From Britain to Brazil: two polished procedurals

January 15, 2009 at 7:26 pm (Book review, books, Mystery fiction, The British police procedural)

stone In No Stone Unturned by Peter Turnbull, we return once again to the ancient precincts of York. (I would return there tomorrow if I could!) We walk the walls, we glide through the snickelways, we gaze up at the astounding Minster.

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Oh – and we observe the progress of a murder inquiry.

Skeletal remains have been found under a pile of rubble in a field outside the city. DCI George Hennessey and his team must first determine the corpse’s identity, then pursue the perpetrator of the crime.

The investigation exposes the doings of two frightening right wing organizations with deceptively innocuous sounding names: the British Alliance and the Defenders of St. George. The cunning and evasive – not to mention elusive – members are past masters at cloaking their activities in secrecy. Unfortunately, more homicides occur before Hennessey and his team finally crack this baffling case.

Peter Turnbull

Peter Turnbull

Many are the attractions – at least, for this reader – of the novels of Peter Turnbull. The plots are intriguing without being overly convoluted (resulting in the books’ refreshing brevity). The “regulars” on the force are very appealing. There’s Hennessey himself, a man who has suffered a tragic losses yet been  able to soldier on. Now heading towards retirement (please, not too soon George!), he has found great consolation both in the achievements of his son and in a new relationship of his own. He is the very epitome of a decent, fairminded copper. For many years, the sergeant at his side has been Somerled (pronounced “Sorley”) Yellich. Yellich has challenges of his own in his personal life, but he meets them with strength and compassion – and the support of a loving, generous wife.

In No Stone Unturned, a new member joins the team. I’ll let Turnbull perform the introduction in his own words: “Carmen Pharoah walked home receiving a few not unexpected and hostile glances, because tall, elegant black women are an unusual sight in York.”

Another pleasure of this series is the author’s piquant, slightly antiquated mode of expression. Each chapter heading contains an “in which;” for instance, here’s the heading for Chapter Four,  “in which further information is obtained and Yellich, Webster and Ventnor are at home to the gracious reader.” At times the dialogue is characterized by a similar formality of diction. Here, in the course of the autopsy, the medical examiner informs Hennessey of her preliminary findings:

“‘Death…well, I won’t stick my neck out as you know…but death occurred within the last ten years. I mean, we are not looking at a well-preserved Roman soldier who passed away over a thousand years ago…this gentleman saw the same sunsets as we did. So, he is of interest to you.’

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blackout And now, off to warm, sunny Brazil…don’t I wish! Actually, they have their fair share of storms there. At least, that is what Luiz Alfredo Garcia-Roza, author of the Inspector Espinosa novels, would have us believe. It is during one such downpour that the body of a homeless man is discovered in a cul-de-sac on Sao Joao Hill in Rio de Janeiro.  He has been shot in the chest.

The victim was discovered just as a dinner party given by residents in the cul-de-sac was ending. Espinosa and his team interview the hosts and the guests that attended the party. Espinosa’s finely honed instinct tell him that two individuals are worth further attention: architect and interior designer Aldo Bruno and his wife Camila, a psychotherapist.

At first, progress on this investigation is between slow and nonexistent. For one thing, it has taken a Herculean effort simply to identify the victim. Then there is the fact that the storm succeeded in obliterating almost all of the potentially crucial forensic evidence. Finally, while police are still struggling to solve the murder of the homeless man, a second killing occurs which shocked the daylights out of  Yours Truly!

As the investigation winds along its tortuous course, Garcia-Roza’s graceful writing and wry wit are constantly in evidence.  For example, here’s Espinosa taking  inventory of his forty-three-year-old body. His lover Irene is more than ten years his junior, and he is somewhat anxious about what she sees when she gazes at him:

“He hadn’t gotten fat, his abdomen was still well defined, the little tire that was growing around his waist was negligible, he wasn’t bald and he hadn’t gone gray–besiddes the occasional hair on his temples–and his muscles and joints still worked. The problem was that when he thought about Irene, that little inventory felt like an autopsy.

Espinosa’s introspective ruminations are among the chief pleasures of this novel. In another scene, he has just been to his favorite bookstore, where he purchased novels by Faulkner, J.M. Coetzee, and Patricia Highsmith. (As you can see, the bookish inspector has eclectic taste in literature. ) Having completed this pleasing exercise, he finds himself outside in the midst of a beautiful day. He thinks to himself that the sky is a “Matisse blue.” Here’s how his thoughts proceed from there:

“Something was wrong with this picture. It didn’t match the person…or the screenplay was all right and the director was no good. But it wasn’t a film or a play, it was real life, and the character was not played by an artist but was himself: Espinosa, a police chief  who had never seen a Matisse in real life. He kept walking and thinking about what a strange person he was.

Espinosa goes on try out several terms which might accurately describe his personality. After trying out and  rejecting the labels “eccentric” and “idiot,” he decides that the simple truth is that he lives in his own world. End of subject!

Not quite, though. Garcia-Roza likes to examine the mental processes that are brought to bear on a criminal investigation. In a later scene, it is night, and Espinosa is allowing his thoughts to range freely:

“Sometimes the  flow of ideas produced an interesting theory. He wasn’t worried about thinking with any logical rigor, if only because he doubted that his ideas had, at any point in his life, stemmed from any logical rigor. What he was doing was removing the pretense of logic and letting the monsters come to the surface. Some of those monsters would  get sent back into the pit, but others merited closer examination. And that was a technique in which madness could be as useful as reason.

This passage put me in mind of Goya’s famous etching,  “The Sleep of Reason Produced Monsters” ((El Sueño de la Razon Produce Monstruos).

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I’ve always considered this powerful, disturbing image to be a visual cautionary tale meant to frighten the viewer. But according to Espinosa/Garcia-Roza, these same monsters can be put to constructive use in examining and understanding the dark recesses of  the human mind.

foto-garcia-roza-livros Luiz Alfredo Garcia-Roza holds doctoral degrees in philosophy and psychology; he is an emeritus professor of both disciplines at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro.

I’ve not been to Brazil, but like many, I have mental images of Rio.

Christ the Redeemer ('Cristo Redentor') atop Corcovado mountain

Christ the Redeemer ('Cristo Redentor') atop Corcovado mountain

The beach at Copacabana

The beach at Copacabana

Leblon sand Ipanema, both of which figure prominently in Blackout

Leblon sand Ipanema, both of which figure prominently in Blackout

Carnival!

Carnival!

For those of us who came of age in the sixties, the soundtrack to these images  is the song “The Girl from Ipanema.” Here it is, sung by Andy Williams and the composer, Antonio Carlos Jobim:

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“Who has gone to jail?”

January 13, 2009 at 1:25 pm (Magazines and newspapers, Money and finance)

Richard Cohen asks this and other cogent questions in today’s Washington Post. My guess is that “Lady Subprime,”  is destined for classic status. Here is the piece in the Wall Street Journal on which Cohen has based his own observations.

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It might interest you to know…recent gleanings from newspapers, magazines, and online sources

January 12, 2009 at 11:39 pm (Art, books, Current affairs, Film and television, Historical fiction, Magazines and newspapers, Mystery fiction)

Let’s start with this hopeful item in today’s Washington Post: “Unexpected Twist: Fiction Reading Is Up,” by Bob Thompson.  Well, yay – but with reservations, naturally. The article concerns a new report from the National Endowment for the Arts entitled “Reading on the Rise: A New Chapter in American Literacy.” The report contains the inevitable mix of good and not-so-good  news. As for the article itself,  I found this hasty reassurance somewhat irritating: “…it’s important to know that ‘literary’ isn’t meant to imply ‘highbrow.'”  Gosh, what a relief; I would hate to think that I had to read The Great Gatsby or a Willa Cather novel in order to be counted among the literate – sigh… On the other hand, works from genre fiction are figured into the survey and furthermore, it is observed that “Mysteries emerged this year as the most popular genre.” No comment, it being rude to gloat! Unfortunately, nonfiction reading does not count, and that really is a shame, as that’s where some of the best writing is, IMHO.

gioia-dana Dana Gioia, outgoing chairman of the NEA, has been a wonderful advocate  for literature. The Big Read, whose stated purpose is “to restore reading to the center of American culture,” is among the initiatives he promoted. I like the variety and quality of the works focused on by this program. Audio guides on CD that accompany these selections are available at the Howard County Library. I listened to the guides for The Death of Ivan Ilyich and The Age of Innocence and found the experience to be an enjoyable, if abbreviated, way of revisiting some of my favorite classics. (Search for these CD’s under “Big Read” as a series title.)

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Sarah Weinman recently authored a four part feature on historical mysteries for the Barnes & Noble Review. In Part One, Weinman credits the works of Ellis Peters as having been the springboard for the the current popularity of this subgenre. If you haven’t read the Brother Cadfael novels, give yourself a treat and pick one up. Then watch the DVD’s in which Sir Derek Jacobi brings the sleuthing monk (monkish sleuth?) memorably to life.*

Ellis Peters and Sir Derek Jacoby

Ellis Peters and Sir Derek Jacobi

Still in Part One, Weinman proceeds to discuss mysteries set in ancient times. The first author she singles out for praise is one of my favorites, Steven Saylor, author of the Roma sub Rosa series featuring Gordianus the Finder. In Part Two, she covers medieval times;  in Part Three, the 19th century; and in Part Four, the first half of the 20th century.

coffin I was pleased to note that at the end of this last installment, Weinman mentions Eric Ambler, whose Coffin for Dimitrios, written in 1938, is still one of the best novels of suspense that I have ever read.

Taken together, these four articles are rich with reading suggestions. Sarah Weinman writes beautifully. If you’re a book lover, and especially if those books tend to be mysteries, you should be regularly checking her blog, Confessions of an Idiosyncratic Mind. Just yesterday I found there a link to an article from the Wall Street Journal about books of note to be published in the coming year. Admirers of the fiction of Anne Tyler – and I certainly count myself among their number – will be delighted by the news of her upcoming novel.

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mags I’m having a great time working my way through this collection, which is compiled by the American Society of Magazine Editors and published by the Columbia University Press. Several of the articles I’ve particularly enjoyed are available online, so here goes:

“China’s Instant Cities,” written by Peter Hessler and published by National Geographic. This piece won in the reporting category.

“The Black Sites,” written by Jane Mayer and published by The New Yorker. This article, a finalist in the reporting category, is a powerful and very disturbing look at the interrogation methods employed by the CIA since the 9/11 attacks.

“Specialist Town Takes His Case to Washington,” by Joshua Kors for The Nation. This piece, the winner in the public interest category, had me thoroughly vexed and spluttering with outrage.

“‘You Have Thousands of Angels Around You,'” by Paige Williams for Atlanta Magazine. One of the good things about this anthology is that brings to your attention worthy articles from publications you wouldn’t ordinarily read – like the  various city magazines. This  article, winner in the feature writing category, contains both the best and the worst of humanity. I was tremendously moved by this story of a teen-aged immigrant from war torn Burundi.

In my youth, I was a fan of Rolling Stone. I haven’t looked at an issue in some time, so I forgot what it’s like to read a periodical that most decidedly does not style itself as a “family newspaper.” Thus I approached Matt Taibbi’s “Obama’s Moment,” the winner in Columns and Commentary, with some trepidation. Just how vulgar would the vocabulary be – how snarky the attitude? None of it mattered – with its pull-no-punches, utterly irreverent salvos, I loved  Taibbi’s piece! Here’s a sample sentence:  “In person, Obama is a dynamic, handsome, virile presence, a stark contrast to the bloated hairy s–tbags we usually elect to positions of power in this country.” Okay, a bit over the top – but exhilarating and entertaining nonetheless. (And please pardon the dashes; I guess I’d like to think of this as a “family-friendly” blog!) I was surprised that “Obama’s Moment” was posted in late December of 2007, as it contains some very prescient observations. Taibbi mentions the “whiff of destiny” that seemed to swirl around Obama. And how.

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There are two articles in the December 2008 issue of The New Republic that I liked a great deal. One is “Why Mantegna Matters,” by Keith Christiansen. Christiansen is currently curator of European Paintings at one of my favorite places on the planet, The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. I particularly appreciated Christiansen’s comments on this astonishing image:

Lamentation Over the Dead Christ (1470-75), Andrea Mantegna

Lamentation Over the Dead Christ (1470-75), Andrea Mantegna

The second piece I commend to you with reservations because it’s a heartbreaker: “Going Under,” by Jason Zengerle. As I read this story of a gifted young doctor’s downward spiral, I thought once again of the lines from Julius Caesar: “If you have tears, prepare to shed them now.”

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Finally, we haven’t been to a movie theater in ages, but “A One-Man Movement” by Sarah Kaufman in Sunday’s Washington Post made me want to go. Focusing on the great Cary Grant, Kaufman offers insightful commentary on his acting in particular, then on film acting in general. Over  the years, many fine writers have tackled film as their subject. For my money, though, this is one of the most astutely observed, concisely written pieces of film commentary you’re likely to encounter for quite some time.

Here is Kaufman on one of the opening scenes in North by Northwest:

“There’s a relaxed, easy give in Grant’s body as he moves, and as he leans toward his secretary while he speaks to her–he’s so very pleased with his  own labors, and yet so exquisitely courteous to his assistant. A nice guy, and smooth as whiskey, too. He’s getting further under our skin with every move.

Cary Grant in North by Northwest

Cary Grant in North by Northwest

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*See Kerrie’s lively commentary on A Morbid Taste for Bones (first in the Cadfael series) on her blog Mysteries in Paradise.

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Classic short stories: Henry James

January 10, 2009 at 9:44 pm (Art, books, Italy, Short stories)

Every once in a while I like to return to the classics as a way of retraining my brain for a more rigorous mode of apprehension.

Well. Having uttered that lofty sentiment, I should say that I recently selected a Henry James story to read  because Robert Clark discusses it in Dark Water, his book about Florence, Italy. James knew the city well and admired it. “The Madonna of the Future” was first published in the Atlantic Monthly in 1873. (To my astonishment, I found that a copy of this number is currently being offered for sale on E-Bay!) atlantic

The story contained in “The Madonna of the Future” is told at several removes, by which I mean that at the outset, the first narrator introduces the reader to another gentleman,an acquaintance identified only as H—-. It is H— to whom the events of the story actually happened, so it is he who tells the tale.

The situation is this: while partaking of their after-dinner cigars,a group of men are engaged in a discussion of art . Specifically, they are interested in individuals who, in the course of their creative lives,  are able to produce only one great work. Into this lively conversation, H— interjects the following:

“‘I have known a poor fellow who painted his one masterpiece, and…he didn’t even paint that. He made his bid for fame and missed it.'”

In this way, his interlocutors and the reader are, at the same moment, drawn into this strange and poignant story.

It transpires that H— had been sojourning in Florence when he meets a fellow American, an expatriate who is devoted to the city’s great art and is himself an aspiring painter. The story is about this chance meeting, which develops into brief but intense a friendship.

Nothing much happens in the way of action in “The Madonna of the Future.” The story mostly consists of talk and description. But such talk, and such description! Here, the expatriate painter summons up the glory days of Florence:

“‘That was the prime of art, sir. The sun stood high in heaven, and his broad and equal blaze made the darkest places bright and the dullest eyes clear.  We live in the evening of time! We grope in the gray dusk, carrying each our poor little taper of selfish and painful wisdom, holding it up to the great models and to the dim idea, and seeing nothing but overwhelming greatness and dimness. The days of illumination are gone!'”

The story contains rapturous description of the treasures to be seen in “the city of masterpieces.”  Here the narrator speaks of Raphael’s Madonna of the Chair:

“Graceful, human, near to our sympathies as it is, it has nothing of manner, of method, nothing, almost, of style; it blooms there in rounded softness, as instinct with harmony as if it were an immediate exhalation of genius.The figure melts away the spectator’s mind into a sort of passionate tenderness which he knows not whether he has given to heavenly purity or to earthly charm. He is intoxicated with the fragrance of the tenderest blossom of maternity that ever bloomed on earth.

Madonna della Seggiola (Madonna of the Chair) - Raphael

Madonna della Seggiola (Madonna of the Chair) - Raphael

And there is this:

“We stood more than once in the little convent chambers where Fra Angelico wrought as if an angel indeed had held his hand, and gathered that sense of scattered dews and early bird-notes which makes an hour among his relics seem like a morning stroll in some monkish garden.

Nativity - Fra Angelico

Nativity - Fra Angelico

Annunciation - Fra Angelico

Annunciation - Fra Angelico

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Noli Me Tangere - Fra Angelico

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james-stories Finding ” The Madonna of the Future” was not easy. The full text is available online, but I wanted to read it in book form. Utlimately, I located it in the first of The Library of America’s five volume set of The Complete Stories of Henry James.

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Favorite nonfiction of 2008

January 7, 2009 at 6:34 pm (Best of 2008, books)

For this reader, the year 2008 – already gone past! – was filled with great nonfiction reading.

I’ll start with two titles in one of my favorite genres, historical true crime:

whicher The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher by Kate Summerscale concerns the  murder, in 1860, of three-year-old Saville Kent. This horrific crime was  discovered on what seemed like an ordinary morning at Road Hill House, home of the Kent family. The constabulary of the village of Road, in Wiltshire, was ill equipped to deal with this baffling situation. In rides Mr. Jonathan “Jack” Whicher of Scotland Yard. He forms a theory almost at once about this prototypical English country house murder. There’s just one problem: no one believes him. It seems that everyone, from the local police to reporters to fascinated onlookers, has his or her own idea of the who the real perpetrator is. They have all, in the words of Wilkie Collins, contracted “detective-fever.”

cigar The Beautiful Cigar Girl by Daniel Stashower. In 1838, eighteen-year-old Mary Rogers was hired by John Anderson to work behind the counter at his cigar store at 319 Broadway. With her widowed mother, Mary had come to New York from Connecticut several years earlier. By the time she was sixteen, her beauty had been noted by many. John Anderson’s bid to increase the custom at his store by hiring her was eminently successful. Perhaps, too much so. By the ago of 20, she was dead, the victim of a horrendous murder. In telling this story, Stashower brings 1840’s New York City to vivid, fascinating life. We encounter the notorious “Gangs of New York,” with scary names like the Plug Uglies, the Slaughter Houses, and the Dead Rabbits. We read about “The Great Moon Hoax,”  subject of a new book: sunmoon

Finally, there is the haunted -and  haunting – presence of Edgar Allan Poe. During the time period covered in this book, Poe was living variously in New York and Philadelphia. He was close enough to the scene of the crime to develop his own theory concerning what really happened to Mary Rogers, and why. He set forth his ideas in “The Mystery of  Marie Roget,” one of the three tales featuring his seminal sleuth C. Auguste Dupin. Although the setting was transposed to Paris and the victim’s name correspondingly changed, everyone knew what the story’s real subject was.

Daniel Stashower took part in my favorite panel at Bouchercon, “‘Tales of Mystery and Imagination’ – The Enduring Legacy of Edgar Allan Poe.” I knew after hearing him speak that I wanted to read this book.  That said, for me at least, it was rather slow going. Still – it’s a vibrant, rich stew of a volume, and I really do recommend it. (Next Monday the 12th, Daniel Stashower will be taking part in a commemoration of Poe’s birthday, courtesy of the Smithsonian Resident Associate Program. And on the 19th, the mysterious Poe Toaster will lay his tribute on the poet’s grave in Westminster Burying Ground in Baltimore.)

This past year, I also had great reading in memoir and biography:

zippy A Girl Named Zippy: Growing Up Small in Mooreland, Indiana, by Haven Kimmel. When she heard that I was co-presenting a program called “Blue Ribbon Biographies,” a friend of mine at the library recommended this alternately hilarious and poignant little book. I listened to it, as read by the author, but I also recommended getting the book; the snapshots of Zippy, her family, friends, and various animals should not be missed.

seymour-thrumpton-hall In Thrumpton Hall: A Memoir of Life in My Father’s House, by Miranda Seymour, the reader is taken behind the facade of a stately home to learn the true cost of maintaining that facade.

west Rick Bass came close to complete exhaustion in his effort to protect his beloved Yaak Valley, Montana. In Why I Came West, he delivers an honest and eloquent account of this emotionally draining struggle.

barnes Nothing To Be Frightened Of, by Julian Barnes is a combination memoir and meditation on death. A pull-no-punches tour de force that soars into the stratosphere of poetic longing. Also very funny – in some places.

newton Peter Ackroyd’s engaging biography of Newton is part of a series called Ackroyd’s Brief Lives. The prolific Ackroyd,  author of both fiction (The Fall of Troy) and nonfiction, is one of my favorite writers.

pearl The Pearl: A True Story of Forbidden Love in Catherine the Great’s Russia, by Douglas Smith.For me, reading Russian history is akin to entering some kind of hallucinating state or alternate universe. The Pearl is a slow read, but worth the effort – you’ll be rewarded with an intensely moving love  story.

lucia Lucia: A Venetian Life in the Age of Napoleon, by Andrea di Robilant. I learned lots of European history while reading this book, but the main attraction is Lucia herself. The author’s great-great-great-great grandmother, Lucia Mocenigo begins as a naive adolescent bride; in short order and out of necessity, she grows into a self-possessed, even formidable woman. This book is a sort of sequel to A Venetian Affair, which I also loved and which, like Lucia,  grew out of the discovery of a large cache of letters written by the dramatis personae. May Andrea di Robilant – who looks the part of the Italian aristocracy from which he is descendant (though rather more approachable) – never run out of ancestors with an epistolary bent!

Book Review Mrs Astor Regrets Mrs. Astor Regrets: The Hidden Betrayals of a Family Beyond Reproach, by Meryl Gordon. Well, of course, they were not beyond reproach, any more than most of us are. Still, their wealth and status  set them apart, and ultimately set them on a disastrous collision course with one another.

wild Into the Wild, by Jon Krakauer. My “blog stats” indicate an enormous continuing interest in the all-too-brief life of Chris McCandless. A reader recently wrote an exceptionally blunt, emotionally honest response to my post on this book. His words helped me to understand why the story of this young man’s unorthodox life and premature death means so much to so many readers (and viewers of the film).

bloomsbury American Bloomsbury: Louisa May Alcott, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Margaret Fuller, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Henry David Thoreau: Their Lives, Their Loves, Their Work, by Susan Cheever. I never tire of reading about this extraordinary group of people. I’ve been to Concord, Massachusetts three times in order to exploring their various homes and haunts. And the place does have a kind of haunted quality.

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Finally, there are some wild card, harder-to-categorize books that grabbed me this year, like:

food In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto, by Michael Pollan. I knew I wanted to read this because I had been so impressed – and hugely entertained – by The Omnivore’s Dilemma. In Defense of Food is a much shorter, tighter, book with a more specific focus, summed up rather succinctly by the author: “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.”  Once again, I came away with a greater understanding of what has happened to change so drastically the way we perform the basic human function of eating.

physics I also want to mention The Physics of the Impossible by Michio Kaku. I didn’t read this all the way through, and I haven’t looked at it in a while, but I want to acknowledge this author’s wonderful ability to make the arcana of physics accessible to nonscientists. Like Michael Pollan, Kaku is a natural raconteur with a great sense of humor.

bliss When I began listening to Eric Weiner’s The Geography of Bliss: One Grump’s Search for the Happiest Places in the World (read by the author), I was expecting a lighthearted travelogue interspersed with observations on human nature drawn primarily from pop psychology. What I got was something rather more ambitious, thoughtful, and provocative than I had expected. The book also manages to be laugh-out-loud funny, and Weiner never takes himself too seriously. I’ll have more to say about The Geography of Bliss in a subsequent post. (This book has been reviewed by two of my favorite librarians on the library’s blog, Highly Recommended.)

discovery The Discovery of France: A Historical Georgaphy from the Revolution to the First World War, by Graham Robb. This book, a sort of anthropology of post-Revolutionary France, had me flabbergasted. Farmers, men and women, walking around in their fields ON STILTS?  This is too weird. And that’s just one of the singularities uncovered by this amazing dogged and resourceful reporter. Strange customs, odd landforms, archaic traditions…all there, all observed and described with grace and perspicacity. How I long to make the journey into “La France Profonde” – with Graham Robb as my guide!

crime-reporting2

best-american-magazine There are two collections of short pieces that I’d like to recommend: The Best American Crime Reporting 2007 and The Best American Magazine Writing 2007. The latter volume in particular contained some amazingly powerful articles; far from detracting, their brevity actually enhanced their impact. (The 2008 editions of both these collections are already out, a fact which pleased and enticed me so greatly that I’ve already purchased both of them.)

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darkwater Finally,  there is  Dark Water: Flood and Redemption in the City of Masterpieces, by Robert Clark. Perhaps because of my recollections of visiting Florence before and after the flood of 1966, or because of my newly awakened interest in the art of Italy, or because of an intense, if diffuse, spiritual yearning – this book hit me like a revelation. The writing in Dark Water is gorgeous, the stories it contains are haunting. It is probably the single best book I read in 2008, and one of the best in any year.

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“‘I’ve had love and sorrow, seen sudden death / And been left alone and of love bereft'” – Mrs. Astor Regrets, by Meryl Gordon

January 5, 2009 at 1:35 pm (Book review, books)

Book Review Mrs Astor Regrets For years now, one of my chief guilty pleasures has been the perusal of the “Sunday Styles” section of the New New York Times – in particular, the Evening Hours Page, where we read about the doings of the rich and famous at  their various celebrations and fundraising events. The pictures are infuriatingly tiny and often not very clear . Nevertheless, I find this feature of the Times irresistible.

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Family Fetes – click to view

A regular reader of Evening Hours could not help noting that certain names and faces appear repeatedly. Up until just a few years ago, there was one person in particular who appeared at one gala or another almost every week. That person was Brooke Astor.

astor3 brooke2

brooke1

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Obit Astor amd_astor

In Mrs. Astor Regrets, Meryl Gordon recounts the crowded, eventful life of this doyenne of New York Society. She was born Roberta Brooke Russell in Portsmouth, New Hampshire in 1902. At the age of seventeen, she was pushed – one wants to say, shoved (by her social climbing mother) – into marriage with John Dryden Kuser, who proved to be an alcoholic and an adulterer. The union was in every way disastrous, save for the birth of her only child, Anthony. Ultimately, she divorced Kuser and married Charles Henry “Buddy” Marshall in 1932. Marshall was, by all accounts, the love of her life; she was devastated when he passed away in 1952. (Although Buddy Marshall never actually adopted him, Anthony changed his last name from Kuser to Marshall.)

The widowed Brooke soon found herself being courted by Vincent Astor, scion of one of America’s wealthiest, most famous families. (Vincent’s father was John Jacob Astor IV, who in 1911, after ending a difficult marriage to Vincent’s mother, took a teen-aged debutante as his bride. He spirited her off to Europe, and when planning their return journey the following year, he selected the most luxurious vessel he could find. Its name was The Titanic.)

Brooke and Vincent married in 1953.  For Brooke, this was not the love match that her previous union had been; still, despite Vincent Astor’s bouts of alcoholism, they were reasonably happy together. When Vincent died in 1959, Brooke Astor vowed never to marry again.

For most of the half century remaining to her, Brooke Astor had what to all appearances  was a wonderful life. She socialized, both publicly and in private, with the likes of Henry and Nancy Kissinger, David Rockefeller, Louis Auchincloss, Barbara Walters, and numerous others among the country’s rich and famous. She also worked hard to make sure the Astor Foundation’s money was directed to worthwhile causes. The Metropolitan Museum of Art and the New York Public Library in particular greatly benefited from her largess.

As she reached her nineties, Brooke Astor could still party with the best of them. (See “She Could Have Danced All Night”)

brooke5

Inevitably, though, age began to take its toll: she became less and less able to take care of herself and her affairs. And that’s when the trouble started – trouble involving herself, her staff, her son Anthony and his (third) wife Charlene,  her grandson Phillip, and a whole host of secondary players, not to mention innumerable attorneys. It’s a tangled tale, but Meryl Gordon does a first rate job of telling it with wit and clarity.

Meryl Gordon
Meryl Gordon

Mrs Astor Regrets put me in mind of characters right out of the works of Edith Wharton and Henry James. Butlers, chauffeurs, and maids are everywhere in abundance. Brooke Astor led an extremely privileged existence, yet I found her a surprisingly sympathetic character. She had genuine empathy for the less fortunate, and helped wherever she was able. She could be hurt by callousness, disloyalty, or betrayal, like anyone else, but she was not vindictive or spiteful. She knew the meaning of friendship and had many friends, like David Rockefeller and Annette de la Renta, who genuinely loved her. She wrote poetry and authored two memoirs; the lines quoted in the title of this post are from her poem “Discipline.”

This is a fascinating, eminently readable and surprisingly poignant book.

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Best Books of 2008 – Yes, there’s more!

January 4, 2009 at 2:21 pm (Best of 2008, books)

I like the Times Literary Supplement’s list, in which authors and other personalities of note name there favorites. Often their comments make me want to get the book in question at once – tricky at times, since some of the titles won’t have been published here yet. I’ve been known to order directly from Amazon.co.uk. Also, there’s a great British vendor, The Book  Depository, that will ship gratis to anywhere in the world.

This year, NPR has an interesting take on Best Books. Finally, January Magazine provides wonderful annotations for their sometimes quirky selections. Be sure to look at their crime fiction choices (presented in two parts – here’s the second).  There was a bit of dust-up on The Rap Sheet over this list because of the paucity of women authors on it.

I’m currently working on my own list of favorite nonfiction for this past year. Then, I promise…I’ll stop!

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The banking/finance/credit/housing and mortgage crisis – and those with the wit and skill to explain it (or at least, try to)

January 1, 2009 at 9:55 pm (books, Money and finance)

money

This will be a very brief post.

And yes, you are on Books to the Ceiling, where Your Faithful Blogger tries to stay within the lofty precincts of high culture – and not get down and dirty with the money men (and women – though there don’t seem to be quite as many of our sex being named in recent news coverage).

The Washington Post and The New York Times have recently run some excellent stories on various aspects of the implosion with which we are all now so lamentably familiar. I have read these and other dispatches from the financial front as diligently as possible. I’m getting a general understanding of what has gone so drastically wrong. But as with so many things, the devil, alas, is in the details. As soon as I encounter phrases like “credit default swap” and “collateralized  debt obligation,”  a dense metaphorical fog descends and envelopes my brain. I have reached, at that point, the limits of my understanding.

This is from “Printing Money and Its Price” by Peter S. Goodman,  an article that appeared in this past Sunday’s New York Times:

“For decades, businesses and consumers feasted relentlessly, as if gravity, arithmetic and the tyranny of debt had been defanged by financial engineering.

I may not understand most of the intricacies, but I’m grateful for those who do – especially those whose forceful prose is this good. “Defanged” is such a terrific word, right there, in the exact right place.

I’ve looked at two books on the subject of the current crisis. They’ve been well reviewed, and are doubtless well written and conscientiously researched – but both proved too daunting for me to tackle, at least at  the present time:

badmoney trillion

I have reserved three others that look similarly intriguing:

ascent payback

panic Here’s Daniel Gross, in a review of Panic in this past Sunday’s New York Times: “A single entry of the Irvine Housing Blog, which shows how a person in January 2005 bought a $1.157 million house with $270 down, refinanced with a funky teaser-rate mortgage and then proceeded to open up a $491,000 home equity line of credit by 2007, neatly encapsulates the lunacy.” Yes, I checked – all of the decimal points are  correctly placed!

Also appearing in the Sunday December 28 issue of the Times “Saying Yes to Anyone, WaMu Built an Empire on Shaky Loans,” by Peter S. Goodman and Gretchen Morgenson. “WaMu” is Washington Mutual, and you don’t need a degree in finance to be appalled by what was going on in recent years in that institution’s mortgage processing center:

“‘It was the Wild West,’ said Steven M. Knobel, a founder of an appraisal company, Mitchell, Maxwell & Jackson, that did business with WaMu until 2007. ‘If you were alive, they would give you a loan. Actually, I think if you were dead, they would still give you a loan.’

Finally, on this brisk New Year’s Day of 2009, this headline greeted me in the Post: “Wall Street’s Final ’08 Toll: $6.9 Trillion Wiped Out.”

Happy New Year – I think, I hope…

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