Three Sherlock Holmes Stories

The Missing Three-Quarters
Illustration for “The Missing Three-Quarters” by Sidney Paget for The Strand

I’m slowly catching up on the Chronological Sherlock Holmes Challenge. I read three stories today: “The Adventure of the Bruce-Partington Plans,” “The Adventure of the Veiled Lodger,” and “The Adventure of the Missing Three-Quarter.” I’m now caught up to where I should have been as of mid-December. I need to read four more stories to catch totally up.

Sherlock’s brother Mycroft shows up in “The Bruce-Partington Plans” to enlist Sherlock’s help in a matter of great importance to the government: plans for a submarine have been stolen, and one of the men who might have done it has been found dead in the subway.

“The Veiled Lodger” is a story about a former circus worker who wants to unburden her soul and tell her story to Sherlock Holmes before she dies.

In “The Missing Three-Quarters” Sherlock is on the case to find a missing football star.

Of the three stories I read today, my favorite was easily “The Bruce-Partington Plans.” Mycroft is a great character. The atmosphere in the story also plays a brilliant role: London is so foggy in this story that just about any crime might be committed. Parts of this story find their way into the BBC Sherlock episode “The Great Game”: Andrew West’s name is similar to murder victim Arthur Cadogan West in the story, and their deaths are similar; John Watson’s blog post also refers to the Bruce-Partington Plans. “The Veiled Lodger” was kind of weird and forgettable. There was no real mystery to it. “The Missing Three-Quarter” was a little better than “The Veiled Lodger,” but only because there was at least a little mystery to solve—although it does have some choice Sherlock Holmes-style sarcasm. I don’t think any parts of “The Veiled Lodger” or “The Missing Three-Quarter” have found their way into BBC’s Sherlock.

“The Bruce-Partington Plans” Rating: ★★★★★
“The Veiled Lodger” Rating: ★☆☆☆☆
“The Missing Three-Quarter” Rating: ★★★☆☆

The Chronological Sherlock Holmes ChallengeI read these stories as part of the Chronological Sherlock Holmes Challenge. They are the 41st, 42nd, and 43rd stories in the chronology (time setting rather than composition). Next up is “The Abbey Grange.” I am about four stories behind.

 

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Review: Salt Fat Acid Heat, Samin Nosrat

Review: Salt Fat Acid Heat, Samin NosratSalt, Fat, Acid, Heat: Mastering the Elements of Good Cooking by Samin Nosrat, Wendy MacNaughton
Published by Simon & Schuster ISBN: 1476753830
on April 25th 2017
Genres: Cooking, Nonfiction
Format: Hardcover
Goodreads
five-stars

A visionary new master class in cooking that distills decades of professional experience into just four simple elements, from the woman declared “America’s next great cooking teacher” by Alice Waters.

In the tradition of The Joy of Cooking and How to Cook Everything comes Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat, an ambitious new approach to cooking by a major new culinary voice. Chef and writer Samin Nosrat has taught everyone from professional chefs to middle school kids to author Michael Pollan to cook using her revolutionary, yet simple, philosophy. Master the use of just four elements—Salt, which enhances flavor; Fat, which delivers flavor and generates texture; Acid, which balances flavor; and Heat, which ultimately determines the texture of food—and anything you cook will be delicious. By explaining the hows and whys of good cooking, Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat will teach and inspire a new generation of cooks how to confidently make better decisions in the kitchen and cook delicious meals with any ingredients, anywhere, at any time.

Echoing Samin’s own journey from culinary novice to award-winning chef, Salt, Fat Acid, Heat immediately bridges the gap between home and professional kitchens. With charming narrative, illustrated walkthroughs, and a lighthearted approach to kitchen science, Samin demystifies the four elements of good cooking for everyone. Refer to the canon of 100 essential recipes—and dozens of variations—to put the lessons into practice and make bright, balanced vinaigrettes, perfectly caramelized roast vegetables, tender braised meats, and light, flaky pastry doughs.

Featuring 150 illustrations and infographics that reveal an atlas to the world of flavor by renowned illustrator Wendy MacNaughton, Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat will be your compass in the kitchen. Destined to be a classic, it just might be the last cookbook you’ll ever need.

With a foreword by Michael Pollan.

I picked up this cookbook after hearing about it on NPR during a segment with Corby Kummer about his Atlantic article featuring the best cookbooks of 2017. It might be one of the few cookbooks that I read cover-to-cover because even more than recipes suggesting what to cook, Samin Nosrat’s book teaches you how to cook. Her contention is that if you learn how to work with salt, fat, acid, and heat, you can cook anything. I haven’t tried many of the recipes the book yet, but I have tried her techniques, and honestly, I only wish I’d had this book many years ago. Where has this book been all my life?

One caveat for people who buy cookbooks for pretty pictures of food. This book doesn’t have any photographs—just Wendy McNaughton’s artwork. When asked why no photographs, author Samin Nosrat said:

This book and this message is about teaching you to be loose in the kitchen. And I didn’t want you to feel bound to my one image of a perfect dish in a perfect moment and feel like that was what you had to make. So I didn’t want you to feel like you had to live up to my version of perfection.

I have to admit that the perfect photos on food blogs and cookbooks can sometimes be intimidating. Even though what I make might taste good, it rarely matches the photographs for aesthetic appeal, so Nosrat’s reasoning makes sense to me.

This book is perfect for beginning cooks or even more experienced cooks who want to expand their understanding of how cooking works. It’s also great for cooks who need a bit more confidence.

My biggest takeaway from the book is to taste as I’m cooking. I know that seems pretty obvious, but tasting as you cook is the best way to know if you are balancing flavors properly. Tiny little case in point: I made macaroni and cheese for dinner tonight (the real stuff, not the box kind). I thought maybe my macaroni wasn’t done, but I wasn’t sure, so I scooped a noodle out of the pot and tasted it. Nope, done. Just a small example. I’ve also tried her tips for macerating shallots for salad and used her technique for dicing onions. I had my own technique for dicing onions, but hers works better. These sorts of techniques are hard to come by in most cookbooks, which by and large assume a level of knowledge that not all cooks have.

Nosrat also has a likable and charming voice that most cookbooks lack. For example, here is part of her instruction for fixing a broken mayonnaise emulsion:

Using your oily, eggy whisk, start whisking the hot water maniacally, until it starts to foam. Then, treating the broken mayonnaise as if it were oil, add it drop by drop, continuing to whisk with the urgency of a swimmer escaping a shark. (84)

This is one cookbook I would recommend to just about anyone as I think there is something for everyone in its pages.

five-stars

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Reading Challenge Check-In

I finished my first book for the Back to the Classics Reading Challenge this week. My husband and I listen to audiobooks when we cook dinner. He hadn’t read Jane Austen before. I’ve actually read all of the complete Jane Austen novels; I haven’t read the juvenilia, letters, Lady Susan or Sanditon. I steered him away from Mansfield Park, and Emma is a sort of long one. I actually recommended Pride and Prejudice or Sense and Sensibility, but Steve wanted to try Northanger Abbey because he’d heard that it was a send-up of gothic novels. It is also one of the shorter Austen novels, and it’s her earliest novel, though it wasn’t published until after she died. I’m counting this novel under the category of favorite classic re-read. I wouldn’t say it’s my absolute favorite classic novel, but it had been about ten years since I read it, and Jane Austen is one of my favorite authors. I hadn’t re-read this one as I had Pride and Prejudice or Sense and Sensibility, so it was probably time. My husband loved Mr. Tilney’s sense of humor and shook his head at Catherine’s drama. He figured out the Thorpes were horrible right away. A couple of observations: I teach teenagers, and man, teenage girls have not changed at all in 200 years. Re-read any of the parts detailing Catherine and Isabella’s intrigues and it could be set today. Actually, this novel might not make for a bad modernization à la Clueless. In fact, even Catherine’s infatuation with gothic stories works if one takes the vampire/werewolf/witch fads under consideration. One of the reasons I love Jane Austen in general and this book, in particular, is Austen’s famous wit. Juliet Stevenson read the audiobook, and she was excellent.

I’m also slowly catching up on the Chronological Sherlock Holmes Challenge. We had two snow days this week, so no school, and I read five Sherlock Holmes stories:

  • “The Adventure of the Norwood Builder”: Sherlock Holmes’s client John Hector McFarlane is a young lawyer accused of murdering one of his own clients but despite the mounting evidence, Holmes smells a fraud. Rating: ★★★★☆
  • “The Adventure of the Golden Pince-Nez”: Inspector Stanley Hopkins seeks Holmes’s help to solve the murder of a young secretary Willoughby Smith, in the employ of invalid professor Coram. Rating: ★★★★☆
  • “The Adventure of the Solitary Cyclist”: Violet Smith seeks Holmes’s help when she notices a man following her as she rides her bicycle to the train station to return home on weekends from her job as a music teacher. While the man never harms her, she is uneasy about him, and she is also uneasy about her employer Mr. Carruthers and his weird friend Mr. Woodley. Rating: ★★★☆☆
  • “The Adventure of the Three Students”: University lecturer Hilton Soames contacts Holmes for help preventing a scandal. He left an exam he planned to give three students competing for a scholarship on his desk, but his servant left the key in the door, and Soames knows that one of the students has looked at the exam. Rating: ★★★☆☆
  • “The Adventure of Black Peter”: Peter Carey, a former whaler known as Black Peter, is found gruesomely murdered with a harpoon. While most people agree he probably had it coming, Holmes and Stanley Hopkins team up again to solve the murder. Rating: ★★★★½

Of these five stories, I probably liked “The Adventure of Black Peter” best, if only for the image of Holmes whacking away at a pig carcass with a harpoon to see how much strength it would take to murder someone with said instrument. Spoiler alert: a lot. “The Adventure of the Three Students” is one of those weird stories when Conan Doyle seems to be trying to prove his open-mindedness. For another example, “The Adventure of the Yellow Face” serves well. Of the three students, two seem more likely to cheat than the third mainly because this third is easygoing, clean-cut, and white, while the other two are 1) an Indian, and 2) a panicky, ragey guy that Soames suspects is probably behind it, but he doesn’t discount the Indian guy because he’s, you know, Indian. It’s almost like Conan Doyle is trying to say, “See? I made the bad guy be the clean-cut white guy and not the Indian or the dude with obvious issues.” “The Solitary Cyclist” is one of those damsel in distress stories that are fairly yawn-inducing. Give me Irene Adler who can take care of herself. Speaking of damsels in distress, it’s a weird thing, but no mention is made of Mary Morstan Watson. She just disappears, and all of a sudden Watson is living with Holmes at Baker Street. I know it’s mentioned in one of the stories that she died, but I don’t recall reading it. I mean, what gives? “The Norwood Builder” and “The Golden Pince-Nez” were pretty much run-of-the-mill Sherlock Holmes stories. The only reference to any of these stories from the BBC series Sherlock that I caught was from “Black Peter.” Holmes shows up covered and blood and carrying a harpoon in “The Hounds of Baskerville.”

I am now caught up with the Chronological Sherlock Holmes Challenge through November, so now I’m just a month behind.

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Review: The Cooking Gene, Michael Twitty

Review: The Cooking Gene, Michael TwittyThe Cooking Gene: A Journey Through African American Culinary History in the Old South by Michael W. Twitty
Published by Amistad ISBN: 0062379291
on August 1st 2017
Genres: Nonfiction
Pages: 464
Format: E-Book
Buy on Amazon
Goodreads
five-stars

A renowned culinary historian offers a fresh perspective on our most divisive cultural issue, race, in this illuminating memoir of Southern cuisine and food culture that traces his ancestry—both black and white—through food, from Africa to America and slavery to freedom.

Southern food is integral to the American culinary tradition, yet the question of who "owns" it is one of the most provocative touch points in our ongoing struggles over race. In this unique memoir, culinary historian Michael W. Twitty takes readers to the white-hot center of this fight, tracing the roots of his own family and the charged politics surrounding the origins of soul food, barbecue, and all Southern cuisine.

From the tobacco and rice farms of colonial times to plantation kitchens and backbreaking cotton fields, Twitty tells his family story through the foods that enabled his ancestors’ survival across three centuries. He sifts through stories, recipes, genetic tests, and historical documents, and travels from Civil War battlefields in Virginia to synagogues in Alabama to Black-owned organic farms in Georgia.

As he takes us through his ancestral culinary history, Twitty suggests that healing may come from embracing the discomfort of the Southern past. Along the way, he reveals a truth that is more than skin deep—the power that food has to bring the kin of the enslaved and their former slaveholders to the table, where they can discover the real America together.

I first heard about The Cooking Gene on the Gastropod podcast some months back. I have embedded the episode below. Gastropod is an interesting podcast that focuses on food and science (and sometimes history).

I preordered Twitty’s book for my Kindle app, but I didn’t start reading it in earnest until December. It’s an unusual combination of genealogy research, personal memoir, and food history. Twitty has been able to travel to Africa since he finished the book—something I know from following him on Twitter. The pages of this book make clear how much Twitty honors his ancestors and the food and folkways they developed as slaves in the American South. Twitty re-enacts historical cooking at Colonial Williamsburg and came to the national forefront when he offered Paula Deen a chance at redemption through cooking a meal together with him and his subsequent Southern Discomfort Tour. What a shame Ms. Deen ignored his invitation. She would have learned something from him, judging by this book.

I recognized many of the folkways and foodways in my own family in the pages of this book, which is no surprise given my family on my mother’s side is Southern and migrated from Virginia through the South to Texas by the 2oth century. One image particularly resonated with me:

I grew up with a grandmother who would make cornbread several times a week and take any that was left over the next day, crumble it into a glass of buttermilk, and eat it out with a spoon. The glass streaked with lines of buttermilk and crumbs grossed me out. But when I asked my grandmother why she did it that way, she replied, without explanation, “At least I didn’t have to eat it from a trough” (199).

As Twitty later explains, enslaved children ate a cornmeal mush out of a trough at midday. The image of Twitty’s grandmother at the kitchen table eating cornbread and buttermilk reminded me of my own image of my grandmother doing the same thing. My reaction when I was a child was similar to Twitty’s. I don’t think I asked her why she ate it that way, but I’m confident it had been passed down in her family, probably originating from slaves her family owned.

I would recommend this book to anyone interested in learning more about American history, particularly Southern history and African-American history, as well as anyone interested in the history of food in America. Twitty says late in the book that “Culinary justice is the idea that people should be recognized for the gastronomic contributions and have a right to their inherent value, including the opportunity to derive empowerment from them” (409).

Finishing this book was a great way to start the year and to kick off my participation in the Foodies Read Challenge and the Monthly Motif Challenge, though truthfully, Michael Twitty’s family history stories are firmly bonded with my own in that my family was on the other side of the institution of slavery. The stories of white and black Southerners are inextricably linked. He even mentioned a friend named Tambra Raye Stevenson, a nutritionist from Washington DC, whose “‘furthest back person’ was a woman in the white family named ‘Mammy,” Henrietta Burkhalter, born a slave in Baltimore. Sold as a young girl to the Burkhalter family in Georgia, ‘Mammy’ trekked with the white family and her sons to Mississippi, then Texas, and finally rested her soul in McIntosh County, Oklahoma” (277). The Burkhalters are my cousins. My great-great-grandfather’s sister married into the family, and I have been to several family reunions with the Burkhalter bunch in Georgia, and yes, some of them went west to Texas, as did their Cunningham kin. What a small world. The goal of this month’s “motif” is to diversify my reading through reading an author of a “race, religion, or sexual orientation” than mine. Michael Twitty is all three as a black, Jewish, gay man, but he feels like family to me. And given his history, it’s entirely possible that he is a cousin. Be sure to check out his blog in addition to this book.

five-stars

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2018 Reading Goals

reading photo

It’s New Year’s Day! Time to set my reading goals this year. I was initially going to do what I did last year, which was read the same number of books as my age. I decided just to shoot for a round 50 books, though.

2018 Reading Challenge

2018 Reading Challenge
Dana has
read 0 books toward
her goal of
50 books.
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Last year I wrote that I wanted to read more books by African and Asian authors. I read a few more books by Asian authors, but I didn’t read any African authors, so I’d like to make a better effort this year. I also never got around to the Salman Rushdie and Chimimanda Ngozi Adichie I wanted to read. I didn’t read Jean Toomer’s Cane or Ralph Ellison’s The Invisible Man. I didn’t read George Eliot’s Middlemarch. I did, however, read James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time. I want to read the Rushdie, Adichie, Toomer, Ellison, and Eliot books I neglected last year in 2018.

I started out last year being more active in reading challenges, but for various reasons, I slacked off. Perhaps I can try again this year? In any case, I’d like to do better with my reading challenges this year. I’ve created my reading challenge tracking page, where you can see my progress.

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2017: Reading Year in Review

new year photo

Happy New Year!

Each year on the last day of December, I reflect on my year in reading. Here is a link to my Goodreads 2017 Year in Books. I do wish Goodreads would figure out how to make that infographic embeddable, but I suppose from their point of view, it’s as shareable as it needs to be, considering they’d like people to linger on their site.

Some data from this year:

  • I exceeded my reading goal of 46 books and read a total of 51 books.
  • I read 18,305 pages, according to Goodreads. I think that’s an all-time high, but I’m not sure.
  • I read 51 books, though I didn’t put one of the books I read on Goodreads. Since that book is not counted in this total, so my actual page count is about 200 pages more than the figure above.
  • If I count just the Goodreads total, that’s an average of 366 pages per book, which is higher than last year’s average.
  • It works out to about 50 pages per day. What that means is that I was reading a lot on some days because it’s not possible I read 50 pages per day.
  • My shortest book was The Slanted Life of Emily Dickinson at 96 pages, and the longest was an audiobook re-read of Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix at 870 pages.
  • The most popular book I read this year was 1984. Gee, I wonder why so many folks are reading that one. Yes, I understand the popularity index means that 2,331,238 people total read it, not that 2,331,238 read it this year. Conversely, my least popular book was The Transformative Power of Teacher Teams, which only nine people have rated. Not surprising, as it’s a nonfiction professional book (education). It’s a good book. More teachers should be reading it.

I didn’t do well with reading challenges this year. You can see on my 2017 Reading Challenge Progress page that I only completed two challenges.The challenges I completed are the R.I.P Challenge and the British Books Challenge. Most of the books I read for the latter were re-reads. I wasn’t supposed to finish the Chronological Sherlock Holmes Challenge in only one year—it’s due in April 2018—but I did fall behind. It’s unusual for me not to complete the Historical Fiction Challenge. I hope I will finish it this coming year. I am also a bit surprised I couldn’t figure out a way to read at least five books set in different European countries for the European Reading Challenge. I probably shouldn’t have signed up for two different backlist challenges, but I was hoping I would read a bunch of books on my TBR pile if I did. It worked a little bit, but if I had just selected one of the two challenges, I might have finished. Reading a total of 40 backlist books was too daunting a challenge for me, and I found it limiting when so many new books caught my eye as well. I also didn’t complete the Wild Goose Chase Reading Challenge. I thought the premise was fun, but I guess I wasn’t able to find books I wanted to read that fit the criteria.

Of the 51 books I read, the stats further break down like so:

  • 30 works of fiction
  • 17 works of nonfiction/memoir
  • no dramas
  • 1 book in verse (poetry)
  • 11 audiobooks
  • 14 re-reads
  • 3 graphic novel/memoir
  • 8 YA/children’s books

My favorites from selected categories with some linked reviews (not counting re-reads):

Fiction

Nonfiction

Graphic Novels/Memoirs

My favorites in the other categories are either already linked above (The Hate U Give, Long Way Down) or are re-reads.

My least favorite reads:

Here is my map, which includes locations for each book I read or author’s hometown (current or applicable to the book):

My reading was much more diverse this year than in previous years, and I can’t help but notice that people of color wrote all of my favorites this year, except for a biography of Emily Dickinson and Thomas Wentworth Higginson.

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Sherlock Holmes: Behind Again

I let myself get very behind in the Chronological Sherlock Holmes Challenge, so I’m attempting to catch up a bit. I read four stories: “The Adventure of the Empty House,” “The Adventure of the Wisteria Lodge,” “The Adventure of the Three Gables,” and “The Adventure of the Mazarin Stone.” I will briefly summarize the plots of each story:

  • Conan Doyle wrote “The Empty House” after public pressure to revive Sherlock Holmes following the detective’s death in “The Final Problem.” In this story, gambler Ronald Adair is killed, but no one could have entered his room, which was locked from the inside. How did it happen? Holmes is convinced one of Moriarty’s lieutenants is behind it.
  • In “The Wisteria Lodge,” Holmes receives a note from a client, Scott Eccles, who insists he has been party to a “grotesque” event. While Eccles visits Holmes to describe his case, the London constabulary show up to arrest Eccles on suspicion of murder. Eccles is innocent, and Holmes takes his case, though Holmes meets his match in Inspector Baynes, one the only police officers in the stories to be able to reason like Holmes.
  • In “The Three Gables,” a street tough named Steve Dixie shows up to threaten Holmes, which only inspires Holmes to pursue the hint of a case Dixie brings in his door; he discovers a desperate woman eager to prevent a scandal attempting to steal a book her former lover had written about her from the possession of the young man’s unknowing mother.
  • “The Mazarin Stone” introduces a case of a stolen diamond. Holmes believes the man holding the diamond will try to murder him, and he has a brilliant wax effigy constructed to help fool the man into both revealing the location of the diamond and preventing his own murder.

I liked “The Empty House.” The device of the airgun was clever, and the BBC show Sherlock adapted it for the episode “The Empty Hearse.” I didn’t care for “The Wisteria Lodge,” which didn’t hold my attention and was overlong, and I really didn’t like “The Three Gables,” where once again, Conan Doyle’s racism is on full display in his inept characterization of Steve Dixie. However, “The Mazarin Stone” was pretty good, though odd for not being told in the first person from Watson’s point of view. I discovered this is because it was adapted for a play, and Watson doesn’t actually appear much in the story. I missed the first-person point of view, but the story didn’t suffer too much from its lack. I don’t think BBC’s Sherlock used any elements from any of the last three stories I read.

“The Empty House” Rating: ★★★★½
“The Wisteria Lodge” Rating: ★★★☆☆
“The Three Gables” Rating: ★☆☆☆☆
“The Mazarin Stone” Rating: ★★★★☆

The Chronological Sherlock Holmes ChallengeI read these stories as part of the Chronological Sherlock Holmes Challenge. They are the 32nd, 33rd, 34th, and 35th stories in the chronology (time setting rather than composition). Next up is “The Norwood Builder.” I am about ten stories behind.

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2018 Reading Challenges: Part Two

As the year winds down, I found two more reading challenges for 2018. I’m not sure I’ll sign up for further challenges, except for the R.I.P. Challenge, which I participate in nearly every year.

Foodies Read ChallengeThe next challenge that caught my eye is the Foodies Read Challenge. I have been trying to do more cooking and do more reading about food, and this challenge will help me meet that goal. The challenge rules state that “[a]ny book where food is a main part of the plot is welcome,” including cookbooks. I have lots of nonfiction reading about food I’ve wanted to do for a while, and this challenge will encourage me to get going. I have also been collecting cookbooks for a few years now, and reading and trying more of the recipes in the cookbooks is sometimes a challenge. I tell myself I don’t have time. But I do have time if I make it. I’m always saying that we make time for things we value. I haven’t made much time for cooking in the past. Let’s face it: cooking is time-consuming. But the food is so much better, and I can control every single thing about it. Here’s hoping I can make this a New Year’s Resolution, with the support of my family. In any case, it’s a big money saver. The important thing is to plan meals, and despite setting up systems that should have helped me with this aspect of cooking, I have not been good about maintaining those systems.

Share a Tea ChallengeThe final challenge is the Share-a-Tea Reading Challenge. I love tea. I love reading. The demands of this challenge are few: simply read good books and enjoy good tea. However, the emphasis on sharing means growing my blog reading list (and my book reading list) as well as my tea-drinking list. I love flavored black teas. My favorite “every day” sort of flavored black tea is Earl Grey, or Lady Grey if I can find it. I commit the cardinal sin of putting a bit of milk in it, which I understand is simply not done, but I like it that way. I love the Literary Teas at Simpson & Vail and have ordered them a few times. My favorite one is the Brontë Sisters Tea. This challenge might offer some great opportunities to sample more tea.

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Review: Olive Kitteridge, Elizabeth Strout

Review: Olive Kitteridge, Elizabeth StroutOlive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout
Published by Random House Trade ISBN: 0812971833
on September 30th 2008
Genres: Contemporary Fiction
Pages: 286
Buy on Amazon
Goodreads
four-stars

At times stern, at other times patient, at times perceptive, at other times in sad denial, Olive Kitteridge, a retired schoolteacher, deplores the changes in her little town of Crosby, Maine, and in the world at large, but she doesn’t always recognize the changes in those around her: a lounge musician haunted by a past romance; a former student who has lost the will to live; Olive’s own adult child, who feels tyrannized by her irrational sensitivities; and her husband, Henry, who finds his loyalty to his marriage both a blessing and a curse.

As the townspeople grapple with their problems, mild and dire, Olive is brought to a deeper understanding of herself and her life—sometimes painfully, but always with ruthless honesty. Olive Kitteridge offers profound insights into the human condition—its conflicts, its tragedies and joys, and the endurance it requires.

I can’t remember anymore why I decided to read Olive Kitteridge. I had it in my head somehow that I wouldn’t like it. I do think it’s a bit uneven in that the stories that don’t feature Olive herself seem tangential. In a few cases, Olive is mentioned in a way that seems forced as though Strout was attempting to tie together stories that weren’t tied together. She explains this in the interview in the back: “I chose this form primarily because I envisioned the power of Olive’s character as best told in an episodic manner. I thought the reader might need a little break from her at times, as well” (276). The episodic manner works very well for revealing Olive’s character, as Strout suspected it would.

The best stories told from an alternative point of view are “Pharmacy,” told from Henry Kitteridge’s point of view and “Incoming Tide,” told from Olive’s former student Kevin Coulson’s point of view. The other stories were fine, but in terms of belonging in a collection of stories about Olive, they didn’t quite fit for me. Olive was easily the most intriguing character in the book. It was her personality—at once completely recognizable and by turns compelling and repellent—that kept me turning the pages in this book.

We all know an Olive. She’s hard to like, but I quibble when she’s described as “abrasive.” If she were a man, I’d lay odds that’s not a word anyone would use to describe her. That adjective seems to be applied almost universally to women, who are supposed to be nice and are supposed to be easy to like. Olive would not approve of my saying this, but fuck that. It’s more important to have character. For example, in “A Little Burst,” when Olive draws on her new daughter-in-law’s sweater and steals one of her shoes and a bra after hearing the young woman make fun of the dress Olive had worn to the wedding, all I could think was good for Olive. No, I wouldn’t have liked it if my mother-in-law had done that to me, but I also wouldn’t have been mocking my mother-in-law behind her back at my wedding. Christopher, Olive’s son, seems to have a great deal of difficulty with his mother, and she might not see her parenting in the most accurate light, but he’s a difficult son as well. Henry, the character who suffers most from Olive’s personality, emerges as genuine and caring, and his fate is perhaps most tragic.

Of the stories in the collection, my favorites were “A Little Burst”—which reminds me in the best way of Flannery O’Connor’s writing—and “River,” the final story in the collection. There were moments when I put this book down for a long period of time, but I picked it up thinking I’d like to cross one more unfinished book off my list before the end of the year. Truthfully, the moments when I put the book down were the times when Olive was offstage. She drives the entire book, and I enjoyed the ride very much when she was behind the wheel.

The Backlist Reader Challenge 2017I lied. I thought Emily Dickinson: Selected Letters would be the last book I’d finish for the Backlist Reader ChallengeOlive Kitteridge probably is.

four-stars

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Review: Emily Dickinson: Selected Letters, ed. Thomas H. Johnson

Review: Emily Dickinson: Selected Letters, ed. Thomas H. JohnsonSelected Letters by Emily Dickinson, Thomas H. Johnson
Published by Belknap Press ISBN: 0674250702
on March 15th 1986
Genres: Nonfiction
Buy on Amazon
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When the complete Letters of Emily Dickinson appeared in three volumes in 1958, Robert Kirsch welcomed them in the Los Angeles Times, saying "The missives offer access to the mind and heart of one of America's most intriguing literary personalities." This one-volume selection is at last available in paper-back. It provides crucial texts for the appreciation of America literature, women's experience in the nineteenth century, and literature in general.

When I studied the life and poetry of Emily Dickinson this summer in Amherst, this collection of Emily Dickinson’s letters was one of my required reads. I didn’t finish it before the course began, so I decided it pick it up again to finish before the year closed. Consider it a way to pick up a few loose threads.

As Dickinson says in a letter to Thomas Wentworth Higginson, her mentor and friend as well as early editor, “What a Hazard a Letter is!” While this volume is not a comprehensive collection of Dickinson’s letters, it does include a broad selection dating from Dickinson’s preteen years to her final letter to her cousins Frances and Louisa Norcross right before she died. Many of her letters to Thomas Wentworth Higginson as well as the mysterious “Master” are included. Emily Dickinson seems to be the kind of person about whom the more one learns, the more enigmatical she becomes. Her writing is often a riddle. I wonder what her correspondents made of her. She seems to have taken a great deal of care to write to loved ones, particularly when they were grieving, and toward the end of her life, her letters paint the picture of someone buffeted from too many losses, beginning with the loss of her father in 1874 to that of Helen Hunt Jackson, a friend and admirer of Dickinson’s who insisted that Dickinson publish her work:

You are a great poet—and it is a wrong to the day you live in, that you will not sing aloud. When you are what men call dead, you will be sorry you were so stingy. (Letter 444a)

Dickinson writes beautiful letters, which should surprise no one familiar with her poetry, but it’s interesting that her letters are in some ways as impenetrable as her poetry can be. One that makes me scratch my head, to her sister-in-law (and some say her lover) Susan Gilbert Dickinson, includes the line, “Could I make you and Austin [Dickinson’s brother]—proud—sometime—a great way off—’twould give me taller feet—” (Letter 238). I mean, I think I know what she means by “taller feet,” but the expression is so odd that I am not sure.

Her first letter to Thomas Wentworth Higginson, whom she wrote to out of the blue after he wrote an article of advice for writers for The Atlantic Monthly, includes similarly unusual diction:

Mr Higginson,

Are you too deeply occupied to say if my Verse is alive?

The Mind is so near itself—it cannot see, distinctly—and I have none to ask—

Should you think it breathed—and had you the leisure to tell me, I should feel quick gratitude—

If I make the mistake—that you dared to tell me—would give me sincerer honor—toward you—

I enclose my name—asking you, if you please—Sir—to tell me what is true?

That you will not betray me—it is needless to ask—since Honor is it’s [sic] own pawn— (Letter 260)

Dickinson sent that letter to Higginson while he lived in Worcester, MA, probably less than two miles from where I am sitting right now as I write this. Imagine receiving this letter from nowhere!

Dickinson could have chosen many words, but she asked if her “Verse is alive” (emphasis mine). Her second sentence is just a bold lie: she has plenty of people that she can and has asked to read her poetry and give her their opinions. She continues to play with the notion of “living” poetry through the wordplay of “breathed” and “quick” in the next sentence. Is she warning him not to publish her work in the final line? In any case, he didn’t know what he was looking at because he apparently told her she was not ready for publication. Her reply includes the deft line, “Thank you for the surgery—it was not so painful as I supposed” (Letter 261). She had to have been disappointed that he didn’t encourage her, but if so, she doesn’t betray it to anyone in her letters, and she didn’t seek to publish her work much in her lifetime, despite Helen Hunt Jackson’s encouragement.

In any case, it’s to Higginson’s credit that he recognized her genius enough before he died to edit several volumes of her poetry along with her brother’s mistress Mabel Loomis Todd. I do wish this collection had included Dickinson’s final letter to Higginson, from early May 1886 (the month she died):

Deity—does He live now?

My friend—does he breathe? (Letter 1045)

One of my instructors at the Emily Dickinson course suggests there is a circle closed with this final letter to Higginson. In her first letter to Higginson, she asks if her poetry is alive, if it breathes. Her final letter asks very similar questions. She had heard Higginson was sick and had to cancel a lecture he planned to give. The words are not accidental, not when you’re Emily Dickinson.

Perhaps most beautiful, and I dare you not to cry when you read it after reading this collection of letters, is the final letter Dickinson ever wrote. It is addressed to her Norcross cousins and reads simply:

Little Cousins,

Called back.

Emily (Letter 1046)

If you enjoy Dickinson’s poems, you will certainly delight in her letters.

I happen to have two copies of this collection, and it is a little bit hard to find nowadays. I’m not sure if it’s out of print, or what, but Amazon only sells it via third-party sellers. Stay tuned for a giveaway post since I do not need two copies.

The Backlist Reader Challenge 2017This is probably the last book I’ll finish for the Backlist Reader Challenge, which means I fell pretty far short of finishing the challenge. However, this book has been on my TBR list since I first visited Emily Dickinson’s house.

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