Tuesday, July 24, 2018

Charles Wright, Caribou

Charles Wright, Caribou
Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 2014
© 2014 Charles Wright
ISBN 978-0-372-53515-5

I don’t write much about poetry, although I read quite a bit.  I find writing about poetry difficult.  What I want to do is what J.D. Salinger has Buddy Glass say to us in “Seymour: An Introduction:”

The only rational thing to do at this point would be to plunk down one, two, or all one hundred and eighty-four of the poems for the reader to see for himself.

But, of course, like Buddy, I can’t, in my case because the copyright lawyers would jump all over me if I were to type out the fifty-five poems in this collection.  I will quote, sparingly, from several of them, in the hopes that you won’t feel that you should just take my word for their quality.

Charles Wright is probably my favorite poet (although the competition is stiff); he is, at any rate one of the best American poets since World War II.  He is, as of this month, 83 years old, retired from the University of Virginia.  He is the author of eighteen books of poetry, not counting the five volumes of poems selected during various periods of his work.  I have read a lot, but not all of that, and have been uplifted, provoked, enlightened, and moved by much of it.  His writing is colloquial, seemingly devoid of artifice (which is an art in itself.  He draws your attention to his influences in the titles (and dedications of some of the poems (he has, for example, a love of classical Chinese and Japanese poetry.

Caribou is a difficult book, not because the poems are abstract or abstruse, because they are not.  Not because their quality is lacking—these poems moved me, and I hope they will move you.  These are difficult poems, because what Wright has written is a set of elegies, as he knows that his time with us is drawing to a close.  But they are not sad or bitter; they rather celebrate what as gone before and the mystery of what will come next.

As I read the poems in Caribou, I bookmarked the ones that seemed to resonate the most with me (mere stripling at 70).  In “Natura Morta,” he reminds us that

All life, as someone might offer
                                                 rises out of death
And longs to return to it.
It’s in that that longing for our days to shine out,
                                                 and glow forth,

And are our comfort into the dark.

Or the lesson of “Shadow and Smoke:”

Live your life as though you were already dead
                                                             Che Guevara declared.

Okay, let’s see how that works.
Not much difference, a far as I can see,
                                                the earth the same Paradise

It’s always wanted to be,
Heaven as far away as before,
The clouds the same old moveable gates since time began.

There is no circle, there is no sentiment to be broken.
There are only the songs of young men,
                                                        and the songs of old men

Hoping for something elsewise,
Disabuse them in their ignorance,

       Tell them the shadows are already gone, the smoke
Already cleared,
                           tell them that light is never a metaphor.

Or, perhaps the shortest poem in the book:


Cloud mountains rise over mountain range.
Silence and quietness,
                                  sky bright as water, sky bright as lake water
Grace is the instinct for knowing when to stop.  And where.

(I, for one, can feel the influence of Chinese poets in that one.)
Again, I see these poems as elegies, but not poems of sorrow.  They are as much celebrations of a life lived of his own terms as anything else.  I hope at least some of you will be moved so seek this book out, take it into your life, and be warmed by it.

Saturday, July 21, 2018

Sara Woods, Let’s Choose Executors

Sara Woods, Let’s Choose Executors
Avon reprint1986
© 1966 Sara Woods
(Out of print, as I think all her books are, but available from used booksellers)

This is the 10th entry in the Atony Maitland series (I got a bit out of sequence here), and it is excellent.  The title, as usual, is from Shakespeare:

Let’s choose executors, and talk of wills”
Richard II, Act 3, Scene 2

It is (apparently) 1964 (we are given the date, Tuesday, January 28, as the heading for the first chapter), and Maitland is in the northern town of Chedcombe (an invented town) to defend the accused (but we learn nothing about that case).  He is prepared to leave the next morning.  But he is accosted by Vera Langhorne, a local barrister, who wants him to take over for her as the lead counsel in a murder case that is about to come to trial.  She has been retained (on her own) to defend Fran Gifford, who will come, to trial for the murder of her godmother, Alice Randall, by administering a dose of digitoxin in a nighttime concoction (heated rum and lemon).  The digitoxin had been distilled from the leaves of foxglove by one of Mrs. Randall’s grandsons (Mark Randall).

The murder occurred the night of New Year’s Eve.  Fran Rittter (who works in a solicitor’s office; the senior partner, Fred Byron, drew up Mrs. Randall’s will; the junior partner, Thomas Davenant, is Fran’s solicitor), and been planning to attend a dance that night with Mrs. Randall’s other two grandchildren (Hugo, the older brother who ran the Randall farm, and Marian—Mark’s twin, who has almost no role in the story).  However, when Mrs. Randall stopped in to see her solicitor—to sign a revision to her will, on December 31—she asked Fran to sit with her that evening.  Fran agreed, although it meant not attending the dance.  And she was alone in the house, except for the deaf cook.  And, in the course of the evening, Mrs. Randall showed her the vial with the poison in it, and told Fran where it came from, and how angry she was at Mark for making such a thing.

Fran’s barrister does not think Fran is a murderer, but feels out of her depth and asks for Maitland’s help.  Which he somewhat reluctantly agrees to give.  From there on, we follow Maitland’s investigation, which proceeds with difficulty.  Woods does an excellent job of portraying the town and its inhabitants, and especially the people involved, in one way or another, with Mrs. Randall’s life and family—and her death.  The courtroom scenes are well-handled, especially the climax, in which Maitland essentially pulls off a “Perry Mason.”

As this series has progressed, it has improved, not necessarily steadily, but the books grow in depth and in the illumination of the characters’ persons and personalities.   While we see very little of the two most important supporting characters (Maitland’s uncle, Nicholas Harding, who is also the head of the chambers with which Maitland is affiliated, and his wife Jenny), Vera Langhorne adds to the story in many ways (not least her unwillingness to begin a sentence the word “I”).  Maitland’s slow unraveling of the Randall family (and its secrets) and his compassion for people who deserve it make this the most emotionally satisfying to the books in the series that I have so far re-read.

Thursday, July 12, 2018

Rex Stout, Black Orchids

Rex Stout, The Black Orchids
© Rex Stout, 1941, 1942
Viking Press, 1942
Bantam reprint 1994
Available from used booksellers

This appears to be the first “collection” of novellas, originally published in book form in 1942, and consisting of two cases: “Black Orchids” (first publication 1941) and “Cordially Invited To Meet Death” (1942).  Perhaps the strangest thing about these two stories. Given their publication dates, is that there is no mention, not even a suggestion, of the war.  The two preceding novels (Over My Dead Body and Where There’s a Will) and the immediately following pair of novellas (“Not Quite Dead Enough” and “Booby Trap”) either foreshadow the war or are directly involved with it.

And these are very strong entries in the series.  In “The Black Orchids,” Wolfe, having sent Archie to the Metropolitan Flower Show three days running, succumbs to an attack of horticultural jealousy, and (with Archie in tow) attends himself to see the black orchids that have been produced in Lewis Hewett’s greenhouse.  (Such things exist, although whether they existed in 1940, or were created by orchid fans after—because—this story was written, I do not know.)  And, of course, a murder intervenes.  The Rucker and Dill “booth” at the show features a pastoral scene, complete with two characters and a babbling brook.  And one of them—Harry Gould—is murdered, quite ingeniously (although I have doubts about the actual feasibility of the procedure).  Unbeknownst to the police, but known to Wolfe and Archie, there is a circumstance that involves Hewett.  And Wolfe’s price for extricating Hewitt is all three of the black orchid plants.

Archie displays an unusual amount of independence in this case, allowing Wolfe to get the first real chance to interrogate an important witness.  The denouement is both fairly startling and quite successful; justice is served, and Wolfe keeps his fee.

At the beginning of “Cordially Invited to Meet Death,” Archie tells us

That’s the first of the two cases.  That’s how he got the black orchids.  And what do you suppose he did with them?  I don’t mean the plants; it would take the lever Archimedes wanted a fulcrum for to pry one of those loose from him…I mean a bunch of the blossoms.  I saw them myself there on a corner of the casket, with a card he had scribbled his initials on, “NW.”  That was all.

I put this case here with the other one only on account of the orchids,  As I said, it’s a totally different set of people,  If, when you finish it, you think the mystery has been solved, all I have to say is that you don’t know a mystery when you see one.

It begins with a telephone call from Bess Huddleson, who wants Wolfe to come see her.  And you know how that plays out.  (In addition to his refusal to leave home, there had been a previous encounter with Huddleson.)  Later, Archie calls her back and invites he to the old brownstone; she accepts, and seeks to hire Wolfe to discover who is sending anonymous notes (not about her, but nonetheless unsettling) to her clients—she is the party arranger to the 1%--and make it stop.  Wolfe takes the case, and Archie is dispatched to Huddleson’s home to do the preliminary work.  And Huddleson dies; a small cut on her foot turns into a case of tetanus, and there is nothing anyone could do.  (In 1940, about 5 people per 1 million population—or about 700 people per year—died of tetanus; today, around 10 cases of tetanus are reported annually.)  And dying from tetanus is apparently an extraordinarily awful way to go.  (While we don’t get an in-depth of that, we learn enough to have no doubt of how nasty it is.)

The first question, of course, is whether it was just one of those things, or if someone helped things along.  And of course, it was murder.  Wolfe untangles the case based on a photograph and a 1” long cut on the ar m of one of the principals in the investigation.  Along the way, h receives some help on some culinary conundrums, corned beef hash being the most consequential.

These are both very well plotted mysteries, and the participants are more plausible and more interesting than is sometimes the case with Stout.  Possible the best of the collections of novellas.

Sunday, July 8, 2018

Susan Spann, The Ninja’s Daughter

Susan Spann, The Ninja’s Daughter
Seventh Street Books
© 2016 Susan Spann

I’ve commented before that Spann has done an excellent job of creating what appears to me (I am not an expert, but have read a fair amount) of creating an accurate and believable setting (the late 1500s, in Japan).  It was a period of political (and thus military) upheaval, and for the upper classes in particular, a tie of immense uncertainty.  (There’s what appears to be an excellent wikipedia article covering the period:

And that political upheaval becomes more salient in The Ninja’s Daughter, the fourth entry in her series about Hiro (a shinoba, hired to protect the Portuguese missionary Father Mateo).  Jiro, apprentice to the moneylender Basho, calls on Mateo very early in the morning, seeing his assistance.  He fears he has killed a young woman whom, he met by the river that night, but he was drunk and hopes that he is not the murderer.  Hiro wants to stay out of what is likely to be a messy situation, but Mateo, reluctant to see a possibly innocent person condemned without strong evidence, feels bound to look into it.  The investigation proves to be extremely difficult, as the approach of an army is leading to restrictions on movement even within Kyoto.  And it’s made even more difficult because what passes for the local police refuse to look into it—because the dead woman is merely a commoner, and thus of no importance.

The woman (whose name is Emi), it turns out, is a member of an acting troop (one of the daughters of one of the actors).  And in order to determine exactly how, and why, she died, Mateo must convince Hiro that he intends to investigate, regardless of how the authorities and how Hiro himself feel about the matter.

The investigation is inherently difficult, and made more difficult by the political situation (which leads many people to leave Kyoto for the (relative) safety of the countryside.  With Hiro’s reluctant assistance, Mateo has to untangle the relationships within the troop, including the arranged marriages of the younger members of the troop.  And then there’s the issue of the provenance, and importance, of a golden coin…

This series just keeps getting better, but it is likely to work best if read in order.  And I would strongly encourage seeking out the first three books in the series:
Claws of the Cat
Blade of the Samurai
Flask of the Drunken Master

as well as the two which follow The Ninja’s Daughter:
Betrayal At Iga (2017)
Trial on Mt, Koya

Copycat Photoblogging Redux

Chris Bertram posted this lovely shot.  Here's my copycat, in Milan, 2005:

Saturday, July 7, 2018

Sara Woods, Error of the Moon

Sara Woods, Error of the Moon
© 1963 Sara Woods
Out of print, but available from used booksellers

The fifth book featuring London barrister Antony Maitland; the title again is drawn from Shakespeare, although I cannot see any real connection to the story.

It is the very error of the moon;
She comes more near the earth than she was wont,
And makes men mad.
 Othello, Act V, Secne II

Set apparently in the early 1960s, and Maitland’s legal practice is a sufficiently fallow period that he almost willingly accepts a commission from (presumably) from the Ministry of War (and based on his wartime service in military intelligence to investigate what appears to be an effort to obtain the plans for a new breed of missiles.  By the time the request comes, two men have died under suspicious circumstances.  The research/factory site is in the west of England. 

Maitland’s inquiries go quite slowly, and it was, for me, somewhat difficult to keep track of the quite large cast of character, all of them are referred to interchangeably by their first and last names.  Eventually, and based on at least one piece of information that (if my memory serves) we do not have, Maitland identifies the guilty party (who also seems to end the book in a state of mental disarray). 

As usual, Woods writes well, and there is one passage (near the end of the book) that will remind any reader of “golden age” British mysteries of a book by Dorothy L. Sayers.  But I found it sort of a slog.  This was the second book (out of five) that hearkens back to Maitland’s military intelligence work, so there was little f what (for me) makes the series work as well as it does—his uncle’s looming presence, the solicitor who works closely with Maitland quite frequently, and, above all, the presence of the institutions and customs of English law. 
And it seems to affect how Woods depicts Maitland as well.  He is more diffident than usual. His investigation seems to me to be almost perfunctory.  With all that, though, the book is adequate, and, if you are a fan of the Maitland series and have not yet read it, probably worth your time.

Friday, July 6, 2018

Susan Spann, The Flask of the Drunken Master

Susan Spann, The Flask of the Drunken Master
A Thomas Dunne Book/Minotaur/St. Martin’s
© 2015 Susan Spann
ISBN 978-1-250-02706-1

This is the third in the (so far) excellent series of mysteries, set in Japan in the late 1500s.  The main character Matsui Hiro (his work name, as it happens), is a shinobi (think ninja); his clan has been hired to protect a Portuguese Catholic priest, Father Mateo Avila de Santos, who is attempting to convert ordinary Japanese to Catholicism.  A large part of the stories involves Hiro trying to understand the thoughts of Mateo, while Mateo has to learn about how—and why—the Japanese people respond as they do.

The historical setting is well done and (based on a small amount of reading) seems accurate.  Looming in the background (mostly; sometimes this becomes a significant part of the story) are dynastic machinations over the control of the Emperor, and, thus, of Japan.  And the Portuguese mission to Japan is also factual (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_the_Catholic_Church_in_Japan)--it even achieved a fair amount of success until Catholicism was banned in the early 1600s.

In this entry in the series, the political ramifications remain in the background.  A relatively unsuccessful sake brewer (Chikao) has been found dead, presumably murdered, behind Ginjiro’s brewery.  He and Ginjiro were known to have argued, and so the yoriki think policeman) has arrested Ginjiro.  Neither Hiro (who has occasionally visited Ginjiro’s establishment) nor Mateo think it likely that Ginjiro is the murdered, and prevail on Chikao’s widow to ask the magistrate to postpone Ginjiro’s trial.  They have four days to find evidence that will clear Ginjiro and, presumably, implicate someone else.

They are not lacking for possible suspects.  There’s Chikao’s son Kaoru, an impulsive, often drunk ne’er-do-well, who is deeply in debt.  And his debts have made it difficult for Chikao and his partner Ren to expand and upgrade their brewery (with the goal of being able to join the sake brewer’s guild.  And Ren, who finds Chikao’s indulgence of his son to be a hindering their efforts.  Basho, a wealthy rice merchant has also been behaving oddly.  Akechi Yoshiko, a female samurai who was become a debt collector and guard (to support her mother) might well have been trying to collect from Chikao.  And the constantly drunken monk Suke was on the scene and claims to be the murderer.

Mateo and Hiro investigate (and it is in the course of their investigation that we learn more about their beliefs and about their cultural differences).  Eventually, more or less at the last minute, Hiro thinks he has the solution and he and Mateo talk their way into the magistrate’s hearing.  And in a scene reminiscent of Perry Mason, Hiro builds a case that reveals the truly guilty party.

I find the relationship between Hiro and Mateo (and the other two members of Mateo’s household) to be well done, and to have become deeper as the series progresses.  Spann’s plots are intricate, but fair to the reader.  I find myself becoming involved, especially with the two main characters and more and more interested in the setting.  This is a series that has yet to disappoint me and has grown richer and deeper as it proceeds.

Tuesday, July 3, 2018


Stephen Carlsen, Dean and Rector at Christ Church Cathedral in Indianapolis:
“Holy Scripture is clear about how we are to treat people trying to find safety for their families – we are to show mercy and welcome them. The Holy Family today calls us to stand with all families seeking safety and a future for their children,” he continued. “We will not stand by while children are being taken from their parents, and families are being taken from our communities and congregations.”