A most wondrous tome currently resides on my coffee table…

October 5, 2015 at 1:35 am (Art, Awards, Book review, books, Children's literature)


Martin Salisbury is a professor of illustration at the Cambridge School of Art of Anglia Ruskin University. He obviously has a deep knowledge of children’s literature, and an equally deep love for it. His perspective is refreshingly international.

Salisbury begins his survey with a 1910 title: The Slant Book by Peter Newell. Slantbook

The book is rhomboid in shape,with text on the verso page and image on the recto throughout. The story follows the chaos of a runaway baby’s buggy as it rolls down a hill, the gradient of which is exactly equal to the slope of the book, so that the delighted baby is seen to be rolling towards the gutter of the book on each double-page spread.

(Martin Salisbury’s description)

Click here for a look inside The Slant Book.

As I make my enraptured way through this book, I’ve encountered some old friends Ducklings but quite a few more that I’d never heard of. And when I came to Village and Town by S.R. Badmin (London, 1942), I was literally stopped in my tracks, my Anglophile antennae quivering madly!

Well – you can see why: villages-and-towns-puffin  villageandtown


I had to have this one! It was then that I learned my first lesson about acquiring older, out of print children’s picture books: They can be rare. And they can be expensive. Persistence paid off in this instance, I’m glad to report. For what I judge to be a reasonable sum, Village and Town is on its way to me courtesy of Abebooks’s UK site.

I am not at all knowledgeable in this field, but I’ve felt for quite some time that some of the greatest art being made anywhere can be found in children’s picture books. If you love brilliant colors


Alphabet, by Kveta Pakovska (2013)



Ella’s Birthday, by Betty Swanwick (1946)

and great draftsmanship, you will find these in abundance in the many great children’s picture  books.

If you’d like some names and titles of recent picture books that have won critical acclaim, have a look at the list of Caldecott Medal Winners and Honor books. A great source for children’s literature in general is Barb Langridge’s site A Book and a Hug.

Where this vast subject is concerned, I’ve only scratched the surface in this post. My main purpose was to alert people to Martin Salisbury’s outstanding work of scholarship in this field; 100 Great Children’s Picture Books is a joy!


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A post on Agatha Christie, in which I examine a vexed and vexing question and come to a (sort of) conclusion

September 30, 2015 at 1:32 am (books, Judaism, Mystery fiction)

Earlier this month, on the 15th to be exact, The Irish Times published a feature with this provocative title: Agatha Christie: genius or hack? Crime writers pass judgment and pick favourites. The ostensible occasion is the 125th anniversary of Christie’s birth, but probably, any excuse to write about ‘the Queen of Crime’ will suffice. Among the authors who contributed to this worthy enterprise are Val McDermott, Sophie Hannah, Linwood Barclay, Laura Wilson, Dror Mishani, and Joseph Finder. Several indicated that it was their youthful reading in the Christie oeuvre that was part of the reason that  they themselves entered the field of crime writing.

One person who is emphatically not of this viewpoint is John Banville. Here’s the first paragraph of his comments:

When I was a boy, back around the close of the Stone Age, I was an avid reader of the novels of Agatha Christie. Nowadays I am with Edmund Wilson, the title of whose 1945 New Yorker essay, Who Cares Who Killed Roger Ackroyd?, expresses my feelings exactly. I say ‘novels’, but I am not sure that is what these books are. They more resemble crossword puzzles, and finishing one of them, like finishing a puzzle, leaves one with the same ashen sense of futility and wasted time.

“Ashen sense of futility and wasted time”? That’s a pretty harsh judgment, I think. For my part, when I finish a Christie book or story, I usually think, Well, that was a pleasant interlude – or sentiments to that effect. True, I’m not ordinarily raised to a state of exaltation – but neither am I cast down as Banville apparently is.

At any rate, John Banville has been taken to task for these sour sentiments by Xavier Lechard on his excellent blog Up at the Villa Rose. See “A Neanderthalian view of Christie.”

Meanwhile this past Thursday, the blogger at The Passing Tramp (I believe this is Curtis Evans’s blog) posted a compilation of top twenty Christie books from thirty-one lists. (He also appends a list from The World’s Favorite Christie.)   There’s more Christie lore to be found on The Passing Tramp.

And Then There Were None repeatedly appears as readers’ favorite Christie novel. Some years ago, when I finally got around to reading this book, I was already a confirmed Christie fan. With regard to this particular title, I’d been forewarned that it contained some offensive material. Nevertheless, I was stopped in my tracks when, early on, I came upon a tossed off sentence containing a disparaging reference to a particular ethnic group – mine, as it happens.

Reading on, I encountered more of this sort of thing, including the repugnant “n” word, freely used. (It’s worth recalling that this novel has gone through several title changes before acquiring the one presently in common usage. You can find comprehensive coverage of the book’s publication history in the Wikipedia entry, but please be advised: once there, you’ll be confronted by the original, obectionable – at least, to present day eyes – cover image.)

The question arises as to what attitude one is to adopt with regard to these offensive expressions. It’s certainly understandable that a reader might think, “This is intolerable’ and set the volume aside. Or you can cope with your annoyance by remembering the historical context and soldier on, forgiving to an extent but not forgetting.

In her biography of Agatha Christie, published in 1990, Gillian Gill states:

A kind of jingoistic, knee-jerk anti-Semitism colors the presentation of Jewish characters in many of her early novels, and Christie reveals herself to be as unreflective and conventional as the majority of her compatriots.

Then several pages later, on the same subject:

Christie’s anti-Semitism had always been of the stupidly unthinking rather than the deliberately vicious kind. As her circle of acquaintances widened and she grew to understand what Nazism really meant for Jewish people, Christie abandoned her knee-jerk anti-Semitism. What is more, even at her most thoughtless and prejudiced, Christie saw Jews as different, alien, and un-English, rather than as depraved or dangerous–people one does not know rather than people one fears.

Whether the above elucidation can be taken as exculpatory or not depends on the individual reader.

In the years immediately following the Second World War, Dodd Mead, Christie’s American publisher,  began to receive objections from the reading public to the anti-Semitic comments found in her books. Christie’s literary agents then provided assurances that such denigration would not appear in future publications. In addition, Dodd Mead was given permission to delete those that were present in existing texts.

I can only assume that later versions of the novels in question – the ones that were ‘scrubbed’ by Dodd Mead – were reissued in their original form. My copy of And Then There Were None was published by St. Martin’s Paperbacks in May 2001.  and-then-there-were-none-book-

According to Malcolm J. Turnbull, in Victims or Villains:

Although “foreigners” continued to be targeted by the writer from time to time, most strikingly, the household of international eccentrics in Hickory Dickory Dock, with one minor exception Jews ceased to figure negatively in Christie’s work from that time on.

(The exception being referred to appears in They Came to Baghdad, which was published in 1951.)


Agatha Christie wrote an autobiography, the composition of which took place over period of years, roughly from 1950 to 1965. It did not, however, reach the public until after her death in 1976. (It was actually first published in November 1977.) In it, Christie describes her experiences accompanying her husband, the distinguished archaeologist Max Mallowan, on his various “digs” in the Middle East. In the early 1930s, they became acquainted with Dr. Julius Jordan, the German Director of Antiquities in Baghdad.

Dr. Jordan invited the couple to be his guests, along with others, for tea at his house. He entertained them by playing works by Beethoven on the piano. What followed is best told in Christie’s own words:

He had a fine head, and I thought, looking at him, what a splendid man he was. He had seemed always gentle and considerate. Then there was mention by someone, quite casually, of Jews. His face changed; changed in an extraordinary way that I had never noticed on anyone’s face before.

He said: “You do not understand. Our Jews are perhaps different from yours. They are a danger. They should be exterminated. Nothing else will really do but that.”

I stared at him unbelievingly. He meant it. It was the first time I had come across any hint of what was to come later from Germany. People who had travelled there, were, I suppose, already realising it at that time, but for ordinary people in 1932 and 1933, there was a complete lack of fore-knowledge.

She reflects further:

On that day as we sat in Dr. Jordan’s sitting-room and he played the piano, I saw my first Nazi – and I discovered later that his wife was an even fiercer Nazi than he was. They had a duty to perform there: not only be Director of Antiquities or even to work for their country, but also to spy on their own German ambassador.

And finally, this concluding sentence:

There are things in life that make one truly sad when one can make oneself believe them.

End of subject.
I was born into a Jewish family. My parents were first generation Americans, their parents – my grandparents – having emigrated to this country from the Ukraine, then a part of the Russian Empire, in the years immediately preceding the First World War. Ours was not an especially religious household. But we lived in a primarily Jewish city – Miami Beach, Florida, in the 1950s and 1690s. Ethnically we were thoroughly Jewish. Matzoh brei, gefilte fish, kasha varnishkes, temple on the High Holy Days. It was all there.

For me, the practice of the religion and its attendant rituals has largely fallen away. But I am still Jewish, oh yes, to the soles of my feet I am. I’ve been fortunate in experiencing very little in the way of overt anti-Semitism. But I can tell you, on the one or two occasions when I have, it is felt like the proverbial blow to the solar plexus.

Any instance of anti-Semitic expression makes me both angry and sad. I hate any and all expressions of ethnic and racial bias, but of course, one feels it most keenly when it’s one’s own group that is targeted. So how do I feel about the presence of such material in the works of Agatha Christie?

I wish it were not there. I find it frustrating, offensive, dispiriting. And yet…Do I close the book? Do I stop reading? No. I come back to Gillian Gill’s adjectives: ‘knee-jerk,’ ‘unreflective.’ I accept that description of Agatha Christie’s negative portrayal of certain of her Jewish characters. I wish she’d been more reflective. But she was not. At least, not in the early  years of her authorial career.

I am speaking as one who continues to read and enjoy the works of this extraordinarily gifted writer of crime fiction. She was not perfect, but then neither am I. I wish I could have known her. I cherish fond memories of visiting her home, in company of the remarkably Christie scholar John Curran.

More on the novels and stories in posts to come. I welcome comments on the above.

Gillian Gill has more to say on this subject in her Christie biography. As for Malcolm J. Turnbull’s book, its full title is Victims or Villains: Jewish Images in Classic English Detective Fiction. It was published by Bowling Green State University Press in 1998. Several years ago, I read a reference to it and ordered it immediately. I then placed it in among my mystery collections and forgot about it. Writing this post served as a reminder that I do in fact own it.

510SY3R425L._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_  51HHNij0FPL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_


One final word on And Then There Were None. My recollection of the novel – apart from what was discussed above – is that it consisted of an elaborately contrived plot with virtually no attention paid to character development or mood. I admit I’m puzzled by its great popularity.


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The besotted grandmother strikes again…

September 27, 2015 at 6:28 pm (Family)

Grandson Welles recently celebrated his second birthday. And boy, did he celebrate – we all did!

First, Big Sister Etta decided to dress stylishly for the occasion. We were banned from sneaking a peek, until she appeared at the top of the stairs looking like this:

IMG_1398-X2Let’s see: two dresses, about five bracelets, any number of bows and barrettes, purple shoes – and two tutus! (She did streamline things a bit later.)

The party had a fire engine theme. This is because Welles’s imagination, currently in a vehicular stage, is especially centered on fire trucks. His resourceful Mom found great decorations, such as



IMG_1456-X3A number of entertainment features were provided for the younger guests. The Bouncy Castle was a huge hit:


Etta and Welles, bouncing

Etta and Welles, bouncing


The table laden with goodies


Welles and his beautiful Mom, surveying the delectables, while Big Sister and other guests look on


Before the party started to wind down, we gathered the children onto the steps for a photo op


The Birthday Boy, once again, happily chowing down

Earlier in the day, it had rained hard, and we were apprehensive about what the weather would do later in the day, at party time. As you can see, it cleared up and turned into a beautiful day, made all the more beautiful by everyone’s happiness and the presence of so many children, carefree and exuberant.

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A Golden Age of Looking Back

September 22, 2015 at 7:03 pm (Book clubs, Book review, books, Mystery fiction)

51d7MVVHBZL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_  Recently the Usual Suspects enjoyed a discussion of The Janissary Tree by Jason Goodwin. Set in Istanbul in the early 1800s, this book is by turns exotic and obscure. Mostly it’s just plain fun, so long as you don’t let yourself get tied up in knots over the plot.

I say this because the plot was truly…well, Byzantine.

But despite the challenging story line, we felt that the novel possessed many enjoyable qualities, not the least of these being its engaging protagonist, Investigator Yashim. Here is how Goodwin introduced us to him in the first chapter:

Yashim knew that it hardly mattered what he wore. He was a tall, well-built man in his late thirties, with a thick mop of black curls, a few white hairs, no beard, but a curly black mustache. He had the high cheekbones of the Turks, and the slanting gray eyes of a people who had lived on the great Eurasian steppe for thousands of years. In European trousers, perhaps, he would be noticeable, but in a brown cloak— no. Nobody noticed him very much. That was his special talent, if it was a talent at all. More likely, as the marquise had been saying, it was a condition of mind. A condition of the body.

Intriguing, and beautifully expressed, right? But wait – there’s more:

Yashim had many things— innate charm, a gift for languages, and the ability to open those gray eyes suddenly wide. Both men and women had found themselves strangely hypnotized by his voice, before they had even noticed who was speaking. But he lacked balls.

Not in the vulgar sense: Yashim was reasonably brave.

But he was that creature rare even in nineteenth-century Istanbul.

Yashim was a eunuch.

Over the years, in the course of my compulsive reading of crime fiction, I’ve encountered many different kinds of detectives. This, for me, was a first. But I found, as I got deeper into the novel, that Yashim’s other laudable qualities shone forth. He is indeed brave, also resourceful and perceptive. But he harbors an inward bitterness, which one suspects has its origin in the life-altering thing that was done to him, and could not be undone.

Yashim manages to stay astride the wild horse that is this novel’s plot. I admit, I was at  a loss much of the time, due to its complexity. In addition, the cast of characters was large; I had trouble remembering exactly who they were and what function they served in the story. So yes, at times my interest flagged. But Goodwin’s marvelous descriptions and set pieces inevitably brought me back into the action.

51XUDiRAXqL._SX330_BO1,204,203,200_  Next up for  the Suspects is A Possibility of Violence by D.A. Mishani. Set in present day Israel, this police procedural features Inspector Avraham Avraham. One reads on, thoroughly absorbed, as several parallel story lines run their respective courses, erratically and unpredictably, until they inevitably converge.

I finished it last week and all I can say is, I was riveted. This is the best mystery I’ve read this year for the Suspects – the best mystery I’ve read in a long time period.

During our discussion of The Janissary Tree, the question arose (posed by Frank?) as to whether, in the annals of crime fiction, there exists such a thing as a protagonist who is at the same time an action hero – think James Bond – and an introspective individual – think Adam Dalgliesh or Reg Wexford. I personally think it would be hard to cram all that into a single personality. But with Avraham Avraham, D.A. Mishani comes close. Avraham also exemplifies the “secret sorrow” paradigm which Marge and I have noted as a characteristic of quite a few fictional policeman. It’s not so much that the source of the grief is hidden, but rather that it is of a deep and personal nature.

51TKW69FtlL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_  This description does not apply to Peter Diamond, even though in Diamond Dust (2002), he does suffer a devastating loss. Diamond Dust was the seventh entry in Peter Lovesey’s outstanding series. The Amazon.com review of this novel describes Peter Diamond as “combative and curmudgeonly.” It’s a persona that helps him to evade introspection and to generally keep “the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune” from wounding him too deeply.

At any rate, he’s certainly his old curmudgeonly self in Down Among the Dead Men, the latest series entry. His mood is not helped by the fact that he’s assigned to an internal affairs investigation in the neighboring jurisdiction of Sussex. Worse, he’ll be accompanying the Assistant Chief Constable Georgina Dallymore. To say that she’s a woman whose company Diamond does not particularly enjoy is to put it  mildly indeed.

As usual, I loved this book from beginning to end. It’s elegantly written, meticulously plotted, and  very witty. And Lovesey writes delightful dialog, like this exchange between Diamond and Henrietta Mallin, a policewoman he’s long known and admired:

How’s your head now?” she asked him. “Jesus Christ, you’re looking groggy again. Don’t you think we should call it a day and get you back to the hotel?”

“I’m better than I look.” He was lying, but so what?

“Men have been saying that to me all my adult life and it just ain’t true.”


Meanwhile, I’ve been happily traversing the world of British Golden Age crime writing, courtesy of the British Library Crime Classics series and the expert guidance of Martin Edwards. Here’s what Ive read and enjoyed so far in the British Library series:

511s1AB85aL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_  Mysteryinwhite



I’ve almost finished this one capital-crimes, but I confess I’ve been dragging my feet because I don’t want it to end. Like Resorting To Murder (above), Capital Crimes is a story collection edited by Martin Edwards. The stories range from mildly entertaining to outstanding. There’s one that is completely unique, however. It has been placed right at the beginning of the book, and I’m not sure it should’ve been. It’s a shocker written by, of all people, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. It is not a Sherlock Holmes tale. I think it is more a horror story than a mystery. You can judge for yourself, if you dare. The full text is available online; it is called  “The Case of Lady Sannox.”

mist on the saltings  Another much less unsettling story included in Capital Crimes is “Wind in the East” by Henry Wade. It’s a cunningly wrought little tale. I just finished Mist on the Saltings, a full length novel by this same author. It comes warmly recommended by Martin Edwards, and I can see why. Its atmospheric setting on the East Anglian seacoast, characters both ordinary and enigmatic caught up in a web of lies, deceit, and conflicting passions – all contribute to the making of a first rate crime novel.

Originally published in 1933, Mist on the Saltings is somewhat dated in regard to the condescending comments about women lobbed from time to time like small but stinging missiles into the midst of the narrative. One wishes Wade had refrained from doing this, but for me, these passages, while irritating, constitute the novel’s sole flaw. I find them easier to push aside than the genteel anti-Semitism one occasionally encounters in the fiction of this period.

I loved this book’s title from the first I heard of it, without knowing what the “Saltings” were. Here is Wade’s description of the setting of the setting of his novel:

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 a wide 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 of the tides and  the time of year; at one  time a silvery dazzle of southernwood, at another green with samphire, 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.

Wade ends with this observation:

Dreary and desolate though they are, the Saltings have for those who love  them a fascination which no written word can describe, a beauty which defies the most skillful brush.

(The brush is a reference to artist John Pansel, who has come with his wife Hilary to Bryde-by-the-Sea to paint, and to recover from the lingering trauma of his service in the First World War.)

As you have probably already surmised, this singular landscape is a crucial component of the strange and tragic story that unfolds in Mist on the Saltings.

Here’s an interesting sideline: When I looked up Henry Wade on Wikipedia, I was startled by this image:  HenryWadw There was a good deal of pseudonymous authorship during England’s Golden Age of crime writing. “Henry Wade” was the pen name of Sir Henry Lancelot Aubrey-Fletcher, 6th Baronet.

Womencrimewriters  Meantime, on this side of the Atlantic, crime fiction readers have new reason to rejoice with the release of a two volume boxed set from the Library of America entitled Women Crime Writers: Eight Suspense Novels of the 1940s & 50s. Here’s the breakdown:

Volume One:

Laura by Vera Caspary
The Horizontal Man by Helen Eustis
In a Lonely Place by Dorothy B. Hughes
The Blank Wall by Elizabeth Sanxay Holding

Volume Two:

Mischief by Charlotte Armstrong
The Blunderer by Patricia Highsmith
Beast in View by Margaret Millar
Fool’s Gold by Dolores Hitchens

This careful selection, made by editor Sarah Weinman, is winning plaudits from readers and critics alike. In his write-up in the Wall Street Journal, Terry Teachout says of the chosen novels that “…they are all exceptionally fine, as much so as any of the crime novels written by men that were published in this country in the 1940s and 1950s.” Here’s how Teachout concludes his review:

I cannot praise Ms Weinman enough for having collected [these novels] in a single boxed set and for having annotated them with such discreet skill. She has chosen wisely and well–enough so to make me long for a sequel.

In her newsletter The Crime Lady #037, dated September 2, Sarah Weinman exults: “At last, at last, Women Crime Writers: Eight Suspense Novels of the 1940s & 50s, is out in the world.” (She also provides a link to the companion website.) You get the sense that this is the culmination of a labor of considerable duration. Well, she can be proud, and we can be grateful. I can’t wait to dive in to these books!

(If you go to Sarah Weinman’s website, you can find instructions for subscribing to The Crime Lady. I recommend this newsletter highly. It’s chock full of news about crime fiction and true crime; in addition, Weinman provides terrific links and reading and viewing recommendations.)

At this point, I feel as though the work being done by such expert curators as Martin Edwards and Sarah Weinman is opening up new and intriguing vistas of reading for all of us. It is almost as though we’re entering a Golden Age of Looking Back.



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Highly – very highly – recommended: Open Grave by Kjell Eriksson

September 6, 2015 at 11:10 pm (Book review, books, Mystery fiction)

51Oao4WWGsL._AC_UL320_SR210,320_  I’ll just start right off by saying I thought this was a terrific novel.

Why so? Originality of concept, mastery in execution, depth of characterization, excellent writing (kudos to translator Paul Norlen), and a story whose momentum builds slowly but surely until the tension becomes palpable and unrelenting.

A caveat, though: the story gets off to a slow start: a slow, strange start. We find ourselves in an upscale residential neighborhood in Sweden where several retired scholars and professors dwell in leafy, comfortable surroundings. Suddenly, unexpected news of great import arrives in their midst:  Professor Bertram von Ohler, an 84-year-old widower, has just been awarded the Nobel Prize in Medicine. This revelation disturbs the peaceful aura of the place. Buried resentments start rising to the surface. Associate Professor Gregor Johansson, for instance, a fellow researcher and former colleague of von Ohler’s, is dismayed at not being recognized for his own contribution to the research credited to von Ohler by the Nobel Committee.

And there’s Agnes Andersson, who has served as Bertram von Ohler’s housekeeper for decades, living in his house and attending to his every need. He’s becoming increasingly difficult to deal with; as for her, after the passage of all these years, she is feeling the pull of Gräsö, her island home.

The terrain of her childhood stood out increasingly often and ever clearer to her. She sensed that it was age. She had reached the crown and could only look back, and down, at the laborious uphill ascent that had been her life.

Open Grave clocks in at under 300 pages, and you’re a third of the way in before the police component of this police procedural enters the narrative.  At this point, there has still been no crime committed – at least, none that we know of. Now the reader may be forgiven for wondering just where the plot is headed. So far, we’re dealing primarily with a couple of elderly academics exhibiting their complaints and crotchets. Oh, and there’s also a landscape gardener named Karsten Haller who’s doing major work at one of the residences. At one point, Haller throws a small rock at Professor von Ohler’s house. It rolls off the roof without doing any damage.

What exactly is going on here? Patience, all will be revealed in good time….

Back to the police: the person in the Uppsala Police Department with whom we’re chiefly concerned is Detective Ann Lindell. She’s a recurring character; this is her sixth outing so far in the books in this series that have thus far been translated into English. I find Lindell exceptionally appealing, both as an investigator and as a woman who’s had more than her share of trouble in her personal life.

Open Grave is structured in an unorthodox manner; I admit that at the outset, the book had me scratching my head in some bewilderment. But the cumulative power of the narrative eventually gripped and held me right to the (somewhat ambiguous) end.

This is the fourth novel I’ve read in this series. I very much look forward to reading more. (Here’s my review of The Demon of Dakar.)

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Rapturous description…

August 31, 2015 at 1:03 pm (Book review, books, Nature, Scotland)


…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:


ias aigas house

lc goldfinch400


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.



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Oliver Sacks

August 30, 2015 at 9:20 pm (books, Remembrance)

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.

Oliver Wolf Sacks July 9, 1933 - August 30, 2015

Oliver Wolf Sacks
July 9, 1933 – August 30, 2015

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The Girl Next Door by Ruth Rendell: a book discussion

August 27, 2015 at 1:20 pm (Book clubs, books, Mystery fiction)

rendellnextdoor2  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. bbtv-square-1536

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)



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She is too fond of books…

August 18, 2015 at 1:01 am (Book review, books, Mystery fiction)

…”too obsessed with books” might be more accurate phrasing, in my case.

Okay, here’s what I’m currently reading:

1000H-9780805095159 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..

41q+ZB-iWkL._SX320_BO1,204,203,200_ 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).

mist on the saltings 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.

51d7MVVHBZL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_ 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:

Britcrimes  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!

51FcoXTFTDL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_ 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:

51V0bLwLq1L._SX329_BO1,204,203,200_      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.

17999118 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-682x1024  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.’
‘And meanwhile?’
‘Tread softly. But tread swiftly.’
Kuroda laid a hand on Max’s shoulder. ‘That is your self-appointed counsellor’s considered advice.’

Robert Goddard

Robert Goddard

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History comes alive – right here, right now! – Sisters of Fortune: America’s Caton Sisters at Home and Abroad, by Jehanne Wake

August 13, 2015 at 1:25 am (Book review, books, History, Local interest (Baltimore-Washington), Maryland)

10503279  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.


Arthur Wellesley, First Duke of Wellington, portrait by Sir Thomas Lawrence (1769-1830).

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.):


Doughoregan Manor

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….)

Charles Carroll House, Annapolis

Charles Carroll House, Annapolis

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.


Homewood Museum

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: rentalproperty manor lane . 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.

Marianne Caton and Richard Wellesley, Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, at Dublin Castle, 1826. Wellesley was Marianne's second husband and the elder brother of the Dukee of Wellington

Marianne Caton and Richard Wellesley, Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, at Dublin Castle, 1826. Wellesley was Marianne’s second husband and the elder brother of the Duke of Wellington

This is an extremely complex and many-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.)

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