Monday, January 28, 2013


Thanks to my friend Anne Buchanan, who recommended Morag Joss's Sara Selkirk mysteries.

Anne knows the kind of mysteries I like best. I'd rather the murder(s) happened offstage. I want the characters to be more than plot devices--I like to read about their friends and families, what annoys them at work, what brings them joy, what they like to eat. I love a writer who knows how to develop a sense of place. And it helps if the writer can make me laugh every now and then.

I was delighted with Funeral Music.

Sara Selkirk is a concert cellist of international renown who has been suffering from "musician's block" for a year or so. Originally from Scotland but now a resident of Bath, England, Sara has agreed to play a short concert at the Pump Room in order to raise funds for the Bath Festival. Not long afterward she discovers a corpse.

Fortunately she is well connected. One of her cello students is a police inspector. A friend is a colleague of the murder victim. Another friend takes her to an alternative healing fair, where she happens to observe the eventual murder victim talking with a large man who, it turns out, badly wants a job they both are applying for. This friend's landlady, as it turns out, is the large man's girlfriend (Bath's population is only about 80,000). And then there is Paul, who is good with women and knives; and James, who has a rotten alibi; and George, the prejudiced museum guard, and ...

The puzzle is fun, with several healthy red herrings. Even more fun are Joss's descriptions--short ones, like "his face had the faraway, otherworldly look of a defecating Labrador," and dazzling longer ones, like her evocation of Bach's Trio Sonata in C Major, which
splashed out and down in a shower of weightless drops into the open lap of the abbey nave.... Only Bach could do this, make you feel you had been only half alive until this moment, pull you into the dance, lift you and take you as high as the roof, right up to where you could drink from the music's spring and be filled with a few bubbles of his crazy joy.... It flowed on, the little sounds dancing out across the transept like drops of light, darting through the melodic web that the organist's feet and fingers were spinning to and fro on which to catch them. Sara had the sensation that she had unknowingly been suffering from some sort of deafness and that with this glorious noise she had suddenly woken up to find that her ears were working properly.
Joss spices up the story with a number of complicated relationships: Paul and Sue (or Olivia?), Andrew and Valerie (or Sara?), Derek and Cecily (or Pauline?), James and Tom (or Graham?). One of the funniest scenes I've ever read in a mystery is between  Derek and his wife, Pauline, after she has learned about Cecily--but you'll have to read the book if you want to know more.

Publishers Weekly gave Funeral Music a starred review and P.D. James gave it a laudatory blurb. I'd call it a clever combination of Peter Lovesey and Jane Austen. I can't imagine why the Wheaton Public Library doesn't have the Sara Selkirk mysteries on its shelves, but they got it for me quickly through interlibrary loan. Or you can get a used copy for less than $4 from Amazon.

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

FLIGHT BEHAVIOR by Barbara Kingsolver

Barbara Kingsolver's newest novel, Flight Behavior (November 2012), may be just the book you're looking for for your next book group meeting.

The main character, Dellarobia Turnbow, is a 27-year-old mother of two who for years has felt like flying from her nest. Just as she is about to do something definitive, she encounters about a million Monarch butterflies who, for reasons unknown, have flown from theirs. Complications ensue.

Here are some reasons Flight Behavior is so suitable for book groups:
  • Dellarobia may be an Appalachian farm wife, but all kinds of readers will identify with her if they've ever married, raised children, or wondered what a completely different life would be like.
  • You could spend hours talking about marriage as portrayed in this book: what makes it real, what constitutes infidelity, whether Dellarobia should stay in hers or leave.
  • Or you might prefer to discuss climate change: what it's doing to the earth right now, whether the events in this book could actually happen, and how to  deal with it (deny? study? protest?).
  • Even more interesting, to me anyway--you could look at the culture clash represented by Dellarobia's neighbors, on the one hand, and the various visitors to her neighborhood, on the other. Are Kingsolver's portrayals accurate? Do you know people like these? Are they doomed to misunderstand each other forever?
  • Or you might try going beyond the story itself to predict what Dellarobia is going to do next, and to imagine how her actions are going to affect the other characters in the book. What should she do?
I enjoyed the story from start to finish. Kingsolver has a great sense of humor. She is gentle with all her characters: even the less lovable ones surprise us with good traits. She is a keen observer of people as well as of nature. It's not surprising to learn (from her website) that she lives in Southern Appalachia and raises sheep. As someone who identifies with conservationists more readily than with rednecks, I was especially delighted whenever she turned the tables on me and my prejudices and showed me just how wrong I can be.

The paperback isn't due until June, but the hardcover is inexpensive from Amazon right now. Or you could make this a summer selection.

Monday, January 21, 2013

Maybe the fighting is almost over ...

[The Brooklyn Tabernacle Choir singing at
President Obama's second inauguration]
"Faith in America's Future" - that's the theme of today's inauguration activities.

Watching the prayers, the songs, the speeches, the crowd massed on the Washington Mall, I felt the faith. We don't have to hate each other. We can work together for a future that will be good for our country and for us as individuals. We can, as the President charged us to do, make the "values of life and liberty and the pursuit of happiness real for every American."

Inaugurations are times for setting aside differences and wildly celebrating.  While Richard Blanco read his inaugural poem, even John Boehner looked teary-eyed.

The political divisions will be back in full force tomorrow, of course. And yet we Americans are in the midst of some really big changes--changes that may make today's partisan squabbles look hopelessly antiquated in just a decade or two. Today's events are highlighting these changes.

This morning a Hispanic woman justice of the Supreme Court administered the oath of office. An African-American civil rights leader and a Cuban-American Episcopal priest, once a refugee, prayed. A gay Cuban-American, the son of exiles, wrote and read the inaugural poem. Music was provided by a white woman, a black woman, a white man, and the magnificent multi-colored Brooklyn Tabernacle Choir.

As a Boomer woman of mostly British descent whose paternal ancestors came to America in 1634, I felt wonderfully, happily, and mercifully irrelevant. Once people like me--well, people like my father--ran America. They did a good job of it in their day, and we honor them as war heroes, institutional founders, philanthropists, and thought leaders. But the day of white Protestant male supremacy is almost over.

It's been a rocky ride as women, people of color, gays, immigrants, and people with unusual religions have moved onto the stage. We've clashed. We've attacked. We've huddled in fear with people of our own kind. But looking at this morning's participants I couldn't help thinking: the changes are almost complete.

Non-Hispanic whites now make up less than 2/3 of the American population; in less than 30 years we will be a minority. WASPs--white Anglo-Saxon Protestants--are already a minority.

When the 113th Congress convened, 101 women took their seats. Three women sit on the Supreme Court. A woman is a serious contender for the 2016 presidential nomination.

People of both parties seriously working on immigration reform and on equal justice for non-heterosexuals. There is rising concern for those marginalized by poverty, race, gender, sexual orientation, and inadequate healthcare and educational resources.

Most of these changes have occurred during the tumultuous administrations of our three Boomer Presidents, Bill Clinton (1993-2001), George W. Bush (2001-2009), and Barack Obama (2009-present). These have been contentious years: change is never easy. It often feels dangerous. It divides people, and nations.

But looking at the people on the inaugural platform this morning, I felt renewed hope. In another decade or two, the changes that are rocking the Boomer years may have produced an America in which people are truly equal--or at least a lot more equal than we are today. "America’s possibilities are limitless," President Obama exhorted the nation, "for we possess all the qualities that this world without boundaries demands: youth and drive; diversity and openness; an endless capacity for risk and a gift for reinvention."

Step up to the plate, youngsters. It's almost your turn.

Thursday, January 17, 2013

A short rant about memes and rants

We Americans managed to make it past the 2012 election without descending into civil war. We somehow made it past the fiscal cliff without armed conflict (though who knows what will  happen over the debt ceiling). But once again we are at each other's throats, this time over gun regulation.

It was with great relief that I read the title of a forthcoming book from Johns Hopkins University Press: Reducing Gun Violence in America: Informing Policy with Evidence and Analysis.

The book won't be available for another couple of weeks, so I haven't seen it yet. I don't know if it is cogently argued, balanced, or even readable. If it's really based on evidence and analysis, though, I hope it will inform policy. So far there is little evidence that today's policymakers analyze any proposed measures much beyond the Congressional bottom line: Will such-and-such a policy help or hurt my reelection chances?

Unfortunately, Congressional reelection chances depend on a public that far too often forms its opinions from Facebook memes and emailed rants rather than from evidence and analysis. Alas, many of the "quotes" turn out to be inventions, especially if they are attributed to Thomas Jefferson. Much of the "history" has little to do with what actually happened (see "The Hitler Gun Control Lie," for example). And much of the data, even when not fabricated, is used in misleading ways.

Memes and rants do not create an informed electorate. They do not help us solve big problems, and they do not help us plan for a healthy future. What they do, if we let them, is drive us to political extremes and make us pawns of special interests.

If we do Facebook or email, we can't avoid memes and rants. We should, however, do our best to keep them from eating our brain cells.

Wednesday, January 9, 2013


After writing 21 detective novels featuring Commissario Guido Brunetti, it's not surprising that author Donna Leon needed a break.

Still, having read all 21 of the Brunetti books, I was expecting Jewels of Paradise to be book 22 in the series. It is not, and I was disappointed.

Disappointed because by now the characters - the lovable detective from Venice; his wife, Paola, and their two young adult children; his sidekick, Sgt. Vianello; his insufferable boss, Vice-Questore Patti; and the indomitable Signorina Elettra - all seem as familiar as Facebook friends, and I wanted to stay involved in their lives.

But my nostalgia is no reason to keep Ms. Leon from expanding her horizons. I was more disappointed because Leon's new book simply didn't hold my interest.

A lot of the book has to do with biographical material concerning Agostino Steffani (1654-1728), churchman, diplomat, and nearly forgotten composer. (Hint: Leon's plot will be easier to follow if you read the Wikipedia article first. Want to hear some of his music? Cecilia Bartoli has a new album, Mission, devoted to his work [you can listen to the NPR program about it here].)

But don't come to this book thinking it's historical fiction. It's closer to historical research as done by a high-school student - and there's no afterword telling us which parts of the story are historical and which invented.

The main character, Caterina, does not seem to have much of a life outside the library. We learn even less about the other characters (though her sister, Cristina the Religious, might be worth a book of her own someday, or at least a bit part in a Brunetti novel).

The plot is thin. Somehow two 300-year-old trunks have been found, and two cousins each claim inheritance rights. Caterina, a musicologist, is charged with reading all the documents in the trunks and figuring out which, if either, has claim to the material.

There aren't many scary parts. At one point, you think scariness is developing, but (spoiler alert) it doesn't.

There isn't even much good food - but I suppose without Guido's ever-cooking scholar-wife, Paola, in the kitchen, there wouldn't be.

And when all is said and done, I know what was in those trunks, but I'm still wondering who the trunks belonged to, and how they came to Venice, and what Opus Dei had to do with the whole situation. Maybe my mind was wandering when all that was explained ...

Why I kept reading: (1) I'm loyal to Donna Leon. Up till now, she's been one of my favorite detective story authors. (2) I appreciate her wry observations about Italian culture and the Catholic Church. (3) I kept thinking the plot would heat up.

If you are a diehard Donna Leon fan like me, you should read it too - and please let me know what you think. I confess that I began skimming the historical parts; maybe I missed something important. If you have not yet become a Leon addict, however, don't start here.

Thursday, January 3, 2013

Weight is a red herring

[The Venus de Milo
did not worry about
her BMI ]
Folks, it isn't about weight.

The Journal of the American Medical Association has comforted post-holiday dieters with the news that overweight and slightly obese people actually live longer than people of normal weight. You can read the JAMA study here, or you can read, for example, "Our Absurd Fear of Fat," a lively op-ed piece by Paul Campos,  author of The Obesity Myth: Why America’s Obsession With Weight Is Hazardous to Your Health.

Could we inject a note of sanity here? Weight, in and of itself, tells us very little. The fact that Americans are heavier and less healthy than people in other developed nations, however, may be telling us something we'd rather not hear - and it isn't that we should lose weight.

Imagine that all of us Americans ate three hearty meals every day, including a total of at least four or five fruits or vegetables, four servings of food especially rich in protein (meat, fish, dairy, beans, nuts); and four servings of whole grains (oatmeal, shredded wheat, whole-wheat bread, brown rice, whole grain pasta).

Imagine, if you can, that we drank no soft drinks, no more than one glass of fruit juice (it's better to eat the fruit whole), no more than one or two alcoholic drinks a day.

Try to imagine that we limited desserts to one small serving a day (none is better), and that if we allowed ourselves any other refined carbohydrates (bread, pasta, white rice), we balanced it with an equal or greater amount of whole grains.

Suppose that we well-fed Americans all exercised for at least 30 minutes every day, and that we got at least 7 hours of sleep every night, and that we never, ever smoked.

OK, we're talking fantasy here. But if, say, a hundred people did all those good things for two years and then lined up to be weighed and measured, we'd see thin people and sturdy people and stout people and curvy people - yet, barring disease, they'd all be exactly the weight they should be.

The problem is, we're not doing all those good things. In fact, we're doing precious few of them. And to make up for the good stuff we're not eating and drinking, we graze on bad stuff all through the day. Adults buy exercise machines they never use, and schools remove recess from the curriculum. No one gets enough sleep. Nearly one in five adults smokes. So how can we possibly know whether we're the right weight or not?

BMI indicators and weight charts aren't going to tell us. A person with rolls of abdominal fat and scrawny muscles could easily be in poor health, right in the middle of the normal range. A person who eats good food and exercises a great deal might be lean and supposedly underweight - or, if he or she is of a different bodily build, might be solid and supposedly overweight - and yet be in excellent health either way.

Physical beauty isn't going to tell us, either. Two of the most beautiful women of the 20th century, Audrey Hepburn and Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, stayed slim throughout their short lives - but both were heavy smokers and both reportedly had eating disorders, and both died of cancer in their early 60s.

The only way to be sure we're the right weight is to treat our bodies the right way, consistently. If we do that, then our weight won't matter.

By the way, Miss Elsie Rebecca Scheel, the "perfect woman" of 1913, was 5'7" tall, weighed 171 pounds, and was proportioned like the Venus de Milo, but with arms. You can check her out here.

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

2012: My year of series fiction

[Me, reading a nonfiction book
 approved by my mother]
In 1997, faced with a daunting commute, I decided to devote train time to reading for pleasure. At the same time, I began keeping a list of books I'd read. My mind goes blank whenever anyone asks, "Read any good books lately?" The list helps me access my hard drive. Sometimes I consult it before going to parties, just in case.

At the end of each year, I tally the books I've read. First, out of curiosity, I count how many are fiction and how many nonfiction. When I was a child, my mother, who was a serious and responsible woman, tried to keep me from reading fiction. She soon learned that she could not take me to libraries and expect me to refrain from reading stories, so she relented - but for every fiction book, I had to read a nonfiction book as well. Mothers are powerful: for maybe 10 years, even without trying, I read about an equal amount of fiction and nonfiction.

And then I fell in love with several mystery series.

In 2011, I read great stacks of M.C. Beaton (creator of Agatha Raisin and Hamish Macbeth). They are very lightweight, predictable, funny, and excellent for people who are recovering from major surgery.

In 2012, nearly half the books I read were from one series or another:
Just one book each by Sue Grafton and Michael Connelly because they are two of my favorites and I had already read all 40-some of their previous books. Four books by Alexander McCall Smith and two by M.C. Beaton - I was caught up with them too, but that's how many they published last year. One each by Janet Evanovich (her Stephanie Plum series: I probably won't read the other 18) and the late Michael Dibdin (I may go back and pick up some I've missed), two out of five by Martin Walker, and three out of fifteen by Andrea Camilleri. If you want to see my reviews of some of these books, click here or click the Mysteries tab at the top of this page.

My discovery last year was British writer Peter Lovesey's series about Bath detective Peter Diamond. Books & Culture asked me to review his 12th book, Cop to Corpse, and I ended up compulsively reading the first 11, with increasing satisfaction.

The series I most enjoyed was the Venice-based Commissario Guido Brunetti series by Donna Leon, an American who has lived in Venice for 30 years and who, at least according to an American-Italian friend of mine who has lived in Florence for nearly 40 years, really gets Italy. I had read her first book, Death at la Fenice, in 2009 and was only moderately impressed. Friends urged me to keep going. Last year I read books 2 through 21, and I just put book 22, published last October, on hold at the library - along with the new Alexander McCall Smith and the new Sue Grafton.

Maybe I'll develop a more serious mind in 2013 and read more nonfiction. I'll let you know ...

For more series fiction recommendations, see "'Tis the season to read something relaxing."