A Taste of Mystery is now history!
As promised, we discussed trends and subgenres, perennial favorites and lesser known authors whose work merits a wider audience.
I’m leaving the quiz in place, since people might still enjoy it after the fact.
Here’s a two-part test of your Mysterious IQ:
1. Identify the author;
2. Match him or her to the appropriate fictional protagonist.
Click on “Comment” at the bottom of the post for answers.
A. Thomas Lynley; B. Alan Banks; C. Charlie Resnick; D. Inspector Konrad Sejer
E. Sookie Stackhouse; F. Inspector Kurt Wallander; G. Richard Jury; H. Joe Pickett;
I. Duncan Kincaid & Gemma James; J. Sharon McCone; K. Brother Cadfael;
L. Father Dowling; M. Rev. Clare Fergusson & Russ Van Alstyne; N. Kinsey Millhone;
O. Joe Gunther; P. Simon Serailler; Q. Commissario Guido Brunetti; R. Kurt Wallander;
S. Spenser, Susan Silverman – and Pearl, the Wonder Dog!
T. Reginald Wexford; U. Daniel Kind & Hannah Scarlett
“Are we really all so beautiful and brave, she thought, or do we just think we are?” – The Shooting Party, by Isabel Colegate
Some years ago, I led a discussion of Ordinary Love & Good Will by Jane Smiley. In the course of preparing for that discussion, if memory serves (which, God willing, it will continue to do for a while longer), I came across comment by Smiley in which she explains why she felt compelled to write fiction. She had just finished a novel that had affected her deeply, and one of her thoughts on completing it was:
” I knew this was for me – this creation of worlds.”
I have rarely encountered a fictional world so fully realized as that summoned forth by Isabel Colegate in The Shooting Party. This slender novel – just under 200 pages – came out in 1980, but it has the feel of a much older work.
It is autumn of the year 1913. Sir Randolph Nettleby has brought together some of England’s most accomplished sportsmen for a weekend of world class shooting at his country house in Oxfordshire. Some come singly; others are with their wives. (Children are invariably left at home with the nanny.)
On the surface, the mood is festive. But there are undercurrents. A rivalry has sprung up between Lord Gilbert Hartlip and Lionel Stephens. Sir Randolph discourages such competitive tendencies, believing them to be a violation of the unwritten rules of good sportsmanship. And Lionel Stephens has another problem: he has fallen hopelessly in love with the beautiful Olivia Lilburn, a married woman and mother of a son.
Here is part of a letter Lionel writes to Olivia:
“There is a certain smile you have which I cannot meet–not because it dazzles me, though it is dazzling–but because it is so innocent. It’s as if you didn’t know how much I love you, how much–for it must be so–you love me, or are going to love me. It’s not for nothing–how could it be?–that all those ordinary hesitancies which veil people from one another were never there between us. From the first we looked at each other from heart to heart–oh how we looked–‘My face in thine eye, thine in mine appears And true plain hearts do in the faces rest.’
This letter is never sent, though it is later put to questionable use in another context. (The quote is from the poem “The Good-Morrow” by John Donne.)
Until I read this book, I hadn’t realized what a highly structured event a shooting party was. A veritable army of workers from Lord Randolph’s estate and the nearby village are required to make the necessary preparations. Shooters move from location to location along a prescribed route. Each shooter has a loader behind him, so that he can keep shooting without interruption.
The result of this activity, pursued with zestful energy, is carnage on an incredible scale:
“Glass walked along the line of dead pheasants, crooking two fingers round the neck of every tenth bird and pulling it forward to make re-counting easier.
‘Five hundred and four,’ he reported provisionally to Sir Randolph, before going on to count the hares, rabbits and woodcocks (and the jay shot as vermin by young Marcus).
This was the tally for just one of several “drives” of that day.
Sir Randolph’s response to this accounting, BTW, is “Well done.”
Some guests harbor reservations about the nature of the weekend’s activities. Olivia admits her uneasiness, which is heightened by fears for her son. She allows that she can comprehend “the beauty of a good shoot,” and yet: “…I can’t help feeling the added solemnity the whole thing gets from that sacrificial note, the note of death, of blood. Why do we have to have that, to complete our pleasure?” Her anxious speculation foreshadows the horror of the war soon to engulf Europe. No one taking part in this country idyll will escape its devastating effects.
In a recent post, Six Gifted Englishwomen, I used an article by Jonathan Yardley as a springboard for a discussion of some off my favorite authors. In his piece, Yardley sang the praises of The Shooting Party. I hadn’t read it at that time, but now that I have, I can only express my gratitude for the recommendation. This is not only the best novel I’ve read this year – it is one of the best I’ve ever read. It features compelling characters, prose of luminous beauty, and most of all, an unsentimental and immensely moving valediction for a fast-vanishing world.
I have been thinking about death a lot lately. This is partly due to a book I have just finished, and another that I am currrently in the middle of. The two titles, respectively, are The Book Thief by Marcus Zusak and Nothing To Be Frightened Of by Julian Barnes.
Set in the south of Germany during the Second World War, The Book Thief is narrated by Death itself. It is an immensely powerful novel. The Barnes book is part memoir, part the author’s rumination on various aspects of death, and especially on how to face the inevitable when religious faith has been abandoned. Compelling as it is, I am having to read it in discreet chunks.
I’ll have more to say about both of these books in later posts. But meanwhile, I’d like to pay tribute to the memory of my father, my father-in-law, and my sister-in-law, all of whom passed away in the month of October between the years 2000 and 2003.
I am constantly kicking at the traces that still bind me to the religion I was born into. But Judaism still exerts a hold on me. I have always liked the custom of lighting the Yahrzeit candle to commemorate the anniversary of the death of a loved one. That person’s soul glows in the taper’s light. Every time you gaze on it, you remember.
And so, this is for the three above named people, each of them beloved, each of them missed.
William Kent Krueger’s Corcoran O’Connor mysteries take place in the region of northern Minnesota known as the Iron Range. “Cork” O’Connor is a retired sheriff married to Jo, a lawyer. He has a private investigator’s license and also runs Sam’s Place, an eatery he inherited from an old friend of his father’s. Two teen-age daughters are often on hand to help with the cooking and serving; Cork and Jo also have a younger son, Stevie.
In this land of lakes and boreal forests, there remains a strong Native American presence, the Ojibwe being predominant. One member of this tribe is Henry Meloux, an elderly man who lives alone in a cabin he built himself. When Henry is taken ill, he asks Cork, a valued friend of long standing, to journey north to Canada with him to search for his long lost son. His sudden illness has rendered the matter urgent.
Cork is dumbfounded by this request, having had no idea of the existence of this offspring. He strikes a deal with Henry Meloux: tell me all about it, and I’ll help you in any way that I can. And so, in story-within-a-story format, the reader is taken back to the 1920’s, to a time when Henry was a youth. His tumultuous tale encompasses greed, a power struggle, more than one death – and a great and passionate love. And throughout, we are witness to the searing contempt with which many whites viewed this country’s native peoples.
William Kent Krueger, on the other hand, views the Ojibwe with respect and affection. In this, he reminded me of Tony Hillerman and his riveting portrayal of the Navajo Nation in the long running series featuring Jim Chee and Joe Leaphorn.
In this passage, Henry Meloux, in a dreamlike state, has a frightening encounter:
“The figure walked toward him. As it came, it grew, taking on huge dimensions. The head became a ragged growth of shaggy hair. The fingers grew into long claws. Through the white gauze of snow, the eyes glowed red as hot coals. Henry realized that what was coming for him was not a man but a windigo, the mythic beast out of the horror stories of his childhood, a cannibal giant with a heart of ice. He turned and tried to run, but he could not move his legs. He looked back. The beast was almost upon him. Henry tried to cry out. His jaw locked in place, and only a terrified moan escaped. The foul smell of the windigo–the stench of rotted meat–was all around him. He saw the great mouth open, revealing teeth like a row of bloody knives. The beast reached for him. Henry tensed and cringed, prepared to be torn apart.
What happens next? Read Thunder Bay to find out!
[Addendum: Thunder Bay is one of five titles nominated for the Anthony Award for Best Novel of 2008.]
“We were like you. We were all of us just like you.” – A discussion of The Escher Twist, by Jane Langton
1. A cosmetic surgeon telling Mary Kelly that you can tell a woman’s real age by looking at her hands;
2. A consoling stanza from “Resignation,” a poem by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow;
3. A most unusual tea party.
In Cambridge, Massachusetts, a man and a woman strike up an acquaintance at an exhibition of the works of M.C. Escher. There is an immediate sympathy between the two. They exchange first names: Leonard and Frieda. Then Frieda disappears.
Leonard is a crystallographer. He teaches at Harvard. Up until the day of the exhibit, his life had been a solitary journey. He was constantly discerning the patterns of the world, yet they seemed to have nothing to do with him personally. After the Escher exhibit, though, he has a new purpose, and a burning one at that: to find the mysterious Frieda.
This tantalizing glimpse into a future that could contain a genuine soul mate has left Leonard feeling lonelier than ever. He returns to the exhibit, in the vain hope that he will encounter Frieda yet again. He does not, but shortly thereafter, when he visits Harvard’s Peabody Museum, the next best thing happens: he meets a down-to-earth resourceful couple, two people who are always ready to help someone in need: Homer and Mary Kelly. Always game for an adventure, especially one involving a quest, the Kellys join Leonard in the search for Frieda.
The Escher Twist is a highly unusual work of crime fiction. The battle between good and evil is clearly defined, yet for much of the novel, the reader sees “through a glass darkly.” This opacity, verging on a kind of mysticism, intrigued some members of the Usual Suspects mystery discussion group; others found it exasperating and off putting.
Both Frieda and Leonard possess what I would call doppelgangers. Frieda’s is very dangerous, a woman whose heart has been hopelessly twisted by a desire for revenge. Leonard’s double, on the other hand, is benign but hapless.
The novel’s action continually returns to Cambridge’s fabled Mount Auburn Cemetery. This beautiful, haunted abode of the deceased becomes at times more real than the city surrounding it.
Reproductions of Escher’s work appear throughout The Escher Twist. They have a hallucinatory quality that meshes neatly with the narrative.
Mobius strips also figure prominently. They fascinated Escher, as they fascinate Leonard. In the first chapter, he rips a narrow strip of paper off the gallery pamphlet so that he can demonstrate to Frieda what a Mobius strip is. Her response when she sees it is to laugh and then comment: “It’s bewitched.”
One of the pleasures of leading a book discussion is that in doing background research, you’re often led down strange roads. I particularly enjoyed reading about about August Ferdinand Mobius (1790-1868), originator of the eponymous strip. Mobius, a mathematician and theoretical astronomer, was descendant, on his mother’s side, from Martin Luther.
I greatly enjoyed reading about Mount Auburn Cemetery, which has been designated a National Historic Landmark by the Department of the Interior. Numerous worthies find repose there, among them Buckminster Fuller, Isabella Stewart Gardner, Mary Baker Eddy, and Oliver Wendell Holmes. (Click here for a more complete list of names.)
The plot of The Escher Twist is quite convoluted. Some in the group found it bewildering and far fetched as well. It was pointed out that police procedure – even police presence – was largely missing, even at the scene of an accident that resulted in a fatality. I hadn’t actually thought about that fact, as I was so busy beavering away at my research and admiring the author’s elegant prose and bracing wit! But that observation was a valid one.
I count myself a long time admirer of Jane Langton’s Homer and Mary Kelly series, having read or listened to eight of them. Among my favorites:
Lamentably, older titles in this series are almost all out of print, with the exception of The Transcendental Murder, which Felony & Mayhem Press, bless them, has just re-issued with a wonderful new cover.
With the exception of a brief stint at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, Jane Langton has lived all her life in the Boston area. She says this about her work:
“My books start with an interest in a place. This has been most often Concord, Massachusetts, with its several layers of history, both from revolutionary times and from the nineteenth century transcendental times. But it is the present time, littered about with the past, that I seem to want to write about.
(I had the great pleasure of reading God in Concord while I was actually in Concord in the early 1990’s.)
Equally well regarded an an author of children’s books, Langton is coming out with a new title in her Hall family chronicles, The Dragon Tree. In addition, she is working on The Thurber Murder, a mystery for adult readers set in the 1920’s and presumably not featuring the Kellys.
And speaking of the Kellys, not everyone in the Usual Suspects was enamored with them. Homer was described as irascible to an annoying degree; in addition, it was felt that he tended to shift work onto Mary’s shoulders when she was just as busy as he was. (Both teach classes at Harvard, BTW.) Then there were those of us, especially long time readers of the series, who tended to be more indulgent in our view of this singular couple. Yes, Homer can be cranky, but he can also be quite entertaining. In one scene, Mary is musing on what it is about the older homes of Cambridge that gives them their uniquely haunted character. Homer thinks he has the answer:
“‘Old ectoplasmic professors seeping through the wallpaper. It’s a known scientific fact that you can’t get rid of ectoplasmic professors behind the wallpaper. They stay right there and peek out from time to time.’
I’d like to take a moment here to sing the praises of the Usual Suspects. This is a brainy group of people who are also warm, generous, and funny. They make trenchant observations and offer insight and criticism with maximum tact. Well done!
Finally, I wish to refer back to the beginning of this post, where I mentioned a tea party. It occurs near the end of the book and is one of the most magical scenes I have encountered, at least in recent years, in a work of fiction.
Blue Ribbon Biographies: a good time was had by all, including – or should I say, especially! – the presenters.
My library colleague Jean and I had a delightful morning yesterday book talking various biographical works to a gratifyingly appreciative audience at the Bain Center.
Here are some of the books that Jean talked about:
This is the title that has been selected for “One Maryland One Book,” an initiative of the Maryland Humanities Council.
Jean also recommended a biographical film:
Here’s my list (click to enlarge):
There wasn’t enough time to talk about all of these, so I chose some of my favorites that I thought would appeal:
Yes, my brother wrote it – and it is truly excellent!
Andrea Di Robilant has found a gold mine in trunks full of letters written by his ancestors. I only hope there’s more to come! (See my review of Lucia.)
I love books that speak to the adage that truth can be stranger than fiction. The incredible tale of how Emma Hamilton fought her away out of destitution – not to mention prostitution and illegitimate motherhood – to attain entree into the heights of English society is one; the story of the disastrous marriage of Astor heir John Armstrong “Archie” Chanler and strangely exotic Southern belle Amelie Rives is another.
And speaking of marital disasters – not to mention irregularities and just plain bizarre set-ups – Uncommon Arrangements was like People Magazine survey of England’s literary set in the early twentieth century. It makes for delicious reading! (For more details, see my review.)
And finally – the utterly endearing, frequently hilarious Zippy! I actually listened to this one, read by the author Haven Kimmel. But if you do that, be sure and have a look at the print version as well, since it contains a wealth of black and white snapshots of Zippy and her rather singular family, friends, and neighbors.
The above exclamation came from a contemporaneous French mathematician who was mystified and astounded by the genius of Sir Isaac Newton.
Alas, I must relinquish my copy of Peter Ackroyd’s small gem of a biography before having had the opportunity to give it its due in this space. So I will simply commend it to you by citing certain passages.
Of Newton’s obsessive study of Holy Scripture: “He wished to bring himself closer to the divine.” More on this:
“In one enlightening passage Newton comments upon the language of dreams in the Old Testament. It is perhaps appropriate the the discoverer of universal gravity was also an analyst of dreams.
Newton was also a student of Biblical prophecy. In the course of this study he formulated a chronology for the future of mankind on Earth. One of his predictions involved “the tribulation of the Jews,” which he said would end in the year 1944.
Here is a description of Newton’s demeanor as he labored to bring forth his masterpiece:
“He would forget to eat and, when reminded that he had left his food untouched, would exclaim, ‘Have I!’ before eating a little while still standing. He never bothered to sit down for his meals. This is the portrait of a man in the grip of an inspiration, or an obsession, that would never let him rest. He was on the verge of the greatest scientific discovery of the modern era.
From this cauldron of thought emerged the Principia Mathematica.
Newton, unsurprisingly, was in many ways a strange man. He never married and seems to have avoided intimacy of any kind throughout his long life. One of his peculiarities was his affinity for the color red:
“It is one of the strange aspects of his character that he was obsessed by the colour crimson. In the inventory of his possessions, drawn up after his death, there is reference to a “crimson mohair bed with “case curtains of crimson,” crimson drapes and crimson wall hangings, a crimson settee with crimson chairs and crimson cushions. There have been many explanations for this, including his study of optics, his preoccupation with alchemy, or his desire to assume a quasi-regal grandeur. But it may simply be a mark of his difference from the rest of the world, his uniqueness, a flash of his singular genius in an unexpected setting.
And yes, Newton was, in fact, an avid student of alchemy.
One of the best things about this slender volume is that you can get a real sense of the man and his tremendous achievement without having to plumb the intricacies of mathematics and physics that are beyond the ken of most of us ordinary mortals.
Toward the end of Newton, Peter Ackroyd gives us Alexander Pope’s famous couplet:
“Nature and Nature’s laws lay hid in night;
God said, Let Newton be! and All was Light.“
“Why man, he doth bestride the narrow world like a Colossus” – The Triumph of Caesar, by Steven Saylor
For me, no one brings the world of ancient Rome to life the way Steven Saylor does. His Roma Sub Rosa series began in 1992 with Roman Blood; now we have the twelfth book in the series, The Triumph of Caesar.
In Roman Blood, we enter the world of ancient Rome in the year 80 BC. The great Cicero is about to embark on the legal and oratorical career that made him famous, both in his own time and down through the ages, to ours. In becoming Cicero’s eyes and ears, Gordianus discovers his vocation as The Finder, a combination of spy, secret agent, and private investigator. His discretion, integrity, and resourcefulness gain the respect not only of Cicero but of other well-placed Romans. And so a career is launched, much to the delight of Saylor fans like me.
The Triumph of Caesar takes place in the year 46 BC. Caesar has conquered Gaul, subdued the Africans, and settled the dispute over who shall rule Egypt in favor of Cleopatra, his some time lover and possibly the mother of his only son. The word “triumph” in the title of this novel has a double meaning. It refers not only to Caesar’s many victories in battle but also to the peculiarly Roman custom of parading the artifacts of those victories through the streets of Rome as part of a lavish celebration. Part show biz spectacle, part moving newsreel, the triumph is staged to demonstrate to the Roman people just how vast are the accomplishments of the returning hero. And also, how worthy he is of their respect and devotion. Gifts of food and money will help drive home that point.
In the novel, a succession of four triumphs take place, each one commemorating a specific victory. Saylor’s descriptions are detailed and fascinating. These folks really knew how to put on a show! Here’s this, for instance, from the Egyptian triumph:
“There was a towering black obelisk etched with hieroglyphics and decorated with gold bosses in the shape of lotus blossoms. There were bronze statues of various gods, including an incarnation of the Nile represented as an old man, surrounded by river nymphs, with creatures of the deep entwined in his flowing beard. there was a grand procession of magnificent sphinxes, one after another, carved from granite and marble.
Saylor drew on information in contemporary accounts in order to build marvelous word pictures like this one.
Gordianus’s client is not Caesar, however, but the dictator’s wife Calpurnia. She fears for her husband’s life, and wants Gordianus to learn the identity of the would-be assassin before it is too late. Gordianus, however, is 64 years old, a grandfather, and wants only to be left alone. But Calpurnia knows just how to draw Gordianus into this investigation: she shows him the body of his predecessor in this secret enterprise. This was one Hieronymus, who had not only been a valued friend of the Finder but had once saved his life. Now Hieronymus, murdered by an unknown hand, lies dead in the house of Calpurnia.
Gordianus is grieved and outraged. He agrees to the undertaking, but only because of his desire to find his friend’s killer.
The novels of the Roma Sub Rosa series make ancient Rome real in a way that both convinces and delights the reader. After finishing one of them several years ago, I had a dream in which a man was climbing some stone steps outside a building in Rome. He was wearing a tunic and broad brimmed straw hat. The sun shone brilliantly. I was seeing him from above, and as he looked up at me, I awoke.
This is now known in my personal history as my “Gordianus dream.” And as I’m writing this, I am recalling his face!
Gordianus has an extremely interesting family life that evolves by twists and turns over the course of the series. I recommend beginning with the first novel, Roman Blood, so you can get on the ground floor, as it were, of the narrative. And in the superb second novel, Arms of Nemesis, you will encounter a description of galley slaves toiling in the hold of a ship that is so vivid and disturbing, I have never forgotten it.
I still remember my ninth grade Latin teacher, Mrs. Gelber. She opened up a world for me that has never lost its fascination. My interest in the ancient world had gone dormant, though, until I picked up Roman Blood in 1992. Now I’m enthralled and bemused all over again. I salute Steven Saylor – and thank him!
For a person who has repeatedly sworn off book club membership, participating in not one but two of these organizations might seem a perverse act. By way of explanation – justification? – one of the groups, Literary Ladies, is a library staff spin-off: all members are either past or current employees. We have numerous common associations of long standing, and the in-crowd chatter and exchange of news tidbits is invariably fascinating.
Does this mean that our get-togethers are purely social, with only a soupcon of book-related intellectual endeavor? Au contraire, say I, nothing could be further from the truth! Take this past Friday night. After we finished both dining and gossiping, we got down to the business at hand. That “business” consisted of a discussion of the works of Penelope Lively.
Several of us had read Consequences. We pretty much agreed that after an extremely vivid and intense opening section, the novel’s pace became sluggish, the characters’ lives less interesting. The tragedy of Matt and Lorna made subsequent events seem anti-climactic. It was not until the end, we felt, when things were more or less coming full circle, that readers felt once again fully involved in the story.
Several of us had already read The Photograph and felt that it was a better novel than Consequences. In The Photograph, the saddest mysteries of the human heart are poignantly probed and exposed. Only one group member had read Lively’s 1987 Booker Prize winner, Moon Tiger. She averred that as good as The Photograph was, Moon Tiger was even better!
The idea for examining one author’s works in this manner grew out the experience of Emma, our discussion leader. At the library branch where she works, Emma had followed this model with the book group she leads there. Each month the group met and discussed a different Lively novel. What we did Friday night was a sort of condensed version of that same model.
I’m never sure whether this approach is workable. Can there be enough of an exchange of views if everyone has read something different? The short answer is yes. We had a great discussion of Lively’s body of work as a whole and her approach to novel writing. Emma provided lots of fascinating background on the author’s life, which had a very exotic beginning: she was born in Cairo in 1933. Emma related how, after the Second World War ended and her parents divorced, Lively was sent “home” to Britain to attend boarding school. She found Britain to be drab and dreary – which, from all accounts, it definitely was, postwar – and an aliening, unwelcoming place – not like home at all for a girl whose early childhood had been set against the sun drenched splendors of an ancient land.
Lively has written two memoirs: A House Unlocked and Oleander, Jacaranda. Emma had read the first and greatly enjoyed it. The second, alas, is not owned by the local library and is out of print in this country. (It is available in Britain in a Penguin Modern Classics edition.) Emma said that A House Unlocked was a wonderful read. She also recommended Passing On, and I recommended Making It Up.
In addition to the above mentioned novels and memoirs, Lively has authored numerous books for children. Hers has been, and continues to be, a brilliant career.
George F. Will is a columnist I respect but often disagree with. I have to say, though, that in today’s Washington Post, he really nailed it with Are You Better Off? His subject, which he tackless with refreshing directness, is nothing less than the true nature of human happiness!