Book Review: The Great Detective

By: Bob Madison (Literacy Volunteers Board Member)

The Great Detective: The Amazing Rise and Immortal Life of Sherlock Holmes, by Zack Dundas (2015)

Few figures have loomed across the cultural landscape more largely – more constantly – than Sherlock Holmes, the brilliant consulting detective of 221B Baker Street. From his first appearance in A Study in Scarlet (1887) until today, his cultural currency has been remarkable.

The profile, deerstalker cap (not really part of the original canon), the curved pipe (ditto), and ever-present “elementary, my dear Watson” (ditto-ditto-ditto), are recognizable the world over. “Sherlock Holmes” has become shorthand for many things, from “detective” to “intellectual” to “smart ass.”  He is the first fictional character to inspire a slavish fandom, predating such masscult figures as Dracula, Superman and Harry Potter. Now, 129 years after his initial appearance, Sherlock Holmes is the lead character in one American television series, one (infinitely superior) UK series, and a string of (negligible) international blockbuster adventure flicks. And I have the sneaking suspicion that he’s only just starting…

Novelist-physician-adventurer Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (1859-1930) wrote the first Holmes novel in just three weeks at the tender age of 27. The initial book was well-received in the UK and did fair business; American audiences, however, ate it up, and made the novel a great success. Doyle followed it with an even better book three years later, The Sign of Four, and literary detective fiction has never been the same since.

Many of us first find Holmes in our adolescence. For the vast majority, Holmes is a milestone passed on the way to greater, broader reading. But for many, Sherlock Holmes becomes a defining figure in the cultivation of the self, a guidepost to a life of the mind, intellectual acquisition, and moral conundrums. One of my dearest friends, the New York-based Sherlockian Susan Rice – a woman of remarkable intellectual attainments, generous instincts, expansive humanity and great good humor – credits all the many good things that have come to her in life thanks to her association with Mr. Holmes. I could think of no higher accolade for a work of art.

In The Great Detective: The Amazing Rise and Immortal Life of Sherlock Holmes, Portland-based writer Zach Dundas tries to capture the immensity of the impact Conan Doyle’s creation has had upon the culture, and upon the many individuals who actively take part in the Sherlockian experience. And while he does not quite succeed in his expansive brief, he provides a journey that is engaging, amusing and informed.

For Dundas, the beginning and end of all essential knowledge about Holmes can be found in the four novels and fifty-six short stories by Doyle. But, he also believes that Holmes is a never-ending work-in-progress, a cultural and imaginative construct that is revised and refitted to meet the needs of succeeding generations. There has been no shortage of Sherlock Holmes pastiche since nearly the beginning (Doyle actually read some knock-off stories written by both fans and celebrated professionals, like J. M. Barrie), and all of this material has built the decades-long conversation we have had with Holmes.

Dundas first got the bug while a young man, starting his own Sherlock Holmes society and exchanging letters with other young fans around the world. He later returned to Holmes, attending the Baker Street Irregulars annual dinner in New York, chatting with people in the Holmes societies around the country, and even tracing the great man’s footsteps throughout London and the English countryside.

Through it all, Dundas returns to what it all means to him – the individual stories and novels, the fandom, the experience of immersion in the Sherlockian world. There are few efforts to put the Sherlockian phenomena in a larger context, but within the realm of personal experience, his anecdotes sparkle.

He is also laugh-out-loud funny. Here is a footnote about Jude Law (the recent big screen Watson): Law makes a terrific Watson, whatever one thinks of the movies. (I enjoy them in the same I enjoy cotton candy, roller derby, and dubious pop music.)  Or, better still, the end of a longish footnote on following Sherlockian leads on YouTube: This can lead, algorithmically, to the hour-long English language cartoon version of Hound from 1983 (with an incredibly fat Watson), not to mention a funky fan-made remix of clips from the splendid 1981 Soviet film adaptation. Be careful. You can do this all day.

Writing about his early infatuation with the tales, and the worlds they opened up for him, Dundas says, I had arrived too late, doomed to be part of a generation clad in oversized Quicksilver T-shirts and sweatpants, fated to live behind a chain-link fence. A gasogene?  A tantalus?  New Coke had just come out.

Dundas is perhaps at his best detailing the explosion of Sherlockian fandom in the wake of the BBC’s popular Sherlock series. Historically, Sherlock Holmes devotees have been remarkably different from, say, science fiction buffs or Tolkien geeks or those sad people who obsess over Dark Shadows. Once a high-camp joke shared largely by New York’s literary elite, Sherlock Holmes fandom has become remarkable inclusive. It has gone from upmarket game to masscult fandom. This once all-male preserve has successfully been mined by women (starting with the organization The Adventuresses of Sherlock Holmes, begun by Evelyn Herzog with a cadre of brilliant college-age women in the 1960s who may be ultimately responsible for keeping the movement alive at all), and now includes people who know only the films, or the various television shows … or the contemporary novels featuring an elderly, married (?) Sherlock Holmes. This seismic shift has shaken some longtime Sherlockians to the core, and Dundas makes hay with various ‘scandals’ in the Sherlockian world.

Dundas has written a book that is alternately discursive and solipsistic, as well as endlessly funny and often insightful. However, it is also ultimately a little … thin. He presents us with all the materials necessary to create a fascinating mosaic, but ultimately fails to be them into a beguiling sequence. I kept waiting for the defining moment, the passage that put it all – Holmes the man, the friendship with Watson, Doyle, the devoted fandom, the nearly unending fascination with this character – into some kind of final context, and was left wanting. Dundas has no cohesive argument; he just has stuff.

Perhaps the problem isn’t that twelve decades of Sherlock Holmes is enough Sherlock Holmes, but that the saga is really only just beginning. That it is too early in the creation of the Sherlock Holmes myth to put it into any type of perspective. There are many literary creations that were as large a presence as Holmes that have fallen by the wayside (think Tarzan or Buck Rogers or Fu Manchu and, to an extent, James Bond); but Holmes has outlasted all of them with a vengeance.

I recall thinking that, while reading the recent novel about an elderly Holmes facing dementia, A Slight Trick of the Mind, that Holmes will continue to resonate. Not only resonate, but actually be the lynchpin for champion literary novels in the future.

Perhaps the story of Sherlock cannot yet be told because it’s only just begun. Maybe … the game is afoot.

You can purchase the book here.

ESL Communication Tips!

Communication is a multifaceted tool that goes beyond listening and speaking. Here are some tips to help strengthen communication and further understanding between you and a speaker of another language.

  • Find Their Preferred Communication Style

When learning a new language, we all have different strengths; listening, speaking, reading, writing, etc. Finding someone’s communication strength in English will set them up for success. Perhaps they aren’t a strong speaker; have them write out their question. Maybe listening to English pronunciation is difficult for them; use your body to act out what you’re trying to convey. They could prefer to read, so you can write things down for them.

  • Slow Down

When we speak our native language we tend to speak quickly. Slowing down allows us to enunciate each word. It also allows the listener time to translate what we are saying.

  • Use Common Words

Switching up vocabulary may help the other person understand your meaning. Gargantuan vs. Big. Using simpler words increases the chance that the ESL speaker knows the word and its meaning.

  • Use Your Body Language

We are able to convey so many things with our bodies; emotions, directions, instructions, and more! Don’t be shy in using your body to help convey your meaning. Your facial expressions can add meaning to what you are saying where tone may not be enough.

We hope you enjoyed these tips! If you have other tips you would like to suggest, please send an email to:

Written by: Brittany Boland.

ProLiteracy Facts!

The statistics above are why it is so important that we continue the vital work we do at the Huntington Beach Public Library Literacy Offices. Thank you to all the learners, volunteers, staff, and board members who make these programs possible! Let’s continue to do the good work so we can change these numbers for the better!

Thank you for all you do for Literacy,

Literacy Staff

Congratulations to Our Board Members!!!

Read Bios of our Newly Elected Board Members:

Ray Ward:

After 35+ years in Project Management in heavy construction and aerospace, I retired and am living the life! In the short time that I have served on the Board with Literacy Volunteers, it has added even more meaning to my life by participating with people who help adults become literate, improve their self-esteem, and be able to help their children in school.

Tom Clanin: 

I am a longtime newspaper editor who received several awards while news editor at the Daily Pilot in Costa Mesa. I was also a professor at Cal State Fullerton, where I retired in 2016. I enjoy travel, reading, theater, crossword puzzles and scotch. I live in Huntington Beach not far from the Central Library with my cat, Isis (named for the Egyptian goddess, not the terrorist group, although she can be a terror at times).

Kristen Bitgood: 

Nothing gave me greater joy as a mother than reading to and with my children. The love of reading starts with parents at home, so I am passionate about teaching adults to read. I love inspiring others to reach their potential and believe learning to read is the best place to start. Serving as a literacy tutor and board member is an honor that is near and dear to my heart.  

Sheila Thomas:

I am a lifelong learner and educator.  I have always loved to read, and feel the library is the heart of any city.  I am committed to helping others succeed, especially through the literacy program. 

Bob Madison:

I am a former communications executive turned writer. I have written everything from magazine articles, blogposts, television documentaries, nonfiction books, cookbooks, an upcoming novel, and even … trading cards. I think literacy is the key to everything.

Read Bios of our Returning Board Members:

Ned Lazaro: 

I taught history and government at Rio Hondo College for 40 years, have taught citizenship classes for HBPL Literacy Volunteers since 2017, and have been a member of the Literacy Volunteers Board since 2018.

Dionne Cox: 

I am a 2nd term President committed to literacy for 25 years. When I visited China, I got a very small glimpse of a world in which I could not read or understand the language. Our learners are acquiring the knowledge that gives them the power they need in their homes, at work, and socially to succeed for what we take for granted.

Walaa Louka:

I started with the Literacy department about eight years ago. I still meet with my tutor, but now I also am an active volunteer and Board member. I like to use my skills to help with graphics design items when I can. I also like speaking to new learners so they know they can learn, like I did.

Raquel Guzman:

When I first joined the Literacy department in 2013 as an Adult Learner, I wanted to improve my English so I could talk with my son and his friends, connect more with my boss, and read many things. Today I own my own balloon business and am on the Board. This program has supported me to achieve my goals. I am happy to continue supporting literacy.

Jacquie McAniff:

After two years of tutoring, I added to my commitment by joining the Board. My entire experience with literacy has been fabulous. The Board is the engine that makes tutoring, citizenship class, and high school graduates possible. We on the Board have the responsibility of fundraising for all these programs. I feel so valuable after all my efforts with literacy.

Book Review: Superman – The Unauthorized Biography

By: Bob Madison (Literacy Volunteers Board Member)

Superman: The Unauthorized Biography, by Glen Weldon (2013)

Glen Weldon has written a wonderful book on the world’s first (and best!) superhero, Superman: The Unauthorized Biography. If you are a Superman buff, it is highly recommended.

I have always much preferred Superman to his darker counterpart, Batman. This is a prejudice we suspect that Weldon shares, as his book on Superman is relentlessly amusing, affectionate and reverential. Superman’s creators, Siegel and Schuster, says Weldon, saw their creation as quite simply, the ultimate American: a Gatsby who’d arrived on a bright new shore, having propelled himself there by burning his own past as fuel. The Old World could no longer touch him, and now it was left to him to forge his own path. Throughout the book, Weldon’s prose seems charged with a powerful nostalgia for a simpler, and perhaps wiser, America. One that still believed in heroes and other symbols of hope; and, we suspect, one where childish delights were viewed in perspective by adult fans, and not with the soul-crushing scrutiny of today’s Perpetual Adolescents.

Weldon sees Superman as an ever-changing figure, who always reflects a constantly evolving America. The New Deal crusader of the late 1930s is different from the patriotic boy scout of World War II, and very different indeed from his Jet Age counterpart. What Weldon sees as the core of Superman is not his persona, but his motivation. And that is, simply, that Superman always puts the needs of others over those of himself, and he never gives up. That is the definition of a hero.

Weldon also posits that Superman has long ago transcended the various media that deliver him to us: he has become an idea that is bigger than the comic books, cartoons, TV shows and movies that feature him. It is an idea that has weathered 75 years, and Weldon predicts that will last at least another 75 more.

It is this protean quality that makes Superman much like Sherlock Holmes, Dracula or even Ebenezer Scrooge: each generation can find something new and vital to say about him, and, in doing so, say something about their own era.

Fortunately, Weldon is also laugh-out-loud funny. We had the giggles paging through most of this book. Here he is on Superman writer Marv Wolfman’s prose: Wolfman proceeded to slather on the pathos, gilding the emotional lily so fervently it makes Dickens’s death of Little Nell read like an expense report.

It would be hard to imagine a better guide through Superman’s complex history, and we look forward to hearing from Glen Weldon again.

Book Review: FRAMED! A T.O.A.S.T Mystery

By: Bob Madison (Literacy Volunteers Board Member)

Framed! A T.O.A.S.T. Mystery, by James Ponti (2016)

For anyone actively engaged with children’s literature and Young Adult fiction like me, the challenge isn’t in finding the good, but in keeping up with all that is good (and great). I am constantly amazed at the high quality of the books that come across my desk, and marvel at what a Golden Age this is for the medium.

Case in point – Framed! A T.O.A.S.T. Mystery by James Ponti. I approached this book with trepidation, expecting just another juvenile mystery in the Hardy Boys vein. What I found instead was a novel that is smart, beautifully constructed, and often screamingly funny. Framed! ranks as one of the best books I’ve read this year – either for adults or young readers.

Framed! is all about Florian Bates, a 12-year-old who recently moved to Washington, DC, with his art conservator mother and museum-security specialist father. Bates is an extraordinary boy in that he has an uncanny knack for noticing things, and making educated suppositions based on tiny facts. He calls his method TOAST, or the Theory Of All Small Things.

He meets his neighbor, Margaret, and promises to teach her the TOAST technique. She is a more than adept pupil, and is quickly matching Florian deduction-for-deduction. While providing her with TOAST training at DC’s National Gallery, their observations lead them to believe that something shifty is afoot. When key Impressionist paintings are stolen from the museum, his deductions bring him to the attention of the FBI, who, realizing themselves how outlandish it all is, bring Florian onto the case.

Framed! often reads like a Young Adult version of the popular series Sherlock; and it shares with that series an almost beatific regard for the lead’s deductive powers, and the comedic interplay between the lead characters. Author Ponti really makes the entire notion of TOAST come alive. It is essentially a riff on Sherlock Holmes’ famed powers of observation and deduction, but Ponti makes a point of walking us through Florian’s mental gymnastics as they occur, rather than explaining afterwards. It is an effective twist.

The novel begins with Florian kidnapped by the Romanian mafia, and then trying to remember the lessons of his hostage survival course provided by the FBI. When he comes face to face with the criminal kingpin, Florian makes another key deduction, which then leads to a book-long flashback explaining how he got into this fix.

Perhaps one of the most fascinating things about the book is Ponti’s regard for Florian’s intellectual prowess. There are many (many!) books where young protagonists rely upon magic or science fictional ideas to succeed; Florian is a creature of the mind and exults in his intelligence. More, please!

One minor quibble, not that any of the younger readers would make note, is that in Ponti’s world, the FBI is a benevolent entity filled with agents of real integrity who are focused on justice, rather than a highly politicized entity spying on innocent Americans. Given a tracking chip by the bureau (with a promise never to spy on him), I feared that young Florian would grow up to spend his adulthood in hiding with Edward Snowden

But real-life disappointments have little to do with this marvelously realized book. It is fabulously addictive from the very opening. For example, here is Florian talking to his Romanian kidnapper (with a very uncertain grasp of English) while trying to ply his hostage training:

Survival Step 1 – Disrupt Your Captor’s Train of Thought

“Do you mean ‘not wrong’ as in I’m not wrong in what I’m saying? Or ‘not wrong’ as in you’re not wrong in whom you kidnapped?”

I waited for a response, but all I heard was a low, frustrated growl. I assumed this was his deep-thinking noise.

“If you don’t use pronouns, it really makes the conversation hard to follow. You need to say ‘You’re not wrong’ or ‘I’m not wrong.’ Especially in a situation like this with threats and demands. The wrong pronoun could have someone else ending up with your ransom money, and that wouldn’t be good for either one of us.”

“Not wrong!” he barked again as if saying it louder suddenly solved the grammar issues. Just then he swerved to avoid another car, blasted his horn, and yelled what I assumed were choice Romanian curse words. I figured he was distracted enough for me to start inching toward my backpack.

“Don’t feel bad,” I continued. “I understand how hard it is to learn a new language. My family moves all the time. I’ve had to learn French and Italian. It’s molto difficile. That’s Italian for ‘very difficult.’”

“Stop talk!”

“That’s a perfect example of what I mean. You said ‘stop talk’ but it should be ‘stop talking.’ English is so complicated. But let’s forget about grammar and get back to you kidnapping the wrong person. Like I said, it’s an easy mistake and easy to fix. If you let me go, I promise not to tell anyone. Just drop me off at the nearest Metro station.”

“Shut mouth or else!”

The “or else” was ominous, and combined with the continued lack of pronouns it reminded me of the third step from my training.

Survival Step 2 – Do Not Antagonize Your Captor

(When I told Margaret about the steps, she couldn’t believe this wasn’t first.)

This is a delightful book and comes highly recommended.

Some Tutor Tips! Part 2

Take notes

A lot can happen in a week’s time, so remembering what progress was made during your last session might take some strong recall. That’s why we suggest taking notes at the end of each meeting. What content did you cover? Did you make any strides towards a goal? What should the learner be practicing at home? These short notes will help you remember what transpired during the tutoring session, and will help you review what you want to cover at the next session.

Find your Learners preferred method of learning

We all take in the world in different ways. Some of us like to have visuals, some like to hear what we must do, and others are more hands on. This applies to you and your learner! If they’re a visual learner, write down what they say and read over and over with them. Perhaps they would like to record your voice and listen to it later. Interactive games are a great way to reinforce new information. Finding out how your learner best takes in information will help you create lessons that fit their style, helping them reach their goals.

Visit the Literacy Offices or our YouTube channel for more resources and helpful tips.

Book Review: The Little Wizard Stories of Oz

By: Bob Madison (Literacy Volunteers Board Member)

The Little Wizard Stories of Oz, by L. Frank Baum (1914)

Here are my thoughts on the only collection of short stories in the original Wizard of Oz series, Little Wizard Stories of Oz, written in 1913 by L. Frank Baum (1856-1919) and collected in 1914, with illustrations by the greatest of the Oz artists, John R. Neill (1877-1943).

The stories were conceived by Baum and his publisher, Reilly & Britton, and were intended for publication in little booklets for each story (each costing 15 cents). The Oz books were traditionally written for middle readers – ‘tweens,’ in today’s lexicon – while these short stories were created for very young readers. Baum and company hoped to generate interest in Oz at a very early age, and continue to promote Baum and all of his books into a brand name for kiddie lit.

Because of the younger audience, Baum tones down a bit of the irony and pun-play found in his longer books, and the plots are significantly less intricate. But taken on a level of simple fun and games in the land of Oz, these stories are unbeatable.

There are six stories in the book, with three of them being particularly charming. In The Cowardly Lion and the Hungry Tiger, both big cats are bored standing guard at the throne of Ozma, princess of Oz. The Hungry Tiger would particularly like to eat a little baby, while the Cowardly Lion is eager to maul some innocent. They leave the castle and promptly come upon a lost baby and, later, the distraught mother – both ripe for consuming and mauling. The self-deceptions they use to avoid creating mayhem are hilarious, and very human.

Jack Pumpkinhead and the Sawhorse shows two of our favorite characters from the later novels work together to save a boy lost in the forests of Oz. This is particularly grand because Baum always tried to work out the absurdities of Oz to their most logical conclusions…. For example, since neither Jack nor the Sawhorse sleep, when night comes, they simply stand by the side of the road till daylight. (A somewhat disquieting image.)  And when Jack’s pumpkin head is spoiled, he must go headless until he gets back home. There is more than enough to delight any child with a sense of whimsy here.

The Scarecrow and the Tin Woodman features, perhaps, the two most famous characters in the series. When the two friends go boating, the Tin Man falls overboard. He lies at the bottom of the riverbed, his tin stuck in the soft earth. The Scarecrow would save him, but his straw would not allow him to submerge. The two finally escape with the help of some low comedy crows, but things get significantly better when the Wizard himself shows up.

The other stories, Little Dorothy and Toto, Tiktok and the Nome King and Ozma and the Little Wizard are all fine, and worthy of attention.

The book is available online, but can also be gotten in a low-cost hardcover reprint from Books of Wonder, complete with the original illustrations. Their Web site is: For the Oz completest, or to introduce younger readers to the world Oz, it makes for amusing reading.

Book Review: The Night Gardener

By: Bob Madison (Literacy Volunteers Board Member)

There are so many great picture books for children and adults alike that it is almost impossible to keep track of them all. But there are a few standouts that demand particular attention, and here is one you should know about.

One of the most original and delightful books to cross our desk this season is The Night Gardener, by Terry Fan and Eric Fan.  These extremely talented brothers are Ontario-based writers and illustrators, and The Night Gardener is their best book to date.

The story tells of life on Grimloch Lane.  Life continues apace, without much interesting seeming to happen.  Young William notices, though, a mysterious gardener steal by one night, a gardener who transforms an ordinary tree into a magnificent topiary sculpture of an owl.  The neighborhood falls agape with wonder … and the mysterious gardener continues to ply his trade, leaving these amazing wood-and-leaf sculptures in his wake.

William, of course, promises to stay up one night and catch him in the act…

There is so much going on in The Night Gardener that adults will delight in unpacking the story as much as children.  The evocative illustrations for this book were rendered in graphite, and then digitally colored.  Fortunately, the Fan Brothers exercised as much restraint in the coloration process as they did with their drawings.

Grimloch Lane in the early pages of the book is a fairly gray, monochromatic place.  As the Night Gardener creates more and more topiary art, the pages slowly and subtly infuse with color, reaching a full, rich coloration at the end.  But this is never used to cheap effect; indeed, illustrations that take place in moonlight are just as mysterious and creamy as they are subdued. 

The drawings themselves have a great deal of charm; they are mindful, in their way, of the pen-and-ink work of Edward Gorey (1925-2000).  But where Gorey was macabre and mordant, the Fan Brothers are more mysterious and insinuating.  The brothers have a happy knack of composition, and the drawings are filled with witty details that catch the eye. 

Any attentive reader paging through the book will, again and again, return to the word ‘subtle.’  We are told very little about William, but there is a picture of his parents on his windowsill.  We never learn anything about them, and it was not until my second page-through that I noticed that the building he leaves at one point is an orphanage.  And our gardener seems to sculpt his animals based on whatever animals happen to be in the neighborhood.  And who are the mustached, hat-wearing twins in nearly every group drawing?  Could it be the Fan Brothers, themselves?

But just as interesting as the illustrations are, the story is even more compelling.  Are the Fan Brothers offering a parable on the affect that art has upon us, or a story of transferring intergenerational expertise?  Is it about the soul-crushing effects of ugly neighborhoods and urban blight, or about the restorative effects of engaging in the arts?  Is it a meditation on seasonal changes, or a commentary on created families?

This is a book with no easy answers, but many earned pleasures.  The Night Gardener is sure to intrigue both children and adults with its subtle drawings, evocative narrative, and hidden clues.  A gem!

To purchase your own copy of The Night Gardener you can find them online here and here.