Wednesday, June 28, 2017

The Moth Catcher

The grownup mystery novelists I liked best in sixth grade contrived murders with a nursery rhyme theme, or killings in locked rooms, the stagier, the better. Later I learned to appreciate nuanced characterizations and textured social commentary in the investigations of more mundane crime, but I missed the kind of macabre puzzle that used to give me a shiver of delight. Ann Cleeves hits both sweet spots with The Moth Catcher.

Detective Vera Stanhope is investigating the murder of a young man found outside the grand estate where he was house-sitting, when she finds in the victim's attic room another corpse, a middle-aged man in a grey suit.  What connects them?  Did the same killer do them both in?  In what order?  In order to do what?

Another turn of the screw: both victims shared a passion for moths.  The young man set traps to draw moths to the garden; what drew these men to their deaths?

Ripples from this set of bizarre circumstances widen to encompass social and personal implications for Vera and the young detectives on her team, Joe Ashworth and Holly Clarke.  In the valley surrounding the garden, three retired couples in newly-developed homes form an enclave of self-styled "hedonists," among whom Vera senses "desperation" to feel satisfied with the lives they've led (108). The circle widens to London where the man in the gray suit did IT for a social-work agency; to a prison, where the incarcerated daughter of one "hedonist" couple is preparing to return home; and farther out still to the home of the young victim's mother, a stately woman of substance and means.

As Cleeves put Joe Ashworth's own daughter in jeopardy to bring him out more in a previous novel, she stretches Holly in this one.   Holly suddenly thinks, "I don't have to live in a northern city with people who despise me, helping strange middle-aged men undress the dead.  I'm smart and young enough to make a change....  I don't want to end up old and single and married to the job, like Vera Stanhope." (87)   In this early mid-life crisis, Holly shocks herself by her own revulsion at an elderly woman with dementia. "A thought flashed unbidden through Holly's mind. Why do they allow old people like that out in the community? Wouldn't she be more comfortable in a home somewhere?  Knowing that it wasn't the woman's comfort that she was thinking of, but her own." (120)  

While the two young detectives confront some of their own demons, Vera Stanhope seems to be having a great time.  Vera pauses in a moment of panic to realize what she's feeling:
An excitement.  Because this was a new case that was different from anything she'd ever worked before.  Two bodies, connected, but not lying together.  And nothing made her feel as alive as murder. (22)

But for Vera, as for any good mystery novelist, murder is only a pretext for the joy of constructing a narrative from the characters and the given "facts" of the case.  Much later, Joe watches Vera with admiration, as she does what any good writer does:

This was a masterclass in witness interrogation.  The individuals who'd seemed little more than puppets previously - the dutiful wife, the jolly husband, the dying artist, the grumpy academic - seemed to become real in front of his eyes.  Her words blew life into them. (354)
Holly thinks her boss has no life, but that may change, as she experiences her own Vera moment:

Then, her fingers resting on the keyboard and without any conscious effort, suddenly she was inside Lizzie's head, seeing the world through her eyes.  She knew precisely what the young woman was planning.  This flash of intuition was dizzying and was so unexpected that Holly sat for a moment without moving. (362)
I have no doubt that author Anne Cleeves, at some point of writing this story, rested her fingers on a keyboard and found herself suddenly inside a character's head, "blowing life" into "the dutiful wife, the jolly husband," etc. It's that imaginative insight into character that makes Vera such a good detective for fiction, and her author such a good read. 

Cleeves, Anne. The Moth Catcher. Kindle edition.

More About Anne Cleeves in this Blog

Friday, June 09, 2017

Apocryphal "Wisdom of Solomon" Speaks to Us

The Book of Common Prayer this spring assigned several passages from "The Wisdom of Solomon" for daily readings.  The Episcopal church sees the Apocrypha as good for teaching, just not so authoritative as the other canonical books. I'd not read in the Apocryphal books before, except for "Let us now praise famous men" from Ecclesiasticus.  Parts of "Wisdom" speak to me.

Though the author writes in the guise as Solomon, scholars conclude from internal evidence that our author is a Hellenistic Jew late in the first century B.C.  

For chapter 2, the author takes on the role of sophisticates looking down their noses at "him" who takes his religion too seriously.  "He professes to have knowledge of God, and calls himself a child of the Lord.... His ways are strange.  We are considered by him as something base...."  I've responded the same way to certain fundamentalists who attack the Episcopal church, and recognize the impulse to silence them: "Let us test him with insult and torture, that we may find out how gentle he is."  No doubt, our author anticipates the animus that took Jesus to Calvary.  "Let us condemn him to a shameful death, for, according to what he says, he will be protected." 

Chapter 3 is familiar from songs that our choir performs annually around All Souls' Day:
But the souls of the righteous are in the hand of God,
    and no torment will ever touch them.
In the eyes of the foolish they seemed to have died,
    and their departure was thought to be an affliction...
But they are at peace...

Chapter 5 compiles image after wonderful image for the transience of human life, as spoken by those of no faith in God:  "What good has our boasted wealth brought us? All those things have vanished like a shadow... a rumor that passes by... a ship that sails through the billowy water, and when it has passed no trace can be found...."   Our lives are like the bird in flight, "The light air, lashed by the beat of its pinions and pierced by the force of its rushing flight, is traversed by the movement of its wings, and afterward no sign of its coming is found there."  I love that image of all that energy expended, leaving no trace.  Again, our lives' achievements pass "as when an arrow is shot at a target, the air, thus divided, comes together at once."     [Photo: from]

Chapter 13 considers those unbelievers who arrive at a sense of the Divine through perception of beauty -- 1800 years before Wordsworth, 2000 years before I felt the same things:
If through delight in the beauty of these things men assumed them to be gods,
    let them know how much better than these is their Lord, for the author of beauty created them.
...Yet these men are little to be blamed, for perhaps they go astray
    while seeking God and desiring to find him.
For as they live among his works they keep searching,
    and they trust in what they see, because the things that are seen are beautiful.
Yet again, not even they are to be excused,
    for if they had the power to know so much that they could investigate the world,
 How did they fail to find sooner the Lord of these things? 

The preface to the book in the Oxford Study Bible notes both "high lyrical quality" in the author's poetry and "plodding" prose passages that repeat old wisdom that good people get blessed and bad ones suffer - discredited in Job, Ecclesiastes, and, face it, the news. But that poetry --! I'm no judge of the Greek, but I know dramatic poetry when I see it, and this author gets into his roles as an ancient Shakespeare.

Thursday, June 08, 2017

7 Wonders of Wonder Woman

The wonders of this Wonder Woman have nothing to do with feats of strength or beating off machine-gun fire with bracelets.  These days, animated snack foods do effects like that before the show even starts.

First wonder on my list is Gal Gadot as "Diana," a Woman full of Wonder.  Playing a warrior princess raised in a literal bubble on an island paradise, she has read everything about the world but experienced nothing of it. In Gadot's carriage, we see her character's self-confidence; in her face, intense engagement with a brave new world (a phrase Shakespeare wrote for "Miranda," similarly home-schooled on a magical island).  Her surprise can be funny and touching. "You're a man," she says, delighted to have fished one out of the sinking wreckage of his plane.  She wants to know, is Steve Trevor (Chris Pine) about the same as other men?  When he explains that a pocket watch tells him when to eat, sleep, and wake, she wonders that he'd let something so small rule his life.    Then, her shock is touching: pleas for help from maimed and hungry victims of war send her instantly into battle.

Wonder #2:  Steve Trevor, the gallant American man, admires Diana's power and determination, but still is protective of her.  At first, he's shielding her from physical harm; later, he's trying to protect her from the bitterness that disillusionment can bring.  The original character in the old comics was a square jawed, blonde, broad-shouldered plot device, routinely stumbling into traps that required Wonder Woman to save him.  Chris Pine gets to be a full-fledged action hero himself, gathering buddies for his mission to destroy a doomsday weapon (created by creepy Dr. Maru, played as a passionate introvert by Elena Anaya).

Wonder #3:  It's that rare thing, a World War I movie!  It's also a surprise, since the original comic book character appeared early in World War II.  But there's another reason to applaud this choice:  In any given set of previews before any movie these days, we're going to see at least one "end of the world as we know it"; the war that began in 1914 was the real thing.   Trevor refers to the Germans and Turks as "the bad guys," but gives a more expansive view to Diana later: the as-yet-nameless war isn't really about anything, tens of millions military and civilians are dying, leaders on both sides are paralyzed, battle lines have remained static for four years, and horrible death is delivered long-distance by shells and poison gas.  At a loss for words, Trevor says, "Maybe war isn't caused by [the god Ares].  It's just -- us."  Trevor calls it "the War to End All Wars" with appropriate irony. When we get to see German soldiers close up, without their helmets, they're not the "bad guys," just teen-age boys, fresh-faced and bewildered. 

Wonder #4: Diana, like American soldiers, believes that one decisive victory for justice can end all wars, and her disillusionment is a bitter blow, so the arc of her story is congruent with the real history.

Wonder #5:  Quiet!  A celebration by townspeople that ends with snow falling on Diana's dance with Steve made a beautiful respite from the tedious noise that afflicts so many "action" "hero" movies.  Then, when Trevor says his most important lines to Diana, she's momentarily unable to hear him.   We hear just the low ringing in her ears, but we get the message.

Wonder #6:  Huge credit to Allan Heinberg (screenplay), Patty Jenkins (direction), and their collaborators for rising above the original material.  I've seen the original material, and it makes one cringe.  In The Great Comic Book Heroes, cartoonist Jules Feiffer opined that Wonder Woman was transparently the calculated and misguided creation of men who wanted to attract girl readers.   I've heard historian Jill Lepore ascribe higher ideals to Wonder Woman's creator William Moulton Marston, a bigamist-feminist who adopted the trope of chain-breaking from Suffragette tracts of his childhood (hear the story on NPR's Fresh Air).  Well, maybe.  But Lepore also quotes a letter to DC Comics from a soldier requesting more chains, and, please, a more prominent view of the heroine's red boots.  From those early comics, the creators of the movie took the Greek myth of Amazons, Diana's immaculate conception as a clay model animated by Athena, the lost pilot Steve Trevor, and the ebullient "Etta Candy," transmuting these into something with dignity and verve.  And what they side-stepped -- that's epitomized in...

...Wonder #7:  Diana's fingernails.  I got this one from my friend Susan, who noticed that Diana, even in her guise as a 21st century professional woman of fashion, keeps close-cropped fingernails. The small detail fits the character.  Another friend on Facebook proclaimed how great it was to see a movie in which the lovely heroine is objectified as a glam-sex object not even once.

Wednesday, June 07, 2017

"Be the Kingdom"

Jesus tells his contemporaries to stop looking for signs of God's Kingdom to come: "For, in fact, the kingdom of God is among you" (Luke 17.21).   Today's meditation on this gospel, printed in Forward Day by Day, suggests that we "meet a simple need for someone today," to "Be the kingdom."

I thought instantly of my buddies Kitty and her mate Terry. Before she retired to Florida to be a full-time grandmother, she was my colleague at school for some fifteen years; together, they hosted me for countless get-togethers at their home, meals out, and concerts.  But Kitty also set an example of meeting a simple need for someone every day.   When she knew that my play rehearsals were going late, she provided me with ready-made meals to take home with me.  She provided treats for my dogs.  Sometimes, she just gave me a note of support.   All around me, others received similar gifts.  "Make someone's day every day" is her motto.  Or, as FDxD suggests, "Be the kingdom."

Forward Day by Day lately has added a daily feature, "Moving Forward," suggesting action to go with each day's meditation. Some are actions for others, some for our own edification. Here are a few from the current and preceding issues that strike me as good ideas:

  • Inspired by Psalm 108, "Write your own poem today and share" via social media.
  • Inspired by three one-word prayers that comprise Anne Lamott's latest book Help! Thanks! Wow!, "keep a list of your 'Help! Thanks! Wow' moments to use during evening prayer time.
  • Inspired by Mary's seeking support from her cousin Elizabeth, we're advised to send a note or give a call to the Elizabeths in our lives. (Kitty, are you reading this?)
  • Inspired by Psalm 78, we're told simply to plan a dinner party for our favorite people.
  • Inspired by the lines about fig trees, we're told, "Take a walk around your home today.  What needs to be pruned, cleaned up, or tidied to ensure a fruitful season ahead?"
  • Offer concentrated time to someone you love, "no agenda or strings attached."
  • Inspired by Deut. 7.6 ("God has chosen be ...His treasured possession"), "set apart a treasure -- a material item, a story, or simply your time -- to share with someone you love today."
  • Answer Jesus's question to his followers: "What are you looking for?"
  • Inspired by what happened at Cana when they ran out of wine, think, "Do you feel like you are running out? Out of time? Money? Patience? faith? How does this passage speak to these moments of running out?"
  • Inspired by John's saying, "He must increase, but I must decrease," contemplate if it's time "to take up less space in someone's life."
  • Inspired by Abram's packing up and leaving home, we get the suggestion to "plan a trip today [to] visit a neighbor or old friend."
  • As the cripple took up his mat to walk, "Think of one thing you can do today to take up your mat and walk, to begin to become unstuck."
  • After Psalm 92.1, "Write at least five thank you notes today, or write a longer one to God.  Share" on social media.
  • After Psalm 23, recall when you walked in the shadow of the valley of death.
  • Responding to the institution of the Eucharist in John 6, we're told, "make a list of those who have fed and nourished you with their flesh and blood."

Friday, June 02, 2017

Does "Unfiltered" Mean "True?"

Mom went ballistic, ca. 1966, when my younger brother leaned out the window at a gas station to yell at an obese customer, "Hey, Fatso!"  Years later, she faulted me for "overdoing it" when I called my teacher's face  "nauseating,"  post- mustachectomy. Later still, when I was a young teacher, she stopped me from telling off a bull-headed parent:  "Life's too short. You're the professional, you're the grown up; keep all that to yourself."

So, when Mom now forgets to filter her comments, am I seeing the "real Mom?"  Sometimes, under attack, I've terminated a conversation; the morning after, even minutes after, it's been balm to my wounded feelings to hear her say, "I can't imagine why I'd say those things. I'm so sorry you had to hear them."

The truth is, disparaging comments come to all our minds every day, maybe every moment.  Even the best of us will let fly some of those thoughts among friends. Nothing new, here: the Biblical epistle of James calls the tongue "a restless evil, full of venom" (James 3.8).

We define our character in part by what we choose not to say.  That my dog Mia restrains her wild animal impulses when I say "Leave it!" is precisely what makes her a "good dog."

When Mom's filter drops because of dementia, and she speaks from the feeling that she has lost control of her own life, that's not the "real" Mom; that's Mom "forgetting herself."

I've got to be the grown up, still: time with her is too short to waste it in ephemeral battles.

Thursday, June 01, 2017

Forward Abounding, Day by Day

[Photo by Michael Kendrick of a sculpture by Glenna Goodacre on the campus of the Alabama Shakespeare Festival, Montgomery, AL]

For a month I've been getting to know the author of meditations for May in Forward Day by Day, a periodical that presents short essays to go with the daily readings from Scripture assigned by the Book of Common Prayer.  Only this morning, as the series ends, have I read her profile, though I could pick up themes in her life between the lines of her meditations.

Of the Farm
She lives on a small farm where much of the work depends on her own back and brain.  Pruning branches so that trees can bear fruit (Luke 6.43-44) is more than a metaphor for her: "I ponder what vines, diseases, and behaviors I have neglected to root out, cut back, weed out," and she challenges us moving forward to take a walk around home today to look for spots that need literal tending.

"Hard can be good, and easy can be bad," she writes in response to Paul's wonderful observation that, in Jesus, "all things hold together" (Col. 1.17)  She applies this to opposites in her life: "I both adored and struggled with motherhood, loved and resented my husband.  I respected and questioned the leadership in my church.  I was a believer, and I also doubted."

She highlights another admonition from Paul: "Whatever your task, put yourselves into it, as done for the Lord and not for your masters" (Col 3.23).  She adds that "life works so much better when I act from a place of love and gratefulness rather than competition and comparison."  Amen.  My own teaching chores become much easier to bear when I take the long view:  I'm lucky to spend my days sharing my favorite things - literature, the arts, history - with kids who make me laugh.

"Baffled" in her youth by Jesus's impatience with the would-be follower who first must bury his father (Luke 9.59-60), this author hears the same tone in her own terse responses when her son gives excuses for not doing his chores.  She challenges us, "Do one thing today that you've been putting off.  No excuses.  No more delays. No whining."

She  learns from watching children.  Paul's blessing that we may "abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit" (Rom. 15.13) makes her think of a "happy, energetic, enthusiastic 12-year-old leaping from place to place, with a spirit of joyful expectation, a full-bodied question of, 'What wonderful adventure is next?'"  Of course, that makes me think of dogs, too; either way, the image itself lifts my spirits.

She discovered this gem from the apocrypha: "The stars shone in their watches, and were glad; he called them, and they said, 'Here we are!' They shone with gladness for him who made them" (Baruch 3.34).  She admits,
Sometimes I consider God merely tolerant of me -- like a grumpy, long-suffering adult who tolerates the presence of children in Sunday morning services, out of a sense of obligation rather than love and delight."  She asks, "What if I saw God as a delighted creator?... What if I shone with gladness for the One who made me, allowing myself to shine brilliantly, answering God's call with, "Here I am!"

Remembering her little sister in infancy, this author elevates from her family's lore two phrases that I'll remember.  "I hold my own hand!" the girl would say, pulling away from a grown-up's gentle grasp.  Other times, she'd cry, "Mybyself!"   The writer tells of these in response to Wisdom 6.17, "The beginning of wisdom is the most sincere desire for instruction."  She asks us, "Are you holding your own hand? How might you ask for help?"

Writing about Jesus as "anchor of the soul, a hope that enters the inner shrine behind the curtain," (Heb 6.19), she gives a list of her worries:
I have a restless soul sometimes.  I feel restless about where my life is headed - the well-being of my children, the bottom line in my checking account, and my overall health.  Don't even ask about what sort of chicken coop we should build this summer, or whether to reach out to an old friend or let sleeping dogs lie.
I can identify with all that, if I substitute siding repair for the chicken coop.  She challenges us going forward to keep nearby a rock inscribed with one word for what "anchors" us.

On May 31st, "the Visitation," she points out how Mary, burdened by the loneliness of her experience, visited her cousin Elizabeth.   "So often...we isolate ourselves.  We fear that the worst is true - we are all alone and have been abandoned."  She challenges us to think bout the Elizabeths in our lives.

Thanks, Jerusalem Jackson Greer
The author is described as a "writer, speaker, and the parish life and family minister at St. Peter's Episcopal Church in Conway, Arkansas."  Her web site is