BOOK REVIEW: The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes by Arthur Conan Doyle

The Adventures of Sherlock HolmesThe Adventures of Sherlock Holmes by Arthur Conan Doyle
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This collection of a dozen short stories is the third book in the Sherlock Holmes canon, and the first of the short story collections. The cases described range from murder and scandalous thefts to mysteries as seemingly mundane as why a certain pawnbroker, engineer, or governess got a job offer too good to be true. There is often a falsely accused suspect, or no suspect whatsoever. On more than one occasion, two characters are, in actuality, one. It’s typical Sherlock Holmes, which is to say compelling and engaging throughout. Furthermore, there are a couple of cases, such as the first, that break the usual mold, as the author apparently recognized that it would not to do not break up the cycle of: “strange case gets solved and extensively explained, repeat.”

The stories are as follows:

1.) “A Scandal in Bohemia” – The King of Bohemia, about to be wed, becomes the victim of blackmail. This is one of those cases that breaks the mold as a it’s one of the few in which the criminal gets the better of Holmes – though all works out for Holmes’ client.

2.) “The Red-Headed League” – This is one of the three stories in the collection in which an individual gets a job that pays impossibly well with requirements that, while not onerous, are strange. A pawnbroker is given a nice stipend for ridiculously trivial work by a mysterious organization that funds gingers.

3.) “A Case of Identity” – A well-to-do woman’s fiancé disappears, or so it seems.

4.) “The Boscombe Valley Mystery” – A landowner in the countryside is murdered, and his son, with whom he’d recently argued and who was the last to see him alive, is the immediate and only suspect of Scotland Yard.

5.) “The Five Orange Pips” – A man who recently received a note containing five orange seeds dies, somewhat suspiciously, and under circumstances that do not bode well for his heir.

6.) “The Man with the Twisted Lip” – A husband goes missing, and a beggar immediately comes under suspicion as his killer – though there is no compelling evidence of murder.

7.) “The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle” – A famed jewel goes missing and a suspect is in custody, but when the jewel is discovered in the alimentary canal of a Christmas goose, what is to be made of that?

8.) “The Adventure of the Speckled Band” – A woman fears her stepfather. The woman’s sister died a couple years before, having made an obscure comment about a “speckled band” as she died.

9.) “The Adventure of the Engineer’s Thumb” – A struggling hydraulic engineer gets a job that seems rudimentary enough, but which nearly costs him his life, and does cost him a thumb. It’s clear that his employer is not engaged in the minor crime that the man confessed to in his explanation of why the engineer must work during the dead of night.

10.) “The Adventure of the Noble Bachelor” – A gentleman’s bride disappears on their wedding day. There are those who think it foul play.

11.) “The Adventure of the Beryl Coronet” – A banker who is holding a crown as loan collateral, suffers a theft that threatens his professional reputation, and potent circumstantial evidence points to the banker’s son.

12.) “The Adventure of Copper Beeches” – An unemployed governess is offered a job that pays three times the going rate for light work involving one child, so long as she agrees to cut her hair, and — on occasion – wear a certain dress while sitting in a particular chair.

Doyle creates fascinating characters in Sherlock Holmes and his protégé Doctor Watson, characters that continue to spin off stories to this day, and for good reason. While there is a lot of hokum in these stories, the idea of being able to draw such great information from such miniscule signs captures the imagination. And Doyle does make efforts to break up the monotony. While I pointed out that there are three stories in which characters get great jobs with bizarre requirements, each of these cases is different with respect to why the client got said well-paying job – though it is true in each case that something more nefarious than meets the eye is afoot. It’s not all murder and burglary, sometimes it’s cases that are intellectually interesting if trivial in stakes. And once and a while, Holmes doesn’t get his man, so to speak.

This is a readable and entertaining set of stories. I’d highly recommend giving it a read.


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BOOK REVIEW: Tokyo Junkie by Robert Whiting

Tokyo Junkie: 60 Years of Bright Lights and Back Alleys . . . and BaseballTokyo Junkie: 60 Years of Bright Lights and Back Alleys . . . and Baseball by Robert Whiting
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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Tokyo is the river that runs through this book, which for large tracts reads like a memoir and at other turns reads like a broad overview of things Japanese. I’ve only been to Tokyo once, for about a two week stay, but it’s impossible to miss the almost alien level of distinctiveness of the city. It’s the largest city in the world, but in many ways feels like a small town. The subways shut down at midnight, creating an alter ego to the city, aptly depicted in Haruki Murakami novels.

Whiting’s Tokyo journey begins with his time posted there in the military, a time which happens to correspond with the city being readied for the 1964 Olympics, through the present day COVID Pandemic challenges (which happens to correspond with the 2020 Tokyo Summer games being delayed — and it remains to be seen whether these games will ever happen given the fact that the COVID virus is not taking our plans for vaccine-driven herd immunity sitting down.)

As Whiting’s book is part memoir, it gives particular scrutiny to the subjects of his earlier books, in as much as those topics touch upon life in Tokyo. One of these subjects, the more extensively discussed, is baseball and the very different way the game is played and reported upon in Japan. The other key subject is organized crime and the legendary Yakuza. Crime in Japan is a captivating topic because it is both invisible and infamously brutal. I enjoyed the view through these niche lenses because (particularly) the latter is not so conspicuous, but is riveting stuff. [When I was in Japan, I was taken to a bathhouse (not considered strange in Japan as it sounds to an American.) Before we went, I was told that if I had big tattoos, I couldn’t go; and, if I had a small tattoo, I’d need to use a washcloth to keep it covered the whole time. This is apparently because reputable establishments don’t want the taint of Yakuza on their premises. So, this is how much they keep things on the down-low.]

Whiting led various lives in Tokyo, he was an airman, a student, a salaryman, an unofficial advisor to a Yakuza gang, a journalist, and a nonfiction writer. These allowed him to see the changing city from a number of varied perspectives, offering much deeper insight than the run-of-the-mill expat.

In addition to the modern history of Tokyo, Japanese baseball, Yakuza, and Whiting’s various lives in the city, the book makes a lot of fascinating dives into a range of Tokyo topics, such as: sumo wrestling, the aftermath of the Fukushima disaster, the city’s distant history, salaryman drinking habits, the demographic crisis (i.e. its aging population has been approaching the point of too many retirees per working taxpayer,) etc. The book offers a no-holds-barred look at the good, the bad, and the ugly underside of the city. It at once praises the city’s politeness, cleanliness, and smooth-running order and rebukes its dark side – dirty politics, toxic workplaces, xenophobia, etc.

I enjoyed this book tremendously. It offered great insight into Tokyo, Japanese culture, as well as many niche areas that I probably would never taken the time to investigate, otherwise. If you are interested in learning about Tokyo, particularly modern Tokyo, this is an excellent read.

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BOOK REVIEW: Drawing is for Everyone by Kateri Ewing

Drawing Is for Everyone: Simple Lessons to Make Your Creative Practice a Daily Habit - Explore Infinite Creative Possibilities in Graphite, Colored Pencil, and InkDrawing Is for Everyone: Simple Lessons to Make Your Creative Practice a Daily Habit – Explore Infinite Creative Possibilities in Graphite, Colored Pencil, and Ink by Kateri Ewing
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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Out: July 20, 2021

True to its title, this book presents an excellent set of lessons for rank amateurs to develop drawing techniques in a way that helps keep their inner critic from being their undoing. It does this by using mostly abstract and still life subjects as a means to convey the technique, such that the early lessons in each section aren’t expected to look like anything recognizable, and there is not the disappointment of off-kilter drawings. [There are some little birdy drawings in the higher numbered lessons, but nothing particularly complicated.]

The book consists 21 lessons evenly divided between three parts: graphite pencil, colored pencil, and ink. Each lesson gives some background information, presents the list of needed supplies, provides step-by-step textual instructions matched with a series of drawings to graphically demonstrate said step, and a section with creative options that show what some of the author’s students produced with the same exercise. This is also a nice feature for those with an intense inner critic, a tendency to compulsively copycat, and / or a conviction that they aren’t capable of drawing. It does this by presenting numerous different ways a project could turn out – all attractive but all very different.

Besides the lessons, there’s a brief introduction to set up the project. And, in addition to the aforementioned drawings, there are numerous graphics, such as photographs of still life subjects and supplies.

I thought this book was smartly arranged and organized. It’s a small book, but presents the dabbler with all they need to start building their skills, plus it’s beautifully presented. If you’re a neophyte looking to get into drawing but worried that you have not talent for it, this is an excellent place to start.

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BOOK REVIEW: Poetics by Aristotle

Poetics. EnglishPoetics. English by Aristotle
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Amazon.in Page “Poetics” is the surviving volume of Aristotle’s guide to literary criticism. This volume explores Tragedy. [The lost volume covered Comedy.] Considering the age of this book and that it came from the student of one who was not a fan of poetics at all (i.e. Plato,) it is surprisingly readable and much of the information presented has aged well. [That said, there are some ideas that will be controversial – including, for instance, a blatantly sexist comment or two. Also, it should be pointed out that there is disagreement about what Aristotle was trying to say on a number of points.]

This short book is organized to dissect tragedy along many lines, laying out the four kinds of tragedy (complex, pathetic, ethical, and simple,) the segments of a tragedy (prologue, episode, exode, choric song, parode, and stasimon,) etc. But the work is probably most famous for two ideas. First, there is the idea that stories provide catharsis. For his teacher, Plato, the stories conveyed via poetry were all risk and no reward. That is, there was a risk that young and impressionable minds would take away the wrong lessons, and there wasn’t much to counterbalance that risk. Aristotle believed there was in fact something, and it was catharsis, the purging of emotions through vicarious living.

Second, there is the idea that there are six crucial elements of a tragedy (i.e. plot, character, diction, thought, spectacle, and song,) and that they are of importance in more or less that order. A good bit of the work is devoted to breaking down these elements. For example, with respect to plot, Aristotle writes at length about reversals and recognition (the moment a character discovers some key piece of information,) telling us a little about how these actions best work. With respect to character, Aristotle tells about the kind of character that generates the best story, and it’s the same advice one sees in writing books today that talk about flawed but good characters. Perfect characters are boring and bad characters get what they have coming in a tragedy.

I was surprised how relevant this book remains, considering that it’s perhaps the first extant book of literary theory. It’s definitely worth a read. At less than fifty pages (not including the ancillary material you’ll find with many editions) it’s a quick read, and while it’s a bit dry at times, it’s not brutal by any means. So, given its historic importance, give it a read.


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BOOK REVIEW: Henry V by William Shakespeare

Henry VHenry V by William Shakespeare
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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In this, the final play of the Henriad, the new King Henry V is advised that France should be his to control. He’s not entirely sold, that is until the French King’s son — the Dauphin of France — sends King Henry a trunk of tennis balls as a poke at the King’s youth and past reputation for frivolity. This is a sore spot for Henry. The Dauphin’s complete contempt for Henry puts control of France at risk, much to the chagrin of the French King who urges the Dauphin to have some respect.

The confrontation comes to a head at Agincourt, a battle that is known as one of the great upsets in the history of warfare. English forces routed the French with a fraction of the troops, not to mention while lacking the home field advantage. In reality, the Agincourt victory was largely attributable to savvy positioning – i.e. a strategic chokepoint that didn’t allow the French to fully exploit their numeric superiority — plus the English longbow, which proved to be a devastating weapon for the battle at hand. In Shakespeare’s play, the victory is attributable to what is probably the best “rally the troops” address in the history of literature, the St. Crispin’s Day Speech.

Acts III and IV are where the real action take place, and – of the two – I’m partial to Act III. In the third act, Henry dons the cloak of a common man, and makes the rounds of the troops in disguise. [It’s reminiscent of the way the Duke in “Measure for Measure” disguises himself as a friar to get a feel for what’s really going in his dominion, but – in this case — it’s only for a short time. While morale is surprisingly good, given the degree to which the English are outnumbered, the disguised King does get in an argument with a skeptical soldier about whether the King would really not ransom himself. This will lead to a later comedic scene in which Henry collects on the bet, using a soldier to pretend to be his disguised alter ego, only revealing that it was – in fact – he, the King, after he’d had his fun. [And it was all in good fun, no “off with the head” moment transpired.] It’s at the end of Act III that Henry gives the rousing St. Crispin’s Day Speech.

Act IV is largely concerned with the battle and its aftermath, including the aforementioned collection of the bet. In Act V, Henry attempts to woo the French Princess Catharine. Henry is smitten by her, and their marriage is a good way to cement a bilateral relationship that can have some staying power – rather than falling back into an immediate war for the crown. The challenge is that Catharine speaks no English, and Henry speaks only a smattering of French. If I knew French, this act might have been hilarious, but – as I don’t – the gag goes on a little long. But eventually, they are promised to each other, and all is well.

This is probably my favorite Shakespearean History. The battle fought by a scrappy underdog force and the effective leadership of Henry make for an exciting tale of warfare. If you’re only going to read one of the histories, this wouldn’t be a bad one to pick up. I’d highly recommend this work.


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BOOK REVIEW: The Breaker Omnibus, Vol. 1 by Jeon Geuk-Jin

The Breaker Omnibus Vol 1The Breaker Omnibus Vol 1 by Jeon Geuk-Jin
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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Out: July 13, 2021

This manga combines the motifs of traditional martial arts stories with a modern-day setting. A bullied high school student, Shiwoon Yi, discovers that his colorful (if abrasive) substitute teacher, Chunwoo Han, is a martial arts master, and employs numerous tactics to get the teacher to instruct him in the martial arts. However, Chunwoo Han is not interested, his priorities as a womanizing playboy caught up in a martial arts clan war are far removed from helping a student one iota more than he needs to in order to maintain his cover and employment.

Shiwoon Yi grows over the course of the book, learning to be more tenacious and to not give in to fear so readily. However, this growth does not come about from the teachings of Chunwoo Han, he remains unwilling to teach, even when he is begrudgingly coerced into agreeing to it. However, Chunwoo Han does assign the boy a task as a precursor to lessons, a task that – despite nearly killing the boy – forces him to be more disciplined. However, the most effective lesson results from Shiwoon Yi’s shame at almost betraying the only person who is nice to him, a girl in his class whom he is too beleaguered by bullies and low self-esteem to acknowledge.

Chunwoo Han doesn’t really grow throughout the course of the story (action heroes rarely do,) but he does soften his view towards Shiwoon Yi – presumably as a result of a new found respect. While Shiwoon Yi is quite a wimp, he does show a willingness to make the ultimate sacrifice in pursuit of learning martial arts, and that earns him some begrudging regard.

Generally, I found the story to be entertaining. It uses a lot of the familiar martial arts story motifs (e.g. superpowered chi, elaborately named techniques, and the “you kill my master” motive.) These motifs ground it in a genre, even if it results in some trite elements. I wish Shiwoon Yi would have played a greater role in the story’s climax and conclusion. Shiwoon Yi is ostensibly the protagonist, though Chunwoo Han makes a more appealing action star. The ending felt a little gratuitous because it basically jettisoned Shiwoon Yi in favor of making a straightforward concluding battle scene.

The book is presented in manga style, including right-to-left read panels and monochrome art. The art is well drawn, though (oddly) everyone looks like a supermodel – except Chunwoo Han when he is having a meltdown of one kind or another.

It’s a straightforward story, rooted in familiar themes and plot mechanisms. If you enjoy martial arts manga and aren’t expecting complex twists and subversion of expectations, you’ll find it to be an entertaining action-centric story with a good sense of humor.


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BOOK REVIEW: Pantomime by Christopher Seleba

PantomimePantomime by Christopher Sebela
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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Out: July 20, 2021

This is an “Ocean’s Eleven”-style heist team-up story but with the notable twist of it being a group of teenagers who are students at an academy for the deaf. That’s not the only variation on the basic premise, there is also something off about the lead character, Haley, that is gradually revealed over the course of the volume. A blurb-advertised novelty of the book is that it features American Sign Language. Without the element of time / movement, mostly what this does is serve as a reminder that the main characters are deaf.

The premise is that a sister and brother, Haley and Max, are orphaned and end up being sent to Wayfair Academy, a boarding school for the deaf and deaf-mutes. In time, Haley becomes the ringleader of this troupe of teenaged burglars, starting with a retrieval by theft, during which they only “steal” confiscated electronics that belong to the students, themselves. We can see that Haley is drawn to crime, and is always on the lookout for a problem that they might “solve” through theft, as when one of the kids can’t afford tuition because her parents are in legal trouble. However, during these fledgling criminal days, one can’t see yet whether Haley is just a risk-loving teenager going through an adventure-seeking phase, or something else entirely. Generally, she is presented as a sympathetic character (disabled and orphaned nerd – how much more sympathetic could one get,) but we see these glints of crazy. The first real burglary-for-profit that they commit (for the previously-mentioned tuition fund) turns out to be the house of a local crime lord. From this point, they get sucked into working for this man, a man they call “The Manager.” The balance of the story is about whether they can get out from under the thumb of this thug who was their first true victim.

The story is clever, played out as an elaborate and risky plan in a manner appropriate of heist stories. The character development feels muddled as one is reading. While, by the book’s end, it seems quite clear who Haley really is, the fact that it’s light years away from who we would have guessed in the opening panels means that the tone of the book is largely changed. It almost feels like it’s a genre change from caper-based crime fiction to something that definitely doesn’t merit as whimsical a term as “caper.”

I would have liked to have had a better sense of this being a deaf team of burglars. Maybe I was missing subtle cues in the art or text, but – besides the use of sign language and, perhaps, one scene where a character is oblivious to something happening around them (which could have just been run-of-the-mill obliviousness) – it was easy to forget these kids were deaf. [I will admit, part of this might be my inability to relate. I think it would be a particular kind of terrifying to commit crime without being able to hear. My head would be swiveling about like a hoot-owl’s. Maybe these kids were just better acclimated to high-risk activity in a sensory-deprived situation.]

It’s a compelling story, but does feel a bit disjointed by way of this tone shift. Some readers might find this appealing, others troubling. It’s also good to have a work that both features deaf lead characters, and paints them as complexly as any other characters. If it sounds like it would be up your alley, it’s definitely worth checking out.


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BOOK REVIEW: Lonely Receiver, Vol. 1 by Zac Thompson

Lonely ReceiverLonely Receiver by Zac Thompson
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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When I started reading this book, my first thought was, “This is a cool premise, but I’ve seen it.” If you’ve seen the 2013 movie, “Her,” then you’ll probably feel the story is familiar as well. (In the movie, Joaquin Phoenix plays a lonely man who purchases an AI (artificial intelligence) operating system [voiced by Scarlett Johansson,] falls madly in love with said AI, and is unable to come to grips with the mismatch between his desire for monogamy and what results from the AI’s much less limited capacities.) That said, this book drops much further down the rabbit-hole of obsession than did the movie, all the way to full-blown insanity. In fact, one might say that the climax of the movie is similar to the in media res opener of this graphic novel, and from that point the two stories end up going quite different places.

[Note: Despite my comparison to the movie “Her,” I have no reason to believe the book is plagiaristic. If one begins from the simple assumption that major differences between a General AI and human intelligence would include: much faster machine thinking, a capacity for multitasking that humans don’t have, and a lack of need of rest by computers, then one can imagine different writers ending up in similar places.]

The gist of the story is that the lead’s (Catrin’s) AI wife, Rhion, disappears one day after becoming increasingly dissatisfied with Catrin’s co-dependency / neediness. After a period of breakup strife that does not result in healing, Catrin goes to great lengths to find Rhion, no small task when one considers that it’s not at all like a human partner who will look the same and will retain some links to people and places in the real world. The AI might have truly vanished without a trace, but she could also look entirely different and be active in a different part of the world, speaking a different language. [Spoilers touched upon ahead.]

In this book, the technology is much more sophisticated than in “Her.” Not only is the AI partner holographic, (i.e. can be seen) but there is some sort of neural link that allows sensation of physical contact. This raises the possibility for a major story element in which Catrin’s obsession leads her to insist that a real, live girl she meets, Hazel, is her lost AI lover.

While I think there’s some age guidance on the cover, it’s worth noting that the book is sexually graphic (to the extent a comic book can be explicit.) This comes into play not only with intimacy between Catrin and Rhion, but also later when Catrin decides that the one way she will be able to find Rhion (no matter what her ex- looks like now) is by sexing her way through the cyber-sphere, trying to feel that the intimate connection that she once knew.

Ultimately, this is a story about Catrin’s transformation into something less than human, owing to what she is willing to do to get Rhion back. So, while Rhion became too human to accept the stifling clinginess of Catrin, Catrin lost her humanity.

While this may not have been copied from “Her,” I can’t say that having seen that movie didn’t make this book considerably less interesting – even when it was venturing into deeper and darker territory. I should also point out that this is marketed as a horror cross-genre, and hardcore horror fans may not feel it makes that cut. Don’t get me wrong, at points it has the visceral feel of a thriller, as well as some techno-creepiness, but it may or may not be what a horror reader thinks of as horror. Now, if you haven’t seen “Her,” and are okay with creepiness in lieu of body count in your horror, you might really enjoy this book. It definitely has some intriguing plot points.


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BOOK REVIEW: Henry IV, Part 2 William Shakespeare

Henry IV, Part 2Henry IV, Part 2 by William Shakespeare
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This continuation of the story of the reign of Henry IV, like the preceding part, is really the story of Prince Hal, the rapscallion who will be transformed into King Henry V. And transformation is the central theme of the play [as it often is in great stories.] In the previous part, we saw that Hal pulled it together to do what needed to be done while the rebellion raged, but here we see a bit of a relapse at the beginning as he returns to Eastcheap to hang out with friends. The Lord Chief Justice has a stern talking to Falstaff to discourage the incorrigible rascal from leading Hal down a destructive path, a talk that fails, causing a defensive Falstaff to take umbrage at the official’s words. However, by the end of the play we see how the weight of the crown forces Hal into what feels like a more permanent changing of ways. To borrow and misapply a Biblical quote: When he became a king, he put the ways of debauchery behind himself.

Prince Hal isn’t the only one who’s changing, Falstaff is also experiencing a transformation, but not so much one of growing up or growing more virtuous, but rather one of getting old. This is seen most vividly when Hal and his past conspirator, Poins, spy on Falstaff and Doll Tearsheet, a tavern girl. Hal breaks the espionage off, realizing there is no adventure to be had in the endeavor.

While Henry IV’s forces (including, prominently, Hal) won the day in the previous play, a peace settlement hasn’t been reached. With Hal out gallivanting and Henry IV having fallen ill, the task of concluding a peace agreement falls to Hal’s brother, Prince John. No-nonsense John receives the rebels’ grievances and says he will see to it that they are all rectified, and then (when their guard has fallen,) he tells them that there is still the matter of the rebellion for which they will have to be put to death. Which they are.

The play climaxes with Henry IV on his deathbed. Hal goes in to visit him, and mistakes the King’s feeble vital signs for death. Overwhelmed not only with grief, but also with an anger at the very crown for subjecting his father to more stress than the old man could bear, Hal takes the crown and walks off in dread contemplation. When the King revives and sees the crown is gone, he questions his men as to where it’s gone, and they say Hal must have it as he was sitting with Henry IV the last any of them knew. Henry IV is outraged that his son should care so much for the crown and so little for father that he’s not willing to wait until the old man’s death to abscond with the crown. When Hal is summoned, Henry IV tells his son as much via more extensive and eloquent comments. When the King completes his rebuke of Hal, Hal responds by saying that it’s not the case at all. Hal refutes that he is eager to be the King, and instead sees the crown as a kind of enemy that he is nonetheless fated to confront. The King is happy with Hal’s articulate explanation, and father and son are on good terms when Henry IV dies – this time for real.

The play reaches resolution when Henry V’s state of mind is revealed. This can be seen vis-à-vis two characters. First, the Lord Chief Justice is afraid Henry V may have an axe to grind about the senior official’s attempts, on behalf of Henry IV, to rein in Hal (including pressuring Falstaff.) Second, Falstaff takes it as a given that his position will be vastly elevated by his old drinking buddy’s rise to King. It turns out that both men are wrong in their assumptions. The newly matured Henry V is gracious to the Lord Chief Justice, and makes a show of turning Falstaff away.

This play is sometimes considered the penultimate of what has been called the Henriad, and so the story bleeds into the next, “Henry V.” It’s definitely a work that should be read by those interested in Shakespeare’s histories.


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BOOK REVIEW: The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain

The Adventures of Huckleberry FinnThe Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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Whenever someone spouts the platitude, “the original is always better than the sequel,” this is one counter-example that could definitely be shoved in his or her face. That’s not to disparage “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer,” but this book, “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,” is the better and more profound story. [Lest you think that’s just my opinion, I think you’d be hard-pressed to find someone who holds a contrary view.]

The book begins with Huck Finn in a comfort zone that has become stifling and boring, but is – basically – a pretty good life. Huck has more money in the bank than he could hope to spend, owing to his past adventures with Tom Sawyer, and he’s being put up by the widow Douglas, a kindly old woman who struggles to make Finn a more genteel and educated variety of boy. While Huck appreciates the widow, he’s becoming antsy and perpetually feels his failings to take to the moral lessons being taught to him. Huck’s internal moral conflict is central to the story, particularly the recurring conflict between what he has been taught is the proper thing to do with respect to runaway slaves, and what he feels is the right thing vis-à-vis his friendship with the escaped slave, Jim.

The trigger that sends Huck into adventure mode from this status quo is the return of his drunken and abusive father, a man who has come to town solely because he heard about the money Huck has sitting in the bank and who wants to get his hands on it to keep himself in booze. Before Huck’s father can get to him and clear out his bank account, Huck sells his stake in the money for a dollar to a prestigious townsman who’s been looking out for him. This draws out the affair, and for a time Huck is living under the thumb of his alcoholic father. When this becomes untenable, Huck fakes his own death and strikes out on the river. On an uninhabited island, he meets up with Jim, a slave who has runaway after hearing that his owner, Miss Watson, has been looking into selling him down the river (literally.)

This leads to Huck and Jim traveling together down the Mississippi River by night (to avoid the risk of Jim being seen and attracting undue attention.) They intend to come to come ashore at Cairo, Illinois being a free state where Jim might have a shot of restarting life. The problems is that running the river at night is dangerous (and sometimes foggy) and it’s easy to miss what one is looking for to stumble into something one doesn’t want. For example, their raft was run into by a steamboat, leading to Huck finding himself washed ashore in the middle of territory where a Hatfield-McCoy style family feud is playing out. And Jim and Huck do “miss their exit” and end up further down river than they would have liked – and that is safe for Jim.

There is an extended period during which a pair of con-men end up traveling with Huck and Jim, putting on shows that are not entertaining, but which they trick people into coming to in large numbers. These two men, who claim to be a Duke and a King, run various cons from town to town, the most extensive (and despicable) one involving making a claim to being the next-of-kin of a deceased man they find out about while traveling. Huck’s moral sensibilities come into play here, as well, as he can no longer tolerate the two men’s con when he sees it will seriously hurt good people. (As opposed to mildly cheating a mixed crowd of the good, the bad, and the ugly.) When one of the men sells out Jim, resulting in the runaway’s capture, Huck goes out to try to free Jim.

In what is the story’s biggest leap, it turns out that the household that has taken possession of Jim are relatives of Tom Sawyer, and they mistake Huck for Tom, who has been due to arrive any day. Of course, Huck doesn’t know who he’s been mistaken for when he arrives, and this creates some comedic gold. When the real Tom arrives, Huck intercepts him and they join together in a scam where Huck continues to be Tom and Tom pretends to be Sid (after pranking his aunt.)

Huck and Tom (“Tom” and “Sid”) take to building a plan to free Jim (despite the fact that Tom knows that Jim was already freed in Miss Watson’s will, when she passed away recently.) The challenge is that Tom insists on going all boy-Don Quixote and developing elaborate plans based on his reading of adventure stories that do not make sense, given the circumstance they face. (i.e. Preparing to extract a knight from the dungeon of a castle, instead of trying to break a man out of a little shack with nothing but a pad-lock and a chain wrapped around the cot leg – such that it could be removed by lifting the corner of the cot up.) This results in Tom gaslighting not only Jim, but also his aunt and uncle, as well as inflicting all sorts of suffering and needless tasks upon Jim. The biggest criticism of the book is probably that this gag goes on way too long, and its comedic value ultimately dwindles as it becomes painful to witness the degree to which it is torturous for Jim and other parties. Huck plays the straight-man, trying to convince Tom to give up on the more ridiculous aspects of his plans, but he fallaciously takes Tom to be his intellectual superior and thus accepts that some things may need to be tolerated. [More than that, he’s steamrolled by Tom’s domineering personality.] It’s an interesting point that Huck is dismayed that Tom is willing to help him free Jim, because Huck thinks Tom should be morally virtuous enough not to help a slave escape (Huck doesn’t know Jim has been freed, only Tom knows that.) Huck has written himself off as an immoral creature, but by any reasonable standard he is the more virtuous of the pair, by far.

It’s worth noting by way of a trigger warning, the book uses the n-word like a million times, and – while the recurring theme revolves around Huck seeing Jim’s humanity through all the indoctrination, he receives to the contrary – the boy nonetheless makes a lot of offensive comments [not to mention those by individuals who are far less evolved on the issue of race.]

This is definitely one of the best specimens of American literature. It has hilarious lines and happenings, shows how exposure to people can help one see humanity where one is being indoctrinated not to, and it has tense moments of adventure. Its dialectic first-person narration doesn’t prevent it from being readable, but makes is more fun to read as well as helps one get into the story and Huck’s character. This is definitely a must read.


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