Christmas 2020, in Art and Music

December 25, 2020 at 8:07 pm (Art, Christmas, Music)

Courtesy of the Smithsonian Associates streaming service, I recently had the great good fortune to attend via Zoom a webinar entitled ‘The Nativity in Art: Centuries of Storytelling.’ Our speaker was art historian Elaine Ruffolo.

Here are some of the images she shared with us:

Domenico Ghirlandaio

Taddeo Gaddi

Jacopo Tintoretto

Gentile da Fabriano

Lornzo Monaco


Federico Barocci

Hugo van der Goes (from the Portinari Altarpiece)

And my favorite of all these gorgeous works of art – I can’t say exactly why: Giorgione’s Adoration of the Shepherds:

Elaine Ruffolo was speaking to us live, in real time, from Florence, Italy, where she resides.

And now, some music:







My Chicago family, at Thanksgiving. They’ve been a model of resourcefulness and buoyancy. Hopefully, I will be seeing them again, before too long. I am starved for hugs!

This has  been a tough year for many of us. I believe that next year will be better. Love to all. And to my British friends: Hang in there, as you always have, with courage and resilience.



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‘History has failed us, but no matter.’ – Pachinko, by Min Jin Lee

December 22, 2020 at 9:42 pm (Book review, books, Historical fiction)

Lee’s stunning novel, her second, chronicles four generations of an ethnic Korean family, first in Japanese-occupied Korea in the early 20th century, then in Japan itself from the years before World War II to the late 1980s. Exploring central concerns of identity, homeland and belonging, the book announces its ambitions right from the opening…. Lee suggests that behind the facades of wildly different people lie countless private desires, hopes and miseries, if we have the patience and compassion to look and listen.

From the New York Times’s “10 Best Books of 2017

Stunning indeed. The place is Yeongdo, Busan, Korea.

At the turn of the century, an aging fisherman and his wife decided to take in lodgers for extra money.

This plain sentence follows the one quoted in the  title of this review. We go at once from a sentiment of cosmic significance to a statment of almost painful plainness.

From this ordinary decision, made by ordinary people, springs an entire universe of consequences. The fisherman and his wife Yangjin have a daughter, Sunja. The fisherman, Hoonie, soon dies of tuberculosis. Yangjin and Sunja, who is at that time thirteen years old, are left to run the boarding establishment as best they can.

And then….

Nowadays, many works of fiction label themselves (or their publishers label them) novels of suspense. And yet Pachinko, a more or less traditional family saga, whose narrative marches , at a steady and unshowy pace,  through the decades, is one of the most suspenseful books I’ve ever read. This might be because I cared so deeply about the fate of the characters.

And what a fate, what a fate.

The Japanese occupation of Korea was beyond cruel. Life was made horribly difficult; the Koreans were debased and humiliated. Innocent and good people had their lives upended and ruined.

It seemed as if the occupation and the war had changed everyone, and now the war in Korea was making things worse. Once-tenderhearted people seemed wary and tough. There was innocence left only in the smallest children.

Still, having no other recourse, making use of what meager resources they could find, they persevered.

This was a hard book for me to review. I’ve written about numerous meritorious books in this space. But Pachinko stands apart. I have not been moved in quite this way by a work of fiction in a very long time. Superlatives fail me. In my opinion, this is a brilliant novel, deserving of the highest praise. Congratulations, Min Jin Lee, for an astonishing achievement. And thank you.

Min Jin Lee





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John Le Carre

December 17, 2020 at 4:08 pm (books, In memoriam)

David Ignatius has written a wonderful feature on John Le Carre for the Washington Post. It is entitled “LeCarre’s People.” In it, he states:

His spies and their world were based on real life, and yet totally his own inventions.

His spies and their world…and what a world it was, by turns bleak and terrifying, with long stretches of boredom in between. Its ethos was embodied in the character of George Smiley, played on screen unforgettably by Sir Alec Guinness.

The other great portrayal of a Le Carre character was done by Richard Burton; he was Alec Leamas in The Spy Who Came In from the Cold, surely one of the greatest espionage films ever, based on the novel of the same name, published in 1963. This was Le Carre’s third work of fiction; it vaulted him to stardom in the literary world, where, it being the early 1960s, such things still mattered to the general public – sigh…

The acclaimed, best-selling novel by John le Carré, about a Cold War spy on one final dangerous mission in East Germany, is transmuted by director Martin Ritt into a film every bit as precise and ruthless as the book. Richard Burton is superb as Alec Leamas, whose relationship with the beautiful librarian Nan, played by Claire Bloom, puts his assignment in jeopardy. The Spy Who Came in from the Cold is a hard-edged and tragic thriller, suffused with the political and social consciousness that defined Ritt’s career.

From the Criterion Collection site

Le Carre’s first two works of fiction are Call for the Dead (1961) and A Murder of Quality(1962). Both feature George Smiley in a more or less conventional detective setting. They’re a good way to make the acquaintance of Smiley. I enjoyed them both, especially A Murder of Quality, which is set at a boys’ boarding school and has that tense, claustrophobic atmosphere which often characterizes such places, both in fiction and in fact.

More recent tiles by Le Carre that I’ve enjoyed are A Legacy of Spies and Agent Running in the Field. That last came out in 2019. It’s hard for me to believe that there will be no more from the astute and brilliant pen of John Le Carre.

A YouTube commenter on the trailer for The Spy Who Came In from the Cold wrote, three days ago:

R.I.P. John le Carré. You are in from the Cold.

David John Moore Cornwell, aka John Le Carre , October 19, 1931-December 12, 2020


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The Coldest Warrior, by Paul Vidich

December 11, 2020 at 4:06 pm (Book review, books, Mystery fiction)

  An investigation into the death of a scientist working for the CIA yields shocking results.

The year is 1975. Jack Gabriel, an Agency veteran, has submitted his retirement to the Director. But his departure is put on hold. Instead, he is tasked  with finding out the truth about the death, just over twenty years ago, of Charles Wilson.

Jack has always had a degree of ambivalence concerning his chosen profession.

Lawyer? Investment banker? College professor? Those were the careers he had contemplated, but still the allure of espionage drew him to her bosom. The cerebral challenge of the work, the immediacy of the problems and  their complexity, the urgent call to fight  the great Cold War against Communism. These were what drew him.

He reluctantly embarks on this investigation, only to find that every step of the way, obstacles are placed in his path.

Charles Wilson had been a family man, with a wife and children. Antony, the eldest, has never been able to accept the verdict of suicide in his father’s death.

“What happened!”Antony snapped. “He died. Fell or jumped. That’s pretty clear, clear as mud.”
Gabriel was impatient with Antony’s testiness. “We both believe someone needs to be held accountable.”
“Really?” Antony stared. “He suffered the killing love of his friends.”

Paul Vidich’s prose is salted with allusions to classic literature: At one point, a character remarks that “Men strut their time in power and then are  heard from no more.” Or, as Shakespeare says in MacBeth:

Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day,
To the last syllable of recorded time;
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player,
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing.
For me, this is one of the most genuinely shocking passages in all of Shakespeare’s works. Even in the tragedies, he  usually seems so life affirming. But here – a blank void of night, sheer nihilism.
The Coldest Warrior is based on a true story. I knew that, going in. I’m interested in the field of intelligence work, and had encountered a description of the actual events in my reading. What I was not aware of was that this author, Paul Vidich, has a personal connection to these events. I won’t say any more here. He reveals all in the acknowledgement section that follows the novel’s conclusion.
I will say, though, that this novel has a greater impact if you read it in conjunction with a viewing of Errol Morris’s Wormwood. Available on Netflix, this six part documentary film recounts the actual story of the death of Frank Olson and the subsequent investigation – or perhaps, one should say, the subsequent cover-up. Some reviewers have felt that Wormwood is longer than necessary, and that in places it drags and is repetitious.
I thought it was excellent. For one thing, the atmosphere of Cold War paranoia was evoked in a way that was positively uncanny. It lay dark and heavy over the unfolding events of the story. For another, the extended interview material with Frank Olson’s son Eric was riveting. Eric Olson simply refuses to let go of this inquiry until those responsible for his father’s death are named and held accountable. Quite a few of the individuals involved are now deceased. No matter. Dead or alive, they must be made to take responsibility.
I came away from Wormwood with enormous respect and compassion for  this man who, decades ago at the age of nine, suddenly and unaccountably lost his father. The Olson family has had more than its share of tragedy. But decades after his father’s death, Eric Olson is still fighting the good fight.


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‘He was so inwardly calm, he was like St. Francis, and the birds knew it as they approached him.’ -The Sun Collective, by Charles Baxter

December 7, 2020 at 9:23 pm (Book review, books)

  The Sun Collective is a novel that is both magical and ordinary. Charles Baxter’s numerous bon mots are, to my mind, enchanting. His characters are at once pedestrian and unique, in the way that all persons are unique.

Harry and Alma Brettigan share a decades old marriage. Here’s how Harry sums things up:

He and Alma had  been married so long that love really didn’t really figure into the whole business anymore, and their tolerance for each other’s eccentricities didn’t matter much either–Alma was like water: you didn’t have to love water when you were thirsty. You just needed it to live. That’s how they were with each other. They had gone from love to post-love, where each one for the other was a necessity.

With regard to those eccentricities: Alma has a much shorter fuse than Harry. She is forever criticizing his ‘tone’ and trying to shut  him down. I rather enjoyed Harry’s piquant, aphoristic style of speech. Alma’s repeated objections took on a whining tone – at least, they did for me. So while my affection for him grew, so did my irritation with her. I objected to her objections!

The whole thing was rather entertaining.

Meanwhile, their son Timothy has gone AWOL; there’s a suspicion that he’s allied himself with a  group called the Sun Collective. Then there’s a young couple, Christina and Ludlow, who are definitely involved  with this mysterious organization. (To Christina belongs one of my favorite ‘thought bubbles’ in the novel: “She bit into her cheeseburger. Who could ever be a vegan when food tasted like this?”)

It’s difficult to determine whether the goals of the Sun Collective are benign or sinister. Actually, I found it hard to care, one way or another, because I was so wrapped up in the ongoing psychodrama of Harry and Alma’s relationship.

Here’s one of Harry’s wry observations concerning the vagaries of his fellow citizens:

In America, with its strange pragmatism, the idea  was that you could postpone death indefinitely if you simply took the proper steps and followed the self-help advice given out by paid programming dietitians and fitness experts who could also be found expounding their theories on the internet. If you died, you would be criticized for your bad  habits: too much pasta, a sedentary lifestyle, whiskey instead of herbal energy drinks, pessimism. Your death would  be all your fault.

Passages like this occur throughout this novel and are one of its chief joys.

Baxter’s writing is at times quite lyrical:

On that porch, Brettigan sat in the late afternoons with his glass of sun tea, his mind empty of anxious thought, and when the sparrows, who were used to him, flew down onto the edge of the porch, he would reach into his pocket  for bread crumbs and toss them down. He was so inwardly calm, he was like St. Francis, and the birds knew it as they approached him.

In those moments, he felt the peace that passes all human understanding, and he thought: This is what everybody wants. The Kingdom of God is on Earth.

The events of the novel, such as they are, take place in Minneapolis and its environs. The cold, unpredictable climate has an inevitable affect on the course of the story.

I remember years ago reading a novel by Charles Baxter called Saul and Patsy, and liking it very much. This is the reason I downloaded The Sun Collective as soon as  learned of its existence. I was not disappointed; on the contrary, I was delighted.

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All the Devils Are Here, by Louise Penny

December 1, 2020 at 3:57 pm (Book review, books, France, Mystery fiction)

  I must dash this review off, lest I start forgetting what I’ve just read. Oops! – it’s already started!

Okay, so:

Armand Gamache, former head of the Sûreté du Québec, and his wife Reine-Marie have recently arrived in Paris from their home in the village of Three Pines, in Quebec. They’ve come to await the birth of their fourth grandchild. Also present is Stephen Horowitz, Armand’s godfather. Horowitz is a very wealthy man who presents a mysterious face to the world, but not to the Gamache family, who know and love him.

Having established the mise en scene in the City of Light and peopled it with her familiar characters, Penny proceeds to launch the story almost immediately with a dastardly transgression committed right in their midst, a crime whose evil intent very nearly succeeds. From this point on, events unfold rapidly, with Armand forced to pit his wits against an extremely ruthless and cunning foe.

This plunge directly into the icy water of criminal intent has  become a familiar trope in contemporary crime fiction – in other words, don’t waste time on description, get things moving at once! (You can just hear the editor/first reader exhorting the author.) It didn’t trouble me this time, mainly because Penny kept the pace lively right up until the home stretch when, at least for me, the plot became labored and overly complex. I find that when that happens  in a crime novel, I start to zone out, not really caring whay happens next – or worse, not being able to believe in the increasingly arcane developments.

As for the characters, all the members of the famille Gamache are front and center. Everyone does not love everyone equally, which refreshing. Armand is ferociously devoted to everyone, which can be grating at times. Also grating is his Superman schtick – he is always there to save the day (Oh wait – should  that be Mighty Mouse?), always on the side of Right, always stronger and more resourceful than the next guy (or woman). As if to affirm her wokeness, Penny has grown men crying and declaring “I love you!” to one another – again, this is usually Armand.

I loved the Paris setting. I don’t always read Penny because I don’t always like her novels, but when I realized that this one was not set in the overly cute little Québécois village of Three Pines, I thought I’d give it a go. (I was especially pleased not to have to spend time in the company of one of my least favorite denizens of Three Pines, the truculent poet Ruth Zardo and her pet duck Rosa.)

Finally, a point concerning grammar. Penny makes frequent use of ‘this’s’ as a contraction of ‘this is.’ I did a bit of research on this, and as is frequent with question of usage, I got widely differing results. My conclusion is that while ‘this’s’ is not flat out wrong, it could still be termed nonstandard. Now this may seem like a small point, but I’m something of a grammarian – blame long years as an English major and then an English teacher – so things like this matter to me.

Looking over this write-up, it would appear that this is a negative review. If so, I’ve conveyed a not quite accurate impression. I actually enjoyed the book and pretty well raced through it – at least, up until the closing chapters, where too much was happening that was confusing and strained credulity. Nevertheless, a thumbs, up, although with reservations.

My favorite Gamache novel is still Bury Your Dead.


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