Wednesday, November 30, 2011


This was one of the first books I especially bought for my Kindle; actually, I think I got it with a gift card.

This is one fun, zesty read. It's not fiction; it's a combination of scientific history and true crime. We're presented with two parallel stories. The first is about Guglielmo Marconi and his development of the wireless, and how he worked and slaved at developing it and making it work...sometimes at the expense of his family and friends.

The second is of Dr. Hawley Harvey Crippen, a U.S. born homeopath living in London. He was unhappily married to a philandering would-be music hall artiste, but began having affairs himself. Eventually his wife disappeared after a party, and he claimed she had returned to the U.S. and later had died and was cremated there. Meanwhile, his mistress moved in and began wearing Mrs. Crippen's clothes and jewelry. Mrs. Crippen's friends began to suspect foul play and contacted the police. A search was conducted of the house and the police were satisfied there had been no murder, but Crippen and the mistress panicked and fled for the US aboard a steamship. The captain suspected them, and contacted the police with the brand-new wireless, the first time it was ever used for detection purposes, and Crippen was arrested when he disembarked in Canada.

It's a fun story; the two streams eventually intersect in a dramatic way. And Larson is fair to Crippen; he never confessed, and there have been doubts cast on his guilt, but one cannot deny that his actions were very suspicious. Human remains were discovered under his basement floor, but there are doubts that they were his wife's. Larson's style is very straightforward, and he alternates between the two stories to keep things going.

Some may be annoyed by the interruptions to one or the other story; I have to admit, I found myself getting into the Crippen plotline more than the Marconi. But still, I'm glad I read this and recommend it.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Judge Dee: Necklaces and Poets

Dee is on vacation after some tough work, and is on a fishing trip in quiet "Rivertown" where he hopes to relax. However, he is contacted by the local authorities, including an Imperial princess who makes her residence at a riverside palace there. The Princess is horrified at the loss of a valuable pearl necklace, a gift from her father, and her camp in the palace is worried that this is part of some scheme to manipulate the Emperor. Also, there's the death of a hotel clerk, and the disappearance of the owner's wife, that complicates things.

This is the next-to-last Dee novel written, and by now van Gulik had abandoned the named three cases and the map of the scene in the beginning. However, it's got some good characters, including the plucky niece of the innkeeper, Fern, whose assistance to Dee is invaluable. There's also a roving Taoist monk, Master Gourd, who proves to be more than he seems. There's also a nice glimpse of palace life, indolent and luxurious on the surface but full of scheming and decadence underneath.

Dee is staying a few days in the neighboring district of Chin-Hwa, just in time for the Autumn Moon festival. He's being hosted by his old friend Magistrate Lo, who's hosting a gathering of poets for the occasion. But of course, Dee gets embroiled in murderous goings-on. Yoo-lan, a former courtesan turned poet is attending, although she's been accused of beating a servant to death. Soong I-wen, a student, is murdered in a silk merchant's house. And a dancer is killed shortly after performing at a banquet. Are the cases connected?

Well, of course they are. But it's fun on the way. We get a good look at Magistrate Lo, a character often depicted as foolish and frivolous, but this time we're allowed to see a shrewd, intelligent side to his character. There's also some side characters, like the poet Sexton Loo, whose beliefs are a precursor of Zen, and the tragic Saffron, a mentally ill girl who lives in a nearby Shrine of the Black Fox.

One interesting aspect is Yoo-lan, who is based on the real Chinese poetess Yu Xuanji, who really was a courtesan who became a respected poet, reportedly had an affair with great poet Wen Tingyun, but whose life ended on the scaffold after being accused of the murder of a servant, a charge that is debated to this day. (According to some sources, that story may be completely false.) One of Yu's poems is reproduced in the book, in a scene set in a pavilion during an autumn banquet, a scene I found very memorable.

There's a few weaknesses in this entry; the plot's a little thin and hurriedly resolved. But van Gulik was writing this while very ill, and it was published a year after his death, so perhaps his talents weren't at their full peak.

For a bit of irony, the next book in the sequence of the series is the first written....

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Sunday Afternoon Double Feature

After a leisurely Sunday dinner, swapping tales of Halloween misdeeds and comparing plans for Thanksgiving, we amble down the street to our favorite cinema for a double feature!

First up is "The Monster", a 1903 gem by our old friend George Melies.

And then a 1908 short, made in France by Spanish director Segundo de Chomon. Are you ready for "The Haunted House"?

The sun is setting earlier and it's getting dark as we file out. As usual, conversation and laughs continue at the cafe down the street...

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Two Quick Ones

For the first time, I borrowed a couple of library books on my Kindle. I got 'em through the portentiously-named Maryland Digital eLibrary Consortium, but it was fairly easy (you borrow it, and then you can either download the book from Amazon or connect your Kindle to wi-fi and it automatically downloads). The big problem right now is that I've heard that some of the biggest publishers haven't signed on with the Kindle borrowing system so you'll still have to borrow a lot of physical books.

Anyway, the two I borrowed fit the parameters of what I talk about here (yes, believe it or not, I do occasionally read things that aren't quite right for this blog), so here's a couple of quickies...

I'd heard a few things about Steve Berry's books, and finally read his first. It's not's very much in the paperback-thriller mold, with some very by-the-numbers plot elements and underdeveloped characters, but at the same time, it is pretty interesting for its delving into the real-life mystery surrounding the Amber Room, a room-sized art installation of amber panels backed with gold leaf and mirrors. It had stood in the Catherine Palace in St. Petersburg but was seized by the Nazis (as part of their looting of art treasures across Europe) and disappeared after WWII.  It's been reconstructed based on what's known of the original design but people still search for the original.

Basically, the story is of a woman whose concentration-camp survivor father dies, leaving her a clue to the location of the Amber Room. She goes off in search of it, with her ex-husband following, and two hired killers working for ruthless and unscrupulous art collectors watching.

The Amber Room, before WWII
Berry's passion for art and history shines through, and sometimes I wondered if he wouldn't be better off doing nonfiction. He manages to fit in a lot of real-life detail about the Amber Room, as well as the Nazi rationale for looting art treasures, that for all its drawbacks as art, The Amber Room is actually a rather informative read. I read it in a few days; it went down easily and smoothly, and if I waited any longer to review it, I probably would have forgotten much about it aside from Berry's research.

The other...ugh...

I only got about a quarter of the way into Dracula the Un-Dead it before I was sorely tempted to throw my Kindle across the room in disgust. I hated this book! It purports to be a sequel to the original Stoker novel but is more of a sequel to Coppola's Bram Stoker's Dracula, which itself sets up to be the original novel before suddenly veering into Dark Shadows territory and having nothing to do with Stoker's creation. Mina is now in love with Drac, Harker is a bitter alcoholic, Seward a drug-addled loser, Holmwood an ineffectual coward, and Van Helsing has gone insane and become a vampire himself. I checked up on stuff and yeah, it turns out it makes Drac himself into the good guy. Ugh. If you're going to write a sequel to a classic novel, don't freaking rewrite it!

Plus it's just got such a flat, unengaging writing style; there's no real zest or zing to it. It just lies there, like the steak you thawed two days ago but forgot to cook and are now afraid to even look at. Steve Berry's The Amber Room if you have a taste for art history and are in the mood for an easy read; avoid Dracula the Un-Dead at all costs.

Monday, November 14, 2011


This 1896 volume, available for a free download from Gutenberg, is a fun survey of gravestones as art, an early example of serious taphophilia.

Author William Thomas Vincent ("President of the Woolwich District Antiquarian Society; Author of 'The Records of the Woolwich District,' etc.") has a wry sense of humor that hasn't grown brittle or dusty with age. And one of the best things about this book is that Vincent doesn't get self-consciously Goth-y or spooky; he addresses gravestone art as a serious folk art with infectious enthusiasm.

He's great at recognizing the patterns and trends in the art, and making all sorts of cool surmises about what was going on with the person buried, or with the carver responsible for the stone.

The one potential problem is that this book looks at gravestone art in the British Isles, and he's examining stones that are older than what I see here in the states, and from carvers from different schools and traditions. Still, the concepts and fundamentals you pick up here can probably be applied where ever you go rambling.

And Vincent's sketches are simply delightful.

It's a quick read, and will probably encourage you to go walking in graveyards and driving to remote towns to look for interesting markers. And that's not necessarily a bad thing. Like I said, it's free, and can be downloaded to your Kindle or other e-reader, read on your laptop or tablet, or even (gasp) printed out. Abebooks has modern copies (probably printed out from Gutenberg & then bound) for under $20; good luck getting any original hardcovers for less than three digits, though.

So download away, and let it inspire your explorations.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Dust & Corruption Calendar: November 2011

November is here, and I'm a teeny bit late, but finally here's the calendar of interesting-sounding events for the month...feel free to chime in if you know of anything...

Now thru 11/13 - NetherWorld, a Morality Vaudeville, presented by The Cosmic Bicycle Theater and ClockWorks Puppetry Studio, 196 Columbia St, Brooklyn, NY.

Now thru 11/26 - "Mechanical Wonders: The Sandoz Collection" Display of antique watches and clockwork automatons, and I'm sick over not being in New York to see this. A La Vieille Russie, 781 Fifth Ave at 59th St, New York, NY. Ticket sales to benefit the Jazz Foundation of America.

Now thru 12/31 - "Le Cinema Fantastique" Film series at the National Gallery of Art. All films are free. 4th & Constitution Ave, Washington, DC.

11/4 - 11/12: Burlesque & Belly Laughs, a series of performances of local burlesque & comic talent. DC Arts Center, 2438 18th St NW, Washington, DC.

11/9 - Hot Todd Lincoln's House of Hotness! Burlesque show hosted by one of my best friends (I'm being totally sincere). The Red Palace, 1212 H St NE, Washington, DC.

11/10 - "From Blue Beads to Hair Sandwiches: Edward Lovett's Folklore Collection." Explore a collection of amulets and curiosa, with a lecture by Ross MacFarlane. Free. Wellcome Collection, 183 Euston Road, London, UK.

11/11 - Prohibition Variety Show! Burlesque and variety presented by Gilded Lily burlesque troupe of Baltimore. Illusions Magic Bar & Lounge, 1025 S. Charles St, Baltimore, MD.

11/11 - The Grand Guignol: Parisian Theatre of Fear and Terror, 1897-1962. Lecture & book signing by Mel Gordon, with complimentary absinthe. The Observatory, 543 Union St, Brooklyn, NY.

11/12 - Absinthe and Other Liquors of Fin de Siecle France. Illustrated lecture and liquor tasting with director Ronni Thomas. The Observatory.

11/15 - National Press Club Book Fair & Authors Night. National Press Club, 529 14th St NW, Washington, DC.

11/15 - Anthropomorphic Mouse Taxidermy, workshop at the Observatory. Another class on 11/29.

11/16 - "Russian Folk Art," talk and book signing by Alison Hilton. Hillwood Museum, 4155 Linnean Ave NW, Washington, DC.

11/17 - Capital Tassels & Tease: Gobble Gobble Edition. Burlesque from budding performers. The Red Palace

11/18 - Valentine Candy Burlesque Presents Freaks & Oddities! Burlesque & comedy hosted by Reverend Valentine and Candy del Rio. The Red Palace

11/19 - No Computer is an Island. A PowerPoint film with live music. The Observatory.

11/24 - Thanksgiving Day, in the US. Don't overdo it.

11/25 - Black Friday, in the US. You might be better off staying home and reading or watching a movie.

11/29 - "Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman." Talk and book signing by Robert K. Massie. Hillwood Museum.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

At the Phantom Cabaret: A Requiem

We're gathered in the coolest cabaret in least in our opinion! Drinks are served, conversation is flowing. And then the lights dim and the Slomski Brothers take the stage!

I took this myself at a show last fall.

And we spend a fun evening of great musicianship, humor, and sheer enjoyment.

And now for the requiem part:  Phil Slomski, the burly one with the Amish beard, passed away this past Saturday, a few days after his 44th birthday. It's a loss that hit like a ton of bricks, even though he really wasn't a close friend. It was just so sudden (a heart attack followed by a series of strokes), and he was so young. It always seems so damned wrong when someone younger than yourself passes away.

At any rate, he was a great musician and comedian, and an intensely likable person. I know many people who have worked with him, and many who wanted to, and his loss is a blow to the local burlesque/vaudeville community. You are missed, Phil; save us all a seat at the bar....