“….one feels a power seething inside one, one has a task to do and it must be done.”

March 15, 2020 at 4:55 pm (Art, Book review, books, France)

  Vincent Van Gogh was born on March 30, 1853, in Zundert, Netherlands. Having lived variously in the Netherlands and Belgium, he went to Paris to live with his brother Theo, an art dealer, in 1886. Despite the brothers’ deep love for each other, there were conflicts. Van Gogh was always painting and drawing; he soon developed the idea that living in the south of France would would be beneficial to his life and his art. And so, in 1888, to Arles, and the yellow house.

The Yellow House, 1888

While in Arles, Van Gogh’s health, both mental and physical, rapidly deteriorated. Yet as an artist, this was one of his most prolific and fruitful periods. He had had an idea of creating a sort of colony artists, and Paul Gauguin did in fact join him there for a time. It is hard to imagine two more volatile personalities cohabiting in the same small space. After 63 days had passed, Gauguin left Van Gogh, the yellow house, and the south of France forever. (The Yellow House by Martin Gayford describes this turbulent period in fascinating detail.)

Meanwhile, Van Gogh was experience increasing periods of instability and breakdown. He left the south of France in 1890 and went to live in Auvers-sur-Oise, a suburb of Paris. In this way he could be close to Dr. Paul Gachet, who was himself an aspiring artist as well as a physician.

Portrait of Dr. Gachet, 1890

This was to be the last port of call for the tormented spirit of Vincent Van Gogh. In July, he was found in his room with a gunshot wound to the chest. He survived for some thirty hours. No surgeon was available, so the bullet could not  be removed. At any event, a fatal infection soon set in. At the time of his death on 29 July 1890, Van Gogh, his stunning genius largely unrecognized by the art world, was 37 years old.

(In recent years, a controversy has arisen as to whether Van Gogh actually shot himself, or whether some other person was responsible. For more on this, click here.)

This quick summation leaves out a great deal. For instance, there is a period when Van Gogh was living in The Hague – 1882 to 1883. He took in a prostitute named Clasina Maria “Sien” Hoornik. Sien, pregnant at this time, served as an occasional model for Van Gogh.

Sien, who already had a five-year-old daughter, gave birth to a boy in July of 1882. Vincent cared for Sien; he loved her children even more and was especially taken by little Willem:

A baby, for Vincent, was simply “the best thing”— life’s first fresh bud, irresistibly calling for the consolation that makes us human, a primary reality of a kind he himself was fated never to produce.

Julian Bell wrote A Power Seething some four years after the publication of the mammoth tome – 976 pages – by Stephen Naifeh and Gregory White Smith.  In his introduction, Bell explains:

I have written this book out of my love for Vincent van Gogh, the letter writer of heart-piercing eloquence. Researching it, I have gotten to know something of Vincent the social animal, the misfit tearing a ragged course through the late nineteenth-century Netherlands and France.

I deeply appreciate that Bell declares his love so boldly and without apology. He wields an even hand in the telling of this story, but his devotion to his subject nonetheless shines through. By the time you finish this (comparatively slender) volume, you may very well feel the same. I did, but I was most of the way there already.

In July of 2018, my friend Jean and I had the pleasure of attending a presentation at the Smithsonian entitled “Van Gogh and the Painters of the Petit Boulevard.” I created a post on the subject; it features two guest appearances by my granddaughter.

There exists a lovely book on this subject.   I also recommend this edition of Van Gogh’s wonderful letters. It contains visuals of those letters, in addition to some of his most memorable art.

Vincent and his brother Theo were very close. Theo almost singlehandedly kept Vincent afloat, both financially and artistically. It’s often said that Vincent sold only one painting in his lifetime. He might have sold more, had he not given his art away so freely and so generously. Theo was  shattered by Vincent’s death. In frail health himself, he died six months later at age 33.

Theo van Gogh

Johanna ‘Jo’ van Gogh-Bonger (1862-1925) was Theo’s wife. In 1890, she gave birth to a son, whom they named Vincent Willem. Jo was instrumental in assuring that Vincent’s fame was established and continued to grow in the art world.

Julian Bell, writer and painter, comes by his gifts naturally; his father, Quentin Bell, likewise practiced these professions. His father, in turn, was the art critic and theorist Clive Bell, who was the husband of painter Vanessa Bell, who was the sister of Virginia Woolf.   (The Bells and Virginia and Leonard Woolf comprised the nucleus of what famously became the Bloomsbury Group.)


The Handover, by Julian Bell

The Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam has a section for questions and answers. Someone asked if there were any descendants of the van Gogh family still living. The site features a gracious response from Willem van Gogh.


A Van Gogh gallery

Bedroom in Arles, 1888


The Night Cafe, 1888


Red Vineyards, 1888

Courtyard of the Hospital at Arles, 1889


The Church in Auvers-sur-Oise, 1890

The Starry Night, 1889. One of the first paintings I ever came to know and love. My mother took me to the Museum of Modern Art in New York City. I was eight years old. We went upstairs; she sent me in ahead of her. I just stared and stared, not moving.


Starry Night over the Rhone, 1889

We all end our lives with a deficit, van Gogh once told Theo, “yet, yet, one feels a power seething inside one, one has a task to do and it must  be done.”


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

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

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

In history:


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

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

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

In current affairs:


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In nature:

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

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


(With thanks to Sir David Attenborough)

In Art and Architecture:

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

True Crime / International Intrigue:

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

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

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

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

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

An Accident? – or Something Else?

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

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

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

Some highlights:

Dad and Welles enjoying some quality time


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

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

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Van Gogh and the Painters of the Petit Boulevard

July 27, 2018 at 12:35 pm (Art, France, Smithsonian Associates World Art History Certificate Program)

Self-portrait with Grey Felt Hat, 1887

Les peintres du petit boulevard. So they were called, first probably by Van Gogh himself. On a recent Saturday, my “art partner” Jean and I went to a Smithsonian program about these artists. The lecturer was art historian Bonita Billman, two of whose presentations we’ve already attended and greatly enjoyed.

When attending a function of this sort, one always hopes to receive a handout replete with definitions of terms, bibliography, and other enriching information. This Ms Billman provided. Here are the first two paragraphs of the handout:

Vincent Van Gogh spent 1886 to 1888 in Paris, living with his brother Theo, an art dealer. Theo’s connections with the avant-garde art world gave Van Gogh a quick and intensive contemporary art education as he was drawn into a social and artistic circle of like-minded painters that included Pissarro, Seurat, Signac, Gauguin, Laval, Bernard, Anquetin, and Toulouse-Lautrec. He called the rising group the Painters of the Petit Boulevard to distinguish them from the established and successful impressionists like Monet, Degas, and Renoir.

Van Gogh’s time among these young artists was among the most influential in his brief life. In searching for his own style, he rapidly passed through approaches including impressionism and divisionism, lightening his Dutch-inspired palette and breaking up his brushstrokes. He conceived the idea of his fellow artists joining him in a community he called the Studio of the South – a colony that never came to pass.

Divisionism is defined by Ms Billman in her handout as a “…painting technique making use of color theory in which the application of dots of complementary colors heightens their luminosity…” This is similar to pointillism, a term greatly disliked by Seurat, to whose work it was principally applied.

Seurat’s most celebrated painting, Un dimanche après-midi à l’île de la Grande Jatte, holds pride of place in the Art Institute of Chicago, where my granddaughter, a Chicago resident, is always happy to encounter it.

More art by painters in this group:

Avenue de Clichy, Louis Anquetin


Portrait of Felix Feneon, by Paul Signac


Laborer at Celeyran, by Toulouse-Lautrec


Une Bergère Bretonne (a Breton shepherdess), by Paul Gauguin  1886


Bathers at Asnières by Seurat, 1884


Elégante de profil au Bal Mabille, 1888


And there she is again, Grandma’s little art lover!

I saved Camille Pissarro for last because I’ve fallen deeply in love  with his paintings, especially  the early works. This just happened – honestly! Here are several:

Road in a Forest, 1859


Paisaje tropical con casas rurales y palmeras, 1853


Entrée du village de Voisins, 1872


Two women chatting by the sea, 1856

To me, there is something magical about these two women. I imagine they are talking over some small, mundane matter as they stand by the sea, bathed in the calm and beautiful sunshine. Some time ago I titles a post  about the art of Vermeer, ‘Quotidian moment, frozen in time.’ The same phrase might be applied, I think, to this painting.

In these works, Pissarro shows an almost uncanny way of capturing light, especially sunlight at a certain time of day. In 1885, he began studying With Seurat and Signac, adopting for a time their Divisionist technique:

La Récolte des Foins, Eragny (1887)

Pretty, but I rue the absence of that special light. At any rate, after a few short years, Pissarro abandoned the neo-Impressonist style, claiming that

‘It was impossible to be true to my sensations and consequently to render life and movement, impossible to be faithful to the effects, so random and so admirable, of nature, impossible to give an individual character to my drawing, [that] I had to give up,’

[From John Rewald’s biography of Pissarro, quoted in the Wikipedia entry.]

The artists of the petit boulevard frequently painted and drew one another:

Émile Bernard by Toulouse-Lautrec, 1886


Paul Signac, by Georges Seurat, 1890

The above portrait is executed in conté-crayon, defined in Wikipedia as  “a drawing medium composed of compressed powdered graphite or charcoal mixed with a wax or clay base, square in cross-section.” The entry goes on to further elucidate:

They were invented in 1795 by Nicolas-Jacques Conté, who created the combination of clay and graphite in response to the shortage of graphite caused by the Napoleonic Wars (the British naval blockade of France prevented import). Conté crayons had the advantage of being cost-effective to produce, and easy to manufacture in controlled grades of hardness.

Van Gogh, by Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, 1887


Henri de Toulouse-Laurec by Louis Anquetin, 1886

Although Toulouse-Lautrec painted numerous different scenes and portraits, his fame rests largely on his depictions of the patrons and the performers at the Moulin Rouge:

Bal au Moulin Rouge

And here it is, brought to vivid, joyous life in the 1952 film Moulin Rouge. Watch carefully: About a third of the way in, you’ll see Toulouse-Lautrec’s hands sketching the scene.










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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.)



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The Templars’ Last Secret by Martin Walker

August 5, 2017 at 12:15 pm (Book review, books, France, Mystery fiction)

  “In Paris you forget that France is like this.”

So exclaims Amélie, special agent sent down by the Ministry of Justice from the City of Light to observe and report on policing in the remote provinces.

In this case, the particular remote province is St. Denis, felicitously located in France’s fabled Perigord region; the person doing the policing is our old friend Bruno Courrèges.

When I say “old friend,” I refer to the nine novels that precede this one in the Bruno Chief of Police series. I’ve read seven of them and have now reached the point that I grab the newest without looking at the reviews first. (This is uncharacteristic of me. Normally I rely on knowledgeable friends and/or reviewers to swiftly steer me away from books that don’t or won’t work for me, so as to save time, currently my most precious commodity.)

The occasion of Amélie’s amazement is the peacefulness and quiet beauty of the Perigord countryside, as exemplified by scenes like this:

It had  become a perfect spring afternoon, bright sunshine with scattered clouds like white puffballs and gentle breezes that set the young green leaves of the willows by the river quivering so that the trees seemed almost to dance on the water. Mother ducks paddled serenely, each with a  row of tiny ducklings behind her like warships in a line of battle.An angler standing in the shallows was castling his fly in a long, flickering curve that just kissed the surface of the river.

Don’t know about you, but I not only want to visit there – I want to live there. And there’s much, much more.

The prehistoric art and archaeology of the region are of paramount importance to the plot of this novel. So, as you’ll have guessed from the title, is the medieval period when the Knights Templar were going about their strange and often secretive business.

In PerigordSarlat, medieval town (Dordogne)This town is well known for its medieval heritage, in the heart of a beautiful region and a landscape full of superb feudal castles. The old town has a Templar cemetery, around the cathedral, where you can see a number of tombs marked with the distinctive cross. There is also a curious tower in the form of an arch known as the “lantern of the dead”.
From The Epic of the Templar Knights in France
Having become deeply fascinated by the prehistory of the Perigord, Bruno regrets that he was never able to undertake a formal study of the subject. He wonders:

Why were those supposedly primitive creatures suddenly inspired to start making art that is instantly appealing to modern humans, who recognize instinctively an aesthetic sensibility akin to our own?

Still, he’s able to learn quite a bit from being surrounded by museums and other artifacts, most especially the art in the complex of caves known collectively as Lascaux.  (The French site features a virtual tour  that is exceptionally detailed, not to mention eerie and evocative. Be sure to turn up the sound.)

As you may have already deduced, Bruno himself is one of the chief attractions of these novels. With the chickens out behind his house – he’s always having to rush home to feed them – his endearing and ever-present scent hound Balzac, his horse Hector, his lively and restless intellect, and his maddeningly irresolute love life, he is quite simply a pleasure to spend time with, and never dull. Oh, and might I add, he is a world class cook, whose culinary ventures are set forth in loving detail and  by the author:

His fish stock had almost defrosted, so he cut  the cod he’d bought into small cubes. He put two large spoons of duck fat into the bottom of his favorite flameproof casserole and put it onto the heat. Then he peeled two potatoes and half-a-dozen cloves of garlic. He diced the potatoes and crushed the garlic with the back of his knife, mixed them together and tossed them into  the casserole. He let that cook on low heat while he went out to the garden to pick some salad, washed and chopped it and put it to one side while he added the cubes of cod, the fish stock and a can of tomatoes to  the casserole. He poured a  large glass from the five-liter box of simple white Bergerac that he kept in the pantry, added it to the fish, stirred and tasted. A touch more salt was needed, and he adjusted the heat to a very low simmer.

Surely there should be some sort of award for a recipe description that makes me yearn to partake of a meal featuring fish as the main course, something I almost never experience.

(Recipes can be found at Bruno Chief of Police.   There is a cookbook as well, but as far as I can tell, it’s only available in German. Here are the particulars, courtesy of Martin Walker:

The Bruno cookbook has been named ‘World’s Best Book on French Cuisine’ at the Gourmand International awards, which were held this year in Yantai, China, home of China’s booming new wine industry.

This is a great honour and the credit goes to my wife and co-author, Julia, who is the real cook in the family; to my brilliant German photographer, Klaus Einwanger; to book designer Kobi Benezri (from Israel) and to the glorious production by my Swiss publishing house, Diogenes; and my editor at Diogenes, Anna von Planta.

It says something about globalisation that a book on French cuisine, written by a Brit of Scottish origin who lives in the Perigord and published in German by a Swiss publisher, wins an international prize awarded in China.)

Were you wondering about the plot? There certainly is one, and it begins with a woman’s lifeless body found below a cliff, above which looms the Chateau de Commarque, a former castle stronghold of the fabled Templar Knights.

Chateau de Commarque

She had apparently been trying to climb high enough to daub some sort of graffiti on the structure’s side.But right from the beginning, nothing  is as it appears. They don’t know if her death was an accident or murder. And there is no clue as to her identity.

It’s a fairly straightforward beginning to what becomes an extremely convoluted investigation. The cast of characters seemed to expand exponentially. Matters were further complicated by the involvement of numerous law enforcement entities. Then terrorism suddenly enters the mix.

(Warning to  future readers: there is a truly awful torture scene in this novel. Mercifully it is short, but in my view, it is glaringly out of place and superfluous, not to mention horribly cruel. I wish it hadn’t been there.)

To be honest, with regard to the plot, I got lost around the back stretch. But it didn’t worry me, as I was so absorbed with the doings of the main characters as they went about their business against the back drop of the numberless attractions of the Perigord.


Kathy, proud proprietor of Mystery Loves Company Booksellers & Chesapeake Books in Oxford, Maryland, went to to Dordogne to see “Bruno Chief of Police” country for herself. She was so enchanted by what she found there that she bought a house! It is now available for rent.   
Whenever I write about France – or even think about France – two musical compositions come to mind: Les Chants D’Auvergne (Songs of the Auvergne) by Joseph Canteloube, and the Farandole from L’Arlesienne by Georges Bizet.






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The Patriarch: another excellent entry in Martin Walker’s Bruno Chief of Police series

April 8, 2016 at 4:27 pm (Book review, books, France, Mystery fiction)

9780385354172 J’ai adoré ce livre!

I did indeed love this book, from its opening at a celebration for a French patriot and war hero right through to the conclusion, where Bruno, having solved a fiendishly intricate mystery, is nonetheless still pining for the ideal wife and mother he seeks to make his life whole and rewarding.

This yearning, which from time to time retreats into the background of his life but never entirely disappears, is one of the traits that makes Bruno Courreges such an endearing character.

In addition to Bruno, the novel’s other characters are vividly depicted, and once again the beauty and fascination of the Perigord region is brought to life for the reader. But most amazing of all are the descriptions of the food and wine. Bruno is a gourmet cook, and his version of “whipping something up” is miles  above mine (canned tuna with mayonnaise thrown in and some crackers, with Diet Snapple to wash it down.).

The prep:

He filled the trout with some crushed garlic and lemon slices. He washed the large mushrooms, put a teaspoon of white wine into the bowl of the mushrooms and then inserted a cabécou [a type of goat cheese] into each one. He prepared a bowl of honey and some crushed walnuts and then opened one of the jars of black-current compôte he’d made when the hedge  below his house had been thick with the ripe fruit.

Then the actual meal, at which Bruno’s guests are understandably impressed and grateful:

“I’ve never seen  this before,” said the brigadier as J-J cut into the pate and the foie gras and sliced truffles were revealed. They ate in appreciative silence, and as the last of the pate disappeared, Bruno took the mushrooms from atop the grill and slid them beneath the ehated plate and watched until the goat cheese started to bubble. When he judged them done, he took them out, sprinkled crushed walnuts over each one and then drizzled honey on top. Bruno then put the trout onto the grill and served the mushrooms.

Don’t know about you, but I’m ready to hop on a plane and head straight for this culinary paradise!

Oh – and then, there’s the wine. In this scene, Bruno has been invited to a cave, or wine cellar, to deliver his opinion of a new vintage:

He swirled the glass a little to see the healthy crown as the liquid trickled back down the sides of the glass. He swirled it more and then sniffed, cocking his head as he’d been taught to give each nostril a chance to savor the bouquet. He smelled dark fruit, a fresh earthiness like a plowed field after the rain; that would be the merlot…He swirled the glass again and sniffed once more, recognizing the freshness of the cabernet sauvignon. He took a sip, let it settle in his mouth to reach those less-used taste buds at the back of his tongue. He recognized something mineral in the flavor….

I cannot tell a lie: Whenever my husband encounters passages like this especially the part about “the fresh earthiness like a plowed field after the rain,” he invariably lifts his gaze heavenward and proclaims: “They’re making that stuff up!” But these folks do take their wine very seriously.

And they take their fun seriously as well. The (fictional) village of St. Denis, where Bruno does his policing, seems to be by and large a delightful and welcoming place. Its residents, mostly known to one another, socialize frequently and informally. They live surrounded by beautiful countryside and a rich history that goes back to prehistoric times.

Medieval and Renaissance era history are also a vivid presence, as Bruno reflects while driving by the Chateau de Losse.

So where, you may reasonably ask, is the mystery? Oh, it’s there, all right. It begins with a decease that seems to be from natural causes – if drinking yourself to death can be termed ‘natural’ –  but might in fact be something else. Original? Not very, but it doesn’t matter. A tangled set of circumstances requires the steady persistence of Bruno and his friends and colleagues to unravel. There is perhaps too much convoluted explanatory material presented near the conclusion. (This is a tendency I’ve noted in quite a few crime novels of late.) But your interest will be held, if not by the investigation itself than by the enchantment of the Perigord region of France. (A word of warning: the local lifestyle includes an unapologetic enthusiasm for hunting and for the eating of meat. In fact, Patriarch includes a gripping subplot that concerns a fiercely uncompromising animal rights activist who thinks nothing of going up against  these and other local cultural norms.)

From the author’s Acknowledgments at the end of the book:

 The Périgordins are a convivial and welcoming folk, deeply appreciative of their good fortune in living in such a lovely and historic part of the world, and my family and I count ourselves lucky to have been allowed to share it for the past fifteen years.

Martin Walker

Martin Walker

Of the Perigordins, Walker adds: “They are the real stars of the Bruno tales.”


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The mysteries of 2015; top choices: contemporary, Part Two

December 24, 2015 at 9:31 pm (Best of 2015, Book review, books, France, Mystery fiction)

61aCPfRpA6L._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_  It’s been  a while since I read Martin Walker’s The Children Return, but I remember how much I enjoyed it. As with Until Thy Wrath Be Past as well as  several titles from Donna Leon’s Guido Brunetti series, the shadow of the Second World War hangs over this narrative. In addition, we get caught up on Bruno Courrege’s ever-changing love life as well as updates on the progress of Balzac, his basset hound puppy who’s a truffle dog in training.

But most of all, you get a rich helping of life in (fictional) St Denis, in the (real – very real!) Perigord region of southwestern France: its people, cuisine, wine making traditions, and beautiful unspoiled surroundings. In this passage, Bruno brings Nancy, his new American friend, to a ‘fete des vendanges,’ or grape harvest festival:

He felt the strange sensation stealing over him of time slipping, of the modern France of high-speed trains and computers giving way to a scene that was medieval or perhaps even older. The setting of stone and fire and meat roasting over open flames could have taken place in this valley in the days when men carried swords and wore chain mail and kept guard against English raiders, or millennia ago when they wore furs and painted prehistoric beasts on the walls of caves.

Every time I read a title in this series, I start googling tours of the Dordogne region. Martin Walker has a place there, where he spends part of every year – lucky, lucky man.

The next entry in the series, The Patriarch (published in the UK as The Dying Season), is already ensconced on my night table.

The Bruno Chief of Police site is filled with music, recipes, and information about local attractions. And here’s the author at Politics & Prose Bookstore and Coffeehouse in Washington DC:



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November 14, 2015 at 9:57 pm (France)

Each day, just before the Central Branch Library opens to the public, a short tune is played over the public address system. I was subbing there this morning, and I was shelving books in the Young Adult area, the PA system came on. The strains of La Marseillaise reached my ears.

I stopped what I was doing and stood still. Tears filled my eyes.

I can think of nothing to add, save this:

Vive La France!


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Six nonfiction titles I’ve read and esteemed so far this year

August 1, 2015 at 11:01 pm (Best of 2015, Book review, books, France, True crime)

51CgK5tPG2L._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_  My nonfiction reading this year was heavily influenced by the presence of the true crime class in my life. Among other readings, I finally got around to reading The Stranger Beside Me, Ann Rule‘s classic account of her strange and curiously compelling friendship with serial killer Ted Bundy.

And so this seems like the appropriate time and place to acknowledge Ann Rule’s recent passing and pay tribute to her remarkable achievements in the field of true crime authorship. Several of Rule’s family members were involved in law enforcement and various other aspects of the criminal justice system. Thus her interest was piqued at an early age. Among her earliest achievements, she became the youngest policewoman ever hired by the Seattle police department. she also obtained a degree in creative writing from the University of Washington. Thus, in regard to her future career, the stage was set.

And yet…What were the odds that while volunteering at a crisis hotline in Seattle, a woman with a background in both law enforcement and creative writing would find herself seated next to an apparently congenial, unquestionably nice looking young man who ultimately proved to be one of the most terrifying serial killers of all time? That chance juxtaposition determined the course of Ann Rule’s professional life.

Truly, in the lives of certain people, the workings of the hand of Fate seem clearly discernible. Of course, it helps greatly when the individual in question recognizes the unique set of circumstances and is prepared to act on them.

There is a tide in the affairs of men,
Which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune…



Ann Rae Rule October 22, 1931 – July 26, 2015

The other true crime classic I read that  directly related to the class is one that I had read once before, when it first came out in 1976. I had a feeling Thomas Thompson’s Blood and Money would be worth revisiting. Boy, was it ever. (See the link above to the true crime class.) blood_and_money_dj

So far  this year, I’ve read two additional books in the  true crime genre: This House of Grief by Helen Garner and Ghettoside by Jill Leovy.. Both were gripping narratives replete with tension and heartbreak. Beautifully written, too – that’s true especially of the Garner title. I’ve reviewed both in this space; click on the titles to read those posts.

thishouseofgrief_12  a1mftpympl-_sl15001_

I used Harold Schechter’s True Crime: An American Anthology as the basic text for the true crime course. In preparation for teaching the class in February of this year, I read nearly all of the selections in this 772 page tome, including Schecter’s helpful and illuminating introduction.  Although I’d completed this reading by late fall of 2014, I found that as February drew near, I had to reread everything I’d chosen for the syllabus in order to refresh my memory. (This is part of what made the course prep seem so labor intensive.) So perhaps this particular book does not rightly belong on this list. Yet it so dominated my thought processes over the winter and early spring that I can’t omit mentioning it in this context.  truecrimea1

Two biographies round out my list of great reading in nonfiction: The Death of Caesar by Barry Strauss and Joan of Arc: A Life Transfigured by Kathryn Harrison.

deathofcaesarjacketimage1  51rddlpwhal-_sy344_bo120420320012_

So, what’s up next for me in nonfiction?  joanofarccastor1 What can I say? I’ve been mesmerizedby this woman’s life story since I was a girl. I date that fascination from the time I first stood before this painting in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. (I was eight years old; my mother could hardly wait to show it to me.)


Joan of Arc, by Jules Bastien-Lepage, 1879 [Click to enlarge]


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Once more with feeling: Simenon’s Maigret

April 27, 2015 at 7:31 pm (books, France, Mystery fiction)

In “The Maigret-a-Month Club” in the Wall Street Journal, Allan Massie begins with this pronouncement:

Georges Simenon was a phenomenon, a hack who became a great writer.

Massie’s article is filled with similar bons mots. It is a beautiful summation of the distinctive peculiarity of Simenon’s achievement in the field of crime fiction.

Massie is particularly concerned with the Maigret novels. These have been receiving renewed attention of late, due to an initiative undertaken by Penguin Press. They have commissioned new translations of all 75 of them, in handsome soft cover editions replete with eye-catching new covers.

MaigretoneMaigrettwoSimenon 2-MThe library has been acquiring these erratically, and I’ve been reading them just as erratically. (The Maigret books I’d  read previously tended to be of a later vintage.) Penguin is issuing these novels roughly in chronological order. Simenon apparently dashed off a slew of them right at the outset of Maigret’s career. Steve Trussel – the “go to guy” for all things Maigret – assigns to each of the first eight titles above the same original publication date, 1931.

I’ve skipped Pietr the Latvian deliberately. It’s the first in the series; critics seem to agree that it’s quite obviously a journeyman effort (“a somewhat rough diamond” in the words of John Banville).. Recently I’ve read – I’m almost wanting to say ‘devoured’ – the following: The Yellow Dog, Night at  the Crossroads, The Dancer at the Gai-Moulin, The Grand Banks Cafe, and The Saint-Fiacre Affair (aka Maigret Goes Home, in an earlier translation). Ever since reading in Allan Massie’s article that no less a literary light than Muriel Spark considered Madame Maigret to be a her favorite character in fiction, I’ve kept a weather eye out for her appearance in the novels. (Massie observes of Madame Maigret: “She is the model wife of pre-feminist times.”)

At the outset of the series, appearances of, and references to, Madame Maigret are few in number. From The Dancer at the Gai-Moulin:

For all that she was married to a detective chief inspector of the Police Judiciaire, she had kept all the innocence of a true daughter of rural France.

Lovely phrasing, that. The same goes for this, from The Grand Banks Cafe:

The kiss he placed on the forehead of his drowsy wife was solemn and sincere.

Simenon’s depiction of the Maigrets’ married life is securely placed in this placid ground. Maigret, though sensitive to feminine beauty, seems never to be seriously tempted to stray outside his conjugal vows. For him, Madame Maigret is an entirely satisfactory life partner; she harbors the same sentiments towards him. (They have no children.) I sometimes wonder if there isn’t an element of wistfulness in this picture, as if, at least in respect of the domestic aspect, Simenon wishes from time to time that his own life could have more closely resembled that of his creation.

Not all of these early works are of the same high caliber, though I am finding, as I go along, that they’re getting better and better. The plotting becomes more deft, characters become more intriguing, the sense of place more resonant. The above two, from which I quoted, are my favorites so far. The Grand Banks Cafe in particular would be a good choice for a book discussion group.

What do “literary” novelists admire in Simenon? The combination of a positive and a negative, perhaps: a mixture of what he can do better than they, and of what he can get away with not doing. His admirable positives: swiftness of creation; swiftness of effect; clearly demarcated personal territory; intense atmosphere and resonant detail; knowledge of, and sympathy with, les petites gens; moral ambiguity; a usually baffling plot with a usually satisfactory denouement. As for his enviable negatives: Simenon got away with a very restricted and therefore very repetitive vocabulary (about 2,000 words, by his own estimation) – he didn’t want any reader to have to pause over a word, let alone reach for the dictionary. He kept his books very short, able to be read in one sitting, or (often) journey: none risks outstaying its welcome. He eschews all rhetorical effect – there is rarely more than one simile per book, and no metaphors, let alone anything approaching a symbol. There is text, but no subtext; there is plot but no subplot – or rather, what appears to be possible subplot usually ends up being part of the main plot. There are no literary or cultural allusions, and minimal reference to what is going on in the wider world of French politics, let alone the international arena. There is also – both admirable positive and enviable negative – no authorial presence, no authorial judgement, and no obvious moral signposts. Which helps make Simenon’s fiction remarkably like life.

Julian Barnes, in the Times Literary Supplement

I have recently downloaded a sample from this: SimenonAlder . I’m intrigued, and may spring for the whole book. (Maigret, Simenon and France was a 2014 Edgar Award nominee for Best Critical/Biographical Work.)

Penguin has bestowed new titles on the entries in this latest re-issue of the Maigret novels. Unfortunately, they’ve not provided information on how they’ve  been titled in the past. This has resulted in some confusion, understandably. Thus far, I’ve found two sites that display that information and are up to date. Steve Trussel’s site provides the original French language title followed by English language variants. The Wikipedia entry is equally current, though it helps to know that the new Penguin titles are listed at the bottom of each cell.

Simenon’s prose is famously stripped down and lean. Early in his career as a novelist, he was advised by the writer Colette to keep his writing from becoming “too literary.” When pressed to clarify this directive, Simenon explained:

Adjectives, adverbs, and every word which is there just to make an effect. Every sentence which is there just for the sentence. You know, you have a beautiful sentence—cut it. Every time I find such a thing in one of my novels it is to be cut.

from Georges Simenon, The Art of Fiction No.9, Paris Review interview

In accordance with this injunction, Simenon learned to choose his words with care. In brief bursts of dead-on prose he could conjure up a world:

He turned his head. He saw the trawler’s funnel, from which smoke was gently rising, for the boilers had just been lit. Fécamp was asleep. There was a wide splash of moonlight in the middle of the  harbour. The wind was rising, blowing in off the sea, raw and almost freezing, like the breath of the ocean itself.

from The Grand Banks Cafe

Simenon wrote with incredible speed. A story is told about a time in which Alfred Hitchcock was trying to get in touch with him:

 In the latter years of Georges Simenon’s prolific writing life, when he had already published close to 400 novels, Alfred Hitchcock was said to have telephoned, only to be told by Simenon’s secretary that he couldn’t be disturbed because he had just begun a new novel. Hitchcock, knowing that Simenon was capable of writing one novel — or two or three — every month, replied, ”That’s all right, I’ll wait.”

“The Maigret Machine,” by Deirdre Bair in the New York Times

I’ve read a number of Simenon’s titles that do not feature Maigret and are not strictly speaking police procedurals. As works of psychological suspense, they can be quite gripping. This is especially true of Monsieur Monde Vanishes and Act of Passion. Now, though, I am finding the Maigret books oddly soothing. Julian Barnes has a good grasp on the reason why:

Apart from delivering the usual satisfactions of crime fiction, the Maigret books work because they offer a continuous, reliable, easily re-enterable world. Those early readers never had to look up a word in the dictionary; and we later readers, whether foreign or French, never have to get out histories of the first half of the twentieth century to understand what is going on….The world he describes may exist as a moral and economic consequence of the First World War, but in the first six Maigrets that war is mentioned on only two occasions, once as part of a rare simile: The Carter of La Providence is set among the chalk hills of Champagne, “where at this time of year the vines looked like wooden crosses in a Great War cemetery”. Where the larger, outer world has been, is and may be heading does not impinge, any more than it does on, say, the world of Jeeves and Wooster. We enter Maigretland confident that the weather will be extreme, the Inspector will solve a seemingly insoluble crime, and that we shall not need to Google anything. This blithe sense of security will now continue for another sixty-nine volumes.

(To read the Julian Barnes article in its entirety, click here.)

There have been numerous film and television versions of the Maigret novels and stories. I’m pretty much wedded to the one made by Granada Television in the early 1990s and starring Michael Gambon as the taciturn inspector. The introductory film clip is wonderfully atmospheric (even though the series itself was actually filmed in Budapest).

Simenon and his character study each other at the inauguration of the Statue of Maigret at Delfzijl, in the Netherlands, September 3, 1966.

Simenon and his character study each other at the inauguration of the Statue of Maigret at Delfzijl, in the Netherlands,       September 3, 1966.

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