SILVERMEADOW by Barry Maitland

silvermeadowHere we go again with another DCI Brock and DS Kathy Kolla mystery, set in modern day London.

What I like about Maitland’s books is that each has an overarching theme to the always interesting mystery.  One was about Karl Marx, one about philately, and another was about Islamic extremism.   This one, Silvermeadow, is about a shopping mall.

The shopping mall, Silvermeadow, is as much a part of the cast as any of the live characters.  In fact, when we are taken into the bowels of the property where the air is cleaned and pumped in and out, one of the characters tells Kathy that this is where the mall breathes and the sound of the air moving feels like lungs.

It is an intertwining story of the hunt for a sociopathic bank robber who killed two police officers and fled the country.  He was spotted at the mall, and Brock and Kathy get into the investigation.  They get finagled into searching for a missing teenager girl, and figure it would work as good cover for their presence at the mall.

We meet the heat of mall operations, the head of mall security, and learn a bit about the trials and aggravations facing mall security forces, and we meet some of the store owners.

They can’t seem to get a handle on either investigation, and that’s when Kathy comes to the conclusion that the mall is an actor in the drama, drawing the people to itself.

It is becoming apparent that Maitland’s signature ending for this series is Kathy doing something impulsive and daring, getting into big trouble, getting hurt and having to be rescued.   Which is fine, but becomes glaringly obvious when you read the books one right after the other.  You would think she would learn after the fifth or sixth time, wouldn’t you?   Oh, well.  I’m not really complaining.  I love these books!


UNDER THE NET by Iris Murdoch


This is the first of Iris Murdoch’s books, and is the story of hapless Jake Donahue, a sometimes writer and translator, who lives hand to mouth in London by living off his friends, whose hospitality is beginning to grow dim. It is tagged a comic novel about work and love, wealth and fame.

I found it comic in the sense of how a TV sit com is comic. I felt it needed the laugh track, but I guess it is just me, because it is Murdoch’s most popular book and it is rated ninety-fifth on Random House’s top 100 novels of the twentieth century.

The story follows Jake as he makes the kind of stupid decisions that characters make in sit coms, but I generally don’t care for sit coms, so maybe that is why this book didn’t appeal to me.

It also reads like an absurdist, existential treatise on life. But Sartre and Camus did it better, and I’m not much into absurdist literature either. Gee, I’m hard to please. No. No, I’m not, but I do like a rollicking good story, and frankly, this is more character-driven than plot-driven.

I’ve got a few more of her books to try.  Don’t know why I didn’t read them back in the day.  But, as the saying goes, no time like the present.

THE CHANLON HEADS by Barry Maitland

Chanlon headsThe fourth in the mystery series featuring DCI Brock and DS Kathy Kolla.  The first was The Marx Sisters.  I don’t have the next two, but am finding that they are all pretty much stand alones, so I just dove right in on this one.

In The Marx Sisters, we learn a lot about Karl Marx and the aftermarket for his writings.  In The Chalon Heads, we learn a lot about philately.

Philately:  The term was coined in 1864 by a Frenchman, George Herpin, who invented it from the Greek philos, ‘love’, and ateleia, ‘that which is tax-free’.

It is all about a forger of stamps, known only as Rafael, reputed to be an art student, who has forged all kinds of different art work, and has now moved on to stamps.

Stamp collector fanatics are really something!  I suppose they are no worse than the fanatics of any collectible, and here we have a whole mystery built around the world of stamp collecting, and believe you me, it’s nothing like when you were a kid and saved the stamps that came on foreign letters.  Nope.  First of all, there are all kinds of esoterica and arcana associated with stamps.  Like:

The first adhesive postage stamp was issued in 1840.  that was the famous British penny black, and it’s hard to imagine now what a radical invention it was, a uniform rate national postal system, prepaid by means of an adhesive token, which was cut off a sheet with scissors — later they added perforations for ease of tearing — and stuck to the letter.

Since no other country had such a system, there was no need to put the name of the country on the stamp, which is why British stamps to this day are the only ones without the country’s name on them.  But they do have the monarch’s head, and that goes right back to the penny black.   The design of that stamp was based on a side-profile portrait of Queen Victoria.

In that same year, the artist Alfred Edward Chalon also made a portrait of the young Queen.  Which is the basis for the Chalon Head stamps.

Which is the reference for the title of this book.

Well!  An avid collector of Chalon Head stamps reports to the police that his very young wife has been missing for about a week.  He has received threatening notes to which have been affixed Chalon Head stamps, sliced in half.   It would appear that the missus has been kidnapped.  What a travesty, both the kidnapping and the wanton destruction of the stamps.  He is frantic.

And then he gets the head of his wife delivered to his house in a box.

Kidnapping, decapitation and philately!  What could be more fascinating.

Did you know that it is so much easier to move forged or stolen stamps from place to place, country to country, than, say, forged artwork?  Sure.  Just put them in your wallet.  Breeze right through security and customs.   Just a thought, you know, in case you were considering other means of acquiring income.



THE LORDS OF THE NORTH by Bernard Cornwell

200px-BernardCornwell_TheLordsOfTheNorthThis is the third in the Saxon Warriors series, and a doozie it is, too.  The first is The Last Kingdom,  then comes The Pale Horseman.  This series is about Britain in the late 9th century, and the rise of King Alfred the Great.

Here’s Wiki’s plot summary, with some additions of my own:

878 – 881: Uhtred of Bebbanburg makes his way back to his native Northumbria seeking revenge against his uncle Ælfric and childhood enemies Sven the One-Eyed and Kjartan the Cruel. He travels by ship with his friend and lover, Hild. (You remember her — she was the nun being raped in Cippanhamm who was rescued by Uhtred. Well, Uhtred has a honking big hoard of gold and silver, and he goes to the land that King Alfred has given him, and digs a hole to bury the cache. He makes sure Hild knows where it is — just in case.)

They make landfall near Eoferwic (York) to find the region in disarray. Lord Ivarr Ivarsson and his army are engaged with the Scots in the north. The formerly Danish-held Eoferwic has been conquered by Saxons. The central lands of Dunholm are ravaged by Kjartan and Sven, and Bebbanburg remains under the control of Ælfric. Uhtred is hired to escort a Danish merchant’s family north, through Dunholm, to safety.

As they travel and attempt to avoid the Dunholm fortress and Kjartan’s troops, they are unsuccessful and are led into a slave trading camp led by Sven. Uhtred disguises himself as Thorguild the Leper, Dark Swordsman of Niffelheim, and convinces Sven he is sent from the dead to haunt him. He frees Danish King Guthred of Cumbraland from the slave pens.

[Ok, a little side foray into history as opposed to historical fiction. During this time, Saint Cuthbert was pretty active. And that’s saying something, since he had been dead for a couple hundred years by this point. So history doesn’t really tell us how Guthred was released from slavery. Probably not by some Saxon who was raised by Danes. In his History of the Church of Durham, written in 883, Symeon of Durham wrote that the ever-busy Saint Cuthbert appeared in a vision to Abbot Eadred and said, “Go to the army of the Danes, and announce to them that you are come as my messenger; and ask where you can find a lad named Guthred, the son of Hardacnut, whom they sold to a widow. Having found him, and paid the widow the price of his liberty, let him be brought forward before the whole aforesaid army; and my will and pleasure is, that he be elected and appointed king at Oswiesdune.

Well, you clearly don’t mess with the desires of Saint Cuthbert, dead or alive, and so in some fashion, Guthred was released from slavery and made king. that worked out nicely.]

In Cumbraland, Uhtred becomes the commander of Guthred’s household troops and adviser. He trains a band of thirty new warriors and stops an attempt by Kjartan to capture him and Guthred, and he falls in love with Gisela, Guthred’s sister. But wouldn’t you know it, Guthred, for political reasons and because he really really wants to be a king of the northern area, , betrays Uhtred and has him cast into slavery.

During two years spent chained to the oar of a Danish trading ship, Uhtred befriends Finan the Agile, a former warrior. Uhtred is rescued by Steapa and Ragnar who pursued the trading ship in their Red Ship on the orders of King Alfred. Uhtred returns to Wessex to learn that it was Hild who convinced Alfred to send Steapa and Ragnar to his rescue. Hild had promised to Alfred that she would use Uhtred’s hoard of silver to build an abbey and recommit herself to Christ, and in return Alfred agreed to rescue Uhtred.

Uhtred, Father Beocca, Steappa and Ragnar are sent on embassy to Guthred with a message to make peace in Northumbria. They arrive in Guthred’s court to find that Gisela was married to Ælfric via proxy in return for support against Kjartan. Uhtred is certain his uncle will send no men to support Guthred. He chases off Ælfric’s men without allowing them to take Gisela, kills Ælfric’s monk Jænberht and leads Guthred’s men against Dunholm himself.

Uhtred has a plan to take Dunholm, and in the darkness, he along with eleven of his best men climb the hill upon which Dunholm sits and sneak into the fort through a gate used to fetch well water. Although they are discovered, they are assisted by Ragnar’s sister Thyra, who has been held by Sven and Kjartan since the events of The Last Kingdom. Her assistance allows Uhtred to open the gate for Ragnar with the main forces of Guthred’s army to enter the stronghold. Kjartan and Sven are killed and Guthred transfers control of Dunholm to Ragnar.

Guthred’s claim to the throne of Northumbria is not complete yet. Guthred’s army meets Ivarr’s stronger force in the field. Uhtred provokes Ivarr into single combat and the novel ends with Uhtred winning the duel against Ivarr.

OK, so what we have going on here is more fighting, more battles, more gory details of bloodshed, and for some reason, I am finding it quite exciting. Definitely not a peaceful time in history.

THE MARX SISTERS by Barry Maitland

Marx Sisters_ A Kathy Kolla and David Brock Mystery, The - Barry MaitlandOh, lucky me!  I have discovered another great series of mysteries by Australian writer Barry Maitland.  They feature Detective Sergeant Kathy Kolla and Detective Chief Inspector Brock of the Serious Crime Branch of Scotland Yard.

The Marx Sisters is the first of the series, published in 1994.  Seems like only yesterday, doesn’t it, but that yesterday was twenty years ago.  Ha.  Twenty years ago, I had less weight, less grey hair, and less free time to read mysteries.

The Marx sisters are three elderly women living on the quirky Jerusalem Lane in London.  In the middle of high tech, high rise and high priced real estate, Jerusalem Lane is the land that time forgot.  Settled originally by refugees from all over, it has a ‘feel’ of home, and guess what!  Karl Marx lived there for a while.

It is peopled by an ex Nazi who now owns a used book store, a Russian refugee who has a sausage deli, and a number of other interesting characters.  Meredith, the oldest,  and her deceased husband, bought this small two story property when they came back from Australia, at the suggestion of her youngest sister, Eleanor.  Upon the husband’s death, she converted the upstairs into two small apartments for the two younger sisters, never married Eleanor, and widowed Peg, both charming but economically hopeless people.

One day, Meredith is found dead in her bed.  It is discovered that she was smothered in her sleep with a plastic bag over her head.   That is when we meet the two policepersons, Kolla and Brock.

We eventually learn that:  they are the descendants of the bastard son of Karl Marks and his housekeeper, and are extreme Marxists of different stripes, Peg being a Stalinist, and Eleanor of a more traditional bent.   Eleanor has some old books of Marx’s writings and some drafts and other documents.  Seems like some Marxist scholar might be interested in them.  It also appears that there exists a fourth but unpublished work.

And then we learn that Meredith is something of a busybody, and has told people about the ex Nazi.  He has been harassed to the point of being willing to sell to the corporation in order to retire somewhere where no one knows him.

But wait.  Follow the money, people, follow the money.  It is always about money.  A large development corporation has been quietly buying up all the property on Jerusalem Lane over the last 30 years in order to tear it down and build a huge modern complex in its place.  All but the sisters’ property.  And Meredith isn’t about to sell.  No way.  She leaves her property to her only son, spoiled  and unpleasant as he is, with the legalities in place that the sisters can live there as long as they live before the son can dispose of the property.  So could he be the killer?  The value of the property goes down by the minute, because once the corporation starts building around it, it will lose its value.

So what’s it to be, people?  Revenge of the Nazi?  Greed of the son?  Some Marx-fanatic wanting the books and papers?  An evil employee of the Giant Corporation who wants that property at all costs?

We learn a bunch about Marxism from the sisters:

“In the present, the works of Karl Marx are so universally misunderstood and misrepresented.  You see, our great grandfather maintained that the revolution could only be achieved in the most advanced societies, not in the backward peasant countries where so-called Marxist revolutions have occurred in the past seventy years.  That is logical, you see, because he understood that it was only by passing through the complete cycle of capitalist development that a society would experience its inner contradictions to the full, and thus be capable of transforming itself and achieving the final goal of true socialism.

Now, if you understand this, then you can see that the whole history of socialist revolutions in this century, in Russia, and in even less developed countries, has been a dreadful mistake, a misguided attempt to take a short cut from feudalism to socialism.  Our great grandfather foresaw that such an attempt would be doomed, and he wrote his final book to describe the true path.  His book is a map of the future, but it cannot be used to take a short cut to that future, as were his other books.  that is why it cannot be published until the time is ready.

We are also introduced to Proudhon’s Confessions,  which has only a walk-on part in the story, but you know me, I like coming upon interesting tidbits in the midst of the trivia of life.  So, who was Proudhon, you ask?  I will tell you:

Pierre-Joseph Proudhon was a French politician,  an economist , a socialist and a contemporary of Marx.  He was the first person to declare himself an anarchist and is  is considered by many to be the “father of anarchism”.  His work attracted the scrutiny of Karl Marx, who started a correspondence with him.

Proudhon is famous for his claim  Property is theft.  He means that to own anything, land or items, is to take it from the access of everyone else.  It is a very radical philosophical idea.

Jean-Jacques Rousseau made the same general point when he wrote: “The first man who, having enclosed a piece of ground, bethought himself of saying ‘This is mine,’ and found people simple enough to believe him, was the real founder of civil society. From how many crimes, wars, and murders, from how many horrors and misfortunes might not any one have saved mankind, by pulling up the stakes, or filling up the ditch, and crying to his fellows: Beware of listening to this impostor; you are undone if you once forget that the fruits of the earth belong to us all, and the earth itself to nobody.”

This all relates nicely in the story because of the apparent theft of the Marx books and papers from the sisters, plus the desire of the corporaton and the son for the property .   I love interwoven stuff like this.

Oh, yeah, and there is another murder, too.  Like one isn’t enough, right?

THE PALE HORSEMAN by Bernard Cornwell

Pale HorsemanThis is the second in an eight volume series about Saxon England in the 9th century.   This was the time of Alfred, King of Wessex, known as Alfred the Great, whose dream it was to unite all of England into one realm, head, needless to say, by him.  Alfred was a pious hypocrite,  praying ceaselessly, surrounding himself with priests and monks, building churches and nunneries, yet gathering an army and directing their efforts to kill as many of the enemy as possible.  And the enemy were the Danes and Vikings who were invading the country, and who had brought their women and children with them.

It is narrated by the now elderly Uhtred,  Earl of Bebbanburg in Northumbria.  As he tells us

My ancestors, who can trace their lineage back to the god Woden, the Danish Odin, were once kings in northern England, and if my uncle had not stolen Bebbanburg from me when I was just ten years old I would have lived there still as a Northumbrian lord safe in his sea-washed fastness.

I had been raised by Danes after being captured at the age of ten and they could have killed me but instead they had treated me well.  I had learned their language and worshipped their gods until I no longer knew whether I was Danish or English.

When his mentor and surrogate Danish father, Ragnar, was murdered, Uhtred escaped and fled south to Wessex, where he pledge his sword to Alfred, whom he did not like, and who did not like him.  But they needed each other.

The Danes had captured Northumbria, and installed a puppet king in Eoferwic, (modern day York), and Uhtred was 20 years old  in 877.

Since I am entirely too lazy to summarize the plot of this installment all by my little self, I have lifted the precis directly from Wikipedia.  I have absolutely no shame:  (besides which, the storyline is complicated, dense, rich with detail, and really just wonderful.)

Uhtred, bored with the peace between Alfred and the Danish king Guthrum, goes off raiding into Cornwall. He comes across a settlement ruled by the British king Peredur, who hires Uhtred and his men to fight an invading Danish force led by Svein of the White Horse. Uhtred and Svein however ally to kill Peredur and pillage his settlement, and Uhtred carries off Peredur’s wife, the shadow queen Iseult. A monk named Asser who was at Peredur’s court witnesses the betrayal and escapes to Dyfed in Wales. Uhtred and Svein then sail up the coast to Land’s End where they part ways. Svein goes to Cynuit, where Ubba was killed previously, and Uhtred to the coast of Wales where he raids a ship laden with treasure. He returns to his estate and pious wife Mildrith, using his hoard of treasure to build a great hall and relieve his debt to the church.

The Witan summons Uhtred to an audience with King Alfred in Cippanhamm, where he is accused of using the king’s ship to raid the Britons with whom Wessex is at peace based on the testimony of Asser, who has made his way to Alfred’s court, and wrongfully accused of attacking the Cynuit abbey on the false testimony of the warrior Steapa Snotor, who is loyal to Uhtred’s enemy Odda the Younger. To settle the dispute, a fight to the death is ordered between Uhtred and Steapa. During the duel, Uhtred carries only his sword, Serpent-Breath, whereas Steapa is fully armoured. The duel is cut short when Guthrum’s Danes attack and the crowd is scattered. Uhtred, Leofric, and Iseult hide in the fields until nightfall when they enter Cippanhamm and free their friend Eanflæd at the Corncrake Tavern. The four of them wander for a few weeks until they reach the swamps of Athelney. As they enter the marsh, Guthrum himself attacks Uhtred. Uhtred makes a fighting escape onto a boat that carries him, Leofric, and another passenger to an island within the swamp. The passenger insists that Uhtred should have left a Danish warrior alive, and turns out to be King Alfred himself. Uthred becomes Alfred’s bodyguard and for a few months they hide in the swamp until enough men have joined Alfred’s army. They then fight at the Battle of Ethandun and Alfred takes back Wessex, with Uhtred being instrumental in the death of Svein of the White Horse. However, during the battle, Leofric and Iseult are both killed.

Cornwell’s books are beautifully thoroughly researched, and in this one we learn about the pagan beliefs of shadow queens, the ongoing struggle Alfred has with his health, which seems to be irritable bowel syndrome, or maybe Crohn’s disease.  The shadow queen companion of Uhtred, Iseult,  is able to soothe Alfred’s trouble while they are in the swamp by use of magic and herbal remedies.   She wanted to learn to read, because she said

Words are like breath.  You say them and they’re gone.  But writing traps them.

There is much made in this book of Svein of the White Horse, and his defeat.  Today, there is carved into the chalk of the escarpment on the edge of the Wiltshire downs.   Legend has it that the oldest of today’s ten white horses, which was cut in the 1770s, replaced a much older horse that was cut into the chalk hillside after the battle of Ethandun in 878. Westburywhitehorse









Saxons, along with the Angles, and other continental Germanic tribes, were instrumental in the Anglo-Saxon settlement of Britain during and after the 5th century. The British-Celtic inhabitants of the isles tended to call all these groups Saxons collectively.  It is unknown how many migrated from the continent to Britain, though estimates for the total number of Anglo-Saxon settlers are around two hundred thousand.

By the ninth century,  the Saxons ruled almost all of what is now England, but then the Danes came and the Saxon kingdoms crumbled.  This series is their story.


Family DictionaryAn OK cozy mystery.  Just OK.  It had the requisite handsome unmarried cop, the requisite attractive female victim of a crime (not a murder) in his age range, so we’ve got the romantic angle covered.  Unfortunately, the romantic angle got covered just a smidge too much.  He immediately is attracted to one of the sisters, ….

OK, here’s the general plot, such as it is:

The Cobb sisters, in their thirties, move back to their small hometown to take care of ailing dad after their mother’s death.   Rebecca is the younger, a graphic designer,  and Connie is an historian who now has a tenured position at the local small university.  Dad dies, and Rebecca stays on in the house;  Connie gives up her small house, moves in with Rebecca since it is not possible to sell the house in the current economic market.

The family has a large dictionary from the 1700s brought over from Ireland by their maternal patriarch when she and new husband came to settle on land in the colonies.   (Who brings a family dictionary?  Who even in the 1700s HAS a dictionary in rural Ireland?  A bible, yeah, but a dictionary?)    Oh, well, let’s set that whole issue aside.

In the dictionary are signatures of the female side of the family down through the generations, with the dictionary being passed down through the distaff side.  It ends up with daddy Cobb since he had no sisters.  Strangely enough, he doesn’t know anything about the dictionary, nobody thought to ask, nobody seems to know much about his mother, their deceased grandmother.  And yet Connie is an historian.  Weird plot hole #2.

The sisters receive a threatening note stating they must destroy the dictionary or suffer the consequences.

They call in the police, which is how Rebecca meets Handsome Single Cop.  The threats and actions escalate. Finally it occurs to all of them that there must be something in the dictionary that someone wants kept secret.  So at last, Connie goes through archives looking for info about the original family and the descendants.  Turns out that the original woman was giving talks in her yard on Sundays, which the local pastor didn’t like.    So he kidnaps their youngest child, is caught and goes to trial.

There is a lot of attention paid to some symbolism of the rowan tree on the cover of the dictionary, on some embroidered pillow in the house, on the name of the county, but really, none of it had anything to do with the mystery or with much else, for that matter.

Now, wouldn’t your first thought be to look up descendants of that crazy preacher who might be living today in the town?  Yeah, my first thought, too, but apparently not that of the cops or the sisters.

Anyway, the situation is brought to a conclusion by the helpful telephone call out of the blue from an acquaintance of the deceased grandmother.  How helpfully coincidental.  No detective work needed — just add deus ex machina.

Handsome Cop and Sister Cobb are all smoochie poochie,  mystery solved,  the whole thing was just too contrived and stretched.  All in all,  it was just a jumbled mess, not particularly coherent, nor interesting.





FALSE PROPHET by Faye Kellerman

false prophet  The fifth in the Detective Sergeant Peter Decker/Rina Lazarus mystery series is every bit as good as the previous entries.  This book has much less about the orthodox Jewish customs than the other books.  In this one, Rina and Peter are married, and Rina is six months pregnant.   Her boys, now Peter’s stepsons, are fine with it, and having a wonderful time living on his ranch and riding the horses.  Peter’s collage-attending daughter is not so thrilled with the idea of her dad having another baby.  Kids.  What can I say.

The mystery plot in this book is another  doozy.  The owner of a high class spa and ranch is attacked in her home, beaten, raped, and everything stolen out of the safe in her bedroom.  The cast of characters includes her 70-some former movie star mother with an ego and a whim of iron,  her two, no make that three, brothers who are all doctors.  There’s the brother and sister duo who run the spa and give the exercise classes, but something is definitely hinky about those two,  there’s the mentally challenged horse trainer/groom who lives in the stables with the horses.  He prefers that.  Really.  He does.

And the star of the show:  the unread memoirs of the victim’s deceased German father.  Which were in her safe.  And which now are missing in action.

I wonder what damaging revelations are in that memoir that someone would go to such lengths to obtain them?

The victim, beautiful daughter of the movie star,  claims she has the gift of prophecy.   Yeah yeah yeah.  Don’t we all.  But what she really has is a gift of manipulation and chicanery, overlaid with a whole lotta nutsiness.  The book title refers to this claim of hers.   When Decker talks to his friend and mentor, the Rabbi,  the rabbi warns him against sorceresses, quoting Exodus:   “You shall not permit a sorceress to live.”  He explained that the elders in the time of the Old Testament believed that sorceresses and fortune tellers were the same, and all bore false witness, and were false prophets.  The Rabbi cautioned Peter that although he was not advocating the stoning of the victim of this crime, but that Peter should be careful about having anything to do with so-called prophecies.

Really great mystery plot, lots of twists and screwballness, and although there wasn’t a whole lot of the Jewish info this time around, we do get a recipe for Salsa Chicken.   Hey, ya give a little, ya get a little.

Bon appetit!


AS I LAY DYING by William Faulkner

As I lay dyingI hadn’t read anything of Faulkner’s since maybe my thirties, maybe even before that, so I figured now, at this stage of my life, was a good a time as any to read about the death of Addie Bundren, long suffering wife of Anse Bundren, a country farmer, poor and lazy.  Once, when he was a very young man, he worked somewhere and got to sweating, and became ill, probably from heat exhaustion.  He then decided that it was fatal for him to sweat, and he never did again in his life.

And yes, there are SparkNotes and Cliff Notes for this book.  I hate to find that out, because it can take all the enjoyment out of reading the durn thing.   There you are, having fun, all involved in the story, and at the back of your mind is the idea that maybe you shouldn’t be enjoying it so much and should be thinking about the deeper meanings underneath it all.   Pfffffft.

Faulkner said that he wrote the novel from midnight to 4:00 AM (in 1930) over the course of six weeks and that he did not change a word of it.  Could be.  I have no reason to doubt him.  The title is from Homer’s The Odyssey, where Agamemnon says to Odysseus: “As I lay dying, the woman with the dog’s eyes would not close my eyes as I descended into Hades.”

Set in Mississippi, we have Addie, lying in the bed dying, while her grown son Cash, the carpenter, is building her coffin right outside her window.  He brings boards over to show her as he goes along.  Her no ‘count husband is sitting, chawing with the neighbors and telling them that he has promised Addie to take her back to her hometown in Jefferson to be buried with her family.    The other two grown sons,  Darl, who is on the abyss of madness, and Jewel, the secret son of Addie and the local minister,  go to fetch a load of lumber and earn a quick $3 which the family desperately needs.  The 17-year old daughter, Dewey Dell (gotta love that name, doncha?) is pregnant, unknown to the family, and the boyfriend has given her $10 for an abortion, which she in her ignorance thinks comes in a bottle of medicine to be obtained at the drugstore.  Finally, we have the youngest, Vardaman, who seems to be a pre-teen.

The family calls in the doctor, Peabody, overweight and caustic, who may or may not have hurried Miss Addie on to her Final Reward, feeling that her ill treatment at the hands of Anse have overburdened her long enough.

When she dies, after a massive storm that floods the entire area, the family embarks on the trip to Jefferson, 40 miles away, but must cross the river to get there.  Unfortunately, the bridge nearby has washed out by the flood, so they figure to add a day’s journey by traveling further along to the next bridge, only to find that it, too, is washed out.  That means they have to return to the first bridge and try to ford the river.

By the time they take shelter at the farm of a kindly acquaintance, it is now four days since Addie died, and she is beginning to ….. well ….. smell.  In fact, for the rest of the book, buzzards begin to follow the group, and serve as a comic sign and an omen as well.

OK, so they get back to the first bridge, try to ford it, a log comes racing down the fast moving river, and knocks over the wagon, spilling the coffin and all the tools of Cash, mashing him, and his leg is broken.   The family recover the tools, and the coffin, and bandage up Cash, who in his self-effacing way insists that he feels fine.  However, the mules have been lost in the crossing, and Jewel rides his horse up to a nearby farm to get their team to haul the wagon to their shed to shelter again and do something about Cash’s broken leg.

After Anse barters away Jewel’s horse in exchange for a span of mules to continue their journey, they set off, and at each small town Dewey Dell tries in vain to buy abortion pills at the little drugstores.  At that town, they buy some cement and make a cast for Cash’s leg.   I needn’t tell you how wonderful an idea THAT was.  They shelter one last night near the town of Jefferson, where the barn catches fire, and it is all Jewel can do to pull out his mother’s coffin in time to save it from burning up.  By this time, there are about 9 buzzards following them.

After the funeral,  men come for Darl, because it is clear that he set fire to the barn.  At that point, he flips over the edge, and goes  insane, laughing maniacally, without stopping.  He is hauled away to a mental institution in lieu of judicial punishment.

What a series of catastrophes!  It is hilarious, almost laugh-out-loud funny, while at the same time it is  sad and horrifying, because it all came about due to Anse’s refusal to listen to advice or accept any help, claiming he promised Addie and she would want it this way.

The story is told from the points of view of the various characters, and even Addie speaks to us from her coffin after she died .

As I Lay Dying is consistently ranked among the best novels of 20th-century literature.  Wiki says so;  it must be true.  And in 2013, a film version was made.

I loved it.   If you haven’t yet read it, I highly recommend it.  It makes a nice change from all those zombie and post apocalyptic books.


THE BIRD SISTERS by Rebecca Rasmussen

Bird SistersMilly and Twiss are sisters, both unmarried, and living together all their lives.   They learned how to give a kind of first aid to stricken birds, and people from all around would bring them the wounded to either heal or bury.

But they are old now, and hardly anyone brings a bird anymore.   As we follow the day’s events of the two sisters, we learn more about why they are living together, now in their old age.

Their memories take us back to their childhood, and their mother, who came from a wealthy family and gave up her inheritance to marry for love.   We meet their father, a self-centered, self-involved man, a golf pro, making something of a living, but not much of one.

We watch as the marriage falls apart after the father has an accident in which he drives the car into the river.  After recovering, he finds he has lost his golfing skills, and eventually loses his golf pro job with the country club, and is reduced to working on a dairy farm.   He moves out of the marital bedroom, and finally he moves into the barn, into which the girls are never invited.  The parents now send notes back and forth, brutal, conciliatory, hopeless.

That summer, the mother’s sister in a distant remote area sends her 18-year old daughter to stay with them for the summer.  The cousin, Bett,  is quite a character, scrawny, ill, and somewhat mean-spirited.  Her favorite game, which she teaches to the girls, is Truth or Consequences. which is a metaphor for what happens.

Milly, the pretty one, falls in love with Asa, the young man sent to mow their pasture.   Twiss, the tomboy, in love with golf, because of her father,  spends most of her time outdoors.   Twiss works out a scheme to get her parents back together, and just when it seems like it is working, it is revealed that Bett, the 18-year-old cousin, is pregnant.  By guess who.  No, not Asa.

I won’t tell you the rest.

Some reviewers thought this was a depressing book.  I didn’t.  But then, I think when some people read what is more or less chic lit, they look for the classic storybook ending,  and are dissatisfied if the ending swerves off from the tried and true.  I found the ending, while not happy happy happy in the old stye, to be nevertheless quite satisfying.

It is said we can choose our friends and lovers, but we can’t choose our family.  Well, sometimes that is just what happens.  We choose our family.