The New York Times weighs in on the Best Books of 2008

November 29, 2008 at 3:05 am (Best of 2008, books)

An e-mail from Abebooks a few days ago tipped me off to the fact that the Times has already posted online its list of 100 Notable Books for 2008.

A perusal of the list yielded the following information: the list is comprised of two sections: Fiction and Poetry (48 titles) and Nonfiction (52 titles).  There is no separate breakdown for thrillers/crime fiction/ mysteries. Indeed, only four books that I’d assign to that category made the grade.

Number of titles overall read by Your Faithful Blogger?  Four. Yep – four out of a hundred! They are: Netherland by Joseph O’Neill, Unaccustomed Earth by Jhumpa Lahiri,  When Will There Be Good News? by Kate Atkinson, and Nothing To Be Frightened Of by Julian Barnes. Such a dreary result, after so much reading! But actually not dreary at all. I cheerfully acknowledge that most of the fiction I read is crime  fiction. IMHO, that’s where you’ll find great writing, great characters, terrific stories – and blessedly little self-conscious, hyper-literary posturing. (Notice I said “little,” not “none”…dare I drop the name Elizabeth George? Oops – I’d better duck – here come her legion of fans waving their brickbats at me! But wait, wait – I’m a fan, too – sort of, some of the time…)

I’d like to suggest another category; namely,  Books from this List Currently on My Night Table:

lecarre lecarre___large A Most Wanted Man, by John LeCarre. Judging by the reviews I’ve seen thus far, this great master of international intrigue is back in top form. I loved The Constant Gardener, but not Absolute Friends, which I did not finish.

roadhome restoration The Road Home by Rose Tremain. This author belongs with the cohort of  “Gifted Englishwomen” I’ve written about previously. Her Restoration is one of my all time favorite historical novels. (And BTW – it was made into a terrific film starring Robert Downey Jr. that no one seems to have seen but me!)

gawain Sir Gawain and the Green Knight: a new verse translation by Simon Armitage. Who could resist a medieval poem whose early scenes take place in Camelot at Christmas time?

“The kyng lay at Camylot upon Krystmasse…” (The oiginal Middle English in on the left page; the modern English translation on the right.)

threeofus thrumpton Two nonfiction titles from the Times list await my perusal. They are both memoirs: The Three of Us: A Family Story by Julia Blackburn, and Thrumpton Hall: A Memoir of Life in My Father’s House by Miranda Seymour.

glasscastle1 I was looking for a story about a dysfunctional or at least eccentric family. The reason: I recently gave up on The Glass Castle by Jeanette Walls, a book that many have raved about and that book clubs have embraced. I found the writing rather pedestrian, but what really made me crazy was the dangerous and irresponsible behavior of the mother and  father in this narrative. (I was also puzzled as to how the author could remember so much detail from her very early childhood.)  Walls’ prose could soar, as when she describes the desert West, but then she invariably returns to describing the outrageous shenanigans of her deadbeat Dad and Mom.  I was at length so repulsed that I could read no further.

zippy Initially, The Class Castle reminded me of A Girl Named Zippy: Growing Up Small in Mooreland Indiana by Haven Kimmel. But Zippy was fairly bursting with a winsome, irresistible charm that was pretty much absent from the Walls book.

Finally, I was disappointed that several of my favorites from this year went unmentioned by the Times. I’m thinking specifically of Black Seconds by Karin Fossum, The House on Fortune Street by Margot Livesey, and a book that I just finished and that I’ll be posting about shortly – that is, as soon as I can get past my sense of wonder at how utterly marvelous it was:


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Leonard Bernstein: educator, performer, composer – legend

November 27, 2008 at 1:27 am (Music) ()


Leonard Bernstein, photographed for Life Magazine by Carl Mydans in 1959

I’d like to add my humble two cents’ worth to the tributes to Leonard Bernstein currently being offered in commemoration of the 90th anniversary of his birth. For all of us who came to know and love classical music in the mid-20th century, he was quite simply our idol.

I had the extraordinary good fortune to see West Side Story on Broadway shortly after its premiere in 1957. For a star-struck fourteen-year-old, it was an unforgettable experience.

The famous cover of the original Broadway cast album. In the late 1950's, you saw it everywhere.

The famous cover of the original Broadway cast album

Here is Bernstein,  playing and conducting l’Orchestre National de France in the final movement of Ravel’s Piano Concerto in G.


A young Michael Tilson Thomas with Leonard Bernstein

A young Michael Tilson Thomas with Leonard Bernstein

Michael Tilson Thomas, who counted Leonard Bernstein as teacher and mentor, has come gloriously into his own since becoming Music Director of the San Francisco Symphony in 1995.

When Jean Cocteau asked him for some artistic direction, Sergei Diaghilev is said to have responded: “Etonne-moi!” (Astonish me!”) Bernstein does just that in the clip you just saw, and here, Michael Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony do it with this electrifying performance of the final movement of Tchaikovsky’s Fourth Symphony:

In the comment section for this video, someone wrote:

” When the last few minutes of the melodies came, I wanted to stand up and jump around. So dramatic, so passionate.”

Couldn’t have said it better myself…


At the year 2007  Prom concerts, young  Gustavo Dudamel rocked the house with the “Mambo” section of the Symphonic Dances from West Side Story. Here he is, conducting the Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra.

How thrilled Bernstein would have been (perhaps, is?) to witness the gusto and polish of these young players and their charismatic conductor. It’s tempting to say, we have seen the future of classical music, and this is it:



Gustavo Dudamel

Michael Tilson Thomas

Michael Tilson Thomas


Leonard Bernstein, photographed for Life Magazine in 1955 by Gordon Parks

Leonard Bernstein, photographed for Life Magazine in 1955 by Gordon Parks

Leonard Bernstein rehearsing Mahler's Resuurection (Second) Symphony at Carnegie Hall, photographed for Life Magazine by Alfred Eisenstaedt in 1955

Leonard Bernstein rehearsing Mahler, photographed by Alfred Eisenstaedt in 1955

Photographs of one of the greatest musicians of his generation, taken by two of that same generation’s greatest photographers:

Gordon Parks

Gordon Parks

Alfred Eisenstaedt

Alfred Eisenstaedt

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I wanted to love them without reservation, but…

November 25, 2008 at 9:41 pm (Book review, books, Mystery fiction)

In recent weeks, I’ve read three novels of crime that were good – but not quite as good as they might have been:

game1 shall-not


The first two, by Cynthia Harrod-Eagles and Julia Spencer-Fleming respectively, are the latest entries in two series that I’ve been following for several years now. The strong suit of both thus far has been a long running love story. In the case of the Cynthia Harrod-Eagles novels, we’ve been following the story of Detective Inspector Bill Slider and  Joanna, a witness in a murder case. Slider is married and the father of two, and while he is a devoted parent, he and his wife have grown apart. In Orchestrated Death, the first book in the series, Slider  and Joanna, a violinist, are thrown together frequently in the course of the investigation, and their attraction to each other cannot be denied.

If you’ve read Spencer-Fleming’s novels (or read my blog post on our discussion of To Darkness and To Death), you’ll recognize the similarity in the set-up of both series. The relationship between Sheriff Russ Van Alstyne ane Rev. Clare Fergusson is especially fraught. We are, after all, talking about adultery – even if it’s only in their hearts – between a woman of the cloth and a law enforcement officer.

So, what was the problem with these two books?  Primarily, the difficulties lay with the plotting. The stories were too convoluted, and there was too much exposition crowded in at the end. Truth to tell, I had an additional problem with I Shall Not Want. The book featured several scenes of explicit sex that, for me, read like something straight out of a rather lurid romance novel. I admit, this reflects my own bias against that kind of writing in crime fiction, where I find it jarring and out of place. It definitely struck me that way in I Shall Not Want.

That said, do I still recommend these two series? Actually, yes. Both Harrod-Eagles and Spencer-Fleming write exceptionally well. And Harrod-Eagles is very witty to boot. I care about all of these characters as I would old friends. And in I Shall Not Want, Julia Spencer-Fleming introduces a new character, Hadley Knox, whom I hope to see more of. Hadley is new on the Miller’s Kill police force, a single mother from California who’s come East with the hope of a new start in life. In this novel, she receives some pretty harrowing on-the-job training and, despite her lack of confidence, shows plenty of mettle when she’s literally under the gun.


case-histories Four years ago, I and several crime fiction aficionados of my acquaintance  read a new title by Kate Atkinson. It was called Case Histories, and we all agreed: it was terrific! By radically redeploying the conventions of  crime fiction, Atkinson had produced a novel that was at once, funny, compassionate, brilliantly plotted, and filled with high drama and heartbreak.

Now, in a situation like this, it is undoubtedly  a tricky proposition for an author to exceed, or even match, expectations for subsequent work. Reviews like this one in Mystery Scene Magazine indicated that with When Will There Be Good News, Kate Atkinson had once again hit the jackpot. Well, having now read it, I have to say: IMHO, not quite…

The actual “good news” about this novel is that it is rich with the author’s lively wit and finely honed sense of irony. Literary allusions abound. I especially appreciated being introduced to the mysterious “Lyke Wake Dirge.” Here it is, sung by the British folk rock group Pentangle:


In one of the main plot threads, the investigation into a disappearance takes DCI Louise Monroe to the village of Hawes in Yorkshire:

“Louise was an urbanite, she preferred the gut-thrilling sound of an emergency siren slicing through the night to the noise of country birds at dawn. Pub brawls, rackety roadworks, mugged tourists, the badlands on a Saturday night–they all made sense, they were all part of the huge, dirty, torn social fabric. There was a war raging out there in the city and she was part of the fight, but the countryside unsettled her because she didn’t know who the enemy was.

Allow me to digress momentarily: we were in Hawes last year; we visited the famous ropemakers, among other attractions, and I must say, we discerned there only beauty and tranquility. (Yes, I know – It’s “only” fiction!)




The ropeworks



The dogs of Hawes and their masters were especially welcoming

The dogs of Hawes and their masters were especially welcoming


Okay – back to  the business at hand. With novels like When Will There Be Good News in which several stories are unfolding simultaneously, there’s always the risk that one story will be more compelling than the others. For me, that’s what happened as I was reading this novel. Dr. Hunter, her baby, her wonderful dog, her less-than-wonderful husband, and her child minder, the prescient and empathetic Reggie – they were the people I really cared about. Atkinson’s descriptions of their interactions were quite simply wonderful:

“Reggie had asked Dr. Hunter if she wanted more children, a brother or a sister for the baby, and she’d made a funny face and said, “Another baby?” as if that were an outlandish idea. And Reggie could see her point. This baby was everything, he was emperor of the world, he was the world.

Yes, I admit it: there is some marvelous writing in this novel. But at 388 pages, I thought it suffered from bloat. In addition, the body count was way too high. A terrible crime occurs early on, and there are  bodies liberally strewn along the way throughout. Hey – that’s not my “peaceable kingdom,” the British Isles that I love!

So, bottom line: do I recommend When Will There Be Good News? Yes, with the reservations expressed  above. And not with quite the same wholehearted enthusiasm with which I recommend Case Histories.


Kate Atkinson

Kate Atkinson


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Lunching with intellectuals

November 22, 2008 at 3:48 pm (books, Local interest (Baltimore-Washington), Poetry)

Nicholas Kristof’s op-ed piece, “Obama and the War on Brains” appeared in the November 9 edition of New York Times. I like Kristof’s definition of an intellectual:

“An intellectual is a person interested in ideas and comfortable with complexity. Intellectuals read the classics, even when no one is looking, because they appreciate the lessons of Sophocles and Shakespeare that the world abounds in uncertainties and contradictions, and …that leaders self-destruct when they become too rigid and too intoxicated with the fumes of moral clarity.”

Tuesday I had the great pleasure of having lunch with three women who cheerfully embrace the world of ideas. Angie, Paula, Beth and I discussed health (as little as possible, but when you’re this age, unavoidable), politics  (bracing and exciting at the moment), finance (depressing and enraging at the moment), and  finally, and inevitably (and with a certain relief), books.

Angie belongs to a philosophy book club (as well as a science fiction discussion group); she had this nugget to pass along to us: measuring approximately what is important is itself more important than measuring precisely what is NOT. (I hope I got that right!)

consiliencebk edward-o-wilson1 I invariably leave these get-togethers with yet more titles of books I want to read. Angie recommended Consilience by Edward O. Wilson.  I later realized that I knew this author, an eminent biologist and tireless crusader for the cause of biodiversity, and had read some of his shorter pieces.

ishi Then there was Ishi, Last of His Tribe, by Theodora Kroeber. This is Amazon’s blurb:

“In the early 1900s a small band of California Indians in the Yahi tribe lived in concealment, resisting the fate that had all but wiped out their people — violent death by the invading gold seekers and settlers. In time, members of the small group died, until there remained a single survivor — the man who became known as Ishi. This book tells the haunting, heroic story of Ishi — the boy, the man, the lone survivor of his tribe.

This is the currently in-print version of this work:


The Kroebers were the parents of author Ursula K. LeGuin.

Beth mentioned that she is happily making her way through the Lake District mysteries of Martin Edwards. Along with Ann Cleeves, Edwards was recently inducted into Britain’s Detection Club. It is a signal honor for writers of crime fiction to be granted membership in this organization, which counts Dorothy L. Sayers among its founders.

Before lunch, Angie and I had met at Books with a Past for an hour of delicious browsing, followed, for me at least, by delicious acquiring.We also had the not-to-be-missed opportunity of chatting with Marvin Schaefer, who along with his wife Mary Alice is the proprietor of Books With a Past. A portly gentleman with a flowing, seasonally-appropriate beard, Schaefer expounded on a wide variety of topics. He is a man of definite opinions ( I know; the pot calling the kettle, it takes one to know one, etc.) and impressive erudition. In addition, he possesses a finely honed crap detector and a great sense of humor.

Among my trove of purchases was The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, translated and with an introduction by Edward Fitzgerald. I’ve long had my eye out for a particular edition of this famous poem, although on this occasion I was not searching for it – was not even thinking of it. But serendipitous encounters like this are one of the joys of shopping in second hand bookshops.

This Rubaiyat is plain and unprepossessing on the outside, but open it and in addition to the timeless verses of Khayyam/Fitzgerald, you will find striking illustrations. What you will not find is a date of publication – or even the name of the illustrator!

There is virtually no cataloguing-in-publication data. Only this: “De Luxe Editions Club / Garden City, New York.” The artist,  Edmund J. Sullivan,  inscribed his name, inconspicuously, at the bottom of some of his  drawings. See below, the one that accompanies quatrain LI: “The Moving Finger writes…” (Click to enlarge.)

I estimate the date of publication to be around 1935.

This is the book that was part of our home library when I was a child. I recognized it at once:


Oh, come with old Khayyám, and leave the Wise
To talk; one thing is certain, that Life flies;
One thing is certain, and the Rest is Lies ;
The Flower that once has blown for ever dies.




Into this Universe, and why not knowing,
Nor whence, like Water willy-nilly flowing:
And out of it, as Wind along the Waste,
I know not whither, willy-nilly blowing.




Up from Earth’s Centre through the Seventh Gate
I rose, and on the Throne of Saturn sate,
And many Knots unravel’d by the Road;
But not the Knot of Human Death and Fate.




The Moving Finger writes; and, having writ,
Moves on: nor all thy Piety nor Wit
Shall lure it back to cancel half a Line,
Nor all thy Tears wash out a Word of it.


I seem to have known that last verse by heart all my life, and that drawing has likewise always been with me.


There are times when one feels that a deceased loved one has reached out from the next world to this one, and placed a gift in one’s hands. This was one of those times.

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From aerobics, to old – and great – songs, to perversity, to Poe: a post in which Your Faithful Blogger indulges in some free association!

November 20, 2008 at 4:06 am (Mind/body, Music, Short stories)

During this week before Thanksgiving, George, our aerobics instructor, has inserted an additional exercise for the abdominal muscles into our conditioning routine. He explains that he is doing this in an effort “to inoculate us against gluttony.” I find “abs” excruciating to begin with, but one soldiers on, nonetheless.

We were rewarded during cooldown with a delightful rendition of “I’ll take Manhattan,” sung as a duet. I recognized Rod Stewart’s raspy yet oddly compelling vocals, but I couldn’t figure out who the other singer was. To my ears, she sounded a bit like Ella Fitzgerald. Come to find out it was actually Bette Midler:

Rod Stewart’s foray into the “Great American Songbook” has been a wonderful gift to music lovers from an unexpected source.

cole-porter ellarodgersandhartsongbook Meanwhile, though, if you’ve not listened to Ella Fitzgerald singing Cole Porter and Rodgers & Hart, I recommend these albums. They are among the finest recordings of American popular song ever made.


There’s someone in our aerobics group who tends to move exactly opposite to everyone else. Either that, or she’s one or two beats behind. I find that if I’m anywhere near this person, I start following her instead of George, and I too get out of sync. Actually, my eye is drawn to her no matter where in the room she is. This happens even if there’s a room full of people who are all following the routine more or less correctly.

Now, this strikes me as a perverse act on my part. And that in turn puts me in mind of “The Imp of the Perverse,” a story by Edgar Allan Poe. It was recommended by the panelists who discussed Poe and his legacy at Bouchercon. I read it for the first time several days ago. It is one of the shorter stories, but the first few pages are taken up with the question of why individuals feel compelled to act in a manner that directly goes against their best interest. At length, the narrator offers the following summation:

“Examine these similar actions as we will, we shall find them resulting solely from the spirit of the Perverse. We perpetrate them because we feel that we should not. Beyond or behind this there is no intelligible principle; and we might, indeed, deem this perverseness a direct instigation of the Arch-Fiend, were it not occasionally known to operate in furtherance of good.

Up to this point, the story almost reads like an academic treatise, albeit an exceptionally accessible one. But then, you find out just who this narrator is…

Here’s a link to the full text. It’s a powerful, disturbing tale – especially given Poe’s own tendency to act against his self-interest, repeatedly, and, well, perversely.

Edgar Allan Poe

Edgar Allan Poe

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Wonders of Youtube: “This blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England…”

November 18, 2008 at 2:23 am (Anglophilia, Music)

It has come to my attention in recent weeks that some truly astonishing material is turning up on Youtube. Especially for us music lovers, it is very heaven!

Ron and I are both somewhat mystified as to where all this film footage – some of it quite rare – is coming from, and who these posters are. Meanwhile, we can only be grateful for this gift.

A couple of caveats: the quality of both the sound and the visuals varies wildly. Also, with regard to the music segments, information concerning the performers, the venue, and the date is often not provided. Some of these clips are so wonderful to have, though, that one feels bound to make allowances.

I’ll be sharing some of our favorite finds with you in the coming weeks. This particular edition should delight my fellow Anglophiles.


Those of us who were around in 1953 will always remember the  coronation of Queen Elizabeth II, seen live on the shaky new medium that was finding its inexorable way into people’s homes – and hearts. I vividly recall my brother and I in our family room, transfixed by the pageantry we were seeing. My brother got so carried away that he ran to find my mother, all the while shouting, “We have a new queen!”

Note this clip’s terrific soundtrack. The British understand the power of music to evoke an atmosphere of exaltation.

The BBC Proms is a yearly festival of classical music. It takes place primarily in London and runs from July to September. It bills itself as the largest such festival in the world, and it probably is. The last night of the proms has become an institution in itself. The fare is usually lighter, and the mood is patriotic and celebratory. Certain pieces are traditionally played on that night, one of them being the first Pomp and Circumstance March Number 1 in D by Sir Edward Elgar. A portion of the march provides the melody for “Land of Hope and Glory.”

Here’s a wonderful video of the last night of the 2006 Proms. While Pomp and Circumstance is being played, we view a montage of memorable moments in the life Queen Elizabeth II (who, thanks to my big brother, I still fondly think of as “our queen”).

(A clip of Sir Edward Elgar himself conducting Pomp and Circumstance can be found at the end of my review of The Remains of an Altar. )

John Rutter is a British composer primarily of choral works. I’ve loved his Requiem for a long time but had never heard this “Gaelic Blessing” until Youtube referred me to it, sung here by the St. Paul’s Cathedral Choir.

John Rutter

John Rutter

This film chokes me up. I think you’ll understand why when you watch it.

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To Darkness and To Death, by Julia Spencer-Fleming: a book group discussion

November 16, 2008 at 12:23 am (Book clubs, books, Mystery fiction)

darkness Tuesday night, the Usual Suspects discussed the fourth novel in Julia Spencer-Fleming’s Rev. Clare Fergusson/Russ Van Alstyne series. Marge, our discussion leader, unearthed some intriguing facts about the life and art of Julia Spencer-Fleming. The author’s father, an Air Force pilot, lost his life in a plane crash when she was only six months old. Her mother subsequently remarried; this explained the book’s mysterious (not to mention poignant) double dedication: “To my father, Lt. Melvin Spencer, USAF,” and “to my father, John L. Fleming.”

In deciding on the attributes with which to endow her protagonist, Spencer-Fleming wished to create a character who whose profession provided her with a legitimate reason for delving into the lives and problems of others. At the same time, she wanted this person to be action-oriented rather than merely cerebral.. Thus we have Clare Fergusson, Episcopal priest and ex-Army helicopter pilot!

Such a character could have come across as cartoonish in less capable hands, but in Clare Fergusson, the artful Spencer-Fleming has given us a fully rounded, deeply conflicted, all too human protagonist.

Marge was  admittedly faced with a difficult decision as to which entry in this series to select for discussion. The Usual Suspects had already discussed In the Bleak Midwinter, the stellar first novel that garnered all kinds of awards and accolades and instantly placed Spencer-Fleming on the crime fiction map. (All the titles are drawn from hymns – including the rather disconcertingly named second entry, A Fountain Filled with Blood!) At any rate, Marge wanted to take us part way into the series – but not too far. There have been some momentous developments of late in the ongoing saga of Clare and Russ, and our discussion leader didn’t want to give anything away prematurely. (This happened to me at Bouchercon when someone blurted out the ending of the most recent book in the series, I Shall Not Want.  At the time, I was only about half way through the novel. Marge and I had successfully cornered Spencer-Fleming for a little tete-a-tete when a…well, I can only term her a buttinski of the first order appeared out of nowhere and exclaimed, “I can’t believe you made Clare —–!” I had to withdraw and take several brisk turns around the room before I could rejoin the conversation with a modicum of civility! Oh, the trials endured by crime fiction devotees…On the other hand, I dearly hope this will be my biggest problem for the foreseeable future.)

For my part, having recently finished the most recent entry in the series, I elected not to re-read To Darkness and To Death in its entirety. Therefore, there was little I could contribute to the discussion of specific plot points. The novel’s action takes place in a 24-hour time span, something I did not recall from my initial reading. This compression of events can be confusing for the reader, and I gather that it did cause problems for some in the group. In fact, what was particularly interesting in this case was that although reactions to the novel as a whole were not uniformly positive, the discussion itself went exceptionally well (due in no small part to the leader’s resourcefulness and extensive preparation). Various plot points were analyzed, and we also talked about the larger issue of land use, which is an important element of the story.

In fact, setting plays a vital role in this entire series.The fictional town of Miller’s Kill is located just outside New York’s Adirondack State Park. The cold is pervasive in these novels; snow is a frequent occurence, and the threat of an immobilizing blizzard is ever-present.

And then, of course, there’s Clare, the Episcopal priest, and Russ Van Alstyne, the married sheriff. They’re in love, and they shouldn’t be. They can’t be. But they are. Their relationship, if it can be called that, is the chief source of tension in this series, and the main reason that many of us are hooked on it. That – and Spencer-Fleming’s terrific writing and great sense of humor.

Julia Spencer-Fleming

Julia Spencer-Fleming

Clare Fergusson is a wonderful creation. Although Marge was somewhat disappointed that we don’t get to witness more of her priestly functions in this novel, it is still readily apparent that she is a caring, spiritual person. And her love for Russ is tearing her apart.

Eventually the topic of conversation broadened to include the subject of relationships in mystery series. When do they work? When do they stop working? Does the edifice collapse if you marry off the protagonists? Marge and Ann agreed that this is what happened to Sue Henry’s Jessie Arnold series. How about Robert B. Parker’s perennial lovers, Spenser and Susan Silverman? Aren’t they a bit long in the tooth for all that canoodling?  Maybe, but Parker’s trademark irreverent wisecracking seems to save the day. I personally feel that the issue of relationship problems of individuals in law enforcement is handled with exceptional tact and empathy by Archer Mayor in his Joe Gunther novels.

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Russian Painting, again

November 14, 2008 at 2:11 pm (Art, Russophilia)

In this past Sunday’s Washington Post (11/09/08), there appeared a review of an exhibit at the Hillwood Estate entitled “Fragile Persuasion: Russian Porcelain and the Fine Art of Propaganda.” In the first paragraph, author Paul Richard states:

“It’s odd about the Russians. They’re mighty at the Stradivarius, and at the chessboard, and the writing desk, but at art you’re meant to look at, they’ve never been that great….Painting’s not their thing. They’re better at Knickknacks.

Well, this fairly took my breath away!

artjohnson In his magisterial tome Art: A New History (2003), Paul Johnson includes a chapter entitled “The Belated Arrival and Sombre Glories of Russian Art.” It begins thus:

“There are important parallels between the two great emerging powers of the nineteenth century, the United States and Russia–their infinite vastness, consciousness of immanent strength, and nervousness in confronting omni-triumphant European culture. Both produced great art during this period, but whereas American achievements are at last beginning to be understood, in all their magnitude, the process of exploring Russian painting has scarcely started.

Johnson goes on to do some exploring of his own, highlighting masters such as Vasily Surikov, Isaak Levitan, and Ilya Repin, whose portraits of Tolstoy seem to capture the essence of that great chronicler of the soul of the Russian people.


There is already a post on Russian art elsewhere on this blog.

Meanwhile, here are some timely reminders of the glory of Russian painting:

Portrait of a Peasant Woman in a Russian Costume, 1784

Portrait of a Peasant Woman in a Russian Costume, 1784, by Ivan Argunov

Cathedral Square, by Dmitri Alexeev

Cathedral Square, by Dmitri Alexeev

Evening the Golden Plyos, by Isaak Levitan

Evening the Golden Plyos, by Isaak Levitan

It's All in the Past, by Vasilii Maximov

It's All in the Past, by Vasilii Maximov

The Hermit, by Nesterov

The Hermit, by Mikhail Nesterov

Menshilov, by Vasilii Surikov

Menshilov, by Vasilii Surikov

Modest Mussorgsky, by Ilya Repin

Modest Mussorgsky, by Ilya Repin

Dostoevsky, by Ilya Repin

Dostoevsky, by Vasily Perov

Wild, by Ivan Shishkin

in the Wild North, by Ivan Shishkin

There’s much more where these came from; see The Russian Art Gallery . And while you’re there, have a look at the section on Old Russian Icons

Miracle of Florus and Laurus -  XV century

Miracle of Florus and Laurus - XV century

and Contemporary Russian Art.

Evident Advantages of the Point of Panoramic Viewing, by Valentin Gubarev

Evident Advantages of the Point of Panoramic Viewing, by Valentin Gubarev

Knickknacks indeed!!


I just found the site of an arts institution new to me: The Museum of Contemporary Russian Art. Now click here to find out where it is; this information will likely bring a smile to your face – it did to mine!

Finally, here is one of the chief treasures of my art book collection:


This book was produced by the Smithsonian Traveling Exhibition Service, in association with the University of Washington Press. The featured art is from the collections of the State Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow and the State Russian Museum in what is now St. Petersburgh. (I say “what is now” because the book was published in 1986, and the location of the State Russian Museum is given on the title page as Leningrad. The museum itself has had several names – viz this Wikipedia entry. I am reminded of Neal Ascherson’s comment in the Preface to his book Stone Voices to the effect that in Russia, “..the past is said to be unpredictable.”)

The luminous cover portrait is of Vera Repina, painted by her father Ilya Repin.

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“The question is not how to cure or how to be cured but how to live.” – The Other Side of You, by Salley Vickers

November 11, 2008 at 7:52 pm (Art, Book clubs, books)

other Inspired by the profusion of provocative ideas swirling gracefully through Salley Vickers’s book,  the Literary Ladies enjoyed a bracing discussion Friday night.

The Other Side of You concerns a British psychiatrist, David McBride, who receives enlightenment about his own life from an initially recalcitrant patient, Elizabeth Cruikshank. At the same time, the novel has a much wider subject matter; namely, the possibility of personal and social redemption in a fallen world.

I’ve written about this book before, once to recommend it to readers who care about fine literature; and again to quote from Michael Dirda’s review. (Dirda, who writes for the Washington Post Book World, himself has a luminous prose style.)

As the discussion commenced – with Yours Truly as leader – I pulled out my copy of The Other Side of You, and lo! it was festooned with post-it notes in three or four different colors, plus a cunning little commodity called “book darts.”(I suggested buying them on the sleeve. The problem with the little canister is that when you open it, the small, lightweight book darts tend to scatter all over the place.)

Here are just a few of the memorable passages that cried out to be marked:

It is a commonplace that it is part of life’s tragedy that while it must be lived forwards it can only be understood backwards…

Walking is a famous loosener of thoughts. [See Thoreau’s essay “Walking.”]

Outside, I made out the shape of the ginger tom poised on the fence and beside him, in weird juxtaposition, I could see a reflection of my lamp and my patient in the blue armchair, the few feet between us expanded into an unnavigable mirage of air.

(This vivid image occurs at a crucial turning point in the novel. Elizabeth is about to break through a wall of silence in order to tell David her story.)

These next two quotes are from a conversation David is having a with fellow psychiatrist and close friend Gus Galen:

‘…the Greek potters could tell the very second at which a glaze turned in a kiln from red to black. They didn’t need a thermometer. They trusted the blink of an eye.’

‘A suicide is someone who wants to take a shortcut to one of the only certainties: death and taxes. Only taxes aren’t as sexy as death. You could argue that suicide is getting straight to the point: it’s a fast-track method of transportation from one realm to another.’ (Elizabeth has been referred to David for treatment following an attempt to take her own life.)

And then this rueful observation by David:

Age and disease and death may destroy our physical being but it is other people who get inside us and damage our hearts and minds.

Elizabeth Cruikshank – a married mother of two –  had a lover, Thomas Carrington, an art historian whose special interest was Caravaggio. In particular, the painting The Supper at Emmaus is crucial to his work – and to this novel. Here are David’s thoughts as he stands before it, in London’s National Gallery:

I’d not taken in the painting properly when Gus showed it to me first, inspecting it only out of politeness and  curiosity – mostly about my new acquaintance. Now it hit me with the delayed force that the revelation they were witnessing plainly hit the two amazed fishermen, when the friend and colleague they had loved – and walked and talked and lain down and slept with – on lousy straw and rocky, inhospitable soil, and starved with, and eaten supper with the night before he died, and believed dead and gone for ever – rematerialised out of the blue to share this other supper with them and knock them back to life.

The Supper at Emmaus

The Supper at Emmaus


Salley Vickers is trained in Jungian therapy, and Jungian constructs are obliquely referenced throughout the novel: ‘Gus believes that somewhere we all know everything, and  that what is generally called intuition is merely a stronger than usual capacity to disinter information and bring it to light.’ We talked about times in which you’ve answered a question or made an observation rooted in knowledge that you didn’t know you possessed – or couldn’t even imagine how you’d come by in the first place.

Wikipedia’s entry on Carl Gustav Jung lists three of his most notable concepts: psychological archetypes, the collective unconscious, and synchronicity. (Yes, I know, Wikipedia is often criticized for oversimplifying things, but that oversimplification provides a useful starting point for those new to a complex subject. Synchronicity alone is such a provocative idea; I’m going to come back to it, I hope, in a separate post.)

The Other Side of You is rich with allusions to the arts. In addition to Caravaggio, the inexpressibly sad ghost of John Keats hovers over this narrative. At one point, Elizabeth and Thomas visit the Keats house at  the foot of the Spanish Steps in Rome. (I did the same some forty years ago.) I have quoted  Joseph Severn’s letter on the poet’s death elsewhere in full.

At one point, Thomas refers to the folk song “Raggle Taggle Gypsies.” Elizabeth has never heard of it. (She’s got gaps in her education, apparently.) Thomas then quotes a verse – or, one version of a verse:

‘She kicked off her high-heeled shoes, /All made of Spanish leather-O, /And it’s out in the street, /In her bare, bare feet, / To dance with the Raggle Taggle Gypsies-O.’

wheat On Watching the White Wheat, one of the chief treasures of my CD collection, The King’s Singers convey, with an urgent, hushed agitation, this ballad’s sense of impending doom.

The title of this novel comes from a verse in The Wasteland by T.S. Eliot:

Who is the third who walks always beside you?
When I count, there are only you and I together
But when I look ahead up the white road
There is always another one walking beside you
Gliding wrapt in a brown mantle, hooded
I do not know whether a man or a woman
—But who is that on the other side of you?

Virtually every character in this novel is haunted – in some cases, beleaguered – by the shadow of what might have been.

Our group agreed that the numerous references to art, history, and literature enrich Vickers’s book tremendously.  British novelists are particularly adept at doing this, viz. The House on Fortune Street by Margot Livesey and Kate Atkinson’s When Will There Be Good News, which I am currently about half way through.

The quote I used in the title of this post comes  from Gus Galen, David McBride’s “hearth companion.” (Definition: “A devoted friend…Someone who sleeps beside you at the hearth and watches your back in a fight.”) For his humaneness and his loyalty to David, all of us loved this character.

I could go on about this novel, but I think I’ll conclude here with a hearty recommendation. You may be thinking that we’re dealing with a weighty tome here, but the paperback beside me is only 262 pages long. Many riches, tightly packed…

Salley Vickers

Salley Vickers

[Biographical information on Salley Vickers was not easy to find. In the end, the best source was – you guessed it – Wikipedia.]


harr Just one addendum concerning Caravaggio. If you haven’t read Jonathan Harr’s The Lost Painting, you really should. This is nonfiction that reads like fiction (better, in some instances). You’ll be amazed when you find out where this masterpiece finally turns up.

The Taking of Christ, by Caravaggio

The Taking of Christ, by Caravaggio

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All hail the Bard! Henry IV Part One at the Folger

November 11, 2008 at 2:53 am (Local interest (Baltimore-Washington), Shakespeare)

henry-iv-play-bill Lucky me, to have seen this marvelous production yesterday! All the performers did a splendid job, and it was a special treat to see Delaney Williams of The Wire playing that inimitable rascal Sir John Falstaff.

Delaney Williams as Jay Landsman in The Wire

Delaney Williams as Jay Landsman in The Wire

and as Falstaff in Henry IV Part One

and as Falstaff in Henry IV Part One

The Falstaff scenes are certainly entertaining. They give Prince Hal’s vocabulary great scope. How many ways can you call someone fat? Here’s one of the best known:

“Falstaff sweats to death, / And lards the lean earth as he walks along.”

Falstaff himself utters what is probably the play’s most famous line: “The better part of valor is discretion, in which better part I have sav’d my life.”  I was waiting to hear this – it isn’t spoken until the last act – and so, I think, were others, as the audience greeted it with delighted laughter.

Here’s an interview in which Delaney Williams talks about playing Falstaff.


I last saw this play at Stratford-Upon-Avon some forty years ago. So this was a special occasion for me and brought back memories of my youthful solitary –  and revelatory –  trek through England.

henryfive One of the delights of Stratford was that as you walked the theater’s park-like grounds, you saw the actors doing likewise. And one of the many pleasures of the Folger is that you encounter the actors in a similar way, though the setting is decidedly more urban. We parked on a side street by the theater, a privilege for which one must ordinarily pay. It being Sunday, though, we were reasonably sure we didn’t have to feed the meter. We asked a young man passing by, and he reassured us on the question. About an hour later, he appeared before us on the Folger’s stage – one of the actors in this fine production!

Falstaff and his nefarious doings constitute a welcome and boisterous distraction, but there’s a very serious question at the heart of this play: can the scapegrace Prince Hal shake off his youthful indiscretions in time to assume the mantle of ruler?  Eventually he does prove himself in battle, much to his anxious father’s relief.

agincourt I couldn’t help thinking of the book Agincourt: Henry V and the Battle That Made England. Juliet Barker tells the astonishing story of the battle that should have been impossible for the English to win – and yet win it they did.

Tom Story as Prince Hal

Tom Story as Prince Hal

And once again we return to Shakespeare, this time Henry V and the King’s famous exhortation to his troops, the Saint Crispin’s Day Speech:

“This day is called the feast of Crispian:
He that outlives this day, and comes safe home,
Will stand a tip-toe when the day is named,
And rouse him at the name of Crispian.
He that shall live this day, and see old age,
Will yearly on the vigil feast his neighbours,
And say ‘To-morrow is Saint Crispian:’
Then will he strip his sleeve and show his scars.
And say ‘These wounds I had on Crispin’s day.’
Old men forget: yet all shall be forgot,
But he’ll remember with advantages
What feats he did that day: then shall our names.
Familiar in his mouth as household words
Harry the king, Bedford and Exeter,
Warwick and Talbot, Salisbury and Gloucester,
Be in their flowing cups freshly remember’d.
This story shall the good man teach his son;
And Crispin Crispian shall ne’er go by,
From this day to the ending of the world,
But we in it shall be remember’d;
We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;
For he to-day that sheds his blood with me
Shall be my brother; be he ne’er so vile,
This day shall gentle his condition:
And gentlemen in England now a-bed
Shall think themselves accursed they were not here,
And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks
That fought with us upon Saint Crispin’s day”

Here’s the Washington Post’s review of Henry IV Part One. I also liked this piece from DC Theatre Scene, as the writer’s affection for the play and delight in this production mirror my own.

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