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.

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Anna Katharine Green - That Affair Next Door

In That Affair Next Door (published in 1897), Miss Butterworth is an elderly woman (but somehow becomes middle-aged in her second adventure, Lost Man's Lane) of independent means, who finds herself drawn into a murder mystery involving the family next door when she becomes convinced that the wrong man has been accused.  She tests her wits against the detective on the case, Mr. Gryce, as she conducts an investigation of her own.

Having read several of Green's books now, I've noticed that her typical plot set-up is to describe puzzling, mysterious events, then have the investigators draw the wrong conclusions, in this case the identity of the murderer (shocking for detective fiction, I know).  There always seems to be a Madonna-like female who is key to solving the mystery.  It's only when they get the story from her do they find out what really happened.

In the two Miss Butterworth novels, the real criminal also follows a pattern.  I was able to guess who it was as soon as the individual made an appearance based just on this.

Despite the overall predictability, what makes the story enjoyable is the narrator, Miss Butterworth, who is sketched out by Green in quite a masterful way, complete with her own biases, vanities, and quirks, and done much more so than in Lost Man's Lane.  Green manages to insert some irony and humor in her characterization of Miss Butterworth.  Lost Man's Lane is a better detective story, but That Affair Next Door has more charm.

Miss Butterworth's unsentimental, straightforward manner of describing the other characters also makes the story, even though Green can't help but be rather sentimental about her Victorian Madonna character; it really dates the novel, but, then again, so do the horse-drawn carriages.

I find it interesting that although Miss Butterworth finds the key witness, she isn't a lot better than Mr. Gryce in actually solving the mystery.

Friday, February 22, 2013

Anna Katharine Green - A Strange Disappearance

While Lost Man's Lane, which I wrote about a few days ago, was a combination of Victorian gothic and "cozy" detective novel, A Strange Disappearance, published in 1880, 18 years before Lost Man's Lane, is more a combination of Victorian melodrama and soft boiled detective novel, and probably more the former than the latter, infused heavily with Victorian sensibilities and moralizing.

It begins when Mrs. Daniels, housekeeper to the politically important and wealthy Mr. Blake, goes to the police and requests that they investigate the "strange disappearance" of one of her employees, a seamstress.  She gets the attention of Mr. Gryce, who, however, is busy with other important investigations, so a younger detective, known only as "Q", and who is the narrator of this story, performs the primary investigation.

Collecting any information about the seamstress, like who she is, exactly, and why she might be kidnapped - and by whom, proves to be a difficult undertaking.  Mrs. Daniels is strangely mum about all this even as she is frantic to have the girl found.  Meanwhile, Mr. Blake presents as indifferent at best about his missing employee, but simultaneously is observed engaging in distinctly suspicious behavior.

"Q", with the help of the accomplished Mr. Gryce, gradually unravels the mystery.  But will they be in time to save the happy ending?  It's hard to moralize without something of a happy ending for the virtuous, self-sacrificing, self-effacing, and, of course, beautiful Victorian heroine, right?

Since I don't mind Victorian melodrama, even like it (within reason), and I also like classic detective novels, I found the novel enjoyable.

Actually, I thought the most interesting character to be the Countess De Mirac, probably because she was less cardboard than the others (and fell short of the Victorian female ideal).  Since she was a secondary character used to build up the mystery, once her part was done she faded out, which really was a shame.

Monday, February 18, 2013

Anna Katharine Green - Lost Man's Lane. A Second Episode in the Life of Amelia Butterworth

I should have read That Affair Next Door, the first "episode" for Amelia Butterworth before this one.  I can't remember why I selected this one instead; it was months ago that I got the book (e-book, actually).  Having finished Lost Man's Lane, I'm very much interested in reading The Affair Next Door.

Anna Katharine Green was an American writer, one of the progenitors of the detective fiction genre, publishing a number of books from 1878 through 1923, and quite an influence on her successors, Agatha Christie among them.  She was a best-selling author in her day, though her name has floated off into near-obscurity since then, especially compared to some of her successors in the emerging genre.

Lost Man's Lane is a really interesting combination of a Victorian gothic horror story and what is now called "cozy" detective fiction (if you can believe it), an Ann Radcliffe novel told from the perspective of a sensible (not the Sense and Sensibility type of sensible), intelligent - female - amateur detective, who doesn't faint away or require any rescuing.  Another female character, however, does quite a bit of swooning.

Amelia Butterworth, our amateur detective and narrator, is a well-to-do middle-aged spinster from fashionable New York City, who is called upon by her friend, Inspector Gryce, whom she assisted in That Affair Next Door, to informally help in some mysterious disappearances; these have occurred over a span of years in a nearby town, along a lonely road now called "Lost Man's Lane" by the locals.  She happens to have a connection there, the grown children of a friend from her student days, Althea Knollys.  Althea Knollys died abroad some seven years ago, and Miss Butterworth had been meaning to pay a visit to the children - but never did.  So she decides to finally pay that long-neglected visit.

In addition to the mysterious disappearance of a handful of men over the years, there appears to be very strange things afoot at the large, gloomy, and very decrepit house of the Knollys family; the children, Loreen, Lucetta, and William, are oddly secretive and evasive; it's clear they're hiding something... maybe the body of the latest victim?

Miss Butterworth doesn't for once speculate on some supernatural reason for the strange occurrences, looking no further than the likely suspects she meets.  She does her best to sleuth about, finding out what she can about the handful of people living along the road, then trying to penetrate the mysterious goings-on at the house.

The story is predictable as both a gothic and detective story, but Green's unique mix of the two "genres", how they interact with each other to tie up the plot, as well as the pacing of the story, the colorful - though rather two-dimensional - characters, and Green's clever use of Miss Butterworth's perspective - all make for enjoyable reading.

Monday, January 7, 2013

Málaga, Spain

I thought I'd post, in a belated fashion, more pictures from our September (2012) trip to Andalusia, Spain.  These are only the ones I selected from our first day in Málaga, where we were based.  Depending on how organized I am, I plan (or hope) to post more.

I already posted some dog-related pictures on this blog back in October 2012, and Mookie-related ones on my painting blog.