Say Nothing: A True Story of Murder and Memory in Northern Ireland, by Patrick Radden Keefe.

January 25, 2020 at 1:55 am (Best of 2019, Book review, books)

  To start with, I had no desire to read this book. My recollection of Northern Ireland’s so-called ‘Troubles,’ at their appalling height in the early 1970s, held nothing good for me, certainly nothing that I cared to revisit. Yet Say Nothing kept appearing on ‘Best’ lists. To be more specific: It was on the ‘Ten Best Books of 2019’ lists posted by the New York Times, the Washington Post, and the Wall Street Journal. So I changed my mind….

This was a rough reading experience. In the beginning, there was so much murder and mayhem, so much killing and destruction, that I didn’t think I’d make it through. But gradually, the author’s focus narrowed to several individuals: the Price sisters, Dolours and Marian, and a woman named Jean McConville. There are numerous significant supporting players, one of which is Gerry Adams, purportedly a past member of the Provisional IRA – he denied it – who transitioned into a political role. He was president of Sinn Fein from 1983 to 2018.

Marian Price, left, and Dolours Price

If these look like mug shots, they probably are. Dolours and Marian were both front line fighters in the Provisional IRA. Both did time in prison, for various terrorist acts, including the notorious placing of four car bombs in London in 1973. (Two were defused; the other two exploded.)

In a curious turn of events, Dolours, after serving her prison term, married a movie star. This was actor Stephen Rea, who gained fame in the sensational 1992 thriller, The Crying Game.

Dolours Price and Stephen Rea, married in 1983

Sure, she managed to get herself a dreamboat husband, but she harbored plenty of anger toward Gerry Adams:

There is a concept in psychology called “moral injury,” a notion, distinct from the idea of trauma, that related to the ways in which ex-soldiers make sense of the socially transgressive things they have done during wartime. Price felt a sharp sense of moral injury; she believed that she had been robbed of any ethical justification for  her own conduct. This sense of grievance was exacerbated by the fact that the man who steered republicanism on a path to peace was her own erstwhile friend and commanding officer, Gerry Adams. Adams had given her orders, orders that she faithfully obeyed, but now he appeared to be disowning the armed struggle in general, and Dolours in particular. It filled her with a terrible fury.

(Dolours and Stephen Rea had two sons together. They divorced in 2003.)

I mentioned above a woman named Jean McConville. Here she is, with three of her children and her husband Arthur:

By 1972, Jean McConville was a widow. She had given birth fourteen times. Ten of the children survived; they ranged in age from a daughter, aged twenty, to six-year-old twin boys.

One night around 7:00, there was a knock on the door. A gang of people burst into the apartment, members of an IRA squad called the Unknowns. They demanded that Jean go with them. She was hustled out the door, down the stairs and into a waiting car. That was the last any of the children saw of their mother.

There is a lot going on in this book, and there are numerous individuals to keep track of. The story is for the most riveting. But for this reader, anyway, nothing compares to the disappearance of Jean McConville. What was ultimately done to her is, to my mind, one of the cruelest, most  heinous, and most unforgivable crimes ever committed.

I finished Say Nothing some weeks ago. I have not stopped thinking about the fate of Jean McConville.

 

 

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Reading year 2020 gets off to a great start…

January 20, 2020 at 9:25 pm (Book clubs, Book review, books)

…with these three terrific novels:

 

A shooting in self-defense by a Korean shop owner reverberates years later in a completely unexpected and shocking way. This is a no holds barred look at the tensions between the African-American and Korean communities of Southern California. But it is no sociological treatise; rather, it is about real individuals in tough situations, trying yet somehow failing to make things right.

Vivid characters, a gripping plot, excellent writing – all the ingredients for a top notch work of fiction.

 

Kamchatka is a peninsula located in the Far East of Russia. It is the site of some three hundred volcanoes, about thirty of which are currently active. Between four and seven can be expected to erupt each year.

And there is more:

In late summer, Kamchatka’s abundant rivers run red with the crush of salmon racing upstream; it is the only place left where all six species of wild Pacific salmon return to spawn. An estimated 20,000 brown bears roam its enchanted forests of Russian rock birch and other trees, growing fat and mostly happy off salmon.

From “Forged by Volcanoes, Kamchatka Offers Majestic, Magnetic Wilds,” New York Times

Having first come to this exotic locale as a Fulbright Scholar in 2011, Julia Phillips knew she wanted to set a novel here.

It was like this enormous setting for a locked-room mystery. Kamchatka’s really contained historically and geographically. There were very few people and no foreigners going in and out of it during the Soviet period. There are no roads connecting it to the mainland. In that isolation, it’s incredibly beautiful and distinctive.

From a Paris Review interview with Julia Phillips

Kamchatka is like a character in the book. The characters themselves are utterly believable; their dilemmas and crises are  compelling and urgent.

What a wonderful novel this is!

And this one was a real gift. I don’t remember where I read about it, but I had placed a hold on it at the library, and when the reserve came in, it jumped at once to the top of my to-read list.

This is the story of a family of Moroccan immigrants: a mother, a father, and two very Americanized  grown daughters. Nora, one of these, is the main character. I found myself completely caught up in her travails and triumphs.

The Other Americans is very much a story about grief, the kind of grief that can strike any human being and lay that person low for who knows how long. While I was immersed in this novel, I was also reading a piece in The New Yorker entitled “Grief” by V.S, Naipaul. Naipaul, who died in 2018, says this:

We are never finished with grief. It is part of the fabric of living. It is always waiting to happen. Love makes memories and life precious; the grief that comes to us is proportionate to that love and is inescapable.

This is the painful lesson that Nora learns, and grows, to a degree, to accept.

For me, this novel resonated powerfully partly because of its setting in California’s Mojave Desert. At one point, Nora’s father Driss observes:

It was a cold, clear day in December, and there was snow on the peaks of  the Little Bernardino Mountains. The valley was a blanket of high grass and mesquite and yucca,slowly warming up under the morning sun, and after the road dipped and rose and turned, we reached the first grove of Joshua trees. How hard the believers make it to get into heaven, I thought, when  they have all this right here.

This is a place that is very special to me. My parents used to winter over in the Coachella Valley nearby. My father loved the place. My mother resented being taken away from her lifelong friends in New Jersey, but even so, she eventually succumbed to the enchantment of the desert. As for me, I loved it instantly.

Ah, Joshua Tree, I miss you.

So – there you have it, three outstanding novels by three exceptionally gifted writers. All, by the way, would make excellent book club selections. Disappearing Earth and The Other Americans in particular have ambiguous conclusions which I would love to discuss with another reader.

 

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Best reading of 2019: Nonfiction, Literary Fiction, and One Purely Perfect Short Story

December 31, 2019 at 10:50 pm (Best of 2019, Book review, books)

Nonfiction

The Europeans: Three Lives and the Making of a Cosmopolitan Culture, by Orlando Figes

    Stealing the Show: A History of Art and Crime in Six Thefts, by John Barelli with Zachary Schisgal

Accidental Presidents: Eight Men Who Changed America, by Jared Cohen

    Murder by the Book: The Crime That Shocked Dickens’s London, by Claire Harmon

The Five: The Untold Lives of the Women Killed by Jack the Ripper, by Hallie Rubenhold

Author Hallie Rubenhold

Renaissance by Andrew Graham-Dixon

Dreams of El Dorado: A History of the American West, by H.W. Brands

The Trial of Lizzie Borden by Cara Robertson

Schumann: The Faces and the Masks, by Judith Chernaik

Robert and Clara Schumann

The Riddle of the Labyrinth: The Quest To Break an Ancient Code, by Margalit Fox

    Savage Appetites: Four True Stories of Women, Crime, and Obsession, by Rachel Monroe

Little Dancer, Age Fourteen: The True Story Behind Degas’s Masterpiece, by Camille Laurens

In Hoffa’s Shadow: A Stepfather, a Disappearance in Detroit, and My Search for the Truth, by Jack Goldsmith

Becoming, by Michele Obama

The Fiery Trial: Abraham Lincoln and American Slavery, by Eric Foner

Lee C. Bollinger, President of Columbia University (left), presents the 2011 Pulitzer History Prize to Eric Foner.

[While pursuing his doctorate in American history at Columbia, my brother Richard had the great good fortune to study with Professor Eric Foner.]

  A Month in Siena, by Hisham Matar. Lucky man, Hisham Matar, to be able to make this pilgrimage to a place steeped in such a gorgeous heritage. And such lovely writing:

The play of understated exteriors and magnificent interiors, of calm serenity on the outside and deliberate care and thoughtfulness on the inside, of a modest or moderate face concealing a fervent heart, is a Sienese habit, a magic trick the city likes to perform. It does this not only out of the desire to surprise but also, I felt during those early days, to demonstrate the transformative possibility of crossing a threshold.

Your friend forever, A. Lincoln : the enduring friendship of Abraham Lincoln and Joshua Speed, by Charles B. Strozier. This book was the perfect companion volume to Louis Bayard’s Courting Mr. Lincoln, of which more below.

Fiction

The Dutch House by Ann Patchett

A Philosophy of Ruin by Nicholas Mancusi

Courting Mr. Lincoln by Louis Bayard

Machines Like Me by Ian McEwan. Oh. Ian McEwan, you cunning artificer! You had me mesmerized, from the very outset, by this strange and disturbing invention.  (Ian looks great, but that cover creeps me out.)

Unsheltered by Barbara Kingsolver. Oh dear…a book I wanted so much to like. And there were some memorable moments; of course there were; Kingsolver is such a gifted writer. But I have rarely read a novel in which the dialog was so annoyingly unbelievable. I kept wanting to exclaim, “C’mon, Barbara, real people don’t talk to each other like that – in long, rambling disquisitions on weighty topics – commentary that is more like a  series of rants than anything else! (I got through it, but barely.)

Disappearing Earth by Julia Phillips. I just finished  this novel, and I believe it will haunt me for a long time. Among its many singular attributes, it takes readers to a place most of us know nothing about: the Kamchatka Peninsula,

Short story

“The Little Donkeys with the Crimson Saddles” by Hugh Walpole. As sensitive and moving an exploration of human affection as I’ve come across in a long time.

Sir Hugh Seymour Walpole, CBE

A final word on this year’s reading: I just completed a rereading of Courting Mr. Lincoln, and I think it is  brilliant. Not just in its category of historical fiction, but as a novel in any category, or just in its own category. Actually, with its wit, wonderful recreation of Springfield, Illinois in the 1840s, meticulous writing, and above all, bringing to such vivid life those  two singular individuals, Abraham Lincoln and Joshua Speed, everything about it is superb. Why has this book not garnered more notice? Lately I’ve started so many novels only to set them aside in frustration and dismay. But Courting Mr. Lincoln is a triumph. Kudos to you, Mr. Bayard!

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In Hoffa’s Shadow: a Stepfather, a Disappearance in Detroit, and My Search for the Truth, by Jack Goldsmith

December 26, 2019 at 7:41 pm (Book review, books, True crime)

  Few people are able to write about this complicated subject with the kind of inside knowledge possessed by Jack Goldsmith. Chuckie O’Brien, who was Jimmy Hoffa’s indispensable foot soldier up until the time of his disappearance, was also, for ten years, Jack Goldsmith’s stepfather.

This story, turbulent and fascinating as it is, has a special meaning for those of us who came of age in mid-twentieth century America. I remember the Teamsters Union as a force to be reckoned with, constantly in the news. So was the Mob – the Outfit – whatever you wanted to call it. The two were, in certain instances, intertwined.

Chuckie O’Brien was a loving and devoted parent. He entered Jack Goldsmith’s life at a time when the youth was in need of a father’s care and guidance. Jack was so grateful for Chuckie’s devotion that he changed his last name to O’Brien. But on reaching adulthood, Jack began to see things differently. He was ambitious, wanting to make a name for himself and possibly serve in the government as a lawyer. How would he ever obtain and keep security clearance if his connection to Chuckie O’Brien came to light, as it inevitably would? And in addition, Jack had come to see his stepfather in a different light, as an uncouth, uneducated man whose choice of associations was, to say the least, dubious.

And so he reverted to the name Jack Goldsmith and proceeded to ascend the career ladder, serving for a time in the Justice Department. He is now a member of the faculty of Harvard Law School.

But that is not the whole story. Not by a long shot.

It has to be said that in the course of his adult life, Jack Goldsmith came to a new understanding and a realization with regard to his stepfather. This is how he concludes the introduction to the book:

The uneducated union man, it turned out, had a lot to teach the professor.
What follows is an account of what I learned.

Jimmy Hoffa’s disappearance in 1975 coincided roughly with the building of the Meadowlands Sports Complex in East Rutherford, New Jersey. (It opened in 1976.) For years, this “Jersey girl” heard the rumor repeated that Jimmy Hoffa was buries somewhere underneath the Meadowlands structure. In 2010, the stadium was demolished; no human remains were found to be present.

In Hoffa’s Shadow is the fruit of seven years of intensive research. But this was more than a fact finding mission. It was also an act of contrition, Goldsmith’s chance to make amends to the man who gave him unconditional love at a time when he desperately needed it. As such, it is a surprisingly moving work, as  well as being beautifully written and revelatory on many levels. Highly, highly recommended.

Chris Nashawaty has written an especially astute review in the New York Times.

WXYZ in Detroit aired this segment in September:

 

 

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Best Reading in Crime Fiction 2019: Part Two

December 21, 2019 at 2:42 am (Best of 2019, Book review, books, Mystery fiction)

Karin Fossum

Jill Ciment

Dervla McTiernan

Killing with Confetti by Peter Lovesey. Always reliable, always enjoyable

The Whisperer by Karin Fossum. Okay, I put it on the list, but this would never be my favorite Fossum novel. The writing was excellent, as always, but the narrative was almost entirely given over to an interiority that quickly became, for this reader, downright suffocating. The plot was somewhere betweem slow and inert.

Unto Us a Son Is Given by Donna Leon. Up to Leon’s usual high standard. Trace Elements, the twenty-ninth novel featuring the indefatigable Commissario Guido Brunetti, is due out on March 3 of the coming year.

Joe Country by Mick Herron. Another entertaining entry in the Sough House series

The Body in Question by Jill Ciment. A trial concerning an unspeakable crime gives rise to a powerful and illicit passion.

The Scholar by Dervla McTiernan. A worthy follow-up to The Ruin.

Department of Sensitive Crimes by Alexander McCall Smith. Everything he does delights me! I’ve chosen this book for my 2020 Usual Suspects presentation and discussion.

Cold Wrath by Peter Turnbull. A procedural set in York, with a cast of characters that I feel as if I’ve known for a long time. And no wonder – this is the twenty-fifth entry in the Hennessey and Yellich series!

A Suspicion of Silver by P.F. Chisolm. The ninth entry in an historical series that I love.

Tombland by C.J. Sansom. Marilyn Stasio opens her New York Times review with this lively exclamation:

Oh, goody! An 800-page novel about the peasant uprisings of 1549!

This venerable crime fiction reviewer goes on to  state:

Sansom describes 16th-century events in the crisply realistic style of someone watching them transpire right outside his window.

All I can say is, it just flew by…all 800 pages of it!!

Two Kinds of Truth by Michael Connelly. The king of the American procedural just keeps getting better.

A Rising Man, A Necessary Evil, and Smoke and Ashes by Abir Mukherjee. Here’s a new series that takes place in India just after the First World War. Mukherjee really hit the ground running with these books. A Rising Man is excellent; so are the two that follow it. All you need to do is look at the awards and nominations garnered by these novels.
I just finished Smoke and Ashes, and though I very much enjoyed it, I do want to register a critical note. Toward the novel’s conclusion, a situation arises in which a dastardly plot endangering many lives, must be foiled as soon as possible. I thought this section of the narrative was longer and more convoluted than it needed to be; moreover, Captain Sam Wyndham, the series protagonist, was constantly running from one place to another, putting out fires literally and figuratively and seeming to be the only person able to intuit what the enemy was up to.

I thought it was a bit over the top.

Hog’s Back Mystery by Freeman Wills Crofts. Another classic worthy of rediscovery. I particularly like this author’s writing: it’s succinct, vivid – and not dated.

Freeman Wills Crofts, 1879-1957

Diary of a Dead Man On Leave by David Downing. Quoting myself here:

The setting is pre-World-War-Two Germany, in Hamm, to be specific, in the far north of the country. Josef Hoffmann has come there in order to do work on behalf of international Communism. But he becomes involved in the life of Walter, the young son of the woman who runs his boarding house. Gradually he becomes like a substitute father to the boy.

As Josef’s emotional commitment to Walter grows, his commitment to “the cause” recedes. Eventually he must make a crucial decision.

What could be better than espionage with a beating heart at its center? I loved this book and would definitely read another by this author, David Downing.

Safe Houses by Dan Fesperman. Having read and very much liked two of Fesperman’s earlier books – The Small Boat of Great Sorrows and The Warlord’s Son – I kept meaning to get back to him. With Safe Houses, I accomplished this return, and I’m glad that I did. Fesperman, a former foreign correspondent for the Baltimore Sun, knows well the secret world, and brings it and its denizens vividly to life.

Dan Fesperman

To Die But Once by Jacqueline Winspear and Kingdom of the Blind by Louise Penny. Both these titles were Usual Suspects selections. I’ve put them together because in both cases, they are written by highly regarded authors whose novels sometimes work for me and sometimes don’t. I remember the Winspear title as having its worthwhile moments and an appealing protagonist in Maisie Dobbs. But the narrative was all over the place and rather hard to follow.

And as for Louise Penny, well I must register a mildly dissenting voice amidst the swell of admiration on the part of her many fans. I know her readers are charmed by the cast of characters in their almost magical village of Three Pines somewhere in darkest Quebec, but alas, I sometimes find them more annoying than endearing. I admit,though, that I have had some good reading in this series. Bury Your Dead, my favorite entry, takes place in Quebec City and brought the place so vividly to life that I wanted to drop everything  and go there at once!

Maigret and the Nahour Case by Georges Simenon. I recently told my fellow mystery lovers in Usual Suspects that I read the Maigret novels as palate cleansers between longer and more involved reading matter. I do not mean to deprecate them; rather, to me the Maigret stories are gleaming jewels of the mystery world.

Love this cover – Love that car!

Broken Ground by Val McDermid. Loved it – Just the kind of meticulous, action-packed British police procedural that I find utterly satisfying. It was a Suspects selection (thanks, Carol!), but I’d already read it.

Although I’ve not quite finished it, I want to slip The Old Success by Maryland resident Martha Grimes onto this list before I finish. I have a sentimental attachment to this series, as you’ll see.

The Man with a Load of Mischief and The Old Fox Deceiv’d were hot off the press in the early 1980s when I first read them. I had just started work at the library, and was commencing on my own Magical Mystery Tour, as it was. I was at once charmed by Grimes’s style and her unique, and uniquely appealing cast of characters. And I’m happy to report that, after all these years their attraction has not lessened one bit. Richard Jury of Scotland Yard,  Lord Ardry, aka Melrose Plant, and the other denizens of Long Piddleton – they’re all still very much on the scene. Plus we’re introduced to three singular  denizens of the animal world; namely, a horse, a goat and a dog, named respectively Aggrieved, Aghast, and Aggro. That’s the kind of thing Grimes does that pleases me no end!

And so I salute you. Martha Grimes, on the occasion of this, your twenty-fifth Richard Jury novel.

Val McDermid

David Downing

Martha Grimes

 

 

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Dreams of El Dorado: A History of the American West, by H.W. Brands

December 14, 2019 at 2:49 pm (Book review, books, History)

I was  casting about for a single word or phrase to describe this book. I came up with:

blood-soaked.

The Sand Creek Massacre. The Mountain Meadows Massacre. The Wounded Knee Massacre. Shooting, knifing, scalping, mutilation – there seemed to be no end to the carnage.

And yet…there were moments of grace, of peace, like this one, taken from A Day with the Cow Column in 1843 by Jesse Applegate, one of the leaders of what became known as The Great Migration of 1843.

It is not yet 8 o’clock when the first watch is to be set; the evening meal is just over, and the corral now free from the intrusion of cattle or horses, groups of children are scattered over it. The larger are taking a game of romps; “the wee toddling things’ are being taught that great achievement that distinguishes man from the lower animals. Before a tent near the river a violin makes lively music, and some youths and maidens have improvised a dance upon the green; in another quarter a flute gives its mellow and melancholy notes to the still night air, which, as they float away over the quiet river, seem a lament for the past rather than a hope for the future. It has been a prosperous day; more than twenty miles have been accomplished of the great journey….

But time passes; the watch is set for the night; the council of old men has been broken up, and each has returned to his own quarter; the flute has whispered its last lament to the deepening night; the violin is silent, and the dancers have dispersed; enamored youth have whispered a tender “good night” in the ear of blushing maidens, or stolen a kiss from the lips of some future bride for Cupid here, as elsewhere, has been busy bringing together congenial hearts, and among these simple people he alone is consulted in forming the marriage tie.

Earlier in the day of this particular journey, a woman had given birth. Mother and infant were doing well.
*****************
Near the end of this book, there’s a chapter entitled John Muir’s Last Stand. The ‘stand’ in question involved the building of a dam in the Hetch Hetchy Valley, a project to which John Muir was vehemently opposed:

“These temple destroyers, devotees of raging commercialism, seem to have a perfect contempt for Nature, and, instead of lifting their eyes to the God of the mountains, life them to the Almighty Dollar….Dam Hetch Hetchy! As well dam for water tanks the people’s cathedrals and churches, for no holier temple has ever been consecrated by the heart of man.”

Don’t know about you, but after I read  this, I wanted to stand up and shout, YES!! And I couldn’t help thinking, with apologies to Wordsworth:

John Muir, thou shouldst be living at this hour;
America hath need of thee…

John Muir, c1902

Finally, there is this speech, a model of eloquence and heartbreak, spoken by Chief Joseph of the Nez Perce:

I am tired of fighting. Our chiefs are killed. Looking Glass is dead. Toohoolhoolzote is dead. The old men are all dead. It is the young men who say, ‘Yes’ or ‘No.’ He who led the young men [Olikut] is dead. It is cold, and we have no blankets. The little children are freezing to death. My people, some of them, have run away to the hills, and have no blankets, no food. No one knows where they are — perhaps freezing to death. I want to have time to look for my children, and see how many of them I can find. Maybe I shall find them among the dead. Hear me, my chiefs! I am tired. My heart is sick and sad. From where the sun now stands I will fight no more forever.”

Chief Joseph of the Nez Perce, 1877

As you have no doubt gathered, Dreams of El Dorado was a wrenching reading experience. Yet at the same time deeply learned and memorable, beautifully written and meticulously researched. I do recommend it – but fortify yourself.

‘If you have tears, prepare to shed them now….’

H.W. Brands has appeared on C-Span BookTV to discuss this book.

 

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It began with the railroads: The Europeans, by Orlando Figes

November 29, 2019 at 9:25 pm (Art, Book review, books, Music)

What began was the nineteenth century culture of worldly sophistication and high art described in this incredibly wide ranging volume. Along with the new  ease of rail travel, cultural cross currents began to flow with increasing speed and receptivity, to and from numerous nations of Western Europe. The countries specifically referenced are Italy, England, Germany, Russia – to my surprise – and France, always France, the epicenter of it all.

The book’s full title is The Europeans: Three Lives and the Making of a Cosmopolitan Culture. Figes chooses to tell his story through the lives of singer and composer Pauline Viardot, her husband Louis, and their friend and close associate Ivan Turgenev. (The great Russian writer was, in fact, in love with Pauline Viardot throughout his life. To an extent, she returned his affections, but would never leave Louis, with whom she had four children.)

Pauline Viardot, 1821-1910

 

Louis Viardot 1800-1883

 

Ivan Turgenev, 1818-1883

*******************
I had gotten this far in composing this post before we left town for a few days. A recent photo in the  Washington Post served as a reminder that I hadn’t yet finished it:

Putin signing visitors’ book in Turgenev’s house

Ages ago, when I was trying to get more classics under my belt, I read Fathers and Sons and First Love. I recall especially being moved by the latter. In The Europeans, Orlando Figes tells us how Turgenev’s early writings in The Sportsman’s Sketches first secured his authorial fame. As with many out-of-copyright classics, various editions of this work are available for download on Amazon. I’ve read several of the stories and very much enjoyed them.

As it happens, copyright law, both within nations and international, is an important subject covered by Figes in his book. And as happens sometimes in books like this, it slows the narrative down to a crawl. It’s a case of an important subject that needs in depth coverage and one that at the same time isn’t – well, for want of a better word, sexy.

Still, all in all, this was a fascinating book, filled with illuminating facts about the flowering of high culture – art, music, and literature – throughout nineteenth century Europe. What fabulous gifts these people bequeathed to us!

 

 

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“The Little Donkeys with The Crimson Saddles,” by Hugh Walpole

November 20, 2019 at 3:52 pm (Book review, books, Short stories)

THE little donkeys went past the shop-window at eight in the morning and seven-thirty in the evening, punctually, rain or shine.

Miss Pope christened them Percy and Emily. The old man whose donkeys they were she had long ago named Voltaire because he looked wicked, unChristian and clever – and because she liked literary allusions. One thing she often discussed with Miss Menzies, and that was why, being wicked and clever, he had not advanced further in the world. Miss Menzies suggested drink, and Miss Pope thought it probable.

Thus in its  unassuming way, this story, the first in Hugh Walpole’s collection The Silver Thorn, begins.

As I began reading, my first question was, where are we? The presence of the donkeys made me think of Spain, but no, this is Silverton-on-Sea, a fictional seaside town in England. The owner of the animals, the so-called Voltaire, makes them available to children and their families for rides. Thus he ekes out a living.

Miss Pope and Miss Menzies keep a small shop in the town. The shop offers a variety of items for sale –

The fancy work was very new, the antiquities very old. The shop, when it was lucky, made a profit, and then they went away for a holiday. They had been to the Lake District, Paris, Vevey, the Isle of Man, and Lake Como. On the other years the shop had not made a profit.

At age forty-three, Jane Pope is thirteen years older than Alice Menzies. She is at peace with her lot in life. But Alice Menzies, seeing what she perceives as the approach of spinsterhood, does not share in this equanimity. She longs for the chance to be a wife and mother, before it is too late..

In the meantime, she and her companion continue to observe the punctual coming and going of the little donkeys. It is how their days are marked.

And then a man arrives, and with his arrival comes a moment of reckoning for Alice Menzies.

Alice, as she sat down beside him, wished (Oh, how she wished!) that he had not chosen just this spot in which to make his proposal. Had she thought of it (but when does one think of these things?) there could not possibly be anywhere worse – here where she could see all the familiar things – the little town white and shining in the sun, huddled together so happily as though cosily inviting her congratulation (she so old a friend) at its contentment, the great sweep of purple, green-striped sea, the silver beach, the cornfields and the singing larks. Yes – and then, surely she could see them quite clearly, Percy and Emily trotting bravely, little midgets of patience and determination, to their inevitable destiny.

“The Little Donkeys with the Crimson Saddles” is a short story dating from around 1928. Yet this gem of a tale has a timeless quality; it is strongly atmospheric, beautifully crafted, and immensely moving. I would rate it with the stories of Alice Munro. That is the highest praise I can give to a work of short fiction.

The Silver Thorn can be downloaded free of charge from the site The Faded Page. (A PDF download is of reliable quality.)

In the anthology Capital Crimes: London Stories, Martin Edwards says this about Hugh Walpole: “Today, his work is strangely underappreciated.” I’ve read several other stories by Walpole, and I agree wholeheartedly with this assessment.

Sir Hugh Walpole, 1884-1941

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The Dutch House by Ann Patchett

October 22, 2019 at 3:58 pm (Book review, books)

  The Conroy family is every bit as unique as the house they grew up in. Well, perhaps not quite….

The Dutch House was the place where those people with the unpronounceable name lived. Seen from certain vantage points of distance, it appeared to float several inches above the hill it sat on. The panes of glass that surrounded the glass from the doors were as big as storefront windows and held in place by wrought iron vines. The windows both took in the sun and reflected it back across the wide lawn. Maybe it was neoclassical, though with a simplicity in the lines that came closer to Mediterranean or French, and while it was not Dutch, the blue delft mantels in the drawing room, library, and master  bedroom were said to have been pried out of a castle in Utrecht and sold to the VanHoebeeks to pay a prince’s gambling debts.

This singular edifice, located in the suburbs of Philadelphia, was completed in 1922. I must say that for the life of me, I could not summon up an image of it in my mind. I longed for a photo.

The family, on the other hand, was easy enough to conjure. Big sister Maeve, tall with a single thick braid trailing down her back, Cyril, the father, both loving and distracted, close and remote, a staff  consisting mainly of Jocelyn and Sandy, two warm and affectionate sisters, a mother who appears and disappears and seems finally gone for good, and Danny, Maeve’s younger sibling and the narrator of this story.

There are numerous reviews of The Dutch House available online; you don’t need any further specifics from me. I will say that I had some problems with the novel up until around  the half way point. There are several dramatic developments in the course of the narrative, completely unanticipated, by me at any rate..  (One of these, by the way, is given away prematurely in the jacket copy – beware.) Unfortunately, the narration of what happens in between these developments sometimes tested my patience. I was less than fascinated, for instance, by the minutiae of Danny’s college classes at Columbia, in New York City, where a good portion of the story takes place..

But once past a certain point, the narrative seemed to hurtle towards a conclusion that was at once highly anticipated and hard to predict. I do love it when that happens!

And, of course, this is Ann Patchett, supremely gifted writer and co-owner of Parnassus Books in Nashville, Tennessee.

Before I sign off, I wish to note that The Dutch House is currently Number Seven on the New York Times Hardcover Fiction Bestseller List. I choose to view this as a hopeful sign.

For behind the mystery of their own exile is that of their mother’s: an absence more powerful than any presence they have known. Told with Ann Patchett’s inimitable blend of humour, rage and heartbreak, The Dutch House is a dark fairy tale and story of a paradise lost; of the powerful bonds of place and time that magnetize and repel us for our whole lives.

Storysmith

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Mysteries piling up, due dates fast approaching…

October 20, 2019 at 4:59 pm (Book review, books, Mystery fiction)

Having fallen hopelessly behind, I hereby offer some quick reviews of crime fiction I’ve recently borrowed and read.

  When I read The Poacher’s Son, the first entry in the Mike Bowditch series, I was immediately impressed by Paul Doiron’s storytelling savvy, rendered as it is in writing which is both elegant and precise.. These novels vividly evoke Maine in all its sylvan beauty:

Nearby a robin laughed maniacally. I caught a flash of red has he flew off through the bare trees. The hints of color were subtle in the spring woods: green buds of birches, purplish catkins of alders, maroon spathes of skunk cabbage emerging from holes in the snow they had melted with their own thermogenesis.

Some readers of crime fiction get impatient with descriptive passages like this, feeling that they impede the narrative’s momentum. I on the other hand am delighted to encounter such felicitous prose as this. Almost Midnight is the tenth Mike Bowditch novel. From what I can tell, these books are just getting  better and better.

Grade: A+
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  I decided to read Force of Nature mainly because I was so impressed with Jane Harper‘s standalone novel The Lost Man. Force of Nature is the second novel to feature Federal Agent Aaron Falk; the first is entitled The Dry. I also read The Dry and enjoyed it, but not as much as The Lost Man. The latter took me into the deepest reaches of the Australian outback, a place that seems in equal measure forbidding and fascinating.

In Force of Nature, a company undertakes to send two teams – one comprised of just the women, the other, of their male counterparts –  into the Australian bush, with maps, basic supplies, and with luck, their own resourcefulness. Alas, for the women, this team building exercise turns into an utterly harrowing team destroying exercise instead.

Gripping and compelling, but just a bit too “talky” at the end  a flaw, by the way, which I encounter in numerous crime novels.

Grade: A-
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  In a presentation on current trends in crime fiction, I spoke of the resurgence of the private eye in recent crime novels. One example of this trend is August Snow by Stephen Mack Jones. Having attained the status of reviled whistle blower in the Detroit Police Department, August has had to reinvent himself as a private eye. A case falls into his lap almost at once when Eleanor Paget, a wealthy businesswoman, prevails upon him to undertake an investigation on her behalf. She then dies suddenly before much can be gotten under way. Her death is supposedly a suicide, but August doesn’t believe it and sets out to discover the truth of the matter.

August Snow is the first entry in a projected series; the second, the poetically titled Lives Laid Away, came out this past January. August Snow is a dark novel; for my taste, the violence, minutely described, was at times over the top. On the other hand, the writing was excellent, characters were believable and sometimes sympathetic.  And somewhat to my surprise, I really enjoyed the description of Detroit, on the cusp of a comeback, with many interesting features that you have to seek out in order to fully appreciate (It reminds me of Baltimore, in that way.).

Grade: B+ 

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