Friday, March 29, 2013

Must Watch TV: Call The Midwife

Call the Midwife is a refreshing BBC series available on Netflix streaming. (It will soon be broadcast on PBS.) Call the Midwife is a gritty, realistic, and nuanced period drama set in London's East End circa 1958. It stars Jessica Raine, Miranda Hart, and Jenny Agutter. (I've been watching Ms. Agutter's career since The Railway Children and Logan's Run). It's also narrated by the glorious Vanessa Redgrave.

I love the music soundtrack and the attention to 1950s detail. Period dramas like the overrated and implausible Downton Abbey have made me weary of this type of series. Luckily, I took a chance on Call the Midwife. It's funny, poignant, and at times, sentimental in the very best way. It also reminds us of how the UK's National Health Service improved the lives of people by making health care a national right and not a privilege.  

Saturday, March 23, 2013

"Never Tell All You Know.” ― Agatha Christie, The Secret Adversary

The second book toward my goal of reading all of Agatha Christie's works in publication order is The Secret Adversary (1922). The Secret Adversary is set immediately after World War I, and it's the first time we see Tommy Beresford and Tuppence Cowley--Christie's intrepid detective duo. 

Christie wrote four full-novels and a collection of short stories featuring Tommy and Tuppence; and for my money, the Tommy and Tuppence stories are the most winsome and lighthearted of her works. Christie's other Tommy and Tuppence books are N or M? (1941), By the Pricking of My Thumbs (1968), and Postern of Fate (1973).

Unlike Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple, Tommy and Tuppence age in real time. They're not static characters. We see them as twenty-somethings in The Secret Adversary, and by the time they reappear in Postern of Fate, they're in their late seventies. As they age, we see the problems associated with married life and the difficulties of growing old. Tommy and Tuppence are portrayed as real people, with faults and weaknesses.

Tuppence is particularly poignant, and, in some respects, a tragic figure that reflects 20th century female conformity. In The Secret Adversaryshe's a young independent woman. She's intelligent, headstrong, and enthusiastic. The very ideal of the modern woman. Yet, as we will see in Postern of Fate, Tuppence "evolves" into a very different person.    

The Secret Adversary is a good mystery, but certainly not one of Christie's better works. The plot is contrived and the dialogue dated. There's nothing particularly noteworthy about the book. In fact, The Secret Adversary would have easily been forgotten if not for Christie's later fame. There are, however, some wonderful quotes in the book:
"Youth is a failing only too easily outgrown."
"Marriage is called all sorts of things, a haven, and a refuge, and a crowning glory, and a state of bondage, and lots more." (She certainly got that right!)
 "Never tell all you know—not even to the person you know best.”
Rating: C+

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Last Snowman of the Season?

After yesterday's storm, I took a walk around the neighborhood and discovered this snowman. Spring has arrived, and this guy might be the very last snowman of the season.

100 Inches of Snow this Winter

Spring is Just Around the Corner
Portland had more than 100 inches of snow this season. That's a rare event for Portland, but one hundred inches didn't come close to the record of 141.5 inches set in 1970-71. Now, it's time to dig out the car. Ugh!

BTW:  Happy First Day of Spring!

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Snow Again!

I was beginning to think it was spring, but this morning, another winter storm hit. Even though spring is just a few days off, it still feels like winter. It's days like these that I long for the warm California sun. 

Monday, March 18, 2013

New Pope. Same Old Religion

The election of the new Pope has many people hoping that Pope Francis will bring about reform in the Catholic Church. That's possible, but the Catholic Church, like religion itself, has one fundamental problem. It's built on supernatural beliefs and myths. Religion isn't based on science or empirical evidence. It's based on faith. Religion attempts to explain the world and the meaning of life through stories. It provides solace by offering a "life after death," and affirms that good will triumph over evil. Not bad ideas. Religious stories make for fun reading, but as a guide to morality or as an explanation for the world is absurdity.

As an atheist, I view the world as fundamentally physical and knowable. Reality is what we can perceive with the senses, and detect with scientific instruments, or predicted with models, such as black holes. Science is better than religion at explaining the way the natural world works, and it's not saddled with intolerance and bigotry.

The fact there's a new Pope makes little difference to me, but for some people, it's a big deal, and that's sad. 

Saturday, March 16, 2013

Hitchcock as Buddha

The former Gainsborough Studios in East London
has been turned into apartments. The studio was used by
Alfred Hitchcock and now has a Buddha-like statue
of him in the courtyard. I think statute captures
the perplexing essence of Hitchcock. 

The Story of Film: An Odyssey is a 15 part TV series (900 minutes) tracing the history of cinema from the 19th century into the digital age. It's a detailed examination of movie making that explores everything from lighting technique to sound engineering.

For example, who would have known that a Chinese actress, Ruan Lingyu in The Goddess (1934), would introduce a natural style of acting decades before Brando. Or that Orson Wells's innovated use of the deep focus technique in Citizen Kane was not original but used in earlier European and Asian films. It's tiny bits of film history like these that make the series fascinating and hypnotic. 

The Story of Film is as spellbinding as any thriller on the big screen; and for a film buff like myself, I don't think I will ever see a movie in quite the same way.

Jesus is One Badass!

Movie trailers for the summer are already out. Here's one that looks promising. 

Friday, March 15, 2013

Canada and Garbage

Canada does better than the USA on most standard of living indices including life expectancy, health care, and education. Canada even bests the USA on social issues such as marriage equality and immigration.

Moreover, Canada has this image of being environmentally progressive. It's a land of virgin forests, pristine lakes, and snow capped mountains. However, according to the Conference Board of Canada, Canada produces more garbage per capita than any other developed country in the world. That's right, Canadians are big garbage producers!

Here's one statistic where the USA isn't number one.

Thursday, March 14, 2013

Gentrification: A Double-Edged Sword

Over the years, I've seen undesirable neighborhoods in San Francisco, Sacramento, Berlin, and New York City transform because of gentrification; yet, gentrification is a double-edged sword--improvement versus displacement.

Affordable housing advocates often view gentrification as a foe while developers see it as an opportunity to make money and improve a decaying neighborhood. Gut Renovation, a new documentary about gentrification in Williamsburg (Brooklyn) is a case in point. I wish I could recommend Gut Renovation since affordable housing is an issue that needs serious discussion and not just lip service. Unfortunately, Gut Renovation is a one-sided documentary that paints a negative picture of gentrification without offering any workable solutions to the affordable housing crisis.   

Until very recently, Williamsburg was a dirty, crime ridden neighborhood filled with unsavory characters. Today, people are flocking to Williamsburg and displacing the established residents. For better or worse, gentrification has improved the quality of life in Williamsburg: crime is down, public services have improved, and more businesses have moved into the neighborhood. Sure, developers have prospered (what's wrong with making a buck) and some long-time residents have moved, but change is inevitable. Neighborhoods prosper and others decline. It's all part of the economic cycle of real estate. Rather than lament the loss of the "old" Williamsburg, Gut Renovation should have focused on finding tenable solutions to a very serious problem facing American cities. 

Monday, March 11, 2013

Nackte Männer in Wien / Naked Men in Vienna

The Leopold Museum in Vienna recently had an exhibition entitled, Nackte Männer (Naked Men). The exhibition, which closed on March 4th, included works from Cezanne, Rodin, Klimt , Munch, Giacometti, Mapplethorpe, and Haring.

Nude women are not a rarity in art, but nude men have been neglected, especially in art exhibitions. This recent exhibition attempted to rectify that disparity; and by all accounts, the exhibition was a huge success. Perhaps other museums will take note. 

An interesting aside: As part of its publicity campaign, the Leopold Museum opened its doors to a group of nude men for a private preview. It turns out the preview got more media attention than the exhibition itself. 

Thursday, March 7, 2013

Michael Vick is a Dog Owner Again!

Last October, Michael Vick, the football player convicted of dog torture and dog killing, announced that he was, once again, a dog owner. When Vick was released from prison and placed on parole, the court did not place any restrictions on dog ownership. Now, Vick has released photos of him with his new dog.

A convicted child molester would never be allowed to live near an elementary school or be allowed to work with children. So why is Vick allowed to have a dog given his shameful past?

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Are the Girl Scouts Getting Lazy?

Today, I received this flyer in the mail. I remember when the Girl Scouts would go door-to-door selling their cookies. It was a way of teaching young women to be entrepreneurial. Then their parents started doing the job for them, selling the cookies to co-workers, and the emphasis seemed to shift from teaching children basic business skills to generating revenue for the organization. Now, the cookies are being sold online. Are the girls even involved anymore?

Surfing in Maine?

Yes, there is surfing in Maine. Even in winter, you can spot surfers braving the cold Atlantic. This video was taken in January near the Portland Head Light. This dude must be wearing a sub-zero wetsuit to handle these waters. Makes me want to take it up again...but I'll wait for summer!

Friday, March 1, 2013

Winter Sunrise Over Ft. Lauderdale

A Calm Before the Storm:
Sunrise Walk Along the Beach

Those Beaches Don't Clean Themselves

Beach Tractor Navigating
Through a Sea of Beach Chairs

A Seagull Enjoying the Freshly Cleaned Beach
A View From The Dunes

"Every Murderer Is Probably Somebody's Old Friend.” -Agatha Christie, The Mysterious Affair at Styles

This year, I decided to read all the works of Agatha Christie in publication order. I just completed The Mysterious Affair at Styles. Published in 1920, it was Christie's debut novel, and it introduced Hercule Poirot, Inspector Japp and Arthur Hastings.

Christie's books are often described as cozy drawing room whodunits, lacking literary merit. Yet, her simple narrative style masks an insightful understanding of the human condition. She really understands human emotion and what makes us tick.

Her works chronicle the greater part of the 20th century (1920-1976), and she is equally adept in writing about England during the Great War as she is about the student unrest of the 1960s. Her clever plot devices are set in ordinary places and usually feature a marginalized woman caught in the center of a murder.

The Mysterious Affair at Styles was dedicated to Christie's mother who she described as the greatest influence in her life and writing. The book also introduces Hercule Poirot.
"Poirot was an extraordinary-looking little man. He was hardly more than five feet, four inches, but carried himself with great dignity. His head was exactly the shape of an egg, and he always perched it a little on one side. His moustache [sic] was very stiff and military. The neatness of his attire was almost incredible; I believe a speck of dust would have caused him more pain than a bullet wound. Yet this quaint dandified little man who, I was sorry to see, now limped badly, had been in his time one of the most celebrated members of the Belgian police. As a detective, his flair had been extraordinary, and he had achieved triumps [sic] by unraveling some of the most baffling cases of the day."
For the next 55 years, Christie would continue to write about Poirot. He would never age, and his personality would never deviate from the character first described in this book. Whether it was 1920 or 1970, Poirot remained the same. 

The Mysterious Affair at Styles is set during World War I, and involves typical Christie plot devices: murder, poison, espionage, a lovely country estate, tangled love affairs, and a parade of possible suspects. It's an escape into the world of upper class England, full of servants, teas, and frivolity. It's Downton Abbey, only more original and entertaining. 

Rating: B