November 23, 2008

The Italian Secretary by Caleb Carr

I'll come straight to the point - The Italian Secretary by Caleb Carr is a very nice piece of Sherlock Holmes fanfic, but really not worth the time it took to read it. I am not in any way disrespecting fanfic as I've read some that is really quite good, but I expect more from the celebrated author of The Alienist - a book that is both very well written and, quite frankly, disturbing.

The Italian Secretary features a sadly anemic Watson's pitifully anemic account of how a dreadfully anemic Holmes solves the horribly anemic "case" of the haunting of Holyroodhouse. It was preposterous from the moment Holmes and Watson are called to Scotland by Mycroft, who is apparently on very intimate terms with Queen Victoria. Like is said, preposterous, not to mention sadly underdeveloped. Instead of building the case throughout the narrative, Carr simply insists at every possible juncture that everything that happens is either breathtakingly thrilling, important or dangerous. It is not, though clearly the reader is meant to think otherwise.

Carr is obviously a genuine fan of Arthur Conan Doyle's (I can't fault his enthusiasm - I'm a huge fan myself), and he's clearly read the canon. Unfortunately, this obvious knowledge and appreciation did not translate into a compelling "further adventure," or even a convincing portrayal of the master detective (for that go straight to said canon, or the Granada TV series with Jeremy Brett). Rather, The Italian Secretary simply made me feel cranky and dissatisfied - a feeling that only went away after I'd re-read "The Blue Carbuncle" and "The Resident Patient." So that's what I would suggest - stick to the real Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (or any of the other canonical collections or novels) wherein the cases and the hero are anything but anemic.

November 17, 2008

The Haunted House by Charles Dickens

I haven't read any Dickens since I re-read A Christmas Carol several years ago, and, upon finishing The Haunted House, I was once again reminded of why I like him so much. Dickens is really funny. Really, I'm serious. Dickens can actually be funny enough to make up for the lachrymose moralizing that sneaks into some of his longer works (see Oliver Twist, or, god help you, Little Dorrit). Granted, Dickens wields the lachrymose as a means of social commentary and even of reform so it's hard to complain. Still, his sly, almost biting humor, does help the medicine go down. 

That said, the medicine in The Haunted House is already pretty sweet, if a little pious and saccharine at times. The haunted house of the title is engagingly drawn, complete with cataleptic maids and panicky cooks - people that are as whimsically ridiculous as anyone Edward Gorey could create. But the house isn't really haunted - at least not by rattling spirits. The only ghosts that haunt the denizens of the house are their own. Their memories, pasts and experiences comprise the 'haunting' stories named for each of the occupied rooms. 

Ultimately, the set-up is a fairly Dickensian exercise in catharsis, redemption and acceptance, although Dickens did not write all of the stories himself. He orchestrated the frame tale, entitled "The Mortals of the House," and contributed two other stories, but the rest were commissioned for the Christmas 1859 edition of All the Year Round. Wilkie Collins, Elizabeth Gaskell and Hesba Stretton, among others, contributed, each writing a story set in one of the 'haunted' rooms. Sadly, most are negligible, though pleasant reads. There are exceptions in Collins' tale of the terrors of a candlestick, and Stretton's melancholy story of nearly lost love, but, for the most part, Dickens initial frame tale, "The Mortals of the House," is the only must read. 

So, here's my recommendation: 
Should you be interested in trying The Haunted House, borrow it, read the frame, and cherry pick the rest. Then go read Great Expectations for a full dose of the good stuff.

Ah, Christmas

The holiday season is coming up, and several very wise friends have done the smart thing and made their Amazon Wishlists publicly available, so I'm going to follow their lead, as queries are being logged. Here's the link that will take you to my wishlist. Eventually, I'll put a little button on the blog, but for now, I hope this will do.... 

On a separate but related note, its going to be hard this year for a lot of folks with the economy being what it is, so if any gift givers were inclined to donate the money they would spend on my present to the SPCA (for all of the foreclosed and abandoned pets) that would be really awesome too.

And with that, I end this flagrantly non-review related post!

November 6, 2008

Dracula by Bram Stoker

I just read Dracula for, I think, the fifth time - could be the sixth, I'm not sure, so it goes without saying that this is one of my favorite books. In fact, Dracula has become a sort of friend, a book that gets better with every reading, disproving the old adage that familiarity breeds contempt. It's my number one choice for comfort reading - the literary equivalent of a blanket and tea on a rainy day (which may be why I tend to read it in the fall, just when the seasons are turning). So, instead of writing a review that I'm too biased and unqualified to write, I'm going to use this post to plug a three editions that I've especially enjoyed, and one that I would very much like to. 

1. For anyone who has already read Dracula and wants to do it again, I recommend The Essential Dracula edited by Leonard Wolf. This edition is the one I just finished, and while I think that the footnotes would most likely distract a first-time reader, the inclusion of so much scholarship was fun for me. Wolf's introduction is informative without being too stuffy (as are most of his copious footnotes). The other thing I like about this edition is that it includes the deleted first chapter of Stoker's text, now called "Dracula's Guest," which implies certain things about the origins of Dracula's famous brides. 

All of this said, the first time you read Dracula, it really should be to get lost in the story, which remains charming, funny, tragic and suspenseful, even after a century. So, onto the next edition.

2. Dracula by Bram Stoker, published by Modern Library Classics. This is a great, basic, 
trade paper edition. Peter Straub's introduction is informative without being distracting, the text is nice and big, and the appendices are both relevant and interesting if you happen to like appendices, which I do. Also, included in one of the appendices (which I thought was just cool), is the alternate ending that Stoker didn't use - hours of fun for comparative purposes and lit. geeks everywhere.

3. For those of a more visual frame of mind, it gives me great pleasure to recommend the Barnes and Noble edition of Dracula illustrated by Edward Gorey. While every page does not have a picture, this edition is peppered with them - not to the point of distraction, but just enough to charm. This edition also includes "Dracula's Guest" and a lucid introduction by Marvin Kaye. The appendices, also compiled by Kaye, include a brief "Sampling of Contemporaneous Opinion," and a nice snippet of biography on Stoker, who was a pretty interesting character himself.

4. Lastly, the edition that I haven't read yet, but want to: The New Annotated Dracula, edited by Leslie Klinger, with introduction by Neil Gaiman. Just released in October of this year, The New Annotated Dracula is the newest addition to Norton's "Annotated" series, which has proved to be pretty excellent across the board. The series has, so far, included The Annotated Brother's Grimm, The Annotated Classic Fairy Tales, and The Annotated Alice among others. But what makes The New Annotated Dracula so exciting is Leslie Klinger's involvement (although Neil Gaiman is neat). Klinger worked for years on The Annotated Sherlock Holmes, which James gave me for my birthday, and which is also FABULOUS. I can only say that the prospect of reading Klinger's annotations and scholarship in conjunction with Stoker's text is a very happy one for me.

So there you have it. Four editions of Dracula just waiting to be picked up. Actually, there are probably over five hundred editions out there by now, so there's no excuse - go out there and get one and enjoy it to pieces, hopefully more than once.