A Wonderful Man

April 24, 2018 at 1:38 pm (Family)

  Yesterday, we said our final farewells to Dr. Harold Gilbert. I always called him ‘Uncle Hal,’ but actually he was my cousin. More precisely, he was my father’s first cousin. His father was my Grandmother Ida’s brother. Not only that – his mother was my Grandfather Jake’s sister. To add to  the confusion, both men were named Jacob.

The short version of this is, Brother and Sister married Brother and Sister. It’s an explanation that almost always leads to head scratching and mumbling to oneself and to others. (Hal loved to tell people that I was his cousin – the only extended family relation on his side living in the Baltimore area.)

No matter. Yesterday, the focus was rightly on Hal himself. When after decades of happy marriage, Hal lost his wife, my ‘Aunt Patsy,’ he had the great good fortune to meet and marry Phyllis. She added love, joy, and companionship to his final years.

In words of love and praise, Hal’s ‘works and days’ were described by Phyllis, granddaughter Alaina, daughter Debbie, and the Rabbi. Hal’s entire family has been a model of devotion, and with good reason: Hal was one of the most loving and generous individuals I’ve ever known. The Jewish religion and his family were always top priorities for him. (Special love goes out at this time from me to my cousin Stephany, more a sister than a cousin.)

At last year’s Passover Seder, he proclaimed Passover to be a wonderful celebration. Over the years, it also served as the celebration of a wonderful man.

Hal, it was great having you with us for the ninety-seven years of your life. You will be in our hearts way beyond this time.

Dr. Harold Gilbert


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‘The wet air was as cold as the ashes of love.’ – Farewell, My Lovely by Raymond Chandler

April 14, 2018 at 10:01 pm (Book review, books, Mystery fiction)

  I just finished Farewell My Lovely by Raymond Chandler and my head is so full of this astonishing jumble of (at times, frustrating) episodic brilliance that I can’t at the moment think or write about anything else.

There’s plenty of tension in this yarn, some of it generated by the interplay of opposites: good cop versus bad cop, a beautiful but deadly female versus a woman of genuine virtue and compassion. There are lots more characters, from the large yet love-struck and improbably named Moose Malloy to the unlikely – and distinctly unlikable – ‘Psychic Consultant’ names Jules Amthor.

And in the midst of it all, Philip Marlowe, licensed private eye, trying to make sense of it all.

For this reader, the strangest, almost inexplicable interaction occurs between Marlowe and a man called Red Norgaard. Marlowe is in search of a power broker named Laird Brunette. Red – he of the fire-colored hair and outsized build – plies the offshore waters of the Pacific in his motor boat, He offers to help Marlowe board a gambling ship illegally – i.e., with a gun. Their interaction is quite lengthy; in the course of it, Marlowe is moved to disclose something of himself that’s normally kept well out of sight. He begins by stating bluntly that he’s scared, then going on to elaborate.

“I’m afraid of  death and despair,” I said. “Of dark water and drowned men’s  faces and skulls with empty eyesockets. I’m afraid of dying, of being nothing, of not finding a man named Brunette.”

Red is a straight arrow of a guy. He’s not at all stupid but he’s not given to existential ruminations either. His reaction to Marlowe’s disclosure:

He chuckled. “You had me going for a minute. You sure give yourself a pep talk.”

Somehow, though, Red has touched something deep in Marlowe. Perhaps it was a his straightforward kindness, his willingness to help a stranger on a dangerous mission.

Hardboiled protagonists are famously portrayed as loners. But in this instance, Marlowe needed a friend and, like a blessing, one appeared at precisely the right moment. Later, after his harrowing adventure at sea:

I thought of the giant with the red hair and violet eyes, who was probably the nicest man I had ever met.

(It’s a safe assumption that Marlowe does not meet many ‘nice’ men – nor women, for that matter – in his line of work.)

Figurative language abounds in Farewell, My Lovely, sometimes it’s almost hypnotic. Of Nulty the cop:

He hung up and scribbled on a pad and  there was a  faint gleam in his eyes, a light far back in a dusty corridor.

Other times it’s downright disconcerting. Of Moose Malloy, on the novel’s first page:

He was a big man but not more than six feet five inches tall and not wider than a beer truck.

(This made me think of Mercutio’s riposte to Romeo: “‘…’tis not so deep as a well nor so wide as a  church-door…'”)

Subsequently, still descriptive of Moose Malloy:

Even on Central Avenue, not the quietest dressed street in the world, he looked about as inconspicuous as a tarantula on a slice of angel food.

Of a room just entered:

A couple of frayed lamps with once gaudy shades that were now as gay as superannuated streetwalkers.

There’s more, this mode of expression being one of the hallmarks of hardboiled prose. And this is probably as  good a place as any to quote a paragraph that seems to me emblematic of the style:

I got up on my feet and over to the bowl in the corner and threw cold water on my face. After a little while I felt a little better, but very little. I needed a drink. I needed a lot of life insurance. I needed a vacation. I needed a home in the country. What I had was a coat, a hat and a gun. I put them on and went out of the room.

And the plot? On the site Detnovel.com, Prof. William Marling calls it “disjointed.” Hah!  I call it all but incomprehensible. A multipliicity of twists and turns. A McGuffin in the form of a supposedly priceless jade necklace. Strange hand rolled cigarettes with secrets inside. Really, I was pretty much lost by the time we reached the back stretch. But you know what? It didn’t matter. By then I was all but mesmerized by the at times almost poetic urgency of the first person prose.

It has to be mentioned that Farewell, My Lovely has its share of ethnic slurs.The instances are not overabundant, but they are there, and they are jarring. Say what you will about “the times,” one wishes – I wish – that they could be made to go away. (This was in fact actually done in this country with post-World-War-Two editions of the works of Agatha Christie.)

I was prompted to read Farewell, My Lovely by the fact that it’s the June selection for the Usual Suspects Mystery Book Discussion Group. I’d actually been wanting to get back to Chandler for some time. This forms part of my extremely enjoyable program of returning to the classics of crime fiction. I’ve recently read these two:


Trent’s Last Case (1913) was termed by Dorothy L. Sayers to be “…a tale of unusual brilliance and charm, startlingly original”; Agatha Christie called it “One of the three best detective stories  ever written.” (I’d like very much to know what Christie’s other two choices for this designation were.) The Robthorne Mystery is less well known. Published in 1934, this quintessential English village mystery turns on a puzzling question of identity. I though the plot exceptionally well wrought. John Rhode’s real name was Cecil John Charles Street. Also writing as Miles Burton and Cecil Wayne, he was extremely prolific. (See the ‘Bibliography’ section of his Wikipedia entry.)  I enjoyed The Secret of High Eldersham by Miles Burton.

Farewell, My Lovely exists in two notable screen versions. The first was released in 1944, titled Murder, My Sweet, and starring Dick Powell as Philip Marlowe and Claire Trevor as Mrs. Lewin Lockridge Grayle –  sometimes called Helen Grayle, other times called something else.

The second version from 1975 retains the original title and stars Robert Mitchum and Charlotte Rampling.


  The Modern Library edition of Farewell, My Lovely that I just read also contains The Big Sleep, which I read years ago. This volume was published in 1995. Right after the last page of the novel, there’s a list of those who were on the editorial board at the time of publication:

Maya Angelou
Daniel J. Boorstin
A.S. Byatt
Christopher Cerf
Shelby Foote
Vartan Gregorian
Larry McMurtry
Edmund Morris
John Richardson
Arthur Schlesinger, Jr.
William Styron
Gore Vidal

Some very distinguished names. Most – but not all – have now passed from the scene.

I love the photo of Chandler on the cover of the Modern Library edition. The other photo of Chandler that I cherish is this one: Chandler and his wife Cissy both doted on Taki the cat.

The story of Raymond Chandler’s life is both fascinating and surprising. I recommend  A Mysterious Something in the Light: A Life of Raymond Chandler by Tom Williams.





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‘Their illusions are enchantments.’ – Andrew Graham-Dixon on the Northern Renaissance

April 13, 2018 at 12:54 pm (Art)

The following is from Andrew Graham-Dixon’s Renaissance:

Robert Campin – Jacques Daret; The Virgin and Child in an Interior

The sense of the real in fifteenth-century Northern European painting is so intense  that it becomes uncanny. The liquidity and brilliance of colours suspended in oil lends a particular lustre to details such as the copper ewer and the lights reflected in it. A dappled patch of light conveys the passage of sunshine onto a wall through the small panes of a thickly glazed window with astonishing virtuosity. Such effects would come as a revelation even to the Italians, who had done so much to achieve their own effects of naturalism in the different media of egg tempera and fresco. No wonder, perhaps, that the early Netherlandish artists should have acquired a reputation as necromancers and alchemists. Their illusions are enchantments.


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‘A light, almost transparent mist floated a few inches above a run of water near the trees, and the mist clung between the trees like a fallen cloud.’ – Jackrabbit Smile, by Joe R. Lansdale

April 8, 2018 at 4:15 pm (Book review, books, Mystery fiction)

  I’m always happy to encounter lovely descriptive writing, never more so than when I’m immersed in a work of crime fiction. The line quoted above in the title occurs about a third of the way in. It is not the only instance of lyrical prose in the novel.

There’s quite a bit of humor too, mostly consisting of snappy dialog and self-deprecating putdowns, all in the hoary tradition of hard-boiled prose. That aspect of Jackrabbit Smile reminded of me of Robert B. Parker’s Spenser novels; in addition there’s the banter between Hap and Leonard that’s reminiscent of the rapid fire quips exchanged by Spenser and Hawk. (Similar, but not the same; for this reader, Parker’s Spenser novels are irreplaceable.)

Joe Lansdale’s novel The Bottoms won the 2001 Edgar Award for Best Mystery Novel; in addition, it was a finalist for several other accolades. (See his entry in Stop!You’reKillingMe.com.) There’s something about crime fiction set in Texas that seems to lend an enveloping at times almost suffocating, atmosphere to the action. One thinks first of last year’s memorable Bluebird, Bluebird by Attica Locke.Then there’s true crime that likewise unfolds in The Lone Star State: The Midnight Assassin by Skip Hollandsworth and the older but riveting and unforgettable  Blood and Money by Thomas Thompson.

So at this point, are you sensing a “but” hovering over this write-up? The fact is, I have reservations about this book. They can be simply expressed in three words: vulgarity, profanity, and violence. Maybe it was just me, but it seemed as  though all three of these elements became increasingly prominent as the narrative unfolded.

I can accept a certain amount of coarse dialog in mystery fiction. And violence – well, we are talking about crime. But at what point do one, or both, become intolerable? I can’t pinpoint the moment. It’s down to the individual reader, I think.

And so I ended by being somewhat disappointed, albeit in a wistful way, with Jackrabbit Smile. I consider Joe Lansdale to be a fine writer with a sure grip on the conventions of crime writing. He has the ability to push the outer envelope in good ways, too. Hap and Leonard are genuinely appealing characters. (As this novel opens, Hap has just married his business partner Brett.) I can’t say how similar the other Hap and Leonard books are to this one, it being the only one that I’ve read. I may come back to the series in time – but not right away.

The Hap and Leonard series has been adapted for television by the Sundance Channel.

Joe R. Lansdale’s Wikipedia entry lists his occupations as “Writer, author, martial arts instructor.” He appears to be a lifelong Texan, currently residing in Nacogdoches. (The Nacogdoche are a Native American tribe originating in eastern Texas.)

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Sleeping in the Ground by Peter Robinson

April 4, 2018 at 7:22 pm (Book review, books, Music, Mystery fiction, The British police procedural)

  One of the aspects of Peter Robinson‘s Alan Banks novels that I most enjoy is Banks’s love of music. It’s an extremely eclectic affection – everything from rock to classical. In Sleeping in the Ground, I was especially pleased to encounter not one but two references to Gustav Mahler, a composer for whom my husband and I have a deep and abiding love. Banks mentions that Mahler wanted to hear Schubert’s Quintet in C as he lay on his deathbed. When you hear the Adagio from this work, you will understand this request:

Sleeping in the Ground begins with a horrendous act of violence, followed by an extremely tortuous investigation. Because of the nature of this particular crime, one is all the more appreciative of Banks’s dogged persistence, not to mention his shrewd instincts, honed by his many years on the job. He is a person of deep conviction and steadfast determination.

He is also a reserved and somewhat lonely man, divorced and the father of two adult children who have pretty much gone their own way and check in with him from time to time. Banks’s ex-wife has remarried; he has not. He’s had a few relationships, but none that have lasted. In this novel his old flame Jenny Fuller, psychologist and criminal profiler, re-enters his life, both professionally and personally. She’s been living in Australia, but now she’s back to stay. What will this mean, for the two of them?

After dinner together in the snug of a local pub, they’re still not sure. While not ruling out a renewal of their romance, Jenny nonetheless favors a go slow approach.

Banks didn’t know where his next thought came from, and he had  the good sense and quick enough wits to stop before he spoke it out aloud, but as he leaned back and reached for his beer glass, it flashed through his mind, as clear as anything: I don’t want to grow old alone.

Straight-up, unpretentious writing about straight-up unpretentious people – it’s one of the qualities I most appreciate in Peter Robinson’s wonderful long running series of procedurals.

Peter Robinson

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