The Year in Reading 2016 Part 3 – Agatha Christie

Continuing with the example of the New York Times Books (@nytimesbooks on Twitter), this third installment of books read in 2016 focuses on works by Agatha Christie.

  • “Elephants Can Remember” by Agatha Christie on 9/2/16 – 3/5 stars.

The storytelling of Elephants Can Remember was very good and readily comprehensible. The formula was true of the Hercule Poirot convention, and I enjoyed that. The twins outcome was clear to me earlier than I had hoped, which led me to a lower rating of the book than I would have otherwise given.

3.0-stars out of 5.

  • “The Murder on the Links” by Agatha Christie on 9/13/16 – 3/5 stars.

A fun mystery, though I feel the book tries to hard to establish cache over the cleverness of Hercule Poirot in that basic detective work wasn’t performed by the police. That aside, Poirot and the plot were ahead of my suspicions of who did what.

  • “Murder on the Orient Express” by Agatha Christie on 9/14/16 – 4/5 stars.

Perhaps the best Agatha Christie book I’ve read yet! This is the quintessential Hercule Poirot book that I’ve read; no, I did not correctly detect the solution ahead of time. There’s a reason for the statement “close only counts in horseshoes and hand grenades;” in sniffing out something close, I was not correct.

I recommend reading this book!

  • “Death in the Clouds” by Agatha Christie on 9/14/16 – 3/5 stars.

Another interesting and quick read that I finished same day. The overt nastiness referenced by other reviewers seems to have been cleansed from this edition.

The mystery entertained, and I missed the solution once again. Clues were present; traps were laid; it wasn’t until the big reveal that the motive (and the murderer) became apparent to me.

  • “Death on the Nile” by Agatha Christie on 9/18/16 – 4/5 stars.

Death on the Nile gets 4-stars for filling in more of the background before the murders than other Agatha Christie novels. I was 75% correct in getting the plot correct before the big reveal. As with Christie novels, the telling of the story relied on the two-handed dialogue approach. As suggested previously in this review, the real-time reveal of some clues felt like more of a sporting chance in determining the plot; the more adventure than mystery quality of this story led to the 4-stars rating.

  • “Nemesis” by Agatha Christie on 9/21/16 – 3/5 stars.

With Nemesis, I earned the fun of mystery-solving centered around Miss Jane Marple. The mystery was involved with plenty to consider. The weird premise centered around withholding much of the vital information until late, and precisely who was there to help or harm. I enjoyed the way the form of unfolding the story was switched up.

I figured out the perpetrator of the crimes correctly, though missed the motive. I missed uncovering the players that were the adversaries/helpers as well.

Overall, I give ‘Nemesis” a 3-star rating.

  • “The Man in the Brown Suit” by Agatha Christie on 10/12/16 – 3/5 stars.

With The Man in the Brown Suit, the mystery-solving is centered around the adventures of young “gypsy girl” Anne Beddingfield. The cast of characters take a cruise to South Africa with Miss Beddingfield playing amateur detective after failing to interest Scotland Yard in a pair of deaths early in the story (before setting sail). A jewel heist and intrigue offer the story telling more as a thriller feel than a mystery feel, which is a manner of storytelling unlike most other Agatha Christie novels that I’ve read.

The resolution around who the criminal mastermind was eluded me. The chess moves that brought about resolution to the crime was clever; that so many characters were clever in concealing the nature of their behaviors also proved beyond me this time.

To have been so off in my reasoning feels a bit confusing, honestly. That I currently feel no desire to go back and reread this book for missed clues perhaps has to do with my overall lack of affection for this book, which is reflected in my rating. I give The Man in the Brown Suit 3-stars.

  • “4:50 from Paddington” by Agatha Christie on 10/17/16 – 3/5 stars.

With 4:50 from Paddington, I found another Agatha Christie novel of pleasant, mannerly characters in the largely British way that I imagine is a real thing. Miss Jane Marple interacts with a pair of elderly ladies throughout, doing quite little in the way of detection throughout the story until the last dramatic revelation. In fairness, the story does tie out as a mixture of train mystery and, as with many Christie novels, a largely family affair.

The resolution around who the criminal mastermind, as with most Christie novels, was eluded me. I am less displeased with the lack of my solving this mystery as I was in missing The Man in the Brown Suit, though I alas must grant this book as another rating of 3-stars.

 

Matt – Wednesday, December 21, 2016

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The Year in Reading 2016 Part 2 – Nonfiction

Continuing with the example of the New York Times Books (@nytimesbooks on Twitter), this reading list for 2016 includes works of non-fiction read this past year.

  • “Colonel Roosevelt” by Edmund Morris on 9/12/16 – 4/5 stars.

With The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt and Theodore Rex, Colonel Roosevelt completed a satisfying 3-volume look at the life of the 26th president of the United States.

A man of his time, the colorful, multifaceted, military progressive leader was a proponent of projecting military power with a well-read personality. Looking at Roosevelt 100-years later, I see an embodiment of the contradiction of a country wherein he was macho trending to misogyny, a man-of-the-world trending toward racist / antagonist of “hyphenated-Americans,” a naturalist / conservationist that liked to hunt / kill for food, sport, death, and trophy. He also was well-read yet anti-dielectic, progressive yet conservative, insightful about male human nature yet bullying.

As argued in the book, Theodore Roosevelt quite possibly was the most interesting American of his time. The narrative of this three-book biography told an interesting, human story of Roosevelt the man, the leader, the servant, the husband, the father, and the rest. The volumes worked. I recommend them should you be inclined to read them.

  • “Cleopatra: A Life” by Stacy Schiff on 11/08/16 – 4/5 stars.

Quality biography of a time, place, and sensibility of a world, woman, and the circles of a queen that are largely unknowable due to time and tellings lost to the principle that “history is told by the victors.”

The life that can be gleaned is remarkable and presented in today’s terms quite fairly, in my opinion. That a Pulitzer Prize winning woman, Stacy Schiff, tells this story helps the quality of the narrative, in my opinion. Certainly there is context I would have struggled to bring out. Schiff also is talking to an American audience that can appreciate how certain analogies were placed in a context informed by Elizabeth Taylor’s portrayal of Cleopatra.

Some reviews on Goodreads mention finding the writing style somewhat verbose. Taking that further, the decision to not separate paragraphs more was mentioned. I disagree.

4-stars out of five.

 

Matt – Wednesday, December 21, 2016

The Year in Reading 2016 Part 1 – Five Favorites

As we approach the end of 2016, it seemed fitting to follow the lead of New York Times Books (@nytimesbooks on Twitter) from December 20th and share my reading from the year. Five of my favorites for this year are included below. Maybe you found something that you can enjoy?

  • “Travels with Charley: In Search of America” by John Steinbeck on 7/22/16 – 4/5 stars

Travels with Charley strikes me as a semi-fictional travelogue and stream-of-consciousness tale of a style not unlike that of Jack Kerouac. The book is definitely of the Kerouac canon, though the depth of the contemplation is of a more mature nature than that of Kerouac. The two men were definitely at a different point in life as they wrote. Besides this, the racial discussion and commentary in the last roughly twenty percent of this book leaves the depth that Kerouac offers well in the rear view. I mean this more as praise for Steinbeck than as critique of Kerouac, though both meanings are intended.

Steinbeck exposes things of himself and his times in this book, which it frames a narrative of sectional “American character through sightseeing in 1960.” You get a view of people in Maine and Texas, as two examples. You sense the immutability of border crossings and self-importance. Lodgings moving from a motel feel with something close to personal connection to hotels with less interaction comes through at times.

The book offers this from a 60-something in 1960 compared to his view of America as seen with the vision of someone with an insight into the America of the 1930s (dust bowl America) or 1910 (northern California). A comparison of the worlds of travel, at least in terms of how the highway system and the character of travel, held more through the first half of the narrative, yet it does reemerge again later.

I enjoyed this tale more from an aesthetic quality of how Steinbeck saw, felt, and described the places, feelings, and quality of traveling. It was an interesting experience to feel this drive like a bachelor with his poodle. That Steinbeck traveled without his wife, and that she allowed this, in a few different ways really surprised and shocked me. Thinking beyond the immediacy of his health (which apparently was not good when these travels occurred), I personally am not at a place where I want to travel without my wife. I cannot imagine what would prompt me to consider a prolonged trip of such a character.

All this is part of the mystery, I think. I give this four stars for the enjoyment of seeing an astute, dry, if not curmudgeonly older man share one last experience of our country from a time before the Beatles made their name in America.

  • “Dandelion Wine” by Ray Bradbury on 8/04/16 – 5/5 stars.

As was said of Dandelion Wine and its writer, “[Ray] Bradbury is a lovely writer, and he pulls [the reader] into this mythical summer of 12 year old Douglas. Through his eyes the ordinary becomes extraordinary.”

The language is poetic and draws a picture few others I’ve read have. The story is sentimental, romantic, boyish. The thoughts and feelings and perceptions are those of a 12-year-old sensitive boy. The themes meander through technology not replacing the need for human interaction; fear and acceptance; old teaching young; experiencing fear and accepting it; contemplating the meaning of life, death, and mortality; and most certainly summer. The central metaphor for summer is masterfully executed.

While lacking the true social scope you’d get in Mark Twain, I would place this book right there in quality. The time period (the year 1928) gives a more naive waxing and poetry than Stephen King’s Stand By Me, for example; the language and imagery of Ray Bradbury is in a different class than King’s work.

I grant five stars for being sentimental though fantastically poetic and compelling; the painting of an engaging and nostalgic word picture for my imagination merits my recommendation.

  • “The Given Day” by Dennis Lehane on 8/28/16 – 3.75/5 stars.

The Given Day proved to be an intriguingly written with realism to the facts that I had for the historical personalities fictionalized within this book. Dennis Lehane did a good job of offering tension with the typical central component of police subject matter. The political intrigue worked, though I didn’t walk away with a sense that the story told “was better than it had to be.” Overall, the tension and character definition were great. The characters had depth, and there was some growth within them…however, I found myself wanting more of that.

That the story didn’t “work out well” for some central, good characters saved the overall story for me. The interplay between stories speaks well to the planning.

Overall about 3.75-stars.

  • “The Old Curiosity Shop” by Charles Dickens on 12/02/16 – 4.5/5 stars.

A tale of richly drawn character and characters, The Old Curiosity Shop tells a truly heart wrenching and sad story of a time and place of abject poverty for Nell, her grandfather, and a prodigious cast of characters that share in that poverty, those that try to help yet fail, or finally others that aim to make it worse by a downright despicable sense for abusing the downtrodden.

John Irving, the writer of The Cider House Rules, once said in a television interview that he writes characters that he loves, and then does the worst thing to them that he can think of. Charles Dickens showed us here, in “The Old Curiosity Shop,” that he could have invented this notion. Dickens certainly mastered this (at least from the perspective as reader feeling for characters). Dickens made me love his characters. You’ll smile in the face of the misery.

My one primary exception to the “love Dickens’ characters” concept comes into play with the central antagonist, Quilp. If you managed to love Quilp, you frankly have a better soul than do I. I am not ready to love this character. The self-loathing truth for me is that Quilp’s outcome is one of Dickens’ central masterpieces in the notion of go on “smiling in the face of misery.”

4.5-stars out of five.

  • “All the Light We Cannot See” by Anthony Doerr on 12/12/16 – 3.5/5 stars.

I think I was more okay than others with the pace of the book, though I appreciate that folks wanted less background and more action from earlier in the book. The period where Marie and Werner interact was too spare, in my opinion. There is a good point to be raised that a book about Nazi Germany and the war without a compelling angle for doing so is strong.

Volkheimer was perhaps the one character that I found most relatable. 3.5 stars out of five.

 

Matt – Tuesday, December 20, 2016

See Manchester by the Sea

The movie Manchester by the Sea, a 2017 Golden Globe nominee for best movie, stars a pair of Golden Globe nominees in Casey Affleck and Michelle Williams.

In making a commendable run at realism and place, the overarching sadness is as real a character in the storytelling as Lee Chandler (Affleck), Randi Chandler (Williams), or Patrick Chandler (Lucas Hedges and Ben O’Brien). Forgiveness (of self and others) factor strongly into the interconnected stories. The details and emotional wherewithal are shared through multiple flashbacks shared with the viewer as the movie unfolds.

Forgiveness (and the need for acquiring it) works on multiple levels in parent / child relationships, husband / wife relationships, and in dating / school relationships, to name three. That there are so many layers to follow makes for a powerful adult movie experience that can work for thoughtful high school and college students, too. That many of the brooding details reveal themselves with some degree of humor is a charming aspect of this movie that, ultimately, becomes a redeeming quality of the surprisingly vibrant story.

My experience feels like I actually want a second viewing to really make sure that I like the movie as much as I think I do. Further, there is very likely some nuance that I missed simply because the story was so full of content that I perhaps missed appreciating some characters. My review of Manchester by the Sea ultimately argues for you to plan and see it. 4.5-stars out of 5.0 stars.

Matt – Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Considering the source when buying a car

Consider how you came to be at the places you were today. Did you drive in your car? Your family car? Maybe a car that belongs to a sibling? No matter the way that you or your family came to have a vehicle (assuming that you have one) will accept that you more likely than not purchased or leased the vehicle to the level where the automobile is yours?

If you do not drive a car, this message isn’t for you. Think back to the action of buying or leasing the vehicle. If you in fact have one. Perhaps you looked at different classes of automobiles on the internet or in magazines to compare features, cost of purchase, resale value, or safety test ratings. Think about that homework, and your evaluation of the sources of information as well as how confident you were with the information that you had at the time.

My goal here is to help focus you on new standards adopted by the Associated Press when it comes to the Data Journalism, which were adopted in or around June 2016. Through these, my thought is to persuade you to be a more informed consumer of the news…specifically in the advertisements for purchasing vehicles.

Information sourcing: What is the original source of the news that you are reading? What would make you go to Kelly Blue Book or Consumer Reports to determine if you have the best sourcing of information on whether you should buy a Hyundai Sonata or a Nissan Altima or a Toyota Camry or a Chevrolet Cruze? Would you take the word of friends on Facebook over family advice? Does the motor company website or dealer give you everything that you need to know?

Consider the purpose of the information source(s) you would consult. Kelly Blue Book and Consumer Reports have a different agenda from each other, as does the manufacturers of the vehicles? Does the source serve the consumer? Does it serve the manufacturer? Does it serve the insurance industry? More than one?

I personally go to at least three sources of information when vehicle shopping.  Only at that point will I consider recommendations from family or friends on whom where to buy. I need to know the cost of repairs. I need to know today’s cost compares to the cost of the same model five years out. The dealer should offer a price break for paying cash, especially if they are offering 0% interest loans. How does your purchasing research process work?

All this also leads to negotiating the deal. I lose nothing by buying nothing, whereas a salesperson might lose my business today and into the future. Treat me honestly and fairly is all it takes to get a deal done. I will come back for new cars and service needs if I trust you. Give me reason to trust you, and you’ll get me to come back. At the end of the day, that’s what we both want. If things have gone well today, you’ve received some of the same feedback.

Matt – Monday, December 19, 2016

Top 20 Movies in ranked order

Having considered movies that I’ve enjoyed over time that either tell a good story, move the ball forward for American cinema, or highlight noteworthy directors, sharing this listing of some of my favorites seemed appropriate. Enjoy!

1) Vertigo (1958)
2) 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)
3) One Flew Over the Cuckoos Nest (1975)
4) The Wizard of Oz (1939)
5) E.T. The Extra Terrestrial (1982)
6) Pulp Fiction (1994)
7) Do the Right Thing (1989)
8) The Princess Bride (1987)
9) Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004)
10) Memento (2000)
11) In Bruges (2008)
12) Interstellar (2014)
13) Rocky (1976)
14) Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937)
15) Jaws (1975)
16) The Terminator (1984)
17) Toy Story (1995)
18) The Shining (1980)
19) Calvary (2014)
20) The French Connection (1971)
Matt – Sunday, December 18, 2016

Looking Through The Bell Jar

This blog post may be a little bit dark. You may feel a little uncomfortable at the end of it, too.

Sylvia Plath lived from 1932 to 1963, writing poetry, fiction, and short stories. Plath was part of the confessional poetry movement, and received prestigious study opportunities aimed at advancing her career, her movement, and, ultimately, her art. Plath was clinically depressed for most of her adult life, and succeeded in ending her life at the age of 30.

Plath was born to a German immigrant father to the United States; Otto Plath taught at a small Georgia women’s college; he wrote a book about bumblebees. Otto died when Sylvia was eight years old; Sylvia’s mother raised two kids as the widow to a man 21 years her elder.

While a sophomore in college back in 1995, I first read Sylvia Plath’s semi-autobiographical book The Ball Jar. The imagery of the title is telling of the journey to be taken, as it gives us a view into The Ball Jar’s protagonist as a sensitive soul that requires delicate treatment. Like the author, the protagonist is descending into the depths of mental illness.

Somewhat naive in my first reading back then, I was not particularly compassionate to the story that was being illuminated. I saw that the story humanized mental illness from a first hand perspective. I was not feeling the feelings that the author was showing; for those that do not know, depression isn’t only sadness. Depression is feeling nothing; and sad; self-loathing and anxiety; hopelessness; guilt; isolation.

I call what I felt in response to this biography, The Bell Jar naivete. I rated the book of neutral effectiveness, which is to say a 3-star rating on a 5-star scale. “The book didn’t offer any solutions,” I said. “The book illuminated an important subject, yet failed to evoke the desire to take corrective action.”

The Bell Jar tells the story of a young woman that gains a summer internship at a prominent New York City magazine. The 20-something feels nothing of the stimulation or excitement she thinks that girls her age should feel at experiencing the big city or glamorous culture and lifestyle culture has helped her to expect.

I was a 20-year-old male at the time I read this book myself. I wasn’t all that sensitive to the book that I read then as not really targeted for me. I wasn’t looking to leave the Midwest for the prominent New York City magazine. I wasn’t feeling self-loathing, anxiety, guilt, sadness, or the rest of the depression feelings. I had no firsthand experience with the subject matter the characters in The Ball Jar book felt; that the book was semi-autobiographical failed to move me as well.

I gave you some biography of Sylvia Plath. Sylvia died too young, and she wrote a book that makes me not like the person I was when I was 20-years old. I’ve outlived Sylvia Plath by more than one-third of her life, and it was not until recently that I learned that I could be, and can be, a jerk. Why? If nothing else, it is that I asked a writer to give me a solution to a problem that she clearly did not have on her own.

Perhaps it is harsh to give myself too much grief over this book report that doubles as a speech; perhaps I should not feel a little bit dark or awkward at the end of this speech for not liking the characters in The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath. This book does get into clinical depression, and largely does try to bring out subject matter that seems like it could be good subject matter for high school kids going through high school angst.

I also think about how seeing the movie The Breakfast Club might not be a bad thing for those same high school students. Today, I still am not really moved passed that neutral, 3-stars out of 5-stars rating. Maybe I still am a jerk. The good news is that I am not a high school teacher confronting this idea for your teenagers today.

One last thing, Sylvia Plath died a month after The Bell Jar was first published. Please do not let this final outcome hurt you.

Matt – Sunday, December 18, 2016