Troubled Daughters, Twisted Wives: stellar stories

August 16, 2017 at 5:52 pm (Book review, books, Mystery fiction, Short stories)

    This distinctive collection of short stories, meticulously curated by Sarah Weinman, comes as something of a revelation.

The anthology is subtitled, “Stories from the Trailblazers of Domestic Suspense.” In her introduction, Sarah Weinman declares her attraction to contemporary crime fiction written by women. She names several: Gillian Flynn (of Gone Girl fame), Tana French, Louise Penny, Sophie Hannah, Laura Lippman, Megan Abbott. She avers that in their fiction, these writers and others have in effect taken “a scalpel to contemporary society,” revealing the moral rot lying just beneath the congenial seeming veneer. In particular, they often portray the struggles faced by women trying, in the face of insidious opposition, to lead meaningful lives.

When Weinman went in search of those who may have preceded the current wave of women authors of crime fiction, she made a surprising and disconcerting discovery; namely, that there was “an entire generation of female crime writers who have faded from view.” Troubled, Daughters, Twisted Wives is the start of an effort to rectify that situation by bringing these forerunners – “trailblazers” as Weinman rightly calls them –  and their intriguing, sometimes idiosyncratic works back into public view.

There are some  familiar names here: Patricia Highsmith and Shirley Jackson being among the most notable. Vera Caspary’s fame rests mainly on her novel Laura, which was made into one of the great noir films of the 1940s starring Gene Tierney, Clifton Webb, and Dana Andrews. Margaret Millar is known primarily as the wife of the great Ross MacDonald, but she deserves to be recognized in her own right for the fine writer  that she is. The prolific Dorothy B. Hughes, winner of the Mystery Writers of America Grand Master Award in 1978, wrote In a Lonely Place, which also became a distinguished noir film starring Humphrey Bogart and Gloria Grahame.

 

Other names in this collection were barely familiar – to me, anyway – or not previously known at all: Nedra Tyre, Barbara Callahan, Helen Nielsen, Joyce Harrington, Elizabeth Sanxay Holding. It would be difficult for me to name a favorite or favorites in this collection. I thought they were all, in varying degree, very much worth reading. So much so, in fact, that I intend to read them through a second time. (Weinman provides a page or so of valuable material about the author’s life and work before each story.)

Taken together, these stories evoke a vivid picture of a lost mid twentieth century America. You had to wait around to place a long distance call and then calculate the cost of it. Everyone had servants, even families of modest income. Men oscillated between exploiting women and protecting them (and making a show of protecting them). Men were schemers and so were women. Civilization sometimes seemed a perilously thin veneer, poised on the knife edge, always threatening to topple over into chaos. The past is a different country, for sure, but on the other hand, the more things change….

Troubled Daughters, Twisted Wives came out in 2013. Two years later, with Sarah Weinman as editor, the Library of America brought out Women Crime Writers: Eight Suspense Novels of the 1940s and 50s. The authors featured in this two volume collection are Vera Caspary, Helen Eustis, Dorothy B. Hughes, and Elizabeth Sanxay Holding (1940s); Margaret Millar, Charlotte Armstrong, Patricia Highsmith, and Dolores Hitchens (1950s).

 

Earlier this month, I had  the pleasure of hearing Sarah Weinman speak at the Sisters in Crime Thirtieth Anniversary Celebration. She spoke about her work as an editor and a critic in the field of crime fiction, where she’s making, as you can see from the above, an outstanding contribution to the field. (With her efforts to bring worthy writers back from undeserved obscurity, I see her as a sort of American counterpart to Martin Edwards.)

In the course of her talk (which alas I had some trouble hearing in its entirety), Sarah Weinman extolled in particular the virtues of the following: Celia Fremlin (in whose Edgar Award winning novel The Hours Before Dawn I’m currently engrossed), Marie Belloc Lowndes, Elizabeth Sanxay Holding, and Dorothy Salisbury Davis. Lowndes wrote The Lodger, a famously chilling thriller made into a silent film in 1927 by a neophyte director named Alfred Hitchcock.   Elizabeth Sanxay Holding, whose story “The Stranger in the Car” I found especially effective, authored a novel called The Blank Wall. After hearing Weinman discuss it, I’m very eager to read it.

As for Dorothy Salisbury Davis, her story “Lost Generation” was one of the shorter ones in the collection, and also one of  the most powerful. Sarah Weinman enthused about the fact that she’d had the opportunity to meet and talk with Ms Davis. At the time of the publication of Troubled Daughters, Twisted Wives (2013), Davis was 96 years old. She passed away the following year.

Celia Fremlin

Shirley Jackson

Patricia Highsmith

Dorothy B. Hughes

Margaret Millar

Vera Caspary

Dorothy Salisbury Davis

Sarah Weinman at Sisters in Crime

Sarah Weinman in better focus!

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“Flight” by Tessa Hadley – something about this story…

August 11, 2017 at 9:43 pm (books, Short stories)

  Two sisters, Claire and Susan, have been estranged for a number of years. Their lives have evolved very differently. Shuttling between Philadelphia and London, Claire, who is single, is a busy professional woman. Susan, also single since her husband’s desertion, works as a carer for elderly and disabled persons. She has four children, two of whom are grown and living on their own. Ryan, the youngest, still lives at home. So does Amy, who has just had a baby. Also living with all of them is Amy’s boyfriend Ben, the baby’s father.

The arrival of the baby represents a tipping point for Claire. It’s time, she believes, to end the hostilities between  Susan and herself. She decides to show up unannounced at the house in Leeds, which had been the childhood home for both of them. (This house, in fact, is at the heart of the dispute between the sisters.)

When Claire arrives, Susan is not at home, but she is warmly welcomed by Amy and Ben, and later by Ryan when he gets home. As for the baby, Claire finds herself gripped simultaneously by feelings of love and pity:

The sight of his weak flailing baby limbs and the reddened swollen navel tugged painfully at Claire – he startled fearfully once, jerking his whole body with grimace and lost cry as if he were falling through empty space.

Meanwhile, all three have been awaiting Susan’s return from work. They do not know how she will react to Claire’s completely unexpected  presence.

They are soon to find out.

Something about this story affected me deeply. Its cumulative power had me suspended in time. I had no notion how things would play out. I only knew that it mattered to me very, very much.

“Flight” can be read online here, but I recommend getting Hadley’s collection Bad Dreams and Other Stories. As a writer of short fiction, she is, in my view, right up there with Alice Munro.

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Say it isn’t so, David Mamet!

August 9, 2017 at 1:23 am (books, Library, Magazines and newspapers)

A piece appeared recently in the Wall Street Journal the title of which was sufficient to make me sit up and take notice:

“Charles Dickens Makes Me Want to Throw Up.”

 

David Mamet

Say it isn’t so, renowned playwright and screenwriter David Mamet! (Glengarry Glen Ross, Speed-the-Plow, Wag the Dog, and much more besides.) But, alas, Mamet surely does suffer from a serious Dickens aversion, to wit:

Dickens’s characters are cardboard cutouts, even in their names: Inspector Bucket, the Brothers Cheeryble, Jerry Cruncher. They are mechanicals. His prose is turgid and, less forgivable, tortured. Here’s his rendition, in “Dombey and Son,” of a sea-captain’s dialect: “It’s an almighty element. There’s wonders in the deep, my pretty. Think on it when the winds is roaring and the waves is rowling.”

Mamet sums up: “What a load of bosh.” He adds that in his view, the public’s love for the works of Dickens is “sententious and perhaps even self-congratulatory.”

Well, that’s me, congratulating myself all over the place. Knowing I’m not alone eases the pain, though.

Here’s how Bleak House begins:

CHAPTER I

In Chancery

London. Michaelmas term lately over, and the Lord Chancellor sitting
in Lincoln’s Inn Hall. Implacable November weather. As much mud in
the streets as if the waters had but newly retired from the face of
the earth, and it would not be wonderful to meet a Megalosaurus,
forty feet long or so, waddling like an elephantine lizard up Holborn
Hill. Smoke lowering down from chimney-pots, making a soft black
drizzle, with flakes of soot in it as big as full-grown
snowflakes–gone into mourning, one might imagine, for the death of
the sun. Dogs, undistinguishable in mire. Horses, scarcely better;
splashed to their very blinkers. Foot passengers, jostling one
another’s umbrellas in a general infection of ill temper, and losing
their foot-hold at street-corners, where tens of thousands of other
foot passengers have been slipping and sliding since the day broke
(if this day ever broke), adding new deposits to the crust upon crust
of mud, sticking at those points tenaciously to the pavement, and
accumulating at compound interest.

Fog everywhere. Fog up the river, where it flows among green aits and
meadows; fog down the river, where it rolls defiled among the tiers
of shipping and the waterside pollutions of a great (and dirty) city.
Fog on the Essex marshes, fog on the Kentish heights. Fog creeping
into the cabooses of collier-brigs; fog lying out on the yards and
hovering in the rigging of great ships; fog drooping on the gunwales
of barges and small boats. Fog in the eyes and throats of ancient
Greenwich pensioners, wheezing by the firesides of their wards; fog
in the stem and bowl of the afternoon pipe of the wrathful skipper,
down in his close cabin; fog cruelly pinching the toes and fingers of
his shivering little ‘prentice boy on deck. Chance people on the
bridges peeping over the parapets into a nether sky of fog, with fog
all round them, as if they were up in a balloon and hanging in the
misty clouds.

Gas looming through the fog in divers places in the streets, much as
the sun may, from the spongey fields, be seen to loom by husbandman
and ploughboy. Most of the shops lighted two hours before their
time–as the gas seems to know, for it has a haggard and unwilling
look.

The raw afternoon is rawest, and the dense fog is densest, and the
muddy streets are muddiest near that leaden-headed old obstruction,
appropriate ornament for the threshold of a leaden-headed old
corporation, Temple Bar. And hard by Temple Bar, in Lincoln’s Inn
Hall, at the very heart of the fog, sits the Lord High Chancellor in
his High Court of Chancery.

Turgid? Seems more like magic, to me.

  When I retired in 2007, one of my short term goals was to read Bleak House. I regret that I have yet to accomplish this. In fact, the only Dickens novel I’ve read in recent years is The Mystery of Edwin Drood. It was, I have to admit, a bit of a struggle, though periodically enlivened by sprightly passages like this one, in which the denizens of a pantry are brought vividly to life:

Every benevolent inhabitant of this retreat had his name inscribed upon his stomach. The pickles, in a uniform of rich brown double-breasted buttoned coat, and yellow or sombre drab continuations, announced their portly forms, in printed capitals, as Walnut, Gherkin, Onion, Cabbage, Cauliflower, Mixed, and other members of that noble family. The jams, as being of a less masculine temperament, and as wearing curlpapers, announced themselves in feminine caligraphy, like a soft whisper, to be Raspberry, Gooseberry, Apricot, Plum, Damson, Apple, and Peach. The scene closing on these charmers, and the lower slide ascending, oranges were revealed, attended by a mighty japanned sugar-box, to temper their acerbity if unripe. Home-made biscuits waited at the Court of these Powers, accompanied by a goodly fragment of plum-cake, and various slender ladies’ fingers, to be dipped into sweet wine and kissed.

Charles Dickens  1812-1870

Mamet gives grudging approval to A Tale of Two Cities and A Christmas Carol. As for me, the experience of reading David Copperfield – several decades ago, admittedly – was nothing less than life changing. It is a towering achievement in world creation, and will always will be one of my favorite works of art.

Mamet far prefers Anthony Trollope to Dickens. I too am a Trollope fan. Many years ago I read Barchester Towers and was so vastly entertained that I resolved to read The Barsetshire Chronicles in its entirety. (Of the six novels that comprise the series, I’ve read the three starred below.)

    *

 

*         *

 

  

Again, this was many years ago. I recall Barchester Towers being a bravura performance in novel writing, in equal part hilarious and outrageous, while Doctor Thorne was an exceptionally poignant love story. (For an excellent appreciation of Anthony Trollope, read Adam Gopnik’s “Trollope Trending” from the May 4 2015 issue of the New Yorker.)

Mamet also offers words of praise, albeit somewhat grudgingly, to several other favorites of mine: George Eliot, Wilkie Collins, and Mary Elizabeth Braddon.

Mary Elizabeth Braddon 1835-1915

George Eliot 1819-1880

 

Anthony Trollope 1815-1882

 

Wilkie Collins 1824-1889

(In my review of The Suspicions of Mr Whicher by Kate Summerscale, I make reference to both The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins and Lady Audley’s Secret by Mary Elizabeth Braddon.)

Ah well – enough. Everyone’s entitled to his or her own opinion in these matters – although I do have to consciously remind myself of that truism from time to time…

The Wall Street Journal keeps most of its content behind a pay wall. There is another way to access that content, though, and it’s through the public library database called ProQuest. Allow me to walk you through the process:

First, get on the library’s site: hclibrary.org. Next,  scroll down until you see the words “Stream. Download. Learn.” They’re in a blue rectangle above the picture of a lady gardening. Click on that.

Scroll down to the three green circles. the one in the middle is the one you want. It contains an arrow pointing down, with three terms underneath it. The third is “e-newspapers.” Click on that. Scroll down to  the ‘Wall Street Journal 1986-present.’ You’ll then be required to authenticate yourself with your bar code and pin number.

Voila – you’re in. I strongly advise that you use the ‘advanced search’ option located directly beneath the search box. Type ‘Mamet’ in the  top box and select ‘author ‘(au). In the box below, your need only type in ‘Charles Dickens’ and select ‘title’ (ti) in the box to the right. The article should appear directly.

This is the set-up at Howard County Public Library. Other library systems probably offer similar facilities for online research.

 

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More praise for The Shepherd’s Life, courtesy of a letter to the Washington Post

August 7, 2017 at 8:10 pm (Anglophilia, books, Magazines and newspapers)

Kudos to Ann Massey for her letter which appeared in this past Saturday’s Washington Post. It’s entitled “Add this to your reading list;” in it, she sings the praises of The Shepherd’s Life by James Rebanks.

I’ve done likewise in this space, on several occasions.

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The Templars’ Last Secret by Martin Walker

August 5, 2017 at 12:15 pm (Book review, books, France, Mystery fiction)

  “In Paris you forget that France is like this.”

So exclaims Amélie, special agent sent down by the Ministry of Justice from the City of Light to observe and report on policing in the remote provinces.

In this case, the particular remote province is St. Denis, felicitously located in France’s fabled Perigord region; the person doing the policing is our old friend Bruno Courrèges.

When I say “old friend,” I refer to the nine novels that precede this one in the Bruno Chief of Police series. I’ve read seven of them and have now reached the point that I grab the newest without looking at the reviews first. (This is uncharacteristic of me. Normally I rely on knowledgeable friends and/or reviewers to swiftly steer me away from books that don’t or won’t work for me, so as to save time, currently my most precious commodity.)

The occasion of Amélie’s amazement is the peacefulness and quiet beauty of the Perigord countryside, as exemplified by scenes like this:

It had  become a perfect spring afternoon, bright sunshine with scattered clouds like white puffballs and gentle breezes that set the young green leaves of the willows by the river quivering so that the trees seemed almost to dance on the water. Mother ducks paddled serenely, each with a  row of tiny ducklings behind her like warships in a line of battle.An angler standing in the shallows was castling his fly in a long, flickering curve that just kissed the surface of the river.

Don’t know about you, but I not only want to visit there – I want to live there. And there’s much, much more.

The prehistoric art and archaeology of the region are of paramount importance to the plot of this novel. So, as you’ll have guessed from the title, is the medieval period when the Knights Templar were going about their strange and often secretive business.

In PerigordSarlat, medieval town (Dordogne)This town is well known for its medieval heritage, in the heart of a beautiful region and a landscape full of superb feudal castles. The old town has a Templar cemetery, around the cathedral, where you can see a number of tombs marked with the distinctive cross. There is also a curious tower in the form of an arch known as the “lantern of the dead”.
From The Epic of the Templar Knights in France
Having become deeply fascinated by the prehistory of the Perigord, Bruno regrets that he was never able to undertake a formal study of the subject. He wonders:

Why were those supposedly primitive creatures suddenly inspired to start making art that is instantly appealing to modern humans, who recognize instinctively an aesthetic sensibility akin to our own?

Still, he’s able to learn quite a bit from being surrounded by museums and other artifacts, most especially the art in the complex of caves known collectively as Lascaux.  (The French site features a virtual tour  that is exceptionally detailed, not to mention eerie and evocative. Be sure to turn up the sound.)

As you may have already deduced, Bruno himself is one of the chief attractions of these novels. With the chickens out behind his house – he’s always having to rush home to feed them – his endearing and ever-present scent hound Balzac, his horse Hector, his lively and restless intellect, and his maddeningly irresolute love life, he is quite simply a pleasure to spend time with, and never dull. Oh, and might I add, he is a world class cook, whose culinary ventures are set forth in loving detail and  by the author:

His fish stock had almost defrosted, so he cut  the cod he’d bought into small cubes. He put two large spoons of duck fat into the bottom of his favorite flameproof casserole and put it onto the heat. Then he peeled two potatoes and half-a-dozen cloves of garlic. He diced the potatoes and crushed the garlic with the back of his knife, mixed them together and tossed them into  the casserole. He let that cook on low heat while he went out to the garden to pick some salad, washed and chopped it and put it to one side while he added the cubes of cod, the fish stock and a can of tomatoes to  the casserole. He poured a  large glass from the five-liter box of simple white Bergerac that he kept in the pantry, added it to the fish, stirred and tasted. A touch more salt was needed, and he adjusted the heat to a very low simmer.

Surely there should be some sort of award for a recipe description that makes me yearn to partake of a meal featuring fish as the main course, something I almost never experience.

(Recipes can be found at Bruno Chief of Police.   There is a cookbook as well, but as far as I can tell, it’s only available in German. Here are the particulars, courtesy of Martin Walker:

The Bruno cookbook has been named ‘World’s Best Book on French Cuisine’ at the Gourmand International awards, which were held this year in Yantai, China, home of China’s booming new wine industry.

This is a great honour and the credit goes to my wife and co-author, Julia, who is the real cook in the family; to my brilliant German photographer, Klaus Einwanger; to book designer Kobi Benezri (from Israel) and to the glorious production by my Swiss publishing house, Diogenes; and my editor at Diogenes, Anna von Planta.

It says something about globalisation that a book on French cuisine, written by a Brit of Scottish origin who lives in the Perigord and published in German by a Swiss publisher, wins an international prize awarded in China.)

Were you wondering about the plot? There certainly is one, and it begins with a woman’s lifeless body found below a cliff, above which looms the Chateau de Commarque, a former castle stronghold of the fabled Templar Knights.

Chateau de Commarque

She had apparently been trying to climb high enough to daub some sort of graffiti on the structure’s side.But right from the beginning, nothing  is as it appears. They don’t know if her death was an accident or murder. And there is no clue as to her identity.

It’s a fairly straightforward beginning to what becomes an extremely convoluted investigation. The cast of characters seemed to expand exponentially. Matters were further complicated by the involvement of numerous law enforcement entities. Then terrorism suddenly enters the mix.

(Warning to  future readers: there is a truly awful torture scene in this novel. Mercifully it is short, but in my view, it is glaringly out of place and superfluous, not to mention horribly cruel. I wish it hadn’t been there.)

To be honest, with regard to the plot, I got lost around the back stretch. But it didn’t worry me, as I was so absorbed with the doings of the main characters as they went about their business against the back drop of the numberless attractions of the Perigord.


**********************

Kathy, proud proprietor of Mystery Loves Company Booksellers & Chesapeake Books in Oxford, Maryland, went to to Dordogne to see “Bruno Chief of Police” country for herself. She was so enchanted by what she found there that she bought a house! It is now available for rent.   
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Whenever I write about France – or even think about France – two musical compositions come to mind: Les Chants D’Auvergne (Songs of the Auvergne) by Joseph Canteloube, and the Farandole from L’Arlesienne by Georges Bizet.

 

 

 

 

 

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Books read for a trip not taken

July 29, 2017 at 4:23 pm (Anglophilia, Book review, books, Mystery fiction, Uncategorized)

Crime fiction

The Crow Trap by Ann Cleeves
The Dungeon House by Martin Edwards
The Grave Tattoo by Val McDermid
The Hennessy and Yellich series by Peter Turnbull

Nonfiction

The Opium Eater: A Life of Thomas De Quincey by Grevel Lindop
The Shepherd’s Life: Modern Dispatches from an Ancient Landscape by James   Rebanks

  When you get your books from Amazon, you may get some surprises as well. I got one when The Crow Trap arrived: all 535 pages of it. I groaned inwardly (and outwardly too, just ask my husband), but as it turned out, I loved this book right from the get-go. It was eminently readable and completely absorbing. I finished it in a matter of days – would have done sooner, only I didn’t want my enjoyment to end prematurely.

Three women are gathering data as part of an environmental survey being conducted in the north of England. Their results will be crucial in determining whether a quarry can be established in the region.They’re at the center of a crowded canvas featuring people with various problems, motives, and intentions.

Their endeavors seem somehow to be death haunted. And this propensity brings Detective Inspector Vera Stanhope onto the scene. In a literary world replete with investigators of every type, temperament, and ethnicity, Vera seems to this reader at least to be rather unique. She doesn’t enter the narrative until almost halfway in, and when she does…well, she makes an impression, that’s for sure:

She was a large woman – big bones amply covered, a bulbous nose, man-sized feet. Her legs were bare and she wore leather sandals. Her square toes were covered in mud. Her face was blotched and pitted….Over her clothes she wore a transparent plastic mac and she stood there, the rain dripping from it onto the floor, grey hair sleeked dark to her forehead….

The Crow Trap, which came out in 1998, was the first novel featuring DI Vera Stanhope. There are now seven, with another due out in September.

I hadn’t read anything by Ann Cleeves since Blue Lightning, the fourth in the Shetland series. (I’ve also read  the three predecessors: Raven Black, White Nights, and Red Bones).  I’d forgotten what a terrific storyteller she is, a gift amply supported by the quality of her writing. I won’t forget again, for some time now at least.

Ann Cleeves met with us in Northumberland during a Smithsonian mystery tour in 2007

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I’d had The Dungeon House on my Kindle for quite some time, so I made it my business to read it in advance of the planned meeting with Martin Edwards on this trip. What a pleasure! This may be my favorite of his always enjoyable Lake District series.

  Martin has recently won accolades for The Golden Age of Murder, his meticulously researched (and hugely entertaining) history of the Detection Club. And now he has come out with this gem: . I acquired this last week at Mystery Loves Company in Oxford, Maryland – only a short ferry ride from St. Michaels, where we were staying. I’ve been putting off actually having a look inside. Treasures await, I know, in the form of all kinds of titles that I simply MUST READ AT ONCE!
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  I’ve written about The Grave Tattoo, a highly original and intriguing mystery, in a previous post. And finally, Peter Turnbull’s Hennessey and Yellich novels were commended to us. This is a series that I absolutely love, as much for Turnbull’s highly idiosyncratic style as for his appealing characters and strangely original plots.
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  I’ve already written about the two nonfiction titles listed above. Grevel Lindop’s biography of the perpetually fascinating Thomas De Quincey held me in its thrall from beginning to end. The following passage describes De Quincey’s strange out-of-body experience at the death bed of his beloved sister Elizabeth. He was seven years old; she was nine:

After pausing a moment he walked round to the side of the bed. His sister lay there, beautiful and calm, with no sign of her recent illness and pain, but unmistakably different, with a statue-like, frozen look, the lips like marble, ‘the stiffening hands laid palm to palm’ — an awesome being, and not quite his sister any more.
His attention was caught by a low surge of wind outside the open window, and listening to it for a moment he was carried on the sound of the breeze into a kind of trance: his bodily senses were suspended, and ‘A vault seemed to open in the zenith of the far blue sky, a shaft which ran up forever; and the billows seemed to pursue the throne of God; but that also ran before us and fled away continually . . . some mighty relation between God and death struggled to evolve itself until, after what seemed ‘a very long interval’, he regained normal consciousness and found himself standing, as before, by his sister’s bed.

I doubt I will ever again read so poignant a description of a grieving child. Elizabeth had been the only reliable source of affection in Thomas’s love-starved childhood.
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  I had already tried and failed to get into James Rebanks’s  chronicle of a shepherd and the vagaries of sheep herding in the modern world. I mean, slightly over three hundred pages about sheep -really?

The appearance of this title on the trip’s reading list prompted me to try again. Early on, James Rebanks has this to say about his book:

It is the story of a family and a farm, but it also tells a wider story about the people who get forgotten in the modern world. It is about how we need to open our eyes and see the forgotten people who live in our midst, whose lives are often deeply traditional and rooted in the distant past.

Give yourself a little time to get into it – the effort is very worthwhile. And I recommend my post on this delightful book. It contains some great photos as well as links to two memorable video segments. Rebanks, his sheep, and his marvelous sheep dogs – all are wonderfully photogenic.


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Along with several of my mystery-loving friends, Ron and I were all set to take this British Mystery Trip to the north of England, when we were unexpectedly waylaid by a medical situation that had to be seen to in a timely fashion. The outcome, I’m relieved to report, was excellent. I’d been cleared  for take-off, as it were, but the plane had long ago left the airport.

While abroad, my friends were wonderfully supportive, sending periodic dispatches and photos.

Interior of Brantwood, John Ruskin’s home, taken by Marge T.

Alnwick Castle, home to the Dukes of Northumberland, taken by Ann R.

British Mystery Trips always provides an annotated reading list that is a very model of erudition as well as pure literary pleasure. The reading I was able to complete represents only a fraction of what was actually on the list. Needless to say, I don’t regret the time spent on it. On the contrary, I’m grateful.

Rumor has it that beautiful Britain will be around for a long time to come, thereby giving me other opportunities to visit in future. I’m already looking forward to the occasion.

 

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From Korngold’s Die Tote Stadt to Hitchcock’s Vertigo, in several not so easy leaps

July 23, 2017 at 8:05 pm (books, Film and television, opera)

It begins with an achingly beautiful duet: “Marietta’s Lied” from Erich Wolfgang Korngold’s Die Tote Stadt:

Korngold based this opera on Bruge-La-Morte, a short novel written by a Belgian, Georges Rodenbach, in 1892:

It tells the story of Hugues Viane, a widower overcome with grief, who takes refuge in Bruges where he lives among the relics of his former wife – her clothes, her letters, a length of her hair – rarely leaving his house.

From the Wikipedia entry for the book.  The following is from that same source:

The novel influenced many later writers, including W.G. Sebald. The plot of the book may also have influenced the French crime novel D’entre les morts by Boileau-Narcejac, which was filmed by Alfred Hitchcock as Vertigo in 1958.

D’Entre les Morts (Among the Dead) came out in 1954. The authors  were Pierre Boileau and Pierre Ayraud; the latter wrote under the pseudonym Thomas Narcejac.

Of course, that passage above has a decidedly speculative ring to it: “…may also have influenced“…. James Gardner makes the same suggestion, though, in a 2011 article in the Wall Street Journal entitled “Incarnating the World Within.”

Vertigo is one of my favorite films.

 

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“‘The way it’s told,…they’re invisible. But you can see them if you’re about to die.'” – Dance Hall of the Dead by Tony Hillerman

July 19, 2017 at 2:42 pm (Book clubs, Book review, books)

On Tuesday of last week, Cheryl, one of the newer members of the Usual Suspects, did our group a very big favor. She selected, for our discussion and reading pleasure, Dance Hall of the Dead by Tony Hillerman.

And what a pleasure it was to revisit the work of this master storyteller, with his unpretentious style, evocative setting, and intriguing characters. Dance Hall of the Dead (1973) is the second entry in the Joe Leaphorn series; in the fourth, People of Darkness (1980), Hillerman introduces the younger officer, Jim Chee. Leaphorn and Chee are paired as investigators for the first time in Skinwalkers (1986). It was to prove a winning direction in which to take the series.

In Dance Hall of the Dead, the investigation begins with the disappearance of two adolescent boys, Ernesto Cata and George Bowlegs. Ernesto is a Zuni; George is Navajo. They are fast friends are nearly always seen together. Ernesto goes missing first; then George, who flees from his school classroom the following day. The boys had recently been hanging around at an archeological dig in progress nearby

George envied his friend’s Zuni identity and wished to become part of his tribe. He was also said to be embroiled with a kachina, the sight of which supposedly portends death for the uninitiated. In the early part of the novel, Leaphorn himself is unnerved one night by an unanticipated sighting of what seems to be one of these same spirit beings. This occurs when he thinks he spots a youth who’d been part of a group of hippies living in an abandoned hogan:

Was this him standing so silently under  the arbor? But why would he stand there in the icy moonlight? And how had he got there without Leaphorn seeing him? As he considered this, the figure moved. With birdlike swiftness it darted out of the arbor to the side of the hogan, disappearing into  the shadow. It crouched, pressed against the logs….And then the figure straightened, its head moving upward into  the slanting moonlight. Leaphorn sucked in his breath. The head was a bird’s. Round, jaylike feathers plumes thrusting backward, a long, narrow sandpiper’s beak, a bristling ruff of feathers where  the human neck would be. The head was round. As it turned away from profile, Leaphorn saw round eyes ringed with yellow against the black. He was seeing the staring., expressionless face of a kachina. Leaphorn felt the hairs bristling at the back of his neck.

As do I, reading this mesmerizing passage, and as I did when I first read Dance Hall of the Dead over twenty years ago.

Kachina dolls in the Heard Museum, Phoenix, AZ

Carol said that she’d forgotten what a wonderful writer Hillerman was. She’s right: there’s more  beautiful prose where the above came from.

Tony Hillerman was born in Oklahoma in 1925. He served with distinction in the Second World War, after which he became a journalist.

When he had returned home on convalescent leave from the Army he came upon a group of Navajos on horseback and in face paint and feathers in Crownpoint, New Mexico They were holding a Navajo Enemy Way ceremony, a curing ritual for a soldier just like himself just back from the war. The ritual exorcises all traces of the enemy from those returning from battle.

He was moved by the ceremony and by the Navajos — “I’m drawn to people who believe in something enough that their lives are affected by it” — and stirred by the vastness of the country to the extent that he resolved to live there.

From the New York Times obituary, 2008.

Hillerman’s experience of encountering the Enemy Way ceremony was key in leading him to write The Blessing Way (1970), first in what became the Leaphorn and Chee series centered on the Navajo Tribal Police. The rest, as  they say, is history.

Several of us long time Hillerman fans agreed that his work is still relevant and deserving of a wide readership. Marge reminded us of another author we’ve read whose work treats with empathy the subject of Native Americans. This is William Kent Krueger, who sets his mysteries in the Iron Range of northeastern Minnesota. The tribe about which he writes is the Ojibwe. I’d like to add to that Vidar Sundstol’s The Land of Dreams, a vivid evocation of that same region and its mix of inhabitants.

We did have a  few minor reservation about Dance Hall of the Dead. For a relatively short novel – the current Harper paperback edition runs to 240 pages – there are numerous characters to keep track of. I found that to be especially true of the law enforcement professionals from various agencies who are engaged on the case.Marge felt that the description of the archeologists’ activities and goals became tedious, whereas I found the narration of the Zuni Pueblo religious and ceremonial rites to be similarly over long. Both passages slowed the pace of the narrative almost to a halt.

Yet we all felt that these were minor cavils that were more than made up  for by the privilege of spending time with these intriguing individuals as they go about their business in the exotic landscape they call home. I’d like to add here that I initially revisited this novel through the audiobook narration by George Guidall. I cannot recommend this approach to these novels highly enough; Guidall has a marvelous feel for these characters and places.

Hillerman’s novels were largely responsible for my trips in the 1990s to New Mexico and Arizona. If anything, the vivid immediacy of those experiences exceeded their written description. You have to feel the air, smell the pinon…it really is amazing. New Mexico, “Land of Enchantment” –  rarely has an entity lived up so completely to its sobriquet.

(Judith Van Giesen‘s Neil Hamel novels, written in the 1990s and set in Albuquerque, produced a  similar effect. This is a series that Marge and I were both very fond of, but it never received its due from the mystery-reading public. I tend to blame this sort of failure on weak publisher support – if any.)

Beginning with the publication of Spider Woman’s Daughter in 2013, Tony and Marie Hillerman’s daughter Anne Hillerman has been continuing the Navajo series begun by her unassuming yet illustrious father. I’ve not ready up until now, but I hope that will change soon.

Anthony Grove Hillerman May 27, 1925-October 26, 2008

 

 

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…’Venice is a labyrinth whose streets are famously full of water.’ – Trajectory, by Richard Russo

July 14, 2017 at 8:52 pm (Book review, books, Short stories)

  Interestingly, there is no story or novella in this collection that’s actually entitled “Trajectory.” Nevertheless, it’s an apt title.

Of the four works here included, I especially liked “Voice.” It takes place in Venice, always a rich venue  for storytellers. The main character is Nate, a retired English professor who has somewhat reluctantly agreed to accompany his brother on a trip to that fabled city on the occasion of the famous (notorious?) Biennale International Art Exhibition.

As is only to be expected, everything looms larger than life in this hothouse atmosphere, including the long running estrangement of Nate from his wheeler-dealer brother Julian. Nate views this trip as a chance for a possible reconciliation, or at least a thaw in relations. Whether this will happen is anybody’s guess, but not unexpectedly, the journey turns out to have larger implications, not just for Nate but for Julian and other members of the tour as well.

As anyone who has traveled with a tour group can attest, your fellow travelers can go from being strangers to intimates in no time flat. They become major players in your life’s drama with lightning speed and then disappear from view just as quickly. Your new bosom buddy from Akron or Reno will inevitably return to his or her home ground, and you, to yours. There’s a certain poignancy in this, a mixture of sadness and relief.

Regarding the few tours I myself have  been on, there are times when these ephemeral but intense relationships overshadow the trip’s stated purpose. I remember a tour I took to Yorkshire in 2005 when the woman seated next to me at dinner was going on at great length about a brand of  health food she was partial to. It’s not a subject that I would ordinarily find riveting, yet I recall being quite captivated by her speech. This, you should know, was taking place while our group was dining in the stately home of a gracious aristocratic couple, a stunning experience  that I had not known we were slated to have and which I will undoubtedly never have again. (And in my memory, it is inextricably linked to Ezekiel Bread.)

That was a bit of a digression, which I hope you’ll excuse. And definitely don’t let it detract from the sheer brilliance of Russo’s story. Nate is a character whose head I got so thoroughly into that when it came time to take my leave, I felt genuine grief at the need to do so. Can you wish a fictional creation well, with all your heart? Well, of course you can. This is one reason why people are so devoted to the novels of Jane Austen.

I love Richard Russo’s writing. His straight ahead, unpretentious style is power (rather artfully) disguised as simplicity. To wit:

From “Voice:”

Amazing, Nate thought. Thirty seconds into their first face-to-face conversation in several years and he already wanted to strangle the man.
**************************

….his last waking thoughts are of the prostitutes’ children who sang so beautifully. How did  they feel about being hidden behind those screens? Did it seem a kindness that their voices alone should represent them to the world of others? Why should these privileged others be spared the deformity its victims had no part in causing? Is it better to be known whole or to conceal what makes us unworthy of love?
**************************

Even if Julian has ulterior motives for inviting him [on this trip], does it necessarily mean he’s totally without warm brotherly feelings? People have lots of moving parts, and trying to reduce motives for simplicity’s sake is always dangerous.

As Nate views the art of the sixteenth century painter Tintoretto  at the Scuola San Rocco, he can’t help contrasting it with what he has so far seen on display at the Biennale:

How comforting it must’ve been to know that everybody was proceeding from the same basic assumptions about God and creation and arriving at the same conclusions about the eternal existential questions: Who are we? What is our purpose?…

Renaissance painting and architecture were both designed to make the individual feel inconsequential in the grand scheme of things, which to  them was, well, grand. Was it the loss of this grandeur, and of the faith that was its foundation, that led to the fragmentation of today’s world, to postmodern silliness, art as a sight gag? Possibly, though Nate has little affection for Tintoretto’s muscle-bound figures, their heavy, brutal limbs foreshortened to emphasize their relentless determination to climb up and away from Mother Earth. Even his gray-bearded elders looked ripped and ready for battle, which might be why Nate, feeling paunchy, leave the Scuola San Rocco feeling bullied.

The Miracle of St. Mark Freeing a Slave, by Tintoretto 1548

*******************************

Ray, the chief actor in “Intervention,” sells real estate in Maine. His current clients are the Bells, whom he describes as “cultural refugees from Texas.” He guesses that like many others who have vacationed in the Pine Tree State, they have wholeheartedly bought into the state’s motto, “The Way Life Should Be.”

That happened pretty often actually….”If things get really bad,” people said, “we’ll sell everything and move to Maine,” as if it were a foreign country. Liberals came fleeing conservatives, libertarians fleeing government,  traders fleeing Wall Street, film people fleeing L A, everybody felling the nation’s collective culture, as if there were no cable TV or internet access north of Boston, and by means of geography they could escape Snooki and hip-hop and Sarah Palin and bird flu.

He adds, “One rough winter, followed by a black fly-rich June, was usually sufficient to send such folks scurrying back to wherever they came from.”

After the exhausting ordeal of house hunting, Cliff Bell is eager to go out for dinner:

“I want some of those clams you get up here. The ones with the little penises.”

His wife opened her mouth to say something, then closed it again, evidently deciding that just because it was teed up didn’t mean you had to hit it.

I really enjoyed “Intervention.” It showcases Russo’s dry and rather rueful wit, always a pleasure to encounter. The story ends, though, with the kind of sad realization that Russo is especially good at putting into words:

….people cling to folly as if it were their most prized possession, defending it, sometimes with violence, against the possibility of wisdom.

“Voice” and “Intervention” are the second and third stories respectively in this collection. While I liked the other two – “Horseman” and “Milton and Marcus” – I didn’t think that they were quite of the same caliber as “Voice” and “Intervention.”

Richard Russo

In recent weeks, I’ve read a slew of rave reviews of new story collections. Trajectory has certainly whetted my appetite for more of the same.

Additional recommendations gratefully accepted!

And as for Venice’s streets being “famously full of water,” this is probably a reference to the telegram that American humorist Robert Benchley (1889-1945) purportedly sent to Harold Ross, his editor at The New Yorker, when he – Benchley –  arrived in Venice:

Streets full of water. Please advise.

Robert Benchley

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Charismatic cows, trees contracting like drinking straws, and other wonders

July 13, 2017 at 2:31 pm (Book review, books, Nature)

  Many are the moments of beauty contained in this small gem of a book. The most central of these is the eponymous tree, a majestic red oak presiding serenely in Harvard Forest.

Author Lynda V. Mapes tells us that in the eighteenth century, surveyors would designate certain trees as boundary markers. They were the original witness trees. She decided that the term would serve admirably for the large red oak around which she would orient her year long study of the Harvard Forest and its numerous plant and animal denizens.

Mapes often waxes lyrical when describing her year long immersion in nature:

This was the splendid time of the spring ephemerals, the woodland wildflowers precisely timed. They had been coming on with the sun since the spring equinox, the display growing in color and diversity as the sun gained in its height and heat, day by day, capturing the brightest light the understory would receive all year, right between the melt of the snow and the leaf-out of the trees. Four-petaled bluets, their blooms the size of a pinkie nail, paved the crown of the wagon road in nodding blue and white flowers. Sun flecks found pools of deep purple: the broad-leaved wood violets, turning their white-whiskered faces to the sun. The elegant, single nodding bloom of sessile bellwort, with its graceful, winged leaves, stood in creamy-white perfection at the feet of the trees. Bees, wasps, flies, and beetles sought these early-spring nectar sources, returning the favor with pollination, in a meetup essential  to each.

This is particularly when she’s talking about trees:

Trees are interstitial beings, connecting the atmospheric and terrestrial realms. They are rooted in the ground, but made from thin air, conjuring the sky, the atmosphere, and the sun to earthly form. For this alchemy they embody wonder; they are a transubstantiation that has amazed people for centuries. For really, who would think something so solid and long-standing as a tree could be made from the limpid, quicksilver ingredients of sun, water, and air?

The ‘charismatic cows’ were brought into the forest to help in maintaining an area of pasture land. Their presence is something of a holdover from the days of the Sanderson Farm, “one of the core properties from which the Harvard Forest was created.”

The cows, I noticed, had charisma. They were the first thing tour groups typically wanted to stop and look at when they came to visit the Forest, and they always drew smiles. People brought their kids by on weekends just to pet the cows through the fence. The pasture is small enough that it could just as easily have been mowed twice a year, but the cows were themselves historical reenactors, co-opted into our living exhibit of a New England pastoral landscape. Using animals to defend the open meadow from the encroachment of the Forest was the whole historical point.

From Lynda Mapes I’ve  learned many fascinating facts about trees. The ‘drinking straw’ phenomenon alluded to in the title of this post is part of a lengthier explanation of how trees handle water:

The tree does all that pumping against the countervailing forces of gravity and friction, without making a sound or using a calorie of energy. The number of interconnected water transport conduits— xylem cells— can exceed hundreds of millions in the trunk of a large tree such as the big oak, and their total length can be greater than 200 kilometers, or some 124 miles. The speed of water flow up a ring-porous tree such as the oak is also impressive, on the order of twenty meters or sixty-six feet per hour. The forces involved are enormous; a tree will actually slim ever so slightly in shape on a hot, dry day, as the suction of evapotranspiration pulls in the sides of the tree like a drinking straw. The tree replumps at night, as it refills with water.

Don’t know about you, but I found this simply amazing!

I was especially pleased that Mapes found several occasions in which to reference two of my historical  heroes of the conservation cause: Henry David Thoreau and Aldo Leopold.

 

Aldo Leopold 1887-1948

Here’s Leopold in his paper “Phenological Record for Sauk and Dane Counties, Wisconsin, 1935– 1945”:

“Each year, after the midwinter blizzards, there comes a thawy night when the tinkle of dripping water is heard in the land. It brings strange stirrings, not only to creatures abed for the night, but to some who have been asleep for the winter. The hibernating skunk, curled up in his deep den, uncurls himself and ventures forth to prowl the wet world for breakfast, dragging his belly in the melting snow. His track marks one of the earliest dateable events in that cycle of beginnings and ceasings which we call a year. From the beginnings of history, people have searched for order and meaning in these events, but only a few have discovered that keeping records enhances the pleasure of the search, and also the chance of finding order and meaning. These few are called phenologists.”

How beautiful this passage is, both for its appreciation of the skunk’s awakening slink after its long sleep, and the connection Leopold draws for us to the pleasure of noticing the world around us and seeking to understand the land’s inner workings. He kept track of the first crowing of the pheasant, the first arrival of the marsh hawk, the emergence of the woodchuck from hibernation, and arrival of the bluebird. When the gray chipmunk first popped out of its burrow in spring, and eastern meadowlarks arrived, Leopold made a note. He tracked the first time the prairie mole made its active run up and around in broad day, the breakup of the ice on the Wisconsin River, and the arrival of the killdeer. He logged with precision the first calls of the Canada goose, woodcock, and leopard frog. He noticed when the first adult moths of the spring cankerworm flew in the trees, and the first song of the cardinal, brilliant red in the still-bare trees. He marked well the first bloom of the pasqueflower, the wood sorrel, and the toadflax, the bird-foot violet, penstemon, and coneflower.

Mapes adds at the end of this passage: “What a wonderful way to live.”

Indeed.

In aid of ongoing research,  Webcams have been placed strategically throughout Harvard Forest.  And here is a video about the Witness Tree Project:

As I was reading, one of my favorite speeches in Shakespeare kept coming back to me. It’s from As You Like It. The speaker is Orlando. He’s commenting on the unexpected pleasures of his exile to the Forest of Arden:

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

I should add here that the Harvard Forest is not “exempt from public haunt.” Visitors – both human and animal –  are cordially welcome.

You’ll note that this post is largely comprised of direct quotes. I felt it was useless, if not impossible, for me to attempt to paraphrase the text. Instead, if you care at all about trees, nature in general, climate change in particular, and a host of other related subjects, I urge you to read this book. It confers blessings one minute, promotes anxiety the next, but never relinquishes a sense of wonder. All this, in slightly over two hundred pages!

Lynda v Mapes

 

 

 

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