Secrets of Happiness by Joan Silber – coming soon

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

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

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

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

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

Joan Silber

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A Worse Place Than Hell: How The Civil War Battle of Fredericksburg Changed a Nation, by John Matteson

March 26, 2021 at 1:17 am (Book review, books, History)

This handsome youth is Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. In the course of his military service in the Union Army, he was wounded on three separate occasions. Afterwards, having made it through this harrowing experience, he vowed to enter the practice of law. He was not only interested in becoming a lawyer, but was equally interested in exploring the philosophical underpinnings of the profession.

In this photo, Holmes appears composed and confident. He was not that way at all by the time his service ended. He was lucky to be alive and he knew it. But he had seen terrible things that could never be forgotten. They affected the entire remainder of his long life.

As far as can be known, Holmes regarded his survival as mere happenstance— confirming, not disrupting, his sense of the universe as a place of inscrutable, mindless forces. If it had any effect on his thinking at all, the wounding at Antietam more stoutly convinced Holmes, already a religious doubter, that the world had neither plan nor reason. The power that drove the world could be neither understood nor appeased. Randomness had become God.

Holmes went on to become one of the most distinguished Supreme Court Judges this country has known. He also served in that capacity for a very long time – just under thirty years. This record remains unbroken.

In A Worse Place Than Hell, John Matteson describes some of these terrible things in excruciating detail. I had to force myself to read some passages. But I felt that I had to. For one thing, this was such a compelling narrative and so beautifully written. For another, it was such a huge part of this country’s past, and therefore, of my past. I have heard it said that the Civil War was America’s Iliad. It seems to me an apt comparison.

The lives of four other individuals are delineated in this book.   Louis May Alcott came to Washington to work in the hospitals where wounded soldiers were treated.

She told herself, “There is work for me, and I’ll have it.” She went back to her room “resolved to take Fate by the throat and shake a living out of her.”

Walt Whitman did likewise, although he worked at a different location from Alcott. There is no evidence that they ever encountered one another.

Here is another picture of Whitman, taken when he was younger. I was struck by this image, having only seen him as an elderly, heavily bearded sage.

Whitman was a big-hearted man of very modest means, with not much in the way of tangible effects to give to these sick and wounded young men. So he did what he could:

The poet gave almost every form of sustenance: blackberries, peaches, lemons, preserves, pickles, milk, wine, brandy, tobacco, tea, underclothing, and handkerchiefs all passed into the hands of his grateful boys. He wrote countless letters and read aloud, both from his own poetry and from whatever material a soldier might fancy. It seemed to Whitman, however, that the most precious gift he gave lay in “the simple matter of physical presence, and emanating ordinary cheer and magnetism.”

Arthur Fuller was a native of Massachusetts and a graduate of Harvard Divinity school. A gentle soul who yearned to ‘do something for my country,’ Fuller became chaplain to to the Sixteenth Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry in 1861.

He came from a distinguished family. Margaret Fuller was his sister. His full name was Arthur Buckminster Fuller, and yes, R. Buckminster Fuller, he of geodesic dome fame, was his grandson.

Arthur Fuller’s brother Richard wrote his biography in 1864. It is available on the Internet Archive.

It opens thus:

HERE is a natural curiosity to trace a stream to its source — to follow it back to the hills from whose bosom it first springs to life-. The more noble the flow of its current, the more beneficent its waters, in opening paths to inland navigation or furnishing food for man, so much the keener is curiosity to trace it to the crystal fountain of its origin. The undiscovered source of the Nile was for centuries the theme of speculation. Inquirers, after the ancient method, propounded this practical question to the oracles of reason, and drew from them the enigmatical responses of theory ; never apparently thinking of the solution, which modern empiricism has reached, by actually threading back the stream, and thus working out the safe result of observation.

Human life, like the river, may attract little public notice in its playful early course, when prattling among the parent hills, or leaping in gay cascades on its downward way, to swell, eventually, into the graver, deeper current of manhood. But if, as its waters gather head, they furnish a spectacle of natural beauty in their flow or fall, or bestow public blessings in banks made green and fruitful, or bountiful fisheries, or bear upon their back the burdens of navigation, or attract attention by the glory of their exit into the sea, symbolizing the issue of life for time into the ocean of eternity, — then men turn their steps back to the early stream, and search out, in its source and surroundings, every presage of its destiny.

How I yearn to read more of such lovely, old-fashioned prose! And in the service of Arthur Buckminster Fuller, a courageous and immensely appealing man.

And finally, John Pelham, a young tearaway from Alabama who became a first rate artillery officer. Not only that, he astonished his fellow soldiers with acts of brazen, almost inhuman bravado on the battlefield.

John G. White of the Second Maryland Infantry outdid even [J.E.B.] Stuart in his appreciation. To him, Pelham was nothing less than “some god of battle.” But in an instant, a battle can turn a god to dust.

Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., Louisa May Alcott, Walt Whitman, Arthur Fuller, John Pelham. These five individuals are the linchpins of this narrative. There is plenty of description of battles also, especially of Antietam and Fredericksburg. Much of it was difficult to read.

Men killed with cold, unthinking hatred— hatred for the war, for the enemy, for the miserable fate that had led them here, hatred perhaps above all for themselves. Many of the participants who told of it later, even though they had seen the slaughter with their own eyes, could not believe the heartbreaking truths that they were telling.

Heartbreaking is exactly the right word. I experienced that sensation over and over as I read this book. Yet I think that, at least from my perspective, One owes it to these mean to learn of what they went through, to acknowledged both the heroism and the horror of this brutal war.

  This book is superb. I’ve been reading a great deal of history lately, yet the stories contained in  A Worse Place Than Hell – the words are Lincoln’s; the full quotation is “If There Is a Worse Place Than Hell, I Am In It” – will remain with me the longest.

They watched as “the sun set in the smoke of battle,” a sight that, for some of them, surpassed anything they had ever imagined. Now and then a shell would explode against the sky, ironically forming “the most beautiful wreaths” of color. As the sound of the artillery rolled on, the heavens darkened, and the blood-red sun went down, Chaplain Hartsock thought “the orb of day” wore “a fitting appearance” as it looked down “upon the crimson tide that flowed from American veins.”


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Favorite Recent Reads

February 18, 2021 at 5:08 pm (Book review, books)

The Other Americans by Laila Lalami


Image result for crisis francis


Pachinko (National Book Award Finalist) by [Min Jin Lee]


Image result for some danger involved




This month, I’ve had the pleasure of presenting two programs of book talks for a local organization of which I’m a member. The  first session occurred at the beginning of this month; the second, this past Monday.

Each was accompanied by a book list. Here’s the first one:







DEATH IN DELFT by Graham Brack

Jean-Luc Bannalec




CRISIS by Felix Francis

A STUDY IN SCARLET by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle



MISSISSIPPI by Richard Grant

WORLD’S LARGEST OWL by Jonathan C. Slaght

Nicholas A. Basbanes

This is the second:



The Cold Millions by Jess Walter
The Boy in the Field by Margot Livesey
Pachinko by Min Jin Lee
The Sun Collective by Charles Baxter

Crime fiction

Wife of the Gods and The Missing American by Kwei Quartey
The Coldest Warrior by Paul Vidich
The D.A. Calls It Murder by Erle Stanley Gardner
Some Danger Involved by Will Thomas
The Chocolate Cobweb by Charlotte Armstrong
The Department of Sensitive Crimes by Alexander McCall Smith


Vesper Flights by Helen MacDonald
World of Wonders by Aimee Nezhukumatathil
Black Hole Survival Guide by Janna Levin
The Revenge of Thomas Eakins by Sidney D. Kirkpatrick
We Keep the Dead Close: A Murder at Harvard and a Half Century of Silence                             by Becky Cooper


We Don’t Eat Our Classmates! By Ryan T. Higgins

Wherever I’ve written at any length about one of the above titles, I’ve provided a link. And I’d like to append some comments here:

I may not have reviewed Laila Lalami’s book in this space, but I did facilitate a discussion of this excellent novel for a book group I attend some months ago. It was a good discussion; I highly recommend The Other Americans for book groups as well as solitary readers.

In Death in Delft, the reader meets an appealing protagonist called Master Mercurious. He is a clergyman and an academic attached to the University of Leiden in what is now The Netherlands. Being as it’s the 17th century, we  get to encounter the painter Vermeer and the scientist Anton van Leeuwenhoek as well. A thoroughly enjoyable reading experience.

I know Louise Penny has legions of fans devoted to her Armand Gamache series . These novels are usually set in Quebec; however, the events of All the Devils Are Here take place in Paris. That change of venue is one of the reasons I elected to read this novel. Penny doesn’t always work for me, especially as regards the cast of characters that inhabit the village of Three Pines. There were things about this series entry that bothered me as well, but on the whole, I enjoyed it. I especially appreciated being back in Paris, if only by way of someone else’s story – sigh….

I recently reread The Stranger Diaries for the Usual Suspects mystery book discussion group. This is an outstanding novel; I could hardly put it down this time around.

And speaking of mysteries (and when am I not speaking of mysteries), Kwei Quartey is a new and, for me, very welcome discovery. Wife of the Gods is the first entry in the Darko Dawson series The Missing American marks the start of a new series featuring private investigator Emma Djian. I’ve learned many fascinating facts about life in Ghana, Dr. Quartey’s native land. (The Missing American has just been nominated for the 2021 Edgar Award for Best Novel.)

And speaking of historical mysteries, Some Danger Involved was recommended to me by my friend Angie, an astute and discerning reader of crime fiction. This is the first in a series featuring private investigator Cyrus Barker and his newly hired assistant Thomas, Llewelyn. The action takes place in late 19th century London and concerns that city’s thriving (but perpetually nervous, with good reason) Jewish community. My inner Judaism Checker was attuned to the author’s religious references and especially to his use of the Yiddish vernacular. Everything was spot on; moreover, the atmosphere was wonderfully evoked and characters, believable and appealing.

Finally, a word about Pachinko. I only read this novel because it was a book club selection. I am deeply grateful to this book club (AAUW Readers). Pachinko is one of those old style novels that opens up an entire world and peoples it with credible and often fascinating characters. I don’t have enough superlatives in my vocabulary with which to heap praise on Min Jin Lee’s masterpiece. It’s the best work of mainstream fiction that I’ve read in years.

Towards the conclusion of the second set of book talks, several of the participants brought up trends in contemporary fiction that they wanted to discuss. One person bemoaned the tendency of narratives to abruptly go back and forth in time – “I had to take notes, to know where I was!” A second reader chimed in with the observation that a change of narrators was occurring more frequently and could be likewise confusing. And finally, there is the tendency to switch from the first person to the third – with occasionally  the second making a brief, unwelcome appearance.

I really enjoyed this exchange of views! It was a welcome reminder of my days as an English major in college and graduate school. In fact, the whole experience was extremely rewarding. I am grateful to the participants for making it so.

Oh, and I almost forgot – the children’s book We Don’t Eat Our Classmates! was just  for fun:



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Unblogged (and soon to be overdue) books

January 11, 2021 at 7:16 pm (Book review, books)

So recently I was cruising through the various rooms in my house when I encountered a stack of books sitting stolidly on the edge of a bookcase. They’d  been read but not blogged. Horrors! The world is awaiting my comments on these volumes! Actually the library is waiting, as in, Woman, are you planning to return these any time soon? There are others wanting to read them, you know…

Okay, so let’s make a start:

Leave the World Behind by Rumaan Alam.  City dwellers Amanda and Clay have found (via Airbnb)  a quiet place to vacation on Long Island. So they drive out to their getaway home. With them are their two children, fifteen-year-old Archie and Rose, age twelve (or thereabouts). Upon arriving, they’re all pleased with what they see. The house is well turned out and has a swimming pool. There are woods nearby. It is quiet, a welcome respite from the perpetual noise of Gotham.

Rumaan Alam extracts much humor from the foibles of America’s upper middle classes. He describes Amanda’s initial food shopping expedition in detail, noting that that she was sure to throw into the basket “Ben & Jerry’s politically virtuous ice cream.” (As we are regular purchasers of this product, it is now designated in these exact terms on our shopping lists.) At the outset, the tone of the novel is lighthearted, but it does not stay that way. Events occur which are unexpected, strange, downright threatening. The light has more and more trouble penetrating the darkness.

Oh, they are leaving the world behind, all right…. Or is the world leaving them?

Rumaan Alam is a terrific writer. His prose is urgent and graceful at the same time. And as for the tale he relates herein, I can only say that it’s been a long time since I was this thoroughly unnerved by a work of fiction.

Highly recommended.

The Searcher by Tana French. Cal Hooper, a former detective with the Chicago police, has traded the chaos of the big city for a whole new life in a small town in Ireland. The house he has purchased is run down, to say the least, but fixing it up provides him with a much needed project.

He enjoys this  rain. It has no aggression to it; its steady rhythm and the scents it brings in through the windows gentle the house’s shabbiness, giving it a homey feel. He’s learned to see the landscape changing under it, greens turning richer and wildflowers rising. It feels like an ally, rather  than the annoyance it is in the city.

Trey Reddy, a teenager, appears out of nowhere to give him a hand with carpentry and painting. Welcoming the help, as well as the companionship, Cal finds himself drawn into a classic mystery: Trey’s brother has disappeared, and Cal’s help is needed in order to  find the missing sibling.

There’s some lovely writing in this novel; it contributes greatly to the sense of being in the midst of rural Ireland:

Eve smack in the middle of a temperamental Chicago neighborhood, dawn sounds rose up with a startling delicacy, and  the air had a lemony, clean-scoured tinge that made you breathe deeper and wider. Here, the first light spreads across  the fields like something holy is happening, striking sparks off a million dewdrops and turning the spiderwebs on the hedge to rainbows; mist curls off the grass, and the first calls of  birds and sheep seem to arc effortless miles.

Well, zowie, the woman can write! On the other hand, the dialog, while realistic and believable, at times drags on for too long. In fact, the novel as a whole could have been shorn of a hundred or so pages and  been none the worse for it – better, in fact, with the plot being somewhat tighter. Even so, Cal and Trey are beautifully drawn characters, as are numerous others.

Tana French is a writer that readers and reviewers consistently rave about. Her books don’t always work for me, but by and large, this one did.

Anne Perry

A Christmas Resolution by Anne Perry. In recent years, it has become Anne Perry’s custom to pen a work at Christmas time with an appropriate theme. This short novel – almost a novella, really – is set, as we’d expect from this author, in the nineteenth century:

Celia approached the vicar, who stood alone for a few moments in the shadow of the rounded arch above the doorway, sheltered from the rising wind.

With such an opening sentence, we know full well that we are in Anne Perry Country. Celia wishes to compliment the vicar on that mornings sermon. Alas, the Reverend Arthur Roberson is a melancholy figure. He is oppressed by matters of the heart.

A Christmas Resolution is characterized by a mixture of charm, earnestness, and peril that is so characteristic of this author’s works in this genre. We are soon involved, with Celia and her husband Detective John Hooper, in an urgent effort to prevent Celia’s dear friend Clementine Appleby from making an ill-advised marriage.

Okay, so not  a very original plot premise, but one is lulled into a sense of mild anxiety without having to be overly concerned. We know things will turn out all right. Clementine will be saved! Even the vicar might be delivered from his unhappy state.

In other words, a pleasant diversion for which I was grateful, what with the world being in its current state.



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‘History has failed us, but no matter.’ – Pachinko, by Min Jin Lee

December 22, 2020 at 9:42 pm (Book review, books, Historical fiction)

Lee’s stunning novel, her second, chronicles four generations of an ethnic Korean family, first in Japanese-occupied Korea in the early 20th century, then in Japan itself from the years before World War II to the late 1980s. Exploring central concerns of identity, homeland and belonging, the book announces its ambitions right from the opening…. Lee suggests that behind the facades of wildly different people lie countless private desires, hopes and miseries, if we have the patience and compassion to look and listen.

From the New York Times’s “10 Best Books of 2017

Stunning indeed. The place is Yeongdo, Busan, Korea.

At the turn of the century, an aging fisherman and his wife decided to take in lodgers for extra money.

This plain sentence follows the one quoted in the  title of this review. We go at once from a sentiment of cosmic significance to a statment of almost painful plainness.

From this ordinary decision, made by ordinary people, springs an entire universe of consequences. The fisherman and his wife Yangjin have a daughter, Sunja. The fisherman, Hoonie, soon dies of tuberculosis. Yangjin and Sunja, who is at that time thirteen years old, are left to run the boarding establishment as best they can.

And then….

Nowadays, many works of fiction label themselves (or their publishers label them) novels of suspense. And yet Pachinko, a more or less traditional family saga, whose narrative marches , at a steady and unshowy pace,  through the decades, is one of the most suspenseful books I’ve ever read. This might be because I cared so deeply about the fate of the characters.

And what a fate, what a fate.

The Japanese occupation of Korea was beyond cruel. Life was made horribly difficult; the Koreans were debased and humiliated. Innocent and good people had their lives upended and ruined.

It seemed as if the occupation and the war had changed everyone, and now the war in Korea was making things worse. Once-tenderhearted people seemed wary and tough. There was innocence left only in the smallest children.

Still, having no other recourse, making use of what meager resources they could find, they persevered.

This was a hard book for me to review. I’ve written about numerous meritorious books in this space. But Pachinko stands apart. I have not been moved in quite this way by a work of fiction in a very long time. Superlatives fail me. In my opinion, this is a brilliant novel, deserving of the highest praise. Congratulations, Min Jin Lee, for an astonishing achievement. And thank you.

Min Jin Lee





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John Le Carre

December 17, 2020 at 4:08 pm (books, In memoriam)

David Ignatius has written a wonderful feature on John Le Carre for the Washington Post. It is entitled “LeCarre’s People.” In it, he states:

His spies and their world were based on real life, and yet totally his own inventions.

His spies and their world…and what a world it was, by turns bleak and terrifying, with long stretches of boredom in between. Its ethos was embodied in the character of George Smiley, played on screen unforgettably by Sir Alec Guinness.

The other great portrayal of a Le Carre character was done by Richard Burton; he was Alec Leamas in The Spy Who Came In from the Cold, surely one of the greatest espionage films ever, based on the novel of the same name, published in 1963. This was Le Carre’s third work of fiction; it vaulted him to stardom in the literary world, where, it being the early 1960s, such things still mattered to the general public – sigh…

The acclaimed, best-selling novel by John le Carré, about a Cold War spy on one final dangerous mission in East Germany, is transmuted by director Martin Ritt into a film every bit as precise and ruthless as the book. Richard Burton is superb as Alec Leamas, whose relationship with the beautiful librarian Nan, played by Claire Bloom, puts his assignment in jeopardy. The Spy Who Came in from the Cold is a hard-edged and tragic thriller, suffused with the political and social consciousness that defined Ritt’s career.

From the Criterion Collection site

Le Carre’s first two works of fiction are Call for the Dead (1961) and A Murder of Quality(1962). Both feature George Smiley in a more or less conventional detective setting. They’re a good way to make the acquaintance of Smiley. I enjoyed them both, especially A Murder of Quality, which is set at a boys’ boarding school and has that tense, claustrophobic atmosphere which often characterizes such places, both in fiction and in fact.

More recent tiles by Le Carre that I’ve enjoyed are A Legacy of Spies and Agent Running in the Field. That last came out in 2019. It’s hard for me to believe that there will be no more from the astute and brilliant pen of John Le Carre.

A YouTube commenter on the trailer for The Spy Who Came In from the Cold wrote, three days ago:

R.I.P. John le Carré. You are in from the Cold.

David John Moore Cornwell, aka John Le Carre , October 19, 1931-December 12, 2020


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The Coldest Warrior, by Paul Vidich

December 11, 2020 at 4:06 pm (Book review, books, Mystery fiction)

  An investigation into the death of a scientist working for the CIA yields shocking results.

The year is 1975. Jack Gabriel, an Agency veteran, has submitted his retirement to the Director. But his departure is put on hold. Instead, he is tasked  with finding out the truth about the death, just over twenty years ago, of Charles Wilson.

Jack has always had a degree of ambivalence concerning his chosen profession.

Lawyer? Investment banker? College professor? Those were the careers he had contemplated, but still the allure of espionage drew him to her bosom. The cerebral challenge of the work, the immediacy of the problems and  their complexity, the urgent call to fight  the great Cold War against Communism. These were what drew him.

He reluctantly embarks on this investigation, only to find that every step of the way, obstacles are placed in his path.

Charles Wilson had been a family man, with a wife and children. Antony, the eldest, has never been able to accept the verdict of suicide in his father’s death.

“What happened!”Antony snapped. “He died. Fell or jumped. That’s pretty clear, clear as mud.”
Gabriel was impatient with Antony’s testiness. “We both believe someone needs to be held accountable.”
“Really?” Antony stared. “He suffered the killing love of his friends.”

Paul Vidich’s prose is salted with allusions to classic literature: At one point, a character remarks that “Men strut their time in power and then are  heard from no more.” Or, as Shakespeare says in MacBeth:

Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day,
To the last syllable of recorded time;
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player,
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing.
For me, this is one of the most genuinely shocking passages in all of Shakespeare’s works. Even in the tragedies, he  usually seems so life affirming. But here – a blank void of night, sheer nihilism.
The Coldest Warrior is based on a true story. I knew that, going in. I’m interested in the field of intelligence work, and had encountered a description of the actual events in my reading. What I was not aware of was that this author, Paul Vidich, has a personal connection to these events. I won’t say any more here. He reveals all in the acknowledgement section that follows the novel’s conclusion.
I will say, though, that this novel has a greater impact if you read it in conjunction with a viewing of Errol Morris’s Wormwood. Available on Netflix, this six part documentary film recounts the actual story of the death of Frank Olson and the subsequent investigation – or perhaps, one should say, the subsequent cover-up. Some reviewers have felt that Wormwood is longer than necessary, and that in places it drags and is repetitious.
I thought it was excellent. For one thing, the atmosphere of Cold War paranoia was evoked in a way that was positively uncanny. It lay dark and heavy over the unfolding events of the story. For another, the extended interview material with Frank Olson’s son Eric was riveting. Eric Olson simply refuses to let go of this inquiry until those responsible for his father’s death are named and held accountable. Quite a few of the individuals involved are now deceased. No matter. Dead or alive, they must be made to take responsibility.
I came away from Wormwood with enormous respect and compassion for  this man who, decades ago at the age of nine, suddenly and unaccountably lost his father. The Olson family has had more than its share of tragedy. But decades after his father’s death, Eric Olson is still fighting the good fight.


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‘He was so inwardly calm, he was like St. Francis, and the birds knew it as they approached him.’ -The Sun Collective, by Charles Baxter

December 7, 2020 at 9:23 pm (Book review, books)

  The Sun Collective is a novel that is both magical and ordinary. Charles Baxter’s numerous bon mots are, to my mind, enchanting. His characters are at once pedestrian and unique, in the way that all persons are unique.

Harry and Alma Brettigan share a decades old marriage. Here’s how Harry sums things up:

He and Alma had  been married so long that love really didn’t really figure into the whole business anymore, and their tolerance for each other’s eccentricities didn’t matter much either–Alma was like water: you didn’t have to love water when you were thirsty. You just needed it to live. That’s how they were with each other. They had gone from love to post-love, where each one for the other was a necessity.

With regard to those eccentricities: Alma has a much shorter fuse than Harry. She is forever criticizing his ‘tone’ and trying to shut  him down. I rather enjoyed Harry’s piquant, aphoristic style of speech. Alma’s repeated objections took on a whining tone – at least, they did for me. So while my affection for him grew, so did my irritation with her. I objected to her objections!

The whole thing was rather entertaining.

Meanwhile, their son Timothy has gone AWOL; there’s a suspicion that he’s allied himself with a  group called the Sun Collective. Then there’s a young couple, Christina and Ludlow, who are definitely involved  with this mysterious organization. (To Christina belongs one of my favorite ‘thought bubbles’ in the novel: “She bit into her cheeseburger. Who could ever be a vegan when food tasted like this?”)

It’s difficult to determine whether the goals of the Sun Collective are benign or sinister. Actually, I found it hard to care, one way or another, because I was so wrapped up in the ongoing psychodrama of Harry and Alma’s relationship.

Here’s one of Harry’s wry observations concerning the vagaries of his fellow citizens:

In America, with its strange pragmatism, the idea  was that you could postpone death indefinitely if you simply took the proper steps and followed the self-help advice given out by paid programming dietitians and fitness experts who could also be found expounding their theories on the internet. If you died, you would be criticized for your bad  habits: too much pasta, a sedentary lifestyle, whiskey instead of herbal energy drinks, pessimism. Your death would  be all your fault.

Passages like this occur throughout this novel and are one of its chief joys.

Baxter’s writing is at times quite lyrical:

On that porch, Brettigan sat in the late afternoons with his glass of sun tea, his mind empty of anxious thought, and when the sparrows, who were used to him, flew down onto the edge of the porch, he would reach into his pocket  for bread crumbs and toss them down. He was so inwardly calm, he was like St. Francis, and the birds knew it as they approached him.

In those moments, he felt the peace that passes all human understanding, and he thought: This is what everybody wants. The Kingdom of God is on Earth.

The events of the novel, such as they are, take place in Minneapolis and its environs. The cold, unpredictable climate has an inevitable affect on the course of the story.

I remember years ago reading a novel by Charles Baxter called Saul and Patsy, and liking it very much. This is the reason I downloaded The Sun Collective as soon as  learned of its existence. I was not disappointed; on the contrary, I was delighted.

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All the Devils Are Here, by Louise Penny

December 1, 2020 at 3:57 pm (Book review, books, France, Mystery fiction)

  I must dash this review off, lest I start forgetting what I’ve just read. Oops! – it’s already started!

Okay, so:

Armand Gamache, former head of the Sûreté du Québec, and his wife Reine-Marie have recently arrived in Paris from their home in the village of Three Pines, in Quebec. They’ve come to await the birth of their fourth grandchild. Also present is Stephen Horowitz, Armand’s godfather. Horowitz is a very wealthy man who presents a mysterious face to the world, but not to the Gamache family, who know and love him.

Having established the mise en scene in the City of Light and peopled it with her familiar characters, Penny proceeds to launch the story almost immediately with a dastardly transgression committed right in their midst, a crime whose evil intent very nearly succeeds. From this point on, events unfold rapidly, with Armand forced to pit his wits against an extremely ruthless and cunning foe.

This plunge directly into the icy water of criminal intent has  become a familiar trope in contemporary crime fiction – in other words, don’t waste time on description, get things moving at once! (You can just hear the editor/first reader exhorting the author.) It didn’t trouble me this time, mainly because Penny kept the pace lively right up until the home stretch when, at least for me, the plot became labored and overly complex. I find that when that happens  in a crime novel, I start to zone out, not really caring whay happens next – or worse, not being able to believe in the increasingly arcane developments.

As for the characters, all the members of the famille Gamache are front and center. Everyone does not love everyone equally, which refreshing. Armand is ferociously devoted to everyone, which can be grating at times. Also grating is his Superman schtick – he is always there to save the day (Oh wait – should  that be Mighty Mouse?), always on the side of Right, always stronger and more resourceful than the next guy (or woman). As if to affirm her wokeness, Penny has grown men crying and declaring “I love you!” to one another – again, this is usually Armand.

I loved the Paris setting. I don’t always read Penny because I don’t always like her novels, but when I realized that this one was not set in the overly cute little Québécois village of Three Pines, I thought I’d give it a go. (I was especially pleased not to have to spend time in the company of one of my least favorite denizens of Three Pines, the truculent poet Ruth Zardo and her pet duck Rosa.)

Finally, a point concerning grammar. Penny makes frequent use of ‘this’s’ as a contraction of ‘this is.’ I did a bit of research on this, and as is frequent with question of usage, I got widely differing results. My conclusion is that while ‘this’s’ is not flat out wrong, it could still be termed nonstandard. Now this may seem like a small point, but I’m something of a grammarian – blame long years as an English major and then an English teacher – so things like this matter to me.

Looking over this write-up, it would appear that this is a negative review. If so, I’ve conveyed a not quite accurate impression. I actually enjoyed the book and pretty well raced through it – at least, up until the closing chapters, where too much was happening that was confusing and strained credulity. Nevertheless, a thumbs, up, although with reservations.

My favorite Gamache novel is still Bury Your Dead.


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Recent Reading

November 26, 2020 at 12:34 am (Art, Book review, books, Nature)

The Cold Millions by Jess Walter.

So, after reading Ron Charles’s rave review of this title in the Washington Post, I felt I had to give it a try. (I get a kick out of Ron Charles; he becomes almost incoherent with enthusiasm sometimes, especially when he REALLY, REALLY [as my grandson would declare, for emphasis] likes a book.) So…

A jumble of riotous action set against the backdrop of labor unrest and free speech suppression, chiefly in Spokane, Washington, in the early years of the twentieth century.. Main characters are brothers Gig (Gregory) and Rye (Ryan) Dolan, struggling to survive amid the tramps and hobos out of work and out of luck in the Pacific Northwest.

I could  believe in Rye and Gig, but my credulity was strained by the character of Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, a nineteen-year-old married and pregnant firebrand and uncompromising crusader for workers’ rights and freedom of speech. Yet in his acknowledgements, the author states that she’s drawn from real life.

And lo! Here she is, in full haranguing mode:

Of course, truth can be stranger than fiction, but…well, read it and decide for yourself. In any event, the book is a wild ride, and great  fun (if confusing at times).

Vesper Flights by Helen Macdonald 

What science does is what I would like more literature to do too: show us that we are living in an  exquisitely complicated  world that is not all about us. It does not belong to us. It never has done….

Centuries of habitat loss and slow attenuation of our lived, everyday knowledge of the natural world make it harder and harder to have faith that the way things are going can ever be reversed.
We so often think of the past as something like a nature reserve, a discrete, bounded place we can visit in our imaginations to make us feel better. I wonder how we could learn to recognize that the past is always working on us and through us, and  that diversity in all its forms, human and natural, is strength. that messy stretches of species-rich vegetation with all their invertebrate life are better, just better, than the eerie, impoverished silence of modern planting schemes and fields. I wonder how we might learn to align our aesthetic and moral landscapes to fit that intuition.

One could become impatient with too many of these generalized exhortations,  eloquently expressed though they may be. Fortunately, Macdonald does leaven them with specifics. Of course there is much delightful writing about birds, not surprising from this author, but here’s a less expected passage, from an chapter entitled “Nothing Like a Pig.” The set-up: her boyfriend has taken her to see an animal she had previously known only from stories and folk tales:

This creature was not what I expected, despite its slap of familiarity. It had the forward-menacing shoulders of a baboon, and the brute strength and black hide of a bear. But it was not really anything like a bear, and what surprised me most of all was that it was nothing like a pig. As the beast trotted up to us, a miracle of muscle and bristle and heft, I turned to the boy, and said, surprised, “It’s nothing like a pig!” With great satisfaction he grinned and said, “No. They’re really not.”

This essay collection has been much anticipated by readers of Macdonald’s award-winning work H Is for Hawk. A number of people have asked me if I’ve read that particular book. Truth to tell, I tried to, but I ran afoul of Macdonald’s description of the steps involved in taming the hawk. I felt an intense aversion to the whole process – it seemed to me a form of avian torture. So that it was it, for me. Vesper Flights is blessedly free of such content, and a very rewarding read.

The Revenge of Thomas Eakins, by Sidney D. Kirkpatrick

What an interesting man: a deeply gifted painter and, except for a brief  European sojourn in his youth, a life long resident of the City of Brotherly Love. Born in 1844, Thomas Eakins grew up saturated with the rich artistic culture that characterized Philadelphia in the late 1800s.

Painted in 1875, The Gross Clinic is probably Eakins’s most famous work:


Another work, one of my favorites, is Max Schmitt in a Single Scull (1871):

The artist’s wife, Susan Macdowell, 1884-89

Self-portrait, 1902

The Writing Master (Benjamin Eakins, the artist’s father), 1882


Portrait of Walt Whitman-1887. The poet and the painter were great friends.

(Eakins  was a great portraitist; his skills were much sought after in this area.)

This is the house in which Eakins live:

Designated as an historic landmark in 1965, it now houses an artists’ cooperative. In Eakins’s time, the place seemed to be bursting with life – relatives an friends would come frequently to visit an often to stay. There were numerous children (although Eakins and his wife  not have any) and pets also -including, for a while, a monkey who caused untold mischief.

You could understand why, in the above portrait, Susan Macdowell looks rather long suffering. And there were other reasons, as well.

Thomas Eakins was not only a great painter, but an enthusiastic and committed teacher. He also became infatuated with photography. And that’s where the trouble began…

While some of the photographs are entirely decorous, others are…well, something else. A large selection of works by Eakins in both media can be accessed at WikiArt.

Why the title of this biography contains the word “revenge” I am not sure. Unless it refers to the frequently heard saying, “Living well is the best revenge.” Eakins’s life was turbulent, that is for sure, but most of the strife he encountered he brought on himself. He was stiff and unbending in his principles, even in situations where a little bending would have cost him little.

The subjects of a number of his nude studies, both painted and photographed, were often drawn from his young male students, many of whom seemed all too willing to doff their garments in order to please their esteemed instructor. The speculation prompted by this practice, can be easily imagined.

Whatever took place in his personal life, as a professional, he was exact and uncompromising. He was left us a legacy of realistic art for which we can only be grateful. As for this book, I found it utterly absorbing – a  great about an artist and his  times.



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