Monday, July 26, 2021

Summerbooks: Death by knitting needle

We had some friends over last night for drinks and snacks--and mosquitoes. A couple of them were knitters. I couldn't contribute much to that part of the conversation except to say that, in the last two mysteries I read, the murder weapon was a knitting needle...

Patricia Moyes/Night Ferry To Death (1985)

Chief Inspector Henry Tibbett of Scotland Yard and his wife Emmy are able to slip away for a quick vacation to the Netherlands. They see the tulips, visit friends, have a nice dinner out. The last day of their vacation, there's a robbery at one of the major diamond dealers in Amsterdam.

But that's not Henry's concern, right?

Ha. On the ferry back one of the passengers is stabbed in a sleeping cabin with a knitting needle. The body is only discovered as the ship is docking in Harwich. The sleeping cabin requires a special ticket to enter and the purser said no one went in or out all night. So there's a limited number of suspects, though that includes Henry and Emmy.

But where is the knitting needle? And where are the diamonds? (Because of course they're involved.) 

There's a few more bodies along the way before Henry solves this one, and it includes another trip to the Netherlands to meet with the diamond merchant.

Pretty fun. But if I was Emmy Tibbett, I'd be terrified to go on vacation. A bunch of Patricia Moyes' mysteries begin when Henry and Emmy are traveling. 

Ngaio Marsh/Swing, Brother, Swing (1949)

This one starts with an amusing epistolary section to give us the exposition: Félicité has fallen in love with Carlos, an Argentine accordion player in a swing band. Her mother disapproves. Her stepfather, the eccentric Lord Pastern and Baggott is indifferent to the potential marriage; he just wants to sit in with the band. So Félicité's cousin Carlisle is summoned in an attempt to talk some sense into her. Another cousin Edward Manx, plus various swing band members are on the scene as well. Various romance possibilities are in the offing.

Lord P&B's musical debut occurs in a club. They've planned some stage business where our lordship will shoot Carlos in the middle of his hot solo. The gun is supposed to be loaded with blanks...but you know how that goes.

Or maybe you don't, because instead of an actual bullet replacing one of the blanks, the murderer has rigged up a projectile involving a knitting needle. Lord P&B duly kills Carlos, but did he mean to? Or did some other murderer tamper with the gun?

And, as it turned out, Chief Inspector Roderick Alleyn of Scotland Yard and his wife Troy had hoped to slip away for a simple night out at a jazz club...

Alleyn, after the usual banter with Br'er Fox, his assistant, solves this. Of course. Still not sure why the gun was stuffed with a knitting needle rather than just putting a bullet back into it. 

Marsh is knowledgeable about and sympathetic toward performers, and is again here, though her life was more involved with theater than music. But her attitude toward the upper classes sometimes brings out the Marxist in me, and halfway through I was half-hoping one of the aristos had done it. But you can't always get what you want...

One of the last night's knitters asked, so were the murderers women? Now that would be telling...

Sunday, July 18, 2021

#ccspin: And the winner is...


That's Henryk Sienkiewicz' Quo Vadis for me. A good choice. I'd been half-following along the readalong earlier this year and had it in mind. Maybe I'll reread Petronius to get in the proper space. Hubert already is:

Because when life hands you a bowl of (local!) pie cherries... 😉

Did you get something good?

Saturday, July 17, 2021

Classics Club Spin #27

Squeezing in just under the wire...

It's time for another Classics Club spin. I was off-grid for a few days there, and now I need to hurry up and figure out some spin possibilities. It's also a relatively quick turn-around spin, so I'm concentrating on short to medium-length books.

From my original Classics Club list:

I'm nearing the end of my first list and I won't pick the super long ones, but here are a few from my first Classics Club list:

1.) Willa Cather/The Lost Lady

2.) Willa Cather/One of Ours

3.) W. Somerset Maugham/The Razor's Edge

4.) Sir Walter Scott/Count Robert of Paris

5.) Honoré de Balzac/Cousin Bette

6.) Henryk Sienkewicz/Quo Vadis

7.) George Bernard Shaw/Major Barbara

Numbers 5, 6, 7 are already on my twenty books of summer list, so I'm expecting to read them soon anyway.

From a potential new Classics Club list:

I haven't made up a new list yet in earnest, but I've been thinking about things I might put on it. And anyway I'm tired of putting the same books THAT NEVER GET PICKED on spin lists. (I'm looking at you, Willa Cather.) So here are some new choices I've been considering. Some of these come from the list that Deb assembled after a discussion of classic non-fiction at the home blog a few months ago.

8.) John Ruskin/Unto This Last

9.) Thomas de Quincey/Recollections of the Lake Poets

10.) Dee Brown/Bury My Heart At Wounded Knee

11.) Robert Pirsig/Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance

12.) Konstantin Stanislavsky/My Life in Art

13.) Barbara Tuchman/A Distant Mirror

14.) Ernest Hemingway/A Moveable Feast

Some Other Oddballs...

Is Austen in August happening? A couple for that. (The Austen I most want to reread is Persuasion.) Since reading Alex Ross' Wagnerism, I've also been wanting to reread Willa Cather's The Song of the Lark. Mudpuddle lately has made want to read some classic American sea tales.

15.) J. E. Austen-Leigh/A Memoir of Jane Austen

16.) Jane Austen/Persuasion

17.) Willa Cather/The Song of the Lark

18.) Sholom Aleichem/In The Storm

19.) James Fenimore Cooper/Red Rover

20.) James Fenimore Cooper/The Pilot

Which look good to you? Which should I be sure not to miss?

The Bridge on the Drina by Ivo Andrić


"...this is not a building like any other, but one of those erected by God's will and for God's love; a certain time and certain men built it, and another time and other men will destroy it." [208]

The Bridge on the Drina is a novel about the Mehmed Pasha Sokolović bridge in Višegrad, Bosnia. The novel begins with the bridge's construction, starting in 1571, and relates its history from then until 1914, at the start of the first World War. The introduction, by William H. McNeill, says that there are over 200 characters in the novel (in just over 300 pages) but suggests, and I agree, that the real protagonist of the novel is the bridge itself. 

Mehmed Pasha Sokolovič, who funded the bridge, was born in the area, but was abducted as a child and forcibly converted to Islam for service under Ottoman Sultans. But he was good at it, eventually rising to become the Grand Vizier of the empire. He remembered his homeland, funded the building of the bridge, and left estates to pay for its upkeep. In the middle of the bridge there's a wide place, the kapia, with an engraved dedication, which you can sort of make out in the picture.

It's the novel that, more or less, won Andrić the Nobel Prize of 1961; they declared it an epic, but Andrić himself demurred; he said it was instead a chronicle, which is a pretty good description. But not one line per year as in the Anglo-Saxon chronicle, but one with stories. Families and roles recur: the local Orthodox priest, the town rabbi, the administrator of the bridge's trust fund. 

Bosnia is of course a country with a dark and troubled history, and Andrić doesn't let you forget that, but he does allow for the possibility of good, and the bridge is its symbol:

"Even the least of the townsmen felt as if his powers were suddenly multiplied, as if some wonderful, superhuman exploit was brought within the measure of his powers and with the limits of everyday life, as if besides the well-known elements of earth, water, and sky, one more were open to him, as if by some beneficent effort each one of them could suddenly realize one of his dearest desires, that ancient dream of man--to go over the water and to be master of space." [66]

This is at the completion of the bridge, in 1577. But even to get there, a symbolic three lives were lost: Radisav, a Serbian Orthodox, tries to sabotage the construction, is caught, tortured and executed. The master mason's assistant, an Arab, dies in an industrial accident. And an unnamed gypsy child dies from eating too much halva at the party for the opening of the bridge. 

The life of the town centers around the bridge and in particular, that kapia, where hawkers sell food, where the townsfolk gather to talk, where boys meet girls.  One of the best stories is of Fata Avdagina:

"It has always been the case with us that at least one girl in every generation passes into legend and song because of her beauty, her qualities and her nobility." [104]

The story is alluded to in the summary on the back, though I don't think the summarist got it quite right. 😉  But according to the back cover she died from an unhappy marriage.

"For some time the townspeople talked about the incident and then began to forget it. All that remained was a song about a girl whose beauty and wisdom shone above the world as if it were immortal." [112]

The song of Fata Avdagina is sung on later occasions in the book. 

Wars and floods challenge the bridge. The bridge laughs off the floods, despite the occasional dire prediction. The town doesn't always. 

Wars are more problematic. The estates whose income funded the bridge maintenance were in Hungary, and when the Ottomans are forced to retreat from Hungary, that money dries up. The bridge was built with an associated caravanserai; with no money to maintain it, the caravanserai falls apart. 

Višegrad is near the Serbian border, and the various rebellions and wars that led to Serbian independence in 1878 trouble Višegrad as well and the bridge, a chokepoint, is used for the control of people's movement. The kapia is converted into a bunkhouse or a customs check.

That same Treaty of Berlin that formalized Serbian independence resulted in the transfer of Bosnia to the Austro-Hungarians. Financially this marks a major step up for Višegrad, and immigrants from elsewhere in Austria-Hungary start to arrive, Ashkenazi Jews (the town's Jews before were Sephardic), Croats, Italians. New businesses are established, though this includes a whorehouse.

But the frontier with Serbia remains just as troubled. The renowned Serbian rebel Jakov crosses the bridge while Fedun, an Austro-Hungarian soldier from the Ukraine is on duty. He's detained pending his court martial, but Fedun commits suicide before that happens. "Thus the young man who had made his mistake on the kapia remained for ever in the town." [169]

The years leading up to World War I are particularly poignant and interesting. These are times of Andrić's own youth, and he captures well the discussions that must have been taking place at the time.
"It is now 1914, the last year in the chronicle of the bridge on the Drina." [265]

Serb artillery is able to shell the town, and the bridge is partly blown up to prevent Serb armies from advancing. Another time and other men destroyed it. The bridge was restored after World War I (and after the novel ends), but was damaged even more in World War II, only to be restored again.

Ivo Andrić himself was an interesting figure. A Catholic, which to current thinking would make him a Croat, he saw himself as a Yugoslav and, at least in his later years, disliked the divisions between the various ethnic strands in Yugoslavia and refused to identify as a Croat. Certainly the happiest moments in the novel are when the various ethnic and religious groups in the city are able to live together in peace:

"'They are as close as the priest and the hodja'; and this saying became a proverb with them." [129]

And the priest and the hodja (a Muslim cleric) were especially close at that time. I was also amused when the town rabbi was given the title Hajji (one who has performed the haj or the pilgrimage to Mecca) as a title of respect. 

Ivo Andrić was born in 1892 in Sarajevo. His father died when he was two; his mother was impoverished and felt unable to raise him by herself, so he was given over to his mother's sister and her husband in Višegrad. Andrić felt these were his happiest years. He returned to Sarajevo when he got a scholarship for his studies. He was a friend of Gavrilo Princip, Franz Ferdinand's assassin, and a member of the same secret society as Princip; he seems to have known nothing about the assassination in advance, nevertheless he was arrested by the Austro-Hungarians, imprisoned first in a prison and then later house arrest before being granted clemency in 1917. After the war he earned a Ph.D. (at Graz) and joined the new kingdom of Yugoslavia's diplomatic service, serving in various posts before ending up as the ambassador to Nazi Germany just as Yugoslavia was invaded by Germany. In occupied Yugoslavia he lived in retirement, wrote three novels (including this one) which were only published at the end of the war. He held a few ceremonial posts in Tito's Yugoslavia, but mostly wrote. 

And in 1961 he won the Nobel prize. 

Very highly recommended. Maybe he was one of those who actually deserved the Nobel prize...

Since I was just reading about guslars recently in Kanigel's biography of Milman Parry, I was amused to see this:

"From the deep pocket of his cloak the Montenegrin drew out a gusle, a tiny primitive fiddle, clumsy and small as the palm of a man's hand, and a short bow." [33]

A second guslar shows up later as well.

I was intending a different Andrić novel for my twenty books of summer list, but this one crept in first. I might still read Omar Pasha Latas, though. It also covers Bosnia for my European reading tour this year.

Thursday, July 15, 2021

The Microbe (#Poem)


The Microbe

The Microbe is so very small
You cannot make him out at all,
But many sanguine people hope
To see him through a microscope.
His jointed tongue that lies beneath
A hundred curious rows of teeth;
His seven tufted tails with lots
Of lovely pink and purple spots,
On each of which a pattern stands,
Composed of forty separate bands;
His eyebrows of a tender green;
All these have never yet been seen--
But Scientists, who ought to know
Assure us that they must be so...
Oh! let us never, never doubt
What nobody is sure about!

-Hilaire Belloc

Hilaire Belloc was an English Catholic writer (though born in France) who died  in 1953.

Just back from a most of a week in the wilds...

Thursday, July 8, 2021

Ogden Nash (#PoemForAThursday)


Medusa and the Mot Juste

Once there was a Greek divinity of the sea named Ceto and she married a man named Phorcus,
And the marriage must have been pretty raucous;
Their remarks about which child took after which parent must have been full of asperities,
Because they were the parents of the Gorgons, and the Graeae, and Scylla, and the dragon which guarded the Hesperides.
Bad blood somewhere.
Today the Gorgons are our topic, and as all schoolboys including you and me know,
They were three horrid sisters named Medusa and Euryale and Stheno,
But what most schoolboys don't know because they never get beyond their Silas Marners and their Hiawathas,
The Gorgons were not only monsters, they were also highly talented authors.
Medusa began it;
She wrote Forever Granite.
But soon Stheno and Euryale were writing, too, and they addressed her in daily choruses,
Saying we are three literary sisters just like the Brontës so instead of the Gorgons why can't we be the brontësauruses?
Well, Medea may have been mythical but she wasn't mystical,
She was selfish and egotistical,
She saw wider vistas
Than simply being the sister of her sisters.
She replied, tossing away a petrified Argonaut on whom she had chipped a molar,
You two can be what you like, but since I am the big fromage in this family, I prefer to think of myself as the Gorgon Zola.

-Ogden Nash 

Since I was just looking at the outside of my Ogden Nash books, it naturally followed I started looking at the inside, too. And even though those outsides are by Maurice Sendak as it turns out, the inside is the real deal here. I thought about posting some old favorite: 'The Termite', say, or 'Portrait of the Artist as a Prematurely Old Man', but then this one caught my eye. An elaborate set-up for what is, in the end--ahem, wait for it!--a cheesy pun...simply couldn't resist. This poem comes from The Private Dining Room and other verses, of 1953, and is part of a series on 'Fables Bulfinch Forgot'.

Poem For a Thursday is a meme founded by Jennifer of Holds Upon Happiness. 

Tuesday, July 6, 2021

Housekeeping/Blog Update

The blog now has a new, slightly different, though equally boring, look...

I switched a few months ago to following other blogs on Feedly rather than using the updating bloglist gadget from Blogger. The gadget was limited: there were a couple of blogs that didn't update properly at all, and any blog that updated more than once before I looked at it, the earlier update was invisible. Feedly seems to be fine for me at the moment. So I changed the blogroll to the static version, which takes up less space, and demoted it, since it was less useful. (Though a blogroll fits my retro design so I didn't get rid of it entirely.) But that meant I had some new prime real estate on the blog.

I've always liked the recent comments feature on blogs. I'm not sure that it's exactly useful these days since most blogs have a comment feed which you can follow using your favorite tool, but it shows the conversation, so I tweaked some version I found online and there it is, for now. We'll see if it stays.

But the big change is the 'From the Commonplace Book:' feature. I've been hacking at the code for a couple of weeks. Meanwhile, in a project of great idleness, during my pandemic I've been reading through old journals, typing quotes I'd once copied out by hand into a file to make an electronic commonplace book. And now I make them available to you! I've always been a fan of commonplace books and aphorists. Auden and J. D. McClatchy produced wonderful commonplace books, and I have freely stolen from them. The major aphorists have lent their wares as well: La Rochefoucauld, Lichtenberg, Nietzsche. Antonio Porchia. Don Paterson. Sarah Mancuso. Anyway, the point is, some of these quotes come from books I've actually read; some (many, most?) come from collections I've plundered. I make no claims to be as well read as these might make me look. 

If you hover over the quote (the tooltip) you can see where I found it. Which may or may not be where it originally appeared, and may not even be all that accurate...I did some checking, but I can barely read my handwriting in old journals, much less rely on them to be accurate as to attribution. Right now there's a library of something over two hundred quotes, one of which is selected every time you refresh the page, but I've got the wherewithal to expand it. Enough so that (I hope) you shouldn't see the same quote every time you look at my blog. Should you poke around in the source I'm sure you can find my list of quotes and RUIN YOUR SURPRISE AND SPOIL CHRISTMAS FOR EVERYONE. So don't do it.

I also got rid of the feed button, which linked to a couple of applications that likely don't even work anymore. The feeds remain public of course. I'm curious: is there any other feature of that sort you like and would use? (Follow by email, etc.) If you're reading this, you've probably already found some way to follow my blog, but if you have a favorite missing feature, put it in comments. Thanks!

Also anything that seems buggy or weird, please do let me know. When I was still a professional programmer, they said of browser-based applications that they were: Write Once, Debug Everywhere. I've tested on a few platforms, but much less than everywhere.

What hasn't changed is my utter lack of capability in the graphic design department. I had some hopes, alas they've once again been dashed...but I might still try to do something with the cool and obscurely bookish images (they come from the covers of two Ogden Nash books) included in this post...One of these days!

Please do let me know how it all works for you.