Friday, September 28, 2012

The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes

Finished The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, published in 1894. This is Doyle's second collection of Holmes stories and was intended to be his last. The last story in the book, The Final Problem, implies that Holmes and his arch nemesis, Professor Moriarty, both fall to their deaths over the edge of the Reichenbach Falls in Switzerland. Conan Doyle wanted to concentrate on more serious writing projects, but public demand finally convinced him to bring his character back about a decade later. As always, I enjoyed these stories and look forward to Holmes' reappearance when I read The Return of Sherlock Holmes the next year.

On the Road

Finished On the Road by Jack Kerouac. Several friends have tried to read it in the last few years and disdained it as worthless and self indulgent. I was afraid I would have the same reaction, so I chose to listen to an audiobook recording. The book is read by Will Patton whose voice and style of reading is so exuberant, so over the top, that it made me absolutely adore this book. This was not at all the reaction I expected to have.

The book, written in stream of consciousness, outlines the travels of Sal Paradise (Kerouac) and his madman friend Dean Moriarty (Neal Cassady), back and forth across North America. Sal's narration is at times frank, at others utterly poetic. The two are searching for life, it's true experience, and its meaning. Yes, there's plenty of bumming, drinking, stealing, sex, and drug usage, but today, these things are far less shocking than they were when the book was first published in 1957. As major figures in the Beat Generation the two reject convention and materialism, only working when they run out of money to travel and eat. Dean is perhaps the most compulsive character I have ever encountered in literature. He is unable to resist taking that which he wants, whether it is an experience, a woman, a car or a direction to travel in. Sal follows Dean's lead throughout most of the book, traveling back and forth from New York to Denver, California and even Mexico. Wikipedia indicates "The name Moriarty is an Anglicized version of the Irish name Ó Muircheartaigh which originated in County Kerry in Ireland. Ó Muircheartaigh can be translated to mean navigator or sea worthy, as the Irish word muir means sea and cheart means correct." Dean is most certainly the navigator of their travels, even when Sal is not traveling with Dean, he is traveling toward him or anticipating his arrival for their next adventure.

Dean seems mad in his speech, his obsessions, his cravings and ravings. With a name like Moriarty I can't help but think of Arthur Conan Doyle's Professor Moriarty, who was the intellectual match of Sherlock Holmes, but, like Dean was also a madman. Sal and Dean are intellectually matched, but Sal is the one who grounds himself in the end, while Dean topples over the falls.

Professor Moriarty is on my mind since I just finished reading The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes and watching season 2 of Sherlock.

Thursday, September 27, 2012

The Matchlock Gun

Finished The Matchlock Gun by Walter D. Edmonds. It won the Newbery Medal in 1942. Set in Guilderland, New York in 1756, during the French and Indian War, it's the story of Edward Van Alstyne, a ten year old boy who defends his family's home with an ancient matchlock gun. The gun was brought to America from Holland by Edward's great-grandfather.

Before leaving with the militia to stop the French from advancing towards their settlement, Edward's father, Teunis, shows his son how the gun works. Once he is gone, Edward's mother, Gertrude, keeps Edward and his little sister Trudy close to the house. When bringing the family's two cows in for the evening, Gertrude notices a large plume of smoke in the distance. She realizes that nearby settlements are being burned by Indians.

She takes the children inside, bars the doors and shutters, then takes down the cumbersome matchlock gun. She loads the gun with lots of extra powder, the two bullets left in the mold, and an assortment of hard and sharp objects such as nails and buttons. Outside she chops a hole in the front wooden window shutter. Back inside she and Edward drag the dining table up to the window and prop the gun so that the muzzle is lined up with the hole. She gives Edward very explicit instructions on how to light the gun with a candle before firing. She drills him in the procedure until there is no doubt that he understands. She tells him to fire it only when she yells the signal "Ateoord!" which is Edward's name in Dutch.

Gertrude then goes outside into the dusk with her basket and pretends to be gathering beans. Her plan is to trick the lurking Indians into chasing her, thus leading them into the path of the gun's ammunition. This seems so desperately brave to me. Her plan works to a point. She is careful to run just fast enough to keep a few lengths ahead of them. When she reaches the door of the house she yells the signal. The Indians throw two tomahawks at her. One lands in the door next to her face, the other in her left shoulder.

Meanwhile, Edward follows her instructions exactly. The enormous gun fires. The force of the blast knocks Edward backward and out for a moment. He awakes to a great light and realizes that the front stoop is on fire. He rushes out to find Trudy trying in vain to pull the tomahawk from their mother's shoulder. Gertrude is unconscious. Edwards sees that he has killed three of the Indians. The others have fled. He and Trudy drag their mother away from the the fire into the yard, and with effort, Edward is able to dislodge the tomahawk. He uses his sister's shirt to stop up the wound. With what little strength he has left, Edward runs inside and drags out the antique gun. He and Trudy sit in the dark watching their house burn to the ground. Soon after, Teunis returns with the militia.

This book was based on a true story. Colonial history is full of such stories, many of which did not end so well. I admit I was a bit shocked by Gertrude's injury. The book's illustrations, by Paul Lantz are at times soft and charming, at others lurid and harsh. While the story was exciting, it wasn't one of my favorites.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Misty of Chincoteague

Finished Misty of Chincoteague by Marguerite Henry. It won the Newbery Honor Medal in 1948. Set on Chincoteague Island off the coast of Virginia, it is the story Paul and Maureen Beebe, brother and sister who work hard to earn enough money to buy a wild pony named The Phantom at that year's Pony Penning Day.

Many, many years before, a Spanish ship carrying ponies to South America sank off the coast. The ponies who survived swam to shore on neighboring Assateague Island. Over the years they bred and multiplied. In order to keep the population under control the locals round the ponies up once a year, sort them, and take some to auction, hence Pony Penning Day.

Paul participates in the roundup with the adult men. The Phantom has a reputation for being elusive, but Paul finds her hiding among some bushes. With her she has her new foal, who Paul names Misty. Misty is too young to be separated from her mother, so Paul and Maureen get both ponies for the price of one. While The Phantom is shy, and slow to trust humans, Misty is curious and has no fear. She gets into mischief all the time. Her antics charm her new family. In the meantime, the children train The Phantom to run in the race that will take place at next year's Pony Penning.

This is a book full of excitement and anticipation. The children set themselves the difficult tasks of earning $100 for their purchase and then training a wild pony. They engage in a lot of hard work and dedication.

The illustrations for the book were created by Wesley Dennis, who made a career of drawing horses. Aside from illustrating 15 books for Marguerite Henry, be also created artwork for Black Beauty, John Steinbeck's The Red Pony and King of the Wind, which wone the Newbery Medal in 1949. He wrote and illustrated his own books about horses as well, including Flip, published in 1941.

Monday, September 24, 2012

An Irish Country Doctor

Finished An Irish Country Doctor by Patrick Taylor. So much of this book reminded me of James Herriot's All Creatures Great and Small series. Just as James Herriot, veterinarian, travels to Darrowby to apprentice with the eccentric and often maddening Siegfried Farnon, Barry, just out of medical school, travels to Ballybucklebo in rural Northern Ireland, to apprentice with Dr. Fingal Flahertie O’Reilly. Barry encounters local characters and learns to follow Fingal's lead in handling them, as James did with Siegfried in the Yorkshire Dales. Both writers were practitioners in real life and thus drew on personal experience for their novels. My favorite character in Taylor's book is Arthur Guiness, Fingal's black lab who has a drinking habit and is greatly enamored of Barry's trouser legs. This was a charming book and a very quick read. I look forward to reading the next book in the series, probably next year.

Friday, September 14, 2012

Deep Down True

Finished Deep Down True by Juliette Fay. This was another book purchased during the last days of Border's. It's the story of a women who finds herself divorced after fifteen years of marriage, having to step up and stand up for herself. Dana Stellgarten has always been too nice. She finds a part-time job, begins to date and takes in her goth teenage niece who is going through a rough time. She watches her daughter navigate the dicey politics of middle school girls and then finds herself doing the same with her own friends. Both of her children are deeply effected by the divorce. Her son grapples with his insecurities and her daughter hides an eating disorder. These are the everyday problems of real people. In some ways it seems like Dana was living in a box during her marriage and it takes the upheaval of divorce to bring her back out into the world. There were moments where I felt like this book was just too chick-lit for me, but I found myself thinking about the characters all the time. I especially liked Dana's dentist, then boss, Dr. Sakimoto. I enjoyed this book.

Thursday, September 13, 2012


Finished Staggerford by Jon Hassler. Published in 1977, this was his first novel, set in small town Minnesota. It spans a week of events in the town of Staggerford. The protagonist, a high school English teacher, does his best to meet his daily obligations to his classes and colleagues. He also does his best to help a student in crisis.

Hassler's characters are finely drawn. I settled into reading this book comfortably. Way too comfortably, because the chain of events towards the end of the novel shocked the hell out of me. That's all I'll say about that. I loved this book and was deeply affected by it. Anyone who does not understand the Chicago teacher's strike should spend a weekend with this book.

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

All-of-a-Kind Family

Finished All-of-a-Kind Family by Sydney Taylor. Originally published in 1951, it is the story of a Jewish family, five sisters and their parents, who live in a New York tenement in the early 1900s. The chapters highlight family life, traditional holiday celebrations, the girls' friendship with "The Library Lady," a trip to Coney Island, and the birth, at home, of the newest child, a baby brother.

Taylor was prompted to write the book, drawing heavily on her own childhood, when her daughter asked her why there were no children's books about Jewish children. This was a quick and comfortable read.