Thursday, September 28, 2023

Emily Dickinson


The Sky is low -- the Clouds are mean.
A Travelling Flake of Snow
Across a Barn or through a Rut
Debates if it will go --

A Narrow Wind complains all Day
How some one treated him
Nature, like Us is sometimes caught
Without her Diadem.

-Emily Dickinson

Emily Dickinson is probably my favorite writer of ballad-meter poems, and when I was thinking about ballads, I pulled the book off the shelf & started browsing. I must have read this one before, but I didn't remember it, and it struck me on this reading. Though not yet seasonally appropriate: we've had glorious Indian Summer weather lately (at least until tonight when we're getting a light rain) and they're predicting more lovely weather next week. But maybe the poem is newish to you, too.

But in case that's not enough... ­čśë One of my favorites, and a more commonly anthologized poem:

We grow accustomed to the Dark --
When Light is put away --
As when the Neighbor holds the Lamp
To witness her Goodbye --

A Moment -- We uncertain step
For newness of the night --
Then -- fit our vision to the Dark --
And meet the Road -- erect --

And so of larger -- Darknesses --
Those Evenings of the Brain --
When not a Moon disclose a sign --
Or Star -- come out -- within --

The Bravest -- grope a little --
And sometimes hit a Tree
Directly in the Forehead --
But as they learn to see --

Either the Darkness alters --
Or something in the sight
Adjusts itself to Midnight --
And Life steps almost straight.

-Emily Dickinson

I did once walk into a tree, hitting it with my forehead, in the woods on a pitch-black night. I'm not sure I'm one of the Bravest, though... ­čśë

Josef Škvorecky's Sins for Father Knox

     "...the blonde turned to the detective. 'It's clear now, isn't it?'
     'What is?'
     'Everything. Don't you see?'
     Neils C. K├Âlln didn't see, but rather than making him humble, this annoyed him.
     'No,' he snapped. 'I'm not clairvoyant!'
     'Neither am I," said the blonde modestly. 'But when I'm bored, I read mysteries.'"

The 'blonde' is Eve Adam, a Czech lounge singer on a world-wide tour for Pragokonzert, who has to fight off (at least some of the time; at other times she doesn't fight) various men's groping hands. And all the while she's solving mysteries.

But not before she gets out of jail in Prague. Where she herself had been convicted for murder. Lieutenant Boruvka, the Czechoslovakian detective who was the protagonist of the first book in this series by ┼ákvorecky, was responsible assembling the evidence and arresting Eve Adam, but in the first case in this book, he begins to have doubts, and with Eve's help, gets her cleared from that murder charge. Still Eve decides it's best to leave the country for a while and takes an offer of a tour to get out of Czechoslovakia.

There are ten stories in the book, and as the title might suggest, they follow a conceit: Fr. Ronald Knox, first Anglican, then Catholic priest, uncle to Penelope Fitzgerald, writer of mysteries, member in good standing of the Detection Club, composed in 1928 a list of ten commandments for the writing of Golden Age, fair-play mysteries. Each of the stories in Škvorecky's book violates one of Fr. Knox's rules. Those rules (fairly tongue-in-cheek) include things like, no more than one secret passage in a house or no previously unknown twin can suddenly show up.

At one point each story presents a challenge to the reader, like an old Ellery Queen mystery:
It's a pretty amusing collection of stories. 

But I will say I didn't think it as good as that first collection of mystery stories by Škvorecky. Mostly that's because there wasn't enough Lt. Boruvka. Now probably it's to Škvorecky's credit that he writes less well about a loose-living lounge singer than he does about a mournful but happily married man who still looks at girls but then doesn't act on those longing looks. Lt. Boruvka is just both more amusing and more convincing than Eve Adam, and I wanted more of the Lieutenant in this book. Still this was fun.

Škvorecky is an interesting figure in his own right. Born in 1924 in Czechoslovakia, he was a jazz musician as a young man, and wrote several novels in the Communist years, either unpublished or squelched after publication. He was a supporter of the liberalization in Czechoslovakia in 1968, and after the country was invaded by the Russians, he and his wife got out, to Canada, where he established a press, 68 Publishers, in Toronto, that specialized in banned Czech and Slovak literature--the press brings out the first Czech language edition of Milan Kundera's The Unbearable Lightness of Being. He died in 2012.

This book comes out in 1973, when Škvorecky is in Canada, and the stories are set in a variety of places--New York, Stockholm, Paris--where Eve Adam tours, but the stories set in Prague are still clearly a communist Czechoslovakia. The book was translated into English by Kaca Polackova Henley.

And though the stories are set in several locations, it will be my visit to the Czech Republc for this year's European Reading Challenge.

And while that's the shadowiest of shadowy figures on the cover of that book, I've already used an Eric Ambler novel for the Shadowy Figure category in this year's Vintage Mystery Scavenger Hunt... we'll have to go with the hat.

Vintage Mystery, Silver, Hat: the fifth story is 'Why So Many Shamuses?' and that guy with the hat on the cover looks pretty shamus-like to me...

Tuesday, September 19, 2023

Israel Zangwill's The Big Bow Mystery

'[an] editor...asked me to provide him with a more original piece of fiction. I might have refused, but there was murder in my soul, and here was an opportunity."

Israel Zangwill's The Big Bow Mystery of 1892 is one of the earliest locked-room mysteries. In his introduction, quoted above, he claims it's the earliest, but then his detective discusses the solution to 'The Murders in the Rue Morgue', a clear predecessor. Let's just say it's early... ­čśë

Arthur Constant, an up and coming lefty politician, moves to the East End of London to get to know his potential constituents, is found murdered in his bedroom, locked from the inside, windows unbroken and locked from the inside, chimney too narrow for anyone to go down--you know the drill. How was it done?

And who'd want to do it anyway? (Because of course it wasn't suicide.) Arthur Constant was such a nice man, helpful to his neighbours, loved by his friends, etc. The only possible motive is that of a fellow labour leader Mortlake who may have thought Constant was after his girl, and the police soon fix on him as the murderer. 

There are two detectives on the case: Grodman, a former police detective, now retired, and writing his memoirs. He lives in the neighbourhood and is called to break the door when Constant's landlady gets worried. And Wimp, the detective who replaced him on the force, whom Grodman disdains as incompetent. (And Grodman may be right.)

I find it a bit astonishing how influential this is. Various possible solutions to unlocking the room are discussed, only to be dismissed; I swear I've seen all of those answers used in subsequent locked-room mysteries. And the type of the actual surprise murderer shows up in a few subsequent mysteries, too, but it would be spoilerish to say which. The book is on the Howard Haycraft/Ellery Queen list of the Cornerstones of Mystery, and deservedly so.

It's a pretty good read, too, though I did find it a little slow in the middle. It's also often funny. One of the suspects is a poet, Denzil Cantercot, forever talking about the Beautiful: "Life was very serious to him. He never wrote comic verse intentionally."

I got it from Project Gutenberg, but for a cover I used what seems to be the eBook Amazon sells. 

Vintage Mystery, Gold. A Town Scene: Stalking a murderer on the streets of East London.

That's eight! Completing the challenge, though it's likely I won't stop there.

Monday, September 18, 2023

Sunday Salon


I've left this til late, so being quick...

On the Blog

Two book posts on the blog last week (as advertised):

H. C. Bailey's Call Mr. Fortune


The Alexiad of Anna Comnena

Also a poem post: 'My Papa's Waltz' by Theodore Roethke.

I also finished Israel Zangwill's The Big Bow Mystery, one of the earliest locked-room mysteries (from 1892). This will get its own post pretty soon because it fits my Vintage Mystery Challenge.


That was somewhat less reading than I might have done otherwise because it was the Film Festival this past week in Toronto. The best movie we saw was the first one, They Shot The Piano Player, which I mentioned last Sunday. But there were a couple of other movies this week: 

The Widow Clicquot, about how Barbe-Nicole Clicquot (n├ęe Ponsardin) took over the Champagne house after her husband died in 1805. The movie was full of great French countryside shots, but a little romanticizing. Still now I want to read the book, by Tilar J. Mazzeo, which The Other Reader listened to when it came out fifteen years ago. Fortunately my library hasn't gotten rid of all of its copies.

Then a second heroic farmer movie, The Promised Land. (This theme wasn't actually planned.) Captain Ludwig Kahlen is going to farm the heath of central Jutland in Denmark, famously infertile soil. His secret? Potatoes! (They'll grow anywhere? I guess.) Mads Mikkelsen plays Kahlen, looking very grizzled and Danish. Not only does he have to fight the soil and the weather, but also a half-mad, sadistic local aristocrat. More beautiful (but desolate) scenery.

Lastly Close Your Eyes, from Spain. Miguel Garay was making a movie thirty years ago, when his lead actor disappeared. Murder, suicide, accident? It's also a tribute to the movie-making of yesteryear.


There was a call for cabin interior shots, ­čśëwhich were surprisingly few in number. Still, one corner of the interior of the cabin:

The ladder leads up to the sleeping loft.

While I was looking through old photos, though...

The neighbours:

The view:

And what the heck! Think of it as our very own unicorn spa with misty forests and magical light. (From some volume of Phoebe and her Unicorn.)

The other thing that happened this week was cheesecake with blueberry sauce:

(We did stop at the farmstand on the way back from the cabin, where they just happened to have blueberries...)

Hope you had a great week!

Saturday, September 16, 2023

Call Mr. Fortune by H. C. Bailey

"You look very young."
"I try to be."
It's Reggie Fortune delivers that snappy (?) comeback.

This is the first book in the series and our hero starts as something of a lazy dilettante. "At Oxford, at his hospital, he did what was necessary to take respectable degrees, but no more than he could help." Now out of school, the first story 'The Archduke's Tea' starts with his father, Dr. Fortune, delivering young Reggie a lecture. Reggie will be taking care of his father's medical practice while the father goes on vacation. And he'd better do it right. His first call is to a Continental archduchess living in the neighbourhood.
"She was a serene Highness of the house of Erbach-Wittelsbach, which traces its descent to Odin, and had an independent realm of nearly two square miles,..."
On the way there Reggie and his father's driver Gorton come across the body of a man killed in a hit and run accident. He looks a lot like the Archduke, but isn't. Is somebody trying to kill the Archduke? Of course they are. So who? The Archduchess? The brother-in-law? The two of them working in cahoots? And will the police actually be able to solve the case, or will the solution be squelched due to political pressure?

The second case 'The Sleeping Companion' has a similar setup: Reggie gets called in on a case in place of his father. A woman is having bad dreams. Why?

By the end of those two cases, though, Reggie is a dilettante no longer and knows this is what he wants to do. He hangs out his shingle in London as a consulting detective, and in the remaining four cases in this book, he's a professional. His medical background comes in handy. In the third case 'The Nice Girl', he's called in by Scotland Yard to investigate the death of Sir Albert Lunt, a businessman with lots of enemies.

Three more cases round out the book. One of the stories I thought weaker, but mostly they're pretty entertaining. As the Wikipedia article on H. C. Bailey suggests, Reggie's education and general demeanour--and maybe the name, too--put him in a class with Lord Peter Wimsey, but I found him less exasperating than Lord Peter. Wikipedia also says the stories are darker and more political, but that really only shows up in the last one of these, which does turn on government corruption. This is the only book of Bailey's I've read, but now I do plan to read more, and the second in the series, Mr. Fortune's Practice, also a collection of stories, is available from Project Gutenberg (as was this one) and is already downloaded to my Kobo.

Call Mr. Fortune came out in 1922, with the stories appearing individually in the year before that. So...

Vintage Mystery, Gold, Piece of Furniture: The picture on the cover above will represent the second story, 'The Sleeping Companion.' That's the murderer's hand creeping in at the side, while Miss Weston has been drugged and is sleeping in the chair.

Thursday, September 14, 2023

My Papa's Waltz

My Papa's Waltz

The whiskey on your breath
Could make a small boy dizzy;
But I hung on like death:
Such waltzing was not easy.

We romped until the pans
Slid from the kitchen shelf;
My mother's countenance
Could not unfrown itself.

The hand that held my wrist
Was battered on one knuckle;
At every step you missed
My right ear scraped a buckle.

You beat time on my head
With a palm caked hard by dirt,
Then waltzed me off to bed
Still clinging to your shirt.

-Theodore Roethke

My father was quite a light drinker, I never knew him to dance, and he worked a desk job. Still I've always liked this poem. ­čśë

But I was thinking about ballad meters and this came to mind. I might post some other ballad-y things in the near future.

Theodore Roethke was an American poet born in Saginaw, Michigan in 1908, who died in 1963. This is from his second book of poems, The Lost Son and Other Poems, of 1948. It's one of two poems of his that I used to have memorized (and might still if I thought about it). 

Wednesday, September 13, 2023

The Alexiad of Anna Comnena

"The date was the first of December in the seventh indiction. [1083] He [Alexius I Comnenus] found the empress in the throes of childbirth, in the room set apart long ago for an empress's confinement. Our ancestors called it the porphyra--hence the world-famous name porphyrogenitus. At dawn (it was a Saturday) a baby girl was born to them, who resembled her father, so they said, in all respects. I was that baby."

Born in a room lined with purple marble, that baby was Anna Comnena, who went on to write a history of her father Alexius' reign as Emperor of Byzantium from 1081-1118. 

The Comneni were a prominent Byzantine family and Alexius' uncle had been emperor from 1057-1059. But to become emperor in 1081 he had to lead a coup. The previous emperor Nicephorus Boutaniates was elderly and had no clear successor. As Anna tells it, Alexius and his brother Isaac became worried at the machinations in the palace, and decided to simply leave Byzantium. Whether that was exactly so or not, they ultimately decided the safest thing for them was simply to seize power.

Alexius and Isaac were both senior figures in the Byzantine military, with Alexius, the younger of the two brothers, holding the more senior office, Great Domestic of the West, which meant he was the supreme commander of military forces in the European half of the Byzantine empire. After some discussion between them it was Alexius who became emperor, though his brother remained a top official. Alexius as a general had been successful in staving off the various threats, but still the state of the empire in 1081 was bad. The Byzantines had lost the disastrous battle of Manzikert in what is now eastern Turkey in 1071, and the lands they had firm control of were little more than the city itself by the time Alexius proclaims himself emperor:
"Alexius knew that the Empire was almost at its last gasp. The east was being horribly ravaged by the Turks; the west was in a bad condition, while Robert [Guiscard] strained every nerve to put on the throne the pseudo-Michael who had taken refuge with him...The Romans [for Anna, what's our Byzantine Empire is still the Roman Empire] had no worthwhile forces; in fact there were no more than 300 soldiers in the capital...In the imperial treasury there were no reserves of money with which he could summon allies..."
The first ten years are pretty much constant warfare. He has to beat back the Seljuk Turks, the Normans under Robert Guiscard, and both Cuman and Pecheneg nomads from north of the Danube. A Seljuk Turk attempts to create a new state centred on Smyrna and leads sea raids up the Turkish coast, taking over Lesbos and Chios. All of that has to be stopped.

As Anna tells it, Alexius has a number of quite competent military assistants and advisers, starting with George Palaeologus. He doesn't often listen to them, though, and hot-headedly charges into battle, leading from the front, and getting beaten, even after Palaeologus suggested maybe that wasn't wise. In particular he loses three times to the Normans before he finally manages to fight them to a standstill. In the end it's mostly the death of Robert Guiscard which slows that source of attack.

It gets easier after ten years, but still not easy. There are a number of internal rebellions and the Pechenegs haven't yet given up, but the empire's boundaries are a bit more stable. Then the First Crusade comes through town. This is both opportunity and threat. The avowed enemy of the crusaders are the Muslims, and in particular the Seljuk Turks, who were also a traditional enemy of Byzantium. But how committed are the crusaders actually to their stated mission? And anyway do the Western Christians actually think the Eastern Christians are legitimately Christian? It's in these years that Alexius' reputation for wiliness gets established--Anna admires wiliness, even in enemies such as Bohemond, Robert Guiscard's son--and Alexius mostly gets the Crusaders to move on towards Jerusalem, and some of their conquests end up in his hands.

Then in 1118, he dies. How old he was is not perfectly clear with a range of dates for his birthday from 1048 to 1057. He's succeeded by his son John.

It's actually a pretty lively read, especially the early battle scenes. Anna says her father didn't like to talk about his military exploits in public, but if it was just the family, he could be persuaded to yarn away at dinner. Palace politics were a little harder to follow, especially as there were far too many people named Nicephorus--her husband, her husband's grandfather, who'd also been an emperor, the previous emperor, at least two rebel leaders. Nicephorus is the Greek for bringer of victory, so it's a well-omened name, but still, what's wrong with a nice George or John? (Not that there aren't a couple of those...)

Anna writes this at the end of her life, after she's been sent to a convent: she led a rebellion against her brother after her father died and that was her punishment. She says she has some old veterans she can talk to and ask questions of; she's got some treaties that she reproduces. She frequently quotes both the Bible and Homer; her Bible quotes tend to be a little fuzzy; her Homer is pretty accurate. Make of that what you will. 

Edward Gibbon, he of The Decline and Fall, complains she's too biased a source to be trusted, but the translator E. R. A. Sewter writes in the introduction that he thinks she's pretty accurate, and that was the standard scholarly opinion of the time (1969).  She clearly likes her father, and acknowledges the possibility of bias:
"I regard him as dear, but truth is dearer still."
In any case Alexius did begin a century of rule by Comneni, which was a late good moment in the history of the empire. 

I've been meaning to read this since I read Sir Walter Scott's Count Robert of Paris. Scott says he uses Anna Comnena as a source, and she's a character in the novel as well; in the novel she's as a bit of a bore who insists on droning on at her literary teas. That felt a bit unfair, even as I was reading Scott, and now I've read the history, it seems quite unfair. She's engaging. One of the conspirators against Alexius is Anna's husband (a Nicephorus, of course), but that's unfair, too; he was loyal to Alexius and died of a fever while on campaign. The husband is also presented a bit of an anti-intellectual bonehead. Not true: he wrote a history of the period just before Anna's book, and Sewter says it's useful, though not as good as Anna's.

Some of Scott does clearly come from Anna, though. There is a crusader knight who hops on the throne in Byzantium and is just a general jerk, but his name is Latinus, according to Anna, and not Count Robert. Still that was the clear source for some of Count Robert's behaviour. Scott says he modelled Robert's wife Brenhilda on Gaita, Robert Guiscard's wife:
"Robert's wife Gaita, who used to accompany him on campaign, like another Pallas, if not a second Athena, seeing the runaways and glaring fiercely at them, shouted in a very loud voice: 'How far will ye run? Halt! Be men!'"
Hmm, maybe. I still say Brenhilda has more to do with some female warrior from Ariosto than any more realistic source.

Anyway, an enjoyable and interesting read. But one I meant to finish a week earlier because then it would have been a Big Book of Summer, one from my 20 Books of Summer list, and a good entry for Women in Translation month. Oh, well... ­čśë Still it does count for the European Reading Challenge. It chronicles fighting in what is now Greece, Bulgaria, Albania, but Constantinople and many of the battles make it my trip to Turkey for the year.

Sunday, September 10, 2023

Sunday Salon

A salon-ish bunch of chairs? Well, we were probably looking at the view, but notice the books piled at the side.

Where I Was

We are fortunate enough to own a primitive cabin in Northern Ontario. When we bought the land it was at the edge of Killarney Provincial Park; now it's completely surrounded by the park. You have to paddle in to get to it, and our only neighbours on the lake are two primitive backwoods campsites that folks canoe in to. 

People have cottages, cabins, or camps in Ontario. It's a cottage if you're actually close to Toronto. If you're north of the French River (as we are) it's known as a camp, so that's what we are.

A full view of our splendiferous residence:

The sort of thing we see in the neighbourhood:

Fleet week at the cabin:

That was from August & we had a friend up, so we used all the boats. One last attempt at Artsiness: ­čśë


The camp is way off-grid. There's no cell phone coverage, and the power is supplied by those solar panels hanging off the front. All of which makes it a good place for uninterrupted reading and while we were up there last week, I did read a few books:

Rebecca Makkai/I Have Some Questions For You

Her most recent novel; it came out earlier this year. I have to say I wanted to like this better than I did. It's OK. A prep-school murder mystery, which sounded appealing. Makkai is connected to the Chicago area, important for me, though this story has been transferred to New Hampshire. I thought it skilled enough, but it felt programmatic. She wants to say something about the rush to judgment, Twitter mobs and the facile propensity to convict Black men, but then our protagonist does rush to judgment, and her judgment, about her former music teacher, is a little wrong, but is basically reaffirmed as correct. Hmmph.

James Huneker/Unicorns

Huneker was an American newspaper critic--mainly classical music and literature for the Philadelphia and New York papers--who died in 1922. I've read a bunch of his books and am maybe a bit obsessed. This one is from 1916, and is the last collection of essays that came out during his life. He reviews A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man when it comes out. (That young James Joyce is a promising author--Dubliners was brilliant--and we expect great things of him in the future. Or so says Mr. Huneker.) Like any collection of incidental writings, it's uneven; there were several fine things, though: a couple of essays on J.-K. Huysmans; Huneker's first trip to Paris, where he went to study piano at the Conservatoire, and may have seen Franz Liszt; a trip up in an airplane.

Anita Brookner/Hotel du Lac

Won the Booker for 1984 and is pretty great. But you probably already knew that.

Anna Comnena/The Alexiad
H. C. Bailey/Call Mr. Fortune

Both of these are going to get their own post soon. The Alexiad is Byzantine history around 1100, and Call Mr. Fortune is six mystery short stories that came out in 1922, the first in the Reggie Fortune series.

R. C. Trevelyan/Thamyris

A short book on the state of poetry that came out in the 20s, though he doesn't cover the war poets (Wilfrid Owen, Sassoon, etc.). Trevelyan was a poet in his own right, and also did translations from Latin and Greek. (Some of which I think I've read in the past? Maybe.) He made me want to read more Robert Bridges.

The Huneker, Bailey, and Trevelyan can all be found on Project Gutenberg.


It's the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) this week; we usually manage to see a few movies and our first one was yesterday: They Shot The Piano Player

Pretty fun, with great music, though sad. It's documentary-ish, but done as stylish animation, and it's about Francisco Tenorio Junior, a Brazilian bossa nova pianist who was disappeared by the Argentine military in 1976, while Tenorio was on tour in Buenos Aires. Documentary-ish, I say, because there's a frame with Jeff Goldblum playing an imaginary New Yorker writer who gets involved in investigating the case. 

We'll see several more films this week during the festival.

Summer Challenges: The Report

I did pretty well on the Big Book of Summer challenge, with three:

Olga Tokarczuk/The Books of Jacob
Eleanor Catton/Birnam Wood

I did about average (for me) on  Twenty Books of Summer challenge. I finished 27 books over the three months. (Yay!) I blogged about 17 books. (Hmm.) And of those 17 books, 11 were on my original list of 20 books. Which is about average for my ability to predict what it is I'm going to read... ­čśë

Hope you all had a great week!