Renaissance, by Andrew Graham-Dixon

July 31, 2019 at 8:26 pm (Art, books)

I have just finished reading Renaissance by Andrew Graham-Dixon. This is a companion volume to his six part television series. Both date from about 1999-2000.

I want to let Graham-Dixon speak for himself. So let’s begin with Giotto‘s Lamentation (1303-6}:

The grief of his figures seems inextricably bound up with a quality of spiritual contemplation. By giving them this quality, making them at once actors in a scene and meditators upon it, Giotto has bridged the gap between and the world. We too, the congregation before the picture, are invited to become witnesses to Christ’s death, to see and feel its dreadfulness. It is as if his figures are responding to the scene on our behalf – are showing us the way to respond to the death of Christ….Because Giotto’s art insists on including us it is still as harrowing as when it was first painted.

[Click twice to enlarge]


The sense of the real in fifteenth century Northern European painting that it becomes uncanny. The liquidity and brilliance of colors 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 on to on to a wall though the small panes of a thickly glazed window with astonishing virtuosity….No wonder, perhaps, that the early Netherlandish artists should have acquired a reputation as necromancers and alchemists. Their illusions are enchantments.

Virgin and Child in an Interior, by Jacques Daret (or so it is thought) c.1435


Masaccio was the shooting star in the Florentine firmament, gone almost as soon as his brilliance had been seen.

Expulsion from Paradise, mid 1420s, by Masaccio. ‘A strong emotion had been made visible in a way that is unforgettable. There is no more wrenching image of human sorrow.’

Born in December 1401, Masaccio died in the summer of 1428 at the age of twenty-six. Twenty-six! Filippo Brunelleschi said, with heartbreaking simplicity: ‘We have suffered a great loss.’



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Joe Country, being the sixth entry in the Slough House series written by Mick Herron

July 29, 2019 at 10:45 pm (Book review, books, Mystery fiction)

  The action in Joe Country takes place primarily in Wales during a ferocious blizzard. And there is plenty of action, what with the disgraced spies of Slough House chasing, and being chased by, a host of bad actors. The trigger for all this mayhem is Louisa Guy’s determination to find Lucas Harper, the teen-aged son of Min Harper, her former and now deceased lover. Almost as soon as she arrives in Wales, Louisa goes dark, prompting her Slough House colleagues to mount a search mission. Things quickly become confused and dangerous. As always in this series, the dialog is arch, the plot is convoluted, and the mood is shot through with dark humor and bitter irony.

A glossary on the site Intelligence Search defines joe as ‘a deep-cover agent.’

Joe Country is the fifth full length novel in the Slough House series that I’ve read. I liked them all up until London Rules, which I didn’t especially care for. I thought it contained too much description of  the revolting comportment of Jackson Lamb, who’s head of the outfit. (I’ve seen him compared to Andy Dalziel of Reginald Hill‘s Dalziel and Pascoe series. I think Hill’s characterization is somewhat more subtle.) In this latest entry, Lamb is still pretty disgusting, but being as he’s monitoring events from London and not directly involved in the Welsh scrum, I found his presence in the narrative less of an annoyance.

As you can see from the Stop! You’re Killing Me entry, the Slough House novels have been a hit with critics and with many readers as well. But they don’t work for everyone. As of now, I’d say they definitely work for me. I fairly raced through Joe Country.

Mick Herron


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The Body in Question by Jill Ciment

July 21, 2019 at 6:39 pm (Book review, books, Mystery fiction)

  The jury selected for a murder trial is sequestered. In this close quartered isolation, two members – at first, known to us only as C-2 and F-17 – are strongly attracted to each other and begin a clandestine affair. C-2, a woman in her early fifties, is married to a man some thirty years her senior. She loves her husband deeply; he still possesses more than his quotient of robust physical energy and his mind remains questing and alert. (And yes, sex, too, is still in the mix.) yet C-2 feels powerless in the grip of this unsought after passion.

Admittedly, it was somewhat disconcerting reading about characters identified solely by a letter and a number. I felt at times as though I were reading about robots. But if so, this was a whole new take on robots. (This puts me in mind of Ian McEwan’s brilliant Machines Like Me.) I’ve rarely read a crime novel in which the feelings ran so high and so close to the surface.

The crime itself is especially horrendous; I wish it were less so. The burgeoning relationship distracts from it, which in this case is a blessing.

I was unsure from one minute to the next what the outcome would be. The writing was terrific.

You must steel yourself concerning the crime, but fortunately, the author does not dwell on particulars.

Recommended, but with the above mentioned caveat.


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Big Sky – My, oh My! or, Kate Atkinson does it again

July 14, 2019 at 7:44 pm (Book review, books, Mystery fiction)

  Many readers of crime fiction have  been impatiently awaiting the return of Jackson Brodie. Brodie last appeared in Started Early, Took My Dog, a 2010 novel  by Kate Atkinson, published in 2010. I never read that book. I read its predecessor, When Will There Be Good News, and found it somewhat disappointing. This was no doubt due to having absolutely loved Case Histories. Loved it enough, that is, to nominate it for future classic status.

For my money, Big Sky is a welcome return to form. Its excellence is due not especially to the presence of Jackson Brodie – though that in itself is  a  definite plus – but to the elegant plot structure, the masterful building of suspense, the strategic deployment of an irreverent and delightful wit, and above all, the concatenation of fascinating characters. Several ruthless yet charming men are involved in a singularly evil enterprise; their wives/partners are either clueless or have secrets of their own – or, somehow, both. There are children in the mix as well, including two teenage boys: Harry, a truly wonderful person, and Nathan, whose  overweening and sullen demeanor would have earned him, in former times, the back of someone’s hand across his smug countenance. (Nathan is Jackson Brodie’s son.)

The story is set in and around Scarborough, on England’s North Sea Coast.

He could see Whitby from here, two miles south along the beach, the skeleton of the abbey standing on top of the cliff.

In 2007, my husband and I were there:

I love the way that Atkinson’s characters pull in quotations seemingly from left field. Here’s DC Reggie Chase, observing an especially vivid sunset:

“‘See where Christ’s blood streams in the firmament.'” [From Doctor Faustus by Christopher Marlowe]

I like this one too:

“Well, you know what the song says….You can check out but you can’t leave.” [The exact lines are: “You can check out any time you like / But you can never leave!” From the song Hotel California by The Eagles]

You wouldn’t know it from the stern countenance in this photo, but Kate Atkinson has a marvelous sense of humor.

Big Sky is vastly entertaining; however, I don’t think it’s Atkinson at her absolute best. That accolade, in my view, goes to Life After Life, a true tour de force.



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Two short but sincerely enthusiastic crime fiction recommendations

July 11, 2019 at 9:29 pm (Book review, books, Mystery fiction)

  Having greatly enjoyed The Word Is Murder, first in the Anthony Horowitz/Daniel Hawthorne series, I was eager to read The Sentence Is Death. I’m happy to report that it was just as much fun to read as its predecessor. I impatiently await the third entry in the series.

In a post from 2017, I said that if  there was an Anthony Horowitz fan club, I would gladly join. Offer still stands.

(Also don’t forget the standalone Magpie Murders.)
  I also recommend The Scholar by Dervla McTiernan. This is the second mystery by McTiernan, who’s originally from Ireland but now lives in Australia. Like her first book, The Ruin, The Scholar is set in Ireland. I enjoyed The Ruin and knew I wanted to read The Scholar. As you might have guessed from the title, this novel has an academic setting. (I’m always on the lookout for crime fiction set in a school or college anyway.)

McTiernan shrewdly depicts the infighting, snobbery, and secretiveness that can be characteristic of  the upper eschelons of certain academic institutions. She writes extremely well. I look forward to her next mystery, and I hope that at some future time, she will set one in her new home Down Under.



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Art, in history and literature

July 7, 2019 at 9:10 pm (Art)

For quite a while now, I’ve been seeking out art history written with an eye toward beautiful prose as well as enlightening insights.

Vermeer, View of Delft 1660-1661

It is as though the town has not yet emerged from slumber or from a trance. The painting is not a record of busy Delft but a symbol of historic Delft….

Light in perfect accord with composition is perhaps the key, but how so? The light toned near shore, almost flesh colored is at the bottom of the canvas while the dark water-filled clouds are at the top. And between these is the softly emanating light from the massed white cumulus clouds – superbly composed, accented silhouette of the town and  the waterway, half filled with dark reflections of the buildings….

If the magic of this painting is ultimately beyond words, it still behooves us to try. We stand on this near shore, and we gaze at something real yet absolutely beyond our reach – beyond our physical reach, I mean. Our eyes, our gaze reveals Vermeer’s Delft as a magical island, one artist’s ideal of civilized perfection: his home, his nation.

Professor William Kloss

In The Captive, fifth volume of À la Recherche du Temps Perdu (In Search of Lost Time), Marcel Proust’s masterwork, a writer names Bergotte is in an art gallery viewing an exhibition of Dutch paintings. Having just read an article about Vermeer’s View of Delft, he finds himself standing before it, transfixed :

“At last he came to the Vermeer, which he remembered as more striking, more different from anything else he knew, but in which, thanks to the critic’s article, he noticed for the first time some small figures in blue, that the sand was pink, and, finally, the precious substance of the tiny patch of yellow wall. His dizziness increased; he fixed his gaze, like a child upon a yellow butterfly that it wants to catch, on the precious little patch of wall. ‘That’s how I ought to have written,’ he said. ‘My last books are too dry, I ought to have gone over them with a few layers of colour, made my language precious in itself, like this little patch of yellow wall…’ He repeated to himself: ‘Little patch of yellow wall, with a sloping roof, little patch of yellow wall…'”

“Le petit pan de mur jaune…”

There is seating nearby. He sinks down onto it, then rolls off onto the floor, insensate, and dies.

From Proust: the Death of the Writer Bergotte



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Etta Lin’s sartorial sense

July 4, 2019 at 2:47 pm (Family)

Some years ago, as a preschooler, Etta wore this fetching outfit while vacationing with her parents. Since that time, we have become aware that she has an exceptional fashion sense:

Recently, we had the pleasure of watching Etta model yet another lovely ensemble. This one was really special: a top and skirt that she sewed herself, at Sewing Camp! (She also made the bag, which she tosses exuberantly into the air.)


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“How do you like to go up in a swing, / Up in the air so blue?”

July 3, 2019 at 8:05 pm (Family, Poetry)

How do you like to go up in a swing,
Up in the air so blue?
Oh, I do think it the pleasantest thing
Ever a child can do!

Up in the air and over the wall,
Till I can see so wide,
Rivers and trees and cattle and all
Over the countryside—

Till I look down on the garden green,
Down on the roof so brown—
Up in the air I go flying again,
Up in the air and down!

“The Swing,” poem by Robert Louis Stevenson, from A Child’s Garden of Verses

Robert Louis ‘Stevenson 1850-1894

Swinging by Welles, age 5!!!

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