November Reading Update

It’s been a long time since I last posted. I started grad school, which hasn’t allowed much time for independent reading or for writing. I am trying to find a balance because reading is really important to me.

I am taking a breather to post some quick reviews of some things I’ve read since my last post.

Remarkably, given how little reading I’ve been able to do over the last two months, I’m just two books behind in achieving my goal of reading 50 books this year. I might still pull out meeting this goal.

The last book I reviewed was Blind Spot in August. Since then, I’ve read four more books.

Tayari Jones’s An American Marriage is an interesting exploration of the effects of incarceration. Roy and Celestial are newlyweds when they travel to his hometown to visit his parents. They make the fateful decision to stay in a hotel for some additional privacy. Roy helps a fellow hotel guest with the ice machine, and later, she accuses him of raping her. Celestial knows Roy can’t have done it because he was with her at the time, but he is sentenced to twelve years in prison. Jones explores the effects of Roy’s imprisonment to both Celestial and Roy as well as their marriage and the broader repercussions of mass incarceration in the African-American community.

Rating: ★★★★½

 

My husband and I listened to Neil Gaiman’s Norse Mythology as read by Gaiman himself. I always recommend Neil Gaiman’s audio books because he is an excellent reader.

Gaiman draws inspiration for this collection from a variety of sources in Norse mythology. His stories retain the humor of the myths, but they feel re-invigorated in his hands. This collection is a must-read for anyone who enjoys mythology, or Neil Gaiman, or good stories in general.

Loki, in particular, is a nuanced, complex, and interesting character. Tom Hiddleston would be proud.

Rating: ★★★★★

 

I read Shirley Jackson’s We Have Always Lived in the Castle for the RIP Challenge (more on that later in the post). This novel is the story of Mary Catherine “Merricat” Blackwood and her sister Constance, the town recluses who live in a large empty house with their Uncle Julian, who is compiling his memoirs about the poisoning murders of the rest of the Blackwood family some years earlier.

Eh. I finished it. It was okay; not great, not horrible. I understand a lot of people find the character Merricat Blackwood interesting. I guess I am not among their number. I guessed what was supposed to be a big surprise ending pretty early on; I’m not bragging because I’m usually terrible at guessing the surprise ending in thrillers. I also didn’t like The Haunting of Hill House, which a lot of people love. I think I’m just not into Shirley Jackson. I do love “The Lottery.”

Rating: ★★★☆☆

 

José Olivarez’s poetry collection Citizen Illegal was a hit with my students. I bought it on the recommendation of some teacher friends on Twitter. The collection explores Latinx identities, including the tension of being a first-generation American of Mexican parents who came to America as undocumented immigrants. He explores issues of language, culture, race, gender, class, and immigration with a fresh, engaging voice. Many of the poems stand out, particularly the series called “Mexican Heaven.” The opening poem “(Citizen) (Illegal)” might be my favorite.

I participated in a Twitter chat about the book with some of the teacher friends who recommended the book, and the poet himself chimed in. I love reading living poets!

Rating: ★★★★☆

 

I didn’t make it through the RIP Challenge. RIP the RIP Challenge, I guess! Grad school interrupted my flow. I still have time to complete the other challenges that run until the end of December, but some of them are not looking likely at the moment.

I’m going to try to carve out more time to read and reflect on my reading here. I can tell a difference when I don’t sit down and write about a book right after finishing it. I had to look up the names of the characters in An American Marriage because I had read it so long ago. Unsatisfactory!

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
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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

Review: The Sullivan Street Bakery Cookbook, Jim Lahey with Maya Joseph

Review: The Sullivan Street Bakery Cookbook, Jim Lahey with Maya JosephThe Sullivan Street Bakery Cookbook by Jim Lahey, Maya Joseph, Squire Fox
Published by W. W. Norton Company ISBN: 0393247287
on November 7th 2017
Genres: Cooking
Pages: 240
Format: Hardcover
Buy on Amazon
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four-half-stars

Founded in 1994, Sullivan Street Bakery is renowned for its outstanding bread, which graces the tables of New York’s most celebrated restaurants. The bread at Sullivan Street Bakery, crackling brown on the outside and light and aromatic on the inside, is inspired by the dark, crusty loaves that James Beard Award-winning baker Jim Lahey discovered in Rome.

Jim builds on the revolutionary no-knead recipe he developed for his first book, My Bread, to outline his no-fuss system for making sourdough at home. Applying his Italian-inspired method to his repertoire of pizzas, pastries, egg dishes, and café classics, The Sullivan Street Bakery Cookbook delivers the flavors of a bakery Ruth Reichl once called "a church of bread."

I think I ordered this book after reading about it on some sort of best-of-2017 cookbooks list. I am trying my hand at baking bread, and I really wanted to step up the challenge by trying sourdough baking. Back in December, I made my own sourdough starter using this recipe from King Arthur Flour. Jim Lahey includes his own starter recipe in The Sullivan Street Bakery Cookbook. I followed Lahey’s instructions to make my starter into biga, the stiff starter Lahey uses in many of his recipes. After I made my biga, I tucked it away in the refrigerator because I knew I wouldn’t have enough time to experiment with it. Lahey says that unlike regular starter, biga doesn’t need to be “fed” and will keep pretty much as long as you want it in the refrigerator.

I don’t know if it matters whether or not your biga is brought to room temperature after it’s been refrigerated, but I didn’t bother with it when I decided to try out the recipe for pane bianco, Lahey’s recipe for a no-knead sourdough bread. Until I used this recipe, the only sourdough bread I’d made was King Arthur’s sort of cheater recipe for “rustic” sourdough bread. I call it a cheater recipe because it uses yeast and doesn’t rely strictly on the sourdough starter to rise, which makes it good for beginners. It tastes fine, but I wasn’t happy with it. In looking through the recipes in Lahey’s book, I settled on the pane bianco because it seemed the least fiddly (there are a lot of very fiddly recipes in this book). Word of caution: it is extremely time-consuming—not in the amount of work you need to do, but in wait time.

Lahey’s instructions said that after combining the water and biga with the flour and salt the recipe calls for, you might need to wait anywhere from eight to eighteen hours for the bread to double in size. 😯 I decided to mix the dough the night before I would bake it so it could do its thing overnight. When I woke up, I checked the bread, and it seemed pretty much ready to go, so I followed Lahey’s instructions for shaping it and then letting it rise again. I have an enameled cast iron Dutch oven, and the instructions say not to heat it empty, but Lahey’s instructions say to preheat the Dutch oven. What to do? I didn’t want to risk damaging my Dutch oven, so I did some searching online and discovered I could put the bread into the Dutch oven, turn the oven on, and put the Dutch oven with the bread inside in the oven, which would serve basically the same function as preheating it while allowing the dough to finish its final rise. According to King Arthur’s blog, if you do this, you can just bake the bread according to its directions. I didn’t find this to be true. My crust came out quite a bit darker than I wanted it, as Lahey’s instructions say to bake the bread for 40 minutes. Next time, I will bake it for less time and see if that works better. The bread still turned out great.

My first loaf of “real” sourdough bread

I think given the fact that it was my first one, it really turned out better than expected. I forgot to slash the bread, which you are supposed to do with sourdough, but it didn’t seem to hurt anything.

I was really thrilled to see all the pockets of air. It truly tasted like one of those artisan loaves of bread you get at a bakery. I was ridiculously proud of being able to make a loaf of sourdough bread completely from scratch, using my very own biga created with my own starter. I have been intimidated by bread for a long time, and I credit buying Bread Toast Crumbs with being able to get over my fear of baking bread.

Lahey doesn’t like the tangy sourdough, so he says you don’t really taste that sourdough flavor in his recipes, and that was true of the bread I made. Keeping in mind this is the only recipe I have tried, I still recommend this book for people looking to step up their baking game. The recipes will offer a nice challenge for intermediate or more advanced bakers. It’s not a book for beginners, and be forewarned that most of the recipes will take time. We live in a busy world, and baking bread the old-fashioned way that Lahey uses takes a long time. Lahey also uses a kitchen scale and gives most of his instructions in grams. He gives you the volume measures as well but cautions that grams are better and more precise (and he’s right about that—I learned that lesson making soap). Bread is particularly picky and seems to work much better if you use a scale rather than trying to use measuring cups. It also matters if you are baking in the summer or winter, and you have to adjust. Thankfully, Lahey has good advice for how to adjust for seasonal temperature variances.

I know it’s sort of weird to read a recipe book all the way through, but Lahey’s personality and passion for baking come through, and even the recipes were entertaining to read. I used some of the techniques he describes in other recipes. For example, I found this great recipe for Detroit-style pizza with a homemade crust. After reading about how Lahey makes pizza dough look dimpled by “docking,” or pressing his fingers into the dough, I tried it with my pizza dough, and I achieved the same effect—”a sublime texture—pliant, soft, and bubbly” (119). For anyone curious about the pizza recipe, I make the pizza as is except I omit the cheddar cheese, which seems wrong on pizza to me, and use more mozzarella. I use both shredded mozzarella and fresh mozzarella cut into cubes. The results are pretty awesome.

There are a lot of recipes in the book I’m not sure I’d ever try (that panettone seems incredibly daunting for something I’m not even sure I’d like), but the bread recipes look good, the breakfasts look tasty, and the pizza crust is definitely on my to-d0 list.

I ordered Lahey’s first book My Bread this afternoon because I liked this book so much. I kind of want to visit his bakery if I get a chance to go to New York.

Foodies Read Challenge

four-half-stars

Review: In the Shadow of the Banyan, Vaddey Ratner

Review: In the Shadow of the Banyan, Vaddey RatnerIn the Shadow of the Banyan by Vaddey Ratner
ISBN: 1451657714
on September 1st 2012
Genres: Contemporary Fiction, Historical Fiction
Pages: 322
Format: Paperback
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four-half-stars

A beautiful celebration of the power of hope, this New York Times bestselling novel tells the story of a girl who comes of age during the Cambodian genocide.

You are about to read an extraordinary story, a PEN Hemingway Award finalist "rich with history, mythology, folklore, language and emotion." It will take you to the very depths of despair and show you unspeakable horrors. It will reveal a gorgeously rich culture struggling to survive through a furtive bow, a hidden ankle bracelet, fragments of remembered poetry. It will ensure that the world never forgets the atrocities committed by the Khmer Rouge regime in the Cambodian killing fields between 1975 and 1979, when an estimated two million people lost their lives. It will give you hope, and it will confirm the power of storytelling to lift us up and help us not only survive but transcend suffering, cruelty, and loss.

For seven-year-old Raami, the shattering end of childhood begins with the footsteps of her father returning home in the early dawn hours, bringing details of the civil war that has overwhelmed the streets of Phnom Penh, Cambodia’s capital. Soon the family’s world of carefully guarded royal privilege is swept up in the chaos of revolution and forced exodus. Over the next four years, as the Khmer Rouge attempts to strip the population of every shred of individual identity, Raami clings to the only remaining vestige of her childhood—the mythical legends and poems told to her by her father. In a climate of systematic violence where memory is sickness and justification for execution, Raami fights for her improbable survival. Displaying the author’s extraordinary gift for language, In the Shadow of the Banyan is a brilliantly wrought tale of human resilience.

In the Shadow of the Banyan is a moving debut. Ratner is a survivor of the Cambodian genocide of the late 1970’s and later came to America. She says in her author’s note that this novel is her own story with some details compressed or changed. It’s quite a lyrical and moving account of the horrific story of the Cambodian Killing Fields from the viewpoint of a child.

Where the novel suffers, if it does, is the focus. Ratner explains she wanted to show us Cambodia as it was before its destruction at the hands of the Khmer Rouge, but as a result, the novel takes a while to get going. The bulk of the first half is devoted to the first few days and weeks after the Khmer Rouge sends citizens of Phnom Penh into the countryside, and the last several years are compressed. For example, in an interview in the back of the book, Ratner says her journey escaping to Thailand was more fraught and would rate a book in itself. While I wasn’t looking for the worst of the story at the expense of fonder memories, it felt a bit of a cheat to magnify some events at the expense of others that might have been more compelling. As a result, the novel feels uneven; however, as a debut, it’s quite powerful with some poetic moments and beautiful storytelling as well as an emphasis on the importance of living and telling your story.

I read this book for several reading challenges:

Due to its late 1970’s setting in Cambodia, this novel counts for the Historical Fiction Challenge. It’s also my third country stop for the Literary Voyage Around the World Challenge. As I enjoyed several cups of tea, mostly Bigelow’s Constant Comment and at least one cup of Simpson & Vail’s Jane Austen Black Tea Blend, it also qualifies for the Share-a-Tea Challenge.

four-half-stars

Sherlock Holmes: Three Short Stories

The Red-Headed League
Illustration of “The Red-Headed League” by Sidney Paget for The Strand

After school started again, I fell a bit behind in the Chronological Sherlock Holmes Challenge, in part because I needed to finish our all-school summer reading book The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. As of today, I’m all caught up, having read “The Copper Beeches” and “The Red-Headed League.” I had read “The Blue Carbuncle” some time back but neglected to blog about it.

“The Blue Carbuncle” takes place at Christmas and involves the loss of a large, blue jewel. An innocent man is accused of stealing the jewel. After the jewel is found in the crop of a Christmas goose (geese don’t have crops, by the way), Holmes deduces how the theft was carried out and by whom.

In “The Copper Beeches,” a young woman consults Holmes over whether she should accept a governess job that seems too good to be true. The pay is three times as high as typical pay, but she will need to cut off her long chestnut hair, wear a blue dress, and sit in a window. Discomfited by the odd requests, but attracted by the pay, the client retains Holmes’s help after finding a hidden room in an unused wing of the house.

“The Red-Headed League” is the story of a mysterious beneficence offered to redheaded men in exchange for light work four hours a day. Jabez Wilson consults Holmes after showing up for this work only to see a cardboard sign indicating the League has been dissolved. Holmes quickly deduces that Wilson has been taken in and that a more serious crime is about to take place.

All three of these stories are classics, frequently filmed or otherwise anthologized. I enjoyed all three. It had been a long time since I had read them. All three are excellent examples of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle at the height of his mystery-writing powers. If forced to pick a favorite of the three, I’d say “The Copper Beeches” for its atmosphere.

None of the three is explicitly the focus of any BBC Sherlock episodes on their own, but the deduction competition in the episode “The Empty Hearse” has a phrenology reference similar to the one in “The Blue Carbuncle.” Other than that minor reference, I can’t recall any references to either “The Copper Beeches” or “The Red-Headed League” in the series.

“The Blue Carbuncle” Rating: ★★★★☆
“The Copper Beeches” Rating: ★★★★★
“The Red-Headed League” Rating: ★★★★½

The Chronological Sherlock Holmes ChallengeI read these stories as part of the Chronological Sherlock Holmes Challenge. They are the twenty-seventh, twenty-eighth, and twenty-ninth stories in the chronology (time setting rather than composition). Next up is “Charles Augustus Milverton.”

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.”

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.”

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.

Sherlock Holmes: The Adventure of the Speckled Band, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

The Adventure of the Speckled Band
Sidney Paget illustration for “The Adventure of the Speckled Band” in The Strand

This week’s story in the Chronological Sherlock Holmes Challenge is one of the most famous in the Holmes canon, “The Adventure of the Speckled Band.” A mysterious woman in black arrives early in the morning to ask for Sherlock Holmes’s help. She is terrified because her twin sister died under mysterious circumstances a few years prior, and she now finds hints that history is about to repeat itself. Holmes agrees to take on her case. The woman’s stepfather shows up shortly after she leaves to threaten Holmes, who is not in the least perturbed, and Holmes and Watson travel to the estate where the young woman lives with her stepfather. After investigating the room where the woman sleeps and her stepfather’s room, Holmes believes he may know what is happening, but he and Watson keep a vigil in the woman’s room that night to be sure.

I actually remembered most of the details of this story, though I hadn’t read it in over 20 years, which I think is a testament to the story’s strength. If I have one quibble, it is once again we see a British prejudice about the tropics being a breeding ground for a passionate temper. It’s probably too much to expect a Victorian writer not to display the prejudices of his era, though, and it’s not as bad as A Study in Scarlet‘s portrayal of Mormons. Also, it seems that Doyle was making up fictional snake breeds, but that doesn’t surprise me much. He is a storyteller, and it’s not like he had Google at his disposal. The swamp adder doesn’t jump out as a particularly false note, but it is true that even herpetologists have been stumped as to which snake Doyle might mean. On the other hand, this is one the stories in which the reader has all the details needed to solve the crime and can deduce alongside Holmes, if the reader is paying attention. I do feel some Holmes stories are a bit of a cheat in that we don’t have the information Holmes does, but in this case, we can put the probable scenario together in our heads, for the most part, as Holmes himself solves the mystery, and it may be for that reason that this story is so popular. The BBC series Sherlock chose not to adapt this story, but it is alluded to in the episode “A Scandal in Belgravia” as “The Speckled Blonde.”

Rating: ★★★★½

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

TLC Book Tour: The Opposite of Everything, Joshilyn Jackson

tlc1I have had the pleasure of reading and of meeting Joshilyn Jackson before, so when TLC Book Tours offered her latest novel, The Opposite of Everything, I was excited to be included. Jackson is a fresh Southern voice, and I have enjoyed her previous work very much.

This novel is the story of Paula Vauss, a gutsy divorce lawyer living in Atlanta. Paula grew up nearly homeless, constantly moving and changing her name, with her hippie mother Kai, an admirer of Indian religious philosophy who called Paula Kali, after the Indian goddess. Paula carries a great deal of guilt over her broken relationship with her mother and blames herself for her mother’s stint in prison because it was Paula who called 911 and summoned the police the day Kai was taken to jail. However, when some unexpected and unknown elements of Kai’s past drop into Paula’s life, she has to decide what to do and whether to let Kai—and those relics of her troubled past—into her life and reconcile with her mother’s ghost.

I really enjoyed reading this book. It’s a mix of Southern humor and Southern gothic, as most great Southern literature is. Jackson is very funny in person, and this humor spills over into her books, even when she’s dealing with the dark subject matter of unwanted children, foster care, and ugly divorces. Paula is a wounded character who has built up a tough exterior so she can face the world, but she is completely discombobulated by what she discovers about her mother. I loved the end—it was perfect. I used to live in Atlanta, and Jackson is on familiar territory here, too. She clearly knows the city well and captures it without making it a necessary part of the narrative. Her characters are well-drawn and true-to-life. Paula conjures the memory of her mother with perfect clarity. The reader has no doubt how much feeling has passed between Paula and her mother, as much as Paula herself tries to distance herself from that past. It winds up very much a part of her present, and she discovers that owning it and dealing with it will finally make her whole.

Rating: ★★★★½

tlc2Tour Schedule

Tuesday, October 11th: I’d Rather Be At The Beach
Wednesday, October 12th: G. Jacks Writes
Friday, October 14th: Art @ Home
Monday, October 17th: Peeking Between the Pages
Tuesday, October 18th: The Book Bag
Tuesday, October 18th: Wall-to-Wall Books
Thursday, October 20th: Literary Quicksand
Tuesday, October 25th: The Reading Date
Wednesday, October 26th: Luxury Reading
Thursday, October 27th: Mom’s Small Victories
Friday, October 28th: Much Madness is Divinest Sense

Read on to learn more about the book from TLC Book Tours and the publisher.

the-opposite-of-everyone-pb-coverAbout The Opposite of Everyone

Paperback: 320 pages
Publisher: William Morrow Paperbacks (October 11, 2016)

A fiercely independent divorce lawyer learns the power of family and connection when she receives a cryptic message from her estranged mother in this bittersweet, witty novel from the nationally bestselling author of Someone Else’s Love Story and gods in Alabama—an emotionally resonant tale about the endurance of love and the power of stories to shape and transform our lives.

Born in Alabama, Paula Vauss spent the first decade of her life on the road with her free-spirited young mother, Kai, an itinerant storyteller who blended Hindu mythology with southern oral tradition to re-invent their history as they roved. But everything, including Paula’s birth name Kali Jai, changed when she told a story of her own—one that landed Kai in prison and Paula in foster care. Separated, each holding secrets of her own, the intense bond they once shared was fractured.

These days, Paula has reincarnated herself as a tough-as-nails divorce attorney with a successful practice in Atlanta. While she hasn’t seen Kai in fifteen years, she’s still making payments on that Karmic debt—until the day her last check is returned in the mail, along with a mysterious note: “I am going on a journey, Kali. I am going back to my beginning; death is not the end. You will be the end. We will meet again, and there will be new stories. You know how Karma works.”

Then Kai’s most treasured secret literally lands on Paula’s doorstep, throwing her life into chaos and transforming her from only child to older sister. Desperate to find her mother before it’s too late, Paula sets off on a journey of discovery that will take her back to the past and into the deepest recesses of her heart. With the help of her ex-lover Birdwine, an intrepid and emotionally volatile private eye who still carries a torch for her, this brilliant woman, an expert at wrecking families, now has to figure out how to put one back together—her own.

The Opposite of Everyone is a story about story itself, how the tales we tell connect us, break us, and define us, and how the endings and beginnings we choose can destroy us… and make us whole. Laced with sharp humor and poignant insight, it is beloved New York Times bestselling author Joshilyn Jackson at her very best.

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Joshilyn JacksonAbout Joshilyn Jackson

Joshilyn Jackson is the New York Times bestselling author of six previous novels, including gods in Alabama, A Grown-Up Kind of Pretty, and Someone Else’s Love Story. Her books have been translated into a dozen languages. A former actor, she is also an award-winning audiobook narrator. She lives in Decatur, Georgia, with her husband and their two children.

Connect with her through her website, Facebook, or Twitter.