Monday, February 25, 2013

"A Study in Scarlet" by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (1887)

Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson. It's like someone made half the shows on the BBC into a book!

Honestly, where would modern story telling be without Sherlock Holmes? There would be no Law & Order TV series, no CSI, or Monk, or Psych. There would be no Dick Tracy, no Murder She Wrote, no Columbo. The world would have been deprived of Alex Cross novels, there would be no Sue Grafton or John Grisham. I mean, no Pink Panther? I don't think any one wants to live in that world.

This is the first book ever featuring Sherlock Holmes. This was the first time you'd read a Holmes book before (which is pretty embarrassing) and it was also the first eBook you'd ever read from beginning to end (which is not so embarrassing). Generally, you are not a fan of eBooks, not because of the format, but because the lack of a real physical copy prevents you from proudly displaying the fact that you've read the book where everyone can see it. Like big game hunters with the heads of their kills, you enjoy showing off the spine of your most prized conquests to anyone who happens to enter your home. Your friend Mark calls this obsession "book porn," and it's not one of your most attractive habits.

You were waiting in a line some damn place a month or so ago, and found yourself without a book to pass the time. You panicked for a moment, but suddenly you remembered that your trusty iPhone has dozens of free copies of works that are old enough for their trademarks to have lapsed into the public domain. You promptly opened to "A Study in Scarlet" and started reading it right there in line. The book proved enjoyable enough that you've been reading it in random lines ever since.

The first half (and some of the second half) of the book is written in the first person, something you'd never realized in all the years you'd heard cultural references to Sherlock Holmes. It is written from the perspective of Dr. John Watson, a veteran who was wounded at the Battle of Maiwand during the war in Afghanistan. (No, the OTHER war in Afghanistan. This one was England's second war there, the most recent is their fourth or fifth there, depending on how you count them.) After recovering from his wounds, Dr. Watson returns home to London and is very clearly frustrated in his attempts to integrate back into the civilian world. In today's society Dr. Watson would have been quickly diagnosed with PTSD but in 19th century England, he would have been expected to keep a stiff upper lip and carry on, something he proves decidedly unable to do. He quickly finds himself out of motivation, out of money, and in need of a room mate to alleviate the financial burden of simply paying rent.

Enter Sherlock Holmes.

Holmes is busy tinkering away in the laboratory of St. Bartholomew's hospital (Barts is still, to this day, the oldest hospital in London) when he and Dr. Watson are introduced to each other by a mutual friend who knows that both are searching for a room mate. Holmes has found a nice place at 221B Baker street that he can't really afford. Even though Watson has been warned of Holmes' oddness and eccentricities, he finds his new friend to be the perfect remedy for his own shiftless inactivity and agrees to the arrangement. Their introductions were so charming as to be worthy of being quoted at length.

After deciding they should room together Sherlock begins, "Let me see -- what are my other shortcomings? I get in the dumps at times, and don't open my mouth for days on end. You must not think I am sulky when I do that. Just let me alone, and I'll soon be right. What have you to confess now? It's just as well for two fellows to know the worst of one another before they begin to live together."

I laughed at this cross-examination. "I keep a bull pup," I said, "and I object to rows because my nerves are shaken, and I get up at all sorts of ungodly hours, and I am extremely lazy. I have another set of vices when I'm well, but those are the principal ones at present."

You loved this moment because it got to the core of their relationship so well. Each member of this legendary duo brings out the essential honesty in the other, enabling them to quickly get to the essence of the business at hand. They cut to the quick from the first moment they meet. This relationship serves them well in their ensuing adventure. Holmes is known by two of the inspectors at Scotland Yard (Lestrade and  Gregson) for his observational brilliance and is quickly brought on as a consultant to help them investigate a mysterious murder, and then another one, both of which he promptly solves.

And then the whole story line changes!

Suddenly Sir Arthur Conan Doyle pulls you from England to a far away desert in the American Southwest. Gone is the foggy urban London setting with which you have become so familiar, gone is Dr. Watson's charming first person perspective, and gone is Sherlock Holmes' insightful, almost unbelievable analysis. The back-story to the crime Holmes has just solved is layed out for you, and it evens gets a Later Day Saints twist. Brigham Young himself makes an appearance! The explanation and justification for the previously mysterious murders soon becomes clear and Watson's voice returns to give a charming end to the story.

What struck you about the book was how easily accessible the language and writing style was to a 35 year old, 21st century American suburbanite. Conan Doyle knew his material well enough to impart Holmes with a healthy dose of brilliance, but he also knew to keep his hero's behavior odd enough to always keep Holmes feeling human. Holmes is obtuse at times, and dismissive. He can be remarkably helpful one moment, but frustratingly tight lipped the next. You were swept right along with Dr. Watson (and millions of other readers over the last 130 years) and became an instant fan of this Sherlock Holmes character.

Luckily the BBC has a new and phenomenal series called Sherlock based on the Holmes stories, and all of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's works are loaded onto your iPhone so there are plenty of adventures to be had with Watson and Holmes. This will be fun. The game is afoot!

On to the next book!

Friday, February 22, 2013

"Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter" by Seth Grahame-Smith (2010)

Wait... Lincoln was a what?

This is a work of fiction (obviously) but it reads like non-fiction. You started this blog with a non-fiction book that read like fiction, so it is fitting that you flipped that notion over and read a book like this with such a ridiculous premise. A few years ago Seth Grahame-Smith, starting a trend in the world of fiction, wrote "Pride and Prejudice and Zombies". You haven't read any of the other titles in this over-the-top genre, but you did find the notion of a world where Abraham Lincoln (your son's namesake) stalks vampires and wields his axe with a thirst for vengeance to be too absurdly enjoyable to pass up. Plus, you wanted to have at least one negative review on this blog.

But here's the thing... you ended up liking "Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter."

The format is interesting, with its mix of third person narrative interspersed with Abraham Lincoln's first person "secret" uncovered personal diaries. Revelation follows revelation and you soon find that the greatest vampire hunter in the history of the United States was also its greatest president.

Yes, the premise is preposterous, and yes, turning a man revered in American history into a vengeful blood-soaked vampire killer boarders on blasphemy, but that's kind of what is so intriguing about the book.

It's fun to shake up preconceptions. It's good to challenge truth.

One of the things that you liked so much about the book was how difficult it was to discern where the history ended and the fiction began. Sure, once old Honest Abe's axe blade is smashing some vampire's brains out, you're clearly in the fiction part, but how did he get to that battle from from his job in the Illinois Legislature? At what point does Lincoln step out of the real world and into the fantasy? Grahame-Smith makes it hard to tell!

Of course, the author has plenty of opportunity for embellishment provided by the realities of the 19th century. People who lived along side Abraham Lincoln died all the time, and the causes were not always exactly crystal clear. Disease, poisonings, murder.. until a good way into the 20th century, death was everywhere, claiming the young and healthy as well as the old and infirm. The cause of all these deaths all too often remained shrouded in mystery.

Lincoln's grandfather was murdered in 1786 by Shawnee indians while working his fields, but how do we know that those indians weren't really murderous vampires? The killers were never caught. Abraham Lincoln really did suffer from recurring and vivid nightmares, who's to say they weren't a sort of PTSD echo of his exploits combating the undead? There is no way of knowing for sure. Lincoln and Stephen Douglas really were lifelong rivals, they both courted Mary Todd, and they both ran for US Senate and for President. And when he was defeated in the 1860 election by his old rival, Douglas really did go on a tour of the border states warning of the dangers of secession, and he really did die suddenly after that tour. Who knows if he really was killed by the very vampires he had once befriended? These fantastical plot points are easy to smile at and dismiss, but they cleave so well to established history that they become hard to separate from the lore of Lincoln.

This surprised you and also brought up a question in your mind. Isn't the mythology of Abraham Lincoln a bit of fantasy even without the vampires? No man could really have been as incredible as the 16th President of the United States has been made out to be. Not really. No real human being could ever live up to the legendary status that Lincoln occupies in the minds of so many. Surely some of the stories we cherish aren't true either. Undoubtedly Lincoln was a flawed man who was not truly larger than life. You know this. And yet you still named your son after him.

"Abraham Lincoln: Vampire hunter" reminded you of a central tenant of the human experience. We choose the stories we decide are important. Luke Skywalker doesn't exist any more than Lincoln's vampires, but that doesn't mean Luke's story isn't meaningful. Just because a story isn't true, doesn't mean it can't teach you something. Sometimes we tell made up stories to illuminate meaningful truths, and the truth told in this preposterous book, the overarching theme, is that slavery was one of the purest forms of evil.

It is tempting sometimes to encapsulate American slavery as a historical anomaly, something long-dead people experienced centuries ago, something that has no bearing on our society today. It is easier sometimes to attempt to gloss over the horrors of this despicable practice and argue about "states' rights" or to get caught up in an argument that ignores the evil in our past. This book makes no such attempt.

In this alternate universe, slavery enables vampires. The two are caught up together in an almost parasitical relationship. Evil feeding evil. Vampires avoid hiding their true nature, become slave owners and perversely grow their own meals. In a twisted, fantasy world, a brilliant clarity emerges. If slave owners had really done this, if they had really feasted on their slaves, no one would have known, and only a few would have cared. After all, what you did with your "property" was your business. And in a sense, by building a society and an economy upon the backs of the oppressed, by enriching themselves through the forced misery of others, isn't that what slave owners really did anyway?

Early in the book, a young Abraham Lincoln witnesses an atrocity perpetuated on a few newly purchased slaves, and realizes that his fight against vampires will never be over unless slavery is ended. The real Lincoln was motivated by logic and compassion for his fellow Americans to fight against the institution of slavery, but Grahame-Smith's Lincoln is fueled by a fanatical drive to defeat another evil as well. Highlighting how pernicious human enslavement was by equating it with the supernatural exploits of the blood-thirsty undead clarified for you, more than ever before, how destructive and wicked slavery truly was. After finishing the book you thanked God and Abraham Lincoln that such evil is gone from America now.

Sometimes the silliest books can remind you of the most important truths.

On to the next book!

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

"At Home" by Bill Bryson (2010)

If history without context is empty, then this book is bursting at the seams. It's nothing BUT context.

Bill Bryson wrote two of your favorite non-fiction books, "Mother Tongue" and "A Short History of Nearly Everything." His wit and wry observations always keep you laughing through any subject matter and add a level of charm to his work that you don't usually find in the non-fiction section of book stores. "At Home" doesn't disappoint. It is wonderfully readable.

In "At Home," Bryson decided to discover the answers to all sorts of little questions that arose as he walked through his charming little home in the English country side. He realized quite suddenly one day that history is really just "masses of people doing ordinary things." He also realized that no one had ever really written a history book about those ordinary things, so he decided to write one himself.

Each chapter is named after a room in the house although sometimes the connection between the room and the subject matter is a bit arbitrary, as in the chapter about the study, which is mostly about the shocking number of critters we humans live alongside. But this random connection between places and subject matter is part of the fun of the book. You never know where history will take you, and you never know where Bryson's imagination and insatiable curiosity will take you either. One moment your are deep in the details of the life of servants in the Victorian England, and the next you are pondering the clothing and tools found on a prehistoric mummified corpse found frozen in the Alps.

One of the things you loved about "At Home," and about most of Bryson's books, is how easy it is to pick up and read. The book has a loose enough narrative arc that you could really just pick it up and read any page at random and find some new fascinating thing to go annoy your endlessly patient wife with.

As with many other non-fiction books you were tempted to dog ear every other page to mark some random fact you wanted to remember. This blog is supposed to be a reminder to you of what you've read and what you don't want to forget, but with a book as filled with so many shocking facts about the most seemingly mundane things, there is the temptation to just make a list of the hundreds of points you want to remember. But that would be a pretty boring blog.

What is not boring is how rich the subject of human history really is. What "At Home" reminded you of is the same realization that Howard Zinn's "A People's History of the United States" evokes, the realization that history isn't just what important men and big governments have done over the years. History is what all of us do every day. All of us, from the Queen of England down to the lowest scullery maid, are all part of the same story.

Above all, "At Home" has a quality to it that you found familiar... Wonder. Bryson is fascinated by the most seemingly inconsequential things, and his curiosity echoes your own wonder at how endlessly interesting the world is. Everything and everyone has a story and they are all constantly irresistible to both Bryson and to you.

As far as listing the most fascinating parts of the book, there is no way to fit them all into one blog post. A word of advice, hold on to this book. You'll want to read it again.

On to the next book!