“This prolific author’s last book is a farewell to a way of life that was gone before he was.” – A Voice from Old New York, by Louis Auchincloss

February 22, 2011 at 7:28 pm (Book review, books, History, New York City)

When I heard that a memoir by Louis  Auchincloss was due to be published posthumously, I knew I’d want to read it. Born in 1917, Auchincloss grew up in a world of wealth and privilege among the creme de la creme of New York society. This slim volume is filled with lively anecdotes. One of my favorites concerns Auchincloss’s Uncle Ed, who sent his shirts to Europe so they’d be properly laundered!

The Auchinclosses moved in exalted circles, although as is usual with children, young Louis took it for granted that the family should socialize with the elite of the period, including the Vanderbilts. I liked this summing up of that high profile clan by one of the era’s supreme chroniclers:

Edith Wharton spoke of the family as engaged in a constant Battle of Thermopylae against bad taste, which they never won.

(Wharton, a huge influence on Auchincloss, was known to his grandmother from their summers at Newport, Rhode Island.)

Edith Wharton

Some of the author’s recollections are poignant. For instance, he went to law school (University of Virginia) with Marshall Field IV. This scion of the wealthy Chicago department store and newspaper owners suffered a nervous breakdown in 1956 and endured a lifelong struggle with drug use. He died in 1965 at the age of 50. Auchincloss comments that “the story of the Fields is like that of the House of Atreus.”  (These allusions to the classics and to ancient history serve as a dismaying reminder that a basic knowledge of these fields of study used to be presumed for all and any educated Americans.)

In the domestic sphere, Auchincloss’s mother did not have to do without: she had two nurses to assist with the care of four minor children, a cook, a waitress (!),  a chambermaid for general housekeeping, and a chauffeur: “Her days were thus free for some not very taxing charity work, lunches with friends at her clubs, matinees or concerts, visits to museums.” Once again, this profusion of servants, a state of affairs that seems almost unimaginable to us now, would have been something that Louis and his siblings took for granted. To this description, Auchincloss appends some provocative observations on the status of women of that era:

It was commonly said that because so many women were possessed of great wealth in their own right, that they exercised considerable economic power. It is truer to say that they could have. But all that was left by tacit consent to the men. Women, before they took jobs in the professions,  were content with the power they exercised in the home, where they ran the household and the children, selected the life style and the friends, chose the vacation spots and the charities to be supported and even the church to be attended.

In this passage, Auchincloss delineates those that comprised the entity called “society,” as it existed in New York City in the 1920s and’30s:

These persons resided on the East Side of Manhattan (never west except below Fifty-ninth Street) as far south as Union Square  and as far north as Ninety-sixth Street. The members (if that is the word; it doesn’t seem quite right) were largely Protestants of Anglo-Saxon origin. (Note that Catholics and nonpracticing Jews were not always excluded if rich enough.) The men were apt to be in business, finance, or law, sometimes in medicine, rarely in the church and almost never in politics.

He adds that “Franklin Roosevelt was an exception and not a popular one, either.” I suspect that’s a bit of an understatement. Re Roosevelt: does one not frequently hear that he was considered “a traitor to his class”? I also liked the part about “nonpracticing Jews.” Better lose the skull caps and prayer shawls, fellas, if you want in!

Louis Auchincloss crossed paths with many who would later attain fame (or in some cases, notoriety).  At the elite private boys’ school that he attended in Manhattan, he knew two future actors of some disctinction: Efrem Zimbalist Jr. and Mel Ferrer.

Efrem Zimbalist Jr. (198 - ) as Don Alejandro in the made-for--TV film "Zorro," in 1990


Mel Ferrer, 1917-2008

Then it was on to Groton, the prestigious prep school in Massachusetts, where he counted William Bundy as a classmate. Bundy and his older brother McGeorge – called “Mac” by intimates – went on to become security advisers to Presidents Kennedy and Johnson. At the time that Auchincloss was at Groton, Reverend Endicott Peabody, the school’s founder, was still headmaster. (Sophia Peabody Hawthorne, wife of Nathaniel Hawthorne, was an earlier scion of the same illustrious clan.)

William P. Bundy

McGeorge Bundy on the cover of Time Magazine 1965

Reverend Endicott Peabody

Auchincloss went to Yale and then, as mentioned above, to the University of Virginia Law School. Finally in 1941, he obtained employment at the Wall Street firm of Sullivan & Cromwell. The movers and shakers there were the Dulles brothers, Allen, the fifth director of the CIA, and John Foster, future Secretary of State under President Dwight D. Eisenhower. At different times during his tenure at Sullivan & Cromwell, the author worked for both brothers. He makes interesting observations about them:

Foster was sober, grave, dedicated to work, deeply religious, and utterly unimaginative in his dealings with clerks and staff. Allen, on the other hand, was hearty, cheerful, outgiving [sic], full of charm and humor.  Where he was devoted, perhaps too much so, to the fair sex, Foster was strictly a faithful monogamist.

Allen Dulles

President Dwight D. Eisenhower and John Foster Dulles in 1956

Probably Auchincloss’s most intriguing connection entered his life in 1942, when his father’s cousin Hugh D. Auchiincloss married Janet Lee Bouvier. It was his third marriage and her second. She already had two daughters, one of whom was to become one of the twentieth century’s most famous women: . (Hugh Auchincloss’s second marriage was to Nina S. Gore, mother of author Gore Vidal.)

Louis Auchincloss recounts a fascinating anecdote about Jackie Bouvier, as she then was. He had just written Sybil, and Jackie, at the time engaged to one John Husted of New York, strongly identified with the novel’s eponymous protagonist. She told him:

‘Oh, you’ve written my life….Sybil Bouvier, Sybil Husted. Respectable, middle-class, moderately well off. Accepted everywhere. Decent and dull.’

Auchincloss writes that at that moment,  he had a premonition of an entirely different fate awaiting his pretty cousin. Still, he admits that no one in the family “…predicted her remarkable destiny.” (One week later, her engagement to Husted was broken.)

In his introduction to this memoir, Louis Auchincloss voices the hope that in taking us on this journey to the past – his past and ours – he will bring that past to life. In this effort, he has succeeded admirably.


Louis Auchincloss was a remarkably prolific writer. Here is his oeuvre, courtesy of  Wikipedia:


  • The Indifferent Children (1947)
  • Sybil (1952)
  • A Law for the Lion (1953)
  • The Great World and Timothy Colt (1956)
  • Venus in Sparta (1958)
  • Pursuit of the Prodigal (1959)
  • The House of Five Talents (1960)
  • Portrait in Brownstone (1962)
  • The Rector of Justin (1964)
  • The Embezzler (1966)
  • A World of Profit (1968)
  • I Come as a Thief (1972)
  • The Dark Lady (1977)
  • The Country Cousin (1978)
  • The House of the Prophet (1980)
  • The Cat and the King (1981)
  • Watchfires (1982)
  • Exit Lady Masham (1983)
  • The Book Class (1984)
  • Honourable Men (1986)
  • Diary of a Yuppie (1987)
  • The Golden Calves (1988)
  • Fellow Passengers: A Novel in Portraits (1989)
  • The Lady of Situations (1990)
  • Three Lives (1993)
  • The Education of Oscar Fairfax (1995)
  • Her Infinite Variety (2000)
  • The Scarlet Letters (2003)
  • East Side Story (2004)
  • The Headmaster’s Dilemma (2007)
  • Last of the Old Guard (2008

Short story collections

  • The Injustice Collectors (1950)
  • The Romantic Egoists (1954)
  • Powers of Attorney (1963)
  • Tales of Manhattan (1967)
  • Second Chance: Tales of Two Generations (1970)
  • The Partners (1974)
  • The Winthrop Covenant (1976)
  • Narcissa and Other Fables (1982)
  • Skinny Island: More Tales of Manhattan (1987)
  • False Gods (1992)
  • Tales of Yesteryear (1994)
  • The Collected Stories of Louis Auchincloss (1994)
  • The Atonement and Other Stories (1997)
  • The Anniversary and Other Stories (1999)
  • Manhattan Monologues (2002)
  • The Young Apollo and Other Stories (2006)
  • The Friend of Women and Other Stories (2007)


  • Reflections of a Jacobite (1961)
  • Pioneers and Caretakers: A Study of Nine American Women Novelists (1965)
  • On Sister Carrie (1968)
  • Motiveless Malignity (1969)
  • Edith Wharton: A Woman in Her Time (1972)
  • Richelieu (1972)
  • A Writer’s Capital (1974)
  • Reading Henry James (1975)
  • Life, Law, and Letters: Essays and Sketches (1979)
  • Persons of Consequence: Queen Victoria and Her Circle (1979)
  • False Dawn: Women in the Age of the Sun King (1985)
  • The Vanderbilt Era: Profiles of a Gilded Age (1989)
  • Love without Wings: Some Friendships in Literature and Politics (1991)
  • The Style’s the Man: Reflections on Proust, Fitzgerald, Wharton, Vidal, and Others (1994)
  • The Man Behind the Book: Literary Profiles (1996)
  • Woodrow Wilson (Penguin Lives) (2000)
  • Theodore Roosevelt (The American Presidents Series) (2002)


Auchincloss’s The Great World and Timothy Colt (1956) was adapted for television in an episode of the Climax! series (Season 4, Episode 22; Broadcast 27 March 1958).


It is difficult to believe that it was only only last that we bid Louis Auchincloss adieu. His work and his life belong so completely to a bygone era. The Kirkus reviewer of A Voice from Old New York commented that this last book from the author’s pen “…is a farewell to a way of life that was gone before he was.” Auchincoss would most certainly have agreed with this assessment.

Louis Auchincloss receiving the National Medal of Arts in 2005

Louis Auchincloss in the Yale yearbook, 1939

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Raucous and rollicking: The Comedy of Errors at the Folger

February 21, 2011 at 11:33 pm (Local interest (Baltimore-Washington), Shakespeare)

Darius Pierce as Dromio of Ephesus and Bruce Nelson as Antipholus of Ephesus

By the time we got to the Folger yesterday afternoon, word was already out: this production of The Comedy of Errors was smashing! And so it proved to be.

The set-up is this: two sets of identical – and identically named! – twins race around the  city of Ephesus sowing discord and confusion. Cases of mistaken identity pile up exponentially. I wouldn’t dream of trying to provide a more detailed plot summary; it all whipped past us so deftly and so swiftly.

The comedy was physical without being slapstick. Darius Pierce, pictured above, was an especial joy to watch. The set was beautiful and at the same time cunningly designed. The Dromio twins kept getting wedged in the too-small doorways. The learning curve was nil!

Comedy of Errors is very early Shakespeare. The date of the first performance is usually given as 1592 or 1593. Could those who were there possibly have had any idea of  the unparalleled brilliance that the author of this frothy confection would soon reveal to the world? One wonders….A mere two (or three?) years later, Romeo and Juliet had its premiere. (And wouldn’t you know it, the line “Dromio, Dromio, wherefore art thou, Dromio” magically found its way into this madcap production!)

The Folger has an outstanding study guide on its site. I highly recommend having a look at it if you’re planning to see The Comedy of Errors. Good luck getting tickets, though – our matinee was completely sold out.

Here’s a quick run-though of the plot, courtesy of cast members:

Here’s the trailer:

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Irish Evening 2011 surpasses expectations

February 20, 2011 at 4:09 am (books, Local interest (Baltimore-Washington), Music, Poetry)

In his introductory remarks, His Excellency Michael Collins, Ireland’s ambassador to the U.S., spoke of the current economic difficulties in his native land. The situation, he emphasized, makes the riches of his country’s culture all the more essential. Great music and literature provide a needed solace, a sense of identity, and hope for the future.

Take that, those of you who would slash funding for the arts! (Sorry – I just couldn’t help myself.)

Ambassador Collins made mention of an initiative aimed at promoting the culture of the Emerald Isle on these shores. It’s called Imagine Ireland: A Year of Irish Arts in America 2011. He then introduced this evening’s distinguished speaker, whose name I finally know how to pronounce. (It’s Collum Toe-bean, for the phonetically challenged.)

Colm Toibin

Colm Toibin chose “Two Women,” from  The Empty Family, to read to his audience  Although it does not seem so at the outset, this is actually a love story, and a deeply moving one. I had already read it, and was delighted that Toibin had chosen it. He prefaced the reading by recounting of a true life experience involving his acquaintance with an actor. The love story involves an actor and a film set designer, and this gem of the tale originated in an actual incident that was related to the author by someone he knew. The story “Silence,” in the same anthology, depicts Henry James gleaning material for his fiction in much the same way. Toibin mentioned the fact that James took the bare outline of a situation involving two orphaned children and their governess living in a remote country house – a story told to him by the Archbishop of Canterbury in 1895 – and fashioned it into one of the most disturbing, not to mention terrifying, works of literature ever to see print: The Turn of the Screw.

I am reminded of this passage from Selina Hastings’s biography of Somerset Maugham:

Maugham’s attitude to James’s work over the years was to grow increasingly equivocal, a mixture of impatience and admiration, impatience with what he saw as a lack of that empathy essential to a novelist and admiration for a superb technique. “The great novelists, even in seclusion, have lived life passionately,” Maugham wrote. “Henry James was content to observe it from a window.”

Still, he saw plenty from that window…

Toibin’s reading was followed by an intermission. And now it was time for music, dancing, and poetry. The music was provided by the Narrowbacks, formerly known as Celtic Thunder

Left to right: Jesse Winch, Tony DeMarco, Terry Winch, Linda Hickman, Dominick Murray. Photo by Judy Bodman.

The above photo was taken in 2005. The composition of the group has changed somewhat since then. Tony DeMarco and Dominick Murray did not play Friday night. Singer and instrumentalist Eileen Korn Estes and fiddler Brendan Mulvihill performed in their stead.


First row, left to right: Terry Winch, Brendan Mulvihill, and Jesse Winch. Above, Linda Hickman and Eileen Korn Estes

As always, the Narrowbacks made great music. And oh, the dancers from the Culkin School!

Back to the Narrowbacks. Terry Winch is not only an instrumentalist and songwriter, but a poet as well. (He and Jesse are brothers.) One of his songs, “When New York was Irish,” has apparently become something of a standard in the Irish music repertoire:

At the Irish Evening celebration, Terry customarily reads aloud several of his poems. They can be somber, but seem more often to be gently ironic, even whimsical:


No one is safe. The streets are unsafe.
even in the safety zones, it’s not safe.
Even safe sex is not safe.
Even things you lock in a safe
are not safe. Never deposit anything
in a safety deposit box, because it
won’t be safe there. Nobody is safe
at home during baseball games anymore.

At night I go around in the dark
locking everything, returning
a few minutes later
to make sure I locked
everything. It’s not safe here.
It’s not safe and they know it.
People get hurt using safety pins.

It was not always this way.
Long ago, everyone felt safe. Aristotle
never felt danger. Herodotus felt danger
only when Xerxes was around. Young women
were afraid of wing’d dragons, but felt
relaxed otherwise. Timotheus, however,
was terrified of storms until he played
one on the flute. After that, everyone
was more afraid of him than of the violent
west wind, which was fine with Timotheus.
Euclid, full of music himself, believed only
that there was safety in numbers.

The poems he read Friday night were from the collection Boy Drinkers. I loved them and am buying the book.

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Falling in love again…

February 18, 2011 at 8:59 pm (Animals, Dogs)

I didn’t think it could happen – not at my stage of life – but it has! Her name is Hickory. She’s the Scottish deerhound who just won Best in Show at Westminster.

I like what Dan Zak of the Washington Post had to say about Hickory:

After winning “best in show” from the Westminster Kennel Club, a dog has every right to get cranky, to go diva, to not sit, to not stay. But over the past 24 hours, as paparazzi have trailed her around New York, Grand Champion Foxcliffe Hickory Wind has borne her title with quiet dignity and grace.

She’s got that elusive quality, all right: ‘quiet dignity and grace.’ Also known as class.

Here’s a sample of the winners of that coveted title in recent years:


2008: Uno. a 15-inch Beagle


2010: Sadie, a Scottish terrier

2009: Stump, a Sussex Spaniel

2001: Special Times Just Right, a Bichon Frise

You’ll notice that all four of the above are…well, they’re just as cute as they can be!

Hickory is different. She’s quite a bit bigger, for one thing. And the fact is that at first glance, she might seem less than gorgeous. But she has that certain je ne sais quoi, composed of the above mentioned qualities; in addition, she is possessed of a supremely dignified demeanor. And to me, she seemed to radiate a quality I can only describe as kindliness.

Her handler Angela Lloyd deserves plenty of credit. There is obviously a very special bond between her and Hickory. Click here for video.

For more pictures, video, and information about the show, go to the Westminster Kennel Club site. For additional information about the breed, go to the Scottish Deerhound Club of America.



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“It was always impossible to know…why one small spark caused a large fire and why another was destined to extinguish itself before it had even flared.” – “Silence,” by Colm Toibin

February 16, 2011 at 11:35 pm (Book review, books, Local interest (Baltimore-Washington), Short stories)

Of late, I have been enjoying the short stories in Colm Toibin’s new collection, The Empty Family. I particularly like “The Silence,” in which Toibin imagines himself into social and literary world of turn of the century London. One of that world’s brightest stars is Henry James. Lady Gregory, a young widow, has been listening to him as he holds forth on the subject of Americans in Venice:

James sighed and mentioned how a warm personality, especially of the American sort, had a way of cooling one’s appreciation of ancient beauty, irrespective of how grand the palazzo of which this personality was in possession, indeed irrespective of how fine or fast-moving her gondola.

Once he has concluded this eloquent if rather idiosyncratic disquisition, Lady Gregory informs James that she has a story to tell him. The story concerns a newly married clergyman and his bride. Would James like to hear it? Or is he weary of people’s relish for telling him tales to use in his fiction? The author, in his turn, is reassuring; he is more than amenable to hearing her recitation. And so she commences  her tale:

There was an eminent London man, a clergyman known to dine at the best tables, a man of great experience who had many friends, friends who were both surprised and delighted when this man finally married. The lady in question was known to be highly respectable….

“The Silence” is prefaced by an entry purportedly from one of Henry James’s notebooks; in it, James divulges the particulars of the rest of this story. He also states that it was related to him by  “Lady G.” So what I want to know is this: Is this an actual notebook excerpt? For that matter, is there a story by Henry James that more or less conforms to the plot points in that notebook entry?

These are tantalizing questions (They tantalize me, at any rate.).  In addition to being a literary puzzle, “The Silence” is about a rapturous love affair, boldly entered into and culminating in the expected way. A beautifully wrought gem of a story.


This volume’s title story showcases Toibin’s intense lyrical bent as the narrator, coming to terms with his life and his fate, meditates on  what Henry James called “the distinguished thing:”

One of these days I will go and stand in that graveyard and contemplate the light over the Slaney, the simple beauty of grey Irish light over water, and know that I, like anyone else who was born, will be condemned eventually to lie in darkness as long as time lasts. And all I have in the meantime is this house, this light, this freedom, and I will, if I have the courage, spend my time watching the sea, noting its changes and the sounds it makes, studying the horizon, listening to the wind or relishing the clam when there is no wind. I will not fly even in my deepest dreams too close to the sun or too close to the sea. The chance for all that has passed.


I have one complaint about The Empty Family, and it has nothing to do with the contents thereof. I very much appreciate short story collections in which the title of the story I’m reading appears not only at its beginning, but also at the top of succeeding pages. I’m referring to what I believe are called “running heads,” or “headers,” in contemporary computer-influenced parlance. In this collection, the words “The Empty Family” served as the headers throughout, on the right, while the author’s name appears top left in likewise fashion.  This is a small cavil, but worth mentioning, IMHO.


Colm Toibin will be reading from his works at the Howard County Poetry and Literature Society’s 33rd annual Evening of Irish Music and Poetry. What a wonderful tradition “HoCoPoLitSo” has established with this series! I had the good fortune to attend this event both last year and the year before that. I’m glad I went, especially in 2009.

Colm Toibin

Claire Keegan

Frank McCourt

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Revisiting two cherished fiction titles, courtesy of Thomas’s blog My Porch – plus one delightful visual excursion for the football-averse!

February 14, 2011 at 2:51 am (books)

In April 2008, I met with a group at  the library to  talk about The Professor’s House by Willa Cather. I recall the discussion as being sparsely attended and less than scintillating. It didn’t matter. I had already written about the novel in this space; in the week leading up to the scheduled meeting, I had become so immersed in its strange power that the actual discussion seemed almost beside the point.

Here is Thomas’s take on The Professor’s House. I particularly like his comments on his sojourn in New Mexico. Ron and I first went there in the early 1990s, on the strength of my fascination with the novels of Tony Hillerman. The place was everything we thought it would be, and more. We went to Taos Pueblo and stayed at an inn in the center of town. The room had a kiva fireplace; we burned logs redolent of mesquite. We also stayed in Santa Fe, at the Hotel Santa Fe, which is owned in part by the people of the Picuris Pueblo. This was but a recent venture when we first stayed there. When we went again several years later, the hotel’s Amaya Restaurant had opened. We were served by a youth with high cheekbones, dark eyes, and glossy black hair falling to his waist. The food was delicious!

Taos Pueblo

Last year, while we were enduring Snowmageddon, I was dreaming of New Mexico. Now I find myself dreaming of it once again, as the dishwater  gray of a mid-February day drags on. I envy Willa Cather, who first saw the Land of Enchantment – was there ever a more apt sobriquet? – in 1912, before the massive tourist influx. Even so, even now, it is still a beautiful place. In his post, Thomas links to a more lengthy, in depth (and gorgeously illustrated) analysis of The Professor’s House.

I’ve read Willa Cather’s masterpiece twice; I’ll probably read it yet again. Thinking back on the eponymous professor Godfrey St. Peter and his tribulations, I am reminded of lines from King Lear:

Men must endure
Their going hence, even as their coming hither:
Ripeness is all.

Peter Ackroyd quotes this in Albion: The Origins of the English Imagination. It appears in my favorite chapter in that book, the one on King Arthur, entitled “He Is Not Dead.” Later in the same paragraph, Ackroyd states that “…the combination of bravery and fatalism, endurance and understatement, is the defining mood of Arthurian legend.” That phrase “bravery and fatalism” has become a sort of watchword for me. I see it as a definition of  gallantry, something to hold fast to if and when the going gets rough.

Like me, Thomas was also put in mind of a British work. In his case it’s A Month in the Country by J.L. Carr. This novel was on the reading list for my Yorkshire trip in 2005. Thomas reviews it here. He calls it “a little gem” and, in conclusion states: “I think it is a beautiful book and it gives me deep comfort about my place in the cosmos.” I remember being deeply moved by this story of a young World War One veteran who is working on the restoration of a medieval mural in a church in a Yorkshire village. A Month in the Country was written in 1980 but has the feel, diction, and pacing of a much older work. (In that sense it reminds me of Isabel Colegate’s The Shooting Party.) The Last Englishman, a recent biography of Carr by Byron Rogers. reveals him to have been a most interesting man. 

Finally, don’t miss Thomas’s witty homage to super bowls – objects having nothing to do with football!

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Favorite crime fiction: looking forward (while looking back)

February 12, 2011 at 12:08 am (books, Mystery fiction)

“The Future of the Book,” a feature in this week’s Newsweek, brought to mind several mysteries I’m looking forward to reading in the near future. You may find some favorite authors of yours on this list – or at least, some good recommendations.

Body Line by Cynthia Harrod-Eagles. Fell Purpose was such a welcome return to form for this author, I’m delighted that the thirteenth Bill Slider procedural is due out next month. 

Drawing Conclusions by Donna Leon. A new Guido Brunetti novel is always cause for celebration.  Due out in April, Drawing Conclusions will be the twentieth outing for  the Commissario, who seems, along with his delightful family, to be curiously immune to the ravages of time. (One can only be grateful!) 

The Hanging Wood will be the fifth entry in the atmospheric Lake District series by Martin Edwards. Due out in April. 

Henning Mankell has been quite some time away from his Wallander protagonist. So, in fact, have I. Maybe it’s time to return to him with The Troubled Man, the tenth in this distinguished series of Swedish procedurals,, due out next month. 

Heartstone, the fifth in C.J. Sansom’s enthralling historical series featuring lawyer Matthew Shardlake, has just been released. 

Aftermath,  number twenty-one – twenty-one! – in Peter Turnbull’s Hennessey and Yellich saga, has just been released. I find myself wondering if Hennessey will ever come clean concerning his long term romance with a Certain Lady… 

School of Night by Louis Bayard. Publishers Weekly calls this one “a superb intellectual thriller.” Being as I’m always in search of such reading matter, I locked on to this title right away. I loved The Pale Blue Eye, despite its rather baroque, over-the-top conclusion. I happened to be reading that tale of Edgar Allan Poe’s brief sojourn at West Point while we were staying in the Hudson River Valley and touring the Academy for  the first time.. The result was the best convergence of real life experience and fiction immersion since I found myself in Concord (Mass.), quite a few years ago, with Jane Langton’s memorable God in Concord.

PW calls The Anatomy of Ghosts by Andrew Taylor a “masterful thriller.” On the other hand, the Booklist review begins with this rather plaintive cri de coeur: “What is it about historical mysteries that compels many writers to abandon the crisp conciseness of a well-honed plot in favor of sprawling narratives vined over with excess verbiage?” Well gosh…I agree that many contemporary novels are overstuffed – and that doesn’t apply exclusively to historical fiction. I admit that I adored the sprawling, brilliant Wolf Hall, but I also have to say that several of my favorite historical novels are quite slender in length, to wit Isabel Colegate’s The Shooting Party and The Beginning of Spring and The Blue Flower by Penelope Fitzgerald. As for Andrew Taylor, I’ve read two of his longer historical novels: An Unpardonable Crime (confusingly published as The American Boy in Britain) and Bleeding Heart Square. I very much enjoyed both and am looking forward to The Anatomy of Ghosts, which was released here last month.. (I’ve just begun re-reading An Air That Kills, the first of the Lydmouth novels. It is on the list of suggested reading for the upcoming tour in May. Our group will be meeting with Andrew Taylor at Speech House. It will be a pleasure to encounter him again, as we did on the Smithsonian Tour in 2006, and at the same venue.) 

Hotbed by Bill James. Admittedly I was rather frustrated with In the Absence of Iles, the last Harpur & Iles novel, but over the years I have derived so much enjoyment from James’s cheerfully irreverent, defiantly unconventional procedurals that I shall certainly give this new one a try. Due out in May. 

Wondering if a favorite of yours has anything new on the horizon? Try clicking on “New Hardcovers” and/or “New Paperbacks” at Stop You’re Killing Me! Use “Find” to search for a particular title, series, or author. (The “Find” option is usually found in the “Edit” menu selection of your browser.)

So, what about the Newsweek article cited at the top of this post? It contains some provocative observations. I related strongly to Dave Eggers’s use of the word “sterile” to describe the experience of reading an e-book. I liked the way James Billington defined the act of reading: “the sustained train of thought of one person speaking to another.” He worries about the built-in distractions of e-books: “Search techniques are embedded in e-books that invite people to dabble rather than follow a full train of thought. This is part of a general cultural problem.” On the other hand, Judith Regan says she really appreciates the convenience and portability of e-books for frequent travelers like herself. And she’s so crazy about her iPad that she declares she wants to marry it!

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Another splendid afternoon of music by the Bach Concert Series Choir and guest performers

February 10, 2011 at 4:16 pm (Local interest (Baltimore-Washington), Music)

Sunday’s cantata was Number 5: Wo soll ich fliehen hin, or “Where should I flee to?”. Here’s how it begins:

The conductor in this video is Nokolaus Harnoncourt, one of this era’s most revered Bach specialists. In 1953, he and his wife Alice founded the Concentus Musicus Vien, an ensemble that, according to the site Bach’s Cantatas, “…is largely responsible for launching the authentic instrument movement and, forty-six years later, remains at the forefront of historical performing practice.”

As usual, Maestro Herbert Dimmock, founder and music director of the Bach Concert Series, gave a pre-concert lecture in which he enlarged on the unique and special qualities of this work. His words always serve to illuminate the listening experience for the audience. This time, he drew our attention to a tenor aria in which the singer uses the metaphor of water that washes away sinfulness. As is usual with Bach, the music gracefully emulated the flowing element. Maestro Dimmock also informed us that this section of the cantata features lovely solo work for the viola, an instrument not frequently highlighted this way in Bach’s oeuvre.

Maestro T. Herbert Dimmock, whose musical elucidations are a delight to concert goers!

The performers are not identified in this clip, but I thought the playing was beautiful and the visuals artfully done:

Following the performance of the cantata, it is customary for the audience to join together in singing the hymn upon which the cantata is based. Maestro Dimmock explained that in this case, they were unable to locate the original hymn, written by Johann Herrmann (1515-1593), in any of the hymnals they had to hand. Therefore, they reconstructed the piece themselves and had the written score printed on our program. We were thus able to sing at least the first verse and so maintain this fine custom!

The hymn singing was followed by the Cherubic Hymn of Sergei Rachmaninoff, performed by the Bach Concert Series Choir (here sung by the Lenoir-Rhyne A Cappella Choir of Lenoir-Rhyne University in North Carolina):

Sunday’s guest organist was Daniel Sansone, a distinguished musician and organ scholar who is currently the Director of Music Ministry at the Cathedral of Mary Our Queen in Baltimore.

Mr. Sansone played Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in d (“Dorian”) BWV 538. Here, it is played by French organist Andre Isoir:

We continue to enjoy the technologically innovative way in which the organ performance is now presented at these concerts. A camera is positioned to capture the organist’s playing.  A projector is set up near the front of the nave in the center aisle. The image of the organist and the instrument is then projected onto a screen, where it is easily viewed by the audience.

The program concluded with a performance by the Friends School Chamber Choir. The ensemble presented three works, beginning with Sound the Trumpet by Henry Purcell. The second piece was Sure on This Shining Night by Samuel Barber. Here is that ineffably beautiful work performed by the Lenape High School Concert Choir (This school is located in New Jersey):

The Friends School Chamber Choir concluded with “Domine Fili Unigenite” from Antonio Vivaldi’s Gloria. I have sung this with a choir on several occasions; it was all I could do to keep from joining right in! In Britain, an ensemble has been formed whose official name is Schola Pietatis Antonio Vivaldi, more commonly called Vivaldi’s Women. Their aim is to reproduce as closely as possible the original norms of Vivaldi performance. Read more about this fascinating initiative on their site.

Here they are performing  “Domine Fili Unigenite” at the Church of the Pieta in Venice:

Here is a film clip from the BBC documentary Vivaldi’s Women:


Baltimore can take enormous pride in these terrific concerts. What a pleasure it is to come at the beginning of each month with my dear friend Emma, who introduced me to this series. We take our seats amid the neo-Gothic splendor of Christ Lutheran Church and listen to this glorious music. I feel exalted. Thanks to you, Maestro Dimmock and the Bach Concert Series Choir!

Johann Sebastian Bach 1685 - 1750

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The Great Divorce: A Nineteenth-Century Mother’s Extraordinary Fight against Her Husband, the Shakers, and Her Times; by Ilyon Woo

February 9, 2011 at 12:26 pm (Book review, books, History)

I recently received two invitations to make a piece of Shaker furniture. The first one arrived just today via e-an mail from the Shaker Workshops Online Catalog. “Don’t let cabin fever get you down,” it exhorted me. Instead, build a chair like this one from one of our kits!

The second invitation fell into my hands in the form of a slight yet beguiling volume pulled off the library’s new nonfiction shelves last week: Was I right to see these two instances as invitations? Or, should I rather consider them gifts…

In The Great Divorce, author Ilyon Woo explains: “In Shaker parlance, a ‘gift’ meant an inspiration, a revelation, or an order from above.” And this of course puts us in mind of  “Simple Gifts.” The melody of this Shaker hymn, originally penned by Elder Joseph Brackett in 1848, attained its apotheosis through Aaron Copland’s sweeping symphonic treatment in his “Ballet for Martha,” Appalachian Spring * :

If you’re like me, the hymn and the furniture pretty much sum up what you know about “The United Society of Believers in Christ’s Second Appearing, known as the Shakers or Shaking Quakers” (so denominated in the Wikipedia entry). I had also heard that the sect was celibate, able to replenish or increase its ranks only through acquiring converts from the outside world. This was a tricky business, as the outside world was perceived as being full of snares for the unwary – or for the wary also, in some cases.  But Ilyon Woo’s book is about those who knowingly choose to become part of a Shaker community and those, like Eunice Hawley Chapman, who  make a try at the life but reject it. Her story would have stopped there except for one critical point: her estranged husband James did join. He joined, and he took his and Eunice’s children with him.

In early nineteenth century America, he had every right to do this. In accordance with the laws of the time, the children was his property. So, for that matter, was Eunice. Never mind that James was an alcoholic who deserted his family on several occasions and failed to provide for them on a consistent basis. Men did far worse and still retained their rights in the law. Even more crucially, their wives’ divorce petitions were repeatedly rejected,  even in cases where physical abuse had occurred.

The Great Divorce describes an epic legal  battle that played itself out in the New York State legislature. The logistics may have been complicated, but the reason for the action was simple and straightforward. Eunice Chapman’s three children – George, Susan, and Julia – had disappeared behind the high walls of the Shaker community. She wanted them back, and she was prepared to go to any lengths and use any tools to hand in order to achieve her purpose. (You’ll be surprised by just what those tools were.)

Ilyon Woo provides a fascinating glimpse into the Shaker world, from its founding in England by Mother Ann Lee to its establishment in the New World in the early nineteenth century. Some admirable qualities characterized the Shakers. The communities they built with their own hands were models of cleanliness and efficiency, contrasting favorably with some of the cities and towns of the period, with their poor sanitation and general slovenliness. Members of the sect were staunch pacifists. In addition, their settlements provided a haven for those who were living in dire poverty or suffering some kind of abuse in the outside world. This was particularly true of women and children. The relentless industry of the Shaker men and women not only produced the furnishings and smaller objects for which they became famous; it also resulted in an abundance of food deliciously prepared and graciously served up at meal times.

A precisely choreographed form of social dancing formed an integral part of the Shaker worship service (click on picture to enlarge):

Shakers, their mode of worship, a lithograph by D.W. Kellogg

But you gave up much when you joined the sect. You could not own anything, you were expected to feel, or at least to express, nothing but the mildest affection for your fellow beings. Idle talk was discouraged; idleness in general was not tolerated. The men and the women had prescribed clothing which they wore at all times. The activities for each day, including and especially the Sabbath, were set out in advance and did not vary.

As I made my way through this thoroughly engrossing narrative, my feelings about the Shakers kept changing. Believers, as they called themselves, were for the most part caring, generous, and above all, kind. The level of commitment to the community and the striving to attain perfection before God were impressive, even moving. At the same time. the almost aggressive plainness of their surroundings seemed oppressive. Beauty belonged  solely to the spirit, and was not to be indulged in where material objects were concerned. A chief value advocated by the sect was the loss of all that made an individual unique, as he or she merged with a group that became almost like a single organism. For me, that loss of selfhood was the single most incomprehensible and troubling aspect of a Believer’s life within the Shaker community.

The story of Eunice Chapman’s struggle to win back her children plays out against the backdrop of a country that even in the early 1800s was on the cusp of legal and social change. Eunice’s law suit was instrumental in bringing those changes about. It is unfortunate that she went after the Shakers as she did, but she felt she had no choice, and once you’re fully apprised of the circumstances, it’s hard to disagree with the actions she took. They were born of desperation. She would surely have left the Believers in peace if they had not been harboring her children and making it nearly impossible for her to see them. This is a convoluted tale, and Ilyon Woo’s ability to explain and clarify its various aspects, especially the legal ones,  while preserving the narrative’s forward thrust is truly impressive. Far from getting bogged down in the details, I actually had trouble putting the book down.

Ilyon Woo does a great job of illuminating an obscure corner of early American life. For instance, here she describes what Eunice, her parents, and her siblings would have encountered when the family emigrated from Connecticut to Durham New York around the turn of the nineteenth century::

…Durham fell along the route of the brand new Susquehanna Turnpike, which was crowded, day and night, with all manner of men–homesteaders and farmers, peddlers and grave diggers, itinerant preachers and traveling portrait painters, as well as herds of cattle, turkeys and other beasts being driven farther west. It was said of this road that the dust never settled, and in the evenings, the fields glowed with the makeshift hearths of campers stopping to rest.

In the course of her travails, Eunice Chapman was influenced by a novel called Charlotte Temple. Written by Susanna Rowson and first published in this country in 1794, Charlotte Temple is the classic seduction tale. Young and impressionable, the eponymous heroine allows herself to be seduced by a callow villain who spirits her off to America, gets her pregnant, and then abandons her on this alien shore to fend for herself. Ilyon Woo calls this novel “America’s first best seller.” 

I’m always finding rather startling stories of true crime in the most unlikely historical tomes. So it was with Laurel Thatcher Ulrich’s A Midwife’s Tale; so it is in The Great Divorce. The case to which I refer was contemporaneous with the Chapman imbroglio. Here’s what happened: one Abraham Kessler had deserted his wife on their wedding day. Five years later he returned to their home, not for the purpose of reconciliation but in order to poison said wife. He had found someone else he wanted to marry, and knew that as things stood, it would be impossible for him to secure a divorce. Woo observes: “The Kessler case provided yet another reminder of the limitations of New York’s marriage laws, trumping even the Chapmans’ in its degree of tragedy.”

Here is Ilyon Woo:


The Shaker Workshops Online Catalog provides a succinct history of the sect; in addition, there are links to fascinating historical sources. I clicked on “Life with the Shakers,” edited by Frederick W. Evans (1888) and was immediately struck by this sentence: “Then all seat themselves and eat the meal with speechless assiduity.” It was once again driven home to me why I am increasingly drawn to reading the classics…”speechless assiduity.” I do love that kind of felicitous phrase making!


*Some of my favorite nonfiction books are found in the juvenile collection of the Howard County Library. The call number for Ballet for Martha is J 784.21 G.

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Kathleen Flinn takes the Book Babes book club on a delightful – and delectable! – excursion to The City of Light in The Sharper Your Knife, the Less You Cry

February 4, 2011 at 9:53 pm (Book clubs, Book review, books, Food, France)

This past Sunday night, the Book Babes (also known by its more refined name, the Literary Ladies) discussed The Sharper Your Knife, the Less You Cry by Kathleen Flinn. This is a memoir of Flinn’s experience attending the Cordon Bleu Cooking School in Paris. Most emphatically, this is not a book I would ordinarily choose to read on my own, but our leader was to be Jean, who herself just got back from Paris. Her presentation really brought the author’s experience to life for us. And of course, as always, it was a pleasure to hear the fluent French that trips so easily and beautifully off her tongue.

The Sharper Your Knife belongs in the genre (subgenre?) of culinary memoirs. The reason I personally shy away from these books – from any books about the cooking life, in fact – is that  Type Two Diabetes has caused me to develop an extremely vexed relationship with food. Fact is, though, that I was never an especially good cook. Why go to all that trouble, after all, when my absolute favorite thing to eat could be found safely sealed in a bag? No freshness issues here; I always knew they would taste great – would crunch deliciously – would make me feel wonderful…. Yes, here they are again:  . Ah,yes; once they were to me what the Sirens were to Ulysses and his shipmates – but alas, those days are gone forever…

Well – back to the book: Kathleen Flinn’s Cordon Bleu experience made for some pretty entertaining reading. And talk about going to trouble! Some of those dishes, not to mention the techniques that had to be mastered beforehand, were positively mind boggling in their complexity. As someone who considers the production of a decent plate scrambled eggs a culinary triumph, I was deeply impressed, I can tell you! Of course, the Cordon Bleu students get to concentrate on the food preparation while someone else does the washing up. In fact, when Flinn tells us about one of the dishwashers, I thought she was speaking of  genus Whirlpool or Bosch, but no – she was actually referring to   “…a tiny, pleasant Algerian who comes up as high as my shoulders.” Les plongeurs, Flinn assures us, form a vital component of the Cordon Blue staff: “They’re the only ones who can get you a passoire when urgently needed.” (A passoire is a colander or strainer. When I did an image search on this term, I got this unexpectedly delightful result.)

Kathleen Flinn

I liked the bright and breezy style with which Kathleen Flinn narrates her Parisian life in general, and her cooking school experiences in particular. Chapters have headings like “La Catastrophe Americaine;” these are usually followed by “Lesson highlights;” in this case: “The International Buffet, Why You Can’t Make Substitutions with Cheesecake.” As one would expect, there are plenty of recipes, ranging all the way from surprisingly basic to dauntingly complex. (There’s an index to the recipes in the back of the book.) At this point in my life,  I cannot read a recipe without first assessing the dish’s carbohydrate content. The French tendency to bake food en croute – wrapped in pastry – and the frequent presence of potatoes, rice, and pasta caused me to shake my head sadly. But there were a good number of recipes that were fairly low in carbs. For instance, there’s a recipe I’d like to try for Diffusion de Tomate Provencal – Provencal Tomato Spread. The ingredients  are as follows: olive oil, red bell pepper, onion, garlic, tomatoes, sun-dried tomatoes, Nicoise olives, capers, fresh basil, and coarse sea salt. Of course, what do you do with this delectable mixture? Spread it on bread or crackers, of course, those notorious repositories of carbohydrates! But even I must consume some carbs, after all, and Kathleen recommends this spread for seared or grilled fish as well.

Flinn introduces us to her fellow Cordon Bleu students, and we get to share in their awe as they’re taught by the creme de la creme of the culinary universe. I expected to encounter screaming, uncompromising perfectionists who would think nothing of humiliating the poor struggling students. That did happen a couple of times, but mostly Flinn describes individual chefs who are eccentric rather than tyrannical, each with his own unique approach to the art of la cuisine francaise. (I use the masculine pronoun deliberately, as there seemed to be very few, if any, women chefs on the premises.)

And speaking of which, Flinn was at a distinct linguistic disadvantage when she began her studies: her knowledge of French was rudimentary at best. The school did provided translators, but not on every occasion. As her tenure at the school progressed, Flinn’s grasp of the language did likewise. I was once more reminded –  as if I needed reminding – of the beauty of this language, which I can read with a fair amount of fluency but can speak only in a very halting fashion. (I was also reminded of the delightful  film series from the BBC Sandrine’s Paris, featuring art historian Sandrine Voillet. This aired some months ago on PBS and has since been rebroadcast at least once that I know of. Otherwise, both the book and the DVD are difficult to obtain here.  )

While at the Cordon Bleu, Flinn was also in the midst of a rapturous love affair, begun in Seattle, and continued in France when Mike, the object of her affection, flew over to join her there. Jean asked us if we became impatient with the details of this relationship – but we older and wiser folk (plus the young and already wise Joanne) declared that if you couldn’t indulge your passions in Paris – well, then, where could you?

Another theme running though The Sharper Your Knife is the abandonment of an unrewarding job, or series of jobs, in order to pursue a dream. This is what Kathleen Flinn did when she decided to move to Paris and enroll at the Cordon Bleu. I admired her daring; I also wondered at her ability to get along without a regular paycheck – an ability apparently shared by Mike. (Well, it’s good to have things in common with the one you love!)

For me, the most interesting part of this book came near the end, when Flinn’s class took a field trip to Rungis. Qu’est-ce que c’est? Well may you ask. I had never heard of it, but Rungis, located on the outskirts of Paris, is purported to be the largest wholesale food market in the world. It replaced Les Halles, the storied marketplace that had existed in the heart of the city for hundreds of years. In 1971, Les Halles shut down, to be replaced by Marche d’Interet National de Rungis. Click here for the market’s official site.  And don’t miss the video of the month. You’ll hear some lovely French spoken, as praise is heaped upon the humble turnip!

Here are some pictures of the market:  . Click here to see more, but I should warn you: formerly living creatures destined for the dinner table are delivered to the market – shall we say, unprocessed. This includes rabbits…sigh. It’s enough to make one a vegetarian, n’est-ce pas? Dealing with raw ingredients in this form was  something that Kathleen Flinn had to work to get used to. (Full disclosure: I had a grilled hamburger at Applebee’s last night – delicious!)

The French do love their meat. In fact, many of the recipes that Flinn first learned featured “meat stuffed with meat.” When my son and his wife were in Paris last Spring, they had to search long and hard for a vegetarian restaurant. (They finally succeeded in finding one – I don’t recall its name. They also took some great pictures.)

Inevitably, as our discussion wound down, much longing was expressed to be once again in the City of Light, where Jean just was and where lucky Marge and her husband will be next month. I was last there in 1995, when my son was spending a college semester  there. I have intensely happy memories of that time, especially of my solo visit to the Musee Cluny ( now the Musee national du Moyen Age), where I sat for some time communing with the fabulous Unicorn Tapestries.

Thanks to Jean for the lively discussion of a rather unusual selection that proved to be exactement a propos. What we really need to do, of course, is to descend on the city en masse, with Jean as our guide!


Here’s another recent film I look forward to viewing: It too appeared recently on PBS. I missed it, but have just managed to acquire the DVD. And speaking of DVD’s, do yourself a favor and watch the BBC comedy Chef! – one of  the most entertaining programs I’ve ever had the pleasure of seeing on television.

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