Friday, February 24, 2017

Dandy Gilver and a Bothersome Number of Corpses

This is book #7 in Catriona McPherson's "Dandy Gilver" series of cosy Scottish mysteries -- there are 11 so far. Mrs. Dandy Gilver (nee Dandelion Dahlia Leston) is the mother of two growing boys and wife of husband Hugh Gilver, who is less than enthusiastic about her chosen profession as a detective. Nevertheless he holds down the fort when Dandy and sleuthing partner Alec Osborne must travel for their work. This time they head to Portpatrick, on the coast of Scotland to track down the youngest Lipscott sister, Fleur, at the request of the two older sisters. When Dandy was 18, she spent an idyllic summer at the Lipscott country manor and feels a sense of obligation to the family. Supposedly, Fleur is working as a schoolmistress at St. Columba's College for Young Ladies. Dandy goes undercover as Miss Gilver, English mistress, and finds that Fleur is not happy to see her, that several other school mistresses have inexplicably disappeared from the school in recent months, and that the current head mistress has some very odd priorities for running the school. Meanwhile, Alec has taken on a case of his own in town, agreeing to find the missing wife of a local shopkeeper. Not surprisingly, their cases will collide. When a woman is washed up on the town's beach, nearly unidentifiable after days in the water, Alec wonders if it's the missing wife, and Dandy fears it may be the latest missing school mistress. Set in the 1920's, the book is full of detailed settings, well-developed characters, and a twisty plot. At the end we learn the reason for Fleur's bizarre behavior, restore her to her family, find out what the devious head mistress of St. Columba's has been up to, and catch the murderer. I will certainly seek out other books in the series and perhaps also some of McPherson's stand alone novels, which sound intriguing. Just for fun, you can visit the Gilver estate online, and learn some background about the characters.

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

The Warmth of the Heart Prevents your Body from Rusting

French psychologist Marie de Hennezel has written several books on aging that have been translated into English.
I honestly did not much care for this book although she had a lot of good things to say, many of which are excerpted here in an article from The Mail Online (British newspaper). There is also a good interview with de Hennezel in the Huffington Post about her book The Art of Growing Old that is worth reading. There are excerpts from several reviews here, all of which are quite positive. Maybe I was just in a grumpy mood, or maybe it was her frequent reference to ugly bodies of the aged... Apparently de Hennezel has written 10 books and is a household name in France where she leads the charge on re-examining our views on aging.

At Seventy: A Journal

Born Eleanore Marie Sarton in Belgium, May Sarton (May 3, 1912 – July 16, 1995) was a prolific (over 50 books) American poet, novelist, and memoirist. She is often associated with Lesbian literature and widely read in Women's Studies, because she was one of the first women writers to focus on love between women and then to come out herself, after her parents' death, in Mrs. Stevens Hears the Mermaids Singing. She preferred to be thought of as a writer who explored the universal aspects of love and life, however. For 13 years Sarton had a partner, Judy Matlack,  and in this journal written during her 70th year, she often refers to that love. It was during the course of writing this book that Sarton learned of Judy's death, although apparently Judy had been in a home with dementia for quite some time.
What struck me most about this journal was the amazing pace of activity she sustained. Between friends and admirers coming to stay a few days or just share a meal, and her packed schedule of appearances to do readings all across the country, she struggled to find quiet time to write. She carried on avoluminous correspondence, often responding to 25 or more letters a day. She stayed in touch with distant friends by phone as well. She was a passionate gardener, and worked in the garden almost every day, weather permitting. This is even more remarkable given that  she lived in York, Maine, the last decade or so of her life. Some notable quotes follow:
"I do not feel old at all, not as much a survivor as a person still on her way. I suppose real old age begins when one looks backward rather than forward, but I look forward with joy to the years ahead and especially to the surprises that any day may bring." (p. 10)
When someone asked her at a reading why it was good to be old, she responded, "This is the best time of my life. I love being old...Because I am more myself than I have ever been."
"One thing is certain...the joys of my life have nothing to do with age...Flowers, the morning and evening light, music, poetry, silence the goldfinches daring about..." (p. 17)
"I am far better able to cope at seventy than I was at fifty. I that is partly because I have learned to glide instead of to force myself at moments of tension...(p. 37)
"I live more completely in the moment these days, am not as anxious about the future, and am far more detached from the areas of pain, the loss of love, the struggle to get the work completed, the fear of death. I have less guilt because there is less anger." (p. 37)
"A face without lines that shows no mark of what has been lived through in a long life suggests something unlived, empty...Still one mourns one's young face sometimes...At the same time, I felt that my face is better now, and ...That is because I am a far more complete and richer person than I was at twenty-five...Now I wear the inside person outside and am more comfortable with myself...I do not have to pretend." (p. 61)
"...it is possible to keep the genius of youth into old age, the curiosity, the intense interst in everything from a bird,to a book to a dog..."(p.76)
"The autumn of life is also a matter of saying farewell, but the strange thing is that I do not feel it is autumn. Life is so rich and full these day. There is so much to look forward to, so much here and now, and also ahead..." (p. 161)
"But the discipline this time must be...to make every effort to live in eternity's light, not in time. If I begin to think of how little time we shall have...panic sets in...To live in eternity means to live in the moment, the moment unalloyed--to allow feeling to the limit of what can be felt, to hold nothing back..."(p. 190)
"These mornings when I brush my hair before going down to get breakfast I have to face wrinkles, the first sign of old age. It's not easy to accept, but I remind myself that they do not really diminish the beauty of an old face." (p. 306)
There are, of course, lots of biographies of Sarton. I found a couple of short ones online that were informative. This one from the Unitarian Universalist church, and this one from The Literary Ladies Guide to the Writing Life


Friday, February 10, 2017

The Last Gift of Time: Life Beyond Sixty


This memoir by Carolyn G. Heilbrun was written 20 years ago and that was when I read it for the first time. I loved it then and so, when my book group agreed to have a thematic meeting on aging gracefully, I immediately thought of re-reading this book. Strangely enough, it did not resonate with me this time around to the same extent, even though I am now the age she was when she wrote it. Still, it is a lovely book with some great insights, and she is such a good writer that it is a pleasure to read.
The passages that spoke to me were often not about aging per se, but about the world in general, and it is staggering how pertinent to our present times her observations were:
"My sixties covered a period of pronounced meanness in the United States and in the world, meanness arising from a sense of righteousness and the need to punish, preferably with violence, those who do not share one's beliefs. For the first time in my life, I became fearful of institutionalized religion...I became awakened, sadly, to policies determined to transpose the symptoms of our societal failures into its causes: the poor, that is, were to be blamed for the failures of a mean-spirited nation that condemned them to poverty...What might be called political sadness arises...as an indirect response to organized and publicly condoned selfishness and revenge..."
And this on reading:
"True sadness which is not nostalgia can...be dispelled by reading...Lifelong readers continue to read, finding in books...the means to enjoy life or to endure it."
She does indeed talk about aging and quotes (indirectly) from Montaigne on the subject:
"Above all, now that I feel my life to be brief in time, do I seek to extend it in weight. I try to delay the velocity of its flight by the velocity with which I grasp it; and to compensate for the speed of its collapse by the zest which I throw into it. The shorter my hold on life, the deeper and fuller do I seek to rend it. Others feel the sweetness of contentment and well-being; I feel it just as much as they do, but not by letting it just slip away."
She also talks about outliving our time, when there is no further point in continuing. She had given herself permission to commit suicide at the age of 70 but now says, "I find it powerfully reassuring now to think of life as borrowed time. Each day one can say to oneself: I can always die; do I choose death or life? I daily choose life the more earnesly becasue it is a choice."  She goes on to caution against "...indifference's seduction; however often apathy assaults me in these last decades, I know it to be dangerous."
She, like others I have read on the subject, encourages focus on the present, eschewing time spent on memories. "Every time those of us in our last decades allow a memory to occur, we forget to look at what is in front of us." Among other things, she writes chapters on downsizing, her love of all things English, on not wearing dresses, on sadness, on listening to the young(er), on family and husbands, on sex and romance, and on technology. Here is a review from The New York Times, and a collection of quotes from the book in GoodReads. Well worth the read.
Carolyn Gold Heilbrun, born in 1926, was an academic at Columbia University and the first woman to receive tenure there in the English department. She was a prolific author of academic and non-fiction works on topics often related to feminism. Under her pen name, Amanda Cross, she also wrote a series of mysteries with a woman professor as the protagonist. She committed suicide in 2003.  There is a fabulous obituary in the New York Times, and an interview with her in the New York Times Magazine a decade before she died. There is a list of her books and more information about her also in this article from Wikipedia.

Tuesday, February 7, 2017

The Kenken Killings: A Puzzle Lady Mystery

Parnell Hall is the author of several mystery series and this is the 12th in the "Puzzle Lady" series. Cora Felton, the "puzzle lady" in the small town of Bakerhaven, Connecticutt, is actually not the creator of the crossword puzzles that have been published under her name. The author would be her niece, Sherry Carter, with whom Cora shares a house (and with Sherry's journalist husband as well). When police chief Harper calls on Cora to help solve a puzzle found at the site of a non-burglary, it turns out to be a number puzzle--a Kenken--which is apparently the new thing in number puzzles, and which Cora can solve. When the same bank manager who was not robbed turns up dead a few days later, there is another puzzle to solve.
Meanwhile, Cora's least favorite ex-husband, Melvin, has come to town accompanied by a very young and not-too-bright redhead as well as his shyster lawyer. Melvin is suing Cora for an annulment so he can stop paying alimony. As events progress, it appears that someone is trying to frame Melvin as the killer. Even though Cora doesn't like him, she knows Melvin would never kill anyone, and so she sets out to prove him innocent while sending the police on a wild goose chase. Cora is a truly cantankerous woman and a bit hard to like upon initial introduction. Perhaps she grows on the reader with greater familiarity since Kirkus says Cora is "at the top of her game" in this installment. There are puzzles included in the book for the reader to solve; however, answers are provided as they are the clues to finding the killer. Apparently most of the puzzle lady books involve crossword puzzles, so if you are a fan, these books might just be for you. Here is a review from Publishers' Weekly.

Monday, February 6, 2017

Death at Bishop's Keep

I always learn something new when I write these posts as I try to track down author web pages, reviews, etc. This book is the 1st of the "Victorian-Edwardian Mystery" series written by married couple Susan Wittig Albert and Bill Albert, writing under the pseudonym Robin Paige. Their website,  Mystery Partners,  gives brief summaries of the books in this series. They have also written another Victorian mystery series under a different pseudonym (Emily Brightwell).
Here we first meet the two characters who become the continuing protagonists: Kate Ardleigh and Sir Charles Sheridan. At the outset, Kate lives in America, her parents are dead, and she ekes out a living writing penny dreadfuls. She is outspoken and by the manners of the times, very un-ladylike. She is shocked when she receives notification that she has an aunt Sabrina in England (her father's sister) and that she would like Kate to join her at the family home, Bishop's Keep, and become her personal assistant. Kate jumps at the chance, but does not realize she is jumping into a fire. It turns out that another widowed aunt, who goes by her married name of Jaggers, is also living at Bishop's Keep, runs the household, and was opposed to Kate being asked to come. The tension in the household could be cut with a knife and Kate soon learns that Aunt Jaggers is a cruel, arrogant, and stingy mistress. Aunt Jaggers has terrified and angered the servants, especially since she sent one of the housemaids away last year after learning that the young woman was pregnant;  the girl subsequently died.
On the train from London, Kate has met and befriended Eleanor Marsden, who lives in the neighboring manor, and, although Kate is an uncomfortable friend to maintain, Eleanor does. Through the Marsdens, Kate meets Sir Charles Sheridan, also of the landed class, but an amateur scientist and sleuth at heart. While photographing the progress of a nearby archaeological dig, Charles finds a dead body, and when Aunt Sabrina asks Kate to quietly find out what she can about the victim, Kate and Charles' paths cross--again and again. Charles is alternately admiring and dismissive of Kate for her outspoken behavior and American ways. But Kate's investigations and discoveries, and finally her trap, bring the killer and a scandal to light--unfortunately not before her two aunts are poisoned and Kate inherits Bishop's Keep. Enjoyable protagonist and would certainly read another in the series by this pair.

The Opening Night Murder

Anne Rutherford is one of several pseudonyms used by Julianne Lee. In this first installment in a her "Restoration Mystery" series, we meet Suzanne Thornton. Born to a well-to-do merchant family, she loses everything when she is abandoned by her lover, Daniel Throckmorton, while pregnant with his unborn child. He heads for Europe with Charles II and stays there for 20 years without a word to Suzanne. With no alternative, she becomes a prostitute, but realizes, as  her son Piers gets older, that she must take him away from this life or risk him becoming a thief. First she joins an itinerant acting troupe and finds that she enjoys not only acting, but the troupe of fellow actors. When the troupe is disbanded by a raid of Cromwell's enforcers, she is once again on the street. Although Suzanne cannot imagine living without Piers, she sends him to a former suitor in Newcastle to be apprenticed as a coal merchant. She then becomes the mistress of penurious William Wainright, a Puritan. When Charles II returns from France to retake the throne in 1660, Wainright believes he will be persecuted by the new king and abandons Suzanne, saying he will flee to France. With the return of the King and his Cavaliers, former lover Daniel has also returned to London and now stands to resume his rights as Duke of Throckmorton. He is still married and under the thumb of his brother-in-law, however, so refuses to acknowledge Suzanne or their son. Desperate once more, Anne begs Daniel to loan her money to refurbish  the crumbling Globe theatre, where she plans to produce plays for the commoners. With the King's permission, he loans her the money, and Suzanne and Piers re-gather those of the acting troupe they can find and begin the task of rebuilding the theatre and their lives. But on opening night, in front of a packed house, a body drops onto the stage and dies from a crossbow wound. The deceased is none other than Suzanne's former patron, William Wainright. The area constable does not even bother to show up until the next morning, and refuses to investigate. However, pressure is brought to bear on Constable Pepper to find the killer and he decides Suzanne is guilty, even though witnesses place her elsewhere. As she is being taken to jail, Piers comes forward and confesses. Now Suzanne must find the killer or Piers will hang.
Rich with detail and a well-drawn protagonist, this historical mystery was a fun read. The author provides a note to indicate what was fact and what was fiction in her tale.