28 October 2011
The setting, as the title indicates, is a Hallowe'en party, given by a Mrs Rowena Drake in the town/village of Woodleigh Common. A number of local children are in attendance as their mothers help Mrs Drake in setting up the party earlier in the day, and during the course of the afternoon young Joyce announces that she's seen a murder -- that it happened a while back, that she didn't know at the time she had witnessed a murder, but that she realized later on what she had seen. Of course, no one believes her.
There are several good reasons for this. For one, Joyce is known for being an inveterate liar. She has a history of making up the most absurdly embellished stories, so it is hardly surprising that everyone assumes this to be the case once again. Additionally, the well-known mystery writer Ariadne Oliver is also attending the party, and everyone else believes that Joyce is trying to impress Mrs Oliver with her outrageous tale. Joyce's announcement thus becomes a mere blip on everyone's radar, and it is quickly forgotten. Until Joyce is discovered with her head in the pail of bobbing apples. It seems that someone has held her down until the poor child drowned.
The rather overly dramatic Mrs Oliver is shocked, horrified, and completely at her wits' end, so she phones her friend Hercule Poirot to take a look at the case. The party goers seem to think the most likely scenario is that someone broke into the house during the party and murdered Joyce, or that there is some bizarre sexual twist in the case. There's no evidence of either being true, however, so Poirot has to assume that one of the people at the party killed Joyce. As there were something like 30 people there, the list of possible suspects isn't exactly short. What's more, Joyce's claim to have seen a murderer now seems strangely relevant, and Poirot must consider the possibility that the child who cried wolf might, in fact, have been telling the truth for once. Not only this, but Poirot must assume that someone at the party was responsible for an earlier murder and wanted very much for Joyce to be silenced.
So Poirot sets about his task as methodically as always, asking questions, digging into the past, putting pieces together. The immediate problem is that no one in Woodleigh Common can remember a murder in recent years, or at least something that would not have looked like a murder to a young child. There was the knifing of a legal clerk -- ostensibly after he started seeing another man's wife -- but it's difficult for someone to see a knifing and doubt what has been seen. But Poirot's on the scent, and he beings to nose out other events in the past that seem less fragrant when considered more closely. The result is one of those great English mysteries that fuses the events of the past with the present and once more brings truth to the idea that even old sins cannot be concealed forever.
This isn't Christie's best mystery by any means, but it's also not her worst. It feels tired in a few places, but I suspect that's partially on purpose as Poirot is aging and is presented as a man who no longer has the vigor of youth and is also losing touch with the younger generations.
In terms of the differences between the book and the film version, I'll add a couple of notes. The book was published in 1969. Christie makes broad references to cultural influences of the day, so I'm assuming the book is intended to be set around 1969. The film version, for whatever reason, is almost certainly set well before this -- perhaps in the late 40s or early 50s. In terms of ambience, it makes sense. The style of the clothes, the mood, all of it works a little better (for me, at least) in the film setting. There are also a few other peripheral moments in the book that are given mini-story lines in the film version. I can't blame the filmmakers for this. The book has a rather massive cast of characters -- far too many, I think -- and it would be ridiculous to include all of these people in the film. What is more, in order to make the characters who are in the film stand out, it doesn't hurt to add a bit to their characters. I didn't feel like any of it was out of place, and it made for a richer story. It does, however, explain why I was a little confused in a few places while watching the film (i.e., Agatha Christie included that in her story?). There are hints and suggestions in the book that become full-blown plot devices in the film. Again, I don't have a huge objection to what was done, as none of it dishonored Christie in intent, and I certainly understand why. (I would go so far as to say that in some ways the filmmakers did a better job of weaving things together and creating a tighter plot. From a story telling perspective, there was a bit more coherence in places.) Just be forewarned that the book is a bit different in places.
Year of publication: 1969
Number of pages: 259
21 October 2011
To Love and Be Wise starts out with Inspector Grant attending a "literary sherry party" -- apparently, a cocktail party of sorts for a publishing company to toast the success of an author -- and while there he encounters a young man named Leslie Searle. Searle, as Grant quickly decides, is quite an interesting phenomenon. He's American, a photographer, and disconcertingly self-contained. Searle is also the type of person who has the presence that makes an impact. He shows up to meet Miss Lavinia Fitch (the toasted author) and mentions that he was hoping to meet her nephew Walter Whitmore who is a friend of someone he knows. Miss Fitch is intrigued and readily invites Searle to her home in what I assume to be the fictional Orfordshire, where her nephew Walter also lives. Additionally, Searle finds himself invited to dine with Grant's own friend Marta Hallard, a well-known actress who is also enchanted by this fascinating young man.
So Leslie Searle goes to Orfordshire and meets Walter Whitmore. He also meets Walter's fiancee (and Miss Fitch's step-niece) Liz Garrowby, and she too is interested. On the whole, Searle raises a few ruffles in the small village where they all live. He just doesn't quite make sense...if that makes any sense. There's something unexpected about him, something that doesn't quite work, and no one can quite place a finger on it. It takes a bit for all of this to sink in, and as it's sinking in Walter and Searle decide to partner up on a venture: the two will travel the nearby river in canoes, and Searle will photograph while Walter, who is a journalist, will write the text. As the two are well known enough in their own fields, the book is guaranteed to be a success.
Having started the project, Walter then decides that he doesn't quite like the young man, but Walter isn't a particularly emotive sort of fellow. He just plods along with it, until one evening when Searle provokes him during a conversation at the local pub. Walter gets up and walks out, slamming the door behind them. Searle waits a bit and then leaves too, cheerily saying goodbye to everyone else and leaving with a spring in his step.
And from then on, Leslie Searle is never seen again.
In short, he disappears. The assumption is that he fell, or was pushed, in to the river and drowned. And of course, because Walter was seen to quarrel with him Walter is the automatic suspect. The river is dragged, and nothing is found, but suspicion lands on Walter and doesn't seem in any hurry to leave. Meanwhile, no one has any idea what happened to the American photographer who made such an impact in so short a time.
Grant is called on the scene to investigate, and he does so with the knowledge that he at least met the young man who has disappeared. He conducts his search with care, but all the while he has the feeling that something isn't right, that something doesn't fit. Walter makes a poor candidate for a murderer (as Grant's sergeant points out, Walter is more like to be the one pushed into the river than the one doing the pushing), but nothing else fits. What could have happened? There's no indication that Searle would have left of his own volition, so the police have no choice but to assume something more sinister.
The only problem I really had with the solution to this mystery is that I figured it out earlier than I should. I got about halfway through and thought to myself, "This whole mystery would be simple if ______________ were the case." It turns out I was right. And it was a tiny bit disappointing (I like to be surprised), but Tey wrapped it all up quite well. I liked the conclusion; I liked how she worked it all out, and why. And now To Love and Be Wise is a definite favorite among the Tey mysteries that I've read.
Year of publication: 1950
Number of pages: 223
14 October 2011
This is, apparently, the last of Josephine Tey's Inspector Grant mysteries, a fact that I wish I had ascertained before I was about 20 pages into it. Ah, well. It was enjoyable nonetheless, and I liked that, as always, Tey revealed yet another aspect of Grant's character. He never quite gets stale. Part of me wonders if this doesn't contribute to a degree of inconsistency in character development. (That is to say, this was the first I remember hearing about his problem with claustrophobia. Unless there was a drive-by mention in another book.) All the same, I appreciate that Tey tries to bring something new to the table in each book, not only in terms of plot but also in terms of character.
Due to the previously unknown condition of claustrophobia, Inspector Grant has been given a leave period of several weeks, and he has decided to take his holiday with his cousin Laura and her family in Scotland. He plans to do some fishing -- an activity that would doubtless stress me out even more, but different strokes, and all that.
No sooner does he get on the train to Scotland than Grant stumbles across a mystery, without quite realizing it. As he passes a cabin, the steward is hammering away on the door. At last, the steward opens the door and sees that the gentleman inside has died from what appears to be a severe blow to his head. He reeks of alcohol, and it is assumed he was a little tipsy and lost his balance when the train lurched. He pitched into a corner and died before someone could assist him. Grant is there as this discovery occurs, and he does what he can to assist. He also -- inadvertently -- does something he shouldn't. The man's newspaper falls onto the floor, and Grant picks it up and tucks it under his arm. He doesn't mean to, of course, but he's more focused on the condition of the passenger than on the newspaper the passenger had with him.
Later on, as he sits over tea, Grant opens the newspaper to realize that it isn't his. And on it is scribbled a few lines from a poem:
The beasts that talk,
The streams that stand,
The stones that walk,
The singing sand,
That guard the way
Well, it's not the stuff of legend, but it's catchy all the same. And it sticks in Grant's head. He decides that he wants to know more about the young man who wrote down these lines. They're not familiar to him and his otherwise excellent education, so he assumes they're original.
From here, Grant tries to focus on his much-needed holiday, but he finds that fishing holds less appeal for him than he would have expected. (Well, I could have told him that.) He discovers that there are "singing sands" in Scotland, so he visits Cladda to see what it holds. No luck there, but he is starting the process of relaxing, and he's also making headway on dealing with his claustrophobia. Eventually, the primary clue must come to him, and from this point Grant realizes that he's facing not just a tragic death but also a murder. So Grant digs in and finds out what really happened. His discovery of the perpetrator comes just a little too late, but the young man in compartment B Seven will have justice in the end.
Overall, I loved this mystery and particularly because it ended nothing like I expected. For some reason, the cover information left me thinking this was going to be another of those British mysteries that leads to an "international crime ring" conclusion. Not so, I'm happy to say. The premise is, in many ways, very satisfying and drove me to Google a few things that were new to me (and unrelated entirely to international crime rings). The one thing I didn't love is the ongoing digs that Tey (through Grant) takes at the Scottish Highlands and the people there who remain passionate about their culture and heritage. Not a page goes by, it seems, that some snide remark doesn't appear about kilts, Celtic, or Scottish independence. It all feels like a rapidly dulling axe to grind, but I suppose it was par for the course during this period. This feature wasn't a deal-breaker for me, but I do wish Tey could have softened her own political views to avoid interfering with what was a fairly strong storyline.
Year of publication: 1952
Number of pages: 223
11 October 2011
For me, this is one of those videos in which one dancer stands out so much I forget there are other dancers in it. This pas de trois, from the Royal Ballet's Swan Lake, is danced by Yuhui Choe, Steven McRae, and Laura Morera. Truth be told, McRae and Morera are excellent dancers, and it's a treat to see them. But how to see anyone else when Yuhui Choe is dancing?
What to note:
The way she uses her head, her footwork and her overall sweetness. Such a lovely dancer. This is indeed the future, and it doesn't look bleak.
07 October 2011
Here's Gelsey Kirkland, the great (and maybe the greatest) American ballerina. Her many personal problems aside, Gelsey was always exceptional on stage. This particular video highlights her performance of the Sugar Plum Fairy variation in The Nutcracker, with Mikhail Baryshnikov. Yes, she's very thin, but...oh my goodness, the way she dances. Every movement, every moment is beautiful. She brings out things in the music that might not have seemed so obvious before. I read somewhere a comment that she becomes a three-dimensional representation of the music in this variation, and I can't argue with such a description.
What to note:
Gelsey was a student of Balanchine, but to me she was a more truly classical dancer than he tended to develop. And she stands head-to-toe with any dancer that Russia produced. Those arms, that footwork, that balance, that control. It's perfection.
(Hint: Her variation is the first two minutes of the video.)
Hmm...not exactly a page-turner, you might be thinking. But you'd be wrong. Lester is an excellent writer, and he does more than recount history. He successfully tells a story, pinpointing important moments along the way and highlighting essential people. He might shade the telling with his own opinions from time to time, but what the book lacks in objectivity it makes up for in sheer enjoyment. As a result, The Fourth Part of the World sits on the very edge of true non-fiction and dips its toe occasionally into the feeling of fiction.
For instance, Lester begins the book by discussing the rediscovery of the 1507 map in the early 20th century. He takes the reader there, sitting alongside the Jesuit priest who stumbled upon it while doing research in Wolfegg Castle. The reader doesn't just find out what happens; the reader finds his own pulse racing with excitement as Father Joseph Fischer begins to realize what he's looking at. It's all highly enjoyable, in fact, and keeps the book from turning into a dull series of cartographic events. This isn't to say that Lester loses his way as a conveyor of history. At no time did I, at least, have the sense that the book was not to be taken seriously (in spite of Lester's occasional hint of opinion when discussing medieval religious ideas). It's just that Lester does a great job of balancing the facts with the sense of being there. Never have maps been so interesting.
So what's so important about this 16th century map from Germany, you ask? It's not merely that it's the first map to identify America and name Amerigo Vespucci as the source of this name. It's also that it's the first map to indicate clearly that America might be a completely new continent (or continents). Specifically, the mapmaker surrounded the continent(s) with water, something entirely shocking at the time. Prior to that time, explorers really did believe that they could sail west into Asia. I suppose they could, in theory: they just didn't realize that they'd have to go around a sizable land mass in the effort to get there. It's the information about South America that really startles the Europeans. The information that Columbus sends back about the islands he discovers doesn't raise too many eyebrows. Back home, everyone still thinks he's found islands off the coast of Asia. It's when Vespucci begins describing the coast of South America -- modern-day Brazil and Venezuela (named to identify it as "Little Venice," it turns out) -- that Europeans begin to sit up and wonder. And Lester takes the reader there. I found myself being startled alongside the 15th and 16th century European.
Overall, The Fourth Part of the World proved to be a great supplement to my meager memory of the history from this period. I recall the basic overview: medieval people believed the world was flat; Columbus disagreed and sailed west to find a route to Asia; in the process, he discovered the New World; Vespucci expanded on his discoveries and bestowed his name on the continents. Toby Lester proves that there's a lot more to it than this, and my elementary school learning has now been greatly enhanced. Case in point: Lester notes that the traditional line about Columbus has been that he went to Ferdinand and Isabella for funding after the king of Portugal turned him down because he believed the world was flat. Apparently not. It seems that the king of Portugal was far more knowledgeable and believed that Columbus was, for lack of a better description, blowing smoke with his theories. He claimed that he could sail west and reach Asia in less than 4,000 miles. The scientists within the king of Portugal's court had extensive information about the shape of the earth and the distances in it and believed that it was more than 10,000 miles from Portugal to Asia. It turns out that they were both right, to an extent: Columbus would hit some form of land in less than 4,000 miles, and Asia was more than 10,000 miles away.
Lester also includes a variety of fascinating details that might not be essential but that certainly enrich the understanding of history. For example, the German cartographer's naming of America really stuck with people, but Spain was offended by it. They believed that it undermined Columbus's accomplishments (which they had financed), and as a result Spain refused to recognize the name America until the 18th century.
I love information like this. Again, it's not necessary, but it makes everything about history so much more interesting, because it's a reminder that history is made up of people -- and people can always be counted on for a great story.
I recommend this book. But let me recommend with a suggestion: I think you need to be in a certain mood to read it. As fascinating as it is and as easy of a read as it is, there's still a great deal of history in it, and the history is ultimately about maps. There's also a flow to this book that demands consistency. Pick this up when you can move through it fairly quickly; the story moves along, and if you pick it up and put it down you might find yourself lost. I read it in about 5 days, and that was a good speed. Had I read it over 5 weeks, however, I don't know that I would have enjoyed it nearly as much.
Year of publication: 2009
Number of pages: 462
06 October 2011
I love this piece and the way it's performed here. There's something about Ninel Kurgapkina's smile and the playfulness she brings to the choreography. The dancers never forget that they're playing characters, and they seem to be having a blast with it. (By the way, the male dancer is Boris Bregvadze. And as a note of interest, Kurgapkina's first name was "Lenin" spelled backwards. Apparently, it was briefly popular in Russia.)
Sadly, Kurgapkina died in 2009; she was 80 years old. From what I can gather the Russian press said, she was hit by a car while trying to cross a street in Saint Petersburg. And with her died another of the great Kirov ballerinas who fused style and character so well. Fortunately, the Russian tradition of having older dancers train younger dancers has ensured that her influenced continues to a degree: the lovely Evgenia Obraztsova was one of her pupils.
What to note:
With Russian dancers, it's all about the upper body, but in this case (and since the fan prevents a good look at her Vaganova-trained port de bras) I'll also point out Kurgapkina's lovely footwork and excellent performance style. She captures the feel of the dance and interprets the music beautifully.
03 October 2011
I've seen many different versions of this particular pas de deux, but the version with Fernanda Tavarès-Diniz and Joan Boada remains my favorite due to the sophistication and musicality of the performers. Her variation in particular is something I never tire of watching. I love the way she savors each moment in the music and finds those previous little nuances to present to the audience. I suspect she's enjoying it as much as they are.
What to note:
Her arms have a Russian inspiration, but the overall quality is far more South American with its focus on strong but musical turns and a beautifully uncomplicated core.
(Quick mention: Fernanda is from Brazil, while Joan is from Cuba. Joan, I believe, is currently dancing with the San Francisco Ballet. I'm not sure about Fernanda.)
01 October 2011
If there's a list of reasons not to think ballet is dead, Mariinsky (Saint Petersburg, formerly the Kirov) first soloist Evgenia Obraztsova performing the Carnival of Venice variation should be on the list. I've seen several versions of this, even a different one by this particular dancer, but this is the video that I keep watching. Again and again. I think I've watched it a dozen times now. I can't find anything wrong with it. This is almost technical perfection but without being boring. Now that's difficult to accomplish.
What to note:
Pay attention to her exquisite upper body, particularly the way she uses her arms and her head, as well as her exceptional footwork. Note also her wonderful musicality: she works with the music and makes it work for her. Great musicality is increasingly rare and is a true gift among dancers.