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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BOOK REVIEW: Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov

LolitaLolita by Vladimir Nabokov
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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Written in a confessional style, Nabokov’s masterwork tells the story of a middle-aged intellectual, Humbert Humbert, and his hebephiliac obsession with a twelve-year-old girl named Delores Haze — whom he calls Lolita. Early in the novel, Humbert is renting a room from Charlotte Haze (Lolita’s mother,) and Charlotte starts sending him heavy hints that she is interested in a more intimate relationship. While the Humbert that we get to know as readers is a creepy, obsessive stalker, in person the man comes across as articulate and suave – in other words, a fine marriage prospect for a single mom in the market for a husband. Eventually, Humbert does decide to marry Charlotte — not because he loves her, but because he is obsessed with Delores / Lolita and wants to stay close to the girl no matter what it takes.

One day after the couple has settled into marriage, Humbert comes in to find that Charlotte is freaked out; she has read his journal and now knows what the reader is already aware of: that Humbert isn’t right in the head, that he secretly detests Charlotte, and that he desperately wants to possess Lolita. This would be the end of the line for Humbert’s ruse, but Charlotte, in a mad flurry of preparation to get away from Humbert, dashes in front of a speeding vehicle as she is crossing the road to post letters that would have outed Humbert as a hebephiliac cretin. But Charlotte is not around to tell the story, and Humbert is handed the unopened letters (no one has any reason to think he’s anything but a loving and devoted husband, so good is his mask.)

At the time of Charlotte’s death, Lolita is away at camp. While Humbert’s obsession may have been news to Charlotte, it seemed the mother was always keen to keep her daughter at bay. In part the mother – daughter never got along, but, on some level, Charlotte seemed uncomfortable having Lolita around Humbert, whether Charlotte was just jealous of the girl’s youth or whether she had some inkling of what was really going on can’t be known. [We only have Humbert’s perspective, and he is an admittedly unreliable narrator – though he does offer his own speculations about other character’s mindset, and – as will be discussed – his unreliability is in specific domains. In some ways, he’s unexpectedly forthright.] At any rate, Humbert takes Lolita on a road trip, at first telling her only that her mother was not well, and not until an emotional outburst much later, letting the girl know her mother is dead. [Lolita seems to suspect that Humbert killed Charlotte, but seems unperturbed by it – perhaps because she never got along with her mother, or perhaps, because she’s a bit of a psychopath, herself.]

After some time on the road, a time during which Humbert both has his way with Lolita and discovers that she isn’t the innocent little girl he’d imagined, Humbert and Lolita settle into a town where Lolita can go to a girl’s school and where they aren’t known. This settling in creates a number of challenges for the possessive Humbert because he would ideally like Lolita to spend no time whatsoever with other males and as little time as possible with other females, or at least with females who might learn about their unusual living arrangement. For instance, Humbert has to be convinced to let Lolita participate in a school play via a meeting with faculty and administration from the school.

Intriguingly, shortly before the play is to take place, Lolita insists they take their show on the road again. [There are many points at which it seems Lolita is playing Humbert, but this is the most intense subversion of the power dynamic. Lolita makes clear that they are leaving, and they will be going where she wants. She has come to understand her leverage, and is willing to exploit it.]

In the second part of the novel, as they are traveling around, Humbert begins to notice that they are being followed. Humbert describes cars tailing them, and men running away or talking to Lolita while Humbert has stepped away from the girl. Of course, we know Humbert is unreliable, and even he is not sure how much he can trust some of these “sightings” as real, as opposed to being products of his imagination. As we are on the subject of Humbert’s unreliable narration, it’s worth discussing that the particular nature of Humbert’s unreliable narration is a central to our relationship to the Humbert character. One might expect an unreliable narrator to hide or rationalize bad behavior, but Humbert not only lets the reader in on his bad behavior but frequently lets us know that he knows what he’s doing is societally (and / or morally) unacceptable. Knowing that he’s behaving badly or irrationally, and still making said choices would seem like it should make Humbert more despicable, but that’s not necessarily the case, at least not fully. Because Humbert is forthright in some regard and because he is so articulate and sensible (if not rational,) one’s reaction to him becomes complicated. I should point out that Humbert does rationalize his behavior, but he does so in a specific way, by acting as though his relationship with Lolita is a loving and, at least somewhat, healthy one.

This distorted worldview can be seen in his perception of Clare Quilty, who – to the reader – is Humbert’s mirror image; but to Humbert, Quilty is a monster. On their second road trip, Lolita falls ill and Humbert must take her to the hospital. As he is taking care of business, an unknown individual takes possession of Lolita. Searching high and low, Humbert can’t discover who took her and where they’ve gone. Then one day, after years have passed, Humbert gets a letter from Dolly Schiller (the now married Delores Haze, a.k.a. Lolita) asking for money to get them through until her husband’s new job starts paying. Humbert goes to her, intent on killing the man who dragged her away from him, but – once there – he realizes that Dolly’s husband wasn’t involved in her disappearance. Humbert begs Dolly to come back to him, only to realize that he is to her as Charlotte had been to him, a relationship she put up with to get what she wanted (or, with youthfully naiveté, thought she wanted.) Humbert willingly gives Dolly some money and goes, but only after she tells him who actually absconded with her, i.e. Clare Quilty. The concluding sequence of the novel involves Humbert’s confrontation with Quilty — surreal and almost comic as it is.

This book is definitely worth reading. Nabokov uses language with masterful poeticism, and builds a fascinating character in Humbert. Reader’s who loved “Confederacy of Dunces” will recognize that one doesn’t have to like a lead character to find their life-story intensely readable. But, while everyone hates Ignatius Reilly, one’s feelings for Humbert may be more complicated. He’s both detestable and sympathetic at the same time. The version of the book that I read had a nice epilogue by Nabokov, himself. While I don’t always find such ancillary matter is useful in works of fiction, in this case I got a lot out of it because the book is quite nuanced. If nothing else, I learned that Nabokov reviled all the “symbolism” that critics liked to attribute to his works. I’d highly recommend this book. While it deals in challenging matter, Nabokov leaves a great deal to the reader’s imagination, and so it’s not graphic or explicit as one might expect from a book that’s been so often banned. [Of course, being so banned was reason enough for me to read it.]


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Clerihew of American Literary Greats

I
Edgar Allan Poe
always lacked for dough.
Still, he always strived
to not be buried alive.


II
Emily Dickinson
lived a bit like a nun,
but her verse was insightful —
even sans an earthly eyeful.


III
Samuel Clemens, or Mark Twain,
wrote personas known to speak plain.
His nom de plume
means “fathoms, two!”


IV
The poet Walt Whitman
had a startled milkman.
Never one to be subdued,
if you just dropped by, he might be nude