Aftermath of Snowzilla – random thoughts and observations

January 31, 2016 at 2:49 pm (books, Local interest (Baltimore-Washington), True crime)

A beautiful sight greeted me Wednesday morning: two rolled-up packages of newspaper lay in the (barely navigable) driveway. When I brought them in, I discovered that I had received not only that day’s paper, but all those that I’d missed due to the snow storm. Five issues awaited my joyful perusal!

Thank you so much, Washington Post.


Meanwhile, I’ve made progress on my upcoming presentations. This has consisted mainly of coming up with a script for Book Bash and gathering books for the presentation (entitled “Time for Crime: True and Imagined”), and selecting the stories I want to emphasize for my July discussion of Capital Crimes: London Stories.

I’ve already mentioned the crowd that surged through the Central Branch right before the blizzard. I was gratified that so many people were searching for books as well as DVDs. How nice, thought I, they’ll be taking home some gentle and soothing tomes, like Alexander McCall Smith’s No.1 Ladies Detective series or Jan Karon’s Mitford novels – and cookbooks, too, judging by the stripped shelves of local supermarkets – to help them get through the coming storm. This assumption is probably accurate, generally speaking. But on Wednesday, when I began searching in earnest for books I need for Book Bash, there were no available copies at any of the six library branches of the following:

613n-qSYdrL._SX342_BO1,204,203,200_ JamesEllroy_TheBlackDahlia

41f9c980eb43c7ef_stranger Psycho-by-Robert-Bloch-6

All needed to be reserved and are only now coming in. Clearly, escapism means different things to different people.

But Psycho…really?

And finally, something from the Department of Transitory Phenomena:

I am sitting at my computer desk yesterday morning at about a quarter to nine, when I become aware of the sunlight entering through the window on my left and falling across the desk’s cluttered surface and the adjoining bookcase.


Problem: the room is on the west side of the house. Remember: it is 8:45 AM.

I get up and go to the window, where I observe the sun glinting madly of  the window of the house opposite. It is acting as a powerful reflector – but only for a short time.


The strange thing is, this room – formerly my son’s bedroom, as you might have guessed from the wall art – has been my de facto “office” for some ten years now, and I don’t recall ever noting this phenomenon.





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Snowzilla, Day Four… YES!!!

January 26, 2016 at 7:22 pm (Local interest (Baltimore-Washington))

Plow arrived at 7:30 this AM. Finished plowing the cul-de-sac at around nine, leaving the inevitable wall of snow in front of each driveway. A contingent of neighbors cleared their own, and then did ours, for which God bless them! They completed their labors around 11:30, sealing the deal with a snowball melee.

We then walked to our mailbox – a cluster  box about half a block away and across  the street – only to find it empty. Well, they’ve got their work cut out for them, to be sure. We’ll’ try again round four.

Meanwhile, here’s how it looks now:



That’s our (partially obscured) house on the left



Okay…that’s me, heading back into the house and thereby signaling farewell to Snowzilla.

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Snowzilla, Day Three: it’s getting old…

January 26, 2016 at 2:29 am (Book clubs, books, Local interest (Baltimore-Washington), Mystery fiction, True crime)

Initially, I was going to have this post consist of a single picture:


This was the sight that greeted us this morning, just outside our kitchen window, at the back of the house.

But this is what it still looked like out front:


Here in Maryland, they’ve been begging us to stay off the roads. At the moment, I can’t see any roads, no problem with that.

I couldn’t help recalling with a sort of bitter nostalgia the days of newspaper delivery, mail delivery, trips to the library to get yet another of my gazillion reserves…

I won’t deny it: I was getting cranky.

But in the afternoon, a crew making the rounds gained access to our front door and asked if we wanted to be dug out. Well, I guess so! And so they did the job.

Now, it looks like this:




It’s better, but until they plow out the cul-de-sac, we’re still stuck.

I have been trying to employ my time in useful pursuits. I have two presentations to prepare for, one a week from this Saturday and the other, in July.

The first is a presentation for the many book lovers in my AAUW chapter. It is called Book Bash. I’ve been involved in this event for several years now. Sometimes others collaborate with me, but this year I’m going solo. I’m basing my presentation on last year’s True Crime class and calling it “Time for Crime: True and Imagined.” Here’s the handout I prepared and sent out in advance:

Time for Crime: True and Imagined

Last year, I was offered the opportunity to teach a class on the literature of true crime at the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute at Johns Hopkins. I chose as my principal source/textbook True Crime: An American Anthology, edited by Harold Schechter and published by Library of America in 2008. Several copies are available at the library, call no. 364.1523T

Here are some especially interesting excerpts from this anthology. Where these excerpts are available online, I’ve provided the URL; additional URL’s contain related material of interest:

  1. “The Recent Tragedy” by James Gordon Bennett p. 63
  2. “Crime News from California: The Criminal Market Is Active” by Ambrose Bierce pp. 80-81

  1. “A Memorable Murder” by Celia Thaxter p. 131

  1. Murder Ballads: “The Murder at Fall River” p. 205; “The Murder of Grace Brown” p. 203

  1. The Eternal Blonde” by Damon Runyon pp. 236-246
  2. Excerpt from The Gangs of New York by Herbert Asbury p.303

(Lots of additional material concerning true crime is included in the above blog post.)

7. “The Trial of Ruby McCollum” by Zora Neale Hurston  p. 512

8.  “The Black Dahlia” by  Jack Webb p. 524

9. My Mother’s Killer” by James Ellroy p. 707

10. “Nightmare on Elm Drive” by Dominick Dunne p. 737

Related titles:

The Beautiful Cigar Girl by Daniel Stashower
“The Murder of Marie Roget” by Edgar Allan Poe

An American Tragedy by Theodore Dreiser
A Place in the Sun: film starring Elizabeth Taylor and Montgomery Clift
An American Tragedy: opera composed by Tobias Picker

Double Indemnity by James M. Cain
Double Indemnity: film starring Barbara Stanwyck, Fred MacMurray, and Edward G. Robinson

My Dark Places by James Ellroy

Justice: Crimes, Trials, and Punishments by Dominick Dunne


British Library Crime Classics

Resorting To Murder: Holiday Mysteries, edited by Martin Edwards
Capital Crimes: London Mysteries, edited by Martin Edwards
Antidote to Venom by Freeman Wills Crofts
The Sussex Downs Murders by John Bude
Mystery in White: A Christmas Crime Story by J. Jefferson Farjeon

The irreplaceable excellence of Ruth Rendell

Psychological novels:

A Judgement in Stone
A Fatal Inversion (as Barbara Vine)

The Wexford novels:

And finally…

The absolute wonderfulness of Sue Grafton, as embodied in



I’ve included many mysteries and quite a few works of true crime in my yearly round-up of favorites:

The second presentation is actually a book discussion I’m planning to hold with the Usual Suspects. I’ve chosen to discuss  Capital Crimes: London Stories, edited by Martin Edwards. (It’s one of the British Library Crime Classics mentioned above.) I’m trying to decide which stories to single out, but they’re all so good, it’s proving to be a real challenge. (My friend and fellow Suspect Pauline is assisting me with this task. Thanks, Pauline.)

Oh – and one other useful pursuit for today: I made a batch of famously mysterious Lacy Parmesan Wafers.


I often bring these little guys to meetings and get-togethers, and whenever I do, folks tend to wax rhapsodic. What’s in them? they demand to know. Well, let’s see, there’s shredded Parmesan cheese… That’s it – just that one ingredient. Make little mounds of it – about a tablespoon in volume – and space them out regularly on a cookie sheet. (I put nonstick aluminum foil on the sheet.) They go into a 400 degree oven for about eight minutes. Take them out, give them several seconds to cool, then transfer them to a paper towel to await the arrival more Lacy Wafers. Keep doing batches until you run out of Parmesan cheese.

That’s all there is to it. And it makes a great snack for diabetics like Yours Truly. Cheese is blessedly low in carbohydrates, often containing only trace amounts or none at all.

So, this single-ingredient thing is my idea of hassle free cooking. It’s the only kind of cooking that I have the patience  for, at present.





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Snowzilla: the day after

January 25, 2016 at 12:26 am (Animals, Art, books, Dogs, Horses, Local interest (Baltimore-Washington))

It was certainly comforting to see the sun.



I love the way the bare limbs of the trees in the distance seem to have become entangled in the light.



I went outside, took a few tentative whacks at the situation and, utterly overwhelmed, withdrew. Here’s how it looked in the driveway, after my (feeble) efforts:


That snow bank is about thirty inches high. I could barely shift it.

Someone is supposed to come tomorrow and clear the driveway for us. (I’ll pay you anything!!) Meanwhile, it’s back inside, where after all, things are pretty good: an easygoing, affectionate husband, an occasionally affectionate if mostly somnolent cat, my beloved desktop Sony Vaio, music flowing endlessly from various sources – most recently the Echo, a delightful Christmas gift from my son and daughter-in-law  51XeN2UYoyL._SL1000_ – and my books, always my books, about which more, shortly.

While confined indoors, I’ve gotten some things done. I’ve discovered some wonderful new art:


Luxury Boat by Drago Jurak

Luxury Boat by Drago Jurak


Harvest, by Mirko Virius


Primeval Forest, by Ivan Rabuzin

The above three and more can be found at The Croatian Museum of Naive Art.

Insightof HomeEdwardHenry

In Sight of Home, by Edward Henry


Walkers with the Dawn, by Benny Andrews.

From the Johnson collection website: “The two colorfully clad figures—leaning backwards and physically open to possibility—appear to have abandoned themselves to a joyful moment.”

Untitled, Carl Brenner

Untitled, Carl Brenner

The above three and more can be found at the Johnson Collection site.

Listened to some gorgeous music:


Visited the animal kingdom online, with gratifying (and occasionally entertaining) results:


Akhal-teke, of Turkmenistan

Akhal-teke, of Turkmenistan


Bergamasco Shepherd


Spanish waterdogs

And last, but of course not least, I read:

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BK_THEROUX_46204897 0817307222_b




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Of empty supermarket shelves, crowded libraries – and snowstorms

January 23, 2016 at 8:15 pm (books, Food, Library, Local interest (Baltimore-Washington))

Wednesday and Thursday

First, came the run on staples. Milk and toilet paper racing out the door – not unexpected. Then we found out that our ‘local’ had run out of ground beef. Later we heard that another area supermarket had run out of onions. Onions? Really?? Urban legend or fact, it provided some much needed amusement. Perhaps someone in the area is making a gigantic batch of French onion soup. So, may we come over and partake thereof, whoever and wherever you are? That’s assuming we  ever get dug out of here….


Th humble onion, raised to an exalted position due to a snow emergency. And doesn’t it look fetching in this photo? It was obviously ready for its close-up. No wonder there was a run on them! (Click to enlarge – it really is a most photogenic veg.)


It so happened that I was scheduled to work at the Central Branch Library from ten until two. Ordinary open hours on Friday are ten to six, but the decision was made to close at two because of the fast  approaching storm.

From the time the doors opened, the facility was filled with people. Children were present in happy abundance. DVD’s were grabbed by the fistful; by noon, the shelves were looking all but decimated.

But the happiest development concerned the large number of adults who had come in for books. Yes, those old fashioned but durable hard copies, bringers of joy, comfort, and solace. I got a reader’s advisory question right off the bat – and I must admit, it threw me initially.

The customer was quite definite: happy books, no bad stuff – and no loves stories either! That does knock out rather a lot of fiction, I thought to myself. I wonder if she’d like a book about tomatoes? (What can I say – I was in vegetable mode, with onions still on my mind.) tomatoes

Said customer then mentioned that she had enjoyed The Paying Guest by Sarah Waters. Did you really? I rejoined. I actually liked the book before that one better: The Little Stranger. Oh, really? said she. Maybe I’ll read that next. As luck would have it, we found a copy. I also gave  her a mystery by Peter Lovesey and Alexander McCall Smith’s Corduroy Mansions Trilogy, apologizing for the presence of love stories therein but assuring her that they did not monopolize the narrative. And anyway, Freddie de la Hay is a fabulous character and has a rather harrowing adventure in the second volume, The Dog Who Came In from the Cold.

Freddie de la Hay, dauntless and resourceful 'Pimlico Terrier'

Freddie de la Hay, dauntless and resourceful ‘Pimlico Terrier’

At any rate, the customer seemed satisfied, and that’s what we aim for. Lots more folks came by the Fiction/Audiovisual desk, looking for books – novels mostly – and films. At one point, a man marched up to me and without any preliminary, asked who wrote the Dortmunder books. Donald Westlake, answered I, without hesitation and without recourse to Stop!YoureKillingMe. Truly, I do love it when I can do that.

The late, much missed Donald Westlake 1933-2008

The late, much missed Donald Westlake 1933-2008

It was great to see lines at checkout – just like the old days. It transpired later that the “door count” for yesterday was slightly over one thousand. No wonder it felt as though the place were full to bursting!

Ah,well, but all good things must come to end. I went home, to husband and cat, to await the inevitable. It started snowing in earnest at around four o’clock. And this morning, we woke to world that was aggressively, ferociously white – and  getting whiter by the minute:








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‘It was as if her loneliness had compelled her to listen; even words of evil were better than no words at all.’ Beast in View by Margaret Millar

January 17, 2016 at 4:25 pm (Book clubs, books, Mystery fiction)

51UmEJXh7eL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_  The new year got off to a strong start for the Usual Suspects with a discussion of Margaret Millar’s award-winning classic of psychological suspense, Beast in View.

Born in Kitchener, Ontario, and educated at the University of Toronto, where she majored in classics. Margaret Millar lived most of her adult life in Santa Barbara California; she was married to Kenneth Millar, better known by his pseudonym Ross MacDonald. The assumption is often made that her work was overshadowed by that of her husband, author of the renowned Lew Archer detective series. But Margaret Millar’s novels have long been esteemed in their own right by the cognoscenti, and recently her star has risen anew due to  the inclusion of Beast in View in a recently published landmark anthology. This worthy endeavor by Library of America has been curated by Sarah Weinman, a distinguished scholar of crime fiction.

Women crime writersSarah Weinman has a particular interest in bringing to  the forefront women writers of mid-twentieth America who specialized in noir fiction and psychological suspense – or what is now coming to be known as ‘domestic suspense.’ Women Crime Writers: Eight Suspense Novels of the 1940s and 50s goes a long way toward advancing that cause. (Sarah Weinman has also edited the short story collection Troubled Daughters, Twisted Wives.  51vmdRcqulL._SX320_BO1,204,203,200_ )

A further word about Margaret Millar: her first truly memorable encounter with her future husband occurred in the University of Toronto Library, where she was in the process of reading Thucydides in the original Greek!

Beast in View opens thus:

The voice was quiet, smiling. “Is that Miss Clarvoe?”


“You know who this is?”


“A friend.”

“I have a great many friends,” Miss Clarvoe lied.

In the mirror above the telephone stand she saw her mouth repeating the lie, enjoying it, and she saw her head nod in quick affirmation— this lie is true, yes, this is a very true lie. Only her eyes refused to be convinced. Embarrassed, they blinked and glanced away.

“We haven’t seen each other for a long time,” the girl’s voice said. “But I’ve kept track of you, this way and that. I have a crystal ball.”

“I— beg your pardon?”

“A crystal ball that you look into the future with. I’ve got one. All my old friends pop up in it once in a while. Tonight it was you.”

“Me.” Helen Clarvoe turned back to the mirror. It was round, like a crystal ball, and her face popped up in it, an old friend, familiar but unloved; the mouth thin and tight as if there was nothing but a ridge of bone under the skin, the light brown hair clipped short like a man’s, revealing ears that always had a tinge of mauve as if they were forever cold, the lashes and brows so pale that the eyes themselves looked naked.

In this way, we make the acquaintance of Helen Clarvoe, a lonely, vulnerable young woman. She is not completely alone in the world: her mother Verna and brother Douglas live not far away. But she has as little to do with them as possible. In fact, she generally has very little to do with the world outside her hotel room. That is, until this strange phone call comes to disrupt her carefully ordered existence.

In her shrewd commentary on this novel, Laura Lippman points out that the reader should keep in mind the exact location of Helen Clarvoe’s  telephone – an ‘instrument’ of the 1950s – beneath a mirror:

Page one, line one: a telephone rings. It is a stout, old-fashioned rotary phone. It has no Caller ID, no smartphone functions. You couldn’t use it as a GPS or even to Google “Margaret Millar Beast In View.” Helen Clarvoe, alone in her hotel residence, wouldn’t be able to carry it across the room. She has to stand where she is, staring into a mirror.

Among other issues, Beast in View deals with the phenomenon of what used to be called a split personality, these days more commonly referred to by mental health professionals as Dissociative Identity Disorder or Multiple Personality Disorder. Frank, our discussion leader, is a practicing psychotherapist who has treated individuals afflicted with this condition. He described the way in which D.I.D. manifests itself: the change in the individual’s body language, the unexplained memory gaps, and other symptoms. When asked what the goal was in treated such a person, he said the therapist’s efforts went toward uniting the personalities into a single fully functional entity. D.I.D. is sometimes confused with schizophrenia; in fact, they are  two very different illnesses. For further elucidation on this topic, see coverage provided by Web MD. (This diagnosis has not been without controversy. See “Multiple Personality–Mental Disorder, Myth, or Metaphor?” by Dr. Allen J. Francis.  Frank reminded us that the field of mental health has been as subject to fads as other fields of inquiry. Just look at the dust-up that invariably occurs every time The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders is revised and reissued.)

The 1950s were a time of intense  interest in this phenomenon. Beast in View came out in 1956. Frank mentioned The Bird’s Nest by Shirley Jackson, which came out in 1954.  Birdsnest This novel had brought the subject of “split personality” to the forefront of public discourse. In 1957, two psychiatrists wrote about a case they had treated. Using a made-up name for their patient, they called their book The Three Faces of Eve. The film starring Joanne Woodward came out later the same year. I remember it well. Everyone I knew saw that movie; people talked about it incessantly. For Joanne Woodward, who up until then had been a relatively unknown bit player, it was the start of a brilliant career. She won the Academy Award for Best Actress for her riveting portrayal of Eve White/Eve Black/Jane.

In Beast in View, Millar also presents a homosexual character in an evenhanded, compassionate light. I was surprised by this enlightened portrayal, given the time period in which the novel’s action takes place. As I was reading, I felt increasingly certain that this character held the key to the novel’s unfolding events. Certainly he plays an important role. But that role is almost beside the point. I’m now thinking that his presence, which may have been disconcerting to some contemporary readers, was a deliberate distraction. It diverts attention from Helen Clarvoe herself. But the spotlight returns to her at the novel’s conclusion, in what proves to be a shattering revelation.

The question then became, who saw that shocker of an ending coming? Some did; some definitely didn’t. (I was in the latter camp. As I was approaching the story’s conclusion, I was exclaiming to myself, “What? What?”)

There are elements in Beast in View that date the narrative; among them, a modeling school/business that also served as a sort of charm school. But there is also some precise and powerful writing, especially as regards Helen Clarvoe. (Note: Paul Blackshear is a friend of the family who tries to help Helen and her mother Verna.)

The forehead was smooth, the mouth prim and self-contained, the skin paper-white, as if there was no blood left to bleed. Miss Clarvoe’s bleeding had been done, over the years, in silence, internally.

He hung up quickly. He didn’t like the sound of Miss Clarvoe’s gratitude spilling out of the telephone, harsh and discordant, like dimes spilling out of a slot machine. The jackpot of Miss Clarvoe’s emotions— thank you very much. What a graceless woman she was, Blackshear thought, hoarding herself like a miser, spending only what she had to, to keep alive.

This hotel clerk is a very minor  character; nevertheless, trouble was taken to bring him fully to life:

The desk clerk, whose name-plate identified him as G. O. Horner, was a thin, elderly man with protuberant eyes that gave him an expression of intense interest and curiosity. The expression was false. After thirty years in the business, people meant no more to him than individual bees do to a beekeeper. Their differences were lost in a welter of statistics, eradicated by sheer weight of numbers. They came and went; ate, drank, were happy, sad, thin, fat; stole towels and left behind toothbrushes, books, girdles, jewelry; burned holes in the furniture, slipped in bathtubs, jumped out of windows. They were all alike, swarming around the hive, and Mr. Horner wore a protective net of indifference over his head and shoulders.

The only thing that mattered was the prompt payment of bills.

In addition to his work as a physician in the mental health field, Frank is also an aspiring writer. We had an interesting discussion about how point of view functions in novels. In my opinion, the mishandling of this crucial element in fiction writing occurs all too frequently in contemporary works of “literary” fiction (as does inattention to structure).

Frank explained that frequent switches in point of view, especially in the midst of scene containing dialog, is disconcerting to the reader. One wishes to be inside the mind of a single character, and to view the action according to his or her mindset. (I hope I’ve got that right.)

I have the feeling that I’ve omitted quite a bit here. This was a wide ranging and extremely stimulating discussion. Addition and corrections are welcome.

Beast in View was adapted by Alfred Hitchcock for an episode on his TV series Alfred Hitchcock Presents. The story is told very differently from the way Margaret Millar tells it – rather confusing, I thought. But I clapped my hands in delight when I first laid eyes on the actor who plays Paul Blackshear. It was Kevin McCarthy, who played the role of Dr. Miles Bennell in the original (1956) version of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, one of my all time favorite films.



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What I’m reading now; or, one thing leads to another

January 12, 2016 at 1:28 pm (books, Mystery fiction, True crime)

Several people have recently asked me what I’m currently reading. This is embarrassing. The fact is, I’m at various points in a number of books – a  rather large number…

I not only read books but I read about books, compulsively. That second category consists primarily of reviews, although there are other pitfalls for me. The New York Times Book Review has a weekly feature called “By the Book,” in which they ask an author about their preferences in reading material. A recent segment featured Tessa Hadley. She dove into the subject with zest, announcing right off the bat that she was at the moment reading The Wings of the Dove for her Henry James reading group. Imagine: a book club dedicated solely to the works of The Master! Oh, one wants to join up at once – at least, This One does. Classics being readily available for download at rock bottom prices – $1.99, $0.99, even $0.00! – I added a copy of The Wings of the Dove to my Kindle library. When, if ever, will it actually be read? I haven’t the slightest. But I love Henry James – truly I do. And this is a novel I’ve wanted to read for ages.

Tessa Hadley’s latest novel,  simply entitled The Past, has been getting rave reviews. It dwells tantalizingly close to my bedside reading station, on my night table. Or rather, on one of my three night tables. These consist of an actual night table, an adjacent small square table, and an indispensable item of furniture called a clutter column. All are piled high with books, some from the library, others that I own.

Here’s what the clutter column looks like when first assembled: fullfrtemty . Here’s mine, in its present incarnation:IMG_1730 . To the right is the small square table, which is currently somewhat overburdened, as you can see. (Click twice on this picture and you can clearly make out individual titles.)

Further along against the same wall, there’s more: IMG_1733

Another quick word about Tessa Hadley before I move on. I’ve read two other novels by her: The London Train and Clever Girl. Both are excellent.

Tessa Hadley

Tessa Hadley

In recent years I’ve become increasingly interested in the life and works of Thomas De Quincey. De Quincey is one of those mercurial non-mainstream geniuses that Britain produces from time to time. The first piece I read by him was the essay, “On the Knocking at the Gate in MacBeth.” I’d  recently seen  the play at the Folger and so wanted to know what De Quincey had to say about it. In this essay, he takes a very specific scene from the play and analyzes it in such a way as to illuminate and bring to the forefront its full horror. By implication, the horror of all acts of murder are therein embodied. It is an immensely insightful, disturbing, and brilliant discourse.

Next, I read the famous/notorious “Murder Considered As One of the Fine Arts,” as bravura a work of satire and black humor as you’ll ever encounter. It amazes me that it was published in 1827 (in Blackwood’s Magazine). An oft-quoted sentence therefrom:

Pleasant it is, no doubt, to drink tea with your sweetheart, but most disagreeable to find her bubbling in the tea-urn.

No sentimentalist he, by Jove!

And now we have Thomas De Quincey, accompanied by his devoted and dauntless daughter Emily, appearing as the lead character in a series of mysteries written by David Morrell. I very much enjoyed the first entry, Murder As a Fine Art, and am currently reading the second, Inspector of the Dead. (I’ll have more to say about the latter title in a subsequent post.)

24642332  Finally, along comes Murder by Candlelight by Michael Knox Beran. This book tells the story of a number of homicides committed in England in the early 1800s. Interwoven with these admittedly grim tales is commentary by some of the great literary lights of the period; namely, Thomas Carlyle and Thomas De Quincey:

The small, delicate man, with his courteous manners and soft, enchanting voice, was a curious bearer of the dark insights which were his specialty in trade; he seemed, at first sight, to be angelically innocent. He was “hardly above five feet,” Carlyle said, and “you would have taken him, by candlelight, for the beautifullest little child,” had there not “been a something, too, which said, ‘Eccovi— this child has been in hell.’”

It was true: the sensitive, retiring creature had been in hell. In his Confessions of an English Opium-Eater, he described the horror of his drug-laden dreams. He was transported into lands of “vertical sunlight,” and suffered “mythological tortures” at the hands of unscrupulous priests. He ran into pagodas and was imprisoned in their secret chambers, or fixed upon their summits. He was the idol: he was the priest: he was worshipped: he was sacrificed. Yet If De Quincey was fascinated by experiences which, like opium nightmares and metropolitan murders, had the mark of the beast upon them, he was no less drawn to the aftermaths of these experiences, when life resumed its customary aspect. He recounted how, during an opium dream in which he was being pursued by a malignant crocodile, he suddenly awoke to the pure sunshine of the English day. It “was broad noon, and my children were standing, hand in hand, at my bedside, come to show me their coloured shoes, or new frocks, or to let me see them dressed for going out.” So awful, he said, was “the transition from the damned crocodile, and the other unutterable monsters and abortions of my dreams, to the sight of innocent human natures and of infancy, that, in the mighty and sudden revulsion of mind, I wept, and could not forbear it, as I kissed their faces.” Such experiences played a part in shaping a hell-scholarship unsurpassed of its kind…

(I can’t quite explain why Beran’s book has such a hold over me. I’m now reading it for  the second time. I don’t pretend to an objective judgment, but I think it’s brilliant.)

41p4C-epvaL._SX336_BO1,204,203,200_  I’ve kept in mind Robert Morrison’s biography since it came out in 2010. Luckily, the library still owns it – two copies, to be exact. It’s now in the house, somewhere…the clutter column, perhaps? Anyway, I made the mistake of reading the first few pages, and now of course, I want to keep going. did I mention I’m also reading De Quincey’s Confessions of an English Opium-Eater? This is from the blog at the Oxford University Press’s site:

In his Confessions of an English Opium-Eater, first published in the London Magazine for September and October 1821, he transformed our perception of drugs. De Quincey invented recreational drug-taking, not because he was the first to swallow opiates for non-medical reasons (he was hardly that), but because he was the first to commemorate his drug experience in a compelling narrative that was consciously aimed at — and consumed by — a broad commercial audience. Further, in knitting together intellectualism, unconventionality, drugs, and the city, De Quincey mapped in the counter-cultural figure of the bohemian. He was also the first flâneur, high and anonymous, graceful and detached, strolling through crowded urban sprawls trying to decipher the spectacles, faces, and memories that reside there. Most strikingly, as the self-proclaimed “Pope” of “the true church on the subject of opium,” he initiated the tradition of the literature of intoxication with his portrait of the addict as a young man. De Quincey is the first modern artist, at once prophet and exile, riven by a drug that both inspired and eviscerated him.

So, how many of these titles are at present being actively consumed by me? I count four. And that, Dear Reader and Fellow Book Lover, is but the tip of the proverbial iceberg!

To be continued – sigh…

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Books that end in a burst of brilliance

January 3, 2016 at 3:40 pm (books)

Every once in a while, I’ll be about to finish a book when the author’s writing suddenly ascends to a level of eloquence and profundity not previously hinted at. I love it when this happens.

Here are three of my favorite examples:

What did it matter where you lay once you were dead? In a dirty sump or in a marble tower on top of a high hill? You were dead, you were sleeping the big sleep, you were not bothered by things like that. Oil and water were the same as wind and air to you. You just slept the big sleep, not caring about the nastiness of how you died or where you fell. Me, I was part of the nastiness now. Far more a part of it than Rusty Regan was. But the old man didn’t have to be. He could lie quiet in his canopied bed, with his bloodless hands folded on the sheet, waiting. His heart was a brief, uncertain murmur. His thoughts were as gray as ashes. And in a little while he too, like Rusty Regan, would be sleeping the big sleep.

from The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler

In A Guide To Classic Mystery and Detection, Michael E. Grost observes:

The best part of The Big Sleep is the ending. This apostrophe to death is magnificently written, and recalls such Elizabethan essays on the same subject as the finale of Sir Walter Raleigh’s The History of the World (1610). Chandler’s skill with words reached new heights here, a skill that carried over into his next novel, Farewell, My Lovely (1940).


Most of the big shore places were closed now and there were hardly any lights except the shadowy, moving glow of a ferryboat across the Sound. And as the moon rose higher the inessential houses began to melt away until gradually I became aware of the old island here that flowered once for Dutch sailors’ eyes — a fresh, green breast of the new world. Its vanished trees, the trees that had made way for Gatsby’s house, had once pandered in whispers to the last and greatest of all human dreams; for a transitory enchanted moment man must have held his breath in the presence of this continent, compelled into an aesthetic contemplation he neither understood nor desired, face to face for the last time in history with something commensurate to his capacity for wonder.

And as I sat there brooding on the old, unknown world, I thought of Gatsby’s wonder when he first picked out the green light at the end of Daisy’s dock. He had come a long way to this blue lawn, and his dream must have seemed so close that he could hardly fail to grasp it. He did not know that it was already behind him, somewhere back in that vast obscurity beyond the city, where the dark fields of the republic rolled on under the night.

Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that’s no matter — to-morrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther. . . . And one fine morning ——

So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.

from The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald


Some night when it was very dark, when men could do their deeds without the glow of stars, the modest monument might topple and split and need to be replaced. That was on the old man’s mind. Failing that, it might even be necessary to lift his Joan once more–one last time–raise her from the earth, from the lonely, barren, sunburned grave that her husband had chosen, and carry her to a cool and green place, perhaps under the benevolent shade of a great oak at Chatsworth Farm, just around the bend from Beloved Belinda Walk. In a place like that, Ash could ease his heavy body down beside her. And there, with Joan at last able to sleep at the side of the only man who really loved her–and proved it–only then would their story finally, mercifully, be done.

from Blood and Money by Thomas Thompson


Raymond Chandler and 'Taki'

Raymond Chandler and ‘Taki’


f. scott fitzgerald in the late 1920s.

F. Scott Fitzgerald in the late 1920s.


Thomas "Tommy" Thompson

Thomas “Tommy” Thompson

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Best reading in 2015: Nonfiction

January 1, 2016 at 9:49 pm (Best of 2015, books, History, Local interest (Baltimore-Washington), Nature, True crime)

My reading in nonfiction this year was heavily influenced – indeed, largely determined, at least initially – by the course in the literature of true crime which I taught back in February and March. This proved to be an exhilarating experience on all levels: the interaction with genuine, enthusiastic, and unapologetic intellectuals, the chance to master new classroom technology with the indispensable help of my (ever-patient) husband Ron, and above all, the research, which took me into new and previously unknown (to me) areas of  American history that proved utterly fascinating.


41HY7VYB7FL._SX328_BO1,204,203,200_  I chose for the course’s primary text Harold Schechter’s impressive anthology. I figured if it was good enough to receive the imprimatur of the Library of America, then it would serve the course well. I took the  historical/chronological approach to the material, as Schechter does.

Thanks are due once again to my friend Pauline for making this happen (and giving me plenty of help along the way).

In a post I wrote in August entitled “Six nonfiction titles I’ve read and esteemed so far this year,” four were true crime:

51cgk5tpg2l-_sy344_bo1204203200_ blood_and_money

thishouseofgrief_12 a1mftpympl-_sl15001_

The Stranger Beside Me (1980) and Blood and Money (1976) are classics of the genre. I had long wanted to read the Ann Rule title and was glad to finally do so. Her story of the terrifying rampage of serial killer Ted Bundy, a man she actually knew, retains its power to shock and bewilder. For me, these effects were even more immediate in Tommy Thompson’s strange and gripping tale of Texas high rollers and their fateful (and fatal) entanglement.. Blood and Money is one of the greatest exemplars of true crime reportage. I read it when it first came out, and I wondered if it would pack the same punch on rereading. It did – and then some.

This House of Grief by Australian writer Helen Garner is the story of an appalling family tragedy and the accusations that eventually followed, culminating in a trial that was completely riveting. I couldn’t put this book down. In the Wall Street Journal’s Books of the Year feature (Review section, Saturday/Sunday December 12-13, 2015), Kate Atkinson describes This House of Grief as “both scrupulously objective and profoundly personal.” She cites it as one of the best books read by her this year (as does Gillian Anderson, in the same article).

As for Ghettoside, I lack sufficient superlatives in my vocabulary with which to praise journalist Jill Leovy’s achievement in this book. Crime and punishment as played out in South Los Angeles are vividly and disturbingly rendered. What really makes Ghettoside work is the intense focus on individuals caught up in the maelstrom. I was glad to see that this title made onto several lists of best nonfiction of 2015.

The two other titles in the “Six nonfiction” post linked to above are biographies:

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Re the Strauss title: I really enjoyed getting the back story to the Shakespeare play, one of my long time favorites. And as for Joan of Arc, what can one say? As a girl, I was fascinated by her story. These days, I find it even more compelling. And Harrison relates the particulars with clarity and grace.

51UtGfZBDmL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_  I very much enjoyed David Gessner’s dual biography of Edward Abbey and Wallace Stegner, two towering greats of twentieth century environmentalism. I hope that description doesn’t make them sound stodgy. They were anything but – especially the cheerfully irreverent Abbey, who lived more or less wild and free, marrying multiple times and hurling rhetorical thunderbolts whenever the mood moved him. He’s best remembered for Desert Solitaire (1968), a memoir of his stint as a park ranger in Arches National Monument, now Arches National Park. In addition, he coined the expression “monkey wrench gang” in his 1975 novel of the same name.

All the Wild That Remains also functions as a travelogue, as Gessner retraces the steps of his subjects and when possible, talks to folks who knew them.

David Gessner

David Gessner

Writing about this book is serving to remind me how much I enjoyed it. I might read it again. I was also delighted to be able to give it as a gift to my dear friend Bonnie, who now resides in nature-friendly Oregon. Bonnie’s  the librarian who first introduced me to the literary stars of the environmental movement. Together we presented a program on this subject at the library.

Wallace Stegner and Edward Abbey

Wallace Stegner and Edward Abbey [click to enlarge]

(Bonnie, don’t you love this shot of Abbey? The man’s unquenchable vitality shines right through.)

DirdaSplit  This is a delightful romp through the world of used and antique books, with a past master of the art. Michael Dirda is a passionate, compulsive collector and an amazingly knowledgeable person. The only problem with Browsings is that you learn of numerous titles that you’d like to read. And so that list – that fateful (I almost write “fatal”) list – grows by leaps and bounds, while you, poor you, are stuck with your one pair of eyes (which you desperately hope will hold out a bit longer) and one brain (same hope, even more fervent). You can’t read any faster! And nor, really, do you wish to.

Here’s just a small sampling of the titles Dirda mentions in Browsings:

2865598 The-Last-Good-Kiss

3628 Blood

41l0OUH3f+L._SX324_BO1,204,203,200_ 1315279f3d960d664b-0

Hemlock&After04 andeas_book

Classics, crime fiction, science fiction, fantasy, memoir, swashbuckling adventure – he’s open to all of them. Dirda possesses the most receptive and exuberant mind I’ve ever encountered.

414WkBBWnFL._SX320_BO1,204,203,200_  Speaking of recommendations, I’ve gotten plenty of them from Martin Edwards’s delightful history of the Detection Club, which I’ve been absorbing in measured and delicious dollops. Among its other virtues, The Golden Age of Murder is an excellent companion volume to the classic reissues now coming in gratifying numbers from the British Library.

563274521907e-image I recently found Witches: Salem, 1692 to be a sobering reminder of where institutionalized rigidity and narrow mindedness can lead. Read it and weep – but also be fascinated by this recounting of one of the darkest chapters in our history.

1050379  This book was a revelation! Here is history with a truly local perspective – we’re talking about landmarks a mere ten minutes from my front door. Ron and I went scouting locations in Howard County alone and had excellent luck. Then I found another landmark that’s been relocated to the Baltimore Museum of Art. (Alas, still no access to Doughreagan Manor,  not even to gaze upon from a distance.)

Wake also describes in scintillating detail life among Britain’s aristocrats and their newly arrived American counterparts in the early eighteen hundreds. (This was well before the invasion of the so-called “dollar princesses.” later in the same century.)

childrenbooks This is not a book for reading straight through, but one to contemplate with delight. I am in awe of the inventiveness of children’s book illustrators. They are among our greatest artists, and 100 Great Children’s Picture Books is full to bursting with their wondrous works.

Gods  I’ve written several posts on this book; or rather, I’ve quoted large chunks from it. Sir John Lister-Kaye’s beautiful descriptions speak for themselves; I could not hope to emulate his eloquence. Here he describes a phenomenon that is nothing short of astonishing:

Sitting at my desk one morning I looked up to see a thin veil of smoke passing the window. Puzzled, I rose and walked across the room to the bay window that looks out over the river fields. Normally I can see right across the glacial valley to the forested hills on the other side, the river glinting in between. That morning I could barely see the far side at all. It couldn’t be smoke, I reasoned, there was too much of it. It must be drifts of low cloud. Then it cleared and handed back the view.

I returned to my desk. A few moments later I noticed it again; another pale shroud passing on a gentle south-westerly breeze, funnelling along the valley. But something wasn’t right. Late summer mists don’t do that, they hang, and anyway, the cloud base was high. Perhaps it was smoke, after all. I got up again and stood in the window just as another cloud closed off my view. I always keep my precious Swarovski binoculars on my windowsill so I took a closer look.

What I saw was a breath-taking spectacle of such overwhelming natural abundance that I was lost for words. I picked up the phone to Ian Sargent, our field officer, who was off duty with his girlfriend Morag Smart, who ran our schools programmes. ‘Come quickly. You must see this.’ As always, when I stumble across some extraordinary natural phenomenon, my first instinct is to share it. But I also wanted witnesses. The world is full of cynics. I knew people wouldn’t believe me if I kept it to myself.

It was neither mist nor smoke. It was silk. Spiders’ web silk. The massed gossamer threads of millions of tiny spiders dispersing by a process known as ‘ballooning’. Every long grass stem, every dried dock head, every tall thistle, every fence post held, at its apex, a tiny spiderling – what we commonly know as a money spider – poised, bottom upturned to the wind in what has been described as the ‘tiptoe position’ and from which single or multiple threads of silk were being spun. Other spiders were queuing beneath, awaiting their turn. As each slowly lengthening thread caught the wind we could watch the spider hanging on, tightening its grip on the stem or the seed head, while the gently rugging threads extended ever longer into the breeze.

For the tiniest spiders lift-off happened when the threads were ten or fifteen feet long, but slightly larger spiders spun for much more – perhaps twice that length. Then they let go. The spiders were airborne, sailing gently up, up and away across the fields, gaining height all the time, quite literally ballooning down the valley with the wind.

Many are the books about nature and natural phenomena that I’ve started with the best of intentions only to leave unfinished. Not only did I finish Gods of the Morning, but I was genuinely sorry to see it end.

Sir John Lister-Kaye with his daughter Hermione

Sir John Lister-Kaye with his daughter Hermione

24642332 And so I come to Murder by Candlelight. Subtitled The Gruesome Slayings Behind Our Romance with the Macabre,  this would at first glance seem to be a catalog of the grotesque, best read in broad daylight if at all. It is true that author Michael Knox Beran recounts some terrible crimes; they date from the early nineteenth century and took place in Britain. But this book is about so much more.

Let me quote myself, from an earlier post:

Murder by Candlelight is not only a true crime narrative – or rather, a narrative of multiple true crimes – it is a work of philosophy, psychology, and history. True, some of it is hard to read – repugnant, even gruesome – but other parts are rich with a profound insight into the human condition. The erudition displayed by Michael Knox Beran is nothing short of amazing. For instance, it is not every day that a book sends me scurrying to the works of Arthur Schopenhauer:

Arthur Schopenhauer 1788 - 1860

Arthur Schopenhauer 1788 – 1860

Yes, I know, he doesn’t look as though he’d be very scintillating at a dinner party, but he’s actually a deeply fascinating thinker. I have in mind specifically a work entitled The World as Will and Representation. Sound dry as dust? Not the portions quoted in Murder by Candlelight – they’re anything but.

I had not previously heard of Michael Knox Beran, but he will most definitely be getting a fan letter from Yours Truly.

Forthwith, an excerpt:

The killings described in this book took place in the high noon of Romanticism, when the most vital spirits were in revolt against the eighteenth-century lucidity of their fathers and grandfathers, those powdered, periwigged gentlemen who had been bred up in the sunshine of the Enlightenment, and who were as loath to descend to the Gothic crypt as they were to contemplate the Gothic skull beneath the skin. The Romantic Age, by contrast, was more than a little in love with blood and deviltry. It was an age that delighted in the clotted gore of the seventeenth-century dramatists, the bloody poetry of Webster and Tourneur and Middleton. “To move a horror skillfully,” Charles Lamb wrote in his 1808 book Specimens of English Dramatic Poets Who Lived about the Time of Shakespeare, “to touch a soul to the quick, to lay upon fear as much as it can bear, to wean and weary a life till it is ready to drop, and then step in with mortal instruments to take its last forfeit: this only a Webster can do.” Inferior geniuses, Lamb said, may “terrify babes with painted devils,” but they “know not how a soul is to be moved.”

And one more:

The keenest spirits of this epoch in murder history— Sir Walter Scott, Thomas De Quincey, and Thomas Carlyle among them— knew a good deal about the horror that moves the soul. In their contemplations of the most notorious murders of their time, they saw “strange images of death” and discovered dreadfulnesses in the act of homicide that we, in an age in which murder has been antiseptically reduced to a problem of social science on the one hand and skillful detective work on the other, are only too likely to have overlooked.

For the student of history, the murders of a vanished time have this other value. An eminent historian has said that were he limited, in the study of a particular historical period, to one sort of document only, he would choose the records of its murder trials as being the most comprehensively illuminating. A history of the murders of an age will in its own way reveal as much of human nature, caught in the Minotaur-maze of evil circumstance, as your French Revolutions, Vienna Congresses, and German Unifications. What a vision of the past rises up before us in these dark scenes, illumined by wax-lights and tallow-dips: and what an uncanny light do they throw upon our own no less mysterious, no less sinful present.

In the course of my reading of Murder By Candlelight, it began to exercise a greater and greater hold on my imagination. I, who have lately been reading multiple books simultaneously (as well as magazines and newspapers), could only read this one book. And yet I slowed down purposely as the end neared, not wanting to finish. I finally did so in October. I am now rereading it, to try and better understand and recapture the effect it had on me the first time. I’m about one third of the way in, and yes, it’s happening again.








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