uses "List" with a capital L to refer to the list of people she's slept with. My List is rather different.
  • The author uses the euphemism of "making love" every time Rachel and Dex have sex. I cannot stand this euphemism.
  • RIP "Thunder Road." Nothing could really make me hate this song, but I'm still really sad that it's referenced in this book.
* The book wasn't published during the 20th century, but I always make exceptions to that rule for romance novels.

** I have one elementary school friend remaining. We've kept in touch over the years because we care about each other and have very similar interests. Not because she sometimes says mean things to bullies on my behalf.

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But I loved Ethan. I loved his unruly hair and the way his cheeks turned pink during recess and made him look like he belonged in a Renoir painting. (NB: This is from the point of view of a ten year old.)
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