What I’m Reading Now


Another in an occasional series and another that I’ve already finished.

Fans of Jane Austen will either love or hate Longbourn. It is Jo Baker’s novel about the servants of Pride and Prejudice who appear there in brief snippets. Do not expect to see or hear Lizzie Bennet and Mr. Darcy flirting or disputing. There will be no leisurely strolls through the countryside or comfortable carriage rides.

Baker chose to tell this version mostly from the point of view of Sarah, the daughter of a weaver whose parents die, leaving her in the poorhouse. The housekeeper at Longbourn takes Sarah in. Mrs. Hill trains the little girl. She lugs water, fetches wood, carries out the “night water” and worse, washes the clothes, and on and on from long before the family arises until after they’ve returned from the various balls and other outings. That laundry, with its soaking and scrubbing and bleaching, along with the soap making after the pig is killed, plays a significant role with vivid descriptions of the days before disposable diapers and sanitary napkins.

Sarah’s tale grows complicated when Mr. Bennet hires the taciturn and illusive James Smith to assist the elderly butler Mr. Hill. Further complications ensue when Mr. Bingley and his handsome, polished mulatto servant with the outrageous name of Ptolemy Bingley arrive at the grand estate up the road.

Though the servants pay little attention to the doings of the gentry, they take keen interest in the romantic affairs of the Rev. Mr. William Collins. As described in the original, Mr. Bennet has no male heir. The good reverend will thus inherit Longbourn on Mr. Bennet’s death. In ancient British common law, that was called the entail, meaning that the property went from oldest male heir to oldest male heir, ad inifinitum. Under that rule, Mr. Collins has exclusive power to decide the fate of Mrs. Bennet and any unmarried daughters, along with Longbourn’s servants. Their positions are by no means secure as these are times of upheaval with “Boney” conquering Europe and the Luddites facing down the industrialists on the home front.

Baker weaves a narrative that encourages page turning. I stayed up one night till 2. The characters – Mr. and Mrs. Hill, little Polly, and most especially Sarah – live in memory. It falters somewhat three-quarters of the way through as the story backtracks to Mrs. Hill’s younger days.

The big omission is the acerbic wit that defines the original. Sarah’s observations lack that twist. She does not mock her fellows, and she’s too intimidated and too busy to make fun of the gentry.

So follow Longbourn for the Restoration story. Go back to Austen for the “little bit … of ivory” with its drops of acid on the side.


Bodkin Rock at the curve in the river.
Bodkin Rock at the curve in the river.

The prompt for the veterans’ writing group:

Without giving the street address or the town, create a written map leading to where you live. Start as close or far from your home as you wish and trace the paths, obstacles, and landmarks that lead to your door. Think about who will be reading this map and when that person might have an occasion to use it. How would you describe the geography of your neighborhood to someone who’s never been there? Consider the elements that are special to you and make where you live feel like home.

Here’s my contribution.

As the plane circles in its descent to Bradley International Airport, you will see a curving silver thread far below. If you are arriving at the right time of year, it will wind through a riot of yellows and reds. Later, the thread will appear as a black line curling through fields of white. If the trees are in full leaf, it may not be visible, but the valley it has carved will be.

As the plane circles lower, you will see one spot where the thread makes a right-angle turn. It’s now obvious that the thread is a river, actually quite a large one. You will be heading toward that curve once you are on the ground.

This is your introduction to the Connecticut River. I’ve lived in various places along its west bank for all but fifteen years of my life. I consider it my home.

The trip down the highway offers a study in contrasts. As you leave the airport, look right and left at the red barns. In summer you will see white cloth in the fields. They are the last vestiges of a once thriving shade-grown tobacco industry. Head south on I-91. The clutter of suburbia yields to the spikes and spires of our state capital of Hartford. Most obvious will be a glass and aluminum edifice that appears to lurch over the highway and just beyond an onion-shaped dome, the contribution of Mr. gun-maker Colt.

Farther south lies Wethersfield Cove, once called Blackbird Pond. It can claim fame as the site of accusations of witchcraft in the early days of the Connecticut colony but chooses not to.

Continue until you see a left exit, which puts you on Route 9 South. Here you are approaching that curve you saw from on high. There are a few landmarks to note along the way: right after the merge, if it’s night, you’ll see red and green signals atop a building in the distance. Next the steam of the sewer plant will appear. It emits less odor these days, but one can still catch it on a bad day. You’ll drive under the award-winning Arrigoni Bridge, which crosses our curving river. The ground-level railroad bridge just to the south was made famous by Billy Joel in River of Dreams.

As you see these landmarks you will be driving by, or maybe stopped by, two stoplights. They are the only ones on a multi-lane highway in the country. You’ll pass the restaurant that floods every spring, the exit for the hospital, and the one after that for the state mental hospital. Take the next exit after that.

Turn left, watching out during school hours for jaywalking students. Go down the hill past Harvey’s Farm, then up the hill past the veterinary hospital that’s the size of a clinic for people. Turn right at the light at the top of the hill. The road is a mess of potholes so it’s acceptable to center your car over the yellow line. You are allowed to play chicken with on-coming cars. It’s a game we developed during the past winter. Drive past the cemetery, and look to your left.




Serial (with Serial Finis) created a huge splash when the podcast raised questions about the guilt of a convicted murderer. Sarah Koenig did not resolve whether high school student Adnan Syed killed his ex-girlfriend Hae Min Lee, but the program challenged the competence of his defense attorney, police practices, and the credibility of several witnesses. I came away thinking State vs. Syed should become a case study in how not to conduct a murder investigation and trial.

Enter Undisclosed, a podcast by the lawyers re-investigating the case. I caught up with it over the weekend. It’s raised even more questions and theories with some dramatic twists and turns.

Attorney and Syed family friend Rabia Chaudry has been Adnan’s champion from the start. She announces in the opening ’cast that she and her fellow podcasters are not professional radio people. They should have hired one to help them because much of the audio blurs into incomprehensibility. The old police interview tapes benefited from a cleanup. She should have applied it to the entire ‘cast or made use of one of the many programs that raise audio and video to the professional level.

Undisclosed’s “inside law” approach tops Serial’s, a good thing and a bad thing. The legal consultant clarifies a great deal, but he needs some help eliminating verbiage. This take also lacks the humanizing touch of in-person interviews of the witnesses and parties.

Technical and process stuff aside, Undisclosed is more than worth exploring because of the way it reconstructs in minute detail the day of the murder from the point of view of Adnan, Hae, and crucial witnesses. The forensic digging includes examination of key factors such as the weather on that day and others key dates and the location of cell phone towers, which played a significant role in the conviction. I’ve listened through the May 22 episode and am most impressed by the efforts to answer questions from the listeners. It’s nice to know some folks are more obsessed than I am.

Impression so far: This ’cast could be a case study on how to conduct a proper investigation. And I love the logo.

Watch for a follow-up once Undisclosed concludes. With a conclusion this time, I hope.

What I’m Watching Now

Hendrix in full regalia
Hendrix in full regalia


The beginning of another occasional series. A confluence of circumstances has led me to miss a great many films over the years. Chief factors were working long hours often at night, a lack of nearby  theaters showing quality films, and a dislike of television. I decided to rectify the situation with a Netflix subscription.

The first category I chose was documentaries, though the movie I wanted – Timbuktu – isn’t yet available. So far I’ve watched a documentary on Jimi Hendrix, 10 Questions for the Dalai Lama, Hawking (not to be confused with the recent History of Everything). I am now about to watch 28 in the Up series and will duly report on each of them.

First in the Netflix queue was the 2013 PBS documentary Jimi Hendrix: Hear My Train A Comin’. Director Bob Smealon won a Tony award for this portrait of the man who revolutionized music. It is an expert compilation of footage of Hendrix in and out of music with videos, interviews, and still photographs. These are skillfully edited in with more contemporary updates featuring a bunch of really old and beat-up musicians and music producers, along with much better preserved relatives and two of Hendrix’s many lady “friends.”

The film demonstrates how the man was all music and virtually disappeared when not on stage. My only objection: It does a serious disservice to his real history by making almost no mention of his drug use,

What I’m Reading Now


Another in an occasional series. It truly amazes me that Ed Clark managed to publish two volumes of his autobiography within a few months of each other. I reviewed Volume II on January 27  and am now fully ensconced in Volume III, which I previewed on May 13.

Many of my earlier observations hold. Ed offers magnificent insights, personal and professional, while his use of language continues to entrance. He has captured the essence of an era that was tearing itself apart as some clung to the old while others couldn’t wait to throw it all away and usher in the new.

Among my favorite people, places, and exchanges so far are his encounters at the Athenaeum with Miss Ola Elizabeth Winslow. A search reveals that she won a Pulitzer. Beyond that what a fascinating person, so well described by Ed! I plan to follow her example and carry an elegant bag instead of a briefcase. Will skip the fur coat, however.

The most powerful narrative involves watching the evolution of Ed’s work on the cause of racial equality – the marches and protests of course – but especially his efforts to spread the word through teaching and setting up what is now the Clark Collection of African American Literature, which numbers in the thousands of volumes.

And the cover – Boston in the full blast of autumn – is of course both glorious and symbolic in a sad way. This volume is the last. I am glad that Ed, who is now in his nineties, has been able to complete his tale but regretful that there will be no more.

Thank you, Ed, for sharing yourself with us.

What I’m Reading Now


Another in an occasional series. This entry follows upon “RIP, William Zinsser.” On Writing Well: The Classic Guide to Writing Nonfiction has guided journalists and essayists for decades. I own the fourth edition and wanted to see what had changed over the years. The 2006 seventh edition adds e-writing in various forms and offers an unqualified endorsement of writing on the computer. Zinsser also takes the odd slap at the language of the occupant of the White House at the time. He praises the Clinton administration for urging the use of “small old words that people will understand.”

What hasn’t changed is that almost every page contains a gem: “Clutter is the ponderous euphemism that turns a slum into a depressed socioeconomic area …” “There’s not much to be said about the period except that most writers don’t reach it soon enough.” “Decorator colors are the colors decorators come in.”

The structure remains with some modifications and rearranging, but this thirtieth anniversary edition serves the purpose of the previous six editions by making me pay attention to what I write and how I write it. Every writer should keep On Writing Well next to The Elements of Style and read them at least once a year.