“Snowmageddon,” Part Two – the calm before the next deluge?

February 9, 2010 at 4:46 pm (Local interest (Baltimore-Washington), Travel)

[Click here for the first “snowmageddon” post.]

So: this is how the neighborhood looked after the Big Dig Out:

As happened in December, the neighbors turned out in force to help us finish clearing the driveway. Bless them! The first thing we did was go to the supermarket and stock up – again. The forecast calls for more snow. As you have probably gathered from the pictures, our biggest problem right now is where to put  the stuff. And there are other problems: sore shoulders, aching backs, low morale, cabin fever, a hankering for fresh produce. Even I, heartily bored to death as I am with “healthful eating,” rejoiced at the sight of a few leaves of (semi-wilted) iceberg lettuce!

Even now, the beautiful blue of the pictures above has faded to an indeterminate dishwater gray. Actually, that’s the default ‘color’ of winter weather in these parts. At the moment I’m reminiscing about a plan we once had of moving to New Mexico – somewhere near Santa Fe. Ah yes – Santa Fe, with its cerulean blue skies, blue doors, mountains, the aroma of pinyon, the lilt of the Spanish tongue, the Native American owned Hotel Santa Fe, and the general air of otherworldliness…

Can you blame a person for dreaming of it, right now?

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It’s a Mystery! – again…

September 17, 2009 at 10:28 pm (books, Local interest (Baltimore-Washington), Mystery fiction, Travel)

This past July, I had the pleasure of presenting The Art of the Mystery at the Glenwood Branch of the Howard County Library. Next month, I’ll be presenting It’s A Mystery! at The Bain Center in Columbia. This too is a library program.

This time I am going to emphasis the function of setting in crime fiction. My efforts have been greatly aided by G.J. Demko’s thoughts on the subject. Demko, an emeritus professor at Dartmouth, has posted his highly engaging essays on a site called Landscapes of Crime.

Many of us crime fiction fans consider the selection of books to be an essential part of travel preparations. Getting ready for my trip to Italy last May, I did quite  a bit of reading in advance of the journey. I read portions of these three titles:

beard herculaneum pompeii1 And I read Shirley Hazzard’s wonderful memoircapri I was  about half way through Jordan Lancaster’s fascinating history of Naples when we took off: jordanl. It was one of the two “perfect books” that came with me on this memorable journey, the other being – and you were wondering when I’d get to this! – a mystery: tutti. Michael Dibdin, whom we lost most prematurely in 2007, wrote the Aurelio Zen series, which I always enjoyed. Zen turns up in various Italian locales; in Cosi Fan Tutti, he is smack in the middle of Naples and engaged in a hilarious Keystone cops type of scenario involving organized crime, jealous lovers, covetous older women, and lots more. The proceedings are all the more entertaining for Zen’s deep knowledge of the Neapolitan landscape – and the Neapolitan underworld.

But what if you’re not going to Italy? Well, then I have only two words for you: Why not?? Just kidding ( sort of) – there are ways to find mysteries set just about anywhere. Wheredunnit is one of the most comprehensive sources; Eurocrime also does a great job. I’m partial to the “Location Index” on Stop You’re Killing Me because of its precise breakdown of places within the United Kingdom (click on “British Isles;” select “England – excluding London”).

There are sites and blogs dedicated to mysteries set in a particular country or region. One that I recently discovered that’s devoted to Scottish crime fiction is Big Beat from Badsville. There’s also a Scandinavian Crime Fiction Blog and a site devoted to Italian Mysteries. I also recommend  Detectives Without Borders: A Forum for International Crime Fiction.

So – with regard to the October 20th presentation, have I given the game away? By no means! There will be a new book list, new titles to talk about, and yet another chance to exchange views and recommendations with fellow mystery lovers.

Here are  the particulars:It's a Mystery with watermark

[ Click on the link to the Bain Center at the top of this post for directions.]

Here are just a few of the titles I’ll be bringing:  judge-dee maigret thunder black1 dakar girl2

franchise dissloution

Hope to see you there!

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Sequels make me anxious…but White Nights by Ann Cleeves is a winner!

July 29, 2009 at 1:01 pm (Anglophilia, Book review, books, Mystery fiction, The British police procedural, To Britain and back, September '07, Travel)

white I am happy to report that with the second entry in the Shetland Quartet, Ann Cleeves has put to rest my sequel anxieties. White Nights is as worthy a follow-up to Raven Black as one could hope for. We find ourselves once again in the Shetland Islands, at the height of summer, a time when at this northern latitude, the sun never really sets but lingers, late at night and in the early morning,  just at the line of the horizon.  The locals call it the “simmer dim,”  and the effect is eerie, sometimes producing erratic behavior on the part of natives and visitors alike. And it’s hard to imagine what could be more erratic than the appearance, at the opening of an art exhibition, of a distraught stranger who, without warning, sinks to his knees and bursts into loud and piteous weeping.

Detective Jimmy Perez is among those staring at this singular display in shocked silence. He has come to the opening with Fran Hunter, one of the exhibiting artists. Jimmy first met Fran, a newly single mother, in the course of the investigation that takes place in Raven Black. He is now in love with her. This affair of the heart is described by Cleeves with great restraint and poignancy;  the reader is made to share Perez’s urgent desire for its success.

Things proceed in a straight line from the bizarre disruption of the art show to a murder that is discovered soon afterward. Jimmy’s slow, methodical approach to crime solving seems congruent with his milieu, but it drives Roy Taylor , thee senior investigating officer  from Inverness, slightly crazy.  In fact, for Taylor, Shetland itself  is a negative effect:

“Shetland was unnatural, he thought. The spooky half-light which never disappeared really freaked him out. That’s why he’d slept so poorly the night before. Perhaps it was the extreme of the dark winters and sleepless summers that made the people so odd. He could never live there.

But for those who do live there and have a shared history there, Shetland is a magical place. The action in Raven Black culminates at the annual fire festival called Up Helly Aa. This was completely new to me, and fascinating.

UpHelly Aa, 1973: the burning of the galley. Photo by Anne Burgess

Up Helly Aa, 1973: the burning of the galley. Photo by Anne Burgess

Older traditions than this still survive. Kenny Thomson, a farmer in the tiny village of Biddista, is one of my favorite characters in the novel. In this passage, he anticipates a summer ritual:

“He enjoyed the sense of occasion that came with clipping the sheep; it was one of the days that marked midsummer – everyone walking across the hill together in line, pushing the beasts ahead of them until they reached the dyke, then walking them down towards the croft.  It took him back to his childhood, when there’d been more communal work. He liked the banter and the edge of competition as everyone tried to get the fleeces off whole, not nicking the flesh, but keeping up the pace so they weren’t at it all day. And then in the evening they”d all come into the house for beer and a few drams, maybe some music.

There is something autumnal in this description; one has the sense of yet another time-honored way of life threatened with extinction.


In 2007, as a feature of the Smithsonian Tour Mystery Lover’s England and Scotland, we met Ann Cleeves twice. First, she participated in a panel discussion along with Stuart Pawson and Martin Edwards. (Later, all three joined us for dinner – most convivial, and great fun!)

Left to right: Stuart Pawson, Ann Cleeves, and Martin Edwards

Left to right: Stuart Pawson, Ann Cleeves, and Martin Edwards

Cleeves met us again for lunch in Morpeth, a town in Northumberland. She took this occasion to tell us how the inspiration for the Shetland Quartet came about. If memory serves, it had to do with a bird watching expedition to the islands.


(I had the pleasure of encountering Ann Cleeves yet again, at Bouchercon last October.)

Our group then resumed the journey north, to Edinburgh. As always happens in England, there were many places I wanted to stop, but there wasn’t the time to do so. Bamburgh Castle, Alnwick and its fabulous gardens, the iconic Angel of the North, which we whipped past in the bus.

Angel of the North

Angel of the North

I hope to return one day, to see these things up close and at leisure. I hope also to go to Lindisfarne.  Gateshead and Newcastle Upon Tyne are also of interest to me.  I felt deeply immersed in those regions while reading Jenny Uglow’s  biography of  Thomas Bewick.

Northumberland itself has many beautiful towns and villages. Ann Cleeves lives there and loves it; it’s easy to see why.

The windswept coast of Northumberland

The windswept coast of Northumberland

As often happened, England staged precisely the right weather in order to heighten the drama. That’s Ros, our intrepid  Blue Badge guide, in the blue dress.

Here’s some video footage of the Up Helly Aa fire festival:


I’ve wandered somewhat far afield from the subject of White Nights, so I want to reiterate in closing what a wonderful read this novel is. I suggest you begin with Raven Black, the first volume of the Shetland Quartet. Then read White Nights. Needless to say, I anticipate these two with pleasure:

newred blue

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The Art of the Mystery, Part Three: the Golden Age of British crime fiction

July 17, 2009 at 10:57 pm (Anglophilia, books, Local interest (Baltimore-Washington), Mystery fiction, Travel, Uncategorized)

I wish we’d had more time last Thursday to talk about the Golden Age of crime writing in Great Britain.  This period is epitomized by the work of these five gifted women, sometimes referred to as “les Grandes Dames:”

Margery Allingham

Margery Allingham

Agatha Christie

Agatha Christie

Ngaio Marsh

Ngaio Marsh

Dorothy L. Sayers

Dorothy L. Sayers

Josephine Tey

Josephine Tey


Only Dorothy L. Sayers and Agatha Christie made it onto the “What Do You Know About Mysteries” quiz. Sayers is a long time favorite of mine. I’m especially partial to the three novels that tell the story of Lord Peter Wimsey and Harriet Vane:

poison carcase

gaudyGaudy Night is a masterful achievement.  Lord Peter and Harriet Vane struggle to find a common ground where they can dwell in mutual love and respect; their drama plays out against the backdrop of postwar turmoil. Harriet is still coming to terms with the trauma of being tried, some years ago, for the murder of her lover. In Gaudy Night, she emerges from beneath that cloud for good – and forever.

It has been speculated that Dorothy Sayers created Harriet Vane as a stand-in for herself. Like Sayers, Harriet writes successful crime fiction. And like Sayers, she takes enormous pride in her Oxford degree:

“‘They can’t take this away, at any rate. Whatever I may have done since, this remains. Scholar; Master of Arts; Domina; Senior Member of this University (statutem est quod Juniores Senioribus debitam et congruam reverentiam tum in privato tum in publico exhibeant); a place achieved, inalienable, worthy of reverence.’

gaudy2 I recommend the film version of Gaudy Night. It provides a vivid picture of the women of Oxford University at the historic moment in which  they achieve parity with their male counterparts.

An equally good film was made of the equally brilliant novel, The Nine Tailors. Here’s what Michael Grost has to say about both:

“Sayers attempted to bring more ‘literary’ values to detective fiction, and this began to pay off in her later books, especially the impressive The Nine Tailors (1934). This novel does not have a fair play puzzle plot, strictly speaking, but it does have a plot, and a complex, well designed one at that, something that is all to the good. It also includes a well done ‘background’ look at an English country church and its vicar. It is an impressive literary achievement.

The Nine Tailors was made into a superb four hour film by the BBC in 1974. This is the best of all the BBC TV adaptations of Sayers’ work. The filmmakers have linearized Sayers’ chronology, telling the story in sequence, which is probably a requirement for dramatization. The two central hours, two and three, are probably the richest in the work. The film version rises to its climax at the end of the third hour, with the characters assembled in church and singing the hymn ‘Holy, Holy, Holy’.

tailors2 tailors

Here’s a link to the Dorothy L. Sayers Society. I also recommend reading the Wikipedia entry on Sayers. It includes an evenhanded  discussion of Sayers’s alleged anti-Semitism; the story of her tangled love life and its ramifications is likewise intriguing.

Dorothy L Sayers

Dorothy L Sayers


Josephine Tey received mention twice at “The Art of the Mystery” program: once in Emma’s introduction and then later when, for illustrative purposes,  I brought up the character of Robert Blair in The Franchise Affair. Now Franchise is one of my all time favorite novels. Tey drew her inspiration for it from two actual  criminal cases. An adolescent girl levels a bizarre, horrifying accusation against Marion Sharpe and her mother. The Sharpes, who live in genteel poverty in a house called The Franchise, are stunned and bewildered by this turn of events. They have no idea what this girl is talking about and claim never to have seen her before.  The clashing versions of reality give momentum to a narrative that is riveting from start to finish. Comic relief is provided by the elder Mrs. Sharpe, whose name fits the action of her tongue perfectly!

I also urge you to read Brat Farrar, a novel whose depiction of rural British life is timeless and filled with a nostalgic longing. The story centers on an audacious impersonation undertaken for purely mercenary reasons; along the way there are a multitude of surprising twists and turns. Ulitmately, the protagonist finds himself face to face with a harrowing moral quandary. This is the kind of first rate storytelling that we crime fiction aficionados continually long for but can’t always find.

franchise brat

Josephine Tey herself is something of a mystery. To begin with, she wrote crime fiction under a pseudonym; her real name was Elizabeth Mackintosh. In addition to writing mysteries, she was also a playwright. (For this aspect of her authorial career, she used the name Gordon Daviot.) Her play Richard of  Bordeaux, first performed in 1932, featured John Gielgud in the title role. The work, a huge success,  propelled Gielgud to a stardom that he enjoyed for the remainder of his long and productive life in the theater and later, in film.

In 1926, Tey’s mother died and she returned home to care for her father, who was an invalid. She never lived anywhere else. Josephine Tey died in 1952 at the age of 55.

Josephine Tey

Josephine Tey


I came to Ngaio Marsh by way of audiobooks, specifically those narrated by James Saxon. I’ve enjoyed both reading and listening to several of Marsh’s Roderick Alleyn novels; my favorite among them is Death in a White Tie. Written in 1938, it is as much a novel of manners as a novel of crime. The glittering London “season” comes vividly to life in its pages. And Marsh does something in this book that I’m surprised more crime writers don’t do: she makes the murder victim extremely sympathetic. Because you’ve had a chance to know this person and thereby appreciate his worth, you grieve along with the book’s other characters when he meets a brutal end. And like them, you too yearn for justice.


With the creation of Roderick Alleyn, Marsh almost singlehandedly invented the police procedural. Alleyn was her sole protagonist; she began with him in 1934’s A Man Lay Dead and stayed with him through thirty-two successive entries in the series. The last, Light Thickens, came out in 1982, the year of her death. (I haven’t read Dame Ngaio’s final work, but I love that title. It comes from MacBeth: “Light thickens, and the crow / Makes wing to the rooky wood…”)

Like Peter Wimsey, Alleyn has an older brother who has an inherited title. He must therefore decide what to do with his life, and his decision is to enter the field of law enforcement. Alleyn shares something else with Lord Peter: he is in love with a woman, a portrait painter named Agatha Troy, who may prove unattainable. This matter is resolved in Death in a White Tie.

Although the majority of her novels are set in England,  Ngaio Marsh was actually from New Zealand. With the exception of her travels, which frequently took her to Great Britain, she was a life long resident of  the island nation where she was born. Her home in Christchurch is now open to the public.

Ngaio Marsh

Ngaio Marsh


Of these five writers, Margery Allingham is the one I know least. I’ve listened to several of her novels, admirably read by Francis Matthews. My favorite is Dancers in Mourning, which paints a delightful picture of theater life in Britian between the wars and features a poignant love story as well. It has been re-issued by the wonderful folks at Felony and Mayhem Press.


Somehow Albert Campion, Allingham’s protagonist, never  became a compelling presence for me. I have tended to view him as a rather pale imitation of Lord Peter Wimsey. (Okay,  Allingham / Campion fans: feel free to jump in here!)

Here’s a link to the Margery Allingham Society.

Margery Allingham

Margery Allingham


Finally we come to Agatha Christie. Much as been written about Christie’s astounding and durable success. Her name has become, in Barry Forshaw‘s memorable locution, “a copper-bottomed franchise.” I have no expertise in the area of Christie studies; in fact, as a reader I came late to her oeuvre and still have a lot of catching up to do. But I did have a marvelous travel adventure three years ago that was very much linked to this writer. My husband and I took a Smithsonian tour entitled  “Classic Mystery Lover’s England.” Our first port of call was Torquay, Christie’s birthplace. Torquay, on Devon’s South Coast, does not often make it onto the itinerary of  UK yours. IMHO, it should. It is a lovely town, with a harbor whose graceful inland curve provides an effective shield from the elements.

Yes - palm trees in England!

Yes – palm trees in England!

At a church in nearby Torbay, where the young Agatha and her family were often in attendance, we encountered a man who told us that he had been a gardener at Greenway House, former home of Agatha Christie.  He is pictured here with our Blue Badge Guide Ros Hutchinson, whose encyclopedic knowledge of all things English was leavened with large helpings of inimitable British wit.


This man spoke with a pronounced West Country accent, so much so that we had some trouble understanding him. It was as if a piece of the past had walked right into the present moment, one of those travel experiences that can never be scripted in advance but just happen, if you are lucky enough to be in the right place at the right time.


Our assigned reading for this first portion of the tour was body. I loved it from the first gently whimsical paragraph:

“Mrs. Bantry was dreaming. Her sweet peas had just taken a First at the flower show. The vicar, dressed in cassock and surplice, was giving out the prizes in church. His wife wandered past, dressed in a bathing suit, but as is the blessed habit of dreams, this fact did not arouse the disapproval of the parish in the way it would assuredly have done in real life.

Carol Kent

Carol Kent

The title of Carol Kent’s talk on Christie was entitled Just How Cozy is that Body in the Library? I wish I could hear Kent’s marvelous lectures again! They were  brimful of fascinating insights and witty asides.

On the third day of the tour, we traveled via steam train from Paignton to the beautiful town of Dartmouth. We then embarked on a criuse on the River Dart. Our passage afforded us a glimpse of Greenway House. The house is situated on a bluff overlooking the river. In 2006, house and garden were in the process of being renovated. That work has since been completed, and the house and grounds are now open to the public.

No here’s a late breaking bulletin: Classic Mystery Lover’s England has been off the Smithsonian Journeys list of upcoming tours for several years. I’ve been checking periodically to see if it has been reinstated, and when I checked yesterday, lo! It was back, scheduled to run next year.  I’ve been there, and I can assure you: this is a terrific trip.

I highly recommend the Miss Marple stories in the collection The Thirteen Problems thirteen Here, Christie uses the time-honored conceit of a group of friends who propose to entertain one another by telling tales. The group consists of Joyce Lempriere, an artist; Sir Henry Clithering, retired Comissioner of Scotland Yard; Dr. Pender, an elderly clergyman; Mr Petherick, a solicitor; Raymond West, a writer and nephew to Miss Marple; and of course, Miss Marple herself. Group members have agreed among themselves to relate true mysteries of recent vintage which have proved difficult, if not impossible, to solve.

These stories serve to demonstrate Christie’s narrative skills in a distilled, compressed form. In particular, I was struck by her craft in evoking  an atmosphere of strangeness, bordering almost on the supernatural. Read “The Idol House of Astarte” and you’ll see what I mean.

Agatha Christie


dubose In Women of Mystery: The Life and Works of Notable Women Crime Novelists, Martha Hailey Dubose  devotes a section entitled “A Golden Era: The Genteel Puzzlers” to the five above mentioned authors. And if you have an interest in the history of crime fiction, I urge you to have a look at Michael Grost’s superb site, A Guide to Classic Mystery and Detection.


Up until recently, Torquay has not capitalized on its association with Agatha Christie. That has begun to change.

agatha bust agatha plaque

In 1990, on the one hundredth anniversary of Christie’s birth, someone had the bright idea of staging, in Torquay, a meeting between David Suchet as Hercule Poirot and Joan Hickson as Miss Marple. Until that time, the two had never met. In 1984, at the age of 78, Joan Hickson made her first appearance as Miss Marple in The Body in the Library. She went on to make eleven more Miss Marple films, culminating with The Mirror Crack’d from Side to Side in 1992. Joan Hickson died in 1998 at the age of 92. By that time, she had achieved a lasting fame through her subtly understated, perceptive portrayal of Agatha Christie’s world renowned spinster sleuth.

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All the Colors of Darkness by Peter Robinson, with a Yorkshire diversion

June 18, 2009 at 11:57 am (Anglophilia, Book review, books, Mystery fiction, Short stories, The British police procedural, Travel)

Peter Robinson’s “The Price of Love” has been nominated for this year’s  CWA Short Story Dagger. I’m pleased to report that I really enjoyed this story, which can be found in this anthology blue. In fact, I’m especially pleased because I recently read All the Colors of Darkness, the latest  Alan Banks novel, and, alas, found it in some degree wanting.

Along with my close friend Marge (often referred to in this space as my “partner in crime” – meaning nothing more sinister than a shared enthusiasm for crime fiction), I began reading Robinson’s Alan Banks series at the very beginning. Gallows View came out here in 1987 and was hailed by critics and readers alike to be a worthy addition to the venerable tradition of the British police procedural. Along with Marge,  I have read every book in this series and gotten a great deal of enjoyment from the experience. But IMHO, All the Colors of Darkness did not quite a measure up to the high standard that, over the years,  Robinson has set for himself.

darkness The novel had its pleasures, for sure. In one scene,  Banks’s second-in-command (and erstwhile love interest) Annie Cabot goes to the house of Nicky Haskell, a young punk who may have useful information concerning a case she’s investigating. A surprise awaits her there, but it has nothing to do with her case; instead, it evolves into a rather humorous exchange with Nicky:

“‘Mind if I turn the TV down?’ Annie asked.

‘Knock yourself out.’

‘ Midsomer Murders,’ Annie said as she turned the volume down. ‘I wouldn’t have thought that was your cup of tea.’

‘It’s soothing, innit? Like watching paint dry.’

Annie quite liked the program. It was so far removed from the real policing she did that she accepted it for what it was and didn’t even find herself looking for mistakes.

I’m a great fan of Midsomer Murders myself, and this exchange made me smile. I only wish the rest of the dialogue in the novel was comparable. But awkward dialogue was not the only problem I had with All the Colors of Darkness.  The convoluted plot involves the death of two men, one of whom turns out to have been involved in intelligence work. Nothing wrong with this premise, at least, not initially. But about a third of the way along, Banks comes up with a theory of the crime that seemed to me to have pulled out of left field. He’s gotten this idea – an idee fixe, I would almost call it – as a result of recently attending a performance of  Othello. Now I’m all in favor of cultured detectives – I’m a devoted fan of Adam Dalgliesh, Reg Wexford, and,  naturally, Morse – but I can’t help feeling that in this instance, it would have been better if Banks had just taken in a movie that night instead.  Or perhaps he could have gone to a concert; his passion for music , after all, is one of his more endearing characteristics.

And yet, and yet…as I said before, the novel does succeed in some ways. Robinson excels in descriptive passages; his skill in this area has, I think, been insufficiently appreciated. Of course, the Banks novels have a terrific advantage in regard to setting, since they take place in one of the most magical and beautiful places in the  world: Yorkshire.

[These videos were made by Ron from my photographs of my trip to Yorkshire in 2005. Be sure to turn up  the sound so that you can hear “The Lark Ascending” by Ralph Vaughan Williams. I’ll hold off on the superlatives; the music speaks for itself.]

Alan Banks currently lives in a cottage on the outskirts of a small village. Annie Cabot declares herself surprised by his choice of such an isolated dwelling place, but at this moment in his life, it’s what suits him. Behind the cottage runs a stream, Gratly Beck, and Banks finds peace by sitting on a wall there and taking in the beautiful surroundings:

“It was after sunset, but there was still a glow deep in the cloudless western sky, dark orange and indigo. Banks could smell warm grass and manure mingles with something sweet, perhaps flowers that only opened at night. A horse whinnied in a distant field. The stone he sat on was still warm and he could see the lights of Helmthorpe between the trees, down at the bottom of  the dale, the outline of a square church tower with its odd round turret dark and heavy against the sky.

I don’t know about you, but I feel I could be deeply happy in such a place.

Ultimately, reading All the Colors of Darkness was, for me, a frustrating experience, with the novel’s undisputed strengths only serving to magnify its weaknesses. Once again, I warmly commend to crime fiction readers “The Price of Love.” Peter Robinson won the Edgar for Best Short Story in 2001 with “Missing in Action,” a taut tale set during the Second World War. (Robinson has an excellent feel for that era, as he amply demonstrated in novel In a Dry Season.)

“Missing in Action” can be found in finest

I note that Peter Robinson has just come out with a story collection: priceI look forward to reading it, as I’ve come to believe that this form is particularly congenial to his talents.

Peter Robinson

Peter Robinson

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Sunday Sampler: from newspapers to Naples – again…

June 15, 2009 at 2:17 am (books, Italian journey, Italy, Magazines and newspapers, Travel) ()

Every Sunday morning, I am greeted with one of my favorite sights: The Washington Post and The New York Times lying on my driveway. Now speaking of driveways, ours is about fifty feet long. Over the (more than twenty) years that we’ve lived here, we’ve noted an increasing propensity on the part of delivery people to leave not only newspapers but telephone books (such quaint anachronistic objects) and various other things at the very end of the driveway. (In our house, this is known as the DDS, or Driveway Delivery System.) At the very least, in the case of the newspapers, this means every morning trudging out to the street in my jammies for the purpose of obtaining the paper. (Don’t worry – I usually throw a robe or a raincoat over my rumpled nightclothes.) I have nothing against a good brisk walk, weather permitting. But when it’s pouring down rain, newspaper retrieval becomes a real adventure. The experience is especially exasperating when the paper has taken on water, usually through the process of wicking. (Is “wicking” the result of some law of physics, and if so, can it be repealed?)

This scenario is rendered even more interesting if it is snowing. At such times, Yours Truly, the early riser in the family, can be seen in a housecoat, wool cap, and clunky winter boots, schlepping out to the end of the driveway, in hope of finding the paper, which may be buried in a snow drift. One feels a bit like an archaeologist, unearthing an artifact artfully concealed by Nature…

Yes, I know, in the scheme of things, these are but minor annoyances. But at the very least, you’d think that in this time of hysteria over the possible disappearance of hard copy newspapers , it would occur to circulation departments that people may be canceling because they’re tired of dealing with this recurrent inconvenience. In fact, some papers may finally be seeing the light. For the past several months, the Sunday Times has been landing about two thirds of the way down the driveway. Alas, the Post is still poised at the lip, so not too much joy there after all.

But wait! The good people at the Post have handed  us book lovers an unexpected treat today:

WP - Summer Reading2No, your eyes do not deceive you: it’s a separate Book World Section! It is twelve pages in length; in addition, there are two pages of book reviews in the Outlook section. So this is a banner day for the Sunday paper after all.

Now I want to spotlight two recent articles from the Times. First, last Sunday’s Week in Review had a feature piece on Italian politics entitled “In Italy, Questions Are From Enemies, and That’s That.”  Above the text is a picture of Silvio Berlusconi looking for all the world like – well, like someone you would not want to cross:

Silvio Berlusconi

Silvio Berlusconi

This article was of interest, naturally, because of my recent sojourn in Italy. But it was also timely because I saw Il Divo at the AFI Silver Theatre in Silver Spring with my erstwhile traveling companions Linda and Jean.

divo Il Divo is a film about the life and times of Giulio Andreotti, who, in the words of the synopsis on the film’s website, “…has been Italy’s most powerful, feared and enigmatic politician.” All three of us felt that because we lacked a background in contemporary Italian politics, and because of the language barrier, a problem even though there were subtitles, we had trouble at times understanding what was happening on screen. Nevertheless, we got the general drift of this powerful and frightening, if somewhat over long film.

In La Bella Figura: A Field Guide to the Italian Mind, author Beppe Severgnini observes that “Italy is the only workshop in the world that can turn out both Botticellis and Berlusconis.”

Finally, “Deep in the Heart of Historic Naples” appeared in yesterday’s Times. After I read this article, I fired off an impassioned letter to the paper, saying how fascinating I found Naples and how much we missed seeing because we had so little time there. I concluded with by saying, “I’d go back in a heartbeat.” Until the moment I wrote that sentence, I hadn’t admitted to myself that I felt that way.


Here  Jordan Lancaster, in her book In the Shadow of Vesuvius, describes the communal worship of the Greek gods in Neapolis. This would have taken place around the fifth century BC:

“Everyone participated enthusiastically and with exuberant gusto in the celebrations. First and foremost wass undoubtedly the cult of the siren, Parthenope. The cult of Aphrodite, the goddess of love, was also strong in Neapolis, as maritime traders and seafarers were particularly devoted to her. Dionysus, the god of wine, and Demeter, the protectress of the harvest, governed the most important local crops in the predominantly agrarian economy. The earth mother and the god of ecstatic liberation embody a seductive, pagan quality that the area has always enjoyed, an alluring combination of beauty and fertility.

Lancaster goes on to quote the Roman historian Livy, who gets even more specific:

“‘To the religious content were added the pleasures of wine and feasting, to attract a greater number. When they were heated with wine and all sense of modesty had  been extinguished by the darkness of night and the mingling of men with women and young with old, then debaucheries of every kind began and all had pleasures at hand to satisfy the lust to which they were most inclined.’

An old, old city, with an amazing history…


Here are some more of my photos of Naples:


A campaign poster, taken from the bus as we were leaving the airport and first entering the city





The Maschio Angioino (Angevin Fortress), more commonly known as the Castel Nuovo. You have to love a place that refers to a castle built in the 13th century as "new." This was taken from a 15th floor window of our hotel.

The Maschio Angioino (Angevin Fortress), more commonly known as the Castel Nuovo. You have to love a place that refers to a castle built in the 13th century as "new." This photo was taken from a 15th floor window of our hotel.

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Seeking – and finding? – Wagner’s ghost at Villa Rufolo in Ravello

June 12, 2009 at 2:32 am (Italian journey, Italy, Music, Travel)

I bought this book when it first came out ten years ago. It quickly became emblematic of my desire to return to Italy.

Amalfi Coast Escape Cover

Although published by Fodor’s, this is not your standard travel guide. For one thing, the writing (by Robert I.C. Fisher)  veers from sardonic to rapturous. And the pictures, also taken by Fisher, are spectacular.

Of course, it helps that the subject happens to be the Amalfi Coast, considered by many to be one of the most  beautiful places on Earth. I quoted Gore Vidal to that effect in a recent post. (Vidal lived for many years in Ravello.)

Travel writer Lucia Mauro vividly and poetically evokes the experience of “Seeking Wagner’s Ghost in Ravello.”

And here is Robert I.C. Fisher: “A veil of celestial blue extends as far as you can see when you stand on the upper terrace of the Villa Rufolo. The cerulean hue is not merely a color–it is a miracle, defining ‘blue’ once and for all. ”

Here is that view:

villa1Fisher continues:

“It’s no small mystery why Landolfo Rufolo, described in Boccaccio’s Decameron as one of Italy’s richest men, chose this matchless mountain perch for the site of his 13th century estate. A Scheherazadian extravaganza of Norman batttlements and terraced  gardens, with an Arab-Sicilian cloister, his villa  was designed to welcome Moorish emirs and French kings. But it found its immortality centuries later when Richard Wagner unexpectedly arrived at its gates in February 1880 and stayed the night, banging out the second act of Parsifal on an untuned piano, accompanied only by his giant ego and a fierce thunderstorm. “Klingsor‘s garden is found once again!” the great 19th century composer crowed of the wizard who ordered the seduction of the opera’s saintly hero.

Before I left for Italy, I wrote about my sense of mission with regard to the Villa Rufolo. So, when I found myself actually there, I was already primed for an extraordinary experience. I had seen pictures and done a fair amount of reading, always with my Wagner-loving brother in mind.  And as luck would have it, I had discovered that we had a Wagnerite in our group: Christine, an exuberant, adventurous person and a passionate opera lover, was traveling with her sister Judey.



As we entered the grounds of the Villa, one of the first things we saw was this plaque:


Cameras were held aloft, shutters clicked repeatedly. Christine cried out, “Roberta, this is our moment!” She was right.

But it was only the beginning…







Accompanying all this loveliness was the occasional faint sound of musical instruments. Villa Rufolo plays host to Chamber Music on the Amalfi Coast, a music festival that runs from March to July, and again from September to November. What we were hearing was the musicians practicing. Our guide told us that when the stage is set up, it looks as though it is suspended over the water.


Our precious time at the villa was drawing to a close. I wished we could stay longer. I was expressing this wistful sentiment to one of my fellow tour members when I heard the clarion call of the trumpets from the Prelude to Parsifal. It came crisp and clear, much more immediate than the snatches of music I’d been hearing up until that moment.I broke off, exclaiming. “Oh my God – Parsifal!” I don’t what became of my interlocutor; I just knew I had to find those brass players. Following the already-dying strains of the Prelude, I found a small room with no door, that opened onto a remote part of the garden. The room was empty, save for a television that was the source of the music. The Prelude faded away;  it was followed by pleasant, albeit mundane video of people coming and going along a street in a village. The music became soft, unexceptional pop tunes. There was voice over narration, in Italian.

I turned and left, not sure what had just happened. Christine and I, alas, had gone our separate ways. I regretted that she had not been there to share this moment with me as well.


Later, when we went to visit the shops in Ravello’s piazza, we discovered that the name “Klingsor” had taken on a life of its own in the world of local commerce!




Here is an excerpt from the Good Friday Spell.Wilhelm Furtwangler conducts the   Berlin Philharmonic in this historic performance:

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A hotel in Sorrento – and a Room with a View

June 5, 2009 at 12:26 pm (Italian journey, Italy, Travel)

For our stay on the Amalfi Coast, our group was put up at the rather extravagantly named Grand Hotel Cesare Augusto in Sorrento. While somewhat less than actually grand, it was certainly more than adequate:




My single room was cozy and inviting. This  was fortunate, as I caught a nasty cold on the second of the six nights we were to be at the hotel, and thus I ended up spending more time in my room than I had planned. Still, I managed not to miss much, and since I love wandering through hotels, I was content.

The “Cesare” boasted two outstanding features: a rooftop swimming pool and a lovely back garden. Next to the pool was an outdoor eating area, where one could obtain light fare. Toward the end of our journey I spent some time there, writing and recuperating and working on my notes. For the most part, I was alone. This kind of time does not figure in when a tour schedule is put together.  Jean and Connie were spending the day in Positano and I would gladly have gone with them had I felt well enough. As it was, though, the time I spent writing, relaxing,  and reflecting at the Cesare’s Roof Snack Bar was a welcome restorative.

I also sat a while at a table on the terrace behind the hotel. There were flowers everywhere, in the most intense colors. This garden must take a great deal of tending. We’d been in Italy slightly over a week and it hadn’t rained once, although it had rained plenty just before our arrival. Thus sun poured over us, in such a kindly way, with the accompaniment of gentle breezes. ( I’m remembering these moments especially wistfully right now: for days it has done nothing but rain here in the Baltimore-Washington area.)

Here is what my room looked like: cesare4. Beyond the windows on the left was a little balcony: balcony. It afforded a pleasant view of the fruit trees under cultivation across the street, and the mountains beyond: view1

view2 By this time, I was starting to feel like a character in a Merchant-Ivory film. Italy being the land of glorious music, I kept hearing in my mind “O Mio Babbino Caro,” from Puccini’s Gianni Schicchi.  This is the aria that famously serves as the accompaniment to the opening credits of  A Room with a View. Here, it is sung by the incomparable Kiri te Kanawa:

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The most beautiful place in the world

June 4, 2009 at 12:51 am (Italian journey, Italy, Travel) ()

Villa Cimbrone, Ravello: the belvedere, also known as the Terrazzo dell'Infinita (Terrace of Infinity)

Villa Cimbrone, Ravello: the belvedere, also known as the Terrazzo dell'Infinito (Terrace of Infinity)

It is hard to write about the Amalfi Coast; one runs out of superlatives so quickly. Looking at the photograph above, I can hardly believe that I myself took it, that I stood there in that amazing place.

Gore Vidal said it best:

“Twenty five years ago I was asked by an American magazine what was the most beautiful place that I had ever seen in all my travels and I said the view from the belvedere of the Villa Cimbrone on a bright winter’s day when the sky and the sea were each so vividly blue that it was not possible to tell one from the other.

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I met a traveler from an antique land….

June 2, 2009 at 1:56 am (books, Italian journey, Italy, Travel) ()


One of my mother’s many gifts to me was a sense of the richness of the artistic and historical heritage of Western Europe. Her own first trip to Italy, undertaken with my father when they were both in their forties, was for her, a life changing experience. She fell instantly in love with the country. (This access of affection was greatly aided by the fact that the day before my parents were to leave for home, their driver stopped the car so that he could purchase a bouquet of roses, which he then placed in my mother’s arms. )

I have been hearing and reading about Pompeii since I was a small child. Going there was the realization of a long held dream. So what was the experience actually like?

Once again, it was a beautiful day – sunny, with soft breezes and virtually no humidity. (The level of moisture in the atmosphere is something we denizens of the greater D.C. area, with its notoriously muggy summers, always take note of.) As we descended from the bus, we were engulfed by…wonder? grandeur? No – actually, by vendors selling every tchotchke and confection imaginable. It was just one grand gelato-fueled bazaar!

Well, okay, a guy/gal has to earn a living…



We were soon met by our guide, Sasha, who took us away from the present and into the past – but again, not quite. Sasha assured us of our good fortune that day: it was warm but not hot, and there  were no cruise ships in port disgorging their hordes into our midst. (This latter was something I had not even thought to worry about.) Still, many people wandered the streets, chatting and chasing after children, as though it were the most ordinary place for a Sunday outing.

Our own group consisted of some thirty individuals, and despite Sasha’s best efforts, I frequently felt as though we were being herded rather than led. I had done much reading to prepare for this day; still, I had trouble imposing a coherent order on what I was seeing. Most crucial, I was finding elusive the sense of wonder I had counted on feeling.

On the other hand, after we left, after I looked at my pictures, after I had a chance to reflect on where I had just been, the streets I had just walked, the faded frescoes, the indentations left on the cobbles by wagon wheels, the plaster casts that brought the dead back to life and cried out for our pity – then, I was, and still am, wonder struck.

(I would love to be standing in the ruins at dusk, alone or with one or two silent companions. I imagine the ghosts of antiquity  rising up and passing before me, even through me, smiling and sociable, oblivious of the terrible fate that awaits them.)













I am amazed by these last three – actual frescoes, or what remains of them, in the very place where they were painted two thousand years ago.


streets1 streets2

In one direction, I saw strolling day trippers and the looming volcano. In the opposite direction, a street where entry was prohibited.



ongoing2These two shots are of ongoing excavations.

And finally, casts of the bodies of the dead of Pompeii:


body2A photo very like the above appears in Mary Beard’s book. She says of it: “The plaster casts made from the bodies of the victims are constant reminders of their humanity – that they were just like us. This memorable cast of a man dying, with his head in his hands, has been placed for safe-keeping in a site storeroom. He now seems to be lamenting his own imprisonment.”


Books that provided helpful background for this visit:


herculaneumpompeii1 This is the massive, lavishly illustrated catalog that accompanied the exhibit of the same name at the National Gallery that Jean and I had the  great good fortune to attend in March. (The painting at the top of this post comes from this catalog.)

Two novels I enjoyed previously and now would like to re-read:  harris and nemesis. This latter is the second entry in Steven Saylor’s marvelous Roma Sub Rosa series of historical mysteries. If memory serves, much of this novel’s action takes place in the region surrounding the Bay of Naples.


“The Bay of Naples is where the science of geology started,” Richard Fortey informs us, in the fascinating first chapter of his book: fortey.  Click here for a reading of Pliny the Younger’s remarkable letter to Tacitus describing what he experienced on the day Vesuvius erupted.

(A brief but interesting digression: at the beginning of our tour, as our bus took us into Naples, we saw several major road construction projects that were strangely silent. Linda explained to us that work on a subway system had been halted due to major archaeological finds that the digging had brought to light. One involves an Olympic style games competition founded in Naples in the first century AD and called the Sebasta. )

Finally, I’d like to recommend a wiki site called AD 79: Destruction and Re-discovery. It is a goldmine of information on all aspects of the eruption, the initial plundering upon rediscovery, and finally the systematic archaeological investigations.


In the first chapter of Herculaneum, Joseph Jay Deiss seeks to recreate that fateful morning of August 24, 79 AD:

“The citizens, this day as every day in Herculaneum arose at dawn and leisurely went about their accustomed affairs. Birds sang in cages. Lizards basked in the torrid sun. Cicadas rasped unceasingly in the cypress trees. The ninth day before the Calends of September, according to the Roman calendar, seemed destined to be essentially no different from any other of that untroubled summer….

Near the Forum a shipment of expensive glassware had just arrived and was placed under a colonnade. The glass was of beautiful design, sure to be the subject of admiration at the next dinner party. A special case carefully packed with straw shielded it from breakage. So eager were the owners to see their newest treasure that luncheon was temporarily ignored and a servant was ordered to open the case at once. The first protecting layer of straw was torn away, revealing a delicate glass ladle.

Suddenly, without warning, a violent cracking sound split the air. The earth heaved and shook. Enormous bull-like roars seemed to come directly out of the earth itself. The yellow sunlight turned abruptly to a brassy overcast. Acrid sulphuric odors choked nostrils. From the mountain a gigantic cloud in the shape of a mushroom billowed into the sky.

People screamed that Vesuvius had exploded. All who could abandoned everything and ran wildly into the streets. It was the seventh hour, Roman time.

A catastrophe unparalleled had begun.

The Eruption of Vesuvius - JMW Turner

The Eruption of Vesuvius - J M W Turner

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