Book Review: Poirot Investigates (Agatha Christie)

As the Agatha Christie collection continues to scrape the dregs from the bottom of the huge barrel that is the complete works of Agatha Christie, we seem to be churning through the short stories.  I will admit that I’ve never been as big a fan of her short stories as I have of her longer novels.  They’re not unenjoyable.  But the experience is very short.  You start reading, a minute or two into it, things start getting convoluted.  At about the seven or eight minute mark, you think you know how it all works, only to be bamboozled by a twist, and then the real ending is unveiled.  The end, just on 10 minutes.  (Depending on reading speed, of course.)

It’s not quite the same as the dazzling web of red herrings, misdirection and other stuff that can go on in her stories.  (However, that said, in a lot of her novels, she would often put the murder at the beginning, and then have 10 or so tedious chapters consisting of suspects being cross-examined until finally the book would pick up pace in the last third.)

Which brings us to Poirot Investigates, which fits perfectly into the 10-minute model I explained above.  I’m not sure whether they were intended to be published in a close-together fashion like this, because they have a lot of repetition of key ideas (Poirot boasting, Hastings thinking he’s got it all worked out but getting it completely wrong; Poirot dropping hints that Hastings is an idiot; Hastings getting offended and writing stuff like, “I really think Poirot has too little faith in my abilities” despite the fact we all know he has none).  But there’s enough variety in here (it’s not all murders) to make it an enjoyable (but fluffy) read.  So I’ll give it a 3 out of 5.

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Video Review: The Color Purple

It’s hard to believe it now, but there was actually a time when people in cinemas saw the words “Introducing Whoopi Goldberg” flash up on screen.  (Here I was thinking she’d been around for ever.)  That time was 1985, and that film was The Color Purple.

You kind of know you’re in for a three-hankie ride, when within the first five minutes of a film, you’ve found out that the 14-year old African-American protagonist Celie (who is played as an adult by Whoopi) has had two kids by her father.  When her father then promptly gives her away in marriage to a man who actually came round to marry her sister, you know things are going to get a lot worse before they get better.

The film pretty much sets out from there to show how this woman bravely put up with a wife-beating, philandering husband, separation from her sister, no family to speak of, etc. for a period of many years.  And finally, after 2 and a half hours, everything is drawn together, and all wrongs are righted.

My main beef with this film is that nearly every single male in the film is either a) adulterous, b) violent towards women, c) misogynistic or d) some combination of the above.  Were there no decent African-American men in the early part of the 20th century?  There may have been, but they’re nowhere in sight in this film (except perhaps the last 10 minutes, where a little bit of redemption is given, even to these creeps).

Instead, the women absolutely dominate this film (which, considering the state of the guys, is not that hard).  The acting is top-notch, and I can certainly see why Whoopi rose to fame.  She has to play a character who is introverted, withdrawn and completely shy, until the inevitable moment where she stands on her own two feet and takes her life back.

Overall, this is fairly standard weepie material, but the acting and Steven Spielberg’s direction (this was his first serious film) keep everything anchored and moving along.  There’s a couple of scenes in there, which are done really well, and show Spielberg’s hand quite clearly.  Certainly, the cinematography and scenery is outstanding.

But, ultimately, the film seems very long, and perhaps not for my half of the population.  So I’ll give it 3 1/2 out of 5, but I’m sure there’ll be plenty to argue with me.

Book Review: Beethoven’s Quartets (Joseph de Marliave)

As I said in my post on the CDs, I was reading this book as I went along. This is the type of book I enjoy reading because it gives an almost blow-by-blow description of what’s going on in the music.

Also, de Marliave (who was a French army officer and music expert who lived about 100 years ago) is such a fan of these quartets, that his enthusiasm just makes you want to listen to the music and hear the same things he does.

However, the problem I had was that I had real difficulty reading this while listening to the music. Maybe it’s because I hadn’t heard the quartets before, and it’s difficult to listen to them and follow along with his book at the same time.

I think to use his book properly, I would need to get a copy of the music score of these quartets and, with that in hand, work out what he’s talking about. So his analysis of the pieces, while thorough, just wasn’t easy enough to be followed along with while simply listening to the music.

However, I’ll certainly hang on to this book, because I think in the future, I would like to explore the world of the quartets a bit further. And when I do, Marliave’s book will prove immensely helpful. But for absolute beginners, I don’t think the ideal book exists, from what I’ve been able to find out. Maybe I should write one . . . I think Rachel might have a thing or two to say about that, though.

4 out of 5.

CD Review: Complete String Quartets (Beethoven) – Quartetto Italiano

Well, the review is finally here. After what must be close to two and a half months of renewing this box set at North Sydney library, I’m finally finished listening to all 10 discs and and in some position to offer a review.

Some position. But not quite adequate, really. I’d never really listened to the string quartets ot Beethoven before. In fact, as part of my general “chamber music is boring compared with orchestras and operas” stance, I hadn’t really made it a habit of listening to anyone’s string quartets if I could help it.

But some things started happening that changed my mind.

1) There’s a new movie coming out at some stage called Copying Beethoven, that’s a fictional tale of a girl who helped Beethoven in the last few years of his life, as he finished his Ninth Symphony and then spent his last days after that writing string quartets. That intrigued me – why would a man who could write such spectacular orchestral music, and had such a knack for orchestration and other things, spend his time writing music for (what seemed to me) the rather boring combination of two violins, a viola and a cello? It started to dawn on me that perhaps there was more to these string quartets than I thought.

2) While in New York in November, I called upon my publisher at Amadeus Press, and he was telling me what a big thing it was to write a book about Beethoven symphonies because they were the most important works of Beethoven’s – those and his string quartets. That phrase again . . .

3) I got back from America and was watching the commentary on my new DVD of Immortal Beloved, when the director mentioned that many people consider Beethoven’s late string quartets to be avant garde.

So I got curious. I went to the library and borrowed this set, and then fished around in a box of books in my back cupboard to fish out a book that I’d bought years ago on a whim and never really looked at: Joseph de Marliave’s Beethoven’s Quartets (which I shall review in the next post). Armed with de Marliave and the box set of Quartetto Italiano (the very Mafia-looking 60s string quartet from Italy), I began to listen . . .

Unfortunately, the limitations of a library CD (especially a 10-CD set) is that you really only get a chance to listen to things once. So my thoughts on these quartets are fairly limited because I’ve only had a chance to listen to them once.

Basically, Beethoven wrote 16 and a bit quartets, and they kind of divide up into neat sections. The first six were written in the early days of his fame. Back in these days, he tended to compose in the style of Haydn and Mozart and so they sound (surprise surprise) rather like Haydn and Mozart. They’ve very pretty, but they’re not the big spectacular Beethoven that was still to come.

There was then a big break before he wrote his next five string quartets. At this stage, he was at the height of his powers, and all of his music was big, spectacular and heroic. As a result, these middle five probably contain some of the energetic and exciting of the string quartets.

And then we come to the last five. By this stage in his life, all Beethoven’s financial sponsors had either died or left town, so he was broke. He’d spent most of his money fighting a drawn-out court battle for custody of his nephew. He’d just premiered the Ninth. And his health was on a downwards spiral, which eventually would kill him a few years later.

And all of that, he poured into his last five string quartets. Compared with the middle five, these last five are not as spectacular. The heroism is gone. Instead, there’s sounds of pain, of sorrow, of gentleness, and of spirituality. There’s also a brilliance of construction.

So what do they sound like? To my ears, the sound world of the quartets will take some getting used to. I’ve mostly listened to orchestral music, and so to switch to this more intimate and precise type of music takes a listening adjustment. But bits and pieces jump out and me and make me curious to listen more, to learn to know these pieces inside and out, the same way I have done with the symphonies of Beethoven and Mahler.

The quartets, while lacking the oopmh and power of a large orchestra, make up for that in a precision of sound – a tightly constructed beauty as the four voices interact with one another. If one instrument makes a mistake or plays something badly, it is ruined for all. So all four musicians must play, and play well. And when they play well, each musician shines.

So, yeah, being the only recording of the quartets I’ve heard, I don’t really know how to rate them. I think I’d give it a 4 out of 5 on an initial listening, but this is probably the type of thing I should come back and review again at a later date.

Book Review: The Mysterious Mr Quin (Agatha Christie)

Well, I haven’t knocked over any other books in my pile that I’m juggling, but I have managed to finish another Agatha Christie.

This is a rather unusual collection of twelve short stories. They all revolve around the elderley Mr Satterthwaite who, as far as I can make out, is filthy rich, only hangs around with the upper crust, has no day job to speak of, and travels the world observing people to avoid boredom.

From time to time, he bumps into a rather enigmatic character called Mr Harley Quin. Mr Quin, named after Harlequin, the mischief-making character from the Italian Comedy who can make himself invisible, has a knack of showing up whenever there is a murder to be solved, perhaps even prevented. There are also a couple of odd stories where there is a romance that can perhaps be organised, or a suicide prevented.

While these stories are fairly well dated (being written in the 30s), two things make this one of Christie’s more memorable books:

1) Mr Quin’s supernatural edge. Christie never goes into great detail about this, but as the stories progress, the vagueness of his background, his habit of coming and going at odd moments, his name, and other strange things point to Mr Quin’s being not quite human.

2) His mystery-solving style. Unlike Poirot or Miss Marple, who bring all the pieces together and provide the solution that nobody else saw before, Mr Quin merely has discussions with Mr Satterthwaite. During those discussions, he will ask leading questions and drop subtle hints of things. Mr Satterthwaite then, as a result of said discussions, will then arrive at a conclusion and be in a position to set things right.

I think the whole stories are summed up best by this quote from the story “The Man From the Sea”:

[Mr Satterthwaite] paused breathlessly, then added:

‘You must excuse my excitement. Do you happen to know anything about catalysis?’

The young man stared at him.

‘Never heard of it. What is it?’

Mr Satterthwaite quoted gravely: ‘A chemical reaction depending for its success on the presence of a certain substance which itself remains unchanged.’

‘Oh,’ said the young man uncertainly.

‘I have a certain friend – his name is Mr Quin, and he can best be described in terms of catalysis. His presence is a sign that things are going to happen, because when he is there strange revelations come to light, discoveries are made. And yet – he himself takes no part in the proceedings . . .”

3 1/2 out of 5.

Continuing the Confessions of a Former Opera-Hater

Hi all,

I do apologise for my long absence on these pages.  I never intended for it to be that way, but Ridiculous Amounts of Busyness just hit me during the last week and a half or so, and sadly, the blog suffered.

So let’s make amends, as I return to my ramblings on opera . . .

Last time I was saying that I couldn’t really stand much operatic music when I was younger.  But there were some exceptions to the rule.  I think one of the earliest positive experiences I had with opera was an old New Zealand tourism ad from the late 80s/early 90s (somewhere in there; I find my sense of time gets blurry that far back) that some of you here in Australia may well remember.

It consisted of an aerial camea soaring across the green hills of New Zealand towards a majestic snow-capped mountain and, as it does, a tenor is singing “Nessun Dorma”, Pavarotti’s famous showstopper aria from Turandot.  (I looked for the commercial in vain on YouTube, otherwise I would have showed it to you.) It was a spectacular piece of work, and I’m sure it made many people want to rush out and go to New Zealand.

But, actually, the thing which finally converted me over, was coming across this film of Madame Butterfly  in my local video store in Brisbane.  It had a quote on the back by Martin Scorsese saying that he really liked it, so I figured I’d give it a try.

On top of that, it was set in a fairly real-world setting with a cast that looked their parts.  So there was none of the artificial “standing around and singing”, and, of course, it managed to bypass the problem of large opera singers, who look way too old to be half as romantic as they’re supposed to be.

But what grabbed me most about this one was the story.  To keep it brief (because I might review the CD in full one day), an American sailor comes to Japan and buys himself a nice little package deal of a house with wife thrown in (it was probably the other way around, but he’s pretty excited about both).  B.F. Pinkerton (that’s his name) is pretty excited about the arrangement, and thinks it’s a bit of fun.

But right from the start, he’s telling us that this is just a bit of a fling for him, and that one day he’slookign forward to having a real American wife.

At which stage, Cio-Cio-San, his new bride, arrives.  She’s only 15 (well, in the story anyway – the singer is usually a fair bit older), and comes floating in with a soaring aria, and we realise straight away that a) she loves Pinkerton to bits and b) because of a), everything’s going to end badly.

Anyway, to watch the music in the film really helped because finally a) I knew exactly what they were singing about and b), I could follow the whole story.  In the end, the sheer emotion of the story won me over and after that, I was hooked.

Soon after, I was making tentative steps into opera, with the help of couple of books and a lot of CDs.  But I’ll review them all individually as book and CD reviews in future posts. (I’ll try to get back to this sooner rather than later.)