‘100 Best English Language Novels from 1923 to the Present’ ( actually 2005), according to Time Magazine

March 20, 2022 at 8:57 pm (Uncategorized)

I love lists like this! With this one, in particular, I found myself careening between books I could not get through to books I loved.

Here’s a link to the list.

And here are some (totally subjective) examples:

Books I couldn’t get through:

Call It Sleep by Henry Roth

Light in August and The Sound and the Fury by William Faulkner. I’ve had my struggles with Faulkner…

Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie

Mrs Dalloway and To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf. …and with Virginia Woolf as well.

Possession by A.S Byatt. Yes I know: All my literary friends and relatives – including my mother – eagerly pressed this book upon me. What can I say? It just didn’t work for me. I found something about her writing oddly off-putting. I think I prefer her sister Margaret Drabble.

Love the cover, though:


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The Beguiling of Merlin by Sir Edward Burne-Jones

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Books I loved (and still love):

Atonement by Ian McEwan. Not my absolute favorite McEwan, though – that would probably be Enduring Love.

The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler

Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh

The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen. listened to this on CD in the car, and II remember having to pull over at on point because I was laughing so hard!

Lucky Jim by Kingsley Amis

A Passage to India by E. M. Forster

The Power and the Glory by Graham Greene – though my favorite work by this author is The Quiet American

Red Harvest by Dashiell Hammett. Instead of The Maltese Falcon – really? But I do love those subtle pulp fiction covers:
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I decided on a special category for books I especially revere:

Death Comes for the Archbishop by Willa Cather. One of my favorite novels ever. A beautful, beautiful book.

An American Tragedy by Theodore Dreiser. To quote myself from a previous post: ‘Although it dragged in some places, and Dreiser’s writing can be exasperating, it was also powerful enough to keep me up at night and in a deep state of dread. I ended up loving it.’

The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald

Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov

“Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul. Lo-lee-ta: the tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth.”
(I was going to add something, but I don’t think I really need to.)

Rabbit, Run by John Updike

Ragtime by E.L. Doctorow

The Sot-Weed Factor by John Barth

And a novel from Australia that is, in my opinion, one of the great under appreciated masterpieces of 20th century literature: Picnic at Hanging Rock by Joan Lindsay. And after you’ve read the novel, watch Peter Weir’s brilliant realization of it on film.

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‘He was determined, deliberate, canny, and manipulative.’ – Scoundrel: How a Convicted Murderer Persuaded the Women Who Loved Him, the Conservative Establishment, and the Courts to Set Him Free, by Sarah Weinman

March 18, 2022 at 12:29 am (Uncategorized)

That was Edgar Smith, all right. He was also a husband, a son, and a father.

You’d think he’d know better, wouldn’t you?

In the year 1957, Edgar Smith of Bergen County, New Jersey, was arrested for the murder of 15-year-old Vickie Zielinsky. He was ultimately found guilty and sentenced to death. Their followed a fourteen year struggle to escape the snares of the death penalty, all the while steadfastly maintaining his innocence. Ultimately he managed not only to avoid execution but to gain release from prison entirely. This was by way of entering a plea of non vult, or no contest, in regard to the murder. In 1971, he admitted before a judge that he in fact did commit the crime. This should have resulted in a further prison sentence, but the judge gave Edgar credit for the over fourteen years he had already served, took into account his good behavior while behind bars, and suspended the remainder of his sentence. (Part of this ‘good behavior’ consisted in the writing of several books, the first of which, Brief Against Death, won him considerable acclaim.)

Thus Edgar Smith, although on probation for several more years, walked out of court and into the wide world a free man, still maintaining his innocence. ( The terms of the plea stipulated that before the judge, he had to confess his guilt.)

Sarah Weinman acquaints us with the numerous individuals who believed in Smith’s innocence and fought alongside him for exoneration. The best known of these was William F. Buckley. His role in this drama is fascinating to read about, especially for those of us who vividly remember his dominating presence on the scene as a conservative spokesman in mid twentieth century America.

Upon his release, Edgar Smith appeared with Buckley on his TV show Firing Line:

Sarah Weinman has been involved in the crime fiction scene in this country for quite some time. I was a fan of her blog Confessions of an Idiosyncratic Mind. She left off blogging for other activities in the field, most notably working on anthologies such as Troubled Daughters, Twisted Wives and he two-volume set, Women Crime Writers of the 1940s and 1950s. In these endeavors, one of her goals has been to bring some of the excellent women crime writers from that era back before the reading public. In this, she has succeeded admirably. (And I can’t resist extolling the virtues of one particular novel to be found in the 1940s volume. It’s called The Blank Wall by Elisabeth Sanxay Holding. It is both a vivid portrait of wartime America and a gripping crime story. Above all, it’s the story of one woman’s struggle to raise her two teen-agers alone while her husband is fighting abroad.)

Sarah Weinman has now turned to writing true crime. The Real Lolita (2018) was a revelation and an enjoyable read. Scoundrel is, in my opinion, even better. For a while now, I’ve been looking for a true crime narrative as compelling and as memorable as I’ll Be Gone in the Dark.

Found it!

Sarah Weinman

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Five Tuesdays in Winter by Lily King

March 11, 2022 at 5:43 pm (Uncategorized)

Just a quick note before I return this to the library: Five Winters in Tuesday is wonderful! It’s a collection consisting of ten stories. They’re about ordinary people coping with the unexpected – sudden love, sudden lust, or lack of sudden anything. They’re about the curves life throws at you and the way that, while you’re thrashing about in a sea of uncertainty, your coping mechanisms keep you afloat – sometimes, barely. The writing is beautiful, and the characters spring to life with astonishing vividness.

I kept putting off finishing this book. To my dismay, I found that this is the author’s only short story collection. But there is a novel by Lily King, Euphoria, that I’ve heard good things about. That will be next read.

Meanwhile: More stories, Ms King, please – and soon!

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The Maltese Falcon and The Big Sleep

February 2, 2022 at 10:48 pm (Book review, books, Film and television, Mystery fiction, Uncategorized)

It was with some trepidation that I returned to “those thrilling days of yesteryear” – namely, to the novel that some say started the whole noir thing:

I am doing this because I have signed up for a Lifelong Learning course called ‘Trouble Is My Business: Hardboiled Fiction & Film Noir.’ It begins in late February. Fact is, I signed up for it and promptly forgot about it. Then I received an email informing of the reading list.

Reading list? Oh my…

The Maltese Falcon
The Big Sleep
The Postman Always Rings Twice

A couple of years ago, Usual Suspects discussed The Maltese Falcon. I wrote a blog post on the occasion. I began the post with a quotation from The American Commonwealth by James Bryce, aka Viscount Bryce:

‘A great population had gathered there before there was any regular government to keep it in order, much less any education or social culture to refine it. The wilderness of the time passed into the soul of the people, and left them more tolerant of violent deeds, more prone to interferences with, or suppression of, regular law, than are the people in most parts of the union.’

The Viscount concludes this wry bit of social/historical analysis thus:

‘That scum which the western moving wave of emigration carried on its crest is here stopped, because it can go no further. It accumulated in San Francisco and forms a dangerous constituent of the population.’

Well, we derive plenty of knowledge concerning that ‘dangerous constituent’ in Hammett’s novel.

So, on finishing this rereading, what’s my overall take? First off, from the get go, I found the writing to be, for the most part, rather pedestrian, with a few flashes of hardboiled brilliance, as in this pitiless description of Casper Gutman:

‘The fat man was flabbily fat with bulbous pink cheeks and lips and chins and neck, with a great egg of a belly that was all his torso, and pendant cones for arms and legs. As he advanced to meet Spade all of his bulbs rose and shook and fell separately with each step, in the manner of clustered soap-bubbles not yet released from the pipe through which they had been blown. His eyes, made small by fat puffs around them, were dark and sleek. Dark ringlets thinly covered his broad scalp. He wore a black cutaway coat, black vest, black satin Ascot tie holding a pinkish pearl, striped gray worsted trousers, and patent-leather shoes.’

At least he’s decently dressed.

As for the plot, it quickly becomes so complicated that by the back stretch of this slender volume, I was pretty well lost. Into the bargain, I was having trouble caring about any of the dramatis personae in the whole tangled mess. And as for the desired object itself, it’s an egregious example of what Hitchcock called a MacGuffin – and not a very intriguing one at that.

There is one thing in The Maltese Falcon that I find fascinating. It has nothing to do with the plot; it’s a story that Spade tells Brigid O’Shaughnessy while they’re waiting for something, or someone. It’s actually more of a parable than a simple tale. It’s about a man called Flitcraft:

Richard Layman, a Hammett biographer, delivered a lengthy and very interesting speech at The Library of Congress in 2005 on the history of The Maltese Falcon. Click here to read it.

I just watched a video on Hammett from 1999. It’s called Dashiell Hammett. Detective. Writer. I found it very interesting. His daughter is interviewed; several other people who knew him also appear:

So, on I go to The Big Sleep. Right off the bat, I’m startled by the difference in the quality of the prose. Chandler’s irreverent wit and colorful figures of speech – perhaps too colorful, at times? – come at you. The carefully crafted sentences – too carefully crafted? – are striking in their precision. You almost want to say, okay, Big Guy, you’re laying it on a little too thick, but it’s such fun, so keep going!

I love the opening paragraph:

‘It was about eleven o’clock in the morning, mid October, with the sun not shining and a look of hard wet rain in the clearness of the foothills. I was wearing my powder-blue suit, with dark blue shirt, tie and display handkerchief, black brogues, black wool socks with dark blue socks on them. I was neat, clean, shaved and sober, and I didn’t care who knew it. I was everything the well dressed private detective ought to be. I was calling on four million dollars.’

The eponymous four million dollars refers to the lavish Sternwood estate, where trouble is brewing, courtesy of two out-of-control daughters. What’s needed is a P.I. to make that trouble go away swiftly and silently, without involving the police.

Philip Marlowe has been summoned to take on the job, if he’s willing and/or able. He’s led by the butler – the Sternwood establishment possesses a surfeit of servants – into a ragingly hot greenhouse, where the aged paterfamilias, known simply as the General, spends his remaining days.

Here’s the greenhouse:

‘The air was thick, wet, steamy and larded with the cloying smell of tropical orchids in bloom….The light had an unreal greenish color like light filtered through an aquarium tank. The plants filled the place, a forest of them, with nasty meaty leaves and stalks like the newly washed fingers of dead men. They smelled as overpowering as boiling alcohol under a blanket.’

And here is General Sternwood:

‘Here, in a space of hexagonal flags, an old red Turkish rug was laid down and on the rug was a wheel chair an old and obviously dying man watched us come with black eyes from which all fire had died long ago, but which still had the coal-black directness of the eyes in the portrait that hung above the mantel in the hall. The rest of his face was a leaden mask, with the bloodless lips and the sharp nose and the sunken temples and the outward-turning earlobes of approaching dissolution….His thin clawlike hands were folded loosely on the rug, purple-nailed. A few locks of dry white hair clung to his scalp, like wild flowers fighting for life on a bare rock.’

Well…yikes. This passage puts me in mind of Yeats’s poem ‘The Second Coming:’

Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.   
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out   
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
Troubles my sight: somewhere in sands of the desert   
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,   
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,   
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it   
Reel shadows of the indignant desert birds.   

A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun…That seems to describe Marlowe, as he takes in the sight of this bare wreckage of a man.

Eventually – sigh – the novel settles down to the kind of plot -driven mania that I found so challenging in the Hammett novel. I’m now on page 104 of 231, and I’m darned if I can tell you who’s doing what to whom. Still, it’s fun – good, harrowing, knuckle-biting fun. And the dialog is,, of course, very entertaining. Actually, my favorite snippet of dialog by Raymond Chandler occurs in the film version of Double Indemnity. James M. Cain wrote the novel and Raymond Chandler and Billy Wilder wrote the screenplay. I believe that the famous “How fast was I going, Officer?” exchange was Chandler’s invention:

I think it’s fair to say that as the years have passed, both The Maltese Falcon and The Big Sleep have been overshadowed by the films they inspired.

Click here to read a review I wrote of a biography of Raymond Chandler that came out several years ago. And finally, I can’t resist showing once again Raymond Chandler’s Hitchcock-like cameo in Double Indemnity. His presence in the film was detected separately by two film scholars in 2009. He’s sitting outside the office of Barton Keyes, played by Edward G. Robinson:

Michael Grost’s site A Guide to Classic Mystery and Detection has long been a great help in guiding my forays into older works in the field. He’s not a great fan of Raymond Chandler’s work; nevertheless, he admits that Chandler can at times rise to great heights. This is never more striking than the concluding passage of The Big Sleep. Of the writing there, Grost allows: “This apostrophe to death is magnificently written, and recalls such Elizabethan essays on the same subject as the finale of Sir Walter Raleigh’s The History of the World (1610).”

Here it is:

‘What did it matter where you lay once you were dead? In a dirty sump or in a marble tower on top of a high hill? You were dead, you were sleeping the big sleep, you were not bothered by things like that. Oil and water were the same as wind and air to you. You just slept the big sleep, not caring about the nastiness of how you died or where you fell. Me, I was part of the nastiness now. Far more a part of it than Rusty Regan was. But the old man didn’t have to be. He could lie quiet in his canopied bed, with his bloodless hands folded on the sheet, waiting. His heart was a brief, uncertain murmur. His thoughts were as gray as ashes. And in a little while he too, like Rusty Regan, would be sleeping the big sleep.’

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A Swim in a Pond in the Rain: In Which Four Russians Give a Master Class on Writing, Reading, and Life, by George Saunders

December 23, 2021 at 4:16 pm (Book review, books, Russophilia, Uncategorized)

  So, this book was a real challenge. But I felt that it was time to give the “leetle gray cells” a tune-up. So I signed on…

The four Russian writers cited in the book’s subtitle  are Chekhov, Turgenev, Tolstoy, and Gogol. Tolstoy contributed two of the six tales included in this volume; Chekhov, three.

Ivan Turgenev 1818-1883. (I know from reading The Europeans by Orlando Figes that Turgenev did not actually spend much of his creative life in Russia.)

Anton Chekhov 1860-1904

Niklolai Gogol 1809-1852

Count Lev Nikolaevich Tolstoy 1828-1910

Chekhov and Tolstoy

The stories are:

“In the Cart,” “The Darling,” and “Gooseberries” by Chekhov
“The Singers” by Turgenev
“Master and Man” and “Alyosha the Pot” by Tolstoy
“The Nose” by Gogol

Saunders presents the first story, “In the Cart,” in discreet sections, with comments on each portion of the tale. The other stories are presented in their entirety, with no interruptions and commentary following.

The commentary on the stories is enlightening, although at times I became impatient with it. ( I remember this happening to me frequently in college, where I majored in English literature.) Saunders’ observations are beautifully expressed aand insightful, almost in a way that is startling.

On Marya Vasilyevna, the chief protagonist of “In the Cart:”

She’s been rejuvenated, remade into that carefree, happy, hopeful young girl she used to be. She’s like a superhero whose powers have suddenly returned.

And this, in a story with almost no action, no plot. But as soon  as I read the  above assertion, I recognized its rightness.
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“The Singers” is about a singing competition that takes place in a tavern in a small town. Here’s how Turgenev describes the vocalizing of one contestant, known as Yashka the Turk:

Yashka was evidently overcome by ecstasy: he was no longer diffident; he gave himself up entirely to his feeling of happiness; his voice no longer trembled–it quivered, but with the barely perceptible inner quivering of passion which pierces like an arrow into the hearer’s soul, and it grew continually in strength, firmness, and breadth.

The listeners are deeply moved, in some cases, to tears. It’s a quintessentially Russian scene, but Saunders teases out of the story a universal truism about art:

We’re always rationally explaining and articulating things. But we’re at our most intelligent in the moment just before we start to explain or articulate. Great art occurs–or doesn’t– in that instant. What we turn to art for is precisely this moment, when we “know” something (we feel it) but can’t articulate it because it’s too complex and multiple.
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“The Darling” is a story I’d read before and was happy to encounter again. In his commentary, Saunders makes this intriguing assertion:

What transforms an anecdote into a story is escalation.

This made me think of countless times I’ve been pinioned by someone telling a story that seemed to have no arc, no buildup, no climax, and no satisfactory conclusion. It never fails to amaze me that such people have no idea that there’s a reason the listener’s eyes have glazed over! (Do they even notice that it’s happening?)
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Concerning “The Nose,” Saunders informs us that this particular tale is “a particular Russian form of unreliable first-person narration called skaz. It’s mainly a satire that tells its most outrageous elements with a straight face. I have to say right off the bat that this was my least favorite story in the book. I had to force myself to get through it.

However, Dmitri Shostakovich was sufficiently inspired by it to write an opera. Click here for a summary of the action in this work. And below is a rather amusing dance sequence that appeared in a production staged by the Royal Opera:

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It’s been a while since I read this book. As with “The Nose,” “Gooseberries” did not really stick with me, but unlike the Gogol story, I liked “Gooseberries” very much. In my experience, Chekhov never disappoints!

A man makes known his desire to forsake the rat race in the city and move to a small allotment he possesses in the country, in order to farm it. His brother disapproves. First, he states the wry truism that a man only needs six feet of earth. But he has more to say on the subject:

To retire from the city, from struggle, from the hubbub, to go off and hide on one’s own farm–that’s not life, it’s selfishness, sloth, it is a kind of monasticism but monasticism without works. Man needs not six feet of earth, not a farm, but the whole globe, all of Nature, where unhindered he can display all the capacities and peculiarities of his free spirit.

You don’t know necessarily have to agree with the sentiment expressed here, but it’s expressed  beautifully, and it’s thought-provoking.
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I’ve deliberately saved the Tolstoy stories until the end. “Alyosha the Pot” is the tale of a simple young man who, in many ways, seems too good for this world. He’s like  the Holy Fool one encounters, from time to time, in the literature of Russia, and of other countries as well, an individual of intense religious faith coupled with a resigned feeling about the course his life will take. This story has the feeling of times long past. Yet Tolstoy wrote it in 1905, five years before his death at the  age of 82.

Alyosha enters a period of servitude, in which he is frequently taken advantage of. Such is the fate of people like him. He has a brief chance to find happiness, but it is snatched from him almost at once. He does not protest, but simply accepts his fate.

Saunders poses a profound, and likely unanswerable, question about this tale:

So, is it possible that Tolstoy intended us to read the story as a simple praise of Alyosha, who,…over the course of his whole life, enacted radical Christian humility– a sad story, on the human level, but ultimately a story of the triumph of simplicity and faith?

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Finally, there is “Master and Man.”

I thought that I would have a great deal to say about this story, but I find I’m having trouble finding the words.

“Master and Man” is the story of Vasili Andreevich, a wealthy young landowner, and his manservant (or man) Nikita. Vasili Andreevich is eager to inspect a property that he might be  able to acquire, if he does not delay. He selects Nikita to accompany  him, chiefly because he is the only one of his workers who, on that particular day, is not inebriated. (Really, reading Russian fiction of this period is enough to convince you that the vast majority of the country’s people are drunk most of the time!)

And so they set off. But they are taking a terrible chance. The notorious Russian winter is closing in on them. A ferocious blizzard is approaching. The warning signs are plainly visible. But Vasili Andreevich insists on going, despite ominous conditions. This is the story of what happens to  them on this fateful journey.

I will say no more about the plot. But I have to say this: In the course of their travels, something happens to Vasili Andreevich that is so profound, so unexpected, that it took my breath away. It is something that happens mainly within the man, to his mind and to his heart. It causes him to undertake an action…Well, I’ll stop here. When I finished “Master and Man,” I closed this book and sat still for a certain period of time. There were tears in my eyes. I felt as though I had just had a glimpse – not quite hidden behind a wall of snow – of God, working His inexorable will upon one human being.

George Saunders quotes Vladimir Nabokov:

“Most Russian writers have been tremendously interested in Truth’s exact whereabouts and essential properties…Tolstoy marched straight at it, head bent and fists clenched.”

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I’m deeply grateful to have been led back to the Russian masters. I thank George Saunders wholeheartedly for this opportunity. I studied Russian language and literature in college, but I’ve had scant occasion to revisit this treasure trove of beauty and meaning and depth. It has  recently come to my attention that there is a new book out about Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment. It’s called The Sinner and the Saint: Dostoevsky and the Gentleman Murderer Who Inspired a Masterpiece; the author is Kevin Birmingham. I’d like to read it, but I never actually got through Crime and Punishment, and what portion of it I did read is part of my remote past.

So yes, Dear Reader, I’m taking another crack at it. I’ve selected the Constance Garnett translation, but I may switch to another, more recent one in due time. Nonetheless, I am finding the novel deeply absorbing.

The title of this famous work is one that I’ve known in Russian ever since my undergraduate encounter with this strange and enchanting language. Here it is:

преступление и наказание

It is pronounced ‘prestupleniye i nakazaniye.’

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‘With each new sick boy, she became more of a prisoner–confined by secrets, paralyzed by the power that the stigma of mental illness held over her.’ – Hidden Valley Road by Robert Kolker

June 24, 2021 at 9:13 pm (Uncategorized)

  This was an extremely hard book to read. It contains so much tragedy, so much suffering. Every time I thought  things could not get worse, they got worse. Some rays of happiness, some relief from trauma, does occasionally break through, but not often – certainly not often enough.

Married in December of 1944, Mimi and Don Galvin were optimistic about their future. Don was doing well in the military; Mimi was the archetypal Happy Homemaker. Settled, finally, in Colorado, they shared an interest in the arts and, rather oddly, in falconry. And the babies – well, they just kept coming…

Eventually, the number topped out at twelve – ten boys and two girls, at the end of the line. There might have been even more, but Mimi’s obstetrician laid down the law: If she got pregnant again, he would refuse to treat her. (He’d been warning her that she was endangering her health.)

Donald, the oldest and the namesake, was the first to exhibit the odd behavior that gradually overtook him. He was frequently called upon to babysit his younger brothers; while so engaged, he seemed to enjoy inciting them to violence. At first, Mimi and Don chalked it up to typical, if somewhat exaggerated, sibling rivalry. Later, they learned what was really happening: Donald was presenting the early symptoms of schizophrenia.

Jim. the second son, soon followed suit. In all, six of the ten brothers were diagnosed with the same condition. And it’s not as though each of them exhibit the same aberrant behaviors. They were all unique in the way they were affected. They could be withdrawn, bizarre, crazed, violent. Each boy was unpredictable; in Brian’s case – he was son number four – the outcome was catastrophic.

As I was reading, I was shaking my head in disbelief. I could not imagine living through such an unrelenting nightmare.

This book is not just about the Galvin family. The author provides considerable insight into the history of the treatment of schizophrenia, as well as the pioneering research done on the causes and possible treatment of what is a fiendishly difficult, not to mention devastating, illness to deal with.

As for Mimi and Don, I kept hoping as I read to gain some insight into why they decided to have so many children. Don was born and raised Catholic; Mimi converted  after they married, but the real reason for this untrammeled fecundity seemed to lay elsewhere than in religion. And it has to be said that the burden of dealing with the nonstop crises engendered by their offspring fell on their mother.

Chapter 17 of Hidden Valley Road opens with this sentence:

Don had spent years building distance between himself and his children.

To me, Don seemed like the old fashioned kind of father that one frequently encountered in mid twentieth century America. (Mine was one.) He was out in the world working; Mimi took care of the home front. But this was not like any other home front. She desperately needed his help and support. But my take is that he was somewat of a narcissist . On top of his military duties he was intent on pursuing a PhD in political science. The required a fairly large additional commitment of his time. I couldn’t help it; it made me angry.

I have to admit, I was glad when this book finally ended. It put me though an emotional wringer. But as an exercise in sheer survival, it was incredible story. And though at times I also felt frustrated with Mimi, I ended by feeling a huge amount of compassion and admiration for her.

Author Robert Kolker is from Columbia, Maryland. Like Laura Lippman, he graduated from Wilde Lake High School. He currently lives in Brooklyn, where every other resident seems to be a writer. In my view, he is greatly to be congratulated on producing this outstanding work of narrative nonfiction.

Robert Kolker

 

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‘Sometimes a man hits upon a place to which he mysteriously feels that he belongs.’ – Jim Thompson: The Unsolved Mystery, by William Warren

November 1, 2020 at 5:06 pm (Book review, books, True crime, Uncategorized)

It started with a comment about the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical The King and I. This came about because of a Zoom class I was taking on the great choreographers of the American musical theater. We were focusing on Jerome Robbins. For me, Robbins’s genius is most clearly manifest in West Side Story, both the Broadway show and then the film. He was fired from this latter enterprise for being impossible to work with – but before that happened, we got  this:

Okay, that was a total digression, but it’s one of my all time favorite YouTube videos, so I couldn’t resist.

Anyway, back to The King and I. Robbins did the choreography for that show as well, a fact of which I was previously unaware. The presenter of this class did us the great favor of screening one of that production’s most famous scenes, the March of the Siamese Children. Here it is:

In the course of his remarks on The King and I, the presenter mentioned the sheer gorgeousness of the costumes. The silk was supplied, he informed us, by Jim Thompson, founder of the Thai Silk Company – “You know, the guy who went missing in Malaysia.”

No I don’t know. Never heard of him. While the presenter went on to other topics, I remained fixated on the missing man. I found a book on the subject and read it, with great interest.

Born in 1906, scion of a prominent Delaware family, Jim Thompson seemed headed for the kind if life and career that would be expected for one of his background. Having graduated from Princeton, he aspired to be an architect, but he was unable to pass the qualifying exam that was required for licensure. Nevertheless, was able to work in that field, for a time. Then World War Two broke out.

Having begun his military career in the Delaware National Guard, Thompson was eventually recruited to serve in the OSS (Office of Strategic Services), which later came to be known as the CIA. Just as he was being posted to Bangkok, the war ended. But for Jim Thompson, Bangkok was a new beginning. He took up residence there and never wanted to leave.

Not long after his arrival, Thompson discovered a corner of Thailand which housed some Muslim silk weavers. They were barely eking out a living, yet the fabric they re producing was gorgeous. He turned Thai silk weaving into a business with a future. The Thai Silk Company became a hugely successful enterprise, especially after its product was showcased in The King and I.

Meanwhile, Jim Thompson had a rich and rewarding life in Bangkok. He built a beautiful house for himself, where he entertained numerous friends and business associates. Among these were a Dr. and Mrs T.G. Ling, and a widow, Connie Mangskau. In 1967, the Lings invited Mrs Mangskau and her friend Jim Thompson to join them at Moonlight Cottage, their holiday home in the Cameron Highlands in Malaysia. The invitation was accepted.

Moonlight Cottage, Cameron Highlands, Malaysia

On their first full day at Moonlight Cottage, the party busied themselves with a picnic and other activities, returning to the house in the afternoon to rest before dinner. All had retired to their respective bedrooms, but Jim Thompson did not remain in his. Restless, an inveterate hiker, he decided to follow a trail that led downhill from the house.

He did not return and was never seen again.

The disappearance of this prominent American businessman caused a sensation. William Warren describes in great detail the search that took place, over a period of days, weeks, stretching into months. Everyone from military personnel to psychics took part or offered theories at to what had happened to Jim Thompson. Had he strayed into the jungle area adjacent to the trail and gotten lost, or fatally mauled by a tiger? (If so, where were the remains?) Or perhaps, had an accident? Was he still involved in intelligence work for the U.S. and gotten into some sort of trouble because of this connection? Had he deliberately disappeared, wanting to end his life? Had he been preyed upon by Malaysian communists? Had he been kidnapped by aborigines, who lived in the region?

Each of these possibilities was looked into and run to  ground as  far as was possible. Large numbers of people were interviewed. The area around the trail was searched and searched again. Nothing.

Jim Thompson was 61 years old at the time of his disappearance. He had some physical issues but was generally speaking in good health.

(A mere six months after Thompson went missing, his sister was murdered in her home in Chester County, Pennsylvania. As far as I know, this crime remains unsolved.)

As the years have passed, various theories have emerged concerning the disappearance.  Claims to have solved the mystery have invariably been proved misleading or downright false – at least, until 2017. In that year, a film entitled Who Killed Jim Thompson was screened at a film festival in Eugene, Oregon. In it, producer Barry Broman claims to have uncovered evidence leading to the determination that Thompson was killed by members of the Communist Party of Malaya.  Even so, Broman admits that he would like to have more evidence to verify this conclusion.

It would be great to be able to view this film, but so far, I haven’t been able to figure out how to do  that.

Meanwhile, Jim Thompson’s Thai Silk Company is still very much a going concern. His house in now maintained by a foundation as a museum, where one can view his impressive collection of Asian art in the house which he himself designed.

In 1959, W. Somerset Maugham, celebrated author and restless sojourner, was Jim Thompson’s guest for dinner in this same house. It was in the way of a farewell tour for the elderly Maugham, who throughout his years of travel had come to love the Far East. In his thank-you note to his host, Maugham wrote:

You have not only beautiful things, but what is rare you have arranged them with faultless taste.

(The quotation in the title of this post is from Maugham’s novel The Moon and Sixpence.)

 

 

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The Glass Room by Ann Cleeves

September 9, 2018 at 3:12 pm (Book review, books, Mystery fiction, The British police procedural, Uncategorized)

  The Writers’ House is designed to be a sanctuary. Within its walls, those who long for literary achievement and eventual recognition can work in a peaceful setting, receive helpful suggestions from fellow aspirants, and be instructed and encouraged by guest writers acting as as tutors and exemplars.

As the novel opens, DI Vera Stanhope has been prowling the environs in search of her neighbor Joanna Tobin. Joanna has suddenly gone missing; her partner Jack thinks she’s at the Writers’ House. Vera hasn’t had any luck so far in finding her and thinks she might be on a fool’s errand.

Suddenly, from an upper balcony of the house, an bloodcurdling scream issues forth. What on earth can have happened in this quiet, remote fastness dedicated to intellectual pursuits? The police have been called, but Vera is already on the scene, ready to intervene in what must certainly be a dire crisis. And so it proves to be. But she and her team of investigators are a long time figuring out the real genesis of that scream.

I love the way this novel unfolds. The situation becomes increasingly complex as new characters emerge onto the scene – everyone in the Writers’ House, to begin with. Vera and her trusty second, Joe Ashworth, remain in charge of the investigation.

It proves a very tough nut to crack. But Vera, exulting in just this kind of chase, thinks:

Deep down, everyone loved a murder almost as much as she did. They loved the drama of it, the frisson of fear, the exhilaration of still being alive. People had been putting together stories of death and the motives for killing since the beginning of time, to thrill and to entertain.

But of course, there could be qualifying circumstances:

It was different of course if you were close to the victim. Or to the killer.

Throughout the novel, Cleeves intersperses clues to Vera’s thought processes and working methods, especially where interviewing a witness or a suspect is concerned. These nuggets tend to be expressed briefly and in pithy language:

Vera had better timing than a stand-up comedian and knew the importance of a pause.

In theory Vera liked strong women; in practice they often irritated her.

Kindness could be a great weapon.

‘There’s a casserole I made a couple of days ago when I was feeling domestic. I get the urge sometimes, but it soon passes.’

It occurred to her that there might be a greater proportion of psychopaths in Parliament than in prison.

Vera had no patience for speculation. Unless she was the one doing the speculating.

Gradually these observations coalesce to form a portrait of a singular personality. Speaking as a person who more or less devours large quantities of crime fiction – not to mention true crime – I find Vera Stanhope utterly unique.

We also learn a lot about Vera from the way she interacts with Joe Ashworth:

Joe had been listening intently. She loved that about him. The way he hung on her every word.

Vera thought Joe was a soft-hearted sod, but she liked him the better for it.

Although it is Vera’s restless intellect with which we’re primarily engaged, Joe is an important character as well, a vital sounding board for her wide-ranging thoughts and speculations. Vera is somewhere in middle age, lives alone, has no children. This in no way hinders her powers of empathy. Joe is somewhat younger, married with three small children.

An interesting thing happens to Joe in this novel: he finds himself attracted to Nina Backworth, a woman involved in the case that he and Vera are investigating. The attraction seems to be mutual. Acting on this attraction would be a bad idea for any number of reasons. Yet so perverse are the wellsprings of human desire that the worse the idea becomes, the more power it exerts. ‘Lust that felt like adultery’ is what Joe is experiencing; it’s causing him to feel desperate and distracting him from the case.

Finally at one point, Joe manages to carve out some time at home for his wife Sal and their ‘bairns:’

When they were alone at last, he sat with his wife on the sofa, his arm around her shoulders, cuddling together like teenagers. Thought there was nobody in the world he would feel so at ease with. He couldn’t imagine Nina Backworth watching old episodes of The Simpsons and laughing with him at the same jokes. Later he took Sal to bed and they made love. Afterwards he lay awake, listening to her breathing, loving her with all his heart and soul and pushing away the feeling that there should be more to life than this.

As you can see, there’s a lot going on in The Glass Room. Questions beget answers, which then beget more questions. I was completely drawn in, and stayed that way till the end.

Thus far I’ve read six of the eight novels in the Vera Stanhope series. I am worried about running out. No pressure, Ann, but could you write faster?

I can’t discuss this series without mentioning the television adaptations. I think they’re excellent. Some of the episodes are based directly on the novels; others use the characters and write new stories for them. As is almost always the case, the casting of the main protagonist is inspired: Brenda Blethyn as Vera Stanhope:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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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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