December 13th, 2012

Dead Dog Cat

(no subject)

A book club choice, that I had to finish by January, I finished reading The Man in the White Sharkskin Suit yesterday. Not a biography that I would have chosen, it speaks of a Jewish family from Cairo, driven out of Egypt after the Six Day War. Uncomfortable in places...too many places.


The Heart of the Buddhas TeachingAs its name suggests, The Heart of the Buddha's Teaching was written by Vietnamese monk Thich Nhat Hanh as a survey of and an introduction to Buddhist principles.  It's organized primarily by lists  -  the Eightfold Path, the six Paramitas, etc.  It's a bit much at once, particularly for a primer; the book is deceptively dense.  (The experienced Buddhist leading the discussion group noted that he always found something new in it every time he read it.)  Hanh, though, writes with considerable compassion and earthiness, illustrating the principles at hand with incidents from his own daily life, his interactions with friends and children; he makes the material approachable and common-sensical.  The scope of what he tackles is somewhat daunting, and an experienced guide might be necessary to get all you can out of it; you might be better off starting your journey with another, more tightly-focused book of Hanh's.  You can't fault Hanh for the attempt here, though, and I wish more faith-based authors wrote with this degree of humanity.

#35: All too elementary

percentMan, was this a disappointment.  Nicholas Meyer's The Seven-Per-Cent Solution starts with a killer premise: Sherlock Holmes' occasional indulgence in cocaine to stimulate his senses has exploded into an uncontrollable addiction, and the Professor Moriarty Holmes confronts during this period is not a nefarious criminal puppetmaster but an innocent old math teacher under persecution by Holmes's increasingly paranoid mind.  That's what John Watson is told at the outset, anyhow, and the man sees that's it's up to him not only to find the truth, if any, behind Holmes's drug-fueled rantings of conspiracy but to find his friend deliverance from the narcotic that has taken hold of his brilliant mind. 

Watson frames the case as the real story behind Holmes's long disappearance after "The Final Problem," one he could never tell while his friend was alive (Meyer bills it as a lost manuscript Watson churned out years later in a retirement home that was never found till the seventies ).  The alternate take on one of the lower points in Holmes's career initially seemed tailor-made for me  -  I liked Watson's wife Mary Morstan, here a capable collaborator in Watson's desperate investigation/rescue attempt; I found the great villain Moriarty a dud and think the conceit that maybe he didn't really exist except in Holmes's mind is a possibility with much more potential; and it seems natural to me that being the support system for a man as exhausting, prickly, and idiosyncratic as Holmes could be would demand greater reserves of resilience, wisdom, and human understanding than Doyle ever acknowledged Watson to have on page.  For the first fifty pages or so, watching Watson grapple with how to execute his initial idea  -  getting Holmes to a doctor in Vienna he hears specializes in treating addiction  -  was tense and intriguing, and I relished a story where Watson, not Holmes, was the protagonist, where Watson was forced to match wits against his friend in an effort to save him.  Sad to say, the story collapses from there.

The doctor in Vienna turns out to be Sigmund Freud.  The prologue with Watson was a mere smokescreen; Meyer's real purpose in writing The Seven-Per-Cent Solution is to fanboy how Freud is soooooo much better than Holmes OMG with all the subtlety of a fanfic about Goku beating up Superman.  After his pasteboard Holmes is brought suitably low before Freud, the cocaine business is quickly dispensed with so that Meyer plunge into his Freud-Holmes superstar crossover teamup, yet he can concoct no better problem for them to tackle than a routine kidnapped-noblewoman yarn, which the respective fathers of ratiocination and psychoanalysis solve largely through a) playing tennis and b) shoveling coal into a furnace.  Watson is most disappointingly kicked backseat to his typical role as Greek chorus of fatuous adoration, and the tale loses not only its sympathetic, stirring protagonist and intriguing hook of an inversion of the Holmes mythos but also most of its narrative steam through stopping and then having to restart a third of the way into the proceedings.  I wish someone would make a fanfic of this fanfic, running with its fascinating premise instead of abandoning it for a trite Gary Stu fantasy.

Oh, and as for that big personal revelation: ohhhhhhhhhhhhhhh, please.
muse 2

Book 162: The White Woman on the Green Bicycle by Monique Roffrey

Book 162: The White Woman on the Green Bicycle.
Author: Monique Roffrey, 2010.
Genre: Period Fiction. Race. Politics.
Other Details: Paperback. 448 pages.

When George and Sabine Harwood arrive in Trinidad from England George instantly takes to their new life, but Sabine feels isolated, heat-fatigued, and ill at ease with the racial segregation and the imminent dawning of a new era. Her only solace is her growing fixation with Eric Williams, the charismatic leader of Trinidad's new national party, to whom she pours out all her hopes and fears for the future in letters that she never brings herself to send. As the years progress, George and Sabine's marriage endures for better or worse. When George discovers Sabine's cache of letters, he realises just how many secrets she's kept from him - and he from her - over the decades. And he is seized by an urgent, desperate need to prove his love for her, with tragic consequences… from UK publisher's website.

The opening section (almost half the book) is set in 2006 with George and Sabine Harwood in their mid-70s and is written in the third-person omniscient narrative mode. The remainder of the novel is narrated by Sabine and recounts their time in Trinidad in 1956, 1963, and ends in 1970. It's an unusual format and while Roffrey makes this work it does leave certain questions unanswered.

It was short-listed in 2010 for the Orange Prize for fiction and I felt it was a perfect example of the kind of novel nominated for that award. While it charts the changing relationship between the Harwoods, who had moved in 1956 from England to Trinidad, it is also a novel about Trinidad itself as it makes the transition from colonial status to independence. Post-colonial discourse, politics and race relations figure large in the novel's themes and it is certainly a novel that can be read on multiple levels.

It was a library reading group selection but as the meeting where it was to be discussed was cancelled due to a special event, only three of us in the group actually read it. However, we all had such positive things to say about it in terms of plot, characters and the rich descriptions and this will hopefully encourage others in the group to read it. I knew that Monique Roffrey had been born in Port of Spain, Trinidad from the cover notes and had thought this likely was why her descriptions of the island were so vivid. However, I had not realised until I read her website that her mother used to ride a green Raleigh bicycle around the island in the 1950s and this anecdote had proved the inspiration for the novel.

Monique Roffrey's page on The White Woman on the Green Bicycle'.