Friday, May 29, 2020

Book Review: A Trick of the Light by Louise Penny 2011

A Trick of the Light is pretty traditional Louise Penny.  The plot centers around Clara, who has finally struck it rich in the art world and secured a major one woman show, only to discover on the night of her celebratory party that there is a body in her garden. Inspector Gamache rides to the rescue again in Three Pines-- a community that seems attract murders and murderers like a super magnet going after iron filings. 

Chiaroscuro, the play of light and dark in Clara's in Clara’s portrait of Ruth Yardo is the philosophical hinge that stitches together the various plot lines.   We have artists striving for notice and fame. We have venal agents and gallery owners fighting to represent them. We have recovering alcoholics littering the landscape. And finally we have Gamache and Jean Guy still suffering from the darkness of their various guilts over the horrid factory shooting that ended with Gamach and Jean Guy wounded and four Surete agents killed. Amidst all this sadness the question continues to be Is there hope at the end of evil or is their always evil lingering at the bottom of hope? 

I am not sure why I did not find all this compelling. Maybe all this talk about artists and their egos is just too much for me because it reminds me of my opinion of the musical Chorus Line, which I feel is way too self indulgent. Maybe the patterns are getting too obvious even if the books continue to be well written. We have another denouement in a violent storm.  We have the usual surprise turn of events to unmask the killer. We have lots more good eats and drink in the Bistro lovingly described. We take walks and sit on the park bench with Ruth. Are there just too many nasty twisted characters?

Reading her books in order is almost a necessity but I do look forward to the next book's change of scenery, which is a Monastery and not Three Pines. 

Tuesday, May 26, 2020

So Nice to be Back in Monmouth

How many times have you been pleasantly excited to hear someone using a chain saw in the middle of the night?  Well we were last night.  A nasty little storm blew in and in a blink of an eye our power was gone. It was pouring rain and we could hear a loud buzzing and popping accompanied by  reddish orange flames right out front of the house.

I stepped out onto our front porch and looked two doors east and saw a huge tree splayed out across the street and blocking both lanes.  It had taken down the power lines as it fell.

The storm passed but it took an hour for someone to pull a switch and cut the power on the arcing breaks in front of our house.

The tree guys did some basic sawing in the middle of the night and then a whole passel of trucks descended at around 4:00 AM.  The break was repaired, the wires restrung, and we had power again before 9:00 AM this morning. 


No harm done except for the burned spot on our lawn.

Gee, we are really enjoying our welcome back to Monmouth.


Saturday, May 23, 2020

Book Review Bury Your Dead by Louise Penny

Bury Your Dead  Louise Penny’s fifth novel in the Inspector Gamache series  ought to be a duo with her fourth entry,  A Brutal Telling,  since it ties up several  hanging  chads left over from the last book. 
In this offering Inspector Gamache is still on leave after the disastrous shootout that left several Surete agents dead and left both him and his chief assistant, Jean Paul Beauvoir  hospitalized. Though both are now reasonably recovered physically, the mental wounds remain.   Gamache searches for solace in Quebec City with his old boss Emile, but quickly finds himself caught up in the murder of a publicity seeking archaeologist in the basement of a staid old library. 

While Gamache begins an informal search for the killer in wintry Quebec City, he assigns  Jean Paul to take a vacation in the good old village of Three Pines where the murder of the hermit from the last book has now left Gamache thinking that he may have arrested, tried, and convicted the wrong man as the killer. 

Penny now masterfully seques between the two searches. We see Olivier, the Bistro owner from the last book, exonerated and we see the killer in Quebec City caught and dealtt with.  At the end the world returns to what passes for normal in the mind of the ever anguished  Gamache. 

Along the way we also learn a great deal more about the deadly shootout that continues to haunt the Inspector and there is a nice bonus accruing in the amount of Quebec history that Penny has marshaled for us.  Stylistically she is once again a master descriptor of weather and nature.  Over and over the snow and cold outside is contrasted with the warmth of roaring fires on the inside.  Blizzards seem to descend just as the suspense rises and the solutions near. Good eats, tastily described and joyfully consumed,  also seem to add a pleasant gastronomic accompaniment to the narrative. 

I found Bury Your Dead, quite satisfying, but would note again that it does pay to read Penny's novels in order—particularly this one.

Saturday, May 16, 2020

Book review Spy Mistress

Spy Mistress by William Stevenson  2007

I have had some interest in WWII intelligence operations ever since I confirmed that my Uncle John was a spy during that war. The confirmation came partially from a box of materials sent to me after his death and then from now unclassified government files of his employment records with the OSS. He probably only took an occasional cloak and dagger trip because his work was primarily analytic in his academic background area of far eastern anthropology and sociology.  Uncle John’s story has plenty of gaps and is still waiting to be told in detail. There is definitely a book in there somewhere.

This brings me to the book I have just finished titled Spy Mistress by William Stevenson. It is an outline of the actions and career of Vera Atkins, a Romanian Jew who became one of the leaders in England’s  WWII secret service. She grew up in Eastern Europe and changed her name when she settled in Britain in the 1930’s. And just like my Uncle John, there are gaps in her story right up to the present day.  

Atkins successfully hid her Jewish background and rose to power in the intelligence community in spite of being a woman in an almost completely male organization.  The book tells the story of how Atkins maneuvered her way into essentially running the anti-Nazi resistance in Europe during and after the war. It also covers her relationships with several men including General “Wild Bill” Donovan, the head of America’s newly formed OSS.  One of the many things I learned was just how strong the Appeasement movement and the  virulent anti-Semitism were in the pre-war era. Churchill was not in power yet and had major difficulty trying to convince both his own countrymen and allies of the danger of Hitler.  When Bismarck said that Hitler was just a mob leader, Churchill replied with some fascinating lines from Kipling that also seem compelling in today’s political climate.

“This is the sorrowful story
Told when the twilight fails
And the monkeys walk together
Holding their neighbor’s tails.”

At another point Churchill returned to Kipling to comment that “These appeasers feed the crocodile in the hope of being the last to get eaten.”  The early chapters are devoted to the lead up to the war and then it turns to the fight to formulate the  SOE (Special Operations Executive), which was charged with training, equipping, and organizing armed resistance in Nazi occupied countries.  Atkins began her career as a kind of an administrative assistant and slowly gravitated into leadership as her knowledge and skills became evident.  The old line military intelligence held little truck with sabotage and guerilla warfare, but Atkins and her associates supported the use of so called "closework" that followed the philosophy of the Greek physician Hippocrates  who said “A desperate disease requires a dangerous remedy”  

The SOE was heavily involved in the insertion of agents and the organization of resistance cells as well as developing unusual tools for transmitting messages and for bomb making and other devices for killing or maiming the enemy.  One project involved the insertion of explosives into piles of animal feces. If this sounds James Bondish, it might be well to note that Ian Flemming was an important figure in the SOE hierarchy.   

I must admit that I was not aware of how much pushback there was against guerilla war in occupied areas and how much anti-Semitism sentiment there was in the upper levels of the British government. Throughout the war, even after Churchill came to power and the USA entered the fray, the British authorities did not want to send Jews onto the continent even though they had the most experience in being vilified and murdered and had a real reason to engage in physical payback.

Atkins survived the war and lived on in relative obscurity for many years. Some of her story was not told until after her death.  I wish the book had a somewhat more vivid style and a more compelling narrative structure. Events are often tied to individuals in Europe whose names and background are unfamiliar at least to me. This can bog things down and tempt the reader to skip things rather than participating in a cohesive progression. My guess is that works like this end up being read by fiction writers who then build their own more engaging and suspenseful stories of heroic actions.
I give it a 3.  But I did learn some things. 

Wednesday, May 06, 2020

The Travel: and Quarantine Blues


We start with three shots of Paris taken over 60 years ago.  It was a Paris as seen by two young travelers on their first trip to Europe.

The uncharted waters of today are full of predictions for the new normal.  For instance, there have been a number of recent news items predicting that the world will not see a recovery of international tourism and travel for at least another year and maybe more.  I find myself worrying now, admittedly pessimistically, that the world of travel my wife and I have experienced and enjoyed over time may be a thing of the past.  

There are thousands of photos in my computer.  Some show family or local events, but most are like the three above and depict our travels. Those photos now seem a bit sad, not just because Notre Dame is no longer like that, but because the travel we have known for years has been truncated and replaced by empty airports and anchored ships.  It will now take courage, in addition to the  price of a ticket, for travelers to jump on a plane or ship in order to touch the outside world and its people.  The current situation creates an incredible loss--particularly for today's younger generations. 

It no longer seems ludicrous to ask if we have the courage to take a trip next month or even next year. Will we have to wear a mask every time we come closer than six feet to another human being?  How will "social distancing" affect traveling and the traveler?  Will viewing the Tower of London or the Pyramids be the same when you are standing alone rather than in the proximate company of other fellow travelers or locals. Will the serendipitous mealtime conversations fostered by close table quarters and or adventuresome food choices disappear? These are now all  questions to ponder.

While I realize that there are millions of folks who cannot afford or even conceive of traveling, I do grieve for the potential loss of experience that many now face. My wife and I still consider the three month trek through Europe that we took in the early sixties to be one of the critical events in our lives. Will it be available again in that carefree manner that only the young are capable of? Will   retirees who have saved carefully for years in order to have the ability to use their new deserved leisure for travel now be afraid to do what they had postponed? I certainly hope not. 

Travel opens the door of possibilities and widens horizons.  It can enable you to see the world beyond your own front door and your own community. To change the metaphor to one more current, travel can help cure the disease of parochialism that still impedes our lives and fosters our divisions in far too many ways. For that reason alone a vaccine cannot come too soon. 



Monday, May 04, 2020

Laugh out Loud at Hermitage, Wat, and Some Murder or Other

                                                     Hermitage, Wat, and Some Murder or Other
                                                                  by  Howard of Warrick   

Somewhere I saw a blurb for this book that called it “Norman Nonsense.” What an apt description. The series features a bumbling lovable medieval monk named Hermitage, and two sidekicks-- an itinerant weaver of dirty tapestries named Wat, and a fiery young girl named Gwen who is masquerading as a boy.  In the first book Hermitage has been sort of accidently named the King’s investigator of murders and in the ensuing volumes he and his little group continue to travel the Wessex countryside solving bizarre crimes.

In this one they are sent to Norman France and are met almost immediately with a strange assortment of bodies.  One is a blacksmith whose head has been replaced by an anvil and another is a wheelwright who has been penetrated by the spoke of a wheel that he has been built into. What makes these outings enjoyable is that they look at first glance to be similar to the Brother Cadfael series, but they turn out to be wacky Brother Cadfael parodies. Cadfael investigates in dead seriousness (pardon the pun), but Warrick’s characters come right out of Laurel and Hardy or the Marx Brothers. The villains are horribly bloodthirsty beyond words, the main characters are likable bunglers, and the rest of the world around them seems to come from central casting for  looney tunes. The dialog style abounds with jokey historical references and clever plays on words. 

When taken as a whole there is a nice relief here from the more serious murder mystery genre. You might even say it provides relief from serious reading in general and god knows we Just might need some of that in these trying times.  


Sunday, May 03, 2020

Took the Camera this Morning

We took the camera on our morning walk today.  This is what we saw. Outside the front door is the wash and the mountains.

There was a nice Gambel's  Quail near the back fence.

Lots of trees in the wash. A mesquite on the left, the yellow in the back are the flowers of the Palo Verde. The pinkish flowers on the right are on a tree we haven't identified.  But it is still pretty.

Most of the flowering bushes are not indigenous to the area and we don't know their names. They are colorful nevertheless.


The red buds on this one open up to reveal tiny yellow flowers.

These are the flowers on the Honey Mesquite. There are a lot of them around here.

There are 144 units in our little gated community. This is the most splendidly decorated doorway of them all.                                                   

The covered parking sheds make great shady nesting areas for the multitude of sparrows but the road around the community is not the best place for bird watching.

If you look down at the ground on any walk now,  you will usually scare up some lizards.  They spook so easily and move so fast that it is hard to get a decent photo of them. With the big camera I did manage to get a few that aren't too blurry today.

This is a Western Whiptail we think. He or she is surrounded by Palo Verde flowers. They are now falling like snow.

We think this may be an Arizona Alligator Lizard.

Not sure about this guy.
 Time to head back to our apartment for our second cup of coffee.

Hold it. Can you see the lizard looking like a curved stick in the midst of more fallen Palo Verde flowers?

He crawled up on the curb and we think it is another Arizona Western Whiptail and the best lizard shot of the morning.

And finally my favorite photo for this walk. This is probably a variety of Agave. The little yellow dots are actually more palo verde flowers that have hung up on the spines.


Thanks for walking with us this morning. It was nice around 7:30 but it will be close to 100 degrees by noon.  We have taken to not walking in the afternoon any more.  I wonder why.


Friday, May 01, 2020

The Brutal Telling by Louise Penny

The Brutal Telling by Louise Penny

Inspector Gamache and his team return again to the bucolic village of Three Pines in Louise Penny’s fifth outing with the intrepid chief of the Canadian Surete’s Homicide Division. They arrive to solve the death of a mysterious unidentified man and meet up again with the familiar and often eccentric cast of characters who inhabit the village. There is the artist couple Peter and Clara. There is old acerbic Ruth and her pet duck Rosa, Myrna the bookstore lady, and,of course, the gay couple Gabri and Olivier, who run the town hangout called the Bistro. Things get more complicated when the peripatetic corpse appears in the Bistro dining room only to be then discovered to have been moved from the front hall of some new residents of the community.  It appears ultimately to be the body of a longtime hermit who lives in the woods outside of town and the developing clues begin to point more and more to Gamache’s friend and Bistro owner Olivier. As the case against Olivier deepens we get some heavy doses of contemporary injustice issues ranging from gay prejudice to the mistreatment of native peoples. There is also plenty of time devoted to talk and plot action centered on literature, art, and music.  You might even say that the book swerves toward  becoming a meditation on solitude, greed, regret, and conscience. A quote about chairs taken from Thoreau’s Walden pops up so many times that it might it might easily appear as a general heading above the title. "One for solitude, two for friendship, three for society.” It also may be that it takes on special meaning for this reader who read the book while enduring the Covid 19 lockdown. There are plenty of pluses and minuses about solitude and loneliness.  

I had no trouble becoming engrossed in the book particularly its marvelous evocation of nature’s enveloping wholeness and its relationship to native civilizations. Penny is also a master of integrating the complexity of the lives of the minor characters into the story.  I only wish that she had managed to make the central premise of the plot a bit more convincing. It is just a real stretch that the unidentified murder victim had managed to clear and take over a small slice of land located on someone else’s property less than a half hour’s walk from town and then build a log cabin on it, furnish it with priceless antiques, clear and tend a vegetable garden on the premises, and still keep both his identity and literally his presence secret for twenty years. It also struck me as more humorous than convincing that two fairly reasonable adults would suddenly in the same evening resort to trundling a dead body about the countryside and dumping it in each other’s business establishment. 

In sum give this one a 4 for its philosophical content but only a 3 for its plotting premise.