Bookish selfie…

A snapshot of my reading week in quotes…

‘I am slain,” she cries, “alas! I am slain!” I did not write the line, so I am not responsible for the older woman stating what must already have been obvious. The younger woman screams, not in shock, but in exultation.

The older woman staggers some more, turning now so that the onlookers can see the blood. If we had not been in a palace, then we would not have used the sheep’s blood, because the velvet gown was too rich and expensive, but for Elizabeth, for whom time does not exist, we must spend. So we spend. The blood soaks the velvet gown, hardly showing because the cloth is so dark, but plenty of blood stains the lavender silk, and spatters the canvas that has been spread across the Turkey carpets. The woman now sways, cries again, falls to her knees, and, with another exclamation, dies. In case anyone thinks she is merely fainting, she calls out two last despairing words, “I die!” And then she dies.

* * * * * * * * *

Josh Griffin was racing to beat the news deadline clock with his last story of the week when he heard his name.

It wasn’t in dulcet tones, either. “Griffin – you got a minute?”

Looking up from his computer, Josh zeroed in on his editor, seated in her office, clear across the crowded newsroom. She was wearing her usual scowl as she shuffled a stack of wire copy, confident her minion would jump to attention and present himself before her throne.

Josh felt his heart quicken. Any time Millie String bellowed at a hapless colleague, Josh cringed, knowing his turn would come one day, too. This must be my day of reckoning, he decided.

“I’m on deadline, Millie,” he called, without rising but with a point to the Seiko on his wrist. “Can’t it wait?”

Millie fixed a stare on him and shook her head. “Now,” was all she said.

* * * * * * * * *

Haruo’s room was near the front door. A child’s crayon drawings of “a general” and “a soldier with tulips” were pinned to the wall. In the middle of the room stood a potted fir tree, with braids of golden wire and chains of coloured paper threaded between the branches, topped by snow made of white cotton. It was the Christmas tree Sanshirō had bought for his son just before he had left for his temporary assignment.

But the first thing I noticed as I entered the room was the empty bed of the little master of the Christmas tree standing in front of a small desk in one corner. The blankets had been thrown back and the child who should have been sleeping there was nowhere to be seen. The silver paper stars of the Christmas Tree that had lost its master sparkled as they started to turn and sway in the cold currents of air.

From The Cold Night’s Clearing by Keikichi Osaka

* * * * * * * * *

If I move, even ever so slightly, this stair will creak and they will hear me. They’re all around me and one of them will cry out, that’s for sure. Bound to. Then I’m done for. I’ll never get another chance like this to get away. And I need to get away tonight, come what may. No matter what.

If I turn my head oh-so-slowly to the right and look up, I can see three doors on the first-floor landing above me. All shut. Ainsley is in the room at this end of the landing, closest to the stairs. He’ll be sitting there now, rocking gently back and forth and mumbling to himself. He’s sharper than you’d think, though. If he hears me, he’ll shout out, “Who’s there?” at the top of his thin, whiny voice. And he’ll do it over and over, each time louder than the last.

Sprake is in the middle room. He’ll be staring out of the window across the lawn. Absolutely motionless, he’ll be. I know. I’ve seen him. He sits that way for hours at a time. Like he’s in a trance. If I get out of here, I’ll have to stay round the side of the building to get away. If Sprake sees me he’ll start shouting and banging on the walls with his fists. He turns quickly, that one. He’s mad, proper mad. I’ve even seen him biting his toenails until they bleed.

* * * * * * * * *

From the Archives…

“Well, I’d got to talk so nice it wasn’t no comfort – I’d got to go up in the attic and rip out awhile, every day, to git a taste in my mouth, or I’d a died, Tom. The widder wouldn’t let me smoke; she wouldn’t let me yell, she wouldn’t let me gape, nor stretch, not scratch, before folks -” (Then with a spasm of special irritation and injury) – “And dad fetch it, she prayed all the time!”

* * * * *

The minister gave out the hymn, and read it through with a relish, in a peculiar style that was much admired in that part of the country. His voice began on a medium key and climbed steadily up till it reached a certain point, where it bore with strong emphasis upon the topmost word and then plunged down as if from a spring-board:

“Shall I be car-ri-ed toe the skies, on flow’ry BEDS of ease,
Whilst others fight to win the prize, and sail thro’ BLOOD-y seas?”

(Click for full review)

* * * * * * * * *

So…are you tempted?

Huck Finn’s America by Andrew Levy

huck finn's americaLooking beneath the mythology…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Not so long ago, I re-read The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn for the first time since childhood, and came away from it puzzled as to why, firstly, it has such a reputation as a literary masterpiece and, secondly, and more importantly, it is seen as a great anti-slavery/anti-racist tract. My own feeling was that the portrayal of the slaves was hardly one that inspired me to think the book was in any way a clarion call for recognition of racial equality – I said “…the slaves really do come off as almost terminally stupid. It felt almost as if Twain was really highlighting something more akin to animal cruelty than endorsing any suggestion of true equality between the races, and as a result it left me feeling quite uncomfortable.” The blurb for Huck Finn’s America promised that Levy would be taking a fresh look at the book, arguing that “Twain’s lifelong fascination with minstrel shows and black culture inspired him to write a book not about civil rights, but about race’s role in entertainment and commerce, the same features upon which much of our own modern consumer culture is also grounded.” As you can imagine, I was predisposed to find his arguments persuasive.

Andrew Levy is Edna Cooper Chair in English at Butler University, Indianapolis, and it’s clear that he knows his subject thoroughly. He also has the gift of writing in a style that is enjoyable and easily accessible to the non-academic reader. His position is that Huck Finn must be seen through the double prism of Twain’s own experiences and the questions that were exercising society at the time he was writing, so the book has elements of biography as well as literary criticism, and also takes an in-depth look at the cultural and political debates that were going on in the public arena.


The other main aspect of Huck Finn is, of course, childhood, and here Levy argues that, rather than being some great paean to the joys of a childhood freed from the constraints of education, it is actually a reflection of the concern of society around bad-boy culture. He looks at contemporaneous news reporting to show that there was a huge debate going on around adolescent criminality, and the state’s role in tackling this through education. There was concern that boys’ behaviour was being influenced by the pulp fiction of the day, that bad parenting was a contributing factor, and there was a split between those who believed that more regimentation in education was the cause or the cure. If this all sounds eerily familiar, Levy suggests that is partly Twain’s point – that history goes round in circles – nothing ever really changes because man’s nature remains the same.

And, in Levy’s opinion, Twain is saying something similar about race. He is making the point that emancipation had failed to achieve its aims at the time he was writing. Slavery may have been nominally abolished, but black men are being imprisoned in their thousands for minor criminality and then being hired out as labour for pennies. The Jim Crow laws are on the near horizon – segregation in the South is well under way. Levy suggests that the problematic last section of the book, where Tom keeps Jim imprisoned despite knowing that he is now a free man, should be seen as a satire on the status of black people nearly thirty years after emancipation.

Sheet music cover featuring common minstrel show characters, including Jim Crow (top center), a wench (top right), Zip Coon (bottom left), black soldiers (bottom center), and Dandy Jim (bottom right).
Sheet music cover featuring common minstrel show characters, including Jim Crow (top center), a wench (top right), Zip Coon (bottom left), black soldiers (bottom center), and Dandy Jim (bottom right).

However, while Levy accepts Twain’s anti-racist stance in this last section, he also shows convincingly that much of the rest of the portrayal of race in the book comes out of Twain’s nostalgic love for the minstrel shows of his youth. Thus Jim is not exactly a representative of ‘real’ black people, so much as the caricatured version of the blacked-up minstrels. Levy tells us that in the early days of minstrelsy, in Twain’s childhood, the shows were less racist than they became later, and often were in fact used as vehicles for some fairly liberal views. But he also makes it clear that Twain was trying to recapture the ‘fun’ of this form of entertainment. He suggests that this aspect of the book would have been recognisable to contemporary audiences but, because minstrelsy has now become such a taboo subject, is generally missed by readers today.

Tying these arguments together, the fact that contemporary audiences would have recognised Huck as a ‘bad boy’ would have made it much more acceptable to associate him with a black man – both were seen as low down on the social scale, primitive even, and quite probably criminal. Levy acknowledges Twain’s intellectual anti-racism in his later years, but suggests that he retained a nostalgia for the slave-holding world of his childhood and always continued to think of black people as being there to ‘serve’ him. Rather than a call for equality, Twain was using black culture to entertain white people, and only those from the Northern states at that. And again Levy makes the point that black culture is often adopted by white people in much the same way still – as Twain suggested, history is a circle.

Andrew Levy  Photo Credit: Randy Johnson
Andrew Levy
Photo: Randy Johnson

I found this a very well-written and interesting book. Already having doubts about the extravagant claims made for Twain’s anti-racist credentials, I admit that part of my enjoyment was because it gives a solidly researched and explained base to my own instinctive reservations about Huck Finn. That’s not to suggest that Levy is doing some kind of hatchet job on either Twain or Huck – he clearly greatly admires both the man and the book. But he has brushed aside some of the mythology that has grown up around it over the last century and put it firmly back into its own context. Highly recommended.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Simon & Schuster.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

TBR Thursday 48…

Episode 48


Oh, dear! The TBR has risen to its highest ever level of 138! And since nearly every book I’m reading at the moment is about a million pages long I seem to be getting through fewer than ever. Oh well – could be worse. The chocolate factories could have gone on strike…

Anyway, if I ever get through my current batch, here are a few upcoming delights to tantalize or appal you…



the innocents abroadSince I’m just about to read Huck Finn’s America, I thought I’d follow it up with his travelogue of “Abroad”. Will he convince me he’s an “Innocent” though?

The Blurb says ‘Who could read the programme for the excursion without longing to make one of the party?’

So Mark Twain acclaims his voyage from New York City to Europe and the Holy Land in June 1867. His adventures produced “The Innocents Abroad”, a book so funny and provocative it made him an international star for the rest of his life. He was making his first responses to the Old World – to Paris, Milan, Florence, Venice, Pompeii, Constantinople, Sebastopol, Balaklava, Damascus, Jerusalem, Nazareth, and Bethlehem. For the first time he was seeing the great paintings and sculptures of the ‘Old Masters’. He responded with wonder and amazement, but also with exasperation, irritation, disbelief. Above all he displayed the great energy of his humour, more explosive for us now than for his beguiled contemporaries.

 * * * * *



the amazing adventures of kavalier and klayPart of the Great American Novel Quest. I loved the writing of Telegraph Avenue but wasn’t so sure about its depth. How will this one stack up…?

The Blurb says Joe Kavalier, a young Jewish artist who has also been trained in the art of Houdini-esque escape, has just smuggled himself out of Nazi-invaded Prague and landed in New York City. His Brooklyn cousin Sammy Clay is looking for a partner to create heroes, stories, and art for the latest novelty to hit America – the comic book. Drawing on their own fears and dreams, Kavalier and Clay create the Escapist, the Monitor, and Luna Moth, inspired by the beautiful Rosa Saks, who will become linked by powerful ties to both men. With exhilarating style and grace, Michael Chabon tells an unforgettable story about American romance and possibility.

* * * * *



The Shut EyeCourtesy of NetGalley. Love Belinda Bauer, so every new one is a much anticipated treat…

The Blurb says Five footprints are the only sign that Daniel Buck was ever here.

And now they are all his mother has left.

Every day, Anna Buck guards the little prints in the cement. Polishing them to a shine. Keeping them safe. Spiralling towards insanity. When a psychic offers hope, Anna grasps it.

Who wouldn’t? Maybe he can tell her what happened to her son…

But is this man what he claims to be? Is he a visionary? A shut eye? Or a cruel fake, preying on the vulnerable?

Or is he something far, far worse?

* * * * *

Sci-Fi Re-Read


do androids dream...In line with my resolution to read more sci-fi, I thought I’d ease into it with a re-read. My memories of this one are quite vague, but the blurb makes it sound much duller than I remember…

The Blurb says A final, apocalyptic, world war has killed millions, driving entire species into extinction and sending the majority of mankind off-planet. Those who remain venerate all remaining examples of life, and owning an animal of your own is both a symbol of status and a necessity. For those who can’t afford an authentic animal, companies build incredibly realistic simulacrae: horses, birds, cats, sheep . . . even humans.

 * * * * *



trigger warningCourtesy of Audible UK. Everyone says Neil Gaiman is great at narrating his own stuff, so we shall see. This collection includes some old stuff and some new – but most of it will be new to me…

The Blurb saysGlobal phenomenon and Sunday Times best-selling author Neil Gaiman returns to dazzle, captivate, haunt, and entertain with this third collection of short fiction, following Smoke and Mirrors and Fragile Things, which includes a never-before published American Gods story, “Black Dog”. In this new volume, Neil Gaiman pierces the veil of reality to reveal the enigmatic, shadowy world that lies beneath.”

* * * * *


NB All blurbs taken from NetGalley or Goodreads.

So…what do you think? Do any of these tempt you?

Tuesday Terror! A Ghost Story by Mark Twain

The elephant in the room…


Since so many of the writers of the 19th century wrote in several genres, it crossed my mind to wonder if Mark Twain had ever written horror. Indeed he did – but in his own inimitable style. With his tongue firmly in his cheek, he mocks not just the conventions of the horror story, but has a little swipe at the gullibility of both humans and ghosts in this week’s…



A Ghost Story by Mark Twain


mark twain

I took a large room, far up Broadway, in a huge old building whose upper stories had been wholly unoccupied for years, until I came. The place had long been given up to dust and cobwebs, to solitude and silence. I seemed groping among the tombs and invading the privacy of the dead, that first night I climbed up to my quarters. For the first time in my life a superstitious dread came over me; and as I turned a dark angle of the stairway and an invisible cobweb swung its lazy woof in my face and clung there, I shuddered as one who had encountered a phantom.

As he prepares to spend his first night in this room, Twain uses every horror story cliché he can think of, from shrieking winds and rain to fanciful half-heard voices and half-forgotten memories, to send our narrator into a mood of nervous melancholy. As the fire burns low, he falls into a deep sleep, but naturally he is soon wakened…

…and filled with a shuddering expectancy. All was still. All but my own heart – I could hear it beat. Presently the bedclothes began to slip away slowly toward the foot of the bed, as if some one were pulling them! I could not stir; I could not speak. Still the blankets slipped deliberately away, till my breast was uncovered. Then with a great effort I seized them and drew them over my head.

ghost story illustration

Sadly, this plan for ghost avoidance proves somewhat ineffective, since he can still hear groaning and the sound of heavy footsteps stomping around the room like an elephant. But then the footsteps recede, as if the thing is leaving the room, and our narrator risks a peek from beneath the bedclothes. And sees nothing! Giving himself a shake, he convinces himself that the whole thing was a dream, and gets up to smoke his pipe beside the fire, when…

…down went the pipe out of my nerveless fingers, the blood forsook my cheeks, and my placid breathing was cut short with a gasp! In the ashes on the hearth, side by side with my own bare footprint, was another, so vast that in comparison mine was but an infant’s’! Then I had HAD a visitor, and the elephant tread was explained.

And then he hears mysterious sounds from all over the house (yes, even clanking chains). Soon he hears the treads returning towards his room, and all sorts of spooky phenomena begin – pallid, floating faces, warm blood dripping down from above, sighs and whispers all around him. Terrified, he listens to the steps draw closer and closer and gradually a form appears in front of him – and as it takes shape he recognises it as the ghost of the Cardiff Giant. (The Cardiff Giant was apparently a famous hoax – the petrified figure of a giant “found” near Cardiff, New York, and put on display for the gullible. To compound the fraud, PT Barnum copied the original and put his version on display too – in the museum just across the road from our narrator’s room.) This apparition has an unexpected effect…

The Cardiff Giant on display...
The Cardiff Giant on display…

All my misery vanished – for a child might know that no harm could come with that benignant countenance. My cheerful spirits returned at once, and in sympathy with them the gas flamed up brightly again. Never a lonely outcast was so glad to welcome company as I was to greet the friendly giant.

However as the giant stumbles about the room breaking all the furniture, the narrator’s pleasure quickly turns to annoyance…

“Now what sort of a way is that to do? First you come lumbering about the place bringing a legion of vagabond goblins along with you to worry me to death, and then when I overlook an indelicacy of costume which would not be tolerated anywhere by cultivated people except in a respectable theater, and not even there if the nudity were of YOUR sex, you repay me by wrecking all the furniture you can find to sit down on.”

Finally, the giant settles on the floor and proceeds to reveal the reason for his haunting of the house…

twain ghost story illustration

* * * * * * *

The final twist is typical Twain, full of mocking humour. Here’s a link if you don’t know the story and would like to know what happens… click here for the full story.

This is a wonderfully crafted story – the early build-up shows how well Twain could have written a really chilling tale had he chosen, but instead he turns all the conventions on their heads and produces a deliciously humorous pastiche. Though I didn’t know about the Cardiff Giant while I was reading, it really didn’t matter since Twain gets the basic fact of it being a hoax over within the story, which in itself is a kind of hoax too. No scare factor in this ghost story, but that doesn’t prevent it from being a great one – the porpentine and I chuckled enormously throughout and, for once, knew the author actually meant us to!

smiling porpentine

Fretful porpentine rating: 😯

Overall story rating:         😀 😀 😀 😀 😀


GAN Quest: The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain

“Human beings can be awful cruel to one another.”

🙂 🙂 🙂

At the end of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, we left Huck Finn, now comfortably well-off, being ‘sivilised’ by the Widow Douglas. But when Huck’s Pap comes back, wanting to get his hands on Huck’s new-found wealth, Huck finds himself at his father’s mercy, locked up in their shanty and subjected to beatings. So he hatches a plan to escape. Meantime, Miss Watson’s slave Jim has decided to run away because he’s overheard Miss Watson say she’s going to sell him down to Orleans. When the two meet up they decide to throw in their lots with each other and set off down the Mississippi on a raft. This is the story of their adventures. (Please note there are some spoilers in this review on the basis that almost everyone will already know the story.)

“A harem’s a bo’d’n-house, I rek’n. Mos’ likely dey has rackety times in de nussery. En I reck’n de wives quarrels considable; en dat ‘crease de racket. Yit dey say Sollermun de wises’ man dat ever live’. I doan’ take no stock in dat. Bekase why would a wise man want to live in de mids er sich a blim-blammin’ all de time? No – ‘deed he wouldn’t. A wise man ‘ud take en buil’ a biler-factory; en den he could shet DOWN de biler-factory when he want to res’.”

There was always going to come a point at least once in the Great American Novel Quest when I would hit a book that didn’t seem to me to live up to its reputation. Sadly, this is that book. I’m quite sure that if I had read it not knowing of its status, it would never have occurred to me to rank this as anything more than a fairly enjoyable adventure yarn – showing its age, certainly, but with a fair amount of satirical humour.

However, even reviewing it as an adventure, I found it compared unfavourably to its predecessor. The few chapters at the beginning are pretty much a reprise of Tom Sawyer, with the gang again getting together to play at being robbers, and much of the humour here is simply a repeat of the first novel. The next section – Huck’s cruel treatment at the hands of his father – is treated so lightly that it didn’t generate any real emotion in me; and Huck’s pretence at having being murdered in order to escape is again very similar to what happened in the previous book.


Once Jim and Huck get together, the story improves greatly for a while and the first section of their journey is the best bit of the book, as we see these two unlikely companions begin to form bonds of affection and loyalty. It’s here that Twain shows most clearly through Huck’s narration the acceptance of slavery as an almost unthinking norm in the society he’s portraying, and we get brief flashes of Jim as a real person when he tells about how he will be separated from his wife and children if he’s sold.

Then unfortunately the two con-artists – the Duke and the King – come on the scene and from there on the whole thing seems to lose any narrative drive. To be honest, while at first it seemed clear that Huck and Finn were heading north to the free States, after this mid-way point I had no clear idea what their plan was, if they had one. The book, like the raft, seems to drift aimlessly as we are given little humorous set-pieces at each of the towns they visit. But not humorous enough, I’m afraid, to compensate for the repetitiveness of the section nor for the overdrawn caricatures of these two characters.


“Well, some of the best authorities has done it. They couldn’t get the chain off, so they just cut their hand off and shoved. And a leg would be better still. But we got to let that go. There ain’t necessity enough in this case; and, besides, Jim’s a nigger, and wouldn’t understand the reasons for it, and how it’s the custom in Europe; so we’ll let it go.”

When Tom finally re-appears, the story picks up for a bit as he and Huck each take on false identities to fool Tom’s unsuspecting aunt. But then we get to the long-drawn out and frankly tedious final section where, instead of rescuing Jim, Tom goes off into another of his fantasies and stretches the whole thing out to an extent where I found I was beginning to skim whole chapters in a desperate bid to get to the end.

So as a novel, I’m afraid this would rate no more than 3 stars for me.

* * * * * * * * *

Trying to look at it a bit more deeply as a contender for Great American Novel status, the two things that are most often mentioned are the innovative use of dialect and the satirical look at attitudes towards slavery. Certainly, the dialect is done wonderfully well – Twain never misses a beat, and makes each voice not only distinct, but an unmistakeable indicator of the different class each character occupies. So Tom’s voice clearly shows he’s of a better class and level of education than Huck, while Jim and the other slaves share a dialect all of their own – a dialect that is recognisable from most of the early Hollywood films portraying slavery, such as Gone With the Wind. This made me wonder if the dialect was authentic, or a Twain creation that influenced later culture. Either way, it’s a virtuoso performance from Twain and certainly raises the artistic level of the novel. (Honestly, though, I found it irritating after a while – frequently having to re-read Jim’s dialogue to catch the meaning. Perhaps that’s my Britishness showing through.)


I found the slavery question more complex, oddly because Twain makes it seem so simple. He makes the tolerance of slavery a universal thing, accepted unquestioningly by everyone in the novel. I found this unconvincing – the book is set only a couple of decades before the Civil War, and surely there would have been more shades of grey over it, even in the South, by that period? Also, although he shows the basic inhumanity and emotional cruelty of one man owning another, somehow he also shows the owners as fundamentally good-natured and mostly quite kind to the slaves. I’m sure that was also true of some owners, but I’m equally sure there was a lot more physical cruelty and abuse than this novel suggests. It all seemed strangely sanitised, especially since the point was presumably to show the plain wrongness of the practice. And, while there’s no doubt every character in the book regardless of colour is displayed as, shall we say, intellectually challenged, the slaves really do come off as almost terminally stupid. It felt almost as if Twain was really highlighting something more akin to animal cruelty than endorsing any suggestion of true equality between the races, and as a result left me feeling quite uncomfortable. I really, really wanted Jim to tell Tom and Huck to grow up and stop messing him about, rather than to continue metaphorically wagging his tail at his masters, as he did even once he discovered that he had been a free man while Tom was indulging his own selfishness.

Hmm…I’m guessing you can tell I wasn’t convinced by this one…

Great American Novel Quest

So…how does it fare in The Great American Novel Quest? To win that title it needs to achieve all five of the criteria in my original post…

Must be written by an American author or an author who has lived long enough in the US to assimilate the culture.

us flagAchieved.

The theme must shed light on a specific and important aspect of American culture and society of the time of its writing.

us flagBearing in mind when the book was written, and that the audience for it therefore didn’t share today’s sensibilities regarding race and equality, I’m assuming that the book perhaps did shed light on the evils of slavery for its contemporary readers, at a time when the post-war society wasn’t living up to the expectations of the proponents of the war. To be honest, I’m basing this assumption more on the book’s reputation than on anything I found in the text though. So, somewhat grudgingly – achieved.

It must be innovative and original in theme.

us flagYes, I think the theme most definitely meets the originality test and there’s no doubt the use of dialect was innovative, so – achieved.

Must be superbly written.

white_flagOh dear – I feel I’m going to offend most of America here and quite probably the rest of the world too but…no, I didn’t find this superbly written. The dialect, while hugely skilful, detracted on the whole from my enjoyment; and the plot was too straggly and unfocussed, particularly the several chapters at the end. The humour and satire simply weren’t enough to carry it. So…not achieved.

Must capture the entire ‘American experience’.

white_flagI think this is arguable. While the book concentrated very much on the South, and was of course historical even at the time of writing, it was clearly written with reference to issues in the contemporary society. It seemed to me that Twain saw the issue of equality as one for the whole of the US and in that sense, it addresses the entire ‘American experience’. But does it capture it? I’m conflicted – but on the whole no, I’m not wholly convinced by Twain’s portrayal of this society so…not achieved.

* * * * * * * * *

So, donning my hard hat and cowering behind the settee, I hereby declare that not only is The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn not The Great American Novel, but for only achieving 3 GAN flags and 3 stars, it isn’t even A Great American Novel.

Please don’t hate me! Instead, convince me that I’m wrong…

Failure and the American Writer by Gavin Jones

Dressed up in the language of academia…
(…or Where’s my Gobbledegook-English dictionary?)

🙂 🙂 🙂 😐

failure and the american writerIn recent years, in the fields of history and science, there has been a marked and welcome move towards academics writing books in language that makes them accessible to the wider public, while maintaining high standards of research and scholarship. Sadly, in my limited experience, this trend has not yet spread to the field of literary criticism. This book is so mired and obfuscated in academic gobbledegook language, that large parts of it are well-nigh incomprehensible to someone who only speaks standard English – which is unfortunate, since the glimpses I got into the author’s meaning suggested that the subject could be interesting.

As far as I could gather, the author’s argument seems to consist of three main points: that American literature of the 19th century and beyond tends to deal with the subject of failure; that the great writers of the 19th century struggled to find new literary forms in which to portray this literature of failure; and – it gets very unclear here and I may well be misrepresenting badly – that this struggle for form, combined with failures in the authors’ own lives, led directly or indirectly to their works themselves failing, especially in the eyes of contemporary critics and readers.

“Hawthorne and his Mosses” is Melville’s effort to account for Hawthorne’s relative lack of popularity, by laying blame on a market that purportedly valued literary trash over works of quality. Rather than studying the way to success, however, Melville’s essay offers an explicit theory of failure in a culture whose faltering standards of taste made failure seem a necessity, if not a condition of genius itself.

When I was a student, and even when writing policies in the workplace, I was always taught that you should “say what you’re going to say, then say it, then say what you just said”. If Jones had followed this simplistic but effective device, then his introduction would have made clear what his argument was going to be – unfortunately he leaps straight into his discussion of the works he has chosen to prove his argument without ever clarifying exactly what his argument is. And the conclusion, which I found I was eagerly anticipating, did little to elucidate. The result is that, having finished the book, I wasn’t much closer to getting Jones’ point than I was at the beginning. That’s not to say the book is uninteresting – just unfathomable in parts.

Critics have noted the “subjunctive” reality of Strether’s world, his enabling bewilderment and epistemological provisionalness. Placing this in historical context, Ross Posnock has described Strether’s groping and bewildered contemplation as a form of pragmatic fallibilism, which “emphasizes the self as contingent, inseparable from the process of experimental inquiry and interpretation…”

The first strand – that American authors tend to write about failure – seems clear and fairly indisputable. In each chapter, Jones concentrates on one author and usually on one particular work of that author. So in the chapter on Melville, for instance, while referring to many of his works, Jones concentrates on Moby Dick, while the chapter on Twain deals largely with Pudd’nhead Wilson. In each chapter, Jones sets the work into the context of the author’s life and the wider society of the time. His view is that the 19th century itself was felt to have been a failed century, with recurring economic problems, increasing mechanisation and subsequently urbanisation and the decline of the rural economy, and in particular the failure of the Civil War to lead to the kind of society that its proponents had envisaged.

…in Poe we see the glimmering of an attitude that looks forward to the modernist writers of the twentieth century: not a struggle with failure as a problem to be debated or transcended, but an acceptance of failure as an inevitable condition of identity, one of the necessitating qualities of a style.

The second and third strands are both more complex and less well-argued, in my view – certainly less clearly argued. Jones seems to be suggesting that it was the attempt to find ways to portray this failure that led to these great authors producing often messy books. He uses the authors’ own writings and contemporaneous critical and peer reviews of their works to back up his arguments, and to some degree he convinced me that some at least of the authors were indeed trying to find new literary forms. Where I found his argument completely unconvincing was that it was this that led to the contemporary failure of the books. Now, I have only read a handful of the books discussed, so I am basing my comments purely on Jones’ own analyses of them, but it seemed to me that in fact all he proved was that some of the books were simply badly written, and that the reasons for this varied from case to case. I also felt he proved indirectly that a form of intellectual elitism was creeping into the works of many of these authors which could be summed up as “if people don’t like my books, it’s because they’re stupid”, and that, in that sense, commercial and critical failure was almost seen as an endorsement of literary success (an attitude still very recognisable today, I fear). But his central argument, if I have grasped it at all, that the failure of the books was related to the authors’ attempts to find new forms to portray failure, remained unproven to me. But then maybe that’s not what he was trying to say at all!

In his phenomenological study, Paul Armstrong argues that James’ approach to man is most properly understood as ontic, not ontological: he is concerned with real existence, with experience, rather than with the properties of being.

Overall, I found the analyses of the various books and authors very interesting, but found the arguments so dressed up in the language of academia that they were hard to understand and, perhaps as a result, remained largely unproven, at least to me. I’m sure this book may be of great interest to other academics, but for the casual reader may prove a little disappointing, as ultimately it was for me.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Cambridge University Press.

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The Adventures of Tom Sawyer by Mark Twain

mark twain delphiA glittering hero…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Set in Missouri sometime around the 1830s, Twain gives us a joyous romp through the lives of some of the boys, and even a couple of the pesky girls, growing up in the small town of St Petersburg. This is a world long, long before health and safety and overprotective parents where, when they’re not being forced to attend school or Sunday School, the boys can let both their bodies and their imaginations run wild –and oh, how they do! Tom is a natural leader – the one with the imagination and, I suspect, a liking for sensationalist pulp fiction. So when the boys aren’t being pirates, that’s only because they’re planning on how to become robbers or deciding who should be Robin Hood and who the Sheriff of Nottingham.

“…Tom said “Where this arrow falls, there bury poor Robin Hood under the greenwood tree.” Then he shot the arrow and fell back and would have died, but he lit on a nettle and sprang up too gaily for a corpse.”

It’s during a midnight trip to the graveyard (to throw a dead cat after the devils, obviously) that Tom and the little vagabond Huck Finn witness the horrific crime that provides the running storyline and the darker edge to the book. Scared that they’ll be killed if they tell what they saw, the boys can’t avoid feeling guilty when the wrong man is arrested and about to be hanged. But fortunately there’s always romance to take Tom’s mind off things…

“Say, Becky, was you ever engaged?”
“What’s that?”
“Why, engaged to be married.”
“Would you like to?”
“I reckon so. I don’t know. What is it like?”
“Like? Why it ain’t like anything. You only just tell a boy you won’t ever have anybody but him, ever ever ever, and then you kiss and that’s all. Anybody can do it.”
“Kiss? What do you kiss for?”
“Why, that, you know, is to – well, they always do that.”

TomSawyer-006A wonderfully warm-hearted book, Twain’s gently humorous and affectionate portrayal of the children is stopped from descending into sentimentality by his sly ridicule of the customs and manners of society, as seen through the microcosm of this small town. No-one is safe from his gaze, however respectable a position they may hold – not the poor minister as the boredom of his sermon is brightened for the boys by the advent of an unruly poodle, not the unfortunate teacher who must pay handsomely with the loss of his dignity for the crime of making the boys study. The boys’ belief in all kinds of old wives’ tales provides plenty of fun while allowing Twain to indulge in some gentle mockery of superstition. And Huck’s views on attempts to turn him into a respectable child give Twain the opportunity to poke fun at the restrictions polite society forces on itself…

“Well, I’d got to talk so nice it wasn’t no comfort – I’d got to go up in the attic and rip out awhile, every day, to git a taste in my mouth, or I’d a died, Tom. The widder wouldn’t let me smoke; she wouldn’t let me yell, she wouldn’t let me gape, nor stretch, not scratch, before folks -” (Then with a spasm of special irritation and injury) – “And dad fetch it, she prayed all the time!”

I found myself smiling throughout, frequently laughing aloud and occasionally gasping as Twain would suddenly throw Tom and his friends into danger and fear. I read this book when I was a young teenager and remembered enjoying it for the adventures, but as an adult I got much more out of Twain’s sneaky sideways swipes at society in general. The writing is wonderful – almost goes without saying – and greatly enhanced by the masterly use of dialect and idiom. Funny, insightful and hugely entertaining – a true classic.

“The minister gave out the hymn, and read it through with a relish, in a peculiar style that was much admired in that part of the country. His voice began on a medium key and climbed steadily up till it reached a certain point, where it bore with strong emphasis upon the topmost word and then plunged down as if from a spring-board:

Shall I be car-ri-ed toe the skies, on flow’ry BEDS of ease,
Whilst others fight to win the prize, and sail thro’ BLOOD-y seas?”

PS – As a little aside, I couldn’t help making comparisons to my own childhood favourite Anne of Green Gables. The lack of parents, the imaginative child always falling accidentally into trouble, the school romance… Of course, Anne and her friends were just pesky girls, so behaved much, much better than these awful boys (and were much cleaner, generally speaking) but I did wonder if LM Montgomery had been influenced by this earlier book. And sometimes Twain’s observational drollery, like the quote above about the minister, reminded me strongly of Dickens in humorous vein…

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The Prince and the Pauper by Mark Twain

mark twain delphiClothes maketh the boy….

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

When poor Tom Canty realises his cherished ambition to meet a real Prince, both are astonished to find they are identical. Swapping clothes for a joke, the young Prince is mistaken for the pauper Tom and ejected from the palace. Meantime, Tom tries to tell the palace people about the mistake, but they think he’s gone mad and won’t believe him. Prince Edward’s loving father (!), Henry VIII, orders Tom to act the Prince until his madness recedes and, as a loyal subject, Tom must obey. So begins a series of adventures for both boys as they learn about each other’s lives.

“One summer’s day he saw poor Anne Askew and three men burned at the stake in Smithfield, and heard an ex-Bishop preach a sermon to them which did not interest him. Yes, Tom’s life was varied and pleasant enough, on the whole.”

Once I had recovered from the shock of seeing Henry and his children all getting along like The Waltons on a good day (except that awful Bloody Mary, of course – Boo! Hiss!), I enjoyed this fable. A mixture of ‘clothes maketh the man’ and ‘the grass is always greener’, Twain uses his set-up to show the social divisions and injustices of Tudor society. Tom finds the affairs of state and trappings of ceremony weigh heavily on him, and sometimes wishes for the freedom of his old life. Edward meantime learns how the poor sink into criminality and vice and sees the cruelty of the punishments they are subjected to. Tom’s story is fairly light-hearted, but Edward has to face some dark and dangerous moments in this world that is so different from anything he has known before.

“The old man glided away, stooping, stealthy, cat-like, and brought the low bench. He seated himself upon it, half his body in the dim and flickering light, and the other half in shadow; and so, with his craving eyes bent upon the slumbering boy, he kept his patient vigil there, heedless of the drift of time, and softly whetted his knife, and mumbled and chuckled…”

Given the fairy-tale nature of the book, Twain manages to get in a lot of real history, though warped where necessary to meet his purposes, and paints what feels like a fairly accurate picture of life at the time, especially for the poor. He occasionally goes over the top in his descriptions of court ceremony but this is for deliberate comic effect – one gets the distinct feeling that Twain may not have been a huge fan of monarchy! He avoids mawkishness by not letting either boy be too perfect. Edward remains arrogant throughout – though he sees how unjust life is for some of his future subjects and resolves to do better by them, he also promises vicious revenge on those who have hurt him along the way. Tom, on the other hand, fairly soon begins to enjoy life as a pampered and cosseted Prince and for a while forgets his poor mother and sisters and what they may be suffering.


The quality of the writing is, of course, excellent and Twain handles his version of Ye Olde English language smoothly and effectively. While Twain is making some serious points, there are plenty of adventures along the way to keep the reader entertained and to avoid the book feeling preachy. Overall, a very enjoyable read and as an added bonus I’ve been left with an image I will treasure and continue to chuckle over, of Henry as the loving family man.

As a little aside, I read this as part of the Delphi Complete Works version. If any Kindler hasn’t come across Delphi, I highly recommend them. As well as all of the authors’ writings, they usually include extras such as biographies, criticisms and lavish illustrations, including the original ones where they exist. Usually very well-formatted and with few mistakes, they have become my go-to e-publisher for the classics.

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