Books read for a trip not taken

July 29, 2017 at 4:23 pm (Anglophilia, Book review, books, Mystery fiction, Uncategorized)

Crime fiction

The Crow Trap by Ann Cleeves
The Dungeon House by Martin Edwards
The Grave Tattoo by Val McDermid
The Hennessy and Yellich series by Peter Turnbull

Nonfiction

The Opium Eater: A Life of Thomas De Quincey by Grevel Lindop
The Shepherd’s Life: Modern Dispatches from an Ancient Landscape by James   Rebanks

  When you get your books from Amazon, you may get some surprises as well. I got one when The Crow Trap arrived: all 535 pages of it. I groaned inwardly (and outwardly too, just ask my husband), but as it turned out, I loved this book right from the get-go. It was eminently readable and completely absorbing. I finished it in a matter of days – would have done sooner, only I didn’t want my enjoyment to end prematurely.

Three women are gathering data as part of an environmental survey being conducted in the north of England. Their results will be crucial in determining whether a quarry can be established in the region.They’re at the center of a crowded canvas featuring people with various problems, motives, and intentions.

Their endeavors seem somehow to be death haunted. And this propensity brings Detective Inspector Vera Stanhope onto the scene. In a literary world replete with investigators of every type, temperament, and ethnicity, Vera seems to this reader at least to be rather unique. She doesn’t enter the narrative until almost halfway in, and when she does…well, she makes an impression, that’s for sure:

She was a large woman – big bones amply covered, a bulbous nose, man-sized feet. Her legs were bare and she wore leather sandals. Her square toes were covered in mud. Her face was blotched and pitted….Over her clothes she wore a transparent plastic mac and she stood there, the rain dripping from it onto the floor, grey hair sleeked dark to her forehead….

The Crow Trap, which came out in 1998, was the first novel featuring DI Vera Stanhope. There are now seven, with another due out in September.

I hadn’t read anything by Ann Cleeves since Blue Lightning, the fourth in the Shetland series. (I’ve also read  the three predecessors: Raven Black, White Nights, and Red Bones).  I’d forgotten what a terrific storyteller she is, a gift amply supported by the quality of her writing. I won’t forget again, for some time now at least.

Ann Cleeves met with us in Northumberland during a Smithsonian mystery tour in 2007

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I’d had The Dungeon House on my Kindle for quite some time, so I made it my business to read it in advance of the planned meeting with Martin Edwards on this trip. What a pleasure! This may be my favorite of his always enjoyable Lake District series.

  Martin has recently won accolades for The Golden Age of Murder, his meticulously researched (and hugely entertaining) history of the Detection Club. And now he has come out with this gem: . I acquired this last week at Mystery Loves Company in Oxford, Maryland – only a short ferry ride from St. Michaels, where we were staying. I’ve been putting off actually having a look inside. Treasures await, I know, in the form of all kinds of titles that I simply MUST READ AT ONCE!
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  I’ve written about The Grave Tattoo, a highly original and intriguing mystery, in a previous post. And finally, Peter Turnbull’s Hennessey and Yellich novels were commended to us. This is a series that I absolutely love, as much for Turnbull’s highly idiosyncratic style as for his appealing characters and strangely original plots.
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  I’ve already written about the two nonfiction titles listed above. Grevel Lindop’s biography of the perpetually fascinating Thomas De Quincey held me in its thrall from beginning to end. The following passage describes De Quincey’s strange out-of-body experience at the death bed of his beloved sister Elizabeth. He was seven years old; she was nine:

After pausing a moment he walked round to the side of the bed. His sister lay there, beautiful and calm, with no sign of her recent illness and pain, but unmistakably different, with a statue-like, frozen look, the lips like marble, ‘the stiffening hands laid palm to palm’ — an awesome being, and not quite his sister any more.
His attention was caught by a low surge of wind outside the open window, and listening to it for a moment he was carried on the sound of the breeze into a kind of trance: his bodily senses were suspended, and ‘A vault seemed to open in the zenith of the far blue sky, a shaft which ran up forever; and the billows seemed to pursue the throne of God; but that also ran before us and fled away continually . . . some mighty relation between God and death struggled to evolve itself until, after what seemed ‘a very long interval’, he regained normal consciousness and found himself standing, as before, by his sister’s bed.

I doubt I will ever again read so poignant a description of a grieving child. Elizabeth had been the only reliable source of affection in Thomas’s love-starved childhood.
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  I had already tried and failed to get into James Rebanks’s  chronicle of a shepherd and the vagaries of sheep herding in the modern world. I mean, slightly over three hundred pages about sheep -really?

The appearance of this title on the trip’s reading list prompted me to try again. Early on, James Rebanks has this to say about his book:

It is the story of a family and a farm, but it also tells a wider story about the people who get forgotten in the modern world. It is about how we need to open our eyes and see the forgotten people who live in our midst, whose lives are often deeply traditional and rooted in the distant past.

Give yourself a little time to get into it – the effort is very worthwhile. And I recommend my post on this delightful book. It contains some great photos as well as links to two memorable video segments. Rebanks, his sheep, and his marvelous sheep dogs – all are wonderfully photogenic.


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Along with several of my mystery-loving friends, Ron and I were all set to take this British Mystery Trip to the north of England, when we were unexpectedly waylaid by a medical situation that had to be seen to in a timely fashion. The outcome, I’m relieved to report, was excellent. I’d been cleared  for take-off, as it were, but the plane had long ago left the airport.

While abroad, my friends were wonderfully supportive, sending periodic dispatches and photos.

Interior of Brantwood, John Ruskin’s home, taken by Marge T.

Alnwick Castle, home to the Dukes of Northumberland, taken by Ann R.

British Mystery Trips always provides an annotated reading list that is a very model of erudition as well as pure literary pleasure. The reading I was able to complete represents only a fraction of what was actually on the list. Needless to say, I don’t regret the time spent on it. On the contrary, I’m grateful.

Rumor has it that beautiful Britain will be around for a long time to come, thereby giving me other opportunities to visit in future. I’m already looking forward to the occasion.

 

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So many mysteries or thrillers or novels of suspense, especially the newly hot “domestic suspense” subgenre…

September 13, 2016 at 12:26 pm (Uncategorized)

Let’s just say: So much crime fiction, so little time. We do want to  get on with this post, after all!

Herewith, to get started: Brief reviews of four works of crime fiction recently read by Yours Truly:

61gwxurkabl-_sx331_bo1204203200_ I loved it – but when have I not loved a Peter Lovesey novel? (A lot of love there – and rightly so!) Another Peter Diamond investigation set in beautiful historic Bath and filled with the usual twists and turns – including the bizarre discovery of a cache of Fortuny gowns alluded to in a previous post.  Lovesey’s signature wit and style are present in abundance. And there’s Diamond’s  unexpectedly powerful reaction as he works to save the life of an elderly accident victim:

He stooped lower for more mouth-to-mouth. The first instinctive revulsion had gone. He cared, he really cared. Hot lips against cold. Two lungfuls of air.

Then back to the compressions. Already he felt the emotional bond that lifesaving creates. He couldn’t allow himself to think this might already be a corpse. He and his mate here were not letting go. There had to be life. Come on, old friend, he urged as he worked his aching shoulders, you and I can do this.

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26114382 I read The Poacher’s Son, the first entry in this series, when it came out in 2010. It was immediately recognized by readers and reviewers as a superior first novel, and I could see why. For whatever reason, I didn’t return to the series until this year. That may be due to the unusually laudatory reviews it was receiving.

Well,  this time around, I thoroughly enjoyed the exploits and tribulations of Maine game warden Mike Bowditch. His efforts to solve a difficult murder, his entanglement with authorities who seem bent on thwarting instead of helping him, his efforts to keep his relationship with his girlfriend, a wildlife biologist, from veering off course – I was happily engaged with all of these aspects of young Bowditch’s busy and often stressful life. He’s the kind of protagonist you root for wholeheartedly. And Paul Doiron‘s vivid descriptions of Maine in winter add a welcome texture to the novel.

Highly recommended.

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too-close-to-the-edge-pascal-garnier Gosh…what was that? This novel begins with a poignant description of a widow coming to terms with her grief. making a life for herself at a house in the French countryside that should have been the retirement abode for both herself and her husband.

At the outset, the reader encounters some felicitous prose:

Buffeted and battered by a year of uncontainable sobs, her heart had at last steadied itself like the green bubble in a spirit level. There was no particular reason for this new-found calm, or rather, there were a thousand: it was May, the rain was beating against the windows, there was baroque music playing on France Musique; she was making her first vegetable jardinière of the season (fresh peas, lettuce hearts, carrots, potatoes, turnips, spring onions, and not forgetting the lardons!); the Colette biography she had picked up the day before at Meysse library was propped open at page 48 on the living-room table; she wasn’t expecting anyone, and no one was expecting her.

All these little things along with countless others meant that for the first time since Charles’s death she did not feel lonely in the house by herself, but one and indivisible.

The mood, while melancholy, is resolute. The pace is slow, even stately.

And then, all of a sudden – or at least, so it seems – chaos and threats of violence – followed by actual violence! It’s a disruption with multiple sources, one of which is literally right  next door. And a grand passion emerges, right smack in the middle of it all.

Pascal Garnier has been compared to Simenon, but I’m not sure I see the likeness. Simenon’s books are blessedly short, as is this one, but to my mind the similarity ends there.

Did I like Too Close To the Edge? Let’s say I was intrigued by it – and at certain points shocked and amazed by it. Do I recommend it? If you’re feeling adventurous, and can stomach occasional extremes in language and in action, give it a try.

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515spi0ucl-_sx331_bo1204203200_ Yet another entertaining Harpur and Iles novel, replete with the highly stylized, piquant turn of phrase that has characterized this series from its beginning. For instance, there’s this exchange between two of my favorite series characters, Ralph ‘Panicking Ralphy’ Ember and Mansel ‘Manse’ Shale. Shale is explaining the nature of a revelatory experience he recently had in church:

‘That kind of closed-off, solid capsule in the pew was a first-class site for one deeply personal revelation to yours truly. Privileged. Divine-sourced? Who can tell? But, anyway, it arrived.’

‘Which name, Manse?’

‘Besmirched, Ralph,’ Shale replied.

‘A strong word, Manse. In which particular? You feel, felt, besmirched? How was that?’

‘Not so much self, Ralph.’

‘I’m glad. You deserve no such suffering.’

‘That name, suddenly brought to me in a sanctified setting – I felt it besmirched the very structure, fabric, atmosphere of a blameless church.’

‘You were obviously in a profound religious state at that time. I think of Cardinal Newman and “lead kindly light”, when an epiphany came to him to do with leaving the Protestant church.’

‘There are some first-rate epiphanies about, Ralph. Yes, profound is right. I believe if I had not been in that profound state I might not of received the name and how to deal with it.’

‘Ah, I didn’t realize you’d been advised how to deal with it.’

‘That’s the beauty of religion, Ralph. If you ever come across it you’ll discover that it recognizes there is rubbish in the world but it also tells you how to get rid of it. I saw during this specially delivered revelation in the church, like coming from my sub-conscious, that there’s an old film called Stranglers On A Train.’

‘I think it’s “Strangers”.’

‘Whatever. To do with death, anyway. To do with death and with that recently referred to mutuality and interweaving.’

‘It’s a crazy plot, couldn’t possibly be to do with real life.’

‘When I gets a vision in a church, Ralph, I think of it as being full of accuracy.’

‘But it had the name of the film wrong.’

‘Neither here nor there. Merely I made an error in the label. We know what its message is, don’t we? Its message is mutuality, interweaving and interdependence.’

And on it goes. What Manse is actually leading up to is a plan for taking revenge on the man he believes is responsible for the assassination of his wife and son. And Ralph is to play a key role in this plan – a plan derived from a famous Hitchcock film.

I’m told that the books comprising this series are an acquired taste. I acquired it long ago. I find them hugely entertaining, even at times brilliant.

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Paul Doiron

Paul Doiron

Bill James

Bill James

Pascal Garnier 1949 - 2010

Pascal Garnier 1949 – 2010

 

Peter Lovesey. In November, the Detection Club will publish an anthology entitled Motives for Murder, dedicated to Peter Lovesey on his 80th birthday.

Peter Lovesey. In November, the Detection Club will publish an anthology entitled Motives for Murder, dedicated to Peter Lovesey on his 80th birthday.

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More crime fiction reviews are coming, after a suitable art interlude.

 

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Discussing the stories in Capital Crimes, Part Two: “The Silver Mask” by Hugh Walpole

July 16, 2016 at 3:04 pm (Uncategorized)

[Click here for Part One of this post.]

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Hugh Walpole’s father, Somerset Walpole, was an Anglican priest. At the time of his son’s birth in 1884, he was the incumbent at a cathedral in Auckland, New Zealand. Five years later, Rev. Walpole accepted a teaching position at a theological seminary in New York. In 1893, Hugh Walpole was sent to England where, for the next four years, he endured the seemingly inevitable miseries of the English boarding school. Even when his family finally returned to England and Hugh was  able to attend a day school, the unhappiness persisted. He spent most of his time in the library, devouring the works of the nineteenth century’s great novelists.

He wrote:

I grew up … discontented, ugly, abnormally sensitive, and excessively conceited. No one liked me – not masters, boys, friends of the family, nor relations who came to stay; and I do not in the least wonder at it. I was untidy, uncleanly, excessively gauche. I believed that I was profoundly misunderstood, that people took my pale and pimpled countenance for the mirror of my soul, that I had marvellous things of interest in me that would one day be discovered.

[quoted in Wikipedia]

In 1903, Walpole began his study of history at Cambridge University. Now he began to find himself as a scholar and as a writer. At the same time, he was struggling to come to terms with his homosexuality. (Homosexual acts were decriminalized in England and Wales in 1967.)

Walpole became a prolific writer whose works were widely read and admired. And yet nowadays he is relatively unknown. One reason for this is that he was the victim of a masterful take-down by a rival author: W. Somerset Maugham. (The name “Somerset” seems to have figured fatefully in Walpole’s life.) This occurred in one of Maugham’s most popular novels, Cakes and Ale. Why would Maugham have done this?

Initially, Walpole and Maugham were friends. But according to Selena Hastings’s landmark biography The Secret Lives of Somerset Maugham,

…the ruthlessness of Walpole’s self-promotion coupled with a lack of generosity…had begun to repel him. Hugh, it seems, had behaved badly to a couple of  good friends of Maugham’s…; he had also, in the course of a recent and prestigious Cambridge lecture, omitted Maugham’s name from a list of well-regarded contemporary novelists….

One can well imagine that last item being the straw the broke the camel’s back. Still, Hastings feels that these are insufficient motivations for the attack, which apparently struck home with devastating force. There was probably more to it, and she opines that it may have had to do with jealousy of a more personal nature. (I’ve not read Cakes and Ale and so can offer no first hand view.)

At any rate, there is now renewed interest in Walpole’s works, and a welcome reissue by Valancourt Books of a collection of his stories can only help in this cause. 6391677 Among other tales, All Souls’ Night, like Capital Crimes, contains “The Silver Mask.”

Poor Sonia Herries! She skates along on the surface of things, going out with friends and collecting beautiful things for her home. Yet she feels the lack of a deeper meaning to her life.

Sonia Herries was a woman of her time in that outwardly she was cynical and destructive while inwardly she was a creature longing for affection and appreciation. For though she had white hair and was fifty she was outwardly active, young, could do with little sleep and less food, could dance and drink cocktails and play bridge to the end of all time. Inwardly she cared for neither cocktails nor bridge. She was above all things maternal and she had a weak heart, not only a spiritual weak heart but also a physical one. When she suffered, must take her drops, lie down and rest, she allowed no one to see her. Like all the other women of her period and manner of life she had a courage worthy of a better cause.

And fatefully, into  her life comes a young man who knows precisely how to play on this neediness. Henry Abbott first presents himself to Sonia as desperately poor, with a wife and infant who are suffering even more than he is. Reluctantly, Sonia admits him into her home. He professes himself awestruck by the  beauty of her objets d’art – above all, by a silver mask crafted by a master artisan. Sonia tells herself:

No one who cared so passionately for beautiful things could be quite worthless.

And so begins an insidious form  of seduction by a master manipulator and his accomplices.

In a recent article in the Washington Post, Michael Dirda observes the following concerning Walpole:

…he produced a small handful of superior psychological shockers and ghostly tales. As John Howard notes in his introduction to the Valancourt reissue of “All Souls’ Night,” Walpole was a master of mood, uncanny atmosphere and the quietly chilling vignette. His stories are carried along, too, by an exceptionally easygoing and seductive narrative voice, what the costive Henry James described as his acolyte’s enviable “flow.”

During our discussion, Ann said that as she was reading this story, the mounting sense of dread was so powerful and disturbing that she was unable to finish it.

By contrast, Frank’s experience as a psychotherapist caused him to view Sonia Herries as a kind of case study. She was exhibiting, he said, a fatal lack of agency. By this, he meant (as I understand it) that she was allowing people and events to attain dominance over her instead of asserting herself in response to them.  She needed to gain and maintain a measure of control over her own life – control which, as a sovereign human being, she was absolutely entitled to possess and to use.

In Michael Dirda’s view, “The Silver Mask” is

…an absolute masterpiece, so eerily inexorable in its development that it should be as famous as Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery” or Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper.”

Louise wondered if the mask itself were not a symbolic as well as a literal object. We agreed that this was a reasonable conjecture. I added that after repeated readings of this story, I was  developing a desire to see the actual silver mask – or at least, an example of one. Upon performing a Google image search, I found myself staring at numerous images of silver masks. They range from exquisite to grotesque; some seem rather sinister. One is at the top of this post; here are several others:

363-mask_eye_mask_lux_silver_white 55_mask_eye_mask_stella_silver_white_large

M3142

There are at least two film versions of “The Silver Mask,” retitled as “Kind Lady.” The 1951 version features a rather interesting cast: Angela Lansbury, Maurice Evans, Keenan Wynn, and Ethel Barrymore as the eponymous lady. Here’s the trailer:

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“The Silver Mask” is the second story in the All Souls’ Night collection. The first is called “The Whistle.” I almost had the same reaction to it as Ann had to “The Silver Mask.” “The Whistle” is about the intense mutual love and devotion that develops between a man named Blake and a dog named Adam, and what happens to them both. It is beautifully written, but I’m a great worrier when it comes to dogs, both fictional and real.

Walpole gets inside Adam’s head in a way that reminds me of Alexander McCall Smith’s uncanny depiction of the famed Pimlico terrier, Freddie de la Hay:

The two went out into the thin misty autumn sunshine, down through the garden into the garage. The Alsatian walked very close beside Blake, as though some invisible cord held them together. All his life, now two years in length, it had been his instant principle to attach himself to somebody. For, in this curious world where he was, not his natural world at all, every breath, every movement, rustle of wind, sound of voices, patter of rain, ringing of bells, filled him with nervous alarm. He went always on guard, keeping his secret soul to himself, surrendering nothing, a captive in the country of the enemy. There might exist a human being to whom he would surrender himself. Although he had been attached to several he had not, in his two years, yet found one to whom he could give himself. Now as he trod softly over the amber and rosy leaves he was not sure that this man beside whom he walked might not be the one.

I intend to read more of these beautifully crafted (yet seemingly artless) stories.

Hugh Walpole2

Sir Hugh Seymour Walpole 1884 – 1941

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The next and  final post on this discussion will focus on the story “Cheese” by Ethel Lina White.

 

 

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A thriller that never lets up: I Am Your Judge, by Nele Neuhaus

February 12, 2016 at 12:39 pm (Book review, books, Mystery fiction, Uncategorized)

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It’s always exciting to discover a new writer whose work you deeply admire. At least, that’s how I felt upon finishing I Am Your Judge by Nele Neuhaus. Granted, I’m basing this rave on just one book – but what a book! At the moment, it is right next to me on my desk, and I’m gazing at it with rapt approbation.

In this German police procedural, a sniper is targeting a variety of seemingly random individuals. Fear grips the populace at large. There  is something especially unnerving about the presence on the scene of a malevolent sharpshooter who seems to vanish after his every hit. (Those of us who were living in the greater Washington DC area in 2002 will remember the frightening sense of vulnerability brought about by the depredations of the ‘DC Sniper.’ The case is cited early in this novel.)

It is the job of Chief Detective Inspector Pia Kirchhoff and Chief Superintendent Oliver von Bodenstein to identify this nefarious predator and run him to ground. Fairly early on, they and their team of investigators are able to determine that the targets are actually not all that random. What then constitutes the shooter’s motivation? Is it some sort of retribution? And if so, what was the offense – and who were the offenders? As Pia and Oliver struggle to find the answers to these questions, the killings continue.

The plotting is cunning; the characters, fully realized. I very much liked the two leads. We learn just enough about their private lives to make them interesting – no over-the-top soap opera scenarios. (In my view, these have become depressingly familiar in certain works of contemporary crime fiction, perhaps helping to account for their unwieldy heft.)

By my estimate, I Am Your Judge is the seventh book in this series. If you look at the listing on Stop You’re Killing Me, you’ll see why I’m hedging my bets. Dates of original publication in Germany, then dates of translation into English – somewhat confusing. (We dealt with a similar situation when Henning Mankell’s Kurt Wallander novels were first released in this country.) Another interesting fact about I Am Your judge: its original German language title is Die Lebenden und die Toten, which translates as The Living and the Dead. The English language title differs quite  bit. I like it much better; it is powerful and sinister and gives the reader an accurate, if disturbing, idea of what’s about to unfold.

Will I experience another read as riveting as this was any time in the near future? O God of Literature, please say that I will.

Nele Neuhaus

Nele Neuhaus

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“…a unique, irresistible contraption of a book” – The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America, by George Packer

November 19, 2013 at 7:44 pm (Uncategorized)

9780374102418_custom-ee9a42e2ad4808c0d3b65458a4adad25b91fb217-s6-c30  Of late I have been avoiding long books. My heart sinks at the sight of their size – never mind their weight. Of course the e-book format rather artfully conceals these factors, but I am still doing most of my reading the old-fashioned way. (And as I write this, I cannot help thinking of my mother, who instilled in me a lifelong passion for the written word and who, were she alive, would find the locution ‘old fashioned book’ incomprehensible.)

This aversion to lengthy tomes is due to my desire to read so many books as soon as possible. Of late I’ve been reading several simultaneously, some in e-book format and others in hard copy. Can this become confusing? Indeed it can – and occasionally does. Am I reading more and enjoying it less? Well, no, I still love it – but I can’t deny that in recent years, my reading has taken on a somewhat manic aspect…

On the other hand, there are few experiences as rewarding as settling into a magisterial work of literature, one that quite literally transports you to another time, another place, another world. Most of the time,  but not always, such books have considerable heft. They take some time to work their magic (and in some cases, it is a dark magic). Oh but is it ever time well spent!

I’m thinking, for example, of A Passion for Nature, Donald Worster’s biography of John Muir; Destiny of the Republic by Candace Millard; The Age of Wonder by Richard Holmes; Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel; The Secret Lives of Somerset Maugham by Selina Hastings; People Who Eat Darkness by Richard Lloyd Parry; Nature’s Engraver, Jenny Uglow’s biography of Thomas Bewick; and Robert K. Massie’s biography of Catherine the Great. To this august company I now gladly add The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America, by George Packer.

The Unwinding is very much a book of the present moment and not the sort toward which I ordinarily gravitate. But as I read the reviews,  I found myself thinking, I really want to read this. I felt drawn by the description of its contents. The Unwinding more than fulfilled its promise.

That said, this is a difficult book to describe. Packer’s crowded canvas includes portraits of the famous, the infamous, and everyday people. It’s that last group that is most compelling. It’s comprised of a wide variety of individuals, some pursuing their dreams, others just trying to keep their heads above water.

For example:

Dean Price of Rockingham County, North Carolina.

The plateau of hardwood hills and red clay fields between the Appalachian range and the Atlantic coastal plain is called the Piedmont. Along the order between Virginia and North Carolina, from Dansville and Martinsville down to Greensboro and Winston-Salem, the mainstays of Piedmont life in the twentieth century were tobacco, textiles, and furniture. In the last years of the century they all started to die, more or less simultaneously, as if a mysterious and highly communicable plague swept through the region.

Packer concludes this succinct, dystopian summary by telling us that “Dean Price returned home just as the first bad signs were showing up across the landscape.”

Then there’s Jeff Connaughton of Alabama. Connaughton wanted to contribute to the betterment of America through political engagement. A self-confessed “Biden guy,” Connaughton’s odyssey through the power  corridors of Washington makes for very illuminating reading.

The more familiar names come from all walks of life: Newt Gingrich, Oprah Winfrey, Sam Walton, Colin Powell, master chef Alice Waters, rapper Jay-Z – the list goes on. The celebrity chapters are short but enlightening. This holds true especially for Peter Thiel. Packer chooses the German-born Thiel to represent the phenomenon of Silicon Valley. The chapter on him might have been entitled, “Inside the Mind of a 46-year-old Billionaire.” Not unexpectedly, one finds some unusual things in that mind.

As a poster child for the ravages of the housing bust, the city of Tampa rates several chapters of its own. Starting in the seventies, numerous residential developments had sprung up, most of them miles from any kind of commerce. As long as people continued to come in ever increasing numbers, building would continue at a rapid pace, facilitated by generous allowances and perquisites for developers courtesy of the city fathers. “A few local critics pointed out the strategy’s resemblance to a Ponzi scheme. But everything kept growing and no one paid attention.”

In the fullness of time, those Cassandra’s were proven all too prescient

Packer’s description of what was happening to the land during this period is straightforward and unflinching:

The growth machine cleared out the pine trees and palmettos and orange groves along State Road 54 up in Pasco County. It cut don the mangroves on Apollo Beach and asphalt over the strawberry farms around Plant City. Farther south down Interstate 75, in Lee County, the growth machine built a university on the wetlands near Fort Myers (Senator Connie Mack put in a call to the Army Corps of Engineers),and it sold quarter-acre lots on the installment plan between the drainage canals of Cape Coral. Farmers and ranchers cashed out and suddenly, where there had been orchards or pastures or swampland, developers put up instant communities–they were called ””boomburgs”–and christened them with names that evoked the ease of English manor life: Ashton Oaks, Saddle Ridge Estates, the Hammocks at Kingsway….

And on and on. Followed of course by the inevitable implosion. And with no way to reinvigorate the fragile and destroyed ecology of the place. (As one whose childhood was mostly spent  in South Florida, I am tempted to say that in that part of the country, it was ever thus.)

For some folks, life was good in Tampa. This was especially true for certain four-star generals attached to MacDill Air force Base, home of the United States Central Command: “They enjoyed the lavish hospitality of Tampa society hostesses while shaping U.S. foreign policy and the fate of nations across the most volatile region of the globe, from Egypt to Pakistan, with all the authority of Roman proconsuls.” Four blocks from this hive of weighty activity lived Danny and Ronale Hartzell, their two kids, and Danny’s younger brother Dennis. All inhabited a ground floor apartment in a complex where drugs were regularly bought and sold. It was all in the way of living quarters they could afford. All three adults were willing to do any kind of work but had trouble finding and keeping jobs.

Of Danny Hartzell:

He was in his late thirties, short, with a pot belly on him, a wispy goatee, and a nearly hairless head under his Steelers cap. He was missing a bunch of teeth and spoke in a loud hoarse voice because of deafness in one ear. He classified himself as a “blue-collar-type guy,” not a “behind -the-counter-take-your-money-can-I-help-you-find-your-dress-size-type guy,” but the only jobs left were in retail and he lacked the right look and manner.

Danny took full responsibility (more so than necessary, I think) for the family’s problems, although he honestly questioned why “…all those people out there view me as such a bad person?”

Like her husband, Ronale had bad teeth and was overweight. The couple had numerous other difficulties, but these paled when, in the spring of 2009, they learned that their daughter Danielle was suffering from bone cancer in her left leg. Up to that time, the Hartzells had not owned a vehicle, but then a stranger gave them money to purchase a 2003 Chevy Cavalier so that they could drive to Danielle’s medical appointments. Here’s the upshot:

A prosthesis that would require regular four-millimeter adjustments as she grew was sewn inside the length of Danielle’s skinny little leg. she went a whole year cancer free. They thanked God. Otherwise, nothing changed for the Hartzells.

*************************************

The summing up of the people, events, and experiences depicted in The Unwinding is presented through the eyes of Peter Thiel. In his view, 1973, the year of the oil shock, was when things began to go wrong:

A lot of institutions stopped working. Science and technology stopped progressing, the growth model broke down, government no longer worked as well as in the past, middle-class life started to fray. It was pretty much a roller coaster ride until the “seismic events” of 2008. “Four decade–down,up, up, down–After forty years, you were flat.”

Thiel calls those middle decades an Indian summer of sorts. They were characterized by “a series of bubbles: the bond bubble, the tech bubble, the stock bubble, the emerging markets bubble, the housing bubble….” And all of these went the way that all bubbles inevitably go, so that the one salient remaining fact to be discerned amid the wreckage was that “things were fundamentally not working.”

Thiel sees the information age as a disappointment in that it has failed to generate anywhere near enough jobs or to raise the standard of living across the board or to improve conditions for the populace in general – for people, in other words, like the Hartzells:

The creation of virtual worlds had taken  the place of advances in the physical world.

********************************

In his blurb for The Unwinding, writer David M. Kennedy says the following:

George Packer has crafted a unique, irresistible contraption of a book. Not since John Dos Passos’s celebrated U.S.A. trilogy, which The Unwinding recollects and rivals, has a writer so cunningly plumbed the seething undercurrents of American life. The result is a sad but delicious jazz-tempo  requiem for the post World War II American social contract. You will often laugh through your tears at these tails of lives of ever-less-quiet desperation in a land going ever-more-noisily berserk.

The Unwinding is a finalist for this year’s National Book Award in nonfiction. I hope it wins.

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And now for something completely different: The Ghost Riders of Ordebec, by Fred Vargas

October 13, 2013 at 10:52 pm (Book review, books, France, Mystery fiction, Uncategorized)

“The Ghost Riders of Ordebec” by Fred Vargas (Penguin).

“That night,” she said slowly, “Lina saw the Furious Army.”

“The what?”

“The Furious Army,” the woman repeated, in a whisper. “And Herbier was with them. And he was screaming. And three others with him.”

“Is it a club? Something to do with hunting?”

Madame Vendremot was staring at Adamsberg in disbelief.

“The Furious Army,” she whispered again. “The Great Hunt. The Ghost Riders. Haven’t you heard of them?”

“No,” said Adamsberg, staring back at her stupefied gaze. “Come back some other time and you can tell me all about it.”

“But you don’t even recognize the name? Hellequin’s Horde,” she whispered.

Commissaire Jean-Baptiste Adamsberg is baffled by this exchange. So was I. A tiny, nervous woman from Ordebec in Normandy has come to Paris expressly to see the Commissaire and warn him of the threat of sudden death for certain citizens of the town. Because of her sighting, Madame Vendremot’s daughter Lina knows who they are – all except one, that is. For his part, Adamsberg finds the purport of her message almost incomprehensible. Nevertheless, he decides to travel to Ordebec himself, to see the how the land lies.

I’ve known about the Commissaire Adamsberg series for quite some time. I knew they were highly thought of by  crime fiction cognoscenti. I tried several, but I couldn’t get into them. The Ghost Riders of Ordebec, though, was getting such enthusiastic reviews, I decided to try again. And this one worked for me – worked, in fact, extremely well.

Adamsberg is an unusual, rather enigmatic character. “I like the way his mind works,” Frances of Usual Suspects told me when she recommended the series. I do too. Flashes of insight can be succeeded – or preceded – with profound inertia. The Commissaire is a master of lateral thinking. Or rather, of thinking about anything but the crime he’s attempting to solve. The Ordebec investigation provides scope for his strangeness. He likes to sit outside beneath a tree munching on an apple, even when it’s raining. He uses up a fair amount of mental energy trying to figure out why the cows in a distant field seem never to move.

And he takes slow, solitary walks along the Chemin de Bonnival, in the forest of Alance. This is the place where Lina claims to have seen the Furious Army. Just what is this strange, threatening entity?

Adamsberg’s second in command is Adrien Danglard, a close friend as well as a valued colleague. At Adamsberg’s house one evening, Danglard, who takes a passionate interest in all things medieval, seeks to enlighten his boss on the subject of the Ghost Riders.

….this ancient cavalcade causing havoc in the countryside is damaged. The horses and their riders have no flesh and many of their limbs are missing. It’s an army of the dead, of the putrefied dead, an army of ghostly riders, wild-eyed and screaming, unable to get to heaven.

Danglard concludes this vivid description with two words: “Imagine that.”

The Commissaire struggles to do just that:

Adamsberg approached the fireplace again, curious to hear a little more, and leaned against the brick hearth. The fact that the Riders singled out unpunished villains interested him…. You can tell yourself you don’t believe this kind of thing, but it’s difficult not to believe it. The pernicious idea digs a deep channel. It silently infiltrates the the unavowed corridors of the mind, penetrates, and trickles through. You suppress the idea, it lies dormant for a while, then it returns.

The Furious Army, Hellequin’s Horde, the Ghost Riders, the Wild Hunt – it’s a legend of many names, with many manifestations. Most likely it originated in Scandinavia.

Even in Winter, you are not safe. Stay indoors, attend your hearths. Try to keep the night at bay by the telling of your tongue. Remember your kin, honor your ancestors. For at this time the dead begin to stir, riding upon hallowed and familiar roads, galloping through villages and wastes, flying through the forests of the mind. Such raids are reminders that the past is not a dead thing, but may return, like a hunter, to follow us for a time.

(The above excerpt is from an essay entitled “Penance, Power, and Pursuit – On the Trail of the Wild Hunt,” by Ari Berk and William Spytma.)

Adamsberg is strongly attracted to Lina – he claims that she “irradiated” him – but he makes no move toward her, and nothing comes of it. This is of a piece with the general tenor of a novel in which things seem to progress – if you can call it progress – in a halting, dreamy way, punctuated by episodes of high drama. It’s an extremely effective narrative style, especially with the author’s sly wit, reminiscent of Ruth Rendell, interspersed throughout.

And what of this author? Fred Vargas was born in Paris in 1957. She has trained as an historian and an archeologist. (Her real name is Frédérique Audoin-Rouzeau.) And she has won the CWA International Dagger Award four times, in 2006 for The Three Evangelists, in 2007 for Wash This Blood Clean From My Hand, in 2009 for The Chalk Circle Man, and this year for The Ghost Riders of Ordebec, an honor given jointly to her and to Pierre Lemaitre for his novel Alex. (One is tempted to exclaim: “The French are coming, the French are coming; watch out, Scandinavians!”) A complete list pf Vargas’s novels can be found at Stop! You’re Killing Me.

While the Ordebec story moves forward – or sideways, depending on any number of things – other things are happening. Adamsberg’s twenty-eight year old son Armel, nicknamed Zerk, is currently living with him. This is a progeny whose existence was unknown to the Commissaire until a short while ago. Zerk is helping to care for a wounded pigeon. The bird’s misfortune was caused by a deliberate, cruel trick; father and son are determined to nurse it back to health. (And Adamsberg would dearly love to apprehend the responsible party.) Zerk also helps the Commissaire to  shield a hapless young man who is about to be framed for a murder he did not commit.

It’s desirable in a police procedural that the author include believable and interesting people in the protagonist’s team of investigators.  Team members can be characterized by their strengths, weaknesses, and idiosyncrasies. Vargas is especially good at this (as is Peter Turnbull).

To sum up, I liked this novel very much. Vargas writes  beautifully, and credit must also go to the translator Sian Reynolds. I look forward to  the further adventures of Commissaire Adamsberg, the singular detective with an equally singular team.

Fred Vargas

Fred Vargas

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Deepest Condolences

December 14, 2012 at 11:44 pm (Uncategorized)

I wish to express my deepest condolences for the victims of the tragedy in Connecticut, and their families. Please know that we are heartsick for all of you.

President Obama said, “‘We’ve endured too many of these tragedies in the past few years…'” One can but agree, although this one is especially horrific. It also serves as a fearful reminder: This could happen to any one of us.

I keep thinking of what Francisco Goldman wrote in Say Her Name about the loss of his young wife:

Hold her tight, if you have her; hold her tight, I thought, that’s my advice to all the living. Breathe her in, put your nose in her hair and breathe her in deeply. Say her name. It will always be her name. Not even death can steal it.

As the President also said, these communities are our communities; these children belong to all Americans.  We are all mourners today.

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The Baroness channels Jane Austen in Death Comes to Pemberley

April 18, 2012 at 10:52 pm (Book review, books, Mystery fiction, Uncategorized)

  Baroness James of Holland Park, better known as P.D. James to detective fiction aficionados, has gifted us with a sequel to Pride and Prejudice. This is how it begins:

It was generally agreed by the female residents of Meryton that Mr. and Mrs. Bennet of Longbourn had been fortunate in the disposal in marriage of four of their five daughters.

I am pleased to report that matters continue pretty much in the same vein. In Death Comes to Pemberley, the Baroness emulates Austen’s gracefully antique prose style with nary a lapse.

Before launching into the main body of  the work,  James brings us up to speed on the doings of the Bennet family.  Then the action of the novel commences with a description of the preparations for Lady Anne’s Ball. This is a lavish celebration traditionally given at Pemberley, the great estate belonging to Mr. Darcy. He now shares this fabulous domicile with his wife Elizabeth, nee Bennet. (Darcy is considered to have married beneath his station; neither Elizabeth nor the reader can long remain oblivious to this glaring and, to the modern reader at least, irritating prejudice.)

Death Comes to Pemberley gets off to a slow start. Actually, glacial might be a more accurate description of the pacing of the narrative in its early stages. Had it been anyone but P.D. James, I might have thrown in the towel early on. But this is an author whose work I revere, and besides, where books are concerned I’ve been doing so much towel-throwing lately that it behooved me to stick with this one a bit longer. And the fact is, the Baroness’s novels are wont to be somewhat measured in their approach to storytelling, especially as regards their first few chapters. And sure enough, around page 51 of the hardback, things began to happen. The pace quickened; my interest was piqued. Why was this so? A murder happened, of course!

Elizabeth’s sister Lydia is now married to George Wickham.  In Pride and Prejudice, these two precipitate a crisis by their impulsive and ill considered behavior. In James’s novel, they are once again at the center of the storm. Yet oddly, the reader spends relatively little time in their company. I found this particularly frustrating with regard to Lydia. I was surprised that James did not allow that feckless and foolish young woman more opportunity to vent her spleen in reaction to the dire situation in which she and her husband find themselves. I am sure that she would have been deliciously outrageous!

This is not to say that Death Comes to Pemberley is without comic relief.  Particularly in the early parts of the novel, James’s sly wit is a delight and very much in keeping with the spirit of Jane Austen. Some instances:

…if Miss Elizabeth had entertained any doubts about the wisdom of her scheme to secure Mr. Darcy, the first sight of Pemberley had confirmed her determination to fall in love with him at the first convenient moment.

This is said of Mary, another of Elizabeth’s sisters:

An assembly ball was a penance to be endured only because it offered an opportunity for her to take centre stage at the pianoforte and, by judicious use of the sustaining pedal, to stun the audience into submission.

**********************************

P.D. James has always had an almost uncanny ability to set a scene:

Entering the library, Darcy saw that Stoughton and Mrs. Reynolds had done their best to ensure that the colonel and he were made as comfortable as possible. The fire had been replenished, lumps of coal wrapped in paper for quietness, and added logs lay ready in the grate, and there was a sufficiency of pillows and blankets. A covered dish of savoury tarts, carafes of wine and water and plates, glasses and napkins were on a round table some distance from the fire.

She also can’t resist slipping in an intriguing bit of  information about a singular innovativion in English country houses in the early nineteenth century:

‘…Mason complained that his legs were stiff and he needed to exercise them. What he probably needed was to visit the water closet, that newfangled apparatus you have had installed here which, I understand, has caused much ribald interest in the neighborhood….’

What do you know: indoor plumbing comes to Pemberley! A reference this specific would surely not have made it into an original Austen novel; nevertheless it was enjoyable to encounter it in James’s narrative. For the most part, James manages to steer clear of glaring anachronisms. But there are times when the writer of detective fiction trumps the novelist of manners. I’m thinking in particular of a scene in the woodlands belonging to Pemberley . When several persons find some letters carved in a tree, they fall into speculation as to what kind of instrument was used to do the carving. The scene began to resemble something out of CSI rather than a novel of manners from the early 1800’s.

In point of fact, those very woods hold more than one secret concerning the mystery of the murder at the Pemberley estate. Toward the novel’s climax, there is a veritable cascade of revelations. I found these late-breaking developments at times hard to follow. For me, the best “”Aha!” moment actually had nothing to do with information concerning  the crime and everything to do with an almost offhand mention of the cast of characters from another Austen novel.  James pulls this off seamlessly; it is probably my single favorite moment in the book.

A great idea for a book discussion group would be to read Pride and Prejudice and follow that meeting with a discussion of Death Comes to Pemberley. Indeed, I felt somewhat hampered by the fact that at the time I was  reading James’s novel, Pride and Prejudice was not at all fresh in my mind.

I’ve talked to a number of people who did not care for Death Comes to Pemberley. They found it labored and/or unconvincing. On the whole, I enjoyed it, but I don’t think I would place it in the front rank of my favorites in James’s oeuvre. At this point in time, that accolade goes to A Certain Justice.

There can be little doubt that Death Comes to Pemberley was an enjoyable exercise in authorship for the Baroness, a lifelong devotee of the works of Jane Austen:

Indeed, the novel was a pleasant romp, but I found it neither profound nor especially thought-provoking. I felt keenly the absence of a brooding and introspective, not to mention deeply attractive  (especially as portrayed by Roy Marsden in the TV version) central character. In other words, I missed James’s superb series creation, Commander Adam Dalgliesh.

 

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Colum McCann attains the summit of eloquence in “What Baseball Does to the Soul”

April 3, 2012 at 1:42 am (Uncategorized) (, )

American literature is replete with paeans to baseball. Over the years, they’ve appeared in the sports pages, in novels, and in stories. But Colum McCann’s essay in this past Sunday’s New York Times is so moving and beautifully expressed, I want to share it with you.

It is about our National Pastime, and much more.

Here is “What Baseball Does to the Soul.”

Colum McCann, photo by Brendan Bourke

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Thought for the day

February 5, 2012 at 1:52 pm (Uncategorized)

Sometimes you ponder the meaning of life….

Sometimes you worry about the state of your soul….

Sometimes you wonder about the nature of love….

And sometimes you just want to hear the Beach Boys sing “Wouldn’t It Be Nice:”

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