Book list for a Friend, Part Three: Mysteries, first group: the classics

April 29, 2016 at 8:32 pm (books, Mystery fiction)

Lately, my reading in the mystery genre has been guided by these factors:

The appearance of British Library Crime Classics, which led to my reading of
Additional classics, several suggested by a Facebook group and several terrific bloggers;
Titles selected by the always discerning Usual Suspects Mystery Book Group;
Latest additions to beloved series;
Lucky strikes gleaned from perceptive reviews and recommendations.

9-FarjeonBook  I’ll start with the British Library’s hugely successful foray into the  world of classic crime fiction. The first volume in this series, Mystery in White: A Christmas Crime Story by J Jefferson Farjeon, was a surprise bestseller in 2014. It’s been followed by novels and short story collections along the same lines, by which I mean early twentieth century crime fiction by authors who are not currently as well known as their Golden Age counterparts; namely Sayers, Christie, Marsh, Allingham, and Tey.

“The Crime Classics stand out against the darker crop of contemporary crime fiction and offer something a bit different. A lot of modern stuff skews closer to thriller than mystery. It has been a treat to see mystery writers such as John Bude, Mavis Doriel Hay and J Jefferson Farjeon get their due. I think that’s a credit to the British Library, which has not only done the important work of archiving this material, but now brought it to a wider audience.”

Joseph Knobbs, crime fiction buyer  for Waterstones.

I enjoyed Mystery in White so much that I could hardly wait to read more from this series. The short  story collections are especially welcome, as they provide the reader with an introduction to several of these “hidden gem” authors in one volume. So far I’ve read two in this category:

Resorting 51cyk9jgbjl-_sx342_bo12042000_1

I enjoyed both so much that I selected Capital Crimes as my July discussion presentation for the Usual Suspects. It’s almost always the case with collections that some tales will stand out more than others. For me, three of the stories in the Capital Crimes anthology were especially impressive: “The Case of Lady Sannox” by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, “The Silver Mask” by Hugh Walpole, and “Cheese” by Ethel Lina White. The Walpole story led me to anthology of his tales called The Silver Thorn – an inexpensive download. I’ve only just read the first story. It’s called “The Little Donkeys with The Crimson Saddles.” Not a crime story, but a sheer delight all the same.

I knew that Ethel Lina White wrote the book on which the Hitchcock film The Lady Vanishes was based. The novel’s original title is The Wheel Spins. I decided it was time to read it, and I thoroughly enjoyed it. I read somewhere that White specialized in young heroines in danger who rise to the occasion and, with a combination of courage and perseverance, overcome the threat with which they’re confronted. Iris Carr’s story is illustrative of this scenario. I was rooting for her – sometimes anxiously –  throughout!

I’ll definitely be reading more by this author. In addition to The Wheel Spins, Some Must Watch (filmed as The Spiral Staircase) and The First Time He Died have also been recommended.

Back to the British Library series for a moment: In addition to Mystery in White, I’ve so far read these three novels: 51kue0qDPjL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_  51LeLfSJKoL._SX344_BO1,2203,200_ 61zfdsvK6PL._SX345_BO1,204,203,200_ . I enjoyed each of  them, but I’d award top marks to Murder of a Lady for its exceptionally cunning plot, which unfolds against the backdrop of a vivid Scottish setting.

In recent months, I’ve read quite  a few mysteries not included in the British Library series (or at least, not yet). I’ve already mentioned The Wheel Spins, and I’ve written  about Mist in the Saltings by Henry Wade and Police at the Funeral by Margery Allingham in this post.

The Usual Suspects kicked off this year’s program of discussions with Margaret Millar’s Beast in View. Both creepy and compelling, and set against the Los Angeles backdrop used so effectively by Millar’s husband Ross MacDonald, Beast in View was the Edgar Award winner for Best Novel in 1956. Helen Clarvoe is a highly nervous young woman and a virtual recluse. She’s living alone in a hotel and feeling reasonably safe until she begins receiving a series of menacing phone calls. “And from there unspools one of the most terrifying stories you will ever read.” Thus saith Laura Lippman and forsooth,  she is right!

I always know that I’ve really loved a novel when I immediately want more from the same author. This was absolutely the case with The Emperor’s Snuff Box (1942) by John Dickson Carr. What a gem this is! From its atmospheric setting in rural France, its memorable cast of characters, exceptionally fine writing – well, and just about everything else you desire in quality crime fiction. Carr was well known and appreciated in his day, and in my view, it’s time for a revival of interest in his work.

JDCarr 51dsbjfXCoL._SX323_BO1,204,203,200_

Herewith, some general observations regarding the classics. I’d like to deal first with the most troubling factor; namely, the degree to which racial and ethnic slurs appear in the stories and novels of early to mid-twentieth century. (And let us acknowledge that this problem is not exclusive to crime fiction.) You can read any number of mysteries without coming across this sort of thing and then bang, there it is, jarring to say the least, especially if you’re a member of the ethnic, racial, or even gender group that’s being disparaged. In The Emperor’s Snuff Box, for instance, Carr tosses off several statements along the lines of “You know what women are.” I just sighed deeply and read on.

The worst examples that I’ve yet encountered in a crime classic occur in Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None. (I’m talking about the original, not the “cleaned up” version that was published in this country after the Second World War.) I know that for many Christie fans, this book is her crowning achievement. For me, it took a while after I read it to recapture my old affection for this writer. (The Miss Marple short stories were a big help there.) I’ve written in more detail on this subject in this post.

One of the reasons that the British Library’s Crime Classics initiative is so welcome is that some of the lesser known classics are now hard to obtain. Many are out of print. If you’re lucky,  you’ll find an e-book download for only a few dollars. Mist on the Saltings was neither in print nor available in e-book format. I ended up getting a rather worse for wear paperback from Amazon. (It was more than worth it.) There are some small publishers who for several years now have been doing excellent work in keeping the classics in print. I’m thinking in particular of Felony and Mayhem Press  and their editions of Margery Allingham’s Albert Campion novels.

Police-at-the-Funeral Dancers-in-Mourning

Not only are some of these older volumes a challenge to find, they’re also a  challenge to identify correctly. This is also true of their authors. John Dickson Carr’s life and work nicely exemplify the occurrence of these conundrums. In addition to using his real name, Carr also wrote under the pseudonyms Carter Dickson, Carr Dickson, and Roger Fairbairn. The Hollow Man is often considered to be his finest work – but you’d best also search for it by its American title, The Three Coffins. An Amazon search by the latter title disclosed no e-book edition and edition currently in print. (A number of used copies are on offer, though, ranging in price from $3.61 to $80.02 – take your pick!)

So: back to The Hollow Man. Yes! there’s a Kindle download, and at a nice price, too. Alas, when you click on it, you get this message: “This title is not currently available for purchase.” There are third party sellers on hand with both hard copies and paperbacks, but by then, I’d decided to place an interlibrary loan request. It arrived in record time, though I haven’t yet had a chance to get to the library to pick  it up. (Interlibrary loan is definitely an option you want to keep in mind.)

In the course of researching this and other mystery related posts, I’ve come across some truly excellent blogs. In the past, I’ve referred to Martin Edwards’s Do You Write Under Your Own Name. His recurring feature on “Forgotten Books” offers a wealth of information and recommendations. Martin Edwards‘s steady advocacy of classic crime novels and stories has lately received well-deserved recognition. Since 1914, he’s been consultant to the British Library for their Crime Classics series. In addition, he’s the current President of the prestigious Detection Club. He’s the author of The Golden Age of Murder, a history of that organization that sheds light on its distinguished, fascinating, and sometimes elusive members. Finally, he’s the author of several fictional series and stand-alones. (I’ve particularly enjoyed the Lake District series  featuring DCI Hannah Scarlett and historian Daniel Kind.)

Other blogs I’d like to recommend are as follows:

At the Villa Rose: Random Thoughts of Xavier Lechard

Past Offences: Classic Crime Fiction Reviews and News

The Passing Tramp: Wandering Through the Mystery Genre, Book by Book

Tipping My Fedora


In Search of the Classic Mystery Novel

Other blog recommendations would be gratefully received by me – also more recommendations of classic mysteries! (What more proof is needed that I can never get enough?)






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Prelude to the next mystery book list: a discussion of the Nine Tailors by Dorothy L Sayers

April 21, 2016 at 2:09 am (Book clubs, books, Mystery fiction)

nine-tailors  Recently, a discussion by the Usual Suspects of Dorothy L Sayers’s classic crime novel ranged far and wide. The plot is famously convoluted;  the characters are numerous and colorful, and the depiction of a small, remote English village is vivid and evocative. And then, of course, there are those bells…


The English art of change ringing is the beating heart of The Nine Tailors. Indeed, Tailor Paul is actually the name of one of the bells rung in the parish church at Fenchurch St. Paul, the village at the center of the mystery. There is a saying, “Nine tailors make a man,” which has been construed in several ways:

According to the Oxford Dictionary of Proverbs (2009), “nine tailors make a man” refers to the fact that a gentleman must select his clothing from a range of sources. However, numerous historical sources illuminate another meaning related to change ringing: the practice of ringing a death knell, or passing bell. In small villages in England the sickly or ill would be common knowledge to the people who lived within hearing of the church bell. The bell–typically the tenor, or lowest bell–would be rung to mark the death, and people could deduce who had died according to the number of times the bell sounded. Old wood carving

Local variances could be found around Britain, but the universal tolling-bell, or “teller,” to denote a deceased male was rung nine times. In many places six “tells” indicated a woman, and three indicated a child, so “nine tellers mark a man.”

You can see how the bell both “tolled” and “told” the death of someone in the village, and how over the years “teller” became “tailor” and “mark” became “make.”

from “Nine Tailors Make a Mystery” by SJ Fitche

Another article worth a look is  “The Science of Mysteries: For Whom the Bells Toll,” part of a series that has appeared in Scientific American. The article opens with this observation: “A Twitter exchange recently revealed that certain members of the small subset of science writers who were humanities majors, also have a shared taste for classic mysteries.”  Please be on the watch for the spoiler warning in this article. Wikipedia also has a detailed entry on change ringing.

Some of us also sought the aid of Wikipedia in order  to get the plot of The Nine Tailors firmly fixed in our minds. Well, we had to laugh when comparing notes: we had trouble getting even that relatively lucid summary to resolve itself into something comprehensible! That of course is the point at which you decide either to give up or to enjoy other aspects of the novel. Most of us chose the latter course.

Frank, himself an aspiring author of crime fiction, is always especially interested in how plotting is handled in the books we read. He was deeply impressed with this novel, which, while complex in its structure, always plays fair with the reader. Not previously being a reader of Sayers’s works, he asked us whether all her plots were this “twisty” (good term for it). After a hasty consultation, we replied in the negative, though even the confirmed Wimsey fans among us hadn’t recently read any of the other novels in the series (although Mike, our excellent leader and an ardent fan of Sayers, led us in a discussion of Murder Must Advertise not long ago).

The Wimsey series is strangely bifurcated. Courtesy of Wikipedia, here’s a list of the eleven novels in the series, along with their publication dates. (There are also several short story collections):

  • Whose Body? (1923)
  • Clouds of Witness (1926)
  • Unnatural Death (1927)
  • The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club (1928)
  • Strong Poison (1931)
  • Five Red Herrings (1931)
  • Have His Carcase (1932)
  • Murder Must Advertise (1933)
  • The Nine Tailors (1934)
  • Gaudy Night (1935)
  • Busman’s Honeymoon (1937)

Harriet Vane first appears in Strong Poison; subsequently she appears in Have His Carcase, Gaudy Night, and Busman’s Honeymoon. Among other things, these books chart the course of her love affair with Lord Peter Wimsey, a course that is anything but smooth. But as the Bard is wont to remind us, that’s typical of true love, and this particular love is, despite various obstacles, strong and true and does win out in the end. In reference to Frank’s question, cited above, I wonder if the Harriet Vane novels are less intensely plotted so that Sayers can concentrate more on the evolution of the relationship.

BBC Television filmed and broadcast five of the Lord Peter Wimsey novels from 1972 to 1975. They are Clouds of Witness, The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club, Five Red Herrings, Murder Must Advertise, and The Nine Tailors. Edward Petherbridge portrayed Wimsey in three out of four of the Harried Vane titles in 1987. (The BBC were apparently not able to secure the rights for Busman’s Honeymoon.) I’ve watched all of the episodes multiple times. I like what Wikipedia says about them:

Both sets of adaptations were critically successful, with both Carmichael and Petherbridge’s respective performances being widely praised, however both portrayals are quite different from one another: Carmichael’s Peter is eccentric, jolly and foppish with occasional glimpses of the inner wistful, romantic soul, whereas Petherbridge’s portrayal was more calm, solemn and had a stiff upper lip, subtly downplaying many of the character’s eccentricities.

Ian Carmichael

Ian Carmichael


Edward Petherbridge

From time to time, one encounters speculation that Sayers invented Harriet Vane as a surrogate for herself, so that she could become, in her imagination at least, Lord Peter’s lover. Harriet and Dorothy L. Sayers share some commonalities: both are Oxford graduates – among the earliest women to become so – and both write crime fiction. Unlike her creation, however, Sayers was never brought up on a murder charge!

There were, in fact, other good reasons for Sayers to insert Harriet Vane into the Lord Peter novels:

In creating Harriet Vane, who appears in four of the twelve Lord Peter Wimsey novels, Sayers was able to comment from within about the genre and its shortcomings, detailing Harriet’s relationships with her publisher, agent, fans, the press, and the snobbish literary scene. The personal concerns of the self-sufficient writer are expanded in Gaudy Night into a richly detailed examination of women’s education, career opportunities, and marriage prospects in a society not quite recovered from one war and sliding helplessly into the next.

From “Second Glance: Dorothy Sayers and the Last Golden Age” by Joanna Scutts, in Open Letters Monthly

I’ve frequently quoted the thoughts that Sayers ascribes to Harriet in Gaudy Night as she once again enters the precincts of Shrewsbury, her Oxford University alma mater:

They can’t take this away, at any rate. Whatever I may have done since, this remains. Scholar; Master of Arts; Domina; Senior Member of this University;… a place achieved, inalienable, worthy of reverence.

I like to think of the deep satisfaction Dorothy L Sayers must have been feeling as she typed those words.

One more thing about my revisiting of The Nine Tailors. I was struck this time by the extreme insularity of Fenchurch St Paul. It almost seemed like a village out of time, a sort of Brigadoon. (I’m currently listening to The Nature of the Beast by Louise Penny, and it occurs to me that she depicts the Quebecois village of Three Pines in much the same way.)

Wimsey’s devotion to the town, its people and the unfolding of the crime opens unexpected windows onto an English culture flailing to right itself after the lingering disruptions caused by the First World War. A friend warned me I might find the novel “a little dated” when she gave me her copy this summer. It was anything but. This is literary mystery perfect for the dialogue-devotees of Downton Abbey and Gosford Park. Sayers’ smart descriptions of peculiar English customs like change-ringing, and of the arcane engineering marvels that for centuries kept her East Anglia from drowning in annual spring floods, sparkle every bit as much as the affectionate portraits she paints of her characters, even those with minor roles.

From “What I’m Reading: The Nine Tailors, Dorothy L Sayers,” by Jon Nagy in Notre Dame Magazine.

Mike provided us with excellent background on Dorothy L Sayers, a brilliant woman whose life had more than its share of pain and difficulty – but, one senses, had its moments of real happiness and satisfaction as well.

If you ever have the opportunity to listen to Ian Carmichael’s reading of The Nine Tailors, you will encounter as bravura an audio performance as I’ve ever experienced. Carmichael gets the accents of the “locals” just right. He seems to be enacting numerous roles all on his own. And the drama at the novel’s climax…well, it’s just terrific.

Our group was generally positive about this novel, although quite a few of us were challenged to follow the threads of the plot. And more  than one person commented that there was more than enough material on the bells. Of course Reverend Theodore Venables would undoubtedly disagree – he simply could not get enough on the subject! In the 1993 biography Dorothy L Sayers: Her Life and Soul, Barbara Reynolds observes the following concerning Sayers’s father, the Reverend Henry Sayers, MA:

Six years after his death, his unworldly and self-effacing personality was to be tenderly evoked in The Nine Tailors in the lovable character of the Reverend Theodore Venables, rector of Fenchurch St. Paul.

Rev. Henry Sayers, Dorothy's father

Rev. Henry Sayers, Dorothy’s father



Dorothy Leigh Sayers, 1893 – 1957

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Book list for a friend, Part Two: Nonfiction

April 15, 2016 at 10:41 pm (Art, Book review, books, Nature)

Jacket Artwork - DEEP SOUTH  Sometimes you read a book that redirects your mind. An interest that hovered at the periphery is suddenly at dead center. A previously unknown artist captivates. People and places take up residence in your head, demanding attention which you grant willingly, happily.

All this and more came to me courtesy of Paul Theroux’s deeply felt, wonderfully realized travelogue.

The subtitle”Four Seasons on the Back Roads” is meaningful. Theroux had no interest in visiting places like Charleston and Savannah; rather, he wanted to see what life is like for people in the small towns that dot the landscape of Alabama, Mississippi, and Arkansas.

This happened in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, at the beginning of the author’s southern travels:

He was sitting in his car trying to determine the location of the Cornerstone Full Gospel Baptist Church. A woman in the car beside him asked if he was lost. He explained that he was a stranger, to which she replied “Ain’t no strangers here, baby.” Introducing herself as Lucille, she offered to lead him to the church. When she had done so, he thanked her. She responded with two words: “Be blessed.”

That seemed to be the theme in the Deep South: kindness, generosity, a welcome. I had found it often in my traveling life in the wider world, but I found so much more of it here that I kept going, because the good will was like an embrace. Yes, there is a haunted substratum of darkness in Southern life, and though it pulses through many interactions, it takes a long while to perceive it, and even longer to understand.

I sometimes had long days, but encounters like the one with Lucille always lifted my spirits and sent me deeper into the South, to out-of-the-way churches like the Cornerstone Full Gospel, and to places so obscure, such flyspecks on the map, they were described in the rural way as “you gotta be going there to get there.”

On the subject of traveling in America, Theroux quotes this comment by Henry James: “One’s supreme relation…was one’s relation to one’s country.” Well, he would say that, wouldn’t he? And did he actually do much traveling in his native land?

At any rate, Theroux continues:

With this in mind, after having seen the rest of the world, I had planned to take one long trip through the South in the autumn, before the presidential election of 2012, and write about it. But when that trip was over I wanted to go back, and I did so, leisurely in the winter, renewing acquaintances. That was not enough. I returned in the spring, and again in the summer, and by then I knew that the South had me, sometimes in a comforting embrace, occasionally in its frenzied and unrelenting grip.

I received two gifts from Deep South for which I’m especially grateful. One is an introduction to the writer Mary Ward Brown. Like me, Theroux had never heard of this author before being introduced to her by an enthusiast. After reading her short stories and her memoir, this was his assessment:

Her writing was direct, unaffected, unsentimental, and powerful for its simplicity and for its revealing the inner life of rural Alabama, the day-to-day, the provincial manners and pretensions, the conflicts racial and economic. No gothic, no dwarfs, no twelve-year-old wives, no idiots, no picturesque monstrosities, nothing that could be described as phantasmagoric.

41UqPgqvBaL._SX322_BO1,204,203,200_ One of the story collections, Tongues of Flame, is available as a Kindle download. I’ve now read most of the stories contained therein, and I can but agree wholeheartedly with Paul Theroux.

The story “New Dresses” takes place some years ago and is told from the point of view of Lisa, a Midwesterner. She has married into the Worthy family, a clan with deep roots in the South, and she’s having trouble adjusting. In this scene, Lisa has conveyed her extremely frail but insistent mother-in-law to a department store in town, where everyone seems to know and revere her:

Mrs. Worthy had to be supported to the elevator, where the black woman averted her eyes and worked the controls in silence. Mrs. Worthy leaned on Miss Carrie, who kept one arm around her waist. Lisa stared blindly at advertisements taped to the wall, wondering what vanity or pride could prompt anyone so sick to subject herself, subject them all, to such an ordeal.

From the story “The Barbecue:”

Jeff was named for the southern hero Jefferson Davis. The first time someone told Tom his weekend neighbor was a collateral descendant of the president of the Confederacy, of the same blood and could trace it, Tom had laughed. “You mean they got the papers on him, like a bull?” Laura said there was an original portrait of President Davis’s mother in one of the Arrington parlors. They prized it above everything else in the house, she said.

The J in Tom’s name stood for Jefferson too. He was named for a hero even greater, the architect of American democracy, but he was no kin whatsoever. It was just a name his father had picked out, hoping it would help him amount to something, his mother said. His father had been a two-mule farmer in the poorest county of the state.

This is the kind of fiction writing I have come to cherish: straightforward, unadorned, not striving for effect.

While visiting the home of Mary Ward Brown, a painting by Crawford Gillis was pointed out to Theroux. He had never heard of this artist. Neither had I. While searching for his work online, I came across  the site of the Johnson Collection in Spartanburg, South Carolina. What a gem of an art museum!

Two  paintings by Crawford Gillis:

Kazoo Players

Kazoo Players

Man Plowing

Man Plowing

Have a look at the site; the place is a veritable treasure trove. I just want to include one other work here. It’s an untitled painting by Carl Christian Brenner.  It is so evocative, I get lost in it. (To get the full effect, click to enlarge):


I have many marked pages in my e-book version of Deep South, and the book deserves a great deal more attention that I have time to give it at present. Let me just say that I loved it. Despite the desperate straits of some of the small towns he visited, Paul Theroux made me want to go to the Deep South- to see what he saw and to meet and talk to the people he met.


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blood_royal_a_true_detective_tale_set_in_medieval_paris_by_eric_jager_m12  51jEzPfvpzL._SX327_BO1,204,203,200_

If you’ve spent any time at this site in the past year,  you’ll know that Stranger Than Fiction, the course in the literature of true crime that I had the privilege of teaching last year, pretty much hijacked my nonfiction reading for a while. If you read in the subgenre of historical true crime, the experience is slightly less scary. So here are some recommendations, made on that basis.

Let me get Murder by Candlelight out of the way first. This survey of crime in early nineteenth century England can admittedly be rather unsettling. But Michael Knox Beran’s is such a bracing and refreshing intellect, I can’t help but sing the praises of this book (though approach with caution, please!)

And here  are some others: The Destiny of the Republic, in which Candice Millard returns James A. Garfield to his rightful place in the pantheon of great Americans;

Blood Royal by Eric Jager, in which medieval France comes vividly, if frighteningly, to life (The Last Duel by this author is also very enjoyable);

The Mad Sculptor by Harold Schechter. Schechter is also the editor of True Crime: An American Anthology. This is the book I used as my text for the true crime course.

17346823145  truecrimes2


Some of the most marvelous nonfiction I’ve come across recently is in the form of exhibition catalogs. I saw “Power and Pathos: Bronze Sculpture of the Hellenistic World” just before it closed at the National Gallery in Washington DC: 51gMPNrvbsL._SX420_BO1,204,203,200_


Alexander on Horseback


Dancing Faun



I saw Gauguin to Picasso: Masterworks from Switzerland at the Phillips Collection in Washington DC several months ago. 51Betb58m4L._SX258_BO1,204,203,200_

The Road Menders, Vincent Van Gogh

The Road Menders, Vincent Van Gogh


Red Rood by the River, by Paul Gauguin

Red Roof by the River, by Paul Gauguin


UtrilloSan Severin

Church of St. Severin, Paris, by Maurice Utrillo

(I stood in front of this painting for quite some time, along with a young couple. Finally I said, “Why is this painting so wonderful?” The woman murmured  that she did not know, and then they both turned to me with radiant smiles.)

Jew praying, by Marc Chagall

Jew praying, by Marc Chagall


“Class Distinctions: Dutch Painting in the Age of Rembrandt and Vermeer” never came any closer than Boston, and while I love the Boston area, I wasn’t able to make to to the Museum of Fine Arts to see the exhibits. However, the paintings are so fabulous that I purchased the catalog anyway.


Cover image: Street Musicians at the Doorway of a House, by Jacob Ochtervelt


The Astronomer, by Johannes Vermeer

The Astronomer, by Johannes Vermeer


Interior with Women Beside Linen Chest, by

Interior with Women Beside Linen Chest, by Pieter de Hooch


Fantasy Interior with Jan Steen and the Family of Gerrit Schouten, by Jan Steen

Fantasy Interior with Jan Steen and the Family of Gerrit Schouten, by Jan Steen


Catharina Hooft and her nurse, by Frans Hals

Catharina Hooft and her nurse, by Frans Hals


Shipbuilder and his wife, by Rembrandt

Shipbuilder and his wife, by Rembrandt


51A766XKTRL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_  A quick reminder concerning Josh Ruxin’s inspiring chronicle of the work that he, his wife, and many others have been doing in Rwanda before I go on to more current items.

IMG_1818-X2  I am now reading two nonfiction titles: The Romanovs by Simon Sebag Montefiore and The Invention of Nature by Andrea Wulf. I’ve written recently about The Romanovs, and I hereby reiterate my intention to read the entire book. Eventually.

516qbIR3suL._SX333_BO1,204,203,200_  The Invention of Nature is a biography of Alexander Von Humboldt. I’m about half way through it, and it’s wonderful. Here was a man gifted with a profound intellect and a restless curiosity about the world around him. The story of his explorations of South America, begun in 1799 and lasting for five years, is alone worth the price of admission. He cheerfully endured almost inconceivable hardships in his quest for ever deeper knowledge and understanding of the natural world.

Over thousands of years crops, grains, vegetables and fruits had followed the footpaths of humankind. As humans crossed continents and oceans, they had brought plants with them and thereby had changed the face of the earth. Agriculture linked plants to politics and economy. Wars had been fought over plants, and empires were shaped by tea, sugar and tobacco. Some plants told him as much about humankind as about nature itself, while other plants gave Humboldt an insight into geology as they revealed how continents had shifted. The similarities of their coastal plants, Humboldt wrote, showed an ‘ancient’ connection between Africa and South America as well as illustrating how islands that were previously linked were now separated – an incredible conclusion more than a century before scientists had even begun to discuss continental movements and the theory of shifting tectonic plates. Humboldt ‘read’ plants as others did books – and to him they revealed a global force behind nature, the movements of civilizations as well as of landmass. No one had ever approached botany in this way.

As you can see, Andrea Wulf’s writing is clear and lucid. Von Humboldt freely mixed his scientific observations with an esthetic response; hence, his writing is often lyrical:

At the foot of the high granite spine that, in the early days of our planet, defied the incursion of the waters during the formation of the Antillean Gulf, there begins a broad, immeasurable plain. Upon leaving behind the valleys of Caracas and the island-rich Lake Tacarigua, 1 which reflects in its surface the trunks of the pisang trees, leaving behind fields resplendent with the delicate light green of Tahitian sugarcane or the solemn shade of cacao plants, one’s gaze toward the South comes to rest upon steppes that, seeming to climb, dwindle into the distant horizon.

From “Concerning the Steppes and Deserts,” in Views of Nature  9780226422473

Admittedly it was a mistake to tackle both of these books at the same time. But I confess I’m in a fever over the cornucopia of new offerings in nonfiction – I have trouble restraining myself!

Here are two more that I’m going to tackle next:

the-vanishing-velazquez-9781476762159_lg  51sfxqN00kL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_





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Book list for a Friend, Part One: Fiction

April 10, 2016 at 8:18 pm (Book review, books)


(Asterisk denotes a potentially good book club choice.)

*The Swans of Fifth Avenue by Melanie Benjamin  9780345528698

I thought I would heartily dislike this book, and for the first few pages, I did. The “Swans” were driving me crazy – what a frivolous, irritating, useless bunch of women! And as for their friend Truman Capote – he struck me as repulsive, but that didn’t surprise me.

Had I not been reading Swans for a book club, I would most likely have tossed it aside. But I persisted – I’m very fond of the folks in this particular group – and gradually the novel grabbed me and refused to let go.  Swans is actually the depiction of a particular time and place: New York City in its mid-twentieth century heyday, a playground for the rich and famous. Women like Gloria Guinness, Nancy ‘Slim’ Keith, Pamela Churchill, and above all Barbara ‘Babe’ Paley, were ornaments of their class. They appeared at all the right places and wore the latest, most expensive designer fashions. Nothing more was expected or required of them.

But add Truman Capote to their gossipy clique and a combustible element inevitably takes hold – and grows, slowly but surely.

Has any remnant of this society persisted into this century? Have a look at the Evening Hours page in the Style section of the Sunday New York Times, and draw your own conclusions.

Babe Paley embodied the sort of grown-up glamour that nowadays seems like the artifact of another civilization.

Babe Paley embodied the sort of grown-up glamour that nowadays seems like the artifact of another civilization.

Babe Paley with her children. One could be forgiven for forgetting that she had any, so little do they figure in her daily life.

Babe Paley with her children. One could be forgiven for forgetting that she had any, so little do they seem to figure in her daily life.

Babe Paley and her husband Bill, powerhouse behind the Columbia Broadcasting System (CBS)

Babe Paley and her husband Bill, powerhouse behind the newly formed Columbia Broadcasting System (CBS)

Truman Capote’s Black and White Ball, 1966

Mia Farrow and Frank Sinatra, recently married

Mia Farrow and Frank Sinatra, recently married

Capote dancing with Marilyn Monroe

Capote dancing with Marilyn Monroe

Capote with the ball's guest of honor, Katharine Graham of the Washington Post

Capote with the ball’s guest of honor, Katharine Graham of the Washington Post

(Since my parents lived part of every year in Manhattan during this time period, Swans gradually took on added meaning for me. Several of the venues mentioned, especially the 21 Club, are places to which my father took us. If memory serves, we were there once at Christmas to witness a special annual event:

I was also reminded of my impulsive visit to Bergdorf’s in midtown Manhattan in April of 2008. I blew in to this impossibly high end establishment on my way to the Museum of Modern Art. My son was  to be married in two months, and I need some accessories for the occasion. So I thought I could pick up a few things…This (mis)adventure is chronicled in the post Gotham Diary. )

History of a Pleasure Seeker by Richard Mason  41ocsZlZ-DL._AC_UL320_SR192,320_

A sort of early twentieth century take on Fielding’s Tom Jones. Unapologetically bawdy and an absolute delight!

Or, as Oprah Winfrey proclaims, “This book about pleasure is a provocative joy.”


*The Painted Veil by W Somerset Maugham  5fce4f00a2451dcd302c7af476e063b2

Written in 1925 and amazingly readable. A terrific story of a spoiled young woman’s coming of age.

A great idea for a book club is to read this book and then watch the 2006 movie starring Edward Norton and Naomi Watts. It’s an excellent film that hews fairly closely to the novel but also makes some interesting changes in the plot line.

I first read The Painted Veil when Selena Hastings’s 2010 biography of Maugham launched me into an most gratifying program of reading the works of this master storyteller. And just now I’m reading a thriller by Philip Kerr in which Maugham himself figures as a character – most gratifying! 51Js0dKpUCL._SX329_BO1,204,203,200_


*Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand by Helen Simonson  6643090

A remarkably accomplished work for a first novel, this unabashed but not overly sentimental love story is set in the English countryside, where some of us spend much of our time imagining ourselves to be.


The Corduroy Mansions Trilogy by Alexander McCall Smith:

Corduroy Mansions, The Dog Who Came In from the Cold, and A Conspiracy of Friends  20101008-104821-pic-3201594 dogcold


Unfortunately, I started on the second volume rather than the first. But I can tell you for sure that numbers two and three are utterly captivating. I got completely caught up in the characters’ lives; most especially that of Freddie de la Haye, a most engaging (not to mention courageous and resourceful) canine.

*The Newlyweds by Nell Freudenberger  51qFj1ItXoL._SX324_BO1,204,203,200_

Once again, a book club selection that I did not expect to like but did. It’s a love story that’s both modern and timeless, similar in that sense to Major Pettigrew, cited above. Warm-hearted and gracefully written.

The following are titles I’ve reviewed previously in this space. I’ve provided links to the relevant posts:

*Life After Life by Kate Atkinson  BOOK-blog427

I should not have liked this novel. I’m always insisting that I like my stories related in a chronological manner. If it was good enough for Jane Austen, Charles Dickens, etc., it’s good enough for me. No experimental narrative time lines – please!

Well, what can I say. This one of the most non-linear narratives I’ve ever encountered. Somehow Atkinson’s storytelling method adapts itself perfectly to her subject: the political chaos of Western Europe in the first half of the  twentieth century, as  exemplified in the life – or possible lives – of one woman.

I was riveted.
Evil Eye by Joyce Carol Oates    149283740

Four deliciously creepy novellas from a master of the genre.

*The Children Act by Ian McEwan  TheChildrenAct

McEwan here depicts a moral dilemma of the most dire nature. The suspense grows naturally from the agonizing situation, one in which all parties, even those in fiercest opposition, are trying to do the right thing.

A tour de force by a writer who turns them out regularly

*Sparta by Roxana Robinson  sparta-rroxana

As a depiction of the trials of a returning soldier, this novel was both convincing and compassionate.

The Wife of Martin Guerre by Janet Lewis  18774911

Among the two or three most brilliantly uncanny historical novels I’ve ever read. Based on an actual incident in which a man long absent from his home in rural France returns to claim his patrimony – and his wife. Made into an equally brilliant film titled The Return of Martin Guerre:


Next up: nonfiction and crime fiction

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The Patriarch: another excellent entry in Martin Walker’s Bruno Chief of Police series

April 8, 2016 at 4:27 pm (Book review, books, France, Mystery fiction)

9780385354172 J’ai adoré ce livre!

I did indeed love this book, from its opening at a celebration for a French patriot and war hero right through to the conclusion, where Bruno, having solved a fiendishly intricate mystery, is nonetheless still pining for the ideal wife and mother he seeks to make his life whole and rewarding.

This yearning, which from time to time retreats into the background of his life but never entirely disappears, is one of the traits that makes Bruno Courreges such an endearing character.

In addition to Bruno, the novel’s other characters are vividly depicted, and once again the beauty and fascination of the Perigord region is brought to life for the reader. But most amazing of all are the descriptions of the food and wine. Bruno is a gourmet cook, and his version of “whipping something up” is miles  above mine (canned tuna with mayonnaise thrown in and some crackers, with Diet Snapple to wash it down.).

The prep:

He filled the trout with some crushed garlic and lemon slices. He washed the large mushrooms, put a teaspoon of white wine into the bowl of the mushrooms and then inserted a cabécou [a type of goat cheese] into each one. He prepared a bowl of honey and some crushed walnuts and then opened one of the jars of black-current compôte he’d made when the hedge  below his house had been thick with the ripe fruit.

Then the actual meal, at which Bruno’s guests are understandably impressed and grateful:

“I’ve never seen  this before,” said the brigadier as J-J cut into the pate and the foie gras and sliced truffles were revealed. They ate in appreciative silence, and as the last of the pate disappeared, Bruno took the mushrooms from atop the grill and slid them beneath the ehated plate and watched until the goat cheese started to bubble. When he judged them done, he took them out, sprinkled crushed walnuts over each one and then drizzled honey on top. Bruno then put the trout onto the grill and served the mushrooms.

Don’t know about you, but I’m ready to hop on a plane and head straight for this culinary paradise!

Oh – and then, there’s the wine. In this scene, Bruno has been invited to a cave, or wine cellar, to deliver his opinion of a new vintage:

He swirled the glass a little to see the healthy crown as the liquid trickled back down the sides of the glass. He swirled it more and then sniffed, cocking his head as he’d been taught to give each nostril a chance to savor the bouquet. He smelled dark fruit, a fresh earthiness like a plowed field after the rain; that would be the merlot…He swirled the glass again and sniffed once more, recognizing the freshness of the cabernet sauvignon. He took a sip, let it settle in his mouth to reach those less-used taste buds at the back of his tongue. He recognized something mineral in the flavor….

I cannot tell a lie: Whenever my husband encounters passages like this especially the part about “the fresh earthiness like a plowed field after the rain,” he invariably lifts his gaze heavenward and proclaims: “They’re making that stuff up!” But these folks do take their wine very seriously.

And they take their fun seriously as well. The (fictional) village of St. Denis, where Bruno does his policing, seems to be by and large a delightful and welcoming place. Its residents, mostly known to one another, socialize frequently and informally. They live surrounded by beautiful countryside and a rich history that goes back to prehistoric times.

Medieval and Renaissance era history are also a vivid presence, as Bruno reflects while driving by the Chateau de Losse.

So where, you may reasonably ask, is the mystery? Oh, it’s there, all right. It begins with a decease that seems to be from natural causes – if drinking yourself to death can be termed ‘natural’ –  but might in fact be something else. Original? Not very, but it doesn’t matter. A tangled set of circumstances requires the steady persistence of Bruno and his friends and colleagues to unravel. There is perhaps too much convoluted explanatory material presented near the conclusion. (This is a tendency I’ve noted in quite a few crime novels of late.) But your interest will be held, if not by the investigation itself than by the enchantment of the Perigord region of France. (A word of warning: the local lifestyle includes an unapologetic enthusiasm for hunting and for the eating of meat. In fact, Patriarch includes a gripping subplot that concerns a fiercely uncompromising animal rights activist who thinks nothing of going up against  these and other local cultural norms.)

From the author’s Acknowledgments at the end of the book:

 The Périgordins are a convivial and welcoming folk, deeply appreciative of their good fortune in living in such a lovely and historic part of the world, and my family and I count ourselves lucky to have been allowed to share it for the past fifteen years.

Martin Walker

Martin Walker

Of the Perigordins, Walker adds: “They are the real stars of the Bruno tales.”


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“…a chronicle of fathers and sons, megalomaniacs, monsters and saints.” – The Romanovs 1613 – 1918, by Simon Sebag Montefiore

April 3, 2016 at 3:05 pm (Book review, books, Russophilia)

IMG_1818-X2  Some weeks ago I became aware of a sweeping new history of the Romanov dynasty by British historian Simon Sebag Montefiore. When I made this discovery, the book had not yet been published here; neither was it available on Kindle. I therefore ordered it from You understand: e-book or hard copy, I had to have it  immediately. (This title comes out here on May 3.)

The text consists of 654 pages, prefaced by a nine page introduction, which should definitely not be skipped. The text is followed by 71 pages of bibliographic citations and footnotes. Then finally, the index.

Every few years I make it a point to delve into the perpetual mystery of Russian history. Russia being a place where, as Scottish writer Neal Ascherson reminds us, “the past is said to be unpredictable,” I figure it’s worth checking from time to time on how things stand. The Family Romanov (2014) was my most recent foray: romanovfleming2

Montefiore’s book covers vastly more territory, beginning with the election of Tsar Michael I in 1613. Michael-I-Romanov-Wedekind_-_width_630

The story of the Romanov dynasty is nothing short of astonishing: filled with ruthless jockeying for power, merciless destruction of human obstacles – murder was the least of it. Methods of torture were freely employed that I’d never heard of and hope never to hear of again. I had to skim certain parts.

Upon the death of Michael in 1645, Alexei ascended the throne.  Alexis_I_of_Russia_(1670s,_Ptuj_Ormož_Regional_Museum) He was a religious fanatic, spending many hours in prayer, but compared to some of his successors, he wasn’t half bad as a ruler. When he died in 1676, the almost inevitable struggle for power ensued.

Sophia_Alekseyevna_of_Russia  For a time, Alexei’s daughter Sophia ruled as regent until she was hustled off to a convent in 1689. In the 1879 portrait below, Ilya Repin depicts her looking distinctly disgruntled  at being shoved aside. Actually she’s lucky nothing worse was done to her. Ditto for the man hanged outside her window, on the right: Sofiarepin

The man doing the shoving was Peter the Great. Peter is an amazing character in every way, even for Russia, a country whose history is filled with amazing (and often appalling) actors. (And “actor” is often the right word: people were constantly appearing out of nowhere to declare themselves the rightful heir to the throne of Russia. One of the more remarkable among them, appearing in the following century, was Princess Tarakanova. Her name is shrouded in legend, one of which claims that she died in a flood. In this 1864 painting, Konstantin Flavitsky depicts her as she awaits her fate. Has she attained a sort of ecstatic state? I’m not sure, but it’s a remarkable and strangely haunting work:

0 T .)

There is also a silent film about Princess Tarakanova:

Back to Peter the Great: at six foot eight, a larger than life personage in every way:



Portrait by Godfrey Kneller

The Wikipedia entry on Peter is quite comprehensive. I note, however, that it makes no mention of a sort of profane dining and drinking society first convened by Peter in 1691, when he would have been barely twenty years old.  I am reading about it right now. Its full name was the All-Mad, All-Jesting All-Drunken Synod (or Assembly):

Between 80 and 300 guests, including a circus of dwarfs, giants, foreign jesters, Siberian Kalmyks, black Nubians, obese freaks and louche girls started carousing at noon and went on to the following dawn….

A steely capacity for alcohol (which he usually called Ivashka, the Russian version of John Barleycorn) was essential to rise at Peter’s court. Peter was blessed with an iron metabolism for alcohol, rising at dawn to work even after these marathon wassails.

Participation in these coarse and repulsive revels, in other words, was mandatory.

I’m currently on page 84 of this magisterial volume; I have every intention of pressing on.

Simon Sebag Montefiore himself comes from a distinguished lineage, described in Wikipedia as “descended from a line of wealthy Sephardi Jews who were diplomats and bankers all over Europe and who originated from Morocco and Italy.”

Montefiore's great great great Uncle Sir Moses, who who died aged 100, leaving no legitimate sons

Montefiore’s great great great Uncle Sir Moses Montefiore, who who died aged 100, leaving no legitimate sons

This book has lovely endpapers. This may seem of little significance to some, but to me, it is part of what makes hard copy books precious.



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