The Nature of California

November 13, 2017 at 9:45 pm (Art, California, Family)

The bark of the Madrone Tree is reddish in color. When you handle it, it feels like some sort of heavy fabric, pliable and singularly lacking in the expected brittleness.

Bet you didn’t know that…

Neither did I. But this I learned and more, while walking and hiking in the woods and forests of the Bay Area, more specifically the Peninsular region of Northern California. The photo above was taken in Huddart Park in Woodside. We hiked the Bay Tree Trail.   Being enveloped by these woods was delicious. Most of the time, we were the only ones there. The words that kept recurring to me were: ‘This is the forest primeval….’

From Bay Trees such as these, we get the leaves of culinary fame. Growing in profusion along the eponymous trail,  they gave their scent to the air around us.

I’m a great lover of ferns; they are so primordial. They were plentiful along this trail.

And then. of course,  there are the majestic redwoods….

My younger brother, who loves and savors the nature of California

We went for a walk in a place called Hidden Villa. Nestled in a nook of Los Altos Hills – when they say ‘Hidden,’ they mean Hidden!’ – this is a nature preserve with a mission, to wit:

Hidden Villa is a nonprofit educational organization that uses its organic farm, wilderness, and community to teach and provide opportunities to learn about the environment and social justice.

From the Hidden Villa website

At Hidden Villa, we encountered a lush growth of trees and shrubs, a modest number of sheep, goats, cows, horses – oh, and plenty of children on school outings. All added to the magic of the afternoon.

We even came across a brook that was actually babbling! This was significant, as many dry creek beds were pointed out to us in the course of this visit. In a dry land, that sound is magical.

Hidden Villa was established by Frank and Josephine Duveneck.   The Duvenecks come across as entirely admirable people, but something else was going on for me as well. ‘Duveneck’ is an unusual name, and as soon as I saw it on the information brochure, I recognized it as a name I’d seen before – and recently, too.

Of late, I’ve been reading quite  a bit about American artists of the late nineteenth century, and the early part of the twentieth. The father of Frank Duveneck, husband of Josephine pictured above, was also (confusingly) named Frank. Frank the elder was a painter of some repute. He was married to Elizabeth  Boott, herself a painter as well. Elizabeth Boott and her father Francis were good friends of the novelist Henry James (someone I am always reading, and reading about).

All of this was revealed to me in the Wikipedia entry for Frank Duveneck. (I had simply googled ‘Duveneck.’) Click on the name of the son – Frank Boott Duveneck – and you’re taken straight to the entry for Hidden Villa.

In 1886, Lizzie Boott gave birth to a son Frank; she died of pneumonia in 1888, leaving behind her small son and a devastated husband.

Apple Tree Branches, by Elizabeth Boott

Elizabeth ‘Lizzie’ Boott, by Frank Duveneck

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Linden Tree Books in Los Altos specializes in Children’s books. In this era of disappearing bookstores, it was a pleasure to spend time there.

When I mentioned that I’d like a book for my four-year-old grandson, a lover of cars and other means of transportation, one of the sales associates suggested this:

My sister-in-law favored this:

And I simply coundn’t leave without The Water Hole by Graeme Base, a truly amazing illustrator:

This shop also carries a small but carefully chosen selection of books for adults. Luckily, the marvelous News of the World was there. Handing it to my sister-in-law I exclaimed “You have to read this!” Naturally it made the cut.

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My lucky brother and sister-in-law live amidst great beauty. In their yard, a lemon tree flourishes:

In the yard also is a sign of the times, alas….

Finally, in the kitchen of their lovely home, my sister-in-law, a gifted and enthusiastic cook, whipped up one heck of a moussaka!

Yours Truly helped as best I could. This assistance mostly consisted of measuring out spices and other foodstuffs, stirring the bechamel sauce, and struggling with recalcitrant containers:

When finally assembled, the dish was delicious!
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On our final night, a harvest moon shone brightly:

Ah California, mi amor.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Trace, by Archer Mayor: a Joe Gunther novel

October 30, 2017 at 6:55 pm (Book review, books, Mystery fiction)

  Joe Gunther, former Lieutenant in the Brattleboro Police Department and now  Special Agent field commander for the Vermont Bureau of Investigation (VBI), always knew that if for any reason he were to be sidelined, all ‘heck’ would break loose at the VBI.

He was right.

As the events of Trace get under way, Joe’s elderly mother has fallen ill with a variant of Lyme Disease. The best treatment for her is only available at a hospital in the Midwest. Joe must accompany his mother to this facility and say with her for the duration, leaving his trusty subordinate Sammie Martens in charge.

Sure enough, no sooner has he left the premises, then things start to happen. An investigation into a police shooting  that occurred two years previous is reopened due to the discovery of new evidence. That case goes to Lester Spinney. Next, some strange objects found on a stretch of of railroad track – a crushed battery and several human teeth (!) – seems to point to an infraction that could involve Homeland Security. The elusive and slippery Willy Kunkle catches this one.

Finally, there’s a break-in at the apartment of Rachel Reiling, daughter of state medical examiner Beverly Hillstrom. Beverly and Joe are in a relationship, so Joe is particularly anguished at being hors  de combat at this critical moment. As per Beverly’s request, Sammie becomes part of the team investigating this crime and its weighty, complex consequences.

Archer Mayor handles all of this with his usual skill and aplomb. In my opinion, he is one of the best in the business when it comes to constructing tight, consistent plots. His team members are beautifully drawn characters. We  get engrossing insights into their personal lives minus the soap opera aspect that can become so grating in some crime fiction.

As always, Archer Mayor’s deep knowledge of and affection for Vermont provide a rich backdrop for the narrative:

They were traveling north on I-91, in preparation for catching the state’s only other interstate – I-89 -that cut diagonally through thee Green Mountains to reach Burlington on the western border. It was a beautiful, scenic, thinly traveled road, showing off some of the best views that northern New England had to offer.At this time of year–the soothing, seductive, emerald green stretch of time between the end of mud season and early fall, when this patch of earth holds out the brief glimpse of perfection–it was difficult for even a  hard-bitten soul not to be influenced.

Mayor can also gently chaff the Green Mountain State, as when he notes that the locals refer to the frequently sighted abandoned cars dotting the countryside as ‘Vermont planters.’

I think that this is one of the best entries I’ve read in this long running series. It’s beyond my understanding why Archer Mayor is not better known, his excellence more widely acknowledged. These novels are outstanding.

The following is from Archer Mayor’s site:

Archer Mayor is a death investigator for Vermont’s Office of the Chief Medical Examiner, a detective for the Windham County Sheriff’s Office, the publisher of his own backlist, a travel writer for AAA, and he travels the Northeast giving speeches and conducting workshops. He has 25 years of experience as a volunteer firefighter/EMT. Mayor was brought up in the US, Canada and France and had been employed as a scholarly editor, a researcher for TIME-LIFE Books, a political advance-man, a theater photographer, a newspaper writer/editor, a lab technician for Paris-Match Magazine in Paris, France, and a medical illustrator. In addition to writing novels and occasional articles, Mayor gives talks and workshops all around the country, including the Bread Loaf Young Writers conference in Middlebury, Vermont, and the Colby College seminar on forensic sciences in Waterville, Maine.

Archer Mayor: From what I can see, a deeply accomplished and thoroughly admirable person

 

 

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Once again, Etta and Grandma ‘Berta visit the Art Institute of Chicago

October 29, 2017 at 2:06 pm (Art, Family)

Etta and I enjoyed our first visit to the Art Institute of Chicago so much that we decided to go again. This we were able to do, earlier this month.

This time we entered through the Modern Wing.

We went first to an architecture display.  One of the exhibits allowed you to draw lines on a screen just by waving your hands around! Etta enjoyed this quite a bit.

Next we went to the French Impressionist Gallery. We have decided that this is one of our favorite spaces in the museum. We saw some of our old friends, and some new art as well.

And then of course there’s Georges Seurat’s marvelous canvas, A Sunday on La Grande Jatte (‘Un dimanche aprèsmidi à l’Île de la Grande Jatte‘). Etta has learned about the technique of pointillism used by Seurat in the creation of this masterpiece. As a result, she refers to it as ‘the dot painting.’

A beautiful child, a beautiful painting…Life is good

One pleasing result of time spent with the French Impressionists: Etta now delights in  the art of Claude Monet:

Waterloo Bridge, Sunlight Effect, 1903

 

Irises 1914-1917

 

Étretat, The Beach and the Falaise d’Amont, 1885

For this visit, we were lucky to come across some lovely objets d’art.

We then proceeded to the Asian and ancient art galleries. We had our eye out for a truly strange object that had fascinated us on our previous visit and that I’d somehow failed to photograph. As we rounded a corner on our way to the Artist’s Studio in the Ryan Learning Center, Etta spotted it – “There it is!” we chorused together.

This is actually a some kind of Roman theater prop. (I had thought it was Asian.) Etta attempted to enter into the spirit of the thing:

Next, we went to the Artist’s Studio. In this gracious space, tables and art supplies are freely provided for the children. We came here last time, and Etta was looking forward to a return visit.

Finally, it was time to visit the Museum Shop. This being partly a celebration of Etta’s birthday, I encouraged her to pick out several items that appealed to her. (Actually, I might’ve said, “Knock yourself out, Kid!” – I don’t quite remember.) Museums are among my favorite shopping venues, and this one did not disappoint – quite the opposite, in fact. We were both like kids in a candy store (Etta being the actual kid, of course).

Etta understood what was being asked of her and rose wonderfully to the occasion. As befits her generous nature, she picked out a nifty toy for little brother Welles, and a set of coasters for her Mom and Dad. Finally, for herself she selected this lovely tote bag:

Finally, after this thoroughly exhilarating day, we trooped back outside, to be hailed by Etta’s Dad, who’d been with Welles at a birthday party not far from the museum. Welles – known to some of us as ‘Wellesy’ – was also on hand to greet us; Mom too.
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The Art Institute is located within the grounds of Grant Park (much as the Metropolitan Museum of Art dwells within the precincts of Central Park). When we initially arrived at the museum, it was not yet open. It being a beautiful day, Etta and I crossed  the street and strolled a bit through the park.

We found a peaceful water feature and sat down on the coping above it.   People had thrown coins into the water and presumably made wishes in the process. Etta wished to do this, and I provided her with the means. She solemnly explained to me that you shouldn’t reveal the substance of your wish until after the coin had  been tossed. I concurred. She followed suit, making several wishes as she did so. A benign sun shone down on us.

I admit that I can’t recall Etta’s wishes. I know that I had only one: that this moment could last forever, and that my heartfelt gratitude would be known.

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More on John Le Carre and A Legacy of Spies, with echoes of W Somerset Maugham

October 21, 2017 at 6:07 pm (Book review, books)

[Click here for the first post on A Legacy of Spies.]

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A Legacy of Spies opens with Peter Guillam recounting  his early life. In line with his mother’s retelling, his father was

…the wastrel son of a wealthy Anglo-French family from the English midlands, a man of rash appetites, fast-diminishing inheritance and a redeeming love of France.

Thus his French mother, and his blissful early childhood spent on a farmstead in Brittany. His father was frequently absent, but that in no way intruded on little Pierre’s happiness. He assumed this idyll would go on indefinitely. But of course, it did not: “The future meant nothing to me until it struck.” At the age of eight, little Pierre was unceremoniously whisked off to England to live with cousins of his father. He barely knew these people. School was a torment, where his heavily accented English was mocked by the other students. Eight more years passed before he was able to return to Brittany, where things were not as he had left them.

As I was reading this, I was thinking to myself that somehow I’d heard a similar tale before. A warmly recollected childhood in France, followed abruptly by a chilly and friendless life in England….Ah, yes, then I remembered:

William Somerset Maugham was born in Paris in 1874, the youngest of four boys. While his older brothers were away at boarding school in England, young Willie basked in the exclusive adoration of his beautiful mother Edith. But that idyll was shattered when she died of tuberculosis. Maugham was only eight years old.

The loss was devastating. Willie’s father Robert, who served as legal counsel for the British Embassy in Paris, tried to make it up to him but only two years later himself died of cancer. Willie was sent to live in England with his uncle Henry MacDonald Maugham, Vicar of Whitstable in the County of Kent, and his wife Sophie.

Willie knew nothing of England; his halting command of the language was made more problematical by a severe stammer. Making matters worse – much worse – was the fact that the vicar was a cold, self-regarding individual, whose high opinion of himself rested on not much discernible evidence.

I’m quoting from my 2010 review of The Secret Lives of Somerset Maugham by Selina Hastings.    Mere coincidence? Possibly. It did make me wonder if by any chance John Le Carre has read Selina Hastings’s book, one of my all time favorite biographies.

Like Le Carre, W. Somerset Maugham worked for a period as an agent for Britain’s intelligence service. His experiences in that capacity later informed a series of short stories published as Ashenden: or the British Agent. (After finishing the Hastings biography, I commenced binge reading everything my Maugham that I could get my hands on. While in thrall to this delightful obsession, I read the Ashenden stories and loved them unconditionally.)

 

Some four years ago, I decided to read John Le Carre’s second novel. A Murder of Quality features George Smiley as a former intelligence agent who’s prevailed upon by an old friend to look into a worrying situation. That friend, Miss Brimley, edits a journal called The Christian Voice. She has received an extremely disturbing missive from Stella Rode, a some time contributor to this enterprise. Mrs Rode, who is married to a teacher at Carne, an exclusive school for boys on England’s South Coast, believes herself to be in some sort of danger. Could Miss Brimley help her? Miss Brimley, in her turn, asks the same question of George Smiley. Having agreed to look into the matter, Smiley travels down to Carne in order to see for himself what is transpiring there. (And thus we enter an enclosed, almost claustrophobic setting in academia, my favorite type of locale for a murder mystery.)

I liked A Murder of Quality enough to select it for discussion by the Usual Suspects the following year. I then read and also enjoyed Call for the Dead, Le Carre’s first published novel, which also features George Smiley.

  

Le Carre’s memoir The Pigeon Tunnel came out last year; Adam Sisman’s biography, the year before that. I’ve read neither at this point, but reading A Legacy of Spies has whetted my interest, especially in the memoir.

John Le Carre by Nadav Kander

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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The Exfiltration of Tulip, and other matters….

October 20, 2017 at 2:43 pm (Book review, books, Crime)

Exfiltration operation: ‘A clandestine rescue operation designed to bring a defector, refugee, or an operative and his or her family out of harm’s way’
[Language of Espionage, courtesy of The International Spy Museum]

At any rate, here we are, back in familiar Le Carre country. A double agent, code name Tulip, must be extricated from East Berlin and brought to England, where she will (presumably) be safe. The operation is overseen by Peter Guillam, agent of the British Secret Service. Tulip is not the easiest baggage to transport. She’s been forcibly parted from her son Gustav. pines for him constantly, and repeatedly demands to know when she will be reunited with him. A delicate, difficult situation.

It’s a strange, almost hallucinatory experience, being escorted by the Master of espionage fiction back into the Cold that he knows so well. As I read, I could almost feel its icy coils tightening. To say that this novel is atmospheric is to greatly understate the case.

The exfiltration provides the scaffolding upon which the plot is built. Myriad other things are going on at the same time. As is usual with Le Carre, the characters are numerous. They kept fading on and out; I admit that at times, I had trouble keeping track of them. A good number of them are artifacts from previous works. The most noteworthy of these is, of course, George Smiley.

For me, as I suspect for many others of my generation, the image of George Smiley is forever fixed as Alec Guinness, who portrayed the character for BBC-TV in 1979 and again in 1982.

Sir Alec Guinness as George Smiley. His was the face I saw throughout my reading of A Legacy of Spies.

The characters in this story indulge in the full panoply of spy behavior: they lie, prevaricate, evade, deceive, and worst of all, betray. Not that they derive any joy from these actions. Rather, they seem depressed, cynical, and thoroughly disillusioned. The question arises: Why would anyone choose to live like this? They don’t even seem to  be especially patriotic, and that may be the biggest puzzle of all.

Every once in a while, the prevailing gloom is relieved by a rare glimpse of goodness, like this:

Some faces, try as  they may, cannot conceal the good heart of  their owners, and Riemeck’s is such a face. He is balding, bespectacled – and sweet. The word is simply not to be denied. Never mind the medic’s studious frown: humanity breathes out of  him.

Sweetness! Imagine…(The combination of understated eloquence and precision that we know from previous books is present here as well.)

It must be stressed that Smiley is not the main character in this novel. Rather, he hovers like a ghost in the background throughout most of the narrative. The first work by Le Carre that I ever read was Smiley’s People, the third and final installment in the ‘Karla Trilogy.’ Not the best place to start, and so it proved. I had never in my life  been so completely flummoxed by a work of fiction (or nonfiction, for that matter). Upon completing the laborious  task of reading this book, all I could think was, “What was that??” It was 1980, and at that time, I had no background in the reading of either espionage fiction or mysteries. Thus my bewilderment may be more easily understood.

I already knew from the reviews I’d read that Alec Leamas and Liz Gold, main characters in The Spy Who Came In from the Cold, reappear in this novel. I’ve never read The Spy Who Came In from the Cold, although I’ve seen the film several times. It is superb; it could hardly have been otherwise with stars like Richard Burton, Claire Bloom, and Oskar Werner, directed by Martin Ritt.

I’m not sure what the experience of reading this novel would be like today. (I do know that that the AMC network and the BBC are currently at work on a miniseries version, to be broadcast some time next year.) Alec Leamas is a notable but secondary character in A Legacy of Spies, only emerging as primary near the end of the novel. Liz Gold’s presence is even more fleeting.

And Peter Guillam, whose hard work and diligence facilitated Tulip’s exfiltration? He’s as conflicted a character as you’d expect him to be. One minute he’s on an outrage-fueled quest for justice; the next, he’s desperate to save his own skin and to Hell with everything  and everyone else. It’s this mixture of motives, this interweaving of truth and subterfuge, that is so mesmerizing, exasperating, and unnerving.

What a novel! I dreaded picking it up, then could not put it down. Le Carre, conjuror and artificer,  has done it again.

Photo by Nadav Kander

 

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‘See what a rent the envious Casca made…’ (Shakespeare, Julius Caesar)

October 18, 2017 at 7:57 pm (Book clubs, Book review, books, Mystery fiction)

To find that his own ill-humour had quenched the gaiety of his guests appeared to afford him considerable gratification.

Thus does Nathaniel Herriard derive smug satisfaction in Envious Casca (1941), Georgette Heyer‘s gleeful send-up of the upper class guests and denizens of Lexham Manor. If he sounds an unpleasant creature, well, that’s more or less on the mark.

The situation is this: Joseph, Nathaniel’s brother, has planned a good old fashioned Christmas celebration  to take place at Lexham Manor. Joseph and his wife Maud also live at the grand establishment, though one does not detect an particular amity between the brothers. In fact, as has already been noted, there’s no particular amity between Nathaniel and anyone else. He’s a solitary curmudgeon, best left to his own devices. But he’s  also heir to Lexham, and thus a wealthy man.

Inevitably , a murder takes place, this muting the gaiety of the  occasion – not that there was much of that in evidence to begin with. (A more mutually ill-suited gathering would be hard to find.) This is a locked room mystery, and a particularly cunning one at that. It’s also a classic country house murder, although perhaps spiked with more venom that is usually present in such scenarios. On the other hand, there’s a most welcome romance that blossoms late in the narrative.

Envious Casca was Ann R.’s choice for the August discussion meeting of the Usual Suspects. Reaction to it was for the most part rather tepid, if not downright negative. I initially had some trouble getting into the novel, but once I did, I really enjoyed it. Heyer’s sparkling wit added greatly to my reading pleasure. There are three other Inspector Hemingway novels; I hope to read another before too long.

Georgette Heyer 1902-1974

 

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Girl in the Ice by Robert Bryndza: a book discussion

October 14, 2017 at 9:10 pm (Book clubs, Book review, books, Mystery fiction, The British police procedural)

  Before Chris G. put this on the reading list for Usual Suspects, I had not heard of this author. I read Girl in the Ice some two months ago and was pleasantly surprised by the experience. I was initially daunted by the novel’s length, but it was such a compelling read that I fairly raced through it. Bryndza writes great dialog; his characters were interesting, if not always likeable; he had an intriguing, if complex tale to tell, and he told it well – or so I thought, at the time, at any rate.

As last Tuesday evening’s discussion progressed, it became clear that others did not share my enthusiasm. Several gaps and inconsistencies  in the plot (not to mention a disappearing subplot) were pointed out. Procedural matters were deemed to be flawed. Frank N. felt that due to the paucity of clues, Girl in the Ice did not play fair with the reader.

But the most glaring criticism was reserved for the main protagonist, DCI Erika Foster. She was described by several Suspects as “over the top” and as a result, not likable. By the time our discussion took place, I was too far removed from my actual reading of the novel to be able to clearly recall the plot issues that were brought up, but I did retain a vivid memory of the character of Erika Foster.

I concede that Foster could be strident and blunt to a fault. But she was also a person of firm convictions and great integrity. Even though she was warned to go “softly, softly” with the victim’s upper class and influential parents, she would not let this deter her in the search for the truth about the death of Andrea Douglas-Brown. Fairly early on, we learn that Erika Foster’s life had been shattered not that long ago by a shooting that was both personally and professionally devastating. (This material is related as back story; Girl in the Ice is the first book in the series.) To my mind, this accounts at least partly for her difficult, rather unyielding persona – a brusque facade  that conceals pain that’s still sharp and deep. For this reader, it made her seem more real.

Erika Foster put me in mind of Helen Mirren’s  brilliantly realized portrayal of DCI Jane Tennison in Prime Suspect.

Robert Bryndza himself comments on this here:

(This has to be one of one of the most  self-effacing, downright endearing  promotional videos I’ve ever seen!)

When I first saw the title The Girl in the Ice, I immediately thought of The Virgin in the Ice, a Brother Cadfael novel by the late, lamented Ellis Peters.

Ellis Peters, with Derek Jacobi as Brother Cadfael

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The Usual Suspects are currently making their selections for next year’s discussions. Unlike many book discussion groups which rely on consensus to decide on titles, we have each member choose a title to present to  the group. My choice for next year is A Famine of Horses by P.F. Chisholm, one of my favorite historical novels and first in a series that is, for the most part, both meticulously researched and wonderfully entertaining.   It’s always interesting to see what each of the Suspects selects for the coming year. I feel lucky to be a part of this group, where people can express their views openly in an atmosphere of camaraderie and friendship.
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Before I conclude this post, I have to deliver a shout-out for a terrific mystery that I just finished: Magpie Murders by Anthony Horowitz. Horowitz has written six episodes of Midsomer Murders; in addition, he created Foyle’s War and wrote twenty-five episodes for that outstanding program. There’s much more.   If there were an Anthony Horowitz fan club, I’d be in it.

There will be more about Magpie Murders in a later post. 

 

 

 

 

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‘…there is a haunted atmosphere, of evil, of struggling good in the ascendant, of the quiet, busy, Englishness of life.’

October 8, 2017 at 8:07 pm (Anglophilia, Mystery fiction)

  While I was sifting through a cache of old papers, a printout entitled “Agatha Christie: Overview” rose to the surface. It is from an article that I found on a Gale database on the library’s site some seventeen years ago.

I find these observations by J.B. Lethbridge to be intriguing and elegantly expressed:

Christie makes effective use of the reader’s unconscious, often making crucial references to its depths, with lines from great literature or nursery rhymes, about which there hovers in the darkness of half-remembered things the suggestion of the answer to the whole mystery….Then, too, she makes use of proverbs, folklore, local legend, Gypsy warnings and prophecies, old-fashioned and forgotten wisdom from nannies and gardeners.

Christie’s characters are always a trifle  thin, for she is not a fully-fledged novelist, but their psychology is convincing and consistent, and this together with her vivid and characteristic descriptions give them the illusion of more rotundity than they possess….

But it is this apparent thinness of characterisation, story, atmosphere, and setting which makes the books so enduring. They have something of the spare style of a more ancient literature: nothing superfluous, nothing irrelevant, just the very basic necessities of storytelling and character: but nothing missing either. And yet in the interstices there is a haunted atmosphere, of evil, of struggling good in the ascendant, of the quiet, busy, Englishness of life. Perhaps this is why her books are so popular world wide; they recall to the English an idyllic lost country, and to the rest, suggest the charming perfection of the English way….

But perhaps what most sets Christie apart from other detective writers is her homely and secure wisdom; never tendentious, Christie is a little like a favourite nanny telling sometimes macabre fairy tales to her rapt charges, interspersed with the quiet, wise, homely but firm advice and wisdom which only an intelligent and acute observer of the ways of men could accumulate and disperse almost unconsciously: rather like her own Miss Marple in fact.

That passage  about “an idyllic lost country” brought to mind these stanzas from “A Shropshire Lad” by A.E. Housman:

Into my heart an air that kills
From yon far country blows:
What are those blue remembered hills,
What spires, what farms are those?

That is the land of lost content,
I see it shining plain,
The happy highways where I went
And cannot come again.

In the past twelve years, ever since my trip to Yorkshire reawakened my dormant love of England, I’ve seen these verses quoted over and over. In addition, I’ve read two crime novels with the same title, possibly drawn from the same source:

      I recommend both, by the way.

For me, the Miss Marple novels and stories most closely epitomize the qualities that Lethbridge enumerates above. I’m especially fond of The Body in the Library.   For one thing, I love the way the novel opens:

Mrs. Bantry was dreaming. Her sweet peas had just taken a First at the flower show. The vicar, dressed in cassock and surplice, was giving out the prizes in church. His wife wandered past, dressed in a bathing suit, but as is the blessed habit of dreams this fact did not arouse the disapproval of the parish in the way it would assuredly have done in real life…

Christie then comments that “Mrs. Bantry was enjoying her dream a good deal.” Poor Dolly Bantry! Her happy dream world is about to implode. Naturally, her first thought is to call for help from her most reliable and intuitive friend, Miss Jane Marple.

As for the filmed versions, I love Joan Hickson as Miss Marple. (These were made for television and filmed from 1984 to 1992.) Having none of the clownishness of  Margaret Rutherford, she portrays the elderly sleuth as if she were a kind of seer. She’s as the still center of every mystery she encounters, ranging her fragile physique and powerful intellect against a crime that personifies evil. Her goodness and steady belief in justice carry the day.

In The Body in the Library, retired Scotland Yard commissioner Sir Henry Clithering describes her as follows:

“The finest detective God ever made. Natural genius cultivated in suitable soil.”

Joan Hickson as Miss Marple with Raymond Francis as Sir Henry Clithering, 1984

 

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The Story of Classic Crime in 100 Books by Martin Edwards: the gift that keeps on giving

September 29, 2017 at 12:37 am (Mystery fiction)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

In my review of Death Walks in Eastrepps, I referred to Martin Edwards’s new book as “this splendid if somewhat exasperating compendium.” Why exasperating? Because as I read his short essays on each title, I developed a strong – nearly overmastering! – desire to read the book itself – and sooner, not later. Obviously there was a need to exercise some restraint here. So I decided consider The Story of Classic Crime as a reference work, only dipping into it when I was overpowered by curiosity (which was often) or in desperate need of a work of fiction that would be gratifying rather than annoying (also often – we  all have these dry spells, I think).

As it happens, I’d already read some of the featured works, e.g. The Hound of the Baskervilles by Conan Doyle (I probably have lots of company there), Clouds of Witness by Dorothy L. Sayers, The Mysterious Affair at Styles by Agatha Christie, Murder of a Lady by Anthony Wynne, The Case of the Late Pig by Margery Allingham, The Secret of High Eldersham by Miles Burton, The Franchise Affair by Joesphine Tey, and two or three others. But there is so much more on offer here!

I began the rather entertaining process of seeing which titles I could download. Here I had better luck than I’d hoped for: not only were quite a few available but they were for the most part quite inexpensive. Thus far, the following are newly resident on my Kindle app:

 

 

 

Death Walks in Eastrepps proved not to be downloadable, but I was able to acquire it through interlibrary loan. As my review clearly indicates, the effort was well worthwhile; furthermore, as with the downloading, this method of obtaining the book was helpful in my effort to cut back on the purchasing of hard copy volumes. (Forsooth, I am drowning in them, at this point.)

There is an impressive plenitude of books mentioned in this survey, other titles  being brought forward in Edwards’s essays in addition to the canonical one hundred. The following is from the review by Michael Dirda in the Washington Post:

To my mind, Edwards particularly shines in the prefatory essays to his 24 categories, in which he mentions some of his own favorite books, such as Henry Wade’s “Lonely Magdalen” — about the murder of a nameless prostitute — and Robert Player’s twisty “The Ingenious Mr. Stone,” which “signaled the end of the era” or, most intriguing of all, Cameron McCabe’s “The Face on the Cutting-Room Floor,” described by Julian Symons as “the detective story to end detective stories.” Introducing “Fiction From Fact,” Edwards naturally zeroes in on the true-life Julia Wallace case, which Raymond Chandler dubbed “the nonpareil of all murder mysteries.” Both Dorothy Sayers and P.D. James were comparably fascinated by this beating death in a locked room.

Dirda is deeply and widely read, both in genre fiction and mainstream works. He is also possessed of very definite opinions. (Oh dear – Do I know anyone else like that?) I was amused by the section in his review in which he differed  with Edwards concerning which were the landmark works of Agatha Christie. Edwards cites The Mysterious Affair at Styles, The Murder at the Vicarage, and The ABC Murders; Dirda counters – gently but firmly – with And Then There Were None, The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, and Murder on the Orient Express. I agree with Dirda that The Murder of Roger Ackroyd was a game changer and should be high on the list of works that helped define  the genre. But I would also add two works by Christie which are my personal favorites and which I think are outstanding, even brilliant, although they’re rarely cited by Christie aficionados: The Pale Horse and The Labors of Hercules.

Dirda goes on to offer this caveat; namely, that “…Edwards’s history shouldn’t be viewed as a list of the absolutely greatest works of mystery and detection.” For that, he suggests consulting H.R.F. Keating’s “Crime and Mystery: The Hundred  Best Books” and “Classic Crime Fiction: The Haycraft-Queen Cornerstones.”.  Those are both good recommendations, and I have more to add: the CWA (Crime Writers’ Association of Great Britain) Top 100 Crime Novels of All Time, compiled in 1990; which was responded to in kind by the Mystery Writers America five years later. And very importantly there’s the list put together by the Independent Mystery Booksellers’ Association (IMBA). Those folks read voraciously in the field, as I was again reminded on my visit to Mystery Loves Company in Oxford, Maryland, this summer.

So – Have I managed to read any of the above recently downloaded titles? So far, two. At the Villa Rose was absorbing and elegantly written, though somewhat oddly structured. It was refreshing to be on the continent, for a change – mainly in France but also in Geneva for several brief but crucial intervals. I enjoyed being in the company of French police Inspector Hanaud, whom I couldn’t help but think of as a forerunner of Jules Maigret. In his investigations, the Inspector is frequently accompanied by a ‘Watson:’  the well meaning Julius Ricardo, who is often in the midst of some great revelation that is almost always wide of the mark, as Hanaud is at pains to point out to him.

Interestingly, Edwards informs us that Mason derived the inspiration for this novel from an actual crime. This was the murder of Eugenie Fougere in 1903.

After reading At the Villa Rose, I immediately plunged into Israel Rank: The Autobiography of a Criminal by Roy Horniman. I’d been intrigued by what Martin Edwards had written about it. For now, I will say that this book merits a separate post, and it will get one. I was astonished by how good it was. I was pretty well riveted. Edwards describes it as “polished and distinctive;” it is that, and much more. A witty, urbane narrative told in the first person by a young man who has come up with a rather unique plan for self-actualization.. Israel Rank’s conflicted psychic make-up is partly due to the fact that he is half Jewish. This novel has been accused of being anti-Semitic. I don’t happen to agree with that assessment, but I understand how others might agree with it.

More on this in a later post. Meanwhile, more classics await This Reader. Thanks, Martin Edwards, for this treasure trove of reading pleasures.

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The Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam’s magnificent palace of art

September 27, 2017 at 1:26 pm (Art)

After a renovation that was supposed to take five years but instead took ten and went substantially over budget, Amsterdam’s renowned Rijksmuseum finally reopened in 2013.

What a treasure house! Several weeks ago, these and other works were commended to us and expounded upon by lecturer Aneta Georgievska-Shine in “A Day at the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam,” one of a series of art programs organized by the Smithsonian Associates. Dr. Georgievska-Shine teaches art history at the University of Maryland College Park.

And now: feast your eyes….

Adoration of the Magi by Geertgen tot Sint Jans, c.1480-1485

 

The holy kinship by Geertgen tot Sint Jans (workshop of) c.1495

 

Temptation of St Anthony by Hieronymus Bosch, c.1550-1600

Hieronymus Bosch being extremely strange, as is his wont…

 

Self-portrait by Johan Gregor van der Schardt, c.1573

When  this slide came up on the screen, there was an audible gasp from the audience – you can see why. This is the commentary from the museum’s site:

To make this small bust – it is half life-size – the sculptor had to resort to all kinds of tricks with a mirror. Van der Schardt did not portray himself frontally, but with his head turned sideways, as if to avoid looking at the viewer. The nude upper torso alludes to sculpture from Classical antiquity.


portrait of an African Man by Jan Mostaert, c.1525-1530

 

The Threatened Swan by Jan Asselijn, c.1650

 

Dolls’ House of Petronella Oortman, anonymous, c.1686-1710

 

The Windmill at Wijk bij Duustede by Jacob van Ruisdael c.1668-1670

 

Still Life with Asparagus by Adrian Coorte, 1697

A favorite veg gets its due!

Still Life with Turkey Pie by Pieter Claesz, 1627

 

Banquet Still Life, Adriaen van Utrecht, 1644

 

Still Life with Books by Jan Lievens, c.1627-1628

 

The Merry Fiddler by Gerrit von Honthorst, 1623

 

Portrait of a Girl Dressed in Blue by Johannes Cornelisz Verspronck, 1641

 

Still Life with Cheese by Floris Claesz van Dijk, 1615

 

Portrait of a Couple, Probably Isaac Abrahamsz Massa and Beatrix van der Laen, by Frans Hals, c. 1622

All this – and I’ve barely scratched the surface – all this, mind you, before we get to Vermeer and Rembrandt!

First, Vermeer:

The Little Street, c.1658

 

Woman Reading a Letter, c.1663

 

The Milkmaid, c.1660

Eight years ago, The Milkmaid was on loan to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. I saw it there, and I will long remember the experience. From time to time, on certain days, members of the museum can get in a half hour before official opening time. I was there at 9:30, as were a number of others. Most of us went straight to the  gallery where  this painting was hung. It occupied a solitary space, well away from anything else.

The Milkmaid’s dimensions are modest: approximately eighteen by sixteen inches. About ten or twelve of us formed a semicircle around it and stared. No one said a word; we were stunned into silence.

Dr. Georgievska-Shine commented on the way in which certain works by Vermeer seem to stop time. That is part of why paintings like this exert an almost unearthly power upon the viewer.

Rembrandt:

Self-portrait, c.1628

 

Man in Oriental Dress, c.1635

 

Portrait of a Couple as Isaac and Rebecca, known as ‘The Jewish Bride’ c.1665-1669

 

Self Portrait as the Apostle Paul, 1661

 

The Sampling Officials of the Amsterdam Drapers’ Guild, Known as ‘The Syndics’, 1662

I grew up knowing this painting as ‘Masters of the Cloth Guild.’ I love the way they’re all staring at you as if you’d just unexpectedly entered the room. The gentleman rising from his chair seems about to say, “And what can we help you with, Sir?”

And finally, the magisterial work which one commentator described  as the Rijksmuseum’s answer to the Louvre’s Mona Lisa:

The Militia Company of District II under the Command of Captain Frans Bannink Cocq. Known as the ‘Night Watch’

The dimensions of the Night Watch are as follows: eleven feet eleven inches by fourteen feet four inches. It reigns, as it did before the renovation, in solitary splendor.

Dr. Georgievska-Shine confessed that when she first began to study art, she didn’t ‘get’ Rembrandt: “Too much brown, too dark!” That view, of course, changed with time. I understood what she was saying, having gone through a similar progression. Rembrandt now seems the most subtle, momst profound of artists, his greatness almost beyond description.

Due to the vagaries of public transportation, we were somewhat late to this program. During the first break, I asked someone if the speaker had begun the proceedings by showing the video of the re-enactment of the Night Watch that was staged in a shopping mall in 2013, to coincide with the reopening of the museum. I was delighted to be answered in the affirmative.

Here is that video. Note the way in which denizens of the seventeenth century march right into the twenty-first without blinking an eye. It’s pure  genius in my eyes, accompanied by the triumphant finale of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony:

‘Onze helden zijn terug!’ means “Our heroes are back!”

And so they are.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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