Magazine Love – and “Best American” anthologies

January 30, 2008 at 9:02 pm (Book review, books, Eloquence, Magazines and newspapers)

I love magazines! Wheat would we do without these often-unheralded repositories of terrific writing? And now, here come a slew of “Best of” anthologies, to help us catch up on quality items we may have missed.

crime-reporting2.jpg I have just finished – or, almost finished – Best American Crime Reporting 2007. This little baby made it home with me from the library while I was working on my true crime post. Let’s just see what’s in it, I said to myself. After all, one does not wish to take in too much of “this sort of thing” at one gulp. Well, you know what’s coming. I read pretty much the whole collection, finding “this sort of thing,” for the most part, irresistible.

As with most collections of this sort, there is a series editor and a guest editor. The job of series editor is shared by the venerable Otto Penzler and writer Thomas H. Cook, with Linda Fairstein doing the honors as guest editor. I like what Penzler and Cook have to say in their preface:

“The common thread of crime is crisis, which has the striking power to generate suspense in its development and poignancy in its outcome. How, the heart asks, did this crisis come about, by what means will it be resolved, and at what human cost?”

The fifteen articles in this anthology were originally published in a variety of magazines, most of which are associated with a particular city or state. Where sheer numbers are concerned, New York Magazine was the clear winner, with four entries. Esquire and The Atlantic each had two. The Boston Globe Magazine, GQ, Texas Monthly, San Francisco, Philadelphia, and Chicago had one each.

texas-monthly.jpg new-york-mag.jpg esquiremay-2002_sm.gif atlantic-monthly-magazine.jpg

The selections vary widely, as does the nature of the crimes delineated by these authors. In “The Loved Ones,” Tom Junod tells the story of family-run nursing home, St. Rita’s, located just southeast of New Orleans. From all accounts, Sal and Mabel Mangano, with help from other family members, tended the home’s residents with loving care. Yet they made a fateful decision not to evacuate their charges and their staff when Katrina hit the Crescent City. The home was completely inundated; as a result, thirty-five residents lost their lives. The Manganos were subsequently hauled up on charges of negligent homicide:

“Now they were notorious–icons of abandonment whose mug shots after their arrest personified more than just the prevailing stereotype of unscrupulous nursing-home owners. An entire American city had been left to die, and sixty-five-year-old Sal and sixty-two-year-old Mabel Mangano had somehow become the public faces of a national disgrace.”

So what happened, exactly, at St. Rita’s on that fateful Monday, August 29th 2005? I can tell you, once you read Junod’s moment-by-moment reconstruction of how catastrophe overtook the nursing home, you will not forget it.

I was initially tempted to skip this story, feeling, probably like many other people, Katrina’ed out. Once again, the lesson was brought home to me: the stories of individual people, even in the midst of the heavily-reported melee created by a killer hurricane, deserve to be heard. Tom Junod has told this story with urgency and eloquence. He is not a writer with whom I was familiar up until now. I would like to read more of his work.

Some of the criminal behavior recounted in these stories is more bizarre than vicious. Angela Platt managed to embezzle nine million dollars from her employer, construction magnate John Ferreira. Granted, Platt was a trusted and seemingly conscientious employee, yet she was using ill-gotten gains to finance a lavish, ostentatious lifestyle for herself and her perpetually out-of-work husband. Did she think she could keep it up forever and not be found out? And how do you not miss nine million dollars stolen from what is essentially a family business? Read all about it in “The Inside Job” by Neil Swidey (Boston Globe Magazine).

“The Devil and David Berkowitz” by Steve Fishman (New York Magazine) was another story I was tempted to forego. But Fishman’s tale of Berkowitz prison transformation from serial killer pariah (“Son of Sam”) to Evangelical preacher is fascinating, if surreal. This scenario presented Fishman with the challenge of portraying ardent Christian fundamentalists in an evenhanded way and without irony or snarky asides. He succeeds beautifully.

“The Double Blind” by Matthew Teague (Atlantic Monthly) is the story of how British intelligence infiltrated and ultimately disabled the IRA. Teague tells this story through the prism of the experience of one man, Kevin Fulton, who was caught in the crossfire of a turbulent, often deadly war of attrition. You would think this would be a straightforward story of good guys triumphing over bad guys. You would be wrong.

Betty Williams is a vibrant, headstrong teen-ager who yearns for death. Her ex-boyfriend helps her to achieve her goal in Pamela Colloff’s immensely disturbing “A Kiss Before Dying” (Texas Monthly). And novelist Douglas Preston tells the harrowing tale of “The Monster of Florence” (Atlantic Monthly). Yes – that’s Florence, Italy, cradle of the Renaissance, repository of fabulous art treasures, surrounded on all sides by gorgeous countryside – countryside in which a serial killer stalked amorous couples and killed them (and worse). Preston and his friend, journalist Mario Spezi, decide to investigate the case on their own; they are stunned when they are accused by the Italian authorities of obstruction of justice and concealing evidence. This is a classic case of truth being stranger than fiction.

monster.jpg (Preston and Spezi’s book, The Monster of Florence, is due out in June.)

I think the story that will haunt me the most is “Last Seen on September 10” by Mark Fass (New York Magazine). On September 10, 2001, at eleven o’clock in the morning, Ron Lieberman said goodbye to his wife Sneha Ann Philip and left for his work as an emergency-room intern. He returned around midnight to an empty apartment. He wasn’t unduly alarmed at first; apparently Sneha, also a physician in training, sometimes stayed out late, or even overnight with friends or relations, and did not call her husband. When Ron awoke early the next morning and Sneha was still not home, he was more annoyed than worried, knowing her habits as he did.

Then the unthinkable happened. And then Ron Lieberman panicked. With good reason. Sneha had still not been seen or heard from. The search for her became entangled in the search for survivors of the September 11 attacks. But no trace of Sneha Ann Philip has ever been found.

There is one story in this fine anthology that I was unable to finish. Written by C.J. Chivers, “The School” (Esquire) is the story of the siege of School No.1 in Beslan, a city located in the Russian republic of North Ossieta. It was September 1, 2004, the first day of the new school year. Festivities welcoming the children were under way when a hoard of Chechen terrorists descended on the school as if out of nowhere. A bloodbath followed. I have no doubt, from the little I could get through, that this is a terrific piece of reportage, an up close, true picture of what a gang of pitiless fanatics is capable of perpetrating on innocent people. )

Probably the single most harrowing magazine piece that I have managed to get through bears the deceptively modest title “A Sea Story.” It’s the story of the sinking if the ferry Estonia in the Baltic Sea on September 28, 1994. Written by William Langewiesche, “A Sea Story” appeared in the May 2004 edition of the Atlantic Monthly. It is also included in Langewiesche’s book The Outlaw Sea. outlaw-sea.jpg Don’t read it if you have a weak heart!

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Back to the Future; or one family’s odyssey through the brave new world of digital television

January 28, 2008 at 6:33 pm (Film and television, Technology)

sony-25-inch-trinitron.jpg It begins with the death of our beloved twenty-year-old 25-inch Sony Trinitron. We observe a moment of silence as this venerable, essential component of our home life is carted out the door.* Even as we say our farewells to a companion whose age exactly matches our tenure in this house, the question looms…

What next?

I should first explain that my husband Ron and I are very particular about what we watch on TV. We choose each program before hand – no casual or impulsive viewing for us! After the choice is made, Ron commences the process he calls “delousing,” namely the excising of all commercial interruptions. (His tool for accomplishing this task is a DVD-RAM recorder.) The result seemed at first a delightful novelty, as if we were watching Law and Order on PBS. Where broadcast television is concerned, we prefer crime shows, true and otherwise. Commercial DVD’s are always welcome, especially British mysteries and selected feature films.

[Best recently viewed British mystery: “Invasion,” from the fourth season of Foyle’s War, IMHO the best mystery series to come from the Old Country since Inspector Morse. Best recently viewed feature film: Pan’s Labyrinth, a film of mindboggling originality and technical bravura – scary and at the same time very poignant.]

Okay, back to the aforementioned question. Here am I, jumping up and down and yelling,”Great! Time to get one of those huge hoggers I keep seeing in my friends’ houses! Fifty inches! Seventy-two inches! Sky’s the limit, right??!!”


We must first mourn the demise of the cathode ray tube, bringer of a near-perfect picture. It seems that none of the new technologies can measure up. Bigger is not necessarily better; in fact, it may be demonstrably worse. Oh dear; I can see that this is going to be a long haul.

And so begins our pilgrimage. We schlepp through Best Buy, Gramophone, Tweeter, Circuit City, Costco, and back to Best Buy. The promised land of fabulous viewing begins to seem a wasteland of imperfection. LCD? Blacks are not black enough, and colors tend to be oversaturated. Plasma? Blacks are black enough, but there’s concern that burn-in might result from watching standard definition programs on a high definition set. Rear projection? There’s often a problem with a restricted optimal viewing angle. And trust me -that’s just the tip of the iceberg. (For a useful primer on the new technology, see Amazon’s High-Def 101.)

So, while we are in a dark wood wandering (or rather, in the blinding expanse of huge desolate parking lots), what is happening on the home front?

Obviously, stop-gap measures are called for. The most logical first step: to use one of the electronic devices currently on the premises. For us, this consists of various decommissioned televisions and computer monitors. (Are other people’s houses also starting to resemble warehouses of disused electronics? This would include, of course CPU’s which cannot, alas, aid us in the present difficulty.)

First up is a Sony 19-inch professional Trinitron monitor, age eleven. Ron connects it to the recording device which will supply the tuner function. “Okay!” says he. We fire it up; it produces a desperate, wobbly image and then shuts down. Further tests confirm that it has, in fact, died. Up next: a nine-inch Sony Trinitron, age fifteen. Sure it’s got a screen slightly smaller than a cereal box – but what a picture! “Look at those colors – so true,” says Ron ruefully. “There’s simply nothing like a cathode ray tube…”

Meanwhile, our odyssey across television land continues. Occasionally we come close to deciding on a purchase, only to be warned off by something that has appeared on “the boards.” These sites, carefully monitored by Ron, contain posts which alert potential buyers to problems that have surfaced after purchase. Particularly recommended is the Audio Visual Science Forum, a real goldmine of information, much of it gained through firsthand experience.

Meanwhile, there’s been an upgrade on the home front, from nine inches to thirteen. We are currently watching TV on a 22-year-old Amiga monitor (manufactured for Amiga by Toshiba).

amiga-13-inch-monitor.jpg Ron was an early Amiga enthusiast and has never lost his respect for that most excellent machine. Alas, it proved incapable of handling the Y2K rollover. Thus it has been out of use for eight years. But guess what…It’s back! We sit before it in our darkened family room and are awestruck. “What a great picture,” sighs Ron. I cannot help but agree.

Stay tuned…

*As with computers, there are environmental issues concerning the disposal of old TV sets. See Take Back My TV for information on this topic.

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“Time is but a stream I go a-fishing in:” American Bloomsbury by Susan Cheever

January 28, 2008 at 3:38 am (Book review, books, History)

Susan Cheever has penned an eminently readable whirlwind tour of early 19th century Concord, Massachusetts. The subtitle of the book is “Louisa May Alcott, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Margaret Fuller, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Henry David Thoreau: Their Lives, Their Loves, Their Work.”

In my post on Suzanne Berne’s novel Ghost at the Table, I talked about the Concord luminaries. bridge1.jpg In my several pilgrimages to that still-lovely town, I’ve been interested primarily in Thoreau and Hawthorne. Susan Cheever’s interest in this group of worthies was sparked by a re-reading of Little Women: “The book amazed me. Far from being the string of bromides I dimly recalled, it was an elegantly written family story of great poignance and skill.” I guess I”ll have to break down and read it – finally! littlewomen.jpg

I consider myself reasonably well read where the lives and works of Emerson, Hawthorne, and Thoreau are concerned. Somewhat to my surprise, Cheever depicts a variety amorous rivalries in this famous community. First there’s Ellen Sewall, beloved by both Henry and John Thoreau and won by neither of them. Then there was Margaret Fuller. As Cheever tells it, Emerson, Thoreau, and Hawthorne were all in love with her to some extent, particularly Hawthorne. nathaniel_hawthorne.jpgNow this really perplexed me. From my prior reading, I had gathered that he and Sophia were utterly devoted to each other.

At any rate, Margaret Fuller decamped for Europe before she could irretrievably damage any marriages. In the late 1840’s she fetched up in Rome, where she took an Italian lover by whom she had a son. The story of how Fuller and her family perished in a shipwreck off the coast of Fire Island is one of the more harrowing things I’ve read lately – and I’ve read some pretty harrowing things lately. margaret_fuller_400.jpg

Aside from Margaret Fuller’s ill-fated adventures, the Concord writers led what on the surface appear to be provincial, conventional lives. Not so: if the life of the mind is valued at all, their lives were filled with riches. And speaking of riches, Thoreau and Hawthorne subsisted largely on a kind of continuous grant supplied by the incredibly generous Emerson. His first wife, Ellen Tucker, had been wealthy. When she died, tragically at the age of twenty, he inherited her fortune. He was he was brokenhearted, though, and would have much preferred to keep Ellen with him.

Emerson remarried, but one senses that Ellen Tucker remained in his memory as the great love of his life. He and his second wife Lidian started a family, but tragedy struck again when Waldo, age five, succumbed to scarlet fever. Emerson wrote to Margaret Fuller: “Shall I ever dare to love anything again. Farewell and farewell, O my Boy!” Earlier that month – January of 1842 – John Thoreau had also died. He had cut himself while shaving and contracted tetanus.

ralphwaldoemersongrandsonralphemersonforbes.jpg     [Ralph Waldo Emerson and his grandson Ralph Emerson Forbes]

The people of the early 19th century had virtually no defense against these kinds of opportunistic infections. To make matters worse, the medical treatment of the day was often more injurious than the illness it was supposed to mitigate. A medication called calomel, liberally prescribed at the time for everything from headaches to typhoid fever, consisted basically of a solution of mercury. When Louisa Alcott contracted typhoid, she was heavily dosed with calomel and as a result suffered permanent neurological impairment.

henry_david_thoreau.jpg The death of Henry David Thoreau provides the single most moving moment in this book. Cheever calls Emerson’s eulogy “…one of the most extraordinary essays ever written by one friend about another.” The closing lines are heartbreaking in their eloquence:

“‘His soul was made for the noblest society; he had in a short life exhausted the capabilities of this world. Wherever there is knowledge, wherever there is virtue, wherever there is beauty, he will find a home.'”

At the time of his death, Thoreau was forty-four years old.

thoreau-gravesite.jpg     [The Thoreau family gravesite in Sleepy Hollow Cemetery, Concord]

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Gobsmacked I am – truly!! The Pure in Heart by Susan Hill

January 27, 2008 at 12:21 am (Book review, books, Mystery fiction, The British police procedural)

pure.jpg susan-hill_1_.jpg I’m speechless. (Not me – not possible!) Okay – very nearly speechless. I do wish I had some fresh superlatives. Because I just finished a novel that is nothing short of superb.

Susan Hill’s procedural begins atypically: Simon Serrailler is being ferried around Venice by his friend Ernesto. Serailler carries with him an artist’s portfolio; he is searching for subjects to sketch. The scene has a slightly unworldly, timeless quality. I came to this novel under the misapprehension that the action took place in the 19th cenury. I was quickly disabused of this notion when Simon was referred to as Detective Chief Inspector.

Simon’s quest for artistic inspiration is interrupted when he is summoned back home to England by his cold, imperious father. His severely disabled sister Martha is critically ill with pneumonia. Simon’s love for Martha is deep and unfeigned; without hesitation, he rushes back to her.

Martha recovers and is returned to life in a care home. We also meet another of Simon’s sisters: Cat, a physician who is expecting her third child. Cat’s husband Chris Deerbon is also a doctor, as are both of Simon’s parents. In fact, part of the problem between Simon and his father is that the elder Serrailler has never approved of his son’s choice of profession. (There is a fourth sibling, Ivo, who lives in Australia – deliberately far, one suspects, from the madding crowd of his family.)

In addition to being a novel of crime, The Pure in Heart is very much a family story. The Serraillers, wealthy and refined, are a kind of medical aristocracy. Simon himself strikes me as a cross between Thomas Lynley and Adam Dalgliesh: he can be remote and moody at one moment, kind and generous at another. Both Dalgliesh and Simon Serrailer have esthetic gifts that they nurture as a kind of counterweight to their work in law enforcement. Dalgliesh is a published poet; Simon Serrailler is an artist.

After Martha’s recovery, Simon goes back to work without using the rest of his leave. It is just as well he decides to do this: a nine-year-old boy, David Angus, has gone missing. In a small village like Lafferton, this is an unusual, not to mention extremely upsetting event. But the feelings of bystanders are as nothing compared to the effect their son’s disappearance has on Marilyn and Alan Angus and their other child, Lucy.

Susan Hill takes us deep into the Hell that this family’s existence becomes. For some readers, it may be too deep. Very little physical violence is depicted in The Pure in Heart, but the damage to hearts and minds is described in excruciating, unsparing detail. I have not empathized so strongly with the pain of characters in a novel since I read Kate Atkinson’s Case Histories. case.jpg kate_atkinson.jpg

The first entry in this series is called The Various Haunts of Men. I may go back and read it, although I rather wish I had read it first.

I’m not giving anything away when I say that at the conclusion of The Pure in Heart, several crucial plot points are left unresolved. This was one of the many things I loved about this deeply intelligent, beautifully written book.

[Here is the entry for Susan Hill on the British Council’s Contemporary Writers in the UK. This is a really useful site which, among other things, gives you author contact information.]

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“All creationists are mortal”

January 24, 2008 at 8:38 pm (books, Eloquence, Spiritual)

creationists.jpg doctorow.gif “Genesis” is the first essay in E.L. Doctorow’s collection Creationists. In it Doctorow makes a provocative observation on the art of the storyteller: “If not in all stories than certainly in mystery stories, the writer works backward. The ending is known and the story is designed to arrive at the ending.”

Later, there is this passage:

“The cosmology of Genesis is beautiful and for all we know may even turn out to be as metaphorically prescient as some believers think it is. One imagines the ancient storytellers convening to consider what they had to work with: day and night, land and sea, earth and sky, trees that bore fruit, plants that bore seed, wild animals, domesticated animals, birds, fish, and everything that crept. In their brilliant imaginations, inflamed by the fear and love of God, it seemed more than possible that these elements and forms of life, this organization of the animate and inanimate, would have been produced from a chaos of indeterminate dark matter by spiritual intent–here was the story to get to the ending–and that it was done by a process of discretion, the separation of day from night, air from water, earth from sky, one thing from another in a, presumably, six-day sequence culminating in the human race.”

genesis.jpg This essay was originally written for the Pocket Canons Bible Series, published in 1999 by Grove Press.

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Madame de Genlis’s little book

January 23, 2008 at 8:26 pm (books, France, History, Travel)

Travel is one of the many aspects of life in the French countryside written about by Graham Robb in The Discovery of France. In a number of instances, the author refers to a singular little guidebook:

“One of the best short guides to the experience of travelling in post-Revolution France is a French-German phrase book published in 1799 by Caroline-Stephanie-Felicite Du Crest de Saint-Aubin, who is usually known as Mme de Genlis.” madame_stephanie_de_genlis.jpg

The full title of this little book is The Traveller’s Companion for Conversation, being a Collection of Such Expressions as Occur Most Frequently in Travelling and in the Different Situations in Life. Apparently at least four more editions of this book were published subsequent to the one referenced by Graham Robb. How do I know this? Here is a picture of the fifth edition, lying somewhat incongruously on our kitchen table! the-travellers-companion-2.jpg The publication date of this small volume is given as 1821. This version has been enlarged to include English, Italian, Spanish, and somewhat to my amazement, Russian.

How did I come by this artifact of another era? My mother was an inveterate traveler, particularly in Western Europe. She loved France, Italy, and the British Isles. (It is a love she bequeathed to me.) After her first trip to Italy, taken with my father when she was in her forties, she resolved to learn Italian. She accomplished this goal with remarkable speed and facility. She went back to Europe again and again, sometimes with my father, sometimes with tour groups, occasionally alone. At some point during her wanderings on the continent, she obtained Mme de Genlis’s book. It is one of the few possessions of hers that I have retained. I admit that I never examined it closely until I found it mentioned in Graham Robb’s book.

the-travellers-companion-1.jpg the-travellers-companion-3.jpg

The Traveller’s Companion does not much resemble contemporary phrasebooks. Rather its entries are miniature dialogues, or, in some cases, monologues. They serve as a timely reminder that the rigors of travel are not unique to the 21st century. Below are some sample entries.

Dialogue IV: Conversation on Board a Ship or Yacht:

“I am very sick.

Lay yourself flat upon your belly; shut your eyes; remain in that quiet posture, and your sickness will abate.”

But if it doesn’t…. “I suffer extremely; I am unwell, pray, hand me a bason [sic].”

Dialogue V: On Crossing the Water in a Ferry:

“Now take off the horses from the carriage. The horses ought not to be yoked to the carriage in a ferry.”

“Why so? Because nothing can be more dangerous. The indolence, which hinders us from unyoking the horses, has caused a thousand unhappy accidents.”

Dialogue VI: Enquiries in a journey which cannot be otherwise performed than in a Sedan Chair, or on Mules:

“Is the road very dreadful? Yes, it is very narrow and on the brink of precipices.”

Dialogue VIII: On the Accidents that might happen on the Road:

“My friends, could you assist us? We are in great distress, you shall be well paid for your trouble.

We are sticking in a hole. Lend us two of your horses to draw us forwards.

You will do us a great favour.”

Followed by this plaintive outbreak:

“Dear friends, I beg you!”

Alas, things appear to go from bad to worse:

“He has a hole in his head!

We must first wash out the wound well with fresh water, and afterwards apply a poultice to it of Cologne water mixed with fresh water.”

Then later:

“Take courage, my friend! your fall does not appear to be dangerous. Poor man! I sympathize greatly with your sufferings, I assure you.”

(At this point, I couldn’t help but think of Mercutio, mortally wounded by Tybalt.

“Romeo: Courage, man, the hurt cannot be much.

Mercutio: No, ’tis not so deep as a well nor as wide as a church door but ’tis enough, ’twill serve…” And so, sadly and with dire consequence, it did.)

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The Power of Words

January 22, 2008 at 8:44 pm (Eloquence, Spiritual)

In a section of Classics for Pleasure entitled The English Religious Tradition, Michael Dirda quotes a passage from the Gospel of Luke, as rendered in the King James Bible.I love what he says after the quoted passage:

“The solemn harmonies of such prose are largely ignored in these days of text-messaging and political newspeak. Nonetheless, sometimes only the full organ roll of liturgical English can match the sacredness of weddings, funerals, and religious holy days.”

the-common-book-of-prayer.jpg Dirda then goes on to quote from The Book of Common Prayer‘s Order for the Burial of the Dead:

“Man that is born of woman hath but a short time to live, and is full of misery. He cometh up and is cut down like a flower; he flieth as it were a shadow, and never continueth in one stay. In the midst of life we be in death…”

This seems bleak to the point of hopelessness. Where is the consolation? But wait…”These magnificently somber phrases eventually build to one of the great climaxes in English literature:

‘Behold, I show you a mystery. We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed, and that in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye by the last trump. For the trump shall blow, and the dead shall rise incorruptible, and we shall be changed….Death where is thy sting? Hell where is thy victory?'”

Surely in the annals of great oratory there is a straight line from this triumphant declaration of faith to Martin Luther King Jr’s equally triumphant “Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!”


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“Charred on the outside, but raw underneath…” City of Fire by Robert Ellis

January 21, 2008 at 3:40 pm (Book review, books, Mystery fiction)

city-of-fire.jpg Sometimes I just need crime fiction set in California. This yearning is the counterweight to my addiction to British police procedurals. Luckily for me, I happened upon Robert Ellis’s stark novel of lust and betrayal.

Lena Gamble is a detective with the elite Robbery-Homicide Division of the Los Angeles Police Department. She is called in to investigate the murder of Nikki Brant, a young wife and mother-to-be. Nikki’s husband James quickly becomes the chief suspect. But there is far more to this case than meets the eye. Lena and her team don’t realize it at first, but they are about to discover that the killing of Nikki Brant is only the latest in a string of atrocities that are eventually linked to a single source. That source turns out to be one of the scariest, most twisted, just plain grotesque perpetrators I have encountered in fiction in quite a while. For reasons that seem logical at the time, he acquires the sobriquet Romeo.

Initially, I had misgivings about this book, in that its villain appeared at first blush to be a serial killer. As I’ve said before, I dislike that subgenre of crime fiction, serial killers being for the most part out and out nut jobs who don’t need to be assigned any motivation outside of their own malice-fueled craziness. But this killer chooses his victims carefully and for very specific reasons. It is up to the team from robbery-homicide to discover those reasons, and thus, Romeo’s true identity.

About halfway through City of Fire, the plot kicks into high gear with an abrupt turn that I never saw coming; even more shocking twists follow this one, right up to the book’s frenetic climax.

Lena Gamble is a very appealing protagonist. She has the good fortune to live in a lovely house in the hills overlooking the city, but she deeply regrets the way in which she came by her situation: she inherited the house from her brother. David Gamble, a gifted, successful musician, had been murdered five years prior; the crime was never solved.

robert-ellis2.jpg Robert Ellis writes with skill and assurance. I like his description of the view from Lena’s house: “She could see the clouds plunging in at eye level from the ocean fifteen miles away, the Westside still shrouded in a dreary gray. To the east the marine layer had already burned off, and the Library Tower, the tallest building west of Chicago, glowed a fiery yellow-orange that seemed to vibrate in the clear blue sky.”

This being California, a malevolent act nature-or a malevolent act of man which is then fueled by nature – makes an almost obligatory appearance. This time, as indicated by the title, it’s a wildfire. Smoke and debris make the frantic search for a killer even more difficult, not to mention dangerous. (I guess one advantage of setting a novel in California is that there’s a wide variety of apocalyptic events that an author can throw into the mix. See Mike Davis’s The Ecology of Fear for the full panoply of choices!)

Before I sign off on this largely positive review, I feel that I must warn potential readers of the scenes of violence and perverted sex that appear in this novel. Yes, I found City of Fire extremely compelling reading: the pace was brisk, the characters were intriguing, the writing was very good, the atmospherics spot on. But there were also times when I came very close to being completely grossed out. It was a great read, but part of me breathed a sigh of relief when it was over.

Much great crime fiction is set in Southern California, from Raymond Chandler to Michael Connelly, and including my personal favorite, Ross MacDonald. But the Bay Area also has its fair share, most notably repesented in the novels of Dashiell Hammett.

In his book Sleuths Inc. Studies of Problem Solvers, Hugh Eames quotes the British historian Lord Bryce, author of The American Commonwealth (1888) His Lordship has some interesting theories concerning the Golden State’s historic tendency toward lawlessness:

‘A great population had gathered there before there was any regular government to keep it in order, much less any education or social culture to refine it. The wilderness of the time passed into the soul of the people, and left them more tolerant of violent deeds, more prone to interference with, or suppressions of, regular law, than are the people in most parts of the Union.’

Lord Bryce is especially blunt when assessing the City by the Bay:

‘Thet scum which the western moving wave of emigration carried on its crest is here stopped, because it can go no further. It accumulates in San Francisco and forms a dangerous constitutent of the population.’

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Stars and Stripes Forever! The United States Army Field Band

January 20, 2008 at 8:28 pm (Music, Performing arts)

Last night we attended a performance by the U.S. Army Field Band. The Field Band has four separate components; on this occasion, it was the turn of the concert band to strut their stuff. And did they ever!

us-army-field-band-concert-cover-playlist.jpg Imaginative and varied programming was one of the chief pleasures of this concert. First, we all stood and joined the players and their conductor Lieutenant Colonel Beth T.M. Steele in singing the National Anthem. This is not a moment to be lightly glossed over; I surprised myself by tearing up. Lieut. Colonel Steele then welcomed us warmly and introduced the evening’s guest conductor, Dr. Mallory Thompson of Northwestern University.

us-army-field-band-concert-beth-steele.jpg           mallory_thompson.jpg [Lieutenant Colonel Beth T.M. Steele, left, and Dr. Mallory Thompson]

The concert got under way with two short pieces by Aaron Copland: An Outdoor Overture and Variations on a Shaker Melody. Of course, it’s hard to go wrong with Copland; even harder to go wrong with that strangely irresistible little Shaker tune. I first heard it on Judy Collins’ Whales & Nightingales . It was the penultimate selection on the album and was followed by a memorable performance of Amazing Grace, in which Judy began by singing a capella and was then joined by a choir. For decades, those two pieces have been inseparable in my musical memory: both immensely moving, in entirely different ways.

The third selection was the Concertino, op.107 by Cecile Chaminade, a piece for flute and orchestra. We were informed that our soloist, Marissa Plank, a junior at Charlottesville High School in Virginia, was the winner of a Young Artist Competition recently held in the mid-Atlantic region. us-army-field-band-concert-marissa-plank.jpg Then on to the stage strides an absolute vision of blonde loveliness in a knockout red dress. “Wow!” I exclaimed involuntarily. “You mean she can play an instrument too?” Can she ever! The Concertino is a showpiece for the flute and a real challenge as well, studded with swooping melodic lines, trills, and numerous other embellishments. It was a delight, and Marissa Plank breezed through as though it were a walk in the park. A bravura performance!

The second half of the program consisted of Bach’s famous Toccata and fugue in D minor, transcribed for wind band by Donald Husberger, and the Symphony in B-flat by Paul Hindemith. If Chaminade’s Concertino was a showcase for the solo flute, the Bach was a showcase for the entire ensemble. The rich sonorities achieved by these wonderful musicians were thrilling! At the conclusion of this splendid performance, Dr. Thompson spoke to us briefly.

“Did you hear the organ?” she asked. “There was no organ! That’s what truly great intonation can achieve.”

My only objection to the Toccata and Fugue is that it ended too soon. I wanted them to play it again!

Instead, they proceeded with the Hindemith Symphony, with which I was unfamiliar. This work offered some great solo opportunities for these outstanding musicians, and I appreciated it from that standpoint. But I didn’t love the piece itself. Part of the problem, at least for me, was that came right after the Bach. Call me old-fashioned: the Bach gave me goosebumps; the Hindemith didn’t. (I very much like another piece by this composer, Metamorphosis on Themes of Carl Maria von Weber. I probably need to listen to the Symphony in B-flat again.; my husband assures me that it is considered a classic work for wind bands.)

The band played “Start and Stripes Forever” as an encore. In the course of this performance, the audience was treated to a really special variation: four band members and Marissa Plank stepped out front and center to play the famous piccolo part in this beloved march tune. Five piccolos for Sousa’s famous March!

Like October’s powerhouse performance of Mendelssohn’s Elijah, this concert was presented at the Rouse Theater, which is about fifteen minutes from our house. This is a small auditorium with marvelous acoustics, a great venue for this kind of music-making.

You can find out more about the U.S. Army Field Band at their site; you can also be apprised of their performance schedule by placing yourself on their e-mail list.


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The Discovery of France, revisited and concluded, with a sense of wonder

January 18, 2008 at 12:04 am (France, History)

discovery.jpg I have finished reading Graham Robb’s majestic slow-moving epic of French history, or as the subtitle more precisely defines it, “A Historical Geography from the Revolution to the First World War.” The massive research that went into this project, the effort involved in shaping huge amounts of minutiae into a coherent form – I am awed by the scope of this author’s achievement.

In the first part of The Discovery of France, Robb describes the ethnic and linguistic diversity of basically tribal people who in no way thought of themselves as belonging to a single nation. In the second part of the book, regions are mapped, travel and tourism become increasingly common, and the inhabitants of the towns and villages of the pays are dragged forcibly into the twentieth century. Robb offers a candid assessment of what was gained and lost in the process.

Inserted between Part One and Part Two is a chapter entitled “Interlude: The Sixty Million Others.” These “others” are the animal populations of France: livestock, horses, bears that dance and smuggler dogs. Well, I told you it was an unusual book…

Highlights from Part Two: the “discovery” of the Verdon Gorges, the longest, deepest canyon in Europe. Robb explains that until 1905, this natural wonder “…was known only to a few woodcutters and carvers who saw no reason to share their knowledge of the local inconvenience with the outside world.”


In the penultimate chapter, “Journey to the Centre of France,” we’re treated to a delightful – and insightful – disquisition on the role played by the bicycle in the French countryside in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Robb makes a strong case that the importance to regional history of this basic mode of transport has been vastly underrated. He provides examples of bike rides of seemingly heroic lengths undertaken routinely by ordinary people. And of course, from these humble beginnings came the Tour de France, which turns out to have a fascinating history of its own. (Robb did much of his research using this time-honored conveyance!)

stilts.jpg Still, nothing quite matches for sheer strangeness the picture of the shepherds in the Landes hanging out on stilts! This photo is cropped; the one in the book shows four additional “stilted shepherds” in a group farther back in the fields and to the right of these two individuals. (As I was Googling “French peasants on stilts,” I came upon an article on “Sylvain Dornon, Stilt Walker of Landes” stilts2.jpg from an 1891 issue of Scientific American.)

Julian Barnes, a lifelong Francophile, was frankly amazed at the wealth of anecdote and obscure nuggets contained in The Discovery of France. In the November 30, 2007 issue of the Times Literary Supplement he named it one of the year’s best books and went on to suggest a more descriptive subtitle: “How cartographers, bureaucrats, and tourists discovered that Paris was not the same thing as France, that most of the country never regarded itself as being part of France, and how the nation was created only by destroying or homogenizing those aberrant regions, whose singularities, once suppressed, were then celebrated as typically French.”

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