On Easter Sunday, a walk and a dream

April 20, 2014 at 8:56 pm (Dogs, Easter, Local interest (Baltimore-Washington), Music)

I knew that it might be crowded at Centennial Park, on this Easter Sunday. But I did not anticipate the sheer numbers celebrating the return of Spring! Finally we can be outdoors. It was still a bit chilly -mid 50s – but still walkable. And walk I did, all the way around the lake. And as I walked, I encountered a huge variety of people, of different ages and ethnic origins. I heard numerous different languages spoken, of which I could I could identify with certainty only one.  The large group of Spanish speakers seemed to be having an exceptionally good time. Actually, everyone seemed quite happy.

Although most were on foot, many were on wheels. There were bicyclers, kids on scooters, two young women on roller skates, another child on a skateboard, babies in strollers. Dogs were much in evidence. One man was walking two large, gorgeous fluffy white canines. (For me, there’s just something about white dogs. I like white cars, too, for that matter.) I always have fun trying to identify the breeds. I’ve been helped greatly in this by watching the yearly Westminster Kennel Club competition. I’m reasonably certain that I saw a bichon frise and a Norwegian Elk Hound. There were several dachshunds. One was being wheeled in a stroller. (Oops – I guess he should have been mentioned in the individuals-on-wheels category.) One was wearing a little pink leotard with a fetching ruffle toward the hind end. I exclaimed in pleasure at the sight, and the owner (do we say ‘guardian’ now?) explained that since she only had boy children, she allowed herself to play dress-up with the dog, who just happened to be a female of the species. The Spanish speakers had with them a chihuahua, attired in a red turtleneck sweater.

Alas, I did not have a camera with me, so here are some shots of the  breeds, gleaned from Google Image Search.

Bichon Frise

Bichon Frise

 

Norwegian Elkhound

Norwegian Elkhound

 

Daschsund

Daschsund

 

Chihuahua

Chihuahua

On the park’s broad lawns, groups were picnicking and barbecuing. (Oh, that aroma!) Frisbees were being thrown. There was a photo shoot of some  sort taking place. It was festive and life affirming. I’m glad I went.

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On Easter Sunday, I always listening to The Good Friday Spell from Wagner’s Parsifal. This music always makes me feel  dreamy and sends me into a sort of fugue state. Once there, I come close to believing in miracles. Anything good seems within reach.

Happy Easter to all.

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Clever Girl, by Tessa Hadley

April 16, 2014 at 4:44 pm (Book review, books)

18090111  Stella, the eponymous Clever Girl in Tessa Hadley’s engaging novel, thinks she has her life’s trajectory pretty well plotted out. At least for the immediate future, her plans certainly include university. She’s an avid reader and a budding intellectual. She is also possessed of a passionate, intensely romantic nature.

Coming of age in mid-twentieth century England, Stella is nothing if not sure of herself. But adolescence can be a perilous time, especially for someone like Stella. On her way to young womanhood, she finds her plans suddenly derailed, largely due to her own heedlessness.

I read and enjoyed The London Train, also by this author. Hadley’s way of describing states of mind is both artless and resonant. Here is Stella as a young girl, first finding her footing in a challenging world:

My instinct in those days anyway was to smother any unpleasant truth, push it back into its hole. I was (rather abstractly) enthusiastic about dogs and horses because the emotions these aroused seemed to me clean, unproblematic: I had a dreamy image of myself running through long grass with a collie dog jumping up beside me, trying to lick my face (after long deliberation, I had elected collies as my favourites). This image was my idea of ‘nature’, and had in my private world a religious resonance.

Although this novel has its share of unanticipated twists and turns, it is not by and large highly dramatic. Hadley’s writing is not showy, but in her choice of words, she has an almost pointillist gift for precision. (In this, she reminds me of Alice Munro.) In telling Stella’s story, she is to some extent limning the life lessons learned, of necessity, by a twentieth century Everywoman:

….I thought that the substantial outward things that happened to people were more mysterious really than all the invisible turmoil of the inner life, which we set such store by. The highest test was not in what you chose, but in how you lived out what befell you.

 

Tessa Hadley

Tessa Hadley

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The Usual Suspects discuss Reginald Hill’s Bones and Silence

April 14, 2014 at 10:31 am (Book clubs, books, Mystery fiction, The British police procedural)

bonesandsilence  On Tuesday of last week, the Usual Suspects took on Reginald Hill’s Gold Dagger winning novel  Bones and Silence. This book is not an easy read, but it is the work of an author whose verbal pyrotechnics and witty asides never fail to delight. At least, they never fail to delight Your Faithful Blogger. But it quickly became clear that a good number of the Suspects were rather less than delighted.

The three principal motifs of this novel are set forth in its opening chapters. Chapter One consists entirely of a letter to Detective Superintendent Andy Dalziel. In it, the writer declares his (her?) intention of committing suicide. No name is given, and no reason, either for the intention or for making Dalziel the recipient of  this disconcerting information. The tone is oddly upbeat, even cheerful.

There are more of these mysterious missives to come.

The second motif concerns the plans of local theater impresario Eileen Chung to stage the York Cycle of mystery plays on mobile stages that will roll through the streets of the city. The aim is to recreate as closely as possible the the way in which the plays were originally experienced by their medieval audience:

…through her mind’s eye…ran pictures brimming with colour and excitement of the great pageant wagons rumbling over the cobbles, harbinged by music and dancers and trailing a long wash of jugglers, tumblers, fire-eaters, fools, flagellants, giants, dwarves, dancing bears, merry monks, cut-price pardoners, knights on horseback, Saracens in chains, nubile Nubians….

Chung, a woman with a vivid personality and an  imagination to match, has gone a bit wild here, but the vision is no less enticing for it.

The third motif is kicked off by a bizarre homicide that takes place in a house in Dalziel’s own neighborhood. Dalziel himself comes crashing into a bedroom in the dwelling right after the ear shattering sound of gunshot. He finds a man holding a gun, another man cowering in terror on the floor, and a naked woman sprawled on the bed, dead, with most of her face blown away.

Murder, of course. But was it, really? As so often is the case in Reginald Hill’s cunningly spun narratives, nothing is quite what it seems.

As the plot of the novel gained in complexity, so did the frustration of some of the Suspects. And there were other problems, chief among them being the antipathy aroused by Andy Dalziel.  Rather than being amusing, his crude behavior and irreverent speech were perceived as annoying and  even offensive. Pauline made no bones about her dislike of the book, criticizing among other flaws its messy structure. (I respectfully disagreed with her on this point!) Someone else said that she disliked not only  Dalziel, but Peter Pascoe and Ellie as well. (I, on the other hand, find them quite appealing, both as individuals and as a couple.)

Susan mentioned that characters would suddenly turn up dead with no prior intimation that this was likely to occur and no explanation why.  Just about everyone agreed that the book was too long, resulting in a periodically sluggish reading experience (that dreaded slogging sensation, feared by all readers).

No one, even ardent Hill fans like Yours Truly, argued with this last assertion. The novel was not a page turner. Yet even the dissenters among us had to admire this author’s sly and irreverent wit. At a point early in the story, Sergeant Wield, a resourceful and intelligent officer, is sent to interview a witness (suspect?) in the hospital. That would be Waterson the cowering fellow in the above described murder scenario. Upon entering the hospital room, Wield gets more than he bargained for:

It occurred to him instantly that Waterson must have private medical insurance. A nurse in a ward sister’s uniform was leaning over him. Their mouths were locked together and his hands were inside her starched blouse, roaming freely. No way did you get this on the National Health.

The nurse turns out to be Waterson’s estranged wife – estranged, that is, until that memorable encounter!
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Mike was our discussion leader for Bones and Silence. Like me, she loves British mysteries in general and Reginald Hill in particular. This title is a particular favorite of hers, which is why she selected it for the group. In my view, she presented a persuasive case for the book, but one of the great lessons you learn in book groups is that you can’t predict how people are going to react to your choice. I admit that it pained me somewhat to hear such negative comments about a writer whom I hold in such high esteem, but that’s how these things go some times, and you have to be philosophical about it.There’s little point in having these discussions if participants don’t feel that they can express themselves directly and honestly.

While I do like Bones and Silence, it’s not my favorite in the Dalziel and Pascoe series. That designation would have to go to On Beulah Height. (Several others in last Tuesday’s group felt the same way.) I also have to say that as the series was reaching its (regrettable) conclusion, I felt that Hill’s writing was getting better and better.  Dialogues of the Dead, Death’s Jest Book, Midnight Fugue – I loved all of them.

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Quite a few in our group had watched the Dalziel & Pascoe series on DVD. I recommend them highly, especially series one through four, which contain episodes drawn directly from the novels. (Inspector Morse fans will recognize the soundtrack as being by the inimitable Barrington Pheloung.) 590913 In Bones and Silence, The role of Philip Swain, he who held the gun in the above described homicide scene, is played – beautifully underplayed I should say – by veteran British actor Michael Kitchen, whose portrayal of Christopher Foyle in the series Foyle’s War has been admired and enjoyed by many of us. (Dalziel’s relentless pursuit of Swain puts one in mind of Inspector Javert and Jean Valjean in Hugo’s Les Miserables.)

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Reginald Hill passed away in January of 2012. A site was organized that summer, with the purpose of celebrating Hill both as a writer and a friend to other writers.

Reginald Hill

Reginald Hill

 

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Spring, Beautiful Spring….

March 25, 2014 at 8:14 pm (Local interest (Baltimore-Washington), Weather)

Where is it, I wonder?

“O Wind, if Winter comes / Can Spring be far behind?” Yes, Mr Shelley – apparently, it can be very far behind!

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The Columbia Pro Cantare sings Rutter’s Requiem…

March 20, 2014 at 6:46 pm (Local interest (Baltimore-Washington), Music)

…and more – much more, in a rich and varied program presented this past Sunday.

The first part of the concert consisted of shorter works, primarily by lesser known composers, with one of the most famous, not to mention beloved, making a delightful appearance toward the end.

Here is “L’Amero Saro Costante” from Il Re Pastore by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. The soprano is Kiri te Kanawa

Our vocalist was the lovely and gifted Laura Whittenberger. She has the kind of clear, silvery soprano voice that I love. Here, she sings Susanna’s aria from The Marriage of Figaro:

The remainder of this portion of the concert consisted of three works each by Czech composers Josef Bohuslav Foerster and Zenek Fibich; it concluded with a piece for harp and organ by Grandjany.

Here is Aria in Classic style by the French harpist and composer Marcel Grandjany:

I did not have much luck searching for the pieces by Foerster and Fibich, although I did find several performances of “Poem,” from At Twilight by Fibich. Written in 1893, this unabashedly romantic waltz is redolent of old Europe. It could serve as an elegy for a world destroyed by the conflagrations of the twentieth century.

The version of “Poem” that we heard on Sunday was scored for violin and piano and played by two outstanding local musicians,  pianist Alison Gatwood and violinist Ronald Mutchnik.  Mutchnik is a superb musician, whose playing I’ve often enjoyed at the Bach In Baltimore performances. Because of a recently sustained  injury to his foot, he had to play while seated, with his foot propped up on cushions. Nevertheless, play he did, and beautifully. I’m grateful to him for his show-must-go-on fortitude, and I wish him a  speedy recovery.

I love Marek Stilec, the young conductor in the above video. It’s obvious he’s got his whole heart and soul in this music. Since I first found this video several days ago I’ve been watching it – and breaking my own heart over it – again and again.

Two sacred pieces were included in this portion of the program: Foerster’s Stabat Mater and Beatus Vir by Fibich. The Foerster piece was stately and somber, while the Fibich was radiantly gorgeous. I’ve not been able to find either of these works on YouTube or Amazon.

The Beatus Vir in particular I long to hear again. My husband, ace online researcher and fan of Fibich’s music, also came up empty on this one. I then consulted the program notes, where I found this:

Toward the end of his life Fibich destroyed all his church msic with some few exceptions. “Beatus Vir” for soprano, choir, organ and violin solo was discovered in Prague by a Czech associate of the Pro Cantare.

It does not say exactly when this felicitous discovery was made. I suspect the piece has yet to be recorded.

Zdenek Fibich  1850-1900

Zdenek Fibich 1850-1900

Josef Bohuslav Foerster  1859-1951

Josef Bohuslav Foerster 1859-1951

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After the intermission came the Requiem by John Rutter. Rutter is one of Britain’s greatest living composers. He wrote this work in 1985, in memory of his father, who had passed away the previous year. The Requiem consists of seven movements: Requiem Aeternam, Psalm 130: Out of the Deep, Pie Jesu, Sanctus, Agnus Dei, Psalm 23: The Lord Is My Shepherd, and Lux Aeterna.

I’ve provided links above to to the second through sixth movements of this piece, as performed by the Monteverdi Choir Wurzburg.  Here is the opening movement:

This is an intensely moving work, beautiful and peace giving. The performance by the Columbia Pro Cantare chorus under the direction of Frances Motyca Dawson, with Laura Whittenberger, organist Donald Fries, harpist Jacqueline Pollauf, and the accompanying chamber orchestra was outstanding. But then, we have come to expect no less from these wonderful concerts.

John Rutter

John Rutter

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Happy St. Patrick’s Day?

March 17, 2014 at 10:40 pm (books, Mystery fiction, Weather)

Yes, here in the Free State, it’s déja vu all over again (if you’ll forgive the tautology):

IMG_0545-M

IMG_0549-M

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Ah, well what can one do except, once again, turn to one’s books:

I’m still working my leisurely way through Miklos Banffy’s magisterial trilogy:

oldbanffy4I’m also engaged in yet another happy exercise in paired reading. First, I’m reading a new book on the history of ancient Egypt. It’s called, fittingly enough, A History of Ancient Egypt. 9781250030115  The subtitle, though, is very telling: ‘From  the First Farmers to the Great Pyramid.” The first chapter, “Beside the Pale Lake,” covers the thousand years from 5,000 to 4,000 BC. This is a good thousand years before the unification of Upper and Lower Egypt and the beginning of the Archaic or Early Dynastic Period, which ultimately led to the birth of the Old Kingdom. Author John Romer follows this fascinating trajectory mainly through the momentous discoveries of various archeologists. They find lots of pots, of increasingly subtle manufacture and design, but so far the most striking, not to mention haunting, object I’ve encountered is the Merimda Head:

human mask, Merimde

It was at Marimda…within the strata of the later phases of the settlement, deposited during a two-hundred-year period following the middle of the fourth millennium BC, that archaeologists recovered the fragments of the oldest known sculpture of a human being ever to have been found in Egypt. A clay head as round as a potato, it is a well-made and surprising work. It is also the earliest known evidence of how people living in the valley of the lower Nile saw themselves.

John Romer, in A History of Ancient Egypt

Right.

the-golden-scales-by-parker-bilal  Now we jump forward a couple of millennia to meet Makana, a private investigator living in a dilapidated houseboat in teeming present day Cairo. He’s barely making ends meet when he acquires a fabulously wealthy client who engages him to search for a missing soccer star. Uh oh – trouble ahead, right? You bet!

I’ve had my eye on this series ever since it debuted (with this novel) in 2012. Then two things happened: I read a very positive review of  The Ghost Runner, the latest entry in the series. Then I discovered that The Golden Scales was available for Kindle download at $1.99. I try not to make decisions about my reading matter on such a flimsy basis, but…well, really, I could not resist! And I’m glad that I didn’t. Parker Bilal‘s style is polished, and he has a nice line in private eye irreverence:

There was a lot of gold on that hand. Makana had a frying pan hanging in the kitchen about the size of that wristwatch. It answered any nagging queries he still had about the purpose of the gorilla. If you were going to walk around with that much gold on display, you would need a big friend.

Well, there’s more – when isn’t there? – but I guess I’ll stop here. There’s just that much more shoveling to do. It’s exercise. of a sort, but not nearly as much fun as zumba.

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Carrying your soul like a treasure through life….Alice Munro, once more with feeling

March 12, 2014 at 10:43 am (Awards, Book clubs, books, Short stories)

9780307390349_custom-e27155c40d223c6858288333cae9ff0dc4056f80-s6-c30  When it was announced that Alice Munro had been awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature, AAUW Readers expressed a desire to discuss some of her short stories. (As for me, I had my own, slightly hysterical reaction  to this much deserved recognition of one of my favorite writers.)

As I had previously led such a discussion – twice, in fact – I suggested that we talk about some of the stories in the 2009 collection Too Much Happiness. I said some rather than all, because despite their relative brevity, these tales have more density, ambiguity, and just plain strangeness than many a full length novel. You can spend a fair amount of time discussing just one of them. And so it proved.

Of the stories in this collection, reviewer Troy Jollimore said this:

The power of random events lies at the heart of “Too Much Happiness.” Nearly every story here hinges on some calamity, some unanticipated and mostly arbitrary event. Such things appear, before they happen, neither probable nor possible, though afterward they may well come to seem inevitable.

Nowhere is this truer than in the opening story, “Dimensions.” Doree, an unworldly and gentle soul, marries Lloyd, a hospital orderly whose surface geniality masks a ruthless need for domination. He and Doree have three children in quick succession; all during this time, Lloyd increases his oppression of Doree, bending her to his will and all but extinguishing whatever spirit she still possesses. Finally, out of the relentless workings of this pressure cooker existence, the explosion comes.

The climactic event of this first story is so awful that some readers declared themselves too put off to continue. Or if they did continue, it was under duress and with heightened anxiety. But even those whose reactions were strongly negative admitted the power of the writing. Here is how Munro describes Doree’s life in the aftermath:

For almost two years she had not taken any notice of the things that generally made people happy, such as nice weather or flowers or the smell of a bakery.

From a previous reading, I had written in the margin that this was as succinct a description of human misery as any I’d ever encountered.

In the first part of “Dimensions,” Lloyd emerges as the kind of person most of us meet with at some point, either in real life or in fiction. Here’s my description of a similar character in another context:

Bart Hansen is a veritable case study of the narcissistic personality. His numerous woes are everyone’s fault but his own. His list of grievances is epic and endless, no one understands him, he is sorely put upon, etc. And as for that dreadful crime….who are they talking about anyway in that courtroom? Surely not him: he could never do such a thing!

Bart Hansen is a character in “The Execution,” one of four novellas in  Evil Eye by Joyce Carol Oates.

One of  the readers commented that the power of “Dimensions” lies in the meaning of the title: that the characters, Doree in particular, live in an always changing dimension as events unfold. And those events do unfold with a kind of terrible inevitability, until at the very end there is an unanticipated moment of genuine consolation.

The story we considered next was “Wenlock Edge.” Where “Dimensions” was shocking and tragic (and for some, bewildering), this one is just plain weird. As with many Munro stories, “Wenlock Edge” opens in a studied and understated way, with the introduction of a character who goes on to play a supporting rather than a leading role in subsequent events:

My mother had a bachelor cousin who used to visit us on the farm once a summer. He brought along his mother, Aunt Nell Botts. His own name was Ernie Botts.

In demeanor, Ernie seems to have been a sufficiently pleasant person; physically, however, he was at best unprepossessing. Because he tended to be somewhat heavy in the hip region, the narrator referred to him, when he was out of earshot, as Earnest Bottom. She adds: “I had a mean tongue.”

This narrator, whose name is never divulged, is destined to be on the receiving end of a life lesson that is equal parts unanticipated and bizarre. It requires that she accede to an outrageous demand.

The title “Wenlock Edge” refers to the poem “On Wenlock Edge” by A.E. Housman. This poem is part of a cycle of sixty-three poems published in 1896 and  called A Shropshire Lad. In a key scene in the story, the narrator is asked by an elderly man to read to him from this collection. The circumstances in which this occurs are singular, to say the least.

Here is the poem “On Wenlock Edge:”

On Wenlock Edge the wood’s in trouble
His forest fleece the Wrekin heaves;
The gale, it plies the saplings double,
And thick on Severn snow the leaves.

‘Twould blow like this through holt and hanger
When Uricon the city stood:
‘Tis the old wind in the old anger,
But then it threshed another wood.

Then, ’twas before my time, the Roman
At yonder heaving hill would stare:
The blood that warms an English yeoman,
The thoughts that hurt him, they were there.

There, like the wind through woods in riot,
Through him the gale of life blew high;
The tree of man was never quiet:
Then ’twas the Roman, now ’tis I.

The gale, it plies the saplings double,
It blows so hard, ’twill soon be gone:
To-day the Roman and his trouble
Are ashes under Uricon.

At first sight, this poem is somewhat confounding – at least, with its esoteric and archaic vocabulary, it confounded me. An excellent explication can be  found on a site called Hokku.

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“On Wenlock Edge” and other Housman poems were set to music by Ralph Vaughan Williams. In this video, tenor Ian Bostridge sings them and also tells something of their background:

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We were in Shropshire in 2011. It’s easily one of the most mysterious and beautiful places I have ever been to. Wenlock Edge is defined as “a limestone escarpment near Much Wenlock, Shropshire.” We saw it from a distance. Here it is, photographed from the air:

wenlock-edge-from-the-air

While there, it was my great good fortune to obtain this gorgeously illustrated edition of A Shropshire Lad:

Shropshire-Lad-Front-cover2

The next story we looked at was “Deep-Holes.” A husband and wife are on a picnic excursion with their three young children. What appears on the surface to be an ordinary family outing turns out to be anything but. The eldest child, Kent, tumbles down a hole and is severely injured. Sally and Alex are informed of the accident by their younger son Peter. Sally meanwhile is attempting to nurse baby Savanna.

There follows the inevitable panic. By Herculean effort, Alex manage to rescue Kent, who has broken both legs. One of the breaks was sufficiently severe that he’s left with a slight limp. Other than that, he recovers and seems to be fine. Yet this outing proves fateful, in more ways than one. The family goes on as before, but there’s  been a subtle change, especially as regards relations between Kent and his  father.

In fact, this discussion made me realize that “Deep-Holes” is a story about the father-son relationship. I mentioned reading somewhere once that every son must eventually face a moment of reckoning with his father. This moment can be especially fraught if the father is difficult and demanding, or has achieved  a distinguished position in the world and expects his son to do the same. The irony in this story lies in the fact that Sally is the one who ultimately bears the brunt of Kent’s accumulated resentments.

This story elicited some personal (and to a certain extent, painful) recollections from members of our group . One involved a brother, a favored sibling in the family, who joined a cult and cut himself off from that same family. Another was of an elder brother whose troubled relationship with their father never achieved a satisfactory resolution.

As we were trying to parse the differences between an American and a Canadian sensibility, one among us revealed that she’d lived in Calgary, Alberta, for a time. When you dwell in the Canadian provinces, she assured us, you definitely know that you’re outside the U.S. The place just had a different feel. This was even more true of the small towns in the region. (Actually, her observations reminded me of how I felt when I left the Baltimore/Washington area to go live in a small town in southern Wisconsin. I’d lived in South Korea for a year prior to that move, and I felt more of an alien in Wisconsin, perhaps because I didn’t expect to feel so thoroughly out of place there.)

The penultimate choice for discussion was “Child’s Play,” a story that begins with unprovoked hatred and culminates in an act of terrible malevolence. When I first wrote about Too Much Happiness, I said that “Child’s Play” put me in mind of  “The Tell Tale Heart.” by Edgar Allan Poe.   Both stories illustrate “the generative effect of a baseless loathing,” but there the similarity stops.

“Child’s Play” contains a sentence that demonstrates the way in which Munro’s stories sometimes go quietly along and then wallop you:

I suppose I hated her as some people hate snakes or caterpillars or mice or slugs. For no decent reason. Not for any certain harm she could do but for the way she could disturb your innards and make you sick of your life.

With Poe’s narrator, it is, of course, the old man’s eye:

He had the eye of a vulture –a pale blue eye, with a film over it. Whenever it fell upon me, my blood ran cold; and so by degrees –very gradually –I made up my mind to take the life of the old man, and thus rid myself of the eye forever.

Poe’s narrator is a lone actor, whereas in “Child’s Play,” Marlene and Charlene act in concert. Before they act, though, they’ve spun a web to enclose one another in their own unique world, one in which irrational feelings and beliefs make perfect sense. This phenomenon has a name: folie à deux, also called shared psychotic disorder. That may seem an extreme diagnosis in the case of these two ordinary-seeming girls – that is, until they do what they do.

That “Child’s Play” is told by Marlene in the first person makes it all the more provocative. She circles the horror at the center of the story, unwilling to confront it until the very end. Back and forth she goes, from her childhood to her life as adult, leaping lightly over the truth at the center of things until Charlene’s plea renders continued denial all but impossible. Charlene is desperate for absolution. But what about Marlene? What does she truly feel about their shared past? We can never know. Munro lets you into her heart and mind just so far, and then no further.

So intense was our discussion of these four stories that we barely had time to discuss “Too Much Happiness.” The title story in this collection is substantially longer than the preceding ones and differs from them in significant ways. It recounts the life of Sophia Kovalevsky, the first great female Russian mathematician. (The feminine form of the last name is Kovalevskaya. Her first name is sometimes spelled Sofia, and she was also known as Sonya. One must be mentally nimble when dealing with Russian names.)

Sophia’s life, both in its personal and professional aspects, was a constant struggle. She could not travel outside her native land without the consent of either parents or husband. Therefore she acquired a husband for that specific purpose, so that she could pursue her studies at some of Europe’s great institutions of learning. Not long after, the husband dies; so does Sophia’s sister. When she goes to visit her widowed brother-in-law and her adolescent nephew, she is shabbily treated. Urey, the nephew, is especially mean-spirited, disparaging Sophia’s study of mathematics as unnecessary and a waste of time. He himself declares that he aspires to be employed on buses to call out the names of stations – a much more useful occupation, he smugly informs his aunt, than that of mathematician.

Urey reminds me of Kent in “Deep-Holes.” In fact, Munro’s fiction features a veritable gallery of repugnant and nasty offspring. She’s the least sentimental writer on the subject of children that I’ve ever encountered (with the possible exception of Joyce Carol Oates). They turn on their well-meaning parents and/or relations for no apparent reason. Or if they don’t turn on them, at the very least they abandon them, as Kent does.

In an acknowledgement at the end of the book, Alice Munro says that she discovered Sophia Kovalevsky while researching another topic in the encyclopedia. Many of us who love to do research have had similar experiences.

Sophia is in love with Maksim, a man who resents her intellectual accomplishments and aspirations and in my view is in no way worthy of her. But of course such considerations carry very little weight where matter of of the heart are concerned. Sophia seems to me a conflicted woman, wanting to excel in her field but also willing, even eager, to submit to a man’s domination. Sometimes, in both life  and art, our preferences do not line up as neatly as we would wish them to.

Sofja_Wassiljewna_Kowalewskaja_1

Sophia Kovalevsky 1850-1891

Someone in our group said that “Too Much Happiness” was her least favorite story. One problem all of us encountered when reading it is that the cast of characters was large and sometimes hard to keep track of. In addition, there was a great deal of time shifting, a narrative device to which Munro is quite partial. Usual she makes use of it very effectively, but perhaps because of the length of this particular story, it can cause some confusion regarding the sequence of events. Nevertheless, I really liked it, mainly because of its recreation of the world of late nineteenth century academia and because, like Munro, I was deeply gratified to be introduced to this extraordinary woman, whose existence I’d not  been previously aware of.
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In general, some members of our  group liked Alice Munro’s fiction more than others. One person said that these stories simply did not work for her because  she could not like or identify with any of the characters, nor did she find them sympathetic or likeable.. Yet this same individual made valuable contributions to the discussion. I know I complain about the demands of book groups, but sessions like this remind me of how exhilarating and edifying  the experience can be.
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There are some excellent critiques and posts on the subject of Alice Munro’s works. In particular I’d like to recommend Reading the Short Story, a blog by Charles May, Professor Emeritus of English at California State University, Long Beach.
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c16711  For those wanting to read more of Alice Munro’s stories, I recommend Carried Away: Selected Stories, published in 2006. The selecting was done by Munro herself, as representative of what she considered to be her best work to date. The book contains a very illuminating introduction by Margaret Atwood.
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It has to be said these stories are not for everyone. Some readers find them too bleak and too perverse in their view of human nature. But I find them both mesmerizing and brilliant.

While I was preparing for this discussion, I let Carried Away fall open to where I’d stuck a post-it flag a couple of years ago. This is what I found:

My mother prayed on her knees at midday, at night, and first thing in the morning. Every day opened up to her to have God’s will done in it. Every night she totted up what she’d done and said and thought, to see how it squared with Him. That kind of life is dreary, people think, but they’re missing the point. For one thing, such a life can never be boring. And nothing can happen to you that you can’t make use of. Even if you’re wracked by troubles, and sick and poor and ugly, you’ve got your soul to carry through life like a treasure on a platter. Going upstairs to pray after the noon meal, my mother would be full of energy and expectation, seriously smiling.

                                                                                                      From “The Progress of Love”

Alice Munro

Alice Munro

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Things to do when stuck inside due to (yet another) snow storm

March 3, 2014 at 8:09 pm (books, Cats, Family, Local interest (Baltimore-Washington), opera, Weather)

First and foremost, one must acknowledge the supremacy of Mother Nature:

[Video production courtesy of Ron's Tech Magic]

One can always address one’s piles of stuff with a view to sorting, weeding, and stacking in a neat and orderly manner:

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Well, maybe later – much later….
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One may escape to Ireland’s Wild River. Poetic and gorgeously photographed – I highly recommend this Nature special. (The river in question is the Shannon.)

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One may obsess over one’s son, daughter-in-law (now more like a daughter, lucky me!), grandson and granddaughter. All have lately been vacationing in beautiful Jackson Hole, Wyoming:

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Okay: luggage, check; skis, check; backpacks, check; stroller, check. Wait a minute - where's...?

Okay: luggage, check; skis, check; backpacks, check; stroller, check. Wait a minute – where’s…?

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One may gaze in awe upon great works of art, such as Parmigianino’s Portrait of a  Man with a Book and the Portinari Altarpiece by Hugo Van der Goes:

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Hugo_van_der_Goes_Portinari Altarpiece**************************

One can listen to beautiful music. Fortunately this storm held off long enough for us to  see the Met in HD performance of Alexander Borodin‘s  Prince Igor. What a joy to be able to see live, world class opera in a movie theater fifteen minutes from your front door! Recently I wrote about my fixation on the Polovtsian Dances. This is the opera where that music originates.

It’s a new production, and the choreography for the familiar, well-loved dances is highly unusual. I didn’t think I’d like it, but I did. Click here to view a short segment.

Here’s the trailer for the 2013-2014 season in HD:

A recent Bolshoi Opera production of Prince Igor can be viewed on YouTube:

What gorgeous melodies! This music brings tears to  my eyes.
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Oh – and of course one may catch up on one’s reading. For me, this means the following:

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I’m working my way in leisurely fashion through Miklos Banffy’s  riveting magnum opus, The Transylvania Trilogy.  Here’s an excerpt:

The young people flowed out into the great drawing-room of the castle where the supper was laid. The gypsy musicians vanished to their by now third meal of the evening, and Janos Kadar, helped by a maid, started changing the candles in the Venetian chandeliers. As he did so, young Ferko and the footmen rushed to remove spots of candle-grease from the floor and polish the parquet.

In the drawing-room the long dinner-table had been re-erected to form a buffet and on it was displayed a capercaillie, haunches of venison, all from the Laczoks’ mountain estates in Czik; and home-cured hams, hare and guinea-fowl pâtés and other specialities of Var-Siklod, the recipes of which remained Countess Ida’s closely guarded secret (all that she would ever admit, and then only to a few intimate friends, was: ‘My dear, it’s quite impossible without sweet Tokay!’).

At one end of the table were grouped all the desserts – mountainous cakes with intricate sugar decorations, compotes of fruit, fresh fruit arranged elaborately on silver dishes, and tarts of all descriptions served with bowls of snowy whipped cream. As well as champagne there were other wines, both red and white. An innovation, following the recent fashion for imitating English ways, was a large copper samovar from which the Laczok girls served tea.

As the guests were finishing their supper and beginning to leave the table replete with delicious food and many glasses of wine, the gypsy musicians filed into the room and took up their places to play the traditional interval music. On these occasions Laji Pongracz would play, in turn, all the young girls’ special tunes. At the winter serenades he had made sure that he knew exactly who had chosen which melody as their own and now, each time he started a new tune, he would look directly at the girl whose song it was and smile at her with a discreet but still knowing air.

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Banffy does a magnificent job of evoking an elegant world, now utterly lost. Originally published  between 1934 and 1940, these novels were only recently translated into English from the Hungarian by Patrick Thursfield and Mikos Banffy’s daughter, Katalin Banffy-Jelen. Miklos Banffy’s work here is strongly reminiscent of the Tolstoy of Anna Karenina. He is in fact sometimes referred to as the Transylvanian Tolstoy. High praise indeed, and from what I’ve read so far, deserved.
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I’m also about two thirds of the way through An Officer and a Spy, Robert Harris’s novelized retelling of the notorious Dreyfus Affair.  I’m in awe of the gifts and versatility of this author. He’s made something of a specialty of historical thrillers, and in my view, he’s better at it than just about anyone else. Pompeii, Imperium, Conspirata – all three excellent. Harris has also penned contemporary thrillers that are equally compelling. I’ve read two: The Fear Index and The Ghost. The latter was filmed as The Ghost Writer. Harris wrote the screenplay; the director was Roman Polanski. The film more than did justice to its source.


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Finally, I’d like to close by giving credit where it’s due, to that irreplaceable aid to concentration, the cat. IMG_0542-M  Yes, it’s Miss Audrey Jane Marple, whose fidelity to her role as Companion Animal is unsurpassed!

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From time to time, my art obsession moves front and center, pretty much displacing everything else…

February 27, 2014 at 1:40 pm (Art, Italy)

…and then I am happy.

This  time, the “art attack” began with this painting:

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…and an accompanying article that appeared earlier this month in the Wall Street Journal.

Learning that in 1618, Van Dyck served as chief assistant to Peter Paul Rubens, I looked up the latter in Wikipedia and found this:

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It does seem as though through these portraits, the painters are depicting their very souls. It’s something about that sidelong glance…

51lscyRdx6L  I have recently finished Bernard Berenson: A Life in the Picture Trade by Rachel Cohen. Berenson was a remarkable man. Born Bernhard Valvrojenski in a village in Lithuania, he emigrated with his family to the United States in 1875. Bernhard was ten years old at the time. The family settled in the Boston area.

After graduating from the Boston Latin School, Berenson matriculated at Boston University. After his freshman hear, he transferred to Harvard. His exceptional abilities were recognized early on, and several wealthy patrons and relatives facilitated his trips to Europe, where he discovered his true vocation.

The story of Bernard Berenson’s journey from a shtetl in Lithuania to the rarefied heights of the fine art world makes for fascinating reading. He became the one of the supreme art historians and attribution experts of turn of the century American and Europe. Along the way he seems to have befriended everybody who was anybody. At Harvard, he was taught by William James; he in turn was the teacher of J. Carter Brown. He was close friends with Edith Wharton; they motored through Europe at regular intervals.

Isabella Stewart Gardner by John Singer Sargent, 1888

Isabella Stewart Gardner by John Singer Sargent, 1888

Perhaps most famously, Berenson was instrumental in securing paintings for Isabella Stewart Gardner, whose fabulous collection was ultimately gifted to the city of Boston and to the world beyond.The first old master purchased by Mrs Gardner was The Concert by Jan Vermeer. Acquired in 1892, this was Boston’s first Vermeer and America’s second:

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In 1894, Berenson secured for Mrs Gardner a painting by Sandro Botticelli entitled The Tragedy of Lucretia. It was the first work by that artist to become part of an American collection:

Suicide_lucretiaRachel Cohen says of this painting that it is “rigorous and austere.” She adds:

It shows, simultaneously, three scenes from the story of the virtuous Roman maiden, who is raped and then commits suicide by dagger. Each scene is framed by carefully divided architecture,  which gives the viewer something of the feeling of watching a play on a stage.

In 1896, Gardner, Berenson, and Otto Gutekunst, another expert collector,  scored their greatest coup by acquiring The Rape of Europa by Titian (Tiziano Vecelli or Vecellio).  According to Rachel Cohen, this work is “…still considered by many to be the greatest Italian picture in America:”

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The Vermeer, alas, can no longer be seen at the Gardner Museum. Along with twelve other works of art, it was taken as part of the famous heist of March 18, 1990. The FBI has a page devoted to the theft, and a Time Magazine article features excellent pictures of the stolen paintings. (As it happened, Ron and I were in the Boston area that summer on a long planned trip. We visited the Gardner for the first time, and  I still remember how, right as we entered, there were tables with the names and photos of the missing works, accompanied by a poignant plea for any helpful information that members of the museum-going public might possess.)

Berenson’s expertise in attribution was highly sought after. In one particularly acrimonious case, he found himself at odds with influential dealer Joseph Duveen and other art historians over whether a painting had been done by Giorgione (Giorgio Barbarelli da Castelfranco) or by Titian. The work in question is The Adoration of  the Shepherds, also sometimes called The Allendale Nativity after the previous owner who resided in North Yorkshire. The painting is now generally accepted as the work of Giorgione – generally, but not universally. (See the Wikipedia entry.) A thoughtful and erudite essay on this controversy can be found on the blog Three Pipe Problem.

Here is the painting:

Giorgione_014I kept enlarging this image until I suddenly found myself focused on the tear in the standing shepherd’s garment, just above the elbow. At that moment, my heart contracted and tears filled my eyes. Not a wealthy man, not a potentate from a great kingdom – just a man in search of pure goodness – and as entitled to partake of it as anyone else. What a moment!

It does seem to me a painting of almost otherworldly beauty.

Giorgione blazed like a comet  across the firmament of the Italian Renaissance, his light all too soon extinguished. He died in 1510 when he was only just past the age of thirty, probably yet another victim of the ravages of the Plague. His influence reached for beyond his years.

From Rachel Cohen:

In Berenson’s life, the reconciliation of pricelessness and price was a continual struggle, but it allowed him to see nuances of the art he studied and the commerce he served that modern authentication procedures pass by. His own understanding of Giorgione had shades no X-ray could render. When Berenson had written his first book on the Venetian painters, sixty-three years earlier, glorying and delighting in Boston’s favorite painter and his own happy powers of perception, he had said of Giorgione that “his pictures are the perfect reflex of the Renaissance at its height” and that what was most characteristic in his work was “the lovely landscape…the effects of light and colour, and…the sweetness of human relations.”

Berenson on Raphael’s Lo Sposalizio (Marriage of the Virgin):

…you feel a poignant thrill of transfiguring sensation, as if, on a morning early, the air cool and dustless, you suddenly found yourself in presence of a fairer world, where lovely people were taking part in a gracious ceremony, while beyond them stretched harmonious distances line on line to the horizon’s edge.

Lo Sposalizio by Raphael, 1504

Lo Sposalizio by Raphael, 1504

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The Pleasures of Paired Reading

February 19, 2014 at 2:12 am (books)

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A week ago Saturday, Jean, Marge, and I presented Book Bash, a program of book talks, for our colleagues in AAUW.  In past years, a theme has been chosen  for this program – or rather, a theme would emerge, based on recent reading by the presenters. The theme this year came from my own reading experience. I call it paired reading.

I’ve recently found myself reading in sequence books that are linked with some type of commonality. This commonality could occur in regard to characters, plot elements, setting, or any number of other factors. Most often this happens when I read a work of historical fiction. I would then find myself wanting to know more about the time and place that formed the context of the novel. The reverse frequently happens if I am reading a work of history or especially, of biography. For example, Tom Williams’s biography of Raymond Chandler sent me back to those “thrilling days of yesteryear” when Chandler was writing his gritty and cynical (yet mesmerizing) stories for  the pulps.

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41zv93R-DpL  Raymond Chandler - The Big Sleep

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When we present Book Bash, we always create a book list for the attendees. Here’s what this year’s list looked like:

Jean’s Selections:

(In which the phenomenon of ‘paired reading’ makes an intriguing appearance)

The Cuckoo’s Calling, by Robert Galbraith
& Sons, by David Gilbert
The English Girl, by Daniel Silva
The Lowland, by Jhumpa Lahiri
The Widow Clicquot: The Story of a Champagne Empire and the Woman Who Ruled It, by  Tilar J Mazzeo
What Jefferson Read, Ike Watched and Obama Tweeted: 200 years of popular culture in  the White  House, by Tevi
Troy (paired with some presidential reads)

 Marge’s Selections

(in which ‘paired reading’ appears yet again…)

The Conjuror’s Bird, by Martin Davies (paired with People of the Book by Geraldine Brooks)
Her Fearful Symmetry, by Audrey Niffenegger (paired with The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman)
The House at Riverton, by Kate Morton (paired with Behind the Scenes at Downton Abbey by Emma Rowley)
The World Without You, by Joshua Henkin
Instructions for a Heatwave, by Maggie O’Farrell

 Roberta’s Selections

(in which the ‘paired reading’ phenomenon persists)

The Long Exile, by Melanie McGrath (paired with White Heat, by M.J. McGrath)
The Lady in the Tower: The Fall of Anne Boleyn, by Alison Weir (paired with Bring Up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel)
Murder As a Fine Art, by David Morrell (paired with ‘On Murder Considered As One of the Fine Arts’ by Thomas De Quincey
Out of the Black Land, by Kerry Greenwood (paired with Temples, Tombs, & Hieroglyphs: A Popular History of  Ancient     Egypt by Barbara Mertz and Ancient Egyptian Literature, an anthology translated by John L. Foster)
The Wife of Martin Guerre, by Janet Lewis
A Mysterious Something in the Light: The Life of Raymond Chandler, by Tom Williams

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We did not have time to book talk all of our selections, but we did the best we could in the time allotted to us. Jean enjoyed tantalizing our audience with the true identity of Robert Galbraith; in addition, she gave a colorful discourse on the informal cultural pursuits of various denizens of the White House. Her recommended “presidential reads” included Lucy by Ellen Feldman  and Mount Vernon Love Story by Mary Higgins Clark.

Marge enjoyed describing  by Kate Morton’s novel The House at Riverton, not least because it provided a neat segue into one of the many recent nonfiction titles about Downton Abbey. Her book talk on The World Without You made many in the audience (including me) want to read it as soon as possible. And her reading  from Maggie O’Farrell’s Instructions for a Heatwave produced some welcome laughter.

(I’m continually amused by the way in which Downton Abbey keeps intruding itself into discussions, even those on seemingly unrelated topics. In one book group I attended, someone pleaded for an Abbey embargo – to no avail, alas, but we got back to the book in good time.)

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All of my own Book Bash selections save one are drawn from the running list I’ve been keeping of my own fairly recent paired reading experiences and possible paired reading  projects for the future, to wit:

Bring Up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel and The Lady in the Tower  by Alison Weir (whose history tours of Britain I would love to take)
Poets in a Landscape  by Gilbert Highet and Ovid’s Metamorphoses (full disclosure: I have not yet gotten through the latter)
Out of the Black Land by Kerry Greenwood and Temples, Tombs, and Hieroglyphs by Barbara Mertz (I’ve not read this in its entirety either.)
White Heat by M.J. McGrath and The Long Exile by Melanie McGrath (same person, with a slightly altered name)
The Secret Lives of Somerset Maugham by Selena Hastings and Mrs. Craddock, The Painted Veil, and/or  the  Ashenden  stories by Somerset Maugham
Dark Mirror by Barry Maitland and The Last Pre-Raphaelite by Fiona MacCarthy
Portobello by Ruth Rendell and “Portobello Road,” one of my all time favorite ghost stories, by Muriel Spark
How To Live by Sarah Bakewell and Montaigne’s Essays (not yet read)
Uncommon Arrangements by Katie Roiphe and Testament of Youth by Vera Brittain, the short stories of Katherine Mansfield, and/or The Enchanted April by Elizabeth von Arnim (Haven’t yet read any of these three fiction titles, with the exception of one or two stories by Mansfield.)
Give Me Everything You Have by James Lasdun and Enduring Love by Ian McEwan
The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher by Kate Summerscale and Lady Audley’s Secret by Mary Elizabeth Braddon, the latter being amazingly readable for a novel that came out in 1862 – I couldn’t put it down!
Murder As a Fine Art by David Morrell and “Murder Considered As One of the Fine Arts,” satirical essays by Thomas De Quincey
Life After Life  by Kate Atkinson and Frozen in Time  by Mitchell Zuckoff,, Citizens of London by Lynne Olson and/or The Love-Charm of Bombs by Lara Feigel (Haven’t yet read any of the three nonfiction titles.)
Portrait of a Lady by Henry James and Portrait of a Novel: Henry James and the Making of an American Masterpiece, by Michael Gorra
A Mysterious Something in the Light: The Life of Raymond Chandler, by Tom Williams and any of Chandler’s novels and/or short stories

I’m grateful to Kerry Greenwood for reawakening my interest in ancient Egypt – an interest which has lain largely dormant for several decades. I chose to pair her wonderful historical novel with one of  Barbara Mertz‘s two nonfiction titles on Egypt because this prolific author and Egyptologist is known to many mystery readers for her Amelia Peabody series. (She also wrote romantic suspense under the name of Barbara Michaels.) For some years, Mertz was a local celebrity, living not far from here in Frederick, Maryland. Not long after I went to work at the Howard County Library in 1982, she graciously appeared at one of our programs, and was introduced by my close friend and  fellow librarian Marge – that same Marge who presented with Jean and me at Book Bash. (Barbara Mertz passed away in August of last year; she was 85.)

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It goes without saying that one will never lack for books on the subject of ancient Egypt, but I do want to mention a new one that I just got from the library: A History of Ancient Egypt: From the First Farmers to the Great Pyramid, by John Romer. It comes highly recommended and looks to be fascinating as well as beautifully written. For her part, Barbara Mertz can be downright poetic. Temples, Tombs, and Hieroglyphs opens with a scene invented to make a particular point right at the book’s outset:

One bright summer afternoon in the year 5263 B.C, a man stood on the cliffs high above the Nile Valley. He was slightly built and only a few inches over five feet in height; his brown body was naked except for a kilt of tanned hide. But he held himself proudly, for he was a tall man among his people, and a leader of men.

(You can read more on Amazon.)

BarbaraMertz

Barbara Mertz

I greatly loved Sarah Bakewell’s biography of Michel de Montaigne and was looking forward to diving into the famous Essays. Alas, I found them all but unreadable. Possibly the fault was in the translation, but I also encountered a  fair amount of untranslated Latin, a language I have not seriously student since my sophomore year in high school. (Suggestions, anyone?)

give-me-everything-you-have2  Enduring love

I paired James Lasdun’s true story of stalking with Ian McEwan’s novel Enduring Love because of the latter’s extremely insightful depiction of what it’s like to be the object of someone else’s obsession. (It is very frightening in both of these narratives, I assure you.)

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Uncommon Arrangements and The Love-Charm of Bombs are both books that furnish enough material for a semester length course (or a series of book discussions). Both deal with multiple authors. I’ve had Lara Feigel’s book out of the library several times but yet have yet to read it. It’s very long, but it features in its cast of characters one of my favorite authors, Graham Greene.

I’ve been enjoying a new historical mystery series by Robin Blake. It’s set in Preston, Lancashire, in the 1740′s and features Titus Cragg, a coroner, and Luke Fidelis, a doctor; the first entry in the series is A Dark Anatomy. I’m on the lookout for a good nonfiction read about that period in English history. (Suggestions welcome.)  And I”m currently immersed in Robert Harris’s exciting new thriller A Gentleman and a Spy. In this novel, Harris tells the story of the notorious Dreyfus Affair. Turn of the century Paris, filled with ugliness, beauty, and above all, intrigue, springs vividly to life. I’ll want to read more on this subject, one I feel I’ve known about my whole life but never really known – if you know what I mean.

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Finally, the “save one” I alluded to above is The Wife of Martin Guerre by Janet Lewis. Words fail me when I seek to heap praise on this slender and magnificent work of fiction. There actually is a nonfiction counterpart to this novel: The Return of Martin Guerre by Natalie Zemon Davis. Davis, currently a professor of history at the University of Toronto in Canada, served as consulted for the 1983 film The Return of Martin Guerre. Her book came out at about the same time the movie was released; I recall reading it then and enjoying it very much.

The film is worth seeking out; its meticulous recreation of another time and place shows that like the English, the French possess an almost uncanny ability to channel their own past.

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For me, paired reading – or in some cases tripled or even quadrupled reading – has greatly enhanced the pleasure that books continue to give me. I now realize that I was  becoming increasingly dissatisfied with my (seemingly) aimless jumping around from one book to the next. Now that I want to take my reading in more specific (and sometimes esoteric) directions, I’m finding it more challenging to fit in the reading assigned by no fewer than three book clubs (!). While I’m grateful for the discoveries I’ve made as a result of participating in these groups, I also reserve the right to say “no thanks,” if I feel the need to. You may well ask: Why not just drop out of one, or two, or all three of the book groups? It’s kind of a long story, but the fact is I’d rather stick with all them to the extent possible. (I may be reading myself into a stupor, but I’m happy doing it.)

At any rate, I want to conclude by heartily recommending the intellectual, sensual, and emotional pleasures afforded by paired reading.

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