March 30, 2020 at 1:09 pm (Ballet, opera, Russophilia)

Why do we need the arts to survive? Just look at this video of the Bolshoi. From Russia – land of my ancestors! – with love:

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The Lure of Ancient Egypt

March 28, 2020 at 4:50 pm (Art, Egypt, History)

I am most fortunate to own this book: The author, John Boardman, boasts a most impressive CV. From the publisher Thames & Hudson:

Sir John Boardman was born in 1927, and educated at Chigwell School and Magdalene College, Cambridge. He spent several years in Greece, three of them as Assistant Director of the British School of Archaeology at Athens, and he has excavated in Smyrna, Crete, Chios and Libya. For four years he was an Assistant Keeper in the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford, and he subsequently became Reader in Classical Archaeology and Fellow of Merton College, Oxford. He is now Lincoln Professor Emeritus of Classical Archaeology and Art in Oxford, and a Fellow of the British Academy, from whom he received the Kenyon Medal in 1995. He was awarded the Onassis Prize for Humanities in 2009. Professor Boardman has written widely on the art and archaeology of Ancient Greece.

You can see and hear Sir John Boardman talking about his life’s work here.

Professor Boardman’s graceful prose is redolent of times past:

The civilization and arts of Egypt have revealed themselves to the rest of the world in dramatic ways. In antiquity Greeks, then Romans, were attracted to Egypt’s obviously extreme antiquity and the exoticism of its arts….Biblical associations and the longevity of its styles of art and writing seemed to mark it out as something exceptional in the history of man….

Sporadically, the country divided politically into North and South. Overall, however, there was undisturbed unity of culture, language, and art which must have contributed to the fact that the highly distinctive idiom for the arts which had been developed in Egypt by the third millennium BC lasted with very little basic change in appearance, styles, subjects and techniques, for more than three thousand years….

Egyptian art is overwhelming in its stylistic idiosyncrasy, its at-first-sight unlikeness even to the various other arts of the urban world with which it made contact. In this must lie much of its unceasing appeal to modern eyes.

There is, of course, so much more in this section, where Sir John’s erudition shines forth in a way that is never pedantic but invariably engaging.

Rahotep and Nofret

Rahotep ruled during ancient Egypt’s Fourth Dynasty.   These statues of Prince and his wife Nofret were discovered deep inside their mastaba in 1871, by Albert Daninos an assistant to the French archaeologist Auguste Mariette.

These statues are in such superb condition due to  the fact that they had not seen the light of day for several millennia. Particularly striking are the  eyes, which were crafted chiefly of rock crystal:

Indeed, so lifelike were they that when the workman shone their lights upon them, they thought they were in the presence of living beings. Terrified, they fled the premises.


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Music, for lifting the spirit

March 26, 2020 at 7:09 pm (Music)

Two sisters sing the Barcarolle from Tales of Hoffmann by Jacques Offenbach:

This has long been one of my favorite YouTube videos. In case you’re wondering, this entire opera is filled with gorgeous melodies. The Barcarolle may be the most beautiful; it is the most famous, at any rate.

The Pie Jesu from Gabriel Faure’s Requiem. This is one of the most consoling, transcendent musical works that I know. The beloved Pie Jesu  is sung here by the Norwegian boy soprano Aksel Rykkvin. (Due to the fact that time marches on, Aksel is currently performing as a baritone.)


This was a real find: Avinu Malkeinu, performed by the cantors of the Park Avenue Synagogue in New York City:

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The Case of the Cascading Crime Novels!

March 25, 2020 at 1:42 am (Book review, books, Mystery fiction)

The above are all titles I’ve read fairly recently and not written about in this space. Therefore, these will be capsule reviews of varying length.

Fact is, I’ve had trouble concentrating of late. (Can’t imagine why.) And when that happens to me, I turn to Inspector Maigret. He rarely lets me down, and he didn’t this time. Below is a list of characters that appear in this series entry, as enumerated on the back of the book:

A mysterious note predicting the murder of a fortune-teller; a confused old man locked in a Paris apartment; a financier who goes fishing; a South American heiress…

A bizarre cast of characters, n’est-ce pas? And yet here is Maigret, stolid and persistent and aided mainly by the trusty Lucas, committed to solving a most perplexing murder case.

Signed, Picpus came out in 1944. It amazes me how little these novels seem to date, with the passage of years. The edition pictured above is part of Penguin’s project of issuing new translations of all the Maigret titles. This one was published in 2015 and translated by David Coward. I was somewhat surprised that the text was rendered in the present tense; once I got used to it, though, it read as smoothly as the books in this series usually do.

I’ve written much about Simenon; he is one of my favorite writers. As a human being, he was both fascinating and appalling.  But never boring.

My favorite actor in the role of Maigret is Michael Gambon.


Wolf Pack by C.J. Box is the nineteenth novel in the Joe Pickett series. (There is also a story collection entitled Shots Fired.) The Bitterroots is fourth in the Cassie Dewell series. Cassie is a sheriff’s investigator in Montana, while Joe Pickett is a game warden in Wyoming. I enjoyed both books, though I’d give Wolf Pack a slight edge.

I’ve become a big fan of C.J. Box; I look forward to reading Long Range, the 20th Joe Pickett  novel.

C.J. Box


E.C.R. Lorac‘s Murder in the Mill-Race is one of the more captivating classics I’ve read in recent years. Written in 1952, it has the flavor of a classic English village mystery but with fully developed characters and an involving plot. Plus the writing is lovely:

He snatched his coat and hurried out of the house, across the garden, through the gate in the yew hedge and across the dewy lawns of the Manor, taking the short cut to the steep path down through the park. All around him thrushes and blackbirds were calling from the tree tops, and chaffinches and bullfinches poured out their clear liquid song: the air was fragrant with the sweetness of midsummer, fragrance of pinks and roses in the garden, hay and meadow flowers in the park. Fat white lambs rushed to mother ewes as Ferens made his way down the steep path, the world vivid and vibrant with life and sunshine.


Trouble Is What I Do features Leonid McGill, a private investigator in New York City. For a relatively short novel, it contained a myriad of characters and a byzantine plot. Nevertheless, some of the McGill’s sly observations on human nature made me smile. He seems to have performed innumerable favors for both shady characters and those in law enforcement, and he is continually calling in his markers.

This is the sixth novel in the Leonid McGill series, which is, I think, less familiar to readers than the series featuring Easy Rawlins. In the past, I’ve had trouble getting into Walter Mosley’s books, but this one was fun.

Walter Mosley


The Peter Robinson was a bit of a disappointment. I guess lately I’ve been looking for mysteries that have a unique or interesting sideline. The plot of Many Rivers To Cross felt labored, as if the author were thinking, ‘I’d better come up with something and soon!’ As always, I liked hanging out with Alan Banks and his fellow officers, but that wasn’t enough to make this one a major winner, for me.


I recently wrote a positive review of An Honorable Man by Paul Vidich.   In fact, I was so impressed by that book that I wanted to read the next one right away. So : The Good Assassin is set in Cuba just prior to Castro’s takeover. (I remember this time well. I was in high school in Miami Beach, Florida at the time, and there was a sudden influx of Spanish-speaking students, some with very limited English, others who were nearly fluent.) The atmosphere of the place is vividly evoked in this novel; however, the plotting was not as tight as in An Honorable Man, so I didn’t feel as though it quite measured up to Vidich’s first outing with his series protagonist George Muller. Nevertheless, I look forward to reading Vidich’s latest, a nonseries title called The Coldest Warrior. It has been called “A worthwhile thriller and a valuable exposé” by finicky Kirkus Reviews


A note on the obtaining of reading material during the pandemic: I’ve been downloading from Amazon at a completely reckless rate. Except when I am traveling – when one could do such a daring thing – e-book reading is not my first choice; I usually borrow hardbacks from the library. However, that august institution is shuttered for the time being. I am trying very hard to acquire as few hard copy titles as possible. Ergo, all the downloading.

Sigh…This too shall pass. For some reason, I keep thinking of the line from Othello:

Keep up your bright swords, for the dew will rust them.









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Peregrinations and ruminations, for sustenance in tough times

March 19, 2020 at 3:01 pm (Art, Music, Nature)

Two days ago, a walk around the neighborhood was most salutary. While I didn’t take these pictures, I did see these flowers!










But then you go inside and the same grim news awaits you… Or, rather, more and different grim news. But no, mustn’t dwell on it. Instead, be grateful for what we still have to sustain us:

Great books, like this one:

I just finished it, and I loved it. Patrice “Pixie” Paranteau is a character I will cherish going forward. It’s been a long time since I fell so completely in love with a character in a novel as I did this time.

I continue to enjoy the Darko Dawson series by Kwei Quartey. Dark is a many-sided, fully three dimensional creation. I cherish him also, as well as his world in Ghana.

Kwei Quartey and Louise Erdrich have both created worlds for me to lose myself in. Much needed at this time. I am deeply grateful to both these gifted authors.

I am always finding new paintings that amaze me. I mean, look at this!

Scenes from the Passion of Christ by Hana Memling, ca1470

My post of March 12 featured this work by Annibale Carracci:


Boy Drinking – a show piece for Carracci’s technical expertise –  resided at the Christ Church Picture Gallery at Oxford University until approximately 11 PM on Monday, March 16. That is  the estimated time at which it was stolen, along with two other priceless paintings, one by Salvator Rosa and another by Van Dyck. Click here  for more on this theft.

Let’s hope for a speedy recovery of these priceless works of art.

As if the world doesn’t have enough to worry about right now, I know…

Finally, there is always music, as with this gorgeous Stabat Mater by Domenico Scarlatti, whose sonatas I recall playing on the piano many years ago. (The visual, this achingly poignant Pieta, is by, once again, Annibale Carracci.)

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“….one feels a power seething inside one, one has a task to do and it must be done.”

March 15, 2020 at 4:55 pm (Art, Book review, books, France)

  Vincent Van Gogh was born on March 30, 1853, in Zundert, Netherlands. Having lived variously in the Netherlands and Belgium, he went to Paris to live with his brother Theo, an art dealer, in 1886. Despite the brothers’ deep love for each other, there were conflicts. Van Gogh was always painting and drawing; he soon developed the idea that living in the south of France would would be beneficial to his life and his art. And so, in 1888, to Arles, and the yellow house.

The Yellow House, 1888

While in Arles, Van Gogh’s health, both mental and physical, rapidly deteriorated. Yet as an artist, this was one of his most prolific and fruitful periods. He had had an idea of creating a sort of colony artists, and Paul Gauguin did in fact join him there for a time. It is hard to imagine two more volatile personalities cohabiting in the same small space. After 63 days had passed, Gauguin left Van Gogh, the yellow house, and the south of France forever. (The Yellow House by Martin Gayford describes this turbulent period in fascinating detail.)

Meanwhile, Van Gogh was experience increasing periods of instability and breakdown. He left the south of France in 1890 and went to live in Auvers-sur-Oise, a suburb of Paris. In this way he could be close to Dr. Paul Gachet, who was himself an aspiring artist as well as a physician.

Portrait of Dr. Gachet, 1890

This was to be the last port of call for the tormented spirit of Vincent Van Gogh. In July, he was found in his room with a gunshot wound to the chest. He survived for some thirty hours. No surgeon was available, so the bullet could not  be removed. At any event, a fatal infection soon set in. At the time of his death on 29 July 1890, Van Gogh, his stunning genius largely unrecognized by the art world, was 37 years old.

(In recent years, a controversy has arisen as to whether Van Gogh actually shot himself, or whether some other person was responsible. For more on this, click here.)

This quick summation leaves out a great deal. For instance, there is a period when Van Gogh was living in The Hague – 1882 to 1883. He took in a prostitute named Clasina Maria “Sien” Hoornik. Sien, pregnant at this time, served as an occasional model for Van Gogh.

Sien, who already had a five-year-old daughter, gave birth to a boy in July of 1882. Vincent cared for Sien; he loved her children even more and was especially taken by little Willem:

A baby, for Vincent, was simply “the best thing”— life’s first fresh bud, irresistibly calling for the consolation that makes us human, a primary reality of a kind he himself was fated never to produce.

Julian Bell wrote A Power Seething some four years after the publication of the mammoth tome – 976 pages – by Stephen Naifeh and Gregory White Smith.  In his introduction, Bell explains:

I have written this book out of my love for Vincent van Gogh, the letter writer of heart-piercing eloquence. Researching it, I have gotten to know something of Vincent the social animal, the misfit tearing a ragged course through the late nineteenth-century Netherlands and France.

I deeply appreciate that Bell declares his love so boldly and without apology. He wields an even hand in the telling of this story, but his devotion to his subject nonetheless shines through. By the time you finish this (comparatively slender) volume, you may very well feel the same. I did, but I was most of the way there already.

In July of 2018, my friend Jean and I had the pleasure of attending a presentation at the Smithsonian entitled “Van Gogh and the Painters of the Petit Boulevard.” I created a post on the subject; it features two guest appearances by my granddaughter.

There exists a lovely book on this subject.   I also recommend this edition of Van Gogh’s wonderful letters. It contains visuals of those letters, in addition to some of his most memorable art.

Van Gogh is well represented on You Tube. I especially recommend The Painting Life of Vincent van Gogh. It’s sort of a travelogue, social history, and artist biography rolled into one. Also it has an exceptional soundtrack.

Vincent and his brother Theo were very close. Theo almost singlehandedly kept Vincent afloat, both financially and artistically. It’s often said that Vincent sold only one painting in his lifetime. He might have sold more, had he not given his art away so freely and so generously. Theo was  shattered by Vincent’s death. In frail health himself, he died six months later at age 33.

Theo van Gogh

Johanna ‘Jo’ van Gogh-Bonger (1862-1925) was Theo’s wife. In 1890, she gave birth to a son, whom they named Vincent Willem. Jo was instrumental in assuring that Vincent’s fame was established and continued to grow in the art world.

Julian Bell, writer and painter, comes by his gifts naturally; his father, Quentin Bell, likewise practiced these professions. His father, in turn, was the art critic and theorist Clive Bell, who was the husband of painter Vanessa Bell, who was the sister of Virginia Woolf.   (The Bells and Virginia and Leonard Woolf comprised the nucleus of what famously became the Bloomsbury Group.)


The Handover, by Julian Bell

The Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam has a section for questions and answers. Someone asked if there were any descendants of the van Gogh family still living. The site features a gracious response from Willem van Gogh.


A Van Gogh gallery

Bedroom in Arles, 1888


The Night Cafe, 1888


Red Vineyards, 1888

Courtyard of the Hospital at Arles, 1889


The Church in Auvers-sur-Oise, 1890

The Starry Night, 1889. One of the first paintings I ever came to know and love. My mother took me to the Museum of Modern Art in New York City. I was eight years old. We went upstairs; she sent me in ahead of her. I just stared and stared, not moving.


Starry Night over the Rhone, 1889

We all end our lives with a deficit, van Gogh once told Theo, “yet, yet, one feels a power seething inside one, one has a task to do and it must  be done.”


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What I was supposed to be doing, what I actually did

March 12, 2020 at 12:35 am (Art, History)

Today I was scheduled to attend two sessions of my Lifelong Learning classes. First (AM):

The Epic of Gilgamesh!

Possible representation of Gilgamesh as Master of Animals [Wikipedia]

I’ve been enjoying the study of this ancient text. For three weeks now, I’ve been wandering around the house declaiming “Gilgamesh!!” ” Enkidu!!” “Utnapishtim!!” and my personal favorite, “Lugalbanda!!” (with Ron gamely trying to replicate my occasionally flawed pronunciation).

Our lecturer has a doctorate in languages of the ancient Near East. He is amazing! (And no, this is not him; I just  thought it was pretty cool):



In the afternoon, Rembrandt/Velasquez – a delicious immersion in the greatest of the old masters.


Thus far, our lecturer has introduced us to Annibale Carracci:

Annibale Carracci Boy Drinking, 1582-1583

Self-portrait, 1590-1600

and the Caravaggisti, so-called followers of Caravaggio, who were mostly active in the late 1500s to the early 1600s:

Mars Chastising Cupid, by Bartolomeo Manfredi (1582-1622)

Christ Amongst the Doctors, by Orazio Borgianni (1574-1616)

Madonna and Child with Saint Anne and an Angel, by Carlo Saraceni, c.1608-1610


Alas!! Classes were canceled today, due to  the corona virus outbreak. So instead of hearing about the fascinating history of Mesopotamia in which Gilgamesh is embedded, and seeing the gorgeous slides of the Old Masters, I found myself at the local CVS, beseeching the saleslady.

This excursion, at least, was a success. Behold: a 32 fl. oz. container of CVS brand hand sanitizer (photographed beside  a 16 fl. oz bottle of Snapple to establish scale):

I waited in line for about fifteen minutes. This was the only size available, and they were allowing only one container per customer. Still, I felt lucky to get it at all.

Hopefully, this will end soon, and I pray that the sick and vulnerable will be spared.

Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.

To conclude on a more upbeat note, here are two flash mob videos for you to enjoy. The first one I just discovered today; the second is one of my all time favorites.


This flash mob was staged in a shopping mall in The Netherlands; the occasion was the reopening of Amsterdam’s celebrated Rijksmuseum in 2013, after a renovation that went substantially over budget and took ten years to complete instead of the projected five.

‘Onze helden zijn terug’ translates into English as “Our heroes are back.’




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The Pleasures of Paired Reading, Revisited

March 7, 2020 at 2:50 pm (Book review, books)

I last wrote about what I call “paired reading” in relation to a presentation in which I participated several years ago. When searching for a theme for a new book-related program, I decided to revisited the concept in an updated form.

First of all: what do I mean by paired reading? In recent years, I have found myself reading in sequence books that are linked by some kind of commonality. This commonality could occur in regard to characters, plot elements, setting, or any number of other factors. Most often this happens when I read a work of historical fiction. I would then find myself wanting to know more about the time and place that formed the context of the novel. (The reverse occasionally happens if I am reading a work of history or especially, of biography.)

This then is the latest iteration of the list:


Courting Mr. Lincoln by Louis Bayard, paired with Your Friend Forever, A. Lincoln, by Charles Strozier

The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher: A Shocking Murder and  the Undoing of a Great Victorian Detective by Kate Summerscale and Lady Audley’s Secret by Mary Elizabeth Braddon, the latter being amazingly readable for a novel that came out in 1862 – I couldn’t put it down!

The Portrait of a Lady by Henry James and Portrait of a Novel: Henry James and the Making of an American Masterpiece, by Michael Gorra

The Turn of the Key by Ruth Ware and The Turn of the Screw by Henry James

Out of the Black Land by Kerry Greenwood, paired with Temples, Tombs, & Hieroglyphs: A Popular History of  Ancient  Egypt by Barbara Mertz

Crocodile on a Sandbank by Elizabeth Peters, paired with Amelia Peabody’s Egypt: A Compendium, edited by Elizabeth Peters and Kristen Whitbread

The Lady in the Tower: The Fall of Anne Boleyn by Alison Weir, paired with Bring Up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel

A Mysterious Something in the Light: The Life of Raymond Chandler, by Tom Williams, paired with The Big Sleep or Farewell, My Lovely – or one of the marvelous short stories (e.g. “Red Wind”)

Murder As a Fine Art, by David Morrell, paired with ‘On Murder Considered As One of the Fine Arts’ by Thomas De Quincey

Give Me Everything You Have: On Being Stalked by James Lasdun, paired with Enduring Love by Ian McEwan

The Long Exile: A Tale of Inuit Betrayal and Survival in the High Arctic by Melanie McGrath, paired with White Heat by M.J. McGrath

  This past January, I led a discussion of Courting Mr. Lincoln for a book discussion group. This necessitated my reading the book a second time, thus reaffirming my initial belief that this novel is an outstanding example of the art of historical fiction. Louis Bayard combines vivid characters an equally vivid sense of place; add to that his trademark wit, and you have a truly memorable reading experience.

Here we have Joshua Speed trying to instruct Abraham Lincoln in the fine art of ballroom dancing:

“All right,’ said Joshua. Try it with me. Until you find your way.”
“We’ll regret this,” Lincoln said.
“Now you are the lead, so you will just…you will hook your right hand round my back. Like that. Now I will rest my hand…lightly…here.
“This will end badly.”
“Be quiet. Now…raise your elbows. Shoulder height, that’s it. And back straight. And knees…well, you can bend the knees a little.”
“Like this?”
“Well, no, not like you’re praying.”
“I am praying.”

Charles Strozier‘s book covers the same territory as Bayard’s. Neither author shies away from the issue of the true nature of the Speed/Lincoln relationship.

In an article in Paris Review last year, Bayard makes the following assertion:

If I was going to go there, if I was going to plant my rainbow flag on the Great Emancipator’s grave, I would have to account for my private agenda.

Bayard concludes thus:

The book I ended up writing, Courting Mr. Lincoln, takes no definitive stand on its subject’s sexuality, but neither does it shy away from the question. It lives in the land of the spoken and unspoken, which is the realm where Lincoln himself almost certainly dwelt. When all is said and done, do I need Abraham Lincoln to be gay? No. I just need him to be something more complicated than he’s been allowed to be. I would argue we all need that.

Louis Bayard

(Sharon reminded us that there is a mystery series featuring Lincoln and Speed, written by Jonathan F. Putnam.)

  The Suspicions of Mr Whicher remains one of the best true crime narratives I’ve ever read, one that I think is destined to become a classic of its kind. It has been made into a film and distributed by Britain’s ITV. the full title is The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher: The Murder st Road Hill House.


I called the next part ‘the Henry James section.’ To begin with, revisiting Portrait of a Lady, which I first read many years ago, and then following it with Michael Gorra’s beautifully written and insightful exegesis, remains one of the most satisfying intellectual experiences of my adult life. As for Turn of the Key, it was a good thriller, and author Ruth Ware certainly did not disguise her debt to Turn of the Screw.

But Turn of the Screw itself is, for me, one of the most mesmerizing novels ever written. I’ve read it several times, listened to the audiobook, watched the movie, watched the opera – and I am still not sure exactly what precipitated the disaster at Bly. Of course, Henry James does not want you to be certain about this – ever.

Henry James

M. Slaughter attributes the following observation to critic Edmund Wilson:

“James’s personal and authorial blind spot was sex, and his inability to confront, perhaps even to understand, sexual feelings, was transformed into the ambiguity of the governess.”

The film version of this novel that I invariably turn to is the 1961 production entitled The Innocents and starring Deborah Kerr as the ill-fated governess Miss Giddens. Below is a particularly unforgettable scene. Watch what happens to Deborah Kerr’s face at 1:48.


  I called the next section ‘the Egyptian part.’ Of course, at present I am enraptured by the Art in Egypt course I’m taking at the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute. So I was more than happy to spotlight these Egypt themed books. Three out of four of them were by Barbara Mertz, a PhD Egyptologist and author of the much-loved Amelia Peabody mystery series. Dr. Mertz also wrote romantic suspense undeer the name Barbara Michaels.) Mertz lived in Frederick, not far from here, and not long after I came to work at the library, she came to present a program for us. (She was introduced by Marge, my colleague and close friend.)

Barbara Mertz 1927-2013

  Out of the Black Land is a stunning work of historical fiction, set during the reign of the heretic king, Akhenaten. (Kerry Greenwood is also the author of the Miss Fisher murder mysteries.) I can’t resist featuring once again this mesmerizing recreation of the workers of the village Deir-el-medina. This as well as several other films and objects were on view at the National Geographic’s Queens of Egypt exhibit last year.

And here is the trailer for Philip Glass’s opera, Akhnaten:


Quite a few of us have been waiting impatiently for the third installment of Hillary Mantel’s Wolf Hall trilogy. It has now arrived – official publication date is Tuesday of next week. The title is The Mirror & the Light. It’s already on order at the local library.


Wolf Hall is an amazing work. It brings the era of Henry VIII to life like nothing else I’ve ever read. This is one of my favorite passages from the novel:

He remembers one night in summer when the footballers had stood silent, looking up. It was dusk. The note from a single recorder wavered in the air, thin and piercing. A blackbird picked up the note, and sang from a bush by the water gate. A boatman whistled back from the river.

I get goose bumps reading that.

Meanwhile, the second installment, Bring Up the Bodies, presented such a vivid picture of Anne Boleyn, I felt I had to know more. Alison Weir, veteran author of numerous extremely readable novels and nonfiction works, more than filled that yearning on my part with The Lady in the Tower.

I read two selections from Raymond Chandler. This, from The Big Sleep:

What did it matter where you lay once you were dead? In a dirty sump or in a marble tower on top of a high hill? You were dead, you were sleeping the big sleep, you were not bothered by things like that. Oil and water were the same as wind and air to you. You just slept the big sleep, not caring about the nastiness of how you died or where you fell.

From Michael E. Grost’s invaluable site, A Guide to Classic Mystery and Detection:

The best part of The Big Sleep is the ending. This apostrophe to death is magnificently written, and recalls such Elizabethan essays on the same subject as the finale of Sir Walter Raleigh’s The History of the World (1610). Chandler’s skill with words reached new heights here, a skill that carried over into his next novel, Farewell, My Lovely (1940).

And this, the opening lines of the short story “Red Wind:”

There was a desert wind blowing that night. It was one 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.

(Oh, to hear Keith Morrison of Dateline NBC speak those lines!)

Raymond Chandler collaborated with Billy Wilder on the screenplay version of James M. Cain’s pulp novel Double Indemnity. The film was released in 1944. In 2009, it was discovered that Chandler appears in the film, in a small cameo:

For more on this, see the Guardian article “Chandler’s Double Identity.”


Click here for more on Thomas De Quincey.


James Lasdun and Ian McEwan are two of my favorite authors. The latter is justly well known and celebrated; this is not true, however, of Lasdun, who is British by birth but currently resides in this country. Give Me Everything You Have tells a gripping and disturbing  story; I highly recommend Lasdun’s fiction as well, especially the novel The Horned Man and the story collection It’s Beginning To Hurt. 

James Lasdun


Finally, these two books by M.J. McGrath, aka Melanie McGrath. White Heat was a selection of the Usual Suspects discussion group, but in the course of learning about this author, we found out about The Long Exile.

It begins in 1922 with Robert Flaherty and the making of his groundbreaking documentary Nanook of the North:

In the 1950s, two generations of Ungava Inuit were forcibly relocated by the Canadian government from their hunting grounds in Hudson Bay to “the Arctic wastes of Ellesmere Island,” 1200 miles to the north. They were assured that they would be able to continue their livelihood there, especially as regards hunting in order to feed themselves and their families. This proved not to be the case. As winter set in, they began to starve.

McGrath tells this story in harrowing, pitiless detail. For more on this subject, see my blog post  and the review in the New York Times.

This book I’d never heard tells a harrowing story that begs to be more widely known. I for one will never forget it.

Melanie (aka M.J.) McGrath


I was especially pleased by the lively participation of this group of book lovers. They asked questions and made comments that added materially to  the content of my presentation. At the conclusion, when I had gone through my book list – and my voice was unhelpfully giving out – I asked if anyone had a book they’d like to recommend.

  Jean shared her enthusiasm for a biography of Andy Warhol by Victor Bockris. (As it happens, I recently saw a Warhol retrospective at the Art Institute of Chicago. I was surprised to learn what an excellent draftsman Andy Warhol was.) Judy spoke in favor of Long Bright River by Liz Moore, a new crime novel that has of late been garnering excellent reviews. Therese mentioned News of the World by Paulette Jiles,  an historical novel that many of us have read and loved unconditionally. Several other titles were mentioned.

I was especially pleased to glimpse copies of the book list that were freely marked up by group members. Hopefully this means they got some good ideas for future reading. That, of course, is what this whole exercise was about!





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An Honorable Man by Paul Vidich

February 27, 2020 at 1:33 pm (Book review, books, Mystery fiction)

  I was going to skip reviewing this novel, due to time constraints. But when I picked it up just now, I looked at the passages I marked with post-it flags while reading it, and I felt that at the very least I wanted to quote some lines to indicate how exceptional well written this book is.

Paul Vidich is a name new to me. I first encountered him in Tom Nolan’s column in the Wall Street Journal. Nolan has excellent taste in crime fiction; I’m saying this of course because I mostly agree with his assessments. The review in question is of Vidich’s third book, The Coldest Warrior:

Mr. Vidich, for many years a senior executive in the entertainment industry, proved his talent for noirish spy fiction in two earlier books featuring 1950s CIA man George Mueller. This stand-alone work reaches a new level of moral complexity and brings into stark relief the often contradictory nature of spycraft. Can a covert enterprise survive if it discloses its worst secrets? And can a good cause remain good if it sometimes brings evil?

The Honorable Man is the first of the two novels featuring George Mueller. Mueller is desperate to come in from the cold. He wants – no, needs – to spend time with his young son, who is currently living with his ex-wife. But Mueller’s own skills are partly his undoing. The Agency needs his expertise to  help ferret out a mole in their midst. Reluctantly, he agrees to stay on for this crucial mission.

Now, you’d be forgiven for fetching a deep sigh and saying to yourself, Oh, no, not again, this oft-repeated trope on spy fiction. But it’s not the plot elements that make a novel unique: it’s the specific time and place, the surrounding circumstances, and above all, the characters. Vidich brings postwar Cold War world of the 1950s vividly to life, with all its paranoid urgency. And Mueller himself – well, I felt as though I were inside his skin, an uncomfortable place to be, but necessary. I care about him deeply.

Oh – and a few of the flagged passages:

There is a madness in this country. I can’t bear the name calling the outburst of hatred and vilification, the repulsive spectacle of red baiting, and the way good men’s reputations are tarnished with innuendo.

On his way down the stairwell he felt a stirring of remorse. He felt the burden of what it took to explain a corrupt world to an innocent mind.

His large library, which represented a cornucopia of happy times dedicated to pure thinking, was grouped by topic, and then alphabetically. His jewel among the romantics was a Hawthorne first edition, and the  grouping of popular fiction had an old Eric Ambler, which he admired for its wisdom within a vulgar yarn spun to showcase a clever plot.

Mueller couldn’t tell how much of the man’s worry was for the work, how much for himself. Perhaps there was no difference. The thin line of judgment was porous with error, rank with self-interest. Washington was a terrible place for honorable men to work.

Remember, the events of this novel are taking place during the McCarthy hearings, when fear and hatred of the Communist menace were reaching a fever pitch among the general populace. Still, some of the words quoted above have an uncomfortable  resonance in regard to the present time. At least, it seems so to me.

An Honorable Man has its basis in a factual case. The author offers a brief explanation at the close of the story.







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“The revelation that people actually studied ancient Egypt as their job seemed to me both astonishing and wonderful…”

February 23, 2020 at 3:54 pm (Art, Egypt, History)

Retold countless times down the centuries, there are as many versions of Egypt’s story as there are those to tell it. And so this is simply my version, featuring the people, places and events that have fascinated me my whole life.

And it is fair to say Egypt has pretty much been my life. Familiar and accessible through my family’s books, photographs and wartime recollections, the ancient Egyptians were, it seems, always around during my childhood, as the inspiration for my earliest drawings, the way I dressed my dolls, the things I read and collected.

The defining moment came in 1972, when the Tutankhamen exhibition arrived in Britain. His beautiful golden face appeared everywhere in the media frenzy for all things pharaonic, and Egyptologists of the day were regularly asked for quotes by the press. The revelation that people actually studied ancient Egypt as their job seemed to me both astonishing and wonderful – so at the age of six, I announced that I was going to do that too.

Introduction to The Story of Egypt: The Civilization that Shaped the World, by Joann Fletcher

Upon reading this, I identified powerfully with the author. I, too, was around six years old when I first became fascinated by ancient Egypt. But whereas Joann Fletcher went on to forge a distinguished career as an Egyptologist, I went on to live a more or less ordinary life, for which I am profoundly grateful. The   Egypt enchantment stays more or less underground, a stream flowing in the darkness. But every once in a while…

I recently signed up for a course in Egyptian art at a local lifelong learning institute. We had a our first meeting last Monday, and it was wonderful. I have obtained through interlibrary loan The Discovery of the Tomb of Tutankhamen by Howard Carter. This particular edition, published in 1977, “…is the unabridged republication of Volume I of The Tomb of Tut*ankh*amen Discovered by the Late Earl of Carnarvon and Howard Carter originally published…in 1923….”

The tomb was discovered in November of 1922.

Howard Carter, Lord Carnarvon, Carnarvon’s daughter Lady Elizabeth Herbert, and Carter’s assistant Arthur Callender are gathered before the door to the chamber. Keep in mind that Carter and Carnarvon, his generous patron, had been searching for this burial site for years. This was to be their final effort.

Here is Howard Carter’s description of what happened next:

The decisive moment had arrived. With trembling hands I made a tiny breach in the upper left hand corner. Darkness and blank space, as  far as an iron testing-rod could reach, showed that whatever lay beyond was empty, and not filled like the passage we had just cleared. Candle tests were applied as a precaution against possible foul gasses, and then, widening the hole a little, I inserted the candle, and peered in, Lord Carnarvon, Lady Evelyn and Callender standing anxiously beside me to hear the verdict. At first I could see nothing, the hot air escaping from the chamber causing the candle flame to flicker, but presently, as my eyes grew accustomed to the light, details of the room within emerged slowly from the mist, strange animals, statues, and gold–everywhere the glint of gold. For the moment–eternity it must have seemed to the others standing by–I was struck dumb with amazement, and when Lord Carnarvon, unable to stand the suspense and longer, inquired anxiously, “Can you see anything?” it was all I could do to get out the words, “Yes, wonderful things.”


When I was in London a few years ago, I visited Sir John Soane’s Museum. Sir John Soane was a distinguished architect and also a compulsive collector. His house is filled with strange and wondrous objects. Along the way, he managed to acquire several beautiful scenes off Venice by Canaletto.

Canaletto; View in Venice, on the Grand Canal (Riva degli Schiavoni); Sir John Soane’s Museum

But possibly the most astonishing object in this bewildering welter of astonishing objects is this:

Behold! It is the sarcophagus of Pharoah Seti I (1290-1279 BCE).

Here is what the sarcophagus currently looks like in situ:

This fantastical object was discovered in 1817 by Giovanni Battista Belzoni, a  freewheeling adventurer and archaeologist sometimes referred to as the Indiana Jones of his day.  Having brought this cumbersome artifact to England, Belzoni offered it to the British Museum. That institution deemed the price – £2,000 – too high. But ut wasn’t too high for Sir John Soane, who snapped it up. Hence, it currently resides serenely on the bottom floor of the museum, being much too heavy to be safely placed elsewhere in the building. You can stand right beside it, walk around it, even touch it. I can attest to this personally.

The mummy of Seti I is exceptionally well preserved. It currently resides in the Cairo Museum.

For more information on the sarcophagus, click on this link to the museum’s website. And don’t miss this ‘digital fly-through’ of the museum.

I want to return briefly to the subject of the discovery of the tomb of Pharoah Tutankhamen. The moment of triumph in November 1922 was followed by a sudden and unexpected tragedy the following April when Lord Carnarvon died unexpectedly. Here is Howard Carter’s supremely eloquent dedication:

…I dedicate this account of the discovery of the tomb of Tut*ankh* Amen to the memory of my beloved friend and colleague

who died in the hour of his triumph.

But for his untiring generosity and constant encouragement our labours could never have been crowned with success. His judgment in ancient art has rarely been equalled. His efforts, which have done so much to extend our knowledge of Egyptology, will ever been honoured in history, and by me his memory will always be cherished.

George Herbert, 5th Earl of Carnarvon 1866-1923


Howard Carter 1874-1939

Giovanni Battista Belzoni 1778-1823


The Great Belzoni, 1824, by Jan Adam Kruseman


Sir John Soane 1753-1837


Last year, I visited the National Geographic Headquarters in Washington DC to see their exhibit ‘Queens of Egypt.’ This occasioned another eruption of Egypt mania in the heart and brain of Yours Truly. I got rather carried away with the blog post I created to memorialize this splendid experience. Here is a snippet of video by which I, along with other visitors, was transfixed:


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