‘…a wild ride of beauty and fear.’ – The Reason for the Darkness of the Night: Edgar Allan Poe and the Forging of American Science, by John Tresch

September 6, 2021 at 7:26 pm (Book review, books)

  Having recovered from an earlier outburst brought on by this tome – see this post – I can now report, with considerable relief, that I have finished reading The Reason for the Darkness of the Night and am well satisfied as well as relieved. Much of this book was fascinating, much of it was bewildering – rather like its subject:

Working in a stunning variety of styles, genres, and tones, he conjured up sublime landscapes, hypnotic interiors, and compellingly disturbed characters, demonstrating to later writers all that a short story could be: an aesthetic experiment, a study of anomalous psychology, a philosophical investigation, a wild ride of beauty and fear.

It is always gratifying to get some hint of what influence was brought to bear on the creative mind. Growing up in Richmond, Virginia, Poe was frequently cared for by Black servants (read enslaved persons). They told him tales he would not have heard anywhere else: “African tales–passed down generations, modulated and reinvented through the Middle Passage–often depicted souls possessed through witchcraft and dangerous obsessions, dead bodies brought back to life, malevolent spirits tormenting the living.”

Poe  spent only a year at the newly opened University of Virginia in Charlottesville. (Hie room there is preserved. I remember standing at the doorway looking in, able to see clearly the model of a raven perched on the nightstand.) Author Tresch offers this succinct description of the school’s student body:

Poe joined rich young white men acquiring a final gentlemanly polish before returning to manage their inherited estates. They clattered onto the lawn with horses and carriages, accompanied by African servants, fine clothing, dueling pistols, and large allowances.

(Rarely have I encountered a sentence as masterful as this second one, encapsulating a singular moment of a particular time and place in a burst of eloquence topped with a fine touch of irony.)

In Poe’s time, there were many lively debates going on regarding scientific subjects – little  things like the nature of the universe, the formation of the cosmos, etc. etc. Tresch reports on these matters in meticulous detail; I admit I had trouble following those reports and what’s more, had trouble staying interested in them. The most important thing to know is that they were of vital interest to Poe; he waded into every controversy on these subjects. all guns firing, calling out various other theorists and not caring whom he offended.

Of far more interest to me were the details of Poe’s life, his restless peregrinations up and down the Eastern Seaboard, with his small unorthodox family in tow, and of course, urgently scribbling his poems and stories, unequaled in their strangeness, fascination, terror, and beauty. I embarked on a rereading of the stories, only to be stopped in my tracks by the incomparable “Fall of the House of Usher.” (I need no program of rereading for the poems, which I’m always returning to.)

Poe persevered in his literary endeavors and public lectures, all the while dogged by almost unrelenting poverty, the failing health of his fragile  and beloved wife Virginia, and his own descent into alcoholism. Poe finally attained a measure of fame and recognition by the mid 1840s. Nevertheless, as his reputation grew, his personal life imploded. Tresch describes him as “a victim of bad luck, alcohol, and self-sabotage.” Virginia died in 1847, closing an agonizing chapter in his life.

Still, back in Richmond in early 1849, Poe felt rejuvenated. He was making progress in controlling the urge to drink. He was warmly welcomed by friends and relations still living there. One among them was Sarah Elmira Royster, now widowed and in possession of a goodly estate. Their reunion was so joyous that he asked her to marry him; though not immediately answering in the affirmative, she gave him hope that she would ultimately agree to be his wife.

But first, he must complete a scheduled lecture tour. He left for Baltimore via steamer, and at once fell into a company of old friends who invited him to go out drinking with them. Poe indulged them, and it was the beginning of the end. Several days later, he was discovered wandering the streets, incoherent and in generally terrible condition. He was taken to a hospital on October third; on the seventh, at the age of forty, he died.

He is buried at Westminster Hall and Burying Ground; this is now part of the University of Maryland Law School. As with everything to do with Poe, there’s a complicated story attached to his burial.

Then, there’s the story of the so-called Poe Toaster. This refers to  a tradition, probably begun in the 1930s. Every year on January 19, in the middle of the night, on Poe’s birthday….

Well, I’ll let Wikipedia complete the story:

a black-clad figure carrying a silver-tipped cane, his face obscured by a scarf or hood, entered the Westminster Hall and Burying Ground in Baltimore. At the site of Poe’s original grave—which is marked with a commemorative stone—he would pour a glass of Martell cognac and raise a toast. He then arranged three red roses on the monument in a distinctive configuration and departed, leaving the unfinished bottle of cognac.[5] The roses were believed to represent Poe, his wife Virginia, and his mother-in-law Maria Clemm, all three of whom were originally interred at the site. The significance of the cognac is uncertain, as it does not feature in Poe’s works (as would, for example, amontillado); but a note left at the 2004 visitation suggested that the cognac may have represented a tradition of the Toaster’s family rather than Poe’s. Several of the cognac bottles are kept at the Edgar Allan Poe House and Museum in Baltimore.

I believe that at this date, the custom has been discontinued. With luck, it will reappear.

Although the passages on the philosophy of science are tough going, in general I recommend this book, especially to anyone who has an interest in nineteenth century American literature and  thought.. John Tresch, an author unfamiliar to me until now, writes beautifully. He has an illustrious academic pedigree and is currently Professor of the History of Art, Science,and Folk Practice at the Warburg Institute in London.

I also highly recommend visiting the site of the Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore. Somewhat to my surprise, they assert that the famous Poe Toaster has nothing to do with them.

Ghosts, perhaps..?

Edgar Allan Poe January 19, 1809-October 7, 1849




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Bounding, from wave to wave…

September 1, 2021 at 1:11 am (Book review, books, Mystery fiction, Short stories, The British police procedural, True crime)

…on the internet, that is, rather than on the actual ‘bounding main.’

I speak of two recent research adventures on the web, both inspired by Laura Lippman’s
new novel.

First – the premise itself. Novelist Gerry Andersen is confined to a hospital bed in his apartment in Baltimore. These are brand new digs, and he was blindsided by one of  those architectural features so cheerfully touted by real estate agents: a so-called floating staircase. Having tumbled down said design feature and badly broken his leg, he finds himself temporarily immobilized.

Gerry is not a detective – or not a professional one, that is – but his plight reminded me of two series protagonists who were: Morse and Alan Grant. In fact, Lippman at one point makes mention of Josephine Tey‘s Daughter of Time. In that classic of detective fiction, Scotland Yard’s Alan Grant, likewise laid up with a broken leg, occupies his mind with an effort to prove the innocence of Richard III in regard to the disappearance and supposed murder of Prince Edward and Prince Richard.

Then there’s The Wench Is Dead, the eighth entry in the Morse series written by Colin Dexter. (This novel was the 1989 Gold Dagger winner.) Morse, like Alan Grant, is hospitalized, not with a broken leg but with a bleeding ulcer. Like Alan Grant (and Gerry Andersen, for that matter), Morse needs  a way to occupy his mind while he’s recuperating. Someone gives him a book about a crime that occurred on a canal boat, in 1839, as it was making its way through Oxford. A passenger on the craft, Joanna Franks, was murdered; two men were hanged for killing her. The more he reads, the more convinced Morse becomes that the two men were in fact innocent.

I always assumed that the Joanna Franks case was fictional; it turns out that it was based on an actual occurrence. The victim’s real name was Christina Collins. She’d been traveling via canal boat to meet her husband, but she never made it. Her lifeless body was later pulled from the canal. Colin Dexter used these basic facts in constructing his narrative, changing the location from Staffordshire, where the crime actually occurred, to Oxford.

The Murder of Christina Collins by John Godwin came out in 2011. It features an introduction by Colin Dexter. Click here for an article with excellent photographs of the site.

The TV episode of The Wench Is Dead can be seen on YouTube:

In addition, the DVD is owned by the library – two copies, to be exact. Watch for Colin Dexter; he appears in the museum crowd at the beginning of the film.

This viewing experience may make you nostalgic for the days when this superb series was first aired, and in particular for John Thaw, whom we lost way too soon.

The second adventure was sparked by this brief passage in Dream Girl:

It’s a fine little story, as clever and compact as the ones he used to read in those Alfred Hitchcock Presents anthologies. Kill your husband with a leg of lamb, serve the leg of lamb to the detectives.


The story being referenced here is “Lamb to the Slaughter” by Roald Dahl. I read it several years ago; the mention of it in this context made me want to read it again. I found it in an excellent anthology that I own called Murder Short & Sweet. In his introduction to the Dahl story, the editor Paul D. Staudohar says:

It’s hard to imagine a more perfect short story than this one, both in plot and in presentation.

I couldn’t agree more.

This story can be downloaded by clicking on this link.

Murder Short & Sweet is available from Amazon.

And finally, do read Dream Girl. I loved it!




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‘The old trees were the mothers of the forest.’ – Finding the Mother Tree by Suzanne Simard.

August 29, 2021 at 11:23 pm (Book review, books, Nature)

I picked up this book expecting a lyrical hymn to the beauties of nature. It was indeed just that in certain places, but in others…well, here’s a not completely atypical sentence:

Cedar can’t form mycorrhizal fungal partnerships with the birth and fir for the simple reason that it forms arbuscular mycorrhizes, not ectomycorrhizas like the other two.

Well…gosh… Certainly gave the spell checker a vigorous workout – not to mention my brain.

So, yes, there’s a great deal of hard science in this book. Simard does her best to explain it, but it still left my head spinning.

Mycorrhizae: the association between roots and fungi. (For more on this subject, see the entry on the Univeristy of Nevada Extension site.    Here’s another site, Frontiers in Plant Science, that may prove useful.)

Suzanne Simard became interested in silviculture, aka forest ecology, because of her distress over the heedless clear cutting taking place in the forest of British Columbia, where she was born and grew up. Also, she’s a scientist by nature, and she developed a passionate need to understand what actually went on in forests – soil, shrubs, insects, birds, sunlight, rain, and above all, how all of this affected the trees, and by association, mushrooms. (Oh, and there was the time  the family dog fell into the outhouse….But that’s another story!)

She got her PhD in forest ecology and has conducted countless studies in various areas of the forest, all the while braving unforgiving weather, merciless insects, wolves, and bears.  She’s made precise measurements, returning again and again to see how her studies were progressing.

This video provides a good explanation of the some of the wonders she unearthed (literally);

Lest you think this volume is an impenetrable tome, I wish to assure you that some of Simard’s writing is quite accessible, even at times, poetic.

I loved the generous rhythm of the way the land and the forest and the river came together to refresh the winds at the close of each day. Helped settle us all down for the night. Air purified by the ancient forests hovered, and I let the downdraft cleanse me.

Contrasting with calm passage of prose is the sheer exhilaration Simard expresses as discovery follows discovery:

Pine got nitrogen from alder not through the soil at all but thanks to micorrhizal fungi!

At moments like this, her excitement communicates itself to the reader. I for one will never feel quite the same about micorrhizal fungi again!! (And no, I’d never heard of them before reading Finding the Mother Tree.) The discovery of the relationship between the various entities in the forest constitutes a revelation:

The cohesion of biodiversity in a forest, the musicians in an orchestra, the members of a family growing through conversation and feedback, through memories and learning from the past, even if chaotic and unpredictable, leveraging scarce resources to thrive. Through this cohesion, our systems develop into something whole and resilient. They are complex. Self-organizing. They have the  hallmarks of intelligence.

And finally, there’s the conclusion Suzanne Simard reaches, hugely satisfying, borne out by her meticulous research:

I imagined the flow of energy from the Mother Trees as powerful as the ocean tide, as strong as the sun’s rays, as irrepressible as the wind in the mountains, as unstoppable as a mother protecting her child.

Suzanne Simard in fact, as two daughters, so she knows whereof she speaks. She’s had an eventful life; a few of those events have been harrowing, but she’s come through heroically – at least, it seems  so to me..

A simplified version of what’s in the book can be heard in Suzanne’s TED talk:

At the end of this eighteen minute talk, she received a standing ovation. I wanted to join in!


Related to the above, there’s a wonderful documentary called Fantastic Fungi, available on Netflix and Amazon Prime. Here’s the trailer:

There’s also a lovely companion volume.


Suzanne Simard, where she longs to be




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‘….there must be no room for love in my heart now – I am quite alone, and I must stay quite alone.’ – The Beast Must Die by Nicholas Blake

August 27, 2021 at 4:09 pm (Book review, books, Film and television, Mystery fiction)

I am going to kill a man. I don’t know his name, I don’t know where he lives, I have no idea what he looks like. But I am going to find him and kill him …

Thus begins a strange and haunting narrative…

I’ve wanted to read this crime fiction classic for some time, so when I heard that it was being adapted for television, I decided  the time had come.

The novel is compelling, but drags in places. It begins with the diary of Felix Lane, the nom de plume of Frank Cairnes, and then about half way through switches to an omnipotent narrator. I found the abrupt change of tone somewhat jarring. Felix/Frank’s diary entries are weighted down with an almost unbearable grief; the second part of the book is given over to a detached, almost clinical recounting of the steps taken to solve the murder. (I’d rather not divulge who’s been murdered, at this point.)

This adaptation is strange in many ways. It retains some elements of the novel, but alters a number of them, most significantly, the gender of the main protagonist: Frank Cairnes becomes Frances Cairnes. And the North Devon setting is changed to the Isle of Wight. Also, Nigel Strangeways (played by Billy Howle), the methodical investigator coolly at work in the novel, is here portrayed as a barely functioning police detective, subject to panic attacks and all manner of other unexplained emotional difficulties and who, near the end of the series, lets loose with a blubbering mass of face-contorting weeping that I, for one, found nearly impossible to watch.

Nicholas Blake is the pseudonym of Cecil Day-Lewis, novelist and poet (Poet Laureate, in fact, from 1968 until his death in 1972), and yes, father of Daniel Day-Lewis. Sean Day-Lewis, Daniel’s much older half-brother, wrote a letter to the The Guardian about the TV adaptation:

….this version of the story is a bit of a travesty. I should know, as I was, in my father’s imagination, the six-year-old Martin or Martie… My father, the then-fashionable poet Cecil Day-Lewis, kept our family going with 20 detective novels written as Nicholas Blake. The father who saw the accident, and swore vengeance, was a detective story writer just like my dad.

In addition:

Considering the filmic attraction of Lyme Regis, it is hard to know why the TV version moves to the Isle of Wight as well as to an aggrieved mother. And by the way, Nigel Strangeways, originally a detective who looked and behaved just like WH Auden, was regularly on hand to achieve justice with mercy in all but one of the stories.

The TV version of The Beast Must Die possesses a bewildering number of characters, but one dark secret lies at the story’s heart. It is encapsulated in the chilling opening lines of the novel, quoted above.

The main reason to watch this series is to witness the performance of the lead actors. Cush Jumbo is a wonderful actress; those of us who followed her progress as the smart, irreverent attorney in The Good Fight already knew that. My husband objected to what might be termed Jumbo’s ‘uglification.’ It was hard to see what purpose was served by her painfully short gray hair and stark makeup. (Was she, in fact, wearing any makeup?) He says, and I agree with him, let’s allow beautiful people to remain beautiful, unless there’s a specific reason to degrade their appearance. Yes, she is grieving, but all the more reason to preserve her comeliness.

Cush Jumbo, as she appears in The Beast Must Die

Cush Jumbo in The Good Fight

A word also about Jared Harris, whose performance as the loathsome George Rattery is chilling and note perfect.He is, in fact, the best screen villain I’ve seen since Charles Dance as Tulkinghorn in Bleak House.

(The British seem to specialize in this species.)



I didn’t feel that the title of the novel needed explaining; nevertheless, Blake/Day-Lewis does explain it, at the very end:

In the first of Brahms’s four Serious Songs, he paraphrases Ecclesiastes 3, 19, as follows: ‘The beast must die, the man dieth also, yea both must die.’


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The Reason for the Darkness of the Night: Edgar Allan Poe and the Forging of American Science, by John Tresch

August 21, 2021 at 1:07 pm (Book review, books)

   I don’t usually write about a book I’m still reading, but I’m going to now. Because I must.

As soon as I heard of it,  knew I wanted to read The Reason for the Darkness of the Night. Written by John Tresch, subtitled Edgar Allan Poe and the Forging of American Science, This book promised to reveal much about the life and work of one of America’s most celebrated authors. And of course, Poe is of special interest to me, as he should be to anyone interested in the birth of the American detective story.

This is all very well – what I wasn’t prepared for were the revelations concerning Poe’s life as a child and a young adult, particularly the latter. Poe was the foster son of Frances and John Allan. While Edgar and Frances had a close and loving bond, his relationship with John Allan was something else altogether.

You’ll notice that I used the word ‘foster,’ not ‘adopted.’ The reason is that  the Allans never took that further step toward securing Edgar’s status as a family member. This, despite the fact that the boy, newly orphaned, came to live with them when he was two years old.

I don’t want to say any more at this point, except that John Allan’s actions – or lack thereof – display a degree of callousness that I find difficult to fathom. In fact, he made me so angry that as I reached page 71, I had to lay the book aside for a time and calm myself down.

How dare he! That – that –

Okay. Enough. One slender light does, after all, shine in the darkness: Poe’s genius – his utter indisputable genius – is at last  being recognized. It starts to bring with it remuneration which is so desperately needed. As he is about to be undone by severe destitution, good people reach out to help him.

I think of Robert Schumann’s exclamation upon hearing a composition by Chopin: “Hats off, gentlemen, a genius!”

And now I must read on…(to be continued)



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‘She seemed like every girl who at eighteen had to sort out alone how to behave in the world, how to both invite interest and fend it off, how to have fun without getting into trouble, how to direct attention between her body and her mind.’ – What Happened to Paula by Katherine Dykstra

August 6, 2021 at 5:52 pm (Book review, books, True crime)

  In July of 1970, in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, nineteen-year-old Paula Oberbroeckling suddenly and inexplicably went missing. Her remains were found four months later in the vicinity of the Cedar River.

At this time in her life, Paula had been seeing two young men, Robert and Lonnie. Robert was Black. It appears that he was her true deep love. At this same time, Paula’s relationship with her mother had grown increasingly fraught. That Spring, as soon as she finished school, she’d moved out of the family home and into rented digs with a school friend.

The date 1970 is an important one to keep in mind regarding this case. Although things were beginning to change, attitudes about interracial dating and romance were still quite negative, more so in some places than in others. And it is also vital to remember that in 1970, Roe v. Wade was still three years in the future. An unwanted pregnancy placed a woman in dire straits, with few options.

Although Paula’s death was ruled a homicide, the investigation never turned up any conclusive evidence.

The case went cold.

Almost fifty years later, Katherine Dykstra, an author, writer, and teacher, is drawn into the search for Paula’s killer. This book is about that second more recent investigation – what it found, what it failed to find, and this author’s motive for involving herself in it to begin with.

In fact, Dykstra finds a number of elements in Paula’s life that run parallel with her own experiences. Possibly too many. I’ve noticed this characteristic becoming increasingly common in true crime narratives; namely, the author’s life becoming a more prominent feature in the narrative. In my view, a little of that goes a long way. Where books in this genre  are concerned, a prefer the light to shine, laser-like and unrelenting, on the subject at hand. (See I’ll Be Gone in the Dark for an excellent exemplar.)

There’s some awkward writing in What Happened to Paula – not much, but enough to jump out at the reader – at least, it jumped out at me. To wit: “Teenagers are meant to cleave from their parents.” A true enough statement, but “cleave from” seems an infelicitous locution. On the other hand, there’s this passage concerning the lack of disclosure by law enforcement to the affected families. Dykstra contends that the police were pretty sure who the culprit was, but lacking the proof of their suspicions, they felt duty-bound not to divulge them to the Oberbroeckling family.

The Oberbroecklings, the Farleys, the families of the estimated 200,000 homicides that have gone unsolved since the 1960s have no idea what happened to their loved ones. These people have been left to state into a gaping abyss where nothing is true and everything is possible. And so, by  considering a homicide internally solved but never informing the family or arresting the culprit or even closing the case, the powers that be have denied the Oberbroecklings and anyone else who cared about Paula closure.

One can understand the position of law enforcement in a situation like this, but one can also readily sympathize with the family and other loved ones of the victim.

Finally, I have to say I wonder why the decision was made to include to photographs in this book. When I Googled Paula Oberbroeckling, I was momentarily stunned:

Paula Jean Oberbrockling 1952-1970





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Saluting Cynthia Ozick

July 30, 2021 at 8:10 pm (Book review, books, Judaism)

Cynthia Ozick is “…an American short story writer, novelist, and essayist.”

Thus saith Wikipedia.

This statement is, of course, entirely accurate. Except that it doesn’t convey half of what this writer has achieved in her long and varied life, a life lived in literature and in the explication of the New York mind and the Jewish mind.

Ozick’s latest fiction is entitled Antiquities. In it, a superannuated academic relates his melancholy life story, which is centered on a relationship which was formed in a boarding school. There, the adolescent narrator contracts an intense friendship with the oddly named Ben-Zion Elefantin. The latter is Jewish – emphatically so – which makes him an untouchable at the school. The narrator, by association, also becomes untouchable. But having had few intimates to begin with, it hardly matters.

This is a mordant, melancholy little tome (192 pages in hardcover), enlivened frequently by Ozick’s wit and eloquence:

It is from my discreet and quietly dispirited mother, in a burst of confession in her seventieth year, and seriously ailing, that I know something of the effects of this perfunctory escapade.

Really, I do live to absorb such phrases as “perfunctory escapade!” And to just what is this felicitous phrase referring? You will find out as you read. At this point I will only say that it has to do with a journey to Egypt, to see the ancient ruins, in the company of none other than William Flinders Petrie:

Here I speak of William Matthew Flinders Petrie, knighted by the Queen, and more  broadly known as the illustrious archaeologist Sir Flinders Petrie.

More on this expedition:

He describes the green of the water, a massive colony of storks dipping their beaks, a glimpse of an occasional water buffalo, and on the opposite bank, as they were nearing the First Cataract at Aswan, a series of boulders on the fringe of what (so the guide informed him) was an island with a history of its own, littered with the vestigial ruins of forgotten worship.

‘vestigial ruins of forgotten worship…’ With such eloquence is Ozick’s prose liberally strewn, like the potsherds at an ancient site.

Antiquities is both intriguing and puzzling. It is mercifully short – just under two hundred pages. I enjoyed it.

I am not nearly as well read in this author’s works as I should be. But I wanted to take this opportunity to praise her. Ozick’s life in letters is greatly to be admired.

Born in 1928, this year Cynthia Ozick turned ninety-three.

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American Dirt by Jeanine Cummins: A book discussion, with a brief true crime digression

July 22, 2021 at 3:22 pm (Book clubs, books, True crime)

I thought this would be a good discussion – but I didn’t know just how good!

First of all, the turnout was better that I’d anticipated – ten people, which is a good number for this type of gathering. And secondly, everyone was primed to let loose with their feelings and impressions.

There was general agreement that the novel was a terrific reading experience. Right from the outset, Jeanine Cummins manages to generate tremendous suspense, while creating characters that are real and immensely sympathetic.

When their entire family is ruthlessly murdered at their home in Acapulco, Lydia and her son Luca are the sole survivors. The killers, members of a powerful cartel, will not stop until they have taken out Lydia and Luca as well. And so mother and son must  flee; there is no alternative. They do as so many of their countrymen, as well as others from further South have done: They join los migrantes on their journey, north to el norte.

And what a journey it is – full of danger  and heartbreak. I felt as though I were going along with them. Except that I could take a break and close the book for a while – something I kept having to do. Lydia and Luca and the others had no choice but to keep going.

Carol admitted that she paged forward to the conclusion so she could be reassured that Lydia and Luca survived their ordeal. In her review for the New York Times, Lauren Groff says: “A few pages into reading Jeanine Cummins’s third novel, American Dirt, I found myself so terrified that I had to pace my house.” (This is a terrific article, well worth reading in its entirety.)

Connie reminded us of the importance of the issue of trust in this story. On top of the day to day worries concerning mere survival, Lydia had to be constantly looking over her shoulder to see if there were someone – it could be anyone – traveling with their group who was in the pay of the cartel whose leader wanted her dead, That person could reveal her whereabouts, or just kill her outright. If anything happened to her, what would become of Luca?

Luca. To me, he was the beating heart of this novel. An exceptionally bright little boy, with an inquiring mind and a strong sense of justice; moreover, he was endowed with warmth and generosity, plus other endearing traits that make some children especially lovable.

It’s hard to discuss American Dirt without dwelling on the controversy that surrounded its publication early last year. Certain commentators, especially from the Latino and Latina communities, tore into it, claiming that Cummins’s description of the migrants was stereotyped and inaccurate. The consensus among them seemed to be that she was writing about people and an experience that she  simply didn’t understand – couldn’t understand, because of her outsider status.

I read up on this subject to a fair degree, and I think that the harshest criticism stems from the fact that American Dirt was given such a large publicity push by its publisher, Flatiron Books, accompanied, at least initially, with rapturous praise. Among other things, this resulted in Jeanine Cummins receiving a seven-figure advance and American Dirt being selected by Oprah Winfrey for her book club.. Other worthy titles by Latino and Latina writers have been given nowhere near this kind of support, by their publishers or by anyone else.

From Ann Patchett:

“There’s a level of viciousness that comes from a woman getting a big advance and a lot of attention….If it had  been a small advance with a small review in the back of the book section, I don’t think we’d  be seeing the same level of outrage.”

For my part, I can understand the frustration and resentment occasioned by this incident. I also feel that certain practices by the publishing industry have  been been exposed to the glare of publicity and are being seen as arbitrary and money-grubbing. In my opinion, rightly so.

One thing I can’t agree with at all is the level of disparagement that, in some cases, has  been directed at this novel. The most egregious example of this that I personally have seen comes from a review in the New York Times by Parul Sehgal. I don’t want to quote from this article at any length here, because it makes me slightly crazy just to look at it. Suffice it to say that among the brickbats Parul Sehgal hurls at American Dirt is the assertion that Cummins is guilty of “mauling the English language.”

Did she read the same novel I did ?

Anyone who knows me knows that I’m hypersensitive about precision, beauty, and correctness in writing. One misplaced apostrophe and I’m likely to go off on a rant. So I just want to voice the opinion here that American Dirt contains some of the most powerful and compelling writing I’ve encountered in a work of fiction in a long time.

This sentence describes the first  glimpse Lydia and Luca get of the notorious freight train known as La Bestia – The Beast:

There’s a new reverence to having seen it with their own eyes, the unfeeling crush of the wheels along their rails, the men clinging to the exoskeleton like beetles on a window screen.

Holding Luca outside her body for the first time, Lydia expected there would be a moment when these notions would flood through her, all at once, like a small death. A portal. She’d hoped, like on of those desert rattlesnakes, to shed the skin off her anguish and leave it behind her in the Mexican dirt. But the moment of the crossing had already passed, and she didn’t even realize it had happened. She never looked back, never committed any small act of ceremony to help launch her into the new life on the other side. Nothing can be undone. Adelante.

(That last word is translated by Google as ‘Go ahead.’ In this context, I think it actually means ‘Keep going.’)

I think that this article in Vox provides a good summary of the controversy.

I believe I speak fairly for our group when I say that we thought this novel was outstanding. The plot – especially the creation and maintaining of extreme suspense, the memorable characters, the writing – every aspect won praise. Two people had first hand experience of travel in Mexico; they expressed that from their viewpoint,  Cummins’s depiction of the country was reasonably accurate.

We felt genuine sympathy for writers whose work hasn’t had the kind of push Jeanine Cummins got from Flatiron Books and Oprah Winfrey. From Daniel Hernandez in the Los Angeles Times:

“American Dirt” has opened a window into the ways a few select books are brought to the public’s attention at a time when many authors have to hire their own publicists or arrange their own book readings and events.

He adds, significantly:

The roll-out to some took on the veneer of insult to Central American trauma and pain surrounding the treacherous passage through Mexico.

This, then, is the fault of insensitive publisher and publicist, and not the fault of the novel at all.

I don’t think that any of us subscribed to the notion that an author should only write about groups, ethnicities, or whatever, of which he or she is, or has been, an active member. It is possible to identify powerfully with people who are “other” than yourself. Why do I feel so connected to England and its ancient history and persisting myths?? I have no blood relation to any of it. But from my very young years I have identified with it, felt part of it. When I am there, I feel a strong sense of belonging. It may be irrational, but it is potent nonetheless. Empathy can be a very powerful emotion, enabling you to transcend differences.

I want to acknowledge that  this is the third time in as many years that this group has caused me to read a book I initially had no intention of reading. (The other two were Becoming, Michelle Obama’s memoir, and Min Jin Lee’s brilliant Pachinko.) I’m very glad to have read all three. Thanks, AAUW Readers!

American Dirt is in development as a feature film. There’s very little current information on it that I could find. Here’s the trailer, but it too is pretty uninformative.

I feel as though I’ve left out quite a bit here, both from our discussion and the novel itself. I hope their are no blatant inaccuracies. Please let me know if you spot any.

In the course of my brief biographical sketch of Jeanine Cummins, I mentioned that her first book was a work of nonfiction entitled A Rip in Heaven. In it she tells the story of a crime, or crimes, that took place within her own family. We briefly got into a discussion of the genre of true crime books. I read extensively in this area and taught a short course in it for Osher a couple of years ago. If you have further interest, there is lots of material online. I have written quite a few posts on the subject for this blog. If you want to read just one, I recommend ‘The Enduring Fascination with True Crime.’


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Dark Sky by C.J. Box: One Wild – and Very Satisfying – Ride

July 18, 2021 at 11:19 pm (Book review, books, Mystery fiction)

   So I was searching Google trying to come up with adjectives that would describe the experience of reading this book: spine-tingling, bloodcurdling, electrifying, gripping, edge-of-your seat… You get the idea. It was all of the aforementioned, and more.

As the plot of Dark Sky unfolds, the unwary reader may be forgiven for assuming that this will be a more or less traditional mystery, traditionally paced. But no! Do not make such an unthinking assumption.

Joe Pickett is a game warden in Wyoming; he’s also a family man. Wife Marybeth is the director of the town library; they have three daughters, all quickly reaching adulthood. Sheridan, the oldest, has an important supporting part in the drama that’s about to unfold.

Joe has been chosen by the state’s governor to lead an elk hunting expedition in the Bighorn Mountains. This would not ordinarily be part of Joe’s remit, but  the circumstances are special: the expedition is being mounted on behalf of one Steve Price, a star of California’s Silicon Valley elite. Steve is the founder and owner of a wildly popular social media site called Confab and also of another company called Aloft. The governor has his reasons  for wanting this tech billionaire to have an excellent experience on this outing.

At first, all goes as planned. But there’s a party of malefactors roaming the mountains who have a bone to pick with Steve Price. And due to Steve’s compulsive – and very up to date – posts on Confab, they know where he is,  who he is with, and what he’s doing. Other forces are arrayed against Steve, and therefore against Joe as well, as they undertake their arduous journey up into the Bighorns.

There’s a subplot involving a falconry outfit owned and operated by one Nate Romanowski. He’s a good friend of the Pickett family, but he has a tendency to play by his own rules, rules which sometimes skirt the law. Dark Sky is also about the ethics of hunting and the treatment of animals living in the wild. (In beautiful and sparsely populated Wyoming, there are plenty of those.) Horses too play a major role in the lives of the protagonists.

Box’s writing is wonderful, and his characters are fully three-dimensional and believable. And yes, this is one of those novels about which people exclaim, “I couldn’t put it down!” But I have to say, Dear Reader, that this is actually not my favorite reading experience. I like fiction that causes me to pause, think, evaluate, and wonder. And  Dark Sky caused me to do all of these things. That’s not to say that the narrative didn’t also scare me in places, because it most certainly did.

This is the twenty-first entry in the Joe Pickett series. I read Open Season, the first one, when it came out in 2001. I enjoyed it, but for whatever reason, as the series continued, I didn’t keep up with it. However, as time went on, the reviews got increasingly laudatory. (Plus I’d developed a relationship with Wyoming for the best of reasons.) So I returned to the fold with 2019’s Wolf Pack. I liked it so much I stuck around for Long Range, which was even better. And as for Dark Sky – it was simply the best.

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Introduction to American Art, Part Two

July 8, 2021 at 1:49 pm (Art)

It will be noted, from the examples in Part One, that early American painting possesses a certain folk art , even primitive, quality. We must keep in mind the fact that the European art of this period – the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries and prior – had a glorious artistic heritage to draw upon, starting with the statuary and sculpture of antiquity, followed by the vivid imagery evoked in the West by the doctrines and rich lore of Christianity.

In addition, there was little if any professional caliber instruction available to aspiring artists in colonial America. Reproductions of the great masterpieces of Europe could be seen only in the engravings that were circulated at the time in the colonies. These would have reproduced the outline of  each work and not the color – no color!

Apollo Belvedere


Laocoon and His Sons

Both of the above works are housed in the Vatican Museums.

The Laocoon was discovered buried beneath a Roman vineyard. Michelangelo was present as it was gradually unearthed. I have a picture in my mind of his standing there. eyes wide with amazement, as this masterpiece was revealed to the world.

Portrait of Michelangelo by Daniele da Volterra, c. 1545

This striking image of the Genius of the Age provides a neat segue into the Renaissance:

Madonna and Child Enthroned with Saints, by Raphael, 1504


Giovanni Bellini, Madonna of the Meadow, 1505

Saw this painting  for the first time yesterday and fell in love with it at once. The chubby, blissfully dozing little baby, his beautiful mother, robed in red and blue, adoring her little offspring as new mothers will do, the clouds above her curving around a to the left and almost seeming to form a halo…

Talk about getting sidetracked!

Anyway, American art of the pre-Revolutionary period seems positively quaint when compared to masterpieces like the above. This is not to say, however that it does not possess its own unique virtues:

Isaac Royall and Family, by John Feke


Mann Page and Elizabeth Page, by John Wollaston

There is a certain piquancy in the way these characters peer out at us from their two-dimensional space. The children are especially charming.

Yet it seems almost miraculous to go from the above to this full-blooded, beautifully rounded portrait of Henry Pelham:


Boy with a Flying Squirrel, 1765

Henry Pelham was the half-brother of John Singleton Copley, the first great painter to emerge from the Colonies.

Statue of Jon Singleton Copley in Copley Square, Boston






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