Question of the Day

June 29, 2022 at 6:59 pm (Family)

How did the above Excellent Personage

Become the Excellent Personage below, fixing us with an enigmatic gaze:

And, here, staring winsomely from behind the family’s newly acquired Excellent Canine:

This Excellent Personage, aka Etta Lin, will be entering middle school in the fall.

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And coming right behind her, Little Brother Welles (also an Excellent Personage, doubt not), who has gone from infancy (seen here with his beautiful Mom):

with seemingly lightning speed to ace softball player:

And possessor of an ever-growing collection of Matchbox Cars:

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The Summit of Beauty in Art

June 16, 2022 at 12:24 pm (Art)

On my art-cluttered coffee table, this gorgeous volume currently takes precedence. It is a birthday gift from Ron – my most splendid husband.

Giotto’s O is about the great painter Giotto de Bondone. His genius pointed the way forward from the art of the Middle Ages to the triumph of the High Renaissance.

From Andrew Ladis’s Introduction:

The tale of Giotto’s O is a story of magical technical mastery and the most unassuming interpretive intelligence, an extraordinary combination of hand and mind. The painter transforms himself into a human compass, but in addition to mechanical precision there is a diagnostic dimension behind the mark that is equally astonishing, an idea that informs and elevates the painter’s manual dexterity….

The murals by Giotto in the Arena Chapel…constitute the greatest pictorial cycle of fourteenth-century Europe. Above all, what elevates them to the realm of the universal and timeless is their profound humanity. In a series of images whose subtlety, truthfulness, and dramatic range anticipate Caravaggio and Rembrandt, Giotto explored the world of the human heart and mind in such a way that, as the nineteenth-century English critic John Ruskin put it, he “defines, explains and exalts every sweet incident of human nature; and makes dear to daily life every mystic imagination of natures greater than our own. He reconciles, while he intensifies, every virtue of domestic and monastic thought. He makes the simplest household duties sacred, and the highest religious passions serviceable and just.”

Recently, I’ve taken a Lifelong Learning class entitled The Giotto Revolution. I’ve had this instructor before, but this time she really outdid herself. The course was not only about Giotto; several other great artists were covered. Among the most notable, Duccio di Buoninsegna. ( I love his name):

Rucellai Madonna, ca. 1285
Meleager Sarcophagus, 220-230 AD
Cimabue Madonna and Child
Giotto, Ognissanti Madonna ca. 1310
Pulpit of the Pisa Baptistry, Nicola Pisano

Ducci, Maesta ca.1308-1311

Duccio, Maesta, reverse

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Recent Reading in Crime Fiction

May 13, 2022 at 8:46 pm (Book review, books, Mystery fiction)

Of late, I’ve read much and written little. So here’s a corrective, of sorts.

This one was a bit of a hyperintellectual brain teaser, infused with mathematical theorizng ad literary speculation. The plot revolves, almost inevitably, around Lewis Carroll and the questions surrounding his affinity for young girls. Recommended, if you desire a brisk workout for your ‘leetle gray cells..’

And this is quite the opposite. Alexander McCall Smith is incredibly skilled at writing about the human side of his characters without waxing sentimental. Theft of painting, a terrible injury to Ulf’s dog Martin – the only dog in Sweden that can lip read, by the by – these stories and more are interwoven seamlessly in this novel. Ulf is a detective with a heart as big as the great Scandinavian outdoors, yet with it , a brain as sharp and knowing as any policeman could need or desire.

C.J. Box is on a roll, with his Joe Pickett series now being made for television. These novels combine fast moving plots with characters you care about. The writing about the West, with all its problems and promises, is outstanding. Shadows Reel is a worthy addition to this series. And if you’ve never been to Wyoming…well, drop everything and go. What a gorgeous place!

DI Vera Stanhope is driving home in a blizzard when she spots a car at the side of the road. It appears to be empty. The driver’s side door hangs open. She pulls over and stops for a closer look. Suddenly she hears a soft, mewling noise from the back of the vehicle. Like a kitten. But not a kitten. A baby.

Vera gathers the child in her arms and trudges to the nearest dwelling. And here, more surprises await…

Ann Cleeves is a wonderful writer, And the Vera Stanhope series has been brought vividly to life on television. I highly recommend it.

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Lady Audley’s Secret by Mary Elizabeth Braddon

April 10, 2022 at 8:12 pm (Art, books)

To begin with, the word ‘Secret’ should have been plural: Lady Audley had several, any one of which, if revealed, could have torpedoed her status as ‘My Lady’ within the staid rigors of Victorian society.

I first encountered information on this novel in the pages of Kate Summerscale’s riveting book The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher. One of the things that made that book so fascinating was the telling of the various ways in which the contemporary culture reacted to news of the grotesque murder at the center of Summerscale’s narrative. During the heat of the high profile investigation, both Charles Dickens and Wilkie Collins caught ‘detective fever’ and found themselves speculating on possible solutions. Meanwhile, Mary Elizabeth Braddon‘s response to the hubbub was to write Lady Audley’s Secret.

From the viewpoint of plot, the two books have very little in common. But from the standpoint of character, they have one commonality: both feature a woman at the center of a maelstrom, a woman whose moral compass has malfunctioned, with predictably disastrous results. Braddon’s novel falls into the category of literature called ‘novels of sensation.’ Allow me to quote myself, from the post I linked to above:

‘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.”‘

In other words, if your feelings are somewhat numb – try one!

This was actually my second reading of Lady Audley’s Secret. Why did I decide to reread this novel at the present moment? I was having trouble finding reading matter that adequately matched my mood. In particular, I was experiencing one disappointment after another with new so-called ‘literary fiction.’ I’m sure some of it is very good; it just did not seem to be written for me.

When I descend into doldrums of this sort, I tend to reach back to the classics for consolation – and inspiration. My first attempt was a novel I’ve always meant to read but have never gotten all the way through: Crime and Punishment. I’ve always found Dostoevsky tougher going than Tolstoy. I recently read, for the first time, the latter’s short story “Master and Man” and found it powerfully moving. So, how did I do with Dostoevsky this time around? Better…but not completely. These days, due to the magic of Kindle, I could tell precisely how much of the novel I got through: eighty-one percent. I was reading the Constance Garnett translation; possibly a more recent one would have worked better for me. At any rate, I may go back to it, at some future time….

In contrast, reading Lady Audley’s Secret was a breeze. I was engrossed from the outset and stayed that way until the end. In addition, at the time of this reading, I was taking a most pleasurable Lifelong Learning class on the Pre-Raphaelite painters. Just before the final session of this course, I happened upon a passage in which the author describes a portrait of Lady Audley:

Yes, the painter must have been a pre-Raphaelite. No one but a pre-Raphaelite would have painted, hair by hair, those feathery masses of ringlets, with every glimmer of gold, and every shadow of pale brown. No one but a pre-Raphaelite would have so exaggerated every attribute of that delicate face as to give a lurid brightness to the blonde complexion, and a strange, sinister light to the deep blue eyes. No one but a pre-Raphaelite could have given to that pretty pouting mouth the hard and almost wicked look it had in the portrait. 

It was so like, and yet so unlike. It was as if you had burned strange-colored fires before my lady’s face, and by their influence brought out new lines and new expressions never seen in it before. The perfection of feature, the brilliancy of coloring, were there; but I suppose the painter had copied quaint mediaeval monstrosities until his brain had grown bewildered, for my lady, in his portrait of her, had something of the aspect of a beautiful fiend. 

Her crimson dress, exaggerated like all the rest in this strange picture, hung about her in folds that looked like flames, her fair head peeping out of the lurid mass of color as if out of a raging furnace. Indeed the crimson dress, the sunshine on the face, the red gold gleaming in the yellow hair, the ripe scarlet of the pouting lips, the glowing colors of each accessory of the minutely painted background, all combined to render the first effect of the painting by no means an agreeable one.’

I immediately copied this text and sent it to our instructor. The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood was founded in 1848. Lady Audley’s Secret came out in 1862. The edition at the top of this post features a painting by Dante Gabriel Rosetti entitled Monna Vanna.

Dante Gabriel Rossetti: Monna Vanna, 1866.

Meanwhile, I had recently read of a new book by Christine Emba, one of my favorite Washington Post columnists. Here it is:

The cover image is by yet another Pre-Raphaelite painter, Frederick Sandys. It is called Love’s Shadow.

Love’s shadow *oil on panel *40.6 x 32.5 cm *1867

There really is something witchy about the way in which the Pre-Raphaelite painters depict certain women…

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Four favorite songs from past decades

March 30, 2022 at 11:19 pm (Music)

‘Chelsea Morning’ by the incomparable Joni Mitchell:

The whole song is marvel of terrific lyrics and infectious melody. The line that particularly stays with me is “The sun poured in like butterscotch and stuck to all my senses.”
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Two songs that tell a story. First, ‘Hotel California.’ This song tells a disturbing yet compelling story and ends with this ominous line: “You can check out any time you like but you can never leave.” According to Don Henley. the song is about “…a journey from innocence to experience … that’s all” You can make up your own mind.

I’m no expert, but that virtuoso guitar playing, especially at the end, seems pretty extraordinary to me.
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How can we ever thank Gordon Lightfoot for writing a ballad that could have come out of a previous century. In simple, straightforward language, he tell a heartbreaking – and true – story:

‘The legend lives on from the Chippewa on down
Of the big lake they call Gitche Gumee
Superior, they said, never gives up her dead
When the gales of November come early.’
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Finally, Linda Rondstadt with The Eagles, a band she helped found. ‘Desperado,’ it seems to me, is a song she was born to sing:

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‘100 Best English Language Novels from 1923 to the Present’ ( actually 2005), according to Time Magazine

March 20, 2022 at 8:57 pm (Uncategorized)

I love lists like this! With this one, in particular, I found myself careening between books I could not get through to books I loved.

Here’s a link to the list.

And here are some (totally subjective) examples:

Books I couldn’t get through:

Call It Sleep by Henry Roth

Light in August and The Sound and the Fury by William Faulkner. I’ve had my struggles with Faulkner…

Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie

Mrs Dalloway and To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf. …and with Virginia Woolf as well.

Possession by A.S Byatt. Yes I know: All my literary friends and relatives – including my mother – eagerly pressed this book upon me. What can I say? It just didn’t work for me. I found something about her writing oddly off-putting. I think I prefer her sister Margaret Drabble.

Love the cover, though:


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The Beguiling of Merlin by Sir Edward Burne-Jones

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Books I loved (and still love):

Atonement by Ian McEwan. Not my absolute favorite McEwan, though – that would probably be Enduring Love.

The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler

Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh

The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen. listened to this on CD in the car, and II remember having to pull over at on point because I was laughing so hard!

Lucky Jim by Kingsley Amis

A Passage to India by E. M. Forster

The Power and the Glory by Graham Greene – though my favorite work by this author is The Quiet American

Red Harvest by Dashiell Hammett. Instead of The Maltese Falcon – really? But I do love those subtle pulp fiction covers:
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I decided on a special category for books I especially revere:

Death Comes for the Archbishop by Willa Cather. One of my favorite novels ever. A beautful, beautiful book.

An American Tragedy by Theodore Dreiser. To quote myself from a previous post: ‘Although it dragged in some places, and Dreiser’s writing can be exasperating, it was also powerful enough to keep me up at night and in a deep state of dread. I ended up loving it.’

The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald

Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov

“Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul. Lo-lee-ta: the tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth.”
(I was going to add something, but I don’t think I really need to.)

Rabbit, Run by John Updike

Ragtime by E.L. Doctorow

The Sot-Weed Factor by John Barth

And a novel from Australia that is, in my opinion, one of the great under appreciated masterpieces of 20th century literature: Picnic at Hanging Rock by Joan Lindsay. And after you’ve read the novel, watch Peter Weir’s brilliant realization of it on film.

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‘He was determined, deliberate, canny, and manipulative.’ – Scoundrel: How a Convicted Murderer Persuaded the Women Who Loved Him, the Conservative Establishment, and the Courts to Set Him Free, by Sarah Weinman

March 18, 2022 at 12:29 am (Uncategorized)

That was Edgar Smith, all right. He was also a husband, a son, and a father.

You’d think he’d know better, wouldn’t you?

In the year 1957, Edgar Smith of Bergen County, New Jersey, was arrested for the murder of 15-year-old Vickie Zielinsky. He was ultimately found guilty and sentenced to death. Their followed a fourteen year struggle to escape the snares of the death penalty, all the while steadfastly maintaining his innocence. Ultimately he managed not only to avoid execution but to gain release from prison entirely. This was by way of entering a plea of non vult, or no contest, in regard to the murder. In 1971, he admitted before a judge that he in fact did commit the crime. This should have resulted in a further prison sentence, but the judge gave Edgar credit for the over fourteen years he had already served, took into account his good behavior while behind bars, and suspended the remainder of his sentence. (Part of this ‘good behavior’ consisted in the writing of several books, the first of which, Brief Against Death, won him considerable acclaim.)

Thus Edgar Smith, although on probation for several more years, walked out of court and into the wide world a free man, still maintaining his innocence. ( The terms of the plea stipulated that before the judge, he had to confess his guilt.)

Sarah Weinman acquaints us with the numerous individuals who believed in Smith’s innocence and fought alongside him for exoneration. The best known of these was William F. Buckley. His role in this drama is fascinating to read about, especially for those of us who vividly remember his dominating presence on the scene as a conservative spokesman in mid twentieth century America.

Upon his release, Edgar Smith appeared with Buckley on his TV show Firing Line:

Sarah Weinman has been involved in the crime fiction scene in this country for quite some time. I was a fan of her blog Confessions of an Idiosyncratic Mind. She left off blogging for other activities in the field, most notably working on anthologies such as Troubled Daughters, Twisted Wives and he two-volume set, Women Crime Writers of the 1940s and 1950s. In these endeavors, one of her goals has been to bring some of the excellent women crime writers from that era back before the reading public. In this, she has succeeded admirably. (And I can’t resist extolling the virtues of one particular novel to be found in the 1940s volume. It’s called The Blank Wall by Elisabeth Sanxay Holding. It is both a vivid portrait of wartime America and a gripping crime story. Above all, it’s the story of one woman’s struggle to raise her two teen-agers alone while her husband is fighting abroad.)

Sarah Weinman has now turned to writing true crime. The Real Lolita (2018) was a revelation and an enjoyable read. Scoundrel is, in my opinion, even better. For a while now, I’ve been looking for a true crime narrative as compelling and as memorable as I’ll Be Gone in the Dark.

Found it!

Sarah Weinman

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Five Tuesdays in Winter by Lily King

March 11, 2022 at 5:43 pm (Uncategorized)

Just a quick note before I return this to the library: Five Winters in Tuesday is wonderful! It’s a collection consisting of ten stories. They’re about ordinary people coping with the unexpected – sudden love, sudden lust, or lack of sudden anything. They’re about the curves life throws at you and the way that, while you’re thrashing about in a sea of uncertainty, your coping mechanisms keep you afloat – sometimes, barely. The writing is beautiful, and the characters spring to life with astonishing vividness.

I kept putting off finishing this book. To my dismay, I found that this is the author’s only short story collection. But there is a novel by Lily King, Euphoria, that I’ve heard good things about. That will be next read.

Meanwhile: More stories, Ms King, please – and soon!

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Hans Holbein the Younger

March 9, 2022 at 12:13 am (Art, Music)

An exhibit featuring the works of Hans Holbein the Younger is currently to be seen at the Morgan Library and Museum in Manhattan. The exhibit is entitled “Holbein: Capturing Character.”

The artist’s famed portrait of Sir Thomas More has been conveyed downtown from the Frick Collection in order to be part of this showing.

I’ve known this painting my whole life. I’ve spent many hours in front of it, gazing intently, hypnotized. It has always been for me a sort of summation of the endlessly fascinating history of England. (I was especially delighted to encounter Holbein himself in the pages of Hilary Mantel’s magnum opus, Wolf Hall. )

And by the way, Holbein Senior was no slouch either, as I learned from Franny Moyle’s biography The King’s Painter.

Death of the Virgin by Hans Holbein the Elder c.1490

Peter Scheldahl, who writes about art – wonderfully – for The New Yorker, covered this exhibit in the magazine’s February 28 issue. In particular, he describes a work that is not part of the installation at the Morgan. He first saw it where it resides in the Kunstmuseum in Basel, Switzerland. It made an unforgettable impression him, as it has on many others, including myself:

Tantalizing hints of unfulfilled potential attend much of [Holbein the Younger’s] tyro work, notably one of the most indelibly shocking images of all time, “The Dead Christ in the Tomb” (1521-1522). The painting, measuring a foot high and six and a half feet wide, depicts a gruesomely putrefying corpse that, if unearthed, could present only a sanitation problem. Famously, Dostoyevsky’s encounter with the picture, in 1867, shook his Christian faith and obsessed him thereafter, figuring as a philosophical provocation a year or so later in his novel “The Idiot.”

Scheldahl adds parenthetically: “The work is not in the Morgan show but I will not forget, no matter how hard I try, my own first look, in the Kustmuseum Basel, at that…what? That thing.”

The Body of the Dead Christ in the Tomb, by Hans Holbein the Younger, 1520-1522

But the portraits for which Holbein is best known are those he made in England, of King Henry VIII:

1536 or1537

Now, go back and gaze once more at these extraordinary images while you listen to some music of the period: Ave Maria by Josquin des Pres and Cantate Domino by Claudio Monteverdi. The Monteverdi is a bit later than Holbein’s time, but I love it and wanted to include it here.

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Need for the Solace of Beauty

March 5, 2022 at 5:59 pm (Art, Music, Spiritual)

This work resides in the Groeningenmuseum in Bruges, Belgium. It was painted between 1434 and 1436 by Jan van Eyck. To me, it is somewhere beyond beautiful, even approaching perfection. Art historian Carel Huydecoper offers an enlightening explication. You can enjoy his talk, or simply stare, and be mesmerized – or both.

While you are gazing on the painting, you can listen to Panis Angelicus, an exquisite short piece of sacred music by César Franck. I’ve long known about the version with Pavarotti and the children’s choir of Montreal’s Notre-Dame Basilica. But the version below came as a surprise to me – and a pleasant one that I wasn’t expecting:

Here is Pavarotti at the Notre-Dame Basilica:

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