26 March 2011

Weekly Book Review: "Zadig", "Obasan", "The Famous Victories of Henry V", "Follow the Rabbit-Proof Fence", "The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes", and "Tarlton's Jests".

Zadig, Voltaire

I like to imagine Voltaire dictating all of his books to an associate in an outrageously bad French accent. He flips and flops the ends of his powdered white wig, and waves around a small silver baton with broad boisterous gestures to punctuate each point. He would speak something like this:

Oonh hunh hunh! So after zis terrible tragedy, Zadig was made to flee the city of Babylon. His enemies were most happy at this turn of events, to be sure! Oonh hunh hunh! And on the second day of his flight, he met a hermit who accompanied him to the home of a wealthy man for the night - ah, this idea, c'est magnifique! - and he said to Zadig, 'I will repay this man for letting us stay here, by giving him a good lesson.' And Zadig assented, only to find the hermit stealing the candlesticks! Pardieu, he was shocked! And he said to the hermit - oh ho, yes, I am so clever! - and he said to the hermit, 'Monsieur, why have you done this?' But the hermit answered, 'Now this man will have some caution to accompany his charity!' Ah ha, it iz brilliant!

Presumably this is not an accurate idea of Voltaire's writing process, but it remains how I think of him. Zadig seems in parts to be a formulaic bragging session, with Voltaire's skilled wit being overshadowed by his evident eagerness to display it.

The story will seem familiar to those who have read Candide, the work for which he is best known. Just as in Candide, the tale of Zadig is that of the titular protagonist's journeys to different places and his experienced with both women and fortune. The difference between the two is that Candide was a naive fool, and Zadig is a tiresomely competent master of every situation.

I suppose the comparison is unfair, but much of the humor and enjoyment of Candide came from the conflict between ideology and reality, and the reader's natural tendency to root for a goofy good-natured idiot. When presented with Zadig, who is better at everything than everyone else, it's hard to feel too bad for him. The catastrophes that happen to him remain his fault, and we are left to wonder why he didn't see them coming. "Of course the king's going to be suspicious," we think, rolling our eyes, "You really think spending all day every day with his wife isn't going to seem weird?"

This is why Zadig ends up seeming more like a vehicle for Voltairean self-praise. He becomes a minister at court so he can make a speech about how kings should act, then he gets promoted to being a judge so he can decide a series of cases with subtle and snappy logical legerdemain, and then he becomes a knight so that he can demonstrate proper chivalry. I'm not going to knock Voltaire for historical inaccuracy - although really, ancient Babylonian jousting? - but this book would have been better if it had seemed more a story and less a gilded frame.

If you haven't read Candide, skip this and read that instead. If you really enjoyed Candide and want more Voltaire, this might be worth it - but don't go out of your way.

Obasan, Joy Kogawa

This is one of the books from my Topic in Post-Colonial Literature class this year, so unsurprisingly it involves what one might call a topic in post-colonial literature. In this case, it's the experiences of Japanese-Canadians during and immediately after World War 2. The story follows the experiences of Naomi Nakane and her family, viewed through her memories, as they suffer increasing discrimination and eventually are forcibly relocated to "concentration camps" and exiled from their homes.

To tell the truth, this was a blank period in history for me. My knowledge of Canada during World War 2 was almost nonexistent - beyond knowing they sent troops, of course - and I had no idea that they had internment camps for their Japanese citizens, just like America did. My professor also mentioned that New Zealand had an internment camp, as well (set up at the behest of the U.S.) called Featherston. It's astonishing.

It's not that I wasn't aware of American internment camps, of course. I have even watched the propaganda movie produced in 1942 by the War Department - which is unintentionally hilarious: "They even have curtains!" But that there was this broad curtain of guilt over all the Allies... grim tidings.

The book is very well-written. It doesn't indulge in facile dualities; it's not a story about how a pristine life was wrecked by this injustice, and the novel's primary theme of silence is not just clumsily opposed to speech as one might expect. Instead, it's a complex story with well-developed characters. The easy voice of righteousness is present, but relegated to one character to become just part of a varied chorus of responses to oppression. Other characters respond with stoic acceptance, some with unmindful defiance, and Naomi herself responds to their treatment by shutting down inside.

There's not a great deal of history; the relocation and internment are settings and events, not the subject of the story. So don't grab it if you're looking for a lot of information on this troubled time. But if you want a marvelously-written story that will pull you right in, pick up Obasan, because it's the book for you.

The Famous Victories of Henry V, Anonymous

Last time I wrote of the source for much of Shakespeare's King Lear, the anonymous play King Leir. I said:

Shakespeare didn't come up with his own stories. That may sound harsh, but it was pretty much true. Like many authors, he took the stories of others or true occurrences and used them as sources. ... This version of the story of King Leir (Lear/Leare/Leire) is one such source.
Sad to say, but this play is almost wholly notable only because of its more impressive successor. Reading it is like reading a crayon rendition of the Sistine Chapel - you find delight mostly in the bits that remind you of the beauty of the real thing. ...
This one is interesting from an academic standpoint, and might stand well on its own in a world without a Shakespeare, but you're better served just reading Lear again instead.

In many ways, a lot of these things are also true about this play, Famous Victories of Henry V. It's the sketched-out bones of what Shakespeare would turn into Henry IV Part One, Henry IV Part Two, and Henry V. The anonymous author of this play runs pell-mell through all the same events - wild young Hal's misdeeds, dying Henry IV and Hal's reformation, the insulting gift of tennis balls from the Dauphin, and the glory of Agincourt. It even has the same infusion of low comedy and screwball antics from the ruffians and clowns. But in this version, they're on fast-forward, skipping from event to event with barely any transition.

Some items are almost word-for-word as they are taken from the histories used by Shakespeare and the anonymous playwright, most prominently the scene where a bishop goes to great lengths to spell out Harry's right to the throne of France (taken from Holinshed's Chronicles). And the character of Derick in Famous Victories has much the same clowning attitude and some similar lines to the Shakespearean clowns.

It appears as though Famous Victories was created with ample free room between the lines - "underwritten" as it's said - so that the players could ad-lib their own jokes and fights and have a free hand. It must have been a sight to see in the theater back in the day, but you'd do better to skip it and - as with King Leir - return to the Shakespeare. The Bard is subtler and infinitely more beautiful.

Follow the Rabbit-Proof Fence, Doris Pilkington

Have you ever had someone tell you a joke that you just assumed must be funny? You chuckled for a moment and smiled uncertainly, perhaps?

Two polar bears are sitting in a bathtub. The first one says, "Pass the soap." The second one says, "No soap, radio!"

Not funny, of course - the joke is that there's no joke. The prank uses our learned social graces against us, since we want to be polite and not make someone feel bad for telling a terrible joke and we also want to seem intelligent and capable of understanding a clever joke.

That's how I felt about this book when it was assigned in one of my classes. While reading it, I kept the mental equivalent of a hesitant smile on my face, even though right from the first chapter I was puzzled at how bad it was. I assumed I must be missing something - it must be purposefully sparse and awkward, to make a point. I kept waiting to get the joke, to understand the cleverness at work. It was assigned, so it must be good. Right?

No. The answer is an emphatic no. An exaggerated, head-shaking, disappointing no.

Follow the Rabbit-Proof Fence is the true story of three young indigenous Australian girls who are taken from their families by the government to a boarding school for "half-caste" (mixed race) children. They escape, and proceed to walk the entire width of Australia to return to their home. They find their way by locating and following the rabbit-proof fence that ran the length of the country, avoiding authority figures and begging for food.

The book is written in a dry and sparse manner, opening with a few imagined episodes from early history between the aboriginal peoples and European explorers, before settling into an account of the girls' families and the girls themselves. Every effort is made to spare the reader from any details of interesting description or creative storytelling, so as not to get in the way of a stultifying tale devoid of incident. Pilkington painstakingly goes on and on, and the tedium of it is all the more remarkable because the book is so short. How she managed to be so boring in only a bit more than 100 pages is a mystery. But nothing happens. The girls are kidnapped, they escape unpursued and easily, and then they walk home. They beg on the way, and sometimes we get a glimpse of how authorities are looking for them. It is a chore.

Skip this book. You don't need to read it, and wouldn't enjoy it if you did.

The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes, Arthur Conan Doyle

I have been making my way through the Sherlock Holmes books for a couple of months now. This is the last one available from Project Gutenberg's free ebooks, though, so this will probably be the end of my Holmes experiences for now. They have not been without their reward.

Like many books of short stories, these are perfect for when you can only snatch a moment of reading in between activities (or classes). And each one is clever and engaging in a different way. Some of them, of course, make you pause halfway through and smile to yourself about the secret shared between only yourself and the great detective, while Watson and Lestrade are harrumphing with confusion. You fools! Of course it must have been his wife!

Other stories are genuinely puzzling, and while you may know that Holmes will solve the mystery in the end, you just can't conceive of how he is going to do it. Sometimes this is an artifact of the changed times - phrenology is not longer considered a sound science, for example - but other times this is just because Doyle was a damned smart man. He wrote a good yarn.

As with the other books, I recommend reading this. It's enormous good fun for light pleasure reading.

Tarlton's Jests, Anonymous

This collection of pranks and jokes actually has little to do with the famous Elizabethan actor Richard Tarlton, beyond bearing his name. While all of the anecdotes feature him as the clown, they generally are previously-collected stories of uncertain origin. Tarlton was one of the most famous "players" to take the stage during Shakespeare's day, and an enormous celebrity, so the strength of his name would have been sufficient to make a collection of "his" jests fly off the shelves. There are a few items are actually from Tarlton himself - including one account of his performance in Famous Acts of Henry V, reviewed previously.

The jokes unfortunately demonstrate that a lot of Elizabethan humor just wasn't that funny. To wit, a sample "jest" (my explanatory edits are in brackets):

A jest of an apple hitting Tarlton on the face

Tarlton haying flouted the fellow for his pippin which hee threw, hee thought to be meet with Tarlton at length ["to be meet" = to get even with him]. So in the play, Tarlton's part was to travell, who, kneeling down to aske his other blessing, the fellow threw an apple at him, which hit him on the cheek. Tarlton taking up the apple, made this jest: —

Gentlemen, this fellow, with this face of mapple [gnarled like a maple tree]
Instead of a pipin, hath thrown me an apple.
But as for an apple, he hath cast a crab ;
So, instead of an honest woman, God hath sent him a drab [prostitute].

The people laughed heartily, for he had a queene [prostitute] to his wife

Yeah, pretty lame. Most of them are about of the same quality, or else crude sorts of pranks like when Tarlton goes to a doctor with a urinal full of wine, and then astonishes the doctor by drinking his own "urine." Or when Tarlton plays a "merrie jest" by setting someone's house on fire.

There are a few gems in the rough, though, and so it might be worth taking a look. It certainly is thick with the flavor of its time, and shows you that people have always been fascinated by celebrities. You might want to check it out.

Here's a clever one, to end on:

Tarlton's greeting with Banks his horse.

There was one Banks, in the time of Tarlton, who served the Earle of Essex, and had a horse of strange qualities, and being at the Crosse-keyes in Gracious streete, getting mony with him, as he was mightily resorted to. Tarlton then, with his fellowes, playing at the Bel by [nearby], came into the Crosse-keyes, amongst many people, to see fashions [shows], which Banks perceiving, to make the people laugh, saies Signior, to his horse, go fetch me the veryest foole in the company. The jade [bitch] comes immediately and with his mouth drawes Tarlton forth. Tarlton, with merry words, said nothing, but "God a mercy horse." In the end Tarlton, seeing the people laugh so, was angry inwardly, and said, Sir, had I power of your horse, as you have, I would doe more than that. What ere it be, said Banks, to please him, I will charge him to do it. Then, saies Tarlton, charge him to bring me the veriest whore-master in the company. The horse leades his master to him. Then "God a mercy horse, indeed," saies Tarlton. The people had much ado to keep peace : but Bankes and Tarlton had like to have squar'd, and the horse by to give aime. But ever after it was a by word [byword, i.e. a common saying] thorow London, God a mercy horse, and is to this day.

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