So many mysteries….

April 19, 2019 at 8:49 pm (books, Mystery fiction)

 

I felt like reading another British Library Crime Classic, so I picked up Thirteen Guests. J. Jefferson Farjeon’s Mystery in White is the book that kicked off this series of reissues. Not all of these books have worked for me, but that one certainly did. If not quite as gratifying as Mystery in White, Thirteen Guests was nevertheless an enjoyable read. Luckily, there are more titles available by Farjeon. I intend to feast on all of them.

I wanted to read Maigret, Lognon and the Gangsters because I was intrigued by a character in the Maigret series that I first encountered in Maigret and the Dead Girl. That character is the above named Lognon, commonly referred to be his police colleagues as Inspector Hard-Done-By.

Lognon is in fact an excellent investigator, but luck always goes against him. He wants more than anything to work alongside Maigret and his team at their headquarters in 36 Quai des Orfevres. But inevitably, his performance falls short of that dream. And so he trudges home to his invalid wife – a woman rather hard done by herself, I’d say – and their cramped little apartment, with very little to show for his considerable efforts. This includes, in the course of dogged pursuit of criminals, taking a beating that puts him in the hospital.

(As of September 2017, the headquarters of the Police Judiciaire is no longer at Quai des Orfevre, but has moved to premises on the Rue De Saussaies. The Research and Intervention Brigade, however, still operated out of the older location.)

I recommend both Maigret novels, but then I’m somewhat indiscriminate in my affection for this series.

A Suspicion of Silver is the ninth novel in the series featuring Sir Robert Carey, a character based on an actual historical personage from the Elizabethan era. A while back, I led a discussion with the Usual Suspects of the first series entry, A Famine of Horses. There was strong feeling in the group that Chisholm had made too free use of Archaic vocabulary without providing a glossary. Well, for this latest outing, she included a very lengthy glossary in the notes at the front of the novel. (“She listened!’ Frank exclaimed.)

The Silver in the title refers to ore which is being illegally gotten from a mining operation overseen by German emigres, experts in the process. Very interesting, and historically accurate as well. As for Sir Robert, he’s his usual resourceful, irreverent self, and still pining for his beloved – and married, though lovelessly –  Lady Elizabeth Widdrington.

From 1593, we go back to 1549 and the tumult and disorder of the reign of Edward VI. Not really Edward’s fault: he was twelve years old at the time. His reign was being overseen by a council of regents led first by his uncle Edward Seymour, 1st Duke of Somerset, and subsequently by John Dudley, 1st Earl of Warwick, who in 1551 became Duke of Northumberland.

Tombland is the seventh entry in C.J. Sansom’s Matthew Shardlake series. Shardlake, a Sergeant-at-law, carries out commissions assigned to him by the likes of Thomas Cromwell, Thomas Cranmer, and Queen Catherine Parr. In Tombland, he is tasked by the Lady Elizabeth with looking into the murder of  the wife of John Boleyn,  a distant relation of hers. Elizabeth will one day be queen, but at the time this story takes place, her position is somewhat precarious; for instance, despite being the daughter of the late King Henry VIII, she is not permitted to call herself “Princess.”

Shardlake’s investigation takes him Norfolk, in the East of England, just as a peasant revolt is heating up. Soon Kett’s Rebellion has burst onto the scene. Shardlake becomes legal advisor to its leader Robert Kett, partly in order to save his own skin and that of his assistants, as the politically and religiously fueled mayhem gains momentum. His investigation is  forced, at least for the time being, into abeyance.

Andrew Taylor, himself a writer of excellent historical crime fiction, says this of C.J. Sansom’s series:

Where Shardlake goes, so do we. Sansom has the trick of writing an enthralling narrative. Like Hilary Mantel, he produces densely textured historical novels that absorb their readers in another time. He has a PhD in history and it shows — in a good way. He is scrupulous about distinguishing between fact and fiction.

Tombland is some eight hundred pages long. It provides the reader with a fully immersive experience in the turbulence of mid-sixteenth century England. Sansom has appended an afterward of some fifty or sixty pages of historical explication. So: a commitment, for sure, but well worth it, in my view.

Michael Connelly has reached a point in his career as a writer of police procedurals where he’s hitting them out of the park, one after another. In the beginning, there was Harry Bosch; then came Harry’s half brother and lawyer Mickey Haller. Now they’re appearing together. Then came Renee Ballard. She debuted in the excellent novel The Late Show. Next, she appears with Harry in Dark Sacred Night. And it all works – beautifully!

Lately, I’ve been listening to these books on CD. They’re usually read by Titus Welliver, who plays Bosch on the Amazon Prime TV series. Most recently, I listened to Two Kinds of Truth. Among other things – there’s always a lot going on in these books – Harry undertakes an undercover assignment where he’s embedded in an operation run by drug dealers who enlist addicts to score prescriptions for opioids and other saleable drugs at so-called “pill mills.” Vivid, true to life, and very scary!

Author Gallery

Georges Simenon

P.F. Chisholm (Patricia Finney)

Michael Connelly

 

C.J. Sansom, with a most excellent feline companion

What’s up next for me in this, my favorite genre? I’m currently reading Overture to Death, the next Usual Suspects selection. The author is Ngaio Marsh, whom I greatly admire. Then I’m very much looking forward to new entries in three of my best-loved series: Hitmen I Have Known, a Harpur and Isles (Yes!) mystery by Bill James; Cold Wrath by Peter Turnbull (Hennessey and Yellich are back, to my delight.) and Rough Music, the fifth Cragg and Fidelis historical mystery by Robin Blake.

 

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Mysteries: from India to Italy in one enriching leap

April 15, 2019 at 7:06 pm (Book review, books, Italy, Mystery fiction)

In February, Marge led the Usual Suspects in a discussion of A Rising Man by Abir Mukherjee. This is the initial entry in a series set in post-World-War-One India, and it’s a great example of a first time author who hit the ground running. Beautifully written, this novel takes full advantage of its exotic setting, all the while weaving a tale of intrigue and introducing us to a memorable cast of characters. Chief among these is Captain Sam Wyndham, veteran of the Great War, who has been recruited to serve in the police force of India’s British Raj. His Sergeant is Surendranath Banerjee, called ‘Surrender-not’ because Sam and others have trouble pronouncing his name. (At any rate, it proves an apt nickname; he does not surrender to difficulty easily but is persistent and resourceful, and a great help to Sam.)

  Oh, and there’s a love interest for Sam. I just finished the second book, A Necessary Evil – also excellent – and all I have to say is, Make your wishes known, Sam, for heaven’s sake! Remember: He who hesitates….

Meanwhile, tensions between the Indians and their British overlords are portrayed with blunt realism. Even back then – undoubtedly before then – Indians were agitating for independence. Reading about the attitude of the British toward the native population, it’s no wonder. Enough to make you seethe with indignation, on their behalf.

Yet amidst all the turmoil, the allure of the place persists. From A Necessary Evil:

We left him and followed Sayeed Ali along a corridor whose walls were lined with murals that wouldn’t have looked out of place in the Kama Sutra, and into a cloistered courtyard dominated by a huge banyan tree….We walked through another arched doorway into a stairwell, climbing two flights before entering a well-apportioned sunlit apartment. The room was divided by a carved teak screen peppered with small holes. In front of the screen, the marble floor was covered with a black and gold Persian rug, strewn with silk cushions.

There are those who maintain that this sort of meticulous description does not belong in crime fiction. I for one love it.

Banyan trees, by the way, are rather startling entities. Growing up in South Florida, I remember seeing them from time to time:

A Rising Man won the 2017 Historical Dagger Award, and was a finalist for the Gold Dagger, the Barry for Best First Mystery, the Edgar for Best Mystery, and the Macavity Award for Best Historical Mystery.

A Necessary Evil was a Gold Dagger finalist ,as well as a finalist for  the Historical Dagger and for the Barry Award for Best Mystery. The third entry in the series, Smoke and Ashes, is already out.

(This information and more is “at your fingertips” can be found at the site Stop!YoureKillingMe.com)
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  Then it was off to Italy, or more specifically, to Venice. Actually, the way that Donna Leon writes about La Serenissima, it seems less like a part of Italy and more like a separate principality, which, of course, it once was….

Unto Us a Son Is Given is, by my count, the 28th entry in Donna Leon’s Guido Brunetti series. Of these, I’ve read at least twenty. The Commissario and I are old friends; likewise, his wife Paola and children Raffi and Chiara. The latter has become an ardent conservationist; Brunetti is proud of her and her new found commitment to the cause.

The Brunetti family members are all getting older but at a blessedly slow rate. Reading each new book in this wonderful series gives me the chance to spend time with them in their magical dwelling place.

Brunetti’s fellow police officers are also on the scene, both those he genuinely likes, like Vianello, Signorina Elettra Zorzi, and Claudia Griffoni, and those whom he has learned to tolerate, like Lieutenant Scarpa. (That name always makes me think of Scarpia, the arch villain in Puccini’s Tosca.)

The plot – it’s not much of a mystery, really – concerns one Gonzalo Rodriguez de Tejada. This elderly gentleman is a wealthy friend of Brunetti’s father-in-law, Count Orazio Falier. Gonzalo is openly gay and, at this late stage of his life, is preparing to adopt a young man as his son. Gonzalo has no other immediate family, but he does have several siblings, including a sister to whom he is quite close. At any rate, Falier has his doubts about this prospective adoptee and asks Brunetti to see what he can discover about him.

This novel has an unusual structure for a mystery. Progress in the investigation is slow and methodical, yielding very few surprises. Then, about three quarters of the way  through the book, there’s a murder. It’s sudden, and deeply shocking.

I really liked this book – well, I like every book in this series. Donna Leon is one of my favorite authors. She never disappoints – at least, that’s the case where this reader is concerned.

 

 

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‘…it is a “locked room” mystery written by Sophocles.’ – The Trial of Lizzie Borden by Cara Robertson

April 9, 2019 at 4:51 pm (books, True crime)

I’ve had a strange experience, reading this book. It begins, of necessity, with  recounting of the circumstances that led to the murder of Andrew Borden and his wife Abby. Immersed as I’ve been  recently in this story, I didn’t discern anything new in Cara Robertson retelling. This, despite the fact that every time I revisit this scenario, its mixture of strangeness and horror grabs hold with great force.

I read on. The chief body of the text concerns the trial. I found that the minute retelling of the witness testimony began to drag. I was having to push myself to keep going.

One note that was sounded throughout the proceedings concerned the demeanor of the defendant: “Throughout the trial, Lizzie Borden remained a sphinxlike cipher.” Her lack of responsiveness puzzled all who saw her. Where were the tears, where the shuddering? I had the sense that some among the observers went from puzzlement to exasperation, even to anger, in the way that our feelings sometimes evolve when we simply cannot figure something out.

At any rate, the trial dragged on. At one point, I was close to throwing in the towel. But then the unexpected occurred, in the form of the closing arguments. George Robinson for the defense; Hosea Knowlton for the prosecution. For me, the pace of the narrative changed suddenly. The eloquence of these two attorneys held me spellbound. I fairly raced through to the conclusion.

Except there was no conclusion. There I was, eagerly flipping the pages, ready for more, when I found that I’d reached the Acknowledgements. From the storehouse of her vast and meticulous research, Cara Robertson had told all she had to tell.

From George Robinson, for the defense:

“Right at the moment of transition she stood there waiting,between the Court and the jury; and waited, in her quietness and calmness, until it was time for her to properly come forward. It flashed through my mind in a minute. There she stands, protected, watched over, kept in charge  by  the judges of  this court and by the jury who have hr in charge. If the little sparrow does not fall unnoticed to the ground, indeed, in God’s great providence, this woman has not been alone in this courtroom, but ever shielded by His  watchful Providence from above, and by  the sympathy and watch[ful] care of those who have her to look after.”

Cara Robertson observes that Lizzie’s lawyer has portrayed her as “an orphan in need of paternal guidance and protection, a ward of the court rather than a prisoner in custody.” And she cannot resist adding, with more than a touch of irony:

It was a neat rhetorical sleight of hand, considering that Borden was on trial for having created her own orphanhood.

(Robinson’s closing lasted just under  four hours. At that time, lengthy closing arguments were not all that unusual.)

From Hosea Knowlton, prosecutor:

“It was not Lizzie Andrew Borden, the daughter of Andrew J. Borden, that cme down those stairs, but a murderess, transformed from all the thirty-three years of an honest life, transformed from the daughter, transformed from the  ties of affection, to the most consummate criminal we have read of in all our history or works of fiction.”

As is by now well known, George Robinson and his defense team won the day. When the ‘Not Guilty’ verdict was read out, the courtroom erupted in shouts of rejoicing, which were in turn taken up by  the crowd outside the courthouse building. Lizzie finally let her feelings show. She was thrilled with her  exoneration and couldn’t express sufficient gratitude to her attorneys, the jurors, and various other  friends and supporters.

The good feeling did not last….

Lizzie and Emma could have gone anywhere else to live, at that point. But they elected to remain in Fall River – although not in the same house, the seemingly accursed domicile on Second Street. It was now 1893. As time went on, relations between the sisters began to deteriorate. In 1905, Emma moved out of their house. The sisters never spoke again.

Lizzie Borden herself never publicly commented about the case that altered the course of her otherwise drab life. Like the town that bred her and then ostracized her, as she aged, Lizzie Borden turned inward, reclusive, and, above all, silent.

Lizzie – by then, Lizbeth – Borden, at her house on The Hill, dubbed Maplecroft, with her dog, Laddie

As I was reading – and in some part laboring to get through this book, I kept saying to myself, okay, this is it – this is the last book I read on the subject of the Borden murders. Well, at this point, all I can say to myself in response to that assertion is: Hah!!

Next up – eventually, most likely:

 

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Edouard Manet and Edgar Degas

April 8, 2019 at 1:36 pm (Art, books)

Yesterday I came home from the library with two art  books that were vastly different from each other in size.

The Degas is voluminous! It weighs 5.5 pounds, and is 10.5″ x 13″, with a thickness of 1.25 inches. In contrast – and what a contrast! – The Manet book is petite in the extreme: 4.5″ x 5.75. It is maybe a quarter of an inch thick and weighs about 5 ounces.

I very nearly missed the latter, as it was wedged in between larger volumes on the shelves of new nonfiction. As soon as I pulled it out, I was enchanted. Small and almost delicate, the tiny volume was a delight. I soon noted that it contained several paintings by Manet that I hadn’t previously seen. I was particularly pleased to make the acquaintance of this one:

Le Bon Bock (A Good Glass of Beer), 1876

A number of my favorites appear as well:

Gare St. Lazare, 1872-73

The Old Musician, 1862

Both of the above paintings reside at our own National Gallery, for which I am profoundly grateful. It means I actually get to see them from time to time. To my mind, Manet more than any other painter renders nineteenth century Paris palpably real.

It may seem as though the small format of Looking At Manet would render the art reproductions less than satisfactory. Oddly enough, I do not find it so at all.

Apparently the writer Emile Zola was an ardent supporter of  Edouard Manet. His commentary on the artist and his works provides the main text for this book.

Right from the beginning, you know where Zola is coming from:

At the age of seventeen, on leaving college, [Manet] fell in love with painting. What a terrible love that is–parents tolerate a mistress, even two; they will close their eyes if necessary to a straying heart and senses. But the Arts! Painting for them is the Scarlet Woman, the Courtesan, always hungry for flesh, who must drink the blood of their children, who clutches them panting, to her insatiable lips. Here is Orgy unforgivable, Debauchery–the bloody spectre which appears sometimes in the midst of families and upsets the peace of the domestic hearth.

Okay, Monsieur Zola – now tell us how you really feel about the sensibilities of the French bourgeoisie!

Looking at Manet is as good an example as I’ve seen recently of a book that should always exist in physical space. I not only enjoy reading it in this form, but also just handling it.  I may have to buy it. And there are others like it, in a series called Lives of the Artists, from Getty Publications.

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The Degas volume, by Robert Gordon and Andrew Forge, is a huge doorstop of a book filled with fascinating facts and wonderful reproductions. I obtained it through interlibrary loan because there was a still photo in it that I wanted to see. This photo would serve as confirmation that the bearded gentleman seen in this film clip is in fact Edgar Degas:

Here is the photo:

(This linkage was pointed out in a comment on YouTube.)

The video clip comes from a documentary called Ceux de Chez Nous made by by Sasha Guitry in 1914-15. This film also contains footage of Renoir painting and Claude Monet conversing with an unidentified man.

By 1915, Degas was nearly blind. It’s hard to reconcile the image in this video with the vigorous artist as he appears in earlier self-portraits, such as this one, from 1863 . For more, see this poignant article on the Open Culture site.

Edgar Degas died in 1917 at the age of 83.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Book Bash: AAUW Howard County Branch members celebrate the written word

February 12, 2019 at 8:49 pm (books)

Each year, our branch of AAUW presents a program entitled Book Bash. It’s just what it sounds like: a celebration of books. Naturally I love this kind of event and am always glad to participate. Ever since going to work at the library in 1982, I’ve taken great pleasure in telling people what to read! (And before that too, actually.)

This year Susan, our program director, selected as our  theme “Exceptional Women.” Volunteer speakers could choose any book they wanted that would elucidate that concept. Here’s what we ended up with:

The subtitle of The Hidden Giants is 4,000 Years of Women in Science and Technology. And the presenter was author herself!

Sethanne chose to highlight two of the entries in her book. The first was: The First! Her name is En’Hedu’anna; she lived, approximately, in the year 2300 BCE:

She was the chief astronomer-priestess and as such managed the great temple complex of her city of Ur. She controlled the extensive agricultural enterprise surrounding the temple as well as those activities scheduled around the liturgical year. Although we do not have technical works from her we know that she was a learned, diversely talented woman of power.

She was also an accomplished poet. An example of her work can be found here.

Sethanne passed around a replica clay tablet on which was incised En’Hedu’anna’s name in cuneiform script:

This was certainly the niftiest visual aid I’ve encountered in quite some time.

Votive disc of En’Hedu’anna, found at the Ur excavation, ca.2300-2275

 

Possible likeness of En’Hedu’anna

Leaping forward several millennia, Sethanne then shared with us the story of Ellen Eglin. An African American woman well acquainted with the rigors of doing laundry in the 19th century, she invented wringers as a feature of the washing machine.

She obtained a patent for her invention, but later sold it for $18, explaining

“You know I am black and if it was known that a Negro woman patented the invention, white ladies would not buy the wringer. I was afraid to be known because of my color in having it introduced into the market, that is the only reason.”

While I had no trouble finding a picture of Ms Eglin’s invention, I had no luck locating a picture of the inventor herself. Kudos, anyway, to Sethanne Howard for bringing these and numerous other “Hidden Giants” out of the shadows and shining a bright light on them and on their achievements,.
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Diane gave a fascinating presentation on the life and accomplishments of aviator Beryl Markham as described in her memoir West with the Night.

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Most of us are fairly well acquainted with the life story of Jackie Kennedy. Fewer know very much about  Lee Radziwill. So it was interesting to learn about this younger sister who was always – well, the younger sister, perforce dwelling in the shadow of her more famous and glamorous sibling. Jean related the highlights of this dual biography in a way that made us eager to know more:

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Deb shared her admiration for actress/singer Jenifer Lewis. Currently featured in the TV show Blackish, Lewis had to fight to overcome bipolar disorder, and she describes her struggle to achieve this and other milestones in her memoir The Mother of Black Hollywood.
Via her smartphone, Deb shared with us the sound of Jenifer Lewis’s exceptionally rich and plummy contralto voice.

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  Barbara gave us some of the highlights from Michelle Obama’s blockbuster memoir. Just about everyone in my circle of book loving women has read and enjoyed this book; I’m still waiting for my reserve to come in.
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  My choice for this program was In Byron’s Wake by Miranda Seymour, a book which tells the story of Ada Byron Lovelace and her mother Annabella Milbanke Byron. Click here for my blog post on this eminently readable tome.

In the course of reviewing for this brief presentation, I discovered several delightful children’s books about Ada Lovelace:

The topic of “Exceptional Women” has made me think of how many women I’ve encountered in my recent reading that definitely fit that description. To wit:

In After Emily:

The dazzling, mercurial, and mysterious poet, Emily Dickinson

Mabel Loomis Todd, beautiful and determined

Millicent Todd Bingham, Mabel’s equally stalwart daughter

In Beneath a Ruthless Sun:

Mabel Norris Reese – a woman who made me want to stand up and cheer!

In Mrs. Sherlock Holmes:

Grace Quackenbos Humiston, and her resourceful associates

In The Riddle of the Labyrinth:

Alice Kober, a stellar academic who labored in obscurity to solve a fiendishly difficult puzzle

In Schumann: The Faces and the Masks:

Clara Wieck Schumann, luminous concert pianist and loyal mainstay in the life of her equally brilliant , yet troubled and afflicted husband, Robert

 

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Schumann: The Faces and the Masks, by Judith Chernaik

February 4, 2019 at 10:00 pm (Book review, books, Music)

  As I write this, I am listening to Robert Schumann’s Romance for Oboe and Piano.

For about two weeks, I have been reading Judith Chernaik’s new biography of this great composer. Ron and I have been immersed in this wonderful music. In addition, I’ve been absorbed in the story of Schumann’s life. That life was a turbulent mixture of frustration, disappointment, elation, and deep love. And through all of it, glorious music, one piece following another, first almost exclusively for solo piano, then piano accompaniment for singers, then chamber groups and full orchestra.

Robert Schumann was born in 1810 in Zwickau, in the kingdom of Saxony, in Germany.

Robert Schumann’s birthplace, now the Robert Schumann House Museum. The author’s researches were greatly aided by the papers relating to Schumann collected and kept here.

Schumann’s exceptional musical talent having become evident early on, a teacher was found in Leipzig to take him in hand. This was the German pianist Friederich Wieck. Wieck believed that Schumann had ahead of him a great career as a concert pianist. Unfortunately, while experimenting with a device to strengthen his fingers, he injured himself irrevocably. He could still play, but his opportunity to ascend to the concert stage was gone.

(Although Chernaik includes this story in her book, there are those who believe that the problem with Schumann’s hand may have had another cause. Click here for more on this article from the WQXR blog.)

Despite this setback, Schumann continued his studies with Wieck, concentrating more now on composing. Wieck had a daughter Clara who was an extremely talented musician. She began giving concerts while she was still a child. As she entered adolescence, her gifts became even more pronounced. She and Schumann were inevitably thrown together on frequent occasions. He was nine years her senior.

Clara  was not only prodigiously gifted but remarkably independent. She was her own person, free from the usual restraints suffered by young girls. She was already acclaimed as an artist; she moved in sophisticated circles in Paris and Vienna. As a child, she was passionate and willful, with a wild temper and strong opinions.

Clara and Schumann fell in love. When Clara turned sixteen, they informed her father of their wish to be married. To their shock and dismay, he opposed the idea. In fact, he flat out forbade the union. Clara was a minor; despite her vaunted independence, she could not marry without her father’s consent. For four years he did everything he could to place obstacles in the way of their plans. (Meanwhile, at her father’s behest, Clara was giving concerts all over Europe, all the while earning good money.) Ultimately, Robert and Clara had to go to court and sue for the right to marry. This they did, finally becoming husband and wife on September 12, 1840.

It should be noted that while all this was  going on, both Robert and Clara were making strides creatively. She was constantly concertizing as well as  composing; he was composing as well as writing for and editing the Neue Zeitschrift fur Musik (The New Journal for Music) which he had founded in 1834.

The first half of the biography is taken up with this crisis and its felicitous albeit hard won resolution. Incurable romantic  that I am, I was so outraged by Friedrich Wieck’s obstinacy and cruelty that I could barely contain myself. When the couple were finally wed, I cheered out loud!

Robert and Clara Schumann, 1847

As a married couple, Robert and Clara continued their relentless work of giving concerts, composing music, writing and reviewing the works of other composers, and having musical evenings in their home. Add to that the children: they just kept coming;

Six of the Schumann offspring; a seventh, older daughter Julie, was living with Clara’s mother at the time this photograph was taken. An eighth, Emil, died at sixteen months in 1847.

Clara was the more famous of the two during their lifetimes, but Robert had many advocates in the musical community. Among them were his close friend Felix Mendelssohn and the fiery pianist and composer Franz Liszt. But his greatest champion was Clara.

Plagued by ill health all his life, Schumann was at length placed in Endenich Asylum near the city of Bonn. One of his chief consolations at that time was to go into Bonn (accompanied by an attendant) and stare up at the statue of the city’s most famous son, Ludwig van Beethoven. After two excruciating years at Endenich, Robert Schumann died. The year was 1956; he was 46 years old.

Clara received constant support from other musicians during this extremely stressful time. One was the gifted young violinist Joseph Joachim. The other was a youth of whom great things were expected. His name was Johannes Brahms.

Johannes Brahms, age 20

The exact nature of the relationship between Clara and Brahms has been an  endless subject of speculation down through the years. One thing is certain: they both worked tirelessly to keep Schumann’s music before the public and to win for him the recognition he deserved. In 1877, Clara signed a contract with  publisher for a thirty-one part edition of Robert Schumann’s Collected Works. Brahms was a great help to her in this endeavor. The resulting volumes have been reprinted on numerous occasions. And Judith Chernaik divulges this welcome news:

A new scholarly multi-volume Urtext edition of the collected works, collating all the early publications, Schumann’s autograph scores, and manuscript drafts is close to completion.

Chernaik concludes with this statement:

The works contained in these volumes are Schumann’s enduring gift to the world.

Here is a large helping of that gift:

 

 

The lovely Traumerei was one of Vladimir Horowitz’s favorite encore pieces. I love the shots of the audience in this video; they are so deeply moved.

 

Schumann’s mighty Second Symphony. The sadness of the third movement is heartrending, yet the finale blazes forth in triumph! (Ron and I both have a special love for this work.)

 

Paradise and the Peri is a little known work of Schumann’s, technically termed a secular oratorio. I love  these few minutes of it:

 

Finally, the Piano Concerto in A minor.  As with all of his piano music, Schumann composed this with Clara in mind. Judith Chernaik says of this piece:

It remains to this day a joyful expression of love between a supremely gifted composer and an artist of the first rank, delighting listeners at the time and ever since.

This was among a handful of works that, many years ago. first taught me to love classical music:

 

 

 

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‘Like so many canonical narratives of achievement, this story has a quiet backstage figure behind the towering public one.’ The Riddle of the Labyrinth by Margalit Fox

January 27, 2019 at 11:28 pm (archaeology, Book review, books)

Ah, the mystery of an ancient tongue….

Is it a secret plan of attack? A poem? A testament of undying love? Well, not quite…

This piece contains information on the distribution of bovine, pig and deer hides to shoe and saddle-makers.

Aminoapps.com

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Linear B is the oldest preserved form of written Greek that we know of. By the time we first meet this writing system, Greece and different areas of the western coast of Asia Minor were already Greek-speaking. Linear B was used to write an archaic form of Greek known as Mycenaean Greek, which was the official dialect of the Mycenaean civilization. The inscriptions found in Crete appear to be older than those discovered in mainland Greece. The oldest confirmed Linear B tablets are the so-called Room of the Chariot Tablets from Knossos and have been dated to c.1450-1350 BCE, while the tablets found at Pylos have been dated to c. 1200 BCE.

Ancient History Encyclopedia

Numerous tablets with Linear B inscribed upon them were unearthed during the excavation of the palace of Knossos on the island of Crete. The principal work was begun in 1900; the archeologist who headed up ‘the dig’ was Sir Arthur Evans.

Sir Arthur Evans

The Riddle of the Labyrinth (a title I love) is not so much about the excavation per se as it is about the decades long effort to render this ancient script comprehensible to modern readers.  Many linguists and classicists worked on this incredibly complex puzzle.

First: here is the main syllabary, so called because these signs indicate syllables rather than sounds, as our alphabet does:

 

In addition, Linear B also makes use of ideograms, somewhat in the manner of Egyptian heiroglyphics:

From Ancientscripts.com
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If you’re thinking that this is a fiendishly difficult subject, you’re right. But the stories of the people involved, brilliant scholars with egos to match in many cases, is fascinating.

One of Margalit Fox’s chief purposes in writing this book was to highlight the work done on this project by one particular woman:

The woman was Alice Kober, an overworked, underpaid classics professor at Brooklyn College. In the mid-20th century, though hardly anyone knew it, Dr. Kober, working quietly and methodically at her dining table in Flatbush, helped solve one of the most tantalizing mysteries of the modern age.

In addition, Fox observes:

The scholarly field on which Kober did battle in the 1930s and 40s was very much a msn’a world, and it is understandable, if now unpalatable, that her male contemporaries so often characterized her in terms of maidenish qualities. That at least some twenty-first century writers continue to accept this appraisal is far less understandable, and far less palatable.

Despite her unrelenting efforts, which did result some major breakthroughs, Alice Kober didn’t quite manage to crack the code. That goal was achieved in 1952 by Michael Ventris, a British architect who, like Kober, had long been obsessed by Linear B.

Fox states firmly that Ventris’s blazing success would not have been possible without Kober’s foundational work. Had she lived long enough, in good health, she probably would have gotten there herself:

That she very nearly solved the riddle is a testament to the snap and rigor of her mind, the ferocity of her determination, and the unimpeachable rationality of her method.

As it was, she died before she could complete the task, in 1950, at the age of 43.

Alice Kober

Michael Ventris’s story is actually quite tragic. In 1956, while driving late at night, he slammed into the back of a truck parked by the side of the road. He was 34 years old. The death was ruled accidental; not everyone considers it so.

Michael Ventris

There’s an interesting article on the subject by Theodore Dalrymple in the New English Review.

 

 

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Aphorisms gleaned from Barbara Kingsolver’s Unsheltered (followed by some general comments on the novel)

January 16, 2019 at 4:52 pm (Book review, books)

 

 

 

Every education brings a point of reckoning, and this was his: seeing the world divided in two camps, the investigators and the sweeteners. (p.41)

These beautiful children seemed capable of generating contentment out of thin air.(p.55)

I’ve seen my own grandchildren do this:

A mother can only be as happy as her unhappiest child.(56)

“When the nuisance of old mythologies  falls away from us, we may see with new eyes.”(p.89)

Willa marveled a his capacity to live a life undisturbed by actual evidence.(p.103)

Haven’t some of us known persons with that same gift?

It must have been  a bird ritual, the drumming up of collective will to take the blind leap of faith, forsaking all safety to fly across an ocean to the southern hemisphere.(p.177)

Beautiful people liked to claim looks didn’t matter, while throwing that currency around like novice bank robbers.(p.294)

“When you pick up  glass it’s like you’re raising a toast to all the people that drank from it before. All those happy anniversaries in a beautiful place, and all the future ones.”(p.318) (from a section of the novel describing life in contemporary Cuba)

A mother’s unfulfilled ambitions lie heaviest on her daughters.(p.325)

I can attest to the truth of this.

As an only child, Willa could hear people’s complaints about their siblings only as a primal form of bragging. They had a tribe. They belonged.(p.388)

Of course she knew every word was archived electronically somewhere, and that she could find it online if she really wanted to….But giving up the physical record of all that work felt like a kind of death. Online wasn’t enough. She wanted it to weigh something.(p.440)

She’d watched her kids master these  first small tasks with an application of effort  that seemed superhuman, but of course it only amounted to being human, a story written in genes. First they would stagger, then grow competent, and then forget the difficulty altogether while thinking of other things, and  that was  survival.(p.454)

And so: what of this book as a whole? My verdict is decidedly mixed. I liked the basic plot premise: it is a tale of two families, one living in the here and now, the other in the 1870s. They inhabit the same town, Vineland, in southern New Jersey. In fact, they live in the same house. Then, as now, it’s a domicile enlivened by plenty of turmoil.

Now ordinarily I love novels that feature lots of family infighting. Done right, they can seem very true to life, at times, even funny, in a savage sort of way. But the characters in the contemporary part of the story tend to speak at rather than to each other, as if they were delivering campaign orations on everything from the inequities of capitalism to the crisis of the environment.

I was okay with this at first, but it happened often enough that it got on my nerves. Dinnertime conversation consisted mainly of polemics. It got so that I longed to hear just one small voice venture, even tentatively, to ask if somebody would please pass the potatoes.

Because of this, I initially preferred the nineteenth century family. It seemed as though there would be less speechifying there. And some of the writing was lovely, especially when Kingsolver  describes Thatcher Greenwood and his wife Rose:

Unbustled and unbonneted like this, Rose was a gravitational body that drew his front against her back, his bearded jaw against her tiny zenith. Their perfect fit sent a whiskey thrill through his veins. After six months of marriage he was still in thrall of his wife’s physical properties, and wondered whether this made him a lucky man or  a doomed one.

Alas, for my money, there was not nearly enough of this gently undulant prose.

When I read fiction, I don’t want to be harangued about competing ideologies. At least, not to the exclusion of real flesh and blood characters. I do like the way Kingsolver sneaks in brief, pithy truisms like the ones I’ve  quoted above. But I found the characterizations thin, almost to the point of caricature. The story of the modern family is told mainly through the viewpoint of Willa, whom I found somewhat obtuse and not particularly sympathetic.

So for me, this was a frustrating reading experience. Unsheltered contained much that was bracing and thought provoking. But it wasn’t quite enough to counteract my frustration with the characters and the dialog. Merve Emre, in The Atlantic, sums things up in this description of dinnertime with the Knox-Tavoularis family, consisting of Willa, her affectionate but ineffectual husband Iano, Iano’s elderly father Nick, Willa and Iano’s adult children Zeke and Tig, and Zeke’s baby son

If Vineland is supposed to be a microcosm of the United States in 2016, then the house is an excuse for Kingsolver to cram five people with disparate political allegiances under one leaky roof. Family dinners are exhausting opportunities to rehearse the major fault lines in mainstream American politics. Willa wonders why it seems like “there’s less money in the world than there used to be.” Iano bemoans his lack of job security, blaming his failed tenure bids on jealous colleagues and rumors of affairs with students. “Boundaries, everybody keeps saying this word and I never get it,” he complains. Zeke and Tig bicker about finance capital and ecocide, volleying clichés at each other while Willa watches, bemused, and Iano submits clarifying comments. “Grow or die, that’s just the law of our economy, Tiggo,” Zeke says. “There’s no more room to grow,” Tig snaps back. “Supply and demand,” offers Iano, who we are supposed to believe has a doctorate in global politics. Nick mutters racist epithets and rails against Obamacare. The baby puts things in his mouth and cries. This is the American-family novel as Sunday-morning talk show—a character drama with no real characters, only sound bites masquerading as human beings.

 

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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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