People lie, have you noticed? Cell phones open a new channel for the untruth observer. Yesterday afternoon, for example, I was riding the Number 61 bus placidly towards home when the phone of the woman behind me rang. She started telling her caller about some bureaucratic errand she’d been on and then said, “I’m waiting on the sixty-one bus.” Did I hear that right? I thought. Maybe she said sixty-three? But no, she repeated, “I’m waiting on the 61 bus,” and while my mind spun trying to derive a scenario where one could legitimately be waiting for a bus while riding it, she doubled down by adding, “But not long, it’s moving out soon.” So no, it was just a lie; perhaps to confuse her caller about when she’d be home, or something. I don’t know.

The toy dragon is just for fun. I found him on the street. Rawr!


Wouldn’t you?


I looked up from my seat on the subway to perceive that a woman on the opposite bench had a skirt and t-shirt of precisely matching, rather aggressive solid turquoise green; and then that her big square tote bag matched as well; and then that her sandals with their rosettes of suede fringe, her toenails, yes, and her fingernails, and the big earrings half-hidden by her blonde hair all matched. (Her eyes, as best I could tell, were blue.) So can you blame me for wondering briefly, so to speak, about her underclothes?

Rose redemption.


Fantin-Latour rose

I think of my friend Nicole every day; this weekend by recalling her seasonal motto: “Memorial Day! When we honor our war dead by going to the beach.”

As I used to say, “I myself represent the decline of western civilization.” Well, if it’s All Gonna End Soon, all the more reason to take advantage of the beautiful days, right? Which I wish I were doing better. Can’t complain of Saturday morning, though. I walked up to the Brooklyn Botanic Garden (free entry Saturdays before noon) to see the roses and peonies. Lots of giggling in the Cranford Rose Garden as visitors got sprinkled in succession by the rotating sprinklers, with our gratitude as it was HOT. The earliest old shrub roses were done but plenty of my historical favorites bloomed on, like the lovely Mme. Hardy with her flat white face and little green eye, and other damasks, centifolias (like Fantin-Latour, above), gallicas, albas, and spinossisimas. And many non-rose non-peony beauties as well.

We went out for drinks after Christian Harmony singing a couple of weeks ago, you know, the usual three hours of hymns, an hour in the bar. I told the bartender I wanted to try a new bourbon and he suggested something called Redemption. Of course! (“480, I think,” said Stina, meaning the page number of the song REDEMPTION.) It was tasty.


Tuesday Night, Travel edition: THUS WAS ADONIS MURDERED.

titian adonis detail

Titian: Venus and Adonis

The vintage mystery bloggers’ monthly challenge this month is TRAVEL AND HOLIDAYS. Last month and the month before I read perfectly appropriate books and then failed to produce my posts, so this month I’m going to write about a non-classic mystery, Sarah Caudwell’s THUS WAS ADONIS MURDERED (1981). I know, I know, it’s only 35 years old; but it has the best-ever travel-related plot device and is in general a delightful work. My attempt to tease it apart it for this review has given me a heightened appreciation for its complex structure, tricky but (mostly) clued solution, and stylish language. There’s a three-way phone conversation towards the end that reads like a trio from a Mozart opera. Well, a parody of a Mozart opera, anyway.

The first of what turned out to be four comedy-of-manners mystery novels Caudwell wrote before her untimely death, THUS WAS ADONIS MURDERED introduces us to Professor of Legal History at Oxford Hilary Tamar, who in turn introduces us to a cluster of his or her (this detail is never confirmed) younger lawyer friends. Timothy, Selena, (Desmond) Ragwort, and (Michael) Cantrip, barristers, share chambers in Lincoln’s Inn, and next door their friend Julia Larwood “sits all day, advising quite happily on the construction of the Finance Acts”; that is, she is a tax lawyer. It is late summer, or in university terms the Long Vacation. Hilary has come to London in pursuit of some research in medieval law and stops by to have coffee with the Lincoln’s Inn gang. Julia, we learn, has gone on holiday to Venice and is expected to provide a chronicle of her adventure in the form of letters. These letters are then read aloud to the group and form (with some other epistolary elements) a large part of the text of the novel.

Julia is notoriously impractical and accident-prone, and also highly susceptible to the charms of pale, pretty, slim young men. To insulate her as far as possible from the effects of the former characteristics, Selena has made sure she is attached to an organized tour, an Art Lover’s Tour in fact, and Ragwort has loaned her his precious guidebooks (some in English, some in Italian) to Venice and the cities of the Veneto, protected from the drips and stains inevitable in Julia’s vicinity by sturdy paper covers. (As to the latter tendency, far from countering, Julia intends to make the most of it.) As the friends discover in the first of Julia’s letters, she did not even manage to get on the plane before being separated from her passport, and before the flight takes off she has marked as fellow Art Lovers a stereotypically Empire-hearty, shorts-wearing military type, an “armour-plated matron,” a “rather pretty girl” traveling with a handsome but “peevish” American man, and two young men, one strong but gloomy and one more slender, who she later discovers is the possessor of “a face for which Narcissus might be forsworn and the Moon forget Endymion.” Swoon. “‘I don’t think she’s mentioned Praxiteles since that out of work actor in February,” Selena says.

When the friends next meet for the reading of two more of Julia’s letters, Timothy is to treat them to dinner because he too has to go to Venice, to consult with a client whose large tax obligation (due when he comes into a rich trust on his 25th birthday) can be relieved if he can only be persuaded to establish domicile in England; but he hates England.  As they debate stratagems, Timothy receives a phone call whose burden has already been revealed to the reader: Julia has been detained as a suspect in a murder.

It is the beautiful young man, Ned, who has been stabbed, apparently while asleep in his bed at the Hotel Cytherea, and Julia is implicated because, well, she had been there earlier, and her copy of the Finance Act is still beside the bed.

Naturally Timothy will make Julia’s rescue a second goal of his trip to Venice, while the London team read the rest of Julia’s letters as they arrive, transmissions from the recent but AM (ante murder) past recounting the sometimes ominous actions and conversations of the Art Lovers as well as their travels round the cultural and hedonic attractions of Venice and the Veneto. We follow their guide, Graziella, to Piazza San Marco and the Doges’ Palace.

Graziella instructed us to note the development, as thereby exemplified, from the Gothic to the Renaissance style, and gave us a little lecture on the Venetian constitution. She spoke of it tenderly: it had been, it seemed, a splendid constitution, full of senates and checks and balances and other things delightful to the political theorist.

“If it was that fine,” asked Stanford, “why didn’t it last?”

“It lasted six hundred years, signor,” said Graziella. “And when it was quite worn out and would not work at all any more, it was exported, of course, to the United States of America.”

We hear about the marital tensions of Marylou and Stanford, the good-looking and well-off Americans; the possibly shady plans involving vintage furniture and objets d’art of the Major (Bob) and the matron (Eleanor); and how Julia served as guide on the group’s mainland trip to Asolo, Vicenza, and Verona, relying on Ragwort’s guidebooks.  (She does complain that the Vicenza book is deceptive, but proudly reports her strategic triumph in finding many of the most important piazzi, palazzi, and chiesi (and their notable pictures) in Verona, somewhat startling in the face not only of her general talent for confusion but of her admittedly loose grasp of Italian.) We also hear about Julia’s romantic encounters first with a charming hotel waiter and then, yes, with the beautiful Ned, despite his being partnered with the gloomy young man, Kenneth, a sculptor.

And in the present the friends work to learn all they can about the other Art Lovers and to figure out what actually happened. Certainly Julia did not kill Ned, notwithstanding her loathing for his employers, the Inland Revenue Service. (Julia’s being a tax lawyer has not kept her out of the grasp of the tax authorities.) And in all likelihood even she could not have slept, and waked, next to a corpse without noticing the fact.

Except of course for Julia and the late Ned, the Art Lovers return to London and are there trailed, encountered, and interviewed by Hilary, Cantrip, Ragwort, and Selena. Eventually, applying the principle of lectum difficilium* (don’t forget, Hilary’s a scholar of legal history), quite a bit of larcenous thinking, and some fairly arcane art historical knowledge, Hilary untangles the narrative’s threads —Timothy’s tax and trust case is involved too — and sets up a dramatic showdown to provide the proof.

If you are curious to know, or think you’ve guessed, what that plot device I like so much might be, it is SPOILER ALERT! the confusion of a guidebook to Padua for a guidebook to Verona. You take a look at the two maps some day, with their loops of river and their San Whozit churches and Piazzas di this and that, and see if you don’t believe it could happen.

*That between two versions of a text, “the most difficult reading is to be preferred,” as Hilary puts it.


passover prep.

Another in a series of bad pictures (of delicious things).


matzah crack, first batch, with birthday sprinkles


The glass cat paradox.

Opening a box, I found a small glass cat, purple, from Venice I think, that a friend once gave me. To whom besides a cat person would you give a glass cat? But that cat person cannot display it, because the cat would knock it over.

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Latest loaf, all purpose with some whole wheat and a couple of tablespoons of oat bran, olive oil, molasses as sweetener.

All the years I’ve lived alone, I’ve always kept one of those classic strips of three yeast packets in my fridge. Sometimes it’s been years between attempts to bake with yeast, and sometimes I’ve pulled the packets out to discover they were three years past their use-by date (long even by my loose limits), but they were always a cheap just-in-case item. Well, now I have been baking bread almost every week for a year and more except for the months when it was too hot to turn on the oven, so a few weeks ago I went to the supermarket to pick up another Fleischmann’s three-pack. “$2.79?” I thought. “Really?” I looked at the shelf label and it told me that the unit price was $59.39 per pound (or something like that). Hmph! snorted I to myself, I know that the price for a full pound from (say) King Arthur isn’t anything like fifty-nine dollars. Key Food didn’t have any full pounds to check this, but Whole Foods, when I was lured in there by Z a day or two later, did. Price per pound? $5.39. That is, buying yeast in packets raises the price tenfold. Which is perfectly acceptable if you use one packet a year for three years, but not if you’re baking every week.

Canny Brooklyn shopper that I am, however, I waited till my next trip to Sahadi’s, where I found four different kinds of bulk yeast and got a pound of SAF Blue Label for $4.25. And look how dynamically my latest loaf rose! I always trust Sahadi’s for fast turnover, so I don’t doubt this is the freshest and happiest yeast I’ve ever had; and I am not tempted to skimp on it, but can dip my teaspoon luxuriously.
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Let me know if you want to share my pound of yeast. I figure I have six or eight more loaves till summer, by which time my investment will already have paid for itself,  and then I’ll move the package from the fridge to the freezer for the hot months.

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One way to start a folktale.


aka garbanzo

There was also another standard introduction about a broad bean and a chickpea fighting by a public fountain and being put to jail by lentil, which happened to pass by, but being released after the intervention of a split pea.


Vintage mysteries by Phoebe Atwood Taylor

A first experience of Phoebe Atwood Taylor

First two experiences, I should say. The very first came about through a coincidence, or accident, suitable to a classic mystery. I cannot fathom why a copy of the 1966 Norton edition of Taylor’s 1938 THE ANNULET OF GILT, one of her series featuring Cape Cod local hero Asey Mayo, should have swum up out of the depths of the Brooklyn Central LIbrary’s stacks and onto the not very extensive Mystery shelves of my local Carroll Gardens branch. I’d never heard of Taylor but this was definitely a Vintage Mystery, or vintage something anyway (a mere glance at the typeface would have told you so), and I snatched it up. When I couldn’t get the self-checkout kiosk to recognize the volume, I brought it to the librarians’ desk. “You’ve saved it,” said the technician, clicking some keys and releasing it to me, “it was due to be discarded.”

In the first sentence it is established that our hero, Asey Mayo, drives a roadster. A roadster!  I doubt I’ve come across many literary roadsters since my Nancy Drew days (and suspect I’ve never seen one in three dimensions). And indeed the book seems to me to affiliate with kids’ adventure books as much as it does with mysteries. The three rambunctious children Asey glimpses in that first sentence are key to the story, and the light tone of their dialogue prevails throughout the book, though Bad Things including murders do happen.  There’s even an elephant. On the mystery side, there are also plenty of clues (though Asey learns some things before we do) and a classic case summary.

I went back to the BkPL catalog to see if there were any more Taylor treasures lurking un-withdrawn, and found one of the mysteries she wrote under the name of Alice Tilton. (As Taylor, her real name, she wrote over 20 Cape Cod-set Asey Mayo stories; as Tilton, half a dozen mysteries featuring secret adventure novelist and Shakespeare lookalike Leonidas Witherall’s sleuthing in the Boston suburbs. She also used the pseudonym Freeman Dana.) This was 1943’s FILE FOR RECORD, reprinted in 1987 by Foul Play Press in Vermont. It too has a lighthearted air, despite quite a nice person getting brutally killed. Where ANNULET develops its Cape Cod atmosphere carefully through landscape (and seascape) descriptions and dialogue styles and accents, FILE FOR RECORD collides its Massachusetts suburb with a classic British country house mystery, including, along with a baffling and decorative (samurai sword) murder, people who say “Er” and “I say,” a gentleman’s umbrella, and a local Major. It is also a WWII home front story: key elements are shortages of gas and of young men, an air raid alarm, and two “victory swop” events. Like ANNULET, it offers us a cheerful, unflappable, modest hero and a likable gang of helpers that accumulates around him. Sample line of dialogue: “‘Turk,'” Leonidas said, ‘move over and make room for the admiral.'”

I enjoyed both novels very much and would happily read any others, in either series, that I come across. I also hope someday to find one of her Freeman Dana stories.

UPDATE: A nice report from mystery blogger Kate at Crossexamining Crime on Taylor/Tilton’s last Witherall mystery, THE IRON CLEW. I had wondered whether the mock-Aristotelian effect of the whole thing taking place in a single day were common to all the Witherall books; it is true of both of these, so I am inclined to believe it is.

Covers, potentially for the Vintage Mystery Scavenger Hunt: ANNULET OF GILT, a car (a roadster?) fallen off the road; FILE FOR RECORD, a stack of papers stabbed with a knife.


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Overheard in Brooklyn, Prospect Park edition

elmblossomAll these within a minute or so on a single path in Prospect Park:

“‘Bunnies and Twinkies,’ she said to me, ‘bunnies and Twinkies, that’s all I want you to think about.'”

“I could do the dark road, too, another time.”

“To steal a Monet . . .”

Witch hazel, red maple, elm, and cornelian cherry are in bloom. (Photo borrowed from the City Birder.)

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