Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Poirot Investigates by Agatha Cristie

Review by The Quidnunc

Agatha Christie is eccentric, unpredictable and always intriguing. Like her her characters are inventive, original and popular around the world, and her novels - eternally alive.

Still, Christie is the most famous writer of crime novels in the world. Her eighty novels
have been translated into over forty languages ​​and have sold over two billion copies. Her iconic characters Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple earned her the title "First Lady of the crime genre." So there is no surprise I gladly indulged on a journey through her crime novels again. For the purposes of this blog I chose to review Poirot Investigates as it a very enjoyable compilation of shorts stories all set in London and it is the perfect starting point into crime fiction for all those book addicts in the making.
Hercule Poirot’s uptight little gray cells serve him well to solve fourteen of his most interesting cases in the history of crime novels. Thanks to his brilliant Belgian detective deductions cope with each of the mysteries - of kidnapping the Prime Minister to the theft of bonds of murder in a country manor mystery of the Egyptian tomb of missing testament to adventure with Italian nobleman.

To be honest, I am the time of reader who usually doesn’t pay attention to the blurbs, for I find them very superficial, but the one I have on my borrowed from the library edition is a one that deserves sharing:
‘Two things bind these eleven stories together - the brilliance and uncanny skill of the diminutive Belgian detective, and the stupidity of his Watson-like partner, Captain Hastings. Beyond narrating the stories, Hastings serves only one purpose - to highlight Poirot's brilliance by displaying his own stupidity.’
I couldn’t but reduce myself into chuckles right in the middle of the reading room. Although we all agree to the statement, still I do not find it very appropriate for the third novel of Lady Agatha Christie J
Anyway, lets go back to the stories:
The stories are:
The Adventure of "The Western Star"
The Western Star is a flawless diamond given to an actress by her doting husband as a wedding present. Legend says that it was once the left eye of a temple god, and the actress is receiving letters that threaten to steal it. The actress insists, against Hercule Poirot's advice, that she will be wearing it at a country houseparty on the weekend, and it is stolen under Poirot's very nose.

Tragedy at Marsdon Manor
Poirot is asked to investigate the death of a man who recently insured his life for a fortune. The doctor gives a verdict of heart failure. The widow is much younger than her dead husband and Poirot finds that suspicious.

The Adventure of the Cheap Flat
This is the most tangled of the stories in this collection, and really the one that I found most difficult to follow, and that I liked the least. A friend of Hastings recounts the tale of a newly married couple who have managed to rent a flat in Knightsbridge for a remarkably low price. And yet others were told that the flat was already let. Hastings "solves" the mystery, and then Poirot demonstrates just how wrong Hasting's solution is.

The Mystery of Hunters Lodge
Poirot is recovering from influenza, and so he sends Hastings to Derbyshire to investigate a murder. Poirot says Hastings knows his methods but asks that Hastings report to him fully every day, and then follow to the letter any instructions he may send. Inspector Japp is already at the scene of the crime and rather unkindly remarks that to send Hastings is rather like to send the cart without the horse. Hastings finds the murder scene disappointingly lacking in clues. He reports to Poirot in a long letter and sends some photographs with it. Poirot is scathing about his efforts, and predictably solves the crime easily, although the culprits by this time have escaped.

The Million Dollar Bond Robbery
A million dollars worth of Liberty Bonds which the London and Scottish Bank were sending to New York, have disappeared on board the liner in transit. And yet the bonds didn't vanish. They were sold in small parcels within half an hour of the ship docking in New York. Poirot takes on the case to oblige the pretty young fiance of the man who was in charge of the bonds on the voyage. According to Poirot the solution is too easy. Hastings get annoyed that Poirot has such a conceited opinion of himself.

The Adventure of the Egyptian Tomb
Are the Egyptian tombs cursed? It certainly seems so when excavators of an Egyptian tomb die suddenly, one from a heart attack, and the other from blood poisoning. A few days later the nephew of one of them shoots himself. Lady Willard, the widow of the man who died of a heart attack, fears for her son and consults Hercules Poirot. Hastings finds it strange that Poirot seems to agree that a curse is a real possibility. Poirot even agrees to travel to Egypt to investigate, despite the fact that he is extremely prone to sea sickness. They arrive to find that there has been yet another death.

The Jewel Robbery at the Grand Metropolitan
Hastings treats Poirot to a weekend at the Grand Metropolitan in Brighton, where the dresses and the jewellery of the women at dinner are magnificent. 
Hastings sees a couple that he knows and the man's wife wants to show him the pearl necklace she has in her room. She is devastated to find that they have disappeared. Who better to work out where they have gone than Hercule Poirot?The Kidnapped Prime Minister
This story is set just after the end of the First World War. 
England's Prime Minister has nearly been assassinated on the eve of the approaching Allied Conference. But there is worse to come. The Prime Minister has disappeared, kidnapped. It appears the abduction took place in France, although his secretary has been found chloroformed and gagged, in an abandoned farm. This was a national crisis in which Poirot made a valuable contribution.

The Disappearance of Davenheim

Poirot and Hastings are expecting Inspector Japp to tea. The papers are full of the strange disappearance of the senior partner of a firm of well-known bankers and financiers. Japp lays the evidence before them, Hastings jumps to the obvious, and Poirot tells Japp exactly where to find Davenheim.

The Adventure of the Italian Nobleman
Dr. Hawker, a near neighbour, often drops in on Hastings and Poirot for a chat. Hawker is a great admirer of Poirot's genius. Hawker's housekeeper comes to tell him that he has had a very strange phone call from an Italian Count he has been attending. When they arrive, the Count is dead, killed by a nasty blow to the head. Poirot is puzzled by the murder scene, by the absence of something he thinks ought to be there.

The Case of the Missing Will.
Miss Violet Marsh has been left Crabtree Manor by her uncle in an extraordinary will. She may live in the house for a year, but must prove her wits in that time, otherwise his large fortune will pass to charity. Poirot concludes there must be a second will, one she is meant to find, and he undertakes to look for it for her. Hastings on the other hand thinks Miss Marsh is really cheating by employing Poirot to solve the problem for her.

Friday, June 12, 2015

Millennium People by J. G. Ballard

Review by The Quidnunc

I HAVE HAD IT! Enough with the topic of middle-class rebellion. The recurring theme has been exhausted a good ten years ago and to be honest there are other authors who have done a far better job in exploiting the issue than Ballard.
Published in 2003, Millennium People, is a wry take on Karl Marx's revolutionary theory, only its author imagines the radical social changes as a kind of "Upholstered Apocalypse."
The novel tells the story of David Markham, a middle-class psychiatrist, who lost his ex-wife in a terrorist attack at Heathrow Airport. An event that triggers his unhealthy craze for finding out the responsible for this meaningless act of violence. His investigation leads him to a group of middle-class intelligentsia settled in Chelsea Marina who seem to be the master minds behind the bomb attacks all over London. They are what can be called an odd assortment of quirky characters who compete each other in embodying the perfect sociopath stereotype.
What annoyed me the most is the stubborn decision of the bourgeois revolutionaries to remain bourgeois even as they take on the system that has both spoiled and exploited them as an evil step mother would. their acts of rebellion resemble the tricks children would do to attract their parents' attention - in short they are pointless and lets face it do not prove their stand.
And although, there are some poetic stylistic exquisite, and some resemblance with the styles of Hammett and Chandler can be established, linguistically the novel is poor. The sentences force you to drag yourself from paragraph to paragraph rather than fly from page to page. While trying to force Millennium People down my throat there were moments when I felt like I was reading extracts from the diary of a very depressed, not very remarkable psychopath, or rather an old grumpy aunt.
I don't see how readers have described the novel as cunning, when its most important idea - the
revolution is so weak that it breaks my heart.  J. G. Ballard made a very brave attempt to cover this downfall of his plot by trying to draw very detailed portraits of his characters but alas - this didn't save him from my sentence.
It seems that in the case of Ballard's fiction you either like his "brand of 
stark social commentary" or you don't.  I definitely didn't for I believe that no author should get away with an unconvincing storyline and Millennium People's 
storyline is absurdly implausible. Furthermore, the reason for his bourgeois characters rebellion is stripped of all reality and can be even deemed non-existent.
I say sorry to all of the fans of Ballard out there, but this circus of Volvo driving, Tuscany holidaying, middle-class 21st century worshipping dystopia didn't intrigue me enough to even finish the whole book.

Monday, June 8, 2015

Our Mutual Friend by Charles Dickens

Review by The Quidnunc

As an ex-student in British & American Literature, it meant a great deal to go back and re-read the last finished book of Charles Dickens. Published in 1865 Our Mutual Friend is the very last experiment of the author in combining his unearthly psychological instinct and his gift for social analysis.
Although, the novel is know as one of the Dickens' weakest literary performances due to its artificial taste (Henry James), I believe it still is a work with a proper place in English Literary History.
As I sank into its first paragraphs I couldn't but feel as if watching a Fellini movie... the opening scene, especially, when father and daughter are corpse scavenging the banks of Thames in the stillness of the night. I admit my vivid imagination draw a first impression of London filled with horror and mystery that grabbed hold of my attention and didn't let go until the very last page of the novel.
Dickens' talent for reading and building character personae is, of course, undeniable but in Our Mutual Friend he also reveals his gift for mirroring the exact societal preferences of his age, and the peculiarities of class distinction and communication of the times. 
In short, his last novel is about MONEY and their effect on people who yearn to obtain them and on people who already have them. The deadly breath of money hovers upon each and every character of the novel. To escape this Dickens relied heavily on the idea of rebirth and renewal. He filled the novel with the taste of Thames. Water is the symbol of life and new beginning throughout the whole plot. John Harmon and Eugene Wrayburn both "drawn" their old lives in the river to give themselves a chance of new life. In the case of Harmon - he chooses to fake his own death to ensure himself a chance of getting to know his future wife and to reassure himself as not dependant of his father's will and money. And Wrayburn, who is supposed to die young, resurrects himself to correct his mistake, marry Lizie and live a long and happy life with her.

While in many ways Our Mutual Friend is undoubtedly flawed, there are some strengths of the novel that have to be underlined. The omniscient narrator, so typical for Dickens, is an inseparable part of his last novel as well, making its voice distinct and strong and helping the author get away with everything that irritates his true fans. Our Mutual Friend captures us with its bold sentiment, its pathos and mostly with its drama. You can swallow the novel whole without even thinking twice for the after taste. The light-hearted moral conviction of the last page when Twemlow reveals his steel, grabs the whole of you and leaves you with the feeling of knowing "the whole spirit of the English people."
On the positive side, with no regret, I can call Our Mutual Friend  a story of a life time, regardless of its downfalls, because for what it lacks in plot it makes up for in darkness of villains and depths of characters and setting. And to be honest its flaws are what makes it still so readable.
One thing is sure: it definitely is a novel  for the ages; a story to be visited and revisited many-a-times for everyone needs their little adventure on a boat upon the river of Our Mutual Friend.

Wednesday, June 3, 2015

White Teeth by Zadie Smith

 Review by The Quidnunc

 I begin my journey around literary London with a novel that stirred a considerable amount of discussions not only in the UK but all over the world. I admit I haven’t read it prior to this project and it left me with the same mixed feelings it left quite a lot of us.

The book itself was published a good 10 years and a bit ago and was instantly marked as a modern classic. The author, then the 24-year-old, graduate from Cambridge Zadie Smith instantly was compared to Salman Rushdie… a comparison as much as can I agree with, I can also define as a prize given way too early to a rising literary star.

There were a couple of literary parallels that I drew from the very first paragraphs of the novel. The first one was quite obvious, as many other critics drew it as well. It was with Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides, but the second one was quite surprising even to me – The Gargoyle by Andrew Davidson. The later parallel was based more or less on the mechanical taste of following a recipe for writing the book left me with. But on that matter I will elaborate a little bit later.

On the whole it is with a huge sigh of relief that I can say that White Teeth bites indeed with ease on the problems of contemporary society, echoing perfectly the voices and problems of the average immigrants like myself. Its religious references draw a masterpiece of understanding of the acceptance and the idea of make-pretend life that most immigrants come with to the huge metropolis. In its various manifestations the book can be characterized as an immigrant novel, a family drama, pro- or anti-religious satire, but in its essence it is written as very mature life story - such as it is, without frippery, no idealistic impulses without search lessons and revelations.

On its pages we get familiar with lives of three families, all of them flawed just like regular families, all of them close to us, almost as if we have their members mixed with our own kin. Six parents keep together seven children – six boys and a girl – robbing them of all freedom and defining them by culture and family standards as they were defined themselves by the metropolis. As I look back to the book I cannot but keep wonder how did Smith manage to intertwine so flawlessly all events – internally logical or not – to show how every single character evolved and transformed through this 50-year span of the plot.

Loosely sketched, the lines begin to build so - collecting almost committed suicide on the front pages of British Archie big, confused Jamaica Clara, grown in heavily distorted religious family of Jehovah's Witnesses waiting for decades how every moment will come the end of the world when we take power with Jesus and sinners will be buried. Archie brings strong with Samad, a native of Bangladesh who have bizarre experiences of the Bulgarian-Greek bond during the Second World War, and they start living your own life in a strange pub, where time has stopped, new people do not enter, and no change is an appreciated constant. Samad is married to Alsat, exuberant and powerful woman who is promised even before birth. Both families are in constant dependence from one another and have children the same age - Eyre, the daughter of Archie and Clara, and twins Milan and Majid of Samad and Alsat. Gradual detachment from reality causes Samad to sink into the obsession with his supposedly heroic ancestor, trying to change the community around themselves in their own perverse measures, and even to kidnap one of his sons and send him back to Bangladesh to continue the traditions of the family.

Somewhere in between the whirlwind Zadie Smith introduced the last piece of the puzzle, perhaps a little too late, but giving solidity of the whole structure - the family of Marcus and Joyce Chalfan, idyllic formation with four sons, total internal confidence, self-reliance throughout the world, almost perfect example of a loving family parents who follow their vocation, one in botany, the other in genetics and simultaneously fail to educate their children in their own image almost to caricature degree. In this perfect microcosm crumbling at the edges because of entropy, Eyre and invaded Milan, overturn everything upside down. Swamp of colorful characters, mutual need and mutual hatred, unconscious sexuality and misunderstood psychological dependencies ... three families become inseparable in a veritable amalgam of aspirations, desires and frustrations. Like a modern Adam’s family they both serve as pointers to the flaws of society but also trigger some empathy. What makes them so approachable to the modern immigrant and person is that like most of us they have surrendered themselves to destiny.

I definitely loved the novel for its multiple religious, pop cultural and literary references and also for its amazing sense of humor (after all I am a serious Neil Geiman and Douglas Adams fan.) I admire its writing style and its ability to use ordinary clich├ęs as a starting point to a journey whose end is unforeseeable. But most of all I loved White Teeth for portraying London as a stripped ex-colonizer that became a top migration destination and a melting pot that leads the way to a new world of mixed cultures and traditions.

The stories of Archie and Samad are stories of hope and impossibility, redemption and damnation, of being similar but somehow different and polar. As an immigrant myself, I see White Teeth as a very decent portrait of the average person trying to build a home in a world where nobody truly belongs, and if it wasn’t for the ups and downs in the plot’s pace and for the too predestined outcomes it would have deserved the prize it got from all those critics. Personally, though, White Teeth just needed a pinch more to be a grand masterpiece and to touch my heart.