Sunday, 27 August 2017

Everyone is a Suspect

It has been many years since I last read an Agatha Christie novel. I had a minor obsession with Christie as a teenager in the 1980s, back when Peter Ustinov played detective Hercule Poirot in films like Death on the Nile and Evil Under the Sun. I read those key novels and Murder on the Orient Express as well as And Then There Were None. Then I moved on from Agatha and sort of forgot about her.

Last week I was rushing out the door to work and, having finished one book and uncertain what to tackle next, I grabbed Christie's The Mysterious Affair at Styles (1920) on a whim. This delightful novel became my commute companion and a warm nostalgia swept over me as I read this first story featuring Hercule Poirot.

The novel begins with Arthur Hastings, a soldier who goes to convalesce at his old friend John Cavendish's family manor Styles. John's stepmother Emily Inglethorpe has recently remarried a younger man, who is much loathed by the Cavendish family. There are concerns that he is a gold digger out to steal the fortune and property away from John and his brother Lawrence.

One morning the house awakes to a racket, as Mrs Inglethorpe is dying from being poisoned. But who could have done such a thing? Enter Belgian detective Hercule Poirot, a friend of Hastings who is staying nearby to wait out the war. Over the coming days Poirot makes many deductions and discovers a great deal of evidence. Poirot warns his friend that evidence can be too conclusive and that 'real evidence is usually vague and unsatisfactory.'

Christie is a masterful storyteller and a queen of the whodunit genre. She throws in enough red herrings to keep the reader guessing, and brings everything together in a room full of suspects where Poirot outs the true villain.

It was great to go back to the start and see how Christie introduces Poirot, who 'might look natural on a stage, but was strangely out of place in real life'. And now that I have begun again, I am keen to read more and see how the characters evolve.

Saturday, 26 August 2017

Once Upon a Time

I first heard about British novelist and short story writer Angela Carter two decades ago, when I was an undergraduate student. I took an English course called 'Major Women Writers' so I could explore Austen, Woolf, Eliot, Murdoch, Sand, Gaskell, Plath, Hurston, Morrison, Rich, Gordimer, Wharton and a bunch of Brontes.

The year before I had taken a year-long course titled 'Major British Writers' which included NO women writers. When I protested to my professor he told me there were no female authors he would consider 'major' and that maybe I should go do 'women's studies or something' if I wanted to read these lesser storytellers. My rage lead me directly to the women's studies department and my subsequent Master in Gender Studies. But I digress...

Angela Carter came up on the syllabus of my 'Major Women Writers' course and I have a vague recollection of reading her stories back in the early 1990s. I recently became reacquainted with her work and have just finished The Bloody Chamber and Other Stories (1979). This collection of short stories is based on well known fairy tales but with a modern twist.

The macabre title story is based on the fairytale Bluebeard in which a wealthy older man marries a young girl and takes her to his castle, where she discovers the fate of his previous wives in a secret chamber. In Carter's version a teenage girls marries a twice-widowed French Marquis and heads off to an isolated castle. She discovers her new husband has a keen interested in pornography and S&M. He leaves her with a key to a room that must not be opened, but the temptation gets the better of her... 

I quite enjoyed this opening story as in addition to the Bluebird familiarity, there were shades of Du Maurier's Rebecca, Bronte's Jane Eyre, Hill's Woman in Black and other tales. What I loved most was Carter's descriptive writing style creating a rich atmosphere. 

The next two stories are variations on Beauty and the Beast, and I preferred 'The Courtship of Mr Lyon' to 'The Tiger's Bride'. I found it strange that they put these two stories back to back in the collection, and perhaps I would have enjoyed the second version more if I had put some space between the stories. Similarly, there are three werewolf stories at the end of the collection based on Little Red Riding Hood which must have been deliberately put together but the effect of which made me rather bored.

Highlights include Carter's 'Puss-in-Boots' - a funny story of a cat who lives with a promiscuous man, and helps him woo a young married woman - and 'The Lady in The House of Love' about a lonely vampire and a virginal English soldier. Her 'Company of Wolves' was made into a film by Neil Jordan in 1984.

Carter is undoubtably an excellent writer with her crisp, evocative prose and sharp wit. The feminist perspective is definitely present and when first published these tales may have been shocking, with the overt sensuality of the heroines, and the reinvention of gothic conventions. Over time, some of this boldness may have been lost. But what remains is a masterful, imaginative storyteller with a true gift for gothic literature.

Saturday, 12 August 2017

Listening and Learning (12/08/17)

My daily commute to and from work takes about 30-40 minutes each way, with a ten minute train ride and the remainder on foot. This relaxing journey allows me the opportunity to reflect on the day ahead, or the day that has passed, and to learn.

Most of my travel time in recent weeks has been taken up with various podcasts, many of which I have stumbled across from my Random Reads. Many of these podcasts have also inspired me to further reading.

So here (hear!) are some of the podcasts I have been listening to lately.

I loved the first season of Serial, and I occasionally listen to This American Life, so I was intrigued by their latest podcast, S-Town.

John B McLemore is an erudite restorer of antique clocks living in 'Shit-town Alabama', his name for Woodstock in Bibb Country. He lives with his elderly mother on a property out of town, and is full of despair about the plight of modern America and the impending doom of climate change. John contacts journalist Brian Reed to tell him there is an unsolved murder in his hometown and he is worried about police corruption and a cover up. Reed corresponds with McLemore, talks with him and eventually visits S-Town to investigate this crime. While McLemore was wrong about the murder, he provides Reed with an entirely different story which is absolutely fascinating.

This was a remarkable podcast, the equivalent of a page-turning thriller, as I continually wanted to know more about John, Bibb County and where the story would lead. In parts it made me uncomfortable, thinking about privacy, ethics and journalism, as Reed digs deeper into the life of John B McLemore. Sad, poignant, funny, and intelligent, this podcast is literary and compelling. The way the story was told reminded me of John Berendt's Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil (1994) and also JD Vance's Hillbilly Elegy (2016).

Be prepared to binge on the seven episodes, as you will be hooked. Learn more about on the S-Town  website.

Another Serial-esque podcast is ABC's Trace. In June 1980 Maria James was brutally stabbed to death in the bookshop she owned in Melbourne. Journalist Rachael Brown investigates this unsolved murder with the help of James' sons, detectives that worked on the case, and others.

To date only four episodes have aired, but they have been intriguing. Along the way, listeners have been aiding in the investigation, coming forward to tell what they know of the events that took place almost forty years ago. There are many theories of the case, and several possible suspects.

The good news is that Victoria Police have now reopened the investigation, and there are real possibilities that this murder may be solved (whether justice is done is another matter!). I have really enjoyed this podcast but I admit to being totally frustrated that Trace is currently on hold while it awaits actions by the Police and to see whether there will be a Coronial Inquest. I want to know who killed Maria James and to see her family get the closure they deserve. For more on Trace, see the website.

Malcolm Gladwell's Revisionist History
I have always enjoyed the writing of my fellow Trinity alumni Malcolm Gladwell, author of The Tipping Point (2000) Outliers (2008), Blink (2005) and What the Dog Saw (2009). He is a curious man who finds new and interesting ways of looking at things. His podcast began in 2016 and he describes it as a way of looking at the past and exploring 'something overlooked or misunderstood'. 
I started listening to it 2016 as the first episode focussed on a little known painter names Elizabeth Thompson, who Gladwell compared to Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard, in the way they both broke through the glass ceiling only to be greeted with hostility and contempt. Thompson's painting 'The Roll Call' caused a stir in 1874 when it was exhibited in London to hype. Gladwell's theory is that when one lone individual cracks the status quo, the response is often to perpetuate the status quo rather than change it.

Other interesting episodes explore satire and social protest, civil rights, terrorism, genius, music and more. I recently listened to a two-parter on Civil Rights lawyers Donald Hollowell and Vernon Jordon and their attempts to find justice in the segregated American south. Another episode I loved was about golf - yes golf! - and how there are very few public parks in Los Angeles, but lots of private (often exclusive) golf courses and the tax concessions that allow them to thrive. 

Gladwell is a fascinating storyteller. Learn more by visiting the Revisionist History website.

Slate Political Gabfest
Every Friday I listen to David Plotz (Atlas Obscura), Emily Bazelon (New York Times Magazine) and John Dickerson (Face the Nation) discuss US politics on the Slate Political Gabfest. This podcast was essential during the election, and even more so now as I try and get my head around the madness in Washington: what is happening on Capitol Hill, inside the Supreme Court and its impact on the wider world.
It is humourous and intelligent and I love the way the panelists play off each other. This podcast has also introduced me to some interesting articles as they discuss what is making news. One recent article that I read as a spin off from this podcast is Bazelon's story about Noura Jackson, a teenager convicted of her mother's murder, and how prosecutors withheld evidence that would have exonerated her. 

I also appreciate that the Gabfest website contains references to what they have been talking about and ideas for further reading.

Chat 10 Looks 3
I have previously written about my fondness for Annabel Crabb and Leigh Sales and their podcast on what they are reading, watching and eating. They say this podcast is 'time well -wasted' and I heartily agree. For me it is like sitting down with old friends across the kitchen table and having a good natter about tv, books and movies.

This podcast has lead me to discover many books, articles and tv shows. As a regular listener to this irregular podcast, I know the in-jokes, expect the sometimes dodgy audio, and don't get annoyed when they occasionally talk about something they mentioned many months ago.

The perfect antidote to a stressful day, the only downside of this podcast for me is I have bought far too many books as a result of hearing about them here. So if you like banter, books, and baked goods, check out Chat 10 Looks 3.

Rest assured, I have not given up books for podcasts. I have actually been reading a lot lately and have several blog posts in the works. So stay tuned....