Sherlock Holmes: A Scandal in Bohemia, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

A Scandal in Bohemia

Illustration for “A Scandal in Bohemia” by Sidney Paget for The Strand

I’ve been looking forward to the moment when the Chronological Sherlock Holmes Challenge would reach “A Scandal in Bohemia.” It’s one of my favorite Sherlock Holmes stories for a variety of reasons, and Irene Adler is at the top of the list.

Sherlock Holmes is visited by the King of Bohemia, who is about to marry and fears a scandal and the end of his hopes of marriage if a photograph featuring himself with his former mistress actress Irene Adler were made public. Holmes agrees to take on the case. He gains entry into Adler’s house at Briony Lodge under disguise as a clergyman. Using the ruse of a false fire alarm, he discovers where Adler has hidden the infamous photograph. Because he can’t take the photo at the moment, he resolves to return the next day. However, Adler outwits Holmes and escapes with the photograph. In her letter to Holmes informing him of her departure, she sends a photograph of herself for the king. Sherlock Holmes takes the photograph as a reward for his services.

This story has some great lines, starting with the opening line:

To Sherlock Holmes she is always the woman.

After one of Holmes’s deductions, Watson quips:

You would certainly have been burned, had you lived a few centuries ago.

Holmes also explains his powers of deduction to Watson:

You see, but you do not observe. The distinction is clear.

He also refers to Watson as his “Boswell,” and there is an indication in the story that the two had not been seeing each other much as of late. Again, the chronology of this one confuses me (its placement at this point in the chronological list of stories, that is). I should probably give up the idea that the chronology is going to work.

This story was made into one of the best episodes of the BBC Sherlock series: “A Scandal in Belgravia.” In the series’ version of the story, Irene Adler is a dominatrix who has incriminating photos of herself with a member of the royal family. Holmes’s brother Mycroft enlists Sherlock to help with the case. The story follows the basic plot of “A Scandal in Bohemia” while modernizing it for a 21st century audience. The connection between Sherlock Holmes and Irene Adler is deepened. A connection with Moriarty is also established in this episode. Lara Pulver is brilliant as Irene Adler. Watson jokes with Holmes, who protests when Watson writes about one of his failures, that people like to see that he’s human. A little hint about what is to come in the episode. I also noted the spray-painted “yellow face” on the wall. Sherlock wears the distinctive “deerstalker” cap to hide from paparazzi (it doesn’t work, and the cap becomes a running joke for the rest of the series so far). Watson’s blog posts make reference to several other stories as well, including “The Geek Interpreter” (“The Greek Interpreter”), “The Navel Treatment” (“The Naval Treaty”), “The Speckled Blonde” (“The Speckled Band”), “The Illustrious Client,” and “The Priory School.”

All in all, an excellent short story and adaptation, and one of my favorites so far.

Rating: ★★★★★

The Chronological Sherlock Holmes ChallengeI read this story as part of the Chronological Sherlock Holmes Challenge. It is sixteenth story in the chronology (time setting rather than composition) and second novel. Next up is “A Case of Identity.”

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

Five Orange Pips

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rating: ★★★★★

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

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

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

Dickinson sent her poetry to Higginson along with her query:

Mr. Higginson,

Are you too deeply occupied to say if my Verse is alive?

The Mind is so near itself—it cannot see, distinctly—and I have none to ask—

Should you think it breathed—and had you the leisure to tell me, I should feel quick gratitude—

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

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

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

1860 Census

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

Emily Dickinson Letter

Letter from Emily Dickinson to Thomas Wentworth Higginson via Wikipedia

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

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

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

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

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

Rating: ★★★★★

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

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Review: The Best We Could Do, Thi Bui

Thi Bui’s graphic memoir The Best We Could Do was just released last week. Bui was born in Vietnam in the waning days of the Vietnam War. She was only a few months old on April 30, 1975 when Saigon fell. She begins her narrative with the difficult birth of her son, then flashes back to her own mother’s difficult birth of her younger brother in a refugee camp in Malaysia. Bui’s family eventually settled in California, and with beautiful artwork on every page, Bui movingly details her family’s story, starting with her parents’ childhoods contrasted with her own. Unflinchingly honest, Bui’s memoir is a must-read.

I grew up hearing what Bui calls the “oversimplification and stereotypes in American versions of the Vietnam War.” My father was stationed at Cam Ranh Bay when I was born, but he was in the Air Force, and as far as I know (and I think he’d have told me), he didn’t engage in combat. It was some time before a body of literature about this war started to published, and I think most people are guilty of listening to and perhaps even believing what Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie calls “the single story”—that incomplete story of a people based on few examples in literature.

Image from The Best We Could Do © Thi Bui, reproduced under fair use for critique

But at Bui says, we tend to forget—to our peril—that “[e]very casualty in war is someone’s grandmother, grandfather, mother, father, brother, sister, child, lover.” Many times in history, as we know too well, the voices of the casualties have been silenced. Their narrative has not been heard.

Image from The Best We Could Do © Thi Bui, reproduced under fair use for critique

And I think one big thing we forget is that the Vietnam War continued after America decided to stop fighting. America’s involvement was on the wane when my father served in 1971. America withdrew from the war in 1973, a full two years before the war ended.

Image from The Best We Could Do © Thi Bui, reproduced under fair use for critique

Bui is at her best in this memoir when she puzzles over contradictions and tries to make sense of her past and her family’s past, which is also how she explains why she needed to write this book.

Image from The Best We Could Do © Thi Bui, reproduced under fair use for critique

The Best We Could Do will surely draw comparisons to Maus and Persepolis. I also recently read Vietnamerica, and while GB Tran’s story is entirely different from Bui’s, reading both of them gave me more stories about what Vietnam and the Vietnam War were like through the eyes of a family who were just doing the best they could do. The arresting images coupled with the narrative make for a gut-wrenching read. The book is gorgeous, as well. The paper is high quality, and the dust cover is thick, heavy paper. I didn’t try to read the electronic version, but my gut tells me this book needs to be experienced in print to be enjoyed fully. A remarkable read.

Rating: ★★★★★

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Review: Vietnamerica, GB Tran

As I mentioned in my review of Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried, I am interested in the Vietnam War for very personal reasons. My dad was in Vietnam when I was born and missed the first six months of my life. I can’t remember that, of course, but I can remember the looming presence that war had on my childhood. In the last couple of years, I have been wanting to learn as much about it as I can. I think one reason is that I became very close to a few of my students from Vietnam.

GB Tran’s graphic memoir Vietnamerica caught my attention through a post on Literary Hub about Vietnamese and Vietnamese-American literature. The list was compiled by Viet Thanh Nguyen, whose book The Sympathizer made such a splash in literary circles last year. I found the cover arresting, and I am trying to read more graphic novels, mainly because my students like them, and I want to be able to recommend good ones to them. Tran’s memoir is about his family, who left Vietnam five days before the fall of Saigon. He was born the following year. He felt, in many ways, separated entirely from his Vietnamese heritage and culture, and this book explores that feeling of being the first generation American in a family of immigrants. Tran initially has no interest in his family’s history, but as he notes in the book, quoting Confucius, “A man without history is a tree without roots.” This book is Tran’s journey of discovering his family’s history. As he says in his afterword, “Making this book broke my heart.”

VietnamericaTran’s artwork is captivating. He captures the chaotic scenes of Saigon and the evacuation of refugees particularly well. His use of color is deliberate and thoughtful. Scenes in the past are often muted shades of sepia and gray, while the present is generally drawn in brighter colors. I found it a little hard to keep track of the cast of characters at first, but by the end of the book, I had it figured out. Tran also captures well the feeling of the first generation American in a family of immigrants who have different histories, cultural ideals, and personal beliefs. I liked, for instance, his motif of his family’s celebration of Tet, a small way he shows the cultural gap he feels between his parents and himself.

Vietnamerica

One interesting thing I learned from this book, and it is something I have wondered about for many years, is why America (and before America, France and Japan) did not achieve their goals in Vietnam. Tran’s answer, given through his family members, makes a great deal of sense to me. I won’t spoil it for you if you want to read it, too, but it underscores the importance of being exposed to multiple narratives. As Chimimanda Ngoze Adichie says, the problem with stereotypes is not that they are “wrong” but that they are “incomplete,” and when we are only only exposed to a single story about an event—and war often lends itself to “right sides” and “wrong sides” when reality is more complicated—we naturally have a limited understanding of the event.

Vietnamerica

Vietnamerica is not so much a personal memoir as a memoir of a family and Tran’s journey to learning who his parents and grandparents were. It is not a linear story, and it took me a little while to figure out the storylines, but it was worth it. If you enjoyed Art Spiegelman’s Maus, you would probably like Vietnamerica.

Vietnamerica

Rating: ★★★★★

Images © GB Tran and used for the purposes of criticism.

Wild Goose Chase Reading Challenge 2017I am counting Vietnamerica as my first book for the Wild Goose Chase Challenge as my “book with an exotic or far-flung location in the title.”

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Sherlock Holmes: The Adventure of the Yellow Face, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

The Yellow Face

Sidney Paget illustration for “The Adventure of the Yellow Face” in The Strand

This week’s story in the Chronological Sherlock Holmes Challenge is one I don’t remember reading about 20 years ago, though I must have because I did read all the stories. It’s interesting that I don’t recall it because of the stories I have read so far, I probably enjoyed it the most. A man named Grant Munro shows up to obtain Sherlock Holmes’s services to solve a mystery concerning his wife. Holmes makes a series of impressive deductions about the man’s background and money situation based on the man’s pipe. Munro relates that new neighbors appear to have moved into the cottage across the street from where he lives in Norbury, and he has seen a ghastly face looking out the window. Upon searching the house, he discovers a mysterious portrait of his wife. Further, his wife sneaks out in the middle of the night, and Munro deduces she is visiting the house. Holmes concludes that the occupant of the house must be none other than Mrs. Munro’s first husband, and he must be blackmailing Mrs. Munro. However, once Holmes travels to Norbury at Grant Munro’s request to help Mr. Munro uncover the truth, Holmes discovers he was wrong—the woman is not hiding a first husband at all. The remainder of the review is a tiny bit spoilery.

I have to say, this story surprised me for several reasons. First, it’s refreshing to see Holmes make an incorrect deduction. His deduction makes perfect sense, but he, like many others in the Victorian era, couldn’t have imagined the truth. In addition to the revelation of Holmes’s failure, the ending is a surprise given the times in which the story was written. I would imagine quite a few readers found it shocking, and I know the readers in America would have found it so. I’m not sure if it matters or not, but Mrs. Munro’s first marriage would not have been legal in America in the time at which the story is set (or at least not legal in Georgia, where she lived). Mrs. Munro would not have had an easy time being married to an African-American man at that time. It was not accepted, and Mrs. Munro’s fear regarding the exposure of the truth about her first marriage is quite realistic, though perhaps Mr. Munro’s reaction is less so—it’s the reaction we would want him to have, with our more modern sensibilities, and Watson definitely approves, but it is not the reaction most men in that era would have had.

I see a few references to “The Adventure of the Yellow Face” in the BBC’s Sherlock. First, Mary Morstan’s secretiveness through the series as she hides her past as a hired assassin mirrors Mrs. Munro’s secretiveness about her past. Mary’s behavior is not that different from that of Mrs. Munro’s, and both women seem to expect their new marriages will crumble if their husbands find out about their pasts. There is also a yellow happy face painted on the wall in Sherlock’s apartment. In addition, when Mary is killed by Vivian Norbury, Lady Smallwood’s secretary, Sherlock echoes the request made at the end of this story:

“Watson,” said he, “if it should ever strike you that I am getting a little overconfident in my powers, or giving less pains to a case than it deserves, kindly whisper ‘Norbury’ in my ear, and I shall be infinitely obliged to you.”

In the series, Sherlock makes the request not of Watson (who wasn’t in any shape to listen to it), but of Mrs. Hudson:

Sherlock Holmes: If you ever think I’m becoming full of myself, overconfident or cocky, would you just say the word “Norbury” to me, would you?

Mrs. Hudson: Norbury?

Sherlock Holmes: Just that. I’d be very grateful.

Rating: ★★★★★

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

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Review: Into Thin Air, Jon Krakauer

My first book of 2017 was Jon Krakauer’s harrowing account of his ascent of Mt. Everest in May 1996. There are several accounts of the disaster surrounding the May 10, 1996 Everest expeditions, but Krakauer’s Into Thin Air is arguably the most famous.

Krakauer climbed Everest at the behest of Outside magazine, mainly to cover the guided expeditions that were gaining popularity at that time. These expeditions were controversial because many in the climbing community felt that inexperienced and possibly unfit people were attempting the dangerous climb and putting their lives (and those of their guides and sherpas) in jeopardy. In addition, concerns had been raised about the commercialization of Everest. For instance, the mountain became littered with the debris of climbers, from discarded oxygen canisters to other belongings, and frankly, even the bodies of those who did not make it back. It’s an absolutely riveting book about the dangers of hubris in the face of what is still one of the most dangerous places in the world. Krakauer describes the events leading up to a storm that approached as the expedition teams led by Scott Fischer and Rob Hall summited the mountain, and before all the members of the expeditions were able to descend, they were embroiled in a dangerous blizzard and a fight for their lives.

Krakauer has been criticized for parts of his account, and he has included a postscript to address some of this criticism. I found he was remarkably fair, though I freely admit this is the only account I’ve read. The reason I think he is fair is that he admits he feels partly responsible for the deaths of two the members of his team, Adventure Consultants, which was led by Rob Hall. He is fairly open and critical of his own lapses in judgment. He might even be hard on himself, given he was suffering from the effects of the altitude and the storm. He states he wishes he had never climbed Everest, but he admits in his introduction that “attempting to climb Everest is an intrinsically irrational act—a triumph of desire over sensibility. Any person who would seriously consider it is almost by definition beyond the sway of reasoned argument” (xvii). He wrote the book in part to attempt to deal with the post-traumatic stress disorder and depression that resulted from his experience on the mountain. Whatever culpability he ultimately has (which is debatable), it’s clear he has examined the events from as many angles as he could, including interviewing other survivors about their memories. He has done as good a job as it is probably possible to do, given the way the altitude, which made clear thinking virtually impossible, as well as the trauma of the event. Establishing the truth was difficult.

If I had the slightest notion I ever wanted to try anything like climb Mount Everest (and I assure you I didn’t—I am nowhere near fit enough to try climbing any mountain, let alone that one), this book would have cured me of the desire. Once the mountain had been conquered in the 1950’s, perhaps it was easy to forget the dangers it still held. Over 280 people have died trying to climb the mountain. In fact, 1996 was not even the deadliest year. English Mountaineer George Mallory has famously been quoted as saying, after being asked why he wanted to climb Mount Everest, “Because it’s there.” He perished in his attempt in 1924. His remains were found about three years after Jon Krakauer’s ill-fated summit of Everest.

This book has been on TBR list for a while. I actually accidentally bought two copies of it in my zeal to make sure I read it. I thought it was even better than Into the Wild, perhaps because of the personal nature of the story and very real anguish that Krakauer clearly feels. This book is personal. Krakauer is an excellent writer of narrative nonfiction.

Rating: ★★★★★

The Backlist Reader Challenge 2017This book is my first selection for the Backlist Reader Challenge 2017. I can’t recall how long I’ve wanted to read it, but I put it on my Goodreads to-read list on December 14; I’m pretty sure I bought both copies I own before then (I am sending one back!). I know I had plans to read it sometime last year after a conversation with a fellow teacher who had read it, but I was being lazy about adding more books to Goodreads for a while. It was originally published in 1997.

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Review: The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven, Sherman Alexie

I read Sherman Alexie’s YA novel The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian several years ago, and I really enjoyed it. I’ve been meaning to read more of his work, but going to an English teacher’s conference and seeing The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven used in a session presented by one of my friends reminded me I needed to read this book. I finished it this afternoon, so it will be my final book of 2016.

The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven is a collection of connected short stories set on the Spokane Indian Reservation in Washington. Alexie admits the collection is semi-autobiographical. Several characters make appearances in multiple stories. The main protagonist, Victor Joseph, appears in several of the stories I enjoyed the most, including “What it Means to Say Phoenix, Arizona,” in which Victor travels with Thomas Builds-the-Fire to Phoenix to retrieve his father’s ashes and reconnects with Thomas, who had formerly been Victor’s friend. My favorite story in the collection, in fact, centered around Thomas Builds-the-Fire: “The Trial of Thomas Builds-the-Fire” is a magical realist take on the absurd trial in which Thomas is convicted for a 200-year-old “crime.” One exchange in the trial caught my breath, and I had to read it out loud to Steve:

“My name was Qualchan and I had been fighting for our people, for our land. It was horrendous, hiding in the dirt at the very mouth of the Spokane River where my fellow warrior, Moses, found me after he escaped from Colonel’s Wright’s camp. Qualchan, he said to me. You must stay away from Wright’s camp. He means to hang you. But Wright had taken my father hostage and threatened to hang him if I did not come in. Wright promised he would treat me fairly. I believed him and went to the colonel’s camp and was immediately placed in chains. It was then I saw the hangman’s noose and made the fight to escape. My wife also fought beside me with a knife and wounded many soldiers before she was subdued. After I was beaten down, they dragged me to the noose and I was hanged with six other Indians, including Epseal, who had never raised a hand in anger to any white or Indian.”

“Mr. Builds-the Fire,” the judge asked and brought Thomas back to attention. “What point are you trying to make with this story?”

“Well,” Thomas said, “The City of Spokane is now building a golf course named after me, Qualchan, located in the valley where I was hanged.” (98-99)

Norma Many Horses also appears in several stories as a wise-beyond-her-years woman who is a skilled dancer, fry bread-maker, and compassionate friend. Junior Polatkin, who bears more than a passing resemblance to Arnold “Junior” Spirit of Absolutely True Diary is also the protagonist of several stories and a minor character in others. In fact, Junior’s story “Indian Education” includes many elements that Alexie also incorporated in to Absolutely True Diary.

My favorite stories in the collection, in addition to “The Trial of Thomas Builds-the-Fire,” were “Indian Education,” “The Approximate Size of My Favorite Tumor,” “Because My Father Always Said He Was the Only Indian Who Saw Jimi Hendrix Play ‘The Star-Spangled Banner’ at Woodstock,” and “What It Means to Say Phoenix, Arizona,” but there wasn’t a story in the collection I didn’t like. I am a little confused about the names and in some cases, I can’t tell if characters are recurring or not. For instance, it’s not clear to me if James is the same person as Jimmy Many Horses (Frank Many Horses claimed to be James’s father). The stories are woven together and move back and forth in time and even between reality an alternate reality. They are well-written and work on their own, but in this case, the collection taken as a whole is more than the sum of its individual parts, almost like a series of vignettes, similar to The House on Mango Street. Alexie has been criticized for the motif of alcohol and alcohol abuse that threads through the stories, but he say in his introduction that he was not stereotyping so much as writing what he saw growing up on the reservation. It’s a very sad picture, and it makes me angry all over again at how America has treated (and continues to treat) Native Americans. It’s shameful. Alexie’s voice is so important, and I’m glad he has shared his stories. This is an excellent collection—one of the best short story collections I have read.

Rating: ★★★★★

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Review: The Underground Railroad, Colson Whitehead

Colson Whitehead’s novel The Underground Railroad was one of the most discussed books of 2016, so if you haven’t read it, chances are you know something about it. In any case, it is the story of runaway slave Cora who is making her way north from a Georgia plantation using the Underground Railroad, which in Colson’s novel is not a metaphorical name for the network sympathizers, abolitionists, former slaves, and others who helped escaping slaves on their way to freedom but an actual technological marvel—a railroad, under the ground. The book has been compared to Gulliver’s Travels, which earns a mention in the reading of Cora’s friend and fellow escapee, Caesar. At each station or stop in Cora’s journey, she is confronted with a different sort of evil that Americans have perpetrated against their fellow Americans, from bringing them to America in chains, to lynching, to terrorism, to more subtle means of subjugation and deception, such as medical experimentation.

My book club selected this to read, and I knew our meeting was coming up, but I wasn’t sure when until one of my friends reminded me. It’s this coming week! I wasn’t sure I could finish the book in time for our meeting, but I decided I had best pick it up and read at least some of it, especially because I was one of the members who suggested we read it.

I actually couldn’t put it down, and I read it in two big gulps over yesterday and today. I don’t think I’ve ever read anything quite like it. Whitehead plays with documented historical fact, entwining it with speculative fiction, imagining an antebellum America where South Carolina had skyscrapers and an actual railroad leading slaves north ran underground. These fantastic aspects of the novel allow Whitehead to explore the broader history of the African-American experience through the eyes of a single character. The only other way I think he could have done it would have been a sort of immense Roots-like multigenerational epic rather than this tight narrative that allows us into the life of one character. It also allows Whitehead to show the scope of the atrocity of slavery and racism in all its depth and breadth. It’s hard to put down—I wanted to see Cora to safety in the North so badly, that I sat and read for two days! I can’t give the ending away, but I will admit I needed more satisfaction after following Cora on her odyssey all that way. And as much as anything else, the ending has to be that way because it is the truth about the African-American experience.

This novel hit me like Beloved. I credit Beloved with finally helping me get it, as a white woman. After reading Beloved, I felt like for the first time, I had a small understanding of what the lingering and devastating effects of slavery on our country. Of course I can’t ever really understand what I haven’t experienced, but through books like Beloved and The Underground Railroad, I can gain empathy I didn’t have before I read them. This book is Beloved for the next generation. It’s a critical book for our times, just as Between the World and Me is critical. In fact, I recommend they be read back-to-back if you haven’t read either book yet. It’s a wonderful book, and it might be the best one I read all year. It’s certainly in the top five.

Ron Charles (as usual) has a great review in the WaPo. Michiko Kakutani liked it, too, and she is tough. Definitely read both reviews, which capture the power of this novel better than I have been able to do here. As Kakutani so astutely notes in her review, quoting Faulkner, “the past is never dead. It’s not even past.” In the case of this book, I’m not sure I’ve ever read a book ostensibly about slavery that also so accurately describes our own moment in history.

Rating: ★★★★★

Set in the antebellum South as Cora travels from Georgia to Indiana and that vague fantasyland known as “North,” though with some elements of speculative fiction, this book works for the Historical Fiction Challenge.

 

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Review: A Loaded Gun: Emily Dickinson for the 21st Century, Jerome Charyn

I believe I first saw Jerome Charyn’s book A Loaded Gun: Emily Dickinson for the 21st Century at the Emily Dickinson House and Museum in Amherst. I put it on my wishlist, thinking I would get it some time, and my husband bought it for me for my birthday.

Jerome Charyn recently gave a lecture at the Frost Library at Amherst College, which I attended and wrote about on this blog. I wanted to start reading the book right after the talk, but I believe I was in the middle of The Club Dumas, which took me forever to finish (because I didn’t like it and should have given up on it). I wanted to finish The Club Dumas before reading A Loaded Gun. After a while, I sort of used A Loaded Gun as a carrot to encourage myself to finish The Club Dumas.

A Loaded Gun is not a straight biography of Emily Dickinson. If you are looking for a chronological narrative of Dickinson’s life, this biography will likely not satisfy you. However, if you are interested in looking at Emily Dickinson with fresh eyes, casting away the stories you heard about her reclusive nature and her white dress, then this book is definitely the book for you. A Loaded Gun is really more the story of Dickinson’s genius. She is compared to and contrasted with other artists that we have struggled to understand—memorably, Joseph Cornell, who made shadow box art. This is his piece based on the work of Emily Dickinson, entitled Toward the Blue Peninsula:

Toward the Blue Peninsula

Toward the Blue Peninsula © Joseph Cornell, used according to Fair Use guidelines

The piece is inspired by the following poem (Fr. 535, Dickinson’s exact language and punctuation):

It might be lonelier

Without the Loneliness—

I’m so accustomed to my Fate—

Perhaps the Other—Peace—

 

Would interrupt the Dark—

And crowd the little Room—

Too scant—by Cubits—to contain

The Sacrament—of Him—

 

I am not used to Hope—

It might intrude opon—

It’s sweet parade—blaspheme the place

Ordained to Suffering—

 

It might be easier

To fail—with Land in Sight—

Than gain—my Blue Peninsula—

To perish—of Delight—

Charyn spends the bulk of one of his chapters discussing Cornell’s art and connecting it to Dickinson’s. Ultimately, however, Charyn finds Dickinson elusive. As he says in his introduction, “I know less and less the more I learned about her” (8). I snapped a photo of the following page, with discussion of one of the most “well-known” facets of Dickinson’s life:

One thing that is clear to me after reading this book is that we may never really know Emily Dickinson at all. Who was this genius who played with language in a way no other American poet has matched?

If you haven’t seen the way Emily Dickinson thought about variant word choices, you should definitely take a look at some of her poems. The Dickinson museum has one such poem posted as a display, and visitors can try out Dickinson’s different word choice ideas by moving levers (they don’t allow photography, so I can’t share a picture of it, but it’s really interesting). Dickinson marked her variant word choices with a + and wrote the variations in the margins and on the bottom of the page. Because Dickinson didn’t publish her work, it’s hard to say which variations she would ultimately have preferred, and in some ways, I absolutely love the freedom I have as a reader, if I see Dickinson’s original work, to construct my own favorite version of her poems. Ultimately, her editors have had to make the decisions that Dickinson did not make, and I’m not always sure I agree with their choices.

As he did in his lecture, Charyn discussed the possibly new daguerreotype discovered by “Sam Carlo” in a Great Barrington, MA junk shop. I had a chance to talk a little bit with Sam Carlo at Charyn’s talk, and he also let me take a picture of his replica of the daguerreotype. Charyn, like Sam Carlo, believes the other woman in the daguerreotype was Kate Scott, and Charyn advances the theory that Dickinson was in love with Scott, and also that she was in love with her sister-in-law Susan Dickinson (this theory is not new—Charyn said at his lecture that if you read Dickinson’s letters to her sister-in-law, there really isn’t another way to interpret them except as love letters; I plan to read them and see what I think). Was Emily Dickinson a lesbian? Bisexual? Charyn argues that partly, our picture of Emily Dickinson has been the virginal spinster in white who never left the house, and the image of her in the known daguerreotype supports this vision of Dickinson. She remains forever fifteen in our imaginations rather than the grown woman who wrote fierce poetry.

I enjoyed Charyn’s book very much. One aspect I particularly liked is that he didn’t remove himself from the subject matter. He is a part of the story he is telling as well. He describes visiting Vincent van Gogh’s room in Auvers-sur-Oise outside Paris.

And for the price of a few euros, collected by a ticket taker at a little kiosk in the rear yard, I climbed upstairs and visited van Gogh’s room. It was barren, with a tiny skylight and a cane-back chair; the walls were full of crust, the floor was made of barren boards, and I couldn’t stop crying. I imagined him alone in that room, his mind whirling with colors, his psychic space as primitive and forlorn as a lunatic’s world… he was always alone. (211)

Charyn doesn’t explicitly connect Dickinson’s room to van Gogh’s. Perhaps he wants the reader to make that connection if he/she so chooses. I don’t know if I will ever forget ascending the stairs the first time I visited Emily Dickinson’s house and seeing the sunlight illuminating the replica of Emily’s white dress on a dressmaker’s dummy. The docent told us a story about Dickinson pretending to lock her door and telling her niece, “Matty, here’s freedom.” What freedom did Dickinson find in that small room?

Even her poetry on the subject is elusive:

Sweet hours have perished here,

This is a timid room—

Within its precincts hopes have played

Now fallow in the tomb. (Fr. 1785)

R. W. Franklin’s edition of her poems differs from Thomas H. Johnson’s edition:

Sweet hours have perished here;
This is a mighty room;
Within its precincts hopes have played,—
Now shadows in the tomb. (1767)

Which was it? If I had my way, it would go like this:

Sweet hours have perished here;
This is a mighty room;
Within its precincts hopes have played,—
Now fallow in the tomb.

I suppose part of the beauty of Emily Dickinson in the 21st century is that now we know more about what she actually wrote, including all her variant word choices. All the layers of changes made by editors over the years have been stripped bare. We can look at Dickinson’s original manuscripts and examine her poems in Franklin’s Variorum Edition. As a result, the poet we thought we knew and understood is more elusive than before. Still, she remains as intriguing a subject of study as she ever was—perhaps even more than she was when we assumed she was a waifish, homebound spinster in white.

Rating: ★★★★★

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