On Saturday August 27, this letter appeared in the Washington Post:
While reading the first paragraph of Michael Dirda’s review of Edwin Greenwood’s “The Deadly Dowager” [“The largely forgotten mystery that should be in your beach bag,” Style, Aug. 18], I slipped the sordid and mundane bonds of the present. The distant life of ideas, which brings solace and meaning to a brutish world, peeked for a moment over the dark horizon like an unannounced sunrise.
Most of us leave that life behind when we leave school. We forget about poetry and literature and lofty thoughts; we forget how much they lighten the load of being and bring order to chaos; we become poorer.
For a few moments, I felt rich and young again. “What species of utterance is this?” Ode or elegy, it is the only one that lasts.
Thanks go to Dirda for that tiny glance back to the ivory tower, a relic of which I still carry near my heart.
Lynn Peterson Mobley, Great Falls
My first thought was that the phrase “the sordid and mundane bonds of the present” had a familiar ring. It put me in mind of Ronald Reagan. Research took me to Reagan’s address to the nation on the occasion of the Challenger tragedy. The President concluded that speech with the following words:
The crew of the space shuttle Challenger honored us by the manner in which they lived their lives. We will never forget them, nor the last time we saw them, this morning, as they prepared for their journey and waved goodbye and “slipped the surly bonds of earth” to “touch the face of God.”
Those phrases are taken from a poem entitled “High Flight” by John Gillespie Magee:
Oh! I have slipped the surly bonds of earth
And danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings;
Sunward I’ve climbed, and joined the tumbling mirth
Of sun-split clouds – and done a hundred things
You have not dreamed of – wheeled and soared and swung
High in the sunlit silence. Hov’ring there,
I’ve chased the shouting wind along, and flung
My eager craft through footless halls of air.
Up, up the long, delirious, burning blue
I’ve topped the wind-swept heights with easy grace
Where never lark, or even eagle flew –
And, while with silent lifting mind I’ve trod
The high untrespassed sanctity of space,
Put out my hand and touched the face of God.
Reagan’s address on that terrible occasion was a model of grace and clarity. The story of how it came to be written – under pressure and at a moment of extreme urgency – is quite interesting. It made a star out of the (young and inexperienced) woman from whose pen it issued.
As for Lynn Peterson Mobley’s letter, I am in awe of the beauty of expression that she summoned therein. I could not agree with her more about “poetry and literature and lofty thoughts.” I too had a college experience in which those values were paramount. At Goucher College, I was fortunate enough as an English major to have world class professors to teach and inspire me:
Professor William Hedges on American Literature
Professor William Mueller on Existentialism
Professor Brooke Peirce on Shakespeare and poetry of the English Enlightenment
Decades later, I remain deeply thankful for this experience.
The poetry that resonates most deeply with me right now (as I seek for ways to return to Great Britain) is A.E. Housman’s A Shropshire Lad.
Into my heart an air that kills
From yon far country blows:
What are those blue remembered hills,
What spires, what farms are those?
That is the land of lost content,
I see it shining plain,
The happy highways where I went
And cannot come again.
I’ve read two novels entitled An Air That Kills. One is the first entry in Andrew Taylor’s fine Lydmouth series; the other is by Margaret Millar.
Having traveled to Shropshire and the incredibly beautiful Welsh border country in 2011, I gained a vivid appreciation of how much A Shropshire Lad means to the British people. While in a bookshop in one of the towns we passed through, I bought a beautiful new edition of the poem.
Is My Team Ploughing
By A. E. Housman
“Is my team ploughing,
That I was used to drive
And hear the harness jingle
When I was man alive?”
Ay, the horses trample,
The harness jingles now;
No change though you lie under
The land you used to plough.
“Is football playing
Along the river shore,
With lads to chase the leather,
Now I stand up no more?”
Ay the ball is flying,
The lads play heart and soul;
The goal stands up, the keeper
Stands up to keep the goal.
“Is my girl happy,
That I thought hard to leave,
And has she tired of weeping
As she lies down at eve?”
Ay, she lies down lightly,
She lies not down to weep:
Your girl is well contented.
Be still, my lad, and sleep.
“Is my friend hearty,
Now I am thin and pine,
And has he found to sleep in
A better bed than mine?”
Yes, lad, I lie easy,
I lie as lads would choose;
I cheer a dead man’s sweetheart,
Never ask me whose.
The Poetry Foundation site has an excellent biography of Housman.
This edition of A Shropshire Lad was published by Merlin Unwin Books in 2009 on the occasion of 150th anniversary of the poet’s birth.
I like the short commentary on the Naxos Audiobook site:
In A Shropshire Lad, A.E. Housman recreates a nostalgic world of lost love, lost youth, thwarted friendships, unfaithful girls, male bonding, untimely death and the uncertain glories of being a soldier. The poems deal with the exuberance of youth – its aspirations and disappointments, its naïve certainties and tragic mistakes. Though written in 1895, it struck a chord with the generation of young men who fought in World War I. It was said that every ‘Tommy’ had a copy in his knapsack. It has never been out of print.
The 1950s collection came out in April of last year; the second volume, in April of this year. Critics and readers alike mostly agree that the MacDonald attained the high point of his creativity in the sixties. This does not mean that the earlier books are any less worthwhile. I’ve read all seven of the above titles and more, and I freely admit that it’s hard for me to be impartial on the subject of Ross MacDonald.
The Archer novels are a potent mix of culture, crime and psychological motivation, the kinds of stories you have to sit with for a while after you finish them, just because they are so good, because they say something ineffable about the human condition.
[“Why you should get reacquainted with the mystery novelist Ross MacDonald,” by Mary Ann Gwinn, in the Seattle Times, July 27 2016]
The first Lew Archer that I ever read was The Zebra-Striped Hearse.
It is still one of my two or three favorites. I’ve subsequently reread it twice for book group discussions. As is usual with MacDonald, the plot is complex and twisty – I actually created a flow chart in order to keep the various developments straight.
But the writing – ah, the writing…
The striped hearse was standing empty among other cars off the highway above Zuma. I parked behind it and went down to the beach to search for its owner. Bonfires were scattered along the shore, like the bivouacs of nomad tribes or nuclear war survivors. The tide was high and the breakers loomed up marbled black and fell white out of oceanic darkness.
MacDonald excels at writing dialog; it’s what his novels mainly consist of. Description of characters conveys much in few words:
We sat in close silence, listening to each other breathe. I was keenly aware of her, not so much as a woman, but as a fellow creature who had begun to feel pain. She had lost her way to the happy ending and begun to realize the consequences of the sealed-off past.
The fateful exposure of that past is what many of MacDonald’s novels are about.
The appearance of the Library of America volumes has occasioned several appreciative essays in the review media. In the Seattle Times article cited above, Mary Ann Gwinn goes on to enumerate the reasons she cherishes MacDonald’s works:
• [His] immersion in the glittering highs and the dark lows of Hollywood film culture — wishful, wayward starlets, manipulative movie executives, performers with rampant egos whose descendants still clog the airwaves today.
• P.I. Lew Archer’s sturdy, if romantic heart. “The problem was to love people, try to serve them, without wanting anything from them,” he concluded in “The Barbarous Coast.” Indeed.
• A mercifully low level of violence, though there is gunplay, a few beatings and one death-by-knitting-needle.
…in fully embracing the observer nature of the fictional private eye, Macdonald refined the genre to the point where it became a rich and fascinating comment upon itself. This endears his books to critics and other intellectual types who like to think about such things. More important, it gives his stories a vitality and depth that keep them readable and relevant more than 50 years after they were written.
“A Passion for Mercy” by Tobias Jones in The Guardian is itself beautifully written and studded with shrewd observations:
Over a series spanning 18 novels, Archer became something paradoxical: a memorable character about whom the reader knows next to nothing, the man with the punchy one-liners who is actually a good listener. Macdonald once wrote of his famous creation that he was “so narrow that when he turns sideways he almost disappears”. The thinness was deliberate because Macdonald wanted his detective to be like a therapist, a man whose actions “are largely directed to putting together the stories of other people’s lives and discovering their significance. He is … a consciousness in which the meanings of other lives emerge.”
From Tom Nolan, Wall Street Journal’s crime fiction reviewer and biographer of Ross MacDonald:
“All the household-name mystery writers since the 1970s in a sense owe their careers to his crossover onto mainstream-fiction bestseller lists; he paved the way for Robert B. Parker, Sue Grafton, Tony Hillerman and dozens of others. And he set an artistic standard that many authors still aspire to.”
Eudora Welty’s review of The Underground Man appeared on the cover of the New York Times Book Review in 1971:
”Ross Macdonald’s style is one of delicacy and tension, very tightly made, with a spring in it. It doesn’t allow a static sentence or one without pertinence. And the spare, controlled narrative, built for action and speed, conveys as well the world through which the action moves and gives it meaning, brings scene and character, however swiftly, before the eyes without a blur. It is an almost unbroken series of sparkling pictures. The style that works so well to produce fluidity and grace also suggests a mind much given to contemplation and reflection on our world.”
(In the post prior to this one, I mentioned that Helene, one of my oldest and dearest friends, many years ago recommended A.S. Byatt’s novel Possession. It was a book that should have worked for me but didn’t. This same friend it was who gave me The Zebra-Striped Hearse.)
Sue Grafton, a longtime admirer of the Lew Archer novels, contributed the introduction to Tom Nolan’s biography:
“If Dashiell Hammett can be said to have injected the hard-boiled detective novel with its primitive force, and Raymond Chandler gave shape to its prevailing tone, it was Ken Millar, writing as Ross Macdonald, who gave the genre its current respectability, generating a worldwide readership that has paved the way for those of us following in his footsteps.”
Several weeks ago, while subbing at the library, I came across this: . Though the book was unknown to me, the author was well known: Antonia Byatt, one of Britain’s greatest women of letters, author of the much loved 1990 Booker Prize winner Possession: A Romance. (Both my mother and my close friend Helene loved that book and urged it on me. For some reason, I found it unreadable, but I very much enjoyed this author’s 2003 collection Little Black Book of Stories. As for Possession, I’ve long considered the best thing about it to be its cover: . The Beguiling of Merlin is a work by the great Pre-Raphaelite painter Sir Edward Burne-Jones: )
Back to Peacock & Vine: Before setting eyes on this small volume – Byatt calls it an essay; the illustrations are exquisite – I had only heard the name ‘Fortuny’ in connection with the title of a novel owned at one time by the library: Byatt’s little book is subtitled “On William Morris and Mariano Fortuny.” Like most Anglophiles, I’m well acquainted with William Morris‘s work in painting and design. Fortuny, as I said above, I knew not at all.
Born in Spain in 1849, Mariano Fortuny moved with his family to Paris when he was still a young child. When he was eighteen, the family moved again, this time to Venice. The city claimed Fortuny as its own; he lived there until his death in 1949.
He lived in a world of elegant parties, extravagant theatricals, carnival and opulence.
From Peacock & Vine
Despite the somewhat decadent, even sybaritic sound of Byatt’s description, Fortuny was anything but a dilettante. In fact, he was extraordinarily creative, excelling in numerous fields: painting, photography, architecture, invention, theatrical set design and lighting, and fashion. It is in that last category that he is probably best known today. His crowning creation in that field is the Delphos gown, “based on the robes seen on male and female Greek statues such as the Kore of Euthydikos, the Kore of Samos, and the charioteer of Delphi.” It is this latter that’s the most famous:
The Delphos gown was made of sheer silk, densely pleated and sometimes adorned with glass beading. Owners were encouraged to store them thus: When unraveled, they looked like this: The pooling hemline probably made walking a challenge. Also, woman were encouraged to wear only the lightest of undergarments – if any.
How Fortuny achieved this pleating effect was something of a mystery at the time, and still is.
Fortuny also had a nice line in stenciled velvet gowns and capes:
This amazingly creative man patented more than twenty inventions between 1901 and 1934. He was also a painter:
Fortuny came by his gifts naturally: his father, Maria Fortuny i Marsal, born in 1838, was a gifted painter in his own right. (Maria Fortuny died in 1874, when his son Mariano was three years old.) Here are three of his works:
As I was approaching the end of Peacock & Vine, I had also begun reading Another One Goes Tonight, Peter Lovesey‘s latest Peter Diamond procedural. About a third of the way in, there’s a scene in which Diamond is searching a suspect’s workshop. (He’d obtained the key to the premises by subterfuge; he had no warrant and the suspect was in a coma at the time.) On a high shelf, he spots three funerary urns. He climbs up on a chair to investigate further. His prior assumption that the urns contain ashes proves erroneous. He takes one of them down and reaches inside:
A piece of fine, cream-colored silk was coiled to fit into the space. He lifted it out and stepped down from the chair. The lightweight silk unfurled into a finely pleated, exquisitely tailored, full-length gown. In spite of the way the garment has been stored, there was scarcely a crease to be seen.
Diamond, no fashion maven, is not quite sure what to make of this find. So he presents one of the gowns to his lady friend, Paloma Kean, for her appraisal. Paloma is an expert on period clothing and knows at once what Peter has placed before her.
By that point, so did I.
Fortuny had made a surprise appearance in my mystery novel! And this, just as I was first learning who he was.
William Morris has taken something of a back seat to Fortuny in this post, though he does not do so in Byatt’s book. So I’d like to insert here one of his most famous and beautiful wallpaper designs: “The Strawberry Thief:”
Unlike Mariano Fortuny, Morris was not lucky in his home life. His wife Jane Burden Morris, often called Janey, was in love with another man, poet and painter Dante Gabriel Rossetti; neither of them made any effort to disguise their mutual attraction.
In the Wall Street Journal’s Review section of August 5, Willard Spiegelman expresses his awe and appreciation of The Charioteer of Delphi in an essay entitled “Beauty Takes a Victory Lap in This Masterpiece” (see image above).
And yet…. In July of 1895, in a house in Plaistow, “a poor but respectable working-class district in the borough of West Ham” in East London, Robert Coombes, age 13, stabbed his mother Emily to death as she lay in her bed.
He then closed and locked her bedroom door.
Robert had a brother a year younger than himself. He was called Nattie. Their father, a seaman bound for New York, had no idea of the horror awaiting him back home.
Acquiring funds any way they could, Robert and Nattie proceeded to live large. When friends and family asked after their mother, they invented various excuses for her absence. Aside from running around town and generally enjoying themselves, especially when watching cricket test matches at Lord’s, Robert and Nattie spent time at home playing cards with their friend John Fox, a man in his mid-forties of apparently limited intellect.
Meanwhile, a noxious odor had begun to emanate from the upper floor. It was beginning to pervade the entire house and could even be detected from the outside. Robert and Nattie’s excuses began to wear thin. They were even barring the door to their mother’s friends and her sister-in-law, also named Emily. Soon the latter would brook no further obstruction. She and her friend Mary Jane Burrage forced their way into the house as Nattie fled out the back. Once again, Aunt Emily demanded to know the whereabouts of Robert and Nattie’s mother. Robert claimed that she was in Liverpool. Mrs Burrage was having none of it. She stated bluntly: “‘Your mother is lying dead in that room upstairs.” With Robert still denying, she and Aunt Emily went up and gained entry to the bedroom.
Although they could not see only mounded up sheets and pillows, the stench was overwhelming. They backed out of the room and sent for the police. When PC Twort finally arrived and removed the coverings, he was greeted by a gruesome sight: a woman’s dead body, already undergoing putrefaction and crawling with maggots.
Nattie and Robert Coombes were arrested, as was their friend John Fox. Fox was soon discharged; charges against Nattie were withdrawn on condition that he testify against his brother. This he did.
Both the public and the press the followed the legal proceedings avidly, while all the time condemning the appalling nature of the crime. From a local paper called the Stratford Express:
“The ‘Plaistow Horror’ is a story which must depress all who are longing for the improvement of mankind. It will pain public feeling to an extent which has rarely been equalled . It seems to plunge us back at once into the Dark Ages.”
The only way that Robert Coombes could escape the death penalty – his youth was no bar to it – was if he were found to be insane. In due course, this judgment was handed down. Robert was sent to Broadmoor Hospital.
Upon its founding in 1863, the facility’s official name was The Broadmoor Criminal Lunatic Asylum. In the late 1890s, as per Summerscale’s fascinating description, it was operated in a remarkably humane manor. In addition, the grounds were bucolic and offered appealing views to all who dwelt therein.
It was as idyllic a prospect as a city boy like Robert had ever seen. In this pastoral setting the inmates of Broadmoor were returned to a kind of innocence: they were stripped of their freedoms and responsibilities, rendered as powerless and unencumbered as children. In Broadmoor they were unlikely to be reproached for their crimes. They entered a suspended existence, with little reference to the past or the future, a strange corollary to the dissociated, dreamlike state that often attended psychosis. The asylum was both gaol and sanctuary, fortress and enchanted castle. The spell by which the patients were bound within its walls could be lifted only at the behest of the queen.
(I am deeply grateful that there are still among us people who have such a marvelous command of the language.)
Having lived at Broadmoor for seventeen years, Robert was discharged in 1912.. He was thirty years old. In January of 1914 he set sail for Australia. (Nattie, who had become a seaman like their father. had also emigrated.) Once there, Robert set about creating a new life for himself as a farmer. But the outbreak of war intervened.
In August of 1914, Robert joined the 13th Battalion of the Australian Imperial Force. He had already had experience playing in brass bands in England, specifically at Broadmoor; he took on that role with his mates in the battalion. He was also trained as a stretcher bearer; his task, along with his fellow bearers, was to rescue the wounded from the battlefield and bring them to a place behind the lines where they could be treated in relative safety. His ability to perform this task effectively would be tested to the limit when, in April of 1915, his battalion set off for Gallipoli, “a peninsula squeezed between the Aegean Sea and the Dardanelles in what is now western Turkey.” (Smithsonian Magazine)
I’d heard of this battle and seen the 1981 film Gallipoli. I didn’t remember much about it. Possibly I repressed the memory. I knew that words such as carnage and slaughter were frequently used to describe the battle. All I can say is that Kate Summerscale’s description of what actually happened there was so harrowing that I had to fight my way through it. If there was ever a Hell on Earth, Gallipoli was it.As for Robert, his performance as stretcher bearer under these extreme conditions was exemplary. He managed to survive the experience, an achievement in itself. He was directly or indirectly responsible for saving numerous lives, and was awarded several medals, richly deserved by all reports.
The above summary of Kate Summerscale’s narrative is cursory in the extreme. She not only covers the trial of Robert Coombes in fascinating detail, but she also pulls back from his story to provide a wider context for the reader. She’s especially good at conveying the mindset of the people who lived at the turn of the century, both in England and Australia.
As this book approached its conclusion, I began to appreciate its true heft. For me, The Wicked Boy addresses a most profound issue; namely, can a person live his or her in such a way as to expiate a “primal eldest” sin? It is a matter that only the individual reader and thinker can decide. But Kate Summerscale has given us the perfect case study with which to ponder the question.
A mesmerizing read; a terrific book.
A special issue of the July 31 edition of The New York Times Book Review – “Summer Thrills” – was fairly bursting with great suggestions for us crime fiction fans. And there was even a two page spread allotted to true crime! The writer was none other than the paper’s long time mystery reviewer (and taste maker for many of us), Marilyn Stasio.
Before plunging into specifics, Stasio admits that “…true crime unnerves me. It’s so…real.” Well of course it is! (I found this confession rather endearing.) But plunge ahead she does, to the tune of six different titles. There’s a nice variety here: contemporary, historical, a visit to the morgue, obsession with a rare tropical fish (the Asian arowana), etc.
I’ve read two of the six: True Crime Addict and The Wicked Boy. In a way, they represent the extremes of true crime writing. In the first, journalist James Renner recounts his obsessive search for Maura Murray. On February 9 2004, while standing beside her disabled vehicle in Haverhill, New Hampshire, Murray went missing. Between the time she was spotted by a passerby who offered to help, and seven minutes later when the police arrived, she had disappeared. Just like that. One minute she was there; the next, she was gone.
She has not been seen or heard from since.
Renner’s determination to solve this mystery is impressive. He conducted many interviews, reviewed a great deal of evidence, and in general worked tirelessly. This is an unusual true crime narrative, though, in the sense that the writer/investigator keeps getting in his own way. There’s a definite manic aspect to this quest that seems to take root in an already volatile personality. It probably didn’t help that after taking the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory, he was informed by the psychologist that “‘Your results were very similar to those of Ted Bundy, the serial killer.'”
After this bomb is dropped, Renner comments: “That’s one of those statements you just can’t unhear.” (It turns out that hard charging individuals such as law enforcement officers and CEO’s tend to score in a similar range.)
Sometimes the prose gets a bit ragged around the edges, but the book is never dull. In fact, there are times when Renner’s observations are striking. At one point, he hikes an area near where Maura disappeared. It’s treacherous going, and icy to boot. When he finally gets back to his vehicle, he’s tearful, exhausted, and drenched in sweat.
We forget how dangerous nature can be. We want to forget, I think. We don’t want to be reminded that nature is more deadly than man. Man can be cruel, but nature is indifferent. It is the unrivaled psychopath.
Throughout this book, the author veers from intense concentration on the task at hand to a self-absorption that’s almost as intense. He’s married with children; they must perforce go along with him on this wild ride. (The term I’d use to describe his wife Julie is ‘long suffering.’) Renner’s taking – or not taking – the drug Cymbalta is a thread that runs through this story. He’s grateful for the calming affect it has on him. On the other hand: “…there’s a freedom in blind rage once you give yourself over to it that is as welcoming as any drug.” At one point, he gives himself over to it in court and as a result, lands in jail.
I actually had trouble putting this book down. I might even read it again.
Kate Summerscale is the author of the terrific Victorian true crime narrative, The Suspicions of Mr Whicher (2008). In my view, The Wicked Boy is just as good, perhaps even better. It deserves a review of its own, and will get it in this space, soon.
Peter Scheldahl writes about art for the New Yorker. The short piece in the August 1 issue of the magazine is entitled “Young Master.” Here’s how it begins:
Seeing an unfamiliar painting by Rembrandt is a life event: fresh data on what it’s like to be human.
The Rembrandt in question is called “Judas Returning the Thirty Pieces of Silver:”
Rembrandt painted this when he was twenty-three years old. It is considered to be his first masterpiece, and is currently in the news because it has been lent to the Morgan Library and Museum, one of my favorite places in New York. The Morgan will exhibit it until September 18, at which time it will presumably be returned to the private collection whence it came.
I thought that finding out where that private collection is would be a deep dark secret, but I had very little trouble discovering it. Both the Web Gallery of Art and Wikimedia Commons identify it as Mulgrave Castle in Lythe, Yorkshire.
But that’s where the confusion begins – at least, for me it does. Wikipedia explains that Mulgrave Castle actually refers to three separate structures: an ancient ruin supposedly built in the sixth century, a later castle probably of Norman origin, and a country house built by one Lady Catherine Darnley presumably in the late 1600s. In 2003, supermodel Elle Macpherson comes into this mix! (check out the aforementioned Wikipedia entry for details.) The Wikipedia entry contains no mention of the Rembrandt.
The estate is currently owned by Constantine Phipps, Fifth Marquess of Normanby. It is situated near Whitby in North Yorkshire. Whitby is a storied place. We were there in 2007. The town has interesting shops; when you’re walking along the commercial avenue and you look up, you behold, high on a distant hill, the ruins of Whitby Abbey, originally established in AD 657 and destroyed in the mid 800s by the Vikings. A Benedictine monastery was established there in 1078. This in turn fell to ruin after King Henry VIII dissolved the Catholic religious houses in 1539. And that is what you see after you put your wallet away, secure your purchases, and turn your gaze upward.
(This almost supernatural collision of past and present is one of the reasons why I love England so much.)
When you go to the website for the Mulgrave Estate, it’s all business – not a hint of poetry anywhere. And once again, not a word about the Rembrandt….
Searching for truth, uncovering deception, both deliberate and inadvertent – these are Lu Brant’s core motivators, in both the personal and professional spheres. She’s the recently elected state’s attorney for Howard County, Maryland, and like her father who served in the position before her, she intends to be an unflinching seeker of justice. But as she starts out making her mark in the legal community, she has no idea how close to home this relentless ambition will soon take her.
A widow with two young children, Lu – short for Luisa – has chosen to move back into her childhood home so that her father, now retired, and his long time housekeeper can help her balance her overloaded life. It’s a bit like living in the past and the present simultaneously. The home in question is in the village of Wilde Lake, situated on the lake itself. Along with her parents, Lu and her much older brother AJ had been among the pioneers of the “new town” of Columbia, Maryland. (As she grew older, Lu had been told the sad facts concerning her mother’s passing.)
The above is but a brief recounting of a complex narrative which alternates back and forth between the past tense narration of the family’s early years in Columbia and the exposition of events occurring in the present. (Also, the past is related by Lu in the first person; the present, in the third person.) The family’s past is interwoven with Columbia’s early years. In these chapters, Lippman uses the actual names of various streets and neighborhoods.
The problem with parallel narratives is that one of them often asserts a larger claim on the reader’s interest than the other. When that happens,you can become impatient with the narrative that you’re finding less compelling. Again, this was my own experience with the novel.
There is also a problem with reading something that takes place so close to home. The impulse to fact check sometimes overrides one’s attentiveness to the story. At least, that was the case with this reader. I admit it was hard not to jump up and down when ‘Rain Dream Hill’ was mentioned, as I lived there for two years in the mid-1970s, which is pretty much the time period the author is describing in those sections.
Lippman’s writing is as breezily accessible as usual, and her sense of humor is very much intact. At one point, she describes a salad set cherished by her father and referred to by him as his “‘lares and penates’.” She confesses that “For years I thought that was Latin for oil and vinegar.” (Dictionary.com defines them as “
My overall assessment of Wilde Lake? First off, the local references were fun but at the same time distracting. I found the plot rather convoluted. In addition, I don’t especially care for the technique of jumping back and forth in time, or of switching verb tenses and point of view. I like a straight ahead narration. (This may be one of the reasons I’m currently preferring to read nonfiction, the other being that there’s so much terrific nonfiction being written right now.)
But well, it is Laura Lippman, she is a home town girl and a very talented one, and Lu Brant is an exceptionally likeable and sympathetic character: a thoroughly modern woman in some ways, but still beset with the same doubts and uncertainties that, in the twenty-first century, still bedevil women in this country and elsewhere as well.
So I would say in general that despite the reservations voiced above, I liked the book. I’d recommend it especially to those who are recent residents of this area or who, like me, resided here during the same period as Lu Brant did as a child (and as Laura Lippman herself did as a teenager, graduating from Wilde Lake High School in 1977).
My favorite work by Laura Lippman is still What the Dead Know. This powerful novel from 2008 was inspired by the disappearance of the Lyon sisters in adjacent Montgomery County in 1975. (Strangely, almost fatefully, after forty years without any substantial leads the case is once again in the news. This stunning development put me in mind of the penultimate line of the story “Dr. Henry Selwyn” by W.G. Sebald: “And so they are ever returning to us, the dead.”
I’d like to give Lu Brant herself the final word:
The truth is not a finite commodity that can be contained within identifiable borders. The truth is messy, riotous, overrunning everything. You can never know the whole truth of anything.
And if you could, you would wish you didn’t.
I’ve been missing our sojourns to the Folger Theatre, so yea, verrily, I was yearning for the wit, wisdom, and poetry of the Bard…
I got all three on Saturday in the Globe On Tour’s production of The Merchant of Venice at the Kennedy Center in Washington DC.
That’s Jonathan Pryce, above, as Shylock, the play’s most famous and controversial character. This was his first appearance in that role and his first time acting with the Globe. When he was first invited to take the part, he said no. He had never had any desire to act Shylock; in fact, he had a positive aversion to the role. But a seed had been planted. He reread the play, changed his mind, and signed on to do it.
It was brilliant. The entire production was brilliant.
This is not a play with which I’m particularly well acquainted. I came to it relatively cold, deliberately. Of course, I knew about Shylock, the Jewish moneylender. To a degree, I braced myself for the ugliness to come. And ugliness there is, but there is beauty also, mainly in the person of three sets of lovers who, this being a comedy, all ultimately attain their hearts’ desires.
Yet Shylock remains the burning center of the action. And, for me at least, his forced conversion at the play’s end was cringe-inducing in its cruelty. (To me, it seemed not only a mockery of Judaism, but of Christianity as well.)
Shakespeare’s comedy is Portia’s play, though some audiences now find it difficult to reach that conclusion.
Harold Bloom in Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human
It begins with boisterous music and dance. There’s also a fair amount of lighthearted horseplay, supplied mainly by Stefan Adegbola as Shylock’s servant Launcelot Gobbo. Adegbola shouts gleefully, and dashes all over the stage and into the audience, where he grabs people and pulls them onto the stage and into the action. Adegbola is a gifted comedian; he had the audience in stitches.
The single intermission did not occur until shortly before the famous courtroom scene. By then, the mood had turned decidedly somber.
One of the joys of seeing a Shakespeare play with which you are not all that familiar is the way in which familiar lines of dialog pop up now and then, providing richly rewarding “aha!” moments. A good example of this is Portia’s devastating putdown of one of her more irritating suitors: “God made him, and therefore let him pass for a man” (Act 1, Scene 2).
Then there’s this:
How far that little candle throws its beams!
So shines a good deed in a naughty world.
(Act 5, Scene 1)
Portia speaks these words almost in a state of wonderment. That second line appears in Judgement in Stone, Ruth Rendell’s masterpiece. In the context in which the late Baroness Rendell places it, the tone is quite different.
In Act Five, the playwright, as if released from some mysterious constraint, bursts forth with some of the most gorgeous poetry anywhere in the canon. Witness the dreamy, lyrical exchange between Jessica and Lorenzo that opens Scene One:
Lor. The moon shines bright: in such a night as this, When the sweet wind did gently kiss the trees And they did make no noise, in such a night 5 Troilus methinks mounted the Troyan walls, And sigh’d his soul toward the Grecian tents, Where Cressid lay that night. Jes. In such a night Did Thisbe fearfully o’ertrip the dew, 10 And saw the lion’s shadow ere himself, And ran dismay’d away. Lor. In such a night Stood Dido with a willow in her hand Upon the wild sea-banks, and waft her love 15 To come again to Carthage. Jes. In such a night Medea gather’d the enchanted herbs That did renew old Æson.
I confess the line I was waiting for was “How sweet the moonlight sleeps upon this bank.” It’s spoken just a bit later, in the same scene, by Lorenzo:
How sweet the moonlight sleeps upon this bank!
Here will we sit and let the sounds of music
Creep in our ears: soft stillness and the night
Become the touches of sweet harmony.
Sit, Jessica. Look how the floor of heaven
Is thick inlaid with patenes of bright gold:
There’s not the smallest orb which thou behold’st
But in his motion like an angel sings,
Still quiring to the young-ey’d cherubins;
Such harmony is in immortal souls;
But whilst this muddy vesture of decay
Doth grossly close it in, we cannot hear it.
When finally I heard it, I sighed inwardly: how lovely… And I’m delighted by “Sit, Jessica.” It is a line that’s startling in its contemporary resonance – as when Juliet says to Romeo: “The orchard walls are high and hard to climb.”
As for being Jewish while watching this play – well, I felt strangely ambivalent. My dear cousin, with whom I attended the performance and who is more committed in her Jewish observance than I am, had, I believe, a similar reaction; namely, it is anti-Semitic and it is brilliant. (There’s that word again; no denying it.) You can tell yourself that it is an entertainment of and for the time in which Shakespeare and his fellow players and collaborators lived and worked.
And yet – to quote Shylock:
If you prick us, do we nor bleed?
We are saddened and shocked by the devastating flood in downtown Ellicott City. A torrential downpour is responsible for two deaths and tremendous destruction of property.
This is a community of quiet charm, lovely – and in some cases, quirky – shops, and fine restaurants.
(Pictures are from The Washington Post.)
This happened some four or five miles from our house. We are on high ground and so were unaffected by this storm. Unaffected – but plenty scared. It seemed as though the pounding rain would never stop.
So far I have found these two organizations who are accepting donations for flood victims: