Thursday, May 29, 2014

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain (27 down 73 to go)

You don’t know about me, without you have read a book by the name of “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer.” but that ain’t no matter. ~ Huckleberry Finn

I’ve read The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn at least once before, maybe twice. It is a realist novel, satire, and the first-person narrative of Huck Finn regarding his adventures on the Mississippi River, early to middle 19th Century. 

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is one of the first books I read for pleasure, not a school assignment. I had just read The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, but I think that was assigned. I enjoyed it so much, that I followed with Huck Finn. This is appropriate, since that is the correct chronological order, and the order in which they were written and published.

For the remainder of this review, I will refer to the novels as Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn, and to the characters as Tom and Huck.

I enjoy Tom Sawyer more than Huckleberry Finn, probably because I identify with Tom more than Huck. I had a pretty care free childhood, lived on a lake, spent summers roaming, swimming, fishing, camping, etc. Unlike Huck, I had a safe and wholesome home life. So, as I say, I enjoy Tom Sawyer more, but Huck Finn is a wonderful tale as well, and generally considered Twain's greatest work.

However, that is hotly debated. The American Library Association ranked Huckleberry Finn number 5 on their list of the 100 most-challenged books between 1990 and 1999.

I believe most of the objection is over the extensive use of the “N-word” I believe a secondary, and related objection, is the portrayal of African-Americans as ignorant through the person of the runaway slave Jim.

I can’t defend either objection. Twain wrote about a time and culture that he knew very well…his own. There are portions of human history and American history that are abhorrent. I don’t believe we should rewrite the portions we find distasteful, nor should we ignore them. Twain wrote about the way things were. Some of those things were horrible. I think it’s helpful to keep a record.

Speaking of a record, for the record, Twain was an ardent abolitionist. He once wrote: "Our Civil War was a blot on our history, but not as great a blot as the buying and selling of Negro souls."

Jim was ignorant, with good excuse. How could he not be? But for all Jim’s ignorance, Huck was every bit as ignorant: ignorant of the evil of slavery. So ignorant that his conscience burdened him with his dreadful sin of helping a slave escape.

In fact, I believe this was Twain’s intent. To show the awful ignorance that was once so prevalent. When you read Huck Finn, you grow to love Huck. He is innocence. He has a heart of gold. Yet, this innocent pure heart believes he is committing a dreadful sin, worthy of Hell-fire in his own words, for helping a slave to escape.

But the reader knows, he is doing a truly heroic thing.

Besides the theme of racism and bigotry, the novel paints a quaint picture of life on the Mississippi. Most of the story is Huck and Jim’s journey down river. Why would they be going south? Well for one thing, that’s the way the river runs, but for the more pertinent reason, you’ll have to read for yourself. They encounter iconic southern families, a country feud, and a pair of scoundrels: the King and the Duke. Thankfully, the great adventurer Tom Sawyer enters the tale. Jim is captured, and Tom develops a plan to free Jim. Tom makes the plan unnecessarily complicated, for style points demanded by the books of adventure he’s read. He’s a bit like Don Quixote is Tom.

If I had time, I’d read Tom Sawyer now, but with the exception of Huck Finn, I am in a daunting section of my list, filled with 1000 page novels. I recently took more than a month each for Don Quixote and The Brothers Karamazov. Now I’ve got Anna Karenina, and Gone With the Wind.


You can’t pray a lie—I found that out. ~ Huck

All right then, I’ll go to hell—and tore it up. ~ Huck as he decides NOT to turn in the runaway slave Jim.

But I reckon I got to light out for the Territory ahead of the rest, because Aunt Sally she’s going to adopt me and sivilize me and I can’t stand it. I been there before. THE END, YOURS TRULY, HUCK FINN.

Film Rendition: There were many to choose from. I picked the 1960 version with Eddie Hodges as Huck. I'm certain this was not the best version available. It was not very true to the book, leaving Tom Sawyer out entirely. I don't recommend it.


Saturday, May 24, 2014

The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoevsky (26 down 74 to go)

(translation by Constance Garnett)

Alyosha smiled softly “God will conquer!” he thought.

This is the first time I’ve read The Brothers Karamazov, Dostoevsky, or any of the Russian authors. It is a philosophic novel told mostly in third-person narrative regarding the lives of the Karamazov brothers in 19th Century Russia. 

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I had almost no expectations, other than perhaps it would be a challenging read. I like that – having no expectations. It was a pleasant surprise and not nearly as challenging as I anticipated.

SPOILER ALERT: This review contains a minor spoiler.

It started a bit slow, as Dostoevsky first introduces you to all of the principal characters, without really beginning the story. The principal principals, if you can believe it, are the Karamazov brothers: the eldest Dimitri (Mitya) is half-brother of Ivan (Vanya) and Alexi (Alyosha). I’ve hinted here, at one of the problems English readers will have with Russian stories. The characters are referred to by several name variations. Alexei has seven variations, and it isn’t always obvious to whom a newly introduced variation refers.

The story takes place in 19th century Russia. The brothers were not raised together and barely know each other until adulthood. Of course, they each have their unique personality, but Alyosha is easily the most likeable – indeed loveable. In fact, and in spite of my lukewarm feelings about The Great Gatsby, I would describe Alyosha in much the same way that Nick described Gatsby: 
...if personality is an unbroken series of successful gestures, then there was something gorgeous about him, some heightened sensitivity to the promises of life.

But, it would be better to offer Dostoevsky’s description of Alyosha. 
He was simply an early lover of humanity.
...he was fond of people: he seemed throughout his life to put implicit trust in people: yet no one ever looked on him as a simpleton or naïve person. There was something about him which made one feel at once (and it was so all his life afterwards) that he did not care to be a judge of others---that he would never take it upon himself to criticize and would never condemn any one for anything.

My review could easily become an ode to Alyosha, though I should mention a few other things.

Such as their father Fyodor, he was a pig. He is also murdered, and it’s hard to feel too bad about it. The family is embroiled in the investigation and trial, as one of the brothers is the only suspect.

But forget that for a second, because I want to tell you more about Alyosha. One of the most beautiful moments in the story: Alyosha, a man of faith, has a long conversation with his agnostic brother Ivan. Ivan recites a “poem” he has written, "The Grand Inquisitor". It's not really poetry, but more of a parable giving Ivan's view of corrupt religion. Christ returns to earth, is sanctioned, imprisoned, and threatened with execution by the Roman Church. The church inquisitor states that Christ’s gift of freedom to humanity was the worst thing for them, and the church was working to bring humanity back into subservience, if not slavery. In the end, the inquisitor decides to let Christ go. Christ listens to the long rebuke, makes no reply, and when released Christ…
approached the old man in silence and softly kissed him on his bloodless aged lips.

Ivan concludes his poem and he and Alyosha debate its merit. It is for the most part friendly, but Alyosha is clearly saddened by his brother’s worldview and Ivan is intentionally goading Alyosha. Ivan asks at the end…will you renounce me for that?
Alyosha got up, went to him and softly kissed him on the lips.

Spiritum Christi Alyosha, Amen!

There is a murder, a trial, and a love triangle. There's sweet young Lise, a crippled girl who's in love with Alyosha...or not so sweet. I admit I don't get Lise. There are a couple of pompous Poles, a German doctor, competing lawyers, a stinking corpse, a corpse that doesn't stink, and a dog. I already mentioned one of the critical chapters, "The Grand Inquisitor". And then, there is Father Zosima, Alyosha's teacher, at the Russian Orthodox monastery. On his deathbed, he gives a long admonition, the antithesis to Ivan's worldview. Next to Alyosha, Father Zosima is my favorite character. Finally, there is a secondary plot line of some schoolboys who befriend Alyosha, which gives the story a hopeful ending.


It’s the great mystery of human life that old grief passes gradually into quiet, tender joy. ~ Father Zosima

Fathers and teachers, I ponder, What is hell? I maintain that it is the suffering of being unable to love. ~ Father Zosima

They aim at justice, but denying Christ, they will end by flooding the earth with blood. ~ Father Zosima