What I’ve Been Reading: Holmes, Nerds, and Pulitzer Prize Winners

June was a good month for books.  Maybe because it’s summertime?  Maybe I just have excellent taste?  Who knows!  Here we go!

The House of SilkAnthony Horowitz : This book has impressive credentials, before you even open the cover.  It is the first official sanctioned Holmes book in 125 years, as the Arthur Conan Doyle estate asked Horowitz to write this novel.  They did their homework.  The tone is very similar to Doyle’s, that sort of upper-crust, detached tone that sounds familiar.

Whereas Chabon’s The Final Solution was a glimpse of Holmes in his old age, this gives us a look at an elderly Watson.  He is plagued by two things: that with Holmes’s death, he has lost “the very reason for his existence,” as well as “no longer understand[ing] the world in which [he] live[s].”  Watson is writing this tale after the death of his friend, both of them old men.  This is the one case that he could not write down, due to who it would affect and intimidate.  It would tear apart society.  This tale was put in a safe deposit box for 100 years, not to be opened.

The novel, though significantly longer than most of Doyle’s works, mimics structure of the traditional tales.  Holmes impresses Watson with some deductions about Watson’s own life, there is a knock at the door, and we receive exposition from a potential client.  From there, we are plunged into a mystery concerning stolen art, an American gang of thieves, and a missing Baker Street Irregular.  From there, things get stranger, until the words “House of Silk” continually are repeated, Mycroft washes his hands of the situation and of his brother, and Sherlock finds himself in deep trouble.

The resolution is more disturbing and edgier than most of Doyle’s fare, though at the time, it’s likely Doyle was discussing concepts that disturbed his audience.  Horowitz does take care to comment on some social ills of the time, which I think Doyle would have avoided.  But references to classic Holmes tales are embedded, like inside jokes that bring a Holmes fan great joy.  All in all, a lovely continuation of the Holmes tales, and well done by Horowitz, even as it is a bit sensational and current in its subject matter.  None the less enjoyable, though.

The Chronicles of Sherlock HolmesDenis O. Smith : In my continued pursuit of Holmeslore, I read an interview with the masterminds behind the BBC’s Sherlock (which if you haven’t seen, you will never be able to completely understand me as a person), Steven Moffat of Doctor Who fame and Mark Gatiss, who also plays Mycroft.  The question was posed about other Holmes works they enjoyed, and Gatiss mentioned the Billy Wilder movie The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes and Smith’s Chronicles.  Good enough for me!

This short book is composed of three stories, two short and one a bit longer.  The tales are very much like Doyle’s length, and the tone is even more similar to Doyle’s than the Horowitz story.  These stories are sensational in a very mid-1880s way with sordid pasts of betraying gangs and dealing with mob-like fences.  There’s even a small reference to Moriarty, though it’s veiled.  Smith’s stories are not self-referential at all, in that it doesn’t refer to the Doyle Holmes stories as a sort of inside joke.

The middle story, the longer one, drags a bit, but it has fun Sherlockian components: masters of disguise, Watson being behind the game, and references to Watson’s wife’s illness.  The final story is fun, because it makes traditional topics a bit topsy turvey.

I enjoyed these short stories, but they didn’t blow me out of the water.  I was most impressed by their similarity to the Doyle stories.  They did not detract anything, nor did they add.

The Nerdist WayChris Hardwick : The strange thing about podcasts is that you start feeling like you know the folks talking on them.  Most of the time, they’re just having conversations about life and culture and this and that, friends chit-chatting.  The Nerdist podcasts are exactly like that, and Chris, Matt, and Jonah feel like buddies of mine.  Albeit buddies who use colorful language and discuss colorful topics.

Chris is the founder of Nerdist Industries, a growing conglomeration of comedy, video games, science fiction fans, not to mention podcasts, videos, online content, and panels.  It’s an impressive gathering place for the nerdists, the arty and self-aware nerds who care about things deeply.  Chris is someone who’s a self-identified nerd who has worked really hard to become a major success in a specific (and loyal) community.  So he wrote a book about it.

This book is a self-help book for nerds, no way around that.  It’s delightful, deliciously nerdy, with references to RPGs, video games, Star Wars, Doctor Who, and the other pillars of the nerdy life.  Not only are there references, they play a significant role in the format of this book.  It’s interactive, and the tone sounds just like Chris’s public persona to a delightful degree.

There were three parts to this book: Mind, Body, and Time.  The first is all about how you think, dealing with self-defeating talk and anxiety, the ways we stand in our own way. The second is a nerd’s worst nightmare: how to move this body of ours.  We’re more couch-sitters than working-outters, so this can be challenging.  The third is all about how you spend your time, with chapters such as “Become an Evil Genius”(focus, be single-minded, be committed), as well as how to take control of finances, delegate/collaborate, and find your niche.

I enjoyed the book, though it dragged on a little long for me.  The chapters within the sections were a little short and at times rushed.  I personally would have preferred a bit more depth instead of so much breadth.  Even so, I thought the tone was light and encouraging, and I loved seeing myself in so many of the book’s definitions.  I’m a nerdist, that’s for sure!

Angle of ReposeWallace Stegner : If someone raves about something, I usually build up my expectations too high and then am disappointed.  It doesn’t matter how good the original thing is.

How do I talk about a book like Angle of Repose?  I can’t rave about it, because it was raved about to me.  And yet, I can’t shake it.

First of all, it’s long.  569 pages to be exact, or at least the copy I had.  So I took a page from my college days and ignored it because I knew it would take me too long.

It also won the Pulitzer Prize in 1972.  No big deal.

It’s a beautiful book, truly lovely prose.  I’m not sure I’ve read something similarly paced with such beautiful structure.  Granted, it moves slowly but in its meandering, it takes a good long look at the land and the life of a woman transplanted into a foreign world with a foreign man.  The descriptions were exquisite, especially the one of Susan going down into the mine, the dark world that she discovered, that her man was part of.

But we are shown all this through the eyes of Susan Ward’s grandson, Lyman, someone reaching the end of his own life, wheelchair bound and loveless.  He is searching for this angel he admired and loved, this life that he only caught a glimpse of.  And so he constructs her life through her letters and writings.  She was married to a dreamer and a genius who was one step ahead of the world and thus cast aside and poor.  She herself was genteel and a lady living in a rough and tumble wilderness.  And piece by piece, it all falls apart.

I know this is a book that I must read again, to catch the details and the magic.  Even just rereading the intro, knowing what I do 569 pages later, it was richer.  It’s a fine book that can do that.

The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in HeavenSherman Alexie :  I’m going to be honest.  I read this book on a cross-country flight from Phoenix to North Carolina from 2:05pm PST to 9:47pm EST.  I had already been on one flight before that, and had one more to go afterwards.  It was either the worst place to read this book, or the best.  I’m not sure.

I loved Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diaries of a Part-Time Indian, but this book was different.  That was for younger readers, this is definitely for adults.  It’s composed of short stories with common threads: setting, characters, subjects, tone.  It’s very sad but oddly hopeful, kind of.  It’s about real life on an Indian reservation, or what I assume it to be, as it’s worlds away from my own life.  Everyone drinks, has raucous parties, does dumb things, just gets by in a cycle of poverty that just continually perpetuates itself.  And it’s all done with a deep-seated sense of traditional and mythos, of devotion to family and tribe, even though neither help out much.  It’s blatant and honest and forthright, but with a sincerity, a sense of “this is just how it is.”  Finding the heart-breaking beauty in all of the above.

I loved the Introduction, penned by Alexie, highlighting his rise to fame as a poet and his struggle to get this book published.  He defends his perspective in a wry and humorous way and he makes me like him, and believe his story and perspective.  He doesn’t pretend like the subsequent book is not fiction, but he also doesn’t pretend like it’s not based in reality, that these things are happening in towns that mainstream America has forgotten, or overlooked, or ignored.

There’s so much I don’t know about this world.  So much I don’t know about my own country.  If someone teaches me something, even if it cracks my heart a little bit, I am grateful.  So I am grateful for this book, or what my travel-addled mind soaked in of it before falling asleep somewhere above Texas.

Your turn!  What are you reading these days?


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