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: Princess Jellyfish Volume 1

Manga Review: Princess Jellyfish Volume 1 by Akiko Higashimura

Amamizukan is not your average apartment building.  For one thing, it’s a small, old-fashioned building of the type rarely seen these days.  More importantly, all the residents are fujoshi (“rotten women”) who for one reason or another have fallen outside the society-approved get job/get husband/have kids way of life for Japanese women.  These eccentric women fear the “fashionable”, and especially fashionable men, which is why Amamizukan is also know as the “Nunnery.”

Princess Jellyfish Volume 1

Tsukimi Kurashita is the newest resident, an aspiring illustrator with a penchant for jellyfish.  She knows all about these aquatic creatures, and is appalled to learn that the local pet shop has put two species together that will cause the death of one of them.  The shop assistant is a “fashionable”, which makes Tsukimi terrified of talking to him and thus unable to speak normally, and apathetic which makes him not care to the point he physically throws her out of the store.

At this point, a “princess” appears.  A stunning, fashion-forward beauty, she nevertheless listens to Tsukimi’s explanation and helps liberate “Clara” the endangered jellyfish from the store (with proper payment.)  It’s very late when they arrive at Amamizukan, so the princess, a very self-confident person, invites herself to sleep over.

In the morning, however, Tsukimi is shocked to learn that her princess is named Kuranosuke, and is in fact a young man.  How the heck is she going to keep the other “Amars” from finding out she’s got a boy in her room?

This josei (young women’s) manga has had a short animated adaptation (available from Funimation), and a live-action movie.  In the author notes, it’s revealed that the creator had an obsession with jellyfish for a few years in her teens, and she uses that in the story.  “Ama” is a word for a Buddhist nun, so “Amars” would be kind of equivalent to a women-only U.S. apartment building having residents who called themselves “Sistahs.”

One of the running themes of the manga is that everyone is eccentric in their own way, even the people who seem to function well in normal society.   The Amars are just more obvious about it.  Most of them are unconventional in appearance, and entered the job market just as it crashed after the bubble economy collapsed, so were unable to find steady jobs.  So they earn a marginal living as assistants to a manga creator (who never appears on panel, being a nocturnal shut-in) and supplement this with handouts from their parents.

Kuranosuke, as it turns out, is the second son of a bigwig politician, and indulges in his hobby of dressing in women’s clothing partially to create enough scandal that he’ll never be forced to go into the family business, partially because he’s so pretty that he looks smashing in the outfits, and partially for…other reasons.  He often clashes with his disapproving father, and to a lesser extent with his older and more dutiful half-brother Shuu, though the brothers do really care for each other.

A plotline comes in when it’s revealed that Amamizukan’s neighborhood is being redeveloped, and their beloved Nunnery is a target for acquisition and bulldozing.  With the Amars’ crippling lack of social skills, they aren’t going to make a good case against the developer’s fashionable and sexy spokesperson, Inari, who has set her eye on seducing (or if that fails blackmailing) Shuu to get his father behind the project.  Kuranosuke will not let this stand, and rallies the troops for some zany scheming.

Part of this is giving the Amars makeovers.  Tsukimi’s is played pretty straight, as she is much more attractive with a little makeup, no glasses and some nice clothes (which blows Shuu away, and introduces some romantic complications.)  The other Amars mostly just get “looks” that play to their strong points, and kimono aficionado Chieko is told that she doesn’t need a makeover at all, just the right context–put her with well-dressed people, and she looks like a woman of substance.  It’s not about making them “pretty”, it’s about donning “armor” to present strength to the world.

The art is good, and manages to convey who people are even when they change their appearance.

Content issues:  there’s some homophobia and transphobia, as well as both virgin-shaming and slut-shaming (by different characters.)  Inari drugs and disrobes Shuu to make it appear they had sex, and marital infidelity is in the backstory and is responsible for psychological issues for both Shuu and Kuranosuke.

For the most part, this plays out like one of those Eighties movies where a ragtag group of misfits must get it together to battle an evil rich person who wants to take away something important to them.  (Fittingly, Inari seems to have gotten her behavior patterns from Eighties “business woman” manga, and sometimes slips into ’80s slang.)  This book, which collects the first two Japanese volumes, only sets up the conflict, so there is still the possibility that later events will subvert the plotline.

Tsukimi is a protagonist it’s easy to root for, and Kuranosuke makes a good foil for her–though it looks like he won’t be hooking up with her in the end.  Most of the other characters are likable to some degree.

Recommended to people who liked the kind of Eighties movies I mentioned, and fans of innocent people falling in love.

Anime Review: Active Raid

Anime Review: Active Raid

The year is 2035 in an alternative history Japan, and the city of Tokyo is rapidly recovering from the Third Quicksand Disaster, which turned much of the metropolitan area into quagmires.  Powered armor units called “Willwear” have helped the reconstruction immensely, and are spreading into other industries, but there are people who use Willwears for crime.  Thus the Metropolitan Police have created the Fifth Special Public Security Section to battle Willwear crime.  The focus of this series is on Unit 8, a collection of oddballs and marginal officers who are assigned to a difficult part of the city and wear special prototype Willwears.

Active Raid

Assistant Inspector Azami Kazari has been assigned to the Eighth to run an assessment on them for Internal Affairs, but being a young idealist, her plan is to whip the oddballs into shape as respectable police officers.  She soon discovers that her strait-laced ideas may be less useful in the field than the more laid-back attitudes of the rest of the team, especially as a series of unusual crimes hits the city.

This recently-concluded 12-episode science fiction anime is available legally on Crunchyroll as of this writing.  It bears some resemblance to Patlabor, a classic series about an oddball collection of future cops who use special weapons to deal with criminals using similar technology.  However, it’s crammed into much less time than the earlier series, so the characterization is shallower, and there’s no breather episodes that allow the writers to stretch their worldbuilding legs.  Most of the unit get one episode that focuses on them, and in a couple of cases have a single line in any other episode.

The opponents are Logos, which is not so much an organization as three temporarily allied teen hackers whose motivations clash, and who initially act through pawns with seemingly random crimes.  The real problem is Japan’s social ills, and ultimately, while combat is important it is understanding that saves the day.

A source of humor in the early going is that despite their destructive reputation, the Eighth actually does follow regulations; they have to get authorization from the government to pursue a criminal, to fire weapons, etc.  And since several different governmental agencies have jurisdiction (at least one of which hates the Eighth) the unit commander spends much time trying to navigate the bureaucracy while incidents are ongoing.  And of course, when the hostile governor finds an excuse to close down the Eighth, he does, playing into the hands of Logos.

A Jim Jones-style mass cult suicide is part of the backstory.  There’s also a few fanservice scenes, as the police must strip to underwear to don their Willwears.

This is an enjoyable but disposable series, worth a look if you like powered armor stories with some comedy.

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