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.

 

Book Review: The Martian Chronicles

Book Review: The Martian Chronicles by Ray Bradbury

Once, Mars was a place of mystery.  Humans looked at it from the blue Earth with feeble telescopes, and imagined what life, if any, might inhabit that red dot in the sky.  Were there canals filled with water?  Bloodsucking tripod operators?  Beings that had never fallen from grace with God?   Ray Bradbury looked, and imagined stories of Martians and Earthlings, and the doom of both.

The Martian Chronicles

Several of the stories in this volume were written in the latter half of the 1940s, and then connected with interstitial material in 1950 to make a chronological narrative.  The book opens with “Rocket Summer”, when a January 1999 Ohio winter is interrupted with heat from exhaust tests on the launchpad.  It ends with “The Million-Year Picnic” as refugees from war-torn Earth arrive on Mars in October 2026, and see the new Martians.   In between is the coming and going of the human presence on Mars.

The first three expeditions to Mars all die; perhaps if the U.S. government hadn’t outlawed science fiction and fantasy (but apparently not religious texts) in the 1970s, they would have been  better prepared.  But they get posthumous revenge; in a nod to H.G. Wells, by the time the Fourth Expedition arrives, the majority of Martians have been killed off by a common Earth disease.

Wave after wave of Earthlings arrive, most of them from the United States, as it monopolizes the construction of interplanetary rockets.  In the story “Way in the Middle of the Air”, the entire black population of the Southern U.S. decamps to Mars.  (in this bleak future, race relations did not advance beyond the early 1950s; poll taxes have only recently been abolished as of 2003. and the Klan is still very active.)   One particularly virulent racist panics when he realizes he will soon not have African-American people to oppress!  There’s use of the N-word and other racist language, so this story is sometimes left out of school editions of the book.  Because of the stitched-together nature of the collection, this large population of emigrants is never mentioned again, and their fate is finally revealed in a completely different short story collection.

Eventually, once the early settlers have made the place relatively safe, the moral guardians who eradicated speculative fiction  on their homeworld arrive to make Mars just as joyless.  “Usher II” has a multimillionaire who is still hopping mad about their destruction of his library take revenge in inventive ways mostly inspired by Edgar Allan Poe.  Mr. Bradbury was tangentially involved with the comic book industry, which was undergoing the attacks (“think of the children!”) which would lead to the Comics Code.  He would return to the theme of book burning in Fahrenheit 451.  As a kid I could easily imagine boring grownups banning all the good stuff.

Eventually, atomic war breaks out on Earth, and most of the population of Mars returns to that planet in a probably vain attempt to help out their relatives or home nation.   “The Silent Towns” concerns one of the very few people left, a miner who’d been up in the hills without communication for a few weeks when everyone else took the rockets home.  He’s initially thrilled when he learns there’s a young woman also still on Mars, but isn’t pleased when he actually meets her.

Some of Bradbury’s stories from this time period showed a nasty streak of misogyny, and this is one of them.  Genevieve stayed on Mars because she’d been constantly bullied about her weight, but rather than treat her sympathetically, the narrative flow treats her as a gross monstrosity for daring to be fat, and indulging herself in ways roughly equivalent to those Walter had done earlier in the story.  Walter escaping and hiding from her for the next twenty years is treated as a happy ending.

“There Will Come Soft Rains” is also included in this collection, one of the most perfect short stories ever written.  After the atomic war on Earth, we look at the last day of a “smart house” that hasn’t quite figured out that all the humans in its city are dead.

One of the interesting things about the stories is that in the early ones, while the Martians are still flourishing, we see their petty sides and moral failings; but after they have mostly died off, those fall by the wayside and their great accomplishments and gentleness are emphasized.

Ray Bradbury really does have a gift for poetic turns of phrase, and his nostalgia for Midwestern small towns shines through.  Sometimes the poetry can get in the way of comprehensibility, or become self-indulgent, dragging on for a paragraph or two too long.  And of course, he made no attempt to be scientifically accurate even to what was known about Mars back in the day–he readily admitted that the stories were really fantasy.

Several of the stories were adapted for EC Comics, and there have been some television show versions as well.

The book is certainly well worth reading at least once, even if it will not be to everyone’s taste.

Book Review: Mrs. Roosevelt’s Confidante

Book Review: Mrs. Roosevelt’s Confidante by Susan Elia MacNeal

It is late December, 1941.  The Japanese have attacked Pearl Harbor, and America is now at war with the Axis powers.  The United States’ alliance with Great Britain is now an active one, and to cement that alliance,  Prime Minister Winston Churchill has crossed the ocean to confer with  President Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

Mrs. Roosevelt's Confidante

Accompanying Mr. Churchill is secret agent Maggie Hope, posing as a humble typist.  When Eleanor Roosevelt expresses worry about one of her employees who hasn’t shown up for work, Maggie volunteers to go with her to check on Blanche Balfour’s health.  As it happens, that young woman’s health is impaired by the fact that she’s dead, an apparent suicide.  There appears to have been a suicide note implicating Mrs. Roosevelt, but the note itself is missing.  Maggie smells foul play.

This is the fifth Maggie Hope mystery novel; I have not read the previous ones.  This volume is not much of a mystery from the reader’s point of view; we are privy to scenes Maggie is not, so it is really more of a thriller.  Also mixed into the plot are the upcoming execution of a young black man (whose trial stinks on ice) and the British intelligence service trying to find out about Germany’s rocket program.

Ms. MacNeal has done extensive research, and cites her sources in a “Historical Notes” section at the end.  This results in a lot of name-dropping and factoids scattered throughout the book.  I did spot one anachronistic reference; World War Two buffs will know it when they see it.

One of the themes of the book is that leaders are human; they have good qualities, but can also have unpleasant sides, wrong opinions, and do less than good things in pursuit of what they consider more important goals.  Both Maggie and her current lover, benched RAF pilot John, must make difficult decisions about their priorities and what will be the best course of action to win the war.

Thankfully, there’s at least one actual villain in the book to provide some moral clarity–they’re a bad person in every important way, and we can cheer Maggie on as she opposes them.  There’s also some Hope family drama back in England, presumably to set up the next volume in the series.

Maggie Hope herself is (as so often in historical mysteries) a woman way ahead of her time in attitudes and behavior.   It’s sufficiently supported by her special circumstances.

There’s period racism and to a lesser extent sexism and homophobia, as well as that apparent suicide.

Recommended for fans of historical mysteries and spy thrillers.

Book Review: Bug Jack Barron

Book Review: Bug Jack Barron by Norman Spinrad

What’s bugging Jack Barron?  Jack used to be a young radical, waving signs and helping form the Social Justice Coalition.  But the SJC became a legitimate political party, and Jack wasn’t really interested in playing politics.  Plus, he’d gotten on television a lot, and the cameras and audiences loved him.  Soon, Jack was offered his own call-in show, and it took off.  The wife who kept him honest left, but his star was on the rise.

Bug Jack Barron

Now he’s the star of Bug Jack Barron, on every Wednesday night.  You call in on your vidphone and tell Jack what’s bugging you, and if he finds your problem interesting, Jack will go on to call important people and bug them about the issue.  And you’d better believe that VIPs are sitting by their own vidphones, because if you’re “not home” to Jack Barron, he will skewer you in front of one hundred million viewers.

Of course it’s all a cop-out.  Sure, Jack Barron is for the little guy…as long as it doesn’t involve any of Jack’s own skin.  And he’ll stick it to the Very Important People, but only to a point, just enough pain to make them sweat, but not enough to make them retaliate.  After all, Jack likes making $400,000 a year, and having a penthouse apartment with the latest electronic gadgets, and free smokes from his sponsor, Acapulco Gold.  And let’s not forget that TV stardom makes you a chick magnet!   No, Jack knows better than to kill the goose that lays golden eggs.

Tonight’s show seems standard at first.  Seems there’s a company called the Foundation for Human Immortality, owned by a fellow named Benedict Howards, a powerful billionaire.  The Foundation will cryogenically freeze people to be revived whenever a cure is found for what killed them.  But the process is expensive, you have to have $500,000 in liquid assets for the Foundation to use.  Tonight’s caller tried to get a Freezer spot but was turned down, and he thinks it might be because he’s black.

Jack spots the logic hole right away (the man has $500K in his business, yes, but that’s not a liquid asset.) but decides to roll with it.  He calls Benedict Howards–but Mr. Howards is “not home” to Mr. Barron (for good reason, we learn later) so Mr. Barron decides to turn up the heat on the Foundation a bit.  After humiliating the Foundation’s PR person, Jack calls up his old SJC friend, Lukas Greene, now governor of Mississippi.  Governor Greene explains that the problem here isn’t direct racism, but systemic racism; for historical reasons, there just aren’t that many African-Americans with half a million in cash and negotiable bonds.  That’s why the SJC platform is to nationalize the Freezers so that all Americans have a chance to be revived in the future.

To round out the show and cool things down a bit, Jack calls Senator Hennering, who is sponsoring a Freezer Bill that will give the Foundation a permanent monopoly on their cryogenic process.  The Senator’s a professional politician and an experienced bloviator, so he should be able to provide some calming words.  Except that for some reason, the senator is off-script, and reacting to the call like he’s actually guilty of something.  Odd, but Jack is as gentle as is consistent with his acerbic television persona.

The next day Benedict Howards himself is in Jack Barron’s office, offering Jack a free cryogenic berth if he’ll help put the Freezer Bill through.  Jack still doesn’t know what’s going on, but he’s pretty sure he’s wading into crocodile-infested swamp water, and it’s getting deeper by the moment.  He’s going to have to use all his smarts, and see if he still has a last shred of integrity deep down, and that really bugs Jack Barron!

This 1969 novel was considered the story that put Norman Spinrad on the map.  It’s one of the classics of the New Wave movement in science fiction, when newer SF authors decided to use more experimental literary techniques and use edgier subject matter.  In this case, Mr. Spinrad uses a free association stream of consciousness style of narration to fill us in on the thoughts of the characters randomly sparked by their main concerns.  It takes quite a bit of getting used to.  There was, supposedly, a lot of drug use by New Wave authors–this one reads less like it was made on marijuana than amphetamines.

There’s also a lot of foul language, including racial and ethnic slurs (“shade” is now the slang word for pale-skinned people.)  The sex scenes are pornographic in the “experimental literature” sense, but they’re important for exploring Jack’s state of mind, so you can’t just skip over them.  Racism is an important theme of the book, while the sexism seems to be more of the author’s blind spots.

Most of the action is a match of wills and wits between Jack Barron and Benedict Howards (who is clearly meant to evoke both treacherous Benedict Arnold and nutty millionaire Howard Hughes.)  The one violent on-stage confrontation is one that Jack’s completely unprepared for and survives only by luck.  Jack is an anti-hero, handsome, clever and witty, but having sold out to the Man long ago, and willing to use media manipulation to get his way.  Howards is worse, having such a fear of death that it’s become a full-blown thanatophobia, and he’s willing to do anything to avoid dying.  Ever.

Jack’s ex-wife Sara mostly exists to tell us how awesome Jack is, and urge him to return to the superior levels of awesome he had before he copped out.

Because of the rough language, sex scenes and a suicide, I wouldn’t recommend this to readers below senior high school, and it would probably be best saved for college age.

It’s interesting from a historical viewpoint as well, predicting a 1980s that is very different from the one we knew.  Apparently, at the same time the Coalition for Social Justice became an actual political party, Nixon imploded so badly in his first term that Republicans became poison at the national level.  So the CSJ has become the left-wing party, the Republicans have shifted heavily to the right and are composed of corporatists and the former Dixiecrats (no Religious Right here), and the Democrats have grabbed the large middle ground.  Ronald Reagan is mentioned several times as an example of a politician who is more image than substance, but never became president in this timeline.  One of the major Democrats is referred to as “Teddy the Pretender” and is presumably Edward Kennedy.

Mississippi has suffered massive “white flight” and its new black governor is barely holding on with a crippled economy.  AT&T (not broken up in this world) has produced black & white vidphones, and a “miniphone” (basically a cellphone that works anywhere in the AT&T network) is the latest gizmo.  Marijuana is legal in 38 states, Bob Dylan is dead, and low-level single payer healthcare is the law of the land.  Oh, and there’s a mission on its way to Mars, but it’s not relevant to anything.

There’s an afterword by Michael Moorcock, who ran this novel in the magazine New Worlds, which is why this edition uses British spelling.  He talks about the reaction at the time, including the story being denounced in Parliament.

Overall, a book with a lot of interesting ideas, some pertinence to the current day state of the media, some dated attitudes and a lot of uncomfortable content.   Recommended for those who want to experience New Wave science fiction.

Book Review: The Good, the Bad, and the Mad

Book Review: The Good, the Bad, and the Mad by E. Randall Floyd

American history is full of offbeat people, some downright weird.  The author was (like many a lad) fascinated by their stories when he was young.  Then he got to interview Erich von Daeniken (Chariots of the Gods) and decided to make writing about unusual people a full-time hobby.  This book is one of the results.

The Good, the Bad, and the Mad

It contains 37 mini-biographies of interesting people in American history, arranged alphabetically from Jane Addams (social worker and pacifist) to Wovoka (Native American mystic and the leader of the “Ghost Dance” movement.)  There are the really obvious candidates, like “Emperor” Joshua Norton of San Francisco and Nikola Tesla (eccentric inventor.)  But there are also more obscure figures, like Giacomo Beltrami, who didn’t quite discover the source of the Mississippi, and Bernarr MacFadden (health nut.)

The writing is okay, but these are very short biographies, and some of the subjects have had entire (and much better) books written about them.  There are no illustrations, no citations or bibliography, and no index.  Your college professor isn’t going to accept this as a source!

While written for adults, I think this book would best serve as a gift to a bright teenager who can then look further for more information about any person that catches their fancy.  It’s a good book for a quick read, and some interesting historical moments.

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...