Several summers ago, our friends invited us to spend a week with them on Martha's Vineyard. They rent the Joshua Slocum house for the month of August. I have since discovered the mysteries of two of the island's writers, the late Philip R. Craig and Cynthia Riggs.

Solving the mystery is not the point of these stories. Learning the lore of the Vineyard is. I find it fun to read references to the beetlebung tree, West Tisbury, East Chop, the ferry to Chappaquiddick and all the little ponds and side roads that are so much a part of the island.

Craig writes with a touch of humor and real love of the island, the fishing, and the swarms of summer visitors that clog the roads. His main character J. W. Jackson, a retired Boston cop, now lives year around on the island and does odd jobs to support his wife and two children. He loves to fish and to cook and to sit on the balcony with drink in hand watching the ocean. Jackson's signature saying is delish (either preceded or followed by a recipe).

In one of the books, Jackson drops by Victoria Trumbull's house to check on her reaction to a case that he is investigating. Victoria Trumbull is the 92-year-old detective in the mysteries by Cynthia Riggs. Victoria is a feisty character who uses her knowledge of  the feuds and families and forebears of the residents of West Tisbury to help out the local police.

In his latest book, Third Strike, Philip Craig has teamed up with William G. Tapply, author of the Brady Coyne mysteries. Brady, a Boston lawyer, gets a call from a former client who tells him about mysterious crates loaded and unloaded at midnight on the island. Coyne and Jackson team up to crack the case of a crime with international ramifications.

Delish!

In 1964, I started keeping a notebook of phrases, poems, and parts of books that I like. Needless to say, I have filled notebooks and still have little pieces of paper sticking out of books and tucked away in drawers. Years ago, I copied a poem by Mary Oliver called When Death Comes. I was particularly struck by this verse,

When it's over, I want to say: all my life
I was a bride married to amazement.
I was the bridegroom, taking the world into my arms.

I like the idea of being "married to amazement".

When Winter Hours: A Book of Prose and Prose Poems by Oliver came across my desk, I had to read it.

One of the first things to strike me about her writing is how she sees, observes, notices -- and the quality of her sight. As I read further, I was on high alert to watch for more signs of seeing and sight. She says of other writers and thinkers, "Thus the great ones have taught me... -- to observe with passion, to think with patience, to live always care-ingly."

Describing her own methods, she says, "I walk and I notice.  I am sensual in order to be spiritual. I look into everything without cutting into anything."

Another pleasure of this book is the essays on Edgar Allan Poe, Robert Frost and Gerard Manley Hopkins.

Mary Oliver is a close observer and reader. In her meditation on Poe, she states,"In this universe we are given two gifts: the ability to love, and the ability to ask questions. Which are, at the same time, the fires that warm us and the fires that scorch us. This is Poe's real story. As it is ours. And this is why we honor him, why we are fascinated far past the simple narratives. He writes about our own inescapable destiny."

One of the reasons that Mary Oliver is attracted to the poet Robert Frost is that, "There is everywhere in Frost a sense that a man has time to look at things, to think and to feel." She writes a whole essay on Frost's two different messages, "everything is all right, say the metre and the rhyme, everything is not all right, say the words."  She feels that Frost writes of play and pleasure, wonder, reason and hope, "But the great height is not there. The sharp spilling of the soul into the whistling air- the pure spine-involved and organ-attached bliss - is not there."

Her own prose is often poetic:

"The storm comes on an incoming tide; it therefore grows in power for the six hours of flashing tumble and shove toward us…. Indeed, what such fetch and wind in the rising tide do to the water of the surface is beautiful and dreadful. It shines, for the clouds are thin and racing by, and the light alters from gray to steel to a terrible flashing, a shirred, swarming surface."

Who can resist such stirring sentences!

Price of travelling too high? Take a vicarious journey of adventure this summer. Balthasar's Odyssey is a tale set in the 17th century, but several of the threads are oddly contemporary -- the differences between Muslims, Christians and Jews; the tug between superstition and reason, the fear of signs and portents.

Next year will be 1666, the Year of the Beast, and many communities are wrapped in fear and dread that the Apocalypse is near. Balthasar Embriaco, a Genoese bookseller and antique dealer, living in the Levant sets out to find a book called The Hundredth Name of God which many believe will reveal the secret name of God and will thus save the world from destruction.

The voice of Balthasar as he spins the tale of his journey from Gibelet to Constantinople, to Smyrna across the Mediterranean and on to London shortly before the Great Fire is a treat. A kind of braggart so proud of his family name and heritage, Balthasar entertains us with his journal of travels and travails, musings and romance. Described by one reveiwer as picturesque and picaresque, this novel provides much entertainment.

Since I've been thinking about traveling, I was delighted to find a new CD title called Selected Shorts: Travel Tales. These short stories are read (performed really), by acclaimed actors and actresses mostly in front of a live audience at the Peter Norton Symphony Space in New York City.

I was particularly delighted with Paul Hecht's reading of "The Hat of My Mother" by Max Steele, one of the travel tales from Selected Shorts. His pauses, pacing and the way he draws out certain parts of the sentences makes this humorous story come alive. I could picture the family gathered around the breakfast table the morning after Mother was kidnapped and safely returned. "I only want to tell this story once and I'd better not hear it repeated from anywhere outside the family", she says in a very firm voice.

There are currently 49 different Selected Shorts CD titles on a variety of subjects. Find a list here. Get one and listen for yourself.

Can you think of other vicarious journeys to recommend to the armchair traveler?

Richard Yancey, author of The Highly Effective Detective has now written a sequel featuring his laughable, lovable, compassionate and bumbling private investigator, Teddy Ruzak. In The Highly Effective Detective Goes to the Dogs, Teddy's business is closed down by the state of Tennessee because he has failed to pass the P.I. test.

He befriends a homeless man and gives him his hat, which changes both of their lives. The next day Teddy discovers the body of this same homeless man in an alley outside his office and his conscience leads him to investigate the death. But it is not the investigation that intrigued me. Teddy is such a marvelous creation with a brain full of miscellaneous trivia, a habit of speaking in non-sequiturs, and a strong appreciation of the odd ball characters that he meets.

His interactions with his long suffering secretary, his wanting to adopt a stray dog, his questions and doubts about God and his care and compassion for the eighty-plus, Eunice Shriver, who has attached herself to him in order to write his biography, make him an endearing character.

Teddy says:

"I pulled a random page from Eunice Shriver's manuscript and read this:

'You would think living alone would free me from all the normal burdens of responsibility that people complain or worry about, but all living alone does is increase your psychological weight, as if your soul were living on Jupiter. It tends to make you more important to yourself and exaggerate your problems to the point that they're insurmountable afflictions.'

The passage got my heart rate up. Not only did it strike me as eerily prescient, it even sounded like something I would say. Either Eunice Shriver had found her way into my head or I had indeed found my way into hers."

Later, observing the big brown eyes of his adopted dog, Archie, Teddy muses:

"I had read somewhere that God is to us as we are to dogs, that the gulf separating our intellects must be, if God is God, wider than the universe. Archie sensed I cared for him. He sensed his entire existence relied upon my tender feelings. But my thoughts were unfathomable, unknowable, and so he stared, unable to reach me except through signals as easily interpretable to me as mine were ineffable to him."

An unknown caller with possible information about the murder keeps calling Teddy, but remains silent.

"'You know', I said into the phone, 'this is a little like praying. I talk and hope you are listening, and I don't expect a reply. At least, not a direct one. Look, I can't help you and you can't help me -- or yourself -- unless you tell me what you want. What do you want?'"

In trying to solve the murder, Teddy remarks, "I ascribed meaning to everything, even to things that had no meaning or no potential meaning…Life is pretty damned random, and maybe it was the randomness that terrified me."

I can sympathize. I spent a fun evening musing along with Teddy Ruzak, the highly effective detective.

Once in awhile, I like to take a chance on a debut novel, especially if I've seen a good review. Kate Morton's The House at Riverton was published to great acclaim in Australia and a best seller in Britain according to Library Journal. It is kind of an upstairs, downstairs book told through the memories of the now aged former servant girl and ladies maid, Grace.

Grace goes to work at Riverton house just before the first World War when she is only 14. She becomes the silent witness to The Game played by the son and two daughters of the house. Grace observes and comments on family secrets, glittering society and the world of the 1920s that is just on the cusp of vanishing forever.

I liked the author's descriptions, especially this one giving us a first glimpse of the young poet who figures so hugely later in the story, "Alone in the room, his dark eyes grave beneath a line of dark brows, he gave the impression of sorrow past, deeply felt and poorly mended. He was tall and lean, though not so as to appear lanky, and his brown hair fell longer than was the fashion, some ends escaping others to brush against his collar, his cheekbone."

Years later in the summer of 1924 during a party, this young poet shoots and kills himself at the lake near the house. The only witnesses are the daughters Hannah and Emmeline, and only they - and Grace- know the truth.

Grace, now a 98-year-old woman living in a nursing home, is approached by a filmmaker who is making a film of the events of that fateful summer of 1924. The meeting stirs up old memories and Grace recounts her observations of the events and ultimately reveals the truth.

I was particularly intrigued by the juxtaposition of the two stories - long ago events with the everyday life of 98-year-old Grace and her thoughts about the working of memory, "And I told you about the memories I've been having. Not all of them; I have a purpose and it isn't to bore you with tales from my past. Rather I told you about the curious sensation that they are becoming more real to me than my life. The way I slip away without warning, am disappointed when I open my eyes to see that I am back in 1999; the way the fabric of time is changing, and I am beginning to feel at home in the past and a visitor to this strange and blanched experience we agree to call the present."

Later Grace says, "I am slipping out of time. The demarcations I've observed for a lifetime are suddenly meaningless: seconds, minutes, hours, days. Mere words. All I have are moments."

I have a strong suspicion that this is the way memory is for my own 96-year-old mother.

Pages