An occasion for celebrating books, with a poignant aftermath

April 29, 2008 at 10:52 pm (books, Mystery fiction, Poetry)

You expect to be haunted by the ghosts of departed family members and close friends. You don’t expect to be haunted by the memory of someone you barely knew. Or at least, I didn’t expect it.

In June of last year, when I still worked part time at the library, I was asked to present a program of book talks for employees at a facility for the frail elderly. The request had come from a board member who worked there. I’ll call her Jill. I had never met her, but she was warm and enthusiastic on the phone, and I looked forward to meeting her and doing the book talks for her staff.

Jill proved as warm and welcoming as I had expected her to be. She was tall and slender, with blonde hair that framed a lovely face. We chatted for a while. When the staff members had arrived, she introduced me, and I launched into my spiel, enjoying myself hugely as I always do when I talk about books.

Here, with some emendations and illustrations thrown in, is the list I handed out that day:

The Many Faces of Crime Fiction, or a selective serving of murder and mayhem!

Variety of locales – some exotic, some not so exotic:

India during the British Raj: The Last Kashmiri Rose, by Barbara Cleverly

Botswana: The No.1 Ladies’ Detective Agency, by Alexander McCall Smith

Sweden: One Step Behind, by Henning Mankell;The Laughing Policeman, by Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo [The Laughing Policeman, written in 1968 and published here in 1970, is one of my alll time favorite mysteries!]

Italy: Death at La Fenice, by Donna Leon

Canada: Still Life, by Louise Penny

[Per Wahloo and Maj Sjowall. They got the idea for their Martin Beck procedurals while translating Ed McBain’s books into Swedish.]

In the U.S, some of the “hottest” places are the coldest places!

Steve Hamilton (Michigan’s Upper Peninsula)

William Krueger (Minnesota)

Archer Mayor (Vermont)

Florida and California are still popular settings for crime fiction:

Florida (Edna Buchanan, Carl Hiaasen)

California (Michael Connelly, Robert Crais, T. Jefferson Parker, Sue Grafton)

And of course, there’s Baltimore own Laura Lippman

Historical mysteries:

Middle Ages very popular right now. Started with Ellis Peters’s Brother Cadfael mysteries

Victorian era: Cater Street Hangman and The Face of a Stranger by Anne Perry

The England of Henry VIII: Dissolution, Dark Fire, and Sovereign, by C.J. Sansom

Ancient Rome: Roman Blood and Arms of Nemesis by Steven Saylor

British Inspectors (books commonly known as police procedurals)


Robert BarnardDeath by Sheer Torture

P.D. James (Commander Adam Dalgliesh)

Ruth Rendell (Inspector Reginald Wexford)

Reginald Hill (Andy Dalziel & Peter Pascoe)

Colin Dexter (Inspector Morse)

Martha Grimes (Richard Jury)

Peter Robinson (Alan Banks)

Caroline Graham (Barnaby & Troy)

Ellis Peters – Death and the Joyful Woman* (Inspector Felse)

Dick Francis’s protagonists are primarily jockeys rather than policemen. He has used the character Sid Halley in several of his novels, the latest being Under Orders. [Actually, there’s now a new title, Dead Heat,* which Dick Francis and his son Felix wrote together. This is not a Sid Halley novel; it features a new protagonist, chef and restaurateur Max Morton.]


Ian Rankin (John Rebus);

A Scottish setting, though not a police procedural: The Right Attitude to Rain* by Alexander McCall Smith (Isabel Dalhousie series)

International Intrigue

Restless by William Boyd
The Warlord’s Son by Dan Fesperman

Psychological Suspense

Puccini’s Ghost by Morag Joss
The Minotaur by Barbara Vine
Seven Lies by James Lasdun

Legal Suspense

Scott Turow
King of Lies by John Hart


Historical fiction:

The Lambs of London by Peter Ackroyd
Arthur & George by Julian Barnes
An Imperfect Lens by Anne Roiphe*
Voyageurs by Margaret Elphinstone
The March – E.L. Doctorow
Pompeii and Imperium by Robert Harris
Alice in Exile by Piers Paul Read*

Great reading for folks who just plain love fiction:

Intuition by Allegra Goodman
The Other Side of the Bridge by Mary Lawson
The Other Side of You by Salley Vickers*
The Photograph by Penelope Lively
Second Honeymoon* and A Spanish Lover* by Joanna Trollope
The Emperor’s Children by Claire Messud
Digging To America by Anne Tyler
Atonement, Saturday, and On Chesil Beach by Ian McEwan
The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafon*
The Whole World Over by Julia Glass*




The Mayflower and In the Heart of the Sea by Nathaniel Philbrick
Undaunted Courage by Stephen Ambrose

Nonfiction that reads like fiction!

City of Falling Angels by John Berendt
The Lost Painting by Jonathan Harr
Archie and Amelie by Donna Lucey*
England’s Mistress by Kate Williams*
May and Amy by Josceline Dimbleby

Nonfiction in a class by itself:

The Omnivore’s Dilemma by Michael Pollan
The Girls Who Went Away by Ann Fessler


A pleasure to listen to:

Imperium by Robert Harris, read by Simon Jones

Judge Dee mysteries by Robert VanGulik, read by Frank Muller [Do yourself a favor and get your hands on these – either the audio versions or the books. They are just great! And Robert van Gulik himself had an amazing life.]

Dorothy L. Sayers’ Lord Peter Wimsey novels, read by Ian Carmichael.

[ Ian Carmichael, perfectly cast as Lord Peter Wimsey]

Digging To America by Anne Tyler, read by Blair Brown

The No.1 Ladies’ Detective Agency* series by Alexander McCall Smith, read by Lisette Lecat

Lilian Jackson Braun’s Cat Who mysteries and Tony Hillerman’s Navajo mysteries, read by George Guidall

*love story alert!


Useful websites for readers:

Mystery and Romance

Stop! You’re Killing Me

On this site you will find information on the geographical location of a mystery series, type of protagonist, e.g. policeman, lawyer, academic, firefighter, etc., and ethnicity of protagonist, as well as the order of books in a series.

Deadly Pleasures Mystery Magazine

This great little “fanzine” is one of the first places I turn to for reliable recommendations.

A Guide to Classic Mystery and Detection

This exceptionally literate site is maintained by “guru” Michael E. Grost.

The Romance Reader

On this site, you’ll find reviews, recommendations, and author interviews.

General, including book clubs


This site pulls together starred reviews from Kirkus, Publishers Weekly, Library Journal, and Booklist.

Reading Group Guides

Find a discussion guide for the book your group is reading.

Available on your library’s website, this terrific resource has book lists galore, plus exceptionally thoughtful reading group guides.


(Jill had mentioned during our phone conversations that several members of my prospective audience were devotees of the love story. Although I don’t ordinarily read books specifically labelled as romance, I nonetheless often encounter love stories in my reading. Several of the books on the list qualify, I informed her. This is how the “love story alert” came about.)

As it happened, nonfiction titles got relatively short shrift. Jill made note of that fact, and I responded that I hadn’t really thought about it; the list had just turned out that way. After a pause, she commented, “I used to read a lot of fiction, but I don’t any more. Now, I want to read for knowledge.” She glanced sideways at me and smiled, an enigmatic half smile like Mona Lisa.

When I left, Jill presented me with a gift bag containing, among other things, a ceramic mug with the name of the facility embossed upon it.

Five months later, after I had retired, I opened the local paper and saw Jill’s face staring out at me. She really was beautiful. I recognized the smile at once.

It was the obituary page.

The mug is dark blue; the lettering is gold. I fill it with tea or coffee and think of Jill. And in recent months, I have come to favor nonfiction over fiction (with an exception made for my beloved mysteries). I retain a vivid recollection of Jill stating, in simple terms, her own preference. I too now read primarily for knowledge – though whether the knowledge I need most urgently will come to me as a result, I cannot say.

Meanwhile, as we pursue happiness and dwell in pleasant gardens, like the one depicted in the post just below this one, we cannot entirely escape the ancient reminder, Et in Arcadio Ego. Or, as a poet in our own age has rather mordantly put it: “Most things may never happen: this one will.” The line is from “Aubade,” by Philip Larkin:

I work all day, and get half-drunk at night.
Waking at four to soundless dark, I stare.
In time the curtain-edges will grow light.
Till then I see what’s really always there:
Unresting death, a whole day nearer now,
Making all thought impossible but how
And where and when I shall myself die.
Arid interrogation: yet the dread
Of dying, and being dead,
Flashes afresh to hold and horrify.

The mind blanks at the glare. Not in remorse
— The good not done, the love not given, time
Torn off unused — nor wretchedly because
An only life can take so long to climb
Clear of its wrong beginnings, and may never;
But at the total emptiness for ever,
The sure extinction that we travel to
And shall be lost in always. Not to be here,
Not to be anywhere,
And soon; nothing more terrible, nothing more true.

This is a special way of being afraid
No trick dispels. Religion used to try,
That vast moth-eaten musical brocade
Created to pretend we never die,
And specious stuff that says No rational being
Can fear a thing it will not feel, not seeing
That this is what we fear — no sight, no sound,
No touch or taste or smell, nothing to think with,
Nothing to love or link with,
The anaesthetic from which none come round.

And so it stays just on the edge of vision,
A small unfocused blur, a standing chill
That slows each impulse down to indecision.
Most things may never happen: this one will,
And realisation of it rages out
In furnace-fear when we are caught without
People or drink. Courage is no good:
It means not scaring others. Being brave
Lets no one off the grave.
Death is no different whined at than withstood.

Slowly light strengthens, and the room takes shape.
It stands plain as a wardrobe, what we know,
Have always known, know that we can’t escape,
Yet can’t accept. One side will have to go.
Meanwhile telephones crouch, getting ready to ring
In locked-up offices, and all the uncaring
Intricate rented world begins to rouse.
The sky is white as clay, with no sun.
Work has to be done.
Postmen like doctors go from house to house.

Permalink 5 Comments

“A green thought in a green shade” – and two of my favorites from the animal kingdom

April 27, 2008 at 1:16 pm (Animals, Nature, Poetry)

On this overcast morning, the entire out of doors seems suffused with the most intense green. You only see this in the early Spring. It made me think of the above line of verse, from Andrew Marvell’s poem:

The Garden, by Andrew Marvell

How vainly men themselves amaze
To win the palm, the oak, or bays ;
And their uncessant labors see
Crowned from some single herb or tree,
Whose short and narrow-vergèd shade
Does prudently their toils upbraid ;
While all the flowers and trees do close
To weave the garlands of repose.

Fair Quiet, have I found thee here,
And Innocence, thy sister dear!
Mistaken long, I sought you then
In busy companies of men :
Your sacred plants, if here below,
Only among the plants will grow ;
Society is all but rude,
To this delicious solitude.

No white nor red was ever seen
So amorous as this lovely green ;
Fond lovers, cruel as their flame,
Cut in these trees their mistress’ name.
Little, alas, they know or heed,
How far these beauties hers exceed!
Fair trees! wheresoe’er your barks I wound
No name shall but your own be found.

When we have run our passion’s heat,
Love hither makes his best retreat :
The gods who mortal beauty chase,
Still in a tree did end their race.
Apollo hunted Daphne so,
Only that she might laurel grow,
And Pan did after Syrinx speed,
Not as a nymph, but for a reed.

What wondrous life is this I lead!
Ripe apples drop about my head ;
The luscious clusters of the vine
Upon my mouth do crush their wine ;
The nectarine and curious peach
Into my hands themselves do reach ;
Stumbling on melons as I pass,
Insnared with flowers, I fall on grass.

Meanwhile the mind, from pleasure less,
Withdraws into its happiness :
The mind, that ocean where each kind
Does straight its own resemblance find ;
Yet it creates, transcending these,
Far other worlds, and other seas ;
Annihilating all that’s made
To a green thought in a green shade.

Here at the fountain’s sliding foot,
Or at some fruit-tree’s mossy root,
Casting the body’s vest aside,
My soul into the boughs does glide :
There like a bird it sits and sings,
Then whets and combs its silver wings ;
And, till prepared for longer flight,
Waves in its plumes the various light.

Such was that happy garden-state,
While man there walked without a mate :
After a place so pure and sweet,
What other help could yet be meet!
But ’twas beyond a mortal’s share
To wander solitary there :
Two paradises ’twere in one
To live in Paradise alone.

How well the skillful gard’ner drew
Of flowers and herbs this dial new ;
Where from above the milder sun
Does through a fragrant zodiac run ;
And, as it works, th’ industrious bee
Computes its time as well as we.
How could such sweet and wholesome hours
Be reckoned but with herbs and flowers!

[Photos above of Stourhead Gardens, Wiltshire, England]


Highland cattle – I love them!

Poitou donkey with Annie Pollock, a retired veterinarian who has worked tirelessly on her Hampshire farm to save the breed from extinction.

Permalink Leave a Comment

Weekend Miscellany

April 26, 2008 at 10:49 pm (books, Cats, Food, Mystery fiction, Uncategorized)

What I’m reading:

Hamlet, Revenge; by Michael Innes, a Golden Age classic (written in 1937) that’s out of print and hard to find. I got my copy several years ago from a small British publisher, House of Stratus. They do not currently stock any copies! And so we beat on, boats against (contemporary publishing) currents, borne back ceaselessly in our search for (out of print) gems from the past (with apologies to F. Scott Fitzgerald).

Waterloo Sunset, crime fiction set in Liverpool and written by the dependably engaging Martin Edwards;

The Age of American Unreason by Susan Jacoby. Well, yes, I do identify with all those irrelevant intellectuals, but so far, Jacoby is preaching to the choir (and that’s one of the problems she addresses in the very first chapter).

The Dog Man: An Uncommon Life on a Faraway Mountain, by Martha Sherrill. The story of the man who almost singlehandedly saved Akitas, referred to in Japan as “snow country dogs,” from extinction as a distinct breed.

An especially meaty issue of The New Yorker. “Uncluttered” is about the Danish/Icelandic artist Olafur Eliasson, whose work I recently saw at MoMa in New York. And there’s a fascinating piece by Rebecca Mead on The Mount, Edith Wharton’s home in the Berkshires. It seems this venerable dwelling is at the moment threatened with foreclosure. Even the great Edith Wharton has been unable to escape the nation’s current subprime mortgage crisis! [This article is not available online.]

The Mount

Finally, there’s Daniel Mendelsohn’s meditation on Herodotus, occasioned by two new versions of The Histories. [Attention, children’s librarians: The New Yorker cover is by the late William Steig, author of one of my all time favorite children’s books, Dominic.]


What I’m listening to: The Shape Shifter by Tony Hillerman. George Guidall’s readings of these atmospheric novels of the Southwest are quite simply a joy.

[Geogre Guidall]


What we’re watching – and that would be on our brand spanking new 32-inch Toshiba 32RV53OU : The Wire, Season Two. I have nothing to say about this astonishing, harrowing program that hasn’t already been said. We finished Season One two weeks ago; I was so wrapped up in what was happening to these characters – especially Kima – that I was going to sleep obsessing about them and then dreaming about them.

[First picture: Dominic West and Wendell Pierce as Jimmy McNulty and “Bunk” Moreland; second picture: Idris Elba and Wood Harris as “Stringer” Bell and Avon Barksdale]

How did they find these fabulous actors? (There was an interesting article about David Simon, creator of this landmark series, in a recent issue of Atlantic Monthly.)

Unscheduled event of the weekend:

My husband’s brave but ultimately futile attempt to convey a piping hot Pepperidge Farm Chicken Pot Pie from the oven to the table resulted in said pie landing with a great splat on the kitchen floor. I’ve eaten this item before – from the table, I hasten to assure you! – and it really is quite tasty. But perhaps there should be a warning on the box concerning methods of conveyance. I’d suggest a picture of the pot pie imploding as its container crumples. A second graphic would have the pie’s crust and innards liberally spread hither and yon, while one’s pet – in this case, Miss Marple, a cat ever alert to novel culinary situations – comes racing in and careens right through the middle of the mess. Don’t try this at home, folks!

The cat in question…

Permalink Leave a Comment

Two novels of suspense: The Ghost by Robert Harris, and Monsieur Monde Vanishes by Georges Simenon

April 24, 2008 at 1:32 pm (Book review, books, Mystery fiction)

I was going to entitle this post: “Two Thrillers,” but I decided that while that term certainly applies to the Harris novel, it’s rather less descriptive of the Simenon. Then I thought about the fact that the creation of suspense is more to do with the craft of storytelling than it is with a specific genre of fiction. After all, I’ve read numerous mysteries in which there was hardly any suspense at all, and I’ve read love stories in which the suspense is positively excruciating. (Joanna Trollope is very good at that sort of thing; so, for that matter, is Jane Austen.)

Then I decided not to worry about any of it and just start writing!

The eponymous ghost in Robert Harris’s novel is actually a ghostwriter. His task is to produce a readable memoir purportedly written by Adam Lang, a charismatic former prime minister. Lang had been an extraordinarily popular and effective politician until he insisted that Britain support the American president’s war on terror. Sound familiar – Bush’s poodle, etc.? Well, yes, there’s more than hint of Tony Blair in Adam Lang, but as the novel’s plot unfolds, it becomes clear that we’re dealing with a “what if” scenario that is at a pretty far remove from Blair’s present circumstances.

The novel’s action begins in Great Britain, but the scene quickly shifts to Martha’s Vineyard, where Lang, his wife Ruth, and the rest of his entourage are holed up for the time being. It’s the dead of winter, and the idea is to keep Lang out of the public eye, sequestered on the remote, sparsely populated Vineyard while work on the memoir gets under way. Actually, there already exists a completed memoir, but it is considered to be all but unreadable. It had been written by a former close associate of Lang’s, Michael McAra. Alas, McAra is not available to revise his work: some two weeks prior, his body had been found washed up on a secluded cove on the island. The new ghostwriter’s task is to rework the existing material into a readable, saleable form. It seems like a fairly straightforward assignment, but it turns out to be anything but.

What seems at first like a fairly simple set-up gets complicated very quickly. The escalating crisis seems all the more urgent due to Harris’s terrifically effective use of first person narration. By severely limiting the point of view to that of the writer, we are forced to share his bewilderment, a bewilderment that soon shifts to unease and finally becomes full blown fear. The more answers he gets, the more questions he has. And no sooner has he started to make progress on the book than a nasty accusation against Lang, already being played up in the press, becomes the basis for possible legal action by an international tribunal.

And still, there lingers a particularly disturbing question:Just how did Michael McAra die? And what does his death imply with regard to the fate of his successor?

Robert Harris has produced a thriller in the classic mode. The Ghost is an edge-of-the-seat page turner; the quality of the writing is consistently high, while in depth characterization is by no means sacrificed on the altar of a fast paced plot. But I would expect no less from this incredibly versatile author of two historical novels that I thoroughly enjoyed: Pompeii and Imperium. Would I place The Ghost in one of my favorite fiction categories, “thrillers with brains?” Most definitely.

The “ghost” himself is a flawed but fundamentally decent human being; I was rooting for him throughout. And by the way – I would refer to him by his proper name – if only I knew it…


A woman walks into a police station in Paris to report her husband missing. This seemingly prosaic opening presages a jarring, baffling series of events in Monsieur Monde Vanishes, a 1952 novel by Georges Simenon.

AsI read on, I fully expected to be following a police investigation while checking in periodically with la famille Monde. Instead, I found myself traveling alongside Monsieur Monde himself, as he disappears further and further into the interior of France. (I’m not giving much away here; this change in point of view occurs in the latter part of the book’s first chapter.)

Norbert Monde works for Monde and Company, a firm of brokers and exporters founded by his grandfather in 1843. He and his wife had both been married before; each has a son, and Norbert also has a married daughter.

Like Louis Thouret in Maigret and the Man on the Boulevard, Norbert Monde lives a life solidly grounded in the bourgeois milieu of mid-twentieth century France. And like Thouret, he has reached a crucial juncture and knows that in order to avoid a terrible crisis, he must radically change that life. Louis Thouret has been forced to take drastic action due to the loss of his job. Monsieur Monde, on the other hand, is quite secure in his employment. In fact, he is quite secure in all facets of his existence. and it is that very security from which he feels impelled to flee.

At first, Monsieur Monde seems curiously passive. Events carry him forward willy-nilly: “He was not thinking of Madame Monde; he was not thinking of anything. He was conscious of moving restlessly in the midst of an outsize universe.” He continues in this mode until a fateful encounter changes everything.

One of the best things about Monsieur Monde Vanishes is Simenon’s vivid depiction of the demi-monde of mid twentieth century France. Within this twilight world, Norbert Monde makes his way through a landscape that offers no ready made road maps:

He was a man who, for a long time, had endured the human condition without being conscious of it, as others endure an illness of which they are unaware. He had always been a man living among other men and like them he had struggled, jostling amid the crowd, now feebly and now resolutely, without knowing whither he was going.

And now, in the moonlight, he suddenly saw life differently, as though with the aid of some miraculous X-ray.

I admit that it took me a while to catch the rhythm of this novel. Once I did, I was mesmerized. In a post that appeared on his blog last month, Martin Edwards quotes John Banville’s praise of Simenon’s non-Maigret novels. They were, Banville avers, instrumental in his decision to try his hand at crime fiction (which he now writes as Benjamin Black). All I can say is, small wonder.

Permalink 6 Comments

Gotham Diary: the otherworldly beauty of the Kirov Ballet

April 23, 2008 at 12:09 pm (New York City, Performing arts, Poetry, Russophilia)

Thursday night April 10, I took my friend Helene, a balletomane like myself, to New York City Center to see the Kirov work its magic. The program consisted of scenes from four different ballets: Le Corsaire, Diana and Acteon, Don Quixote, and La Bayadere.

How was it? Superlatives fail me. I don’t have the words, but the poets do. I keeping thinking of two passages in particular:: Romeo’s astonished declaration that “I ne’er saw true beauty till this night;” and the final lines of one of my favorite poems, Keats’s “Ode on a Grecian Urn:” “Beauty is truth, truth beauty, — That is all / Ye know on Earth, and all ye need to know.” Here’s the entire poem:

Thou still unravish’d bride of quietness,
Thou foster-child of Silence and slow Time,
Sylvan historian, who canst thus express
A flowery tale more sweetly than our rhyme:
What leaf-fringed legend haunts about thy shape
Of deities or mortals, or of both,
In Tempe or the dales of Arcady?
What men or gods are these? What maidens loth?
What mad pursuit? What struggle to escape?
What pipes and timbrels? What wild ecstasy?

Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard
Are sweeter, therefore, ye soft pipes, play on,
Not to the sensual ear, but, more endear’d,
Pipe to the spirit ditties of no tone:
Fair youth, beneath the trees, thou canst not leave
Thy song, nor ever can those trees be bare;
Bold Lover, never, never, canst thou kiss,
Though winning near the goal — yet, do not grieve;
She cannot fade, though thou hast not thy bliss,
For ever wilt thou love, and she be fair!

Ah, happy, happy boughs! that cannot shed
Your leaves, nor ever bid the Spring adieu;
And, happy melodist, unwearied,
For ever piping song for ever new,
More happy love! more happy, happy love!
For ever warm and still to be enjoy’d,
For ever panting, and for ever young;
All breathing human passion far above,
That leaves a heart high-sorrowful and cloy’d,
A burning forehead, and a parching tongue.

Who are these coming to the sacrifice?
To what green altar, O mysterious priest,
Lead’st thou that heifer lowing at the skies,
And all her silken flanks with garlands drest?
What little town by river or sea-shore,
Or mountain-built with peaceful citadel,
Is emptied of its folk, this pious morn?
And, little town, thy streets for evermore
Will silent be; and not a soul, to tell
Why thou art desolate, can e’er return.

O Attic shape! fair attitude! with brede
Of marble men and maidens overwrought,
With forest branches and the trodden weed;
Thou, silent form! dost tease us out of thought
As doth eternity. Cold Pastoral!
When old age shall this generation waste,
Thou shalt remain, in midst of other woe
Than ours, a friend to man, to whom thou say’st,
‘Beauty is truth, truth beauty, — that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.’


As a meditation on the age-old desire to stop cruel time in its tracks, this work, for me, has no equal. I wished very powerfully that the performance we saw that night could be frozen in time, like “the marble men and maidens overwrought” on Keats’s vase. But I will cherish the memory. And there are pictures…

The corps de ballet in the exquisite La Bayadere.

Soloists in La Bayadere

Leonid Sarafanov, whose spectacular leaps and light-as-a-feather landings repeatedly thrilled the audience.* (Here’s a “head shot” of the astounding Sarafanov taken last year. Doesn’t he look as though he’s all of fourteen years old?!)

This photo of Diana Vishneva, taken by Andrea Mohin, appeared in the New York Times on Sunday April 13:


The music, by turns robust and delicate, was played beautifully by the Orchestra of the Mariinsky Theatre; most of the choreography was done by the great Marius Petipa. Helene and I gazed at the program in awe – such storied names…

Here is the Mariinsky Theatre’s official site. It is very oriented to the here and now – not much in the way of history, except for the acknowledgement, in tiny print, that this is there 225th season. For some interesting background, and great photos of the theater itself, see the Wikipedia entry.


For a fascinating cultural hisory of Russia, see Natasha’s Dance by Orlando Figes. (I won’t claim to have read through this massive tome; I’ve been using it primarily as a reference work since I purchased it several years ago.)

*For more terrific portraits of ballet dancers, see Gene Schiavone’s site.

Permalink Leave a Comment

The Creme de la Creme of Crime Writing

April 21, 2008 at 2:09 am (books, Magazines and newspapers, Mystery fiction)

In February, a feature entitled “50 Crime Writers To Read Before You Die” appeared in the Telegraph, a British newspaper. Not to be outdone, the Times of London announced “The Fifty Greatest Crime Writers” in this past Friday’s edition. The Times article is greatly enriched with essays about the writers and links to other articles and in several cases, audio clips and videos.

Lists like these are of interest as much for their exclusions as for their inclusions. For instance, P.D. James made the Times list, but not the one in the Telegraph. I also encountered several names that were new to me – including one mentioned in the Telegraph piece, Dan Kavanagh. This turned out to be the crime writing pseudonym, employed in the 1980’s, by a writer I very much admire: Julian Barnes. (Shades of John Banville/Benjamin Black!)

And then, of course, there are a number of the “usual suspects” appearing in both lists:

Now: Can you identify this gallery of rogue creators?? (Sorry – I simply couldn’t resist doing this!) To find the answers, click on the “Comments” section below.

Permalink 2 Comments

Gotham Diary: The Museum of Modern Art, with an absurdist detour to Bergdorf Goodman

April 19, 2008 at 2:13 am (Art, New York City)

So I had returned to my hotel in the late afternoon, after an intense several hours spent at the Metropolitan Museum Art. It had been one epiphany after another: the fabulous Courbet exhibit, followed by the equally fabulous Poussin exhibit – I went through both of them twice – lunch with Helene, one of my dearest and closest friends – a quick walk through the mysteries and beauties of the Asian wing, and finally, a taxi ride back, through the noisy, pungent chaos of the streets of New York. (Please, please institute congestion pricing, Mayor Bloomberg – sooner rather than later. Whence comes the perverse sense of entitlement that impels people to bring their vehicles into a city with such a comprehensive system of mass transit?)

Anyway – as I said, I’m back at my hotel. It’s about five o’clock and my head aches, as do my feet, and I feel grimy and exhausted…ah, New York, playground of my youth, do I need any better proof that I have left that youth far behind me? But wait..WAIT!! The headache abates, the energy flows back, the spring returns to my step.. and lo! I am getting a second wind!

Out I go again, bending my steps toward the Museum of Modern Art on 53rd Street between Fifth and Sixth Avenues. But before I get there, I hear the siren song, and I am seduced, utterly vanquished…by Bergdorf Goodman’s justly famous display windows!

Bergdorf’s has had a presence on Fifth Ave. and 58th for as long as I can remember. But somehow, it seems to have grown exponentially.

Well, I couldn’t resist: I went inside. And Lo! I was greeted with blazing light, and bags and jewelry and more bags and more jewelry. And so, seeking to establish my bona fides as a smart, sophisticated shopper whose resources, while not exactly unlimited, are not paltry, either, I saunter over to one of the jewelry counters and announce: “I need gold earrings to wear to my son’s wedding in June.” (Aha! I finally found the ideal placement for that incredibly important nugget of info!)

“Oh, here’s a very nice pair, and they’re nicely priced, too,” says the saleswoman – oops, sorry, the sales associate – as she pulls out a nice, decidedly unremarkable pair of gold earrings. “How much?” I ask. The response: “Two thousand -” Please pardon the dash. I never heard the rest. And speaking of dashes, I performed one then and there, right out of that department! I fared no better with the bags, repeatedly encountering four numbers to the left of the decimal point.

Here, for instance, is one of the famous, fabulous Leiber bags. I do love it, but for $3,695.00 ?? Alas, I think not… And so I passed dolefully from the premises. So much for the Sophisticated Shopper!

Farewell, O Temple of High End Consumerism! Now we’re off to MOMA!!

I was eight years old when my mother first took me to this museum. It was then, like me, ever so much smaller. I recall walking up a winding staircasee and finding myself in a room with two paintings by Henri Rousseau, “Le Douanier”: The Dream and The Sleeping Gypsy. For almost my whole life I have carried their images with me in my mind’s eye. So…I wonder..Where are they now?

MoMa has become HUGE!! The lobby alone is a vast, echoing space. Lucky, too, because it was wall to wall people – noisy, crowded, and very festive. This was probably at least partly due to the fact that it was a “Target Free Friday Night,” meaning that admission is free on Friday evenings from four until closing at eight. (As a rule, I’m no fan of big box stores, but I really admire Target’s numerous philanthropic initiatives.)

I go up the main staircase – walking over a delightfully colorful installation – and no, it was not a mistake; it’s on the floor! – and instead of Rousseau’s two dreamy paintings, I see an object that resembles a table fan swinging crazily from the ceiling some six floors above. I would say it was a pendulum, except that it kept changing direction. At its lowest point, it was about ten feet from the floor; when it came toward you, you ducked instinctively, even though there was no danger. There was something inexplicably exhilarating about this installation; I laughed out loud and so did many others around me. Is it art? Well, you could debate that question. Is it fun? Definitely! (Something else that’s fun, and very cleverly executed, is the online exhibition “Color Chart.”)

For whatever reason, I was not able to find the swinging fan on the MoMa site; neither could I find its name in the atrium where it swung so merrily. I believe it’s called Ventilator and that it is by Olafur Eliasson, who is described in Wikipedia as a Danish/Icelandic artist. Eliasson recently had an exhibit at the San Francisco Museum of Art called “Take Your Time.” Here’s the Ventilator as it was seen there, where they apparently had it installed in the lobby of the museum.

There were many other objects of interest in the second floor. (Notice my reluctance to term them “art works.”) Some were intriguing; others seemed simply bizarre. But in this temple to the modern and the postmodern, I found one work with roots that go back thousands of years. I stood before it dumbstruck, with a very strong sensation that I was destined to be standing there in front of it. It is called “Crowhurst;” the image, created by artist Tacita Dean , depicts a yew tree in Surry, in South East England, that is thought to be four thousand years old.

Dean has said that she was fascinated by this ancient tree and also drawn to its name because of the story of Donald Crowhurst. Crowhurst participated in a round-the-world yacht race in 1968. His craft, a trimaran, was found adrift; he himself was nowhere to be found. The mystery of his disappearance has never been solved, although current thinking apparently holds that he committed suicide.

I read The Strange Last Voyage of Donald Crowhurst when it was first published in 1970, and I have never forgotten this strange, disturbing story. (Neither apparently have many others; see the section on “Literary and dramatic treatment” in the Wickipedia entry.)


After standing for some time before Tacita Dean’s stunning work, I roused myself and headed up to the fifth floor. There, I had been assured, is where I would find my old friends. And, sure enough, there they were…

The Bather, by Paul Cezanne

The Bather, by Paul Cezanne


Bird in Space, by Constantin Brancusi


Picasso’s revolutionary Demoiselles D’Avignon


The Persistence of Memory, by Salvador Dali


Van Gogh’s Starry Night


Gare Montparnasse (The Melancholy of Departure), by Giorgio De Chirico


Broadway Boogie Woogie, by Piet Mondrian (Years ago I owned a dress whose print pattern looked alot like this painting!)


I and the Village, by Marc Chagall

There are many, many more. But I must reserve a place apart for the paintings by Henri Rousseau, as they are so dear to me:

The Sleeping Gypsy; and below, The Dream

I have to say that I’m somewhat disappointed as to the current placement of these works. The Sleeping Gypsy was hung rather unimaginatively on a plain white wall in the middle of numerous other works, some interesting, some not. And The Dream, inexplicably placed alone on a wall near the cafeteria, is now behind glass. While this insures that catsup won’t be inadvertently sprayed on it, the resulting glare makes for difficult viewing.

Possibly due to my (mild) annoyance concerning the above situation, I was especially delighted, when I later got around to reading that day’s New York Times, to find a delicious tale of irreverence entitled, “At the Modern, Art in a New York Minute.”

Permalink 3 Comments

Writing that is “down to earth and yet transporting:” Jenny Uglow receives honors for Nature’s Engraver

April 18, 2008 at 8:28 pm (Art, books, Magazines and newspapers)

I have long appreciated the arts coverage in the Washington Post. In today’s Style section, we learn that Jenny Uglow’s biography of the engraver Thomas Bewick [1753-1828] has won the National Award for Arts Writing. This award that was created last year by the Arts Club of Washington. Until now I was unaware of this group, but I am fervently in favor of any individual or organization that advocates for the arts.

According to one of the judges, Nancy Pearl, the writing in Nature’s Engraver is “down to earth and yet transporting.” Pearl comments further that the book “brings this time period alive in a way that even the best historical fiction sometimes fails to do.”

This observation is right on the money. I read the book last summer and fell completely under its spell. Here is my review of Nature’s Engraver. I’ve included some examples of Thomas Bewick’s enchanting works of art.

Permalink 1 Comment

Yet another psychiatrist in love and trouble: Trauma, by Patrick McGrath

April 16, 2008 at 8:12 pm (Book review, books, Uncategorized)

Charlie Weir is a divorced psychiatrist who lives and practices in Manhattan. When we first meet him, he is mourning the death of his mother, a troubled, difficult woman. This loss becomes the occasion for much soul searching. Recollections come flooding in, nearly all of them unpleasant or disturbing. The Weirs are a family that seems to revel in dysfunction. Charlie’s father Fred, an alcoholic, left them when Charlie and his brother Walt were still boys. Their mother suffered from bouts of depression. Currently, Charlie resents Walt, an artist whose successes, both personal and professional, are a sore point.

Charlie had first met Agnes, his ex-wife, while he was treating her brother Danny, a Vietnam vet. Danny had been caught in a downward spiral, unable to deal with a particularly traumatic event experienced in combat. Charlie and Agnes married after a brief courtship. At the same time, Charlie had persisted in his effort to help Danny, whose fate ultimately caused the marriage to end. As the novel opens, Agnes has remarried, and she and Charlie have managed to stay on reasonably good terms, largely for the sake of their daughter Cassie. Hearing of Charlie’s loss, Agnes rushes to comfort him. And stays on, to comfort him further, in bed.

The “comforting” continues. Agnes’s husband Leo seems strangely absent from the scene. Then Walt introduces Charlie to the (somewhat) mysterious Nora Chiara. She and Charlie are instantly attracted to each other; an affair begins almost immediately. Meanwhile, Charlie continues to sleep with Agnes. At this point, one does not have to be especially perceptive to catch sight of the looming train wreck. But the form that it assumes is not what you’d expect.

Charlie Weir’s specialty is helping people deal with repressed traumatic events by remembering them and confronting them. The hope is that by taking these steps, individuals can reduce, or even vitiate altogether, the trauma’s power to damage and warp their lives. In the course of his career, Charlie has had considerable success in helping patients to achieve this goal. But the trauma that he most needs to deal with lies buried deep inside his own psyche.

I’ve read several novels by Patrick McGrath. What distinguishes them is his exceptionally fine prose and his laserlike ability to penetrate and illuminate the vagaries of the human heart. And he is particularly good at conveying the torments of one whose mind is full of scorpions. (Yes, I know, I’ve used that phrase from Macbeth before, but it is so vivid – and often so apt: “How full of scorpions is my mind, dear wife!”)

McGrath was born and raised in Britain. His father, a distinguished psychiatrist, was for many years the medical superintendent at Broadmoor, England’s famed high security hospital for, among others, criminals who are unfit to plead. The elder McGrath was not averse to sharing the stories of his patients with his young son, who admits he was enthralled by them. (Patrick McGrath currently lives in New York City, and Trauma is very much a New York novel.)

Last year I read another fiction title with a psychiatrist as the protagonist: The Other Side of You by Salley Vickers. I’ve taken every opportunity to rave about that stellar novel. While I don’t think Trauma quite measures up to the work by Vickers, it is still very, very good, and I recommend it.

Permalink 4 Comments

“Highly Recommended” by the staff of Howard County Library

April 15, 2008 at 10:24 pm (Uncategorized)

Here’s a great new source for recommendations of books and movies. On “Highly Recommended,” you’ll find reviews of books and films, as well as information about library events, classes, and seminars.

This brand new blog is an initiative of the Howard County Library staff. I can tell you from my twenty-plus years of working with these folks that they are tremendously knowledgeable and enthusiastic about the books and movies that they work with on a daily basis. Moreover, they love to share that enthusiasm with the reading and viewing public.

So, have a look. I think you’ll be pleased by what you see!

Permalink Leave a Comment

Next page »