Nathaniel Hawthorne / Secret Sharer / Hunted Down

9.15.2011

The Secret Sharer
by Joseph Conrad
Overall rating:  5 out of 5 stars. 

What would you do if you found out your roommate is a wanted criminal?  This is the narrator's dilemma after he rescues a man, Leggatt, from the ocean and brings him aboard his ship.  The narrator finds that they share not only a similarity in rank, but a similarity in appearance; and this strange coincidence helps influence the narrator's tough decision.

I really enjoyed this short story--the writing style was amazing, as always, and the story itself was more figurative than literal.  Good read.


Hunted Down
by Charles Dickens
Overall rating:  4 out of 5 stars.  
...my first impression of those people, founded on face and manner alone, was invariably true.  My mistake was in suffering them to come nearer to me and explain themselves away.
So states Mr Sampson, 'Chief Manager of a Life Assurance Office', who believes in the truth of first impressions.  And one day, he has a particularly bad first-impression--that of Mr Julius Slinkton, a handsome, middle-aged gentleman with his hair "parted straight up the middle".  Even after they strike up an acquaintance, Mr Sampson has ominous premonitions about this man, and fears for the victims of a crime which has or will inevitably occur.

This was a very good mystery short story, written in a style similar to, but somewhat unlike, Dickens's novels.  The style is concise and fast-paced, and the atmosphere is wonderfully eerie.  I only wish that the plot had been a little less predictable and the story a bit longer, more detailed.

Recommended.


Personal Recollections of Nathaniel Hawthorne
by Horatio Bridge
Overall rating:  5 out of 5 stars.  

Just what the title says...a biographical book about Nathaniel Hawthorne, by his college friend, Horatio Bridge.  It focuses on Hawthorne's college years, careers, family life, and personality; and it's written in a respectful, accessible style.  I highly recommend it for anyone who'd like to learn more about him, especially if you're looking for an "eye-witness" type of biography.  It's also an encouraging read for young authors who struggle with self-doubt, like Hawthorne initially did.

Sylvie and Bruno, volume 1

{Note:  I only just found out that Sylvie & Bruno is a two-volume book--I read vol. 1 and thought it was the entire story.  In any case, I'll be reviewing this in two parts, and treat vol. 2 as a sequel.}

Outland: a crazy, fantastical world, where the government is about to be taken over by a conniving official, his wife, and his ferociously unruly son.  It seems the wrong place for Sylvie and her brother, Bruno--two fairy-children whose loyal love keeps them together no matter what.  Meanwhile, real-world character Dr Arthur Forester has fallen in love with Lady Muriel Orme, a lady of sense and cheerful character.  Arthur is hesitant about expressing his feelings; and when the handsome, charismatic Captain Lindon comes to visit, Arthur fears he's lost all chances. 



Lisi Jar
By Leafnode (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-2.5], via Wikimedia Commons


Lewis Carroll's Sylvie and Bruno is much like the Alice books, highlighting nonsense and riddles, and featuring children as the main characters.  A unique difference, though, is that Sylvie & Bruno is 1/3 fairy story, 1/3 magic realism, and 1/3 romance.  The setting changes abruptly; and while at first this is confusing, its whimsicality becomes intriguing, pulling you along through quirky plot twists.

The title characters are very extraordinary children.  Sweet and patient Sylvie, who never gets truly angry; and Bruno, whose rambunctiousness is happily equaled by his affection and good-intentions.  Granted, I've never met siblings who were always this sugary sweet, either individually or together; but they are fairies, after all.  ;) 

The narrator (i.e. Carroll) is quite a major character--an elderly gentleman with a tendency towards matchmaking, befriending fairies, and falling asleep at awkward moments.  Concerning vilifying rumors against Carroll's character, I suggest to anyone with doubts/suspicions that they read this book.  Try as you might to read between the lines, you won't find any hint or proof that Carroll was the nasty character some people accuse him of being.  As for "drug references", I suppose you could "interpret" the book in such a way as to claim that the narrator is hallucinating, via drug intake; but there is nothing in the story itself to suggest that--the narrator is clearly dreaming in his sleep.  {Personally, I think these rumors (the "Carroll Myth") are probably just the result of 20th/21st-century agenda.  I wouldn't have even mentioned them, except to clarify that, from what I've read, I do believe they're just a myth.}

But back to the review.  The romantic subplot, if a bit fast-paced, fit in surprisingly well; and with it, there are some Christian themes mentioned, including a relevant mention of the importance of reverent, non-stagey worship services.  Now, according to Carroll's preface to vol. 2 and Wikipedia, there is also supposed to be a "Theosophical" basis for the book.  I couldn't say for sure how important it is in the story...I tend to read heavily between-the-lines and if it was there, it was not evident unless you were looking for it.  He seemed to only use it (if ever) in connection with his book's hypothetical idea, "What if fairies were real?"  Of course, I haven't read vol. 2 yet; but vol. 1 seemed suitable reading to me.  And I was pleasantly surprised at the intelligence of the romantic subplot--the characters talked about real issues, not just everyday fluff. 

As serious as these subplots sound, they only form the smaller part of the story--the fairies and nonsense/logic are the book's focus.  One of my favorite parts was the "Outlandish" watch, a time-travelling device.  With this watch, and a neat piece of logic, Carroll solves the Grandfather Paradox...perhaps a bit too logically (à la Mr Spock).  ;)  That chapter also includes the scene with the hunted hare--and yes, I cried.  If you never read this book, I'd recommend the second half of Chapter 21 alone; it's bittersweet, depressing, simple, and profound, all at once. 

I really did think the ending was the end.  But I'm going to read vol. 2 (Sylvie and Bruno Concluded), and would certainly recommend vol. 1 to anybody who values childhood imagination and innocence. 

5 out of 5 stars.

Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came

9.10.2011

Cole Thomas Romantic Landscape with Ruined Tower 1832-36

Thus, I had so long suffered in this quest,
Heard failure prophesied so oft, been writ
So many times among "The Band''---to wit,
The knights who to the Dark Tower's search addressed
Their steps---that just to fail as they, seemed best,
And all the doubt was now---should I be fit?
And with these pessimistic thoughts, the narrator--Childe Roland--sets out on a byway to find the infamous Dark Tower, from which none of his friends ever returned.

This is a very odd poem, to my mind.  Robert Browning quotes a phrase from King Lear and uses it as both the title and the centerpiece, but in the most literal sense--bringing the hero no farther than the Dark Tower.  The imagery is gothic and gory..."Drenched willows flung them headlong in a fit / Of mute despair, a suicidal throng / The river which had done them all the wrong"....."As for the grass, it grew as scant as hair / In leprosy; thin dry blades pricked the mud / Which underneath looked kneaded up with blood".  Unlike Poe's wallowing morbidity, Browning's doom and gloom has a sharper tinge to it--the terror is not buried, but quite alive in the narrator's mind. 

I liked the poem, but not so much as to put it among my favorites.  Roland's dreary, almost fatalistic outlook is difficult to relate to.  He never once seemed to have any hope of survival; he appears to run headlong into danger just for the sake of it.  The other thing I disliked was the brevity of the poem.  It stops just when it's getting good; and it adds to the impression that Roland meets his end, just like all the other knights did.

Is there a message in it?  The note to my editions says:
"Childe Roland" symbolizes the conquest of despair by fealty to the ideal.  Browning emphatically disclaimed any precise allegorical intention in this poem.  He acknowledged only an ideal purport in which the significance of the whole, as suggesting a vision of life and the saving power of constancy, had its due place.
Others' interpretations can be found at Wikipedia.  I prefer the one above, though it didn't present itself as the message, in the poem itself.

Overall rating:  4 out of 5 stars.