A California sojourn; in which, among other entertainments, a horse tries to eat my finger and and my sister-in-law takes me to prison for my birthday
Middle of May, 2015.
Ah, Northern California, land of plenty:
Brains, talent, ambition, money, mountains, beaches, majestic trees, spacious vistas, a turbulent and fascinating history.
Yes- a surfeit of everything. Except
Upon arrival, one expects to be gazing upon an utterly parched landscape. This was not the case, as the view from the kitchen window of my brother and sister-in-law’s house attests:
It is along the verges of the roads that one sees the tell tale signs. Oh – and we are enjoined to use the term “golden” to describe the color – not “brown.”
It was surprisingly cold in California this time: temps in the fifties and very windy. But for the most part, the sun shone down on us. After the relentless drear of the East Coast, it was a welcome change.
Donna, my sister-in-law, loves to walk, as do I. Her neighborhood is ideal for this purpose, especially as there is a delightful destination within easy walking distance: the Westwind Community Barn.
As Donna and I share a love of horses, we entered the gated pasture by a side entrance in order to feed to the animals grazing there some cut up veggies. Donna, the soul of gentleness and kindness, was delighted that they seemed to like the celery she’d brought. As for me, I was feeding one of them a carrot when he decided that my finger would also make a delightful snack as well. Fortunately, this misapprehension by my new equine acquaintance resulted in a lightly bruised digit and nothing more.
To show there was no hard feeling, I stroked his glossy neck and leaned my head against his warm body.
The sightseeing highlight was our trip to Alcatraz, aka “The Rock.” (It’s reached via ferry from the Embarcadero in San Francisco.) This fabled island prison once housed the likes of Al Capone, George “Machine Gun” Kelly, James “Whitey” Bulger, the famous Bird Man of Alcatraz, Robert Stroud, and many others of lesser fame but equal infamy.
It would have been a horribly grim place to be incarcerated, with the glittering lights of San Francisco always in view – a mere one and a half miles distant, but utterly unreachable due to the icy cold waters of the Bay. Accommodations in the prison itself were exceedingly basic. Privacy was almost nonexistent. Surroundings were profoundly ugly. Secure incarceration, not rehabilitation, was the mission of the institution. Even the most basic privileges had to be earned.
We heard the stories of various escape attempts. The most famous involved two brothers, John Anglin and Clarence Anglin, and a third man, Frank Lee Morris. Their meticulous advanced planning included dummy heads fabricated from soap, concrete powder and hair, materials obtained from the prison barber shop. Positioned strategically in the prisoners’ respective beds, these constructions gave guards the impression that the inmates were sleeping peacefully, whereas in reality they were in the process of effecting their escape.
When the prisoners could not be awakened, a guard tapped one of the heads, which promptly rolled onto the floor. (Oh, to have been a fly on the wall at that moment!) By the time the entire force on the island was mobilized for the search, the Anglin brothers and Morris were off the island. But what then became of them? That question remains unanswered. There are several theories, some of which posit their survival. But all we know for certain at this time is that they were never seen or heard from again.
Before we left “the Rock,” we visited the gift shop. Museum shops are among my favorite places to browse, and this one was particular well set up for that purpose. First, I bought a tee shirt to wear to exercise class.
Then I noticed that in another part of the store, a book signing was taking place. The book was Murders on Alcatraz, and the author was George DeVincenzi, pictured above as one of the narrators of the audio tour. I purchased the book and had an enjoyable chat with Mr. DeVincenzi. As I was walking away with my newly signed volume, he called after me: “I was involved in the first two murders!”
When I had returned home, I googled Mr. DeVincenzi. I was especially curious as to how old he was. By my calculation, he is now 87 or 88! All I can say is, you’d never know it.
Back home all was quiet and peaceful. Time spent with Donna and Richard is always an enriching experience.
One of the many pleasures of being in this beautiful home was provided by the dainty visitors to the hummingbird feeder affixed to the kitchen window:
Thursday May 14 was my birthday. On that day, nature staged a rare display.
First, the clouds gathered:
Then the sky turned an ominous and uniform dark gray:
And then, with the maximum amount of drama, the heavens opened up:
When had they last experiences a downpour like that? Richard and Donna agreed that it was probably back in February.
It was a spring day. We passed Geelong and were soon flying along between paddocks yellow with capeweed, their fence lines marked by the occasional windbreak of dark cypresses. Across the huge sky sailed flat-bottomed clouds of brilliant white. My companion and I had spent years of our childhoods in this region. We were familiar with its melancholy beauty, the grand, smooth sweeps of its terrain. Rolling west along the two-lane highway, we opened the windows and let the air stream through.
(Helen Garner’s companion on this grim journey is a teenager named Louise, looking for a useful way to employ her time during her “gap year.”)
At the end of the gruelling day the jury looked older, weary and sad. The men’s brows were furrowed, the women were stowing sodden handkerchiefs. Out in the courtyard we passed Bev Gambino. She gave us a small, shaky smile. Her face was thin, her eyes hollow behind the pretty spectacles. A puff of wind would have carried her away. Louise and I were beyond speech. We parted in Lonsdale Street. On the long escalator down to Flagstaff station I could not block out of my mind those small bodies, the tender reverse-midwifery of the diver. The only way I could bear it was to picture the boys as water creatures: three silvery, naked little sprites, muscular as fish, who slithered through a crack in the car’s rear window and, with a flip of their sinuous feet, sped away together into their new element.
The stunning image summoned forth here will, I think, stick with me for the rest of my life. What a mind Helen Garner possesses! What an amazingly gifted writer. And I had never before heard of her.
Garner says that when she first saw the image of the submerged car in which the Farquharson boys had been trapped, ‘‘I suppose it struck me in the way it struck everyone who saw it, with a terrible gong of horror.’’ This House of Grief in part depicts Garner’s personal struggle to make some kind of sense out of this tragedy. In her attitude toward the chief players in the drama – the father who stands accused, the ravaged mother, and others – she is alternately tough minded and tender. She feels the horrible loss almost as if it were her own. It is indeed very deep water, and the reader must perforce go with her on this harrowing journey.
Obviously this book is not for everyone. In fact, those to whom I’ve described its matter tend to recoil in dismay, exclaiming all the while: “How could you read about something so awful?” This goes back to the questions we dealt with in the True Crime class:
- What is true crime, and what accounts for its appeal at this particular point in time?
- Why is this type of murder narrative so fascinating? (It can be by turns riveting and tedious.)
- “Why can’t I stop reading this horrifying story?”
So why couldn’t I stop reading this horrifying story?
1. The author’s voice is extraordinarily compelling.
2. I came to care deeply about the people involved.
3. I was riveted/appalled by the story.
4. I don’t know.
I’ve read quite a few true crime narratives, and lately their number has multiplied as a result of teaching the true crime class. This House of Grief is not only one of the most powerful of that lot – it is one of the most powerful, wrenching, and eloquent stories I’ve ever read in any genre. At the very least, it belongs up there in the pantheon with In Cold Blood, Blood and Money, Fatal Vision, and The Stranger Beside Me.
That is not to say I didn’t enjoy it – I did. For me, Donna Leon almost never disappoints, and she didn’t this time. The saga of Flavia Petrelli, an opera singer bedeviled by an obsessed fan, was enriched as usual by the incomparable Venetian setting. Added to that, the opera in question is none other than Puccini’s Tosca.
I found myself almost pathetically eager to be once more in the company of the cultured Commissario. At the Questura, he deals skillfully with difficult, often dense superiors and prickly administrative assistants – yes, that would chiefly be the mercurial Signorina Elettra. At home, he is buoyed by the companionship provided by Paola, his spirited and fiercely intellectual wife, and his children Chiara and Raffi. (And these four really are present in one another’s lives. Not only are their dinners often festive affairs, but they also frequently lunch together – at home, enjoying delicious feasts prepared by Paola.)
In his book Opera as Drama (1956, revised 1988), Joseph Kerman famously referred to Tosca as “a shabby little shocker.” In a recent essay collection, Leon herself calls it “a vulgar potboiler I wouldn’t today cross the street to hear.” My response to all of this vilification is…YES!! Tosca is everything an opera should be: turbulent, melodramatic, filled with over the top exploding passions and glorious music, and – well, quintessentially operatic.
As usual, the city of Venice is itself a character in the drama. There are the inevitable laments over its deterioration and despoiling, particularly by the hoards of tourists who are bent on destroying what they supposedly love. And yet…As Brunetti and Paola are walking homeward on a moonlit night, they experience this:
There was no wind, so the moon was reflected as though on a plate of dark glass. No boats came for some minutes, and Brunetti remained silent, as if afraid that the sound of his voice would shatter the surface of the water and thus destroy the moon. The footsteps on the bridge stopped, and for a long time there was silence. A Number One appeared down at Vallaresso and crossed over to La Salute, breaking the spell and then the reflection. When Brunetti turned towards San Vidal, he saw motionless people on the steps below him, all transfixed by the now-shimmering moon and the silence and the facades on either side of the canal. He looked to his right and saw that the railing was lined with more motionless people, faces raised for the moon’s benediction.
Paola is moved to exclaim: “We live in Paradise, don’t we?”
I’ve featured this segment in previous posts, but it’s always worth seeing and hearing again:
I didn’t know where to begin. But an article in the Guardian helped. It listed five key works by this author. They are as follows:
1. From Doon with Death (1964). Ruth Rendell’s first published novel. In it, she introduces her policeman protagonist Reginald Wexford.
2. A Judgement in Stone (1977). A standalone containing one of the best known opening sentences in modern crime fiction.
3. A Dark-Adapted Eye (1986). Winner of the 1987 Edgar Award for best mystery, this is the first work that Rendell published using the pseudonym (alternate identity?) of Barbara Vine. A book I’ve always meant to read and still haven’t.
4. Adam and Eve and Pinch Me (2001). This choice, another standalone, threw me. I know I read it, but I remember nothing about it. Time to revisit, I suppose.
5. Not in the Flesh (2007). A later Wexford, and one of the best in the series, in my view.
I think by “five key works,” authors Alison Flood and Vanessa Thorpe mean to suggest good entry points into Ruth Rendell’s large and varied body of work. Looking at this list, the one choice they made that I totally agree with is A Judgement in Stone. I’ve led book discussions on it, and I’ve read it three times. And every single time I’m filled with dread and awe, despite already knowing what the shattering climax will be. The build-up of tension over the course of the narrative is simply incredible.
For me, the Wexford novels, good from the very beginning, became increasingly compelling from the mid-1980s to the present. From An Unkindness of Ravens (1985) to No Man’s Nightingale (2013), I’ve loved them all. Somehow, when I’m reading them, my critical faculties are suspended. I’m held in the thrall by the writing, the story, the characters, Wexford and his utterly ordinary yet fascinating family life, his second in command Mike Burden, whose starchy, conservative exterior serves to protect the vulnerable man within.
I thought The Vault was an especially cunning work. It’s a sequel to A Sight for Sore Eyes, in which Rendell gave us one of the most uniquely frightening characters I’ve ever encountered in fiction: Teddy Brex. The Vault is a Wexford novel; A Sight for Sore Eyes was a standalone. In The Vault, Rendell brings in a retired Wexford to help investigate an extremely strange discovery: the remains of four bodies found in the sealed off basement of a house. If you’ve read A Sight for Eyes, you the reader have some recollection of who these people are. Wexford and company lack that advantage.
Houses are often fateful places in Rendell’s fiction; so it is with this one, named Orcadia Cottage.
The Girl Next Door, a standalone that came out last year, stands as a kind of summation of Rendell’s art. The vagaries and the irony of the human condition find rich embodiment in the cast of characters that people this narrative. I thought it was outstanding.
I’ll save my final words of praise for novel written in 1987 but not read by me until 2012: A Fatal Inversion. This is probably the most riveting and haunting work of psychological suspense that I’ve ever read. Read my review to find out why.
Ruth Rendell was an outstanding & hugely popular figure in British literature & served in the House of Lords with great loyalty & passion.
Oh – and the famous first line of A Judgement in Stone?
Eunice Parchman killed the Coverdale family because she could not read or write.