Sunday, September 27, 2020

Life at the Dakota: New York's Most Unusual Address by Stephen Birmingham

Beautiful music by the Danish composer Carl Nielsen.


Life at the Dakota: New York's Most Unusual AddressLife at the Dakota: New York's Most Unusual Address by Stephen Birmingham

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Life at the Dakota provides a good history of the apartment building the Dakota that stands in Gothic glory across the street from West side Central Park on 72nd street.

I love reading the histories of these famous buildings and this book did not disappoint.

We see how the builder Edward C. Clark had vision when everyone else saw the area north of 53rd Street as a barren wilderness (hence the name Dakota, after the Dakota Territories) because there was nothing up there but country.

Clark met up with a poor Jewish immigrant who fixed sewing machines and developed a better one, but no one took seriously. Except Clark. As a Lawyer, Clark patented it and made a serious advertisement campaign, changing the image of sewing machines as a poor immigrant laborers work tool, to a machine every lady must have in her home.

Thus the inventor Isaac Singer and Edward Clark made millions off of the Singer Sewing machine.

This happened when Clark was a younger man. He didn't begin to imagine the Dakota until he was in his seventies. However, the money he made off of Singer's sewing machine gave him the money to embark what what everyone else considered a crazy scheme to make an apartment building in no man's land.

This was during the 1880s. At that time New York was clearly divided between the American Aristocracy, the Waldorfs, the Astors, etc...and everyone else. They all lived below 53rd Street on the East Side. No one worth knowing lived anywhere else. Clark decided he was going to provide living space for the middle rich and the up and coming rich. Rich people who had not inherited their wealth but actually earned it. Shocking!

Stephen Birmingham gives lively descriptions of many of the better known occupants of the building, from the Steinways (of grand piano fame) to various actors and actresses such as Lauren Bacall, Music conductor Leonard Bernstein, all the way to the sixties and seventies when the first black woman moved in (Roberta Flack) and also the rebellious, peace activist turned hauteur-bourgeoisie ex-Beatle, John Lennon with Yoko Ono.

This book was published in 1979, shortly before Lennon's death so it doesn't include his murder right outside the Dakota Building, which sadly, is why most people not from New York City know about the building. It provides a unique insight as to how John Lennon had largely disappeared from sight in the 1970's and Birmingham clearly saw him as a has-been musician who could be heard from the other floors "playing lonely little melodies on his guitar in his living room on the seventh floor."

While this tells me the author belonged to an earlier generation who did not have much use for rock musicians, it also shows his lack of foresight. Around the time the book was published John Lennon had released a magnificent album with some of his most mature music to date. The songs revealed a man who had matured and mellowed and who knows what he had in store for us if his life had not been dreadfully cut short.

I suppose I'm showing my own bias there. Nevertheless, I recommend this book as a great addition to anyone's library of historical buildings.

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Sunday, September 20, 2020

I'd Rather Be The Devil: Skip James and the Blues by Stephen Calt; Agatha Raisin and The Quiche of Death; Death of a Greedy Woman, a Hamish MacBeth mystery by M.C. Beaton; Josephine Tey: a Life by Jennifer Morag Henderson

 I was listening to meditative music as I wrote this review, because it doesn't draw my attention away from the task at hand.

Here is another group of short reviews.  I read or listened to all of them on Hoopla, except the last, so I don't have any photos of the books.  So instead, here is a lovely, yet random  photo of a postcard I sent.  I'd like to paint it in acrylic.


I'd Rather Be the Devil: Skip James and the Blues | Stephen Calt | First  Edition

Fascinating, if unflattering narrative on the life of Skip James, but also other blues performers of the early part of the century, their comeback in the 60s as white audiences discovered their love for the blues and their impact on the history and culture of American and also global music.

The author met with and befriended Skip James and was intimately involved with the Blues revival of the sixties. He reveals that many of these musicians led extremely rough, even lawless lives. Their relationships with white people throughout the South was far more complex than how it is often portrayed in today's media.

The author also showed how the Blues Revival of the sixties wasn't necessarily profitable for these blues musicians. Many of the managers and record companies took advantage of them, making money for themselves, but not the blues musicians themselves.

I'd Rather be the Devil, not only provides a historical chronology, but delves into the rich, old culture of the South and Southern black people, combining their religious beliefs, intertwined with superstitions that preceded the introduction to Christianity and the hard determined grit the was necessary for survival in those pre-civil rights days.


I have really grown to like Agatha Raisin. She's so human, yet so likable. I have not read these books in order, but this is the first mystery. Agatha Raisin moves from London, her job in advertising, to the Cotswolds for a peaceful life.

It does not turn out as she expects. The people of the village are politely cordial, but nothing else. No one befriends her and soon Agatha is homesick and lonely. She decides to take the bull by the horns and get involved in village society. She begins to attend church, largely because the vicar's wife, Mrs. Bloxby has been the only person to show genuine friendship to her. She then becomes involved in several church functions.

This brings her to the Quiche competition. Agatha can't boil water, so she decides to cheat. She goes out and buys a quiche and presents it to the judges. It doesn't win, but the judge and his wife offer to take it home and finish it off. Agatha, disappointed and depressed, shruggingly lets them.

The next day, the judge is found dead. Poisoned by cowbane that was found in the quiche. Now what is Agatha to do? Admit she cheated, or be suspected of murder?

The mystery is fun, but so are all the characters as Agatha gets to know her neighbors and they get to know her. Many of the characters travel from book to book with Agatha, so they become like old friends to the reader.



It's funny, but with Beaton's Hamish MacBeth mysteries, one knows who is going to be topped off almost from the get go. It's the most odious, disgusting individual who acts in a way that makes everyone want to kill them.

From this foundation, one then has to get to know all the suspects and find out who ultimately did it and what their reasons were for doing so. As in previous MacBeth mysteries I've read, even though the murder victim may be obvious, the murderer is not, nor are their reasons.

In Death of a Greedy Woman, a group of tourists come up from England to take a holiday at the local hotel. They are not just any group of tourists, but clients of Checkmate, a match up site. An equal number of men and women are going to spend the week together and hopefully pair off.

The monkey wrench is that one of the partners, Peta, of Checkmate is an ogre. Or at least her eating habits are ogre-ish. The other partner, Maria, actually was hoping to pull the gathering off without Peta's knowledge. Peta finds out however, and joins the group at Priscilla Halburton-Smythe's father's hotel and restaurant. The group, which was already disliking each other, find themselve in solidarity in their disgust of Peta.

In addition to the murder we see the ongoing relationship between Hamish MacBeth and Priscilla. There are bumps along the road as they continue to misunderstand each other, but I suppose that is what keeps the reader coming back. Will Hamish and Priscilla ever meet each other half way?

There is very little known about Josephine Tey, but Henderson does a good job gathering what facts are available and intertwining them with an analysis of her work, both as a playwright, historian and mystery writer.


Tuesday, September 15, 2020

In the Dark, Soft Earth; poetry of love, nature, spirituality and dreams by Frank Watson

 These Bach Baroque Suites for guitar go perfectly with these sublime poems.


I would like to ask everyone to pray for all the people in the northwest who are experiencing the fires.  This includes personal family members and blogging friends and their families.



And while we're at it pray for the people on the Gulf Coast.  

Hopefully Hurricane Sally will become depressed, lose her will to survive and give up, like Marco did.




This is an embarrassingly late review.  I was given this collection of poetry months ago and time got away and then I flat out forgot.   I am actually not a fan of poetry, I don't know why.  Takes too much discipline to read. 


 Poetry isn't meant to be gulped, but savored.  I feel so overwhelmed with Mount TBR that I find myself reading non fiction and mysteries just because they're easy to devour.


I really enjoyed this book of poetry.  Maybe it is the minimalism.  One thing that does appeal to me in poetry is the painting of visual imagery through power of expressive words.  Frank Watson's words wash over me in rich, deep yet cool colors.  I am going to post a couple of the poems because they can speak well enough for themselves.



 to the poet there

is a love for beauty

 in all its terrifying forms  


in the quiet 

 stirrings before 

 the world wakes

 when even the night  

creatures cease to speak  


with distant sands 

 turned white as flecks

 on wild black hair I follow the Northern Winds 

 to where the world begins


  before Creation

 cast in stone 

 we built this world 

 on what was sown 


 since all eternity is rest

 why not use this

 time to do our best? 



pallid and hollow
we’ve drifted
through this town
for centuries
and no one’s home

her words
strung up
on stranded hair—
blown away
in the winter wind

smoke gun
thoughts in the air—
these words sit silent there

the naked despair
of a people
without courage
who wander
another’s land

in breathless prayer
for centuries
without imagination

where flames drive me deep
into the song of sleep
and the narrow road
that carries me off somewhere



And finally, one short one:


spoken word
fit into a cube
and packed, as is,
into another dimension
where the spoken word
shall never leave
I had a hard time formatting this.  Google decided to become more sophisticated and I'm struggling to catch up.
The collection has ten section, each on a different theme, introduced with a famous poem and beautiful paintings from Europe and Asia, from the Middle Ages to modern.
Finally, this is my honest review in exchange for an Arc copy.  I think I am legally obligated to say that.
I wish Frank Watson all the best and that many, many people enjoy his beautiful word painting. 
Gulf Coast at a more peaceful time.



Monday, September 14, 2020

The Moth Presents: Occasional Magic: True Stories About Defying the Impossible edited by Catherin Burns

Listening to Michael Pretorious.

I read one of the stories in a Readers Digest lying around my parents' house. It intrigued me so I found the book in my local library.

What I liked about it was the personal story aspect. I love reading or hearing people describe their lives, or certain experiences in their lives.

Most of the stories' topic matter was predictable since it is put out by NPR: people of minority races, homosexual, or female overcoming oppression by the evil white society.


There were some real gems nestled in their midst. Stories about people whose hardship in their own countries led them to this country to escape persecution and to gain opportunities denied them in their own country of origin. Their gratitude is palpable.

And there were a couple I appreciate by women who decided that having a baby did not interfere with fulfilling their personal dreams, in fact, having children turned out to be a greater dream than personal ambition.

One particular story was quite powerful. A woman became pregnant and due to her age and early sonograms was told she needed to abort, first because the baby had Downs Syndrome, then later because, actually, the baby had Edwards Syndrome and was going to die anyway.

Her response was unforgettable: Since he was going to die anyway, couldn't she at least meet him first?

The pressure to abort was intense and my hat is off to her determination. Then she had her baby. In her own words:

"He. Was. Perfect."

Her son was ten years old at the time of the story and a perfectly healthy baby boy.

Which begs the question, how many other perfectly healthy babies have been aborted due to pressure by health professionals based on faulty testing?

There were a couple of other gems: The man remembering his time with friends playing poker until five pm, the next day. All of his friends have passed on, but he has his memories of them and it's good.

The story that led me to checking the book out was about a young boy taken from his home in Alabama by his mother and stepfather to live in California. Severely homesick, in Junior high, fat and awkward, his misery is alleviated by his grandmother back in Alabama who sends a giant Christmas package via Greyhound Bus, which brought home to him. She did this every year until she died.

Even though I know most of the stories are going to be stamped with NPR approval, I still want to read the other volumes because human interest stories are wonderful and I love reading them, regardless of who puts them out. 


Sunday, September 6, 2020

A Cotswold Ordeal by Rebecca Tope

I'm listening to Dvorak's New World Symphony.  This work got me through the wee hours of the night at college.

My efforts at chipping away at Mount TBR.  This is my bedside reading pile.

A Cotswold Ordeal (Thea Osborne, #2)A Cotswold Ordeal by Rebecca Tope

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I usually like to spread out the stories by authors I enjoy, but I jumped right into this one after reading the first and plan to start the next one in the series tonight.

In A Cotswold Ordeal, Thea has just left her last house sitting job, staying in a house for an uptight couple that swiftly embark on a vacation that takes them away from England. Naturally a murder happens in their back yard. In one short week, Thea meets a variety of village people and one police inspector in particular, although only barely.

In this second mystery, Thea is once again house sitting, in a neighboring village, this time for a hectic blended family (his kids, her kids) who are rushing off to Ireland and don't contact them! Thea is left with a small farm, which includes rabbits, guinea pigs and an old pony, suffering from Laminitis.

It is not long before Thea is up to her ears in the same old trouble. She finds the pony won't go in her stall and for good reason. There's a body hanging in it.

As all mysteries go, who is it? Why are they hanging in the barn? Suicide or murder?

This time we have a couple of sub plots going. Lieutenant Hollis plays a much larger role in the investigation and also in Thea's life. Plus, once again, Thea gets to know a variety of the town folk. Are any of them involved?

And just to further complicate things, Thea's youngest sister arrives. She has decided to leave her husband and five children.

How does the story develop? Very well. I have grown attached to Thea and now must see what happens to her in the next novel.

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