Friday, April 24, 2020

The Sign of the Four – a Sherlock Holmes Novel (novel #148)

The Sign of the Four (1890) is the second Sherlock Holmes story published, following A Study in Scarlet (1887), both novels. After this Doyle would tell most of Holmes’ adventures in short story form. There would be two more novels later however, both serialized: The Hound of the Baskervilles (1901-02) and The Valley of Fear (1914-15).

This is only the second Sherlock Holmes story the public was exposed to. However, I am reading the Sherlock Holmes canon, in fictional-chronological order, in which The Sign of the Four is Holmes’ 19th case.


Putting it all into chronological order, was presumably a complex task, all done for me in the 1967, two-volume, illustrated edition of The Annotated Sherlock Holmes. Rearranging the complete works in this way however, creates a few irregularities in reading. For instance, this being only the second story Doyle published, he brings up several recurring items: bloodhound Toby, the Baker Street Irregulars, Holmes’ cocaine addiction, as if they are being mentioned for the first time, because indeed they are, but in the 18 cases that came earlier (published later), I’ve already encountered these themes.


One thing that WAS entirely new in this tale: Dr. Watson’s love interest and future wife. She is the damsel in distress who enlists Holmes’ sleuthing.


First, the case: Holmes is bored because there is no case, and he injects himself with a 7 percent solution of cocaine. Dr. Watson, expresses his disapproval without affect. Holmes explains his reason…

“My mind,” he said, “rebels at stagnation. Give me problems, give me work, give me the most abstruse cryptogram, or the most intricate analysis, and I am in my own proper atmosphere. I can dispense then with artificial stimulants. But I abhor the dull routine of existence. I crave for mental exaltation. That is why I have chosen my own particular profession, or rather created it, for I am the only one in the world.”


Fortunately, Holmes’ boredom is relieved when Mary Morstan arrives to enlist his help. She has received valuable pearls annually in the mail, and now the anonymous benefactor is requesting a private meeting with promise of righting an injustice done to Miss Morstan. Fortunately, the missive allows Miss Morstan to bring two confidants – she chooses Holmes and Watson.


It’s a story of exotic characters, sinister and benign, hidden treasure, treachery, and murder. Dr. Watson is quickly smitten with the beautiful and gracious woman, but he chides himself…


What was I, an Army surgeon with a weak leg and a weaker banking account, that I should dare to think of such things? She was a unit, a factor [quoting Holmes] – nothing more. If my future were black, it was better surely to face it like a man than to attempt to brighten it by mere will-o-the-wisps of the imagination.


He is further reticent to express his affection, as Miss Morstan stands to gain a legitimate share in a grand treasure.


Yet there were two thoughts which sealed the words of affection upon my lips. She was weak and helpless, shaken in mind and nerve. It was to take her at a disadvantage to obtrude love upon her at such a time. Worse still, she was rich. If Holmes’s researches were successful, she would be an heiress. Was it fair, was it honourable, that a half-pay surgeon should take such advantage of an intimacy which chance had brought about? Might she not look upon me as a mere vulgar fortune-seeker? I could not bear to risk that such a thought should cross her mind. This Agra treasure intervened like an impassable barrier between us.


In the course of the investigation, Holmes reveals one of his prime rules of deduction:


Eliminate all other factors, and the one which remains must be the truth.


And his sexism, when Watson announces he will call on Miss Morstan and update her on progress. Holmes warns Watson…


“I would not tell them too much,” said Holmes, “Women are never to be entirely trusted – not the best of them.”


As I mentioned earlier, Toby, the capable bloodhound is called upon and Watson is dispatched to get him.


Toby proved to be an ugly, long-haired, lop-eared creature, half spaniel and half lurcher, brown and white in colour, with a very clumsy, waddling gait.


I’ve spared the spoiler on the case, and I oops, I already let it slip that Love finds a way for the good Doctor. He observes…


Whoever had lost a treasure, I knew that night that I had gained one.


I’ve said in previous reviews of Sherlock Holmes’ adventures, one of the best aspects of these tales is the relationship and banter between Holmes and Watson. Such as when Watson announces to Sherlock his engagement to Miss Morstan.


He gave a dismal groan.  

“I feared as much.” said he, “I really cannot congratulate you.” 

I was a little hurt. “Have you any reason to be dissatisfied with my choice?” I asked. 

“Not at all. I think she is one of the most charming young ladies I ever met, and might have been most useful in such work as we have been doing. She had a decided genius that way; witness the way in which she preserved that Agra plan from all the other papers of her father. But love is an emotional thing, and whatever is emotional is opposed to that true, cold reason which I place above all things. I should never marry myself, lest I bias my judgment.” 


I think in general, I like the short stories better, but this was quite enjoyable, probably owing to both the intrigue of the case, and poor, dear, love-struck Watson. I give it…


My rating: 3 ½ of 5 stars


This novel satisfies square I-1, classic mystery or crime, in the 2020 Classic Bingo Challenge, and Classic Adaptation, book that has been adapted to film, TV, or stage, in the Back to the Classics Challenge 2020, and it was my “spin” read for The Classics Club Spin #23. (first time I’ve knocked of three challenges with one read).


This also completes Volume 1, of the 2 Volume set that I mentioned earlier. 


One last excerpt that was quite ironic. Near the end, Holmes declares

All is well that ends well.


Which is the title of a play by Shakespeare – and it just so happens a play I read for the first time earlier this month. The next thing I read was Fahrenheit 451, and a character cited the title in that book as well. I read the play, then the next two things I read someone cites the title – weird!


(and showing the pervasiveness of Shakespeare)



Friday, April 17, 2020

Classics Club Spin #23

Classics Club Spin #23 

It is time for the 23rd edition of the Classics Club Spin – List 20 books from my CC TBR, before April 19, the mods then pick a random number, and I have until June 1, to read the corresponding book.

However, I only have six books left on my CC list #2, and I’m already reading one of them…so I’m only listing five books – each of them four times.

1. The Sign of the Four by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
2. The Tenant of Wildfell Hall by Anne Brontë
3. Phantastes by George MacDonald
4. Cry, the Beloved Country by Alan Paton
5. The Castle of Otranto by Horace Walpole
6. The Sign of the Four by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
7. The Tenant of Wildfell Hall by Anne Brontë
8. Phantastes by George MacDonald
9. Cry, the Beloved Country by Alan Paton
10. The Castle of Otranto by Horace Walpole
11. The Sign of the Four by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
12. The Tenant of Wildfell Hall by Anne Brontë
13. Phantastes by George MacDonald
14. Cry, the Beloved Country by Alan Paton
15. The Castle of Otranto by Horace Walpole
16. The Sign of the Four by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
17. The Tenant of Wildfell Hall by Anne Brontë
18. Phantastes by George MacDonald
19. Cry, the Beloved Country by Alan Paton
20. The Castle of Otranto by Horace Walpole


Tuesday, April 7, 2020

Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury (novel #147)

"Those who don’t build, must burn."

On the surface, Fahrenheit 451 is a about book burning.

But a bit deeper, it is…"a love letter for books." ~ Neil Gaiman in the foreword 

Bravo! Mr. Gaiman.

But I should probably include a few details. It is a dystopian world where books are banned, for If people read, they tend to think – and thinking never leads to happiness. The protagonist is fireman Guy Montag, but in this setting firemen do not put out fires, they burn books. As Fire Chief Beatty put it…
It’s fine work. Monday burn Millay, Wednesday Whitman, Friday Faulkner, burn ‘em to ashes, then burn the ashes. That’s our official slogan. 
Beatty also comments on the worthlessness of books.
…books say nothing! Nothing you can teach or believe. They’re about nonexistent people, figments of imagination, if they’re fiction. And if they’re nonfiction, it’s worse, one professor calling another an idiot, one philosopher screaming down another’s gullet. All of them running about, putting out the stars and extinguishing the sun. You come away lost.

But in spite of the Beatty’s doctrine, fireman Montag is waking up.
I don’t know. We have everything we need to be happy, but we aren’t happy. Something’s missing. I looked around. The only thing I positively knew was gone was the books I’d burned in ten or twelve years. So, I thought the books might help.

And like all dystopian novels, someone – in this case Guy Montag – must fight against the madness. Of the dystopian novels I’ve read: Nineteen Eighty-Four, Brave New World, A Clockwork Orange, I liked Fahrenheit 451 best, probably because it ends with hope.
But that’s the wonderful thing about man; he never gets so discouraged or disgusted that he gives up doing it all over again, because he knows very well it is important and worth the doing.

And Montag remembering a portion of the Revelation
And on either side of the river was there a tree of life, which bare twelve manner of fruits, and yielded her fruit every month; And the leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations.
Yes, thought Montag, that’s the one I’ll save for noon. For noon…When we reach the city.

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This book satisfied square G-4, A Banned Book, in the 2020 Classic BINGO Challenge. I don’t believe this was widely or commonly banned, but nonetheless ironic, that a book of a world in which books are banned, should have been a banned book.

Oh and, 451 degrees Fahrenheit?
The combustion temperature of paper.


Sunday, April 5, 2020

All's Well that Ends Well by William Shakespeare

All’s Well that Ends Well by William Shakespeare 

All’s Well that Ends Well is a comedy, by William Shakespeare, written around the turn of the seventeenth century.

It is primarily about Helena, daughter of a late illustrious physician. Helena is under the care of the Countess of Rousillon, and is in love with the Countess’ son, Bertram – the Count of Rousillon. But Helena has no hope of winning Bertram due to disparity in their lineage.

Until she, through craft and medicine that she inherited from father, is able to heal the King of France, who promises her any eligible bachelor of his court – which includes Bertram.

Bertram will not have her though, until the hot displeasure of the King persuades him. They have a marriage ceremony, but Bertram will not consummate the marriage, and indeed vows to never until Helena can gain the heirloom ring that he wears, and bears him a child – which of course will be problematic – the marriage being unconsummated.

Except for one of those Shakespeare hallmarks, the “bed trick”, where one person goes to bed with another, believing it to be someone other than whom it is in reality.

There’s a great deal more intrigue, and it’s very clever, but not very satisfying – name of the play notwithstanding. 

Helena – she was beautiful, virtuous, and much the victim, but I couldn’t be too happy for her, as I don’t think the Count was much of a prize. And she loses a few points for even wanting the scoundrel.

The Count – He was a cad and a libertine, didn’t like him at all. He was of noble birth, quit himself admirably in battle, probably good looking, so I guess he’s considered a prize. Meh.

There were two admirable people in the play: Lafeu an elderly Lord, and the Countess, who denounced her son, and embraced Helena.

But they didn’t make up for the ending: All’s well – really? Helena has a jerk husband, Bertram has a saint wife. Meh.

Again, very clever twists and turns, brilliantly written, very funny at times, but I just couldn’t feel good about the outcome.


Helena pleading her healing ability to the skeptical King
I am not an impostor, that proclaim
Myself against the level of mine aim;
But know I think, and think I know most sure,
My art is not past power, nor you past cure.

The King admonishing Bertram for rejecting Helena
All that is virtuous, - save what thou dislik’st,
A poor physician’s daughter, - thou dislik’st
Of virtue for the name: but do not so:
From lowest place when virtuous things proceed,
The place is dignified by the doer’s deed

Countess expressing her love for Helena, in spite of Bertram’s rejection.
I pr’vthee, lady, have a better cheer;
If thou engrossest all the griefs are thine,
Thou robb’st me of a moiety. He was my son;
But I do wash his name out of my blood,
And thou art my child

Helena, explaining the trickery that will get Bertram to her bed – he thinking it is with another
Why, then, tonight
Is wicked meaning in a lawful act
Where both not sin, and yet a sinful fact;
But let’s about it

Lafeu, thinking Helena is dead, now pleads to the King to forgive Bertram
But first, I beg your pardon, – the young lord
Did to his majesty, his mother, and his lady,
Offense of mighty note; but to himself
The greatest wrong of all: he lost a wife

A maiden who Bertram thought he seduced, but was a conspirator with Helena, explaining things to the king
…but for this lord [Bertram]
Who hath abus’d me, as he knows himself,
Though yet he never harm’d me, here I quit him:
He knows himself my bed he hath defil’d;
And at that time he got his wife with child.
Dead though she be, she feels her young one kick;
So, there’s my riddle – One that’s dead is quick
And now behold the meaning.
    [Enter Helena]

Final verses
The king’s a beggar, now the play is done:
All is well-ended if this suit be won,
That you express content; which we will pay
With strife to please you, day exceeding day:
Ours be your patience then, and yours our parts;
Your gentle hands lead us, and take our hearts.

This play satisfies square I-3, Classic Drama or Play, in the 2020 Classic BINGO Challenge.


Saturday, April 4, 2020

Rudyard Kipling: Selected Poems

Rudyard Kipling: Selected Poems


Rudyard Kipling is perhaps best known for The Jungle Book, but he was also a prolific poet, writing over 500 poems. Some of his most beloved and best known are included in Selected Poems, such as: If, The White Man’s Burden, Gunga Din, and The Law of the Jungle.

I am not a serious student of poetry, but as a layman, I can say his poetry is at times fun, at others poignant, at others bitter-sweet, and at others rather bewildering. Kipling was certainly not bound to any particular meter or form. Some of his poems were quite easy to read, with a pleasing rhythm, and others were quite complex, with unusual meter, and for me, somewhat less enjoyable. 

I think T.S. Eliot put it very adeptly. He says Kipling was
…a writer impossible to wholly understand and quite impossible to belittle
Or another poet, Alison Brackenbury put it
Kipling is poetry's Dickens…

By today’s standards he was a shameless imperialist, as seemingly revealed in The White Man’s Burden, when he refers to
          Your new-caught sullen peoples, 
          Half devil and half child

But it is difficult to know when Kipling is being arrogant and when he is being ironic – a point debated even among scholars.

If you care for this reader’s unscholarly opinion: I think a little of both. Kipling was a British Imperialist, there is no doubt
Excerpt from The English Flag

          What is the Flag of England? Ye have but my reefs to dare,
          Ye have but my seas to furrow. Go forth for it is there!

But I think he also saw cost, and sin, and shame in it, and used his art to lament and to glory.
Such as in The Settler, which is about living in peace after war (British settler in South Africa after the war)

          And when we bring old fights to mind,
          We will not remember the sin – 
          If there be blood on his head of my kind,
          Or blood on my head of his kin

So back to his art – the man could write.

I particularly liked The Law of the Jungle, which to be more precise is the Wolf Pack law

          As the creeper that girdles the tree-trunk
          the Law runneth forward and back – 
          for the strength of the Pack is the Wolf
          and the strength of the Wolf is the Pack

(stanzas later)
          Ye may kill for yourselves, and your mates, and your cubs
          as they need, and ye can;
          But kill not for pleasure of killing,
          and seven times never kill Man!

But my favorite was If – a father’s advice to his son

          If you can dream – and not make dreams your master;
          If you can think – and not make thoughts your aim;
          If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster
          And treat those two impostors just the same;

(concluding stanza)
          If you can fill the unforgiving minute
          With sixty seconds’ worth of distance run,
          Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it,
          And – which is more – you’ll be a Man, my son!

Other poems I liked:
The Young British Soldier

When Earth’s Last Picture is Painted (about how artists will employ their craft in Paradise)

Pussy Can Sit by the Fire and Sing (the virtues of dog vs cat)

Dirge of Dead Sisters (a tribute to nurses who died in the South African War)

The Benefactors (ironically named, recounts the tale of how man’s weapons have “progressed” thru the ages.)

Quite fittingly, and cited in entirety, The Appeal is the final poem of this collection:

         The Appeal
          If I have given you delight
          By aught that I have done,
          Let me lie quiet in that night
          Which shall be yours anon:

          And for the little, little span
          The dead are borne in mind,
          Seek not to question other than
          The books I leave behind.

This collection satisfies square G-3, Poetry or Essay Collection, in the 2020 Classic BINGO Challenge