When to the sessions of sweet silent thought…

January 27, 2018 at 3:08 am (Book clubs, Book review, books, Family, Historical fiction, Mystery fiction)

  So there I am reading this mystery set in New Jersey in the year 1914, when I come across the following:

Deputy Morris went first and cut to the left, which would take him down a narrow street occupied mostly by cobblers and tailors and other such shops whose doors had closed hours ago.

Constance Kopp, the main character, is headed for a potentially dangerous rendezvous. She’s being discreetly shadowed by members of the Bergen County Sheriff’s Department, including Sheriff Heath himself. (This novel is, in fact, based on a true story.)

The above quoted sentence, however, plucked me out of that scenario and hit me in the face with another – one that, for this particular reader, was very close to home.

But first – a bit of background:

My father was  born in Westfield, in Union County, New Jersey in 1914. Shortly thereafter, the family moved one county north to Maplewood, in Essex County. (My grandparents had immigrated from what was then called Russia, now the Ukraine. They came through Ellis Island, where immigration officials struggled with foreign names written in unknown alphabets. What they came up with for my father’s family was ‘Tedlow.’ ‘Tevelov’ might have been closer. As best I’m able to reproduce it, it might have looked like this in Cyrillic: ‘Тевелов.’)

My grandfather Jacob Tedlow had a small tailoring business in Maplewood. He named the establishment The New York Tailoring Company, or something like it. I know that the name contained “New York” because I recall my father commenting that the choice of moniker revealed “delusions of grandeur” on his father’s part. (This was said in jest, but it was a sort of poignant jest.)

Below is a map of the counties that make up the state of New Jersey:

It can be readily seen that Essex County is just below Bergen County, with a section of Passaic County inserting itself in between the two. (Some of the action in Girl Waits with Gun takes place in Passaic County.) So you see, the mention of shops occupied by tailors and cobblers in the city of Paterson, in Bergen County in 1914, caused the personal association  to spring immediately to mind.

In the early 1990s, when my parents were  still active and healthy, Ron and I went with them to a restaurant in Maplewood. If recollection serves (which it often doesn’t), this small eatery was across the street from the building in which my grandfather’s tailoring business was located. The family, consisting of my grandparents, my father, and his two sisters, also lived in that building. (This was not an unusual arrangement in those days. My mother’s parents had a candy store – or confectioners, as it was officially designated – in Montclair, also in Essex County. They, my mother, and my uncle resided in an apartment on the premises.)

After we’d finished our meal and gone outside, my father pointed to the building’s top floor and told us that as a boy, he used to carry coal up to an elderly lady who lived there.

My father was a handsome and reserved man, not given to revealing his feelings or indulging in recollections of the past. The only other childhood memory that I remember him sharing was  of standing outside with a crowd of people who were cheering the soldiers who’d come back from the First World War. That would have been in 1919; at the time, he would have been five years old.

(I’m digging deep into the past here, and I hope I haven’t made any egregious misstatements. If I have, I apologize.)

Girl Waits With Gun is our next selection for the Usual Suspects Mystery Book Group discussion.At present, I’m about two thirds of the way in, for the most part, I’m enjoying it, especially as regards the novel’s historical aspect.  For me, it has certainly summoned up “remembrance of things past,” and I’m grateful to Carol for choosing it for us.

I admit, though, that I was made somewhat uneasy at first, as there were several disparaging references to those of the Jewish faith made at the outset. For instance, here is Constance Kopp relating some of her family’s history:

My grandfather—an educated man, a chemist—liked to say that he brought his family here to give them a more stable and certain future, and to keep his boys out of the endless wars with France and Italy, but my grandmother once whispered that they moved to get away from the Jews. “After they got to leave the ghettos they could live anywhere,” she hissed, and glanced out the window as if she suspected they were moving to Brooklyn, too, which of course they were.

However, thus far there’s been no recurrence of this kind of casually tossed-off antisemitism, and I can only conclude that it’s been made a part of this narrative for the sake, alas, of verisimilitude. (Although my parents and grandparents rarely spoke of it, they had from time to time encountered the expression of this prejudiced attitude firsthand.)

Some years ago, my son Ben made me a gift of a beautifully framed photograph of my father. It enjoys pride of place on our living room wall. When I’m reading on the couch – a favorite place for that activity – I can look up and see it. In this way, he keeps me company during this solitary pursuit.

Permalink 1 Comment

‘The clear waters of the channels ran over golden sands….’ – “St Clair Flats,” by Constance Fenimore Woolson

January 21, 2018 at 3:29 pm (Book clubs, Book review, books, Short stories)

  Miss Grief and Other Stories by Constance Fenimore Woolson was my choice for our discussion, but I was having a very difficult time getting the presentation to come together in a satisfactory manner.

This volume consists of a foreward by Colm Toibin, an introduction by the editor Anne Boyd Rioux, and a selection of seven  stories. The stories were carefully chosen to represent the different aspects and settings of Woolson’s oeuvre: “St. Clair Flats”(1873)  is set in the Great Lakes Region; “Solomon”(1873), in eastern Ohio; “Rodman the Keeper'(1877), in North Carolina; “Sister St. Luke”(1877), in Florida; “‘Miss Grief'”(1880) in Rome; “A Florentine Experiment”(1880) in Florence, Italy; and “In Sloane Street”(1892) in London.

I asked the group – AAUW Readers by name – to read the foreward, the introduction, and four of the stories: “St. Clair Flats,” “‘Miss Grief’,” “A Florentine Experiment,” and “In Sloane Street.”

In her introduction, Anne Boyd Rioux reveals enough of Woolson’s biography for us to know that she lived a somewhat peripatetic, restless life, always trying to stay true to her writer’s art while fighting off the wolves of encroaching penury. Rioux’s final paragraph made my heart ache:

Woolson’s works deserve wider attention today, not only for the way they broaden our understanding of late-nineteenth-century American literature, but also for the way they capture both the social texture of her time and the inner emotional lives of her characters. Her works contradict our assumptions about women’s writing from that era, for Woolson did not seek recognition as a woman writer but as a writer. Thus she often tread on masculine territory in her work, while never trying to simply mimic the successes of her male peers. She sought instead to show them what was missing from their views of humanity, broadening the scope of literature to include the heartaches and triumphs of those most often overlooked, such as impoverished spinsters, neglected nuns, self-sacrificing wives and widows, uneducated coal miners, and destitute Southerners. Most of all her writings reflect what is deeply human in all of us, particularly our need to be loved, to be understood, and to belong, none of which are easily accomplished in her stories, or in life.

The most famous of the ‘male peers’ Woolson was trying not to imitate was Henry James. They met when both were living in Florence. James was generous and companionable with his fellow writer, even though Woolson’s encroaching deafness made it difficult for her to socialize. (Included in their close Florentine circle were composer Francis Boott, his daughter Lizzie, a painter, and her husband Frank Duveneck, also an artist. I began our discussion by recounting the way in which I most unexpectedly encountered a scion of the Duvenecks this past November in Northern California. For more on this curious confluence, read “The Nature of California.”)

“St.Clair Flats” was the first story I ever read by Constance Fenimore Woolson. (And yes she came by that middle name honestly: James Fenimore Cooper was her great-uncle.) I fell under its enchantment at once.

The year is 1855. In the course of their search for a congenial place to hunt and fish, two men find find themselves boating through a region of the Great Lakes known as the St. Clair Flats. The place is both bleak and beautiful, depending on whom you ask, and when:

The word “marsh” does not bring up a beautiful picture to the mind, and yet the reality was as beautiful as anything I have ever seen,— an enchanted land, whose memory haunts me as an idea unwritten, a melody unsung, a picture unpainted, haunts the artist, and will not away. On each side and in front, as far as the eye could reach, stretched the low green land which was yet no land, intersected by hundreds of channels, narrow and broad, whose waters were green as their shores. In and out, now running into each other for a moment, now setting off each for himself again, these many channels flowed along with a rippling current; zigzag as they were, they never seemed to loiter, but, as if knowing just where they were going and what they had to do, they found time to take their own pleasant roundabout way, visiting the secluded households of their friends the flags, who, poor souls, must always stay at home. These currents were as clear as crystal, and green as the water-grasses that fringed their miniature shores.

Thus does the narrator reflect on his surroundings. Later, he has an exchange with a boatman that portrays things in a different light:

“It is beautiful,— beautiful,” I said, looking off over the vivid green expanse.

“Beautiful?” echoed the captain, who had himself taken charge of the steering when the steamer entered the labyrinth,—“ I don’t see anything beautiful in it!— Port your helm up there; port!”

“Port it is, sir,” came back from the pilot-house above.

“These Flats give us more trouble than any other spot on the lakes; vessels are all the time getting aground and blocking up the way, which is narrow enough at best. There’s some talk of Uncle Sam’s cutting a canal right through,— a straight canal; but he’s so slow, Uncle Sam is, and I’m afraid I’ll be off the waters before the job is done.”

“A straight canal!” I repeated, thinking with dismay of an ugly utilitarian ditch invading this beautiful winding waste of green.

“Yes, you can see for yourself what a saving it would be,” replied the captain.

The narrator and his friend have a somewhat surreal time of it, enveloped by the strange beauty of this region and moreover, finding a place to stay with two unusual individuals: a man called Waiting Samuel and his wife Roxana. What Samuel appears to be waiting for is what we now term the End Times. He is a thoroughly otherworldly visionary. Roxana mainly acts the part of his submissive helpmate; at the same time, she’s the one that takes care of practical matters and keeps their dwelling afloat and viable.

After a particular glorious day spent enjoying the unique and seductive beauty of the Flats, the two men receive news of a sad and urgent nature. They are forced to return home with all due haste. The parting with Roxana is especially poignant:

At the turn I looked back; Roxana was sitting motionless in her boat; the dark clouds were rolling up behind her; and the Flats looked wild and desolate. “God help her!” I said.

Years passed quickly. In 1870, the narrator has occasion to revisit the Flats. He finds them, not unexpectedly, much changed:

“It is beautiful, beautiful,” I thought, “but it is passing away.”

This vision of a paradise lost in our own country is one of the most affecting passages of fiction that I have ever encountered. Affecting – and strangely unique in our literature.

As our discussion of this story was reaching its conclusion, Doris asked, “Is this a metaphor?” A metaphor, perhaps, for the waywardness of our journey through this life? And also, perhaps, for the sudden and unexpected turnings of that journey. (And by the way, the perceptive observations made by this excellent group of book lovers made this discussion a real pleasure – at least, I thought so!)

When I returned home from this discussion -more specifically, from our subsequent lunch out as a group, always a pleasant follow-up activity – I did something I hadn’t done before: I did a Google Image search for Lake St. Clair:

Canal leading to Lake St. Clair

Constance Fenimore Woolson was living alone in Venice, Italy in 1894 when she passed away. Although it is not known for certain, the manner of her death would seem to indicate that she died by her own hand. She was 53 years old.

When Henry James heard this news, he was devastated. Asked to help dispose of Woolson’s effects, he had himself rowed out to the depths of a lagoon in order to push her voluminous garments under the water. In The Private Life of Henry James, author Lyndall Gordon describes the scene:

In April 1894, a middle-aged gentleman, bearing a load of dresses, was rowed to the deepest part of the Venetian lagoon. A strange scene followed: he began to drown the dresses, one by one. There were a good many, well-made, tasteful, and all dark, suggesting a lady of quiet habits and some reserve. The gondolier’s pole would have been useful for pushing them under the still water. But the dresses refused to drown. One by one they rose to the surface, their busts and sleeves swelling like black balloons. Purposefully, the gentleman pushed them under, but silent, reproachful, they rose before his eyes.

“….they rose before his eyes.” As a remonstrance, even a rebuke? In an article in The New Republic entitled “Betrayed by Henry James,” author Max Nelson might agree with that assessment.

I was so taken by the life and works of Constance Fenimore Woolson that I went on to read this biography: Concerning her work as a scholar of literature,  the following appears on Anne Boyd Rioux’s  website:

In her teaching and writing, Rioux is passionate about the recovery of 19th-century American women writers who wrote fascinating, sometimes provocative, and often daring works that have been unavailable and unread for generations.

I am deeply grateful to Boyd Rioux for rescuing this worthy artist from obscurity and placing her front and center in the ranks of great American writers. She has every right to be there. And next, I’d like to see more re-issues of her works along the lines of Miss Grief and Other Stories. Meanwhile, Amazon has on offer quite a few of Woolson’s works in e-book format.

Constance Fenimore Woolson 1840-1894

(And one more thing: I’d like to suggest that Professor Boyd Rioux have a look at the life and work of Metta Fuller Victor.)

 

 

Permalink Leave a Comment

A Sultry Month: Scenes of London Literary Life in 1846, by Alethea Hayter

January 14, 2018 at 1:51 pm (Anglophilia, Book review, books, France, London 2017)

While in London, I had the good fortune to find myself in the vicinity of the London Review Bookshop. (Sister-in-law Donna figured this out courtesy of the mapping function she employed with admirable dexterity on her iPhone.) Naturally that meant that I soon found myself inside the shop.   The cash register was at the back; there, I found issues of the venerable London Review of Books. I informed one of the young people staffing the desk that I subscribe to the review ‘back home in Maryland, USA.’ He immediately exclaimed, with booming gusto: “Cracking good mag, innit?!” Yet another wonderful British moment….

As it happened, I had a new issue waiting for me when I got back home. In it was a review of One Hot Summer: Dickens, Darwin, Disraeli ad the Great Stink of 1858, by Rosemary Ashton.

Reviewer Rosemary Hill observes that aside from the choking stench emanating from the Thames River, nothing else of great moment happened in London in the year 1858. It is therefore, she concludes, “the perfect subject for a microhistory.”

Hill continues:

Great events cast shadows over details which in an undramatic year, or season, can be more clearly seen. Alethea Hayter’s A Sultry Month, published in 1965, was one of the earliest and best examples  of what has become a popular  genre. Set in another heat wave, in 1846, Hayter’s account weaves together the famous, the obscure and the forgotten.

Hill enumerates just a few of the writers and artists who are featured in Hayter’s slender volume – Samuel Rogers, Jane Carlyle, Thomas Carlyle, Benjamin Robert Haydon, Robert Browning, Elizabeth Barrett,  and Gräfin Hahn-Hahn (that’s her name alright – no mistake!). Hayter documents their lives and interactions so closely that “…from day to day and street to street, the sublime and the ridiculous appear in the proximity they occupy in life.”

Hill then goes on to make further observations on the microhistory subgenre:

This is surely one reason for the rise of microhistory, that it brings the texture of the past closer. It illustrates the ‘human position’, the way the momentous occurs ‘while someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along.’…When it is done well, microhistory opens out from its immediate subject matter and  the result is like looking through a keyhole and seeing a whole landscape.

Meanwhile, I had developed a strong need to get my hands on A Sultry Month. There is no e-book available; the physical book is out of print. I bought a used copy from Amazon.

I’m now about two thirds of the way through it. I am deliberately reading as slowly as possible, as I do not want it to end. I love it.

While Haydon was walking out of the northern fringe of London, Browning was sitting on the grass in the garden at New Cross, and was conscious of the immensity of the whole round earth under him, and saw it as an image of  the love that now supported all his life. At the same time Elizabeth Barrett was sitting on the drawing-room window seat in Wimpole Street, writing to him while he was thinking of her.

(Those of my generation may recall watching the play The Barretts of Wimpole Street on television in 1956. I was twelve years old at the time, and that production made an indelible impression on my  nascent romantic imagination.

Katharine Cornell as Elizabeth Barrett)

I had never heard of Alethea Hayter before this. Her obituary in The Guardian – she died in 2006 at the age of 94 –  says this of her works:

In all these books, she manages to unite the narrative sweep and urgency of a novel with impeccable historical and social research and a uniquely elegant style.

I will certainly be reading more books by Alethea Hayter. I’ve  already downloaded this one: 

*************
I can recommend yet another microhistory: The Return of Martin Guerre by Natalie Zemon Davis. This book came out shortly after the release of a terrific film Le Retour de Martin Guerre starring Gerard Depardieu. (And while you’re  at it, seek out Janet Lewis’s novelized version of this true story, The Wife of Martin Guerre.)

 

 

Permalink 1 Comment

A suggestion for ‘paired reading’

January 6, 2018 at 9:12 pm (Book review, books)

 

I found Robert Harris’s inside-the-Vatican scenario as engrossing as any thriller I’ve read lately. This should not have surprised me; Harris is a master at generating suspense through creative use of setting and the placement therein of believable characters operating under duress.

Thomas Kenneally employs similar techniques to great effect in Crimes of the Father. This novel tackles head-on the exposure of cases of abuse by priests and the subsequent action (or lack of same) undertaken by the church. This will be a sensitive subject for many people, and they may or may not agree with the way in which Thomas Kenneally has handled this material.

Kenneally has placed a four-page Author’s Note ahead of the novel’s text. In it, he reveals that he was raised Catholic and attended seminary for a period, but upon realizing his unsuitability for the priest’s vocation, dropped out.

I just want to say a few more things about Crimes of the Father. The writing is excellent; I loved the conversations between  and among the various dramatis personae. The story is mainly told through the eyes of Father Frank Docherty. This is an entirely believable man – not just believable, but human and vulnerable, as assailed by doubts as are the rest of us, in this life. Above all he is a person of genuine integrity. He is a gentle Irishman by heritage, with an Irish sense of humor that’s never exercised at someone else’s expense. You may have been lucky enough in your life to know someone like him, either in the clergy or in some other walk of life.

******************
For more on paired reading, click on the post entitled “The Pleasures of Paired Reading.”

 

 

Permalink 2 Comments

Best Books of 2017: Contemporary Crime Fiction, Part Two

January 3, 2018 at 3:11 pm (Best of 2017, Book review, books, Mystery fiction)

We’ve slipped over the finish line into 2018, so it behooves me to finish posting my “best reads” in crime fiction of the past year:

Old Bones by Cynthia Harrod-Eagles. A series that, by virtue of its wit, sympathetic cast of characters, and above all its self-effacing hero Bill Slider, has been an unadulterated delight since its inception back in 1991.

Cynthia Harrod-Eagles

Dungeon House Martin Edwards. Another winning series, by an author who’s also a distinguished scholar of the genre.

Skin and Bone by Robin Blake. An historical series of superior quality in which Blake narrates the exploits of Titus Cragg, coroner, and Luke Fidelis, a physician in 18th century Lancashire, England. People need to discover these marvelous novels!

Robin Blake

Stone Coffin by Kjell Eriksson. This Swedish series featuring Detectives Ann Lindell and Ola Haver is exceptionally well written and at times, genuinely moving. (Although Stone Coffin is the most recently published book in this series, it’s actually the earliest that’s been translated into English and is therefore a good place to begin.)

Kjell Erikkson

A Fine Line by Gianrico Carofiglio. I continue to champion this little-known high quality series set in Bari, Italy, and featuring the extremely appealing ‘avvocato’ Guido Guerrieri. (Carofiglio’s nonseries novel The Silence of the Waves is also very much worth reading.)

Gianrico Carofiglio

Magpie Murders by Anthony Horowitz. For sheer delicious enjoyment, this one was the big winner.

Trace by Archer Mayor. This is number twenty-eight in a series I’ve been following for years. Also I’ve felt a special bond with this author ever since I stood right next to him while ostensibly browsing the magazines at Onsite News in BWI  Thurgood Marshall Airport several years ago. (Sighting was later confirmed by means of a subsequent email exchange with the ever congenial Mayor.)

Archer Mayor

Fast Falls the Night by Julia Keller. I was deeply touched by the sufferings, both noble and ignominious, of the people of Acker’s Gap, West Virginia. I can do no better than  to quote the Kirkus Review of this novel: “Keller’s prose is so pure that her exploration of the desperate scourge of drugs and poverty and her forecast of a grim future for her heroine are a joy to read.”

Julia Keller

Paganini’s Ghost by Paul Adam. Recently reviewed by me in this space.

 

 

Permalink 2 Comments

Best books of 2017: Contemporary crime fiction, Part One

December 26, 2017 at 1:37 pm (Best of 2017, books, Mystery fiction)

A Legacy of Spies. What wonderful work from John LeCarre, a living demonstration that his gifts as a  storyteller and his uncanny feeling for the shadowy world of espionage remain undiminished.

The Girl in the Ice and The Night Stalker – Bryndza. After The Girl in the Ice, I knew I’d be coming back for more – the second is, if anything,  better than the first.

A Great Reckoning by Louise Penny

The Crow Trap and The Seagull by Ann Cleeves. I’m now happily working my way through the Vera Stanhope series. What an original and oddly appealing protagonist she is.

The Templars’ Last Secret – Walker. I read each new Bruno Chief of Police novel as it comes out, not waiting on the reviews – I know I want to spend time with Bruno and the other denizens of the village of St. Denis. And I always want to be updated on his never-quite-successful love life. (Bruno earnestly desires a wife and children:  I’m rooting for you, Bruno!)

Nine Lessons by Nicola Upson. Ordinarily I’m not drawn to mysteries featuring real historical personages as protagonists, but I’d been hearing and reading good things about this series; this is especially true of Jessica Mann’s review of this novel (among others) in the October issue of Literary Review Magazine. Being a staunch fan of Josephine Tey’s mysteries, I decided to give it a try. I liked it a great deal, for its depiction of the interwar years, the Cambridge setting, and the portrayal of Tey as a resourceful, courageous woman of great integrity. (This is precisely  how I prefer to think of her factual counterpart.)

The Grave Tattoo by Val McDermid. A rich mixture of history and literature made this somewhat lengthy mystery well worth the effort.

Dance Hall of the Dead. What a pleasure it was to return to the works of Tony Hillerman; his mysteries brought the Native American culture of New Mexico to such vivid life. In fact, he and Judith Van Gieson both made the state itself seem so special and exotic that I felt I had to go there. I did – twice – and I fell in love with the place. It is truly the Land of Enchantment.

Earthly Remains by Donna Leon. Not my absolute  favorite from the Guido Brunetti series, but being in the company of the urbane and compassionate Commissario  always results in time well spent.

The Crossing and The Late Show by Michael Connelly. As good as The Crossing was – it was voted best ‘read’ of 2017 by the Usual SuspectsThe Late Show was even better. Michael Connelly has given us a terrific new protagonist – Detective Renee Ballard – provided her with an intriguing back story, and then summoned up a rich brew of murder, departmental backstabbing, and fiendishly complicated criminal enterprise with which to contend. And boy, does she contend!

When I started reading The Late Show three days ago, I was  daunted by its length – 400 pages. I’m hopping on a plane next week and can’t possibly schlepp such a weighty tome along with me. As it turns out – no worries; I finished it this morning. Among its many other virtues, it is quite the page turner.

(A slightly altered version of my blog post on the Suspects’ discussion of The Crossing appeared in the Fall 2017 issue of the Mystery Readers Journal.)

 

 

 

Permalink Leave a Comment

Best Books of 2017, Part Two: Crime fiction and suspense: older and classic titles

December 24, 2017 at 9:25 pm (Best of 2017, books, Mystery fiction)

I’ve already written a post on the classic mysteries I’ve consumed with gusto this year. I’ve also read other older mysteries that might not rightly be termed classics but that nevertheless made for enjoyable reading.

Envious Casca by Georgette Heyer (1941)

 

Troubled Daughters, Twisted Wives, a landmark story collection edited by Sarah Weinman

The Hours Before Dawn – Celia Fremlin’s 1958 Edgar Award winner is a novel of domestic suspense well ahead of its time. An exhausted mother of three demanding children takes in a lodger and comes to wish she hadn’t.

The Mystery of a Hansom Cab. Fergus Hume’s 1886 runaway bestseller set in Melbourne, Australia. (This is a book about which a book has been written: Blockbuster! by Lucy Sussex.)

 

Police at the Funeral by Margery Allingham (1931). Thanks to a perceptive article by A.S. Byatt, I finally “get” Albert Campion and Company – even Magersfontein Lugg! This one was a twist on the country  house murder trope: elegantly plotted and witty to boot.

Dead Letter and The Figure Eight (1866 and 1869 respectively) by Metta  Fuller Victor. If you’re going to read one, make it The Dead Letter.

Madame Maigret’s Friend by Georges Simenon (1950). Read this during insomniac moments in London. Good, but not , methinks, the best of the Maigret novels.

 

The DA Cooks a Goose and The DA Goes To Trial (1942 and 1940 respectively). Still working my way through the hugely enjoyable (for this reader, at least) Doug Selby novels.

 

Permalink 1 Comment

Best Reading in 2017, Part One: Fiction and Nonfiction

December 21, 2017 at 3:07 pm (Best of 2017, books)

We’ve already had the lists from the New York Times, the Washington Post, NPR, the Guardian, the Wall Street Journal, Kirkus…. And now the one you’ve all been waiting for breathlessly:

Roberta’s Favorite Reads for 2017, Part One

Fiction

Improvement by Joan Silber. A terrific writer hits it out of the ball park yet again.

Do Not Become Alarmed by Maile Meloy. Suspense? ‘Literary’ fiction? However you categorize it, a gripping, unputdownable novel.

The Past, and Bad Dreams and Other Stories by Tessa Hadley. The only author this year to appear twice on my list. She’s officially one of my absolute favorite writers.

Trajectory by Richard Russo. Four long stories – more like novellas – comprise this slender and powerful collection. I haven’t read anything by Russo since Empire Falls; I’d forgotten what delight his work can provide.

Conclave by Robert Harris. I couldn’t imagine how this novel set in the claustrophobic environs of the Vatican could possibly interest me. But how, after the Cicero Trilogy, The Fear Index, Pompeii, An Officer and a Spy, and The Ghost, could I ever have doubted this gifted novelist’s transfixing powers?

One thing I really appreciated about Conclave as the way in which the intense faith of the priests and cardinals was bodied forth in prayer, both in formal occasions and in moments of private urgency.

The Dark Flood Rises by Margaret Drabble

Reservoir 13 by Jon MacGregor. I am somewhat ambivalent about listing this novel.  Yes, the writing is lyrical, the evocation of rural Britain is striking, the critics mostly raved – and yet….Maureen Corrigan’s review summed it up for me exactly:

….as admirable as McGregor’s achievement is, I frequently found myself looking for excuses to stop admiring it and read something else.

And finally, News of the World by Paulette Jiles, a slim triumph of a novel. I don’t often finish a work of fiction with a feeling of such deep gratitude for  the gifts it bestowed.

Nonfiction

 

I had great reading in this category  this year, as you will see:

 

Death in the Air: The True Story of a Serial Killer, the Great London Smog, and the Strangling of a City, by Kate Winkler Dawson. I never go a chance to blog about this book, but trust  me – it’s a terrific story.

Story of Classic Crime in 100 Books by Martin Edwards. This book is responsible for greatly enriching my reading of crime fiction this year.

Henry David Thoreau: A Life, by Laura Dassow Walls. And what a life it was: edifying and enriching, and way too short.

American Fire: Love, Arson, and Life in a Vanishing Land, by Monica Hesse

The Shepherd’s Life: Modern Dispatches from an Ancient Landscape, by James Rebanks. Okay, so for a while, I got kind of obsessed with Mr. Rebanks and his pastoral life in the north of England. Blame it mostly on those wonderful border collies.

The Opium Eater: A Life of Thomas de Quincey, By Grevel Lindop

The Witness Tree: Seasons of Change with a Century-Old Oak, by Lynda V. Mapes

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

Mrs. Sherlock Holmes: The True Story of New York City’s Greatest Female Detective and the 1917 Missing Girl Case That Captivated a Nation,  by Brad Ricca

Incendiary: The Psychiatrist, the Mad Bomber, and the Invention of Criminal Profiling, by Michael Cannell

A Very English Scandal: Sex, Lies, and a Murder Plot at the Heart of the Establishment, by John Preston

Astrophysics for People in a Hurry by Neil deGrasse Tyson. What can I say? I felt a need for a change of pace. And yes, I did read every word of it. How much I actually understood is open to question, but Neil deGrasse Tyson is such an entertaining raconteur, it didn’t really matter:

   As the universe continued to cool, the amount of energy available for the spontaneous creation of basic particles dropped. During the hadron era, ambient photons could no longer invoke E=mc^2 to manufacture quark-antiquark pairs. Not only that, the photons that emerged from all the remaining annihilations lost energy to the ever-expanding universe, dropping below the threshold  required to create hadron-antihadron pairs. For every billion annihilations–leaving a billion photons in their wake–a single hadron survived. Those loners would get to have all the fun: serving as the ultimate source of matter to create galaxies, stars, planets, and petunias.

At this point I find I must give a shout-out to the Wall Street Journal for its selection of the Ten “Books of the Year.”  In Fiction, the editors included, among others, Joan Silber’s Improvement; in Nonfiction, both Laura Dassow Walls’s biography of Thoreau and Killers of the Flower Moon by David Grann made the cut. (To access the full text of Wall Street Journal articles, use the Proquest database. It can be accessed on the Howard County Library site, and at other academic and public libraries.)

Part Two of this post will be forthcoming – but first I must return to London….

 

 

 

Permalink 1 Comment

The 2017 year end meeting of the Usual Suspects Mystery Book Discussion group

December 19, 2017 at 4:56 pm (Book clubs, books, Mystery fiction)

I always look forward to the Usual Suspects’ end of year meeting. It’s a time and place where we talk about the books and authors we’ve read during the year, both for group discussion and for individual reading pleasure.

Pauline always sends us material in advance of this meeting. She creates a grid in which the following material about each book appears: title and author, the month that the discussion took place, comments/awards for author, and the name of the discussion leader. Then there is a further breakdown containing information as to setting and time period, type of investigator (e.g. lawyer, detective, private investigator), and finally, sex and nationality of the authors we read. (That last is always interesting and sometimes surprising: in our 2017 discussion year, there were three male authors and seven women. Six of the authors were American, three were British, and one was Canadian.)

Here are the books:

 

 

 

Pauline also provided us with the following discussion questions:

1. Which is the most impressive book? What did you like about this book? What did you dislike about the book?

2. Did you notice anything in particular about the author’s writing style in any of the books? Which is the best-written book? Which has the best-developed characters?

3. What new things did you learn about the world from a particular book and subsequent group discussion? Which book provided the best treatment of a location?

4. Which author(s) would you like to read more of? Is there a particular type of mystery you’d like to read in the future?

5. Which book has the best puzzle?

6. Which book(s) deserve or do not deserve the awards they received?

7. Are there any other books that we should comment on that have been left out of today’s discussion?

Frank added these questions to the mix:

For each of the books please answer, if you can, the following questions:

  1. What did you like about the book?
  2. What did you dislike about the book?
  3. What new things did you learn about the world from the book and/or subsequent group discussion?
  4. What new things did you learn about the art of writing from the book and/or subsequent group discussion?

As usual, we dove with zest into the discussion. Several of us expressed our gratitude for the chance to revisit the works of Tony Hillerman. We appreciated the Washington DC setting of Hagar’s Last Dance; even more so, the setting of Wilde Lake – right here in Columbia! Marge felt that she got a sense of what World War Two was like for Parisians in Murder on the Quai.

I think that we were all impressed by Jade Dragon Mountain, with its setting so remote in time and place and yet so vividly brought to life by author Elsa Hart. Frances reiterated her praise for Louise Penny. It interests me that while Penny’s Three Pines novels are so widely loved by readers – both here and in Penny’s native Canada –  and are so highly praised by reviewers, several members of our group have reservations about them. I’m one of them. Although there have been a number of books in this series that I’ve genuinely enjoyed, I found A Great Reckoning hard going.

Even people who did not for the most part care for Envious Casca agreed that its locked room puzzle was a cunning contrivance. Finally, Frank’s  choice of Michael Connelly’s The Crossing has caused several of us to want more of the same from this distinguished author of American police procedurals set in – where else? –  Southern California.

At this year end meeting, we always vote for our favorite “read” from among that year’s selections. This year’s winner was The Crossing; Dance Hall of the Dead came in second.

As is the custom, we were asked to bring a book to share with the group. If there’s time, you can mention a second title. Here’s how that worked out this year:

Frances: A Conspiracy in Belgravia (Lady Sherlock Series) by Sherry Thomas
Frank: Getting to Yes: Negotiating Agreement Without Giving In by Roger Fisher and William Ury
Anne M.: The Inheritance by Charles Finch
Roberta: Death in the Air: The True Story of a Serial Killer, the Great London Smog, and the Strangling of a City by Kate Winkler Dawson; and Fast Falls the Night by Julia Keller
Cheryl: Blood on the Water by Anne Perry
Pauline: My Darling Detective by Howard Norman; Maggie Hope mystery series starting with Mr. Churchill’s Secretary by Susan Elia MacNeal
Marge: The Siege Winter by Ariana Franklin and Samantha Norman; Fatal by John Lescroart
Ann R.: Paganini’s Ghost by Paul Adam
Mike: The Chessmen : The Trilogy by Peter May
Louise: Design for Dying by Renee Patrick
Carol: The Late Show by Michael Connelly

Carol has been gently but firmly coaxing us towards declaring our choices for next year. Here’s how that list is currently shaping up:

(The process of choosing your title for the coming year can be tortuous. Sometimes one becomes afflicted with analysis paralysis. You want the book to be enjoyable to read and also to lend itself to a good discussion. Something that’s not too heavy but not too lightweight either. At times, this can seem like a tall order. Then of course it’s a tricky business trying to anticipate the reaction of others to what you’re presenting. I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s preferable to pick something that you’re not extremely emotionally attached to. )

I was pleased to see that we’re doing another Erika Foster novel by Robert Bryndza, as I very much enjoyed Girl in the Ice. And after starting with the second book in Martin Walker’s Bruno Chief of Police series and reading pretty much every entry thereafter, I’m at last going to get around to reading the first! The Crow Trap I read this summer and loved. It made me into a Vera  Stanhope groupie! And finally I’m pleased and delighted that we’ll be reading a Judith Van Gieson novel. For years, Marge and I have lamented the fact that this fine writer never found a wider audience. We especially like her earlier series featuring Albuquerque lawyer Neil Hamel, but really, any and all of her books are worth reading.

The only problem with this meeting is that I always end up with more titles to add to my must-read list – not exactly what I need, at the moment! But I am genuinely grateful to the Suspects for a year of excellent reading, with more to come. I devour book reviews in magazines and newspapers, but the really memorable reading experiences I have usually come via recommendations from fellow book lovers.

So thank you Suspects for yet another year of fine reading, stimulating conversation, and fast friendship.

 

 

Permalink 4 Comments

Best Reading in 2017: Classic Crime

December 1, 2017 at 10:44 pm (Best of 2017, books, Mystery fiction)

Before I blast off for London town, here’s a shout-out for the year’s most rewarding reading experience; namely, my immersion in vintage and classic works of crime fiction, facilitated by this singularly excellent volume by Martin Edwards:

I’ve already written about several titles suggested therein, but here  are the are again, with new ones added to the mix.

These three were highly enjoyable:

  

  

These, even more so:

features a wonderfully atmospheric setting in the Scottish Highlands

Wonderful turn of the century setting on the continent, with a plot inspired by an actual crime

Click here for my review of this title.

If I had to choose my absolute favorites thus far, it would be these three:

Egyptian mysteries, terrific writing, a cunning plot, and a love story – The Eye of Osiris has all of these elements, and more.

Where Israel Rank is concerned, it’s a classic case of being amazed not to have heard of this book before now. Israel Rank is a young man on the make – and then some. His father is Jewish, and so he is set apart, to a certain degree, at the outset. The accusation of anti-Semitism is frequently made in regard to this novel. Certainly, as the narrative unfolds, the fact of Rank’s Jewish heritage is alluded to from time to time, by himself and by others. Certain unwarranted generalizations are made. I personally was made slightly uneasy at times, but I was never offended. My verdict: the author skates close to the territory, but never actually goes in.

Martin Edwards describes the novel as “edgy and provocative.” I agree with that assessment.

Israel Rank has been adapted both as a film and a Broadway show. The film is from 1949 and is entitled Kind Hearts and Coronets. In it, Alec Guinness  portrays no fewer than nine different characters! The name ‘Israel Rank’ is changed to ‘Louis Mazzini;’ accordingly, he became half Italian rather than half Jewish. I’ve not had a chance to see the film yet, but I hope to soon.   The Broadway musical is entitled A Gentleman’s Guide To Love and Murder. I’ve not seen that either, though my cousin Stephany, a Broadway aficionado par excellence, has seen it and declares it to be quite wonderful.

It’s one of the most recognized name in all of crime fiction. Yet I’d never read a single book by Ellery Queen before now.

What was I waiting for?

I loved Calamity Town. It has everything I look for in a mystery: ingenious plotting, believable and often sympathetic characters, excellent writing, a love story – or a hint of the possibility of one – it’s all here, in abundance. The novel is set in the small New England town of Wrightsville – there are, I believe, several others with the same setting.

The Ellery Queen novels were authored jointly by two men professionally known as Frederic Dannay and Manfred B.Lee.

Manfred B. Lee, left, and Frederic Dannay

Lee and Dannay were two cousins straight out of Brooklyn, that cauldron of American talent (or in a few cases, notoriety).    In addition to writing their own novels and short stories, they anthologized the work of other notable writers.  And of course there’s Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, launched by the Mercury Press in 1941 and still going strong today more than 70 years later. Frederic Dannay was editor-in-chief up until his death in 1982. According to Wikipedia, “It is now the longest-running mystery fiction magazine in existence.”

Michael Grost of A Guide to Classic Mystery and Detection has a lengthy and detailed entry for Ellery Queen. In it, he states bluntly: “They are the most important American detective writers of the Twentieth Century.”

So thanks, Martin Edwards. It’s good to know that I have lots more reading pleasure awaiting me, courtesy of your splendidly curated list!

Martin Edwards

 

 

Permalink 3 Comments

« Previous page · Next page »