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Tue, 9 Mar 2004

Penrod

— SjG @ 4:34 pm

Booth Tarkington, 1914. Read as an e-Book from the Gutenberg Project by way of BlackMask.com

This collection of stories of the eponymous eleven year old and his misadventures feels in places like a much more precious version of Tom Sawyer. Like Twain, Tarkington seems to have a convincing memory for what it’s like to be a boy. The preciousness, however, is cloying in places; the flights of exaggerated description are a little too much. Coupled with the overt use of racism for a laugh, there is a lot in these stories that is offputting to today’s reader.
Yet … Tarkington gets some things just right. The pecking-order battles of the children, the coping with boredom, the dealing with adult expectations, and the ability to cause great disruption by not understanding social formalities all read quite true. And Penrod’s birthday meeting with his Great Aunt Sarah Crim near the end is an enormously satisfying payoff. Her cynical wisdom makes it possible to overlook many of the other negatives.

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Beasley’s Christmas Party

— SjG @ 4:34 pm

Booth Tarkington, 1909. Read as an e-Book from the Gutenberg Project by way of BlackMask.com

This is a sweet, mostly predictable story. The plot itself is not particularly notable, but, for some strange reason, what makes the whole thing worthwhile are the obvious mistakes in perception on the part of our very unreliable narrator.

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Thu, 19 Feb 2004

Dr. Faustus

— SjG @ 4:33 pm

Christopher Marlowe, 1588, read as an e-Text from BlackMask.com

I suppose the only things that surprised me about this telling of the Faust tale was its brevity, and, despite the brevity of the story itself, how damn much of it was dedicated to Faustus’ wafflings. “Shall I repent? No! I shall not repent! Or perhaps I shall… no!” on and on and on. Look; if you’re going to sell your soul to the Devil and/or one of his agents, make sure you think it through. Either limitless and subtle power in exchange for your soul is a good deal, or it’s not. Figure it out. Do the analysis. But either way, make your decision and quit moping around about it.

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Mon, 9 Feb 2004

Winter’s Tale

— SjG @ 4:32 pm

Mark Helprin, 1983, Harvest Books; Reissue edition.

This was not the first time I’ve read this book, and, like each time I read it, I found new things in it this time around too. Let’s start with the obvious. Helprin is what we call in my circle a right winger. What should be enlightening to my fellow …er … travellers is that Helprin’s politics are visible in the book, as is his very warm consideration for humanity, in all its flawed glory. If I were to dare to use the term, I’d have to say that this book shines with “compassionate conservativism.” If they can get around the somewhat fascist feel of the apocalyptic mayoral campaign that takes up the last quarter of the book, even dyed-in-the-wool leftists should find much to enjoy here.
Politics aside, there are a number of things that make this book such a great read. Helprin has a real tenderness towards his characters, even the evil ones. He has a deep love for New York, not only as a real city, but as a self- assembling mythology, and he enthusiastically participates in building that mythology even higher. He has a beautiful grasp of the language, which he plays with mischievously (if self-indulgently), and his blurring of magical realism into reality is nothing short of wonderful. Events and characters which would be merely cartoony in lesser hands are instead amusing, fascinating, and oddly appropriate. As an tech guy, I also enjoy his tangents off into the mad magic of early industrial machinery.
Winter’s Tale taps into something epic, mythical, and mysterious. I’d argue that the first half is better than the second, but why split hairs (or books)?

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The Magnificent Ambersons

— SjG @ 4:31 pm

Booth Tarkington, 1918. Read as an e-Book from the Gutenberg Project by way of BlackMask.com

The Magnificent Ambersons is, indeed, magnificent. It has all of the elements of a great tragedy, tracing the transformation of a small midwestern town into a vast city, and the transition of one of the Important Families of that small town into just so many more working stiffs in the industrial age. It’s simultaneously wistful for the passing of a slower, quieter way of life, and a gentle poking of fun at the mores of that time.
There are many tragedies in this tale; the unfulfilled love of Eugene Morgan and Isabel Amberson, the tragedy of the arrogance and fall of George Amberson Minafer, the tragedy of Fanny Amberson’s unrequited love, and, finally, the tragedy of the passing of a way of life. Tarkington depicts these with a beautiful simplicity, warning us in advance of the inevitability of each outcome, and yet making each one poignant. No Oedipus was more trapped by destiny than George Minafer, more driven by his own hubris.
Tarkington lovingly shows people and their senses of identity. He carefully displays to us where people fit in Society, and what expectations are upon them. He makes it clear to us why the characters regard themselves as they do, and how their senses of identity give them strength — or betray them. He gives a remarkable view of what Society was like in Midwestern cities in turn-of-that-century America. We can admire the characters who are able to break from the expectations that ensnare them, and we can understand those who wholeheartedly dedicate themselves to fulfilling them. Given this understanding, we find ourselves sympathizing (despite ourselves) with even George’s most egregious behavior.

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