London: Canaletto and Sir John Soane’s Museum

January 30, 2018 at 10:48 pm (Art, London, London 2017)

Canaletto: View in Venice, on the Grand Canal (Riva degli Schiavoni). Date: c. 1734-1735.

Click twice to enlarge; then sit back and take in this marvel.

Many are the views of Venice painted by Giovanni Antonio Canal, called ‘Canaletto’ to distinguish him from his father Bernardo Canal, also a painter. Along with other works by this master, Riva degli Schiavoni is housed in London in Sir John Soane’s Museum. This is without doubt one of the strangest  places I have ever visited.

Sir John Soane (1753-1837) was a brilliant architect and a compulsive collector. Crowded into his house – which is actually  three town houses knocked together to form one domicile – are numerous objects from antiquity, beautiful furnishings, and priceless works of art.

Sir John Soane’s Museum – exterior


The Picture Room – a very unique arrangement


Dining room


On the bottom floor of the Soane Museum is the three thousand year old sarcophagus of Pharoah Seti I. It is carved from a single block of translucent alabaster. To celebrate  the two hundredth anniversary of this object’s discovery, a special viewing was arranged. (This description is from an article in The Guardian last November):

Over three days and nights [when it was first displayed], almost 900 people trooped through his [Soane’s] rooms and into the basement renamed “the Sepulchral Chamber”, where the sarcophagus glowed eerily, lit by candles placed inside. The museum recently recreated the experiment, and deputy director Helen Dorey recalled the extraordinary effect when the whole block lit up like a lantern, and the thousands of tiny human figure hieroglyphics carved into every inch of stone seemed to flicker and move. “It was a truly shiver down the spine moment,” she said.

Below is an illustration of the ‘sepulchral chamber:’

Remember – this was at one time a family home!

Sir John Soane, by Thomas Lawrence

It’s hard not to become incoherent on the subject of Sir John Soane and his fabulous if eccentric house of treasures. Last month, my sister-in-law Donna and I had a wonderful time there. But the Canaletto works are what stayed with me, and most especially the painting at the top of this post:

By his precision of touch, the subtleties of his use of light and shade, by his skillful blending of the qualities of sky and water with every variety of timber, stone and other building materials, Canaletto has surely created a work of art of total harmony and order.

J.G. Links, in The Soane Canalettos





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When to the sessions of sweet silent thought…

January 27, 2018 at 3:08 am (Book clubs, Book review, books, Family, Historical fiction, Mystery fiction)

  So there I am reading this mystery set in New Jersey in the year 1914, when I come across the following:

Deputy Morris went first and cut to the left, which would take him down a narrow street occupied mostly by cobblers and tailors and other such shops whose doors had closed hours ago.

Constance Kopp, the main character, is headed for a potentially dangerous rendezvous. She’s being discreetly shadowed by members of the Bergen County Sheriff’s Department, including Sheriff Heath himself. (This novel is, in fact, based on a true story.)

The above quoted sentence, however, plucked me out of that scenario and hit me in the face with another – one that, for this particular reader, was very close to home.

But first – a bit of background:

My father was  born in Westfield, in Union County, New Jersey in 1914. Shortly thereafter, the family moved one county north to Maplewood, in Essex County. (My grandparents had immigrated from what was then called Russia, now the Ukraine. They came through Ellis Island, where immigration officials struggled with foreign names written in unknown alphabets. What they came up with for my father’s family was ‘Tedlow.’ ‘Tevelov’ might have been closer. As best I’m able to reproduce it, it might have looked like this in Cyrillic: ‘Тевелов.’)

My grandfather Jacob Tedlow had a small tailoring business in Maplewood. He named the establishment The New York Tailoring Company, or something like it. I know that the name contained “New York” because I recall my father commenting that the choice of moniker revealed “delusions of grandeur” on his father’s part. (This was said in jest, but it was a sort of poignant jest.)

Below is a map of the counties that make up the state of New Jersey:

It can be readily seen that Essex County is just below Bergen County, with a section of Passaic County inserting itself in between the two. (Some of the action in Girl Waits with Gun takes place in Passaic County.) So you see, the mention of shops occupied by tailors and cobblers in the city of Paterson, in Bergen County in 1914, caused the personal association  to spring immediately to mind.

In the early 1990s, when my parents were  still active and healthy, Ron and I went with them to a restaurant in Maplewood. If recollection serves (which it often doesn’t), this small eatery was across the street from the building in which my grandfather’s tailoring business was located. The family, consisting of my grandparents, my father, and his two sisters, also lived in that building. (This was not an unusual arrangement in those days. My mother’s parents had a candy store – or confectioners, as it was officially designated – in Montclair, also in Essex County. They, my mother, and my uncle resided in an apartment on the premises.)

After we’d finished our meal and gone outside, my father pointed to the building’s top floor and told us that as a boy, he used to carry coal up to an elderly lady who lived there.

My father was a handsome and reserved man, not given to revealing his feelings or indulging in recollections of the past. The only other childhood memory that I remember him sharing was  of standing outside with a crowd of people who were cheering the soldiers who’d come back from the First World War. That would have been in 1919; at the time, he would have been five years old.

(I’m digging deep into the past here, and I hope I haven’t made any egregious misstatements. If I have, I apologize.)

Girl Waits With Gun is our next selection for the Usual Suspects Mystery Book Group discussion.At present, I’m about two thirds of the way in, for the most part, I’m enjoying it, especially as regards the novel’s historical aspect.  For me, it has certainly summoned up “remembrance of things past,” and I’m grateful to Carol for choosing it for us.

I admit, though, that I was made somewhat uneasy at first, as there were several disparaging references to those of the Jewish faith made at the outset. For instance, here is Constance Kopp relating some of her family’s history:

My grandfather—an educated man, a chemist—liked to say that he brought his family here to give them a more stable and certain future, and to keep his boys out of the endless wars with France and Italy, but my grandmother once whispered that they moved to get away from the Jews. “After they got to leave the ghettos they could live anywhere,” she hissed, and glanced out the window as if she suspected they were moving to Brooklyn, too, which of course they were.

However, thus far there’s been no recurrence of this kind of casually tossed-off antisemitism, and I can only conclude that it’s been made a part of this narrative for the sake, alas, of verisimilitude. (Although my parents and grandparents rarely spoke of it, they had from time to time encountered the expression of this prejudiced attitude firsthand.)

Some years ago, my son Ben made me a gift of a beautifully framed photograph of my father. It enjoys pride of place on our living room wall. When I’m reading on the couch – a favorite place for that activity – I can look up and see it. In this way, he keeps me company during this solitary pursuit.

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Two women artists of the Northern Renaissance

January 25, 2018 at 3:58 am (Art)

I’ve recently come across the names of two women who lived and worked in the period known as the Northern Renaissance.

First, Agnes van den Bosshe (c. 1435–40 – c. 1504) of Bruges. From Wikipedia:

She is one of the few known women admitted to the painter’s guild of Bruges, and worked mainly on designing flags and banners. Although these are records of numerous commissions, she is known today for her one extant work, the triangular silk banner The Maid of Ghent with a Lion, the only recorded painting by a Flemish woman of the 15th century.


Then there is Caterina van Hemessen (1528 – after 1565). Slightly less obscure, van Hemessen was a reasonably successful painter in her day. From the Wikipedia entry:

A number of obstacles stood in the way of contemporary women who wished to become painters. Their training would involve both the dissection of cadavers and the study of the nude male form, while the system of apprenticeship meant that the aspiring artist would need to live with an older artist for 4–5 years, often beginning from the age of 9-15. For these reasons, female artists were extremely rare, and those that did make it through were typically trained by a close relative, in van Hemessen’s case, by her father, Jan Sanders van Hemessen.

Here are some of her works:

Portrait of a Woman, c. 1540s-early 1550s


Girl at the Virginal 1548


Christ meets Veronica, 1541-1554

In the above painting, Saint Veronica is shown kneeling with a cloth that bears a faint image of Jesus. This cloth is known as the Sudarium. Legend has it that as Christ, laboring his way toward Calvary, was struggling with the weight of the cross, Veronica offered him a cloth – possibly her veil – with which to wipe the sweat from his face. This he did and then handed it back to her. By some miracle, a depiction of his face was transferred to the cloth.

This phenomenon is more  clearly shown in a painting made around 1420, by an artist known only as the Master of St. Veronica:

Of Caterina van Hemessen, the Wikipedia entry also says this:

There are no extant works later than 1554, which has led some historians to believe her artistic career might have ended after her marriage, which was a common occurrence in the case of female artists.

She did in fact marry a musician in 1554.

Caterina van Hemessen’s self-portrait is dated 1548. In addition to a paintbrush, she is holding a mahlstick. Sometimes also spelled “maulstick,” this device was used by artists to help steady the brush hand:

There is poignancy in her expression here, I think. In The Art of the Northern Renaissance, Craig Harbison states the following concerning this artist:

Notably she developed a straightforward realism of style, demonstrating her independence of her father’s influence – his work was mannered and highly contrived. Her self-portrait is thus a tantalizing but conflicted image of a woman’s ambition and its thwarting by both family and society.

I think her life would make a fine subject for a historical novel.





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‘The clear waters of the channels ran over golden sands….’ – “St Clair Flats,” by Constance Fenimore Woolson

January 21, 2018 at 3:29 pm (Book clubs, Book review, books, Short stories)

  Miss Grief and Other Stories by Constance Fenimore Woolson was my choice for our discussion, but I was having a very difficult time getting the presentation to come together in a satisfactory manner.

This volume consists of a foreward by Colm Toibin, an introduction by the editor Anne Boyd Rioux, and a selection of seven  stories. The stories were carefully chosen to represent the different aspects and settings of Woolson’s oeuvre: “St. Clair Flats”(1873)  is set in the Great Lakes Region; “Solomon”(1873), in eastern Ohio; “Rodman the Keeper'(1877), in North Carolina; “Sister St. Luke”(1877), in Florida; “‘Miss Grief'”(1880) in Rome; “A Florentine Experiment”(1880) in Florence, Italy; and “In Sloane Street”(1892) in London.

I asked the group – AAUW Readers by name – to read the foreward, the introduction, and four of the stories: “St. Clair Flats,” “‘Miss Grief’,” “A Florentine Experiment,” and “In Sloane Street.”

In her introduction, Anne Boyd Rioux reveals enough of Woolson’s biography for us to know that she lived a somewhat peripatetic, restless life, always trying to stay true to her writer’s art while fighting off the wolves of encroaching penury. Rioux’s final paragraph made my heart ache:

Woolson’s works deserve wider attention today, not only for the way they broaden our understanding of late-nineteenth-century American literature, but also for the way they capture both the social texture of her time and the inner emotional lives of her characters. Her works contradict our assumptions about women’s writing from that era, for Woolson did not seek recognition as a woman writer but as a writer. Thus she often tread on masculine territory in her work, while never trying to simply mimic the successes of her male peers. She sought instead to show them what was missing from their views of humanity, broadening the scope of literature to include the heartaches and triumphs of those most often overlooked, such as impoverished spinsters, neglected nuns, self-sacrificing wives and widows, uneducated coal miners, and destitute Southerners. Most of all her writings reflect what is deeply human in all of us, particularly our need to be loved, to be understood, and to belong, none of which are easily accomplished in her stories, or in life.

The most famous of the ‘male peers’ Woolson was trying not to imitate was Henry James. They met when both were living in Florence. James was generous and companionable with his fellow writer, even though Woolson’s encroaching deafness made it difficult for her to socialize. (Included in their close Florentine circle were composer Francis Boott, his daughter Lizzie, a painter, and her husband Frank Duveneck, also an artist. I began our discussion by recounting the way in which I most unexpectedly encountered a scion of the Duvenecks this past November in Northern California. For more on this curious confluence, read “The Nature of California.”)

“St.Clair Flats” was the first story I ever read by Constance Fenimore Woolson. (And yes she came by that middle name honestly: James Fenimore Cooper was her great-uncle.) I fell under its enchantment at once.

The year is 1855. In the course of their search for a congenial place to hunt and fish, two men find find themselves boating through a region of the Great Lakes known as the St. Clair Flats. The place is both bleak and beautiful, depending on whom you ask, and when:

The word “marsh” does not bring up a beautiful picture to the mind, and yet the reality was as beautiful as anything I have ever seen,— an enchanted land, whose memory haunts me as an idea unwritten, a melody unsung, a picture unpainted, haunts the artist, and will not away. On each side and in front, as far as the eye could reach, stretched the low green land which was yet no land, intersected by hundreds of channels, narrow and broad, whose waters were green as their shores. In and out, now running into each other for a moment, now setting off each for himself again, these many channels flowed along with a rippling current; zigzag as they were, they never seemed to loiter, but, as if knowing just where they were going and what they had to do, they found time to take their own pleasant roundabout way, visiting the secluded households of their friends the flags, who, poor souls, must always stay at home. These currents were as clear as crystal, and green as the water-grasses that fringed their miniature shores.

Thus does the narrator reflect on his surroundings. Later, he has an exchange with a boatman that portrays things in a different light:

“It is beautiful,— beautiful,” I said, looking off over the vivid green expanse.

“Beautiful?” echoed the captain, who had himself taken charge of the steering when the steamer entered the labyrinth,—“ I don’t see anything beautiful in it!— Port your helm up there; port!”

“Port it is, sir,” came back from the pilot-house above.

“These Flats give us more trouble than any other spot on the lakes; vessels are all the time getting aground and blocking up the way, which is narrow enough at best. There’s some talk of Uncle Sam’s cutting a canal right through,— a straight canal; but he’s so slow, Uncle Sam is, and I’m afraid I’ll be off the waters before the job is done.”

“A straight canal!” I repeated, thinking with dismay of an ugly utilitarian ditch invading this beautiful winding waste of green.

“Yes, you can see for yourself what a saving it would be,” replied the captain.

The narrator and his friend have a somewhat surreal time of it, enveloped by the strange beauty of this region and moreover, finding a place to stay with two unusual individuals: a man called Waiting Samuel and his wife Roxana. What Samuel appears to be waiting for is what we now term the End Times. He is a thoroughly otherworldly visionary. Roxana mainly acts the part of his submissive helpmate; at the same time, she’s the one that takes care of practical matters and keeps their dwelling afloat and viable.

After a particular glorious day spent enjoying the unique and seductive beauty of the Flats, the two men receive news of a sad and urgent nature. They are forced to return home with all due haste. The parting with Roxana is especially poignant:

At the turn I looked back; Roxana was sitting motionless in her boat; the dark clouds were rolling up behind her; and the Flats looked wild and desolate. “God help her!” I said.

Years passed quickly. In 1870, the narrator has occasion to revisit the Flats. He finds them, not unexpectedly, much changed:

“It is beautiful, beautiful,” I thought, “but it is passing away.”

This vision of a paradise lost in our own country is one of the most affecting passages of fiction that I have ever encountered. Affecting – and strangely unique in our literature.

As our discussion of this story was reaching its conclusion, Doris asked, “Is this a metaphor?” A metaphor, perhaps, for the waywardness of our journey through this life? And also, perhaps, for the sudden and unexpected turnings of that journey. (And by the way, the perceptive observations made by this excellent group of book lovers made this discussion a real pleasure – at least, I thought so!)

When I returned home from this discussion -more specifically, from our subsequent lunch out as a group, always a pleasant follow-up activity – I did something I hadn’t done before: I did a Google Image search for Lake St. Clair:

Canal leading to Lake St. Clair

Constance Fenimore Woolson was living alone in Venice, Italy in 1894 when she passed away. Although it is not known for certain, the manner of her death would seem to indicate that she died by her own hand. She was 53 years old.

When Henry James heard this news, he was devastated. Asked to help dispose of Woolson’s effects, he had himself rowed out to the depths of a lagoon in order to push her voluminous garments under the water. In The Private Life of Henry James, author Lyndall Gordon describes the scene:

In April 1894, a middle-aged gentleman, bearing a load of dresses, was rowed to the deepest part of the Venetian lagoon. A strange scene followed: he began to drown the dresses, one by one. There were a good many, well-made, tasteful, and all dark, suggesting a lady of quiet habits and some reserve. The gondolier’s pole would have been useful for pushing them under the still water. But the dresses refused to drown. One by one they rose to the surface, their busts and sleeves swelling like black balloons. Purposefully, the gentleman pushed them under, but silent, reproachful, they rose before his eyes.

“….they rose before his eyes.” As a remonstrance, even a rebuke? In an article in The New Republic entitled “Betrayed by Henry James,” author Max Nelson might agree with that assessment.

I was so taken by the life and works of Constance Fenimore Woolson that I went on to read this biography: Concerning her work as a scholar of literature,  the following appears on Anne Boyd Rioux’s  website:

In her teaching and writing, Rioux is passionate about the recovery of 19th-century American women writers who wrote fascinating, sometimes provocative, and often daring works that have been unavailable and unread for generations.

I am deeply grateful to Boyd Rioux for rescuing this worthy artist from obscurity and placing her front and center in the ranks of great American writers. She has every right to be there. And next, I’d like to see more re-issues of her works along the lines of Miss Grief and Other Stories. Meanwhile, Amazon has on offer quite a few of Woolson’s works in e-book format.

Constance Fenimore Woolson 1840-1894

(And one more thing: I’d like to suggest that Professor Boyd Rioux have a look at the life and work of Metta Fuller Victor.)



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A Sultry Month: Scenes of London Literary Life in 1846, by Alethea Hayter

January 14, 2018 at 1:51 pm (Anglophilia, Book review, books, France, London 2017)

While in London, I had the good fortune to find myself in the vicinity of the London Review Bookshop. (Sister-in-law Donna figured this out courtesy of the mapping function she employed with admirable dexterity on her iPhone.) Naturally that meant that I soon found myself inside the shop.   The cash register was at the back; there, I found issues of the venerable London Review of Books. I informed one of the young people staffing the desk that I subscribe to the review ‘back home in Maryland, USA.’ He immediately exclaimed, with booming gusto: “Cracking good mag, innit?!” Yet another wonderful British moment….

As it happened, I had a new issue waiting for me when I got back home. In it was a review of One Hot Summer: Dickens, Darwin, Disraeli ad the Great Stink of 1858, by Rosemary Ashton.

Reviewer Rosemary Hill observes that aside from the choking stench emanating from the Thames River, nothing else of great moment happened in London in the year 1858. It is therefore, she concludes, “the perfect subject for a microhistory.”

Hill continues:

Great events cast shadows over details which in an undramatic year, or season, can be more clearly seen. Alethea Hayter’s A Sultry Month, published in 1965, was one of the earliest and best examples  of what has become a popular  genre. Set in another heat wave, in 1846, Hayter’s account weaves together the famous, the obscure and the forgotten.

Hill enumerates just a few of the writers and artists who are featured in Hayter’s slender volume – Samuel Rogers, Jane Carlyle, Thomas Carlyle, Benjamin Robert Haydon, Robert Browning, Elizabeth Barrett,  and Gräfin Hahn-Hahn (that’s her name alright – no mistake!). Hayter documents their lives and interactions so closely that “…from day to day and street to street, the sublime and the ridiculous appear in the proximity they occupy in life.”

Hill then goes on to make further observations on the microhistory subgenre:

This is surely one reason for the rise of microhistory, that it brings the texture of the past closer. It illustrates the ‘human position’, the way the momentous occurs ‘while someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along.’…When it is done well, microhistory opens out from its immediate subject matter and  the result is like looking through a keyhole and seeing a whole landscape.

Meanwhile, I had developed a strong need to get my hands on A Sultry Month. There is no e-book available; the physical book is out of print. I bought a used copy from Amazon.

I’m now about two thirds of the way through it. I am deliberately reading as slowly as possible, as I do not want it to end. I love it.

While Haydon was walking out of the northern fringe of London, Browning was sitting on the grass in the garden at New Cross, and was conscious of the immensity of the whole round earth under him, and saw it as an image of  the love that now supported all his life. At the same time Elizabeth Barrett was sitting on the drawing-room window seat in Wimpole Street, writing to him while he was thinking of her.

(Those of my generation may recall watching the play The Barretts of Wimpole Street on television in 1956. I was twelve years old at the time, and that production made an indelible impression on my  nascent romantic imagination.

Katharine Cornell as Elizabeth Barrett)

I had never heard of Alethea Hayter before this. Her obituary in The Guardian – she died in 2006 at the age of 94 –  says this of her works:

In all these books, she manages to unite the narrative sweep and urgency of a novel with impeccable historical and social research and a uniquely elegant style.

I will certainly be reading more books by Alethea Hayter. I’ve  already downloaded this one: 

I can recommend yet another microhistory: The Return of Martin Guerre by Natalie Zemon Davis. This book came out shortly after the release of a terrific film Le Retour de Martin Guerre starring Gerard Depardieu. (And while you’re  at it, seek out Janet Lewis’s novelized version of this true story, The Wife of Martin Guerre.)



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Escape with me to the Twelfth Century….

January 9, 2018 at 2:14 am (Anglophilia, archaeology, Film and television, London 2017)

So this small fellow came to us a few days ago, courtesy of the British Museum Gift Shop:

He is a replica, fashioned in clay, of one of the Lewis Chessmen; specifically, the King piece. Below is a three quarter view of the King:

And here is the back, courtesy of the British Museum’s image gallery:

He is about four inches tall.

In her 2015 book Ivory Vikings, Nancy Marie Brown advances the theory that the famous chess pieces were in fact the work of a woman, specifically an Icelandic carver named Margret the Adroit.   Well, adroit she must have been, to have created these little marvels made from walrus ivory. (For more on this intriguing story, see The Economist article, “Bones of Contention.”)

Here’s the picture I took of the Chessmen at the British Museum:

Why did I feel the need to own a replica? Author Nancy Marie Brown, who got to handle the eleven Chessmen currently housed in Edinburgh’s National Museum of Scotland, expressed their allure nicely:

Out of their glass display case, they are impossible to resist, warm and bright, seeming not old at all, but strangely alive. They nestle in the palm, smooth and weighty, ready to play. Set on a desktop, in lieu of the thirty-two-inch-square chessboard they’d require, they make a satisfying click.

The British Museum puts out a myriad of publications. Among them is a series of booklets entitled Objects in Focus. I bought and read this one:

It’s beautifully illustrated and tells not only the story of the discovery of the Chessmen but also the history of the game of chess (a game, I should add, that I’ve never learned to play).

It turns out that there exist several versions of the story of the finding of the Chessmen. I particularly like one that originated in  book entitled The Archaeology and Prehistoric Annals of Scotland, written by Daniel Wilson and published in 1851. Wilson describes the way in which the action of the sea demolished a portion of a sandbank, thereby “exposing a small stone chamber.”

A local peasant investigated the structure and was alarmed to discover ‘an assemblage of elves or gnomes upon whose mysteries he had unconsciously intruded.’ Shaken and fearing for his safety, the peasant described what he had discovered to his fierce wife, who made him return to the spot and gather up the ‘singular little ivory figures which ad not unnaturally appeared to him the pygmy sprites of Celtic folklore.’

(Naturally I addressed our new acquisition thus: “What about it? Are you a pygmy sprite of Celtic folklore?’ He remained judiciously mute.)

Nancy Marie Brown notes that the Chessmen are clearly identifiable in the first Harry Potter film. Now I’m one of the few humans on the planet who have not seen this movie, but I was able to verify her statement with this YouTube clip:

All of the above has put me in mind of Ingmar Bergman’s film The Seventh Seal. In this film, made in 1957 and set in the Middle Ages, a disillusioned Crusader Knight challenges Death to a game of chess. The stakes could not be  higher.

Ingmar Bergman’s father was a Lutheran minister, and Bergman recalled visits they had made when he was a boy to various historic churches. Many of these contained distinctive wall and ceiling paintings; this was particularly true of Taby Church  in Taby, Sweden:

Brown says that the chess pieces used in the film were modeled on the Lewis Chessmen.

Here is the opening sequence of The Seventh Seal.



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A suggestion for ‘paired reading’

January 6, 2018 at 9:12 pm (Book review, books)


I found Robert Harris’s inside-the-Vatican scenario as engrossing as any thriller I’ve read lately. This should not have surprised me; Harris is a master at generating suspense through creative use of setting and the placement therein of believable characters operating under duress.

Thomas Kenneally employs similar techniques to great effect in Crimes of the Father. This novel tackles head-on the exposure of cases of abuse by priests and the subsequent action (or lack of same) undertaken by the church. This will be a sensitive subject for many people, and they may or may not agree with the way in which Thomas Kenneally has handled this material.

Kenneally has placed a four-page Author’s Note ahead of the novel’s text. In it, he reveals that he was raised Catholic and attended seminary for a period, but upon realizing his unsuitability for the priest’s vocation, dropped out.

I just want to say a few more things about Crimes of the Father. The writing is excellent; I loved the conversations between  and among the various dramatis personae. The story is mainly told through the eyes of Father Frank Docherty. This is an entirely believable man – not just believable, but human and vulnerable, as assailed by doubts as are the rest of us, in this life. Above all he is a person of genuine integrity. He is a gentle Irishman by heritage, with an Irish sense of humor that’s never exercised at someone else’s expense. You may have been lucky enough in your life to know someone like him, either in the clergy or in some other walk of life.

For more on paired reading, click on the post entitled “The Pleasures of Paired Reading.”



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London, Day Three: Beauty and riches beyond belief

January 5, 2018 at 2:45 pm (Art, London 2017)

That is what I encountered at London’s National Gallery.

Somehow in the course of my lifelong Anglophilia, I’d never been to this museum. This past May, my friend Jean and I attended a Smithsonian lecture entitled “A Day at the National Gallery and the Tate Britain.” Ron and I then watched “Museum Masterpieces: The National Gallery, London,” a set of DVDs accompanied by a book length insert with, among other things, a terrific bibliography. The professor, Catherine Scallen, is outstanding. (This set of Great Courses is produced by The Teaching Company.)

Just as my longing to visit this storied institution was reaching its peak, the opportunity arose for me to spend a week in London. I naturally took it.

The British Museum was about a half a block from my hotel. I was there once, many decades ago. It was the first place we went to – “we” being my sister-in-law Donna and myself. We spent an unforgettable day attending to its enchantments.

And speaking of enchantment….

Coronation of the Virgin, by Jacopo di Cione 1370-1


The Wilton Diptych 1395-99


Saints Jerome and John the Baptist 1428, by Masaccio (1401-1428).

Look at those dates! What a tragedy, the early loss of one so greatly gifted. His real name was Tommaso di Ser Giovanni di Simone; Masaccio was a nickname bestowed upon him Giorgio Vasari. In his ground-breaking work Lives of the Most Excellent (sometimes translated as ‘Eminent’) Painters, Sculptors, and Architects, Vasari describes the architect Filippo Brunelleschi‘s reaction to the news of Masaccio’s death:

It is said that when he heard the news Filippo Brunelleschi, who had been at great pains to teach Masaccio many of the finer points of perspective and architecture, was plunged into grief and cried: ‘We have suffered a terrible loss in the death of Masaccio.’

Vasari also says the following:

Although Masaccio’s works have always had a high reputation, there are those who believe, or rather there are many who insist, that he would have produced even more impressive results if his life had not ended prematurely when he was twenty-six. However, because of the envy of fortune, or because good things rarely last for long, he was cut off in the flower of his youth, his death being so sudden that there were some who even suspected that he had been poisoned.

Two Watermills and an Open Sluice, by Jacob van Ruisdael at Singraven  1560-2

Really brilliant landscapes like this one put me in transports. I want to be in that very place, or at least to powerfully imagine that I am.

A Man and a Woman, by Robert Campin ca. 1435


A Scene on the Ice near a Town, by Hendrick Avercamp ca. 1615


The Virgin of the Rocks, Leonardo da Vinci, 1483-86

Two versions of this painting exist: the one above, and one in the Louvre in Paris:

Virgin of the Rocks, Louvre 1483-86


Virgin of the Rocks, National Gallery, London 1495-1508

I read somewhere that the National Gallery version features ‘John’s traditional cruciform reed staff’ in order to differentiate between the two infants, as to which was John the Baptist and which, the Christ Child. (For more on this subject, see the Wikipedia entry.)

For whatever reason, I’ve never heretofore been able to respond to Leonardo’s art. Perhaps because of its iconic status and media overexposure, the Mona Lisa has never moved me. Of course I acknowledge its greatness, but for me this has always been an intellectual response rather than an emotional one. The same is true of Ginevra de’ Benci, though I well remember the excitement caused by the acquisition of this work by our own National Gallery in 1967.

(Demand, not to mention price, for Leonardo’s paintings remains stratospheric. Salvator Mundi, in recently restored condition, was just sold to a Saudi prince for $450.3 million dollars.)

Virgin of the Rocks affected me profoundly: the atmosphere created by the rocky seascape, the aura of holiness and stillness, the infants exchanging blessings, and above all, the beauty and serenity of the face of the Virgin – I found this painting incomparably beautiful. And deeply haunting as well.




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Best Books of 2017: Contemporary Crime Fiction, Part Two

January 3, 2018 at 3:11 pm (Best of 2017, Book review, books, Mystery fiction)

We’ve slipped over the finish line into 2018, so it behooves me to finish posting my “best reads” in crime fiction of the past year:

Old Bones by Cynthia Harrod-Eagles. A series that, by virtue of its wit, sympathetic cast of characters, and above all its self-effacing hero Bill Slider, has been an unadulterated delight since its inception back in 1991.

Cynthia Harrod-Eagles

Dungeon House Martin Edwards. Another winning series, by an author who’s also a distinguished scholar of the genre.

Skin and Bone by Robin Blake. An historical series of superior quality in which Blake narrates the exploits of Titus Cragg, coroner, and Luke Fidelis, a physician in 18th century Lancashire, England. People need to discover these marvelous novels!

Robin Blake

Stone Coffin by Kjell Eriksson. This Swedish series featuring Detectives Ann Lindell and Ola Haver is exceptionally well written and at times, genuinely moving. (Although Stone Coffin is the most recently published book in this series, it’s actually the earliest that’s been translated into English and is therefore a good place to begin.)

Kjell Erikkson

A Fine Line by Gianrico Carofiglio. I continue to champion this little-known high quality series set in Bari, Italy, and featuring the extremely appealing ‘avvocato’ Guido Guerrieri. (Carofiglio’s nonseries novel The Silence of the Waves is also very much worth reading.)

Gianrico Carofiglio

Magpie Murders by Anthony Horowitz. For sheer delicious enjoyment, this one was the big winner.

Trace by Archer Mayor. This is number twenty-eight in a series I’ve been following for years. Also I’ve felt a special bond with this author ever since I stood right next to him while ostensibly browsing the magazines at Onsite News in BWI  Thurgood Marshall Airport several years ago. (Sighting was later confirmed by means of a subsequent email exchange with the ever congenial Mayor.)

Archer Mayor

Fast Falls the Night by Julia Keller. I was deeply touched by the sufferings, both noble and ignominious, of the people of Acker’s Gap, West Virginia. I can do no better than  to quote the Kirkus Review of this novel: “Keller’s prose is so pure that her exploration of the desperate scourge of drugs and poverty and her forecast of a grim future for her heroine are a joy to read.”

Julia Keller

Paganini’s Ghost by Paul Adam. Recently reviewed by me in this space.



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‘Somewhere deep in the soul of the instrument was the indelible memory of that one great man.’ – Paganini’s Ghost, by Paul Adam

December 31, 2017 at 10:38 pm (Italy, Music, Mystery fiction)

This is a great mystery for lovers of both classical music and Italy. Gianni Castiglione is a luthier – a maker of violins and other  stringed instruments. He lives and works in Cremona, a city that has long been the center for this exacting art. Previous practitioners include Antonio Stradivari, Andrea Guarneri, and Andrea Amati. Instruments crafted by these past masters still command steep prices. In the ways that count, though, they are priceless.

Luthiers also condition and repair existing instruments, and it is in this capacity that Gianni has been sought out by Yevgeny Ivanov, a youthful violinist whose career is just taking off, and his imperious and overbearing mother, Ludmilla. The mystery begins with this seemingly straightforward encounter and gains in complexity until, I admit, I was having some trouble keeping track of the cast of characters and the twists and turns of the plot. But as is so often the case with this kind of crime fiction, it didn’t bother me. I was  so thoroughly engaged with the lore of the violin and its fascinating history, especially as it relates to that brilliant and tempestuous legend, Niccolo Paganini. Also helpful is the fact that Paul Adam’s prose is exceptionally fine. In this scene, Gianni is working on a violin that was once Paganini’s. He’s working under time constraints and has to get it right:

I was conscious of the time ticking by as I worked on the violin, but I tried not to let it disturb me. I also tried not to think of the status of the instrument. I had to regard it as an ordinary violin, not the violin that had belonged to the most celebrated virtuoso in history. But it wasn’t easy. Every time I touched it, I was aware that Paganini’s hands had been there  before mine. His fingers had held it; his chin had rested on the front plate; his breath had drifted over the varnish. Somewhere deep in the soul off the instrument was the indelible memory of that one great man.

Handling the violin gave me a strange feeling of transience. It had been made two centuries before I was born and it would survive long after I was gone. It wasn’t passing through my life; I was passing through its life, just as Paganini had passed through it.

Niccolo Paganini, by Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, 1819

Paul Adam studied law at Nottingham University before embarking on a career in journalism. He is the author of twelve novels for adults, including the two that currently comprise the Cremona series. He has also written the Max Cassidy Trilogy for young readers.

In the above bio, I could find no indication of where or when Adam’s deep love for, and knowledge of, the violin had come into his life. Fortunately, I found an interview in which he explained that he’d played the violin as a child and long been interested in its history and in the city of Cremona.

Paul Adam

I finished this novel several weeks ago, but it’s been brought vividly to mind by an extremely poignant essay I just read in The New Yorker. Entitled “A Tech Pioneer’s Final, Unexpected Act,” it is also about a young violinist and the power of music to exalt and to heal.


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