A Great Reckoning by Louise Penny: a book group discussion

September 22, 2017 at 7:10 pm (Book clubs, Book review, books, Mystery fiction)

Despite the theme of defiled innocence that makes this such a mournful story, the immense  charm of the Gamache series survives in the magical setting and feisty residents of Three Pines, like the cranky old poet Ruth Zardo (“Bile. She’s pure bile”) and Clara Morrow, the dotty artist (“Have you ever seen  a self-portrait where the person didn’t look just a littlw insane?”).

Marilyn Stasio, from her review of The Great Reckoning in The New York Times.

The series is deep and grand and altogether extraordinary.

From Maureen Corrigan’s review in The Washington Post, entitled “There’s a bit of Nancy Drew in Louise Penny’s masterful ‘A Great Reckoning’”

Finally, there’s a video segment that was aired on CBS Sunday Morning in July, on the occasion of the release of The Great Reckoning. In it, Martha Teichner muses, “There should be a name for fans of Louise Penny’s murder mysteries: The L Pack, or the Penny Posse maybe.” She goes on:

To say they come from far and wide in large numbers to attend her book events is no exaggeration. They’ve come all the way to the Canadian town of Knowlton, in the eastern townships of Quebec, where Penny lives, and her books are set.

Indeed, the mass of fans gathered for this particular book signing event is large and impressive.

If you look at her entry on Stop! You’re Killing Me, you’ll see that her books have garnered numerous awards and nominations.

Critics  and reviewers routinely fall all over themselves in the search for superlatives to apply to the novels in this series. And yet….You probably know where this is heading.

Ably led by Mike, Usual Suspects recently discussed A Great Reckoning, and well, our sentiments were decidedly mixed. There was general acknowledgement of Penny’s skill in creating a world and filling it with memorable characters. However, we were not all unduly fond of those same characters. For myself, I find Ruth Zardo, “the old poet” with the foul mouth and the pet duck named Rosa (who goes around making a sound very like ‘cluck cluck’) supremely irritating. It’s hard for me to believe that a person with such a sour disposition and profane vocabulary could also be the author of beautiful verse. (Yes, I know there was Lord Byron and Dylan Thomas – but even so….) Myrna the bookstore owner is pleasant enough, but I wonder why Penny does not invest her with more of a love and knowledge of literature.

Not having read in this series since the first novel, Still Life, Marge was immediately made aware of a great deal of back story that was alluded to but not elaborated upon. A Great Reckoning is the twelfth novel in the series, and I can well imagine feeling quite lost of you haven’t been reading at least some of the more recent series entries.

And then there’s Armand Gamache, recently retired Chief Inspector of the Sûreté du Québec. Marge felt that as  the book’s plot got under way, his virtuousness and uprightness were stressed ad nauseum. Others among us felt that his nearly flawless goodness was at times hard to believe in and tended to make him seem somewhat two dimensional.

It was somewhere around this point in the discussion that Frances weighed in with a lengthy and entirely eloquent plea in favor of Gamache in particular and this novel in general. My notes on her remarks are rather hasty and fragmented – I wish I could have recorded them so as to have a verbatim record of her spirited disquisition, which was both an analysis and a defense. A Great Reckoning, she averred, was in the nature of a hero’s quest, a journey through difficulties and dangers that at last arrives at a place of peace and enlightenment where, importantly, justice is served. The plot’s structure was elegantly wrought, in her judgment. She likened  the nove to a morality play. (At least, I have that phrase scribbled in my notebook!) We begin in confusion and end in clarity.

Up until the occasion of this discussion, Frances had been absent from our gatherings for quite a while.  By the time she had concluded her incisive and insightful remarks, I was reminded of her keen intellect which, combined with a compassionate heart, serves to make her so valuable as both an interlocutor and a  friend.

Even after Frances vibrantly championed A Great Reckoning, there remained dissenters among us. For the most part, we did not agree with her about the novel’s structure. The plot has numerous threads that were a challenge to untangle; moreover, there is a dauntingly large cast of characters. It was hard to keep all of this straight. It was all over the map.

And maps, as it happens, are a key element in this story. A hundred year old map of Three Pines and the surrounding area is found concealed within the walls of the building that now serves as the village bistro. This map has some very curious features and obviously cries out for investigation. This process is the springboard for much of what subsequently unfolds in the novel’s plot.

Meanwhile, several faithful readers have tried their hands at more conventional re-creations of Three Pines, to wit:

Then there is the matter of Louise Penny’s prose style. It is definitely distinctive. For some readers, it is brimful of charm and a kind of eccentric beauty. For others, not so much. In our group, Pauline found it pretentious. I described it as highly idiosyncratic. Marge said that it simply did not work for her.

It’s my feeling that the style of a written work should serve as a vehicle for the story. This does not mean that it can’t possess a lyrical quality, but it does mean that it shouldn’t call it attention to itself at the expense of that story.

I fear that this write-up is coming across as overly negative. Certainly Louise Penny has created a body of work that resonates powerfully for many people. I think we all felt that she seems to be a lovely person, kind and generous. Recently widowed, she has had to fight through the pain to continue her work. Undoubtedly the devotion of her many readers has been a great help in that effort.

Louise Penny

Of the thirteen novels in this series, I’ve red eight. My favorite is without doubt Bury Your Dead. That book made me want to board a flight to Quebec City tout de suite!

This was a terrific discussion. I was reminded once again of what a pleasure it is to be among lovers of our wonderful crime fiction genre who are both great “discussers” and wonderful people.


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‘His soul was made for the noblest society; he had in a short life exhausted the capabilities of this world…’ Henry David Thoreau: A Life, by Laura Dassow Walls

September 17, 2017 at 4:08 pm (Book review, books)

  Upon finishing this book several weeks ago, I felt overwhelmed by a mixture of  new knowledge, wonder, and grief. I needed some time to pass before I could write about it.

There is so very much more to Thoreau than Walden, as great as that book is. We have an image of him as a sort of recluse, but nothing could be further from the truth. He was actively engaged in the life of his beloved Concord. His friends were numerous; he was devoted to his family; his interests ranged far and wide. I like Wikipedia’s brisk summation:

Henry David Thoreau (July 12, 1817 – May 6, 1862) was an American essayist, poet, philosopher, abolitionist, naturalist, tax resister, development critic, surveyor, and historian.

Thoreau was born in Concord, Massachusetts, and never lived anywhere else. He was not widely traveled, although he loved to explore nature by boat and on foot. He delighted in the woods of Maine and scaled Mount Kahtadin.  He explored Cape Cod. He went as far afield as Montreal, New York City, and, toward the end of his life, Minnesota. (Ill though he was at the time, he rejoiced in this opportunity “to see the West.”) But always he returned to Concord, relieved and rejoiced to be back in his true home.

The subject of Thoreau’s life requires a biographer who above all has a prose style that is both incisive and gracious. Fortunately, Laura Dassow Walls is just such a writer:

Thoreau is often said to have turned to “Nature,” but what he actually turned to was, more exactly, the “commons”—spaces that, back then, were still open to everyone: woods, fields and hilltops, ponds and blueberry thickets, rivers, meadows, trails up nearby mountains, the long open beaches on the Atlantic shore. Nearly all his writings use landforms and watersheds to explore the commons, expanding our shared natural and intellectual heritage until it touches the Cosmos itself. When Thoreau sailed on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers, he traveled the deep stream of time; when he walked the shore of Cape Cod, he dabbled his toes in a wild ocean stretching around the globe; when he stood on the shoulder of Mount Katahdin, he breathed the thin chill air of a planet in stellar space.

Laura Dassow Walls, most probably standing at the edge of Walden Pond

Walls’s account brims with fascinating incidents from Thoreau’s life. (And with sadness as well; life was still a precarious thing in the early nineteenth century.) Thoreau’s tenure in Concord coincided with that of a number of other worthies, among them Nathaniel Hawthorne, Bronson Alcott (Louisa May’s father), and above all, Ralph Waldo Emerson. The friendship of Emerson and Thoreau was rather fraught. They fell out over various issues any number of times, but the basic closeness and mutual respect never wavered.

In addition, Thoreau crossed paths with other notable individuals. During his sojourn in New York City, he was introduced to the young Walt Whitman. He was not quite sure what to make of him:

…a man so coarse and rough yet so gentle and sweet, who loved “to ride up and down Broadway all day,” sitting beside the omnibus driver and declaiming Homer at the top of his lungs.

And yet Thoreau very much liked Leaves of Grass.

And here is a passage that caused me to exclaim in delight. I was deeply grateful for its presence in the narrative, as it occurs as Thoreau and his traveling companion, Horace Mann Jr. are making their way back East, after their sojourn in Minnesota. As they cross Wisconsin, Thoreau’s health becomes increasingly precarious. And yet, at that very moment, a luminous synchronicity occurs:

They passed through Madison on June 27, where the university had just let out for the year, and a twenty-three-year-old John Muir was, that very day, walking north to his home in Portage. Muir, a student of geology, botany, and chemistry, had just finished his first term. Not until he quit school for “the University of the Wilderness” would he hear of Thoreau, who would become one of his heroes; in Muir’s work, Thoreau’s emerging environmental activism would mature into a national politics.

Reading this, I envisioned a map of Wisconsin, with these two paths nearly crossing; two lines not fated to meet, but coming close, an almost meeting that proved to  be deeply meaningful, as  the years passed.

Having been there several times, I can say with confidence that Concord is a town well worth visiting.  Orchard House, home of the Alcott family, Emerson’s house, the Old Manse, Sleepy Hollow Cemetery – all are there to be seen and admired. The house where Thoreau’s family lived while he attended Harvard has become the Concord Colonial Inn. We have twice enjoyed staying at this historic hostelry. (On the occasion of one of those stays, we had the great pleasure of becoming acquainted with Miss Emily Dickinson, distinguished poet.)

If you have the great good fortune to visit Concord, there is, of course, a wealth of related reading material with which to fortify your luggage. One you may not know about, though, is a mystery: God in Concord by Jane Langton.  I recommend a browse in the venerable Concord  Bookshop,   and most importantly, do not omit a visit to the Concord Free Public Library,  which plays such an entertaining role in Jane Langton’s novel.

Orchard House


‘Bush,’ home of Ralph Waldo Emerson


The Old Manse

Sleepy Hollow Cemetery

Concord Colonial Inn


Concord Free Public library, dedicated in 1873

Henry David Thoreau finally succumbed to the ravages of tuberculosis in 1862. He was 44 years old. This is the closing passage of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s eulogy

The country knows not yet, or in the least part, how great a son it has lost. It seems an injury that he should leave in the midst his broken task, which none else can finish,—a kind of indignity to so noble a soul, that it should depart out of Nature before yet he has been really shown to his peers for what he is. But he, at least, is content. His soul was made for the noblest society; he had in a short life exhausted the capabilities of this world; wherever there is knowledge, wherever there is virtue, wherever there is beauty, he will find a home.


Henry David Thoreau in 1854, crayon on paper, by Samuel Worcester Rowse

















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Fast Falls the Night by Julia Keller

September 15, 2017 at 12:31 pm (Book review, books, Mystery fiction)

  Poor Acker’s Gap, West Virginia.

Staggering under a load of misery, its denizens have turned to drugs for solace and a numbing of the pain. But suddenly the number of dying increases exponentially. The heroin has been mixed with a deadly substance called carfentanil.   Prosecutor Bell Elkins, Deputy Sheriff Jake Oakes, and others in both medicine and law enforcement are desperate to track this substance to its source so as to prevent yet more overdoses.

Having lived away from Acker’s Gap for a period of time, Bell Elkins, feeling a strong imperative, has returned home. She’s determined to help in whatever way she can, as her community and others in the state struggle with this nefarious plague:

The highest compliment you could pay to a place and its people, she believed, was to insist on justice. On the rule of law. To say to the dark anarchical currents that were always threatening to overwhelm this area: No. I won’t let that happen.

Bell and Jake are  having to deal with those ‘anarchical currents’ – wonderful phrase, that – in both their professional and personal lives. This, despite dauntless courage and perseverance exhibited by the two of them in the most trying circumstances.

I’ve been hearing good things about this series ever since it debuted with A Killing in the Hills in 2012. This is the first entry I’ve read, and judging by this one, I’d say the praise is entirely justified. Julia Keller’s skill at plotting and character creation are exemplary; in addition, her writing is beautiful.

Julia Keller

With regard to her chosen profession, Bell reflects that “…prosecutors had to believe, at least theoretically, in the possibility of redemption.” Sadly, there’s very little redemption in evidence in this extremely downbeat novel. Things seem always to be going from bad to worse, as characters that you’ve come to care about catch one bad break after another. I would love to talk about this book with other readers, but I’m hesitant to propose it for a book discussion; the mood is so relentlessly somber.

At one point  in the narrative, one of Bell’s staffers, a woman of staunch but restrained religious conviction, asks Bell if she’s familiar with the hymn “Abide With Me.” Bell says she is not. (This response surprised me. I was raised Jewish, in an overwhelmingly Jewish community, and I know that hymn.) The staffer recites some verses for her, thinking they may provide some comfort in a time of great stress.

“Abide With Me” was written by Henry Francis Lyte. a Scottish clergyman. At the time he penned this hymn, Lyte was desperately ill with tuberculosis. He passed away in November of 1847.


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‘Murder, without cause, by a madman with his wits astray, monstrous, terrible….’

September 8, 2017 at 6:58 pm (Book review, books, Mystery fiction)

Here’s the quotation in its entirety:

Murder, without cause, by a madman with his wits astray, monstrous, terrible, fascinated and filled them with an irrational and panic fear. It let loose the Devil among them, and people still believed in the Devil. He struck only here and  there, but threatened all alike, for once he got the upper hand of law, order and all good things, he might regain the world, and use it for his ancient purposes.

No wonder they call it the Eastrepps Evil…. 

I haven’t been blogging for a couple of days. I have  been reading instead. In a mesmerized fashion. Compulsively. Until positively bleary-eyed.

These days, I tend to read several titles at the same time. Invariably one is crime fiction, usually another is nonfiction. Perhaps there’s another fiction title thrown in, often a collection of short stories such as Tessa Hadley’s recent outstanding Bad Dreams. But from time to time, I am so thoroughly grabbed by one particular book that other reading gets elbowed aside.

Thus it has been with Death Walks in Eastrepps .

The author’s name, given as Francis Beeding, actually served as a pseudonym for John Leslie Palmer  and Hilary Aidan St. George Saunders. These two collaborated on a series of crime novels published  between 1925 and 1946. Death Walks in Eastrepps  was the tenth; twenty-two more followed.

Published in 1931, this novel seems at first to be the story of a serial killer let loose in the placid seaside town of Eastrepps. One murder after another has residents terrified. Tourists flee, understandably spooked. The local police are baffled. Obviously additional expertise is needed; soon Chief Inspector Wilkins of Scotland Yard is  called to the scene to offer what aid he can.

The denizens of Eastrepps are rendered with exceptional clarity. The reader comes quickly to care about them as individuals, and to worry for their safety. An atmosphere of dread hangs over the bewildered little hamlet; you as the reader become party to that pervasive fear. And while all of these  seemingly senseless things are happening, a poignant and secret love story is unfolding.

There’s some exceptional writing in this novel. One of my favorite passages is this description of a garden and its owner’s pleasure in it:

Mrs. Dampier finished her coffee, and, rising from her chair in the summer-house, began to walk slowly towards her roses. They were drooping a little in the heat…But they were very lovely, a superb mass of blossom, banked for twenty feet from the edge of the lawn to the top of the pergola that ran behind. Here in her garden beauty was caught in a net of shining petals, and to guard against unlovely invasions, the lilies and lupins stood about like sentinels, with the tall hollyhocks stiff as grenadiers towards the gate. To her right shone ever so faintly a still pool, with little newts and tiny Japanese fish that darted silently about their business in the cool depths. And beyond the pool was a gracious company of trees.

As riveting a read as Death Walks in Eastrepps was for me, it must be admitted that the novel contains two disparaging references. First, an emotionally  disturbed individual is called a “degenerate.” Then a wandering group of players called minstrels are said to blacken their faces when they perform;  at one point, the “n” word is used as an adjective to describe their appearance. Yes, I know we must take into account the times – the 1930s, in this case – when terms such as these were likely considered less unacceptable than they are now. Still, when confronted with usages of this sort, I’m disconcerted and pulled momentarily out of the narrative. Unfortunately, this is a problem one encounters from time to time when reading the literature of a different era.

The edition of this novel that I read was published by W.W. Norton & Company in 1966. It features a short introduction by Vincent Starrett. Starrett opens by quoting Ellery Queen on the question of what makes a great crime novel. Queen believes the answer is retrospective in nature:

“….if, years and years later, you still have a vivid recollection of the original impact; if the significance of the story, its point, or its subtle overtone still sticks in the pigeonhole of your mind, then surely the story has the quality of greatness.”

Starrett goes on to declare that “Death Walks in Eastrepps has remained in my memory for half a lifetime.” (If, in fact, you obtain this particular edition, I would caution you against reading Starrett’s essay first. He gives away rather too much of the plot.)

I have several people to thank for putting me on to this novel. First, it appears in The Story of Classic Crime in 100 Books by Martin Edwards (more on this splendid if somewhat exasperating compendium in a subsequent post). Secondly, my friend Carol of Usual Suspects forwarded a blog post by Harriet Devine of Shiny New Books, in which Ms Devine sang the praises of Eastrepps. “There is so much to love admire here,” she enthuses. I agree, though my own admiration is somewhat tempered by the presence of the above mentioned instances of denigration. Individual readers, I think, must make their own decisions regarding these issues. (I’ve written at greater length on this problem in a post on Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None.)

One more observation: I’ve rarely been as stumped as to the culprit’s true identity as I was while reading this book. It was positively awash in false leads and red herrings, deployed with great cunning. I arrived at the truth at about the same moment as it stood revealed to law  enforcement and to another character as well. I gasped aloud; my husband, walking by, exclaimed, “What?” It took me a  few minutes to find my voice, and tell him.

John Leslie Palmer, 1885-1944


Hilary Aidan St. George
Saunders,  1898-1951




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A Story for Etta and Welles

September 1, 2017 at 8:12 pm (Family)

Last month, Grandma and Grandpa came for a visit.

They got to see Welles and Etta honing their computer skills.

Welles and Etta have just been to Yellowstone National Park! This is why Welles has a nice new stuffed bison. Etta has one too.

Etta and Welles are about to leave for a Superhero-themed birthday party.

During the visit, Welles and Etta made a fort. This is an activity which all children seem to enjoy.



(A fort can be a great hiding place.)

Grandma, Etta, and Welles went for a walk to the park. Along the way, they saw some interesting sights:

As they walk, they hold hands, ever mindful of safety.

Etta really loves her little brother! The feeling is mutual.


Sometimes the sheer joy of being alive takes hold. And then you just have to take off running! (That’s okay, as long as you stop at the intersection. Welles  and Etta are very good about that.)

Etta and Welles both have birthdays coming soon. Happy birthday to both of you!



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Hans Holbein

September 1, 2017 at 12:49 pm (Art)

[Click to enlarge]

What an astonishing portrait! The Sieur de Morette’s gaze is so piercing, one almost feels the need to turn away.

Hans Holbein the Younger – his father was also an artist – is probably best known for his portraits of King Henry VIII:

And then there is this lavish double portrait, with the strange and sinister object – called an anamorphosis – at the  bottom:

Although he was a skillful and inventive draftsman, printmaker, miniaturist and jewelry designer, Hans Holbein the Younger is best known as a painter, in particular as a portraitist. An assured, meticulous technician, Holbein’s insights into the character of his sitters are achieved, somewhat paradoxically, through his cool, emotional detachment and objective, astonishing realism. Working primarily in Switzerland and England, he is nonetheless one of the greatest German artists of the sixteenth century.

Hans Holbein the Younger, National Gallery of Art, Washington DC


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“‘To have a child is to open an account at the heartbreak bank…'”

August 29, 2017 at 7:31 pm (Book review, books)

Liv makes the above pronouncement one night to her husband Benjamin. They’re on a cruise, and they’re luxuriating in bed, at that moment.

Liv and Benjamin are the parents of two: Penny, an eleven-year-old who possesses the officiousness characteristic of some girls that age, and her younger brother Sebastian, a sweet little boy whose health must be monitored carefully; he is diabetic.

Liv is speaking in the abstract. She has no inkling of the events soon to occur that will affect all of them profoundly. How could she? They’ve dealt with the initial shock of Sebastian’s chronic illness; the entire family is engaged in helping him manage it. The effort has thus far been a notable success.

Accompanying Liv and Benjamin on this South American excursion are Liv’s cousin Nora and her husband Raymond. They also have two children: Marcus, the elder, and little June, often called Junie. Liv and Nora are close, nearly as close a sisters. Nora’s mother has recently passed away, and Liv had come up with the idea of all four of them traveling together, partly as a way of consoling Nora for her deeply felt loss.

At the outset of this venture, everything seems to be fine – not just fine, even great. The adults are nearly as excited as the kids.

On the walk to the buffet, Nora linked her arm through Liv’s and put her head on her shoulder, making Liv feel excessively tall. “I love you,” Nora said. “This was a genius idea.”

And so it would seem. Up to a point. That point is reached when Nora and Liv and the children, along with an Argentine woman and her two teenagers, decide to go on a zip-lining excursion while the ship is docked. A guide, Pedro, arranges things for then. Meanwhile, the men go off to play golf.

What could be more innocent, more conducive to a good time?

I dare not say more. I’ll just quote the final line of the Kirkus review  of this brainy and propulsive thriller by Maile Meloy:

Do not start this book after dinner or you will almost certainly be up all night.

I was.


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The eclipse at our house, with a poetical digression

August 23, 2017 at 4:22 pm (Art, Local interest (Baltimore-Washington), Poetry)

We were forewarned that in central Maryland, the eclipse would not be total. We weren’t expecting much, and frankly we didn’t get much. That’s not to say we didn’t try. And the sun was, in fact, shining – a happenstance not at all dependable here in the Old Line State.

We didn’t have  the special glasses and so did not gaze directly at the phenomenon. We were able to see this indicator, though, as the light penetrating through the leaves of the tree in our  front yard provided a sort of pin hole camera effect:

You will no doubt be impressed by the delicately calibrated scientific instrument that we also made use of:

At any rate, here was the sun once again, yesterday morning, being normal in our backyard:

Being of a literary turn of mind (and an incorrigible English major from way back),, I wish to cite three poetical allusions. The first is famous:

But, soft! what light through yonder window breaks?
It is the east, and Juliet is the sun.

Oh, thanks to thee, Shakespeare, for having words of beauty and meaning for every occasion.

And  then there’s John Donne, who in his poem “The Sun Rising”, is not praising the sun but chastising it. (Imagine scolding the sun! But then, lovers can  be a pretty cheeky lot):

Busy old fool, unruly sun,
Why dost thou thus,
Through windows, and through curtains call on us?
Must to thy motions lovers’ seasons run?
Saucy pedantic wretch, go chide
Late school boys and sour prentices,
Go tell court huntsmen that the king will ride,
Call country ants to harvest offices,
Love, all alike, no season knows nor clime,
Nor hours, days, months, which are the rags of time.

Thy beams, so reverend and strong
Why shouldst thou think?
I could eclipse and cloud them with a wink,
But that I would not lose her sight so long;
If her eyes have not blinded thine,
Look, and tomorrow late, tell me,
Whether both th’ Indias of spice and mine
Be where thou leftst them, or lie here with me.
Ask for those kings whom thou saw’st yesterday,
And thou shalt hear, All here in one bed lay.

She’s all states, and all princes, I,
Nothing else is.
Princes do but play us; compared to this,
All honor’s mimic, all wealth alchemy.
Thou, sun, art half as happy as we,
In that the world’s contracted thus.
Thine age asks ease, and since thy duties be
To warm the world, that’s done in warming us.
Shine here to us, and thou art everywhere;
This bed thy center is, these walls, thy sphere.

Finally there is W.H. Auden’s meditation on the sad fate of the too-audacious Icarus (and by implication the rest of us, sooner or later). This poem, titled “Musee des Beaux Arts,” was inspired by Auden’s viewing of Breughel’s Landscape with the Fall of Icarus:

About suffering they were never wrong,
The old Masters: how well they understood
Its human position: how it takes place
While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along;
How, when the aged are reverently, passionately waiting
For the miraculous birth, there always must be
Children who did not specially want it to happen, skating
On a pond at the edge of the wood:
They never forgot
That even the dreadful martyrdom must run its course
Anyhow in a corner, some untidy spot
Where the dogs go on with their doggy life and the torturer’s horse
Scratches its innocent behind on a tree.

In Breughel’s Icarus, for instance: how everything turns away
Quite leisurely from the disaster; the ploughman may
Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry,
But for him it was not an important failure; the sun shone
As it had to on the white legs disappearing into the green
Water, and the expensive delicate ship that must have seen
Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky,
Had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on.


Landscape with the Fall of Icarus, c.1555 (oil on canvas) by Bruegel, Pieter the Elder (c.1525-69) [Click to enlarge]

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‘Transcendence in Ordinary Domestic Life’ – and a transcendentally beautiful essay

August 23, 2017 at 1:13 pm (Art, Magazines and newspapers)

The above painting by Pieter de Hooch is variously titled “A Mother Delousing Her Child’s Hair” or, more succinctly and less specifically, “A Mother’s Duty.” Made some time between 1658 and 1660, it is currently housed in Amsterdam’s Rijksmuseum.

Of the artist, Willard Spiegelman tells us this:

About De Hooch we know little. Born in Rotterdam to a bricklayer and a midwife, he trained (perhaps) in Haarlem, and moved to Delft in 1652, where Vermeer also lived. It’s unclear if they had dealings. In 1661 De Hooch went to Amsterdam. He died impoverished, in a madhouse.

Spiegelman has more to say about the painting itself, which he calls ” a northern, secular version of a traditional Madonna and Child.”

In  the course of this eloquent explication, Spiegelman draws a subtle difference between the art of de Hooch and that of Vermeer:

We do not find in de Hooch what we most prize in Vermeer: a mysterious sense of human inwardness, an artist’s interest in the psychological depth of his characters, either alone or in small groups.

Reading this sentence, I felt a light turn on in my mind. So that is it, that is the secret – or at least, part of it – of Vermeer’s uncanny hold on those of us who are transfixed by his art. But Spegelman does not allow us to get sidetracked by Vermeer. The subject of this jewel-like essay is the many virtues of “A Mother’s Duty.”

Spiegelman refers to the dog at the left as an element in the picture that “…increases domestic charm.” In art, the dog is a symbol of fidelity and loyalty. Two of my favorite examples of this usage are the Arnolfini Portrait by Jan van Eyck and St. Augustine in His Study by Vittore Carpaccio:

(I highly recommend Jan Morris’s delightful little volume, Ciao, Carpaccio!: An Infatuation.)

(Willard Spiegelman’s essay appeared in the August 19 – 20 edition of the Wall Street Journal. The link provided in the previous sentence may not lead you to the full text. If that happens, the article can be accessed via the ProQuest database. Please see this post for instructions on how to do this through the Howard County Library’s website. Scroll down to the bottom to view those instructions.)

I am deeply grateful for the weekly Review section of the Wall Street Journal, in which literature and the arts have unquestioned pride of place.

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‘An act that becomes its own purifying absolution….’ – American Fire by Monica Hesse

August 22, 2017 at 12:25 pm (Book review, books, True crime)

  It started in Accomack County on Virginia’s Eastern Shore in November of 2012. It went on  for the next five months: the burning down of random empty buildings. The county had an abundant stock of such structures, and someone was apparently determined to take a torch to every one of them.

By some miracle, no one was killed, or even hurt, during this pyromaniacal rampage. But the effort to catch the perpetrator strained law enforcement to the breaking point. Firefighters in particular were hard hit and utterly exhausted. Still, the effort put forth during this siege was enormous and unstinting.

Whispering Pines, a once flourishing motel/resort, had been sitting empty before being set ablaze.

One tactic involved staking out buildings that were deemed to be likely targets. All sorts of electronic surveillance devices, especially motion sensitive cameras, were deployed. Agents of law enforcement huddled in tents at night, some distance – but not too far – from the focus of incendiary temptation.

Sure enough, five months into the investigation, this was the set-up that suddenly broke the case wide open.

Monica Hesse has done a prodigious amount of research in order to bring this stranger-than-fiction tale to life. In addition, she introduces us to a varied cast of characters who live and work – at least occasionally – in the insular community that is Accomack. Some are strong and purposeful; others are quirky drifters. And one, Charlie Smith, is – well, you need to read  the book to make your own assessment of Charlie.

Including notes, American Fire is 255 pages long; the experience of reading of it is propulsive. I put pretty much everything else aside as I raced though this narrative. If you’re looking for a page turner, this is it.

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