Wall Street Journal Review section June 16-17

June 27, 2012 at 4:06 pm (Art, books, Magazines and newspapers, Music)

It’s taken me a long time to get though the June 16-17 Review section of the Wall Street Journal. I feel as though the editors sat  down, put their heads together, and came up with article after article that would fascinate Roberta. Yes I know: it’s a very egocentric conceit.  And yet I have rarely come across so much truly neat stuff crammed into a relatively small space.

Some of the highlights:

“I Know Why the Fat Lady Sings,” in which Caitlin Moran describes with almost scary  precision what it feels like to be a compulsive eater:

People overeat for exactly the same reason they drink, smoke, have serial one-night stands or take drugs. I must be clear that I am not talking about the kind of overeating that’s just plain, cheerful greed—the kind of Rabelaisian, Falstaffian figures who treat the world as a series of sensory delights and take full joy in their wine, bread and meat. Those who walk away from a table—replete—shouting, “That was splendid!” before sitting in front of a fire, drinking port and eating truffles, don’t have neuroses about food. They aren’t “fat,” they are simply…lavish.

No—I’m talking about those for whom the whole idea of food isn’t one of pleasure, but one of compulsion. For whom thoughts of food, and the effects of food, are the constant, dreary background static to normal thought. Those who walk into the kitchen in a state bordering on panic and breathlessly eat slice after slice of bread and butter—not even tasting it—until the panic can be drowned in an almost meditative routine of chewing and swallowing, spooning and swallowing.

In this trancelike state, you can find a welcome, temporary relief from thinking for 10, 20 minutes at a time, until finally a new set of sensations—physical discomfort and immense regret—make you stop, in the same way you finally pass out on whiskey or dope. Overeating, or comfort eating, is the cheap, meek option for self-satisfaction, and self-obliteration.

(Why, just this morning I was devouring my beloved morning bowl of cereal while reading the Sunday paper, when I suddenly looked up and thought, Where have I been? This actually happens to me every morning!)

Moran is equally perceptive on the subject of the shame that attaches to overeating and its lamentable consequences.


There’s the usual quota of eminently engaging book reviews: Jonathan Karl, on David Maraniss’s new biography of Barak Obama, was especially insightful. It’s a good example of  a review that, for me, will suffice without recourse to the book.  On the other hand, David Stuart’s piece on Andrew Robinson’s Cracking the Egyptian Code and Moira Hodgson on The Queen’s Lover by Francine du Plessix Gray sent me immediately to the online library catalog.

Tom Nolan is a veteran critic of crime fiction for the Wall Street Journal. In addition, he’s the author of  a fine biography of one of my favorite writers, Ross MacDonald.   In this edition of the WSJ Review, he contributes a lively overview of  the Inspector Montalbano series written by Andrea Camilleri.  In other genre fiction news,Tom Shippey informs and entertains on the science fiction front with “Cyborg, All Too Cyborg.”

I’ve mentioned before my delight in the column called Five Best: A Personal Choice. In this issue of WSJ, novelist Richard Zimler selects “tales of pariahs and misfits.” Once again I’m reminded of books I’ve always intended to read but haven’t (and oh, is that ever a long, long list!), Philip Roth’s I Married a Communist and The Story of a Life, the memoir of Israeli novelist and Holocaust survivor Aharon Appelfeld. Two of Zimler’s suggestions are titles new to me: Sirius by Olaf Stapledon and The Story of Harold by Terry Andrews. Finally, there’s Home by Marilynne Robinson.

  I read Home for a book group discussion. I was somewhat reluctant to tackle it, as I’d had a hard time getting through its predecessor, Gilead. For this reader, Marilynne Robinson writes short books that take a long time to get through – sort of the opposite, say, of Wolf Hall. The characters at times seem more like archetypes than flesh and blood human beings. Robinson is a writer of formidable intellect who, I believe, is best serves by the essay form. (Her latest collection is the rather quaintly entitled When I Was a Child, I Read Books.) In fairness, I have to concede that her writing is beautiful. And in the case of Home, something so redeeming happens at the conclusion – the place where so much contemporary fiction stumbles – that it pretty much made the effort worthwhile.

Another excellent feature of this paper is the column Word Craft. In “The Architecture of a Thriller,” Jeffery Deaver explains how the process of outlining aids him in his work.


Stuart Isacoff, author of A Natural History of the Piano, contributed an article on Maurice Ravel’s famous – some might say, notorious – work, Bolero.  Many find this piece numbingly repetitive. Ravel himself did not have much respect for it, declaring it to have been simply a technical exercise:

Ravel had simply set himself a technical task—a study in musical minimalism. The piece would consist of a theme repeated “a number of times without any development, gradually increasing the orchestra as best I can.” If the description sounds mechanical, that was the idea; he even imagined its performance in a factory setting. The music “constitutes an experiment in a very special and limited direction, and should not be suspected of aiming at achieving anything [more],” he told the Daily Telegraph in 1931.

Ravel set much greater store by Daphnis and Chloe and La Valse. Now I admit, Bolero can have a certain compelling quality, especially if it’s performed by master talents such as Christoph Eschenbach and the Orchestre de Paris:

Okay – now try getting that melody out of your head after you’ve listened to this! On the other hand, the subtle and sensuous Daphnis and Chloe is a true masterpiece. It’s one of Ron’s and my favorite works in the orchestral repertoire:

Maurice Ravel
1875 – 1937


‘Orders’ by Philip Guston, 1978

On the art scene, Margaret Studer takes us to Art Basel in Switzerland, where get the surprising news that the economic downturn has not affected the art market – quite the opposite, in fact.  Closer to home, Rachel Wolff takes us to the Philadelphia Museum of Art, currently hosting an exhibit entitled ‘Gauguin, Cezanne, Matisse: Visions of Arcadia.’ (This looks positively delicious; I wish I were there right now!)

‘Large Bathers’ by Paul Cezanne


Keep in mind: I’ve just presented highlights here. articles that were of particular interest to me. There’s quite  bit more on offer here – a great deal to delight and inform, in a mere fourteen pages of newsprint!

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‘Hold her tight, if you have her; hold her tight, I thought, that’s my advice to all the living. Breathe her in, put your nose in her hair, breathe in deeply.’

June 22, 2012 at 11:43 pm (Book review, books)

Her name was Aura Estrada. On the book’s first page – the very first line – Francisco Goldman informs the reader of the following: “Aura died on July 25, 2007.” On that same page we are apprised of several other crucial facts: Francisco and Aura were about to celebrate their second anniversary as husband and wife. Aura’s mother and uncle hold Francisco responsible for the tragedy that took her life.

At the time of her death, Aura Estrada was thirty years old.

Those are the bare facts. Around them, Goldman weaves a narrative  that moves back and forth in time and is filled with anecdote and vivid evocation of time and place. Power gradually accumulates.There were times when I simply had to put the book down. I felt suffocated by the weight of this man’s pain. In my reading life, I have rarely felt a sense of loss so deep, deeper than the ocean that took Goldman’s wife from him – ‘mi Aura,’ as he calls her, the cry echoing, still echoing after I’ve finished Say Her Name.

In the immediate aftermath of this terrible event, Goldman cast about desperately for even the smallest source of consolation. He got it from a tailor, a carpenter, and a security guard, respectively. The tailor told him that Aura would not have wanted to see him “…dragging my sadness around in a heavy, black wool suit.” He recommended instead, charcoal gray.

Chucho, a security guard at the apartment building where Francisco and Aura lived, came up to him and said, “Resignación, señor. Resignación.”

A carpenter had been engaged to build some bookshelves for their apartment. He arrived with them twelve days after Aura’s death. He did not know what  had happened. When told, he unfolded a newspaper he had with him and showed Francisco a story about a woman, mother of two young children, who’d been hit by a car and killed: “These things can happen to anybody, Francisco, and they happen every day.”

Three wise men: the tailor, the carpenter, and the security guard. In those first days and weeks after Aura’s death, nobody spoke sounder words to me.

Goldman sums up the wisdom imparted by these three:

Charcoal gray instead of black.
Resignación, señor, resignación.
These things happen everyday.

He concludes by observing with bitter irony that “I did, at least, heed the tailor.”

Goldman’s writing is at times richly descriptive, but more often it is understated to  the point of terseness.  In addition to their dwelling place in Mexico City, Aura and Francisco had an apartment in Brooklyn. Here, Francisco describes Aura’s preparations for the trip to Mexico. It would be her last, though neither of them knew it then:

Aura put her quilt away in the closet and came back into the bedroom and finished packing for her death, three weeks and one day away.

And afterwards…

Every day a ghostly ruin. Every day the ruin of the day that was supposed to have been. Every second on the clock clicking forward, anything I do or see or think, all of it made of ashes and charred shards, the ruins of  the future.

I was going to begin this review by stating that this novel is one long  howl of anguish. But really it is  much more than that. It is rich with incident, varied and colorful.  And it is filled with the minutest observations of Aura Estrada. Aura was a candidate for a PhD in literature at Columbia University. In addition, she was an aspiring writer. Stories were already pouring out of her. She wrote them down as fast as she could. Some of the fragments appear in this book. Francisco Goldman takes his role as his late wife’s literary executor with the utmost seriousness.

In one of the book’s lighter moments, Francisco takes Aura to Katz’s Deli for her first ever pastrami sandwich. She is so enamored of this concoction that she wolfs the whole thing down in record time. (Those are large sandwiches.) The inevitable then happened when, barely out of the restaurant, she began moaning and clutching her stomach. She spent  the rest of the afternoon in bed in the Brooklyn apartment, drinking Alka Seltzer and being nursed by Francisco. (This happened early in their relationship; Francisco was delighted when Aura said she wanted – needed! – to go home, by which she seemed to mean, to his apartment. ‘To my place?’  he’d queried, to be sure. She had nodded yes. )

Such quotidian scenarios appear intermittently, providing a few moments of lightness. But there is no escaping the sense of doom that pervades this narrative. And as with so many incidents from Francisco’s brief time with Aura – a time which he had every confidence would stretch far into the future – this one comes back to haunt him:

Now, whenever I pass near Katz’s Deli, I stop to stare in a mute muddle at  that sidewalk, at the long blackish snake of the curb, the empty air above. Sometimes I go and stand where it happened and whisper, You mean, to my place? Descending into memory like Orpheus to bring Aura out alive for a moment,  that’s the desperate purpose of all these futile little rites and reenactments.

[The fact  that Say Her Name has been published as a novel is somewhat confusing, especially since the author has not changed the names of any of the dramatis personae. I’m guessing that Goldman felt a need for the greater latitude that fiction would allow him in telling this story.]

Among the blurbs on the back of the hardback edition book is this, from Jhumpa Lahiri:

Francisco Goldman tells us that in ‘descending into memory like Orpheus’ he hopes he might ‘bring Aura out alive for a moment.’ But in the act of writing, Goldman transcends the constraints of myth and achieves nothing short of the impossible. Page by page, by the breath of his own words, Say Her Name restores Aura from shade to flesh, and returns her, unforgettably and permanently, to our world.

These pictures were taken at the wedding of Aura Estrada and Francisco Goldman. They were married in August of 2005 in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico.

Francisco Goldman and several of Aura’s friends and admirers have established The Aura Estrada Prize, to encourage young women embarking on writing careers in the Spanish language.


Hold her tight, if you have her; hold her tight, I thought, that’s my advice to all the living. Breathe her in, put your nose in her hair and breathe her in deeply. Say her name. It will always be her name. Not even death can steal it. Same alive as dead, always. Aura Estrada.

Aura Estrada. April 24, 1977 – July 25, 2007

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Edward Burne-Jones: sources of inspiration

June 18, 2012 at 7:49 pm (Anglophilia, Art, books)

  When you’ve been immersed in a massive, intricately detailed biography, you feel a sense of loss at its conclusion. You bid farewell not only to the book’s specific subject, but to the cast of characters that enlivened the story, and in many cases, to an entire era. This happened to me with Candace Millard’s riveting Destiny of the Republic, with Donald Worster’s lovely homage to John Muir, A Passion for Nature, and most recently with Robert K. Massie’s magisterial biography of Catherine the Great.

Last night I finished reading The Last Pre-Raphaelite: Edward Burne-Jones and the Victorian Imagination. Fiona MacCarthy’s sweeping depiction of  a now vanished world has for weeks held me in its thrall. I said good-bye with a heavy heart.

One of the many gifts given me by this book has been an insight into the wellsprings of Edward Burne-Jones’s unique and inimitable genius. Early in his creative life, he fell under the spell of the great artists of Europe’s Middle Ages, especially those who flourished in Italy:

Coronation of the Virgin (San Marco Altarpiece) – Sandro Botticelli

Frescoes in the Arena Chapel, Padua, by Giotto di Bondone: Marriage at Cana

Frescoes in the Arena Chapel, Padua – Giotto di Bondone

Te next two works, by Luca Signorelli,  are from the fresco cycle in the San Brizio Chapel of the Orvieto Cathedral:

Coronation of the Virgin – Fra Angelico

Detail from Fra Angelico’s Coronation of the Virgin

The following two works are illustrations of the life of St.Ursula, by Vittore Carpaccio:

Arrival of the English ambassadors (detail)

Departure of the English Ambassadors

Below are two detailed views of the Sistine Chapel ceiling frescoes, by Michelangelo:

The following are from the fresco cycle in the Cappella Maggiore of San Francesco in Arezzo, by Piero della Francesca:

The Queen of Sheba

The meeting of Solomon and the Queen of Sheba

These works were specifically commended to Burne-Jones by his mentor and friend, the great art historian John Ruskin. It is easy to see how Edward Burne-Jones came to hold beauty as a value worthy of the  highest esteem. (For more on these great painters, I recommend the Web Gallery of Art.)

I’ve already done one post on the life and work of Edward Burne-Jones. There is more to come – and more about other riches contained within the pages of The Last Pre-Raphaelite.


As a result of this recent reading, my fascination with Victorian Britain has been reawakened. I’ve written before of the pleasure I derived from listening to The Teaching Company’s course by that name, as presented by Professor Patrick Allitt.  In the past, I’ve borrowed this item from the library. Now, however, I have purchased these fine lectures and the richly informative material that comes with them. Once again I am immersed in all things Victorian, starting with the Queen herself!

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‘…colonial shenanigans and expatriate misadventures’

June 15, 2012 at 11:56 am (books, Magazines and newspapers)

That felicitous locution is taken from the title of an article that appeared in the Review Section of the  May 19/20 Wall Street Journal Weekend Edition. It’s part of a series called ‘Five Best: A Personal Choice.’  In this particular series entry, author Paul French (Midnight in Peking) suggests five titles:  White Mischief by James Fox (1982), The Painted Veil by W. Somerset Maugham (1925), The Comedians by Graham Greene (1966), Miss Jill by Emily Hahn (1947), and The Green Hat by Michael Arlen (1924).          .

This is but one example of the “Five Best’ series that appears in the Wall Street Journal each weekend. I first became aware of this feature when I picked up WSJ’s Weekend Edition while I was in New York this past March.  That particular issue of the paper had a ‘Five Best’ list of psychological mysteries compiled by Jane Harris. It contained, among other titles,  Barbara Vine’s A Fatal Inversion. This  was a book I’d long intended to read. Harris’s commendation made me determined to do so, and sooner rather than later. The determination necessary in this case involved first and foremost getting my hands on the book. A Fatal Inversion was not owned by the local library; neither is it currently in print in this country. (It is listed as being in print, published by Penguin, at Amazon.co.uk.)\

A similar situation obtains with Paul French’s list.  Of the five titles he cites, only The Painted Veil is both owned by the library and currently in print. (I was naturally delighted by the inclusion of this novel. Since reading – nay, devouring! – Selina Hastings’s superb biography, I’ve derived much pleasure from rediscovering the works of Somerset Maugham. The Painted Veil is a terrific read and a great book club choice.)  Penguin Classics, bless them, still has  The Comedians on offer.

Among the special pleasures of these lists are the quirkiness of the topic choices and the length and liveliness of the annotations. The best way that I know of for summoning up a good number of  them is by using the search term ‘WSJ five best books.’  The chief difficulty is that you’ll be greeted by a raft of titles so intriguing and so persuasively presented that you’ll want to read them immediately, if not sooner. At least, that’s what happened to me. But then, it would, wouldn’t it?

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Remembering and honoring Reginald Hill

June 13, 2012 at 9:08 pm (books, Mystery fiction, The British police procedural)

Crime Writing Month is a promotional initiative from the  The Crime Writers’ Association, (The CWA presides over the prestigious Dagger Awards.)  A site entitled Celebrating Reginald Hill is one of the many activities feeding into the CWA’s initiative. I was asked to contribute to this site.

I took an earlier blog post and reworked it for the purpose. Here’s a link to the site, and a (more specific) link to my article, which I hope you enjoy.

I was deeply gratified to be asked to contribute to this initiative.

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West Orange was my dwelling place….

June 10, 2012 at 2:38 am (Family)

  West Orange New Jersey that is, in the County of Essex. Our family lived there, in a house on Fairway Drive, from 1944 (the year of my birth) to 1952.

Last month, we drove to Plymouth, Massachusetts for  family wedding (with plans to continue on to Cape Cod, afterwards). West Orange lay directly along our route, so we decided to break the journey there, in both directions. This gave me the opportunity to revisit my past in that place.

On this pilgrimage, I had two specific destinations in mind. The first was a very long lived restaurant called Pals Cabin  The original eponymous “pals” were Martin L. Horn and Bion Leroy Sale. In 1932, they founded a modest eatery – literally a ten by twelve foot cabin – as a bulwark against the crushing forces of the Depression. Family lore has it that my parents stopped there en route to Orange Memorial Hospital, as my mother was about to give birth to me. In later years, the family would come here, from time to time, for a meal.

Today, Marty Horn’s descendants still own and run Pals Cabin.

On our way north, Lynn, my dear friend from college days, met us for dinner at this historic eatery. (Lynn lives in nearby Montclair, where my mother grew up. My grandparents had a candy store there.)  On the way back, Ron and I ate there again, just the two of us. That evening, I chose the ‘foot-long’ frankfurter, described thus: ” The first item on our menu over 75 years ago, enjoy our famous frank with sauerkraut or grilled onions on request. Served with French Fries.” Ron had a hamburger, also with a side of fries and some extremely memorable fried onion rings.

As we were leaving, I inquired as to whether there were any members of the Horn family on the premises. “Oh, sure; Danny’s here.” I was directed to a young man who was setting tables. I went up to him and introduced myself. You won’t know me, I said, but my family has a history with this place…. He was warm and gracious. When I asked for several place mats, he gladly obliged, offering me a menu as well:

I expressed my gratitude, and wished him and the entire Horn family a happy eightieth (!!) birthday. 

In  the course of my research for this post, I learned that there are others who have a special feeling for Pals Cabin.  In addition to the expression of affection, this post by Frank Gerard Godlewski contains some fascinating historical tidbits. More of the same can be found on Comestiblog, and on the restaurant’s own site.


And now, on to the house on Fairway Drive.

Over the course of  this trip, the weather, to put it tactfully, had been variable. In fact, when we left Cape Cod, it was pouring down rain, and continued to do so all through Connecticut. However, by the time we got to New Jersey, it had begun to clear up. That evening we had our final dinner at Pals Cabin. And the following morning, before we got properly under way for the final leg of our journey, we stopped at the house on Fairway Drive. It was a gorgeous day.

You take Gregory Avenue to Mount Pleasant. Go left on Highland Place, then right onto Fairway Drive. Of course. Stop here, I said to Ron. We got out. The house number was not actually visible from where we  stood, but of course, that did not matter. This was the place:

A girl named Sharon strides toward us, a mean look on her face. She hands us a piece of paper on which are written the words, SAY OFF MY LAND. “Off my land!” we shouted at her retreating back. “Off my land,” again, jeering at her.

We go house to house through the neighborhood, with a bag full of records: ‘Wanna buy some?’  (If memory serves, we were later ordered to retrieve the records and return any monies collected by our unauthorized sales venture.)

In the house that backed up to ours lived  a boy named Frankie. He was a very kid with an impish grin and a mischievous look in his eye. In fact, he was continually getting into trouble and taking Yours Truly, a ready if not eager participant, along with him. Once he strung together several lengths of extension cord and blew the circuits in several adjoining properties. Frankie derived great amusement from the name of a particular brand of coffee and used to shout it out loud at every opportunity” Medaglia Doooro!!” 

The memories were coming at me, fast and furious…and for the most part, unverifiable.

I do feel myself to be on somewhat firmer ground when I recall having as a neighbor, at the other end of Fairway Drive, a man known to us as Commander Duchin. This would have been Paul Duchin, purportedly the brother of pianist and bandleader Eddy Duchin. My older brother has the  same memory; in fact, he remembers, as a youngster, playing with one of the Duchin boys. I have no recollection of ever setting eyes on this mysterious Commander Duchin (U.S. Navy – some connection to the Brooklyn Navy Yard?), but one thing I do remember vividly: his wife had been a polio victim and had to sleep in an iron lung. That is the kind of specific fact that stays with you. Nevertheless, it must be said that my efforts to verify this information have been in vain.  (The fact that Eddy Duchin served in the Navy during World War Two, attaining the rank of lieutenant commander, is a matter of record. Eddy Duchin’s son Peter has had, like his father before him, a successful career as a pianist and band leader. I recently discovered that he is also the author of a memoir called The Ghost of a Chance (1998). I’m currently in the process of obtaining this volume.)

Driving around West Orange was an interesting experience. The place felt old, and it looked as though nothing much has been done to update the infrastructure. The road signs were hard to read; I saw no electronic signals at pedestrian crossings. In some places the traffic was ferocious. This was especially true at the intersection where Pals Cabin is located.   But other places were very quiet, the greenery, lush. I saw once again the large rhododendron bushes that flourish there. My old neighborhood lay in a sun drenched stillness, looking more beautiful than ever. Bidding it farewell, I felt a sort of sweet, resigned sadness. With the passage of time have come the inevitable losses; still, I have been fortunate in life, in love, and in family, and I am grateful. 


Click here to read more about West Orange. And Joseph Fagen has lovingly and eloquently chronicled the life and times of the township of my birth, on a site devoted to its history.

I have a substantial trove of photographs inherited from my parents that I have yet to sort through. Many of them are maddeningly unidentified. And if there are any of our family at Fairway Drive, I’ve yet to uncover them. Still, I felt that this post would be incomplete without some family photos. So here they are:

My mother in her youth, possibly a college graduation picture

Dad and I at the race track

My father

My brothers, my father, and me

My mother, my grandmother, and me


Mother and Bon-Bon, much loved family pet, in Central Park

My mother and my son Ben, in September 1975


We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.

‘Little Gidding’  from The Four Quartets, T.S. Eliot

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Book lists

June 1, 2012 at 11:42 am (books)


The media specialists of the Howard County Public Schools have posted their 2012 summer reading suggestions. For a number of years now, I’ve had the privilege of working with the staff on this book list.


Lists from past years are also available,  as well as suggestions for readers from kindergarten age through high school. Click here to see those.

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