Mar 17 2010

Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

Today I finished another book, Mark Twain’s 1885 classic “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn“. I’m pretty sure I’ve read an abridged version of the book before because some sections were very familiar, while others were completely new to me. I wouldn’t be surprised if I was handed an edited version in school as the 125 year old book continues to be controversial. A sequel to “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer” (1876), Finn’s book humorously details the events of Huckleberry Finn and Jim’s rafting adventure down the Mississippi River. Twain’s original intent was to tell Huckleberry’s story through adulthood but he later abandoned the idea. Instead, the story ends with Huckleberry making plans to head west for “howling adventures amongst the Injuns”.

The book has been attacked by critics since its publication. Today, most criticisms of the book revolve around Twain’s treatment of Jim, the runaway slave. The language is harsh at times and the “black vernacular” sometimes made me cringe or shift uncomfortably. I guess that’s the desired result of years and years of Black History Month commercials and the cultural admonition that a certain N-word can only be used by blacks. That’s fine. More disturbing to me was the caricature of Jim as a simpleton. Although Jim’s compliance with every hare-brained scheme Finn (and others) submit him to, makes the story more manageable (for the author), it detracts from the character’s believability. In Chapter 15, it was child’s play for Huckleberry to convince Jim that he’d dreamed being lost in the fog just moments before (that’s just one of many examples). Coming out of the fog however, is the most symbolic and poignant part of the book (in my opinion… and that’s what blogs are all about, right?) because it is then that Huckleberry realizes that Jim is a person. This realization however, never seems to dislodge Huck’s notion that Jim is also property and that Huck himself is a bad person for facilitating Jim’s escape. More than once, Huck secretly laments helping Jim because, “What had poor Miss Watson [ever] done to him” to deserve this. It’s a conflict that follows Huck throughout the book and is never really resolved. I think that’s what I liked most about the book. Despite the fact that the ending is a bit over-the-top and wraps up rather neatly, the main conflict (Huck’s moral growth) is left incomplete. This is the most satisfying way for the story to end because although Huck, like the time that he “lived” may never change, they can forever remind us of what we’ve overcome.

“Well, I says to myself at last, I’m a-going to chance it; I’ll up and tell the truth this time, though it does seem most like setting down on a kag of powder and touching it off just to see where you’ll go to.”

5 out of 5


Feb 1 2010

The Three Musketeers

Today, I finally finished Alexandre Dumas’ 1844 classic “The Three Musketeers” (in English). I bought a copy of this book about 18 years ago and made a number of failed forays into the first chapter or two. Recently, I picked-up a better copy (I’m partial to hardcovers) and committed myself to seeing what all the fuss was about. It wasn’t hard. In fact, I’m not sure why I had so much trouble starting the book in the first place. Like all good adventure books, the story soon is pulling you along and before you know it, it’s over. Well, not completely over… There are two follow-up books to the d’Artagnan Romances (e.g., Twenty Years After, The Vicomte de Bragelonne) and three further stories (e.g., Ten Years Later, Louise de la Valliere, The Man in the Iron Mask) but I have too much else on my list before I even think about embarking on those.

The book itself was a strange blend of familiar characters involved in unfamiliar circumstances. I guess this shouldn’t be surprising having seen innumerable adaptations in cartoons, television, movies, abridged children’s books, etc. Anyone who has read a version of the story in elementary school should revisit the book again. I was expecting it to end with a huge mêlée between the King’s Musketeers and the Cardinal’s Guards, but nothing like that ever manifested. Maybe in a later book? Instead, the story tacks back and forth between a number of villainous characters before settling on one and pursuing that storyline to the finish. As I was coming to the end I began to seriously doubt how the story-lines could ever be wrapped-up in the number of pages left. There is a large and confusing cast of characters, all addressed as M. or Mme., Count this, Countess that… It wasn’t as bad as “Crime and Punishment” where everyone has three names that could be used interchangeably as the narrator saw fit, but it still took some reprogramming every time I put the book down for more than a day at a time. Whining aside, the book was a good deal of fun.

For those unfamiliar with the story (how is that even possible?!), the book revolves around three mysterious Musketeers (who have changed their names to escape their respective pasts) and a young Gascon swordsman who travels to Paris wishing to  join the Musketeer ranks. The story mostly follows d’Artagnan’s adventures, friendships, and romances. In the process he crosses swords and wits with a number of villains ranging from the the Countess de Winter, Cardinal Richelieu, and the Man from Meung while professing his love, honor, and service to every lady he meets (married or not… such is the French way?). Despite a wide network of characters, plots, intrigues, and twists the story wraps-up satisfactorily (which is amazing). I will read it again should I ever find the time.

“You are young,” replied Athos; “and your bitter recollections have time to change themselves into sweet remembrances.”

4.5 out of 5


Sep 22 2009

Heart of Darkness

Joseph ConradToday, I finished Joseph Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness”. A great many things have been written about this short story by people with degrees in such things. I very much doubt there’s much that I can add to that scholarship in the minutes remaining before I go to bed tonight. Let me instead give a few impressions and sum up the story for those of you who find Cliff Notes too long-winded.

The narrative follows one man’s river journey deep into the jungles of Africa (which I don’t think is explicitly named) sometime in the late 19th century. As the continent and its people are revealed to the speaker, he learns of a “man of virtue” named Kurtz who lives deep in the jungle. Everyone seems to think very highly of this man though no one seems to know him well, least of all the person that claims to know him best. If that doesn’t seem like a complete or compelling story, you’re not alone.  As Marlow begins to tell his tale, the narrator calls the impending tale (a tale of a tale?) “one of Marlow’s inconclusive experiences.”

My impressions of the book are mixed. The story is densely written so that even at 100+ pages (your typesetting may vary), the book seemed much, much longer. Conrad’s command of English (his third language, come to find out) is extraordinary. If there’s anyone alive today that can speak like this man could write, people’s brains would combust trying to follow one sentence to the next. Keep in mind, I’m not a fan of stringing words together just for the thrill of flexing one’s vocabulary (I’m looking at you, New Yorker). In this respect, Conrad sits on a throne of OED volumes at on one end of a spectrum while Hemingway and Dr. Seuss sit at the other end with six-toed cats and servings of roast-beast. This is not to say it’s incoherent, far from it… Perhaps all that filler-DNA could hold new insights and purpose upon subsequent readings, I’m not sure. This is not a book to read if you’re looking for a tidy resolution. This is a book that leaves you thinking about what you read long after you’ve put it down.

“We live, as we dream — alone.”

4 out of 5