Secrets of Happiness by Joan Silber – coming soon

April 28, 2021 at 7:33 pm (Book review, books)

I was not planning to do any blogging today, but as soon as I opened the Style  section of today’s Washington Post, I knew that I had to. This is because Ron Charles has written a full length review of Joan Silber’s latest book, Secrets of Happiness. It appears to be a mostly positive review. I say ‘appears’ because I don’t want to read it too closely. I want the contents to surprise and gratify me when I have the book in my hands.

Now I’m fully aware that one’s favorite author may not always thrill her devoted reader. But I’m not too worried. I consider Joan Silber to be a superb practitioner of the art of fiction. Secrets of Happiness apparently consists of a series of linked stories. Silber employs this device brilliantly in Ideas of Heaven, a book I’ve read three times and will probably read again, I love it that much.

As for Secrets of Happiness, its publication date is Tuesday of next week, May 4. This is a minor gripe I have with the publishing and media industries, this tendency of reviewers to whip you up into a frenzy of reader’s desire, only to find that the object of that desire is not yet available to the general public. (Also, as of this writing, it is not yet on order at the local library. Feel free to request that it be ordered.)

Oh well. I can wait. I can happily, buoyantly wait.

Joan Silber

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‘Art has been a blessing and a lifeline for so many.’

April 21, 2021 at 6:39 pm (Art, Magazines and newspapers)

It certainly has been, for me.

The above title comes from an article by Caroline Campbell in the December 2020 issue of Apollo: The International Art Magazine.

Campbell continues:

It reminds us of our humanity, and links us to others. In it, we can resilience and comfort.

She then observes:

The  art of the past, however, has a task that seems particularly salient at this moment: to remind us that creativity endures in hard times, and  that crises and pandemics are nothing new. Nor do they last forever, or entirely define the life and experience of those who live  through them.

This is the first time I’ve seen an Apollo’s Awards Issue. It proves to be an especially enriching trove. A few of the highlights:

Toyin Ojih Odutola, selected as artist of the year.

I’d never heard of this Nigeria-born, America-raised painter. I definitely like her work.

The Firm

The Missionary

For Museum Opening of the Year:  The Yemisi Shyllon Museum of Art, Nigeria

And the British Galleries, Metropolitan Museum of Art:

 

Obviously I can’t wait to see this, ardent Anglophile  that I am!

In other venues, notable acquisitions:

Marie Antoinette in a Park, by Elisabeth Louise Vigee Lebrun,  acquired by the Metropolitan Museum

 

Palm Sunday by Elisabeth Sonrel, acquired by the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford 

Nice work by the women, I think. It puts me in mind of a  book I read recently, entitled Eighteenth Century Women Artists: Their, Trials, Tribulations, and Triumphs. The author is Caroline Chapman. If this sounds fascinating – well, it is, and then  some.

Several of these women were familiar to me: Elisabeth Louise Vigee Lebrun (whose self-portrait graces the cover), Angelica Kaufmann, Rosalba Carriera. But others were new, and I was happy to get to know  them.

Summer, by Rosalba Carriera. This artist, who worked mainly in pastels, was in her day much in demand as a portraitist.

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‘The Dark birds came and bore them across.’ – Two Truths and a Lie, by Ellen McGarrahan

April 16, 2021 at 1:20 am (True crime)

The year is 1990. The place, Starke, Florida – more  specifically, the Florida State Prison, also known as Raiford Prison. This is ten miles from Starke, and possesses a Starke mailing address. This location is in the northernmost part of the state, not far from the Georgia border.

The author, Ellen McGarrahan, is at this time an investigative reporter. (Later she becomes  a full time private investigator.) She has come to the prison to be a witness at an execution by electric chair. The person whose bleak destiny this is? A young man named Jesse Tafero, age 43. He had been convicted of the murder of two police officers in 1976.

It can be easily understood that this act of witnessing is very upsetting. The experience cannot be easily put out of mind. This is especially true for Ellen, as she starts hearing an increasing drumbeat of protest: Could Jesse Tafero have been innocent?

I will let the author sum up the situation as it presented itself, just past seven AM, on February 20, 1976:

A beat-up green Camaro is parked in a rest area fifteen miles north of Fort Lauderdale on Interstate 95. Inside are an armed robber on parole; a fugitive convicted rapist and drug dealer; his girlfriend, a rich young woman with a history of drug dealing and a loaded gun in her purse; and her two children–a baby girl and a nine-year-old boy.

There’s more:

In the car are five guns, a hatchet, a bayonet, and a Taser. Drugs: amphetamines, cocaine, Quaaludes, marijuana, hashish, glutethimide. Thorazine, Pentazothene. Cigarettes. Beer. The sun has risen but the day is new and the rest area is shrouded in fog.

Trooper Phillip Black, in performance of his duty as a highway patrolman, pulls over to see if there is some sort of problem. With Trooper Black is a guest  from Canada, Corporal Donald Irwin.

Both officers of the law were subsequently shot dead. But later, there was some question as to who actually did the shooting. Was it in fact Jesse Tafero? His girlfriend Sonia, aka Sunny, Jacobs? Or Walter Rhodes, the person who arranged the transportation? Possibly even Sunny’s nine-year-old son Eric? Or maybe more than one of these individuals is responsible.

This is the question that Ellen McGarrahan feels she must get the answer to. The right answer. She travels far and wide, mostly with her husband Peter, in her quest for the truth. She goes out of the country – to Ireland, where Sunny Jacobs now resides, and to Australia, where Eric,  Sunny’s grown son, currently lives.

All in all, McGarrahan conducts a dizzying number of interviews. Almost everyone she locates is willing to talk to her. She must constantly interpret, evaluate, and re-evaluate. The amount of physical, intellectual and emotional energy this effort took can hardly be exaggerated. No one asked her to embark on the prodigious task of re-investigating this cold case. It is quite simply something she felt called upon to undertake. (Her husband Peter is the very model of a help meet, traveling with her and supporting her quest in every way possible.)

Over all of this – over every aspect of this complicated crime, hangs the incredibly sad specter of the murder of two fine young men. It’s enough to make your heart ache.

Trooper Phillip Black, right, and Corporal Donald Irwin

This marker was placed along the highway in 2019.

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Crime Fiction Update III: The Rest of Them

April 12, 2021 at 5:30 pm (Mystery fiction)

Okay, as I’m eager to get back to posting about art, I’m going to fairly race  through the remaining titles on my list of mysteries:

A second reading, for a book group discussion. Loved it. I always like mysteries set in academia. (“Academic Politics Are So Vicious Because the Stakes Are So Small.”) Can hardly wait to read the next one, The Postscript Murders. So happy to know that DS Harbinder Kauer will feature in this sequel (along, hopefully, with her delightful mother).

This is a series that never lets me down. I feel so comfortable and contented hanging out with the newly promoted Chief of Police Bruno Courreges and his friends (and his outstanding dog Balzac – a basset hound, or perhaps, more properly, a Petiit Basset Griffon Vendéen) in the village of St. Denis, nestled in the beautiful and historic Dordogne region of France.

This was good but not great. I appreciated the rural Irish setting, but the novel was longer than it needed to be. Characters were interesting but not especially compelling.

Mason Falls, Georgia, has an especially resourceful and appealing police officer in P. T. Marsh. A vivid setting coupled with a briskly moving plot make this one a winner. This is the first work I’ve read by McMahon; I intend to read more.

This is the sixth book I’ve read by Quartey and the first to disappoint. Characters, plot – it just never came together for me. But I’ve enjoyed his novels so much up to this point that I intend to read the next one anyway. And the Ghana setting continues to fascinate.

Perry’s The Bomb Maker is one of the most gripping thrillers I’ve ever read. But this one did not reach that mark. It had its moments – Perry’s been at  this for a long time, and he  really is an excellent writer – but  the the plot was fairly over the top, plus the body count was so high that – well, it was just too high.

    A lighthearted romp through Christie-land, this novel is actually set in upstate New York. The premise involves a rich and eccentric old lady, Vera Van Alst, who is searching for a supposedly lost play by the Queen of Crime. Miss Van Alst uses a wheelchair, so she hires Jordan Bingham to do her sleuthing for her. Jordan is both ambitious and clueless – she didn’t even know about Christie’s famous missing days in Harrogate! The plot was all over the place and there were too many characters, but the novel did have its humorous moments. These mostly involved Vera Van Alst’s relentless cook, Signora Panetone, who is constantly scurrying about in the kitchen and dining room and exhorting Vera and Jordan to “Eat! Eat!” She was my favorite character. (Also read for a book group)

  I love reading books set in Wyoming. (My son, daughter-in-law, and grandchildren are frequent visitors there.) It a place of surpassing beauty. Also, if you read the crime fiction of C.J. Box (and Craig Johnson too) a place of considerable danger, the danger emanating largely from political infighting. As regards this particular series entry, game warden Joe Pickett is once again in the thick of the action when, in a shocking incident,  a judge’s wife takes a bullet. Long Range has one of the most imaginative, beautifully written opening chapters that I’ve ever encountered in a mystery. This was a most enjoyable read; I’m greatly looking forward to the next one, Dark Sky.

 

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Crime Fiction Update II: Mysteries of Brittany, as elucidated by Jean-Luc Bannalec

April 9, 2021 at 2:30 pm (France, Mystery fiction)

Hardcover Death in Brittany Book Hardcover Murder on Brittany Shores : A Mystery Book

 

Jean-Luc Bannalec

Having hugely enjoyed Death in Brittany, I knew I’d want to follow up with this series. The second entry, Murder on Brittany Shores, concerns the relation between the lad and the sea. Unlike Death in Brittany, the story does not concern itself with the region’s rich artistic heritage. I was initially disappointed by this, but I was won over as I read on. For one thing, Bannalec’s descriptions of coastal Brittany are simply wonderful. To whit, Commissaire Georges Dupin’s ruminations early in the novel :

He had stopped saying that the sea was blue. Because that wasn’t true: the sea  was  not just blue. Not here in this magical world of light. It was azure, turquoise, cyan, cobalt, silver-grey, ultramarine, pale watercolour blue, silver-grey [sic], midnight blue, violet blue…Blue in a good ten or fifteen base colours and and infinite numbers of shades in between. Sometimes it was even green, a real green or brown – and deep black. All of this depended on various factors: the sun and its position, of course, the season, the time of day, also the weather, the air pressure, the exact water content in the air, all of which refracted the light differently and shifted the blue into this or that tone….The most important factor was a different blue though – the sky, which varied in the same way and even contrasted with the clouds. It was this blue that found itself in an infinite interplay with the various shades of the sea. The truth was this: you never saw the same sea, the same sky, not once in the exact same hour and in the exact same place.

Then he cannot help adding:

And it was always a spectacle.

All credit to this eloquent writer – Jean-Luc Bannalec, pseudonym of Jörg Bong, a German national and deep lover of all things Breton. Equal praise is due to to the translator, Sorcha McDonagh.

One is given to believe that Brittany’s Celtic heritage is alive and well. Folk tales and legends are retold, with gusto. Here, for instance, is a retelling of the story of Groac’h, a species of supernatural being that (supposedly) inhabits the Breton landscape:

‘If she calls your name, you have no choice. She leads you to the Baie des Trépassés, the Bay of the Deceased. A boat is waiting for you. It’s low in the water and seems to be heavily laden and yet it’s totally empty. The Skiff of the Dead is waiting for your crossing. A sail hoists, as though by a ghostly hand, and you are tasked  with steering it safely to the Ile de Sein. As soon as the skiff reaches the island, the souls leave it. Then you may come back, to your family. Everything is just a shadow, but you are never the same.’

As I read the above passage, I got chills, because I recalled coming across the same tale in a book of Celtic legends some years ago.

Meanwhile, my liking for Commissaire Dupin is steadily growing. It helps greatly that these novels are police procedurals.

I went on to read the third book in the series, The Fleur de Sel Murders. In a way, the subject matter this time was the most exotic I’d yet encountered. As defined by Wikipedia, Fleur de Sel “…a salt that forms as a thin, delicate crust on the surface of seawater as it evaporates.” It has apparently been harvested from the Atlantic since ancient times.

Commissaire Dupin notes:

The fleur de sel gave off a curious fragrance in the days after the harvest; it mingles with the smell of rich clay and the salt and iodine in the air that people here in the middle of the white land–the Gwenn Rann. the far-reaching salt marshes of the Guerande–smelled and tasted more strongly with every breath than anywhere else on the coast.

Here is what this substance looks like just prior to harvesting:

And here it is, made ready for commercial consumption:

All this was quite intriguing to me. I’d never  before heard of fleur de sel; the same is probably true for you as well, Dear Reader. I might just betake myself to Wiliams-Sonoma and purchase this little item, provided the price is not overly outrageous.

Square plots of salt marsh are carefully laid out, zealously guarded and harvested by the paludiers, or salt farmers, who are responsible for their maintenance.

Now, as fascinating as all this may be, the plot of The Fleur de Sel Murders never developed any big momentum. There were times when I had to push myself to keep going. Mostly it was the substance itself that held my interest.

Despite this somewhat disappointing reading experience, I intend to stick with this series. On to The Missing Corpse! my hopes are high. Mostly I love spending time in Brittany, even if it as at a wide, wide remove. In my dreams, I will go there….

 

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Crime Fiction Update I: Classics

April 7, 2021 at 5:22 pm (Mystery fiction)

So: Due to general slothfulness and specific pandemic dullness, I have fallen woefully behind in my book blogging. This is especially true of mysteries, which I’ve been devouring like candy (a handy metaphor for one who can no longer consume actual candy – thanks for that, Type 2).

Let us now attempt to remedy  this woeful state of affairs. I will start with several classics.

Some weeks ago, I had the pleasure of viewing a webinar on crime fiction set at Oxford. This was presented by Daniel Stashower, a writer and critic. I recommend his book The Beautiful Cigar Girl, which tells the story behind the events that gave rise to one of Edgar Allan Poe’s most famous stories, “The Mystery of Marie Roget.”

Herewith the contents of the handout that accompanied this webinar:

An Oxford Tragedy, by J.C. Masterman

Death at the President’s Lodging, by Michael Innes

The Moving Toyshop, by Edmund Crispin

Gaudy Night, by Dorothy Sayers

Trick of the Dark, by Val McDermid

Landscape with Dead Dons, by Robert Robinson

Oxford Blood, by Antonia Fraser

An Instance of the Fingerpost, by Ian Pears

The Oxford Murders, by Guillermo Martinez

The Inspector Morse series, by Colin Dexter

An Oxford Tragedy was a new one on me. Finding that it was available for downloading on Amazon for a mere $4.74, I acquired it and read it. Turns out, there was good reason for never having heard of this title: John Cecil Masterman was an academic, associated for almost his entire life with Oxford. In that time he wrote only two mysteries, of which An Oxford Tragedy, published in 1933, is the first. (The second, The Case of the Four Friends, did not appear until 1957.)

For the most part, I found this an enjoyable work of crime fiction. The enclosed world of the fictional St. Thomas College is beautifully realized, as seen through the eyes of the novel’s narrator, the sixty-year-old Senior Tutor Francis Wheatley Winn. Here he describes one of his favorite regular rituals:

To a middle-aged don, as I might describe myself, or to an old don, as I might almost be described, there is no place more pleasant  than Common Room, no hour more wholly pleasurable than that spent in it immediately after dinner. For here the fellows of St. Thomas’s, having dined, settled down to enjoy the comfort of port and desert, of coffee and cigars,

I really like reading this kind of gently antiquated prose.

Since we are at Oxford in the 1930s, we are dwelling in a largely exclusive male preserve. However, there are women in the lives of several of Wheatley’s colleagues. They are, in fact, crucial to the plot of this novel.

My one reservation concerning An Oxford Tragedy has to do with the conclusion. Masterman piles on a whole lot of explanatory material at the very end. By the time he had finished this exposition, I found myself not caring very much, having been wearied by the whole exercise. I need to mention at this point that I’ve encountered this tendency as well in numerous contemporary crime novels.


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I’d like to mention briefly two other classics. Martin Edwards has said of Julian Symons that his distinguished work as a critic – he’s the author of Bloody Murder: From the Detective Story to the Crime Novel: A History –  has tended to overshadow his achievements as a novelist. I’d like to sing the praises of one of those achievements. It is entitled The Progress of a Crime. This book received the 1961 Edgar Award for Best Novel. Upon reading it, I could easily see why. Highly recommended.


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Finally, an entry in the American Mystery Classics series. These works are currently being published by Otto Penzler, whose services to the field of crime fiction are great and much appreciated. That said, I was not overly enamored of the several series entries I’d read – until I picked up The Chocolate Cobweb by Charlotte Armstrong. This tale is set once again in Southern California, that favored haunt of American crime fiction:

It was a bright afternoon, windy and clear. On all sides the hills were visible and sharp, cutting the flat land into valleys. The brilliant light picked out the brightest colors, greens in the landscape, red, orange, magenta flowers, and beat them to a sparkling blend. No color could be garish in this sun. The bright air consumed it all.

Twenty-three-year-old Amanda Garth, attractive and restless, manages to insinuate herself into the Garrison family. This distinguished, distinctive, yet in some ways secretive clan had as its patriarch, the painter Tobias Garrison. Matters evolve inevitably, and things become frightening and beyond Amanda’s control.

The Chocolate Cobweb came out in 1948. Charlotte Armstrong won the Edgar Award in 1957 for her novel A Dram of Poison. Have a look at her Wikipedia entry and you’ll see how prolific she was. And highly respected as well.

 

 

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A Much Beloved Painting

April 5, 2021 at 1:31 pm (Art)

Garden at Saint-Adresse, also known as La Terrasse à Saint-Adresse, by Claude Monet, 1867

As I approach my seventy-seventh birthday (!!), I find myself increasingly frustrated by the inability to make time stop. Yes, to stop in its tracks. To cease, desist, quit robbing others and myself of our ability, vitality, and just plain life force. We know where we are headed, inexorably.

There is one way to stop time. From the beginning of the world, image makers have known this. You will pass, but the image will remain. Thank God – literally – for this.

It is the gift given to us by the arts of painting and photography. The Garden at Saint-Adresse is one of my favorite paintings because it fixes in time a moment of supreme happiness. The people, the sun,the wind, the flowers, the sea – all there, bathed in golden light, forever.

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