Washington Post’s Book World – continued

January 30, 2009 at 9:12 pm (Book review, books, Magazines and newspapers)

Here’s an article in the New York Times concerning the Washington Post’s plans to discontinue the Book World supplement in the Sunday edition.

Permalink Leave a Comment

John Updike: March 18,1932-January 27, 2009

January 29, 2009 at 4:37 pm (books, Magazines and newspapers, Remembrance)

When I heard the news, I went to my bookshelf and drew out The Afterlife and Other Stories. I turned to “A Sandstone Farmhouse,” where I had marked several passages. Here’s the first, barely three pages in:

“He remembered swinging the great stones out the attic window, he and his grandfather pushing, trying not to pinch their fingers, while his father, his face white with the effort, held the rope of a makeshift pulley rigged over a rafter. Once clear of  the sill, the heavy stones fell with a strange slowness, seen from above, and accumulated into a kind of mountain it became Joey’s sumer job to clear away. He learned a valuable lesson that first summer on the farm, while he turned fourteen: even if you manage to wrestle only one stone into the wheelbarrow and sweatily, staggeringly trundle it down to the swampy area this side of the springhouse, eventually the entire mountain will be taken away. On the same principle, an invisible giant, removing only one day at a time, will eventually dispose of an entire life.

Joey’s youthful memories are inextricably bound up with life at the sandstone farmhouse. Now in his fifties and living in an apartment in Manhattan, he is called upon to return once more to the farm in Pennsylvania. His mother, who still lives there, is old and ailing and steadily retreating behind a wall of fear and obduracy.

“Each day she spent in the hospital, the little sandstone house pulled  at her harder. ‘Get me home,’ she begged Joey.

‘And then what?’

‘Then we’ll take what comes.’ Her eyes widened, watching his, and her mouth as it clamped shut over ‘what comes’ was very like a child’s, stubborn in its fright. For, however close their consultations, however fervent their agreements, both were aware that she was the star and he merely the prompter: though his turn would come, the spotlight burned upon her. She was center stage, in this drama whose climax everyone knows.

Not a single wasted word or superfluous sentiment. Updike does not go in for verbal pyrotechnics; his writing embodies  the simple art of truth telling, rendered with grace and an unblinking eye.

John Updike’s short stories show in distilled form his superb craftsmanship and mastery of the art of storytelling. My favorite is probably “The Music School.”  With its laserlike focus on the vagaries of the human condition, this story seems to contain the entire world – or several worlds, come to that.

“The Music School” is about eight pages in length.


I was happy to see that The Washington Post placed the news of Updike’s passing on its front page. Here he is on why we need fiction:

“‘We read fiction because it makes us feel less lonely about being a human being….We read about what other human beings feel – what they’re driven to do, how often they work for their own destruction, how they’re in the grip of appetites that are beyond them and they can’t control or harness.’

In 2006, Updike defined the act of reading as an “encounter, in silence, of two minds.”

Also yesterday, the Post featured  a lengthy appreciation of Updike, in the paper’s Style section. And today’s editorial page brings “Renegade Updike,” by critic and reviewer Marie Arana. (The title in the print version is “Moments with Updike.”)

afterlife due looking early rabbit

nature1 school self villages witches



And now – at this juncture, I just have to say this – there is no small irony in the Post’s homage to one of America’s greatest men of letters. The paper has just announced that as of next month, the Sunday Post’s Book World will no longer exist as a separate section. The book reviews will be parceled out to two other existing sections, Outlook and Style & Arts. We are assured that Book World’s current embodiment will still exist in an expanded form online; in addition, weekday reviews will still appear regularly.

We are assured by editor Rachel Shea that “…it’s not worth gnashing our teeth about too much.” Sorry, Ms Shea, but here at Books to the Ceiling there is plenty of gnashing going on, accompanied by howls of dismay!


Permalink 4 Comments

Object from the past are more durable than you think

January 27, 2009 at 6:59 pm (Family, History)

This sentence occurred to me while I was indulging in some free association concerning cliches and odd verbal formulations. I began with “The past is another country; they do things differently there.” This oft-quoted sentiment is the first line of L.P. Hartley’s novel The Go-Between. Richard Cohen leads with it in his column in today’s Washington Post.

I suspect that many more people know this quotation than have actually read the book; I am, alas. among their number. I do, though, vividly remember the 1970 film starring Julie Christie and Alan Bates, with a screenplay by Harold Pinter.


Somehow, this led me to the words inscribed on the passenger’s side view mirror of most cars and trucks: “Objects in the mirror are closer than they appear.” I’ve always found this statement somewhat cryptic and was pleased to find this explanation of its meaning.

Then my husband helped me to scan in these two postcards. I had found them in a cache of old family photographs which I was attempting to sort through.



Inserting these two images into this post, I could feel my heart beat accelerate. The postcards were sent by my grandfather Nathan Gusman to my grandmother Mary Davidoff, not long after they came to this country. Presumably, they were courting at the time. (The old-fashioned word seems appropriate here.) The card immediately above is clearly postmarked 1910. The other postmark is much harder to make out due to the raised surface on which it was stamped. We think it might be 1908.

These two people, my mother’s parents, were part of a large wave of Jewish immigrants who came to America from Eastern Europe and Russia in the early years of the last century. We grandchildren were simply told that they came to this country from Russia. Where, exactly? I don’t know. When, exactly? I don’t know that either. By the time I though to ask, it was too late.

(I did find some interesting historical background at the Library of Congress, Wikipedia, and, in a rather piquant manner, on the site of this Israeli retailer.)

After the scanning session, I became obsessed with the notion of the fragility of these two century-old artifacts. Should I have them laminated, or in some other way preserved? Finally my husband pointed out that with just small amount of damage to show for it, the postcards had continued to exist for the past one hundred years. Put them in an envelope, he advised, then put them in a drawer and leave them be.

And that is where they are. Although, of course, they are also in cyberspace, which pleases me – and you as well, I trust, Dear Reader.

I still have many photographs to sort through, but this one will always be among the most precious in this trove (click to enlarge):

Nathan Gusman and Mary Davidoff

Nathan Gusman and Mary Davidoff

Permalink 1 Comment

Sunday Sampler

January 25, 2009 at 9:56 pm (Art, Blogroll, books, Mystery fiction)

First – the case of the burgeoning blogroll…

Art and Faith features some fantastic Russian paintings, like the one below:

Portrait of P.A. Zubov by Ivan Eggink

Portrait of P.A. Zubov by Ivan Eggink


Mystery Fanfare is Janet Rudolph’s blog. Janet is the founder of Mystery Readers International. The unset alarm clock (love that name!) is the blog of a book loving retired librarian. And finally, a mutual love of the novels of Reginald Hill led me to “Payal Dhar, Wordsmith” and the delightful  Writeside.net.


Second – yet another book list, and it’s big,  really big…

Yes, just as all of us fanatical readers were recovering from the onslaught of “Best of 2008” lists, here comes the Guardian Online with 1000 Novels Everyone Must Read. I appreciate the use of the word “must” rather than “should.” Even so: give me strength, give me time!

Permalink Leave a Comment

Bon Voyage: A Night of French Culture at the Central Library

January 24, 2009 at 5:43 pm (France, Local interest (Baltimore-Washington))

Wednesday night, Rose and Jean, two of my erstwhile colleagues at the library, presented a wonderful program in which they celebrated all things French. Obviously, there was only so much territory they could  cover in the space of little more than an hour.

The culture of France has been one of the chief glories of Western civilization for the last thousand years. Much of tremendous value has emerged in the course of its fascinating history: magnificent music and art, and a body of literature conveyed to us through one of the world’s most beautiful and expressive languages.

We entered the room to the strains of Edith Piaf:

Rose treated us to excerpts from three travel DVD’s.

In addition, she showed us print travel guides by Rick Steves, Rudy Maxa, and others.  We were reminded that tools for learning French can be found on tape, CD, and digital audiobook via the newly acquired Playaways. As an aid to locating these items, Jean and Rose provided program attendees with an extremely helpful handout, which was a combination pathfinder and book list.



Jean booktalked some titles with which I was unfamiliar but which I will now seek out.  (Jean is such a terrific booktalker, if she were extolling the virtues of the yellow pages, I rush to procure them tout de suite!):

helene-berr quartier

tatin time

Here’s one I didn’t manage to grab in time but will definitely seek out in the future: monet

I found this video slide show of Monet’s paintings, set to Debussy’s haunting Clair de Lune.

moon Other titles I was already familiar with: Paris to the Moon is a collection of dispatches that Adam Gopnik filed with the New Yorker from 1995 to 2000, while he and his family were living in Paris. ( The French newspaper Le Monde called him a “witty and Voltairean commentator on French life.”) Follow this link to an audio interview with Adam Gopnik on the Barnes and Noble site.

I was delighted to see that Georges Simenon, one of my favorite authors, was well represented at the program.

A  number of films were on hand for the taking:



Apple slices, cheese and crackers, and l’eau Perrier were provided by our gracious hostesses. And there were door prizes – I won this!  a-paris-moment-cover

The French language is  beautiful whether spoken or sung. Here is the famous duet “Au Fond du Temple Saint” from the opera Les Pecheurs de Perles by Georges Bizet. The singers are two of today’s greatest: tenor Roberto Alagna and bass-baritone Bryn Terfel.


In recent years, the Howard County Library has presented numerous fine programs featuring authors and other outside guest speakers. “Bon Voyage”  showcased the efforts of two of the library’s own resourceful and creative staffers. They have much to offer in this venue!

I’d like to conclude with this video of a 1989 performance of the French national anthem, La Marseillaise. The soloist is Mireille Matthieu, whom many consider a worthy successor to the great Edith Piaf. (The Youtube poster described this as “legendary footage.”)

Permalink Leave a Comment

Edgar Award nominees for 2009 – concluding with a sublime musical offering

January 21, 2009 at 10:28 pm (books, Music, Mystery fiction)

Here’s the list, courtesy of Sarah Weinman’s indispensable blog. I’ve read  C. J. Box’s Blue Heaven and think it well deserving of a place among the contenders for Best Novel.  Having read Half  Broken Things and Puccini’s Ghosts, I greatly admire Morag Joss and look forward to reading The Night Following.

broken puccini


Morag Joss

Morag Joss

(In the post entitled “Best of 2006 – Part Two,” I wrote the following about Puccini’s Ghosts:

“Joss is yet another writer being favorably compared to Ruth Rendell. In her case, this is no exaggeration. Puccini’s Ghosts is a highly original novel of psychological suspense in which a group of rank amateurs from a Scottish backwater decide to mount a production of Puccini’s most singular, exotic opera. Read the novel yourself and find out how the “Burnhead Association for Singing Turandot” came into being – and why the good people of Burnhead wish to God it had not!)

missing With regard to Karin Alvtegen’s Missing: I was so impressed by reviews I read of this book some months ago that I bought it. I’m only now reading it, though, and the jury is still out. The problem may be my irksome tendency to read several books simultaneously. Well, we’ll see; I’ll give it a bit longer. Having made the purchase, one does so hate to throw in the towel.

The titles up for best fact crime – my chief guilty reading and TV viewing pleasure  ( e.g. Forensic Files, The New Detectives: Case Studies in Forensic Science, and the newly revived Unsolved Mysteries) – all look interesting. I have read and reviewed The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher, and although it is a slow read, it is a very worthwhile one.

In the Critical/Biographical category, Leonard Cassuto’s Hard-Boiled Sentimentality is highly recommended by Sarah Weinman. Scene of the Crime by David Geherin is among the many tomes resting on my nightstand (actually, one nightstand plus one splendid device called a “clutter column!) awaiting my perusal. Geherin’s book is subtitled, “The Importance of Place in Crime and Mystery Fiction,” and in it, he discusses fifteen authors who are closely associated with their chosen settings. Among them are Donna Leon (Venice), Tony Hillerman (the American Southwest), James Lee Burke (Southern Louisiana), Walter Mosley (South Central Los Angeles),  Georges Simenon (Paris), Sara Paretsky (Chicago), and Alexander McCall Smith (Botswana).

sentimentality geherin


Revisiting the annotation for Puccini’s Ghosts got me wondering if there might be a Youtube video of Pavarotti singing the famous tenor aria “Nessun Dorma” from Turandot. Reader, I found it. The year is 1980; the occasion is the “Live from Lincoln Center” 30th anniversary special. The conductor is Zubin Mehta. The performance is – well,  just hear and see for yourself:

Permalink Leave a Comment

A Is for Alibi by Sue Grafton: a book discussion

January 21, 2009 at 12:15 pm (Book clubs, books, Mystery fiction)

alibi Among the members of the Usual Suspects mystery book group, Pauline is known for the intellectual rigor she brings to the task of  leading a discussion. Her selection for our consideration on Tuesday night of last week was the first of Sue Grafton’s alphabet mysteries, A Is for Alibi. To be honest – I was somewhat dubious about this choice. I had read the book not long after its initial publication (1982) and was not keen on the prospect of revisiting it.

But one so enjoys taking part in discussions led by Pauline! So I did what I often do in situations like this: I got the audio version. I am a great fan of Judy Kaye’s narration of Sue Grafton’s novels. The book on CD that I obtained from the library featured Mary Peiffer as the reader, and she likewise did an excellent  job. At about ten minutes in – I was well and truly hooked!

One of the reasons Pauline chose this particular book is that it would give us a chance to look back to the beginning of this successful and popular series and see to what degree, if any,  Sue Grafton’s protagonist Kinsey Millhone has evolved, both as an investigator and as a person.

Our leader began by going over the author’s background. Sue Grafton was born in Louisville, Kentucky in 1940. Her father C.W. Grafton was a lawyer and some time writer of crime fiction.  In her book The Fatal Art of Entertainment (1994), Rosemary Herbert observes the following of Sue Grafton’s early years: “The daughter of intellectual parents who were afflicted with alcoholism, Grafton experienced a rather unsupervised childhood in a ‘classically dysfunctional family’….”

It’s been my observation that such a childhood can be  highly instructive in its own way, if it doesn’t kill you first. While Grafton’s parents were otherwise occupied, she had the free run of their own library and anyone else’s – nothing was declared out of bounds due to her age. She developed a passion for the writers of hardboiled fiction. Her regard for their work has remained constant; she provided the introduction to Tom Nolan’s definitive biography of Ross MacDonald (1999).  rossmacdonald

Sue Grafton married for the first time while still a  student at the University of Louisville. she had two children – a boy and a girl – in quick succession but the marriage did not last.  Divorced in 1962, she remarried the same year. In 1973, by which time she had moved to California,  this second marriage ended, but not before Grafton became embroiled in a bitter custody battle with her soon-to-be ex. As can sometimes happen, a hugely stressful time ultimately gave birth to a hugely successful creation. I’ll let Grafton tell it in her own words, as recorded by interviewer Rosemary Herbert in her above-mentioned book:

“What I found was that I was feeling helpless and frustrated and ineffectual, and all I could think to do at night in my bed was to conjure up these fantasies of doing this man in, because it seemed to me my life would be so much simpler and so much better if he simply did not exist. I would  cook up various schemes for doing him in, and in the course of it I came up with a method, a murder method. This  was the use of oleander, which, in California, is a very common shrubbery, and it’s part of the California mythology.

Knowing in her heart of hearts that she was not cut out for homicide, Grafton eventually abandoned these fantasies. “‘I’m gonna get caught at it; I’m gonna end up in a shapeless prison dress, disgracing the very children I’m fighting to keep!'” It was at this point that the notion presented itself to her that by fictionalizing the crime she had envisioned, she would not only find a way to sublimate her anger, she might also get paid for doing so. This, then, was the genesis of A Is for Alibi, which contains, among other unique facets, murder by ground up oleander seeds.

( Grafton has now been married to Steve Humphrey for thirty years. In addition, she has several grandchildren, among whom is a granddaughter named Kinsey. Click here for a more recent interview.)

A Is for Alibi came out in 1982, the same year that Sara Paretsky published her first V.I Warshawski novel, Indemnity Only. It was in some ways a watershed year for mysteries: not one but two fully formed female private investigators burst upon the American crime fiction scene. They weren’t the first – Marcia Muller, whom Sue Grafton has called “the mother of us all,”  had begun her Sharon McCone series in 1977 with Edwin of the Iron Shoes. But there was something about the simultaneous appearance of V.I. Warshawski and Kinsey Millhone that kicked the phenomenon of the female protagonist into high gear.

Sue Grafton

Sue Grafton

Sara Paretsky

Sara Paretsky

Marcia Muller

Marcia Muller

Grafton’s role in this seminal moment was one of  a number of topics that we took up at our meeting. Of course, we zeroed in on Kinsey herself. Had her character altered in any significant way over the passing years? On the whole, we thought not – at least, not to any significant degree.

As an aid to discussion, Pauline provided us with an  extremely helpful handout. One side was entitled “Characters in A Is for Alibi.” First came Kinsey, as the  investigator, then Nikki Fife as the client. There  followed a list of the four murder victims, including the dates of death and manner of murder. The next section listed the motives for each murder, as Pauline understood them, including a question mark next to Gwen’s name, since the motive seemed a bit murky there.

Next came a list of five suspects, followed by the naming of two recurring characters, meaning  those who would appear in subsequent novels. These were identified as Henry Pitts and Rosie.

Thee final category on this list was comprised of “secondary characters unique to this book.”

On the other side of the handout were numerous discussion questions grouped under eight main headings: plot, setting, characterizations, suspense, the character of Kinsey, the quality of the writing, “problems for me in this book,” and finally, “compare this book” to later series entries. Where Grafton’s writing is concerned, we were pretty much in agreement that the quality has been consistently high throughout the series. Her screenwriting experience accounts for her exceptional facility in writing dialogue. And Kinsey’s snappy, irreverent sense of humor adds much to the reader’s enjoyment.

There were two additional questions. One concerned the aptness of the book’s title; the other invited us to speculate as to which actress would be a good choice to play Kinsey on TV or the big screen. When we got to that last one, we were somewhat stumped, though when someone suggested Sandra Bullock there was general approbation. We learned that Sue Grafton is absolutely firm in her refusal to sell the film rights for her series. Having herself worked in television, she does not trust the process with regard to maintaining a character’s integrity in the transition from print to screen. We were reminded that PD James was so appalled when the television version of  Cordelia Gray turned up  pregnant that she vowed never to write another novel featuring that character.

(Of course, on the other hand, there’s Morse – but the felicitous confluence of talent involved in the making of those films is probably more the exception than the rule.)

Due largely to Pauline’s assiduous research and preparation, this was a wonderfully stimulating discussion. We also had a larger than usual group and were meeting in a warm and gracious new venue. (Thanks for your hospitality, Ann!) Many of the responses to Pauline’s queries by various group members were insightful and perceptive.

It was a pleasure to range over Sue Grafton’s entire body of work; she’s a writer for whom most of us feel both affectionate regard and genuine respect. And unless Pauline plans to rush out and copyright the format of her handout, I myself  intend to use it as a template for future discussions!

Sue Grafton

Sue Grafton

Permalink 9 Comments

President Barack Obama

January 20, 2009 at 8:48 pm (Current affairs)

As I was watching history unfold today, I couldn’t help thinking: He’s the man with the million dollar smile…



Congratulations to our new president!

Permalink Leave a Comment

Honoring Andrew Taylor

January 18, 2009 at 1:13 pm (books, Mystery fiction)

Andrew Taylor has been selected to receive the 2009 Cartier Diamond Dagger, an award bestowed by the Crime Writers Assocation of Great Britain. Among the previous winners of this prestigious accolade are Sue Grafton, Lawrence Block, Colin Dexter, Ed McBain, Reginald Hill, Ruth Rendell, Dick Francis, and P.D. James.

Hearing Andrew Taylor speak was one of the highlights of our 2006 Smithsonian Mystery Tour. Afterward, he had lunch with us and graciously spoke with us individually as he signed books.

Andrew Taylor sitting next to one of our fabulous tour guides, Ros Hutchinson

Andrew Taylor sitting next to one of our superb tour guides, Rosalind Hutchinson


Andrew Taylor, on the subject of writing crime fiction

Andrew Taylor listening patiently as I express my frustration about the unavailability of his earlier novels in the U.S.

Andrew Taylor listening patiently as I express my frustration over the unavailability of his earlier novels in the U.S.

speech_house_hotel The venue was Speech House in the Royal Forest of Dean, where Taylor and his family reside. (I just love the way these places are positively soggy with history!)

unpardonable air I’ve read two novels by Andrew Taylor: An Unpardonable Crime (published as The American Boy in the UK), a sprawling historical standalone in which Edgar Allan Poe plays a a supporting but crucial role, and An Air That Kills, the first in the (so far) eight volume Lydmouth series. I enjoyed both very much, especially the latter. Taylor’s Roth Trilogy has been filmed for television under the title Fallen Angel. Here, he writes at length (and with gentle humor) about what that process was like.

Martin Edwards gives Fallen Angel high marks on his blog Do You Write Under Your Own Name. I am hopeful that this film will be shown here in the not-too-distant future. For one thing, it stars one of my favorite actors, Charles Dance.

dancenew If you haven’t seen Dance as Tulkinghorn in the superb Bleak House – well, drop everything and get those DVD’s! (They are owned by the Howard County Library.)

Andrew Taylor’s latest novel, Bleeding Heart Square, is due out here in March. Here’s a promotional video:

Permalink 1 Comment

The Hay Adams Hotel

January 17, 2009 at 7:16 pm (Current affairs, History, Local interest (Baltimore-Washington))

In a letter to today’s Washington Post, James Symington fills us in on the fascinating story of Washington’s Hay Adams Hotel, where the Obamas stayed before moving to Blair House this past Thursday. Symington’s own family played a part in the hotel’s history – or rather, its pre-history.

The Hay Adams

The Hay Adams


John Hay

Henry Adams

Henry Adams

The Hay Adams was built in 1928 on the site where the homes of Henry Adams and John Hay once stood.

five In his letter, Symington mentions Patricia O’Toole’s The Five of Hearts, a history of the Adams and Hay families during America’s Gilded Age. I note with dismay that our local library no longer owns this title, which, until recently, was out of print. The good news is that it was re-issued by Simon and Schuster in 2006. (Here is the  library’s request to purchase form.) Since its original publication in 1990, The Five of Hearts has been one of the many books I’ve always meant to read; Mr. Symington’s letter has jumped it up to a spot near the top of an admittedly absurdly long list!

In addition to the list of must-reads, there’s a list of things I must see. One of them is the Adams Memorial in Rock Creek Park Cemetery. This sculpture by Augustus Saint Gaudens was commissioned by Henry Adams for his wife, Marian “Clover” Hooper Adams.


Permalink 2 Comments

Next page »