Friday, February 26, 2010

The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes

When I was a kid, my Dad had wanted me to read his old Sherlock Holmes books. I never did, and now that I've finally read The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, I really wish I'd heeded Dad's advice at the time. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's short stories about his beloved detective are enjoyable, and Holmes is a fascinating character, but I would have absolutely adored these stories as a thirteen-year-old.

The Adventures is a collection of twelve stories which were published in the Strand Magazine from 1891-1892. All are narrated by Holmes' friend and colleague Dr. Watson. As Watson frames each story, the reader gleans just a little about Holmes' life and personality. The two men had been roommates until Watson's recent marriage, and Watson holds Holmes in the highest of regards. I'd always pictured Holmes as quite the stuffy Brit, so I was surprised to learn on the first page that he flirted with both cocaine and morphine at times.

The stories are a bit formulaic, which makes sense as they'd been a magazine serial. Each story begins with a page or two about how the current client came to tell his or her story to our dear detective. After each tale, Holmes, or Watson, or both of them exclaim something to the effect of "This is a most unique case!" Then Holmes (usually with Watson in tow) goes to the scene of the crime, toodles around for some period of time, and returns after proving his prevailing hypothesis. Holmes solves all the cases by being exceedingly observant (based on the number of mud splotches on your left sleeve, it is clear that you were on the passenger seat of a two-person horse-and-buggy, driving at great speeds the morning after a rain storm) and applying logic (clearly the stepfather stands to gain the most by these girls not marrying). He then presents his findings with Scooby-Doo dramatic flair, everyone gasping in surprise about what really happened.

All in all, these stories are a fun read, though they didn't blow me away. I would save their highest recommendation for young readers.

Up next: Rabbit, Run by John Updike

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Into the groove

I've been back at work for about three weeks now, and settling back into our groove thing has been much easier this time around. The Bug just started pre-school this week, and she's totally loving it. Though when we asked what she did all day, we learned she ate lunch and two snacks, and "had a little rest." Presumably more went on than that, but who can really say? The Bunny is thriving - girl's practically doubled her weight already - so clearly our ace babysitter's regimen is delivering.

That's not to say things are totally easy-peasy. Our days start at 5:30am (not counting any middle-of-the-night fracas) so that we can leave the house in just barely enough time for me to run for the 7:42 train. Evenings are the same drill: get home, cook dinner, eat dinner, bathe children, put them to bed... and hope the clock tells us it's closer to 8:30 than 9:00. The house could be cleaner and the laundry is generally piled up too high, but I've made peace with both of those things. Life's too short and carpe diem and all that.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Nineteen Eighty-Four

George Orwell's dystopian classic Nineteen Eighty-Four is so ubiquitous on bookshelves, high school English classes, best book lists, etc. that I was sure I had read it before. I pulled it off the shelf recently just for kicks... and when I saw on the first page that both "Big Brother" and "Thought Police" are not just figures of speech - that they are proper nouns in this book - I realized I actually never had read it. Sorry, Dad, I should have taken your advice and read this one years ago.

In this vision of the future, brutal totalitarian regimes have taken control of most of the world. In Oceania, comprised of most of the English-speaking world, the Party and its figurehead Big Brother are in control. Of everything. All aspects of daily life - from clothing to music to food - are controlled by the Party; poverty is widespread though the Party's communiques indicate production and consumption are up across the board. The Thought Police stamp out deviations in thought before they can even become rebellious actions. All citizens live under constant surveillance, and punishment of thoughtcriminals ranges from hard labor to public execution. It's an utterly depressing vision of a government that has beaten its citizens into submission using every means imaginable: torture, surveillance, censorship, propaganda.

Winston Smith lives a dreary, monotonous existence in London. He's a civil servant who is responsible for altering historical documents to further the Party's means. Though aware of the risk, he one day decides to buy a blank diary and begin to write in it. When he learns that the lovely Julia shares his dislike of the Party, the two embark on a secret love affair. Winston finds himself evading the Party to have sex for pleasure, to talk of the Party's fallibility and to otherwise give voice to his inner dissident. His actions are all in vain, of course - the Thought Police have had their eye on him for years.

Nineteen Eight-Four is one of those books that is a classic for a reason. It's superbly plotted and planned, the language and history of Oceania has been thoroughly detailed, and it is a truly fascinating read. I cannot believe I hadn't read it sooner.

Next up: Kafka on the Shore by Haruki Murakami

Thursday, February 11, 2010

The new math

So I know the metric system is whacky and all, but according to the sticker on the rolly-cart in our garage, it also employs some of that "new math" I can never get my head around. To wit, 114 kg plus 114 kg is apparently less than or equal to 227 kg.

This is why Europe will never get ahead. I mean, "250 lbs. plus 250 lbs. is less than or equal to 500 lbs." might be grandly stating the obvious, but at least standard measurement still uses the good old-fashioned math we all know and love.

Bonus points to anyone who can explain the point of this sticker.

Monday, February 8, 2010


I've been thinking about Toni Morrison's Beloved for days now, but have had trouble getting my thoughts together enough to write a review. Words like "haunting" or "powerful" or "masterpiece" feel cliche, despite their pointed accuracy. To say it is about slavery and its aftermath is a nearly criminal over-simplification.

As the novel opens a few years after the Civil War, Sethe is living alone with her teenage daughter Denver in a house that is haunted by the violent spirit of her older daughter. Even after heroically escaping from slavery with her three children (Denver being born along the way), Sethe has been unable to keep her family together. Her two sons left home because of the poltergeist, and Denver is angry and withdrawn. Sethe is proud and alone, shunned by the townspeople. All of this is observed by Paul D, another slave from the ironically named Sweet Home plantation, who arrives unexpectedly and joins their household. Shortly after he chases the ghost away, a mysterious young woman shows up, calling herself Beloved which is the name Sethe had given to the daughter she murdered.

In the present and in her "rememories," Sethe's act of murder somehow goes from being unthinkable to being somehow inevitable. Sethe had lived in freedom for about a month, and she would rather all her children be dead than be forced to return to captivity at Sweet Home. As Sethe relives this horrible chapter in her life, so does Beloved. While the former tries to explain her desperation, Beloved wants to make her pay for what she did. Paul D and Denver become near-casualties of this war between mother and daughter.

Morrison doesn't tell us of the horror of slavery, or explain to us why it was wrong. Though those truths have been accepted for over a century, there was a time when the ownership of other human beings was not cause for moral outrage. Her characters live during that time, and they have been shaped by something big and ugly. Morrison allows their actions and feelings to tell us what that was, and to give context for their ensuing actions. Sethe is an atypical heroine, strong and terrible, somehow sympathetic, and very memorable.

Beloved is amazingly well written, enjoyable to read even when it depicts scenes that are horrifying. It is a book that everyone should read.

Next up: 1984 by George Orwell for the commute; The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle to read at home

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Bahamas and St. Martin

Mima and Boppie just went on their very first cruise, where they stopped at San Juan, St. Martin and the Bahamas. While it would amuse me endlessly if I could report their dominance on the shuffleboard court, they really did get to see some pretty places, and they had a very relaxing time.

At St. Martin (also known as St. Maarten), they ditched the souvenir shops targeted at cruisers and spent time on a lovely beach.

I'm pretty sure their Bahamas adventure did not involve any birdwatching, but this postcard is right up the Bug's alley. We've spent the day naming and re-naming each of these lovely species, and she's quite convinced we'll see them all next time we go to the zoo.