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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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 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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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.”

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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.

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Review: Hollow City, Ransom Riggs

When Hollow City, the second novel in the Miss Peregrine series, came out a few years ago, I bought it immediately. I also started reading it right away. But for some reason, I set it aside after maybe the first chapter or so, and I didn’t pick it up again until recently. I just can’t imagine now how I ever put it down! The book is nonstop action pretty much from start to finish. One of my students who had read the series last year said that I would want to start the third book immediately after finishing this one, and he was right.

Hollow City picks up right where Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children leaves off, as Jacob and the other peculiars escape their island with the injured and “stuck” Miss Peregrine. Be warned: this book does not fill in the gaps for anyone who hasn’t read the first book. You are going to have to start with the first book if you want to follow the story. I had a bit of trouble because it had been a long time since I read Miss Peregrine. In this second book, the peculiars go in search of an ymbryne who can help Miss Peregrine return to her human form. They search for and find a time loops run by an ymbryne named Miss Wren, but they learn Miss Wren is missing. She is the only known ymbryne who has not been captured by wights, so the peculiars set off to London in search of her.

Riggs writes good dialogue, and his characters are well-drawn, particularly his secondary characters like Olive, Millard, Addison the dog, and Enoch. I admit I found the “romance” between Jacob and Emma to be a bit wooden and pat, but the story itself was interesting, and the ending was an excellent surprise. The images are amazing. Do yourself a favor and read this one on paper and not on an e-reader or audiobook. You will get a lot more out of the images if you can savor them and flip through the book.

In all, I definitely recommend the book. It’s a great choice for the R. I. P. Challenge.

Rating: ★★★★½

Because I’ve had this book on my shelf and TBR (or really, a to-be finished) pile for a long time, I’m glad to be able to count it for my Shelf Love and Mount TBR Challenges. I’m also counting this book for both the Reading England 2016 and R. I. P. Challenges.

RIP Eleven

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Review: American Girls, Alison Umminger

Alison Umminger’s novel American Girls will be released next month on June 7, but I received an ARC at an English teacher’s conference in November. I hadn’t picked it up until recently. April and May were busy and stressful at work, and I’m afraid my reading life took a bit of a backseat. I share books I think my students will like each class period because they are doing independent reading, and I know hearing about a book that sounds intriguing will encourage them to pick up books to read. Book talks make all the difference in helping students select books to read. I shared this book a couple of weeks ago and found myself rather intrigued by the book’s premise, so I picked it up instead of putting it back on the shelf for my students.

Fifteen-year-old Anna steals her stepmother’s credit card and buys a plane ticket to Los Angeles with the vague notion of visiting her sister, who is trying to make it as an actress. As the story unfolds, it is clear Anna is running from a fairly dysfunctional family. She feels sidelined and ignored by both her mother and her father, and her best friend Doon talked her into bullying a classmate of Doon’s. Anna’s mother agrees to let Anna stay in Los Angeles for the summer, but she needs to work to earn back the money to repay her stepmother. Delia, Anna’s sister, manages to find Anna a job researching the Manson Family for creepy film director Roger, Delia ex-boyfriend. Meanwhile, Delia also arranges for Anna to stay with Delia’s current boyfriend Dex on the set of the TV show for which he writes, Chips Ahoy, a ridiculous and terrible show starring the Taylor twins, Josh and Jeremy, the younger brothers of washed-up superstar actress and pop singer, Olivia Taylor. Anna spends her summer hanging around the D-list, immersing herself in the history of the Manson Family, and becoming increasingly intrigued by the Manson “girls,” Leslie Van Houten, Patricia Krenwinkle, Susan Atkins, and Squeaky Fromme. Ultimately, what this book really explores is the way in which American society crushes its girls and women, particularly in Los Angeles, where “pretty winds up looking like a hundred girls who look like a hundred other girls who are all trying to look like the same person,” and “after a while, pretty doesn’t even register” (263).

This is an interesting book, and not only because it’s probably the first YA novel I’ve ever seen to explore the Manson Family. Anna’s voice is whipsmart and sarcastic. She has a chip on her shoulder, but she has pretty good reasons. Even with its sometimes dark subject matter, there is plenty of humor in this book, courtesy of the strong first-person narration of Anna. She is realistically drawn and easy to sympathize with. The book skewers the Disney child-star road to ruination quite effectively. We should all be praying for those kids with Disney shows. Olivia Taylor is clearly similar to Miley Cyrus/Britney Spears, and the Taylor twins (and even their TV show) make one think of Dylan and Cole Sprouse, whose TV show The Suite Life on Deck sounds remarkably similar to Chips Ahoy. Though it should be said, the real-life Sprouse twins don’t seem to have as many issues as the Taylor twins, and they have even taken time away from Hollywood to go to college. Olivia, Josh, and Jeremy’s mother could be Pamela Des Barres or Bebe Buell—she was a groupie whose children are the results of relationships with rock stars. Perhaps it’s not a coincidence that Olivia Taylor’s name is so similar to that of Liv Tyler, the daughter of Aerosmith singer Steven Tyler and groupie Bebe Buell.

One thing the book captures really well is the disposable way in which young women in Southern California are treated. I lived there for a few years when I was in high school, and if there is any place in the country that is the absolute worst for sexualizing teenage girls and taking their identities away and replacing them with these plastic veneers—all facelifts, capped teeth, and anorexia—I can’t think of one. One scene stands out vividly in my mind. I was in marching band, and the girls in the flag corps were running some drills or practicing or maybe getting ready—that part is actually fuzzy—but I clearly remember their coach saying, “Be sexy! Be sexy!” They were fifteen and sixteen. I could tell you about worse, but I don’t really want to put it on a blog. Suffice it to say I don’t think teenage girls grow up in Southern California unscathed. This book really exposes what it’s like. A couple of passages that particularly resonated:

But If I had to write a memo to America, on what to do to improve the future, on how to go back and correct the past, it would be simple: Dear America: Please give your daughters sturdy bedroom doors that lock from the inside. And when they are hungry, give them a place at the table. (262)

Later, Anna connects her understanding of what she has seen in Los Angeles to the American Dream of Jay Gatsby:

Maybe Los Angeles was like Gatsby’s dream of Daisy, but for all of America. Instead of sitting on a pier and gazing at a green light across the water, now people just sat in their living rooms and watched the wide-screen, 3-D version of some life that was out there for the taking, if only they could get off the couch. (284)

Anna thinks a great deal about the Manson girls and what led them to follow Charles Manson’s orders to kill. Ultimately, her conclusions should make all of us shudder. I thought this book was different from most YA I have read, and I would highly recommend it. The gritty picture it paints of American girls will trouble you, but it’s all the more troubling that the picture is real.

Rating: ★★★★½

FTC Disclosure: I received this book for free at the NCTE annual convention. I was not asked to write a review in exchange.

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Review: Euphoria, Lily King

Lily King’s novel Euphoria is based on the lives of the anthropologists Margaret Mead and her second and third husbands, Reo Fortune and Gregory Bateson, respectively. While many of the details are changed, including some rather significant details, much of the story, as it unfolds, is firmly based on the actual experiences of the three anthropologists who worked together, for a time, on the Sepik River in what is today Papua New Guinea.

As the novel begins, Nell Stone and her husband, Schuyler Fenwick, known as Fen, are looking for a new tribe to study. At Nell’s insistence, the couple leaves behind their research on the Mumbanyo tribe when Nell felt she could no longer stand living the group. They meet up with Anthony Bankson, a fellow anthropologist from England, who has been alone in the Sepik, and is relieved and excited for the company of fellows. Soon, however, Bankson finds himself entranced by Nell. He is inspired by her intellect, insight, and work ethic—all aspects her personality that her husband both envies and disparages. Their lives become entwined as they work together, but Fen has secrets. Suddenly their relationships, their careers, and even their very lives are careening toward disaster.

While I understand why King took liberties with the stories of Mead, Fortune, and Bateson so that she could tell the story she wanted to tell, there are so many details drawn from their actual lives that it seems strange to me that she didn’t just go all the way with a historical fiction account of Mead in New Guinea. For example, like Bateson, Bankson had two older brothers, John and Martin, and their respective deaths prior to the start of the book, in battle in WWI and in a spectacularly public suicide under the statue of Anteros at Piccadilly Circus, were identical in all details to those of the real Bateson. I suppose you can’t make that stuff up. Like Bateson’s father, Bankson’s father was a renowned geneticist who coined the term genetics. Like Mead herself, Nell studied with Franz Boas and probably had an affair with Boas’s fellow student, Helen (who is based on Ruth Benedict).

However, as I said, the story does deviate from that of the historical anthropologists involved in some significant and rather spoilery ways, so I can’t delve too deeply in exploring those differences without endangering your enjoyment of the book (if you want to read it). Suffice it to say the details make for a highly romantic and cinematic story, especially near the end. I suppose reality didn’t play as well for King, hence the changes. Actually, the book would make a great movie—It has romance and adventure, humor, a complicated villain, and great characters—but based on the reading I’ve done about Mead, Fortune, and Bateson, just fact-checking as I read, I have to said their own real story would be equally good fodder for film.

King’s characterization reminds me quite a lot of Hemingway’s: tough women idealized by the men; over-the-top alpha males; masculine men who are also in touch with their feelings. The writing, too, was perfect for the story it told: spare in some details, leaving readers to put pieces together; poetically descriptive in other places. The characters seemed visceral and real. King makes the reader feel the heat and steamy damp of the New Guinea, and I felt as though I had traveled down the Sepik with all three of the main characters. I definitely found myself more interested in Margaret Mead, and her fellow anthropologists after reading this. Aside from an introductory course in college, I know little about anthropology, and I have to admit, some aspects of this science are troubling to me. There is always the whiff of the colonial about it when I read about it. I can’t put my finger on what it is that bothers me. Euphoria is a quick read. I had the paperback, and though the length is about short-average (257 pages), the paper is thick, and the font is largish. I think I probably read the whole thing in about five hours.

I am not sure if the photos are copyright, so I didn’t want to post them here on my blog, but you should definitely check out this exhibit at the Library of Congress. It has a wonderful picture of Margaret Mead, Reo Fortune (what a heck of a name!), and Gregory Bateson together, along with their notes about the personality classification system the three of them developed after reading Ruth Benedict’s Patterns of Culture together, an incident that is described in breathtaking detail in the novel. In fact, I had run into this idea without knowing Margaret Mead had anything to do with it in some professional development. Four major personality groups are divided on points of a compass (those who fall between two groups tend toward the intercardinal points on the compass. For the record, I identified myself as a “South” with some “West” tendencies. Here is a link to a PDF about the system. I will be anxious to talk about this aspect of the book with my fellow book club members, most of whom have also had this training and/or experienced an opportunity to define themselves on the compass.

Euphoria is a unique novel. I’ve never read anything set in Papua New Guinea before (nor am I likely to again, as it’s just not a setting writers use). I have also never seen anthropology tackled quite like this in fiction, though it does remind me a bit of State of Wonder by Ann Patchett. Ultimately, I think it’s a better novel than State of Wonder; I realize I gave State of Wonder 5 stars as opposed to the 4.5 for this novel, but I think I just really hated Fen, and were I to rate State of Wonder now, some time after having read it, it is probably more of a 4 star book for me. But I don’t go back and rethink or change ratings, which are based on my gut response right after finishing a book.

Rating: ★★★★½

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Review: A Christmas Carol, Charles Dickens, narrated by Tim Curry

I celebrated Christmas Eve and Christmas morning while I baked by listening to Tim Curry narrate my all-time favorite Christmas book, A Christmas Carol. I suppose it’s a lot of people’s favorites. It has been a favorite story of mine, even before I ever read the book, since I was a child.

Each time I read the story, I’m struck again by Charles Dickens’s brilliance with characterization. We who want to write should all read Dickens. He’s a master class in himself. Is there a story that has a more lasting impact on our consciousness than A Christmas Carol? We can all name exactly what it is to be a Scrooge. One might argue the very Christmas we celebrate was just about invented by Dickens. So while it seems a bit unnecessary to review the actual book here, I will share my thoughts about Tim Curry’s reading.

I admit I wasn’t too sure I’d like Tim Curry reading this novella. I like Tim Curry. But when I think of him, I think of bad guys, like Pennywise the Clown. Actually, I suppose Scrooge is a bit of a bad guy, but given he’s redeemed in the end, I tend not to think of him that way. Audible had a $0.99 special on this book, however, so I decided to give it a chance.

Tim Curry’s reading is mostly pretty awesome, especially his characterization of Scrooge and even more especially his characterization of the folks at the end who are selling off Scrooge’s things in the vision Scrooge sees of the future. On the other hand, I found his characterization of the Cratchits lacking. They lacked the warmth I usually like to see in their interactions. I’m a ridiculous sucker for Tiny Tim. I cry every single time he dies in the future that Scrooge sees. I will say, however, that Curry’s rendition of the scene in which Bob Cratchit breaks down after seeing where Tim will be buried was outstanding.

Quite an enjoyable narration and a welcome addition to my audio book library. This book was meant to be read aloud. I have read that Dickens’s own performance of it was quite something to see.

I watched two different staged versions of this story this year (both excellent), listened to the audio, and am currently watching the film with George C. Scott. My favorite film version is the one with Patrick Stewart, but I wasn’t able to find it on this year. I don’t think the Christmas season would be complete for me without some version of this story. Louis Bayard wrote a sequel about Tim Cratchit called Mr. Timothy. If you are curious, a doctor thinks he’s figured out what was wrong with Tiny Tim.

Merry Christmas to all, and as Tiny Tim said, “God bless us, every one.”

Rating: ★★★★★
Audio Rating: ★★★★½

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Review: If I Stay, Gayle Forman

Gayle Forman’s novel If I Stay is the story of Mia, an accomplished cellist and senior in high school. Mia lives in Oregon, and when the schools close for a snow day (“I think the county overreacted,” Mia says), the family decides to make a day of it and visit friends, family, and the bookstore. In a split second, Mia’s entire life is shattered when her family’s car is hit by a pickup truck. Mia finds herself outside her body, watching as the ambulance arrives, watching as she is taken to Portland by medivac, and watching as she lies in a coma in the ICU. Mia realizes that she must make the decision: “I realize now that dying is easy. Living is hard” (175).

I’m a little late with If I Stay. I think a lot of folks have read it already, so it might not be new to you. In fact, it’s been on my TBR list for years. This is exactly the kind of book I’d have been in love with as a teenager. I must have re-read Judy Blume’s Tiger Eyes countless times. In many ways, Mia reminds me a bit of Davey in Blume’s book, though the tragedy she must cope with is much larger in scope and also involves her own personal fight for recovery. I think if this book had existed when I was in high school, I’d have re-read it as much as I re-read Tiger Eyes, and I can’t praise it much more highly than that. Adam is definitely the kind of boyfriend I’d have wanted in high school. Like Mia, I was a musician in high school with some starry-eyed dreams of actually being good enough to go to Juilliard. Unlike Mia, I knew I didn’t have the talent it would take to do it. The cello is, in fact, one of my favorite instruments, and my daughter played it in school. I think I would really have connected to this story if I’d read it in high school.

So what about adult me? Well, at this stage of my life, I recognize Adam is NOT the kind of guy I’d want to be with (nice enough, but the rock musician types are more cool on paper). I consider music important, but it doesn’t consume me as much as it did when I was in high school, and perhaps that is my loss. I have really wanted to get back into playing either the flute or the guitar (or both) again. I’m in a different place, which is as it should be, and it makes me a little sad this book wasn’t around when I was in high school (but I think Gayle Forman was probably in high school right then as well). It’s a great book. I enjoyed it a lot. It’s the first time in a long time that I’ve considered how much more I might have liked a book if I’d read it at a different time. As it is, it was well-written, but some of the cracks showed a bit more to adult me. They wouldn’t have bothered teenager me at all. In fact, I might not have seen them as cracks at all.

Still, I really enjoyed the book, and as for grabbing and keeping my attention, it absolutely did. I definitely want to read the sequel.

Rating: ★★★★½

I found this blog post on hosting the ultimate book group party for this book (very cool ideas). I also found an interesting Bustle post about the fictional band in the movie soundtrack. Speaking of the movie, some liberties were taken with the story, but f you have Amazon Prime, it’s free to watch with your membership. It wasn’t bad.

I made a Spotify playlist based on the music mentioned in the book, on Gayle Forman’s website, and the movie. Caveat: I couldn’t bring myself to include Bette Midler’s song “The Wind Beneath My Wings” (though it’s mentioned in the book), and I cut Alice Cooper’s “School’s Out” as well. I don’t hate that song, but it doesn’t fit well with the rest of the punk/indie and classical tracks in the playlist. I guess Frank Sinatra doesn’t either, but he stayed in.

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