2018 Book Summary

A la Jessamyn

number of books read in 2018: 63
number of books read in 2017: 52
number of books read in 2016: 71
number of books read in 2015: 54
number of books read in 2014: 52
number of books read in 2013: 47
number of books read in 2012: 50
number of books read in 2011: 55
number of books read in 2010: 34
number of books read in 2009: 74
number of books read in 2008:
number of books read in 2007:
number of books read in 2006:
number of books read in 2005: 37
number of books read in 2004: 46
number of books read in 2003: 40
number of books read in 2002: 30+ (3 months forgot to count)

2018 stats

average read per month: 5.25 books
average read per week: 1.2 books
number read in worst month: 1 (February)
number read in best month: 8 (June, August)

percentage by male authors: 14% (9 books)
percentage by female authors: 86% (54 books)

fiction as percentage of total: 92% (58 books)
crime fiction as percentage of fiction total: 85% (49 of 58 books)
non-fiction as percentage of total: 8% ( books)

percentage of total liked: 57% (36 books)
percentage of total so-so: 37% (23 books)
percentage of total disliked: 6% (4 books)

Notes:

Many more “so-so” books this year than usual, and ten or so were Ngaio Marsh books; I read 31 of her 32 Inspector Alleyn series this year — one book left for 2019! I like her writing, characters, many of her plots, but the books set in the theatre for the most part didn’t appeal to me as much as the others. I particularly liked Death in a White Tie (1938, 7th), Death of a Peer (1940, 10th), Scales of Justice (1955, 18th) and Clutch of Constables (1969, 25th).

My favourite books of the year were Fair and Tender Ladies (1988) by Lee Smith, which I didn’t expect to really enjoy but it’s written so well; A Thousand Acres (1992) by Jane Smiley; and Peculiar Ground (2018) by Lucy Hughes-Hallett, a sumptuous, ‘densely patterned’ historical saga that’s not my usual type at all. I’ve also really enjoyed reading almost all of Marsh’s series this year, even the ones I didn’t like as much.

Biggest disappointments: Two of the five non-fiction titles, Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis (2016) by J.D. Vance, quite a let-down after Fair & Tender Ladies, which was so much better about a similar topic, and Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge and the Teachings of Plants (2013) by Robin Wall Kimmerer, which everyone else in my bookgroup loved (her writing felt forced to me). And also the novel Tangerine (2018) by Christine Mangan, which was media hyped, seemed interesting in summary, and started off well but then became both predictable in plot and unfathomable in character (Donna Tartt’s The Secret History was so much better).

Full book list.

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Books Read 2018

Once again (2017, 2016, 2015, 2014, 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009, 2005, 2004, 2003, and 2002), I’m keeping track of what I read this year. I’m always looking for recommendations for fiction, crime fiction series, and non-fiction titles!

January

Nature’s Everyday Mysteries: A Field Guide to the World in Your Backyard (1993) by Sy Montgomery. Short essays (3-6 pp each), organized by season, about the natural world of plants, animals, weather, soil, underwater life, and so on. Some of the essays felt like they ended abruptly,  but most were interesting and informative with an easy-to-read style. My favourites were those on lightning, skunks, beavers, and geology.

Murder for Christmas (1949/2017) by Francis Duncan, a cozy Mordecai Tremaine mystery. Tremaine, an amateur detective, is invited to spend Christmas at a country house in England, whose owner, Benedict Grame, likes to play Father Christmas, complete with full costumes and presents placed on the tree on Christmas Eve for each guest. But from the start, Tremaine feels that the whole tableau is not quite as it’s presented, and when Father Christmas is murdered right next to the tree on Christmas Eve, he and the police have lots of questions for the uneasy guests.  I quite liked it.

Fair and Tender Ladies (1988) by Lee Smith. For a bookgroup, along with Hillbilly Elegy. Really excellent fiction about the life of Ivy Rowe, from her time as a girl in a big family growing up on Blue Star Mountain in western Virginia (Appalachian mountain country), around the turn of the 20th century, through her life into the mid-1970s, all told through her letters to various people. Ivy’s confiding voice is authentic, and Ivy herself is impetuous, poetic, sometimes naive and sometimes insightful. Her character profiles of family, friends, and others are adroit. Her writing reflects the poverty and hardship of living hand-to-mouth on a hardscrabble farm, the beauty and consolation of nature in rural places, both the warmth of community and the squalor and ugliness of the coal mining town she lives in for a time, and how life changed in Appalachia in the 70+ years of her life (including the introduction of electricity, radio, TV, and store-bought clothes and foods). Highly recommended.

The Old Wine Shades (2006) by Martha Grimes, a re-read of this 20th book in the DCI Richard Jury series, introducing us to Harry Johnson, who appears in later novels in the series. Johnson tells Jury — on suspension due to events in the previous book, The Winds of Change, a story about the disappearance of a woman, her autistic young son, and their dog Mungo (but the dog comes back), which leads him and Melrose Plant to investigate. Quantum physics plays a role in the story. I particularly appreciate Grimes’ wry sense of humour and her depiction of animals and children in these novels.

Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis (2016) by J.D. Vance. After reading Lee Smith’s Fair & Tender Ladies, this book was a bit of a let-down. Prosaic, a bit boring and repetitive, Vance’s memoir takes us from his chaotic childhood — multiple men in his mother’s life, lots of screaming and fighting that are part of the hillbilly code apparently, the unpredictability and lack of stability of his home life, his mother’s opiate addiction, the family’s irrational behaviour of spending their way into the poorhouse, etc — through his success, finally, in school, acceptance to Yale Law School, and his life as a conservative hedge fund manager (and on the book tour circuit) since.  He makes a number of points, including that the working poor didn’t like Obama because he was an elite (pretty much no mention of race, which seems highly disingenuous) and that people from Appalachia need to stop cutting off their nose to spite their face, stop making irrational choices because it feels good to lash out.  What’s clear in his story, and he does emphasise this a bit, is that without a lot of luck — a lot of encouragement from teachers and mainly his hillbilly grandmother, and a lot of financial help, emotional support, practical advice, Yale old-boy networking — he’d never have succeeded in the way he has.  His time in the Marines also mattered because it was the first time he saw people in much worse conditions than those he was raised in, yet with a good attitude and without his resentment of rich people. This interview with Elizabeth Catte (author of What You Are Getting Wrong About Appalachia) is a good critique of the book’s thrust.

February

The Legacy: A Thriller (2014/2018US) by  Yrsa Sigurðardóttir, crime fiction set in Iceland. The book flap says it’s the first installment in a new series featuring psychologist Freyja and police officer Huldar, who in this book are thrown together when a young child is found in the bedroom where her mother has been gruesomely murdered; but they have met once before, hooking up for a one-night stand after meeting in a bar (and in the morning, Huldar crept out before she woke up), so there is some tension. The crime plot is complex and as the title suggests, the action that erupts now has been many years in the making (though triggered by a recent event), born perhaps of a few decisions that were the best that could be made at the time. Characters are well-drawn, even those we know are going to meet their end in a torturous way a few pages later. Looking forward to the next in the series.

March

Snowblind (2010/U.S. 2015) by Ragnar Jónasson, in the “Dark Iceland” series featuring rookie cop Ari Thór Arason, new to the tiny town of Siglufjörður, a small fishing village on the northern coast of Iceland, near the Arctic Circle. Although nothing ever happens there, soon after his arrival in the winter of 2008-2009 things start to happen, including the aged co-head of the dramatic society dying after a fall down some stairs and a woman found in the never-ending snow bleeding from stab wounds. Meanwhile, Ari Thór has left his girlfriend behind in Reyjkavik and is interested in another woman in Siglufjörður. I liked it until the end, where I felt it fell flat.

Nightblind (2015/U.S. 2016) by Ragnar Jónasson, in the “Dark Iceland” series featuring rookie cop Ari Thór Arason, set in the tiny town of Siglufjörður, Iceland. This is apparently the fourth book in the series, but the others aren’t available yet here in the U.S. Ari Thór’s old boss has moved to Reyjkavik but soon returns to help solve the case when the new boss is shot. The current plot is interspersed with diaries from a man in a psychiatric ward, date unknown, and of course the stories dovetail at the end. Not particularly thrilling or gripping, and again the end was a let down. I like the sparsely descriptive quality of the writing, though.

Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge and the Teachings of Plants (2013) by Robin Wall Kimmerer, for a group. Everyone else in my group loved it but I felt Kimmerer was trying too hard to sound poetic. There were a few chapters I really liked (I gave the book to someone else and can’t recall them now — one about moss in the rain) but mostly it felt repetitious, overdone, and tedious to me. I think the idea was to meld and/or compare her experiences as a woman embracing the indigenous, traditional stories and rituals with a scientist looking at data.

A Thousand Acres (1992) by Jane Smiley. Novel, read for bookgroup. Set in rural Iowa over a few decades, the novel features Ginny Cook & her husband Ty; Ginny’s sister Rose Cook and her husband Pete; their other sister Caroline Cook, a city slicker lawyer who lives in Des Moines; and their father, Daddy (Larry), who’s not easy to get along with. Two things happen that trigger changes in all their lives: Daddy decides to deed his property to his daughters; and Jess Clark, a neighbor draft-dodger who’s been away on the west coast, returns after 13 years to try to mend his relationship with his father. It’s a poignant, King Lear-ish story (even down to the letters that begin the first names of Ginny/Goneril, Rose/Regan, Caroline/Cordelia, and Larry/Lear) that also reminded me of Wendell Berry’s novels, with the sharp dividing line between those who remain on the farm and those who leave — and those who wish they could leave and those who leave but come back.  Themes include gratitude and ingratitude and how they’re communicated and understood; the importance of appearances and the way that being known in a small community shapes personality and actions; sibling rivalry; marital conflict and the silences and secrets that often mark it; revenge and rebellion; the vagaries of memory; the differences in the way that men and women suffer; condemnation vs. pity toward someone who’s tyrannical.

Mephisto Waltz (2018) by Frank Tallis: #7 in the Liebermann Papers crime series set around the turn of the 20th century in Vienna, featuring psychoanalyst Dr Max Liebermann — single, but now with a live-in lover, the scientist Amelia Lydgate — and his friend, the married father and detective Oskar Rheinhardt of the security service. Not quite as good as most of the others, because there were too many disparate threads that were confusing and probably extraneous. The plot concerns anarchists who, believing they are working toward world peace, the end of poverty, and some kind of equality of gender and personhood, act to assassinate emperors to destroy empires. Newfangled crime tools like fingerprinting and lie detectors are just beginning to be used. Liebermann speaks with Freud about mob psychology and the diffusion and indeed debasement of the individual’s morality in the midst of a crowd.

April

Sleep No More (2017) by P.D. James, subtitled “Six Murderous Tales.” None is a whodunit, most are sort of murder retrospectives. A quick semi-satisfying read.

The Knowledge (2018) by Martha Grimes, in the Det. Supt.  Richard Jury series. A convoluted plot set in London and Kenya is a bit hard to follow and somehow not all that engaging. A husband and wife — whom Jury had met very recently and come to like very much — are shot outside Artemis, an exclusive London casino/art gallery, by a shooter who commandeers a black cab to the airport, where a 10-year-old homeless girl attaches herself to him. Her exploits after her landing in Kenya, then combined with Melrose Plant’s after Jury convinces him to go there as well, are interleaved with Jury’s and Wiggins’, and with Marshall Trueblood’s (who’s gotten a job as croupier at Artemis), as similarities between this murder and a past shooting at another club, in Reno NV, owned by Artemis’s owner, come to light. Grimes seems to be in a nostalgic mood as she references many of her other books in this series, and their past plots and past characters, while telling this tale. Always a few very funny lines (often Melrose’s words or thoughts), but the plotting felt almost ridiculous at times, and there was a red herring I wasn’t fond of.

Everything Happens for a Reason: And Other Lies I’ve Loved (2018) by Kate Bowler. Non-fiction, about Bowler’s Stage IV colon cancer diagnosis in 2015 and her journey before and after. Previously she studied and wrote about the prosperity gospel and churches, so when she gets incurable cancer at age 35, a year after her son is born, lots of folks associated with those churches write and say to her things like “everything happens for a reason” — you sinned, you’re being taught something or other people are being taught something by your illness, God needs a new angel, whatever — and even worse things. About 1/3 of the book is about the terrible things that well-meaning people say to her; the other two thirds are her life before and after her diagnosis, and the way prosperity churches frame life events. Could have used a little more editing — some jagged edges — but all in all, a useful, moving book about one woman’s experience of living in the awful and beautiful moments between the certainty of life and the shadow of death, plus short lists of a. things never to say to people with cancer and b. things to say and do for people with cancer. Recommended, especially for friends and family of people with cancer.

May

Murder by Yew (2009) by Suzanne Young, a cozy mystery set in coastal Rhode  Island, first in the Edna Davies series. Edna Davies is a new resident in town, still exploring and wondering about the previous owner’s penchant for poisonous garden plants. The owner has left journals and herbal recipes, which Edna is trying out, and after her handyman Tom has some of her homemade tea and dies, Edna is suspected in his death. Not bad. Features a sort of nosy, friendly neighbour, Mary; Edna’s cat, Benjamin; and Edna’s daughter, Starling, who lives in Boston.

The Sandman (2012/2018 U.S.) by Lars Kepler, 4th (I think) in the Joona Linna series. Featuring the psychopathic serial killer Jurek Walter, who’s in a max-security prison and yet people are still being held hostage and are still dying. After one of Walter’s victims, Mikael Frost, is found walking along a railroad track and eventually reunited with his father, who has held continual parties and been continually drunk and surrounded with people since Mikael went missing 13 years ago to avoid killing himself, young and beautiful Inspector Saga Bauer goes undercover in the prison to see if she can get Walter to talk so that they can find Mikael’s sister, Felicia, still being held.  At the same time, a new naive, and sexually sadistic, doctor, Anders Ronn, is temporarily in charge of the prison. (What could go wrong?) Nail-biting plot, well-written.

Tangerine (2018) by Christine Mangan. A rather simple novel, told in two similar voices, about two former college roommates with a fraught past, in their 20s now in Tangier, Morocco, Alice with her husband, John, and Lucy who has come to Tangier to find Alice. There’s been a lot of hype for this book, which begins promisingly with descriptions of Tangier (that reminded me of  Camus’ The Stranger with the constant mentions of oppressive heat) and hints of psychological entanglement and abuse but then becomes both predictable in plot and at the same time, unfathomable in character (except for Lucy’s character, which is predictable throughout); and it’s just hard to believe that everyone — family, acquaintances, officials — who could question what they’re told never seem to consider doing so. The first chapter or prologue basically gives the plot’s ending away, but still I was disappointed once I knew how it was all going to go (by p. 176 of 388) and from then I skimmed the rest. Still it took me two weeks to finish, because it wasn’t captivating anymore. I read Donna Tartt’s The Secret History, to which this book has been (laughably) compared, and Tartt’s book was so much better, so much more complex and nuanced.

A Man Lay Dead (1934) by Ngaio Marsh, 1st in the Scotland Yard Chief Inspector Detective Roderick Alleyn series. Funny, nicely written, with some Briticisms of the 1930s that may sound quaint or be opaque to the modern American reader but which add to the stylish tone of the book. The plot was convoluted, to say the least — — wealthy man is killed at a country estate weekend, Russians abound, plus a love triangle and other murder motives — and not up to Agatha Christie’s elegant standards at all, but I’ll read a few more.

Enter A Murderer (1935) by Ngaio Marsh, 2nd in the Scotland Yard Chief Inspector Detective Roderick Alleyn series, again with reporter Nigel Bathgate as sidekick. The setting this time is the theatre, where at rehearsal one of the actors shoots a gun with a supposed prop bullet cartridge and kills his fellow actor.

The Dark Angel (2018) by Elly Griffiths, 10th in the Ruth Galloway series.

June

The Nursing Home Murder (1935)  by Ngaio Marsh, 3rd in the Scotland Yard Chief Inspector Detective Roderick Alleyn series (with Nigel Bathgate).  My favourite so far. The British Home Secretary, Derek O’Callaghan, is introducing a bill in Parliament to clamp down on anarchist activities and has been threatened by anarchists/Bolsheviks, while at the same time his dalliance with a young woman (and nurse) has led to threats on his life from her and the man who loves who (who’s a surgeon). When Derek is taken to the hospital with a burst appendix and dies within an hour of the surgery, there are many personal and political suspects. Complex and interesting plot. I love this bit of musing about the relationship between Derek and his wife, Cicely, who is remote and aloof: “Their very embraces were masked in a chilly patina of good form. Occasionally he had the feeling that she rather disliked him but as a rule he had no feeling about her at all. He supposed he had married her in a brief wave of enthusiasm for polar expedition.”

The Moving Finger (1942) by Agatha Christie, a re-read, and I’ve got it on DVD as well, so when I read it I saw the sets and actors. Nominally a Miss Marple Mystery, but she only enters into it 3/4 of the way through and though she is of course pivotal in unmasking the murderer, she has very few lines. One of my favourites, anyway, because of the plotting, the setting (in the quiet little village of Lymstock), the characters (especially Jerry and Joanna, the brother and sister who come to stay in the village while he recuperates from a flying accident, and 20-year-old Megan, a sort of rural sprite), and it’s also a bit of a romance novel.

Three Act Tragedy (1934) by Agatha Christie, nominally a Poirot mystery but he plays a minor role at the start and a somewhat greater one at the finish. Instead of Poirot throughout, a Mr. Satterthwaite, who enjoys observing people, is the head sleuth until Poirot finally takes over. I rather like this one, set mostly in a British harbor town (Loomouth) and featuring a former actor, Charles Cartwright, as well as a vicar, a doctor, an actress, a playwright, and some gentlefolk. When Rev. Babbington dies after drinking a cocktail at a party, opinion is divided on whether it was a natural death. Not too long later, Sir (doctor) Bartholomew Strange, who had attended the previous party, dies of nicotine poisoning after drinking some port at his own party, attended by many of the same people; and meanwhile, after an exhumation, the verdict is nicotine poisoning in Babbington’s death, making it murder as well.  Charles, Satterthwaite, and Egg Lytton Gore — a young woman in love with Charles — begin to investigate the party attendees of the two linked murders. I felt the murderer was obvious very early on but I still enjoyed the plotting.

Murder at the Vicarage (1930) by Agatha Christie, a favourite Miss Marple re-read.  Colonel Lucius Protheroe, disliked by one and all, is found murdered in Rev. Leonard Clement’s home study, and two different people confess to the killing. Jane Marple happens to live next door and exercising her deductive reasoning skills, along with the vicar’s, she gets to the bottom of the matter. I especially enjoyed the relationship between the vicar and his younger, somewhat unconventional wife Griselda.

The Gap of Time (2015) by Jeanette Winterson, a modern retelling — complete with webcams and a complex virtual reality video game, but also with a medieval and also perhaps futuristic BabyHatch for leaving unwanted babies —  of Shakespeare’s A Winter’s  Tale. Interesting as a retelling –I especially liked how MiMi becomes essentially a living statue — and also interesting on its own, though I can’t say I really liked it or any of the characters all that well, though Pauline was probably my favourite. The plot: Leo and French singer MiMi (Hermione) are married, but Leo is jealous of this best friend, the bisexual Xeno, and irrationally, groundlessly believes that Xeno and (pregnant) MiMi are having an affair and the unborn child is Xeno’s, not his. Bad things ensue.  Themes and motifs: Falling; being trapped; gaps in time (stopping time; what we can or can’t do to change the past or future; can we make things unhappen?); dark fallen angels of death, the trapped fallen angel of Gerard de Nerval’s dreams, who folds in its giant wings as it falls into a courtyard amid buildings filled with people and who will die if it can’t escape but can escape only by opening those wings and destroying everyone in the buildings; “What do you do, said MiMi, if to be free you demolish everything around you?”; redemption: can one generation’s evil and death (“necrotic longings”) be escaped by the next generation — how does the past mortgage the future, can the past be redeemed, can time be redeemed or are we ineluctably trapped in it and in ourselves? As Winterson remarks in the last pages, A Winter’s Tale and this retelling are fairy tales of a sort, but in this case the danger or threat is not external (dragon, army, sorcerer), but “Shakespeare, anticipating Freud, puts the threat where it really is: on the inside.”

The Sittaford Mystery (1931) by Agatha Christie, an early one I hadn’t heard of until now, featuring neither Poirot nor Marple nor Tommy & Tuppence. (And also published as Murder at Hazelmoor.) Christie recycles the last name of the sleuth in this book, Emily Trefusis, later in a Poirot mystery (1951’s short story “The Underdog”). The plot is that Captain Joe Trevelyan is murdered while a bunch of people miles away in a snowstorm who are table-turning (a common pastime, like playing with the Ouija board) get a message that he is dead. His friend, Major John Burnaby, is worried and tromps to his house to check on him, finding him indeed dead.  When Inspector Narracott arrests Jim Pearson, his girlfriend Emily Trefusis seeks to exonerate him by finding the real murderer. I enjoyed it.

Death in Ecstasy (1936) by Ngaio Marsh, 4th in the Scotland Yard Chief Inspector  Detective Roderick Alleyn series (with journalist Nigel Bathgate). Another good one, this time set at the House of the Sacred Flame, a religious cult situated across the street from Bathgate and headed by Jasper Garnette, whose rituals involve a host of pagan gods, initiation ceremonies, and a Chosen Vessel. When Cara Quayne, the latest Chosen Vessel, drops dead at the ceremony of cyanide poisoning, Bathgate is on the spot, his curiosity of a rainy evening taking him to the monthly service, and he calls Alleyn in to investigate. Lots of clues lead to a satisfying ending.  (The book’s paperback cover, on a 1983 reprint, is ridiculous and bears no resemblance to the story.) The setting, in part: “The signs of the Zodiac decorated the walls, and along the aisles were stationed at intervals some remarkable examples of modern sculpture. The treatment was abstract, but from the slithering curves and tortured angles emerged the forms of animals and birds — a lion, a bull, a serpent, a cat and a phoenix. Cheek by jowl with these, in gloomy astonishment, were ranged a number of figures whom Nigel supposed must represent the more robust gods and goddesses of Nordic legend. The gods wore helmets and beards, the goddesses helmets and boots. They all looked as though they had been begun by Epstein and finished by a frantic bricklayer. In the nearest of these figures Nigel fancied he recognised Odin. The god was draped in an angular cloak from the folds of which glared two disconsolate quadrupeds who might conceivably represent Geri and Freki, while from behind a pair of legs suggestive of an advanced condition of elephantiasis peered a brace of disconsolate fowls, possibly Huginn and Muninn.”

Vintage Murder  (1937) by Ngaio Marsh, 5th in the Scotland Yard Chief Inspector  Detective Roderick Alleyn series, this one set in New Zealand and without Nigel Bathgate. Another theatrical mystery, my least favourite kind. Involves a troupe of British actors en route to and in New Zealand to perform. When the producer is killed by a surprise rigging of his own (a jerboboam of champagne to be lowered to the stage for this wife’s birthday), Alleyn — who is in New Zealand on a medical leave  of some vague sort — is there to assist Inspector Wade and his team as they investigate the other players and crew.

July 

Death in a White Tie (1938) by Ngaio Marsh, 7th in the Scotland Yard Chief Inspector  Detective Roderick Alleyn series. [The 6th, Artists in Crime, which introduces Alleyn’s love interest, artist Agatha Troy, was not available through inter-library loan in NH.] This one is set during débutante season in London, with a blackmailer extorting money from wealthy women and the sociable Lord Robert informally on the case for Scotland Yard — until he is murdered in a taxi cab after a ball. My favourite so far — I just love English high society crime fiction. Complex plot, though it was fairly obvious who dun it three-quarters of the way through.

The Late George Apley (1936) by John Marquand, a classic novel, told mostly in letters, about an elite Bostonian man and his family, dating back to 1636 but mostly set during the span of George’s life, from 1866-1933, with all the cultural, sexual, literary, political, and social changes occurring then.  Lots of noblesse oblige (taking care of the poor and giving them respect), the need to adhere to tradition and convention, the need to do one’s duty rather than seek pleasure. George is often appalled and perplexed by the newfangled mores of his children, John and Eleanor, and of that generation — girls entering speakeasies; girls unchaperoned with boys; men having any physical relationship with any woman not already their wife (chaste kissing might be allowed); people rejecting membership in the posh social clubs, debating societies, and Harvard-related clubs; Bostonians courting and marrying crass New Yorkers or worse, Mid-Westerners; radical agitators wanting to be paid more and not be cared for like children at the mills; and so on. Don’t even mention the Irish or other lower classes. He struggles at times with his own conformity, which he believes to be essential for the common good, even as he recognises that”conforming to type” has perhaps made his life unhappy and less vital in some way. He is also very concerned with his country house and the minute details of its upkeep. An interesting insight into that time period, quite well written, often amusing. Most of the letters are from George to his son or his (male) friends from college; women are better unseen and unheard in this book.

Artists in Crime (1938) by Ngaio Marsh, 6th in the Scotland Yard Chief Inspector  Detective Roderick Alleyn series. [Read out of order.] Alleyn meets independent and somewhat iconoclastic artist Agatha Troy on a cruise ship, falls in love with her painting and with her, then meets her again shortly after landing back in England when someone is murdered at her group studio session. Nigel appears in this one, as does Alleyn’s lovable and wise mother.

Death at the Bar (1940) by Ngaio Marsh, 9th in the Scotland Yard Chief Inspector  Detective Roderick Alleyn series, this one set on the Devon coast in Ottercombe. Alleyn and Fox are called in to sort a cyanide death — accident or murder ? — during a darts dare at Abel Pomeroy’s pub. Complex. I liked this: “If Nark’s theory of how cyanide got on the dart was ever understood by him, he had no gift for imparting it to others. He became incoherent, and defensively mysterious. He dropped hints and when pressed to explain them, took fright and dived into obscurities. He uttered generalizations of bewildering stupidity, assumed an air of huffiness, floundered into deep water, and remained there, blowing like a grampus.”

August

Death of a Peer (1940) by Ngaio Marsh, 10th in the Scotland Yard Chief Inspector  Detective Roderick Alleyn series, set mostly in London. The plot involves a quirky, charming, somewhat dysfunctional family — similar to some of Anne Tyler’s families or HE Bates’ The Darling Buds of May —  who are investigated by Alleyn when a wealthy relative is killed in a gruesome manner at their home after refusing to give the family any more money. I enjoyed it.

Death and the Dancing Footman (1941) by Ngaio Marsh, 11th in the Scotland Yard Chief Inspector Detective Roderick Alleyn series, again set at an English country house, this time at the diabolically planned party of Jonathan Royal, who is bringing together romantic, family, business, and other sorts of enemies — to see what kind of drama they create. If you consider murder dramatic, he is successful. Not a favourite.

The Plot Against America (2004) by Philip Roth.  I found this somewhat autobiographical alternative history novel hard to get into but eventually I did. It reminded me faintly throughout of Neil Diamond’s song “Brooklyn Dreams,” with two brothers living on the second floor of an apartment building in a city, in this case in the 1940s in Weequahic, a Jewish section of Newark. For me, it was an extremely depressing novel to read now, with the alt-right on the upswing again everywhere.  The plot, which I’ll describe below and which contains spoilers (sort of), moves from the personal and intimate family portrait to the national and international political scene seamlessly, for the most part. The effects on brothers Philip and Sandy of political rhetoric, public policies, media coverage, whispered conversations among frantic adult neighbours and their own classmates, and differences of opinion among family members are subtly and elegantly delineated. The political is shown to be extremely personal in an ordinary person’s daily life.  Plot: Philip and Sandy, two brothers ages 8 and 11, and their parents Bess and Herman Roth — an insurance salesman who makes less than $50/week — live happily if frugally in an apartment house in a Jewish section of Newark in 1940, when German- (Nazi-) sympathizer Charles Lindbergh becomes president of the U.S. The neighbours are stunned and dismayed; they gather around their radios each evening to listen to gossip columnist Walter Winchell speak against Lindbergh and fascism. Soon after the election, the family takes a vacation to Washington DC and experience anti-Semitic discrimination. Phil’s brother Sandy goes to rural Kentucky to live with a gentile farm family for the summer as part of the federal Office of American Absorption’s ‘Just Folks’ program — “a volunteer work program introducing city youth to the traditional ways of heartland life” — and comes back enamored of this kind of opportunity and bitterly derisive of his parents and other adults (whom he calls “ghetto Jews”) who seem to him to be paranoid, plagued by a “persecution complex.” Their older and much-admired cousin, Alvin, joins the Canadian Army (the U.S. not taking a side in the war under Lindbergh) to fight against the Nazis and returns changed. Phil’s aunt Evelyn marries a collaborationist rabbi; they attend a fancy and highly publicised state dinner at the White House in honour of Nazi Foreign Minister von Ribbentrop. Another federal policy, “Heartland 42,” aimed at dispersing Jews from urban communities and into the American ‘heartland,’ is put in place, and when “the Metropolitan,” Herman’s insurance company, is ordered to send this family to Kentucky as part of this relocation program, Herman quits and goes to work hauling fruit and veg for his brother, Monty, so they can stay in Newark. When Walter Winchell is assassinated at one of his own rallies in Louisville, Kentucky, riots break out around the country with anti-Semites smashing store windows, burning synagogues, and killing Jews.

Peculiar Ground (2018) by Lucy Hughes-Hallett. I loved this sumptuous, “densely patterned” novel, which is an historical novel-family saga, not my usual type. It’s primarily set on the large estate of Wychwood, Oxfordshire, England, in 1663-1665, 1961, 1973, and 1989, and told in the voices of a landscape designer, a gay art dealer, a journalist, an art historian, the land agent’s young daughter, the estate owner’s wife, and others, as well as narrated. The creation and destruction of the Berlin Wall separating East from West Germany is central to the plot/theme, and the Wall’s significance in terms of imprisonment, sanctuary, choosing and not choosing to be walled in or out, and exclusion and inclusion are echoed in the estate’s landscaping, with a wall around the property within which the estate owners and staff can live and walk vs. the villagers who are allowed in on occasion. Trespass, boundaries, a sense of entitlement and ownership, spying (secretly gathering information across borders), infiltrating, fleeing, internment and burial, the Biblical Garden of Eden, prison, home, and the building of walls are all explored directly and subtly, in real time and in a handful of folkloric stories. Other motifs are celebrity, theater, illicit acts, religious oppression and stereotyping, women’s roles and the treatment of women, the force of water, et al. A fascinating book, beautifully imagined and written.

Overture to Death (1939) by Ngaio Marsh, 8th in the Scotland Yard Chief Inspector  Detective Roderick Alleyn series [read out of order due to ILL vagaries], set in the fictional village of Pen Cuckoo in England, several hours from London. When one of two nasty town busybodies is murdered while providing music on stage during an amateur production, Alleyn and Fox and team are called in.  Complicating the investigation is the fact that the other nasty town busybody may have been the target, making the list of possible suspects about 100% of those with opportunity. This isn’t really a theatre crime, more of an English village cozy, and it held my attention.

Colour Scheme (1943) by Ngaio Marsh, 12th in the Scotland Yard Chief Inspector  Detective Roderick Alleyn series, though Alleyn only enters midway through and without Fox, Bailey, and the others on the police force. This one’s set in New Zealand at (fictional) Wai-ata-tapu Hot Springs in Harpoon Inlet, near the real town of Rotorua on the North Island, a place teeming with geothermal activity and Maori culture (the Maoris are integral to the story). The spa is run by the hapless Claire family (parents, son, daughter, and brother/uncle), who from the start of the novel seem to variously resent, fear, suspect, and fall under the influence of Maurice Questing, a businessman staying there. When he dies in horrifying circumstances, there’s no lack of suspects. Not a favourite, though I gather from online reviews that for many who’ve read the series, it is. The scenery is dramatic, but I prefer Alleyn throughout and in full police persona. Also, I figured out a key piece of the solution fairly early in the plot, even before the murder. Favourite quote: “‘But you can’t miss your way, really,’ [Mrs. Claire] added. ‘There are little flags, white for safe and red for boiling mud. But you will take care of him, Mr. Bell, won’t you? Come back before dark. One would never forgive oneself if after all this …’ The sentence died away as a doubt arose in Mrs. Claire’s mind about the propriety of saying that death by boiling mud would be a poor sequel to an evening of social solecisms.”

Died in the Wool (1945) by Ngaio Marsh, 13th in the Inspector Alleyn series, this one set in New Zealand (South Island). Flossie Rubrick, a formidable member of New Zealand Parliament,  disappears in 1942 after heading to the wool shed to rehearse a patriotic speech; three weeks later she turns up packed inside one of her own bales of wool.  Alleyn, doing counter-espionage in New Zealand during the war, isn’t on the case until 15 months later, when Flossie’s husband’s nephew Fabian Losse invites him to re-open the case. Alleyn has to investigate the cold case by interviewing family members and staff, including Flossie’s niece Ursula, nephew Douglas (who with Fabian is working on a secret anti-aircraft device for the Allies), secretary (Miss) Terry Lynne, manservant Markins, and wool workers Cliff Johns and his father.  Not one of her better plots, though the method of murder is unique.

Final Curtain (1947) by Ngaio Marsh, 14th in the Inspector Alleyn series. Alleyn is back in England and reunited with wife Troy again after a 3-years absence to NZ during the war. Just before his return, Troy has gone to the Ancreton estate, a ways from London, to paint the portrait of Henry Ancred, noted Shakespearean actor and wealthy family patriarch, but when he dies in the night after his birthday party, it’s Troy’s who’s back in London and Inspector Alleyn (and Fox) at Ancreton to sort through the temperamental family  members and their motives. Good.

September

Murder on the Links (1923) by Agatha Christie. Re-read. Golfing really has nothing to do with the setting of this book (except that the body is left on a golf course), or with the plot, which is one of Christie’s most complicated (convoluted?). Most of it takes place in Merlinville-sur-Mer, France, after Paul Renauld writes requesting Poirot’s help; of course, as happens with some regularity in these stories, when Poirot and sidekick Captain Hastings arrive, Renauld is already dead, stabbed in the back with a special letter opener, and his wife has been bound with rope. During the investigation, Hastings — who is presented in a somewhat different light than usual — unexpectedly runs into a woman he’s met and become infatuated with on a recent train trip, known to him only as ‘Cinderella.’

Easy to Kill (1938) by Agatha Christie. Re-read. Not a Poirot or Marple. A young policeman recently returned from the Mayang Straits,Luke Fitzwilliam, meets Lavinia Fullerton, an old lady, on a train into London. She tells him she’s heading to Scotland Yard to alert them to several murders  by the same person (whose identity she knows but doesn’t tell him) in her town of Wychwood. When Luke learns she’s been hit and killed by a car, he decides to visit the town, staying with a friend’s cousin, Brigit, to investigate Miss Fullerton’s claims. I like this book but the killer is “easy to suss out” fairly early on.

A Wreath for Rivera (1949, aka Swing Brother Swing) by Ngaio Marsh, 15th in the Inspector Alleyn series. I liked this one. A bit complicated as to plot and characters’ relationships, with jazz, drugs, blackmail, an Agony Aunt column in a rag, uncooperative wealthy  eccentrics, servants and lowly cops in trouble with their superiors, etc., as Alleyn and Fox investigate the murder of a Latin American piano-accordion player on stage during a jazz act in London.

Night at the Vulcan (1951, aka Opening Night) by Ngaio Marsh, 16th in the Inspector Alleyn series. Another theatre mystery, this one from the point of view of a young, aspiring actress, Martyn Tarne, who hails from New Zealand and is in London auditioning with no luck. Hungry, tired, and homeless, she takes a job on the spur of the moment as a leading lady’s dresser at the Vulcan theatre. There are undercurrents of jealousy, resentment, envy, fear, and outright rows before murder occurs and Alleyn (with Fox, Bailey, et al) investigates. As one reviewer writes, “Although the play being performed exudes Existentialism, the characters (and Alleyn too) are forever quoting Shakespeare. This is fun.” It was one of her better theatre pieces, I thought, mainly due to Martyn’s engaged, wise, compassionate attitude. The killer was not a surprise, though the motive was.

Spinsters in Jeopardy (1953) by Ngaio Marsh, 17th in the Inspector Alleyn series. Asked to investigate a drug ring in the French countryside, at a chateau in which black magic is practiced, Alleyn and wife Troy decide to combine his work with a holiday for their family (including young son Ricky), possibly to meet a cousin Troy’s never met before (P.E. Garbel). While on the train heading to Roqueville, Troy and Alleyn both glimpse through a window what seems to be a murder in the chateau (as in Agatha Christie’s The 4:50 from Paddington,aka What Mrs McGillicuddy Saw!, published in 1957); also while they’re on the train, a middle-aged woman becomes ill with acute appendicitis and needs immediate medical attention — so the Alleyns take her to the chateau, where an eminent surgeon, known to be working with the drug ring, operates. After Alleyn’s cover is blown, he, the local police, and Alleyn’s driver, Raoul, enact schemes to catch the bad guys. A bit fantastical, but I appreciated Alleyn and Troy’s understated parenting, Raoul’s character, and the French slant.

October

Scales of Justice (1955) by Ngaio Marsh, 18th in the Inspector Alleyn series. Colonel Carterette — enthusiastic fisherman, husband of Kitty, a lower-class outsider, and father of Rose, enamored of Dr. Mark Lacklander — is killed soon after he’s asked to publish the controversial memoirs of Sir Harold Lacklander, head of the feudal Lacklander family of  the English village of Swevenings. Beside Carterette’s body is a freshly killed trout. Alleyn is very interested in the trout. I liked this one a lot.

Death of a Fool (1956) by Ngaio Marsh, 19th in the Inspector Alleyn series. Set in the village of South Mardian (England), a community that re-enacts the pagan Morris Sword Dance of the 5 Sons each year on the Wednesday before Christmas. The five sons in this case are the Andersen brothers, sons of the irascible William Anderson, the town smithy and Fool. When German Mrs. Anna Bünz of the Friends of British Folklore Guild of Ancient Customs comes to town to research the dance, she’s rebuffed by the men (“My dad don’t rightly fancy wummen”) but she’s persistent. After the Fool is killed during the dance, one of his sons accuses Mrs. Bünz, but Alleyn’s got a wider net of suspects. Not a favourite, but if you like folklore, you’ll probably like this.

Singing in the Shrouds (1958) by Ngaio Marsh, 20th in the Inspector Alleyn series, this one set aboard the Cape Farewell, a cruise ship out of London, with a handful of suspects on board. Alleyn is incognito on the ship on the slimmest of clues tying one of the passengers to the Flower Murders, a recent spate of stranglings involving broken necklaces and flowers placed on the victims (all female). So-so.

False Scent (1959) by Ngaio Marsh, 21st in the Inspector Alleyn series. Setting is a large house, probably in London. Mary Bellamy, stage star in comedic plays, is turning 50 (shh) but she’s in a very bad mood, not improved when her adopted son Richard shares with her a serious play in which she’s obviously not meant to be the lead (someone much younger is) and a couple of her acolytes are found to be involved in another play she’s not part of.  Before her big party, she receives a gift of a “vulgar” perfume called “Formidable,” which she insists on dousing herself in, much to her husband, Charles Templeton’s, dismay. Templeton asked her to not to use it, and he’s asked her to throw out an insecticide, Slaypest, because it’s much too dangerous to have around, but again she refuses. Once the party starts, she has a major “temperament” (temper tantrum) and things go from bad to worse.

Hand in Glove (1962) by Ngaio Marsh, 22nd in the Inspector Alleyn series. Mr. Pyke Period, a genteel old bachelor has regrettably opened his home to Harold Cartell and his dog, both somewhat disagreeable. Things look up a bit for him when typist Nicola Maitland-Mayne, a friend of Alleyn and his wife Troy’s, arrives to help with Period’s book on etiquette, and things look up for Nicola when she falls for Andrew Bantling, Lady Desiree Bantling’s son by her first marriage, and he returns the feelings. But then things look down when a slippery thief and his besotted girlfriend, both quite without manners, make trouble for several people, and they further deteriorate when a scavenger hunt at an upper-class house party leads to murder and lots of lying.  Fairly good.

Dead Water (1963) by Ngaio Marsh, 23rd in the Inspector Alleyn series. Set on fictional tiny Portcarrow Island (14 acres in size), in the UK. After a mysterious “Green Lady” speaks to young Wally near a hilltop spring and apparently rids him of his many warts overnight, the Island becomes a mecca for medical tourists who want healing and a boon to shop owners, the pub and inn landlord, the mayor, and even the doctor and the rector, all making much more money than ever before. But then Alleyn’s friend and mentor, Emily Pride, who now owns the island after her sister’s death, decides to put a stop to the crass commercialism of the Green Lady cult. Her visit to the island, to make her announcement, leads to murder and mayhew, of course. Not a favourite.

Life in the Garden (2018) by Penelope Lively, a Booker Prize winning horticultural memoir. Six fairly simple essays about gardens in history, in literature and painting, as metaphor, and in her own life. A pleasant read, nothing earth-shaking.

November

Killer Dolphin (1966; UK: Death at the Dolphin) by Ngaio Marsh, 24th in the Inspector Alleyn series. Set in London at the newly restored Dolphin Theatre, with playwright and director Peregrine Jay at the helm — and eccentric magnate Vassily Conducis his silent partner. The plot revolves around a glove — originally worn by William Shakespeare’s doomed young son, Hamnet — that’s recently surfaced and provides the focus of the play Jay writes and directs with a handful of temperamental and star-crossed actors.  I found it hard to get into but interesting enough as it went along.

Clutch of Constables (1969) by Ngaio Marsh, 25th in the Inspector Alleyn series, this one set largely on a small boat, the M.V. Zodiac, cruising for 5 days on a river with locks between (fictional) Longminster and Norminster, England. Troy — Alleyn’s wife and now a quite famous artist — spontaneously decides to book passage on the ship after seeing a card posted in a window of a last-minute cancellation (Alleyn is in the U.S. on business).  Of course, someone on the ship is a master-mind criminal, coincidentally the same one Alleyn is hunting (Foljambe, or the Jampot), but Troy knows nothing of that; still, she gradually notices small but nagging incidences that she brings to the local constabulary’s attention, and which they all but ignore. Alleyn doesn’t really appear in the book until 3/4 through, although the story is framed by his telling it to a detective class a couple of years later. One of my favourites for the way it’s told, Troy’s outsized role, and the setting on a boat in the ancient English countryside.

When in Rome  (1971) by Ngaio Marsh, 26th in the Inspector Alleyn series, set in Rome. Alleyn is incognito as part of an expensive tour group, investigating international drug smuggling and sales. The group leader, Sebastian Mailer, seems a rum character (as Marsh likes to say), and in the first chapter we learn he has returned a lost book manuscript to author Barnaby Grant with a blackmailing demand that he lend his name and himself to tours of the basilica of San Tommaso.

Case Histories (2004) by Kate Atkinson, a novel/mystery involving several “case histories”: a small girl goes missing during a night tent-camping in the yard with an older sister;  a father mourns his daughter and seeks her killer; a man is killed by a woman in a frenzied moment; a former cop, now private detective, tries to piece together his own life while searching for missing persons, killers, and the truth.  I enjoyed it, the way I enjoy Carl Hiaasen’s crime fiction (Jackson, the PI, reminded me of many of his PI characters), and I appreciated the plot and thematic connections among the stories, but I thought her Life After Life was richer.

Tied Up in Tinsel (1972) by Ngaio Marsh, 27th in the Inspector Alleyn series, back in England. Alleyn’s wife, Troy, is painting Hilary Bill-Tasman’s portrait at his country home, Halberds, which is staffed entirely by one-off murderers (who have done their time, if found guilty), when dangerous practical jokes occur one after the other to the guests staying there, each evoking the elements of one of the murderers’ crimes. During a Christmas performance in which a guest is to dress up like a Druid and give out Christmas gifts to local children to much fanfare, a manservant named Moult goes missing. Alleyn is called in to help the local constabulary find him.

December

Black As He’s Painted (1973) by Ngaio Marsh, 28th in the Inspector Alleyn series, set mostly in London near the fictitious Capricorn Mews and the Embassy of an African  British commonwealth country-cum-independent nation Ng’ombwana, whose president, colloquially the Boomer, is a former public school chum of Alleyn’s. The president’s visit to England is fraught with security issues both because of the transitional and unstable nature of the country and the devil-may-care nature of the president himself. Coincidentally, former Foreign Service official Mr. Whipplestone is recently ensconced in Capricorn Mews, along with stray cat Lucy Lockett, who has a penchant for porcelain white fish. I liked this one.

The Craftsman (2018) by Sharon Bolton, a stand-alone suspense/crime novel set in 1969 and 1999 in the town of Sabden, Lancashire, England, featuring WPC Florence Lovelady, new to the police squad in 1969 and the only woman officer. She and other officers investigate several cases of missing children (later found dead) and make an arrest, her landlord and the local casket & coffin maker Larry Glassbrook; the story of the 1969 investigation is sandwiched within Lovelady’s visit back to Sabden for his funeral and her subsequent re-investigation of the case. Witchcraft is an element of both parts of the story. A quick and well-paced read.

Last Ditch (1977) by Ngaio Marsh, 29th in the Inspector Alleyn series, set in a fictitious seaside village (Montjoy, Deep Cove) not far by boat from Brittany (France), where the rest of the book is set. Alleyn and Troy’s now-grown son Ricky is on the spot when murder occurs at an equestrian stable, to Dulcie Harkness, known to be a bit loose with the boys, daughter of a fire-and-brimstone preacher. Alleyn himself ends up investigating the murder along with drug running in the area.

Grave Mistake (1978) by Ngaio Marsh, 30th in the Inspector Alleyn series, set in “Upper Quintern,” not too far from London. When Sybil Foster goes to Greengages Hotel & Spa for a rest cure, she gets more rest than she bargains for.  She seems to have killed herself, but when the autopsy casts doubt on this idea, Alleyn turns up; he smells a rat, so he and Fox look at the motives, opportunity, and means of Sybil’s obnoxious ne’er-do-well son Claude, her seemingly loving daughter Prunella — who has just become engaged to wealthy Gideon Markos against her mother’s wishes, Sybil’s new gardener, named Gardener, and the new medical practitioner at Greengages, Basil Schramm, to whom Sybil has become engaged and whom her best friend Verity Preston knew years ago, among other suspects. I liked the setting and characters, especially Verity; the plot was a bit much.

Bubba Heard a Whale (Trying to Sing) (2018) by Bubba’s Dad, illus. Faryn Hughes. Children’s book about a French Bulldog helping a shy whale who is struggling to belong and find her voice.

Photo Finish (1980) by Ngaio Marsh, 31st in the Inspector Alleyn series, set on a lavish island estate in New Zealand. Troy has been invited to paint a portrait of temperamental opera diva Isabella Sommita, and Alleyn has been invited to find out who’s been taking and publishing ugly surprise photos of Sommita (meanwhile, Scotland Yard wants him to investigate the drug trade, as usual). When Bella is murdered during a “Rosser” (a lashing rain and wind storm that cuts the island off from the mainland), Alleyn takes charge.

 

31 DAYS: APOCALYPSE, NOW ~ DAY 18 :: UNVEILED VIOLENCE

metalorbburiedfernKCCExtNLNH29Sept2018Welcome to day 18 of 31 Days of Apocalypse, Now, a month of posts about apocalypse, revelation, uncovering what’s been hidden. Each post will look at these ideas from its own vantage point, which may not obviously connect with the others, and which may only peripherally seem related. I won’t attempt to tie the posts together. They’ll all be listed here, as they are posted.

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Note to those looking for gardening posts: This is not one. This may not be for you.

My thoughts on apocalypse, and my world view in general and thoughts on psychology, sociology, culture, politics, history, and literature specifically, are shaped by mimetic theory and Girardian thought, as articulated by René Girard, James Alison, Paul Nuechterlein, Bob Hamerton-Kelly, and others.

One can get very deep and very heady researching and applying mimetic theory (there are many long books written about it). I want to concentrate as concretely as possible on the concept of apocalypse; but there is a great deal of background to cover to get there.

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When most Western people think about the word “apocalypse,” they think about the book of Revelation in Christian Bible. Gil Bailie, in his book Violence Unveiled: Humanity at the Crossroads (1995), writes a clear one-paragraph summary of a Girardian view of apocalypse:

The word ‘apocalypse’ means ‘unveiling.’ What, then, is veiled, the unveiling of which can have apocalyptic consequences? The answer is: violence. Veiled violence is violence whose religious or historical justifications still provide it with an aura of respectability and give it a moral and religious monopoly over any ‘unofficial’ violence whose claim to ‘official’ status it preempts. Unveiled violence is apocalyptic violence precisely because, once shorn of its religious and historical justifications, it cannot sufficiently distinguish itself from the counter-violence it opposes. Without benefit of religious and cultural privilege, violence simply does what unveiled violence always doesit incites more violence. In such situations, the scope of violence grows while the ability of its perpetrators to reclaim that religious and moral privilege diminishes. The reciprocities of violence and counter-violence threaten to spin completely out of control.

To go back just a bit and talk about violence from a Girardian perspective, the first thing to say is that humans are made in such a way that our desires are always mediated, that is, called into being by other people. We learn to desire from the very start according to the desire of a social other; desire is wholly dependent on relationship. We think we are individuals but we are entirely interdividuals (Girard’s coinage). We think we have autonomy, spontaneously desiring and acting, but we do not. We spend a lot of energy hanging onto this notion and protecting it, wanting to believe that we originate our own desire. And whether we see ourselves as originals or imitators, both perceptions belie a shoring up of identity based on ‘the other,’ based on relationship with the other … Am I like you or not like you?

Second, our desires are mimetic, i.e., we imitate each other unconsciously or unknowingly, and also consciously and intentionally at times.  We share desires among ourselves and we can either cooperate towards them — this is called love, compassion, generosity, etc., and is related to a sense of abundance — or we can lock into competition, conflict, and rivalry with other desirers — this is called hatred, resentment, envy, and it’s related to an experience of scarcity.

Envy, says Girard (in an 18 Sept  2005 interview with Robert Harrison, transcript available), “is the emotion that plays the greatest role in our society…. The real repression is the repression of envy. … You cannot help imitating your model. It’s the most difficult to acknowledge because it involves your whole being, you know. In a way, envy is a denial of one’s own being, and accepting the fact that you prefer the being of your rival.”

From suppressed envy comes resentment (ressentiment in French, “a psychological state arising from suppressed feelings of envy and hatred that cannot be acted upon, frequently resulting in some form of self-abasement”). When rivals fight (however subtly or outwardly, whether one-on-one or collectively), “one of them may win out over the other and regain his illusion of autonomy; the other will then be humiliated to the point of seeing his adversary as sacred. This attraction-repulsion is at the base of all pathologies of resentment” (Girard, Battling to the End: Conversations with Benoit Chantre, 2010)

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SIDEBAR: Interestingly, Franklin Foer, in an article titled Apocalypse Now: What’s Behind the Volatile Mood of Today’s American — and European — Voters,” a review of Age of Anger: A History of the Present by Pankaj Mishra in the New York Times (13 Feb. 2017) comments: “The market society, [John Jacques] Rousseau warned, would dangerously unmoor individuals. He saw how humans aspired to surpass one another in wealth and status, which meant they were capable of great cruelty. The modern world weakened religion and the family, the emotional buffers that provided comfort. Without these supports, individuals came to depend on the opinions of others for their sense of self-worth, which inflicted terrible cases of insecurity, envy and self-hatred. This, in Mishra’s argument, remains the nub of the world’s problems: ‘An existential resentment of other people’s being, caused by an intense mix of envy and sense of humiliation and powerlessness, ressentiment, as it lingers and deepens, poisons civil society and undermines political liberty, and is presently making for a global turn to authoritarianism and toxic forms of chauvinism.”

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Third, we’re most likely to imitate people who are similar to ourselves, or whom we see as similar to ourselves. We want what they want, and we want to be them, partake of their being, in some way. But rivals experience each other as totally different, as “other,” though to those looking at it from outside, the two antagonists look exactly the same, and the more they hate each other, the more they resemble each other.

Finally, we’re not only acquisitively mimetic — that is, we imitate each other in acquiring what we desire; we are also accusatively mimetic — that is, we band together to accuse another. The first kind of mimesis seems to divide us (we fight over desires), while the second seems to unite us and bring peace because we are all unified in desiring to do away with someone else.

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To prevent the violence that flows from our conflicted desires, cultures establish boundaries, systems of differentiation: “People are given names, body markings, prohibitions, social roles, moral rules, and so on, to keep them from becoming too much alike. … People who are either too much alike for genetic reasons (like identical twins) or too different (like “colored” people) are considered dangerous. Their biological difference threatens to reveal that cultural systems of sacred differentiation are actually artificial.” (Britt Johnston, in “Why Does God Allow Evil?,” 2006)

Bob Hamerton-Kelly (in an essay that’s no longer online and whose title I didn’t record) explained well the origins of religion in violence:

“Human desire is radically imitative; we learn from the other what to desire, thus come to desire the same thing because the other desires it, and so fall into competition that turns violent.” … Because desire is contagious, violence is like a pandemic. In this turmoil of violence, the war of all against all, the social system reaches a culminating level of disorder and then spontaneously mutates back to order. It is a self-regulating, self-healing system, so there is no question of anyone deciding to enter into a contract, rather spontaneously the war of all against all becomes the war of all against one. … Thus the foundation of society is not a social contract, nor a natural affinity and mutual attraction, but a swerve in the symmetry of a self-healing system that throws up a victim, whose death in turn stabilizes the systemSociety is fundamentally the unity of the lynch mob. …

The mob [way back in history] pauses before the body of the first victim and to its astonishment realizes that it has experienced its first moment of peace and unanimity. Violent desire stops {briefly]. From this surprised tranquility flow the fatal misinterpretations.

The first and fundamental misunderstanding is that the victim was the cause of the violent disorder. If by his death he brings peaceful order, in his life he must have caused the violent disorder. He is, therefore, very powerful; he is a god, the creator of the world, in the sense of the order of culture and society.

This misunderstanding [that the victim was the cause of the disorder] unfolds along three lines, all of which are religious.”

Ritual: If one death brings order to the society at last, regular deaths might maintain order. So the sacrificial death is ritually institutionalized. Girard’s central belief about all religion is that it is founded on a particular ritualthe ritual of sacrifice. Sacrifice – the art of making the victim sacred — occurs in a culture as a way to bring peace and unity in the face of conflicts and divisions.

Sacrifice is seen as a non-violent, or less violent, or justifiably violent, way to keep the community from worse violence. Humans make a solid distinction between sacred violence and profane violence, though they are really one and the same — they’re equally violence; but we perceive them to be completely different from each other and in fact we are very attached to the distinction we make between these violences.

Myth: Creation stories that “occlude the primal murder and present the dying creator as either the victim of an accident, or a mysterious tragic destiny, or willing, or deserving of death. Myth never discloses that he died by the hand of the mob and that his death is a disclosure of your violence and mine in and through the mob. We hold our mob innocent and non-violent and transfer all responsibility for violence to the victim. He deserved it, invited it, or it was an accident; we are not to blame. Culture comes into being as a cover-up of our own violence.”

Prohibitions: Remembering that “the erasure of differences caused the violence of unbridled competition, therefore we avoid behavior that threatens to erase distinctions.” We create prohibitions and taboos to prevent too much similarity or seeming similarity.

So, to recap, as Cynthia Havens writes in her recent biography of René Girard, Evolution of Desire (2018), Girard “overturned three widespread assumptions about the nature of desire and violence: first, that our desire is authentic and our own; second, that we fight from our differences, rather than our sameness; and third, that religion is the cause of violence, rather than an archaic solution for controlling violence within a society, as he would assert.”

*

Cultures (as well as individuals and allied groups) elude responsibility for their violence by sacralizing it, ritualizing it, and justifying it as a sacred act — as Paul Nuechterlein writes, “Sacrificial violence is a sacred, sanctioned violence that comes into place in order to keep in check the fearsome profane, random violence” — and to do this the culture requires itself to perpetually misunderstand what it’s doing (Girard uses the French word ‘méconnaissance’ for this necessary misapprehension.)

In his essay titled “Sacrifice and the Sacred,” Matthew Becklo at Strange Notions summarises the situation: “According to Girard, ancient human societies were destabilized by mimetic conflicts: two parties who desired the same object would start to imitate each other’s desire until the rivalry erupted into a kind of contagion which threatened to destroy the whole community. Then, a hidden mechanism was triggered which transferred the blame onto a third party, one that was either uniquely strong (e.g., a mighty king) or uniquely feeble (e.g., a decrepit itinerant). The collective sacrifice and sacralization of this figure, enshrined in religion, was a sort of release valve that restored peace and order in the community.”

Almost all ancient cultures regularly performed ritual religious sacrifices. At least 5000 years ago in Europe, “Danish farmers sacrificed their stone axes and flint tools, their amber jewellery and their food, by depositing them in pots, together with human offerings, in bogs. Probably the earliest case in the world is that of two girls found at Sigersdal near Copenhagen, killed about 3500 BC. One was about 16 while the other, who was about 18, still had a cord around her neck.”

During the Iron Age in Europe ( c.750 BC to AD 43),

many bodies have been found completely preserved in peat bogs” and in places “where people had made offerings to an afterworld [in Denmark, Germany, Holland]. It seems clear that these were not murders, but deliberate, socially sanctioned, killings. Writing much later, in the first century AD, the Roman historian Tacitus tells us that these Germanic peoples executed their social outcasts — cowards, shirkers and those of disrepute — by pressing them down into bogs,” where they also made inanimate offerings.  Human sacrifice was practised in China, Egypt, Rome, and in the Americas; “Aztec priests believed that the sacrifices they performed in the temples on top of pyramids — cutting out the still-beating heart of their victims with the blood flowing down the steps of the pyramid — were necessary to keep the sun on its daily path. … Within the Inca empire of South America, children and teenagers were sacrificed to the sun god, bestowing considerable prestige on the child’s parents and on their local community.

*

And now we come to the Judeo-Christian tradition.

Girard’s contention (and James Alison’s, quoted below) is that the Jewish texts, starting with the story of Cain and Abel, “gradually dissociate the divinity from participation in violence until, in the NT, God is entirely set free from participation in our violence — the victim is entirely innocent and hated without cause — and indeed God is revealed not as the one who expels us, but the One whom we expel, and who allowed himself to be expelled so as to make of his expulsion a revelation of what he is really like, and of what we really, typically do to each other, so that we can begin to learn to get beyond this.” (James Alison, “Girard’s Breakthrough,” 1996) The scapegoat is the focus of many a Bible story, and the victim is revealed as such over and over again, though not every time. The Hebrew Scriptures show how tough it is for us to kick the idolatry habit, even to come to monotheism.

The Hebrew scriptures are “texts in travail” — struggling to finally, clearly give voice to the victim. Even in the story of Cain and Abel, Abel’s blood cries out from the ground and is heard. Jesus’s death at the hands of his accusers reveals the vacuous power of such expelling violence. His death represents an act of “righteous” violence — i.e., an act of violence justified by one of our violent gods (whom we are deluded in seeing as God). His death reveals our enslavement to violence and reveals God’s righteousness as non-violence, radical non-retaliation, forgiveness of enemies, not vengeance.

—————-

SIDEBAR: I highly recommend Kelly Thompson’s interview in Guernica, “Lacy M. Johnson: Moving the Conversation Toward Justice,” 17 Oct. 2018, in which Johnson says, “our narratives [of redemptive justice] are not necessarily serving us from the perspective of building real justice in the world.” Johnson was kidnapped, held in a soundproofed room, and raped by someone who had been her boyfriend when she was in her 20s:

Everybody assumed I would want him not only punished, but killed, and that was so surprising to me. I was shocked by it. It bothered me so much. I started thinking, and wondering, What’s with that? Where does that come from? But it’s a very ancient impulse, older than the Bible even, the sort of eye for an eye that we find in Leviticus. And it goes all the way back to the Code of Hammurabi, written laws dating back to about 1754 BC, which, interestingly, meant to put an upper limit on vengeance rather than to suggest that vengeance or retribution should be a mandate.

Perhaps it’s an innate instinctual impulse to want to harm the person who harmed you, not just the way that they harmed you, but to completely destroy them as a way to get even. We feel like there would be pleasure in that, or that it is a natural desire. I just wanted to put some pressure on that idea, and see if there are in fact other ways of being, and also to think about what kind of harm we perpetuate by insisting on that mode of justice, if it is justice at all.

—————-

Jesus’s death continues the process of progressive unveiling of sanctioned violence, showing it to be simply violence. It does so because the victim’s perspective is actually available to challenge the perpetrators’ false interpretation. But — this unveiling removes our bulwark against apocalyptic mimetic violence; the only other bulwark against it is to live God’s desire, which is love and pacific mimesis, giving up all claims to difference.

So, in the Girardian construction, Jesus’s death was not a substitutionary atonement — i.e., God killing Jesus instead of us, letting Jesus take the rap for our sin. It’s we who are the killers, not God. Jesus doesn’t win our salvation but launches it through revealing the nature of reality and the nature of human culture. It’s not our sins that put Jesus on the cross. It’s the Satanic sin par excellence of scapegoating: i.e., of accusing, judging, and executing, and lying to ourselves about how blameless we are.

This is radically different from the usual Christian way of understanding Jesus’s death and resurrection.

Mark Heim in Saved from Sacrifice (2006), directly addresses the role of violence in the Bible:

“What is violence doing in the Bible? It is telling us the truth, the truth about our human condition, about the fundamental dynamics that lead to human bloodshed, and most particularly, the truth about the integral connection between religion and violence. …

It is showing us the nature of the mimetic conflict that threatens to destroy human community. It is showing us the religious dynamic of scapegoating sacrifice that arises to allay such crisis. It is letting us hear the voices of the persecuted victims and their pleas for revenge and vindication. It is showing God’s judgment (even violent judgment) against violence, and most particularly, God’s siding with the outcast victims of scapegoating persecution. The Old Testament is an antimyth. It is thick with bodies, the voices of victims and threatened victims. This landscape is either the product of an idiosyncratic, bloodthirsty imagination or the actual landscape of history and religion. If the latter, then what is remarkable is not that the scriptures describe it, but that we should think it normal not to.

Girard says in Evolution and Conversion that “[i]deologies are not violent per se, rather it is man who is violent. Ideologies provide the grand narrative which covers up our victimary tendency. They are mythical happy endings to our histories of persecution.”

*

We who live post-Bible, post-Resurrection, we “moderns,” have been in the process of desacralizing violence, of coming to see it for what it is (just violence), a gradual but inevitable process begun when the veil was lifted from our eyes by the Judeo-Christian revelation. Some would say that the Enlightenment got us where we are today, that “[w]e’re growing up out of our superstitious, childish beginnings. For this desacralized modern society, we no longer have recourse, then, to violence sanctioned by the gods. It is simply our own sanctioned violence working to contain the unsanctioned (i.e., profane) violence. The question is whether or not a humanly sanctioned violence is transcendent enough to work. Or will we eventually end up in a sacrificial crisis with no new solutions of sanctioned, sacrificial violence? Enlightenment humanism offers us the truth of desacralization. … But that leaves us with only human possibilities to arrive at the solutions to our violence. [Humanists] are correct to reject the sacralized solutions offered by the false gods. But does this position also preclude the fact that the true God might be trying to offer us a wholly different alternative?” (Paul Nuechterlein, Opening Comments on Apocalyptic)

*

Here’s where we finally make a return to the idea — and the likelihood — of Apocalypse. The veil has been lifted: we are coming more and more to recognise that sacred violence, religious violence, justified violence, is in fact, just violence. We can’t whitewash and smokescreen our true motives like we used to be able to do, in pre-modern times. That’s good, and bad:

As more and more people come to see the revelation (apocalypse in the Greek) of sacred violence, however, it also means the increasing ineffectiveness of the sacrificial institutions to contain mimetic violence. The times of sacrificial crises increasingly come closer together, and what looms on the horizon is the possibility of a truly apocalyptic violence: a sacrificial crisis in which a new sacrificial solution cannot assert itself because the revelation of the cross has finally made such solutions impossible. In short, the Apocalypse would be a sacrificial crisis that doesn’t result in a new sacrificial solution — no sanctioned violence to contain the random, mimetic violence.  … Girard contends that this is why the New Testament is realistic about the possibility of apocalyptic violence — because it is the Gospel itself which disarms the powers of sacred violence.

The frightening alternative to enlightenment humanism has been the desperate attempts at sacred violence in the past century, resulting in genocides. Nazism is still the most infamous but, unfortunately isn’t the only one. In our current attempts to wipe out terrorism, how desperate will our sacred violence become?” (Paul Nuechterlein, Opening Comments on Apocalyptic)

It seems to me that this what Girardian anthropology would predict: As humans more and more see (because of Jesus’s death and resurrection, and what it reveals through the intelligence of the victim of the societal mechanism for creating so-called peace) that violence is simply and completely violence — that there is no true distinction between sanctioned violence and any other kind of violence — and as we struggle at the same time to come to terms with our own relational and personal violence — still sometimes attributing our violent acts as imitation of a sacredly violent God, sometimes believing there is no god and that we have to save ourselves from violence and war through meditation, affirmation, good deeds, enlightened thought, and so on — and often fail in controlling our violence impulses, we need an explanation for this cognitive dissonance, a reason why we don’t seem to act on what we believe … OK, so far, that’s just simple psychology, the cognitive dissonance thing, but the explanation we seem most comfortable with is what seems Girardian to me: I have to do this little bit of violence, nasty though I know it to be (maybe), to keep much, much worse violence from happening.

In other words, it’s the same explanation cultures have offered for centuries. It’s how we comfort ourselves as we destroy.

I wrote this in Jan. 2006:

What if human civilisation is entirely founded and maintained upon the entrenched and largely unquestioned belief that the way to live in peace is to kill, expel, destroy, blame, marginalise, root out, get rid of, cut off, exorcise, seek vengeance against, weed out, tune out, slander and libel, speak against, make an example of, mock, attack, go to war against … and in any other way do anything but embrace the other? And what if each of us can see others doing it, but not ourselves, because our own actions seem justified and maybe even sanctified in our own eyes?

This, I think, is our plight as humans. And even when we’re aware of this mechanism, it’s hard to recognise in ourselves in the moment. And when we do recognise it in ourselves, it’s almost but not quite impossible to act differently.

*

I was reading recently about how Jews were blamed and killed for the Black Death in Europe in the mid-1300s (almost 600 years before the rise of Hitler). The formulation then for rationalising their extermination was something like this: We’re not persecuting Jews because they’re Jewish and weird (they’re not like us) and somewhat wealthier as a whole than we Christians, and because we envy, loathe, and fear them as “other;” no, it’s not persecution of an enemy at all but simply protecting God-fearing Christians from disease, and in fact have you noticed that many fewer Jews are dying of the Plague [probably due to their sanitary rituals]? Why should that be … unless they are causing it, by poisoning our water and wells, because they hate us and want to eradicate us?

Once the Jews were accused of poisoning the wells, a wave of pogroms ensued. In January 1349, the entire Jewish community in the city of Basel was burned at the stake. The Jewish communities of Freiburg, Augsburg, Nurnberg, Munich, Konigsberg, Regensburg, and other centers, all were either exiled or burned. In Worms, in March 1349, the entire Jewish community committed suicide. In Cologne, the Jews were forced to flee.

In Mainz, which had the largest Jewish community in Europe, the Jews defended themselves against the mob and killed over 200 Christians. Then the Christians came to take revenge. On one day alone, on August 24, 1349, they killed 6,000 Jews in Mainz.

Of the 3,000 Jews in Erfurt, none survived the attack of the Christian mobs. By 1350, those Jews that survived the Black Death itself were destroyed by the ravages of the mobs. The Jewish communities in Antwerp and Brussels were entirely exterminated in 1350. There were almost no Jews left in Germany or the Low Countries by 1351. (Source)

This, despite that the official Church position on Jews was that they should be protected; the Christian people (the mob) by and large didn’t agree.

*

So, to a greater or lesser extent,  we no longer quite believe our own lies about why we expel others, indeed why we are so intent on demonizing “others” (who resemble us in many ways, in fact who may demonize us for exactly the same reason), and about why we do violence to each other on an interpersonal, societal, international level. We don’t think we can restore order, bring peace, allay existential anxiety, solve the contagion of all-against-all conflict by scapegoating the king or the diseased or the demonic or by sacrificing the pure — though we still try, over and over, in small and enormous ways over the centuries, but in modern times in almost all cultures around the world, there are always those who would, by refusing to do violence, shame us for this, who shudder in compassion at our injustice, who would call us out on our scapegoating. No one wants their scapegoats revealed to them. It’s hard to really enjoy that temporary feeling of tranquility and pseudo-order that the ritual of sacrifice lent a society, when increasingly the society is noticing a sort of pattern of “violence to cure violence” and wondering where that will end.

sacrificial crisis … occurs when the effectiveness of the sacrificial institutions is waning such that the sacrificial violence loses its effectiveness in containing profane violence. If a new sacrificial solution does not come into play, then the profane violence grows into apocalyptic violence. Throughout human history we see cycles of being on the verge of such violence and then new sacrificial solutions come into play to again bring relative peace. During the sacrificial crises, there are often cries of the Final Apocalypse, a violence that will finally consume us. And in sacralized settings, this apocalyptic violence is attributed to the deity: the gods will bring a resounding judgment that will punish the wicked and reward the just. To the mind under the influence of the Sacred, apocalyptic violence is the ultimately divine sacred violence.

But Girard argues that the continuing effect of the Gospel in history is to desacralize, i.e., to make it clear to us that violence is not of the true God; violence is ours alone. (Paul Nuechterlein, Opening Comments on Apocalyptic)

*

An apocalypse, as we’ve said, is an unveiling, a revelation, a seeing. When our own violence is unveiled, it has ‘apocalyptic’ consequences. Before the unveiling, our own violence seemed respectable and justified; afterwards, we see it for the violence, hatred, rivalry, and envy that it is.

Girard writes extensively about apocalypse in “On War and Apocalypse” in the Aug/Sept 2009 issue of First Things, including this:

… [D]emystification, which is good in the absolute, has proven bad in the relative, for we were not prepared to shoulder its consequences. We are not Christian enough.

The paradox can be put in a different way: Christianity is the only religion that has foreseen its own failure. This prescience is known as the apocalypse. Indeed, it is in the apocalyptic texts that the word of God is most forceful, repudiating mistakes that are entirely the fault of humans, who are less and less inclined to acknowledge the mechanisms of their violence. The longer we persist in our error, the stronger God’s voice will emerge from the devastation. …

A scapegoat remains effective as long as we believe in its guiltHaving a scapegoat means not knowing that we have one. Learning that we have a scapegoat is to lose it forever and to expose ourselves to mimetic conflicts with no possible resolution. This is the implacable law of the trend to extremes. The protective system of scapegoats is finally destroyed by the Crucifixion narratives as they reveal Jesus’ innocence and, little by little, that of all analogous victims. The process of education away from violent sacrifice thus got underway, but it moved very slowly, making advances that were almost always unconscious. It is only today that it has had increasingly remarkable results in terms of our comfort — and at the same time proved ever more dangerous for the future of life on Earth.

To make the revelation wholly good and not threatening at all, humans have only to adopt the behavior recommended by Christ: Abstain completely from retaliation and renounce the trend to extremes. Indeed, if the trend to extremes continues, it will lead straight to the extinction of all life on the planet.

Girard writes in Battling to the End that “Christ took away humanity’s sacrificial crutches and left before us a terrible choice: either believe in violence, or not; Christianity is non-belief.”

____________________________________

pophamdunesandcrossapril2008

Resources

René Girard, Battling to the End: Conversations with Benoit Chantre, 2010. French title: Achever Clausewitz; Clausewitz is Carl von Clausewitz (1780–1831), the Prussian military theoretician who wrote On War.

René Girard, “On War and Apocalypse”, First Things, Aug/Sept 2009.

René Girard, Entitled Opinions, interview with Robert Harrison, 18 Sept  2005. Partial transcript availableAudio of whole interview (mp3).

René Girard, Intellectuals as Castrators of Meaning: An Interview with Réne Girard. Girard interviewed by Giulio Meotti in Il Foglio, March 20, 2007, reprinted at First Principles in Sept. 2008.

Paul Nuechterlein, Opening Comments on Apocalyptic, Girardian Reflections on the Lectionary, last revised Nov. 2015.

James Alison, “Girard’s Breakthrough,” 1996. Really everything by James Alison is worth reading.

James Alison, Raising Abel: The Recovery of the Eschatological Imagination, 1996.

James Alison, The Joy of Being Wrong: Original Sin Through Easter Eyes, 1998.

Cynthia Haven, Evolution of Desire: A Life of René Girard, 2018.

Cynthia Haven, “History is a test. Mankind is failing it: Rene Girard scrutinizes the human condition from creation to apocalypse,” by Cynthia Haven, Stanford Magazine, July/Aug 2009.

Mark Heim, Saved from Sacrifice: A Theology of the Cross, 2006

Gil Bailie, Violence Unveiled: Humanity at the Crossroads, 1995.

Featured photo is of part of the “Sorrow” sculpture at the Path of Life, Windsor, VT. Final photo is at Popham Beach, Phippsburg, Maine.

2017 Book Summary

A la Jessamyn

number of books read in 2017: 52
number of books read in 2016: 71
number of books read in 2015: 54
number of books read in 2014: 52
number of books read in 2013: 47
number of books read in 2012: 50
number of books read in 2011: 55
number of books read in 2010: 34
number of books read in 2009: 74
number of books read in 2008:
number of books read in 2007:
number of books read in 2006:
number of books read in 2005: 37
number of books read in 2004: 46
number of books read in 2003: 40
number of books read in 2002: 30+ (3 months forgot to count)

2017 stats

average read per month: 4.3 books
average read per week: 1 book
number read in worst month: 2 (October)
number read in best month: 7 (January)

percentage by male authors: 40% (21 books)
percentage by female authors: 60% (31 books)

fiction as percentage of total: 88% (46 books)
crime fiction as percentage of fiction total: 57% (26 of 46 books)
non-fiction as percentage of total: 12% (6 books)

percentage of total liked: 58% (30 books)
percentage of total so-so: 13% (7 books)
percentage of total disliked: 29% (15 books)

Notes:

I have time and inclination to read more but have trouble finding books I want to read.

My favourite books of the year were A Gentleman in Moscow (2016) by Amor Towles, The Curious Case of Dassoukine’s Trousers (2012/2016), short stories by Fouad Laroui, The Voyage (1999) by Philip Caputo, and the Elena Ferrante 4-book Neapolitan novels. The only book I didn’t finish — just could not get into it — was Zadie Smith’s White Teeth. I read almost as many novels that were not crime fiction this year as I did crime fiction, which is unusual. Full book list.

Books Read 2017

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Once again (2016, 2015, 2014, 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009,2005, 2004, 2003, and 2002), I kept track of what I read this year; here is the full list.  As always, my reading is limited each month by being able to find books I really want to read. Recommendations always welcome!

January

Chaos (2016) by Patricia Cornwell, in the Scarpetta series. Set entirely in Cambridge, MA. Much more personal detail in this one, about her relationships with Lucy, Benton, Dorothy (her sister), Marino — which I like. All the action takes place in a 24-hour period, though there are memories and reminders of the past; if you haven’t read others in the series, the plot — a young woman is killed while riding her bike in a park — and musings may be a bit difficult to follow. I enjoyed it.

Reading the Forested Landscape: A Natural History of New England (1997) by Tom Wessels. For permaculture group. A sort of identification guide for central New England landscapes, looking at the signs of disturbance — fire, pasturing, logging, blights, beaver activity, blowdowns from various  kinds of storms — as a way to understand how the land has been used, how healthy it is, what kind of substrate underlies it, what woody and non-woody plants characterise it and why, etc.  Interesting and relevant.

A Gentleman in Moscow (2016) by Amor Towles. For a bookgroup. Spoiler below. One of the better books I’ve read in recent years (including his first book, Rules of Civility, which wasn’t nearly as good, IMO). Briefly, the plot is that in June 1922, as the Bolsheviks take over Russia, Count Alexander Rostov (Sasha to his friends) becomes a ‘Former Person,’ sentenced to live his entire life in the grand Metropol Hotel in Moscow and threatened with death if he steps outside it. As the book jacket puts it nicely, “the Count’s reduced circumstances provide him entry to a much larger world of emotional discovery as he forges relationships with the hotel’s other denizens,” including an earnest child called Nina who later has to leave her own child, Sophia, with the Count. The plot is simple, the book — moving among times and places; examining motives and intentions; and briefly but effectively considering such topics as the peppered moth of Manchester, the measurement of gravity, the movie Casablanca, bits of philosophy from Aristotle to Montaigne to Hobbes to Locke, etc. — is richly and elegantly complex.

The Trespasser (2016) by Tara French. Police procedural (most than most), crime fiction. A woman — dressed up, made up, “blond hair, straightened and sprayed so ferociously that even murder hasn’t managed to mess it up …. [s]he looks like Dead Barbie” — is found dead in her home, obviously interrupted while preparing a cozy dinner for two there.  Antoinette Conway, fairly new to the Murder Squad but already made wary and cynical by harsh hazing/sabotage, and her ready-to-please partner Steve Moran are given what looks like a simple domestic violence case. Excellent plot — much of it involving police work, suspect interviews, the delicate dealings within the team — with complex and interesting characters and relationships. Page-turner. Recommended.

Missing, Presumed (2016) by Susie Steiner. Crime fiction, another police procedural, set in Cambridgeshire, told in short chapters from multiple points of view, mainly Manon Bradshaw, the 39-yr-old single DS; Miriam Hind, the mother of the missing woman, Edith; and Davy Walker, Manon’s colleague on the police  force; and also Helena, Edith’s best friend. The police don’t have many leads after Edith disappears from her house one night and weeks go by as they investigate various possibilities. Well-written, heavy focus on Manon’s singleness and her attempts to find a man, offshoots about children in need of social services, lots of drinking, shagging, girl talk. I liked it but it probably has more appeal for women.

Less Medicine, More Health: 7 Assumptions that Drive Too Much Medical Care (2015) by Dr. H. Gilbert Welch. Extremely important book that I wish everyone would read. Welch — a Dartmouth medical school professor, internist at the VA Medical Center in White River Junction, VT, and a medical researcher — looks at the beliefs physicians and patients have that lead them to make poor decisions concerning medical care and provides evidence to show why we are mistaken. He makes convincing arguments that risks can’t always be lowered and trying to do so creates risks of its own; trying to eliminate a problem can be more dangerous than managing it; early diagnosis can (and usually does) needlessly turn people into patients; data overload can scare patients and distract doctors; action (vs. inaction) is not the reliably right choice; new interventions are typically not well tested and often end up being ineffective or even harmful; a fixation on preventing death diminishes life. If you have ever had CTs and MRIs that show nodules in organs, if you are considering surgery for lower back pain, if you are taking cholesterol lowering medication, if you are thinking about an ablation for a heart arrhythmia, if you are a woman at average risk of breast cancer getting yearly mammograms or a man at average risk of prostate cancer getting yearly prostate tests, if you are someone with a serious chronic disease trying to make decisions about what to do, if you are a well person who spends a lot of time worrying about your health — please read this book.  And if you smoke, stop!

Depraved Heart (2015) by Patricia Cornwell, in the Scarpetta series. (Read out of order). Like the one that follows, this one is also set entirely in Cambridge, MA, in about a one-day period, and also focuses on Carrie Grethen, Lucy’s psychopathic former girlfriend, who two months earlier had tried to kill Scarpetta underwater with a spear as she was diving in the Bahamas. The plot starts with Scarpetta and Marino at the home of a woman who seems to have fallen and died while trying to change a lightbulb; as their perceptions of that scene shifts, Scarpetta is also watching a video on her phone, shot in 1997 when Lucy was at FBI school in Quantico. Scarpetta, made anxious by the video, rushes with Marino to  Lucy and Janet’s mansion, to find the FBI there with a blanket search warrant. The fun never really ends for this family. Reading it now, in the early days of Trump’s administration, is spooky, because at the heart of the novel is something called data fiction, or completely false data and information planted in official places like FBI records, medical records, criminal records, airline reservation databases, etc., to create chaos and suffering.

February

The Lost Boy (2009/2016) by Camilla Läckberg, in the Fjällbacka (Sweden) series with Erica and Patrik. Sort of a police  procedural — in the sense that the police solving crimes, and the character development of the officers, is central to the plot — but it’s even more of a creepy thriller. Multiple narratives are intertwined in alternating chapters; the one thing they all have in common is a heavy and usually not particularly happy focus on parents and their children (the last line of the liner jacket blurb asks “Is there anything a mother would not do to protect her child?”). There’s something for most everyone here: ghost stories about a small island, with a supporting 1870s flashback; domestic violence; bad childhoods; grandparents caring for kids; loss of a child and the grief that follows; adjustment to having infants; drugs, biker gangs, etc.

Stone Coffin (2011, 2016) by Kjell Eriksson. An Inspector Ann Lindell crime novel, set in Uppsala, Sweden. The novel starts with a brief glimpse of pharmaceuticals researcher Sven-Erik Cederen’s visit to the Dominican Republic, then switches to the hit-and-run deaths of his wife and their 6-year-old daughter in Sweden. Along the way, we’ve got animal rights’ protestors forcing a statement to be read on TV, a trip to Malaga, Spain, to work with detectives there on the case, and Ann, almost 40, considering whether and how to continue her relationship with Edvard, who is living on the isolated island of Gräsö. Eriksson’s writing and tone are always understated.

Crucifixion Creek (2014) by Barry Maitland, the first Harry Belltree crime novel (of three) set in Sydney, Australia. Harry is a homicide detective with a personal interest in the current case, which seems tied to the crash that killed his parents and blinded his wife, Jenny, three years ago. Joining forces with reporter Kelly Pool, he gets involved with an outlaw motorcycle gang, the Crows, as well as local politicians, lawyers, accountants, real estate developers, and others whose professional façades hide their degenerate hearts. Complex and engaging plot.

The Undesired: A Thriller (2015) by Yrsa Sigurðardóttir. Two intertwined stories, one set at a juvenile detention home an hour outside of Reykjavik in 1974, the other set now, in Reykjavik, involving the death of a woman who falls out of a window, leaving her young daughter in the sole care of her ex-husband. Both stories are interesting but there are unresolved questions at the end, I thought.

March

The Catcher in the Rye (1951) by J.D. Salinger. Re-read, for a bookgroup. A book about teenage angst and alienation. I’m not sure whether it’s meant as a parody or not. Sixteen-year-old Holden Caufield comes from a wealthy NYC family and is now flunking out of his third prep school, not because he’s not smart enough but because, if we take him at his word, he can’t stand all the phony and mean people at this school and the other schools. Holden narrates the story, which he writes while in a mental institution for a nervous breakdown, which covers the week or so from the time he leaves his prep school (a few days before his expulsion would be enforced) after a fight with his roommate over a girl and heads to New York City, where he drinks a lot, sleeps little, and has disturbing and unsatisfying meetups and conversations with taxi drivers, an ex-girlfriend, a former teacher, a former prep school classmate, some women he dances with in a bar, a prostitute and her pimp, and finally, his beloved sister Phoebe. He’s a pathological liar with most people but less so with Phoebe. Other aspects of Holden’s life are told through an essay he writes about his late brother Allie, and some memories he shares with the reader, including about a classmate who jumps to his death after being bullied. Throughout his time in NYC, he is preoccupied with whether the ducks in the Central Park lagoon migrate in winter; people react oddly when he asks them. He is frequently depressed by what he sees, hears, and thinks, his thoughts seem to run in circles, and often he’s “not in the mood” to do things. He feels sorry for people frequently, gets a kick out of things that kids do and say, and he tells Phoebe that what he really wants to do in life is save children who are about to go off a cliff (the cliff of innocence?).

Garden of Lamentations (2017) by Deborah Crombie, #17 in the Kincaid/James series set in London. Much of this book is set around Duncan and Gemma’s home in Notting Hill. Gemma is investigating the case of a young nanny found murdered in the gated communal garden of a posh Notting Hill housing development, while Kincaid, after his former boss is brutally attacked moments after a clandestine meeting with Kincaid, is following through on his suspicions about corruption in the police force dating back 20 or more years. Complex plotting, which frankly lost my interest a few times as one too many names was introduced. I have read the previous book, of which this is a sort of continuation, but it had been a while and I didn’t remember exactly what happened; the events of the past (involving Angus Craig, Ryan Marsh, and others) are alluded to but not really stated clearly until page 300! Not her best effort, IMO.

The Master and Margarita (1967) by Mikhail Bulgakov. A book I have tried to read before without luck, but I finally got through it this time (for a bookgroup)! A sort of fantastical, dreamworld book — blurring the line between what’s real and false, what’s imagined and actual — apparently about life under Stalin and choices authoritarian leaders make believing (perhaps) that they are for the good of the state, but also a Faustian book about good and evil, the bargains we make in our lives, how to evaluate what we envision or sense when it seems impossible, etc.  Woland (the devil) and his retinue — consisting of Koroviev aka Fagott, wearer of checks and a pince-nez, an illusionist, “former choirmaster,” and nominal translator for Woland;  Behemoth, a large black who likes firearms and who can transform himself into human shape for a short time; and Azazello, a short broad-shouldered man with flaming red hair, a fang, a wall-eye, wearing a bowler hat — come to Moscow and wreak havoc, particularly among members of the Variety Theatre, with decapitations, lots of arson, black magic, abductions, counterfeiting. It’s one of those books that reminds me of a lot of other books I’ve read, especially Alice in Wonderland (with things turning into other things — like the Russian money turning into bottle labels and illegal foreign currency; things and people appearing and disappearing suddenly and impossibly; secret doors; grinning cats; people turning into pigs (the Duchess in AiW, Margarita’s downstairs neighbour in M&M); the imperious and nonsensical authority of the Red Queen; Alice‘s confusion and dismay and wanting things to make sense; and so on), and also The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafón, a little of The Prague Cemetery by Umberto Eco, and the Pontius Pilate story reminded me of Jim Crace’s Quarantine. The Master of the title is the author of a novel (within the novel) about Pontius Pilate’s decision to have Jesus executed and the guilt he holds because of that decision; Margarita is his married lover. I’m not sure why this novel is such a favourite of so many. Chapter by chapter annotations are online.

The Hidden Life of Trees: What They Feel, How They Communicate (2015) by Peter Wohllben. Read for my permaculture discussion group. Thirty-six short chapters about trees, with a focus on central Germany (and beeches) but nevertheless applicable to Europe as a whole, to North America (which is mentioned from time to time), and perhaps to other places. Wohllben — a forester who now runs an “environmentally friendly woodland” — is a tree sympathizer, cheerleader, and supporter. Sometimes his purple prose concerning trees’ feelings and body parts is scientifically suspect — as when he talks about pruning as “actually more like a massacre” and girdling as a brutal slow death; when he speaks of trees as having nerves, brains, and blood, and says that they “analyze” information; when he tells us that it’s “really painful” for a tree when chunks of its bark are pulled off or its roots are snipped; when he talks about trees’ alarm calls and their screams; and so on — but he also explains clearly and simply how trees communicate and share resources with other trees and defend against predators, how transpiration works, how trees reproduce and avoid inbreeding, how they age, what happens when they are wounded, how tree species adapt to climate and terrain (become specialists) over time, how trees interact with soil microbes, how various birds, insects, and other plants use trees, etc. His main case is that, for various reasons including how comparatively slowly trees grow and act, we maintain a false moral barrier between animals and plants, which, if we understood plants, and especially trees, better, we would realise is in error.

Death and the Maiden (2011/2012) by Frank Tallis, 6th in the crime series featuring turn-of-the-20th-century Viennese psychoanalyst, fencer, and amateur crime-solver, Dr Max Liebermann, who helps his friend, detective Oskar Rheinhardt, solve the murder of an opera diva in Mahler’s opera house. I read the other five in 2012 but missed this one. Set in 1903, already the menacing shadow of incipient Jewish persecution hangs over the city and the novel, as Vienna’s powerful and anti-Semitic mayor Karl Lueger is front and center. (Lueger, like Mahler and Freud, was a real person; he established the Austrian Christian Social Party, kept Jews from serving in his administration, and Hitler viewed him as an inspiration.) Meanwhile, Liebermann makes the moves on his heretofore friend, Amelia, who is more than ready for him to act.

April

The Soul of An Octopus: A Surprising Exploration into the Wonder of Consciousness (2015) by Sy Montgomery. For a bookgroup. Loved it. Well-written book that’s packed with information and yet flows like a narrative. We get to know the individual personalities of four octopuses who have lived at the New England Aquarium in Boston, learn a bit about scuba diving and observing octopuses in the wild, get a play-by-play account of two octopuses mating, and learn a lot about the intelligence, cleverness, curiosity, and individuality of octopuses.  Recommended. 

Heart of  a Dog (1987, but written in 1925) by Mikhail Bulgakov. For a bookgroup. Satire. Much shorter than Bulgakov’s The Master & Margarita, for which I was thankful, but just as unaffecting for me. The back of the book advertises it as “hilarious” and “brilliantly inventive,” but I didn’t find it either particularly, though at times it was amusing; this 123-page book felt to me like a simple conceit dressed up as a novel: Two scientists transplant the pituitary gland  and testes of a small-time criminal into a hapless stray dog, resulting in an ugly man who’s lecherous, vulgar, proletariat, a poor dresser, an alcoholic, a glutton … and who still likes to chase cats.

The Curious Case of Dassoukine’s Trousers (2012/2016) by Fouad Laroui (transl. Emma Ramadan). For a bookgroup. Loved it … resonated for me in many places, and it’s very funny. The book is only 130 pp long, a series of short stories that sometimes verge on philosophical meditations about — and explorations of the nuances of — feeling foreign, displaced, dislocated, an outsider, surrounded by the unfamiliar. The stories are somewhat connected by allusions, characters’ names, settings (a couple of stories are told in a coffee shop, the Cafe de l’Univers). Laroui is Moroccan and most of the stories are set there, with two in the Netherlands, one in Brussels. “Born Nowhere” really made me laugh, as did “The Invention of Dry Swimming.” “What Was Not Said in Brussels” felt so true, the way random phrases insert themselves in our brains and sometimes direct our thoughts.

May

The Vegetable Gardener’s Guide to Permaculture: Creating an Edible Ecosystem (2013) by Christopher Shein. Re-read, for permaculture group. Good intro to the basics — principles, soil and mulch, seed starting and seed saving, fruit guilds, perennial and other vegetables, fruits and nuts, mushrooms — with lots of photos, sidebars, and illustrations.

A Glass of Blessings (1958) by Barbara Pym. Fiction. It’s hard to beat Pym for a certain kind of fiction: British cozy (but not mystery), insightful as to human psychology and motivation, brimming with observations about the nuance of relationships that look simple. In this one, Wilmet Forsyth is a woman of leisure in her 30s whose marriage, without children, is somewhat staid and settled; her husband gives her cash on her birthdays and is indifferent to what she does with her days. As she goes about her prescribed life of church-going, doing good works (but not nearly as earnestly or often as some of her friends, for which she feels guilty), and shopping, she imagines minor dalliances with a friend’s brother and her best friend’s husband. My favourite character is her mother-in-law, Sybil, who lives with them and who sees Wilmet as a complete individual despite her marriage to Sybil’s son; Sybil doesn’t seem to expect Wilmet to be anyone other than who she is (and never laments her lack of grandchildren).

No Fond Return of Love (1961) by Barbara Pym. Fiction. I loved that this one references Wilmet and Rodney and Piers and Keith from A Glass of Blessings (pp. 191-193), visiting a church that the main characters in this book, middle-aged unmarried women (and temporary housemates) Dulcie and Viola, are visiting. Pym was post-modern before post-modern was cool. This book is quite funny, because both Viola and Dulcie, free-lance researchers by profession who meet at a literary conference, are a bit obsessed with literary journal editor Aylwin Forbes, for reasons the reader really can’t understand other than his good looks; his unsuitable-by-all-accounts wife Marjorie is divorcing him, and he seems a rather weak and typical fellow, dodging devoted “suitable” women right and left as he falls in “love” with girls half his age and younger. Dulcie and Viola use their research skills and curiosity to track him down in various places, and they also track down Marjorie, her mother, his mother, and his celibate vicar brother, surreptitiously visiting their homes, churches, the bed & breakfast in Tavistock run by his mother, the family cemetery, and so on.

Bilgewater (1976) by Jane Gardam. Unfortunately, I read the Europa (2016) edition, which had at least 10 glaring typos that detracted and distracted from the story. I really liked Gardam’s Old Filth Trilogy, but this story, about a 16-year-old girl — intellectually precocious but socially stunted, and naive, isolated, used to the company of eccentric adults, now coming into her own — was not terribly engaging for me.

The Dollhouse (2016) by Fiona Davis. For a bookgroup. Debut novel. Rather run-of-the-mill “women’s novel” (focus on relationships among women and romances with men), told in alternating chapters, of a young woman (Darby) who came to New York City from Ohio to study at the Katherine Gibbs’ secretarial school in 1952, boarding at the Barbizon Hotel along with other wanna-be secretaries and models, and of a journalist (Rose) in her 30s living now in the same building. There is some intrigue concerning jazz clubs, a Korean spice store, the hotel maid, and Darby herself. All in all, a pleasant, undemanding read that gives a little flavour of 1950s New York.

June

The Wonder (2016) by Emma Donoghue, for a bookgroup, a novel set in the Irish countryside in the late 1850s (several years after the potato famine ended) about an English nurse, Lib Wright (trained by Florence Nightingale), who is brought to a small Irish village on a 2-week temporary assignment to observe — along with another nurse, a nun — what appears to be a miracle: an 11-year-old girl who is said to have survived for four months without food. It’s part mystery, part romance, part historical fiction. The most interesting aspect of it for me is Lib’s ambivalence about interfering to change a situation that she has been hired only to observe and report upon. When she feels a conflict between obeying her contract to the community to be a detached observer and obeying her conscious as she becomes attached to her patient, how does she resolve it? In that way, the book explores a deep question; in other ways, it’s somewhat formulaic and the ending much too pat and fantastic.

The Chalk Pit (2017) by Elly Griffiths, ninth in the forensic archaeologist Ruth Galloway series. Bones found in Norwich’s tunnels and homeless people being stabbed to death converge in a ludicrous plot. If you can overlook that, the storyline of Ruth’s relationship with DCI Harry Nelson advances a bit, and there are some funny lines in the book. Cozy, but a bit inane this time.

Pastoralia (2000)  by George Saunders, for a bookgroup. Six short stories, all more or less contemporary, on themes of self-worth, status-seeking, shame, blame; the difference​ ​between​ ​how​ ​people​ ​present​ ​themselves​ ​and​ ​what​ ​they’re​ ​really​ ​thinking; the dichotomy​ ​between​ ​what​ ​we​ ​think​ ​and​ ​what​ ​we​ ​do; how ​we​ ​elevate​ ​and​ ​then​ ​degrade​ ​ourselves​ ​(and others)​ ​in​ ​seconds​ ​in​ ​our​ ​minds.​ ​Most of the characters are pathetic to some degree (weak, self-absorbed,​ ​unattractive​ ​physically,​ ​anxiety-ridden,​ ​callous​ ​and​ ​cruel, desirous​ ​of​ ​power​ ​and​ ​status,​ ​vengeful​)​, living demeaning lives, trapped in dysfunctional ​relationships — and yet sometimes it seems there’s more worth there than meets the eye. Someone else has said that in​ ​each​ ​story,​ ​”defective​ ​characters​ ​are​ ​trying​ ​to​ ​operate​ ​outside​ ​their​ ​comfort​ ​zones.” The tone is grim and sordid mixed with relentlessly optimistic dreams of grandeur. I enjoyed them.

July

The Voyage (1999) by Philip Caputo. For a bookgroup.  Historical fiction set at the turn of the 20th century (1900 or so), about a family with deep dark secrets and four boys (three Braithewaite brothers plus a friend, aged 13 to 18 or 19) with dreams of glory, love, adventure. They begin a 3-month journey in a schooner from Maine to Cuba as relatively naive and protected boys and end it much more worldly-wise, wearier, and still unaware of the Braithewaite family secrets, which great-granddaughter Sybil, living in Arizona in the 1990s,  tries to piece together from scrapbooks, letters, the ship’s log. Fascinating and definitely worth the read.

The Second Deadly Sin (2012./2013 transl) by Åsa Larsson, crime fiction set in northern Sweden, featuring Rebecka Martinsson and Kister Ericksson. Complex and engaging plot, with two alternating and related stories, one set in Kiruna today, the other in Kiruna in 1914, concerning multiple deaths in the same family, spanning several generations. Without spoiling the ending, I’ll say that the author’s choice to put Rebecka in the situation she did in the last action scene angered me and seemed totally unnecessary.

My Brilliant Friend (2012) by Elena Ferrante (pseud.), first of the four Neapolitan novels. I could not get into it for 2/3 of the book, but by the end, I wanted to read the next one in the series. Story of two girls and their impoverished, rivalrous, close-knit Naples community in the 1950s, as Lena and Lila grow up together from about age 8 to age 18, as friends, as competitors, and as models for each other in school, in love, in life. What finally won me over was the writing and plotting; as one Goodreads reviewer puts it, “The most beautiful part of the story is the way it is told: in a simple, anecdotal way without any intention of moving towards any climax.”

August

Police (2013) by Jo Nesbø, 10th in the Harry Hole series set in Norway (Oslo and other locations). Briefly, someone seems to be killing cops who were involved with unsolved cases. There are serial (gruesome, as usual) murders and multiple murderers, making for a complex, twisting, surprising plot. Enthralling but like all of Nesbø’s novels, not for the faint of heart.

Deadfall (2017) by Linda Fairstein, in the Asst. DA Alex Cooper series, set in New York (mostly uptown and the Bronx). Sort of a spoiler but it’s revealed on the second page: District Attorney Paul Battaglia, Alex’s boss, dies in her arms on the steps of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, after being shot. The feds wonder if Alex lured him to the killing spot, so she’s under serious and hostile scrutiny by the U.S. attorneys as they investigate his murder. Meanwhile, NYPD detectives Mike and Mercer, along with Alex, follow their own lines of investigation, which lead to the Bronx Zoo, the St. Hubertus Society (which Justice Antonin Scalia belonged to), Animals Without Borders, and a quick trip to a Montana big game hunting ranch.

Two Nights (2017) by Kathy Reichs, a stand-alone (or perhaps start of a new series) NOT in the Brennan series. There’s no forensic talk in this fast-paced thriller. Sunday (Sunnie) Night is a recluse of a woman who lives (with a feral squirrel) on an island off of Sullivan Island in SC, reachable only by boat. A former police officer and military veteran who saw action in Afghanistan, Night has deep psychological (and physical) scars and a small arsenal of Glocks and other assault artillery, though her sarcasm may be her most deadly weapon and her wariness her best defense. She’s asked to find a missing girl and the four perpetrators who killed the girl’s mother and brother in a terrorist bombing, which takes her to Chicago, Los Angeles, and the Kentucky Derby in Louisville. I wasn’t sure if I’d continue for the first 30 pages or so but then got into it.

The Thirst (2017) by Jo Nesbø, 11th in the Harry Hole series set in Norway, following immediately on the plot of Police, though taking place three years later. The vampirist is back, meeting women at bars through Tinder and then ambushing in their homes and killing them in gruesome ways. A vampirist expert is called in. Meanwhile, Rakel is having headaches and gets checked out at the hospital.

Walking on My Grave (2017) by Carolyn Hart, in the Death on Demand/Annie Darling series set on (fictional) Broward’s Rock Island, SC. These aren’t very good and I haven’t read any in a while but sometimes you just feel like a cozy, involving mostly rich people, set on an island, and this is the series for that time. The six or seven future heirs of Ves Roundtree’s considerable fortune all need money now and some resent her continued existence. How far will one of them, driven by greed, fear, or desperation, go? Meanwhile, Henny, Emma Clyde, and Laurel are all writing chapbooks about, respectively, classic crimes, the wisdom of her crime fiction detectives, and “merry musings” on life; these comprise the final pages of the book.

September

The Story of a New Name (2012) by Elena Ferrante (pseud.), second of the four Neapolitan novels. Lena continue her memoir, telling her story of growing into her 20s, her sexual coming of age (particularly one summer vacation), her time at university in Pisa, and she tells Lila’s story of marriage, adultery, having a child, continuing her tumultuous life. The two women grow apart, come together, grow apart, come together, grow apart.

Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay (2013) by Elena Ferrante (pseud.), third of the four Neapolitan novels, this one set as much in Florence as in Naples. Here, with the women in their 20s and 30s, Elena marries, has children, publishes a book that is provocative and makes her a bit famous and then struggles with her writing and in her marriage. Meanwhile, Lila works in a meat factory and lives with another man, Enzo, in a low-rent district, raising her son. Eventually both Lila and Enzo work as programmers for IBM. Both women become involved in the politics of the time, and this book focuses on social activism, feminism, socialism, the rights of the worker. As in book two, Elena and Lila move uncomfortably and ambivalently in and out of each other’s lives, often not seeing or speaking with each other for months. As Elena has expressed before, she comes again to the realisation that “I had wanted to become something — here was the point — only because I was afraid that Lila would become someone and I would stay behind. My becoming was a becoming in her wake. I had to start again to become, but for myself, as an adult, outside of her.”

The Maytrees (2007) by Annie Dillard. A hard book to get into. It’s a novel of a couple and their life together and apart, set mostly in post-war Provincetown, Cape Cod. Lou, not much of a talker, and Toby Maytree, a poet — who thinks a lot about how various kinds of natural light represent Aristotelean or Platonic thought, — meet and marry, have a son, make friends among their bohemian artist and fisherman neighbours (characterised early on as “social thinkers”), and care for each other and their friends in ordinary and remarkable ways. They are both big readers and laughers. The writing is often uber-poetic, spare yet awkwardly descriptive, as if trying hard to pack the array of short sentences to the brim with unheard-of word combinations, to the point where it doesn’t really make sense at times, even on an emotional level. I stopped reading about halfway through and read another book, coming back to this one afterward. I appreciated the focus on “the meaning of life” and how love manifests itself over a lifetime and among many relationships, but I didn’t actually care about any of the characters, whose self-containment was admirable but distancing. Lou is described as “throughout her life … ironic and strict with her thoughts.” She is described, when they are courting, as having “no agitation in her even gaze. …. Her silence made her complicit, innocent as beasts, oracular.”

Sleeping in the Ground (2017) by Peter Robinson, in the Banks/ Cabbot series, set in Eastvale and surrounds (Yorkshire). On the same day that Alan Banks attends the funeral of his first true love, Emily, several members of a wedding party are shot and killed or critically wounded by a sniper. Lots of twists and turns as the detectives — newbie Gerry Masterson is featured in this one — trace relationships backwards to find the motive for the killings. Very readable but not as engaging as some.

October

The Story of the Lost Child (2015), by Elena Ferrante (pseud.), last of the four Neapolitan novels, this one set almost entirely in Naples. Elena is with Nino, and she becomes pregnant with their daughter, Imma, while Lila becomes pregnant with Enzo with their daughter Tina. At Lila’s urging and for other reasons, Elena moves back to Naples, where the women live one floor apart. The years pass, the children grow, Elena has writing successes and failures, Lila struggles with some illnesses and her dissolving boundaries feeling, and at one point there is a crisis that forever affects Lila’s outlook and actions. When the book ends, the women are 60ish, their children grown, their lives still somewhat unsettled.

The Optimist’s Daughter (1969) by Eudora Welty. For a bookgroup. I read this short novel (180 pp but in big type with large margins) in about 2 hours. The plot is that Laurel’s father, Judge Clinton McKelva (age 71), undergoes eye surgery, dies soon thereafter in hospital (in New Orleans) as he is recovering, and Laurel (in her late 40s?) and her graceless, jealous, narcissistic step-mother of one year, Fay (also in her 40s), go home to the family house in small-town Mississippi, where friends and family await, to have the funeral and sort through things. It all takes place in about a week, with a little bit of flashback, mainly to Laurel’s brief marriage to Phil (he dies in the war), the Judge’s first marriage to Becky (Laurel’s mother), and Becky’s early life in West Virginia and the deaths of her parents (Laurel’s grandparents).  It’s the tone or attitude of the book that just escapes me. Fay and Laurel are counterpoints to each other in some way, some of the women in town are like a Greek chorus, and the book seems to explore the realms and limits of empathy and compassion. My favourite line is spoken by one of Fay’s relatives, a man who has spent most of his visit in the yard, who tells Laurel that “You got a lot of fat squirrels going to waste here.” The moral seems to be that “any life, she had to believe, was nothing but the continuity of its love.”

November

Mansfield Park (1814) by Jane Austen, for a bookgroup. A complex, long novel about Fanny Price, one of nine children of a disorganised “slattern” and an unmannered alcoholic, who goes to live with her wealthier aunt and uncle, the Bertrams, and their four children when she is ten years old. Edmund, the second Bertram son, who is 16 when Fanny comes to live with his family, is empathetic and kind and takes a particular interest in Fanny when he sees how miserable she is. He teaches her manners, honour, kindness, etc., and she in turn falls in love with him, but she can’t ever let that be known to anyone. Five years later, wealthy, agreeable Henry  Crawford falls in love with Fanny and wants to marry her; she wants none of it, seeing him as shallow and not very honorable, having observed him trifling with both her female cousins’ affections.  Still he perseveres, enjoying the challenge. Meanwhile, Edmund has fallen for Crawford’s sister, Mary, who is also a bit superficial and who, though she has feelings for him, is not happy that he has no inheritance and wants to be a lowly clergyman. The novel is nuanced, and though it’s written of the kind of society that doesn’t exist (at least in most places) anymore, many of the themes and truths are universal and timeless.

The Scarred Woman (2017) by Jussi Adler-Olsen, a Dept. Q novel (#7), set in Copenhagen, Carl Mørck. A bunch of cases, some cold and some not, come together, sending Carl and Assad investigating young women being hit by cars, another young woman shot, two beating deaths, and the death of their colleague Rose’s father. Complex and engrossing. I really like this series.

Death in the White Mountains: Hiking Fatalities and How To Avoid Being One (2017) by Julie Boardman. Non-fiction details of 219 deaths from 1849-2016 of hikers, ice- and rock climbers, and backcountry skiers in the White Mountains of New Hampshire. Sections on death by  hypothermia (body temperature going too low), falling, avalanche, drowning, lighting and other freak accidents, hyperthermia (overheating), murder, and also from natural causes (mostly heart attacks), as well as a few accounts of lost hikers who have never been found. There’s some info about every death and longer stories about a handful in each category, some conclusions about common mistakes that lead to injury or death (e.g., not heeding weather reports, not turning back when weather worsens, not packing enough clothing or other items, hiking or climbing alone), plus warnings and suggestions about how to avoid dying in these ways when hiking, climbing, or skiing in the White Mountains or any wild place.

The Mistletoe Murders (2016) by P.D. James, four short stories. The first, third, and last are set at Christmas time and rather Agatha Christie-ish. The last two star detective Adam Dalgliesh. The second one (“A Very Commonplace Murder”) is quite different from the others, not at Christmas, no Dalgliesh nor any detective, rather sordid. In “The Boxdale Inheritance,” the third one, Dalgliesh investigates a murder that took place on Christmas Eve, over 50+ years ago.  I read them all in about 1-1/2 hours.

Dead Woman Walking (2017) by Sharon Bolton. Crime fiction/thriller. Fairly gripping throughout, quite gory and deeply unsettling at the start. Police detective Jessica and her sister, Isabel, a nun, go on a balloon ride with others in the north of England for Isabel’s 40th birthday. Mayhem ensues, entangling one sister in the black market organ market.

Murder at the Old Vicarage (1988) by Jill McGown. I read this in the early 1990s but it was a nice re-read before Christmas. It’s in the Inspector Lloyd and Sargent Judy Hill detective series, set in Stansfield, England (Suffolk area). Lloyd and Judy have their own issues, which pale in comparison to those of the Wheeler family — George, the non-believing vicar; Marian, his controlling wife; Joanna, their protected daughter; and Graham, Joanna’s frustrated husband. On Christmas Eve, things come to a head in the Wheeler household and then the lies and misdirection begin. A nice romp.

December

The Other Woman (1992) by Jill McGown, in the Inspector Lloyd and Sargent Judy Hill detective series, set in Stansfield, England. Complex crime novel with names/characters I could never keep straight. Well-written, and I think the convoluted plot hangs together,  but it didn’t compel me.

The Witches’ Tree (2017) by M.C Beaton, in the Agatha Raisin series, set some place in England (fictional Sumpton Harcourt). Pretty awful. The writing is clunky, the plot — involving witches, sex, money — convoluted and dumb, and the editing atrocious (lines repeated from one paragraph to the next, improper punctuation, and the last name of key characters in the cover flap doesn’t match their surname in the book!

Mystery in White: A Christmas Crime Story (1937; 2016) by J. Jefferson Farjeon, a classic crime novel republished recently. The story starts on a train but soon moves to a recently deserted manor home in the country where a disparate group of people (who have left the stalled train in a snowstorm to try to reach another station) finds shelter … and more. Part creepy ghost story, part traditional murder mystery, the novel is set at Christmas, with blinding heavy snow all around a well-provisioned house — food, fires, beds — and a cast of characters animated by complex motives and desires.

The Devil’s Wedding Ring (2015, transl. 2017) by Vidar Sundstøl, a crime novel set in Telemark, Norway, involving a 13th-century stave church and pagan midsummer rites, and spanning 30 years, from the time a folklore researcher disappears on Midsummer Eve in 1985 to the disappearance of a woman researching the same rituals in 2015 and the apparent suicide of a former policeman, who had been a colleague of Max Fjellanger, now a private investigator living in Florida. Fjellanger returns to Norway to attend his friend’s funeral, suspicious that he didn’t die by his own hand. He soon partners with quirky, insightful librarian and single mother Tirill Vesterli, and together they investigate, becoming convinced an ancient ritual is behind the violence. OK but not all that engaging.

The Secret Diary of Hendrik Groen, 83-¼ Years Old (a novel by Hendrik Groen, 2014/2017). Groen, an “inmate” in an Amsterdam old age home, colludes with several other oldies to form the Old But Not Dead Club dedicated to keeping life lively and worth living; the club members plan interesting outings and meals for each other, look in on each other, and resist the unexplained rules and regulations of the institution where they live. Eventually, since most of the members are over age 80, illness and infirmity cast a dark shadow over the lighter aspects of living in community. Written with a light touch, but sometimes darkly humourous, the novel references many real and difficult issues of growing old.   

Dream City Home

Welcome to day 31 of 31 Days of Heterotopias: Motels and Hotels, a month of posts about how motels, hotels, and inns function as heterotopias and liminal spaces in society.  Each post will look at these ideas from its own vantage point, which may not obviously connect with the others, and which may mention motels and hotels only peripherally or may focus on them without referencing heterotopia or liminality. I won’t attempt to tie the posts together. They are all listed here.
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To be an outlaw you must first have a base in law to reject and get out of, I never had such a base. I never had a place I could call home that meant any more than a key to a house, apartment or hotel room. … Am I alien? Alien from what exactly? Perhaps my home is my dream city, more real than my waking life precisely because it has no relation to waking life…  — William S. Burroughs

Dream city as home. This idea works for me. My dreamspace, which feels like a place where I live even more vividly, more sensually, than usual, is often architectural in form and setting, with past houses (which obviously do have a relationship to waking life) — especially this one …

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Maine house, Feb. 2001
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partial kitchen, Maine house, 1994
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Thanksgiving in Maine house, 1995
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fireplace and living space, Maine house, 1994
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stairs and warming oven, Maine house, 1994
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Christmas 1996 (with Cactus) in Maine house

… and apartments, hotels, restaurants, frequently other people’s houses, auditoriums, hospitals, bridges, schools, bathrooms, meeting rooms, buildings and built spaces that I don’t think I have ever been in except in dreams (and there they are typically recurring settings) — all common in my dreams. Of course, dreams have to be set somewhere, like plays, but what interests me is the transformation of knowledge and memory of the building, and the exploration of it in the dream, and how often dreams are set in places I don’t recognise except perhaps from previous dreams. (This dream, e.g., about my dad a year or so after he died, takes place in several buildings I’ve never been in in waking life.)

My “dream city” feels like a multiplicity of places — some real, some not real as far as I know (or at least not remembered by me in real life) — that are significant for various reasons: because of my emotional and aesthetic memories of a real place; because of the feeling evoked by its architecture or layout; because of some association with it through other people’s stories (what my imagination conjures — from novels, from what friends have described, from song lyrics or lines of poetry, from what I’ve heard on the radio — or what my eyes have actually glimpsed, momentarily, in paintings, on TV or in movies, riding past, etc.); or who knows what reason.

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Yemassee SC Dec. 2013
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Rocky Mount MC Dec. 2013
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somewhere in Rhode Island, Feb. 2008
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somewhere in Connecticut, Feb. 2008

Why do buildings and other places resonate and spark imagination? Why do they “make us” feel a certain way, evoke moods and sensations (e.g., “haunted houses”)? Is it because they contain us, hold us, bring us together or split us apart, both exclude and include us? Do they somehow form an external correspondence to our interior spaces?

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More to Burroughs’ point, my sense of homelessness, placelessness, alienates me from real life sometimes. My family moved often — due to my dad’s corporate life promotions and transfers — so when asked, e.g. as a security question on a financial site, “what is your hometown?,” I have no idea. I have no hometown, and my home is pretty much where I am at the moment, so in one sense I feel “at home” almost anywhere. But coming home after being away feels jarring — home is familiar, a place I know well and am comfortable, but re-entry to normal life after being away feels oppressive, constrictive; I feel restless, like I’ve lost something. I think it’s partly that on the road (hotels, motels, trains), there is much less stuff and therefore less emotional tiredness brought on by the emotional and physical demands of stuff.  But I think it’s more than that, perhaps something to do with the way, as I’ve mentioned previously, that travel disrupts, questions, and subverts conventional thought and behaviour. Coming home, I feel the demands (that word again) reinstated, the sense of what I am expected to be and do limited by the circumference of “home.”

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Unlike Burroughs’ experience (“I never had such a base. I never had a place I could call home that meant any more than a key to a house, apartment or hotel room”), I have in my life almost always had a base, a room, apartment, or house to come home to day after day — and yet these places have always felt transitional to me. (I’ve written about this before, 5 years ago, in Oct. 2012). I can’t help but notice that all our lives and all our places are transitional, ephemeral, not made to last. In the short run, someone will dig up my garden or terrace it, a storm or fire may take out trees and destroy homes and towns, objects and materials constantly wear out, living things die (some exceedingly quickly, others at a slower rate) and everyone I know, including me, including friends’ children and their children, including all the animals now alive on earth, will die soon. In the long run, all bodies, all buildings and things, all governments, all human constructions will disappear and wild nature will take over, as it is wont to do now when given half a chance.

seaweedgrowingonseawallrockSeasideInn29Dec2014
seaweed growing on rock, Kennebunk ME, Dec. 2014
ferngrowingoutofbrickColonialParkCemeterySavannah18Dec2015
fern growing out of rock, brick, in Colonial Park Cemetery, Savannah, GA, Dec. 2015
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trees growing out of rock ledge, Northern Rail Trail, NH, April 2015
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watermelon plant growing on beach, Jekyll Island, GA, Sept. 2013

And in the longer run, land, sea, and all mortal beings, all species of flora and fauna, will disappear.

Which is why perhaps a heterotopia appeals to me so deeply … the placeless place, neither here nor there: a ship between shores on which an ad hoc society exists only as long as a cruise or passage; a tourist town, which shutters up and closes down after a few months; a public garden, where antiquity meets modernity (and as Louis Marin says, “the unsurpassable contradiction, where art and nature, artifice and truth, imagination and the real, representation and being, mimesis and the origin, play hide-and seek”); a museum (hard on the back and wearying though they are), where the past is reinterpreted by the present (“Foucault’s museum is not a funereal storehouse of objects from different times, but an experience of the gap between things and the conceptual and cultural orders in which they are interpreted”- from Beth Lord); a cemetery, where past and present collide and almost all of us have a relationship with it. A place, in other words, where here-there-everywhere and now-then come together in some ambiguous, disturbing, provocative way. A place that deviates from conventional norms, a constant reminder that ‘normal’ is always and everywhere just a temporary construct. These heterotopic places are where I feel I belong, if one can be said to belong to such a place, because they match my sense of what’s real.

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my mom, Evergreen Cemetery, Roanoke, VA, 13 Dec. 2014
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Dad’s ashes, scattered in Mt. Rogers National Recreational Area, Virginia, June 2013

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We each exist in a place now, places that seem real, solid, geographically tangible. At the same time, or in another time that runs alongside the chronology we obey, we are placeless, standing at a threshold, that liminal space, waiting, one foot here and one foot there, waiting, inhabiting multiple realities, multiple places and times in one moment, in one space. That’s how it feels to me, and I guess it’s why hotels, motels, lodging, and the movement of travelling resonate for me, reminders of the non-linear world beyond and inside and overlapping this other world we are inexplicably placed in. They remind me that we’re here for the moment, we’re in this spot in each moment as we move toward another spot in each moment, places we’ve never been, or have visited in dreams and in memory.

We live out of suitcases, uncertain in the middle of the night how to find the bathroom and the lights; we wake up disoriented, aware of strangers coughing, flushing, moving about next door; we check ourselves in the mirror before opening the door and stepping through.

MollysinkmirrorConservatoryLongwoodGardens13Oct2017

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Thanks for traveling with me on this part of my journey.

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Almost Certainly Not Axe Murderers

Welcome to day 30 of 31 Days of Heterotopias: Motels and Hotels, a month of posts about how motels, hotels, and inns function as heterotopias and liminal spaces in society.  (More about heterotopias and liminal spaces.)  Each post will look at these ideas from its own vantage point, which may not obviously connect with the others, and which may mention motels and hotels only peripherally or may focus on them without referencing heterotopia or liminality. I won’t attempt to tie the posts together. They’ll all be listed here, as they are posted.

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exteriormorningFairfieldInnhotelKennettSquarePA12Oct2017

“The man behind the check-in counter gives the impression that he has just axe-murdered the motel’s owner (and family, and family pet) and is going through these procedures of hostelry so as not to arouse suspicion.” ― Paul Quarrington, The Ravine

I mean, how could I not use that sentence in this series. But seriously, the Fairfield Inn & Suites in Kennett Square, PA (the Brandywine Valley) is nothing like this! It’s just a clean, simple, normal chain hotel in a medical/corporate park alongside Route 1, perfectly located for visits to Longwood Gardens, exactly two miles away from the hotel. It’s also only about a mile to charming Kennett Square, with shops and restaurants, and about 1.5 miles to Victory Brewing, a brewpub on the outskirts of Kennett Square. Spouse and I have stayed at the Fairfield Inn three times now for six nights total — in Aug 2015, July 2017, and Oct. 2017 — and will use it in the future when we visit the area.

I’m not sure what so appeals, besides primo location and hotel staff who in no way resemble or suggest axe-murderers.

It’s not the Pumpkin Spice coffee.

pumpkinspicecoffeeFairfieldInnhotelKennettSquarePA12Oct2017

It’s not the wacky carpets, although it is kind of fun to try to walk only on the straight lines.
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The breakfast is variable, though usually the oatmeal and fruit are good.

partialbreakfastroomFairfieldInnhotelKennettSquarePA12Oct2017

I think it’s really just the combined sense of comfort and anonymity that appeals. The staff is friendly and efficient but non-intrusive. They look up when you walk in and out, so you feel someone is noticing your presence, but their eye contact, body language, and spoken words (if any) don’t suggest they are watching too closely or monitoring your movement. Housekeeping comes at a predictable time. The public space is impersonal but there is coffee and tea and sometimes lime water offered at all hours, as well as candies at the front desk sometimes, and complimentary newspapers on weekdays.

The private space, the rooms, are comfortable, too, with all the basics provided.

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view into room, Oct. 2017
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two double beds, Oct. 2017
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one king bed, July 2017

The desk has additional electrical outlets and jacks. There’s a microwave, fridge, and coffee maker. There’s ample drawer and closet space.

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microwave, fridge, desk and chair, dresser and TV, coffee maker, lighting, Oct. 2017
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microwave, fridge, desk and chair, dresser and TV, coffee maker, lighting, July 2017

The bathrooms are big enough with capacious counters and lots of space for shampoos and such in the shower.

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bathroom, Oct. 2017
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sink, counter space, mirror, Oct. 2017
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tub/shower, July 2017

The rooms aren’t cheap — from $105-$165 per night depending on what season and nights we stayed — but they’re comparable to other places in the area, and I feel there’s good value for the money (just the location near Longwood alone means we can return to the room and then back to Longwood easily during the day).

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Speaking of Longwood, and since this is a garden blog, a few pics from our visit this month, starting with the almost-futuristic bathrooms in the conservatory:

toiletsinkbConservatoryLongwoodGardens13Oct2017

This is what they look like from outside:

bathroomcurveConservatoryLongwoodGardens13Oct2017

I’ll be doing a longer post on this trip to Longwood soon, but for now, a few teasers:

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old beech tree, meadow
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monarch and red admiral butterflies on dahlia
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mimic fly on chrysanthemum
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lanterns in conservatory
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dahlias
HarpageantEasyDoesItFloribundarosepinkorangeLongwoodGardens13Oct2017
‘Easy Does It’ floribunda rose … pink and orange

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Next time I’d like to get to Chanticleer, Mt. Cuba again, and maybe even Tyler Arboretum in Media, PA. Might need a trip to the area just for garden-going. And a few more nights in the cheerfully disinterested Fairfield Inn & Suites.

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