…of a beautiful place. Here’s how it begins:
In 1976 I set up a field studies centre here at Aigas, an ancient site in a glen in the northern central Highlands – it was Scotland’s first. It is a place cradled by the hills above Strathglass, an eyrie looking out over the narrow floodplain of the Beauly River. Aigas is also my home. We are blessed with an exceptionally diverse landscape of rivers, marshes and wet meadows, hill grazings, forests and birch woods, high moors and lochs, all set against the often snow-capped four-thousand-foot Affric Mountains to the west. Golden eagles drift high overhead, the petulant shrieks of peregrines echo from the rock walls of the Aigas gorge, ospreys hover and crash into the loch, levering themselves out again with a trout squirming in their talons’ fearsome grip. Red squirrels peek round the scaly, rufous trunks of Scots pines, and, given a sliver of a chance, pine martens would cause mayhem in the hen run. At night roe deer tiptoe through the gardens, and in autumn red deer stags surround us, belling their guttural challenges to the hills. Yes, we count our blessings to be able to live and work in such an elating and inspiring corner of Britain’s crowded isle.
(All I could think when I read this was that I wanted to pack my bags at once and go there.)
The above passage is from Gods of the Morning: A Bird’s-Eye View of a Changing World, by John Lister-Kaye (that’s Sir John Lister-Kaye, 8th Baronet OBE. I admit it: I’m a sucker for British titles, though the gentleman himself declines to make mention of it in this context.)
Admittedly, I have a poor track record when it comes to finishing books about the natural world (although I have a great track record for starting them). Nevertheless, this one bids fair to being an exception. I’m off to a good start. The writing is maintaining a high standard of gorgeousness.
I’ve got my fingers crossed…
Here are some views of Aigas:
How one envies John Lister-Kaye, secure in his glorious Scottish fastness!
And that has to be one of my all time favorite book covers.
I’d like to acknowledge the passing of Oliver Sacks, physician and writer. Dr. Sacks has been submitting luminous essays and op-ed pieces to the New York Times regularly, knowing that the time of his demise was drawing near. I was particularly moved by the one entitled Sabbath.
I am reminded of the words with which Walter Mondale eulogized Hubert Humphrey in 1978:
He taught us all how to hope and how to live, how to win and how to lose, he taught us how to live, and finally, he taught us how to die.
By the example of your grace and your courage, what a gift you have given us, Dr. Sacks.
Ever since I first read this novel last winter, I thought it would be a good choice for a book group. Marge, my “partner in crime” from our days at the library, felt the same. On Sunday, the Literary Ladies proved us right.
I’ve already reviewed The Girl Next Door in this space. As usual, additional insights and questions emerged in the course of the discussion. As two of the three central characters in the novel, Alan and Rosemary Norris came under the greatest scrutiny. We analyzed their motivations, actions, and reactions. There was less probing to be done about the third main character, Michael Winwood, but we all expressed our deep dismay at the pain inflicted on him by his feckless and narcissistic parents. His father John is one of the most genuinely despicable characters I’ve encountered in modern fiction. (In a review in the Evening Standard, Mark Sanderson calls him “a typical Rendell monster.”). The consequences of his cruel behavior toward his son – and even worse, far worse, transgressions – are as follows: After he is widowed (and I won’t tell you how), he remarries twice, the last time to a wealthy woman who dies conveniently and leaves him all her money and possessions. When we meet him, he’s living out his days in luxury at a posh retirement facility.
Rendell seems to be saying, if it’s earthly justice you’re looking for, don’t look here. And possibly, don’t look anywhere. (My mother used to say that people are always demanding justice when they should be begging for mercy. Possibly she gleaned this wisdom from an Old Testament upbringing.)
Marge and I had a pre-meeting discussion of this book at a restaurant located downtown by a lake. It was a beautiful day, so we chose to sit outdoors. We were rewarded by a veritable parade of lively dogs and cute babies. This helped to offset the sometimes grim subject matter we were dealing with. We came up with a list of discussion questions. (I didn’t want to place them directly into the text of this post, as they contain spoilers.)
The premise of the novel involves a group of people who played together as children during the war years. They had made a fortuitous discovery: underground passages that were meant to be the foundations of new houses. But the war had put a temporary halt to all such construction. Meanwhile, these tunnels proved ideal as a gathering place for the neighborhood children.
They felt a need to name their secret hideout. Daphne Jones came up with a term that was acceptable to them all: qanats. Of Persian origin, this word was especially pleasing to the children because it violated the dictum that had been drilled into them at school; namely, that the letter “q” must always be followed by a “u.”
The years pass, decades pass, and builders make a grisly discovery in their old play place. The police gather all the former playmates together in hopes that they can supply some useful information regarding a crime that has only just come to light. This reunion will have fateful consequences, and not only for the newly initiated criminal inquiry.
The head of the investigation is Detective Inspector Colin Quell, a stolid and unimaginative man. He’s genuinely puzzled by the phenomenon of the qanats and at one point poses this question to the group: “When you say you were playing there, what did you play? I mean, there can’t have been much to do in underground passages.” Their collective response:
They looked at Quell pityingly. He spoke from the age of computers and online games, from e-books, DVDs, and CDs, Bluetooth and Skype, smartphones and iPads. They spoke from a distant past when everyone read books and most people had hobbies, made things, played cards and chess, dressed up and played charades, sewed and painted and wrote letters and sent postcards.
Reading that passage now makes me feel sad. It seems that at least as far as childhood is concerned, much has been lost, or at least set side, perhaps forever. Indeed, the whole book is redolent of a Paradise Lost sensibility.
In preparing for this meeting, I revisited The Girl Next Door by means of recorded book. The reader was Ric Jerrom. I was not previously familiar with his work, but I have to say, Mr. Jerrom’s reading of this novel was mesmerizing. It is one of the best audiobooks I have ever listened to.
Although we have lost Ruth Rendell, she has bequeathed to us a rich and remarkable body of work. I for one will be revisiting it for years to come.
This year, the Howard County Library System is marking its seventy-fifth anniversary. As part of the celebration, pictures of area book groups are being taken and gathered together. Here’s our contribution:
Many thanks, Literary Ladies (aka Book Babes), for years of friendship, fellowship, and love of the written word! (Though some were absent, all were present in spirit)
…”too obsessed with books” might be more accurate phrasing, in my case.
Okay, here’s what I’m currently reading:
I was going to take a pass on this, despite the excellent reviews and the brilliance of this author, because of what I perceived would be the depressing subject matter (for one of my age, which is 71). However, my friend Pauline urged me to reconsider. So I downloaded a sample – I’ve been doing this a lot lately. I then proceeded to download the entire book. The beauty if the writing and the compassion of this dedicated physician will be sufficient to carry me past any rough spots, I hope..
A delightful read, which I’m deliberately taking slowly, in discreet chunks. Among its other virtues, the book is filled with great reading recommendations (something I’m desperately in need of, naturally).
Recommended by Martin Edwards. For me, this novel was a slow starter, and at the outset I was finding the characters somewhat stereotypical. But as I read, the coastal setting, sometimes bleak and sometimes beautiful, began to cast a spell. Here’s a sample of Wade’s descriptive writing:
Bryde-by-the-Sea though nominally a harbour, lies nearly a mile back from the ocean which surges invisibly against the line of low sand dunes limiting the northern horizon. In between lies an expanse of weed-grown mud, intersected by a maze of channels which at high tide are full to the brim of salt water and at low are mere trenches of black and treacherous ooze. These are the Saltings; the home of a hundred varieties of sea birds, of countless sea-plants, of insects, reptiles, fishes, animals – according to the state off the tides and the time of year; at one time a silvery dazzle of southernwood, at another green with sapphire, at another brown with sea-churned mud, and sometimes – at the highest of the ‘springs’ – completely submerged under the smooth, swirling waters of the flowing tide.
This is not an easy book to obtain. I got a somewhat battered used copy via Amazon. To my knowledge, it is not available in e-book format.
Meanwhile, I find myself increasingly drawn by this story of a struggling artist, his sweet and naive wife, and a cheerfully amoral novelist out to make trouble.
I’m reading this for our next Usual Suspects discussion. I’ve known about it for some time but never read it. The story seems a bit convoluted, but the setting – Istanbul in the early 1800’s – is so authentic and so exotic that you don’t really care if you lose a plot thread along the way. The Janissary Tree won the 2007 Edgar Award for best novel.
Among the many cultural references made in this novel is one to Iznik tiles. I was not sure what these were, but I found out easily enough (see the above link). And I also found this interesting YouTube video on the subject:
Capital Crimes: London Mysteries, edited by Martin Edwards. Another juicy compendium along the lines of Resorting to Murder, also edited by Mr Edwards. I’m about a third of the way in and don’t want to rush things. I just love these British Library Crime Classics!
This was recommended by several people who attended the Bodies from the Library conference on Golden Age Detective Fiction at the British Library. I’ve not had the same luck with Allingham novels as I’ve had with those of Dorothy L. Sayers, Agatha Christie, Ngaio March, and Josephine Tey. But I am really liking this one.
I really enjoyed Lee Siegel’s piece entitled “The End of the Ambitious Summer Reading List,” the Saturday essay in this past weekend’s Wall Street Journal. I found particularly entertaining the number of titles he mentions that are followed, in parenthesis, by the word “unfinished.” He reminded me of me. It occurs to me that you, patient reader, might be wondering, has this woman actually finished a book lately? Well, yes, I have – three in fact:
The usual bright and breezy confection served up by Baltimore’s own. The mystery is a bit odd and very tangled, but Tess Monaghan’s family situation is wonderfully limned. My favorite line concerns what life is like with her daughter, the irrepressible little Carla Scout, to wit: “It’s like living with Maria Callas.” Anyone who has spent more than ten minutes in the company of an energy-fueled toddler will relate, with no difficulty.
A thriller about the real estate business. I know, it sounds like a contradiction in terms, but it’s the premise of Phil Hogan’s novel about a man whose congenial exterior masks the workings of a pathological mind. Realtor William Heming has a penchant for taking full advantage of possessing, albeit temporarily, the keys to other people’s domiciles. Oh sure, he returns them when the time comes – but after he’s been sure to make duplicates. You can see where this could lead. And it does.
The word being chiefly used by reviewers for this novel and its main character is “creepy.” It is that – but for this reader, it did not pack quite the punch that I was hoping it would. So, mildly entertaining but ultimately somewhat forgettable. Maybe the problem was me. Reviews were quite positive; you might want to give it a try anyway and see what you think.
And finally, there is this: The Ways of the World is the first in a projected trilogy featuring James Maxted, a World War One veteran of the Royal Flying Corp who also spent time as a prisoner of war. He has survived, but his father, a diplomat who’d been detailed to the Paris peace talks by the British government, has met a mysterious and tragic end. Various factions labor to explain away Sir Henry Maxted’s unfortunate demise, but James isn’t having any of it. He is resolved to discover the truth about his father’s death, no matter the risk to himself. And that determination on his part is the springboard for all that follows in this fast-paced, absorbing novel, and presumably, in the two novels to follow. (The second book, The Corners of the Globe, has just come out in the UK.)
Robert Goddard is a writer who has never gotten the recognition he deserves on this side of the Atlantic. I’ve been reading his novels since I first went to work at the library in 1982. I remember greatly enjoying the first one, Past Caring, in 1986. Then came In Pale Battalions in 1988, a novel that takes place, like The Ways of the World, during the era of the First World War and that also, if memory serves, features a memorable love story. There are quite a few others; see the Wikipedia entry for the complete list. I’ve read several more over the years.
Goddard writes in the vein I like to call “thrillers with brains.” These novels are action packed and cunningly plotted, but they’re also about real people in whose destinies the reader becomes fully engaged. Oh – and the writing has to be excellent. In this passage, Kuroda, a Japanese delegate to the peace talks, seeks to explain himself – and other things – to James Maxted (called ‘Max’ by nearly everyone who knows him):
We can never see the ends of the roads our choices lead us down until we reach them. I chose long ago, as a young Tokyo police officer, to volunteer for special attachment to a foreign police force. I was sent to London and spent a year at Scotland Yard. That is how I came to learn English and to love the writings of Scott and Dickens and Hardy. It is why, after I returned to Japan, I was assigned to investigate the activities of foreign residents in our country. And it is why I find myself in Paris today, standing with you here, in the cold spring sunshine. The future is not written, Max. It is a blank parchment. What I will eventually read of you on it, or you of me, cannot be known. Until the time comes.’
‘Tread softly. But tread swiftly.’
Kuroda laid a hand on Max’s shoulder. ‘That is your self-appointed counsellor’s considered advice.’
History comes alive – right here, right now! – Sisters of Fortune: America’s Caton Sisters at Home and Abroad, by Jehanne Wake
I’m not sure why, but it’s taken this book to jolt me into full awareness of the rich history that surrounds us here in central Maryland. For one thing, Doughoregan Manor, where the Caton sisters passed much of their childhood, is about ten minutes away from my front door. I actually tried to drive past it yesterday, only to be greeted by a large and unambiguous “No Trespassing” sign. Descendants of the original owners still live there. They have no desire for gawking tourists to be staring in their windows. Oh, but I did so want to gawk….
The Caton sisters – Marianne, Bess, Emily, and Louisa – were the granddaughters of Charles Carroll of Carrollton, the only Catholic signer of the Declaration of Independence and the last to die – at the age of 95 in 1832. Aside from being a fascinating story in an of itself, the unfolding tale of the lives of these four women and their illustrious grandsire sheds a vivid light on late 18th and early 19th century social and political life, not only here in Maryland but also in Great Britain, Ireland, and France.
These four women made their mark on the era in which they lived. Three of them – Marianne, Louisa, and Bess – made their way to England and married into the titled aristocracy. Only Emily remained at home in Maryland, marrying John MacTavish, British consul to the state of Maryland, and inhabiting various estates owned by her large and very wealthy family.
Thus juicy volume is filled with fascinating stories about the Caton and Carroll families. Many other famous individuals of the period put in an appearance. My particular favorite is the Duke of Wellington, who fell in love with Marianne Caton at a time when both were married to others.
Wellington had this portrait painted specially for Marianne. In her turn, she had her portrait done, also by Sir Thomas Lawrence, and gave it as a gift to the Duke. That’s it, above, adorning the cover of the book.
For several weeks now I’ve been researching the dwelling places of the Carroll and Caton families in this area. I’ve already mentioned Doughoregan Manor – the unspellable and unpronounceable ancestral home of the Carroll family. (The name is of Irish Gaelic derivation.):
Then there is the Charles Carroll House in Annapolis. Home to Charles Carroll of Carrollton (1737-1832), it was built by his father Charles Carroll the Squire (1702-1782). According to Jehanne Wake, all four of the Caton sisters were probably born here. (The first Charles Carroll, called the Settler, lives from 1660 or 1661 to 1720. He it was who originally emigrated to this country from Ireland in 1688. Got all that? I hope so; you never know, there might be a quiz….)
The building of Brooklandwood Plantation was begun in 1793. This dwelling was conceived as an escape from the oppressive heat and humidity of Baltimore. (Good luck with that, say I, as I sit here in air conditioned comfort and stare balefully at the sweltering out of doors. As of this writing, the temperature is 72, degrees, actually a relief from the recent string of ninety-degree plus days. But the humidity stands at 92 per cent. And the time is well before noon.)
Brooklandwood’s current location is Brooklandville, in Baltimore County. It is now part of St. Paul’s School, an independent day school.
“Whe-ew-ew–by George this is a Toaster,” exclaimed an English diplomat, unaccustomed to the temperature. “A pint of American summer would thaw all Europe in ten minutes.”
Sisters of Fortune, p. 19
Completed in 1808, the Homewood Estate was intended by Charles Carroll of Carrollton as a wedding gift for his son Charles Carroll Jr. It is currently the Homewood Museum, located on the campus of the Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore.
Then, there is Folly Quarter Manor and Equestrian Estate:
This magnificent manor house, with its lush grounds and other amenities, was in the news late last year when it came for sale. From the Baltimore Sun’s write-up of Folly Quarter Manor:
Maryland lays claim to an abundant share of American history, much of it preserved in our homes and the very land on which they stand. In few places is that more evident than in Ellicott City’s Folly Quarter Manor and Equestrian Estate, a piece of our nation’s past on the market for $7 million.
The asking price includes a magnificently appointed 8,000-square-foot stone manor house, an 1,800-square-foot guest house, a caretaker’s cottage, a 10-stall horse barn, pool, tennis courts and gardens to rival any English manor.
But there is more. This incomparable equestrian estate, sitting on 47 acres of rolling hills and prime Howard County pastureland with its own pond and trout stream, possesses something even more rare — a pedigree traced from a prominent 18th-century landholder to a Founding Father, a newspaper mogul and an industrialist-turned-racetrack tycoon.
Be sure not to miss the slide show at the head of this article.
As with Doughoregan, Folly Quarter is practically around the corner from where I live. Although the Manor House is private property, I intend to drive by and see if it is visible from the road.
[8/13/2015- Pat has provided the following correction/clarification:
Folly Quarter Manor and Equestrian Estate’ was built in 1936 by the owner of Pimlico, on land once owned by Charles Carroll. It is not the ‘Folly Quarter’ manor built by Emily Caton McTavish in 1832, which is now part of the Shrine of Saint Anthony.
I haven’t mentioned the St. Anthony Shrine, but it also is very local to me, and well worth a visit.]
And speaking of Doughoregan – which I can now spell, praise be! – I was about to give up on finding out anything more about the place’s current status when my research, which has become somewhat obsessive in recent days, yielded an interesting nugget. An active business and farming operation exists on the Manor’s grounds. It’s called Carroll Farm-To-Table. They raise, cattle, pigs, and chickens, and they state on their web site that they adhere to the agricultural practices of their forebears: ‘no hormones, antibiotics or other artificial additives that change the quality and taste. We like to call it “Traditional Taste”.’
Here’s an article about Carroll Farm-To-Table that appeared in Howard Magazine this past May. How I managed to miss this, I don’t know. Or I may have seen it and not read it closely enough to realize that it was Doughoregan Manor that was being written about. (This magazine is delivered gratis to the house.)
A lovely old stone house on the corner of Frederick Road and Manor Lane is currently available for rent. You can just about take it in before being turned away by the No Trespassing sign: . I do not know whether this property is part of the older estate.
An article about Doughoregan on the site Waymarking notes that “…the Carroll family zealously guards their privacy.”
Jehanne Wake, who is British, came by her interest in the Caton sisters while she was researching the subject of the relationship of early nineteenth century women to money and investing. While digging into the archives of ING Barings Bank in 2001, she came across a letter from an ‘E. Caton:’
It was extraordinary. Her voice was so vivid and beguiling, so intelligent and authoritative–on the subject of investments and speculations, no less.
Turns out that among their several virtues and talents, the sisters were dab hands at playing the markets in the early 1800s. Also, keep in mind that they were among the first to travel to the “Old World” and secure husbands of high status. (Having each been widowed and then remarried, Marianne and Louisa actually did this twice.) Bess held on to her unmarried status longer than any of her sisters, finally accepting a proposal from George Baron Stafford in 1836, by which time she was already in her mid forties. Unlike some of the marriages of the “dollar princesses” later in the 19th and early 20th centuries, these unions possessed, at least to some degree, genuine affection on both sides.
This is an extremely complex and may-layered story. I have barely touched on its particulars. I need to apologize for any errors in this post. I welcome additions and/or corrections from those more knowledgeable than myself. Above all, I’d like to express my deep admiration for the prodigious research undertaken by Jehanne Wake in the service of this story. This book is a triumph of history vividly retold and brought to life. We Marylanders especially should be grateful. (And I am especially grateful to Pat of AAUW Readers for suggesting this title for our book discussion group.)
Just a brief shout out here for the terrific job Genie did last night in leading the discussion of Suspended Sentences for the Usual Suspects. Author Patrick Modiano was awarded the 2014 Nobel Prize for Literature. Up until that time, he was not well known to the general public in this country, and few of his works had been translated into English.
Suspended Sentences consists of three novellas: Afterimage, Suspended Sentences, and Flowers of Ruin. After giving us some fascinating background on Modiano’s life, Genie led us through the discussion of each of these, ultimately focusing on what binds them one to another. This proved to be more a matter of tone and theme than of story and character. In fact, the novellas were singularly devoid of a conventionally structured plot. But an overarching sadness, coupled with a certain guilt and unease, pervades all three. Autobiographical elements strongly predominate.
As one reads, the series of loosely related incidents and elusive characters acquires a cumulative power. It is a quiet power, and that makes the book all the more effective and memorable.
For myself, I can say that brief though it is, I struggled to get through this book. For one thing, Modiano includes a great deal of specific detail about the Paris that once was and is no more. For those of us who barely know the city, or don’t know it at all, this tendency on the author’s part presented a stumbling block. In addition, I love a good story, and I could not detect one in these pages. But gradually the mood established a hold over me. This was aided by the beauty of the writing, and by implication, the excellence of Mark Polizzotti’s translation.
We spoke of the recurrence of rain, raincoats, and sudden disappearances as themes and symbols in Modiano’s work. One of my favorite passages includes all three:
I hadn’t moved from the window. Under the pouring rain, he crossed the street and went to lean against the retaining wall of the steps we had walked down shortly before. And he stood there, unmoving, his back against the wall, his head raised toward the building façade. Rainwater poured onto him from the top of the steps, and his jacket was drenched. But he did not move an inch. At that moment a phenomenon occurred for which I’m still trying to find an explanation: had the street lamp at the top of the steps suddenly gone out? Little by little, that man melted into the wall. Or else the rain, from falling on him so heavily, had dissolved him, the way water dilutes a fresco that hasn’t had time to dry properly. As hard as I pressed my forehead against the glass and peered at the dark gray wall, no trace of him remained. He had vanished in that sudden way that I’d later notice in other people, like my father, which leaves you so puzzled that you have no choice but to look for proofs and clues to convince yourself these people had really existed.
At the beginning of our discussion, Genie brought up the question of whether Suspended Sentences could rightly be considered a mystery. She suggested that after all, this is a work about seeking and investigating a mystery – or perhaps, several mysteries. This seems to me a reasonable assessment, up to a point. Although I don’t see this work as crime fiction in the accepted, conventional sense, I do see the reason in Genie’s suggested approach. Modiano can be seen as investigating the mystery of life itself – in other words, Mystery with a capital M. And yet, isn’t this what most great literature, whatever the genre, strives to do?
The Nobel Prize for Literature is famous for being awarded to writers who are largely unknown. But in 2013, the Nobel committee achieved a major course correction by selecting the brilliant Alice Munro for this well deserved accolade. (This was “Stop the Presses” moment in our house!) Still, I was rather amused to discover a “Find the Author” word game on the Nobel site. Indeed, almost every year, the press and literature lovers alike have had to scramble to ‘find the author!’
Once more: kudos to Genie for the immense amount of hard work and conscientious consideration that obviously went into her presentation last night. Next month, she and Carol are off to Scotland for yet another British Mystery Trip. Have a terrific time, ladies!
The Suspects being made up of passionate book lovers, certain other (unrelated) titles came up in the course of last night’s discussion. To the best of my recollection, here they are:
Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matter in the End, by Atul Gawande
The Meursault Investigation, by Kamel Daoud
Sisters of Fortune: America’s Caton Sister at Home and Abroad, by Jehanne Wake (A blog post on this title will appear shortly in this space.)
The Man Booker Prize long list for 2015 has been announced. Here are the chosen titles; they’re listed with the names of the publishers and the authors’ respective countries of origin (or current residence):
Bill Clegg (US) – Did You Ever Have a Family (Jonathan Cape)
Anne Enright (Ireland) – The Green Road (Jonathan Cape)
Marlon James (Jamaica) – A Brief History of Seven Killings (Oneworld Publications)
Laila Lalami (US) – The Moor’s Account (Periscope, Garnet Publishing)
Tom McCarthy (UK) – Satin Island (Jonathan Cape)
Chigozie Obioma (Nigeria) – The Fishermen (ONE, Pushkin Press)
Andrew O’Hagan (UK) – The Illuminations (Faber & Faber)
Marilynne Robinson (US) – Lila (Virago)
Anuradha Roy (India) – Sleeping on Jupiter (MacLehose Press, Quercus)
Sunjeev Sahota (UK) – The Year of the Runaways (Picador)
Anna Smaill (New Zealand) – The Chimes (Sceptre)
Anne Tyler (US) – A Spool of Blue Thread (Chatto & Windus)
Hanya Yanagihara (US) – A Little Life (Picador)
I haven’t read any of these titles. Three of them – those by Roy, Sahota, and Smaill – have not yet been published in this country, as far as I can determine. I’ve had the Enright, Robinson, and Lalami titles out of the library at some point, but they were returned unread. (I don’t suppose that counts!) I had an unexpected “epic fail” with one of these selections: A Spool of Blue Thread. For years I’ve been a faithful fan of Anne Tyler’s fiction, but this novel annoyed me almost from the get go. Those same hapless, well meaning characters back again! The problem could have been my mood. I may try again; one of my book groups has scheduled it for our December meeting, and I will always have a high regard and affection for Anne Tyler.
The book I take on first from the above list will probably be The Moor’s Account. Laila Lalami, born and raised in Morocco, is currently an associate professor of creative writing at the University of California’s Riverside campus. What we have here is a striking, gifted, and mellifluously named author, a beautiful book cover, and a graceful and compelling opening passage:
In the name of God, most compassionate, most merciful. Praise be to God, the Lord of the worlds, and prayers and blessings be on our prophet Muhammad and upon all his progeny and companions. This book is the humble work of Mustafa ibn Muhammad ibn Abdussalam al-Zamori, being a true account of his life and travels from the city of Azemmur to the Land of the Indians, where he arrived as a slave and, in his attempt to return to freedom, was shipwrecked and lost for many years.
The Booker Prize Foundation proclaims itself to be an evolving and dynamic entity. To an extent, this is no doubt true. But one does wish – This One does, at any rate – that its members would in some way acknowledge the outstanding work being done now and in years past in the field of mystery and crime writing. For that matter, where are the short story collections? An unusually large number of these have garnered rave reviews in recent months. I mentioned some of the titles in a recent post entitled Twenty fiction and mystery titles I’ve loved (or at least liked a lot) so far this year. (Presumably the Foundation’s motto “Fiction at Its Finest” includes short stories – and could also include crime fiction.)
My nonfiction reading this year was heavily influenced by the presence of the true crime class in my life. Among other readings, I finally got around to reading The Stranger Beside Me, Ann Rule‘s classic account of her strange and curiously compelling friendship with serial killer Ted Bundy.
And so this seems like the appropriate time and place to acknowledge Ann Rule’s recent passing and pay tribute to her remarkable achievements in the field of true crime authorship. Several of Rule’s family members were involved in law enforcement and various other aspects of the criminal justice system. Thus her interest was piqued at an early age. Among her earliest achievements, she became the youngest policewoman ever hired by the Seattle police department. she also obtained a degree in creative writing from the University of Washington. Thus, in regard to her future career, the stage was set.
And yet…What were the odds that while volunteering at a crisis hotline in Seattle, a woman with a background in both law enforcement and creative writing would find herself seated next to an apparently congenial, unquestionably nice looking young man who ultimately proved to be one of the most terrifying serial killers of all time? That chance juxtaposition determined the course of Ann Rule’s professional life.
Truly, in the lives of certain people, the workings of the hand of Fate seem clearly discernible. Of course, it helps greatly when the individual in question recognizes the unique set of circumstances and is prepared to act on them.
There is a tide in the affairs of men,Which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune…
The other true crime classic I read that directly related to the class is one that I had read once before, when it first came out in 1976. I had a feeling Thomas Thompson’s Blood and Money would be worth revisiting. Boy, was it ever. (See the link above to the true crime class.)
So far this year, I’ve read two additional books in the true crime genre: This House of Grief by Helen Garner and Ghettoside by Jill Leovy.. Both were gripping narratives replete with tension and heartbreak. Beautifully written, too – that’s true especially of the Garner title. I’ve reviewed both in this space; click on the titles to read those posts.
I used Harold Schechter’s True Crime: An American Anthology as the basic text for the true crime course. In preparation for teaching the class in February of this year, I read nearly all of the selections in this 772 page tome, including Schecter’s helpful and illuminating introduction. Although I’d completed this reading by late fall of 2014, I found that as February drew near, I had to reread everything I’d chosen for the syllabus in order to refresh my memory. (This is part of what made the course prep seem so labor intensive.) So perhaps this particular book does not rightly belong on this list. Yet it so dominated my thought processes over the winter and early spring that I can’t omit mentioning it in this context.
So, what’s up next for me in nonfiction? What can I say? I’ve been mesmerizedby this woman’s life story since I was a girl. I date that fascination from the time I first stood before this painting in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. (I was eight years old; my mother could hardly wait to show it to me.)
Earlier this month, the Washington Post gifted its book-loving readers (whose numbers are legion) with “23 books we’ve loved so far this year.” I’d already seen excellent reviews of most of these titles; nevertheless, it was a pleasure to see them listed together in one place.
And so I would like to emulate the sterling example set by the editors and reviewers of the Post Book World by presenting my own list, in two parts. Here goes:
Fiction & Literature (as termed by Kirkus Reviews): For me, this has been the least rewarding category so far this year. I’ve started several novels and set them aside in fairly short order. Perhaps I’ve been too impatient. A rather large number of story collections have garnered excellent write-ups of late, among them England and Other Stories by Graham Swift, Bitter Bronx by Jerome Charyn, There’s Something I Want You To Do by Charles Baxter (whose 2003 novel Saul and Patsy I very much enjoyed), Get In Trouble by Kelly Link (whose story “The Wrong Grave” I greatly admire), In Another Country by David Constantine, and Honeydew by Edith Pearlman. In my relentless search for excellent writing, bracing wit, and elegantly constructed narrative, I mean to seek these out.
The only “literary” fiction I read from start to finish so far this year is An American Tragedy by Theodore Dreiser. This is a novel I’ve long meant to tackle, but the impetus to finally do so was provided by the true crime course that I taught earlier this year. If the word “tackle” gives you pause, it’s with good reason: at eight hundred plus pages, An American Tragedy is a real doorstop of a tome. But – despite certain slow moving sections – I was mostly riveted. It was well worth the effort. Despite all the reading I was doing for the course, I kept returning – avidly – to Dreiser’s hefty masterwork.
Originally issued in two volumes, An American Tragedy came out in 1925, nine years after the sensational crime that inspired it. In a later post, I’ll have more to say about this mostly absorbing, occasionally maddening novel.
Mystery & Crime (once again, pace Kirkus): A different story here. I’ve had lots of great reading so far this year in this, my admittedly favorite genre.
In February, I posted Mystery Round-Up, in which I warmly recommended Perfect Sins by the greatly under-appreciated Jo Bannister and The Devotion of Suspect X by Keigo Higashino. The latter was an entry in the international reading year of the Usual Suspects. It’s a novel I did not expect to like but did – very much. Endings are often less than impressive in contemporary crime fiction, but The Devotion of Suspect X featured a conclusion that was extremely powerful, almost shattering in its intensity.
In that same post, I gave thanks for Disclosure, the reliably entertaining 32nd entry in the Harpur and Iles series of procedurals, written by the pseudonymous and mysterious Bill James. And finally, I heaped praise yet again on P. F. Chisholm’s wonderfully witty novels set amidst the turmoil and dangers of Elizabethan England. Thus far this year I’ve read A Surfeit of Guns and A Plague of Angels. And I’m about half way through A Murder of Crows.
Historical crime fiction appears to be on a roll. In addition to Chisholm’s above mentioned Sir Robert Carey series, there are the Matthew Shardlake novels of C.J. Sansom and the books featuring Titus Cragg, coroner, and Luke Fidelis, physician. This year’s reading has included Lamentation, the sixth entry in the series featuring lawyer Shardlake, and The Hidden Man, the third in Robin Blake’s Cragg and Fidelis series. I wrote about both books in an April post in which I voiced Some Thoughts on Historical Fiction.
I continue my periodic return to Simenon’s Inspector Maigret novels. The new translations and reissues add to the enjoyment of this pleasurable reading experience. Most recently read: Dancer at the Gai-Moulin and The Grand Banks Cafe. And two entries in contemporary series that I follow regularly and that almost never disappoint: Falling in Love, the latest Guido Brunetti novel by Donna Leon, and the latest appearance of Bill Slider and company in Star Fall by Cynthia Harrod-Eagles.
The Ivory Grin is an early work – 1952 – and is the fourth entry in this series. To my mind, it has some of the characteristics of a journeyman work. Characters swirl about in profusion, and the plot is hard to follow. Still, there are places where the language is riveting, never more than when MacDonald is describing scenes of dereliction:
The road degenerated from broken asphalt to dirt, and the sidewalk ended. She picked her way carefully among the children who ran and squatted and rolled in the dust, past houses with smashed windows patched with cardboard and scarred peeling doors or no doors at all. In the photographic light the wretchedness of the houses had a stern kind of clarity or beauty, like old men’s faces in the sun. Their roofs sagged and their walls leaned with a human resignation, and they had voices: quarreling and gossiping and singing. The children in the dust played fighting games.
Frequently in MacDonald’s fiction, as in the works of other noir writers (see Raymond Chandler), that there’s a woman in the case who has in some way sold her soul and is probably beyond redemption. Here’s how he describes Archer’s encounter with one such character:
She came out of the car, her body full and startling in a yellow jersey dress with a row of gold buttons down the front. I frisked her on the stairs and found no gun and burned my hands a little. But in the lighted room I saw that she was losing what she had had. Her past was coming out on her face like latent handwriting.
At the conclusion of this novel, there’s a revelation that startled me so much that I cried out with a mixture of horror and amazement. So yes, even in these early days, there were signals of greatness to come.
I am very pleased that this past April, the Library of America brought out a volume of four Lew Archer titles from the 1950s. MacDonald richly deserves this recognition. And I like this picture of him, bathed in the perpetual sunshine of the southern California, whose mid twentieth century zeitgeist he captures so vividly in his novels and stories. (And thanks once again to Helene, one of my closest friends of very long standing, for introducing me to Ross MacDonald all those years ago. She gave me one of his best novels – in fact, still one of the best mysteries I’ve ever read: The Zebra-Striped Hearse.)
The British Library Crime Classics are a joy! Individual entries in this series vary in quality and readability, but my experience of them so far has been very positive. I especially recommend Mystery in White by J. Farjeon Jefferson and the story collection Resorting To Murder. These splendid little volumes with their appealing cover art are being brought out in this country by Poisoned Pen Press.
I was sufficiently intrigued by what Martin Edwards has to say (in The Golden Age of Murder) about Before the Fact by Francis Iles that I downloaded a copy on the spot. Once I’d begun, I didn’t want to read anything else.
Before the Fact (1932) is an unusual little book. It’s not a detective story, or even a mystery in the accepted, conventional sense. Rather, it’s a work of romantic suspense in the tradition of Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca. The book is not quite on a par with that masterpiece, but make no mistake: it’s very, very good. Francis Iles (pseudonym of Anthony Berkeley, actually Anthony Berkeley Cox) has a way of setting up the reader’s expectations only to knock them sideways with little or no warning. As with Rebecca, you find yourself rooting for the somewhat diffident protagonist (named Lina in the Iles novel) and at the same time fearing for her (and also, from time to time, wanting to grab her by the shoulders and shake her).
Before the Fact was selected by H.R.F. Keating for inclusion in his book Crime Mystery: The 100 Best Books (1987). He calls it “… one of the key texts in the history of crime fiction.”
On January 5, I posted a review of Ruth Rendell’s novel, The Girl Next Door. I subtitled the piece, “Ruth Rendell at the summit of her powers.” Shortly thereafter came the news that the author had suffered a severe stroke. Then there was no news. Then came the news that we’d all been dreading.
Here’s what I wrote on the extremely sad occasion of losing Ruth Rendell.
I felt an immediate need to read or to reread one of her works. Among the works recommended by The Guardian in Ruth Rendell: Five Key Works is a standalone from 2001 entitled Adam and Eve and Pinch Me. I picked that one and was enthralled. Ah, the old magic….
There will be a final book to be released here in December, a standalone entitled Dark Corners. One is saddened but all the same grateful.
This past Tuesday evening, as my contribution to the ‘international year’ of the Usual Suspects Mystery Book Discussion Group, I chose to present Temporary Perfections, the fourth entry in Gianrico Carofiglio’s Guido Guerrrieri series.
I began by passing around two maps of Italy. The first shows the twenty regions of which the country is comprised; the second gives the precise location of Bari, the city in which Guido lives and has his law practice.
Next, I recommended Jane Kramer’s recent New Yorker profile of Italy’s new young and dynamic prime minister, Matteo Renzi. Having begun public life as mayor of Florence, Renzi declares:
It has to be said that Merkel flew home to Berlin looking uncommonly reassured that Italy wasn’t Greece.
Next, we zeroed in on Bari, where most of the novel’s key events transpire.
Bari is the capital city of Apulia (or Puglia), the region which encompasses the boot heel of the Italian land mass. (See the maps above.):
Until recently, the southern region of Apulia was often dismissed as the run-down heel of Italy, an undeveloped Spanish-Greek-Italian coastal crossroads of parched landscapes and poverty, its glorious food, wine and architecture known only to hardy adventurers. But under the leadership since 2005 of its charismatic, gay, Berlusconi-busting governor, Nichi Vendola, Apulia has emerged as an attractive, solar-energy-driven destination of choice for green businesses, music festivals and tourism. It even has its own Mafia, the Sacra Corona Unita – smaller than the organised crime outfits of its southern neighbours Sicily and Naples, but lethal nonetheless. And, for nearly a decade Apulia has had its own celebrity crime writer, Gianrico Carofiglio.
From a review of Temporary Perfections written by Rosie Goldsmith and appearing in The New Statesman
A trullo plays an important part in the novel. Trulli are quaint little structures formerly used as storehouses or shelters for farm laborers. They are unique to the region of Apulia. (Those located in the town of Alborabello have been designated as UNESCO World Heritage sites.)
Before getting to our novel, I wanted to address briefly the subject of Italian crime fiction. In a 2009 article in Italica Magazine, Nicoletta Di Ciolla comments on the proliferation of Italian mysteries currently being written in the noir idiom:
The increasing success enjoyed in Italy by the noir genre–evidenced by a variety of indicators including volume of sales, permanence in the best–(and long–) sellers lists, creation of specialised series and/or publishing houses–has been accompanied over the past decade by a concomitant singular phenomenon: the emergence of a new category of writer that could be named ‘the law professional turned noir practitioner’. Senior police officers (Giuttari, Matrone, Di Cara), judges (Cannevale, De Cataldo, Cacopardo, Mannuzzu, Carofiglio, Von Borries) and lawyers (Filasto), whilst fully engaged in the exercise of their principal activities as custodians and upholders of the law, have also become the newest breed of Italian noir authors…. Their novels, often making use of the array of statutory genre conventions that typically include crime(s) and investigation(s), are however different from most, or perceived by readers as such, because of the position of authority from which their discourses are uttered. The “passionate and large public” that, according to Carlo Lucarelli, finds in some writers accurate interpreters of the social dynamics of contemporary Italy, will trust in the knowledge and vision of authors who experience and navigate the dysfunctions of the system in their working life and trust them to shed light on–if not to make sense of–the inconsistencies of Italian society.
Carofiglio has a short – very short – story in the collection entitled Rome Noir. This volume is a good place to go if you’re searching for other Italian crime writers. (The Akashic Noir series spotlights numerous locales, with more to come.)
Carol recently pointed out to me that there’s a piece in the Spring/Summer issue of Deadly Pleasures Mystery Magazine entitled “Mediterranean Nouveau-Noir.” Nancy-Stephanie Stone begins her article with this observation: “There’s an evolving area of European crime fiction known as Mediterranean Noir that may challenge the Nordic hold on mystery readers.”
She goes on to discuss such French writers as Jean-Claude Izzo, Patrick Manchette, and Pierre Lemaitre. Among the Italians are Maurizio De Giovanni and Massimo Carlotto. (Although I’ve glanced through a couple of titles by Manchette, Izzo, and De Giovanni, I’ve not yet read any of the aforementioned authors.)
At the conclusion, Stone offers this comment:
These French and Italian crime stories present pictures at odds with the Air France and Alitalia travel posters that introduced and enticed visitors to the Mediterranean.
My guess is, that’s probably an understatement.
On Tuesday evening, I recommended an article in an October 2013 issue of Library Journal entitled “Crime Italian Style.” Author David Keymer offers up lengthy annotations of eight novels of crime in Italy – titles which he deems “first-rate.” (One of his selections is a book that I loved: The Silence of the Wave by Gianrico Carofigio.
And speaking of Carofiglio: he was born in Bari in 1961. He was a lawyer and judge before starting a career as a novelist. For a period in the 1990s, he specialized in the prosecution of members of Mafia. This was not an undertaking for the faint of heart:
I had some difficult years. Between 1993 and 1998, I went around with an armed escort, in an armored car, because in those days I was involved with some very dangerous criminal organizations.
[From a 2005 interview with Bloomberg News]
Carofiglio notes that he and others achieved some notable successes during that time, bringing a number of significant malefactors to justice. He adds: “Today, Mafia organizations exist, are dangerous and operational, but, fortunately, they’ve abandoned the frontal clash (with the state), and this reduces the risk for magistrates and policemen who work on these things.”
Gianrico Carofiglio is currently serving in Italy’s senate. He is married and has two children. (If one of his goals is to keep his private life private, I’d say he’s doing an excellent job.)
In addition to the Guido Guerrieri series, Gianrico Carofiglio has wriiten two standalones, The Silence of the Waves, mentioned above, and The Past Is Another Country. He has also collaborated with his brother Francesco on a work entitled La Casa Nel Bosco (The House in the Woods).
The Guido Guerrieri series currently consists of five novels. I only recently discovered that a fifth novel, The Rule of Balance, has already been published in Italy. It came out in November of last year; as of this writing, it has not appeared here and may not yet have been translated into English.
We began our discussion of Temporary Perfections with an assessment of the narrator and protagonist, Guido Guerrrieri. His tendency toward self-deprecation was duly noted by us – first positively, then not so much. Genie and Frank felt it wore thin after a while; I believe others agreed with them. Oddly enough, I did too. It was only one of the several ways in which I felt somewhat let down by the experience of rereading this novel. (In my notes, I wrote that after a while, all that self-abasement began to seem perversely like a kind of reverse egotism.)
Guerrieri’s sense of humor did garner some well deserved praise. And we all appreciated Carofiglio’s sensitive, compassionate portrayal of Antonio Ferraro, a man driven to the extremity of grief and anxiety over his daughter Manuela’s disappearance. This is what goes through Guerrieri’s mind as he sits face to face with this person:
As I looked at him, the words of an old song…floated into my mind: “Do you by any chance know a girl from Rome whose face looks like a collapsing dam?” The face of Signore Ferraro, furniture salesman and desperate father, looked like a collapsing dam.
Guerrieri has been asked by his friend Sabino Fornelli to assist in the search for Manuela. He demurs at first. He is, after all, an attorney and not trained in investigative techniques. But absent some kind of definitive breakthrough, the police are preparing to close the case. The Ferraros and Fornelli see Guido as their last hope. Reluctantly, he agrees to provide whatever assistance he can in the quest for the missing young woman.
I think that despite his tendency to indulge in long bouts of nostalgia, plus certain other reservations, generally speaking the character of Guido Guerrieri found favor with this group of readers. That is, until Caterina Pontrandolfi enters the mix. She’s one of Manuela’s closest friends. Among others, Guido will need to interview her in order to move his investigation forward.
I’m tempted to refer to Caterina as a “beautiful seductress.” Certainly she knows how to use her endowments most effectively. She proceeds to manipulate Guido, using the oldest tricks in the book. Eventually, almost inevitably, he succumbs, all the while berating himself for doing so. (Among other things, he’s old enough to be her father.)
As this aspect of the plot unfolds, Guido sacrifices in some measure the reader’s good will. At least, this was the reaction I detected on the part of our group. (In some cases, ‘detecting’ was not needed. Pauline was clear about her growing aversion to both characters.) In her review of this novel, the author of the blog Petrona voices the same reservations.
I asked how people felt about the novel’s plot. Frank zeroed in on a plot point involving a cell phone in which the author had not played fair with the reader. I agreed with him; I had not picked up on that. Unfortunately, I can’t recall any other specifics of that part of the discussion – I think my brain was getting tired by then – but I will say that for myself, I found the plot singularly weak, insufficiently inventive, and lacking in momentum. In addition, it meandered in and out of focus, partly due to the aforementioned digressions supplied by Guido himself.
This assessment stands in rather stark contrast to my initial reaction to the novel when I first reviewed it in 2011. What accounts for this change? It’s hard to say. Marge and I agree, though, that in regard to books we select for discussion, this change of perception occurs from time to time.
This is not to say I’m dismissing Temporary Perfections out of hand. There were still aspects of the book that I appreciated the second time around. I enjoyed the literary references with which Carofiglio salts his narrative. Auguste Dupin appears, as does Sherlock Holmes. And there’s this lovely homage to memory, and to Proust:
It’s not like memories dissolve and disappear. They’re all still there, hidden under a thin crust of consciousness. Even the memories we thought we’d lost forever. Sometimes they remain under the surface for an entire lifetime. Other times, something happens that makes them reappear.
A madeleine dipped in tea, or a huge dog with melancholy eyes that offers you his throat to be stroked, for example.
I’ve by no means covered our entire discussion, or indeed everything I have to say about the book. I am, however, running out of steam, so I’d like to sign off shortly. But, speaking of memory, I’m just now recalling that someone said toward the end that her view of the novel had changed as a result of our discussion. Not surprising, given what terrific talkers and thinkers the Suspects are.
Next up for our group is another volume with much to say about the workings of memory: Suspended Sentences, a beautiful and poignant collection of three novellas written by Patrick Modiano of France, winner of last year’s Nobel Prize for Literature. Genie will be the presenter.