Adventures in Reading

April 28, 2014 at 1:54 am (Art, books)

Kindle library1  Yes, I know; it sounds like the title of a grade school textbook from days gone by. But adventures there have been lately, largely due to the increasing dominance of the e-reader in my life. (I use the Kindle app on my iPad.) The intense gratification I experience upon the instantaneous acquisition of texts is simply delicious! I used to be a compulsive impulse book buyer. Now I am an equally compulsive content downloader.

One of the results of this obsessive behavior is the bloating of my Kindle Library. Every time I visit that virtual treasure trove I am once again amazed at what’s in there. Sometimes I have no memory of adding a particular title – or titles. Sometimes I think I read a book in hard copy, only to find that its electronic doppelgänger happily residing in the Kindle Library.

It is important to note that the titles currently appearing on my ‘device’ represent only a small fraction of the vast number currently to be found in my Kindle Library. Even so, what’s on the device at this time rather overwhelms and chastens me. Some of these titles I’ve yet to really look at. Others I’ve looked at and not wanted to pursue. Some of those looked at titles I do want to pursue – just not right now…. Kidle library2

There are some items on my Kindle App that do not reside in the Kindle Library and never will.  These are the Free Samples that you can get from the Kindle Store. If you’re not sure if a book is for you, being able to sample some of it can be most helpful. You can get some sense of both style and content. For instance, I recently encountered a review by Jessica Mann of a mystery called The Cornish Coast Murder. Written by John Bude, this novel was originally published in 1935. It’s part of a series of re-issues called British Library Crime Classics. The sample I downloaded contained an excellent introduction by Martin Edwards, who himself is not only a fine author of crime fiction but has also made it his business, via his blog Do You Write Under Your Own Name, to bring worthy older crime fiction titles to the attention of avid readers.

Here’s how the first chapter of The Cornish Coast Murder  begins:

THE Reverend Dodd, Vicar of St. Michael’s-on-the-Cliff, stood at the window of his comfortable bachelor study looking out into the night. It was raining fitfully, and gusts of wind from off the Atlantic rattled the window-frames and soughed dismally among the sprinkling of gaunt pines which surrounded the Vicarage. It was a threatening night. No moon. But a lowering bank of cloud rested far away on the horizon of the sea, dark against the departing daylight.

The Vicar, who was fond of bodily comfort, sighed with the profoundest satisfaction. Behind him a big log fire crackled in the open hearth. A reading-lamp cast an orange circle over the seat of his favourite chair and gleamed, diluted, on the multi-coloured book-backs which lined most of the room. In the centre of the hearth-rug, placed with exact precision between the two arm-chairs, was a small wooden crate.

The Vicar sighed again. All was exactly as it should be. Nothing out of place. All ambling along just as it had done for the last fifteen years. Peace, perfect peace.

Cornwall! Vicars! Vicarages! I immediately downloaded the entire book – for $3.99.  Cornish-Coast

Meanwhile, my reading has become increasingly scattershot. I often have five or six books on the go at  the same time. (This is partially, but not entirely, due to compulsive downloading.) One of those books is, in fact, Dead Woman Walking, a most absorbing novel by Jessica Mann, the above mentioned reviewer. Having so much enjoyed A Private Inquiry by this author, I was eager to plunge into her latest work.  mann

Some of the other books I’m reading:

9781250030115 Just barely into it. I was reading a library copy and knew that I’d never finish it that way, so it’s been downloaded. I started reading it again from the beginning. Romer’s work opens with an inquiry into Egypt’s predynastic history. We literally journey back to the dawn of civilization via a book that’s both laden with dense detail and beautifully written.

HeadmasterThis is one of those novels that you begin reading and your first thought is…Oh, this again. Older man in position of authority, younger woman subject to that authority, the enclosed claustrophobic setting of an academic institution….Well, okay, the premise is anything but original. But I’m liking the urgency and desperation of the first person narrative. And I confess to being fascinated by tales of obsessive desire. (Also I love the Halls-of-Ivy cover image.)

la-ca-jc-camille-paglia-20121230-001 This is a book I dip into from time to time when I need an art fix. I love the way Camille Paglia writes about these works; she veers from intellectual rigor to esthetic rapture, with stops in between for more measured analyses. And bless her, she’s given me the excuse I need to place some of those glittering images in this post.

Paglia is especially eloquent when writing about the art of antiquity:

Queen Nfertari and the Goddess Isis

Queen Nfertari and the Goddess Isis

Ghosts carved out of time. Egyptian art is a vast ruin of messages from the dead. Clean and simple in form, Egyptian painted figures float in an abstract space that is neither here nor there. The background is coolly blank. Everything is flattened into the foreground, an eternal present where serenely smiling pharaohs offer incense and spools of flax to the gods or drive their chariot wheels over fallen foes. Hieroglyphics hang in midair, clusters of sharp pictograms of a rope, reed, bun, viper, owl, human leg, or mystic eye.
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Charioteer of Delphi

The Charioteer of Delphi

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The Charioteer of Delphi represents a stillness of perception, a peak moment where an exceptional person has become a work of art, the focus of all eyes, human and divine. He embodies the Greek principle of kalokagathia, “ the beautiful and the good,” which saw virtue and physical beauty as inseparably intertwined. The Greeks defined existence as a struggle or contest (agon) that tested and built character. To strive to be the best was a moral duty. Life was a perpetual game or race, with little hope of rest. The mad motion on the dirt track may be forgotten for an hour, as the winner humbly accepts his tributes. But victory is as transient as a young man’s perfect beauty, which the Greeks described as a flower that blooms and vanishes.

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Laocoon and his sons

Laocoon and his sons

 

Laocoön’s blank, tormented face seems to ask whether an ethical standard exists in the universe or whether the gods too are subject to impulse and caprice. It prefigures the agonized expression of the crucified Christ in medieval art, when he asks why God has forsaken him. The juxtaposition of beauty and horror in the Laocoön is close to decadent. It forces a mixed response of attraction and repulsion on the viewer. In late phases of culture, basic survival needs have been met, but the spiritual life is in disorder. The Laocoön represented a time very much like our own , when civic and religious traditions were breaking down and when nations felt they were in bondage to a host of intractable problems, slithering and ungraspable.
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Finally, I am still enthralled by They Were Counted, the first volume in Miklos Banffy’s Transylvanian Trilogy. Recently, when I saw I was nearing the end of the book, I felt panicky – I don’t want it to end – ever! Fortunately, there are two more volumes; I hastily downloaded the second. Such a relief. I simply must know what’s going to happen to these people; I am so immersed in their lives….

Of course, in a larger  sense, I already know what will happen. These novels are set in he early years of the twentieth century. History is about to come down on these folks like a hammer. But the ultimate fate of unsuspecting – or in certain cases, all too suspecting –  individuals in the story is yet to be determined.

Meanwhile the lives of the characters, filled with political intrigue and thwarted love, go relentlessly forward. Some of what Banffy describes seems almost petty, yet it still fascinates . I’m thinking in particular of a dastardly stratagem practiced by an unscrupulous head butler on a lady’s maid in one of the aristocratic households. The scenario was like something right out of Downton Abbey.

On the other hand, there is much rapturous description of the countryside surrounding Denestornya, the estate of  one of the novel’s main characters, Balint Abady:

The young man reached the bank of the millstream near where the outer wooden palisades had once stood. He crossed over what was still called the Painted Bridge, even though every vestige of colour had long since disappeared, to the place where the wide path divided and led either to the left or the right, while ahead the view stretched across the park interrupted only by the clumps of poplars, limes or horse-chestnuts. In this part of the park the grass was quite tall, thick and heavy with dew. It was filled with the feathery white heads of seeding dandelions, with golden cowslips, bluebells, waving stalks of wild oats and the trembling sprays of meadow-grass, each bearing at its extremity a dew drop that sparkled in the sun. So heavy was the dew that the grasslands, as far as the eye could see, were covered with a delicate shining liquid haze. For Balint this pageant of wild flowers….

So magical and mysterious, so still and yet so full of resurgent life, did the meadow seem that Balint stopped for a moment to contemplate its mystery, and wonder at the fact that even the distances did not seem real and stable and fixed. The park seemed to have no end but to continue for ever into the distance as if it comprised the whole world and the whole world was the park of Denestornya and nothing else. As Balint stood there, motionless, rapt in a new sense of delight and exaltation, seven fallow deer appeared slowly from a group of pines. They were wading knee-high through the morning haze, two does with their fawns and three young females, and if they saw Balint they did not take any notice of him but just walked quietly and sedately on until, after a few moments, they disappeared again into the shadow of the trees. Their sudden appearance in the distance in front of him, and just as sudden disappearance a moment or two later contributed strongly to Balint’s sense of wonder and enchantment.

As is obvious from the above passages, the writing and by implication the translation are superb. One of the translators is Katalin Banffy-Jolen, granddaughter of Miklos Banffy. She and her fellow translator Patrick Thrusfield were awarded the Weidenfeld Prize for translation, presented in 2002 by Umberto Eco. A wonderful essay on They Were Counted may be found on the blog The Reading Life. In it, the blogger mentions that the entire trilogy runs to over 1500 pages. I’m so glad! (And remember, this is the person who frequently expresses her frustration with long  books.) Banffy himself actually called the trilogy  The Writing on the Wall. When a person is said to have seen the handwriting on the wall, he has supposedly been granted a glimpse of what the future will bring. It is a glimpse filled with foreboding. So you can see why the phrase is so apt for a work set in the final days of the of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

(The reference is to a scene in the Book of Daniel in the Old Testament. In the midst of King Belshazzar’s feast, a disembodied hand appears and writes a message in Hebrew on the wall of the banquet hall. The Hebrew is usually transliterated as Mene, Mene,Tekel, Upharsin. The translation usually given is “You have been weighed in the balance and found wanting,” or words to that effect. A truly frightening message to get from G-d the Father. I interpret it to mean, Clean up your act – or else….

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Belshazzar’s Feast, by Rembrandt

This has always been one of my favorite Bible stories.)
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Reading Mikos Banffy is much like reading Tolstoy’s great epics, although there are some differences. Banffy has a wry sense of humor that manifests itself from time; admittedly, this is not a quality usually ascribed to Tolstoy, unquestionable genius though he was. The blogger at The Reading Life expresses surprise at the “sexual explicit” passages in They Were Counted. I think I would call them sensuous rather than sexual, but they’re there all right, and they’re pretty frank, and they surprised me too.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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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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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):

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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.

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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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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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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.)

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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?)

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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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A Mysterious Something in the Light: The Life of Raymond Chandler, by Tom Williams

January 29, 2014 at 4:01 pm (Book review, books, Mystery fiction)

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I would like to have subtitled this book: “Turmoil, Torment, and Triumph in the Life of Raymond Chandler.” A bit florid perhaps, but accurate, as I think you’d agree if you read it.

Raymond Chandler was born in Chicago in 1888; his mother, Florence Dart Thornton, had emigrated to this country from Ireland two years earlier. Florence and her sister had left their native land largely to escape a domineering mother, but with her choice of husband, Florence went from the frying pan into the fire. Maurice Chandler, a railway engineer, was a brute – wife beater and alcoholic. The marriage crumbled; Florence took her son Raymond and fled back to Ireland. The two then settled in London. Ray matriculated in Dulwich College, a respected public school for boys, where he received a classical British education. (In addition to Raymond Chandler, Dulwich numbers P.D. Wodehouse, C.S. Forester, and Graham Swift among its literary alumni.)

Ray excelled at his studies and was highly motivated. He especially enjoyed reading the classics. He would probably have continued to do well at the college level, but there was no money to finance his higher education. After a fruitless search for work that would be both satisfying and remunerative, he decided to try his luck back in his native land. His mother came with him.

The voyage to America proved fateful. On board the ship, Ray made the acquaintance of Warren and Caroline (Alma to her friends) Lloyd.

The Lloyds were intelligent, cultured, glamorous, and very, very rich. Ray quickly became caught up in the young family’s life. The Lloyds, for their part, welcomed Ray— their daughter, Estelle, developed a mild crush on him— and together they talked about France and Germany, Europe and America. Warren and Alma told Ray about the city they were heading back to, their home, and a place that would forever become associated with Raymond Chandler: Los Angeles, California.

Tom Williams adds: “They were obviously proud of Los Angeles and, at one point, suggested that Ray might want to move there.” At that point in his life, Ray did not know what was in store for him or where he would end up living. But the Lloyds’ suggestion stayed with him, and after a restless sojourn through several other parts of the country, he ended up after all in the City of Angels. The Lloyds welcomed Ray and his mother with open arms, even going so far as offering to share their home with the newcomers. Ray and Florence took them up on this extremely gracious invitation.

(You’ve no doubt noticed that I’ve been referring to Raymond Chandler as ‘Ray.’ In so doing, I am following the lead of his biographer. I found this usage disconcerting at first, but I got used to it while reading this utterly absorbing book.)

The Lloyd home served as a sort of moveable salon for artists and writers. It was there that Ray met and befriended Gordon Pascal, with whom he would enlist when World War One broke out. Gordon’s father Julian was a pianist; he occasionally accompanied Alma Lloyd, who had a lovely singing voice. Julian’s wife, and Gordon’s stepmother, was also a pianist. Her given name was Pearl Eugenia, but she preferred to be called Cissy.

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Cissy Pascal

When Gordon and Ray returned from the service, Ray had to acknowledge that he had fallen in love with Cissy Pascal. Florence Chandler was outraged by  this development; she considered Cissy to be her own friend and an entirely inappropriate love interest for her son. Ray’s mother died in 1923, and he proceeded to marry Cissy, who had divorced Julian, the following year. At the time of the ceremony, Cissy told the pastor  that she was forty-three. She was actually ten years older. Ray was thirty-five.

Ever since his time in England, Ray had entertained thoughts of becoming a writer. At the time of his marriage, his output had largely consisted of poetry. In the meantime, he was also very good with numbers and held various positions having to do with bookkeeping and accountancy. He achieved a position of considerable responsibility (and excellent pay) with an oil company syndicate, but his problems with alcohol, bad behavior around female employees, and other difficulties resulted in his being fired. This happened in 1932. Money, or lack of it – always a problem – precipitated a crisis in his and Cissy’s household.

As with most aspiring writers, Ray was also a voracious reader. He was well acquainted with the ‘pulps,’ magazines printed on cheap paper and filled with fast moving action stories. He knew and admired the work of Dashiell Hammett and others who supplied those stories to magazines like Dime Detective and Black Mask. He thought that if he could produce a few of these often lurid tales and get them accepted for publication, he could make some money from the enterprise. In addition, he could hone his writing skills, with a view to eventually producing a serious work of literature.

“Blackmailers Don’t Shoot” appeared in Black Mask in 1933. The rest, in a manner of speaking, is history.

One of the things I really appreciate about Tom Williams’s highly readable biography is that he pays close attention to the evolution of Raymond Chandler as a writer. Writing did not come easily to Chandler; he agonized over every sentence he composed. Yet what comes through to the reader is not agony but artfulness – or just plain art.

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There’s much more to this story than I have recounted above. The section on Chandler’s work as a Hollywood screenwriter was particularly fascinating. He hit one right out of the park with his first effort: the collaboration with Billy Wilder on the 1944 film version of James M. Cain’s Double Indemnity. Interestingly, Ray was highly critical of Cain as a writer, but that did not interfere with his turning the novel into a cinematic masterpiece. Of course it helped greatly that Wilder co-wrote the screenplay and that the leads were brilliantly played by Fred MacMurray (Walter Neff) and Barbara Stanwyck (Phyllis Dietrichson). Here’s one of the films most famous scenes. It contains the kind of rapier sharp dialogue that Ray was becoming famous for:

In 2009, the fiftieth anniversary of Chandler’s death, a remarkable discovery was made almost simultaneously by an American crime writer and a French cineaste: near the beginning of Double Indemnity, Raymond Chandler makes a cameo appearance. Sitting outside the office of Walter Neff’s boss Barton Keyes (Edward G. Robinson, playing the good guy for once), thumbing through a magazine, he looks for all the world like someone’s filing clerk.  Seeing it now, it’s easy to understand how the moment passed unnoticed for so long:

Raymond Chandler was a flawed person. The casual flashes of racial denigration that appear from time to time in both his fiction and his letters do him no credit. Although he loved Cissy, he had frequent affairs. In addition to all this, his struggle with alcoholism was lifelong. With Cissy’s death in 1954, he lost all control. Despite the efforts of friends who cared deeply for him, he entered a downward spiral of alcoholism and depression, culminating in his death five years later at the age of seventy.

Nevertheless, in the teeth of great obstacles, some – but not all – of his own making, Raymond Chandler the writer emerged triumphant.

This passage occurs near the conclusion of The Big Sleep:

What did it matter where you lay once you were dead? In a dirty sump or in a marble tower on top of a high hill? You were dead, you were sleeping the big sleep, you were not bothered by things like that. Oil and water were the same as wind and air to you. You just slept the big sleep, not caring about the nastiness of how you died or where you fell. Me, I was part of the nastiness now. Far more a part of it than Rusty Regan was. But the old man didn’t have to be. He could lie quiet in his canopied bed, with his bloodless hands folded on the sheet, waiting. His heart was a brief, uncertain murmur. His thoughts were as gray as ashes. And in a little while he too, like Rusty Regan, would be sleeping the big sleep.

From Michael E. Grost, of A Guide to Classic Mystery and Detection:

The best part of The Big Sleep is the ending. This apostrophe to death is magnificently written, and recalls such Elizabethan essays on the same subject as the finale of Sir Walter Raleigh’s The History of the World (1610). Chandler’s skill with words reached new heights here, a skill that carried over into his next novel, Farewell, My Lovely (1940).

bigsleep  farewell-my-lovely-front-cover

the-high-window  chandlerfront

And Tom Williams offers this succinct and graceful summation of Raymond Chandler’s writing life:

With each apparently futile attempt to write something other than a crime novel he managed to expand the boundaries of what it was possible to achieve within the genre and, in so doing, turned it into art.

Raymond Chandler with Taki, a much beloved pet

Raymond Chandler with Taki, a much beloved pet

There’s much more to be said about Chandler’s life and career. My copy of A Mysterious Something is bristling with post-it flags. I I hope I have the chance to return to this subject. Meanwhile, here are some sources you may wish to look at:

Tom Williams interviewed on The Rap Sheet

The Raymond Chandler entry on Thrilling Detective

Raymond Chandler on Detnovel.com

Chandler was honored several times over last year in a poll conducted by the Crime Writers’ Association of Great Britain.

Wikipedia has a comprehensive list of Chandler’s works.

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Three Can Keep a Secret – but what a secret!

January 19, 2014 at 4:10 pm (Book review, books, Mystery fiction)

3CanKeepASecret_post  It’s been a while since I read Archer Mayor’s latest, so this will be brief. Mayor upholds his own high standards and then some in this extremely enjoyable novel, the twenty-fourth (!!) entry in the Joe Gunther series. Agent Gunther is once again on the case, ably assisted by Willy Kunkel, Sammy Martens, and Lester Spinney, all working for the Vermont Bureau of Investigation. In the devastating aftermath of Hurricane Irene, a woman named Carolyn Barber has disappeared from a state residential facility. It is urgent that she be found quickly. But Gunther and his colleagues are not the only ones with deep concern as to Barber’s whereabouts.

A succinct summary such as that I just wrote fails to convey the special pleasures of this novel. As always, Joe Gunther and his team are front and center, though at the same time they are among the most hard working, self-effacing protagonists in contemporary crime fiction. Willy Kunkel, in particular, is a genuine oddity – a person endowed with almost none of the of the social graces that everyone else takes for granted. Observers marvel that Sammy Martens can actually live with him. In fact, they now have a daughter, Emma, who, to the further amazement of all and sundry, is bringing out a softer side of Willy that no one knew even existed. (The person most surprised by this development is probably Willy himself.)

There’s a dark and dirty secret at the heart of Carolyn Barber’s disappearance. The VBI team keeps digging and getting closer and closer to the truth of the matter. Meanwhile, the Governor of Vermont has problems of her own. She’s Gail Zigman, Joe Gunther’s former lover, and she’s faced with the mother of all public relations disasters, engineered by  a ruthless power-seeking operative. She’s desperate for some inside information that Joe has access to. But when she asks him for it, he demurs on ethical grounds. As a result, their friendship suffers a blow which might be irreparable.

Archer Mayor’s Joe Gunther series is one of the few that I eagerly anticipate and always read. I don’t bother about reviews; I knew each new novel will be worthy of my attention. The scrupulous attention to detail, the believable and engaging characters, the cunning plots, the excellent writing – I know all will be present to add to m enjoyment.

I cannot sing the praises of this series highly enough, and Three Can Keep a Secret is an especially fine outing for Joe Gunther and company.

Archer Mayor on the Brattleboro-Hinsdale bridge in the city where his detective hero is based. (Christine Peterson for The Boston Globe)

Archer Mayor on the Brattleboro-Hinsdale bridge in the city where his detective hero is based. (Christine Peterson for The Boston Globe)

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“What if this present were the world’s last night?” – A discussion of Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life (with a Downton Abbey digression)

January 17, 2014 at 1:35 am (Book clubs, Book review, books)

life_after_life_cover_p_2013  Ursula Beresford Todd, the chief protagonist of Life After Life, first sees the light of day on February 11, 1910. Only she almost doesn’t see it.

“The cord’s wrapped around her neck. Oh, Mary, Mother of God. She’s been strangled, the poor wee thing.” This is the anguished cry of Bridget, the Irish maid. But Sylvie Todd, the mother, struggles against this outcome. Struggles so vehemently that she manages to outwit Death. And so the infant, christened Ursula, lives. At least, for the time being.

In fact, Ursula is fated to make her way through several different lives. To an extent, these varied trajectories  exemplify England’s agonized, war torn progress through the first half of the twentieth century. Yet in another sense, Ursula’s multiple life scenarios are uniquely hers. They are the result of the actions of others as they impinge on her, the circumstances in which she finds herself at a given moment, and the operations of pure chance. Life After Life is the story of individual fate interwoven with the fates of family members, of the country, of a world seemingly gone mad at one moment, entirely sane the next. Throughout all of this seemingly arbitrary chaos – chaos punctuated by calm verging on inertia – Ursula is forced, again and again, to make fateful choices, some of them hurriedly and based on scant evidence: “For decisions and revisions which a minute will reverse…”

Rita began this discussion (by AAUW Readers) with a question: Who liked the book? Who did not? A show of hands revealed that the group was evenly divided. Oh, good, thought I. This should  be lively! And so it proved to be.

Connie spoke on behalf of the dissenters. I don’t remember exactly what she said, but I believe she mentioned that she dreaded having to pick up the book in order to read further. I volunteered to speak on behalf of those who had positive feelings about the novel. First of all, I felt it necessary to state that I’d listened to it, as opposed to reading it. The recorded book, narrated by Fenella Woolgar, is one of the best I’ve ever had the pleasure to encounter. You can hear some of it here:

I’d decided to begin by listening rather than reading Life After Life because of its length – just under six hundred pages in the hardback edition – and the fact  that from what I’d read about it, I didn’t expect to like it. I’m a fan of the linear narrative. I like to say that if it was good enough for Jane Austen, Charles Dickens, George Eliot, Anthony Trollope, et. al., it’s good enough for me.

In fact, I did find the opening  sections confusing and rather off putting. The start and stop nature of the storytelling was initially exasperating. But the novel gradually took hold for me. I couldn’t wait to get back into the car – my sole venue for listening to audiobooks – and return to the many lives of Ursula Beresford Todd. (Someone in the discussion group commented that Life After Life was like five or six books in one book.)

As sometimes occurs in discussions where the participants begin by differing sharply, we drew together, at least to a degree, as our talk went forward. A section of the novel in which Ursula is living in Germany in the 1930s and becomes friendly with the Nazi elite, including Hitler’s mistress Eva Braun, was judged to be the least convincing of the alternate histories – a bridge too far, as it were. (Although I shall never forget Ursula rushing to the British Embassy, desperate to get out of the country, only to find the facility shut up and deserted. I felt a strong empathetic stab of panic at her plight.)

A fairly lengthy section of the novel takes place in London at the time of the Second World War. Through Ursula’s experience in the Home Guard during  the Blitz, the full awfulness of living under perpetual bombardment becomes all too real.  The suffering, the terrible losses, were limned in dispassionate and compelling prose. It seemed to go on forever yet was totally absorbing. Pretty much everyone thought that this was the mot powerful part of the novel. (I described these scenes to a friend and fellow book lover at a Christmas luncheon. She went home and sent me, as a gift, this Kindle e-book: 6947702. I look forward to reading it. Thanks, Kay!)

The most tantalizing question concerned the structure of Life After Life. Was Ursula conscious of the different paths her life might take? Was she, in fact, deliberately creating and living these alternating scenarios? Or was she solely the instrument of the author’s invention, fated by the imagination of one Kate Atkinson to follow these multiple, mutually exclusive paths through life?

Atkinson’s novel is enriched by many quotations from the great poets. The line quoted in the title of this post is from one of the Holy Sonnets by John Donne. (For the complete poem, click here.) The opening lines of Keats’s “Eve of St. Agnes” also appear in the novel. And, of course, Shakespeare: “Golden lads and girls all must, / as chimney-sweepers, come to dust….” (from Cymbeline). And as I’ve mentioned, Kate Atkinson’s own prose is wonderful:

   A tiny hare dangled from the hood of the carriage, twirling around, the sun glinting off its silver skin. The hare sat upright in a little basket and had once adorned the top of the infant Sylvie’s rattle, the rattle itself, like Sylvie’s childhood, long since gone.
Bare branches, buds, leaves— the world as she knew it came and went before Ursula’s eyes. She observed the turn of seasons for the first time. She was born with winter already in her bones, but then came the sharp promise of spring, the fattening of the buds, the indolent heat of summer, the mold and mushroom of autumn. From within the limited frame of the pram hood she saw it all. To say nothing of the somewhat random embellishments the seasons brought with them— sun, clouds, birds, a stray cricket ball arcing silently overhead, a rainbow once or twice, rain more often than she would have liked. (There was sometimes a tardiness to rescuing her from the elements.)
Once there had even been the stars and a rising moon— astonishing and terrifying in equal measure— when she had been forgotten one autumn evening. Bridget was castigated. The pram was outside, whatever the weather, for Sylvie had inherited a fixation with fresh air from her own mother, Lottie, who when younger had spent some time in a Swiss sanatorium, spending her days wrapped in a rug, sitting on an outdoor terrace, gazing passively at snowy Alpine peaks.

One of the downsides of listening to a book as opposed to reading the printed page (or the downloaded text) is that you cannot mark favorite or important passages. So I have in fact downloaded Life After Life, and may also purchase the soft cover edition. I feel a strong need to revisit this extraordinary novel, and hopefully to write about it again.

Kate Atkinson

Kate Atkinson

*************************************

An especially delightful moment occurred when someone – was it you, Phyllis? – plaintively asked if we could discuss Downton Abbey for just a short while. The two-hour premiere of Season Four of this British blockbuster had just aired, and people had questions to ask and opinions to express. Well, of course we did! This was a fun diversion; among other things, we cleared up the issue of who that insufferable nanny was calling a “half breed.”

In closing, I’d like to express my admiration for the intellectual rigor that characterized this discussion. Yes I do mean that – Downton Abbey and all! It took me back to the heady days of my favorite college classes. Well done, Readers!

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