Thursday, December 30, 2010

What Alice Knew - A Literary and Literate Mystery Starring Henry James?

Review of: What Alice Knew -- A Most Curious Tale of Henry James and Jack the Ripper by Paula Marantz Cohen

For anyone who reads and loves Henry James (as I do), the very title of this elegant mystery by Paula Cohen evokes contrasting emotions: gratified recognition (James’ novella “What Maisie Knew”) and skepticism (really, Jack the Ripper?). After my initial reaction of an inward ladylike snort, I immediately found myself absolutely captivated by the James siblings—Henry, his philosopher brother William, and their invalid sister Alice—as they come to life in Cohen’s pages. William is invited by Scotland Yard as an early prototype of the modern psychological profiler to help investigate the infamous Whitechapel Murders. With Henry and Alice already resident in London, the three join forces to uncover the identity of the brutal killer. What could have been a preposterous fictional undertaking is from the first a deeply touching story about three very complex human beings, struggling to overcome and somehow resolve their individual pain, longings and life choices through work, love and attention to life’s psychological details.

Various other fin-de-siรจcle characters drift in and out: Oscar Wilde, John Singer Sargent and his sister Emily, Mark Twain, to name a few, adding wit and verve to the bright and brittle conversations over the sumptuous dinner tables of the Bloomsbury crowd of 1888 London. Cohen deftly weaves in references to various stories by Henry James and quotations from the somewhat dense philosophical studies of William, and decorates the plot twists with characters from paintings by Singer Sargent—a delight to the informed reader, and an incentive to discovery by those who wish to find out more. The novel is literary, philosophical, witty and thoroughly entertaining. Cohen, who has written novels treating both Austenian and Shakespearean themes in modern settings, has presented us with a new standard for the historical mystery story. [Note: this review was first published in the Historical Novel Society Review, November 2010.]

Personally, I was fascinated by Ms. Cohen's inclusion of Singer Sargent and his paintings, as I have been working on an historical novel about John Singer Sargent during three critical years in Paris, 1882-1884. I've just spent the last four months editing and re-working it from an earlier (supposedly finished, ha!) version, and have just sent it to my literary agent, Krista Goering, with the brightest hopes for publication in the new year! Check out my website for more info! 

Happy New Year!!

Friday, December 10, 2010

Twelve String Guitar, William Blake and Loudon Wainwright III

All right, I'll admit it -- I am an unrepentant, undeconstructed, dyed in the wool hippie from the sixties -- and I can't believe I have just 'discovered' Loudon Wainwright III.  Yes, I've heard his name from time to time, but I wasn't paying attention. I was listening to KFOG (104.5 in San Francisco) the other day, and his song "School Days" came on -- I was transfixed! And of course, it being Acoustic Sunday Morning on KFOG, they just played five or six more songs in a row and didn't say who the singers were! So I jotted down the opening words of the song ("In Delaware, when I was younger") and googled it and bam! Found a great interview and live performance at a Canadian radio station. Apparently Loudon has done a reprise album of some of his best songs from the sixties, School Days included, which obviously I'm going to have to buy. 

Here's the url: 

I seem to have become enamored recently of twelve-string guitar music -- that quintessential sound of the sixties -- you know, The Byrds, CSN&Y, etc. And this song in particular, though written from a guy's point of view in those halcyon college days of long ago -- really resonated to my own experiences in college. You know--peace marches, LSD, free love, William Blake, Les Fleurs du Mal, Aubrey Beardsley posters in the dorm -- all that stuff. But I don't at all wish I were back there--I'm having way too much fun right now where I'm at, writing, creating, living. "Now" is always the most interesting time of life.