Loved it, as I figured I would: The Department of Sensitive Crimes, by Alexander McCall Smith

June 9, 2019 at 5:55 pm (Book review, books, Mystery fiction, The British police procedural)

  Scandi Blanc. Thus has Alexander McCall Smith named his new series. This is how he describes his latest undertaking in The Scotsman:

“I’ve started a new series set in Sweden. I call it ‘Scandi blanc’ as opposed to Scandi noir.

“My central character is a Swedish detective called Ulf Varg – Ulf means ‘wolf’ in Danish and Varg means ‘wolf’ in Swedish so he’s Wolf Wolf.

“He lives in Malmo and works in this department which deals with unusual crimes.

“He has a dog called Marten, and he’s hearing impaired. He’s the only dog in Sweden who can lip-read, but only in Swedish.

“He also has various sidekicks, but all his cases are really peculiar.

“The whole thing is just having great fun. My books never involve any serious crimes. Nobody is ever killed in any of my books, so there’s no murder there.

“There is a case of lycanthropy, though – somebody who is possibly a werewolf. It’s good Scandinavian stuff and I’ve had tremendous fun.

There is also a case of multiple missing persons. But is it actually a case if one of those reported missing never actually existed in the first place?

One of the reasons I love police procedurals is that you have a team of investigators. The individuals who make up that team are often very interesting in and of themselves. And there interactions can also be quite memorable.

From the jacket copy for The Department of Sensitive Crimes:

Ulf “the Wolf” Varg, the top dog, thoughtful and diligent; Anna Bengstdotter, who’s in love with Varg’s car (and possibly Varg too); Carl Holgersson, who likes nothing ,ore than filling out paperwork; and Erik Nykvist, who is deeply committed to fly fishing.

Throw in a local beat cop who is amiable but talks nonstop, and you have an entirely winning (if, at times, exasperating) ensemble.

Alexander McCall Smith is also great on the subject of dogs. Martin (variable spelling ‘Marten’) is an entirely lovable canine. Freddy de la Haye is my all time favorite fictional dog.

I admit I’ve been made slightly anxious by the appearance of this new series. I see there’s a new Precious Ramotswe novel in the offing, but what about the Isabel Dalhousie series? I love both and don’t want to see either of them supplanted. But McCall Smith is such a prolific writer – just have a look at his Wikipedia entry and you can see for yourself. I probably don’t need to worry.

I’m an Alexander McCall Smith junkie; I don’t deny it. I still have the fondest memory of his appearance at the library several years ago.

Long may he write!

Alexander McCall Smith

 

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Rarely has the Australian outback been brought so vividly to life….The Lost Man, by Jane Harper

June 6, 2019 at 12:50 pm (Book review, books, Mystery fiction)

  Jane Harper is a relatively new author; The Lost Man is her third book. She’s been getting consistently favorable reviews, which is why I decided to try this one.

The Bright brothers are  cattle ranchers in Queensland, Australia. Their land is flat, vast, sun baked. There are three brothers: Nathan, Cameron, and Bub. The novel’s prologue reveals that a man has been found dead on a lonely stretch of land that’s well known for having a single gravestone on it.

The name of the man buried beneath had long since vanished, and the landmark was known to locals–all sixty-five of them, plus one hundred thousand head of cattle–simply as the stockman’s grave. That piece of land had never been a cemetery; the stockman had  been put into  the ground where he had died, and in more than a century, no one had joined him.

This is one of the most striking openings I’ve encountered in a novel in a long while. And the rest of the book more than lives up to the promise offered up in this prologue.

I was mesmerized by The Lost Man. I hated to finish it. The ending was just as dramatic as  the beginning; I was held captive by every word in between, as well. Oh, for more reading experiences like this!

Highly recommended, obviously.

I plan to go back and read Jane Harper’s first Two novels, The Dry and Force of Nature.

Jane Harper

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Two pleasing procedurals

June 5, 2019 at 8:17 pm (Book review, books, Mystery fiction, The British police procedural)

Having fallen hopelessly behind in the reviewing process – and watching as titles pile up in my home office – I’ve decided to take a stab at remedying the situation.

So, to begin:

Both Jo Bannister and Peter Turnbull are, in my view at least, underappreciated writers, at least on this side side of the Atlantic. Both have a large and solid body of work, chiefly in the subgenre of the police procedural. Jo Bannister has authored several series; the one featuring Constable Hazel Best is her latest. Silent Footsteps is the most recent. It takes place, as do its predecessors, in the fictional region of Norbold.

Bannister has a wry sense of humor that often manifests itself in dialog. In this scene, Hazel is seconding Sergeant Murchison as he attempts to interview a possible witnesses to a crime. They belong to a gang called the Canal Crew. Murchison dives right in with a blunt opener:

“So what have you done with Trucker Watts?”
One of the hairy young men appeared to be senior to the other. ‘We ‘aven’t got ‘im. We never ‘ad ‘im. We ‘aven’t seen ‘im.”
There was something almost Shakespearean about it, Hazel thought. But Sergeant Murchison was harder to impress. ‘You saw him this morning, panhandling outside the off-license in Arkwright Street.’
Yes, they admitted, they had. They’d seen him off–or, to be more accurate, they’d seen him leave.They hadn’t seen him since.
‘Is that the truth?’
‘On my mother’s grave.’
Murchison frowned. ‘Your mother’s still alive, Billy Barnes.’
Yeah–but she’s already bought a plot down the Municipal. Cost her an arm and a leg, it did.’

Hazel has a close friendship with Gabriel Ash and talks to him frequently about the cases she’s working on. The two have a interesting back story. To be thoroughly filled in on that, it’s best to go back to the beginning and read Deadly Virtues. In fact, you could commit  yourself to all six books in this series, read them in order, and be well served.

One of my favorite titles by Jo Bannister is a standalone called The Tinderbox.

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Cold Wrath 
is a different story. It’s the twenty-fifth entry in the series featuring Chief Inspector George Hennessey and Detective Sergeant Somerled (pronounced ‘Sorely’) Yellich. In each of these slender novels, Peter Turnbull presents the reader with an intriguing puzzle. A body is discovered in an odd place; sometimes it’s  several bodies. Watching the action unfold as Hennessey, Yellich,  and company pursue various leads is invariably a pleasurable experience – at least, it is for this devoted lover of police procedurals.

Part of the enjoyment of immersing oneself in these novels resides in the fact that  they’re set in York, in the north of England. This is a magical city, steeped in history and  crowned by the presence of York Minster, the largest Gothic cathedral in northern England.

Another thing that distinguishes these novels is the author’s use of somewhat antiquated diction. This is especially evident in the way he begins each new chapter. This, for example, appears above Chapter Three:

In which the reason why Miles Law delayed calling the police upon discovering the body of Anthony Garrett is revealed, and Reginald Webster and Carmen Pharoah and George Hennessey are severally at home to the urbane and always too forgiving reader.

There’s something oddly Victorian about it, n’est-ce pas? Reginald Webster and Carmen Pharoah, by the way, are additional members of Hennessey’s team of investigators. All of these characters have interesting back stories, which are reiterated anew in each book.

I’ve read something like seventeen novels in this series. I never tire of them, and always  look forward to the next one.

Jo Bannister

Peter Turnbull

 

 

 

 

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‘The sense of proximate skin–of latent power beneath respectable garments–it had the effect of spring water, bubbling beneath her skin.’ – Courting Mr. Lincoln, by Louis Bayard

May 25, 2019 at 3:24 pm (Book review, books, Historical fiction, Mystery fiction)

  A thoughtful essay on historical fiction recently appeared in The New York Times Style Magazine. “Why Are We Living in a Golden Age of Historical Fiction?” may be  a somewhat clunky title – at least, I find it so – but author Megan O’Grady makes some points worth pondering:

A new kind of historical fiction has evolved to show us that the past is no longer merely prologue but story itself, shaping our increasingly fractured fairy tales about who we are as a society. The unmooring of time can be found everywhere, in battles for social progress we thought we’d already fought and won. In the media age, history is not simply a chain of facts recorded by scholars but a complex narrative harnessed by political parties and Facebook disinformation campaigns to speak to our sense of identity and belonging. The past we inherit speaks to us individually and collectively, but a common thread, much less a consensus view of reality, feels increasingly hard to come by.

The author mentions a number of titles. Three are among my favorites. In Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies, Hilary Mantel evokes a turbulent period in English history with uncanny exactitude. And the other – O’Grady calls it “Penelope Fitzgerald’s strange and wonderful take on Novalis” – The Blue Flower.

Two mystery series, not well known in this country, more than satisfy my craving for atmospheric historical fiction: PF Chisholm’s Sir Robert Carey books and the Titus Cragg and Luke Fidelis novels written by Robin Blake.

And I’ve just finished the richly rewarding Courting Mr. Lincoln by Louis Bayard. While my husband and I were vacationing in the Hudson River Valley, I had  the great good fortune to be reading A Pale Blue Eye, Bayard’s fictional  account of Edgar Allan Poe’s brief and turbulent tenure at West Point. So I had high hopes for this new novel – which hopes were more than fulfilled.

I can do no better than to quote from the jacket copy:

Told in the alternating voices of Mary Todd and Joshua Speed, and inspired by historical  events, Courting Mr. Lincoln creates a sympathetic and complex portrait of Mary unlike any that has come before; a moving and deep portrayal of the deep and real connection between the two men; and most of all, an evocation of the unformed man who would  grow into one of the nation’s most beloved presidents.

 

There’s some lovely writing in this novel, as is seen in the title of this post. Also some  delightful dialog, as in this exchange wherein Joshua Speed is trying to teach the awkward and unschooled Lincoln the rudiments of ballroom etiquette:
“All right,’ said Joshua. Try it with me. Until you find your way.”
“We’ll regret this,” Lincoln said.
“Now you are the lead, so you will just…you will hook your right hand round my back. Like that. Now I will rest my hand…lightly…here.
“This will end badly.”
“Be quiet. Now…raise your elbows. Shoulder height, that’s it. And back straight. And knees…well, you can bend the knees a little.”
“Like this?”
“Well, no, not like you’re praying.”
“I am praying.”
Dare I use the word, charming? Because that’s what this is. and much of the rest of the book as well. Charming, heartfelt, and irresistible.

Louis Bayard

 

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‘I remained beyond mortality’s reach. Death and decay were for others.’ – Machines Like Me by Ian McEwan

May 20, 2019 at 1:02 pm (Book review, books)

I want to set down my thoughts about this book before looking at the reviews, which I’m eager to read.

First – let it be said – for me, this was a page turner. Right from the moment that Charlie Friend brings his newly acquired ‘Adam’ into his home and into his life, I had no idea how events would unfold, and I wanted badly to find out. From that moment – right  from the novel’s beginning – I had that careening roller coaster feeling; I never knew what was going to happen next. At the same time, I was getting to know Charlie – an okay guy, not entirely admirable – and his upstairs neighbor Miranda, with whom he has fallen in love. Naturally she gets embroiled too in Charlie’s Adam project.

Adam is a facsimile human  – nothing like the clunky robots one sees nowadays. He is remarkably close to being the real thing – in appearance, that is. As for his more subtle  attributes – knowledge, responses to human emotions, language, so many other things – these must all be uploaded into his brain-like mechanism. The online manual runs to 470 pages. The owner has a fair degree of choice with regard to the settings.

To say more would be to give away too much. Meanwhile, Ian McEwan’s writing is provocative and precise, as always. Here, Charlie and Adam have been conversing, in a way that has made Charlie feel profoundly uneasy:

The little black rods in his eyes were shifting their alignment. As I stared, they appeared to swim, even to wriggle, left to right, like microorganisms mindlessly intent on some distant objective, like sperm migrating towards an ovum. I watched them, fascinated–harmonious elements lodged with in the supreme achievement of our age. Our own technical accomplishment was leaving us behind, as it was always bound to, leaving us stranded on the little sandbar of our finite intelligence.

‘…the little sandbar of our finite intelligence.’ At times, I myself feel as though that sandbar is becoming steadily narrower.

A word to the wise: There’s a strong sexual undercurrent present in this novel. Not as blatant as it was in Nutshell, but all the more potent, for that fact.

I have to admit, it’s very difficult for me to write dispassionately about Ian McEwan. I find him brilliant.

There are certain authors I read no matter what they write. Ian McEwan is one of them. Over the course of more than 40 years and some dozen and a half books — including Amsterdam, Atonement, and The Children Act — his generally realist, propulsive work reveals an abiding preoccupation with both the repercussions of deceit and how life can change in an instant.

Heller McAlpin, NPR

There are some pokey moments in this novel, some dead nodes. But McEwan has an interesting mind and he is nearly always good company on the page. In whichever direction he turns, he has worthwhile commentary to make.

Dwight Garner, New York Times

Ultimately, Machines Like Me is a novel about the power of novels. Charlie realises that his stance regarding his purchase has been shaped by literature. “The imagination,” he says, “fleeter than history, than technological advance, had already rehearsed this future in books…” This is a novel that holds up the form as an example of the unreplicable subtlety of the human mind. While Adam composes haikus of stultifying banality to Miranda, he finds the novel’s obsession with misunderstandings and reversals obsolete in an age when technology has colonised the private life. Novels, McEwan is saying, do something that robots can’t: they are a heroic record of our imperfections, a celebration of the flaws that make us human.

Alex Preston, The Guardian

Half a century ago, Philip K. Dick asked, “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?,” and now Ian McEwan is sure those androids are pulling the wool over our eyes.

His new novel, “Machines Like Me,” takes place in England in the 1980s, but it’s an uncanny variation of the past we remember.

Ron Charles, The Washington Post

Ian McEwan

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Mysteries: from India to Italy in one enriching leap

April 15, 2019 at 7:06 pm (Book review, books, Italy, Mystery fiction)

In February, Marge led the Usual Suspects in a discussion of A Rising Man by Abir Mukherjee. This is the initial entry in a series set in post-World-War-One India, and it’s a great example of a first time author who hit the ground running. Beautifully written, this novel takes full advantage of its exotic setting, all the while weaving a tale of intrigue and introducing us to a memorable cast of characters. Chief among these is Captain Sam Wyndham, veteran of the Great War, who has been recruited to serve in the police force of India’s British Raj. His Sergeant is Surendranath Banerjee, called ‘Surrender-not’ because Sam and others have trouble pronouncing his name. (At any rate, it proves an apt nickname; he does not surrender to difficulty easily but is persistent and resourceful, and a great help to Sam.)

  Oh, and there’s a love interest for Sam. I just finished the second book, A Necessary Evil – also excellent – and all I have to say is, Make your wishes known, Sam, for heaven’s sake! Remember: He who hesitates….

Meanwhile, tensions between the Indians and their British overlords are portrayed with blunt realism. Even back then – undoubtedly before then – Indians were agitating for independence. Reading about the attitude of the British toward the native population, it’s no wonder. Enough to make you seethe with indignation, on their behalf.

Yet amidst all the turmoil, the allure of the place persists. From A Necessary Evil:

We left him and followed Sayeed Ali along a corridor whose walls were lined with murals that wouldn’t have looked out of place in the Kama Sutra, and into a cloistered courtyard dominated by a huge banyan tree….We walked through another arched doorway into a stairwell, climbing two flights before entering a well-apportioned sunlit apartment. The room was divided by a carved teak screen peppered with small holes. In front of the screen, the marble floor was covered with a black and gold Persian rug, strewn with silk cushions.

There are those who maintain that this sort of meticulous description does not belong in crime fiction. I for one love it.

Banyan trees, by the way, are rather startling entities. Growing up in South Florida, I remember seeing them from time to time:

A Rising Man won the 2017 Historical Dagger Award, and was a finalist for the Gold Dagger, the Barry for Best First Mystery, the Edgar for Best Mystery, and the Macavity Award for Best Historical Mystery.

A Necessary Evil was a Gold Dagger finalist ,as well as a finalist for  the Historical Dagger and for the Barry Award for Best Mystery. The third entry in the series, Smoke and Ashes, is already out.

(This information and more is “at your fingertips” can be found at the site Stop!YoureKillingMe.com)
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  Then it was off to Italy, or more specifically, to Venice. Actually, the way that Donna Leon writes about La Serenissima, it seems less like a part of Italy and more like a separate principality, which, of course, it once was….

Unto Us a Son Is Given is, by my count, the 28th entry in Donna Leon’s Guido Brunetti series. Of these, I’ve read at least twenty. The Commissario and I are old friends; likewise, his wife Paola and children Raffi and Chiara. The latter has become an ardent conservationist; Brunetti is proud of her and her new found commitment to the cause.

The Brunetti family members are all getting older but at a blessedly slow rate. Reading each new book in this wonderful series gives me the chance to spend time with them in their magical dwelling place.

Brunetti’s fellow police officers are also on the scene, both those he genuinely likes, like Vianello, Signorina Elettra Zorzi, and Claudia Griffoni, and those whom he has learned to tolerate, like Lieutenant Scarpa. (That name always makes me think of Scarpia, the arch villain in Puccini’s Tosca.)

The plot – it’s not much of a mystery, really – concerns one Gonzalo Rodriguez de Tejada. This elderly gentleman is a wealthy friend of Brunetti’s father-in-law, Count Orazio Falier. Gonzalo is openly gay and, at this late stage of his life, is preparing to adopt a young man as his son. Gonzalo has no other immediate family, but he does have several siblings, including a sister to whom he is quite close. At any rate, Falier has his doubts about this prospective adoptee and asks Brunetti to see what he can discover about him.

This novel has an unusual structure for a mystery. Progress in the investigation is slow and methodical, yielding very few surprises. Then, about three quarters of the way  through the book, there’s a murder. It’s sudden, and deeply shocking.

I really liked this book – well, I like every book in this series. Donna Leon is one of my favorite authors. She never disappoints – at least, that’s the case where this reader is concerned.

 

 

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Schumann: The Faces and the Masks, by Judith Chernaik

February 4, 2019 at 10:00 pm (Book review, books, Music)

  As I write this, I am listening to Robert Schumann’s Romance for Oboe and Piano.

For about two weeks, I have been reading Judith Chernaik’s new biography of this great composer. Ron and I have been immersed in this wonderful music. In addition, I’ve been absorbed in the story of Schumann’s life. That life was a turbulent mixture of frustration, disappointment, elation, and deep love. And through all of it, glorious music, one piece following another, first almost exclusively for solo piano, then piano accompaniment for singers, then chamber groups and full orchestra.

Robert Schumann was born in 1810 in Zwickau, in the kingdom of Saxony, in Germany.

Robert Schumann’s birthplace, now the Robert Schumann House Museum. The author’s researches were greatly aided by the papers relating to Schumann collected and kept here.

Schumann’s exceptional musical talent having become evident early on, a teacher was found in Leipzig to take him in hand. This was the German pianist Friederich Wieck. Wieck believed that Schumann had ahead of him a great career as a concert pianist. Unfortunately, while experimenting with a device to strengthen his fingers, he injured himself irrevocably. He could still play, but his opportunity to ascend to the concert stage was gone.

(Although Chernaik includes this story in her book, there are those who believe that the problem with Schumann’s hand may have had another cause. Click here for more on this article from the WQXR blog.)

Despite this setback, Schumann continued his studies with Wieck, concentrating more now on composing. Wieck had a daughter Clara who was an extremely talented musician. She began giving concerts while she was still a child. As she entered adolescence, her gifts became even more pronounced. She and Schumann were inevitably thrown together on frequent occasions. He was nine years her senior.

Clara  was not only prodigiously gifted but remarkably independent. She was her own person, free from the usual restraints suffered by young girls. She was already acclaimed as an artist; she moved in sophisticated circles in Paris and Vienna. As a child, she was passionate and willful, with a wild temper and strong opinions.

Clara and Schumann fell in love. When Clara turned sixteen, they informed her father of their wish to be married. To their shock and dismay, he opposed the idea. In fact, he flat out forbade the union. Clara was a minor; despite her vaunted independence, she could not marry without her father’s consent. For four years he did everything he could to place obstacles in the way of their plans. (Meanwhile, at her father’s behest, Clara was giving concerts all over Europe, all the while earning good money.) Ultimately, Robert and Clara had to go to court and sue for the right to marry. This they did, finally becoming husband and wife on September 12, 1840.

It should be noted that while all this was  going on, both Robert and Clara were making strides creatively. She was constantly concertizing as well as  composing; he was composing as well as writing for and editing the Neue Zeitschrift fur Musik (The New Journal for Music) which he had founded in 1834.

The first half of the biography is taken up with this crisis and its felicitous albeit hard won resolution. Incurable romantic  that I am, I was so outraged by Friedrich Wieck’s obstinacy and cruelty that I could barely contain myself. When the couple were finally wed, I cheered out loud!

Robert and Clara Schumann, 1847

As a married couple, Robert and Clara continued their relentless work of giving concerts, composing music, writing and reviewing the works of other composers, and having musical evenings in their home. Add to that the children: they just kept coming;

Six of the Schumann offspring; a seventh, older daughter Julie, was living with Clara’s mother at the time this photograph was taken. An eighth, Emil, died at sixteen months in 1847.

Clara was the more famous of the two during their lifetimes, but Robert had many advocates in the musical community. Among them were his close friend Felix Mendelssohn and the fiery pianist and composer Franz Liszt. But his greatest champion was Clara.

Plagued by ill health all his life, Schumann was at length placed in Endenich Asylum near the city of Bonn. One of his chief consolations at that time was to go into Bonn (accompanied by an attendant) and stare up at the statue of the city’s most famous son, Ludwig van Beethoven. After two excruciating years at Endenich, Robert Schumann died. The year was 1956; he was 46 years old.

Clara received constant support from other musicians during this extremely stressful time. One was the gifted young violinist Joseph Joachim. The other was a youth of whom great things were expected. His name was Johannes Brahms.

Johannes Brahms, age 20

The exact nature of the relationship between Clara and Brahms has been an  endless subject of speculation down through the years. One thing is certain: they both worked tirelessly to keep Schumann’s music before the public and to win for him the recognition he deserved. In 1877, Clara signed a contract with  publisher for a thirty-one part edition of Robert Schumann’s Collected Works. Brahms was a great help to her in this endeavor. The resulting volumes have been reprinted on numerous occasions. And Judith Chernaik divulges this welcome news:

A new scholarly multi-volume Urtext edition of the collected works, collating all the early publications, Schumann’s autograph scores, and manuscript drafts is close to completion.

Chernaik concludes with this statement:

The works contained in these volumes are Schumann’s enduring gift to the world.

Here is a large helping of that gift:

 

 

The lovely Traumerei was one of Vladimir Horowitz’s favorite encore pieces. I love the shots of the audience in this video; they are so deeply moved.

 

Schumann’s mighty Second Symphony. The sadness of the third movement is heartrending, yet the finale blazes forth in triumph! (Ron and I both have a special love for this work.)

 

Paradise and the Peri is a little known work of Schumann’s, technically termed a secular oratorio. I love  these few minutes of it:

 

Finally, the Piano Concerto in A minor.  As with all of his piano music, Schumann composed this with Clara in mind. Judith Chernaik says of this piece:

It remains to this day a joyful expression of love between a supremely gifted composer and an artist of the first rank, delighting listeners at the time and ever since.

This was among a handful of works that, many years ago. first taught me to love classical music:

 

 

 

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‘Like so many canonical narratives of achievement, this story has a quiet backstage figure behind the towering public one.’ The Riddle of the Labyrinth by Margalit Fox

January 27, 2019 at 11:28 pm (archaeology, Book review, books)

Ah, the mystery of an ancient tongue….

Is it a secret plan of attack? A poem? A testament of undying love? Well, not quite…

This piece contains information on the distribution of bovine, pig and deer hides to shoe and saddle-makers.

Aminoapps.com

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Linear B is the oldest preserved form of written Greek that we know of. By the time we first meet this writing system, Greece and different areas of the western coast of Asia Minor were already Greek-speaking. Linear B was used to write an archaic form of Greek known as Mycenaean Greek, which was the official dialect of the Mycenaean civilization. The inscriptions found in Crete appear to be older than those discovered in mainland Greece. The oldest confirmed Linear B tablets are the so-called Room of the Chariot Tablets from Knossos and have been dated to c.1450-1350 BCE, while the tablets found at Pylos have been dated to c. 1200 BCE.

Ancient History Encyclopedia

Numerous tablets with Linear B inscribed upon them were unearthed during the excavation of the palace of Knossos on the island of Crete. The principal work was begun in 1900; the archeologist who headed up ‘the dig’ was Sir Arthur Evans.

Sir Arthur Evans

The Riddle of the Labyrinth (a title I love) is not so much about the excavation per se as it is about the decades long effort to render this ancient script comprehensible to modern readers.  Many linguists and classicists worked on this incredibly complex puzzle.

First: here is the main syllabary, so called because these signs indicate syllables rather than sounds, as our alphabet does:

 

In addition, Linear B also makes use of ideograms, somewhat in the manner of Egyptian heiroglyphics:

From Ancientscripts.com
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If you’re thinking that this is a fiendishly difficult subject, you’re right. But the stories of the people involved, brilliant scholars with egos to match in many cases, is fascinating.

One of Margalit Fox’s chief purposes in writing this book was to highlight the work done on this project by one particular woman:

The woman was Alice Kober, an overworked, underpaid classics professor at Brooklyn College. In the mid-20th century, though hardly anyone knew it, Dr. Kober, working quietly and methodically at her dining table in Flatbush, helped solve one of the most tantalizing mysteries of the modern age.

In addition, Fox observes:

The scholarly field on which Kober did battle in the 1930s and 40s was very much a msn’a world, and it is understandable, if now unpalatable, that her male contemporaries so often characterized her in terms of maidenish qualities. That at least some twenty-first century writers continue to accept this appraisal is far less understandable, and far less palatable.

Despite her unrelenting efforts, which did result some major breakthroughs, Alice Kober didn’t quite manage to crack the code. That goal was achieved in 1952 by Michael Ventris, a British architect who, like Kober, had long been obsessed by Linear B.

Fox states firmly that Ventris’s blazing success would not have been possible without Kober’s foundational work. Had she lived long enough, in good health, she probably would have gotten there herself:

That she very nearly solved the riddle is a testament to the snap and rigor of her mind, the ferocity of her determination, and the unimpeachable rationality of her method.

As it was, she died before she could complete the task, in 1950, at the age of 43.

Alice Kober

Michael Ventris’s story is actually quite tragic. In 1956, while driving late at night, he slammed into the back of a truck parked by the side of the road. He was 34 years old. The death was ruled accidental; not everyone considers it so.

Michael Ventris

There’s an interesting article on the subject by Theodore Dalrymple in the New English Review.

 

 

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Aphorisms gleaned from Barbara Kingsolver’s Unsheltered (followed by some general comments on the novel)

January 16, 2019 at 4:52 pm (Book review, books)

 

 

 

Every education brings a point of reckoning, and this was his: seeing the world divided in two camps, the investigators and the sweeteners. (p.41)

These beautiful children seemed capable of generating contentment out of thin air.(p.55)

I’ve seen my own grandchildren do this:

A mother can only be as happy as her unhappiest child.(56)

“When the nuisance of old mythologies  falls away from us, we may see with new eyes.”(p.89)

Willa marveled a his capacity to live a life undisturbed by actual evidence.(p.103)

Haven’t some of us known persons with that same gift?

It must have been  a bird ritual, the drumming up of collective will to take the blind leap of faith, forsaking all safety to fly across an ocean to the southern hemisphere.(p.177)

Beautiful people liked to claim looks didn’t matter, while throwing that currency around like novice bank robbers.(p.294)

“When you pick up  glass it’s like you’re raising a toast to all the people that drank from it before. All those happy anniversaries in a beautiful place, and all the future ones.”(p.318) (from a section of the novel describing life in contemporary Cuba)

A mother’s unfulfilled ambitions lie heaviest on her daughters.(p.325)

I can attest to the truth of this.

As an only child, Willa could hear people’s complaints about their siblings only as a primal form of bragging. They had a tribe. They belonged.(p.388)

Of course she knew every word was archived electronically somewhere, and that she could find it online if she really wanted to….But giving up the physical record of all that work felt like a kind of death. Online wasn’t enough. She wanted it to weigh something.(p.440)

She’d watched her kids master these  first small tasks with an application of effort  that seemed superhuman, but of course it only amounted to being human, a story written in genes. First they would stagger, then grow competent, and then forget the difficulty altogether while thinking of other things, and  that was  survival.(p.454)

And so: what of this book as a whole? My verdict is decidedly mixed. I liked the basic plot premise: it is a tale of two families, one living in the here and now, the other in the 1870s. They inhabit the same town, Vineland, in southern New Jersey. In fact, they live in the same house. Then, as now, it’s a domicile enlivened by plenty of turmoil.

Now ordinarily I love novels that feature lots of family infighting. Done right, they can seem very true to life, at times, even funny, in a savage sort of way. But the characters in the contemporary part of the story tend to speak at rather than to each other, as if they were delivering campaign orations on everything from the inequities of capitalism to the crisis of the environment.

I was okay with this at first, but it happened often enough that it got on my nerves. Dinnertime conversation consisted mainly of polemics. It got so that I longed to hear just one small voice venture, even tentatively, to ask if somebody would please pass the potatoes.

Because of this, I initially preferred the nineteenth century family. It seemed as though there would be less speechifying there. And some of the writing was lovely, especially when Kingsolver  describes Thatcher Greenwood and his wife Rose:

Unbustled and unbonneted like this, Rose was a gravitational body that drew his front against her back, his bearded jaw against her tiny zenith. Their perfect fit sent a whiskey thrill through his veins. After six months of marriage he was still in thrall of his wife’s physical properties, and wondered whether this made him a lucky man or  a doomed one.

Alas, for my money, there was not nearly enough of this gently undulant prose.

When I read fiction, I don’t want to be harangued about competing ideologies. At least, not to the exclusion of real flesh and blood characters. I do like the way Kingsolver sneaks in brief, pithy truisms like the ones I’ve  quoted above. But I found the characterizations thin, almost to the point of caricature. The story of the modern family is told mainly through the viewpoint of Willa, whom I found somewhat obtuse and not particularly sympathetic.

So for me, this was a frustrating reading experience. Unsheltered contained much that was bracing and thought provoking. But it wasn’t quite enough to counteract my frustration with the characters and the dialog. Merve Emre, in The Atlantic, sums things up in this description of dinnertime with the Knox-Tavoularis family, consisting of Willa, her affectionate but ineffectual husband Iano, Iano’s elderly father Nick, Willa and Iano’s adult children Zeke and Tig, and Zeke’s baby son

If Vineland is supposed to be a microcosm of the United States in 2016, then the house is an excuse for Kingsolver to cram five people with disparate political allegiances under one leaky roof. Family dinners are exhausting opportunities to rehearse the major fault lines in mainstream American politics. Willa wonders why it seems like “there’s less money in the world than there used to be.” Iano bemoans his lack of job security, blaming his failed tenure bids on jealous colleagues and rumors of affairs with students. “Boundaries, everybody keeps saying this word and I never get it,” he complains. Zeke and Tig bicker about finance capital and ecocide, volleying clichés at each other while Willa watches, bemused, and Iano submits clarifying comments. “Grow or die, that’s just the law of our economy, Tiggo,” Zeke says. “There’s no more room to grow,” Tig snaps back. “Supply and demand,” offers Iano, who we are supposed to believe has a doctorate in global politics. Nick mutters racist epithets and rails against Obamacare. The baby puts things in his mouth and cries. This is the American-family novel as Sunday-morning talk show—a character drama with no real characters, only sound bites masquerading as human beings.

 

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Best of 2018, Ten: Crime fiction, part three – the best of the rest

January 11, 2019 at 2:47 pm (Best of 2018, Book review, books, Mystery fiction)

This is it – I promise!

What can I say, except that I pretty much read my way through last year, not doing much else, especially the latter half. And before I get started, I want to thank members of the Usual Suspects Mystery Discussion group for some of the best reading I had in this genre in 2018. If it’s marked with an asterisk, that means it was a Suspects selection.

Anyway, here goes:

Contemporary (with one or two exceptions)

*Farewell My Lovely (1940) by Raymond Chandler, and Only To Sleep (2018) by Lawrence Osborne. These two naturally go together, having as they do the same protagonist; namely, Philip Marlowe. Farewell My Lovely was a welcome reminder of the brilliance of Chandler; Only To Sleep was a cunning resurrection, as it were, of Philip Marlowe, affording him one last opportunity to engage in the world of crime solving. Osborne’s novel made quite a few ‘Best of 2018’ lists, which I was glad to see.

(My extreme enjoyment of Farewell My Lovely prompted me to read The Long Embrace by Judith Freeman.   Subtitled ‘Raymond Chandler and the Woman He Loved,’ this is the author’s effort to bring Chandler’s wife, Cissy Pascal, out of the shadows. A fascinating read, though it must  be said that with regard to her specific goal, Freeman is only partially successful. Cissy Pascal Chandler remains, for the most part, a mystery – perhaps, rightly so. Open and Shut and First Degree by David Rosenfelt. Rosenfelt’s Andy Carpenter mysteries benefit greatly from the presence of his excellent golden retriever, Tara. Also from the self-deprecating humor of Andy himself. A delight to read, especially when you need something that’s not too heavy. And First Degree is an excellent choice for those enamored of legal thrillers.

Tara gets up on the couch and assumes her favorite position, lying on her side with her head resting just above my knee. It virtually forces me to pet her every time I reach for my beer, which works for me as well as her. If there’s a better dog on this planet, if there’s a better living creature on this planet, then this is a great planet, and that must be one amazing living creature.

(I owe thanks to ‘Angie’s group’ for recommending this series.)

*Off the Grid by P.J. Tracy

*The Widows of Malabar Hill by Sujata Massey

Bone on Bone by Julia Keller. Follow-up to the brilliant and deeply moving Fast Falls the Night.

*The Night Stalker by Robert Bryndza

*Land of Burning Heat by Judith Van Gieson. This novel got me yearning for New Mexico all over again….

The front of her house faced east toward the Sandia Mountains which provided a backdrop for the reflection of the setting sun and the rising of the moon, but her backyard faced the long view across the city over the Rio Grande Bosque into the vastness of the West Mesa.

The weather usually came from the west and tonight thunderheads were building over Cabezon Peak. Claire couldn’t remember exactly when it had rained last, but it had been months. The ground, the people, the vegetation, even the air itself held its breath longing for rain. The prickly pear and ocotillo in the foothills were parched and layered with dust. She had the sensation she had every summer that she was waiting for something she believed would come but feared might not. The sky seemed promising tonight. The clouds were darkening and the wind was picking up.

Harbor Street and The Glass Room and by Ann Cleeves. Do I like this author? Gosh yes. And the tv series featuring Brenda Blethyn is terrific.

*Bruno, Chief of Police by Martin Walker, in which I finally get around to reading the first entry in one of my favorite series. Walker hit the ground running as far as I”m concerned; this book was a delight.

November Road by Lou Berney. Brilliant!

The Ruin by Dervla McTiernan. An impressive debut, highly recommended by the most recent Deadly Pleasures Mystery Magazine.

Give Me Your Hand by Megan Abbott

Bury the Lead by Archer Mayor. Always a pleasure to revisit Joe Gunther, Sammy Martens, the ever irascible Willy Kunkel, Lester Spinney, Beverly Hillstrom, et. al. in Vermont, a venue vividly brought to life by this dependably excellent writer. Bury the Lead is the twenty-ninth book in the Joe Gunther series. I hope Archer Mayor throws himself a big party number thirty arrives!

South Atlantic Requiem by Edward Wilson

Broken Ground by Val McDermid. Absolutely loved this novel – perfection in a police procedural!

*An Unsuitable Job for a Woman and Sleep No More by P.D. James. This is one of those times when I am grateful to be in a book group. I would never have thought to reread An Unsuitable Job for a Woman had it not turned up on the Usual Suspects schedule.

  I  read Unsuitable Job about ten years after its initial publication in 1977. At the time, I had been working at the library for a few short years and was first becoming acquainted with the works of Baroness James. I remember liking the novel a great deal, and especially liking its protagonist Cordelia Gray. Reading it again, as I did just a few months ago, I found it equal parts dated and relevant. But the writing – ah, the writing! James’s fluency, her wide ranging vocabulary, her shrewd insight into the human heart – these things can never be dated.

Sunday afternoon evensong was over and the congregation, who had listened in respectful silence to the singing of responses, psalms and anthem by one of the finest choirs in the world, rose and joined with joyous abandon in the final hymn. Cordelia rose and sang with them. She had seated herself at the end of the row close to the richly carved screen. From here she could see into the chancel. The robes of the choristers gleamed scarlet and white; the candles flickered in patterned rows and high circles of golden light; two tall and slender candles stood each side of the softly illuminated Rubens above t he high altar, seen dimly as a distant smudge of crimson, blue and gold. The blessing was pronounced, the final amen impeccably sung and the choir began to file decorously out of the chancel.

This was the first Cordelia Gray novel. It was followed by The Skull Beneath the Skin, which I’ve not read. Then, no more. There was a reason for the abrupt cessation of this series. James explains it in her own words in a Guardian article from 2011 (See paragraph 16).

As for the six stories that comprise Sleep No More, they were a welcome chance to revisit once again the work of P.D. James.

Snap by Belinda Bauer

Stay Hidden by Paul Doiron

Sunburn by Laura Lippman. This made numerous Best of 2018 lists; for me, though, it was not her best, though enjoyable nonetheless. It really is impossible for Laura Lippman to be boring!

Human Face by Aline Templeton. My first by this author, little known in this  country. I look forward to reading more.

The Word Is Murder by Anthony Horowitz. The creator of Foyle’s War among his other achievements, Horowitz seem to excel at anything and everything he attempts in the fields of fiction and television.  The Sentence Is Death, a sequel to The Word Is Murder, is due out this June. Once again, Horowitz himself combines forces with the cunning Daniel Hawthorne – Yes!

Shadow Play by Cynthia Harrod-Eagles. I faithfully read each new book in this series and am always sorry when I reach the end.

The Knowledge by Martha Grimes

The Bomb Maker by Thomas Perry. Books like this give thrillers a good name. Flawless structure, edge-of-the-seat suspense, intriguing characters, a careening plot that makes the reader hold on for dear life – what’s not to love?

The Temptation of Forgiveness by Donna Leon

The Throne of Caesar by Steven Saylor. What a pleasure it is to see a writer you’ve followed from his first book (Roman Blood, ) proceed from strength to strength in the way  that Steven Saylor has done with this series.

Sleeping in the Ground by Peter Robinson. Marge and I have both been with this writer from the start of the Alan Banks series.

*Girl Waits with Gun by Amy Stewart

A Conspiracy of Faith by Jussi Adler-Olsen. A gripping and powerful novel, with one of the best endings I’ve encountered in recent years (and that’s saying something – that’s where a lot of crime fiction falls down, in my view).

   The Wrong Side of Goodbye by Michael Connelly. This writer of police procedurals just gets better and better with each new book. Connelly is a superb storyteller. His plots have a propulsive drive, occasionally lightened by comic relief. Harry Bosch is kept grounded and humane by his fierce caring for daghter Maddie, now in college. I highly recommend the audio versions narrated by Titus Welliver, who portrays Bosch in the tv version, available via Amazon Streaming.

Accident on the A35 by Graeme Macrae Burnet. An oddly downbeat, extremely powerful procedural set in the east of France.

Money in the Morgue, a novel begun by Ngaio Marsh and finished by Stella Duffy. Truth to tell, I was not exactly blown away by this novel, though I’ve always held the work of Dame Ngaio in high esteem. My favorites by her are A Clutch of Constables, The Nursing Home Murder, and most especially Death in a White Tie, which features that rare commodity, a sympathetic victim, in addition to a sparkling depiction of the London ‘season’ and topped off by a compelling love story.

Classics – or, just because it’s old doesn’t mean it’s great

In the course of 2018, I started quite a few classic crime novels only to abandon them part of the way through – a very small part, in some cases. The following, however, proved most enjoyable (and of course I loved Farewell My Lovely, see above.)

Fire in the Thatch by E.C.R. Lorac


The Colour of Murder by Julian Symons. Symons was still very much alive and writing when I went to work at the library in 1982. (He died in 1994 at the age of 82.) I remember reading and enjoying The Detling Murders, The Tigers of Subtopia, and The Blackheath Poisonings. These works were especially welcome, since at the time, I was just starting to learn about crime fiction.

The prolific Mr. Symons wrote not only mysteries but also criticism, other nonfiction, and poetry.


The Robthorne Mystery by John Rhode


Trent’s Last Case by E.C. Bentley. I’d read this once before and not like it all that much. But this book makes so many all time best lists that I decided to give it another try. I liked it much better this time.


The Valley of Fear by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle A most pleasant surprise. Much of the second half this short work takes place in the American West. The narrative was lively and engaging. I liked it a lot.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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