Plenty of gloom and doom but also gratitude, reasons to believe, and occasions to ponder the strange and wondrous vagaries of human nature

November 28, 2012 at 2:23 pm (Animals, Current affairs, Local interest (Baltimore-Washington), Magazines and newspapers, Nature, Spiritual)

In the Review section of this past Sunday’s New York Times, there was a goodly helping of admonition and dire prediction, chiefly prompted by the destruction recently visited on the New York metropolitan area by Hurricane Sandy.

First, James Atlas warns of the coming submersion of New York City in Is This the End? An appropriately scary title, especially for those of us who know and love the place. (Venerating the city’s cultural riches, my mother could never understand why a person would want to live anywhere else.) 

In  Rising Seas, Vanishing Coastlines, Benjamin Strauss and Robert Kopp paint a disturbing picture of  the effect that rising sea levels will have on this country’s coastal regions. To begin with, the authors offer up this astonishing statistic: “More than six million Americans live on land less than five feet above the local high tide.” Even granted that Strauss and Kopp are describing eventualities that may be several centuries down the road, their projections are extremely disturbing. Click on What Could Disappear for maps. I did, and it just about broke my heart. Among the places slated to become a latter day Atlantis is Miami Beach, Florida, where I attended junior high and high school. Alas, farewell to the land of bougainvillea, hibiscus, cocoanut palms, and rampant overdevelopment…. (For additional searchable maps, go to

Finally, Erwann Michel-Kerjan and and Howard Kunreuther tackle the subject of Paying for Future Catastrophes. They begin with this statement: “Hurricane Sandy could cost the nation a staggering $50 billion, about a third of the cost of Hurricane Katrina — to date the most costly disaster in United States history.”

A collapsed complex of cabanas at Sea Bright, NJ

In the November 26/ December 3 issue of Newsweek, David Cay Johnston tallies the dangers inherent in our aging and inadequate infrastructure. Johnston goes on to suggest “12 ways to Stop the Next Sandy;”  however, his ambitious manifesto will require a colossal act of will on the part of the citizens of this country, not to mention an equally colossal outlay of funds. Can it be done? Will it be done?  (As Newsweek prepares to go digital, I’d like to express a personal sense of loss. I’ve been a subscriber since my college days in the 1960s.)

All of this would seem to portray a nation in a heap of trouble. In his book Too Much Magic, published in June of this year, James Howard Kunstler writes the following:

The British Petroleum company’s 2010 Macondo well blowout in the Gulf of Mexico tempered the public’s zest for risky deepwater drilling projects. Oil is back in the $100 range. The Fukushima nuclear meltdown in the following year sobered up many nations about the prospects for the only well-developed alternative energy method capable of powering whole cities. Whether you believe in climate change or not, or contest that it’s man-made or is not, the weather is looking a little strange. In 2011 tornados of colossal scale tore through the American South, hurricane-induced five-hundred-year floods shredded Vermont, and Texas was so drought-stricken that Texans wondered if ranching there would even be possible in the years ahead. People have begun to notice a number of signals that reality is beaming out.

He goes on to inquire plaintively: “Who can fail to notice all the obvious trouble our country is in?” 

All this is enough to send a person running for the nearest bunker. But wait – there is hope, and it has been proffered by people with vigorous minds and open hearts. I’ve already written about the solace and encouragement to be derived from the works of Rabbi Jonathan Sacks and Rev. Timothy Keller. And now I’m cheered by the prospect of reading Anne Lamott’s new book:   In a recent interview in the Washington Post, she explains its rather piquant title:

I think sometimes we don’t know that what we’re doing is a form of prayer. “Help” is the main prayer. “Help” is the prayer of surrender and having a real shot at things beginning to change because you’ve finally run out of good ideas. “Help” is the hardest prayer, and it’s the most poignant. It’s a person being humbled. People say “Thanks” all the time in so many ways. Even people who don’t believe in God or in any kind of higher power notice when their family catches a break: The diagnosis was much better than it could have been; it really isn’t a transmission, it’s a timing belt; it’s something manageable instead of huge and awful. “Wow” is the praise prayer. I think every time you see a night sky full of stars, you say, “Wow.” It was so cold here today, I had to get up really early, and I stepped outside, and I was like, “Whooooa!” which is a cousin of “Wow.” It was so crisp, so beautiful. It’s like getting spritzed with a plant mister. It kind of wakes you back up.

I love The Once Born and the Twice Born, an essay by Gertrude Himmelfarb that appeared in the September 28 issue of the Wall Street Journal. Reading her cogent and graceful explication of  William James The Will To Believe, I felt as though I’d been given a very special gift. (This sense was amplified by the fact of my recent immersion in the life William’s brother Henry, courtesy of Michael Gorra’s magisterial work of criticism and biography, Portrait of a Novel.)

His 1896 lecture “The Will to Believe” was prompted, James said, by the “freethinking and indifference” he encountered at Harvard. He warned his audience that he would not offer either logical or theological arguments supporting the existence of God or any particular religion, ritual or dogma. His “justification of faith” derived instead entirely from the “will” or the “right” to believe, to “adopt a believing attitude in religious matters, despite the fact that our merely logical intellect may not have been coerced.” James knew this would not go down well with the students and philosophers in the eminent universities. To the obvious objection that the denial of the “logical intellect” is to give up any claim to truth, he replied that it is in defense of truth that faith is justified—the truth provided not by logic or science but by experience and reflection. Moral questions, he pointed out, cannot be resolved with the certitude that comes from objective logic or science. And so with religious faith….

Historian Gertrude Himmelfarb, an intellectual among intellectuals, turned ninety in August.

I never ceased to be moved by the trouble to which people will go to render aid to animals in distress. A particularly impressive instance of this compassionate response is recounted in a recent Washington Post article entitled   Injured Owl Is Rescued in Mount Vernon.

I deeply appreciate the sentiments voiced with wit and warmth on the occasion of Thanksgiving  by Wall Street Journal columnist Peggy Noonan. In Family, Friends, Health and Freedom,  she asked a number of friends and family members what they were thankful for. At one point, she pressed a friend to be more specific; she received this response:

“Buddy the cat. He literally came out of nowhere one night, and has never left since. He sleeps in the window most of the time, and looks in as if to say: ‘I’m home.’ He always lets the others in the pack eat first. ‘Slow down,’ I say to myself. The world on my screen may be spinning and sizzling, but Buddy’s ends up being the preferred reality.”

Speaking of matters of a  feline nature, there was recent post-election news in the Metro section of the Post   concerning an illustrious member of that community:

Hank the Cat, in election day garb

Finally, from the November 26 issue of the New Yorker, the recent travails of General David Petraus and others elicited this wry observation from Adam Gopnik:

Petraeus, and his defenders and attackers alike, referred to his “poor judgment,” but if the affair had had anything to do with judgment it never would have happened. Desire is not subject to the language of judicious choice, or it would not be desire, with a language all its own. The point of lust, not to put too fine a point on it, is that it lures us to do dumb stuff, and the fact that the dumb stuff gets done is continuing proof of its power. As [Philip] Roth’s Alexander Portnoy tells us, “Ven der putz shteht, ligt der sechel in drerd”—a Yiddish saying that means, more or less, that when desire comes in the door judgment jumps out the window and cracks its skull on the pavement.

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Magical Moments in Music

November 25, 2012 at 6:34 pm (Music)

“Fleeting in the Ear, Forever in the Heart” recently appeared in the New York Times. It was written by Anthony Tommasini, whose insights into classical music have been educating and edifying this reader for years. In this piece, he recollects the effect  that Artur Rubinstein’s playing of Chopin’s Ballade No.1 in G minor had on his tenderly developing esthetic sensibility. (He was about twelve years old at the time.) Here are Tommasini’s own words describing the experience:

The ballade opened with a forceful line that began in the low register of the piano and rose up the keyboard in octaves, as if making some grim declaration. At the peak of the ascent the line twisted into a soft plaintive turn, delivered in two halting phrases.

Then something stunning happened, just for a moment: a short gesture, a softly sighing three-note melodic fragment landing on a dissonant-seeming chord that at first sounded as if it were wrong. Yet the harmony lingered, and the pungency of the clashing notes was strangely beautiful, almost comforting. This led into what seemed the saddest melody I had ever heard. The main business of the ballade had started.

He adds: “I remember how powerfully I reacted to that moment with the sighing phrase. I still get shivers when I hear it or play it.”

Included in this article is a video in which Anthony Tommasini enlarges upon his deep affinity for this haunting Chopin piece. He also provdes a link to a video of Rubinstein playing the Ballade.

Alas, one hears, but not see, the performance. So here is a video of Rubinstein’s great contemporary Vladimir Horowitz:

Tommasini’s article features three additional videos focusing on various other musical selections that he cherishes. Finally, the author invites us, his music loving readers, to share with him and with one another our own “magical moments in music.”

The first moment that came to my mind occurs near the end of the “Et in Terra Pax” from Antonio Vivaldi’s Gloria. It occurs  right about three minutes into the video above. But really, the whole thing is so gorgeous – especially as performed in this video by the National Chamber Orchestra of Armenia – that I’m somewhat averse to singling out any particular part. (Ron and I particularly admire the fluid gestures and consummate musicianship evinced here by conductor R. Mikeyan.)


Next I thought of the Intermezzo from the opera Cavalleria Rusticana by Pietro Mascagni. This is what I found:

I am immensely moved by Georges Pretre,  born in 1924 and one of our greatest living conductors. The music seems to be flowing right through him.


Finally, this is a video I’ve had in my YouTube favorites for quite a while now.  Joseph Marie Canteloube based his Songs of the Auvergne on the folk melodies of France’s Auvergne region. They are sung in Occitan, the local dialect.

Many of us first became acquainted with these lush, gorgeous compositions through recordings made by Dame Kiri te Kanawa. I still love these discs, especially the first one.    But many consider Netania Davrath‘s version to be unequaled. Here she is, singing one of the best loved songs from the collection, Baïlero:

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“What a wonderful communal and intellectual transaction. What an invaluable institution.”

November 25, 2012 at 1:53 pm (books, Library)

While subbing at the Glenwood Branch Library yesterday, I came upon an article in a recent issue of Library Journal that neatly echoed my own recent experience at the Miller Branch.  “First Words: Where the Librarian Surpasses the Warrior”    – marvelous title! – is by Michael Kelley, newly appointed editor in chief of the magazine.

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”’Some people will do anything for money,” the Communist sneered, with the fine scorn of someone who would do anything for a cause.’ – Death of a Nationalist by Rebecca Pawel

November 20, 2012 at 12:17 pm (Book clubs, books, Mystery fiction)

  Last week, Pauline led the Usual Suspects in a discussion of the novel Death of a Nationalist. Rebecca Pawel’s novel takes place in Spain in 1939. The Nationalist cause has triumphed, and a number of its adherents are focused on Madrid, a former Republican stronghold. They are bent on extirpating any and all opponents of the new regime.

Pawel tells the story of a group of individuals caught up in the terrible events of that time and place. At the outset, we are introduced to the Llorente family.  They’re living in a cramped apartment in the city and struggling to obtain food and other necessities of life, all the while keeping clear of the guardias civiles, the police agency tasked with rooting out any and all Republican sympathizers. The household consists of Carmen Llorente, her brother Gonzalo, Gonzalo’s lover Viviana (beautiful name, that), and Maria Alejandra, called ‘Aleja,’  Carmen’s seven -year-old daughter.

On her way home from school, Aleja witnesses a murder. Terrified, she makes her way back to her family and into the comforting arms of Viviana. It soon emerges that in the chaos of the moment, Aleja dropped her school notebook in the street. She needs it back: paper, along with so much else, is in short supply. Viviana decides to return to the scene of the killing in order to retrieve the precious object

This turns out to be a fateful decision. Viviana’s proud defiance is set against the brute authority of several members of the gardias civiles. Their leader is Sgt. Carols Tejada Alonso y León, subsequently referred to simply as Tejada. From this scene flows the rest of the novels content, embracing an ever widening cast of characters, including the Spanish nation itself, torn apart by warring factions whose competing atrocities foreshadow the horrors of the Second World War.

Pauline had a wealth of background material to impart to our group. This was accompanied by a five page handout, which included among other things a comprehensive list of characters and maps of the various regions of Spain.  Truth to tell, we needed all of it. Most of us had virtually no prior understanding of the causes of the Spanish Civil War. Even more so, the various parties to the conflict were hard to sort out. To simplify greatly, the principal warring factions were on the one hand, the Republicans, and on the other, the Nationalists. The Republicans constituted the legitimately elected government; however, they were intent on enacting certain reforms that were fiercely opposed by powerful vested interests. These included the church, wealthy landowners, and the military. The Nationalists represented those interests. They were aligned with the church and the monarchists and were synonymous with  the Fascists. (I’m not sure if that last statement is entirely accurate. At any rate, I remember that we were perplexed about the monarchists and the Fascists being  allies.) It being the late 1930s, Mussolini and Hitler emerged as natural allies of the Nationalists, while the Communists were enlisted in the Republican cause.

Many other factors were at work in this bloody conflict. One of these was the need to keep Spain unified. The Basque Separatists were a particularly fractious group in this struggle. (I remember as a child hearing and reading about the nefarious activities of that regions home grown terrorist organization, the ETA.) In 1937, the German were induced by the Fascists to bomb a town in the Basque province.  At the time, the village was primarily made up of women and children, the men having gone to fight in the Republican cause. This attack on defenseless and innocent civilians was thorough and brutal and has ever since been a symbol of the arbitrary viciousness of war.

The town was called Guernica:

[Click to enlarge]

This famous painting, made by Pablo Picasso in 1937,  resided in the collection of the Museum of Modern Art for 42 years.It was in that august institution, in the 1950s, that I first saw it. It took up an entire wall of display space. Guernica said everything that needed to be said about the horrors of war.

After Franco’s death in 1975, this masterpiece was repatriated to Spain, land of the artist’s birth, in accordance with his expressed wishes. It is currently housed at the Museo Reina Sofia in Madrid.

‘Guernica is to painting what Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony is to music: a cultural icon that speaks to mankind not only against war but also of hope and peace. It is a reference when speaking about genocide from El Salvador to Bosnia.’

Alejandro Escalona, on the occasion of the painting’s 75th anniversary

The story of Guernica is told by Russell Martin in his book Picasso’s War. 


On her website, Rebecca Pawel, a lifelong New Yorker, tells us that she studied flamenco and Spanish dance while in junior high. While still in high school, she spent a summer in Madrid and fell deeply in love with all things Spanish, going on to major in Spanish language and literature at Columbia University. Currently a teacher in what she terms the city’s “much maligned school system,” Pawel returns to Spain whenever possible. It was on just such a return journey in 2000 that, with the encouragement of a friend with whom she was corresponding, she decided to write Death of a Nationalist.

There are four novels in this series.         There will be no more, although Pawel has chosen to make available in e-book format a story collection  featuring Tejada. Entitled What Happened When the War Was Over, it can be accessed on a site called Smashwords. Pawel has taken this action, which she calls “an experiment both with new technology and with self-publishing,” partly in response to her frustration with commercial publishers (a frustration which, I hasten to assure her, is shared by many readers as well).

As to why there will be no more novels in this series, Pawel has her reasons, which she enlarges upon in the FAQ section on her site.


In last month’s issue of the British magazine Literary Review, two books concerning the Spanish Civil War were reviewed together: I am Spain: The Spanish Civil War and the Men and Women Who Went To Fight Fascism, by David Boyd Haycock; and Unlikely Warriors: The British in the Spanish Civil War and the Struggle Against Fascism, by Richard Baxell.  Both authors write about the International Brigades: men  (and a small number of women) from fifty-three countries who came to Spain to fight along side the Republicans. One aspect of this conflict that has always puzzled me is the participation of all these incomers from other nations. Caroline Moorehead, author of this article, mentions that “George Orwell pawned the family silver to pay for the journey.’ Moorehead continues:

No war had ever attracted such a concentration of intellectuals. Many of them had visited Spain before and brought with them romantic memories of olive trees and bullfights. They revelled in the huge, hot landscape, the intensity of the political conflict, and the spectacle of revolutionary socialism in action – workers with rifles over their shoulders and cars painted with slogans. The anarchy was alarming, but it was also extremely exciting.

In addition, Pauline explained to us, the U.S., France, and Britain all declined to interfere in the conflict, leaving the field open to the Italians and Germans on the Nationalist side, and the Communists on the Republican side.


Somehow I was under the impression that the books in the Tejada series were out of print, but in fact they are all four currently available  in soft cover editions from Amazon. They can also be purchased directly from Soho Press.  (Thanks Soho; you’re one of my two favorite American publishers of crime fiction, the other being Severn House.)

Toward the end of this exceptionally stimulating meeting, Pauline asked our group the ever-perilous, bottom line question: Did we like the book? We answered in the affirmative – all ten of us! Pauline seemed not to have expected this response and was obviously gratified by it. Several of us added that while the plot was somewhat hard to follow and the cast of characters large and challenging to keep track of, the novel builds in power and intensity and ends by being quite gripping. All of this greatly helped by Rebecca Pawel’s superior prose style, which is elegant and incisive and laced with a fine irony.

I should add that it is very typical of Pauline to be modest about the fact that her own erudition and enthusiasm were key factors contributing to our enjoyment of this discussion and this novel.

Death of a Nationalist won the 2004 Edgar Award for Best First Novel. (It was also a finalist for the Anthony and Macavity Awards in the same category.) Below is a picture of Rebecca Pawel accepting the Edgar.

Stuart Woods, left, Rebecca Pawel, and Jonathon King


The Spanish Civil War is a fiendishly complex subject and Death of a Nationalist nearly matches it in complexity, as I’ve already mentioned. I’ve only skimmed the surface  of both of these topics in this post. Thanks once more to Pauline and all the Usual Suspects for such an invigorating evening. Any errors contained herein are my own; if you spot any, please let me know.

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Roberta goes to the library to pick up a few items and, finding herself surrounded by riches (in several formats), avails herself of them liberally, then runs out of steam…

November 18, 2012 at 7:18 pm (Anglophilia, architecture, books, Library, Local interest (Baltimore-Washington), Music, Photography, Spiritual)

One sunny Saturday morning, Roberta decided to visit the library. Her intent was to pick up two books she had reserved,  perhaps one or two additional mysteries, and a volume on art history.



Miller is Roberta’s local branch, a repository of more fabulous stuff than you can shake a stick at. (Please pardon the recourse to clichés – one is not up to much else, at present!) Roberta headed straight upstairs, where the new books for adults awaited her. I mean, why pass up a chance for some serendipity thereabouts? And lo: serendipity there was – in spades (those pesky clichés again). Her resistance held firm on the fiction side but broke down around the corner in nonfiction. Why here was Every Good Endeavor, a new work by Dr. Timothy Keller, Senior Pastor at New York City’s Redeemer Presbyterian Church, whose wisdom, compassion, and eloquence had so impressed her in The Reason for God.    

Okay – I am now officially switching to the first person. Writing about yourself in the third person is just too weird! (Who is that woman, anyway?)

I am also currently reading The Great Partnership: Science, Religion, and the Search for Meaning by Rabbi Jonathan Sacks.    For 21 years, Rabbi Sacks has been Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of Great Britain and the Commonwealth. In this book, he attempts to reconcile the claims of faith and science; indeed, he believes that the perception of a schism between the two is erroneous in the first place. Rabbi Sacks writes with wit and elegance. Me, I am happy to receive good counsel from wise men and women, whatever their affiliation!

Moving from the 200s (religion and spirituality) to the 500s (science), I found several items of interest. In recent years, we’ve seen a number of writers who are able to explain exciting new developments in physics and astronomy in ways that are accessible to what one might term the lay reader. For example:




Here I must confess to a tendency to take such books home with the best intentions, only to return them to the library unread. I did, however, finish – and greatly enjoy – those last two titles. (Before the Fallout is as much a history book as a science book and made for really riveting reading. Preston begins by describing what happened to one woman when the bomb was dropped on Hiroshima on August 6, 1945.  I reads Before the Fallout when it came out in 2005 and that scene has remained vivid in mind, in Preston’s measured retelling, a true horror story. “Silver treasure” indeed….) Mirror Earth currently resides on my night table – or one of my several night tables. Wish me luck.

I was just thinking that I’d better tear myself away from the new books when my eye lighted upon this: 

It’s the kind of book I love: you can just dip into it from time to time and get your fill of wonder. Isabel Kuhl begins her survey with the great pyramids of Egypt – that chapter is subtitled “The First Houses Built for Eternity” –  and ends with some spectacular structures by Frank Gehry, Zaha Hadid, Daniel Liebeskind, and others:

Daniel Liebeskind: Jewish Museum of Berlin, exterior 1989-1998

Frank Gehry: Guggenheim Museum Bilbao, Spain  1997

And in between these two astonishing extremes of time and place, one jaw dropper after another:

Hagia Sophia, Istanbul, 360 AD

Durham Cathedral, Durham, England 1093-1133

Cathedral of Laon, Picardy, France 1160-1230

Ceiling fresco of the Church of Sant’Ignazio, Rome 1650

Chateau de Chambord, Loir-et-Cher, France 1519-1547

[Click here for panoramic views of Chambord.]

Zwinger Palace, Dresden Germany 11697-1716

Chrysler Building, New York City 1928-1930

Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris 1971-1977

Burj Khalifa Dubai 2010


Whew! I’m just about done in. And I so wanted to explain about the mysteries and the DVD’s – almost exclusively British mysteries….Ah well, it will have to wait. But I do want to mention a CD that I picked up:  This was true serendipity, aided by prominent placement on a display of audiovisual materials on Miller’s richly endowed first floor.

Among the musical selection on this disc is one I especially love, Handel’s coronation anthem “Zadok the Priest.”  I plugged the title into the YouTube search box and got some marvelous results. Here are two of my favorites.

First, the 2004 wedding of Denmark’s Crown Prince Frederik and Mary Elizabeth Donaldson of Australia (by way of Scotland, as can be seen by her father’s attire);

I was thrilled by this one. It’s an Anglophile’s dream – this Anglophile’s, at any rate:


I owe a debt of gratitude to the good people of the Miller Branch, a place that, in my retirement years, has become a home away from home!

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Scotland the Brave: Isabel Dalhousie and her circle

November 12, 2012 at 8:49 pm (Book review, books, Mystery fiction, Scotland)

  Isabel Dalhousie’s mind is a wondrous place in which to spend time. I love the way quotations from her beloved W.H. Auden invariably come to mind on apt occasions. At one point in The Uncommon Appeal of Clouds, she spies a  banner reading “We must love one another” draped across the facade of a church. She is immediately put in mind of Auden’s poem “September 1939,” in which the last line of the penultimate stanza is “We must love one another or die.”   Auden subsequently altered that line to read “We must love one another and die.” (Italics mine.) He then repudiated the poem altogether, calling it, in Isabel’s words, mendacious. She hastens to add  that  in her view, the work still retains “a grave beauty.”

In my view, the revised version of the line in question achieves a whole new level of profundity. Click here to read the entire poem, and here for an article that appeared in the New York Times in December of 2001: “Beliefs; After September 11, a 62-year-old poem by Auden drew new attention. Not all of it was favorable.”

The Isabel Dalhousie novels invariably feature expressions of love for Edinburgh and the surrounding countryside. Early in the novel, Isabel finds herself driving out of the city. Her route takes her past Stirling Castle and the monument to William Wallace.  It seems that Scottish rugby fans are wont to sing the praises of Wallace, even though his triumph over “the English army of cruel Edward” is seven hundred years in the past. Asking herself why this custom persists, the answer that comes to her first in an unwelcome one: “Because we may not have very much else, apart from our past.” But she immediately rejects this rationale as untrue and unworthy:

We did have a great deal else. We had this land that was unfolding before her now as she turned off towards Doune; these fields and these soft hills and this sky and this light and these rivers that were pure and fresh, and the music that could send shivers of pleasure up the spine and make one so proud of Scotland and of belonging.

She concludes: “We had all that.”

(The musical accompaniment is from Beethoven’s Eighth Symphony.)

As is usual in these novels, the mystery is of a mild nature; though intriguing, it generates little actual suspense. A painting by Nicholas Poussin has been stolen from an avid art collector; a mutual acquaintance enlists the assistance of Isabel, who is herself a collector, primarily of Scottish paintings. In the course of the investigation, she mentions having been to exhibit entitled ‘Poussin and Nature.’ That was in fact an actual exhibit: I saw it at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and will never forget it.

Isabel Dalhousie not only thinks deeply, she feels deeply as well. Putting Charlie to sleep, she feels as though she could break down in tears: “…she could have wept for the love of him, as any mother might while watching over her child” (and any grandmother, I might add).

Finally, one of the great pleasures I’ve experienced in following this series is watching the love of Isabel and Jamie grow and mature, seeing Isabel gain confidence in Jamie’s devotion to her, and seeing Jaimie himself increasingly amazed by what a treasure he has in Isabel.

He looked at the clock; Charlie would have to be fetched in half an hour or so. He put his arms about Isabel and embraced her, pulling her to him. Her hands were on his shoulder blades. It was warm in the  house and the sound of a mower drifted in from over the road through an open window, bringing with it the smell of cut grass.


Ron and I were deeply moved and impressed by our 2007 visited to the newly opened Scottish Parliament Building in Edinburgh. I’ll be interested to see if, in upcoming installments in this series, McCall Smith treats specifically of Scotland’s push toward independence. A referendum on the question is scheduled to take place in 2014.

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Joe Queenan, my (current) favorite fellow book lover

November 10, 2012 at 12:50 pm (books, Magazines and newspapers)

  And why does Mr. Queenan currently occupy this exalted post? Just read “My 6,128 Favorite Books” to find out!

Mr. Queenan treats this delectable subject at even greater length in One for the Books.

Joe Queenan

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Midnight in Peking – a book discussion

November 4, 2012 at 10:02 pm (Book clubs, books, Crime)

  This past Thursday I had the pleasure of attending a meeting of the (newly reinvigorated ) AAUW Readers. The selection for this session was Midnight in Peking by Paul French. I admit I was a bit uncertain as to how well this book would lend itself to the reading group discussion format. In the event, I need not have worried. Participants were eager to dive in with their observations and questions, most of which concerned aspects of the character of Pamela Werner, the young victim of a horrendous crime, and of her father ETC Werner.

The year was 1937, and Pamela Werner seems not to have thought of the way of life  she and her father shared as especially unusual. And yet it might seem so to contemporary readers. Her mother had died when Pamela was three years old. ETC Werner, a distinguished Sinologist already in his forties when she was born, seemed bookish and remote, leaving most of the child care duties to the household servants.

A fluent speaker of Mandarin, Pamela was a curious mixture of innocent schoolgirl and budding womanliness. Her existence in Peking was literally freewheeling: she navigated the streets and alley ways of the city on her bicycle, often alone, sometimes at night.

Author Paul French studied history, economics, and Mandarin language; in addition, he has an advanced degree in economics from the University of Glasgow. He is currently a business consultant and analyst in Shanghai. In the ‘Q and A’ section of the reading guide, French recounts how he first came upon the story of Pamela Werner while reading a biography of  American journalist Edgar Snow. Ultimately, his search  for information about Pamela’s murder led him to Britain’s National Archives in Kew:

I was looking through a box of jumbled up and unnumbered documents from the British Embassy in China in the 1940s when I found a 150 page or so long document sent to the Foreign Office by ETC Werner, Pamela’s father. These documents were the notes of a detailed private investigation he had conducted after the Japanese occupation of Peking until he was himself interned by the Japanese along with all other Allied foreigners after Pearl Harbor.

Those papers proved revelatory. This is the kind of find that every researcher dreams of.

Members of our group were much taken with Paul French’s  vivid depiction of old Peking, an exotic and mysterious city about to be overrun by the Japanese army. They wished they knew more about the history of the region, but the fact is that French preferred to focus with laser like intensity on the murder of Pamela Werner and its immediate aftermath. The result is a tightly wound narrative that grabs the reader by the lapels (do we still have lapels?) and never lets go. As a fact crime narrative, it reminded me of People Who Eat Darkness. That book is set in present day Tokyo and is quite a bit longer than Midnight in Peking. But the riveting storytelling and the pathos of the human drama are vividly bodied forth in both books.

The investigation of the murder of Pamela Werner was a simultaneous undertaking conducted by a Chinese policeman and Scotland Yard detective. This was a very unusual instance of the two forces collaborating in the work of solving a  crime. The trail of leads they followed was labyrinthine, and some provocative information was uncovered, especially as regarded the seedy underbelly of expatriate life in the city. Soon however the Japanese invaded, global war followed, and the search for Pamela Werner’s killer was lost in the chaotic currents of world events. In addition, the inquiry was subverted in several ways by people in powerful positions who did not want any ugly or incriminating truths to emerge.

And there matters might have rested permanently – except for the advent of a determined researcher decades later….

In the reading group guide, Paul French makes several suggestions  for further reading. Among these are the novels Rickshaw Boy by Lao She, Moment in Peking by Lin Yutang, and The Maker of Heavenly Trousers by Daniele Varé. Numbered among the nonfiction accounts are Ponies and Peonies by Harold Acton, Peking Story: The Last Days of Old China by Davis Kidd, and City of Lingering Splendour:  A Frank Account of Old Peking’s Exotic Pleasures by Jon Blofeld.  (Click here for additional titles.)


Midnight in Peking is an example of what is currently referred to in publishing parlance as historic true crime.  “Prior Misconduct,”  an article on this subgenre, appeared in a September issue of Library Journal. The author of the piece named several titles that I’ve very much enjoyed in the past several years:

  .  The question arises as to where in a bookstore (or on library shelves) titles such as these belong: history or crime?  In actuality they partake of both classifications, and that’s one of the things that makes them so uniquely fascinating.  I admit t hat I thought of Destiny of the Republic, Candace Millard’s superb biography of President James A. Garfield, as primarily a work of history, and yet it recently won the Edgar Award for ‘Best Fact Crime.‘ (Actually I think that book should win an award for being the best everything – it was simply terrific!) There is one other title not mentioned in the Library Journal that I (and a number of other reviewers) thought was exceptionally well done: The Fall of the House of Walworth, by Geoffrey O’Brien.

Toward the end of our discussion, I mentioned how much I’ve been enjoying my return to  the classics. It’s something I’d promised myself I’d do when I retired, and it is proving to be an extremely rewarding experience. Since being reconstituted, AAUW’s book group has discussed two classics: The Professor’s House by Willa Cather and The Painted Veil by Somerset Maugham. Lorraine inquired as to whether I could come up with any other titles other titles of that ilk for the group. So glad you asked, Lorraine! Keeping in mind the issues of length and readability, here  are some suggestions, for starters:

Washington Square and The Turn of the Screw by Henry James
The Kreutzer Sonata by Tolstoy
Une Vie ( A Life) and Bel-Ami by Guy de Maupassant
Effi Briest by Theodor Fontane
Sense and Sensibility and Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen (really just about anything by Jane Austen!)
The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
The House of Mirth and The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton (These two were suggested by Doris, and I heartily concur .)


This delightful and articulate group of book lovers seemed to agree that Midnight in Peking was a great read and an excellent choice for discussion. Since I was the one who proposed it, I was most gratified by this outcome!

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Apocalypse averted – for some but not others; and some beautiful images to soothe the soul

November 3, 2012 at 12:49 am (Art, Local interest (Baltimore-Washington), Weather)

As Governor O’Malley has observed, we here in Maryland were spared the worst of Hurricane Sandy’s destructive rampage. Not so the people of New York and New Jersey, as you no doubt know by now.

I spent six of my childhood summers in Deal, New Jersey, in a large and stately home that we rented for the season. I remember that the house was furnished with a large library that included a great many Nancy Drew mysteries; I naturally read each and every one of them.

(Stylistically, the house in Deal resembled this Tudor revival edifice featured on the borough’s website.)

Deal was a sleepy, albeit beautiful, little place. For livelier entertainment, my parents would take us to Asbury Park, where we would stroll the boardwalk, shoot skee ball, and much on peanuts purchased at the Planters store. I fear now that all of that is gone.   

Click here for some ways in which you can contribute to the recovery effort.


In her new book Glittering Images, Camille Paglia pleads eloquently for  the return to primacy of the visual arts. “We must relearn how to see,” she urges us. Paglia continues, her tone is almost imploring:

Children above all deserve rescue from the torrential stream of flickering images, which addict them to seductive distractions and make social reality, with its duties and ethical concerns, seem dull and futile. The only way to teach focus is to present the eye with opportunities for steady perception— best supplied by the contemplation of art. Looking at art requires stillness and receptivity, which realign our senses and produce a magical tranquillity.

Here are some images that may contribute toward that tranquility – or at least, toward a sense of mystery.

By Caspar David Friedrich:

View of a harbor

Winter landscape

Wanderer in a Sea of Mists

By Karl Friedrich Schinkel:

Medieval Town by Water


Medieval City on a River

By Carl Philipp Fohr:

The Knight before the Charcoal-burner’s Hut

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