Boundless Gratitude!

November 27, 2009 at 12:48 am (books, Cats, Family, Local interest (Baltimore-Washington), Music)

There is nothing like another superb meal at Tersiguel’s – I had “La Dinde Traditionelle d’Amerique (traditional turkey dinner), in honor of Thanksgiving –  to remind me of just how lucky I am:

For my brother David and his wife Joan, out there in sunny San Diego (O please ship some of that sunshine East – we’re starved for it!);

For my brother Richard, and for Donna, the wonderful woman who now shares his life;

For “the jewels in my crown:” my son Ben and his lovely wife Erica, who are currently basking in the beauty of Utah’s red rock country  ;

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For Italy last May, and for England, always;

(The “Adventure” referred to, by the way, was mine! I went to Yorkshire in 2005 with The National Trust for Historic Preservation. This slide show was assembled from my photos by the ever-resourceful Ron; the music is Ralph Vaughan Williams’s luminous Lark Ascending.)

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For Miss Marple, singular sensation of the feline world! (and deeply beloved pet)  ;

For my dear friends from the library;

For my friends of many years’ standing, whose love and affection I’ve been able to hold on to for an astounding amount of time: Nancy – almost forty years! Charlotte and Helene – more than fifty!

For the books I love, both read and as yet unread – for this – a book that in itself is the quintessence of everything precious and priceless in the reading life.

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More than anything, for my  husband Ron, who gave me a second chance at happiness, and for the love of music that brought us together…

(If you go to the bottom right hand corner of the video and click on “YouTube,” you’ll go directly to that site, where further information on the performers can be found. And while you’re at it, click here for my favorite recent musical “find” on YouTube.)

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Finally, here’s a piece on Chef Michel Tersiguel:

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I thank God for these and many other blessings.

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One book – just one!

November 25, 2009 at 6:12 pm (Book clubs, Book review, books, Mystery fiction, The British police procedural)

The directive issued to the Usual Suspects for our December meeting: “you can talk about one book, and one book only.” Gulp!

I have to say, I understand where our (fearless!) leaders are coming from on this. After all, there are people like me, who get going and can’t stop. My favorite mystery of 2009? Oh, dear, I’ve read so many great ones; let me see…

Provision has been made, I’m happy to say, for the overly prolix among us: We can put a list together and give it out at the meeting. This provision at once got me beavering away on my list. This is where I am so far on that little project:

The Water’s Edge by Karin Fossum                                                                                                                 
Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson
The Fire Engine That Disappeared by Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo
*Judge Dee at Work by Robert van Gulik
*Skeleton Hill by Peter Lovesey
*A Caribbean Mystery by Agatha Christie                                                                                          
*Turning Point by Peter Turnbull
*Piper on the Mountain by Ellis Peters                                                          
*The Marx Sisters and All My Enemies by Barry Maitland
The Suspect by L.R. Wright
The Private Patient by P.D. James
*Hit Parade and Hit and Run by Lawrence Block
Bleeding Heart Square by Andrew Taylor
About Face by Donna Leon
The Accomplice by Elizabeth Ironside                                                                                    
Chat and The Catch by Archer Mayor
The Birthday Present by Barbara Vine
August Heat by Andrea Camilleri                                                                           
*The Skeleton in the Closet by M.C Beaton
Ash Wednesday by Ralph McInerny
Thunder Bay by William Kent Krueger
*The Demon of Dakar by Kjell Eriksson
Pix by Bill James

I’ll probably just stop here.

The titles and/or authors I’d really like to talk about are designated with an asterisk. I’ve linked (both above and below) to those I’ve already written about in this space.

My paperback of A Caribbean Mystery is bristling with post-it flags. I wanted to note in particular Christie’s astute observations of human nature, which are freely intermingled with some rather disconcerting comments on race. Disconcerting but not mean-spirited, I think. All the same, this is the kind of stumbling block one encounters at times when reading the classics of the Golden Age. With the fiction of  Dorothy Sayers, one is more likely to encounter comments denigrating Jews. Yes I know – both writers are simply reflecting the attitudes prevalent in the time and place in which they lived. Still, some remarks, casually tossed off, can cut, even now.

For this, and other reasons, I think A Caribbean Mystery would make for a very interesting book discussion.

I’ve written briefly about The Marx Sisters, the first of Barry Maitland’s Brock and Kolla novels. A few weeks ago I read the third book in the series, All My Enemies. I really like this author and am very glad to have found yet another series of British police procedurals in which I can happily immerse myself. In  All My Enemies, Maitland takes us into the world of Britain’s regional theatre companies. As you would guess, it’s a fascinating place to visit – although I don’t know if I’d want to stay there for a prolonged period, what with professional jealousies and personal crises taking a constant and relentless toll on company members.

At any rate, I learned interesting bits of theatre lore – the process of “corpsing,” for instance: “‘Corpsing is where you do something to try to try to throw somebody else out of their character, like make them laugh in the middle of a death scene.'”

I enjoy Maitland’s polished prose and frequently memorable turns of phrase. Here is Kathy Kolla tracing a murder victim’s route to and from work:

“The suppressed violence of commuting struck her, of squeezing into a metal tube in one part of the city, of being crushed against sweaty strangers for a while and then abruptly ejected into a charging mob in another part.

As you may have already concluded, these novels are  very much in and of London, with the different neighborhoods (which after all began their existence as distinct villages) coming vividly to life.

As for the two titles by Lawrence Block, they make up part of a new series featuring Keller, a paid assassin. O horrible! you may shudder in revulsion. Don’t. They’re incredibly engrossing, and in the case of Hit Parade, very funny while being totally subversive. The tone is more somber in Hit and Run – so much so that I wasn’t sure I was going to like it. But I loved it. Keller gets himself into a predicament that caught me completely off guard. I can’t imagine how it can possibly be resolved. I’m dying to read the next book! And when I finished Hit and Run, I wanted desperately to talk to someone about it. So discussible? You bet! (BTW – Block’s reading of Hit Parade was highly enjoyable; Hit and Run, read by Richard Poe, equally so.)

Click here and scroll down to the bottom for two videos featuring Lawrence Block. In the first, he reads from Hit Parade; in the second, he explains how Keller came to be a series  character.

Ellis Peters is justly held in high esteem for her incomparable Brother Cadfael series. I have recently been listening to her other series featuring Inspector Felse. The books are narrated wonderfully by Simon Prebble, and they have been a revelation to me: fascinating, engrossing, and of course,  beautifully written. In The Piper on the Mountain, Peters gives full play to her longstanding affection for the land and people of  Czechoslovakia, as the country was called at the time of her writing (1966). Setting and atmosphere are a big plus in this novel, as is the presence of the Inspector’s son Dominic, an Oxford student. Dominic is such a lovable young man – a winning combination of resourcefulness, courage, and vulnerability – especially where comely young women are concerned.

I love it when a book introduces me to something entirely exotic and new. This novel introduced to the fujara, a large wind instrument native to Slovakia.  This is the instrument upon which the eponymous piper is playing.(Click here to hear it.) Not counting the Greek vases of beloved recent memory, the fujara is the niftiest new object to come into my life since the Towie Ball!

I’d like to mention The Demon of Dakar because I feel that Kjell Eriksson is not as well-known as his Scandinavian contemporaries – and he should be. Demon of Dakar moved me profoundly.

I cannot conclude this post without mentioning the handout given out at our November meeting. Primarily composed by Pauline, the resident scholar of the Usual Suspects, in anticipation of our end-of-year meeting and evaluation, it consists of a spreadsheet showing who presented what title and when, an analysis off the mystery subgenres in which we’ve been reading, a grid designed by Barbara that addresses issues such as gender of the author, gender of the protagonist, time period and/or setting, etc.

Finally, questions are posed such as:

Are there common threads to be discerned in this past year’s reading selections?

What kinds of books do we want to read in the coming year?

Did a book that you personally didn’t like still make for an interesting discussion? Did the discussion cause you to change your opinion of the book?

Have we neglected any areas or genres this year? Are we sufficiently diverse with regard to setting, nationality of author, time period, any other relevant categories?

There’s more, but those convey the refreshing erudition and  creativity of the enterprise. Professor Pauline and Professor Barbara: Well done,  both of you!

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Greek vases

November 22, 2009 at 2:58 am (Art, History, Poetry)

In a post on my recent sojourn to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, I mentioned being stunned by  the Greek vases in the Greek and Roman Art galleries. Since this past May, when I journeyed to Naples, a city first colonized by the Greeks in the 700’s BC, I’ve become newly fascinated by the literature of the classical period. Now I was face to face with the art produced, in some cases, in the same period. I had not anticipated the effect these works would have on me.

My first thought – when I was able to think again – was of Keats’s “Ode on a Grecian Urn”: specifically, the words, ‘O attic shape, fair attitude.’

Here is the entire poem:

Thou still unravish’d bride of quietness,
Thou foster-child of silence and slow time,
Sylvan historian, who canst thou express
A flowery tale more sweetly than our rhyme:
What leaf-fring’d legend haunt about thy shape
Of deities or mortals, or of both,
In Tempe or the dales of Arcady?
What men or gods are these?  What maidens loth?
What mad pursuit?  What struggle to escape?
What pipes and timbrels?  What wild ecstasy?

Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard
Are sweeter: therefore, ye soft pipes, play on;
Not to the sensual ear, but, more endear’d,
Pipe to the spirit ditties of no tone:
Fair youth, beneath the trees, thou canst not leave
Thy song, nor ever can those trees be bare;
Bold lover, never, never canst thou kiss,
Though winning near the goal – yet, do not grieve;
She cannot fade, though thou hast not thy bliss,
For ever wilt thou love, and she be fair!

Ah, happy, happy boughs! that cannot shed
Your leaves, nor ever bid the spring adieu;
And, happy melodist, unwearied,
For ever piping songs for ever new;
More happy love! more happy, happy love!
For ever warm and still to be enjoy’d,
For ever panting, and for ever young;
All breathing human passion far above,
That leaves a heart high-sorrowful and cloy’d,
A burning forehead, and a parching tongue.

Who are these coming to the sacrifice?
To what green altar, O mysterious priest,
Lead’st thou that heifer lowing at the skies,
And all her silken flanks with garlands drest?
What little town by river or sea shore,
Or mountain-built with peaceful citadel,
Is emptied of this folk, this pious morn?
And, little town, thy streets for evermore
Will silent be; and not a soul to tell
Why thou art desolate, can e’er return.

O Attic shape!  Fair attitude! with brede
Of marble men and maidens overwrought,
With forest branches and the trodden weed;
Thou, silent form, dost tease us out of thought
As doth eternity: Cold Pastoral!
When old age shall this generation waste,
Thou shalt remain, in midst of other woe
Than ours, a friend to man, to whom thou say’st,
“Beauty is truth, truth beauty,” – that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.

These astonishing works of art, which in earlier visits to the Met I have always sailed right past, cheerfully distracted and oblivious, now seem to me the most miraculous of objects, and for just the reasons that Keats cites in his poem: their timelessness, their freezing of a moment in time, their promise of eternal youth, of an eternity of bucolic joy in a setting devoid of any hint of ugliness.

I have just purchased this book: and have ordered this glorious tome from the Met: . I shall enjoy learning more about these Attic shapes…

The section of the Met’s collection database that deals with these works is entitled: “Athenian Vase Painting: Black- and Red-Figure Techniques.”

When I told my New York friend Helene about my new-found fascination with Greek vases, she, who has tutored me in love of the arts almost my entire life, smiled and said, “Keats knew something, huh?” Oh yes, he did – with his tenuous hold on life, Keats knew.

John Keats 1795 - 1821

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A (mostly) joyous romp: Much Ado About Nothing at the Folger

November 18, 2009 at 11:41 pm (Local interest (Baltimore-Washington), Shakespeare)

We’re in the Trinidad neighborhood of Washington DC. Residents are making preparations for the Caribbean Carnival, a yearly festival. Against this backdrop, the fate of two couples – Hero and Claudio, and the ever-warring Beatrice and Benedick – plays out. There’s a whole host of secondary characters on hand to liven up the action.

In the program notes, director Timothy Douglas states that he wanted the female perspective in Much Ado About Nothing to be given its proper weight. In addition, he was looking for an effective way to tie the production to the Washington DC of the present era:

“While I give the men of this cast their due props, I believe even they would acknowledge that the talents of  their women in this production inspire much of the ado, which honors Shakespeare, the dance of love, the Caribbean community, and the urban diversity that makes up metropolitan DC.

As is to be expected with Shakespeare, tragedy – or at least, the potential for tragedy – is woven into what is essentially a comic scenario. Outraged by word of Heros’ infidelity, Claudio repudiates her on their wedding day. Inevitably, Claudio is made to pay for his rash rejection of a good and blameless woman: information is given out to the effect that Hero has died, her heart broken by the cruelty of her erstwhile beloved. This intelligence happily proves false, but not before Claudio has  been suitably chastened.

(Here is yet another frequently utilized trope of Shakespeare’s. I was reminded of  The Winter’s Tale, in which the supposedly deceased Hermione, initially appearing  as a life-size statue, is reanimated and steps back into the land of the living.)

This is the darkest moment in what is essentially a sunny play. The sparring of Beatrice and Benedick is never anything we’re expected to take too seriously; we know how it will end. (This is one of my favorite fictional set-ups: two people fight and fight and then they give in to the inevitable and get radiantly married. One of my favorite examples of this paradigm can be found in Crocodile on a Sandbank, the delightful first entry in Elizabeth Peters’s Amelia Peabody series.)

I was reminded of the need, in contemporary Shakespearian productions, for the actors to signify with inflection and gesture the obscure meaning of some of the play’s lines. Most of the time, though, at least where this play is concerned, this was not necessary. Here, for instance, is an exchange that elicited knowing laughter from the audience:

Don Pedro: I think this is your daughter.

Leonato: Her mother hath many times told me so.

I particularly enjoyed Doug Brown in the role of Leonato. The acting in general was up to the Folger’s usual high standards. I also want to single out Alex Perez as Dogberry. He had us in stitches! I’d forgotten what a treat it is to see a natural comedian give full scope to his gifts.

Rachel Leslie as Beatrice and Doug Brown as Leonato

Alex Perez

I remember studying Much Ado About Nothing decades ago at Goucher College. It was on the syllabus of a course in Shakespeare’s comedies, and our professor was the wonderful Brooke Pierce. I distinctly recall his pointing out to us the frequency with which characters spoke of “noting” the statements and actions of others. The play’s title, he observed, could almost have been “Much Ado About Noting.”

The production concludes with an exuberant wedding scene, at the end of which the performers danced down the center aisle and out into the lobby.

And that was it! I half expected to catch sight of them there as we were exiting the theater, but they were nowhere to be seen…

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Much Ado About Nothing is running until November 29. My suggestion: Hie thee to the Folger and see it!

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‘All men are, at times, influenced by inexplicable sentiments’ – “Somnambulism: a fragment,” by Charles Brockden Brown

November 17, 2009 at 2:38 am (books, Short stories)

Here is the passage in its entirety:

“All men are, at times, influenced by inexplicable sentiments. Ideas haunt them in spite of all their efforts to discard them. Prepossessions are entertained, for which their reason is unable to discover any adequate  cause. The strength of a belief when it is destitute of any rational foundation, seems, of itself, to furnish a new ground for credulity. We first admit a powerful persuasion, and then, from reflecting on the insufficiency of the ground on which it is built, instead of being prompted to dismiss it, we become more forcibly attached to it.

A man called Althorpe tries to warn a certain Mr. Davis and his daughter against embarking on a nighttime journey. He is sure  they will come to some harm. The more frantically he entreats them the more determined they become to execute their proposed plan.

Althorpe is especially agonized over the possibility – in his eyes, the probability – of harm coming to Miss Davis. She is beautiful; she is loved by him – and she is betrothed to another. In his desperation, he offers to accompany them on their sojourn. His offer is politely but firmly declined. And so they set off, father and daughter, along with a carriage driver also acting as a guide.

Meanwhile Althorpe is at war with himself. He knows his fears are irrational, yet he is powerless to quiet them: “How ignominious to be thus the slave of a fortuitous and inexplicable impulse! To be the victim of terrors more chimerical than those which haunt the dreams of idiots and children!”

On reading those lines, I was immediately put in mind of this one:  “TRUE! –nervous –very, very dreadfully nervous I had been and am; but why will you say that I am mad?” It is the opening sentence of Poe’s “Tell Tale Heart.” The content is not exactly the same, but it’s close enough. Even more remarkable is the similarity of tone – the urgency, the near panic, the fear of encroaching insanity.

So, who is Charles Brockden Brown? Here’s the first paragraph of the  Wikipedia entry:

“Charles Brockden Brown (January 17, 1771 – February 22, 1810), an American novelist, historian, and editor of the Early National period, is generally regarded by scholars as the most ambitious and accomplished US novelist before James Fenimore Cooper. He is the most frequently studied and republished practitioner of the “early American novel,” or the US novel between 1789 and roughly 1820. Although Brown was by no means the first American novelist, as some early criticism claimed, the breadth and complexity of his achievement as a writer in multiple genres (novels, short stories, essays and periodical writings of every sort, poetry, historiography, reviews) makes him a crucial figure in US literature and culture of the 1790s and 1800s, and a significant public intellectual in the wider Atlantic print culture and public sphere of the era of the French Revolution.

To which one can only append the question: Who knew?

And here’s another question: Why am I reading this story in the first place? The answer is that it is the first selection in a splendid new two-volume anthology called American Fantastic Tales, from Library of America:

I vaguely remember Charles Brockden Brown from my undergraduate English major days. But his is not a name that I have often encountered since then. “Somnambulism”  makes extremely compelling reading, not least because of the remarkable way in which it prefigures the stories of Edgar Allan Poe. (Brown died one year prior to Poe’s birth.)

That there exists a Charles Brockden Brown Society gives me hope for civilization. (The site is hosted by the University of Central Florida.)

Charles Brockden Brown

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Several interesting articles about the current state of books and reading

November 16, 2009 at 3:28 am (books, Magazines and newspapers)

In “The Vestigial Tale, “ Joel Achenbach explores the way in which the new technologies pose a danger to our powers of concentration.

In “Good Books Don’t Have To Be Hard,” Lev Grossman talks about our love of – and need for – a good story:

“The novel is getting entertaining again. Writers like Michael Chabon, Jonathan Lethem, Donna Tartt, Kelly Link, Audrey Niffenegger, Richard Price, Kate Atkinson, Neil Gaiman, and Susanna Clarke, to name just a few, are busily grafting the sophisticated, intensely aware literary language of Modernism onto the sturdy narrative roots of genre fiction: fantasy, science fiction, detective fiction, romance.

What can one say, except – Hurray!

Finally, here’s Hilary Mantel on historical fiction. It’s a subject about which she’s knowledgeable, having recently won the Man Booker Prize for Wolf Hall, her sprawling novel of the Tudor era. wolf-hall

Her piece in The Guardian opens thus: “Hans Holbein appeared to me in a dream, instantly recognisable because of the unflattering hat, like a flat shower cap, that he wears in his self-portrait.”

I’ve just started Wolf Hall, and I am already pumped. Methinks this novel is going to be one wild, terrific ride!

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Quotidian moment, frozen in time: Vermeer’s Milkmaid

November 13, 2009 at 3:30 am (Art, New York City)

vermeer_milkmaid

It was the light. I was completely unprepared for it.

The painting seemed to be emitting light.

The colors, especially the blues, are rich and deep. The milkmaid concentrates on her task; she is probably making bread porridge. The prosaic task of pouring the milk is frozen in time forever. The bread looks good enough to eat!

But I kept coming back to the light, which seemed both ordinary and unearthly. The scene depicted in “The Milkmaid” is not ostensibly a religious one; nevertheless, the painting confers a kind of benediction on the viewer. I felt exalted in its presence (as did those on either side of me, judging by the rapt expression on their faces).

Currently mounted at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, “Vermeer’s Masterpiece the Milkmaid” is a small exhibit. (In “Dutch Touch,” his article in the New Yorker, Peter Schjeldahl pronounced it “an example for recession-era museum practice.”) Also on view are the Met’s other Vermeers – they own five in all – plus other works by Dutch Genre painters.

What a gift these artists gave us, showing us people going about the business of life at  the height of The Netherlands’ Golden Age. Centuries before the advent of photography, they have captured these quotidian moments for us to see all these many years on.

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Art critic Peter Schjeldahl’s piece in the September 21 issue of The New Yorker- unfortunately the full text is not available online – is an odd mixture of masterful writing and puzzling assertions. First, he comments that Vermeer’s “View of Delft “doesn’t do a lot for me….It’s so bizarrely special – a fairyland city persuasively identical to an actual city….”

Delft

“View of Delft” – a painting I personally cherish – is not present at this exhibit, but “Young Woman with a Water Pitcher” is:

pitcherThis is clearly a painting that Peter Schjeldahl adores. Here he is, waxing rhapsodic – not to mention quixotic – on the subject: “…a little patch of llapis-lazuli-tinted white, describing backlit linen in the head scarf of the Met’s “Young Woman with a Water Pitcher,” would have killed me a long time ago, if paint could.”

This rather disconcerting statement is followed by further (idiosyncratic and hyperbolic) expressions of rapture:

“The entering sunlight sustains all manner of ravishing adventures, throught the picture, but the incidental detail of the head scarf has affected me like a life-changing secret, whispered to me alone. I revel in it each time I see it–having misremembered it, of course, since the last time, helpless to retain the nuance of the color and the velleity of the painter’s touch. ‘Young Woman with a Water Pitcher’ is a Sermon on the Mount of aesthetiic value, in which the meek–or, at least, the humdrum, involving trifles of a prosperous but ordinary household, on an ordinary day–inherit the earth. Beholding it, I feel that my usual ways of looking are torpid to the point of dishonoring the world. At the same time, I know that my emotion is manipulated by deliberate artifice. An artist has contrived to lure me out of myself into aan illusion of reality more fulfilling than any lived reality can be.

Is it just me, or is there a bit too much of  “I” in this piece? Art criticism or psychotherapy? And as for being “manipulated by deliberate artifice” – why, Dude, it’s a painting! It is by definition a work of art – and of artifice, one that is superbly executed. (We agree there.)

As to “The Milkmaid,” Schjeldahl is awed but at the same time ambivalent: “Like ‘Delft,’ ‘The Milkmaid’ exercises more dazzling virtuosity than I quite know what to do with.” What – it’s too good? too close to perfect? Or perhaps a case of too much showy genius in the service of a prosaic subject? I confess, I am well and truly stumped by this statement.

Ah, well – moving right along…

The Met now has a wonderfully rich site that functions as a sort of online art college. Click here to see what is on offer regarding “Vermeer’s Masterpiece: The Milkmaid.”

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When I arrived at the museum last Friday, my intention was to proceed directly to this exhibit. In order to do so, you must pass through the Greek and Roman galleries. This I proceeded to do. But before I reached the Vermeers, I was stoppped dead in my tracks by these:

Greek vase3

Greekvase2

Greek-vase1

“Thou still unravish’d bride of quietness,
Thou foster-child of Silence and slow Time…

Stay tuned for the further adventures of a passionate art lover, who is thunderstruck for the first time by the “Grecian Urns,” objects she first saw at the age of eight…

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The Water’s Edge, by Karin Fossum (Mysteries go global, part four)

November 11, 2009 at 9:41 pm (Book review, books, Mystery fiction)

edge In this novel, Karin Fossum has dared to portray not one but two child molesters as less than monstrous human beings.

In one scene, Inspector Konrad Sejer and his second in command, Jacob Skarre, interview Philip Akeson, a convicted sex offender. They are hoping he can assist them with  a case they are currently working on: “They remembered him as mild and agreeable, open and generous by nature, and they decided to pay him a visit.” At one point in the conversation, Skarre finds himself almost smiling: “…it was impossible not to be charmed by this short, gentle man.”

You may find this description disconcerting; I know I did – at least, initially. But this rather indulgent depiction of a pedophile is more than counterbalanced by revulsion and anger at the crimes themselves. In The Water’s Edge, the particular crime in question is the abduction, abuse, and murder of a little boy named Jonas August Lowe. Jonas and his mother were a family of two. Elfrid Lowe didn’t have much, but she had her son. Had him, that is, until this awful thing happpened.

Philip Akeson had nothing to do with the murder of Jonas. Fossum takes us deep into the mind of the actual perpetrator. It is an intensely uncomfortable place, where guilt, self-pity, bewilderment, and fear are freely mixed. And suffering too, although not enough – never enough –  to expiate his terrible crime.

Jacob Skarre and Konrad Sejer struggle to comprehend this mindset. For them, it is not enough to apprehend the wrongdoer. They feel a need to understand what triggers this evil impulse. Even more important to their investigation, they need to know how this corrupt individual is behaving in the aftermath of the crime. Here, Sejer speculates:

“‘No matter who he is…whether he’s got a record or not, he’s gone underground. He’s afraid to answer the telephone. He might wear different clothes, he might start to shop at a different supermarket. Whatever strength he’s got left, he’s using to build a defence for himself. He feels that the world is against him and he is most likely resentful.’

Sejer is on the right track, but it’s early days, and these observations are not, at this point, especially helpful. Sejer and Skarre must continue with their slow, agonizing search. At one point, Skarre bursts out: “‘How do people develop such a predilection?…I don’t understand it, it  goes against nature.” The search for an answer to that question becomes as excruciating – and as urgent –  as the search for the killer himself.

The other perplexing question concerns the victim: Why would an intelligent child, one repeatedly cautioned about the dangers of the outside world, accede to a stranger’s importuning?

“His mother’s warnings had been brushed aside, barely noticeable, like the trace of a feather across a cheek and Jonas had discarded his [walking] stick and got into a stranger’s car. People are unpredictable creatures, they invent rules which they break incessantly and they follow impulses which they later cannot explain.

Except, of course, that for Jonas August, there was no later.

There’s a certain determinism at work here. This sense of a sad inevitability is reinforced when another child is reported missing. Edwin Asalid is a sweet-natured boy whose life is blighted by compulsive eating. His mother Tulla is loving but distracted. While she hungers for her current lover, Edwin hungers for ice cream and any other treat he can get his hands on – the more, the  better. He is large, even obese. And he has utterly dropped out of sight.

Or has he?

I’m not sure that I have managed to convey the extraordinarily compelling nature of this narrative. Fossum’s series benefits greatly from its setting in a Norway that is both bleak and beautiful. In addition, she has created two of the more admirable policemen in contemporary crime fiction.

“Inspector Sejer was always correct, reserved, and polite. His formality might at times be mistaken for arrogance, unless you knew him well. Hardly anyone knew him well.

Jacob Skarre knows Sejer well. Skarre himself is a more direct, open personality. In one scene, he sits silently and listens to Elfrid Lowe as she talks about her murdered son. At this juncture, the case has been solved; the killer, apprehended. Nothing further in the way of information is needed from this bereaved mother. Nevertheless, she urgently needs to talk. And Jacob Skarre lets her, makes the time, gives her his full attention.

Elfrid Lowe concludes her sad litany thus:

“‘I’m not scared of dying. Jonas has done it, so I can do it too. I don’t know much about eternity, but perhaps it’s all right. I talk and talk and you listen with reverence. Perhaps you think I’ll be  fine eventually because I can put words to my feelings. But the reality is that silence terrifies me.’

Later, she takes the opportunity to thank Konrad Sejer for his work on her behalf and his kindness to her. His response is a model of grace: “Please forgive me for putting it this way, but it has been a privilege to know both you and Jonas August. I wouldn’t have missed it for anything.”

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In his Rough Guide to Crime Fiction (2007), Barry Forshaw states the following: ” There is no room for debate: the most important female writer of foreign crime fiction at work today is the Norwegian Karin Fossum.”  I personally feel that  the word ‘female’ could be removed from that line without greatly altering its essential truth.

Fossum-nettet

Karin Fossum

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As I was  writing this, I found myself thinking of a musical selection entitled “The Last Spring,” by the great Norwegian composer Edvard Grieg:

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Mysteries Go Global, Part Three: Death in Rio de Janeiro: Alone in the Crowd by Luiz Alfredo Garcia-Roza

November 4, 2009 at 12:44 pm (Book review, books, Mystery fiction)

crowd The novel begins with the murder of an elderly woman. Dona Laureta possessed knowledge so incriminating that someone was driven to kill her before she revealed certain facts to the police. Who was that frightened individual, and what did those facts consist of? This is what Inspector Espinosa and his team of investigators must find out.

Almost at the outset, Hugo Breno, a bank teller, becomes a suspect. Breno is a strange, solitary man, one who also happens to be connected personally to Espinosa: when children, they had played sports together in the  streets of their Rio neighborhood. Adulthood had taken them on widely divergent paths. Breno has remained acutely aware of Espinosa, while initially, the latter can barely remember his long-ago playmate.

One of the most intriguing aspects of Breno’s personality is that he constantly seeks out large crowds of people, preferably when they are on the move. By placing himself in such a setting, he is able to assuage a constant, low level anxiety. He has no use for the beauty of nature, craving instead the anonymous press of a mass of human bodies, moving like a single organism:

“He didn’t have any interest in seeing the ocean or appreciating the sunset. For him, the oft-praised beauty of Copacabana Beach would do nothing to put him in a  better mood. Nature proved useless when dealing with human problems and feelings….Man does not resemble nature. among the crowd, the human individual can either lose himself in the homogeneous mass or maintain his individuality. The feeling of belonging to something yet still keeping one’s difference is one of the supreme experiences of man among the crowd. In nature, whether the surroundings are  beautiful or ugly, pleasant or unpleasant, man will always be different. Always a figure, never in the background….That’s why nature didn’t interest Hugo. When dealing with human matters, human sentiments and fears, nature was irrelevant.

You would probably agree that at  the very least, we’re dealing here with unusual thought processes. Plausible, but unusual. The character of Hugo Breno immediately put me in mind of Edgar Allan Poe’s  “The Man of the Crowd.” Later in the book, Espinosa specifically references that haunting story.

Espinosa himself is a man of idiosyncracies In a previous post, I quoted a passage describing his method of ordering the enormous number of books he keeps in his modest apartment. I found this aspect of his personality rather endearing. As revealed in this novel, though, some of the inspector’s other traits are distinctly less appealing, especially where the conduct of his love life is concerned (about which I will say no more at present).

I liked this book, but not quite as much as Southwesterly Wind and Blackout, which remain my favorites in this series. wind blackout

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Luiz Alfredo Garcia-Roza is the only South American author on the “Go Global” book list that I created for my presentation. Curious to know which other writers of crime fiction hail from that continent, I consulted Wheredunnit and came up with a rather small list. I note with interest that the library has In Praise of Lies by Patricia Melo; also, I remembered reading Who Killed Palomino Molero? when it came out in 1987.  praiseoflies_1 palomino scriptwriter

Mario Vargas Llosa is a distinguished novelist; his Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter was one of the first new titles I read when I came to work at the library in 1982. I recall it as being inventive in the extreme and very entertaining to boot.

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Luiz Alfredo Garcia-Roza

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Mario Vargas Llosa

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Puccini’s Tosca

November 2, 2009 at 1:59 pm (Film and television, Music, opera, Performing arts)

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This is it, right? Replete with drama, melodrama, and utterly gorgeous music, Tosca is a can’t miss night at the opera, is it not?

That was certainly my assumption when I got a group of friends and fellow AAUW members together to see, in a nearby movie theatre, the HD broadcast of the Metropolitan Opera’s new production of this perennially popular work. No sooner were the tickets bought and paid for than the stories starting coming of a rather unusual opening night at the Met: a performance of Tosca had elicited boos from the audience!

“When was there last an opening night quite like this at the staid old Metropolitan Opera?” chortled Mike Silverman in the Huffington Post. What happened? The problem lay in the new production, one of eight being mounted at  the Met this season. Luc Bondy has made major changes in the staging and the sets, and they did not find favor with the opening night audience.

First – here’s a summary of the opera, in Alex Ross’s words:

“Revolutionary sentiment seethes in royalist Rome; a famed diva, in love with a rebel artist, confronts a Te Deum-singing, sexually slobbering chief of police; the villain is stabbed with a dinner knife, the lover falls to a firing squad, the diva leaps to her death while screaming about God. Each act unfolds in real time, in precisely mapped locales, with no major improbabilities impeding the flow of events. The music is both refined and brutal, late-Romantic opulence pinned to raw action.

(I couldn’t have said it better myself. Actually, no one can say anything about music quite the way Alex Ross does. Click here to read the complete article; and here for “The Storm of Style,” Ross’s stunning piece on Mozart.)

In brief, here are my observations: the set for Act One, which supposedly takes place in an opulent church, was ugly; the lighting was so dim that you could  barely make out what was occurring on stage. (This has to have been even more frustrating for those watching it live in the opera house. We filmgoers had the  major advantage of close-up photography of the singers.) The set for the second act was equally ugly, but thank goodness the lights had been turned up so we could see what was going on. That marvelous, hyperdramatic gesture of Tosca’s in which she places lighted candelabra on either side of the body of the murdered Scarpia and a crucifix on his  chest (see the above poster) was eliminated and replaced with nothing.

Act Three reverted to murky lighting, but for this melancholy finale, this seemed right. The glaring alteration here was at the very end, when a defiant Tosca hurls herself off the parapet. Usually at this moment, the soprano disappears behind the scenery.In the new production, however, you see the leap, which is stopped in mid-action. Bondy was apparently looking to create a freeze-frame effect that would awe the audience. Instead of being amazed, however, said audience was further annoyed by what was perceived as yet another senseless violation of the sacred canon.

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Karita Mattila as Floria Tosca

Alex Ross did not care for Karitta Mattila as Floria Tosca, and I must reluctantly agree with him. This renowned Finnish diva has a powerhouse vocal instrument – perhaps, too much so for this role. Her “Visi d’Arte” did not thrill me as I’d hoped it would.

For me at least, the ghost of the fiery Maria Callas hovers over every soprano who assays this role:

Yes, her voice wobbles slightly on the high notes – no matter. I just finished listening to it yet again; for me, its power is  never diminished.

Alex Ross was rather dismissive of Marcelo Alvarez as Cavaradossi, and there I have to disagree with him. I did not know this singer before attending this performance; now I feel as though I’d follow him anywhere! In her piece in the Wall Street Journal, Heidi Waleson observes wryly that Alvarez understood that his primary task was to “nail those arias” – meaning “Recondita Armonia” in Act One  and “E Lucevan le Stelle” in Act Three. And did he nail them? For this opera goer, he certainly did:

“E Lucevan le Stelle” is such an elemental cri de coeur, and to hear it sung like that, so imbued with Cavaradossi’s anguish…Let’s just say that days later, it is still resonating. And as for Marcelo Alvarez:  it’s no mean feat to steal Tosca from Tosca – but IMHO, this Argentinian with his glorious tenor voice did just that. (Alvarez came to the singing of opera late and by a circuitous route. It’s an interesting story.)

During the two intermissions, Susan Graham (herself a singer of note) conducted interviews with several of the evening’s luminaries. Or at any rate, she attempted to interview them. Both Marcelo Alvarez and Karita Mattila spoke English reasonably well and came across as attractive individuals. Mattila was bubbling over with excitement; at one point, she broke into a stream of Finnish,for the benefit of the fans back home. This is a language that we virtually never hear in this part of the world, so her patter was charming but utterly incomprehensible. When she had finished, there was a moment of complete silence. Then this from the gallant Susan Graham: “I couldn’t have said it better myself!”

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George Gagnidze

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Luc Bondy

The interviews with baritone George Gagnidze and Luc Bondy went less well, primarily because both men had almost no English at their command. Gagnidze, a last-minute replacement for an ailing  Juha Uusitalo, hails from the Republic of Georgia. I though he made a suitably villainous Scarpia and sang the role with conviction. He gamely tried to answer Graham’s queries, but for the most part could only shrug amiably. I was more surprised by Luc Bondy’s almost complete lack of facility with the English language.

So, what you had here was a Finnish soprano, an Argentinian tenor, a Georgian baritone, and a French-speaking Swiss producer, all with varying degrees of fluency in English. And let us not forget the conductor Joseph Colaneri, who hails from the  Great State of New Jersey (the birthplace of Yours Truly, as you may have guessed.) How did these folks communicate, one wonders, and was that part of the problem…

The performance that we saw Wednesday evening was not the one which took place on opening night, September 21; it was, instead, “captured” on October 10. We neither saw nor heard any booing or catcalls. Was the encore film cleansed of these negative elements? Possibly.

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Joseph Colaneri

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James Levine

Also, as I mentioned above, our conductor was Joseph Colaneri rather than James Levine, who conducted on opening night. And here a word must be said about the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra: under Levine’s leadership, it has become one of the world’s great orchestras. Their playing was absolutely glorious.

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Peter Gelb

Finally, a word about Peter Gelb and the changes he has wrought. Since taking the helm at this venerable institution three years ago, Gelb has seen it as his mission to drag the Metropolitan Opera kicking and screaming into the twenty-first century. As he pursues this goal, there are  bound to be some missteps and unpopular decisions.(Read “It’s a new Met. Get over it” from the September 22 New York Times.) I think most people would agree, though, that the HD movie theater broadcasts are a great innovation. These performances can now be seen at venues all over this country and worldwide as well. I had fun playing with this list of countries – you can see Tosca in Riga, Latvia! Carmen in Costa Rica and Croatia! Peter Grimes in Peru – and at three different locations in Poland! Want to know how to get tickets in Lithuania? See below:

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Here once more are  the words of the journalist whose task it was to review a production of Turandot in Covent Garden in 1927, three years after the death of its composer,  Giacomo Puccini:

“Covent Garden was haunted last night. It was haunted by the gentle and immaculate ghost of Puccini…who died with the final bars of Turandot still imprisoned within his brain, who disappeared to solve an enigma more terrible and profound than any created by the Princess Turandot. We like to think that Puccini revisited the glimpses of the moon last night to observe the opera’s performance in England, where his works are so universally cherished, to watch his tricksy spirits at their revels. We imagined him pleased with the magnificent production and the sensation it created.

“Universally cherished” – not just in England, but all over the world.

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Giacomo Puccini: 1858-1924

I love Tosca‘s opening musical salvo: five notes signal the advent of grandeur, passion, and tragedy. (Click here; scroll down to Act One and click on the word “play” across from Track One – “Ah! Finalmente!”)

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