Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

I was struck by the Notice “By Order of the Author” preceding this story:

Persons attempting to find a motive in this narrative will be  prosecuted; persons attempting to find a moral in it will be banished; persons attempting to find a plot in it will be shot.

So, of course this alerted me to the fact that this book has a motive and a moral and made me wonder what techniques or narrative mode Mark Twain (Samuel Langhorne Clemens) used. How should I interpret the story and what is its meaning? To some extent it obvious; it is a book of social and political criticism  – criticism of the poor state of race and class relations in America as Twain saw them in the 1880s. I love his allusions to Shakespeare, the Bible, Dumas and Cervantes. I even got used to his use of African-Amercian and regional speech, and the many dialects of the local people in towns along the Mississippi.

The hero and narrator is Huckleberry Finn, a teenage boy who matures as the story progresses. At the start he is a boy who lies and steals almost without thought; he smokes, his grammar is appalling and he has no respect for authority. By faking his own death he escapes from his alcoholic father who mistreated and used him and joins forces with Jim, the runaway slave. When the book was first published and later too, many people found it offensive in its use of the word ‘nigger’ but this emphasises the nature of the slave society in which Jim and Huck had to survive.  At first it troubles Huck that he is helping Jim to run away because it is a criminal offence, but by the end of the book his attitude has changed and he sees Jim as just as much a human being as he is himself. His courage and resilience are remarkable, although at times he does get depressed.

There is so much in this book, so many “adventures” and characters that Huck encounters. Jim and Huck sail down the Mississippi on a raft and their relationship develops. There are several illuminating episodes in which Jim is shown to be an intelligent and perceptive man acting as a father figure for Huck. It seems they are on their way to freedom when they miss landing at Cairo, Illinois where Jim will be free and then the raft is rammed by steam boat. Jim and Huck are separated. Huck then meets the Grangerford family and finds himself in the midst of a family feud with the Shepherdson family. Sickened by the killings and mutilation Huck flees and finds Jim again.

More adventures follow and further down the river they meet a pair of con men – the Duke and the King – who force Huck to help them in a series of schemes. Eventually Jim is captured and taken to the Phelps farm. Huck finds his way there and the last part of the book is to my mind quite exasperating (and long) as with the surprise appearance of Tom Sawyer he and Huck devise the most elaborate and complicated plans to free Jim. Tom, with all his confidence and charm, comes over as a most arrogant and manipulative character and the Phelps family seemed to me to be naive and unobservant not to notice what the two boys were doing. But then Tom was influenced by the books he’d read about prisoners such as the Count of Monte Cristo, the Man in the Iron Mask and Casanova and he was swept along by ideas of what he considered to be the right way of doing things (it made me want to read those books too). 

Twain’s alternating use of description and dialogue provides a realistic basis for the story. I like Huck’s description of the river at dawn:

 Not a sound, anywheres – perfectly still – just like the whole world was asleep, only sometimes the bullfrogs a-cluttering maybe. The first thing to see was a kind of dull line – that was the woods on t’other side – you couldn’t make nothing else out; then a pale place in the sky; then the paleness, spreading around; then the river softened up, away off, and it warn’t black any more, but gray;  … and you see the mist curl up off of the water, and the east reddens up, and the river, and you make out a log cabin in the edge of the woods, away on the bank on t’other side of the river …

So it’s not just an adventure book, it’s peopled by convincing and colourful characters and although full of action it also provides a scathing commentary on racism and prejudice. A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur‘s Court, which I read many years ago is also a critical commentary on the social and political scene. Now I would also like to read his books The Pauper and the Prince and The innocents Abroad, as well as a biography.

The Celebrate the Author Challenge is designed to “celebrate” authors’ birthdays. Each month the idea is to read a book by an author whose birthday falls within that month. For various reasons I’ve missed reading books by authors with birthdays in last few months but this month is the anniversary of Samuel Langhorne Clemens’ birthday – he was born on 30 November 1835.

Chocolat by Joanne Harris

July’s Birthday author is Joanne Harris (3 July), so I read Chocolat (with apologies to Ann!) There is so much more to this book than a simple story about a chocolaterie.

This is a fabulous book. I saw the film a few years ago (so I’ve forgotten the details) and loved that and amazingly the book is even better. I think for me that’s the right sequence of events if I’m going to see the film of a book at all – see the fim, then read the book.

Simply told it’s a story about Vianne Rocher who arrives in Lansquenet-sous-Tannes, a place that is” no more than a blip on the fast road between Toulouse and Bordeaux” on Shrove Tuesday. She takes over the old bakery and transforms it into La Celeste Praline Chocolaterie Artisanale – in other words the most enticing, the most delicious and sensuous Chocolaterie, selling not only all sorts and types of chocolate treats but delicious chocolate drinks. Together with Anouk her daughter with her imaginary friend Pantoufle the rabbit, she also transforms everyone’s life along the way.

The story is told alternately by Vianne and Francis Renauld, the Cure of the parish. Renauld regards Vianne as the devil opposing everything he believes in and viewing her chocolate as sinful temptations designed to lure people away from the church. This is particularly provoking for him as it is Lent and the church is opposite the shop, open on Sundays and his parishioners are succombing to the temptations of Vianne and her shop. 

In the weeks before Easter Vianne plans a grand festival of chocolate to take place on Easter Sunday. This infuriates Renauld:

To rail against a children’s celebration is to court ridicule. Already Narcisse has been heard to refer to my brigade anti-chocolat, amidst disloyal sniggering. But it rankles. That she should use the Church’s celebration to undermine the church – to undermine me. I dare not go further than this. And every day her influence spreads. Part of it is the shop itself. Half-cafe, half confisierie, it projects its air of cosiness, of confidences. Children love the chocolate shapes at pocket-money prices. Adults enjoy the atmosphere of subtle naughtiness, of secrets whispered, grievances aired. Several families have begun to order a chocolate cake for lunch every sunday; I watch them as they collect the beribboned boxes after Mass. The inhabitants of Lansquenet-sous-Tannes have never eaten as much chocolate. Yesterday Denise Arnauld was eating – eating! – in the confessional. I could smell it on her breath, but I had to maintain anonymity.

As the story progresses it becomes clear that Renauld has more than just a problem with Vianne. He is convinced of his own unworthiness and increases his Lenten fast in an attempt to cleanse himself. There is also something in his past which bothers him enormously. And he is not the only person in Lansquenet-sous-Tannes who has problems. Amongst others, there are Josephine, whose husband beats her up, Armande a diabetic in her eighties, whose snobbish daughter Caroline prevents her son from having any contact with her, and Guillaume a lonely old man struggling with the death of his dog, Charly. Vianne herself is fleeing from the ‘Black Man’, just like her mother did before she died. Into this mix of characters come the river gypsies and Roux causing even more angst for Renauld.

So, this book covers an enormous range of topics – fear of the outsider, prejudice against “these people” – immigrants, vagrants, and gypsies; bigotry; fear of death, old age and illness; and fear that the Church will lose its purity and that the community will be corrupted by liberal and heretic beliefs. It’s also about how so many lives intersect and interact and above all about the importance of love and understanding in everyone’s life.

Of course it’s also about food, and not just chocolate, although there are many descriptive passages extolling chocolate. The food at the party to celebrate Armande’s birthday includes:

Soupe de tomates a la gasconne, served with fresh basil and a slice of tartelette meridonle, made on biscuit-thin pate brisee and lush with the flaours of olive oil and achovy and the rich local tomatoes garnished with olives and roasted slowly to produce a concentration of flavours which seems almost impossible. … vol-au-vents, light as a puff of summer air, then elderflower sorbet followed by plateau de fruits de mer with grilled langoustines, grey shrimps, prawns, oysters, berniques, spider-crabs … and a giant black lobster, regal on its bed of seaweed. … The dessert is a chocolate fondue … and dark-and-white- chocolate roulade bicolore. … We round off the meal with my own chocolate ice-cream, truffles and coffee in tiny demi-tasses, with a calvados chaser, drunk from a hot cup like an explosion of flowers.”

I judge a book by my desire to re-read it and to read more by the same author. This book passes both tests. I will have to re-read it to fully appreciate all its many layers and I already have The Lollipop Shoes waiting for me on my bookshelves. I believe it’s a sequel to Chocolat.

Thomas Hardy

I had intended to read one of Thomas Hardy’s books in June as part of the Celebrate the Author Challenge. Hardy was born on 2 June 1840 at Higher Brockhampton, near Dorchester. I’ve read some of his books and thought I read one I hadn’t previously read for the challenge, but I didn’t get one until yesterday, when I borrowed two from the library – Wessex Tales and A Pair of Blue Eyes.

Both Wessex Tales and A Pair of Blue Eyes are Wordsworth Classics editions, with introductions and notes on the text. It’s refreshing to find in Wessex Tales a General Introduction which states

… because the pleasures of reading are inseparable from the surprises, secrets and revelations that all narratives contain, we strongly advise you to enjoy this book before turning to the Introduction.”

A Pair of Blue Eyes was Hardy’s third novel.  I haven’t started it yet, so I’m not revealing anything that isn’t on the back cover. Apparently this book has a central scene that “shocked and stimulated Victorian readers” and “caused Hardy to be embroiled in arguments concerning the sexual morality of his novels.” We’re not so easily shocked these days, but who knows, I may be in for a surprise when I read this book.

I’ve tried not to reveal too much in writing about Wessex Tales.

Wessex Tales was first published in 1888. It is subtitled: Strange, Lively and Commonplace. As soon as I started to read the first tale, The Three Strangers, I was drawn back into Hardy’s world and this story has all those elements. Strange, because it has a satisfying twist in the tale. It is set in the 1820s in an agricultural England that no longer exists, but can still be seen in the landscape in the form of solitary cottages, ancient hedges (that have survived the 19th century inclosures) and the “long, grassy and furzy downs”. Lively, because the tale has so many elements of a folktale with the appearance at a christening party of three strangers on a cold, stormy, winter’s evening. I liked this description of how wild and wet it was:

The level rain-storm smote walls, slopes and hedges, like the cloth-yard shafts of Senlac and Crecy. Such sheep and outdoor animals as had no shelter stood with their buttocks to the wind; while the tails of little bird trying to roost on some scraggy thorn were blown inside-out like umbrellas.

Commonplace, because the tale is full of information about the daily lives of country labourers – shepherds, hedge-carpenters, dairymen and a detailed description of how mead was made. There is also a sense of the macabre about this tale. Who are the three strangers, who arrive at intervals during the evening and are slow to say who they are and why they are there? It becomes clear that one of them is a hangman, which casts a sinister shadow over the evening.

I’ve written before how I sometimes find short stories too short to be satisfying, either leaving me feeling the characters are sketchy and incomplete, or thinking “so what?”. Hardy’s Tales just aren’t like that – even A Tradition of Eighteen Hundred and Four which is only 6 pages long is complete – I could visualise the characters from the succinct descriptions. The tale is narrated by Solomon Selby in the “yawning chimney-corner of the inn-kitchen” as he withdrew

the stem of his pipe from the dental notch in which it habitually rested, he leaned back in the recess behind him and smiled into the fire. The smile was neither mirthful or sad, not precisely humorous nor altogether thoughtful. We who knew him recognised it in a moment: it was his narrative smile.

You could almost believe that the events in this story actually happened. It held my interest right from the opening sentence:

The widely discussed possibility of an invasion of England through a Channel tunnel has more than once recalled old Solomon Selby’s story to my mind.

I can’t write about this without revealing something of the story, so if you want to read it, don’t read on.

The fear of invasion is from the French. Bonaparte had crossed the Alps, fought in Egypt, “drubbed the Turks, the Austrians, and the Proosians, and now thought he’d have a slap at us.”  Where on the coast would his troops land and was it “Boney” that Solomon saw on the shore? In the preface to the Tales Hardy wrote that in 1882 when he first published this story he had invented the incident of Napoleon’s visit to the English coast, but had been surprised several years later to be told that it was a real tradition.

More on the other stories in this collection will follow in a later post.

Keeping the World Away by Margaret Forster

I expect a book by Margaret Forster to be good and this one is no exception. It is essentially the story of a painting, a variant of Gwen John’s “The Corner of the Artist’s Room in Paris“, as over the years it passes from one woman to another. The painting on the left is taken from the back cover of the book. You can compare this with another version of the painting in the National Museum Wales – see here.

 I knew very little about Gwen John before I read Keeping the World Away and now I want to know more. (Fortunately there is a list of books about her in the back of the book.)

The title of the book comes from a quotation from Gwen John’s Papers in the National Library of Wales:

“Rules to Keep the World away: Do not listen to people (more than is necessary); Do not look at people (ditto); Have as little intercourse with people as possible; When you come into contact with people, talk as little as possible … ” 3 March 1912

It seems from this novel that Gwen John was completely infatuated and in thrall to the artist Rodin. She became his lover and tried to please him by being tranquil and calm and striving for harmony in her life. Inwardly, however she “felt volcanic, as though burning lava filled her and would explode with the force of what was beneath it, her overwhelming passion for him.”

Her room was the image of how Rodin wished her to be and she painted a sunlit corner of it where it was “all peace and calm and serenity” in contrast to Gwen herself who “radiated energy”. She rearranged the room and painted several versions; with the window open, with an open book on the table, with flowers on the table, with and without the parasol.

I wished that the whole book had been about Gwen John. However, it’s about the painting and how its successive owners acquire it and what it means to each of them. It gets lost, is stolen, turns up on a market stall, is bought, given away and fought over. As each new owner is introduced there are links between them, but each time the painting passed to a new person I wanted to know more about each of them.

The painting is seen as expressing a yearning for something unobtainable, having an air of mystery, conveying a sense of waiting, of longing, of anticipation of someone’s arrival, painful, soothing or uplifting, empty, and symbolic of an independent, simple life free of entanglements. It becomes part of the lives of its owners. The novel starts with Gillian, the school girl reflecting that art speaks for itself, regardless of the artist’s intention. “She was convinced  that art should be looked at in a pure way, uninfluenced by any knowledge of the artist or the circumstances in which it had been painted.” It ends with Gillian, the aspiring artist, reflecting on the nature of art and the purpose of this painting – “Had that not been its purpose? To keep the world away, for a few precious moments, at least every time it was looked at?”

I can’t quite agree with Gillian. I can see that seeing a painting in isolation from the artist can be a pure experience, but I’m always filled with curiosity both about artists and authors – who they were, when they lived, what was going on in the world they lived in and how it affected their work. However, I also think that a painting is like a book in that they can both be interpreted in many ways regardless of the artist’s or author’s intentions.

This is a remarkable book, which I’m sure I shall read again and again.

(This book meets the criteria for the Celebrate the Author Challenge – Margaret Forster’s birthday is in May.)

A Good Hanging by Ian Rankin


Happy Birthday to Ian Rankin. My choice for the Celebrate the Author Challenge in April is A Good Hanging by Ian Rankin whose birthday is today 28 April.

A Good Hanging is a collection of twelve short stories featuring Inspector John Rebus, set in Edinburgh. All the stories are concise and I think convey the character of Rebus; he is cynical and analytical, a lone worker, who drinks and smokes too much. None of the stories pose complex mysteries and are seemingly easily solved by Rebus. I did enjoy the book but it is less satisfying for me than a full length novel. I have several other Rebus books in line including Black and Blue, which promises to be ‘˜a first-rate and gripping novel’™, according to the Sunday Times.

First published in 1992 it’™s one of the earlier Rebus books. The first story in this book is called ‘œPlayback‘. Rebus is impressed by being able to phone your home phone ‘œfrom the car-phone’ to get ‘œthe answering machine to play back any messages.’ You can tell from this that it’™s rather different from current crime detection fiction. As the title indicates, solving the crime in this story hinges on phone messages. The police receive a phone call from the murderer confessing his crime. He panics and tries to flee, only to be caught as the police arrive on the scene of the crime. He then insists on his innocence. Rebus disentangles the puzzle even though this seems to be ‘œthe perfect murder’.

In ‘œThe Dean Curse‘ Rebus is reading Hammett’™s novel ‘œThe Dain Curse‘, which he tosses up into the air disgusted by how far-fetched and melodramatic that book was, piling on coincidence after coincidence ‘œcorpse following corpse like something off an assembly line’, when he receives a phone call with news of a car bomb that had just gone off in Edinburgh. He cannot believe it has happened. It seems as though this is the work of terrorists, the bomb having all the hallmarks of an IRA bomb and it had gone off seconds after the car had been stolen. It seems to Rebus as if the coincidences in the Hammett story have nothing on his case. But there is more to this case than at first meets the eye.

My favourite in the book is the title story ‘œA Good Hanging‘ in which Rebus solves the crime through his knowledge of ‘œTwelfth Night‘. It’™s set during the Edinburgh Festival period, when the city is full of young people, theatrical people. A Fringe group, comprising a number of students are staging a play called ‘œScenes from a Hanging’ promising a live hanging on stage. The story starts with the discovery of a young man found hanging from the stage scaffold in Parliament Square. It appears to be suicide according to the note in his pocket ‘œPity it wasn’™t Twelfth Night’. Rebus investigates and finds that all is not as it seems.

The other stories involve the discovery of a skeleton buried beneath a concrete floor, a Peeping Tom, and blackmailers. One story I particularly like is ‘œBeing Frank‘ about a tramp who overhears two men talking about a war that’™s coming. He is well known for making up stories and informing the police of numerous conspiracies so they just laugh at him. But fearing the end of the world Frank confides in Rebus who eventually begins to suspect that this time Frank is not lying.

I see on Ian Rankin’s website that he has written the final Rebus book Exit Music. Another book to add to the book mountain.

Robert Frost

The Celebrate the Author Challenge is designed to “celebrate” author birthdays. My author for March is Robert Frost who was born on 26 March 1874 in San Francisco. He moved to Lawrence, Massachusetts and apart from three years when he lived in England, he spent the rest of his life in New England.

I have a small collection of Frost’™s poems. It’™s illustrated by American, English and French painters of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. There is a short introduction, which states, ‘œThe simple language, the vernacular style and the near-whimsy of some of the earlier poems tend to mask the fact that Frost’™s poetry is deeper and tougher than it seems.’


Before I read any of this collection I knew just a few of his poems, such as The Road Not Taken, which ends:

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I ‘“
I took the one less travelled by,
And that made all the difference.

To me this poem is about the choices we have to make in life. You look as far ahead as you can, trying to see what lies ahead if you make a certain choice, but you can’™t know how things will turn out. There’™s no way of changing back to the other choice once you’™ve decided ‘“ the choice you make changes things forever.

I also like Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening:

Whose woods these are I think I know.
His house is in the village though;
He will not see me stopping here
To watch his woods fill up with snow.

This is seemingly such a simple poem with its easy rhyming scheme. The repetition of the rhyme in the final verse is hypnotic:

The woods are lovely, dark and deep,
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.

There is a mystery as well – who is the traveller? His horse knows there is something different, if not odd about the wood. It’™s a silent and somewhat spooky place on the ‘œdarkest night of the year’. There is a sense of loneliness and isolation of the traveller, where is he going and what has he promised?

Frost’™s poems are not all about rural idylls; Out, Out is a powerful poem that tells of the brutal realities of life. The title refers to the brevity of life from Macbeth: ‘œOut, out, brief candle! Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player that struts and frets his hour upon the stage and then is heard no more.” So there’™s a hint right from the start that this is a tragic story. The scene is set ‘“ a noisy buzz saw against the backdrop of mountains in Vermont snarling and rattling, impersonal making dust as the wood is sawn. A young boy is cutting the wood, looking forward to his supper when he cuts his hand. It was as if the saw was alive as it

‘œLeaped out of his hand, or seemed to leap –
He must have given the hand. However it was,
Neither refused the meeting. But the hand!’

The poem reflects the callousness of the family towards life, but also the practicalities of getting on with life as the boy dies:

‘œNo one believed. They listened at his heart.
Little – less ‘“ nothing!- and that ended it.
No more to build on there. And they, since they
Were not the dead, turned to their affairs.

The boy’™s hysteria and sorrow comes over through the rhythm and structure of the poem, with lines varying between 10 and 11 syllables creating an uneasy tension. It seems the tragedy could have been avoided, as the boy’™s work could have ended half an hour earlier, adding to the pathos and highlighting the fragility of life.

I still haven’™t read all the poems in this little book. I find that I have to read just one or two at a time, and then come back to them. The beauty of poetry is the way that so much meaning is condensed into such few words.

The Book of Illusions by Paul Auster

My Celebrate the Author Challenge book for February was going to be one by Amy Tan or Alice Walker, who have birthdays in February. However, I was reading The Book of Illusions by Paul Auster, whose birthday is also in February, so I changed my list. That’™s a good thing about this challenge ‘“ I don’™t have to stick with the books I originally thought I was going to read. Somehow there is an obstacle in my mind about challenges. I love the idea of them and deciding what to read but when it gets to the time I’™m ‘œsupposed’ to read a book for some strange reason I don’™t want to read it. After all I’™m reading for pleasure and I like to read as and when the fancy takes me ‘“ not to a fixed programme.


From the title The Book of Illusions I expected to be deceived, that people and events would not be as they seemed and I was not disappointed. This book is full of illusions. It tells the stories of two men, David Zimmer, a professor whose wife and two sons were killed in a plane crash and Hector Mann, a silent movie star who disappeared mysteriously in 1929. David is plunged into depression and ‘œlived in a blur of alcoholic grief and self-pity’ until he watched a clip from one of Hector’™s films. It made him laugh. He became obsessed with Hector, the man in the white tropical suit, with a thin black mustache, which Hector used as an ‘œinstrument of communication’, speaking a ‘œlanguage without words, its wiggles and flutters are as clear and comprehensible as a message tapped out in Morse code. ‘¦ the mustache monologues.’ In typical silent movie style Hector with his slicked-back hair, thin and greasy little mustache and white suit is the target and focal point of every mishap.

David takes leave of absence from the university and studies Hector’™s films, eventually writing a book about him, intrigued by his disappearance. Then he receives a letter from Hector’™s wife, in which she reveals that Hector is alive and wants to meet David before he dies. He asks for proof that Hector is indeed alive. The rest of the novel reveals what happened to Hector and why he disappeared, in a series of melodramatic incidents. It’™s a tense tale as David accompanied by Alma, directed by Hector to persuade David to visit him, rushes to the Blue Stone ranch in New Mexico, where he finds Hector on his deathbed, guarded by Frieda his wife who seems to resent David’™s presence.

There are stories within stories; subterfuge, crime, shootings, issues of identity, love, death, disguises and deception abound in this book. A few quotes give the flavour:

‘œThe world was an illusion that had to be re-invented every day.’

‘œI was writing about things I couldn’™t see any more, and I had to present them in purely visual terms. The whole experience was like a hallucination.’

‘œThe world was full of holes ‘¦ once on the other side of one of those holes, you were free of yourself, free of your life, free of your death, free of everything that belonged to you.’

‘œLife was a fever dream ‘¦ reality was a groundless world of figments and hallucinations, a place where everything you imagined became true.’

‘œIf I never saw the moon, then the moon was never there.’

Truly a book of illusions ‘“ about films that are in themselves illusions, the illusion that we can know another person, that there is a future, illusions about love, and identity ‘“ it moves in and out of reality. There are many layers to this novel; it’™s a detective story with gothic overtones, a love story and a novel about the passing of the 20th century, ending as the last weeks of the century approach, that century which ‘œno one in his right mind will be sorry to see end.’ It’™s a circular story as well, ending with the hope that it ‘œwill start all over again.’