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.

 

Magazine Review: Water~Stone Review Volume 18: All We Cannot Alter

Magazine Review: Water~Stone Review Volume 18: All We Cannot Alter edited by Mary François Rockcastle.

This is the latest volume of Hamline University’s annual literary magazine, which I picked up at the Rain Taxi Book Festival.  The subtitle comes from one of the poems in this issue, “Is This What Poets Do?” by Elizabeth Oness.  Thus the theme is effectively what cannot be changed, and what people do about that.

Water~Stone Review #18

The poetry is all that modern stuff I don’t understand and thus cannot evaluate the quality of.  One might well ask why I keep reading literary magazines, as they inevitably go heavy on the modern poetry.  I don’t have a good answer for that.   “Suckling” by Jenna Le does have some interesting pink milk imagery, and “SS Eastland Capsizes in the Chicago River, 1914″ by Renny Golden tells a fairly coherent story.  “Frank’s Nursery and Crafts” by Bao Phi is a tale of bad customer service possibly exacerbated by racial prejudice, and would have worked about as well in prose as far as I can tell.

The interview by Katrina Vandenberg and Taylor (Doc) Burkhard is also about poetry, as the subject is Detroit wordsmith and slam artist Jamaal May.  He talks about how he structured his first book.

From the fiction section, worth noting is “Duotone Portrait of a Dragonfly” by R.T. Jamison.  It’s the story of a brief affair between a Japanese art student and an American otaku (fan of Japanese pop culture), interspersed with marks used in traditional print-making.  “As You Are Now” by Jeff P. Jones is a story set during a zombie apocalypse from the point of view of a zombie that has lost the ability to interpret its senses.  It’s only able to feel alive again when it is eating the living, but that soon passes.

The best of the “creative non-fiction” category is Paul van Dyke’s “Goomey and Aflow”.  An Iraq War veteran and a Somali refugee bond over their experiences as soldiers and names that are unpleasant enough no one will bother to insult you further.  They may be beaten down, but not permanently.  “The Café Book” by Charisse Coleman imitates the Pillow Book of Sei Shonagon with lists and random thoughts.

The photography section is random and nothing particularly stands out.  There’s also a longish essay on “Mood Rooms” which is apparently cut down from an even longer piece.  It’s so-so.

There are two book review columns, one of which is all modern poetry books and largely impenetrable to me.  The other one is supposedly about books of essays, but half of the books discussed are actually more modern poetry, which I think is a cheat.

This volume is a good way to get a broad view of what the Midwestern literary community is up to, and if you are into modern poetry, I think you will enjoy it much more than I did.  I should also note that the 2016 volume is accepting submissions through December; aspiring writers might want to give it a shot.

 

TV Review: Lock-Up

TV Review: Lock-Up

Lock-Up was a 1959-1961 crime drama loosely based on the files of real-life attorney Herbert L. Maris.  Mr. Maris was played by Macdonald Carey, and John Doucette played police lieutenant Jim Weston, depicted as Maris’ best friend.

Lock-Up

Herbert Maris was actually a specialist in corporate law who sometimes championed people who’d been unjustly accused of crime on a pro bono basis.  As such, there are no courtroom scenes; Mr. Maris attempts to prove the accused person innocent before a trial begins.

The Mill Creek DVD had eight episodes, four of which are of special interest.  “The Case of Joe Slade” has the protagonists go on a fishing trip, only to discover that their guide is locked up for killing his wife.  Lon Chaney, Jr. guest stars as a sheriff who’s just a little too eager to have the case closed.

“The Beau and Arrow Case” has a psychiatrist murdered with an arrow.  The twist is that Mr. Maris himself  is accused of the crime!  The main suspect, however, is an archery range owner and the doctor’s patient.    This episode was written by Robert Bloch, and is quite tense.  It does rely, however, on the coroner not looking too closely.

“Society Doctor” is another man accused of killing his wealthy wife.  There are several people with motives, and the waters are muddied by one person’s persistent lies.  Jackie Coogan is comic relief as the doctor’s drunken brother in law–but was he really passed out during the time of the crime?

“The Case of Nan Havens” has a young woman caught with microfilm of experimental military hardware in her car.  Mr. Maris must prove that she was the innocent dupe of real spies with the aid of a wisecracking drive-in waitress.  Mary Tyler Moore guest-stars.

It’s very much a period piece–Red spies in two episodes, smoking, and several of the stories have plot points about women having to rely on husbands for money.   There’s even a juvenile delinquency story.  Mr. Maris and Lieutenant Weston often flirt with women in ways that might be considered unprofessional today.

Keeping that in mind, the fun guest stars and the interesting writing make this something worth a watch.

Book Review: Jet Set

Book Review: Jet Set: The People, the Planes, the Glamour, and the Sex in Aviation’s Glory Years by William Stadiem

Disclaimer:  I received this book as a Goodreads giveaway on the premise that I would review it.  My copy was an Advance Uncorrected Proof, and there will be considerable changes made to the final product, due to be in stores June 2014.

Jet Set

This is a chatty history of the period from 1958, the introduction of the 707 passenger jet, through approximately 1970, the heyday of fast, easy and almost affordable travel between the United States and Europe.  The book opens with an account of the Cháteau de Sully crash in 1962, the worst blow to Atlanta, Georgia’s society since General Sherman, as a 707 crashed in Paris with most of the Atlanta Art Association aboard.

But most of the book is less about the ordinary travelers of the period, or even the pilots and crew of the jets.  Instead, we get short biographies of the movers and shakers of the jet aircraft industry and airlines, the glitterati who made up the “Set” even before jets were added, and the various hoteliers, restaurateurs, movie folks and gossip columnists that gave the era much of its glamour.

It’s very much a “six degrees” book, with Celebrity A having been married to Model B, who then married Executive C, who attended parties for Movie Star D…There’s a lot of name-dropping.  Often, the narrative will flit through three or four different tangents before coming back to the story the chapter is telling.

There was an awful lot of sex going on in the Jet Set, it seems, with many of the people discussed having three or four spouses, and twice as many affairs.   Also a lot of sexism.  While there are stories of a few notable women who managed to beat the odds, becoming successful and influential in the society world, the Jet Set was not a hotbed of the Women’s Lib movement, which was going on elsewhere.

By the end of the time period discussed, a number of factors killed off the Jet Set era; skyjacking, inflation, the aging out, imprisonment or death of many playboys, and the youth movement making “cool” more important than “smooth.”  The final chapter describes the fate of many of the main people discussed.

There’s a scattering of black and white photos, and in the finished product there will be a bibliography and index.

The book’s style tends towards the gossipy, with more sober chunks interspersed.   I’d recommend it more for the casual reader who is nostalgic for the era, or would like to know what it was all about,  than the serious scholar.

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