Completed: The Case Book of Sherlock Holmes

Cover: The Case Book of Sherlock HolmesThe Case Book of Sherlock Holmes
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
Scotland, 1927

Earlier this year, several years after beginning my journey through the complete Sherlock Holmes, I finally finished reading the last collection of stories, The Case Book of Sherlock Holmes. (Thank you, 2018 TBR Challenge!) Although an earlier story, “His Last Bow,” is chronologically the last Holmes story (by Doyle at least), the twelve stories in The Case Book are the last of the Holmes stories actually written by Doyle, and were all originally published in The Strand Magazine between October 1921 and April 1927.

It was my impression while reading–and a quick Internet search seems to bear this up–that these stories are not among Doyle’s best work. (Indeed, there are those who think some of the stories weren’t written by Doyle at all!*) To me it almost felt like Doyle was “phoning it in,” that his heart was no longer into the writing of Holmes stories, that he was wanting to let Holmes retire to his beekeeping in peace. [Aside…if BBC/WGBH ever resume the Sherlock series, I wonder if they might choose to eventually retire Sherlock to beekeeping–or what they might decide the 21st century equivalent is?] And as I write these notes up a few weeks after finishing the stories, I realize that I don’t really remember them. (Fortunately I have a copy on hand to flip through.) They just didn’t really strike a deep impression, not even a story with such a sensational title as “The Adventure of the Sussex Vampire,” which of course, being a true Holmes story ended sensibly enough with a perfectly logical explanation. “The Adventure of the Creeping Man,” on the other hand, which begins to come back to me now, bordered on science-fiction–perhaps we see here the influence of Doyle’s own Professor Challenger stories?

Although some seemed typical Holmes stories–after a while, you begin to develop a feel for the rhythm of the tales–there was also some divergence from the pattern. One story, “The Adventure of the Mazarin Man,” is written in the third person. Holmes himself narrates “The Adventure of the Blanched Soldier” and “The Adventure of the Lion’s Mane,” which gives the reader an entirely different feel that Watson’s narration. This variation is not necessarily bad, but it certainly strikes a different feel from the “typical” story.

All in all, the collection proved a brief entertainment, but unremarkable. I am sure I will revisit Holmes at some point, though I feel it more likely to be among the earlier stories and novels.

This collection was read as part of my 2018 TBR Challenge list, part of my Mysteries and Detective Fiction project list and for the 20th Century Title for the 2018 Back to the Classics Challenge. I call that multi-tasking!

* For example, the Wikipedia Article quotes Kyle Freeman from his Introduction to The Complete Sherlock Holmes as doubting the authorship of “The Mazarin Stone” and “The Three Gables.”

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Week’s End Notes (33)

Vase of cut zinnias and sunflowers And so we’ve arrived at the first August weekend. I may have said last post that about this time of year it always feels as if summer’s almost (practically) over–and indeed, two area schools (individual schools, not districts; they are experiments in student learning improvements) started classes this past week.  But today it certainly feels “summer” – hot and humid. I don’t expect much variation between now and mid-September–this is what late summer usually is like around here. But I won’t complain. We don’t get wildfires, we don’t get serious drought.

Cover: Tess of the D’Urbervilles (Penguin cloth bound edition)My classics spin title ended up as probably the one I least wanted on the list–indeed, I hadn’t even realized it was still on the list. (Oops.) Tess of the D’Urbervilles. Not because I don’t want to read it–I’ve read and liked Hardy previously. But I have serious doubts as to the likelihood of being able to finish it by the end of the month. (And no, I haven’t started yet. I’ve been trying to finish up other things first.) So we’ll see how that goes. Maybe the deadline will prove the needed inspiration.

And there’s this, too, that helps: I haven’t gone a single day since May 20 without reading for at least five minutes! Some days it’s only been that five little minutes. But it’s become a streak that I am so reluctant to break, that there was even one night when I had to work late on a deadline–so late I was up past my bedtime–and even sleepy as I was, I wouldn’t let myself fall asleep before I’d read for that five minutes. On the other hand, while reading always seems a good thing, perhaps I should question my priorities…

(But the streak!)

I haven’t kept up with blogging as much as I’d like; that has been one of the casualties of busyness. I’d hoped to be able to participate in the Spanish-Portuguese Literature Months hosted by Stu and Richard, but that doesn’t look likely now. (Though there’s still time…maybe if I skip work for a week–think anyone would notice?!)

In some ways I feel the last few months have been absorbed all in work. And yet, when I think back to all that I’ve done, that’s not so, I just have had very little “do-nothing” time. I’ve finished seven books since early May. I’ve been to four movies, a rate higher-than-normal for me. One of them was the delightful documentary Won’t You Be My Neighbor, which I was able to see thanks to a colleague telling me about a local independent theater that I didn’t even know existed. Apparently the documentary is quite popular–they sold out every showing (in an admittedly small theater) over at least two weekends.

I also got to do something I haven’t done in years–I went to a performance of the Cleveland Orchestra, featuring Audra McDonald, at Blossom Music Center, their summer home. I’d forgotten how wonderful those performances could be–and McDonald was so impressive. She truly can sing anything.

So summer hasn’t been a complete loss, even if at times it feels that way. In fact, as I write this, I’m sitting on the back screened porch, enjoying the breezes and sounds of birds and insects, glancing up to see fresh-cut flowers and the greens of the trees and shrubs. I don’t stop to enjoy the sounds of the world around me often enough, too busy with music or other distractions.

Hydrangea (white/green)

Sometimes I think our fully air-conditioned protected world prevents us from knowing the seasons as fully as we ought. Those hot lazy days of summer disappear without us even noticing how hot they are. We don’t take the time to appreciate the breezes or the humming of insects or trilling of birds when we stay inside our climate-controlled bubble. We scramble around in a world of pavements and buildings instead of meandering though forests and fields and streams. And so time passes us by because we let it be filled and busy and stressful instead of taking a deliberate pause and engaging in a world where a clock holds no meaning. It is certainly something I am guilty of.

Perhaps if there is one thing I hope for my coming months more than anything else, it is that I remember to pause. To meander. To be.

Happy Reading!

A Classics Spin for Summer

Question Mark - cover place holder

So it’s almost August. Where did the summer go? I’ve been so, so terribly busy, that I feel as if it’s completely passed me by. And yes, I realize that there’s still August left, but the local schools start up in just a couple weeks, and so it always feels as if summer’s nearly gone once we arrive at the last weekend of July.

However, the new moderators of The Classics Club (Welcome!) have decided to start their tenure off with a bang, with one of the ever-popular “spins,” and it’s set to coincide entirely with the month of August. A reason to celebrate one last summer, month, I think. I’ve set out a list below that is mostly based on books already on my self–I really am trying to do better about reading from the shelves. So, I suppose that what I’m truly hoping for is a selection that I already own. Although part of me really wants #20, as I keep picking up 2666 to read and find other books sneaking in ahead (to be fair, most of those other books have either been library books or otherwise had some sort of deadline attached). Regardless, it’s always fun!

And you, are you spinning?

  1. Virgil: The Aeneid [Aeneis] (Rome, 29-19 BCE)
  2. Anonymous: Beowulf (Anglo-Saxon, between 8th-11th centuries)
  3. Shakespeare, William: Merchant of Venice (England, c. 1596)
  4. Stendhal: The Charterhouse of Parma (France, 1839)
  5. Brontë, Anne: Agnes Grey (England, 1847)
  6. Gaskell, Elizabeth: Cranford (England, 1853)
  7. Hardy, Thomas: Far From the Madding Crowd (England, 1874)
  8. Tolstoy, Leo: The Death of Ivan Ilyich and Other Stories (Russia, 1886-1912)
  9. Hardy, Thomas: Tess of the D’Urbervilles (England, 1891)
  10. Wells, H.G.: The Time Machine (England, 1895)
  11. Wharton, Edith: The House of Mirth (U.S., 1905)
  12. Faulkner, William: The Sound and the Fury (U.S., 1929)
  13. Huxley, Aldous: Brave New World (England, 1932)
  14. Bromfield, Louis: The Farm (U.S.-Ohio, 1933)
  15. Wright, Richard: Native Son (U.S., 1940)
  16. Ellison, Ralph: Invisible Man (U.S., 1952)
  17. Spark, Muriel: The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (Scotland, 1961)
  18. Borges, Jorge Luis: Ficciones (Argentina, 1962)
  19. Dick, Philip K.: Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (U.S., 1968)
  20. Bolaño, Roberto: 2666 (Chile, 2004)

Completed: Lady Susan by Jane Austen

Cover: Lady Susan, The Watsons, Sanditon by Jane AustenLady Susan, The Watsons, Sanditon
Jane Austen
(England, c. 1794-1818)

It is a pity that Austen didn’t live to complete her final novel.

Although I picked Lady Susan/The Watsons/Sanditon off my shelves intending just to read Lady Susan, which was completed, though unpublished in Austen’s lifetime, in the end I decided to reread the two unfinished novels as well.

The first time I read this collection, I was disappointed primarily that The Watsons was left hanging–Emma’s story held so much interest to me. But coming at it years later, I realized that there are so many elements of The Watsons in her other novels that the plot seems anticipatable by inference, while on the other hand Sanditon appears to have just enough variation from Austen’s “norm” that it tantalizes with a world of possibilities of what might have been. While I would assume the marriage plot elements of her complete novels would be present, there’s little enough of the novel (though ever so much more than The Watsons) that I can’t say for sure who would end with who, though I may make some guesses. Nor, perhaps more importantly, can I be sure of which characters will see growth–for there are plenty of silly, or perhaps in the case of Sir Edward, dangerous, characters. Will Arthur Parker remain indolent or will a pretty girl prompt him to action? Will Sir Edward remain on his path of intrigue, or will rejection strike sense into him? (Doesn’t seem likely.) And perhaps the biggest question of all: Will Sanditon see success as a holiday town, or was part of Austen’s satire to be its failure, or even just indifference? All such questions must remain only in speculation, alas (though there seems to be no shortage of continuations by other authors).

Lady Susan, on the other hand, is very much finished. According to the introduction in my copy, Austen had even written it out in a fair copy, but did not submit it for publication, perhaps because she was unsatisfied with the epistolary style. While the style leads to a quick read, it does place limitations on how much of the story we can see –for only that which can be told in a letter can be portrayed.

There is exquisite pleasure in subduing an insolent spirit, in making a person pre-determined to dislike, acknowledge one’s superiority. (Letter 7, Lady Susan to Mrs. Johnson)

Lady Susan herself is a frequent contributor to these letters. A widow with a teenage daughter, it seems plain that her ambitions are to get her daughter out of the way–by way of a wealthy husband, if at all possible–and to perhaps make a new match for herself, or at least to divert herself a while until she can, perhaps, resume her affair with a married man. She is clearly a clever woman, and one with much spirit, who seeks her own amusement and entertainment, feeling little true sympathy for others. Although at times one may wonder if she is not unfairly treated by her times and society, limiting as it is with its expectations of “proper” female behavior and the limited opportunities for female advancement or even survival, Lady Susan’s own letters give her away as unfeeling towards her own daughter and cavalierly toying with the emotions of men in pursuit of her own motives. She cares not if she breaks hearts or tempts a man away from his relationship with another woman (though perhaps, in at least one case, this will be better in the long term for the young woman in question). Despite the limitations of the form, there is still enough here to form quite an entire picture of the Lady.

Lady Susan is by no means Austen at her finest, but it is an early example of her keen observation of society around her and remains entertaining for all its brevity. It formed the basis for the 2016 film Love & Friendship, a film I have yet to see but which I eagerly look forward to watching.

I read Lady Susan as part of the 2018 TBR Challenge, for “A Classic by a Woman Author” for the 2018 Back to the Classics Challenge, and for my Classics Club list.

Completed: Longbourn by Jo Baker

Cover: Longbourn by Jo BakerLongbourn
Jo Baker
(2013, England)

Some years ago I reread Pride and Prejudice for the third or fourth time, and so enjoyed my time in the world of the novel, that I thought I should like to spend some more time there, specifically by way of Longbourn by Jo Baker. The “upstairs-downstairs” premise intrigued me, especially in light of my enjoyment of the 1910s-20s-set Downton Abbey. I was well aware that Austen’s world only represented a small slice of all the possible experiences of Regency England, and very curious to read a novel representing the lives of the “downstairs” staff at the Bennet’s home, Longbourn. (And yes, it did take me well over a year before I returned to Longbourn. I make plans, but the follow-through…)

In that particular goal I was not disappointed. The novel opens with wash day, and the detail which Baker incorporates quite naturally into the scene both speaks to the level of research she must have completed as well as informing the reading just how physically difficult life could be for the poor and working classes of the pre-electrified era. The novel was also a compelling read, tying in cleverly to the source material. Baker knows Pride and Prejudice quite well; she picks up on (and quotes, at the start of each chapter) little details from Austen that I had not fully noticed before. In one particular scene, as the young ladies of the house are greatly anticipating the Netherfield Ball, the weather prevents them going into Meryton themselves, and so, Austen tells us, the “very shoe-roses for Netherfield were got by proxy.” Baker fills in the rest–it may be too wet for refined young ladies, but not so for the housemaid; she it is who must make the muddy, soaking trek, for new decorations for ladies’ dancing shoes must be had. This may strip the “romance” from the “world of Austen,” but it fleshes out an era that many of us may only know via period film or novels.

However, I am reminded again–or maybe just finally forced to admit–that commercial historical fiction just isn’t for me. (I qualify because I have found some more “literary” historical fiction, such as The Bluest Eye, more compelling.) No matter how well researched, there always seems something just a bit “off,” a hint of the social mores or biases of the writer’s own time period that ultimately takes away from my enjoyment of the story. I can’t point to anything particular here (the way I can with Year of Wonders), but there’s just this niggling feeling that the 21st century has crept into the plot. And perhaps I bring that in as the reader as much as the author has. So while I feel I could recommend it to a fan of the genre, I think I can safely leave my reading time for other literary horizons. Maybe Austenesque satires? I do have a copy of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies on my shelves…

Slipping into Summer

It’s the last day of a long weekend, Memorial Day here in the US, the unofficial but traditional start of summer. And it truly feels like a summer day: hot, muggy, oppressive sunshine (90F/32C, currently 40% humidity, which is actually an improvement from the 80% humidity earlier). But it’s perfect weather for lemonade and a book. Summer always seems to be when my reading (though maybe not my blogging–hoping to do better this year!) picks up. It’s simply too hot to do anything else.

Actually, the reading’s been going very well this year–I’ve started and finished twelve books already, and am partway through another six. (Very unusual for me to be reading so many at once…) The current/soon to be current book pile:

Summer book stack

True some of these are for/related to work. (But that dosen’t mean I’m not enjoying them anyways!) We’ve actually decided to try a work book club, so I read the intro and first chapter of Blink on Saturday. It’s fascinating so far, and I’m excited to read the rest.

But even before entering the hot, lazy summer months, it’s been reading season. I’ve been crazy busy this spring (last week, for instance, I didn’t get home from work until after 8:00 on Monday and had another really fun work-adjacent event Tuesday evening that had me home even later), but if there’s been a moment to squeeze in some reading, I have. Last winter (2017), I listened to the audiobook of 168 Hours: You Have More Time than You Think, and it really changed the way I think about time. I’ve been willing to add more to my schedule because I’ve seen that I can, and following author Laura Vanderkam’s blog and seeing how many books she’s managed to squeeze into her busy schedule provided the needed inspiration to kick-start my 2018 reading. I’m on pace for the best reading year since I started the blog. Now…to just catch up on the blog writing. Especially for the 2018 TBR challenge; I’ve read four books for it, but only blogged one so far. I guess it’s just easier to find a few minutes here and there for reading (five minutes at lunch, ten before bed), but I always feel like I need a chunk of time to get my thoughts down in a coherent form. Maybe something to work on?

I’ve been thinking about what I’m looking forward to this summer–since it’s not the hot weather–and besides reading, there’s always a few things I enjoy. Fireworks. Lemonade. Ice cream–so much ice cream! (There’s a wonderful little shop about a 7 minute walk from the office that we love to go to on a mid-afternoon for a treat.) Watching the fireflies dance around the yards after dark. Summer holidays. Bike rides. Rain storms. There’s also a major art event planned for the Cleveland-Akron area this summer that I am tentatively planning to visit (at least parts).

And all the reading.

I’ve decided not to do any summer-long events, though if any interesting single-month event crops up, I might opt in. But mostly I want to make it through the current reads, and my pre-order of Off the Clock (Laura Vanderkam) arrives tomorrow, plus I’d like to keep plugging away at my Harry Potter rereads (so much fun!) and my TBR list. I’m toying with the idea of adding some detective fiction, although that might make better autumn reading. Definitely saving The Woman in White for fall. But with all the non-fiction in the stack, I definitely need some more “fun” reads for summer. Maybe another fantasy…

Any exciting summer (or winter) reading/other plans for you?

Happy reading!

Completed: The Arm of the Starfish by Madeleine L’Engle

Cover: The Arm of the Starfish by Madeleine L'Engle The Arm of the Starfish
Madeleine L’Engle
US, 1965

In terms of the order of events in L’Engle’s wider story universe, The Arm of the Starfish is not the next book after A Wrinkle in Time. That would be A Wind in the Door (1973). But in terms of publication, The Arm of the Starfish was the second, and on a whim I decided that I would read all of the books, not just in the Time Quintet but in the Poly O’Keefe stories as well, in the order of publication. (This does have the negative consequence of delaying my return to my TBR list by a bit, but only a bit. I’ll be back in TBR-land shortly!)

Despite only three years between publication, The Arm of the Starfish seems a world away from A Wrinkle in Time. Not only is this because the two returning characters–Meg O’Keefe (née Murray) and Calvin O’Keefe are now married adults with seven children, but because unlike A Wrinkle in Time, The Arm of the Starfish seems much more grounded in the world we the readers know–there are no fantastic beings, no otherworldly travels, no giant evil IT to defeat. Indeed, the evil in this book is only too human–but surely as destructive and enticing for all that. The only element that really sets this novel in the realm of science-fiction is the depiction of Dr. O’Keefe’s science experiments involving starfish regeneration.

Our protagonist in The Arm of the Starfish is Adam Eddington, a young, but clearly intelligent and destined-to-be successful, man who is spending his last summer before college working for Dr. O’Keefe in his Portuguese island-based lab. However, things start to go awry before Adam even lands in Portugal, from the fog-delay at the airport to his mysterious encounter with the young beauty, Kali, to the airplane’s diversion to Madrid and Adam’s first encounters with Canon Tallis and Poly O’Keefe (the oldest of the O’Keefe children). Entrusted with seeing Poly safely to Lisbon and her father’s arms, Adam finds himself trapped in a larger conspiracy when Poly disappears from the plane and no one on board seems inclined to believe Adam’s story of her very existence.

While the Time Quintet books are more firmly in the realm of science-fiction, exploring cosmic concepts and universe-wide battles of good and evil, The Arm of the Starfish sits closer to the thriller genre, always steering towards a final, dangerous, confrontation. Its themes are of the darkness that lust for power or money or prestige can drive one to and of the small battles of individuals, both within themselves and against others.

Although a very different reading experience, diverging as it does in both style and story from its predecessor, The Arm of the Starfish, like Wrinkle, centers around a young protagonist with faults and self-doubt, whose failings sometimes may frustrate the reader, but who learns from his mistakes and grows over the course of the novel. In turn, the reader learns from Adam, and from his struggles.

My one piece of discomfort with The Arm of the Starfish was its portrayal of a native village on the fictional island of Gaea. L’Engle’s native characters feel as if they venture a little too close to stereotype (along the lines of “noble native”) for comfort, although they are only ever seen in a positive light. Also—and I admit here, I don’t know anything about actual Portuguese islands—the village, and its inhabitants, seemed more like something I would expect to read of in the South Pacific or Latin America than off the coast of Portugal. Stereotype or not, it threw me off mentally, every time it was described. In contrast, L’Engle’s depictions of Lisbon felt (and again, I can’t speak to personal experience) as if they were written by someone who has seen Lisbon in person.

All-in-all, a fast-paced enjoyable book, though perhaps not as enchanting as the better-known A Wrinkle in Time.