How I Miss P. D. James!

I know she led a long, rich and successful life, but how I miss P. D. James! Despite my long-standing aversion to the short story genre, I found James’ collection Sleep No More — Six Murderous Tales to be absolutely wonderful. These stories, which were published between 1973 and 2006, diverge from James’s usual sensitive, thoughtful mysteries starring Adam Dalgliesh. Unlike a full length mystery novel, these stories are written from the perspective of the actors rather than the detective. They are characterized by seemingly normal people going rogue and being astonishingly brutal about getting what they want. There is no agonizing. Some are written in the first person, which makes the amoral quality of them even more jarring. The plots are clever and are the main point of these tales. Personality is far less in the forefront than in a typical James novel. It is as if James came up with six interesting schemes for how murders were devised and committed and then simply wrote them down without belaboring how a detective might discover who did them. Since this is P. D. James, there is far more to it. She swiftly and effectively sketches compelling characters and settings and then she brutally presents the murder. These are well worth reading.

These stories also suggest that one way to write a mystery would be to start with scaffolding of a well thought out, clever pot and only then write the novel around it. I wonder if James did that. Anyway, these are great stories!


The Vermeer Interviews — Conversations with Seven Works of Art

Bob Raczka’s The Vermeer Interviews — Conversations with Seven Works of Art has be one of the coolest, most informative books I’ve read in a long time.  I found a lone copy secreted away in the children’s book section of the Frick Museum here in New York.  I am not a child and have no children to read to at this point, so I almost passed on it.  Thankfully my love of Vermeer overcame any age-appropriate related hesitation.  I realized that I was being an idiot and obviously had to buy this book.   Thank goodness I did.  The Vermeer Interviews is a classic and well worth reading by art lovers of any age.

The book’s premise is that the author Bob Raczka interviews the characters in seven Vermeer paintings.  He interviews the geographer, the milk maid, etc.   They respond with patience and humor.  They tell him what they are thinking and point out some of the compositional details of their paintings.  They talk about shape, light, color, tone and so many other aspects of their paintings.  They also give some background on the history and culture of the times as they discuss the objects in their pictures.   I particularly liked the way the interviewer kepy trying to nail down the precise meaning of each picture, only to have the subjects posit that the picture might mean any number of things and that perhaps Vermeer wanted to leave things open-ended.   Best of all, the quiet feeling behind Vermeer’s luminous paintings pervades these lovely interviews.

This book provides an imaginative introduction to art history and theory.  Raczka’s explanations and his gentle reminders that the viewer is free to consider multiple interpretations are very welcome and encouraging.  This book could be read to a young child as a gentle yet enthusiastic way of looking at art, particularly in connection with a visit to a museum.  My guess is that many elementary school readers could read it themselves.  As for adults, let’s just say that it is completely enjoyable and that it has informed my thinking about these paintings far better than any dry museum description could do.   I really appreciated the enthusiastic tutelage on Vermeer’s art.

Really, you need to read this book!  Also, I just Googled Bob Raczka, and it appears he has written quite a number of books, and many of them are art-related.  I can’t wait to read how he embraces Van Gogh!

Yet Another Little Known, Yet Very Consequential Woman –The Woman Who Smashed Codes

Jason Fagone’s The Woman Who Smashed Codes — A True Story of Love, Spies, and the Unlikey Heroine Who Outwitted America’s Enemies is a significant contribution to women’s history and to the history of code-breaking.  Elizebeth Friedman (1892-1980) carved out an amazing career for herself.  She was raised in a small town in the Midwest.  She only went to college because she insisted upon it.  Ironically, Swarthmore rejected here.   Upon graduation from a relatively obscure college,  Friedman insisted upon looking for a job befitting her talents and interests.  She had studied poetry and philosophy in college, so non-teaching jobs did not readily present themselves.  Undeterred, Friedman kept looking.  Code breaking wasn’t exactly on her radar screen, but through luck and perseverance she started working for a rich eccentric with an interest in code breaking as it related to Shakespeare.  Ultimately she broke from the eccentric’s private colony and moved on to crack bootlegging codes and then to breaking Nazi codes during the Second World War.  Very few people came close to being able to do what she and her similarly talented husband William Friedman were able to do, but their story — particularly her story is little known.  Happily J Edgar Hoover and his FBI come out looking vainglorious and feeble, as the the Coast Guard and Elizebeth Friedman shine.

The book is well written and extensively researched and provides a fascinating story about a woman most people have never encountered and whose tracks were pretty well covered by confidentiality agreements and the likes of J Edgar Hoover. Friedman herself contributed to her undervalued obscurity by generally avoiding attention and insisting that her husband was more worthy of notice.  Coming on the recent movie about Alan Turing, this is yet another important contribution to understanding how World War II espionage worked, on both sides.  This important biography also shines some light on what it was like to live and work in Washington during and the 1930’s and the war period.

Every time I run across a biography of a highly consequential women who worked in obscurity, I wonder how many more are out there.  Thank you, Mr. Fagone for bringing Elizebeth Friedman the attention she deserves.

The Story of Arthur Truluv — A Warm and Lovely Novel by Elizabeth Berg

Elizabeth Berg’s The Story of Arthur Truluv shows the benefits of unexpected friendships and connections.  Arthur Moses is a good man who steadfastly grieves the passing of his wife.  Arthur’s willingness to reach out to others in a sensitive way and to be open to others who reach out to him makes him one of the most lovable characters I’ve encountered in recent fiction.  Arthur isn’t a saint or conventionally heroic, but he is astute and compassionate.  He is, however exactly the right friend, for the bullied and forlorn 18 year old Maddy Harris.  Together they do good things.

The Story of Arthur Truluv reminded me a little of the charms of A Man Called Ove, but with fewer rough edges.  I can’t imagine anything better than to age like Arthur does — to befriend the friendless and help them find some happiness and peace.  It is tough to be as good as Arthur is without being smug or without being cloying, but Elizabeth Berg has deftly sketched a wonderful character and reminded me that I need to read more of her books.

Little Ladies — Bold Women in Black History, An Inspiring, Informative and Very Important Book for All of Us

You really need to get this book, for the children you know and for yourself.  You will learn something, and you will be inspired!

Biographies are my favorite kind of history — always more fun and memorable than lists of battles and elections.  As a child, I read probably hundreds of biographies published in the Childhood of Famous Americans series.  Those highly entertaining books gave me my first understanding of  American history from all sorts of perspectives.  I particularly focused on the books about women who were famous for what they themselves had done, as opposed to those whose fame derived from their husbands, inspired me to think about what was possible.  Their stories were really important to me.
Vashti Harrison’s wonderful Little Leaders — Bold Women in Black History is similarly important and inspiring.  Little Leaders is written for children, but everyone should read it.  Really.  I guarantee you will learn something and you will be impressed.  I wish this book had been around when my daughters were young because it is designed to  spawn countless conversations about the struggles these women faced, the difficulties they surmounted, the sources of their inspirations and then their amazing contributions.   Harrison offers up capsule biographies and appealing illustrations of 40 remarkable black women.   The title Little Leaders, together with the simple illustrations of these women as girls, make the point that all the featured women started out as girls, and that their childhood interests often led directly to their later achievements.  These stories also provide lots of good background information about what life what like for these women and others of their time.  The happy result is that the reader ends up knowing a lot more than just what happened to a particular individual.  This is such a good way to inform children about their history and to provide context for their own times and their own opportunities and responsibilities.

Harrison includes famous women, as well as women who may not be so famous but clearly deserve to be.  It is no criticism of the book that I kept thinking of other black women who might have been included.  In fact the books just made me think of a whole host of people that deserve to be better known and celebrated.

This book belongs in every child’s library.

Last Boat to Yokohama — The Life and Legacy of Beate Sirota Gordon

Here is the first review of 2018.  

This little book is an odd conglomeration of material surrounding the life of the late Beate Sirota Gordon.  Beate was the daughter of Leo Sirota, the Jewish Russian/Ukrainian emigre pianist who ended up in Japan from the 192o’s through the end of World War II.  The material about how he and his wife Augustine ended up in Japan and why they elected to stay in Japan through World War II provides an anecdotal glimpse into how people coped with an unstable Europe and Japan’s global ambitions.  Beate herself spent a great deal of her childhood in Japan, where she became the family’s principal Japanese interpreter.   She then travelled to the United States for her education as a teenager and attended Mills College.  She also began monitoring Japanese radio broadcasts and doing other Japanese language related work during the war.  

What happened after the war is truly remarkable.  Beate returned to Japan and managed to locate her parents, who had lost their home and been interned during the war.  Then, in her early twenties, Beate proceeded to help write the new Japanese constitution.  Specifically she drafted in large part the Japanese constitution’s equal rights for women clause, which provided Japanese women with more specific rights than anything the United States has produced.  Remember, we couldn’t even pass the Equal Rights Amendment in the United States.   Beate’s own observations from spending her childhood in Japan, combined with a thoughtful, research-oriented approach served her well.  She consulted constitutions from countries all over the world before settling on an approach for Japan.  This book is far too brief to consider what it meant for Westerners to impose a constitution upon Japan, but clearly post-World War II was an unique era in many ways.

Beate Sirot Gordon spent the remainder of her life based in New York, where she served as the director of performing arts first at the Japan Society and then at the Asia Society.  focused on bringing the culture of the Far East to the United States.   As just one example, through her efforts the iconic dancers Eiko and Koma were introduced to the United States.

I highly recommend this somewhat disjointed, but highly interesting book.  Also, please note that Ms. Gordon wrote her own book, The Only Woman in the Room, which I imagine is well worth reading.

A Murder of Magpies — A Highly Entertaining Mystery Set in London’s Publishing World

I loved Janet Flanders’ A Murder of Magpies, a clever mystery set up London’s publishing world.  Samantha (“Sam”) Clair is a marvelous protagonist.  Sam is an established, somewhat jaded middle-aged editor with few illusions about her authors.  Because she is a woman, middle-aged, competent and unflashy…..  Well you can imagine how she is frequently treated and ignored.  When a friend goes missing, Sam she proceeds with curiosity and the help of her equally accomplished and exasperating mother and a rumpled detective.   Sam’s reactions feel so very human and she looks at things just a little differently because of her own experiences and intellect.  The London setting and the politics of the publishing and fashion worlds supply additional substance to this fun mystery.  Janet Flanders is clever, funny and charming, and deftly inserts sly feminist touches.

This is the kind of mystery I particularly like.  It has great characters with unexpected depth, courage and talents.  The settings are interesting, as is the plot.  As it happens, the fact that A Murder of Magpies is a mystery  is less inportant than the characters and how they interact with each other and their environments.  This is a fun, decidedly non-noir story, and I recommend it.

Crimes of the Father — Thomas Keneally at his Best

Thomas Keneally’s Crimes of the Father is a masterful novel about child abuse committed by Catholic priests in Australia in the 1970’s.  Abuse is the central focus of this very moving novel, which looks at the problem from the perspective of the 1990’s, when more and more people, including the clergy, were coming to terms with the details and extent of this longstanding nightmare.  The perpetual suffering of the victims and their families is heart-breaking and numbing all at the same time.  The cynical response of the Catholic Church is all too familiar — it concedes nothing unless caught dead to rights.

Several things stand out.  From the the perspective of the victims and their families, there is a tremendous amount of anger — anger at the perpetrators and anger at the Church.  And then there is the reaction of the Catholic Church.  The Church establishment engages in willful denial and an aggressive defense designed to take advantage of the victims at every turn.   Unless it gets caught in situations where denial is impossible.

Fortunately all clerics are not villains.  In fact the point of entry for this novel is the return of a middle-aged priest for a visit back home to Australia after years of exile abroad.  This priest is fully aware of the problem; he’s studied it; he’s even lectures on it.  He thinks the Church needs to change.  Although he hadn’t planned it, once back in Australia the priest gets swept up in the discovery of yet another very powerful, abusive priest.  One of the important issues studied by this novel is the cost to this priest of taking action.  It’s never good for one’s career to be the whistleblower in a powerful organization that can crush dissidents like bugs.   And it’s also hard when you know that innocent people will be hurt by the disclosure.

One of Thomas Keneally’s greatest strengths as a novelist is his ability to study character.  Why do people act as they do in the face of adversity?  Why do some people act with courage and against self interest?  These compelling, universal themes are explored with empathetic depth in Crimes of the Father, which I highly recommend.

And by the way, if you haven’t read Keneally’s Schindler’s List, you really should.  This amazing novel brilliantly zeroes in on why Oskar Schindler decides to risk his own life and save Jews.  There was nothing obvious about this altruistic decision.  In its own way, the novel Schindler’s List is more interesting than the movie.  Why people are or choose to be courageous is an eternally fascinating subject and well worth studying in these challenging times.

Why Not Say What Happened, a Memoir by Ivana Lowell, is an Interesting Read

This was a strange book.  It was a gift that had been sitting on my shelf for a few years, and I finally decided to read it.  It was both repelling and fascinating.  It was also super timely!

Let’s just say that Ivana Lowell, in this book published in 2010, may have been one of the very first women to complain of and describe Harvey Weinstein’s sexually abusive behavior.  That alone makes the book memorable, but wait, there’s more!

There is really no excuse for my fascination with royalty and the aristocracy, particularly the English aristocracy.  Ivana Lowell is an aristocrat.  She was born in New York 1966, to Caroline Blackwood, who was a writer and also the daughter of Maureen, the Marchioness of Dufferin and Ava (as well as an heiress to the Guinesss fortune).  Ivana’s father was less certain as her mother either didn’t care to know or, more likely, chose to mislead her daughter about who exactly her father was.  Who does that?   That lone fact creates an absolutely appalling image of a self-absorbed, alcoholic mother who preferred her own dramas to the demands of mothering.  Ivana’s mother actually died (and had plenty of warning that she was dying) without telling her daughter who her father was.  

As an interesting literary note, one of Blackwood’s husbands was the American poet Robert Lowell, who seems to have been a loving, if distracted and unreliable, stepfather.  Ivana Lowell bears his name, but not his genes.

Ivana’s mother is a central character in this book, but this is no Mommy, Dearest.  Caroline Blackwood suffered through her own tough yet pampered childhood with a terribly self-absorbed mother and a social millieau tht wasn’t exactly child-friendly.  One wouldn’t have expected her to become mother of the year, but still!  She was intelligent; she had resources.  Sadly she seldom applied those gifts to parenting.  There was an utterly self-absorbed, twisted side to her, but the main thing that stands out is that she took no ongoing responsibility for her children.  That said, Ivana has a remarkable amount of affection for her mother.  She is apparently quite amused by her and has fond recollections of the most outrageous acting out, even as she now seems to understand how inappropriate and cruel some of it was.

Now that I’ve established that I’m not judgmental…….  Ivana seems more easily understood.  Not only did she have some spectacularly appalling parenting, but she was sexually abused and also terribly burned as a child.  (At least her mother seems to have been supportive in helping her daughter with her burns and scarring.)  It’s no surprise Ivana became an alcoholic, given her family and her circumstances.  Ivana didn’t exactly major in responsibility for much of her life.  Yet this wonderful book shows someone trying to come to terms with what she has experienced and what she hopes to be.  She acknowledges her scars and is resolved to move on.  She sees her setbacks as understandable, but remains curiously optimistic and determined to be there for her own daughter.  I ended up with a lot of respect for Ivana’s sense of humor, her humility, her painful honesty and her ultimate hopefulness that things could work out for her and her daughter.

This is an odd book, with lots of peculiar segues.  It is certainly entertaining, but it has unsuspected depth.   I’m glad I read it, and I keep thinking about it.

Wonderstruck is a movie you really need to see!

We just saw the amazing movie Wonderstruck, which is based on a novel of the same name by Brian Selznick, who also wrote the film’s screenplay.  This is a marvelously New York movie starring Julianne Moore and three amazing child actors.  Millicent Simmons, who is deaf, gives a strong and compelling performance as a deaf girl who refuses to settle for a constricted life.  It is such a pleasure to watch a strong, young actress who doesn’t play a “sweet child” or a “conniving temptress.”  A number of other deaf actors were incorporated in the cast.  I was so caught up in the story that I only occasionally noticed that much of the movie has no dialogue.  The action is enough, and by foregoing dialogue, the movie draws you into the world of the deaf.  Oakes Fegley, who plays an orphan on the run, and Jordan Michael, the local boy who befriends him, also given strong and unaffected performances.  

And then there is New York  —  a very realistic bustling city that can seem overwhelming.  The Museum of Natural History figures strongly as does a real-life used and rare bookstore on the Upper West Side and the Queens Museum of all places.  Wonderstruck is a period piece with two periods —  the time of silent movies and then fifty years later.  It all works, and New York shown off to perfection.

This movie’s reviews were mixed, but I thought it was one of the very best movies I’ve seen this year.