The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain – This book is kinda racist. And it’s not because of the N-word; it’s because of the horrible portrayal of Jim–an adult man who is depicted as a bumbling idiot who is deathly afraid of witches and ghosts. Especially in the first third of the book, I cringed during most of the sections with Jim. There’s an entire chapter just devoted to laughing about how silly it is that Jim believes a witch is haunting him. Honestly, I am kind of surprised that this book is taught in school. It’s clear that while Twain might have sympathy for Jim, he has no empathy for him. Whereas Huck has a very multi-faceted character, because of his upbringing, he’s unable to question the morality of slavery, but he still, out of some kind of base animal pity (a feeling he’s ashamed of!) agrees to help Jim escape from slavery. Jim doesn’t get nearly this kind of complexity. He’s a plot element who also comes in as occasional comic relief whenever Twain needs to round out a chapter. That having been said, there is a fair amount of good stuff in the novel. I thought it picked up once they started rafting down the river and Huck started getting into some hijinx–dressing like a girl and hooking up with a pair of con artists and the like. But even aside from the racism, the book has structural defects. The last sections, where Tom and Huck engage in an interminable plot to break Jim out of prison are just really dull. The novel ends up kind of sputtering to a close.
Best American Essays (2011), ed. by Edwidge Danticat — So I’ve been thinking about getting into the essay business. In order to see what that might involve, I read this anthology. My conclusion is that it involves a whole heap of dead parents and troubled childhoods. Actually, that’s unfair, I skipped a bunch of the essays, so the dead parent ones were actually not the worst. I don’t know what it is. I guess I just expect more craziness in my personal essays, whereas most of these essays seemed to be about explicating prosaic things using beautiful language. That’s not what I want. The best essays were, for me, the stranger ones. For instance, there was an essay by Victor LaValle in which he describes how, as a very fat college student, he used to pay 99 cents a minute to have phone sex with a 52 year old woman who lived in Upstate New York. They had, like, a regular, ongoing thing. Or a piece of reportage by Charles LeDuff about the murder–by the police–of a young black girl in Detroit. Oh, wait, the absolute craziest of the essays was one by Bridget Potter’s attempt, as a 19 year old in 1962, to get an abortion. She ends up flying to Puerto Rico and doing all kinds of shady things. I loved it. I would read a book of essays like that. But most of the essays were not like that. I mean, I like the prosaic as much as anyone, but if you’re going to describe the prosaic, you gotta bring the big guns, and these essayists just did not do that
Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe — I really loved Journal Of A Plague Year and Moll Flanders, and I enjoyed this one a lot too. However, I did have issues with it that I didn’t have with the other two books. For one thing, it’s super racist. Examples: Crusoe escapes from captivity with the help of an Arab boy and then he sells the boy into slavery; after twenty years of isolation on his island, Crusoe finds another person, and the first thing he does is teach the other man to call him “Master”; Crusoe has no problem with slavery and murder, but when he discovers that nearby islanders are cannibals he goes totes crazy with godly outrage and starts plotting to murder them all. On the other hand, all of this was a lot more palatable than the racism of Huckleberry Finn because at least Defoe is not trying to dress himself up as an anti-racist. No, Crusoe hates non-whites (and Spaniards!) and nothing in the book even hints at trying to say that maybe those are not good things to do. And, other than that, the book is really fun. It’s totally unrealistic, of course, and is nothing at all like what being shipwrecked would really be like, but it is sort of the original “I am stranded on an island and am master of all that I survey” fantasy, and it’s charming in its simplicity
Tender Is The Night by F. Scott Fitzgerald – I love The Great Gatsby and the short stories, and I’d long heard people say that this is Fitzgerald’s best novel. I would have to disagree with that assessment. It’s a good novel, an interesting novel, and even a gripping novel, but it’s also thin. All the settings feel understaffed and empty. The narration is bare-bones and dry and doesn’t have the lovely voice that characterized Gatsby. And it’s astonishing the degree to which Nicole Diver–the Zelda Fitzgerald character–is elided. She hardly gets to speak. We only get the vaguest glimmers of the form and nature of her madness. I think the novel could’ve benefited from considerably less coyness. Still, it has many strengths, particularly in the first section and last sections. The portrayal of glamorous Jazz Age couples (and, later, wrecked, dissipated Jazz Age couples) is something that Fitzgerald can do in his sleep.
Independence Day by Richard Ford – I remarked earlier in the year about how I loved The Sportswriter. And I did. I would recommend it to absolutely anyone. I am not so sure about its Pulitzer Prize-winning sequel, however. The Sportswriter had this amazing voice, you could sense the suppressed craziness in every sentence spoken by its narrator (the eponymous sportswriter–a man whose marriage broke up following the death of his youngest son). And over the course of that Memorial Day weekend, some real crazy shit goes down! Here, Ford basically does the same thing. You’ve got the same narrator. The same ersatz, jagged family dynamics. The same struggle to find his place. The same compressed time frame. And all of that is good. But the craziness is gone! The Sportswriter was a meditative book, but things also happened–the book gripped me. In Independence Day, fewer things happen and, dare I say it, the book skirted the edge of becoming tedious. But maybe if I hadn’t read the first novel, I would’ve enjoyed the second novel more. And I definitely still enjoyed Independence Day, but I would say that if you’re thinking about reading one of them, then you should go with the first one.