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: A Shadow Bright and Burning

Book Review: A Shadow Bright and Burning by Jessica Cluess

Eleven years ago, Great Britain was a powerful nation with a thriving magical community.  Then the Ancients were summoned, seven supernatural beings who are hostile to human life as we know it.  Since then, the British have been at war with these occupying horrors, and quite frankly losing.  At the start of the war, orphan girl Henrietta Howel was dumped by her aunt at a dismal school where she is now a teacher, having no other place to go.

A Shadow Bright and Burning

Of late, there have been a series of mysterious fires at Brimthorn School, and a sorcerer has been called in to investigate.  The culprit is Henrietta herself, who has had trouble controlling her ability to set herself aflame.  The sorcerer Agrippa realizes that Henrietta is a rare female sorcerer, and thus the Chosen One of a prophecy leading to the defeat of the Ancients.  So it’s off to London for Henrietta to be trained!

However, it quickly comes to Henrietta’s attention that she probably isn’t the Chosen One, and the penalty for impersonating the Chosen One is dire indeed!  Can she navigate the treacherous currents of magical training and romantic interest before the  Ancients and their Familiars strike against the heart of the city?

The plot moves along at a nice clip, and there are some cool battle scenes.  In general, this book is competently written.

That said, many of the characters seem to come from Central Casting:  the heroine with a tragic backstory who believes she’ll never find love, the “lower class” childhood friend with a dark secret, the seemingly cold man who in fact feels very deeply, etc.

Sexism is the real “big bad” in this story; the branch of magic that is female-dominated is the one primarily blamed for the Ancients and is now banned completely; several of the characters object entirely to the concept of female sorcerers, and young Queen Victoria is being manipulated by male advisers who don’t trust her to run the country.

On the diversity front, which has become more relevant in modern young adult fiction:  one major character is described as having black skin, but this never comes up again and there is reason to believe that isn’t his actual appearance.  As opposed to Henrietta’s “dark” coloration from her Welsh ancestry, which is frequently mentioned.  Also, it’s hinted that two of the male characters are interested in each other, but it could also be just a very close friendship.

There is some child abuse in the early chapters.  Brimthorn is not a good school.  The Ancients tend to cause gruesome deaths or deformity, which may affect some more sensitive readers–I’d say senior high on up should be fine.

This is the first in a series, and a few plot hooks are left hanging; for example, it’s strongly hinted that the story of why the Ancients were summoned is still not fully revealed, despite some major pieces being revealed in this volume.  And just possibly Henrietta may not be a true orphan….

Recommended primarily to readers of YA paranormal romance.

Disclaimer:  I received this volume from Blogging for Books for the purpose of writing this review.   No other compensation was requested or offered.

Movie Review: When Marnie Was There

Movie Review: When Marnie Was There directed by Hiromasa Yonebayashi

Anna is an orphan with asthma and alienation issues.  When she is sent to a rural village for the fresh air, Anna believes her foster parents are just dumping her on their friends  for the summer.  But the area certainly isn’t a bad place to be, and her hosts are gracious.  Anna starts making sketches of the nearby Marsh House.

When Marnie Was There

Anna is told that the Marsh House is long abandoned, and when she peeps in the windows, it certainly appears to be.  But sometimes there are lights, and a girl named Marnie that seems very interested in meeting Anna.  Are Anna’s experiences just dreams by a lonely girl…or is Marnie very real after all?

People who are only slightly acquainted with anime might think it is only kiddie shows designed to sell toys and lurid sex & violence shows for “mature viewers”, but Japanese animators also have a long tradition of creating adaptations of classic children’s literature.  In this case, it’s a relatively obscure British book by Joan G. Robinson, done by Studio Ghibli (Spirited Away).

The setting is swapped from Norfolk to rural Japan, but this does little violence to the story.  Indeed, Anna’s unusually blue eyes become part of the reason she feels like an outsider, and she’s very sensitive about them.

There are some mildly scary bits, and Marnie’s background turns out to be quite sad, so parents of younger viewers should watch this with them.  But it’s a gentle story that unfolds slowly and to a certain degree predictably.  Anna learns that she isn’t as unloved as she thought, that she has connections, and even becomes able to make friends in the ordinary world.

As usual with Ghibli, the art is beautiful, with many views of lived-in houses, watery landscapes and rolling green hills.  The Japanese voice acting is excellent, and there are some fine voices in the dub as well.  There’s some odd staging of the first few scenes between Marnie and Anna that make it come off like the start of a romantic relationship; presumably this is due to Japanese cultural differences, because that is not what Marnie has in mind.

Worth looking into if you have enjoyed other Ghibli films, or have children around twelve (Anna’s age) to watch it with.  Also consider reading the book; the movie gave it a boost, so you may be able to find it at finer libraries.

 

Magazine Review: The Blueroad Reader: Stardust and Fate

Magazine Review: The Blueroad Reader: Stardust and Fate edited by John Gaterud

Yes, this is yet another literary magazine; I picked up a bunch inexpensively at the book fair.  This one seems to take its title from Jack Kerouac’s writing; this first issue was published in 2007.

Blueroad Reader: Stardust and Fate

The index is unusual for this kind of magazine.  Rather than a linear index, or arranged by subject or type of literature, it’s by author.  It also doesn’t distinguish between fiction and non-fiction–while some pieces sound more fictional than others, you will need to make up your own mind.

Insert my usual comments about modern poetry here.  The most interesting ones for me are “Postcards to Mike” by Ed McManis, a set of verses describing a school trip to Europe, the small disasters and odd moments of traveling with students.

A couple of the pieces are very much written in 2006, and feel dated now with their jabs at the Bush administration.  Deserved jabs, but still.  “Letter from Iceland” by Bill Holm and “Letter from London” by Donna R. Casella are both most interesting as time capsules, I think.

Best of the prose pieces from my point of view was “O Mary, Where Art Thou?” by Suzanne Lillian Bunkers.  It’s an examination of the various appearances of Mary, mother of Jesus, with an emphasis on the sites that the author has personally visited.  One of the qualifications for authenticating a visit by Mary, it turns out, is conformity with Catholic doctrine.  If your vision of Mary has her advocating ordination of women, you’re out of luck officially.

Overall, the theme is of road trips and journeys.  Many of the pieces are sad or bittersweet; others are nostalgic.  I do not know if any further volumes were published by Blueroad Press.

As with other literary magazines I’ve reviewed, it seems decent if this kind of literature is your thing.

Manga Review: Skip-Beat! Volumes 1-2-3

Manga Review: Skip-Beat! Volumes 1-2-3 by Yoshiki Nakamura

Kyouko Mogami and Shoutaro “Shou” Fuwa grew up together after Kyouko’s mother largely abandoned her.  The Fuwa family runs a chain of traditional Japanese inns, but Shou didn’t want to go into that business, partially because it is the proprietress that is the face of the inn, while the husband does all the dull management work.  So he ran away to Tokyo to get famous in show business, and asked Kyouko to go with him.

Skip-Beat

Kyouko adored Shou, and dropped out of school to go with him.  She took multiple part time jobs so she can support Shou and pay his living expenses while he works for his big break.  A couple of years pass, and now Shou is climbing the charts as a singer, and hardly ever home in the apartment Kyouko pays for and stocks with his favorite foods.  Shou’s also been acting more coldly towards Kyouko, and it’s harder for her to make excuses for his behavior.

Then Kyouko happens to overhear Shou talking to his manager, and learns from his own mouth that he brought her with him to Tokyo solely to be his housekeeper and source of income.  Shou has never considered her anything but a convenient servant.  (Later, Kyouko will realize that the Fuwa family was grooming her to be Shou’s wife, which partially explains his contempt for her.)

This revelation breaks Kyouko’s heart, but rather than dissolve in sorrow, the Pandora’s Box in her heart opens, and all her stored up resentment and hatred pours out.   She vows to crush Shou in the one area he cares about, popularity.  Kyouko will become a celebrity!

Of course, it’s going to be pretty hard for a plain girl who can’t sing, has never acted and has no idea how show business works to make it to the top.   Worse, she has a fatal flaw to overcome–can she make an audience love her if she’s unable to love the audience?

This is a shoujo (girls’) manga series from 2002, being reprinted in omnibus volumes, this one being the first three.   These collected editions are helpful with the longer series, as some character development and plot movement can be seen in one sitting.

Kyouko is an interesting protagonist for the shoujo field in that her negative personality traits are right up front, and dealing with her inner demons (which aren’t entirely metaphorical) is given more emphasis than her romantic life.   She has admirable guts and determination, but isn’t good at empathy and most of her social skills were a mask to hide her abandonment issues.

On the other hand, her prickliness allows her to shock others into examine their own behavior…except Shou, so far.    He remains the spoiled, narcissistic child he starts as.  Ren, the most likely romantic interest, blows hot and cold as is the tradition for shoujo romance–he’s kinder than he looks, but takes his job seriously to a fault.

There are a couple of other women who have their own pain that is limiting their careers, and they eventually warm up to Kyouko.  The most bizarre character is talent agency owner Lory Takarada.  He’s a big believer in “love” and comes up with strange schemes to improve Kyouko and her fellow “Love Me Section” members.

The art varies from detailed to crude depending on the moment–it suits the mood well, but may be offputting to some readers.

This story is aimed at middle school girls and up, although parents might want to remind younger readers that one of the lessons they can take from this series is “don’t quit school; no guy is worth it.”  Parents may also want to talk to their kids about the healthy ways of dealing with painful emotions.

Anime Review: Tsuritama

Anime Review: Tsuritama

Yuki Sanada is a high school student who has no friends and limited social skills.  Whenever he’s in an uncomfortable social situation, Yuki  freezes up with anxiety, depicted as him drowning.  From the outside, his anxiety face makes him look wrathful and unapproachable.  It doesn’t help that his grandmother’s job requires them to move frequently, so no one has really gotten the time to break through his shell.

Tsuritama
Yuki, Natsuki, Akira & Haru

Then Yuki’s grandmother gets a position at the Samuel Cocking Botanical Garden on the island of Enoshima,, southeast of Tokyo.  They are soon joined by an odd young man named Haru, who claims to be an alien.  To Yuki’s discomfort, Haru wants to be his friend, and isn’t taking “no” for an answer.  Haru also has the notion that Yuki should take up fishing.

They soon run into Natsuki Usami, a local boy who’s an expert fisherman with daddy issues, and are observed by Akira, who despite the Japanese name appears to be from India, and be working for a certain organization….

Haru’s on the island for a reason, and this becomes more evident as the series goes along and ships start disappearing, only to return with the crews…changed.

This is a story about the power of friendship, how it can improve your life and maybe even save the world.  It’s also a story about fishing (the title could translate as “Fishing Ball.”)  The real world location of Enoshima is lovingly drawn, giving this show a strong sense of place.  And despite the island being a resort town with beaches, the fanservice is kept to a pleasing minimum.

The more comedic elements, such as the secret alien hunting organization DUCK, whose biohazard suits make them look like Peeps bunnies, tend to clash with the seriousness of the plotline in the last few episodes.  And the fact that no one’s been doing anything about Yuki’s social anxiety problem, even his otherwise caring grandmother, until Haru comes along, is distressing.

This series is best suited for young adults, I think.  Parents should be aware that there’s a scene where Natsuki slaps his sister during an argument, and she runs away (just as it becomes known that people are disappearing.)  It’s a short series at twelve episodes, so should be suitable for people who don’t want to invest a lot of time.

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