29 August 2007

17. Billy Budd by Herman Melville

You may have read this in high school. I did not, so I had no idea what was in store.

Set in the 1790s, Billy Budd is a sailor on a merchant ship who is impressed into service on a British warship. Impressment is a forced enlistment - basically warships would stop merchants and pick off some of the crew to serve in His/Her Majesty's service. In fact, the British warships didn't even care if the merchant was English. One of the causes of the War of 1812 was that Britain would not stop impressing American sailors.

So, Billy Budd accepts, even embraces, his service and becomes a foretop man, working one of the yardarms atop one of the masts. So impressed with Budd, Captain Vere has decided to promote him to captain of the mast he works. Billy Budd's meek. He's beautiful. And he's quite popular with the crew.

Except with Claggart, the Master-at-Arms (a sort of the ship's chief of police), who has it in for Billy Budd. No explanation is given except that Claggart has a "depravity" that makes him twisted and evil.

So Claggart falsely informs on Budd, accusing him of plotting a mutiny. This is an exceptional charge because there were two big mutinies in 1797. Normally, and obviously, paranoid about any potential threat of rebellion, commanders were especially sensitive to any hint of it after 1797.

So the captain brings Budd and Claggart to his stateroom to sort out the charge. When he hears it, Budd's is overwhelmed and, unable to answer. Out of frustration he strikes the Master-at-Arms at kills him. This is a crime, for Billy Budd is a mere sailor and Claggart outranks him.

So Vere has to decide - does Billy Budd swing for his crime, or does he (and the jury) consider the circumstances and the actors involved in the crisis? Should they consider the crew's reaction to a death sentence for the very popular Billy Budd for killing the not so popular Claggart? Should he wait and refer it to the admiral?

A good book with some excellent writing, but my intellect has bruises on it from being clubbed repeatedly with the Christ/Satan and Adam/Serpent symbols.

16. The Road by Jack London

This was quite an excellent little book. The text I read is buried in one of those thick American Library compilations, this one is London's "Novels and Social Writing." This was published in 1927 and accounts for a time probably about ten years earlier. Maybe even earlier, I don't know - there is no context given in these books (though I have not read the Introduction because of the inevitable prejudicing that occurs, and to avoid any spoilers).

First, the road that London is writing about is the railroad. I have no evidence to suggest it except for the books themselves, but I suspect that Kerouac named his 1957 classic after London's.

The first few chapters discuss how to beg for food. Tons of good hobo slang here. And he tells about how he can make up stories on the fly, making judgments about the people at the door in order to tailor his story for maximum effect. Later on, he regrets telling such whoppers because he may have been wasted his fiction.

The next section gets down to the railroad. Very interesting chapters on how to avoid getting thrown off a freight, where to sit, more importantly, where not to sit, and how to get on the good side of the engineer (offering to shovel coal for him). Also a lot of techniques about how to catch a freight, too.

And then, a section on how he got into tramping in the first place. When he began his life on the streets he was a thief. Then he met some kids who rode the rails and they taught him how to beg. He found the begging to be more noble than stealing - the begging was relying on your wits, charisma, and ability to spin a yarn.

Overall it was a pretty cool book. Lot of adventure running scams and avoiding scams, lots of lingo, and techniques about the tramp life. Seems like he saw a lot of the country, and saw a lot of the country that not many people ever even think about - the tramps, hoboes, and various outsiders who live away from the mainstream's conciousness.

20 August 2007

15. The Great Gatsby by FS Fitzgerald

Technically this is a reread, but since I had completely forgotten even the ending, I felt like a virgin, touched for the very first time, while I was reading it.

And since I had a vague idea of what happened I let myself be lazy and left the interpretation of the book to the simple line of chasing the false dream of wealth. It's closer to chasing the false dream of a girl, but you probably already knew that.

Some great writing there, though. Fitz has an eye for the insightful line...concise, succinct, clear, efficient, etc...

19 August 2007

14. Jude the Obscure by Thomas Hardy

Another sad book.

Jude Fawley grows up in a small English village, a burden to his aunt, and feeling generally out of place. He has great respect for his schoolmaster, Phillotson, and when his teacher moves to Oxford he vows to follow in his footsteps. He reads and has a passion for learning, which is out of place in his small farming village.

One day, on his way back from his wanderings, he meets a fresh-faced, beautiful Arabella. They soon start courting and soon enough Arabella says she is pregnant. Jude abandons his scholarly ambitions and settles down to be a husband. Arabella turns out to be not at all what she seemed - false hair, false dimples, and false pregnancy. As Jude and Arabella try to slaughter a pig by themselves (instead of waiting for the slaughter man) they have the fight that ends their relationship. Arabella packs it in, moves back to her dad's, and then ships off to Australia for a new start.

As for Jude, he decides to resume his scholarly pursuits and so moves to Oxford. When he looks up his old professor Jude finds that ol Phillotson doesn't even remember him. He gets work as a mason and studies at night. Eventually he realizes that the mighty Oxford is never going to let him study there. It's a bitter blow for Jude.

While he is adrift in Oxford he runs into his cousin Sue. Who he falls in love with. She is a school teacher, working with none other than Mr Phillotson. Worse yet, for Jude, she has promised to marry him.

Jude is in love with her, but technically he and Arabella are still married.

Sue does marry Phillotson, but she is so unhappy (she thinks marriage does nothing more than enslave the soul) that she asks for her freedom. Despite good advice from his friends, Phillotson agrees. It eventually costs him his career as a teacher (because he is not a good moral example).

Now that she is free, Sue and Jude get together and move far away from anyone who knows them. She is a new thinker and even though Jude wants to get married she resists. And so they revolve around and around.

Ah, but did you think that Arabella was going to just fade away? Hardy thinks not. And so she returns, with a child she swears is Jude's. She sends the kid on a train to Jude, who has since moved back to his original village. Sue and Jude adopt the strange little boy, who they call Father Time. This is called symbolism. Jude and Arabella divorce so she can remarry. Sue and Jude have two kids. The family falls on hard times (because they are not married).

The kids die (this is on the back of the book, so I'm not sure the reveal qualifies
as a spoiler). This oh-so-Victorian tragedy sends Sue toward religion.

As a consequence of this religion she decides she belongs with Phillotson and so she moves back with him.

Jude is desolate. He turns to drink. He is rescued by Arabella, of all people. She brings him home, keeps him drunk for three days, and then marches him off to the preacher to remarry him.

Jude sobers up.

And then he catches cold. Relies on Arabella to take care of him. He visits Sue one last time.

So the book is about a lot of things - an editorial on marriage, on duty and responsibility, about the battle between philosophy of intellect and the call of religious study and work.

I have to say I have very little pity for Sue - her stubborn, willful and selfish defense of her ideas that contrast so radically with society that it seems like Hardy is shortchanging her in some way - like how can she not see the damage she is doing to her family (families), and herself. She's a walking Pyrrhic victory.

As for Jude, it's a little more complicated - he's a victim of his desires, society's rules, and stronger characters like Arabella and Sue. But he does allow himself to be manipulated by these characters and society.

Hardy's poems are dark, and his novels have a reputation for being so too. This was his last novel - some say because of the harsh reaction it received at the hands of critics.

I'm still thinking about this one, and I guess that means it was meaty.

04 August 2007

13. Caught by the Sea by Gary Paulsen

Although it is very short, at 100 pages of large font, I'm counting it.

You may know Paulsen from his most popular kid book, Hatchet.

This one is about his history of sailing. It's told in a I-don't-know-how-I-didn't-get-killed style. And if everything that he told us in his book did happen, I don't know how he didn't get killed either.

He buys a 23' boat (the same size as Persuasion), buy a couple of cans of Spaghetti-O's and tries to go for a sail in the harbor. No experience, no sailing lessons, no trips out with someone who knows what they are doing. Naturally, it goes badly and he has to get towed back to his slip.

That night he sleeps over on the boat and is awakened by some weird boat-noice (there are many) and he sees how beautiful the moon looks on the water, and so on, so (get this) he decides to go sailing.

Out the harbor he goes. No weather report. Still no useful skills despite his brief experience. No idea what condition the boat is in, is rellay in, I mean.

Then, of course, there is a squall (a short, gusty storm) - he gets knocked down, beat up. The boat doesn't sink, but it gets the worst end of the storm. I think the main sail blows out, but I'm not sure. Then he is becalmed for four days. He's got a couple of cans of food and a few gallons of water in his water tank.

Mind you, he has supposedly done no maintenance to the boat. He's owned it for two days.

Finally the wind comes up and he can sail home. Along the way he meets some lady on a wooden sailboat who shows him what to do. 400 miles out in the Pacific.

Not so much recommended, but if you are into Paulsen or into rookie sailing stories, I guess you might find this interesting.