Category Archives: books

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.

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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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Neglected.

How can I not have known about this fantastic resource till now? Neglected Books, a work of passion from an American ex-Air Force tech guy living in Belgium and finding, just as promised, neglected (out of print, unmentioned, missing from library shelves) books. His comments are compact but (and?) thoughtful. Thank you, Twitter and the New Yorker’s Page Turner blog, for bringing the blog to my attention.

And now as I read backwards into his 2015 posts I see that it’s no coincidence all the 2016s are about women writers. In fact, he’s carrying over a project started in 2015 to read and report on women only, saying, “I can honestly say that not a single book I read during 2015 failed to challenge me and to open me up to perspectives and sensibilities I had never really taken the time to consider.” Brad Bigelow, you’re my new hero.

THE HOG’S BACK MYSTERY #1933book

pigback

pig from the back

My first entry in Crimes of the Century, really my first take on mystery blogging.

THE HOG’S BACK MYSTERY by Freeman Wills Crofts.

Freeman Wills Crofts! The very name redolent of—something or other.  I have read many mysteries in my day, but largely unscientifically, and am not an aficionado of the strict fair-play puzzle mystery so much admired by the mystery blogging community. Nonetheless, or perhaps for this very reason, I was pleased to discover that THE HOG’S BACK MYSTERY would suit the #1933book rubric for my first-ever entry in the Crime of the Century collaboration; would introduce me to the work of Crofts, by reputation one of the most exacting of fair-play authors; and was available, in the new British Library Crime Classics edition edited by Martin Edwards, at the Brooklyn Public Library.

The situation: A semi-retired doctor disappears, in the course of five minutes, from the sitting room in his home in the Surrey countryside, below the Hog’s Back ridge that names the book. Has he run off, been kidnapped — or is he dead? There’s no sign, and after a baffled week the local authorities call in the Yard, in the person of scrupulously systematic Inspector French. Borrowing the local sergeant’s bike for transport, French searches the grounds and re-interviews Dr Earle’s friends (including Dr Campion, his partner, Campion’s sisters Alice and Flo, and Ursula Stone, visiting schoolfriend of Earle’s wife; relations (wife Julia and Julia’s sister Marjorie, also visiting); and neighbors (Reginald Slade and Colonel Dagger).

It seems unlikely that Earle, if he were to have run off (perhaps with the young woman with whom Ursula spots him driving “along the east side of Seymour Street” in London when he says he’s playing golf), would have done so in his slippers and with no access to funds, but there’s no evidence of anything else either: no body.  Following the details and interviewing train ticket sellers and car park attendants, French is led to a new name and a new absence: Nurse Nankivel, evidently Earle’s London liaison, who has herself gone missing. French immediately reaches the obvious conclusion: “Earle and this nurse had gone off together. On the Thursday they had met to complete their plans, and on the Sunday they had put them into effect.”

Perhaps I need not say that French is wrong about this. It is, after all, not even the middle of the book.

Nurse Nankivel’s missing-persons case, too, is handed to French and in his interviews with Nankivel’s colleagues he discovers the original connection between Earle and Nankivel. Nankivel had been live-in nurse at a house in the Hog’s Back area a few weeks before. Campion was the chief doctor and Earle had been called in as consultant. French even tracks down a telegraph signed by Earle appointing a meeting with Nankivel just where a new road and overpass are being constructed at the Hog’s Back ridge. French will find time to enjoy watching the earth-moving and building work, reminiscing about happy times on an earlier case, that of the Whitness Widening.

Up to this point the book has been short on pace, Now, though, things perk up, in a manner of speaking. Ursula Stone, who has stayed on at the Earles’ house to support her friend Julia, disappears. This time evidence of a crime of violence is found almost at once, in the classic forms of a footprint (in a conveniently placed patch of sand, “which had evidently been thrown up by a rabbit [and which] was the only sand in the immediate neighborhood”), a few strategically placed drops of blood, and a depression in some grass (later known as Thicket No. 1). Thicket #2 is also found, confirmed by a thread from Ursula’s green sweater (furze is so very apt for snagging wool). From here on it is a veritable rain of clues: clean joints revealing a secret safe and a confidential manuscript, fingerprints, a distinctive yellow clay smeared in the footwell of Reg Slade’s car. Even a reader minimally driven to solve mystery stories will have twigged that yellow clay as matching the soil at the new road cut. A sticky and effortful night scene follows as construction workers and policemen dig up the new bank until the bodies of all three missing persons are revealed, at long last, on about page 226.

Eventually, of course, there are enough clues, and Inspector French spends enough time charting them out and pondering them, to work out Who, trickily, did What, Why, and especially When (it all comes down to close timing of alibis and car trips, fibbery and misdirection). The root of the three murders leads back to old Mr. Frazer, Dr Campion’s and Nurse Nankivel’s late patient. After everything’s wrapped up, all is explained by French to his police colleagues over drinks (“Fortified with another tot, French went on with his tale”) and smokes in the approved fashion, a narrative accompanied by time chart, diagram, and citations back to the page in this very volume where each relevant detail was observed. (If only French were active today, in the epoch of PowerPoint!) To do Crofts justice, French’s friends tease him for his deliberate and prolonged exposition.

So, on to reflection. The puzzle was certainly puzzling, and its disentangling scrupulous, to the point almost of absurdity. The tale’s strange lack of urgency, its willingness to take weekends off to go to Romney Marsh by train (express [p. 153]) and bus, to fuss with cigarettes and meals (“Breakfast was becoming quite a problem” as French searched the Earles’ house (p. 173), give it a narcotic detachment. I assume these small details are meant to give an illusion of humanness to the otherwise mostly wooden figures populating the book. There are occasional eruptions of humanity: the odd relationship between the snubbing Julia and her enamored young neighbor, for instance, though irrelevant to the mystery, is unusually startling and lifelike. Ursula Stone, from whose point of view we see the first few chapters, is another exception, but her interiority disappears long before her character.

Though the puzzle was, as the citations are meant to assure us, fair*, somehow it doesn’t feel fair, to me anyway.  Is it that the murder/cover-up plot is so precise and at the same time so flimsy? Or that the motivation, though perfectly realistic, is never shown to us in anyone’s behavior?

Clearly, this is not my favorite style of story. But I can see its virtues and enjoy them, along with the guileless exposure of Crofts’ own passions for machinery and engineering, literal and figurative. (The tools in Campion’s workshop: circular saw, planing machine, mortising machine, vertical drill, lathe — these have nothing to do with the crime, French himself takes no note of them, and yet they are lovingly enumerated and “polished till they shone” [p. 27]).  I’m not rushing to find more of Crofts’ oeuvre, but I’m glad to have read this one.

Note: Sadly, there seems to be nothing about this cover, with rolling landscape and unspooky mansion, that matches the Vintage Scavenger Hunt list.
*Although we do not hear of French’s researches at the Handcraft shop until his recapitulation.

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Books 2016 #1, January

As announced here, I have started to keep a books-read spreadsheet (without giving up scrawling returned library books in my little notebook). So I can say with assurance that I read 26 books in January (see as previously noted “too much time on hands”). Twelve of these were mysteries, due to a combination of a mood unaccepting of difficulty and anxiety with the focus provided by my mystery-blog reading and Challenge participation. Of the rest, one was a memoir, two history, ten “literature” (novels, stories, essays, and literary history), and one a cookbook. Two were translations, from Russian and from French, though both with Soviet Russian settings at least in part.

I gave quite a few books either four or five stars (including Martin Edwards’ history of the Detection Club and Sarah Vowell’s book about Lafayette), but I think my number one for the month must be Sasha Sokolov’s A SCHOOL FOR FOOLS, translated by Alexander Boguslawski and published by the wonderful New York Review Books.

CHALLENGES:

Vintage Mystery Scavenger Hunts

Golden Age (1959 and before): Ross MacDonald’s BLUE CITY, 1947, and Agatha Christie’s N OR M?, 1941. Sorry, puzzle-mystery fans, while there were entertaining moments, I still find AC an annoying writer overall. Even the puzzle structure was irritating in this one, maybe owing to wartime jingoism. But! I can use the sandcastle on the cover to check off a spot on my Scavenger Hunt list. BLUE CITY I enjoyed, it seemed a skillful and moody noir (though I felt that the hero ought to have been older for some of his reactions). I did not like it as well as MacDonald’s MEET ME AT THE MORGUE, which I read in the last days of 2015 and which is a more complex, more mature novel. BLUE CITY earned me another checkmark, for a telephone handset.

Silver Age: John Ball’s IN THE HEAT OF THE NIGHT, 50th anniversary edition. Very tight, smart little book. How about checking off MORE THAN TWO PEOPLE on my Silver checklist?

Classic (before 1966); Three books, BLUE CITY, IN THE HEAT OF THE NIGHT, N or M? Thus triply covering the Classic Mystery category and also fulfilling the Woman Author category and the 20th Century category; we shall see later on where each title is needed.

Translations: One French (Andrei Makine’s A WOMAN LOVED, translated by Geoffrey Strachan), one Russian, A SCHOOL FOR FOOLS.

Books of 2015 (part 1)

Finally, I’m getting around to a minimal report on the books I read in 2015. Clearly, as I have admitted before, I had too much time on my hands, as I appear to have read something like 160 books. About 20 of these, or about 12 percent, were works in translation; I suppose this is above average, but still seems low considering how I swaggered (internally) to think of myself as a big foreign-book reader.

The book I most often recommended last year was probably Sybille Bedford’s A LEGACY, a memoirish novel of a family and a childhood in the transforming, not to say collapsing, Europe of the early 20th century. Written in English as a second or third language, it almost counts as a work in translation—pre-translation, so to speak. I connected A LEGACY with Gyorgy Krudy’s ADVENTURES OF SINDBAD, also highly recommended, which apparently I read in some earlier year.  Another book I talked up was Robert Sackville-West’s THE DISINHERITED, a family memoir of the troubled and occasionally dastardly Sackville-West family (not primarily about the famous Vita). Sensing a theme here? Another in the same dying-Europe family: THE EMPEROR’S TOMB by Joseph Roth.

TO BE CONTINUED.

Challenged. (2016)

In another indication that I have too much time on my hands and am longing for order, I am considering participating in some reading challenges this year.  I don’t think they’ll change my reading habits all that much, but they will encourage me to pay attention and to write some brief reviews. Also, it means I’m participating in one of the great trends of our century, gamification.

These are the three challenges I’m thinking of (EDIT: SIGNED UP FOR ALL THREE):

  • Books in Translation at the Introverted Reader. This merely asks you to read, well, translated books, with the highest level, “linguist,” asking for ten to twelve books. But it’s too plain, so along with aiming for a dozen translated books (I’m pretty sure I read at least one translation a month), I’m going to look for at least four different languages from at least six different countries.
  • Back to the Classics at Books & Chocolate. This one has twelve categories, with opportunities to participate in a reward drawing being offered at levels of completion from six to twelve.
  • Vintage Mystery Cover Scavenger Hunt at My Reader’s Block. This will require some extra effort to seek out vintage mysteries. Its quirk is that it asks for Things Found on the Cover, with 75 objects in each of the Golden (to 1960) CORRECTION: THROUGH 1959 and Silver (60-89) categories. (Same list for each period.)

So does it sound like fun, or like drudgery? Both? We’ll see how long I last. I’ve made a spreadsheet to track the books, and I seldom associate spreadsheets with fun. So far: one Golden Age mystery, one object (a phone). And I’m going to decree right now that any one book may answer more than one challenge. For example, an Arsène Lupin novel (E. Gaboriau, c 1900) would count as a work in translation, a classic, and potentially the source of a scavenger hunt item (probably not a plane or a flashlight, though).

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FROM THE ARCHIVES, 1

The very first thing I picked out to read, on the subway on the way home from Mom’s, as a little light reading, was Chapter 9 from John Summerson’s 1946 classic Georgian London, headed “Fall ’87 History I PN703A Gardner.”  Just back from my winter in London and classes at the Architectural Association in beautiful Bedford Square, I think I was especially interested in this book.  In fact, had I perhaps read it while in London? I can’t recall.  (See why I need evidence, documentation?) Here’s a passage from this chapter, in which Summerson discusses the results of the 1774 Building Act’s categorization and rulemaking on the housing types of Georgian London.

“[T]he real importance of this system was not so much that it facilitated the enforcement of a structural code but that it confirmed a degree of standardization in speculative building.  This was inevitable; for the limitation of size and value set out in the rating tended to create optimum types from which there was no escape and within which very little variation was possible.  Especially did the second, third, and fourth rates of houses tend to become stereotyped.  This was, in many ways, an excellent thing: it gave some degree of order and dignity to the later suburbs and incidentally laid down minimum standards for working-class urban housing which would have been decent if they had been accompanied by legislation against overcrowding.

“On the other hand, the Act contributed largely to what the later Georgians and early Victorians conceived to be the inexpressible monotony of the typical London street, a monotony which certainly must, at one time, have been overpowering and which can still be felt in the lonelier tracts of Islington and, to a really distressing degree, in a more or less intact Georgian capital like Dublin.

“For not only did the Act tend to create standard types of houses, it saw to it that the London house should not adorn itself with any but the most exiguous and reticent kinds of ornament.  All woodwork (the cheapest and most tractable material was banished, except in so far as it was necessary for shop-fronts and door-cases.”

It’s so good, this book, so intelligently and rhythmically written.  “Any but the most exiguous and reticent kinds of ornament” — and he’s not showing off, these are exactly the right words.  Also, in reading about the orderly monotony of the Georgian street I must (I suppose) have thought, too, of all those later London terraces among which I had lived, and perhaps also of Wharton’s famous phrase in The Age of Innocence on the row houses of early 19C Manhattan, “the brownstone of which the uniform hue coated New York like a cold chocolate sauce.”  The packet also contained more chapters, which I’ve now read with equal or greater pleasure.  But this particular stapled section, when I turned over the last page, revealed something else, something in red pen, in my handwriting.

“Quiet, quiet. Don’t say a word. Don’t even twitch. Silence.
Inviolate. Shut up. Distressed. Don’t even mumble, Absolute silence.
Bland, blank silence.  Never even open your mouth, just breathe.
Button your lip. Be quiet, Shut your mouth.  Not a squeak
Blessed silence, Not possible to have a discussion, You won’t hear
anything else from me. Not a twig shall crack.  Why should I reform
these people’s stupidity if they can’t debate? No, I’m being, mean, I’m
the one who can’t or won’t debate.  I’m sulky because I’m badnatured
& have made a fool of myself.

“‘Think of good Lord Nelson & avoid self-abuse.'”

Photo on 2014-12-03 at 14.03
Which scares me a little; does it scare you?  Of course I have no memory of the event; what happened in that seminar, how angry and how lowered I felt.  I have certainly written similar things, if more briefly, since then — on the back of some of my Streetsingers’ music, for one thing. (The Lord Nelson thing is from a naughtily prurient ballad parody by Lawrence Durrell.  Yes, of course he had in mind a different kind of self-abuse. My father liked this poem; make of that what you will.)

Kale soup and harbor view

Sadly, I have pictures of neither.  (Well, kale soup isn’t very attractive, actually, but I’m sorry I can’t show you the view.)  I went down to Fairway in Red Hook this morning, my mouth still sore and sour from some hardcore dentistry on Thursday, intending to buy coffee and olive oil and root vegetables for mashing.  Soft foods, you see, are called for.  I dithered and wondered in front of the vast display of olive oils; no samples had yet been set out.  Gloomy, uncomfortable, and indecisive, I decided to have a cup of milky coffee at the café, look out at the view of New York harbor, and read my library book, To Eat by Joe Eck and Wayne Winterrowd.

The wind was blowing hard from the east, pressing wavelets out of the water; further out a low mist hung over the bay, and dark clouds towered on the southwestern horizon, while others moved quickly westward.  Dock cranes in New Jersey traced white on the dark.  Big barges moved up the river.  Gulls struggled into the wind or found a way to glide, and a couple of ducks flew close to the water.  Everything was damp, the red bricks of the dock warehouses darkened.  When I turned away from the view, I read Eck and Winterrowd’s chapter on chard, which includes a short, simple recipe (from Beatrice Tosti di Valminuta) for Passato di verdure, greens soup, and decided I should have some of that.  My tooth stopped aching.  I finished my coffee, went back inside, tasted a bunch of olive oils and made a decision, backtracked to the produce section and picked up shallots and kale for the soup, and headed for the checkout lanes and home.

The soup is delicious.  The book, too, is charming.

(How to make the soup? Put chopped carrot, chopped onion, chopped shallot, garlic, and shredded greens in a soup pot with olive oil and sea salt, cover with water and simmer an hour or an hour and a half, then blend. The recipe calls for celery, Swiss chard, spinach, and kale, but says you can choose whatever greens you like; since I’m making it just for me, I didn’t feel like getting four different kinds of leaves, so just used regular old kale.  You are specifically not asked to sauté anything but since I threw the vegetables in as I got them chopped, the alliums and carrot wound up cooking for a while in the oil.)

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Reading: Edward St. Aubyn, At Last — update with first chapter link

At Last is the last (apparently) of a series of five novels carrying the life of Patrick Melrose through a rich, brutal childhood and a disastrously messy maturation to whatever point he has reached on the day of his mother’s funeral.  This passage I fear does not do St Aubyn justice.  Try the opening pages, a witty and horrible old friend of the family accosting Patrick on his entry into the funeral home; you’ll know whether this book is for you.  (I was dazzled.)

(I don’t know why it didn’t occur to me to see if the publisher had offered the first chapter, but I find that they did, so it’s linked now.)

Patrick is in the funeral home basement, inspecting the surroundings as well as viewing the body of his mother, Eleanor.

ELEANOR had expected to meet Jesus at the end of a tunnel after she died.  The poor man was a slave to his fans, waiting to show crowds of eager dead the neon countryside that lay beyond the rebirth canal of earthly annihilation.  It must be hard to be chosen as optimism’s Master Cliché, the Light at the End of the Tunnel, ruling over a glittering array of half-full glasses and silver-lined clouds.

Patrick let the curtains drop reluctantly, acknowledging that he had run out of distractions, He edged toward the coffin, like a man approaching a cliff.  At least he knew that this coffin contained his mother’s corpse.  Twenty years ago, when he had been to see his father’s remains in New York, he was shown into the wrong room.

At Last, Edward St. Aubyn, p 42.