Sunday, August 2, 2020

A Cotswald Killing by Rebecca Tope

I'm listening to works for the Viola de Gamba by the French composer Marin Marais.

A Cotswold Killing (Thea Osborne, #1)A Cotswold Killing by Rebecca Tope

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

OK, I have to start this review with a little story. As my blog followers know, I belong to an international postcard club. I receive cards from all over the world from interesting people. It's been great fun.

Recently, I received a nice card from the UK by a woman who enjoys writing. Well, I am supportive of aspiring writers and told her I would like to read some of her stuff. She directed me to Amazon where I bought a Kindle version of a Cotswold Killing. Shortly into the book I realized that if this was an aspiring writer she was extremely good. I've read and reviewed so much tripe from people asking me to review their book that I've stopped accepting review requests.

This was not tripe. This was a great read. I believe it falls under the category of cozy mystery and it was just a lot of fun. I should also mention that Rebecca Tope is not an aspiring writer but has three best selling crime series under her belt. Yes, my face is a little red.

But who cares? I'm glad to discover more wonderful weekend reads.

A newly widowed woman, Thea, and her spaniel Hepzibah, have decided to house sit around the Cotswalds. Her first job house sitting brings her to a murder in her very backyard.

And that is the premise. I don't want to give any of the plot away, because the whole point of a mystery is to be mystified until the end.

But I want to tell you what I liked about the story in order to allow all of you to be able to make an informed decision about whether Ms. Tope's writing is your cup of tea or not. I say that because some of the reviewers on Amazon were critical of the very thing that I liked about her story.

We read the story from Thea's perspective in the limited third perspective. This is my favorite method of narration. Either in first person or limited third, I like following along inside the head of one person, getting their perspective, whether reliable or not, because a good writer can present reality through an unreliable narrator.

Thea is a flawed individual. She's depressed. The pain of losing her husband is very raw. She's tired of hurting and she tries to distract herself by hurting herself and by getting out of the environment she spent with her husband. I'll admit that someone hurting herself (not self-mutilation, she keeps a thumbnail sore and bleeding with a pin) was a bit strange to me.

But I decided that this really happens. People who are severely depressed are trying to crawl out of their hole. Other than that little bit, Thea is pretty normal.

Thea's character as well as the other characters are very real and convincing. At first I felt the other characters were all going to be mere shadows. Unpleasant people who make Thea feel like an outsider and they initially come across that way: distant, suspicious, unhelpful.

However, a number of them start to thaw and show a human side to her. Nevertheless, somebody murdered a local farmer and from the evidence they could not have done it alone, so as to be expected, not everyone is going to be friendly and helpful.

But is it as simple as that? Are the unfriendly people guilty of murder or do the friendly people have something to hide as well? There are wheels within wheels.

While starting a bit dark in tone, we see glimmers of light through every character trying to live their lives as best they can while all of them must come to terms with the tragedy that has been thrust upon them.

And, of course for the reader is the question, why was the farmer murdered?

Quibbles? I found it hard to keep track of everyone, but I think a lot of this was due to reading on a Kindle and I don't know how to go back and forth on it so I had to remember the best I could who went with what name. Not very hard, but that is my only complaint.

I look forward to reading more from Ms. Tope.

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Sunday, July 26, 2020

One Way Out: The Inside History of the Allman Brothers Band by Alan Paul

I'm listening to Bach's Violin Concertos.

One Way Out: The Inside History of the Allman Brothers BandOne Way Out: The Inside History of the Allman Brothers Band by Alan Paul

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

People are a little surprised that I like reading books about rock stars. I am largely into classical literature and biography, but I also am very interested in the entertainment industry. Not so much as a screaming fan, although I'm not above that, but because I like to get inside what makes a musician tick, how do they write their music, how did they arrive at national, international success.

I think people, or maybe just me, think of rock musicians as uneducated people that got discovered at a bar. That has not really turned out to be true with most of the biographies I've read, so far, maybe with the exception of the Sex Pistols, who literally were taken off the streets of East London. They didn't last long either, except Johnny Rotten, who showed himself to be both intelligent and creative.

The Allman brothers could easily be dismissed the same way: just a bunch of good ol'boys from the South. Actually these were a group of highly intelligent, highly creative young men who worked their rear ends off. They practiced countless hours every day, honing their craft. They knew their cultural history, the history of the blues.

They were also progressive for their time. They played what back then was considered "black" music and had black members in their band.

It was very interesting to me to read how they wrote their music and put the sounds together on their instruments, how they learned to play off of each other, take turns with the solos.

It is also interesting, though tragic, how drugs were such an ingrained part of the group's culture. The mastermind behind the group was Duane Allman. Success was short for him, dying from a motorcycle wreck at the age of 24. The next year the bassist also died in a motorcycle wreck.

We read about the struggle Gregg Allman and Dickey Betts had with drugs and alcohol. Dickey was eventually booted from the band. Gregg struggled with his demons until after several rehabs, a liver transplant, and finally a live in nurse later, he seemed to conquer them for a few years before he finally died in 2017 of liver cancer. But he was still giving concerts until shortly before his death.

Maybe he couldn't imagine doing anything else. Rock on till you can't.

The band forged on. They had their peaks, their declines, but still they marched on. I cannot believe how much energy these guys had, performing even into their sixties, not only with each other, but they had their own side bands they also toured with. It made me tired just to read about it.

This book is largely based on first hand interviews and reports, each member and others associated with the band, telling their life and history of the Allman Brothers from their own personal experience and perspective.

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Hercule likes raw hide sticks.  They've turned out to be a nice, relatively cheap parrot chew toy.  Maybe he will leave my pens and paintbrushes alone.  Doubtful.

Sunday, July 19, 2020

Confusion by Stefan Zweig

Listening to Chopin's Complete Works.

                     Brooklyn Bridge by Emil Holzhauer

 While in Florida I visited an old friend whom I had not seen in many years.  We knew each other in Florida but lost touch when she moved to Spokane, Washington and I moved to New Jersey.

She recently moved back to Florida so I spent an afternoon with her last week while my parents were at a doctor's appointment.

My friend and her family are some of the most interesting people I know personally.  Debbie has a sister who is a Hollywood actress, their daughter is a sculptor in Boston and most interesting of all, Debbie's husband, Ed, a journalist and writer, has a famous uncle.

Ed's uncle is Emil Holzhauer, one of the Ashcan Artists.  Holzhauer was a student of Robert Henri. Debbie and Ed live in Holzhauer's house on a bayou near my parents' home.

Here are some photos of Holzhauer's work in their house:

The precious lady in the hall is Ed's older sister.  She suffers from dementia and is the sweetest person you could meet.  Hercule (of course I brought him, he's so clingy) liked her a lot.  He politely refused the Teddy Bear she offered him, however.

I asked Ed if he'd Beta-read a mystery I wrote.  As I was sending it to him, one of my birds hit the screen and sent the attachment off to the Cloud Grave yard in the sky.  So I sent him a ghost story I wrote.  Of course now I'm pins and needles hoping he likes it.

For some reason, I didn't take a photo of Debbie and Ed.  Oh well.  Next time.

The Collected Novellas of Stefan Zweig: Burning Secret, A Chess Story, Fear, Confusion, Journey into the PastThe Collected Novellas of Stefan Zweig: Burning Secret, A Chess Story, Fear, Confusion, Journey into the Past by Stefan Zweig

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This particular review is only of the story Confusion. I have reviewed the previous stories separately.

Confusion is about a young man who becomes the student to a professor at the university he attends. The professor's expertise lies in Shakespeare's works. The student becomes obsessed with this professor and his work. Finally he rents a room in the same house the professor and his wife are living.

Things are strange. The wife is emotionally distant and sardonic. The professor is in turns, kind and gentle and caustic and cold. This puts the young man in turmoil. He doesn't know why the older man is treating him like this.

Also the professor takes to disappearing for a few days, telling no one of his whereabouts.

Furthering the mystery, his fellow students and the other professors have become cold toward the student and begun to exclude him from their circles.

Nothing is solved until the end, and I won't give it away, just to say, that I find so many things unrealistic and wrong about it.

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Wednesday, July 15, 2020

The Cornish Coast Murder by John Bude

Here is some lovely music to read by:  Liszt in Love.

On the 4th of July I left Texas for Florida.  Passing Jackson Mississippi, I saw their fireworks display, which I appreciated.  I hate missing out on the beautiful fireworks.

The reason I left on the 4th was so I could stay through to the 11th, and celebrate with my parents in their 63rd wedding anniversary.

My mother cannot walk independently, but that did not slow us down.  We simply wheeled her around in the wheel chair.  We went to several areas where we could enjoy the water.

I also wheeled her around neighborhoods that she and I both walked through and talked, back when we were both younger.

In the evenings I read to them.  I finished three of the Narnia Chronicles, plus read a ghost story I wrote.  My mom said she enjoyed it.  I know she's my mother, but I think she would tell me if it wasn't any good.  My dad said I started to many sentences with the word, "I".  He was right.  I set about correcting that.

I think for 83 and 84 years of age, they haven't done too badly.  They don't get tired of telling how they met at Carswell AFB in Ft Worth, fresh out of tech training while they were still teenagers.  They married at the ages of 20 and 21 and have stuck it out through the lovely times and the rough patches. I have the greatest respect and love for my parents.

The Cornish Coast Murder (Inspector Bigswell)The Cornish Coast Murder by John Bude

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is the sort of book that is considered a nice, comfortable mystery to read on a rainy day. Life got really busy so there were gaps between the days I was able to read, so this book took a little longer to finish and I'm afraid I may have forgotten key events or characters. It also may be that they were a little hard to keep track of, but I think it's my fault, not the author's.

A vicar and a doctor meet Monday nights for dinner and sharing stories. Together they pay for a monthly package of mysteries to share. This evening is interrupted by an emergency at a local neighbor's house. They both arrive to find the neighbor, Julius Tregathan, lying dead in his living room. He has been shot through the head.

The shots came from outside, there were three although only one hit its mark, the holes through the window being discernible.

As the story progresses, we get to know the kind of man Tregarthan was and also who would have the motive to murder him.

This story was rather a slow burner, but I really appreciated how we get to try to figure out who murdered the man and why as the Inspector and Chief build up first one, then another, and then yet another theory as to who committed the murder, how they committed it and why. The continual evolution of their theories as new data enters the picture is probably the most interesting part of the book.

I believe I will be reading more of John Bude.

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Friday, July 3, 2020

Fear by Stefan Zweig

 I posting early because tomorrow I'm leaving for Florida.  It might take me a day to answer comments, but I will do my best.

Well, you can listen to it also, but this is what I was listening to when I wrote this review:  the Best Blues.

For the month of July I've been sending patriotic post cards.  Here are a few:

FearFear by Stefan Zweig

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Fascinating psychological tale about a woman who has everything: wealth, good family, security, whatever she wants. She's not bored, but neither does she care about anything. She calmly drifts through her life. She has children. They are there, but they hold little interest for her. She lets the governess and her husband tend to them.

She's perfectly self-satisfied, self-absorbed and completely non reflective. Her whole life is taken for granted.

There's another man in her life. She doesn't love him, but she enjoys the attention, the time together. The fact that she's cheating on her husband doesn't come into consideration. She simply doesn't think about anything that does not provide personal gratification.

Then one day, she is leaving her lover's apartment when she is confronted by a hag of a woman who accuses her of sleeping with her boyfriend. The hag screeches and screams and demands money to remain quiet about it.

The woman is terrified and gives her all the money she has on her. The hag says it's not enough. She wants more. The woman promises more and rushes away.

This is turning point of a placid, selfish existence into one of horror. The woman cannot sleep or eat. Somehow the hag has found where she lives. No matter how much money she gives the women, it is never enough. The hag is an albatross. She can't escape her, nor can't stand up to her-she's not used to fighting battles.

The woman becomes haggard as time goes on, she thinks of ending her life. Telling her husband is unthinkable. She'd rather die.

This story was a torment to get through, because, even though I did not like the lady, she was so helpless before the merciless hag.

I will not spoil the story, except to say, it ends in an unexpected way.

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Hope everyone is safe and have a wonderful 4th of July.


Sunday, June 28, 2020

Means to an End by John Rowan Wilson

Listening to Debussy's piano music.

Means to an EndMeans to an End by John Rowan Wilson

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

John Rowan Wilson is one of those accidental discoveries, which has led me on a quest to find all of his books. This is not easy because the author is long gone and his books are all out of print.

In Means to an End we see the dark underbelly of the business world. Chris Marshall has inherited a job with his father's corporation. He doesn't like the job, but after a failed attempt to make it as an artist in Paris, he has largely been drifting through life.

He knows and the rest of the company knows that he is there as fluff. He contributes nothing to the business, yet out of the blue, the boss wants to send him to Europe to deal with their wings in London and Paris.

This is strange, because he does so little here, what is he going to do there? Nothing, as he soon finds out. Everyone is smiley and polite, but their attitude is basically, don't you worry your pretty little head about anything, we've got everything covered.

And then an employee in Paris kills himself. Why? No one cares. Except Marshall. What is going on? He finds the widow and talks to her. It turns out that her husband was getting underpaid for his work, and finally lost his head and shot at the French head of the Paris branch of the company.

Marshall finally sees something he can deal with. But he makes some discoveries that shatter his belief in the goodness of human nature. Apparently the company has not been dealing honestly and has even been involved in illegal activities on an international level. Marshall is about to be both boat rocker and whistle blower.

But he is absolutely alone. His own father started the business, taking advantage of post WWII Europe's financial straits. Everybody else in the company, including his brother, are more concerned about keeping peace, their job and comfortable livings.

If this were a movie, everyone would behave like superheroes and have above board morals. When reading the book, I could not help but wonder, just how brave would I be in such a situation. I can think of times in my own work where I chickened out when I knew something was not right. I also had to quit because it was killing my morale. It's not so easy to be a superhero without a script guaranteeing a soft landing.

Wilson is British, but his protagonist is American. I was impressed with how deftly he nailed the voices of his American characters. He didn't make parodies out of them, as too many British authors are tempted to do. They were human. Flawed, heavily flawed, but still human beings. So were his British characters. Those are easy to parody too...stiff upper lip, hip, hip...I walk and act like this because I have a pole up my rear...the British and Americans were people you could despise but also feel for. They were real.

So were the French characters as far as that goes. Existential, fatalistic...but that's how 20th century French writers describe their own people.

Finally, Wilson showed great knowledge and insight into the international business world, even though he was educated and trained as a Doctor.

This is my second book by him and I hope to read more.

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Sunday, June 21, 2020

The Burning Secret by Stefan Zweig

Here is another discovery:  Ivor Gurney:  A Gloucester Rhapsody

I really hit the jackpot this past week.  I went to my library to find that they were giving away a lot of their history books.  I began to help myself.  A librarian came out and I was embarrassed, because I was greedily and brazenly emptying the shelves.  But she told me to take all I wanted and brought me a couple of more bags.  All in all I got over 40 free books.  Score!

As you can see it is mostly American History.

But with some Russian History and also some books about the Middle East.

Berfore writing my review on Goodreads, I read another man's review of the same story.  I should have known I would not like his review, because his abrasive posts had already caused me to unfriend him.  So you will see that some of my review is colored by my reaction to the other review.

The Burning Secret (Stefan Zweig Collection)The Burning Secret by Stefan Zweig

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I'm somewhat nonplussed at some of the loutish reviews over this story. At least one of them. Maybe the reader has never known loneliness. Maybe he's an insensitive clod. Maybe he yawns over the fact the author took his own life.

Whatever the reason he found all the characters contemptible. I found this story moving and at times heart-wrenching.

The story centers around a young boy. He's twelve but mature-wise he's much younger, more like a nine year old. Probably that was normal back in a time when the culture wasn't so hyper-sexualized as it is today.

The boy and his mother are at a resort for the boy's health, which is delicate. You read that a lot in literature written before the discovery of antibiotics. We'd all be delicate back then; those of us that survived our infancy, that is.

The boy has always been introverted and socially awkward, not finding it easy to interact with his peers. This naturally results in a great loneliness on his part.

Then, he is befriended by a man at the hotel. He is an officer on vacation. At first the boy is surprised, diffident and then overjoyed at the attention this man gives him. Because I have worked closely with children, I understand how so little effort on an adult's part towards them has huge consequences in their life. Yet most adults throw this opportunity away, even with (especially with) their own children.

The boy becomes obsessed with the officer. His waking moments are to see this man, at the restaurant, everywhere. Because Zweig writes the thoughts of his characters, we gain such an acute insight into their motives, not only theirs, but human nature in general. Of course if you aren't really interested in other people you could find this style of writing uninteresting. Sorry, I'm still chaffed about that other review.

But the boy comes to a tragic realization. The Officer is, in fact, not interested in him at all, but instead was using him to meet his mother with whom he hopes to have a brief affair. A week long amusement to alleviate the boredom while he is on vacation.

At first the boy is heartbroken. Then he recovers. He's angry and his anger and hatred make him remorseless. His innocence prevents him from understanding what is truly going on, but he understands enough to realize he has a certain hold over his mother and the Officer. Both of them regard him with a certain fright because of how he could expose them.

The story continues and concludes, but I won't reveal anymore, in case you want to read it for yourself.

I wonder if Zweig himself was this young boy and his own hypersensitive nature is what compelled him to write stories like this as well as commit suicide.

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Sunday, June 14, 2020

Vlad the Impaler: The Real Count Dracula by Enid A. Goldberg and Norman Itzkowitz

Here is a new work for me:  Florida Suite by Frederick Delius.

Vlad the Impaler: The Real Count DraculaVlad the Impaler: The Real Count Dracula by Enid A. Goldberg

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This short book was packed with interesting information about Vlad Dracula, the real man who inspired Bram Stoker's vampire novel.

Reading about the life of this real Dracula, if I had to choose between the two, I'd take the vampire over this real life tyrant.

Vlad Dracula was the son of Vlad Dracul senior and was "Dracula" which means "little dragon" or more appropriately, "little devil", except there was nothing little about the monstrosities Vlad Dracula committed against friend and foe alike. Who was friend or foe depended on who Dracula believed would help him attain and keep power. These would switch back and forth fairly rapidly.

He came by this philosophy honestly. When his father was in power, the area that later became known as Romania in Transylvania was wedged between the Holy Roman Empire and the Ottoman Empire. As a last ditch effort to stay in power, Vlad Senior sent Vlad Jr. and his brother Rudi to the Sultan of the Ottomans as prisoners in exchange for his help to fight the Western Europeans.

Vlad and Rudi spent several years in prison with the Ottomans. After Vlad's release he returned home under the promise he would help the Sultan's cause in bringing Transylvania under Ottoman rule. Vlad did not keep his promise. This was a habit with him.

After the death of his father, Vlad Dracula took over, at times fighting the Ottomans, which included his brother who chose to stay with the Ottomans, killing other brothers and former friends. Other times he fought with the Ottomans against the soldiers of western Europe. It all depended on who would help him stay in power.

He was also vengeful. The ruling class in Transylvania, the Boyers, were responsible for killing his father. He invited them to a feast after which he had them all impaled and their bodies left to rot on stakes. This was called The Forest of the Impaled. There is a wooden engraving showing Vlad eating a meal among this horrible forest.

As for the older men, the women and children, he forced them to climb a mountain and build a castle, called Castle Dracula, which can still be seen today and has probably been used in horror movies. These builders were literally worked to death and the trail to the mountain top where the castle resides is paved with the skeletons of the builders.

Furthermore he created a severe police state where even minor infractions were punished by death. Whole villages were murdered in Vlad's determination to maintain control. His subjects feared him more than they feared the Turks.

Vlad seemed not only to be capable of heartless, violent pragmatism, he was also sadistic. It was not enough to make his victims die. He enjoyed watching them suffer as they died slowly.

Some historians say Vlad Dracula killed as many people as the Bubonic plague which also ravished Europe around the same time. While that may be an exaggeration, it is estimated that his death toll may have approached a hundred thousand or more.

And his reign only lasted seven years. Eventually, Dracula was overpowered by soldiers of the Roman Empire, killed and beheaded. His truncated body is buried beneath the floor of the Comana Monastery, surrounded by swampland in Romania.

While this book can seem gruesome, it provides and interesting an informative account of life in middle Europe during the 15th century. While life during these unsettling times was violent and cruel by any account, still Vlad took it to a whole other level that turned him into a nefarious legend and, an inspiration for many vampire legends.

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ᐈ Bran castle stock pictures, Royalty Free dracula castle ...
Castle Dracula

Sunday, June 7, 2020

The Zoo on the Road to Nablus: a story of survival from the West Bank by Amelia Thomas

Here is Ralph Vaughn Williams' In the Fen Country.  Williams is one of my favorite composers.  His music makes me think of lush landscape paintings.

The Zoo on the Road to Nablus: A Story of Survival from the West BankThe Zoo on the Road to Nablus: A Story of Survival from the West Bank by Amelia Thomas

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

There is a rarity among non fiction writers to engage the reader as Amelia Thomas has. I found this book refreshing in that it serves as a documentary of the lives of both human and animals in one of the political hotbeds of the world, while showing the goodness, the sadness, the uncertainty and harshness of a place far away from the imagination of the western mind.

Qalqilya is on the border of Palestine and Israel, about an hour north of Jerusalm. I probably passed it without knowing it last October during my stay in Israel. Pity.

A Palestinian veterinarian, Dr. Sami has great dreams for his zoo. Once it was a beautiful place with a luscious environment for exotic animals for the British overlords to enjoy. Now it is a dilapidated facility with a few animals fighting for survival. The political tensions between Israel and Palestine make the zoo's existence low on anyone else's list of concerns.

Through Thomas, we follow Dr. Sami around as he fights, begs, cajoles and pleads with city officials, other zoos in Egypt and Israel to help populate his forlorn zoo and keep the animals alive and healthy.

He seems to be fighting a losing battle. His animals die, some because they weren't viable to begin with, some because keeping wild animals alive in enclosures is hard and costly and some, it turns out, because somebody was poisoning them.

The reader gets a glimpse of a country whose value on human life has become numb due to violence and a fatalistic philosophy. Animals are not accorded that much respect. His daughter comes home to find out an odious aunt has killed her beloved pet chicken and roasted it for her personal culinary delectation. She refuses to speak to her father for two weeks.

But Dr. Sami loses neither optimism nor resourcefulness. He takes under his wing and into his office newborn bears, ibexes, and monkeys who, in spite of being nursed by Dr. Sami still suffer a high mortality rate. He travels to Egypt to possibly procure some animals from a similarly neglected zoo, where the animals are treated even worse, because the keepers won't even feed the animals unless the zoo visitors pay them.

While the animals are seen with no rights respecting treatment, neither are the humans. The zoo's manager, due to his own stupidity, is ravaged by a camel. He ends up several weeks in the hospital and comes out a withered man. However, the camel is not destroyed.

Not that an attempt on the camel's life is not made. The manager's son creeps in at night and shoots the camel in the jaw. He is not arrested or charged, but his father disowns him because of the shame. It's a different world.

My personal opinion is that, while I understand that children in Palestine deserve a place to go to to alleviate the dreariness of a war torn country, I don't think it should be at the expense of suffering animals. Thanks to the high mortality rate of his animals, Dr. Sami has quite a taxidermy collection going. Maybe it would be better to show the children a museum of stuffed animals. They could see exotic animals and stuffed animals would be easier to maintain.

As sad as this story was, I'm glad I read it and appreciate Thomas' combination of writing skill and compassion in writing this little known zoo's story.

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Sunday, May 31, 2020

Chess Story by Stefan Zweig

Here is Max Bruch's Symphony no. 2

Chess StoryChess Story by Stefan Zweig

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This moving story reaches humanity on a number of levels.

Spoiler: I'm not giving away the ending but I do describe the essence of the story.

A man from Austria is on a ship to South America. On the ship is a young Russian man who is a Grand Chess Master and is on his way to play a tournament with another master.

Zweig spends the first chapter or so focusing on this young Russian. An ignorant peasant boy, orphaned at an early age is raised by the village priest. While watching the priest and another man play chess, he shows his own aptitude for the game. He soon rises among the ranks until he is a world champion.

What is interesting about the Russian is how Zweig makes him out to be little more than a savant. He has no interest in any other intellectual pursuit, reading, math, philosophy etc...he apparently is as concrete as a cinder block. His only talent is chess, which seems to be a natural ability. His only strange defect in the field is that he has to see the players on the board. He cannot imagine games in his head.

This one talent makes the youth insufferably arrogant. Like many stupid people, he treats everyone else with contempt, but is careful to engage only people on his intelligence level, knowing that if someone were to try to speak on any subject out of his league, he'd be at a loss. And since chess is the only thing he knows, any other topic of discussion would be beyond him.

At this point I have to wonder. Other than an idiot savant, is it really possible to be intelligent at only one thing? I would think that the mental skills required of chess strategy would transfer over into other areas.

Yet I do know some people like this. And I have found it a mistake to think that because someone is brilliant at, say, math, that they are interested or capable of delving into art, music or philosophy. Of course it could also be argued that someone like, say, me who is a professional musician is even slightly adept at math. I am very much a right-brained musician.

But for most of us, or at least a lot of us, we don't hold to any delusions of grandeur. We enjoy what we know, we accept what we don't and we are not so ignorant as to look down on others, or, as a couple of odious people I know, think that putting down other people would disguise a mediocre mind.

But that is a major digression. I merely wanted to relate what thoughts the first part of the novel provoked.

The story then takes a turn as the Austrian narrator relates how he and a group of men on the ship came to challenge the Russian Chess Master. It looked very bleak for them, made worse by the fact that the Russian was so insolent about beating them.

Then, out of the blue, another man who was watching the game started telling them where to go. I should mention the Russian would play and then walk across the room so the men could discuss among themselves their next move.

That game ended in a draw. Later the Austrian looked up the man who had helped them win. He was also from Austria. In his cabin he told his story.

He had been held by the Nazis to divulge information. This he refused to do. Their form of torture was to keep him in a room by himself without any stimulation. His only contact with others was during interrogations. He found this maddening, but one day while waiting to be interrogated, he came across a book on chess.

The man goes on to describe how he committed all the games to memory and when he became bored with that, he began playing games in his mind against himself. This eventually led to a form of madness. In fact he told our narrator that he feared if he played another game of chess, he would succumb to permanent insanity.

I'll stop there, but I must say what I value most about this story was the character sketches of both men. Both suffered from a type of mono-mania, but for different reasons and their outcome was dramatically different as well.

There's so many things to analyze in this story. The Russian man was free but limited by his mental narrowness. The Austrian man was brilliant and his imprisonment stretched his mind to even greater heights, but at the cost of his own sanity.

This story will stay with me for a long time.

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Sunday, May 24, 2020

Treasure Island and The Rajah's Diamond by Robert Louis Stevenson

I like to listen to music while I paint and I happened upon Frederick Delius.  I hope you learn to enjoy him as much as I do.  This work is called, timely enough, "A Song of Summer."

I told you last week I lost my precious Sophie.  Last Thursday I came home to a note on my door that said, "fellow Bird Lady."  A woman wanted to give me her cockatiel.  I didn't have to think about it.  I've never had a cockatiel before and I would like to get a couple more, because this one is so cute.  His name was Roosevelt, but to me he looks like a Percy so that's what I've been calling him.

The lady told me he needed to stay in his cage a week before meeting the other birds.  He was so agitated in the cage I couldn't stand it.  Here is Percy after letting him out of the cage.  He stayed there for most of the day.

Naturally he took to my husband first.

But the person he immediately bonded with and would not leave, just singing and chirping and preening her hair all afternoon, was my friend Felicia.

He was not happy when she left.  I would consider giving Percy to her, but she has three dogs, two of which would not mind eating a little bird.

Treasure IslandTreasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I had read this story years ago to my son when he was a boy and I either did not realize or had forgotten what a rollicking good adventure story this was.

Stevenson knows how to create tension, suspense and relief where in the end evil loses and goodness wins, but it's quite a gauntlet to race through to get there.

A young boy, Jim Hawkins lives at an inn his parents run when an old pirate by the name of Billy Bones comes to stay. It turns out that Bones has something of great value to a lot of other pirates who are willing to get it from him.

There are many close calls and almost-caughts, almost killeds in the beginning, but finally Jim, a Dr. Livesey and the district Squire, Mr. Trelawney acquire a ship and crew and embark to the island that carries a treasure according to the map Jim, accidentally, procured from Bones.

Unfortunately, Trelawney, who is a bit of a nimbus, has not been discreet or discerning and without realizing it has hired a bunch of black-hearted pirates to run the ship, all lead by Long John Silver.

I don't wish to ruin the story for people who haven't read the book so that's all I'll say, but I do not think a movie could ever do this written narration justice. Stevenson is such an eloquent writer and so much depends on the first person narration. Movies are largely limited by showing rather than telling.

For all the youngster both child and adult, this is an adventure story everyone should read.

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The Rajah's DiamondThe Rajah's Diamond by Robert Louis Stevenson

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I did not read the Kindle Edition of this book, but that's the only edition I could find in English on Goodreads.

This was a fun serial adventure told in third person-limited from a variety of people. A foolish young dandy of a man, after quite a series of episodes of fun and danger comes across, without intending to, an infamous jewel called the Rajah's Diamond.

He is chased around town by nefarious characters without realizing what they are after. But he loses the diamond after all, in an innocuous place where it is found by someone else. This person has been passed the ball and now his journey begins, although this person is not quite so innocent as the dandy.

But he's just as foolish and soon, he has been divested of the diamond as well. The diamond passes through a number of hands. Many turns and twists and as many chase scenes as a Buster Keaton silent film occur before the matter is resolved.

I've only given the bare bones of the story. If you want to read the sort of adventures our different diamond bearers have, you'll have to read the book.

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Sunday, May 17, 2020

Mata Hari: the True Story by Russell Warren Howe

Here is a youtube video called the Best of Chopin.  The first piece on it, Ballade no. 1 in G minor, was the very first work by Chopin that I learned.  What a wonderful introduction.

Mata Hari, The True StoryMata Hari, The True Story by Russell Warren Howe
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
This is another book that started out strong, but lost its momentum somewhere in the middle.

Howe gives us chapter after chapter of Mata Hari, whose real name was Margaretha Geertruida Zelle, rose from poverty, created a legend for herself, introduced the world to the strip tease act and ultimately was executed as a German spy during WWI.

Zelle was born and grew up in Holland with a father who ruined her mother by leaving her for a mistress and ruined his family financially by his extravagant tastes for luxury.

Margareth Geertruida turned out to be not so unlike her father and one has to respect her grit. In a certain way she reminds me of the character Scarlett O'Hara in Gone With the Wind. Despite adverse circumstances she fought her way through poverty to become a notorious stripper, but ultimately was made a WWI scapegoat.

When she was eighteen she married a British Lord, Rudolph John MacCleod, and moved to Indonesia with him. There they had two children, one whom mysteriously died while still a boy. It was suspected that their servant, in revenge for MacCleod sending away her lover (so he could have her for himself) poisoned the boy.

While in Indonesia, Zelle, now MacCleod, learned the art of exotic dancing as well as the language of the people. She used this back drop after she left MacCleod for his drunken rages and blatant infidelity, to create a saucy temptress that procured for her numerous lovers.

She accomplished this by leaving with her daughter to Paris because, according to her, "Where else could a divorced woman hope to make a living?" Later MacCleod retrieves their daughter and Maragetha never sees her again.

Mata Hari, as I shall now call her, became known for her so-called Indian (she now claimed to be the daughter of an Indian Princess and a European man) dance routines, which involved taking off her scarves until she was completely naked. Well, not completely. She never uncovered her breasts because they were so flat. I think that's kind of funny, but maybe that's just me.

Her life is one of traveling from man to man and living far beyond her or any of her lovers' means. Finally, at forty, she decided she needed a cool million to finally retire and settle down. Plus she had a twenty year old Russian lover, a soldier in the Russian army, who she wanted to spend the rest of her life with.

She offered her services as a spy to the French.

To read Howe's telling, she was a complete incompetent and accomplished nothing. The Germans didn't take her seriously and the French didn't know quite how to use her, so they hired her as a "free lance" spy.

Nevertheless, she was eventually arrested and convicted of spying for the Germans.

Half of the book is not very interesting. It mainly consists of Howe describing every hotel and restaurant Mata Hari checked into, who she met, who she spoke to, who she slept with. It reads as fascinating as a grocery list.

However, Howe is convinced that as bumbling as Mata Hari was as a spy, she was not guilty of working for the Germans. She was rather a convenient scapegoat for the French who, perhaps to commander incompetence, lost thousands of French soldiers.

Perhaps this is true, but I have another biography I hope to read and see if I can glean another viewpoint before I make my own conclusion.

In addition to Mata Hari's life, this is a good history of life before and during WWI in Europe.

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Sunday, May 10, 2020

Inside the Plaza by Ward Morehouse III

The delightful piano music of Franz Schubert.

It's been a wretched week.  Due to my lack of diligence my Quaker Sophie flew off and has not returned.  I'm afraid an owl got her.  Well, if one did, I promise you she didn't go down without a fight.  That owl will think twice before tackling a Quaker.  There's a reason why they're illegal in some states.

Hercule has been looking and calling for her.  Well, God has promised to restore the earth and I believe that includes his feathery creations.  I look forward to when the owl and the parrot can lie down together and be friends.

Enough of feeling sorry for myself.  Here's my review.

Inside the Plaza: An Intimate Portrait of the Ultimate HotelInside the Plaza: An Intimate Portrait of the Ultimate Hotel by Ward Morehouse III

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Lately I have gotten interested in the historical hotels in New York. I had first read a couple of books about the Chelsea Hotel with all its hippy drippy occupants, plus its uncertain future.

Reading about the Plaza helped put the Chelsea in perspective. It seemed to me that you had to be pretty rich to live in the Chelsea, even if you were a drug addict, but now I understand that compared to the Plaza, the Chelsea would be vastly more affordable.

If I were to compare the two hotels, both of approximately the same age, both pieces of Art Deco architectural history, I'd say the Plaza was the good child who got a college education, married a doctor and has prospered ever since. The Chelsea was the rebellious child who ran off with her garage band boyfriend and has been living on that ragged edge of Bohemian disaster ever since.

While the Chelsea attracted the artsy, pop culture leaders and followers, the Plaza has always been classy and posh. Part of this would be location, but also darn, good business management by the various owners. The Chelsea had the son of the original owners manage it and he kept the reins loose and free and pretty much turned the hotel into the modern equivalent of an opium den, which may well have delighted the famous clientele that rented rooms there.

The Plaza was and is for the very, very rich. Not that it has not had its financial struggles, but so far it has been able to pull out of them.

Morehouse devotes much of the book to the business side of owning and managing a hotel like the Plaza, which I found a lot more interesting than I thought I would.

The rest is of course describing the famous people who have stayed there since its inception. Because his father, Ward Morehouse, a famous theatre critic and writer lived there with his second wife, he got to meet many of the clientele first hand. Consequently, we get more information about the people he has personally met and more second hand information about the rest.

Still, we get some fairly good stories about F. Scott Fitzgerald, the Beatles, the author of Eloise as well as several famous actors and singers who have since faded into the annals of time. Actually I found that interesting as well, learning about actors and singers I otherwise did not know about and then looking them up online to find out more about them.

Also, there were several movies that were filmed there, the most famous for contemporary audiences would be the Home Alone movies, but also Barefoot in the Park and a number of Hitchcock movies.

While the writing wasn't brilliant, it was good enough for me to give the book three stars. I liked it.

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