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 Adventure of the Red Circle, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

Brock Red Circle

Illustration by H. M. Brock for The Strand

This week’s story in the Chronological Sherlock Holmes Challenge is “The Adventure of the Red Circle,” which is one of many stories that seems to follow a similar patter for Doyle: a mysterious “foreigner” shows up in London bringing intrigue from their country of origin with them, and Holmes must get to the bottom of it. In the case of this mystery, Holmes is initially uninterested, but he is moved to investigate by the pleas of a landlady, Mrs. Warren, who is increasingly suspicious of her new boarder. In spite of himself, Holmes finds himself interested Mrs. Warren’s story and agrees to help.

Holmes and Watson discover several suspicious anomalies as they begin investigating the case: first, the lodger’s notes are printed rather than written in cursive, and Holmes can somehow tell from the cigarette butts the lodger leaves behind that he does not have a mustache, while Mrs. Warren insisted he did have one. Holmes discovers that the landlady has no contact with the lodger aside from these written requests and a ringing bell for meals, which she leaves outside the lodger’s rooms. Breakfast includes copy of the The Daily Gazette. Holmes begins searching the Daily Gazette‘s extracts for messages and believes he is onto something when he finds a series of messages signed “G.”

This one didn’t grab me, though I did enjoy the fact that Holmes didn’t figure out all the pieces of the mystery before everyone else did. Gregson from Scotland Yard was a bit ahead of him on who the mysterious occupant boarding with Mrs. Warren is connected to, and he has a Pinkerton agent with him who is after the same man. I enjoyed Holmes’s comment to Watson, who questions why he is taking on this case when there doesn’t seem to be much substance to it: “Education never ends, Watson. It is a series of lessons with the greatest for the last.” That said, it was long on exposition at the end when the mysterious lodger is revealed, and Holmes doesn’t play much of a role in his deduction, except for a few wild leaps that don’t make as much sense (to me) as his deductions typically do, as well as some substantial lack of resolution in the end. If you want to know what the Red Circle is all about, you’ll be disappointed. The villain is easily dispatched, given he is such a threat, and the man who obtained the lodgings from Mrs. Warren disappears, his fate unknown, though Doyle alludes to an escape.

This story originally appeared in His Last Bow and was 44th in composition. Those who have ordered the stories chronologically must have their reasons for ordering this story number 6, but I’m not sure how they figured it out, as there did not seem to me to be any timeline indicators, but I admit I’m not a Sherlock Holmes scholar. I didn’t notice any connections to the Sherlock TV series, possibly because as Sherlock Holmes stories go, this is not one of the more memorable.

Rating: ★★★☆☆

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

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Sherlock Holmes: The Adventure of the “Gloria Scott,” Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

Illustration by Sidney Paget in The Strand

“The Adventure of the Gloria Scott” takes place during Sherlock Holmes’s college days. In the story, Holmes tells Watson about a college friend of his and the curious events leading up to the death of his friend’s father. Holmes met his friend Victor Trevor when Trevor’s dog bit and injured Sherlock. Trevor visits Holmes while he is convalescing, and the two become friends. Trevor invites Holmes to his father’s house in Norfolk, and Holmes quickly surprises the elder Mr. Trevor with some deductions about the man’s past. A strange visitor arrives, and Victor Trevor is shocked by his father’s meek behavior around the stranger. A couple of months later, Trevor tells Holmes that his father has had a stroke and is at death’s door. The elder Mr. Trevor’s last words directed his son to hidden papers in his Japanese cabinet, and Holmes finds an encrypted message that he deciphers indicating the elder Mr. Trevor may have feared for his life. The papers in the Japanese cabinet reveal a secret identity and mysterious past Mr. Trevor has long kept quiet—at the center of the story is a long-lost ship called the Gloria Scott.

“The Adventure of the Gloria Scott” takes place first chronologically in the Sherlock Holmes canon, but it was actually the 19th Holmes story published, first in The Strand magazine and later collected in The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes. Sherlock Holmes tells Watson that it is his “first case,” and indeed Mr. Trevor, impressed with Sherlock’s deductive reasoning, suggests that he take it up as a career, at which point Sherlock Holmes realizes he might turn what he believes is a hobby into an occupation. It’s not, strictly speaking, a real case. Holmes does make some accurate deductions about Mr. Trevor’s past, and he does decode a message received by Mr. Trevor, but there is no real crime to be solved in the end, as Mr. Trevor’s papers turn out to be a confession of his entire past, and the looming threat that drove Mr. Trevor to have a stroke vanishes after Mr. Trevor’s death.

In the updated series Sherlock, Mary Morstan (then John Watson’s fiancée) decodes a text message by reading every third word, as Sherlock does with the message Mr. Trevor receives (season three, “The Empty Hearse”), but allusions to the Gloria Scott appeared in last night’s episode, “The Lying Detective,” too. Sherlock makes a series of deductions about one of his potential clients, and one is very similar to the deduction that Sherlock Holmes makes about Mr. Trevor’s tattoo in this story. A more tenuous connection may be the moment when that episode’s villain, Culverton Smith, says that three recording devices were found and removed from Sherlock’s effects in his hospital room, and Sherlock remarks that people always stop at three—so satisfying—before revealing he had a fourth device. That last reference might be a stretch. I’m not sure the number three on its own is a true reference to this story. The confession of Mr. Trevor might be considered similar to Culverton Smith’s confession, but I admit that’s a stretch, too, especially as Culverton Smith is much more evil than Mr. Trevor, and he also has a perverse need to confess that even prompts him to use memory-altering drugs on his friends just so he can confess his crimes to them in a way they won’t remember. A stronger connection might be to Mary Watson’s secret past as a hired assassin—her criminal past catches up with her in a way not too dissimilar from that of Mr. Trevor’s.

Update 1/16/17: Season 4, episode 3 of Sherlock was just broadcast last night, and now that the debriefs with spoilers are online, I feel I can update this post to add the reference to “The Adventure of the Gloria Scott” that I noticed in “The Final Problem.” Sherlock’s sister murders Sherlock’s first friend, whom Sherlock initially thinks was a dog named Redbeard—he has blocked out memories of the friend due to the trauma of the event. His friend was a boy named Victor Trevor, and Sherlock had not been able emotionally to establish a friendship after Victor’s disappearance and death at the hands of his sister until he meets John Watson. He also refers to the missing Victor Trevor as “his first case,” as he does with “The Gloria Scott.” Wonderful that the writers of Sherlock have gone back to the first two chronological stories in this season, especially as many think it might be the last season of the show. I have also updated my review of “The Musgrave Ritual” to reflect references in last night’s Sherlock.

I had to do some digging online because I wondered if the mysterious Mr. Hudson was perhaps landlady Mrs. Hudson’s husband or some other relative, but it seems Doyle just used the name for two characters. As Sherlock Holmes stories go, the long confession as a means of resolution and the lack of a real case or mystery as a result made this one a bit of a dud for me. It was interesting to see Sherlock Holmes’s early deduction skills, but apart from that, it’s not very much fun when the mystery isn’t really solved by Sherlock. The multiple frames are not really confusing, but overcomplicate the story. Watson is relating the story to us. Sherlock is telling the story to Watson. And Sherlock is recalling Mr. Trevor’s story as he read it in his papers. The quotation marks get a little creative! Still, it’s not a bad story.

Rating: ★★★☆☆

The Chronological Sherlock Holmes ChallengeI have figured out the Chronological Sherlock Holmes Challenge and am in the process of making up for lost time, as I read A Study in Scarlet first instead of this story. This week’s story is “The Musgrave Ritual,” so look for my thoughts on that story by the end of this week.

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Review: The Book of Life, Deborah Harkness, narrated by Jennifer Ikeda

Deborah Harkness’s All Souls Trilogy is a bit like Twilight for adults, with a more compelling heroine and a few more thrills and chills. The last book in this series is The Book of Life, the denouement of Matthew Clairmont and Diana Bishop’s unlikely story with a few hints of potential sequels. In the first book in the series, A Discovery of Witches, reluctant witch Diana Bishop calls up the mysterious manuscript coded Ashmole 782 from the Bodleian Library at Oxford, only to attract the attention of several other creatures—other witches, daemons, and vampires. Specifically, a vampire named Matthew Clairmont. Diana and Matthew strike up an unlikely (and forbidden) relationship. In the second book, The Shadow of Night, Diana and Matthew timewalk back to 1590 to try to track down Ashmole 782 again and meet almost literally every historical figure of importance who lived at the time. Matthew also turns out to be one of those important historical figures in disguise. In this final book, Diana and Matthew pull out pretty much all the stops to try to find the missing manuscript, now known as the Book of Life, which will tell the secrets that the witches discovered centuries ago. This gruesome book, made from the skin, hair, and blood of witches, daemons, and vampires, is believed by witches to be the first grimoire and to hold the secrets of witchcraft and by vampires to hold the secrets of their origins. As it turns out, Matthew’s bloodthirsty and deranged son Benjamin is also after the book. And Diana. And possibly their children. Oh, and Matthew, if it will lure Diana to him.

Sigh.

Okay, where to begin. This book isn’t bad. It’s pretty cheesy, and I can’t figure out why. I kind of liked the first book in this series, but it seemed like each successive book just got crazier and crazier. Diana and Matthew are supernatural creatures, yes, but why do they have to be the most powerful or crazy of their ilk? Why does she all of a sudden have to be Superwitch? I liked it better when they were nosy about their origins, but the fate of their entire world didn’t have to rest on what they managed to do (or not). I guess maybe I’m a bit over vampires unless they are awful like Dracula. I did enjoy a very cheeky joke Matthew made about Twilight in the middle of the book. Jennifer Ikeda is a good reader, as well. There is a pretty awful torture scene reminiscent of Jamie Fraser and Black Jack Randall, though without, I suppose, the element of rape. What it is with all the torture p*rn in women’s fiction now? (By the way, that word is not spelled out because I don’t want weirdos who are looking for that stuff to land on my blog and be super disappointed.) I also felt like Harkness was stretching to bring back all the characters from the first book, even if if they only got a cameo. For some reason, that irritated me. Mainly because I didn’t really remember them that well after all that time had passed. I found the whole blood rage deal that Matthew had and passed along to some (not all, apparently) of his children an irritating plot point. It seemed to me like an excuse for Matthew to be a dick sometimes more than anything else. And on top of everything else, no one really explains it satisfactorily to me. And finally, the Book of Life is a sort of letdown. That’s IT? That’s what the big secret was? I figured that sort of thing out about creatures from the first book. I wanted a big reveal. You let me down, Diana Bishop. You let me down. And I guess the biggest issue I have with the books in general is that I don’t particularly like Diana or Matthew. I mean, I don’t wish them ill, or anything, but I don’t like them nearly as much as some of the secondary characters. I can’t remember if I mentioned how I feel about them in earlier reviews I wrote. Diana can be tiresome in her ways, but Matthew is controlling, and it grates on me that a controlling guy like that is being put forth as an ideal romantic boyfriend/husband. Yuck. At least he figures out by the end of the book that he needs to step it back a notch.

So, I didn’t hate it, but I didn’t love it either, and it gets three stars.

Rating: ★★★☆☆
Audio Rating: ★★★★★

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Review: Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, Jonathan Safran Foer

Jonathan Safran Foer’s novel Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close is the story of nine-year-old Oskar Schell, whose father Thomas died in the 9/11 attacks. One day Oskar finds a mysterious key inside an envelope inside a vase. The envelope says the word “Black” on the outside, and Oskar goes on a quest to find out what the key opens and why his father has it. Thinking the word might be the last name “Black,” Oskar does some research and determines the addresses of all the people in New York City with the surname Black. One by one, he begins visiting them to see if he can find out more about the key. He meets interesting people and leaves an imprint on all the people he touches. Interspersed throughout Oskar’s story is the story of his grandparents and their strange, fraught relationship.

I wanted to like this book a little more than I did. I think Oskar, and possibly his grandfather, are supposed to be autistic, and because of my own children, I do find books about characters with autism interesting. I did like Oskar, though I found his mother strangely unconcerned about letting her son roam all over New York City. I guess you could argue she knew he was going to what he was going to do anyway, but her absence, even if you try to explain it away by pointing out she was grieving, was deeply troubling to me. Oskar’s grandfather abandoned his pregnant wife and did not know his son. One of the reasons I didn’t quite like this book were the portions dealing with Oskar’s grandfather. I found him to be a deeply unsympathetic character, even if I took into account his troubled past and the things he had dealt with. I know some people are better at dealing with grief, and for that matter life, than others, but part of what I think made his story less sympathetic was Foer’s postmodern experiments in his storyline. My least favorite, for example, were pages in which the letters seemed to bleed together, almost falling into a puddle on the bottom of the page, until the page filled up. Rather than interesting, I found these experiments deeply annoying. I found rather than being emotionally affected by Oskar’s story (and that of his grandfather), I really felt more like the story was manipulative and self-indulgent. Not to say I totally hated it. I didn’t. I can’t even say I didn’t like it. I’ll just say it was not a hit for me because of the gimmicky postmodern style. The parts I liked, I really liked, but I did find myself in the midst of a new chapter on Oskar’s grandparents and saying, “Oh, here’s one I need to slog through to get to a good one on Oskar.” I don’t want to feel like that reading a book. Because half the book was pretty good, I can’t give it one or two stars, but because about half the book wasn’t, and also because I found the ending unsatisfying, I can’t give it four or five stars either.

Rating: ★★★☆☆

I purchased this book in November, but it’s been on my TBR list for a while. I’m counting it toward both the Shelf Love Challenge and the Mount TBR Challenge.
 

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Sunday Post #37: Complete

Sunday PostI didn’t post last Sunday because I was returning for my favorite conference, the National Council of Teachers of English annual convention. It was great. I picked up some excellent free and cheap books and enough book recommendations to keep me busy for a long time.

NaNoWriMo is going well, word-count wise. I think I’ll finish. I’m not excited about the book as I’m nearing the end. I’m not sure if it’s because it’s a fanfic or if it’s because I’ve run out of steam. I was delighting myself writing it at the beginning, but I haven’t even wanted to read what I’ve written lately to my husband. Still, I’m making myself plug away and finish it. Even if I’m not enjoying it as much as I was, the story is still coming remarkably fast. One thing I think I’ve learned this month is that I have a lot of stamina and speed when I give myself permission to write a crappy first draft and turn off my internal editor.

I have completed my goal of reading 52 books for the year. In fact, I just finished the 53rd. In the last week, I’ve finished five books and reviewed four:

Today, I finished listening to an audio book of Amy Snow by Tracy Rees. I was torn over this one for a long time. It was okay, not great. It’s actually a bit over-the-top campy at times, and I think somewhere near the beginning, I realized that Rees was writing a send-up of those overwrought Victorian novels (or I hope she was; otherwise, oh dear). Mrs. Vennaway should remind just about every Brontë fan of Aunt Reed—horrible to a child for just about no reason. In fact, Amy Snow does owe a bit of a debt to those other books. The main character’s self-deprecation is grating, though, and she never becomes as strong or interesting as Jane Eyre. If you read it with an eye toward thinking of it as an homage, then it’s fine. I finished it, more to discover the ending to the novel’s puzzle than anything else, but I found the ending unsatisfying, even if fairly complete. Still, if it’s an homage, it’s a fairly clever one. For a light read, it was well-researched, at least. The setting managed to intrigue even when the characters didn’t.

Rating: ★★★☆☆

I’m counting Amy Snow as my Surrey book, since that’s where the Hatville estate where Amy comes from is located.

The Sunday Post is a weekly meme hosted by Caffeinated Book Reviewer. It’s a chance to share news, recap the past week on your blog, and showcase books and things we have received. See rules here: Sunday Post Meme. Image adapted from Patrick on Flickr.

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A Double Review: Camus and Kamel

I somehow never got around to reading The Stranger until yesterday. I finished it today and immediately picked up Kamel Daoud’s companion novel The Meursault Investigation. If you, like me, waited to read The Stranger, the crux of the plot is that a disaffected French Algerian man buries his mother; he is unable to grieve, or indeed, to feel much of anything. He strikes up an affair with a woman he works with, becomes involved in an argument between his neighbor Raymond and Raymond’s mistress, whom Raymond believes is cheating on him. While Raymond and the narrator Meursault are out, they see the “brother” of Raymond’s mistress, and, believing the brother is spoiling for revenge over his sister’s treatment, they start a fight. Though the fight ends, Meursault heads back out to the beach and finds the mistress’s brother, known only as “the Arab” and kills him. The rest of the book details Meursault’s contemplations behind bars, including his trial, which turns into an absurdist farce when the prosecutor, jury, and judge are more upset by Meursault’s lack of grief over his mother’s death than the fact that he has killed an Arab.

It is upon this point that The Meursault Investigation turns. The narrator of The Meursault Investigation is Harun, the brother of the Arab Meursault killed—and he had a name: Musa. Harun is haunted by his brother’s death and by the murderer who wrote about it and neglected even to name his brother, stripping him of an identity, of personhood, of meaning. Both Harun and his mother piece together the details of Musa’s murder, but neither is able to find peace in the wake of his loss, and even revenge doesn’t bring Harun the solace he seeks.

I’m really glad I waited so long to read The Stranger so that I could read The Meursault Investigation right after. In the future, I imagine that these two books will be read together, companion pieces. The interesting thing that Daoud does with the story (which is something I think Camus misses) is make it about colonialism. Camus doesn’t name the Arab because it’s not important to his story. The murder is just what lands Meursault in prison. No one much cares about it. The problem with this attitude is that the Arab’s life did matter. Daoud gives the man a name and a family—identity, personhood, meaning. The Meursault Investigation explores the effects of colonialism on Algeria and makes Meursault, like so many of his countrymen, complicit in the “murder” of the country’s identity.

Of the two, I definitely enjoyed The Meursault Investigation more. I understand I’m supposed to find Meursault profound, but mainly I just found him very frightening and extremely difficult to relate to. Someone who is so unable to feel anything is truly in a horrible place. Harun, by contrast, not only tries to understand and make meaning of his brother’s death, but he even tries to understand his brother’s murderer as well as those readers who have found meaning in The Stranger. And unlike Meursault, he has been able to understand love and longing and a life truly given up for the sake another. I want to thank Carol Jago, English teacher extraordinaire and reading muse, for recommending this one.

The Stranger Rating: ★★★☆☆
The Meursault Investigation Rating: ★★★★☆

P. S. These last two books make 52 books for the year for me, which was the reading goal I set. WHOOP!

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Sunday Post #23: Walden

Sunday PostI finished reading Walden this afternoon. I had no idea it was going to be such a demanding read. I had only ever read excerpts of it (turns out, those would be the “good parts” versions). While I do completely get its importance in American literature, I can’t exactly say I liked it. I liked parts of it. I didn’t see the connections between the various chapters very well (and sometimes not even within the chapters themselves). It seemed a bit meandering. I know some criticize Thoreau because he was actually not that far from town, and he was fairly social (rather than living off on his own). I think he makes it relatively clear that he was not literally living a solitary life. I think was he was really after was trying to live as simply as he could. How much time he actually spent in the cabin he built, I don’t really know, but it’s clear he spent a lot of time there, and he seems to be actively trying on the clothes of hermit, even if he’s not really one. But I don’t really care about that, anyway. Some really interesting nuggets throughout, but as a whole, it didn’t do it for me.

More irritating was trying to work the annotations in the Kindle version I bought. You’d think the notes would be in order (for instance, that note 73 would have followed note 72 in a given chapter). You would be wrong. That made it a real pain when I was trying to read notes that I had difficulty opening because they were either close to the edges of the Kindle page (and thus, all I could succeed in doing was turning the page) or when the hyperlinked text was only a small number, which even my small fingers couldn’t seem to touch in order to activate the link. It was really frustrating. I am sure the index is quite good, but it’s in the back before the notes and not so easy to navigate. Perhaps it’s not necessary given the search feature in Kindle. And finally, I found a bunch of notes on the text that were never hyperlinked. Who knew those were even there? Also, some of the text was oddly laid down (half a word might be half a line beneath the other half). I don’t know how that happens. I don’t know if reading the paper version would be as frustrating or not.

Rating: ★★★☆☆

So, on to other things. I have not added any books to my TBR pile, which is probably a good thing given how slowly I’m reading the ones in my currently-reading pile. I spent three days this last week at a conference, and I am going to another one this coming Saturday. I am hoping I’ll have time to write my usual blog post here next Sunday, but we will see what happens.

I am about an hour and a half from finishing All the Bright Places by Jennifer Niven. I might try to finish that one today, either making soap or doing dishes. Or both. Who knows. If I do finish it today, my review will likely appear on this blog tomorrow. I don’t really like to post more than once a day.

So, what are you reading?

I am counting Walden as my Nonfiction Classic for the Back to the Classics Challenge. Just for my own reference, I’m making note of my progress on this challenge so far:

The Sunday Post is a weekly meme hosted by Caffeinated Book Reviewer. It’s a chance to share news, recap the past week on your blog, and showcase books and things we have received. See rules here: Sunday Post Meme.

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Sunday Post #11: Candide

Sunday PostI usually review books in separate blog posts, but rather than write two, I’m rolling my review of Voltaire’s Candide into this post.

First, I haven’t done as much reading the last few days as I had done earlier in my spring break, which comes to an end today. My last few days of spring break I spent binge-watching UK episodes of Who Do You Think You Are?, which made me want to work a little bit on my own family history. I resurrected my family history blog after a three-year silence. I quite like learning about family history for the same reasons Stephen Fry describes in his own episode of Who Do You Think You Are?: 1) you learn a lot about who all these people are who make up who you are, and in turn, you learn a little bit about yourself, and 2) you learn about how history is not something that happens in some abstract way to other people—history happened to people in your family, and you have that personal connection to history. I also really love how it shows the ways in which we are all connected. It’s a fun hobby, if time-consuming and hard to do when you can’t really travel.

I did manage to finish listening to Stephen Fry read The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy this week. Loved it. I am thinking I might listen to the other books in the series. I started listening to Tina Fey’s memoir Bossypants. I am enjoying that one quite a lot when I’ve had time to listen to it.

So, Candide. I understand this is not really a novel in the sense we think of them today, but more of a philosophical allegory. It tells the story of young Candide, who lives in an idyllic castle of Thunder-ten-tronckh in Westphalia and his instruction in Leibnizian optimism by his tutor, Pangloss. A series of rather unfortunate events follows after Candide is caught kissing Cunégonde, the beautiful daughter of the castle’s baron. Of course, Candide is too low born to consort with Cunégonde, so he is banished from the castle and must make his way in the harsh world. And he goes pretty much everywhere, even El Dorado, never willing to let go of his optimism entirely until the end, when he and his friends decide to live the rest of their lives on a simple farm, and Candide concludes, “Il faut cultiver notre jardin.” Often translated as “We must cultivate our garden.” The translation I read renders it “We must work our land,” as the translator argues the word garden in English doesn’t tend to mean the same thing as Voltaire intended in describing the farm. Regardless, I see that statement as meaning we need to worry about ourselves and our small communities, but also that we should be happy with what we have and enjoy it for what it is. We need to work together to cultivate the good and weed out the bad. Candide finally has everything he wanted, but he no longer wants it. Is it the best of all possible worlds? No, but that doesn’t seem to be something that really exists, as Candide only experienced the feeling that he was in the best of all possible worlds in a place that doesn’t exist. He’s become a realist.

The biggest problem I had with the story was the end. Cunégonde loses her looks, but noble Candide marries her anyway, though he no longer wants to. What the hell? So what that means to me is that all he ever really felt for her was infatuation and lust, and he expended a great deal of energy on it and went through a lot of trauma for it, too. Are women worthy of love only insofar as they are beautiful? Is that the only reason to love a woman? Are we supposed to admire Candide because he sticks to the original plan and marries Cunégonde even though she’s ugly? Are we supposed to like him because he bucks up when the world hands him lemons? Bah. I realize we’re supposed to put books squarely in the time in which they are historically set, but I was still quite bothered by the chauvinism and antisemitism in the book. Does it get a pass because it was written in the eighteenth century? I don’t know. Part of me says that we give historical works like this a pass too often.

I wasn’t bored while reading Candide, and it’s quite a quick read. The story moves along and is tightly paced if not very descriptive, but as I said, it is not a novel in the sense we understand, and allegories are often about making another point besides telling a story. It’s funny, too, and has some good (and some pretty dark) humor. Candide suffers just about every calamity Voltaire can think of, and none of it seems to have a point. Other than being rather appalled at how awful people can and have treated each other, I wasn’t able to empathize much with Candide, and in the end, when he was no longer interested in Cunégonde because she wasn’t beautiful anymore (especially given how much she suffered and how much effort she put into being true to him (notwithstanding constantly being raped and enslaved), I thought he was a shit. I’d have liked it better if she’d told him where he could get off with his pity marriage.

Rating: ★★★☆☆

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Review: Prince Lestat, Anne Rice

Prince Lestat: The Vampire ChroniclesAnne Rice returns to her Vampire Chronicles with Prince Lestat. Rice had said she was not going to write more vampire books, but Prince Lestat is the first in a new planned series.

As the book begins, a strange voice is speaking to many of the vampires, mostly the oldest vampires, begging them to immolate the younger vampires and “thin the herd.” Lestat hears the voice, too, and tries to shut it out. He is dragged out of seclusion by his fellow vampires, who want his help in fighting the voice.

I hesitate to summarize too much because if you’re planning to read this book, you’ll not want too much to be given away. Anne Rice is back in typical form. I have to say this line from the New York Times review of the novel captures the book well (and made me laugh): “Although this is a dreadful novel, it has to be said that the earnestness with which Rice continues to toil at her brand of pop sorcery has an odd, retro sort of charm, an aura redolent of the desperate, decadent silliness of the disco era.”

I am not sure I’d go quite so far as to call it dreadful (and keep in mind that Memnoch the Devil is the only book I have ever thrown across the room), but it’s not up to the heights of Interview with the Vampire or The Vampire Lestat. You will most likely wonder if Apple is paying Rice for product placement. All of the vampires seem to have iPhones, and they seem to use them and talk about them a lot. They also have Mac computers. Thus, I’d agree with the second part of the Times‘s description.

Lestat is his usual self in this one. You’re going to wonder about the sanity of the vampire collective at the end, if you were not already wondering. All of the oldest vampires make a reappearance here, and if you’re into world-building, you’ll learn quite a lot more about vampire origins and some of the oldest vampires, and you’ll also find out how the Talamasca came to be. As such, I had thought while reading the book that perhaps Rice was trying to answer all the open questions and call it a day. However, it’s fairly clear at the end that she’s getting her second wind. God help us all.

I kid, but not much. These books have a weird sort of charm. I sort of enjoy them at the same time as I’m rolling my eyes at Rice’s lavish description and strange tangents (Rose’s story in this one). I am not sure if I have the fortitude to brave another one, but this one wasn’t bad as far as her books go. I listened to it on audio, and the narrator, Simon Vance, was an excellent reader. I kept wondering what he thought about what he was reading, and I wondered if he were thinking the same things as I was. I do think it will appeal to anyone who wanted to know more after The Queen of the Damned.

These two reviews were pretty fair and even-handed:

Rating: ★★★☆☆
Audio Rating: ★★★★★

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