Sunday, September 15, 2013

Happy Birthday Agatha Christie: Come, Tell Me How You Live[d]

". . . as Victoria Station is left behind, exultation springs up once more. We have begun the lovely, exciting journey to Syria."

That is a sentence written by Agatha Christie Mallowan in 1942 or so about a journey to an archaeological dig she took with her second husband, Max Mallowan, in 1933. The small memoir/travelogue, entitled Come, Tell Me How You Live, is an invaluable peek into the woman who is the best-selling novelist of all time, as well as a fascinating first-person experience of the Middle East during the days of the Empire.

Agatha Miller was born on September 15, 1890, in Torquay, Devon England, to an English mother, Belfast born Clara Boehmer, and an American father, Frederick Miller.

I've come to admire Dame Christie a good deal. I have done my share of contributing to the 4 billion dollars of her sales, reading through the Poirot and Miss Marple canons and enjoying them immensely.

But I love even more connecting with the woman in her autobiographical writings. Her intellect, wit, general observations, and emotions are deep and rich, and the details of her life from late Victorian England to the turbulence of the 1960s make her a compelling first-person witness to the major events of the 21stcentury. Her travels to the Middle East of the Empire give details and flesh and bone to what to an American is just a sweeping idea of a bygone era, and her musings on how "You've got to hand it to Victorian women: they got their menfolk where they wanted them" and "The position of women, over the years, has definitely changed for the worse" is worth a post on itself.

The Foreword:  Nimrud, Iraq, 2 April 1950
Christie began writing her main memoir, simply called An Autobiography, while living in Iraq. That alone sets her apart from the pantheon of English literary journalists. Also unusual is that she wrote the book over 15 years, between 1950 and 1965, but deemed it would only be published after her death. She died January 12, 1976, and her memoir was published in 1977.  She had very clear ideas about controlling her life story when she could.

"I ought to be writing a detective story, but with the writer's natural urge to write anything but what he should be writing, I long, quite unexpectedly, to write my autobiography.

On second thought, autobiography is much too grand a word. It suggest a purposeful study of one's whole life. It implies names, and dates and places in tidy chronological order. What I want is to plunge my hand into a lucky dip and come up with a handful of assorted memories."

"I like living. I have sometimes been wildly despairing, acutely miserable, racked with sorrow, but through it all I still know quite certainly that just to be alive is a grand thing."

What brought her to the Middle East the first time, more than two decades earlier, was fate, plan and simple.

After 14 years of marriage to Archie Christie, Agatha was devastated when he confessed an affair and that he had fallen in love with her and wanted a divorce.

It was 1926, and Christie's beloved mother had died earlier that year. Not claiming direct causes and effect, but this is the year Christie "disappeared" for 9 days. Much has been written about the mystery of the mystery writer, but not by her. She speaks eloquently of the end of her first marriage, but she took that specific detail to the grave.

I'll just note here that there was an article about her disappearance on the front page of the New York Times, where they wrongly call her "the American writer of mystery novels." Good grief. Her father was an American, but her nationality is British, to the core.  The front page of the NY Times is also known for publishing an obituary for Hercule Poirot, the only time a fictional character was given such an honor.  I wrote about that mini literary mystery in August.

Two years later when the divorce was final, Christie felt the need to get away and she booked travel to the West Indies through Thomas Cook & Son. Two days before she is to leave, she is at a dinner party,and meets Colonel and Mrs. Howe, just back from Baghdad, who speak about how entrancing the city is. Agatha asks if you have to go by sea, and the Colonel says, "You can go by train--by the Orient Express."

"The Orient Express?' All my life I had wanted to go on the Orient Express."

The next morning Christie rushes over to Cook's, changes all of her travel arrangements, and makes a reservation for the Simplon-Orient Express to Stamboul; from Stamboul to Damascus, and from Damascus to Baghdad across the desert.

A Real Traveler
I have been lucky to do some travel myself, but nothing like what Agatha did. By herself. In 1928. It wasn't glamorous. She talks of bed bugs, and mice and roaches, of rest houses in the Middle East with blankets on the floor for beds, of crossing the hot desert in seven-hour drives.

"Traveling in Iraq was my introduction to a somewhat strenuous way of living. We visited Nejef, which was indeed a wonderful place: a real necropolis, with the dark figures of black-veiled Muslim women wailing and moving about it. It was a hot-bed of extremists, and it was not always possible to visit. You had to inform the police first, and they would then be on the lookout to see that no outbreaks of fanaticism occurred."

This travel, the itinerary of which was set through friends of friends kind of thing,  took her to the dig at Ur, where she met Leonard Wooley's assistant Max Mallowan, and the second act of her life began. She and Max married in 1930, when she returned to the Middle East with him on his own digs.

The Empire Between the Wars, During War World II
And so while Max was posted to Egypt and she was alone in London during World War II she penned some memories of their earlier archeological digs that was published in 1945 as Come, Tell Me How You Live. The publisher insisted on her using Agatha Christie Mallowan so that no one thought it might be a new mystery from the Queen of Crime. Good thing, because it could seem dry to a broad audience.

"Our interest begins at the second millennium B.C., with the varying fortunes of the Hittites, and in particular we want to find out more about the military dynasty of Mitanni, foreign adventurers about whom little is known."

"On to Alep. And from Alep to Beyrout, where our architect is to meet us for our preliminary survey of the Habut and Jaghjagha region, which will lead to the selection of a mound suitable for excavation.

There is something frightening, and yet fascinating, about this vast world denuded of vegetation. It is not flat like the desert between Damascus and Baghdad. Instead, you climb up and down."

And then, after seven hours of heat and monotony and a lonely world--Palmyra!"

Christie was no simple "Wife of an Empire Builder" as she calls herself at the beginning of her travel book, but an active member of the dig teams, learning to professionally photograph and tag pieces, among other tasks.

Her literary output during the war is exceptional: besides this small travel memoir, she wrote the final cases of both Hercule Poirot (Curtain) and Miss Marple (Sleeping Murders), although both were put in a bank vault, and not published until decades later; Sad Cypress, One, TWo, Buckle My Shoe; Evil Under the Sun; N or M; The Body in the Library; Five Little Pigs; The Moving Finger; Towards Zero; Death Comes as an End; Sparkling Cyanide.

While she was working in a dispensary for the war effort.

Wow. Yes, a woman to admire.

Christie did not like change, so I don't imagine that she would have embraced blogging had it arisen in her lifetime. But she would have been a natural. From the beginning of Come, Tell, when she is shopping for clothes to bring:

Life nowadays is dominated and complicated by the remorseless Zip. Blouses zip up, skirts zip down, ski-ing suits zip everywhere. 'Little frocks" have perfectly unnecessary bits of zipping on them just for fun.

Why? Is there anything more deadly than a Zip that turns nasty on you? It involves you in a far worse predicament than any ordinary button, clip, snap, buckle or hook and eye.

I am so glad I read past the detective novels to meet the amazing woman behind them.

(Top picture; Palmyra)

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Monday, September 9, 2013

A possible clue to the Burn Notice ending: Who the hell has Michael Westen been lecturing to all this time?

When last we left Michael Westen in the Burn Notice penultimate episode "Sea Change," he had "chosen" his new cult family---Daddy James & creepy Sonya---over his own life with the friends we love.

The big question of course is, how does this all end?

I think that a huge clue lies in the idea of the voice-over narration. Who has Michael been talking to all this time, who has he been sharing his tips on spy craft with? [Note: prepositions will be dangling in this post, because the grammatically correct constructions sound terrible.] 

As a friend pointed out, Magnum P.I. had narration by Thomas in almost every episode, and there was never any explanation. It was just a part of the storytelling.

But those were the days long before the documentary conceits of The Office and Modern Family, and the whole premise of How I Met Your Mother.  So I think there will be an explanation for us, a pulling back from the canvass to show us the framing device. And the fact that Zack Arnold, the film editor for Burn Notice who tweets, gave me a big NO COMMENT when I raised the question of the narration reveal makes me think I'm looking in the right direction.

And so, I offer some scenarios that could be part of the the vision for the ending, pulling from other stories of all kinds. Some are in the realm of possibility, others just playful.

Michael meets HIMYM
He has been talking to his grandkids all this time, imparting to them the spy craft knowledge that is their birth rite.  It's his grandkids, because only a grandfather would go on and on for this long about spy details, kind of a "what I did in the war" thing. I'm assuming Fi is the grand mom.


Michael meets Touched by an Angel/Magnum P.I. "Limbo"

Michael dies in the last episode, and heads to heaven. He meets St. Peter at the Pearly Gates, and starts explaining why he did what he did, in great detail. St. Peter is generous and allows him as much time as he needs to build his case. The last shot is of the great Pearly Gates opening.


Michael meets "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge
In the pilot, Michael is in mortal danger in a hotel room in Nigeria.  The moment his burn notice went into effect and the money he promised the drug lords didn't materialize, they shoot to kill. His thoughts flash back to Fiona, and that sets in motion seven seasons of story in his mind. 

In the Ambrose Bierce short story, when that character is hanged, the rope breaks. I don't want to completely spoil the twist in the classic short story any more than I have. You can read about it here.

Michael meets  Blue Jasmine

 The strain of the deep cover was too much and Michael's mind completely snaps. He ends up sitting on a Miami park bench, sharing his spy craft tips with the squirrels.

Michael meets Covert Affairs 
Michael gets out of the grips of Daddy James, and teaches a class to CIA recruits at Langley. He recognizes talent in a young recruit named Annie Walker, and he pulls some strings behind the scene to fast track her career.

Michael meets the 2013 Lone Ranger film
The year is 2063. Certain things have cycled back into fashion, including traveling tent shows with dioramas. Michael is nearly 100 years old, world weary of everything and broke, and so he has joined this exhibit. A six year boy is fascinated by Michael's James-Bond like tableau, and Westen starts to give the kid tips.    

Monday, September 2, 2013

#FinalBurn: Burn Notice Fans Get Ready for the Ending Blaze

Burn Notice  made its debut during the first summer of Mad Men (AMC), with .006 percent of its buzz but an audience many times its size. 
Gina Bellafante, Jan. 2009, The New York Times

Interesting observation. We all know that buzz is much more important than audience size. Otherwise
SNL could not have had such a convincing game show sketch, "What Is Burn Notice? (A video clip that has now been completely deleted from the web) "

As someone pointed out in comments somewhere, the confusion over what the series is about is crazy, because it's clearly explained in the opening credits before every episode:

My name is Michael Westen. I used to be a spy.  Until...
'We got a burn notice on you. You're blacklisted.'
When you're burned, you've got nothing: no cash, no credit, no job history. You're stuck in whatever city they decide to dump you in.
You do whatever work comes your way. You rely on anyone who's still talking to you. A trigger-happy ex-girlfriend...
An old friend who used to inform on you to the FBI...
Family too...if you're desperate.
Bottom line? Until you figure out who burned you... you're not going anywhere.

It could not be more clear. Compare this with the opening credits of The Mentalist. Now that really tells you nothing about the series.

I've been a fan from the beginning, June 2007. It was a sleek, fantasy place with good stories to spend an hour each week, and helped to balance the TV landscape from the heaviness of Breaking Bad, Criminal Minds, Boardwalk Empire etc.

In an (unplanned)  nod to the pop culture gods: when the series ends on Sept. 12 it will have 111 total episodes, the same number as its great uncle, Miami Vice.

Interesting Narrative Structure

So Michael Westen, ex-CIA spy, is dumped in his hometown of Miami, and from the pilot on is trying to find out why he was burned, and specifically by whom. In town he has his mom Madeline, his ex-girlfriend Fiona, an old ex-Navy SEAL friend Sam Axe, and later Jesse, another ex-spy he accidentally burned, who work together as a team.

The weekly episodes had two tracks: furthering the burn notice story, and a client of the week, where Michael uses his skills--and those of his merry band-- to help average people in trouble with loan sharks, drug dealers, etc.

All the while we get a Michael voiceover with how he is approaching the problem:  the importance of tactical support, how he can turn a microwave into an effective bomb, and so on, as though he is narrating a training film for young spies.

"In any operation, whether going into an embassy, or collecting debts for a bookie, it's important to layout a plan before you go into action. If you're going to disagree, it's best to get it out of the way before any shots are fired."

The charm of the series is watching these talented people with professional, military-grade skills work as a team. The Big Bad each season was sometimes strained, but looking back, the large story arcs  track well. The humor is dry all around, no matter how many mojitos they drink together,

This final seventh season has been entirely different.

Instead of Michael "playing" spy for Miami residents, we see him as an actual spy, in a deep cover operation that he has to do as a deal to keep his friends out of prison. And it's grim. He's infiltrating a band of psychopaths who are running their own version of the CIA. He is under such deep cover--so isolated from his friends and who he is---that he's starting to believe in their "cause" (even though that hasn't been revealed in its entirety).

There are two episodes left. We don't know how this is going to end. But a different creative choice would have been to have this reveal about Michael--showing us what he's like as a spy, instead of just telling us over and over-- in the middle of the series. And then have him go back to helping people in Miami. Then all the narration would have a lot more meaning for the viewer.

Jeffrey Donovan has talked about how because of the comparatively light nature of the client of the week,  the deadly nature of Michael Westen's skills wasn't emphasized. Season 7 is putting those skills back into their original context.

Michael and Fiona: A Fine Romance

Another draw of the series is Michael & Fiona, our on again/off again,  lovers. That's how the show is packaged for the DVD market, no matter how much Sam and Jesse add to the mix.  And the state of their relationship is a defining part of Michael Westen.

I have compared the duo to their TV predecessors, Steed and Mrs. Peel, for the super on-screen
Fan art: Steed & Mrs. Peel salute Michael & Fi
chemistry and the working relationship being more important than the personal one. They are both a pairing of "a top professional" and  "a talented amateur."

The couple has taken a lot of hits from the professional critics, Fi in particular:

Alessandra Stanley:

"For one thing he wants to get away from his overbearing mother, Madeline, played by Sharon Gless.

This one not only has a mother problem, but an ex-girlfriend one, too: an old flame, Fiona (Gabrielle Anwar), a former operative for the I.R.A., shows up and also smothers him with expectations."

Gina Bellafante
"Her unrequited lust for Michael is a running joke, given that her looks and inner fire make her a spy’s dream girl . . . "

"Michael regularly reminds her that he just can’t be in a relationship and that they don’t jibe, when his resistance to her — and the thousands of women constantly shown roaming around South Beach in doll-size bikinis — more and more suggests that he is the anti-Bond in his utter lack of libido."

And from a later piece

"Fiona is a character with no memorable precedent: a genius joke-take on girls with gun lust, the joke being that above all else she is every woman who needs to be sent a copy of “He’s Just Not That Into You,” next-day delivery." 

"And she locks right into the real source of Fiona’s masculinity, which has less to do with her Glock fetish, than her refusal to regard her romantic pursuit as a pitiable behavior in need of reform."

Ouch, ouch, and ouch.

Bellafante then maneuvers her idea into some feminist stand. Whatever.

"Every pull of the trigger now feels like retaliation against love gone wrong, even if Fiona isn’t the kind to go about trying to decipher psychological cause and effect. Burn Notice may have set out to say something about espionage in the post-9/11 age, but it has turned into a winning post-feminist revenge fantasy. Fiona fights for us all."

In fairness these articles are from the first two seasons, and the story lines have brought Michael and Fi together on & off since then, although always fraught with different expectations. Donovan defends Michael's love for Fiona in interviews, which I find interesting.

To me, Michael is just no fun outside of work. Fi enjoys everything about doing ops with him (except the real CIA ones), but she also wants to go to the beach, have a nice dinner, basic normal stuff.

It has become more clear in this final season just how damaged a human being Michael is, and that he hasn't been withholding from Fi, he just doesn't have an off-the-clock side to share. It's all work & duty, all the time. That's what keeps his shattered self together.

The fan videos are the best way to see the relationship over the last six seasons.  This one, set to Adele's Skyfall, is just great:

Sea Change
When last we left Michael in August, he had actively chosen James and his gang over finishing his job for the CIA. He revealed his cover to James and Sonya, whom he had started sleeping with. He is completely cut off from Sam, Jesse, his mom, and Fiona, and he could not be more lost.

Sea Change, the name of the penultimate episode, is a line from Shakespeare, The Tempest:

Full fathom five thy father lies,
Of his bones are coral made,
Those are pearls that were his eyes,
Nothing of him that doth fade,
But doth suffer a sea-change,
into something rich and strange,
Sea-nymphs hourly ring his knell,
Hark! now I hear them, ding-dong, bell.

Nice literary touch, but we know how a lot of Will's plays end: lots of people dead.

We'll see. Thursday, Sept. 5 at 9:00 pm.

Seems I was almost right about the voice-over narration, in my second Burn Notice post. I was only off by a generation.