Two Great Reads: Jill Bialosky’s Poetry Will Save Your Life & Janwillem van de Wetering’s “The Mind-Murders”

Edouard Vuillard’s “Madame Hessel Reading at Amfréville,” 1906

I have read many, many stunning books this summer.  In July it was so hot that I did very little bicycling or hiking:  I stayed indoors and read 13 books.  Did I write about all 13?  No.

Here are brief reviews of two great reads: Jill Bialosky’s Poetry Will Save Your Life and Janwillem van de Wetering’s The Mind-Murders.  And look later this week for short reviews of Ann Beattie’s The Accomplished Guest and Victoria Redel’s After Everything.

A POIGNANT MEMOIR OF POETRY.  In Poetry Will Save Your Life, the poet Jill Bialosky refines the popular biblio-memoir and takes it in a new direction.  Instead of describing her favorite fiction, Bialosky is in love with poetry. She pairs her beautifully-detailed  personal vignettes with poems that help her parse emotions and experiences. Each poem is followed by a short literary analysis.  And it is a joy to discover or rediscover poems by Edna St. Vincent Millay, Wallace Stevens, Emily Dickinson, Adrienne Rich, Denis Johnson, and many more.

Bialosky, who has also written novels and a memoir of her sister’s suicide,  is a master of lyricism.  Her imagery is crystalline and perfectly-wrought, and yet her style manages to be both evocative and earthy. She writes about her girlhood, college days, building a life in  New York, and her compassion for  her aging mother.  Many of the short chapters are almost novelistic. I told my husband,  “If Betty Smith had been a poet,  A Tree Grows in Brooklyn would read like this.” (Only in Bialosky’s case, the tree would have grown in Cleveland.  And in my husband’s case, he didn’t care where the tree grew.)

Bialosky grew up in the Midwest with her beautiful, warm widowed mother and two affectionate sisters,  one of whom tragically committed suicide. She discovered poetry “when my fourth grade teacher, Miss Hudson read us Robert Frost’s ‘The Road Not Taken’.”  Later, poetry helped her cope with her move to New York, her doubts that she would ever marry, and her difficulty in starting a family.  Poetry is the constant in her life.

In the preface, she  says poems are “like a map to an unknown city.”

For years I’ve flagged poems in individual volumes or anthologies with paper clips and Post-its. I have xeroxed poems and stuck them on my refrigerator or on bulletin boards. I have collected poems as someone else might collect stamps or coins or works of art—amazed by the many human experiences, large and small, that find their meeting place in poems.

As she walks on the beach alone in December, feeling lonely because her son is away at college, she thinks of William Wordsworth’s “I Wandered Lonely As a Cloud.”  In the early ’80s, when she is overwhelmed by the anonymity of New York City, she remembers a poem by Gerard Stern, “The Red Coal,” which tells the story of two poets in Pairs who are walking and talking about Hart Crane and Apollinaire.  When she loses hope that she will fall in love, she recites Edna St. Vincent Millay’s “What Lips My Lips Have Kissed and Where, and Why.”

I was moved by her description in “Legacy” of her disappointed mother, who had thought she would be a happily married housewife and was disoriented by widowhood.  In the chapter “Legacy,” Bialosky writes,

After my mother’s divorce from her second husband, my sisters and I try to push my mother. We urge her to take classes, find a job, and for a time she works as a receptionist, sells real estate, then works in retail, but there is a layer of fatigue and resentment underneath it all. It’s as if she feels she’s still entitled to the life she was meant, but there’s no husband at home taking care of her.

I wept, because I was thinking about my mother, who died four years ago.  She too lost her dream after my father divorced her.  She lived a full life, but was alone.  She never remarried. She once told me the best days of her life were when my siblings and I were small and we were all together.  It was heartbreaking.  She worked at menial jobs  and office jobs (I was very upset when I saw her working as a cashier at a drugstore) even though she had a bachelor’s degree.   Bialosky compares our mothers expectations in the ’60s of staying home with  our own generations’ assumptions that we would work.  Strange how just a few decades can make a difference.  Reading Lucille Clifton’s “Fury” and Adrienne Rich’s “Diving into the Wreck”  empowers us in that chapter.

A very moving book, with something for everybody.  It could be read for comfort, or as a textbook for a comp class or a poetry class.

I will certainly reread it.

A BRILLIANT MYSTERY. The Dutch crime fiction writer  Janwillem van de Wetering (1931-2008) is famous for his Amsterdam Cops series. He had the ideal background for writing quirky novels:   for many years he was a police officer in Amsterdam, and he was also a Zen Buddhist monk.

In his Amsterdam Cops series, there is often a hint of Zen:   Detective-Adjutant Grijpstra, an overweight, middle-aged, unhappily married man,  makes improbable connections between seemingly unrelated events.  His mind works differently from those of other cops. And Sergeant de Gier, his dapper, moody, contemplative, sexy younger partner, is also a gifted cop, who is of an age that he always gets a girl.

The Mind-Murders is one of the strangest in the series, a police procedural with a nod to Edmund Crispin’s The Moving Toyshop.   What happens if a murder has been committed, but no laws have been broken?  Durings a disturbance at a bar, the inebriated Mr. Fortune, a publisher,   attacks two overzealous young cops with his cane. They throw him in the river, and he fends them off with a cane, preferring drowning to being saved.  Grijpstra rebukes the cops for harrassing an invalid  but soon learns from the bar owner that Mr. Fortune had his reasons for getting drunk.  All of the furniture in his house, down to the nuts and bolts, have disappeared, and Mrs. Fortune with it. Fjrijpstra has a hunch that Mr. Fortune murdered his wife, and soon learns of a money motive that could just as easily have inspired the reverse.  And they do find a corpse in the trunk of a German businessman’s Mercedes?  Are the crimes connected?  Yes, by a couple of details that could easily elude the police.

Outsider in Amsterdam by Janwillem van de Wetering

outsider in amsterdam janwillem van de wetering 5161-dBqzeLSoho Crime has reissued the first novels in 24 of the small press’s most popular crime series.  This new introductory series is called “Passport to Crime.”

Full confession: I  started with the Dutch writer Janwillem van de Wetering’s  Outsider in Amsterdam (1975), because  I read  his autobiographical books on Zen, The Empty Mirror: Experiences in a Japanese Zen Monastery and A Glimpse of Nothingness: Experiences in an American Zen Community.  For a couple of months I  attempted (uncomfortably) to meditate 15 minutes a day while kneeling with my butt on a cushion.

Van Wetering (1931-2008) had a fascinating background.  Not only  was he once a Zen Buddhist monk, he was also a police officer in Amsterdam.

In the preface, he explains that he returned to Amsterdam after a long trip and received a letter saying he had to serve in the Army.  When he complained that he was over 30 and didn’t want to be a soldier,  a middle-aged woman behind a desk suggested he work as a policeman in his spare time instead.

He writes,

The idea staggered me.  I never knew that one can be a policeman in one’s spare time.

But one can, and for several years now I have been a member of Amsterdam’s Special Constabulary ….  I have been in a number of adventures in the inner city of the capital and some of them inspired me to write this story.

In Outsider in Amsterdam, the first volume in the Amsterdam Cops series, Detective-Adjutant Gripstra, a brilliant, overweight, middle-aged officer whose  years of experience help him unravel the most difficult puzzles, and Sergeant de Gier, his moody contemplative,  much stronger young partner,  investigate the suicide of Piet, the leader of a religious cult called the “Hindists.”

outsider in amsterdam hardcover van de wetering 46961But is it suicide?  They are not sure.  When they knock on the door of the house where Piet lived and ran his religious business, a tiny Papuan black man, Jan Karel Van Meteren,  insists on checking their ID (which never happens).  Van Meteren, a traffic cop who used to be a police officer in his own country,  got to know Piet and lived free in the house, along with four hippies who work in the Hindist restaurant in the house.   Van Meteren says he had nothing to do with the religion.

Gripstra and De Gier pass the restaurant on the first floor and pause to look at a statue in a niche of a female deity doing an erotic dance. The statue is important later.

Van de Wetering, who wrote these books in English, is a master of the convoluted plot and has a strong but straightforward style that does not occlude the story. He also adroitly captures the liberal mood of the 1970s and the mid-twentieth-century interest in Eastern religion, sex, and drugs. The police officers are both well-developed, unique characters who have compassion for the victims: they do not take life and death lightly

The description of the corpse is grisly, but the violence takes place offstage. Once Van Meteren leads them upstairs to Piet’s room

De Gier had a feeling that they had now penetrated into the secret part of the house; perhaps the silence of the corridor motivated the thought.  The music of the restaurant didn’t reach this lofty level.  Gripstra entered the room and sighed.  He saw the corpse and it moved, exactly as he had expected. It would be the draft, of course, all phenomena can be explained, but the slow ghastly movement chilled his spine.  De Gier had now come in as well and watched silently.  He noticed the small bare feet with their neat toes pointed at the floor.  His gaze wandered upward and recorded the protruding tongue and the wide open bulging blue eyes.  A small corpse that had belonged to a living man.  A little over five feet.  A thin man, well dressed in khaki trousers of good cloth, nicely ironed, and a freshly laundered striped shirt.  Some forty years old.  long thick dark red hair and a full mustache, hanging down at the corners by its own weight.  De Gier moved closer and looked a the corpse’s wristwatch.  He grunted.  A very expensive watch, worth a small fortune.  He couldn’t remember ever having seen a gold strap of such width and quality.

Van Meteren, who discovered the body, does not take it for granted that it was suicide. It could have been murder.  But there are so many suspects:  the residents of the house, especially Piet’s pregnant girlfriend, who threw a book at him which left a bruise on his head shortly before he died:  Piet’s wife, who may or may not have been in France at the time of the murder; the well-heeled businessmen who supported the venture; and Van Meteren himself.  And how did Piet make his money?  He was very rich.

Some of the odder scenes seem very  ’70s:  at one point Grjipstra, De Gier, and Van Meteren have a musical jam session in an empty room in Piet’s house.  (Amsterdam cops are different from Americans?  But what do I really know about musical cops?)

This book is well-written, and, like all the best mysteries, short.

I can’t wait to read the next book in the series.