The Casebook of Sherlock Holmes by Arthur Conan Doyle

casebook-of-sherlock-holmesMy love of Sherlock Holmes started when I was in junior high school and my oldest brother would take me to a little bookstore, “Call Me Ishmael,” in Saugatuck, Michigan. My brother could spend hours in that place, so one time I picked up “The Return of Sherlock Holmes,” settled down in a chair, and was quickly lost in Victorian England. I ended up reading all 56 short stories and 4 novels about Sherlock Holmes quickly, and I returned to them many times over the next 35 years.
One I have not read for many years is the final collection of short stories, The Casebook of Sherlock Holmes. Now I know why — this is a forgettable collection of Holmesian lore. It is not without some good stories. “The Problem of Thor Bridge,” written in 1922, shows Holmes showing that brilliance we are used to seeing.  He solves a mystery of how one woman dies and in the process, saves the life of another woman about to die for a crime she did not commit. Apparently, the story is based on a real-life investigation which is very similar to the story. I don’t want to spoil any endings for new readers, but the recreation of the crime by Holmes is excellent.

 

the_adventure_of_the_creeping_man

“The Adventure of the Creeping Man”

That this is followed by “The Adventure of the Creeping Man,” written a year later, only adds to the question of what was Doyle thinking? I’ve never bought into this story where an older man takes some monkey serum so he can be virile and ready for the young woman he wants to marry. This 19th century Viagra makes him act like a monkey and suddenly gives him the strength and ability to scale walls (pretty virile for a 61-year-old). Turns out that there was a Russian doctor working on such an item around when Doyle wrote this, so he may have read about it. Some commentators see this as more science fiction, but I see it as a Holmes story gone wrong.

 

But at least it is a story! “The Adventure of the Veiled Lodger” is nothing more than one woman telling Holmes of a crime committed several years early. No mystery to be solved — just her chatting away. “The Adventure of the Blanched Soldier” is a little better, but the mystery solved is no great mystery. “The Adventure of the Lion’s Mane” shows Holmes solving the mystery of a — wait for it — murderous jellyfish? Talk about a letdown.

But there is hope when we read stories such as “The Adventure of the Illustrious Client.” While not the best narrative, Doyle does create a modern-day criminal who is more sociopath than gentlemen criminal. Baron Gruner is downright scary. And, “The Adventure of the Retired Colourman” shows Holmes doing some great sleuthing, although how he gets caught by a rival sleuth seems very un-Holmesian.

 

conan-doyle-stampIt is not appropriate to pass by all the stories without noting just how much a man of his times Holmes appears to be in “The Adventure of the Three Gables.” Unfortunately, that time was overtly racist and Watson’s stereotypic descriptions of an African man a Holmes’ stereotypic categorization of African’s is all too clear and too ugly in this story. It is not the only story in which this appears and women are not treated with too much respect unless they outsmart him (e.g. Irene Adler).

I’m not alone in my disappointment with these final stories. Holmesian scholars think some are so bad (and two are actually written by Holmes himself) that Watson is not the true author. [Note: many Holmes scholars treat Holmes and Watson as real people and see Doyle as someone helping out — they are not serious about it, but they usually talk in that vein and have a good time with it].

So, in the end, this is not the Holmes volume I’m sending you to read first. I still love my Sherlock Holmes stories and I think “The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes” reads like a “best of” collection because the stories are so strong. So start there and end with the Casebook — you’ll be more forgiving by that time.

Note on the title: “Case-book” is the British spelling, “Case Book” is the American version, and “Casebook” is just another spelling by publishers. My first version was “Casebook,” so I stuck with that.

David Golder by Irène Némirovsky

91-a-David-GolderThis novel by Nemirovsky, published in 1929, is a stark description of greed and its outcome. It offers little hope and is even more powerful as a result. Nemirovsky shows us David Golder, a self-made businessman who has risen from a from humble beginnings by being intelligent, focused, and ruthless. Now, in his late 60s, his own poor health makes him look at his equally greedy wife and selfish 18-year-old daughter with new eyes. The book opens with Golder showing no mercy to his lifelong business partner, now bankrupt, who then goes and kills himself. Golder returns later to his own home (he often lives in other cities) and is confronted with his greedy wife and her demands for money. She lives to impress others, even changing her name so that her Jewish background is hidden. His daughter is a spoiled child who spends time traveling with young men. Golder is completely under his daughter’s spell, even though he sees her for what she is, and she ultimately brings about his demise.

Recovering from a heart attack, Golder lets his business deals fall apart and intentionally drives himself to ruin. Only his daughter can convince him to make one last deal so she can have more money, and it becomes his final deal.

There is almost nothing redeeming in any of the characters, although you can see that Golder is at least torn by what he has become. He pines for the simpler life, but is beyond finding a way to return to it. On the brink of the depression, her story shows the individual dangers of wealth and greed. Her refusal to offer any hope forces the reader to address the desolate message, still relevant today. [Note: The novel was made into a film of the same name in 1931].

This was Nemirovsky’s debut novel, and she received strong critical acclaim for it. She

irene nemirovsky

Nemirovsky

went on to write several other novels, before being sent to Auschwitz and being killed in 1942 — she was 39. It should be noted that Nemirovsky, herself of Jewish origin, has been described as a “self-hating Jew” by some critics. Of a Russian-Jewish background, she spent most of her time in France. Her husband was also Jewish (and also died in Auschwitz), but she converted to Catholicism in 1939. She creates an interesting dilemma to study, and her writing shows the study will be worth the effort.

 

12 Years A Slave

12 years a slaveFull disclaimer: I’ve not seen the movie.

Okay, usually the disclaimer goes with a film review of a book turned into a movie, but this movie was so successful I thought I should mention it.

Being a book person, I thought I would read the book. I was quite moved by Harriet Jacob’s “Incidents in the Life of A Slave Girl” many years ago, and have returned to Fredrick Douglass’ “Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave,” more than once. Histories of slave life can be informing, but hearing about the experience from a slave gives us a new perspective.

Like many books in this vein, Solomon Northup’s “12 Years A Slave” sounds almost dispassionate in its description. It is likely a matter of style and time that Northup can describe his experience almost objectively. His impassioned pleas sound formal, but this was not a time for emotional storytelling. However, one cannot read this book without hearing Northup’s struggle to survive this living hell. What is most insightful by Northup is that he realizes his unique position in the slave world (a free man taken into slavery) and he is sensitive to the plight of others. When you can look with compassion on others in the midst of your own suffering, you are a rare individual.

Northup’s patience with waiting for the right time to reveal his free status is amazing. He questions himself a bit in the book, but even his one failed attempt shows how little trust he could put in others. It also gives you a glimpse into how trapped slaves were, especially those like Northup who was not even near a city.

As a music lover, I was thrilled to see the advantages his musical skills brought him. The chance to travel off the plantation, to earn some money, and even find solace, all speak to the power of music. Even in the midst of the slave system, both masters and servants seek good musSolomon_Northup_engraving_c1853ic.

What is disconcerting to modern ears can be his praise of nice slave owners, or those who treat them in a Christian fashion (slavery aside). Again, Northup views these people as victims of the system, which in a way they are. Of course, we hold them more responsible for their actions today. But it is interesting, and difficult, to hear a former slave speak well of slave owners.

But in those words you find the honesty which makes this a good book. I had hoped to have my 14-year-old read it, but it will be a tough read. Northup at times gets into details which are historically interesting (how he caught fish), but make for slow reading. But those with patience will be rewarded.

Having read the book, I do want to see the movie. Adding more of a “story” to Northup’s writing could make for a moving story on film.

If you want to read more about Northup, the Wikipedia page has a good summary.

Hildegard of Bingen: A Spiritual Reader

 

Hildegard cover Hildegard of Bingen (1098-1179) was a Benedictine abbess,  composer, and mystic. She is known by many today because of her music, but her creativity was born of mystical experiences which found their expression in a variety of ways. The book, Hildegard of Bingen: A Spiritual Reader, is a reader which includes selections from her songs, theological texts, drama, liturgical music, and letters. Each section is introduced by the translator and editor, Carmen Acevedo Butcher, who also provides an introduction to this German woman who challenged the Church while producing in an astonishing range of artistic outlets.
 
Her songs can be especially moving, and Butcher says we may take that as a sign of being written in happy times. “But there were no such periods for this nun. She lived from illness to illness, conflict to conflict, responsibility to responsibility, and perhaps that is why we feel close to her, because, despite Hildegard’s many accomplishments, her life was clearly filled with the daily grind we all experience; and she through it.”
 
One example, her song “The Most Sanguine Moment” (Note: she did not give them titles — this is from the translator):
 
When the Creator actually spilled
His blood on the elements,
earth, air, water, and fire
screamed,
collapsed with grief,
shook from sadness.
Now, Father, with this gift
anoint our weaknesses.
 
Her letters show a very human side, and she never hesitated to direct people (including royalty

Hildegard of Bingen

Hildegard of Bingen

and Popes) as she thought best. Her drama seems unusual to our modern ears, but is worth reading as it is the earliest known morality play ever recorded.

 
It is in the theological works where her mystic self, as seen in visions, is most clear. She has tremendous visions which she describes in detail, and then explains. Giant people, piles of excrement, and speaking fire, water, earth, and air, are all part of what she sees. At times, her visions seem grand for the simple lessons, but at times they make us rethink our most basic beliefs. In explaining how one vision teaches us about the soul’s power, she says, “A person’s physical body is bigger than their literal heart, just as the soul is stronger than the body. This is what I mean: A person’s heart lies hidden within their body, just as the physical body is surrounded by and hidden in the soul’s powers, which cover the entire globe. Your body is in your soul, not your soul in your body.” 
 
In both her visions and her life, she was willing to turn things upside down to help profess God’s word. Although she battled with Church leaders, she was greatly respected and is now recognized as a Saint. In 2012, Pope Benedict the XVI recognized her as a Doctor of the Church, meaning one to study as well as imitate.
 
As such, this book is a great introduction as it provides a wide selection of her work, and just enough background to give it some context. 

The Land of Spices

ImageKate O’Brien’s novel, “The Land of Spices,” does not offer much in way of a summary. Published in 1941, the novel is set in an Irish convent of a French order and run by an English nun. But outside of the upsurge of Irish nationalism and some politics in the order, nations play a small role. Instead, the convent is its own world, which deals with the outside world through the students who go home for vacations. Mere Marie-Helene is the nun, and throughout the book we also see the growth of young Anna Murphy, from six to sixteen, as she moves through life. There is a bond between the two, but the relationship is intentionally kept at a distance. In fact, as readers we are kept at a distance, watching a story unfold slowly. Although there are two events which occurs to each of them near the end of the novel, and these are life-changing events, we still see at the end what looks to be a natural parting of ways. Natural, because, indeed,  it is natural. Roles changes. Life experiences change us. We all make different decisions.

 
Hardly a description to sell a lot of novels, but it is still a novel not to miss. What goes on in these pages show a great deal of the human character, the thoughts and events which shape us, the faith which challenges many of us, the relationships with present and past people, the choices we must make, and the pressures we face. And it does so without the unnecessary drama of self-obsessed people. 
 
There are many themes which could be explored here. We have the challenge of personal obedience and personal freedom, without either side being shown as a preference.  Mere Marie-Helene understands her obedience to God and her order come from a personal choice, her personal freedom. She also understands that not everyone will make the same choice, which is expected. 
 Image
From there rises the theme of humility and judgment. If she teaches her young charge nothing else, it is to be humble about oneself, which leads to less judging of others. “You will make what you must of the life for which we have tried to prepare you. And you have gifts for life. Spend your gifts, and try to be good. And be the judge of your own soul; but never for a second, I implore you, set up as a judge of another. Commentator, annotator, if you life, but never judge.” 
 
Other themes grow even stronger, including the impact of death, but to say more would be to give away too much of the plot. But O’Brien’s desire to face life is tied up in the comment, that “You cannot accept the mystery of life and refuse that of death.” 
 
Finally, as a fan of 17th century poetry, it was wonderful to see the importance of literature in this novel. The connection between the two characters comes because the six year old can recite a poem the nun learned as a child from her own father. The title itself comes from a George Herbert poem, which I provide simply for an excuse to sneak such a poem into my writing.

Prayer
Prayer, the Church’s banquet, Angels’ age,
God’s breath in man returning to his birth,
The soul in paraphrase, heart in pilgrimage,
The Christian plummet sounding heav’n and earth;
Engine against th’ Almighty, sinner’s tower,
Reversed thunder, Christ-side-piercing spear,
The six-days’-world transposing in an hour,
A kind of tune, which all things hear and fear;
Softness, and peace, and joy, and love, and bliss,
Exalted manna, gladness of the best,
Heaven in ordinary, man well dressed,
The milky way, the bird of Paradise,
Church bells beyond the stars heard, the soul’s blood,
The land of spices, something understood.
 
The novel itself has a challenging history. The book was banned for lewdness because of the line “in the embrace of love.” Of course, it is not the line itself, but the context which caused the commotion. O’Brien herself fell out of popularity, and this novel (and I believe others) went out of print. It would have been a loss for this novel to remain unavailable, so the return is welcomed. 

House Made of Dawn

HouseMadeo_0Also published on my Classic Reading Challenge Blog

N. Scott Momaday’s first novel, “House Made of Dawn,” is noted by some critics as sparking a renaissance in Native American literature. Published in 1969, the novel won the Pulitzer Prize, rave reviews, and a place in the canon of contemporary literature.

So, it is with some hesitation that I admit to not enjoying the novel too much. There seems to be an attempt at being elusive, at showing only part of what is happening, in a way many post-modern novels do. I actually enjoy many novels without the normal narrative, or rising plot structure, but Momaday’s books just fails to connect the pieces when needed.

The novel centers around Abel, who returns to his reservation following his time in World War II. Not long after arriving at home, he murders a man. We pick up the story seven years later in Los Angeles, when Abel is let out of jail. At first, we get the story (or lack thereof) from Abel’s mind, but then it switches to the Priest of the Sun, John Big Bluff Tosamah, who gives a long sermon. The sermon shares many stories of the Kiowa tribe, to which Momaday belongs. The tales are interesting and create a better understanding of the Kiowa tribe, but the connection of these to Abel’s situation is not clear. The last major section switches to Abel’s friend, Ben Benally’s, viewpoint of Abel. It is not a pretty picture. He cannot understand the way other Native Americans have assimilated to white culture, and he begins to drink and leaves his job. Eventually, he just disappears.

The narrative comes full circle, and is at its strongest, in the final pages of the novel. Abel disappears so he can return home to care for his dying grandfather, and there seems to be a return to his starting point as he reenters the traditions of his heritage.

As noted before, the novel is seen as creating a publishing spark for writers such as Leslie Marmon Silko, Louise Erdrich, and Sherman Alexie. Their novels seem are clearer in their narratives, but perhaps Momaday’s challenging storyline reflects the struggle of Native Americans in contemporary life. It hits many of the themes that will dominate other novels, such as assimilation, alcohol abuse, racism, loss of tradition, and a return to Native American roots. Because of its influence, it is worth reading.

The Avenue Bearing the Initial of Christ Into the New World, Poems 1953-1964

avenue bearing the initial of christ

Also published on my Classic Reading Challenge Blog

I’ve read and reread Galway Kinnell’s poetry over the years, and although I bring no scholar’s claim to his work, I can attest to the power of his words. Kinnell’s words show an honest, earthy, man who is open to the world around him.

I’ve often used the word “earthy” to describe Kinnell’s work, but I’ve also seen “earthly” applied. Looking for the difference, I settled on this distinction from grammarist.com. “Earthly and earthy were originally synonyms, but the adjectives have undergone differentiation over time. Today, earthly means of, relating to, or characteristic of the earth (often as opposed to heavenly or divine). Earthy means (1) plain, (2) natural, or (3) indecent or coarse.”

The reason I include this is that Kinnell’s poetry fits both of these definitions. He certainly writes of the earthly, but he can do so in an earthy way. It is hard to walk away from Kinnell’s poetry without the need to wash up, not from disgust, but from the dirt and grime he immerses you in. But it is the dirt and grime of a hard day working on a project — it is a good feeling. Kinnell seems as if he can walk into the earth, and he does something much like this in one of his masterpieces, “The Bear.” He is grounded in this world (earthly), and takes the world for what it is (earthy).

This collection, The Avenue Bearing the Initial of Christ Into the New World, Poems 1953-1964, is described as follows: “This newly assembled volume draws from two books that were originally published in Galway Kinnell’s first two decades of writing, WHAT A KINGDOM IT WAS (1960), which included the poem “The Avenue Bearing the Initial of Christ into the New World,” and FLOWER HERDING ON MOUNT MONADNOCK (1964). Kinnell has revised some of the work in this new edition, and comments on his working method in a prefatory note.”

In this short, prefatory note, Kinnell explains he took out some “unsalvageable” poems, and then revised others. For him, writing is a process, so returning to these poems in 2002 (when this volume was published), he lets the process continue. There is no weeping and moaning over what was or should have been — he makes changes he wants, and moves on. In a way, this reflects his poetry. It is unique mix of the objective and emotional. He can be moved by something in nature, describe it in an objective way, and then move forward from the experience, as opposed to pining to relieve it once again. He does not forget it, indeed he may be defined by it, but he does not get lost in it.
What this collection shows is Kinnell bouncing between his New York and Vermont homes, which he did for many years. The title poem, “The Avenue Bearing the Initial of Christ Into the New World,” is a 14-part poem which recreates the sights and sounds from the outset.

“pcheek pcheek pcheek pcheek pcheek
They cry. The motherbirds thieve the air
To appease them. A tug on the East River
Blasts the bass-note of its passage, lifted
From the infra-bass of the sea. A broom
Swishes over the sidewalk like feet through leaves.
Valerio’s pushcart Ice Coal Kerosene
Moves   clack
                      clack
                                clack
On a broken wheelrim.”

So many visual and auditory signals in that opening verse immediately put you in the context. But the words are simple, the images clear and not overwrought. They are earthy and earthly.

Throughout his work, Kinnell allows what he sees to speak for himself. He is a poet who gets out of the way of his poetry. Like the simple prose of Marilynne Robinson, Kinnell knows a simple phrase can carry a great deal of meaning. What he does in the city, works well in the country as well.

First Song
Then it was dusk in Illinois, the small boy
After an afternoon of carting dung
Hung on the rail fence, a sapped thing
Weary to crying. Dark was growing tall
And he began to hear the pond frogs all
Calling on his ear with what seemed their joy.Soon their sound was pleasant for a boy
Listening in the smoky dusk and the nightfall
Of Illinois, and from the fields two small
Boys came bearing cornstalk violins
And they rubbed the cornstalk bows with resins
And the three sat there scraping of their joy.

It was now fine music the frogs and the boys
Did in the towering Illinois twilight make
And into dark in spite of a shoulder’s ache
A boy’s hunched body loved out of a stalk
The first song of his happiness, and the song woke
His heart to the darkness and into the sadness of joy.

Not only does Kinnell capture a simple scene, he allows the weight of it to show — this is not a Norman Rockwell painting, but Kinnell is also not so cynical that he cannot find joy. What this poem also shows is Kinnell’s respect for children and their experiences, which does not show up as much in this volume as some of his other work. This poem also shows that Kinnell does not simply present a laundry list of ideas for the reader to interpret. He is willing to interpret and offer his view.

In the second half of this volume, which is  “Flower Herding On Mount Monadnock,” there is a poem entitled “Spindrift,” which ends with the verse:

Nobody likes to die
But an old man
Can know
A gratefulness
Toward time that kills him,
Everything he loved was made of it

It is a strong statement for a then young poet, but one that holds true, although I would argue the man does not need to be old. Gratefulness is not necessarily a time-bound attitude, although it is difficult for some to attain.

In the end, Kinnell creates that “earthy” and “earthly” poetry, which shows a world we can recognize. But through his poetry, we see more in it then we realize. It is not a forced deepening of everything we see; it is an openness to what the world has to say.

Note: For those not familiar with Kinnell, here is a short excerpt from his bio:Galway Kinnell is the author of ten books of poetry, including The Book of Nightmares, When One Has Lived a Long Time Alone, Imperfect Thirst, and most recently A New Selected Poems and Strong is Your Hold.  He also published a novel, Black Light; a selection of interviews, Walking Down the Stairs; and a book for children, as well as translations of works by Yves Bonnefoy, Yvan Goll, Francois Villon and Rainer Maria Rilke.A former MacArthur Fellow and State Poet of Vermont, he has been a Chancellor of The Academy of American Poets.  In 1982, his Selected Poems won both the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award, and in 2002, he was awarded the Frost Medal by the Poetry Society of America.