The Adventures of Tom Sawyer! Happy Almost Friday!

Haha.  I realized for the first time in awhile, I didn’t have a “happy!” to share, so figured it’s almost Friday.  For some people that is reason enough for celebration.  For me, it’s also reason for celebration as Dave & his lovely amazing wife Shannon are coming to town.  If you’ve missed it the couple of times we’ve said it, Dave lives 8 hours away.  So, most of our communication about this blog happens over facebook and text messages.

I read Tom Sawyer this time.  The only author that listed Tom Sawyer in her top ten was Annie Proulx.

I think I would have liked Tom Sawyer better if I had read it first, but Huckleberry Finn is so much better!

Tom Sawyer is in third person narration, Huck is in first.  I always have preferred first, one of my favorite Stephen King books is a first narration one.  I also find I get more absorbed in a story if there is first person narration.

Tom Sawyer is too scattered.  He’s here! He’s there! He’s everywhere!  There isn’t much cohesion with Tom Sawyer.  There are a couple of plots that run the whole way through, like he always likes/loves Becky Thatcher.  He and Huck are always friends.  And he and Huck can count on one another to be there to help each other with the stupid things they do.

And, Huck, I think most people _like_ him.  With Tom Sawyer, it’s a bit harder to pin down whether you like him or not.  On the one hand, he _is_ funny (see my entry on Huck Finn for an example of this).  On the other hand, he can be quite obnoxious. but then he also can be quite contrite (see what I did there?) and loving.

I did like The Adventures of Tom Sawyer.  A lot.  However, I wish I hadn’t read The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn first, because I would have enjoyed it more.

(Short entry, I know.  Have extenuating circumstances.  One of which is my dog sitting a foot away from me, licking her chops and whimpering, then repeating and never taking her eyes off of me.  Which is not the most pleasant thing to try to write while having happen).

The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas

I feel exhausted, completely and totally exhausted. Why? I just finished reading The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas. Believe me, it was fun but it was also a lot of work. I’ve read many longer books, but even some longer weren’t as much work. Further, now I have to sit down and think of what to say to you all about it. Oh well, here goes.

(Note, for those following along in The Top Ten: Writers Pick Their Favorite Books, this one was 6th for Scott Turow.)

I’ll start off by saying that I’m going to talk about this one a little bit differently than I usually do when sitting down to do a longer review. Exactly what I mean will be evident shortly, but I think there is no other way for me to cover The Count of Monte Cristo.

There is probably no need to cover the basic overall of this particular volume. Most people who have never even read Dumas know what this is about; The Count of Monte Cristo is the first thing people think of when they think of a revenge story. Hell, even The Simpsons did a short version of it. Still, this is the story of Edmond Dantes. A good and industrious young man, a few undeserved enemies are jealous of him. Through their machinations he loses everything he has and is unjustly imprisoned for what is to be the rest of his life. However, he makes a friend of an imprisoned abbot. The abbot teaches him and tells him where a treasure is buried. Dantes escapes and goes about revenging himself on those who did him wrong.

Of course, this is wildly simplified. There is just no way of explaining how overly simplified this is. Really, no soap opera on Earth has had a more convoluted and complex plot structure. Dumas is the beginning and end word on this sort of thing, and he managed to keep it all corralled much better than any soap opera ever did.

I mean, he doesn’t just kill his enemies. He makes them suffer, and he makes them suffer in ways that take years and years and years to come about. Thousands of tiny events and happenings have to line up, some because of Dantes and some not. Really, the first hundred pages or so are a record of dramatically unlucky things happening to Dante (assisted by a few jealous persons) followed by the rest of the book being a record of how unlucky his persecutors find themselves (helped along, of course, by Dantes).

Seriously, there is a great argument here that Dantes just acts for god. I mean, his enemies have already built Dantes’ revenge into their lives by the time Dante comes on the scene again. He just has to find out where to push and everything goes right into motion. He barely has to even try. Things just work out. Of course, up until that turning point in the book the same could have been said about Dantes, and he had done nothing to deserve it. If the latter portion is Dantes acting as the instrument of the divine will, is not the former the capricious and unjust divine punishment of an undeserving soul? Am I going to hell just for asking that question?

I don’t know, but I do know it was pretty damn complicated. Even now I can barely keep track of it all.

That is where we come to the part about how I’m doing this review different from I do for other books. One thing you will notice is that I haven’t mentioned a single quote yet. Nor will there be one. Normally I like to cite, if not heavily, to the text I’m considering. However, how would I do this here? What portion of The Count of Monte Cristo could I cite that would demonstrate what I’m talking about? A single paragraph wouldn’t suffice, nor a single page or chapter. There are simply too many threads. To give one example would necessitate talking about hundreds of others. Pulling one thread would just cause the whole thing to collapse. As such, I give you none and just tell you that this is the case.

Really, I actually did enjoy reading The Count of Monte Cristo. I admit, it did feel like a bit of work. However, despite that, I did have fun. It was amazing to see just how meticulously and intricately Dumas had set this all up. That’s why, even though I found myself shouting “Just fucking kill them already!” as I read, I would not advise reading an abridged copy. There is just too much you could miss, and you really need every bit of what is there if you are going to bother reading this book.  ‘Nuff said.

Sylvia Plath. The Bell Jar. Happy Mental Health Awareness Week!

In 1990, Congress set aside the first week of October for mental health awareness week.  Not many people know this, although we all know the pink of breast cancer.  I sometimes wonder what the color for mental health awareness week would be.  Maybe muddy brown, since what those of us with mental illnesses see are through such a screwed up prism that the colors all blend together.  I talk more about my own mental illness at my brother and sister in law’s blog, the entry for today, October 11th.

(Side note, I also now am writing a column for Sage Magazine talking about books as well.  You can find them here.  I towards the end, writing about Jane Eyre.)

In honor of Mental Health Awareness Week, I chose to read The Bell Jar.  I am ashamed to admit that I come to Plath later than I should have.  I was very into Anne Sexton in college and still love her.  For some reason, I had to be different and decided to not even try Plath, that I disliked her.  In college, in 1996, I was in London on a literary tour and did see Yeats house, where Plath killed herself.

Sue Monk Kidd is the only author who listed The Bell Jar in their top ten.

I liked The Bell Jar.  A lot.  I haven’t seen such an accurate description of what the inside of your head can feel like while going insane since reading Madness, a memoir about bipolar by Marya Hornbacher.  The Bell Jar is a memoir written as fiction of Plath’s own breakdown while in college.  The story starts out with the main character Esther in New York City, having been chosen as a winner of a fashion magazine’s contest, that brought her and 11 other girls to New York City to work at the magazine for a month.

Esther has been a high achiever all her life.  Head of committees.  Straight A student even in subjects that she couldn’t really “get”, like physics.  She’s sort of involved with a med student, Buddy, who is currently in a sanatorium recovering from TB.  In New York City, there is all the pressure of keeping it together.  You get a small whiff of the madness to come in small bits and pieces.  But especially at the end of her trip when she decides to throw all her clothes that she had bought while working in the city into the sky.

“It was my last night.  I grasped the bundle I carried and pulled at a pale tail.  A strapless elasticized slip which, in the course of wear, had lost its elasticity, slumped into my hand.  I waved it, like a flag of truce once, twice…The breeze caught it, and I let it go.  A white flake floated out into the night, and began its slow descent.  I wondered on what street or rooftop it would come to rest.  I tugged at the bundle again.  The wind made an effort, but failed, and a batlike shadow sank toward the roof garden of the penthouse opposite.  Piece by piece, I fed my wardrobe to the night wind, and flutteringly, like a loved one’s ashes, the gray scraps were ferried off, to settle here, there, exactly where I would never know, in the dark heart of New York”.

She arrives home and sinks into a depression, a fit of craziness.

“I crawled back into bed and pulled the sheet over my head.  But even that didn’t shut out the light, so I buried my head under the darkness of the pillow and pretended it was night.  I couldn’t see the point of getting up.  I had nothing to look forward to”.

She decides to kill herself.

Her first attempt fails.   She tries to cut her wrists.

“But when it came right down to it, the skin of my wrist looked so white and defenseless that I couldn’t do it.  It was as if what I wanted to kill wasn’t in that skin or the thin blue pulse that jumped over my thumb, but somewhere else, deeper, more secret, and a whole lot harder to get at.”

Then she attempts to let the sea take her at tide.

“I waited, as if the sea could make my decision for me.  A second wave collapsed over my feet, lipped with white froth, and the chill gripped my ankles with a mortal ache.  My flesh winced, in cowardice, from such a death.  I picked up my pocketbook and started back over the cold stones to where my shoes kept their vigil in the violet light.”

Then an attempt at hanging.

“Then I saw that my body had all sorts of little tricks, such as making my hands go limp at the crucial second, which would save it, time and again, whereas if I had the whole say, I would be dead in a flash”.

Then another attempt at drowning, this one by swimming out and trying it that way.

“I dived, and dived again, and each time popped up like a cork.  The gray rock mocked me, bobbing on the water as easy as a lifebuoy.  I knew when I was beaten.  I turned back.”

Then the final attempt

“At first nothing happened, but as I approached the bottom of the bottle, red and blue lights began to flash before my eyes.  The bottle slid from my fingers and I lay down.  The silence drew off, baring the pebbles and shells and all the tatty wreckage of my life.  Then, at the rim of vision, it gathered itself, and in one sweeping tide, rushed me to sleep”.

After this, she is placed in a mental institution.  She fails there, so a benefactress sends her to a “posh” one.  There she receives treatment, including finally electroshock therapy.  She finally improves.

I think the reason I loved this book was the language Plath uses.  She describes her illness with perfect metaphor.  It does feel the way she says it does, but she says it in a way that really drives it home.

Someone I know once said that you can tell a novelist who is also a poet, by the language used.  I believe this to be the case with Plath.

This final quote says it all I think.

“A bad dream.  To the person in the bell jar, blank and stopped as a dead baby, the world itself is the bad dream.”

I highly recommend this to anyone who knows a friend or loved one that has a mental illness and has endured the effects of it.  This book will give you a better understanding of what happened than any study, or website written with basic information.  This book puts you directly into the sensation of it.

Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain.

Happy Banned Books Week to y’all!

I was originally going to talk about Clockwork Orange today, but for reasons I will save for a future entry, it wasn’t the easiest thing to read.

So I grabbed Huckleberry Finn, since I was one of the only Americans to not at least pretend to read this book at some point.

I think this was probably my favorite book to read so far from the Top Ten.  This book was listed by the following authors:

Lee K. Abbott

Kate Atkinson

Russell Banks

Madison Smart Bell

Chris Bohjalian

Fred Chappell

Clyde Edgerton

Percival Everett

Arthur Golden

Barry Hannah

Kent Haruf

Carl Hiassen

Haven Kimmel

Stephen King

Walter Kirn

Wally Lamb

Bobbie Ann Mason

Joyce Carol Oates

Robert B Parker

Jonathan Raban

Louis D. Rubin Jr

George Saunders

Cathleen Schine

Scott Spencer

Susan Vreeland.

 

I listed them this way, to highlight how _many_ of the authors picked The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain.  Obviously, I am in good company with loving this book.

Huck Finn has been banned countless times due to the use of the word “nigger”.  They (the ignoramuses who ban it) obviously are unable to critically read a book and to see past the usage of the word “nigger”.  They say it’s racist.  However, anyone who has read Huck Finn with half a brain can see it’s actually the opposite of racist, and is actually a criticism of slavery.

It reminds me of a time in college (a conservative school) where the literary magazine published a poem about and against suicide that had the word fuck at the end.  They banned the literary magazine as “offensive”.  It was a case where the poet had used the curse word to underscore his point as to why someone shouldn’t commit suicide, and the poem was about God’s love for us as creatures etc.

Much like that, Huck Finn is the story of a “pre-teen” boy who runs off to get away from his drunkard dad who is attempting to get 6000.00 that Huck Finn received as a result of the happenings in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer.  He runs across his benefactress’s slave Jim in the process, who has run away as he overheard talk that he was to be sold “down river”.  Jim and Huck Finn go on the run together, rafting down the Mississipi.  They have a variety of adventures and throughout the book, Huck has attacks on his conscience about aiding and abetting a runaway slave, but then he remembers how Jim helped him, how Jim would take his watch at night and let Huck sleep, how he tells Huck that he’s his only friend.  So he keeps deciding to not turn in his friend, that maybe Jim is more man than slave (Huck doesn’t actually say this, this is my own analysis).  Twain spends time fleshing Jim out into a full character, instead of a caricature.  The following is just one example of how Twain does that.  Jim is telling Huck about an experience with his little girl who had just recovered from scarlet fever and was 4 years old.  Jim told her to close the door and she just stood staring at him and smiling at him.  He tells her again.  And she still just stands there.

“En wid dat I fetch’ her a slap side de head dat sont her a-sprawlin’.  Den I went into de yuther room, en uz gone ’bout ten minutes; en when I come back dah was dat do’ a-stannin’ open yit, en dat chile stannin’ mos’ right in it, a-lookin’ down and mournin’, en de tears runnin’ down.  My, but I wuz mad!  I was a-gwyne for de chile, but jis’ den-it was a do’ dat open innerds-jis’ den, ‘long come de wind en slam it to, behine de chile, ker-blam! en my lan’, de chile never move!  My breff mos’ hop outer me; en I feel so-so- I doan’ know how I feel.  I crope out, all a-tremblin, en crope aroun en open de do’ easy en slow, en poke my head in behine de chile, sof’en still, en all uv a sudden I says pow! jis as loud as I could yell.  She never budge! Oh, Huck, I bust out a-cryin’ en grab her up in my arms, en says ‘Oh, de po’ little thing!  De Lord God Amighty fo’give po’ ole Jim, kaze he never gwyne to fo’give hisseff as long’s he live!’  Oh she was plumb deef en dumb, Huck, plum deef en dumb-en I’d ben a-treat’n’ her so!”.

Admittedly, much like Gone with the Wind, there are characterizations of Jim as being a good “nigger” and how slaves liked their masters and were a little simple-minded.  However, Twain does show that Jim has brains, even if he’s not book smart or even smart in the way Huckleberry is.  The thing to remember when you run across things like this is when the book was written.  Even if someone was against slavery, certain ideas prevailed about how a black person would act or behave, just as it does today about different ethnic groups.  How many times has someone cracked a joke around you about “Mexicans all living in a one bedroom, ten of them”?  I’ve heard it at least a dozen times in the last decade.  Twain does a great job in my opinion of making Jim into a character to love and a character to respect.  His comments by other characters in regards to the general temperament of Jim shows the attitude of the day, not a purposeful attempt to be racist.  If the same book was written today, yes, the author would be going for the shock value of racism.  However, Twain’s era meant that he actually wrote quite an enlightened book for the time.

Another thing I loved about this book is that I spent most of a chapter giggling and laughing outright.  Tom Sawyer and Huck are going to rescue Jim from captivity (he was recaptured).  Tom has all kinds of grandiose ideas about how to rescue Jim.  The following exchange happens during this chapter:

Tom is asking Jim to allow some rattlesnakes to stay in there with him while he and Huck are digging the hole to get Jim out.  Jim has an obvious issue with this.

Tom: “Blame it, can’t you try?  I only want you to try-you needn’t keep it up if it don’t work.”

Jim: “But de trouble all done ef de snake bite me while I’s a-tryin’ him.  Mars Tom, I’s willin’ to tackle mos’ anything’at ain’t onreasonable, but ef you en Huck fetches a rattlesnake in heah for me to tame, I’s gwyne to leave, dat’s shore”

Tom:  “Well then, let it go, let it go, if you’re so bullheaded about it.  We can get you some garter-snakes, and you can tie some buttons on their tails and let on they’re rattle snakes and I’ll reckon that will have to do”.

JIm:  “I k’n stan’ dem, Mars Tom, but blame’ ‘f I couldn’ git along widout um, I tell you dat.  I never knowed b’fo’ twas so much bother and trouble to be a prisoner”

Tom: Well, it always is when it’s done right.  You got any rats around here?”

Jim: “No, sah, I hain’t seed none.”

Tom:  “Wll, we’ll get you some rats.”

Jim:  “Why, Mars Tom, I doan’ want no rats.  Dey’s de dad-blamedest creatures to ‘sturb a body, en rustle roun’ over ‘im, en bite his feet, when he’s trying to sleep, I ever see.  No, sah, gimme g’yarter snakes, ‘if I’s got to have ‘m, but doan’ gimme no rats; I hain’ got no use f’r um”.

Tom:  “But Jim, you got to have them-they all do.  So don’t make no more fuss about it.  Prisoners ain’t ever without rats.  There ain’t no instance of it.  And they train them, and pet them and learn them tricks and they get to be sociable as flies.  But you got to play music to them.  You got anything to play music on?”.

 

And Jim is good tempered and allows Tom to try out all his ideal prison escape ideas on him.

Another thing I loved about Huck Finn is I felt Mark Twain was giving us a glimpse into the actual society during this time.  The characters that Huck and Jim run into all seem to come from types of people that were really around at that time.  Not Twain thinly fictionalizing people he knew, but more instances, tales and people he met around over the years.  I felt like that was another theme of the book actually.

Really, people that want to ban this book should listen to what the author himself has to say as the very first part of the edition of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn says;

“NOTICE

Persons attempting to find a motive in this narrative will be prosecuted; persons attempting to find a moral in it will be banished; persons attempting to find a plot in it will be shot.  By ORDER OF THE AUTHOR, Per G.G., Chief of Ordnance”

That more than anything suggests to me that Twain might have been just mainly telling a story in his head and not trying to write an allegorical tale about the evils of society at his time.