Best of 2018, Ten: Crime fiction, part three – the best of the rest

January 11, 2019 at 2:47 pm (Best of 2018, Book review, books, Mystery fiction)

This is it – I promise!

What can I say, except that I pretty much read my way through last year, not doing much else, especially the latter half. And before I get started, I want to thank members of the Usual Suspects Mystery Discussion group for some of the best reading I had in this genre in 2018. If it’s marked with an asterisk, that means it was a Suspects selection.

Anyway, here goes:

Contemporary (with one or two exceptions)

*Farewell My Lovely (1940) by Raymond Chandler, and Only To Sleep (2018) by Lawrence Osborne. These two naturally go together, having as they do the same protagonist; namely, Philip Marlowe. Farewell My Lovely was a welcome reminder of the brilliance of Chandler; Only To Sleep was a cunning resurrection, as it were, of Philip Marlowe, affording him one last opportunity to engage in the world of crime solving. Osborne’s novel made quite a few ‘Best of 2018’ lists, which I was glad to see.

(My extreme enjoyment of Farewell My Lovely prompted me to read The Long Embrace by Judith Freeman.   Subtitled ‘Raymond Chandler and the Woman He Loved,’ this is the author’s effort to bring Chandler’s wife, Cissy Pascal, out of the shadows. A fascinating read, though it must  be said that with regard to her specific goal, Freeman is only partially successful. Cissy Pascal Chandler remains, for the most part, a mystery – perhaps, rightly so. Open and Shut and First Degree by David Rosenfelt. Rosenfelt’s Andy Carpenter mysteries benefit greatly from the presence of his excellent golden retriever, Tara. Also from the self-deprecating humor of Andy himself. A delight to read, especially when you need something that’s not too heavy. And First Degree is an excellent choice for those enamored of legal thrillers.

Tara gets up on the couch and assumes her favorite position, lying on her side with her head resting just above my knee. It virtually forces me to pet her every time I reach for my beer, which works for me as well as her. If there’s a better dog on this planet, if there’s a better living creature on this planet, then this is a great planet, and that must be one amazing living creature.

(I owe thanks to ‘Angie’s group’ for recommending this series.)

*Off the Grid by P.J. Tracy

*The Widows of Malabar Hill by Sujata Massey

Bone on Bone by Julia Keller. Follow-up to the brilliant and deeply moving Fast Falls the Night.

*The Night Stalker by Robert Bryndza

*Land of Burning Heat by Judith Van Gieson. This novel got me yearning for New Mexico all over again….

The front of her house faced east toward the Sandia Mountains which provided a backdrop for the reflection of the setting sun and the rising of the moon, but her backyard faced the long view across the city over the Rio Grande Bosque into the vastness of the West Mesa.

The weather usually came from the west and tonight thunderheads were building over Cabezon Peak. Claire couldn’t remember exactly when it had rained last, but it had been months. The ground, the people, the vegetation, even the air itself held its breath longing for rain. The prickly pear and ocotillo in the foothills were parched and layered with dust. She had the sensation she had every summer that she was waiting for something she believed would come but feared might not. The sky seemed promising tonight. The clouds were darkening and the wind was picking up.

Harbor Street and The Glass Room and by Ann Cleeves. Do I like this author? Gosh yes. And the tv series featuring Brenda Blethyn is terrific.

*Bruno, Chief of Police by Martin Walker, in which I finally get around to reading the first entry in one of my favorite series. Walker hit the ground running as far as I”m concerned; this book was a delight.

November Road by Lou Berney. Brilliant!

The Ruin by Dervla McTiernan. An impressive debut, highly recommended by the most recent Deadly Pleasures Mystery Magazine.

Give Me Your Hand by Megan Abbott

Bury the Lead by Archer Mayor. Always a pleasure to revisit Joe Gunther, Sammy Martens, the ever irascible Willy Kunkel, Lester Spinney, Beverly Hillstrom, et. al. in Vermont, a venue vividly brought to life by this dependably excellent writer. Bury the Lead is the twenty-ninth book in the Joe Gunther series. I hope Archer Mayor throws himself a big party number thirty arrives!

South Atlantic Requiem by Edward Wilson

Broken Ground by Val McDermid. Absolutely loved this novel – perfection in a police procedural!

*An Unsuitable Job for a Woman and Sleep No More by P.D. James. This is one of those times when I am grateful to be in a book group. I would never have thought to reread An Unsuitable Job for a Woman had it not turned up on the Usual Suspects schedule.

  I  read Unsuitable Job about ten years after its initial publication in 1977. At the time, I had been working at the library for a few short years and was first becoming acquainted with the works of Baroness James. I remember liking the novel a great deal, and especially liking its protagonist Cordelia Gray. Reading it again, as I did just a few months ago, I found it equal parts dated and relevant. But the writing – ah, the writing! James’s fluency, her wide ranging vocabulary, her shrewd insight into the human heart – these things can never be dated.

Sunday afternoon evensong was over and the congregation, who had listened in respectful silence to the singing of responses, psalms and anthem by one of the finest choirs in the world, rose and joined with joyous abandon in the final hymn. Cordelia rose and sang with them. She had seated herself at the end of the row close to the richly carved screen. From here she could see into the chancel. The robes of the choristers gleamed scarlet and white; the candles flickered in patterned rows and high circles of golden light; two tall and slender candles stood each side of the softly illuminated Rubens above t he high altar, seen dimly as a distant smudge of crimson, blue and gold. The blessing was pronounced, the final amen impeccably sung and the choir began to file decorously out of the chancel.

This was the first Cordelia Gray novel. It was followed by The Skull Beneath the Skin, which I’ve not read. Then, no more. There was a reason for the abrupt cessation of this series. James explains it in her own words in a Guardian article from 2011 (See paragraph 16).

As for the six stories that comprise Sleep No More, they were a welcome chance to revisit once again the work of P.D. James.

Snap by Belinda Bauer

Stay Hidden by Paul Doiron

Sunburn by Laura Lippman. This made numerous Best of 2018 lists; for me, though, it was not her best, though enjoyable nonetheless. It really is impossible for Laura Lippman to be boring!

Human Face by Aline Templeton. My first by this author, little known in this  country. I look forward to reading more.

The Word Is Murder by Anthony Horowitz. The creator of Foyle’s War among his other achievements, Horowitz seem to excel at anything and everything he attempts in the fields of fiction and television.  The Sentence Is Death, a sequel to The Word Is Murder, is due out this June. Once again, Horowitz himself combines forces with the cunning Daniel Hawthorne – Yes!

Shadow Play by Cynthia Harrod-Eagles. I faithfully read each new book in this series and am always sorry when I reach the end.

The Knowledge by Martha Grimes

The Bomb Maker by Thomas Perry. Books like this give thrillers a good name. Flawless structure, edge-of-the-seat suspense, intriguing characters, a careening plot that makes the reader hold on for dear life – what’s not to love?

The Temptation of Forgiveness by Donna Leon

The Throne of Caesar by Steven Saylor. What a pleasure it is to see a writer you’ve followed from his first book (Roman Blood, ) proceed from strength to strength in the way  that Steven Saylor has done with this series.

Sleeping in the Ground by Peter Robinson. Marge and I have both been with this writer from the start of the Alan Banks series.

*Girl Waits with Gun by Amy Stewart

A Conspiracy of Faith by Jussi Adler-Olsen. A gripping and powerful novel, with one of the best endings I’ve encountered in recent years (and that’s saying something – that’s where a lot of crime fiction falls down, in my view).

   The Wrong Side of Goodbye by Michael Connelly. This writer of police procedurals just gets better and better with each new book. Connelly is a superb storyteller. His plots have a propulsive drive, occasionally lightened by comic relief. Harry Bosch is kept grounded and humane by his fierce caring for daghter Maddie, now in college. I highly recommend the audio versions narrated by Titus Welliver, who portrays Bosch in the tv version, available via Amazon Streaming.

Accident on the A35 by Graeme Macrae Burnet. An oddly downbeat, extremely powerful procedural set in the east of France.

Money in the Morgue, a novel begun by Ngaio Marsh and finished by Stella Duffy. Truth to tell, I was not exactly blown away by this novel, though I’ve always held the work of Dame Ngaio in high esteem. My favorites by her are A Clutch of Constables, The Nursing Home Murder, and most especially Death in a White Tie, which features that rare commodity, a sympathetic victim, in addition to a sparkling depiction of the London ‘season’ and topped off by a compelling love story.

Classics – or, just because it’s old doesn’t mean it’s great

In the course of 2018, I started quite a few classic crime novels only to abandon them part of the way through – a very small part, in some cases. The following, however, proved most enjoyable (and of course I loved Farewell My Lovely, see above.)

Fire in the Thatch by E.C.R. Lorac


The Colour of Murder by Julian Symons. Symons was still very much alive and writing when I went to work at the library in 1982. (He died in 1994 at the age of 82.) I remember reading and enjoying The Detling Murders, The Tigers of Subtopia, and The Blackheath Poisonings. These works were especially welcome, since at the time, I was just starting to learn about crime fiction.

The prolific Mr. Symons wrote not only mysteries but also criticism, other nonfiction, and poetry.


The Robthorne Mystery by John Rhode


Trent’s Last Case by E.C. Bentley. I’d read this once before and not like it all that much. But this book makes so many all time best lists that I decided to give it another try. I liked it much better this time.


The Valley of Fear by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle A most pleasant surprise. Much of the second half this short work takes place in the American West. The narrative was lively and engaging. I liked it a lot.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Best of 2018, Nine: Crime fiction, part two

January 7, 2019 at 2:19 pm (Best of 2018, Book review, books, Mystery fiction, Scotland, The British police procedural)

“After the demise of the UK’s queens of crime, P.D. James and Ruth Rendell, only one author could take their place: the Scottish writer Val McDermid….”

The Guardian

I’m aware there are those who would dispute this assertion. But after reading Broken Ground, I’m on board with it. I absolutely loved this book.

I’d previously only read two novels by Val McDermid: A Place of Execution (2000) and The Grave Tattoo (2006). Those are both standalones. Broken Ground, on the other hand, is the fifth novel in the Karen Pirie series.

How I wish I’d begun at the beginning! Karen Pirie, beleaguered but undaunted, is a hero for our times – my times, anyway. She’s having to come to terms with the loss of her lover, also an officer in the Force. (In this sense, as in some others, she reminded me of Erika Foster in Robert Bryndza‘s excellent series.) She’s human but not superhuman. Not always likeable, but almost always admirable.

I love McDermid’s writing. It is always assured, sometimes even poetic, but it can veer abruptly toward hard hitting. For a novel in which action predominates, there is some striking description. Most likely McDermid can’t help including such passages when writing about her native Scotland, whether city or countryside. (If you’ve been there, you’ll understand why.)

In the course of an investigation, Karen finds herself on rural, alien ground, housed in an odd accommodation:

For a woman accustomed to  attacking insomnia by quartering the labyrinthine streets of Edinburgh with its wynds and closes, its pends and yards, its vennels and courts, where buildings crowded close in unexpected configurations, the empty acres of the Highlands offered limited possibilities.
…..
The sky was clear and the light from the half-moon had no competition from the street lights so the pale glow it shed was more than enough to see by. She turned right out of the yurt and followed the track for ten minutes till it ended in a churned-up turning circle by what looked like like the remnants of a small stone bothy. Probably a shepherd’s hut, Karen told herself, based on what she knew was the most rudimentary guess work. The wind had stilled and the sea shimmered in the moonlight, tiny rufflets of waves making the surface shiver. She stood for awhile, absorbing the calm of the night, letting it soothe her restlessness.

I feel deeply grateful that there are still people who can write like this. I’m equally grateful that police procedurals of this caliber are still being written.

While researching Val McDermid, I came upon a gracious memorial she composed on the occasion of the passing of  Colin Dexter, creator of the inimitable Inspector Morse.

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Best of 2018, Seven: Nonfiction, part five: an unintended omission

January 2, 2019 at 1:20 pm (Best of 2018, Book review, books, True crime)

  In my recent posts on favorite nonfiction of 2018, I inadvertently omitted The Real Lolita by Sarah Weinman. The book is subtitled,  the kidnapping of Sally Horner and the novel that scandalized the world. In it, Weinman tells the story of Sally Horner, an eleven-year-old girl from Camden, New Jersey, whose fateful encounter in 1948 with a man calling himself Frank La Salle resulted in a bizarre kidnapping and ensuing captivity that lasted for two years. During this time, Sally and La Salle made their way across the country to California, all the while assuming the roles of daughter and father respectively.

The strange odyssey of Sally Horner and Frank La Salle ended in 1950. The story received a fair amount of media attention. People were understandably intrigued by it. One of those who certainly knew about it was a somewhat eccentric Russian expatriate and butterfly collector. Oh and brilliant novelist. His name was Vladimir Nabokov.

Nabokov’s succès de scandale, Lolita, appeared in 1955. In her book, Sarah Weinman raises a provocative question:; namely. to what extent was Lolita inspired by the true life misadventure of Sally Horner and her sinister captor?

Vladimir Nabokov’s otherwise scrupulous archive of Lolita-related clippings failed to include anything about Sally Horner because if it had, then the dots would connect with more force, which would upset the carefully constructed myth of Nabokov, the sui generis artist, whose imagination and gifts were far superior to others’. It’s as if he didn’t trust Lolita to stand on its own against the real story of Sally Horner. As a result, Sally’s plight was sanded over, all but forgotten.

But with this provocative and beautifully written book, Sarah Weinman has shone a bright on that story and given it new life.

 

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Best of 2018, Six: Nonfiction, part four – the best of the rest

January 1, 2019 at 11:30 pm (Best of 2018, Book review, books, France, True crime)

For This Reader, it was a great year for nonfiction.

In history:

 

To Catch a King: Charles II’s Great Escape, by Charles Spencer, Ninth Earl Spencer (brother to the late Princess Diana)

A History of France by John Julius Cooper, Viscount Norwich, a terrific – and prolific – historian whom we lost in June of this year.

The Race To Save the Romanovs, by Helen Rappaport. A commenter on this blog post said: “Sounds like a fine book about an endlessly fascinating topic.” I certainly find it so. Endlessly fascinating and endlessly tragic.

In current affairs:

 

      Nomadland: Surviving American the Twenty-First Century, by Jessica Bruder

Women & Power: A Manifesto, by Mary Beard. This small book consists of the text of two lectures delivered by Mary Beard, a renowned Cambridge classicist, courtesy of  The London Review of Books.

Beard’s book also contains a priceless picture of Hillary Clinton and Angela Merkel in matching power suits!

   Dopesick: Dealers, Doctors, and the Drug Company that Addicted America, by Beth Macy

In a variety of other areas, hard to pin down:

   The White Darkness by David Grann. The author of Killers of the Flower Moon delivers yet another powerful narrative.

   Victorians Undone: Tales of the Flesh in the Age of Decorum, by Kathryn Hughes

   Ghosts of the Tsunami  by Richard Lloyd Parry. This is a devastating story, told with great sensitivity. Parry is an excellent writer. For an exceptional work of true crime, try People Who Eat Darkness.

In nature:

The Meaning of Birds, by Simon Barnes. I finished it – Yay! Also downloaded it from Amazon and so will have it forever. Mr. Barnes, you have opened a world to me, for which I am deeply grateful.

I can’t resist sharing two more videos of avian nature:

 

(With thanks to Sir David Attenborough)

In Art and Architecture:

How Do We Look: the body, the divine, and the question of civilisation, by Mary Beard. This is a companion volume to the BBC’s Civilisations: From the Ancient to the Modern. (The three DVD’s that comprise this series are owned by the local library.)

True Crime / International Intrigue:

Beneath a Ruthless Sun: A True Story of Violence, Race, and Justice Lost and Found, by Gilbert King

Blood & Ivy: the 1849 murder that scandalized Harvard, by  Paul Collins

    Conan Doyle for the Defense: The True Story of a Sensational British Murder, a Quest for Justice, and the World’s Most Famous Detective, by  Margalit Fox.  Fox comes up with an especially well expressed locution when she compares crime writing to doctoring. Both, she says, are rooted in “the art of diagnosis,” an art “…which hinges on the identification, discrimination, and interpretation of barely discernible clues in order to reconstruct an unseen past….”

The Spy and the Traitor: the greatest espionage story of the Cold War, by Ben Macintyre

I’ll Be Gone in the Dark: one woman’s obsessive search for the Golden State Killer, by Michelle McNamara. Inevitably, the impact of this powerful narrative is augmented by the fact of the untimely passing of its author.  Michelle McNamara did not live to complete this labor. Two researchers, crime writer Paul Haynes and investigative journalist Billy Jensen, performed that task, and did an admirable job. And McNamara’s husband, actor/comedian Patton Oswalt, also deserves credit for assigning the task the highest possible priority. He could have arranged no better memorial for his wife.

An Accident? – or Something Else?

   The Ghosts of Gombe: A True Story of Love and Death in an African Wilderness, by Dale Peterson. For those of us who have long admired the work of Jane Goodall, this book provides  a fascinating look at how the research camp she established in Tanzania, East Africa, functioned on a day to day basis in the 1960s. At the same time, Peterson relates the story of a researcher who goes missing. In July of 1969, as part of her research project, Ruth Davis follows a chimpanzee into the forest. She does not return to camp. An investigation follows, with the outcome everyone dreads.

An Unexplained Death: The True Story of the Body at the Belvedere, by Mikita Brottman

And of course, there was  this rather specialized publication…handmade by two doting grandparents, with the help of Google Photos:

Some highlights:

Dad and Welles enjoying some quality time

 

Mom, Welles, and Etta making art at the Art Institute

I asked Etta strike a pose appropriately “Gothic.” As you can see, she obliged!

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Best of 2018, Five: Nonfiction, part three – In Byron’s Wake, by Miranda Seymour

December 29, 2018 at 1:52 pm (Best of 2018, Book review, books)

  George Gordon, Lord Byron, was indisputably a great poet.

I remember some years ago visiting the Oregon Coast Aquarium in Newport, Oregon. Engraved on a wall, I encountered a quotation from Childe Harold, Canto IV (This might not be an exact line-by-line recollection):

THERE is a pleasure in the pathless woods,
There is a rapture on the lonely shore,
There is society where none intrudes
By the deep sea, and music in its roar:
I love not man the less, but nature more,
From these our interviews, in which I steal
From all I may be, or have been before,
To mingle with the universe, and feel
What I can ne’er express, yet cannot all conceal.

Roll on, thou deep and dark blue Ocean,—roll!

Oh, how civilized! thought I. It’s a wonderful place, that aquarium. And the restaurant boasted the most delicious clam chowder imaginable.

Anyway, back to the matter at hand…. As I said, Byron was a great poet. As a husband and father? Not so great. In fact, downright awful. No sooner had Annabella Milbanke married him than she knew she’d made a terrible mistake. The Wall Street Journal review of In Byron’s Wake is entitled “Lout and Ladies.” From that review, written by Abigail Deutsch:

During the couple’s first (and only) year of marriage, Byron took to treating his wife – now pregnant – with such fury that a maid worried “he was likely to put her to Death at any moment if he could do it privately.”

Fearing for her safety and that of her month old baby, Annabella sought refuge in the house of her parents. Neither she nor her infant daughter ever saw Byron again.

Fortunately, Annabella was a strong woman. She went on to amass considerable achievements in the fields of education reform and philanthropy. And Ada, her daughter, grew up to be not just  beautiful but possessed of singular and powerful gifts.

Annabella kept a sharp eye on her daughter’s education. When Ada was not quite out of her teens, she had the good fortune to acquire as a mentor the mathematician and science writer Mary Somerville.  Soon after making the acquaintance of this distinguished scholar, an even more fateful meeting took place:

The following month, Ada – for once, without her mother – attended a party held at the London home of one of Mary Somerville’s closest friends. His name was Charles Babbage.

The rest, as they say, is history, though where Ada is concerned, a sadly abbreviated history.

In Byron’s Wake is the story of fascinating people living in turbulent times. Beautifully written and magnificently constructed, it is a triumph of the art of the biographer/historian.

Miranda Seymour

Dramatis personae:

George Gordon, Lord Byron 1788-1824

 

Mary Somerville 1780-1872

 

Charles Babbage 1791-1871

Annabella Milbanke Byron 1792-1860

 

Ada Byron Lovelace 1815-1852

The library does not yet own this marvelous book, but I do. It is available for borrowing, from me.

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Best of 2018, Four: Nonfiction, part two

December 27, 2018 at 2:03 pm (Art, Best of 2018, Book review, books, Poetry)

So I’m getting ready to divide my 2018 nonfiction reading into neat categories, and I run into trouble right away. Some of these books are hard to pigeonhole: they’re sort-of biographies, sort-of true crime – was there actually a crime? – and, well, you get the idea.

  The only more or less conventional biography I read this year was Gainsborough: A Portrait, by James Hamilton. As is the case with the most engaging biographies, the life of this distinguished  artist was set vividly within the context of his times.

Almost exactly ten years later, a well-dressed, brisk and persistent gentleman called on a friend of his in London. There was nobody at home, just the servant. On the table was a small landscape painting which caught the man’s attention. He picked it up, looked at it closely, turned it over. ‘Ruisdael improved,’ he thought to himself. ‘Warmer colouring, as truly drawn and painted as Ruisdael, but more spirited.’ It was quite clear from the back of the canvas that this was a new, modern picture, not Dutch seventeenth century. The following conversation was published in 1772:

‘James, where did your master get this picture?’

‘At the auctioneers Langford’s, sir, I have just brought it home.’

‘Do you know whose it is?’ ‘My master’s, sir.’

‘Fool! I mean the painter.’ There was a knock at the door. James let his master in.

‘Who painted that picture?’ demanded the visitor. ‘Who do you think?’ replied his friend. ‘Don’t know, tell me instantly!’ ‘Come, come – you are a judge of pictures, and a bit of a painter yourself. It’s a gem, isn’t it?’

The visitor was even more intrigued.

‘You will like it so much more when I tell you it is painted by an artist who is unknown, unfollowed, and unencouraged.’

‘What’s his name?’

‘Gainsborough.’

 

Mary Little, later Lady Carr

 

Portrait of the Composer Carl Friedrich Abel with his Viola da Gamba (c. 1765)

 

Road from Market

Oh, those trees!

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

Three fascinating women figure in this narrative: Emily Dickinson, Mabel Loomis Todd, the lover of Emily’s brother Austin, and Millicent Todd Bingham, daughter of Mabel and her husband David Todd.

After Emily begins with Emily Dickinson’s funeral.

“And in the spring, also rare Emily Dickinson died & went back into a little deeper mystery than that she has always lived in. The sweet spring days have something in all their tender beauty when she was carried through the daisies and buttercups across the summer fields to be in her flowered couch,” Mabel later reflected in her journal. “It was a very great sorrow to Austin, but I have lived through greater with him, when little Gib [Austin’s son] died. He and I are so one that we comfort each other for everything, perfectly.”

There follows a furious nonstop battle over who owns the rights to her works. The story of the love affair of her brother and Mabel Loomis Todd is unexpected and remarkable. The fallout from it is significant, even profound. If you’re wondering whether Emily knew, she did – and did and said nothing, apparently.

But over and above the events of the narrative hovers the restless spirit of  that reclusive, brilliant poet:

Because I could not stop for Death –
He kindly stopped for me –
The Carriage held but just Ourselves –
And Immortality.
——-
We slowly drove – He knew no haste
And I had put away
My labor and my leisure too,
For His Civility –
————-
We passed the School, where Children strove
At Recess – in the Ring –
We passed the Fields of Gazing Grain –
We passed the Setting Sun –
————–
Or rather – He passed Us –
The Dews drew quivering and Chill –
For only Gossamer, my Gown –
My Tippet – only Tulle –
————
We paused before a House that seemed
A Swelling of the Ground –
The Roof was scarcely visible –
The Cornice – in the Ground –
————
Since then – ’tis Centuries – and yet
Feels shorter than the Day
I first surmised the Horses’ Heads
Were toward Eternity –
—————-

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Best of 2018, Three: Nonfiction, part one

December 26, 2018 at 12:12 am (Book review, books, Nature)

  One does not expect to encounter, in a book about birds, an anecdote concerning Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. Nevertheless…

It seems that for the famous Cheek To Cheek dance sequence in Top Hat, Ginger Rogers wanted to wear a dress  that was festooned with a multitude of feathers. Problem: As she and Fred Astaire whirled around the dance floor, the feathers flew off the dress in large numbers. According to Astaire, “‘It was like a chicken being attacked by a coyote.'” Ginger, however, was adamant – she wanted that dress.

Now I’ve watched this dance sequence many times and I always assumed those feathers were fake. No such thing!

 

Ostrich

Simon Barnes’s book has many delightful anecdotes like this. But even more, it has an abundance of facts about birds: their flight, sounds, migratory and mating habits, their significance in myth and legend, the art of falconry, the slaughter and the irony inherent in the hunting of birds, and their endangerment through loss of habitat. Barnes has a deep knowledge of the avian world. Yet when he writes about it,  he has a light hand; his tone at times is almost whimsical. And yet he could not be more serious.

The book is filled with wonderful black and white images like the one above. These are drawn from a variety of sources.

Wandering Albatross

Kingfisher

And the cover art, as you can see above, is gorgeous. Be sure to click on it, in order to enlarge it as much as possible.

A swanfall is one of those routine miracles that the wild world throws at us, and it’s as wonderful a thing as I’ve ever seen. First the lake was open and pretty empty: within the hour you could see nothing but swans. It was like watching Bank Station in the City of London in the morning: a place that is at first sparsely populated turns into the busiest place in the world before your eyes: not gradually but all at once.

Apparently New Zealand was once a veritable paradise for birds:

If time travel were possible, I’d take my Tardis to New Zealand a few years before 1280. This is the ultimate destination in time and space for anyone with birding in the blood. New Zealand was the kingdom of the birds and it remained so until the arrival of humans in the thirteenth century.

A flightless parrot that is barely hanging on there is called the kakapo. Barnes mentions Douglas Adams’s search for this curious creature as described in his book Last Chance To See. I remember reading that book when it came out in 1990 and enjoying it immensely – at least, as much as Adams’s Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy!

Barnes has much of interest to say about eagles, but I really loved this story:

My dear Aunt Barbara used to tell a story about a vicar—I have long forgotten his name and parish—who took evensong after a protracted and agreeable lunch. With his belly full of claret and port and other vicarly delights, he approached the lectern but, alas, misjudged his descent from the steps of the altar. He made a dramatic lurch in the general direction of the congregation but saved himself by clasping the outspread wings of the lectern, for this traditional piece of ecclesiastical furniture was, of course, in the form of an eagle, its wings supporting the Book. He muttered, in tones audible to the front row, ‘If it hadn’t been for this bloody duck, I’d be on the floor.’

Eagle lectern at St Nicholas Church, Blakeney, Norfolk, England

One  reason it’s taking me so long to get through this book is that I keep running to the computer to find videos on birds. In addition to the kakapo footage above, I particularly like the these two, on the barn owl and on falconry respectively:

 

 

One day a couple of weeks ago, while I was observing nature from my kitchen window, I saw a bird – I don’t know what kind – leave its perch on the bare branch of a tree and float gracefully down to the ground. At that moment, I thought, I could really get into birds. A dangerous notion, I know. Birders can be an obsessive lot.

Not long after that, I found The Meaning of Birds on the new nonfiction shelf at the library and was intrigued by its square shape and striking cover. I had never heard of it, despite the fact that I read loads of book reviews. It’s now bristling with post-it notes and has been renewed up to the limit. I finally gave in and downloaded it from Amazon.

The Meaning of Birds, it must be said, is primarily concerned with the nature of England. But Simon Barnes has traveled all over the world in search of bird knowledge. This book is a rare gift to nature lovers. I cannot recommend it highly enough.

 

 

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Jerome Robbins: A Life in Dance, by Wendy Lesser

December 18, 2018 at 2:10 pm (Ballet, Book review, books, Music)

  This brief biography was a pleasure to read. There is so much more to Jerome Robbins than West Side Story – although just that one stupendous achievement in and of itself would have sufficed.

West Side Story was the second Broadway show I ever saw. I had the privilege of attending a performance featuring the original cast. I remember sitting in the audience at the end, tears streaming. I was fourteen years old and had no idea how lucky I’d been to see what I had just seen. (My first Broadway show was Damn Yankees, also with the original cast.)

I was also familiar with Fancy Free, Robbins’s first staged work. It’s a ballet about three sailors on shore leave basically looking for some action. (Robbins danced  the role of one of them.) He had been watching young men like these as they breezed through Manhattan while on shore leave. It was 1944 and there was a war on, so they were looking to pack as much fun into their lives in a short time as they possibly could.

This is the only video of the complete ballet that I could locate on YouTube. The quality is not great, but it’s more than enough to show the sheer wonderfulness of Fancy Free:

This video with Tyler Angle and Tiler Peck, both principal dancers at the New York City Ballet, is shorter but worth watching, for the rehearsal footage and for Tyler Angle’s commentary:

The music for Fancy Free was written by Leonard Bernstein, at Jerome Robbins’s specific request. It was the beginning of a collaboration that culminated, years later, with West Side Story. The task was never easy – these were two enormously gifted men with egos to match. But the results – what a gift to the rest of us!

Leonard Bernstein and Jerome Robbins

Jerome Robbins was a choreographer, dancer, and script doctor. His work, in one or more of those capacities, can  be seen in some of the most popular shows ever seen on Broadway: The King and I, Fiddler on the Roof, Gypsy, and West Side Story, to name a few. But being as I’ve become such a balletomane of late, it was the ballets which I found especially fascinating.

And it was his work in ballet choreography that brought him into the orbit of probably the greatest choreographer of the twentieth century: George Balanchine.

Along with Lincoln Kirstein, Balanchine founded the the New York City Ballet in 1948. From that year, Balanchine was the artistic director/ballet master – the soul of the company, really – up until his death in 1983.

Jerome Robbins made a number of works for the New York City Ballet. Unavoidably, there was an element of rivalry in his relationship with Balanchine. But it was the public and the news media that reflected a certain attitude toward the place in the pantheon properly occupied by these two artists. Wendy Lesser puts it this way:

Precisely the things that made him [Robbins] unique as a choreographer- the modern, folk, and even street-style gestures that he added to his ballets; the function of plot and character in his works; the presence of humor and gentle self-mockery in his dances; even the fact that his women were not elongated, rarefied, unattainable muses, but strong, feisty dancers equivalent to the men- defined him as a second-rater.

It should be noted that Robbins’s admiration for Balanchine was boundless. He did not like to think of himself as a competitor. The two men managed to stay on cordial terms throughout their long association. Each had brilliant careers and were duly recognized for their achievements. And I personally do not think that at this time, Jerome Robbins is classified as a ‘second-rater’ by anyone knowledgeable in the history of twentieth century dance.

The life of Jerome Robbins had its turbulent aspects, especially as regards Robbins’s sexual ambivalence and his uneasy relationship with Judaism, the faith into which he was born. Wendy Lesser deals with these issues in a clear  and balanced way. She also alludes to Robbins’s strong feelings for Tanaquil Le Clercq, the brilliant and beautiful dancer who, in 1952, became George Balanchine’s fourth wife.

The tragedy of Tanaquil LeClercq is surely one of  the saddest stories in all the performing arts. ‘If you have tears, prepare to shed them now…’

I did plenty of running to YouTube in the course of my reading of this book. Here are some of the better videos that I found:

 

 

Suite of Dances was originally written by Jerome Robbins for Mikhail Barychnikov.

 

 

Jerome Robbins: A Life in Dance is part of a series put out by Yale University Press called Jewish Lives.

I highly recommend the film Jerome Robbins: Something To Dance About. It’s part of the American Masters series made by PBS; the local library has the DVD.

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An Unexplained Death: The True Story of the Body at the Belvedere, by Mikita Brottman

December 16, 2018 at 3:02 pm (Book review, books)

Rey O. Rivera was last seen on the evening of May 16, 2006. He left his home hurriedly in response to a phone call, returned briefly to retrieve something, then left again. After that, his wife Allison, heading home to Baltimore from a business trip, was unable to reach him.

The police were notified. Rey was declared a missing person.

When it comes to missing people, the first day or two after they have gone, it is as though they have left a door open behind them, and they can still turn around and come back. But after five or six days, you get the sense they have crossed all the way over. All that remains, if you’re lucky, is a vague glimpse, caught on tape somewhere, of a pixelated ghost.

A week later, Rey’s body was discovered in an unused meeting room adjacent to the lower roof of the Belvedere Hotel.

The Belvedere is a storied Baltimore landmark. Built in 1903, it began as a hotel, went through several iterations before being converted to condominiums in 1991.

Mikita Brottman and her partner currently reside in one of those units. They were living there when Rey’s body was  discovered. In fact, Brottman surmises that they may have heard the sound of the body landing on the nearby roof space. So: small wonder that she was drawn to this case.

Although the Belvedere is now comprised of private dwellings, it still features venues that are available to the public. These include three ballrooms on the first floor, one on the twelfth floor, and a banquet and reception room on the thirteenth floor. Finally, back on the first floor, there’s the Owl Bar., part of the original 1903 construction. Formerly a speakeasy, it is now a restaurant. Mikita Brottman met a number of people there while she was investigating Rey Rivera’s death.

The Owl Bar, 1934 [click to enlarge]

The Owl Bar today [click to enlarge]

The examination of Rey’s body showed that his injuries resulted from a fall from a considerable height. No other evidence – gunshot wound, stabbing, ligature marks – was discovered. From a Baltimore Sun article a year later:

Medical examiners determined he died from multiple and severe injuries consistent with a fall from a height. But they made no ruling as to homicide, suicide or an accident. Instead, they declared it undetermined, because the circumstances surrounding the incident were and still are unclear.

Three questions concerning the death of Rey Rivera are therefore left hanging: Was it an accident? Was it suicide? Or was it something else?

Mikita Brottman, a professor of humanities at the Maryland Institute College of Art (known locally as MICA, pronounced ‘Mike-ah’), did not have the credentials of a journalist. She had to struggle to obtain the information she felt she needed to make progress with her inquiry.

In the end, after a expending a tremendous amount of time, not to mention money, while still maintaining her day job, Brottman came to a  conclusion of sorts. I won’t tell you what it is, but it seems somewhat tentative to me, possibly to her as well. In a way, it follows Sherlock Holmes’s famous dictum to the effect that “…when you have excluded the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.”

Mikita Brottman has a fascinating story to tell, and she tells in in a compelling, at times almost poetic, fashion. Nevertheless, it remains to be seen whether the true cause of Rey Rivera’s death will ever  be determined.

Author Mikita Brottman with Oliver

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Two books that simply must go back to the library

December 9, 2018 at 2:39 pm (Book review, books, Mystery fiction)

Don’t know about you, but I hate being overdue. So here goes:

  It’s late November, 1963. We meet the following in quick succession:

A small town housewife and mother – think June Cleaver undermined by a restless streak (and a well-intentioned alcoholic husband). Throw in a small time hood and glad hander steeped in the ethos of the Big Easy. Then there’s a vicious mob boss and his highly unconventional enforcer.

It’s a combustible combination. And into its midst bursts an assassination that shakes the world. What has that got to do with this oddball cast of characters? More that you’d think….

This was an amazing read. Toward the end I got so tense and agitated, I wasn’t sure whether I wanted to race through the rest of the book or hide it under a stack of magazines – anything to avoid the conclusion I was dreading.

Memorable lines, spoken after a snappy exchange of dialog:

Guidry laughed and glanced at her, taking a fresh look. He liked a woman who could hit the ball back over the net.

An outstanding thriller, on a par with The Bomb Maker.
**************
  I was deeply impressed with You Will Know Me by Megan Abbott, and so was eager to read her next foray into the land of literary suspense. Give Me Your Hand is a worthy follow-up, though for some reason it didn’t grip me with quite the force of its predecessor.

Kit Owens has landed a coveted position in a lab where investigation is under way on the causes of a debilitating form of premenstrual syndrome –  PMS. She has the world figuratively on a string when her old nemesis Diane Fleming is added to the roster of researchers. Nemesis? – surely not; they were friends once. Then whence the atmosphere of dread that Diane brings with her?

I very much liked this novel’s setting. The tangle of relationships within the hothouse lab atmosphere are vividly rendered.  The sense of urgency and uncertainty is heightened by the first person narration. The milieu of scientific research is convincingly portrayed, and made to seem every bit as fraught and competitive as the world of athletics.

An absorbing and worthwhile read.

The brain itself is built with the battered beams of our early years. What the conscious mind forgets, the neurons remember.

 

 

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