BOOK REVIEW: The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway

Old Man And The SeaOld Man And The Sea by Ernest Hemingway
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This novella is a masterpiece of American literature. The story is straightforward, but visceral and provocative. Santiago, an old Cuban fisherman, has been having the dry spell of all dry spells, having not returned with a fish in over eighty days. Santiago recently lost his assistant / apprentice, a boy named Manolin, but the age-mismatched pair remain friends. After a scene in which the two hang out and share a meal one evening, most of the rest of the book is only – literally – the old man and the sea.

The next day Santiago goes out much farther than usual in an attempt to rectify his losing streak. Soon, he hooks what he can tell is a massive fish. It turns out to be an eighteen-foot marlin, and it ends up dragging his boat around for the better part of three days before Santiago can sink a harpoon into it. But the three days of raw fish meals, almost no sleep, and gashed hands (from the line) are only the start of Santiago’s problems. The marlin is far too big to fit in Santiago’s tiny boat. The fisherman has to strap the fish to the outside of the boat. It’s not long before a shark sinks its teeth into it, and – while Santiago kills the shark – the blood and meat dripping into the sea attract additional sharks. By the time Santiago gets back to port, there’s nothing but a skeleton attached to his boat. Locals are impressed by the fish skeleton, buy Santiago has nothing to show for all his tenacity.

I was reading a book that dealt with the challenges of modernity (Camus’ “The Fall”) around the same time I read this book, and it occurred to me that this is, in an important sense, the opposite of “The Fall.” While Santiago may be struggling to prove that he’s still the man who once won arm-wrestling matches against brawnier challengers, he’s also at-ease in a way that seems rare. Santiago knows who he is. His fear of death is minimal. He can endure because he has the confidence of one who has mastered himself via the forge of nature.

This short book is definitely worth reading.

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BOOK REVIEW: A Farewell to Arms by Ernest Hemingway

A Farewell to ArmsA Farewell to Arms by Ernest Hemingway
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This novel is set in Italy during World War I. The protagonist, Frederic Henry (like Hemingway, himself) volunteered to drive an ambulance in Italy during the war. The story is informed by, if not based upon, Hemingway’s personal experiences. Central to the story is a romance between Henry and a British nurse named Catherine Barkley. Their tentative flirtations deepen when Henry is wounded and spends a considerable amount of time at the hospital while recuperating. Barkley becomes pregnant with Henry’s child in the middle of the war. Henry returns to service for only a short time before he finds himself in the midst of a chaotic retreat from the swift advance of the Austrians and Germans. This retreat continues to go sour for Henry, leading to a flight for his life as he attempts to get back to Catherine so that he can get them both (plus the unborn child) to safety.

There’s a [variously-attributed] quote about war being: “long periods of interminable boredom punctuated by sheer terror.” This book captures that feel, but even during the moments of quiet from the opening through Henry’s rehab to the weeks hiding out in the Swiss mountains, Hemingway keeps the story engaging by shining a light into the protagonist’s psychology – and, occasionally, through wit. Then there are the thrilling moments like the shelling that wounds Henry or his various narrow escapes.

I found this book to be highly engaging. It has some beautiful language, exemplified by the famously well-composed opening paragraph, mixed with the taut suspense of life in a war zone. If you’re interested in war stories or classic American literature, it’s a must-read.

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BOOK REVIEW: Book of Haikus

Book of HaikusBook of Haikus by Jack Kerouac
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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For a guy who didn’t realize “haiku” was singulare tantum (like “deer,” having only a singular form,) Kerouac crafted poignant and evocative haiku. This Beat writer, best known for his semi-autobiographical novels (e.g. On the Road and The Dharma Bums) sought to create a sub-form that he called “American Haiku.” Like many English language haiku poets, Kerouac abandoned the 5-7-5 syllable format, but where others traded in the rule for a more English-friendly one (e.g. 2-3-2 stressed beats,) his American haiku used three simple lines and no strict counts. [Note: The relatively long syllables of English can cause the stark, sparse feel of Japanese language haiku to be lost.]

Lest one think this Beat poet jettisoned all the rules, he’s truer to the rules of content than to those of form. He uses season words widely in evoking a state of mind. Also, he sticks to pure observation to a surprising degree. [Traditionally, haiku merely suggested imagery, letting readers reach cognitive and emotional insights on their own.] There are some poems that are actually senryū [a poetic style that is the same as haiku in form, but which deals in humor and human foibles,] but not as many as I expected. Kerouac deals much less in political rage and shocking content than his Beat contemporary, Allen Ginsberg.

To give a taste of his haiku, here are a couple fine examples:

One flower
on the cliffside
Nodding at the canyon


Birds singing
in the dark
In the rainy dawn


I delighted in this collection. It reflects Kerouac’s Buddhist insights, plays off the work of Japanese haiku masters, and blends classic haiku with rare touches of uniquely American irreverence. I’d highly recommend it for poetry readers.


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BOOK REVIEW: The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay by Michael Chabon

The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & ClayThe Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay by Michael Chabon
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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Escaping 1939 Prague, Joe Kavalier moves in with family in Brooklyn, becoming fast friends with his younger cousin, Sam Clay. Combining their talents, Joe as artist and Sam as writer, the young men create a number of popular comic book characters. For those unfamiliar with comic book history, a major stream running through this story involves the trials of “work for hire.” Because of the nature of comic book publishing, creative types tended to work on salary (giving the publisher all rights to whatever was created – e.g. TV shows, toys, etc.) Because of this, the creators of some of the most lucrative characters and stories received little credit or financial reward (relative to the profits.) While these artists / authors didn’t lose their shirt if a title failed, there’s something offensive about Corporations (or actors) shoveling in money from a franchise while the creator lives a dank suburban existence.

If it were just about the unfair lives of comic book creators, the book would be interesting — but not 600+ pages interesting. What makes this a compelling story is that each of the titular characters has a darker challenge with which to deal. For Joe, it is an obsession with bringing as much of his family to safety as he can, and coping with his rage against the Nazis. For Sam, it is the fact that he is a closeted and conflicted gay man in 1940’s and 50’s America. The driving question is whether the two men will be able to avail themselves of the tripartite support network (themselves, plus Rosa – Joe’s girlfriend,) or whether either (or both) will self-destruct because of an inability to do so.

This is a well-crafted novel and I highly recommend it.

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BOOK REVIEW: The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain

The Adventures of Huckleberry FinnThe Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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Whenever someone spouts the platitude, “the original is always better than the sequel,” this is one counter-example that could definitely be shoved in his or her face. That’s not to disparage “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer,” but this book, “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,” is the better and more profound story. [Lest you think that’s just my opinion, I think you’d be hard-pressed to find someone who holds a contrary view.]

The book begins with Huck Finn in a comfort zone that has become stifling and boring, but is – basically – a pretty good life. Huck has more money in the bank than he could hope to spend, owing to his past adventures with Tom Sawyer, and he’s being put up by the widow Douglas, a kindly old woman who struggles to make Finn a more genteel and educated variety of boy. While Huck appreciates the widow, he’s becoming antsy and perpetually feels his failings to take to the moral lessons being taught to him. Huck’s internal moral conflict is central to the story, particularly the recurring conflict between what he has been taught is the proper thing to do with respect to runaway slaves, and what he feels is the right thing vis-à-vis his friendship with the escaped slave, Jim.

The trigger that sends Huck into adventure mode from this status quo is the return of his drunken and abusive father, a man who has come to town solely because he heard about the money Huck has sitting in the bank and who wants to get his hands on it to keep himself in booze. Before Huck’s father can get to him and clear out his bank account, Huck sells his stake in the money for a dollar to a prestigious townsman who’s been looking out for him. This draws out the affair, and for a time Huck is living under the thumb of his alcoholic father. When this becomes untenable, Huck fakes his own death and strikes out on the river. On an uninhabited island, he meets up with Jim, a slave who has runaway after hearing that his owner, Miss Watson, has been looking into selling him down the river (literally.)

This leads to Huck and Jim traveling together down the Mississippi River by night (to avoid the risk of Jim being seen and attracting undue attention.) They intend to come to come ashore at Cairo, Illinois being a free state where Jim might have a shot of restarting life. The problems is that running the river at night is dangerous (and sometimes foggy) and it’s easy to miss what one is looking for to stumble into something one doesn’t want. For example, their raft was run into by a steamboat, leading to Huck finding himself washed ashore in the middle of territory where a Hatfield-McCoy style family feud is playing out. And Jim and Huck do “miss their exit” and end up further down river than they would have liked – and that is safe for Jim.

There is an extended period during which a pair of con-men end up traveling with Huck and Jim, putting on shows that are not entertaining, but which they trick people into coming to in large numbers. These two men, who claim to be a Duke and a King, run various cons from town to town, the most extensive (and despicable) one involving making a claim to being the next-of-kin of a deceased man they find out about while traveling. Huck’s moral sensibilities come into play here, as well, as he can no longer tolerate the two men’s con when he sees it will seriously hurt good people. (As opposed to mildly cheating a mixed crowd of the good, the bad, and the ugly.) When one of the men sells out Jim, resulting in the runaway’s capture, Huck goes out to try to free Jim.

In what is the story’s biggest leap, it turns out that the household that has taken possession of Jim are relatives of Tom Sawyer, and they mistake Huck for Tom, who has been due to arrive any day. Of course, Huck doesn’t know who he’s been mistaken for when he arrives, and this creates some comedic gold. When the real Tom arrives, Huck intercepts him and they join together in a scam where Huck continues to be Tom and Tom pretends to be Sid (after pranking his aunt.)

Huck and Tom (“Tom” and “Sid”) take to building a plan to free Jim (despite the fact that Tom knows that Jim was already freed in Miss Watson’s will, when she passed away recently.) The challenge is that Tom insists on going all boy-Don Quixote and developing elaborate plans based on his reading of adventure stories that do not make sense, given the circumstance they face. (i.e. Preparing to extract a knight from the dungeon of a castle, instead of trying to break a man out of a little shack with nothing but a pad-lock and a chain wrapped around the cot leg – such that it could be removed by lifting the corner of the cot up.) This results in Tom gaslighting not only Jim, but also his aunt and uncle, as well as inflicting all sorts of suffering and needless tasks upon Jim. The biggest criticism of the book is probably that this gag goes on way too long, and its comedic value ultimately dwindles as it becomes painful to witness the degree to which it is torturous for Jim and other parties. Huck plays the straight-man, trying to convince Tom to give up on the more ridiculous aspects of his plans, but he fallaciously takes Tom to be his intellectual superior and thus accepts that some things may need to be tolerated. [More than that, he’s steamrolled by Tom’s domineering personality.] It’s an interesting point that Huck is dismayed that Tom is willing to help him free Jim, because Huck thinks Tom should be morally virtuous enough not to help a slave escape (Huck doesn’t know Jim has been freed, only Tom knows that.) Huck has written himself off as an immoral creature, but by any reasonable standard he is the more virtuous of the pair, by far.

It’s worth noting by way of a trigger warning, the book uses the n-word like a million times, and – while the recurring theme revolves around Huck seeing Jim’s humanity through all the indoctrination, he receives to the contrary – the boy nonetheless makes a lot of offensive comments [not to mention those by individuals who are far less evolved on the issue of race.]

This is definitely one of the best specimens of American literature. It has hilarious lines and happenings, shows how exposure to people can help one see humanity where one is being indoctrinated not to, and it has tense moments of adventure. Its dialectic first-person narration doesn’t prevent it from being readable, but makes is more fun to read as well as helps one get into the story and Huck’s character. This is definitely a must read.


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