Sunday, September 15, 2013

Italian graffiti

Milan, Italy

Turin, Italy

Turin, Italy
My husband and I recently took a trip to Turin, Italy, which included a daytrip to Milan.  I thought some of the graffiti we saw there was picture-worthy.

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Anna Katharine Green - The Mill Mystery

Not that murder and suicide are ever cozy topics (despite so-called "cozy mysteries"), but I have to say that Anna Katharine Green definitely doesn't flinch from these subjects in her novels.  While authors like the grande dame, herself, Agatha Christie, tend to kill off unpleasant people, Green is much less discriminating.  She's as much a predecessor to the cozy sub-genre as she is to gritty urban procedural crime novels.  The title, "The Mill Mystery" sounds pretty innocuous for a story with such gruesome doings and serious psychopathology.

The Mill Mystery was published in 1886, ten years after her first novel, though she continued to write for nearly thirty more years.

It's written in first person from the perspective of a young woman, Constance Sterling (great name for a Victorian heroine, huh?), who becomes involved in the mystery surrounding the death of the local minister, Mr. Barrows, found drowned in a vat in an abandoned mill.  Many believe it's suicide, though Constance has reason to believe it isn't.  As a last promise to her roommate, who is Mr. Barrows' fiancée, Constance attempts to discover the truth.

By a stroke of luck as only happens in fiction, she is set on a promising path when she comes to stay with the Pollards, a wealthy and powerful family, as nurse to the fast-ailing matriarch.  After hearing Mrs. Pollard's mysterious dying words, Constance begins to suspect that the Pollards are somehow tied to Barrows' death, perhaps even responsible for it; the further she probes, the more likely it seems.  It gets complicated when she finds herself falling for one of the sons.

The story is fairly intricate in typical Green fashion, with different narrations inserted as different characters relate their own background story, all of which eventually fit together like pieces in a puzzle - a convoluted one, at that.  It's also an odd mixture of stereotypical, almost caricatured characters and others much more psychologically complex (well, at least one in particular).  There's also a strong gothic quality to The Mill Mystery, as with some of her other novels, and, of course, it has the inevitable Victorian sensibilities.

Overall, I give this a 4/5.

Friday, May 24, 2013

Anna Katharine Green - XYZ A Detective Story

XYZ.  A Detective Story (1883) is actually a short story or novella.  I haven't counted the pages to say which is the more accurate description.  All  I know is that is was surprisingly short, and not, I thought, long enough; I could have used some more clever twists and turns in the plot.  I kept expecting some startling revelation that showed the true villain was a certain seemingly affable character and not the obvious candidate, after all.  But it never happened.  The story just ended with the obvious candidate unmasked as the villain.

The narrator is an unnamed detective who is sent to a small town, Brandon, Massachusetts, to investigate a lead involving a gang of counterfeiters.  He inadvertently gets caught up in unrelated case involving a local wealthy family and, eventually, murder.  It's up to him to see that justice is brought to the correct party.

It had its enjoyable moments, but, as it is no doubt obvious, I was rather disappointed by my failure to guess whodunit.  I was trying to be too clever about it.  Green outwitted me.

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Anna Katharine Green - The Sword of Damocles A Story of New York Life

A great deal of The Sword of Damocles.  A Story of New York Life (1881) is pure Victorian melodrama, with very Victorian sensibilities, and with a mystery tacked on the end of it.  It was interesting to see Green's progression as a novelist, comparing this early work to her later works, which are much tighter in composition and less flowery in language.

Green begins with a brief fable of "Damocles, one of the courtiers of Dionysius," citing "Rollin" as the source, whom I wasn't able to find in a brief internet search.

Damocles wants all the luxuries Dionysius appears to enjoy.  He is granted them, only to discover that he must enjoy them with a sword dangling by a horsehair over him.

Then the story opens up with a young man, Bertram Mandeville, telling his 40 year old uncle, Edward Sylvester, that he wants to quit his promising career as a concert pianist because he's fallen in love with a young lady whose father disapproves of musicians.  We get to hear all the details of how they met and how she is the epitome of the virtuous, innocent Victorian maiden.

He instead becomes a bank clerk at Sylvester's banking firm, hoping to make move up the ranks and make his fortune in a couple of years, when she comes of marriageable age, so he can claim her suit.

The narrative then shifts to Edward Sylvester, and his own story of the pursuit of money and luxury unfolds, the impetus of which has been a beautiful but materialistic woman,  Ona, whom he marries, and who is decidedly not the Victorian ideal, especially her unnatural lack of interest in having children (monstrous, isn't she?).  She's only interested in her social status.

Edward, meanwhile, is inspired by Bertram to seek out a different young lady he'd met ten years ago, Paula Fairchild.  She had been only ten then and had seemed to represent "something of the noble and the pure that lay beneath the crust of life."  At twenty, she is "simply one of nature's most exquisite and undeniable beauties... blah, blah, blah... at once unique and faultless, something that can be said of few women however beautiful or alluring."

Paula is basically everything Ona isn't.  Ona is described as having a "large but elegant figure that in its slow swaying reminded you of some heavy tropical flower, hanging inert, intoxicated with its own fragrance."

He'd discovered that Paula was a distant, poor relative of Ona, and uses this as a pretext for seeing her again.   It's his idea that she come stay with him and Ona.

The melodrama gushes forth from here, the contrast between Paula and Ona, and the unrequited, barely acknowledged feelings bubbling between Paula and Edward.  This is a respectable Victorian novel, so nothing truly improper happens, though Green walks an interesting tightrope.

Then a dark secret threatens to destroy Edward...

We get a little bit of a detective novel centering around this dark secret.

Since it remains a respectable Victorian novel, the tale ends with redemption and the triumph of true love and selfless devotion (sorry for the spoiler).

I'm not sure if most contemporary readers would stomach the heavy-handed Victorian moralizing.  It's probably obvious from my account of the book that I only did by laughing at portions of it.  But I'm rather a sucker for melodramatic romances and also detective fiction, enough, apparently, to put up with the moralizing and reach the solution of the mystery and the happy ending.

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

smart aleck

"Someone whose sarcastic, wisecracking, or humorous manner is delivered in an offensive, obnoxious, or cocky way" (Wiktionary).

It possibly originated from 1840s New York thief, Aleck Hoag, per research by Gerald Cohen, who has published a number of books about the etymology of various slangs and terms.

I found a "listserv" e-mail from Cohen describing Hoag's grift, which Cohen collected from newspaper articles from Hoag's time, noting, "but conclusive proof has thus far been elusive" as to whether Hoag was the source of the term.

World Wide Words also has a nice summary of Hoag's life of crime; World Wide Words cites Cohen's Studies in Slang, Part 1 (1985) as his source (the book appears to be out of print; I looked around for it).

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

the bee's knees

"The bee's knees" apparently was popular in 1920s United States, slang used by the hip Flappers.

The Phrase Finder website has a nice description of the possible etiologies and historical uses of this idiom.

The alt.usage.english FAQ also provides a succinct description, mentioning other Flapper terms, like "the eel's ankle", "the elephant's instep", and "the snake's hip".

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

unexpected amaryllis bloom

I'd gotten this amaryllis plant maybe five to seven years ago as a Christmas gift.  It managed to survive all this time in spite of me, and today I discovered it bloomed for the first time since it was given to me.