Father’s Day

June 17, 2018 at 5:28 pm (Family)

My Dad was a wonderful man. He loved my brothers and me, but I got the lion’s share of his attention when I was little by being sick much of the time. (This period of susceptibility on my part, though it  produced plenty of anxiety, was relatively short lived.)

Dad was somewhat impatient for us kids to grow up. He was eager to take us to one of his favorite venues. He had the idea that I would especially appreciate the place. And so off we went…

…to the race track.

Here we see Dad and myself in animated discussion as we compare the various tip sheets. Dad kindly placed bets for me. I paid especial attention to the colors worn by  the jockeys.

I cherished experiences like these, because they represented a rare opportunity for me to get close to my father. For the most part, he was a reserved person and one not easy to know. This eased somewhat for me as I got older. Certainly he was always there for me in times of need, which were, luckily, few.

This photo of Dad was printed and framed and given to me as a gift by my son Ben. It resides on the living room wall. From the couch where I love to sit and read, I can see it clearly. In ancient times, families possessed lares and penates, defined as “…the protectors of a family’s treasured possessions and regarded as the souls of deceased ancestors.” (From Tales Beyond Belief). I often think of these as I gaze upon Dad’s portrait.

I think my father would be especially pleased to know that his grandson Ben is also a splendid Dad.

Welles, age four; Etta, age seven, and Dad. All rather depleted, but still happy

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Frédéric Chopin and Krystian Zimerman

June 15, 2018 at 8:04 pm (Music)

Many of us who studied the piano in our youth played certain compositions by Frédéric Chopin. I remember in particular learning the nocturnes and some of the waltzes. I was never very proficient, but I fell in love with the music. That love has stayed with me throughout my life.

Recently I found this YouTube video of Krystian Zimerman playing  Chopin’s Ballade No. 1 in G minor, Opus 23. This performance must have taken place quite a few years ago as Zimerman is now in his early sixties. The room in which he’s playing is lovely yet bare. I can’t tell if this was a public performance or not.

In fact, the only thing I can tell for sure is that it is beyond beautiful. Everything that makes Chopin’s piano music great – the drama, the melody, the poignancy – is here. It is almost as if Zimerman is channeling Chopin; he is so utterly lost in the music. The composer comes alive in the fiery, passionate playing of this young virtuoso. (And doesn’t he so look the part?)

 

Chopin was a native of Poland, as is Krystian Zimerman .

Frédéric Chopin 1810-1849

 

 

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“‘The void, the waste, the black blackness.'” – The Knowledge, by Martha Grimes

June 14, 2018 at 7:25 pm (Book review, books, Mystery fiction, The British police procedural)

  In 1981, Martha Grimes burst onto the mystery scene with The Man with a Load of Mischief. In that novel, we were introduced to DCI Richard Jury and a colorful cast of supporting characters. This has been followed by twenty-three additional novels in the series, the titles all standing for the names of pubs or similar establishments.

The Man with the Load of Mischief – wonderful title, that – was one of the first mysteries pressed eagerly into my hands when I came to work at the library in 1982. It was swiftly followed by The Old Fox Deceiv’d, published that same year. I stayed with the novels for a while, then left off reading them, and came back to it in 2006, intrigued by the reviews of that year’s series entry. In The Old Wine Shades, a mother and  son and their dog mysteriously go missing. Some nine months later, the dog reappears – but only the dog. What is one to make of these strange circumstances? I am reminded that Grimes wrote about this curious canine with especial eloquence and charm. I love this kind of writing! It may be time to reread this book. 

From the Publishers Weekly review:

The author’s gift at melding suspense, logical twists and wry humor makes this one of the stronger entries in this deservedly popular series.

The Old Wine Shades was followed by Dust, a novel to which I am particularly partial because of its references to Henry James, specifically to Lamb House in Rye, East Sussex, where The Master dwelt from 1897 to 1914 (two years prior to his death). 

So: The Knowledge. This, of course, is the name of a pub – but one shrouded in mystery. Rumors of its existence persist, but those who should be most in the know – namely, London cab drivers, deny any knowledge of it. Yet those same men  and women are required to pass an incredibly difficult test known as – what else? – The Knowledge. It is reputedly

…a test which is amongst the hardest to pass in the world, it has been described as like having an atlas of London implanted into your brain.

The Knowledge Taxi – London Knowledge

An appalling crime is committed in front of the Artemis Club, an elite London establishment. Robbie Parsons, a London cab driver, is a witness. What happens next defies expectation – especially on Robbie’s part. From this act there grows a larger mystery, and a fiendishly complex one at that. This is a case  for Superintendent Richard Jury. He’ll need maximum brains and expertise to figure this one out.

At one point, fairly early on, the action switches to Africa, where Melrose Plant, Jury’s longtime unofficial assistant sleuth, is pursuing a crucial line of inquiry. Plant, aka Lord Ardry, is assisted in his endeavors by one Patty Haigh, a ten- (eleven?) -year-old girl of preternatural resourcefulness. She was my favorite character in the novel. Back in London, Patty’s confederates habitually stationed themselves at Heathrow and other key venues. They reminded me of the Baker Street Irregulars in the Sherlock Holmes stories.

In fact, for this reader, the appeal of these novels lies in their characters rather than their plots. This one was especially convoluted; I’d be hard pressed to unravel its complexities. No matter; I enjoyed spending time with this diverse and invariably entertaining dramatis personae. Melrose Plant in particular has a line in pained bewilderment that always makes me smile.

We here in greater Howard County have always had a special pride in Martha Grimes, a resident of Bethesda, one county to the south of us. Grimes also represents a small but significant group of American mystery writers who set their books in Britain. Two others that come to mind are Deborah Crombie and Elizabeth George. I’ve read and enjoyed several titles by Crombie. (If you’re going to read just one, I recommend Dreaming of the Bones.) I fear I must number myself among a small band of Elizabeth George dissenters. She’s hugely popular with readers and critics alike, I know. But for the most part I have found her writing to be ponderous and humorless. I readily concede, though, that the book that I did get through, With No One As Witness, was extraordinarily powerful (not to mention apparently enraging to some of her faithful readers).

At any rate: back to The Knowledge. It did get a bit sluggish in some places, but for the most part I enjoyed it and recommend it.

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The Bomb Maker by Thomas Perry

June 9, 2018 at 7:15 pm (Book review, books, Mystery fiction)

  I was busily at work on another post but I have to interrupt myself in order to write about this book. It is quite possibly the most gripping thriller I’ve ever read.

Or listened to, actually. The reader is Joe Barrett. His voice is somewhat gravelly; his reading, low key. I wasn’t sure I would like it. But  about half way into the first disc – there are nine altogether – it grabbed me.

And would not let go. I used any and every excuse to get into my car. I got everywhere early. I sat and listened, mesmerized and full of dread.

So: all plot and no character development, right? Wrong. The bomb maker – we never learn his real name – squares off against Dick Stahl, an experienced professional in the fields of both law enforcement and private security. Stahl’s deep knowledge of a seemingly limitless variety of explosive devices, detonators, and the deadly ways in which they can be deployed is combined with an equally deep understanding of the human potential for depravity. This makes him a formidable adversary. But the bomb maker himself is equally formidable. And unlike Dick Stahl, he has no moral compass at all.

The Kirkus review of The Bomb Maker describes Dick Stahl as “a hero worth caring about.” I could not agree more. And to add to the gifts abundantly present in this novel is a love story with just as much suspense inherent as the crime story possesses. Oh, and did I mention: the writing is excellent.

The part that remained remarkable to her was that on the first night they had both known they were very likely to die in days or weeks, and they had each accepted the other as the ideal person with whom to share those days and nights. Her impulsive attraction to the nearest wise and brave man had turned into something huge and real.

Where has Thomas Perry been all my life? After some twenty-five years of gorging myself on crime fiction, I’ve somehow managed to have read just this one of Perry’s twenty-five novels.  That will now change. (Anyone have any recommendations?)

The Bomb Maker opens with a bang. It builds to an hair-raising climax. And the ending is – well, you’ll see. You will, won’t you?

 

 

 

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New artists, new art

June 2, 2018 at 10:47 pm (Art)

New to me, I mean to say. And very welcome discoveries they are!

Estes Park Colorado, by Albert Bierstadt (Click twice to enlarge.)

I know this artist and his fabulous vistas, but I’d never seen this one.

 

Jungfrau Switzerland, by Alexandre Calame (Click twice to enlarge.)

 

Lake of the Four Cantons, by Alexandre Calame

I love the way the sun strikes the mountains while the trees in the foreground remain in shadow.

The Bachelor, by Rose O’Neill

I would have entitled it The Bachelor Beset (or Bewitched or Besieged). What a felicitous discovery is Rose O’Neill, who, among other things, created the Kewpies (derived from ‘Cupid’).

Worshipping Freddie, by Rose O’Neill

Inevitably, this illustration put me in mind of delightful visits to The Art Institute of Chicago with Welles, Etta, and their game-for-anything Mom.

 

Sale at Bendel’s, by Florine Stettheimer

Marvelous! Henri Bendel has been a fixture on Fifth Avenue for as long as I can remember. And Florine Stettheimer is yet another fascinating discovery.

New Mexico Afternoon by Carlos Vierra

 

Northern New Mexico in Winter, Carlos Vierra

 

Santa Fe by Carlos Vierra

Carlos Vierra’s art reveals the glorious color in (supposedly) monochromatic New Mexico.

Yes, the sky really is that blue, nearly every day. Sigh…

 

Along the Rio Grande, by Walter Ufer

 

Navajo Women Waiting, by Barbara Latham (Click to enlarge.)

 

After Rain, by Rae Sloan Bredin

Reverie, by Rae Sloan Bredin

I’ve been introduced to these artists and their works through these two magazines:

Albert Bierstadt 1830-1902

Alexandre Calame, 1810-1864

Rose O’Neill 1874-1944

Florine Stettheimer 1871-1944

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Carlos Vierra 1876-1937

Ernest L. Blumenschein 1874-1960

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Walter Ufer 1876-1936

Barbara Latham 1896-1989

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Rae Sloan Bredin 1880-1933

Musical suggestions to go with your viewing:

 

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We weep for you, Historic Ellicott City!

May 29, 2018 at 11:59 am (Local interest (Baltimore-Washington))

It is truly heartbreaking that this should have happened again. We were just there last Thursday, having dinner at our favorite restaurant, Tersiguel’s.

We pray for the missing man, Eddison “Eddie” Hermond, who was trying to assist a stranded woman when he was wept away by  the raging waters.

And they were raging. The power of a swift current is incredible, and incredibly dangerous.

Information is available, including information on how to help the once again besieged residents and business owners, at The Community Foundation of Howard County.

 

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Robicheaux fatigue, and a suggested remedy

May 26, 2018 at 8:18 pm (Book review, books, Mystery fiction)

  Herewith are some excerpts from media reviews of Robicheaux:

James Lee Burke is what fellow writers call a wordsmith. He can make your eyes water with a lyrical description of tropical rain falling on a Louisiana bayou: “I love the mist hanging in the trees,” he tells us… “a hint of wraiths that would not let heavy stones weigh them down in their graves, the raindrops clicking on the lily pads, the fish rising as though in celebration.” But in the next breath, he’ll offer a comprehensive account of an excruciating death by torture: “The guy who did him took his time.” And to satisfy our appetite for Southern eccentricity, he’ll introduce us to great characters like Baby Cakes Babineau and Pookie the Possum Domingue.

Marilyn Stasio in The New York Times

Is this the last in the series of the great crime writer James Lee Burke’s novels featuring Cajun detective Dave Robicheaux? That eponymous title and an air of mortality as pungent as the semi-tropical Louisiana setting of these outstanding novels would suggest this may be the case.

It isn’t down to a diminishing of Burke’s powers at the age of 81 if so: this 21st instalment is as rewarding and superbly written as any in the series since the first, 1987’s The Neon Rain.

Alasdair Leeds in The Independent

Five years after his last case in far-off Montana (Light of the World, 2013), sometime sheriff’s detective Dave Robicheaux returns to Iberia Parish, Louisiana, for another 15 rounds of high-fatality crime, alcohol-soaked ruminations, and heaven-storming prose….

Despite a plot and a cast of characters formulaic by Burke’s standards (though wholly original for anyone else), the intimations of mortality that have hovered over this series for 30 years have never been sharper or sadder.

Kirkus

This is one of the best entries in one of the best ongoing crime-fiction series currently being published, and like all its predecessors, it’ll have readers eagerly waiting for the next installment.

Steve Donoghue in Open Letters Monthly

The novel’s murders and lies—both committed with unsettling smiles—will captivate, start to finish.

Publishers Weekly

Arthur Miller once said that what separates the great artists from their merely proficient peers is not talent, intelligence, or dedication, but an “unquenchable moral thirst.”

If the late playwright was correct, then his insight serves as explanation for why and how James Lee Burke, one of America’s best novelists, continues to write profound, poetic and important books at the age of 81, after already having won two Edgar Awards — the most prestigious honor for crime writers — a Guggenheim fellowship, and a nomination for the Pulitzer Prize. Burke infuses into his art a theological treatment of ethics, allowing for acts against humanity — both of the smallest repute and the largest consequence — to crack open the essence of reality in contemporary America, but also resting in what Poe famously called, “the tell-tale heart.”

David Masciotra in Salon

I don’t usually read a book’s reviews right before writing up my own assessment. This time is different. I wanted to get some sense of what the reviewers had been saying that had made me want to return to this series, after having abandoned it more than twenty years ago.

Well, now I know. And am none the wiser. Which is to say, I’m somewhat perplexed at all the unqualified raves. In Robicheaux, there are a multitude of characters. This in itself is not unusual in full length mysteries these days. But a number of these characters veer into the action sideways, only to disappear just as abruptly. They were hard to keep track of, to the point where I stopped caring – always a bad sign. As  for the plot: one of the reviewers described it as “multilayered.” I would have used the adjective “incoherent.” I cant be more specific at this time, since I read the book several weeks ago. But I doubt if I could have achieved an orderly retelling of the story even if I’d sat down to write this right after finishing the book.

And back to the characters, I recognized only two besides Dave Robicheaux, from previous books: Cletis “Clete” Purcel, Dave’s close buddy still wearing his signature pork pie hat, and Dave’s daughter Alafair, now grown and a successful novelist (like Burke’s real life daughter, also named Alafair). Other characters came and went; some stayed, like the shape changing Jimmy Nightingale. Some of these people verged on caricatures of Big Bad Southerners, obsessed with their guns, their drinking, and occasionally, their drugs.

Dave himself was still – well, Dave himself, ethical and upright to a fault (except when he wasn’t), still battling alcoholism, fiercely protective – overprotective I’d say – of Alafair. There were times when his air of moral superiority struck me as smug and irritating. A touch of comic relief would have helped, but there was very little of that on offer.

Regarding his home in southwestern Louisiana, Dave entertains a certain ambivalence. On the one hand:

Yes, Louisiana has produced some statesmen and stateswomen, but they are the exception and not the norm. For many years our state legislature has been known as a mental asylum run by ExxonMobil. Since Huey Long, demagoguery has bee a given; misogamy and racism and homophobia have become religious virtues, and self-congratulatory ignorance has  become a source of pride.

Yet, on the other:

I looked the oaks, the moss lifting in the wind, purple dust rising from a cane field, Bayou Teche glinting in the sun like a Byzantine shield. La Louisiane, the love of my life, the home of Jolie Blon and Evangeline and the great Whore of Babylon, the place for which I would die, the place for which there was no answer or cure.

And yes, there is plenty more writing of that caliber. Burke is well known for his way with words in general, and for his poetical descriptions of Louisiana in particular. Tony Hillerman managed to lure me – twice – into visiting New Mexico. (I’d go again in a heartbeat.) James Lee Burke’s depiction of south central Louisiana doesn’t have quite the same effect. Although….

Bayou Teche, near Dave’s home, is a real place.

I found two aspects of this novel profoundly off putting. First, the language was beyond coarse and vulgar, filled with profanity and references to body parts that you’d rather not talk about. Second, the violence was frequent, graphic, and spiked with sickening acts of sadism.

Even so, I pushed ahead to the end, wanting to give the novel every chance to redeem itself in my eyes. And well, the ending was rather fitting, ironic, even sad. It made you wonder what all the effort was for.

Mostly I was just glad it was over. Would I ever read another? If I thought there were a hope for something more humane and less savage, I might.

There was a time when I was so hooked on this series that its unearthly setting invaded my dreams. From 1989, the pub year  of the Edgar-award-winning Black Cherry Blues, through A Morning For Flamingos and A Stained White Radiance to In the Electric Mist with Confederate Dead, published in 1993, I was a faithful reader. In that last novel, Burke evoked the spirits of the doomed soldiers of the Old South, as they slogged through the swamps and lit their campfires where they could. Those men still haunt Robicheaux in this novel. It’s a powerful and haunting trope.

James Lee Burke

I went straight from this unsettling reading experience to another of Ann Cleeves’s Vera Stanhope mysteries. Vera’s no paragon of perfection either, but she’s honest with herself and with others, smart as a whip, and very sympathetic where sympathy is  called for. The violence is muted; the language is low key yet devastating. This one was called Harbour Street.

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A Mother’s Day Visit to The Art Institute

May 24, 2018 at 5:21 pm (Art, Family)

Our goals this time were to visit our former favorites, find some new favorites, and of course, have as much fun as possible.

Our old friends were right where we left them when last we visited (this being one of the excellent things about museums).

Etta and I have grown somewhat sentimental about this bizarre Roman theater mask. Seeing it for the first time, Welles was properly amazed – “He’s  got a hand in his mouth!”

Of course we greeted Degas’s Little Dancer:

 

And Georges Seurat’s Un Dimanche Après-Midi à L’Île de La Grande Jatte:

Each time we visit this place, we see something new (to us) and wonderful:

The Poet’s Garden, 1888, Vincent Van Gogh (Click to enlarge)

 

Fishing in Spring, the Pont de Clichy, (Asnières), 1887, Vincent Van Gogh (Click to enlarge)

 

Adolphe-Joseph-Thomas Monticelli, 1874: Still Life with Fruit and Wine Jug…

…and Gorgeous Little Girl in White Dress and Shoes of Gold… Ah, well, no chance of objectivity here!

Sir John Shaw and his family in the park at Eltham Lodge, Kent, 1761, by Arthur Devis

I’d never heard of Arthur Devis but I was completely captivated by this work. How did I miss it until now?

Boar Incarnation of the God Vishnu (Varaha), ca. 10th century, India

 

An Elegant Woman at the Elysee Montmartre, 1888, Louis Anquetin

 

Noh Costume (Nuihaku), 1801/25

Etta and I made our rounds together; Welles and his Mom went a different way. When we met up, Welles was nearly beside himself with excitement. He had something truly wonderful to show his big sister! So upstairs we trooped to the Kania Collection, and lo and behold, what did we find there but this:

Officially designated as “Untitled (Portrait of Ross in LA),” this work  – in some places referred to as an installation – is by the Cuban-born artist Felix Gonzalez-Torres and is dated 1991. The Art Institute site describes it as follows:

Candies individually wrapped in multicolor cellophane, endless supply
Dimensions vary with installation; ideal weight 175 lbs.

An endless supply of candy! Surely this is the stuff of dreams, especially for children, and especially for Welles, a confirmed candy aficionado at the age of four. (‘Endless supply’ translates into the fact that visitors may help themselves to the sweet stuff, as long as it’s promptly replenished by staff.)

Felix Gonzalez-Torres‘s life was tragically cut short: he died in 1996 at the age of 38. But with this work, he gave joy to my grandchildren and no doubt to others as well. I am grateful to him.
***************

As for that other famed denizen of the Art Institute, alas, it is still at the Whitney in New York. I mean, of course, Grant Wood’s American Gothic:

This is the fourth time in the past two years that I’ve come to the Art Institute and missed seeing it! I must have faith that it will some day come home – sigh….

As usual, we finished our visit at the museum’s gift shop. There are two, actually, both equally filled with a tantalizing selection of goodies. The array of art books is truly impressive; there was an entire rack of these from my current favorite art book publisher, Taschen.

Among the other merchandise, I particularly love a series of hand painted silk scarves by Chicago artist Joanna Alot. This time I came away with this beauty:

As for the children, they selected kits of modeling clay. Welles and Etta are lively, energetic, and affectionate. Sometimes it is all their no-longer-young grandmother can do to keep up with them! And yet, once home from the museum, they became lost in clay play. Etta was creating her own version of marbles; Welles was making small containers for them. (It is absolutely necessary for Welles to have at least part of his vast collection of Hot Wheels nearby, whenever he undertakes a project of this sort – or just anytime.)

Watching them so quietly absorbed in these projects, I was reminded once more of the miracle of their existence, and of my equally miraculous and boundless love for them. And many thanks, too, to their Mom, my beautiful daughter-in-law, for making all of this possible.

 

 

 

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Phillip Roth

May 23, 2018 at 2:08 pm (books, Remembrance)

I have very little to add to the numerous articles  and essays on the subject of this great and often controversial writer. I grew up surrounded by his works, and discussion of his works, sometimes heated, within my own family circle and among friends.

Roth’s Newark, New Jersey origins closely mirrored mine, just up – down? – the road in West Orange. My family always felt a strong, if strained, kinship with him. Family legend has it that one of my uncles attended Weequahic High School at the same time as Roth.

The Wikipedia entry has a list of the complete oeuvre. Of those, I’ve read the following:

The Ghost Writer
Zuckerman Unbound
The Human Stain
Exit Ghost
The Dying Animal
Everyman
Patrimony: A True Story

That last, a memoir of the final illness and death of his father Herman Roth, was deeply moving. My favorite from among the novels I’ve read is The Human Stain. American Pastoral is often cited as his masterwork.

Roth often wrote as it he were regaling, even haranguing, his interlocutor. His writing was mercilessly direct and utterly without affectation. The following, from The Human Stain, describes the narrator’s experience attending a rehearsal at The Tanglewood Music Center in western Massachusetts:

   As the audience filed back in, I began, cartoonishly, to envisage the fatal malady that, without anyone’s recognizing it, was working away inside us, within each and every one of us: to visualize the blood vessels occluding under the baseball caps, the malignancies growing beneath the permed white hair, the organs misfiring, atrophying, shutting down, the hundreds of billions of murderous cells surreptitiously marching this entire audience toward the improbable disaster ahead. I couldn’t stop myself. The stupendous decimation that is death sweeping us all away. Orchestra, audience, conductor, technicians, swallows, wrens—think of the numbers for Tanglewood alone just between now and the year 4000. Then multiply that times everything. The ceaseless perishing. What an idea! What maniac conceived it? And yet what a lovely day it is today, a gift of a day, a perfect day lacking nothing in a Massachusetts vacation spot that is itself as harmless and pretty as any on earth.

Then Bronfman appears. Bronfman the brontosaur! Mr. Fortissimo! Enter Bronfman to play Prokofiev at such a pace and with such bravado as to knock my morbidity clear out of the ring. He is conspicuously massive through the upper torso, a force of nature camouflaged in a sweatshirt, somebody who has strolled into the Music Shed out of a circus where he is the strongman and who takes on the piano as a ridiculous challenge to the gargantuan strength he revels in. Yefim Bronfman looks less like the person who is going to play the piano than like the guy who should be moving it. I had never before seen anybody go at a piano like this sturdy little barrel of an unshaven Russian Jew. When he’s finished, I thought, they’ll have to throw the thing out. He crushes it. He doesn’t let that piano conceal a thing. Whatever’s in there is going to come out, and come out with its hands in the air. And when it does, everything there out in the open, the last of the last pulsation, he himself gets up and goes, leaving behind him our redemption. With a jaunty wave, he is suddenly gone, and though he takes all his fire off with him like no less a force than Prometheus, our own lives now seem inextinguishable. Nobody is dying, nobody—not if Bronfman has anything to say about it!

I have a vague memory of a feature article that appeared some years ago in the Washington Post (or possibly The New York Times). It was entitled “Lions in Winter,” those lions – if memory serves, and it may not – being Saul Bellow, E.L. Doctorow, Joseph Heller, Phillip Roth,  and John Updike. Now they are all gone, yet not gone, and well worth revisiting, each of them, but especially, today, Phillip Roth.

Phillip Milton Roth
March 19, 1933-May 22, 2018

 

 

 

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The Temptation of Forgiveness by Donna Leon

May 7, 2018 at 9:21 pm (Book review, books, Italy, Mystery fiction)

  In general, I’m a big fan of Donna Leon’s mysteries. Guido Brunetti is one of the most humane and compassionate officers of the law that one could ever wish to meet, either in fiction or in real life. His family, consisting of wife and university professor (and fabulous cook) Paola and children Raffi and Chiara, now almost grown, are a pleasure to spend time with. Alas, in this latest outing, we don’t get to see much of them. This may be one of the reasons why I was less than thrilled with this particular series entry.

The writing is, in a crisp and unaffected way, wonderful. In this scene, Brunetti has seated himself by the hospital bed of an unconscious, badly bruised man.

He crossed his legs and studied  the crucifix on the wall. Did people still think He could help them? Maybe being in the hospital refreshed their belief and made it possible again for them to think that He would. One gentleman to another, Brunetti asked the Man on the cross if He would  be kind enough to help the man in the bed. He was lying there, perhaps troubled in spirit, helpless, wounded and hurt, apparently through no fault of his own. It occurred to Brunetti that much the same could be said of the Man he was asking to help; this would perhaps make Him more amenable to the request.

This scene actually surprised me, since Brunetti has, throughout this series, thought of himself as at  best, an agnostic.  Thus does belief sometimes steal upon us, taking us unaware, even if just momentarily.

(In The End of the Affair by Graham Greene, Sarah says, “I’ve caught belief like a disease. I’ve fallen into belief like I fell in love.”)

All this time, the victim’s wife is also in the hospital room, anxiously waiting for him to awaken. At one point, an attendant comes in and offers her a simple courtesy, which she desperately needs. Brunetti thanks the attendant for her kindness.

She was a robust women, stuffed into a uniform she seemed to be outgrowing. One loose strand of greying hair had slipped from under the transparent plastic-shower-cap thing; her hands were red and rough. She smiled. St.Augustine was wrong, Brunetti realized: it was not necessary for grace to be arrived at by prayer; it was as natural and abundant as the sunlight.

And so, what about that unconscious man? How did he get that way, and what is his fate to be? Unfortunately, this aspect of the novel was, for this reader at least, not especially compelling. The narrative dragged in places; the interviews were less than riveting. Ultimately, the solution to the mystery hinges on a fistful of discount cosmetic coupons issued by a pharmacist to an elderly lady. This transaction was analyzed at length; it was confusing and just plain dull.

Concerning Brunetti’s workplace colleagues, there are two who are portrayed in a positive light: fellow investigator Claudia Griffoni, a relatively new addition to the cast of characters; and Signorina Elettra Zorzi. Signorina Elettra, as she is usually called, is a civilian employee of the police, whose resourcefulness is legendary (as is her wardrobe).

Donna Leon has expressed her delight at the entrance of Signorina Elettra into the cast of characters in the Brunetti novels. Here’s how she puts it in an interview:

She came about one day a long time ago. I forget when she entered, the 3rd or 4th book. (the 3rd book) Really, that long ago. I was writing and someone knocked on Brunetti’s door and I didn’t have a clue who it could be or what it could be. So I went for a long walk, probably down to Sant Elena and I came back and turned on the computer and by God Signorina Elettra walked in and Thank God for the day that she did.

Not everyone is enamored of this character. One reader who most definitely isn’t is my friend Marge, whom I’ve referred to in the past as my ‘partner in crime,’ since she was the one who explained to me, when I first came to work at the library, why I should be reading mysteries. Marge is so put off by the presence – some would say the intrusive presence – of Elettra that she has stopped  reading this series altogether. Ah mon Dieu! Now I’m not crazy about her either, but I don’t dislike her quite to that extent. And as I’ve indicated above, this latest is, in my view, not Donna Leon’s best work. But in a series thus far comprising twenty-seven novels, some are bound to better than others. My favorite among the more recent titles is The Waters of Eternal Youth.

One aspect of the Brunetti novels that is a constant, and that gives great pleasure, is the setting. The city of Venice is almost a character in and of itself, unique and imperiled as it currently is. I recently read a review of a 2016 book by Salvatore Settis entitled If Venice Dies.  The cover pretty well sums up the crux of the problem (click to enlarge):

Let’s hope something can be done, and in time. Meanwhile, I along with many others will continue to read the Brunetti novels and to ponder the exasperating glory of that unique city.

 

 

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