‘Why pretend that it is possible to soften that last hard bed?’ – The Professor’s House, by Willa Cather

December 30, 2011 at 6:12 pm (Book review, books)

  On the face of it, Professor Godfrey St. Peter has a good life. As Cather’s novel opens, he is married, with two grown daughters, Rosamund and Kathleen, who are also married. He has for many years taught at a small college in Ohio, where he is respected and esteemed. He has produced his magnum opus – a multi-volume work on the Spanish explorers of North America – which has won him a distinguished literary prize. With the money from that prize, St. Peter has built his wife Lillian a grand new home.

But there is a problem. He does not want to live there.

He prefers the older house. More specifically, he prefers the room that has served, for many years, as his study. It is on the top floor:

The low ceiling sloped down on three sides, the slant being interrupted on the east by a single square window, swinging outward on hinges and held ajar by a hook in the sill.This was the sole opening for light and air. Walls and ceiling alike were covered with a yellow paper which had once  been very ugly, but had faded into inoffensive neutrality. The matting on the floor was worn and scratchy. Against the wall stood an old walnut table, with one leaf up, holding piles of orderly papers. Before it was a cane-backed office chair that turned on a screw.

The professor is not always alone in this room: he shares it for some weeks in the spring and the fall with Augusta, the dressmaker who outfits his wife and daughters. As an aid to this work, Augusta uses two dress forms, which are stored in the attic study year round. St. Peter enjoys Augusta’s company; likewise, the two dress forms. When she offers to remove them, he objects vehemently. And so they remain there.

There is a young man in this novel whose character acts as a bridge between two worlds. He is Tom Outland. Having spent his youth in New Mexico, Tom comes east to acquire an education.  (It is this intention that brings him to the attention of Godfrey St. Peter.) There’s much more to this aspect of the novel, but I won’t dwell upon it now. I will only say that along with his friend Rodney Blake, Tom Outland had the great good fortune to discover and explore a deserted city atop a mesa. The details of this extraordinary adventure are contained in the second section of the novel, “Tom Outland’s Story.”

Tom’s descriptions of this otherworldly place are intensely lyrical, yet even so, he feels that words fail him, or very nearly so. Here he first catches sight of the city on the mesa:

It was such rough scrambling that I was soon in a warm sweat under my damp clothes. In stopping to take breath, I happened to glance up at the canyon wall. I wish I could tell you what I saw there, just as I saw it, on that first morning, through a veil of lightly falling snow. Far up above me, a thousand feet or so, set in a great cavern in the face of a cliff, I saw a little city of stone, asleep. It was as still as sculpture–and something like that….
There was something symmetrical and powerful about the swell of the masonry. The tower was the fine thing that held all the jumble of houses together and made them mean something. It was red in colour, even on that grey day. In sunlight in was the color of winter oak-leaves. A fringe of cedars grew along  the edge of the cavern, like a garden. They were the only living things. Such silence and stillness and repose–immortal repose. That village sat looking down into the canyon with the calmness of eternity. The falling snow-flakes, sprinkling the pinons, gave it a special kind of solemnity. I can’t describe it.

But of course he is describing it, very effectively and very vividly. He concludes with this stunning realization:

I knew at once that I had come upon the city of some extinct civilization, hidden away in this inaccessible mesa for centuries, preserved in the dry air and almost perpetual sunlight like a fly in amber, guarded by the cliffs and the river and the desert.

(In the novel, this place of incredibly pristine beauty is called the Blue Mesa. It was actually modeled on Mesa Verde, which was discovered in 1888 by Colorado rancher Richard Wetherill and his brother-in-law Charlie Mason. It became a national Park in 1906; Willa Cather first went there in 1915. Click here for an interesting background piece.)

I remember that the first time I read The Professor’s House, I felt slightly impatient with Tom Outland’s narrative. It represents a complete break with the story of Godfrey St. Peter, his family, and his university colleagues. I had become very absorbed in the professor’s professional and personal challenges, and I resented this sudden change of focus. But I now realize that it was very artfully done. Tom Outland’s story is of a whole different order of magnitude, and Tom Outland himself is that rarest of beings, possessed as he is of a great intellectual curiosity matched with an equally great intelligence. These qualities are coupled with a natural warmth and almost unbounded enthusiasm. He seems destined for great things.  Upon meeting him, St. Peter perceives all this almost at once. He perceives it, and he sees in this extraordinary young man a mirror of his own youthful aspirations.

What has become of those aspirations? And what is there now in the professor’s world that can infuse his life with new meaning? How much of ourselves are we called upon to sacrifice in order to insure the well being of those close to us? These are the crucial questions that dominate the novel’s brief and powerful final section.

Critic E.K. Brown sums up the problem this way:

In the first part it was plain that the professor did not wish to live in his new house, and did not wish to enter into the sere phase of his life correlative with it. At the beginning of the third part it becomes plain that he cannot indefinitely continue to make the old attic study the theatre of his life, that he cannot go on prolonging or attempting to prolong his prime, the phase of his life correlative with that. The personality of his mature years–the personality that had expressed itself powerfully and in the main happily in his teaching, his scholarship, his love for his wife, his domesticity–is now quickly receding,  and nothing new is flowing in.

(Such a beautifully apt locution, “the sere phase of his life.” I have no idea who E.K. Brown is, but the eloquence and insight that characterize this brief piece remind the reader that literary criticism can be a noble calling. The essay can be found in Modern Critical Views: Willa Cather, a collection is edited and introduced by Harold Bloom, whose life’s work serves as a similar reminder.)

I’ve been deeply moved by my third reading of The Professor’s House. I may read it yet again. For one thing, the writing is wonderful, transcendent with out being the least bit extravagant.

The critic E.K. Brown encourages the reader to ponder the true significance of houses in this novel: the professor’s dwelling places, both the old and the new, the grand country house being built by Rosamund and her husband – and the community of small houses atop the Blue Mesa.

And then, of course, there is that final house, that final bed, the inevitable ending that S.t Peter finds occupying his thoughts more and more. At one point, these lines of verse come to him:

For thee a house was built
Ere thou wast born;
For thee a mould was made
Ere thou of woman camest.

Alone in his attic study, the professor meditates on this:

Lying on his old couch, he could almost believe himself in that house already. The sagging springs were like the sham upholstery that is put in coffins. Just the equivocal American way of dealing with serious facts, he reflected. Why pretend that it is possible to soften that last hard bed?

And oh, the leaden weight of those last four monosyllables!

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Part Two of: Health and fitness, diet and nutrition, solitude and occasional melancholy…and a really nice pair of socks

December 26, 2011 at 9:31 pm (Dance, Fitness, Mind/body)

[Click here for Part One.]

To begin with, I never expected anything good to come of my Type Two Diabetes diagnosis. Surprisingly, something did – or rather two, things. I mentioned in Part the First of this disquisition that I lost 37 pounds and kept it off. That’s the first good outcome, and I firmly believe that I’ve kept that weight off because I started – well, I discovered Zumba.

Actually, I began with basic aerobics. I was advised to get regular exercise as a way of keeping my blood sugar low, increasing bone density, and keeping both blood pressure and cholesterol at an acceptable level.. It’s done all that, and more. It has introduced me to a whole new social circle. It has made me feel much better, both physically and emotionally.

Zumba is just one of three types of fitness classes that I now attend regularly. I still go to aerobics, and I’ve also been going to Body Vive for quite some time now. Body Vive differs from the other two in that it is pre-choreographed and doesn’t depend quite so much on the instructor’s inventiveness as do the other two. But the choreography changes with each new “release,” an event that happens every three months. Body Vive is distinguished by its use of the ball, and of resistance bands rather than free weights.

At this point, body vive is not as well known as Zumba and aerobics. I don’t know why; I think it’s a terrific workout and lots of fun.

Zumba in particular has acquired so much renown that it does not need me to further elaborate on its virtues. It began as a Latin dance craze, but in the sessions I intend, other kinds of music have been worked into the routines: classic rock, Middle Eastern (including a rousing version of “Hava Nagila,” which I can’t resist singing along with, as per my ancient past), and even Indian. To wit, this captivating number called “Maahi Ve:”

(Be assured – That is NOT our dance routine!)

The original Zumba has now spawned several different iterations of itself. Click here for an enumeration of them. I’m currently doing Zumba Gold, mainly because basic Zumba proved a bit too rigorous for me. I also very much enjoy Zumba Toning:

I’ve had trouble finding a video version that approximates what I’ve been doing in the Zumba sessions I attend. Most of the videos are populated with shapely young women sporting bare midriffs, gorgeous hair, and high wattage smiles.

This one is closest to the reality I’m familiar with:

My Zumba classes have a rather remarkable mix of ages. We have a fair number of young women, some of whom are already in great shape and others who are clearly working toward that goal. (And some who have had training in dance; they’re invariably a pleasure to watch.)  A goodly number of us are in our sixties; some are in their seventies, still moving well and possessed of the necessary agility. Quite a  few of us have bonded loosely into a sort of community. We figure we’re all together in this fight to stay healthy.

I attend two different facilities for these classes. In one of them, there’s a day care for small children located just down the hall. When the little ones are collected by a parent and they go by the studio where we’re exercising, they invariably pull up short, utterly fascinated by our gyrations. It always gives us a lift and a laugh, to see their little faces pressed against the windows.

Music is a big component of these fitness classes. Its most important attribute is the beat. Admittedly, I don’t care for some of the selections, but actually I like more of it than I thought I would. I’ve enjoyed being introduced to exotic items like “Maahi Ve” (see above). And lately there have been several old favorites that it’s been a pleasure to revisit:

Here, I just have to say to my son Ben: Yes, you were right – I finally “get” this song. But I never needed convincing about The Eagles:

And I’ve long loved “Don’t Stop Believing,” sung by Steve Perry and  Journey:

One of the most important life lessons I’ve learned from my embrace of this activity is that there really is a close connection between mind and body. You’ve got to be attentive to the instructor’s directions, and you’ve got to work hard to make your body do what he or she asks you to do. To my delight, I discovered that I got better at this as the years passed.

Where instructors are concerned, I feel deeply fortunate Mine are generous, enthusiastic, warm, and caring. Deb, Deborah, Vicky, Marie, Megan, George, and Jen – Thank you for making something I thought would be an onerous chore into an activity I look forward to each week. And finally a special thanks to Zumba goddess Robin, who brought each of us socks for Christmas!

(I was unable to resist demonstrating my sock ball making technique to anyone who was interested. Their numbers were small, but they were appreciative of this neat little trick, taught to me many years ago by my sainted mother, who would do anything to make laundry sorting go faster.) 

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For Christmas Day: a celebration of music and family, along with a heartfelt thank you.

December 25, 2011 at 6:05 pm (Ballet, Christmas, Family, Music)

The Christmas tree in the Medieval Sculpture Hall at the Metropolitan Museum of Art

The music:

“Dance of the Mirlitons” from The Nutcracker, danced by the Kirov Ballet, now once again known as the Mariinsky.. Music is by Tchaikovsky.

Here is a concise history of the Nutcracker Ballet. (An advertisement must be endured at the outset, alas.)

The quaity of this video from the English Baroque Festival is not great, but the costumes and the music – Handel’s Water Music – are quite delightful:

I’ve long loved this video of Luciano Pavarotti and his father Fernando singing Cesrar Franck’s “Panis Angelicus” at the Modena Cathedral. They’re high up in the choir, while the celebrants below receive Holy Communion.

Here, Pavarotti sings the same piece, backed by two choirs, at the Cathedral of Notre Dame in Montreal, Canada, in 1978.

Here’s Mozart’s “Ave Verum Corpus,” sung by the King’s College Choir of Cambridge University:

Click here for the  “Gloria in Excelsis Deo” from the Great Mass in C, also by Mozart, sung by the English Baroque Soloists, the Monteverdi Choir, and conducted by Sir John Eliot Gardiner, whose lifelong service and devotion to this music deserves the highest praise and gratitude.

Another “Gloria,” this one from the Vivaldi work by the same name. We here Trevor Pinnock at the harpsichord and conducting the English Concert.

And once again we have John Eliot Gardiner, the Monteverdi Choir, and the English Baroque soloists in “Jauchzet, Frohlocket,” the rousing opening of Bach’s Christmas Oratorio:


The family:

Etta Lin, Erica, and Ben Davis

 This little family has brought us boat loads of joy this year!

I just have to slip this in: It’s Etta’s first school picture! She is currently matriculated  at a Montessori School Daycare, where she is honing her social skills and even learning to dance (now that she’s up on her two feet).

Here is Ron, taking pictures during our England sojourn in May. This is the man who always puts himself in the background while cheering on his (occasional drama queen) wife. I sometimes kid that he’s “the wind beneath my wings,” but the fact is: He is my everything.

And no, I have not forgotten – as she sits patiently awaiting yet another food bowl refill – the dependable provider of comic relief around here (and lots of affection too):

Miss Audrey Jane Marple

I feel deeply blessed and just as deeply grateful. Thank you to  the great artists of the past and present, to my wonderful family.

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Health and fitness, diet and nutrition, solitude and occasional melancholy…and a really nice pair of socks

December 24, 2011 at 8:24 pm (Food, Mind/body)

  With the holiday season comes the inevitable worry of expanding waistlines and depressing weigh-ins. For me this is a year round concern, so nothing is different right now. I avoid temptation  by doing very little socializing. Actually, temptation is no longer a problem for me. I am so frightened of sweets and baked goods that I can no longer partake of them with any pleasure. This change in attitude – and believe me, it was a big, big change – occurred eleven years ago when I first found out that I have Type Two Diabetes. As the potential complications were being enumerated, my doctor got to diabetic retinopathy…and she did not need to go any further. I was scared straight, from that moment.

In fact, I was so scared, I virtually stopped ingesting carbohydrates, convinced that they were my sworn enemy, out to inflict loss of vision on the world’s most compulsive reader. This is NOT what I was advised to do. A moderate intake of carbohydrates is necessary for good health. Note the use of the word “moderate.” A dietician calculated what I should be eating along those lines; her conclusions were based on my sex and my weight. She was being reasonable; I was being terrified. I not only cut out carbohydrates, I drastically reduced fat. What was left? Mainly protein laden foods like beef, chicken, fish, and eggs, and rabbit food – sorry, salads. I quickly got sick of garden salads. I hated – and still hate – steak, though I can tolerate ground  beef. I ate numerous hamburgers (no rolls – those things are loaded with carbs), eggs, and a little cheese – strangely, the sole dairy product almost completely free of carbohydrates. I cared only about lowering my blood sugar to an acceptable (for me) level. I achieved this goal in fairly short order. In the process, in the space of a few short weeks, I lost 37 pounds.

I also lost almost all joy in the consuming of food, up until then my chief joy in the world. Eating became an activity inextricably mixed with anxiety. I was so repulsed by the food I could eat in any quantity, and so filled with longing for the food that I could eat only in minuscule amounts, that the whole enterprise began to seem pointless. I thought I’d take on cooking as a challenge but it soon began to seem like an onerous chore. (And I so missed those heaping plates of pasta!)

Eventually, I stabilized my relationship with food. There are some things I have pretty much sworn off entirely: rice, pasta, bananas, nearly all sweets, most baked goods. I knew I could not give up bread completely, so I still have it, but in very small quantity, and almost always in its multi-grain or whole wheat form.

I’ve always loved what I ate between meals much more than the meals themselves. These are the items that keep me from going crazy when desperate for something to snack on:     .  It’s probably needless to say, but I’ll say it anyway: the aforementioned can in no way take the place of the beloved and still longed for: .

Three other items are of critical importance to my eating life. In fact, they represent to high points of my day. For breakfast, I have one of the Kashi whole grain cereals. Loaded with fiber and occasionally enriched with dried fruit, the taste is one of natural sweetness (though I add Stevia anyway). This is my current favorite:   For lunch, I have a sugar free (or no sugar added) muffin baked by the excellent folks at Butterfly Bakery.   Brenda Isaac began creating these recipes in 1998 with her own mother, a diabetic, in mind: “As I shared my creations with family and friends, I realized there was a real need for these products in the marketplace.” This gifted baker also observed that”….the choices in the marketplace were unappealing and limited.” Well, Ms Isaac, all I can say is that you have earned the everlasting gratitude of this constantly-feeling-deprived diabetic!

Every night my dessert is the same: one Carb Smart ice cream bar from Breyers. Six net carbs!   (‘Net carbs’ means the number of grams of carbohydrates minus the number of grams of fiber. If you’re diabetic, fiber is your friend.)

What I really wanted to write about here is the emotional impact of all of this. Like many Type Two diabetics, I have struggled all my life to control my weight. I have gained, lost, and then gained back more pounds than I’d like to count. It was only the threat of vision loss that was powerful enough to get me on the wagon for good.

So, isn’t this a good thing? Of course it is, but it has come at a cost. I’ve made a number of discoveries since embarking on this life of Being on a Diet Forever. One is that you cannot force yourself to love broccoli. (My gorgeous, slender daughter-in-law Erica actually does love it, wouldn’t you know!)

Erica with her "little lamb," Etta Lin!

Another is that it’s the anticipation of eating something you know you love, as opposed to the actual consumption of same, that provides the major mood lift. I’d be thinking happily of settling down on my favorite soft couch reading spot with a good book and a bag of chips. Immediately thereafter I would realize with  a sharp pang that although the former was permissible, indeed desirable, the latter was not. I felt a momentary panic. Would reading, and my joy in it, still be possible without the accompanying, seemingly essential Joy Bringer? Only time would tell….

Time has told. I am reading now more compulsively than ever. And enjoying it. Loving it, really. But as for the rest of life, abstention from chips, cookies, cake, big hunks of crusty French bread, heaping bowls of pasta, rice, and French fried – French fries! – has exacted a price. If you’ve used food for mood control purposes your entire life, and then you have to stop doing that, you do suffer a kind of withdrawal, or at least, I did. You may not be as effortlessly happy as you once were. I’m not.

I have also kept off all of that 37 pounds.

I do not want this little piece to degenerate into a whining plea for pity. I’ve been incredibly lucky to have a terrific primary physician and an equally terrific husband, both of whom have been unstinting in their support. (This is the same husband whose favorite, somewhat modified article title is: “Health and Nutrition, Its Prevention and Cure.” He trots this out every time he feels annoyed at yet another lecture in writing from the food police.) I know that there are people facing far more dire challenges to their health with courage and resolve that I am almost certainly incapable of summoning.

Much more could be said on this subject, but I’d rather, at this point, move on to the fitness component. The fun factor is much greater there. Besides, I must get to work on the Boeuf Bourgignon. This dish is one of the few that I still enjoy cooking. The recipe comes from The Art of Cooking for the Diabetic. . (I’ve written about this before, in a somewhat different context.)

And so: on to Part Two, in which, among other things, the mystery of the Really Nice Socks will be revealed….

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Favorite reading in Literary Fiction and Nonfiction for the year 2011

December 21, 2011 at 2:47 pm (Best of 2011, books)

This how Jonathan Yardley’s column on his year in reading opens: “Once again this holiday season year-end review begins with the confession that my year didn’t include many memorable works of fiction.” He then asserts rather plaintively that “I still love novels, but fewer and fewer contemporary novelists (American ones especially) appeal to me….”

My sentiments exactly, I regret to say.

Like Jonathan Yardley, I’ve been reading the fiction of years past and enjoying it greatly. To wit: Guy de Maupassant is not an author I’ve thought very much about. His short story “The Necklace” was frequently included in the literature textbooks of my school days, and frankly I never thought much of it. As I recall, it had the kind of trick ending one usually associates with O. Henry. But about a year ago, I read a Maupassant tale called “Looking Back.” In it, a woman, Madame La Comptesse, has the sole care of her of her orphaned grandchildren. Their priest, Abbe Mauduit, is visiting. The children are put to bed, but not before saying a tender good night to the priest. The priest and the grandmother talk about their respective lives. The story ends. It is all of six pages in length, and yet an entire  world is created therein. (Stories like this astound me; I’ve written about John Updike‘s “The Music School” in a similar vein.)

In The Art of Time in Fiction, Joan Silber writes with admiration about Une Vie (A Life), a novel written in 1883 by Guy de Maupassant. I got it (from Amazon). I read it. I loved it. Ah, Jeanne de Lamare, pauvre petite! That such a life, begun with such careful parental cosseting and fervent hope for happiness, should unfold with so much pain and heartbreak! More to come on this luminous story of an ardent young woman’s romantic aspirations.

I shall most certainly be reading Une Vie once again, before long….

  Effie Briest (1896) was yet another revelatory reading experience. Not only had I never heard of this novel, but its author Theodor Fontane, was also unknown to me. Born in 1819 in Brandenburg, Fontane was the descendant of French Huguenots who had relocated to that part of Germany. He enjoyed a certain success as a novelist during the second half of the nineteenth century. The introduction to the Penguin edition pictured here proclaims that “Fontane’s sensitive portrayals of women’s lives in late nineteenth century society was unsurpassed in European literature.” This seems to me to overstate the case somewhat (see Une Vie, for instance), but Effi Briest is a marvelous, fully realized creation. While this novel does not have quite the emotional impact of Maupassant’s,  it does present a vibrant picture of the times and of life among the minor gentry of Germany. And Fontane’s writing sparkles with unexpected flashes of wit.

Effi Briest has been made into a German language film more than once. I’m thinking the 1974 version directed by Rainer Werner Fassbender is the one to get. 

Guy de Maupassant

Theodor Fontane

I learned about Effi Briest from The Rough Guide to Classic Novels. I’ve long had the intention of blogging about this singular little reference work. I started the post some months ago but have never gotten around to finishing it. Ergo, I’m going to insert what I’ve written so far right here:

This is one of the most appealing reference works of its kind that I’ve come across. (And I came across it quite by accident, in the library.) It is not organized chronologically or by country of origin, but rather by subject and theme. The chapters are as follows:

Love, romance and sex
Rites of passage
Heroes and anti-heroes
Making it
War, violence and conflict
A sense of place
Incredible worlds
Horror and mystery
Crime and punishment
Comedy and satire

So far I haven’t gone beyond the first chapter. “Love, romance and sex” is comprised of short essays – long annotations? – on twenty-nine novels. There’s actually more suggested reading than that number would indicate, since each entry is followed by a suggestion as to “Where to go next.” The selections are international in scope. When a work is written in a language other than English, Simon Mason notes a preferred translation. Brief paragraphs on topics such as romanticism and magic realism are scattered throughout the book. These have their own table of contents and are thus easy to find.


Herewith, my choices for 2011:


A Life (Une Vie)  – Guy de Maupassant
Effi Briest – Theodor Fontane
The Empty FamilyColm Toibin
The Painted Veil W. Somerset Maugham
State of Wonder – Ann Patchett
The Sense of an Ending – Julian Barnes
The Professor’s House – Willa Cather
Sense and Sensibility – Jane Austen

(I’m currently rereading The Professor’s House for a book club, and I’m even more entranced by it the second time around – or is it the third…?)


How To Live, or a Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer – Sarah Bakewell
“Los Angeles Against the Mountains” in The Control of Nature by John McPhee
The Great Divorce – Ilyon Woo
The Greater Journey – David McCullough
The Fatal Gift of Beauty – Nina Burleigh
Destiny of the Republic – Candice Millard
On Conan Doyle – Michael Dirda

(I’ve not done The Greater Journey justice in this space. What a marvelous book this is! I plan to revisit it via audiobook.)

A recent article in the New York Times brought the welcome news that this holiday season has seen a resurgence in book sales.This uptick has been helped by the especially rich offerings in nonfiction:

“This year so far, it’s been the year of nonfiction,” said Peter Aaron, owner of the Elliott Bay Book Company in Seattle, citing “The Beauty and the Sorrow,” a history of World War I by Peter Englund, and “Thinking, Fast and Slow” by the Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman, an exploration of thinking and intuition. “What’s extraordinary about the books that are out there is that they’ve been so well written and such a pleasure to read. Maybe people have an appetite for nonfiction right now, just for some sort of grounding in reality.”

Or for the opposite reason: to escape into a completely absorbing story, one that is strange and  vivid and all the more remarkable for being true. (And this is an apt description of the book I am reading right now: Robert K. Massie’s magisterial biography, Catherine the Great.)

[To see my picks for Favorite Crime Fiction for 2011, click here.]

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A cornucopia of crime fiction at the Usual Suspects’ end-of-year wrap-up meeting

December 16, 2011 at 9:01 pm (Book clubs, books, Mystery fiction)



As she does each year, Pauline prepared a meticulously drawn up end-of-year summary. This excellent document begins with a month by month accounting, in a sort of modified spreadsheet format, of what book(s) we discussed, who led the discussion, and notable facts about said volumes, such as awards won or films made. The next section presents a compendium of general facts, along with some comparisons with the previous year. For example, this year we read four male authors and five female; whereas last year the breakdown was six male and three female. Also, here will be found a breakdown of the types of investigators – police, lawyer, private eye, and the like. The settings varied widely, from the expected British and American to the rather more exotic Saudi Arabia and Laos.

Here’s what we talked about in 2011: (In cases where I wrote a blog post on the discussion, I’ve provided a link.)

Dark Mirror by Barry Maitland
Dissolution by C.J. Sansom
Rebecca by Daphne DuMaurier
In a Dark House by Deborah Crombie
The Coroner’s Lunch by Colin Cotterill
Disturbing the Dead by Sandra Parshall
Finding Nouf by Zoe Ferraris
Double Indemnity by James M. Cain
The Wexford novels of Ruth Rendell: Simisola, Road Rage, Kissing the Gunner’s Daughter, End in Tears, From Doon with Death (Participants were asked to choose one title to read.)
Nonseries novels by Ruth Rendell: Judgement in Stone, The Crocodile Bird, Keys to the Street, Tigerlily’s Orchids, The Water’s Lovely (Participants were asked to choose one title to read.)



The third and final section of Pauline’s handout contains questions regarding the year’s reading for the group to consider. Which books made for the best discussion, and why? How important were setting, plot, and character development? What about the quality of the writing? What elements do you look for when deciding on which book to propose for discussion? What is your “ideal” mystery?

These and other queries prompted a most stimulating and enjoyable discussion. The general consensus: 2011 was a great year for the group. The overall quality of titles selected for discussion was exceptional; there wasn’t a dud in the bunch.

We voted for our favorite book of the year. (You were not supposed to vote for your own discussion choice.) Carol informed us that our selections were all over the map; nevertheless, The Coroner’s Lunch received the most votes.    This was the only discussion I missed this year, but I have read the book. Another of Pauline’s questions was, Which book surprised you the most? Cotterill’s novel certainly surprised me. I hadn’t expected a book set in Laos in the 1970s to be as  witty and diverting as this one most certainly was. (For me, this vote made for a tough decision, but I ended up choosing Dissolution.)

The biggest surprise for me this year was the strong negative reaction to Tigerlily’s Orchids by Ruth Rendell. Marge and I both really enjoyed this novel and were genuinely perplexed and dismayed when others in the group clearly did not. This was a classic case of the need to agree to disagree. There were, however, some subsequent compensations: people definitely “got” the sheer (if creepy) brilliance of A Judgement in Stone, and those who read The Crocodile Bird were quite positive in their assessment of that provocative and highly original work.

Also at this meeting, we finalized our choices for next year. It looks as though we have some great reading and discussing in store. Carol’s choice is The Mystery of Edwin Drood by Charles Dickens, a novel I’ve always intended to read anyway.   I’ll get the chance to reread (or listen to) Crocodile on a Sandbank, the delightful first entry in the Amelia Peabody series by Elizabeth Peters. (Thanks, Anne!)   And Frances will be leading a discussion The Terrorists by Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo. I am always glad to return to the work of this path breaking Swedish duo.   Other upcoming titles for the Suspects are I’d Know You Anywhere by Laura Lippman, Caught by Harlan Coben, and Death of a Nationalist by Rebecca Pawel.        As for me, come July I’ll be presenting Agatha Christie’s The Pale Horse.

Last on the agenda: we had each been asked to bring a book we’d like to recommend. This round table was full of delightful surprises, including books that one might not normally  think of as crime fiction. Examples: Mary Edna brought Saving Fish from Drowning by Amy Tan, and Susan presented House Rules by Jodi Picoult.     Mike brought Saratoga Backtalk, an entry in the Charlie Bradshaw series by Stephen Dobyns (This stirred in me a faint memory of having enjoyed, in the distant past, The Two Deaths of Senora Puccini, a nonseries novel by this same author.)

 Louise recommended Sundowner Ubuntu by Anthony Bidulka and Down River by Karen Harper. (There was some question as to whether this was the same Karen Harper who writes the Elizabethan mysteries favored by some in the group. It is, in fact, the same person.) Frances recommended Until Thy Wrath Be Past by Swedish author Asa Larsson.  (There seems to be no end to these gifted Scandinavians!) She also brought The World in 2050 by Laurence C. Smith, a nonfiction title that, while not specifically about crime, has nonetheless made a deep impression on her.) Ann talked about William Ryan’s The Holy Thief, while Pauline discussed the Gerhard Self series by Bernhard Schlink (more familiar as the author of The Reader).  

I brought Michael Dirda’s delightful hommage, On Conan Doyle. For me, the chief revelation of this slender and lively volume lay in the sheer number of works by Sherlock Holmes’s creator that have nothing whatever to do with Sherlock Holmes. I knew about the historical novels but not about the tales of adventure and the ghost stories. These latter works are extremely hard to find, but mirabile dictu, I was able to download these two onto my new Kindle Fire: . (Oh…my new Kindle Fire…I guess I haven’t mentioned this. A separate post will be needed for this subject, I can assure you!)

In library circles, book talking is considered an art, one which requires a careful combination of artifice and spontaneity. One of the joys of Tuesday night was listening to the Suspects do an effortlessly great job of this – as though born to it, which perhaps we all were. I want to single out Anne for special praise. Her smooth and literate discourse on The Pig Did It by Joseph Caldwell had me completely convinced – not to mention thoroughly entertained.     Finally, Carol spoke with warmth about two titles: White Heat, by M.J. McGrath, and a nonfiction book by Melanie McGrath (one and the same person) entitled The Long Exile. Both are concerned with Ellesmere Island and the Inuit people. Carol made me want very much to read both. (I was also reminded of a particularly memorable true crime title I read some time ago but have never forgotten: Bloody Falls of the Coppermine by McKay Jenkins.)

I’ve not given full coverage of all the riches of Tuesday night. Let’s just it was the proverbial embarrassment of (mysterious) riches!


I’d like to add a word about availability. We all feel frustrated by the increasing difficulty of obtaining multiple copies of the books we want to read with the group. This is especially a problem when we select older / more obscure titles. We’ve pretty much agreed that we need to explore further options: interlibrary loan, online used book sites (or, for that matter, brick and mortar used book stores like Books with a Past in Glenwood), and e-book downloads.


In this season of gift giving, I’d like to express my gratitude for the gift given me by this wonderful group: the opportunity to share my passion for books and crime fiction with those who are like minded and who also happen to be warm, dedicated, extremely intelligent, and deeply caring people. (Barbara and Marge, please feel better fast. We look forward to seeing you in January.)

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Faust, an opera by Charles Gounod

December 14, 2011 at 9:42 pm (Music, opera)

Saturday I afternoon I went with a friend to see the Metropolitan Opera’s HD broadcast of  Faust, by Charles Gounod. I am still recovering from the experience – indeed, I may never recover….

I’ve known and loved this opera for decades, ever since I first purchased this recording; . Listening to it over and over again, while following the libretto in French, I inadvertently committed large chunks of Faust to memory, where much of it still resides. (Having studied the French language in high school and college proved most helpful.) Nicolai Gedda as Faust, Victoria De Los Angeles as Marguerite, and Boris Christoff as Mephistopheles – what a dream cast! Saturday’s was equally so:

Rene Pape

Marina Poplavskaya

Jonas Kaufmann

Rene Pape was great as Mephistopheles, employing his rich bass voice to great effect in portraying this very embodiment of evil. (He was also good at standing around and looking faintly sardonic.) Last year, Ron and I were deeply moved by his performance in the title role of Boris Godunov.

Here’s Rene Pape singing the the aria “Le Veau D’Or” (the Golden Calf) in a production of Faust that took place in Orange, France, in 2008:

I cannot resist including Boris Christoff’s rendition of Faust’s Serenade: “Vous Qui Faites L’Endormie.” Having engineered her downfall, the Devil taunts Marguerite: “Ne donne un baiser m’amie, que la bague au doigt” (‘Do not bestow a kiss, my friend, until you have the ring upon your finger’):

(I just discovered that you can get this masterpiece of malevolence as a ringtone! Yikes, I think I’ll pass on that….)

Marina Poplavskaya, who plays the ill-fated Marguerite, is a singer new to me. I thought she was wonderful. Not only is her voice rich with a crystalline purity, but her acting was terrific. Marguerite goes through a terrible transformation, from an innocent, dreamy young girl to a woman utterly despoiled in the eyes of everyone – and in her own eyes as well. Ultimately she goes mad, and who can blame her? She has been monstrously used by the seducer Faust (and his ally the Devil), and Valentin, the brother who acts as her protector and supposedly adores her, turns on her cruelly.

Here, she sings the famous “Jewel Song” (unfortunately not presented in its entirety, but you’ll get the idea):

And as for Jonas (pronounced ‘Yonas’) Kaufmann – simply astounding. This has to be one of the great tenor voices of this age, or any age. The first video contains an excerpt of the famous showpiece aria “Salut, demeure chaste et pure,” in which Faust expresses his awe and the simplicity and purity of Marguerite’s dwelling place (which, of course, he then proceeds to defile):

Here, Kaufmann sings the entire aria. (We can readily surmise whose ghostly hand rests on Faust’s shoulder):

The production has been newly conceived by Des McAnuff. McAnuff is an experienced artistic director of musical theater; this is his first foray into the staging of grand opera. He has placed the opening action of Faust at the conclusion of World War Two, as preparations are being made to unleash upon an already battered world the  horrors of the atom bomb. When Faust is made young again by Mephistopheles, we go back in time to just before the First World War. Click here to hear Mr. McAnuff enlarge further on his ideas.

Mr. McAnuff comes across as an intelligent, earnest person. But I did not care for this production. I found it incoherent. The set was quite ugly; the lighting was dim, in keeping with what is apparently the latest trend in the staging of operas. Actually, it occurred to me that the shadowy darkness made it possible to at least partially ignore the unrelenting drabness of the stage set.

At the opera’s climax, Marguerite ascends to Heaven, having been forgiven by a merciful God. At that sublime moment, I wanted to see a stage bathed in light; I wanted to see her attended by a multitude of angels. Instead, there was a single spotlight illuminating Marguerite, as she climbed what looked like the stairs of a fire escape. Worst of all, her attendants were poker faced chorus members clad in white lab coats.

What can I say? I’m a traditionalist. At least one reviewer agreed with me (always a gratifying happenstance!)

I do agree with this reviewer: the cast was superb and triumphed with ease over the problematic production. I am no expert in these matters, but it seems to me that the production of an opera should enhance and illuminate the work  – not distract or interfere. In conclusion I have to say that I loved the performance and managed, with some effort, to keep the production elements from impinging on the experience.


In the spirit of the season, here is a gift of rare beauty: Jonas Kaufmann singing “Cantique de Noel” (O Holy Night):

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2011: Best Reading in Crime Fiction

December 9, 2011 at 4:30 pm (Best of 2011, books, Mystery fiction)

It’s that time of year again….         

Here is my favorite crime fiction for the year 2011, in no particular order:

Endless Night, Five Little Pigs – Agatha Christie
Willful Behavior -Donna Leon
The Deadly Percheron – John Franklin Bardin
Stagestruck – Peter Lovesey
Body Line – Cynthia Harrod-Eagles
Savages – Don Winslow
In a Dark House – Crombie
Dissolution – Sansom
The Anatomy of Ghosts –  Andrew  Taylor
An Air That Kills – Andrew Taylor
The Mortal Sickness – Andrew Taylor
Midwinter of the Spirit – Rickman
Thirteen Hours – Deon Meyer
Bury Your Dead – Louise Penny
Appointed To Die – Kate Charles
Dead Simple – Peter James
Disturbing the Dead – Parshall
Double Indemnity – James M. Cain
From Doon with Death, The Vault, An Unkindness of Ravens – Rendell
The Troubled Man – Henning Mankell
The Saturday Big Tent Wedding Party – Alexander McCall Smith
Keeper of Lost Causes – Jussi Adler-Olsen
Temporary Perfections – Gianrico Carofiglio
Hotbed – Bill James
Black Diamond – Martin Walker
Tag Man – Archer Mayor
Rebecca – Daphne DuMaurier
Midnight Fugue – Reginald Hill
Deliver Us From Evil – Peter Turnbull


Yes, it’s an absurdly long list. I tried pulling out my absolute favorites, but the effort proved so frustrating that I gave it up. I do, however, have some general comments to offer:

In the earlier part of the year, my reading of crime fiction was largely dictated by the upcoming trip to England. I wanted to concentrate not only on the specific titles suggested by the tour leaders but also on works by other authors scheduled to appear at Crimefest. The result was some outstanding reading, featuring a return to some authors I already knew and liked, and the chance to get to know some great new ones – Deon Meyer and Don Winslow – as well. I enjoyed Dead Simple, the first in the Roy Grace series written by Peter James, and I’m surprised this author has not gotten a bigger push from his publishers in this country, where he is not well known. (No sooner had I written this than I saw an ad in the November 27th New York Times Book Review for Dead Man’s Grip, the latest Roy Grace novel.)

Crimefest-related reading once again confirmed for me that Andrew Taylor is a stellar artist in this genre (or in any fiction genre). I reread An Air That Kills and liked it even more this time around. I then read the second novel in the Lydmouth series, The Mortal Sickness – also excellent. And of course, The Anatomy of Ghosts was terrific.

Reading the classics of crime fiction continues to be richly rewarding. Having come late to an appreciation of the works of Agatha Christie, I continue my delighted perusal of her oeuvre. (Thanks are due here to the distinguished Christie scholar John Curran, whose second book Agatha Christie: Murder in the Making, has recently come out here.) I’ve long loved the classic noir film version of Double Indemnity; reading the novel proved exceptionally gratifying. The same progression, with the same result, obtains for Daphne DuMaurier’s classic tale of suspense, Rebecca. At Crimefest, Peter Guttridge sang the praises of The Deadly Percheron. This was a great recommendation; in my view, John Franklin Bardin’s 1946 small masterpiece should also be ranked among the classics of the genre.

After the trip, I read largely for my own pleasure, with periodic prompting from the Usual Suspects Mystery Discussion Group. That excellent convocation of crime fiction enthusiasts is having its end of year summit on Tuesday of next week. We’ve been asked to bring one book to share, possibly two if time permits. Hah! So far I am torn between The Troubled Man, The Keeper of Lost Causes, Temporary Perfections, Hotbed, Tag Man, Black Diamond, Deliver Us From Evil, and Michael Dirda’s enlightening commentary On Conan Doyle. What can I say? For this reader, the year has concluded in a blaze of great mysteries.

As for next year, I’ll continue to track down short stories featuring Gordianus the Finder, Steven Saylor’s ancient Roman protagonist. I’m looking forward to reading Reginald Hill’s nonseries magnum opus, The Woodcutter. A mystery loving librarian friend insists that A Trick of the Light, the latest Armand Gamache novel by Louse Penny, is even better than Bury Your Dead. (Can such a thing be possible?) Speaking of getting better and better, I anticipate with great pleasure The Forgotten Affairs of Youth,  the latest installment in the saga of the brainy, passionate, and never boring Isabel Dalhousie, coming of course from the pen of that brilliant polymath, Alexander McCall Smith. And having been utterly entranced by Temporary Perfections, I’ll be on the lookout for other novels by Gianrico Carofiglio.

  Finally, like many a lover of British crime fiction, I’m greatly intrigued by the new P.D. James, Death Comes To Pemberley. Yes, that is the self same Pemberley of Pride and Prejudice. The novel’s action takes place six years after the marriage of Darcy and Elizabeth. This is a fascinating departure for Baroness James of Holland Park – I confess I’m champing at the bit!

In yesterday’s Washington Post, Michael Dirda declared Death Comes to Pemberley to be ”   a solidly entertaining period mystery and a major treat for any fan of Jane Austen.” Dirda’s review begins thus:

It is a truth universally acknowledged that a restless reader in possession of a quiet evening must be in want of a mystery.

For this long time subscriber to the Washington Post, it’s been a privilege to immerse myself in the literary ruminations of Michael Dirda: scholar, critic, and intellectual in the best sense of the word.


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