The Unknown Country: The Discovery of France: A Historical Geography from the Revolution to the First World War, by Graham Robb

December 30, 2007 at 6:55 pm (books, France, History)

discovery.jpg I’m only half way through The Discovery of France, but I feel that I must write about it now. It is not a book that one can rush through; I have no idea when I’ll finish it. For one thing, I have to keep pausing to shake my head in amazement.

It is one of the strangest books I have ever read, filled with anecdotes and tales of a way of life that has been pretty nearly lost to modernity. Despite the paucity of written records, robb_g_.jpg Graham Robb has managed to re-create and animate this complex, extremely obscure world in great detail.

In 1983, Kiri te Kanawa released a recording called Songs of the Auvergne, by Joseph Canteloube. I had never before heard this music, but, like many others at the time, I fell in love with it instantly. One thing surprised me: the Auvergne is a region in central France. Yet these songs were in some strange dialect that bore no resemblance to the French I’d studied in school. It turns out that until quite recently, France was a land of dialects – many of them. Here’s the title Chapter Four of The Discovery of France: “”O Oc Si Bai Ya Win Oui Oyi Awe Jo Ja Oua.” (I have omitted several diacritical marks.) These are some of the major forms of the word “yes,” as rendered in the various provincial languages.

Robb also informs us that “The Pyrenean village of Aas, at the foot of the Col d’Aubisque, above the spa town of Eax-Bonnes, had its own whistling language which was unknown even in the neighboring valleys until it was mentioned on a television programme in 1959.” We learn that shepherds living in isolation during the long summers developed “an ear-splitting, hundred-decibel language” that could be heard and understood by listeners as far away as two miles. This particular dialect was used during the Second World War by shepherds endeavoring to assist Jewish refugees and others as they crossed over into Spain. Unfortunately, it appears at the present time to be lost: “A few people in Aas today remember hearing the language, but no one can reproduce the sounds and no recordings were ever made.”

In a chapter entitled “Migrants and Commuters,” we learn about the lives of the colporteurs, or pedlars, who, besides traveling with 100-pound baskets or wooden chests strapped to their backs, performed a variety of services for the folk of the villages they passed through: “They pierced ears, extracted teeth and told fortunes. Even after the practice was outlawed in 1756, Bearnese pedlars in Spain castrated boys whose parents hoped to secure them a place in a cathedral choir.”

I haven’t read that extensively in French history and literature, but Robb is writing here about a country I find virtually unrecognizable. Stay tuned for a report on the second half of this remarkable book! Meanwhile, put yourself in the mood with these two soundtrack suggestions:

canteloube.jpg Of course, the aforementioned Les Chants d’ Auvergne, sung by Kiri te Kanawa with Jeffrey Tate conducting the English Chamber Orchestra, on London/Decca;

bizet.jpg L’Arlesienne Suites One and Two, by Georges Bizet. Favorite recording: Sir Thomas Beecham conducting the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra

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‘Twas the season to be jolly – Now it’s time to read true crime: Never Enough, by Joe McGinnis

December 29, 2007 at 3:30 pm (Book review, books)

classic-crimes.jpg In 2000, New York Review Books put out a new edition of Classic Crimes by Scottish lawyer and criminologist William Roughead (1870-1952). Luc Sante has this to say by way of introduction to this collection:

“The genre we call “true crime,” obviously one of the very oldest in literature, has, despite its Biblical pedigree, spent much of its career in the literary slums. The genre from which it is adjectivally distinguished–although seldom referred to as “false crime”–has produced classics as well as potboilers, but the nonfictional narrative of crime has chiefly been associated with such raffish vehicles as as the ballad broadside, the penny-dreadful, the tabloid extra, the pulp detective magazine, and the current pestilence of paperbacks uniform in their one-sentence paragraphs, two-word titles, and covers with black backgrounds, white letters, and obligatory splash of blood.” Later, Sante asks plaintively, “Where is the Homer of true crime, its Cervantes, its Dostoevsky?”

I actually had difficulty finding a true crime paperback whose cover matched the above description. The cover of Never Enough by Joe McGinniss, though, does feature the “obligatory splash of blood.” never-enough.jpg Joe McGinniss is not Homer, Cervantes, or Dostoevsky, and undoubtedly has no expectation of being numbered amongst that august company. But where true crime is concerned, he is one of the chief luminaries in the field, having authored, among other titles, a memorable, controversial, and haunting book that is probably destined to be a classic, if it isn’t already: Fatal Vision.

fatal-vision.jpg Published in 1983, Fatal Vision is the story of the killing, at Fort Bragg, North Carolina in 1970, of the pregnant Corinne MacDonald and the two children she had with Jeffrey R. MacDonald, a group surgeon with the Green Berets. MacDonald was also injured in the course of the vicious attack that resulted in these deaths.. He claimed that the perpetrators were four self-styled hippies who chanted “Acid is groovy – kill the pigs!” as they carried out their atrocities. Although he himself was later convicted of murdering his wife and children, MacDonald has never, over the years, wavered in maintaining his innocence. (Fatal Vision was made into an exceptional TV miniseries in 1984. I’ve never forgotten the scenes in which Corinne’s mother, played by Eva Marie Saint, bakes batch after batch of cookies in a futile effort to dull the horror.)

The story of the fallout from the book and its subsequent effect on both MacDonald and McGinniss is one I don’t want to go into here. It probably left McGinniss sadder and wiser; at least, he appears so in his author picture. jmcginniss.jpg Suffice it to say that the book itself became a news story, as recounted in Janet Malcolm’s The Journalist and the Murderer (1990). See Wikipedia’s entry on Jeffrey MacDonald for further details.

Never Enough is the story of Rob and Nancy Kissel. Rob was a driven, highly skilled investment banker. He began his career with Goldman Sachs but later switched to Merrill Lynch. He and Nancy were living in Hong Kong, where the action of this book primarily takes place. Nancy is at the chaotic center of events. She is what is known in common parlance as “a piece of work,” a colossally self-absorbed woman whose only creative outlet is shopping. She and Rob had three children, whom Nancy was happy to consign to the care of Connie, the nanny or amah. If Connie had the temerity to take a day off or be otherwise unavailable, Nancy’s way of dealing with her spoiled, boisterous brood was to plunk them down in front of television and feed them tons of junk food.

As McGinniss describes it, Parkview, the Hong Kong enclave favored by wealthy American expatriates, is both insular and luxurious. Living in such environments promotes the kind of artificially constructed lifestyle can strain the best of marriages, and Rob and Nancy Kissel already had their share of problems by the time they got to Hong Kong. Nancy was not only a compulsive shopper; she was an even more compulsive liar. Eventually the scope of her deceptions becomes so vast that she loses the ability to distinguish truth from fantasy. To the degree that she deceived herself, she was her own worst enemy.

Nancy was more than Rob could handle – way more. He had her followed by private investigators, who confirmed his worst fears: she was not only mendacious, she was also unfaithful. Anyone with eyes could see that this was a situation bound to explode.

One of the things I appreciate about Joe McGinniss’s writing is that he keeps to one side of the story and lets the characters and their actions speak for themselves. And boy, do they ever! So join us as we experience the dubious pleasure of meeting the Kissel clan: Rob, who although basically decent and brilliant in his professional life seems clueless in the personal sphere; Andrew, his con artist older brother; Bill, his controlling. domineering, humorless father – and of course, Nancy. Yes, it’s the classic Dysfunctional Family once again, only this time, into the mix of partisan bickering and relentless manipulating, add murder. Very little stirring needed…

milkshake-murder.jpg brothers2widec.jpg [Nancy Kissel; Rob and Andrew Kissel]

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Pulp Fiction!!

December 28, 2007 at 12:28 am (books, Mystery fiction)

pulps1.jpg This past Sunday’s Washington Post featured this delightful piece: “Son of a Gun Got the Drop on me: Recycled Pulp.” Neely Tucker herein provides a breezy survey of early hardboiled fiction in his review of The Black Lizard Big Book of Pulps.

I’m seriously under-read in this crime fiction subgenre, and when I do read it, it can leave me cold – or worse, bewildered. Nevertheless, I could not resist this juicy compendium, which is at the moment on the table to my left – in all its 1150-page glory!

pulps2.jpg The Black Lizard Big Book of Pulps is divided into three sections: “The Crimefighters,” introduced by Harlan Coben; “The Villains,” introduced by Harlan Ellison; and “The Dames,” introduced by Laura Lippman. The general editor is that eminence grise of American detective fiction, Otto Penzler. penzler.jpg (He also wrote the foreword.)

The anthology includes stories by the usual suspects – Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, James M. Cain and Erle Stanley Gardner – as well as those whose names are barely known, if at all, nowadays: Horace McCoy, Thomas Walsh, Leslie T. White, Frederick Nebel. Many of these writers had a penchant for hiding behind multiple pseudonyms. For example, Paul Cain kicks off this collection with the story “One, Two, Three.”(This is a story, by the way, whose careening plot I was barely able to follow!), “Paul Cain” was known to be the pen name of screenwriter Peter Ruric. Recently, it was discovered that “Peter Ruric” was also a pseudonym; the name behind that one is George Carrol Sims. Is that the end of the chain of names? Who knows…

Carroll John Daly, described by Penzler as “…a hack writer devoid of literary pretension, aspiration, and ability,” is nevertheless considered the progenitor of the hardboiled fiction genre.. His story “Three Gun Terry” appeared in the May 15, 1923 edition of Black Mask Magazine. black-mask-cover.jpg Black Mask had an advantage over the other pulps in having had as its editors George Sutton Jr. and Captain Joseph T. Shaw, both of whom had an eye for genuine talent and knew how to nurture it.

( guilty-parties.jpg See chapter 4, “The Hard-Boiled School,” in Ian Ousby’s Guilty Parties. This book is one of my favorite mystery references: it features fascinating background on the pulp phenomenon – and full page reproductions of some splendidly lurid cover art.)

“Three Gun Terry” is not included in the Black Lizard anthology; it does appear, however, in an earlier, much smaller collection entitled The Black Mask Boys. the-black-mask-boys-cover.jpg This is a book I treasure mainly for William Nolan’s wonderful introduction:

Black Mask, and the fiction it printed, grew directly out of the era between the two wars, when machine guns flashed fire from low-slung black limousines, when the corner speakeasy served rotgut gin, when swift rum-runners made night drops in dark coastal waters, when police and politicians were as corrupt as the gangsters they protected, when cons and crooks prowled New York alleys and lurked in trackside hobo jungles, when Dillinger and Pretty Boy Floyd and Al Capone made daily headlines and terrorized a nation….

The elegant, deductive sleuth, the calm, calculating sifter of clues, gave way to a new breed–the wary, wisecracking knight of the .45, an often violent, always unpredictable urban vigilante fashioned in the rugged frontier tradition of the western gunfighter.

In the pages of Black Mask, the private eye was born.”

hammett.jpg Black Mask Boys also contains a Hammett story I particularly like: “Bodies Piled Up.” The protagonist is known only as the Continental Op. Here’s how the story begins:

“The Montgomery Hotel’s regular detective had taken his last week’s rake-off from the hotel bootlegger in merchandise instead of cash, had drunk it down, had fallen asleep in the lobby, and had been fired. I happened to be the only idle operative in the Continental Detective Agency’s San Francisco branch at the time, and thus it came about that I had three day of hotel-coppering while a man was being found to take the job permanently.”

Naturally, they prove to be a very eventful three days!

(Hotel detectives, aka “house dicks,” were apparently a feature at low rent properties in the 1920’s; they appear frequently in pulp tales.)

One of the three Chandler stories included in the Black Lizard compendium is the brilliant “Red Wind,” which I referenced in an earlier post. Another Chandler tale that I’m partial to is “The King in Yellow.” This story displays virtually all the hallmarks of the genre:

“‘Sock him low! Dance the gum-heel on his neck!'” (hardboiled slang)

“‘If you want trouble,’ he said, ‘I come from where they make it.'” (bravado on the part of the hero)

“‘He shot at me,’ he repeated quietly. ‘With a gun. This gun. I’m tender to bullets. He missed, but suppose he hadn’t? I like my stomach the way it is, with just one way in and one way out.'” (snappy dialog)

“Court street was old town, wop town, crook town, arty town. It lay across the top of Bunker Hill and you could find anything there from down-at-heels ex-Greenwich-villagers to crooks on the lam, from ladies of anybody’s evening to County Relief clients brawling with haggard landladies in grand old houses with scrolled porches, parquetry floors, and immense sweeping banisters of white oak, mahogany and Circassian walnut.” (casually tossed off ethnic slurs, economy of description)

And one of my favorite instances of figurative language: “She looked tall and her hair was the color of a brushfire seen through a dust cloud.”

chandler-with-cat.jpg Raymond Chandler brought something approaching genius to the writing of hardboiled fiction; he also contributed a seminal essay to the literature on the subject: “The Simple Art of Murder.” (“Down these mean streets a man must go…”) The final paragraphs of The Big Sleep contain some of my favorite writing in all of detective fiction:

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

[Reading the above set me to wondering just where Chandler himself was “sleeping the Big Sleep.” informs us that he is buried in Mount Hope Cemetery in San Diego. chandlerraymond.jpg ]

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Christmas, by John Betjeman

December 25, 2007 at 4:48 pm (Christmas, Poetry)

I wish everyone a Merry Christmas, accompanied by as much peace and good will as we can possibly achieve.  While  Betjeman’s poem is in many ways quintessentially English,  it also, I think, speaks to the universal longing to be safe, to be saved, to be loved.
Christmas by John Betjeman
The bells of waiting Advent ring,
The Tortoise stove is lit again
And lamp-oil light across the night
Has caught the streaks of winter rain
In many a stained-glass window sheen
From Crimson Lake to Hookers Green.The holly in the windy hedge
And round the Manor House the yew
Will soon be stripped to deck the ledge,
The altar, font and arch and pew,
So that the villagers can say
‘The church looks nice’ on Christmas Day.Provincial Public Houses blaze,
Corporation tramcars clang,
On lighted tenements I gaze,
Where paper decorations hang,
And bunting in the red Town Hall
Says ‘Merry Christmas to you all’.And London shops on Christmas Eve
Are strung with silver bells and flowers
As hurrying clerks the City leave
To pigeon-haunted classic towers,
And marbled clouds go scudding by
The many-steepled London sky.

And girls in slacks remember Dad,
And oafish louts remember Mum,
And sleepless children’s hearts are glad.
And Christmas-morning bells say ‘Come!’
Even to shining ones who dwell
Safe in the Dorchester Hotel.

And is it true,
This most tremendous tale of all,
Seen in a stained-glass window’s hue,
A Baby in an ox’s stall ?
The Maker of the stars and sea
Become a Child on earth for me ?

And is it true ? For if it is,
No loving fingers tying strings
Around those tissued fripperies,
The sweet and silly Christmas things,
Bath salts and inexpensive scent
And hideous tie so kindly meant,

No love that in a family dwells,
No carolling in frosty air,
Nor all the steeple-shaking bells
Can with this single Truth compare –
That God was man in Palestine
And lives today in Bread and Wine.

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Best of 2007 – a Gathering

December 22, 2007 at 5:29 pm (Best of 2007, books, Mystery fiction)

Here are some links to various lists of the Best Books of 2007:

The New York Times 100 Notable Books, followed the next week by that newspaper’s selection of the Ten Best 10-best-nytimes.jpg ;

The Washington Post‘s Holiday Guide;

The Guardian/Observer. I really like this way of writing up the selections, and of course, it’s interesting to read writers’ praise others in their profession. The Times Literary Supplement uses a similar approach, although they have posted only a portion of the entire article online;

Crime Fiction Dossier: I was going to put this with the mysteries, but there are many general fiction and nonfiction titles selected by the participating writers and critics;

The online magazine Slate;

booksplease.jpg From one of my favorite book blogs: Booksplease

Publishers Weekly – Boy, they’ve really expanded this one! And finally, a perennial favorite:

The Economist.

(In the course of pulling this post together, I came across this list of “Best Novels You’ve Never Read” in New York Magazine.)

Now for the mysteries:

deadly.jpg Deadly Pleasures Magazine;

The Florida Sun-Sentinel’s picks, by Oline Codgill oline.jpg;

The Seattle Times;

sarah1.jpg Sarah Weinman, of Confessions of an Idiosyncratic Mind fame, has pulled together a list for the Los Angeles Times;

January Magazine, Part One and Part Two. These lists feature exceptionally lengthy and thoughtful annotations.

triumph.jpg Patrick Anderson, reviewer for the Washington Post and author of The Triumph of the Thriller, has appended a “best” list to his review of Eliot Pattison’s Prayer of the Dragon;

peter-thumb.jpg Peter Guttridge, whom I had the pleasure of meeting last year in London, reviews crime fiction for the Guardian/ Observer. Here’s his list of the Best of 2007.

This isn’t a “Best of 2007” list, but I like it anyway; It’s from Martin Edwards’s site.


At this point, what can one say but…”Look on these lists, ye mighty compulsive readers, and despair!!” Yes, it’s hard to refrain from asking myself how, after a year of especially voracious reading, I have managed to read so few of these books. Well, I didn’t miss all of them: several of the titles that appear in my own Best of 2007 lists did appear in one or two of the above tallies, e.g. Nature’s Engraver by Jenny Uglow, Indian Summer by Alex von Tunzelmann, Cheating at Canasta by William Trevor, On Chesil Beach by Ian McEwan, The Elephanta Suite by Paul Theroux, The Secret Hangman by Peter Lovesey, and Death Comes for the Fat Man by Reginald Hill. It was especially gratifying to Laura Lippman’s superb What the Dead Know on so many lists of Best Crime Fiction.

A couple of additional observations:

savage.jpg tree-of-smoke.jpg Two novels appeared repeatedly on the lists: The Savage Detectives by Roberto Bolano and Tree of Smoke by Denis Johnson. (I have read neither, naturally! ) Tree of Smoke won the National Book Award last month; interestingly, it was also the subject of a rather vitriolic takedown by B.R. Myers in the December issue of The Atlantic Monthly

Please keep in mind that I said “some links” at the beginning of this entry. It’s very possible that I’ve missed some good ones, and more lists are certain to appear in the coming weeks. If you spot any good ones not included here, feel free to post the information in the comments section.

Meanwhile – Happy Holidays and Good Reading to All!

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The Great Gatsby Revisited, Part One

December 19, 2007 at 12:39 pm (Book clubs, books)

gatsby.jpg My goal here is to record my impressions upon re -reading this classic novel for the first time in decades. I wanted to do this before gathering background information or perusing any critical material in preparation for a book club discussion.

[Spoiler Alert: I am writing this with the assumption that the reader is already familiar with the plot of The Great Gatsby. If you are not, or if you don’t recall some key plot points, you might want to postpone reading this until you’ve had a chance to read – or like myself, re-read – this novel.]

My very first impression was that this was surely the most vapid, frivolous, just plain irritating group of people I had encountered in or out of a novel for a very long time! They fairly set my teeth on edge: Tom Buchanan, that mulish hypocrite, and his fluttery wife Daisy who, because of a certain superficial charm and lack of guile, is able to mesmerize men, and Gatsby himself, with his wild parties and sinister hinted-at underworld connections. One could be forgiven for given for shaking one’s head in wonderment: Just who the heck are these people, and give me one good reason to care about them!

That they were modeled on Scott Fitzgerald’s boon companions during the so-called Roaring Twenties, I know. Still, a small amount of time spent in their company seemed like an eternity. They come across as a money-grubbing, ignorant bunch – and worst of all, they seem utterly lacking in any kind of moral compass.

Okay, I’m done fulminating (although it really is such fun, I hate to stop). Other initial impressions:

Some of the descriptive writing is wonderful. Here is Nick’s first glimpse inside Daisy and Tom’s house: “A breeze blew through the room, blew curtains in at one end and out the other like pale flags, twisting them up toward the frosted wedding-cake of the ceiling, and then rippled over the wine-colored rug, making a shadow on it as wind does on the sea.” This passage is a great example of less being more. At other times, though, Fitzgerald strains too hard for a literary affect: “Out of the corner of his eye Gatsby saw that the blocks of the sidewalks really formed a ladder and mounted to a secret place above the trees–he could climb to it, if he climbed alone, and once there he could suck on the pap of life, gulp down the incomparable milk of wonder.” Well, really…

The occasional literary allusions are skillfully deployed and show what a Princeton education means – or at least, what it meant in the early part of the twentieth century. I cheated a little here and googled two of those allusions. In one instance, Nick stares at Gatsby’s mansion “…like Kant at his church steeple.” As he wrote his philosophical treatises, Immanuel Kant was apparently steadied in his efforts by gazing out his window at the steeple of a nearby church.

satyricon.jpg I was also intrigued by Nick’s referring to Gatsby as Trimalchio. It seemed to me that I had heard that name recently, and in fact, I had. Trimalchio is a character in the Satyricon by Petronius, an author who lived in Rome during the age of Nero. (This work was briefly discussed by Professor Elizabeth Vandiver on the Teaching Company course on Great Authors of the Western Literary Tradition.) The Satyricon contains an extended passage in which a riotous feast, given by one Trimialchio, a freedman of great wealth, is described in lurid and colorful detail. A great many people attend the festivities, which go on for many hours. The similarity to Gatsby’s bacchanales is at once apparent. In fact, it turns out that Fitzgerald’s original title for this novel was Trimalchio in West Egg. (One can only be grateful that he decided against it. Just imagine twenty-first century high school and college students gazing upon the title on their syllabi and exclaiming, “Who?? From where??”)

I had completely forgotten about the casually expressed racism and anti-Semitism that occasionally appear in Gatsby. They are repugnant now; they should have been repugnant then. Okay, that sort of thing was part of the zeitgeist – but that doesn’t mean I have to forgive it. On the contrary, it served to increase my antipathy toward these people and their superficially elegant milieu.

I had also forgotten the ubiquitous servant class. Chauffeurs, maids, child minders, even butlers are ever ready to service the needs of these nouveau aristocrats. And speaking of child minders, there is one thing I do remember from my previous reading of Gatsby: children, the fact of them, impinges not at all on the lives of these characters. This is true whether the children are your own or someone else’s. (This seems to me like an affectation from borrowed from the old English aristocracy, one of many.)

There’s the scene in which the “freshly laundered nurse” brings Daisy’s daughter into the company to be admired, albeit briefly. Daisy caresses her and coos over her; in a rather absurdly formal gesture, Nick and Gatsby shake her hand. Tom, her father, does nothing. Re Gatsby’s perception of the child, called Pammy by her nurse, Nick observes, “I don’t think he had ever really believed in its existence before.” Small wonder! (And notice the use of the pronoun “its.”) Motherhood appears to have had virtually no impact on Daisy’s psyche. Once Pammy has been whisked out of the room by the nurse, she immediately ceases to be an object of interest to the adults.

Looking over what I’ve written thus far, I’m struck by the negativity of my comments. The fact is, I did experience a growing empathy for the main characters as the narrative gained momentum. I began to feel more forgiving of Daisy, Gatsby – even Tom. Their basic humanity began to assert itself. For me, the turning point came during the confrontation at the Plaza Hotel. Even someone reading this novel for the first time would have gathered by that point that disaster was lurking in the wings, waiting to ambush this increasingly unhappy group of people.

Unfortunately, just as I was beginning to soften, I got annoyed all over again, especially at Gatsby for continuing to obsess over Daisy. It was as though the terrible accident that had claimed the life of Myrtle Wilson were of no consequence (not to mention the terrible part Daisy played in that accident and its aftermath). Nick’s last words to Gatsby are, “They’re a rotten crowd…You’re worth the whole damn bunch put together.” This, to man who has just colluded in the cover-up of a hit-and-run!

Still, as I just said, my sympathy had by then been aroused. I felt most intensely for Nick, whose birthday, a momentous one, is ignored, and who is forced into the role of the bystander who watches these events play out with the inevitability of a Greek tragedy. How bitter he sounds as he famously pronounces judgment on the Buchanans: “They were careless people, Tom and Daisy–they smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness, or whatever it was that kept them together, and let other people clean up the mess they had made…” As he, Nick, was in fact forced to do.

Finally, at the very end, Fitzgerald throws open his story so that it encompasses the history of Long Island, of New York, of America itself, where the urge to re-invent oneself seems all but irresistible. Those who succumb to that urge sometimes achieve greatness and wealth, or, just as likely, they are overwhelmed and destroyed. You cannot know how it will finish when you first start out, the author reminds us. He almost seems to invoke Camus’s benignly indifferent universe. The writing in the last two pages soars; you would have to be made of stone not to be moved by it.

fitzreading1.jpg [I couldn’t stop staring at this picture of Fitzgerald, in what must have been a rare moment of repose. Such an emblem of a Lost Generation…]

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Best Nonfiction of 2007

December 17, 2007 at 2:52 pm (Best of 2007, books, To Britain and back, September '07, Travel)

engraver2.jpg Nature’s Engraver by Jenny Uglow. I feel indebted to Uglow for introducing me to the life and art of Thomas Bewick. In the process, she gives us a meticulous re-creation of life in the Tyneside region of England in the late 1700’s and early 1800’s. I am always grateful to authors who transport me in this way to another time and place; in this world, this is the only form of time travel vouchsafed to us .

bewick_thomas_1753-1828.png owl2.jpg peacock.jpg

[Thomas Bewick, and two of his engravings]


On our trip in September, we passed through Tyneside on our way to Edinburgh. We stopped briefly in the lovely village of Warkworth in Northumberland warkworth_village_and_church.jpg , where we had the pleasure of once again meeting with Ann Cleeves. Finally, we stopped briefly on the windswept coast, then boarded the bus once again. We raced past two places I would dearly loved to have explored: Bamburgh Castle and the amazing Angel of the North

bamburgh_castle.jpg newcastleangel-of-the-north.jpg

. There is much to see along the A1, which closely follows the historic Great North Road, described so memorably by Reginald Hill in Recalled To Life.

dscn0439.jpg dscn0435.jpg dscn0434.jpg

dscn0432.jpg dscn0426.jpg

Ass you can see, a storm was bearing down us. Shortly after we boarded the bus, the heavens opened up – real Wuthering Heights weather!


Now, back to the books:

salem2.jpg Salem Witch Judge by Eve LaPlante. Not only a rich, illuminating biography of Samuel Sewall, but also a provocative meditation on this country’s Puritan heritage.

indian-summer2.jpg Indian Summer by Alex von Tunzelmann. The story of England’s grand adventure – and at times, misadventure – on the subcontinent. The author’s account is peopled with an enormous cast of characters, many of whom prove capable of astonishingly bizarre and perverse behavior. In particular, for those of us who were raised to venerate Winston Churchill and Mahatma Ghandi, there are some disconcerting revelations here.

uncommon.jpg And finally – the nonfiction book that was the most just plain fun to read, providing as it did great dollops of delicious literary gossip: Uncommon Arrangements by Katie Roiphe.

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Away by Amy Bloom, a novel which summons up the ancestors of your faithful blogger and the music of one of her favorite composers

December 16, 2007 at 9:23 pm (Book clubs, Book review, books, Family, Music) ()

away.jpg amybloomcreditbethkelly.jpg Away is the story of Lillian Leyb, a Jewish woman who has recently fled Russia after the massacre of her entire family. Or nearly her entire family…

Lillian’s first port of call is Manhattan, where, by dint of her artless but irresistible charm, she gains entree into a circle of people involved in the Yiddish theater. Amy Bloom’s vibrant re-creation of this lost world was for me, hands down, the best part of the book. And I have to say here that there is a good deal of subjectivity in this response. Suddenly I was seeing Yiddish words and phrases – keine hora, zay gezunt, mamzer – that I had rarely encountered in my adult life but remember as the background noise of my childhood. (So, hello, Grandma Mary! Yes, my mother’s mother was named Mary; go figure.) Bloom reproduces not only the language but also the speech patterns of these passionate, boisterous, sometimes despairing immigrants with uncanny accuracy.

This portrait of Jewish New York in the 1920’s is filled with affection and humor. One of my favorite characters is Yaakov Shimmelman. Here’s what it says on his business card:

“Yaakov Shimmelman

Tailor, actor, playwright,

Author of The Eyes of Love.

Pants pressed and altered.”

Poor Shimmelman, a hopeless romantic who gets just a little – precious little – in return for his devotion to Lillian!

About half way through the book, Lillian is told by a new arrival from the old country that an especially cherished member of her family might still be alive and currently living in Siberia. The source of this intelligence, her cousin Raisele, is an opportunist of dubious veracity; nevertheless, Lillian knows at once that must get to Siberia somehow and find out the truth for herself. Thus begins a cross country odyssey filled with adversity and incident. Some of the incidents were, for this reader, simply too outrageous (not to mention sordid) to be believed. That was part of my problem with the book’s second half. The other problem was that I wanted to be back in New York, among the immigrants, who might, in my imagination, cross paths with my own grandparents.

gradma.jpg mother.jpg gradma-mother-roberta.jpg

[Left to right: my maternal grandmother Mary in 1935; my mother, probably around 1934; my grandmother, my mother and myself, some time in the mid-1950’s. My mother’s name was Lillian.]

Well, as I said, that was my problem. I stayed with this novel because of the compelling nature of Lillian’s quest, and because of Lillian herself. Although her adventures at time strain credulity, I found myself nonetheless rooting for her and admiring her. This, I thought, is the gritty stuff that immigrants must be made of if they hope to survive in their brave new world. I was deeply moved by the novel’s concluding scenes; in them, the author won me back.

[ gustav_mahler.jpg Soundtrack: the third and fourth movements of Symphony No.1 by Gustav Mahler. The dirge-like sonorities of “Frere Jacques” transposed to a minor key, the jaunty, swooping clarinet – why, it’s klezmer music, smack in the middle of this gigantic orchestral opus! If you can, get the classic recording with the Columbia Symphony led by the legendary Bruno Walter. mahler-sym-no-1-bruno-walter.jpg Walter, in his youth, knew Mahler. Listen to the entire work, and be grateful that this complex, charismatic man lived among us and gave us this masterpiece.]

( Follow this link and click on the picture of Amy Bloom and “Barnes & Noble Media” to hear an interview with the author about Away. But be warned: IMHO, the interviewer relates rather too much of the novel’s plot in her introductory remarks.)

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Inquiring felines want to know…

December 15, 2007 at 8:29 pm (Cats)


Miss Marple reading Newsweek!

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Zugzwang, by Ronan Bennett

December 13, 2007 at 11:43 am (Book review, books)

zugzwang.jpg bennett500.jpg Yes, it’s a difficult word. It’s derived from the German and pertains to chess. Ronan Bennett defines it as a situation in which “…a player is reduced to a state of utter helplessness. He is obliged to move, but every move only makes his position even worse.” Well, you can see where this could be a useful term to apply to the plot of a thriller, and trust me, it definitely applies to this one!

The novel is set in St. Petersburg in 1914. (This would be a few short years before it became Petrograd – “St. Petersburg” seeming too Germanic a name during the First World War. Then, in 1924, three days after Lenin’s death, it was renamed Leningrad. Finally, in accordance with the results of a referendum, the city reverted to its original name in 1991. As Neal Ascherson says of Russian history in Stone Voices, “the past is said to be unpredictable…” )

Five days after the brazen murder, in broad daylight, of respected journalist O.V. Gulko, Psychoanalyst Otto Spethmann receives an unwelcome visit from the police. Inspector Lychev has questions for the doctor concerning yet another murder victim, Alexander Yastrebov. Yastrebov had been a student and also the suspected member of a terrorist cell. Spethmann has never even heard the name, but inexplicably, at the time of the murder, the young man was in possession of Spethmann’s calling card. Despite his protestations, the doctor is asked to appear at police headquarters the following day; furthermore, he is to bring his daughter Catherine. Catherine too is a university student, and Lychev implies that she knows something of the business at hand.

And so a more or less typical novel of intrigue is under way. By the time we reach Chapter Three, we’ve been introduced to two of the chief protagonists, and we are already dealing with two murder victims. The twists in the ever-thickening plot come thick and fast, and I pretty much stayed abreast of developments, though not without difficulty. The fact is, when I’m reading this kind of book, I tend not to worry about the more obscure niceties of the story. If the novel is enriched by intriguing characters and plenty ot atmosphere, I let those elements carry me along. Zugzwang possesses plenty of both, especially the latter. Bennett convincingly evokes the frenetic, paranoid ambience of a city on the verge not only of war but also of revolution.

In the course of the novel, Spethmann, a widower, enters into an unwise, not to mention unethical, love affair with a married woman named Anna. To this reader, in fact, the doctor’s actions often seemed reckless and perverse – sometimes, even downright foolish, considering that he is playing a cat and mouse game with notoriously ruthless adversaries. And the problem with the love affair is not only that it exposes, in a glaring fashion, the flaws in Spethmann’s character. It also gives the author the opportunity to write several excruciatingly explicit love scenes – sex scenes, really, that read like something straight out of a high concept porn novel. Spethmann is supposedly madly in love with Anna, but Bennett never showed me the love – only the lust.

This was the only major flaw, however, in what was otherwise a colorful and absorbing reading experience. I should also mention that references to chess games abound throughout and include those little diagrams that are so baffling to those of us not initiated into the mysteries of this ancient and complex game.

chess.jpg Don’t let yourself be thrown by the gameboards; understanding them is not essential to following the action of the novel.

Although the thriller will never be my favorite fiction genre, despite the few reservations expressed above I do recommend this one.

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