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.