Picnic at Hanging Rock, novel by Joan Lindsay, film by Peter Weir

October 19, 2021 at 12:30 pm (Book review, books, Film and television, Historical fiction)

  Picnic at Hanging Rock is an Australian film released in 1975. I don’t know exactly when I first saw it, although I suspect it was not long after that release date. I do know that ever since that initial viewing, it has haunted me. That this is the case for many others who have seen it, I feel sure.

Set in Australia in the year 1900, this is the story of a group of adolescent girls who attend Appleyard College, a live-in prep school of sorts. It’s an elite institution – or at least, one with pretensions to such a distinction. It is presided over by the eponymous Mrs Appleyard, a classic battle-axe type, played convincingly by Rachel Roberts.

As the film begins, we learn that the girls, along with a young French teacher and their math tutor, are being treated to a special outing: a picnic at the foothills of a striking geological formation known as Hanging Rock. They are excited and eager; they apparently have very few occasions like  this to look forward to and enjoy.

The chief substance of the film concerns what happens at Hanging Rock. If you are thinking that it cannot be good, you’re quite right. I will only say at this point that it may the strangest, most evocative tale I’ve ever seen on screen.

In the Wall Street Journal last month, author David Bell recommended the book, written by Joan Lindsay, on which the movie is  based (The title is the same.):

This Australian novel has been overshadowed somewhat by its 1975 movie adaptation—a classic directed by Peter Weir—but it deserves better. On the surface it’s a mystery story, set in 1900, about a group of students at a girls’ boarding school who disappear in a remote area of Australia. But affixing the label “mystery” to this tale is inadequate preparation for its complexities.

I immediately downloaded the book – $8.99 on Amazon Kindle. (The local library does not own it; no surprise there.) To be concise, it was not just good. It was terrific. The writing was wonderful. Lindsay spins her narrative with a light, ironic touch that seemed, to me, exactly right for the material. This kind of storytelling, the subtle deploying of a particular tone that enhances the reading experience, is a mark of mastery of the craft of novel writing, a quality I find sadly lacking in much contemporary fiction.

Here, the girls and their two chaperone/ teachers get their first glimpse of Hanging Rock. Irony has receded, replaced by a vivid sense of wonder (Edith is one of the pupils, normally a rather whiny chatterbox.):

The immediate impact of its soaring peaks induced a silence so impregnated  with its powerful presence that even Edith was struck dumb.This splendid spectacle, as if by prearrangement between Heave and the Headmistress of Appleyard College, was brilliantly illuminated for their inspection. On the steep southern facade the play of light and deep violet shade revealed the intricate construction of long vertical slabs; some smooth as giant tombstones, other grooved and fluted by prehistoric wind and water, ice and fire. Huge boulders, originally spewed red hot from the boiling bowels of the earth, now come to rest, cooled and rounded in forest shade.

  Peter Weir was  given this book by an Australian TV personality whom he  barely knew. She’d seen an earlier film of his and thought he could make an even better one from this novel. In his own words, in an interview:

I read it from cover to cover, was gripped by it and  the  fact that there was an unsolved mystery. And I was burning with it, I mean it was just like electricity through my body.

What a great description of the way in which inspiration can grab an artist and not let go until it is fulfilled. It helped, probably, that he was in his early thirties at the time – “…to be young was very heaven!” as Wordsworth says.

Several aspects of the film need to be pointed out. First, the cinematographer by Russell Boyd is outstanding. Boyd won the BAFTA Award for this achievement. (BAFTA is the acronym for The British Academy of Film and Television Arts.) Never having been to Australia, I was spellbound by the beauty and strangeness of the place.

It needs to be pointed out that Hanging Rock is a real place; it’s some fifty miles north of Melbourne:

This huge geological formation looms above all the actors in this drama. It is sinister, implacable. It is witness to the truth of what happened that day in 1900.

The acting was excellent, plus I feel like I have to mention the meticulous re-creation of life in the 1900s as it was then lived Down Under. The costumes make a major contribution to this effect. The girls especially, in their white muslin dresses…

The soundtrack was likewise a careful assemblage of original music composed by Bruce Smeaton, Gheorghe Zamfir playing ethereal melodies on his pan flute, and short classical selections from Mozart, Tchaikovsky, and Beethoven. Over and over, we hear the adagio movement from Beethoven’s Fifth Piano Concerto, the “Emperor.” This music is, to me, almost unbearably poignant, surely one of the most beautiful and evocative works in the classical repertoire. And here I can’t resist placing my favorite video performance. It features the legendary Maurizio Pollini, with his son Daniele Pollini conducting the Orquesta Sinfónica de Galicia. The adagio begins at 21:00, but do yourself the favor of listening to the entire piece, and seeing, at the conclusion, father and son together acknowledging the applause.

For the interview with Peter Weir, click here.

For the insightful and informative BAFTA commentary on the  film, click here.

The film has an alternate ending, which did not make the final cut. I wish it had. Watch the film first, then watch this clip, and see what you think.

Happily, our local library owns several copies of Picnic at Hanging Rock. It’s also available on HBO Max and Amazon. You’ll want to try your local library first, though, as those latter two options are somewhat costly.

Reading the novel and then revisiting the film has been a very gratifying experience. And am I still haunted? Oh, yes…

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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‘I loved the cold because it always made me more conscious of my animal self….’ – Dead by Dawn by Paul Doiron

October 17, 2021 at 3:43 pm (Book review, books, Mystery fiction)

Mike Bowditch, Game Warden Investigator for the state of Maine, has been tasked with reopening a case of death by drowning. Eben Chamberlain’s death had been ruled an accident, but his daughter-in-law Mariette isn’t buying that judgment. Wealthy, powerful, and forceful, Mariette believes Eben’s death was deliberately brought about. Murder, in other words – a murder that the Warden’s Service was either too lazy or too incompetent to thoroughly investigate.

The deeper Mike  delves into this case, the greater the danger that looms. The story is told in chapters that alternate between the progress of the investigation and a harrowing predicament in which Mike finds himself: His truck has veered off the road and plunged into the Androscoggin River (an actual river in Maine, by the way – else, who could make up such a name?) He manages to extricate himself from the fast-filling vehicle, thinking himself lucky. Little does he know  the worst of this ordeal is yet to come.

At first I was not sure that the structure of the novel was a successful device. I had some trouble keeping track of the timeline. (The investigation chapters are narrated in the past tense; the survival chapters, in the present tense.) But gradually the narrative began to tighten; it began to work. And I have to say that the chapters describing Mike’s desperate efforts to stay alive are among the most gripping I’ve ever read.

In summary, Paul Doiron has written one humdinger of a novel. It kept me turning the pages at a great rate, an experience I’ve had with surprisingly few recent mysteries. At the same time, the characters are vivid and authentic, if not always likeable. (I prefer interesting to likeable anyway.)

It’s always a pleasure to begin a series at the beginning and watch the main characters grow and mature in subsequent entries. (The first title in the Mike Bowditch series is The Poacher’s Son, which I read and liked when it came out in 2010.) Dead by Dawn, the twelfth entry, is the best yet, in my opinion. It combines the elements of a thriller with those of a more literary work, with great character delineation and vivid descriptions of the beautiful (and sometimes treacherous) Maine landscape.

And the excellent writing is informed with a keen sense of history:

For much of my youth, I had suffered under  the delusion of having been born  too late. I was a displaced person from the era of the Voyageurs who had set out across the Great Lakes in bateaux in search of furs; I was a temporal fugitive from the age of  the Klondike Gold Rush when men literally bet their lives against nature with more than riches on the line. Sometimes I still succumbed to this mode of thinking. An overfondness for nostalgia was the crack running down  the middle of my character.

I await with happy anticipation the next Mike Bowditch adventure. Thank you, Paul Doiron, for this outstanding series.

Paul Doiron

 

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A Most Remarkable Creature: The Hidden Life and Epic Journey of the World’s Smartest Birds of Prey, by Jonathan Meiburg

October 16, 2021 at 10:56 pm (Book review, books, Nature)

Jonathan Meiburg has written an unusual book – part travelogue, part nature study, part literary exegesis, and all very intriguing.

The titular remarkable creature is the caracara. This bird is closely related to the falcon species, but differs from it in several ways. Caracaras spend a great deal more time on the ground than the average raptor, walking  from place to place, being both idle and curious. They have a large repertoire of food preferences, i.e. they’ll eat almost anything. They interact with humans by grabbing anything they can whenever they can. It is monkey-like behavior. My favorite story- from among many with which Meiburg regales us – has to do with a tennis game in which caracaras would stroll onto the court to retrieve errant tennis balls.

I daydream about keeping a striated caracara in my apartment. It would be the world’s most exasperating roommate, but watching it build a nest of shredded T-shirts, LP jackets, and guitar strings in my bookshelf might be worth it. I can imagine it standing on my kitchen counter in the morning, tearing into a box of cereal with its beak or cracking an egg with a blow from its clenched foot, then stashing a piece of toast under my chair while I boil water for coffee. After breakfast, it might become absorbed in a dirty sock or a roll of paper towels while I try to figure out where it’s hidden my keys.

There are several subspecies of caracara. Here are two:

Crested Caracara

 

Striated Caracara, feeding on carrion, something they have no hesitation about doing

Jonathan Meiburg sought out this feathered creature in some fairly exotic locales. Caracaras are native to  the Falkland Islands; in addition, they can be found in the South American country of Guyana, where Meiburg had some fascinating, not to say harrowing, adventures.

All the while his writing is penetrating and beautiful. Here he describes doing research on Steeple Jason, one of the islands in the Falkland complex:

It was typical field science grunt work—tough, dull, and faintly absurd—but it had its moments. Steeple Jason’s twin peaks give it the stark beauty its Homeric name suggests, and on clear days the cold air streaming in on the southwest wind was so pure that a veil seemed to lift from the world. Giant petrels wheeled above the island’s central ridge, and crowds of gentoo penguins emerged from the surf to bask in the sun at its slender neck. Most of the penguins milled and snoozed in a loose colony near their landing beach, but a few followed an obscure yearning and climbed the ridge to gaze at the sea from above.

As you can easily see, this author has an admirable empathy with the creatures of the air and sea. His passion for nature is inspiring. As often as he can, he brings in the life and works of W.H. Hudson, who grew up on the Pampas of Argentina and shared this same passion.

The trees above us trembled and groaned, and I remembered Hudson’s description of a private forest near London called Savernake, where he loved to sit among giant copper beeches and listen to the wind in their branches—an experience, he wrote, “worth going far to seek.” That is a mysterious voice which the forest has: it speaks to us, and somehow the life it expresses seems nearer, more intimate, than that of the sea. Doubtless because we are ourselves terrestrial and woodland in our origin; also because the sound is infinitely more varied as well as more human in character. There are sighings and moanings, and wails and shrieks, and wind-blown murmurings, like the distant confused talking of a vast multitude.

Hudson is obviously a writer worth getting to know. I remember when I was a girl my mother handing me his novel Green Mansions, telling me she thought I’d like it. I did – in fact, I loved it. But I’ve not read anything by him since, and I was unaware of the scope and  beauty of his nonfiction writings. So this is a bonus gift from the author of A Most Remarkable Creature. 

William Henry Hudson 1841-1922

It turns out that Jonathan Meiburg has a band called Shearwater. I certainly admire his versatility! On the band’s website you will find several sound files.

The caracara is indeed a most  remarkable creature, and this is a most remarkable  book. Highly recommended, especially if you care about the earth and its nonhuman inhabitants.

 

 

 

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‘a man who burned like an acetylene torch / from one end to the other of his life.’

October 8, 2021 at 7:44 pm (Book review, books)

When I heard that a new biography of D.H. Lawrence had just come out, I knew that I had to read it. Whence this certainty? The reasons were two-fold:

First, I wrote my master’s thesis on D.H. Lawrence; specifically, on The Rainbow. I wrote an eighty-page analysis of the novel, and when I handed my first draft to my thesis advisor, he drily informed me  that it would not do in the form that I had placed it. I would have to start over and do it right. That was the sum of his advice to me. Not, as you can well imagine, a pleasant experience. (I can say no more about that thesis at present because I cannot find it.)

Second, when Ron and I were traveling in New Mexico some years ago, I pleaded with him to take me to D.H. Lawrence’s ranch in Taos, still, I was informed, preserved as it was when he was battling Frieda there in the 1920s. (He battled her everywhere.) We were driving a rental that was no great shakes even on paved surfaces when we found ourselves on a dirt track heading in what was supposedly the direction of the edifice we sought. Soon the dirt turned to mud, the result of a recent runoff of snow melt in the mountains. The mud was soon hub cap high. This was before the era of cell phones. I’m not sure what we would’ve done if we’d become stuck. We nearly did. We were able to reverse course and head back to our hotel. Staff there seemed vaguely bemused by our harrowing tale of escape. This, they said with a shrug, is New Mexico.

At any rate, all this has nothing to do with Burning Man, which I enjoyed tremendously. I remembered that Lawrence, bitterly resentful of his working class origins, carried his smoldering anger with him everywhere he went. After a brief stint as a school teacher, he ran off with Frieda von Richthoven, wife of Ernest Weekley, a professor of modern languages – his own former teacher – and mother of their three children. The purpose of this new union seemed to be take every opportunity to tear each other to pieces. In fairness, Lawrence honed this skill on numerous other friends and acquaintances in the course of his restless, turbulent life.

(It seemed to me  that a more accurate subtitle for this book would have been “The Trials of Anyone Forced To Interact with D.H. Lawrence.”)

Having been early and unceremoniously kicked out of England – the penalty for having a German wife during wartime – Lawrence proceeded to roam the earth, ostensibly searching for peace, but in reality fomenting conflict just about everywhere he went. And writing – always writing….

In Lawrence’s fiction, which is filled with the packing of bags and the slamming of doors, waves of wrath tend to overwhelm those of love. Leaving  home became his great subject, in some ways his only subject. After Lawrence left his father’s house, he made it  a policy never to have a home of his own; he perched instead on the highest possible branch of the highest possible tree.

In Movements in European History, a volume undertaken  as a school textbook, he wrote:

…earthquakes should be predictable. Yet no one can predict them. The most remarkable of these earthquakes was the Renaissance, which ‘offered to man visions, beautiful adventures, marvellous thoughts, as if his soul were ‘set free into all the air and space and splendour of free, pure thought and deep understanding. In the Middle Ages, ‘man was alive but blind and voracious. In the fourteenth an fifteenth centuries, however, he awoke. The human spirit was then like a butterfly which bursts from the chrysalis into the air. A whole new world lies about it.’

Frances Wilson says of the short story “The Prussian Officer” that it is “…one of the finest short stories in the language.” So I read it. Like so much of Lawrence’s writing, fiction and nonfiction alike, it contains descriptive passages that are purely poetic:

When at last he turned, looking down the long bare grove whose flat bend was already filling dark, he saw the mountains in a wonder-light, not far away, and radiant. Behind the soft grey ridge of the nearest range the further mountains stood golden and pale grey, the snow all radiant like pure, soft gold. So still, gleaming in the  sky, fashioned pure out of the ore of the sky, they shone in their silence.

And yet, this is a  harrowing tale, so much so that I had to keep putting it down. In the course of the narrative, the tension that develops between the orderly and his Captain, whom he must serve as a slave serves his master, becomes well nigh unbearable.

Such is the power of Lawrence’s writing.

Lawrence’s reputation took a nose dive in the sixties, when it was attacked by feminists who found his attitude toward women despicable. I can see the argument, but that is only part of the extremely complicated puzzle that constitutes both Lawrence’s art and his nature. He may at this time be making a comeback. We shall see. This biography would be instrumental in that development

Meanwhile, it  seems to many critics, and to me also, that the novels are the least admirable of his literary output. I should turn rather to the short stories, the essays, and the poetry. There’s an excellent collection put out by New York Review Books called The Bad Side of Books: Selected Essays, edited and with an introduction by Geoff Dyer, a noted scholar of Lawrence’s works.

The title of this post is from a poem by Tony Hoagland simply entitled “Lawrence.”

David Herbert Lawrence: September 11, 1885-March 2, 1930

 

 

 

 

 

 

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‘Charisma permits the believer to put his or her reason on the shelf and follow the leader.’

September 25, 2021 at 2:51 pm (Book review, books, Family)

The statement above is immediately followed by this one:

It is inspiring, seductive, and dangerous.

In his new book The Emergence of Charismatic Business Leadership, Richard S. Tedlow, author of Andy Grove: The Life and Times of an American, enlarges on these aspects of charisma by examining how it functions – or functioned – in various titans of the business world.

Divided into three parts, the book opens with a description of the unprecedented outpouring of grief attendant upon the death of Steve Jobs. Jobs is, almost inevitably, a central figure in this narrative. The book begins with a chapter on Jobs’s own beginnings; Part One then goes on to make some general observations about charisma, focusing on business leaders in the post-World-War-Two era. This time period, Richard asserts, tended to produce business leaders notably lacking in this elusive yet magnetic quality. He offers as an example Harlow H. Curtice of General Motors. (Who? Well, that would be the point.)

Part Two offers profiles of other charismatic business people such as Lee Iacocca, Mary Kay Ash (Mary Kay Cosmetics) and Sam Walton. I particularly appreciated Richard’s explanation of the source of Walton’s appeal. It’s not what you’d expect, but powerful nonetheless.

Part Three begins with the story of Steve Jobs’s years in the wilderness, as it were, following his (forced) resignation from Apple in 1985. Profiles of Elon Musk and Oprah Winfrey follow. Then, the inevitable “Steve Jobs: Triumph at Apple.”

I’m a great advocate of tight structure in both fiction and nonfiction, and I especially appreciate the way Richard structures his book. The life journey of Steve Jobs separates neatly into three parts; those parts can be likened to a tripod which elegantly supports the entire content of the narrative. The moment of Jobs’s passing is almost like a scripted climax: having attained the pinnacle of success, he left us.

I read, a while back, in an article about Edward Abbey, that since his premature demise, he is nicely morphing into a legend of the environmental movement. The same, with regard to the business world, can be said of Steve Jobs.

I want to mention briefly a point Richard makes about Oprah Winfrey; namely, that her success is in part due to the things she did not do:

She did not take her company public. She did not create her own book imprint. She did not license her name to any merchandise. She did not act in a public way that might call her authenticity into question. She did not fall prey to big deals promising the often-spoken-of but rarely found “synergy.”

I’d like to add to that list that she did not marry and/or have children. One thinks, perhaps a bit grandiosely, of Queen Elizabeth the First. The reasoning may  have been the same for both women. (To my knowledge, Oprah Winfrey does have what Wikipedia describes as “a long-term partner.”)

One of the many pleasures of this book is learning retailing lingo like “door buster.” This term describes the huge, immediate hit made by the Ford Mustang upon its introduction to the driving public in 1964. Also Richard’s witty formulations appear from time to time. For example, instruction manuals can mainly be described as “facedown-in-the-soup boring.” From first to last, The Emergence of Charismatic Business Leadership is a wonderful read – informative, surprising, engaging, absorbing,

You might be wondering at my effrontery in calling this author  by his first name. You must forgive me – I’ve been doing it my whole life!

He’s my brother.

 

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‘…a wild ride of beauty and fear.’ – The Reason for the Darkness of the Night: Edgar Allan Poe and the Forging of American Science, by John Tresch

September 6, 2021 at 7:26 pm (Book review, books)

  Having recovered from an earlier outburst brought on by this tome – see this post – I can now report, with considerable relief, that I have finished reading The Reason for the Darkness of the Night and am well satisfied as well as relieved. Much of this book was fascinating, much of it was bewildering – rather like its subject:

Working in a stunning variety of styles, genres, and tones, he conjured up sublime landscapes, hypnotic interiors, and compellingly disturbed characters, demonstrating to later writers all that a short story could be: an aesthetic experiment, a study of anomalous psychology, a philosophical investigation, a wild ride of beauty and fear.

It is always gratifying to get some hint of what influence was brought to bear on the creative mind. Growing up in Richmond, Virginia, Poe was frequently cared for by Black servants (read enslaved persons). They told him tales he would not have heard anywhere else: “African tales–passed down generations, modulated and reinvented through the Middle Passage–often depicted souls possessed through witchcraft and dangerous obsessions, dead bodies brought back to life, malevolent spirits tormenting the living.”

Poe  spent only a year at the newly opened University of Virginia in Charlottesville. (Hie room there is preserved. I remember standing at the doorway looking in, able to see clearly the model of a raven perched on the nightstand.) Author Tresch offers this succinct description of the school’s student body:

Poe joined rich young white men acquiring a final gentlemanly polish before returning to manage their inherited estates. They clattered onto the lawn with horses and carriages, accompanied by African servants, fine clothing, dueling pistols, and large allowances.

(Rarely have I encountered a sentence as masterful as this second one, encapsulating a singular moment of a particular time and place in a burst of eloquence topped with a fine touch of irony.)

In Poe’s time, there were many lively debates going on regarding scientific subjects – little  things like the nature of the universe, the formation of the cosmos, etc. etc. Tresch reports on these matters in meticulous detail; I admit I had trouble following those reports and what’s more, had trouble staying interested in them. The most important thing to know is that they were of vital interest to Poe; he waded into every controversy on these subjects. all guns firing, calling out various other theorists and not caring whom he offended.

Of far more interest to me were the details of Poe’s life, his restless peregrinations up and down the Eastern Seaboard, with his small unorthodox family in tow, and of course, urgently scribbling his poems and stories, unequaled in their strangeness, fascination, terror, and beauty. I embarked on a rereading of the stories, only to be stopped in my tracks by the incomparable “Fall of the House of Usher.” (I need no program of rereading for the poems, which I’m always returning to.)

Poe persevered in his literary endeavors and public lectures, all the while dogged by almost unrelenting poverty, the failing health of his fragile  and beloved wife Virginia, and his own descent into alcoholism. Poe finally attained a measure of fame and recognition by the mid 1840s. Nevertheless, as his reputation grew, his personal life imploded. Tresch describes him as “a victim of bad luck, alcohol, and self-sabotage.” Virginia died in 1847, closing an agonizing chapter in his life.

Still, back in Richmond in early 1849, Poe felt rejuvenated. He was making progress in controlling the urge to drink. He was warmly welcomed by friends and relations still living there. One among them was Sarah Elmira Royster, now widowed and in possession of a goodly estate. Their reunion was so joyous that he asked her to marry him; though not immediately answering in the affirmative, she gave him hope that she would ultimately agree to be his wife.

But first, he must complete a scheduled lecture tour. He left for Baltimore via steamer, and at once fell into a company of old friends who invited him to go out drinking with them. Poe indulged them, and it was the beginning of the end. Several days later, he was discovered wandering the streets, incoherent and in generally terrible condition. He was taken to a hospital on October third; on the seventh, at the age of forty, he died.

He is buried at Westminster Hall and Burying Ground; this is now part of the University of Maryland Law School. As with everything to do with Poe, there’s a complicated story attached to his burial.

Then, there’s the story of the so-called Poe Toaster. This refers to  a tradition, probably begun in the 1930s. Every year on January 19, in the middle of the night, on Poe’s birthday….

Well, I’ll let Wikipedia complete the story:

a black-clad figure carrying a silver-tipped cane, his face obscured by a scarf or hood, entered the Westminster Hall and Burying Ground in Baltimore. At the site of Poe’s original grave—which is marked with a commemorative stone—he would pour a glass of Martell cognac and raise a toast. He then arranged three red roses on the monument in a distinctive configuration and departed, leaving the unfinished bottle of cognac.[5] The roses were believed to represent Poe, his wife Virginia, and his mother-in-law Maria Clemm, all three of whom were originally interred at the site. The significance of the cognac is uncertain, as it does not feature in Poe’s works (as would, for example, amontillado); but a note left at the 2004 visitation suggested that the cognac may have represented a tradition of the Toaster’s family rather than Poe’s. Several of the cognac bottles are kept at the Edgar Allan Poe House and Museum in Baltimore.

I believe that at this date, the custom has been discontinued. With luck, it will reappear.

Although the passages on the philosophy of science are tough going, in general I recommend this book, especially to anyone who has an interest in nineteenth century American literature and  thought.. John Tresch, an author unfamiliar to me until now, writes beautifully. He has an illustrious academic pedigree and is currently Professor of the History of Art, Science,and Folk Practice at the Warburg Institute in London.

I also highly recommend visiting the site of the Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore. Somewhat to my surprise, they assert that the famous Poe Toaster has nothing to do with them.

Ghosts, perhaps..?

Edgar Allan Poe January 19, 1809-October 7, 1849

 

 

 

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Bounding, from wave to wave…

September 1, 2021 at 1:11 am (Book review, books, Mystery fiction, Short stories, The British police procedural, True crime)

…on the internet, that is, rather than on the actual ‘bounding main.’

I speak of two recent research adventures on the web, both inspired by Laura Lippman’s
new novel.

First – the premise itself. Novelist Gerry Andersen is confined to a hospital bed in his apartment in Baltimore. These are brand new digs, and he was blindsided by one of  those architectural features so cheerfully touted by real estate agents: a so-called floating staircase. Having tumbled down said design feature and badly broken his leg, he finds himself temporarily immobilized.

Gerry is not a detective – or not a professional one, that is – but his plight reminded me of two series protagonists who were: Morse and Alan Grant. In fact, Lippman at one point makes mention of Josephine Tey‘s Daughter of Time. In that classic of detective fiction, Scotland Yard’s Alan Grant, likewise laid up with a broken leg, occupies his mind with an effort to prove the innocence of Richard III in regard to the disappearance and supposed murder of Prince Edward and Prince Richard.

Then there’s The Wench Is Dead, the eighth entry in the Morse series written by Colin Dexter. (This novel was the 1989 Gold Dagger winner.) Morse, like Alan Grant, is hospitalized, not with a broken leg but with a bleeding ulcer. Like Alan Grant (and Gerry Andersen, for that matter), Morse needs  a way to occupy his mind while he’s recuperating. Someone gives him a book about a crime that occurred on a canal boat, in 1839, as it was making its way through Oxford. A passenger on the craft, Joanna Franks, was murdered; two men were hanged for killing her. The more he reads, the more convinced Morse becomes that the two men were in fact innocent.

I always assumed that the Joanna Franks case was fictional; it turns out that it was based on an actual occurrence. The victim’s real name was Christina Collins. She’d been traveling via canal boat to meet her husband, but she never made it. Her lifeless body was later pulled from the canal. Colin Dexter used these basic facts in constructing his narrative, changing the location from Staffordshire, where the crime actually occurred, to Oxford.

The Murder of Christina Collins by John Godwin came out in 2011. It features an introduction by Colin Dexter. Click here for an article with excellent photographs of the site.

The TV episode of The Wench Is Dead can be seen on YouTube:

In addition, the DVD is owned by the library – two copies, to be exact. Watch for Colin Dexter; he appears in the museum crowd at the beginning of the film.

This viewing experience may make you nostalgic for the days when this superb series was first aired, and in particular for John Thaw, whom we lost way too soon.
******************

The second adventure was sparked by this brief passage in Dream Girl:

It’s a fine little story, as clever and compact as the ones he used to read in those Alfred Hitchcock Presents anthologies. Kill your husband with a leg of lamb, serve the leg of lamb to the detectives.

What??

The story being referenced here is “Lamb to the Slaughter” by Roald Dahl. I read it several years ago; the mention of it in this context made me want to read it again. I found it in an excellent anthology that I own called Murder Short & Sweet. In his introduction to the Dahl story, the editor Paul D. Staudohar says:

It’s hard to imagine a more perfect short story than this one, both in plot and in presentation.

I couldn’t agree more.

This story can be downloaded by clicking on this link.

Murder Short & Sweet is available from Amazon.

And finally, do read Dream Girl. I loved it!

 

 

 

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‘The old trees were the mothers of the forest.’ – Finding the Mother Tree by Suzanne Simard.

August 29, 2021 at 11:23 pm (Book review, books, Nature)

I picked up this book expecting a lyrical hymn to the beauties of nature. It was indeed just that in certain places, but in others…well, here’s a not completely atypical sentence:

Cedar can’t form mycorrhizal fungal partnerships with the birth and fir for the simple reason that it forms arbuscular mycorrhizes, not ectomycorrhizas like the other two.

Well…gosh… Certainly gave the spell checker a vigorous workout – not to mention my brain.

So, yes, there’s a great deal of hard science in this book. Simard does her best to explain it, but it still left my head spinning.

Mycorrhizae: the association between roots and fungi. (For more on this subject, see the entry on the Univeristy of Nevada Extension site.    Here’s another site, Frontiers in Plant Science, that may prove useful.)

Suzanne Simard became interested in silviculture, aka forest ecology, because of her distress over the heedless clear cutting taking place in the forest of British Columbia, where she was born and grew up. Also, she’s a scientist by nature, and she developed a passionate need to understand what actually went on in forests – soil, shrubs, insects, birds, sunlight, rain, and above all, how all of this affected the trees, and by association, mushrooms. (Oh, and there was the time  the family dog fell into the outhouse….But that’s another story!)

She got her PhD in forest ecology and has conducted countless studies in various areas of the forest, all the while braving unforgiving weather, merciless insects, wolves, and bears.  She’s made precise measurements, returning again and again to see how her studies were progressing.

This video provides a good explanation of the some of the wonders she unearthed (literally);

Lest you think this volume is an impenetrable tome, I wish to assure you that some of Simard’s writing is quite accessible, even at times, poetic.

I loved the generous rhythm of the way the land and the forest and the river came together to refresh the winds at the close of each day. Helped settle us all down for the night. Air purified by the ancient forests hovered, and I let the downdraft cleanse me.

Contrasting with calm passage of prose is the sheer exhilaration Simard expresses as discovery follows discovery:

Pine got nitrogen from alder not through the soil at all but thanks to micorrhizal fungi!

At moments like this, her excitement communicates itself to the reader. I for one will never feel quite the same about micorrhizal fungi again!! (And no, I’d never heard of them before reading Finding the Mother Tree.) The discovery of the relationship between the various entities in the forest constitutes a revelation:

The cohesion of biodiversity in a forest, the musicians in an orchestra, the members of a family growing through conversation and feedback, through memories and learning from the past, even if chaotic and unpredictable, leveraging scarce resources to thrive. Through this cohesion, our systems develop into something whole and resilient. They are complex. Self-organizing. They have the  hallmarks of intelligence.

And finally, there’s the conclusion Suzanne Simard reaches, hugely satisfying, borne out by her meticulous research:

I imagined the flow of energy from the Mother Trees as powerful as the ocean tide, as strong as the sun’s rays, as irrepressible as the wind in the mountains, as unstoppable as a mother protecting her child.

Suzanne Simard in fact, as two daughters, so she knows whereof she speaks. She’s had an eventful life; a few of those events have been harrowing, but she’s come through heroically – at least, it seems  so to me..

A simplified version of what’s in the book can be heard in Suzanne’s TED talk:

At the end of this eighteen minute talk, she received a standing ovation. I wanted to join in!

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Related to the above, there’s a wonderful documentary called Fantastic Fungi, available on Netflix and Amazon Prime. Here’s the trailer:

There’s also a lovely companion volume.

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Suzanne Simard, where she longs to be

 

 

 

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‘….there must be no room for love in my heart now – I am quite alone, and I must stay quite alone.’ – The Beast Must Die by Nicholas Blake

August 27, 2021 at 4:09 pm (Book review, books, Film and television, Mystery fiction)

I am going to kill a man. I don’t know his name, I don’t know where he lives, I have no idea what he looks like. But I am going to find him and kill him …

Thus begins a strange and haunting narrative…

I’ve wanted to read this crime fiction classic for some time, so when I heard that it was being adapted for television, I decided  the time had come.

The novel is compelling, but drags in places. It begins with the diary of Felix Lane, the nom de plume of Frank Cairnes, and then about half way through switches to an omnipotent narrator. I found the abrupt change of tone somewhat jarring. Felix/Frank’s diary entries are weighted down with an almost unbearable grief; the second part of the book is given over to a detached, almost clinical recounting of the steps taken to solve the murder. (I’d rather not divulge who’s been murdered, at this point.)

This adaptation is strange in many ways. It retains some elements of the novel, but alters a number of them, most significantly, the gender of the main protagonist: Frank Cairnes becomes Frances Cairnes. And the North Devon setting is changed to the Isle of Wight. Also, Nigel Strangeways (played by Billy Howle), the methodical investigator coolly at work in the novel, is here portrayed as a barely functioning police detective, subject to panic attacks and all manner of other unexplained emotional difficulties and who, near the end of the series, lets loose with a blubbering mass of face-contorting weeping that I, for one, found nearly impossible to watch.

Nicholas Blake is the pseudonym of Cecil Day-Lewis, novelist and poet (Poet Laureate, in fact, from 1968 until his death in 1972), and yes, father of Daniel Day-Lewis. Sean Day-Lewis, Daniel’s much older half-brother, wrote a letter to the The Guardian about the TV adaptation:

….this version of the story is a bit of a travesty. I should know, as I was, in my father’s imagination, the six-year-old Martin or Martie… My father, the then-fashionable poet Cecil Day-Lewis, kept our family going with 20 detective novels written as Nicholas Blake. The father who saw the accident, and swore vengeance, was a detective story writer just like my dad.

In addition:

Considering the filmic attraction of Lyme Regis, it is hard to know why the TV version moves to the Isle of Wight as well as to an aggrieved mother. And by the way, Nigel Strangeways, originally a detective who looked and behaved just like WH Auden, was regularly on hand to achieve justice with mercy in all but one of the stories.

The TV version of The Beast Must Die possesses a bewildering number of characters, but one dark secret lies at the story’s heart. It is encapsulated in the chilling opening lines of the novel, quoted above.

The main reason to watch this series is to witness the performance of the lead actors. Cush Jumbo is a wonderful actress; those of us who followed her progress as the smart, irreverent attorney in The Good Fight already knew that. My husband objected to what might be termed Jumbo’s ‘uglification.’ It was hard to see what purpose was served by her painfully short gray hair and stark makeup. (Was she, in fact, wearing any makeup?) He says, and I agree with him, let’s allow beautiful people to remain beautiful, unless there’s a specific reason to degrade their appearance. Yes, she is grieving, but all the more reason to preserve her comeliness.

Cush Jumbo, as she appears in The Beast Must Die

Cush Jumbo in The Good Fight

A word also about Jared Harris, whose performance as the loathsome George Rattery is chilling and note perfect.He is, in fact, the best screen villain I’ve seen since Charles Dance as Tulkinghorn in Bleak House.

(The British seem to specialize in this species.)

 

 

I didn’t feel that the title of the novel needed explaining; nevertheless, Blake/Day-Lewis does explain it, at the very end:

In the first of Brahms’s four Serious Songs, he paraphrases Ecclesiastes 3, 19, as follows: ‘The beast must die, the man dieth also, yea both must die.’

 

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The Reason for the Darkness of the Night: Edgar Allan Poe and the Forging of American Science, by John Tresch

August 21, 2021 at 1:07 pm (Book review, books)

   I don’t usually write about a book I’m still reading, but I’m going to now. Because I must.

As soon as I heard of it,  knew I wanted to read The Reason for the Darkness of the Night. Written by John Tresch, subtitled Edgar Allan Poe and the Forging of American Science, This book promised to reveal much about the life and work of one of America’s most celebrated authors. And of course, Poe is of special interest to me, as he should be to anyone interested in the birth of the American detective story.

This is all very well – what I wasn’t prepared for were the revelations concerning Poe’s life as a child and a young adult, particularly the latter. Poe was the foster son of Frances and John Allan. While Edgar and Frances had a close and loving bond, his relationship with John Allan was something else altogether.

You’ll notice that I used the word ‘foster,’ not ‘adopted.’ The reason is that  the Allans never took that further step toward securing Edgar’s status as a family member. This, despite the fact that the boy, newly orphaned, came to live with them when he was two years old.

I don’t want to say any more at this point, except that John Allan’s actions – or lack thereof – display a degree of callousness that I find difficult to fathom. In fact, he made me so angry that as I reached page 71, I had to lay the book aside for a time and calm myself down.

How dare he! That – that –

Okay. Enough. One slender light does, after all, shine in the darkness: Poe’s genius – his utter indisputable genius – is at last  being recognized. It starts to bring with it remuneration which is so desperately needed. As he is about to be undone by severe destitution, good people reach out to help him.

I think of Robert Schumann’s exclamation upon hearing a composition by Chopin: “Hats off, gentlemen, a genius!”

And now I must read on…(to be continued)

 

 

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