Thu, 7 Aug 2008

Complete Tales of Washington Irving

— SjG @ 10:23 pm

Edited with an introduction by Charles Neider, Da Capo Press, 1998.

(This book is only 798 pages, but I’ve been reading it for over a year. And you thought I’d just given up on posting about books.)

Washington Irving is known for a number of things: being the first professional literary writer of North America, creating of the character Diedrich Knickerbocker (for whom New York is called the Knickerbocker State), originating numerous popular legends (e.g., people though the earth flat until Columbus), and, of course, authoring a few famous stories such as The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, Rip van Winkel, and The Devil and Tom Walker. According to Neider, there was an anti-Irving backlash in the 1930s, which is probably why I was only familiar with the three tales mentioned above.

Irving is an amazing storyteller. Even given nearly two hundred years’ gap, his writing is still crystal clear and humorous and evocative and beautiful. He sketches out the Kentucky frontier, ghost-plagued swamps of New England, pre-Revolutionary War Dutch settlements in New York, medieval Spain, the mountains of Italy, and more with equal skill, each believable and very visually rendered. He tells rip-roaring adventures, satires, or fairy tales in those contexts. Some are simple — predictable, even, twee or corny to the modern reader — and yet the enthusiasm and charm with which he writes them makes it easy to forgive.

What really shines through in this collection of sixty some-odd tales, however, is how much Irving loves storytelling. He likes it so much that many of them are really framing stories, wherein the narrator meets up with some other character who tells a story — which may well itself be a framing story. Sometimes, I found myself popping out of a story-stack five or six deep.

Don’t let Hollywood’s pathetic interpretations sell Irving short. These are a lot of fun to read.

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Wed, 5 Dec 2007

Lord Jim

— SjG @ 11:17 am

Joseph Conrad, edition of 1917, read as an eBook from

(I started writing this a month ago, and it’s been languishing in the “finish me!” queue ever since.)

Ah, Lord Jim, the bane of Ms. Vessey’s Junior English class. When I read the book then, it was under protest. The rules were as follows: every sentence would be extracted for symbolic analysis, and an elaborate cross-referencing would ensue. Thus, it came to the point that if Conrad mentioned anything to do with light, weather, color, temperature, etc, he was clearly telling us how to decode the secrets of the next paragraph.

The direct reading of the text was a rewarding experience which was sullied by over-analysis. Sure, Conrad conveyed mood and texture via the “symbols” were were forced to identify, but I didn’t (and don’t) believe that he coded a whole parallel story sub rosa into the text.

Upon re-reading, I was struck by a number of unrelated things that escaped me in my first reading. I was interested in the depictions of Islam in the Indonesian islands, as well as the descriptions of the lawless Straits of Malacca from a hundred years ago. Some things don’t change. Conrad used a very descriptive vocabulary, and had an aptitude for portraying the strange kinds of characters who inhabit the real world — the kind of people we meet frequently, and think “he’s kind of odd, isn’t he?”

Especially with the theme of conformity and individualism, Conrad seems to be pointing out that “normal” is like a mathematical normal, in that any given constituent is not going to be smack dab in the middle of the mainstream. So normal society is made up of people who are by and large similar in attitudes and behavior, but who each have their quirks and eccentricities.

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Thu, 1 Nov 2007

The Discovery of Witches

— SjG @ 7:07 pm

Matthew “Witch Finder” Hopkins, 1647, read as a publication of a Project Gutenberg text.

A little too scary for Halloween, this short missive is the earliest FAQ I’m aware of. But it’s chilling — it’s a series of answered questions justifying the author’s methodology for identifying witches.

The answers, and their oh-so-reasonable tone, are completely unbelievable. They didn’t use sleep deprivations on the suspects — the suspects refused to sleep, for fear that their familiars would visit. Hopkins didn’t accuse women based upon marks such as moles, “devil’s teats,” or other “unnatural” markings — it was a committee of learned people who could differentiate between the natural and unnatural. And they didn’t drown witches — the waters would reject a witch just as a witch would reject baptism.

He goes on in this vein, and each answer is more depressing and disturbing than the last.

It’s a potent reminder that people will do terrible things for power or money, and attribute their motives to religion.

Sat, 29 Sep 2007

A Fine Balance

— SjG @ 5:49 pm

Rohinton Mistry, McClelland and Stewart, 1995.

Looks like I’m keeping to the theme of literature about grief, suffering, religious violence, and terrible situations here.

A Fine Balance is the interwoven story of four major characters and a handful of secondary characters, all trying to survive in an unnamed city that is almost certainly Mumbai. These characters, a widow trying to live an independent life in the city, a college student who pines for his home and life in a Himalayan hill station, and two chamaar “untouchable” villagers who have become tailors, all end up living together for a brief time in an apartment in the city against the backdrop of military law.

Mistry is a very good writer, and he creates an engaging storyline that shows the continuous struggles of life in India, whether an internal struggle (as in the case of Maneck), a financial struggle (Dina), or a struggle with roles dictated by tradition (Dina, Ishvar, and Om). The struggles continue in the face of overwhelming bureaucratic apathy, caste warfare, exploitive companions, official corruption, grinding poverty, religious conflict, and common thugs — yet, the continuation of the struggle is fueled by the will to survive, all-too-rare acts of kindness, and the finest gossamer strands of hope.

My only criticism would be that the various plots of the book revolve around a large number of improbable coincidences involving meetings of people. In a country of a billion people, having the same few individuals repeatedly running into one another in disparate locations felt a little forced. Obviously, fiction is fiction, and Mistry is interested in making some strong points about power, corruption, cruelty, and kindness, and by giving us characters we know, the situations gain that much more power. Still, he manages with a remarkably light touch in places (the Sikh cab driver when Maneck returns, for example), where we feel an individual’s plight when we scarcely know a thing about them. This is especially true in contrast to the many appearances and reappearances of Rajaram the hair-collector or the Monkey Man.

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Wed, 19 Sep 2007

Grief Girl

— SjG @ 8:03 pm

Erin Vincent, Delacort Press, 2007.

Say you’re fourteen years old, and your parents are involved in an accident. Your mother is killed instantly, and your father is severely injured. A month later, your father succumbs to his injuries. You, your older sister, and your toddler brother, now need to strike out on your own. Along the way, you deal with unsympathetic family friends, thieving relatives, insensitive news reporters, nattering classmates, questionable school counselors, predators of many stripes, and, thankfully, a few helpful friends and neighbors.

Vincent writes her true story in the frank, direct voice of her fourteen year old self. She not only describes her navigation of the emotional rapids, but also gives honest voice to the thoughts and feelings that one is not “supposed” to have. She includes enough humor to get the reader through the experience, although she made me cry several times before she was done.

Unlike most books billed as “uplifting,” Vincent’s doesn’t end with a triumphant epiphany, or a blazing message of hope for all humanity. There is a accomplishment, a victory of sorts, but it’s a much shakier, more human: an emerging-from-the-crucible kind of victory. There really is a message of hope for humanity there, but it’s not writ large, nor accompanied by the swelling of the orchestra. The message is much quieter. People experience terrible things. And people can, and do survive them, but it’s not easy and there are no guarantees.

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