In the Midst

I still haven’t managed to make much headway on reading for the year–which I am most solidly blaming on the Architectural Registration Exam, which has consumed my mind to the extent that last week I could not remember the words for either “ladle” or “spatula,” a fact that amuses my brother to no end. Nevertheless, I have somehow discovered myself currently reading (or not, as the case may be) not one but four books. Or at the very least, strongly tempted by them every time I glance up from my study. I’m taking the first test tomorrow–and from what I’ve read about it, I will either discover that I’ve completely studied the wrong things, or I will wonder why I studied so much, no middle ground. After that I will give myself free reign to enjoy my reading again. At least for a few days!

I’m still enjoying Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm, which is amusing me greatly. I think this is one of those rare children’s books that I’m actually appreciating more as an adult than I would have when I was younger–I’m finding a lot of humor in it that I don’t think I would have noticed when I was 10. Either that or I’m just in a mood to be easily amused. I took the day off from study today (if I don’t know it already, I won’t tomorrow) and went to see Rango which I found to be laugh-out-loud funny. Maybe even hysterical. Of course, this may just be another example like Rebecca, as I somehow doubt that the average movie-going 10-year old would have recognized “Ride of the Valkyries” by name.

Reading Lolita in Tehran has been pushed a bit to the wayside, and will likely turn out the loser in my current bookish madness. I find it a book to work through slowly, and it requires more mental power than I currently have available. I still intend to finish this, it might just take a while.

And now I much confess. My lack of reading left me open to temptation. I was unable to hold strong for the TBR Dare, and the other two books I’m currently starting are both from the library. Technically I haven’t done anything more with Conversation in the Cathedral (Mario Vargas Llosa) than lug it around. I’m currently pretending it isn’t really 600 pages, that the paper is just really thick. (Actually the paper is on the thick side–thus the lugging.) I’m hoping to start it Sunday. I did start How to Read a Book (Mortimer J. Adler & Charles Van Doren) already, although I’m still in the preface. I’ve debated reading this in the past. I often feel that my reading is superficial, and I’ve definitely read my share of superficial books. Not that there is anything wrong with reading simply to be entertained or to “escape.” However, after reading The Divine Comedy last summer, I was reminded about how powerful literature can really be. I want to continue to have that experience of touching something great, but if I only take in the surface of what I’m reading, I will miss out on the best part of the great books. Part of me says that the way to get better at reading is simply to read more. The other part suggests that maybe I need to learn how to better and where to better focus my attention while reading. I’m not sure what How to Read a Book is going to tell me just yet. Maybe I’ll return to my initial instinct that the real solution is to read, read, read; maybe I will learn something new and applicable.


In the meantime, I will continue to attempt to ignore the latest snowfall outside and concentrate on these hardy little blooms instead. It only took a few days of warm sun this week for the crocus to pop open, and as soon as the snow melts they’ll be back. Spring can’t come soon enough!

Completed: A Study in Scarlet

I seem to have been in a reading slump lately. I could certainly without difficulty assign blame to any number of distractions, make my excuses. But if I’m honest with myself, I think the first reason above all others is that I haven’t been making time for reading. Reading of books, that is. I’ve been reading blog posts and reviews. Just not books. (Excepting a few very exciting chapters of Architectural Graphic Standards. Ha.)

I want to read books. I keep looking at my finished and partially finished lists, adding books and authors and entirely new categories as the whim strikes me. I’ve read about authors, winnowing down which books are the top selections by the more prolific writers, discovering lesser known novels which I can hope are gems.

I think perhaps this may, indirectly, get at the heart of my present reading problem. Right now, for whatever whim or reason of my fancy, I’m in a mood to read about books. And I’ve been trying to read a detective story instead.

This is absolutely nothing against Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. I’ve read some of his non-Holmes stories in the past to much amusement. I believe I may have even read a handful of the Holmes mysteries. I am absolutely certain that when my brother and I were little our dad read us The Hound of the Baskervilles and some of the short stories. The fault is not Doyle’s, nor the genre.


I finally managed to finish the very first Holmes novel, A Study in Scarlet, over the weekend. This is the story that introduces both us, the readers, and Dr. John Watson, the narrator forever linked with Holmes as his “sidekick,” to Sherlock Holmes. It is a story meant to amaze us with the deductive powers of Holmes, contrasted with the incompetence of the Scotland Yard. Perhaps I am too familiar with the character, for while I am impressed by Holmes’s capacity for recognizing the importance in the smallest minutiae and his ability to so swiftly assemble the complete clue set into a reasonable solution, I was also struck by the actual ability of the Scotland Yard detectives, at least in this first story. Although the conclusions that Inspectors Lestrade and Gregson separately drew were both flawed, this was primarily from a failure to account for the entirety of the evidence at hand. The paths they took in their investigation of the crime were both logical, not at all out of line with a typical police procedural. Gregson sought to determine the whereabouts and activities of the victim in the hours leading to his death; Lestrade sought out his known associate. Both are common features in contemporary procedurals (I haven’t read enough older ones to comment). Both inspectors learned what they sought without needing direction from Holmes. In this story, at least, they did not seem to me the complete dolts Holmes makes them out to be.

Perhaps this is a sign of Holmes’s extreme intelligence, at least regarding the detective sciences. He knows so much more than those around him—and knows that he does—that he cannot help but disdain much of their efforts. I also must admit, he knew the murderer’s identity long before either inspector had recognized the error of their own conclusions. But there seems something missing from his investigation. Without the exertions of Gregson and Lestrade, we would not have known of further crimes or the true character of the vicitm. Holmes, in this first story at least, seems too distant, too calculating (one could rather imagine him a master criminal, if only to prove his abilities). Watson provides humanity to the action, affected as he is by the sight of violent death—reminding us that murder is ugly indeed. Lestrade and Gregson, on the other hand, not only provide a foil to Holmes’s abilities, they round out the full picture of the crime.

Having completed this, I am not surprised that A Study in Scarlet is both Doyle’s first novel and one of the earliest detective novels. The lengthy interlude of part two, providing the reason for the crime, seems at odds with the rest of the novel. It is not narrated by Watson, has the flavor more of a western romance than a detective story, and just simply goes on too long. The reader is held by the desire to learn the resolution of part one rather than any inherent interest in part two. This suggests to me that Doyle was still feeling out his genre. The conventions had not yet been firmly and completely established, either for Holmes or for detective fiction. Given the popularity for the detective that would shortly develop* I assume that both Doyle’s storytelling and Holmes’s personality would improve with time. Either that or the general reading public has long been fond of cold but extremely intelligent detectives!

* A bit of a spoiler that seems to be common knowledge (I’ve not read the involved stories, yet I’ve known this bit of trivia as long as I can remember): Doyle would later try to kill Holmes off that he might concentrate on historical fiction, but public demand caused him to revive the detective. Today we typically forget that Doyle even wrote other novels.

New Book, New List

I am happy to report that, 17 days into the New Year I am holding strong with my commitment to the TBR Dare. Let’s leave out the minor little detail that I’ve only read about 15 pages of anything so far, making it very easy to stick to said commitment, shall we?

I’ve decided to start the year the way I had initially intended to end the previous, with some good Detective fiction. Somehow the Holidays pushed everything around, and I’m only just now getting to the first two Sherlock Holmes stories, A Study in Scarlet and The Sign of Four. The Holmes set I have (which is actually my Dad’s, but has been gathering dust on my shelves for well over a year, and therefore, I believe, fully qualifies for TBR) combines these two earliest Holmes novels into one book. I’ve been meaning to read some of the stories of the great detective since the 2009 movie came out, and here we are in 2011 already….but what’s really got me in gear this time was the modernized version shown on PBS this past fall. The series was fun, sharp, and, I believe, seemed to more accurately represent the character of Sherlock Holmes as portrayed in Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s books. I’m not very far into the first story yet, but I’ve already been amused by the circling of time. When we first meet Dr. John Watson, the narrator of the stories, as well as roommate of Holmes, he has just returned from war in Afghanistan, listing off towns and provinces no doubt familiar in Doyle’s time–and now in ours as well. Needless to say, the BBC/PBS version was able to fashion Watson as a wounded Afghan war vet as well.

With detective stories on the mind, I decided to finally finish another list—Detective Stories & Mysteries. I am much more familiar with this genre than Italian literature, as I have read many, many mystery novels over the years. My recent readings have been somewhat of a letdown however, not to mention I’ve somehow missed some of the earliest, classic stories, so I decided to direct my attention primarily to the earliest stories. As with my previous list, I consulted 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die for ideas. I also browsed the Wikipedia pages on authors from the “Golden Age of Detective Fiction.” My focus on the early stories does mean that I am short on contemporary mysteries and on those by non-American or British authors, so if you know of any really good ones, please chime in!

  1. Poe, Edgar Allan:  Murders in the Rue Morge
  2. Poe, Edgar Allan:  The Mystery of Marie Rogêt
  3. Poe, Edgar Allan:  The Purloined Letter
  4. Collins, Wilkie:  The Woman in White
  5. Collins, Wilkie:  The Moonstone (re-read)
  6. Collins, Wilkie:  The Haunted Hotel
  7. Gaboriau, Émile:  The Lerouge Case (L’Affaire Lerouge)
  8. Doyle, Sir Arthur Conan:  A Study in Scarlet
  9. Doyle, Sir Arthur Conan:  The Sign of Four
  10. Doyle, Sir Arthur Conan:  The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes
  11. Doyle, Sir Arthur Conan:  The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes
  12. Doyle, Sir Arthur Conan:  Doyle, Sir Arthur Conan:  The Hound of the Baskervilles
  13. Doyle, Sir Arthur Conan:  The Return of Sherlock Holmes
  14. Doyle, Sir Arthur Conan:  The Valley of Fear
  15. Doyle, Sir Arthur Conan:  His Last Bow
  16. Doyle, Sir Arthur Conan:  The Case-Book of Sherlock Holmes
  17. Christie, Agatha:  The Mysterious Affair at Styles
  18. Christie, Agatha:  The Murder of Roger Ackroyd
  19. Christie, Agatha:  The Murder at the Vicarage
  20. Christie, Agatha:  Dieci piccoli indiani (And Then There Were None)
  21. Crofts, Freeman Wills:  Inspector French’s Greatest Case
  22. Van Dine, S.S.:  The Benson Murder
  23. Queen, Ellery:  The Black Dudley Murder
  24. Hammett, Dashiell:  The Maltese Falcon
  25. Hammett, Dashiell:  The Thin Man
  26. Iles, Francis:  Malice Aforethought
  27. Sayers, Dorothy L.:  Murder Must Advertise
  28. Sayers, Dorothy L.:  The Nine Tailors
  29. Stout, Rex:  Fer-de-Lance
  30. Carr, John Dickson:  The Hollow Man
  31. Greene, Graham:  Brighton Rock
  32. Chandler, Raymond:  The Big Sleep
  33. Chandler, Raymond:  The Long Good-Bye
  34. James, P.D.:  Cover Her Face
  35. James, P.D.:  An Unsuitable Job for a Woman
  36. Mankell, Henning:  Faceless Killers

Some thoughts:

  • I’ve read other Poe stories, but I can’t believe I’ve never read any of these mysteries, considered by some* the first detective stories written. Bonus points: I have a volume of Poe with two of these, so I can read them during the TBR Dare.
  • Doyle – definitely among the classics of detective fiction. My dad read quite a few of the stories to my brother and I when we were little, but I’ve never read any myself.
  • Christie – I’ve read quite a few of her novels, mostly the Poirot tales, if I remember correctly. It’s been ages since I’ve read any of her books, though, and having seen quite a few adaptation on PBS in the past couple of years, I thought I’d go back. Since I can’t quite remember what I’ve read, these titles are mostly placeholders.
  • Dieci piccoli indiani – I’ve definitely read this one before—in English! I picked this up when I was in Italy to try to improve my Italian, but never read more than a couple of chapters. With my renewed interest in reading in other languages, it’s time to finally read this. (Although ironically, I should point out I’ll be reading a translation, rather than avoiding one!)
  • P.D. James – The only James novel I’ve read was Children of Men. I think it’s time for her mysteries.
  • A number of the books here I’ve heard of, not as novels, but for their movie adaptations. (I’m pretty sure I watched The Big Sleep on the plane back from Italy.) It’s time to read these classics—I’m particularly looking forward to this group.
  • Brighton Rock – I saw the trailer for the new movie of this recently. Intrigued enough to try the book.
  • Collins – I love Wilkie Collins! I’m not sure why I’ve put off The Woman in White so long; it’s been on my shelf more than ten years. The Moonstone will be a re-read, and after chancing across The Haunted Hotel, I knew I had to read it: I’m a sucker for novels set in Italy (this one is set in Venice).
  • Mankell – I’ve seen the BBC/PBS adaptations of the Wallander novels, but was otherwise not familiar with them. After Richard’s review of this first book, I’m ready to try it.

*In researching titles for the list, I discovered that at least one scholar considers Mademoiselle de Scudéri by E.T.A. Hoffman the first published detective story.