“Deep shadows were gathering in the valleys between the hills, and the slanting rays of the setting sun illuminated Wenlock Edge, some miles distant.” – Appointed To Die, by Kate Charles

January 29, 2011 at 8:28 pm (Anglophilia, Book review, books, Music, Mystery fiction, Poetry)

Appointed To Die is the second in the Book of Psalms series by Kate Charles. The protagonist, Lucy Kingsley, is an artist. Although living in London, she’s frequently in Malbury where her father Canon John Kingsley serves as priest at Malbury Cathedral. (Charles locates the fictional Malbury near the actual cathedral city of Hereford, close to the Welsh border.) One is immediately apprised of the tension and discord arising among the individuals and groups attached in various ways to the cathedral. For instance, Rowena Hunt, head of Friends of the Cathedral, has her eye on architect Jeremy Bartlett. But Jeremy has eyes only for Lucy Kingsley. Then there’s Subdean Arthur Brydges-ffrench, who aspires to fill the vacant post of Dean of Malbury Cathedral. Brydges-ffrench is a known quantity at Malbury, and deeply respected. Yet it is doubtful that his dream will become a reality. In conversation with Lucy, Jeremy Bartlett partially illuminates the difficulty with this assessment of the man:

‘He has an utterly perverse antiquarian mind. You know the sort I mean–adores crossword puzzles and obscure theological riddles. He was a chorister here himself, back in the thirties. And if he had his way, we’d all do things exactly the way they were done then.’

It did not take long for This Reader to experience a distinct sensation of deja vu. Why, we’re in Trollope country! Sure enough, the first allusion appears on page 21. When Jeremy tells Lucy that he’s a cellist, she responds, “Shades of Barchester….Mr. Harding and his cello.” Anthony Trollope’s Chronicles of Barsetshire consists of six novels: 

I’ve read Barchester Towers, Doctor Thorne, and Framley Parsonage. They were all three wonderful. It’s been a while, but I recall  Framley Parsonage as a delightful comedy of manners, Doctor Thorne as an engrossing love story, and Barchester Towers as…well, a work of genius, right up there in the pantheon of the great Victorian novels of nineteenth century Britain.

As in days of old, so it is in Malbury: gossip and innuendo abound in the claustrophobic world of the cathedral close. Still, it’s just business as usual until Stuart Latimer, the newly appointed Dean, makes his grand entrance, attended by his tony, well-connected wife – she who refers to the local people as “rustics!’ –  along with various other London luminaries. Then the level of conflict and intrigue is ratcheted upward toward the stratosphere!

One bone of contention in Malbury concerns a music festival recently put on by the cathedral community. This impetus for this event was provided by Canon Brydges-ffrench; as Jeremy explains, “‘He’s never been able to stand being excluded from the Three Choirs Festival.'” I was delighted by this mention of a festival that has intrigued me ever since I learned that Ralph Vaughan Williams was there in 1910 to conduct the premiere of “Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis.” I was about to start rhapsodizing on the otherworldly gorgeousness of  this  music, its quintessential Englishness…but, well, just listen, while you feast your eyes on Devon’s River Torridge and its wildlife:

I was struck by the essential integrity of this beautifully written novel:, in the believability of its characters, with their all-too-human mix of good intentions and perverse impulses, the sense of impending crisis that keeps the reader fully engaged in the narrative, the unceasing war between spiritual aspirations and the baser instincts, the striving for beauty in art, music, and worship – just the sheer depth of feeling that resonates throughout.

When the untimely death of one of their own shocks the cathedral community, its grief-stricken members look to Canon John Kingsley for consolation. Ina stirring and eloquent sermon, he gives them what they crave. Afterward, Lucy asks him how he knew just what to say, and he responds:

‘…the best way I can describe it is like a gramophone record, with God at the center. The center is still, but the record spins around, and  the farther you are from the center the faster you spin. That’s what I was doing earlier, spinning around the outside of the gramophone record, trying to make sense of it all on my own terms. But when I got up to speak I let God carry me toward the center, and the nearer I got the more certain I was the He was in control. There’s tremendous peace in letting go like that.’

Appointed To Die came out in 1994, but in this passage Canon Kingsley’s diction seems antiquated, belonging to an earlier era. The analogy to an LP record put me in mind of John Donne’s poem “A Valediciton Forbidding Mourning:”

AS virtuous men pass mildly away,
And whisper to their souls to go,
Whilst some of their sad friends do say,
“Now his breath goes,” and some say, “No.”

So let us melt, and make no noise,
No tear-floods, nor sigh-tempests move ;
‘Twere profanation of our joys
To tell the laity our love.

Moving of th’ earth brings harms and fears ;
Men reckon what it did, and meant ;
But trepidation of the spheres,
Though greater far, is innocent.

Dull sublunary lovers’ love
—Whose soul is sense—cannot admit
Of absence, ’cause it doth remove
The thing which elemented it.

But we by a love so much refined,
That ourselves know not what it is,
Inter-assurèd of the mind,
Care less, eyes, lips and hands to miss.

Our two souls therefore, which are one,
Though I must go, endure not yet
A breach, but an expansion,
Like gold to aery thinness beat.

If they be two, they are two so
As stiff twin compasses are two ;
Thy soul, the fix’d foot, makes no show
To move, but doth, if th’ other do.

And though it in the centre sit,
Yet, when the other far doth roam,
It leans, and hearkens after it,
And grows erect, as that comes home.

Such wilt thou be to me, who must,
Like th’ other foot, obliquely run ;
Thy firmness makes my circle just,
And makes me end where I begun.


One of the reason that I chose the quotation in this post’s title is that there is a song by Ralph Vaughan Williams entitled “On Wenlock Edge.” I did not know what Wenlock Edge actually was, but as usual, Wikipedia enlightened me: “Wenlock Edge is a limestone escarpment near Much Wenlock, Shropshire, England.” (Click here for the complete entry.)

Jack Mytton Way, near Rushbury, Wenlock Edge, Shropshire

The composer took for his text this poem by A.E. Housman, from the cycle of poems, A Shropshire Lad:

On Wenlock Edge the wood’s in trouble
His forest fleece the Wrekin heaves;
The gale, it plies the saplings double,
And thick on Severn snow the leaves.

‘Twould blow like this through holt and hanger
When Uricon the city stood:
‘Tis the old wind in the old anger,
But then it threshed another wood.

Then, ’twas before my time, the Roman
At yonder heaving hill would stare:
The blood that warms an English yeoman,
The thoughts that hurt him, they were there.

There, like the wind through woods in riot,
Through him the gale of life blew high;
The tree of man was never quiet:
Then ’twas the Roman, now ’tis I.

The gale, it plies the saplings double,
It blows so hard, ’twill soon be gone:
To-day the Roman and his trouble
Are ashes under Uricon.

I know the Severn is a river, but I did not know that it is Great Britain’s longest. (There is also a Severn River in Anne Arundel County Maryland, just east of where we currently reside.)

I was well and truly puzzled by “Wrekin” and “Uricon.” The Wrekin, Shropshire’s 15th highest peak, turns out to be a distinctive landmark with a fascinating history. (The BBC has more on this subject.) “”Uricon” was harder to find. The word is actually a variant of “Viroconium Cornoviorum,” which is the name of an old Roman town found in Shropshire.

Finally, here is Ian Bostridge singing and discussing “On Wenlock Edge” and “Is My Team Ploughing?” (the latter also based on a poem from A Shropshire Lad).



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Two reasons to celebrate

January 28, 2011 at 2:08 am (Animals, books, Library)

The first: British author Philip Pullman’s ringing defense of libraries.

The second: a video from the Best Friends Animal Society describing the work they have done to rehabilitate Michael Vick’s abused dogs:

The fact that these people gave themselves so selflessly to this effort is enough to reaffirm your faith in mankind.

I’ve been a supporter of Best Friends for  a long time. You can see why.

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The first major snowfall of 2011

January 27, 2011 at 9:30 pm (Local interest (Baltimore-Washington))

As usual, the snow brought with it a mix of picturesque sights and back breaking work. We’d been warned that this snow would be wet and heavy and capable of bringing down tree branches. This proved an accurate assessment:

Another branch fell beside the Chevy Nova – known in these precincts as “the Stealth,” on account of its diminutive size and quiet presence. Because it lives outside, it has had to brave the weather more than our other two cars. We were greatly relieved that no tree limbs fell directly on “the Stealth” – an elderly but beloved vehicle:

Many smaller branches and twigs embedded themselves in the snow:

Ron caught this icy effulgence on a neighbor’s tree:

Meanwhile in the back of the house, strange puffballs climbed over the deck railing:

The timing of this storm was unfortunate for me. I had planned to fly out to Chicago, to see this excellent small personage:

Which plan, of necessity, had to be scrapped. A postponement, merely – rescheduling is already in the works!

So: yes, snow is a nuisance and a hindrance. But this was not nearly as cataclysmic as last year’s Snowmageddon.  And at  times, the white stuff can be so beautiful…

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The Usual Suspects discuss Dark Mirror by Barry Maitland

January 23, 2011 at 5:27 pm (Art, Book clubs, books, Mystery fiction, The British police procedural)

What an exhilarating confab the Usual Suspects enjoyed last Tuesday evening! Of course, it helped that were were discussing a terrific book: Dark Mirror by Barry Maitland.

I read Dark Mirror last winter, so naturally I had forgotten a great deal about the narrative. On Monday, I decided to speed read it in an effort to refresh my memory. To facilitate this effort, I set aside my current reading material. Now, One thing I did recall was how much I had originally liked the book. This time around, I liked it even more. In fact, I found it far more compelling than any of the three books in which I was supposed to be immersed at the time. Go figure…

Last March I wrote a capsule review of Dark Mirror, along with reviews of three other crime novels. I’m going to quote myself here in order to provide you a with a brief synopsis of the plot:

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. And what a great cover!) 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.

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

There’s much more to this novel than the above would indicate. For instance, before reading Dark Mirror, I for one had never heard of the London Library. This institution was founded in 1841 by Thomas Carlyle (encountered not so long ago by Yours Truly in Parallel Lives by Phyllis Rose). Unlike the British library, the London Library lends its materials to members. And taking out a membership is a major commitment; currently the cost is £435.00 per year or £36.25 per month (about $692.57 and $57.72, respectively). The other interesting thing about the London Library is that it does not use  Dewey Decimal classification for the cataloging of materials. Instead, subjects are organized alphabetically. This caused no small amazement among those of us in the group who’ve worked in libraries.  I noodled around on the online catalog for a bit and found the following:  for the volume you want, a “shelfmark” is given; then you’re informed what the work is shelved under. I did a keyword search using the terms “France” and “art.” The first item to come up was an exhibition catalog for the photographer Andre Kertesz.  Click here for the library’s guide to how its art collection is organized. I imagine this system would take some getting used to. I must say, though, that this video made me want to go there immediately!

Many famous scholars and authors have made use of this unique facility. Click here, and their names will appear in the yellow box on the right side of the page. And now you can even hold events there! Probably the closest analogous institution in the U.S. is the Boston Athenaeum, founded in 1807. (See – we have some old stuff in this country too!)

Meanwhile, back to the book: at the time of her death, Marion Summers had been working on her doctoral dissertation. Her subject was the Pre-Raphaelite poet and painter Dante Gabriel Rosetti.

Dante Gabriel Rosetti by William Holman Hunt

She was particularly interested in his fraught marriage to Elizabeth (Lizzie) Siddal. Theirs was a union of brief duration; having recently given birth to a stillborn daughter, Siddal died of a laudanum overdose in 1862. She was 32 years old.

A certain degree of mystery surrounded this death, and still does. Marion meant to penetrate that mystery and get at the truth of this tragic and untimely passing. For more information about Lizzie Siddal, click here.

Lizzie Siddal was frequently drawn and painted by Rosetti and other Pre -Raphaelite artists. My favorite by Rosetti is called “Beata Beatrix:”

Thar rapt expression!. The portrait is rendered especially poignant by the fact that Rosetti painted it after Lizzie’s death.

Probably the most famous painting for which Lizzie was the model is “Ophelia” by John Everett Millais:

.  Here’s the story “Behind the Painting.”

I was intrigued by the degree to which the ghost of Elizabeth Siddal haunts cyberspace. Here is a video tribute:

There’s no getting away from the fact that you can easily get lost in the fathomless depths of the Pre-Raphaelite universe: their lives, their amazingly complicated loves, their poetry, their stunning works of art. The brilliance of the colors in these paintings is due in part to new chemical formulations used in the pigments. Some of  these contained arsenic. Indeed, the thread of arsenic – its use in artists’ pigments and in wallpaper designed and made by William Morris, its presence in the drinking water of Bengladesh, and of course its potency as a poison – e.g., the notorious Madeleine Smith case – is inextricably woven into the fabric of this narrative. The title “Dark Mirror” derives from the results of a test for the presence of arsenic.

Pauline, our discussion leader, was armed with plenty of material to share with us on the London Library and on the Pre-Raphaelites. As always, her enthusiasm and erudition were much appreciated.(I brought along one of my favorite art books:  . The cover is a detail from “The Ball on Shipboard” by James Tissot. Here’s the complete work:   . On the back is a detail from “Work” by Ford Madox Brown: .) We struggled to understand why this group of artists and writers chose to call themselves the Pre-Raphaelites, and what exactly their aims were in doing so. My sense is that one needs a deeper grounding in the esthetic sensibility of the early nineteenth century than any of us had in order to really understand the ferment in the art scene of the times. Meanwhile,  some helpful elucidation can be found on  The Victorian Web.

In the days just prior to this meeting, Pauline e-mailed the group concerning one particular Pre-Raphaelite painting.It is called The Awakening Conscience, a work by William Holman Hunt. In that e-mail, Pauline expressed her belief that the painting had “a symbolic purpose” in Dark Mirror. I found this a provocative suggestion, yet I’m not sure we explored it fully in the course of the discussion. 

For more on the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, see Wikipedia’s extensive article.

So, you may be wondering impatiently, what about the murder? As mentioned above, it’s fairly quickly determined that Marion Summers was poisoned. But police are baffled as to how and why. Their investigation takes them to her family and her university. Marion’s stepfather becomes a potential  suspect, as does her faculty advisor Dr. Anthony da Silva. And then it is discovered that despite the strictures imposed by the terms of her scholarship, Marion was earning money as a researcher for a distinguished  scholar and author. This situation must be looked into as well.

Pauline provided us with a comprehensive list of the characters in Dark Mirror, and her eleven questions provoked a lively discussion. One of these queries concerned the working relationship of DI Kathy Kolla and DCI David Brock. Several people new to this series were a bit unsure about the exact nature of that relationship – whether, in other words, it had always been of a  purely professional nature. Those of us who had read earlier Brock and Kolla novels assured the others that it was, with Brock the senior officer acting as a mentor to the newer, younger Kathy. This line of inquiry gave rise to the question, perennial with crime fiction readers, as to which series need to  be read in exact order, to provide background for the characters and their respective situations, and which do not. In the latter category we placed Archer Mayor’s Joe Gunther novels and Donna Leon’s Guido Brunetti series. I recently presented a program of book talks in which both the Isabel Dalhousie and the Mma Ramotswe novels of Alexander McCall Smith were featured. Afterward, someone came up and asked me the usual question. My response: both series are better read in order, though I think this is more true of the Isabel Dalhousie books than of the No.1 Ladies’ Detective novels.

(What’s your take on which crime fiction series can be read in any order and which should b e read in strict series order?)

In addition to The Marx Sisters and Dark Mirror, I’ve read these Brock and Kolla novels: . Recently my friends at Felony & Mayhem Press brought this one out: .  It currently resides at the top of my to-read pile (which is no guarantee of when it will actually get read).

One question on Pauline’s list that I particularly like is this: “Is the book more plot driven than character driven or vice versa?” I think that we suspects would agree that the best crime fiction balances both of these characteristics more or less evenly, and I believe we pretty much agreed that in Dark Mirror, Barry Maitland achieved this rather tricky equipoise to a remarkable degree.

Pauline gave us quite a bit of interesting background on this author. Born in Paisley, Scotland in 1941, Maitland grew up in London. After studying architecture at Cambridge, he went on to practice that profession, eventually adding a doctorate in urban design (from Sheffield University) to his list of academic credentials. In 1984 he took up the post of  head of the school of architecture at the University of Newcastle in New South Wales, Australia, He continued in this position until the year 2000.  Barry Maitland still lives in Australia and now writes full time. (For further information, visit the author’s official site.)

(ALERT: Potential spoilers, in the next two paragraphs.)

Although we were in general agreement concerning the superior quality of Dark Mirror, group members did have certain reservations.  Several people were unhappy about the manner in which the crimes were solved. They felt that we the readers had been insufficiently prepared for the identity of  the perpetrators, and even more, that those individuals, one in particular, made highly unlikely culprits. In addition, the necessary preparations for the commission of the murder seemed rather farfetched, labor intensive, and hard to envision. ( I found myself agreeing with these objections during the meeting. At the time of my reading – and rereading – of the novel, however, I had thought the solution to the puzzle a marvel of ingenuity!)

One other objection that was raised had to do with the killing and mutilation of a cat. This heinous act was undertaken as a scare tactic against Kathy Kolla; needless to say, it worked. But we were in accord about our loathing of the use of cruel acts such as this as a plot device. Such devices, alas, appear with disconcerting frequency in crime and suspense fiction, most notably and recently in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. The victims are almost invariably cats. Do authors assume that cat owners  are less emotionally attached to their pets than their canine-owning counterparts? Think again! And now that I’m on the subject, I don’t recall that Maitland ever divulged  the identity of the perpetrator(s) of this atrocious act, or how said perpetrator(s) gained access to Kathy Kolla’s premises.

(For an exceptionally sympathetic and sensitive portrait of how the death of a beloved pet affects its owner and others, see Wee Jock’s Lament. This made for television film, based on the characters created by M.C. Beaton in her Hamish Macbeth novels, is one of the most elegantly structured works of its kind that I’ve ever seen. It is also almost unbearably poignant. Click here for a summary of the plot. The concluding scene appears in the video segment below.)

My sense from the group was that despite certain perceived flaws, Dark Mirror was thought to be a fine work of crime fiction. Just about everyone, whether new to the series or not, expressed their willingness to read another title in the Brock and Kolla series.


I’m sure I speak for all the Suspects when I express my pleasure in Barb’s presence at this meeting. Welcome back, Barb!

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Let us now praise Peter Turnbull (again)

January 16, 2011 at 6:22 pm (Book review, Mystery fiction, The British police procedural)

I thoroughly enjoyed Deliver Us From Evil, as I knew I would. Peter Turnbull’s Hennessey and Yellich novels occupy a special place in my personal mystery pantheon. They are set primarily in York – a place of magic, of medieval  snickets and walls and alleyways. of a shopping district called the Shambles, of  a tiny byway called Whip-Ma-Whop-Ma-Gate, of ancient Roman relics, and above all – literally – the  perpendicular  Gothic masterpiece that is York Minster.

York Minster, as seen from the Shambles

Turnbull often mentions, in an almost off hand way, that a character is passing within sight of “the Minster.” The fact is, you can see this towering edifice from virtually anywhere in the city. Its appearance does alter, though, depending on climatic conditions:

He stepped out into a mist-laden street and strolled along Stonegate to the Minster where he saw the tops of all three tower were hidden from view, and the building itself seemed, in the diminishing light, to have taken on an eerie and foreboding presence.

(Stonegate may be the oldest street in York, its name appearing in records dating back to 1118.)


As the novel begins, a woman’s body, oddly propped in a sitting position,  is discovered on a canal towpath. It is winter, and she has died of exposure to the elements. Further examination proves that she sustained certain injuries before being left as she was. But one question remains stubbornly hard to answer: Who is she?

As with all the books in this series, the plot unfolds gradually and organically, with the investigation taking many unexpected and often baffling twists. This particular case takes Yellich and Thomson Ventnor, another member of Hennessey’s team, all the way to Canada in their search for the truth of what happened to this murder victim and why.

Turnbull continues his quaint custom of providing chapter headings that are somewhat Dickensian in their locution:

Wednesday March twenty-fifth…in which more is learned of the deceased and Mr. and Mrs. Yellich are at home to the gracious reader.

Thursday March twenty-sixth…in which a trail is followed, a revelation made, and Reginald Webster and Thomson Ventnor are separately at home to the kind reader.

I once read a review of one of the books in this series in which the writer complained about Turnbull’s habit of recounting the circumstances of each of the main characters in every novel. The reviewer felt that this was repetitious and tedious. I, on the other hand, find it oddly soothing. In the St. James Guide to Crime and Mystery Writers, Ian A. Bell avers that “The crime novels of Peter Turnbull are reassuringly familiar in form, with satisfying surprises and twists in their plotting, and an interesting cast of characters.” I agree with him.

Sure enough, in Deliver Us From Evil we read yet again of the tragedy by which George Hennessey was widowed:

Upon entering Easingwold and finding the town quiet, he stopped his car on Long Street where the houses and shops were joined, each with the other, to form a continuous roofline along the length of the road. He walked with a heavy heart to where she had fallen, all those years ago, a young woman in the very prime of her life, just three months after the birth of her first child, the first of a planned three for her and her husband George….

The reader is likewise reminded that Somerled (pronounced “Sorley”)Yellich and his wife Sarah are the parents of a developmentally disabled boy, aged twelve, to whom they are both fiercely devoted. And that Reginald Webster’s beautiful wife was blinded in an accident. And so forth, for the rest of the team. (And toward the end of each novel, Turnbull reveals the identity of George Hennessey’s secret lover. But Your Faithful Blogger will leave it to you the Potential Reader to secure that piece of information for yourself!)

The Canadian interlude in this novel is quite entertaining. Linguistic differences make a big impression on the visiting officers, to wit: “McLeer pronounced ‘either’ in the American way of ‘ee-thuer’ which grated on the ears of Yellich and Ventnor who both pronounced ‘either’ and ‘neither’ as ‘I-ther’ and ‘ni-ther’ as thy had been taught and and as they believed was the right and proper pronunciation.” In point of fact, Thomson Ventnor is more than merely entertained in the course of this sojourn: formerly a freewheeling bachelor, he falls unexpectedly and rapturously in love.

The first books I read by Turnbull form part of an older series about the “P” Division, out of Glasgow, Scotland. The first entry, Deep and Crisp and Even, was a finalist for the New Blood Dagger Award in 1981. Click here for a complete list of Turnbull’s oeuvre.

Turnbull has stated his goal as an author as follows: “I would like my books to be an accurate historical record of UK society at the cusp of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.” He feels that his most important novel is Embracing Skeletons, a non series work from 1996: “I felt I fulfilled a destiny by writing that book.”   I knew what would happen when I searched for this title: not only does the library not own it, there’s no listing for it in the interlibrary loan network, and it is not in print – at least, not in this country. But there are quite a  few entries on AbeBooks.com, almost exclusively for UK bookshops.

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What is that music?

January 11, 2011 at 9:14 pm (Ballet, Film and television, Music, Mystery fiction, The British police procedural)

Here are two separate musical encounters: the first, a new and welcome experience; the second, an equally welcome return.

The first one began with a video of the great Natalia Osipova.  At the time of this film, she was seventeen years old; now in her mid twenties, she is a principal dancer with the Bolshoi Ballet. Click here to see Natalia Osipova performing Liturgy.

Of course, I loved Osipova’s dancing. And I loved her choice of music. Then, much to my astonishment, I heard that music again in a most  unlikely place, or so it seemed to me: the opening credits of the police drama Southland:

Intrigued by this odd confluence, I did some digging and found out more about Cancao do Mar, or Song of the Sea. The vocalist is Dulce Pontes. According to  Wikipedia: “Her songs contributed to the 1990s revival of Portuguese urban folk music called fado.” Here is a video realization of this haunting melody.


It’s been a long wait, but the BBC film versions of Reginald Hill’s venerable Dalziel & Pascoe novels are finally available on DVD. We first viewed these on the A&E network many years ago and have not seen them since. This would account for our having forgotten who composed the soundtrack. As soon as we fired up the first disc and heard that music, we looked at each other and smiled…

Yes, it’s the work of Barrington Pheloung, whose legato saxophone riffs and notes of embedded code were so powerfully identified with in the Inspector Morse series – Ah yes, Inspector Morse and John Thaw, of blessed memory:

(My heart aches, whenever I hear that music…)

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The Charming Quirks of Others: Alexander McCall Smith and the art of fiction

January 5, 2011 at 10:01 pm (Book review, books, Mystery fiction, Scotland)

As I fell under the spell yet again, I asked my self, What is it  that makes the fiction of Alexander McCall Smith such a glowing and beautiful thing?

In The Charming Quirks of Others, Isabel Dalhousie is asked to assist in the process of vetting three candidates for the post of headmaster at a prestigious school for boys. But – no matter; she could be asked to vet three ducks for king of the pond and we’d be equally enchanted. After all, we’re not here because of the detective assignment! There is suspense, of course – there’s always suspense. But that story element has its roots in the mind of our protagonist – and in her heart as well.

One does feel at times vicariously exhausted by Isabel’s unrelenting analysis of the moral dimensions of every situation. Exhausted, yes – but fascinated and stimulated at the same time. Socrates counsels us that the unexamined life is not worth living. No chance of Isabel Dalhousie’s having that problem!

So then: what are the qualities of these novels that make them, for this reader  at least, so compelling? First and foremost, the character of Isabel is a marvelous creation. This is a woman for whom the life of the mind is supremely important. But it does not take precedence over matters of the heart. Both have a claim on her and have been known to compete for her time. Isabel also places a high value on the fine arts. She is, in fact, a collector, especially of works by Scottish artists. I knew virtually nothing about these painters until I started reading this series. Now I have several books on the subject. I’m going to insert several works here, just for the sheer joy of gazing at them!

The Tay Bridge from my Studio Window, by James McIntosh Patrick (1948)


Neil Gow, by Henry Raeburn

Isabella McLeod, Mrs. James Gregory, by Henry Raeburn

(For more of the same, click here.)

In The Charming Quirks of Others, Isabel is eager to acquire a Raeburn painting in which two of her ancestors appear. She has deep roots in Scotland, a country she loves with unabashed ardor. In fact, each novel in this series is in some way a celebration of the glories of Isabel’s native land (and the author’s too, of course).

Motherhood came late and unexpectedly to Isabel. She had been in the midst of a rapturous affair with Jamie, a young musician. The affair has matured into a committed relationship, strengthened by a mutual adoration of their son Charlie. Here are Jamie and Charlie returning home from an outing:

Charlie had fallen asleep in his pushchair – a tiny bundle of humanity in Macpherson tartan rompers and green shoes. The rompers were damp across the chest with orange juice and childish splutterings; the shoes had a thin crust of mud on them. She smiled; an active morning with his father. She kissed them both: Charlie lightly on his brow so as not to awaken him; Jamie on the mouth, and he held her, prolonging their embrace.

Isabel holds a doctorate in philosophy from Cambridge University. A woman of  independent means,  she owns and edits a highly regarded professional journal, The Review of Applied Ethics . She and Jamie are engaged to be married. Grace, her housekeeper of long standing, has slipped easily into the role of occasional child minder. On the surface, it would appear that Isabel has as intellectually and emotionally fulfilling a life as a woman could possibly yearn for. And in the main, this is true.

But where Jamie is concerned,  Isabel is at times terribly anxious.. He is some fourteen years younger than she, a beautiful youth as well as a gifted musician. She herself is comely and attractive, but she fears that she is  no match for the younger women who frequently cross Jamie’s path. Despite his reassurances to the contrary, she feels vulnerable, insecure – and sometimes downright jealous. And you Dear Reader, in the best tradition of great fictional love stories, suffer right along with her.

In The Secret Lives of Somerset Maugham, Selina Hastings offers this analysis of the artistry evident in the author’s depiction of Kitty Fane, the protagonist of The Painted Veil. Maugham, says his biographer, “… displays an extraordinary empathy, an ability to create a woman as seen not from a man’s perspective but from that of the woman herself; he completely inhabits and possesses Kitty, knows her from the inside, down to the very nerves and fiber of her being.” This is precisely what Alexander McCall Smith does when he writes about Isabel Dalhousie.

So: what else do I admire about McCall Smith’s fiction? There’s deep insight into the human condition, his realistic depiction of the contradictions in our character that make us what we are. Brilliant, brainy Isabel is as insecure in love as any green school girl. Her vaunted powers of reasoning avail her nothing in the struggle to control her emotions. Strength of will, though, does enable to master her feelings most of the time. Most, but not all. There’s a fraught moment in this novel when she lashes out at Jamie; I confess I was shocked by what she says to him. She regrets her words, of course, the minute they’ve been uttered. As do we all in such circumstances.

I love the way in which Isabel grapples gamely with life’s Big Questions. It is incumbent on her to do this as a philosopher, but this vocation is one she has deliberately chosen, and she never shirks what she sees as her intellectual responsibilities. McCall Smith conveys Isabel’s thought processes as profundity tempered with a touch of irony: “One of the drawbacks to being a philosopher was that you became aware of what you should not do, and this took from you so many opportunities to savor the human pleasure of revenge or greed or sheer fantasising.”

In Isabel’s world, small events can have large implications. At one point, Jamie tells her of an incident from his childhood, when he threw his teddy bear over the Dean Bridge. Isabel finds herself speculating on what could have motivated the child Jamie to fling away a cherished possession:

He was punishing him, no doubt – or perhaps he was punishing himself. And if he was punishing himself, what for? She would ask a psychotherapist friend who knew all about such things. The friend had once said to Isabel that we punish ourselves for all sorts of reasons, but for the most part, we did not deserve it. ‘In fact, Isabel had said, I wonder who truly deserves punishment, anyway. What good does it do to punish a person? All that does is add to the pain of the world.’

Her friend had stared at Isabel. ‘Yes,’ she said. And then, after a further few minutes of thought, she had said yes again. ‘That sounds so right,’ she said. ‘And yet I suspect, Isabel, that you are very wrong.’ And Isabel thought: Yes, I am. She’s right; I’m wrong.

Words or comments casually dropped can initiate a whole new  train of thought. Charlie’s childish enunciation of the word “rabbits” – he leaves off the ‘r’ – tickles his mother’s fancy:

Hearing this, Isabel thought of its crossword potential. Cockney customs? Abbits. Senior members of monasteries? Abbits. Not the right thing to do? Bad abbits.

McCall Smith’s descriptions of the city of Edinburgh and the surrounding countryside are worth lingering over. In this scene, Isabel is heading out of the city:

On the drive out she stopped just after Silverburn to watch a bird of prey hunting over the lower slopes of the Pentlands. It was a large hawk, waiting to swoop down on its victim. She drew up at  the side of the road and watched as it was mobbed by a flock of smaller birds and ignominiously chased away. The small birds, like tiny spitfires in some unequal, heroic Battle of Britain, twisted and turned in dizzying aerial combat; the hawk, outnumbered and irritated by the onslaught, suddenly flew off towards higher ground and disappeared. Isabel sat for a moment, the engine of the green Swedish car idling, before she resumed her journey. The little battle was so close to the city and yet belonged so completely to another world – as did the man feeding his  cattle in the field a mile further along the road, emptying a sack of food into a metal hopper while the cattle thronged about him, jostling for position at the trough.

When Isabel thinks about her love for Jamie, and about what makes the feeling so powerful, she focuses on one exemplary trait:

It is not because you are  beautiful; not because I see perfection in your features, in your smile, in your litheness- all of which I do, of course I do, and have done since the moment I first met you. It is because you are generous in spirit; and may I be like that; may I become like you – which unrealistic wish, to become the other, is  such a true and revealing symptom of love, its most obvious clue, its unmistakable calling card.

From the specific to the general: spoken like a true philosopher – in this case, a philosopher who is deeply in love.


Alexander McCall Smith will be appearing at the Howard County Library on Sunday April 10, at 6 PM. For information on registration, check the March – May (Spring) issue library’s publication Source, coming out on or around March 1. You can also check the library’s website.

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Somerset Maugham: works and days

January 4, 2011 at 2:55 am (books, Film and television)

In a previous post on The Secret Lives of Somerset Maugham, I wrote primarily of  the author’s childhood, youth, and early days as a successful playwright. I was planning to follow this with two more posts, one on Maugham’s works and another on his travels. I see now that such an approach to  the material is not feasible. These two vital components of his art and life are inextricably intertwined.

Maugham was ever the restless wanderer, to Europe, to America on numerous occasions, to the South Seas, the Far East, India. Everywhere he went, he collected stories to work into his fiction, creating worlds rich in atmosphere and incident. While young, Maugham and his friends frequented the Isle of Capri, off the coast of southern Italy. Having been to that magical place for the first time in May of 2009, I was delighted to revisit it via this book. At one point, during the First World War, on one of Maugham’s visits to the island, his friend Compton Mackenzie and his wife took up residence in the Villa Rosaio in the township of Anacapri. This is the same house that Graham Greene lived in many years later, as Shirley Hazzard recounts in her memoir Greene on Capri. Maugham set his poignant, elegiac story “The Lotus Eater” on this island, a place of intense yet evanescent happiness.

In 1916,  Maugham set sail for the South Seas. From this journey, both arduous and exhilarating, came “Rain,” probably his most famous short story. Selina Hastings calls this tale of a zealous missionary battling to save the soul of the prostitute Sadie Thompson “brilliant and terrifying.” I just read it for the first time and I agree with her. “Rain” had a fruitful afterlife, being made into a play and  three separate films, with top notch actresses taking the title role: Gloria Swanson in 1928, Joan Crawford in 1932, and Rita Hayworth in 1953.

Gloria Swanson and Lionel Barrymore in "Miss Sadie Thompson'

Sadie Thompson was a real person, met in the course of the author’s South Seas odyssey. Hastings informs us that “With his usual indifference to such matters, Maugham did not trouble to give the fictional version of Miss Thompson a different name.”

Maugham also used his new knowledge of this exotic locale in the writing of The Moon and Sixpence in 1919. his roman a clef based on the life of Paul Gauguin, an artist who fascinated Maugham. ( The symbol in the lower right hand corner of the book is a sign thought to ward off the effects of the Evil Eye. It appeared on numerous first editions of Maugham’s works, starting with the 1901 novel The Hero. For more information on this curious manifestation, click here.)

Maugham’s trip through China, undertaken with his secretary/companion Gerald Haxton, was another epic enterprise, the hardships gladly endured since the reward was so great: “Maugham was entranced by the beauty if the country, by the vivid green of the paddy fields, the little tree-covered hills, the graceful bamboo thickets that lined the side of the road.” From this journey came The Painted Veil. I approached the reading of this novel in hopes of an encounter as richly rewarding as I had experienced with an earlier work of fiction in the author’s canon, Mrs. Craddock. This did not happen. Maugham’s style in The Painted Veil is spare and elliptical; so different from that of the earlier work that at first it almost seemed to have come from a different pen altogether. I was dismayed at first, but my feelings changed as I got deeper into the narrative. 

There is one significant problem with this novel, a stumbling block that one also encounters in Maugham’s stories of the Far East: it has to do with the way in which the attitude of the colonial administrators toward the native – read non Caucasian –  populace is portrayed. I speak not only of casual denigration and the presumption of inherent inferiority. There is also contempt and outright repugnance. That same populace, while providing the governing class with an endless stream of personal servants and other low level workers,  is expected to be glad of the presence of the British overlords, with their superior intelligence and lofty organizational skills! Above all things, no challenge to the status quo will be tolerated.

This is a classic case of autre temps, autres moeurs, or as L.P. Hartley so memorably put it: “The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.” When situations like this arise, it is up to the individual reader to determine what attitude to adopt. In fact, it is up to that individual to decide if he or she can stomach the material or if instead, feels inclined to throw the book across the room. As a person who flinches when I encounter anti-Semitic sentiments in film or literature, I personally find it to be a question of degree and frequency. If the reference occurs only once or twice, and in a specific context, I can take a deep breath and keep going. If the point is repeatedly hammered, that’s another story.

(My own most recent experience of this type occurred when my husband and I began watching Mad Men. In the early episodes, a number of anti-Semitic comments were tossed off – enough so that I wasn’t sure I wanted to continue with the viewing. But those references dried up fairly early on in the series. So we stayed with Mad Men, and we love it. Ironically, when we first watched Mad Men, I was forcibly struck by the way in which my own family’s experience was being mirrored. My father’s business prospered in the postwar years due largely to the revenue generated by television advertising. Ultimately, he rose to the rank of company vice-president, with a corner office in the General Motors Building at Fifth Avenue and 59th Street in Manhattan. The windows of his office looked out over Central Park.)

Getting back to The Painted Veil, I’d  to recommend this novel to my book group. For one thing, I’d like to hear what other readers have to say about the disparaging remarks that crop up in the narrative more frequently than one would like. I also want to get everyone’s take on the protagonist, Kitty Fane. Here’s what Selina Hastings says about her:

The portrait of Kitty Fane is one of Maugham’s finest fictional achievements. As with Bertha Craddock more than twenty years before, he displays an extraordinary empathy, an ability to create a woman as seen not from a man’s perspective but from that of the woman herself; he completely inhabits and possesses Kitty, knows her from the inside, down to the very nerves and fiber of her being.

This astute depiction was probably helped by the fact that Maugham’s social circle would have included a good many young woman who resembled Kitty Fane. As the novel opens, she is superficial, self-absorbed, and spoiled. Her growth and change, and the reasons for this alteration in her character, are what make The Painted Veil an absorbing read.

After I finished the novel, I watched the movie. Released in 2006 and starring Naomi Watts and Edward Norton, it is well worth seeing but differs in a number of ways from the novel, especially with regard to the story’s conclusion. I found myself very much wanting to discuss these divergent points with someone who had both read and seen The Painted Veil.

I will say this about the film: the cinematography is superb. China’s countryside, so admired for its beauty by Maugham, is simply mesmerizing. Some of it appears, albeit briefly, in this trailer:


Still to come: Maugham’s tales of the Far East, and Maugham the spy.

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A computer for Christmas

January 1, 2011 at 7:24 pm (Family, Technology)

Here I am, sitting in front of my brand new Sony VAIO L Series all-in-one touchscreen PC, accessorized with what just might be the world’s cutest mouse pad. (Yes, I know – She’ll do anything to sneak in yet another picture of the granddaughter!)

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