“The sequence of any fiction is, by its nature, the path of time evaporating.” – The Art of Time in Fiction: As Long As It Takes, by Joan Silber

March 27, 2010 at 2:38 pm (Book review, books)

In this extended essay, Joan Silber undertakes to explain the way in which “…a story is entirely determined by what portion of time it chooses to narrate.” This can be a moment, a day, a season, a lifetime. She illustrates her thesis with a fascinating mix of works, ranging from the established classics to unknown (until now) gems.

Silber divides her subject as follows: Classic Time, Long Time, Switchback Time, Slowed Time, and Fabulous Time.

To begin: “In novels that serve as examples of classic time, the span is short enough to be easily seen as a unity and is often delineated by a natural border….”

The Great Gatsby is the exemplar here. It’s action takes place over the course of a single fateful  summer. Silber enlarges on the way in which the time span influences the plot, and vice versa. “The brilliance of Fitzgerald’s scenes has  to do with their concentration–they are distilled into flashes and are  far from blow-by-blow report in real time.”

F Scott Fitzgerald

She concludes that “Gatsby wins its classic status… by its neatly drafted economy, its concentrated scenes and sneaky methods of summary.”

The Art of Time in Fiction is the sort of book that makes you want to read whatever text the author is citing. Having revisited Gatsby fairly recently, I was especially intrigued by Silber’s comments on the novel.

In the chapter entitled “Long Time, “Silber uses “The Darling,” a story by Anton Chekhov, to illustrate the way in which short fiction can narrate an entire life story. Or at least, it can when its elements are deployed by a master storyteller like Chekhov. I read Silber’s analysis of “The Darling,” then read the story itself and revisit her remarks. what a rewarding experience! I love her observation: “Writers are always trying to contain an unruly mass, to get time trimmed to fit within borders.”

Anton Chekhov

Some of the other works mentioned in this section are The Old Wives’ Tale by Arnold Bennett, A Woman’s Life by Guy de Maupassant, To Live by Yu Hua, Mrs. Bridge by Evan Connell, and To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf.  She’ll make you want to read them all. (I’ve actually made several unsuccessful attempts to read To the Lighthouse; time to try again, perhaps…)

Silber prefers to use the term switchback time rather than flashback, because  the latter “…has slightly tacky connotations; it has been abused too often, used glibly to supply a too-simple cause and effect for motivation.”  The first examples in this section are several stories by Alice Munro. I had read them some time ago but was  delighted to have a reason to revisit these gem like creations. Silber comments:

“It strikes me that switchback time…is also a natural method of oral storytelling at its best. People are always interrupting themselves, often to excellent purpose.

In other words, the stuff inside the parenthesis is sometimes more meaningful than the material surrounding it.

Another work here cited by Silber is by Francis Steegmuller. (It was a pleasure to run into this fine writer once again. I encountered him last year in Greene on Capri, a reminiscence written by his wife, novelist and memoirist Shirley Hazzard.) Steegmuller’s piece “Ciao Fabrizio” originally appeared in the New Yorker in 1964. Alas, it is not online full text, and I had a bit of an adventure tracking it down. I finally found it in Stories and True Stories, a collection of Steegmuller’s work which I was able to obtain from interlibrary loan.

“Ciao Fabrizio” describes an event that took place in Naples, Italy, in the 1960s. It was witnessed – and completely misunderstood – by the author. I was determined to find this story because of its setting in a city with which I now feel an intense connection. But this is a tale that has universal meaning: “What might be a merely charming story about those crazy Neapolitans is instead an illustration of the lasting footprint of death and the beauty of human responses to it.”

We proceed to what Silber calls slowed time. This characterizes fiction in which the past is simply not alluded – the present moment is all.  A good example of this approach to storyteling is “The Thirst” by Egyptian writer Nawal al-Saadawi.

Nawal al-Sadaawi

Nawal al-Sadaawi

Silber then goes on to talk about In Search of Lost Time because “No discussion of time in fiction can fail to include Proust….” Finally she quotes in full a very short, concentrated story written by Kathy Boudin. “Water Rites” was composed as part of a prison writing workshop in which participants were exhorted to “‘see how slowed  down you can get it.'”

“Fabulous time” is nonrealistic – “all those stories with action beyond the possible,from magic realism all the way back to the folktale.” Silber admits that as a “hardheaded” realist, this is the kind of fiction she is not ordinarily drawn to. I’m right with her there. Her principle exemplar in this section is Love in the Time of Cholera,” yet another classic that I’ve never been able to get through. (Yes, I know, I need to try again.)

Silber concludes this slender volume with “Time as Subject:” ‘All the emotions that attach to the passage of time–regret, impatience, anticipation, mourning, the longing for what’s passed, the desire for recurrence, the dread of recurrence–are the fuel of plots.”

Silber avers that “Winter Dreams,” a story by Fitzgerald “…carries forth an ancient theme of fiction, the dilemma of transience.”  Finally we encounter Henry James, who is for many us a veritable god of fiction:

‘Any number of James’s stories show us protagonists seeing that the chance to live fully has slipped away–they’ve waited for the wrong possibility, misunderstood what’s been offered, chosen a deceptive promise, sacrificed themselves to no point.

“Henry James,” she adds ruefully, “is the great artist of the missed boat.”  This aching sadness is bodied forth with particular power in the story “The Beast in the Jungle.”  Silber concludes this concluding chapter by discussing two works that I revere: “A Good Man Is Hard To Find” by Flannery O”Connor and The Death of Ivan Ilych by Tolstoy. This last I have read three or four times and don’t know if, as I am now sixty-five years of age, I will read again.

Silber states that “…Ilych’s illusions and suffering fall away from him very late. But not too late.” It seems to me that this just-in-time enlightenment is what is most ardently desired for us all.

Henry James, by Jacques Emile Blanche

Flannery O'Connor

Tolstoy, by Ilya Repin


I came away from  reading The Art of Time in Fiction with enormous admiration for Joan Silber’s erudition. The depth and breadth of her reading are truly astonishing. (A list of works discussed follows the book’s concluding chapter.) Her writing is superb, something I have known and come to expect since first reading Ideas of Heaven.

Joan Silber


This book is but one entry in a new series from Graywolf Press. The publisher states the following:

‘Each book examines a singular, but often assumed or neglected, issue facing the contemporary writer of fiction, nonfiction, or poetry. The Art of series is meant to restore the art of criticism while illuminating the art of writing.

What a laudable initiative this is!


A final thought: Surely it is the need to escape from the toils of time, to stand outside time itself, is a major impetus toward religion. (It s for me, anyway.)

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An afternoon of French music culminates with the Faure Requiem

March 23, 2010 at 3:44 pm (Local interest (Baltimore-Washington), Music)

Once again, all praise is due the Columbia Pro Cantare and its dynamic founder and director Frances Motyca Dawson. This past Sunday afternoon, at the First Evangelical Lutheran Church in Ellicott City, this fine choral ensemble presented a wonderful program of French music. Assisting them were various soloists and instrumentalists.

Claude Debussy

Francis Poulenc

Andre Caplet

Gabriel Faure

The program began with harpist Susan Sauerwein playing Arabesque No.1 by Claude Debussy. Here is the original piano version of this beautiful, ethereal music, performed by  Aldo Ciccolini:

(I quote one of the comments on this video, as it appears on YouTube: “I think the fact that this piece of music exists is somehow evidence that a certain sort of happiness must be possible.”)

At this point, Dawson showed her genius for innovative programming by presenting two a capella motets for men’s voices by Francis Poulenc. I had never heard these pieces – never heard of them, in fact – and I wager that was probably true of most people in the audience. They are highly unusual and strike me as the kind of works you have to hear several times in order to “get.” These were followed by an equally unusual work, O Salutaris by Andre Caplet, sung by the women of the Pro Cantare Chamber Singers. Once again – a second hearing is needed. But Caplet’s Panis Angelicus was immediately accessible; I loved it at first hearing.

Andre Caplet and Claude Debussy

The program’s second half was devoted to the music of Gabriel Faure. First we heard the lovely Cantique de Jean Racine.

Then it was time for the afternoon’s “big draw” – the Requiem.

Faure’s Requiem opens with the solemn Introit and Kyrie:

This is followed by the Offertory, the Sanctus, and then the famous Pie Jesu, beloved of soloists the world over. As if that were not sufficient, the Pie Jesu is followed by the almost impossibly gorgeous Agnus Dei. Vocals here are by the King’s College Choir, Cambridge:

Next, the Libera Me (and how I wish this selection were longer! I’d never heard of Stephen Powell before coming upon this video):

If you are wondering where the Dies Irae is, it is folded into this section of the work. Faure wanted to de-emphasize the fire-and-brimstone aspect of the requiem.

Finally – In Paradisum:

I felt transported. At the end, one descends gently back to Earth, light as a feather. I would rather have stayed in Paradise.


One gratifying aspect of this performance was how well it was attended. The sanctuary was packed;  likewise, the parking lot and the adjacent street. Another gratifying aspect was the presence of violinist Ronald Mutchnik, whose playing I so enjoy every month at the Bach In Baltimore concerts.


If you want to see the notes and comments posted on YouTube, position your cursor over the lower right hand corner of the video and click on the YouTube logo.

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A Tale of Two Book Discussions; or, a ‘Dragon Tattoo’ immersion experience

March 21, 2010 at 5:44 pm (Book clubs, books)

The engine driving the plot of Stieg Larsson’s thriller is a cold case mystery involving the disappearance of a teen-age girl. Journalist Mikael Blomqvist is asked by the girl’s uncle, wealthy industrialist Henrik Vanger, to find out what happened to his niece Harriet, who went missing some forty years previous.  Clues are naturally thin on the ground. Nevertheless, Blomqvist, whose professional life is in crisis at the moment, agrees to take on the investigation.

At the same time all of this is going on, the reader is getting to know Lisbeth Salander, the eponymous girl in the novel’s title. At the outset, she is a researcher for Milton Security, but she’s obviously not cut out for a conventional employment situation. For one thing, she is a hacker par excellence, and feels free to use her computer skills in the pursuit of information, going so far as to break into the hard drives of other computers without a second thought. Where this activity is concerned, scruples has she none!

It soon becomes clear that Salander’s tough exterior masks a troubled, wounded soul. Then there’s the barely concealed rage, liable to erupt if provoked.  (There’s a reason why her incorporated persona is named Wasp Enterprises.)

The group called the Literary Ladies is comprised of current and retired library employees. Led by Joanne, we tackled Dragon Tattoo last Sunday night. It was apparent from the outset of our discussion that the multifaceted personality of Lisbeth Salander was what really grabbed people. And this was true not just for us but for a world wide readership. For this novel – in fact, all three novels in Larsson’s so-called Millennium Trilogy, are a publishing phenomenon. This, in an era when the printed word is supposedly becoming passé. One can but wonder…

Not everyone loved The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. Marge, my “partner in crime” and in general a passionate lover of crime fiction, had no use for it at all. For her, the novel veered from scenes of grotesque violence to those containing tedious descriptions of high-tech derring-do. She was alternately bored and repulsed. (Emma described herself as “intrigued but appalled.”) And how, Marge wondered, could people tolerate the episode in which a cat is tortured and killed?

It’s been about a year since I read Dragon Tattoo. I have forgotten many particulars, but I remembered what happened to the cat. I have encountered similar incidents in other novels, one quite recently. I am of the opinion that writers tend to use cats in such scenarios rather than dogs because dogs have a higher lovability quotient than cats (or so some misguided souls seem to think). Myself, I could do without such plot devices altogether, whether used for the purpose of driving home a point or  advancing the story line, or  serving as a symbolic act . (In this last instance, I’m thinking of Lennie crushing a puppy to death in Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men. Yes, I know it’s a classic, but my sympathies are with the puppy and ever will be!)

The violence depicted in the novel was disturbing for others as well. The question was raised: have we as readers come to expect a certain amount of it? Have we become de-sensitized, so that the ante must be continually upped?

The following comments were made by Jonathan Shapiro in his Los Angeles Times review of The Man from Beijing by Henning Mankell:

Mankell and Larsson have sold millions of books around the world. Yet Larsson, who died in 2004, remains the bigger star, thanks to “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo” and its sequel (the third installment, “The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest,” is due in May). High-tech thrillers with pornographic sensibilities, Larsson’s sleek, guilty pleasures are filled with the kind of graphic, stylized violence that appeals to a depressingly large swath of humanity. More like novelized computer games, the books even have a hyper-sexualized, sadomasochistic-tinged heroine at their center, as different in style and substance from Mankell’s Roslin as one could imagine. Like teenage gamers waiting for the newest version of their obsession, Larsson’s fans are eager for his third book. But they do so with bittersweet anticipation: Unless Larsson’s publishers are able to produce a fourth book, which is believed to exist as an incomplete manuscript, this will be his last work. Game over.

Joanne is a terrific book talker and discussion leader. She came armed with a great deal of information about the book and its author. Shortly after completing the novels that comprise the Millennium Trilogy, Stieg Larsson suffered a massive heart attack. He died in 2004 at the age of fifty. There’s a lot out there on the circumstances surrounding the writing and publishing of the novels, and some information about Larsson’s professional life prior to that, but not much about his earlier life. The best accounting of his youth that I could find was on the Gale database Biography Resource Center.

I’ve known Joanne for a number of years now. She is a passionate book lover. I think of her as favoring literary fiction, with a slight preference for the quirky.  I confess that initially, her enthusiasm for Dragon Tattoo baffled me. But as she expounded on the various qualities of the novel that she found intriguing, even irresistible, I began to understand. For her, as for so many other readers, Lisbeth Salander is the big draw. And she had some fascinating facts at hand concerning this character. First:

The idea of Lisbeth Salander grew out of Stieg Larsson’s speculation as to what Pippi Longstocking would have been like as a grown woman. (“What?!” we chorused in amazement.) And second:

You can now “friend” Lisbeth Salander on Facebook! One could take this as an indicator that folks are losing their grip on reality, but after all, this sort of thing has been going on re Sherlock Holmes for over a hundred years.

Noomi Rapace as Lisbeth Salander in the newly released Swedish film

Like me, Joanne was also enthralled by the propulsive quality of Larsson’s storytelling. We agreed that powerful as Salander’s charisma is, Mikael Blomqvist has some of his own.  His strategy for solving the Harriet Vanger conundrum unfolds in a very compelling manner.

Joanne enjoyed the way in which Dragon Tattoo mixes it up genre-wise. This is a hard novel to categorize. It is not a police procedural (a fact which initially disappointed my own expectations). It’s not what you would  term literary – is it crime fiction? A thriller? Suspense? As to this last, we must keep in mind that “suspense” is an element of the plot, not a genre. Any truly gripping story – fiction or nonfiction – contains suspenseful elements. This would include, for instance,  Jane Austen’s Emma, which P.D. James recently cited as one of her favorite mysteries!  Quoth the Baroness:

‘But perhaps the most interesting example of a mainstream novel which is also a detective story is the brilliantly structured Emma by Jane Austen. Here the secret which is the mainspring of the action is the unrecognised relationships between the limited number of characters. The story is confined to a closed society in a rural setting, which was to become common in detective fiction, and Jane Austen deceives us with cleverly constructed clues (eight immediately come to mind) — some based on action, some on apparently innocuous conversations, some in her authorial voice. At the end, when all becomes plain and the characters are at last united with their right partners, we wonder how we could have been so deceived.

(From Talking About Detective Fiction by P.D. James)

One of my favorite parts of last Sunday night’s discussion came when we considered what books to recommend to Stieg Larsson’s readers once they have finished the trilogy. In Readers’ Advisory parlance, these are known as “read-alikes.” The obvious place to look is at other Scandinavian authors of crime fiction; the obvious person to look at among that august cohort is Henning Mankell, a leader in the current renaissance of Scandinavian crime fiction. I have long been a fan of Mankell’s Kurt Wallander series. The first one I read was One Step Behind, and it is still among my favorites. Neo-Naziism in Sweden was a bête noire  of Steig Larsson’s. Henning Mankell tackled that issue head on in The Return of the Dancing Master.

We considered adding Karin Fossum to the list but decided against doing so, as her novels tend to be more psychological and character-based.  Their tone is autumnal, even wistful, whereas Larsson novels tend to be fueled by a kind of propulsive outrage. I suggested The Demon of Dakar by Kjell Errikson, an author more crime fiction lovers need to know about. And Joanne reminded us of the ten Martin Beck novels written between 1965 and 1975 by Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo.  This landmark series of  procedurals is reckoned  a  founding work in the pantheon of Scandinavian crime fiction.

Eve suggested the novels of Ann Cleeves, with their vivid setting in the Shetland region of northernmost Scotland. She also suggested Kate Atkinson, whose When Will There Be Good News opens with a scene of such shocking violence that I almost put the book down. I continued reading it mostly because of Case Histories, a novel whose mix of humor and pathos I found deeply moving. I ended by liking Good News, but not as much as Case Histories.

Modesty Blaise was suggested as a protagonist similar to Lisbeth Salander, but we dismissed those books (unfairly?) as dated. There are the Stella Mooney novels by David Lawrence. This is a seemingly short-lived series, intriguing though violent. Stella has a fraught love life and alternates between toughness and vulnerability – remind you of anyone? I would also suggest The Chameleon’s Shadow by Minette Walters. This provocative work features as a main character a female doctor who possesses a beyond- the -pale persona similar in some ways to Lisbeth Salander’s.


Joanne went from our Sunday discussion to a Thursday session on the same book. (This was the Noontime Book Discussion, which meets regularly at the Central Library.) The fact that this was a somewhat more decorous group allowed for Joanne to expound at greater length at the outset and without interruption (a thing which rarely happens with the Literary Ladies, bless us!). I was delighted. I do think that Joanne could talk about the phone book, and her articulate expression and sharp wit would keep me enthralled!

The interesting thing to emerge from this discussion was that participants by and large did not care all that much for Dragon Tattoo. Aside from objecting to the violence, members felt that with the exception of Lisbeth Salander, other female characters were not sufficiently developed. One member felt that the author was throwing out too many messages.

Now I really do need to wind down here, so once again I’ll return to Lisbeth Salander. We wondered why Larsson made her so small of stature. The Pippi Longstocking connection, perhaps? Someone used the word androgynous to describe her, which I thought interesting. And the last note I have scribbled in my notebook, which I’ll leave you with, is

Ferocity in a tiny form.


Here are Val McDermid and Christopher Hitchens on the phenomenon that is Stieg Larsson and his Millennium Trilogy.


As a result of this Dragon Tattoo immersion, I finally picked up the second book. And what do you know –  I have  become like a woman possessed – I can’t put the thing down! 

Stieg Larsson 1954 - 2004

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On the high cost of “protective stupidity” – Denial: Why Business Leaders Fail to Look Facts in the Face – and What to Do About it

March 15, 2010 at 1:43 am (Book review, books)

In this engaging work, Richard Tedlow examines a perverse, persistent syndrome from numerous angles. Sigmund Freud defined denial as “knowing with not knowing;” George Orwell called it “protective stupidity.” Whatever it’s called, it has caused individuals and entire organizations to assume a sort of willful blindness in the face of incontrovertible facts. Sometimes this blindness takes the form of smug complacency, as when the giants of the U.S tire industry were faced with the advent of radial tires, a clearly superior product made by the French company Michelin. I mentioned in a previous post that I was quite frankly amazed to be fascinated by the history of the tire industry. Well, it is fascinating, of course, because businesses are constituted of the people who work in them, and few subjects are as intriguing as human behavior, with all its vagaries, bizarre manifestations, and flashes of brilliance.

Denial in a business environment can take various forms. In the preceding paragraph, I mentioned a complacency that prevents – even supplants – the timely response to a challenge. Another of these forms is represented by the decision taken in sealed chambers, where awareness of the outside world – also known as the customer base – rarely penetrates. Think of Coca-Cola’s plan, unveiled in 1985, to reformulate its  signature beverage. Here was a product that commanded almost fanatical loyalty not just in this country but all over the world and had done so from the time of  the company’s founding in 1886. The result was a public relations disaster followed by frantic back-pedaling, not to mention gleeful piling-on by Coke’s chief competitor, Pepsi-Cola.

Other companies profiled in the first part of the book are Ford – whose founder and leader believed in the Model T forever and always – A&P, Sears, IBM, and Webvan, one of the more infamous internet start-ups that appeared on the scene during the dot.com madness of the late 1990s. (Webvan’s business plan was so pie-in-the-sky that I gasped out loud when I read it. Select your groceries online and have them delivered to your door in half an hour? The company planned to have warehouses in low rent districts throughout the country. But what if you live in choking-on-traffic regions like the Baltimore/Washington metro area, where at rush hour it can take half an hour to go half a mile? Yet analysts and investors alike were entranced by this company’s potential.)

I particularly enjoyed the chapter on A&P. Here Tedlow describes the genesis of the modern supermarket. And we are apprised of an ancillary event crucial to the growth of this enterprise. It involves an object so prosaic, so mundane that most of us take it completely for granted. I refer to the humble shopping cart, invented in 1937 by an Oklahoma grocer named Sylvan Goldman

In the second part of the book, Tedlow recounts stories of companies that got it right by fighting off the demon of denial. In the chapter entitled “‘Why Shouldn’t You and I Walk out the Door…?’ A new Perspective at Intel,” we get a first hand account of how Andy Grove and Gordon Moore came to the realization that they had to get out of the  memory chip business and focus exclusively on making microprocessors. Here was a decisive moment, if there ever was one. (Tedlow is well placed to write about Intel, having published a comprehensive biography of Andy Grove in 2006.)

There’s also a chapter on Johnson & Johnson’s masterful handling of the Tylenol poisonings in the 1980s. It is gratifying to see how this organization, led by visionary CEO James E. Burke, managed to do the right thing by leading with its heart as well as its head. This chapter, the penultimate one, reads like a thriller.

All told, Denial offers a lively account of the stumbling, fumbling, and occasionally inspired action that has characterized some of America’s most famous companies over the past hundred years. Richard Tedlow is well aware that  the history of business in America is, in fact, the history of America.


Here’s Richard (I’m allowed to call him by his first name; he’s my brother) giving a presentation at Google headquarters in Mountain View, California, in November of 2006:

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Every once in a while, the judges get it exactly right

March 13, 2010 at 8:58 pm (Awards, books)

This past Thursday, the National Book Critics Circle announced its winners for 2009.  Wolf Hall, Hilary Mantels’ magisterial work of historical fiction, received the fiction prize. The Age of Wonder, Richard Holmes’s astonishingly capacious history of science in the Romantic Age, won for general nonfiction.

Books were cited in four other categories. Click here for the complete list.

So gratifying, really, to have such an august body validating one’s own choices!

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Books to talk about – a personal view

March 8, 2010 at 1:22 pm (Book clubs, books)

Recently a friend asked me for some suggestions for her book club. I get this question often enough that I decided to put a list together.

I keep a log of  the books I read; what follows has its genesis in that list. Where I’ve reviewed a title in depth, written about it as a  discussion choice, or done a feature piece on the author, I’ve provided a link to the relevant post.

These are all books that I have liked – in some cases, loved – in recent years. I recommend all of them, either for group discussion or for  solitary enjoyment. This is a very subjective compilation; I welcome comments and suggestions.

The late John McGahern, whose luminous novel I especially cherish


The Ghost at the Table – Suzanne Berne
The House on Fortune Street – Margot Livesey
The Promise of Happiness and To Heaven By Water – Justin Cartwright
Intuition – Allegra Goodman
The Photograph – Penelope Lively
Second Honeymoon and Other People’s Children – Joanna Trollope
Prospero’s Daughter – Elizabeth Nunez
Digging To America – Anne Tyler
The Emperor’s Children – Claire Messud
The Whole World Over – Julia Glass
The Other Side of the Bridge – Mary Lawson
The Other Side of YouSalley Vickers
Elephanta Suite – Paul Theroux
On Chesil Beach, Saturday, Enduring Love – Ian McEwan
Trauma – Patrick McGrath
Cleaver – Tim Parks
Senator’s Wife – Sue Miller
The Northern Clemency – Philip Hensher
The Housekeeper and the Professor – Yoko Ogawa
The Human Stain, Everyman – Philip Roth
Hotel Du Lac – Anita Brookner
By the Lake – John McGahern
The Little Stranger – Sarah Waters
Love and Summer – William Trevor
Unfinished Desires – Gail Godwin
Heart of a Shepherd – Rosanne Parry (JF)

Historical fiction

Land of Marvels – Barry Unsworth
The Shooting Party – Isabel Colegate
The Fall of Troy and The Lambs of London – Peter Ackroyd
Arthur & George – Julian Barnes
Wolf Hall – Hilary Mantel
An Imperfect Lens – Anne Roiphe
The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate – Jacqueline Kelly (YA)

Short story collections

It’s Beginning To Hurt – James Lasdun
Both Ways Is the Only Way I Want It – Maile Meloy
In Other Rooms, Other Wonders – Daniyal Mueenuddin
Too Much Happiness – Alice Munro
Museum of Dr. Moses – Joyce Carol Oates
Cheating at Canasta – William Trevor
Unaccustomed Earth and Interpreter of Maladies – Jhumpa Lahiri
Ideas of Heaven: A Ring of Stories – Joan Silber
Little Black Book of Stories – A.S. Byatt
My Father’s Tears – John Updike
Walk the Blue Fields – Claire Keegan


The Professor’s House – Willa Cather
Lady Audley’s Secret – Elizabeth Braddon
The House in Paris – Elizabeth Bowen
Washington Square – Henry James
The Great GatsbyF. Scott Fitzgerald

Mystery and Suspense

The Coffin Trail – Martin Edwards
The Indian BrideBlack Seconds, and Water’s Edge – Karin Fossum
Half Broken Things and Puccini’s Ghosts – Morag Joss
Monsieur Monde Vanishes – Georges Simenon
The Ghost – Robert Harris
Blue Heaven – C.J. Box
Suffer the Little Children, A Sea of Troubles, Girl of His Dreams – Donna Leon
Careful Use of Compliments and novels in The No.1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series – Alexander McCall Smith
Price of Malice – Archer Mayor
Second Burial of a Black Prince – Andrew Nugent
The Clare Fergusson / Russ Van Alstyne series– Julia Spencer-Fleming
The Armand Gamache series – Louise Penny
Minotaur and  The Birthday Present – Barbara Vine
Seven Lies – James Lasdun
Once a Biker – Peter Turnbull
Water Like a Stone – Deborah Crombie
Christine Falls – Benjamin Black
The Tinderbox – Jo Bannister
Raven Black and White NightsAnn Cleeves
What the Dead KnowLaura Lippman
On Beulah Height, and other Dalziel & Pascoe novels – Reginald Hill
The Pure in Heart – Susan Hill
The Godwulf Manuscript and The ProfessionalRobert B. Parker
The Remains of an Altar – Phil Rickman
The Chameleon’s Shadow – Minette Walters
The Way Some People Die and The Zebra-Striped Hearse – Ross MacDonald
Cold in Hand – John Harvey
Monster in the Box, Simisola, and Judgement in Stone– Ruth Rendell
The Accomplice – Elizabeth Ironside
The Suspect – L.R. Wright
Finding Nouf – Zoe Ferraris
Bleeding Heart Square – Andrew Taylor
Strangers on a Train – Patricia Highsmith
The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo – Stieg  Larsson
The Crossing Places – Elly Griffiths
The Cold Dish – Craig Johnson
The Laughing Policeman – Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo
Hit Parade and Hit and Run – Lawrence Block
Thunder Bay – William Kent Krueger
The Demon of Dakar – Kjell Eriksson
Brat Farrar and The Franchise Affair – Josephine Tey
The Maltese FalconDashiell Hammett


The Gardner Heist: The True Story of the World’s Largest Unsolved Art Theft – Ulirch Boser
The Discovery of France: A Historical Geography – Graham Robb
American Bloomsbury: Louisa May Alcott, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Margaret Fuller, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Henry David Thoreau:   their lives, their loves, their work – Susan Cheever
City of Falling Angels – John Berendt
Mayflower: A Story of Courage, Community, and War – Nathaniel Philbrick
Archie & Amelie: love and madness in the Gilded Age – Donna Lucey
Monsters: Mary Shelley & the Curse of Frankenstein – Dorothy and Thomas Hoobler
The Omnivore’s Dilemma and In Defense of Food – Michael Pollan
The Girls Who Went Away: the hidden history of women who surrendered children for adoption in the decades before Roe v. Wade – Ann           Fessler
Uncommon Arrangements: seven portraits of married life in London literary circles, 1910-1939 – Katie Roiphe
Indian Summer: the secret history of the end of an empire – Alex von Tunzelmann
Bloody Falls of the Coppermine: madness, murder, and the collision of cultures in the Arctic, 1913 – McKay Jenkins
A Venetian Affair and Lucia: a Venetian life in the age of Napoleon – Andrea Di Robilant
Into the Wild – Jon Krakauer
The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher: a shocking murder and the undoing of a great Victorian detectiveKate Summerscale
A Passion for Nature:  the life of John Muir – Donald Worster
Zeitoun – Dave Eggers
The Age of Wonder:  how the romantic generation discovered the beauty and terror of science – Richard Holmes
Parallel Lives: five Victorian marriages – Phyllis Rose
The Art of Time in Fiction: as long as it takes – Joan Silber
May and Amy: a true story of family, forbidden love, and the secret lives of May Gaskell, her daughter Amy, and Sir Edward Burne-Jones – Josceline Dimbleby
The Last Duel: a true story of crime, scandal, and trial by combat in medieval France – Eric Jager
Denial: Why Business Leaders Fail to Look Facts in the Face—and What to Do About It – Richard S. Tedlow
Nothing To Be Frightened Of – Julian Barnes



Anne Tyler, whose new novel I am greatly looking forward to reading


I wrote   Looking for reading group guides and book reviews in 2007 . The information contained in this post is still useful, but one item needs updating. The local library no longer subscribes to the database Masterfile.  Instead, you can use GeneralOneFile, which pretty much covers the same ground in a somewhat more coherent fashion.

Here’s a piece of good news – finally – for book lovers: Kirkus has been given a new lease on life due to the good offices and generosity of book lover (and basketball team owner!) Herbert Simon. The price of a subscription is rather steep, but you can access specific Kirkus reviews gratis on GeneralOneFile.

In the interest of full disclosure, there are three books on the above list that I have not yet finished reading. I only recently got my hands on The House in Paris by Elizabeth Bowen, and I am loath to rush through it -it is so deliciously Henry Jamesian, and so gorgeously written. I feel the same way about My Father’s Tears, the final story collection from the late, greatly missed John Updike.

Finally, Denial arrived here at the house just a few days ago (the book, I mean!), a gift from the author who also happens to be my brother. I’m about half way through it and enjoying it immensely. Richard, only you could fascinate me with tales of the tire industry!

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Crime fiction backlog: some good ones here…

March 5, 2010 at 2:14 pm (Book review, books, Mystery fiction)

There’s nothing to do at this juncture but to tackle them as a group – so here goes:

In January, I needed a nice slim paperback to take on a quick trip, so I grabbed A Sea of Troubles by Donna Leon. All I knew about it was that it was a Guido Brunetti novel and that it was by one of my favorite authors.

Donna Leon

Not only did it not disappoint, but I think it’s one of her best – right up there with these:

In A Sea of Troubles, Signorina Elettra goes undercover in Pellestrina, a long, narrow spit of land between the Adriatic Sea and the Lagoon of Venice. (A map is provided, something I always appreciate.) A murder has occurred there, but Elettra’s undertaking in the matter is unofficial.  She’s investigating on her own time while staying with relations in the area. It’s a situation fraught with danger, and Commissario Guido Brunetti, the (official) investigating officer, is frantic with worry – so  much so that he is forced to confront the nature of his feelings for the mercurial and hitherto rather opaque departmental secretary/researcher. (His wife, the fiery Paola, is not best pleased either.) Meanwhile, Elettra’s own feelings, usually so carefully guarded, take a wholly unexpected turn during her brief sojourn in Pellestrina.


Dark Mirror by Barry Maitland opens with the death of a beautiful young woman. Marion Summers, studious and conscientious, collapses in the London Library and dies shortly thereafter. At first, murder is not even suspected, but further investigation reveals that Marion was in fact poisoned. How and why was this cunning crime carried out? Kathy Kolla’s brief is to find the answer to these deeply troubling questions.

Maitland’s prose and plotting are both elegant. He can also be quite witty on occasion. Here, he’s supposedly quoting another party as to the actual meaning of the famous bet-hedging verdict unique to Scottish law, Not Proven: “Not guilty, but don’t do it again.”

The Brock and Kolla series – David Brock is Kathy Kolla’s mentor on the force – hit the ground running with The Marx Sisters. ( This marvelous entertainment, first published in 1994, is now back in print thanks to the good offices of the folks at Felony & Mayhem Press.) Dark Mirror is the fourth novel I’ve read in this series. As with the Guido Brunetti novels and Ruth Rendell’s Wexford procedurals, I intend (eventually) to go back and read them all.

Barry Maitland

Currently living in Australia, Barry Maitland, writer and architect, was born in Scotland.


There was already plenty of buzz among the Usual Suspects concerning the fifth entry in Louise Penny’s Armand Gamache series by the time I got around to reading it. The Brutal Telling is rich in atmosphere, provocative observations, a host of varied characters, and the distinctive, verging-on-poetry writing style that is such a distinguishing mark of these novels.

The action  begins with a body being found in the bistro owned and run by Olivier and his partner Gabri.  Both claim ignorance of the victim. Gabri is being completely truthful; Olivier is not. From this fatal incident springs a whole host of ills.

This series has two great strengths. First, Louise Penny is a terrific writer with a unique and refreshing style. Her love of language is reflected in the original way she makes use of it. Here’s an instance I particularly liked. One of the characters in Brutal Telling is a young man of Czech parentage named Havoc Parra. The Parras, who live in the countryside near the village of Three Pines, own several dogs.

Here, Mrs. Parra is  searching for her son:

‘Havoc!’ his mother cried, letting the dogs slip out as she called into the woods.

(Well, okay, you might not be as big a fan of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar as I am, so you may not recognize the oblique reference to my favorite speech from that play, ‘O pardon me, thou bleeding piece of earth.’ Here’s how it concludes:

And Caesar’s spirit, ranging for revenge,
With Ate’ by his side come hot from Hell,
Shall in these confines with a monarch’s voice
Cry “Havoc!” and let slip the dogs of war,
That this foul deed shall smell above the earth
With carrion men, groaning for burial.—  )

The above quote is an instance of Penny’s playful, trickster aspect. but she is likewise superb at setting a scene. Here Clara Morrow, a painter of distinction, has invited friends into her home so they can see her newly completed works:

‘There, lit only by candles, was Clara’s art. Or at least three large canvases, propped on easels. Gamache felt suddenly light-headed, as though he’d traveled back to the time of Rembrandt, da Vinci, Titian. Where art was viewed either by daylight or candlelight. Was this how the Mona Lisa was first seen? The Sistine Chapel? By firelight? Like cave drawings.

The Francophone ambience that pervades Penny’s novels is a delight. In its own way, rural Quebec is as exotic for readers – at least, for this reader – as, for instance, the Laos of Colin Cotterill’s Siri Paiboun series. I love the scattering of French phrases throughout the text.

Toward the end of  the novel, Chief Inpector Gamache’s investigation takes him to the Queen Charlotte Islands off the northwest coast of British Columbia. The purpose of  his journey is to interview members of the Haida tribe. This is a radically different environment for both Gamache and the reader, and Penny renders it beautifully. I felt as though this part of the story had been given to me as a  gift, by this gifted and generous author.

Louise Penny

All of this said, I recall being rather frustrated by The Brutal Telling‘s brutally convoluted plot (it’s been a while since I read it), and ultimately being confused by the ending. This is not a sensation I enjoy. Rather, I like to finish a novel with a sense of the rightness of the  conclusion, whether it is happy, sad, or even open-ended (this last option brought off brilliantly by Hilary Mantel in Wolf Hall).


The three above mentioned novels are all by authors I have read and enjoyed previously. The Crossing Places is by Elly Griffiths, an author new to me. This is, in fact, her first mystery (though not her first novel, according to the brief bio on the jacket flap).

Elly Griffiths

First of all, Griffiths has given us a very winning protagonist in Ruth Galloway. Ruth lives adjacent to the Saltmarsh, a windswept, desolate place that nonetheless has its own mysterious appeal. At least, it does for Ruth. For one thing, it is a site that yields riches to a forensic archeologist like herself.

The novel begins with Ruth being summoned to the Saltmarsh by the local police. They want to know the approximate age of some bones that have been unearthed there. Are they of concern to antiquarians and historians? or to present-day law-enforcement? In the event, there prove to be two sets of bones, providing matter for both interest  groups.

The Crossing Places is a novel rich in atmosphere. Here, Ruth is reflecting on the remains of a henge found at the Saltmarsh some years ago. Norwegian archeologist Erik Anderssen, her mentor and tutor, had been instrumental in making this momentous discovery:

‘Ruth remembers how eerie it had looked in that first morning light, like a shipwreck that had risen silently to the surface, the wooden posts forming a  sombre ring, black against the sky. She remembers Erik telling fireside stories about Norse water spirits: the Nixes, shape-shifters who lure unwary travellers into the water; the Nokke, river sprites who sing at dawn and dusk.

Ruth quickly becomes involved in the mystery of a missing child. (Rather too quickly, I thought; I could clearly detect the plot machinery being moved into place to facilitate this development.) Another, older mystery, also involving a child’s disappearance, hovers in the background. The investigating officer, DCI Harry Nelson, is likewise hovering in Ruth’s vicinity. Yes, he needs her expertise – something else, as well?

But mostly, this novel is haunted by the brooding Saltmarsh, which yields up its secrets with the greatest reluctance. This is very evocative, chill-inducing stuff. In her acknowledgments, Elly Griffiths states that she drew inspiration from Seahenge by Francis Pryor.

(You will note in the block quote above the author’s use of the present tense. I’m trying to decide if I’m encountering  this usage more often than heretofore in the fiction I’ve read lately.  It’s not my favorite narrative device, though I thought works flawlessly in Wolf Hall.)


In both A Sea of Troubles and The Crossing Places, the action climaxes with a raging storm. Now I liked both of these novels very much, but that’s a plot device that skates perilously close to overuse, IMHO. At any rate, that’s it for my mystery world, for the time being anyway. Happy reading, all!

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