Review: The Complete Sherlock Holmes, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

Review: The Complete Sherlock Holmes, Sir Arthur Conan DoyleThe Complete Sherlock Holmes by Arthur Conan Doyle
ISBN: 0553328255
Genres: Classic, Mystery
Pages: 1796
Format: E-Book
Buy on Amazon
Goodreads
four-half-stars

Ever since he made his first appearance in A Study In Scarlet, Sherlock Holmes has enthralled and delighted millions of fans throughout the world.

In January 2017, I undertook a reading challenge to read all the Sherlock Holmes stories by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle: all 56 short stories and four novels. The idea behind the Chronological Sherlock Holmes Challenge is to read the stories in the order in which they are set. I have had some quibbles with the exact order of these stories established in the chronology the challenge used, and it’s likely that disagreement regarding the exact chronology exists, though I admit I haven’t delved much into the matter. In any case, chronologically is not how Conan Doyle published them, and I wonder if something is lost when attempting to order them by the time setting rather than reading them as Conan Doyle collected them.

Of the collected stories, here is my personal top ten:

  1. The Hound of the Baskervilles: I love the atmosphere in this one. It seems to capture some of the best aspects of the Sherlock Holmes stories, and it is easily far and away the best of the four novels (the other three aren’t very good, in my opinion, as two are set partly in America, a place which Conan Doyle does not understand, and the other, while introducing Mary Morstan and having some good moments, is pretty racist).
  2. ” Scandal in Bohemia”: One likes to imagine Holmes was in love with Irene Adler, but he mostly presents as asexual. I like this one because it is one of the few stories in which a woman is a strong character. The Sherlock episode “A Scandal in Belgravia” was one of the best.
  3. “The Adventure of the Yellow Face”: I liked this one for two reasons, 1) Holmes didn’t figure it out and came away with egg on his face, and 2) Conan Doyle wasn’t typically racist. If I noticed one theme over and over, it’s that the white English characters find themselves to be superior to all other people in the world, and South Americans, Asians, and Africans are frequently described as barbaric in comparison. I am not a fan of that racist stereotyping, even in Victorian/Edwardian writing. The only problem with this one is its premise falls apart if you know that anti-miscegenation laws would have prevented the marriage at the heart of the mystery.
  4. “The Adventure of the Bruce-Partington Plans”: I liked this one for the setup and masterful way Holmes deduced what happened. The Sherlock episode based on it was great. Also, Mycroft!
  5. “The Adventure of the Final Problem”: Who can forget Homes and Moriarty going over the Reichenbach Falls?
  6. “The Five Orange Pips”: A famous one in which Holmes does not prevent his client’s death. Not so sure I buy the KKK angle, but I liked the setting.
  7. “The Adventure of the Dancing Men”: I liked this one for the codes. It was fun to see Holmes turn cryptographer.
  8. “The Adventure of the Copper Beeches”: This is one of several governess stories, but I liked it the best of that lot.
  9. “The Man with the Twisted Lip”: I liked the opium den. So seedy.
  10. “The Adventure of Silver Blaze”: This one is a good setup for the reader as an amateur sleuth. There are red herrings and the reference from which the title of Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time is drawn.

The order is a bit arbitrary, particularly at the end. Something I have noticed about my own preferences is that I seem to like the stories when Holmes and Watson pack up for the countryside best. Not sure why because I also like the setting of 221B Baker Street. Re-reading the stories also demonstrated (at least to me) how clever the BBC Sherlock series is. They do a brilliant job showing the timelessness of the stories, adapting them for a modern era. They seem to approach capturing the character of Sherlock Holmes better than just about any other adaptations I’ve seen. Holmes can be arrogant, annoying, dismissive (especially of Watson), and those characteristics shine through most in Benedict Cumberbatch’s representation of the character.

And what a character. No wonder we are still reading these stories. Conan Doyle’s detective is the model for every detective character who has followed him. He’s the kind of character most writers would see as a gift. I understand Conan Doyle felt his Sherlock Holmes stories “stood in the way of the recognition of my more serious literary work.” That did happen. Because whatever that other stuff was, no one is reading it today. It is the character of Sherlock Holmes who ultimately established Conan Doyle’s legacy as a writer. One could do much, much worse.

Some passages in the stories move well past utilitarian and reveal Conan Doyle to be a skilled writer at the sentence level. In “His Last Bow,” The final story I read for the challenge and a tale in which Holmes foils the plans of a German spy by posing as one himself, thereby aiding in the war effort, these sentences: “One might have thought already that God’s curse hung heavy over a degenerate world, for there was an awesome hush and a feeling of vague expectancy in the sultry and stagnant air. The sun had long set, but one blood-red gash like an open would lay low in the distant west.” However, I admit that I didn’t care much for that story by the end. It smacked of inserting Holmes into World War I in a weird way. It’s not that it was implausible, but it was sort of like Conan Doyle was looking for an excuse to let Holmes fight the Germans and rescue the British. Not that he completely does: it is open-ended, with Holmes musing that “There’s an east wind coming, Watson.” Later, he adds, “such a wind never blew on England yet. It will be cold and bitter, Watson, and a good many of us may wither before its blast. But it’s God’s own wind none the less, and a cleaner, better, stronger land will lie in the sunshine when the storm has cleared.” I admit to a feeling of wistfulness when Holmes draws Watson to “Stand with me here upon the terrace, for it may be the last quiet talk we shall ever have.”

The stories are often funny, as well, which is something BBC’s Sherlock also captures. Here are my top ten Sherlock quips:

  1. “Cut the poetry, Watson,” said Holmes severely. “I note that it was a high brick wall.” (“The Adventure of the Retired Colourman”)
  2. “Detection is, or ought to be, an exact science and should be treated in the same cold and unemotional manner. You have attempted to tinge it with romanticism, which produces much the same effect as if you worked a love-story or an elopement into the fifth proposition of Euclid.” (The Sign of Four)
  3. “We have got to the deductions and inferences,” said Lestrade, winking at me. “I find it hard enough to tackle facts, Holmes, without flying away after theories and fancies,” “You are right,” said Holmes demurely; “you do find it very hard to tackle the facts.” (“The Boscombe Valley Mystery”)
  4. “And a singularly consistent investigation you have made, my dear Watson,” said he. “I cannot at the moment recall any possible blunder which you have omitted. The total effect of your proceeding has been to give the alarm everywhere and yet to discover nothing.” (“The Disappearance of Lady Frances Carfax”)
  5. “I read nothing except the criminal news and the agony column. The latter is always instructive.” (“The Adventure of the Noble Bachelor”)
  6. “He can find something,” remarked Holmes shrugging his shoulders; “he has occasional glimmerings of reason.” (The Sign of Four)
  7. “I knew my man, however, and I clapped a pistol to his head before he could strike. Then he became a little more reasonable.” (“The Adventure of the Beryl Coronet”)
  8. “By George!” cried the inspector. “How ever did you see that?” “Because I looked for it.” (“The Adventure of the Dancing Men”)
  9. “But there are always some lunatics about. It would be a dull world without them.” (“The Adventure of the Three Gables”)
  10. “I don’t take much stock of detectives in novels—chaps that do things and never let you see how they do them. That’s just inspiration: not business.” (The Valley of Fear)

Watson has a fair few good ones, too:

  1. “You would certainly have been burned, had you lived a few centuries ago.” (“A Scandal in Bohemia”)
  2. I believe that I am one of the most long-suffering of mortals; but I’ll admit that I was annoyed at the sardonic interruption. “Really, Holmes,” I said severely, “you are a little trying at times.” (The Valley of Fear)
  3. “I must admit, Watson, that you have some power of selection, which atones for much which I deplore in your narratives. Your fatal habit of looking at everything from the point of view of a story instead of as a scientific exercise has ruined what might have been an instructive and even classical series of demonstrations. You slur over work of the utmost finesse and delicacy, in order to dwell upon sensational details which may excite, but cannot possibly instruct, the reader.” “Why do you not write them yourself?” I said, with some bitterness. (“The Adventure of the Abbey Grange”)
  4. [T]he page had shown in a tall, clean-shaven man with the firm, austere expression which is only seen upon those who have to control horses or boys. (“The Adventure of Shoscombe Old Place”)
  5. He was none the less in his personal habits one of the most untidy men that ever drove a fellow lodger to distraction. (“The Musgrave Ritual”)

The Chronological Sherlock Holmes ChallengeI have now read all 60 stories in Chronological Sherlock Holmes Challenge.

This challenge was enjoyable if for no other reason than it gave me an excuse to re-read all the stories. It had been quite a long time since I had done so.

If I re-read this series again, I think I’ll try it audio, and I will skip the stories I liked less. I will also not try to read it chronologically again. I think it was an interesting experiment, but Conan Doyle was a bit too sloppy with his timelines to make it work. Watson’s marriage was the most confusing aspect of the timeline. What Conan Doyle needed was some kind of spreadsheet to track events. In any case, it reminds me a bit of the inconsistency in J. K. Rowling’s books. One thing I definitely want to do whenever I finally get to visit London is see the site of Sherlock Holmes’s lodgings at 221B Baker Street, though I understand the Abbey National Building Society is on the real site of the address, while the Sherlock Holmes Museum, which has a blue plaque claiming it is at 221B Baker Street, is actually between 237 and 241 Baker Street.

 

four-half-stars

Sherlock Holmes: Six Stories Catch-Up

The Three Garridebs
Illustration from “The Three Garridebs” by Howard K. Elcock for The Strand

I have been keeping up with the Chronological Sherlock Holmes Challenge, but I haven’t posted reviews for the stories I’ve read since my last update in January:

  • “The Problem of Thor Bridge”: Holmes investigates the mysterious “murder” of Maria Gibson. Things look bad for her husband, especially when Holmes discovers Neil Gibson had fallen in love with his child’s governess and the alleged murder weapon was found in her room.
  • “The Adventure of the Priory School”: School principal Dr. Thorneycroft Huxtable seeks Holmes’s help in finding a missing pupil, Lord Saltire.
  • “The Adventure of the Sussex Vampire”: Robert Ferguson, believing his Peruvian wife is a vampire, writes to Holmes for help after he believes his wife has tried to suck their baby’s blood.
  • “The Adventure of the Six Napoleons”: Shattered busts of Napoleon might not seem to be of much consequence, but Lestrade is puzzled and seeks Holmes’s help on the suspicion that there is more to the odd cases of vandalism. He’s right.
  • “The Adventure of the Three Garridebs”: Nathan Garrideb writes Holmes seeking his help. If he can find a third man with the last name Garrideb, he stands to inherit a lot of money.
  • “The Disappearance of Lady Francis Carfax”: Holmes sends Watson to continental Europe to start searching for Lady Francis Carfax. Holmes fears for her life, but Watson is quite out of his element without the help of the detective.

I liked all of these stories. Two dealt with the friction between older siblings and younger siblings. Yet again, Conan Doyle can’t seem to write about people from other countries without being racist or inaccurate. I think he should have avoided trying to write about Americans. He just can’t get them right. And it seems like anytime he has a black or brown character, they have some “primitive” qualities. Two women in these stories come from South America, and Conan Doyle’s description of them made me roll my eyes. Laying those issues aside, though—not to say they’re insignificant but more a sign of the times in which they were written—I’d say pretty much all of these stories are four-star stories. Two stories are mentioned in BBC’s Sherlock: “The Three Garridebs” comes up in “The Final Problem,” when Sherlock has to identify which of the three Garrideb brothers committed a murder or his sister Eurus will kill them all, which she does anyway after Sherlock determines which one is the murderer. “The Six Napoleons” is referenced in “The Six Thatchers,” though the reason for the smashed busts of Margaret Thatcher are more interesting than the reasons for the smashed busts in of Napoleon.

“The Three Garridebs” is interesting for another reason. Watson is wounded, and Holmes freaks out and betrays the tiniest bit of concern. Watson thinks he could probably live on that little glimmer of emotion for the rest of his life.

It was worth a wound—it was worth many wounds—to know the depth of loyalty and love which lay behind that cold mask. The clear, hard eyes were dimmed for a moment, and the firm lips were shaking. For the one and only time I caught a glimpse of a great heart as well as of a great brain. All my years of humble but single-minded service culminated in that moment of revelation.

Get a grip, Watson.

Rating: ★★★★☆

The Chronological Sherlock Holmes ChallengeI read these stories as part of the Chronological Sherlock Holmes Challenge. They are the 48th-53rd stories in the chronology (time setting rather than composition). Next up is “The Adventure of the Illustrious Client.”

 

Sherlock Holmes: Caught Up

Dancing Men Cipher
AM HERE ABE SLANEY Cipher by Sidney Paget for The Strand

I’m all caught up on the Chronological Sherlock Holmes Challenge. I read “The Adventure of the Abbey Grange,” “The Adventure of the Devil’s Foot,” “The Adventure of the Dancing Men,” and “The Adventure of the Retired Colourman” over the last week.

“The Abbey Grange” involves one of the sharper murder schemes in the series. When Sir Eustace Brackenstall turns up dead, no one much laments, and Inspector Hopkins thinks the notorious Randall Gang might be behind it. But Holmes, as usual, notices a few things that everyone else has missed and puts the pieces together.

In “The Devil’s Foot” Watson thinks he and Holmes are in for some rest and relaxation in Cornwall, but instead find themselves confronting a grisly scene. Three members of the Tregennis family are found sitting around their table. One of them is dead, and the other two are mad. What could have caused it? Obviously not the devil, but that’s how it looks… at first.

In “The Dancing Men,” probably one of the more famous Sherlock Holmes stories, Mr. Hilton Cubitt approaches Holmes with a mystery: several notes with stick figure men. Surely, they are only childish drawings… except they horrify his wife, who has expressly forbidden Cubitt from asking about her past. Holmes solves the cipher to determine why Mrs. Cubitt feels threatened, but he arrives too late to save his client from the menace behind the coded messages.

In “The Retired Colourman” Josiah Amberley hires Holmes to investigate his wife’s disappearance. He accuses his wife of eloping with a friend of his and making off with a great deal of money in cash and securities. Holmes naturally smells a rat and enlists Watson to dupe Amberley so that he can do some investigating on his own.

BBC’s Sherlock alludes to “The Dancing Men” in two episodes. Ciphers feature in “The Blind Banker,” and the “AM HERE ABE SLANEY” cipher appears on a chalkboard at the end of “The Final Problem” episode. I didn’t notice any other references to these other stories in the series.

“The Abbey Grange”  Rating: ★★★★☆
“The Devil’s Foot” Rating: ★★★★☆
“The Dancing Men” Rating: ★★★★★
“The Retired Colourman” Rating: ★★★½☆

The Chronological Sherlock Holmes ChallengeI read these stories as part of the Chronological Sherlock Holmes Challenge. They are the 44th, 45th, 46th, and 47th stories in the chronology (time setting rather than composition). Next up is “Thor Bridge.”

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.

 

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.

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.

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
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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

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
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five-stars

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.

five-stars

Review: How It Went Down, Kekla Magoon

Review: How It Went Down, Kekla MagoonHow It Went Down by Kekla Magoon
Published by Square Fish ISBN: 1250068231
on December 15, 2015
Genres: Young Adult
Pages: 336
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three-stars

The known facts surrounding the shooting death of sixteen-year-old Tariq Johnson are few. On the evening of June 17, between 5:22 and 5:35 p.m., Johnson sustained two nine millimeter gunshot wounds to the torso. Police officers arrived on the scene at 5:39 p.m. Johnson was pronounced dead at 6:22 p.m. by EMTs at the scene. Police pursued and apprehended a suspect, Jack Franklin, who allegedly shot Johnson before leaving the scene in a borrowed vehicle. Franklin was pulled over nearly four miles away from the site of the shooting, at 5:56 p.m. A nine millimeter handgun, recently fired, was found in the backseat. Additional unsubstantiated allegations relating to the case are many. Police took statements from seven eyewitnesses at the scene. The result was seven different versions of what happened. No two individual accounts of the June 17 events line up. The hard evidence itself is not clear cut. By the day, it seems, new twists and turns emerge that add further shadows to obscure the truth.This is the story of how it went down.

This book has been on my to-read list for two years, but I finally picked it up because it is being considered for a summer reading selection. One thing those of us on the summer reading selection committee at my school do is read around so we are more familiar with the selections.

I definitely went into this book wanting to like it. I liked Magoon’s The Rock and the River, and the subject matter of How It Went Down interests me a great deal. Ultimately, however, I didn’t enjoy this book a great deal. I found excuses not to pick it up and had to make myself finish. It wasn’t bad, but it wasn’t compelling either, and given the important subject matter, it should have been.

One problem with the book is there are too many points of view. I had difficulty keeping the narrators straight, and many of them had very little to do, if anything, with Tariq’s death. It felt unwieldy and gimmicky. A second issue I had was just the writing in general. The characters were a mixed bag of believable and convoluted. Perhaps if Magoon had used fewer narrators, it would have been less noticeable, but some characters’ voices were inconsistent. I would never argue that they don’t fit a stereotype—it’s more that Magoon decided they talked a certain way, then changed her mind and decided they talked another way. Naturally, this inconsistency made it even more difficult to discern among the characters.

The weighty subject matter of race-based violence in our country deserved a better book. This book was one of the first to tackle the issue, but as for better, read The Hate U Give or even Magoon’s other books.

Beat the BacklistThis might be the last book I read this year that I can count toward the Beat the Backlist reading challenge, which I have no hope of completing.

three-stars

Review: 1984, George Orwell

Review: 1984, George Orwell1984 by George Orwell, George Orwell, Erich Fromm
Published by New American Library ISBN: 0451524934
on July 1st 1950
Genres: Classic
Pages: 328
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four-stars

Among the seminal texts of the 20th century, Nineteen Eighty-Four is a rare work that grows more haunting as its futuristic purgatory becomes more real. Published in 1949, the book offers political satirist George Orwell's nightmare vision of a totalitarian, bureaucratic world and one poor stiff's attempt to find individuality. The brilliance of the novel is Orwell's prescience of modern life—the ubiquity of television, the distortion of the language—and his ability to construct such a thorough version of hell. Required reading for students since it was published, it ranks among the most terrifying novels ever written.

1984 is one of those books I’d been meaning to get to for a long time, and I didn’t for one reason and another—partly perhaps because I didn’t much like Brave New World; partly because I knew it was pretty depressing; and partly because as an English teacher, I knew the plot and pretty knew much how it would end. It’s an occupational hazard. At any rate, the story is depressingly relevant in ways I’m not sure it was even ten years ago when I read Brave New World. I am glad to be able to cross it off my list. It’s one of those books people are surprised to learn I haven’t read. I guess most people read this novel in school, but I was never assigned many class texts to read until junior year when I moved to Georgia. I can’t even remember reading a book in English class at all in the tenth grade. I don’t feel there is any such thing as a required text that everyone should read. If we want to read classics, we will get to them when we get to them. On the other hand, I also see the value of books that show us who we are and help us understand ourselves and others.

I struggled with how to rate this book because while I can’t say I truly liked it—and it is possible, I think, to like dystopian fiction. I didn’t like the characters or really care too much about them. However, I can also admire it from a philosophical standpoint as a precursor to dystopian fiction that—in my opinion—is both more compelling and better written, such as The Handmaid’s Tale. I can also admire Orwell’s prescience in predicting the ubiquity of television and the creepy surveillance culture, though I’m not sure it existed in 1984 the way it does today. It’s hard to deny the book’s influence on our culture. Most distressing, perhaps, is the way in which our current president’s lies and the “doublespeak” presentation of “alternative facts” makes the book too alarmingly close to reality. Ultimately, I want to have too much faith in the people to prevent a vision like Orwell’s from happening in our time. Yet, Suzanne Collins has said about her series The Hunger Games that there isn’t anything in her books that hasn’t happened in history in one form or other. The same can be said of 1984. I am hoping we all stay vigilant.

Beat the BacklistI’m not sure if I’ll count any additional books for the Beat the Backlist Challenge this year, as 2017 is drawing to a close. This is only the sixth book out of twenty that I had planned to read, but I’ll save my reading challenge progress reflection for another day.

four-stars