Sir John Lister-Kaye on tawny owls and willow warblers

November 25, 2015 at 4:11 pm (books, Nature, Scotland)

Gods Throughout my reading of Gods of the Morning, I’ve been astonished over and over again by Lister-Kaye’s gorgeous descriptions:

Like molten gold from a crucible, the first touch of sun spilled in from the east, from the glistening horizon of the Moray Firth, so bright that I couldn’t look at it, flooding its winter fire up the river, right past me and on up the valley. The river trailed below me, like a silk pashmina thrown down by an untidy teenager. Strands of mist over the water were fired with yellow flame, as though part of some mysterious ritual immolation. The new-born light raked the steep glen sides, floodlighting every rocky prominence and daubing deep craters of black shadow so that the familiar shape of the land vanished before my eyes. I was in a wonderland, strange to me and a little unnerving. The dogs sat uncharacteristically silent at my feet, noses lifting to test the air, but stilled as though they, too, could sense the moment.

And yet, even in the midst of all this beauty, there appear certain disturbing vignettes. One concerns an almost sacrilegious act committed by Lister-Kaye when he was eleven years old.

tawny owl

Tawny owl

His grandfather had shown him the customary roosting place of a tawny owl in a yew tree on the family property. Earlier that year, young John had been gifted with an air rifle:

It was the most exciting birthday gift I had ever received. In the short space of a birthday afternoon I became Davy Crockett, Kit Carson and the Lone Ranger all rolled into one ill-disciplined puberulous youth bursting to tangle with danger and adventure.

You can probably guess what happened next:

The head-hanging truth that still torments my soul is that when no one was looking I crept out and shot that owl. For a moment it seemed not to move; then it tipped forward and fell like a rag at my feet. I picked it up, hot and floppy in my hands. Its cinnamon and cream mottled plumage was as soft and silky as Angora fleece. One owl, one boy, one gun. Two burst hearts, one with lead, the other with guilt. I had never held a tawny owl before and its lifeless beauty hit me in a withering avalanche of instantaneous remorse and shame. I have never forgotten it and never forgiven myself. To this day I ask myself why I did it.

The very definition of remorse.

Several works came to mind when I read this passage. Foremost among them, “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” by Samuel Taylor Coleridge:

‘God save thee, ancient Mariner!
From the fiends, that plague thee thus!—
Why look’st thou so?’—With my cross-bow
I shot the ALBATROSS.
And I had done a hellish thing,
And it would work ’em woe:
For all averred, I had killed the bird
That made the breeze to blow.
Ah wretch! said they, the bird to slay,
That made the breeze to blow!


Surely there is no more dramatic and meaningful moment in life than when you realize that an action you’ve taken – whatever the reason  – is profoundly, morally wrong. Almost always that action is an irreparable transgression, against God, nature, or one’s fellow human beings. Sometimes that action involves the taking of a life. In a chapter in A Sand County Almanac entitled “Thinking Like a Mountain,” the great conservationist Aldo Leopold recounts such a moment in his own life:

We were eating lunch on a high rimrock, at the foot of which a turbulent river elbowed its way. We saw what we thought was a doe fording the torrent, her breast awash in white water. When she climbed the bank toward us and shook out her tail, we realized our error: it was a wolf. A half-dozen others, evidently grown pups, sprang from the willows and all joined in a welcoming melee of wagging tails and playful maulings. What was literally a pile of wolves writhed and tumbled in the center of an open flat at the foot of our rimrock.

In those days we had never heard of passing up a chance to kill a wolf. In a second we were pumping lead into the pack, but with more excitement than accuracy: how to aim a steep downhill shot is always confusing. When our rifles were empty, the old wolf was down, and a pup was dragging a leg into impassable slide-rocks.

We reached the old wolf in time to watch a fierce green fire dying in her eyes. I realized then, and have known ever since, that there was something new to me in those eyes – something known only to her and to the mountain. I was young then, and full of trigger-itch; I thought that because fewer wolves meant more deer, that no wolves would mean hunters’ paradise. But after seeing the green fire die, I sensed that neither the wolf nor the mountain agreed with such a view.

John Lister-Kaye’s sense of wonder at the nesting and migratory habits of birds – indeed, at their very existence – shines throughout in Gods of the Morning.

A willow warbler (Phylloscopus trochilus – the cascading leaf-watcher) is an unexceptional little bird, often our first summer migrant, an arrival announced by the male birds rendering a rippling, descending peal of pure notes tinged with mild complaint, but as pretty as a summer waterfall. It’s a refrain that rings through the spring woods, repeating over and over again, lifting to a brief, pleading crescendo, then slowing as it falls and, diminuendo, fades away at the end. It seems to be calling out, ‘Now that I’ve arrived, what am I going to do?’
Like the blackcap, it resides in that large family of typical warblers that come and go every summer without any fuss, unnoticed except by ornithologs like me and a few thousand binocular-toting others to whom these tiny creatures assume an importance far greater than their size. If they’ve heard of a willow warbler at all, the vast generality of people don’t know that it has just completed a global marathon, back from wintering in southern Africa, a migration of three thousand miles of skimming arid plains, dodging desert sandstorms and leap-frogging seas and mountains, and they probably wouldn’t care much either. ‘All little brown birds are the same to me,’ I’m told, over and over again. But not to me: for me they all carry meaning and I thirst to know more. Sylviidae, the family.

I’m here to tell you, it takes a rapturous devotion like Lister-Kaye’s to keep all this warbler lore straight! But if anyone can do it, he can.

Willow Warbler

Willow warbler

Reading this skilled  and eloquent observer’s descriptions of his almost mystical encounters with avian  species put me in mind of a piece I read some years ago: Loren Eiseley‘s “The Judgment of Birds.” There’s a bit in this essay about a close encounter with a crow that has remained vivid in my imagination:

This crow lives near my house, and though I have never injured him, he takes   good care to stay up in the very highest trees and, in general, to avoid humanity.

His world begins at about the limit of my eyesight.

On the particular morning when this episode occurred, the whole countryside    was buried in one of the thickest fogs in years. The ceiling was absolutely zero. All    planes were grounded, and even a pedestrian could hardly see his outstretched hand before him.

I was groping across a field in the general direction of the railroad station,    following a dimly outlined path. Suddenly out of the fog, at about the level of my   eyes, and so closely that I flinched, there flashed a pair of immense black wings and a huge beak. The whole bird rushed over my head with a frantic cawing outcry of such hideous terror as I have never heard in a crow’s voice before and never expect to hear again.

He was lost and startled, I thought, as I recovered my poise. He ought not to have flown out in this fog. He’d knock his silly brains out.

All afternoon that great awkward cry rang in my head. Merely being lost in a fog   seemed scarcely to account for it—especially in a tough, intelligent old bandit such as I knew that particular crow to be. I even looked once in the mirror to see what it might  be about me that had so revolted him that he had cried out in protest to the very stones.

Finally, as I worked my way homeward along the path, the solution came to me.

It should have been clear before. The borders of our worlds had shifted. It was the fog that had done it. That crow, and I knew him well, never under normal circumstances flew low near men. He had been lost all right, but it was more than that.

He had thought he was high up, and when he encountered me looming gigantically through the fog, he had perceived a ghastly and, to the crow mind, unnatural sight.

He had seen a man walking on air, desecrating the very heart of the crow   kingdom, a harbinger of the most profound evil a crow mind could conceive of—air- walking men. The encounter, he must have thought, had taken place a hundred feet over the roofs.


 At the conclusion of Coleridge’s poem, the mariner offers this moral:

He prayeth well, who loveth well
Both man and bird and beast.
 He prayeth best, who loveth best
All things both great and small;
For the dear God who loveth us,
He made and loveth all.
 A simple, almost simplistic homily – and yet what profundity lies therein! Away up in his Scottish Highland fastness, Sir John Lister-Kaye has been living this creed every day for decades.
Sir John Lister-Kaye

Sir John Lister-Kaye

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Revisiting a Donna Leon novel proves a worthwhile endeavor

November 20, 2015 at 3:00 am (Book clubs, books, Italy, Mystery fiction)

2464531  I’ve been a faithful reader of Donna Leon’s Guido Brunetti series for quite a few years now, so that when I began preparing to lead a discussion of The Girl of His Dreams, I did not expect much in the way of previously unknown facts to emerge in the course of my research. Nevertheless, they did. I’m not speaking of perception altering revelations, but rather of subtle, belated realizations. These cast both the novel and the author in a somewhat different light, for this reader.

I started out with Donna Leon’s life. Now, this is a subject where details are notoriously thin on the ground. In 2010, the blogger at About “Donna Leon” queried, rather peevishly I thought:

There’s no information about her education; when, where, and if she went to college or university, and if so, how far she got before she quit? Her last employer says she wrote on her application that she had been in a doctorate program, had completed all the required coursework but had not submitted a dissertation. But again, no indication of dates or institutions. Why not? What’s so secret about where and when you went to college, and what degree-level you attained?

(There’s more along these lines. The blogger, who gives his name as Ken Kellogg-Smith, seems almost to cherish a sense of personal injury over Leon’s steadfast withholding. He wouldn’t be the only one who feels this way.)

519WObeIicL._SX332_BO1,204,203,200_  There’s a bit more on offer in My Venice and Other Essays, published in 2013.  In this collection, Leon affirms that she was born (in 1942) and raised in Montclair, New Jersey:

“My father read The New York Times, my mother did secretarial work, we had a dog, we had a garden, I had a brother.”

The above is actually a quote from an interview with Tim Heald of The Telegraph in 2009. It’s obvious that Leon wishes this brief statement to be the end of the story. In the essays she dilates somewhat on the subject of mildly eccentric aunts and uncles. She does not seem to harbor a particular animus toward any one of them.

As for her education, Leon states that she did graduate work in Massachusetts, but she doesn’t specify exactly where. In his article, Tim Heald states that she “did a doctorate” in Indiana, her specialty being 18th century novelists. (Again, no specific educational institution is named.) So did she tell him this at the time of the interview? Is what we have here a bit of deliberate misinformation?

I must confess that what I was really hoping to gain from the essays was some disclosure regarding Leon’s personal life. It was a vain hope, however, and I can’t say I was surprised.

[An almost entirely irrelevant aside: I was born in 1944 in West Orange, New Jersey, only a short drive from Montclair, where my grandparents owned and ran a confectioners shop. I like to think that as kids, Donna Leon and I might have been there at the same time, browsing the aisles  for favorite candy – mine was candy dots Candy_Buttons –  and hearing mischievous  boys asking the proprietor – my grandfather – if he had Prince Albert in a can. “You do? Well. let him out!”  11-1-11-rpiper_0035-copy]

What is  fairly certain is that Leon knocked about teaching English in various places – Iran, Saudi Arabia, China – until the 1980s. She then decided it was time to put down roots somewhere. She had close friends who lived in Venice, so that is the place she too chose to live.

Before zeroing in on the books in general and The Girl of His Dreams in particular, I provided some brief information on several relevant aspects of Italian civic structure and society. The Brunetti novels being police procedurals, I reviewed the way in which law enforcement entities function in the country. Then, because Gypsies – or Rom, or Romani people – figure prominently in the narrative, we talked a bit about the origin and present status of this famous but little understood (by me, anyway) ethnic group. Finally, because the parents of Brunetti’s wife Paola are referred to as the Count and Countess, I provided some background as to the history of titled nobility in Italy. (All three subjects are covered in detail in their respective Wikipedia entries.)

Donna Leon’s career as a writer of crime fiction happened almost accidentally – certainly incidentally. Leon, a passionate lover of baroque opera, was chatting backstage with some musicians after a performance. They were engaged in bad mouthing a certain prominent conductor (purportedly Herbert von Karajan). Speculation arose as to how such a person could be cleanly removed from the world stage.  It occurred to Leon, an avid reader of crime fiction, that  this would be a great premise for a murder mystery. Thus, in the pages of Death at La Fenice did Helmut Wellauer come into existence, if only to be quickly dispatched backstage. Commissario Guido Brunetti has proven far more durable.

Mystery novelist Donna Leon continues the long tradition of foreigners writing about Venice. No other city has been so celebrated by its expatriate writers and visitors, from Ruskin’s glittery tributes to Henry James’s hesitant adoration to Thomas Mann’s fatal seduction.

Dr. Toni Sepeda, literature and art history professor and close personal friend of Donna Leon

In The New Republic, Peter Green sums up the Brunetti series this way:

…the audience [Leon] aims at (as she cheerfully admits) is educated, civilized, well-read, morally alert, and intellectually curious: quick to catch allusions or arcane literary jokes, involved in the political and social problems of the modern world, humane and liberal in the best sense of those much-abused terms. She has a weakness for aristocratic virtues. Guido Brunetti himself relaxes with Aeschylus or Marcus Aurelius; his wife Paola not only teaches Henry James (among others) at a Venetian university, but when last seen was re-reading The Ambassadors for the fourth time.

When I first began my re-reading of The Girl of His Dreams, my confidence in my choice for the reading group of this particular title in the series was somewhat shaken. The novel opens with the presence of the entire Brunetti family at the funeral of Guido’s mother. It is a deeply poignant scene.But Leon pulls back from this sadness as Brunetti returns to his official duties. The first of these involves looking into the activities of a non mainstream religious leader who may be scheming to bilk his followers of their money and possessions.

This investigation is not especially compelling and may lull the reader into thinking that this will be a gentle read. Just shy of the midpoint of this short, tightly structured novel, that expectation is shattered.

The body of a young girl is discovered floating in one of the canals. The scene in which she is pulled from the water is harrowing in more ways than one. Vianello, Brunetti’s second in command, does most of the work. Brunetti stands close by ready to grab him. It is pouring down rain.There is a danger that he’ll slip on the seaweed, possibly striking his head on the hard stone or going into the water.

She was small with fair hair that fanned out from her head. Brunetti looked at her face, then back at her feet, and then her hands, and finally he accepted that she was a child.

Vianello struggled to his feet like an old man. Suddenly there was a surge of noise, and then silence and only the sound of the rain hitting the water. They looked up, and there was Foa, the boat floating silently a hair’s breadth from the embankment.

The image of the girl, fair hair fanned out and clothes sopping wet, will haunt Brunetti throughout the novel. His sense of personal anguish over this cruel death will not leave him. At the same time, thoughts of his mother come from to time, but these are of a far more benevolent nature.

In The Girl of His Dreams, the character of Guido Brunetti shines forth in all its vulnerability and humility. One feels that his quest for justice is of the old school. He has no illusions about the possibility of achieving this goal, in Venice or anywhere else on Earth. But the effort must be made, especially on behalf of those who have no one to speak for them. (In the back of my mind I’m hearing Linda Loman’s beseeching cry, echoing down the corridors of time: ” …attention must be paid!”)

In the end the sadness, the ephemeral quality of human life that was so vividly bodied forth at Guido’s mother’s funeral, has reasserted itself. There is one small ray of consolation, though, and it comes from an unexpected source, about which I will say no more  at present.

Paola Brunetti, no shrinking violet when it comes to asserting herself, is deeply appreciative of her husband’s rare and fine qualities. At one point she calls him her shield and her buckler. As strong a woman as she is, she knows how much she depends on him. (The domesticity of  Guido and Paola, with their son and daughter frequently joining them for delicious meals, is one of the major selling points of the series.)

It has been noted that Donna Leon minces no words when she trains her gimlet eye on contemporary Venetian culture (not to mention the scourge of tourists that regularly descend in hordes on the city). You get plenty of this in the above mentioned essay collection. And yet, you’ll have moments like the one in which Guido and Paola are strolling the city at night, and she turns to him and says, “We live in paradise, don’t we?” This moment of supreme savoring occurs in Falling in Love, the latest entry in the series. And in The Girl of His Dreams, Vianello asks if Brunetti if her could even conceive of living somewhere else. He answers, inevitably, in the negative.

(Donna Leon has thus far not allowed her Brunetti novels to be translated into Italian. It’s been alleged that she’s afraid of alienating her friend with her sharp critiques if the city. She claims that it is simply a desire not to be famous where she lives.)

The members of AAUW Readers who attended this discussion were uncommonly perceptive in their comments and observations. I doff my cap to you, ladies – Thanks!

I prepared a reading list for the group. Here it is:


My Venice & Other Essays, by Donna Leon
Brunetti’s Venice, by Toni Sepeda
Brunetti’s Cookbook, by Roberta Paniaro
Venetian Curiosities, by Donna Leon


City of Falling Angels, by John Berendt
A Venetian Tale and Lucia, by Andrea Di Robilant
The Venetians: A New History from Marco Polo to Casanova, by Paul Strathern (not read by me)


Don’t Look Now, by Daphne Du Maurier
The Aspern Papers, by Henry James
Alibi, by Joseph Kanon
The Comfort of Strangers, by Ian McEwan


Aurelio Zen series by Michael Dibdin (set in various locales in Italy)
Marshal Salvatore Guarnaccia series by Magdalen Nabb (set in Florence)
Salvo Montalbano series by Andrea Camilleri (set in Sicily)
The Guido Guerrieri series by Gianrico Carofiglio (set primarily in Bari, in the Apulia region of southern Italy) This author has also written several standalone novels. I was especially impressed by The Silence of the Wave.

The Carnivia Trilogy by Jonathan Holt (I have not read these):
Remember to consult for information about books in a series and for books specifically set in that country.
The Girl of His Dreams is the seventeenth novel in the Guido Brunetti series. There are currently twenty-four Brunetti titles, with the twenty-fifth, The Waters of Eternal Youth, scheduled for publication in March of 2016.

“An American in Venice,” the most recent feature piece I’ve found on Donna Leon, appeared in Publishers Weekly in March. It provided me with a very pleasant surprise; namely, that she and I have a favorite mystery writer in common: Ross MacDonald, creator of the private eye Lew Archer:

“Macdonald’s prose is wonderful, his sentences are sometimes serpentine, sometimes as balanced as anything Alexander Pope wrote,” Leon says. “I also like the way the past always comes along to haunt and destroy the present in his books.”

Like Macdonald, Leon’s evildoers are not psychopathic serial killers or rapists. She, too, delves into the more interesting territory of moral corruption, in all its forms.

Leon adds that Brunetti could be seen as “Lew Archer with a wife.”

I recommend this video interview with Donna Leon:


Many are the cultural riches that Venice has bestowed on us all. I recently created a post illustrating some of the art work that’s featured in The Girl of His Dreams.  Now here is some of the music.

First: Il Complesso Barocco is a performing arts organization that’s dear to Donna Leon’s heart:







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The Baltimore Museum of Art – newly renovated and looking great

November 15, 2015 at 4:14 pm (Art, Friends and friendship, Local interest (Baltimore-Washington))

The Baltimore Museum of Art has just emerged from a multi-year $28 million dollar renovation process.  This august institution – it turned one hundred last year – looks great. More space, more light – and more art on view.

bal-13ae-bma-reinvent-20141114The Merrick Entrance, closed f or over thirty years, has been reopened. It leads directly into the beautiful Fox Court:


Dorothy McIlvain Scott American Wing

Dorothy McIlvain Scott American Wing

Here are some of my favorite works from their collection:

Marguerite Gerard Family Group

Marguerite Gerard Family Group


The Preaching of St. Géry 15th century painter unknown [click to enlarge]

Clearing on the Forest - Narcisse-Virgile Diaz de la Peña

Clearing on the Forest – Narcisse-Virgile Diaz de la Peña


Master of the View of St. Gudule?

Jongkind Moonlight on the Canal

Johan Barthold Jongkind:  Moonlight on the Canal

Jean Pillement: Landscape with Ruin

Jean Pillement: Landscape with Ruin

Henri Rousseau: View from the quai d'ivry

Henri Rousseau: View from the Quai d’Ivry

A bonus on this fine autumn day was the sighting of the Harper Dairy, located at the western edge of the  museum’s grounds. (It is known there as the Spring House.) Robert Goodloe Harper, a lawyer and U.S. senator, was uncle to the Caton sisters, whose lives were so vividly portrayed in Jehanne Wake’s book Sisters of Fortune.

Harper Dairy

Harper Dairy

Another bonus of this visit was the companionship of my dear friend Robbie. We attended Goucher College all those years ago, and we’ve since been know as “the two Robertas.” An art lover like me, Robbie is soon to become a first time grandmother. It could not be happening to a sweeter, better person!

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November 14, 2015 at 9:57 pm (France)

Each day, just before the Central Branch Library opens to the public, a short tune is played over the public address system. I was subbing there this morning, and I was shelving books in the Young Adult area, the PA system came on. The strains of La Marseillaise reached my ears.

I stopped what I was doing and stood still. Tears filled my eyes.

I can think of nothing to add, save this:

Vive La France!


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“He is the really permanent citizen of the earth, for mortals, at best, are but transients.”

November 1, 2015 at 3:51 pm (Art, books, Short stories)

The above quote (on the subject of the ghost) is from The Supernatural in Modern English Fiction by Dorothy Scarborough. It is cited by Michael Newton in his introduction to The Penguin Book of Ghost Stories.

static1.squarespace.comThis recently published anthology of ghost stories is assembled and illustrated by Audrey Niffenegger. In addition to being a writer, Ms Niffenegger is an illustrator and printmaker – a sort of latter day William Blake. In this volume, she has selected fifteen of her favorite tales of the supernatural, plus one  that she herself has penned. It’s entitled “Secret Life, with Cats,” and I found it quite effective.

Endpapers for the book Ghostly

Endpapers, drawn by Audrey Niffienegger for the collection entitled Ghostly [click to enlarge]

You may recall Ms Niffenegger as the author of The Time Traveler’s Wife – which I really have got to read some time; so many people love that book. She also wrote Her Fearful Symmetry, a highly engaging and imaginative novel.

Audrey Niffenegger

Audrey Niffenegger


There are many collections of ghost stories and supernatural tales. There are two that I especially recommend. First, the aforementioned Penguin Book of Ghost Stories.  Penguin Ghost  Published in 2010 and edited by Michael Newton, it contains a wondrous variety of  stories from the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. “The Old Nurse’s Story” by Elizabeth Gaskell; “The Cold Embrace” by Mary Elizabeth Braddon (author of the mesmerizing Lady Audley’s Secret); “No.1 Branch Line:The Signal-man” by Charles Dickens; “Green Tea” by Sheridan Le Fanu; “The Moonlit Road” by Ambrose Bierce – these and more are here included. And there is much added value in this small volume: Newton has constructed a chronology of the ghost story; in addition, there is an extensive list of titles suggested for further reading.

I’m indebted to Michael Newton for introducing me to Catherine Crowe and Dorothy Scarborough,   both authors and literary critics of distinction. Crowe’s Night-Side of Nature (1848) and The Supernatural in Modern English Fiction (1917) by Scarborough are each available in full text on the Internet Archive. The latter title was submitted by Dorothy Scarborough as her doctoral thesis at Columbia. She went on to teach creative writing at that university; Carson McCullers was among her students.

I am rather amazed, and somewhat vexed, that I’ve not previously been aware of the existence of these two highly accomplished women.

Catherine Crowe 1803 - 1876

Catherine Crowe  1803-1876

Dorothy Scarborough

Dorothy Scarborough 1878-1935


If you’re going to buy just one book of this type, I highly recommend Great Tales of Terror and the Supernatural. Edited by Phyllis Cerf Wagner and Herbert Wise, this hefty compendium first came out in 1944 and has remained in print (courtesy of Modern Library) ever since. “Fifty-two stories of heart-stopping suspense” chortles the write-up, and that is most definitely true. The usual suspects are present and accounted for: Poe’s “The Black Cat” (also the lead story in Audrey Niffenegger’s collection); “The Boarded Window” by Ambrose Bierce; “Sredni Vashtar” by Saki; and a particular favorite of mine, “Rappaccini’s Daughter” by Nathaniel Hawthorne. Many others are present for your reading pleasure – though you may be seriously unnerved by certain among them!

Original cover for Great Tales of Terror and the Supernatural

Original cover for Great Tales of Terror and the Supernatural

Current cover. The painting is The Nightmare by Henry Fuseli (1781)

Current cover. The painting is The Nightmare b’y Henry Fuseli (1781)

As the Washington Post’s  Michael Dirda here avers, “These Great Tales of Terror Live Up To their Promise.”

And by the way, Mr. Dirda has given us a wonderful gift for this Halloween season in an article replete with excellent ghostly reading suggestions.

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Visuals relating to The Girl of His Dreams, by Donna Leon

October 25, 2015 at 8:30 pm (Art, Book clubs, books, Italy, Mystery fiction)

Assunzione, Tiziano (Titian) 1515-1518

Assunzione, Tiziano (Titian) 1516-1518   p. 7


Tintoretto, Crucifixion 1565 p.73

Madonna with Child, Giovanni Bellini ca 1485. Stolen - for the third time! - in 1993; present whereabouts unknown p. 9

Madonna with Child, Giovanni Bellini ca 1485.
Stolen – for the third time! – in 1993; present whereabouts unknown p. 9

Gigantic cruise ship dwarfing the surrounding buildings

Gigantic cruise ship dwarfing the surrounding buildings

An interior in Venice, John Singer Sargent, 1899

An interior in Venice, John Singer Sargent, 1899

Palazzo Mocenigo - currently a museum

Palazzo Mocenigo, mentioned on p. 100. It’s now a museum. See Lucia: A Venetian Life in the Age of Napoleon, by Andrea Di Robilant

Palazzo Mocenigo

Palazzo Mocenigo

Palazzo Mocenigo

Palazzo Mocenigo


Donna Leon

These images have been assembled as part of the preparation for a book group discussion. I have also reviewed The Girl of His Dreams in this space.

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Quick and easy ways to get title suggestions (but is this really what some of us need?)

October 25, 2015 at 5:02 pm (books, Mystery fiction, True crime)

We owe businessman Herbert Simon a debt of gratitude for saving Kirkus Reviews – now officially Kirkus Media – from extinction. This invaluable reviewing organ was slated for closure when Mr. Simon purchased it in 2010. Kirkus’s reinvention for the digital era has been most felicitous. I well remember reading the rather dour print version at the library. Still, even then, it was a great source of book reviews.

Now, however, it has gained added value as an online entity. It is eminently searchable. Its starred reviews  are a reliable guide to works that will be worth your while (reliable – not foolproof). Kirkus also offers help for aspiring writers; it has even established a prize award of its own. (Do we actually need another book prize? Oh heck – why not?)

I use Kirkus primarily for its starred mystery reviews. But there’s lots more rich content for book lovers available on its site.

Another terrific media review source is Booklist Magazine, a publication of the American Library Association. While certain of Booklist’s content resides behind a pay wall, reviews for the current year are freely available. I use this source for mystery reviews, and also for reviews of new nonfiction. (Scroll down to below “Find Best Books of 2015” to access this content.) Both Kirkus and Booklist have been used in the past as selection tools for libraries and bookstores. I’m not certain if they still are.

A brief aside regarding nonfiction, where there has been so much interesting writing happening lately that I’ve pretty much fallen hopelessly behind.  I am currently – or I should say, concurrently – reading these titles: Childrensbooks  Gods

41q+ZB-iWkL._SX320_BO1,204,203,200_ 51ODkof-fHL._SX327_BO1,204,203,200_ and finally, I’m about to finish, with great regret: 24642332. Murder by Candlelight is not only a true crime narrative – or rather, a narrative of multiple true crimes – it is a work of philosophy, psychology, and history. True, some of it is hard to read – repugnant, even gruesome – but other parts are rich with a profound insight into the human condition. The erudition displayed by Michael Knox Beran is nothing short of amazing. For instance, it is not every day that a book sends me scurrying to the works of Arthur Schopenhauer:

Arthur Schopenhauer 1788 - 1860

Arthur Schopenhauer 1788 – 1860

Yes, I know, he doesn’t look as though he’d be very scintillating at a dinner party, but he’s actually a deeply fascinating thinker. I have in mind specifically a work entitled The World as Will and Representation. Sound dry as dust? Not the portions quoted in Murder by Candlelight – they’re anything but.

I had not previously heard of Michael Knox Beran, but he will most definitely be getting a fan letter from Yours Truly.

In searching for more historical true crime following my rueful withdrawal from Beran’s book, I stumbled upon a portion of the MWA‘s Edgar site that I’d not seen before. It is a list of submissions from publishers for consideration for next year’s Edgar Awards. These are suggestions, not selections. Those will be announced on or around January 19, Edgar Allan Poe’s birthday. (And Poe Toaster, we beg you to come back this year!)

As you will see, the list of mysteries is already very long. The list of true crime titles – or in MWA parlance “Fact Crime” – is considerably shorter and thus easier to digest.

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Tchaikovsky and more: a concert you won’t want to miss

October 21, 2015 at 10:43 pm (Music)

On October 7, Carnegie Hall opened its 2015-2016 with a concert featuring the New York Philharmonic led by music director Alan Gilbert. The program opened with the world premiere of Vivo, a piece by Finnish composer Magnus Lindberg. (The shade of Sibelius, Lindberg’s countryman, must be rejoicing!) This was followed by Tchaikovsky’s First Piano Concerto and Daphnis and Chloe Suite No. 2 by Maurice Ravel.

Magnus Lindberg

Magnus Lindberg


A marvelous program, to be sure. I’ve long loved the Ravel work, a masterpiece of moody evocation. As for the Tchaikovsky, I hadn’t listened to it – really listened to it – for a long time. He’s one of my favorite composers, but in recent years, I’ve been immersed in the symphonies and orchestral suites, worked I can listen to again and again and be thrilled every time.

For those of us of my generation, the Piano Concerto No. 1 will always stir memories of Van Cliburn’s stunning victory at the 1958 International Piano Competition in Moscow. At the height of the Cold War, a gangly Texan brought the trophy home to the U.S. He was given a ticker tape parade down Broadway, the only classical musician ever to be so honored.



RCA Victor signed him to an exclusive contract, and his subsequent recording of the Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto No. 1 became the first classical album to go platinum. It was the best-selling classical album in the world for more than a decade, eventually going triple-platinum. Cliburn won the 1958 Grammy Award for Best Classical Performance for this recording. In 2004, this recording was re-mastered from the original studio analogue tapes, and released on a Super Audio CD.

[from the Wikipedia entry]


My parents owned this album, as  did many of my friends.

Carnegie Hall is currently celebrating its 125th anniversary. Peter Tchaikovsky himself traveled from Russia to New York City for the opening of the Hall in 1891. Among the works he conducted on that occasion was the Piano Concerto No. 1.

Last Wednesday night, the soloist was Evgeny Kissin. You can judge for yourself how terrific this performance was. I’ve watched it at least four times, and it gives me chills every time. I’ve not been able to get the music out of my head. Intense lyricism and masterful orchestration combine to create a work of transcendent power.

As for Kissin – in the New York Times review, Anthony Tommasini comments:

Mr. Kissin, who turns 44 on Saturday, has been playing Tchaikovsky’s First Concerto since his teens. Yet the hallmark of this performance was the searching curiosity he conveyed throughout. Taking a somewhat spacious tempo in the well-known opening section of the first movement, with its soaring melody and resounding piano chords, Mr. Kissin emphasized its majesty and lyricism. Not surprisingly, this consummate virtuoso effortlessly dispatched the difficulties of the piece — the arm-blurring bursts of octaves, spiraling flights of finger-twisting passagework and more.

“Arm-blurring bursts” indeed – he was a marvel!

I would watch this video sooner rather than later. I’m not sure how long it will be available online in its entirety. If you’re pressed for time, watch the Tchaikovsky, If you’re even more pressed for time, watch the Third and final movement of the concerto.

Follow this link to the video.



Evgeny Kissin and Alan Gilbert, receiving the adulation of the audience



Peter Ilyich Tchakovsky,,1840 – 1893



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“Did ever raven sing so like a lark, / That gives sweet tidings of the sun’s uprise?” Shakespeare, Titus Andronicus

October 18, 2015 at 10:42 pm (books, Nature, Scotland)

Gods  In John Lister-Kaye’s Gods of the Morning, these lines appear above the chapter entitled, “The Gods of High Places” (chapter 8).

Lister-Kaye – i.e. Sir John Philip Lister Lister-Kaye, 8th Baronet OBE – is inordinately fond of crows, rooks, ravens – those avian species subsumed under the genus Corvus. He studies them at Aigas, the Field Study Center in the Scottish Highlands which he founded in 1977. He lives and works there; it is his calling and his life’s work. What a lucky man! (You can read in the Wikipedia entry how he made this “luck” happen.)

There is nothing dull about a raven. As glossy as a midnight puddle, bigger than a buzzard, with a bill like a poleaxe and the eyes of an eagle, its brain is as sharp and quick as a whiplash. Surfing the high mountain winds, ravens tumble with the ease and grace of trapeze artists, and their basso profondo calls are sonorous, rich and resonant, gifting portent to the solemn gods of high places. Ravens surround us at Aigas, and they nest early.

Most of us consider crows a sort of nuisance bird, and anyway too common to be of any great interest. Lister-Kaye gently seeks to disabuse us of that notion.

The advent of wildlife tourism as an economic force, legal protection and a wider conservation understanding has permitted raven numbers to increase and the birds to nest at least in some areas, unmolested. They are now part of our daily lives. I listen out for the guttural ‘cronk, cronk’ as they pass overhead every day. If a solitary black bird rows into view (rooks are almost never solitary), I stop what I’m doing to look for the wedge-shaped tail or to get the measure of its bulk to distinguish it from carrion or hooded crows. As the years have flicked by, their daily appearance here, their criss-crossing of the glen from high moor to hill, has become predictable, a reassuring norm, something we note with pleasure, and a characterful addition to our resident avifauna.

Confident of that interest, as a chunky silhouette crosses or that unmistakable plunking call reverberates from the woods, I don’t hesitate to point and call to my friends and field centre colleagues, ‘Ha! Raven!’, yet I find myself still wary of my audience. Those farmers and crofters aplenty who charge ravens with killing lambs and many, not just old-school, gamekeepers are quick to condemn all crows, but especially hoodies and ravens, and will still do their utmost to kill them. ‘The croaking raven doth bellow for revenge.’ (Hamlet, Act III, scene ii.)

As you’ve already no doubt noted, Shakespeare makes frequent mention of the raven. My favorite instance of this occurs in MacBeth, when Lady MacBeth gives vent to her ghoulish pleasure at Duncan’s arrival:

The raven himself is hoarse
That croaks the fatal entrance of Duncan
Under my battlements.
As a chill-inducing harbinger of “insidious intent,” these lines have few equals in literature.
Ravens play a significant role in various mythologies, especially those of Celtic origin. I think for many of us, though, the image of the raven summons up remembrance of the famous poem by Edgar Allan Poe.  It turns out that when you do a Google image search for “Raven Poe,” you come up with some rather memorable visuals. Here are a few:
by Gustave Dore

by Gustave Dore



I’ll close with a photo taken by my son Ben Davis at Jackson Hole, Wyoming, a nature lover’s paradise that probably has some aspects in common with the Aigas Field Centre.


[Click to enlarge]

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With A Possibility of Violence, the certainty of a great discussion (accompanied by some brief detective digressions)

October 15, 2015 at 9:33 pm (Book clubs, books, Judaism, Mystery fiction)

51XUDiRAXqL._SX330_BO1,204,203,200_  On Tuesday, the Usual Suspects enjoyed an exceptionally bracing discussion. D.A. Mishani’s A Possibility of Violence lent itself to analysis on many levels. In fact, the very issue of its Israeli setting and Hebrew language authorship got us going in a variety of different directions.

This title being Pauline’s choice, she gave us some very interesting background on contemporary Israel in general and the Israeli police in particular. It seems that until recently this force was given scant respect by the public. This was partly due to the fact that a majority of its members are drawn from the Sephardic or the Mizrachi communities. This prompted a need for clarification of those terms, along with the term Ashkenazi, for those who were not familiar with them. (Useful elucidation can be found on the site My Jewish Learning.)

Dror Mishani was working on a doctoral dissertation at Cambridge when he met his wife, who was teaching there. Somehow the dissertation never got written. But The Missing File, first entry in the Inspector Avraham Avraham series, did. (Our book, A Possibility of Violence, is second.) Both titles have been well received by critics and readers alike – with good reason, most (but not all) of us thought. Mishani, a lifelong lover of crime fiction, is on the Humanities faculty of the University of Tel Aviv.

In this interview with Lidia Jean Kott of NPR, Mishani explains among other points why there’s such a paucity of Israeli mystery writers.

Our discussion was so lively and wide ranging, it took some doing to get us focused on the novel. Pauline had prepared discussion questions for us. With one of them, we were asked whether A Possibility of Violence was more plot driven or character driven? Or was it both? I can’t recall what was concluded by the group, but for myself, I believe it was both, and that was one of the novel’s primary strengths.

The story begins with the discovery of an unattended suitcase left outside a day care facility. A man named Chaim Sara has a son enrolled there. In addition, he has an older  son in grammar school. There is a mystery about the Sara family: the children’s mother, Chaim’s wife Jenny, a Philippine national, is not living with them. Chaim claims that she has gone back to her native country to attend to her sick father. But something about his story does not ring true.

An aside at this point: people had difficulty pronouncing the name ‘Chaim.’ The guttural sound at the beginning was the main problem. There is no equivalent for it in English. Later, I recalled that in the past, that sound was rendered as the letter ‘h,’ rather than ‘ch.’ I was also thinking that if the speaker has any familiarity with the French, German, or Russian languages, he or she has a better chance of being able to produce that guttural.

At any rate, here’s a little YouTube snippet to help out:

(He sounds rather tragic, don’t you think?)

The depiction of Chaim Sara, we agreed, is one of this novel’s most impressive achievements. One cannot help but care about him and feel anxiety about his fate. At the same time, the reader yearns to penetrate his secret. And all this time, his fierce devotion to his sons is bodied forth as the most basic aspect of his existence.

This fact makes it all the vexing that Avi – Avraham Avraham – catches hold of the wrong end of the stick where Chaim is concerned and simply won’t let go until he’s forced to. But there’s a reason for this, and it has to do with a previous case as set forth in The Missing File, the first book in the series. It’s a reason, but it does not excuse Avi’s wrongheadedness. Some in the group understandably disliked him for it and douted his abilities as a detective. We did agree that he is made in the mold of the doubting policeman, who lacks complete confidence in himself. In addition, he is deeply anxious concerning an uncertain element in his personal life: his love for Marianka, a police detective in Belgium. Will this relationship achieve the fruition he so earnestly desires?

This is one of my favorite from among Pauline’s excellent discussion questions: “Is it more satisfying to read about such a flawed investigator or do you prefer  a more competent detective such as Montalbano, Brunetti, Maigret, Poirot, etc.?” She then adds: “None of these examples seems to suffer from self-doubt.”

David Suchet as Hercule Poirot

David Suchet as Hercule Poirot

Michael Gambon as Inspector Maigret

Michael Gambon as Inspector Maigret

Uwe Kockisch as Commissario Guido Brunetti

Uwe Kockisch as Commissario Guido Brunetti

Luca Zingaretti as Commissario Salvo Montalbano

Luca Zingaretti as Commissario Salvo Montalbano

George Baker as Chief Inspector Wexford, with DI Mike Burden (Christopher Ravenscroft)

George Baker as Chief Inspector Wexford, with DI Mike Burden (Christopher Ravenscroft)

That was enjoyable concept to kick around for a while! (I couldn’t help suggesting that Reg Wexford be added to the list.) A post I did in 2007 entitled The fictional British policeman, in all his (or her) vulnerable glory may be of interest in this context.

Upon second thought, I think there’s something of a continuum here. At one end of the spectrum, the Crown Prince of Rectitude has got to be Hercule Poirot. Here is but one instance of many, from Cards on the Table:

Hercule Poirot: The question is, can Hercule Poirot possibly by wrong?
Mrs. Lorrimer: No one can always be right.
Hercule Poirot: But I am! Always I am right. It is so invariable it startles me. And now it looks very much as though I may be wrong, and that upsets me. But I should not be upset, because I am right. I must be right because I am never wrong.

Maigret does proceed with a slow and quiet assurance that rarely admits of a major gaffe. Brunetti and Wexford, I think, are somewhat more tentative in their intuitions and actions. All three possess the distinct advantage of having supportive and empathetic spouses. (I’m not sufficiently well read in the Montalbano books to comment one way or the other.)

Well, this is a bit of a digression, but the discussion itself was filled with them. (At one point, Frances spoke of the pleasure she derives from these “beside the point” yet provocative meanderings.)

In an interview in Krimi-Couch, an online German mystery magazine, Mishani states:

I’m not trying to write a page-turner, I’m trying to write literature, using the detective genre. So for me, a literary crime novel is a novel about crime, but not only about crime (it is also about society, about language, about literature, about the genre itself etc …)

Pauline shared this quote with us, and then asked us to comment on whether we thought Mishani had achieved this goal in A Possibility of Violence. Naturally the question arose as to what criteria we would apply in this instance. How was the quality of the writing and, by implication, the translation? Were larger themes bodied forth in the narrative? Did the author manage to advance the story according to the maxim, Show, Don’t Tell? Were the motivations of the main characters credible? Was the psychology of the main characters set forth in a believable way? Did  the logistics of the plot make sense?

I’m not sure whether we reached a consensus. Some of us had been hoping  that more of the sights and sounds of Israel would be featured in the book. On the other hand, the writing was generally praised. It was felt by most, if not quite all of us, that  the characters were consistent, believable, and – most important – interesting. Frank was especially impressed by how Mishani generated suspense consistently throughout the novel. He did this through the characters’ distinct personalities, particularly that of Chaim Sara. (Of late, Frank’s writerly perspective has added greatly to our discussions.)

Pauline provided us with the names of some other authors who take as their subject Israel or Palestine. (There are others, but they’ve not yet been translated into English):

Batya Gur
Jon Land
Matt Beynon Rees
Robert Rosenberg
Liad Shoham

Before the meeting, she had sent us a link to an article called Reading Israel. Also, it turns out that the Washington DC Jewish Community Center is hosting a Jewish Literary Festival from the 18th to the 28th. Some of the participating writers are David Bezmozgis, Etgar Keret, Laura Vapnyar, and Michael Pollan.

Pauline has a friend who has met Dror Mishani. She asked her friend to e-mail him and ask when his next Avraham Avraham novel will be available for English speakers to read. He responded that it should be out in a few months and that he’s currently reviewing the translation. The book’s title is The Man Who Wanted To Know. As for us, we’re the book group that wants to know! I think most of us plan to read it when it becomes available.

Pauline’s friend also found out that Mishani is currently in the U.S. teaching at the University of Massachusetts until January, at which time he will probably be relieved to be departing New England’s notorious winter for the warmer climes of the Middle East. He expressed himself happy and willing to talk to our group if we’re close by. Louise immediately suggested a field trip!

We agreed that this series would be great for television. We’ve now got detectives from Sweden, Italy, France, and doubtless other countries on the small screen. Come on, Israel! This could be your moment.

I have no doubt that I’ve omitted plenty and possibly made some errors. Therefore: corrections, questions, comments, and clarifications are all welcome, either here on WordPress or via Facebook.

Dror Mishani

Dror Mishani

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