Friday, 29 May 2015

Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde / Robert Louis Stevenson

4 out of 5 stars
Published as a 'shilling shocker', Robert Louis Stevenson's dark psychological fantasy gave birth to the idea of the split personality. The story of respectable Dr Jekyll's strange association with 'damnable young man' Edward Hyde; the hunt through fog-bound London for a killer; and the final revelation of Hyde's true identity is a chilling exploration of humanity's basest capacity for evil.

I wonder if this story had any influence on Carl Jung’s shadow theory—that we each have a shadow self to embody our negative traits, as Henry Jekyll quite literally does with his alter-ego, Edward Hyde.

Stevenson had surely studied Descartes’ philosophy. René Descartes (and his theory of mind/body duality) has an awful lot to answer for. Our whole Western world view tends towards dividing the world into two camps: us & them, man & nature, church & state, those for us & those against us. And life is so much more complex than that! We know from studies of dementia & Alzheimer’s disease that physical exercise is protective for the brain, an organ which we tend to think of as somehow separate from the rest of our physical body because it is perceived as the home of the mind. But it is a body organ nonetheless and requires the same physical care as the rest of the physical self, to my mind invalidating the mind/body separation.

Jekyll takes this dichotomy to an extreme, becoming two separate people sharing one body. And because life is more complicated than an either/or choice, Jekyll soon loses control of the process, awakening to find that he has degenerated in Hyde without the assistance of the initial potion. Like any drug taker, he soon finds that he requires increased doses to achieve the same end.

Surprising how much is packed into this slim little volume, published as a “shilling shocker.”

Wednesday, 27 May 2015

Queen of Sorcery / David Eddings

3 out of 5 stars
The master Sorcerer Belgarath and his daughter Polgara the arch-Sorceress were on the trail of the Orb, seeking to regain its saving power before the final disaster prophesized by the legends. And with them went Garion, a simple farm boy only months before, but now the focus of the struggle. He had never believed in sorcery and wanted no part of it. Yet with every league they traveled, the power grew in him, forcing him to acts of wizardry he could not accept.

The second installment of the Belgariad—and although this world certainly has some commonalities with Tolkien’s Middle Earth, there are many distinctions as well. Yes, there is a company of travellers on a quest for a powerful jewel, but they are not nearly as noble as LOTR characters. Can you imagine Gandalf getting drunk and having a hangover on the morning of an early departure? Belgarath does. How about producing sweets to attract Dryads to him and stating that Dryads will do almost anything for a candy? (Leaving us to guess what he may have coerced them into doing). Gandalf may have withheld information from Bilbo and Frodo, but he eventually fills them in on essential information that will keep them safe(r). Garion gets almost no information from Belgarath or Polgara, he tries to fill in the gaps on his own, and then gets chastised for it. Not very logical, really.

Another Tolkien echo is Bard, the warrior, who tends to become a huge bear when he is in the thick of battle—this reminded me strongly of Beorn, the bear man, in The Hobbit. But the key thing for me is that Eddings manages to give these ideas his own twist—he may take inspiration from Tolkien, but he doesn’t just copy him wholesale. Plus, he has many more female characters with much more substantial roles.

Having said that, the genders are still treated in a stereotypical fashion—Polgara is rigid, rather puritanical, and very controlling, while Belgarath is looser, both in discipline and morals, and much more improvisational. Women are expected to control themselves and are somehow responsible for restraining the men’s sexuality, implying that men are unable or unwilling to control themselves. This is a much more sexual world than previous high fantasy epics (pre 1980s). To me, there was also an echo of Mary Stewart’s King Arthur series in the sheltering of Garion from sexual experience, which an implication that it would “complicate” his study of sorcery (just as Merlin was required to remain chaste in order to practice his magic).

Considering the number of pages in each volume, the plot doesn’t advance very quickly. Eddings was obviously focussed on income and more volumes equalled more money. I find that I can’t blame him for wanting to make a living, but I’m wishing that things moved along with a little more vigour. At least, up until this point, there has been no poetry and no singing.

Book number 173 in my science fiction & fantasy reading project.

Tuesday, 26 May 2015

Stone Mattress / Margaret Atwood

4 out of 5 stars
In these nine dazzlingly inventive and rewarding stories, Margaret Atwood's signature dark humour, playfulness, and deadly seriousness are in abundance. In "Freeze-Dried Bridegroom," a man who bids on a storage locker has a surprise. In "Lusus Naturae," a woman with a genetic abnormality is mistaken for a vampire. In "I Dream of Zenia with the Bright Red Teeth," we remeet Tony, Charis, and Roz from The Robber Bride, but, years later, as their nemesis is seen in an unexpected form. In "Torching the Dusties," an elderly lady with Charles Bonnet's syndrome comes to terms with the little people she keeps seeing, while a newly formed populist group gathers to burn down her retirement residence. In "Stone Mattress," a long-ago crime is revenged in the Arctic. This is classic Margaret Atwood, and she is at the very top of her form.

I hesitate to think about how many decades it has been since I read anything by Margaret Atwood—perhaps since the early 1990s? Reading this book of short stories reminded me of how much I appreciate her outlook on the world (and this from someone who isn’t really a big fan of short stories).

I particularly enjoyed the first three stories, which were inter-related and which provided a look into the poetry scene of the 1960s, something that Atwood knew from the inside. There seemed to be a lot of looking back at the past in all of the stories in the volume—not exactly in a nostalgic way, but in a clear-eyed sort of way.

I was particularly fond of the story which provided the title to the volume, having a bit of a soft spot for stromatolites. One summer I volunteered as an educator at a local paleontology museum. The paid staff, of course, grabbed the positions with the sexier dinosaur fossils, leaving the volunteers such treasures as a stuffed Gar fish, a petrified ray of some kind, and the trusty stromatolite. I researched all three and made them as interesting as I could (partially, I must admit, to avoid the puzzles & games that were also on offer and which bored me to death). I felt I had done my job when my supervisor would stop by to pick up educational tips on my subjects.

I have also been on educational cruises like the one Atwood describes in this story (and which she was on when she began to spin this tale) and have thoroughly enjoyed myself—although I never plotted murder. She also seems to enjoy the murder mystery narrative that entertains me.

I must remedy my lack of Atwood in my reading life—how talented she is to be able to write novels, short stories and poetry and do it all well.  

Friday, 22 May 2015

And the Birds Rained Down / Jocelyne Saucier

4 out of 5 stars
Tom and Charlie have decided to live out the remainder of their lives on their own terms, hidden away in a remote forest, their only connection to the outside world a couple of pot growers who deliver whatever they can’t eke out for themselves.

But one summer two women arrive. One is a young photographer documenting a a series of catastrophic forest fires that swept Northern Ontario early in the century; she’s on the trail of the recently deceased Ted Boychuck, a survivor of the blaze. And then the elderly aunt of the one of the pot growers appears, fleeing one of the psychiatric institutions that have been her home since she was sixteen. She joins the men in the woods and begins a new life as Marie-Desneige. With the photographer’s help, they find Ted’s series of paintings about the fire, and begin to decipher the dead man’s history.

Who among us hasn’t fantasized from time to time about escaping the rat-race and hiding away in the wilderness? This was a beautifully written tale of three older men who had done just that, supported by two younger guys who are growing marijuana out in that same wilderness. It is also about the disruption that occurs when two women enter the picture, one of them the elderly aunt of one of the pot-growers, the other a photographer searching for people who survived an enormous historic forest fire. The elderly aunt has spent the vast majority of her life in an institution for the mentally ill, and her nephew, knowing that there is freedom available out in the woods, spins a tale for the authorities and drives her out into the forest.

For me, this book was an exploration of dependence versus independence, our human need for companionship, and the desire to choose life on one’s own terms. Several of my own elderly friends have told me how invisible they feel as they grow older. “Younger people stop seeing you at some point and it’s hard to get service in stores or get answers to questions,” one of them told me. In North America we have adopted a very youth focused culture and we no longer honour our elderly citizens, choosing instead to warehouse them in seniors’ centres and hospitals. It is such as shame, as my older friends have so much experience to draw on and wisdom to impart. It has been a painful experience to see them declining, losing their independence and their memories, finding it more difficult to visit with them as the months progress.

The nature of art is explored through the paintings of Ted, the recently deceased member of the original three men, as well as through the work of the photographer (whose name we never learn). It is during one of the photographer’s interviews with a survivor of the great fire that we hear the phrase that gives this novel its poetic title. The translator did a superb job—it did not feel like a translation at all.

Thursday, 21 May 2015

Pawn of Prophecy / David Eddings

3 out of 5 stars

Long ago, the Storyteller claimed, in this first book of THE BELGARIAD, the evil god Torak drove men and Gods to war. But Belgarath the Sorcerer led men to reclaim the Orb that protected men of the West. So long as it lay at Riva, the prophecy went, men would be safe.

But Garion did not believe in such stories. Brought up on a quiet farm by his Aunt Pol, how could he know that the Apostate planned to wake dread Torak, or that he would be led on a quest of unparalleled magic and danger by those he loved--but did not know...?

PoP is truly a lovely amalgam of Tolkien and T.H. White. When I read about the Orb of Aldur, I couldn’t help but think about Tolkien and the Silmarils of Fëanor, stolen by Melkor, and burning his hands. It parallels Torak’s theft of the Orb and it’s destruction of the left side of his body.

Reputedly, Eddings was inspired to write fantasy when he saw a copy of LOTR on sale and learned that it was on its 78th printing—he went home and started to renovate a previously drawn doodle of a map into a fantasy tale that lasted a great many volumes!

But there is also very much a Sword-in-the-Stone vibe about this book, as Garion, our farm boy main character, dangles along with Mr. Wolf and Aunt Pol. He has very little information about his parents, his background, or what will be required of him and they are in no hurry to enlighten him. Very reminiscent of T.H. White’s young Wart who has no idea that he is Arthur, the King’s son.

The writing is adequate—not bad as a first stab at high fantasy. I’m hoping that will improve as the series progresses. Since I am a fan of both Tolkien and White, I’m finding the tale enjoyable, even if the plot points are a bit obvious.

Wednesday, 20 May 2015

The King Must Die / Mary Renault

4 out of 5 stars
Theseus, the boy-king of Eleuisis, is ritually preordained to die after one year of marriage to the sacred Queen, but he defies the Gods' decree and claims his inheritance - the throne of Athens. His friends are the young men and maidens, slaves of the Gods, chosen for death in the Bull Dance. His fabled enemy is the monstrous, half-man, half-bull, Minotaur, devourer of sacrificial human flesh. In her classic re-creation of a myth so powerful that its impact has survived down the centuries, Mary Renault has brought to life the world of ancient Greece. For here is the true Atlantis legend, with its culmination in the terrible, fateful destruction of the great Labyrinth, the palace of the house of Minos.

I found myself rooting about in my memory, struggling to recall the Greek mythology that I studied as an undergraduate student, as I evaluated this lovely historical fantasy. My memory is rather hazy, but I think that Renault did a remarkably lovely job of formulating the myth into a plausible tale.

I had to love Theseus’ young-man enthusiasm, his gung-ho attitude, and his willingness to plunge into whatever the Gods presented to him and attempt to succeed at it, whether it is wrestling, chasing bandits, governing, or acrobatics. Oh, to have that youthful energy later in life!

I also appreciated that although Poseidon speaks to Theseus, that he doesn’t literally appear and conduct a conversation with the young man. We just take Theseus’ word about what he is experiencing when he receives communication from the deity—it remains his personal experience, not requiring the reader to join him in his faith.

In addition, I found Renault’s version of the shift from matriarchal to patriarchal society in the ancient world to be believable.

I can see where I will be revisiting some of the classical tales in the near future, to restore my memories and prepare to read more of Renault’s charming fiction.

It was Jo Walton's excellent book, Among Others that inspired me to pick up this novel and I am very glad that I did.

Tuesday, 19 May 2015

The Gunslinger / Stephen King

3 out of 5 stars
In The Gunslinger (originally published in 1982), King introduces his most enigmatic hero, Roland Deschain of Gilead, the Last Gunslinger. He is a haunting, solitary figure at first, on a mysterious quest through a desolate world that eerily mirrors our own. Pursuing the man in black, an evil being who can bring the dead back to life, Roland is a good man who seems to leave nothing but death in his wake.

That was an odd read—not bad, just odd. Like King just threw in any old idea he came up with and didn’t bother editing later. I could appreciate that he chose the Western form to jolt readers away from comparisons with Donaldson’s Thomas Covenant or Brooks’ Shannara series. But make no mistake, this is a quest-tale, not searching for the Holy Grail, but seeking the Black Tower.

The symbolism is all over the place—lots of Biblical references, Tarot, a few to King Arthur, probably some that went right by me without being recognized. I’m unsure whether it takes place in a future post-apocalyptic Earth or in an alternate time line? There is plenty left unexplained which has a tendency to draw me along to the next book.

So, will I continue with the series? I think the correct answer is Yar.

Tuesday, 12 May 2015

The Devil You Know / Elisabeth de Mariaffi

4 out of 5 stars

The year is 1993. Rookie crime beat reporter Evie Jones is haunted by the unsolved murder of her best friend Lianne Gagnon who was killed in 1982, back when both girls were eleven. The suspected killer, a repeat offender named Robert Cameron, was never arrested, leaving Lianne’s case cold.

Now twenty-one and living alone for the first time, Evie is obsessively drawn to finding out what really happened to Lianne. She leans on another childhood friend, David Patton, for help—but every clue they uncover seems to lead to an unimaginable conclusion. As she gets closer and closer to the truth, Evie becomes convinced that the killer is still at large—and that he’s coming back for her.

It was page 244 when I reached that spot—the place where I couldn’t read but I couldn’t not read. Where I would read a page or two, then close the book and try to calm myself for a few seconds before reading another page or two. That, to me, is the sign of a good mystery.

I really liked the main character, Evie. She was plucky, brave, and trusted her own instincts—not always easy when you’re 21—and although she questions herself occasionally and has the odd panic attack, she generally kept her head under pressure. It’s the non-pressure times when she has difficulties, when her imagination runs wild and gets the better of her.

What really sticks in my head about the book is the constant presence of threat in women’s lives—Charles Manson & Art Sawchuk in Evie’s mother’s life. Paul Bernardo in Evie’s work life (part of her job is to sit outside his house as the police look for evidence of murder) and an unknown stalker in her personal life; the murder of her best friend when they were little girls. That constant knowledge that as a woman you have to be careful and keep your wits about you. As Evie tells a fellow reporter in the bar one evening:

Here’s a handy rule of thumb for you. When you get attacked, it’ll be someone you know. So that’s comforting, right? I was explaining this to him since in a future lifetime he might have to be a girl, and if I didn’t tell him this stuff, how would he protect himself? Intimate partners = forty-five percent of assaults. Once you add in your pals, that guy who handed you a beer at the party, and creepy great-uncle Joseph, there’s almost no room left for strangers.

I remember the Paul Bernardo/Karla Homolka murder trials that Evie is covering for her newspaper. I’m sure many other younger Canadian women will remember the Pickton farm in the same way (especially since there was an episode of Criminal Minds that seemed to be based on the Pickton case). I also think of the many missing and murdered aboriginal women that white male politicians don’t seem to care about. It’s easy to say that missing women are not a problem when you’re not aboriginal and not a woman and are never going to be.

In The Gift of Fear, the author attributes a quote to Margaret Atwood: “Men are afraid that women will laugh at them. Women are afraid that men will kill them.” I don’t know if Ms. Atwood actually said this, but I think the second half of the statement holds a measure of truth. I think of how hard I have to work to avoid the creepy building super who calls me sweetheart instead of my name. And I ignore it because I may actually need that son-of-a-bitch’s help someday, when the heat goes wonky or the upstairs neighbour’s plumbing leaks yet again. And women all over the world are living this way. Evie’s father, her friend David, and the police all want her to be okay and feel safe, even when it’s obvious that she isn’t okay and definitely does not feel safe—pretty typical of the men in any woman’s life.

But I really do think that society is getting better at this stuff—police take stalking much more seriously than they used to, murdered & missing women are getting much more media coverage, and everyone is paying more attention to equality. Still, as Evie’s mother points out, women read a lot of true crime, probably as a survival manual.

Wednesday, 6 May 2015

The Orenda / Joseph Boyden

5 out of 5 stars

In the remote winter landscape a brutal massacre and the kidnapping of a young Iroquois girl violently re-ignites a deep rift between two tribes. The girl’s captor, Bird, is one of the Huron Nation’s great warriors and statesmen. Years have passed since the murder of his family, and yet they are never far from his mind. In the girl, Snow Falls, he recognizes the ghost of his lost daughter, but as he fights for her heart and allegiance, small battles erupt into bigger wars as both tribes face a new, more dangerous threat from afar.

Traveling with the Huron is Christophe, a charismatic missionary who has found his calling among the tribe and devotes himself to learning and understanding their customs and language. An emissary from distant lands, he brings much more than his faith to this new world, with its natural beauty and riches.

As these three souls dance with each other through intricately woven acts of duplicity, their social, political and spiritual worlds collide - and a new nation rises from a world in flux.

It’s hard to even begin writing about The Orenda, which is a powerful history of the Canadian nation. We Caucasian Canadians often forget that our history didn’t begin with the fur traders, the explorers, and the missionaries, that there were long established civilizations in the New World which had their own languages, values, and inter-group relations. Joseph Boyden reminds us of our Eurocentric bias and he is very much the man for the job. He is of Scots, Irish, and Anishinaabe (which you may know as Ojibwa or Algonquin) heritage, educated in a Jesuit school, spending plenty of his childhood in the Georgian Bay area, and still spending time hunting, trapping, and practicing many of the skills which he describes in The Orenda.

Boyden does a masterful job of sharing the praise and the blame equally among the three groups represented in The Orenda, the Jesuits, the Wendat (Huron) and the Haudenosaune (Iroquois). Even Jesuit Père Christophe eventually realizes that the “sauvages” have real, vibrant civilizations, plus great kindness, and he recognizes their basic humanity (which, remember, the Spanish conquistadores did not in South America—they treated the native populations as sub-human). And in the end, Bird, the Wendat leader, recognizes the strength and bravery of the Jesuit priest (who grows into it, to be sure). Boyden can accomplish this because he has a foot in both camps, ancestors on both sides of the divide.

I know that many people have difficulty with the torture depicted in the novel. I look at it as a historical fact—all three of these groups were practicing it, the Wendat and Haudenosaune against each other and the Catholic Church via the Inquisition. And there is still plenty of inhumanity in the world, whether is it through war, annexation of territory, the “rendering” of political prisoners, or beheading videos on the internet.

It would be too easy to set up the Jesuits as the bad guys in a novel like this—and Boyden gives us a much more nuanced view of the situation. The priests do have what they consider to be a higher calling (to convert Indians to Christianity), but they also become aware that they are being used by France to gain territory and hold influence over native populations. None of this would have been possible if the native populations hadn’t wanted the trade goods that were being offered—if they had refused to trade and had only provided resistance, the history of North America could be significantly different. But like all humans, they wanted the new, shiny objects and never imagined that acquiring would involve losing their souls, much like the Third World today is wanting First World technology without realizing that with it comes First World culture. I saw this so clearly when in Bhutan in 2010—the young people were so excited to get connected to the internet, to welcome visitors, to join technological society, but we as outsiders could see that much of what makes their country unique and valuable was very much endangered by exactly those things. And yet, who could deny them their chance to join the 21st century?

I wonder if Boyden will ever re-visit some of the surviving characters in a future novel? I would be very interested in hearing their further adventures if he ever does so. In the meantime, I will certainly be willing to check out his other writing.

Tuesday, 5 May 2015

The Ginger Man / J. P. Donleavy

2 out of 5 stars
First published in Paris in 1955 and originally banned in America, J. P. Donleavy's first novel is now recognized the world over as a masterpiece and a modern classic of the highest order. Set in Ireland just after World War II, The Ginger Man is J. P. Donleavy's wildly funny, picaresque classic novel of the misadventures of Sebastian Dangerfield, a young American ne'er-do-well studying at Trinity College in Dublin. Dangerfield's appetite for women, liquor, and general roguishness is insatiable--and he satisfies it with endless charm.

Before starting this novel, it would be helpful to review two definitions:

1. Satire: the use of humor, irony, exaggeration, or ridicule to expose and criticize people's stupidity or vices, particularly in the context of contemporary politics and other topical issues.

2. Picaresque: of or relating to an episodic style of fiction dealing with the adventures of a rough and dishonest but appealing hero.

I started reading The Ginger Man without reviewing those principles and nearly quit in disgust. Even after getting those concepts clear in my head, I was able to merely tolerate the main character. Sebastian Dangerfield is truly a bastard, totally consumed with drinking, smoking, eating, and seducing women, all while doing absolutely no work (or study) and paying as few bills as possible. In other words, I had great difficulty with seeing him as an appealing main character.

You’ve probably run into one of these characters at some point in your life—if he would just put as much effort into a job as he puts into avoiding getting a job, he would have the money that he so desperately desires. Those of us who live responsible lives watch these cads with fascination and revulsion—most of us wouldn’t be able to withstand the mental strain that they navigate on a daily basis, leading me to believe that they are either narcissists or sociopaths, who simply don’t feel the responsibilities of civilized life in the way that most of us do. [Wikipedia informs me that this book is reputedly semi-autobiographical for Donleavy, making me wonder what kind of person he is].

I’ve also read a later book of Donleavy’s, The Beastly Beatitudes of Balthazar B, which is somewhat different in tone. Balthazar is a somewhat more sympathetic character, portrayed as a confused victim in life, manipulated by those around him (somewhat like O’Keefe in The Ginger Man). But Balthazar’s friend Beefy is another version of Dangerfield. I’m also curious about the title, The Ginger Man. It is never explained and Dangerfield doesn’t refer to himself as the ginger man until page 255 and not again until the very last page. If the cover is any indication, it refers to Dangerfield’s hair colour, as he is illustrated as a red head. So that remains a bit of a question in my mind.

Part of my issue, I am sure, is that I am female and tend to identify with the women in the novel. I was frustrated with their behaviour as well. Why in the world would his wife leave Sebastian a forwarding address the first time she left him? And those single women whom Sebastian seduces—what in the world do they see in him? I want to shake each and every one of them!

One of my female friends recommended Donleavy’s writing to me and I chose this book because it was on the Modern Library’s list of 100 top novels. Obviously other people find it amusing and worthwhile to read. I cannot count myself among them, however, despite the skillfulness of the writing. I think this is the last Donleavy work that I will read. There are too many books that I’m sure I will enjoy to spend my valuable reading time on this author.

Monday, 4 May 2015

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks / Rebecca Skloot

3 out of 5 stars
Henrietta Lacks, as HeLa, is known to present-day scientists for her cells from cervical cancer. She was a poor Southern tobacco farmer who worked the same land as her slave ancestors, yet her cells were taken without her knowledge and still live decades after her death. Cells descended from her may weigh more than 50M metric tons.

HeLa cells were vital for developing the polio vaccine; uncovered secrets of cancer, viruses, and the atom bomb’s effects; helped lead to important advances like in vitro fertilization, cloning, and gene mapping; and have been bought and sold by the billions. Yet Henrietta Lacks was buried in an unmarked grave.

The journey starts in the “colored” ward of Johns Hopkins Hospital in the 1950s, her small, dying hometown of Clover, Virginia — wooden slave quarters, faith healings, and voodoo. Today are stark white laboratories with freezers full of HeLa cells, East Baltimore children and grandchildren live in obscurity, see no profits, and feel violated. The dark history of experimentation on African Americans helped lead to the birth of bioethics, and legal battles over whether we control the stuff we are made of.

A book like this makes me realize how important education in general and particularly science education is. Today’s science is yesterday’s magic—for those who don’t understand science, it can seem like very frightening black magic. The story of Henrietta Lacks explores the intersection between science, research, education, capitalism, civil rights, and consent.

The major question implicit in this book is whether we have any claim to our own cells after they have been removed from our bodies. Is it ethical to take “discarded” cells—those left over after medical procedures—and do research from them and potentially make money from either the cells or the research. This issue gets us down somewhere in our irrational subconscious—after all, we all “know” enough about voodoo and black magic to know that curses require hair, nail clippings, blood, or other bodily secretions in order to be effective.

In many ways, the story of the HeLa cell line traces the history of medical research in the US (and to some extent, other countries), evolving from the exploitation of vulnerable people towards the concept of informed consent. It also traces the history of an African American family, liberated from slavery, but not from poverty and deprivation.

The current distrust of science has some real roots in situations like these, where people were used without their knowledge for experimental purposes. But the lack of scientific literacy in the general population helps with the proliferation of conspiracy theories and the prevalence of medical quackery. Witness all the “miracle cures” that people buy into. One older lady that I used to work with was always pouring money into some miracle weight loss scheme or another—it didn’t seem to occur to her that if the method actually worked, it would be front page news on Time magazine, not some obscure ad in the back of a newspaper.

We have to seriously question ourselves and our politicians about the quality of our educational systems. Are they being funded? Do we have enough teachers? Can poor children hope to get education equal to that of rich children?

As my grandfather used to say, no education is wasted.

Friday, 1 May 2015

The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes / Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

4 out of 5 stars
If you are an enthusiastic reader of crime/noir/mystery novels, at some point you should get back to its roots—by reading The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes. Sir Arthur set many of the patterns which can still be observed in the modern genre novel.

Sherlock Holmes is an eccentric expert—but he defines the crime expert, what with his monographs on cigar ash, his studies of foot prints, and his encyclopedic knowledge of the history of crime. Many of the heroes of today’s literature are forensic anthropologists, FBI agents, and police detectives, people with formidable and specialized expertise in their fields. Holmes was multifaceted, in that he was also an expert boxer and an amateur violin player. It reminds me of Patricia Cornwell’s Kay Scarpetta, who is also a wonderful cook and who cooks to clear her mind of the case at hand—just as Holmes works on his chemistry experiments or plays his violin in order to come at a problem obliquely.

Especially prescient was Conan Doyle’s depiction of what we would now call profiling, getting into the mind of another person and using that insight to catch the criminal. It is especially pronounced when Holmes is dealing with his nemesis, Professor Moriarty—he bases his judgments of Moriarty’s next moves upon what he himself would do. They are equally matched.

Many of our favourite 21st century protagonists also have their Dr. Watson, a sidekick who can assist as necessary and provide an ear to listen to the latest theory, thereby filling in the reader on what is happening in the main character’s mind. Think Benton Wesley or Pete Marino for Kay Scarpetta (Cornwell) or Amelia Sachs with Lincoln Rhyme (Deaver). The Scandinavian noir writers seem to prefer the isolated expert—like Holmes, who has only 1 or 2 friends and absolutely refuses a romantic relationship, the Scandinavian main characters are frequently divorced, unable to maintain healthy relationships with their girlfriends and/or children, and generally somewhat socially isolated. For example, Henning Mankell’s Wallander, Arnaldur Indridason’s Erlandur, or Yrsa Sigudardottir’s Thora Gudmundsdottir.

Of interest to me was the story which I think we would all think of as The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time—the dog which didn’t bark, indicating that it knew the man who entered the barn. Conan Doyle called this story Silver Blaze, after the stolen horse of the tale. Also interesting to me was the Adventure of the Speckled Band, in which Holmes foils a plot involving a trained venomous snake. This snake was trained to respond to a whistle—not a physical possibility for snakes, which cannot hear air-borne sound waves. Realistically, the criminal might have recalled his pet by thumping on the wall, causing vibrations which the creature might have picked up through its lower jaw (but then if it was busy biting the inhabitant of the bed in the next room, it would likely miss even this cue.)

An interesting and entertaining series of stories, albeit a trifle repetitious when read one after the other in this volume. They would have been much more effective when read one at a time, as they would have been at the time of publication. Many of the prejudices of the 1890s are firmly on display, making this an interesting historical document as well. I wonder what our literature will reveal about us to future generations?