Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Book #10 - Pudd'nhead Wilson (Mark Twain)

About once or twice a year, I'll wake up at 3 or 4 am and can't get back to sleep.  At some point I realize it's useless to try any longer, so I'll get up and read for an hour or two until I get sleepy and can go back to bed.  Then 30 minutes later my alarm clock will wake me up and I'll be subjected to a long, sleepy day at work.  Well, that happened last night, but I didn't mind the long, sleepy day at work so much because my insomnia allowed me to finish off "Pudd'nhead Wilson" by Mark Twain.  It was a short, quick read, clocking in at about 160 pages.  

I had mixed feelings about this book.  It was a fun and funny read...Twain is a great humorist, with a phrasing all his own.  It's hard to forget who you're reading when you're reading one of his books.  So that was great, as always.  And the themes of the book - nature vs. nurture, what is race, what is honor - were interesting and well-developed.  But this book, in many ways, seemed somewhat muddled.  The plot is far-fetched and jumps around in odd ways, and many of the characters are not so fully fleshed out.  Apparently Twain massively rewrote the book, and it could have used another rewrite, or an editor.

Still, the book is a classic, and for several reasons, not the least of which is its treatment of race, which is central to the story (and a timely topic in these days of the Obama campaign).  The novel is set in the small Missouri town of Dawson's Landing, in the year 1830.  The story revolves around a classic plot device...babies switch at birth!  Well, OK, babies switches at five months...but who notices?  No one!  Roxana, a slave who is only 1/16 black, and thus looks white, but is condemned to slavery due to the 1/16 part, is charged with taking care of her own baby (whose father was white, of course) and her owner's son, who was born on the same day.  In fact, the babies look so much alike that only Roxana can tell them apart.  Slaves in Dawson's Landing are constantly threatened with being sold "down the river", which means down the Mississippi River into the deep south, where conditions are much harder.  Roxana decides to switch the babies so that she never has to worry about her son being sold this way.  So she makes the switch and no one notices.  Her son, Chambers, grows up as the owner's son, Tom, while the owner's son grows up as a slave.  Well, her son (who doesn't know he's her son) grows up to be a spoiled, self-centered ne'er-do-well, who beats "Chambers", gambles compulsively, and must rob the good townsfolk in order to pay back his gambling debts.  Meanwhile, the boy who grows up as Chambers, and who's really the true owner's son, is a nice guy, and is always looking out for Tom, even though he's repaid with abuse.  

Twain runs wild with the theme of identity here...what does it mean to be free or slave, black or white, when no one can tell the children apart?  Indeed the whole thing seems a farce.  And it's contradictory to think that the child who is raised in the wealthy, privileged household turn out to be a douchbag, while the child raised as a slave is a humble, good man.  It would be a mistake to dismiss these thoughts with the idea that slavery is long gone, so why does any of this matter.  But these issues do matter, especially today in the age of biotechnology.  How much of each of us is nature (our genes) and how much is nurture (our upbringing) and how do the two affect one another?  These are big issues that science and society are still grappling intelligence all or partly inherited?  What about cancer risk?  How much of our personality and behavior is learned vs. inherited?  What about our morality?  Twain was on to something here, and he deals with it in his usual funny and satirical style.  Too bad he didn't edit parts of the book as much as he could have, though.

Oh, and I still maintain that the title is one of the best in all of literature.

Sunday, March 23, 2008

Book #9 - Treasure Island (Robert Louis Stevenson)

D'arrr, maties, I just finished reading this manly seafarin' tale, full of pirates, and rum, and booty (the 19th century kind), and talking parrots, and rum, and swashbuckling, and buried treasure, and rum.  And did I mention the rum?  Because here's the thing about pirates, at least as described in this book:  they drink prodigious amounts of rum.  And when they're drunk and out of their heads on rum, then they sing about it (Yo, ho, ho, etc.).

This was a fun book.  Not just because of the adventure tale, but also because it's such a cultural icon.  I was not aware of all the pirate mythology that came from this book...the character Long John Silver (long before he sold out and started a fast food chain, although interestingly he was ship's cook in this story...well, before the mutiny anyway), the parrot who shouts "pieces of eight", maps marked with an X indicating buried treasure, and, of course, the song about 15 men on a dead man's chest.

The story begins in a small town on the English coast, where young Jim Hawkins works at his parents' inn.  An old drunken sailor, Billy Bones, comes to lodge with them.  When not pounding down rum, Billy is looking out to sea with his telescope, afraid of a one-legged seaman.  Well, stuff happens...a pirate comes looking for Billy, and they fight.  Jim's father dies (naturally).  Billy dies of a stroke after a visit by a pirate gang, and Jim finds a treasure map in his sea chest.  He shows the map to the local doctor and squire.  The squire says to the doctor "Let's go find the treasure...I'll have a boat together in a couple of weeks, and Jim can come along as cabin boy".  The doctor agrees.  Jim's mom goes along with this.  Woah...WTF?!?  This is the part of the book where I realized that I'd wished I read this when I was 12.  I mean, it's a great book, but as a responsible adult, the rather flippant decision to chase after treasure buried by murderous pirates and dragging along a kid seems not so realistic.

Anyway, without spoiling the whole book, they get a crew together, with the help of a cook, Long John Silver, who happens to have one leg.  Jim would be alarmed by this, remembering old Billy Bones' fears, but Silver is so nice and jovial that his suspicions are allayed.  They set sail, find the island, the crew (which thanks to Silver is made up of about 80% pirates) mutinies, lives are endangered, pirates get drunk, Jim saves the day numerous times, Jim almost gets killed numerous times, most of the pirates end up dead, and the good guys win by finding the treasure (with the help of a hermit, a former pirate, who lives on the island) and sailing off, leaving the remaining pirates as castaways, except for Silver, who has helped them.  They go to South America to fix the boat for the trip back to England, and it's there that Silver escapes.  They return to England with the treasure, and Jim vows never to do anything like that again.  The End.

One of the most interesting things about the book is that while Jim Hawkins is a well-drawn out and sympathetic character, the rest of the "good guys", like the squire and the doctor, are rather bland characters with whom the reader finds it difficult to sympathize or relate.  The pirates are much more interesting, even though (or perhaps because) they quarrel, they get drunk, and they can barely keep it together.  And Long John Silver is a great character.  He's charismatic, and he seems to be genuinely fond of Jim, but he can also kill a man without blinking an eye.  He's also very opportunistic, and switches sides several times.  Towards the end of the book, when Silver is head of the pirate gang, he captures Jim and tells him he'll save him by telling the other pirates that he's a hostage and they shouldn't kill him.  And realizing the pirates are doomed, due mostly to their drunken disarray, he makes a deal with Jim that he'll save his life if Jim saves his by telling the doctor and the squire how he saved Jim, and how he shouldn't go to the gallows.  Jim agrees.  Yet, when Silver, Jim, and the pirate gang are approaching where they think the treasure is buried, Silver gets a greedy gleam in his eye that tells Jim that Silver will likely kill him so as not have to share the treasure.  And then when the treasure turns out not to be there, Silver turns back to helping Jim.  Silver's capable of great evil, and totally duplicitous, but so much more alive than the doctor and squire.  Plus, he repeatedly uses the phrase "shiver my timbers".  Let's face it, pirates have more fun.

So all in all, a good read, but probably better read as a kid.  Although, having said that, there are two reasons why it might be better appreciated as an adult.  The first is that the language can be archaic at times...there are definitely some passages in Victorian english, as well as pirate jargon, that were hard to figure out.  And second, it's a no-brainer to pair reading this with sipping on some fine Caribbean rum.  As I type, I'm having some Zaya 12 year old rum, from Guatemala.  This is some of the finest sipping rum I've ever's dark brown and sweet like carmel.  It's hard to find, but well worth it when you do.  Yo ho ho indeed!

Monday, March 17, 2008

The End of Anna K, aka Train in Vain (Spoiler Alert!!)

It's done!  This morning I finished Anna Karenina, a book which I've lived with for the past month.  I'm celebrating by writing this blog post and a having a nip of 12 year old Van Winkle Rye Whiskey.  It's a delicious vintage that they don't make anymore, just as they don't write novels like this anymore either.  Or maybe they do, what do I know?  I do know, though, that this was a great book, although frankly it got weird at the end.  First of all, Anna totally loses it.  She and Vronsky move back to Moscow, where she becomes impossible...she loves him, she hates him, she quarrels, she gets all clingy and jealous over nothing...yikes!  What happened to her?  How could the bold, confident woman from the novel's start turn into this nightmare?  I think the big reason is that she's trapped.  She's totally ostracized by society, and can't really appear in public, and has no friends, and so must stay at home alone all day while Vronsky can go to the club, hang with the guys, and toss a few back.  Yes, there's a double standard towards women in Olde Russian Society (and there still is today, in America, my college roommate liked to point out, a guy who sleeps around is a stud, while a girl who does so is a slut).  Tolstoy seems to want to make us feel that a woman's place is in the home, or at least that she should not surrender to her passions, come what may, as she'll end up crazy and/or dead, and her children will be forever scarred, forced to grow up with their cold, distant, failure of a father.  Which is what happens here...Anna ends up throwing herself under a train and is killed.  A scene which, by the way, is nicely foreshadowed in the scene where Vronsky first meets a train station, where someone falls under a train and is killed, and Anna takes it as a bad omen; she was correct in that assumption.  Anyway, Anna dies and Vronsky becomes a broken man who goes off to fight against the Turks, explaining that the best soldiers are the ones who care not if they live or die.

But before all this happens, Levin finally gets to meet Anna.  The two pivotal characters in the novel, and they only get one short scene together.  Stiva (Anna's brother) goes to visit Anna and he drags his friend Levin along.  Anna flirts heavily with Levin, and Levin is quite taken by her.  Indeed they seem to have a mutual attraction and understanding.  Levin then goes home to Kitty, where she can immediately tell he's been smitten, and she is not happy about this at all.  But then all is forgotten because she goes into labor.  Levin totally freaks out.  He's a kind hearted man, but he cannot handle pressure (not only Kitty's labor, but when his brother was dying).  But after a long labor, and a feverish panic attack by Levin, Kitty has her baby, and all's well.  

The story shifts away from Levin, back to Anna and Vronsky until after Anna's death scene.  And that's when the novel goes completely weird.  I mean, WTF??  The last section of the book is this weird coda, which is all about Levin and his "spiritual awakening", if you can call it that.  This part sort of lost me, and I couldn't follow all that was going on in Levin's mind.  But basically, after returning to his country home following the baby's birth, he starts reading a bunch of the great philosophers, trying to figure out the meaning of his life, and as Tolstoy would have us believe, almost committing suicide because he can't figure it out (a weird parallel to Anna).  But then, in a conversation with a peasant (who else, when it comes to Levin) he figures it all out.  The peasant talks about someone who "lives for his soul and does not forget God".  And suddenly, Levin "gets it".  He seems to gain faith in God, and decides his life is now transformed.  Well, just a few minutes later he gets angry with his carriage driver, and realizes that he's not all that changed, but still, the demons he was wrestling with seem to be assuaged.  In today's parlance he might say he was "born again".  Levin the unbeliever now believes.  He can't defend his new feelings to his intellectual brother, so he doesn't bother trying.  He and Kitty and their son are happy, and all is well, living under God's grace.  The End.

Odd.  It just seemed like the book suddenly swerved away from its previous self.  But whatever, it's a great book.  Still, there's one unresolved mystery, mentioned in an earlier post:  the book's epigraph is "Vengeance is mine: I shall repay".  I thought the book would shed an obvious light on that, but alas it did not.  So what does it mean?  Beats me.  My best guess is that it means God...that it is up to God to punish Anna, and not society, which is all to eager to do so.  But that explanation doesn't seem totally satisfying.  So yes, I'm stumped.  But that will give me something to ponder while I move on to the next book on the list...something completely different:  Treasure Island.

Sunday, March 9, 2008

This is a Long Novel

Damn, this book is LONG!  I've still got another 200 or so pages to go.  Fortunately I'm enjoying it a lot, and I think I will miss it once it's over...that's a problem with reading a long book like this one.

Levin and Kitty are doing well.  Dolly (Kitty's sister, who's also Stiva's wife) and her children have come to stay for the summer.  Levin's not entirely happy with this, but since it makes Kitty happy then he's OK.  Later Stiva comes to visit and brings a friend, a young aristocratic gentleman.  Levin is willing to overlook the guy's running his horse and carriage into the mud while on a hunting trip, and he forgives him when he accidently discharges his gun while inside the carriage (fortunately no one was hurt), but when he starts flirting with Kitty...well, Levin will have NONE of that!  Both he and Kitty are uncomfortable by this, so he kicks the guy out of his house, which we are made to understand is not the really socially acceptable thing to do to a guest.  But Levin doesn't care, and the guy is thrown out.  I gotta love that Levin's got such balls, but on the other hand why is he so crazy jealous?  He knows Kitty loves him like mad, and yet he continually stumbles across doubts (as she does too once in awhile).

Meanwhile, Anna and Vronsky return to Moscow, and Anna goes to the theatre (big mistake).  There, as a married woman shacking up with a man who's not her husband, she is publicly scorned by her old "friends".  She and Vronsky decide they can't stay in Moscow, and so they move out to Vronsky's country estate.  Once there, in order to busy himself, Vronsky sets out to make all sorts of improvements, and to set up a hospital for the peasants.  It's not clear if Anna is happy.  She says she is to Dolly when she visits, but it's not entirely clear whether she means it.  And we do know that she misses her son terribly...she got to see him briefly in Moscow, when she snuck into the house, but it's clear she misses him.  And Vronsky is bummed that she's not divorced because that way any kids she has with him will legally be her husband's.

A theme of this book, which reminds me of Main Street, is the pressure of society to conform.  Anna is completely ostracized by society, with the exception of a few friends, for leaving her husband...for not fulfilling the duties that society says she must fulfill.  This societal pressure still exists in America, as anyone who's ever been to high school can attest, but it was clearly much greater back in the day of more rigid class structures.  Too bad.  Anna and Vronsky's love can be so great and powerful, and yet pursuing it has ruined them socially.  What is the price of true love, and why the hell should anyone have to pay this price anyway...I mean, isn't it supposed to be all about love?  In fact, Dolly has some of these same thoughts as she goes to visit the couple...she finds herself admiring them for having the balls to pursue their love with a "society be damned" attitude.  Which indeed does seem admirable...although Anna's son now has to grow up without a mother that he loves dearly.  Collateral damage, I guess.

Monday, March 3, 2008

Life, Death, and Vodka

No wonder the Russians drink a lot of vodka...if Tolstoy's any indication it's because they're always dealing with life and death issues, such as life and death.  For instance...Levin and Kitty get married, and are happily in love.  Well, sort of, anyway.  Much to their amazement, they find themselves occasionally having arguments and disagreements.  For instance, Levin gets lost on his way home from the fields after unsuccessfully trying to take short cut, and Kitty gets all bent out of shape wondering where he's been when he finally arrives home 30 minutes late.  So they fight and then make up.  It's cute, in a way, but so true to life.  Tolstoy builds up their love to the highest levels, so that they're both completely ecstatic before and during the wedding, and then afterwards it's "welcome to reality" time.  They still love one another dearly, but they're finding out that marriage is not all cloud-like bliss.  Not only do they fight, but Levin finds that Kitty seems to have thoughts and aspirations of her own (what's with that, anyway?) and he's not finding the time and motivation to write his book on how to improve Russian agriculture.  And then the telegram's from his crazy brother's ex-prostitute girlfriend, who tells him his brother is on his deathbed from TB.  So Levin tells Kitty he must leave immediately to go to his brother's side, and Kitty has the gall to tell him she' s coming too.  Levin is totally pissed...she can't possibly come, because, well, frankly I don't really understand his reasoning.  For one thing he doesn't want his wife to be in the same room as an ex-prostitute, and for another, well, it's unclear.  I guess dying is a MAN's job.  Anyway, naturally Kitty wins the argument and they set off.  When they arrive at his brother's hotel, and go see him Levin is totally freaked out and doesn't know what to do.  So what happens?  Yep...Kitty immediately takes over the situation, and comforts and takes care of his brother in ways that are beyond Levin's comprehension (all with the help of the ex-prostitute).  Levin is blown away, and admits as much to Kitty.  He's astounded by her.  And this is what is so admirable about the guy...he may get a little crazy sometimes, but he always seems to realize it and admit he's wrong afterwards.  Anyway, the brother gets sicker and sicker.  And meanwhile, Kitty starts to get sick.  Then the brother dies in a long, lingering, painful death scene.  Then, just three paragraphs later, the doctor takes another look at Kitty and finds out what's wrong with her...she's pregnant.  This is why Tolstoy is so life ends, horribly, and immediately another one begins.  We're taken from despair and death back to love and life all on the same page.  Life goes on.  Hooray life!

Meanwhile, all hell has broken loose with Anna.  She sends a message to her estranged husband, telling him she's dying.  He thinks at first it's a joke, but then realizes it can't be.  So he rushes to her side, finds she's just given birth to Vronsky's daughter, and is now dying with fever.  He is overcome, and at that moment completely forgives her.  I mean, he really does...he's quite sincere.  And Anna seems to love him back for forgiving her.  Unexpectedly she does not die, and is soon better.  Vronsky is not, though, as he shot himself in the chest in despair over Anna.  Lucky for him it wasn't fatal, and he's quickly back to health.  Anyway, Anna, now all better, realizes that, oops, she didn't learn to love her husband again after all, and once again the sight of him sickens her.  But her husband really has forgiven her, and tells her she can be with Vronsky if she likes, as long as she keeps up appearances for the sake of propriety.  He'll do whatever she wants...get divorced, or not, or whatever.  I said before he was a dick, but now he's changed...he's shown a good side.  A Christian side...turn the other cheek, etc.  So Anna says she wants a divorce, but then just takes off with Vronsky, who resigns his military position,  and they go to Italy.  They rent a villa, and live in a lover's bliss, in exhile in Italy where no one cares about who they are or who's married to whom...ahhhh.  Or maybe not so blissful.  Now that Vronsky has all he's desired, he starts to miss desiring something.  So after he makes a half-hearted stab at taking up painting, they decide to return to Russia.  Somehow I have a feeling that's not going to work out so well.

Saturday, March 1, 2008

The Abyss vs. Bliss

I read through the half-way point in Anna Karenina today.  Still enjoying it immensely.  Tolstoy is a master at juggling the separate story lines.  Anna's husband Alexei has finally decided to divorce her, after she arranged for her lover Vronsky to come by her house, even though that's the one thing her husband told her she could not do if she wanted him to ignore their affair.  But she did it, Vronsky came to the house, and, oops, her husband had left for work later than planned and caught Vronsky coming in.  So he said that's enough, time to divorce.  Can't say I blame him, although the character of the husband is what they used to call in old Russia a "dick".  Anyway, a few scenes later, Alexei runs into Anna's brother Stiva, who invites him to a party at their house.  Alexei explains he can't, as he's going to divorce Anna, but her Stiva insists they can still be friends, and that he should come  on over.  One can't help but like Stiva...he's very outgoing, and  makes everyone smile...he's a "people person" (although perhaps too much so since he's constantly unfaithful to his wife).  So Alexei goes to the party and has a better time than expected, but his divorce looms over him, and he can't be talked out of it by Stiva's wife, who tries her best.  He leaves, and things look quite gloomy.

But meanwhile, at the same party, Stiva has also invited his friend Levin.  Levin is perhaps the most sympathetic character in the book.  Levin has been trying to get over the rejection of his marriage proposal to Kitty, Stiva's wife's sister.  He has busied himself with working his farm in the country.  He loves the outdoors, and sometimes joins the peasants in their work in his fields, much to their confusion and mistrust (they think it's not proper for the landowner to be doing such a thing).  Levin is so taken with the peasants, and so wants to improve the productivity of the agriculture on his farm, for the sake of himself, the peasants, and Mother Russia, that he comes up with a plan to share the profits with his peasants, thinking this will make them work more productively, knowing they have a stake in the outcome other than straight wages.  The peasants think he's trying to cheat them at first, but eventually come to accept this idea.  Anyway, Levin is a good man, and the reader can't help but like him, and so he goes to Stiva's party and who's there but Kitty!  Stiva, you sly's a man knows how to plan a party!  Anyway, Levin and Kitty are shocked and embarrassed at first in seeing one another, but they soon talk, they come to realize they have been yearning for one another, and by the end of the evening they can practically read one another's minds (in a scene that's frankly a bit weird...they each write out long strings of letters in chalk, and the other one can tell what those letters stand for).  So Levin proposes again, and Kitty accepts.  The few pages after that scene are so awesome...Levin is walking on air, and it's the perfect picture of someone blissfully in love, made all the more poignant because it's someone the reader really cares about.  I hate to bring up "Sleepless in Seattle" again, but it's like that...that kind of romantic comedy where characters who are made for one another are brought together, then kept apart through trials, tribulations, and misunderstandings, and then when they are inevitably brought together and love is declared it makes one feel so frickin' good.  Especially in this book, where no one else is happy.  I just hope all continues to go well for them.  Time (and pages) will tell.  But returning to my original point, the contrast between Levin's blissful courtship with Kitty, and Alexei's looming divorce, all present in the party scene, is quite moving and effective.  Go Tolstoy!