Life Changing Magic department (with apologies to Marie Kondo)

February 27, 2016 at 1:21 pm (books, Magazines and newspapers, Mystery fiction)

Sometimes it pays to take a deep breath and attack an unruly pile of papers. I did this the other day, and while the vast majority of items ended up in recycling, a few gems did rise to the surface.

First find: this piece from the Sunday New York Times Magazine dated August 20 2015 on the rise of Europa Editions. Originating in Italy, this publishing enterprise puts out books with a distinctive look and feel; their list features lesser known international authors that are worthy of the attention of discerning readers.


Europa has scored a coup with Elena Ferrante’s wildly popular Neapolitan novels. I’m waiting for my reserve on My Brilliant Friend, the first book in the series. I’m currently number sixteen out of sixty-eight names on the list. cover_9781609450786_131_600I have read, and do recommend, the Jane Gardam titles, Old Filth and The Man in the Wooden Hat (see above). These novels seem to me quintessentially English; moreover,Gardam’s a unique and mercurial prose style had me hooked from the get-go.

Second find: Laura Miller on Don Winslow’s The Cartel. This piece, which appeared in The New Yorker last summer, is in my view the high water mark of the reviewer’s art. It’s incisive, beautifully written, and bolstered by the author’s deep knowledge of crime fiction. (I’ve long enjoyed her writing in’s book sections.) And the novel? Well, she makes you want to read it – that is, if you don’t scare too easily. This I have not yet done (either read or scare). I have read Winslow’s Savages, though. ‘Twas a memorable experience! Like James Ellroy, Winslow can be rough and uncompromising; his prose is less mannered than Ellroy’s.

I liked this observation by Laura Miller:

Most crime novelists, especially those reaching for a momentous effect, are obliged to turbocharge their villains. The perpetrator of the locked-room mystery is supernaturally ingenious, the serial killer far more baroquely sadistic than his real-life counterparts, the Mob boss too comprehensively powerful to be believed.

She goes on to say that “Mexico’s criminal cartels have never presented such a problem to Don Winslow, who has written two extensively researched sagas about the war on drugs: “The Power of the Dog,” in 2006, and now “The Cartel” (Knopf).” Cartel-Web

Third find: “Easy Writers” by Arthur Krystal, an article featured in a May 2012 issue of The New Yorker. (What can I say – this was a very deep pile, deep and sprawling.) Here we have yet another foray into the (seemingly endless) controversy over whether readers of genre fiction, and in particular of crime fiction,  are getting any “literary” nourishment or are merely slumming. Krystal leaps fearlessly into the subject matter with both feet and obviously has great fun doing so. That enjoyment is liberally communicated to the reader. (The article is subtitled “Guilty pleasures without guilt.”)

Here’s how Krystal starts out:

When Matthew Arnold keeled over, in April, 1888, while hurrying to catch the Liverpool tram, Walt Whitman managed to contain his grief. “He will not be missed,” Whitman told a friend. Arnold reaffirmed all that was “rich, hefted, lousy, reeking with delicacy, refinement, elegance, prettiness, propriety, criticism, analysis.” He was, in short, “one of the dudes of literature.” Whitman probably figured that his own gnarly hirsuteness would save him from becoming a dude. He was wrong, and therein lies a lesson for all hardworking scribblers: stick around long enough, develop a cult following, gain the approval of one or two literary dudes (in Whitman’s case: Henry James, Ezra Pound, and F. O. Matthiessen), and you, too, can become respectable.

This insouciant tone prevails throughout the piece and bestows great pleasure on the reader – or, it did on this reader, at any rate.

Here are some of the works and authors that receive mention in “Easy Writers:”

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4881173 the-murder-of-roger-ackroyd

WH Auden

WH Auden

Philip K Dick

Philip K Dick

Henry James

Henry James

PD James

PD James

Ross MacDonald

Ross MacDonald

Elmore Leonard

Elmore Leonard

Edmund Wilson

Edmund Wilson









Raymond Chandler

Raymond Chandler


Meanwhile,  as I await my reserve on Marie Kondo’s book, AR-AI982_Tidy_DV_20150225160517  I’m off to attack yet another pile. (Believe me, around here there is no shortage of them.)



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Book reviews and book reviewers

January 6, 2015 at 6:02 pm (books, Magazines and newspapers)

This past Sunday, Ron Charles of the Washington Post enumerated the books he’s looking forward to reading in the coming year. The column was squeezed into a tiny space. I almost missed it, and in case you actually did miss it, click here.

Ron Charles, Michael Dirda, and Jonathan Yardley, all of the Washington Post, are the most wonderful and perceptive book reviewers. Together these three have continually promoted and celebrated the reading life on behalf of those of us who live in the greater Washington area. Just last month, Jonathan Yardley announced his impending retirement. Oh, no! One hopes that he’ll still grace the pages of Book World from time to time and share his literary knowledge and boundless enthusiasm with us.

As a gift to us on the occasion of his farewell, Mr. Yardley composed a list of titles that have become, over the years, his personal favorites.   Like a little kid who does well on a test, I was delighted to find that out of the fifteen fiction titles on his list, I’d read eleven!

From 2003 to 2010, Jonathan Yardley wrote a column called Second Reading, which he describes as “an occasional series in which the Post’s book critic reconsiders notable and/or neglected books from the past.” One of my favorites from among these essays is entitled “Six Gifted Englishwomen.”

Mr. Yardley’s Second Reading pieces have been collected in a book by the same name.


Jonathan Yardley, at ease - at last!

Jonathan Yardley, at ease – at last!


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Best Books of 2013: more lists

December 28, 2013 at 9:27 pm (Best of 2013, books, Magazines and newspapers)

First: a bit of backtracking with regard to the Washington Post. In a previous post, I expressed dismay at the presence of Claire Messud’s The Woman Upstairs on their list of the year’s ten best books. On the other hand, Maureen Corrigan, the Post’s perceptive and eloquent crime fiction specialist, did select Louise Penny’s luminous novel How the Light Gets In for inclusion on that list, thereby, in my humble and extremely biased opinion, partially redeeming it.

And yet, I must again draw attention to another bit of end-of-the-year strangeness on the part of the Post. Their venerable critic Jonathan Yardley named his ten favorites for 2013 and managed not to include a single fiction title! Jonathan, you need to get out more. And what you really need in your reading life is some crime fiction. For years now I’ve been saying that’s where the great writing and terrific storytelling are currently to be found. This year has given me no reason to revise that opinion; if anything, it’s made me more firm in that view. Out of my own list of forty-six favorite titles for 2013, twenty-nine fall under the rubric of mystery/suspense.

At any rate – here are yet more lists:

From the Wall Street Journal: Best nonfiction, Best fiction (Yes I know – There’s The Woman Upstairs again!).

From The New Republic.

NPR tried a somewhat different approach to list making this year.

From The New Yorker. In Part One and Part Two, the editors asked their contributors to name their favorite reading of 2013.

Like The New Yorker, The Guardian asked a variety of writers and critics to name their favorites for 2013.

Library Journal staff named their Top Ten, and More.

Publishers Weekly made their selections, as did Kirkus Reviews. This link will take you to Kirkus’s choices for Best Fiction; in a column on the left, you’ll see links to other categories.

Finally – and I mention this with all due modesty, lowering my gaze, half closing my eyes, etc. – I’ve been “pinned” on Pinterest. I don’t really understand how that works, but I’m grateful anyway (I believe Yvette of In So Many Words is the responsible party!) and, along with innumerable worthy others, I’ve been aggregated – Thanks, Largehearted Boy!


Next: best mysteries and crime fiction; stay tuned!

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Working my way back to you, Books to the Ceiling!

February 25, 2013 at 2:23 am (books, Library, Magazines and newspapers)

I must apologize for my prolonged silence, occasioned by travels out West and various matters that needed to be attended to here at home. While I’m working my way back to writing – so much harder than I ever though it would be! – I thought I’d point you to some recent articles of interest.

This past week, our local paper had a feature story on the Howard County Library System.

I really liked “Teach Us To Write Well” by Carole Angier. This piece appeared in the February issue of Literary Review, a British publication that is a book lover’s delight.  the-literary-review-cover

I appreciated the Washington Post’s recent editorial in praise of President James A. Garfield. But I do wish that the editors had mentioned Candice Millard’s Destiny of the Republic, a riveting biography of this courageous and compassionate man.  Book Review Destiny of the Republic

If you search online for book reviews as much as I do, you’ll notice that content from Goodreads almost always appears near the top of your results. The New York Times recently featured a backgrounder on this site, one that is hugely popular with both avid readers and authors.

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Plenty of gloom and doom but also gratitude, reasons to believe, and occasions to ponder the strange and wondrous vagaries of human nature

November 28, 2012 at 2:23 pm (Animals, Current affairs, Local interest (Baltimore-Washington), Magazines and newspapers, Nature, Spiritual)

In the Review section of this past Sunday’s New York Times, there was a goodly helping of admonition and dire prediction, chiefly prompted by the destruction recently visited on the New York metropolitan area by Hurricane Sandy.

First, James Atlas warns of the coming submersion of New York City in Is This the End? An appropriately scary title, especially for those of us who know and love the place. (Venerating the city’s cultural riches, my mother could never understand why a person would want to live anywhere else.) 

In  Rising Seas, Vanishing Coastlines, Benjamin Strauss and Robert Kopp paint a disturbing picture of  the effect that rising sea levels will have on this country’s coastal regions. To begin with, the authors offer up this astonishing statistic: “More than six million Americans live on land less than five feet above the local high tide.” Even granted that Strauss and Kopp are describing eventualities that may be several centuries down the road, their projections are extremely disturbing. Click on What Could Disappear for maps. I did, and it just about broke my heart. Among the places slated to become a latter day Atlantis is Miami Beach, Florida, where I attended junior high and high school. Alas, farewell to the land of bougainvillea, hibiscus, cocoanut palms, and rampant overdevelopment…. (For additional searchable maps, go to

Finally, Erwann Michel-Kerjan and and Howard Kunreuther tackle the subject of Paying for Future Catastrophes. They begin with this statement: “Hurricane Sandy could cost the nation a staggering $50 billion, about a third of the cost of Hurricane Katrina — to date the most costly disaster in United States history.”

A collapsed complex of cabanas at Sea Bright, NJ

In the November 26/ December 3 issue of Newsweek, David Cay Johnston tallies the dangers inherent in our aging and inadequate infrastructure. Johnston goes on to suggest “12 ways to Stop the Next Sandy;”  however, his ambitious manifesto will require a colossal act of will on the part of the citizens of this country, not to mention an equally colossal outlay of funds. Can it be done? Will it be done?  (As Newsweek prepares to go digital, I’d like to express a personal sense of loss. I’ve been a subscriber since my college days in the 1960s.)

All of this would seem to portray a nation in a heap of trouble. In his book Too Much Magic, published in June of this year, James Howard Kunstler writes the following:

The British Petroleum company’s 2010 Macondo well blowout in the Gulf of Mexico tempered the public’s zest for risky deepwater drilling projects. Oil is back in the $100 range. The Fukushima nuclear meltdown in the following year sobered up many nations about the prospects for the only well-developed alternative energy method capable of powering whole cities. Whether you believe in climate change or not, or contest that it’s man-made or is not, the weather is looking a little strange. In 2011 tornados of colossal scale tore through the American South, hurricane-induced five-hundred-year floods shredded Vermont, and Texas was so drought-stricken that Texans wondered if ranching there would even be possible in the years ahead. People have begun to notice a number of signals that reality is beaming out.

He goes on to inquire plaintively: “Who can fail to notice all the obvious trouble our country is in?” 

All this is enough to send a person running for the nearest bunker. But wait – there is hope, and it has been proffered by people with vigorous minds and open hearts. I’ve already written about the solace and encouragement to be derived from the works of Rabbi Jonathan Sacks and Rev. Timothy Keller. And now I’m cheered by the prospect of reading Anne Lamott’s new book:   In a recent interview in the Washington Post, she explains its rather piquant title:

I think sometimes we don’t know that what we’re doing is a form of prayer. “Help” is the main prayer. “Help” is the prayer of surrender and having a real shot at things beginning to change because you’ve finally run out of good ideas. “Help” is the hardest prayer, and it’s the most poignant. It’s a person being humbled. People say “Thanks” all the time in so many ways. Even people who don’t believe in God or in any kind of higher power notice when their family catches a break: The diagnosis was much better than it could have been; it really isn’t a transmission, it’s a timing belt; it’s something manageable instead of huge and awful. “Wow” is the praise prayer. I think every time you see a night sky full of stars, you say, “Wow.” It was so cold here today, I had to get up really early, and I stepped outside, and I was like, “Whooooa!” which is a cousin of “Wow.” It was so crisp, so beautiful. It’s like getting spritzed with a plant mister. It kind of wakes you back up.

I love The Once Born and the Twice Born, an essay by Gertrude Himmelfarb that appeared in the September 28 issue of the Wall Street Journal. Reading her cogent and graceful explication of  William James The Will To Believe, I felt as though I’d been given a very special gift. (This sense was amplified by the fact of my recent immersion in the life William’s brother Henry, courtesy of Michael Gorra’s magisterial work of criticism and biography, Portrait of a Novel.)

His 1896 lecture “The Will to Believe” was prompted, James said, by the “freethinking and indifference” he encountered at Harvard. He warned his audience that he would not offer either logical or theological arguments supporting the existence of God or any particular religion, ritual or dogma. His “justification of faith” derived instead entirely from the “will” or the “right” to believe, to “adopt a believing attitude in religious matters, despite the fact that our merely logical intellect may not have been coerced.” James knew this would not go down well with the students and philosophers in the eminent universities. To the obvious objection that the denial of the “logical intellect” is to give up any claim to truth, he replied that it is in defense of truth that faith is justified—the truth provided not by logic or science but by experience and reflection. Moral questions, he pointed out, cannot be resolved with the certitude that comes from objective logic or science. And so with religious faith….

Historian Gertrude Himmelfarb, an intellectual among intellectuals, turned ninety in August.

I never ceased to be moved by the trouble to which people will go to render aid to animals in distress. A particularly impressive instance of this compassionate response is recounted in a recent Washington Post article entitled   Injured Owl Is Rescued in Mount Vernon.

I deeply appreciate the sentiments voiced with wit and warmth on the occasion of Thanksgiving  by Wall Street Journal columnist Peggy Noonan. In Family, Friends, Health and Freedom,  she asked a number of friends and family members what they were thankful for. At one point, she pressed a friend to be more specific; she received this response:

“Buddy the cat. He literally came out of nowhere one night, and has never left since. He sleeps in the window most of the time, and looks in as if to say: ‘I’m home.’ He always lets the others in the pack eat first. ‘Slow down,’ I say to myself. The world on my screen may be spinning and sizzling, but Buddy’s ends up being the preferred reality.”

Speaking of matters of a  feline nature, there was recent post-election news in the Metro section of the Post   concerning an illustrious member of that community:

Hank the Cat, in election day garb

Finally, from the November 26 issue of the New Yorker, the recent travails of General David Petraus and others elicited this wry observation from Adam Gopnik:

Petraeus, and his defenders and attackers alike, referred to his “poor judgment,” but if the affair had had anything to do with judgment it never would have happened. Desire is not subject to the language of judicious choice, or it would not be desire, with a language all its own. The point of lust, not to put too fine a point on it, is that it lures us to do dumb stuff, and the fact that the dumb stuff gets done is continuing proof of its power. As [Philip] Roth’s Alexander Portnoy tells us, “Ven der putz shteht, ligt der sechel in drerd”—a Yiddish saying that means, more or less, that when desire comes in the door judgment jumps out the window and cracks its skull on the pavement.

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Joe Queenan, my (current) favorite fellow book lover

November 10, 2012 at 12:50 pm (books, Magazines and newspapers)

  And why does Mr. Queenan currently occupy this exalted post? Just read “My 6,128 Favorite Books” to find out!

Mr. Queenan treats this delectable subject at even greater length in One for the Books.

Joe Queenan

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Country Life Magazine revisited, with a brief digression

September 10, 2012 at 1:20 pm (Anglophilia, Art, books, Magazines and newspapers, Music, Mystery fiction)

In February 2008, drunk on a new found – or rather, reawakened – love of Britain that was the byproduct of two terrific trips, I took out a subscription to Country Life Magazine. Country Life is a weekly, and if I got it every week, I’d be buried (albeit happily) in a mountain of back issues. Instead, I receive one issue per month.

Here are some highlights from the April 4 Easter issue. To begin with, this cover image sent me scurrying to find the artist. He is Edgar Hunt. Biographical information on this painter is somewhat hard to come by. There’s a brief bit about him on Artnet, where we learn that he was ‘of retiring disposition’ (such a felicitous phrase!).

Country Life does not place much of its content online. A pity, really. “Creating a Poultry Paradise” by Matthew Rice was utterly delightful, featuring exceptionally beautiful photography and art work. The following are images of several of the breeds highlighted by Rice in his article.

Old English Game



Light Sussex

This exercise brought back happy memories of our sojourn in the Hudson Rover Valley four years ago. Our B & B was located next door to a farm, so we took the opportunity to “…make the acquaintance of the local poultry.” More recently, we encountered some attractive fowl at the Shrine of Saint Anthony.  (“A Little Assisi in Maryland,” this lovely and peaceful haven is but a short distance from our house.)


In this issue of Country Life, we learn of the dire situation of the Wedgwood Museum. This distinguished institution may have to sell off its priceless collection in order to raise funds to satisfy a pension related obligation. This seems a somewhat bizarre and complicated quandary, but the danger is real enough and was made more so by  a legal ruling that  was recently handed down.

The article is entitled “Is This the End of the Wedgwood Museum?” It begins thus:

It would take a novelist to do justice to the disaster that has engulfed the Wedgwood Museum in Barlaston, Stoke-on-Trent, Staffordshire. In the words of the Minister for the Arts, Ed Vaizey: ‘We are almost, as it were, walk-on parts in an obscure Dickensian novel, in which a complicated piece of legislation has the most dramatic and unintended consequences.’ The sequence of events to which he refers recalls the nightmarish legal web of the great case Jarndyce vs Jarndyce, which pervades Dickens’s novel Bleak House. The consequences of these events are, however, brutally simple: the Wedgwood Museum, one of the most significant collections and archives of its kind in the world, must be sold.

A vigorous campaign to save the museum has been launched.

The Dancing Hours, designed for Wedgwood in 1778 by John Flaxman

While searching for news on this topic, I came across a review of a  newly released title that sounds quite wonderful: The Potter’s Hand by A.N. Wilson.

It’s worth noting that over the years, in addition to master potter and patriarch Josiah Wedgwood, the Wedgwood family has accrued many distinguished members, the most famous among them being Charles Darwin. (You’ll also find Geoffrey Keynes, brother of  economist John Maynard Keynes, and a composer much beloved by Ron and me: Ralph Vaughan Williams.) Here’s a family tree provided by the ever helpful folks at Wikipedia. If you click on it, you should be able to read the names without too much difficulty: 


A piece entitled “The Shrines of Saints” features that of Thomas Cantilupe, Bishop of Hereford from 1275 to 1282.   We had the great privilege of viewing this shrine last year, when we visited Hereford Cathedral, which also houses the Mappa Mundi and the Chained Library.


A regular feature  that I always enjoy is “My Favourite Painting.”  The work highlighted in this issue, Portrait of the Artist’s Family by Hans Holbein the Younger, was selected by actress Anna Chancellor. (For each issue of Country life, a different person chooses the work of art; then art critic John McEwen provides additional commentary.)

Chancellor comments: “I can hardly bear this painting–it punched me in the solar plexus when I first saw it.”

Last year, one of the feature works, Simone Martini’s Annunciation, dated 1333, was selected by Rory Stewart

Stewart, an amazingly accomplished individual, is just shy of forty years old and looks to be about half that. (See  the Wikipedia link above.) Here are  his comments on the painting:

Country Life have, this week, published a brief description of my favourite Painting – The Annunciation with St. Margaret and St. Asano by Simone Martini. Martini portrays the resistance of the Virgin, the angel Gabriel moves towards her like a hawk, his damask plaid alive like a third wing behind him. I remember a sheet of flat gold,  the filigree columns and the metal blaze of the gothic arches and the etiolated elegance of the olive and the lillies. But above all it is the Lady turning away, drawing her cloak across her as though rejecting an importunate suitor.  So much was lost with the Renaissance.

Priceless, that last sentence.


There’s an invariably insightful essay by Carla Carlisle at the back of each issue. Naturally I was exceptionally pleased to find that this time she’d written about her idol and mine, Dorothy L. Sayers. Writing about Sayers’s depiction, in Gaudy Night, of the first wave of females to storm the barricades of Oxford in the early years of the last century, Carlisle exclaims, “Oh, those brainy, educated women.” They are indeed a joy to spend time with, both in the novel itself and in the film version starring Edward Petherbridge and Harriet Walter. Happily, “Goodness gracious gaudy nights” is available online.

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Wall Street Journal Review section June 16-17

June 27, 2012 at 4:06 pm (Art, books, Magazines and newspapers, Music)

It’s taken me a long time to get though the June 16-17 Review section of the Wall Street Journal. I feel as though the editors sat  down, put their heads together, and came up with article after article that would fascinate Roberta. Yes I know: it’s a very egocentric conceit.  And yet I have rarely come across so much truly neat stuff crammed into a relatively small space.

Some of the highlights:

“I Know Why the Fat Lady Sings,” in which Caitlin Moran describes with almost scary  precision what it feels like to be a compulsive eater:

People overeat for exactly the same reason they drink, smoke, have serial one-night stands or take drugs. I must be clear that I am not talking about the kind of overeating that’s just plain, cheerful greed—the kind of Rabelaisian, Falstaffian figures who treat the world as a series of sensory delights and take full joy in their wine, bread and meat. Those who walk away from a table—replete—shouting, “That was splendid!” before sitting in front of a fire, drinking port and eating truffles, don’t have neuroses about food. They aren’t “fat,” they are simply…lavish.

No—I’m talking about those for whom the whole idea of food isn’t one of pleasure, but one of compulsion. For whom thoughts of food, and the effects of food, are the constant, dreary background static to normal thought. Those who walk into the kitchen in a state bordering on panic and breathlessly eat slice after slice of bread and butter—not even tasting it—until the panic can be drowned in an almost meditative routine of chewing and swallowing, spooning and swallowing.

In this trancelike state, you can find a welcome, temporary relief from thinking for 10, 20 minutes at a time, until finally a new set of sensations—physical discomfort and immense regret—make you stop, in the same way you finally pass out on whiskey or dope. Overeating, or comfort eating, is the cheap, meek option for self-satisfaction, and self-obliteration.

(Why, just this morning I was devouring my beloved morning bowl of cereal while reading the Sunday paper, when I suddenly looked up and thought, Where have I been? This actually happens to me every morning!)

Moran is equally perceptive on the subject of the shame that attaches to overeating and its lamentable consequences.


There’s the usual quota of eminently engaging book reviews: Jonathan Karl, on David Maraniss’s new biography of Barak Obama, was especially insightful. It’s a good example of  a review that, for me, will suffice without recourse to the book.  On the other hand, David Stuart’s piece on Andrew Robinson’s Cracking the Egyptian Code and Moira Hodgson on The Queen’s Lover by Francine du Plessix Gray sent me immediately to the online library catalog.

Tom Nolan is a veteran critic of crime fiction for the Wall Street Journal. In addition, he’s the author of  a fine biography of one of my favorite writers, Ross MacDonald.   In this edition of the WSJ Review, he contributes a lively overview of  the Inspector Montalbano series written by Andrea Camilleri.  In other genre fiction news,Tom Shippey informs and entertains on the science fiction front with “Cyborg, All Too Cyborg.”

I’ve mentioned before my delight in the column called Five Best: A Personal Choice. In this issue of WSJ, novelist Richard Zimler selects “tales of pariahs and misfits.” Once again I’m reminded of books I’ve always intended to read but haven’t (and oh, is that ever a long, long list!), Philip Roth’s I Married a Communist and The Story of a Life, the memoir of Israeli novelist and Holocaust survivor Aharon Appelfeld. Two of Zimler’s suggestions are titles new to me: Sirius by Olaf Stapledon and The Story of Harold by Terry Andrews. Finally, there’s Home by Marilynne Robinson.

  I read Home for a book group discussion. I was somewhat reluctant to tackle it, as I’d had a hard time getting through its predecessor, Gilead. For this reader, Marilynne Robinson writes short books that take a long time to get through – sort of the opposite, say, of Wolf Hall. The characters at times seem more like archetypes than flesh and blood human beings. Robinson is a writer of formidable intellect who, I believe, is best serves by the essay form. (Her latest collection is the rather quaintly entitled When I Was a Child, I Read Books.) In fairness, I have to concede that her writing is beautiful. And in the case of Home, something so redeeming happens at the conclusion – the place where so much contemporary fiction stumbles – that it pretty much made the effort worthwhile.

Another excellent feature of this paper is the column Word Craft. In “The Architecture of a Thriller,” Jeffery Deaver explains how the process of outlining aids him in his work.


Stuart Isacoff, author of A Natural History of the Piano, contributed an article on Maurice Ravel’s famous – some might say, notorious – work, Bolero.  Many find this piece numbingly repetitive. Ravel himself did not have much respect for it, declaring it to have been simply a technical exercise:

Ravel had simply set himself a technical task—a study in musical minimalism. The piece would consist of a theme repeated “a number of times without any development, gradually increasing the orchestra as best I can.” If the description sounds mechanical, that was the idea; he even imagined its performance in a factory setting. The music “constitutes an experiment in a very special and limited direction, and should not be suspected of aiming at achieving anything [more],” he told the Daily Telegraph in 1931.

Ravel set much greater store by Daphnis and Chloe and La Valse. Now I admit, Bolero can have a certain compelling quality, especially if it’s performed by master talents such as Christoph Eschenbach and the Orchestre de Paris:

Okay – now try getting that melody out of your head after you’ve listened to this! On the other hand, the subtle and sensuous Daphnis and Chloe is a true masterpiece. It’s one of Ron’s and my favorite works in the orchestral repertoire:

Maurice Ravel
1875 – 1937


‘Orders’ by Philip Guston, 1978

On the art scene, Margaret Studer takes us to Art Basel in Switzerland, where get the surprising news that the economic downturn has not affected the art market – quite the opposite, in fact.  Closer to home, Rachel Wolff takes us to the Philadelphia Museum of Art, currently hosting an exhibit entitled ‘Gauguin, Cezanne, Matisse: Visions of Arcadia.’ (This looks positively delicious; I wish I were there right now!)

‘Large Bathers’ by Paul Cezanne


Keep in mind: I’ve just presented highlights here. articles that were of particular interest to me. There’s quite  bit more on offer here – a great deal to delight and inform, in a mere fourteen pages of newsprint!

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‘…colonial shenanigans and expatriate misadventures’

June 15, 2012 at 11:56 am (books, Magazines and newspapers)

That felicitous locution is taken from the title of an article that appeared in the Review Section of the  May 19/20 Wall Street Journal Weekend Edition. It’s part of a series called ‘Five Best: A Personal Choice.’  In this particular series entry, author Paul French (Midnight in Peking) suggests five titles:  White Mischief by James Fox (1982), The Painted Veil by W. Somerset Maugham (1925), The Comedians by Graham Greene (1966), Miss Jill by Emily Hahn (1947), and The Green Hat by Michael Arlen (1924).          .

This is but one example of the “Five Best’ series that appears in the Wall Street Journal each weekend. I first became aware of this feature when I picked up WSJ’s Weekend Edition while I was in New York this past March.  That particular issue of the paper had a ‘Five Best’ list of psychological mysteries compiled by Jane Harris. It contained, among other titles,  Barbara Vine’s A Fatal Inversion. This  was a book I’d long intended to read. Harris’s commendation made me determined to do so, and sooner rather than later. The determination necessary in this case involved first and foremost getting my hands on the book. A Fatal Inversion was not owned by the local library; neither is it currently in print in this country. (It is listed as being in print, published by Penguin, at\

A similar situation obtains with Paul French’s list.  Of the five titles he cites, only The Painted Veil is both owned by the library and currently in print. (I was naturally delighted by the inclusion of this novel. Since reading – nay, devouring! – Selina Hastings’s superb biography, I’ve derived much pleasure from rediscovering the works of Somerset Maugham. The Painted Veil is a terrific read and a great book club choice.)  Penguin Classics, bless them, still has  The Comedians on offer.

Among the special pleasures of these lists are the quirkiness of the topic choices and the length and liveliness of the annotations. The best way that I know of for summoning up a good number of  them is by using the search term ‘WSJ five best books.’  The chief difficulty is that you’ll be greeted by a raft of titles so intriguing and so persuasively presented that you’ll want to read them immediately, if not sooner. At least, that’s what happened to me. But then, it would, wouldn’t it?

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A pleasant surprise, courtesy of the Washington Post and my friend Ann

April 17, 2012 at 1:09 am (California, Magazines and newspapers, Mystery fiction)

Today I had lunch with my intellectual buddies.  At one point in our always lively conversation, one of the group, Ann, turned to me and remarked: ” I read your piece in the Post yesterday.” I looked at her in astonishment. My…what? She went on to explain the subject matter, and then the nickel dropped, though I was still amazed: “You mean, they printed it?”

In fact, the reference was to a letter I’d written to the Washington Post about five weeks ago in connection with an article on literary landmarks in Los Angeles that appeared in the March 11 Sunday magazine. I received no acknowledgement from the paper – not so much as an auto-responder – and so I assumed that my missive had fallen into the proverbial bit bucket, never to be seen from that time forth.

I was away this past weekend, and although I did receive yesterday’s paper, I hadn’t had a chance to read it. Hence, my bewilderment at Ann’s comment.

The column in which my letter appears is called, “Your Turn: Reader reactions.” It contains two letters; mine is the second.  Newspapers and magazines always warn you that letters sent to them might be edited, and so it was in this case. Here’s the full text of what I actually wrote (should you be interested):

I very much enjoyed “City of Angles” Bill Thomas (WP Magazine, March 11, 2012). I do wish, though, that Thomas had mentioned Ross MacDonald’s Lew Archer series. MacDonald’s depiction of mid-twentieth century southern California as a land of material riches and  moral and spiritual bankruptcy has rarely been equaled. His mix of noir cynicism with an empathetic view of human vulnerability makes for a strangely heartbreaking reading experience. Here’s a quote from The Zebra-Striped Hearse:

“The striped hearse was standing empty among some other cars off the highway above Zuma. I parked behind it and went down to the beach to search for its owner. Bonfires were scattered along the shore, like the bivouacs of nomad tribes or nuclear war survivors. The tide was high and the breakers loomed up marbled black and fell white out of oceanic darkness.”

Your readers might also be interested to know that in 2009, two American mystery writers and a French journalist made a starting discovery:: Some sixteen minutes into Double Indemnity, Raymond Candler makes a brief uncredited appearance. How strange it is that some sixty-five years after the film’s initial release (and after years of intense study of this landmark film noir), the presence of this cameo should first be detected and reported by two unrelated parties in different countries. Follow this link to an article in The Guardian:

Also, the scene in question appears in a YouTube video, at normal speed and in slow motion:

Ross MacDonald 1915-1983

Still, all in all, I got a chance to sing the praises of Ross MacDonald, a writer whose work I deeply admire.

I also took the opportunity to present my own take on literary Los  Angeles in a post entitled Los Angeles in literature.

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