William Kennedy Reading

Kim took last week to talk about attending the Stephen King reading in Omaha recently and I thought I should take this week to do something similar. Although, I don’t think I really have a comparable reading to talk about. I’ve been to more than I can count over the years, but though I’ve heard some great writers read (Joyce Carol Oates, Richard Ford, Sherman Alexie, Margaret Atwood, Tom Robbins, Etgar Keret, and so on), I don’t think I’ve ever had one that was as personally significant to me as Stephen King’s reading was to Kim, for whatever reason. So, I thought I’d reminisce about the first reading I ever went to: William Kennedy.

By now, I’ve read a few books by Kennedy (Legs, Roscoe, Billy Phelan’s Greatest Game, Very Old Bones, and Ironweed), but at the time I’d only read Ironweed. I still haven’t read everything by him. The reading was for Roscoe, in 2002 or so, which didn’t end up being one of my more favorite Kennedy books. I was actually there, and had read Ironweed, due to my obsession with Hunter Thompson at that time period. Thomson knew Kennedy, thought very highly of his prose, and had mentioned him in some pieces I’d read. So, I picked up Ironweed, and went to the Roscoe reading.

It was in the basement of the Elliot Bay Bookstore, back when they used to be in Pioneer Square. It was a good reading, I liked Kennedy even more after attending (though Ironweed had cemented that enough even if I wasn’t as big on Roscoe). Mainly I was struck by how mild and calm Kennedy seemed with respect to Thompson. I know writers don’t necessarily get into writers who are like them personally, but this was night and day compared to what I imagined of Thompson (who I never did get to see in person). That’s one of the big things I remember.

After all, this was fourteen years ago now.

The other thing I remember is some hipster-looking guy in a beret asking what was clearly a question meant to show off and give the guy a chance to talk rather than actually engage with the author. I hear these from time to time, and they irritate me. If it’s about trying to show off to the group and the importance of having a chance to talk rather than engaging the author/their work/literature/life in some way, as I saw this person’s question dealing with Aristotle and the better angels of our being and such, then my view is that it’s better you don’t ask it because you don’t really have a question, Kennedy seemed to feel similarly, because he didn’t seem sure what the hipster had asked and seemed to suddenly feel that the guy might be dangerous in some way, though he tried to answer. He seemed as put off by the guy’s grandstanding as I did, though maybe that was just me.

Anyway, this wasn’t an experience as significant as Kim’s with Stephen King, but I wanted to share a reading experience of my own. Though I may not have had one that was quite as important to me, I put big stock in these kind of events and go as often as possible. I simply view it as part of reading and writing.

 

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Kill Us On the Way Home by Gwen Beatty

Kim told me she was going to take a week to look at the new Stephen King book of short stories she was reading (The Bazaar of Bad Dreams, just in case you don’t know), so I thought I should take the next week (this one) to talk about something I’d read recently that I really dug. Gwen Beatty’s new chapbook put out by Passenger Side Books, Kill Us On the Way Home, immediately sprang to mind (and continues the short story theme no less).

I knew I was going to grab this one as soon as I heard it was coming out (and only $5 shipped made it an easy decision to confirm). I’d read a few of Beatty’s pieces before, and certainly wanted to read more. Passenger Side Books also immediately gets a vote of confidence from me. Considering the previous offerings that I’ve read from that micro press (Whatever Don’t Drown Will Always Rise, Murmuration, Infinity’s Jukebox, If There’s Any Truth In a Northbound Train, and Soft), I can trust that I’m going to dig anything new they put out.

That was certainly the case with Kill Us On the Way Home.

Given the nature of the book, I’m not going to quote as heavily as I normally do. Kill Us On the Way Home is a chapbook of six short pieces and quoting heavily would simply give too much away. I can certainly gush about the book though.

Let’s consider “The Most Important Part About Being Fake-Pregnant.” A young woman meets the pregnant wife of the Mormon ex-boyfriend who had proposed to her not long before. She lies and says she is pregnant too, not telling the wife who she is. Her new boyfriend helps her construct fake pregnancy belly after fake pregnancy belly as she gets closer and closer to the unsuspecting wife.

“It really is wild that we are only two weeks apart from each other,” Lorrie repeated over the next few months. We would laugh over virgin cocktails about the strange parallels between our pregnancies and lives. We would cry to each other about our inattentive partners. She told me everything about Mark. From the way he likes his socks folded, to how he was in bed. She told me everything that I already knew about the man she married. She told me exactly what my life would have been if I had been less like myself.

It’s a strange story, filled with a strange hard to hold for long yearning, and it definitely gets under the skin of the reader. All the stories in Kill Us On the Way Home do. I’d be hard pressed to pick a favorite, though “The Most Important Part About Being Fake-Pregnant” would definitely be high on my list.

Of course, that list might also include “Seven Things About Hot Dogs.” Perhaps also “Knots.” Maybe “Memorial” too. Well, you get the idea.

Beatty writes words on the page in Kill Us On the Way Home like she’s carving faces into giant logs with a chainsaw. The words are spare, the writing sometimes harsh, but the phrases and people are bent and surprising (“Our Mother was dying and my sister Maxine and I were on a game show that wouldn’t quite save her.” from “Sphinx Moth”), and the emotions evoked can be extreme. These stories are strong, and magical. Kill Us On the Way Home is a must read chapbook from a must read press.

 

McTeague by Frank Norris

If I had to pick one word to describe McTeague by Frank Norris, that word would probably be ‘downer.’ I’m kind of kidding…but I’m kind of not.

(Note, for those following along in The Top Ten: Writers Pick Their Favorite Books, this one was 4th for Stephen King.)

McTeague starts out with a character of the same name. He’s an ox, working as a dentist in San Francisco although he actually just learned from a traveling charlatan instead of going to dental school. He’s strong, but seems like a good guy. Takes pleasure in simple things:

It was Sunday, and, according to his custom on that day, McTeague took his dinner at two in the afternoon at the car conductors’ coffee-joint on Polk Street. He had a thick gray soup; heavy, underdone meat, very hot, on a cold plate; two kinds of vegetables; and a sort of suet pudding, full of strong butter and sugar. On his way back to his office, one block above, he stopped at Joe Frenna’s saloon and bought a pitcher of steam beer. It was his habit to leave the pitcher there on his way to dinner.

Once in his office, or, as he called it on his signboard, “Dental Parlors,” he took off his coat and shoes, unbuttoned his vest, and, having crammed his little stove full of coke, lay back in his operating chair at the bay window, reading the paper, drinking his beer, and smoking his huge porcelain pipe while his food digested; crop-full, stupid, and warm. By and by, gorged with steam beer, and overcome by the heat of the room, the cheap tobacco, and the effects of his heavy meal, he dropped off to sleep. Late in the afternoon his canary bird, in its gilt cage just over his head, began to sing. He woke slowly, finished the rest of his beer–very flat and stale by this time–and taking down his concertina from the bookcase, where in week days it kept the company of seven volumes of “Allen’s Practical Dentist,” played upon it some half-dozen very mournful airs.

McTeague has a friend named Marcus. Marcus has a girl named Trina. McTeague falls in love with her and Marcus decides to be a good guy and get out of the way:

Marcus was thinking hard. He could see very clearly that McTeague loved Trina more than he did; that in some strange way this huge, brutal fellow was capable of a greater passion than himself, who was twice as clever. Suddenly Marcus jumped impetuously to a resolution.

“Well, say, Mac,” he cried, striking the table with his fist, “go ahead. I guess you–you want her pretty bad. I’ll pull out; yes, I will. I’ll give her up to you, old man.”

The sense of his own magnanimity all at once overcame Marcus. He saw himself as another man, very noble, self-sacrificing; he stood apart and watched this second self with boundless admiration and with infinite pity. He was so good, so magnificent, so heroic, that he almost sobbed. Marcus made a sweeping gesture of resignation, throwing out both his arms, crying: “Mac, I’ll give her up to you. I won’t stand between you.” There were actually tears in Marcus’s eyes as he spoke. There was no doubt he thought himself sincere. At that moment he almost believed he loved Trina conscientiously, that he was sacrificing himself for the sake of his friend. The two stood up and faced each other, gripping hands. It was a great moment; even McTeague felt the drama of it. What a fine thing was this friendship between men! the dentist treats his friend or an ulcerated tooth and refuses payment; the friend reciprocates by giving up his girl. This was nobility. Their mutual affection and esteem suddenly increased enormously. It was Damon and Pythias; it was David and Jonathan; nothing could ever estrange them. Now it was for life or death.

“I’m much obliged,” murmured McTeague. He could think of nothing better to say. “I’m much obliged,” he repeated; “much obliged, Mark.”

That is, until Trina wins $5000 in a lottery. Then Marcus becomes bitter. The friends become enemies, though much of this goes over McTeague’s head.

Frankly, after a long buildup to a happy life for McTeague and Trina, things spend the rest of the book going downhill. Marcus rats out that McTeague isn’t really a licensed dentist and McTeague and Trina descend into poverty. The brutish side of McTeague magnifies as time goes on, he really turns out to be a horrible man, as does the avaricious side of Trina.

Things pretty much go bad for everybody. Maybe this was just the way things were in San Francisco before the turn of the twentieth century.

I know I’m being kind of flip here, so don’t think that I didn’t like McTeague. The characters are great (though mostly horrible), the descriptions are meticulous and vivid, and the story is gripping. However, it is also highly depressing. It takes a long time to bring things all down, and there is really no doubt the whole time where things are going.

I really don’t want to say too much more than that. I know McTeague is an older book so many people may already know everything that happens even if they hadn’t read it, but I want to be sure. I hadn’t heard of it before.

Regardless, it’s a finely written book…but a heck of a downer. Don’t read McTeague when you’re depressed.

Doctor Sleep–Stephen King

Now.  For those of you that have not been reading long enough to have seen this, let me make a confession.  I am a Stephen King nut.  I wouldn’t go so far as to Kathy Bates it, that I am his “biggest fan”, but I do geek out about King quite a bit.  Which means that the latest King roused my King geekiness to a new level.  See, Dr Sleep’s main character is none other than Danny Torrance, the little kid from The Shining.  The Shining is often considered one of King’s best novels.  Because of the excitement of this, like Dave said in last week’s post “We mentioned in our initial posting that we might deviate from our normal format from time to time, i.e. not just reviewing a book from The Top Ten: Writers Pick Their Favorite Books. One thing we said we might do is occasionally look at a book that isn’t from The Top Ten: Writers Pick Their Favorite Books.“, I decided it was time for me to veer off of the Top Ten for one blog entry.

Now, for my second confession:  I was so excited about this book that I pre-ordered it on Amazon.  So, pretty much within a day of it being released, I had it in my hot little hands.  If I was any geekier, I would have probably hugged it to my chest and sang “Glorious Day! Beautiful Day!”.  Instead I just Snapchatted the cover to the couple of friends I have on Snap Chat

I began to read.  And I will make a third confession:  I was a little disappointed at first.  Either King’s writing wasn’t up to its usual standard or my reading ability at that point couldn’t click with the story.  Possibly, it was a combination of both.  Whatever the reason was, at first I was disappointed.  But, other than the first time I attempted Lisey’s Story, I have always finished a Stephen King novel, I kept on reading.  And suddenly, a quarter of the way in, I was hooked.

First, the book covers Danny Torrance’s growing up years, the years in between when The Shining ended and Dr Sleep really begins.  Danny Torrance grows up to resemble his father quite a bit, an alcoholic with a temper.  He started drinking to tamp down the “shining” (his psychic ability) and then just kept drinking to drink.  Finally, he hits rock bottom, and joins AA.  At about this same point, a little girl named Abra is born and begins her growing up years.  And her shining?  Well it’s out of this world.  It’s one of the biggest shinings to ever exist.  She begins communicating with Danny when she is barely born.  When she is a few weeks old, she communicates with her parents via their dreams about September 11th, which happens a day later. 

At the same time, a group, called the True Knot, is traveling the countryside.  They appear to be like any other RV community, mostly elderly people with a few younger ones thrown in.  But they’re different.  Very different.  They are all at least a hundred years old (barring a couple of newer members).  They stay that way by taking in “Steam”.  Which is only obtained by torturing children who have anything from a little to a lot of the “shining”. 

As you can probably determine from the points I put above, the novel becomes about a battle.  Danny and Abra must battle it out with the True Knot.  At the same time, Danny must battle his own past, in a shadow Overlook. 

Most of the book is tight.  However, there was a plot point that just came out of nowhere and, to me at least, it wasn’t very well connected.  I can’t tell you what it is, as it becomes a major part of the plot 3/4 of the way through the book.

Stephen King says in the afterword that the man who wrote The Shining is definitely not the same man who wrote Doctor Sleep.  And that’s obvious.  King’s writing style has definitely evolved over the years.  In the days of The Shining, he was still attempting to prove something (in my opinion) and attempted to write in a provocative and literary style.  King, today, has come to know his own writing style and to live comfortably in his own skin. 

Some things I thought of while reading this:

1.  King tends to write a lot of stories about children who fight evil and win.  It, The Shining, Firestarter, The Talisman, the Tower series (to an extent, as one of the main characters battling evil is Jake, a young boy), In a lot of other ones, children are the target of evil, with adults doing the major part of the battling for them.

2.  Psychic powers play a HUGE part in most of his books.  Now, while that may be common in the horror genre, King’s approach really isn’t.  Much of the evil in books centers around these psychic abilities, with those that have them being targeted (again, see the list above, as well as Hearts in Atlantis and Bag of Bones).  Even Duma Key deals with the ability of one of the main characters, when she was a little girl.

3.  Stephen King only officially wrote about vampires a couple of times:  Notably, Salem’s Lot and Wolves of the Calla, Song of Susannah and The Dark Tower.  However, unofficially, he writes about vampires a lot of the time.  Doctor Sleep, Hearts in Atlantis, Bag of Bones, and The Shining are all examples of this.  All of the entities, the “bad guys”, the “monsters” in these books want to consume parts of the characters, most of the time psychic ability.

So.  In conclusion, this book, while not on my top five favorite King books, did two things.  First, it satisfied my desire to know what happened to Danny Torrance, _after_.  Second, it provided me with a very engrossing read.  This second is so important as for the last two months, I just haven’t been reading as much.  Sometimes this happens to me.  And I always wait impatiently for it to end.  Hopefully, Doctor Sleep began the beginning of the end of this time for me.

The Stand by Stephen King.

I have a confession.  I _didn’t_ read the Stand in the last week.

However, I feel eminently qualified to talk about it here, as I have read it at least 12 times in my lifetime.  You tend to remember a lot about a book when you read it that many times.  Yes, it is a favorite.  I read it for the first time at 12 years old and probably read it last a year or two ago.

Apparently David Foster Wallace and Jennifer Weiner also felt it was worth it.  They listed it in their top ten.  They might have read it 12 or more times too but maybe not.

I was ecstatic that at least one of King’s books made it in this book.  I personally think The Shining should have also been in here, but eh, I wasn’t asked for my top ten.

Today, I will be covering three areas.  My prior debate partners will be thrilled I’m sure at the three areas and my forecasting of them.  First, I will cover The Stand itself and a couple of brief notes on the mini series made from the book.  Secondly, I will cover why I personally feel this is some of the best apocalypse literature out there.  Finally, I will cover people’s misconceptions about Stephen King and people’s close minded views on him and his career.

First thing about The Stand.  It is long.  I don’t think it’s quite as long as Les Miserables, but it might be.  However, it is infinitely easier to read.  There are no sections on The Battle of Waterloo for the sole purpose of using the last two lines to introduce characters.  There are no sections on argot.  King isn’t interested in making long, involved meanderings from the narrative to make comments on poverty.

King covers a few different main characters from start to finish.  King describes the characters, not by description per se, but by narrative involving them.  For instance, Stu, one of the main characters is in a gas station in a small Texas town in the beginning.  King manages to give you more about his character by showing his reaction to a car plowing into a pump than by the description of him.  Larry, another main character, has a hit that climbs the charts (he’s a musician).  King shows his downward spiral as he throws the longest and hugest party in a long time.  King shows his character by describing his walk onto a beach with an acquaintance who wants to give him the hard truth, then his resulting actions, and his arrival back in New York City and his mother.  He describes Fran, by showing her reaction to a pregnancy and a confrontation with her mother.  He describes Harold, a neighbor of Fran’s by the clothes he wears, the language he uses, his actions of resourcefulness.  He describes Nick, a deaf-mute by the beating and resultant jailing and resultant friendship with the sheriff, more than by his descriptive words of him.  This is one of the things I love about King, he may use a lot of words, but in the end you feel you know the characters almost or better than you know yourself.    The story is about what happens when the government accidentally releases a “super-flu” with a 99% transmission rate and a 100% fatality rate.  The flu works by constantly shifting.  Like if you have the influenza virus, your body creates antibodies to fight it.  The super-flu works by constantly shifting antigens, basically the type of flu you have.  King describes the trail of the beginning of transmission, which I always have felt is neat.  He describes different people as they contract it and die from it.   The main characters (of which I only listed a few) all are immune, as you might have guessed.  At the beginning, before they too are infected, the government does try to find a vaccine (because apparently they weren’t smart enough to have developed it to keep themselves safe) by taking people from Stu’s town to isolate them, then figure out why Stu doesn’t have it.  Eventually, all of the people are dead except those that were immune.  King then takes a few pages to describe the people that die from a second wave of events, like a child falling in a well, a woman firing an old gun that backfires and kills her, a man jogging himself to death due to grief.  The next section of the book describes them making their way across the country (the survivors).  They have been having two dreams, one of an old black woman in Nebraska and one of the “dark man” or Randall Flagg.  The black woman represents security, goodness.  The dark man, terror.  They eventually find Abigail Freemantle, a prophet and seer, who says she has dreams to go to Boulder Colorado.  In the panicked days, a rumor had started that the flu was originating from a source in the city.  There was a mass exodus, leaving the city strangely empty.  They settle there, survivors keep trickling in.  They implement a government of sorts.  Then the battle of good versus evil (side of Abigail vs. the side of Flagg) begins.  This is where I will end, in order not to spoil the ending.

I believe this to be one of the great apocalypse stories for a couple of different reasons.  Unlike a nuclear apocalypse, King derived a way to keep the world intact, if empty of people.  King also describes in great detail the things that the survivors do, like canned food, siphoning gas, etc. etc.  I love how he describes both during and after.  I always think apocalypse stories leave too much out.  It’s probably why I like The Walking Dead so much too.  He does have characters die during the story, but it fits in perfectly into the story he weaves.  I can’t think of any other concrete reasons I can put down here.  I have read a lot of apocalypse stories and this one remains my favorite.

Finally, I get tired of people’s misconceptions and refusal of Stephen King.  There are those that refuse to read him since he got away from the bloody horror stuff.  I know, I know, there are probably straight genre readers of horror and King’s genre readers didn’t like where he has gone.  However, if they bothered to read, they would find many of his stories still carry a tone of horror, a tone of the supernatural.  Many people like this stopped reading way before Bag of Bones, one of King’s greatest horror stories in my opinion.  And they refuse to read it.

Then there are those that stopped reading after Gerald’s Game or some other book that they didn’t like.  Um, the man has written around 68 books as of 2013.  I’m sure that anyone that had written that many  (that wasn’t a franchise writer such as Danielle Steel or Nora Roberts who like to put the same character types in a different setting while trying to tell the same story) would have a dud or two.  I’m sure most of those that stopped reading have never written a thing on their own, so a judgment based on one book they didn’t like is asinine.  I personally disliked The Tommyknockers when I read it, and it was published in the mid 80s.  I still disliked it when I reread it in 2012.  However, there are many of those 68 books written since then that I have adored.  Bag of Bones and Duma Key to name just two.  So I urge those of you that gave up on King after one book you disliked to try again.  You might rediscover an author you previously loved.

I also want to address those “literary” types.  King has been criticized his entire career by critics, by other authors and by those readers that read a book because it makes them look intelligent.  Again, the man has written 68 original books (each story is different and unique, not formulaic at all), have any of those people done that?  I think a little bit of it is jealousy.  There seems to be a prejudice against an author that makes a ton of money and sells a lot of books.  Maybe they believe that only books that sell limited copies and make limited amounts are good, as your average reader doesn’t like great works of literary fiction.  King has won a medal for Distinguished Contribution to American letters.  Here is a list of the number of awards King has won since his career began.  It might be time for people to suck it up and read one of his books.

King tells a good story.  That is his main goal.  And that is what he achieves in most of those 68 books.  If you dislike horror, guts and gruesomeness, read his later works.  Some of them are almost not even close to horror.  If you like blood and guts, read the earlier books, then read the rest.

If you want to read what King himself thinks of “literary” types,  read the introduction of Full Dark, No Stars.  Which by the way has some very non horror fiction in it.

Thanks for listening to my rant 🙂  As you can tell, King ranks up there on favorite authors for me.  I grew up with him.  Well he was already an adult of course.  I read my first King novel, Firestarter at 10.  I’ve been reading him since.  I have re-read a lot of his books.  I read them so fast the first time that I want to find the things I missed.  And they are just as good as the first time.  Also, another note, King always, always makes sure his novels are unabridged when put on audio format.  He also reads Bag of Bones himself, which is amazing.  He finds the best audio book narrators.  If you don’t feel like reading one of his books, pick one up and listen.

Ok.  The end.

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.

 

Starting in on eleven and a half years of books…

My friend Kim was talking to me the other day. She had picked up The Top Ten: Writers Pick Their Favorite Books edited by J. Peder Zane and she had an idea.

Apparently, The Top Ten: Writers Pick Their Favorite Books compiles lists of what a ton of various authors (Barry Hannah, Francine Prose, Ben Marcus, Emma Donoghue, Jonathan Franzen, Joyce Carol Oates, Stephen King, and many others) consider to be the ten best books of all time. They even compile various lists out of the lists. Books and books and books.

So, Kim came up with the idea that it would be fun to start a book blog (this) and go through book by book, reviewing each as we went. I was game, so that’s what we are doing.

Now, The Top Ten: Writers Pick Their Favorite Books lists a total of 544 total books. The intro claims that if you read one a week it would take you eleven and a half years to finish. Seeing as that was about the rate we were planning (trading off), we suddenly had a clever name for the blog.

I should mention, we may not do each and every book. We might not keep this up for eleven and a half years, and may not stick to our planned schedule exactly. Some of the books on the lists aren’t even books (such as references to the entire work of an author or an entire form of their work). As it is right now, I’ve already read about 167 of these (not counting partials for the vague references mentioned a second ago) and may not want to always revisit. I also currently refuse to read any more Henry James.

We also might wander around a bit. We might talk about some of the authors who gave their opinions and how their work has influenced us as opposed to the books they talk about. We might even talk about totally different books. Really, we might do just about anything we want. However, it will likely all be (or mostly be) book related.

As such, feel free to follow along. Our opinions are just our opinions, but we have some great books to talk about.