27 December, 2012

I Love Short Stories

John Joseph Adams, ed.

A collection of Sherlock Holmes stories by people other than Conan Doyle which does not, quite, live up to the expectations raised by the title and conception of the collection. One is lead to believe, both by the title and by the blurb on the back cover, that these are stories which will have some connexion with the unexplained, with superstition, with the paranormal; and some of them do, though not as many as i would have expected in an anthology of over two dozen stories. This is not to say that i did not enjoy the book, or that the stories are of a poor quality; merely that the organising principle seems not to have been chosen as carefully, or maybe logically, as possible. In fact, i did enjoy the book; many of the stories are good; a couple of them excellent, of the highest quality possible, both as Holmes stories and as short stories in themselves.

In particular, i refer to one by Naomi Novik which, written from the perspective of Irene Adler, posits a theory about Holmes and Watson and gives an excellent suggestion as to why the former kept from the latter his survival at Reichenback Falls for so long; i have not read anything by Novik previously, but on the basis of this story i am quite happy to trace what else she has written and give it a try.

I also am referring to a story by Neil Gaiman, whose name i have come across but whose works not, which is a superb alternate reality retelling of the first novel, A Study in Scarlet. It is interesting how many authors have found themselves compelled to continue the adventures of Holmes and, usually, Watson over the past century; i cannot think of another character in fiction who has attracted so much attention from people not the original author. 

19 December, 2012

How the Rich Lived

F. Scott Fitzgerald

I was, i reckon, in Grade Nine or Ten when i read this book previously; that makes it thirtyeight or thirtynine years ago. I remember discussing it in Mr. Plummer's class ~ if that is how he spelled his name ~ outside, enjoying the sunshine, in the courtyard at UHill; i wonder if that lovely little area still exists for use by relaxing students and kind teachers. As i recall ~ unfortunately, i remember more about the circumstances than i do about my response to the book ~ i was not overly enthusiastic about Gatsby the first time around; seems to me, though, that might well have been my general response to set books as i have always been happier with mine own choices for reading directions ~ despite some excellent direction from great teachers, PCW (Loretto), Sister Pires (AUR), and Barb Baker (UHill) among them. This time around, however, i found myself enjoying the book far more than i did ( i suspect i have matured greatly as a reader, if no other way, over the years), and am prepared to find and read more Fitzgerald, which makes the thing a success by my criterion.

What did i like? The characters are clearly drawn, with very little given that is not needed or used again to further the plot; that certainly doesn't make them likeable, but they are manageable and not a challenge to the reader. The plot itself is simple, straightforward, which is reader-friendly; a love-story of sorts, or a tale of an accidental death, or an example of how the rich might live and die. We shall have to wait and see what other Fitzgeralds come my way to see what else i read and how that will integrate and build mine opinion of him as a writer; at any rate, i shall be on the lookout for them.

14 December, 2012

But i did like it...

Gerald Griffin

This is one of two books i wrote a squirt on recently, the essential information being the guilt that they were generating in me because of mine inability to make myself work all the way through to the end. I am now glad to point out that, obviously, i have finished The Collegians and, while it probably will never become one of my favourite books, it is not, in totality, as bad as i was finding it in the actual reading. Faint praise, i know, but not intended to be damning. There were, i think, two things about the book which made it difficult for me to fully enjoy reading it: I tend to dislike reading works which try to show accent or dialect through the text, and in particular i dislike the production of the Irish dialect here (and common elsewhere) which when pronounced in my mind does not seem to sound like any Irish i have ever heard; and secondly i had difficulties because the expectations raised in me by the book and its circumstances were different from those it was intended to fulfil.

For the first, perhaps mine exposure simply is not great enough, but i find an accent (dialect) written such that “-st-” is shown as “-sth-” and “-ea-” sometimes as “-a-” and sometimes as “-ai-” unconvincing. While i admit that presenting “-th-” as “-d-”consistently is acceptable, to represent what i hear i would use “-t-” myself. There are other questions i found based on the orthographic conventions Griffin used, but these are enough to give a flavour of mine objection. There is also a sprinkling, fairly heavy at times, to be honest, of Gaelic words thrown in, sometimes with translation, sometimes not, which also helped in the process of slowing me down. That, i think, is the heart of this difficulty for me: I read fast, over five hundred words a minute when last i was timed, and i dislike having to slow down, be confused, having to think about the actual words being used rather than the meaning, concepts, or action they present. Thus, i was not altogether happy with The Collegians because it slowed me down rather dramatically ~ at a guess, no more than two hundred words a minute on average as i read it.

The second point i mentioned which made it difficult for me to read this novel i have identified as mine own expectations. I purchased the book as part of a set of “classic mysteries”, or some such phrase the use of which raised certain images in my mind as to what i was going to read. This book does not fit those images. I was expecting a novel along the lines of, say, A Study in Scarlet, or The Mysterious Affair of Styles, rather than what i got. The fault here is certainly not Griffin's; he wrote as he chose, and wrote well, too. If there is any fault other than mine, it would go to whoever chose to market the novel in this fashion, setting up parallels in a reader's mind which are not going to be fulfilled. Though there is a murder, there is scarce any mystery ~ other than, for a short time, of whether the murder has been committed. There is no detective; hardly any detecting, to be honest, simply an investigation by the coroner which comes to no conclusion. These points are irrelevant, though, to be truthful, as the book ~ any book ~ should stand or fall on its own merits, and i believe that this one does stand fairly. I suspect, having read it now, and able to get my preconceptions in line, i may read it again at some point in the future, giving it another chance, so to speak, to present itself to me properly. Should that happen, i anticipate enjoying it (other than the dialect!) more.

12 December, 2012

Hela, hela hello

Rebecca Skloot

As i has happened in the past, i am caused fascination by the effect on my brain that this book had, as well as by the book itself. This is the story of Henrietta Lacks, the woman behind the HeLa line of cells, a line which is proving to be essentially immortal, which has been of incredible importance in the history of medical research over the past sixty years. Actually, like all good books of its kind, this is far more than just the story of Lacks; it is also the story of her family, of some of how the cell line has been used by scientists, the story of how Lacks' family was treated and maybe exploited by those scientists, and the story of how Skloot herself tracked down and developed her story.

First, though, i want to focus on what is always, perforce, first to my attention: Mine own brain, mind, and their reactions to the book. I knew from the instant that i saw the title on the library shelf what the essential subject of the book was; how? I have no idea at all of how i knew who “Henrietta Lacks” was or what HeLa is, but i did; i can imagine, and have, that i may have read a Reader's Digest article once upon a time, or somehow come across the name in an “A” level or university biology class or text. The problem, though, with both those scenarios, and any other i can think of, is that Skloot documents pretty thoroughly where Lacks' story was told in the Seventies and Eighties, and they don't seem to fit in with her time-lines, and my “feeling of knowledge” for lack of a better term, meaning how it feels to me, when it seems that i learnt it, is that i have known this for that long. So i am left puzzled by mine own knowledge: How did i know this? Where had i come across HeLa, and how had i heard the name Henrietta Lacks? More than that, there were other, more obscure, points in Skloot's narrative that were not ~ or did not seem to be ~ new to me; either i have read in some detail in the past of this subject, or i have just been the victim (if that's the correct word) of a particularly elaborate deja vu episode. And the latter possibility worries me, because if it is true then i cannot trust my knowledge about my knowledge.

Enough self-indulgent maundering, and on to the book itself. As mentioned above, it is far more than just a review of historical facts about a scientific advance. The most touching parts of the book are those when Skloot describes the way that the whole of Lacks' family have suffered, been taken advantage of, with the essential justification ~ whether or not the scientists involved consciously thought it ~ that the end justified the means, that it was not illegal, and they were Black and uneducated and therefore second- or third-class citizens anyway. How completely they had been abused by the process is shown in the levels of suspicion that Skloot had to fight through before she was able to earn the trust of the family. The story is horrible; Skloot tells it with such compassion that the reader is fully drawn in and made a part of it, as happens with the best of fiction.

01 December, 2012

Where we (politically) came from

Walter Ullmann

This has taken some weeks to read ~ i remember sitting in the grounds of the Plas in the sunshine reading it, two or three times, and it's a month since we had that kind of weather, having just finished the wettest April on record in these Isles ~ but that is because of its density, detail, and interest to me rather than any implication of avoiding it on my part.

Ullmann has taken one of my real interests and developed it, showing both how the theories of government in the Middle Ages developed from and supported the practice of governing in Antiquity and the Middle Ages, and how the modern world is itself a development from the Middle Ages ~ a point dear to my heart, and forgotten or, more possibly, never learned or, even more likely, actively ignored, by the political classes in this country today.

Much there was here that i did not know previously, despite my supposed study of MediƦval times, and it was fascinating to watch the growth, as Ullmann showed it, of the over-arching sovereignty of the Bishop of Rome, both over the Church and the secular rulers of most of Western Europe. I had not realised that the Popes had such a positive programme of increasing their power; i had assumed that they wanted to but not that they actually planned it and used theology and philosophy to actively promote their programme. Also interesting is the point Ullmann makes that countries (primarily England) with a feudal structure were less affected by the top-down view of sovereignty which the Popes attempted to impose (quite successfully), as they already had a form of bottom-up permission for rule; i had not fully understood previously the almost complete difference which feudalism made to the history of the British Isles. Altogether, this was one of the more interesting and educational books i have read in some time; good choice to pick it up on a market stall.