Reading To Save My Mind

May 27, 2020 at 10:50 pm (Book review, books)

As of the start of Lock Down – March 10 here in Maryland, if memory serves – we all knew we were going to have to develop strategies for staying sane. Mine, unsurprisingly, was to disappear into books.

Below are the results:

BOOKS READ SINCE 3/10

Contemporary Crime Fiction

Children of the Street and Murder at Cape Three Points by Kwei Quartey. I’m currently reading the next title in the Darko Dawson series, Gold of Our Fathers. There’s only one more entry; then Dr. Quartey switches to what I assume will be another series featuring a female private detective, Emma Djian. The first entry, called The Missing American, is truly excellent – but I still want more Darko Dawson!

Wolf Pack and The Bitterroots by C.J Box. Set in Wyoming, Wolf Pack is the twentieth entry in the Joe Pickett series: The Bitterroots takes place in Montana and features Cassie Dewell as a sheriff’s investigator. (I have a soft spot for the Wyoming novels, as my son and daughter-in-law got married in that gorgeous place in 2008.)

The Stranger Diaries by Elly Griffiths. This book just won the 2020 Edgar Award for Best Novel. I read it; it’s sort of an old fashioned British crime story of the type that I frankly love. The writing was excellent, and the plot was riveting – I had trouble putting it down. But I have to say that the ending – the solution ,to the mystery, arrived at rather suddenly – didn’t completely satisfy me. I was left feeling rather empty. Nevertheless – recommended. (You may have a completely different reaction that I did.) Oh, and the version I downloaded includes an excellent discussion guide.

Trouble Is What I Do by Walter Mosley

Eight Perfect Murders by Peter Swanson

An Honorable Man and The Good Assassin by Paul Vidich

The Last Hunt by Deon Meyer. I had  the privilege of meeting Mr. Meyer at Crimefest in England in 2011. He was an excellent speaker and a pleasure to talk to. In preparation for that excursion, I read the suspenseful and absorbing Thirteen Hours; The Last Hunt was even better. One reviewer opined that this new novel should gain Meyer the following he deserves. I certainly hope so.

Classic crime fiction

Signed, Picpus by Georges Simenon. It is my custom to turn to Simenon’s Maigret novels whenever I’m stressed. They always help. This one did the trick, as expected.

Murder in the Mill-Race by E.C.R. Lorac. The British Library Crime Classics series continues apace, with its wonderful cover art and delightful period pieces. This is one of my favorites.

Death Comes as the End by Agatha Christie. Being as I’ve been immersed in the lore and history of ancient Egypt lately – a Life Long Learning class in the Art of Ancient Egypt, plus viewing a Great Courses lecture series on the subject with the marvelous Bob Brier – it seemed the right time to read this; it’s Agatha Christie’s sole work of historical fiction.

Birthday Party by C.H.B. Kitchin

The House of the Arrow by A.E.W. Mason

Historical fiction

The Mirror & the Light by Hilary Mantel. A fitting conclusion to Dame Hilary’s monumental Wolf Hall trilogy.

Fiction

The Night Watchman by Louise Erdrich

Old Lovegood Girls by Gail Godwin. When I first joined the Fiction/AV staff of the library in 1982, one of the first books that my colleagues urged me to read was the new novel by Gail Godwin (of whom I’d never heard), A Mother and Two Daughters. I’ve  been enjoying this author’s thoughtful, gracefully written works ever since  then. When I saw that she had a new book out this year, I downloaded it at once. That, and  the Hilary Mantel, have  definitely been sanity saviors!

Nonfiction

Van Gogh: A Power Seething by Julian Bell

These Fevered Days: Ten Pivotal Moments in the Life of Emily Dickinson, by Martha Ackmann

Every Drop of Blood: The Momentous Second Inauguration of Abraham Lincoln by Edward Achorn

Square Haunting: Five Writers in London Between the Wars by Francesca Wade

Sick Souls, Healthy Minds: How William James Can Save Your Life by John Kaag
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So, what am I reading now? In addition to  Gold of Our Fathers,  the mystery mentioned above, several other items.

An analysis – at times, a psychoanalysis – of the Snow White story and its different meanings and iterations in a variety of  cultures:

 

This novel is a bit staid and slow moving, but I love the re-imagining of ancient Rome:

I am so loving Bob Brier’s Egypt lectures!! This is rather arcane subject matter, but Professor Brier brings it to life rather nicely:

Okay, well this is about the incredibly destructive, fast moving, and horrifying Camp Fire that occurred in California in 2018 and decimated this most ironically named small city. It’s a slightly odd thing to be reading right now, but all the same, it’s riveting.

This post came about as a result of a reading list I’m compiling for a program of book talks that I’m scheduled to present in July.

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Dear Diary…

May 24, 2020 at 1:32 am (Book review, books)

Dear Diary,

Brain feeling like mush. But I don’t like to absent myself from this space for too long, so here goes.

Went out to  get the paper this morning, greeted by a picture perfect day: warm, but with a hint of cool, and intensely green,  with a cloudless blue sky. Surely if this is, in fact, the real, the actual world, we cannot be facing an apocalypse?

However, the paper, once gotten inside, and freed of its plastic covering and my hands happy-birthday cleansed, tells a different and altogether grimmer story.

Anyway, I’ve been reading. Boy, have I been reading:

 

I have now confirmed my suspicion that I am not the ideal reader of philosophical texts. To wit:

In many cases, James suggested we can falsify ideas, make relatively accurate predictions, answer questions, and reach agreement, by simply being faithful to the facts—realities that repel or reinforce our ideas. Ignoring these realities, or dismissing their interpretation as “fake news,” is to give up on the pragmatic method altogether. Truth happens to ideas only through the ongoing and collective conversation with sensations, moments in the stream of consciousness that either sustain them, wash them clean, or wash them away. In James’s words, “[S]ensations are the motherearth, the anchorage, the stable rock, the first and last limits, the terminus a quo and the terminus ad quem of the mind. To find sensational termini should be our aim with all our higher thought.”

Umm…. Okay….

Now, I read another book by John Kaag several years ago. In American Philosophy: A Love Story, he describes how, as a newly minted philosophy professor,  he undertook a project to save the precious remnants of the library of William Ernest Hocking (1873-1966), who in years past was a distinguished Harvard-based philosopher. In the course of this endeavor, Kaag acquires a research assistant. She shares his enthusiasm for the undertaking, then develops an enthusiasm for him, which he joyfully reciprocates. Long story short, after navigating past some obstacles, they get married.

That book came out in 2016. This past February, I encountered an article in the Wall Street Journal by Kaag. Entitled “William James, Yoga and the Secret of Happiness,” it is adapted from his forthcoming book on that august personage. Possessed of pleasant memories of American Philosophy: A Love Story, I’m happily reading along until I encounter this sentence:

This winter—as I slogged through a second divorce at the tender age of 40, recovered from a second heart attack and lamented the state of the world—I reread James’s “Principles.”

WHAT?? Oh no! (I think I voiced my dismay aloud; in fact, I know I did, as Ron called over to ask what the problem was.)

But John, you told such a sweet love story in American Philosophy! I was counting on – nay, assuming – that a Happily Ever After ending would rightly follow. Nope – not this time. Notice I failed to get worked up over the poor man’s health – I mean, two heart attacks at such a young age is quite serious. But the breakup of that marriage seemed to me like the worst possible news. I admit – I took it personally. But I’m sure, not as personally as John and Carol took it.

(This was a  second marriage for both of them, plus by the time of the breakup. they’d had a daughter. John briefly mentions the misery of co-parenting with an ex-spouse; having been there, I know of what he speaks, and I sympathized.)

So, you may rightly ask, is Sick Souls, Healthy Minds about the wreckage of John Kaag’s domestic life or the life and philosophy of William James? As you’ve probably guessed, the answer is, some of both, although it’s really much more about James’s philosophical and intellectual endeavors. Much of that material is simply too complex and abstract for me to fully comprehend. I plowed through those sections dutifully, although at many points I felt like crying out, “Enough already! Stop doing all this excessive thinking and theorizing about things that can never be proven anyway and just live your life!”

Is this supposed to be the road to true self-knowledge, even to real happiness? I admit, it just doesn’t work for me.

Kaag gives us a brief summary of the life of William James. It’s clear he was a deep thinker, and this mental habit reinforced a tendency toward melancholy, even depression. And yet, in 1876, he was lucky enough to find just the right woman. Her name was Alice Howe Gibben; they were married in 1878.

James and Alice eventually had five children although they lost a son, Herman, when a case of whooping cough gave rise to a severe bout of pneumonia. James had nicknamed this youngster ‘Humster’ and wrote that he was “the flower of their flock.” Earlier in the book, Kaag says that James  was glad to leave all the details of domesticity, including child rearing, in Alice’s capable hands. I found myself curious about just what kind of husband and father William James was. So I guess I’m looking for a good biography of the man. Suggestions welcome.

William James 1842-1910. He fascinates me, both in his own right and because he is the older brother of that other enigma, the novelist Henry James.

 

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“When we first meet someone, before words are ever spoken, there are already lies and half-truths.” Eight Perfect Murders by Peter Swanson

May 1, 2020 at 2:44 pm (Book review, books, Mystery fiction)

Peter Swanson and his novel, a gift to us lovers of crime fiction

That title makes it sound like a right blood bath, doesn’t it? But it actually refers to a list of crime novels:

The Red House Mystery (1922)- A.A. Milne
Malice Aforethought (1931)- Francis Iles
The A.B.C. Murders (1936)- Agatha Christie
Double Indemnity (1943)- James Cain
Strangers on a Train (1950)- Patricia Highsmith
The Drowner (1963)- John MacDonald
Deathtrap (1978)- Ira Levin
The Secret History (1992)- Donna Tartt

The list was compiled by one Malcolm Kershaw, part owner and proprietor of The Old Devils Bookstore in Boston. He placed this list on the store’s blog, and  it created something of a stir among mystery aficionados.  By far the most notable and bizarre reaction to it is that of a dedicated murderer who has apparently decided, by means of his own depraved methods, to replicate the scenarios set forth in each of the titles on the list.

Eight Perfect Murders is exceptionally well plotted, with enough twists and turns to keep  the reader thoroughly engaged. To a degree, the book is about the mystery genre itself, and why so many of us love it. Especially toward the beginning, the author is tossing out titles and authors left and right – there’s something for everyone. When he casually mentions to the fact that Ruth Rendell once presented a reading at The Ole Devils, I just wanted to cheer! But soon enough, things begin to get somewhat grim….

That said, Malcolm Kershaw does have his flippant moments, such as this one, when he’s describing the plot of The Red House Mystery:

There’s a rich man named Mark Ablett who lives in a country house, the kind of English one that seems specifically designed to have a murder occur in it.

(Now the fact is, that after you’ve read as many country house mysteries as I have, you start to feel as though the whole purpose of the English country house is to serve as a setting for a slaying.)

Before he took on The Old Devils, Malcolm had worked at a bookstore in Harvard Square. He recalls that the owner’s wife had given him a list of her favorite books, almost all of which were mysteries:

Besides Malice Aforethought, she’d listed Gaudy Night and The Nine Tailors by Dorothy L. Sayers, The Daughter of Time by Josephine Tey, Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier, the first two Sue Grafton books, The Ritual Bath by Faye Kellerman, and The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco, even though she said she’d never finished it (“I just love the beginning so much”). Her other favorite book was Bleak House by Charles Dickens; I guess you could say that it has mystery elements, as well.

Well, of course, I can’t see a list like this without putting in my two cents, as it were. In general, I think it’s pretty good, although I’ve never  been able to warm to Faye Kellerman and I couldn’t get through The Name of the Rose. On the other hand, I revere Dorothy L. Sayers’s Lord Peter novels, and I love, and miss very much, Sue Grafton’s Kinsey Millhone series. The Daughter of Time is Josephine Tey’s most famous book, but not, in my view, her best. That accolade, I think, should go to two of her other titles: Brat Farrar and The Franchise Affair.

Finally I’d like to note my surprise at the rather dismissive attitude toward Bleak House. I’ve not read it – though I keep meaning to, alas – but I did watch the superb 2005 BBC miniseries. (Who could forget the lowering evil of Mr. Tulkinghorn, so masterfully portrayed by Charles Dance?) There is indeed a significant “mystery element’ in that novel; it is present in the person of Inspector Bucket. On the Victorian Web, there’s an excellent essay entitled “Inspector Bucket Points the Way.”

I do have  several reservations about this book. First, it seems a bit of a stretch – to me, at least – that Malcolm Kershaw  makes  such a good living from The Old Devils Bookstore that he’s able to employ two full time assistants there. Second, I don’t recall a single mention of the advent of e-books, an issue looming so very large in the book business right now and affecting it in every possible way. (No mention – or if there is, it’s very cursory – of Amazon, either.)

Toward the end of Eight Perfect Murders, Malcolm Kershaw talks about The Murder of Roger Ackroyd by Agatha Christie. This 1926 novel, the third to feature the suave Belgian Hercule Poirot, caused something of a sensation because of the ingenious and wholly unexpected twist at the end. Kershaw, alas, gives it away in his brief summary. If you haven’t read or seen The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, you’ll want to skip over that (very brief) portion of Eight Perfect Murders. That denouement in the Christie novel is much more fun if you come upon it completely unprepared, as I was lucky enough to do when I first read it.

These are minor cavils, really. Over all, this novel was a very enjoyable and immersive read. It kept my mind off a certain nasty bug currently lying in wait, and for that, I am very grateful.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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‘But if you cannot speak truth at a beheading, when can you speak it?’ The Mirror and the Light, by Hilary Mantel

April 26, 2020 at 7:34 pm (Anglophilia, Book review, books)

  I have finished it: the third and final installment of Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall Trilogy, all 784 pages of it. (Hardback count, though I read the e-book). And what a long, strange trip it’s been….

I’m really eager to read media reviews of this book, but I want to note my own impressions, first. Going back over some of the passages I’ve highlighted, I’m struck first of all by the wealth of sardonic humor. There’s the comment that appears in the title above, issuing from the angry mind of Thomas Cromwell. He and others have just witnessed the beheading of Anne Boleyn.

Here is how the novel opens:

Once the queen’s head is severed, he walks away. A sharp pang of appetite reminds him that it is time for a second breakfast, or perhaps an early dinner. The morning’s circumstances are new and there are no rules to guide us. The witnesses, who have knelt for the passing of the soul, stand up and put on their hats. Under the hats, their faces are stunned.

Hungry, after that? Ugh. But if it’s meant to deliver a jolt, it succeeds.

Later, with jaunty irreverence, he remarks to his son Gregory:

‘It would be like the late queen to pin her head back on, pick up the sword and chase me to Whitehall.’

Serving the King’s Majesty takes Cromwell on one heck of a wild ride. For him, and for those who pursue a similar career path, the sensation of being near to supreme power, and possibly even exerting influence over it, is intoxicating. Me, I would rather be out in some distant field, as remote from royalty as possible, harvesting flax or some other needful quantity, or laboring in a kitchen somewhere helping to fashion one of the unique repasts, such as the one described here:

The eels come in, presented in two fashions: salted in an almond sauce, and baked with the juice of an orange. There is a spinach tart, green as the summer evening, flavoured with nutmeg and a splash of rosewater. The silver gleams; the napkins are folded into the shapes of Tudor roses; the coverpanes at each place are worked with silver garlands. ‘Bon appétit,’ he says to the ambassador. ‘I’ve had a letter.’

Falsehoods, outright lies, artful dissembling, plotting, deceiving – no bad act is off limits at this glittering court. One false move, one unguarded word, and you can find yourself imprisoned in the tower, awaiting interrogation and God knows what else. Or, as Thomas Cromwell learns to his grief, acts off loyalty and resourcefulness can be turned into something else quite other by those same interrogators. Love can curdle and become hate in a matter of hours. – even minutes.

(In Act Two Scene One of As You Like It, Duke Senior, exiled from the court, has taken refuge in the Forest of Arden. Unexpectedly, he finds this a rather pleasant  experience:

And this our life exempt from public haunt
Finds tongues in trees, books in the running brooks,
Sermons in stones and good in every thing.
I would not change it.

It is much the better place, to be “exempt from public haunt.”)

Careful attention must be paid to who is who among a vast array of characters. Dame Hilary does provide a list at the front of the novel, and a very intimidating roster it is:

THE RECENTLY DEAD

Anne Boleyn, Queen of England.

Her supposed lovers:

George Boleyn, Viscount Rochford, her brother. (Yes – her brother!)

Henry Norris, chief of the king’s privy chamber.

Francis Weston and William Brereton, gentlemen in the king’s circle.

Mark Smeaton, musician.

THE CROMWELL HOUSEHOLD

Thomas Cromwell, later Lord Cromwell, Secretary to the king, Lord Privy Seal, and Vicegerent in Spirituals: that is, the king’s deputy in the English church.

Gregory, his son, only surviving child of his marriage to Elizabeth Wyks.

Mercy Prior, his mother-in-law. Rafe Sadler, his chief clerk, brought up within the family: later in the king’s household.

Helen, Rafe’s wife. Richard Cromwell, his nephew, married to Frances Murfyn.

Thomas Avery, household accountant. Thurston, chief cook.

Dick Purser, keeper of the guard dogs. Jenneke, Cromwell’s daughter. (Invented character) Christophe, a servant. (Invented character)

Mathew, a servant, formerly of Wolf Hall. (Invented character)

Bastings, the bargemaster. (Invented character)

And on it goes, through The King’s Family and Household (8), The Seymour Family (5), Politicians and Clergy (12), Courtiers and Aristocrats (17), Household of the King’s Children (3), At the Convent in Shaftsebury (2), Henry’s Dynastic Rivals (7), Diplomats (8), In Calais (4), At the Tower of London (2), Cromwell’s Friends (5). Oh – and there are two family trees – the royal family, naturellement.

Am I trying to dissuade you from tackling this formidable tale? Heaven forfend! You surely do not want to miss out on all the fun. And besides, quite a few of the characters in the above accounting are quite minor. It’s just that – well, be aware, and keep your wits about you. (No doubt, Thomas Cromwell himself would advise the same.)

At one point, Cromwell’s son Gregory observes, rather artlessly: ‘It’s no treason to say all men are mortal.’ His father has a swift rejoinder: ‘No, but it’s not your best idea either.’ Then, reflecting on recent events, he thinks to himself:

…that was Anne Boleyn’s mistake. She took Henry for a man like other men. Instead of what he is, and what all princes are: half god, half beast.

With the death of Anne Boleyn, Henry is free to seek out a new wife. He already has is eye on the demure Jane Seymour, scion of the powerful, social-climbing Seymour clan. In the fullness of time, she provides him with the son he has been so desperately wanting – a true heir. The effort, however, costs her her life.

And so, back to the drawing boards; the search for Wife Number Four begins almost immediately. And for Thomas Cromwell, the previously invincible fixer, this is where things start to go wrong.

Hilary Mantel is a deeply gifted writer. She writes marvelous dialog; moreover, she can summon up, in a single sentence, an entire world. There’s this from Wolf Hall:

He remembers one night in summer when the footballers had stood silent, looking up. It was dusk. The note from a single recorder wavered in the air, thin and piercing. A blackbird picked up the note, and sang from a bush by the water gate. A boatman whistled back from the river.

The novels in this trilogy are written in the present tense. I don’t always like this mode of expression in fiction, but Mantel uses it convincingly here. It conveys a sense of unrelenting urgency entirely appropriate to the story. Something she uses that I find less convincing is the pronoun ‘he’ to designate Thomas Cromwell’s thoughts and utterances. Since most of the speaking in these novels – certainly in The Mirror & the Light – is done by men, it can be unclear at times as to who is doing the speaking (or thinking).

Cromwell is reflecting here:

On his journey today from London, he felt he brought guests: Norris and George Boleyn, young Weston, Mark, and William Brereton. As he stepped out of his barge they stepped out too; they stood on the banks of the Styx, waiting to cross. They died within minutes of each other, but that does not mean they are together now. The dead wander the lanes of the next life like strangers lost in Venice. Even if they met, what would they have to talk about? When they stood before their judges they edged away from each other, as if fearing contamination. Each man had made a case against the other, hoping he might save his own life.

As soon as Henry turns against someone – often for reasons known only to himself – he pulls away from that person and lets his minions mete out their punishment. Thomas Cromwell is no angel, but as this ineluctable process played out in his life, I developed a strong animosity toward Henry. It’s never a pretty sight, watching a third party carry out a powerful person’s dirty work. It is just plain cowardly, also lazy. As Isabella says in Measure For Measure:

O, it is excellent
To have a giant’s strength; but it is tyrannous
To use it like a giant.
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This next is a spoiler, if you don’t already know what happens: Cromwell’s path to annihilation is laid out in excruciating detail. I haven’t read anything as harrowing since the closing sentences of the story “Ideas of Heaven” by Joan Silber (in the collection by the same title).
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Portraits of Thomas More and Thomas Cromwell by Hans Holbein – himself a minor character in the Wolf Hall trilogy – are hung on the same wall in my beloved Frick Collection in New York City. (El Greco’s portrait of Saint Jerome hangs between them.)
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Thomas More, left, and Thomas Cromwell

Henry VIII, by Hans Holbein

The first four wives:

Katherine of Aragon

Anne Boleyn

Jane Seymour

Ann of Cleves

This scene from the television version of Wolf Hall vividly conveys Anne Boleyn’s spitfire persona. She and Henry re examining a document  brought to them by Cromwell, superbly played by Mark Rylance. (Damian Lewis is Henry; Claire Foy is Anne.)

 

Hilary Mantel has been very generous with appearances and interviews. Here is a short piece that I found illuminating:

 

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‘Be especially diligent in cultivating. Mind you that my barley seed is guarded and that all my property is guarded.’

April 20, 2020 at 3:03 pm (Book review, books, Egypt, Mystery fiction)

This is the original cover of the first edition, published in the U.S., October 1944

  Death Comes as the End is something of an anomaly in Agatha Christie’s oeuvre. Set in Egypt circa 2000 BCE, it is her only historical novel. The main character is called Resinenb, a young woman recently widowed, who has returned with her small daughter to live in her family home. This home is a well-populated establishment. Renisenb’s father, the farmer Imhotep, is the somewhat fussy, imperious paterfamilias; in addition, there are two married brothers, a younger brother in his teens, a grandmother called Esa, a hanger-on and all purpose busybody named Henet, and of course the necessary complement of scribes, servants, and slaves. Then, not long after Renisenb’s arrival, Imhotep introduces Nofret, his new concubine, into this already turbulent mix of striving individuals. She proves to be the catalyst for all that follows….

(Initially, I found myself wrestling with the question of  how to pronounce the name ‘Renisenb;’ specifically, deciding which of the two final consonants was silent. I decided to jettison the ‘n.’ purely for the purpose of pronunciation and smooth reading. Hence phonetically, for this reader at least, ‘Reniseb.’)

Turns out that Dame Agatha got the idea for this volatile combination of characters from some letters that were found in the early 1920s near what was then ancient Thebes, close to the end of the 11th Dynasty, ca. 2130 BCE-1991 BCE, the era known as the First Intermediate Period. They are called the Hekanakht Letters, after the farmer and ka-priest who wrote them. (The Ancient History Encyclopedia defines a ka-priest as  as one who “…was paid by a family to perform the daily offerings at the tomb of the deceased.”):

….the two letters that Hekhanacht sent to his family are unparalleled in ancient Egypt, both for the light that they shed on the personality of the elderly farmer living in the fall of 2002 BC and for  the inherent interest in the matters discussed in them. They are virtually the only source for Egyptian agriculture before the New Kingdom and the sole surviving texts from ancient Egypt to give the cultivator’s point of view rather than that of  the administrator and landlord. They have suggested the plot for  novel by Agatha Christie, Death Comes as the End, and are likely in the future to be used as sources outside the limited circle of Egyptologists.

From “An Eleventh Dynasty Farmer’s Letters to His Family” by Klaus Baer, in The Journal of the American Oriental Society, January-March, 1963

As the tale unfolds, the various characters in Death Comes as the End come vividly to life – more so than in some of the other Christie works I’ve read. Renisenb is especially appealing:

She would sit in the shade of the rock chamber entrance with one knee raised and her hands clasped round it, and stare out over the green belt of cultivation to where the Nile showed a pale gleaming blue and beyond it to a distance of pale soft fawns and creams and pinks, all melting hazily into each other.
She had come the first time, months ago now, on a sudden wish to escape from a world of intense femininity. She wanted stillness and companionship—and she had found them here. The wish to escape was still with her, but it was no longer a mere revulsion from the stress and fret of domesticity.

Also the  writing, as you may perceive in this passage, is somewhat more poetic than that which one normally encounters in Christie’s novels, focused as they usually are on the relentless advancing of the plot. (And I have to say, I love that aspect of her writing!)

At any rate, Renisenb is the most appealing of the dramatis personae in this book. That is just as well, because as events move forward, the others begin to drop like flies….

For a more detailed summary of the plot, have a look at this article on the BBC site. Be wary, though: this piece comes dangerously close to containing spoilers. Actually, what it reveals is how cunningly Christie has made use of the content of the remarkable Hekanakht Letters.

Chapter Three of the novel concludes thus, with Esa speaking:

“Men are made fools by the gleaming limbs of women, and lo, in a minute they are become discoloured cornelians. . . .”
Her voice deepened as she quoted:
“A trifle, a little, the likeness of a dream, and death comes as the end . . .”

Christie does not provide an attribution for this quote. I thought perhaps she herself had invented it. But it turns out to be one of the sayings of Ptah-hotep:

The Maxims of Ptahhotep or Instruction of Ptahhotep is an ancient Egyptian literary composition based on the Vizier Ptahhotep’s wisdom and experiences. The Instructions were composed by the Vizier Ptahhotep around 2375-2350 BC, during the rule of King Djedkare Isesi of the Fifth Dynasty.[1] The text was discovered in Thebes in 1847 by Egyptologist M. Prisse d’Avennes.[2] The Instructions of Ptahhotep are called wisdom literature, specifically under the genre of Instructions that teach something.[3] There are four copies of the Instructions, and the only complete version, Papyrus Prisse, is located in the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris.  (Wikipedia)

Here is the complete quotation:

If you would prolong friendship in a house to which you have admittance, as master, or as brother, or as friend, into whatsoever place you enter, beware of approaching the women. It is not good in the place where this is done. Men are made fools by their gleaming limbs of carnelian. A trifle, a little, a likeness of a dream, and death comes as the end of knowing her.

The title of this post is taken from a translation of the first Hekanakht Letter. More of this text can be found on the Metropolitan Museum of Art website.

Mentuhotep, an Eleventh Dynasty Pharoah

 

This is a tomb painting of Nefertari. I like to think that with her placid, far-seeing beauty, this young woman looks a bit like Renisenb.

 

 

 

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Readings, in challenging times

April 8, 2020 at 8:49 pm (Book review, books, Historical fiction, Mystery fiction, Poetry)

I’ve read that at the moment, some people are having trouble concentrating on the printed word. Perfectly understandable. Speaking only for myself,  books, magazines, and newspapers have been Heaven sent. As long as I’ve got something immersive to read, I figure I’ll get through this.

I admit that when the library closed, I had a moment of panic. I rely on that worthy institution to provide me with hardbacks and paperbacks. But needs must, as they say. So I’ve been downloading books like crazy.

Kwei Quartey’s Darko Dawson novels are keeping me sane. With their exotic setting – one that is sometimes cruel rather than exotic – they’re providing a great escape. And Darko himself is a wonderful character, quick to anger yet always compassionate, and with a very engaging family life to boot. I’m currently reading the third title in the series, Murder at Cape Three Points. There are two more in the series.

Kwei Quartey has already begun a new series with The Missing American. I really enjoyed  that book but please, Mr. Quartey, do not abandon Darko!

NPR had an interesting feature on Kwei Quartey several years ago.
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I’m almost half way  through The Mirror & the Light. It’s very good, Possibly I’m not quite as  entranced with it as I was with Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies, but  it’s the fault of the current health crisis, I think. Certainly Hilary Mantel is a wonderful writer with an uncanny ability to bring the past to life.
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These Fevered Days, on the other hand, was the perfect for this troubles time. It is subtitled, Ten Pivotal Moments in the Making of Emily Dickinson, and brings the poet near to the reader in a way that is almost uncanny. For the first time, I feel as though I really know Emily Dickinson – know what moved her, why she made certain decisions, why she lived her life the way she did, and finally, and most vitally, how she came to her write her brilliant verse.

Thank you, Martha Ackmann! More on this very special book at a later time.

Here are two poems by Dickinson that have long haunted me:

Success is counted sweetest
By those who ne’er succeed.
To comprehend a nectar
Requires sorest need.
—————–
Not one of all the Purple Host
Who took the Flag today
Can tell the definition
So clear of Victory
——————-
As he defeated – dying –
On whose forbidden ear
The distant strains of triumph
Burst agonized and clear.
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After great pain a formal feeling comes–
The nerves sit ceremonious like tombs;
The stiff Heart questions–was it He that bore?
And yesterday–or centuries before?

The feet, mechanical, go round
A wooden way
Of ground, or air, or ought,
Regardless grown,
A quartz contentment, like a stone.

This is the hour of lead
Remembered if outlived,
As freezing persons recollect the snow–
First chill, then stupor, then the letting go.

(Emily Dickinson did not give her poems titles. They are usually referred to by their first lines.)

 

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The Case of the Cascading Crime Novels!

March 25, 2020 at 1:42 am (Book review, books, Mystery fiction)

The above are all titles I’ve read fairly recently and not written about in this space. Therefore, these will be capsule reviews of varying length.

Fact is, I’ve had trouble concentrating of late. (Can’t imagine why.) And when that happens to me, I turn to Inspector Maigret. He rarely lets me down, and he didn’t this time. Below is a list of characters that appear in this series entry, as enumerated on the back of the book:

A mysterious note predicting the murder of a fortune-teller; a confused old man locked in a Paris apartment; a financier who goes fishing; a South American heiress…

A bizarre cast of characters, n’est-ce pas? And yet here is Maigret, stolid and persistent and aided mainly by the trusty Lucas, committed to solving a most perplexing murder case.

Signed, Picpus came out in 1944. It amazes me how little these novels seem to date, with the passage of years. The edition pictured above is part of Penguin’s project of issuing new translations of all the Maigret titles. This one was published in 2015 and translated by David Coward. I was somewhat surprised that the text was rendered in the present tense; once I got used to it, though, it read as smoothly as the books in this series usually do.

I’ve written much about Simenon; he is one of my favorite writers. As a human being, he was both fascinating and appalling.  But never boring.

My favorite actor in the role of Maigret is Michael Gambon.

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Wolf Pack by C.J. Box is the nineteenth novel in the Joe Pickett series. (There is also a story collection entitled Shots Fired.) The Bitterroots is fourth in the Cassie Dewell series. Cassie is a sheriff’s investigator in Montana, while Joe Pickett is a game warden in Wyoming. I enjoyed both books, though I’d give Wolf Pack a slight edge.

I’ve become a big fan of C.J. Box; I look forward to reading Long Range, the 20th Joe Pickett  novel.

C.J. Box

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E.C.R. Lorac‘s Murder in the Mill-Race is one of the more captivating classics I’ve read in recent years. Written in 1952, it has the flavor of a classic English village mystery but with fully developed characters and an involving plot. Plus the writing is lovely:

He snatched his coat and hurried out of the house, across the garden, through the gate in the yew hedge and across the dewy lawns of the Manor, taking the short cut to the steep path down through the park. All around him thrushes and blackbirds were calling from the tree tops, and chaffinches and bullfinches poured out their clear liquid song: the air was fragrant with the sweetness of midsummer, fragrance of pinks and roses in the garden, hay and meadow flowers in the park. Fat white lambs rushed to mother ewes as Ferens made his way down the steep path, the world vivid and vibrant with life and sunshine.

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Trouble Is What I Do features Leonid McGill, a private investigator in New York City. For a relatively short novel, it contained a myriad of characters and a byzantine plot. Nevertheless, some of the McGill’s sly observations on human nature made me smile. He seems to have performed innumerable favors for both shady characters and those in law enforcement, and he is continually calling in his markers.

This is the sixth novel in the Leonid McGill series, which is, I think, less familiar to readers than the series featuring Easy Rawlins. In the past, I’ve had trouble getting into Walter Mosley’s books, but this one was fun.

Walter Mosley

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The Peter Robinson was a bit of a disappointment. I guess lately I’ve been looking for mysteries that have a unique or interesting sideline. The plot of Many Rivers To Cross felt labored, as if the author were thinking, ‘I’d better come up with something and soon!’ As always, I liked hanging out with Alan Banks and his fellow officers, but that wasn’t enough to make this one a major winner, for me.

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I recently wrote a positive review of An Honorable Man by Paul Vidich.   In fact, I was so impressed by that book that I wanted to read the next one right away. So : The Good Assassin is set in Cuba just prior to Castro’s takeover. (I remember this time well. I was in high school in Miami Beach, Florida at the time, and there was a sudden influx of Spanish-speaking students, some with very limited English, others who were nearly fluent.) The atmosphere of the place is vividly evoked in this novel; however, the plotting was not as tight as in An Honorable Man, so I didn’t feel as though it quite measured up to Vidich’s first outing with his series protagonist George Muller. Nevertheless, I look forward to reading Vidich’s latest, a nonseries title called The Coldest Warrior. It has been called “A worthwhile thriller and a valuable exposé” by finicky Kirkus Reviews

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A note on the obtaining of reading material during the pandemic: I’ve been downloading from Amazon at a completely reckless rate. Except when I am traveling – when one could do such a daring thing – e-book reading is not my first choice; I usually borrow hardbacks from the library. However, that august institution is shuttered for the time being. I am trying very hard to acquire as few hard copy titles as possible. Ergo, all the downloading.

Sigh…This too shall pass. For some reason, I keep thinking of the line from Othello:

Keep up your bright swords, for the dew will rust them.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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“….one feels a power seething inside one, one has a task to do and it must be done.”

March 15, 2020 at 4:55 pm (Art, Book review, books, France)

  Vincent Van Gogh was born on March 30, 1853, in Zundert, Netherlands. Having lived variously in the Netherlands and Belgium, he went to Paris to live with his brother Theo, an art dealer, in 1886. Despite the brothers’ deep love for each other, there were conflicts. Van Gogh was always painting and drawing; he soon developed the idea that living in the south of France would would be beneficial to his life and his art. And so, in 1888, to Arles, and the yellow house.

The Yellow House, 1888

While in Arles, Van Gogh’s health, both mental and physical, rapidly deteriorated. Yet as an artist, this was one of his most prolific and fruitful periods. He had had an idea of creating a sort of colony artists, and Paul Gauguin did in fact join him there for a time. It is hard to imagine two more volatile personalities cohabiting in the same small space. After 63 days had passed, Gauguin left Van Gogh, the yellow house, and the south of France forever. (The Yellow House by Martin Gayford describes this turbulent period in fascinating detail.)

Meanwhile, Van Gogh was experience increasing periods of instability and breakdown. He left the south of France in 1890 and went to live in Auvers-sur-Oise, a suburb of Paris. In this way he could be close to Dr. Paul Gachet, who was himself an aspiring artist as well as a physician.

Portrait of Dr. Gachet, 1890

This was to be the last port of call for the tormented spirit of Vincent Van Gogh. In July, he was found in his room with a gunshot wound to the chest. He survived for some thirty hours. No surgeon was available, so the bullet could not  be removed. At any event, a fatal infection soon set in. At the time of his death on 29 July 1890, Van Gogh, his stunning genius largely unrecognized by the art world, was 37 years old.

(In recent years, a controversy has arisen as to whether Van Gogh actually shot himself, or whether some other person was responsible. For more on this, click here.)

This quick summation leaves out a great deal. For instance, there is a period when Van Gogh was living in The Hague – 1882 to 1883. He took in a prostitute named Clasina Maria “Sien” Hoornik. Sien, pregnant at this time, served as an occasional model for Van Gogh.

Sien, who already had a five-year-old daughter, gave birth to a boy in July of 1882. Vincent cared for Sien; he loved her children even more and was especially taken by little Willem:

A baby, for Vincent, was simply “the best thing”— life’s first fresh bud, irresistibly calling for the consolation that makes us human, a primary reality of a kind he himself was fated never to produce.

Julian Bell wrote A Power Seething some four years after the publication of the mammoth tome – 976 pages – by Stephen Naifeh and Gregory White Smith.  In his introduction, Bell explains:

I have written this book out of my love for Vincent van Gogh, the letter writer of heart-piercing eloquence. Researching it, I have gotten to know something of Vincent the social animal, the misfit tearing a ragged course through the late nineteenth-century Netherlands and France.

I deeply appreciate that Bell declares his love so boldly and without apology. He wields an even hand in the telling of this story, but his devotion to his subject nonetheless shines through. By the time you finish this (comparatively slender) volume, you may very well feel the same. I did, but I was most of the way there already.

In July of 2018, my friend Jean and I had the pleasure of attending a presentation at the Smithsonian entitled “Van Gogh and the Painters of the Petit Boulevard.” I created a post on the subject; it features two guest appearances by my granddaughter.

There exists a lovely book on this subject.   I also recommend this edition of Van Gogh’s wonderful letters. It contains visuals of those letters, in addition to some of his most memorable art.

Van Gogh is well represented on You Tube. I especially recommend The Painting Life of Vincent van Gogh. It’s sort of a travelogue, social history, and artist biography rolled into one. Also it has an exceptional soundtrack.

Vincent and his brother Theo were very close. Theo almost singlehandedly kept Vincent afloat, both financially and artistically. It’s often said that Vincent sold only one painting in his lifetime. He might have sold more, had he not given his art away so freely and so generously. Theo was  shattered by Vincent’s death. In frail health himself, he died six months later at age 33.

Theo van Gogh
*1882

Johanna ‘Jo’ van Gogh-Bonger (1862-1925) was Theo’s wife. In 1890, she gave birth to a son, whom they named Vincent Willem. Jo was instrumental in assuring that Vincent’s fame was established and continued to grow in the art world.

Julian Bell, writer and painter, comes by his gifts naturally; his father, Quentin Bell, likewise practiced these professions. His father, in turn, was the art critic and theorist Clive Bell, who was the husband of painter Vanessa Bell, who was the sister of Virginia Woolf.   (The Bells and Virginia and Leonard Woolf comprised the nucleus of what famously became the Bloomsbury Group.)

 

The Handover, by Julian Bell

The Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam has a section for questions and answers. Someone asked if there were any descendants of the van Gogh family still living. The site features a gracious response from Willem van Gogh.

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A Van Gogh gallery

Bedroom in Arles, 1888

 

The Night Cafe, 1888

 

Red Vineyards, 1888

Courtyard of the Hospital at Arles, 1889

 

The Church in Auvers-sur-Oise, 1890

The Starry Night, 1889. One of the first paintings I ever came to know and love. My mother took me to the Museum of Modern Art in New York City. I was eight years old. We went upstairs; she sent me in ahead of her. I just stared and stared, not moving.

 

Starry Night over the Rhone, 1889

We all end our lives with a deficit, van Gogh once told Theo, “yet, yet, one feels a power seething inside one, one has a task to do and it must  be done.”

 

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The Pleasures of Paired Reading, Revisited

March 7, 2020 at 2:50 pm (Book review, books)

I last wrote about what I call “paired reading” in relation to a presentation in which I participated several years ago. When searching for a theme for a new book-related program, I decided to revisited the concept in an updated form.

First of all: what do I mean by paired reading? In recent years, I have found myself reading in sequence books that are linked by some kind of commonality. This commonality could occur in regard to characters, plot elements, setting, or any number of other factors. Most often this happens when I read a work of historical fiction. I would then find myself wanting to know more about the time and place that formed the context of the novel. (The reverse occasionally happens if I am reading a work of history or especially, of biography.)

This then is the latest iteration of the list:

THE PLEASURES OF PAIRED READING

Courting Mr. Lincoln by Louis Bayard, paired with Your Friend Forever, A. Lincoln, by Charles Strozier

The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher: A Shocking Murder and  the Undoing of a Great Victorian Detective by Kate Summerscale and Lady Audley’s Secret by Mary Elizabeth Braddon, the latter being amazingly readable for a novel that came out in 1862 – I couldn’t put it down!

The Portrait of a Lady by Henry James and Portrait of a Novel: Henry James and the Making of an American Masterpiece, by Michael Gorra

The Turn of the Key by Ruth Ware and The Turn of the Screw by Henry James

Out of the Black Land by Kerry Greenwood, paired with Temples, Tombs, & Hieroglyphs: A Popular History of  Ancient  Egypt by Barbara Mertz

Crocodile on a Sandbank by Elizabeth Peters, paired with Amelia Peabody’s Egypt: A Compendium, edited by Elizabeth Peters and Kristen Whitbread

The Lady in the Tower: The Fall of Anne Boleyn by Alison Weir, paired with Bring Up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel

A Mysterious Something in the Light: The Life of Raymond Chandler, by Tom Williams, paired with The Big Sleep or Farewell, My Lovely – or one of the marvelous short stories (e.g. “Red Wind”)

Murder As a Fine Art, by David Morrell, paired with ‘On Murder Considered As One of the Fine Arts’ by Thomas De Quincey

Give Me Everything You Have: On Being Stalked by James Lasdun, paired with Enduring Love by Ian McEwan

The Long Exile: A Tale of Inuit Betrayal and Survival in the High Arctic by Melanie McGrath, paired with White Heat by M.J. McGrath

  This past January, I led a discussion of Courting Mr. Lincoln for a book discussion group. This necessitated my reading the book a second time, thus reaffirming my initial belief that this novel is an outstanding example of the art of historical fiction. Louis Bayard combines vivid characters an equally vivid sense of place; add to that his trademark wit, and you have a truly memorable reading experience.

Here we have Joshua Speed trying to instruct Abraham Lincoln in the fine art of ballroom dancing:

“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.”

Charles Strozier‘s book covers the same territory as Bayard’s. Neither author shies away from the issue of the true nature of the Speed/Lincoln relationship.

In an article in Paris Review last year, Bayard makes the following assertion:

If I was going to go there, if I was going to plant my rainbow flag on the Great Emancipator’s grave, I would have to account for my private agenda.

Bayard concludes thus:

The book I ended up writing, Courting Mr. Lincoln, takes no definitive stand on its subject’s sexuality, but neither does it shy away from the question. It lives in the land of the spoken and unspoken, which is the realm where Lincoln himself almost certainly dwelt. When all is said and done, do I need Abraham Lincoln to be gay? No. I just need him to be something more complicated than he’s been allowed to be. I would argue we all need that.

Louis Bayard

(Sharon reminded us that there is a mystery series featuring Lincoln and Speed, written by Jonathan F. Putnam.)
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  The Suspicions of Mr Whicher remains one of the best true crime narratives I’ve ever read, one that I think is destined to become a classic of its kind. It has been made into a film and distributed by Britain’s ITV. the full title is The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher: The Murder st Road Hill House.

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I called the next part ‘the Henry James section.’ To begin with, revisiting Portrait of a Lady, which I first read many years ago, and then following it with Michael Gorra’s beautifully written and insightful exegesis, remains one of the most satisfying intellectual experiences of my adult life. As for Turn of the Key, it was a good thriller, and author Ruth Ware certainly did not disguise her debt to Turn of the Screw.

But Turn of the Screw itself is, for me, one of the most mesmerizing novels ever written. I’ve read it several times, listened to the audiobook, watched the movie, watched the opera – and I am still not sure exactly what precipitated the disaster at Bly. Of course, Henry James does not want you to be certain about this – ever.

Henry James

M. Slaughter attributes the following observation to critic Edmund Wilson:

“James’s personal and authorial blind spot was sex, and his inability to confront, perhaps even to understand, sexual feelings, was transformed into the ambiguity of the governess.”

The film version of this novel that I invariably turn to is the 1961 production entitled The Innocents and starring Deborah Kerr as the ill-fated governess Miss Giddens. Below is a particularly unforgettable scene. Watch what happens to Deborah Kerr’s face at 1:48.

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  I called the next section ‘the Egyptian part.’ Of course, at present I am enraptured by the Art in Egypt course I’m taking at the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute. So I was more than happy to spotlight these Egypt themed books. Three out of four of them were by Barbara Mertz, a PhD Egyptologist and author of the much-loved Amelia Peabody mystery series. Dr. Mertz also wrote romantic suspense undeer the name Barbara Michaels.) Mertz lived in Frederick, not far from here, and not long after I came to work at the library, she came to present a program for us. (She was introduced by Marge, my colleague and close friend.)

Barbara Mertz 1927-2013

  Out of the Black Land is a stunning work of historical fiction, set during the reign of the heretic king, Akhenaten. (Kerry Greenwood is also the author of the Miss Fisher murder mysteries.) I can’t resist featuring once again this mesmerizing recreation of the workers of the village Deir-el-medina. This as well as several other films and objects were on view at the National Geographic’s Queens of Egypt exhibit last year.

And here is the trailer for Philip Glass’s opera, Akhnaten:


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Quite a few of us have been waiting impatiently for the third installment of Hillary Mantel’s Wolf Hall trilogy. It has now arrived – official publication date is Tuesday of next week. The title is The Mirror & the Light. It’s already on order at the local library.

 

Wolf Hall is an amazing work. It brings the era of Henry VIII to life like nothing else I’ve ever read. This is one of my favorite passages from the novel:

He remembers one night in summer when the footballers had stood silent, looking up. It was dusk. The note from a single recorder wavered in the air, thin and piercing. A blackbird picked up the note, and sang from a bush by the water gate. A boatman whistled back from the river.

I get goose bumps reading that.

Meanwhile, the second installment, Bring Up the Bodies, presented such a vivid picture of Anne Boleyn, I felt I had to know more. Alison Weir, veteran author of numerous extremely readable novels and nonfiction works, more than filled that yearning on my part with The Lady in the Tower.
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I read two selections from Raymond Chandler. This, from The Big Sleep:

What did it matter where you lay once you were dead? In a dirty sump or in a marble tower on top of a high hill? You were dead, you were sleeping the big sleep, you were not bothered by things like that. Oil and water were the same as wind and air to you. You just slept the big sleep, not caring about the nastiness of how you died or where you fell.

From Michael E. Grost’s invaluable site, A Guide to Classic Mystery and Detection:

The best part of The Big Sleep is the ending. This apostrophe to death is magnificently written, and recalls such Elizabethan essays on the same subject as the finale of Sir Walter Raleigh’s The History of the World (1610). Chandler’s skill with words reached new heights here, a skill that carried over into his next novel, Farewell, My Lovely (1940).

And this, the opening lines of the short story “Red Wind:”

There was a desert wind blowing that night. It was one of those hot dry Santa Anas that come down through the mountain passes and curl your hair and make your nerves jump and your skin itch. On nights like that every booze party ends in a fight. Meek little wives feel the edge of the carving knife and study their husbands’ necks. Anything can happen. You can even get a full glass of beer at a cocktail lounge.

(Oh, to hear Keith Morrison of Dateline NBC speak those lines!)

Raymond Chandler collaborated with Billy Wilder on the screenplay version of James M. Cain’s pulp novel Double Indemnity. The film was released in 1944. In 2009, it was discovered that Chandler appears in the film, in a small cameo:

For more on this, see the Guardian article “Chandler’s Double Identity.”

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Click here for more on Thomas De Quincey.

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James Lasdun and Ian McEwan are two of my favorite authors. The latter is justly well known and celebrated; this is not true, however, of Lasdun, who is British by birth but currently resides in this country. Give Me Everything You Have tells a gripping and disturbing  story; I highly recommend Lasdun’s fiction as well, especially the novel The Horned Man and the story collection It’s Beginning To Hurt. 

James Lasdun


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Finally, these two books by M.J. McGrath, aka Melanie McGrath. White Heat was a selection of the Usual Suspects discussion group, but in the course of learning about this author, we found out about The Long Exile.

It begins in 1922 with Robert Flaherty and the making of his groundbreaking documentary Nanook of the North:

In the 1950s, two generations of Ungava Inuit were forcibly relocated by the Canadian government from their hunting grounds in Hudson Bay to “the Arctic wastes of Ellesmere Island,” 1200 miles to the north. They were assured that they would be able to continue their livelihood there, especially as regards hunting in order to feed themselves and their families. This proved not to be the case. As winter set in, they began to starve.

McGrath tells this story in harrowing, pitiless detail. For more on this subject, see my blog post  and the review in the New York Times.

This book I’d never heard tells a harrowing story that begs to be more widely known. I for one will never forget it.

Melanie (aka M.J.) McGrath

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I was especially pleased by the lively participation of this group of book lovers. They asked questions and made comments that added materially to  the content of my presentation. At the conclusion, when I had gone through my book list – and my voice was unhelpfully giving out – I asked if anyone had a book they’d like to recommend.

  Jean shared her enthusiasm for a biography of Andy Warhol by Victor Bockris. (As it happens, I recently saw a Warhol retrospective at the Art Institute of Chicago. I was surprised to learn what an excellent draftsman Andy Warhol was.) Judy spoke in favor of Long Bright River by Liz Moore, a new crime novel that has of late been garnering excellent reviews. Therese mentioned News of the World by Paulette Jiles,  an historical novel that many of us have read and loved unconditionally. Several other titles were mentioned.

I was especially pleased to glimpse copies of the book list that were freely marked up by group members. Hopefully this means they got some good ideas for future reading. That, of course, is what this whole exercise was about!

 

 

 

 

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An Honorable Man by Paul Vidich

February 27, 2020 at 1:33 pm (Book review, books, Mystery fiction)

  I was going to skip reviewing this novel, due to time constraints. But when I picked it up just now, I looked at the passages I marked with post-it flags while reading it, and I felt that at the very least I wanted to quote some lines to indicate how exceptional well written this book is.

Paul Vidich is a name new to me. I first encountered him in Tom Nolan’s column in the Wall Street Journal. Nolan has excellent taste in crime fiction; I’m saying this of course because I mostly agree with his assessments. The review in question is of Vidich’s third book, The Coldest Warrior:

Mr. Vidich, for many years a senior executive in the entertainment industry, proved his talent for noirish spy fiction in two earlier books featuring 1950s CIA man George Mueller. This stand-alone work reaches a new level of moral complexity and brings into stark relief the often contradictory nature of spycraft. Can a covert enterprise survive if it discloses its worst secrets? And can a good cause remain good if it sometimes brings evil?

The Honorable Man is the first of the two novels featuring George Mueller. Mueller is desperate to come in from the cold. He wants – no, needs – to spend time with his young son, who is currently living with his ex-wife. But Mueller’s own skills are partly his undoing. The Agency needs his expertise to  help ferret out a mole in their midst. Reluctantly, he agrees to stay on for this crucial mission.

Now, you’d be forgiven for fetching a deep sigh and saying to yourself, Oh, no, not again, this oft-repeated trope on spy fiction. But it’s not the plot elements that make a novel unique: it’s the specific time and place, the surrounding circumstances, and above all, the characters. Vidich brings postwar Cold War world of the 1950s vividly to life, with all its paranoid urgency. And Mueller himself – well, I felt as though I were inside his skin, an uncomfortable place to be, but necessary. I care about him deeply.

Oh – and a few of the flagged passages:

There is a madness in this country. I can’t bear the name calling the outburst of hatred and vilification, the repulsive spectacle of red baiting, and the way good men’s reputations are tarnished with innuendo.
—————

On his way down the stairwell he felt a stirring of remorse. He felt the burden of what it took to explain a corrupt world to an innocent mind.
————–

His large library, which represented a cornucopia of happy times dedicated to pure thinking, was grouped by topic, and then alphabetically. His jewel among the romantics was a Hawthorne first edition, and the  grouping of popular fiction had an old Eric Ambler, which he admired for its wisdom within a vulgar yarn spun to showcase a clever plot.
—————–

Mueller couldn’t tell how much of the man’s worry was for the work, how much for himself. Perhaps there was no difference. The thin line of judgment was porous with error, rank with self-interest. Washington was a terrible place for honorable men to work.

Remember, the events of this novel are taking place during the McCarthy hearings, when fear and hatred of the Communist menace were reaching a fever pitch among the general populace. Still, some of the words quoted above have an uncomfortable  resonance in regard to the present time. At least, it seems so to me.

An Honorable Man has its basis in a factual case. The author offers a brief explanation at the close of the story.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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