‘Death is your prince, you are not his patron; when you think he is engaged elsewhere, he will batter down your door, walk in and wipe his boots on you.’ – Bring Up the Bodies, by Hilary Mantel

December 31, 2012 at 9:48 pm (Anglophilia, Book review, books, Historical fiction)

i63ETz2JuSU0  I’ve had a rather strange reaction to reading Bring Up the Bodies. But wait – let me go back further….

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I’d been eagerly anticipating this sequel to Wolf Hall, a novel that enraptured me from start to finish, and that I would place along side the works that are, at least for me, supreme achievements in the art of  historical fiction:

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The title story , 'Ideas of Heaven,' and 'Gaspara Stampa'

The title story , ‘Ideas of Heaven,’ and ‘Gaspara Stampa’

Rather to my dismay, I initially had trouble getting into Bring Up the Bodies. Perhaps the weight of expectation was too great. Right up through the first ninety pages or so, I kept picking it up and putting it down, in favor of other reading matter. (This definitely did not happen with Wolf Hall.) Then, on page 93, I encountered this paragraph:

He looks closely at Anne the queen, the day he brings back his report; she looks sleek, contented, and the benign domestic hum of their voices, as he approaches, tell him that she and Henry are in harmony. They are busy, their heads together. The king has his drawing instruments to hand: his compasses and pencils, his rules, inks and penknives. The table is covered in unscrolling plans, and in artificers’ moulds and batons.

Some random observations first: it was a pleasure to come across the word ‘artificer;’ it immediately brought me back to my first reading of James Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, the last line of which is one of my favorites in all of literature: “Old father, old artificer, stand me now and ever in good stead.” Second, as I’m transcribing this passage, I seem to detect a problem with subject verb agreement, in the first sentence….Ah well, let it go, this time around, at least. It can be a curse, this being a fuss pot grammarian! Fact is, I didn’t notice the first time I read it, I was so enthralled by the image conjured by Hilary Mantel:  Henry and Anne, huddled together in congenial conspiracy. I can almost see the king nudging her, or attempting to nudge her, in her brocade-encased rib cage.

From that point on I was hooked.

The ‘He’ in the above paragraph is Thomas Cromwell, King Henry’s Master Secretary, a wily and resourceful man who, although of lowly origin, has nonetheless achieved a position at court of enormous power and influence.  (In her list of the cast of characters at the front of the book, Mantel identifies Cromwell as ‘a blacksmith’s son.’) His report on this particular occasion concerns the displaced queen Katherine of Aragon. She is languishing under a sort of house arrest. Henry and Anne both wish fervently for her death, but they must tread carefully; though discarded by the king, she has powerful friends, both in England and abroad.

In fact, the two of them need only exercise patience;  ill and suffering, Katherine does not have much longer to live.

As for King Henry and Queen Anne, this moment of amity and common purpose proves all too ephemeral.

I’ve asked myself what are the particular features of Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies that have made them so riveting. For one thing, Hilary Mantel writes terrific dialogue. The syntax and the vocabulary seem exactly apt, for the time and place. You can almost believe that these are actual conversations, faithfully, or nearly faithfully, transcribed.

Here is  Thomas Cromwell’s report to Henry and Anne on the substance of his visit to Katherine of Aragon.  Katherine has expressed to him her wish to see Eustache Chapuys, the  ambassador to Henry’s court sent by Charles V, the Holy Roman Emperor. Chapuys is a staunch champion of  Katherine’s cause; at the same time, he bears an unyielding enmity toward Anne Boleyn, whom he refers to as the Concubine:

He makes them his reverence, and comes to the point: ‘She is not well, and I believe it would be a kindness to let her have a visit from ambassador Chapuys.’
Anne shoots out of her chair. ‘What, so he can intrigue with her more conveniently?’
‘Her doctors suggest, madam, that she will soon be in her grave, and not able to work you any displeasure.’
‘She would come out of it, flapping in her shroud, if she saw the chance to thwart me.’

You can see from this exchange how fierce Anne is in her efforts to protect herself. She needs to be. (I love it that Cromwell “makes them his reverence.”)

Hilary Mantel has chosen to write  these novels in the present tense. This is a device that I don’t always like, but she deploys it very effectively in these books. For me, it adds to the sense of immediacy, and of omnipresent danger. Speaking of which, the scene in which Anne arrives at the place of her execution is not for the faint of heart;  as I read it, my own heart was pounding.

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Hilary Mantel’s tremendous achievement in writing Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies has been recognized by her winning both the 2009 and 2012 Man Booker Prize. The Guardian begins its coverage of the 2012 award by informing us that “Hilary Mantel has made Man Booker prize history by becoming the first woman and the first British writer to win the literary award twice.” There’s a lovely video embedded in this article; I enjoyed this one on YouTube as well:

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In her Author’s Note at the back of the novel, Mantel states of the following: “This book is of course not about Anne Boleyn or about Henry VIII, but about the career of Thomas Cromwell….” One appreciates the author’s loyalty to this character, and he is an interesting man to be sure, but for me, this book was about Anne Boleyn – much more so than Wolf Hall was. As I reached the conclusion of Bring Up the Bodies, I felt an increasingly urgent need to penetrate further into the mystery of what happened to her and why.

This is why I’ve upended my reading plan and am currently immersed in:  books_readings-1

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Dear Life: Stories, by Alice Munro

December 25, 2012 at 11:51 am (Book review, books, Short stories)

dear_life  I had already read some of these stories in the New Yorker, but I was glad to encounter them again. Each story in Dear Life is a gem; each carries with it the freight of human longing and confusion. They invariably reinforce the belief that our fellow human beings are alternately, kind, cruel, arbitrary, hypocritical, and just plain strange. Mostly they are unpredictable, and in some cases, unknowable.

In “Night,” insomnia engenders dangerous thoughts on the part of a young girl – or the thoughts cause the insomnia, it’s hard to tell. The danger seems real enough, until the narrator’s father, a plainspoken man, defuses the situation with the most anodyne of comments: “‘People have those kinds of thoughts sometimes.'” That’s all it took: “…on that breaking morning he gave me just what I needed to hear and what I was even to forget about soon enough.” And most importantly: “From then on I could sleep.”

In “Amundsen,” a young woman named Vivien Hyde travels to a sanitorium, where children ill with tuberculosis are treated. She’s been hired as a teacher for the resident patients.  This is during World War Two, a period which obviously resonates for Ms. Munro, as she sets many of her stories during that time. The ‘San,’ as it’s called, is in remote countryside. It is deep winter, and Vivien, a city girl from Toronto, is stunned by what she sees:

Brittle-looking birch trees with black marks on their white bark, and some kind of small untidy evergreens rolled up like sleepy bears. The frozen lake not level but mounded along the shore, as if the waves had turned to ice in the act of falling….
But the birch bark not white after all as you got closer. Grayish yellow, grayish blue, gray.
So still, so immense an enchantment.

Once Vivien gets to the San, though, the enchantment is pretty well broken. And then she meets the man in charge of the place. He is Dr. Fox. In their first conversation, he gets her good and flustered: “He was evidently the sort of person who posed questions that were traps for you to fall into.” She’s right about him, but that’s not his worst fault. Not by a long shot, as Vivien is soon to find out.

Alice Munro writes in a style that is almost completely devoid of adornment. As these are short stories, not full length novels, she has but a limited space in which to create a world. Precision is therefore vital. As with poetry, the choice of words is crucial. I love the way the young woman in “Night”sums up the weather in her part of the world: “Our climate had no dallying, no mercies.”

One feels a maximum impact in a small space.

Munro’s stories sometimes begin as though she’d already begun telling them before you, the reader, wandered onto the scene.

At that time we were living beside a gravel pit. (“Gravel”)

Some people get everything wrong. (“Haven”)

This is a slow train anyway, and it has slowed some more for the curve. (“Train”)

That fall there had been some discussion of death. (“Dolly”)

I always feel as though I’m being signaled to insert myself into the action as swiftly as possible. No problem: I’m there.

In “Leaving Maverley,” a man’s wife dies after a long hospitalization. He had known this was coming, and yet “…the emptiness in place of her was astounding.”

She had existed and now she did not. Not at all, as if not ever. And people hurried around, as if this outrageous fact could be overcome by making sensible arrangements. He, too, obeyed the customs, signing where he was told to sign, arranging – as they said – for the remains.

What an excellent word – “remains.” Like something left to dry out in sooty layers in a cupboard.

The juxtaposition of the quotidian and the profound put me in mind of Emily Dickinson’s poem:

After great pain a formal feeling comes–
The nerves sit ceremonious like tombs;
The stiff Heart questions–was it He that bore?
And yesterday–or centuries before?

The feet, mechanical, go round
A wooden way
Of ground, or air, or ought,
Regardless grown,
A quartz contentment, like a stone.

This is the hour of lead
Remembered if outlived,
As freezing persons recollect the snow–
First chill, then stupor, then the letting go.

There is no way to cope with the vagaries of fate, except to hang on for dear life.

Alice Munro was born in 1931 in Wingham, Ontario.

Alice Munro was born in 1931 in Wingham, Ontario.

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Best Reading in 2012: Nonfiction, and my best reading experience of the year

December 23, 2012 at 11:30 pm (Art, Best of 2012, books, Crime)

naplesde      Naples Declared, A Walk Around the Bay. I’m grateful to  Benjamin Taylor for this in depth look at the colorful and at times, awful history of this fascinating, unique, and under-appreciated city. My sojourn there in 2009 remains a vivid memory.

1peking  edarkness

1carriage  Mrs-Robinsons-Disgrace1

**Midnight in Peking: How the Murder of a Young Englishwoman Haunted the Last Days of Old China, by Paul French;  *People Who Eat Darkness: The True Story of a Young Woman Who Vanished from the Streets of Tokyo – and the Evil That Swallowed Her Up; by Richard Lloyd Parry; and Murder in the First-Class Carriage: The First Victorian Railway Killing, by Kate Colquhoun. It was a good year for true crime narratives, especially historical ones. Kate Summerscale made a notable contribution to this genre in 2008 with The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher.    Summerscale’s latest is Mrs. Robinson’s Disgrace: The Private Diary of a Victorian Lady. The book does not center on a crime;  rather, it’s the story of a hapless woman’s tangled love life and marital misadventures,  all of which occur in the context of a rigid, highly judgmental society.

It occurs to me that the above description of Isabella Robinson could likewise apply to Florence Bravo, the equally hapless protagonist of James Ruddick’s book Death at the Priory: Sex, Love, and Murder in Victorian England. I first heard of Florence Bravo while watching a set of DVD’s called A Most Mysterious Murder, in which Julian Fellowes presents five of Britain’s most notorious unsolved killings from the past. At the conclusion of each segment, he states his own theory of what actually happened at the crime scene. Each episode is meticulously enacted. The production values are what we’ve come to expect from the BBC:  beautifully appointed interiors and superbly costumed actors.

I came upon A Most Mysterious Murder at  the library, quite by accident – I believe I was looking for Midsomer Murders at the time. At any rate, this is a first rate production, conceived, written and narrated by Fellowes in 2004. I’m at a loss as to why it’s not better known, especially now that Sir Julian himself is rather a hot property, thanks to the huge success of his creation, Downton Abbey.  054961882793

I found Death at the Priory while researching Florence Bravo. It’s a tight little page turner, highly recommended. (And isn’t that what you’d expect, given the book’s subtitle?)

Two books on current affairs captured my interest this year. In Too Much Magic: Wishful Thinking, Technology, and the Fate of the Nation, James Howard Kunstler bewails the state of – well, pretty much everything. Although his primary concern is the profligate use of energy, which he sees as a  finite resource, shale gas and shale oil notwithstanding, he also excoriates the financial system, land use, misplaced faith in technology, and a host of other collective missteps. At times he reminded me of a trope often seen in New Yorker cartoons.  end-is-near-cartoon8Some of Kunstler’s rants seem a bit over the top; nevertheless, the book is  both entertaining and thought provoking.

Kunstler began his career as a gadfly in 1993 with The Road To Nowhere, a blistering criticism of suburbia, strips malls,  and the idiocy of overdevelopment. I learned a great deal from that book. In Too Much Magic, Kunstler returns to this theme with a vengeance,  denouncing suburbia as “the greatest misallocation of resources in the history of the world” (author’s italics). He goes on, with almost gleeful outrage:

There’s no way to calculate exactly how much money we misspent building the far-flung housing tracts, strip malls, big box ensembles, office parks, muffler shop outparcels, giant centralized schools with gold-plated sports facilities, countless roadways of all sizes, vast water, sewer, and electric systems, and all the other accessories and furnishings of that development pattern, but anybody can tell it was an awful lot. And it came out of the richest society in the history of the world.

I think there is much truth in this observation:

As the geographical spaces rapidly filled in with ever more subdivisions and strip malls, even the scraps of undeveloped landscape were erased as casual play areas. Boys especially were prevented from the adventures of roaming and discovery that are so crucial to their development as sovereign personalities. They could not easily venture beyond the obstacles of the six-lane connector boulevards; even if they did, what was there to discover besides the parking lots and other bewildering subdivisions of identical houses?

Well, you get the idea. This spare tome is fairly bursting with similar pronouncements. You may not agree with all of Kunstler’s assertions, but they’ll stimulate your thinking nonetheless. As you can see, they stimulated mine:  Too-much-Magic-Cover-XL  (I love the phrase “sovereign personalities.”)

What Money Can’t Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets, by Michael J. Sandel. Sandel examines the extent to which various transactions  have been monetized. This book was a real eye opener for me, starting with the introduction:

There are some things money can’t buy, but these days, not many. Today, almost everything is up for sale. Here are a few examples:

• A prison cell upgrade: $ 82 per night. In Santa Ana, California, and some other cities, nonviolent offenders can pay for better accommodations— a clean, quiet jail cell, away from the cells for nonpaying prisoners. …
• The services of an Indian surrogate mother to carry a pregnancy: $ 6,250. Western couples seeking surrogates increasingly outsource the job to India, where the practice is legal and the price is less than one-third the going rate in the United States. …
• The right to shoot an endangered black rhino: $ 150,000. South Africa has begun letting ranchers sell hunters the right to kill a limited number of rhinos, to give the ranchers an incentive to raise and protect the endangered species….

Sandel also enumerates some new and unusual ways to earn money:

• Rent out space on your forehead (or elsewhere on your body) to display commercial advertising: $ 777. Air New Zealand hired thirty people to shave their heads and wear temporary tattoos with the slogan “Need a change? Head down to New Zealand…”
• Stand in line overnight on Capitol Hill to hold a place for a lobbyist who wants to attend a congressional hearing: $ 15– $ 20 per hour. The lobbyists pay line-standing companies, who hire homeless people and others to queue up….

Sandel’s book is a hugely provocative and very accessible. And like James Howard Kunstler, he makes you laugh from time to time as he expounds on the vagaries of human nature. But Sandel is less judgmental than Kunstler, in that he sets the facts before you, examines them from various angles, and lets you the reader draw your own conclusions.  whatmoneycantbuy1

This was an excellent year for books about  great artists and their families and associates.

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Velasquez and The Surrender of Breda: The Making of a Masterpiece, by  Anthony Bailey. Bailey had his work cut out for him in tracing the movements of the elusive Diego Rodríguez de Silva y Velázquez. As the jacket copy states: “Though his professional career as court painter is fairly well documented, letters and accounts about how he felt, thought, and lived are nearly nonexistent.”  ( The court, by the way, was that of King Philip IV of Spain, 1605-1665). Bailey met a similar challenge, very successfully in my view, in Vermeer: A View of Delft1278350

effie   Effie: The Passionate Lives of Effie Gray, John Ruskin and John Everett Millais, by Suzanne Fagence Cooper. The film based on the lives of these fascinating and gifted individuals is slated to open in the UK in May of next year. Among the performers featured in Effie are Dakota Fanning (in the title role), Greg Wise, Emma Thompson, Robbie Coltrane,  Derek Jacobi,and David Suchet. Emma Thompson wrote the screenplay; if it’s anything like the stellar work she did with Sense and Sensibility, it ought to be outstanding.

**The Last Pre-Raphaelite , by Fiona MacCarthy. This book produced the kind of total immersion reading experience that I treasure. MacCarthy brings an entire world to life, and what an amazing world it was, fairly bursting with prodigiously gifted – and in some cases, wildly eccentric – artists and writers.  the-last-pre-raphaelite2

*included in the New York Times list of 100 Notable  Books of 2012

**included in the Washington Post list of  50 Notable Works of Nonfiction for 2012

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Finally, there is Portrait of a Novel: Henry James and the Making of an American Masterpiece, by Michael Gorra. When I first read a review of this book, I knew I wanted to read it. I also knew that I’d get much more out of  it if I reread Portrait of a Lady first. Now, having done both, I can say with confidence that this is the right way: first, Portrait of a Lady; then, Michael Gorra’s biography of the writer and his first real masterpiece.

Henry James does not need my praise, but I do want to say that this time around, Portrait of a Lady was superb: riveting, suspenseful, filled with beautiful imagery and fascinating characters. I was completely drawn into the world so vividly created by one of America’s greatest writers.

Toward the novel’s denouement, there is a scene between Gilbert Osmond and Isabel Archer that made me so upset, I had to put the book down. I wanted  Gilbert Osmond to materialize before me at that very moment, so that I could pummel him with my fists. I was seething! It took the entire length of the novel – some 550 pages – to invigorate this situation and make these characters live for me. It was worth every page, every word. Not long after this scene, there is another so heartbreaking, it’s hard to bear. Michael Gorra simply says: “I cannot read this scene without tears.”

Excerpt from Portrait of a Lady:

The lamps were on brackets, at intervals, and if the light was imperfect it was genial. It fell upon the vague squares of rich colour and on the faded gilding of heavy frames; it made a sheen on the polished floor of the gallery. Ralph took a candlestick and moved about, pointing out the things he liked; Isabel, inclining to one picture after another, indulged in little exclamations and murmurs. She was evidently a judge; she had a natural taste; he was struck with that. She took a candlestick herself and held it slowly here and there; she lifted it high, and as she did so he found himself pausing in the middle of the place and bending his eyes much less upon the pictures than on her presence. He lost nothing, in truth, by these wandering glances, for she was better worth looking at than most works of art. She was undeniably spare, and ponderably light, and proveably tall; when people had wished to distinguish her from the other two Miss Archers they had always called her the willowy one. Her hair, which was dark even to blackness, had been an object of envy to many women; her light grey eyes, a little too firm perhaps in her graver moments, had an enchanting range of concession. They walked slowly up one side of the gallery and down the other, and then she said: ‘Well, now I know more than I did when I began!”

Excerpt from Portrait of a Novel; Michael Gorra writes about the death of Henry James’s mother:

He believed it impossible to describe “all that has gone down into the grave with her. She was our life, she was the house, she was the keystone of the arch. She held us together, and without her we are scattered reeds. She was patience, she was wisdom, she was exquisite maternity.” Yet in that loss he also felt himself possessed by a memory so powerful that it amounted to a sense of her presence, and he could not believe that death alone might bring an end to her love. Her being was immanent still. Henry James had nothing like an orthodox religious faith; no child of his father did, or could. But as William would write about the belief in an unseen world in his Varieties of Religious Experience and test the claims of psychics in a way that grew steadily less skeptical, so with the years the novelist defined his own sense of the numinous in a series of extraordinary ghost stories. The dead may exist only in the psychology of the living; that doesn’t make them any less real.

I don’t have enough superlatives at my command to praise Portrait of a Novel. It brought me back to my English major days in the 1960s, to the work of great literary critics like I.A. Richards, Northrop Frye, M.H. Abrams, Walter Jackson Bate, and F.R. Leavis. I am somewhat dismayed that Michael Gorra’s book has not made any of the “Best of 2012” lists that I’ve so far seen. Has literary criticism, even of this caliber, become so marginalized in our culture, even among the cognoscenti? I want to shout it from the rooftops: This book is a triumph!

hjamesportrait

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Christmas card

December 22, 2012 at 2:34 am (Art, Christmas, New York City)

Met tree

Click here for the concert that I was privileged to attend on Sunday the 9th, at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The Choir of the Cathedral of St. John the Divine assembled before this magnificent Christmas tree, in the Medieval Sculpture Hall. (You can toggle back to the first screen and gaze upon the tree, while listening to the music.)

For more on this music, and on Christmas in New York, click here.

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Best Reading in 2012: Contemporary Fiction and Classics

December 21, 2012 at 2:42 pm (Best of 2012, books)

First, the classics:

76553_2650391  I remain amazed by how readable the novels of Guy de Maupassant are. Bel-Ami lacked the pathos of Une Vie, mainly because the lead character is a good deal less sympathetic. Still, I enjoyed this saga of an unabashed social climber / seducer making his way ruthlessly to the top of the pecking order in late nineteenth century Paris. (Click here for a French language site devoted to the life and work of Guy de Maupassant.)

Goethe‘s Elective Affinities and The Mystery of Edwin Drood by Charles Dickens were a greater challenge. I made my way with all due slowness through both of them. I expected to be challenged by Goethe’s depiction of mores and manners in early nineteenth century Germany, but I didn’t expected Drood to be tough going as well. Nevertheless, perseverance was rewarding in both cases.

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ladyportrait2  (I’ll be writing more about Henry James and Portrait of a Lady in a later post.)

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The Dog Who Came In From the Cold  and A Conspiracy of Friends by Alexander McCall Smith. My discovery of the Corduroy Mansions series must rank as one of the most gratifying I’ve made in a long time. These novels are not really mysteries, except in the sense of probing the mystery that ever constitutes the nature of our fellow human beings. But wait – to specify “humans” is limiting, since the series features two important nonhuman characters: a resourceful canine named Freddie de la Hay and a yeti named – well, if recollection serves, he’s just called ‘Yeti.’ I’ve been listening to Simon Prebble’s narration of these books. Prebble’s dramatization (in A Conspiracy of Friends) of a conversation between a literary agent (Barbara Ragg) and the alleged yeti is priceless.  The_Dog_Who_Came_in_from_the_Cold_A_Corduroy_Mansions_Novel-70401  consipiracy

Say Her Name by Francisco Goldman is heartbreaking. I long to discuss it with someone. I’ve proposed it as a selection to several book groups, several times, but there have been no takers. I am not surprised, and I wouldn’t even suggest it now, with everyone’s heart freshly broken by what just happened in Connecticut. Still, Francisco Goldman’s grief is personal and powerful and deserves to be acknowledged.  say-her-name-cover_855014c

derbyday21   tumblr_m2lf38E2Ts1qaouh8o1_400  Of the three works of fiction cited by Jonathan Yardley as his 2012 favorites, two were on my list as well: Derby Day by D.J. Taylor and History of a Pleasure Seeker by Richard Mason. (It would not surprise me to discover that I read them both because of  this excellent critic’s reviews in the Washington Post.) In his article, Yardley adds: “It gives me no particular pleasure to report that all three of the books I’ve chosen are (a) by men and (b) by men who live in Britain.” Richard Mason’s situation is a bit more complex than is herein indicated. He was born in South Africa (in 1978); he moved with his family to Britain when he was ten years old. Having subsequently attended Eton and Oxford, Mason has gone to become a successful novelist (and philanthropist). He is currently living in New York City.

So at this point, I’m wondering: Is there anything this gifted, attractive young man can’t do?

The audiobook version of History of a Pleasure Seeker is read by Dan Stevens of Downton Abbey fame. Click here to listen to an excerpt.

Yardley’s third fiction favorite is Sweet Tooth by Ian McEwan. I’m most eager to read this.  McEwan has written  some of my favorite novels in recent years, although I did not care for Solar (2010).

My last three choices:

the-london-train-tessa-hadley-500x500     The London Train by Tessa Hadley

13093000  The Newlyweds by Nell Freudenberger. I was skeptical about this choice by one of the book clubs I frequent, but I ended by  being pleasantly surprised by this empathetic tale of a young woman from Bangladesh who comes to America – specifically, to Rochester New York, ancestral homeland of my husband! – in order to marry a man she has met online. Freudenberger’s writing  and subject matter put me in mind of Jhumpa Lahiri.

Dear Life: Stories by Alice Munro. Thank you, God, for Alice Munro! Here’s yet another stellar collection of her meticulously crafted tales.

Author Gallery

Francisco Goldman

Francisco Goldman

Alice-Munro-001

Alice Munro

Tessa Hadley

Tessa Hadley

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe  1749-1832

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe 1749-1832

Guy de Maupassant  1850-1893

Guy de Maupassant 1850-1893

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Best Reading in 2012: Crime fiction, with an acknowledgement of the pleasures of being a Usual Suspect in good standing

December 16, 2012 at 7:30 pm (Best of 2012, books, Mystery fiction)

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uncommonappeal  the-dead-witness-a-connoisseurs-collection-of-victorian-detective-stories

deadmansgrip  zita

It’s that time once more and so I’ll weigh in, along with everyone else, with my choices for the best books of the year. While the titles I’ll be naming are largely new, several older titles and classics also gave me  reading pleasure in 2012. I’m putting it all  in the mix. A more precise term for what I’m attempting here is ‘Best Reading Experiences of the year,’ rather than ‘Best Books.’

As in years past, crime fiction looms large on my list. For me, this genre remains a reliable source of memorable characters, vivid settings, and great stories. So, I’ll start there:

Undercover – Bill James

Death of a Nationalist – Rebecca Pawel

The Uncommon Appeal of Clouds – Alexander McCall Smith.  I love the Isabel Dalhousie series.  These books have everything I look for in mystery fiction and in novels in general. Fascinating characters find themselves in strange and intriguing situations, and it all happens with the precise yet dreamily evoked city of Edinburgh as the backdrop. McCall Smith pours out his love for Scotland, its artists, writers and philosophers, without ever becoming maudlin or repetitive. All this is delivered up to the reader in flawless prose spiced with a gentle wit.

The Dead Witness: A Connoisseur’s Collection of Victorian Detective Stories– Michael Sims, ed. What a juicy compendium this is! I’m making my way through it slowly, savoring each literary morsel. Some favorites so far: ‘The Diary of Ann Rodway’ by Wilkie Collins , ‘The Little Old Man of Batignolles’  by Emile Gaboriau, and ‘The Dead Witness; or, The Bush Waterhole’ by Mary Fortune, aka W.W. Sims’s inclusion of the opening chapter of A Study in Scarlet made me realize that I’d never read this work, in which Arthur Conan Doyle unleashed Sherlock Holmes on unsuspecting but soon to be voracious readers all over the world. I was surprised and delighted by this initial depiction of the soon to be Great Detective; he seems almost childlike in his enthusiasm for chemistry and other pursuits. And of course this is where you’ll find  the oft-quoted line, delivered by Holmes to an astonished Watson: “You have been in Afghanistan, I perceive.”

The Gaboriau story was yet  another wonderful surprise. I’ll definitely be seeking out other works by this author, in particular Monsieur Lecoq. In A Guide  to Classic Mystery and Detection, Michael E. Grost observes:

Émile Gaboriau’s Monsieur Lecoq (1868) is so clearly a detective novel in the modern sense that it takes one’s breath away. Here is clearly a major point of coalescence of the genre.

Editor Michael Sims favors the reader with in depth profiles of each of the authors whose works are featured in this fine collection. His brief recounting of the life of Mary Fortune (aka W.W.) is particularly poignant. Sims identifies ‘The Dead Witness’ as “the first known detective story written by a woman.” As such, it’s an appropriate choice as the title for this anthology.

Defending Jacob – William Landay

Involuntary Witness – Gianrico Carofiglio

The Terrorists – Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo. Twice in the past few weeks, when I have been subbing at the library’s Central Branch, customers have come in asking for books in the Martin Beck series and wanting to talk about them. This delights me no end. These seminal novels in the history of crime fiction seem well on their way to achieving classic status, if they’re not there already.

Cop To Corpse – Peter Lovesey. The pinnacle of perfection in the police procedural subgenre. I’ll be leading a discussion of this novel for the Usual Suspects next summer.

Before the Poison – Peter Robinson

The Pale Horse – Agatha Christie.

Paradise City – Archer Mayor. I didn’t have time to blog about it, but I do want to recommend this latest offering in Archer Mayor’s superb Joe Gunther series.

Kill My Darling – Cynthia Harrod-Eagles

The Hanging Wood – Martin Edwards

The St. Zita Society – Ruth Rendell

A Fatal Inversion – Ruth Rendell, writing as Barbara Vine. Yes, all right; this writer can do no wrong in my book. That said, The St. Zita Society, while very entertaining, is not especially profound. A Fatal Inversion, however, struck me as being very deep indeed….

Death Comes to Pemberley – P.D. James. I’m including this title largely for sentimental reasons: I’ve a long standing admiration for James, but I would not rank this novel among her best. I remain a loyal fan of the Adam Dalgliesh series, of which my favorite is A Certain Justice.

A Cold Day for Murder – Dana Stabenow

The Fear Index – Robert Harris. A gee golly wow of a thriller that nevertheless should win some kind of award for sheer inventiveness coupled with fiendish complexity. Ditto the next title:

All Cry Chaos – Leonard Rosen’s novel has some of the same challenges and virtues of The Fear Index,  but the humanity of its central figure and the personal catastrophe that befalls him make it a somewhat more accessible work.

I’d Know You Anywhere – Laura Lippman. I remember feeling somewhat dubious concerning this novel, thinking it would be similar to What the Dead Know and probably not as good. To my surprise, I liked it even more than Lippman’s prize-winning riff on the still unsolved disappearance of the Lyon sisters.

The Altered Case – Peter Turnbull

Dead Man’s Grip – Peter James

Boundary Waters – William Kent Krueger. I haven’t finished it yet, but I wanted to include it here anyway. It puzzles me why Krueger and Archer Mayor, both terrific writers of regional American crime fiction, are not better known and appreciated.

caught-by-harlan-coben1  corpselovesey

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boundary   sjowall1

I’m reading Boundary Waters for our next Usual Suspects discussion, and I’d like to take a minute to express my gratitude to this wonderful group of mystery lovers. This past Tuesday evening, we held our end of your summit, an event which I always enjoy. Pauline does a great deal of preparation for this meeting, writing up each of our discussions, comparing our selections for this year with those we made last year, and formulating questions for us to consider. Here are several of them:

Which books made for the best discussions? Why was this the case?
How much did the setting matter in the books we read? Did we read any books where the setting was as important as an actual character, and therefore vital to the story?
Is it a bonus to read and discuss books that introduce us to new information, e.g. period, location? If so, which books in 2012 met those criteria?
How important is characterization in the books you read, or was the plot more important?
What are you looking for in your ‘ideal’ mystery? Did any of our 2012 choices approach that goal?

I credit Usual Suspects with providing me with quality reading in crime fiction this year. Here’s the list down of our 2012 selections:

I’d Know You Anywhere – Laura Lippman
The Mystery of Edwin Drood – Charles Dickens
Crocodile on the Sandbank – Elizabeth Peters
A Cold Day for Murder – Dana Stabenow
The Poisoner’s Handbook – Deborah Blum
The Pale Horse – Agatha Christie (my selection)
Caught – Harlan Coben
The Terrorists – Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo
The Crossing Places – Elly Griffiths
Death of a Nationalist – Rebecca Pawel

At our end of year session, we always vote for favorite title. I was pleasantly surprised by the group’s choice of The Poisoner’s Handbook. I read this riveting account of “Murder and the Birth of Forensic Medicine in Jazz Age New York” when it came out in 2010. I’d allotted only a few hours for reviewing it before our discussion, and I was immediately sorry that I didn’t have time to reread it from scratch.  poisonersh

The second part of the meeting was given over to the recommendation of titles, one per Suspect. Here’s that list:

Call the Midwife – Jennifer Worth
Burial at Sea – Charles Finch
The Fear Index – Robert Harris
The Dead Witness: A Connoisseur’s Collection of Victorian Detective Stories –  Michael Sims, Editor
The Golden Box – Frances Crane
The Ice Princess – Camilla Lackberg
Room – Emma Donoghue
Defending Jacob – William Landay
Broken English: An Amish Country Mystery (Ohio Amish Mysteries) – P. L. Gaus
Billy Boyle – James R. Benn

So: my favorite crime fiction title for 2012? As always, that’s a tough call. I’d have to say just for sheer inventiveness, gorgeous writing, and evocation of an almost suffocating sense of dread that only mounts as the narrative progresses,  Barbara Vine’s A Fatal Inversion has the edge. I would love to discuss this book, but it’s out of print and not owned by the local library. (I read it on my Kindle.) For  the record, there are two other novels that I’d dearly love to discuss, but they present the same difficulty of access as the Barbara Vine title: The Piper on the Mountain by Ellis Peters and An Air That Kills by Andrew Taylor.

inversion2

air  piper

Author Gallery

Gianrico Carofiglio

Gianrico Carofiglio

William Landay

William Landay

Peter Turnbull

Peter Turnbull

Baroness James of Holland Park  (P.D. James)

Baroness James of Holland Park (P.D. James)

Peter Lovesey

Peter Lovesey

Archer Mayor

Archer Mayor

William Kent Krueger

William Kent Krueger

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Deepest Condolences

December 14, 2012 at 11:44 pm (Uncategorized)

I wish to express my deepest condolences for the victims of the tragedy in Connecticut, and their families. Please know that we are heartsick for all of you.

President Obama said, “‘We’ve endured too many of these tragedies in the past few years…'” One can but agree, although this one is especially horrific. It also serves as a fearful reminder: This could happen to any one of us.

I keep thinking of what Francisco Goldman wrote in Say Her Name about the loss of his young wife:

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.

As the President also said, these communities are our communities; these children belong to all Americans.  We are all mourners today.

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Christmas in New York City, 2012

December 13, 2012 at 1:45 pm (Art, Christmas, Music, New York City)

It’s been many years since I was in Manhattan at Christmas time. I was there last weekend. Wanting to be as close to the Metropolitan Museum as possible, I stayed at a small hotel on the Upper East Side. There were some delightful decorations along Madison Avenue. The windows of Ralph Lauren’s flagship store were gorgeous!

(The building seen at 00:28 through to 00:34, a French Renaissance revival edifice completed in 1898, is called the Rhinelander Mansion.)

What I was most excited to see was the Christmas tree at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Each year the Museum puts up a Christmas tree decorated with eighteenth century figures from Neapolitan Nativity scenes. It’s been many years since I’ve seen this moving and beautiful display.

(Thanks go to my husband Ron for creating the above video montages.)

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Sunday night my friend Helene and I attended a concert at the museum. Directed by Kent Tritle,  the Choir of the Cathedral of St. John the Divine presented a program of sacred music entitled O Magnum Mysterium (“O Great Mystery’). In all my years of going to the Met, I’d never been there when the museum was not completely open. Certain galleries were lit, especially those that led to the Medieval Sculpture Hall where the concert was to be held. Others were roped off and dark. We came in through the Roman Sculpture Court.

This was the set-up for the performance: metconcert . The choir entered from the right; we heard them before we saw them. They were singing a Gregorian Chant entitled Veni, veni Emanuel. They entered slowly, grouping themselves directly in front of the Christmas tree.

Here, the chant is sung by the Christendom College Choir and the Schola Gregoriana:

Neither photography nor videorecording were permitted on this occasion, so I have selected some YouTube videos of several of the pieces performed by the choir. This setting of O Magnum Mysterium  by Tomas Luis de Victoria is sung by The Sixteen:

Hans Leo Hassler‘s Verbum Caro Factus Est is sung here by Domchor Fulda:

Several of the pieces on the program were by twentieth century composers. I was especially taken by this Ave Maria by Franz Biebl, a composer with whom I was not familiar.

Franz Biebl  1906-2001

Franz Biebl 1906-2001

And I was delighted to find a video of Chanticleer singing this luminous work in the very same space where Sunday night’s concert took place:

I had heard the music of Morten Lauridsen before – specifically, at one of the Bach concerts I regularly attend with my friend Emma. I knew his O Magnum Mysterium would be gorgeous, and it was:

This performance is by the King’s College Choir,  King’s College, Cambridge. It’s accompanied by these comments from the poster:

Probably the best and most moving piece of music I have ever heard. I was lucky enough to be able to watch this on “Carols from Kings” on Christmas Eve 2009 and it left me in tears. The beauty of the harmonies and the control of Kings College Choir transcends all words and I was left in a state of shock quivering and speechless. I have never heard anything like this in all my life! I never want it to end!

The piece that I heard at the Bach Concert earlier this year is called”Dirait-on:”

Can music be too beautiful? For me, “Dirait-on” comes close…..

At the close of the concert, the choir, once again singing Gregorian chant, made its stately way out of the Medieval Sculpture Hall, to the gallery at the right.

Here is Conditor alme siderum, sung by the Schola Gregoriana  Mediolanensus of Milan, Italy:

How could something be so magical? We were transported. O Magnum Mysterium, indeed.

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“The methodology is a farce, a placebo, a pretence….” – Undercover, by Bill James

December 3, 2012 at 1:36 pm (Book review, books, Mystery fiction, The British police procedural)

237564949065146519_LRZbbUnO_c It’s an assignment that Assistant Chief Constable Desmond Iles hates and will have nothing to do with. He has his reasons. Some years back, he’d inserted Ray Street, an avid young policeman, into the heart of a ruthless gang of drug dealers. Long story short: Ray Street did not live to become an avid old policeman. (These events are recounted in Halo Parade, from 1987.)

Iles wrought a no-holds-barred vengeance on those responsible for the murder of Ray Street. But he remains angry and embittered. Nor does it soften his demeanor at all to be working with Colin Harpur, one-time lover of his wife Sarah. (James describes a police force in which merry and indiscriminate copulation is the rule rather than the exception. This, despite the fact that the practice is fraught with danger and can lead to the kind of barely restrained fury displayed  without warning by Iles.)

In Undercover, Iles and Detective Chief Superintendent Colin Harpur are seconded to another police force in order to investigate a more recent undercover operation that has resulted, once again, in an officer’s death. Scenes of the two men being briefed after the fact by a comely and very savvy Home Office agent named Maud Logan Clatworthy – Bill James has a flair for names and nicknames – alternate with scenes of Sergeant Tom Mallen inserting himself, as Tom Parry, into the drug running gang. Tom has a wife and kids; he must distance himself from them as he prepares to navigate these extremely treacherous waters.

Bill James is a versatile and highly original writer. He has a way of describing people that’s- well, I’ll let him do it. Here’s Leo, a head man in the illicit drugs operation:

It was an unscarred face which could have been genial. But his features lacked sufficient room and looked cluttered, crammed into a paltry space and competing with one another for position, like too many survivors on a lifeboat.

James can be savagely funny, or just plain savage; the black humor can be very, very dark. Dialogue is often laced with profanity, something I ordinarily dislike but don’t mind in these novels because it seems to belong  where he puts it. Literary allusions are all over the map; in Undercover, they range from The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo to The Children’s Book by A.S. Byatt. Here’s yet another; I found this one especially resonant:

Not long ago, he’d read an old Cold War espionage story The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, lately reprinted. In it, an agent is trying to get out of East Berlin and into the West on a bike, pedalling fast. And while he was pedalling fast the bike seemed a brilliant, basic escape machine. But then an East German sentry takes aim and shoots the agent. He and the cycle, of course, clatter to the ground and lie there, a spent heap. That word from the book – “clatter” – had got itself fixed in Tom’s memory. It was so right for a bike.

In this succinct summing up of the brilliance of John LeCarre’s masterpiece, we are reminded, should we need reminding, of the terrible risk being run, every minute of every day, by Tom Mallen/Parry. (One of the trickiest parts of the process is the need to assume a new identity while holding on to the old. Tom is in essence two persons inhabiting one body. Constant vigilance is required to prevent a fatal slip-up.)

Iles kicks off an excoriating exchange on the topic of undercover work with this paraphrase: “‘I have measured out my life with carrier bags.'” References to T.S. Eliot’s ‘Love Song of  J. Alfred Prufrock’ carry through the (increasingly heated) discussion between Iles, Harpur, and Maud, with the latter  commenting on the cover story that an agent doing this dangerous work must adopt, keep straight, and make convincing:

‘For an officer to kit himself out with something very innocent and run-of-the-mill,….It helps him or her look as though he or she has some purpose – some purpose other than the clandestine get-together, that is. To sort of prepare a face to meet the faces that he or she will meet. A social background.’

She terms this the essential methodology of undercover work. Iles isn’t having any of it: “‘The methodology is a  farce, a placebo, a pretence that the danger can be countered and seen off.'” Harpur goes on to enlighten Maud concerning the fate of Ray Street, and Iles’s sense of complicity in that fate. While acknowledging the traumatic nature of this experience, Maud refuses to give Iles a pass because of it. She accuses him of  “”Sentimentalizing one past event, allowing it to control the present and the future.” Her final judgment of this mindset: “‘Irrational, half-bakes, death-obsessed.'”

Now at this juncture, I expected Iles to leap out of his seat and punch Maud in the face. But he does not do that – does not, in fact, do anything for several minutes. Eventually he summons the strength to pronounce a rejoinder fairly dripping with sarcasm:

‘Grand words for his gravestone. He’s going to be killed as a spy only a few months after this wonderfully confident and positive start.’

One of the many aspects of these novels that I treasure is that as soon as you think you know how a character will react, you are proved wrong, in a way that can be disconcerting, even shocking, but for all that still believable.

Begun in 1985 with You’d Better Believe It, the Harpur and Iles series now consists of twenty-nine novels and one short story collection. The novels are tightly wound, usually clocking in at around two hundred pages (in my view, the ideal length for a procedural). Individuals in law enforcement are vividly portrayed; their counterparts in the criminal underworld, equally so.  Concerning the lives of the characters, there’s a great deal of carry over from one book to the next.  Indeed, there’s an overarching sensibility that informs the entire series, much like the ten novels of the Martin Beck series by Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo. The question invariably arises: must you the reader begin at the beginning? The answer is that it depends on your own preference. The first one I read was Take from 1990. I then went back and picked up several of the earlier titles. From 1999 on (Lovely Mover), I’ve pretty much read them all. I’ve reviewed the following in this space: Hotbed, In the Absence of Iles, Pix, Girls, The Girl with the Long Back, and Wolves of Memory. I’ve enjoyed all of them, though to my mind, In the Absence of Iles was not as entertaining as the others. On the other hand, Wolves of Memory, a finalist for the 2006 Gold Dagger Award, was exceptionally fine and as a good a place to jump into the series as any.

Finding information on Bill James is challenging and made more difficult by his use of the rather bland pseudonym. He’s written two books under his real name, James Tucker (actually Allan James Tucker). Additionally, he has utilized the pseudonyms David Craig and Judith Jones. He needs all of them, I suppose, as he’s quite prolific. (See his Wikipedia entry for the full list.) Born in Cardiff, Wales, Bill James earned his B.A. and M.A. degrees at University College, Cardiff. He went on to serve two years in the Royal Air Force. Finally, like so many of his fellow crime writers, he began his literary career as a journalist. In the St. James Guide To Crime and Mystery Writers, James says this:

    I began writing “straight” (i.e., non-crime) novels in the late 1950s. Then moved into espionage when it became modish after le Carré and Deighton. Then crime in the 1980s.

I am interested in the criminal as much as the police. My Harpur and Iles books are about the impossibility of controlling crime by strictly legitimate methods. Assistant Chief Constable Iles is suspected of murders in “a noble cause.” Harpur–the ostensible hero of the books–tries to keep Iles reasonably decent.

The main influence on my work is George V. Higgins–though I don’t know if he would be pleased to hear it. I admire the ability to mimic crook vocabulary; and the skill at making a fink sympathetic in The Friends of Eddie Coyle, possibly the greatest crime novel I’ve read.

I’ve recently revived my David Craig pseudonym for a new series of crime novels set in the modernised and modernising Cardiff dockland.

A look at James’s bibliography shows a group of novels written as David Craig dating from 1995 to 2006. This would indicate that the above remarks date from time in the mid 1990s. And it’s interesting that James is an admirer of George V. Higgins. The film Killing Them Softly, released this year and starring Brad Pitt, Scott McNairy, and James Gandolfini, is based on Higgins’s novel Cogan’s Trade. Reviewing the movie has given critics a chance to praise the work of this author. Here’s A.O. Scott of the New York Times: “Higgins, who died in 1999 and whose book “The Friends of Eddie Coyle” was adapted into a first-rate movie starring Robert Mitchum, was a master of hard-boiled, world-weary macho dialogue.’

Regarding the paucity of information, Bill James reminds me of Peter Turnbull, another excellent British writer of police procedurals who keeps an extremely low profile and for whom an image search yields very meager results:

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Bill James, the largest image I could find

Born in 1929, Mr. James still resides in his native Wales – at least, I’m led to believe that he does, from my numerous and often fruitless searches.

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The truth ultimately uncovered by Harpur and Iles concerning the  failed undercover operation is genuinely shocking – at least, it was to me. Meanwhile, the antic diversions of  other characters continue unimpeded. I venture to say that only in a Harpur and Iles novel would the reader encounter a crook known as Empathy Abidan who, when in a car with his mates on the way to administer a corrective beating to a wayward member of the firm, likes nothing better than to fire up the sound system so they can all listen to German lieder by Schumann, Webern, and on occasion, Mahler.

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