Monday, February 28, 2011

Small Thoughts

A vague murmur at the back of my mind warns that somewhere in the back pages of another Scriblets post is a story on the curious miscellany of Ben Schott. There are two volumes of Schott, each 158 pages and containing what journalist and author Stephen Fry called, ‘A fabulous collection of essential trivia.’ The first is Schott’s Original Miscellany (2002) and the second Schott’s Food & Drink Miscellany (2003). Amazon shows a new edition, Schott’s Quintessential Miscellany scheduled for release in August of this year. With so many pages of ‘little things’ to choose from, perhaps I can manage not to repeat anything from an earlier post.

In the first of the Schott volumes, on the very last page of the book a quote from Samuel Johnson admonishes: ‘There is nothing, Sir, too little for so little a creature as man. It is by studying little things that we attain the great art of having as little misery and as much happiness as possible.’


Thienhko was killed in 931 AD by a farmer whose cucumbers he ate without permission. Thienhko’s Queen, fearing civil disorder, smuggled the farmer into the royal palace and dressed him in royal robes. He was proclaimed King Nyaung-U Sawrhan, and was known as the ‘Cucumber King.’ He later transformed his cucumber plantation into a spacious and pleasant royal garden.

In 1423 Razadarit died after becoming entangled in the rope with which he was lassoing elephants.

Nandabayin laughed himself to death in 1559 when informed by a visiting Italian merchant that Venice was a free state without a king.


(1) The Great Pyramid of Giza near the ancient city of Memphis, (2) The Hanging Gardens of Babylon, a part of Nebuchadnezzar’s palace on the banks of the Euphrates (3) The Statue of Zeus at Olympia, (4) The Temple of Artemis at Ephesus, (5) The Mausoleum at Halicarnassus, (6) The Colossus of Rhodes, and (7) The Lighthouse of Alexandria built by the Ptolemies on the island of Pharos.


a murmuration of starlings

a wilderness of monkeys

a bench of bishops

a murder of crows

a barren of mules

a business of ferrets

a drunkenship of cobblers

a clutch of eggs


Malay—Quick! Go and fetch me the ornate bamboo caddy, or I will run amok in the compound wearing nothing but my gingham sarong.

Arabic—The admiral in the alcove, while sitting on his sequin sofa dreaming of harems, should fear the assassin rather than seeking solace in the alchemy of alcohol.

Sanskrit—The pundit and his guru were repeating their mantra, hoping for nirvana, when some fool ruined their karma, chipping the crimson lacquer on the chintz.


All women become like their mothers. That is their tragedy. No man does. That’s his.


The three-martini lunch is the epitome of American efficiency. Where else can you get an earful, a bellyful, and a snootful at the same time?


Kentucky Fried Chicken’s founder Colonel Harland Sanders (1890-1980) was a man of many jobs: farm worker, streetcar conductor, soldier, railroad fireman, lawyer, insurance salesman, steamboat ferryman, tire salesman, service station operator and cook. Sanders perfected his ‘secret blend’ of eleven herbs and spices at a service station in Corbin, Kentucky in the late 1930s, and in 1964 he sold his six-hundred strong KFC franchise for two million dollars. Sander’s title was not military (he was only ever a private), rather it was from the Honorable Order of Kentucky Colonels, bestowed on him in 1935 by the Governor, Ruby Laffoon.

Sunday, February 27, 2011

At the Movies

For us hardcore movie maniacs the signs at Blockbuster Video trumpeting a ‘Going Out of Business Sale’ were like manna from heaven. And from the look of things inside their stock may not last through the final six weeks. After a long and good look through the DVDs for sale I left empty-handed but knowing that prices will be lower on my next visit.

Movies on my mind, I wandered two doors down to the small Books A Million subsidiary and in their dollar box out front came upon a book with the tantalizing cover blurb, ‘The true story of a father who let his son drop out of school—if he watched three movies a week.’ Had I known they existed I would have begged for such a father.

The book is The Film Club, a 2008 memoir by David Gilmour, a brave and engaging story of a father’s decision to allow his sixteen year-old son to quit school. Jesse is a smart, bright sophomore in high school failing all his classes, unable to find the interest or drive to get passing grades. His father is perplexed, unsure of a solution but deeply concerned in his search for an answer. At a dead end finally, he comes up with an idea that would sound insane to most parents, but one that in his heart he believes will ultimately work out for the best. He allows Jesse to drop out of school, no need to get a job or to pay any expenses but with two conditions: He cannot do drugs and he must watch three movies a week with his father, all movies to be chosen by Dad.

Whatever deficiencies this plan may have, it does provide one hard to come by opportunity—the chance for father and son to connect at a time when most sixteen year-olds are doing the opposite and shutting out their parents. Gilmour uses movies to open a doorway of discovery for father and son, hoping that the movies will allow his son some release from the pressures and tangles of adolescence while also making subtle points about life and how it’s lived, good or bad. As a father (and former film critic) Gilmour understands that the power of stories can in many instances convey what can’t be articulated in other ways. He relies on the movies giving insights into life, letting the stories bring forward what fathers and sons need to talk about. It would be inaccurate to suggest that the movies become ‘life lessons’ for young Jesse, but they do serve the purpose of example, and in many ways open a window into the making of art.

In a large way the movie watching of father and son becomes nothing less than a three year seminar in film appreciation. Gilmour is an astute critic and throughout the book offers pithy observations of the movies at hand. He describes the classic Steve McQueen movie, Bullit as having ‘the authority of stainless steel.’ He recalls his first viewing of The Exorcist this way: “I remember emerging from the Nortown theater that summer afternoon and thinking that there was something wrong with the sunlight.” With another film it is the way Robert Mitchum ‘drifts through a movie with the effortlessness of a cat wandering into a dinner party.’

A part of Gilmour’s story in The Film Club is a reflection on fatherhood in the sense of watching and knowing that the day will come when a son outgrows the need for his father. Hard in this book’s 217 pages not to be strongly moved by the struggle and the courage of this father and son.

Jesse Gilmour passed his GED exam and is now a student at the University of Toronto.

For those wondering, at the end of the book there is a list of the 119 movies father and son watched together.

Saturday, February 26, 2011

Blast Off

On most days around this long stretch of beach catching the Atlantic surf attention is drawn to things like seashells and pelicans, the occasional turtle and now and then a pod of dolphins playing offshore. Fishing boats, sailboats and small planes overhead are common but earth trembling sights are rarer.

Forty-seven miles to the south of our seashells and pelicans is Cape Canaveral and NASAs Kennedy Space Center, and on those days when the space shuttle is scheduled to lift off all attention turns to the blue skies over Cape Canaveral. At 4:53 p.m. last Thursday the oldest of the three shuttles, Discovery roared into the sky on its final flight, applauded by crowds watching from the beach. Most of us have seen it on video, on the television news and in countless Hollywood versions. Seeing a shuttle piggyback on huge rockets blasting into space without the filter of a TV camera adds something to the experience. Forty-seven miles is too far to actually feel the ground rumbling as the engines roar to life, but there is a sensation of trembling power in that gigantic glow of orange-colored thrust. Something inside breaks free and the involuntary WOW! HOLY COW! or WHOA! spills out.

If for no other reason Thursday’s launch deserves mention because it is the end of an era. First launched on August 30, 1984 the Discovery is scheduled for retirement, and following its official decommissioning will be moved to the Smithsonian Institute’s Air and Space Museum. Discovery has had a noble career and both NASA and its builder Rockwell International Space Systems can be proud of the orbiter’s performance. In twenty-seven years of service the Discovery has:

• flown thirty-nine missions

• carried 246 crew members into space

• spent 352 days in orbit

• circled the earth 5,628 times at 17,400 miles per hour

• traveled almost 143 million miles

• launched the Hubble Space Telescope

NASA calls Discovery its workhorse, ambassador, scientist and equal opportunity emissary, having fulfilled all those roles during its long years of service. On this last mission the orbiter is carrying the Leonardo Permanent Multipurpose Module and the first humanoid robot in space, Robonaut 2.

Friday, February 25, 2011

Nutty Marketing

There is a crazy side to Japan and it’s the one I miss when the moon is full and the wolves are howling. Could be because I’m no longer exposed to the high energy sizzle of big city life and because things beachside can get a little monotonous. Then it could be because America has no flair for the kooky marketing that is a part of life among the very inventive Japanese. Who else would have thought of square watermelons to save refrigerator space?

To jazz up my own week and to spread the word on the inventiveness of Japanese mad hatters I have chosen to highlight a few of the outstanding items for sale in Japan and also one example of what most of us might call a wacky sort of health spa. So put on your ruby slippers and step into almost-Oz.


Push up that nose of yours to create the perfect profile. The handy Beauty Lift High Nose, is a beauty-aid that applies gentle electric vibrations from the bottom, side and front. Just slip it on, flip the switch and a gentle buzzing will begin to transform your nose into that Hollywood look. Three minutes once a day and soon you (and everyone else) will notice an elegant difference. Batteries included.


Here we have a faintly realistic-looking cat with a hot water bottle snuggled inside his tummy. No allergies or scratches but cozy warmth for up to eight hours. A pet can warm your heart, but this one can warm your body. You can easily add hot water to Nyantomo’s bottle-belly through a slotted opening, then re-insert the bottle in the cat. Nyantomo is a comfort on cold days, a blessing on those ‘out of sorts’ days, and the perfect furry bundle for relaxing with.


This wonder device uses electrical muscle stimulation (EMS) to promote breast growth and firmness. And the best part is it even works in the bath. Simply sit back and relax in the tub and roll the Beau Bust device over your chest to encourage the results you want. Use the included bust cream to add that oh-là-là sensual enhancement. Comes with 60 grams of bust cream. Notice: The Beau Bust Roller cannot be used by pregnant women, people using pacemakers or other electronic medical equipment.


This is a delightful scalp massager with a unique Japanese twist. The shape and structure of the device are inspired by the kenzan, a traditional tool used in Japanese flower arranging to hold the flowers in place. There are ninety-two bristles that strike the perfect balance of hardness and softness as the flexible Head Kenzan molds itself to your head. Using the handles on either side, run the brush back and forth, massaging and energizing your scalp. Is there an easier way to erase troublesome tensions and get those creative juices flowing again?


From airplane bathroom to outhouse, say goodbye to the sacrifice of comfort while you’re on the go. Never fear unknown bathrooms again with the TOTO Portable Bidet. Unsanitary bathrooms along exotic travel routes can be hard to deal with. How do you know the toilet paper is clean, or God forbid, what if there isn’t any toilet paper? The TOTO Travel Washlet fits discreetly in any bag or purse making washing easy in any situation. Easy operation and efficient size make it the perfect travel companion. Capacity: enough water for a 23 second spray.


Japanese loves spas and hot spring resorts. One of the ‘different’ resorts not too far from Tokyo is guaranteed to tickle the fancy of the most jaded hot spring enthusiast. At the Yunessun Resort bathers splash around in their choice of red wine, sake, coffee or green tea. The sake bath promotes skin beauty while a green tea bath will beautify your skin and boost the immune system. The coffee bath offers relief from fatigue and a wine bath is suggested for body rejuvenation. Expect to find signs next to each of the different pools reading, “Not For Drinking.” The holiday price for one day at Yunessun is approximately $32.00, but that’s in the swim suit zone. For those who prefer to cavort naked there is a nude zone that is only $17.00.


This one is just a little creepy. Baby Foot disposable slippers are lined with a soothing gel that treats tired feet, gradually causing exfoliation of the outer layer of skin. The results posted in this gallery could be called impressive, disturbing, amazing, freaky or downright horrible.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

The Pull of Mountain Grape

Sometimes it’s the sight of a particular ink on paper that spurs a person to buy a fountain pen, maybe even two fountain pens. My friend Kathleen had no notion to buy and begin using a fountain pen before seeing a page of writing in the Iroshizuku ink, Yama-budo (Mountain Grape). Had the ink been blue, red, green or black she would probably have been unmoved and today still writing her cards and letters with a giveaway ballpoint from the local paint store.

Not long after admiring the mountain grape purple from Japan, Kathleen ordered two fountain pens. Sampling several from my pen rack she decided that the Lamy AL-Star and Pelikano Junior would bring her pen and ink dreams to life. Perfect choice of starter pens, both of them 99.9 percent certain to bring satisfaction. I always sort of hope that a good starter pen will encourage eventual upgrades and add another enthusiast to the fold.

The suggestion was for Kathleen to hold off on buying any ink until she had a chance to sample and play among the inks I have. Both pens arrived with cartridges and the Lamy with a converter as well. The green cartridges that came with the AL-Star turned out to be a keeper, a mostly ordinary green but in the Lamy smooth and flowing; a good standard green. The blue ink in the Pelikano cartridge got emptied down the sink, the cartridge well-washed and refilled with Yama-budo. Had she closed her eyes the smoothness of the Pelikano might have convinced Kathleen that she had an expensive Montblanc in her hand. I have long believed the Pelikano is an exceptional pen and there are few who doubt the qualities of Iroshizuku Yama-budo.

The three purple characters in the photo above are yama budô—mountain grape. I’ve always thought that Pilot does an excellent job not only with the quality of their Iroshizuku line but also in choosing names for those inks. Rather than a perfect description of the colors, the names are faintly poetic, or at least they are in Japanese. The Yama budo is an arresting color, even what some might describe as drop-dead gorgeous, but it does not look much like grapes grown in the mountainous regions of Yamanashi Japan. Not quite so much red in those grapes.

Here are some interesting tidbits about purple—ink or otherwise:

• The Byzantine Emperor signed edicts in purple ink.

• Purple is the color of the highest denomination poker chip worth $5,000.

• Purple coloring first came from a dye made of sea shells—the Mediterranean Murex. It took 10,000 Murex mollusks to dye one toga.

• Purple is associated with Thursday.

• A combination of the warmest color (red) and the coolest (blue), purple is thought to be an ideal color.

• Purple represents the planet Jupiter.

• The English word ‘grape’ comes from an old French word, ‘graper’ which was a tool used to harvest grapes.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

A Sunday Book

Guess she was cleaning out some shelves, but on Saturday my sister brought over a stack of books she wanted to get rid of. I’m not one to look a book-bearing gift horse in the mouth, but one of the books in my very un-horsey sister’s stack was something she really should have held on to. But then collecting books is not her thing. She probably needed the space for more cookbooks, which in one sense she does collect. The book that caught my eye in her stack of giveaways is one titled The Seasons, by Englishman, Louis Lawrence.

The forward to the book tells us that compilations of this kind are an ideal expression of the spread of literacy following England’s Elementary Education Act of 1870. It was a time of new magazines and newspapers and the monthly illustrated magazine with serialized novels. Such magazines would have been Lawrence’s first contact with graphic art, providing a context for the pages that later came to be known as The Seasons.

For his pages the artist-calligrapher selected short extracts of poetry by Longfellow, Tennyson and Wordsworth, as well as biblical scripture, decorated in his own hand with delicate drawings and watercolors. The 1981 Webb & Bower book is a reproduction of Lawrence’s private pages done between the years 1887-1890. Until 1981 the pages remained in private hands.

Information about Louis Lawrence is hard to find. He was a publicity artist for a London pharmacy named Maws and he died an old man in 1945. More than that is speculation. He was very likely a young man in his late teens when he did the work that makes up The Seasons. We may not know many of the facts of Lawrence’s life, but unmistakable is the Victorian stamp of his art. Very much a product of Victorian England, the sentiments of his art are hallmark characteristics of the age, particularly the poetry he selected reflecting the morals, the piety and the wonder of God seen in nature. Also a strong reverence for hearth and home and the virtues of family life.

Apparent in Lawrence’s compositions is the clear influence of English illustrator Birkett Foster. Birkett set forth clear guidelines for portraying the seasons in sketch and watercolor and each of those guidelines is evident in the pages of The Seasons. In most of the drawings the artist avoids human figures and animals because they reveal the limits of his still immature skills; his lettering and his landscapes are clearly the strongpoint. Roy Strong contends in his forward to the book that many of the drawings were probably copies of work the young artist had seen in magazines, and that the real charm of Lawrence’s drawings is in their amateur naiveté. More than anything The Seasons is a portrait of the spirit or ethos of Victorian culture. It is very much the sort of thing we see sometimes even today in old-fashioned Christmas cards—a formula of pictured image and virtuous thought in lyrical form.

Lawrence’s collection of drawings and calligraphy could even be called a Sunday book, the quiet pastime of a day ruled by the idea that amusements, as well as work were forbidden. Lawrence possibly escaped the restriction on painting and drawing on Sundays with the reasoning that his ‘amusement’ was in the line of illuminated texts.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Made To Mix

For a long time a popular brand of potato chips used the slogan ‘Betcha can’t eat just one.’ Probably a serious challenge for many potato chip lovers, and a great come-on for a snack product. It must have been successful because Lay’s continued to use the slogan for forty-five years. Nothing against potato chips; I have definitely eaten my share of them, but the ‘Betcha can’t eat just one’ challenge doesn’t describe my taste for any of the many different brands and flavors. Easy enough to turn my back on a bowl of potato chips after only one, or even none. Potato chips that is.

I wasn’t long back in the US from some years abroad when my ignorance of a popular snack surprised a roomful of people at a party. Chomping my way through a bowl of something crunchy in that bet-you-can’t-eat-just-one mode, I said to my friend the host, “What is this stuff? It’s pretty good. Where’d you get it?” Two or three turned to me with a look of disbelief. One wanted to know if I’d been locked away in prison, another asked—as if Mars were a possibility—“Where do you come from?” My friend stepped in to answer for me, then wondered, “Don’t they have Chex Mix in Japan?” Mmm…do they? Maybe, but I never ran across it in my time there.

But from the moment of that first mouthful, ask and I’ll tell you that Chex Mix is the Rolls Royce of the snack world. Proof is in, I definitely can’t eat just one, or one handful. Might be better on trips to the market for me to avoid the aisle with Chex Mix. The temptation is to buy one bag of all fifteen varieties. The best of the bunch is the Chipotle Chex Mix, but I’ve found that only once and it isn’t listed on the Chex Mix homepage. Maybe it was a trial market.

In 1952 fans of Wheat Chex and Rice Chex breakfast cereals began mixing the two, following directions on the box and adding a few other crunchy tidbits, making their own party snack. The photo at the top is a Chex advertisement from the June 16, 1952 issue of Life Magazine. At the bottom right is a recipe for party mix. Origins of the snack are tied to the introduction of television, when people mesmerized by the new technology wanted snacks that could be eaten without interrupting a television show. I missed all of this, maybe because Chex cereals were not popular in my family or circle of acquaintances, or maybe in the 1950s everyone I knew happily watched I Love Lucy and Burns and Allen without any thought to snacks.

The first Chex Mix snack packs didn’t appear on US market shelves until 1985. By then I was long gone and learning to like far eastern alternatives like Tongari Corn and Pocky Sticks.

It’s a regular these days but if you’d asked me a year ago I wouldn’t have known Chex Mix from Anna Nicole Smith. Now I’ve got the first part but I’m still trying to figure out who Anna Nicole Smith is.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Manhole on Memory Lane

Hubbub dying down, the walking done, grocery shopping taken care of, Sunday afternoon and a glass of iced tea, a good time to look again at some of my favorite poems over the past month or so. The feeling this time was for something with a generous splash of humor and that I found soon enough in American poet, Jeffrey McDaniel. Publisher’s Weekly describes him as a recovering addict from working class streets, a poet with a rough-and-tumble persona, but with a softer side as well. He was born in Philadelphia in 1967 and apart from whatever other qualities are apparent in his poetry, the characteristic I most enjoy is his unpredictable use of metaphor and off the wall word choices that so humorously and vigorously paint his location or setting.

Mr McDaniel teaches creative writing at Sarah Lawrence College in New York. His collections include Alibi School (1995), The Forgiveness Parade (1998), The Splinter Factory (2002) and The Endarkenment (2008). Something he once said in an interview sticks with me: “The longer I keep stepping in the ring of emptiness known as the blank page, the more necessary it is to read. Also to stay alive.”

This first poem comes from his latest collection, The Endarkenment.


I’m sorry I was late.
I was pulled over by a cop
for driving blindfolded
with a raspberry-scented candle
flickering in my mouth.
I’m sorry I was late.
I was on my way
when I felt a plot
thickening in my arm.
I have a fear of heights.
Luckily the Earth
is on the second floor
of the universe.
I am not the egg man.
I am the owl
who just witnessed
another tree fall over
in the forest of your life.
I am your father
shaking his head
at the thought of you.
I am his words dissolving
in your mind like footprints
in a rainstorm.
I am a long-legged martini.
I am feeding olives
to the bull inside you.
I am decorating
your labyrinth,
tacking up snapshots
of all the people
who’ve gotten lost
in your corridors.

And from his earlier collection, The Forgiveness Parade


I strapped on an oxygen tank and dove

into the past, paddling back through the years,

emerging from a manhole on memory lane.

The boondocks were doing just fine without me.

The car dealerships. The trash heaps. The stream

of consciousness where I learned how to skinny-dip

had slowed down to a trickle of amnesia.

All the houses had been gutted, except mine,

where my family was still eating dinner. My parents

welcomed me with open elbows, my brother

looked up to me like a cave drawing on the ceiling.

The night hobbled by, rattling its beggar’s cup.

A pipe burst behind my eyes, which brought out

the plumber in everyone. At a loss for words

I placed a seashell on my tongue, and my relatives

wore bathing suits when they spoke to me.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Keep Your Distance

Most of us choose to be around people who bring some light and laughter to the days, friends or acquaintances thoughtful and sympathetic to others, who make their presence if not a comfort then at least harmless. Not to say that everyone can be sunshine and smiles in every instance, but few are willing to tolerate unrelieved negativism.

For the past seven months the third Saturday of each month has turned into the kind of day that approaches with ominous forecast, one that adds anxiety to the Friday before and regret to the Sunday following—It’s board meeting weekend.

For many years I lived among people in another country who would do almost anything to avoid confrontation. Acquaintances, co-workers and neighbors wouldn’t dream of insulting others in a gathering. Disagreements on policy or procedure discussed without red faces and snarling frustration, meetings calm and unthreatening and differences of opinion respected without ill humor.

Three, four, five different friends warned me of getting involved with boards and home owner associations. Each friend recounted their own experience (little of it good) and recommended keeping a distance. I listened but didn’t take their advice. How I wish I had.

And so on the third Saturday of these past months I’ve found myself entangled with neighbors who value control over conciliation, brashness over self-effacement. The distressing (and difficult) part of it is the discovery that I am member of a community that includes neighbors who embrace critical behavior as a normal part of socialization. Would be ridiculous to hold myself up as a paragon of social graces, as someone admired by all and full of unselfish graciousness. On the other hand, allow me the hope of being one who offers reasoned and benign opinion instead of hurtful snipes.

Sometimes I miss Japan.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

In the Green of Things

Deadline day and the landscape gardeners are doing a botanical boogie-woogie outside putting over one hundred new plants and trees in place across ten different planting areas. In the northeast corner a man wrestles a majestic beauty into place between crinum lilies and bulbine plants, making sure the alignment gives the harmony he is looking for. To the west of that a team of three settle a huge Chinese fan palm into its hole, sprinkling both hole and root system with plant food and beneficial bacteria.

Scattered around the grounds are big bundles of blue-eyed grass and bales of rusty Georgia pine straw. The blue-eyed grass will fill out beds, the straw provide a blanket for newly planted areas and warmth for unsettled roots. The pine straw is also useful in blocking sunlight from sprouts of pesky dollar weed. In this climate dollar weed spreads quickly, like that equally troublesome southern cousin kudzu. For four months the newly planted beds cannot be sprayed with weed killer. The pine straw will help to hold the dollar weed down.

One of the gardeners has dug up two huge rocks, moving them into a Japanese-like arrangement around the newly planted pineapple-guava tree. Blocked from the wind and salt spray there is hope that the rocks will eventually become host to baby ferns and swatches of green moss.

Two desired varieties are missing for the time being. The final design will include orange birds of paradise and white fountain grass, but the first is late arriving and the second arrived in what the head gardener calls a weak and unhealthy condition. The fountain grass will be sent back and those designated areas in the plan will remain empty until March when the new grass arrives.

The white sand beach and ocean blue are now fronted by a new aspect of flowering green and rusty red pine straw. Calls to mind a famous line, “God shed his grace on thee…”


(1) giant agave plant being put in

(2) after planting with juniper, pine straw and giant rock

(3) blued-eyed grass in pine straw with bulbine and giant rock

Friday, February 18, 2011

Crime Doesn’t Exist

Some things take a long time catching my eye, or more accurately tickling my interest. Out of the loop, focused elsewhere, head in the sand, sometimes I look up and can only say, “Huh? When did that come out?” Last November a friend passed on a battered old paperback with a terse, “Here…This is pretty good,” and with barely a glance the book wound up forgotten in a stack on an out of the way table. It stayed there until three days ago.

Child 44 by Tom Rob Smith was published in April of 2008 and I completely missed the boat, never picked it up to flip through in a bookstore, never read a review, never even heard any talk about the book. I dug out the copy from my friend and sat down to read with scant enthusiasm. That old line comes to mind, ‘judging a book by its cover.’ Child 44 didn’t look interesting.

Couldn’t have been more wrong. Ten pages into the story I suddenly understood the reason behind the six pages of review blurbs inside the front cover praising the book and writer. Child 44 is an example of why reviewers throw out words like ‘compelling,’ ‘page-turner’ and ‘gripping.’

Author Tom Rob Smith has taken a piece of Russian criminal history and created a multi-layered novel of Russia in the final year of the Stalinist era. His story is loosely based on Andrei Chikatilo, a Ukrainian serial killer who murdered 53 women and children between 1978 and 1990. The backdrop of Smith’s novel is the Soviet State, a place where ‘there is no crime,’ where people are so frightened and whipped by the authorities that each day is weighted by fear of arrest and torture for virtually nothing. The novel is in great part built upon the paranoia of that era and the apparatus of the secret police.

The story begins in 1933 with two starving children stalking a cat and themselves being stalked by a starving man. In the next chapter the story jumps to 1953 and we meet the main character, Leo Demidov, a war hero and officer in Stalin’s secret police—seemingly no connection to the children of the previous chapter. Leo is a loyal, efficient and brutal tool of the state, never doubting the guilt of those he is sent to arrest. A child’s murder is called an accident and Leo is sent to close the case with the child’s family. This is a case that haunts the policeman. Soon after, he is told to gather evidence that his own wife is a spy. Faint cracks begin to appear in Leo’s loyalty to Stalinist doctrine and finally he reports that his wife is innocent, is not a spy. An unacceptable conclusion, Leo is demoted and with his wife exiled to a small lumber town in the north.

A child in the town is found murdered and to Leo’s police mind there are things about it that remind him of another child’s death. The chase for a killer is on, but Leo’s every step is dogged by constant obstruction. After all, there is no crime in Mother Russia. The hunt is tense, brutal and without pause. What is it they say about some books? Hard to put down?

The beautifully detailed background of Stalinist Russia is only one aspect of Smith’s creation. All of the characters are drawn in word and action that echo the hope, fear, doubt and frailty common to us all. In two places I stopped reading to make note of especially effective character descriptions. At one point the writer describes Vasili, Leo’s nemesis as having ‘a hero’s face with a henchman’s heart.’ In another chapter he measures the effect of one character’s words upon another this way: ‘The man’s face fluttered as if she’d tossed a stone onto the surface of his expression.’

If like me you are late in coming to this book, if you enjoy suspense and a white knuckle ride, find a copy of Tom Rob Smith’s Child 44.

About Me

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Oak Hill, Florida, United States
A longtime expat relearning the footwork of life in America