October Is Mystery Month!

September 6, 2008 at 3:48 pm (books, Local interest (Baltimore-Washington), Mystery fiction)

One of my closest friends from my library years is, like me, a devotee of all things mystery. Now Marge and I are about to have a grand mystery-related adventure: we are going to Bouchercon! What, you may ask, is that? It’s a huge get-together of authors, editors, publishers, fans, and others, all involved in some way in the field of crime fiction. This convention is held in a different city each year. This year, it’s in Baltimore and is called, naturally enough, “Charmed to Death.”

Bouchercon features numerous panel discussions, book signings, and other activities. The gathering culminates with the announcement of the Anthony Award winners.

The Bouchercon is named in honor of Anthony Boucher (pseudonym of William Anthony Parker White). Boucher was quite the polymath: in addition to writing, editing, and reviewing in the mystery, science fiction, and fantasy genres, he also translated stories from the French, Spanish and Portuguese for Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine. In addition, he possessed a working knowledge of Italian and German and, in his own words, “Church Latin and a very little Russian.”

Anthony Boucher, a man  who, among his other sterling attributes, had great taste in pets!

Anthony Boucher, who, among his other sterling attributes, had great taste in pets!

It seems to me that it would have been a delight to know this man, but there was not much time in which to do so: he died of lung cancer in 1968 at the age of 57. The Bouchercon is a fitting tribute to this tireless champion of genre fiction.

Have a look at this year’s attendees. Each name preceded by the letter “A” is an author. Once I’d seen this list, I knew I couldn’t stay away. Guests of Honor include two of my currrent favorites, Laura Lippman and John Harvey. I was always a fan of Lawrence Block’s Matt Scudder novels, but it’s been a while since I’ve read anything by this author, who is to be rightly recognized for Distinguished Contribution to the Genre. Block’s short stories are excellent, BTW; try “Some Day I’l Plant More Walnut Trees” (included in the  anthology Murderous Schemes) and “Like a Lamb to Slaughter” (in Sleuths of the Century.)

I’ve set some reading goals for myself with regard to Bouchercon. First, I’d like to read another novel, or at least some stories, by Lawrence Block. I’m hoping to read The Cruelest Month by Louise Penny. I loved Still Life, the first book in her Three Pines series, but I was disappointed in its follow-up, A Fatal Grace. Nevertheless, I have faith in this author’s unique vision and graceful prose.

A few years ago, I read Blood Hollow by William Kent Krueger and remembered enjoying the rural Minnesota setting and the Ojibwe lore. Now, having just begun Thunder Bay, an Anthony Award contender, I am struck anew by Krueger’s artlessly appealing first person narration. Why oh why is a writer of this cailber not more widely known and appreciated?

For future perusal, I’ve lined up I Shall Not Want, the latest entry in Julia Spencer-Fleming’s superb series featuring the Rev. Clare Fergusson and Sheriff Russ Van Alstyne.  But first I must finish A Pale Blue Eye, Louis Bayard’s terrific historical fiction set in West Point in the year 1830.

To my inexpressible delight, Peter Robinson will be at Bouchercon! His latest Alan Banks novel, All the Colours of Darkness, will not be out here until February of next year. Still -a major event in the world of mystery to look forward to.

Finally, I have long wanted to read one of Kate Charles’s Callie Anson novels. Kate Charles intrigues me, because, for one thing, she seems to be living the life I was meant to live!

Lawrence Block

Lawrence Block

Julia Spencer-Fleming

Louise Penny

Louise Penny

Louis Bayard

William Kent Krueger

Kate Charles

Kate Charles

Peter Robinson

Peter Robinson

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Consequences, by Penelope Lively

September 5, 2008 at 12:30 am (Book clubs, Book review, books)

To comply with our book group’s assignment to read something by Penelope Lively, I just finished her most recent work, Consequences. This novel explores the lives of three generations of an English family. We begin in the 1930’s with Matt Faraday and Lorna Bradley. He’s an artist; she doesn’t know what she is, only that she most emphatically does not want to live the life that her parents, members of the petty haute bourgeoisie, have decreed for her. Matt and Lorna meet quite by accident, fall in love, and marry, over the strenuous objections of Lorna’s parents.

Lorna and Matt are, to put it mildly, stretched for funds. They find a cottage in Somerset that they can just about afford to rent, and proceed to set up housekeeping there. The place is downright primitive: no electricity and outdoor plumbing featuring a privy and a standpipe in the yard. Matt manages to eke out a living as a book illustrator, while Lorna discovers a new vocation as a country housewife, mastering arduous tasks like doing laundry by hand, and being pleasantly surprised by the joys of raising poultry and growing her own vegetables. All of which is a far cry from Brunswick Gardens in London and her family’s genteel life there.

Matt and Lorna are not just happy – they are in glory, in bliss. Their love is so fierce, it transforms their world. But the wold beyond them is experiencing quite a different transformation: It is turning into a place of nightmare – a nightmare in which thousands of people are caught up, against their will. Lorna and Matt are no exception. Matt must go off to war, and Lorna, now the mother of little Molly, must wait for him.

To tell what happens next would be to give away too much. Suffice it to say that, through the succeeding generations, the past exerts a powerful pull on the present. This is a persistent theme in the fiction of Penelope Lively, a writer whom I very much admire.

That said, I did have a problem with this novel. The story of Matt and Lorna is so compelling, so emotionally charged, that I had trouble mustering the same level of interest in their descendants. In particular, I found the pacing in the book’s midsection to be positively sluggish. Molly has grown up and is running around the countryside organizing poetry readings. While engaged in this lofty pursuit, she has a tendency to think supposedly deep thoughts, which, to this reader anyway, often verged on the banal. An example: “If it is not necessary to belong anywhere in particular, thinks Molly, then the trick is to float free, but keep a weather eye out for what’s available, if only out of expediency.” In fairness to Molly, other characters have this same irritating tendency, especially , alas, the women among them.

As the story’s denouement approaches, the pace once again picks up. Ruth, Molly’s daughter, travels to the island of Crete in search of a link to the family’s past. This trip, richly described, was, for me, one of the novel’s most satisfying episodes.

********************************************

And now a brief word about book covers. I found three of them for Consequences:

cover of the American hardback

cover of the American hardback

cover of the British hardback

cover of the British hardback

cover of the British paperback

cover of the British paperback

If we’re supposed to be looking at Matt and Lorna, I personally favor the British paperback.


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The Great Labor Day Weekend Pearl Onion Suppression and Book Drop Jam

September 2, 2008 at 1:54 am (Food, Local interest (Baltimore-Washington), Music)

It all began, innocently enough, with a desire to make an Americanized version of Boeuf Bourgignon. This French beef stew works especially well for me because there are no potatoes in it. Potatoes, as we all know, are tasty and filling and loaded with carbohydrates. In addition, they lack fiber, which is such an important carb  buffer for Type 2 diabetics like myself.

Our recipe for “Classic Beef Bourgignon” comes from The Art of Cooking for the Diabetic by Mary Abbott Hess. This dish has for several years been a great favorite of ours. Provided you use fresh ingredients and the highest possible quality stewing beef, you’re sure to enjoy a delightful repast.

Yesterday we were going great guns purchasing and assembling ingredients for our stew. We like to do this the day before we actually do the cooking. That way, the vegetables are still quite fresh, and we can time the actual cooking process however we want to.

Well, as I was saying, we had just about everything we needed in order to make our lovely stew when we came to one of the key ingredients:pearl onions. I mean fresh, not frozen. We went to three different supermarkets – no luck. This caused Ron to announce portentously that we were in the midst of a Pearl Onion Suppression.

The elusive quarry

The elusive quarry

Meanwhile, on the way to one of the supermarkets, we stopped at the library in order to return some materials. Alas, we found the book drop hopelessly jammed. Several patrons, anxious about fines no doubt, were standing about and debating what action to take, if any. I sighed deeply and put my bag back in the trunk. It was turning into one of those days…

Luckily we had the radio on and were being treated to a particularly fine performance of Rachmaninoff’s glorious Second Symphony. Such wonderful, yearning, unabashedly romantic music! (So much so, in fact, that Eric Carmen borrowed a line of melody from the adagio movement for his 1975 song, “Never Gonna Fall in Love Again.”)

Anyway – I love it. It saved the day.

This is the recording we were listening to.

At last, early this afternoon, we found not only fresh white pearl onions but also red pearl onions, which we hadn’t even known existed, and another little onion cutie called cipolline! All were found at a marvelous new supermarket recently opened in our area: Harris Teeter. Thanks, guys; you rock!

Oh – and the beef bourgignon was absolutely delicious!

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The Legend of Sleepy Hollow

September 1, 2008 at 1:17 pm (books)

“In the bosom of one of those spacious coves which indent the eastern shore of the Hudson, at that broad expansion of the river denominated by the ancient Dutch navigators the Tappan Zee…

Thus begins one of the first great works of fiction to emerge from the New World: The Legend of Sleepy Hollow by Washington Irving.

I obtained a rather marvelous result when I did a Google image search on this title. Some examples:



There is real magic in this recasting of old German legends in a newly settled land. The town of Sleepy Hollow has a Brigadoon-like quality: it seems to have emerged into the real world so that this strange drama could play itself out, then evanesced once again into the mist of time.

Washington Irving

Washington Irving

Irving’s writing is graceful but not ornate, and seems to me surprisingly accessible to the contemporary reader. He tells the tale straightforwardly but with his tongue firmly planted in his cheek. For instance, here is his explanation for the place name Tarry Town:

“This name was given, we are told, in former days, by the good housewives of the adjacent country, from the inveterate propensity of their husbands to linger about the village tavern on market days.

In this passage, readers make the acquaintance of Ichabod Crane:

“The cognomen of Crane was not inapplicable to his person.He was tall, but exceedingly lank, with narrow shoulders, long arms and legs, hands that dangled a mile out of his sleeves, feet that might have served for shovels, and his whole  frame most loosely hung together. His head was small and flat at top, with huge ears, large green glassy eyes, and a long snipe nose, so that it looked like a weather-cock perched upon his spindle neck to tell which way the wind blew.

Eloquent description of the still-undespoiled beauty of the region abounds:

“It was, as I have said, a fine autumnal day; the sky was clear and serene, and nature wore that rich and golden livery which we always associate with the idea of abundance. The forests had put on their sober brown and yellow, while some trees of the tenderer kind had been nipped by the frosts into brilliant dyes of orange, purple, and scarlet. Streaming files of wild ducks began to make their appearance high in the air; the bark of the squirrel might be heard from the groves of the beech and hickory-nuts, and the pensive whistle of the quail at intervals from the neighboring stubble field.

What a vivid evocation of a vanished world!

One aspect of this novella surprised and dismayed me: several African-Americans appear briefly in the story, and they are described in terms of the coarsest stereotype. We are usually advised to consider the era in question – the zeitgeist, if you will – when we come upon this kind of thing in our reading of the classics. You can cling to this mantra in your brain, though, and  still feel sucker-punched in the  gut. Take it from one who still winces when she encounters Shylock in The Merchant of Venice or Meyer Wolfsheim in The Great Gatsby.

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