London, Day Two: The British Museum, first post

December 16, 2017 at 2:28 pm (London 2017)

So I’ve  been cudgeling my brain for the right adjectives to describe this singular house of treasures….But in the end, I’ve decided to let this mighty institution, repository of riches going back millennia and stretching all the way to the present day, speak for itself. (Oh well, I’m drowning in superlatives after all – inevitably!)

First, a brief but meaningful prelude: several months prior to my making this trip, Ron and I watched a set of Great Courses DVD’s entitled 30 Masterpieces of the Ancient World. Our lecturer was Professor Diana K. McDonald, Ph.D, of Boston College. We both thought she was excellent; she brought a rather arcane subject to vivid and colorful life.

One of the first objects that Professor McDonald introduced us to was the Standard of Ur. I recalled Ur from my Sunday School days – Ur of the Chaldees, birthplace of the patriarch Abraham – but neither of us had ever heard of this particular object. At once it exerted a strong fascination for both of us.

Possibly in the course of her talk on this subject, Professor McDonald informed us that the Standard of Ur resided in the British Museum. At any rate, I had no recollection of her having done so. As luck would have it, upon entering the first of many rooms containing untold treasures of the ancient world, the Standard was one of the first things I came upon.

Few experiences can equal that of seeing with your own eyes something that has mesmerized you in a more remote medium. You can well believe it – I pretty much jumped out of my skin! “Oh, my God – It’s the Standard of Ur!” I exclaimed, probably too loudly for the sake of decorum. (My dear sister-in-law Donna kindly indulged me in this moment.)

Herewith the description of this object from the British Museum website:

“The Standard of Ur”, decorated on four sides with inlaid mosaic scenes made from shell, red limestone and lapis lazuli, set in bitumen. One side shows a war scene; a Sumerian army with wheeled waggons and infantry charges the enemy; prisoners are brought before a larger individual, who is accompanied by guards and has his own waggon waiting behind him. The reverse shows scenes of men are bringing animals, fish etc, possibly as booty or tribute; at the top the same large individual banquets with other men; they are entertained at the right by a singer and a man playing a lyre. The triangular end panels show other scenes; the object was found crushed but has since been restored, and samples retained.

The Standard is approximately 8.5 inches high, 20 inches long, 4.5 wide at its base, and slightly over 2 inches at the top. (The sides slope inward as it reaches upward; Wikipedia likens the shape to that of a Toblerone candy bar.) It was found in the course of an excavation of royal tombs in the city of Ur, in what was once lower Mesopotamia.

The excavation was undertaken jointly by the British Museum and the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology. It was led by British archaeologist Sir Leonard Woolley. The time period stretched from 1922 to 1934. (For more information, and some striking photos, click here.) On the Pennsylvania Museum website, there’s a lengthy and illuminating appreciation of Woolley written by M.E.L. Mallowan. (‘Max’ Mallowan, himself a distinguished archaeologist, was the husband of Agatha Christie.)

Here, in Leonard Woolley’s own words, is what happened at the dig in January of 1928:

The whole tomb had  been cleared except for this corner, where  there seemed small probability of anything being found, for the south corner and the south-east generally had produced nothing at all. The discovery of the bead “head-dress” put the workmen on their guard  and involved special care; then amongst the heads appeared a few minute squares and triangles of shell and lapis lazuli mosaic, after them two or three figures silhouetted in shell.

They had uncovered the first fragments of the Standard of Ur.

Much work of careful excavation and reconstruction lay ahead. When they had finished this labor, their meticulous efforts were rewarded thus:

(The quotation above is taken from The Standard of Ur by Sarah Collins. This booklet, about sixty pages in length, is part of a series published by the British Museum Press entitled Objects in Focus.)

Donna can be faintly discerned behind the display case above. Below, you see her more clearly, enraptured by this object:

In the lengthwise picture below, you may catch a glimpse of yet another ancient masterpiece: the Ram Caught in the Thicket.

When Dr. McDonald presented this object in her lecture, I got chills. I’d never seen it before yet I knew  – or felt that I knew –  exactly  what it was: The entangled ram whose sudden appearance saved the life of Isaac, who was about to be sacrificed by his father Abraham.   (Genesis 22)

Once again, seeing the actual piece was a tremendous thrill.

 

 

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London, Day One: Christmas crowds and Christmas lights

December 11, 2017 at 4:50 pm (Christmas 2017, London 2017, Travel)

As I was adjusting to jet lag and a general sense of dislocation, my brother, sister-in-law, and I explored the neighborhood. This was Bloomsbury.

We were staying at the Bloomsbury and the Radisson Blu Edwardian Bloomsbury Street Hotels respectively – barely a block from the imposing edifice of the British Museum on Great Russell Street.

The British Museum in London

 

That night, we walked to the storied Seven Dials  intersection,    then along Oxford Street to Regent Street. This is the intersection known as Oxford Circus. I was not always sure where I was at each point in our stroll, but I know the streets were thronged with holiday shoppers and the lights were dazzling.

In the course of our peregrinations, we ended up at London’s new flagship Apple store on Regent Street (see map above). This was not entirely unplanned; my brother Richard works for the company at its headquarters in Cupertino, California.

Unlike this depiction, the store was packed that night. a week ago last Sunday.

 

It’s an impressively designed store, spacious, beautifully detailed, and very green.

Now, back to the streets and the lights. These pictures (plus one video) were taken under less than optimal conditions, but I still think they convey a sense of the festive and beautiful ambience that was very much in evidence  that night:

 

 

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Best Reading in 2017: Classic Crime

December 1, 2017 at 10:44 pm (Best of 2017, books, Mystery fiction)

Before I blast off for London town, here’s a shout-out for the year’s most rewarding reading experience; namely, my immersion in vintage and classic works of crime fiction, facilitated by this singularly excellent volume by Martin Edwards:

I’ve already written about several titles suggested therein, but here  are the are again, with new ones added to the mix.

These three were highly enjoyable:

  

  

These, even more so:

features a wonderfully atmospheric setting in the Scottish Highlands

Wonderful turn of the century setting on the continent, with a plot inspired by an actual crime

Click here for my review of this title.

If I had to choose my absolute favorites thus far, it would be these three:

Egyptian mysteries, terrific writing, a cunning plot, and a love story – The Eye of Osiris has all of these elements, and more.

Where Israel Rank is concerned, it’s a classic case of being amazed not to have heard of this book before now. Israel Rank is a young man on the make – and then some. His father is Jewish, and so he is set apart, to a certain degree, at the outset. The accusation of anti-Semitism is frequently made in regard to this novel. Certainly, as the narrative unfolds, the fact of Rank’s Jewish heritage is alluded to from time to time, by himself and by others. Certain unwarranted generalizations are made. I personally was made slightly uneasy at times, but I was never offended. My verdict: the author skates close to the territory, but never actually goes in.

Martin Edwards describes the novel as “edgy and provocative.” I agree with that assessment.

Israel Rank has been adapted both as a film and a Broadway show. The film is from 1949 and is entitled Kind Hearts and Coronets. In it, Alec Guinness  portrays no fewer than nine different characters! The name ‘Israel Rank’ is changed to ‘Louis Mazzini;’ accordingly, he became half Italian rather than half Jewish. I’ve not had a chance to see the film yet, but I hope to soon.   The Broadway musical is entitled A Gentleman’s Guide To Love and Murder. I’ve not seen that either, though my cousin Stephany, a Broadway aficionado par excellence, has seen it and declares it to be quite wonderful.

It’s one of the most recognized name in all of crime fiction. Yet I’d never read a single book by Ellery Queen before now.

What was I waiting for?

I loved Calamity Town. It has everything I look for in a mystery: ingenious plotting, believable and often sympathetic characters, excellent writing, a love story – or a hint of the possibility of one – it’s all here, in abundance. The novel is set in the small New England town of Wrightsville – there are, I believe, several others with the same setting.

The Ellery Queen novels were authored jointly by two men professionally known as Frederic Dannay and Manfred B.Lee.

Manfred B. Lee, left, and Frederic Dannay

Lee and Dannay were two cousins straight out of Brooklyn, that cauldron of American talent (or in a few cases, notoriety).    In addition to writing their own novels and short stories, they anthologized the work of other notable writers.  And of course there’s Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, launched by the Mercury Press in 1941 and still going strong today more than 70 years later. Frederic Dannay was editor-in-chief up until his death in 1982. According to Wikipedia, “It is now the longest-running mystery fiction magazine in existence.”

Michael Grost of A Guide to Classic Mystery and Detection has a lengthy and detailed entry for Ellery Queen. In it, he states bluntly: “They are the most important American detective writers of the Twentieth Century.”

So thanks, Martin Edwards. It’s good to know that I have lots more reading pleasure awaiting me, courtesy of your splendidly curated list!

Martin Edwards

 

 

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‘It was one of the mysteries of modern life, what happened to old love.’ – Improvement, by Joan Silber

November 27, 2017 at 4:05 pm (Book review, books)

   The January 18 Washington Post featured a review by Charles Finch of Improvement, a new novel by Joan Silber. The article is entitled, “Joan Silber, America’s Alice Munro.” (Could  there be any higher praise?) Charles Finch urges readers thus:

Go introduce yourself to the genius who’s  been toiling in your back yard.

Yes, YES! I could not agree more.

I immediately downloaded Improvement and read it in three (otherwise extremely busy) days. Joan Silber’s style is very colloquial. You could swear that she’s sitting next to you spinning a wildly improbable – or all too probable? – yarn, filled with characters who are unique and driven and at the same time only too vulnerable. What they all have in common is the mistaken assumption that they’re in control of their respective destinies.

Compulsively readable, hugely entertaining, and filled to the brim with home truths that seem only too inevitable after the fact.
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  As much as I enjoyed Improvement, I don’t think it’s quite on a par with Ideas of Heaven: A Ring of Stories, one of the most masterful and profound works of fiction I’ve ever encountered. In the twelve years since I first read this extraordinary collection of stories, I’ve returned to it in my mind, time and time again. It haunts me – particularly, the title story.

Joan Silber

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‘The Name Atticus Pünd was familiar to him….’ – Magpie Murders by Anthony Horowitz

November 19, 2017 at 2:30 pm (Book review, books, Mystery fiction)

  This is like a Golden Age detective novel on steroids – not that all of those were necessarily short. There’s always Gaudy Night. And that crowning (and lengthy) achievement in crime fiction by Dorothy L Sayers does not contain a murder.

Magpie Murders is a book within a book. Or perhaps it is better described as a book alongside another book. At the very least. it is oddly structured. But it does have some recognizable features, most particularly a brainy and cultured ‘consulting’ detective who arrives on Britain’s shores as a refugee from the war on the Continent. Remind you of someone? Well, he is somewhat reminiscent of Hercule Poirot, but his finely honed powers of observation also bring to mind Sherlock Holmes.

He is Atticus Pünd. This is how he appears to a physician who is treating him:

The name Atticus Pünd was familiar to him, of course. He was often mentioned in the newspapers – a German refugee who had managed to survive the war after spending a year in one of Hitler’s concentration camps. At the time of his arrest he had been a policeman working in Berlin – or perhaps it was Vienna – and after arriving in England, he had set himself up as a private detective, helping the police on numerous occasions. He did not look like a detective. He was a small man, very neat, his hands folded in front of him. He was wearing a dark suit, a white shirt and a narrow black tie. His shoes were polished. If he had not known otherwise, the doctor might have mistaken him for an accountant, the sort who would work for a family firm and who would be utterly reliable.

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Inevitably, Atticus Pund has a ‘Watson,’ hired to assist him in his detecting and record keeping endeavors. This is James Fraser.

A graduate out of Oxford University, a would-be actor, broke, and perennially unemployed, he had answered an advertisement in the Spectator thinking that he would stay in the job for a few months. Six years later, he was still there.

(Later in the novel, we’re informed that James Fraser was named for actor Hugh Fraser who played Captain Hastings, the somewhat dim but extremely likable ‘associate’ of  David Suchet’s brilliant Poirot.)

David Suchet as Hercule Poirot and Hugh Fraser as Captain Arthur Hastings

Atticus Pünd is a person possessed of deep understanding and a great capacity for empathy. Here, he is confiding to James Fraser his anxiety about the case they are investigating:

 ‘There is something about the village of Saxby-on-Avon that concerns me,’ he went on. ‘I have spoken to you before of the nature of human wickedness, my friend. How it is the small lies and evasions which nobody sees or detects but which can come together and smother you like the fumes in a house fire.’ He turned and surveyed the surrounding buildings, the shaded square. ‘They are all around us. Already there have been two deaths: three, if you include the child who died in the lake all those years ago. They are all connected. We must move quickly before there is a fourth.’

Meanwhile, Pünd is at work on a book which he hopes will encompass all the skills that he has acquired in the course of his detecting l life. It is to be entitled The Landscape of Criminal Investigation. (This immediately put me in mind of the oft-quoted tome The Principles of Private Detection,  written by Clovis Anderson and held in the highest esteem by Precious Ramotswe and Grace Makutsi of the No.1 Ladies’ Detective Agency. Their creator, Alexander McCall Smith, has said that readers frequently ask him where they can obtain a copy of this purportedly  wondrous volume. “You can’t,” he responds. “I made it up!”)

The Atticus Pünd novels are written by Alan Conway. His London-based editor, Susan Ryeland, narrates a portion of Magpie Murders. (As I said, this is a novel within a novel, or you could say it’s two novels conflated into one. If this seems confusing, don’t worry. It’s actually quite a cunning edifice, offering numerous delights and surprises within.)

At one point, Ryeland speculates on the appeal of the English village as a setting for crime fiction:

Why do English villages lend themselves so well to murder? I used to wonder about this but got the answer when I made the mistake of renting a cottage in a village near Chichester….I soon discovered that every time I made one friend I made three enemies and that arguments about such issues as car parking, the church bells, dog waste and hanging flower baskets dominated daily life to such an extent that everyone was permanently at each other’s throats. That’s the truth of it. Emotions which are quickly lost in the noise and chaos of the city fester around the village square, driving people to psychosis and violence. It’s a gift to the whodunnit writer. There’s also the advantage of connectivity. Cities are anonymous but in a small, rural community everyone knows everyone, making it so much easier to create suspects and, for that matter, people to suspect them.

This passage put me in mind of the following exchange between Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson in  the story “The Adventure of the Copper Beeches.” The two are traveling by train from London to Winchester:

It was an ideal spring day, a light blue sky, flecked with little fleecy white clouds drifting across from west to east. The sun was shining very brightly, and yet there was an exhilarating nip in the air, which set an edge to a man’s energy. All over the countryside, away to the rolling hills around Aldershot, the little red and grey roofs of the farm-steadings peeped out from amid the light green of the new foliage.

“Are they not fresh and beautiful?” I cried with all the enthusiasm of a man fresh from the fogs of Baker Street.

But Holmes shook his head gravely.

“Do you know, Watson,” said he, “that it is one of the curses of a mind with a turn like mine that I must look at everything with reference to my own special subject. You look at these scattered houses, and you are impressed by their beauty. I look at them, and the only thought which comes to me is a feeling of their isolation and of the impunity with which crime may be committed there.”

“Good heavens!” I cried. “Who would associate crime with these dear old homesteads?”

“They always fill me with a certain horror. It is my belief, Watson, founded upon my experience, that the lowest and vilest alleys in London do not present a more dreadful record of sin than does the smiling and beautiful countryside.”

Susan Ryeland is a lover of detective fiction, but she’s genuinely puzzled by the  frequent use of murder as a key plot device:

There are hundreds and hundreds of murders in books and television. It would be hard for narrative fiction to survive without them. And yet there are almost none in real life, unless you happen to live in the wrong area. Why is it that we have such a need for murder mystery and what is it that attracts us – the crime or the solution? Do we have some primal need of bloodshed because our own lives are so safe, so comfortable? I made a mental note to check out Alan’s sales figures in San Pedro Sula in Honduras (the murder capital of the world). It might be that they didn’t read him at all.

(It saddens me to reflect that the comment about “the wrong area” would probably not be made these days by an American. We’re learning more and more, to our collective chagrin, that the wrong area can be anywhere at all.)

Despite a certain unease, Susan Ryeland readily confesses her love for the crime fiction genre:

I’ve always loved whodunnits. I’ve not just edited them. I’ve read them for pleasure throughout my life, gorging on them actually. You must know that feeling when it’s raining outside and the heating’s on and you lose yourself, utterly, in a book. You read and you read and you feel the pages slipping through your fingers until suddenly there are fewer in your right hand than there are in your left and you want to slow down but you still hurtle on towards a conclusion you can hardly bear to discover. That is the particular power of the whodunnit which has, I think, a special place within the general panoply of literary fiction because, of all characters, the detective enjoys a particular, indeed a unique relationship with the reader. Whodunnits are all about truth: nothing more, nothing less.

Ah, yes – the pages slipping through your fingers, a delicious sensation hard to replicate with an e-reader…. And speaking of pages, don’t be daunted  by the novel’s length. It’s about 450 pages long but they fly by. (And why can’t I tell you exactly how long it is? Well, I’d have to do some arithmetic first. But really, just get it and you will see for yourself.)

Magpie Murders is a splendid hommage to the crime fiction of a bygone era. I’m immensely grateful to Anthony Horowitz for writing it.

Anthony Horowitz, named Officer of the Order of the British Empire (OBE) for services to literature in 2014

 

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The Nature of California

November 13, 2017 at 9:45 pm (Art, California, Family)

The bark of the Madrone Tree is reddish in color. When you handle it, it feels like some sort of heavy fabric, pliable and singularly lacking in the expected brittleness.

Bet you didn’t know that…

Neither did I. But this I learned and more, while walking and hiking in the woods and forests of the Bay Area, more specifically the Peninsular region of Northern California. The photo above was taken in Huddart Park in Woodside. We hiked the Bay Tree Trail.   Being enveloped by these woods was delicious. Most of the time, we were the only ones there. The words that kept recurring to me were: ‘This is the forest primeval….’

From Bay Trees such as these, we get the leaves of culinary fame. Growing in profusion along the eponymous trail,  they gave their scent to the air around us.

I’m a great lover of ferns; they are so primordial. They were plentiful along this trail.

And then. of course,  there are the majestic redwoods….

My younger brother, who loves and savors the nature of California

We went for a walk in a place called Hidden Villa. Nestled in a nook of Los Altos Hills – when they say ‘Hidden,’ they mean Hidden!’ – this is a nature preserve with a mission, to wit:

Hidden Villa is a nonprofit educational organization that uses its organic farm, wilderness, and community to teach and provide opportunities to learn about the environment and social justice.

From the Hidden Villa website

At Hidden Villa, we encountered a lush growth of trees and shrubs, a modest number of sheep, goats, cows, horses – oh, and plenty of children on school outings. All added to the magic of the afternoon.

We even came across a brook that was actually babbling! This was significant, as many dry creek beds were pointed out to us in the course of this visit. In a dry land, that sound is magical.

Hidden Villa was established by Frank and Josephine Duveneck.   The Duvenecks come across as entirely admirable people, but something else was going on for me as well. ‘Duveneck’ is an unusual name, and as soon as I saw it on the information brochure, I recognized it as a name I’d seen before – and recently, too.

Of late, I’ve been reading quite  a bit about American artists of the late nineteenth century, and the early part of the twentieth. The father of Frank Duveneck, husband of Josephine pictured above, was also (confusingly) named Frank. Frank the elder was a painter of some repute. He was married to Elizabeth  Boott, herself a painter as well. Elizabeth Boott and her father Francis were good friends of the novelist Henry James (someone I am always reading, and reading about).

All of this was revealed to me in the Wikipedia entry for Frank Duveneck. (I had simply googled ‘Duveneck.’) Click on the name of the son – Frank Boott Duveneck – and you’re taken straight to the entry for Hidden Villa.

In 1886, Lizzie Boott gave birth to a son Frank; she died of pneumonia in 1888, leaving behind her small son and a devastated husband.

Apple Tree Branches, by Elizabeth Boott

Elizabeth ‘Lizzie’ Boott, by Frank Duveneck

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Linden Tree Books in Los Altos specializes in Children’s books. In this era of disappearing bookstores, it was a pleasure to spend time there.

When I mentioned that I’d like a book for my four-year-old grandson, a lover of cars and other means of transportation, one of the sales associates suggested this:

My sister-in-law favored this:

And I simply coundn’t leave without The Water Hole by Graeme Base, a truly amazing illustrator:

This shop also carries a small but carefully chosen selection of books for adults. Luckily, the marvelous News of the World was there. Handing it to my sister-in-law I exclaimed “You have to read this!” Naturally it made the cut.

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My lucky brother and sister-in-law live amidst great beauty. In their yard, a lemon tree flourishes:

In the yard also is a sign of the times, alas….

Finally, in the kitchen of their lovely home, my sister-in-law, a gifted and enthusiastic cook, whipped up one heck of a moussaka!

Yours Truly helped as best I could. This assistance mostly consisted of measuring out spices and other foodstuffs, stirring the bechamel sauce, and struggling with recalcitrant containers:

When finally assembled, the dish was delicious!
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On our final night, a harvest moon shone brightly:

Ah California, mi amor.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Trace, by Archer Mayor: a Joe Gunther novel

October 30, 2017 at 6:55 pm (Book review, books, Mystery fiction)

  Joe Gunther, former Lieutenant in the Brattleboro Police Department and now  Special Agent field commander for the Vermont Bureau of Investigation (VBI), always knew that if for any reason he were to be sidelined, all ‘heck’ would break loose at the VBI.

He was right.

As the events of Trace get under way, Joe’s elderly mother has fallen ill with a variant of Lyme Disease. The best treatment for her is only available at a hospital in the Midwest. Joe must accompany his mother to this facility and say with her for the duration, leaving his trusty subordinate Sammie Martens in charge.

Sure enough, no sooner has he left the premises, then things start to happen. An investigation into a police shooting  that occurred two years previous is reopened due to the discovery of new evidence. That case goes to Lester Spinney. Next, some strange objects found on a stretch of of railroad track – a crushed battery and several human teeth (!) – seems to point to an infraction that could involve Homeland Security. The elusive and slippery Willy Kunkle catches this one.

Finally, there’s a break-in at the apartment of Rachel Reiling, daughter of state medical examiner Beverly Hillstrom. Beverly and Joe are in a relationship, so Joe is particularly anguished at being hors  de combat at this critical moment. As per Beverly’s request, Sammie becomes part of the team investigating this crime and its weighty, complex consequences.

Archer Mayor handles all of this with his usual skill and aplomb. In my opinion, he is one of the best in the business when it comes to constructing tight, consistent plots. His team members are beautifully drawn characters. We  get engrossing insights into their personal lives minus the soap opera aspect that can become so grating in some crime fiction.

As always, Archer Mayor’s deep knowledge of and affection for Vermont provide a rich backdrop for the narrative:

They were traveling north on I-91, in preparation for catching the state’s only other interstate – I-89 -that cut diagonally through thee Green Mountains to reach Burlington on the western border. It was a beautiful, scenic, thinly traveled road, showing off some of the best views that northern New England had to offer.At this time of year–the soothing, seductive, emerald green stretch of time between the end of mud season and early fall, when this patch of earth holds out the brief glimpse of perfection–it was difficult for even a  hard-bitten soul not to be influenced.

Mayor can also gently chaff the Green Mountain State, as when he notes that the locals refer to the frequently sighted abandoned cars dotting the countryside as ‘Vermont planters.’

I think that this is one of the best entries I’ve read in this long running series. It’s beyond my understanding why Archer Mayor is not better known, his excellence more widely acknowledged. These novels are outstanding.

The following is from Archer Mayor’s site:

Archer Mayor is a death investigator for Vermont’s Office of the Chief Medical Examiner, a detective for the Windham County Sheriff’s Office, the publisher of his own backlist, a travel writer for AAA, and he travels the Northeast giving speeches and conducting workshops. He has 25 years of experience as a volunteer firefighter/EMT. Mayor was brought up in the US, Canada and France and had been employed as a scholarly editor, a researcher for TIME-LIFE Books, a political advance-man, a theater photographer, a newspaper writer/editor, a lab technician for Paris-Match Magazine in Paris, France, and a medical illustrator. In addition to writing novels and occasional articles, Mayor gives talks and workshops all around the country, including the Bread Loaf Young Writers conference in Middlebury, Vermont, and the Colby College seminar on forensic sciences in Waterville, Maine.

Archer Mayor: From what I can see, a deeply accomplished and thoroughly admirable person

 

 

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Once again, Etta and Grandma ‘Berta visit the Art Institute of Chicago

October 29, 2017 at 2:06 pm (Art, Family)

Etta and I enjoyed our first visit to the Art Institute of Chicago so much that we decided to go again. This we were able to do, earlier this month.

This time we entered through the Modern Wing.

We went first to an architecture display.  One of the exhibits allowed you to draw lines on a screen just by waving your hands around! Etta enjoyed this quite a bit.

Next we went to the French Impressionist Gallery. We have decided that this is one of our favorite spaces in the museum. We saw some of our old friends, and some new art as well.

And then of course there’s Georges Seurat’s marvelous canvas, A Sunday on La Grande Jatte (‘Un dimanche aprèsmidi à l’Île de la Grande Jatte‘). Etta has learned about the technique of pointillism used by Seurat in the creation of this masterpiece. As a result, she refers to it as ‘the dot painting.’

A beautiful child, a beautiful painting…Life is good

One pleasing result of time spent with the French Impressionists: Etta now delights in  the art of Claude Monet:

Waterloo Bridge, Sunlight Effect, 1903

 

Irises 1914-1917

 

Étretat, The Beach and the Falaise d’Amont, 1885

For this visit, we were lucky to come across some lovely objets d’art.

We then proceeded to the Asian and ancient art galleries. We had our eye out for a truly strange object that had fascinated us on our previous visit and that I’d somehow failed to photograph. As we rounded a corner on our way to the Artist’s Studio in the Ryan Learning Center, Etta spotted it – “There it is!” we chorused together.

This is actually a some kind of Roman theater prop. (I had thought it was Asian.) Etta attempted to enter into the spirit of the thing:

Next, we went to the Artist’s Studio. In this gracious space, tables and art supplies are freely provided for the children. We came here last time, and Etta was looking forward to a return visit.

Finally, it was time to visit the Museum Shop. This being partly a celebration of Etta’s birthday, I encouraged her to pick out several items that appealed to her. (Actually, I might’ve said, “Knock yourself out, Kid!” – I don’t quite remember.) Museums are among my favorite shopping venues, and this one did not disappoint – quite the opposite, in fact. We were both like kids in a candy store (Etta being the actual kid, of course).

Etta understood what was being asked of her and rose wonderfully to the occasion. As befits her generous nature, she picked out a nifty toy for little brother Welles, and a set of coasters for her Mom and Dad. Finally, for herself she selected this lovely tote bag:

Finally, after this thoroughly exhilarating day, we trooped back outside, to be hailed by Etta’s Dad, who’d been with Welles at a birthday party not far from the museum. Welles – known to some of us as ‘Wellesy’ – was also on hand to greet us; Mom too.
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The Art Institute is located within the grounds of Grant Park (much as the Metropolitan Museum of Art dwells within the precincts of Central Park). When we initially arrived at the museum, it was not yet open. It being a beautiful day, Etta and I crossed  the street and strolled a bit through the park.

We found a peaceful water feature and sat down on the coping above it.   People had thrown coins into the water and presumably made wishes in the process. Etta wished to do this, and I provided her with the means. She solemnly explained to me that you shouldn’t reveal the substance of your wish until after the coin had  been tossed. I concurred. She followed suit, making several wishes as she did so. A benign sun shone down on us.

I admit that I can’t recall Etta’s wishes. I know that I had only one: that this moment could last forever, and that my heartfelt gratitude would be known.

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More on John Le Carre and A Legacy of Spies, with echoes of W Somerset Maugham

October 21, 2017 at 6:07 pm (Book review, books)

[Click here for the first post on A Legacy of Spies.]

   A

A Legacy of Spies opens with Peter Guillam recounting  his early life. In line with his mother’s retelling, his father was

…the wastrel son of a wealthy Anglo-French family from the English midlands, a man of rash appetites, fast-diminishing inheritance and a redeeming love of France.

Thus his French mother, and his blissful early childhood spent on a farmstead in Brittany. His father was frequently absent, but that in no way intruded on little Pierre’s happiness. He assumed this idyll would go on indefinitely. But of course, it did not: “The future meant nothing to me until it struck.” At the age of eight, little Pierre was unceremoniously whisked off to England to live with cousins of his father. He barely knew these people. School was a torment, where his heavily accented English was mocked by the other students. Eight more years passed before he was able to return to Brittany, where things were not as he had left them.

As I was reading this, I was thinking to myself that somehow I’d heard a similar tale before. A warmly recollected childhood in France, followed abruptly by a chilly and friendless life in England….Ah, yes, then I remembered:

William Somerset Maugham was born in Paris in 1874, the youngest of four boys. While his older brothers were away at boarding school in England, young Willie basked in the exclusive adoration of his beautiful mother Edith. But that idyll was shattered when she died of tuberculosis. Maugham was only eight years old.

The loss was devastating. Willie’s father Robert, who served as legal counsel for the British Embassy in Paris, tried to make it up to him but only two years later himself died of cancer. Willie was sent to live in England with his uncle Henry MacDonald Maugham, Vicar of Whitstable in the County of Kent, and his wife Sophie.

Willie knew nothing of England; his halting command of the language was made more problematical by a severe stammer. Making matters worse – much worse – was the fact that the vicar was a cold, self-regarding individual, whose high opinion of himself rested on not much discernible evidence.

I’m quoting from my 2010 review of The Secret Lives of Somerset Maugham by Selina Hastings.    Mere coincidence? Possibly. It did make me wonder if by any chance John Le Carre has read Selina Hastings’s book, one of my all time favorite biographies.

Like Le Carre, W. Somerset Maugham worked for a period as an agent for Britain’s intelligence service. His experiences in that capacity later informed a series of short stories published as Ashenden: or the British Agent. (After finishing the Hastings biography, I commenced binge reading everything my Maugham that I could get my hands on. While in thrall to this delightful obsession, I read the Ashenden stories and loved them unconditionally.)

 

Some four years ago, I decided to read John Le Carre’s second novel. A Murder of Quality features George Smiley as a former intelligence agent who’s prevailed upon by an old friend to look into a worrying situation. That friend, Miss Brimley, edits a journal called The Christian Voice. She has received an extremely disturbing missive from Stella Rode, a some time contributor to this enterprise. Mrs Rode, who is married to a teacher at Carne, an exclusive school for boys on England’s South Coast, believes herself to be in some sort of danger. Could Miss Brimley help her? Miss Brimley, in her turn, asks the same question of George Smiley. Having agreed to look into the matter, Smiley travels down to Carne in order to see for himself what is transpiring there. (And thus we enter an enclosed, almost claustrophobic setting in academia, my favorite type of locale for a murder mystery.)

I liked A Murder of Quality enough to select it for discussion by the Usual Suspects the following year. I then read and also enjoyed Call for the Dead, Le Carre’s first published novel, which also features George Smiley.

  

Le Carre’s memoir The Pigeon Tunnel came out last year; Adam Sisman’s biography, the year before that. I’ve read neither at this point, but reading A Legacy of Spies has whetted my interest, especially in the memoir.

John Le Carre by Nadav Kander

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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The Exfiltration of Tulip, and other matters….

October 20, 2017 at 2:43 pm (Book review, books, Crime)

Exfiltration operation: ‘A clandestine rescue operation designed to bring a defector, refugee, or an operative and his or her family out of harm’s way’
[Language of Espionage, courtesy of The International Spy Museum]

At any rate, here we are, back in familiar Le Carre country. A double agent, code name Tulip, must be extricated from East Berlin and brought to England, where she will (presumably) be safe. The operation is overseen by Peter Guillam, agent of the British Secret Service. Tulip is not the easiest baggage to transport. She’s been forcibly parted from her son Gustav. pines for him constantly, and repeatedly demands to know when she will be reunited with him. A delicate, difficult situation.

It’s a strange, almost hallucinatory experience, being escorted by the Master of espionage fiction back into the Cold that he knows so well. As I read, I could almost feel its icy coils tightening. To say that this novel is atmospheric is to greatly understate the case.

The exfiltration provides the scaffolding upon which the plot is built. Myriad other things are going on at the same time. As is usual with Le Carre, the characters are numerous. They kept fading on and out; I admit that at times, I had trouble keeping track of them. A good number of them are artifacts from previous works. The most noteworthy of these is, of course, George Smiley.

For me, as I suspect for many others of my generation, the image of George Smiley is forever fixed as Alec Guinness, who portrayed the character for BBC-TV in 1979 and again in 1982.

Sir Alec Guinness as George Smiley. His was the face I saw throughout my reading of A Legacy of Spies.

The characters in this story indulge in the full panoply of spy behavior: they lie, prevaricate, evade, deceive, and worst of all, betray. Not that they derive any joy from these actions. Rather, they seem depressed, cynical, and thoroughly disillusioned. The question arises: Why would anyone choose to live like this? They don’t even seem to  be especially patriotic, and that may be the biggest puzzle of all.

Every once in a while, the prevailing gloom is relieved by a rare glimpse of goodness, like this:

Some faces, try as  they may, cannot conceal the good heart of  their owners, and Riemeck’s is such a face. He is balding, bespectacled – and sweet. The word is simply not to be denied. Never mind the medic’s studious frown: humanity breathes out of  him.

Sweetness! Imagine…(The combination of understated eloquence and precision that we know from previous books is present here as well.)

It must be stressed that Smiley is not the main character in this novel. Rather, he hovers like a ghost in the background throughout most of the narrative. The first work by Le Carre that I ever read was Smiley’s People, the third and final installment in the ‘Karla Trilogy.’ Not the best place to start, and so it proved. I had never in my life  been so completely flummoxed by a work of fiction (or nonfiction, for that matter). Upon completing the laborious  task of reading this book, all I could think was, “What was that??” It was 1980, and at that time, I had no background in the reading of either espionage fiction or mysteries. Thus my bewilderment may be more easily understood.

I already knew from the reviews I’d read that Alec Leamas and Liz Gold, main characters in The Spy Who Came In from the Cold, reappear in this novel. I’ve never read The Spy Who Came In from the Cold, although I’ve seen the film several times. It is superb; it could hardly have been otherwise with stars like Richard Burton, Claire Bloom, and Oskar Werner, directed by Martin Ritt.

I’m not sure what the experience of reading this novel would be like today. (I do know that that the AMC network and the BBC are currently at work on a miniseries version, to be broadcast some time next year.) Alec Leamas is a notable but secondary character in A Legacy of Spies, only emerging as primary near the end of the novel. Liz Gold’s presence is even more fleeting.

And Peter Guillam, whose hard work and diligence facilitated Tulip’s exfiltration? He’s as conflicted a character as you’d expect him to be. One minute he’s on an outrage-fueled quest for justice; the next, he’s desperate to save his own skin and to Hell with everything  and everyone else. It’s this mixture of motives, this interweaving of truth and subterfuge, that is so mesmerizing, exasperating, and unnerving.

What a novel! I dreaded picking it up, then could not put it down. Le Carre, conjuror and artificer,  has done it again.

Photo by Nadav Kander

 

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