The Casebook of Sherlock Holmes by Arthur Conan Doyle

My 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 coul…

Source: The Casebook of Sherlock Holmes by Arthur Conan Doyle

Citizen: An American Lyric by Claudia Rankine

citizen coverI’ve read this fifth volume of Rankine’s poetry three times, and each time I learn more about what I do not know. Rankine exposes the everyday incidents of personal racism, the public racism of how Serena Williams is treated throughout her career, and the violent racism revealed in the deaths of unarmed black men. But the adjectives of “personal,” “public,” and “violent,” are mere artifacts. What Rankine is showing is that all racism is personal, public, and violent. As she, and the rest of the world, watch Williams be the object of blatantly erroneous calls, it is personal for her. And it is violent in how it attacks her very humanity. The deaths of unarmed black men, the “unintentional” racist comments of her white, liberal, and educated friends, and the public shaming of someone responding honestly to being harassed live beyond the moment.

The book itself is a scrapbook of poetry, creative prose, quotes, verbal collages, and visual art. She almost seems to be scrambling, desperately, for a way to get her message across. At times, she hits it over and over, as she experiences it over and over.

“Haven’t you said this to a close friend who early in your friendship, when distracted,


Claudia Rankine

would call you by the name of her black housekeeper?  You assumed you two were the only black people in her life. Eventually she stopped doing this, though she never acknowledged her slippage. And you never called her on it (why not?) and yet, you don’t forget.” These are the daily reminders of the racism inherent in our society but only experienced by those who are not white.


Ranking divides her book into several sections, including ones focusing on her daily encounters with racism, one on the treatment of Williams, and one focusing on headline events such as the killings of Trayvon Martin and James Craig Anderson. In addressing so many forms of racism, Rankine requires a response (and, of course, not to respond is to respond). If you want to feel good about the U.S. (and the world) and race, don’t read this book. If, like me, racism is not something personally experience, this book will give you some insight to the pervasiveness and horrendous impact of racism.

Visit Claudia Rankine’s Website

See a Video of Rankine Reading from Citizen


wolm1990fAlso published on my Classic Reading Challenge Blog

Some books seem to belong to youth and need to be reintroduced as we age. Kurt Vonnegut and Ray Bradbury were regular companions of mine in high school, yet still hold my interest 30 years later. Alas, the same cannot be said for another companion, Nobel-prize winning writer Herman Hesse.

Rereading Steppenwolf after so many years, the main question I had was, how did I get through this in high school? At that time I read many of Hesse’s novels and was quiet infatuated with his outlook on life. Now, finding myself just slightly older than the protagonist, Harry Haller, aka, Steppenwolf, I just find him annoying. He is not unfamiliar; just the type of person I would not find myself sharing dinner with in a corner booth of the local cafe.

The novel centers around Haller in a manuscript written by him, but left behind in the room he rented. Whatever happens to Steppenwolf in the end, we are not sure. Personally, I’m not interested in a sequel. The Steppenwolf spends his days pondering the great mysteries of life and agonizing over how he does not fit into the society in which he, apparently, does not want to fit into anyway. He obsesses over himself and tries to be humble about how brilliant he is, but he clearly he feels above most other people.

Just when he decides that he can take no more and resolves to kill himself, he meets Hermine, a siren of pleasure who introduces him to other women, teaches him to dance, and shows him how to enjoy life. He suddenly finds himself becoming what he hates, but he enjoys it. In other words, he becomes a person of action, of life, rather than just thought, and he lives a more enjoyable existence. This highlights the dual nature of existence Hesse proposes; indeed, the multiple nature of existence. But in the Steppenwolf, the wolf of the Steppes, we find a man who is half human and half wolf. He can be gracious and social (human), while at the same time despising all society, including himself (wolf).

At this point I had hope for the book. Our annoying narrator begins to see the fool that he is. “The late Herr Haller, gifted writer, student of Mozart and Goethe, author of essays upon the metaphysics of art, upon genius and tragedy and humanity, the melancholy hermit in a cell encumbered with books, was given over bit by bit to self-criticism and at every point was found wanting.”

But no, Hesse then takes us off in a direction which quickly unravels the novel (and I’ll avoid details should you choose to read the novel).

A central theme which is toyed with throughout the novel and emerges more clearly at the end is the idea of laughing at life, including yourself. Haller, the people of eternity are telling him, takes life too seriously. He needs to laugh with the world and at the world, but as a participant and not an observer. Developed in a stronger fashion this could be a fascinating theme, but when Hesse fully introduces it toward the end, it sounds simply trite. He has created of story of too much darkness to simply say you need to laugh.

Many of the themes Hesse deals with seems outdated and sophomoric, but we must remember Hesse, a German, is writing this in between two world wars. Much of what we now see as tiring (e.g. mirrors looking into the soul, the lone individual against society) was more cutting edge at that time. Critics say this is his most autobiographical novel in that, like the narrator, he is coming off a bad marriage and did himself suddenly step out into society for a time. With more distance between himself and the writing, his other novels may hold up better after many years. I’m hesitant to try another one, but am open to recommendations.

So I put this in my classic listing since it comes from a Nobel-prize winning writer (maybe they liked that he left Germany and became a Swiss citizen) and many people, such as myself, have immersed themselves in his work at some point in their career. But a true classic transcends time, and I do not see this novel succeeding on that count.


The Annotated Emma
Jane Austen fans will lovingly quibble over which of her novels is the best. Pride and Prejudice is a universal favorite (and my personal choice), while Sense and Sensibility has a strong following behind it. But scholars often point to Emma as her finest work. It is her longest work and she excels at using dialogue as the vehicle for telling you the most about her characters. Seemingly unimportant conversations are essential at showing you the motives, the tenancies, the strengths, and the errors of her characters. I’ve read this book several times and now spend more time on these character-driven sections than in the past. It is truly some amazing writing.

But what has held me, and perhaps others, away raising the Emma flag too often is, well, Emma. Austen herself famously wrote in a letter prior to starting the novel that “I am going to take a heroine whom no one but myself will much like.” I must say, I’ve always felt she hit it on the mark. Emma is a manipulative person who feels she knows what is better for everyone else than they do themselves. When her attempts at matchmaking fail, she shows temporary guilt, and then unconsciously moves on to the next matchmaking attempt. She grooms one young lady like a puppy, and then sets her up for one fall after another (unintentionally, but still!). And then (PLOT SPOILER) in the end she gets all that she wants. Clearly, if you are familiar with Austen you expect a happy ending, so that is not much of a spoiler, especially she does not figure out what she wants until near the end of the novel.
Perhaps the most damaging mark against Emma comes close to the end when she makes  an accurate, but hurtful, comment toward a woman who talks too much. The “Box Hill Incident” shows Emma at her worst in that she seems unaware of the influence she has on others. Only when she is taken to task by her friend, Mr. Knightly, for her comment, does she begin to understand the damage she has done. That she is unable to immediately undo the damage gives her time to consider the consequences. I’ve always felt uncomfortable with this scene because, to put it simply, it is uncomfortable. You watch helplessly as one person makes a fool of themselves and then makes it worse by her cutting remark. However, reading it this time, I was uncomfortable because it is a great shot — she is right on mark and she is funny. That line to one person may have returned with an equally adept shot, but in this case she hits a person who is defenseless in so many ways. Mr. Knightly highlights this in his censure of Emma’s actions.
Which brings us to the underlying issue of class distinction found in the novel. What makes Emma’s comment so wrong is not the comment itself, but the person she hurt. It is someone beneath her social circle, someone who has seen her social stature drop, and someone who will not see it rise. She is down and Emma has kicked her.
Emma should have see the fault because she is very conscious of class. But as Mr. Knightly implies, that is simply a matter of birth. While she will have advantages that others will not, that only makes it more important for her to reach out to others.
Austen shows the breaking down of the social classes in the early 19th century. Wealthy tradespeople are buying property and asserting their social demands — think of it as the New York battles between “old” and “new” money seen in Edith Wharton’s novels. In Emma we see the blurring of these lines, especially in a small society, but the lines are still there. By the end of the novel the lines have been broken in one case, but maintained in two other relationships. Austen blesses them all with happiness.
As for Emma, she is unlikable in that she is really like us. She is a flawed character. Austen does not present too many stereotypes, and, in fact, Pride and Prejudice relies on our character flaws for driving the novel forward. But Emma is more flawed, more realistic, than most of Austen’s characters. It may be that glimpse in the mirror which has driven me away from Emma since I first read this novel many years ago. As I get older I find I’m more comfortable acknowledging my faults. Perhaps that is why I’m now more comfortable with Emma.
A final note. I read the “Annotated” version by David Shapard. This is the third of these editions I have read and I enjoy them immensely. On the left hand page is the text and on the right hand page are Shapard’s notes, which at times are reflections on the text, at times clarifications of definitions, and at times insight into time-specific elements (such as what the different carriage styles signify). For a first-time reader I would recommend focusing on Austen, but then be sure to return to one of these versions for a fresh look at a classic.

Fragile Things: Short Fictions and Wonders by Neil Gaiman

Fragile Things CoverI started this book simply to read the Sherlock Holmes meets H.P. Lovecraft story, ” A Study in Emerald,” which was recommended to me by my oldest son. Being a fan of Holmes stories and anything Lovecraft writes, I was looking forward to Gaiman’s interpretation. Suffice it to say that I liked the story enough to work my way through Gaiman’s complete collection, which was a worthwhile endeavor.

For those not familiar with Gaiman, he is a prolific writer who made his name with comic books and graphic novels (The Sandman), but has branched into novels (American Gods, Coraline) short stories, CD texts (for Tori Amos), poetry, and almost anything else which strikes his fancy. In fact, one of the more interesting parts of this collection is his introduction, in which he gives the background on every piece of writing in the book. Many of these works started from invitations, and Gaiman seems open to taking on a variety of challenges. He is not always equally successful, but you have to admire a writer who so clearly likes writing. He is not afraid of stretching and trying something new.

“A Study in Emerald,” which is a play on Doyle’s “A Study in Scarlet,” finds a doctor and Holmes meeting and taking lodgings, which eventually leads to the doctor’s discovery of Holmes’ unique skill as a detective. The story steals glances at some of other Doyle’s other stories, most notably “A Scandel in Bohemia,” but with a twist of the fantastic that screams Lovecraft at you. If I’m being vague, it is my attempt not to give too much away.

As noted, I continued on and found several of the works to be outstanding, while others were simply there (e.g. “Instructions” and “Fifteen Painted Cards from a Vampire Tarot”). Others are very strong. “Closing Time” incorporates the old man telling a story motif into a terrifying story of childhood. “How to Talk to Girls at Parties” is a story which takes a mundane rite of passage for many young adults and turns it subtly into a story of horror. Gaiman’s strength in this area is to hint at the possible, at would could have been, but then take it in another direction. Although at times he is clumsy in his “gotcha” endings, at other times he has a subtly which speaks of true horror mastery.

Gaiman also has a sense of humor, displayed in many of the writings, but played out best in “Sunbird,” a story of epicurean club enjoying a last meal. But the highlight of the collection is “The Monarch of the Glen,” which is subtitled, “An American Gods Novella.” American Gods is an excellent novel, and in this story Gaiman builds on the main character, Shadow. The story falters a bit as it hits a graphic section and Gaiman does provide another “gotcha” moment near the end, but overall it quietly builds a scenario with a reluctant protagonist who is as familiar with his weaknesses as his strengths. In fact, his ability to recognize his limits is his greatest strength and allows him to outsmart those who believe they have outsmarted him.

The collection contains 31 stories, poems, and “other wonders,” so one will be hard pressed to like it all or dismiss it all. But is worth keeping nearby when a quick read is all that is available.