Midyear roundup: best reads of 2010, thus far

July 31, 2010 at 2:35 am (Best of 2010, books)

Here are my favorites reads so far for 2010. As in the past. I’ve included books that were published prior to this year but that I’ve read since this year began. I’ve linked to relevant posts in this space.

An asterisk denotes a title I found especially outstanding – a probable candidate for “best of the best,” at the close of the year.




*Unfinished Desires – Gail Godwin

*A Week in December – Sebastian Faulks

The House in Paris – Elizabeth Bowen

Her Fearful Symmetry – Audrey Niffenegger

The Man in the Wooden Hat – Jane Gardam

*The Road Home – Rose Tremain

*Family Happiness – Leo Tolstoy

What Is Left the Daughter – Howard Norman

Mystery / Thriller

The Price of Malice – Archer Mayor

Wycliffe and the Tangled Web – W.J. Burley

The Cold Dish – Craig Johnson

*The Monster in the Box – Ruth Rendell

The Crossing Places – Elly Griffiths

The Serpent Pool – Martin Edwards

*A Sea of Troubles – Donna Leon

The Brutal Telling – Louise Penny

*The Dark Mirror – Barry Maitland

*The Girl Who Played with Fire – Stieg Larsson

*The Lost Art of Gratitude – Alexander McCall Smith

The Black Cat – Martha Grimes

*The Poacher’s Son – Paul Doiron

The Corpse in the Koryo – James Church

*A Stranger in the Family – Robert Barnard

*The Ninth Step – Gabriel Cohen

*The Silver Bear – Derek Haas

Nine Dragons – Michael Connelly


The Art of Time in Fiction – Joan Silber

Denial – Richard S. Tedlow

*Parallel Lives – Phyllis Rose

*The Poisoner’s Handbook – Deborah Blum

*Lives Like Loaded Guns – Lyndall Gordon

Contested Will – James Shapiro

The Metaphysical Club – Louis Menand

*A Midwife’s Tale – Laurel Thatcher Ulrich

Sargent’s Daughters – Erica Hirschler


Author Gallery


Lyndall Gordon


Phyllis Rose

Alexander McCall Smith and Jill Scott, who plays Mma Ramotswe in the TV version of The No.1 Ladies' Detective Agency. If you have not watched these films...well, drop everything and do so at once! (They are owned by the Howard County Library.)

Louise Penny

Donna Leon, a great novelist in any genre

Ruth Rendell - like Donna Leon, a writer of depth, irony, and subtlety

Craig Johnson, who, when not wielding a pen, seems equally at home wielding a chainsaw!

Archer Mayor

Gail Godwin, whose writing has given me much pleasure over the years

Richard S. Tedlow - a fine writer and a wonderful brother (to Yours Truly) as well


Jane Gardam

Lev Nikolayevich Tolstoy, by his constant portraitist Ilya Repin (1901)


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Challenged, perplexed – and at times, moved – by The Corpse in the Koryo

July 28, 2010 at 12:03 pm (Book clubs, Book review, books, Mystery fiction)

Here’s what the folks at Stop, You’re Killing Me! had to say about The Corpse in the Koryo by James Church:

A Corpse in the Koryo (2006) introduces Inspector O, a state police officer, in North Korea. After an odd assignment to photograph a car speeding through the mountains at dawn, Inspector O realizes he and his superior, Pak, have become involved in a power struggle between rival military and intelligence forces. In this closed society, everyone is spying on everyone else, selling information or buying it. O writes the shortest reports possible, knowing that details invite questions, but always “forgets” to wear his lapel portrait of the Leader. Though Inspector O searches for justice in an ever-shifting reality, cases are rarely solved in his world. In constant pursuit of an ever-elusive cup of tea, O worries chips of hardwood, smoothing the edges to get to the heart of the wood, and dreams of someday building a bookcase. This is an excellent first novel, beautifully written in a unique voice that brings an unfamiliar world to life.

I’ve known of The Corpse in the Koryo for some time – known that it has garnered plaudits from critics, and that the author, writing under a pseudonym, worked in intelligence for many years. Purportedly, his knowledge of North Korea is first hand.

Despite the laudatory reviews (like this one in the Washington Post), I had never intended to read this novel, Why, I reasoned, would I wish to read about about such a grim, benighted place? Then the Usual Suspects made it their June selection. So I thought I would give it a go…

And although the  book had some fine moments, for the most part I had to struggle to get through it. The primary difficulty lay with the fiendishly complex story line. I got lost about a third of the way in and after that, pretty much stopped trying to make sense of events. Inspector O is a prickly but basically decent man, trying to be a conscientious policeman in a world where only those who toady, connive, and deceive get any kind of reward for their efforts. As bleak as things are in his country, it is still his country, and he becomes defiant when an outsider denigrates it:

‘This godforsaken country, as you call it, is where I live. This is my home. The little room I have is where I go at night to find shelter from the storms of the day. Maybe a Finn would think it too cramped, not well furnished, lacking blond wood and bright furniture. But I like it fine.’

I lived in South Korea for a year, in the early 1970s. I was in a small village whose tiny houses were surrounded by bare dirt. Around each house was a stone wall with broken glass embedded on top, to discourage the “slicky boys” from breaking and entering. Esthetically the place had nothing to recommend it. Yet in Seoul, I saw lovely parks and fabulous textile markets. I came to admire in particular the celadon pottery: .

While there, I had the opportunity to teach English. At the conclusion of one of the classes, the students took me out to dinner. We sat on the floor, around a low table, and I ate some of the most delicious food I have ever tasted.

I found the people of South Korea to be kind and  generous.

There is some wonderful writing in this novel. A “Military Security thug” is described thus:

There was no doubt he was Korean, but neither could anyone miss that in his veins flowed blood from ancestors who never belonged here. The hawklike features, the sharp nose on a long, lean face, flashing eyes  set deep in the head. Allowing for generations of marriage with the locals, this was the face of a long-ago Arab horseman, come far from home and trapped here by fateful orders he could not disobey.

(I love that last phrase. How many of us have found ourselves at some time trapped by orders we could not – or would not – disobey.)

Inspector O’s deepest emotional bond – seemingly his only emotional bond – is with his deceased grandfather, a man known for his integrity, intelligence, and compassion. He was one of those people whose shrewd observations on life take on, with passing of time, the quality of verities worth cherishing:

‘Don’t listen to anyone who tells you about loyalty to an idea. You’re alone….Without your family, you’re alone.’

‘You can’t shape people…just like you can’t shape wood. You’ve got to find the heart and work from there. There’s no such thing as scrap, not wood, not people.’

Almost everyone at the June meeting had some degree of difficulty with this novel, mainly due to the Byzantine plot. We grappled with the subject of North Korea’s history and its present parlous state. It is hard to get a sense of what life is like for ordinary people in a place so cut off from the world. We agreed that James Church does an admirable job of showing the privation those people grapple with every day and what they must do simply to survive. His depiction of an extremely oppressive atmosphere has the ring of authenticity.

Initially, I felt  that the work required to get through A Corpse in the Koryo would make me permanently unwilling to read another book in the series. However, now that I’ve revisited the subject, I may reconsider.

For so long a time, the news from this place of suffering has been uniformly bad. And so it was with relief that I encountered a cautious note of optimism in a piece by Michael Gerson that appeared in the Post last month.


The “Koryo” in the book’s title is an actual hotel in central Pyongyang:


During their historic appearance in North Korea two years ago, The New York Philharmonic, led by Loren Maazel, performed a lovely arrangement of  “Arirang,” a tune I heard often during my sojourn in South Korea:

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How I long for a sequel! The Road Home, by Rose Tremain

July 26, 2010 at 5:29 pm (Book review, books)

Have you even  become so involved in the lives of fictional characters that they continue to inhabit your mind after you’ve finished the novel? I am having this experience after reading The Road Home by Rose Tremain.

What a lovely, deeply felt novel this is! Lev travels by bus from his native country in Eastern Europe to the UK. His purpose: to earn some money. Jobs are all but nonexistent in his country, especially since the closing of  the sawmill where he and his friend Rudi had worked. Rudi, still living in their native land, at least has his wife Lora for company. Lev is widowed, having lost his beloved Marina to leukemia while she was still in her thirties. They had a daughter, Maya, who lives with Lev’s mother while he works to obtain funds for all of three of them to live on.

As it happens, Rudi has one other asset besides Lora: a dilapidated old car that’s held together with the proverbial spit and chewing gum. This is the infamous “Tchevi,” which serves Rudi as a taxi service and transportation for all occasions. That is, when he can get it to run at all!

In one of their early adventures with this highly unreliable vehicle, Rudi, gets out of the driver’s side and slams the door shut. Which door promptly detaches itself from the car and falls on the snow at his feet. He and Lev manage to re-attach it, and they continue on their way. Later, as dark comes, ice forms on the windshield. The wipers prove all but useless:

Lev took off  the woolen scarf he was wearing and put it round Rudi’s neck. then he got out and opened the trunk and took out one of the three remaining bottles of vodka from the straw and told Rudi to turn off the engine, and as the engine died, the wiper blades made one last useless arc, then lay down, like two exhausted old people fallen end to end beside a skating rink.

Nothing to do in a situation like this, obviously, but to break out the spirits and soothe their frustration…

But all this takes place before Lev’s leave-taking. After a seemingly interminable journey, he finally arrives at his destination: the great, teeming city…

And at once Lev finds himself floundering. He is “legal” and has tried to learn the language; nevertheless, he is at sea. He is bewildered by the culture into which he has been suddenly thrust. At first, Londoners treat him with a mixture of indifference and outright hostility. Lev finds himself  at times oscillating between despair and disgust.

He stared at his face in the plastic mirror and tried to see in it some glance or trait that he could admire, but in the ugly light of this toilet his face looked yellow and ghostly, barely human. There was no light in his eyes.

And despite the currently bleak conditions in his homeland, he finds himself at times filled with longing for the place – not so much as it is now, but as it was in the past. Here he recalls Christmas with his parents Stefan and Ina:

Ina would kill a goose and cook it with rosemary and chestnuts, and Stefan would open a bottle–or two–of his best vodka, and the day would slide peacefully toward darkness and sleep. It was a kind of dying, Lev remembered. A surrender. As though, once the senses had been stilled to this deep rest by rich food and heavy drinking, no morning would intrude on them ever again. And when that morning did come, glaring white at the small windows, the three grown-up occupants of the house…staggered out of their beds in astonishment. They felt like Lazarus.

Despite adversity, despite setbacks, Lev persists. After a rough start that includes a brief period of homelessness, he finds work washing dishes in an upscale restaurant called GK Ashe. The job’s not much, but it’s the beginning of his climb out of poverty. Not only has he found  gainful employment – he also finds love, in the person of Sophie, who does “veg prep” at GK Ashe. Then a banner day arrives when, upon Sophie’s promotion to second sous-chef, Lev himself takes on veg prep for the fussy, exacting chef de cuisine.

In writing, there is sometimes a fine line to walk between the heartwarming and the mawkish. Rose Tremain never crosses that line. She paints a compelling portrait of good hearted people struggling to maintain their dignity and self-respect, even when the odds are against them – especially when the odds are against them. The reader is at one with Lev and his struggles. Even now, weeks after finishing this luminous work of fiction, I wish I knew how and what he is doing at this moment. I wish him – all of them  – well: Lev, his kindly Irish landlord Christy Slane, daughter Maya, mother Ina, best friend Rudi – even the notorious Tchevi!

Rose Tremain won the 2008 Orange Prize for The Road Home.

Rose Tremain acknowledging her prize


Rose Tremain is the author of one of my favorite historical novels: Restoration. This was made into an uncommonly good film in 1995, with a superb cast headed by Robert Downey Jr. – that’s him in the rather fantastical get-up!

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A Stranger in the Family: yet another winner from the pen of Robert Barnard

July 24, 2010 at 10:54 pm (Book review, books, Mystery fiction)

Kit Philipson grew up as the cherished only child of a Glasgow couple. But scarcely had he attained adulthood than a startling revelation alters his perception of himself. His mother, lying desperately ill, tells him that he was adopted.

No sooner has he taken in this new truth about himself than Kit is visited by confusing and disturbing memories. Researching his past, he comes upon a newspaper article that describes the kidnapping of a three-year-old English child. The abduction had occurred while the family was vacationing in Sicily. The Novello family, to be more precise. The Novellos of Leeds.

Straight away, Kit presents himself at 35 Seldon Road. He rings the  bell. No answer. He tries the door and, finding it unlocked, lets himself into the house. He passes through the front hall into the kitchen. Family photographs in the hall, cooking smells…everything is faintly familiar:

He was so rapt in the past that he jumped when the door handle was pulled down. through the frosted glass he could only see a shape, but he thought it was a woman’s, and was glad.

‘What are you doing in my kitchen?’

There was only a slight quaver in the voice. He said the first thing that came into his head.

‘I thought you wouldn’t mind.’

Isla Novello quickly forms a notion of the identity of the youth facing her. Kit confirms her surmise. They embrace.

And yet…

This welcome home is not quite the effusive gesture Kit had anticipated. Something is missing. Something is not quite right.

And so, what should have been the happy conclusion of a quest is actually the beginning of a larger mystery. Kit’s search for his true identity is agonized and relentless. Who were his abductors all those years ago, and how did the abduction happen? Just who is he – Kit Philipson or Peter Novello? Or both…

A Stranger in the Family is really about the search for home, for a place where one belongs unequivocally. Kit Philipson is a wonderful character, and this is a wonderful book.


When Ron and I were in England in 2007, we had the pleasure of hearing Robert Barnard speak at the Bronte parsonage in Haworth (pronounced, I was told, “Howwith”). Barnard has served as chairman of The Bronte Society, and he is passionate about scholarship and preservation issues. In addition, he has written a biography of Emily Bronte.

Robert Barnard at the Bronte Parsonage in 2007. He spoke without notes and was riveting.

In the Spring issue of Deadly Pleasures Mystery Magazine, editor George Easter praises thriller writer Andrew Garve in the following terms: “And like Robert Barnard, he never wrote the same book twice.” I’ve been reading and enjoying Barnard’s crime fiction for years, and I concur with Easter completely. (Wikipedia’s entry includes a comprehensive list of Barnard’s oeuvre.)

In 2003, Robert Barnard was honored with the Cartier Diamond Dagger from the Crime Writers Association of Great Britain. This award is  bestowed on writers in the  field who have achieved excellence over a period of time. I can think of few authors more deserving of this accolade.


I’ve reviewed the following Barnard novels in this space: Death by Sheer Torture, A Fall from Grace, and Last Post.

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Contested Will: Who Wrote Shakespeare?

July 23, 2010 at 2:00 pm (Book review, books, Shakespeare)

Thus did a female character idly wonder in a play from the year 1759 called High Life Below Stairs. When told that the real author was Ben Jonson,  she disagrees vigorously:

“‘Oh no! Shakespeare was written by one Mr. Finis, for I saw his name at the end of the book.’

This delightful bit of drollery is recounted by James Shapiro in the endlessly fascinating and eminently readable Contested Will.

author James Shapiro

The subject is a serious one, though. The Shakespeare plays reign supreme among the great works of Western literature. Who, then, is the true author of these masterpieces? And why has this question arisen in the first place?

A little more than a century after the Bard’s death, scholars and others began searching for documents that would illuminate his life. What did they find? First of all, his will, in 1737, where he famously left his wife his “second best bed.”  Sixteen years later, a mortgage deed for a London property was unearthed. A letter to Shakespeare from Richard Quiney, his neighbor in Stratford, was found in 1793 by the leading Shakespeare biographer and scholar of the day, Edmond Malone.

And that was about it.

And that’s where the trouble started.

Where were the manuscripts in Shakespeare’s own hand? Where was the information about the books he must surely have owned? Where were the letters, which might provide some key to the sources of his inspiration?

Nowhere to be found…

Edmond Malone was the first person to attempt to formulate an accurate chronology of the plays. This scholarly exercise was quickly followed by efforts to deduce biographical or topical (meaning contemporary) meaning from those same plays:

‘Malone’s argument presupposed that in writing his plays, Shakespeare mined his own emotional life in transparent ways and, for that matter, that Shakespeare responded to life’s surprises much as Malone and people in his own immediate circle would have.

And what’s wrong this this approach? Plenty:

‘…there was no effort to consider that even as literary culture had changed radically since early modern times, so too had a myriad of social customs, religious life, childhood, marriage, family dynamics, and, cumulatively, the experience of inwardness. The greatest anachronism of all was in assuming that people have always experienced the world the same way we ourselves do, that Shakespeare’s internal, emotional life was modern.

Shapiro points out that, at least in England, people were not in the habit of writing memoirs, no matter their fame or station in life. It simply wasn’t done. The keeping of diaries or journals was equally rare. The word “biography” did not even enter the language until the 1660s.

The sonnets were subjected to the same sort of scrutiny. Malone was nothing if not persistent. In his efforts to write a definitive biography of Shakespeare, he held to the conviction that a commonplace book, diaries, and/or letters would at some point surface. They never did. And the biography was never completed. After Malone’s death in 1812, James Boswell the Younger was given  the task of finishing the work. But upon examining the material, Boswell realized that he was not merely in need of some material to fill in the lacunae; rather, he was faced with what a called a “chasm.”


Shapiro goes on to explain the way in which questions about Homer’s authorship of The Iliad and The Odyssey fueled the questions then arising about Shakespeare’s authorship. Likewise the explosion of Biblical scholarship. As the nineteenth century got under way, fresh intellectual inquiries were calling old verities into question. One of those verities had to do with the Shakespeare plays. Among the major reasons for the questioning in regard to Shakespeare are his lack of a university education and the lack of evidence that he ever traveled outside of England. Shapiro then focuses on two of the chief contenders for the crown of authorship: Sir Francis Bacon and Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford.

One of Bacon’s most ardent proponents was Delia Bacon, an American. No relation to Sir Francis, although she probably entertained the fantasy. (Actually she entertained many fantasies, as, in the course of her short life, her state of mind became increasingly precarious.) Hers is an interesting, if poignant, story.

I had never heard of Delia Bacon, but I was surprised to encounter, in the course of this narrative, some quite famous personalities. None other than Henry James weighed in as a doubter. Along with Delia Bacon and others, he fervently believed that The Tempest is Shakespeare’s most autobiographical play, where he sets the stage for the leave-taking of his creative life. In an introduction to a new edition of that masterwork, James set forth the issues that bothered him:

“…how could the genius who wrote [The Tempest] renounce his art at the age of forty-eight and retire to rural Stratford to ‘spend what remained to him of life in walking about a small, squalid country-town with his hand in his pockets and ear for no music but the chink of the coin they might turn over there?’

Mark Twain weighed in on the controversy with Is Shakespeare Dead? (rather oddly subtitled, From My Autobiography). Is Shakespeare Dead? was published in 1909. In that year, Twain received a visit from his friend and correspondent, Helen Keller. Keller herself was also skeptical of the claims of the Bard.


Digression alert: I was talking to my friend Evelyn, a children’s librarian, about the fact that Helen Keller seems not to be as well known today as she was at mid-century. We agreed that when we were growing up, we all knew about her and her achievements. And we had all of us seen the film version of William Gibson’s play The Miracle Worker. Its climax, when Annie Sullivan finally breaks through to the young Helen, is one of the great moments of stage and film:

A foundation for research into the prevention of blindness and hearing loss is named in honor of this remarkable woman.

Mark Twain and Helen Keller, circa 1899


By the time Twain published his book, the Bacon faction was on the wane. And a different candidate was gaining in credibility. This is Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford.

Shapiro’s chapter on Oxford begins with Sigmund Freud. I know – I had the same reaction – “Sigmund, what are you doing here?” But it behooves us to recall Freud’s famous analysis of Hamlet; namely, that the Prince of Denmark was afflicted by an unresolved Oedipal fixation on – who else – his mother. The theory, and the play, made much more sense if the author were a man of breeding, education, and mystery. Oxford, a well placed aristocrat, was a good fit – certainly a better one than the man from Stratford.

This section is complex and fascinating and pretty much takes us into the present era of authorship study. It is followed by an even more absorbing section, the final section, in which Shapiro presents “The Evidence for Shakespeare.”  I don’t want to give away the  nature of that evidence, except to say that in my opinion, he makes an extremely persuasive case for Shakespeare as the author of the Shakespeare plays. (Only not Shakespeare alone – but you’ll just have to read the book to discern my meaning! Hint – the word “collaboration” is very key….)


When I was telling her about this book, Evelyn remarked that it would be terrible if it turned out that someone other than Shakespeare wrote the plays and poetry. She said she would feel betrayed by such a revelation. I think she need not worry. Certainly de Vere still has his adherents, and there are other candidates as well. Among these is Christopher Marlowe, who, according to certain conjectures, was not killed in that altercation in a tavern but was secretly spirited away to a hiding place, where, among other things, he could write plays and poetry in relative peace and quiet.

(This puts me in mind of a scene in the film Shakespeare in Love. Viola is grief-stricken, thinking that her beloved Will has been killed. But she has misunderstood – it is Marlowe who has been murdered. When she and Will are at length together again, he declares to her that Christopher Marlowe was England’s greatest playwright. She says that she has not heard him utter such praise of Marlowe before. He responds ruefully, “He was not dead before.”)


At any rate, surely the greatest cause for wonder is how these plays could be so profoundly beautiful, so eternally relevant. I think back on what a reviewer said of Stephen Greenblatt’s Will in the World: that the real mystery is not how little we know for certain about William Shakespeare some four hundred years after he lived but how, all those many years ago, he knew so much about us.


Contested Will has an extremely lengthy and comprehensive bibliography. For Shakespeare resources on the internet, I like Shakespeare online. Click here for more posts on various aspects of Shakespeare. The majority are reviews of productions I’ve been privileged to attend at  the Folger Shakespeare Theatre.


The Chandos portrait of Shakespeare. It hangs in London’s National Portrait Gallery.

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The art of Russia

July 20, 2010 at 11:46 pm (Art, Music, Russophilia)

I’ve written about Russian painting before, but that was before I found these YouTube videos.

First – here are some of Ilya Repin’s greatest paintings; the music is Oriental Rhapsody by Alexander Glazunov. My one reservation about this presentation is that the works fly by too quickly! If you want to revisit them at a slower pace, try Russian Art Gallery, Olga’s Gallery, or the Wikipedia entry for this astounding artist.

Repin seems to have been granted virtually unlimited access to Leo Tolstoy. But the painter retained his sense of awe at the greatness of his subject:

Spellbound by his association with Tolstoy, Repin wrote to his daughter upon his return to Petersburg from Yasnaya Polyana: ‘No matter the self-abasements of this giant, or his choice of perishable rags to cover his mighty body, Zeus always shows in him, and all of Olympus trembles from the play of his eyebrows.’
(Quoted in Russia: The Land, the People: Russian Painting 1850-1910 )


Here is a selection of works by the great landscape painter Isaac Levitan. Levitan’s story is a poignant one: born to educated but impoverished Lithuanian Jews, he suffered from chronic depression and from the inevitable anti-Semitic slights for most of his short life (1860-1900). Yet in his art, he triumphed.

(If you click on “Watch on YouTube,” in the lower right hand corner of the screen, you can read the enlightening and enlightened comments made by the poster. You’ll find information about the gorgeous music by Rachmaninoff as well.)

In Art:A New History, Paul Johnson observes: “Levitan had no reason to love Russia or the Russians, but he did. And he celebrated his love in some magnificent canvases which used the beauty and grandeur of the Russian scene to express spiritual values hovering just beneath its surface.”

Portrait of Isaac Levitan by Valentin Serov (1893)

The Athenaeum has a fine selection of Levitan’s paintings. And here is yet more proof that you can find just about anything on the internet: an article entitled “Lithuanian Jews on Postage Stamps.” Thanks are due to Vitaly Charny for this lively and informative piece. He himself has an exceptionally interesting life story; scroll down to the bottom of the page to find it.


I love this video. It consists of a haunting baritone aria from Lieutenant Kije, by Sergei Prokofiev. (It haunts me, anyway – I’ve listened to it over and over again.) The visual is Repin’s tour de force, “Reply of the Zaporozhian Cossacks.”

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Much have I studied in the pages of Louis Menand’s The Metaphysical Club

July 14, 2010 at 2:40 am (Book review, books, History)

And much did I struggle with and not quite comprehend…

The subtitle of Menand’s book is “A Story of Ideas in America.” Some of those ideas were sufficiently abstract – not to mention abstruse – that it was as though I had strayed into “how-many-angels-can-dance-on-the-head-of-a-pin” territory.  I felt this all the more keenly because most of the passages to which I refer came after a description of a Civil War battle – the so-called Bloody Angle of Spotsylvania – that was so horrifying that I knew at once that I could never read an entire book about that savage conflict:

‘In a small space along the breastworks of Confederate trenches, in the pouring rain, the two sides had fought hand to hand continuously for eighteen hours in a kind of blood frenzy. Men thrust bayonets through the logs or jumped onto the barricade and fired into the mass of soldiers below until they were themselves shot down. A tree eighteen inches thick was completely severed by bullets.

Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. was not at this battle; nevertheless, as a first lieutenant in the Twentieth Regiment of Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry (aka “the Harvard Regiment,”), he saw plenty of action and was wounded more than once. In later life, he rarely  spoke of his wartime ordeal.

(I have ever confused Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. – eminent jurist and Supreme Court Justice – with his father, who was a physician and a poet. OWH Senior wrote one of my favorite poems: “The Chambered Nautilus:”

This is the ship of pearl, which, poets feign,
Sail the unshadowed main,–
The venturous bark that flings
On the sweet summer wind its purpled wings
In gulfs enchanted, where the Siren sings,
And coral reefs lie bare,
Where the cold sea-maids rise to sun their streaming hair.

Its webs of living gauze no more unfurl;
Wrecked is the ship of pearl!
And every chambered cell,
Where its dim dreaming life was wont to dwell,
As the frail tenant shaped his growing shell,
Before thee lies revealed,–
Its irised ceiling rent, its sunless crypt unsealed!

Year after year beheld the silent toil
That spread his lustrous coil;
Still, as the spiral grew,
He left the past year’s dwelling for the new,
Stole with soft step its shining archway through,
Built up its idle door,
Stretched in his last-found home, and knew the old no more.

Thanks for the heavenly message brought by thee,
Child of the wandering sea,
Cast from her lap, forlorn!
From thy dead lips a clearer note is born
Than ever Triton blew from wreathed horn;
While on mine ear it rings,
Through the deep caves of thought I hear a voice that sings:–

Build thee more stately mansions, O my soul,
As the swift seasons roll!
Leave thy low-vaulted past!
Let each new temple, nobler than the last,
Shut thee from heaven with a dome more vast,
Till thou at length art free,
Leaving thine outgrown shell by life’s unresting sea!

In my youth, I thought this poem sappy. I now find it beautiful and am grateful for its optimistic spirit.)


These days, America’s favorite luminary of early 19th century New England is Henry David Thoreau. Thoreau barely figures in Menand’s narrative, whereas Ralph Waldo Emerson is a crucial figure:

“…Emerson was a genuine moralist whose mistrust of moralism led him continually to complicate and deflect his own formulations. He was a preacher whose message was: Don’t listen to preachers. ‘I like the silent church before the service begins, better than any preaching,’ as he put it in the essay on ‘Self-Reliance’…Emerson represented the tradition of the New England churchman, which is one reason he became an honored and respected figure despite his anti-institutionalism; and at the same time, he represented that tradition’s final displacement. Unitarianism had rescued the integrity of the individual conscience from Calvinism. Emerson rescued it from Unitarianism–which is why after his famous address to the Harvard Divinity School in 1838, in which he scandalized the Unitarians by renouncing organized Christianity in favor of personal revelation, he was not invited to speak at Harvard again for thirty years.

In 1958, Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. received, as a birthday gift from his parents, a five volume edition of Emerson’s writings. At the time, Holmes was a freshman at Harvard. Writing many years after the fact, he says of  Emerson that he “set me on fire.”

There is much in The Metaphysical Club concerning Holmes’s philosophy of jurisprudence. I admit that I found the material tough going.

At the conclusion of the section of the book devoted to Holmes, the author describes a poignant scene.In 1932, the distinguished jurist, now retired, attempts to read a poem about the war to Marion Frankfurter, wife of Felix Frankfurter. Unable to proceed with the reading, Holmes  broke down and wept:

‘They were not tears for the war. They were tears for what the war had destroyed. Holmes had grown up in a highly cultivated, homogeneous world, a world of which he was, in many ways, the consummate product: idealistic, artistic, and socially committed. And then he had watched that world bleed to death at Fredericksburg and Antietam, in a war that learning and brilliance had been powerless to prevent.


Next we turn to William James.

In our house, we have frequent recourse to that stale bit of humor in which one person asks, “Do you have trouble making decisions?” and the other responds, “Well, yes and no.” The chapter on William James is entitled, “The Man of Two Minds.” He was, apparently, a master equivocator.

He was also a formidable intellect, from a family of formidable intellects. His father Henry was a theologian who came to embrace Swedenborgianism. William’s younger brother was the novelist Henry James.

Part of Henry Senior’s formative experience involved being swept up in what is called the Second Great Awakening, which began in New England at the turn of the 19th century:

‘From one point of view, the Second Great Awakening, which lasted from 1800 to the eve of the Civil War, was, as Tocqueville interpreted it, a kind of democratization of European Christianity, a massive absorption onto American popular culture of the Protestant spiritual impulse, , stripped of most of its traditional heirarchies and formalities. But from another point of view, it was the last blast of supernaturalism before science superseded theology as thee dominant discourse in American intellectual life.

(I wanted especially to quote the above passage as an illustration of the sheer elegance of Menand’s prose.)


Next we meet Swiss paleontologist and geologist Louis Agassiz, who relocated to the U.S. in 1846 and eventually accepted a professorship at Harvard University. In 1850, the widowed Agassiz married Elizabeth Cabot Cary, a pioneer is women’s education who eventually became the first president of Radcliffe College.

Here’s an interesting fact concerning the state of scientific inquiry in the U.S. in the early 19th century:

‘One of the things that had held back scientific education in American colleges…was the dominance of theology in the curriculum, which obliged scholars in every field to align their work with Christian orthodoxy.  Theology was the academic trump card.

One of Louis Agassiz’s great contributions to intellectual endeavors in this country was his insistence that the study of science be divorced from all aspects of religious belief.


At this juncture in his narrative, Menand once again focuses on William James, who first met Agassiz on a research expedition to Brazil in 1861. At this point, Darwin’s discoveries and theories begin increasingly to dominate scientific discourse in America. Here’s how Menand explains James’s take on Darwin, as elucidated in James’s masterwork The Principles of Psychology (1890):

‘There is intelligence in the universe: it is ours. It was our good luck that, somewhere along the way, we acquired minds. They released us from the prison of biology.

(My first thought on reading this was, We have not been entirely released from that prison: along with every other organism on the planet, we are still mortal.)


Next we meet Charles Sanders Peirce. Peirce was “…an all-around prodigy of science, mathematics, and philosophy, and he was not shy about displaying his erudition or his disdain for less initiated minds.” (Peirce’s father Benjamin was a mathematician who taught at Harvard.)

In a never-published manuscript dated from 1907, Charles Peirce gives this account of the founding of the Metaphysical Club in 1872:

“‘It was in the earliest seventies that a knot of us young men in Old Cambridge, calling ourselves, half-ironically,  half-defiantly “The Metaphysical Club,”–for agnosticism was then riding its high horse, and was frowning superbly upon all metaphysics,–used to meet, sometimes in my study, sometimes in that of William James.’

Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. was also a member, but the prime mover was Chauncey Wright, a gifted mathematician and philosopher. Wright’s story is a poignant one. Brilliant and intense, he was also gentle and kind. He suffered repeated bouts of depression and ultimately died of a stroke at  the age of 45.

The Metaphysical Club was in existence for less than a year. But it retains its luster due to the sheer brain power of its members and the fact that the discussions engaged in by those members helped give birth to the philosophy of pragmatism. (This was yet another topic in this book that challenged my understanding.)


The last major figure profiled in this work is philosopher, psychologist, and educator. John Dewey. Dewey’s achievements and influence were tremendous. I won’t try to recount them here but will refer you instead to Wikipedia’s comprehensive entry.


As I’ve indicated, there were times when I bogged down in my reading of The Metaphysical Club. The soft cover edition currently before me runs to 442 pages. I own that as I was approaching the home stretch I gave myself permission…you’ve probably guessed… (gasp!!) to skim some of the material.

But  then I was stopped in my tracks. Just shy of the book’s conclusion, there’s a chapter entitled “Pluralisms.” It deals with the concept of the Melting Pot, with racism, anti-Semitism – how these forces were playing out at the turbulent beginning of the twentieth century. It’s riveting stuff. Immigration comes in here, too. This is the kind of reading in which you discover that although the players are different, many of the crucial social and political issues confronting us today were equally contentious in the past. A hundred years ago, these same battles were being fought, and with equal ferocity.

In this chapter, we encounter the great W.E.B. Du Bois. One of Du Bois’s many groundbreaking accomplishments was that he was the first African- American to earn a Ph.D. from Harvard University. (The year was 1895; the subject was history.)

I had, of course, heard of the author of The Souls of Black Folk. But I hadn’t heard of Alain Locke (though obviously I should have). Menand enumerates the challenges faced by this individual:

‘He had heart trouble and an unusually slight physique (he was five feet tall and weighed ninety-nine pounds); he was homosexual; and he was black.

Locke earned his undergraduate degree in English and philosophy from Harvard in 1907. He then went on to be the first African-American Rhodes Scholar. Subsequently, he studied philosophy at the University of Berlin and attended the College de France in Paris in 1911. Locke returned to Harvard to complete his doctoral work in philosophy. He then went to Howard University, where he chaired that institution’s philosophy department until his retirement in 1953. In the course of his life in academia, Locke wrote numerous books and articles.

Some people are just unstoppable…


I recommend the site History of American Thought for additional reading on the history of American philosophy.

The Metaphysical Club is  filled with riches; I have barely skimmed the surface here. It was a challenging but ultimately hugely rewarding book, and it won for its author the 2002 Pulitzer Prize in history.



W.E.B. Du Bois

William James

Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr

John Dewey

Chauncey Wright

Alain Locke

Louis Agassiz and Benjamin Peirce

Henry James Senior and Junior

Ralph Waldo Emerson


Here is Louis Menand being interviewed at the University of California at San Diego in 2004:

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Opera at the movies: Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin

July 12, 2010 at 11:03 pm (Music, opera)

Dmitri Hvorostovsky as Onegin and Renee Fleming as Tatiana

Last week, I attended an Summer Encore HD screening of Eugene Onegin by Tchaikovsky. The production, which premiered at the Metropolitan Opera in 2007, was rather eccentric, but that seems to be the way of things right now where the staging of opera is concerned. I register it as only a minor annoyance, because the singing is what really matters, and the singing was…well, judge for yourself.

Tatiana’s Letter Scene in Act One is a showcase for the soprano; in this case, the amazing Renee Fleming:

Obviously acting is also crucial, especially in an opera like this one, where the passions are at fever pitch for most of the time – certainly from the time that Tatiana realizes she has  fallen in love with Onegin. Fleming’s acting in this scene didn’t completely convince me. I think part of the problem was that a mature woman was portraying a naive, star struck ingenue, a mere girl who is nerving herself to do something very audacious, all for the sake of love. But Fleming’s singing was so gorgeous, it carried the day.

The second act opens with the famous waltz. Here is  Valery Gergiev conducting the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra. (It should be mentioned that in the course of Maestro James Levine’s nearly forty year tenure as music director, this orchestra has evolved into one of the world’s finest.)

The second scene of Act Two depicts the duel between Onegin and Lenski. Poor Lenski – he knows he will probably not outlive the day. As he prepares to meet his fate, he sings one of the most poignant arias in all of opera. In it, he recalls the joys of his youth and his steadfast love for (the rather flighty) Olga:

In his review in the New York Times, Anthony Tommasini professed himself astonished by Ramon Vargas’s performance:

‘A complete surprise was the Lenski of Ramón Vargas, the Mexican-born tenor who has made his reputation in bel canto roles and selected French repertory. Apparently he worked slavishly at learning this Russian part, and it paid off in his ardent singing, touched with Latinate lyricism. Bespectacled, buttoned up in a formal coat and tremulous with youthful desire, Mr. Vargas embodied Lenski, Onegin’s naïvely trusting friend, a rhapsodic, serious but not very gifted young poet who adores Tatiana’s vivacious sister, Olga….

Everyone who heard it was likewise impressed, not to mention deeply moved. The in-house audience gave him a tremendous ovation.

Act Three opens with a lavish ball being given at Gremin Palace in St. Petersburg. Several years have passed since the fatal day of the duel. The  beautiful strains of the Polonaise are heard; once again, the staging is strange. Everyone – including the women – wore black. For a festive occasion, it looked distinctly funereal…

As the festivities get under way, in wanders Onegin. In search of diversion, he is suffering from a severe case of ennui. I couldn’t help thinking that someone should have warned him that this might happen if you disparage the love of an ardent, goodhearted young woman and then proceed to kill your best friend shortly thereafter. (In this production, Onegin is played by the renowned Russian baritone Dmitri Hvorostovsky. He was, as could be expected, superb. And plus which…what a hunk! Have a look at his official site.)

Onegin is in for a shock: the wife of Prince Gremin is none other than Tatiana herself. Onegin is overjoyed; he figures that all he has to do is declare his love – newly awakened, of course – for Tatiana, and she will run away with him. But his entreaties are in vain; even though she is still in love with him, she refuses to abandon her husband:


There are three more Summer Encore HD screenings schedule for broadcast in the U.S. this month: La Boheme, Turandot, and Carmen. The schedule for the 201o-2011 season looks nothing short of sensational. Among other treats, we’ll be seeing:  fabulous Welsh bass-baritone Bryn Terfel in the first two operas of Wagner’s Ring Cycle – YES!!!

Bryn Terfel as Wotan


Here’s the Act Three Polonaise from a recent Bolshoi Opera production of Eugene Onegin. This is how I like my opera – sets: lavish! costumes: lavish! And music: sublime:

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Jack Leightner, knight errant of the kingdom of Brooklyn

July 9, 2010 at 1:27 pm (Book review, books, Mystery fiction)

A middle-aged man, looking beaten down by life, comes to Jack Leightner’s house to tell him this:

“‘You had a brother….I believe his name was Peter. I was the boy who killed him.”

Jack is stunned. For years, the unsolved murder of his younger brother has haunted him and filled him with rage, anguish, and guilt. So – is this the long sought answer? Will it prove a balm to Jack’s bruised conscience? Only partly. The revelation made by Jack’s visitor actually raises more questions than it answers. Rather than providing solace, it becomes the wellspring of yet more pain. And it gets Jack questing once again for answers to this decades-old mystery.

Jack is a detective with the Brooklyn South Homicide Task Force. His profession does not allow him the luxury of extensive brooding over the past. A  killing in the present demands his attention instead. The crime is bizarre: one man struck another forcibly on the head, while both were shopping in a delicatessen on Coney Island Avenue. No sooner have the local police arrived than federal agents descend on the scene, complete with bio hazard suits and dire warnings: This is our case – stay out of it.

What gives with this? Jack is determined to find out. He’s the type of person who, when told to lay off, does just the opposite.

I’ve really come to like Jack Leightner. On a personal level, he’s an interesting mix of tough and tender. His story plays out against a fascinating backdrop: Brooklyn, with its immigrant past and polyglot present. Jack himself is of Russian Jewish heritage (which endeared him to me right away, as my background is the same). This novel also features a well drawn cast of supporting characters. The perpetrator of the crime in the deli is a Pakistani-American named Nadim Hasni. The more we learn of this man, the more obvious it becomes that things are not what they seem.

The events of The Ninth Step take place in 2005. The shadow of 9/11 hangs heavy over  the city. At one point, Jack walks to the end of a fishing pier that juts out into New York Harbor. There, he encounters a memorial sculpture. Inscribed on its base are these words: “Brooklyn Remembers…For Those Lost On September 11, 2001.”

‘He glanced to the north, across the broad harbor. Who could ever have imagined that the Empire State Building would once again rule that distant skyline–that those brash usurpers, the twin towers, might simply disappear?

In the panicky aftermath of the attacks, certain ethnic groups were singled out for special security measures. Here, Jack tells a fellow officer about a neighborhood that until recently was crowded with people of Pakistani origin:

“After the World Trade Center went down, the Feds ordered the community here to do ‘special registration.’ Tons of people got deported, and others skipped to Canada or other places because they were afraid of getting deported. Or arrested.”

The weaving of this and other intriguing strands into the narrative make this novel stand out from the ordinary. At one point, Gabriel Cohen recounts an incident involving a ship called El Estero, moored in New York Harbor in 1943. In the Author’s Note, he comments:

‘It was one of the most astounding examples of human heroism I had ever heard of–so why, I wondered, was it not in every history book?

(Be sure to read the entire Author’s Note. It contains this and other fascinating  details of the research Cohen did for this novel. )

I read and enjoyed Red Hook and The Graving Dock, the first two entries in this series. The Ninth Step (number four) carries Jack Leightner’s story forward with great verve and energy. I am well and truly hooked and can hardly wait for the next  book.

author Gabriel Cohen

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Stieg Larsson update

July 9, 2010 at 11:43 am (books, Film and television, Mystery fiction)

The Swedish film version of The Girl Who Played with Fire is scheduled for released in the U.S. today, Friday July 9. You can watch the trailer on Internet Movie Database. (Some of us have yet to see The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, but we live in hope…)

The Man Who Left Too Soon, a biogrpahy of Stieg Larsson, came out in May. It is written by Barry Forshaw, author of of The Rough Guide To Crime Fiction.

Finally, Nora Ephron’s clever parody, “The Girl Who Fixed the Umlaut,” appeared in a recent edition of the New Yorker Magazine.

You’ve got to hand it to the guy: He’s enjoying one heck of an afterlife.

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