Tuesday night I had the privilege of representing AAUW Readers at a gathering of our members. Each committee and/or affinity group selects a table on which to display relevant items. I of course schlepped many books, thereby getting my day’s exercise (more like my week’s exercise!). In the course of gathering the books for display, I began a list to go with them. It’s an annotated list, something I’m usually too lazy to do, but I made it a bit easier for myself this time by cribbing shamelessly from my own previous posts in this space and, in several cases, quoting other reviewers.
Herewith, in a somewhat altered and enlarged format, are the results of my efforts, which I hope you enjoy:
The Round House by Louise Erdrich. A Native American teenager is determined to find out the truth about an unprovoked attack on his mother. By turns funny and poignant, the novel illustrates, with grace and subtlety, the process by which a boy becomes a man.
Clever Girl by Tessa Hadley. “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.”
They Were Counted by Miklos Banffy, first volume in The Transylvanian Trilogy. “At 1,454 pages, ‘The Transylvanian Trilogy’ is worth every penny. Set during the last years of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, when Europe as a whole is slipping toward a cataclysmic war, it’s a saga of shortsighted politics and illicit love, of progressivism at loggerheads with entrenched interests, of servants outfoxing their masters — all kept in breathtaking balance by the power of the author’s artistry.” Dennis Drabelle in the Washington Post
The Last Duel: A True Story of Crime, Scandal, and Trial by Combat in Medieval France; and Blood Royal: A True Tale of Crime and Detection in Medieval Paris, both by Eric Jager. I thought that the history of the Middle Ages could not be made more riveting than it was in The Last Duel. And then I read Blood Royal, the story of the murder of the king of France’s brother and the ensuing investigation, and it was even better!
Glittering Images: A Journey Though Art from Egypt to Star Wars by Camille Paglia. This author is well known for stoking controversy in other fields, but art history is her vocation as well as her passion, and she writes about it with the same articulate intensity that she brings to her writing about social and political hot button issues.
The Land of Dreams by Vidar Sundstol. “This is a beautiful book. The characters are memorable and intriguing, but what has really stayed with me is Sundstøl’s remarkable evocation of a place I previously knew nothing about. In writing that is intensely lyrical, he has made Minnesota’s North Shore come alive.”
Sandrine’s Case by Thomas H. Cook. This is a thoroughly engrossing and terrifically well written courtroom drama, but “….the greatest strength of the novel lies in its exploration of one person’s mind and heart, in its depiction of what the truth really consists of, and how, once that truth stands revealed, it has the power to alter a person’s most basic assumptions about the world, about other people, and most of all, about him- or herself.”
A Fatal Inversion by Barbara Vine/Ruth Rendell. “The theme of expulsion from the garden of Eden resonates from time to time in this novel. But in the Bible, a right to be present in that blessed place is premised on the possession of an innocent and unsullied nature. Alas, none of these protagonists were possessed of such a nature. They were deeply flawed human beings, before the terrible unraveling ever began.” This bids fair to be the best novel of psychological suspense I’ve ever read.
A Dark Anatomy by Robin Blake. Set in Preston, Lancashire, in the year 1740, this novel’s chief protagonist is Titus Cragg, who serves as the town’s coroner. He is greatly helped in his endeavors by Luke Fidelis, a young physician and also a close friend. (Titus is married; Luke is not.) A Dark Anatomy is distinguished by a meticulous re-creation of a very specific time and place as well as a fully realized cast of characters. For my money, it’s the best historical mystery series debut to come along in quite some time.
Cop To Corpse by Peter Lovesey. This time, for Peter Diamond, it’s personal: while on routine patrol, Harry Tasker, a young beat cop, has been shot and killed by a sniper. Chief Superintendent Diamond must bring the full force of his investigative acumen to bear on one of the most baffling cases he’s ever encountered. ”Since its inception, with The Last Detective in 1991, the Peter Diamond series has gotten better and better….I owe many hours of great reading pleasure to Peter Lovesey. His procedurals are on a par with those of Reginald Hill and Colin Dexter.”
An Officer and a Spy by Robert Harris. A vivid retelling of France’s notorious Dreyfus Affair by a master of the historical thriller. “While finely attuned to modern resonances of surveillance, cultural identity and patriotic loyalty, Harris stays true to the atmosphere and morals of the period. He has crafted a compelling narrative of state corruption and individual principle, and a memorable whistleblower whose stubborn call can still be heard more than a century later.” Andrew Anthony in The Guardian/Observer
And for those who love Italy, as I do:
Temporary Perfections by Gianrico Carofiglio. “This is not a plot driven novel. Its richness lies in its character creation, vivid sense of place – the place being the city of Bari, in Italy’s Puglia region – and terrific writing. Temporary Perfections is the fourth in the Guido Guerrrieri series….I plan to go back and read the other Guerrieri novels. I absolutely love this book!” (I also recommend, and highly, The Silence of the Wave.)
A Venetian Affair: A True Tale of Forbidden Love in the Eighteenth Century, by Andrea di Robilant. A cache of letters found in a Venetian palazzo proves to be a treasure chest for this Italian journalist. With the aid of these precious documents, di Robilant is able to track back the history of his own family. In the process, he unearths a beautiful love story set against the grandeur and intrigue of eighteenth century Venice.
The Golden Egg, and pretty much all the Commissario Guido Brunetti novels by Donna Leon. “I very much like the use Leon makes in these novels of the third person limited point of view. It has allowed her readers over the years to attain a kind of intellectual and emotional intimacy with Guido Brunetti….Likewise, the reader gets to spend time en famille with Brunetti, Paola, and their two children, Chiara and Raffi. This is a close and devoted family. Meals are taken together, including lunch – including on weekdays – very civilized. The meals are invariably delicious; Paola is a terrific cook. The conversation at table is often both bracing and raucous.”
Poets in a Landscape by Gilbert Highet. Born in Glasgow Scotland in 1906, Gilbert Highet taught the classics at Columbia University from 1938 to 1971. During that time, his charismatic classroom presence became legendary. Poets in a Landscape is part history, part travelogue, and wholly magical. Every page is animated by Highet’s deep knowledge and love of Italy, both past and present….From start to finish, a transcendent reading experience.”
It is good for us to think of Catullus returning to his northland from enervating Asia or corrupt Rome, and, for a time, being happy in ‘relief long-sought, when the mind drops its burdens’. Yet he was a man doomed to misery. We come closer to his soul when, with a single small volume of poems (a promise of far richer possibilities unfulfilled) in our hand, we stand above the endlessly rolling waves that beat on Sirmio, and watch the olive trees, twisted into shapes like those of tormented prisoners, tossing their arms wildly in the air, and feel upon our faces the tearful violence of the restless and passionate wind.
I need to read this gorgeous book again, and soon (in Italy, perhaps…?)
“Kitchie-Gami was colored golden, pink, silvery-white, sulfur-yellow, as well as a number of hues for which no words existed.” – Vidar Sundstøl’s The Land of Dreams
Kitchie-Gami is the Ojibwe name for Lake Superior. The lake is a gigantic, mysterious presence in The Land of Dreams by Vidar Sundstøl. The story takes place on Minnesota’s North Shore, where the land meets the water. It is here, amid a landscape densely covered in greenery and studded with dramatic waterfalls, Forest Service officer Lance Hansen makes a discovery of unparalleled horror: a body brutally savaged by an unknown killer. The victim is one of a pair of Norwegian tourists. He discovers both young men in peculiar circumstances.
Throughout the novel, Lance is haunted by his remembrance of the victim. Even worse, he is bedeviled by a nagging suspicion; namely, is the murderer really unknown? Or is he known only too well?
Lance Hansen is a melancholy, inward turning person, but he is not a cliche of the genre. Rather he is all too human, divorced and the father of Jimmy, a seven-year-old currently living with his mother on the Ojibwe Reservation. Lance has lived on the North Shore his entire life, yet as the drama of The Land of Dreams unfolds, he seems very solitary. His nagging fear concerning the identity of the killer serves to isolate him further from family and friends.
This is a beautiful book. The characters are memorable and intriguing, but what has really stayed with me is Sundstøl’s remarkable evocation of a place I previously knew nothing about. In writing that is intensely lyrical, he has made Minnesota’s North Shore come alive. Here, Lance is recalling his impressions while driving south along Lake Superior, during the time of his courtship of Mary Dupree:
It was in the spring and summer that the beginning phase of their relationship unfolded. The evenings were long and bright,the lake and sky merging in a hallucinatory way so that it was impossible to see where on ended and the other began. The humidity from that enormous expanse of water filled the air with a delicate mist, and in the mist floated shades of yellow, pink, and blue, like watercolors, all of them illuminated by the evening sun hovering low in the sky. After the sun sank below the horizon, the colors darkened to violet and black.
Since both the murder victim and a potential suspect are Norwegian nationals, the decision is taken to have a Norwegian law enforcement officer flown in to assist in the investigation. Upon landing in Duluth, this is Eirik Nyland’s first impression:
In spite of the typical and anonymous scene that characterizes every airport, he had a distinct awareness that he was in the United States. Even in this small airport in Minnesota, he had the feeling of a smooth, carefully structured surface concealing a violent energy underneath.
In fact, Duluth turns out to be an interesting city. We get a glimpse of its impressive aquarium when Lance takes Jimmy there on a weekend outing. In addition, the rather amazing Aerial Lift Bridge crosses the canal that connects Lake Superior to the Duluth-Superior Harbor and the St. Louis River:
Like so many that live in the region of the North Shore, Lance Hansen is descended from Norwegian immigrants. He is an avid student of the region’s history and its people; indeed, this novel provides fascinating glimpses into that history. For instance, in the 1830s, John Jacob Astor financed a fishing concern on Lake Superior’s northern shore. A financial crash stopped the project in its tracks, yet at the same time it seemed to portend what the future would bring:
Gone were the voyageurs’ romantic songs and the Celtic strains from the Great Hall. Gone were the dairy cows, the pigs waiting to be slaughtered, and the crates of Portuguese wine. Gone were the European Crowns’ colorful flags and banners, the uniforms and drums, and cries of “God Save the King!”
Instead, something entirely different was approaching. Something that would redefine the land itself. The time of treaties was approaching. Legal provisos, signatures, and maps. Rivers and mountains and valleys were given new names. The flowers too. And the birds and fish. Everything had a new name, and the names were written down in books. And the world as it actually existed was erased and conjured into a dark spirit world.
What was approaching was the modern nation of the United States.
Since I’ve been praising the writing in The Land of Dreams, I should also praise the work of the translator, the redoubtable Tiina Nunnally. Now you may fairly ask yourself why a novel set in Minnesota needs to be translated into English. Here’s the answer: author Vidar Sundstøl is Norwegian; he writes, naturally enough, in that language. He and his wife came to live on the North Shore for two years. The result of this experience – or one of its results – is this novel, published in Norway in 2008, plus two others: Only the Dead and Ravens. Taken together, they constitute The Minnesota Trilogy. In this essay, the author provides some background on how the writing of these books came about. (According to Amazon, Only the Dead is due out here in October. No word yet on Ravens, or at any rate, none that I was able to find.)
The Land of Dreams is aptly titled. Dreams – the act of dreaming and the content of the dreams – appear and reappear throughout the narrative. Lance can recall significant dreams from his past but none from recent times. In fact, he believes that he’s lost the knack of dreaming completely. The last dream that he can remember having – and he remembers it vividly – dates from the time of his son Jimmy’s birth:
Seven years ago he’d dreamed he was standing at the deepest spot in Lake Superior. He thought he was going to freeze to death. At the same time, it was beautiful. A blue landscape he was convinced existed only in his dream. Now he stared out at the darkness enveloping the lake. Once upon a time this was a place where dreams determined a person’s path in life. The Ojibwe, before they became Christianized, were a people who interpreted dreams. Their names often came from dreams. They made dream catchers to protect themselves from nightmares, and they wore amulets that represented particularly significant dreams they’d had.
And now? Now there was a different kind of land out there.
Years ago, when researching the novels of Tony Hillerman, I came upon an article in which the author observed that the Native American peoples of the Southwest had taken that vast and dramatic landscape and absorbed into their own interior landscape. In The Land of Dreams, we see something akin to this phenomenon happening to those who dwell in the very different surroundings of the North Shore.
(Sundstøl has also managed to evoke in this reader in a deep desire to experience the North Shore at first hand. I know from my past travels that you don’t have to be a long time resident of a place in order to fall under its spell, especially if you have envisioned it beforehand. Years ago, my reading of Willa Cather, Tony Hillerman, and Judith Van Gieson strongly impelled me to go to New Mexico. I was already half in love with the place before I got there. Needless to say, it did not disappoint.)
Because Vidar Sundstøl’s writing is so straightforward and lacking in showiness, the events of the novel seem to unfold naturally and inevitably. He delivers profundity by means of understatement. All this against a backdrop of boreal forest, rivers and waterfalls, and the great, unknowable Kitchie-Gami itself.
“Superior, they said, never gives up her dead…” (from ‘The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald’ by Gordon Lightfoot).
The nominees for the year 2014 Best Novel Award were the following:
Of these six, I’ve read three: How the Light Gets In, Ordinary Grace, and Sandrine’s Case. I’d like to comment on these.
By the time I got around to reading the Louise Penny title, I’d already read a number of glowing reviews. So I was hopeful, and that hope was vindicated. How the Light Gets In is a wonderful novel, filled with Penny’s signature poetic writing and populated with characters we’ve come to know and care about.
At this point, I’ve read nearly all of the books in the Inspector Gamache series and enjoyed them, for the most part. You’ll notice, I qualified the previous statement. Some of the novels have worked better for me than others. And then there was The Beautiful Mystery, the series entry immediately preceding this one. Almost from the beginning, I felt as though I were slogging through this narrative. Some mysteries have a slower pace than others, and don’t necessarily suffer for it, but this book seemed to me positively inert, completely becalmed. Everyone was penned up in a monastery on an island, and all I knew was, I wanted off that island ASAP! At about the half way point, I gave up.
The Beautiful Mystery was an award winner – nearly all of Louise Penny’s books have been honored in this way, several with multiple accolades – but it did not work for me on any level. This was one of the reasons I was so delighted with How the Light Gets In. A glorious return to form for Ms Penny.
For the record, my favorite entries in this series are the first one, Still Life, and especially Bury Your Dead, the reading of which made me want to drop everything and get on a plane to Quebec City, where I would (naturally) stay at the fabulous Chateau Frontenac...
William Kent Krueger has garnered a slew of raves for Ordinary Grace. The novel is set in New Bremen, Minnesota in 1961; the unfolding events of that fateful summer are recounted by teenager Frank Drum. Frank’s father is a Methodist minister; his mother, an aspiring writer. A younger brother and an older sister make up the rest of the family.
From the jacket copy:
It was a time of innocence and hope for a country with a new, young president. But for thirteen-year-old Frank Drum it was a grim summer in which death visited frequently and assumed many forms. Accident. Nature. Suicide. Murder.
Yes, it’s all there and it sounds sensational, yet as I was reading, it didn’t strike me that way. This may be partly because, clocking in at just over 300 pages in the hardback version, the novel proceeds at an oddly leisurely pace. We get quite a few opportunities to delve inside the daily lives of Drum family members, and, as is the case in most families, these quotidian glimpses are not all uniformly fascinating – at least they weren’t for this reader. There were times when I became a bit impatient, in particular with Frank’s younger brother Jake, whom I found at times to be pesky. Perhaps his behavior was meant to be endearing; instead I found it annoying. (Sorry – apologies to baby brothers and sister the world over!)
Krueger is the author of a highly regarded series featuring Cork O’Connor. It too is set in Minnesota. (The Land of 10,000 Lakes seems to be having its moment right now. I’m currently reading The Land of Dreams, a terrific novel in the Minnesota trilogy by Norwegian author Vidar Sundstol. And then, of course, there’s Fargo.) Cork O’Connor is a very appealing protagonist, and his home state is vividly described by Krueger. Native American lore and characters also enrich the novels in this series. I’ve read and enjoyed two of them: Thunder Bay and Boundary Waters, which was a discussion selection by the Usual Suspects group.
When I sat down to read Ordinary Grace, I was optimistic, having no reason not to be. But only a few pages in, I looked up from the book and sighed deeply. I could not help thinking, I’ve been here before; another coming of age novel, a teenaged boy – it’s seems that it’s almost always a boy – finds out the Truth about Life. Part of my problem was that I still held in my mind the recollection of Louise Erdrich’s The Round House, a stellar example of fiction in this genre, beautifully written and lightened with welcome touches of humor.
Not to put too fine a point on it, I was not quite as enthralled by Ordinary Grace as other readers obviously were. I found the novel by turns engaging and exasperating. I guess the problem was pretty much mine alone: Ordinary Grace just won the Edgar for this year.
Sandrine’s Case surprised me. I’ve had problems with Thomas H. Cook’s fiction in the past. Last year the Usual suspects discussed Breakheart Hill. I had serious issues with that novel and only barely got through it. Previously, I’d tried Cook’s Edgar winner, The Chatham School Affair, and gave up at about the half way point. I was finding the portentous tone and relentless hints at profundity just a bit too irritating. But in view of the laudatory reviews Sandrine’s Case was getting, I decided to give it a try. I’m glad I did.
Samuel Madison and his wife Sandrine are both professors at Coburn College in Coburn, Georgia. It’s a small college in a small southern town, and Samuel Madison can’t help feeling that he was destined for better things. When Sandrine, already ill, dies suddenly and inexplicably, her husband is accused of killing her. Initially,Madison’s default demeanor, characterized by an attitude of smug condescension, does him no good as a jury of his peers sits in judgment on him and on his actions.Here’s how he imagines the jurors perceive him:
I was a tenured professor, which to the people of Coburn was a ticket to a carefree and semiluxurious retirement. I couldn’t even be fired – so the locals assumed – no matter what I said in class, or even if I failed to show up in class at all. But this Samuel Joseph Madison character had wanted something more, they said to themselves and each other.A cushy life had simply not been enough for the esteemed professor, expert on Melville, Hawthorne, and God knows how many other lesser-known literary figures. Here was a man who’d lived high on the hog despite the fact that he conceived nothing, built nothing, invented nothing, maintained nothing, sold nothing. Here was a man who lived high on the hog by…talking.
In this surmise, he’s probably not fat from the truth. But as this courtroom drama runs its inevitable course, his views on his marriage, his life, and the nature of life itself all undergo a profound change.
The day to day progress of the trial provides an equal measure of tension and tedium.
Of course, as a reader, I knew that a great many things had been written about time. It was a river. It was a thief. It was money to Benjamin Franklin and a dream to Conrad Aiken. Tolstoy had thought of it as a warrior, but as my trial continued, I found myself recalling that it had been the peculiar power Shakespeare had ascribed to time that Sandrine had most often quoted, the notion that it voided cunning, that nothing could outfox it.
In other words, he observes wryly, murder will out.
Sandrine’s Case abounds with literary allusions. Partly these is meant to show the sphere in which Samuel Madison’s intellect nominally dwells (as did his wife’s). But they also showcase the erudition of the author himself. Cook’s knowledge and love of the world’s great literature enriches and deepens the scope of this narrative.
Be that as it may, Madison’s frequent citing of great literature risks making him look like an intellectual snob – which, to an extent, he is. At one point, he remarks to Morty, his lawyer, that he feels like Merseault, the emotionally inert protagonist of Albert Camus’s The Stranger. Morty’s response is heavy with sarcasm: “‘Be sure you mention that to the press, Sam, or better yet to the jury. I’m sure they’re all great fans of postwar existentialist French literature.'”
Sam Madison’s veneer of thinly veiled contempt is a cover-up for a man who is gradually and inevitably being shaken to his core. His mind is more and more frequently cast back into the past, his past with Sandrine, when their love was new and filled with hope and happy anticipation. Here he describes his feelings after indulging, while in court, in an especially poignant reverie:
Before that moment I’d sat in utter silence, completely still. I’d faced the witnesses squarely and offered no visible response to anything they’d said. But in the surprising insistence of that particular recollection I felt the emergence of a second, far darker tribunal, the grand inquisitor in his black robe, demanding to know what really happened, how with so starry a beginning I’d reached this starless night.
That is so beautifully put – I especially like the use of the word tribunal. There’s plenty of writing like this in Sandrine’s Case. But the greatest strength of the novel lies in its exploration of one person’s mind and heart, in its depiction of what the truth really consists of, and how, once that truth stands revealed, it has the power to alter a person’s most basic assumptions about the world, about other people, and most of all, about him- or herself.
Last October, an article by Thomas H. Cook entitled “The Ten Best Mystery Books” appeared in Publishers Weekly. His annotations are so persuasive, it’ll make you want to obtain his selections immediately. (The fact that three of my all time favorites are on this list may partly account for my enthusiasm. They are The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins, A Coffin for Demetrios by Eric Ambler, and The Quiet American by Graham Greene.)
The Mystery Writers of America, the organization that bestows the Edgar Awards, features on its site a database that allows you to access the names of award winners and nominees going back to the inception of the award in 1946.
Donna Leon, Part One: “Old books had always filled Brunetti with nostalgia for centuries in which he had not lived.” – from By Its Cover
There’s trouble at Venice’s Biblioteca Merula , an elite institution famed for its priceless collection of books and incunabula. Pages have been excised from certain books; whole books have gone missing. Commissario Guido Brunetti is called in to investigate. He and his team uncover a far reaching mare’s nest of theft, deception, fraud, and eventually – not to mention inevitably – murder.
As we loyal readers of this series have come to expect, plenty of social and political commentary finds its way into the story. Early in the novel, Brunetti is in the police launch, piloted by the skillful and reliable Foa, when they round a curve and come upon a scene that leaves them dumbstruck. It’s the stern of a gigantic cruise ship:
Seven eight, nine, ten storeys. From their perspective, it blocked out the city, blocked out the light, blocked out all thought or sense or reason or the appropriateness of things. They trailed along behind it, watching the wake it created it avalanche slowly towards the rivas on both sides, tiny wave after tiny wave after tiny wave, and what in God’s name was the thrust of that vast expanse of displaced water doing to those stones and to the centuries-old binding that kept them in place?
And that’s not all:
Suddenly the air was unbreathable as a capricious gust blew the ship’s exhaust down on them for a few seconds.
Curious to see what these behemoths looked like, I googled “large cruise ships in Venice.” Here are a few of the images I found (Be sure you click to enlarge, to get the full impact.):
At one point in Brunetti’s investigation, mention is made of the Biblioteca dei Girolamini in Naples. Donna Leon’s idea of using a vandalized library as the wellspring for the plot of a crime novel may have sprung from the real life depredations that were recently discovered to have taken place in Girolamini Library.
Beautiful place, n-est-ce pas? Ah, but what happened there is anything but….
Standing accused in a case of multiple thefts of rare and priceless volumes is the library’s former director and thirteen other individuals, including a priest. The New York Times reported on the crime in an article entitled “Rare Books Vanish, With a Librarian in the Plot.” (Alas, such a stain on the profession I love!)
Here’s what some reviewers (quoted in blurbs on this book’s back cover) have to say about Guido Brunetti:
“It is as a man of sensibility that this endearing detective most engages us.” New York Times
“The sophisticated but still moral Brunetti, with his love of food and his loving family, proves a worthy custodian of timeless values and verities.” Wall Street Journal
“Brunetti is the most human sleuth since Georges Simenon’s Inspector Maigret….A decent man [who achieves] a quiet heroism.” Philadelphia Inquirer
I can think of no better illustration of the above statements than the following scene, which occurs as the Commissario, after a day’s work, is returning home to his wife:
As he closed the door, he heard Paola call his name urgently from the back of the apartment. When he entered their bedroom, the last light was disappearing in the west, and silhouetted against it he saw his wife, bent to one side, as if in the grip of pain or frenzy. One arm was wrapped across her throat, the elbow pointing in his direction. Only half of her other arm was visible. He thought of swift-striking disease, a ruptured disc, a stroke. As he moved towards her, heart chilled, she turned her back, and he saw that the fingers of both hands were joined at the zipper of her dress.
‘Help me, Guido. It’s stuck.’
It took him a few seconds to conjure up the appropriate husbandlike behavior.
In just a minute or two, he is able to free the mechanism. “‘That’s fine now,’ he said and kissed her hair, saying nothing about the punch his lungs had taken.”
For me, By Its Cover is one of the best entries in the Brunetti series in quite some time. Rich with cultural references, touched with Leon’s trademark sardonic humor, and enlivened by a wonderful cast of characters, it is a real treasure.
Many of us who cherish Donna Leon’s oeuvre harbor a longstanding curiosity about her as a person. Her life has followed an unusual trajectory, starting in New Jersey and ricocheting all over the world from one country to the next before fetching up in La Serenissima for good. When I saw that she’d published a collection of essays on a variety of subjects, I was eager to get the book. I’ve now read about half of the pieces in it, and it’s been interesting, to say the least. I’ll have more to say about My Venice in an upcoming post, Donna Leon Part Two.
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….
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.
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.
Some of the other books I’m reading:
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.
This 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.)
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:
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.
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.
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.
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….
This has always been one of my favorite Bible stories.)
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.) 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.)
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.
Yes, here in the Free State, it’s déja vu all over again (if you’ll forgive the tautology):
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:
I’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. 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:
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
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.
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.
“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:
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:
While there, it was my great good fortune to obtain this gorgeously illustrated edition of A Shropshire Lad:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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”
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:
Well, maybe later – much later….
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.)
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:
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.
Oh – and of course one may catch up on one’s reading. For me, this means the following:
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.
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.
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.
Finally, I’d like to close by giving credit where it’s due, to that irreplaceable aid to concentration, the cat. Yes, it’s Miss Audrey Jane Marple, whose fidelity to her role as Companion Animal is unsurpassed!