Thursday, August 31, 2023

Night Song

Night Song

Stack the cups and clear away;
The bonfire sinks to ash;
Daytime is so much trash,
Night climbs the stairway.

We have done what we can to use the light,
Cricket and jar take over;
Children snore, the smell of clover
Tickles the poacher's nose as he treads it over.

Poppy and rose swim in the warm remainder,
Exhausted current of day;
Cold comes down from the air, hay
Hears warm in the field what the lovers say.

Bare to the teeming black the heady tree
Sighs in its sleep and stirs;
Softly an owl-wing whirrs,
The water chuckles, the paper-beetle burrs.

Stack the cups and clear away;
The bonfire sinks to ash;
Daytime is so much trash,
Night climbs the stairway.

-David Holbrook

I lifted that picture of David Holbrook from a rather lovely obituary of him in The Guardian. He died in 2011 at the good age of 88. He was a teacher and D-Day veteran as well as a quite prolific author--plays, memoirs, novels, as well as poetry.

As I had to Google some to figure it out, it might help you, too: jar in the second stanza will be a nightjar, a medium-sized insect-eating bird of the same family as what's called a nighthawk in North America.

Appropriate that I'm posting 'Night Song' at the very end of the day...

Erle Stanley Gardner's Shills Can't Cash Chips

"This is an insurance company. They've had their eye on us for a while. It's the kind of business there's money in, Donald, not this wild-eyed sharpshooting you've been doing."

Lamont Hawley of Consolidated Interinsurance comes into the Cool and Lam detective office for extra help on a suspected insurance fraud case. That's Bertha Cool talking above. She's the older, practical, financially-minded half of the partnership.

Donald Lam is the one given to wild-eyed sharpshooting. He's small--their sometime friend in the L.A. police department calls him 'Pint Size'--no good in a fight, but quick-talking and attractive to the ladies.

And there's Elsie Brand, the office secretary, who's more than half in love with Donald.

But before that initial meeting with Hawley is over, he says:
"I may as well tell you, Lam, we think there's an element of danger involved."
Well, of course there is.

Carter Holgate was driving too fast and smashed into the rear end of Vivian Deshler's car. She's claiming whiplash and looking for the insurance company to pay up. Holgate admits the accident. But now Vivian has disappeared and various people are--not the insurance company--offering cash for witnesses to the accident. Something is fishy. When did the accident occur? Did it occur?

The body is discovered (it's Holgate's) in the trunk of the Cool and Lam Agency car and Donald is wanted for the murder. He would have needed Bertha to pull it off. 
"'Fry me for an oyster!' Bertha said.
'They just might do that."
As an accomplice to murder. 

"Fry me for an oyster!" is one of Bertha's favorite sayings. "Dice me for a carrot," also shows up in this one.

But of course the person who committed the murder is neither Donald nor Bertha. All in all a pretty entertaining entry to the series.

It's a pretty late entry in the series. Wikipedia tells me it's #22 out of the thirty and it came out in 1960. 

Vintage Mystery, Silver, Brunette: We'll go with that 'vivid brunette, who walked impatiently as though her good-looking legs were trying to push the sidewalk out of the way.'

Friday, August 25, 2023

Owen Matthews' Overreach

"We used to believe the Russians had the second-best army in the world. Now we know they have the second-best army in the Ukraine."
-Ukrainian soldiers' joke

A bit of bravado, funny, but not entirely wrong either...

Owen Matthews' book on the war in the Ukraine came out late last year. Matthews is a British journalist with deep ties to Russia: he lived there for twenty-five years, speaks the language fluently, was the Moscow bureau chief for Newsweek.

Also his mother, wife, and children are Russian. 

He starts with a quick history of the Ukraine. A lot of his information comes from Serhii Plokhy's The Gates of Europe, but some of it is also family history: his mother was born Lyudmila Bibikov, a Russian-speaker from the Ukraine; his grandfather Bibikov was an ardent communist (Matthews has an Aunt Lenina!) but his grandfather had the temerity to suggest that collectivization was proceeding too fast in the Ukraine; and so he was murdered in the Stalinist purges in the 30s. Matthews' grandmother was exiled to Siberia. Earlier Bibikovs were high-ranking military officers in the Tsarist army. "For two centuries the Bibikovs played a significant role in Russia's imperial rule over Ukraine, first as servants of the tsars and later as loyal lieutenants of the Soviet power." He goes on, "The connection is not a comfortable one."

But the earliest Bibikov in the historical record was born Bibik Beg, a Tatar warlord who swore fealty to the Russian tsar in 1486 and Russified his name to Bibikov.

This was all pretty fascinating and well-done, and I noticed one of Matthews' earlier books is a family memoir, which I'm now curious to find.

Then comes the lead up to the war. Matthews gives a coherent account of the different factions in Russian government. Matthews clearly has good sources in both the Foreign Affairs department under Sergey Lavrov and in the office of Dmitry Peskov, Putin's spokesman. (Neither of his sources he names, for obvious reasons.) Putin was not necessarily the most aggressive (and Sergey Shoigu probably the least) but Putin had become isolated during Covid and no longer quite tethered to reality. (Why was he so isolated? There's apparently a rumour he had thyroid cancer, but nobody knows for sure.) This was interesting, but complicated.

Russia invades on February 24th of last year. Matthews is in Moscow and notes how quickly the mood in Moscow changed. Before the war he was able to talk relatively freely with friends and sources; after it starts he's shunned. At the end of March a friend tells him in strong terms he needs to get his son out: his son is 19 and not in university (he's working with a theatre troupe) and so is subject to call-up. Sanctions have started to bite and flights out of Russia are limited; they get to Istanbul on Turkish Air. Ticket prices have gone through the roof, but Turkish Air is still accepting frequent flyer miles. One advantage of being an international journalist, I guess, is you got lots of those... 😉

Everybody expected the Russian army to roll into Kyiv, not just Putin and Russian generals, but also most of the West. Early on Zelenskyy was prepared to negotiate with Putin, to offer neutrality, to stay of NATO, possibly to give up territory. But Putin believed he could get more. After the discovery of the atrocities at Bucha and Irpin north of Kyiv, Zelenskyy's willingness, but also room, to negotiate shrank.

Of course the Ukraine did fight, and with considerable success. In retrospect, Matthews notes how much military experience there was in the Ukrainian army and even in the general Ukrainian public by then, after eight years of an active war zone in the Donbas: 900,000 Ukrainians had done military service but were not in the army at the start of the war. And they were willing to fight. At the beginning, the Ukraine had more volunteers than weapons, and turned people away.

The Russians less so. It seems nearly a million people left Russia in the first month or so after the war started; possibly another million after the ramp-up in conscription in September of 2022. Putin still remains popular though, and the exodus may have only strengthened his popularity. Matthews discusses such independent polling as is available; it confirms Putin remains relatively popular with the average Russian.

He also notes those Russians who do not like him may be even more nationalistic; much of Putin's opposition is from the nationalistic right-wing. In the end Matthews isn't very optimistic about how all this turns out. The sanctions have hurt Russia, but not hurt enough to be a game changer. Putin probably won't fall, but should he fall, he's more likely to be replaced with somebody worse.

Matthews quotes Andrei Kolesnikov of the Moscow Carnegie Center, "...and so we continue our steady movement down the world's garbage chute."

Matthews closing:
"Not only would Putin leave no lasting ideological legacy, but any legacy of prosperity and stability that he may have created had been destroyed by his own decision ot make war on Ukraine. He had gained a fifth of Ukraine [less now--me] and increased the size of Russia by half a per cent. The price of his illusions was not only thousands of lost lives, but also a lost future for Russia. Most ominously of all, the misbegotten war had opened a Pandora's box of alternative futures for Russia that were much more scary than Putin's regime had ever been."

This could do for either Russia or Ukraine for my reading challenge, but I have another Andrey Kurkov novel out from the library that I should read soon, so that will be Ukraine and this will cover Russia. 

It was a pretty good look at an unfortunate topic.

Thursday, August 24, 2023

Jahan Malek Khatun (#WITMonth)


Come Here A Moment

Come here a moment, sit with me, don't sleep tonight,
Consider well my heart's unhappy plight, tonight;

And let your face's presence lighten me, and give
The loveliness of moonlight to the night, tonight.

Be kind now to this stranger, and don't imitate
Life as it leaves me in its headlong flight, tonight.

Be sweet to me now as your eyes are sweet, don't twist
Away now like your curls, to left and right, tonight.

Don't sweep me from you like the dust before your door;
Dowse all the flames of longing you ignite, tonight.

Why do you treat me with such cruelty now, my friend,
So that my tears obliterate my sight, tonight?

If, for a moment, I could see you in my dreams,
I'd know the sum of all the world's delight, tonight.

-Jahan Malek Khatun (tr. Dick Davis)

I read that volume Faces of Love, with translations of three Shirazi poets earlier in the summer and quite liked it. I quoted some by Jahan Malek Khatun (1324-1393, approximately) earlier, but saved this one for Women in Translation month.

Saturday, August 19, 2023

Guy Gavriel Kay's The Last Light of Summer (Big Book of Summer)

"I have a tale for you:"

The opening words of Guy Gavriel Kay's The Last Light of the Sun, and so he does. That's a quote from the Liber Hymnorum, a collection of hymns from the Middle Ages.

It's a fantasy novel, but in the common way of Kay's works, it's set in a clear historical period: this is set in Scandinavia and the British Isles; the time period is that of Alfred the Great (the later 800s AD). Danish Vikings are raiding England, and Anglo-Saxon kings are barely holding on. Celtic Wales is still a separate kingdom; they don't necessarily get along with the Anglo-Saxons, but maybe they need to in order to stop the Vikings.

In the novel, the Welsh are renamed the Cyngael; the Anglo-Saxons, the Anglcyn; and the Vikings are the Erlings. There are major characters from each group. Red Thorkell the Erling has been exiled from Erling lands after he committed a second murder in a drunken frenzy; the story starts with his son, who has been sentenced to five years of slavery for his father's crime in addition to the confiscation of the family lands. 

The exiled father has returned to raiding, but his raid into the Cyngael lands fails, and in exchange for mercy, he pledges loyalty to a Cyngael lord Brynn and his wife. (Who just happen to have a beautiful and spirited daughter.) But in the course of the raid, Alun, a Cyngael prince, sees his older brother killed (and that brother's soul stolen by faeries for the Wild Hunt); he's now an avowed enemy of Erlings in any shape.

Meanwhile in the Anglcyn lands, another raid, involving Red Thorkell's son, who has escaped from slavery, is being stopped by Aeldred, the king of the Anglcyn (and our Alfred the Great character). Aeldred, too, has a couple of daughters, the younger of whom can also see the (generally invisible) faeries, just as Alun can.

Anyway, a very fun story. The relations between brothers, between fathers and sons, are important. Various romances are in the offing. I've read maybe half of Kay's books, and this did not become my favorite, which I think remains A Song for Arbonne, but it's a very good entry.

At 545 pages, it's a Big Book of Summer:

And it's actually one of the books I put on my 20 Books of Summer pile!

Thursday, August 17, 2023

Edna St. Vincent Millay

Love is not all, it is not meat or drink
Nor slumber nor a roof against the rain;
Nor yet a floating spar to men that sink
And rise and sink and rise and sink again;
Love can not fill the thickened lung with breath,
Nor clean the blood, nor set the fractured bone;
Yet many a man is making friends with death
Even as I speak, for want of love alone.
It well may be that in a difficult hour,
Pinned down by pain and moaning for release 
Or nagged by want past resolution's power,
I might be driven to sell your love for peace,
Or trade the memory of this night for food.
It may well be. I do not think I would.

-Edna St. Vincent Millay

This is sonnet #30 from Millay's sonnet sequence of 1931, titled Fatal Interview.

Part of it was quoted at the beginning of Maggie Millner's Couplets, which shows good taste... 😉

I'm off in the Internet-free zone as this appears, where I might be, I don't know, observing frogs:

Friday, August 11, 2023

Maggie Millner's Couplets



All my life I've shown up late.
  But when I do, I compensate

for my delay--I laugh and preen and carry on
  as if I had been present all along.

I stayed in utero, for instance, two
  weeks after I was due,

then came out so decisively and fast
  I couldn't breathe. I spent my first

night on earth alone inside a tent
  flushed full of oxygen, the event

from which (my dad believes)
  have sprung like fires all my weird anxieties.

Mostly I can't see myself at all
  until I sense in someone else a parallel,

like how I only realize what
  I want at the moment I attain it,

my mind the final part of me to know.
  I've hurt people I love by being so

late to my desires. Last year, I met someone I thought
  I couldn't live without, and in the process lost

another, without whom I thought I'd
  die. If I had only realized

sooner, etc., etc. But I handled things ineptly
  and he left. I didn't die. Instead, I went to therapy

and saw the stegosaur uptown, stayed with friends
  and drank a lot of tea. Even then,

riding the bus to visit my new lover,
  I was breathless always, early almost never.

-Maggie Millner

That's the opening (after an introductory proem) of Maggie Millner's verse novel, Couplets: A Love Story, which came out earlier this year. The (female) narrator had a serious boyfriend for years--they'd talked about marriage and kids, but hadn't decided for sure on either--when she falls in love with an older woman and dumps her longstanding boyfriend. Does it work out? That's our drama.

I'm a sucker for verse novels--Vikram Seth's Golden Gate, Douglas Dunn's The Donkey's Ears, Beowulf, The Odyssey, The Iliad--especially if they at least nod to formal poetics. 

This one consists of fifty sections, of about the length of the one quoted, divided into four books, making up 102 pages. (So actually a novella?) Most of the poems are like this, in couplets that allow slant rhyme and of varied line length, but some consist of a prose poem ending with a short rhyming line. The writing suggests autobiographicality, in much the way In Search of Lost Time suggests it, with its narrator named Marcel, but I don't know how autobiographical the story actually is. One of the blurbs calls it steamy, but it mostly makes me, living in the provinces, think NYC sex lives are way too complicated... 😉

Still, it's a pretty fun read, moving along well, and you feel like you know the narrator by the end. (Though less so the ex-boyfriend, or the new lover.) I liked the verse, which offers the occasional suggestive line. ("I was breathless always, early almost never.")

Saturday, August 5, 2023

Ngaio Marsh's Death and the Dancing Footman

"'This is most awkward,' said Hart primly."

It's England in 1940, the period of the phoney war before Germany invaded France, and Jonathan Royal has decided to throw a party at his country house Highfold Manor.

Except it's not a fun premise for a party, or fun only for Jonathan Royal, because he invites seven people who don't like each other. There are three Complines, near neighbors, the widowed mother and two sons. William, the elder, would be a momma's boy, but his mother prefers Nicholas, who's a bounder, but attractive to the ladies nevertheless. William's already a soldier, but on leave; Nicholas has scored a desk job in London.

There's Chloris Wynne, formerly affianced to Nicholas, but now engaged to William, after she realized Nicholas would never be true.

There are two rival beauty salons in the neighborhood, Lady Hersey Amblington runs one; she's a distant cousin of Jonathan Royal. Elise Lisse, an Austrian refugee, runs the other. The two are professional rivals, and cordially (?) detest each other. Madame Lisse is also one of those ladies with whom Nicholas was habitually unfaithful to Chloris.

There's a second Austrian refugee, Dr. Francis Hart, a professional (and maybe more?) colleague of Madame Lisse. His specialty is facial plastic surgery, and Madame Lisse recommends him when she can do no more.

Did I mention Mrs. Compline had a disastrous facial surgery twenty years before when that type of surgery was still in its infancy? No? Consider it mentioned...

Jonathan Royal also invites Aubrey Mandrake, an up-and-coming surrealist playwright, mostly so he can show off his cleverness. Mandrake has never met any of the others before.

Several of the characters decide almost immediately to simply leave when they discover the identities of their fellow guests, but conveniently for Jonathan Royal's plans, the house is quickly snowed in. 

Snowed in country house murder. Have you read a few of those before? Me, too.

There are also a few other grounds for hostility that we learn along the way. Quite the motive extravaganza.

Getting us to this place was a bit silly and improbable--Jonathan Royal makes a few noises about reconciling these people, but mostly he's just a mischievous monster--but once we're past the setup, the mystery events move along well. There are two attempted murders before the main event; a couple of duplicate Tyrolean cloaks means not only do we not know who made the attempt, we also don't know who the intended victim was. And when William Compline is finally killed, we're still not sure. Was there yet another mistake?

The obfuscation in this was quite good, I thought. The person I was betting on commits suicide and leaves a note taking responsibility, but it's still fifty pages before the end! That's when I knew I had it wrong... 😉

Mandrake is an acquaintance of our hero Roderick Alleyn of Scotland Yard and he happens to know Alleyn is staying with his wife at Pen Cuckoo (the location of Overture to Death, a couple of mysteries before this one). Sure it's his holiday, but we'll struggle through the snow to bring him back! (Because, of course the phones lines are all down.) And he'll grumble, but he'll come!

Anyway, I don't mind a little farce in my Golden Age mysteries, and there's romance in this one, too. I think of the late 30s and early 40s as Marsh's strongest period, and this was definitely a good entry.

Vintage Mystery, Gold, Fishing Gear. Pay attention to where that fishing lure goes. It's an important clue!

Thursday, August 3, 2023

O let/my soul glimpse the divine - poem/prayer of Nahman of Busk


Beating its wings, seeking the aether,
But neither crane nor raven,
My soul, which knows no conqueror,
Soars up into the heavens.

It can't be trapped in sulfur, iron,
Get tangled in the heart,
Will never die of plague in prison,
Be subject to man's court.

Breaking down walls, it freely flies
Over rumors and smooth words,
For it wants not your narrow streets,
Your alleys, boulevards.

Knowing no limits, it roams free,
Mocks what you all deem wise,
Calls beauty ugly secretly,
Dispels illusions, lies.

It shakes its plumes and sets a light
That can't be put in words,
It cares not not who and what sort might
Hold places in this world.

O Father, help me wield my tongue
So that I voice my pain
And add truth to man's talk--o let
My soul glimpse the divine.

-Nahman of Busk

This was in Olga Tokarczuk's The Books of Jacob where it's said to be a translation by Moliwda (Antoni Kossakowski) of Nahman of Busk's original Hebrew into Polish. Both those figures--Nahman and Moliwda--are actual historical individuals (though for Moliwda, you'll see I was limited to linking the Polish Wikipedia). Jennifer Croft in her translator's afterword says the verse translation was by her husband Boris Dralyuk, who's an interesting poet and significant translator in his own right (Isaac Babel, Andrey Kurkov). It shows up later in the novel in a second version, quite different, which is supposed to be a French translation by Junius Frey of a German version. (But I liked the first version better.) 

Who among all that list of people to attribute the poem to, I can't tell you. I only know I liked it. 😉

Tuesday, August 1, 2023

Ivo Andrić's Omer Pasha Latas

"After all sorts of hints and rumors, the day finally came when the Ottoman commander in chief, the seraskier Omer Pasha, entered Sarajevo with his army."

That's the opening of Ivo Andrić's Omer Pasha Latas. Omer Pasha spends close to two years (1850-1851) in Bosnia as the agent of the Ottoman sultan; his mission is to implement the sultan's reforms and to get the local feudal aristocracy in line. Whatever it takes is the watchword, and he's led successful missions of this sort before in the Ottoman lands, in Syria, in Kurdistan, in Wallachia.

Omer Pasha Latas is Andrić's last novel, published after his death, maybe not quite complete, though it felt complete to me in this translation by Celia Hawkesworth. 

What is the Bosnia of 1850? 

Of one of the characters, a wandering painter, we're told: 
"Before he left Zagreb, people had given him only negative reports about Bosnia, the terrible roads and uncomfortable inns, the strange people and unusual circumstances,..."

"Bosnia. Not naturally lush or abundant, a land where few sow and toil, it had been eaten away by both local and foreign idlers, and trodden down by warring armies, so that over the years it had been stripped bare and now resembled stables in which hungry horses gnawed the wood of their mangers."
Those are the thoughts of Idris Effendi, the number two lawyer on Omer Pasha's staff. Or:
"'What is this? What kind of country is this that will devour all? And what kind of scoundrels and criminals have gathered in this residence? All degenerates! Even angels would be corrupted by these idlers and perverts!"
That's the cry of Omer Pasha's wife.

The novel is structured like Andrić's acknowledged masterpiece, The Bridge on the Drina; it's really a collection of stories organized around a central figure. In that novel the central figure is the bridge itself, and the stories take place over four hundred years; in this novel, the central figure is Omer Pasha, and the events take place over that year and a half. But Omer Pasha is not always on the scene.

The back of my copy of the novel gives the backstory to Omer Pasha, but I won't: in the novel itself, it's only gradually revealed over the length of the novel. He was a real historical figure and I linked the Wikipedia article above. But I knew nothing about Omer Pasha Latas before I read this (and I imagine you know nothing, too...😉) and it's likely even to the original audience of the novel he was a bit obscure. So the revelations would and should be revelations and I won't spoil them. But we learn them as we go: Omer Pasha reveals himself to a Montenegran grandée as he's trying to win him over; he meditates on his past while that painter is trying to capture the fire in his eyes; we hear the story of how he met his wife.

At the end of his two years, Omer Pasha and his army march off. Some of the local beys have been killed, some marched in chains to Istanbul. Did the sultan consider the mission a success? We're not really told. But the historical Omer Pasha is still trusted and plays an important role in the Crimean War two years later, though that's outside the frame of the story.

I said the novel is structured like The Bridge on the Drina, and that's true, but it's much darker even than the already quite dark Bridge. Well, a backwater in the later years of the Ottoman empire was probably not a very appealing place. The novel is not quite as good as The Bridge on the Drina, but still awfully good.

Ivo Andrić was born in Sarajevo in 1892, but mostly grew up in Višegrad (also in Bosnia). He got a Ph.D. after WWI in South Slavic history and literature, then served in the diplomatic corps of the Kingdom of Yugoslavia. He won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1961, and died in 1975.  

Covering Bosnia for the European Reading Challenge.