Final Post on Short Stories

May 31, 2023 at 9:39 pm (Uncategorized)

As short story month draws to a close, I’d like to give a shout-out to some of my all time favorites.

“Red Wind” and “The King in Yellow” by Raymond Chandler. “Red Wind” features this memorable opening gambit:

of those hot dry Santa Anas that come down through the mountain
passes and curl your hair and make your nerves jump and your skin
itch. On nights like that every booze party ends in a fight. Meek little
wives feel the edge of the carving knife and study their husbands’
necks. Anything can happen. You can even get a full glass of beer at a
cocktail lounge.’

“The King in Yellow” also has its share of striking prose moments:

‘She looked tall and her hair was the color of a brush fire seen through a dust cloud.’


‘“He shot at me,” he repeated quietly. “With a gun. This gun. I’m tender to bullets. He missed me, but suppose he didn’t? I like my stomach the way it is, with just one way in and one way out.”’

“The Displaced Person” by Flannery O’Connor. This film of the story is worth watching, but the story itself is…well, just read it.

And then, of course, read the story whose title is a good example of the savage irony O’Connor could employ with such devastating force : “A Good Man Is Hard To Find.”

With regard to Edgar Allan Poe, it is hard to choose. “Berenice” is less well known but to me it is one of Poe’s most genuinely frightening tales. And of course, there’s “The Masque of the Red Death,” utilized so effectively by Tom Wolfe in The Bonfire of the Vanities.

Finally, Joan Silber’s near-perfect collection, Ideas of Heaven. The title story deals with a family that goes to China to do missionary work shortly before the Boxer Rebellion. This story hypnozied me from its first word; it ends in one of the most terrifying scenes I’ve ever encountered in fiction. A real tour de force – but brace yourself.

Raymond Chandler

Edgar Allan Poe
Flannery O’Connor
Joan Silber

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Great Tales of Terror and the Supernatural, and 50 Great Short Stories

May 30, 2023 at 10:09 pm (Uncategorized)

The first is the title of a short story collection originally published by Modern Library in 1944. It was reissued in 1994 and is still in print.

I turn to this book whenever I’m having trouble concentrating on anything else. It contains tales by the famous – Faulkner, Poe, Hawthorne, Henry James – and the less well known – Carl Stephenson, Fitz-James O’Brien, Robert Hichens, John Collier – and other somewhere in between. It is slightly over a thousand pages long.

I’ve recently had cause to return to it. First I read “The Boarded Window” by Ambrose Bierce. Bierce had a way with words. The story opens this way:

‘In 1830, only a few miles away from what is now the great city of Cincinnati, lay an immense and almost unbroken forest. The whole region was sparsely settled by people of the frontier–restless souls who no sooner had hewn fairly habitable homes out of the wilderness and attained to that degree of prosperity which today we should call indigence than, impelled by some mysterious impulse of their nature, they abandoned all and pushed farther westward, to encounter new perils and privations in the effort to regain the meagre comforts which they had voluntarily renounced.’

The author proceeds to describe an especially extreme denizen of this region, ending the paragraph thus:

‘Apparently the man’s zeal for agriculture had burned with a failing flame, expiring in penitential ashes.’ (The use of the word ‘penitential’ in this context seems to me to possess multiple meanings. A brilliant locution.)

From “The Boarded Window” I went to “The Open Window” by Saki, thence to another Saki tale, the intriguingly titled “Sredni Vashtar,” and on to “A Terribly Strange Bed” by Wilkie Collins. (It’s my humble opinion that the works of Wilkie Collins are finally emerging from behind the long shadow cast by those of his close friend and collaborator Charles Dickens.)

At the front of this book are found the following lines:

‘From Ghoulies and Ghosties
And long-legged beasties
And things that go bump in the night,
Good Lord deliver us!’


I picked up 50 Great Short Stories in an airport some years ago. It has proved a fortuitous acquisition. Lots of great content in a compact space. First published in 1952, it is still in print.

This is one of the few mass market paperbacks that survived the Great Cull that took place this past March. Granted, the print is small, but it’s worth the effort. Stories by many of the greats are contained therein: Hemingway, Hawthorne, Dorothy Parker, Edith Wharton, Flannery O’Connor (the harrowing “A Good Man Is Hard To Find”), and numerous others. One that has particularly stayed with me is “Looking Back” by Guy de Maupassant. Reading this tale led me to read a novel by Maupassant, entitled simple A Life (Une Vie). A sad and deeply moving story, beautifully written.

At the beginning of this book, editor Milton Crane poses the question, ‘What makes a good short story?’ He offer the following answer:

‘The sudden unforgettable revelation of character; the vision of a world through another’s eyes; the glimpse of truth; the capture of a moment of time.’

He adds:

‘All this the short story, at its best, is is uniquely capable of conveying, for in its very shortness lies its greatest strength.’

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Short Stories One – Sherlock Holmes

May 27, 2023 at 8:54 pm (Uncategorized)

As the month of May comes careening to its end, I want to recommend some short stories. This is because May, a busy month to say the least, is (International?) Short Story Month. So, here goes.

As you probably know, the short story form exists in all genres of fiction: mystery, science fiction, fantasy, literary. Some folks dislike short stories due to their inherent brevity – ” in and out too fast,” is how a book loving friend of mine once put it. But the powerful economy of voice is what makes a good story so special for me.

The tales of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle are, for me, among the most memorable. This is true for virtually all of the Sherlock Holmes stories. These are so inventive and so cleverly conceived that they must of necessity remain lodged in the brain of the reader. (This reader, anyway.) One of my favorites among them is “The Naval Treaty.”

There is a passage in this story that fairly leaped out at me. It has nothing to do with the plot, or with any of the characters involved. It is in the way of a meditation, triggered by the presence of a flower.

The setting is in a typically claustrophobic room, cluttered with furniture from the late Victorian era. Only four persons are present: Percy Phelps, his fiancee Annie Harrison, Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson. Holmes is interrogating Percy Phelps, who has been the victim of the theft of an important government document with which he had been entrusted. The crime threatens to ruin the young man’s career, and worse.

You statement has been so explicit,” said he at
last, “that you have really left me very few ques-
tions to ask. There is one of the very utmost impor-
tance, however. Did you tell any one that you had
this special task to perform?”
“No one.”
“Not Miss Harrison here, for example?”
“No. I had not been back to Woking between
getting the order and executing the commission.”
“And none of your people had by chance been
to see you?”
“Did any of them know their way about in the
“Oh, yes, all of them had been shown over it.”
“Still, of course, if you said nothing to any one
about the treaty these inquiries are irrelevant.”
“I said nothing.”
“Do you know anything of the commission-
“Nothing except that he is an old soldier.”
“What regiment?”
“Oh, I have heard—Coldstream Guards.”

Thank you. I have no doubt I can get details
from Forbes. The authorities are excellent at amass-
ing facts, though they do not always use them to
advantage. What a lovely thing a rose is!”
He walked past the couch to the open window,
and held up the drooping stalk of a moss-rose, look-
ing down at the dainty blend of crimson and green.
It was a new phase of his character to me, for I had
never before seen him show any keen interest in
natural objects.
“There is nothing in which deduction is so nec-
essary as in religion,” said he, leaning with his back
against the shutters. “It can be built up as an exact
science by the reasoner. Our highest assurance of
the goodness of Providence seems to me to rest
in the flowers. All other things, our powers our
desires, our food, are all really necessary for our
existence in the first instance. But this rose is an extra.

Its smell and its color are an embellishment
of life, not a condition of it. It is only goodness
which gives extras, and so I say again that we have
much to hope from the flowers.”

(I love the way Holmes segues into his flower soliloquy! So very atypical of the cold calculating apparatus that’s usually hard at work in that extraordinary mind.)

The others present are, to say the least, bewildered by this spontaneous rumination, so seemingly atypical an exercise for the most cerebral of gentlemen. No worries; he returns at once to the dire matter at hand and. of course, proceeds to solve the mystery.

(Go to 23:00 on the drag bar for the passage quoted above.)

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Places in The Garlands

May 20, 2023 at 3:05 pm (Uncategorized)

Wherever you walk here, you are met with beauty and comfort. Long hallways are punctuated by lovely seating areas; these in turn are accessorized with interesting works of art.

Light pours in through numerous tall windows.

I love this vase and I can’t explain way:

Each residential unit has a display shelf located next to its entry door. Residents may use this space to place beautiful or mysterious objects where passers by see them and wonder at their meaning. Here are a few of my favorites:

This last image is of our own shelf, where I have placed a beautiful ceramic mask, acquired by me in Italy in 2011. (How can it be that twelve years have passed since that memorable sojourn on the Amalfi Coast…?)

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Planter Boxes

May 14, 2023 at 2:45 pm (Uncategorized)

Here at Garlands, residents are provided with a welcome if modest chance to do some gardening. Several rows of planter boxes are situated within the grounds. You can request space in a planter box, and if it’s available, management will assign it to you. Typically, you get half the space in a given box.

This past Friday, we purchased several flats of flowers at a local supermarket. Yesterday, I put them in the box: dianthus, snapdragons, and marigolds. The result is, I think, quite pleasing.

I haven’t done any gardening in a very long while. I used to be quite the enthusiast until I got kicked out of two gardens in one year. It’s a long story, which I won’t trouble you with here. I’ll just say that it had to do with the amatory aspect of my life, which was not going well. It’s all ancient history now; I’ve been married to my wonderful Ron for over thirty years; past wounds are long healed.

Anyway, digging in this little garden felt like a verification of the fact that we’ve arrived at a safe place. Can’t help thinking of the words of D.H. Lawrence: “Look! We have come through!”

It is Mothers Day. It is also my birthday. I am so very thankful.

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‘Here I am, a stranger to your honoured family, knee deep in your smallclothes.’ The blazing triumph of The Blue Flower

May 12, 2023 at 2:33 pm (Uncategorized)

‘small articles of clothing (such as underclothing or handkerchiefs).’ Thus does Merriam Webster define ‘smallclothes,’ classifying it as a plural noun.

But there is no easy way to define The Blue Flower by Penelope Fitzgerald, except to say that it is an historical novel of such unparalleled excellence that it literally leaves the reader spellbound. Fitzgerald has brought the wellsprings of German Romanticism so vividly to life, you would think she had actually lived there herself. The librarian in me wonders about how and where she did her research. This book was originally published in 1995.

The Blue Flower is ostensibly about the life of the poet Friedrich von Hardenberg. It was a brief life, as so many were in those days – 1772-1801. Much had to be crowded into a small space. (Think of Franz Schubert: 1797-1828.) Fitzgerald has an uncanny gift for recreating past times. I also recommend The Beginning of Spring, which takes place in Russia in 1913. Such a fraught year, filled with portents! And yet people were living their lives as if nothing momentous were anywhere near them. And yet it was, of course, just over the horizon.

This was my second reading of The Blue Flower. If anything, it struck me more forcibly than it did when I first read it. Historical fiction is the only means of time travel that is vouchsafed to us. I recommend these two novels as highly as I possibly can.

Penelope Fitzgerald 1916-2000

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The Move, Second Installment; or how it felt to say Farewell to the House on Twilight Grove Court

May 11, 2023 at 12:10 am (Uncategorized)

I’ll confess right here and now: I way underestimated what this undertaking was going to demand of us – not just physically, but mentally, psychologically, and emotionally.

To begin with, we’d been living in the house in Ellicott City (MD) for thirty-five years. My son Ben was with us until he went off to college in 1993. After that, we had the four bedroom house – with a full unfinished basement – to ourselves, to do with as we wished.

And what we wished – in our happy, thoughtless way – was to accumulate Stuff. This process continued unabated until February of this year. Then suddenly it became necessary to divest ourselves of most of this detritus before it swallowed us whole. Or, more prosaically, we needed to be rid of a great deal of Stuff.

This meant deciding what to keep and what to toss. We were moving to smaller quarters, but not that much smaller. It was all very vague. We decided to leave almost all of our furniture and replace it with new items for the new domicile. (See The Move ). That was the easiest part. The smaller the items got, the harder the decisions became. Some were discarded with reluctance bordering on pain. Others were gone with barely a shrug. (‘Well, that’s that, I guess….’) The process seemed endless.

Decisions and revisions which a minute will reverse..

There was one closet in particular, in my son’s former bedroom. Several years ago – well, more than several – I found that that particular closet was nearly empty. Well! What a fortuitous discovery! I filled it up in no time flat. And filled it and filled it… with what? Would-be objets d’art, little gewgaws, clothing mistakes that happen frequently when I shop from catalogs, a college dissertation by my mother on a topic in an educational psychology class, written circa 1935…wait, What??

My mother was the first person in her family to attend college, the others being too busy fleeing pogroms in Byelarus. She obtained her degree in 1938 – graduating Phi Beta Kappa, no less – and married my father that same year.

How, how is it that I never before now appreciated the immense pride that my grandparents must have felt in my mother’s achievement, attained in this new world, made possible through their courage and commitment?

I have no recollection of ever before laying eyes on the aforementioned document. But there were many similar experiences during the Great Clear Out. Finding things that I never even knew I had. Not finding things I intended to keep. Finally, finding them and losing them all over again in the course of the Great Resettlement, here in the country’s heartland.

So anyway, back to the aforementioned closet. This cornucopia of clutter was cheerfully excavated by an emissary from Caring Transitions – and boy, do I recommend them! I kept thinking she was finished, but she kept finding more and more stuff in that closet. Meanwhile, as we were shedding our belongings, it felt as though we were shedding pieces of our lives. Yet we stayed in the house almost to the end, as though observing a series of little deaths to which we had given our assent.

Ultimately we understood that the house was too much for us. I kept saying, Whether we move across the street or across the country, this had to happen. And so it proved.

In addition to all this, I had to make my farewells to an exceptionally wonderful group of friends and colleagues. Most of the retirees from the library had remained local; we often saw each other through various functions, especially book discussion groups. I was part of a mystery book discussion group that originated with a program on crime fiction presented at the library some years ago by my friend and coworker Marge and myself. My fellow members in AAUW were especially gracious at the last meeting I intended, honoring me in a way I hadn’t expected but deeply appreciated anyhow.. Saying goodbye to people you’ve come to care about, knowing that in all probability you will never see them again, is hard. My last few weeks in town, I got taken out to lunch more times than I can count!

Everyone kept assuring me that I would make new friends. But all I could think was, I want my old friends. I have a history with those people, and they with me. I am still processing the loss.

But in all fairness, I have met some lovely people here. Spring has arrived. When I took my walk today, I couldn’t help thinking that this is like living in a park.

There is one object that managed to make it here to our new home. I’ve owned it for many years but never pail any particular attention to it. Now, as it sits serenely on the table in the alcove, it has become strangely precious to me. I am grateful for its presence.

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The Move, First Installment

May 8, 2023 at 5:12 pm (Uncategorized)

I’ve been wanting to post pictures of our new abode and surroundings, but I’ve been waiting until things settle down. Hah!

Well, a person could wait forever, and since I don’t have forever – do I even have until next week? – I thought I’d at least make a beginning.

My first glimpse of what became our new home; my back is to our front – and only – door:

There was no furniture at that time. Just this gorgeous floor. Genuine hardwood? So-called ‘luxury vinyl’? I didn’t know and I didn’t care. I was in love. With a floor. I said to myself, This is the place.

Here’s a better look at the floor. That color!

Later, furnished, the alcove looks like this:

The view out that set of windows proved to be an unlooked for bonus. Especially with Spring coming.

Spring is an iffy thing in the Chicago area. It was the middle of April. We had temperatures in the eighties for the first few days. These were swiftly followed by – you guessed it:

Culminating in this:

As soon as I beheld this alcove, I thought: We will be spending a great deal of time in that spot. And so it has proved. Anyhow, more shots of the ‘Unit’:

The bedroom has turned out exceptionally well. At night the light is warm and inviting. (As with most of the rooms in the Unit, there is an overhead lighting fixture, finely controlled by a rheostat.)

This is the TV viewing set-up, to the left of the alcove:

And at the very left, you see the door to Ron’s office. So let’s go there next;

As you can see, Ron’s office is still partly a work in progress. He is already happily computing away in this very comfortable space. But before we leave this room, I must provide a close-up of his new, quite wonderful desk:

The surface of the desk is comprised of tempered glass, about half an inch thick. There’s something sleek and compelling about it!

And as if that were not enough, continuing around to the left, you encounter my office (I have an office!!) which has an equally splendid desk. albeit of a completely different style:

To the right of this desk is a wall of bookshelves, elegantly arranged by a Professional Unpacker who didn’t know me from Adam but who nevertheless knew what I would like (The desk glimpsed in this shot was replaced last Saturday by the above desk.) :

This is probably as good a time as any to mention that the beautiful – and beautifully made – furnishings of the Unit come from Restoration Hardware. Choices were made in the course of a whirlwind walk through last year. The showrooms are in downtown Chicago; we seemed to be spiraling continually upward. My son, for whom this was familiar territory, played Virgil to my distaff Dante. We were accompanied by obliging and very knowledgeable sales representatives. The end results were stunning, in more ways than one.

My ‘office’ is set apart from the Great Room by what I have recently learned are called ‘knee walls.’

The door to the left leads to a powder room. The Unit has two-and-a-half bathrooms, more than we need, obviously.

As we continue around to the left, past the entryway, we get to the kitchen:

The kitchen is more than adequate. The real estate folk invariably proclaim: ‘Kitchens sell houses!” For us, kitchens are places to store food prepared by someone else; grabbing a snack is also important. Ovens are for reheating or defrosting. (The door on the left leads to a wonderfully compact laundry room.)

By far the most wondrous item in this kitchen is the microwave, unlike any microwave we’d ever seen. (Visitors seem likewise intrigued by it.):

Strange, yes, but works like a charm, and saves counter space too.

Both the master bedroom and Ron’s office – officially designated as a second bedroom – have walk-in closets leading to spacious bathrooms.

Well, there’s more to tell. But I want to wind up this post and continue with other matters – such as how the experience actually felt.

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To Ross MacDonald, with Gratitude

May 3, 2023 at 4:54 pm (Uncategorized)

[Again I must beg the indulgence of my Kind Reader. I am still doing battle with WordPress software.]

I should have known that my greatest help in coping with the stress of moving would come from the novels of Ross MacDonald. When I read that Vintage Crime / Black Lizard was issuing an anniversary edition of The Chill, I got the bug all over again. One thing that particularly appealed: a new introduction by James Ellroy. Who better to salute the crime writing genius of Ross MacDonald?

So I guess the best description of this introduction would be ‘pithy.’ Only a page and a half, yet it sums up the case neatly:

‘This is affluent SoCal. We’re dealing with dominating matriarchs and cringing sons waiting for them to die and leave them to leave them all the money. We’re dealing with sex-crazed college professors hot to jump Archer’s bones. We’re dealing with thugs, alcoholic socialites, brutal ex-cop fathers and their battered wives with secrets to tell.’

And I should also add, that from the vantage point of the twenty-first century, we’re dealing with characters that seem to belong to another race of humans altogether.

And yet….

Archer lives through these people. We live through Archer. That’s how deep Ross MacDonald’s hold on us goes.

Well, his hold on me goes that deep, anyway. I’m well aware that for some crime fiction fans, the Lew Archer novels just do not work any more, if they ever did. Characters are too stereotyped, situations and motivations seem strange and remote…And yet…

For one thing, there’s the writing. It’s not just the dialog; the descriptions of places and people are often memorable:

‘He was a man of fifty or so wearing an open-necked black shirt from which his head jutted like weathered stone. The sunlight struck mica glint from his eyes. The fingers with which he was holding the edge of the door were bitten down to the quick. He saw me looking at them and curled them into a fist.’

In my opinion, The Chill is not MacDonald at his best. The stereotypes are too blatant; the plot, too convoluted. But The Underground Man…now there is a masterly work. The themes of family strife and dysfunction are there, but in this case, they are set against the background of a raging forest fire, probably the result of arson. Thus the element of pure evil is in both the foreground and the background.

And of course, as Ellroy reminds us, California is a state of mind as much as a state in the Union.

Oddly, I sometimes find, in MacDonald’s prose, echoes of T.S. Eliot:

Let us go then, you and I,

When the evening is spread out against the sky

Like a patient etherized upon a table;

Let us go, through certain half-deserted streets,

The muttering retreats

Of restless nights in one-night cheap hotels

And sawdust restaurants with oyster-shells:

Streets that follow like a tedious argument

Of insidious intent…

‘A tedious argument of insidious intent’ – there’s a lot of that in the dialog in these novels. One wonders how Archer can endure so much of it. Yet his ripostes are swift and unyielding, usually causing his interlocutor to hesitate, crumble and finally to give up and give in.

One strange thing about the Lew Archer novels: Archer himself is difficult to visualize. Tall, medium height, short? Light haired? Dark? We’re never told. His inner life is similarly opaque. He’s occasionally asked if he is married. He responds with unvarying terseness: ‘I have been.’

Oh, who were you, Mrs. Archer? And where are you now?

In my new abode, I have three bookcases that take up an entire wall. Upon it are the remains of a once vast book collection (along with some other items of value to me.)

‘These fragments I have shored against my ruins.’ (Eliot, again.)

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Five Mysteries Worthy of Your Time

March 24, 2023 at 11:45 am (Mystery fiction, Uncategorized)

[Apologies for the appearance of this post. I’ve been having serious trouble with WordPress’s rather byzantine software.]


Desert Star by Michael Connelly

‘Counting the years of war and police work, Bosch had been looking at the unnatural cause of death for more than half a century. To say he got used to seeing the depravity and cruelty that humans inflict upon each other would be wrong, but he had long ago stopped thinking of those explosions of violence as aberrations. He had lost much of his faith in the goodness of people. To him the violence wasn’t a departure from the norm. It was the norm.’

When he reached the end of the aisle, he made the turn and walked down the next row. The shelves were similarly stacked with cases. A skylight window above brought the afternoon sun down, throwing natural light on unnatural death. Bosch paused for a moment and stood still. There was only silence in the library of lost souls.’

These are just two small samples of the brilliant writing of Michael Connelly. Desert Star is the story of two crimes, one of which is the killing of a family of four. They are buried in the desert. Nearby, blooms a flower called the Desert Star. It is emblematic of Bosch’s determination to bring justice to these four people.

Together with Joanne Fluke, Michael Connelly is receiving  this year’s Grand Master Award from the Mystery Writers of America. He is supremely deserving of this honor.

Before I Sleep by Cynthia Harrod-Eagles

Humor and spriteliness characterize the prose utilized by Harrod-Eagles in her Bill Slider series.  She’s especially fond of puns, as witness her chapter headings:

‘If You Knew Sushi Like I Know Sushi’
‘Degas Vu’
‘Dunce Inane To Burnham Woods’

For an enjoyable time without too much heavy lifting, I highly recommend this series. (And thank goodness someone is still writing police procedurals, my favorite crime fiction subgenre.)

Last Seen  in Lapaz by Kwei Quartey

Quartey’s third installment in the Emma Djan series is more  harrowing than the previous two, and more gripping as well. For a work of crime fiction, it’s uniquely structured: Emma. the resourceful member of the Sowah Investigative Agency,  is absent for more than a hundred pages while the author fills us in on the deeds and misdeeds of key characters. Quartey makes it work – and then  some. Once again, the country of Ghana is brought vividly to life.

Dachshund Through the Snow by David Rosenfelt

Some of you are probably already familiar with the works of the dog-loving Rosenfelt. Protagonist Andy Carpenter is an independently wealthy lawyer who only takes on cases when he feels he can provide justice where it’s been unfairly denied.There’s a great deal of courtroom action in this series entry, and it makes for a great read.

                                                              Rock With Wings by Anne Hillerman

So yes, I’m still working my way through Anne Hillerman’s excellent continuation of her father Tony’s series, set in New Mexico. The novels of Hillerman père were the reason Ron and I traveled to New Mexico in the 90s. It is called The Land of Enchantment, and rightly so. I remember the Santuario de Chimayo outside Taos, and the priest – the padre – there, garbed as if it were four hundred years ago. If ever a place could inspire belief, this was it. (The Santuario is in fact a pilgrimage site.)

Anne Hillerman’s novels are as much about family relationships and Navajo culture as they are about crime. Bernadette Manuelito – ‘Bernie’ – has become a main character; she’s as fearless in her pursuit of criminals as is her husband, the ever faithful Jim Chee.

The new series Dark Winds, made for television, brings the world of these and other characters vividly to life. And the scenery, of course, is breathtaking. (Available on DVD)

So, to sum up: for serious, at times even difficult, but worthwhile subject matter, read Desert Star and Last Seen in Lapaz. For a lighter tone and less fraught content, Before I Sleep and Dachshund Though the Snow. And somewhere in between comes Rock with Wings.

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