It’s a Mystery: Takedown Twenty, by Janet Evanovich

Takedown Twenty (Stephanie Plum, #20)

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Apparently the Stephanie Plum series does not merit “serious” book reviews from the NY Times et al, so its thousands of fans must make do with amateur ones. Having read entries 1 through 20, I must say that some are better than others. But what keeps me coming back to check in with Steph, aka Cupcake or Babe, is the humorous slapstick approach that never fails to bring at least a few LOLs. In outing twenty, Stephanie is still agonizing over her choice of job ( tired of being shot at, having her cars blown up, etc.), her ongoing attraction to her almost-fiance Morelli and her sometimes employer, sometimes savior Ranger, and her generally disorganized lifestyle. Anyone looking for a modicum of common sense or realism in these books won’t find even an atom of that here, but a rollicking ride through ridiculous situations can be fun too. In Twenty, still set in Trenton, of course, Steph tackles a roaming giraffe whom no one else seems to notice, the mafioso Uncle Sonny whose jumped bail on murder charges, Morelli’s Sicilian grandmother who lays several evil eyes on Stephanie, a series of murders in which elderly women end up in dumpsters, and various and sundry other sources of mayhem. If Stephanie simply invested in a few sessions with a good therapist, she could probably resolve her personal issues, but then, what would there be for author Evanovich to write about?

Movies in History: Arsenic and Old Lace

Plot: Cary Grant portrays Mortimer Brewster, a famous arts critic who marries the girl next door on Halloween. He returns to the Brooklyn home he shares with his two maiden aunts to pack for his honeymoon (at Niagara Falls, of course), when he discovers a corpse in the window seat. Mortimer is shocked to learn that his sweet old aunts have been poisoning lonely old men with arsenic laced elderberry wine,  and burying them in the “Panama Canal” that Teddy has dug in the cellar. He spends the rest of the movie frenetically trying to have Teddy committed, in the hope that if the authorities should happen to learn about the bodies in the basement, they’ll blame it all on Teddy. Midway through,  long lost, psychopathic third brother Jonathan appears on the scene with his plastic surgeon and another corpse in tow.

Arsenic and Old Lace was released in 1944. It’s in black and white and  very much like the stage play that inspired it, but when viewed as a period piece, one of the “madcap comedies” of the time, it doesn’t come across as dated. Cary Grant bears the weight of the plot, and he’s brilliant. It’s a joy to watch him convey a full spectrum of emotion in a ten second sequence of facial expressions.  Raymond Massey plays the role of Jonathan, who becomes enraged whenever anyone mentions his resemblance to Boris Karloff, and Peter Lorre that of Dr. Einstein, who keeps promising to make him look like someone else. The aunts, some cops, Mortimer’s new wife, and the sanitarium director make frequent appearances to move the story along.

In spite of its macabre theme, this is very much a comedy, with lines that hold up quite well some seventy years after they were uttered. Great fun, full of laughs, and vintage in the best sense of the word.

Folklore in My Garden: Rue

Ruta graveolens, perennial

“…there’s rue for you, and here’s some for me; we may call it herb of grace o’Sundays; O, you must wear your rue with a difference.” Hamlet, William Shakespeare.

Rue is one of the most ornamental herbs, with deeply cut, smooth leaves that are rather bluish. The flowers are a bright yellow and blossom from June to September. It is a hardy plant that can be relied upon to self-sow, if it likes the place in which it’s planted. This rue has been growing in my Connecticut garden for 20 years, requiring very little tending. Rue originated in Southern Europe and is one of the “bitter herbs.”

Rue has thousands of years of history in many different cultures. Known as Herb of Grace, Blessed Herb, Herb of Repentance, and herbygrass , it is considered a protective plant, and has long been used in medicine and magic. Early physicians considered rue an excellent protection against plagues and pestilence, and used it to ward off poisons and fleas. The hardy evergreen shrub is mentioned by writers from Pliny to Shakespeare and beyond, as an herb of remembrance, of warding and of healing. It was frequently planted by doorways to bring blessings to and protect against evil, and is one of the ingredients in the legendary Four Thieves Vinegar. Priests would dip rue in holy water to bless people and their homes, and some people carried or wore bunches of the plant to repel witches.
Once believed to improve the eyesight and creativity, Michelangelo and Leonardo Da Vinci regularly ate the small, trefoil leaves to increase their own. The legend of rue lives on in playing cards, where the symbol for the suit of clubs is said to be modeled on a leaf of rue.

It is a coincidence that the name of this plant is identical to and English word meaning “regret”. It is derived from the Greek word reuo, to set free, in recognition of its many historic medicinal uses.

The Classics: The Hand of Ethelberta, by Thomas Hardy

Ethelberta Chickering grew up determined to raise her status in the world, and when the son of the house where she served as governess proposed marriage, she agreed with alacrity. Her mother-in-law is snooty, but when Ethelberta is suddenly widowed while on her honeymoon, she takes the young woman under her wing. When the old lady dies, Ethelberta’s sole means of support is gone, and, frantic about losing her social position, she determines to marry as soon as possible. Granted the use of the family townhouse in London, Berta recruits her entire family, bumpkins all, to pose as her servants until she can snag herself as husband.  She is young, beautiful, and conniving, and has no trouble attracting suitors. The plot thickens.

This is far from Thomas Hardy’s typical moralistic, tragic tale of woe. Subtitled “A Comedy in Chapters”, the novel is not funny in the modern sense of the word,  there are some remarkably droll moments. Rather, it lacks his signature tragic ending. But one of the themes prevalent in most of his work concerns problems of sexuality and marriage, and that is the case in Ethelberta. It also focuses upon Victorian restrictions upon women, and social inequalities, and some critics characterize him as an early feminist in his leanings, which seems to be the case here. Ethelberta is not a vacuous woman, but one torn between her dread of returning to her humble origins and her genuine concerns for the welfare of all the members of her family.  While she does have her flighty side, so do her male acquaintances, and she is determinedly singleminded. Romantic love is a notion that she rejects;  although she is powerfully attracted to Christopher Julian, an impoverished music teacher, she never considers him an acceptable match. In her pursuit of what she views as happiness, she is not unlike many of her modern contemporaries.

Hardy, of course, writes in a 19th century style, with 19th century sensibilities, which in places becomes tedious. But his books revolve around timeless themes, and Ethelberta is no exception. As for the ending, for Hardy, it’s a surprisingly happy one.


One of Our Funniest Presidents

Yankee Magazine has been posting articles from 30 years ago on their website, many of them still very interesting. Today I read about, of all people, Calvin Coolidge, known in his day as “Silent Cal”. Turns out, if you read transcripts from his presidency, this guy had a dry wit about him. In a few sections of the following article, my husband and I had some good laughs. Check it out. Who knew?

Article from the September 1977 issue.

Modern Lit: The Tower, The Zoo, and The Tortoise, by Julia Stuart

The Tower, The Zoo, and The Tortoise

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Balthazar Jones is a Beefeater, or as he prefers, Yeoman Warder, at the world famous/infamous Tower of London. Despite the fact that their living quarters in Salt Tower are round and more than five centuries old, life was good for the Joneses until the the death of their young son. In their terrible grief, their once happy marriage has crumbled, and now both Balthazar and Hebe, his wife, are hurting too much to muster the energy to do anything about it.

This is a story that could be depressing, but author Julia Stuart deftly balances it with the Jones’s unusual friends, which include a lovesick vicar who secretly writes bestselling erotica, the oldest tortoise in existence ( more than 120 years and counting), the head of the Richard III Appreciation Society, and Hebe’s generously proportioned colleague at the London Underground lost property office. And let’s not forget the ghosts. When Balthazar is assigned to manage the newly recreated Tower Menagerie, composed of exotic animal gifts to the Queen from foreign powers, just about everything threatens to fall to pieces around him.

Tower/Zoo/Tortoise is a warm, quirky tale of love, loss, pain, coping, and healing, all wrapped around the prosaic but essential idea that we are all mostly alike and we all need each other. Ms. Stuart’s injections of wit and gentle humor, coupled with her ability to control her plot and avoid mawkishness, make this novel a little gem. It will make you smile. By the way, the name of the tortoise is Mrs. Cook.

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It’s a Mystery: Explosive Eighteen, by Janet Evanovich

Explosive Eighteen (Stephanie Plum, #18)

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

It’s been a while since I’ve read a Stephanie Plum novel, finding them pretty much the same old, same old. In Explosive Eighteen, however, I think there may be a few signs that she is actually growing up a little. Someone’s gunning for her, and she can’t figure out why until she remembers that photo of a stranger that she found in her luggage after her last vacation. Steph’s also on a losing streak with respect to her bounty hunting, and she’s finally starting to recognize that it might be time to make a choice between Ranger and Morelli.

If the weakest part of this series is the repetitiveness of its plots, its strongest feature lies in its main characters, particularly Lula and Grandma Mazur, who keep up the running line of earthy humor that makes these books entertaining. These are two sharp ladies. If you can live with the knowledge that the witless but likable Steph should have been a dead duck by the end of Two for the Dough and has somehow made it to Eighteen, this can be a light, breezy way to entertain yourself for a few hours.

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A Modern Take on Some Historical Figures

This is great fun! Yesterday, the UK’s The Telegraph posted an article about the  images of five historical figures, and modernized their apparel, hair, and accessories to see how the changes would affect our perceptions of them. The difference is, first, amusing, and then surprising. I guess clothes do make the man and woman, after all, or at least their image….

Check it out.

Famous faces from history including William Shakespeare, Henry VIII and Horatio Nelson have been given a modern makeover to see how they would look if they were alive today.The project, comissioned by history TV channel Yesterday to celebrate its new series, the Secret Life Of..., saw digital artists working closely with history experts to ensure the portraits gave a real sense of how historical characters would look if they were alive in the 21st Century. ABOVE: ADMIRAL LORD NELSONA Vice Admiral and dedicated navy officer Nelson is dressed in a modern naval uniform.In today's Navy, Nelson would spend more time deskbound and as such he would have gained a little weight which is reflected in the portrait.To replace the right arm lost after being wounded in battle, he has been given a prosthetic to wear.The Victoria Cross wasn't available during his time but had they been in existence, he would have qualified.Admiral Nelson, photo by Yesterday.

My Puzzle Jug

A puzzle jug is a jug built around a trick. The challenge is to drink from the jug without spilling, which cannot be done because of perforations in the pottery. The earliest example is the Exeter jug, which dates from the 14th century.

When handed a drink in one of these flagons, the way to save embarrassment is to know that  the jug has a hidden tube, like a kind of early dribble cup. Obviously, the human sense of humor has not grown more sophisticated over the centuries. But I’m not going to reveal the solution, in case you ever encounter one of these yourself. Wouldn’t want to spoil the fun!

When my husband Tony and I visited Italy during the autumn of  2007, we made a visit to the town of Grottaglie, long famous for its beautiful pottery. Among the lovely pieces that we just had to buy was this beautiful handmade puzzle jug.

Click on photos to enlarge.