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

Oct 5 2009

The Sound and the Fury

The Old Compson HouseStream of consciousness writing can be very interesting, enjoyable, and provocative. I found none of that in this book. In fact, I am stunned (gobsmacked?) by the scholarship and critical acclaim that has been heaped onto this “masterpiece” since its publication in 1929. While I’m sure Faulkner felt very liberated exploring this style, I found his use of it tiresome, obtrusive, and awkward. Pushing through the first 70+ pages was an effort of pure will. The second section (from the point of view of Quentin) was tedious, meandering, inconclusive, and put me to sleep more than once (granted, my attention span is not the best).  The third section (from Jason’s point of view) was better. The fourth section (from Dilsey’s point of view) was well-written, coherent, and a relief (much like inhaling for the first time after holding your breath underwater for some personal time record… yes, headaches and all). I don’t expect every detail to be handed to me on a silver platter but get a bit annoyed when I’m left to guess whether there’s a platter at all.

Now, I know that my attention wanders a bit, sometimes more than just a bit. But when I reach the end of a book (especially one over 300 pages) I expect to know who all the characters were, how they were related to one another, and why the story was being told in the first place. Unless you’ve read this book a number of times, one of the only ways you’re going to know these things is by reading an appendix written by the author in 1933 (which is laden with inconsistencies). Having now read the appendix and understanding more about the characters and storyline I just pushed through, I guess I will enjoy the book better the second time through… if that is ever to happen, which I doubt. The facts that I’ve heard so many good things about Faulkner and that the last section gave me some insight into what he’s capable of, may entice me to try some of his other works… but for now I’m going to give my brain and my tolerance a much needed break.

The quote I picked to sum up this review is not from the book itself but from an introduction the author wrote in 1933:

“It’s fine to think that you will leave something behind you when you die, but it’s better to have made something you can die with.”

2 out of 5