Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Mystery Reviews: Agatha Christie's The Moving Finger (1942)

Given my health issues, it's not surprising that I'm reading a lot more, especially since I have to spend so much time resting. Although I've read some good literary fiction and excellent non-fiction, when I am most tired, I turn to the fluff I love best: mysteries. And these days, I tend to move back and forth between tried and true classics from the golden era and contemporary cozies or police procedurals.

When I move in the direction of the golden era, I sometimes go back to my favorite writers and sometimes I go back and "discover" classic writers who are new to me. I enjoy both, but lately I've been on a bit of a Christie tear. Although I've read most of Christie's books (some more than once) it's been years since I've read a lot of them, so many years that they are either actually new to me or were read so far in the past they may as well be new because I don't remember them well. I certainly don't remember them well enough to remember "whodunit."

I find myself missing book review writing, so I thought that once in a while, I'd let myself exercise the old review writing muscles again. What better way to break back into review writing than with a review of an old-but-I-think-new-to-me Christie novel?

1942s The Moving Finger was the third Miss Marple novel ever published. I'm fairly certain this was the first time I ever encountered it, mostly because I don't remember ever reading a Miss Marple book in which Miss Marple appeared so little.

That was the book's most surprising feature by far. While Miss Jane Marple, Christie's white-haired detective, always has a kind of "background" role, she usually arrives on the scene fairly early and stays there consistently. While the main detectives hum along, attempting to solve the case, Miss Marple smiles gently, asks an inquisitive and seemingly innocent question or two (or four or eight or twelve) and before you can inquire, "Would you like another cup of tea, ma'am?" she has the thing solved. What's wonderful is that she always solves it with a twinkle and a sweet touch of poignancy, remembering someone she knew once who reminded her of the victim...and quite often the criminal. For a kind, elderly spinster, Miss Marple has no scruples about reminding everyone, character and reader alike, that people really can be quite wicked. And sad. And lonely. And unwise. And inattentive. It's in noting these kinds of characteristics in all people that she often discovers the line running right through the story that other, more professional sleuths all too often miss.

Speaking of missing, I miss her in this book. While I mostly liked the story's narrator, Jerry Burton, an airman recovering from an accident, I kept impatiently waiting for Miss Marple to show up on the scene and set him and his sister Joanna straight about what's going on in the little village in which they recently settled. They settle there in a rental home so Jerry can recover from his injuries; they think this out-of-the-way hamlet will provide Jerry with just the rest and peacefulness he needs. Little do they know that little out-of-the-way hamlets can sometimes be seething with scandals and unsolved crimes. This one certainly is.

In fact, the town of Lymstock, which "had been a place of importance at the time of the Norman Conquest"  but by "the twentieth century it was a place of no importance whatsoever," seems cozy and quiet enough for a convalescing soldier. But the Burton siblings haven't been there very long when they become the recipients of a nasty, anonymous letter, the kind put together with letters cut from an old book. It turns out that they aren't the only people in town to receive such a letter. Most of the town's most prominent residents have received at least one. These letters, whose typed envelopes tell little about their author, while the postmarks indicate the author is local, accuse people in vague and general terms of awful but unprovable things.

Jerry and Joanna find themselves trying to puzzle out the identity of the letter writer, but they, like the local police, can't get too far at guessing who it might be. In fact, in spite of the annoying embarrassment of the letters, hardly anyone takes them too seriously...until the shock of receiving one seems to send a resident into such a tailspin that she commits suicide. Or does she?

It's not long before a maid who served at the home of the dead woman also turns up dead, this time unmistakably murdered, presumably for something she might have seen. Before you know it, Scotland Yard is called in. And before you can pour yet another cup of tea (lots of tea gets poured in this one) another resident gets impatient with the professionals and calls in her old friend Jane Marple to try to figure things out.

By the time Jane got called, I was feeling rather impatient. She appears in only a handful of scenes, and while she's her sweet and smart self, asking the right questions and ultimately setting up the dangerous encounter with the correct suspect, I felt a bit cheated that we hadn't had more time with her. I'd be curious to know why she appears so little in the book. Did Agatha Christie already have a book ready in the wings without any Miss Marple at all, only to have her publishers tell her that the old lady's first two tales had been such a hit the pubic was demanding more? But if so, why not go back and put her in more from the start? It wouldn't have been so hard to do. If she was the friend of a resident in Lymstock, why not have her show up a fortnight earlier to visit? Or be called in by the friend before the first death in the town, just on the basis of the puzzle that needs solving about the author of the anonymous letters?

Besides being disappointed by not enough time with Miss Marple, I was a bit thrown off by the narrator. While I appreciated the way he thought through things regarding the mystery, I felt off balance by his lack of development from the beginning on. It took me a while to be sure he was male; it took me even longer to figure out his name (I don't think she mentioned it until well into the story, though she might have dropped it briefly and I just missed it). My favorite part of most Christie novels is her way with characterization, and she doesn't disappoint with a fine cast of townies and potential suspects, but I think she could have done more with her narrator, especially if we were getting page time with Jerry at the expense of page time with Miss Marple.

Ah well. Even Christie at her not-quite-best is still better than many people at their heights, and this was an enjoyable mystery with good touches of Christie humour and an interesting ending I didn't see coming. If you're a enthusiast for mysteries with elements of romance, I think you'll like what she does here too -- not in one part of the story, but actually in two.

I'm thankful that The Moving Finger wasn't where the Miss Marple stories ended...most of the best ones, in fact, were still to come.

***1/2 stars
First published in the US in 1942 and in the UK in 1943 

Friday, April 21, 2017

Poetry Friday: A Better Resurrection (Christina Rossetti)

April has brought both poetry month and Easter this year. I've been grateful for this coinciding, as poetry month tends to push me to reading and writing more poetry.  When my heart is moving out of the Lenten season and into the celebration of Easter, especially when the world is waking up into spring, there is a lot to ponder.

This year, there is more than ever to ponder as I am in the midst of my continued battle against cancer. I was there this time last year too, but far too exhausted and in shock (I had just finished my initial intensive chemo treatments) to do much thinking or writing. Exhaustion has become just part of the new normal landscape, but thankfully shock does wear off, and you find ways to move forward as boldly and creatively as you can. You find life in the midst of illness, beauty in the midst of brokenness, hope in the midst of worry, prayer in the midst of pain.

I could go on, but Christina Rossetti shares it all so much more profoundly in her poem "A Better Resurrection" which I've pasted below.

Today's Poetry Friday Roundup is at Tabatha Yeatts' blog The Opposite of Indifference.

A Better Resurrection

I have no wit, no words, no tears;
My heart within me like a stone
Is numb'd too much for hopes or fears;
Look right, look left, I dwell alone;
I lift mine eyes, but dimm'd with grief
No everlasting hills I see;
My life is in the falling leaf:
O Jesus, quicken me.

My life is like a faded leaf,
My harvest dwindled to a husk:
Truly my life is void and brief
And tedious in the barren dusk;
My life is like a frozen thing,
No bud nor greenness can I see:
Yet rise it shall--the sap of Spring;
O Jesus, rise in me.

My life is like a broken bowl,
A broken bowl that cannot hold
One drop of water for my soul
Or cordial in the searching cold;
Cast in the fire the perish'd thing;
Melt and remould it, till it be
A royal cup for Him, my King:
O Jesus, drink of me.

~Christina Rossetti 

Monday, April 17, 2017

Jesus, the First and Last Word

So today we enter the Easter season...the festal season that lasts for fifty days, but is often seen as one long feast day. Joy!

Like many other Lenten and Easter journeys, Michael Card's songs have been playing through my mind and heart (and sometimes literally playing via CD or digitally). During different years, different ones come to mind most often. This morning, I woke up with "Final Word" spinning on my heart's turntable:

You and me we use so very many clumsy words.
The noise of what we often say is not worth being heard.
When the Father's wisdom wanted to communicate His love,
He spoke it in one final perfect Word.

He spoke the incarnation, and then so was born a Son.
His final word was Jesus, He needed no other one.
Spoke flesh and blood so He could bleed and make a way Divine.
And so was born a baby who would die to make it mine.

And so the Father's fondest thought became flesh and blood.
He spoke the living luminous word, at once His will was done.
And so the transformation that in man had been unheard,
Took place in God the Father as he spoke that final Word.

And so the Light became alive and manna became Man.
Eternity stepped into time so we could understand.

(~Michael Card)

I think this song, like many others, eventually moved onto his recording "The Life," which collected many of the songs that he wrote about the life of Jesus over the years. And I think I have typically thought of it as belonging more to his Advent and Christmas collection than Lent and Easter, since it speaks primarily of the incarnation.

But as my precious daughter pointed out so wisely this Lenten season, as she reflected on her feelings about both seasons, you can't have one without the other. Had Jesus not been born, he never would have experienced death.

In other words, had Jesus never taken on "flesh and blood," had manna not become Man, then there would have been no entry into Jerusalem, no upper room, no death on the cross, no third day and wondrous resurrection!

The song playing in my head yesterday was, not unexpectedly, Charles Wesley's "Christ the Lord is Risen Today." The verse that kept really speaking to me was this one:

Love’s redeeming work is done, Alleluia!
Fought the fight, the battle won. Alleluia!
Death in vain forbids him rise; Alleluia!
Christ has opened paradise. Alleluia!

(~Charles Wesley)

What the Scriptures emphasize for us, over and over, is that Jesus, the incarnate Word, is truth and reality from first to last, from A to Z, Alpha to Omega. He is there from eternity ("He was with God, was God") and he spoke the first word ("Without him was not anything made that was made"). But he also spoke the last word. "It is finished." Which means, "Love's redeeming work is done. Alleluia!"

And yet...isn't it amazing that even after that ultimate, final word on the cross, he spoke again when he rose again in power? The decisive blow had been struck with great finality, and yet what it brought to fruition was a new world order, a new kind of life, a total newness of life that only Jesus could bring. Everything ended, and yet everything began again in a way that would never end.

Why Card can speak of Jesus himself being the "final word" is that no other word was needed. Old Simon in the temple knew it as soon as he saw the baby Jesus. He could finally die in peace because he had seen what he has spent his whole life waiting for: God had sent the promised deliverer into the world.

And Jesus would speak  through his whole life, from his first baby cries to the many words he spoke to those he ministered to and mentored, to the last words on the cross. And yes, to the post-resurrection words he spoke to his followers, promising them the Holy Spirit, giving them their charge to go into the world and make disciples. But all those words he spoke were just part and parcel of the reality that he himself WAS the Word, from first to last. The initiating word that spoke the world into being, ("Let there be light!") -- that brought into existence things that were not, to the ending word that brought life where death tried to reign, that made it clear he was the master of death as well as life.

This is the Word we are invited to embrace, to love, to sing, from our own first day to our last. It is so wonderful to know that it is Jesus the Word who has written our lives, created our stories, and breathed his Spirit into us so that we can become living letters, walking-around-epistles, for others.

Sometimes I think of us not just as letters (messages) but as actual letters, as in the letters of the alphabet. I imagine Jesus writing each one of us in beautiful calligraphic lettering, in the alphabets of every tribe and nation. I imagine how God the Father, the author and finisher of our faith, puts together all the millions and millions of individual letters to create words, sentences, stories that make sense, that reflect the true Story, that at their Spirit-soaked best can become miniature loving versions of his Son, the Word from all eternity. The Word of life and power. The Word who became flesh and dwelt among us and helped those who could not speak to speak anew. The Word that spoke at the very beginning and whose words have continued to keep and hold the world in being. The Word who has already spoken the decisive final word on the cross, in the moment when he died, who spoke again when he came out of the tomb, and will speak again at the end when he comes in power and glory to bring his eternal kingdom to total and complete fullness. One day we will see him face to face, and we will know the Story from beginning to end. And we will sing his praises forever.

Sunday, April 16, 2017

Christ is Risen!

The Lord is risen indeed! Alleluia!


I have been doing a good bit of reading this Lenten season, and thought I would come here and quote something appropriate for Easter day. But all that is playing through my tired mind (and I am struggling with a great deal of tiredness right now) is the traditional, joyful Easter greeting. May you know and feel its truth today, and may your Easter be filled with blessings!

Another day and I will post some quotes from my devotional reading. This year I've mostly been reading from Bread and Wine: Readings for Lent and Easter by Orbis Books, and The Undoing of Death: Sermons for Holy Week and Easter by Fleming Rutledge. Less we forget, we've got a 50 day Easter season starting, so still plenty of time to contemplate God's marvelous gifts through the cross and resurrection!

Monday, April 10, 2017

From the Archives: Review of Mary Oliver's "Thirst"

I can't believe we're ten days into April already and I've not posted anything for poetry month! Having gone back on the chemo trial, I do have a few reasons (one big one being fatigue) for not having done much to celebrate. To remedy that, and yet save myself some energy, I thought I'd dig into my Epinions archive for some poetry reviews I wrote a few years ago. They will likely have some minor revisions.

And to kick things off, I thought I'd start with my 2013 review of Mary Oliver's 2006 poetry collection Thirst. Though I'm not sure I've ever met an Oliver collection I didn't like, this one is one of my favorites.

Hoping to make some posts soon in honor of Holy Week and the upcoming Easter season too.


Thirst by Mary Oliver: Standing Still and Learning to Be Astonished
(Originally published on in 2013; slightly revised 2017) 

"All the quick notes/Mozart didn't have time to use/before he entered the cloud-boat/are falling now from the beaks/of the finches..."

Although I've known and enjoyed poems by Mary Oliver for over two decades, it was just recently that I read one of her poems online and found myself thinking "I really must read more." I went searching out the collection that included the particular poem that spoke to me so deeply, and I'm glad I did. Thirst, a collection of 43 poems published in 2006, was a lovely read -- and a book I know I will go back to.

Reviewing poetry often feels daunting. That’s especially true when reviewing poems by someone like Mary Oliver, whose style is so light and gracious that you get a sense of her words alighting on pages like birds perching on branches. Anything I can add in my prosaic review feels a little bit like snow weighing down the branch. There’s a temptation to just use the occasion of a review to point to the poems themselves. Reading poetry – rather than talking about it – will always be the best way to experience it.

But I really did love this book, so I will add my decorative frosting to the branch on which the poems perch.

The title "Thirst" comes from the final poem in the collection, a small prose poem which begins: “Another morning and I wake with thirst/for the goodness I do not have…” It’s a prayerful poem in which the poet confesses both her love for all the good she does have and her longing to know and love and experience more good. It includes one of my favorite lines in the whole collection, one directed Godward: “Love for the/earth and love for you are having such a/long conversation in my heart.” Yes.

That “long conversation in my heart” really describes the feel of this entire collection. In all 43 poems, we hear the poet’s voice – speaking to us, speaking to the world around her, speaking to the Lord – in a slow, measured, loving way. She observes and notes, wonders and questions, longs and celebrates, and each poem seems to provide a small epiphany, a lesson she has learned about herself in relationship to love.

The clarion call of the entire collection is the first poem “Messenger.” This was the bright-winged bird I found perched online, the poem that sung so clearly and beautifully to my heart that I went running after it. It begins “My work is loving the world.” The rest of the poem, and indeed the rest of the collection, seems to bear out that declaration, as Oliver notices the specific beauty and sacredness of created things and finds her place in the world as a grateful singer.

“Are my boots old? Is my coat torn?
Am I no longer young, and still not half-perfect? Let me
  keep my mind on what matters,
which is my work,

which is mostly standing still and learning to be

she writes, in words that I find I too can claim. I quote here not just to share a part of the poem I love, but to give you a taste of her metrics, the way she breaks lines and finds music in words.

While nature is the underlying music in most of the poems here, other notes emerge as important refrains. A number of the poems in this volume have to do with aging, death, and grief. In several poems, such as “After Her Death,” and “What I Said at Her Service,” Oliver wrestles overtly with her grief over the death of her partner of many years. Her wrestling with loneliness and her grief over the loss of human love has a quiet counterpart in her poems about her beloved but elderly dog Percy. The different kinds of loves – for beauty, for animal companions, for a human friend and lover – all swirl gently together like different colored liquids in a glass. And the glass is offered up gently as a cup she and the reader can sip together.

Oliver’s meditations on nature are always gentle and astute, and there are countless numbers of them that I love in this collection, including “Walking Home from Oak-Head,” “Ribbon Snake Asleep in the Sun,” (which reminded me much of Emily Dickinson), “Swimming With Otter,” and “The Beautiful, Striped Sparrow.”

What’s particularly moving in this volume, however, are the ways she turns so many of those meditations Godward, moving them into the realm of prayer. Although I don’t know anything specific about Oliver’s spiritual journey, it seems clear to me through these poems that she has come/is coming to a newfound sense of God’s presence – both in the created world, and in the world of the church. She connects her poetic work of loving attention to her life as a Christian. Three poems, presented in a row, seem to speak especially deeply to her growing faith: “Coming to God, First Days,” “The Vast Ocean Begins Just Outside Our Church: The Eucharist,” and “Six Recognitions of the Lord.” For readers who are perhaps not used to Oliver moving specifically and concretely in the realm of faith, these poems may come as a surprise. As someone who shares that faith, I found them deeply moving. She wears the voice of a Christian mystic simply and well. Her clear-focused eyes and poetic heart seem ready-made for understanding all of life in a sacramental way.

Then there is the poem “More Beautiful than the Honey Locust Tree Are the Words of the Lord” where she seems awash in awestruck praise, recognizing that even her finest, choicest words are just one drop of the ocean of praise that sings all around her:

“It is close to hopeless,
for what I want to say the red-bird
has said already, and better, in a thousand trees…”

And yet she continues to write, to pray, to be what she feels called to be:

“Lord, let me be a flower, even a tare; or a sparrow.
Or the smallest bright stone in a ring worn by someone
  brave and kind, whose name I will never know.”

That humility and gentleness pervades the entire collection. Thirst both quenched my thirst for poetic beauty, and made me thirsty for more.

Poems by Mary Oliver
Beacon Press, 2006

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

"Leafing and Leaving" (An Original Poem)

I discovered an old notebook the other day, full of poem drafts I wrote during the spring seven years ago. (Half the sweet girl's life ago!) A lot of the drafts are still incomplete and need work, but one poem, filled with word play, felt ready...and made me smile. And I think after being stuffed away in a notebook for seven years, it's definitely time for its debut.

Leafing and Leaving

Leaves aren't leaving
in the spring.
They've only just arrived.
They do their leafing
fresh and green
when all is new outside.
They do their leaving
in the fall
dressed to the nines
in red and gold.
They only whisper their goodbyes
when the year is growing old.

EMP, 4/2010

Saturday, March 25, 2017

Poem Modeling on Blake's "The Lamb"

I'm sorting through a journal I just finished writing in (started writing in a new journal at Hillman on Thursday). Sorting through a completed journal is, for me, a interesting exercise, partly because I'm looking at old to-do lists to see if there are things on those lists I still need to do, as inevitably there are, and partly because I'm looking through things like poem drafts and story snippets to see if I want to rework any of the creative things. And inevitably I do!

One of the things I saw this morning was an exercise I did a while back which I meant to share here on the blog. It was an exercise in poem modeling: that is, looking at an already written (sometimes classic) poem, and modeling my own poem off it. I don't do these kinds of creative riffs often enough. While they don't always lead to the most fluid of poems for me, I still find the exercises mentally and creatively helpful. And sometimes they do lead to fun results.

In this case, I decided to riff on William Blake's famous poem "The Lamb." Here is the well-known gem, in case you haven't read it in a while...

Little lamb, who made thee?
Dost thou know who made thee,
Gave thee life, and bid thee feed
By the stream and o’er the mead;
Gave thee clothing of delight,
Softest clothing, woolly, bright;
Gave thee such a tender voice,
Making all the vales rejoice?
    Little lamb, who made thee?
    Dost thou know who made thee?
    Little lamb, I’ll tell thee;
    Little lamb, I’ll tell thee:
He is called by thy name,
For He calls Himself a Lamb.
He is meek, and He is mild,
He became a little child.
I a child, and thou a lamb,
We are called by His name.
    Little lamb, God bless thee!
    Little lamb, God bless thee!

-- William Blake (1789)

And here's my modeling off of it. The trickiest part of this exercise may have been choosing what my central theme would be: it had to be a creature or part of creation that would lend itself easily to a comparison with Jesus and with humanity. I chose a rose.

I also chose to change the "thee" to "you," both to show that I am writing in a different century than Blake, and also just to vary the sounds of the poem (note that in conjunction with "thee" he uses words like "feed" and "mead" and "meek" that draw on the long "e" sound). Whereas I took the "oo" sound in "you" and played off it with words like "bloom" and "room" and "too" and "new." 

Lovely rose, who made you?

Do you know who made you,

Made you bud, brought you to bloom

Into a vibrant silken room;

Gave you colors warm and bright,

Some dark velvet, others light;

Gave you such a sweet, fresh scent,

That wafts up to the firmament?

       Lovely rose, who made you?

       Do you know who made you?

Lovely rose, I’ll tell you;

Lovely rose, I’ll tell you;

He himself was once a bloom,

Sheltered in a tiny room,

Brought to fruitful, flowering birth,

Here upon the barren earth.

I’m a flower, like you too,

Born to bloom and become new.

       Lovely rose, God love you!

       Lovely rose, God love you! 

(EMP, 2017)

Modeling exercises really are fun. Choose a poem you love that is written by someone else (well-known or not) and hold it up like a diamond, admiring all its facets. Then try to carve your own gemstone in words. It's a good creative challenge!