Having recently attended two very enjoyable book discussions, I’ve decided to voice a few more thoughts on this subject. Two of the book groups I attend (with some regularity) make their choices by means of a general shout-out. This occurs every few months – both of these groups meet every two months. Gradually the titles are winnowed down to those few that seem to have the most general appeal. (Nevertheless, there may be at least one person in the room thinking, Oh good grief, I do NOT want to read that! I’ve read bad reviews / it’s too long/ that author is overrated/I’ve already tried reading it and couldn’t get past page five, etc. etc. I freely confess that I have been that person, more than once.)
The third book group – The Usual Suspects, frequently referenced in this space, employs a different procedure for the selection of titles. Just before Christmas, each person chooses a month in the coming year when they’ll be responsible for leading the discussion. That same individual chooses the book to be discussed at that session. Whether or not others approve is immaterial, at least at this stage of the proceedings. We read the book, show up at the appointed time and place – and let fly! (Actually, we’re very civil.)
Of these two methods of choosing, I favor the one practiced by the Usual Suspects. It guards against haggling and impulsive decisions, possibly regretted at a later time. Oh, and one other suggestion: If it’s your selection that’s so to speak under the microscope, don’t start by asking people if liked the book. Instead, dive right in with the particulars. Sometimes a reader who’s formed a not especially favorable opinion of a book finds that same opinion being modified as the discussion goes forward. (This, too, has happened to me.)
Below is a list of books I’ve read in recent months that I enjoyed a great deal and that, in my view, would be good book group choices (or in my case already have been, as indicated by an asterisk):
The Unknown Bridesmaid – Margaret Forster
Stoner – John Williams
*Sparta – Roxana Robinson
*The Invention of Wings – Sue Monk Kidd
The Children Act – Ian McEwan
The Weight of Water – Anita Shreve
American Romantic – Ward Just
Some Luck – Jane Smiley
Clever Girl – Tessa Hadley
CRIME AND SUSPENSE
*An Officer and a Spy – Robert Harris
Sandrine’s Case – Thomas H. Cook
After I’m Gone – Laura Lippman
– Candace Fleming
A Spy Among Friends: Kim Philby and the Great Betrayal – Ben Macintyre
*The Good Nurse: A True Story of Medicine, Madness, and Murder – Charles Graeber
It’s been a while since I read anything by Jane Smiley. I had a feeling I would like her latest. “Like” is too weak a word. I thought it was terrific. Some Luck is the first in a projected three volume saga of the Langdon family. It begins on a farm in Iowa in 1920. The rural life there is described with such loving care that I wished things could stay the same forever. But of course they can’t – and they don’t.
There was nothing extraordinary about these characters except that they spring from the fervent imagination of a master craftsman. I care so much about what happens to them! I look forward eagerly to the next installment.
The Unknown Bridesmaid seems, indeed, to be all but unknown. I sought it out on the basis of a review in The New York Times. The reviewer, Michelle Wildgen, calls it “a mesmerizing, unsettling novel.” Forster tells the story of Julia, beginning with her girlhood, as she becomes increasingly at odds with her loving yet strangely uncommunicative family. I can’t describe the hypnotic effect this story had on me any better than Wildgen does, so I’ll let her do it:
One isn’t always certain what, exactly, there is to fear in the middle-class environs in which Julia grows up, but no matter how mundane the event, the atmosphere is electric with significance.
(Click here for the full text of the review.)
I’d love to lead a discussion of this novel. This would give me a perfect reason to reread it, which I want to do anyway.
Sue Monk Kidd’s luminous novel opens with this sentence:
There was a time in Africa the people could fly.
And how, in the early 1800s, the blacks of South Carolina wished they could take wing and escape their imprisonment in that cruelest of conditions, chattel slavery. This “peculiar institution” – what an absurd euphemism! – is justly loathed for its forced labor, debased living conditions, and a host of other terrible impositions on the human spirit.
This novel is based on the true story of Sarah and Angelina Grimké, two sisters from antebellum South Carolina. Raised in opulent surroundings, they rebelled against a way of life that depended for its very existence on the work of slaves. Eventually they broke with their family and headed north, seeking shelter and making common cause with Quakers and other staunch abolitionists.
But this novel is equally the story of the daily lives of the slaves themselves. Hetty – also known as Handful, because she is one – is Sarah’s counterpart in the world of bondage. This is a spirited young woman, whose spirit is tested daily by the oppression which she has no choice but to endure. There are many reasons to be outraged by the living conditions imposed by slavery, but what The Invention of Wings also makes painfully clear is how circumscribed the life of a slave was, how devoid of meaningful occupation, how constricted the horizon. Enforced illiteracy was the capstone on this cruel edifice.
Not surprisingly, our discussion of this novel was impassioned. Some in the group had, in the past, lived in the Carolinas; their observations were illuminating, even surprising. Related reading was suggested; Jean’s mention of Song Yet Sung by James McBride sparked an interest in almost all who were present. Just before coming to the meeting, I’d found a program on the Abolitionists that can be viewed on the PBS site. The film opens with the (briefly told) story of Angelina Grimké.
This novel left me sadder and wiser; in addition, reading it was also an enraging experience. I’m at a loss to understand how a purportedly civilized people could ever have convinced themselves that it was acceptable to live this way.
Slavery tainted and debased all who were confined within its strictures. During a fraught interaction with Handful, Sarah experiences this unwelcome flash of self-knowledge:
I saw then what I hadn’t seen before, that I was very good at despising slavery in the abstract, in the removed and anonymous masses, but in the concrete, intimate flesh of the girl beside me, I’d lost the ability to be repulsed by it. I’d grown comfortable with the particulars of evil. There’s a frightful muteness that dwells at the center of all unspeakable things, and I had found my way into it.
This is what she and her sister had to battle against, both in the world around them and in their own hearts. And as for Handful, she had her own battles to fight. When she sees herself and fellow slaves listed as possessions – with dollar amounts beside their names! – in the record books of her “Masters,” she reflects:
Goods and chattel. The words from the leather book came into my head.We were like the gold leaf mirror and the horse saddle. Not full-fledge people. I didn’t believe this, never had believed it a day in my life, but if you listen to white folks long enough, some sad, beaten-down part of you starts to wonder. All that pride about what we were worth left me then. For the first time, I felt the hurt and shame of just bring who I was.
Thanks are due to the AAUW Readers for a lively and stimulating afternoon. As for The Invention of Wings, it’s great book for discussion. A great book, period.
The Judge Dee character is based on the historical figure Di Renjie (c. 630–c. 700), magistrate and statesman of the Tang court. During the Ming Dynasty (1368–1644) in China, a “folk novel” was written set in former times, but filled with anachronisms. Van Gulik found in the 18th century Di Gong An (Chinese:狄公案 Pinyin: dí gōng àn, lit. “Cases of Judge Dee”) an original tale dealing with three cases simultaneously, and, which was unusual among Chinese mystery tales, a plot that for the most part lacked an overbearing supernatural element which could alienate Western readers. He translated it into English and had it published in 1949 under the title Celebrated Cases of Judge Dee.
The subsequent (and original) Judge Dee tales took their impetus from van Gulik’s initial act of translation.
Anne M., our discussion leader, provided us with this fascinating background material and much else besides. To begin with, Robert Hans van Gulik was an extremely gifted and accomplished individual. Born in the Netherlands in 1910, he spent his early years in the Dutch East Indies, where his father served in the army as a physician. In 1923, his family returned to the Netherlands, where he completed high school, went on to university and eventually obtained a doctorate. His areas of specialization were all located in East Asia. His professional life was spent in the foreign service. In fact, he had come to love all things Chinese, mastering the language and learning to play the guqin, described as “a zither-type stringed instrument dating back to remote antiquity.” (See R.H. van Gulik and the Qin for more on this.) In 1943, he married Shui Shifang, a college educated typist at the Dutch legation in China and the daughter of an imperial Mandarin. (More information about the life and work of Robert van Gulik can be found at Judge-Dee.info.)
As The Haunted Monastery opens, Judge Dee and his entourage are traveling through the mountainous region of Han-yuan. Soon they are overtaken by a violent storm and the axle of their coach vehicle is broken. Judge Dee sees no recourse but to seek shelter in a nearby religious community. This is Morning Cloud Cloud Monastery, a Taoist establishment. The Judge’s First Lady Wife – there are three of them – opines that it will be interesting to see the interior of the monastic complex. Her husband replies dismissively: “There isn’t much to see….It’s just an old monastery.” Needless to say, events prove otherwise.
When the party present themselves at the entrance, albeit unannounced, the Judge and his party are courteously received by the Prior. They are provided with nourishment and rooms in which to stay the night. And almost at once, mysteries begin to unfold, beginning with a bizarre scene inadvertently witnessed by Judge Dee:
The window in the wall of the building opposite stood open; across the dividing space of six feet or so he looked into a dimly-lit room. He saw the broad back of a man wearing a close-fitting iron helmet who was trying to embrace a naked woman. She covered her face with her right arm, where the left should have been there was only a ragged stump. The man let go of her and she stumbled back against the wall. Then the wind tore the hooks of the shutters from Judge Dee’s hands, and they slammed shut in his face.With an oath he pushed them open again, but now he saw nothing but a dark curtain if rain.
The Haunted Monastery, with its plethora of dramatis personae, its tangled plot – or should I say, plots – and the complex yet claustrophobic setting, was a challenging read. For our edification, Anne provided us with a comprehensive list of characters; in addition, she had formulated wise and provocative discussion questions. She seemed to have an almost effortless command of every twist and turn in the story.
Our discussion ranged far and wide, in some cases raising questions that could only be answered by further research. We were particularly interested in Taoism and Confucianism, both of which play an important part in the narrative. The monastery is Taoist; the Judge is Confucian. Here are his ruminations on the Taoist faith:
“The question is, Tao Gan, whether we are meant to discover the mystery of life, and whether that discovery would make us happier. Taoism has many elevated thoughts; it teaches us to requite good with good, and bad also with good. But the instruction to requite bad with good belongs to a better age than we are living in now, Tao Gan! It’s a dream of the future, a beautiful dream — yet only a dream. I prefer to keep to the practical wisdom of our Master Confucius, who teaches us our simple, everyday duties to our fellow-men and to our society. And to requite good with good, and bad with justice!”
I liked Frank’s comment to the effect that while reading The Haunted Monastery, he had the feeling that the prose style was in some way distinctively Chinese. A reviewer on Goodreads makes a similar observation with regard to The Celebrated Cases of Judge Dee:
One aspect of books and reading that I don’t often consider is the extent to which storytelling is a cultural form, often arising out of long-standing tradition. Modern American writing has such an emphasis on telling a good story as well as innovation in characterization and world-building that I forget about traditional forms. The manuscript of Celebrated Cases of Judge Dee is the product of an extensive tradition in Chinese detective storytelling.
In his Translator’s Preface to The Celebrated Cases of Judge Dee, Robert van Gulik enumerates the characteristics of that tradition. I’ve not been able to find this Preface online, but I did find a helpful summary of van Gulik’s main points on Wikipedia:
- the detective is the local magistrate who is usually involved in several unrelated cases simultaneously;
- the criminal is introduced at the very start of the story and his crime and reasons are carefully explained, thus constituting an inverted detective story rather than a “puzzle”;
- the stories have a supernatural element with ghosts telling people about their death and even accusing the criminal;
- the stories are filled with digressions into philosophy, the complete texts of official documents, and much more, making for very long books;
- the novels tend to have a huge cast of characters, typically in the hundreds, all described as to their relation to the various main actors in the story.
Very few of these tales have been translated into Western languages. It was Robert van Gulik’s wish to remedy this situation to some small degree by his own efforts. Wanting very much to bring the character of Judge Dee to life for readers in the West, he then set about writing original stories that would achieve this goal. In the process he brings to life a time and place so remote as to seem like the stuff of dreams. And yet these people, with their dreams, desires, and disappointments, seem to some extent not so very different from us. (In The Haunted Monastery, one must make an exception, of course, for the last character on Anne’s list: “A Bear.”)
I highly recommend the spoken word version of the Judge Dee mysteries as performed by
Frank Muller. I listened to them quite some time ago on audiotape, and I don’t know if they’ve ever been made available on a more current format. If not, tant pis; they are quite wonderful. (I own The Phantom in the Temple and would be happy to loan it out. Remember, though: you’ll need a cassette player!)
**Thanks once again to Anne for her lucid and meticulous presentation. It was masterful.**
Robert van Gulik illustrated the Judge Dee novels with his own line drawings. These two appear in The Haunted Monastery:
And I have so much to be thankful for:
Welles Samuel passed the one year mark in September; Etta Lin turned four last month.
These videos, taken recently at a playground in Chicago on a beautiful sunny day, seemed to me to constitute an apt metaphor for the tricky art of parenting: When to help, when to hold on – and when to let go.
And my wonderful son and daughter-in-law make it look easy!
Oh, to be in Oxford….The Late Scholar by Jill Paton Walsh, based on the characters created by Dorothy L Sayers
Visible from the cupola is a southerly vista of extraordinary beauty. Fist the little Gothis lancets on the roof of the Bodleian; then the large rounded mass of the dome on the Radcliffe Camera, which convinces the eye at once that every city should have a dome; then the airy Gothic spire of the university church, St. Mary the Virgin, the square tower of Merton. And Tom Tower off to one side and beyond it all in every direction soft and gently rising vistas of green hills.
This view of Oxford, seen from the cupola of the Sheldonian Theatre, is at that moment being taken in by by Harriet Vane and her son Paul. Harriet Vane, that is, aka the Duchess of Denver. Paul is one of two sons she has had with her husband Lord Peter Wimsey.
Peter has been called to St. Severin’s, a (fictional) college at Oxford, to mediate a dispute that has arisen among the fellows of the college. When he arrives upon the scene. one of his earliest discoveries is that the Warden of the college has gone missing. In fact, he has been missing for weeks, and there’s been almost no action taken to ascertain his whereabouts. Ergo, there’s already a mystery brewing. The fellows themselves are evasive; the signs are troubling. In classic detective fiction fashion, things get far more dire before any kind of resolution presents itself.
If you’re thinking that I’m being deliberately vague about this novel’s plot, I plead guilty. I finished several weeks ago, and I would be hard pressed to provide any details concerning the crimes and the subsequent investigation. What has stayed with me, however, is the pleasure I derived from being in the company of Lord Peter and his beloved Harriet. In addition, I enjoyed tracking down the classical and poetical allusions that flowed freely in this novel – even one this poignant:
VEN such is time, that takes in trust
Our youth, our joys, our all we have,
And pays us but with earth and dust;
VEN such is time, that takes in trust
Our youth, our joys, our all we have,
And pays us but with earth and dust;
Who, in the dark and silent grave,
When we have wandered all our ways,
Shuts up the story of our days:
But from this earth, this grave, this dust,
My God shall raise me up, I trust.
Peter was far from immune to this bitterly intense nostalgia; he too had lain in a punt with his friends on more than one dewy morning, and heard the song, and adjourned to eat breakfast cooked on a campfire in the meadow below the bridge. Thinking of punts he remembered sleeping in one, overcome with weariness, while Harriet watched him, and when he awoke something unspoken and irrevocable had happened between them.——————————————————-
The flat setting and fine scroll-work of the ear, and the height of the skull above it. The glitter of the close-cropped hair where the neck-muscles lifted to meet the head. A minute sickle-shaped scar on the left temple. The faint laughter-lines at the corner of the eye and the droop of the lid at its outer end. The gleam of gold down on the cheekbone. The wide spring of the nostril….
Shrewsbury was the stand-in for Somerville College in Gaudy Night. (Dorothy L Sayers earned her degree from Somerville.) Early in the novel, as Harriet Vane is arriving at her alma mater, she reflects on the terrible ordeal of having being tried for murder some years earlier (as described in Strong Poison). Her graduation from Shrewsbury is an immense source of comfort, pride, and strength:
They can’t take this away, at any rate. Whatever I may have done since, this remains. Scholar; Master of Arts; Domina; Senior Member of this University (statutem est quod Juniores Senioribus debitam et congruam reverentiam tum in privato tum in publico exhibeant); a place achieved, inalienable, worthy of reverence.
Jill Paton Walsh has thus far written four novels that serve as a continuation of the story of Harriet Vane and Peter Wimsey:
Of these, I’ve only read the first and the most recent. You can probably gather from what I’ve written that I thoroughly enjoyed The Late Scholar, and I recommend it, especially to those who, like me, relish crime fiction that hearkens back to a more genteel era.
I seem to recall Jill Paton Walsh stating that after reading Gaudy Night, she was fired with a desire to attend one of the Oxford Colleges. (She graduated with honors from St. Anne’s College in 1959.) She’s also the author of mysteries featuring Imogen Quy, a nurse at St. Agatha’s College, Cambridge. There are only four entries in this series, the last, The Bad Quarto, having been published here in 2007. I wish she’d write more; I really enjoyed them.
Having very much enjoyed Waters’s The Little Stranger, I was looking forward to this, her latest work. You probably know what’s coming, and yes, I was to a fair degree frustrated with this novel. Clocking in at 564 pages, it was too long. Now for me, that is not a hard and fast rule. Wolf Hall was almost exactly the same length, and I’d hoped it would never end.
The Paying Guests begins with a description of the lives of Frances Wray and her mother. They are living in extremely straitened circumstances. The year is 1923 and Britain is still reeling from the terrible losses sustained in the First World War. The Wrays themselves sacrificed two young men, brothers and sons, to that conflict.
Now they are simply trying to keep their heads above water. They have let their servants go and have made whatever other economies they can. Frances is doing all of the housework herself. It is grueling work, but offers a certain grim satisfaction:
She worked briskly and efficiently, taking her brush and pan from the drawing room to the top of the stairs and making her way back down, a step at a time; after that she filled a bucket with water, fetched her kneeling mat, and began to wash the hall floor. Vinegar was all she used. Soap left streaks on the black tiles. The first, wet rub was important for loosening the dirt, but it was the second bit that really counted, passing the wrung cloth over the floor in one supple, unbroken movement…There! How pleasing each glossy tiles was. The gloss would fade in about five minutes as the surface dried; but everything faded. The vital thing was to make the most of the moments of brightness. There was no point in dwelling on the scuffs.
And so it goes, day after day, until Frances and her mother decide to take in boarders. They could use the money. And so, enter Leonard and Lilian Barber, a young couple in need of affordable lodgings. They are the eponymous Paying Guests. At first, the arrangement seems suitable for all. But in actuality, the appearance of the Barbers on the scene presages a whole host of problems – problems that culminate in catastrophe.
In the main, The Paying Guests is a passionate love story, and one of my chief problems with the narrative was that the raptures of the lovers were dwelt upon at such length that I wanted to cry out, “Okay! I get it! They’re crazy about each other!” I don’t want to say any more for fear of giving away too much. I readily concede that Sarah Waters is an excellent writer; she vividly evokes the privations and losses suffered by many of the English in the wake of the Great War.. It’s just that in my view, some judicious editing would have done this novel a world of good.
“She had come alive for him, a recognizable human being from seven centuries ago.” – The Stone Wife, by Peter Lovesey
I finished this a while ago, but the pleasure of Peter Lovesey’s ingenious plotting and witty dialog has stayed with me. As is frequently the case with books in this series, the opening scene delivers a palpable shock, with sudden violence erupting in an ultra civilized venue.
The novel is enriched with the lore and legend of Geoffrey Chaucer. The eponymous stone wife is, in fact, a sculpted figure purportedly of the Wife of Bath, one of the more memorable, one could say more colorful, of the pilgrims who inhabit The Canterbury Tales. As Peter Diamond’s investigation progresses, one of the more important witnesses to emerge is the murder victim’s ex-wife. She proves to be a multiply married woman who, as she approaches late middle age, is yet possessed of a healthy libido. She is, in other words, something of a modern day Wife of Bath.
For me, one of the special pleasures of this book was the fact that although most of it takes place in Bath, excursions are made to Bristol. At least one scene takes place at he Clifton Suspension Bridge. I was privileged to see this engineering marvel for myself in 2011. The day was windy, so I declined the guide’s invitation to walk across, but my game husband and several others in our group made the trek.
With every new entry, this series just gets better and better. Skeleton Hill, Stagestruck, Cop To Corpse, The Tooth Tattoo - all were excellent. With The Stone Wife, Peter Lovesey has once again surpassed himself. As if you hadn’t guessed by now – highly recommended!
Congratulations to my beautiful granddaughter! (with apologies for being a day late)
So says Harold Schechter, editor of True Crime: An American Anthology. Schechter informs us of this startling fact concerning Hawthorne’s reading preference in the course of his introduction to the essay “Jesse Strang.” Strang, it seems, murdered one John Whipple, husband of his lover Elsie Whipple. Jesse was besotted with Elsie, and she made use of that fact to goad him into eliminating her inconvenient and unwanted spouse. It’s a scenario redolent of associations with Ruth Snyder and Judd Gray, though it predates that sensational case by many decades.
Nathaniel Hawthorne himself is represented in the Schechter anthology by a brief excerpt from his notebooks in which he describes a display of wax figures representing a variety of notorious murderers and their victims.
Nathaniel Hawthorne, true crime buff! As my grandmother (of blessed memory) would’ve said, “Who knew?”
In his fiction, Hawthorne returns time and again to the theme of sin, its corrosive and irreversible affect on the human spirit, and the often vain hope of redemption. This preoccupation is usually said to have its roots in his ancestry – actually in one ancestor in particular. John Hathorne was one of the examining magistrates in the Salem witch trails of 1692. Unlike other judges who also took part, Hathorne was not known ever to express remorse over the role he played in those notorious proceedings.
I love the stories of Nathaniel Hawthorne, in part because they capture the mixture of unease and longing that dwelt in the hearts of the early settlers. Among my favorites are “Young Goodman Brown,” “The Birthmark,” and “The Gray Champion.” I especially love “Rappaccini’s Daughter” for its strange inversion of good and evil, and “The Minister’s Black Veil’ for its aura of impenetrable mystery. Nothing is explained; the reader is left to wonder and speculate.
As a youth, Hawthorne was an introvert. He almost never went out into society. Having graduated from Bowdoin College in 1825, he declined to take up a profession. Instead, he returned to his mother’s house in Salem to live in solitude and to write. His mother, being of a similar temperament, left him to it.
After he had passed some years in this manner, Hawthorne became restless. On a visit to the Peabody family, ostensibly to see Elizabeth Peabody, he encountered her sister Sophia. They fell in love, and she and Hawthorne were married in 1842.
The full story of this late blooming love is an appealing one, especially as told in Miriam Levine’s lambent prose:
On a visit to the Peabody family in Salem, [Hawthorne] met Sophia Peabody. They had much in common. Both felt shadowy, unnreal, cut off from affection and vital life. Sophia, who, like Hawthorne, was born in Salem, had lived as a recluse since she was nine. sensitive, prone to excruciating headaches, she was dosed with drugs and encouraged in her invalidism as if it would be her lifes’ work. She told Hawthorne that she had lived in a seclusion as deep as his own.
Their marriage brought the Hawthornes into vivid immediate contact with the physical world. They felt alive, newly created by love. The world was real. They could feel it. They called themselves the new Adam and Eve. Everything they wrote during their stay at the Old Manse – in letters and diaries – conveys the pleasure of well-matched lovers who luckily, and against all odds, find sex delightful from the beginning. Sophia rejoiced that she was completely his. Her headaches stopped.
from A Guide to Writers’ Homes in New England
It has been my privilege and pleasure to visit Concord, Massachusetts on several occasions. Each time I go, I am moved by the rich literary and historical sites and associations encountered there. Visiting the Old Manse, where the Hawthornes spent the first three years of their married life, is a special experience.
I always seek out the window pane which bears the inscriptions made by Hawthorne and Sophia. (They used Sophia’s diamond ring as their writing tool.):
Man’s accidents are God’s purposes.
Sophia A. Hawthorne, 1843.
This is his study.
The smallest twig
leans clear against the sky.
Composed by my wife,
and written with her dia-
Inscribed by my
husband at sunset,
April 3, 1843
On the gold light. S. A. H.
How one longs to touch the words! But they are protected by an additional pane of glass (or at least, they were when I was last there.)
Should you find yourself in this lovely town one day, I highly recommend Jane Langton’s delightful mystery, God in Concord. . (Thanks to the Mysterious Press, novels in Langton’s series featuring Homer and Mary Kelly are now available on Kindle.)
Some friends and I wanted to see the Degas / Cassatt exhibit. This was enjoyable, if less than spectacular. Of course, one loves the little girl in the blue chair, the perfect picture of youthful ennu:
(This work puts me in mind of the painting of Agatha Christie as a young girl that hangs in Greenway, the writer’s country home on the Devon coast.
I especially loved Degas’s Rehearsal in the Studio. There’s something about the way the light flows into the room….
After viewing the exhibit, we each went our separate ways. I decided to seek out some of my favorites from among the works in the National Gallery’s permanent collection. It had been too long since I’d seen them.
I actually saw Manet’s The Old Musician while on my way to Degas / Cassatt. It stopped me in my tracks.
I’m not sure why this painting affects me as it does. I am held by the musician’s unwavering gaze. I feel a powerful urge to enter right into the scene. In my mind, I do just that.
Everything I love about “England’s green and pleasant land” is embodied here in John Constable’s Wivenhoe Park, Essex. (Be sure to click to enlarge.)
The Danae, by Titian. We’re lucky to have this masterpiece. It was looted by the Nazis and recovered by the famous Monuments Men from inside a salt mine in Austria.
‘Whenas in silks my Julia goes
Then, then (methinks) how sweetly flows
That liquefaction of her clothes.’
I was not familiar with this moving work by Murillo, but it summoned up pictures I’ve seen of the same subject as portrayed by Rembrandt. (This painting is in Russia’s Hermitage Museum.):
It’s interesting, the power that this New Testament parable holds over the artistic imagination. (It appears only in the gospel of Saint Luke.) The Murillo canvas is certainly beautiful (and I confess that I especially appreciate the sweet presence of the small dog), but Rembrandt’s rendering is something quite apart and almost unbearably poignant.
The Parable of the Prodigal Son is my husband’s favorite passage from the Bible. Ron is especially partial to the ballet, with music by Sergei Prokofiev and choreography by the great George Balanchine. This video is of a 1978 performance by the New York City Ballet, with the incomparable Mikhail Barishnikov as the Prodigal. The last few minutes are just – well, I lack the words to describe that scene. You’ll have to see for yourself:
The fact is, I’ve fallen hopelessly behind in reviewing my recent reads. This does not mean that they’ve been disappointing. On the contrary, they’ve been exceptionally good – in a couple of cases, even great. And virtually all of them merit serious consideration by book discussion groups. (In cases where I’ve previously written about a work, I’ve provided links.)
AFTER I’M GONE by Laura Lippman
Yet another gem from Lippman, a beloved local institution. Here she talks about her latest novel at Washington’s Politics and Prose, another beloved local institution. I found very interesting her insistence on the distinction between a plot that’s ‘inspired by,’ as opposed to ‘based on,’ actual events and/or persons.
THE RESISTANCE MAN by Martin Walker.
My only problem with this latest entry in the Bruno Chief of Police series is that the complexity of the plot tended to interfere with the immersion in the food and wine of France’s fabulous Dordogne region. And I simply could not get enough of Bruno’s endlessly tangled love life and the antics of his new basset hound puppy Balzac. (Said canine serves to remind Bruno that he really must get back to reading the classics, a timely reminder for this reader as well.)
BLACK LIES, RED BLOOD – Kjell Eriksson
NO MAN’S NIGHTINGALE – Ruth Rendell
I confess to possessing no objectivity concerning the works of Baroness Rendell of Babergh. She could write advertising copy (as Dorothy L Sayers did so entertainingly) and I would no doubt be enthralled. I’m partial to the Wexford procedurals, but really, anything will do. Her latest, The Girl Next Door, is due out next month.
THE INVENTION OF WINGS – Sue Monk Kidd
I would not have read this book had it not been a selection of the AAUW Readers. It’s turned out to be the classic case of reluctance turned into enthusiasm.
I’d tried to read Kidd’s first novel, The Secret Life of Bees, and I hadn’t cared for it. I thought the author was trying too hard to create a mystical aura; in addition, the characters seemed stereotypical. In my view, that is not true of The Invention of Wings. For one thing, the novel is based on the actual lives of the Sarah and Angelina Grimké, two sister from South Carolina who traveled north to become Quakers and fervent abolitionists in the early years of the nineteenth century. Their story is compelling, but even more compelling is the story of their slaves. Kidd relates their ghastly lot, and the suffering of their fellows in bondage, without pulling any punches. It is a story that is both enraging and excruciating.
There are a few instances of awkward writing in this novel, but not enough to spoil the reading experience. Altogether, I’d say it’s a triumph of historical fiction and a timely reminder – for such reminders are always needed – of the specific horrors suffered by innocent people at the hands of those who “owned” them, who professed themselves good Christians, and who were happy to delude themselves and their fellows with false bromides and senseless justifications concerning their “peculiar institution.”
THE CHILDREN ACT – Ian McEwan
I read no reviews. My anticipation was great. I wanted this consummately gifted writer to astonish me once again.
And he did.
In a recent New Yorker review of The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell, James Wood makes the claim that in our time, the novel has lost its cultural relevance and in consequence has forsaken the search for meaning, aiming instead to deliver nothing deeper than an engrossing tale:
Meaning is a bit of a bore, but storytelling is alive. The novel form can be difficult, cumbrously serious; storytelling is all pleasure, fantastical in its fertility, its ceaseless inventiveness. Easy to consume, too, because it excites hunger while simultaneously satisfying it: we continuously want more. The novel now aspires to the regality of the boxed DVD set: the throne is a game of them. And the purer the storytelling the better—where purity is the embrace of sheer occurrence, unburdened by deeper meaning. Publishers, readers, booksellers, even critics, acclaim the novel that one can deliciously sink into, forget oneself in, the novel that returns us to the innocence of childhood or the dream of the cartoon, the novel of a thousand confections and no unwanted significance. What becomes harder to find, and lonelier to defend, is the idea of the novel as—in Ford Madox Ford’s words—a “medium of profoundly serious investigation into the human case.”
Soon after reading this piece by Woods, I was riveted by a passage filled with almost unbearable tension in The Children Act. The stakes could not have been higher nor the dilemma more profound, and the resolution depended on the judgment of a single individual.
At that moment, I could think of no more powerful refutation of Woods’s contention. In the masterful hands of Ian McEwan, meaning could not be less of a bore. It is, in fact, everything.
SPARTA – Roxana Robinson
Yet another book I probably wouldn’t have read had it not been a book club ‘assignment.’ This story of a young Iraq war veteran’s difficult return to civilian life is both poignant and hard hitting. Robinson’s writing is exquisite.
AN OFFICER AND A SPY – Thomas Harris
THE WEIGHT OF WATER – Anita Shreve
Somehow I’d never gotten around to reading anything by Shreve, an extremely well liked author among readers of contemporary fiction. I chose The Weight of Water because the plot involves the revisiting of an appalling double murder that took place in 1873 on the Isles of Shoals, a group of islands off the coast of New Hampshire and Maine. The crime is usually referred to by the name Smuttynose, the name of the actual island on which the murders occurred.
I’d never heard of the killings on Smuttynose – never heard of the Isles of Shoals, for that matter – before encountering the story in Harold Schechter’s true crime anthology. Having read almost all of the selections in that book, I have to say that this is the crime that I have found most haunting. This is no doubt due in part to Celia Thaxter’s powerful retelling of events. Her piece is entitled “A Memorable Murder;” it was first published in 1875 in the Atlantic Monthly, as the magazine was then called. I’d never before heard of Celia Thaxter. She turns out to have been an exceptional person, one well worth knowing about.She was a native of the Isles of Shoals, and was living on Appledore, one of the other islands, when the crime took place on Smuttynose.
Past and present kept colliding with each other in The Weight of Water. The material was well handled; I very much enjoyed the novel.
STONER – John Williams
Last June, my friend Cristina returned from several weeks touring Europe with the news: “Everyone’s reading Stoner over there!”
William Stoner is a college professor of modest means and even more modest aspirations. In some ways fate is cruel to him, but perhaps not more than it is to any man or woman striving for a modicum of happiness and success in this life. Stoner reminds me in some ways of The Wife of Martin Guerre: in both novels, the narrative commences with great restraint, only to become increasingly powerful as the story progresses. In both books, the ending comes close to being shattering.
I remember being at the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s celebrated American Wing several years ago and feeling distinctly intrigued by this painting:
The subject seemed to be worn down by some unnamed burden of sorrow. As it turns out, Mr. Kenton himself is something of an enigma. I thought it an apt choice for the cover of the reissue of Stoner from New York Review Books.
John Williams’s novel is intensely moving; at times, almost devastating. The writing is marvelous.
Like Stoner, this is the story of a man’s life, from youth to old age. Harry Sanders works for the U.S. Foreign Service. As the novel opens, he’s a young attache in Southeast Asia – probably Vietnam, though Just does not specify. While on duty there, he meets a German aid worker based on a nearby hospital ship. Harry and Sieglinde fall passionately in love. Then chance and circumstance separate them.
The remainder of Harry’s work life and his ever evolving personal life both makes for an absorbing story, but as so often happens, the intense drama of his first assignment and his first love affair is never quite duplicated.
Ward Just is a veteran fiction writer and newspaper reporter. His accomplishments in both fields have been recognized. (He was the Washington Post’s Vietnam correspondent.) This high praise for American Romantic from Kirkus Reviews is entirely justified (no pun intended, but hey, why not?).
At lunch this past Monday, my friend Angie was praising the opening chapter of The Children Act. I agree with her that it sets the tone beautifully for what comes next. But I think the so-called Prelude to the first chapter of American Romantic is even more striking. Traveling by boat, Harry Sanders penetrates deep into the jungle. His purpose is to inspect some projects that have been initiated in certain villages. He’s particularly interested in a clinic established in one of them. But when he gets there, he’s greeted by a sight that poignant, tragic, and terrible all at once. It’s an amazing scene, perfectly rendered.
A SPY AMONG FRIENDS: KIM PHILBY AND THE GREAT BETRAYAL – Ben Macintyre
THE FAMILY ROMANOV: MURDER, REBELLION, AND THE FALL OF IMPERIAL RUSSIA – Candace Fleming
The book’s full title is The Good Nurse: A True Story of Medicine, Madness, and Murder. Once again, I was reading for a discussion group, the Usual Suspects this time. I confess I was somewhat dismayed by the first few pages, as the writing struck me as awkward, even clumsy. But it doesn’t take Charles Graeber long to hit his stride, and once he does… Let’s put it this way: I did nothing for three days but read The Good Nurse, all the while exclaiming over and over again, Oh no, not again, oh my God…. Nurse Charlie Cullen began committing his depredations in the 1980’s while employed at St. Barnabas Hospital in Livingston, New Jersey. My father was almost certainly a patient there at that time, so this tale gained an extra creepy dimension for me as a result.
The Good Nurse is a different kind of true crime book. Cullen’s crimes were accomplished through stealth and trickery. Many times the authorities and medical experts had trouble determining whether a crime had actually been committed. Cullen’s callous abuse of his position of trust in life-or-death situations makes for horrific reading. I admire Charles Graeber for being able to penetrate the thicket of this medical mystery and by doing so, exposing it to the light of day. A number of hospitals and health care facilities do not come off well in Graeber’s telling. But in fairness there are some heroes in this narrative as well. If they hadn’t pushed for the truth, Cullen’s crime spree might have lasted even longer than the sixteen years that it did go on.
TRUE CRIME: AN AMERICAN ANTHOLOGY – Harold Schechter, editor
I’ve already written about this terrific anthology; there will be more to come, as I continue preparing for the True Crime course I’ll be teaching next February and March.