Mr. Holmes, Dr. Jones, and Miss Holly

The Illyrian Adventure by Lloyd Alexander.

Reading Challenge: a book you haven’t read since high school.

This item on the reading challenge gave me a bit of a Moment. I didn’t go to high school. The only way I could possibly fulfill it would be if I managed to find a Driver’s Ed manual, because that was the only book I ever read “when I was in high school.” And who wants to read a Driver’s Ed manual, even the first time?

Then I lightened up and decided to just go ahead and interpret this item as “a book you haven’t read since you were high school-aged.” It’s just a reading challenge, I should really just relax, etc. etc.


I just wanted an excuse to use that .gif.

Anywho, when I was trying to think back to books I enjoyed a lot but not to the extent I kept obsessively re-reading them post-age-18, I came up with a lot of titles by Lloyd Alexander. Seriously, fellow nerds, raise your hand if you grew up on Lloyd Alexander, master of the lighthearted fantasy that could get unexpectedly dark towards the end (seriously, all I remember of The Kestrel is a feeling of despair).

Lloyd Alexander was great. One of the things that made him great was that, even writing in the sixties, seventies and eighties, he wrote heroines who were bright, stubborn, frequently uncooperative and with agendas that rarely if ever included “make the hero feel strong and superior.” Actually, the heroines usually started out by thinking their heroes were idiots, and they weren’t shy about telling them so.

The Illyrian Adventure is the first in the Vesper Holly series. Vesper is an adolescent Philadelphian at the end of the nineteenth century who is equal parts Sherlock Holmes, Indiana Jones and teenage girl. She’s self-assured, extremely bright, stubborn, oblivious to certain social niceties, and an intrepid explorer. She also plays the banjo and will eat anything. As viewed through the eyes of the narrator, her guardian Brinnie (an obvious homage to Conan Doyle’s Dr. Watson), she appears to be thoroughly charming and also frustrating to those around her. She follows the traditional male action hero role by having a different love interest in each book (at least the ones I remember), and certainly has teenage girl feelings that never overwhelm her curiosity and sense of adventure. She’s pretty great.

On re-reading, I still enjoyed Vesper and her adventures in Illyria, a fictional Mediterranean country. I had remembered liking the first book the best. As an adult, I will admit I found absolutely no narrative surprises (read: it was predictable) and a few cringeworthy moments: for example, when Vesper insisted that she and her guardian must be welcome at a festival they’ve been told is for the villagers only, no outsiders allowed. It’s funny when Vesper enters a foreign country and bosses kings and rebellious leaders into making the right decisions, less funny when she wants to intrude on something ordinary people would like to keep private. I’m sure I missed that part when I first read this, and today’s kids would probably miss it, too. Of course, I don’t think I understood what “colonialism” meant back then, either.

Vesper’s heart was always in the right place, though. If she’d taken that idol, it would have been to prevent civil war, not because “it belongs in a museum.”


Overall, lots of fun to be had, and it is always nice to see a teenage girl doing the intrepid adventuring. Thinking about it I’m a little surprised Vesper never hit the big screen, because her adventures are pretty film-friendly. I guess now we’ve had Lara Croft and all that, the moment has passed, but Vesper – whose scandalous clothing is “pantaloons” rather than short shorts – came first.

Recommended pairing: this is another wine-heavy book (in that it’s mentioned a few times, not much drinking, obviously). It’s SUPER hot out, so I vote again for a white. Nice chilled Pinot Grigio, anyone?




On the Road to Greatness

I’d Rather We Got Casinos: And Other Black Thoughts by Larry Wilmore

Reading Challenge: A book written by a comedian.

First of all, I want to say that I am a huge fan of Larry Wilmore and The Nightly Show. Since Jon Stewart left The Daily Show there is no better place to go for a comedic, thoughtful, sane take on the utter insanity gripping our world. Larry’s correspondents are almost universally wicked smart and hilarious (Ricky┬áVelez mostly just makes me feel old, and the normally-great Mike Yard occasionally comes down with a case of it’s-not-a-problem-for-me-so-it’s-not-a-problem-itis, but those are the exceptions as far as I’m concerned. Holly Walker, especially, you are a goddess.), and as for Larry himself, I firmly believe his White House Correspondents Dinner appearance earlier this year will be vindicated by history. I thought it was brilliant.

I remember exactly when Larry became my favorite. It was when the Supreme Court officially ruled in favor of gay marriage. Jon Stewart’s Daily Show delivered a funny-if-not-top-ten-episodes take on the various panicked reactions of conservative pundits to the victory. Larry threw a party, and it was great. I’m sad I couldn’t find a gif of the gay men’s chorus who opened the show.


He’s also overtly feminist and incredibly nerdy, and he’s been hitting it out of the park lately. If you haven’t watched his take on the death of Alton Sterling yet, go watch it. Right now. I’ll wait.


So I’m a huge fan of Larry and his show, and if you’re not watching it, you should be. That’s why it makes me sad to report that his book is only so-so. The book came out pre-Nightly Show, and is a collection of short takes on a variety of topics. Some of them were sort of shrug-worthy, and although I can’t pick out any examples right now, I felt like there was kind of a “Dad humor” to a lot of the book. Some bits were genuinely funny and sharp (“If Not an Apology, at Least a ‘My Bad,'” and his theory about why black people don’t see UFOs). His take on Sudoku, no words wasted, made me giggle aloud on my morning commute (sitting on the bus, folks, don’t worry, I’m not reading and driving). The field guide to Angry Black Churches was hilarious, as was Give Us the Superdome. The letters to the NAACP, eh, hit and miss. Overall, while uneven it’s not a bad book by any stretch of the imagination. It’s also possible my standards were just a little bit too high because the show is one of my favorite things ever.

If you’re new to Larry, go ahead and read the book, see what tickles your funny bone, then go watch the show, because you must. If you’re not new to Larry, just be prepared that what’s on the page is, for once, not as full of greatness as what’s on the screen.

Recommended pairing: clearly hard liquor, because you would need it to deal with the kind of topics Larry and his correspondents cover. Larry can be seen with whiskey when he’s not making fun of the booze (Trump vodka, White Russians) and I choose Scotch, because that’s what I know. Balvennie is a good choice.

Half agony, half hope, all YA dystopia

For Darkness Shows the Stars by Diana Peterfreund

Reading Challenge: A romance set in the future.

As I may have mentioned before, I love well-done retellings of classic stories. I also love Jane Austen, and of Jane Austen’s 6 published novels, the one I love the most, hands down, is Persuasion. So when I needed to find a book to fulfill the “romance set in the future” item, and came across this YA dystopia Persuasion, I kind of had to give it a shot.

You know, I really liked it? I knew we were in good hands when the book opened with a lot of world-building and class tension. Elliot was a sympathetic heroine, a little passive but still with her own agenda. The dystopia was not gratuitously gritty but felt fairly realistic, and (and this is key) the whole book stood on its own, without the single-minded devotion to the original plot that’s been the downfall of many a retelling. I do firmly believe this book could be read and enjoyed by someone who had never read the original. It was an absorbing read throughout.

The Letter – man, The Letter in the original Persuasion has to be one of the most romantic documents in literary history. You really have to give Captain Wentworth a lot of credit for writing it, especially since he was writing while eavesdropping and probably distracted by other conversations going on in the room as well. I can barely write progress notes while report is going on in the office. Well done, sir.


Anyway, The Letter in this version appeared in a way that wasn’t too contrived (something that has stumped many a contemporary author), although the timing might make some people with clinical training find it a little ambivalent. And it was a halfway decent homage to the original. Another point.

Also, there was one line towards the end that I thought was particularly moving right about now. One character was explaining how she had become more active on behalf of the Posts (the historical underclass of their society, still subject to discrimination), and said how she felt it was hypocritical to keep taking from their culture without becoming an ally in their struggles. Although this wasn’t a dystopia with a huge lot of applications in contemporary society, I think you can probably guess why I thought that line was so relevant…


But overall, this was an escapist book. In order to enjoy it, you probably do have to be into YA fantasy, and be willing to suspend a lot of critical thinking. I was able to do that, although I couldn’t help noticing that, like many a YA hero before him, Kai didn’t do too much to convince us that he was worthy of so much affection. He’s way more appealing than many, many, many, many other YA heroes out there who rely on a range from sullen to grumpy to homicidal and our faith in the heroine’s affection to convince us they’re appealing, and at least he apologizes for being a dick later in the book, but Captain Wentworth he ain’t. I also couldn’t help wishing everyone was a little bit older. The age business meant we were supposed to be okay with an 18 year-old showing interest in a 14 year-old, about which I can only say, dystopia or not, YIKES.

Still, I liked it. I found myself really addicted, staying up to finish the book an hour past the time I said “I’m just going to read for a bit, I can barely stay awake.” It’s harder to give a reasonable review when I was so absorbed: when I down a book quickly, it’s much more difficult to regard the elements critically on the way. But that I think tells you plenty in itself. If you enjoy YA fantasy, you’ll probably enjoy this, and if you’re a Jane Austen fan to boot, you won’t hate it.

Recommended pairing: Clearly something with a pedigree. You know what’s got a pedigree? Weihenstephaner. Plus, a good summer beer.

Tremors and Aftershocks

After the Quake by Haruki Murakami

Reading Challenge: A book translated to English.

I had a vague idea, for a few months, that maybe I would read a translated book for the reading challenge that was not one of Murakami’s. I even started one (but, under the stress of graduation times, found it too dense and gave up). Then came the gift card, and the used copy of After the Quake just sitting there in the bookstore. I resigned myself to the inevitable. I just really love Murakami, you guys.

Now, I don’t love all of Murakami’s books. I think 1Q84 and The Wind-up Bird Chronicle are masterpieces, and After Dark is my favorite. But I haven’t been able to get into Kafka on the Shore, and the last short story collection of his that I read, The Elephant Vanishes, was just too claustrophobic for me. So I didn’t know exactly what to expect with this one.

After the Quake was just lovely, though. It’s a slim book, a collection of 6 stories all with a connection to the Kobe earthquake of 1995. Perhaps because of that connection, there’s something a little more restrained about these stories, maybe a little more grounded. The last story, Honey Pie,” is just as sweet as its title (but not cloying at all, I loved it), while Landscape with Flatiron” is a quintessential story of lost souls connecting. Everyone’s a little lost in these stories, but sometimes they get something: a dance, a connection, some advice, the realization that they already have someone, an extremely polite but determined giant frog in search of assistance.

Gosh, it’s good. It’s fairly accessible, too, so if you’ve been curious about this author, this wouldn’t be the worst place to start. If you’re already familiar with Murakami but haven’t read this one yet, though, don’t worry, it’s still plenty weird.

Recommended pairing: I want to recommend something a little weird, not to all tastes, and kind of complex for a pairing, but I’m honestly not that good at booze. It’s been really hot, though, and you know what’s a great hot-weather drink? A nice chilled Riesling. I’ll bet you can find one that’s appropriately complex if you look hard enough.