Adventures of Sherlock Holmes

sherlock holmesAdventures of Sherlock Holmes, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

When I was in high school, I babysat for a family in our neighborhood with two boys. It was a pretty sweet gig. They’d have ordered pizza for dinner already, after that we’d play a board game and the boys would get some tv time, then off to bed by 9 or so and I’d have the house and leftover pizza more or less to myself for a few hours. They had a big, leather-bound copy of the complete collection of Sherlock Holmes stories I read every time, and a cat that liked to curl up in laps. It was heaven.

I decided to revisit the original stories after finding an old copy of The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes at a used book sale. This collection of twelve stories offers quite a lot to a Holmes aficionado. It introduces Irene Adler, aka “The Woman,” although she is far less the romantic interest in the original story that she became in later adaptations. It includes the famous “The Five Orange Pips” and, what may have been my favorite story, “The Adventure of the Speckled Band.”

This book reminded me of why Sherlock Holmes has been such an influential and beloved character throughout the years. I won’t say that all the stories aged perfectly, but overall these were such charming and intriguing adventure stories. They were some of my first introductions to logic puzzles. I’d read mysteries before, of course—I think I’d finished most of Agatha Christie’s oeuvre before I was out of middle school—but the Holmes stories weren’t novels, just puzzles through and through. And Holmes himself was a singular character at the time, one who embodied the scientific method that was growing in import and respect in this time of rapid invention and technology. He’s influenced almost every detective ever after, and a host of other characters as well.

I imagine most people are well acquainted with Holmes at this point, but I encourage anyone who’s only watched one of the many reimaginings to pick up a book and read through. They’re quite quick to read—I was surprised to find how short these stories were, many much shorter than I remembered.  The books might be a bit of a disappointment to people who are only familiar with Benedict Cumberbatch, as much as I love him and his Holmes. These brief stories don’t have quite the twists and turns, although quite a few are very suspenseful, and they certainly don’t have the character arcs you’ll get from Masterpiece Mystery. Yes, at some point Watson goes off and gets married, and things do get a bit crazy with Moriarty, but it really doesn’t feature as much as one might think. They will give you a better sense of an essential part of narrative history, though, and hopefully entertain you as well.

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Guards! Guards!

guards guardsGuards!Guards!, Terry Pratchett

After a few books that took us to far off Djelibeybi (Pyramids)   and the rural kingdom of Lancre (Wyrd Sisters), we’re back to the big, familiar city of Ankh-Morpork with Guard! Guards! Fleshing out the politics and society of Discworld further, Guards! Guards! is set in the Discworld’s largest city following the adventures of the night watch. Ankh-Morpork is a city that works primarily through taking cynicism to astonishing levels. The Patrician (the city’s ruler) realized that things would never really be perfect, and decided to really lean into that, with the Thieves Guild, Assassins Guild and others using the natural need for monopoly control to keep crime to mostly manageable levels, giving the night watch very little to do on the crime-fighting front. As one might expect, though, circumstances intervene to make the night watch into our unlikely heroes. I suppose it sounds boring and predictable when written that way, but this being Pratchett, the standard story is twisted, turned about, and pushed and pulled into all sorts of absurd directions.

As for the circumstances. Well. I don’t usually read Terry Pratchett for my political commentary, especially as I’ve been reading books written twenty or so years ago. But the most recent Discworld novel I read, Guards! Guards! was weirdly timely.

Early in the book, we’re introduced into a conniving, power-hungry leader who has assembled a group of not particularly intelligent or well-regarded, but very embittered and put-upon feeling group of men he thinks he can control. He plans to use this group to achieve his power over the city, and thinks he can disregard, or at least control, them and the forces they’ve unleashed after he is done with them.

Unsurprisingly, things don’t go as planned, and the city ends up crowning a dragon king. People who had previously been firmly against this and in the #NeverDragon camp quickly go along with the plan, and become excited about the idea of Ankh-Morpork gaining power against the other kingdoms, revenge against others who may be cheating them in trade, and getting the respect they deserve. The leaders of the city, it’s many guilds and businesses and power structures, are, of course, against most of this, especially being led by a dragon, but what can one do? In fact, one paragraph of a meeting of these leaders is, I imagine, a rather perfect description of most of Trump’s cabinet meetings.

They avoided one another’s faces, for fear of what they might see mirrored there. Each man thought one of the others is bound to say something soon, some protest, and then I’ll murmur agreement, not actually say anything, I’m not as stupid as that, but definitely murmur very firmly, so that the others will be in no doubt that I thoroughly disapprove, because at a time like this it behooves all decent meant to nearly stand up and be almost heard…

But no one said anything. The cowards, each man thought.

Honestly, this book is almost a pitch-perfect satire of our current system. Forget authoritarian dystopias like 1984 or serious works of political theory like How Democracies Die. Pratchett and his cynical view of human nature is who you should be reading to understand how we got to where we are today.

Shades of Grey

Shades of GreyShades of Grey, Jasper Fforde

Jasper Fforde is best known for his Thursday Next series, the incredibly fun and delightful tales of a Jurisfiction agent protecting Book World, fighting the corporate giant Goliath, and occasionally running an underground cheese smuggling ring. Shades of Grey marks a departure from this, in tone, location, and time, but is still indisputably Fforde.

Leaving behind Swindon, Shades of Grey takes us hundreds or thousands of years into the future in what is likely Wales. It’s unclear when exactly it takes place, only that it is long past the vague “Something That Happened.” Some change in humans has now limited the amount of colors we can see, with people only being able to detect marginal amounts of 1-2 colors, except the pitiable Grays, the bottom of the social hierarchy. Political assignments are handed out in large part based on how much color one can detect, and marriages are arranged to increase color detection in children. Natural color is also on the decrease, with much work being down to scavenge artifacts from before the Something That Happened to bring colors into communities. Certain synthetic colors, which can be seen, are used as medicines or drugs—one color of green is regularly smuggled around, and called “Chasing the Frog.” And the political system has changed into a confusing dystopia, with undebatable rules passed down regularly. Some seem decent enough—each person must conduct one hour of Useful Work each day—while the ban on spoon production that has made them practically an item of currency seems more confusing.

The book takes us through the story of ?, a young Red whose mother has passed away years ago and who is being moved with his father, a doctor, to a smaller town for a year or two of work, before taking his color test and facing some sort of partially arranged marriage. He meets Jane, a similarly aged Grey, who is also unsatisfied and asking questions that Are Not Asked about the way things are. And, as is the case in these sorts of dystopias, as terrible as it seems there are even more terrible secrets hidden. A familiar enough tale, but with some surprising points at the end and an incredibly intriguing world.

Shades of Grey is a much darker, pardon the pun, book than any of the Thursday Next books, or the sister series, Nursery Crimes. It has a much slower pacing, without the almost manic energy of the Thursday Next books. The absurdity is still there in high quantities, but with a far more oppressive nature in this book. While some of the board outlines of the plot can be seen in this book, there were some very surprising, to me, twists at the end in the amount of world building that Fforde puts into his novels is astonishing. It takes about half the book to nail down exactly what all the rules are and what is happening, and still, there is more to gain. Fforde is also a master of plotting, with clues placed throughout the book for the bits that we do learn.

Shades of Grey has a resolution that is not fully satisfying, unfortunately, with mysteries solved that only raise more questions, and a still somewhat uncertain future for our protagonists. I was alright with this at first but, sadly, while Fforde promises additional tales, it looks as if the next one is not coming until 2020 yet! I will have to console myself and wait. But don’t let that dissuade you from reading it, as you’ll have a much shorter time to wait. It may be only because it was a surprising departure, but Shades of Grey may be my favorite of Fforde’s novels so far. I only have to hope he hurries up with his writing and finishes it.

Can Democracy Survive Global Capitalism

can democracy surive global capitalismCan Democracy Survive Global Capitalism?, Robert Kuttner

(Spoiler Alert: No)

In many ways 9/11 and the Iraq War, what almost seemed the defining points of a generation politically, were an aberration, an interruption in the real fight that needed to take place, the fight around globalization. When I was first becoming politically active in the late 90s and 2000-2001, this was it. This is what we were focused on. The ways the financial system had ravaged labor around the world. The ways IMF undermined global sovereignty. Jubilee and the debt relief movement. The Battle in Seattle. This was a major rift that needed to be addressed, a wider battle that needed to happen, the real fission line at the time between the left and the centrists.

Then 9/11 happened, and Afghanistan, and Iraq, and torture, and the fault lines shifted, and these differences were swept under the rug so that we could turn to other fights. There were some who tried to point out that this return to fundamentalism in some regions wasn’t a separate issue, but one of the points where the fight over globalization was playing out. Jihad vs. McWorld—a book I and my co-combatants on the globalization lines had read and reread—enjoyed a brief surge of popularity. But mostly the way that economic policy rather than foreign policy had contributed to the growth in fundamentalism and the current state of affairs was lost in the ensuing discussions.

Much to our detriment, as we readily see now, though, our society’s inability to stay focused on one big problem at a time doesn’t mean that the other issue goes away. And the steady creep of the growth of globalization—partly trade, yes, but even more, finances, investors, and currency speculation—and increase in binding arbitration that limits a state’s sovereignty and ability to course correct through its own policies has continued apace even while our attention was turned elsewhere, leading both to the collapse in 2008 and the rise in right-wing populism we see now.

The growing inequality is a well-known story, or at least it should be. We are in the midst of a roaring economic recovery where wages have stayed primarily stagnant.  The country mobilized to save companies and banks, whose CEOs were still allowed to have private jets and massive retirement funds, while the workers saw layoffs and pensions being cut over and over. Recent Oxfam stories have shown that the richest 1% took 82% of global wealth in 2017, while the bottom 50% had nothing. And the world’s richest people have the same wealth as the poorest 50%. Kuttner lays out in painstaking detail how global capitalism, and, even more importantly, an almost complete lifting of constraints on global banking, finance, and other industries who produce nothing other than wealth and paper money, the rentier class, will inevitably lead to this sort of massive inequality, which will lead to dissatisfaction and anger that can turn towards populists, fascists, racists, and others who promise easy solutions and someone to blame. Even more interesting, though, he also explains that it doesn’t have to be this way, outlining the initial efforts after the Great Depression and World War II that constrained finance, empowered labor, and made a strong economy, strong wages, and high employment, an explicit policy goal, leading to a global boom.

Kuttner’s basic thesis is two-fold. One, which I think many left-leaning people would generally agree with, at least in sentiment, is that labor rights should be strengthened, and we should support workers’ rights and human rights around the world. By strengthening labor, and civil society in general, we will have more people engaged in these fights, and people will protect their own interests. Where his theory is likely more controversial is that one of the things labor and civil society must fight for is significant constraints upon capital and the rentier class. He outlines the haven of tax shelters and shell companies that have been developed that provide no benefit except protecting and increasing paper wealth. He shows how the WTO and others do significantly restrain sovereignty in protecting labor rights and raising taxes, but provide no enforceable protections around labor or human rights. Even more troubling, currency speculation allows financers to move their money rapidly, and bankrupt any country that tries to enact leftist policies, thus significantly restricting the possibility of left governments to make changes, making them ineffective and desperate people even more susceptible to arguments that this can be blamed on the powerless—immigrants, racial minority, LGBTQ rights and women—rather than the powerful who others have railed against to no avail. Kuttner sees the growth of these policies as inevitable if finance is not significantly constrained. He seems to agree largely with Adam Smith, who wrote, in Wealth of Nations, “People of the same trade seldom meet together, even for merriment or diversion, but the conversation ends in a conspiracy against the public, or in some contrivance to raise prices.”

Kuttner’s book is incredibly well-researched and informative, and provides a wealth of examples from Asia, North America and Europe regarding the success  of the post-WWII system, and the strong labor practices in northern Europe, as well as some of the protectionist policies in East Asia in the 90s,  as compared to the “free trade” policies of globalization and the growing inequality and pain for consumers and workers that has resulted from financial globalization. He also draws a bright line between this failure of government to be responsive to a rise of ‘illiberal democracies’, popular movements that seem to mirror fascism. It is a troubling, but very convincing, read.

The book has some missteps. Kuttner is focused on the economics and the policies, an area that are too often overlooked—when I was in the globalization battles we focused on the damage WTO, IMF and other institutions did to developing countries, Kuttner is able to update that with the restraints and attacks on sovereignty the WTO has on developed countries, and the EU forced on Greece and others. There are significant echoes of The Shock Doctrine in how many of these destructive policies were put in place during times of trouble and without much input or understanding from others. This is understandable, and it is important to focus on this less understood area. He makes a compelling plea for paying attention to these policies, and constantly emphasizing the politics—who was for popular policies such as Social Security and Medicare at the time, and who was against. It is the only way to keep people allied with progressives, by reminding them of our success.

However, I think he is too dismissive of racial issues. It is not impossible that the significant social progress and compromise of the northern European nations is because of their cultural homogeneity. Racial issues have always played a part in the rise of populism—an in-group and an easily demonized outgroup, rather than turning anger towards the powerful. And within the United States, one cannot ignore the significant impact of racial attitudes. Lyndon Johnson famously said, ” If you can convince the lowest white man that he’s better than the best colored man, he won’t notice you’re picking his pocket. Hell, give him somebody to look down on, and he’ll even empty his pockets for you.” The New Deal was only able to pass because it enshrined certain racist protections. Kuttner waves away racial sentiment and focuses economic anger to explain hostility towards Clinton and support for Trump, but numerous studies have shown that racial sentiment and hostile misogyny are much better predictors of Trump support than economic views. I agree economic anger exacerbates in-group/out-group views such as these, and with his economic criticisms of Hillary Clinton, but one cannot just wave away this reality.

While this is a significant oversight, this is still an incredibly valuable book. The discussion over globalization, the ability to enforce austerity, the downward pressure on wages and environmental and human rights, and binding arbitration that gives unelected and private trading boards greater power than the United Nations are a danger to us all. This reckoning is long in coming, and we have to hope we’re not late to course correct. Read this book and understand these backgrounds. But don’t forget that every voter angry about this has a choice, and we can’t ignore the racism and sexism embedded in every populist leader. Anyone who talks of the pain of workers but understands their hostility to immigrants has a dangerous viewpoint embedded in their argument. We need to address these economic issues, true, but through greater solidarity not less. Non-white workers are suffering even more than others; let’s look to a way to preserve democracy, and the economy for all.

An Athropologist on Mars

anthropologist on marsAn Anthropologist on Mars, Oliver Sacks

It’s likely no exaggeration to say that any popular medical writing and certainly any exploration of the brain in pop culture owes a debt of origin to Oliver Sacks. The Radiolab podcast, innumerable NPR documentaries, authors such as Atul Gawande, all of them have been influenced by him. I would wager that almost all popular science writing or documentaries bear his mark, whether they know it or not. He was so prolific and, at the time of his earlier books, so original, exploring not only unknown and obscure diseases, but their effect on the people who had the disease, in such an incredibly compassionate and curious way, that his books were and are incredibly impactful. He also made a career of explaining for all people, and inviting us all into learning with him about people in a wide array of unique circumstances. And, of course, the fact that he was not only a brilliant neuroscientist but also a beautiful writer helped quite a bit.

I imagine most people know who Sacks now, but for those who don’t, he was a neuroscientist and prolific writer who wrote many books of case studies looking at people in unique circumstances and examining the effects of different syndromes, injuries, or atypical behaviors. An Anthropologist on Mars is in this vein, taking us through seven stories: of a painter who suffers a brain injury leaving him unable to see colors, a man with a severe brain tumor that keeps him from remembering anything after the late 60s, a surgeon with Tourette’s syndrome, a man blind from birth who recovers his sight, a man who has managed to reconstruct an entire city from memory after years, an autistic child who is an artistic savant, and Temple Grandin, a woman with autism who is a well known professor of animal sciences—and one of the first individuals on the spectrum to share her experience and be public about her experiences.

In this book, Sacks not only goes into the details of each person’s unique case, but also visits with them in their homes, or work, or travels with them, trying to better understand how their particular circumstance has affected them, in positive or negative or neutral ways. In most of the cases here, the people he speaks with have adapted or just experience this in their own way, they still have careers and lives and are just, well, different. In the case of the man with the serious tumor, or the artistic savant, their cases seem to be so severe that they are under constant care. Even here, though, they are presented in their fullness, with what they enjoy or are disappointed in and where they can find happiness. Sacks mediates on whether the man with a tumor who cannot form new memories can truly have an inner life, and yet he still spends time with him and takes him to a concert, and is able to see the joy he has in these experiences. In other books Sacks explores this as well—that almost anyone he encounters can still have, and deserves, happiness in whatever way they can experience it.

Since Sacks’ death in 2015, many others have written movingly about what he meant to science, to literature, to medicine, to learning to look at the world with curiosity and at difference with an eye less judgmental. There are essays describing this better than I am able. Sacks was a gift, and his books are fascinating, educational, and are such a joy to read. His voice will be missed, but at least his books, writing and influence live on.

Fathers and Sons

Fathers and SonsFathers and Sons, Ivan Turgenev

Ivan Turgenev’s classic from 1862 is very much specifically of its own time and very timeless, capturing as it does the constant struggle between the old guard and the new, the fear and mistrust of the future on one hand and the fear and fight against the past on the other, the tension between, if you will, fathers and sons.

The book opens with Arkady Kirsanov, a recent university graduate, on his way back home to his father’s estate, Maryino, in an outlying province, with his friend, Yevgeny Bazarov, a much more radical and self-assured nihilist, who Arkady adores and looks up to. They stay there for a while before visiting young heiress they’re both attracted to, and Bazarov’s home. The tension begins almost immediately. Arkady is an only son, whose mother has passed away, who has always been close to his father, Nikolai. His father has visited frequently, and tried to stay ‘modern’, but can’t help but be looked down on as provincial by Bazarov—also from the provinces, but much more enamored of new, nihilist views—and feel uncomfortable in his own home, with Arkady torn in loyalties as well.

The rest of the book proceeds from here, with the same tension throughout. The book was a bit difficult for me to get into, as the arguments from the time aren’t the same ones that us here in the United States in 2018 would be considering—the question of rights is universal, but the more specific questions of Russian serfs are a bit harder to grasp onto—and so I struggled a bit getting through the book. Add to that the fact that I was a very earnest, rather argumentative, politically active and radical college student (shocking, I know), and I’m afraid Bazarov’s speeches and all the fights he picked made me cringe. The issues might have been different, but I know the tone, and how I and my friends have become much more bearable in the proceeding years.

And when one is willing to accept that this is, at its heart, just about that tone, and the pull of the past, and tradition vs. throwing everything over, and whether one throws everything over for the sake of throwing it over or for principals and something better, it becomes a much better read. It’s the rare book that I like more as I think back over it. The relationship between Arkaday and Nikolai is quite touching; Bazarov’s arc follows that of a standard tragedy, but is relatable for those of us who knew many Bazarovs in college. It’s easy to get hung up on the specifics, but if you take it in the general, the book will have things to say for generations yet.

Inherent Vice

Inherent_ViceInherent Vice, Thomas Pynchon

I have had to reluctantly admit that I just don’t particularly care for Thomas Pynchon. Even though I should! Even though his books are full of absurdity; even though he’s the godfather of post-modernist fiction; even though he is beloved by most of the literary and intellectual sources I go to for recommendations. I just *sigh* he just doesn’t work for me. Sometimes that happens I suppose. I know I should! I’m not hostile towards him; I think he’s talented in his way. The books just don’t resonate with me.

Crying of Lot 49 was fine, but I won’t say I thought it was that amazing—I can barely remember what it was all about. Mason & Dixon, a 784-page doorstop of a book, is one of the few books I stopped reading once I’d started. I just realized I had so much life ahead of me, and I couldn’t waste another day trying to make it through that incredibly boring book, no matter that others had declared it “gorgeously funny”, “sublime fiction,” or “as poignant as it is daring.”

Inherent Vice is no Mason & Dixon. It’s about 450 pages shorter, for one, and it’s readable, for another. The book was a type I should like—satirical, set at the tail end of the 60s (1970ish, seems to me) California, with a drugged up, hippie, private eye. In just bare description it seems almost like if Hiassen wrote about 1970 Southern California instead of 2000s south Florida.  It sounds as if it should be fantastic. And yet for me it never really landed. The tone seemed slightly off; the absurdity either not quite absurd enough or not quite real enough, I’m not sure which. I started to get into a bit at the end, as I was pulled into the mystery, and got more used to the tone of the book and the writing, but even then it was still just fine, just interesting enough, not amazing.

Pynchon is beloved, and I suppose there’s a reason for that. You should give him a try, if only to try to figure out what so many people are on about. But he just doesn’t do it for me. I suppose it’s back to Eco and Vonnegut for my postmodernist fix.