I am going back to Yorkshire. In less than two weeks I will have the chance once again to savor the riches of this extraordinary place.
Once there, I will see fields of intense green, crisscrossed by the famous drystone walls, and dotted with sheep – sheep by the hundreds, many of them with the distinctive black faces of the Swaledale breed. In addition, streams, rivers, waterfalls, and dramatic rock formations. Beautiful little villages built with the local limestone, with riotous flower gardens and names derived from “old Scandinavian” and duly noted by an assiduous anonymous scribe in the Domesday Book (pub. date 1086), old, old churches like St. Mary’s Lastingham.
Most haunting and evocative are the ruined abbeys. Two years ago, our group went to Fountains Abbey, now a UNESCO world Heritage Site. As we stood in the room, now open to the sky, where the monks chanted their offices so long ago, our guide asked us to think of those ancient stone walls as imbued with their singing from all those centuries ago. At one point, a group of us stood just outside the abbey walls. The sun shone brightly; the air was cool. I felt a drop of moisture on my hand. Birds, I thought – but no – it was water. A few seconds later, more drops of water. And then, a fine cooling mist descended on us. I stretched out my palms and gazed upward. The sky remained clear and blue, with only the wisp of cirrus cloud above us.
At that moment, I felt baptized into the mystery that is England’s ancient past, a history, intermingled with legend, that stretches backwards into the mists of time.
Although I prefer to keep “Books to the Ceiling” impersonal – or at least, relatively so – I want to express my gratitude for the wonderful retirement party that my friends and colleagues at the library threw for me on Wednesday the 22nd. It was my desire to slip out the back door as unobtrusively as possible – but my work buddies were having none of it!
One of the many lovely gestures made by my co-workers in recent weeks was to give me my own display space where I could feature some of my favorite books. Well, the fact is, one of the things about the job that I’m going to miss the most is telling people what they ought to be reading! (So please stay tuned to “Books to the Ceiling,” beloved friends!)
I have been blessed with terrific co-workers in the course of my twenty-five years at the library. They are, of course, more than that by now: they are valued friends. And, as I assured them on Wednesday, even though my last “official” day is Friday August 31, they will by no means be rid of me completely. I’ll still be haunting the various branches, picking up my many reserves there, and greeting these same friends – friends for life! – with the magical words: “You’ve just got to read this!!”
What a pleasure it has been to return once more to the works of the great Ross MacDonald. Vintage Crime/Black Lizard has recently re-issued two more of the Lew Archer novels, The Way Some People Die and The Ivory Grin. One cannot say thank you enough to these fine small presses and specialty houses, who continue to make the best in classic and contemporary crime fiction available to compulsive consumers of the stuff like Yours Truly. (Hats off to the discriminating folks at Soho Crime and St. Martin’s Minotaur in particular. And keep your eye on the great new Felony & Mayhem Press!)
Anyway, back to Ross MacDonald. He writes in the hardboiled tradition, but he makes that tradition his own by gentling and humanizing his P.I. Lew Archer can be rueful and honest about his own failings, but those failings do not include faintness of heart. When he is on a a case he is like the proverbial puppy with a bedroom slipper in its teeth: there will be no letting go until the case is solved. It’s not just the pursuit of justice, it’s the pursuit of truth, even though more often the ultimate revelation of it makes him feel sick rather than free.
This is particularly true of The Way Some People Die (1951). (Don’t you just love that cover, though – the way it screams, “Nyaaah!” right in your face!) As happens so often in detective work, the case begins with a missing person, in this instance a young woman named Galley Lawrence. Her distraught mother has hired Archer to locate her errant daughter, but as usual, things are not as they seem. MacDonald’s novels are characterized by an extreme economy of both plotting and language. Things get very complicated very quickly. If you have trouble following all the threads of the plot…well, don’t worry about it. I am usually fully occupied by my admiration for MacDonald’s terrific descriptions and set pieces; I know the plot will eventually come back into focus if I stick around. And it is no trouble to stick around; it is harder to pull away. This is largely due to MacDonald’s mesmerizing way with language.
Here, a bad guy has gotten the drop on Lew Archer: “A tall man in a wide-brimmed black hat emerged from the dark room. He was as thin as death. Hid face had a coffin look, skin drawn over high sharp cheekbones, a blue down-dragging mouth. His pale glistening eyes were on me, and so was his black gun.”
A pianist Archer encounters in a bar “…had the sad bad centerless eyes I expected, wormholes in a withered apple with a dark rotten core.”
MacDonald also excels at descriptions of places, particularly interiors – very particularly the interiors of the bars and low-rent eateries that his investigations inevitably take him to. Even in these dives, MacDonald/Archer sometimes finds a crude, sad poetry:
“The place had a cozy, subterranean quality, like a time capsule buried deep beyond the reach of change and violence. The fairly white-coated waiters, old and young, had a quick slack economy of movement surviving from a dead regretted decade. The potato chips that came with my sizzling steak tasted exactly the same as the chips I ate out of greasy newspaper wrappings when I was in grade school in Oklahoma in 1920. The scenic photographs that decorated the walls–Route of the Union Pacific–reminded me of a stereopticon I had found in my mother’s great-aunt’s attic. The rush and whirl of bar conversation sounded like history.”
Like Raymond Chandler, Ross MacDonald possesses a kind of savage wit that tends to ambush the reader by showing up where it’s least expected. Here’s a memorable tossed-off observation on a very prosaic subject: “Parking spaces in downtown Hollywood were as scarce as the cardinal virtues.”
In another scene, Archer is being grilled by a cop. Said cop demands of him: “‘Now what was that about an alibi?’” Here’s the next line: ” It struck me that vaudeville was dead.” Although thought rather than voiced, it is nevertheless a great comeback, one that had me grinning ear to ear.
These small moments of comic relief are a welcome blessing, because for the most part the business Lew Archer goes about is decidedly grim. MacDonald’s characters put me in mind of Yeats’s lines from “The Second Coming”: “The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity.” Actually, looking at that poem again, it occurs to me that the line prior to those just quoted is even more apt: “The ceremony of innocence s drowned.” Even the knowing, cynical Lew Archer does not realize just how drowned that innocence is, innocence he wanted and needed to believe in, until this case reaches its bitter conclusion.
There is an issue in hardboiled fiction concerning the portrayal of female characters. They tend to be either simpletons, evil-minded seducers, compulsive liars, or some combination of all of the above. Of course, the same can be said of many of the men who drift in and out of these novels. Thing is, these books are primarily written by men .The P.I.’s these authors create are often wary of women and attracted to them at the same time. This makes them – the men, I mean – mistrustful, but one feels that it is actually themselves they don’t trust. Thus, they engage in a sort of a verbal dance with the woman in question, the famously snappy repartee that characterizes so much of the dialogue found in hardboiled fiction and film. By the time these attitudes had filtered down to Ross MacDonald by way of Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler, they had softened somewhat. And as MacDonald’s oeuvre progressed over the years, they softened still more. Women could be seen to share the same basic humanity as men, and the same failings and weaknesses as well. They are attractive to Archer not because they are seductive sirens, but because they are intelligent, decent, and good.
The Way Some People Die is an early entry in the Archer series, and while I admired it greatly, it is not necessarily the one I would recommend for a reader coming to the series for the first time. There’s a midpoint further along where MacDonald can be said to have truly come into his own as a novelist. The Wycherly Woman (1961), The Zebra-Striped Hearse (1962) and The Chill (1964), for instance, show him to be in full possession of his considerable powers. Zebra-Striped Hearse, with its scouring depiction of a man’s tormented relationship with his daughter, strikes very close to home where Ross MacDonald’s personal life is concerned. I recommend Tom Nolan’s 1999 biography, where the full story of MacDonald, his wife novelist Margaret Millar, and the troubled relationship they endured with their ill-fated daughter Linda was first fully revealed.
Few writers were as astute as MacDonald in depicting the material riches coupled with intellectual vacuity and moral bankruptcy that characterized Southern California during the postwar era. In the course of the Archer novels, one specific place becomes emblematic of the fallen world all around us, wherever we are, where it is such a struggle to live life in anything resembling a state of grace.
There is an area in one of the clubs where I exercise that is quaintly called the arena. The large central area can be used for basketball or volleyball; around its perimeter there is a track for walking, jogging. or running. I like walking this track; I tend to zone out pleasantly while I am there. I especially like it when there are people in the central area shooting baskets; I like that sound, and I like the way the players flit in and out of my peripheral vision as I make my circuit.
Well, that was happening yesterday morning, and the people in question were little girls – lots of them. They were receiving what seemed to me to be fairly rigorous training in the fine art of playing basketball. They were not only shooting baskets; they were practicing ball handling techniques, doing calisthenics, etc. I particularly enjoyed watching them practice their footwork. At one point, following the instructions of their very serious and intent coach, about ten girls were jumping back and forth across a line on the court, over and over again. Their little bodies were taut with effort and concentration, while their pony tales and pig tales swung back and forth. Small groups of girls were training in various locations all over the court. They and their coaches were completely inside the process, not suspecting for a moment how enchanting they appeared to the outsider walking the track.
Then several of the girls came out of the court to do some walking. One girl came up next to me. She had a on a purple shirt with ruffled sleeves. I was going to comment, “That looks like hard work!” But her smooth little brow was furrowed in concentration, and I said nothing. She pulled ahead of me. I could not help but think of all that these girls had ahead of them. I would say that I was like them decades ago, but I never would have submitted to such a training regimen at that age. I am so very glad to see these youngsters doing this, though; among my dearest hopes for them is that they grow up strong and healthy, unplagued by the problem of overweight that his been the bane of existence for so many women of my generation. [Women's basketball, Concordia College, Minnesota]
At any rate, these girls looked, for the most part, lean and fit – and beautiful, to my eyes.
[I was having trouble deciding on images for this post But once I saw this, I was hooked. After all, what better illustration of the "I Am Woman" theme than Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth I!! Follow this link for more portraits.]
Very sad, to lose so early on two excellent writers of crime fiction. Michael Dibdin died in March of this year, while Magdalen Nabb’s obituaries have just recently appeared. Both set their series in Italy; both passed away at the age of sixty. (Oh how premature that seems, when you are already three years beyond that particular milestone!)
Dibdin’s Aurelio Zen novels are set in various cities in Italy. The most recent one in the series that I’ve read is Medusa; End Games, the latest, has just been released in this country. I have to say that my all time favorite is Cosi Fan Tutti, a delightful riff on the Mozart opera, set in Naples. Dibdin was a peripatetic guy: born in England, he lived, at various times, in Ireland, Canada, Italy, and again in England before fetching up in Seattle in 2000, where he was living at the time of his death.
Magdalen Nabb I have already written about. Her publishing history in this country has been similar to Donna Leon’s: her books ceased to be available for a period of time, only to re-appear in recent years. Publishers in the U.S., ever scrambling to follow a perceived trend, saw that crime fiction set in exotic locales was becoming increasingly popular, and acted accordingly in bringing the work of these fine authors back into print in this country.
Obviously, the best way to honor the memory of Michael Dibdin and Magdalen Nabb is to keep their books in print in this country and to continue to read the works of these two fine authors – preferably (hopefully!) on site…
I was going to call this entry “Fitness and Health,” but then I thought, people will think they’ve landed on the wrong blog. Fitness and Health??!! This, from a person whose favorite food group was – and actually still is – Doritos Nacho Flavored Tortilla Chips (though alas, I can now only admire them from afar)? A person whose idea of exercise has always been turning the pages of a really good book? Is is possible?
Well, yes it is. The metamorphosis began seven years ago with my being diagnosed with Type II Diabetes and being told, among other things, that the illness could lead to blindness. Oh, great – I, who read so compulsively and relentlessly, everything from War and Peace to cereal box copy, bereft of sight! I was advised to make two major changes in my life: stop the junk food, start the exercise. At first, I was not sure I could do either, never mind both. I had eschewed, my whole life long, any form of exercise more rigorous than reaching for a bag of potato chips. Not only was I averse to it – I was contemptuous of it, I am now ashamed to admit. Give me the life of the mind any day over all that sweating and grunting!
Ah, well, that same life has much to teach us. To make a long story short, I tentatively dipped my (chubby) toes in the waters of fitness and found…joy! Yes! Once I stopped feeling like a clumsy idiot – and stopped caring if I looked like a clumsy idiot – I began enjoying myself hugely. I prefer the classes to the solitary workouts. In the classes, the energy of the group becomes a shared phenomenon – the synergy of energy, if you will. And the instructors! They have been a revelation. I had no idea the degree to which the individual personalities of the leaders affected the ambiance of the class. Utter snob that I was, I thought of these folks as automatons, merely beating time and shouting out orders. Boy was I wrong! Their enthusiasm, their preferences for certain moves and routines, their choice of music -all is highly individual, even idiosyncratic, and almost invariably interesting and fun. And I really must say a little more about the music. I worship at the shrine of Bach, Beethoven, Mozart, and all the rest. I particularly venerate Tchaikovsky and Mahler; I can barely listen to their powerhouse symphonies without weeping. But yes, this is the same person who moves to the beat of ABBA and ZZ Top, among others. Who would have though that “Sharp Dressed Man” would be such a great dance tune!
I am always one who is in advance of every trend: just as the fitness world was moving on from aerobics, I discovered it. And now I would follow it anywhere! One of the great revelations for me about this type of workout routine is the degree to which takes over your mental processes. Let your mind wander even for a few seconds and you’ll find yourself about to collide with an unsuspecting fellow group member. It has happened!! You must Listen Carefully and Do What the Teacher Tells You. Is it like being back in grade school? Yes! And how refreshing, what a relief from the cares of the moment. Just tell me to do a double grapevine with a half turn in the middle and I’ll do it – gladly, and many times over!
I could go on, but you’ve probably gotten my drift. Besides, I have to leave for Total Conditioning soon. But before I go, I want to express my gratitude to the instructors at The Athletic Club and Supreme Sports. You’ve saved me in more ways than one, and have undoubtedly done the same for others as well. Thank you, THANK YOU!
I received an interesting shipment of books from Amazon the other day; it contained Trent’s Last Case by E.C. Bentley and The Man Who Was Thursday by G.K. Chesterton. You can see from the above that the Bentley title arrived in the book equivalent of a plain brown wrapper. But there is more. As issued by an outfit called Hardpress.net, the book has no pricing information, no cataloguing information, no copyright date. Essentially, there is no title page. It is strictly the text of the novel, no more, no less. Physically, the volume is well made; the print is small but crisp and relatively easy to read.
Here, on the other hand, is the Modern Library Classics edition of The Man Who Was Thursday. Not only do we have this wonderfully evocative photograph on the cover, but there is also a short biography of Chesterton, an introduction to the novel by Jonathan Lethem, then the complete text of the novel, followed by several pages of critical commentary in the back plus a Reading Group Guide. Needless to say – but perhaps I had better mention it anyway – the title page contains all the usual information concerning copyright and Library of Congress cataloguing-in-publication data. Oh – and the list price: $8.95.
At first, I was upset about Trent’s Last Case.It seemed to me a very un-book-like book, a factory-issue entity that distressed my book-worshipping sensibilities. But my husband, playing the devil’s advocate, pointed out that the book was well made and delivered the text of the novel in its entirety, in a readable form. Hardpress has done a reasonable job of making available a new, relatively inexpensive ($13.95) edition of a novel which it is not particularly easy to obtain. I allowed myself to be argued around to his way of thinking on this matter, but I still would make no concession concerning the copyright date; I feel really strongly that this is essential information about a book and ought to be included in any print edition of it. Now there’s a funny little irony here: the Chesterton book does provide copyright information, as I’ve indicated, but it is for this particular edition, which contains new material. The date given is 2001; I had to read through the (uncredited) author biography to ascertain the actual year in which the novel first appeared: 1908. Still, this edition of The Man Who Was Thursday is a absolute gem; Trent’s Last Case looks sadly naked next to it.
What the question comes down to in the end is: What is a book? I guess I can live with Hardpress.net’s print-on-demand product – as long as it doesn’t represent the future of books in general. For that, I look to Modern Library’s lovely Chesterton – and hope!
I’ve mentioned James Lasdun before, but I’ve just come across a passage I photocopied some time ago from his novel The Horned Man; it compels me to mention him yet again. In my previous post, about thrillers with brains among other topics, I said that I’d had singularly bad luck when recommending this novel. As a rule, people hadn’t liked it; I think very few finished it.
Unfortunate: If they’d at least made it to page 115 of the hardcover edition, they would have encountered the following:
“I had come to realize that I no longer wanted a ‘lover’ or a ‘girlfriend’; that I wanted a wife. I wanted something durable about me–a fortress and a sanctuary. I wanted a women whom I could love–as a character in a book I’d read put it–sincerely, without irony, and without resignation. I had been observing a self-imposed celibacy as I waited for the right woman to come along; partly so as not to be entangled when I met her, but also, more positively, in order to create in myself the state of receptiveness and high sensitization I considered necessary for an auspicious first meeting. I believed that human relations were capable of partaking in a certain mystery; that under the right conditions something larger than the sum of what each individual brought with them, could transfuse itself into the encounter, elevating it and permanently shielding it from the grinding destructiveness of everyday life. And just such a mystery, such a baptism-in-love, was what I felt to be sweetly impending as I stood beside Carol in my room that afternoon.”
When I reviewed The Other Side of You by Salley Vickers, I commented on her Ian McEwan-caliber writing. In my view, the same could be said of Lasdun. The Horned Man is a disturbing novel, but I deeply appreciate being disturbed when it is done in this way, provocatively and profoundly.
And I have to add one more thing: a phrase that leaps out at me from the above passage is “the grinding destructiveness of everyday life.” When I think of the marriages that I have known of, that have fetched up irretrievably on the rocks, victims of just such destructiveness, among other things, I could weep.
I have been asked by several of my cat-loving friends to write something more about Miss Marple. It is my pleasure to do so. One of the things she does that particularly delights us is to observe closely the wildlife in our backyard. She is strictly an indoor cat – I am way too much of a nervous wreck about her well-being to allow her out. So this monitoring function is primarily carried out from the vantage point of the sliding glass doors in the dining and family rooms.
Even though birds and squirrels are commonplace, they are always duly noted by Miss Marple. The big event, though, is when deer come tramping through the yard. When she spots them, Miss Marple’s entire body goes rigid! This has to be one of the most endearing characteristics of cats, the way their entire bodies, and not just their minds, focus on the task at hand.
Finally, it being late summer, there are fireflies in profusion at nighttime. Miss Marple likes to get herself situated between the curtains and the window and watch the winking lights of these mysterious insects.
Miss Marple, by the way, was named with our favorite actress in mind. We love Joan Hickson’s incomparable portrayal of Agatha Christie’s elderly but keen-eyed sleuth. Hickson’s Miss Marple has a still, deep center, like a seer. There is nothing silly or superficial about her. One can well believe that she has in fact witnessed every sort of depravity right there in the tiny village of St. Mary Mead!
Joan Hickson was 78 years old when she began filming the twelve Miss Marple episodes for the BBC in 1984. The project was completed in 1992; she died six years later.
The Escher Twist, a mercurial little mystery by Jane Langton, is steeped in the lore and history of the Mount Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge, Massachusetts. I read the book when it came out in 2002 and have had a particular affection for it ever since, for a reaon to be explained forthwith.
I have been an admirer of Langton’s Homer and Mary Kelly series ever since I had the great good fortune to be reading the marvelous – and marvelously witty – God in Concord while I was actually in Concord, paying homage to idols such as Nathaniel Hawthorne, Henry David Thoreau, and Louisa May Alcott – to name just a few! These books have often featured a soupcon of the supernatural, never laid on too thick but rather just barely hinted at.
Anyway – back to The Escher Twist. In the novel, an elderly lady named Eloise Winthrop spends much of her time in this famed place of burial, visiting her husband’s grave. An inscription on a nearby monument strikes her forcibly:
‘There is no death! / What seems so is transition / This life of mortal breath / Is but a suburb of the life Elysian, / Whose portal we call death.’
Eloise, considering the sentiment implicit in this verse, thinks to herself, “Oh, yes, it was so true! One crossed the bridge and entered the solemn portal, coming out on the other side into the life Elysian, which was a ‘suburb’ – so quaint – of heaven.”
This will be Eloise Winthrop’s last visit, in her present guise, to the Mount Auburn Cemetery. What happens next is – well, I can’t describe it, except to say that it is a small masterpiece of fictional conjuring. and a great example of why so many of us treasure the art – indeed, the alchemy! – of the novelist.
The stanza quoted is from the poem “Resignation” by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.