Friday, November 27, 2009

Whither the Blogger?

It’s been over seven months since I posted to this blog. Seven frickin’ months. In cyber years, that’s about a century. I’m sure that anyone who ever read or followed this blog has long thought “Fuck, that guy was totally old, like over 40, so he probably keeled over after his liver melted from one too many rye Manhattans. Too bad he never got to read the rest of those books.” Well, the rumors of my death have been greatly exaggerated, although the cause of my absence was perhaps almost as bad…marital separation and impending divorce. Nothing kills the desire to blog the canon like trying to find an apartment, and moving all your stuff while trying not to break or scratch it, and buying furniture and silverware, and cursing the Gods while standing in the rain, or in my case, the foggy mist, because the rainy season has yet to hit San Francisco. No, book blogging has had to take a back burner to what is profoundly known as “real life”. Divorce before The Decameron. Breaking up before Boccaccio. My reading had pretty much stopped for months on end, except for the web and scientific journals. And with that my blogging material dried up.

But now as the dust is settling, and the rainy season has begun in San Francisco, my literary life has started showing signs of life once again. A few weeks ago I picked up “The Decameron” and started reading again. And surprisingly, I’m finding it more interesting than I did seven months ago when I dropped off the face of this planet known as the blogosphere. That’s not to say it’s fast going. I’ve been trying to read one story a day, a rate at which I won’t finish the thing for three months. But that's faster progress than I was making just staring at the TV with the remote in one hand and a bottle of gin in the other.

I’m not sure why I can better appreciate these stories now. When I stopped blogging my life was in full flux…I was subletting an apartment, and trying to figure out where to go with my life and my possessions, so that was pretty distracting. That could be part of the reason. “Winesburg, Ohio” was perfect for that moment in time, but "The Decameron" wasn't, so I just stopped reading. But now I've started again, and “The Decameron” has come into focus. I can appreciate the stories more as allegory, as simple storytelling…much like as a kid when I appreciated “The Arabian Nights”. And it also doesn't hurt that I’ve reached a section where the tales have gotten randier. The Decameron is laid out as 100 stories: ten stories told on each of ten days, with each day having a particular theme. Day three, where I am now, is all about stories where people by dint of their own efforts have achieved an object they greatly desired, or recovered a thing previously lost. And what did people at the beginning of the Renaissance greatly desire? Sex with hot people, regardless of whether the hotties are married, or nuns in a convent, or whatever. I guess after the bubonic plague, people had the attitude that “life is short, so let’s get in on”. Marvin Gaye would have made it big even back then. Woohoo, party in the Renaissance!

There was one story that seemed particularly relevant to me, at least to my mood at the moment. This story was from the second day, where the stories are all tales of people who suffer a series of misfortunes, but end up in a state of unexpected happiness. The story involves the daughter of the Sultan of Babylon, who was believed to be the most beautiful woman on Earth. She was to be married to the King of Algarve (southern Portugal…I looked it up). So the sultan shipped her off to Algarve with a ship laden with noblemen and treasures. But a series of storms caused the crew to abandon ship and the lady was left aboard the floundering craft. The lady is rescued by a Christian nobleman, and through a series of adventures and misfortunes, she falls into the hands of eight men in four years. Finally she is returned to her father, the Sultan, who is told she is still a virgin, despite her having had a lot of wild sex with the eight men. So everyone is convinced of her purity and virginity and she gets married to the King of Algarve as previously planned, living happily ever after. The story ends with the phrase “A kissed mouth doesn’t lose its freshness, for like the moon it always renews itself”. Somehow I find that comforting, in a general sense. Lives can renew themselves, despite the past. Hope springs eternal. Life goes on. Keep on keepin’ on. I’m back and blogging, baby!

Thursday, April 2, 2009

Book #31 - The Decameron (Giovanni Boccaccio)

Busy, busy, busy. Sometimes life is like that, and as a result the poor book blogger can't even find time to frickin' read, let alone babble on semi-coherently about whatever he's not reading, all the while hopped up on whiskey and black coffee, just like a member of congress. Between work and my immunology class (I had to file for an extension..what a slacker I am!) and other things, I've had precious little time to read the great books and ponder the meaning of it all. Funny, though, I've still managed time to sneak in the odd martini or two. Hmmm.

Anyway, books. Yep, started a new one, right after "Winesburg, Ohio". Winesburg was such an awesome reading experience, and perfect for the mood I was in at the moment. So on a wave of optimism fueled by the depressing isolation of Anderson's Winesburg, I decided to take my reading back to the late middle ages and tackle Giovanni Boccaccio's "Decameron". Now here's a classic that definitely fits the definition of "stood the test of time". Can't lose, right? The thing was written 650-something years ago...even before I was born! So if it's stuck around that long, it's gotta be the quintessential reading all the books I've read so far put together into one huge volume of awesomeness! Woohoo!

Well, uh, fuck, maybe not. I can't seem to get into this book. I've read about 100 pages out of 750, and it's taken me two weeks. I read it, and I think "Hmmm, I should go do something work on my immunology term paper". Well, actually, it's not that's not Henry James after all, but still, I just can't seem to get it. Allow me to explain.

"The Decameron" takes place in Florence, Italy (before it was Italy) during the bubonic plague. The plague comes to town and is killing everybody, so a group of 7 young women and 3 young men decide to escape town to a villa in the country and hang out until the plague has passed. So when they get there, they need something to do, and since it's the 1300s and TV won't be invented for another ten thousand years, they decide to tell stories to pass the time. They tell ten days worth of stories, and each of the 10 people tells one story per day, so the book is composed of 100 stories framed within the narrative. "Well", you might say, "stories are cool. What could possibly be so bad about reading a book of stories?" Well, I wouldn't say they were bad, it's just they seem, um, not all that engaging to me. And I know that's blasphemy because this is a book that has "stood the test of time". Until my time, that is.

For example: one of the shorter stories is about a guy that has a lot of money, but who is a penny-pinching miser. He's painting his house, and a guest comes over. He says to the guest "I'd like to paint something on this wall that no one's ever seen". The guest says "OK, paint generosity." Ooooh, snap! So the guy feels bad and stops being a miser. And that's it...that's the whole story. Yes, allegorical I suppose, and teaches the lesson "Don't be a penny-pinching miser or people will cut you down". But it's not all that much of a story. Where are the light sabers? The evil overlords? The dramatic car chases? Seems like the standards of what constitutes entertainment have changed a lot since the late middle ages. Sigh. Nonetheless, I continue on, hoping the book will grow on me. And hoping Boccaccio throws in a few alien invasions in upcoming stories, just to pick up the pace a bit.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Last Train to Winesburg

Back in the cafe on a cloudy afternoon. Even more laptops today than last fact, every frickin' table in the place, save two, has someone clicking away on a laptop. And my table, clearly, is no exception. And except for the music playing in the background, no one in here is talking. Everyone is locked away inside their own little cyberworld. Is this what technology has brought to us: a better way to be isolated and lonely, while maintaining the illusion of connectedness through Facebook, and MySpace, and e-mail, and, yes, blogs? Are people now more isolated and remote than ever? Possibly, for otherwise they'd come to cafes to chat and socialize, rather than stare into the shallow glow of their laptop screen. But then again, "Winesburg, Ohio" makes a good argument for the case that loneliness and isolation is endemic to the human condition, with or without technology.

This is one of the most depressing books I've read in quite awhile, maybe ever. All the characters, save for one or two, are lonely, isolated, odd, misunderstood, unhappy...or, more usually, a combination of two or more from this list. I thoroughly enjoyed the book. The writing is very realistic, thoughtful, beautiful. I've never read any Sherwood Anderson before, but I'd like to read some more. He really gets inside the characters, yet continually leaves them understated. And the sparseness of his writing style lends itself beautifully to the sense of isolation and alienation that envelopes the characters. Its sad and poignant, but in a subtle understated way, never even remotely over the top.

It's interesting to think about "Winesburg, Ohio" in relation to two other books I've read for this project so far: Sinclair Lewis's "Main Street" and Thomas Wolfe's "Look Homeward, Angel". "Main Street" also deals with the isolation of living in a small, rural town in the early 1900s, but here the loneliness is most prominent in the town's newcomer...the townspeople themselves don't have the solitude of the characters in Winesburg. And in "Winesburg, Ohio" we observe the one character that returns in most of the stories, George Willard, grow up and become a man, and eventually leave the confines of the town for the larger world, with a sense that he will not be returning. This is similar to Eugene Gant's story in "Look Homeward, Angel", although the latter book has more of a southern gothic twinge running through it.

Would the characters in Winesburg exist in today's world? Would they all be online, but as isolated as ever? Or would they all be on Prozac, in therapy, and surrounded by self-help books? And if so, would any of that help? Or is it all just wallpaper, thinly applied to cover up the barren walls of the human condition. "We live as we dream, alone" wrote the Gang of Four. Sherwood Anderson would agree.

Read this book. It's great!

Sunday, March 1, 2009

Book #30 - Winesburg, Ohio (Sherwood Anderson)

As previously noted in this blog (and perhaps I've even somewhat beaten this point into the ground), I'm now officially a middle-aged fucker. I mean, I'm in my forties, and if that's not middle-aged then what is? Some would claim that your 40s are the new 30s, but those people are dreaming, and clearly do not need to take as much Advil as I do just to keep moving comfortably. Anyway, I'm feeling a little old today because I'm doing for the first time what all the young hipsters are doing here in San Francisco, and probably all over the world...sitting in a cafe, typing this blog on my laptop. In my younger days I did quite my share of caffeination in coffehouses, but back in the day we either read books or the newspaper, or wrote in our journals, or in my case wrote song lyrics into spiral-bound notebooks. The only home electronic device used in a cafe would have been a Walkman (I can't speak for the generation before me who reportedly used 8-track tape players in cafes, although that would have been quite cumbersome, so I think that could just be an urban legend). Anyway, as I look around the cafe now, I would estimate that 50% of the people here are clicking away on their laptops. No doubt sharpening up their resumes, or surfing the web, or launching their new start-up. Everyone else on a laptop looks 20-something. And then there's me, the old fucker with his cappuccino, blogging about books. Do 20-somethings even read books these days? Or do they just download files onto their Kindle? Strange days indeed. Damn, I'm sounding more and more like a cranky old person every day. Why when I was young, I used to have to walk 20 miles in the snow, often in blizzard conditions, for a cappucino, etc. etc.

Anyway, where was I? Ah yes, books. Sometimes when you read a book you think, "This is good, but it's not the right book for me at this time". I think "Scaramouche" was like that for me. Now I'm about halfway through Sherwood Anderson's "Winesburg, Ohio", and I'm finding this is the perfect book at this time for me. Just perfect. I love this book. Maybe I'll feel differently in a few months when I'm in a different place, but I'm having a true book/life convergence here. And I'm relishing it.

First, let's get the truely important issue out of the way right at the top, so it doesn't sit here on this blog like the pink elephant in the chat room. Yes, Sherwood Anderson was killed by a martini. Really. He swallowed a martini olive containing a piece of a toothpick, which pierced his peritoneum, and killed him while he was visiting the Panama Canal Zone. So for all you amateurs out there who might get some ideas about drinking from this blog, please leave it to us more experienced folks. Actually I could use a martini right now, just as a refresher course on martini consumption safety. Damn, all they have here in this cafe is coffee and espresso. I'm so fucked.

Anyway, where was I before I started distracting msyelf with martini fantasies? Oh yeah, "Winesburg, Ohio". This is an odd book; it reads like a collection of short stories, each one a vignette of a person or family living in the small rural town of Winesburg, Ohio. Yet, characters from one story reappear in others, and one character, Geroge Willard, a young reporter for the Winseburg Eagle, occurs in most of the stories so far. He's a young, rather shallow youth, who aspires to be a writer. Many of the other characters seem to take a shine to him and confide their secrets, such as they are, in him. It's not clear why. Anyway, what is this book...a collection of stories? A novel? I dunno, and who cares. The stories themselves are great. Almost all of the characters we meet in Winesburg are peculiar in their own way, and all of them seem to be lonely and isolated, and exist in their own small world, even though Winesburg itself is its own small world. This would be a great book to read back-to-back with "Main Street".

One of the stories, or chapters, or whatever they are, is called "Hands" and deals with the story of Wing Biddlebaum, a man who lives on the outskirts of Winesburg and has no friends, except for George Willard, who visits him on occasion. Wing's unique feature is his hands, which are always in motion, and are one of the town's prides. His hands are like a birds wings, they move so much and with such dexterity, and hence his nickname. We learn that Wing used to be a schoolteacher in Pennsylvania, and his hands would innocently caress young boys hair. When one boy falsely accuses him of molestation, the men of the town come after him and almost hang him, but end up running him out of town instead. So he takes on an assumed name (Biddlebaum) and flees to his aunt, who lives in Winesburg. And that's the story...a man falsely accused, with an odd quirk, who is now alone and isolated. Par for the course in Winesburg.

One of my other favorite stories so far, and the only one which could be described as remotely happy, is called "A Man of Ideas". The main character in this story is Joe Welling, a salesman for Standard Oil. He's a normal affable man, until he gets some crazy idea in his head, at which point he goes into a frenzy, almost seizure-like, as he rants like a volcano about his strange ideas to whoever happens to be close by. While the townsfolk like him when he's his regular self, they are wary of him because they're not sure when he'll start spouting his ideas off at them...and his ideas, while crazy, are also fascinating, so the townsfolk are usually held captive while he goes off on his rant. Anyway, he gains the respect of the townsfolk by organizing a baseball team for Winesburg, and his crazy, ranting energy so transfixes his team and distracts opposing teams that they become huge winners, which of course the town loves. But then he starts seeing Sarah King, a woman in town who lives with her father and brother, both of whom seem to be criminals and possibly murderers, and who are feared by the townsfolk for their violent behavior. One night Joe comes back to his room in the boarding house and the two men are waiting for him, to beat him up, or worse, for seeing their sister. But he is thrown into one of his frenzy of ideas, and starts spouting off to them about vegetables, and what would happen if all the current food vegetables were destroyed, and what new vegetables could possibly be developed to replace the ones that were lost. Well, like everyone else, the father and brother are transfixed in spite of themselves, and instead of hurting or killing Joe, they are swept up by his tidal wave of words and are won over, and all go off to their house together to tell Sarah about his crazy ideas about vegetables.

I just love this book...the combination of the sadness, the loneliness, the quiet despair of the characters, and the humanity of it all really speaks to me. Plus I like Anderson's writing's very straightforward, for lack of a better word. Simple, to the point, no confusing phrases, nothing buried in long sentances and odd wording. The style totally fits the subject matter. I'm looking forward to the rest of the book. But now it's time to leave this coffeehouse and embark on a search for that martini, sans toothpick...

Monday, February 23, 2009

Le Fin de Scaramouche

Sometimes life just rolls merrily along, and other times it's frickin' hard. Right now, for me, it's hard. I'm still struggling with this damn immunology class; four weeks to go, and I have so much to do. And on top of that, there's going to be layoffs at work, as there will be in a lot of workplaces this year, I suppose. So everyone at work is freaking out, and consequently not getting much work done. Hmmm, seems like there's a business lesson there somewhere. Of course, if I did get laid off there would be lots more time for blogging the canon...but then again, there would be less money for fine whiskey to wash down the canon chunks with. I'd have to switch to Old Grand Dad, which actually isn't a bad whiskey at all. But I digress...

So here I am whining and bitching about how hard life is while I sit here in my comfortable abode, typing on my awesome mac laptop, and sipping on some fine Guatemalan rum; meanwhile other people have way more troubles than I do. Like, for instance, Andre-Louis Moreau, the hero of "Scaramouche", who had to go on the lam from the law for murder and inciting riots. He flees to Paris, where he takes a job at a fencing school. Naturally, he becomes quite good at fencing, and eventually takes over the school when the headmaster is killed in the opening salvos of the French Revolution. So now we have all the ingredients here for a rollicking good story...sword fighting! Revolution! Vengeance! WOOHOO! And yes, the story basically comes down to all that. I could go on and describe all the plot details, but I'm going to refrain, for the simple reason that this book is mostly plot. If I walked you through the plot and said what happens, there'd be no reason for you ever to read this book. There aren't any big themes, or intellectual ideas, or really deep thoughts of any kind at work here. This book is really just an action novel...a damn good one, but it's just not really any deeper than that. Not that there's anything wrong with that...the swords come out, and the revolutionary mobs draw close, and there are opportunities for vengeance, and you just wanna read the next chapter to see what happens next. But it's a plot-driven vehicle, much like a Hollywood action blockbuster.

However, there was one downside to the plot, and I can't figure out if this is due to my having seen too many movies which has made me able to predict this kind of thing, or if it would have also been obvious in the 1920s when this was published. The downside is that there are two big plot twists in the novel, having to do with the identity of Andre-Louis' parents (he's a bastard child, raised by his Godfather, who he always assumed was his real father), and I could totally see both of these twists coming for a long time ahead, which naturally made them a lot less fun than they otherwise would have been. Plot twists are best when they really do twist, but these were fairly predictable. It was fun to see how they would turn out, but they weren't really surprises. No, a real surprise would have been if Andre-Louis was suddenly teleported ahead in time and forced to take an immunology class. Would he have used his wit and cunning to pass the course with flying colors, or would he have become rapidly exasperated by the pressures of time and work, forcing him to resort to pulling out his sword and threatening to run the instructor through before leaping out the nearest window and fighting his way through oncoming traffic, resulting in a grade of "incomplete"? Hmmm, now THAT would be a plot twist.

Sunday, February 1, 2009

Book #29 - Scaramouche (Rafael Sabatini)

If I were a professional blogger I'd blog like 20 books a week, finish my list in a couple of months, and be dead of liver failure from the liquid "inspiration". Fortunately, or perhaps not, I'm doing this blog as a hobby, and a long-term project, so my reading and alcohol consumption will remain in moderation...well, mostly anyway. Things in my real life happen (as opposed to my reading life) which will sometimes draw me away from my reading schedule, and indeed this has happened lately. And what, Dear God, could have possibly drawn me away from the classics of world literature? After all, I could die any day, so I need to hurry up and read these books! Answer: the immune system. No, I'm not sick or dying or anything. Instead, for my work, I'm taking a class on immunology on my off-work hours. I had thought that hey, I know biology pretty well, since I'm a biologist, so how much work could a class on the immune system be? Well, a lot, as it turns out. I won't go into the gory details, but take it from me there's a hell of a lot going on with the immune system...more, in fact, than either you or I want to know. Anyway, the damn class is killing me, and it runs through March 22, so my canon blogging may be sorely limited between now and then, as I try to remember the differences between Th1 and Th2 cells, and what cytokine activates what type of cell, etc.

Of course, if I were Andre-Louis Moreau, the hero of "Scaramouche", I'd think of some clever disguise and have someone else take the class for me. Or perhaps threaten the professor with a sword, or snow him with my awesome oratory. I'd never heard of "Scaramouche" or had any knowledge of it when I put it on the list...I think I found it on some "greatest books" list and put it on when it was described as one of the greatest romances ever. I thought "Cool, a love story from the Renaissance". Well, nope. It was, to my surprise, written in English in 1921. It's a swashbuckler novel, although I haven't gotten to the deep sword-play parts yet. I'm actually only about 1/2 way through, due to the aforementioned immune system woes. The main character, Andre-Louis Moreau, is a lawyer in the provinces of France, before the French Revolution. As described in the first two lines of the book (which I love),
He was born with a gift of laughter and a sense that the world was mad. And that was all his patrimony.
He becomes incensed when a local aristocrat, M. de La Tour d'Azyr, kills a friend of his, a friend who's in the priesthood, over a trivial dispute. And it doesn't help that the aristocrat is also engaged to his cousin, who Andre-Louis secretly loves. He vows to take down the aristocrat, and his kind, by adopting the oratory of the impending revolution, even though he doesn't really believe a word of it. Nonetheless, his stirring speeches rouse the rabble against the aristocrats. Complications ensue, and he's forced to flee. Fortunately, his skill, luck, and cunning land him in a traveling theatrical troupe. He soon becomes the main writer and plays a stock character called Scaramouche. The theatrical company begins to play larger and larger venues due to Andre-Louis's writing, and eventually make it to Nantes. It is here that the aristocrat, M. de La Tour d'Azyr, appears in the audience. He's still engaged to Andre-Louis's beloved cousin, but he also has a liason with the female actress in the troupe, who Andre-Louis was going to marry. So, to take revenge, during the play one night when M. de La Tour d'Azyr is present, Andre-Louis makes an unexpected monologue condemning aristocrats, and the crowd is whipped into a frenzy. Andre-Louis ends up shooting a man, though, and has to flee for his life.

This is a fun book, and a quick read if you're not having attention span problems due to constantly thinking about the baroque architecture of the immune system. Lots of action and excitement. But it's not a real "deep" novel. It is what it is...good reading entertainment, but I'm not sure if I would have put it on a "greatest books" list. Although, as I said, I'm only halfway through so far, so maybe this thing will turn into "War and Peace" during the second half. And of course, I'll be sure to let you know. Or I can discuss the fine points of immunoglobulin gene recombination. Nah, screw that, the former goes much better with a glass of fine whiskey.

Monday, January 12, 2009

R.I.P. Edson Chick

I just learned that one of my college professors died. Herr Professor Dr. Edson Chick was head of the German department at my college, and even though I never learned a word of German, he was one of my favorite professors. I took a class freshman year called "Literature in Translation" where six different professors, each one of whom taught a different language, came in and lectured on a book written in the language they taught. So the Spanish professor from Spain taught "Don Quixote", the Spanish professor from South America taught "One Hundred Years of Solitude", the Russian professor taught "Oblomov", the French professor taught 'Madame Bovary", one German professor taught "The Sorrows of Young Werther", and Herr Chick taught Thomas Mann's "The Magic Mountain". I loved this class...all the professors were great, and they made all the books come alive. But Herr Chick stood out even in that crowd. He looked the part of a German...tall, blonde hair in a crew cut, muscular build, and blue eyes, although I later learned he was a native of California. And he taught the hell out of "The Magic Mountain". His enthusiasm for the book was infectious, at least to me, and I ended up reading the book twice. The next year I took a course he taught called "German Theatre in Translation". I had no knowledge of German theatre, nor any special interest in the subject matter when I signed up for the class...I just figured the reading would be interesting with him teaching it. And it was. There were only four students in the class, and we basically just sat around a table reading plays, with Herr Chick often bursting out in hearty laughter at the humorous parts. The sheer joy he found in the plays was a total delight, and made the class incredibly fun. Great teachers are rare, as perhaps are students who can appreciate them, but when you have one and can open your heart and mind to the experience, it can make the rest of your life much richer. Thanks for everything, Herr Chick. I owe you one.

Thursday, January 1, 2009

Mississippi Yearning

I spent New Year's Eve in Cincinnati, getting ready for the return road trip back across the US. And as befits this old river town, I finished "Life on the Mississippi" yesterday.

I've noticed that there are several book bloggers that I follow who seem to read more than one book at once (at least they have more than one book in their "currently reading" list). I used to do that as a kid, but I no longer have the requisite mental facility to leap back and forth between books and keep it all straight. But for people that do, "Life on the Mississippi" would make a great book to read while reading others, as the book's chapters are short, and each one reads (for the most part) like an independent story or anecdote. The book kind of meanders, much like the course of the Mississippi itself, and I'm not sure that plowing straight through it, as I did, is the best way to experience it. It might work better read more slowly and taking short side trips away from the book on occasion. Which, of course, is the same thing that makes road trips fun (see previous post).

I said in my last post that the first part of the book is wistful and nostalgic in numerous places, and the second half of the book does not vary from this. In the first 1/3 of the book Twain recounts his days as a steamboat pilot in training, while the last 2/3 of the book jumps ahead a couple of decades and recounts Twain's return to the river. At this point he's a famous writer, and wants to travel down the river to see how it's changed, and to see if he can find his old pilot friends. Well, it turns out the river has changed greatly. The steamship trade seems to be dying out when Twain returns, due to increased use of tugboats and barges, rather than steamships, as well as to the rise of the railroads as an alternative means of transportation. There are still a few steamboats, though, and Twain makes his away along the river in several of them, meeting some of his acquaintances from his riverboat days. The US government has also dredged channels and installed lighting and buoys at dangerous shoals, so the more dangerous days of riverboating have past. And furthermore, the piloting profession has changed in a number of ways as well, most notably with unionization of the pilots. And of course this all makes Twain nostalgic.

In addition to the wistful air, Twain writes with a sense of history, which I think many Americans no longer have. The combination really helps make this book into a story of the conquering of the American frontier. In addition to describing the changes in life on the river, Twain also repeatedly describes how old, small towns along the river have grown into large cities, and new towns have sprung up where none had been before. Many other towns, once thriving, have died when the railroads passed them by, or when the river changed it's course and left them far from the water. The river, and the American society that grew up along it, are both constantly changing. And Twain himself has changed along with it all, growing from an adolescent river pilot into a famous writer, and indeed an American icon. It's a portrait of a young nation in constant change, growing into the modern era.

And speaking of history, one recurring theme of the book is the Civil War. The Mississippi and its tributaries run from the north to the south, from free states to slave states, and some notable battles of the Civil War were fought on the river's shores. In one chapter Twain gives an account of the battle at Vicksburg. But more interestingly, at least to me, were Twain's occasional pontifications on the Civil War. The most interesting of these was when he blames the Civil War on Sir Walter Scott. In Twain's estimation, Scott's novels inflamed the south's sense of romance and chivalry, leading to an unwinnable, disastrous war. Hmm, well, OK, that's something that wouldn't have occurred to me. Twain also discusses how at the time of his travels down the Mississippi (I'm guessing about 1880), that if the topic of the Civial War was raised in conversation in the north, the topic would fade out as people had moved on and had little interest in rehashing the war. In contrast, any conversation that one had in the south, no matter how far afield, would seem to turn to some aspect of the Civil War after a minute or two. Twain accounts this to the fact that the south, and not the north, was invaded, and the civilian population suffered greatly, which added bitterness and trauma to their loss. Indeed, I think even to this day, over 140 years later, the war's wounds in the south are not entirely healed. Some southerners still refer to the war as "The War of the Northern Aggression". I think time (and immigration) will eventually heal this wound, but it's remarkable that even today that reverberations of the effects Twain noted 120 years ago still occasionally echo in the American psyche.