Saturday, January 19, 2019

The Red-Headed League – a Sherlock Holmes short story

The Red Headed League by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle a Sherlock Holmes short story from The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes collection. 

Conan Doyle ranked it as his second favorite Holmes story, and according to The Annotated Sherlock Holmes, it was Holmes 13th case of those chronicled by Dr. Watson.

I am of a similar mind as the author – this is one of my favorite Sherlock Holmes stories thus far, though I am not quite a quarter of the way through the complete canon.

This case gives a couple of good examples as to how the writers of The Annotated Sherlock Holmes attempted to put all Holmes’ cases into chronological order. At one point Watson reads a newspaper and Holmes calls his attention to the date, April 27, 1890. That's easy enough, but Conan Doyle rarely does this; there only a few stories with precise dates. For the rest of the canon, the annotators worked backwards and forwards from these anchor points with contextual clues. Such as, Holmes referring to 
…the other day, just before we went into the very simple problem presented by Miss Mary Sutherland…

Miss Sutherland’s case obviously precedes this case, and “the other day” suggests quite recently. Indeed, the annotators placed A Case of Identity just before The Red-Headed League.

Before I get to the case, I will point out rather imperiously, an appalling blunder in Holmes’ usually impeccable choice of words. Holmes refers to
…the strangest and most unique things…

Aha! I exclaim a la Sherlock Holmes. “Unique” should not have, indeed MUST not have any qualifier. Unique is an absolute. Something cannot be slightly unique, very unique, or most unique – it is either unique or it is not. 

Now that I have censured Holmes – and by proxy Conan Doyle – let me get to why I liked this story.

It gives a nice glimpse of what makes Sherlock Holmes tick. Early in the case, Holmes tempts Watson to join him in the case…
I know, my dear Watson, that you share my love of all that is bizarre and outside the conventions and humdrum routine of everyday life.
After both hear the particulars and dismiss the red-headed client, Watson asks Holmes, 
what are you going to do?
“To smoke,” he answered. “It is quite a three-pipe problem, and I beg that you won’t speak to me for fifty minutes.

Later, while Holmes is engrossed, and seemingly diverted, by a strings concert, Watson observes...
All the afternoon he sat in the stalls wrapped in the most perfect happiness, gently waving his long thin fingers in time to the music, while his gently smiling face and his languid, dreamy eyes were as unlike those of Holmes the sleuth-hound, Holmes the relentless, keen-witted, ready-handed criminal agent, as it was possible to conceive. 
When I saw him that afternoon so enwrapped in the music at St. James’s Hall I felt that an evil time might be coming upon those whom he had set himself to hunt down.

And this bit, just amuses me, how cavalier Holmes is to danger – or even endangering his friend Watson.
And, I say, Doctor! there may be some little danger, so kindly put your army revolver in your pocket.

Elsewhere Watson comments
I trust that I am not more dense than my neighbors, but I was always oppressed with a sense of my own stupidity in my dealings with Sherlock Holmes.

And this bit. Holmes, often seems arrogant and contemptuous of lesser humans, but herein reveals he is just artlessly candid, as he describes officer Jones of Scotland Yard.
I thought it as well to have Jones with us also. He is not a bad fellow, though an absolute imbecile in his profession. He has one positive virtue. He is as brave as a bulldog, and as tenacious as a lobster if he gets his claws upon anyone.

And finally, upon solving the case…
“It saves me from ennui,” he answered, yawning. “Alas, I already feel it closing in upon me! My life is spent in one long effort to escape from the commonplaces of existence. These little problems help me to do so.”
“And you are a benefactor of the race.” Said I [Watson]
He shrugged his shoulders. “Well, perhaps, after all, it is of some little use.”

Saturday, January 12, 2019

Watership Down by Richard Adams (novel #119)

All rabbits love to trespass and steal and when it comes to the point very few will admit they are afraid to do so… ~ Richard Adams, Watership Down

Watership Down is a real place, in Hampshire, England, and rabbits are real creatures, in all the wide world.

Wikipedia states that Watership Down was written in English and Lapine (bravo!), as the anthropomorphized rabbits in this tale have distinctly lapine (rabbit) words, unknown and un-useful to men, such as silfay – to go above ground to feed, or tharn – to be frozen with fear. Other words are onomatopoeia, such as hrududu – tractor or any motorized vehicle.

And although the rabbits think and talk, they are otherwise natural rabbits and believable creatures of the wild. Adams went to some length researching the lives of rabbits, for the very purpose of keeping them plausible. 

Adams would often make up stories for his daughters during long road trips. When he began the story of rabbits Hazel and Fiver, his daughters urged him to write it down, but he demurred until one night reading them some awful bit of fiction, he threw the book down and proclaimed “I could write better than that myself.”

And it would seem – he was correct. (though he was delicate enough not to name the book he was reading)

Watership Down is a fantasy, and like many fantasies, it can seem an apparent allegory, but Adams was quite clear.
I want to emphasize that Watership Down was never intended to be some sort of allegory or parable. It is simply the story about rabbits made up and told in the car.

I for one, am glad for that. It is delightful as it is – simply a story.

It is the story of a group of rabbits, who must leave a comfortable home, make an arduous journey, and create a new life. 

To say they must leave, is an exaggeration, and also the truth. One of the rabbits, Fiver, has a sort of sixth sense. He senses, that danger – that death is coming to the Sandeford warren. Fiver is a bit smallish, and not much respected, except by his brother Hazel, who although young, is of good size and likely to be a leader in the warren one day. Hazel has learned to trust Fiver’s instincts and is able to persuade a small band of bucks to leave the warren for destination unknown.

And although I accept the author’s assertion that it is simply a story – stories have lessons and meaning. For me, Watership Down is a story of leadership. Among the motley crew of rabbits, there are distinct personalities, with diverse strengths. Fiver has sixth sense, Bigwig is strong and brave, Blackberry is clever, Dandelion is swift and a good storyteller (an important trait), Pipkin is small and fiercely loyal, and Hazel is best at nothing accept recognizing the strengths in others, and capitalizing on their strengths; he is the leader.

And a great leader. Bigwig, Fiver, the others, and Hazel himself must learn this ere the end. 

Adams does a magnificent job of anthropomorphizing the rabbits – but leaving them still as rabbits. The omniscient narrator describes their thoughts and feelings, which although relatable, are also simple rabbit thoughts. When Blackberry devises a plan to help Fiver and Pipkin cross a river by floating on a piece of board, most of the rabbits cannot quite comprehend what happened – something nearly like magic. 

Adams has a pleasing way with words, and a keen understanding of humanity – and perhaps all sentient beings. He writes: 
When several creatures – men or animals – have worked together to overcome something offering resistance and have at last succeeded, there follows often a pause – as though they felt the propriety of paying respect to the adversary who has put up a good fight. The great tree falls, splitting, cracking, rushing down in leaves to the final, shuddering blow along the ground. Then the foresters are silent, and do not at once sit down. After hours, deep snowdrift has been cleared and the lorry is ready to take the men home out of the cold. But they stand a while, leaning on their spades and only nodding unsmilingly as the car-drivers go through, waving their thanks.

The rabbits’ journey is fraught with peril and uncertainty, and even if they find a new home, you might have noticed they have no does (females). It is more violent that you might expect for a tale about bunnies – not quite a children’s story. It is told with passion, hope, and humor. I found Watership Down poignant and entertaining and I highly recommend it. Have you read it? What did you think?

My rating: 4½ of 5 stars

Film rendition: I've just started the Netflix series - very good. 

Monday, January 7, 2019

Much Ado About Nothing by William Shakespeare

Much Ado About Nothing by William Shakespeare 

Much Ado About Nothing is a comedy by William Shakespeare, written late 16th, performed early 17thcentury. The title, probably a double entendre, as it could just as easily be Much Ado About Noting (noting being - gossip, rumor, eavesdropping). 

It’s a farcical comedy of errors as two returning warriors, fall in love with two of the worthy maidens of Messina – though they realize their love through very different circumstances.

Claudio is immediately struck by the beauty of Hero (Hero is the name of the female character). The two were acquainted already, but her beauty has apparently blossomed, and Claudio sees her with new eyes. His friend, confirmed bachelor Benedick fails to dissuade Claudio, and his own disdain of marriage, too good a trope for the Bard to ignore, enter Beatrice.

The hopes and happiness of each couple is nearly undone by another motif – the masquerade ball – where folks so easily deceived by mask and costume.

Don’t get me wrong; I don’t mean to disparage the Bard’s craft, but I am again persuaded, that his plays are best experienced as intended in theater. This would be a delightful romp on stage, but in reading – it’s just not as fun. I’m certain for instance, an artful comic actor could make a great performance of Dogberry, the honest and dimwitted constable.

But there’s no Shakespeare in the Park this time of year, so the play’s the thing – in print. 

I read this as part of the 2019 Year of Shakespeare challenge.

Sunday, January 6, 2019

2019 Year of Shakespeare

2019 Year of Shakespeare

I will be participating in the 2019 Year of Shakespeare challenge, hosted by Hibernator’s Library and The Broken Spine. I don’t believe the challenge requires any set number of plays, but I am aiming for one per month, or four comedies, four histories, and four tragedies. I haven't decided which plays just yet, so stay tuned.

I also don’t see a deadline to join in…so, why don’t you?

January – April Comedies (hosted by Hibernator’s Library)

May – August Histories (hosted by Hibernator’s Library)
     King John
     Edward III
     Richard II
     Henry IV

September – December Tragedies (hosted by The Broken Spine)
     Julius Caesar
       Antony and Cleopatra
       Timon of Athens


Saturday, January 5, 2019

Just As I Am: The Autobiography of Billy Graham

Just As I Am: The Autobiography of Billy Graham

And most of all, I look forward to seeing Christ and bowing before Him in praise and gratitude for all He has done for us, and for using me on this earth by His grace – just as I am. ~ Billy Graham

Just As I Am: The Autobiography of Billy Graham is an intimate look at his life, family, and friends. There are many humorous stories, poignant memories, painful lessons, disappointing setbacks, and glorious unheard of undreamt of victories. Billy would live another 19 years after the publication, nearly to age 100, but he knew he was near the end of his journey. He recounts his early life, his call to evangelism, numerous crusades, and many personal relationships. Apart from Christ, he had no greater friend, than his adored and adoring wife Ruth Bell. They were married 64 years when she went home to be with the Lord in 2007. No chapter of the book, excepting those before they met, fails to mention Ruth – either in how sorely she was missed, what joy when together, or what a help she was to him in ministry. Billy admits only one regret – so much time away from Ruth and children. It is a touching testimony.

I received this book as a gift from a friend over a decade ago, but I’d never read it until now. I might have feared it would be convicting – it wasn’t, and I should have known better.

Because upon reading his autobiography, one thing will hit you about Billy Graham – his humility.
I have often said that the first thing I am going to do when I get to Heaven is to ask, “Why me, Lord? Why did you choose a farmboy from North Carolina to preach to so many people, to have such a wonderful team of associates, and to have a part in what You were doing in the latter half of the twentieth century?”

Humble, in spite of the fact that he ministered to and befriended, many of the world’s great and powerful, including every U.S. president from Harry Truman to Donald Trump, though the autobiography published in 1997, only goes as far as President Clinton. His relationship with these presidents was refreshing and inspiring. He sincerely considered each one of them as friends (excepting Truman, whom he only met once, and didn’t really know).

President Kennedy said Billy was the only Protestant clergyman with whom he felt comfortable.

President Johnson reportedly never parted company with Billy without imploring – Preacher, pray for me.

Billy, as I feel I am on a first name basis with him now, had a remarkable ability to love people in spite of themselves. He did not excuse the foibles or faults of these men, neither did he titillate with overly intimate stories. He considered himself their Pastor, and thus afforded them confidentiality. He did say, that on more than one occasion, he offered Pastoral rebuke and counsel, but he never stopped loving them. He wrote of them carefully, respectfully, and affectionately. Ironically, his deepest personal friendships were with President Johnson and President Nixon.

Yep…that’s just like Billy.

Of his presidential friends, Billy said…
My own prayer was that God’s will would be done, and that He would grant wisdom, compassion, and integrity to whoever was elected to our highest office.

He was careful to point out, that although he knew many famous and fashionable people – the VAST majority, over 95% of the people he met and ministered to, were common everyday folk – like himself.

He had few critics, and sadly those few were mostly religious leaders. Religious liberals did not like his fundamentalism, and Religious conservatives did not like his ecumenicalism. Sad, but not surprising. There was also a carpenter turned preacher in Palestine several thousand years ago, who was not popular with the religious leaders of his day.

C.S. Lewis had this to say of his Billy's critics…
You know, you have many critics, but I have never met one of your critics who knows you personally.
In turn, Billy admitted that he expected to feel intimidated by C.S. Lewis, but found him to be not only intelligent and witty but also gentle and gracious.

Billy was willing to work with anyone who was willing to work with him and the team – because it was really more than just Billy Graham. He was welcomed to preach in Catholic Cathedrals, Jewish communities, communist countries, secular colleges, prisons, and the occasional rock concert.

Martin Luther King Jr. and Billy Graham ministered together on at least one occasion, and Billy expressed interest in being more active in King’s mission, but King gently declined the offer, suggesting that it might alienate Billy’s followers, that it might not yet be time. King told Billy
…if a leader gets too far out in front of his people, they will lose sight of him and not follow him any longer.

Billy was heartbroken by the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr.

One more example of Billy’s ability to bridge divides. After preaching at Christ the King Cathedral (Catholic), in Katowice Poland, the organist played A Mighty Fortress is Our God (Martin Luther’s hymn, that is nearly the anthem of the Protestant Reformation).

There were numerous Super Televangelists (I doubt Billy would accept either label), in the late 20thcentury, many of whom met with disgrace or embarrassment. But the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association (BGEA) and Billy personally, managed to stay free of such scandal. In the early days of their ministry, Billy and the team committed to four guiding principles: 

--Consipuous transparency with finances. Billy and team members did not receive any portion of the offering. They were salaried employees of the BGEA; Billy's salary was commensurate with the Pastor of a large church. After every Crusade, the finances were audited by external agencies and the audit published in the local papers.
--Members of the team never traveled with, dined with, or met alone with any woman (other than their own wife).
--They did not work independent of local churches
--Integrity in publicity. They took great care not to exaggerate numbers.

But Billy’s legacy is not about the great people he knew, the millions he preached to, or his example of personal integrity. It's about the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

Billy said…
As I have reflected on my own calling as an evangelist, I frequently recall the words of Christianity’s greatest evangelist, the Apostle Paul: “It has always been my ambition to preach the gospel where Christ was not known…”

Billy believed…
The human race is infected with a spiritual disease – the disease of sin – and God has given us the remedy. Dare we do anything less than urge people to apply that remedy to their lives.

Billy professed…
I will not go to Heaven because I have preached to great crowds. I will go to Heaven for one reason: Jesus Christ died for me, and I am trusting him alone for my salvation. 

And although this autobiography was not an evangelical book, theological treatise or Christian instruction, (he wrote numerous works on those topics), I feel compelled to offer something along those lines.

Because we Christians sometimes speak in our own esoteric language…born again, gospel, sin, and even the word scripture, have very precise meanings to me, but perhaps not to everyone. So, in my words, not Billy’s, let me explain the meaning of Gospel – literally it means “good news”

The Gospel, the Good News is…

Let me use a few lines from the hymn which Billy references in the title of his autobiography, and which became the anthem of the Billy Graham crusades: Just as I am by Charlotte Elliott. The beauty of the poetry conveys a simple message

Just as I am
  (I am not, nor ever will I be…Good enough)
Without one plea
  (I have no defense nor excuse)
But that thy blood was shed for me
  (except, that you sacrificed yourself to pay my penalty)
And that thou bid’st me Come to Thee
  (and that you invite me, to accept what you have done for me)
Oh Lamb of God, I come
  (Dear Jesus, I believe and accept your offer)

Other quotations of Billy Graham:

I had come to realize that there was absolutely no need to apologize for the Gospel of Jesus Christ in academic settings.

This has been an age in which we humanized God and deified man, and we have worshipped at the throne of science.

Peace between nations depends on goodwill between individuals.

We would attempt to lead and love rather than vilify, criticize and beat.

Great men know when to bow.

We know we cannot do everything that needs to be done, but in a world that is never free of turmoil, Christ calls us to do what we can.

I never go to see important people – or anyone else – without having the deep realization that I am – first and foremost – an ambassador of the King of kings and Lord of lords.

An evangelist is called to do one thing, and one thing only: to proclaim the Gospel. Becoming involved in strictly political issues or partisan politics inevitably dilutes the evangelist’s impact and compromises his message. It is a lesson I wish I had learned earlier.

To evangelize is to spread the good news that Jesus Christ died for our sins and was raised from the dead according to the Scriptures, and that as the reigning Lord he now offers the forgiveness of sins and the liberating gift of the Spirit to all who repent and believe…. ~ excerpt from the 1974 Lausanne Covenant, of which Billy Graham was a signatory

Wednesday, January 2, 2019

Back to the Classics 2019

Books and Chocolate is again hosting the Back to the Classics Challenge for 2019

My list (subject to change)

A 19th century classic: 
Bleak House - Some say this is Dickens’ best

A 20th century classic: 
The Ox Bow Incident by Walter Van Tilburg Clark - Been on the TBR for a while

A classic by a woman author: 
Wise Blood by Flannery O’Connor - I’ve read her short stories – now for her novel

A classic in translation: 
Papillion by Henri Charriére

A classic comedy: 
Candide by Voltaire

A classic tragedy: 
In Cold Blood by Truman Capote

A very long classic: 
Gargantua and Pantagruel by Francois Rabelais - Over 1000 pages

A classic novella (under 250 pages): 
The Shadow Over Innsmouth by H. P. Lovecraft

A classic from the Americas: 
The Adventures of Tom Sawyer by Mark Twain  You can't get more American than this

A classic from Africa, Asia, or Oceania: 
Picnic at Hanging Rock by Joan Lindsay - A reread

A classic from a place I have lived: 
The Oak Openings by James Fenimore Cooper - Set in my childhood hometown of Kalamazoo, Michigan

A classic play: 
The Tragical History of the Life and Death of Doctor Faustus by Christopher Marlowe - No idea what to expect from this.


Tuesday, January 1, 2019

Bible reading plans for 2019 and beyond

It comes into the palace to tell the monarch that he is a servant of the Most High, and into the cottage to assure the peasant that he is a son of God. ~ Henry Van Dyke, writing about the Bible.

For several years now, I’ve been reading through the Bible every year – usually a different version each year. I was perusing my bookshelves, contemplating which version to read this year, when a different book, a 5-volume set caught my eye:

Thru the Bible by J. Vernon McGee

And oh what a flood of enlightening memories, and what a wonderful idea.

Before I describe my Bible reading plan, a little background on the author of Thru the Bible.

J. Vernon McGee was an ordained Presbyterian minister, a non-denominational pastor, and Doctor of Divinity – though I never heard him addressed as Doctor. He was also a radio Bible teacher. His Thru the Bible broadcast was a daily and systematic study of every chapter of the Bible. The entire series lasted 5 years. J. Vernon McGee passed on in 1988, but his radio message continues to be replayed year after year on hundreds of radio stations.

If you never heard J. Vernon McGee – well you missed something worth not missing. He had a kindly voice, and homespun wisdom that belied his scholarly credentials. He was as non-divisive as any minister of the Gospel I’ve heard. He provided little commentary, but rather expounded the scriptures as literally and conscientiously as possible – if the listener objected, they were free to argue with God.

But there is good news (pardon the pun that some of you will get), you can download recordings of any portion, or the entirety of the 5-year Thru the Bible program for FREE HERE.

Eventually, the radio broadcast was compiled into written form – the five-volume set I spoke of. I don’t remember when or how my wife and I acquired this set, but I’ve never read it. So, my Bible reading plan is simple – I will read through the Bible according to the Thru the Bible schedule, and accompany that reading with J. Vernon’s exposition. This of course, means a five year journey.

2019 will be…
Volume 1: Genesis – Deuteronomy (the Pentateuch or Torah)

And subsequent years
Volume 2: Joshua – Psalms
Volume 3: Proverbs – Malachi (concluding the Old Testament)
Volume 4: Matthew – Romans (the Gosepls +)
Volume 5: Corinthians – The Revelation

I decided upon my most well-worn Bible, The Scofield Study Bible – King James Version to make this journey, and lo and behold, it is the version J. Vernon most often cites.