‘It was one of the mysteries of modern life, what happened to old love.’ – Improvement, by Joan Silber

November 27, 2017 at 4:05 pm (Book review, books)

   The January 18 Washington Post featured a review by Charles Finch of Improvement, a new novel by Joan Silber. The article is entitled, “Joan Silber, America’s Alice Munro.” (Could  there be any higher praise?) Charles Finch urges readers thus:

Go introduce yourself to the genius who’s  been toiling in your back yard.

Yes, YES! I could not agree more.

I immediately downloaded Improvement and read it in three (otherwise extremely busy) days. Joan Silber’s style is very colloquial. You could swear that she’s sitting next to you spinning a wildly improbable – or all too probable? – yarn, filled with characters who are unique and driven and at the same time only too vulnerable. What they all have in common is the mistaken assumption that they’re in control of their respective destinies.

Compulsively readable, hugely entertaining, and filled to the brim with home truths that seem only too inevitable after the fact.
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  As much as I enjoyed Improvement, I don’t think it’s quite on a par with Ideas of Heaven: A Ring of Stories, one of the most masterful and profound works of fiction I’ve ever encountered. In the twelve years since I first read this extraordinary collection of stories, I’ve returned to it in my mind, time and time again. It haunts me – particularly, the title story.

Joan Silber

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‘The Name Atticus Pünd was familiar to him….’ – Magpie Murders by Anthony Horowitz

November 19, 2017 at 2:30 pm (Book review, books, Mystery fiction)

  This is like a Golden Age detective novel on steroids – not that all of those were necessarily short. There’s always Gaudy Night. And that crowning (and lengthy) achievement in crime fiction by Dorothy L Sayers does not contain a murder.

Magpie Murders is a book within a book. Or perhaps it is better described as a book alongside another book. At the very least. it is oddly structured. But it does have some recognizable features, most particularly a brainy and cultured ‘consulting’ detective who arrives on Britain’s shores as a refugee from the war on the Continent. Remind you of someone? Well, he is somewhat reminiscent of Hercule Poirot, but his finely honed powers of observation also bring to mind Sherlock Holmes.

He is Atticus Pünd. This is how he appears to a physician who is treating him:

The name Atticus Pünd was familiar to him, of course. He was often mentioned in the newspapers – a German refugee who had managed to survive the war after spending a year in one of Hitler’s concentration camps. At the time of his arrest he had been a policeman working in Berlin – or perhaps it was Vienna – and after arriving in England, he had set himself up as a private detective, helping the police on numerous occasions. He did not look like a detective. He was a small man, very neat, his hands folded in front of him. He was wearing a dark suit, a white shirt and a narrow black tie. His shoes were polished. If he had not known otherwise, the doctor might have mistaken him for an accountant, the sort who would work for a family firm and who would be utterly reliable.

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Inevitably, Atticus Pund has a ‘Watson,’ hired to assist him in his detecting and record keeping endeavors. This is James Fraser.

A graduate out of Oxford University, a would-be actor, broke, and perennially unemployed, he had answered an advertisement in the Spectator thinking that he would stay in the job for a few months. Six years later, he was still there.

(Later in the novel, we’re informed that James Fraser was named for actor Hugh Fraser who played Captain Hastings, the somewhat dim but extremely likable ‘associate’ of  David Suchet’s brilliant Poirot.)

David Suchet as Hercule Poirot and Hugh Fraser as Captain Arthur Hastings

Atticus Pünd is a person possessed of deep understanding and a great capacity for empathy. Here, he is confiding to James Fraser his anxiety about the case they are investigating:

 ‘There is something about the village of Saxby-on-Avon that concerns me,’ he went on. ‘I have spoken to you before of the nature of human wickedness, my friend. How it is the small lies and evasions which nobody sees or detects but which can come together and smother you like the fumes in a house fire.’ He turned and surveyed the surrounding buildings, the shaded square. ‘They are all around us. Already there have been two deaths: three, if you include the child who died in the lake all those years ago. They are all connected. We must move quickly before there is a fourth.’

Meanwhile, Pünd is at work on a book which he hopes will encompass all the skills that he has acquired in the course of his detecting l life. It is to be entitled The Landscape of Criminal Investigation. (This immediately put me in mind of the oft-quoted tome The Principles of Private Detection,  written by Clovis Anderson and held in the highest esteem by Precious Ramotswe and Grace Makutsi of the No.1 Ladies’ Detective Agency. Their creator, Alexander McCall Smith, has said that readers frequently ask him where they can obtain a copy of this purportedly  wondrous volume. “You can’t,” he responds. “I made it up!”)

The Atticus Pünd novels are written by Alan Conway. His London-based editor, Susan Ryeland, narrates a portion of Magpie Murders. (As I said, this is a novel within a novel, or you could say it’s two novels conflated into one. If this seems confusing, don’t worry. It’s actually quite a cunning edifice, offering numerous delights and surprises within.)

At one point, Ryeland speculates on the appeal of the English village as a setting for crime fiction:

Why do English villages lend themselves so well to murder? I used to wonder about this but got the answer when I made the mistake of renting a cottage in a village near Chichester….I soon discovered that every time I made one friend I made three enemies and that arguments about such issues as car parking, the church bells, dog waste and hanging flower baskets dominated daily life to such an extent that everyone was permanently at each other’s throats. That’s the truth of it. Emotions which are quickly lost in the noise and chaos of the city fester around the village square, driving people to psychosis and violence. It’s a gift to the whodunnit writer. There’s also the advantage of connectivity. Cities are anonymous but in a small, rural community everyone knows everyone, making it so much easier to create suspects and, for that matter, people to suspect them.

This passage put me in mind of the following exchange between Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson in  the story “The Adventure of the Copper Beeches.” The two are traveling by train from London to Winchester:

It was an ideal spring day, a light blue sky, flecked with little fleecy white clouds drifting across from west to east. The sun was shining very brightly, and yet there was an exhilarating nip in the air, which set an edge to a man’s energy. All over the countryside, away to the rolling hills around Aldershot, the little red and grey roofs of the farm-steadings peeped out from amid the light green of the new foliage.

“Are they not fresh and beautiful?” I cried with all the enthusiasm of a man fresh from the fogs of Baker Street.

But Holmes shook his head gravely.

“Do you know, Watson,” said he, “that it is one of the curses of a mind with a turn like mine that I must look at everything with reference to my own special subject. You look at these scattered houses, and you are impressed by their beauty. I look at them, and the only thought which comes to me is a feeling of their isolation and of the impunity with which crime may be committed there.”

“Good heavens!” I cried. “Who would associate crime with these dear old homesteads?”

“They always fill me with a certain horror. It is my belief, Watson, founded upon my experience, that the lowest and vilest alleys in London do not present a more dreadful record of sin than does the smiling and beautiful countryside.”

Susan Ryeland is a lover of detective fiction, but she’s genuinely puzzled by the  frequent use of murder as a key plot device:

There are hundreds and hundreds of murders in books and television. It would be hard for narrative fiction to survive without them. And yet there are almost none in real life, unless you happen to live in the wrong area. Why is it that we have such a need for murder mystery and what is it that attracts us – the crime or the solution? Do we have some primal need of bloodshed because our own lives are so safe, so comfortable? I made a mental note to check out Alan’s sales figures in San Pedro Sula in Honduras (the murder capital of the world). It might be that they didn’t read him at all.

(It saddens me to reflect that the comment about “the wrong area” would probably not be made these days by an American. We’re learning more and more, to our collective chagrin, that the wrong area can be anywhere at all.)

Despite a certain unease, Susan Ryeland readily confesses her love for the crime fiction genre:

I’ve always loved whodunnits. I’ve not just edited them. I’ve read them for pleasure throughout my life, gorging on them actually. You must know that feeling when it’s raining outside and the heating’s on and you lose yourself, utterly, in a book. You read and you read and you feel the pages slipping through your fingers until suddenly there are fewer in your right hand than there are in your left and you want to slow down but you still hurtle on towards a conclusion you can hardly bear to discover. That is the particular power of the whodunnit which has, I think, a special place within the general panoply of literary fiction because, of all characters, the detective enjoys a particular, indeed a unique relationship with the reader. Whodunnits are all about truth: nothing more, nothing less.

Ah, yes – the pages slipping through your fingers, a delicious sensation hard to replicate with an e-reader…. And speaking of pages, don’t be daunted  by the novel’s length. It’s about 450 pages long but they fly by. (And why can’t I tell you exactly how long it is? Well, I’d have to do some arithmetic first. But really, just get it and you will see for yourself.)

Magpie Murders is a splendid hommage to the crime fiction of a bygone era. I’m immensely grateful to Anthony Horowitz for writing it.

Anthony Horowitz, named Officer of the Order of the British Empire (OBE) for services to literature in 2014

 

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The Nature of California

November 13, 2017 at 9:45 pm (Art, California, Family)

The bark of the Madrone Tree is reddish in color. When you handle it, it feels like some sort of heavy fabric, pliable and singularly lacking in the expected brittleness.

Bet you didn’t know that…

Neither did I. But this I learned and more, while walking and hiking in the woods and forests of the Bay Area, more specifically the Peninsular region of Northern California. The photo above was taken in Huddart Park in Woodside. We hiked the Bay Tree Trail.   Being enveloped by these woods was delicious. Most of the time, we were the only ones there. The words that kept recurring to me were: ‘This is the forest primeval….’

From Bay Trees such as these, we get the leaves of culinary fame. Growing in profusion along the eponymous trail,  they gave their scent to the air around us.

I’m a great lover of ferns; they are so primordial. They were plentiful along this trail.

And then. of course,  there are the majestic redwoods….

My younger brother, who loves and savors the nature of California

We went for a walk in a place called Hidden Villa. Nestled in a nook of Los Altos Hills – when they say ‘Hidden,’ they mean Hidden!’ – this is a nature preserve with a mission, to wit:

Hidden Villa is a nonprofit educational organization that uses its organic farm, wilderness, and community to teach and provide opportunities to learn about the environment and social justice.

From the Hidden Villa website

At Hidden Villa, we encountered a lush growth of trees and shrubs, a modest number of sheep, goats, cows, horses – oh, and plenty of children on school outings. All added to the magic of the afternoon.

We even came across a brook that was actually babbling! This was significant, as many dry creek beds were pointed out to us in the course of this visit. In a dry land, that sound is magical.

Hidden Villa was established by Frank and Josephine Duveneck.   The Duvenecks come across as entirely admirable people, but something else was going on for me as well. ‘Duveneck’ is an unusual name, and as soon as I saw it on the information brochure, I recognized it as a name I’d seen before – and recently, too.

Of late, I’ve been reading quite  a bit about American artists of the late nineteenth century, and the early part of the twentieth. The father of Frank Duveneck, husband of Josephine pictured above, was also (confusingly) named Frank. Frank the elder was a painter of some repute. He was married to Elizabeth  Boott, herself a painter as well. Elizabeth Boott and her father Francis were good friends of the novelist Henry James (someone I am always reading, and reading about).

All of this was revealed to me in the Wikipedia entry for Frank Duveneck. (I had simply googled ‘Duveneck.’) Click on the name of the son – Frank Boott Duveneck – and you’re taken straight to the entry for Hidden Villa.

In 1886, Lizzie Boott gave birth to a son Frank; she died of pneumonia in 1888, leaving behind her small son and a devastated husband.

Apple Tree Branches, by Elizabeth Boott

Elizabeth ‘Lizzie’ Boott, by Frank Duveneck

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Linden Tree Books in Los Altos specializes in Children’s books. In this era of disappearing bookstores, it was a pleasure to spend time there.

When I mentioned that I’d like a book for my four-year-old grandson, a lover of cars and other means of transportation, one of the sales associates suggested this:

My sister-in-law favored this:

And I simply coundn’t leave without The Water Hole by Graeme Base, a truly amazing illustrator:

This shop also carries a small but carefully chosen selection of books for adults. Luckily, the marvelous News of the World was there. Handing it to my sister-in-law I exclaimed “You have to read this!” Naturally it made the cut.

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My lucky brother and sister-in-law live amidst great beauty. In their yard, a lemon tree flourishes:

In the yard also is a sign of the times, alas….

Finally, in the kitchen of their lovely home, my sister-in-law, a gifted and enthusiastic cook, whipped up one heck of a moussaka!

Yours Truly helped as best I could. This assistance mostly consisted of measuring out spices and other foodstuffs, stirring the bechamel sauce, and struggling with recalcitrant containers:

When finally assembled, the dish was delicious!
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On our final night, a harvest moon shone brightly:

Ah California, mi amor.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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