Top 5 Sherlock Stories

I spent my summer working at a job that- besides broken nails, complaints, and paper cuts- involved a lot of waiting. In other words, a perfect opportunity to sprint-read through something I’ve had on my shelf for a while-  All 56 original Sherlock Holmes stories. Now, I’ll be the first to admit that they aren’t always the easiest read (primarily because they lack the puzzle-solving element of a Christie, and also because some tales are just plain weird. They have a tendency to feature cartoony  vilains (think eye patches and wooden legs) but when done well, these are worth reading. So Much.

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And guys, I love Sherlock. I can’t help it. He’s a bit of a bastard sometimes but a brilliant one. These are my favourites, taking into consideration the creativity of the set-up, the writing, and What Sherlock Did. Enjoy.

5.)  The adventure of the Dancing Men
A woman comes to Sherlock Holmes, plagued by the sudden appearances of lines of little dancing men carved into surfaces all over the house, which conceal an ominous message. Creepy and a bit different from Holmes’ usual adventures

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4.) The Musgrave Ritual

One of Sherlock’s earliest cases which he tells Watson in retrospect and reveals a bit of the famous detective’s origins. A butler, after being caught reading private documents of the Musgrave family, disappears without a trace. The height of a tree provides points Sherlock to the location of a secret treasure and the fate of the butler.

3.) Silver Blaze

“Is there any point to which you would wish to draw my attention?”     “To the curious incident of the dog in the night-time.”     “The dog did nothing in the night-time.”     “That was the curious incident,” remarked Sherlock Holmes.

A prize race horse disappears from a stable leading to a brutal crime. This is the source of one of the better known quotes from the Holmes series (and also the title of the well-known book by Mark Haddon).  Truly a lesson in hiding a mystery in plain sight.

2.) The Red-Headed League

One of the funniest Holmes stories, as well as a pretty efficient mystery – this one is actually solvable from the outset, it just requires a leap of logic around an absurd problem.

A man with flaming red hair is invited to work for the “red-headed league” and promised a good deal of money for what turns out to be hours spent in an office copying out entries in an encyclopaedia. One morning, he comes to work to find the Red-Headed League has been disbanded and vanished without a trace, and he contacts Holmes for help.

1.) The Speckled Band

Conan Doyle himself named this one as his favourite tale, and I can’t help but agree.  A mud-spattered girl arrives at 221B Baker Street in real fear of meeting the same fate as her sister, who died a mysterious and startling death at the estate they live on with their step father. 
This is another one that is pretty creepy – whistling in the night and the clanking of metal, as well as a touch of the exotic which I always associate with Victorian stories.

All in all, I really enjoyed these tales, even the more ridiculous one. It’s both a sign of the times and of the madness/brilliance of Arthur Conan Doyle himself- who after all not only created the patron saint of rationality and logic, but also believed fairies are real. As in the Tinkerbell kind. The scenarios of his stories reflect that ambiguity perfectly, and I think it’s what makes them so compelling and creative. Recommended!

Just write, dammit

That’s it, I give up. Predestination, the apocalypse, Asia as Future Nightmare, Cloning, Birth Marks, Gay rights, the history of classical music, a One-Flew-Over-the- Cuckoo’s-Nest rip-off and the original inhabitants of New Zealand – all rolled in over 500 pages. It’s called Cloud Atlas and yes, it’s as bad as it sounds.

hugo-weaving-cloud-atlas-asian(This is what Asians look like in the future, according to Cloud Atlas the movie. Actually actor Hugo Weaving with make-up. Questionable decision.) 

I hate to give up on books half-way through but this novel has been sitting on my desk since November and I just can’t face reading the rest of it, so I’m calling it quits. Gasp. If anyone knows what this book was actually about, I would love for you to fill me in, but I’m just not doing it anymore. And it’s not even because of all the stuff I mentioned above, most of it would do pretty well as subject material by itself. No. I actually got to page 278 and then this happened:

“So many feelin’s I’d got din’t have room ‘nuff for ‘em. O, bein’ young ain’t easy ‘cos ev’rythin’ you’re puzzlin’n’anxin’ you’re puzzlin’n’anxin it for the first time.”

This sure had me puzzling and anxious, or annexing, or even angsting – or whatever the hell anxin means. This manner of writing goes on over 80 pages, it makes up the central part of the book, is crucial to the plot (according to trusty amazon reviews) and is utterly unintelligible. The worst part is that by this point I was not only frustrated but bored in the extreme.

I know this book has received a lot of positive feedback for its supposed literary merit (which in this case just means messing around with narrative structures and language a lot) but it didn’t work for me.

The other day, I watched an interview with Ian McEwan, in which he rather bemusedly told the audience about how he had once tried to help his son write an essay about one of his own books, Enduring Love. Apparently the McEwan & son collaboration got a ‘very bad mark’ because the teacher thought they had the wrong idea about the meaning of the novel, insisting that in fact the stalker character represented the ‘authorial  moral centre’ of the story. Ian McEwan himself added rather dryly that he just thought the character was a ‘complete madman’, which made me love the man even more.

Either way, what would you rather read about, moral centre points and confusing narrative structures, or a gut-crushing accident involving a hot-air balloon and a stalking drama, combined with the dynamics of a marriage crashing down? I thought so.

Please, everyone, if you’re going to write, do it for the sake of a great story, compelling characters and fine language, and let’s leave the pretentious baggage at home.  No more ‘” F’kugly mindered the goats”* for me, thank you.

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*An actual quote from Cloud Atlas, on page 279. At first I thought this was a polite way of writing down a profanity that is pretty commonly used here in Britain, but turns out F’kugly is a name. It does not refer to the ugliness of the goats.

The interpreter of maladies

I’m a great fan of short stories because I think there is something particularly poignant about them that the novel just doesn’t share; it’s the way a great short stories lets us glimpse into a character’s life and just get the feeling of a problem or part of the atmosphere. They have a way of ending just a moment too soon –at the moment of revelation, but not necessarily conclusion.

I felt the same way about Jhumpa Lahiri’s “Interpreter of Maladies”, her debut collection of short stories which won the Pulitzer back in 2000. Jhumpa Lahiri is an American writer of Indian background, and her stories all have one thing in common: they deal with the personal ‘maladies’ that exist from trying to integrate a person’s original culture and life in a new home.

                                                (Lahiri – isn’t she stunning?)

Most of the stories are about Indian characters   trying to settle in America (usually Boston) and  struggling with love, marriage, or their children, but the title story is set back in India.

“The Interpreter of Maladies” is about an Indian tour guide showing an American family around and feeling for the first time some connection with the American wife on the tour, who is the only one to show some interest in him and particularly in his other part time job, which is in a doctor’s office translating the local dialect of patients in order to help him diagnose their illnesses.

The woman makes a confession to him by the end that he finds particularly disturbing, apparently seeking absolution or some gentler form of the truth, and the ‘interpreter’ realises that there is nothing he can do but give her his honest diagnosis of their situation. It seemed to me like a pretty good depiction of Lahiri herself or maybe all writers in general: they serve as “interpreters” of maladies but can’t always be the healers – apart from concluding (wryly!) that people’s troubles are perhaps no different in Bengal than they are in Boston.