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: Curiosities of Literature

Book Review: Curiosities of Literature by John Sutherland

This is a book of trivia, factoids and amusing stories about the world of literature.  The author is a professor of English literature, so he knows his stuff.  The book is organized by loose themes, beginning with food (both as featured in literature, and as eaten by authors.)  There are bits on authors’ pen names, sales figures and famous deaths.  After the index, there’s an essay on “the end of the book” where Mr. Sutherland muses whether the codex book as we know it will soon vanish, replaced by electronic media or even telepathic communication.

Curiosities of Literature

The illustrations are by Martin Rowson, who is in the old style of detailed editorial cartoons, and give a very British feel to the book.  (The words are less obvious about it.)

Being relatively widely-read, I had run across many of the factoids before, but there were some I had no idea of, or had long forgotten (like the true fate of V.C. Andrews.)  Mr. Sutherland makes no pretense of being neutral in his opinions–he’s particularly scathing about the Left Behind series.  His writing is informative and readable; it might be worthwhile to look his more serious work up.

As with many other trivia and lists books, this is less something one would buy for themselves, and more something to buy as a present for a relative who loves reading.  As such, it’s good value for money–but given that “mature themes” are discussed, I would not recommend it for readers below senior high school age.

Book Review: Snuff

Book Review: Snuff by Terry Pratchett

Commander Samuel Vimes of the Ankh-Morpork City Watch, Duke of Ankh-Morpork and Blackboard Monitor, has been aware in a general way that his wife Sybil owns some property in the countryside.  But now that their son Young Sam is six, Sybil has decided that it’s high time that the family take a holiday to visit the ancestral manor.   And she’s somehow convinced Sam’s boss, Lord Vetinari, to sign off on this.

Snuff

So Sam Vimes finds himself on vacation for the first time in ever, stranded far from the smell and sounds of the city he knows so well, and at a loss how to handle himself in a rural area where he’s not got jurisdiction as a cop.  But as Sherlock Holmes remarked in “The Copper Beeches”, the countryside is not free from vile sin.  When Vimes discovers that there’s been a murder on his land and the oppressed cry out for justice, he’s willing to bend the definition of jurisdiction to bring the villains to heel.

This is one of the last Discworld books (only two after this one) and the last of the City Watch sub-series.  While Vimes is front and center for most of the story, we do check in with many of the other continuing characters for at least a sentence.  (This is one of the few Discworld books to miss out Death as a character, but that does not mean that no one dies.)

Over the course of the series, Ankh-Morpork has advanced from a parody of generic sword-and-sorcery cities that happened to share some geographical features with London to more or less a fantasy version of Victorian London–and most of this progress has happened within Sam Vimes’ lifetime.  Indeed, Vimes can be said to have facilitated much of this by his dedication to law enforcement that does what is right rather than what is convenient.  Another running theme of the books has been that people are people, regardless of their shape, odd customs or biological weirdness.  Dwarves and trolls and even vampires have become people, with all the rights and responsibilities that come with that description.  And now it is the turn of the goblins.

Goblins are the lowest of the low, considered filthy creatures with no visible culture, and treated as vermin.  Enslaving them, taking their sacred objects, killing them–none of these are considered crimes by the majority of people or the written law.   But Commander Vimes’ previous experiences give him some unique ways of seeing the “humanity” of goblins.

And while his efforts do yield results, Sam Vimes would not be able to fully achieve the goal of bringing goblins under the protection of the law without the aid of his socially-connected wife, an author who has her own insights into goblin culture, and several goblins who step out of their stereotype to show their worth.  (Although there is some question whether Stinky is really a goblin…or something more.)

Much of the “humor” this time revolves around bodily excretions, as Young Sam has discovered the scientific wonders of poo.  For those of us not keen on toilet gags, this gets a bit tiresome.  There’s also a fair amount of swearing, and a discussion of “the dreadful algebra” of what to do with an infant that’s been born in a time of famine.  And not all sins are forgiven.

The general quality of the writing is excellent as always, but Sir Terry’s sentimental side perhaps overwhelms the sharper edge of social satire, particularly in the ending.

Recommended to Discworld fans; newbies should probably start with Guards! Guards! which is the first of the Watch sub-series.

Book Review: Herblock at Large

Book Review: Herblock at Large by Herbert Block.

Herbert “Herblock” Block (1909-2001) was a multiple-Pulitzer-winning editorial cartoonist.  He’s most famous for his coverage of McCarthyism and Watergate, but kept working until just before his death.  This 1987 collection covers the early years of the Reagan administration.

Herblock at Large

As might be expected, these cartoons aren’t very kind to that administration.  From an Attorney General who was more concerned with “proving” pornography caused violence than with tracking down illegal arms shipments to America’s enemies, to the heavy influence of the Religious Right on the government, to the dubious Supreme Court nominations (the Senate finally balked at Robert Bork), there were a lot of things to criticize.

Iran-Contra gets a lot of play here, as does the fact that under Reagan’s “fiscally responsible” administration, the national deficit and debt both skyrocketed.  (A feat that would be repeated by his fiscally responsible Republican successors, while the fiscally irresponsible Democrats brought down those numbers.)  The rise of televangelists also came in for several cartoons, contrasting the prosperous preachers with the poverty-stricken viewers who donated to them.

Now, of course, we know that Ronald Reagan really was having memory problems at the time, early symptoms of his Alzheimer’s.  The cartoons about terrorists hijacking airplanes also take on a new connotation since that subject came to a head.

There are also text pieces by Herblock introducing the themed chapters, clarifying his views if the cartoons weren’t pointed enough.  One bit of information is helpful for those who did not live through those times–Mr. Block often drew the Secretary of Defense with a $640 toilet seat around his neck as that was one of the ludicrously expensive trivialities the military was spending tax money on instead of servicemembers’ salaries.

Copyright Herblock 1987
Copyright Herblock 1987

One subject where we have seen improvement is South Africa; back then apartheid and anti-equality violence were still the order of the day, with Reagan refusing to do anything that might make the white minority government feel the U.S. was unfriendly to them (what with them being anti-Communist and all, which was why we were allies with a lot of nasty regimes back then.)

This is perhaps not Herblock’s best work, but it’s still very good political cartooning, and a window into the issues facing America in the early 1980s.  Recommended for those who lived through the era and need a reminder, and those that want to know about the time before cell phones.

Movie Review: Trocadero (1944)

Movie Review: Trocadero (1944)

Hollywood columnist Erskine Johnson (playing himself) needs a story for his Sunday slot, and goes to his favorite nightclub, the Trocadero.  It’s hopping as usual, but headwaiter Sam (Ralph Morgan) finds a moment between celebrity cameos and musical numbers to talk to the columnist.  He reveals that things were not always so rosy here….

Trocadero

The club used to be Tony Rocadero’s Restaurant, and we see the owner (Charles Calvert) at the end of Prohibition getting a legitimate liquor license.  He wants to turn his place into a class joint for the sake of his adopted children Judy and Johnny Edwards (Rosemary Lane & Johnny Downs.)   Unfortunately, he is killed in a street accident.  There’s only enough income from the restaurant to send one of the kids to college; the other will have to stay and help manage the place.

Johnny goes off to earn a degree while Judy takes over as acting manager and star singer of the night spot.  They struggle along until in 1935, the place is broke and about to close its doors.  Musical agent Mickey Jones (Sheldon Leonard) buys ten percent of the business as he’s convinced it can be revived with a new jazz band he’s representing.  Even this might not have worked, but then swing band leader Spike Nelson (Dick Purcell) barges in with his own musical troupe, and Judy takes the risk of having two house bands.

It’s obvious that both Jones and Nelson have more than a business interest in Judy, but she’s got a nightclub to run.  A slip of the tongue renames the place the Trocadero, it shifts emphasis from dining to dancing, and business heats up.

Some time later, Johnny has finally graduated from college, and returns.  Problem!  He’s fallen in love with society dame Marge Carson (Marjorie Manners), whose father (Emmett Vogan) owns a tobacco brokerage.  She’s less than enthused by the tawdry entertainment industry, and wants Johnny to join her father’s business.  So he can’t take over the Trocadero after all.

Judy has her own problems.  Jones is more or less okay with just being friends, but Nelson feels he’s been strung along too long and accepts another gig.  Only after he leaves does Judy realize that she actually loves the lug.

Meanwhile, Johnny discovers at the engagement party that Marge’s relatives are deadly dull people who care only for money and prestige, and look down on “hoofers” like himself.  He dances a fiery rebuttal and calls off the marriage.  He returns to the Trocadero to console his lovelorn sister and finally help manage the place, which is more popular than ever.

Which brings us back to the present day.    But this is a Hollywood musical, and there’s no way it’s going to end on a bittersweet note.

There was a real-life Trocadero nightclub, one of Hollywood’s hottest spots, but its history was nothing like this movie’s version.  Still, it’s a sweet story in its own way, a fantasy of making it in show business.  There are several fun musical numbers, including a grand finale with four, count ’em, four bands combining their talents.  One song in the modern section obliquely references World War Two, which was going on at the time.

As mentioned, there are several celebrity cameos, the most unusual of which is animator Dave Fleischer, with a little cartoon creature that comes out of his pen.

There’s of course lots of drinking, but the cigarette girl isn’t too keen on smoking (at least the Carson brand.)   Johnny and Judy do some playful scuffling, and have perhaps a bit too much chemistry for siblings, but that and the slightly offscreen death of Tony are it on the violence front.  By 1940s standards the movie is surprisingly non-sexist; no one thinks Judy can’t run a nightclub just because she’s a woman.

This is a lovely confection, fun but not very deep, and should be okay to watch with younger viewers.

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