Sunday, December 26, 2010

30 or So Songs of Xmas #27

I don't know if the Trans Siberian Orchestra does anything except Xmas music. They do seem to have that down though.

Saturday, December 25, 2010

30 or So Songs of Xmas #26

I was listening, more like enduring, the comprehensive Motown Xmas album yesterday. It seriously sucks.

Then this song, Deck the Halls by Smokey Robinson and the Miracles, just played. It is the polar opposite of suck. There is much to like about this one.

I must have had this on my hard drive for years since just hearing the opening notes automatically makes me happy and puts me in the Xmas spirit.

30 or So Songs of Xmas #25

Today's is Christmas Baby (Please Come Home) by The Raveonettes.

Back in day Christmas songs often sort of sucked. U2 covered this song I think for a benefit album. U2 didn't really do anything with it and it was sort of I like(d) U2 and it's Xmas, so it's OK.

Flash forward to now with this Scandinavia act really doing something with this song.

15 Minutes Later Update: The U2 version is now playing on my computer. Their version really grew on me over the years. It's a still a little cringe worthy in parts but is overall rather solid.

Friday, December 24, 2010

30 or So Songs of Xmas #24

Well it's Xmas Eve and I haven't made it up to 30 Xmas songs of note. But I still have a few days until new years.

Today's is Fairytale of New York by the Pogues.

I woke up this morning on Xmas Eve thinking of the line "And the bells were ringing out, for Christmas day". So I'm glad I didn't cover this one sooner.

While not the more cheerful song, it is technically a Christmas song. It's an great song with an equally great video. And that is Matt Dillon as the cop.

Monday, December 20, 2010

30 or So Songs of Xmas #23

Dean Martin's version of this song is buttery. Or do I mean velvety. Either way, I like it.

30 or so Songs of Xmas #22

Bright Eyes is one of those acts who gets a lot of critical acclaim, but I just don't get at all. To me it's like fingernails on a chalkboard. Which is why I was shocked after listening to this song for the first time to find out it was Bright Eyes. I guess that counts as a Christmas Miracle.

This version by Jim Reeves is the standard. Maybe.

Jim Reeves sort of sounds like a male Patsy Cline. Obviously not vocally but the phrasing and background music. I don't know who wrote this song (well I do now), but the stanza with shoppers and their packages is great modern Christmas imagery. I love it. Interestingly Reeves doesn't sing on that part.

30 or So Songs of Xmas #21

I have never really listened to The Band. Nor have I really given Bob Dylan's double album with them much of a listen either, although I've owned it for years. I'll have to rectify that in 2011. Does that count as a new years resolution?

30 or So Songs of Xmas #20

"Said Santa to a boy-child" that is such a strangely awkward line. And the boy-child wants a guitar and the girl-child wants a doll that wets itself. This song is so wonderfully dated.

Although this is obviously from the 1950s or 60s, I didn't hear it until the 1990s. Chuck Berry couldn't break the limited playlist of AOR, though the Keith Richards 1990s revival of this song did. But it's alright now.

I've gotten a little behind in posting again, so I knocked out four posts today because I woke up too early. They are scheduled to appear throughout today.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

30 or so Songs of Xmas # 19

Today's make-up is Christmas Day by Dido.

This song reminds me of the sort of old folk song that Bob Dylan and Sting are both able to revive so well. The Web is really good at providing lyrics, but terrible at ID'ing the author . While this song seems old, it may well be an original by Dido.

This song has been on my computer for a few years now and I always sort of just half listened to it. Today it grabbed my full attention, and it's now on my Xmas song sort list. Great lyrics, excellent vocals, and cool Xmasy arrangement in the background.

30 or so Songs of Xmas # 18

I seem to have gotten behind a few days so I'll try to post more than one song for the next few days.

This one, a very, very fine one, is Christmas Cheer by the Roddies, a Philadelphia based band that I never heard of before this morning. I hope to hear more them.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Reading the Dame Part3a: The first half of the 1940s

This a continuation of my series of posts about my project to read all 80 something Agatha Christie mystery books in order of publication (more or less).

The other parts of the series:
Reading th Dame Part 1: The 1920s
Reading the Dame Part 2a: The 1930s
Reading the Dame Part 2b: The 1930s continued

Reading the Dame Part3a: The first half of the 1940s
It is interesting (to me anyway) to note that Christie manages to publish about 6 books during WWII. The rationing imposed by the war didn’t fully end until 1953. Considering how hard WWII affected the UK, it is rather remarkable that the British printing industry still was able to function pretty normally during the war.

Christie published nine books from 1940 to 1944. It took me about 3 months to read those nine. My previous post, which covered 1935 to 1939, saw her publish 13 books. Those 13 books took me 5 months to read. As of November 2010, I read 42 Agatha Christie books since starting the project in August 2009.

1940 Sad Cypress
This is an interesting read. A woman is being tried for murder and Poirot is hired to try to clear her. It is narrated by a unknown third party who refers to Hastings’ later response when Poirot tells him the story. The idiotic Hastings is not missed as narrator. A little out of formula for her, but it really works. Well written. Another one I hadn’t read before.

1940 An Overdose of Death
This is another really good one. Poirot’s dentist is killed in his office. A quite involved but satisfactory plot. This another vaguely familiar one where I may or may not have read before.

1941 Evil Under the Sun
Another one I hadn’t read before. Poirot is back again. A good plot with well drawn characters. I read a lot of this one a really long train trip to and from Montreal Canada. Apparently World War II has not yet started . Surprisingly this one takes place not in an exotic sunny local but on an island resort in England.

1941 N or M?
I don’t think I read this one before but I may have; 30 years is a long time ago. Tommy and Tuppence are back. WWII is full swing. Their twins, now adults, are serving in the war effort. Tommy and Tuppence being middle aged (45 for Tommy, a little less for Tuppence) are frustrated at not being considered fit to help. Being Tommy and Tuppence they wind up getting involved as unknowns sent by the government to uncover the enemy from within at a sleepy seaside town.

As a person of 45, which is the supposed theme for this blog, it is interesting to see Tommy and Tuppence (who poses as a two time widow) in their mid 40s in 1941. We hear today how 50 is the new 40. I sort of poo-poo that as BS. But I may well be wrong. Tommy and Tuppence in their mid 40s are treated like modern day people who are in their mid 50s. Maybe 55 really is the new 45.

At the end, Tommy and Tuppence adopt an orphaned 2 year old. So maybe 45 actually is the old 45.

There are definitely a lot of good bits in this book.

1942 The Body in the Library
After a string of ones I either hadn’t read or didn’t recall reading, there’s one I remember the title. This one is a real throw back with a body found in a large country house, blatant contempt for the lower classes, and people getting their money the old fashioned way - by inheriting it. There is also no mention of the war and youthful men are still around. I must assume this was written or mostly written before the war, with the topical Nor M? getting pushed ahead of it. A good read with well developed characters. Christie continues her break from Poirot with Miss Marple being the lead, though she doesn’t appear until the 2nd half. The reveal does feel like a little bit of a cheat since we aren’t fully let in on the all facts. Adding to the retro feel, after a decades long absence “vouchesafed” returns for it’s once per novel appearance.

1942 Five Little Pigs
Poirot is back. This is a good and interesting one. Poirot is hired to solve a mystery that took place 16 or so years earlier. It all fit together, though the end does feel like a bit of a cheat. Once again no mention of World War II.

1942 The Moving Finger
I remembered watching this on Masterpiece Mystery, though I have no idea who the murder was in it. Even after reading the book I don’t remember how the movie went. Though I do have a habit of nodding off towards the end of them. I think I take after my mother that way. This is was a good one and all of the clues were there. Christie now seems to be alternating between Poirot and Marple. Once again the war gets almost no mention. One of the main characters has come to the small to town to aid in his recovery from injuries suffered from a plane crash, but it is not made clear if that was as a civilian or as a soldier. If as a solider, he seems to be completely discharged from service. Despite constant socializing with the locals, the war gets no mention at all in the town.

1944 Towards Zero
I remember reading this one before and really, really liking it. I read it again and again really, really liked it. Inspector Battle, who has been a supporting character since the 20s, is the main detective here. The characters are well developed and the book is very well paced. This is really Christie at her finest. You (and I) would think that this point, I would be really jaded of having just read Agatha Christie mysteries for the last 15 months. Surprisingly I am actually enjoying them more than ever.

Again no mention at all of the war. In fact it seems not to exist. People travel freely overseas without concern.

1944 Death Comes as the End
This is a strange one. It’s Christie’s only historical novel, taking place in ancient Egypt. This book was laborious for her to write and while not laborious to read, it’s not really all that solid. Ancient Egypt doesn’t really hold much romance for me. So all the work of creating the historical scene didn’t really do anything for me. Maybe in the future, my new knowledge of everyday ancient Egypt will be very useful for me, but I doubt it. The story was very suspenseful all the way through. I didn’t think the ending was very fair though. There really weren’t enough clues.

Christie never tried to write another historical novel, which was a good thing. I am bit surprised to find myself missing Poirot and London and Poirot’s comfortable existence. Hopefully he will be in the next novel.

Yet another wartime novel where WW2 isn’t mentioned at all, but at least this time there’s a valid reason. A little Googling reveals during WW2 Christie worked in London as a nurse and pharmacist, while publishing 12 books. Maybe she saw enough horrors of war, that she didn’t want to think it about any more than she had to.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

30 or so Songs of Xmas # 17

Today's song is by The Christmas Song by Adam Arcuragi, who used to live in Philadelphia but has move 8 times since then. I'm not sure what this lyrics have to do with Xmas even after listening to it a dozen times, but I like song.

If the embedded thing below doesn't work, you can listen to the song on MySpace. That should be a direct link.

Friday, December 10, 2010

30 or So Songs of Xmas #16

Picking 30 great Christmas songs is hard for me. Which reminds of a line from a song I was going to include at some point anyway.

Today's song is Bob and Doug's 12 Days of Christmas. I remember from my high school days staying up super late on Saturday nights to catch SCTV, which came on after Saturday Night Live. SCTV was a Canadian show, and Bob and Doug were originally created as a farce to fill 2 minutes of required minimum Canadian content for Canadian television. The skit became popular and wound up on the US version as well.

Bob and Doug eventually resulted in a comedy album (which this track is from) and a now classic movie. The cartoon version must have come much later.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

30 or So Songs of Xmas #15

Today' song is Christmas Wrapping by the Waitresses.

This is another one of those perfect Christmas songs, which is especially surprising because nobody can name a single other Waitresses song.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

30 or so Songs of Xmas # 14

Today's song is Silent Night by Enya.

Enya was an act that was rather popular in the mid 90s. Although front by the seemingly eponymous Enya, it was a three person group. This song is an excellent representation of everything they did so well.

Enya may still be active. I don't know. I lost total interest after a few albums. As great as their sound was (and it really was great), there is only so much of it any one person needs since they didn't seem to really evolve any. I'll try to listen to some later day Enya later to see if this a fair assessment.

Either way, this is a great version of Silent Night, maybe the best ever.

30 or so Songs of Xmas # 13

Today's (well yesterday's as I'm a day late) song is Christmastime is Here Again by the Vince Guaraldi Trio.

Charles Schultz's Peanuts is an enterprise that lasted way too long. Retiring while on top, like Bill Waterson with Calvin and Hobbs and Gary Larson with Farside, hadn't really been done yet. With The Grey Lodge Pub, I hope I end my run while at my peak and try something new rather than suck a great thing dry and have people say "yeah that place used to be good". But rather than dwell on Charles Schultz and Peanuts' decades long crappy end run, today we are going to remember back when Peanuts was at its prime.

A Charlie Brown Christmas is older than I am. That seemed normal to me when I was in grade school, but is now a little hard for me to believe. A Charlie Brown Christmas was the very first notable children's Christmas TV special. Young or old you have to agree that A Charlie Brown Christmas is an masterful production. Solid story, a little humor, and a solid ending. It's the music that really pits over the top.

I remember buying this CD back when I was 25 (20 years ago) and feeling very cool to be into the retro jazzy soundtrack from a touchstone (oooh big word) of my youth. What an urban hipster I must have been back then. Now a days everyone is nostalgic for their youth and it doesn't feel "cool" to like this anymore. Currently cool or not, this is a great album, and it brings back lots of childhood holiday memories and always puts me in a wonderful holiday mood. It wouldn't be Christmas for me without the Vince Guaraldi Trio.

Turns out I somehow picked a YouTube Vince Guaraldi Trio mix, so I've been listening to four songs from A Charlie Brown Christmas as I write this. Who could ask for anything more?

Bonus Video (Song Count Stays the Same)
Turns out you can ask for more, because it also turns out there's a super cool video for Matisyahu 's Miracle. The live version is a few days back, so the song count stays the same.

Monday, December 6, 2010

30 or So Songs of Xmas #12

Here is another blast from the past, Greg Lake's I Believe In Father Christmas. This song perfectly captures the ennui that often accompanies the holiday season.

I was never into Emerson, Lake and Palmer. I can't even name a single one of their songs, so I am always mildly amazed at how much I love this is delicate, lovely song.

Here's an interesting interview to sort of explains why is the only Greg Lake song I am familiar with.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

30 or So Songs of Xmas #11

This is another blast from the past that still lives on. The Kinks' Father Christmas was one of few Xmas rock songs way back in the day. It was a great song then; it's a great song now. It rocks, it's got xylophone and a bit of a message. Pretty much a perfect song.

Stylewise this video is sort of the worst of the early 80s, or the best if you liked that sort of thing.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

30 or So Songs of Xmas #10

It's hard to pick just one song from the Kingston Trio's Xmas album. I really look forward to breaking out this CD every December. This a very interesting album because they found a lot of holiday songs that to this day are still pretty uncommon.

The song on this video is a bit weak, but that just means you should acquire the CD or the audio files.

Friday, December 3, 2010

30 or So Songs of Xmas #9

This one is a Hanuka song which I've only known of for exactly a day now, thanks to Steveo Hawk.

Matisyahu is an orthodox Jewish reggae musician. Yes you read that right. This is a cultural mash-up that really works.

Now Jews don't have to settle for that annoying Adam Sandler song. If anyone wants to expose me to a great Ramadan song, I'm all ears.

Steve and I noted that there a lot of similarities between Orthodox Jews and Hipsters, and you might be seeing more about that someday soon. We also suspect Matisyahu's guitarist celebrates Christmas.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

30 or So Songs of Xmas #8

I'm a day late, but this is free so probably not a dollar short.

There is something so right about surf rock Xmas songs. Here we have The Ventures andRudolph the Red Nose Reindeer with a little I Feel Fine mixed in.

The Ventures' Christmas album is another MUST HAVE for any holiday music collection.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

30 or so Songs of Xmas # 07

I downloaded an alternative Christmas compilation last year. Like I need more Xmas music on my hard drive. Most of it sucks and probably won't be on my hard drive come Xmas 2011. "Keegan's Christmas" by Marcy Playground though is a real keeper. It's a really great little song.

Since this is an original song, here are the lyrics so you can read along if you want. Hell sing along too if you want.

Lyrics | Marcy Playground lyrics - Keegan's Christmas lyrics

Reading the lyrics really made me appreciate how much talent the lead singer has. I heard of Marcy Playground but never heard any of their stuff before. I'll definitely be checking out more of their work.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

30 or so Songs of Xmas # 05 & 06

Today has two featured songs. Fountains of Wayne released a two-song Xmas CD single right after their debut CD. Original rock Xmas songs were still somewhat rare back in those days. Both songs are great (though Man in the Santa Suit is better), so why choose?

This reminds of how annoying CDs were back in the day. You'd have to pop this in for two great songs, then take it out and pop in another. Even with a 5 disk changer, you were changing CDs too often. Being able to manage a giant playlist from my hard drive is way better. Sepia-toned days of youth my ass!

I wonder what Fountains of Wayne is up to these days. Guess I'll go do some Gooling. Catch you tomorrow.

Monday, November 29, 2010

30 or so Songs of Xmas # 04

Today's song is probably a perfect song. I don't think it could be better in anyway. The arrangement is absolutely brilliant. Ella's voice is like bittersweet honey (if such a thing exists). Pure perfection.

I originally encountered this song on a so-so jazz Christmas compilation CD back in the late 80s.

The album is song is originally from, Ella Fitzgerald Wishes You a Swinging Christmas, is a must have. If you don't already have it, go buy it now! The whole album is a joy and almost as good as this song.

Swinging is Ella's secular Xmas album; she also has/had an album of religious carols, which is really dry and no fun. I listened it twice about 20 years ago and haven't touched it since, except to move houses three times. Maybe I'll give it another go this holiday season.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Painting the Third Floor (Everything is Borrowed)

I have been in a super productive spell for a few months now. Besides working the two places, I have been cleaning out three years of shit from the MGMT Bunker, blogging, and painting my third floor. I also manage to be a good husband and have an active social life. I know these spells of hyper-productivity don't last, so I'm enjoying riding the wave.

My house was built in the 1890s. The roof the house is gabled in several ways and the third floor has a lot of angles. The third floor was been pretty much untouched except for some 1970s era plywood paneling. I spent almost two years renovating the house before we moved in a bit over three years ago. I left the third alone until a couple of months ago.

Painting the third floor has been a project. 2 gallons of primer, 5 gallons of white paint, and I've just started on the 2nd gallon of black paint for the floor. The white and black give the space a very modern minimalist feel, which is somewhat odd to me since the space hasn't really changed in over 100 years.

One of the albums I've been listening to while painting is Everything is Borrowed by the Streets. Many people have lived in this house before me. Probably still more will after I've gone. The house is just borrowed. I'm painting it all the same.

30 or so Songs of Xmas # 03

This Xmas audio treat, Bob Dylan's It Must be Santa, is only a year old. Not all 30 or so will be moldy oldies from a middle-aged guy's sepia colored youth. At least one is a newer one by a senior citizen. So we got that going for us.

Bob Dylan is the eternal enigma. Even the biggest Dylan fan will admit that Bob has dropped some real clunkers. But now and again Bob will pull out yet another masterpiece. When it was announced Bob would be releasing an Xmas album, there was very good cause to expect it to fall into the clunker category. Being Dylan fan, I was cautiously optimistic.

This song and video are the very definition of masterful. After 50 years of doing this stuff, Bob knocks it out of the park. I dare you not to smile repeatedly while listening to this song and/or watching the video. Even Dylan haters love it.

Back to Bob's Xmas album, it's a mixed bag. Right this second, I'm listening to Hark the Herald Angels Sing and it's pretty painful. I'll be Home for Christmas has started off bad but Bob is finding a sort of Louis Armstrong thing in his voice and it has gotten more interesting. The Little Drummer Boy is a pretty basic version in a light traditional Dylan sauce that works very well. Earlier in the album, I really liked Do You Hear What I Hear, which is one my favorite carols (and one I didn't yet have a version of in my collection of several hundred Xmas songs). Bob does it justice. There's more to that album, but
I'm done writing.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

30 or so Songs of Xmas # 02

I'm blogging one my favorite Xmas songs every day until New Years.

Today's song is Carol of the Bells, a techno version by DJ Demonixxx.

Back in the old days of widespread dial-up Internet, the early 2000s, there was a certain file sharing service. I'm usually a first mover on new technology, but I poo-poo'ed Napster when it came out. Why would I want to listen to music on my computer? My computer was slow and buggy enough without trying run music in the background. My stereo with multi-disk CD player was in the same room and always on anyway. A few computers and kick-ass speaker computer system later, I now pretty much only listen to music through my computer.

When a non-techy 21 year old talked Napster up, I finally decided to check it out. Since most folks still used dial-up, the selection was mostly single songs rather than whole albums. Searching for Christmas music, I found this gem. That service made collecting music much easier. It was great for obtaining stuff you knew was out there but not commercially available. Due to the limitations of dial-up, buying music on CD when possible remained the easier and better option.

I tried finding other DJ Demoixx stuff a few years ago, and couldn't, leading me to think it was a one-off, long forgotten thing. So I was very pleasantly surprised to find this song on YouTube this morning. I probably had been searching for Demoixxx with a third x. Google search is smart enough to search on what I want rather than what I type; that's probably a good thing. Turns out DJ Demonixx is still around, living in New Orleans. And Demonixx with two x's is much cooler than with three.

Friday, November 26, 2010

30 or so Songs of Xmas # 01

It's the day after Thanksgiving, so it's time to start cranking out my collection of Christmas Music.

Back in the day, the early 80s, Christmas rock music was hard to come by. There wasn't much of it, and what there was wasn't available in stores. You would have to wait until an Xmas song you wanted came on the radio and you had to have your cassette recorder ready to tape. Jeez talk about primitive. Music collecting back then really was about the hunt. And the good thing about music collecting is that you can listen to it, rather that just have a useless possession.

By the 90s, some Xmas songs wound up on singles or on greatest hits albums. So you actually could possess the music, but playing it around the holiday was extremely laborious.

How it's the 21st century and I have 100s of Xmas songs on my hard drive. All in the same folder. No labor at all to play them.

I'll post one my favorite Xmas songs every day until New Years. Hopefully I can find each on YouTube, which would take care of any copywrong issues.

My first pick is Sting's version of I Saw Three Ships.

Sting has his share of duds as a solo artist; this sure ain't one of them. I really,really love this song, especially the percussion. The whole sound is really different. Caribbean maybe?

I really like this song despite its seemingly stupid lyrics. There were several YouTubes of this song. I picked one with lyrics (which don't seem to match up 100%, but it's good enough for our purposes here, already created, and free).

Three ships? I guess that's a reference to the holy trinity, but that seems to be stretching it. It could be a reference to the three magi, but they didn't travel with Jesus, they traveled to him. So pretty much the title and overall theme are questionable.

And then there is the line featuring "The savior Christ and his lady". Jesus never married, so who is his lady? I guess that would have to be Mary, but when is your mother ever called "your lady"?

Think about that if you wish, but enjoy the song either way. I do.

Monday, November 1, 2010

iPad Will Not Save Struggling Media Companies

I just read an RSS item about a Hip Hop magazine that had stopped publishing a while back, due to publishing costs and decreased advertising, was returning as an iPad store item. It's surprising that so many people still don't get it. Magazines were very essential at one time, but now with a practically infinite number of Websites available 24/7 and updated all the time, there is NO NEED FOR MAGAZINES.

It was like we were starved for information and we had to wait for the regular (weekly or monthly) meal. Now that we can eat whenever we want until we are stuffed, so who needs (or wants) the big meal?

I may be an old foagie but after checking RSS feeds and numerous Websites everyday, the last thing I want to pick up is a magazine or newspaper. I'm full. Plus I have already read or will read the content of the newspaper or magazine on line anyway.

Saturday, October 2, 2010

Reading the Dame Part 2B: The second half of the 1930s

Reading the Dame Part 2B: The second half of the 1930s

When I first starting writing this it had been about 3 months since I last updated my Agatha Christie project progress. Reading the notes I've been taking on each book, Murder in Three Acts seems such a long time ago.

Last night I walking to a couple from Baltimore who were up at the Grey Lodge for an Authors A'Plenty event. They actually think me doing this is cool (cheers to them for having such a broad interpretation of cool). While mentioning I had read a lot of those Christie books as a youth and was now rereading them as an adult, and the differences between reading them in the 1980s and reading them in 2010 (such as being able to find out what a Continental Baldwin is), I also realized that I have doing this project for a year now. When I mentioned using my buddy's laptop to Google Streetview the address of a then chain coffee shop and finding that the coffee shop is still there. I had a clear memory of sitting on that sofa in Ocean City Maryland reading The Secret Adversary, and thinking I wonder if that coffee shop is still there. And being 2009, I had the tools at my disposal.

So I have read 32 Agatha Christie books in about 12 months. At that rate, I should be done this project (and able to read other fiction) sometime in late fall of 2012.

The latter half of the 30s features two Christie most famous books Death on the Nile and Ten Little Indians/And Then There Were None. She is in her late 40s here and really in her prime.

(1935) Murder in Three Acts
Ah, one I haven't read before. Satterthwaitte reappears, as does Hercule Poirot.

One of the lead characters, Sir Charles, a retired actor (of the stage), is a quite well fleshed out as a character.

We finally got a tiny bit of backstory on Poirot who tells Satterthwaite that we was born into a large poor family and had to make his own way in the world. He entered the police force and worked his way up, gained some renown, and finally retired. The war happened, he was injured (I suppose as a citizen not as a soldier) and then left Belgium for refuge in England (which was the set-up for the Mysterious Affair at Styles, Christie's first book. He solves the rich woman's murder and then becomes a celebrated and highly paid personal detective for rich people. He has now made his fortune. Still no mention of any wife or children.

I was actually getting jaded of the project before reading this book, but it, and the ones after, have been so good, I'm back fully committed. In her mid 40s, Christie is really firing on a cylinders. She has also improved greatly as a writer.

(1935) Death in the Clouds
Wow another one I haven't read before. Planes, still a novelty, were featured in two other Christie books so far. P and H take one to France in The Big Four. The salary man looking for adventure takes on in Mr. Paker Pyne, Detective. A good mystery involving a blow pipe, which comes back to haunt her. She really didn't research how large a blow pipe is, and how impractical it would be to have one on a plane.

One of the characters takes something called a Continental Baldwin out of his suitcase. 20 years ago, just what a Continental Baldwin was would have been a mystery. Was it a fancy pen? A portable typewriter? Or something else entirely? Even reading the whole book gives no context cues. Now thanks to Google, I know it is or was a schedule for trains in continental Europe. That's something even if you had a whole library at your disposal 20 years ago that you would unlikely be able to discover. Though I guess since it was a book, it might, might have been the card catalog.

(1935) The ABC Murders
Hastings and Poirot are back again. This time though Hastings explains that he was in England to personally look after some business for six months due to the bad economy while his wife remained in Argentina looking after the ranch. Poirot has moved from the Sherlock Holmes style rooms at a lodging house to a modern apartment building. Poirot seems to allow Hastings to stay there. Hastings remains pretty much an idiot. It still remains unclear why Poirot and Hastings are friends.

I have a memory of reading this as a teenager at the swim club during summer vacation. It was bit fantastical, but I seemed to have liked that as teenager.It's still rather fantastical, but I like that less now that I'm older. Still a good read, and rather well plotted, but a little far fetched. Like The Big Four (1924), I liked this one way more the first time around.

Christie was really cranking on cylinders at this point. Plots are solid, characters are well made.

(1936) Murder in Mesopotamia

This one is set before Murder on the Orient Express, explaining Poirot's presence in that part of the world. This is a good one utilizing Christie's trips to archaeological digs in Iraq. It was one of these trips that she met her second husband, Max. The characters are well crafted.

(1936) Cards on the Table
In this book, a rich weird-o invites four detectives and four killers to a bridge party. Unknowing to them, he "collects" killers. He invites the detectives to appreciate his collection. He winds up dead during the party. The detectives are Poirot, Colonel Race (making another appearance after a decade), Superintendent Battle (a bit character in loads of Christie books both with and without Poirot), and Ariadne Oliver, a female mystery writer who is based on Christie herself. It's a good read.

(1937) Poirot Loses a Client
I don't recall reading this one before. Great premise: a letter gets mailed to Poirot months after the writer has died. Was the writer paranoid or was she murdered? Great mix of characters and a somewhat complicated but believable plot. Hastings is back. He seems to have moved back to England permanently and has his own place and owns a car. His wife isn't mentioned.

(1937) Murder in the Mews
Another that I hadn't read before. I have learned that a mews is a street of stables. One of the row was converted to a residence (cars are displacing horses rapidly here) and the occupant is found murdered. Poirot winds up being involved.

(1937) Death on the Nile
I saw the movie in the theater way back in the day but never read the book. The copy I have is a slightly fancy paperback, but normal shape, not the oversized version, with lots of empty pages to make it look classier. It even has a forward by Christie where she says the book is one of her favorites.

It's a great book. Well drawn characters, great motivations for the characters, and a great plot. Colonel Race is back as well as Poroit. The movie made me want to take a cruise down the Nile some day. The book still makes me want to.

(1938) Appointment with Death
A week before reading the book, Maureen and I watched this on Masterpiece Mystery. For some reason Masterpiece/BBC usually radically rewrites the plot when converting a Agatha Christie book to a movie. Not merely combining characters to make a novel fit into a 90 minute film, they go as far as to switch detectives, change eras, switch murderers, or keep the murderer and switch motives. I don't get why they would do such a thing. On the plus side, it means that any I've watched on TV won't ruin the book for me since they are so radically different.

The book takes place somewhere in the Middle East, a day or two's drive out of Jerusalem. I imagine there are highways now and it's much quicker to get this impressive place.

(1938) A Holiday for Murder aka Murder for Christmas
I read this one during the 1993 Xmas holidays, which seems appropriate back then. I was working the cubical job and had 5 years in by that time, which meant 3 weeks of vacation per year. If you took 4 days off between Xmas and New Years, with 1/2 days, holidays and 4 weekend days, you could be out of the office for almost two weeks. Nearly two long, wonderful, amazing weeks, spent mostly at home. It was a great time to start and finish a novel. One bad thing about working for yourself, you don't get almost 2 weeks of no responsibilities. I do get a little time most days to sit and read in my garden though, so as with most things, it's a trade off.

The book still had/has a holiday greeting to riders from SEPTA. I left it in there as a time capsule. I remembered the story, but not the ending. The ending was a mild surprise to me, but it seemed very fair that I could have guessed it.

(1939) Easy to Kill aka Murder is Easy
I read this one before. Christie takes a break from Poirot here. Christie in prior books, as fictional mystery novelist Mrs. Oliver, complains about her foreign detective. She was also known to mention dislike him in interviews. Strange should she should have written so many Poirot books in a row if she disliked him that much. The one features a middle-aged former policeman who has retired and returned to England after years in the Malay Straights. This is another really solid one. Clues to the murder are well placed but not too obvious. Well paced.

(1939) Ten Little Indians aka And Then There Were None
Another break from Poirot. I remember reading this one for high school English class. It was one of the few books I actually read for that class, yet somehow I passed all the test and the class. The others I bluffed/guessed my way through the tests. It was a quick fun read back then. It still is.

(1939) The Regatta Mystery and Other Stories
Back in the day writers could make a good buck writing short stories. This is a collection I assume of previously published short stories featuring Poirot, Parker Pine and Marple. Good stuff, a quick read. One of the rare ones I hadn't read before.

Sorry that this was pretty dry post.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Tuesday 10am, So Far so Good

Actually it's only 9:59am.

I got up this morning about my usual time, 6:30am. Caught up with Facebook, browsed my subscribed feeds in Google Reader, made myself a light breakfast, which I read in front of my computer while reading my daily links via the My Morning Coffee plug-in for Firefox... pretty much my usual morning. Nerdy and boring but it works for me.

I had done all that, and was presentable and out the door by 8:45am. I had an appointment at the oral surgeon for 9am. I could have drove, but I like walking, especially since the office is only a mile or so from my house. The receptionist who sat me in an examining room asked me if I had the day off. I said no, I was working a double shift. Which is true, I have today planned by the hour, sometimes by the minute up to 9pm. I have many tasks at both businesses to do plus some personal errands before that. I thought of being my own boss, I looked down at the comfortable clothing I was wearing and would be wearing all day and thought of the Beastie Boys line "the truth is I'm exactly what I want to be".

My mouth has healed well and I'm ready for a new tooth to be done by my regular dentist. Dr. Kaye's office is extremely efficient and they had me in and out in about 13 minutes. The walk home was equally as pleasant as the walk up. I really like living in a walkable neighborhood. I like the inefficiency timewise of walking and the non-hurried pace walking provides, though since it adds some exercise to my day, walking might be considered very efficient. And I even had a few minutes to sit on my front porch.

At this stage of my life, I am not really into material stuff. The less the better, but my post-Victorian house brings me a lot of pleasure. I live in an unglamorous but safe neighborhood and my house didn't set me back much. It's my middle-aged man house and being a middle aged man I really like it. It has all sorts of things I was looking for including an open front porch and a decent sized back yard for gardening

I sat on my porch for a few minutes contemplating my landscaping efforts, the very comfortable wire/resin wickerlike furniture I got a sweet deal on and was sitting upon. I contemplated that I hadn't really sat on the porch much this year, having spent lots of time out back now that my efforts have resulted in a very nice garden. I thought of the juxtaposition of my front porch on a noisy busy street and the quiet solitude of my garden out back. I remembered how much fun it was hanging on the front porch last summer with lots of friends after Tanconellis and thought we should have a porch party before the weather turns.

I contemplated the unsociable cat that has been hanging around the house for a week or two now who took way too long to notice me. He/she finally saw me, came in for a closer look and then took off. I thought on being at a stage in my life to have all that and be able to enjoy it. I thought about my wife and how I wouldn't be happy living here alone without her.

Now I'm in my home office, catching up on email, and knocking out the first draft of this blog. Next I'll work for an hour on the somewhat involved project of restoring my garage windows. Then a short nap then off to the Grey Lodge and then to Hop Angel where I have a long list of things to get done.

The truth is I'm exactly what I want to be, and where I want to be.

Saturday, August 7, 2010

Delaware River Heritage Trail

A little while back, 2008 - 2 years ago, they opened more parkland here in Northeast Philly along the Delaware River north of Rhawn Street.

The first part of this park was created in the 1990s. It served to connect the Pennypack Park Bike Trail out to the river and as a large recreation area. It was mostly acres and acres of playing fields with a path along the river. It was a good place to park your car and unload your bike to for the trail. Unless you were a bike rider or had a softball or soccer game there, you probably never went there. It was nice but there wasn't much real there there.

Two years ago they opened the new part which is to be part of a trail going down the east coast of the USA. So the rail will eventually go up to Trenton and down to Wilmington and onward in both directions.

A year ago, a minor big news item was a couple of bald eagles set up a nest in the new part of the park.

Today after a lunch of Steak and Eggs with Marty and before heading up to my parents house to fix their computer and install their home theater system, I decided it was finally time to check out the new part of the park. And it was en route too.

The new part has been open for about 2 years, but for various lame reasons I didn't make it there until today.

Wow. The new part is amazing. So much untouched land. It's all wetlands and meadows, which makes for a very interesting and pleasant stroll.

It's probably about a mile from my house. I can't believe I hadn't bothered to come here before now.

I only encountered two people there. Both were middle aged. A guy sitting on a bench in a really neat grotto near the river and a middle aged guy on a bike. So there's the tie-in with the theme of this blog. It's something middle aged people like.

Northeast Philly has a reputation as an uncool and lame place to live. This miracle is right here and hardly anybody knows about it.

I won't be there daily, but I'm going to try to pop in whenever I am passing through and have some time to invest there wisely.

As this trail gets longer, Northeast Philly will become a nice place to grow older. I look forward to eventually walking or riding for dozens, maybe hundreds, of miles on it.

Picture 1: Where old path meets new.

Picture 2: The fence that served to end the old trail is now open.

Picture 3: A very pleasant place to sit near the river.

Picture 4: Wetlands view from the pleasant spot of Picture 3.

Picture 5: A big bug on the path. I saw butterflies, birds, but no eagles.

Picture 6: Where the trail now ends (for now). Eventually there will be a bridge that should connect up to the park and hatcheries at Lyndon Ave.

Picture 7: Marker.

Pictures 8, 9 and 10: Turning back now. Meadows. I saw wildflowers and trees and all sorts of native plants.

Picture 11: The fence from the other side, with a view of NJ on the other side.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Garden Post #2

I am usually a restless fidgety sort of person. It's in my genes. My father is that way as well. I am quite surprised by how much I enjoy sitting in my garden, just sitting there contently doing nothing, like a dog or cat just sitting... happily. Unlike a dog, I usually keep my tongue in my mouth while I'm sitting there.

I occasionally get up to sweep some of the junk the dogwood tree is constantly dropping into the mulched areas. Sometimes I'll pretend to read a book, but for most part I just sit contentedly.

This picture of the back seating area is about a month and half old. The hydrangea behind the chairs is much larger now. The hostas have really taken off as well.

I added this seating area in April. It's connected to the first seating area on the other side of the dogwood tree. Most of the day, it's a nice shady spot. Various species of birds can usually be heard singing; squirrels do weird shit. It's extremely peaceful.

This seating area, which quickly became my favorite, is as far from the house as possible. While sitting there, it occurred to me that is area is contrary to what has been the modern outside seating arrangement for the last 50 years, which is a deck or concrete slab immediately off the back of the house that looks out onto a sea of grass. Sooner or later, I intend to have a porch built on the back of the house; I suspect this spot will remain my favorite sitting spot. We shall see.

Sunday, May 9, 2010

Garden Post #1

One of the things I most love about being in my 40s is my garden. I bought my middle-aged man house when I turned 40 in 2005. I worked on the 100+ year old house for two years before we moved in.

The yard was a project that had to sit on the back burner. That gave me several years to plan and several years of being a little frustrated at the unrealized potential. Last year, 2009, I finally got the chance to work on it properly. It has become my personal green oasis and I do my best to spend at least a little time sitting in it every day.

Rather do a very long post on the garden, I'm going to do a series of shorter posts about various aspects of it. Gardening is definitely a middle-aged thing, so it fits right into this blog. Today's post is the intro to the series and a quick before and now comparison. This post is a bit dry and boring. I think they will get better after this intro one.

The top picture captures the back 2/3s of my yard as of May 2010. My yard is a big one for the city, measuring 25 by 64 feet (I know because I plotted out on a grid last spring before beginning work). Things are green but the growing season is only just beginning.

Here's what it looked like in 2005 when I bought the house. Here's the same angle today (more or less). I have been converting it from underused space that required weekly mowing to a very utilized space that requires little work to maintain.

Saturday, May 8, 2010

Reading the Dame Part 2A: The first half of the 1930s

Reading the Dame Part 2A: The first half of the 1930s

In a prior post, I wrote about my project to read/re-read all of Agatha Christie's mystery books in order (I think I can pass on her pseudonLinkymous Mary Westcott romances; there's enough romance in the Agatha Christie mysteries. Also after I finish about 80 full length Agatha Christie books, I'll need a long break from her).

While Agatha Christie could weave a very tightly plotted tale, it's becoming clear she wasn't a really truly great writer. She doesn't stick with you like Hemingway does (kind of like a rash), or sneak up on you like Twain, or just frigging rule like Steinbeck (man, that guy could write). She's clear and concise and extremely readable, but her writing is somewhat stiff. There is no real voice there and her writing is devoid of humor. Maybe it was her upper crust English breeding, though Aldous Huxley definitely wrote with what could be called a voice. The words do not dance nor sing; the characters rarely linger in your memory. I don't want to imply that she was a bad writer, she indeed was a quite good writer; just not great. This lack of greatness is probably how she was able to kick out so many books.

OK, onto the books. She published 9 books between 1930 to 1935. As before, some of the comments are about the book, some about me reading it when I was younger and re-reading it now as a forty-something guy, some are about 20th century fiction reread from a 21st Century viewpoint. Some are completely pointless.

(1930) The Murder at the Vicarage
Christie's 1930s output starts off with The Murder at the Vicarage. This book marks Miss Marple's first appearance. For those who don't know, she's a spinster from a small village. Her deal is that you can learn about people without being well traveled by observing village life. This knowledge can be used to solve mysteries.
Tuppence of the Tommy and Tuppence books was the daughter of a vicar. The difficulties of a vicar's household keeping servants due to not being able to offer a competitive wage is revisited here. While most of the book is set in a vicarage, quite a bit of it happens at a country estate.

Another really solid effort with a tightly woven plot. I read this one before, sometime in the 1980s. I forgot enough to not remember who done it.

(1930) The Mysterious Mr. Quin
Next up was a collection of short stories, The Mysterious Mr. Quin. This is an unusual book as it features the quite mysterious Mr. Quin, who appears time and again in Mr. Satterthwaite's life. Quin, is Mr. Harley Quin, aka Harlequin. I have any a passing familiarity with the 5 or 6 historic stock classic clown characters of which Harlequin is one. I don't want to know either. I could very well look it up, but clowns are creepy.
I had read this one years before when I was in my teens and it quite stuck with me. Way back I read that Kevin Smith (aka Silent Bob) named his daughter Harley Quinn. While he most definitely named her after a comic book character, I immediately thought of this book.

In each story, Saiterthwaite stumbles on a mystery and Quin shows up at the right moment to guide Saiterthwaite to the solution. When I was younger the mysterious Mr. Quin, who acted all mysterious and seemed to know all, was quite cool in a Racer X sort of way. Now I believe that a Harlequin is some sort of clown and I'm a little creeped out. Now that I'm older, Satterthwaite is the more curious character. He is an quite rich old bachelor who is more like a busybody old maid. He travels in the richest circles, and he also travels in the artistic circles as a patron of the arts. Satterthwaitte isn't as douchey as you might expect, but he's not especially likable either. He seems like the character Christie was destined to create. He has reappeared in a book in reading right now, but that will have to wait until the next installment of this series.

Saitterthwaite gets a back story. He was going to propose to a girl at Kew Gardens, but instead she tells him about another guy she's crazy about. He then spends the rest of his life as a bachelor. This makes the lack of backstory on Poirot after numerous books even more curious.
Satterthwaite's typical year is described as being in London for the social season, going to the Riviera in the winter, coming back to London briefly before making a tour as a guest at various country homes. He also would spend a few weeks in Scotland every year (doing what isn't explained). Satterthwaite has a Rolls Royce and a chauffeur to drive him in it. Which gets me thinking of the logistics and economics of the whole thing. Is the chauffeur on salary year round, or only during the driving through the country house visiting season? My guess is the chauffeur would get a day rate and has to fend for himself during the winter. Satterthwaite gets his own room (sometimes a suite) when he visits the various country estates. I guess those "great houses" must also have had spare servants rooms for servants who came with the guests. So if Satterthwaite stays a week before moving on, what does his chauffeur do during that time (and is he still getting the same day rate)? I image some of the time is spent cleaning and polishing the car, but that's probably only an hour a day. What about the rest of the waking day? Spent it at the village pub or playing cards with the other servants? After the Agatha Christie reading project is done in a few years, I'll have to find a book written from the perspective of the servants.

The perspective of the leisure class in the travels is interesting in a how the other 1/2 of 1% lives sort of way.

This was a good read, but I liked better my first time around. I lived too much to be particularly sympathetic to the leisure class.

(1931) Murder at Hazelmoor (also known as The Sittaford Mystery)
A little ways in I realized I had read this one before. I definitley didn't remember who did it. Towards the end of the book, there was a clue that struck up a lost memory. I remembered who and how. Or maybe I just figured it out with my brilliance. You probably suspect the former, but we'll never know.

Hazelmoor is yet another really good read. Lots of interesting characters and some interesting plot twists. While the murder happens at a named country house, at bit of action also takes place at a pub, which was quite interesting to me being a publican.

Once each in several of her books, Christies uses the verb "vouchesafed", which appears to be a synonym for "said". I remember this word from reading Christie as a teen. It was a new word to me. It didn't take much contemplation to back then decide it was a word that I didn't need to add to my vocabulary. Agatha Christie books are the only place I have ever seen the word vouchesafed. It made an impression on me, but I totally forgot about it until stumbling on it again (and again) as part of this reading/re-reading project. I never looked up the exact meaning of vouchsafe, but now that I'm typing this on a computer with access to the Web, there's no reason not to. Here's the definition, "grant in a condescending manner".

I rip on Christie's writing ability in the second paragraph above, but I really liked this one. This one has stick-to-you-ness.

(1932) Peril at End House

For some reason Hastings is back in England and taking a week long beach holiday with Poirot. No reason is given why Hastings is no hurry to get back to his ranch and his wife in Argentina.

Drugs, cocaine specifically, play a role in this mystery, which once again happens in a country manor house, though one that has seen better days.

At some point I got into the habit of writing the month and year I read a book on the inside cover.
I read this one before, the note in front says "08/81", just about some 29 years ago. Wow crazy, so long ago. Even without looking for my notation in the book, from the title I remembered reading this one before. Strangely I remembered pretty much none of the story. Or maybe not so strangely as it has been 29 years. So I had read all her books from the 1920s before, except one. And so far I had previously read all 4 books of the 1930s that I have gotten up to. Before this project I was under the impression I had only read about 50%, maybe 60%, of Christie's 80 or so books. For Christie books published between 1920 and 1932, I'm running about 95% previously read.

This was another really good read. As usual the plot is well constructed. As usual Christie does a great job of parceling out clues and the surprise ending doesn't feel like a cheat.

(1932) The Thirteen Problems (aka The Tuesday Club Murders).

This is a bunch of Miss Marple short stories, interwoven into a novel, an old Christie trick that always worked well. The old bat solves them all. I think I partially read this one before, though it must have been a library book. I probably returned it without finishing it, maybe starting it on a school break.

It was a good read, but I found myself pondering the Miss in Miss Marple. I recall being a lad in the 1970s; for some reason my mother's side of the family seemed to know a lot about proper salutations and whatnot. Maybe that was taught in secretary school and most women knew it then. Unmarried women were Miss and married women were Mrs. Married or umarried, men over 13 were Mr. I recall being a Master until 13 when I became a Mr. Until then birthday cards from my Aunt and Nana were addressed to me Master.

I also recall sometime in my childhood Ms., pronounced "mizz" and which I had thought was spelled "Mizz", became newsworthy. It was explained to me that Mizz was for addressing both married and unmarried women, but why anyone who want to do that was unknown... some sort of women's lib thing. Looking back on that now, that must of been when the New York Times switched to Ms. from Mrs. and Miss, making Ms. newsworthy. Looking back now, I can see how that would have been big news. I like that here in the 21st century, the NYT still refers to everyone Mr. and Ms. As crazy as it would seem today to make a distinction between a woman's martial status, when the same isn't done for men, I can't see Miss Marple ever being a Mizz Marple. And you'd never dare call her Jane.

(1933) Lord Edgware Dies (aka Thirteen at Dinner)

I recalled reading this one (and a note in front said I read it December 1993) but I had little memory of it, so the ending wound up being a surprise. I have gotten pretty good at solving the mystery before the reveal, but Christie got me here.

Actors have made appearances as character in several books so far. In this one, the actors are mostly movie actors. At this point talkies have been around for a few years.

Another strong read, which percolates nicely and has a satisfying conclusion.

Several curious things here, Hastings again is the narrator,
back in England and staying at Poirot's. Having seemingly taken up lodging there. No mention is made of Hastings wife nor his life in "the Argentine", though he does get suddenly recalled to the Argentine just before the last chapter. Still no backstory on Poirot.

The other curious thing is that Poirot, makes a mention of spending an afternoon involved in a case involving an ambassador's boots and cocaine smuggling. I went back and looked, and that was a Tommy and Tuppence case from Partners in Crime, which was published about 4 years earlier. Poirot does not appear in the published story. Did Christie get her detectives mixed up? Or maybe Poirot heard the story while hanging out at Scotland Yard.

(1934) Murder on the Orient Express.

This is one I hadn't read before. But I do recall watching the movie on video and finding it a little dull. Even worse I remembered whodunnit. It is one of those where you don't forget it.

This seems to only be the 2nd book so far that I hadn't read before. Curiously the other one, The Mystery of the Blue Train, also took place on a train. So that's 19 out 21 books so far that I had already read before.

I have been collecting books since I was teenager with the aim of eventually having a book lined study when I was adult. Many of the books were picked up used at flea markets or thrift stores, so I have little idea where (or when) most of the books came from. In the back of this book I found a bit of an envelope seemingly used as a book mark. It was addressed to Master Jeffrey Riley of Andalusia PA. So my brother and I weren't the only two boys getting mail addressed to us as "master". The post mark is from the 1970s. It's curious how "master" reappears after my thoughts on that word a couple books up.

The remembrance of the book lined study idea takes me back to a memory from college. For some reason I was in the office of one of my Philosophy teachers. His office had hundreds of books on wall mounted book shelves. He saw me observing that and asked if I was impressed by the number of books. I was actually impressed that he got the college to put up that many book shelves for him. I was 19 and been buying books for years at that point. Quantity of books didn't impress me as I knew how inexpensive it could be to amass quite a few. I did know what an ordeal it was to get anything accomplished at La Salle University (great faculty, but the non-teaching staff was terrible), so I was way more impressed with the book shelves. Rather than express all that, I just said "yes".

Once I got my own house, I discovered reading a book in a book lined room wasn't as romantic as it sounded, not in the least. Maureen and I have quite a collection of books. Technology has really changed everything, or almost everything. Turns out for me the content is more important than the physical object. Like music, I'd rather have them all in electronic form, but that getting them that way would cost way more than owning printed copies nobody much wants. Unlike CDs, books aren't easily rippable, so unlike our large collection of CDs, which will probably go away at some point, like vinyl albums and cassette tapes, our books will probably continue to take up space in our home for quite a while.

So onto the book. It was a very good read despite knowing whodunnit. I liked it. Unlike the movie, it was never dull.

Still no back story on Poirot, who winds up on the Orient Express after getting called back early from Istanbul, here called Stambul for some reason.

In Europe, Pullman (sleeper) cars were called Wagons-Lits. In the USA, the Pullman Company out of Chicago, built and operated the sleeper cars. They had some sort of deal with the railroads to attach the sleeper cars to the trains. Compagnie Internationale des Wagons-Lits was the European copy.

(1934) Mr Parker Pyne Detective
I read this one before too. Mr. Parker Pyne is a retired government statistician who opens a business to help unhappy people. This one too is a collection of related short stories. It was a good read the second time around too.

Mr. PP is famous for his daily front page ad in the newpaper inviting unhappy people to visit his office, where he will solve their problems. This got me to thinking about the death of newspapers. Once they were the only means to reach the masses. News, classified ads for jobs or apartments or stuff, entertainment, ads for services, it was all there. The service ads were published daily waiting for someone to need a lawyer, doctor, plumber, whatever. All of those things were gradually usurped by other media.

This book had a real potential to be terribly dated with sexism and racism. Happy it isn't.

Parker Pyne winds up on vacation for the stories at the end of the book, where he winds up on the Orient Express. She got some mileage from that train trip.

(1934) Why Didn't They Ask Evans
I read this one before too. It features two somewhat young people in their mid 20s. One a titled daughter of a very rich man, the other a penniless 4th son of a country vicar who was aimless after leaving the military.

The heroine is a rehash of Bundle, Lady Whatever of Seven Dials Mystery and The Secret of Chimneys. She too is rich, titled due to the death of her mother, independent, doesn't work, and lives with her widower father. This reads like a Tommy and Tuppance book, which isn't a bad thing.

For one part, the vicar's son poses as her chauffeur. While the lady is staying at the country estate, the chauffeur stays at the local pub. His only duties are to be near the phone in case the lady wanted to be driven somewhere. So that answers the chauffeur mystery from The Mysterious Mr. Quin.

Plenty of twists and turns in the plot. A great read. Of course rich chick settles down with poor boy. I liked this one, but it left me a little cold.

I have 13 more books to read to get from 1935 to 39. I have two down. Next installment will be in a few months.

Saturday, February 6, 2010

Reading/Re-Reading the Dame: Part 1 - The 1920s

Reading/Re-Reading the Dame: Part 1 - The 1920s
In 1976, many of Dame Agatha Christie's 79 books were reissued in paperback after her death renewed interest in her. That was just about when I started reading from the adult section of the library. As a result her books were readily available and easy to find there, so I ended up reading a lot of Agatha Christie books as a teenager. I continued to read them on and off (mostly off) in the following years.

Last summer I decided to read all 79 Agatha Christie books in order of publication. This will be a multi-year project. I just finished the 12 books she published in the 1920s, which are about a 50/50 mix between novels and short story collections. It took me 5 months to read those 12. Quite a few of the books I collected cheaply over the decades from used book shops, thrift stores, yard sales, etc. The rest, one decade at a time, I have been buying used from Amazon for about $4 including shipping.

19 Random Thoughts
Here are some random thoughts. Some are about Agatha Christie. Some are about my experiences reading her first as a teen and now as a middle-aged man. I bolded them a little bit to hopefully make the whole mess a little more readable.

1) What strikes me now as a person of 44 years living in 2010 is how incredibly snobby the books are. Thanks to the modern wonder of the Web, I now know that Dame Agatha was the daughter of a rich American father (of the New York Piedmont Morgans) and an English mother. She was born upper class and definitely had an opinion of the lower class. All of the characters so far have been "gentlefolk" like her. Inheriting money or marrying into it being much more acceptable than actually earning it. With the exception of butlers and housekeepers (which are different from maids), the servants are almost always totally undeveloped as characters.

2) Regarding butlers, it is as though the Merchant Ivory movie The Remains of the Day (which is based on a novel by by Japanese-British author Kazuo Ishiguro) is based on the butler character in The Secret of Chimneys, who reappears in the The Seven Dials Mystery. The perfect butler is a gentleman's gentleman, who never shows emotion, yada yada. I had rewatched The Remains of the Day a little before rereading Seven Dials and Chimneys, so the similarities were really evident to me. You have to wonder if Ishiguro has read The Secret of Chimneys, and/or the wonder of the perfect English butler is just common fodder.
3) Thinking back, maybe even as a teen I was aware of the snobby tone, but didn't mind it. At Father Judge High School, the Oblates tried to mold us into young gentlemen. And I bought into the gentleman thing. As a teen I thought maybe I could join the rich club someday (which seems like such an unChristian thing to do). Totally like James Mason. In my years since I've mingled with the old money rich a tiny bit and I know it's a club I don't belong in, even if I had some money. I'm whitetrash from Northeast Philly. But I've very cool with that. I'd rather be that than snobby.

4) I suspect I probably wouldn't have liked Agatha Christie as a person.

5) Some of the things she writes would have made me a socialist if I was living in 1920s England. The rich never once pondered that maybe their accident of birth resulting in their much better and totally unearned lifestyle just might be rather unjust. They considered themselves heroic in being poor while waiting for a rich relation to kack and leave them their wholly deserved inheritance. The short story collection The Golden Ball is especially appalling from that perceptive. Many times in her 1920s writings she describes servants actions as being typical of their class.

6) Selected The Golden Ball story number 1: a daydreaming office worker wins a contest and buys an expensive car, which he keeps secret from his sensible fiancee. Due to a misunderstanding (apparently cars didn't need keys back then). He gets mixed with up a group of young rich people ("The Pretty Things" - coincidentally I had a little while before watched the movie Pretty Young Things, which is about young rich English society people in the 1920s). He of course has to return to his own class after the adventure is over, but he had the joy and honor of seeing the other side briefly.

7) Selected The Golden Ball story number 2: a spoiled young man lives with his rich uncle and works for the uncle. After being hung over and late to work yet again due to staying out late with other young upper class London socialites, the uncle throws him out telling him to seize "the golden ball of opportunity". After having the butler pack his things, he does that by hanging out with a society girl with a large annuity, passing her stupid test for a husband, and getting engaged. He seized the golden ball by marrying into money. Which he joyously throws back in the uncle's face. No sense of irony there.

8) Selected The Golden Ball story number 3: a rich man poses a butler to find poor gentlefolk to let live for free (with paid-for servants) in his many houses. Who else is helping the pennyless gentlefolk, a segment that has been forgotten by society? Once the family is once again living in style, the poor widow's son even stops dating a tobacco shop owner's daughter in favor of a girl from his own class. The butler reveals that he is really the missing rich guy and proposes to the widow. The lower class continue to live in their slums.

9) Hercule Poirot appears in 6 of those 12 books and he never gets a backstory. Why is this elderly man single? Did he never marry? Is he a widower? Is there a separated wife living elsewhere? Does he have children? It seems he never married. If so, why?
Six books in and no answer.

10) Agatha Christie was a romance writer as well, having published several romances as Mary Westcott. Many of these 12 books are heavy on the romance. Don't worry, the young lovers always wind up with someone of their own class, even if it seemed that might not be so.

11) Agatha Christie was the mother of a daughter, but none of her heroines have children. I suppose being rich, her daughter was put in care of a governess and then shipped off to boarding school at some point, so maybe it was like not having a child at all. It is interesting that all of her heroines are single upper class young women, some with money and some without, but none are mothers. Not even a young war widow with child.

I remember really, really digging The Big Four whenever I first read it. It is an Ian Flemming-like world conspiracy story, very exotic. I also recall thinking after the long build-up, the ending was rushed and weak. On rereading it, I still think so. A little Wikipedia'ing reveals that The Big Four is a collection of short stories reworked into book form. It was released at the lowest point of her life when she was in need money. Later in a letter to her publisher, she refers to The Big Four as a "rotten book".

13) Two of her most likable and memorable characters, Tommy and Tuppence, appear in two books (The Secret Advisory and Partners in Crime) in the 1920s. I think they don't reappear until one of her final books in the 1970s, when they are in their 70s. it will be interesting to see if I'm wrong and they do reappear before then. Tuppence is pregnant at the end of the 2nd book, so I suspect not. (Wikipedia says they appear in 5 books, so it looks like they do. We'll see as the years and books go on). A neat thing to find out is that my wife really liked and remembered Tommy and Tuppence too.

14) I remember reading The Seven Dials Mystery which takes places at Chimneys, a country house, as a teen. I figured out that The Secret of Chimneys was the prequel. I never saw The Secret of Chimneys on the racks at my local library. Back in the early 80s, in lieu of a card catalog, the Philadelphia Free Library would print huge paper bound computer reports of its inventory, which were located in each branch. Chimneys wasn't available at any of the Northeast Philly libraries. It seemed that not all of her books were released in paperback, and Chimneys was one of those. For me it was the exotic lost Agatha Christie book. I had to put in a transfer request, which cost a quarter I think, to have a hardback copy sent to the Welsh Road library. I still had that sense of wonder when I finally obtained my own copy (in paperback) of it a few years ago. Reading the book was less magical this second time around. Still a good book, but less magic.

15) In the The Man in the Brown Suit, Christie does a great job of describing South African tourist attractions, especially Victoria Falls. And of course despite appearances the romantic interest ends up being a rich gentleman.

16) Of the 12 books, except for The Mystery of the Blue Train, I believe I had read them all previously at some point. I do lightly recall The Golden Ball, but I'm not certain. Maybe I only read a few of the stories. I believe there are many Christie books I haven't read yet; I'm surprised how heavily I had already covered the 1920s.

17) Pa
perbacks must have been a real technological marvel when they first appeared. Even now a paperback slips nicely into a jacket pocket, which must have been a design feature. While I'm waiting somewhere, I can either pull out my smart phone for entertainment or I can pull out the paperback. My phone is a lot sturdier though; the paperbacks need a good preventive application of tape to keep them functioning.

18) Some of the paperbacks I'm reading are older than me. That was normal when I was younger, now it's a bit of a marvel that they are still around. Conversely reading a paperback printed 40 years ago (that's a long time ago) and realizing I'm older than it is quite strange. On a plane to Denver, a woman next me noticed how taped up my book was and mentioned now that was an old book. I do have some old paperbacks, some that date back to the 1940s. This particular one only dated to the 70s; it was younger than me. To me it was one of the younger ones, so her friendly comment sort of made me feel old.

19) The narrator of The Murder of Roger Ackroyd is a doctor. He is well off enough to have live-in servants. It is interesting that the doctor and his roommate sister eat much better than what they provide for their servants.

So what was the 1920s. I'll report back after I finish her 1930s output.