Agatha Christie Solves the Mystery of Happiness in Marriage

hercule-poirot    After enjoying Edward Sorel’s cartoon in this Sunday’s New York Times Book Review – The Literati Sketchbook – I was inspired to research Agatha Christie and her marriages.

Archie Christie, Agatha’s first husband, was a dashing pilot in the Royal Flying Corps. After fourteen years of marriage to Agatha, he did leave her for a younger woman, Nancy Neele.  Surprisingly, Archie Christie did love golf, as noted by Sorel, and belonged to the  Sunningdale Golf Club. (“He spent many of his weekends there while Agatha worked on her novels in their London flat.”)

After discovering her husband’s affair, Agatha did disappear:  “A major police hunt was undertaken, and Christie was questioned by the police. She was discovered ten days later at the Old Swan Hotel in Yorkshire, registered under the name of her husband’s lover… and suffering from a complete loss of memory when found and identified by her husband.” – just as Sorel depicts in his cartoon.

After divorcing Archie, Agatha meets and marries Max Mallowan, an archeologist fourteen years younger.  They live happily ever after for forty-five years.

In the last frame Sorrel shows an old Agatha solving the mystery of happiness in marriage, saying:

“An archeologist is the best husband any woman can get. The older she gets, the more interested he is in her.”

Amazing what cartoons can teach us.   Might be fun to see the 1979 film version with Vanessa Redgrave as Agatha.  Roger Ebert reviews the film – here.

The Noise of Time

9781101947241_p0_v1_s192x300    To grasp Julian Barnes’ stream of consciousness rambling in The Noise of Time, background information on the narrator, famous Russian composer Shostakovich, is necessary, as is listening to his music.

With fleeting references to Dmitry Shostakovich’s youth as a musical prodigy, Barnes focuses the first part of his book on Shostakovich’s early success with his orchestrated Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk. Listening to the discordant and sharp tones can be both other worldly and agonizing. Despite world-wide acclaim, the opera irritated Stalin and the dictator left in the last act before the opera ends. As a result, Shostakovich was attacked in the Soviet press – usually a harbinger to miserable consequences in Stalin Russia. Fearing imprisonment – Barnes has him waiting every night by his elevator, expecting to be arrested.

Barnes successfully gets inside the composer’s head as he recounts the beginning of the Great Terror, in which many of the composer’s friends and relatives were imprisoned or killed, including his patron Marshal Tukhachevsky. Fearing for himself and his family, Shostakovich withdrew his next symphony and managed to write a conservative and non experimental Fifth Symphony in 1937 – conveniently title by the press as “A Soviet Artist’s Reply to Just Criticism.” Suddenly, he was back in favor. The seesaw continued through World War II in 1948 when a government decree accused him of perversion for his modernist music.

Part Two focuses on Shostakovich’s famous trip to the United States, as an emissary for Soviet Russia. The composer struggles with his inner convictions about music, and Barnes offers the theme of this tortuous tale, reflected in his title:

“Art belongs to those who create it and those who savor it. Art no more belongs to the People and the Party than it once belonged to the aristocracy and the patron. Art is the whisper of history, heard above the noise of time.”
As Shostakovich unconvincingly parroted the the voice of Power in Russia – “what he was supposed to think” – his renunciation of Stravinsky, the composer he revered, seem to affirm the American view that he was only trying to be safe. For years Shostakovich’s wrote works glorifying Soviet life or history, quietly endured a tutor to indoctrinate him in Marxist beliefs, even joining the Communist Party in 1960, under duress. Barnes offers Shostakovich’s inner turmoil as absolution for his betrayal of fellow artists in the name of the government.

Throughout, Barnes identifies the constant struggle of the artist – “When a composer is bitter, or in despair, or pessimistic…{his} music…strong and true and pure {is} enough to drown out the noise of time…” His life continued to be a balancing act between being true to his music and satisfying his government.

Not an easy read, The Noise of Time opens the history of Russian politics and the music of Shostakovich in his fearful and oppressive world.

I found Shostakovich’s banned opera – Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk – on the internet, and the library had a CD of his Seventh Symphony, which I played in my car whenever I was out and about.  Together, listening to his music and reading Barnes’ treatise, gave Shostakovich’s life  substance – but I doubt I will ever really understand either.

Related Review:  The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes

The Quality of Silence

9781101903674_p0_v4_s192x300Rosamund Lupton’s newest suspense thriller – The Quality of Silence – had my undivided attention throughout the day.  Following a mother and her deaf daughter as they drove a ten ton rig in a fast-paced chase through the Arctic cold, I could not put the book down until I finished.  What a ride.

The story focuses on Ruby, a clever ten year old who was born deaf, and her mother, Yasmin, a beautiful astrophysicist, as they search for Matt, father and husband presumed to be dead in a lethal explosion at an Eskimo village.  Not willing to believe he is dead, the mother and daughter hitch a ride along the Dalton Highway in Alaska to the Arctic Circle to find him.  When the driver of the truck has a stroke, Yasmin takes the wheel to drive into a snowstorm and across narrow frozen rivers.  Afraid to leave Ruby to try to communicate with strangers, she takes her along, but when they realize they are being followed, the tension escalates.

Villains come from obvious as well as insidious sources.  Lupton uses the effects of fracking on the environment as the major villain in the story, with  sharp observations about its effects on the ecosystem, and the dire consequences for the environment in the future.  As a ten year old deaf child, Ruby feels excluded from friends at her mainstreamed school as she deals with silent bullies.  And, Yasmin worries that her wildlife documentary-maker husband, Matt, who has been working for months in the Arctic night, has betrayed her with an Inupiaq woman; his last email – “I kissed her because I missed you.”

Lupton cleverly uses Ruby’s young voice as a distraction from the terror, and grounds the story in the family dynamics.  Ruby’s optimism was often a welcome distraction from the nail-biting drama.

All ends well with the bad guys getting their due, thanks to Ruby and her tech savvy.  Once again, Lupton delivers  a satisfying and compelling tale.  All of Lupton’s books offer a thrilling ride, but this one was chilling.

I look forward to the next one.

Reviews of Other Lupton books:  

 

The Waters of Eternal Youth – A Commissario Guido Brunetti Mystery

9780802124807_p0_v2_s192x300   Guido Brunetti and I are old friends, so Donna Leon’s The Waters of Eternal Youth was a welcome connection.  This twenty-fifth in the mystery series featuring an erudite Italian inspector has me visiting Venice again;  a wealthy little old lady – albeit a countess – is the catalyst for an investigation of her granddaughter’s near-drowning fifteen years earlier.

Manuela, the beautiful fifteen year old who loved horses and feared the water, was saved from drowning when she fell into the canal, but not before losing consciousness for too long and suffering brain damage.  She is now thirty and has the mental capacity of a seven year old.  Her grandmother is convinced her falling into the canal was not an accident, and asks for the case to be reopened.  Although the statute of limitations would preclude any consequences if a villain were found, Brunetti decides to reopen the case, as a favor to his mother-in-law.

The alcoholic who saved Manuela suddenly remembers something, but before Brunetti can question him, the man is brutally killed.  In his clever and quiet way, Brunetti follows the trail that leads to a rapist turned murderer.  After the climax of catching the criminal, Leon offers a satisfying denouement that brought tears to my eyes.

As a long-time resident of Venice, Donna Leon paints a credible picture of the canals and bridges, with an insider’s knowledge of neighborhoods and eating places.  She sprinkles the narrative with comments on historical preservation, housing problems, and the new influx of African migrants.

Like most Italians, Brunetti enjoys a good meal and Paola, his patient wife, is not only an expert Italian cook but also a university professor of literature. Food is often enhanced with references to the classics.  When not eating or investigating, Brunelli ponders – while reading a book in the original Greek, or connecting criminal motives to that of Macbeth or Dante.

Reading another of Guido Brunetti’s crime-solving adventures offers the unique combination of Italian culture with crime mystery.

Review of another Donna Leon MysteryBy Its Cover

 

Everybody’s Fool – Paul Newman Lives Again

9780307270641_p0_v1_s192x300   Paul Newman in Nobody’s Fool embodied Richard Russo’s main character Sully so perfectly, I find it impossible to read the sequel – Everybody’s Fool –  without seeing Newman. This sequel to the dysfunctional lives of the citizens of North Bath focuses on Douglas Raymer who has gone from bumbling police officer to the Chief of Police.  Alas, another actor who cannot reprise his role – Douglas Raymer was played by the late Philip Seymour Hoffman.

Sully is back on his favorite stool at the White Horse Tavern, and slithers in and out of the narrative, along with real snakes discovered when the air conditioning in Raymer’s apartment building breaks down.  But Sully’s VA cardiologist tells him he may only have a year to live, and he is determined to finish life his way, keeping his condition from everyone, including Ruth, the woman he has had an affair with for twenty years.

Other familiar characters are back too; even the dead eighth grade teacher, Miss Beryl Peoples, haunts the narrative with her remembered words of advice and her gift to Sully.  Sully inherited her house, sold his father’s old house to the city, and finally won the trifecta; he has money now and does not have to work.  Rub is back in double; the stuttering mentally challenged sidekick to Sully, and Sully’s dog – also called Rub.

On the day Raymer’s wife decided to leave him, she accidentally slipped on a loose rug, fell down the stairs “(like a Slinky”) and died next to the packed suitcases at the foot of the stairs.  Raymer found a garage door opener among her effects and assumes it opens the door to his wife’s lover.  He fondles the device in his pocket as he plans his investigation to discover which door it opens.  Russo creates one of many humorous incidents when Raymer faints, falls into an open grave, and drops the door opener.  When he awakens later in the hospital, he realizes it has been buried with the body, and his hopes for identifying the lover are dashed.

Nevertheless, his determined quest goes on, and Raymor’s actions provide some  humorous incidents in the book, from digging up the judge’s grave for the garage door opener to getting struck by lightning.   The last chapters are the funniest as Raymor channels his alter ego Dougie, a product of the lightning strike.    In the end, Russo finally allows Raymor to come out of his ineptitude and become the man Miss Beryl knew he could be. He picks up an angry cobra and puts it back into its box, finds the victim of a hit and run in time to save him, and tracks down the driver, who gets his just reward, Russo style.  And he finally identifies his wife’s lover in a surprising twist.

Most of Russo’s characters are benign but Roy Purdy, who appeared briefly in Nobody’s Fool, when he used his rifle butt to break the jaw of his ex-wife, Janey, is a true villain. Roy went to prison, but he’s out and back in town with a vengeance in Everybody’s Fool.  Russo allows the reader inside Purdy’s scary head, as he plots, abuses, and maims his wife and mother-in-law. Purdy is a downright evil character, and redemption is sweet when he gets his due.

In the end, Sully decides to have that heart operation at the VA hospital, so he is available for future Russo sequels.  Raymor finds new confidence and a new love.  And life in North Bath continues on.  Who knows – we readers might get to visit the neighborhood again sometime.  In his review of the book for the New York Times, T. C. Boyle said:

“Bath is real, Sully is real, and so is Hattie’s and the White Horse Tavern and Miss Peoples’s house on Main, and I can only hope we haven’t seen the last of them. I’d love to see what Sully’s going to be up to at 80.”

I wonder too.