‘Would I want to enclose myself in all that fabric for the rest of my life…’ – Unfinished Desires, by Gail Godwin

February 27, 2010 at 2:28 pm (Book review, books)

When I first came to work at the library in 1982 and  was still getting the hang, as it were, of contemporary fiction, my then- new colleagues urged me to read this:  Now, almost thirty years on, many of us still recall A Mother and Two Daughters with a special affection.

Until recently, I had not read anything by Godwin since Evensong (1999), which I loved. When I started seeing reviews of Unfinished Desires, though, I thought that perhaps this  was the time to revisit this author. Would this novel have that same hard-to-define magic that flowed so easily through Evensong and A Mother and Two Daughters?

I’m happy to report that for me at least, it did.

In Unfinished Desires, Gail Godwin tells the story of Mount St. Gabriel’s, a Catholic school for girls located amid the serene beauty of western North Carolina. (This is a favorite setting for this author, who grew up in Asheville.) The action of the novel takes place primarily in the early 1950s. (There are occasional flash forwards to the present time.) The cast of characters is  fairly large, and we are introduced to them very quickly. Obviously Godwin needs all the key players in place early on for her drama to unfold with maximum effect. In the main, her strategy succeeds, but I found it somewhat confusing at the outset and could have used one of those handy lists of dramatis personae that are sometimes placed at the beginning of a novel.

Mother Suzanne Ravenel, head of Mount St. Gabriel’s, is a force to be reckoned with. In the year crucial to this story, Mother Malloy, a new teacher, comes to serve as a counterweight to Suzanne Ravenel’s dynamism. This recent arrival is a gentle woman whose faith, intellect, and magnanimity are all of equal depth. The students who figure prominently in this narrative are are Tildy Stratton, Chloe Starnes, and Maud Norton. Additional characters are related to these girls in various ways. One of my favorites was Henry Vick, Chloe’s architect uncle. Another was Madeline Stratton, Tildy’s big sister who attends the public high school in town.

Some of the characters in Unfinished Desires struggle to be good. But one has the feeling that for Madeline and Henry, it is not much of a struggle. They are  both great-souled human beings, whose flow of generosity towards friends and family is unforced and genuine. The same can be said of Mother Malloy.

Here, Godwin limns the character of Henry Vick:

‘He looked forward to his first sip of scotch in the evening, enjoyed playing through the Bach preludes and Chopin ballades he had worked up over the years, and was at his happiest in conversations that kindled some degree of enlightenment in both parties. He loved the Mass and felt himself replenished by God’s mystery each time he received the sacrament.

Henry Vick is a widower, having lost his young wife Antonia in a tragic accident. Antonia was Tildy’s aunt. Chloe has also suffered an untimely loss with the death of her mother Agnes, whose still unexplained demise haunts Chloe – haunts everybody, for that matter. Agnes was Henry Vick’s sister; at the time of her death she was married to Chloe’s stepfather Rex… It was a bit of a challenge, keeping all these interrelationships straight!

There’s not so much a single story line in Unfinished Desires as there is a swirling multiplicity of plots and subplots, as relationships change and allegiances shift. Underpinning all of it is a surprisingly fervent religiosity. It’s this quality that gives the novel an otherworldy feel. This small mountain town seemed like a throwback to the nineteenth century.  I found this a refreshing sensation; it made me all the more eager to lose myself in the story.

This benign atmosphere makes the sporadic (and blessedly infrequent) incursion of violence all the more shocking, to wit: “Before Rex, Chloe hadn’t known that men struck women.” (I still recall how shocked I was to learn the same ugly truth from the 1966 film version of Mary McCarthy’s The Group.)

The seriousness of the  school’s students and teachers encompasses their academic endeavors as well as their religious observance. One of my favorite parts of Unfinished Desires concerns Mother Malloy’s ardent efforts to bring Dickens’s David Copperfield to life for “her girls.”  With Maud Norton, she succeeds brilliantly:

‘To be “utterly without hope”! what secret agony in her soul corresponded  to this? What feelings of shame? what fears that all her learning would pass away from her, little by little? what had happened in her past, or could happen now, to make her plight match his? when everything in her life was going so well, when every school day brought her six hours of proximity with the superior Malloy, what chords were being struck here by this English boy in another century in poverty and despair?  And yet they were being struck, over  and over, with a pungent ache.

Ah, the mysterious and profound power of great literature! Maud has just made a discovery that will enrich her life for years to come.

The preoccupation with religion, ethical behavior, and matters of the spirit in general adds depth and richness to this narrative. At least, it did for this reader. One question I’ve been pondering is why the presence of similar elements in  Marilynne Robinson’s fiction served to irritate rather than enthrall – again, for this reader. Perhaps it has something to do with the tone adopted  by each writer? I’m really not sure. Again, the mysteries of literature…

I have by no means said all there is to say about this book. And I admit that it may not be a novel that will be to the taste of every reader.

The New York Times described Richard Holmes’s Age of Wonder as “a big two-hearted river of a book.” The same, in my view, can be said of Unfinished Desires.

Gail Godwin

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Friday night, February 19: we emerge gratefully from our snowbound solitude to celebrate the Thirty-Second Annual Evening of Irish Music and Poetry

February 22, 2010 at 12:51 pm (Local interest (Baltimore-Washington), Music, Performing arts, Short stories)

Plus  a gem of a short story called “Walk the Blue Fields.” Claire Keegan  read us her story in a gentle, lilting accent, heightening the effect of her reading by voicing the parts of various characters. From time to time she interpolated material, often of a wry or humorous nature. I can’t recall any of those comments specifically; I can only say that it was a captivating performance.

Claire Keegan

I wrote about this story in a previous post, and I feel  that I benefited greatly from hearing the author herself read it. It seems to me now a profound meditation on the essential sadness of the human condition. Something my mother used to say kept coming back to me: “People are always demanding justice, when they should be begging for mercy.” Or words to that effect. Anyway, ultimately there is a mercy to be found in “Walk the Blue Fields,” albeit a small one. But in the circumstances, it will have to suffice.

The story concerns a priest who is officiating at a marriage  ceremony. This should be a happy occasion, and it is for some, but not for others – and certainly not for the priest himself. At one point, one of his parishioners makes a deprecating remark about herself, and the priest gallantly contradicts her. All the time he’s thinking of how often he is forced to perform this tedious little dance. Here was an incident whose specificity made it ring absolutely true.

Claire Keegan’s story “Foster” appears in the February 15 & 22 issue of The New Yorker.

I should mention that Ms Keegan was introduced by His Excellency Michael Collins, the Republic of Ireland’s ambassador to the U.S. Ambassador Collins was also on hand last year to introduce Frank McCourt.

After intermission, it was time for music and dancing. The music was supplied by the excellent Narrowbacks: the Brothers Winch, Terence and Jesse, were joined by consummate fiddler Brendan Mulvihill, singer and guitarist Eileen Korn Estes (whose velvety voice I love), and piper and  flutist Linda Hickman.

The Narrowbacks. Bottom row: Terence Winch, Brendan Mulvihill, Jesse Winch. Top: Linda Hickman and Eileen Korn Estes

Jesse Winch plays the guitar and the harmonica, but he really wowed the audience with solo gig on the bodhram, or Irish drum. Here’s a video of a student of his playing that singular instrument.

Jesse’s brother Terence plays the button accordion and is also a songwriter and poet. He read us several of his poems, which I found quite delightful.

The Narrowbacks provided the musical accompaniment for the step dancers from the Culkin School. They were great! (See below):

Once again, our master of ceremonies was Catherine McLoughlin-Hayes, the Irish Evening chair for HoCoPoLitSo.. Among her several tasks for the evening was to issue a plaintive plea for donations. She mentioned that this was a hard thing for her to do, and I think we all appreciated her efforts and tried to respond in kind. (One does worry about the arts organizations in this country, what with the perilous times in which we’re living. We lost the Baltimore Opera, seemingly over night. Let’s hope that fate does not befall too many similar entities.)


There’s a moment in one of Alexander McCall Smith’s recent Isabel Dalhousie novels when Isabel reflects on the many gifts that Ireland has given to the world. To that, one can only respond with a heartfelt Amen.

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“Dead men don’t tell tales, but I always expect them to pop up and tell me it had all been a big joke. In thirty years of law enforcement, I had been deeply disappointed” – The Cold Dish by Craig Johnson

February 20, 2010 at 3:28 pm (Book review, books, Mystery fiction)

There’s some great writing in Craig Johnson’s The Cold Dish. Characters are convincingly drawn, and the landscape of northern Wyoming is vividly evoked. But for this reader, the action moved just a tad too slowly – loped, rather than raced.

That said, I developed a genuine affection for Walt Longmire, Sheriff of Absaroka County. His personality contains a pleasing mixture of competence, courage and self-deprecation. He is, in other words, a nice guy to spend time with.

About The Cold Dish, reviewer Dan O’Brien enthuses, “Finally, a real western detective.” Now this is true, as far as it goes. But in addition to being a nice guy and real Western detective, Walt Longmire is some kind of secret scholar. References to Sherlock Holmes are one thing – but Balzac, Aristotle and Milton? This particular mystery is solved by a visit to the author’s website. Turns out that Craig Johnson, that epitome of country folksiness, has a PhD in play writing.  Not only that  – before staking a claim to the rural good life of Wyoming,  he was an officer in the NYPD.

(Ah, the temptation to show off one’s hard-won erudition. Some of us know it only too well!)

Having complained about this novel’s slow pace, I have to admit that I really appreciated some of Johnson/Longmire’s ruminative digressions. Here’s one I particularly liked:

‘Scientists say there is a noise that snowflakes make when they land on water, like the wail of a coyote; the sound reaches a climax and then fades away, all in about one ten-thousandth of a second. They noticed it when they were using sonar to track migrating salmon in Alaska. The snowflakes made so much noise that it masked the signals of the fish, and the experiment had to be aborted. The flake floats on the water, and there is little sound below; but as soon as it starts to melt, water is sucked up by capillary action. They figure that air bubbles are released from the snowflake or are  trapped by  the rising water. Each of these  bubbles vibrate as it struggles to reach equilibrium with its surroundings and sends out sound waves, a cry so small and  so high that it’s undetectable by the human ear.

Unsurprisingly, Walt draws an analogy between this fascinating natural phenomenon and his own situation: “It seemed that an awful lot of the voices in my life were so small and high as to be undetectable by the human ear.”

The Cold Dish also contains some rich Native American lore. Walt knows many members of the Northern Cheyenne tribe; their reservation is within his purview.  One of his closest friends his Henry Standing Bear. In this scene, Walt trudges through a raging snowstorm in order to get help for the wounded Henry:

‘I felt as though the Old Cheyenne were challenging me for my friend, were attempting to take him back with them to the Camp of the Dead. It was a good, spirited challenge, one that pulled at my heartstrings,  but one that I would not allow. I looked at their shadows as they walked along with me. Darting between the trees with closed-mouth smiles on their faces, nodding to me when I caught their eyes, they carried their coup sticks but kept them far out of my reach. Their steps were steady, like my own, and it was only after a while that I became aware that they were matching them precisely. I smiles back in the friendly assurance that their company was  appreciated but their mission was not. They could see it as a smile or they could see it as a showing of teeth. It didn’t matter; I would pass this way again very soon, and they were welcome to join me, but they should not get in my way. They were dressed in their summer loincloths with only low moccasins on their  feet, but  the cold didn’t seem t affect them any more than it was affecting me. One of them nodded in a knowing fashion and dipped his shoulders sideways to slip between the close-knit lodgepole pines only to disappear on the other side.

Walt’s assertion that he is unaffected by the harsh weather conditions is not quite accurate; he is so severely affected that he is hallucinating.But he is possessed of endurance and  determination in equal amounts.

(These Wyoming folk know a thing or two about snow. And so do we, here in the Free State!)

It’s been a while since I read The Cold Dish, so I’m not going to attempt too detailed a recapitulation of the plot. Young Cody Pritchard is found dead, and at first, his death is thought to be the result of a hunting mishap. Two years prior, Pritchard and several of his cronies had been convicted of raping a young Cheyenne woman. All received suspended sentences; this outcome caused plenty of bad feeling in the community. Sure enough, a closer look at  the evidence in the Pritchard case indicates murder. Is someone out for revenge?

From here, the plot gains in complexity – too much so, in my opinion. I had trouble keeping track of the multiplicity of characters and their real or imagined motives. Also the conclusion, about which I will say  the minimum, disappointed me. I felt that Johnson made use of trope that has become standard issue in many works of contemporary crime fiction.

And yet, and yet…there’s so much good material in this novel that even with the aforementioned caveats, I give it a thumbs up. The lengthy passage above describing Walt’s ordeal by blizzard reminded me of William Kent Krueger’s vivid description of the windigo in Thunder Bay. Both Johnson and Krueger are authors to turn to for those (like myself) who still miss the late great Tony Hillerman.

Do I plan to read another entry in this series? Yes – but not just now.

Here, Walt Longmire waxes irreverent, in a gentle manner:

‘I sometimes forgot how spiritual Henry was. I had been raised as a Methodist where the highest sacrament was the bake sale.

This video of Craig Johnson speaking at last year’s National Book Festival in Washington DC will give you a clear idea whence Walt Longmire’s sense of humor emanates:


Last year, this profile of Craig Johnson appeared in The New York Times. It seems he’s built himself one heck of a house out there in Ucross, Wyoming, pop. 25.

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Dick Francis

February 18, 2010 at 3:28 pm (Anglophilia, books, Horses, Mystery fiction, Remembrance, Travel)

According to the itinerary for the Smithsonian Tour entitled Classic Mystery Lover’s England, this activity is scheduled for October 20:

Step into a Dick Francis mystery during a morning focused on horse racing. Witness a display of strength and discipline during the morning “gallops” and view these fine race horses up close at the stable. Over coffee with the trainer, take an in-depth look at the culture of horseracing in the Cotswolds, described in Francis’ novels, from his first, Dead Cert, to the most recent, Under Orders.*

Ron and I took this tour in 2006. At the time, we  weren’t sure that this particular excursion would prove to be worthwhile. After all, we  were not actually going to meet Dick Francis…

In the event, this visit turned out to be one of the highlights of the trip. We got to the stables early in the morning, when the horses are first taken out to be exercised. The Downs were enveloped in a fine mist, which gradually cleared as the sun grew warmer. Two of the stable’s employees took obvious pleasure in showing us around and answering our questions. A small dog – a Jack Russell terrier, I believe – was delighted to have such a large company of amiable humans on hand and darted back and forth among us.

In the chill air of morning, you could see the horses’ breath. They were beautiful animals.


Dead Cert (1962) was featured on the reading list prepared for out trip. Although I have long been a reader of Dick Francis’s books, I had never read this one, the author’s  first, and was afraid it would come across as  dated. My reservations turned out to be completely unfounded. Dead Cert was a joy to read: the character were engaging, as was the racing lore. The plot moved at lightning speed, like – well, like a steeplechase jockey and his mount headed confidently for a first place finish.**

Dick Francis was born in Wales in 1920. Prior to the First World War, his father had been a steeplechase jockey; after the war, he managed the W.H. Smith Stables in Maidenhead (Berkshire, England). Immersed from childhood in a world of horses and racing, Dick Francis became devoted to that world. It was an ardor born early and destined, in the coming years, to increase in intensity. He left school at  the age of fifteen to pursue his own dream of become a jockey. The rest, as they say, is history; you can read about that history here.

Richard Stanley Francis CBE: 1920 - 2010


My own interest in horse racing was bequeathed to me by my father. When we were kids, he used to spend his Saturdays at the track. (In the way of children, I assumed at the time that this was what everyone’s Dad did on weekends.) These weekly excursions were his chief means of escape from the pressures of work. When Dick Francis began writing his novels of the racing world, my Dad was pleased to discover them. I like to picture the two of them encountering each other in the hereafter. If you see my Dad, Mr. Francis, be sure to greet  him warmly. In later years, he was a great fan of yours.


*This needs updating. As of now, the latest novel is Easy Money (2009), co-authored with Francis’s son Felix. Crossfire is due out in August of this year.

**The early 1960s were pivotal years for British crime fiction. Like Dead Cert, Cover Her Face, P.D. James’s first entry in her acclaimed Adam Dalgliesh series, came out in 1962. Ruth Rendell brought out the first Wexford novel, From Doon with Death, two years later.

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“‘Plato said all science begins with astonishment.'” – The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate, by Jacqueline Kelly

February 16, 2010 at 2:41 am (Book review, books, Literature for young people)

Among the few gifts inherent in the recent back-to-back blizzards was the chance to get lots of reading done. One of the books I finished during the inundation was The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate. This action of this young adult title, a 2010 Newbery Honor Book, takes place in Texas in 1899, and it features as its protagonist one Calpurnia Virginia Tate. The eleven-year-old Calpurnia, sometimes called Callie Vee, has her hands full learning to hold her own as the sole daughter in a  family of seven siblings. But she has a powerful ally and mentor in her grandfather. This elderly gentleman, a Civil War veteran, has a passionate interest in the natural world. Living as they do in the country, the Tates have abundant opportunities to observe that world. In the course of the novel,the grandfather’s passion passes directly to the granddaughter.

Callie’s ardor for science is, alas, not allowed free  reign. Her mother, a sweet but conventional woman, is determined to  teach her the housewifely arts of sewing, mending, and cooking. Callie has no interest in these pursuits, but her mother insists that she achieve at least a minimum competency  That this cramps the style of the budding scientist is putting it mildly!

In fact, Callie is not even sure that a woman can aspire to that lofty profession. But her grandfather soon sets her straight on that score as he rattles off names like Marie Curie, Martha Maxwell, Mary Anning, Isabella Bird, and Sophia Kovalevsky. (Of Maxwell and Anning I knew nothing. I was vaguely familiar with Isabella Bird. And I just had to smile at that last one. I had never heard of Sophia Kovalevsky before reading the title story in Alice Munro’s story collection, Too Much Happiness. Now I have encountered her in two different works of fiction in less than three months.)

Calpurnia Tate is by no means all work and no play. There are plenty of diversions, even a small Texas town at the turn of the century. In fact, there were perhaps a few too many – at least, for this reader. Like Heart of a Shepherd, which I wrote about recently, this novel is constructed as an episodic rather than a linear narrative. While this method of storytelling can be very effective in creating a world, it can also interfere with a crucial aspect of the plot; namely, pacing. I have, in the course of my reading life, occasionally enjoyed fiction whose plot did not follow a  strictly linear path. One example would be Shadow the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafon.  Another would be The Professor’s House by Willa Cather. Shadow moves back and forth in time with great fluidity, while Professor contains a lengthy digression that almost constitutes a novella-within-the-novel itself. And there’s Anita Brookner, whose novels are like still bodies of water with great depths to be plumbed.

On the whole, I prefer a tale with a trajectory straight as an arrow. I figure if it was good enough for Jane Austen,  Charles Dickens, et al., it is certainly good enough for me. This is probably the main reason that I love crime fiction (and true crime stories, too). The element of suspense in a novel – well, I find it indispensable. Now suspense is not necessarily a function of the plot. In Brookner’s 1984 tour de force Hotel Du Lac, it comes entirely through the main character, Edith Hope. There’s an electrifying, decisive moment in that novel that I shall never forget; it’s made all the more powerful by the outward calm that precedes it.

And oh my, what was I saying about digressions? As you have probably gathered, I did think that there was an intermittent problem with pacing in The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate. The  book is 338 pages long, and there were times when I became impatient with it. I very much liked  having a front row seat at the drama of Calpurnia’s  transformation, but the story kept going off on tangents of one sort or another, and not all were equally absorbing – at least, for me they weren’t.

First time novelist Jacqueline Kelly writes extremely well, especially when she’s describing natural phenomena and Callie’s response to them:

‘Then a hummingbird careened around a corner of the house and plunged into the trumpet of  the nearest lily drooping in the heat. Not finding it to his liking, he abruptly backed out and explored the next one. I sat a few feet away, entranced, close enough to hear the angry low-pitched buzzing of his wings, so at odds with his jewel-like appearance and jaunty attitude. The bird paused at the lip of a flower and then turned and caught sight of me. I froze. The bird stopped four inches shy of my face and hung there, I swear. I felt the tiny rush of wind from his wings against my forehead and reflexively, my eyes squeezed shut of their own accord. How I wish I’d been able to keep them open, but it was a natural reaction and I couldn’t stop myself. The second I opened them, the  bird flew off. He was the size of a winged pecan. Fueled by rage or curiosity–who could tell–he cared not at all that I could have crushed him with the lightest swat.

Kelly can also be very funny, especially when Calpurnia ruefully describes her forays into the housewifely arts: ‘Stitches dropped themselves and later reappeared at random so that the long striped scarf I was knitting bulged in the middle like a python after dining on a rabbit.’

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Is this policeman prescient – or paranoid? The Monster in the Box, by Ruth Rendell

February 15, 2010 at 2:57 am (Book review, books, Mystery fiction, The British police procedural)

The moment that he locked eyes with Eric Targo, Reg Wexford was convinced that he had met the gaze of a psychopath. The sighting occurred right after the brutal murder of Elsie Carroll. From that moment,  Wexford could not shake the certainty that Targo, a neighbor of the Carroll’s, had killed Elsie. To his colleagues on the force, however, her husband seemed the obvious culprit – George Carroll had been away from home at the time of the crime. His explanation of his whereabouts rang false, because it was false. But the charge against the hapless Carroll could not be made to stick, and he was subsequently released. The murder of Elsie Carroll remained unsolved.

These events transpired decades ago, when Wexford was a rookie on the force. But disturbing memories of that case have recently come back to him with renewed force. Why? Because for the first time in many years, he has once again laid eyes on Eric Targo. Wexford feels an urgent need to talk to someone about his suspicions concerning this strange, shadowy figure. He decides to confide in Mike Burden, his longtime partner and by now a close  friend. He has great respect for Burden’s critical faculties and empathetic qualities. All the same, Wexford knows that he has to approach this topic with care. Two factors are operating: One, he is absolutely convinced of Targo’s guilt; and Two, he hasn’t a shred of evidence to support his belief. And what could the motive possibly have been? Nevertheless.  He knows; he is sure.

As he reaches back in time to tell this somber, bizarrre story, Wexford finds himself assailed by memories of  his past. The events he’s describing occurred some forty years ago but it feels more like four hundred, so drastically different was that long-ago world. At one point, Wexford recounts his visit to the Targo home to interview Eric about what he might have seen the night of the murder. As he was leaving, he had a brief talk with Targo’s wife. Kathleen Targo, heavily pregnant, was not cherished by her husband. Nevertheless. she was full of praise for him for staying home with their young son so that she could attend a dressmaking class:

“‘Eric’s so good staying here with Alan. I never miss.’ I had the impression she only said that to make me think all was fine with them on the domestic front. It was all part of the pretend-everything–in-the-garden’s-lovely attitude people adhered to then. ‘Well, I’ll have to miss it for my confinement.’

“They still said that then. Well, some of them did,the really old-fashioned ones, the sort who still put on a hat to go to the shops. There women in the villages round here, in the cottages without running water or electricity, where they referred to their husbands as ‘my master.'”

By this point, Burden is hard pressed to steer Wexford back to the subject at hand.

Other, more personal memories crowd in; these Wexford does not, for the most part, share with Burden. They are primarily of the romantic misadventures that preceded his meeting and marrying Dora. (I loved these sections of the novel.) There is nothing lighthearted about these stories; rather, they serve as a reminder of the ways in which poor and unformed judgment can so easily lead to disaster. Wexford knows that a benign destiny directed him to a chance encounter with the woman he would joyfully spend the rest of his life with. It could so easily not have happened…

‘To meet your future wife in a hotel where you are on holiday with your mother and she on holiday with her parents seems the reverse of romantic. He was learning that romance has little to do with location or  the exotic or glamorous circumstances, and everything to do with feelings. And learning too that you like a name because you love the person who is called by it.


Wexford’s recent sighting of Targo involved the latter’s visiting the home of a Moslem family, the Rahmans, ostensibly on some sort of computer-related  business. The Rahmans, in particular their elusive daughter Tamima, play a crucial role in this narrative. Rendell often writes about the ways in which various ethnic and religious groups rub up against one another in urban settings, and she doesn’t pull any punches or make many concessions to political correctness when she explores this sensitive subject. (A particularly explosive and memorable example occurs in the novel Simisola.)


Over the past several months, various people have mentioned to me that they were disappointed by The Monster in the Box. I began it, therefore, with some trepidation. As it turns out, I loved it. I think it the best Wexford novel since 1999’s Harm Done.. For me, Monster succeeded tremendously as a work of psychological suspense.  And of course, I love spending time with these characters, whom I invariably find fascinating.

Now, ultimately, Wexford formulates a theory concerning Eric Targo that some readers may find it tough to buy into. I can understand that reservation. But Rendell had me with her so completely by that point that I had little trouble in going along with Wexford’s surmise.

The glimpses into the past gave the book an autumnal feel. I’ve heard – read somewhere? – that with this novel,  Ruth Rendell is closing out the series. I will miss it, but luckily there are earlier entries that I’ve never read, or that I’d like to re-read. It is to those that I will turn.

I absolutely love the way this woman writes.

Ruth Rendell

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Snowmageddon – the postlude

February 12, 2010 at 9:34 pm (Local interest (Baltimore-Washington))

It is over. Done with. No more Snowmageddon posts. We wish – somewhat desperately – to get back to normal. Granted, at this point in time, we have to do so with no access to two of our three vehicles, and a completely blocked front entrance. One  does what one can…

Here are a few more parting shots:

The front door, which heretofore had steps leading up to it...

The front door, which formerly featured steps leading up to it...

Someone's cartifacts...

Odd pattern of icicles near the front door

Mountains of the stuff, everywhere...

Primary and secondary snowdrifts on the roof, seen from a second floor bedroom

The right side of the driveway, facing toward the street


The apotheosis of carhenge!

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Snowmaggedon, Part Four: free associating while shoveling

February 10, 2010 at 8:59 pm (Anglophilia, Film and television, Poetry, Remembrance)

Caves of ice, caves of ice…where did that come from? Oh yes – “Kubla Khan,” by Samuel Taylor Coleridge: “A sunny pleasure-dome with caves of ice!” Nothing sunny about this day, alas, although rumor has it that we might see that Blessed Orb tomorrow.

The story goes that while Coleridge was in the midst of writing this poem, he was interrupted by a man who had come from Porlock on some pedestrian errand. When Coleridge had rid himself of this intruder, he found himself unable to continue work on this poem. Thus “Kubla Khan” is usually referred to as a fragment – but what a glorious fragment it is, with its hallucinatory visions and glimpses of a mysterious unseen world.

Then I was reminded of a scene from the Inspector Morse film Twilight of the Gods. Morse, played by John Thaw, has almost completed a crossword puzzle when Lewis (Kevin Whately) interrupts him. Irritated, Morse tells Lewis that he’s “the person from Porlock.” Lewis, whose literalness was always one of his most endearing traits, replies “No, Sir, Newcastle.”

Here’s the final scene from that film. It serves as a vivid reminder of what we lost with the passing of  John Thaw:

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Snowmageddon, Part Three: Snowlympics?

February 10, 2010 at 7:33 pm (Local interest (Baltimore-Washington))

It is coming down again, and I have been out shoveling again. Thie situation calls for resourcefulness, for differing approaches to the task at hand. For instance:

When flinging the snow up and away from your body, pull back sharply on the shovel as you release the freezing payload…It may travel a bit farther that way. I think this is because of physics ( a subject which I, normally an A student in high school, barely passed). Or, if you find a spot sufficiently low to the ground (ground? what ground?), twirl the shovel’s handle smartly to release the snow. This action will result in a minimal amount of residue clinging to the shovel.

All these points being understood, get a rhythm going and keep at it as long as you can. I’m thinking of this as part of my fitness regimen, although there’s way too much repetitive motion involved. Still, I must be burning some calories. And my form is improving…Snowlympics, here I come!


Will our lone street lamp be covered up, shrouding us in darkness?

Even the birds look lost...

Birds looking lost

Our back deck, completely filled with the stuff

Our deck, full to overflowing


Utterly inundated - and still it keeps coming...

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“Snowmageddon,” Part Two – the calm before the next deluge?

February 9, 2010 at 4:46 pm (Local interest (Baltimore-Washington), Travel)

[Click here for the first “snowmageddon” post.]

So: this is how the neighborhood looked after the Big Dig Out:

As happened in December, the neighbors turned out in force to help us finish clearing the driveway. Bless them! The first thing we did was go to the supermarket and stock up – again. The forecast calls for more snow. As you have probably gathered from the pictures, our biggest problem right now is where to put  the stuff. And there are other problems: sore shoulders, aching backs, low morale, cabin fever, a hankering for fresh produce. Even I, heartily bored to death as I am with “healthful eating,” rejoiced at the sight of a few leaves of (semi-wilted) iceberg lettuce!

Even now, the beautiful blue of the pictures above has faded to an indeterminate dishwater gray. Actually, that’s the default ‘color’ of winter weather in these parts. At the moment I’m reminiscing about a plan we once had of moving to New Mexico – somewhere near Santa Fe. Ah yes – Santa Fe, with its cerulean blue skies, blue doors, mountains, the aroma of pinyon, the lilt of the Spanish tongue, the Native American owned Hotel Santa Fe, and the general air of otherworldliness…

Can you blame a person for dreaming of it, right now?

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