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.”

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Review: The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, Rebecca Skloot

My school’s Upper School read this summer was The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot. I initially picked this book up some years ago, but something interrupted my reading, so I wasn’t able to finish it. I had always wanted to go back and finish it, so I was glad of an opportunity.

If you are not familiar with the book (though probably most people are by now), it’s the story of Henrietta Lacks and her family (as well as how Rebecca Skloot obtained Henrietta’s story). Henrietta Lacks was a patient at Johns Hopkins Hospital in 1951. She had cervical cancer. Her doctor excised tissue samples including both normal cells and cancer cells. Her cancer cells, known to science as HeLa, became the first immortal cell line. It has been used to create the polio vaccine, and also conduct research in AIDS, various forms of cancer, and innumerable other projects. Henrietta Lacks’s family, however, did not know about the research done with her cells, nor did they benefit monetarily from their use. This book explores not only the story of Henrietta Lacks’s contribution to science but also the ethical dilemma introduced by lack of informed consent, as well as racism and poverty.

This book raises some interesting questions. I found it fascinating. I love reading about people’s stories. However, the story, in this case, is in the hands of a white woman who is no part of the Lacks family. Some have argued she blurred the line of objectivity toward one’s subject in how close she became with the Lacks family, particularly Henrietta’s daughter Deborah. I have also heard others argue that Skloot took advantage of the Lacks family as much as Johns Hopkins did. I would argue she was not going to obtain the story without blurring that line, and it’s also possible that family members would not have been able to tell the story without Skloot’s interest and help. Still, it’s an important consideration in terms of what happened to Henrietta Lacks’s cells. The cells are outside of the control of the family, and many argue that it’s too hard to figure out how to compensate the Lacks family, who have struggled in poverty and often (ironically) without health insurance. Anyone can order a vial of HeLa cells online, but the Lacks family receives no part of the profits on those sales. HeLa cells have benefited humanity tremendously, and a great deal of good has come from the research done with them, but very little consideration has ever been given to her family. For instance, Henrietta Lacks’s genome was released a few years ago, though it was later withdrawn after the Lacks family voiced concerns about privacy. In this era, when information like that is out there, it’s impossible to put back in the bottle. Henrietta Lacks’s medical records have also been released. It’s a shame the Lacks family has been treated the way it has, and though it’s hard to say whether or not the treatment would have been different had she been a white woman with the means to pay for her healthcare, my personal belief is that her race and class played a role in how she and her family were treated. It’s still true that once tissue is excised from our bodies, it is no longer considered ours, and doctors and scientists can do whatever they like with it. I suspect that will change some time down the road, but right now, case law says we do not own our tissue once it’s no longer part of our body. Think of all the times you may have had blood drawn, or a biopsy. Or even signed up for 23 and Me or a similar DNA site. In fact, the agreement you make with 23 and Me is that your DNA can be used for research, and you don’t get your results about family, ancestry, or health information without making that agreement.

This books definitely exposes interesting ethical issues in science and medicine, and it finally tells the story of the woman behind the HeLa cell line, and I think both stories needed to be told. I really enjoyed reading the book. It raised a lot of questions and made me think.

Rating: ★★★★★

The Backlist Reader Challenge 2017I am counting this book for the Backlist Reader Challenge, as I have been meaning to go back and read it after starting it years ago. This time, I started over at the beginning rather than pick up where I left off, which turned out to have been a good idea since I read the book quite some time ago.

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Sherlock Holmes: The Hound of the Baskervilles, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

Hound of the Baskervilles
Illustration for The Hound of the Baskervilles by Sidney Paget for The Strand

The Hound of the Baskervilles is the fourth and final novel in the Chronological Sherlock Holmes Challenge. It’s one of the most memorable stories in the Sherlock Holmes canon, and as such, is one of the most frequently adapted stories. Dr. James Mortimer consults Sherlock Holmes regarding the mysterious case of a legendary curse on the Baskerville family. Sir Charles Baskerville has recently died under suspicious circumstances, and his heir and nephew will soon arrive from Canada to claim his inheritance. Dr. Mortimer hopes young Henry Baskerville will not also inherit the Baskerville family curse. Holmes agrees to take the case, but even before Henry Baskerville leaves London for his Devonshire estate, strange things happen. Someone seems to be following him, and one of his shoes turns up missing. Holmes sends Watson on to Baskerville Hall with Henry Baskerville and asks Watson to keep him updated regarding events until he can extricate himself from a case. Watson soon discovers that there may be some truth the family legend of a vicious dog that hunts Baskervilles, and he also discovers the dog may not be the only mysterious being hiding on the moor.

This story is easily one of Conan Doyle’s best Sherlock Holmes mysteries. It has everything that Conan Doyle does well, including an atmospheric setting, suspense and mystery, and a hint of the supernatural. It also refrains from including some of the things Conan Doyle doesn’t do as well, such as exotic settings (India, America). Conan Doyle plants enough clues that many astute readers will begin to suspect the truth behind the mystery, but not so many that it feels obvious to everyone. It’s easily the best of Conan Doyle’s four Sherlock Holmes novels, and it ranks among the best of his Sherlock Holmes stories in general for this reader. The setting of Baskerville Hall and the surrounding moor is captured well, and it perhaps the setting that is most remembered about this story.

The BBC series Sherlock adapted this story in the episode “The Hounds of Baskerville.” In this modern adaptation, Sherlock and Watson take on a case at Baskerville, a military research facility. Henry Knight claims his father was killed by a gigantic hound on the moor, but it turns out that the hounds are images produced as the result of mind-altering drugs, and H.O.U.N.D. was a secret government project adapting the drugs as chemical weapons. Because this story is one of the most popular Sherlock Holmes stories, Sherlock creator Mark Gatiss has said he felt he needed to be more careful to keep the most well-known aspects of the story intact. The story is, however, updated to reflect modern concerns.

Rating: ★★★★★

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

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Sherlock Holmes: “The Boscombe Valley Mystery” and “The Man with the Twisted Lip,” Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

The Man with the Twisted Lip
Illustration for “The Man with the Twisted Lip” by Sidney Paget for The Strand

I’m behind in the  Chronological Sherlock Holmes Challenge. In an effort to try to catch up a bit, I read two stories this week, “The Boscombe Valley Mystery” and “The Man with the Twisted Lip.”

Sherlock Holmes becomes involved in “The Boscombe Valley Mystery” when Lestrade consults the detective after the murder of a landowner in Herefordshire. The murdered man’s son looks guilty, but Holmes doesn’t believe the son is the culprit. Using footprint analysis and a quick inspection of the grounds, Holmes affirms the son couldn’t have killed his father and unravels the mystery.

In “The Man with the Twisted Lip,” Holmes has gone undercover to determine what has happened to Neville St. Clair. Watson discovers Holmes in disguise in an opium den, where he has gone to retrieve a patient, who also happens to be the husband of Mary Watson’s friend Kate Whitney. Watson is shocked to see Holmes in such a place but quickly recovers when Holmes offers him the opportunity to be involved in the case of the missing Mr. St. Clair. Mrs. St. Clair is sure her husband is alive after receiving a letter from him that was posted after he went missing. A beggar named Hugh Boone has been arrested under suspicion of being involved in St. Clair’s disappearance, as Boone was in a room in that same opium den in which Mrs. St. Clair clearly saw her husband from a window. Holmes seems stumped by the case for a time but resolves the matter at last.

Of these two stories, I liked “The Man with the Twisted Lip” better, though both were fairly good. The opening of “The Man with the Twisted Lip” is so compelling and well-written.

Isa Whitney, brother of the late Elias Whitney, D. D., Principal of the Theological College of St. George’s, was much addicted to opium. The habit grew upon him, as I understand, from some foolish freak when he was at college; for having read De Quincey’s description of his dreams and sensations, he had drenched his tobacco with laudanum in an attempt to produce the same effects. He found, as so many more have done, that the practice is easier to attain than to get rid of, and for many years he continued to be a slave to the drug, an object of mingled horror and pity to his friends and relatives. I can see him now, with yellow, pasty face, drooping lids, and pin-point pupils, all huddled in a chair, the wreck and ruin of a noble man.

I can’t find any reference to “The Boscombe Valley Mystery” in the BBC series Sherlock, but the story does involve a common trope in Sherlock Holmes stories—murder in the countryside, the most obvious suspect didn’t do it. However, “The Man with the Twisted Lip” is alluded to in the episode “His Last Vow,” when Watson discovers Sherlock in a crack house similar to the opium den in the short story. He is undercover for a case, but Watson isn’t having it. As an interesting aside, opium wasn’t illegal when the story is set. It was definitely associated with the seedy underbelly of society, but the opium den in the story is a perfectly legal business. By the time in which the Sherlock series is set, such an establishment would definitely be illegal, and the dangers of drug use would be more widely known. I always appreciated that Conan Doyle’s Watson expressed disapproval of drug use even when it was legal and encouraged Sherlock Holmes to stop using cocaine.

As an interesting aside, “The Man with the Twisted Lip” is also the story with the inconsistency regarding Watson’s name. He is usually called John Watson, but Mary calls him James in this story. It’s probably an oversight on Conan Doyle’s part, but much has been made of the confusion, which Conan Doyle apparently never addressed. Some have theorized that Mary calls him James because his middle name is Hamish, which is a variant of James. He is known as John H. Watson elsewhere. In the BBC Sherlock series, Watson tells Sherlock and Irene Adler his middle name is Hamish if they’re looking for baby names.

“The Boscombe Valley Mystery” Rating: ★★★★☆
“The Man with the Twisted Lip” Rating: ★★★★★

I read these stories as part of the Chronological Sherlock Holmes Challenge. They are the twenty-second and twenty-third stories in the chronology (time setting rather than composition). Next up is “The Engineer’s Thumb,” which I will read with “The Cardboard Box” in order to catch up completely.

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TLC Book Tour: Strange Contagion, Lee Daniel Kravetz

Strange Contagion coverLee Daniel Kravetz’s Strange Contagion: Inside the Surprising Science of Infectious Behaviors and Viral Emotions and What They Tell Us About Ourselves was born out of tragedy. A series of teen suicides among students and alumni of Palo Alto’s Gunn High School suggested an epidemic was underway. Kravetz, a new father and resident of Palo Alto, was concerned about his community. What was causing these students to commit suicide? Could the epidemic be stopped? How? These questions prompted Kravetz to explore the way emotions and behaviors are communicated in a society.

Kravetz learns that emotions are not terribly different from communicable diseases. We are highly suggestible creatures, and the emotions of others are easily transmitted. We catch everything from the goals of others around us to courage or bravery or fear to the host of feelings, positive or negative, that others around us bring into the room.

In fact, we are so susceptible to the spread of viral emotions that we don’t really even need to come in contact with individuals to be influence by them. Their emotions can be communicated through others who bring them to us or even through social media. As Kravetz says, “role models are so influential that oftentimes we don’t even know whom we’re modeling—or that we’re modeling them at all. And that at once enthralls and frightens me” (118).

Given our current social and political climate, the concepts that Kravetz discusses are frightening, but they also explain a great deal about the collective mood on both sides of the political spectrum. Kravetz doesn’t have solutions because the problem is too complex. Navigating viral emotions means we need to be aware of our own feelings and what is causing them, and we also need to be aware of our susceptibility to the emotions of others. We also need to accept that others influence us. Kravetz concludes, “Beneath the surface, we are all connected” (220). This idea might not be new. After all, Emerson explored in his writing about the concept of the oversoul. But Kravetz’s psychological and sociological exploration of the way we are connected offers more explanation of how we are all connected. If social contagion is a part of the human experience, we need to learn how to live with it and fight it (when it’s negative) in the best way we can, just as we have done with communicable diseases.

This book gave me a lot to think about, especially as I teach high school students like those who go to Gunn High School. Though we do need to be on guard for negative social contagion, such as the suicides that prompted Kravetz to explore the topics in this book, we can also channel social contagion positively to spread love and care for each other. In a discussion of the communicability of bravery and courage, Kravetz writes that “the trick to passing along lasting courage is one of overwhelming the system with examples of it, flooding the environment with models of generosity, authority, demonstrations of personal responsibility, and examples of calm in the heat of battle” (114). In the end, perhaps the best way to combat negative social contagions is to be what Kravetz calls the interrupter. We can do what we can to be the model of courage, bravery, kindness, compassion, and happiness. As Stephen King says, “We never know which lives we influence, or when, or why.”

Rating: ★★★★★

From the Publisher

About Strange Contagion

• Hardcover: 288 pages
• Publisher: Harper Wave (June 27, 2017)

Picking up where The Tipping Point leaves off, respected journalist Lee Daniel Kravetz’s Strange Contagion is a provocative look at both the science and lived experience of social contagion.

In 2009, tragedy struck the town of Palo Alto: A student from the local high school had died by suicide by stepping in front of an oncoming train. Grief-stricken, the community mourned what they thought was an isolated loss. Until, a few weeks later, it happened again. And again. And again. In six months, the high school lost five students to suicide at those train tracks.

A recent transplant to the community and a new father himself, Lee Daniel Kravetz’s experience as a science journalist kicked in: what was causing this tragedy? More important, how was it possible that a suicide cluster could develop in a community of concerned, aware, hyper-vigilant adults?

The answer? Social contagion. We all know that ideas, emotions, and actions are communicable—from mirroring someone’s posture to mimicking their speech patterns, we are all driven by unconscious motivations triggered by our environment. But when just the right physiological, psychological, and social factors come together, we get what Kravetz calls a “strange contagion”: a perfect storm of highly common social viruses that, combined, form a highly volatile condition.

Strange Contagion is simultaneously a moving account of one community’s tragedy and a rigorous investigation of social phenomenon, as Kravetz draws on research and insights from experts worldwide to unlock the mystery of how ideas spread, why they take hold, and offer thoughts on our responsibility to one another as citizens of a globally and perpetually connected world.

Purchase Links

HarperCollins | Amazon | Barnes & Noble

Lee Daniel Kravetz AP Photo by Ian TuttleAbout Lee Daniel Kravetz

Lee Daniel Kravetz has a master’s degree in counseling psychology and is a graduate of the University of Missouri–Columbia School of Journalism. He has written for Psychology Today, the Huffington Post, and the New York Times, among other publications. He lives in the San Francisco Bay Area with his wife and children.

Find out more about Lee at his website, and connect with him on Facebook and Twitter.

Harper Collins provided me with a copy of this book in exchange for a fair and honest review. You can catch the reviews of other readers on the TLC Book Tour.

Tuesday, June 27th: A Bookish Affair
Wednesday, June 28th: Book Hooked Blog
Thursday, June 29th: A Lovely Bookshelf on the Wall
Friday, June 30th: Books & Tea
Tuesday, July 4th: Wining Wife
Tuesday, July 4th: From the TBR Pile
Wednesday, July 5th: Based on a True Story
Thursday, July 6th: Readaholic Zone
Thursday, July 6th: she treads softly
Friday, July 7th: Much Madness is Divinest Sense
Monday, July 10th: StephTheBookworm
Tuesday, July 11th: Kahakai Kitchen
Wednesday, July 12th: Books on the Table
Thursday, July 13th: Library of Clean Reads
TBD: Sapphire Ng

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Sherlock Holmes: The Adventure of Silver Blaze, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

Silver Blaze
Illustration for “Silver Blaze” by Sidney Paget for The Strand

“The Adventure of Silver Blaze” takes Sherlock Holmes and John Watson out to the Dartmoor countryside to investigate the case of the missing racehorse Silver Blaze and the murder of the horse’s trainer, John Straker. Watson has been following the sensational case in the newspaper and is unsurprised when Sherlock decides to become involved in the investigation. Once in King’s Pyland, Holmes discovers that a man named Fitzroy Simpson is suspected of having murdered Straker, but Sherlock Holmes is not sure at all that the police have the right man. A quick investigation of the scene where Straker’s body was found coupled with an investigatory stroll out on the moor with Watson convinces Holmes that his deductions are correct.

I really enjoyed this story. The location in Dartmoor was a refreshing change of pace for Holmes and Watson, and the mystery was compact and unfolded well. The writing was fun, too. I read this story so many years ago that I had forgotten it was the inspiration for the title of Mark Haddon’s novel The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-TimeChristopher Boone, the protagonist of Haddon’s novel, loves Sherlock Holmes and that particular book begins with an investigation of the murder of his neighbor’s dog. In the context of this story, Holmes points out that it is odd that the dog in the stables did not bark.

“Is there any point to which you would wish to draw my attention?”

“To the curious incident of the dog in the night-time.”

“The dog did nothing in the night-time.”

“That was the curious incident,” remarked Sherlock Holmes.

To be honest, if I had remembered this story years ago when I read The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, I might have figured out the mystery in that book sooner, too. This is one of the better Sherlock Holmes stories I’ve read for this reading challenge, and it’s a particularly good display of Holmes’s deductive techniques. I can’t recall seeing any elements of it in the BBC series Sherlock, but those lines between Sherlock and Detective Gregory above would have been brilliant coming from Benedict Cumberbatch and Rupert Graves or Martin Freeman. If they make more episodes, I hope they will return to this short story.

Rating: ★★★★★

The Chronological Sherlock Holmes ChallengeI read this story as part of the Chronological Sherlock Holmes Challenge. It is twentieth story in the chronology (time setting rather than composition). Next up is “The Stock-Broker’s Clerk.”

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Review: The Potlikker Papers: A Food History of the Modern South, John T. Edge

John T. Edge’s book The Potlikker Papers: A Food History of the Modern South explores a culinary history of Southern food from the Civil Rights era to the present day. What is potlikker? According to Edge,

Like great provincial dishes around the world, potlikker is salvage food. During the antebellum era, slaveholders ate the greens from the pot, setting aside the potlikker for enslaved cooks and their families, unaware that the broth, not the greens, was nutrient rich. (6)

What Edge sets out to do in this book is explain how the cuisine we think of as Southern food emerged from black cooks. Edge also explains the ways in which Southern cuisine has changed over the years and discusses some of the major movers and shakers in the world of Southern cooking. In addition, he discusses issues related to access to food and poverty as well as movements in fast food and farm-to-table cooking and the gentrification of Southern food (and restaurants), ending with discussion of the influence of immigrants to the South on Southern cooking.

Edge is the director of the Southern Foodways Alliance, which “documents, studies, and explores the diverse food cultures of the changing American South” (read more here). He was recently featured, as was Michael Twitty, whose book The Cooking Gene comes out later this year, on the Gastropod podcast.

I found this book fascinating from start to finish, and I enjoyed it the whole way through. I gained a lot of insight into Southern food, and I also learned quite a lot of history that I didn’t know. One really interesting story that Edge shares early in the book concerns President Johnson’s commitment to civil rights. I had always assumed that he really had to be prodded quite a lot to sign the Civil Rights Act, and probably to an extent, he did, but he as he tried to garner support for civil rights, he often told the story of his cook, Zephyr Wright, being unable to use the restroom during a stop on a cross-country trip. He varied the story to suit his audience, but like many of the people who heard the story directly from Johnson’s lips, I found it to be quite moving. As Edge explains, “The Zephyr Wright story reduced a national issue to a personal one. It moved the argument from the senate chamber to the cloakroom and then to the kitchen” (27).When Johnson signed the Act, Zephyr Wright was there, alongside Martin Luther King, Jr., and Robert Kennedy. He handed her one of the pens he used, saying “You deserve this more than anybody else” (28).

I think it’s hard not to see things differently when you hear someone’s personal story. It’s one of the reasons politicians bring up everyday Americans during conventions or on the floor of Congress. We are moved by stories. To a certain extent, this book stitches together the stories of Southern cooks from Georgia Gilmore, who fed Civil Rights Movement leaders such as Martin Luther King, Jr. in her home/restaurant to Michael Twitty, who recently attempted to engage Paula Deen in conversation after her infamous declaration that she had used the n-word. Twitty invited Deen to learn “why so many people were so upset by her comments” (278). He wanted her to know that “the unwillingness to give African American barbecue masters and other cooks an equal chance at the platform, is far more galling than you saying ‘nigger,’ in childhood ignorance or emotional rage or social whimsy” (279). As far as I understand, Twitty never received a reply from Deen. It’s a shame because it might have gone a long way to repairing the damage she caused.

Edge’s main point, I think, is captured when he says “The adjective Southern and the noun Southerner have, since the nineteenth century, referenced the white South and the Confederate South. Those limited categories failed the people of the region. The South was never monochromatic” (2). As Natasha Trethewey, poet laureate of the United States, says “Who can lay claim to the South?… I don’t want to take it away from anyone. I just want them to recognize that it’s mine, too” (309). That South included black barbecue pit masters and Kentucky Fried Chicken and Stephen Gaskin’s commune the Farm and chefs Paul Prudhomme and Nathalie Dupree. It included grits, boiled peanuts, fried chicken, okra, hoppin’ john, biscuits, cornbread, and yes, pot likker. I think anyone interested in food history would enjoy this book, but I think it will speak especially to anyone who has called the South, with all its messy contradictions, home. As Edge says, “In this modern South, the likkers at the bottoms of those vessels sustain many peoples. And they remind Americans of the vitality that drives regional foodways” (308).

Rating: ★★★★★

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Review: Bread Toast Crumbs: Recipes for No-Knead Loaves and Meals to Savor Every Slice, Alexandra Stafford with Lisa Lowery

Bread Toast Crumbs
Image via Alexandra Cooks blog

I have not reviewed cookbooks on this blog before, though I have been collecting cookbooks for a few years, and I have some really good ones that I should share with you all.

Cooking is not really something I have a ton of time to do, but I actually do like cooking. I am a very slow cook, and I make a great big mess when I cook, but I enjoy the process.

Bread, however, is something I have always shied away from, especially after some failed attempts. I tried to make a pie crust for my pumpkin pie and failed. I made a white bread recipe from the Better Homes and Gardens cookbook, and it was okay, but certainly nothing to write home about. The only bread successes (discounting breads like zucchini bread and pumpkin bread, which didn’t use yeast and did not need to be kneaded) were my Thanksgiving dinner rolls. I credit the really excellent instructions for that success.

Everyone knows bread is picky. You have to knead it just right or else it will not turn out well. You have to have to fuss with the yeast, and everyone knows how finicky yeast is about how it’s handled. So, like many people, I was always a bit afraid to experiment with bread. A few weeks ago, that changed when I found Alexandra Stafford’s mother’s famous peasant bread recipe at her blog Alexandra Cooks. I read over the recipe. I watched one of the videos. It didn’t look hard. So I tried it with all wheat flour, not knowing (because I am not a bread baker) that I was going to get a denser loaf of bread. But you know what? It was still amazing. I couldn’t believe how easy it was. I hit on Alexandra’s advice to keep the flour weight at 512 grams, and the next time I made bread, I used about two cups of wheat flour and made the rest of the weight up with unbleached white flour. It was perfect. Measuring by weight was the trick. The consistency was just like Alexandra’s pictures, and the bread was not too dense. That’s how easy the recipe is. No kneading. The time you spend actually fussing with the bread is maybe five minutes. The rest of the time is just letting it rise. It’s a very forgiving recipe in that even if you mess up on a step, it still seems to turn out just fine.

My family loved the bread, too. The recipe makes two loaves, and twice, I’ve come into the kitchen to find my son has taken half a loaf before I could even cut it. I knew I wanted to try the variations on the recipe in Alexandra’s book Bread Toast Crumbs: Recipes for No-Knead Loaves and Meals to Savor Every Slice. I have read through the book, though I haven’t made many of the recipes yet. The recipes are straightforward and easy to follow. Alexandra offers some tricks and advice for those of us who don’t often bake (for example, toast nuts before using them in breads—this is a trick I had picked up from a friend of mine at work, but it was nice to see it validated in the book). The book has many variations on the peasant bread recipe in the Bread section. In the Toast section, Alexandra shares recipes for spreads, jams, soups, sandwiches, entrées, and desserts that use the various bread recipes. In the Crumbs section, she shares salads, soups, side dishes, pasta, entrées, and desserts that use crumbs made from the various breads. Each section has its own introduction with more tips.

The photography in the book (like most cookbooks) is beautiful and serves as a nice guideline for bakers. I can’t wait to try more of the recipes. I’m especially eyeing the Roasted Garlic Bread. Today, I tried out the Oatmeal-Maple bread on p. 41. Here are some pictures of one of the loaves I made today. It’s already been eaten, by the way.

Rating: ★★★★★

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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). 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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