Sherlock Holmes: The Adventure of the Noble Bachelor, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

The Noble Bachelor

Illustration for “The Noble Bachelor” by Sidney Paget for The Strand

After reading last week’s story “The Adventure of the Noble Bachelor,” I am all caught up on the Chronological Sherlock Holmes Challenge.

Sherlock Holmes receives a fancy-looking note from Lord Robert St. Simon, the son of the Duke of Balmoral. The nobleman’s curious marriage had recently been the subject of the gossip columns. The bride would be bringing a great deal of American money into the old (but cash-strapped) family. However, she appears to have disappeared without a trace right after the wedding, in the middle of the wedding breakfast. A dancer, likely a former dalliance of Lord St. Simon’s, is Lestrade’s main suspect. He believes the other woman led the bride out under false pretenses and has perhaps murdered her rival. Sherlock Holmes is positive the story is quite different, and he claims to have solved it as soon as his interview with Lord St. Simon has ended.

This story is one of the ones I have a quibble with because the deductions feel like cheats. The reader doesn’t have enough clues to reach the same conclusions as Holmes has, so his deductions appear to be based on other information not shared in the story. I don’t like it when Conan Doyle does this. Yes, it’s all very impressive how smart Holmes is, but Conan Doyle’s writing is at its best when he carefully lays clues that the reader might also string together. I’m complaining chiefly here about Holmes’s deduction on seeing the card with the note and initials and the hotel receipt that Lestrade shows Holmes. The reader is right with Holmes when he makes deductions about the identity of the man in the pew at the wedding and the comment the bride makes about “jumping a claim.” But how we could be expected to know the significance of the bill and the initials, I’m not sure. The character of Lord St. Simon is so odious, I’m glad he doesn’t get his way. He obviously married Hatty Doran only for her money, and their marriage wasn’t likely to be happy. I would have lain odds he’d have been back in the arms of his dancer before long. Hatty wouldn’t have been happy. The story does have some witty moments—the kinds of exchanges between Holmes and Watson, and also between Holmes and Lestrade, that make the BBC Sherlock series so much fun. Until going back to the stories for this challenge, I hadn’t remembered how much of the humor in that series is right here in the source material. Some choice excerpts:

“Here is a fashionable epistle,” I remarked as I entered. “Your morning letters, if I remember right, were from a fish-monger and a tide-waiter.”

“Yes, my correspondence has certainly the charm of variety,” he answered, smiling, “and the humbler are usually the more interesting. This looks like one of those unwelcome social summonses which call upon a man either to be bored or to lie.”

And this:

“I read nothing [in the newspapers] except the criminal news and the agony column. The latter is is always instructive.” (Sherlock Holmes)

I do not believe I recall any references to this story in the BBC series Sherlock, but in looking it up, I did learn about a couple of “mistakes” in the story. Lord St. Simon’s wife is referred to as “Lady St. Simon” in the story, which is apparently not correct. As the wife of the second son of the Duke (and therefore not his heir), the proper title should be “Lady Robert.” Likewise. “Lord St. Simon” should be “Lord Robert.” While one wouldn’t necessarily expect an American reader like me to get these nuances, it seems surprising that Conan Doyle would make such an error. Also, the description of Watson’s wound doesn’t match its description in A Study in Scarlet, where it was described as a wound in his shoulder: “I was struck on the shoulder by a Jezail bullet, which shattered the bone and grazed the sublavian artery.” In this story, Watson says, “I had remained indoors all day, for the weather had taken a sudden turn to rain, with high autumnal winds, and the jezail bullet which I had brought back in one of my limbs as a relic of my Afghan campaign, throbbed with dull persistency.”

I liked the characterization in this one, but not as much the story, and once again, Conan Doyle reveals a middling understanding of Americans at best. The dialogue he gives poor Hatty is dreadful. Not one of his best, but not terrible either.

Rating: ★★★☆☆

The Chronological Sherlock Holmes ChallengeI read this story as part of the Chronological Sherlock Holmes Challenge. It is fourteenth story in the chronology (time setting rather than composition). Next up is The Valley of Fear, the second novel in the challenge.

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Sherlock Holmes: The Five Orange Pips, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

Five Orange Pips

Illustration for “The Five Orange Pips by Sidney Paget for The Strand

I have fallen behind in the Chronological Sherlock Holmes Challenge. I was to read “The Five Orange Pips” the week of April 9-15.

“The Five Orange Pips” probably needs little introduction, as it’s one of the more well-known (and best) Sherlock Holmes stories.

Holmes is visited by a young man named John Openshaw who has a most curious case for Holmes. He recounts the story of first his uncle then his father dying in mysterious accidents after receiving envelopes enclosing five orange pips and the initials KKK. Both deaths indicated no signs of violence or injury, but John Openshaw feels sure they were not mere accidents. John Openshaw himself has just received five orange pips and a note inscribed KKK, and Holmes urges him to act quickly, as he fears for his client’s life.

This story is a tight narrative. The case is an intriguing one, and the story itself has a nice example of Holmesian deduction that doesn’t feel like a cheat and yet still manages to stay a step or two ahead of the reader (though most readers today will more readily understand the reference to the KKK than readers in Conan Doyle’s day might have). I feel that I read somewhere, and I am afraid I can’t remember where, that the KKK never made use of the five orange pips as a warning device, but it does make for a great plot point in the story, and it’s an example of a device that doesn’t need to be true to work. Oranges would, of course, be common in Florida, where Elias Openshaw lived and owned a plantation for a time. This story is one of the first fictional references to the KKK, an organization which, when Doyle wrote about it, would seem to be in decline, but which, as we now know, had a resurgence in the 1920s and which is still with us today.

Once again, I find myself disagreeing with the chronology here. There are clear references to The Sign of Four, which hasn’t come up yet in the reading challenge, which is based on this chronology. I realize the effort involved in creating an accurate chronology for these stories, but I really can’t understand how so many stories in this chronology are placed before The Sign of Four with all the clear references to it in just the last several alone.

In any case, this story has been referenced in the BBC Sherlock series in a couple of fun ways. First, in the episode “The Great Game,” an assassin sends five pips, as in electronic beeps, as a warning signal. Second, in “The Abominable Bride,” a murder victim receives five orange pips in the mail before he is killed. Also, an organization similar to the KKK is featured in that episode, which was a one-off set in the Victorian era when the original Holmes stories took place.

Rating: ★★★★★

The Chronological Sherlock Holmes ChallengeI read this story as part of the Chronological Sherlock Holmes Challenge. It is the thirteenth story in the chronology (time setting rather than composition). Next up is “The Noble Bachelor.”

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Review: White Heat: The Friendship of Emily Dickinson & Thomas Wentworth Higginson, Brenda Wineapple

Emily Dickinson declared, “Biography first convinces us of the fleeing of the Biographied.” Brenda Wineapple not only takes on the monumental task in White Heat: The Friendship of Emily Dickinson & Thomas Wentworth Higginson of writing a biography of the enigmatic Belle of Amherst, but also of her friend, now (unfortunately) mostly unknown except for his connection to Dickinson, Thomas Wentworth Higginson.

Dickinson sent her poetry to Higginson along with her query:

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—

So began a friendship and correspondence that would last until Emily Dickinson’s death, after which, Higginson, along with the mistress of Dickinson’s brother Austin, Mabel Loomis Todd, would edit and assist in the publication of Emily Dickinson’s poems after her death. Dickinson personally sent Higginson over 100 of her nearly 1800 poems.

After the introduction describing Emily Dickinson’s first letter, Wineapple’s biography is divided into three major parts, titled “Before,” “During,” and “After,” which describe the lives of Dickinson and Higginson in alternating chapters before they began their correspondence, during their correspondence and friendship, and after Emily Dickinson’s death, respectively.

Emily Dickinson first wrote to Higginson while he was living in Worcester, Massachusetts, which is my home. I had to look him up on the 1860 US Census, and I was not disappointed.

1860 Census

Take a look at his occupation: “Literary Man.”

Emily Dickinson Letter

Letter from Emily Dickinson to Thomas Wentworth Higginson via Wikipedia

What Wineapple so expertly brings to light in this extraordinary biography is just how important Higginson’s contribution not only to preserving for posterity the poetry of one of the greatest American poets but also to history. Over time, he’s been accused of heavy-handed editing and of not understanding Dickinson’s genius. Both accusations may be true. One can hardly blame him for not understanding her. She was unlike any poet he had read before. Higginson himself claimed that “The bee himself did not evade the schoolboy more than she evaded me; and even at this day I still stand somewhat bewildered, like the boy” in an essay he wrote about Dickinson for The Atlantic, a magazine to which he was a frequent contributor. As to whether he was too heavy-handed an editor, Wineapple claims that it’s almost impossible to tell today whether it was Higginson or Mabel Loomis Todd who is more responsible for the edits. Thankfully, after the scholarship of Thomas H. Johnson and Ralph W. Franklin, we have editions of her poetry that more likely capture Emily Dickinson’s intentions. However, Wineapple does note that Higginson implored Todd on several occasions to “alter as little as possible, now that the public’s ear is opened.” Wineapple claims Todd “did not listen” (292).

In any case, Higginson’s reputation foundered with the advent of Modernism in the twentieth century, and while appreciation for Dickinson soared, Higginson was nearly forgotten. It’s a shame, too, because he was an admirable man. He was an abolitionist whose house was always on the Underground Railroad. He was an advocate for women’s rights and suffrage. It was he, not Robert Gould Shaw (now memorialized in the movie Glory) who led the first black regiment in the Civil War, the First South Carolina Volunteers. He suffered an injury that would leave a scar he carried all his life in an attempt to free fugitive slave Anthony Burns and prevent his return to the South.

Wineapple’s triumph in this biography is not only that she is able in some way to offer a peek into the lives of the Dickinson family, but also that she resurrected Higginson from “the dustbin of literary history” (12). As she explains in her introduction,

Sometimes we see better through a single window after all: this book is not a biography of Emily Dickinson, of whom biography gets us nowhere, even though her poems seem to cry out for one. Nor is it a biography of Colonel Higginson. It is not conventional literary criticism. Rather, here Dickinson’s poetry speaks largely for itself, as it did to Higginson. And by providing a context for particular poems, this book attempts to throw a small, considered beam onto the lifework of these two unusual, seemingly incomparable friends. It also suggests, however lightly, how this recluse and this activist bear a fraught, collaborative, unbalanced, and impossible relation to each other, a relation as symbolic and real in our culture as it was special to them. (13)

Wineapple’s book is not only one of the most interesting books about Dickinson to be found, but it is also one of the most well-written. I have rarely read a biography that swept me up in quite the same way this one did. I found myself both eager to pick it up to read, and reluctant to read too fast so that I could savor it and stretch out my experience of reading it. I came away with renewed appreciation for Dickinson and a newly acquired appreciation for Higginson. It’s definitely worth the read for anyone curious about Emily Dickinson, but I imagine even those who aren’t sure about Dickinson would enjoy this book.

Rating: ★★★★★

The Backlist Reader Challenge 2017I bought this book in September 2015, I think right after I visited the Emily Dickinson Homestead the first time. I just now finally picked it up. It was published in 2008. I’m counting it for the Backlist Reader Challenge.

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Sherlock Holmes: The Adventure of the Crooked Man, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

The Crooked Man

Illustration for “The Crooked Man” by Sidney Paget for The Strand

“The Adventure of the Crooked Man” begins with a late-night visit by Sherlock Holmes to Watson’s new home, a short time after Watson’s marriage. Holmes wants to take Watson on an adventure the following morning and after making a few (kind of annoying, to be honest) deductions about Watson’s smoking habits, home repairs, and lack of visitors, he settles down with a pipe and tells Watson the particulars of the case, which involves the death of James Barclay shortly after a verbal altercation with his wife. Mrs. Barclay is suspected of his death, but Holmes isn’t so sure. He has deduced there was a third party in the room—a third party, moreover, who had a mysterious animal Holmes can’t identify with him. He invites Watson to skive off doctoring and escort him to Aldershot to investigate the case further, and Watson readily accepts.

I am at a loss to explain why this story is in the twelfth position chronologically, as Watson is married, and we haven’t even met Mary Morstan yet in our chronological reading. I’ll keep going with the chronology as posted (and it is no conjecture of the challenge host, but rather that of Brad Keefauver of Sherlock Peoria), but this is the second time I’ve noticed a reference to Watson having married already and no introduction yet to Mary. In fact, I just don’t think this story takes place in 1887. That would be the earliest date for the story, but it doesn’t work out in other ways. It’s likely set a couple of years later.

Some fun trivia: Holmes never says his famous line, “Elementary, my dear Watson” in any actual story, but he comes fairly close in this one when, after Watson praises Holmes’s deduction as “Excellent!,” he tells Watson it was “Elementary.” Another interesting bit of trivia: this story has one of the few examples of biblical allusion I’ve seen in the stories. I’ll keep my eyes peeled for more, but Sherlock surprised me by deducing this allusion Nancy Barclay made while fighting with her husband.

Why wouldn’t Holmes know what a mongoose is? That is a question I still have after reading this story. He seems to have encyclopedic knowledge in a variety of fields. One would think he would have at least have heard of the mongoose, but Henry Wood’s explanation of what a mongoose is seems to be necessary, so it stands to reason Holmes has no idea what they are. This story is set before Kipling wrote “Rikki-Tikki-Tavi,” but I should still think Holmes would have heard of them at least. And if not Holmes, why not Watson? I looked into it, and while they are not widespread in Afghanistan, they do live in the southern part. Would Watson never have heard of them while serving in the military in Afghanistan? I suppose it’s possible. I don’t know why I have such a mental block around believing Holmes and Watson are both completely unfamiliar with the mongoose. It’s probably just me.

I found no references in the Sherlock series to this story, either, and in my humble opinion, it’s a bit of a throwaway. For one thing, Holmes has just about solved the entire case before he ever visits Watson. Spoiler alert ahead: Holmes isn’t really investigating a murder after all, and as such, the case doesn’t really have anywhere to go. I suppose Holmes does make the correct deduction about the events involved, but it’s mostly Holmes and then Henry Wood who tell the story through exposition. It was interesting enough, but it doesn’t rank up near the top in memorable Sherlock Holmes stories for me, and once again, it contains some troubling racist attitudes among some of the characters. I suppose we are meant to give Conan-Doyle a pass because of the times, but he showed some remarkably different thinking in “The Yellow Face,” so I don’t know that he gets a pass regarding his depictions of Indians, even if that depiction matched the prevailing attitude of Britons at the time the story was written and in which it was set.

Rating: ★★½☆☆

The Chronological Sherlock Holmes ChallengeI read this story as part of the Chronological Sherlock Holmes Challenge. It is the twelfth story in the chronology (time setting rather than composition). Next up is “The Five Orange Pips.”

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Sherlock Holmes: The Adventure of the Naval Treaty, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

The Naval Treaty

Illustration for “The Naval Treaty” by Sidney Paget for The Strand

Last week’s story for the Chronological Sherlock Holmes Challenge is “The Adventure of the Naval Treaty.” This story is not completely dissimilar from “The Beryl Coronet” or “The Second Stain.” In all three stories, a high-ranking official is given something of great importance and finds it has been stolen. Of course, the man will be ruined utterly if the missing object cannot be located. In the case of “The Naval Treaty,” an old school friend of John Watson’s, Percy Phelps, has risen to high office with the help of his uncle (the term nepotism was invented to describe such circumstances), and his uncle asks him to copy out a sensitive naval treaty with Italy. As he is doing so, he finds he’s very sleepy, and he must finish the task. He rings for coffee, and when the charwoman goes to inform her husband, the butler, to make the coffee, Phelps copies out a bit more of the document. He waits. No coffee. He goes downstairs to find the kettle boiling over and the butler asleep. In the time he takes to sort out the coffee, he hears the bell used to summon the butler and dashes upstairs, but the treaty is gone. He falls into a desperate illness and writes Watson to see if his friend Sherlock Holmes can help.

Despite its similarity to the other stories, I felt the mystery and Holmes’s deduction were both more interesting and better executed in this particular story. Holmes’s character is also interesting. For instance, he stops to observe the beauty of a rose:

“What a lovely thing a rose is! …

Our highest assurance of the goodness of Providence seems to me to rest in the flowers. All other things, our powers, our desires, our food, are really necessary for our existence in the first instance. But this rose is an extra. Its smell and its colour are an embellishment of life, not a condition of it. It is only goodness which gives extras, and so I say again that we have much to hope from the flowers.”

Watson is as perplexed as anyone by this strange observation, and another about the school buildings “rising up above the slates, like brick islands in a lead-coloured sea,” which can be viewed as Holmes and Watson ride back on the train, follows his curious observation about the rose. Both observations are notable for their strange optimism. In any case, there is humor and a fairly intriguing mystery at the heart of this story, along with a false lead. Holmes’s revelation of the case at the end includes an unusual flair for the dramatic as well. I enjoyed this one. I didn’t notice any references to this story in the Sherlock series.

Rating: ★★★★½

The Chronological Sherlock Holmes ChallengeI read this story as part of the Chronological Sherlock Holmes Challenge. It is the eleventh story in the chronology (time setting rather than composition). Next up is “The Crooked Man.”

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Review: Reckless: My Life as a Pretender, Chrissie Hynde

Before I discuss the contents of Chrissie Hynde’s memoir, Reckless: My Life as a Pretender, I need to get two things out of the way: 1) I am kind of a sucker for rock memoirs, which is something that started in my teens when I checked several books on the subject out of the library, and 2) I really like the Pretenders. I started really listening to them in college. I especially liked earlier records—their first two eponymously titled albums and Learning to Crawl. I once got a haircut I really hated, but then someone told it made me look like Chrissie Hynde, and I didn’t hate it anymore. Enjoying Chrissie Hynde’s music, however, didn’t mean I thought she walked on water. Quite the contrary. Before I picked up this book, I had certainly read enough about her and read enough of her interviews to know she isn’t someone I’d necessarily like very much. I don’t need to like someone’s personality to enjoy their art. I read an interview with Martin Freeman, for example, that left me scratching my head and wondering if he is truly a jerk or was just in bad mood. But I love him on film.

Hynde quite literally begins her memoir at the beginning, with her early years living in Akron. She loved listening to music, and living near Cleveland, which has always been a big rock and roll city, gave her easy access to the music she loved. She describes her misadventures attempting to please her parents and matriculate at Kent State—she knew one of the young men who was killed in 1970. She left Ohio for London just as the punk scene was starting and knew many of the major players, including Malcolm McLaren and Vivienne Westwood (she worked in their shop), the Sex Pistols, the Clash, and the Damned, among others. She seems to have spent most of her twenties focused on getting into a band and taking drugs. She does mention that the memoir would focus on her drug abuse, and it does. Caveat emptor for those looking to learn more about the Pretenders. Aside from the first two albums and the early years of the band, she does not tell that story in these pages. One wonders if something of her passion for the band and its music died with James Honeyman-Scott, the Pretenders’ first guitarist, in 1982. Neither of her spouses even gets a mention, and her relationship with Ray Davies rates only a few pages. Hynde waxes most lyrical at the end, when she discusses how “Jimmy’s” death affected her.

I can’t say I really disliked this book, but I didn’t like it, really, either. Hynde’s cast of characters was hard for me to keep straight, and I could have used a glossary of names or something. Hynde has certainly had some interesting experiences, and she is unflinching in her description, even if her story puts her in a bad light. She has said a couple of controversial things about possible rape (and certainly some kind of sexual assault) she experienced, namely, that she blames herself for getting into the situations in which she has been abused.

Now, let me assure you that, technically speaking, however you want to look at it, this was my doing and I take full responsibility. You can’t fuck around with people, especially people who wear “I Heart Rape” and “On Your Knees” badges. (119)

Hynde may indeed have been under the influence of drugs, and she may have made some poor decisions, but it makes me sad that she comes across as feeling like she somehow deserved to be assaulted because of these decisions. She was raised in an era when women were often blamed for their own rapes (Just how short was your skirt?), but she would, one hopes, be more enlightened now. Or maybe not. It would be nice if we lived in a world in which instead of minding ourselves and doing what we can to avoid being raped, men just didn’t, you know, rape people. Victim-blaming seems to be worst when it comes to these kinds of cases, though, and sometimes even the victims blame themselves. I have ready Hynde’s interviews on this topic, and she is quite heated, even insisting people don’t buy her book if they don’t want to read her story as she wants to tell it.

I can’t really figure her out. She comes off in interviews as brittle, and her frequent digs at people who choose not to be vegetarians are also off-putting. But I can’t deny she has swagger, and she did create some good music. I am glad she was able to stop taking drugs. I’m sad it took the deaths of two bandmates to determine she needed to get clean. I wish she had talked more about her experiences after 1982 as well. I also wish she didn’t feel the need to insult teachers every time it’s necessary to her memoir to mention teachers or education. I have read reviews calling this memoir “well-written.” I wouldn’t go that far. It’s not badly written. The prose is passable, with the exception of Hynde’s fondness for exclamation points. It’s also really not well organized. She flits around in time in a way that’s not easy to follow, and individual chapters can be anything from focused on a single event to wildly chaotic romps through years of time. If only she had paid a bit more attention to those teachers she finds it necessary to denigrate. Ah well. She didn’t need to, in the end, because she had a brilliant career in rock. I just wish I’d been able to read more about it. Unless you’re a big fan, I’d recommend skipping this book and listening to the Pretenders’ music instead. Even if you are a big fan, it’s still not too bad of an idea to skip this one in favor of of the music.

Rating: ★★½☆☆

Beat the BacklistI no longer remember how long this book’s been on my backlist, but it’s been a while. Maybe even when it first came out. I decided to count to for the Beat the Backlist Challenge.

I am also counting this one toward the Wild Goose Chase Challenge for the category of a book with a word or phrase relating to “wildness” in the title. You can’t pass up pairing “wild” with “reckless,” and one thing I can say for sure: Chrissie Hynde is wild.

Wild Goose Chase Reading Challenge 2017

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Sherlock Holmes: The Second Stain, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

The Second Stain

Illustration for “The Second Stain” by Sidney Paget for The Strand

This week’s story for the Chronological Sherlock Holmes Challenge is “The Adventure of the Second Stain.” In this story, two high-ranking government officials, Prime Minister Lord Bellinger and Secretary of European Affairs Trelawney Hope, seek Holmes’s help in locating a letter the latter has noticed missing. The contents of the letter are so incendiary that the two men fear Britain will soon be at war in Europe unless the letter can be recovered before the contents are made known to the public. Watson is cagey on the details because he feels the matter remains delicate even at the time of publication. The situation is described Lord Bellenger:

The whole of Europe is an armed camp. There is a double league which makes a fair balance of military power. Great Britain holds the scales. If Britain were driven into war with one confederacy, it would assure the supremacy of the other confederacy, whether they joined the war or not.

After the two men leave, Holmes rattles off a short list of suspects who might be interested in the sort of intrigue captured in the letter and is shocked to learn that one of them, Eduardo Lucas, had been murdered the previous night. Meanwhile, Trelawney Hope’s wife Lady Hilda shows up at 221B Baker Street seeking information about the contents of the letter, which Holmes refuses to share. Lestrade calls Holmes in on an interesting development in the murder of Eduardo Lucas. Lestrade ordered the police officer on duty to monitor the crime scene and leave it undisturbed. However, Lestrade has noticed that the bloodstain from Lucas’s murder has gone right through the carpet, but has not spread to the floor underneath. Instead, there is a second stain in another part of the floor covered by the carpet. Someone has obviously disturbed the crime scene.

I found this story to be one of the more enjoyable ones I have read so far. I read that Arthur Conan Doyle himself ranked it among his favorites. It has a little bit of everything—international intrigue, a damsel in distress (yuck, how tired, but a trope of Victorian fiction), bumbling police officers, and politicians put in their place. I loved it when Holmes refused to help Bellinger and Hope until they confided in him. Many accounts say that the figure at the center of the letter was none other than Kaiser Wilhelm, who did indeed start war in Europe some time after the events of the story. As far as I could remember, no references to this story appeared in the BBC’s Sherlock series, with the possible exception of a general attitude Cumberbatch’s Holmes has toward both government officials and the police. He doesn’t mind helping either group, but he doesn’t feel beholden to share his methods or thinking with either group. The woman with something to hide is a well Conan Doyle goes back to time and again as well. Given that it was published about ten years before World War I, it’s also surprisingly prescient (or perhaps Conan Doyle was in the know?) and accurate regarding the climate of Europe.

Rating: ★★★★½

The Chronological Sherlock Holmes ChallengeI read this story as part of the Chronological Sherlock Holmes Challenge. It is the tenth story in the chronology (time setting rather than composition). Next up is “The Naval Treaty.”

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Review: The Slanted Life of Emily Dickinson, Rosanna Bruno

I ordered this book on a whim after coming across it in an article posted on Facebook (which is appropriate, given the subject matter of the book). The article, entitled “Why Moody Teenagers Love Emily Dickinson” (BBC), quotes the author of The Slanted Life of Emily Dickinson, Rosanna Bruno:

“We were taught that she was this reclusive spinster who lived with her family, dressed all in white, and wrote in her room all day”, recalls artist Rosanna Bruno of her high school introduction to the poet in the 1980s. Even then, Bruno felt that the mythology of the poet didn’t really mesh with the poems. “It seemed so incongruous to what she wrote”, she says. “Have you ever heard Helen Mirren reading Wild Nights!? You really have to rethink Dickinson as a reclusive spinster after that rendition.”

Indeed, Bruno has hit on something here. Dickinson is one of those writers, like Poe or the Brontës, whose lives—or should I say whose “images”—come dangerously close to eclipsing their work. I, too, have been guilty of trying to sell Emily Dickinson to teenagers by telling them intrigues about her life. But as I have learned more about her, I have learned more about her humorous side, her playful side, her wicked side, for lack of a better word. And she is way more interesting than our portrait of her as the recluse in a white dress. Rosanna Bruno captures in cartoons what Emily Dickinson’s life might have been like with some of our twenty-first century concerns (and social media accounts). The result is a funny graphic novel that I think Emily Dickinson herself might have enjoyed.

You might need to click on this for the full image to enjoy the effect, but anyone whose tried out writing up classic literature with emojis (that is a thing), will enjoy this:

The Slanted Life of Emily Dickinson

From The Slanted Life of Emily Dickinson © Rosanna Bruno, used under fair use for the purpose of critique

I enjoyed the juxtaposition of one of my favorite books and my favorite poet:

The Slanted Life of Emily Dickinson

From The Slanted Life of Emily Dickinson © Rosanna Bruno, used under fair use for the purpose of critique

But my favorite might be her OK Cupid profile, though the Yelp reviews were pretty awesome, too.

The Slanted Life of Emily Dickinson

From The Slanted Life of Emily Dickinson © Rosanna Bruno, used under fair use for the purpose of critique

Bruno has clearly researched Dickinson’s life, and there are plenty of Easter eggs for those who know a lot about the poet’s life. The artistic renderings of Dickinson’s home and environment are done with a careful eye as well. What shines through most clearly is that Bruno is a fan of Emily Dickinson’s and she had a lot of fun with Dickinson’s poetry as she wrote this book.

Anyone who is a fan of Emily Dickinson’s will probably enjoy this book, and it also has an audience with folks who enjoy Roz Chast’s cartoons (both Chast and Alison Bechdel get fan shout-outs in this book).

Check out Bruno’s website for more images from the book.

Rating: ★★★★☆

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Sherlock Holmes: The Reigate Squires, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

The Reigate Squires

Illustration for “The Reigate Squires” by Sidney Paget for The Strand

“The Reigate Squires,” also known as “The Reigate Puzzle” or “The Reigate Squire,” was this week’s read for the Chronological Sherlock Holmes Challenge. In this short story, Holmes appears to be recovering from some illness, and he goes into the country with Watson and Watson’s army buddy Col. Hayter, ostensibly so he can rest and recover. However, he finds himself plopped in the middle of a mystery upon finding out that Col. Hayter’s neighbors, the Actons, are the victims of a burglary. One morning early in Holmes’s stay, another of Hayter’s neighbors, the Cunninghams, report that their butler has been killed in an attempted burglary. The local constabulary are keen to have Holmes’s help with the case, and he agrees to take it on—despite Watson’s admonition to rest—after finding the torn corner of a note crumpled in the hand of the deceased butler. Watson has misgivings about Holmes’s health, but knows it’s hopeless to argue when Holmes is on the scent of a trail.

I noticed a couple of interesting things in this story. First, I thought of the episode in the BBC series Sherlock episode “The Sign of Three” when Sherlock attends John and Mary’s wedding, and the guest of honor is Major Sholto, who was Watson’s commander in Afghanistan. Of course, I will look for more references in that episode when I read The Sign of the Four, but I thought perhaps Col. Hayter was a reference to Major Sholto, but I discovered that Major Sholto is actually a character in that book rather than this story, so the Hayter and Sholto are not the same. I know Sherlock’s predisposition to run himself ragged and even to make himself ill in working on a case has been shown on the series, but I can’t recall a specific episode. Also, I had a memory of Sherlock feigning illness in the course of a case, but again, I can’t figure out which episode it was. I may be remembering incorrectly. The only reference I could really find was an Easter egg reference to a Chinese restaurant in “Reigate Square” in the episode “The Six Thatchers.”

In any case, this was an enjoyable story. I liked it more for the relationship it shows between Holmes and Watson. For instance, in convincing Holmes to go to Col. Hayter’s house, he says, “A little diplomacy was needed.” He knew Holmes would not willingly go “rest” in the country. I also loved Holmes’s explanation that “[t]here were twenty-three other deductions which would be of more interest to experts than to you” in the course of revealing how he solved the case. Naturally there were! The relationship between Holmes and Watson was quite similar to what I have seen Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman enact on screen. I don’t know how it was established to take place at this point in the chronology, as I didn’t notice any helpful chronological clues as such.

Rating: ★★★★☆

The Chronological Sherlock Holmes ChallengeI read this story as part of the Chronological Sherlock Holmes Challenge. It is the ninth story in the chronology (time setting rather than composition). Next up is “The Second Stain.”

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Review: The Lowland, Jhumpa Lahiri

Jhumpa Lahiri’s second novel The Lowland, released in 2013 and a finalist for the National Book Award, begins in the neighborhood of Tollygunge in Calcutta (now Kolkata) with two brothers, Udayan and Subhash, born 15 months apart, sneaking into the Tolly Golf Club. Subhash is beaten by a police officer when the boys are caught, and the incident seems to change their personalities as they grow up. Subhash becomes cautious, careful. Udayan’s anger at the police officer blooms into an interest in the Indian communist Naxalite movement by the time he is in college. The boys drift apart as Subhash becomes increasingly concerned by Udayan’s politics. Subhash decides to go to graduate school in Rhode Island. His brother writes him letters about his activities, including his marriage to Gauri. When Udayan is killed, Subhash travels back to Calcutta and meets Gauri, living in his parents’ home. They ignore her, and he begins to feel sympathy for her, especially after learning she is carrying Udayan’s child. He offers to marry her, and she agrees, traveling with him to Rhode Island in an attempt to escape her past. However, the terrible secret she keeps, which is not revealed until near the novel’s end, and the specter of Udayan cast a pall over the marriage.

While I can’t exactly say that I struggled through the first half of this novel, I will say it didn’t truly grab me until the second half. I’m glad I didn’t give up on it. Early in my reading, I might put it down for days at a time before picking it up again. I managed to pick up and finish two other books in the course of reading The Lowland. However, after Gauri became interested in education and started attending philosophy classes, I found myself fully engaged. Gauri emerged as the most fascinating character for me. I was actually surprised in the end when her secret was revealed, and the two most moving parts of the book for me were her final confrontation with both her daughter, Bela, and her trip back to Kolkata to see the Lowland where Udayan was killed. Gauri emerged for me as a fully realized character, a real person with a great deal of depth. I know that whenever Gauri was on the page, I sat up straight and pulled the book a little closer. Michiko Kakutani feels that Lahiri did not give Gauri enough psychological complexity for the reader to understand why she left the way she did, but I disagree. I feel that her actions are difficult to understand until she reveals her truth. In some way, Gauri feels like a bomb, I think, and removing herself from those who love her is her way of saving them and protecting them in the way she could not save two men who died—who she feels she plays some part in killing. What Gauri has done, both in Calcutta and after she arrives in America, is unforgivable. However, I think it was also very human. If one character doesn’t emerge as fully realized for me, it’s the adult Bela.To me, it’s her adult choices and actions that don’t make sense.

By the time Subhash and Gauri settled in Rhode Island and Bela was born, I found this book captivating and difficult to put down. Lahiri is at her best when she is describing the ways immigrant families navigate living in the United States, which is what made The Namesake such a success. This book is described as more ambitious than her earlier work, and it is perhaps that ambition that makes the novel a bit unwieldy. Michael Cunningham says in “First Love,” an essay he writes about discovering the novel Mrs. Dalloway, that “Woolf understood that every character, no matter how minor in a novel she wrote was visiting the novel, from a novel of his or her own.” Where this novel struggles, if it does, is that it tries to be the novel for all the characters—Udayan, Subhash, Gauri, Bela, and even Udayan and Subhash’s mother. Would it have been more even if Lahiri focused on one character? Maybe. But the result is a rich tapestry of a beautiful and moving book.

Rating: ★★★★½

The Backlist Reader Challenge 2017I can’t remember how long ago I put this on my to-read list, but it was a long time ago, and I have had the book for a while as well, so I am counting it as my second book for the Backlist Reader Challenge. Though this novel begins in the 1950’s, I am not counting it for the Historical Fiction Challenge because it does go to the present and is not completely set in the past.

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