Adventure, Edugyan, Esi

Review of Washington Black

Image result for washington black esi edugyanWashington Black by Esi Edugyan follows the title character from the plantations of Barbados to the Arctic circle and finally to the Moroccan desert. At the start of the novel, the 11-year-old Washington Black witnesses untold horrors at the hands of his tyrannical slave-owner Erasmus Wilde. His only real friend is Big Kit, an elderly enslaved woman who protects Washington from abuse and offers the boy guidance.

One day, Erasmus’s brother Christopher (“Titch”) Wilder asks Washington to help him build a cloud-cutter. Titch chooses Washington because the boy is a talented artist, with an eye for detail. Yet, the building of this airship is no smooth sailing. Washington suffers severe facial burns in a work accident, prompting Erasmus to take the boy back from his brother. Titch almost destroyed his “property”. But before Washington can be returned to his slave-owner, Erasmus’s cousin Philip takes his own life. Because Washington witnessed the event, he knows that he will be blamed for the man’s death. That night, Titch – realizing that the boy is in danger – helps Washington escape Barbados. The two take to the sky in their newly built cloud-cutter.

Yet, Washington’s escape is not his ticket to freedom. He lives in the shadow of  several inventors, who, though critical of slavery, nevertheless use Washington for their personal gain.

If you have been following my blog for any length of time you know that I absolutely love travel stories. Washington Black is not only entertaining but also highly original in its perspective. Travel adventures are traditionally told from the perspective of the lead-explorer (almost always a white man). The servant (or slave, as the case might be) is taken for granted. They might be the butt of some jokes, but they are otherwise face-less characters. Esi Edugyan turns the narrative on its head by centering the anonymous slaves who made technological advancement possible. Washington’s story is punctuated by extreme suffering and neglect. The plantation scenes are some of the most brutal I have encountered in fiction. Yet, Washington is not entirely a victim of his circumstances. Edugyan gives her protagonist agency and a voice. He is neither a victim to pity nor a hero to admire.

This work is a fantastic contribution to the travel fiction genre. It deserves all of the literary prizes it has received and been nominated for. I will definitely be reading Edugyan’s earlier two novels.

Favorite Quote

“But human faces are so interesting,” said I. “Yes, to be sure. But when you are looking at one face, you are not looking at another. You are privileging that face. You are deciding who is worthy of observation and who is not. You are choosing who is worth preserving.”

Adventure, Goldman, William

Review of The Princess Bride

Image result for the princess bride bookThe film adaptation of William Goldman’s The Princess Bride is a cult classic. But not many fans of the movie have read the book. Although this review will be spoiler-free, my intended audience is people familiar with the movie.

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I am always the last person to see a film. Less than a year ago, one of my best friends encouraged me to give The Princess Bride a try. Despite my dislike for fictional romance, I finally gave in and rented the movie from Amazon. I am the most movie-ignorant person I know.

To be honest, I wasn’t very impressed by the film. I enjoyed the outlandish characters and the parody on courtly romance, but nothing stood out to me as particularly noteworthy. Whenever I am disappointed by a hyped work, I convince myself that I’m missing something: Fans are seeing something that I’m just not seeing. But before re-watching the film, I thought to read William Goldman’s book. I have been inspired in the past to re-watch a movie because of the book (ex. The Lord of the Rings movies).

The first thing that struck me about the book was the frame narrative. The preface establishes the story as an abridgment of a larger European satire of the same name. A fictional William Goldman recounts his childhood love for S. Morgenstern’s book. His father read it to him for the first time while he was recovering from Pneumonia. But William was concerned that his son Billy would find the many asides and descriptions boring. William, himself, had always felt that those sections of Morgenstern’s book were unnecessary to the plot. Hence, the frame narrator’s decision to produce an abridgment of The Princess Bride. Multiple times in the story, our fictional William Goldman intervenes to tell the reader how he has edited the original work and the reasons for his edits. The frame narrative is much more prominent in the book than in the movie. I prefer the book’s metatextual elements for the questions they raise about the purpose of storytelling.

I was also surprised by William Goldman’s fictional persona. He is not a very likable character. William is the quintessential racist,misogynistic white male author. He is self-absorbed, dislikes his wife, and is absent from his son’s life. At first, the casual racism and misogyny were quite off-putting, but I am now convinced that the real William Goldman very consciously included those elements in order to parody aspects of the literary industry. The real author does not have a son, and his wife is not a psychiatrist.

The Princess Bride is the perfect book to read when sick. It is fast-paced and laugh-out-loud funny. Westley’s bad-ass persona is even more apparent in the book than the movie. He leaves Buttercup as a lowly farm boy, but develops some insane fighting skills in no time. Vizzini, Fezzik, and Inigo have the most interesting backstories. I recall not being able to keep the characters straight in the movie. Thankfully, they are more distinct in the book. Not once did I feel that the narrator’s interjections or character backstories undermined the general action of the story.

And yes, Inigo does give his famous line – about a dozen times.

There’s something quite Rabelaisian about the novel. I was surprised and entertained by the outrageous violence and occasional vulgarity in the novel. The narrator presents The Princess Bride as a story for children, but it is clearly written for adults. I’ve never laughed so hard while reading about torture!

I will certainly be rewatching the film adaptation in the near future. I will be paying close attention to how the film follows or modifies the book because William Goldman also wrote the screenplay for the movie. The next time I’m sick or unable to sleep, I will pick up A Princess Bride. It’s the perfect escapist read.

Adventure, Jensen, Carsten

Review of We, The Drowned

Image result for we, the drownedWhat was it about?

We, The Drowned by Carsten Jensen (tran. Charlotte Barslund and Emma Ryder) is basically two stories in one. The first half follows Albert Madsen through the turn of the twentieth century. The second half follows Knud Erik during World War II. At the start of the novel, Marstal, Denmark is one of the most successful ports in the world. Men are trained from a very young age for the violent life that is sailing. Albert’s schoolteacher is abusive; he flogs the students on a daily basis for anything and everything. When the boys are of age and begin to work as cooks on Marstaler ships, however, they realize that their teacher was only preparing them for the sea. Albert’s father Laurids was the sole survivor of the Christian the Eighth in the Danish-German war of 1848. He lives in Germany for a short time as a prisoner of war, but when Laurids returns to Denmark he can’t resume his former life. So he boards another ship, abandoning his wife and young children. When Albert turns fifteen, he decides to search for his father whom he still believes is living. Along the way, he meets a man who kills indigenous people and keeps a shrunken head on him at all times. He also falls in love with a widow.

Knud Erik also goes to sea at the age of fifteen, but the early twentieth century is nothing like the nineteenth. The shipping industry has undergone a transformation. Some of the most successful men in the business have never stepped foot on a ship. But although his father died at sea, Knud Erik wants to experience all of the things Albert experienced as a young man.

We, The Drowned not only tells the history of the shipping industry in Denmark through the eyes of two men, it also gives us a glimpse into the lives of the women the sailors leave behind.

What did I think of it?

We, The Drowned is written in the tradition of Moby-Dick and the Odyssey. It is more than a story about a handful of sailors. It is the story of a people. The sailors exhibit the most extreme form of masculinity in their society. They do not know how to love. The sea brings out their animalistic side. Survival is the only thing that matters in this society, and most sailors die in unmarked graves. Jensen could have written 700 pages of pure violence, but he doesn’t. There are beautiful moments in Albert’s life. Just when the reader feels that she can’t take any more of the violence or the romance, the story switches course. It’s neither sensationally violent nor sentimentally romantic. It is gripping without straining belief. The unpredictability of the sea is felt throughout the novel.

I was entirely immersed into the lives of Albert and Knud Erik. I cared deeply about their stories. To be honest, I preferred Albert’s life to Knud Erik’s. This may be because we follow Albert to old age, while Knud Erik remains a young man throughout the second half of the novel. Knud Erik is also somewhat of an unlikable character. While there were a few events at the end of the novel that felt a bit too coincidental, We, The Drowned is definitely one of the five greatest books I’ve read this year. Jensen knows how to write beautiful prose, but the prose doesn’t bring attention to itself. Except for a few places at the very end, I felt that the pacing was perfect and the characters were fully fleshed out. If you like seafaring novels, you will love what I now consider to be a Danish modern classic. The sea is the perfect environment I think to explore the complexities of human nature. This novel does it very well. It also has a beautiful cover.

Favorite Quote

“But that’s how it is on a sailing ship, and in this respect its journey parallels that of life: simply knowing where you want to go isn’t enough, because life is a windblown voyage, consisting mainly of the detours imposed by alternating calm and storm.”

Adventure, Conrad, Joseph

Review of Lord Jim

Image result for lord jim coversWhat was it about?

As first mate, Lord Jim abandons a sinking ship with 800 passengers on board. After being publicly disgraced for his cowardice, he meets Marlow who offers Jim a fresh start working for a friend. But Jim’s wounded ego is not easily healed. Lord Jim by Joseph Conrad is one man’s quest to make peace with his past. The novel explores cowardice and guilt as well as the motivations behind British imperialism.

What did I think of it?

Joseph Conrad doesn’t have a rosy reputation today. His most famous novel Heart of Darkness has been condemned by authors like Chinua Achebe for its racism and imperialism. Despite his reputation, I decided to read Lord Jim because it is one of the few works of fiction in the English language that explores the psychological effect of guilt. The premise intrigued me.

Conrad writes some of the most beautiful prose I’ve ever read. Rich imagery and psychologically-complex characters fill the pages of this novel. Jim’s story is told from the perspective of all the men and women Marlow met on his travels. Because the narrator is not omniscient, the reader can never know for sure what Jim felt and thought. Lord Jim is cited as one of the first psychological novels in the English language.

Jim’s character resonated with me. He has difficulty taking responsibility for his cowardice. He doesn’t want to be seen as a coward, so he invents a story to explain why he jumped. Jim desires Marlow’s affirmation, whatever the cost. Most novels look at guilt from the perspective of the victim, but this novel looks at the effect of guilt on the guilty. How do the guilty deal with their past? How should they cope? The second part of the book follows Jim’s adventures on a Malaysian island. The White Man’s Burden theme is balanced by a not entirely positive portrayal of British imperialism. Lord Jim may not bear well under post-colonial scrutiny, but it is a brilliant study of personal guilt. Conrad intended for Jim to represent all of humanity. In that regard, Lord Jim is a good companion to Moby-Dick.

Favorite Quote

“We wander in our thousands over the face of the earth, the illustrious and the obscure, earning beyond the seas our fame, our money, or only a crust of bread; but it seems to me that for each of us going home must be like going to render an account. We return to face our superiors, our kindred, our friends- those whom we obey, and those whom we love, but even they who have neither, the most free, lonely, irresponsible and bereft of ties,- even those for whom home holds no dear face, no familiar voice, even they have to meet the spirit that dwells within the land, under its sky, in its air, in its valleys, and on its rises, in its fields, in its waters and its trees- a mute friend, judge, and inspirer. Say what you like, to get its joy, to breathe its peace, to face its truth, one must return with a clear consciousness.”

Adventure, Cervantes, Miguel de, Satire/Comedy

Review of Don Quixote

Image result for don quixote edith grossmanPerhaps, I am being generous in my 4-star rating. Don Quixote could have been half the length. Still, most of the stories were entertaining, and our knight and his squire were pretty compelling characters. The brilliance of this work is in its narrative style. Don Quixote is a story within a story within a story. Cervantes published the first part years before the second part. Between the publication of the two parts, Cervantes was imprisoned. The story of Don Quixote was continued by Avellaneda without Cervantes’ permission. The narrator as well as the characters in the real story ridicule Avellaneda’s account. The narrator insists that the only true story about Don Quixote is the one we are reading. It was translated from the Arabic by the Moor Cide Hamete Benengeli. And of course there is Don Quixote himself who tries to imitate the knights errant described in popular Spanish courtly romances. To deceive Don Quixote, the other characters have to play into our knight’s delusions.

Don Quixote is a satire on Renaissance Spain. The speeches of Don Quixote and Sancho Panza are almost literally lifted from the writings of the Renaissance humanists. Despite Don Quixote’s insanity, his speeches are often quite moving. Sancho Panza loves stringing proverbs together, but he often cites them out of context. While this is certainly an entertaining work, it is also somewhat tragic. People take advantage of Don Quixote and Sancho Panza to serve their own selfish ends. But who can help Don Quixote? Most tragically, Sancho Panza believes in some of his master’s hallucinations and promises. Don Quixote means well, but he resembles a cult leader. Courtly romance and hagiography were two popular literary traditions in Renaissance Spain. By exploring the theme of heroism in both tradition, Don Quixote addresses the purpose of historiography.

Because this work is as much about the writing of Don Quixote as the story of Don Quixote itself, I cannot ignore the role Edith Grossman played in translating it from the Spanish. This is an astounding accomplishment. Based on the quality of the footnotes it is clear that Grossman spent a lot of time researching the literary and historical references in Don Quixote. My edition included an interview with the translator as well as an introduction by the literary critic Harold Bloom.

I do wish Don Quixote was shorter, but I know that I won’t forget Don Quixote or Sancho Panza anytime soon. With its commentary on truth vs. falsehood and wisdom vs. folly, the work feels particularly relevant to our social media age.

Favorite Quote

“In short, our gentleman became so caught up in reading that he spent his nights reading from dusk till dawn and his days reading from sunrise to sunset, and so with too little sleep and too much reading his brains dried up, causing him to lose his mind.”

Adventure, Historical Fiction, Stevenson, Robert Louis

Review of Kidnapped

What was it about?

In the aftermath of the Jacobite rising of 1745, recently orphaned David Balfour receives a letter from Mr. Campbell, the minister of Essendean, to give to his uncle Ebenezer Balfour of the House of Shaws. It soon becomes clear to David that the Shaws have a bad reputation in Scotland. No one is comfortable to give David directions. When he reaches his uncle’s house, Ebenezer hesitates before accepting his nephew. He forbids David from asking questions about his father and generally seems displeased to have David in his home. But it is only when Ebenezer sends David to fetch his inheritance from the top of a tower without any light to guide him that David realizes that his uncle wants him dead. The tower is unfinished and the ladder leads to nowhere. He nearly avoids falling to his death. The next morning, Ebenezer has him kidnapped by a ship headed to the Carolinas. On the ship he meets Alan Breck, a Jacobite, who tries to convince the captain of the ship to drop him off on the mainland. When Alan learns that the crew is plotting to kill him, he and David work together to kill the assailants. Although David is a Whig, perilous circumstances cause him to befriend Alan and to help him in his quest to bring justice to the Highlanders of Scotland. Kidnapped by Robert Louis Stevenson highlights the tension between the Highlanders and Lowlanders in Scotland in the aftermath of the Jacobite rising, making it one of the most famous works of Scottish historical fiction.

What did I think of it?

I have absolutely no knowledge of Scottish history, so the Historical Note at the start of the book gave me a much-needed introduction to the Jacobite rising. In many ways Kidnapped reads like an adventure novel for young boys. The story line is simple and the conclusion quite predictable. Still, David and Alan’s relationship is quite interesting. Although their friendship waxes and wanes throughout the book Alan and David know that they need each other. Alan is a bad man, but the reader cannot but love him as a character. He has a lot of affection for the youthful David. I wasn’t overly impressed by the book, and some of the dialogue was poorly written, but it was much more memorable than Treasure Island, and it has made me want to learn more about the history of Scotland.

Favorite Quote

Sir,” says I, ‘with a proper reverence for your age and our common blood, I do not value your favour at a boddle’s purchase. I was brought up to have a good conceit of myself; and if you were all the uncle, and all the family, I had in the world ten times over, I wouldn’t buy your liking at such prices.’

Adventure, Estes, Eleanor, Mystery

Review of Ginger Pye

What was it about?

Jerry Pye (aged 10) and his sister Rachel (aged 9) wonder whether Gracie the cat would be bothered if the Pyes purchased a dog. Just the other day, Ms. Speedy offered to sell one of her puppies for a dollar. After seeing the puppies in the barn, Jerry and Rachel knew that they just had to have one. Mom said that it was OK and Sam Doody, their high school friend, promised the children a dollar if they would dust the church pews. With the help of 3-year-old Uncle Bennie, Jerry and Rachel dust the pews and purchas their puppy Ginger. But things suddenly go very wrong. The dog hasn’t been in the Pyes household for very long when he’s suddenly taken by a stranger in a yellow hat – or at least they think the thief has a yellow hat for they have spotted it at various locations in town. They don’t, however, know what the thief looks like. Rachel is sure that he must be ugly and sinister. Jerry agrees and draws a likely portrait of the “unsavory character” to give to the local police. Ginger Pye written and illustrated by Eleanor Estes is the 1952 Newbery Medal-winning book about Jerry, Rachel, and Uncle Bennie’s search for a beloved missing dog and his unsavory thief.

What did I think of it?

Eleanor Estes has successfully accomplished a rare feat – writing a compelling story from the perspective of 9 and 10-year-old children. It is difficult to write believable dialogue between children, but there was never a time in the whole book when I felt like the children were acting in ways atypical of their age group. This is probably the primary reason why Ginger Pye was awarded the Newbery Medal in 1952. But this cannot have been the only reason. While I was able to predict early in the book the identity of the thief, a young child would be left guessing until the very end because Rachel and Jerry react very believably to the situations they encounter. I was entertained by the light suspense as well as by the humor. It is worth noting, however, that the eponymous dog is mostly absent from the story, for obvious reasons. Some children see a dog on the cover of a book and assume that it is a “dog book”. In reality, Ginger Pye is mostly about the children who are looking for their dog. The cover and title may be slightly misleading, but the book is exciting just the same. I am glad that I read Ginger Pye and definitely think it deserved the Newbery Medal.

Favorite Quote

“Well, of course, since Mama was such a young little thing and wore only a size two shoe, and, moreover, ate like a bird, Papa had to marry her. They fell in love at first sight and though she was only seventeen, they got married as soon as all the permissions could be granted.”

 

This book counts toward the Newbery Medal Challenge