Monday, December 23, 2019

Book #70 - The Hound of the Baskervilles (A. Conan Doyle)

I am doomed. Across the street from where I work a new liquor store has recently opened up called Total Wine. Total Wine is the be-all and end-all of liquor stores. Total Wine is to the corner liquor store what Walmart is to the corner convenience store. I mean these people have the biggest selection of booze I've ever seen...and it's right across the street from where I work!! I'm thinking of having my paycheck direct deposited there, so I won't need to fiddle with cash the next time. Anyway, on my most recent visit, which was today, I purchased a bottle of Busnel Calvados VSOP. Since Sherlock Holmes is a sophisticated Englishman who can solve any crime, and Calvados seems like a sophisticated pour (although very French, not English, but whatever) I decided this would make a good pairing for writing this blog post. In case you're not familiar with Calvados, it's a brandy made in Normandy from apples or pears. It's basically distilled apple cider. It was first made in the 1500s and has been going strong ever since, and I can tell you why: because it's fucking delicious. Mmm, highly recommended, and at 80 proof it is supplying the ample inspiration I need for this blog post.

While Total Wine may be the superhero of liquor stores, Sherlock Holmes was the English superhero of the 19th century. His superpowers were his uncanny intellect, his ability to notice even the smallest details around him, and his ability to deduce the meaning of these small details, especially when they pertain to a crime. He was also a dick. In the very first scene in the book, he and his buddy Watson, the narrator, are hanging out in their home on Baker Street in London. An unknown visitor has left his cane, and they are trying to figure out who the visitor was. Homes asks Watson to analyze the cane and deduce what he can about the visitor. Watson takes a stab at it and tells Holmes that the inscription on the cane, "To James Mortimer, M.R.C.S., from his friends of the C.C.H.," suggests it is owned by an elderly doctor who was awarded the object after years of faithful service. Holmes eggs Watson on, and Watson continues speculating, saying that the well-worn cane implies a country practitioner who walks about quite a bit.Holmes congratulates Watson on his insight, and Watson beams in the glow of his friend's praise. Holmes then totally shoots all of Watson's conclusions down. Holmes says that while the owner is indeed probably a country doctor, that C.C.H. actually means Charing Cross Hospital, which is in London. The cane was probably presented on the occasion of the man's retirement from the hospital, and only a young man would have retired from a successful city practice to move to a rural one. Holmes goes on to suggest that the man must possess a small spaniel, given the bite marks on the bottom of the cane, and at that there's a rap on the front door and the young man and his spaniel stand outside. Of course, Watson is blown away by Holmes's power of observation, but Holmes doesn't tell Watson that he saw the doctor and his dog coming up the walk, and so could describe them accurately. The dude's an arrogant dick. But a very smart arrogant dick. I work in science and I've run into some of those people. You want to dislike them but they're so smart that you have to admire and look up to them at the same time.

The man who owned the walking stick, Dr. James Mortimer, wants to hire Holmes to investigate the death of a friend, Sir Charles Baskerville, who was found dead on the moors near his country manor. He appeared to have died of a heart attack, but near the corpse the footprints of a gigantic hound were found. According to an old legend, a curse has haunted the Baskerville family since the 1600s, when Sir Hugo Baskerville abducted and murdered a woman, only to be killed in turn by a giant demonic hound, which has supposedly haunted the nearby moors ever since, killing off many of the Baskerville heirs. Dr. Mortimer is worried for the next man in line, the young Sir Henry Baskerville, who has just arrived from Canada to take over the family estate. Holmes, as a man of reason, doesn't believe in the story of the demonic hell-hound, but when someone tries to shoot Sir Henry in the streets of London when he first arrives, Holmes interest is peaked, and he sends Watson out to the country with Dr. Mortimer and Sir Henry to see what he can find out about the situation. Here the mysteries ensue. Lots of strange things happen...distant howls are heard across the moors, a butler for the Baskervilles seems to be signalling to someone at night from the upper floor windows, a dangerous escaped convict roams the moors, neighbors appear either too friendly or a little too aloof. Watson tries to piece it all together, and gets some clues but not others. But why on Earth did Holmes send Watson to investigate while he stayed behind on London? Because unbeknownst to everyone he donned a disguise and hid out on the moors and solved the whole damn mystery on his own while Watson dithered around. Kind of a dick move again. But whatever. The mystery, while convoluted, gets totally solved by Holmes's genius, and justice is served. I won't give away any more details because that would spoil the fun in case you decide to read the novel. It's a good page-turner of a read, even if Holmes is an annoying dick sometimes. Will I read more of Sherlock Holmes's adventures? After all, the author wrote a number of stories about him. Probably not, but who knows. The murder mystery genre is not my favorite, but after a few more glasses of the Calvados I might change my mind. That is, if a mysterious hell-hound doesn't get me first.

Friday, May 17, 2019

Book #69 - Persuasion (Jane Austen)

After a long day at work and a rainy commute home I'm drinking a snifter of Hennessy VSOP Privilege Cognac. I know almost nothing about cognac. It's a type of brandy, made in the Congac region of France, and Hennessy, founded by Irish immigrant Richard Hennessy, is the largest cognac producer in the world, with 40% of the market. No, I don't know that off the top of my head...that's why Google exists. Anyway, I don't have much experience with cognac, unlike with bourbon, gin, rum, tequila, vodka, etc. etc. but I have to say this glass is mighty tasty. The Hennessy website says the taste has "notes of apricots, apple, clove and cinnamon". For me I get notes of alcohol with a side of booze. It's good though...Jesus turned water into wine, and then Hennessy turned wine into cognac. Upward and onward. Anyway, my glass is almost empty and now I'm thinking I'll move on to a Tecate, which is pretty much the opposite of cognac, but the taste buds want what they want. Plus Tecate is the only beer I know of that has its own app, which they promote on their website. You know back in my day we didn't need a damn app to enjoy our beer! But that app discussion is a non-sequitur. And now for another non-sequitur: Jane Austen's "Persuasion".

Um. Yep, I said "Um". Let me explain: normally when I blog about a book I try to write my entry within a few days of finishing it. That way it's fresh in my mind, which seems to be less and less able to retain any thoughts that are more than a few days old. So when I say "Um", I'm really saying "WTF was that book about again?" Because dammit, I waited two months after finishing the book before sitting down with my booze to write this, and now I can't remember much about the book. A mind is a terrible thing. Anyway, I do remember the broad outline. Back in merry old England Anne Elliot is in her late 20s, single, and living with dad. Seven years ago she had a romance with Frederick Wentworth, a navy captain. They were briefly engaged, but because he was just a low ranking navy sailor at that time, and she was from the landed gentry, her family persuaded her to break off the engagement because the groom was not worthy. Also, she was just 19. Anyway, after seven years of no contact, they both move into the same neighborhood. During those seven years, her family has been slowly going broke, while Wentworth has become the well-compensated Captain Wentworth. They keep meeting up in humorous ways, and antics ensue, societal and emotional struggles ensue, and finally a reconciliation and new proposal ensue.

The fascinating thing about the Jane Austen novels I've read (this one, Pride and Prejudice, and Emma) is the rigid social structure and manners of 19th century England. It's such a foreign world from the one we live in in the United States today. There were so many times in this novel I thought "Oh come on, just be open and honest about your feelings" and then I remembered that was just not how they did things in those times. Makes me wonder if people 200 years from now will be reading novels of our day and age and thinking "These guys were idiots". Probably. Although I suspect they'll be saying that about what we did to the planet, rather than about David Foster Wallace's books.

Anyway, unfortunately that's all I've got. Well, except for the rest of this bottle of cognac...

Thursday, January 17, 2019

Book #68 - Little Women (Louisa May Alcott)

I'm a bourbon man from way back.  Back in the days when you could find Van Winkle Bourbon on most liquor store shelves for around $35-50.  Van Winkle is a classic smooth and so delicious, and made in small batches with great care.  It's so good that it became tremendously sought after, so that nowadays you can't find it at all, and if you do it can be over $1000 a bottle.  Ah, the times they have changed, and not for the better.  I still have some Van Winkle stored away, but tonight I'm drinking New Riff Straight Bourbon Whiskey on the rocks.  And it's good....damn good.  New Riff is a new microdistillery based in Newport, Kentucky, across the river from Cincinnati, Ohio.  Microdistilleries, like microbreweries, are all the rage these days.  But in my experience microdistilleries that make bourbon for the most part just don't make stuff comparable to the bigger distilleries.  And I think the problem is age.  Bourbon whiskey must be aged in oak barrels...four years is usually the minimum, and even longer is better (well, up to a point), and a new microdistillery usually can't wait that long to sell their products because they need to make a the result is often an underaged, harsh whiskey.  But this New Riff stuff has been aged four years, and in my opinion is quite tasty.  Unlike Van Winkle bourbons it has a high rye content (Van Winkle, like the more famous Maker's Mark, is high in wheat, not rye), which makes it rather spicy.  Good going New Riff!  The classics are nice, but new stuff that upholds the standards of the classics while taking a new riff on things (the pun is theirs) is also nice.  There is pleasure in both the old fashioned and the newfangled.

And speaking of old fashioned, I just finished reading Louisa May Alcott's "Little Women".  This is a book I thought I might have read in my childhood, but clearly I didn't, or perhaps early onset Alzheimer's has erased the memory of it from my rapidly aging brain.  What struck me about the book is how old fashioned it is. The book was published in 1869 and takes place during the Civil War. It follows the story of the four March sisters - Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy - as they grow from childhood to adulthood.  Reading this book makes me think about how much times have changed.  It's a very American book, but the attitudes and mores of the March family are quite different from today.  It's been called a feminist book, but I'm not convinced it really is any more.  I think it was at one time, but I think women have moved beyond that now.  The sisters all end up married (except for the one that dies) and living a more or less settled life with their husbands.  Par for the course for the 1800s, I guess.

The novel is considered loosely autobiographical, with Jo March being the Louisa May Alcott character.  The four sisters all have very different personalities.  Meg, the oldest, is the most traditional.  She gets married, has twins, and runs her household like a good 19th century wife should. Jo is a writer, who starts out making money by writing some sort of lurid fiction (one can only imagine).  This sounds really cool, like she's a rebel and proto-feminist, but then she marries an older professor and with him starts a school for boys.  She says she's always wanted to do this, but it seems weird because she's always wanted to write, and why is she suddenly so gung-ho about a school for boys?  Seems like she gave up something to accommodate her husband.  She continues to write, but it's now wholesome, rather than sordid fiction.  Then there's Beth, a gentle soul who likes to play the piano and have a hospital for her injured dolls, and who (spoiler alert) is not long for this world (today we forget what it was like before antibiotics and vaccines...and don't get me started on those fucking anti-vaxxers).  Finally Amy, the youngest sister, is kind of a spoiled bitch, but is also a very talented artist, who eventually marries Laurie, the boy next door, after Jo spurns him.  She keeps doing her art, and along the way (before she marries him) tells Laurie he's wasting his life away (which he is).  Kudos to her.  And kudos to Laurie because he seem to take this message to heart.

I dunno, this was an easy entertaining read, but I was ultimately disappointed in how it turns out.  And that may be totally due to my 21st century mind.  You want these girls to say "Fuck you, grrrl power!" but they don't, because this book was published in 1869. There are stirrings of modern, liberated women there, but they get subsumed in 19th century morals and ways.  It's a good look at 19th century lives, and these women, especially Jo and Amy, are probably more independent and artistically creative than most 19th century American women, but the book ended up for me to feel a little unsatisfying due to the change in expectations of the possibilities women have these days, compared to 150 years ago.  That's no fault of the author (how could she know what the future held?) but it's a mark of the changing times.

I will conclude with one final anecdote. When I was in college, back in the early 1980's, I worked as an orderly in a hospital. I cleaned equipment, wheeled patients around in wheelchairs, helped make beds, helped lift patients, etc. One day I was wheeling an elderly woman down to get some x-rays, and we struck up a conversation.  I told her I was in college, studying biochemistry, and she said that she had been really interested in astronomy, and majored in physics in college, but that back in her day women just didn't become astronomers, or physicists, and so she gave up science, and got married and raised a family. You could hear the sadness in her demeanor as she told this story. I've always carried this with depressing it made me feel that a fellow scientist couldn't pursue her passion because "it just wasn't done".  We are all trapped in our society and in our times, and this is what comes across to me when reading "Little Women". If only we all had total access to all suitable possibilities!  Or at least easy access to Van Winkle bourbon.