Best of 2018, Five: Nonfiction, part three – In Byron’s Wake, by Miranda Seymour

December 29, 2018 at 1:52 pm (Best of 2018, Book review, books)

  George Gordon, Lord Byron, was indisputably a great poet.

I remember some years ago visiting the Oregon Coast Aquarium in Newport, Oregon. Engraved on a wall, I encountered a quotation from Childe Harold, Canto IV (This might not be an exact line-by-line recollection):

THERE is a pleasure in the pathless woods,
There is a rapture on the lonely shore,
There is society where none intrudes
By the deep sea, and music in its roar:
I love not man the less, but nature more,
From these our interviews, in which I steal
From all I may be, or have been before,
To mingle with the universe, and feel
What I can ne’er express, yet cannot all conceal.

Roll on, thou deep and dark blue Ocean,—roll!

Oh, how civilized! thought I. It’s a wonderful place, that aquarium. And the restaurant boasted the most delicious clam chowder imaginable.

Anyway, back to the matter at hand…. As I said, Byron was a great poet. As a husband and father? Not so great. In fact, downright awful. No sooner had Annabella Milbanke married him than she knew she’d made a terrible mistake. The Wall Street Journal review of In Byron’s Wake is entitled “Lout and Ladies.” From that review, written by Abigail Deutsch:

During the couple’s first (and only) year of marriage, Byron took to treating his wife – now pregnant – with such fury that a maid worried “he was likely to put her to Death at any moment if he could do it privately.”

Fearing for her safety and that of her month old baby, Annabella sought refuge in the house of her parents. Neither she nor her infant daughter ever saw Byron again.

Fortunately, Annabella was a strong woman. She went on to amass considerable achievements in the fields of education reform and philanthropy. And Ada, her daughter, grew up to be not just  beautiful but possessed of singular and powerful gifts.

Annabella kept a sharp eye on her daughter’s education. When Ada was not quite out of her teens, she had the good fortune to acquire as a mentor the mathematician and science writer Mary Somerville.  Soon after making the acquaintance of this distinguished scholar, an even more fateful meeting took place:

The following month, Ada – for once, without her mother – attended a party held at the London home of one of Mary Somerville’s closest friends. His name was Charles Babbage.

The rest, as they say, is history, though where Ada is concerned, a sadly abbreviated history.

In Byron’s Wake is the story of fascinating people living in turbulent times. Beautifully written and magnificently constructed, it is a triumph of the art of the biographer/historian.

Miranda Seymour

Dramatis personae:

George Gordon, Lord Byron 1788-1824


Mary Somerville 1780-1872


Charles Babbage 1791-1871

Annabella Milbanke Byron 1792-1860


Ada Byron Lovelace 1815-1852

The library does not yet own this marvelous book, but I do. It is available for borrowing, from me.

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Best of 2018, Four: Nonfiction, part two

December 27, 2018 at 2:03 pm (Art, Best of 2018, Book review, books, Poetry)

So I’m getting ready to divide my 2018 nonfiction reading into neat categories, and I run into trouble right away. Some of these books are hard to pigeonhole: they’re sort-of biographies, sort-of true crime – was there actually a crime? – and, well, you get the idea.

  The only more or less conventional biography I read this year was Gainsborough: A Portrait, by James Hamilton. As is the case with the most engaging biographies, the life of this distinguished  artist was set vividly within the context of his times.

Almost exactly ten years later, a well-dressed, brisk and persistent gentleman called on a friend of his in London. There was nobody at home, just the servant. On the table was a small landscape painting which caught the man’s attention. He picked it up, looked at it closely, turned it over. ‘Ruisdael improved,’ he thought to himself. ‘Warmer colouring, as truly drawn and painted as Ruisdael, but more spirited.’ It was quite clear from the back of the canvas that this was a new, modern picture, not Dutch seventeenth century. The following conversation was published in 1772:

‘James, where did your master get this picture?’

‘At the auctioneers Langford’s, sir, I have just brought it home.’

‘Do you know whose it is?’ ‘My master’s, sir.’

‘Fool! I mean the painter.’ There was a knock at the door. James let his master in.

‘Who painted that picture?’ demanded the visitor. ‘Who do you think?’ replied his friend. ‘Don’t know, tell me instantly!’ ‘Come, come – you are a judge of pictures, and a bit of a painter yourself. It’s a gem, isn’t it?’

The visitor was even more intrigued.

‘You will like it so much more when I tell you it is painted by an artist who is unknown, unfollowed, and unencouraged.’

‘What’s his name?’



Mary Little, later Lady Carr


Portrait of the Composer Carl Friedrich Abel with his Viola da Gamba (c. 1765)


Road from Market

Oh, those trees!


Three fascinating women figure in this narrative: Emily Dickinson, Mabel Loomis Todd, the lover of Emily’s brother Austin, and Millicent Todd Bingham, daughter of Mabel and her husband David Todd.

After Emily begins with Emily Dickinson’s funeral.

“And in the spring, also rare Emily Dickinson died & went back into a little deeper mystery than that she has always lived in. The sweet spring days have something in all their tender beauty when she was carried through the daisies and buttercups across the summer fields to be in her flowered couch,” Mabel later reflected in her journal. “It was a very great sorrow to Austin, but I have lived through greater with him, when little Gib [Austin’s son] died. He and I are so one that we comfort each other for everything, perfectly.”

There follows a furious nonstop battle over who owns the rights to her works. The story of the love affair of her brother and Mabel Loomis Todd is unexpected and remarkable. The fallout from it is significant, even profound. If you’re wondering whether Emily knew, she did – and did and said nothing, apparently.

But over and above the events of the narrative hovers the restless spirit of  that reclusive, brilliant poet:

Because I could not stop for Death –
He kindly stopped for me –
The Carriage held but just Ourselves –
And Immortality.
We slowly drove – He knew no haste
And I had put away
My labor and my leisure too,
For His Civility –
We passed the School, where Children strove
At Recess – in the Ring –
We passed the Fields of Gazing Grain –
We passed the Setting Sun –
Or rather – He passed Us –
The Dews drew quivering and Chill –
For only Gossamer, my Gown –
My Tippet – only Tulle –
We paused before a House that seemed
A Swelling of the Ground –
The Roof was scarcely visible –
The Cornice – in the Ground –
Since then – ’tis Centuries – and yet
Feels shorter than the Day
I first surmised the Horses’ Heads
Were toward Eternity –

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Best of 2018, Three: Nonfiction, part one

December 26, 2018 at 12:12 am (Book review, books, Nature)

  One does not expect to encounter, in a book about birds, an anecdote concerning Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. Nevertheless…

It seems that for the famous Cheek To Cheek dance sequence in Top Hat, Ginger Rogers wanted to wear a dress  that was festooned with a multitude of feathers. Problem: As she and Fred Astaire whirled around the dance floor, the feathers flew off the dress in large numbers. According to Astaire, “‘It was like a chicken being attacked by a coyote.'” Ginger, however, was adamant – she wanted that dress.

Now I’ve watched this dance sequence many times and I always assumed those feathers were fake. No such thing!



Simon Barnes’s book has many delightful anecdotes like this. But even more, it has an abundance of facts about birds: their flight, sounds, migratory and mating habits, their significance in myth and legend, the art of falconry, the slaughter and the irony inherent in the hunting of birds, and their endangerment through loss of habitat. Barnes has a deep knowledge of the avian world. Yet when he writes about it,  he has a light hand; his tone at times is almost whimsical. And yet he could not be more serious.

The book is filled with wonderful black and white images like the one above. These are drawn from a variety of sources.

Wandering Albatross


And the cover art, as you can see above, is gorgeous. Be sure to click on it, in order to enlarge it as much as possible.

A swanfall is one of those routine miracles that the wild world throws at us, and it’s as wonderful a thing as I’ve ever seen. First the lake was open and pretty empty: within the hour you could see nothing but swans. It was like watching Bank Station in the City of London in the morning: a place that is at first sparsely populated turns into the busiest place in the world before your eyes: not gradually but all at once.

Apparently New Zealand was once a veritable paradise for birds:

If time travel were possible, I’d take my Tardis to New Zealand a few years before 1280. This is the ultimate destination in time and space for anyone with birding in the blood. New Zealand was the kingdom of the birds and it remained so until the arrival of humans in the thirteenth century.

A flightless parrot that is barely hanging on there is called the kakapo. Barnes mentions Douglas Adams’s search for this curious creature as described in his book Last Chance To See. I remember reading that book when it came out in 1990 and enjoying it immensely – at least, as much as Adams’s Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy!

Barnes has much of interest to say about eagles, but I really loved this story:

My dear Aunt Barbara used to tell a story about a vicar—I have long forgotten his name and parish—who took evensong after a protracted and agreeable lunch. With his belly full of claret and port and other vicarly delights, he approached the lectern but, alas, misjudged his descent from the steps of the altar. He made a dramatic lurch in the general direction of the congregation but saved himself by clasping the outspread wings of the lectern, for this traditional piece of ecclesiastical furniture was, of course, in the form of an eagle, its wings supporting the Book. He muttered, in tones audible to the front row, ‘If it hadn’t been for this bloody duck, I’d be on the floor.’

Eagle lectern at St Nicholas Church, Blakeney, Norfolk, England

One  reason it’s taking me so long to get through this book is that I keep running to the computer to find videos on birds. In addition to the kakapo footage above, I particularly like the these two, on the barn owl and on falconry respectively:



One day a couple of weeks ago, while I was observing nature from my kitchen window, I saw a bird – I don’t know what kind – leave its perch on the bare branch of a tree and float gracefully down to the ground. At that moment, I thought, I could really get into birds. A dangerous notion, I know. Birders can be an obsessive lot.

Not long after that, I found The Meaning of Birds on the new nonfiction shelf at the library and was intrigued by its square shape and striking cover. I had never heard of it, despite the fact that I read loads of book reviews. It’s now bristling with post-it notes and has been renewed up to the limit. I finally gave in and downloaded it from Amazon.

The Meaning of Birds, it must be said, is primarily concerned with the nature of England. But Simon Barnes has traveled all over the world in search of bird knowledge. This book is a rare gift to nature lovers. I cannot recommend it highly enough.



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Holiday Wishes, 2018

December 24, 2018 at 8:48 pm (Art, Christmas, Family, Music)

My best holiday wishes to everyone.

I am deeply blessed and fortunate, and I wish the same for every one of you!



Wilton Diptych, left panel. Artist unknown

Wilton Diptych, Right panel. Artist unknown


Annunciation. Fra Angelico


Virgin of the Rocks. Leonardo Da Vinci


The Alba Madonna. Raphael



My Aunt Patsy and Uncle Hal, enjoying life to the fullest, and always generously sharing that joy with friends and family. Forever in our hearts…


My parents, Lillian and Samuel ‘Ted’ Tedlow at the opera in Bayreuth, Germany. They exemplified class, elegance, and sophistication. I miss them.

Daughter-in-law Erica and Son Ben – Beautiful people in every way


Etta and Welles, growing by leaps and bounds, my love for them growing at the same dizzying speed


My husband Ron. His love, kindness, and companionship make my life worth living.


Le Paradis, by Henri Maik


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Best of 2018, Two: Literary Fiction

December 23, 2018 at 11:29 pm (Best of 2018)

This is the area in which I read the least this year. I had trouble finding novels that appealed to me; I started quite a few more than I finished. I repeatedly encountered awkward writing, structural oddities, plotting peculiarities, and other off putting elements. I readily concede that the problem may lie more with me than with the books in question. Nevertheless, this is what I experienced.

There were, thank goodness, a few notable exceptions.

I’m no more immune to the artless charms of Anne Tyler than are her many other admirers. I know of no other writer currently at work who can write so convincingly about seemingly ‘ordinary’ people, including and especially children. She makes you care deeply about  their hurts, their small portions of happiness, their ultimate fate. So it is with Willa and company in Clock Dance..

At first, I had my doubts about this book. If it had not been a book club selection, I might not have stayed with it. But I did, and I’m glad. The novel opens with a rather unworldly college freshman, the oddly named Greer Kadetsky, going to a fraternity party and getting what we used to call “felt up” by an overweening male student. I assumed that the fallout from this iincident would be the focus of the novel, but it proves to be more of a springboard.

My problem with the book was that it had multiple foci; too many characters whose back stories were  minutely and laboriously explored. I sort of wanted to push them out of the way and get back to Greer and her coming of age tale. But gradually, as feminist themes became more pronounced, I was increasingly drawn into the narrative.

Early on in the novel, Greer is befriended by movement icon Faith Frank, a character that seems, at least in part, to be modeled on Gloria Steinem. The twists and turns of that relationship reflect different aspects of feminism: where it has been, where it is headed. Their conversations are very interesting. Additionally, Greer has a boyfriend, Cory Pinto, with whom she’s been in love since high school. Inevitably, their relationship is headed for some trying times. The other main character is Greer’s best friend Zee Eisenstat. Their friendship is tested to the limits by a betrayal that seemed to me rather arbitrary and deeply troubling.

To live in a world of female power—mutual power—felt like a desirable dream to Zee. Having power meant that the world was like a pasture with the gate left open, and that there was nothing stopping you, and you could run and run.

So yes, ultimately there was enough in The Female Persuasion to  hold me. I’ll be attending a discussion on it next month; I’m looking forward to hearing the reactions of other readers.

  As best as I can determine, sensation fiction is a cross between horror literature and crime fiction, exclusively beholden to neither. It reached the height of its popularity in Britain in the 1860s and 1870s. Two of the best known practitioners of the craft were Wilkie Collins and Mary Elizabeth Braddon. Several titles by Dickens could be said to fall into this category, namely Great Expectations and The Mystery of Edwin Drood. There’s even a  Thomas Hardy novel, Desperate Remedies, that is often mentioned in this context.

The chief characteristics of sensation fiction are enumerated by Michael Grost on his essential site A Guide To Classic Mystery and Detection:

  • secrets from the past, often involving people’s identities
  • written records of key moments of people’s lives: wedding certificates, gravestones, parish registers, inscriptions in books
  • well to do women with secrets
  • criticism of socially approved roles for men and women, and ideas of femininity
  • victimization of socially naive young people, by older, more experienced criminals
  • criminal conspiracies, often involving major life transitions: marriage, death and inheritance
  • marriage as a sinister event, leading one to being fleeced of money, then killed
  • crimes which the reader sees unfold from beginning to end; rather than being solved after the fact, detective story style
  • characters who serve as doubles of each other
  • dreams
  • mind controlling drugs
  • the use of mirrors and paintings to suggest hidden truths, especially about the villains
  • satire of the religiously active

Further information on this topic can be found on The Victorian Web, another extremely useful site.

Mary Elizabeth Braddon’s best known work is Lady Audley’s Secret (1863). I was motivated to read it after encountering it in Kate Summerscale’s riveting account of the Road Hill House murder, The Suspicions of Mr Whicher. I was amazed at the sheer readability of this novel.  Here’s what I wrote about it at the time:

Even more contemporaneous with the Road Hill House were the so-called novels of sensation, the most notable of which was Lady Audley’s Secret by Mary Elizabeth Braddon.  According to Henry James, works of this type dealt with “‘those most mysterious of mysteries,the mysteries that are at our own doors…the terrors of the cheerful country house, or  the busy London lodgings.’”  Summerscale elaborates:  “Their secrets were exotic, but their settings immediate – they took place in England, now, a land of telegrams, trains, policemen. The characters in these novels were at the mercy of their feelings, which pressed out, unmediated, onto their flesh: emotions compelled them to blanch, flush, darken, tremble, start, convulse, their eyes to burn and flash and dim.”  The worry at the time was that readers were experiencing the same scary subcutaneous reactions!

(Of course, authors of these works were employing every trick they knew to evoke that very response.)

Several months ago, Ann R of the Usual Suspects gave me a copy of Wyllard’s Weird, a later novel by Mary Elizabeth Braddon. Once again I was enchanted by this author’s almost hypnotic prose style – graceful yet commanding. As with Lady Audley’s Secret, the storytelling was first rate. The novel opens with the description of a journey by railway:

There are some travellers who think when they cross the Tamar, over that fairy bridge of Brunel’s, hung aloft between the blue of the river and  the blue of the sky, that they have left England behind them on the eastern shore – that they have entered a new country, almost a new world.

The Royal Albert Bridge over the River Tamar, built by Isambard Kingdom Brunel and opened in 1859

The idyllic description continues, but not for long. On the very next page, a sudden and shocking event occurs. A young woman falls out of one of train’s carriages. She plummets to the earth far below and is killed instantly. Upon subsequent investigation, it turns out that no one knows who she is or why she  fell. Was it an accident, a suicide, or something more sinister? From the seed of this mystery a fascinating narrative grows.

I’m no end grateful to Ann for this marvelous novel. Now I need to go back and reread Lady Audley’s Secret.

Mary Elizabeth Braddon, by William Powell Frith, 1865

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Jerome Robbins: A Life in Dance, by Wendy Lesser

December 18, 2018 at 2:10 pm (Ballet, Book review, books, Music)

  This brief biography was a pleasure to read. There is so much more to Jerome Robbins than West Side Story – although just that one stupendous achievement in and of itself would have sufficed.

West Side Story was the second Broadway show I ever saw. I had the privilege of attending a performance featuring the original cast. I remember sitting in the audience at the end, tears streaming. I was fourteen years old and had no idea how lucky I’d been to see what I had just seen. (My first Broadway show was Damn Yankees, also with the original cast.)

I was also familiar with Fancy Free, Robbins’s first staged work. It’s a ballet about three sailors on shore leave basically looking for some action. (Robbins danced  the role of one of them.) He had been watching young men like these as they breezed through Manhattan while on shore leave. It was 1944 and there was a war on, so they were looking to pack as much fun into their lives in a short time as they possibly could.

This is the only video of the complete ballet that I could locate on YouTube. The quality is not great, but it’s more than enough to show the sheer wonderfulness of Fancy Free:

This video with Tyler Angle and Tiler Peck, both principal dancers at the New York City Ballet, is shorter but worth watching, for the rehearsal footage and for Tyler Angle’s commentary:

The music for Fancy Free was written by Leonard Bernstein, at Jerome Robbins’s specific request. It was the beginning of a collaboration that culminated, years later, with West Side Story. The task was never easy – these were two enormously gifted men with egos to match. But the results – what a gift to the rest of us!

Leonard Bernstein and Jerome Robbins

Jerome Robbins was a choreographer, dancer, and script doctor. His work, in one or more of those capacities, can  be seen in some of the most popular shows ever seen on Broadway: The King and I, Fiddler on the Roof, Gypsy, and West Side Story, to name a few. But being as I’ve become such a balletomane of late, it was the ballets which I found especially fascinating.

And it was his work in ballet choreography that brought him into the orbit of probably the greatest choreographer of the twentieth century: George Balanchine.

Along with Lincoln Kirstein, Balanchine founded the the New York City Ballet in 1948. From that year, Balanchine was the artistic director/ballet master – the soul of the company, really – up until his death in 1983.

Jerome Robbins made a number of works for the New York City Ballet. Unavoidably, there was an element of rivalry in his relationship with Balanchine. But it was the public and the news media that reflected a certain attitude toward the place in the pantheon properly occupied by these two artists. Wendy Lesser puts it this way:

Precisely the things that made him [Robbins] unique as a choreographer- the modern, folk, and even street-style gestures that he added to his ballets; the function of plot and character in his works; the presence of humor and gentle self-mockery in his dances; even the fact that his women were not elongated, rarefied, unattainable muses, but strong, feisty dancers equivalent to the men- defined him as a second-rater.

It should be noted that Robbins’s admiration for Balanchine was boundless. He did not like to think of himself as a competitor. The two men managed to stay on cordial terms throughout their long association. Each had brilliant careers and were duly recognized for their achievements. And I personally do not think that at this time, Jerome Robbins is classified as a ‘second-rater’ by anyone knowledgeable in the history of twentieth century dance.

The life of Jerome Robbins had its turbulent aspects, especially as regards Robbins’s sexual ambivalence and his uneasy relationship with Judaism, the faith into which he was born. Wendy Lesser deals with these issues in a clear  and balanced way. She also alludes to Robbins’s strong feelings for Tanaquil Le Clercq, the brilliant and beautiful dancer who, in 1952, became George Balanchine’s fourth wife.

The tragedy of Tanaquil LeClercq is surely one of  the saddest stories in all the performing arts. ‘If you have tears, prepare to shed them now…’

I did plenty of running to YouTube in the course of my reading of this book. Here are some of the better videos that I found:



Suite of Dances was originally written by Jerome Robbins for Mikhail Barychnikov.



Jerome Robbins: A Life in Dance is part of a series put out by Yale University Press called Jewish Lives.

I highly recommend the film Jerome Robbins: Something To Dance About. It’s part of the American Masters series made by PBS; the local library has the DVD.

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An Unexplained Death: The True Story of the Body at the Belvedere, by Mikita Brottman

December 16, 2018 at 3:02 pm (Book review, books)

Rey O. Rivera was last seen on the evening of May 16, 2006. He left his home hurriedly in response to a phone call, returned briefly to retrieve something, then left again. After that, his wife Allison, heading home to Baltimore from a business trip, was unable to reach him.

The police were notified. Rey was declared a missing person.

When it comes to missing people, the first day or two after they have gone, it is as though they have left a door open behind them, and they can still turn around and come back. But after five or six days, you get the sense they have crossed all the way over. All that remains, if you’re lucky, is a vague glimpse, caught on tape somewhere, of a pixelated ghost.

A week later, Rey’s body was discovered in an unused meeting room adjacent to the lower roof of the Belvedere Hotel.

The Belvedere is a storied Baltimore landmark. Built in 1903, it began as a hotel, went through several iterations before being converted to condominiums in 1991.

Mikita Brottman and her partner currently reside in one of those units. They were living there when Rey’s body was  discovered. In fact, Brottman surmises that they may have heard the sound of the body landing on the nearby roof space. So: small wonder that she was drawn to this case.

Although the Belvedere is now comprised of private dwellings, it still features venues that are available to the public. These include three ballrooms on the first floor, one on the twelfth floor, and a banquet and reception room on the thirteenth floor. Finally, back on the first floor, there’s the Owl Bar., part of the original 1903 construction. Formerly a speakeasy, it is now a restaurant. Mikita Brottman met a number of people there while she was investigating Rey Rivera’s death.

The Owl Bar, 1934 [click to enlarge]

The Owl Bar today [click to enlarge]

The examination of Rey’s body showed that his injuries resulted from a fall from a considerable height. No other evidence – gunshot wound, stabbing, ligature marks – was discovered. From a Baltimore Sun article a year later:

Medical examiners determined he died from multiple and severe injuries consistent with a fall from a height. But they made no ruling as to homicide, suicide or an accident. Instead, they declared it undetermined, because the circumstances surrounding the incident were and still are unclear.

Three questions concerning the death of Rey Rivera are therefore left hanging: Was it an accident? Was it suicide? Or was it something else?

Mikita Brottman, a professor of humanities at the Maryland Institute College of Art (known locally as MICA, pronounced ‘Mike-ah’), did not have the credentials of a journalist. She had to struggle to obtain the information she felt she needed to make progress with her inquiry.

In the end, after a expending a tremendous amount of time, not to mention money, while still maintaining her day job, Brottman came to a  conclusion of sorts. I won’t tell you what it is, but it seems somewhat tentative to me, possibly to her as well. In a way, it follows Sherlock Holmes’s famous dictum to the effect that “…when you have excluded the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.”

Mikita Brottman has a fascinating story to tell, and she tells in in a compelling, at times almost poetic, fashion. Nevertheless, it remains to be seen whether the true cause of Rey Rivera’s death will ever  be determined.

Author Mikita Brottman with Oliver

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Best of 2018, One: Nail biting, pulse pounding suspense….

December 14, 2018 at 9:31 pm (Best of 2018)

That’s what the blurb writers promise. And yet sometimes I find myself in a yawn induced torpor, instead.

But that was definitely not the case with these two novels…

These two nonfiction titles were likewise compelling:

The White Darkness I’ve written about. It haunts me still, especially now that winter has come.

The Spy and the Traitor was a riveting read. In it, Ben Macintyre tells the story of Oleg Gordievsky, who became a KGB officer in 1963. His extraordinary abilities quickly propelled him to the top ranks of the organization. Yet as he skillfully performed in his capacity as an operative, he became increasingly revolted by the cruelty and hypocrisy of the agency in which he was serving.

To anyone who cared to look closely (and few Russians did), the contrast between the myth and reality of the KGB was self-evident. The Center [headquarters] was a spotlessly clean, brightly lit, amoral bureaucracy, a place at once ruthless, prissy, and puritanical, where international crimes were conceived with punctilious attention to detail. From its earliest days, Soviet intelligence operated without ethical restraint. In addition to collecting and analyzing intelligence, the KGB organized political warfare, media manipulation, disinformation, forgery, intimidation, kidnapping, and murder. The Thirteenth Department, or “The Directorate for Special Tasks,” specialized in sabotage and assassination.

And so he decides to offer his services to Britain’s MI6. And the story of what happens after that is truly heart stopping.

The latter part of the book consists of the story of Gordievsky’s exfiltration from the Soviet Union. A team of MI6 agents and workers at the British Embassy are assigned to manage this feat. Getting an exposed KGB double agent out of Russia had never before been successfully attempted. And this one was a known by his pay masters to be a traitor. How had he become known? Through the treacherous offices of one of America’s most notorious informers: Aldrich Ames.

The exfiltration team journeyed north to Finland in a desperate attempt to free Gordievsky once and for all from the clutches of the KGB and thus save his life. I did not know if they would ultimately succeed or not. All manner of subterfuge was employed. KGB operatives were in hot pursuit. My heart was literally pounding as I read.

And then suddenly, in the midst of this well nigh unendurable suspense, Viscount Roy Ascot, one of the team members, was driving toward the dawning day when he came upon a sight of startling beauty. He describes it thus:

“A thick mist had risen from the lakes and rivers, extending into long belts besides the  hills and through the trees and villages. The land slowly coalesced into substantial forms out of these foaming banks of violet and rose. Three very bright planets shone out in perfect symmetry, one to the left, one to the right, and one straight ahead. We passed solitary figures already scything hay, picking herbs, or taking cows to pasture along the slopes and gullies of common land. It was a stunning sight, an idyllic moment. It was difficult to believe that any harm could come out of a day of such beginnings.”

How very British, to respond to unexpected beauty with such a lyrical passage of prose, even in the midst of terrible tension and danger.

This is the second book I’ve read by Ben Macintyre. The first was A Spy Among Friends: Kim Philby and the Great Betrayal.  He is my kind of writer, for sure – one terrific storyteller.


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Two books that simply must go back to the library

December 9, 2018 at 2:39 pm (Book review, books, Mystery fiction)

Don’t know about you, but I hate being overdue. So here goes:

  It’s late November, 1963. We meet the following in quick succession:

A small town housewife and mother – think June Cleaver undermined by a restless streak (and a well-intentioned alcoholic husband). Throw in a small time hood and glad hander steeped in the ethos of the Big Easy. Then there’s a vicious mob boss and his highly unconventional enforcer.

It’s a combustible combination. And into its midst bursts an assassination that shakes the world. What has that got to do with this oddball cast of characters? More that you’d think….

This was an amazing read. Toward the end I got so tense and agitated, I wasn’t sure whether I wanted to race through the rest of the book or hide it under a stack of magazines – anything to avoid the conclusion I was dreading.

Memorable lines, spoken after a snappy exchange of dialog:

Guidry laughed and glanced at her, taking a fresh look. He liked a woman who could hit the ball back over the net.

An outstanding thriller, on a par with The Bomb Maker.
  I was deeply impressed with You Will Know Me by Megan Abbott, and so was eager to read her next foray into the land of literary suspense. Give Me Your Hand is a worthy follow-up, though for some reason it didn’t grip me with quite the force of its predecessor.

Kit Owens has landed a coveted position in a lab where investigation is under way on the causes of a debilitating form of premenstrual syndrome –  PMS. She has the world figuratively on a string when her old nemesis Diane Fleming is added to the roster of researchers. Nemesis? – surely not; they were friends once. Then whence the atmosphere of dread that Diane brings with her?

I very much liked this novel’s setting. The tangle of relationships within the hothouse lab atmosphere are vividly rendered.  The sense of urgency and uncertainty is heightened by the first person narration. The milieu of scientific research is convincingly portrayed, and made to seem every bit as fraught and competitive as the world of athletics.

An absorbing and worthwhile read.

The brain itself is built with the battered beams of our early years. What the conscious mind forgets, the neurons remember.



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…“the long trail, the lone trail, the outward trail, the darkward trail.” – The White Darkness by David Grann

December 2, 2018 at 6:20 pm (Book review, books)

How do you get from this: to this:

  Here is the book that explains how it happened.

From boyhood, Henry Worsley had been captivated by the story of the polar explorer Ernest Shackleton. He wanted desperately to follow in the footsteps of his idol. Shackleton had actually not achieved his goal of reaching the South Pole. His ship became icebound; he realized that if he were to save his men, he would have to turn back – walk back, in fact. This he did. He lost not a single member of his crew.

[I’d like to inject a brief personal note here: When we were in Edinburgh in 2007, we stayed at the Channings Hotel. This hostelry was made up of an agglomeration of townhouses. Ernest Shackleton and his family had resided in one of them while Sir Ernest served as Secretary of the Royal Scottish Geographic Society, a posted he acceded to in 1904. We stood in the library and drawing room, which remained as Shackleton had left them.
Rrecent research has revealed that The Channings closed last year. Hopefully the rooms that we saw have been preserved.]

After an exemplary thirty-six year career in the British Army, Henry Worsley set about realizing his boyhood dream of walking in the footsteps of Ernest Shackleton His first attempt, made with with two other men, was a resounding success. On January 18, 2009, they reached the South Pole.

Henry Adams, Henry Worsley and Will Gow at the South Pole in 2009

One feels this should have been enough. But sadly it was not. Worsley was not finished. He was driven to make yet another expedition – alone.

This solo undertaking was also a fundraiser for Endeavour, an organization that provides succor, financial and otherwise, for individuals injured in the line of duty to their country. Prince William is a patron. The Endeavour Fund continues its work today and into the future.

That said, I felt deeply frustrated by this story. Henry Worsley had a wife and two children. By all accounts, theirs was a close and loving family. And yet, in spite of this sustaining,  joy giving element in his life, he chose to go forward with an undertaking so punishing and dangerous it was almost a foregone conclusion that he would not survive the attempt.

In fewer than 145 pages, David Grann, author of Killers of the Flower Moon, has penned one of the most riveting narratives I’ve ever read. And at its heart, a profound question; namely, what does a person with an obsession like Henry Worsley’s owe to the people who love him?


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