‘…nothing less than ugly, crazed and botched murder.’ – The Race To Save the Romanovs, by Helen Rappaport

September 26, 2018 at 8:30 pm (Book review, books, History, Russophilia)



‘What happened in the basement of the House of Special Purpose on Voznesensky Prospekt, Ekaterinburg, in the early hours of 17 July 1918, was nothing less than ugly, crazed and botched murder.’

This is Helen Rappaport’s blunt assessment of one of the twentieth century’s most notorious multiple murders (and  this, in a century  that was not short of similar atrocities).

Some race. It was destined to fail, even before it began. Irresolute posturing, procrastinating, general confusion, outlandish proposals – all characterized the action and inaction of the European powers in the year between Tsar Nicholas’s abdication and the annihilation of all seven members of the Royal Family and four of their faithful retainers.

This is a very complicated story, and Rappaport tells it with detailed precision. It’s only when  she gets to the inevitable and terrible end that she allows her own feelings of outrage to percolate through to the surface of this narrative.

In the course of writing this book, Helen Rappaport uncovered some new  – and newly relevant- material. An enormous amount of digging and sifting, in several languages, was done. I’m awed by what she and her research assistants – to whom she gives generous credit – have accomplished here. They had to untangle a skein of evidence with regard to which European monarchy, or what agency, might have effected a rescue of Russia’s imperiled royal family. Politics entered heavily into the question, and the fact of World War One raging across the continent complicated the situation greatly.

George V of England and Tsar Nicholas II were first cousins. Yet for mainly political reasons, the British were extremely reluctant to harbor the Romanovs within their kingdom. Various plans were bruited by others, but in the end, none reached fruition – at least, not in time.

King George V and Tsar Nicholas II

In her Postscript – entitled “‘Nobody’s Fault’?” – Rappaport offer a succinct summation of the fate of the various monarchies of Europe:

Whatever the degree of responsibility of the King of Great Britain, the Kaiser of Germany and their various European royal relatives in the terrible fate of their Russian cousins, there is no doubt that the murder of the Romanovs at Ekaterinburg in 1918 was a pivotal event in the long history of European monarchy. It dealt a body blow to an institution that had persisted against the odds, through centuries of revolution, acts of terrorism and the constant threat of republicanism. The Great War that set its stamp on the twentieth century, destroying so many of these seemingly inviolable monarchies, proved that their days were numbered. In the post-war years they would all have to adapt as constitutional monarchies or be forced from power.

Of the British monarchy in particular, Rappaport observes:

In the post-war world, George V and Queen Mary shrewdly set out to entrench their more personal style of monarchy at the centre of national life, a trend that was continued by their son George VI and has probably reached its apotheosis in the reign of their granddaughter Elizabeth II.

Tsar Nicholas II was never cut out to be Emperor. When his autocratic father Alexander III died unexpectedly at the age of 49 in 1894, Nicholas was appalled. He was utterly unprepared for the enormous task of ruling Russia. Unfortunately, as the years went by, he did not rise sufficiently to the task. Russia’s  absolute monarchy was hopelessly anachronistic but Nicholas couldn’t see that fact clearly; at any rate, he did nothing to modernize the institution, even while  the country itself began to industrialize and to become increasingly restive for a variety of sociological and political reasons. Nicholas’s wife Alexandra dominated him, and her convictions were even more backward looking than his own.

Fate hung heavily over this family, at the center of the storm. Alexandra gave birth to four daughters in a row before a son was finally born. Alexei proved to be afflicted with haemophilia, an hereditary blood disease for which there was no effective treatment in the early 20th century.

Now that the Soviet Union no longer exists as such, the Romanovs have been rehabilitated. When their remains were discovered and verified, they were interred with all the solemn pomp of the Russian Orthodox Church in 1998.

If you view this video on YouTube, you can read Boris Yeltsin’s speech, given on the occasion.

Ekaterinburg, where the Romanovs met their end, has of late become a pilgrimage site. Yeltsin said:

By burying the remains of innocent victims, we want to atone for the sins of our ancestors. Those who committed this crime are as guilty as are those who approved of it for decades. We are all guilty. It is impossible to lie to ourselves by justifying senseless cruelty on political grounds. The shooting of the Romanov family is a result of an uncompromising split in Russia society into “us” and “them.” The results of this split can be seen even now.

Obviously some Russians feel the need to make a good faith effort to atone for those sins.

I would recommend The Race To Save the Romanovs to those who, like me, are fascinated and haunted by their story.



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Books that are, in my view, edifying and enlightening, but rarely depressing… Part One: Biography and Memoir

September 26, 2018 at 9:41 am (Art, books)

[The selection criteria referenced in the title are by way of a continuation of a topic that arose in a previous post.]

In biography and memoir, I was looking for lives that would be of great interest and books that were well written. And, in accordance with the criteria specified in the title of this post, stories that were, in the main, upbeat. Here’s what I came up with:

Statue of Frederick Law Olmsted, by Zenos Frudakis, placed in the North Carolina Arboretum in 2016


Henry David Thoreau: A Life, by Laura Dassow Walls
A Clearing in the Distance: Frederick Law Olmsted and America in the 19th Century, by Witold Rybczynski

Somehow, as John Muir grew older, he became more photogenic. (Would that his indomitable spirit were with us today – his and Thoreau’s, as well.)

A Passion for Nature: The Life of John Muir, by Donald Worster
A Venetian Affair: A True Tale of Forbidden Love in the 18th Century and Lucia: A Venetian Life in the Age of Napoleon, by Andrea di Robilant


The Secret Lives of Somerset Maugham, by Selina Hastings
A Midwife’s Tale: The Life of Martha Ballard, Based on Her Diary, 1785-1812, by Laurel Thatcher Ulrich


On Conan Doyle by Michael Dirda
Opium Eater: A Life of Thomas de Quincey, by Grevel Lindop
A Shepherd’s Life: Modern Dispatches from an Ancient Landscape, by James Rebanks
Gainsborough: A Portrait, by James Hamilton
Victorians Undone: Tales of the Flesh in the Age of Decorum, by Kathryn Hughes


I loved these books! I was particularly captivated by the Maugham biography, I ended up reading two novels: The Painted Veil and Mrs. Craddock – and quite a few short stories by this brilliant ‘teller of tales.’ The novels were very enjoyable, but the short stories were just plain terrific. Basically I went on a Somerset Maugham bender. It was wonderful.

PBS made a film, also called A Midwife’s Tale, based on Laurel Thatcher Ulrich’s fascinating narrative of the life of Martha Ballard. The library owns it. I highly recommend both book and film.

There are  several lovely video segments on YouTube about the “Herdy Shepherd” and his splendid sheepdogs. Here’s one of them:

I didn’t know if I would stick with the Gainsborough biography to the end, but I did, with no trouble but rather with great pleasure. It was a thoroughgoing immersion in the English art scene of the eighteenth century.

And oh, those paintings!

Ann Ford, later Mrs. Philip Thicknesse, 1760

The Morning Walk, Portrait of Mr and Mrs William Hallett (1785)

Girl with Pigs, 1781-82

Landscape in Suffolk, 1748

The Painter’s Daughters, chasing a Butterfly, 1756


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Book discussion: Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI, by David Grann,

September 22, 2018 at 5:01 pm (Book clubs, books)

  This past Thursday, AAUW Readers held an exceptionally stimulating discussion of David Grann’s Killers of the Flower Moon. This story of crimes committed against the Osage Indians in the 1920s makes for a riveting, if devastating reading experience. In fact, some in our group felt that evil set forth was so appalling that they had trouble actually getting through the book. Several didn’t. One person said the subject matter was simply too raw; another felt that the writing was only average and didn’t compare well to another outstanding nonfiction title she’d read recently. (The book she was referring to is Hero of the Empire: The Boer War, a Daring Escape, and the Making of Winston Churchill by Candice Millard.) Other readers said they got through Killers of the Flower Moon but with difficulty, mainly because of its depressing subject matter. Still others raced through it, one person having downloaded it late at night and read it straight through till morning! (I wish I had  better recall of how the book affected me upon my initial reading of it early last summer. For my review in this space, click here.)

I’ve rarely attended a book group where the reactions to the title under discussion diverged so widely. That alone heightened the interest of the occasion. In addition, several of us voiced amazement that this story is so little known, as it ties in with the birth of the FBI and the seemingly unstoppable rise of J. Edgar Hoover. As our discussion progressed, several people spoke of their dismay at being presented with such acts of depravity, perpetrated by individuals of no apparent conscience against their fellow human beings, purely for the sake of monetary gain. Isn’t there some remedy for this? seemed to be the anguished subtext. We are certainly not the first people to ask that question.

Oh, yet we trust that somehow good
Will be the final end of ill,
To pangs of nature, sins of will,
Defects of doubt, and taints of blood;
That nothing walks with aimless feet;
That not one life shall be destroy’d,
Or cast as rubbish to the void,
When God hath made the pile complete;
That not a worm is cloven in vain;
That not a moth with vain desire
I shrivell’d in a fruitless fire,
Or but subserves another’s gain.

Behold, we know not anything;
I can but trust that good shall fall
At last–far off–at last, to all,
And every winter change to spring.

So runs my dream: but what am I?
An infant crying in the night:
An infant crying for the light:
And with no language but a cry.

‘In Memoriam A.H.H.’, by Alfred Lord Tennyson, 1849

And so the suggestion was made that we read something that reflects rather a more hopeful view of mankind. At that point I whipped out my cell phone and  began scrolling through my recent reads. Let’s see… Only To Sleep, The Glass Room, Sunburn, Human Face, Beneath a Ruthless Sun, The Race to Save the Romanovs (not yet reviewed, but we know the awful outcome of that ‘race’). Oh, and Dopesick! Talk about evil!

Surely I can recommend a few titles that are somewhat milder, if not positively uplifting. Marge mentioned Anne Tyler’s Clock Dance – a perfect antidote, I’d say. At any rate, I decided that this question deserves more thought. And this it shall receive, in my next post.
The film version of Killers of the Flower Moon is currently in pre-production. It’s slated to be directed by Martin Scorsese, with Leonardo DiCaprio starring.


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‘You can be called to a last effort, a final heroic statement….’ – Only To Sleep by Lawrence Osborne

September 14, 2018 at 3:02 pm (Book review, books, Mystery fiction)

  The year is 1988. Philip Marlowe is living in (theoretically) comfortable retirement in Baja, California. For recreation, he goes to the La Fonda Hotel. These words in jacket copy evoke the tenor of his life at this juncture:

‘Sipping margaritas, playing cards, his silver-tipped cane at the ready.’

Wait a minute – Philip Marlowe with a cane? Never fear: canes can conceal useful devices. (One thinks, for instance, of the famous silver-tipped cane of Hercule Poirot.)

For Marlowe, all is in a condition of calm stasis, until:

….two men from the Pacific Mutual insurance company walked into the terrace bar of La Fonda Hotel. They were dressed like undertakers and had sauntered down from the main road above the hotel, finding me seated alone with my pitcher of sangria and my silver-tipped cane as if they had known I would  be there unaccompanied within sight of my home on the Baja cliffs. They knew which house it was, too, because their eyes rose to take it in, and they smiled with the small contempt of company men.

Turns out that these two men find themselves in need of a private investigator. A wealthy Californian, Donald Zinn, has died suddenly while in Mexico. Zinn’s life was insured for a hefty sum. The folks at Pacific Mutual, however, are uneasy about the precise circumstances of his death. Could Marlowe look into the matter  for them?

They lay out the case before him, photographs included. He agrees to take it on. One of his first moves will be to interview Zinn’s widow, Dolores Araya. “‘Seeing the wife is always the fun part’,” he announces cavalierly. But of course it proves to be quite otherwise. The comely Dolores is the named beneficiary of Zinn’s life insurance policy. She is also the requisite femme fatale in the case, so emblematic of the noir genre. (I’m reminded of one of my favorite of Raymond Chandler’s literary locutions: “She looked tall and her hair was the color of a brush fire seen through a dust cloud.” (from “The King in Yellow”)

Almost all of the action in Only To Sleep takes place in Mexico, as Marlowe follows lead after lead, in his quest for the truth about Donald Zinn’s death. Meanwhile, something within him has been revived:

I bought a sugared churro and wandered about at the edge of this hidden world, feeling young for the first time in years. It happens like  that, and sometimes in a single moment. You are no longer seventy-two years old. The ocotillos bloomed red, their flowers like still paper cups, and the mesquites were filled with gracklings, as if they were the first signs of new life: an old man in a  ragged cowboy hat blinked at them and wondered if he had a year left after all. A year, maybe even two.

And yet, during his first encounter with Dolores:  “Her gaze went straight to the heart of my fog-bound decrepitude.”

It soon becomes obvious that she’s at the dead center of a very clever deception. Knowing this is one thing; proving it is quite another.

A beautiful fraud is like the merging of two elements that combine to make something fat more formidable than the merely beautiful and the merely fraudulent.

Meanwhile, other people, both Mexican nationals and expatriate Americans,  become involved in the investigation. It gets complicated, but never too complicated to  follow. There’s plenty of action, and yet the pace of the novel seemed slow at times, almost stately. There was plenty of space for description of the exotic setting, and for the rueful ruminations of the superannuated detective.

Toward the novel’s conclusion, Marlowe finds himself alone in the midst of a riotous street carnival:

The young looked at me the way you would a piece of cardboard tossed down a street on the wind. Wreckage with eyes and a pulse. The wounded animal dragging itself back to a tree it knows, a patch of shade where it can die in peace.

But of course he does not die. and nor does he succumb to sentiments quite as bathetic as this again. In fact, the ending confers a kind of benediction; Marlowe acknowledges the fact that he has indeed experienced his last hurrah and made a god job of it into the bargain.

Tho’ much is taken, much abides; and tho’
We are not now that strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven, that which we are, we are;
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.
“Ulysses” Alfred, Lord Tennyson

Lawrence Osborne was asked by the estate of Raymond Chandler to write a novel featuring Chandler’s most famous creation, Philip Marlowe. Two other writers have been so honored: Robert B. Parker (Poodle Springs, which Wikipedia calls a “post-mortem collaboration since Chandler had already written the first four chapters, and Perchance to Dream) and John Banville writing as Benjamin Black (The Black-Eyed Blonde).

In his author’s notes, Osborne admits to feeling  both honored and challenged by “stepping into the mind” of one of crime fiction’s most iconic creations. In my reading of Only To Sleep, I get the sense  that he made some deliberate decision with regard to style. Very little if any hard-boiled slang, not much in the way of snarky one liners. But some very effective use of figurative language – similes and the like.

The autumnal atmosphere hangs heavily over the story. Marlowe is well aware that his strength and his reflexes are no longer those of a younger man. Most poignantly, the desire evoked by a beautiful women has not been tamped down, but the impulse to act on that desire has been muted. The need not to appear overweening or foolish is powerful.

Many are the images that film and television have given us of Philip Marlowe.

Dick Powell



Robert Mitchum

Elliot Gould

Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall

In all of these iterations, Marlowe appears to be in his late thirties or early forties. (A letter written by Chandler in 1951 gives his detective’s age as thirty-eight.) As I was reading, I found myself in need of a mental image of Philip Marlowe as he would have looked in his early seventies. I wanted a visage that might look like Ulysses in the poem quoted above: weathered but resolute. Here’s what I came up with at length, with apologies to Clint Eastwood:

Philip Marlowe at 72? Maybe…

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The Glass Room by Ann Cleeves

September 9, 2018 at 3:12 pm (Book review, books, Mystery fiction, The British police procedural, Uncategorized)

  The Writers’ House is designed to be a sanctuary. Within its walls, those who long for literary achievement and eventual recognition can work in a peaceful setting, receive helpful suggestions from fellow aspirants, and be instructed and encouraged by guest writers acting as as tutors and exemplars.

As the novel opens, DI Vera Stanhope has been prowling the environs in search of her neighbor Joanna Tobin. Joanna has suddenly gone missing; her partner Jack thinks she’s at the Writers’ House. Vera hasn’t had any luck so far in finding her and thinks she might be on a fool’s errand.

Suddenly, from an upper balcony of the house, an bloodcurdling scream issues forth. What on earth can have happened in this quiet, remote fastness dedicated to intellectual pursuits? The police have been called, but Vera is already on the scene, ready to intervene in what must certainly be a dire crisis. And so it proves to be. But she and her team of investigators are a long time figuring out the real genesis of that scream.

I love the way this novel unfolds. The situation becomes increasingly complex as new characters emerge onto the scene – everyone in the Writers’ House, to begin with. Vera and her trusty second, Joe Ashworth, remain in charge of the investigation.

It proves a very tough nut to crack. But Vera, exulting in just this kind of chase, thinks:

Deep down, everyone loved a murder almost as much as she did. They loved the drama of it, the frisson of fear, the exhilaration of still being alive. People had been putting together stories of death and the motives for killing since the beginning of time, to thrill and to entertain.

But of course, there could be qualifying circumstances:

It was different of course if you were close to the victim. Or to the killer.

Throughout the novel, Cleeves intersperses clues to Vera’s thought processes and working methods, especially where interviewing a witness or a suspect is concerned. These nuggets tend to be expressed briefly and in pithy language:

Vera had better timing than a stand-up comedian and knew the importance of a pause.

In theory Vera liked strong women; in practice they often irritated her.

Kindness could be a great weapon.

‘There’s a casserole I made a couple of days ago when I was feeling domestic. I get the urge sometimes, but it soon passes.’

It occurred to her that there might be a greater proportion of psychopaths in Parliament than in prison.

Vera had no patience for speculation. Unless she was the one doing the speculating.

Gradually these observations coalesce to form a portrait of a singular personality. Speaking as a person who more or less devours large quantities of crime fiction – not to mention true crime – I find Vera Stanhope utterly unique.

We also learn a lot about Vera from the way she interacts with Joe Ashworth:

Joe had been listening intently. She loved that about him. The way he hung on her every word.

Vera thought Joe was a soft-hearted sod, but she liked him the better for it.

Although it is Vera’s restless intellect with which we’re primarily engaged, Joe is an important character as well, a vital sounding board for her wide-ranging thoughts and speculations. Vera is somewhere in middle age, lives alone, has no children. This in no way hinders her powers of empathy. Joe is somewhat younger, married with three small children.

An interesting thing happens to Joe in this novel: he finds himself attracted to Nina Backworth, a woman involved in the case that he and Vera are investigating. The attraction seems to be mutual. Acting on this attraction would be a bad idea for any number of reasons. Yet so perverse are the wellsprings of human desire that the worse the idea becomes, the more power it exerts. ‘Lust that felt like adultery’ is what Joe is experiencing; it’s causing him to feel desperate and distracting him from the case.

Finally at one point, Joe manages to carve out some time at home for his wife Sal and their ‘bairns:’

When they were alone at last, he sat with his wife on the sofa, his arm around her shoulders, cuddling together like teenagers. Thought there was nobody in the world he would feel so at ease with. He couldn’t imagine Nina Backworth watching old episodes of The Simpsons and laughing with him at the same jokes. Later he took Sal to bed and they made love. Afterwards he lay awake, listening to her breathing, loving her with all his heart and soul and pushing away the feeling that there should be more to life than this.

As you can see, there’s a lot going on in The Glass Room. Questions beget answers, which then beget more questions. I was completely drawn in, and stayed that way till the end.

Thus far I’ve read six of the eight novels in the Vera Stanhope series. I am worried about running out. No pressure, Ann, but could you write faster?

I can’t discuss this series without mentioning the television adaptations. I think they’re excellent. Some of the episodes are based directly on the novels; others use the characters and write new stories for them. As is almost always the case, the casting of the main protagonist is inspired: Brenda Blethyn as Vera Stanhope:














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‘If you can fake sincerity, you’ve got it made.’ – Open and Shut by David Rosenfelt

September 3, 2018 at 1:34 am (Book review, books, Historical fiction, Mystery fiction)

  Meet Andy Carpenter – the brash and  breezy, confident – some might say, overconfident – attorney for the defense, based in Passaic County, New Jersey. Andy well knows how to antagonize judges and prosecutors alike. He’ll do just about anything to score a win for his client. But with Willie Miller, he’s really up against it.

Willie was apprehended by police as he stood in an alley over the body of Denise McGregor, victim of a brutal murder. A bloodied knife found at the scene has Willie’s prints on it. Genetic material later recovered from under her fingernails later traces back to him. It really does look like an open and shut case.

But of course, it isn’t.

Willie has already been convicted of this crime and has served seven years on death row. But he’s recently won the right to an new trial- and to be represented by a new lawyer. Upon entering Willie’s death row cell,  Andy asks, in the most inoffensive way possible, how Willie is doing. Willie responds by practically biting his new attorney’s head off. To which Andy responds,

“What is it about death row that makes people so damned cranky?”

That breaks the ice, and they’re able to get into a serious discussion of Willie’s situation. As is often the case in these (fictional) situations, things are more complicated than they seem at first. Also, as is often the case in crime fiction, this current murder case has its roots deep in the past.

I very much appreciated this author’s light touch. Things get serious, but rarely so serious that a good wisecrack can’t supply a bit of leavening. Moreover, for me, the setting was a big plus: northern New Jersey, my ancestral home.  (I was at the same time reminded of the historical mystery Girl Waits with Gun. Like Open and Shut, it was mainly set in Passaic County, due north of Essex County, my birthplace.)

There’s plenty of courtroom action in Open and Shut. These scenes were tense and engaging; moreover, they were like a lesson in courtroom procedure. I learned a lot, painlessly.

You’ll note that the cover of the  book features the picture a golden retriever. Andy Carpenter has one, and he is unabashed in his adoration of her.

There is nothing like a golden retriever. I know, I know, it’s a big planet with a lot of wonderful things, but golden retrievers are the absolute best. Mine is named Tara. She is seven years old and the most perfect companion anyone could ever have.

I love his love for this endearing animal. And despite what I said earlier, Andy has a basic sense of decency. He can be very kind, to people as well as dogs. I really like the guy. This is the first entry in the Andy Carpenter series; I hope to read more.

This book was recommended to me by my friend Angie. I’m now reading another of her excellent recommendations: Final Resting Place by Jonathan F. Putnam. Set in Springfield, Illinois in 1838, it features a young Abraham Lincoln as a protagonist; his friend. and roommate Joshua Speed is the narrator. I’m about half way through and enjoying it very much.

Thanks, Angie!

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Dopesick: Dealers, Doctors, and the drug company that addicted America, by Beth Macy

September 1, 2018 at 11:15 pm (Book review, books)

  This is probably the most depressing book I have ever read. It chronicles the struggles, mostly failed, of the addicted, and the anguish of their friends and families. The story of one of them, Tessa, threads its sad and painful way throughout the narrative.

Interwoven with these stories are facts that can only appall, such as this one: “Between 1998 and 2005, the abuse of prescription drugs increased a staggering 76 percent.” From this stark reality flows a litany almost unrelieved misery.

Addicts struggle and relapse, struggle more and relapse yet again. As Tessa’s mother Patricia says, “‘Your giving starts to give out.'” One thing I had to constantly discipline myself about as I read was my anger toward the addicts, for getting themselves and their families into this horrible mess, with seemingly no end in sight. As I read on, several factors served to mitigate that anger. One concerned the role of doctors in prescribing highly addictive pain medication – primarily Oxycontin –  in generous quantities and with refills allowed. Another is the relentless advertising and favor-bestowing of certain drug companies, in particular Purdue Pharma. And there are the strategies employed by illicit suppliers, as described here:

Some dealers encouraged underlings to “hot pack” their product, giving superhigh potencies to new users to hook them quicker. Once the user is hooked, the product gets titrated back, forcing the person to buy more.

That passage has really stayed with me. Taking advantage of another person’s ignorance and/or weakness in this manner seems to me the very definition of evil.

Judging  by this book’s subtitle, I expected there to be more about Purdue Pharma and the Sackler family, but clearly Macy felt that her brief was to give voice to the people who have suffered most grievously from the ubiquity of Purdue’s supposedly miraculous painkiller.

So why did I read this book? Because I wanted to gain a deeper insight into what has been causing this addiction crisis. Beth Macy provides that, and more. Her depiction of the battle waged by addicts to get sober  and stay that way, and the agony their families endure, is vivid and enraging, but in the end, very sad. One thing I learned that helps explain why the rate of relapse is so high: The process of ridding your system of these toxic substances – whether heroin or prescription drugs like Oxycontin – makes people so sick that they wish they could die. They’ll do anything to avoid having to undergo that experience. I’ve always heard it referred to as withdrawal, but apparently in current parlance, the term is dopesick.

All praise to journalist Beth Macy for her determination in telling the unvarnished truth about this terrible scourge, and for her sympathetic portrayal of  the victims, their families, and others who have fought valiantly and often fruitlessly to stem the tide of misery. Some of these stories must have broken her heart. They certainly broke mine.

Beth Macy



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‘Willa noticed that another emotion she was experiencing was happiness.’ – Clock Dance by Anne Tyler

August 31, 2018 at 2:14 pm (Book review, books)

  The main character in Clock Dance is Willa Drake – or more precisely, Willa Drake MacIntyre – and finally there’s a second husband Peter, whose last name eludes me, by which she’s ultimately known.

We first encounter Willa as an energetic, ambitious eleven-year-old selling candy bars – or trying to sell them – to her neighbors in Lark City, Pennsylvania. (My immediate first thought was, Pennsylvania? But what about ‘Bawlamer?” I counsel patience,  Dear Reader. All will be revealed in time.)

My initial fear was that we’ll be  stuck in candy bar selling mode for a protracted period. It was a bit too sweet for me. But no, things moved along quickly – very quickly. I don’t want to be any more specific; to do so would mean straying into spoiler country. I will say this, though: Never was  the swift passage of time made to seem more inevitable and more poignant than it does here. There’s a sense of being carried along on the tide of events, and of being only minimally in control of how those same events unfold.

Tyler’s wonderful sense of humor is in evidence in this novel. In recounting for Willa the view from the middle seat on his last plane trip, Peter narrates the doings of the amply proportioned woman sitting in the aisle seat:

….the minute she got settled she dug into this giant tote that was crowding my feet and brought out a foot long salami sub with enough onions to kill a horse…and twice before they turned the seat belt sign off she pressed her call button to ask when drinks were going to be served, and when finally the cart showed up she ordered two Bloody Marys–this was before most people’s breakfast time, mind–and an extra pack of snack mix. Snack mix! Ha. Which was no food known to nature, believe me; some kind of crackerish objects coated with sidewalk salt. After the sub she dug out a slice of Boston cream pie wrapped in a sheet of wax paper that kept blowing off her tray into my lap because of course she had her overhead fan on….

And on it goes. You get the idea.

The warmth of the author’s wit offers a nice counterbalance to the overall air of melancholy that pervades this tale – indeed, that pervades most of the novels I’ve read by her. Accidental Tourist, the Pulitzer-winning Breathing Lessons, Ladder of Years, Digging to America, and my first and still favorite by her, Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant. Oh how she broke my heart with that one!

Tyler possesses a nice sense of irony, as in the scene where Willa passes almost instantaneously from vacillation to certitude regarding the question of marriage to Derek (the husband of her youth and the father of her sons). Much later, a sudden disaster in her life seems, in retrospect, inevitable. (Most of us experience at least one of these in a lifetime. I’m reminded of what Evelyn Waugh remarked when after fifteen months of marriage, his wife left him for another man: “I did not know it was possible to be so miserable & live but I am told that this is a common experience.”)

A hoped for reciprocal warmth in her relationship with sons Ian and Sean never quite comes up to the mark. This in no way diminishes her maternal adoration of  them. I had to smile when I read  this sentence:

Willa was experiencing one of those rapt moments that often overcame her in the presence of her sons.

(Oh, thought I, so that happens to other people too….)

I love it when a character notices at a particular moment that he or she is experiencing actual happiness. Take careful note of such moments, Tyler seems to be saying, take note of them, cherish them, treasure them up.

These fragments I have shored against my ruins….

Clock Dance was a fast and wonderful read. A great book group selection, also. I confess to being somewhat perplexed by the ending and would love to talk it over with someone.

Anne Tyler

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The great book clear-out

August 25, 2018 at 6:04 pm (books)

And so it begins…With these three:

The Egyptian was recommended to me by my former husband’s father, a lovely man whose views were always worth attending to. I remember it as a vivid depiction of ancient Egypt, the Egypt of the Pharaoh Amenhotep IV, later known as Akhenaton.

I had this idea that the author Mika Waltari was Polish. Wrong – he was actually from Finland.

This book is not owned by the local library but should be obtainable via interlibary loan. Used copies can be purchased via Amazon. I’m not currently seeing any e-book availability, though several other titles by Waltari are available in that format.

Here is how The Egyptian begins:

I, Sinuhe, the son of Senmut and of his wife Kipa, write this. I do not write it to the glory of  the gods in the land of Kem, for I am weary of gods, nor to the glory of the Pharaohs, for I am weary of their deeds. I write neither from fear nor  from any hope of the future but for myself alone. During my life I have seen, known, and lost too much to be the prey of vain dread; and, as for the hope of immortality, I am as weary of that as I am of gods and kings. For my own sake only I write this; and herein I differ from all other writers, past  and to come.

First published immediately following World War II, this novel became available in English translation in 1949. The above paperback was published by Berkley Medallion Books in 1970. Price: $1.25.

Rather to my amazement, I was able to pull up the original Kirkus review:

The Egyptian was made into a film in 1954. I’ve never seen it, but it boasts a rather impressive cast, not to mention a first rate director and a famous producer:

(A terrific novel set in roughly the same remote era is Out of the Black Land by Kerry Greenwood.)
The King Must Die brings to vivid life the legend of Theseus, a hero of Greek mythology. I recall none of the particulars of this novel, yet I know that while reading it – a long time  ago – I felt transported to that remote realm. I went on to read the sequel, The Bull from the Sea.

Mary Renault was born in Essex, England, now part of Greater London. She received her undergraduate degree in English from St. Hugh’s College, Oxford. In 1948, when she was in her early forties, Renault, with her partner Julie Mullard, moved to South Africa. She remained there until her death in 1983.

The King Must Die was originally published in 1958. The Cardinal Giant edition pictured above, published by Pocket Books Inc., came out shortly thereafter. Price – if you can believe it  – 50 cents.

  This is the original hardback. The Wikipedia entry names the cover artist as Eric Carle. This startled me. Could they possibly mean, this Eric Carle? Well, they most certainly did!

Born in Syracuse, New York, in 1929, Eric Carle was taken to Germany to live when he was six years old. He grew up and was educated there, graduating from the State Academy of Fine Arts in Stuttgart. Meanwhile, Carle yearned to return to the U.S. This he did in 1952, when he was in his early twenties. Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See? came out in 1967; The Very Hungry Caterpillar followed in 1969.

Back to The King Must Die. The novel opens thus:

The Citadel of Troizen, where the Palace stands,was built by giants before anyone remembers.But  the Palace was built by my great-grandfather. At sunrise, if you look at it  from Kalauria across the strait, the columns glow fire-red and the walls are golden. It shines bright against the dark woods on the mountainside.

The King Must Die is not owned by the local library; however, it is in print in paperback, thanks to Vintage Books. (And they’ve given it a rather splendid cover.) It’s also available in Kindle download  format for $2.99.

Giants in the Earth tells of a group of Norwegian immigrants trying to make a go of a farm in the Dakota Territory in the early 1870’s. My chief recollection of this story is that it was magnificently told and deeply tragic. There is a plague of grasshoppers, Biblical in its ferocity, and a winter of relentless blizzards. (I believe I read this book while I was living in Wisconsin and getting my own first taste of winter in the upper Midwest. I recall at one point driving past a sign outside a bank that announced the temperature as  being minus thirty degrees Fahrenheit. That of course did not take into account the wind chill. Also I remember trying to coax a dog down from atop a snow drift higher than my head.)

Vernon Parrington, author of the landmark study Main Currents in American Thought, says of Giants in the Earth:

We have been used to viewing the frontier in broad and generous perspective and have responded most sympathetically to the epic note that runs through the tale of the conquest of the continent. It is the great American romance that gives life and drama to our history. It was this epic quality that de Tocqueville felt when he discovered the poetry of America in the silent march of a race toward the far-off Pacific, hewing its way triumphantly through forests and mountains to arrive at its objective. But the emotional side, the final ledger of human values, we have too little considered–the men and women broken by the frontier, the great army of derelicts who failed and were laid away, like the Norse immigrant lad, in forgotten graves. The cost of it all in human happiness–the loneliness, the disappointments, the renunciations, the severing of old ties and quitting of familiar places, the appalling lack of those intangible cushions for the nerves that could not be transported on horseback or in prairie schooners: these imponderables too often have been left out of the reckoning in our traditional romantic interpretation…..

Giants in the Earth is a great and beautiful book that suggests the wealth of human potentialities brought to America year after year by the peasant immigrants who pass through Ellis Island and scatter the length and breadth of the land. Written in Norwegian, and stemming from a rich old-world literary tradition, it is at the same time deeply and vitally American. The very atmosphere of the Dakota plains is in its pages, and it could have been written only by one to whom the background was a familiar scene. The artist has lived with these peasant folk; he is one of them, and he penetrates sympathetically to the simple kindly hearts hidden to alien eyes by the unfamiliar folk ways.

(Full text of this essay can be accessed here.)

Ole Edvart Rolvaag was born in Norway in 1876. Twenty years later, he emigrated to America, living first in South Dakota, where he worked as a farm hand. He traveled to Northfield, Minnesota, earning a bachelor’s degree at St. Olaf’s College, and then a master’s degree at the same institution. In 1906, he was asked by the college’s president to join the faculty. He continued to serve in that capacity, eventually becoming head of the Norwegian Studies department. In addition, he was the first secretary of the Norwegian-American Historical Association. He followed both of these vocations for the remainder of his working life.

And of course, he wrote novels. Giants in the Earth, the first novel in a trilogy, was originally written in Norwegian and published in two successive volumes in 1924 and 1925. It was shortly thereafter translated into English by the author with the help of his friend and colleague Lincoln Colcord.

Original cover of the first edition in English

The novel was made into an opera by Douglas Moore in 1951. It won the Pulitzer Prize.

Giants in the Earth is not owned by the local library, but a number of other systems in the interlibrary loan network do own it, so it can be requested from one of them. In addition, it’s in print in paperback, published by Perennial Classics. Presumably this is the same publisher – Perennial Library – that I am looking at right now. I’m not finding a publication date for this particular edition, but judging by the Library of Congress cataloguing number it is most likely 1965. Price: $1.95.

At the front of the book, Rolvaag makes this statement:

To those of my people who took part in the great settling, to them and their generations, I dedicate this novel.

The novel opens in this wise:

Bright, clear sky over a plain so wide that the rim of the heavens cut down on it around the entire horizon…Bright, clear sky, to-day, to-morrow, and for all time to come.

…And sun! And still more sun! It set the heavens afire every morning; it grew with the day to quivering golden light–then soften into shades of red and purple, as evening fell…Pure color everywhere.

The novel takes its title from a verse in Genesis vi: 4:

‘There were giants in the earth in those days; and also after that, when the sons of God came in unto the daughters of men, and they bare children to them, the same became mighty men which were of old, men of renown.’

There is a beautiful selection that goes well as an accompaniment to this subject: The Last Spring, by Norway’s great composer Edvard Grieg:

It’s with some regret that I let go of these volumes. But the pages have yellowed and the print is now too small for my aging eyes. I don’t rule out rereading them, but the print will need to be larger and crisper.


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“…this strange land they called ‘la France profonde,’ deepest France.” – Bruno, Chief of Police, by Martin Walker

August 19, 2018 at 12:52 am (Book clubs, Book review, books, Mystery fiction)

  This is the opening paragraph of Bruno, Chief of Police:

On a bright May morning, so early that the last of the mist was still lingering low over a bend in the Vézère River, a white van drew to a halt on the ridge that overlooked  the small French town. A man climbed out, strode to the edge of the road and stretched mightily as he admired  the familiar view of St. Denis. The town emerged from the lush green of the trees and meadows like a tumbled heap of treasure; the golden stone of the buildings, the ruby red tiles of the rooftops and the silver curve of the river running through it. The houses clustered down the slope and around the main square of the Hôtel de Ville where the council chamber, its Mairie [mayor’s office], and the office of the town’s own policeman perched above the thick stone columns that framed the covered market. The grime of three centuries only lately scrubbed away, its honey-colored stone glowed richly in the morning sun.

This vivid descriptive passage segues nicely into a short lesson on the region’s history:

On the far side of the square stood the venerable church, its thick walls and squat tower a reminder of the ages past when churches, too, were part of the town’s defenses, guarding the river crossing and the approach to the  great stone bridge. A great “N” carved into the rock above the central of the three arches asserted that the bridge had  been rebuilt on the orders of Napoleon himself. This did not greatly impress the town’s inhabitants, who knew  that the upstart emperor had but restored a bridge their ancestors had first built five centuries earlier. And now it had been established that the first bridge over their river dated from Roman times.

Then a final return to the present era:

Across the river stretched  the new part of town, the Crédit Agricole bank and its parking lot, the supermarket ad the rugby stadium discreetly shaded by tall oaks and think belts of walnut trees.

Thus we are drawn into the world of St. Denis, a small, seemingly pristine commune nestled in the verdant Dordogne region of southwestern France. (St. Denis is a fictional town. For more on the sources used to create it, click here.)

The Dordogne department takes its name from the river that runs through it:

France’s green and pleasant land….Don’t know about you, but one look at this picture and I was ready to pack up and move. [Click to enlarge]

The man in that first paragraph surveys the land before him with deep contentment and a certain sense of  proprietorship. He is Benoît Courrèges, known to his fellow townsfolk as Bruno. Having survived a difficult childhood, Bruno fought in Bosnia for a time before joining law enforcement. He chose to live in St. Denis, perceiving it to be “the quiet heart of rural France.”

But alas, as so often happens, there is a serpent dwelling in this Eden, a serpent  that periodically bares its fangs. When an elderly man living alone is brutally killed, it’s up to Bruno to solve the terrible crime.The deeper the investigation goes, the more apparent it becomes that the root cause of this murder lies buried in the old man’s past – in fact, in France’s past.

Ann, our presenter, was particularly fascinated by the role of Algerian fighters in the Second World War. The rest of us shared that interest. But even more, we found the author’s depiction of this region of France, with its distinctive culture, physical beauty, and meticulously detailed cuisine, to be utterly captivating. (Is that too many adjectives? Oh well – that’s what they’re for, n’est-ce pas?)

There was another aspect of the novel that folks were eager to discuss; namely, the civic and social aspects of small town governance. (Here we have one of  the reasons I so appreciate the Suspects: their interest in all aspects of the work being considered – even the wonky ones!)

We also talked about the famous cave paintings that can be found in the Dordogne. I recommended Werner Herzog’s documentary film, Cave of Forgotten Dreams:

Surely one of the major attractions of this novel and succeeding ones is the character of Bruno himself. He is not only a skilled and conscientious policeman, but he’s also deeply embedded in the town’s social and political life. It’s easy to believe in his affection for his fellow citizens of St. Denis; it’s bodied forth in everything he says and does with regard to them. And then there’s his love life….

In Bruno, Chief of Police, we become acquainted with, among others, Pamela, a relocated Scotswoman who’s become an innkeeper, and Isabelle, a rising star in French law enforcement. Bruno is attracted to both women. What will ultimately come of this attraction is anyone’s guess, but I can tell you that they both appear in subsequent entries in the series.

Oh, and Bruno’s love of the Périgord extends to its denizens of the animal world. He owns a horse named Hector, whose stabling is provided by the aforementioned Pamela. And he has a basset hound named Gigi. (Eventually Bruno acquires a basset puppy named Balzac – un nom parfait pour un chien français, je pense (a perfect name for a French dog, I think). And here’s one of my favorite sentences in the novel:

As Bruno fed his chickens, he pondered what to wear fro dinner that evening.

If you follow this series, you’ll find that the present in St. Denis is often shadowed by the events of the Second World War. There were some heroes, to be sure, but there were also some who sought the coward’s way of survival. There were even traitors. There are moments when the past simply refuses to stay buried; when this happens, sometimes crime results, and pain comes along with it. This happens in Bruno, Chief of Police.

And yet, the beauty of the present day can still be celebrated by good and decent people whom it’s a pleasure to know. Chief among them is Bruno Courrèges.

The reaction of the Suspects to this novel was generally positive, I’d say. There were some reservations; for instance, Marge felt that the proliferating involvement of multiple law enforcement entities was confusing. (Hard to argue with that.) And Carol felt that Martin Walker’s writing did not compare favorably with that of one of her favorite writers, Peter May. May is indeed a fine writer; we read The Black House in 2013 and were suitably impressed. Frank observed that Bruno, Chief of Police was not as much a conventional detective novel as it was a story about how things could be resolved for the greatest good of the greatest number of people. That’s actually a good description of the series as a whole, as it happens. (As for me, it’s impossible to maintain objectivity on this subject. I simply love  these  books.)

For whatever reason, our discussion ranged far and wide, often straying from the book itself. We never worry too much about that; we return to the matter at hand, eventually. Our surroundings at Hilda’s house were gracious and comfortable – thanks, Hilda! – and Cookie, the resident canine, was uniformly affectionate and companionable.

I confess that the novels in this series always arouse the latent Francophile in me. While reading one, I tend to wander through the house articulating phrases in that most beautiful of languages. (Luckily my husband gets it, being, like me, a Francophile with a small but carefully tended knowledge of la langue française.)

From top down, left to right: prefecture building in Périgueux, Château de Castelnaud-la-Chapelle, Lourde River and La Roque-Gageac. [Courtesy of Wikipedia; click to enlarge]

Ah the glories of French culture! Here is one of my favorite music videos:

The biography on Martin Walker’s website states that he and his wife, novelist and food writer Julia Watson, “divide their time between Washington DC and the Périgord region of France.”

In the Acknowledgments at the end of Fatal Pursuit (2016), Martin Walker states the following:

All the Bruno books are indebted to my friends and neighbors in the Périgord and the lovely landscape they nurture. It has fertile soil, wonderful food, excellent wines, a temperate climate and more history packed into its borders than anywhere else on earth. It is a very special place, filled with enchantments.

The bookstore Politics and Prose is something of an institution in Washington DC. The venue has been favored by numerous author appearances. Martin Walker was there on the occasion of the publication of The Devil’s Cave, fifth entry in the Bruno series:

It’s been a pleasure, but I must fly: A Taste for Vengeance (2018) is waiting on my night table.






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