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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

For the interview with Peter Weir, click here.

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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‘History has failed us, but no matter.’ – Pachinko, by Min Jin Lee

December 22, 2020 at 9:42 pm (Book review, books, Historical fiction)

Lee’s stunning novel, her second, chronicles four generations of an ethnic Korean family, first in Japanese-occupied Korea in the early 20th century, then in Japan itself from the years before World War II to the late 1980s. Exploring central concerns of identity, homeland and belonging, the book announces its ambitions right from the opening…. Lee suggests that behind the facades of wildly different people lie countless private desires, hopes and miseries, if we have the patience and compassion to look and listen.

From the New York Times’s “10 Best Books of 2017

Stunning indeed. The place is Yeongdo, Busan, Korea.

At the turn of the century, an aging fisherman and his wife decided to take in lodgers for extra money.

This plain sentence follows the one quoted in the  title of this review. We go at once from a sentiment of cosmic significance to a statment of almost painful plainness.

From this ordinary decision, made by ordinary people, springs an entire universe of consequences. The fisherman and his wife Yangjin have a daughter, Sunja. The fisherman, Hoonie, soon dies of tuberculosis. Yangjin and Sunja, who is at that time thirteen years old, are left to run the boarding establishment as best they can.

And then….

Nowadays, many works of fiction label themselves (or their publishers label them) novels of suspense. And yet Pachinko, a more or less traditional family saga, whose narrative marches , at a steady and unshowy pace,  through the decades, is one of the most suspenseful books I’ve ever read. This might be because I cared so deeply about the fate of the characters.

And what a fate, what a fate.

The Japanese occupation of Korea was beyond cruel. Life was made horribly difficult; the Koreans were debased and humiliated. Innocent and good people had their lives upended and ruined.

It seemed as if the occupation and the war had changed everyone, and now the war in Korea was making things worse. Once-tenderhearted people seemed wary and tough. There was innocence left only in the smallest children.

Still, having no other recourse, making use of what meager resources they could find, they persevered.

This was a hard book for me to review. I’ve written about numerous meritorious books in this space. But Pachinko stands apart. I have not been moved in quite this way by a work of fiction in a very long time. Superlatives fail me. In my opinion, this is a brilliant novel, deserving of the highest praise. Congratulations, Min Jin Lee, for an astonishing achievement. And thank you.

Min Jin Lee

 

 

 

 

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‘For a brief moment, she smiled, and I glimpsed an angel far from Paradise.’ Death in Delft: A 17th Century historical murder mystery by Graham Brack

July 19, 2020 at 12:28 pm (Art, Book review, books, Historical fiction, Mystery fiction)

  This little novel found me out via one of Amazon’s cunning algorithms. I had previously not heard of it, nor of its author Graham Brack. As the cover explains, the setting is Delft, in the Netherlands, and the time is the 17th century.

This was the era of the Dutch Golden Age. Its characteristics are summed up as follows in the Wikipedia entry:

The Dutch Golden Age … was a period in the history of the Netherlands, roughly spanning the era from 1581 (the birth of the Dutch republic) to 1672 (the disaster year), in which Dutch trade, science, and art and the Dutch military were among the most acclaimed in the world. The first section is characterized by the Eighty Years’ War, which ended in 1648. The Golden Age continued in peacetime during the Dutch Republic until the end of the century.

For many of us, this remarkable era primarily means the following:

Belshazzar’s Feast, Rembrandt

The Laughing Cavalier, Frans Hals

Soldier and Laughing Girl, Vermeer

The Young Bull by Paulus Potter

The Windmill at Wijk bij Duurstede by Jacob van Ruisdael

Not to mention this:

Antique Delftware plate

Well, I did let myself get sidetracked there, didn’t I?

Master Mercurius is – well, a curious character. A cleric attached in some capacity to the University of Leiden, he is ordained both as a Catholic priest and a Protestant minister. The latter serves as a cover, at a time when Catholics were not generally esteemed or welcome in the Netherlands.

Having been recognized by his superiors as something of a natural sleuth hound, Mercurius is sent to Delft to look into the disappearance and possible kidnapping of three young girls. Once established in this city which is new to him, he is assisted with his endeavors by a number of individuals, among them two of Delft’s most notable citizens: Anton van Leuwenhoek and Joannes Vermeer.

The story of the achievements of these two gifted individuals is woven seamlessly into this engrossing narrative. In fact, it is a discovery made by Vermeer that provides a clue that proves crucial to  the solving of the mystery of the missing girls (one of whom, alas, is found deceased early on in the story).

Mercurius himself is a very appealing and believable character. Despite being in holy orders, he is as vulnerable to the world’s temptations as any man would be. But he is also genuinely self-effacing, empathetic, and above all, kind. One instinctively has faith in his commitment to the cause.

The book is full of memorable scenes. After van Leowenhoek has shown some of his works in microscopy to Mercurius, the latter exclaims:

‘I hope, mijnheer, that you will publish your drawings and receive the credit your work deserves. You have opened our eyes to the smallest works of our Creator, and are therefore a benefactor to mankind.’

Religious doubts and convictions play an important role in this narrative, but they never overpower or interfere  with the action. I like this quote:

 I remembered a prayer that I was told was used by an English soldier during their Civil War: “Lord, thou knowest how busy I must be today. If I do forget Thee, do not Thou forget me.”

Mercurius adds, with fervor, “I knew exactly how he felt.”

The second book in Graham Brack’s Master Mercurius series is entitled Untrue Till Death. It’s due out on August 10, and I very much look forward to reading it.

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Readings, in challenging times

April 8, 2020 at 8:49 pm (Book review, books, Historical fiction, Mystery fiction, Poetry)

I’ve read that at the moment, some people are having trouble concentrating on the printed word. Perfectly understandable. Speaking only for myself,  books, magazines, and newspapers have been Heaven sent. As long as I’ve got something immersive to read, I figure I’ll get through this.

I admit that when the library closed, I had a moment of panic. I rely on that worthy institution to provide me with hardbacks and paperbacks. But needs must, as they say. So I’ve been downloading books like crazy.

Kwei Quartey’s Darko Dawson novels are keeping me sane. With their exotic setting – one that is sometimes cruel rather than exotic – they’re providing a great escape. And Darko himself is a wonderful character, quick to anger yet always compassionate, and with a very engaging family life to boot. I’m currently reading the third title in the series, Murder at Cape Three Points. There are two more in the series.

Kwei Quartey has already begun a new series with The Missing American. I really enjoyed  that book but please, Mr. Quartey, do not abandon Darko!

NPR had an interesting feature on Kwei Quartey several years ago.
******************

I’m almost half way  through The Mirror & the Light. It’s very good, Possibly I’m not quite as  entranced with it as I was with Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies, but  it’s the fault of the current health crisis, I think. Certainly Hilary Mantel is a wonderful writer with an uncanny ability to bring the past to life.
*****************

These Fevered Days, on the other hand, was the perfect for this troubles time. It is subtitled, Ten Pivotal Moments in the Making of Emily Dickinson, and brings the poet near to the reader in a way that is almost uncanny. For the first time, I feel as though I really know Emily Dickinson – know what moved her, why she made certain decisions, why she lived her life the way she did, and finally, and most vitally, how she came to her write her brilliant verse.

Thank you, Martha Ackmann! More on this very special book at a later time.

Here are two poems by Dickinson that have long haunted me:

Success is counted sweetest
By those who ne’er succeed.
To comprehend a nectar
Requires sorest need.
—————–
Not one of all the Purple Host
Who took the Flag today
Can tell the definition
So clear of Victory
——————-
As he defeated – dying –
On whose forbidden ear
The distant strains of triumph
Burst agonized and clear.
**************************

After great pain a formal feeling comes–
The nerves sit ceremonious like tombs;
The stiff Heart questions–was it He that bore?
And yesterday–or centuries before?

The feet, mechanical, go round
A wooden way
Of ground, or air, or ought,
Regardless grown,
A quartz contentment, like a stone.

This is the hour of lead
Remembered if outlived,
As freezing persons recollect the snow–
First chill, then stupor, then the letting go.

(Emily Dickinson did not give her poems titles. They are usually referred to by their first lines.)

 

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‘The sense of proximate skin–of latent power beneath respectable garments–it had the effect of spring water, bubbling beneath her skin.’ – Courting Mr. Lincoln, by Louis Bayard

May 25, 2019 at 3:24 pm (Book review, books, Historical fiction, Mystery fiction)

  A thoughtful essay on historical fiction recently appeared in The New York Times Style Magazine. “Why Are We Living in a Golden Age of Historical Fiction?” may be  a somewhat clunky title – at least, I find it so – but author Megan O’Grady makes some points worth pondering:

A new kind of historical fiction has evolved to show us that the past is no longer merely prologue but story itself, shaping our increasingly fractured fairy tales about who we are as a society. The unmooring of time can be found everywhere, in battles for social progress we thought we’d already fought and won. In the media age, history is not simply a chain of facts recorded by scholars but a complex narrative harnessed by political parties and Facebook disinformation campaigns to speak to our sense of identity and belonging. The past we inherit speaks to us individually and collectively, but a common thread, much less a consensus view of reality, feels increasingly hard to come by.

The author mentions a number of titles. Three are among my favorites. In Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies, Hilary Mantel evokes a turbulent period in English history with uncanny exactitude. And the other – O’Grady calls it “Penelope Fitzgerald’s strange and wonderful take on Novalis” – The Blue Flower.

Two mystery series, not well known in this country, more than satisfy my craving for atmospheric historical fiction: PF Chisholm’s Sir Robert Carey books and the Titus Cragg and Luke Fidelis novels written by Robin Blake.

And I’ve just finished the richly rewarding Courting Mr. Lincoln by Louis Bayard. While my husband and I were vacationing in the Hudson River Valley, I had  the great good fortune to be reading A Pale Blue Eye, Bayard’s fictional  account of Edgar Allan Poe’s brief and turbulent tenure at West Point. So I had high hopes for this new novel – which hopes were more than fulfilled.

I can do no better than to quote from the jacket copy:

Told in the alternating voices of Mary Todd and Joshua Speed, and inspired by historical  events, Courting Mr. Lincoln creates a sympathetic and complex portrait of Mary unlike any that has come before; a moving and deep portrayal of the deep and real connection between the two men; and most of all, an evocation of the unformed man who would  grow into one of the nation’s most beloved presidents.

 

There’s some lovely writing in this novel, as is seen in the title of this post. Also some  delightful dialog, as in this exchange wherein Joshua Speed is trying to teach the awkward and unschooled Lincoln the rudiments of ballroom etiquette:
“All right,’ said Joshua. Try it with me. Until you find your way.”
“We’ll regret this,” Lincoln said.
“Now you are the lead, so you will just…you will hook your right hand round my back. Like that. Now I will rest my hand…lightly…here.
“This will end badly.”
“Be quiet. Now…raise your elbows. Shoulder height, that’s it. And back straight. And knees…well, you can bend the knees a little.”
“Like this?”
“Well, no, not like you’re praying.”
“I am praying.”
Dare I use the word, charming? Because that’s what this is. and much of the rest of the book as well. Charming, heartfelt, and irresistible.

Louis Bayard

 

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‘If you can fake sincerity, you’ve got it made.’ – Open and Shut by David Rosenfelt

September 3, 2018 at 1:34 am (Book review, books, Historical fiction, Mystery fiction)

  Meet Andy Carpenter – the brash and  breezy, confident – some might say, overconfident – attorney for the defense, based in Passaic County, New Jersey. Andy well knows how to antagonize judges and prosecutors alike. He’ll do just about anything to score a win for his client. But with Willie Miller, he’s really up against it.

Willie was apprehended by police as he stood in an alley over the body of Denise McGregor, victim of a brutal murder. A bloodied knife found at the scene has Willie’s prints on it. Genetic material later recovered from under her fingernails later traces back to him. It really does look like an open and shut case.

But of course, it isn’t.

Willie has already been convicted of this crime and has served seven years on death row. But he’s recently won the right to an new trial- and to be represented by a new lawyer. Upon entering Willie’s death row cell,  Andy asks, in the most inoffensive way possible, how Willie is doing. Willie responds by practically biting his new attorney’s head off. To which Andy responds,

“What is it about death row that makes people so damned cranky?”

That breaks the ice, and they’re able to get into a serious discussion of Willie’s situation. As is often the case in these (fictional) situations, things are more complicated than they seem at first. Also, as is often the case in crime fiction, this current murder case has its roots deep in the past.

I very much appreciated this author’s light touch. Things get serious, but rarely so serious that a good wisecrack can’t supply a bit of leavening. Moreover, for me, the setting was a big plus: northern New Jersey, my ancestral home.  (I was at the same time reminded of the historical mystery Girl Waits with Gun. Like Open and Shut, it was mainly set in Passaic County, due north of Essex County, my birthplace.)

There’s plenty of courtroom action in Open and Shut. These scenes were tense and engaging; moreover, they were like a lesson in courtroom procedure. I learned a lot, painlessly.

You’ll note that the cover of the  book features the picture a golden retriever. Andy Carpenter has one, and he is unabashed in his adoration of her.

There is nothing like a golden retriever. I know, I know, it’s a big planet with a lot of wonderful things, but golden retrievers are the absolute best. Mine is named Tara. She is seven years old and the most perfect companion anyone could ever have.

I love his love for this endearing animal. And despite what I said earlier, Andy has a basic sense of decency. He can be very kind, to people as well as dogs. I really like the guy. This is the first entry in the Andy Carpenter series; I hope to read more.

This book was recommended to me by my friend Angie. I’m now reading another of her excellent recommendations: Final Resting Place by Jonathan F. Putnam. Set in Springfield, Illinois in 1838, it features a young Abraham Lincoln as a protagonist; his friend. and roommate Joshua Speed is the narrator. I’m about half way through and enjoying it very much.

Thanks, Angie!

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‘–a man as close to godhead as any mortal who had ever lived–could such a man be alive one moment…and dead the next?’ – The Throne of Caesar by Steven Saylor

May 4, 2018 at 12:59 pm (Book review, books, Historical fiction, Italy, Mystery fiction)

  The Throne of Caesar begins in this wise:

Once upon a time, a young slave came to fetch me on a warm spring morning. That was the first time I met Tiro.

Gordianus hastens to inform us that this was a long time ago. Now, Tiro is no longer a slave. He is a freedman, having been manumitted some years ago by his master Cicero. And after the passage of many years and the experience of numerous adventures, Gordianus, called Finder, is quite a bit older and, he hopes, wiser. His family is flourishing. The omens are propitious. And he himself is about to be receive an unexpected and significant honor, bestowed by none other than the great Julius Caesar, with whom he has become a favorite.

What could possibly go wrong? Here’s a clue: the novel opens with a page upon which only  the date is divulged. That date is March 10.

That’s right; six days before one of the most famous dates in the history of the Western World: March 15, the Ides of March.

So: do we readers just wait in dread of the inevitable? Well, that element of suspense is certainly present from the start, but much else is going on as well. Gordianus’s son Meto has  become indispensable to Caesar as his secretary and general right hand man. Daughter Diana and her husband, the hulking bodyguard Davus, live with Gordianus and his wife, the beautiful and imperious Bethesda. (One imagines that no one has ever done “imperious” quite the way the Roman matrons did.) Cinna the poet is a favorite drinking buddy of Gordianus’s. The great orator Cicero, somewhat past his prime, is nervously on the scene. And then there’s the haruspex Spurinna….

A haruspex was a soothsayer who specialized in the reading of entrails. This skill was closely identified with the religion of the Etruscans.

Bronze statue of a haruspex, from about the 4th century BC, currently housed in the Vatican Museum

Spurinna was supposedly the name of the soothsayer who has warned Caesar to “Beware the Ides of March.” One of the most chilling moments in Shakespeare’s play occurs when, on his way to the Senate, Caesar encounters Spurinna for the second time. Feeling rather full of himself, Caesar observes that “The Ides of March are come.” To which the  soothsayer responds, without missing a beat, “Ay, Caesar, but not gone.”

And yet, in the days before the Ides, life goes on, filled with plots, counter- plots, and various intrigues, and gossip, just as the Romans loved it. Also, at the time, poetry played a big part in the cultural life of the people. Cinna’s latest opus, entitled Zmyrna, was incessantly read and talked about. (The author’s full name is Helvius Cinna, not to be confused with Lucius Cornelius Cinna, praetor and conspirator. Alas, despite the protestations of Helvius Cinna, that confusion does in fact occur, with disastrous results for the poet. You’ll recall Shakespeare’s memorable line: “Tear him for his bad verses, tear him for his bad verses.”)

At any rate, back to Zmyrna: Impatient with his father’s delay in reading this putative masterpiece, Meto begins reading aloud to him. Here’s how Gordianus responds:

I thought I would prefer those moments when Meto read aloud, for he had a beautiful voice and knew exactly where to place each stress depending on the secret meanings of the words. But I enjoyed just as much the experience of reading the verses aloud myself, letting my lips and tongue play upon the absurdly convoluted edifice of language. Even when I didn’t quite understand what I was reading, the words themselves produced music. When I did understand not merely the outermost level of meaning but also the multiple puns and learned references, I felt an added thrill, as if the words that emerged from my mouth were truly something more than air, compounded of some enchanted substance that encircled and gently caressed both Meto and myself.

Beautiful description that, and how eloquently it limns the closeness and mutual affection of father and son. (When I went in search of the actual Zmyrna, I was informed succinctly by Wikipedia that “The poem has not survived.”)

Oh and speaking of ‘learned references,’ Caesar, during a later literary-themed conversation, comes up with this idea:

“Imagine a series of life stories told in parallel, to compare and contrast the careers and fortunes of great men.”

Of course, Plutarch not only imagined this, he wrote it, some hundred and fifty years after Caesar’s fanciful speculation, as rendered by Steven Saylor.

Here’s another set piece that I love. This is actually the same occasion at which Caesar made the comment above:

To either side of me, braziers burned. Torches flickered from various sconces in the surrounding portico. The last faint light of day lit the ashen sky, in which the first stars had begun to shine. The four men moved amid green shrubs and tall statues. The ever-changing light, the men in their finery, the looming figures of marble, and bronze–all combined in a moment of surpassing strangeness. I looked at Meto, wondering if he, too, felt it. On his face I saw a look of deep contentment that increased with each step that brought Caesar nearer.

Scenes like  this, with their portentous quietude, serve to make the intimations of coming bloodshed feel all the more harrowing.

Steven Saylor obviously derives a deep joy from a lifelong immersion in the life and literature of ancient Rome. He passes that joy directly on to us, the readers of his Roma Sub Rosa series. His erudition is everywhere evident, but it never hijacks the narratives, which are invariably compelling, set as they are against a background of actual events from ancient times. Those times spring vividly to life in his stories of ordinary people caught up in extraordinary events. It cannot be an easy task to conjure a world whose inhabitants had such a drastically different world view than our own. (It’s hard, for instance, to accept the fact that educated, cultured individuals gave credence to the reading of animal entrails.) And yet this author accomplishes this feat, with conviction and brio.

The art work that graces the cover of The Throne of Caesar is by Karl Theodor Piloty and was painted in 1865.

I also like this version of the event, painted by Jean-Leon Jerome in 1867.

On Steven Saylor’s richly informative site, I note with delight a celebration of  the 25th anniversary of the publication of Roman Blood. How well I remember reading it when it came out in 1991 and thinking, Wow, what a winner this is!

I ask only this of any work of historical fiction that I read: Put me there, in that place, at that time. This is, after all, the only form of time travel we have, so make it work. In his marvelous series of novels treating of the life and times of Gordianus the Finder, proud and resourceful citizen of ancient  Rome, Steven Saylor (whom we had the pleasure of meeting at Crimefest  in 2011) does exactly  that.

Steven Saylor

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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.

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‘A few prayers, word of the Book, nod of the head, and into the ground sharp.’ – Skin and Bone by Robin Blake

March 23, 2017 at 1:08 pm (Book review, books, Historical fiction, Mystery fiction)

 

Titus Cragg is Coroner to the town of Preston, in Lancashire, in the 1740s. I do not give the exact date because this series advances one year per entry. Skin and Bone is the fourth such.

In the first, A Dark Anatomy, we meet Titus and his close friend, the physician Luke Fidelis. From time to time, Luke lends his assistance in Titus’s death investigations. His expertise often proves invaluable.

In Skin and Bone, the mystery commences with the discovery of the body of an infant. Neither the child’s identity nor the cause of death are known. Pursuing the answer to these questions lands Titus in a world of trouble he could not have anticipated.

Blake’s plots are well wrought, but the real joy of this series lies in his meticulous evocation of mid-eighteenth century England. Details describing the workings of the coroner’s office are particularly fascinating. The characters are eminently real. believable, and appealing, for the most part. A particular pleasure is the depiction of the marriage of Titus Cragg and his wife Elizabeth. With their steadfast devotion to one another, and in particular her staunch loyalty to her often beleaguered husband, we witness first hand the source of their strength.

Titus and Elizabeth eagerly await the coming of a child into their lives. Elizabeth in particular has to fight impatience and anxiety on this score. Titus is well aware of her struggle. Early in the novel, this exchange occurs:

Her mocking tone had long gone and, now, tears were glinting in her eyes.

‘My dearest wife,’ I said, kneeling by her chair and clasping her hands. ‘You are not yet thirty and God is merciful. It is not too late for you–for us–I am sure of it.’

A simple yet moving statement of faith.

I am somewhat perplexed that this series is not better known. I would rate it without hesitation among the very best of the  historical mysteries. One thinks of the Brother Cadfael novels of Ellis Peters and C.J. Sansom’s Matthew Shardlake series.

Do yourself a  favor and  start with the first, so that the novels’ cumulative effect can work freely on your imagination. For myself, I eagerly await the fifth.

 

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Current trends in crime fiction part three, the books: historical mysteries

February 24, 2017 at 8:20 pm (Book review, books, Historical fiction)

V. Historical mysteries

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The Apothecary Rose and The Lady Chapel by Candace Robb
Robb vividly evokes the world of 14th century Britain.

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P.F. Chisholm does likewise for the 16th century in  A Famine of Horses . Chisholm’s writing is enlivened by an irony and irreverence rarely encountered in historical fiction, which has an occasional tendency to take itself too seriously. Her protagonist, Sir Robert Carey, is based on an historical  figure. The scenario she depicts, up north by the Scottish borders, is rife with a sort of cheerful, energetic lawlessness. This too is based in the factual history of the period. In her introduction to this novel, Chisholm tells us that  “…I first met Sir Robert Carey by name in the pages of George MacDonald Fraser’s marvellous history of the Anglo-Scottish borders, “’The Steel Bonnets’.” I love this quote from Fraser:

The English-Scottish frontier is and was the dividing line between two of the most energetic, aggressive, talented and altogether formidable nations in human history.

This series currently encompasses six novels. They’re not all as compelling as the first, though A Chorus of Innocents, the most recent, I thought was every bit as good as Famine.

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A Dark Anatomy by Robin Blake. The first entry in the Cragg and Fidelis series, one that deserves to be much better known than it is. Set very specifically in eighteenth century Preston, Lancashire, and peopled with an exceptionally appealing cast of characters. (See the link at the beginning of this post.)

The Anatomy of Ghosts by Andrew Taylor

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The Pale Blue Eye by Louis Bayard
His Bloody Project by Graeme Macrae Burnet
Wow! A standalone novel of tremendous depth and power. The year is 1869. Amid the oppression of a community of Scottish crofters by cruel and heedless overseers, a young man’s anger and resentment build steadily until they reach the boiling point. His Bloody Project made the Man Booker Prize shortlist for 2016, apparently astonishing certain folk among the ‘literati.’

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Judge Dee at Work and The Haunted Monastery by Robert Hans van Gulik (historical and international!) Here’s a case in which the story of how these books came to be written is as fascinating as the books themselves. I wrote of this in some detail in a previous post.
Born in the Netherlands in 1910, Robert Van Gulik spent most of his childhood in what was then the Dutch East Indies and is now Jakarta, Indonesia. While there. he learned Mandarin as well as other languages. He seems to have been an  intellectually voracious and  multi-talented individual whose life was cheifly characterized by a love of all things Chinese. The site RechterTie.nl is a veritable goldmine of information on this fascinating man his work.

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Illustrations by Robert Van Gulik

61hyr7optnl  The Judge Dee mysteries take place during the 600s (Tang Dynasty). In Jade Dragon Mountain  by Elsa Hart, events transpire in an era much closer to our own: the early 1700s. We are nonetheless presented with kingdom which, for all its riches, remains largely aloof from Western influences. The Jesuits, however, have made significant incursions into the culture of this isolationist empire. It is their presence, and their influence, that lie at the heart of this impressive first novel.

Li Du is an exiled scholar whose wanderings take him to Dayan, a city at the edge of China’s empire. Here, feverish preparations are under way for a festival in honor of the Emperor, whose arrival is imminent. A shocking murder disrupts the proceedings, and Li Du, a cousin of the ruling magistrate, finds himself pressed into the role of detective. The Emperor is due to arrive in Dayan in a matter of days. Li Du is required to have solved the mystery by that time. It is a daunting task.

So, to be honest, is the reading of this novel – at least, it has been, for me. (I’ve got about 45 pages to go.) Hart spends a fair amount of time describing life in the city of Dayan during this era. Her writing is wonderful, but in the midst of her rich prose elaborations, I found it all too easy to lose the thread of the plot. It seemed at times to wander like the depiction of a sinuous landscape one sees in certain paintings from the Qing Dynasty.

Clearing after Rain over Streams and Mountains by Wang Hui, 1662

Clearing after Rain over Streams and Mountains
by Wang Hui, 1662

There are several examples of story within a story in Jade Dragon Mountain. In one instance, one of the featured characters was none other than Judge Dee. Another story is the retelling of an old Sufi legend that I first came across in a biography of Somerset Maugham. Maugham retells the story in his play Sheppey. Sometimes referred to as “Death Comes to Baghdad,” sometimes as “The Appointment in Samarra,” it is more of a fable, actually, its message being that we cannot outrun the fate that awaits each of us.

I’ve already had occasion to praise Elsa Hart’s writing. Some passages in this novel rise to the poetic. Here Li Du, traveling in mountainous terrain, is enjoying a rare moment of repose after a meal. Gradually he finds himself enveloped in clouds and mist.

The quiet deepened into silence. Li Du did not move, but rested his eyes on the soft white expanse. As he watched, the cloud shifted and broke. He saw, as if through a window, a tree on the opposite side of the gorge. It was a dead, hollowed oak, blackened by fire. Only one branch remained, reaching out perpendicular to the trunk. The vapor thickened, the window closed, and the tree was gone.
Another opening appeared. Through this new window Li Du saw movement, and though the could make out the rounded back of a little bear trundling across a clearing into a copse of evergreens. Again the mist moved, erasing the scene.The next break in the cloud framed  a waterfall, a still, silver column too distant for him to perceive its tumbling energy. That window closed, another opened, and he saw a tree. It was in the same place as the tall oak he had seen minutes  earlier. Only this one was not hollow, but alive, its limbs and trunk whole and draped in garlands of lichen.
He imagined then t hat t he shifting clouds contained thousands of years, and that he had seen the same tree in two different times. What if every moment of that tree’s existence, the whole of is past and its future, exited at once, here in this blank and infinite cloud?

Oh that we could each of us be vouchsafed such a lovely vision!

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