Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Goodreads review: Sherlock Holmes

Sherlock Holmes: The Complete Novels and Stories, Volume I by Arthur Conan Doyle

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

That this collection of detective stories is classic fiction is beyond question. Nevertheless, never having read Sherlock Holmes before, at several points I was sorely disappointed. The literary trick of untranslated foreign language quotes almost always aggravates me, and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle sprinkled these quotes around using at least 3 languages that I don't comprehend. But I realize that this is a time-honored technique and so do not seriously criticize his famous work on that account.

Nor would I subtract from its rating because of some serious Mormon bashing in the very first story. I am not familiar enough with the true history of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints to determine whether Doyle's villainous portrayal of them is historically accurate or just an example of the trashing of a religion which one disbelieves. At any rate, let's let that pass as well.

Rather, I give only three stars to Sherlock Holmes, Volume I because of certain flaws of logic, flaws which I deem inexcusable in a work whose appeal rests almost entirely upon analytical reasoning.

For example, in The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle, Doyle has Holmes deducing a man's intellectual prowess from the size of his hat. Had Holmes never met a stupid man with a large head, or an intelligent one with a relatively small cranium?

Then, in The Adventure of the Priory School, Holmes deduces the direction that a bicycle had been ridden by observing that the rear wheel made a deeper impression in the mud and in places covered over the track of the front wheel. Brilliant. But such would be the case no matter which direction the bicycle was traveling. Duh!

The flaw that irritated me most was found in The Adventure of the Dancing Men. At the core of this story are a series of mysterious messages that I recognized immediately as simple substitution encryption, which assumption Doyle himself later confirms. As a long-time fan of encryption, I set out to decode the messages on my own without reading ahead, and would have succeeded within an hour or so had the messages been properly reproduced. But according to the text, one particular figure in the messages ended up representing two different letters: in one place a 'V' and in two other places a 'P'. Another figure represents both an 'O' and an 'M', while in another place a different figure represents an 'O'. All these are violations of the simple substitution encryption logic which Holmes asserts, and render the messages undecipherable as printed in the book. This flaw is not so much a matter of illogic as of sloppy composition and/or a failure to adequately proofread the encrypted messages.

On a positive note, Sherlock Holmes, Volume I contains plenty of other stories with plots that are both fun and logical. And with over 1000 pages, it provided me with many hours of enjoyable reading, a good buy for the price. Plus, the introduction by Loren D. Estleman is intelligent, informative and entertaining, qualities which one rarely finds in an introduction. All in all, I may very well end up shopping for Volume II as well.


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Goodreads review: The Jaguar Smile

The Jaguar Smile: A Nicaraguan Journey by Salman Rushdie

My rating: 1 of 5 stars

As a U.S. citizen residing in Nicaragua, I expected to find The Jaguar Smile interesting and insightful. But I learned next to nothing and saw little in this book that resembled Nicaragua as I've experienced it.

I must admit Salman Rushdie enjoyed certain advantages over me. I've only lived in Nicaragua for a little over 4 years, most of which time I've spent in a rustic barrio of Jinotega, rubbing elbows with my Jinotegan neighbors. Trips to other parts of the country have been via crowded buses in close quarters with common folk. I've had no guide or translator.

Mr. Rushdie, by contrast, was an invited guest of the Sandinista Association of Cultural Workers. For 3 weeks he was flown and driven around Nicaragua by a select few politicians and journalists eager to impress upon him their own ideological viewpoints. He met and talked (via an interpreter usually) with local folk who were included in the planned agenda. Rushdie freely accepted or rejected at his own discretion the viewpoints he heard, and recorded his thoughts accordingly. He seems to have genuinely thought his experience to be a meaningful one.

So, if you want to learn what these Very Important Nicaraguans - and the Very Important Rushdie - were thinking and doing about 3 decades ago, you may enjoy The Jaguar Smile. I can't guarantee that you'll learn much about the real Nicaragua.

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Saturday, July 19, 2014

Goodreads review: Imitation of Christ

Imitation of ChristImitation of Christ by Thomas à Kempis

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

No accident that Imitation of Christ is, second to the Bible, the most beloved book in Christendom. Filled with sound doctrine and timeless exhortations to religious perfection, it offers no fashionable alternatives nor shortcuts nor culturally correct 'relevance'. It is a work for all seasons and all centuries. Its target audience is the serious Christian, no one else. It simply instructs the reader on the Truth and on how therefore to live. It is to be slowly absorbed, not just read.

This passage, written in the person of Christ, may be the most perfect portrayal of the Cross that I've ever found:
Of my own will did I offer up myself unto God the Father for thy sins. My hands were stretched forth on the cross, and my body laid bare, so that nothing remained in me that was not wholly turned into a sacrifice for the appeasing of the divine majesty. [4th Book, Ch.VIII,1a]

If Imitation of Christ has a flaw, it is that it was intended for monks and hermits. As such, many of its exhortations, such as
Choose therefore a secret place to thyself, love to live alone with thyself, desire the conversation of none; but rather pour out devout prayer unto God, that thou mayest keep thy soul contrite, and thy conscience pure. [3rd Book, Ch.LIII,1c]
can not be literally practiced by, say, a married person or a parish priest, whose vocation necessarily involves contact with people. This caveat, in my opinion, does not detract from the book's profound prophetic worth.

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