Book Review: Twice Told Tales

Book Review: Twice Told Tales by Nathaniel Hawthorne

Nathaniel Hawthorne (1804-1864) is one of the great American writers; his The Scarlet Letter is studied in many schools across this land.  But it took him quite a while to reach that status.  After crushingly disappointing sales for his first novel, Fanshawe, Hawthorne spent a dozen years in poverty, scraping by selling short pieces.  In 1837, his friend Horatio Bridge put up the money to have a collection of those short pieces (titled “Twice Told Tales” because they’d all been printed before) printed in a book, first anonymously, then with his name attached once good reviews came in.  A second edition with more stories (39 in all) was published in December 1841, and is the one usually reprinted.

Twice Told Tales

As the introduction by Professor Gemme explains, Edgar Allan Poe’s review of the later edition became famous in its own right–Poe objected to several of the pieces not actually being “tales” (what we’d call “short stories”) but essays  or sketches.  And in the process of explaining that, he set down his own theory of what a proper short story was.  This was influential in American literary circles.  Poe did praise those “tales” that met his criteria, hailing Hawthorne as one of the few worthwhile authors America had produced to that date.  After that, another review seems superfluous but I will proceed.

The book opens with “The Gray Champion”, a tale of a mysterious old man who appears in 1689 to halt the massacre of malcontents in Massachusetts by the tyrannical Governor Andros.   An unnamed ancient in Puritan garb, the old man is said to return whenever New England faces an existential crisis.   This is only the first of many ghost-like figures in these tales, a haunted New England that influenced many American writers including H.P. Lovecraft.  The first piece in the 1841 addition, “Legends of the Province House” is a collection of ghost stories involving the former colonial governor’s residence in Boston.  There’s a character named Bela Tiffany, which Hawthorne admits is highly unlikely.

There are some classics in this collection, including “The Minister’s Black Veil” about a small-town minister who abruptly and for no reason he will explain conceals his face behind a cloth mask he never removes, and how that affects people’s perceptions of him.  “The Great Carbuncle” concerns the search for a giant gemstone; the motives of the people looking for the jewel affect their fates, and how they react to the carbuncle’s true nature.

“David Swan” is a lesser-known piece about a young man who falls asleep by the road and is visited by Wealth, True Love and Death, awakening unaware of his brushes with fate.  “Dr. Heidegger’s Experiment”, the last story in the 1837 section, involves the title character inviting some senior citizens to imbibe water from the Fountain of Youth.  The story looks at the follies of both youth and age.

“Peter Goldthwaite’s Treasure” is about a man that has failed at every attempt at getting ahead in life staking everything on finding a fabled treasure of his similarly-named ancestor, even to the point of destroying the family house that is his last possession.  The story makes a point of contrasting Peter, whose get rich quick schemes all rely on luck he doesn’t have, with his ex-partner John Brown who never goes for a risky prospect,  but has excellent luck.

The last story in the book is “The Threefold Destiny”, which is deliberately evocative of fairy tales.  A young man becomes convinced that three astounding events will occur to him, with special prophetic signs.  He goes out in search of these, but his worldwide quest has none of these results.  The man returns to his home village to rest before starting anew, and of course discovers his true destiny.

Mr. Hawthorne was big on allegory and symbolism, and sometimes this gets heavy-handed.  Sometimes he also goes out of the way to make sure you get the point he’s trying to make, as in “The Ambitious Guest” where the moral is “you don’t know when you’re going to die, and trying to avoid fate can doom you worse than accepting it, so all human ambition is folly.”

The essays, while certainly not as compelling as the tales, are mostly good, and of interest for what they tell us about life in Hawthorne’s time.  “A Rill from the Town Pump” for example examines life without central plumbing from the perspective of the main water source of the village.  “The Sister Years” on the other hand is clearly a piece written for a local newspaper for New Year’s of a particular year, and has a number of in-jokes that are lost to all but scholars of that time period.  (On the gripping hand, it’s not often that we see the new and old years depicted as women.)

Nathaniel Hawthorne, while very much a Christian, was not a big fan of religious fanaticism; while his Puritan ancestors took the brunt of this in his stories, he also was critical of Shakers and even Quakers on that point.  The most humorous take of this is in “Endicott and the Red Cross” where the Puritan title character’s patriotic rant on the importance of “religious freedom” is interrupted by a “wanton gospeler” who reminds Endicott that he was not so keen on that freedom when he condemned the gospeler for heresy a few hours ago.

A more tragic treatment is in “The Gentle Boy” with prejudice against Quakers leading to murder and ostracism.  There’s even a preacher saying that Christian mercy does not apply to the despised sect, even to their children who are no doubt permanently corrupted.  (Remind you of anything?)

There’s some period sexism and racism in these stories and essays.  The latter really comes up in “Mr. Higginbotham’s Catastrophe”, about a gossipy traveling salesman who hears a report that Mr. Higginbotham has been murdered, with use of the N-word in conversation.  (And an equivalence of black people and the Irish as the lowest of the low.)

Overall, there’s more good material here than mediocre, and more excellence than clangers.  Some of the most famous stories have been reprinted in other anthologies, or if you want to read the entire thing, there are many inexpensive reprint editions, and it is also available from Project Gutenberg.

Here’s the trailer for the 1963 Twice Told Tales movie, which is not at all faithfully adapted, but does star Vincent Price in a triple role.

 

Manga Review: Case Closed (Detective Conan)

Manga Review: Case Closed (Detective Conan) by Gosho Aoyama

Shin’ichi Kudou (Jimmy Kudo) is a teen genius detective, well known for solving cases that baffle the police.  One day while visiting an amusement park with his female friend Ran Mouri (Rachel Moore), he witnesses a murder by two men in black.   They catch him, and one of the men decides to try a new poison their organization has developed.

Detective Conan #51

Shin’ichi vanishes, initially presumed dead by the assassins.  But in fact the poison has caused him to physically regress to about six years old.  He contacts Dr. Agasa, an eccentric scientist of his acquaintance, who isn’t a biochemist and has no idea how to reverse the effect.   Ran appears, looking for Shin’ichi, and the boy comes up with a name based on the spines of detective story books he was looking at, Conan Edogawa. (From Arthur Conan Doyle and Rampo Edogawa, the latter being best known in Japan and having taken his pen name from Edgar Allen Poe.)

Ran is told that Conan’s parents are out of the country, and Dr. Agasa asks her to look after him until they’re back.  Ran’s father, inept private eye Kougoro Mouri (Richard Moore) is not happy about this, but is soon distracted by a murder case.  Conan figures out whodunnit, but has to use Kougoro as a mouthpiece to avoid blowing his cover, so the older detective gets the credit.

After that, Conan continues to solve cases, mostly murders, while looking for clues to track down the Black Organization.  This requires a lot of subterfuge, as he supposedly cannot tell Ran or Kougoro the truth, lest they also be targeted by the Organization (this has become increasingly hypocritical over the years as they come into dangerous unknowing contact with the Black agents repeatedly) and thus cannot let the police or other responsible adults in on it either.

This is a very long running series, up to 51 volumes in North America, which is several years behind the Japanese releases.  That creates some weirdness as it’s all supposed to be taking place in one year after Shin’ichi is shrunk.  (An early case had a cell phone that could fit in a lunchbox as a cool new gadget; a more recent case has the absence of cell phones in a writer’s story as evidence he had been housebound for years.)

Due to marketing concerns, the title of the series and some of the names were altered for the North American market to get the anime version on television.  This didn’t work out as well as hoped; while the main character looks like a child and thus the U.S, networks expected a kid-friendly show, the manga is actually shounen (aimed at junior high boys and up) and features gruesome murders and some other violence.  There’s also some mild fanservice.

Over the course of the series, it’s accumulated loads of characters; Conan’s first grade classmates, Shin’ichi and Ran’s friends, rival detectives, many police officers, recurring criminals, members of the Black Organization and of course a whole new cast of murder suspects in most stories.  Most of them are pretty self-evident, or re-introduced when they show up, but I should mention Ai Haibara (Anita), the scientist who developed the experimental poison for the Black Organization.  She later took it herself to escape them, and poses as Dr. Agasa’s ward.

The cases are usually enjoyable, if sometimes a bit repetitive when a few volumes are read in a row.  And it is always a delight when there is actual movement on the Black Organization plotline.  (This won’t actually be resolved until the manga ends, of course.)  Once familiar with the basic premise, a reader should be able to pick up any volume and have a good read.

The volume to hand, #51 is typical.  First, the flashback Snow Maiden case is wrapped up.  Then a waitress at Cafe Poirot slowly realizes that texts she’s getting from a little boy mean he’s trapped alone in a car…somewhere (this one has a happy ending.)  The Detective Kids (Conan’s classmates who enjoy mysteries) help our hero solve the murder of a clamdigger.

After that, Kougoro finds himself catsitting a Russian Blue (based on the author’s real life new cat, see the cover illustration) while tackling a difficult cipher.  The volume wraps up with Ran’s rich but airheaded friend Sonoko (Serena) inviting her, Conan and a new classmate named Eisuke to her country home.  On the way there, they stumble on a locked room mystery…complicated by Conan’s suspicions of Eisuke.  Is the new fellow really as clumsy and unlucky as he appears?  There’s circumstantial evidence that he’s sharper than he looks.

This volume ought to go over especially well with cat lovers.

Movie Review: JLA Adventures: Trapped in Time

Movie Review: JLA Adventures: Trapped in Time

The Legion of Doom’s latest plan has been thwarted by the Justice League of America, and Lex Luthor is trapped in ice for a thousand years.  He’s accidentally unleashed by two teenage heroes of the 31st Century, Karate Kid and Dawnstar.  Luthor promptly steals an hourglass that controls the power of the Time Trapper, and comes up with a new plan–get rid of Superman on the day he came to Earth, and the Justice League will never come to be!

JLA Adventures: Trapped in Time

This movie was commissioned by Target to tie into their new line of JLA toys, so it’s more kid-friendly  than some of the other recent DC Comics animated fare that’s aimed at teens and up.  It’s not in any previous continuity, blending aspects of the New 52 (the costumes, the lineup of the Justice League minus Green Lantern) and the Super Friends (Robin is on the team, the Legion of Doom’s rather silly plans, the two teen trainee heroes.)

Most of the League has rather flat characterization–Robin at least gets to be sarcastic.   Dawnstar and Karate Kid are the actual stars of the show.  They’ve swapped personalities somewhat from their classic portrayals–KK is brash and impulsive (and wears a costume reminiscent both of Super Friends character Samurai, and of the Avatar: The Last Airbender series. ) Dawnstar is introverted and a bit timid (and has vaguely-defined light powers in addition to her normal tracking and flight.)

The Legion of Doom gets to have a bit more fun in their parts, particularly Bizarro and Solomon Grundy.  The guest villain, Time Trapper, is appropriately spooky, foreshadowing that it’s much more dangerous than Lex Luthor realizes.

As mentioned above, this short film is pretty family-friendly.  There’s fantasy violence, but no one is permanently hurt, no foul language, and no sexual innuendo.  Karate Kid and Dawnstar make mistakes, and learn a valuable life lesson.

Two short Super Friends episodes are also included on the DVD, both with time-related stories.  They make the main feature look good by comparison.

I’d recommend this for Super Friends fans, and families with kids who enjoy superhero cartoons.

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