Trivia : The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn was first published in America in 1885. Most people consider it a classic. Ernest Hemingway went so far as to say that it was the “one book” from which “all modern American literature” came, and that “there was nothing before and nothing as good ever since”.

While this statement ignores great works like Moby-Dick and The Scarlet Letter, Huckleberry Finn was notable because it was the first novel to be written in the American vernacular. Huck speaks in dialect, using phrases like “it ain’t no matter” or “it warn’t no time to be sentimentering.”

Since most writers of the time were still imitating European literature, writing the way Americans actually talked seemed revolutionary. It was a language that was clear, crisp, and vivid, and it changed the way Americans wrote.

The book sold very well when it was first published, but it was also criticized by many of Mark Twain’s contemporaries who thought it was coarse and uncouth.

Huckleberry Finn first appeared as Tom Sawyer’s friend in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1876). Huck is the “juvenile pariah of the village” and “son of the town drunkard,” Pap Finn. He wears cast off adult clothes and sleeps in doorways and empty barrels. Despite this, the other children “wished they dared to be like him.”

Though Twain saw Huck’s story as a kind of sequel to his earlier book, the new novel was far more serious, focusing on the institution of slavery and other aspects of life in the American South.

At the heart of the book is a journey… Huck and his friend Jim, a runaway slave, escape down the Mississippi River on a raft. Huck is running away from his abusive father while Jim runs away because he is about to be sold and separated from his wife and children. Huck narrates the story in his distinctive voice, offering colourful descriptions of the people and places they encounter along the way.

The book takes a satirical look at racism, religion and other social attitudes of the time. While Jim is strong, brave, generous and wise, many of the white characters are portrayed as violent, stupid or simply selfish.

Huck, who’s grown up in the South before the Civil War, not only accepts slavery, but believes that helping Jim run away is a sin. The moral climax of the novel is when Huck debates whether or not to send Jim’s owner a letter detailing Jim’s whereabouts. Finally, Huck says, “All right, then, I’ll go to hell,” and tears the letter up.

Even in 1885, two decades after the Emancipation Proclamation and the end of the Civil War, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn landed with a splash. A month after its publication, a library in Concord, Massachusetts, banned the book, calling its subject matter “tawdry” and its narrative voice “coarse” and “ignorant.” Other libraries followed suit, beginning a controversy that continued long after Mark Twain’s death in 1910.

In the 1950s, the book came under fire from African-American groups for being racist in its portrayal of black characters, despite the fact that it was seen by many as a strong criticism of racism and slavery. As recently as 1998, an Arizona parent sued her school district, claiming that making Twain’s novel required high school reading made already existing racial tensions even worse.

A major criticism of  Huckleberry Finn is that the book begins to fail when Tom Sawyer enters the novel. Up until that point, Huck and Jim have developed a friendship bound by their mutual plight as runaways. We believe Huck cares about Jim and has learned to see his humanity. But when Tom Sawyer comes into the novel, Huck changes. He becomes passive and doesn’t even seem to care when Jim is captured.

To make matters worse, it turns out that Jim’s owner has already set him free, and that Huck’s abusive dad is dead. Essentially, Huck and Jim have been running away from nothing. Many, including American novelist Jane Smiley , believe that by slapping on a happy ending, Twain was ignoring the complex questions his book raises.

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn continues to be one of the most-challenged books in American literature. It is still frequently in the news, as various schools and school systems across America either ban it from or restore it to their classrooms.

The objections are usually over the n-word, which occurs over 200 times in the book. That is certainly derogatory, but I don’t think the author intended it to be. He was merely portraying society as it was and writing the way people spoke. But I wish he had worked a little harder on the resolution of the book.


Writer’s almanac


Book Review: The Hound of the Baskervilles


This was my first pick from my Classics Club book list. I’ve read it before, of course, but that was nearly two decades ago. So while I had a general idea of the story, I had forgotten a lot of the specifics which was good, because it made my experience of the book a lot more fresh than it would have been otherwise.

The Hound of the Baskervilles is probably the most famous of Conan Doyle’s stories which is both fitting and surprising. Fitting because it is such a good story and it is told so well. The suspense builds and builds until the reader feels as if his head is going to explode from all the tension and then comes this giant hound with glowing eyes and a glowing mouth to push the tension up even further…

Surprising, because of all of the Sherlock Holmes stories, this is perhaps the most atypical. It begins in the same way as most of the other stories, with the arrival of a client and the unfolding of a mystery. But it reads more like a thriller than a detective story. There are clues aplenty, but working out the clues is less important to the progress of the story than the unfolding action which is brilliantly written.

All the characters, Sir Henry, Dr Mortimer, Stapleton, Frankland, Barrymore…each of them is important to the story and each has a role to play in the unfolding mystery. Stapleton and Frankland in particular are written very well.

The story is full of great sequences, but my favourite is the night on the moor when Dr Watson and Sir Henry go looking for Seldon, the escaped convict and hear the awful howling of the hound for the first time. It is a chilling moment. Then there is the part where Dr Watson goes looking for the other man hiding on the moor and finds Sherlock Holmes…the suspense that is built up here is just wonderful.

Conan Doyle is a very visual writer and he has an amazing ability to paint a scene and describe a place…the moor is a very important part of this story and he really makes you feel the coldness, the isolation and the darkness of the place.

The book is very well paced and it goes easily from fast paced action to slow building tension. It was a joy to read.

The Classics Club : Booklist


Following from my previous post about The Classics Club here is the list of books that I have chosen to read over the next few years. I like the five year time-line. Considering all the other stuff that I want to read, I don’t think I can manage to read more than ten of these books in a year. And then again, I may just race through them. I really don’t know. So I’m not going to set a specific deadline, but I will read all of them and I will blog about them.

These are all books that I have wanted to read at one time or the other. Some of them are books that I read in abridged versions as a kid:

1)       H Rider Haggard: King Solomon’s Mines

2)      Robert Louis Stevenson: Kidnapped

3)      Robert Louis Stevenson: The Black Arrow

4)      Robert Louis Stevenson: The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr. Hyde

5)      Robert Louis Stevenson: Treasure Island

6)      H G Wells: War of the Worlds

7)      H G Wells: Invisible man

8)      Jules Verne: Around the World in Eighty Days

9)      Jules Verne: Mysterious Island

10)   Alexandre Dumas: The Three Musketeers

11)    Alexandre Dumas: The Man in the Iron Mask

12)   Sir Arthur Conan Doyle: Hound of the Baskervilles

13)   Anthony Hope: The Prisoner of Zenda

14)   Johann David Wyss: The Swiss Family Robinson


And then there are others that I met as a teen and want to re-read

15)   H D Thoreau: Walden

16)   Jane Austen: Sanditon

17)   Aldous Huxley: Island

18)   Agatha Christie: The Murder of Roger Ackroyd

19)   Agatha Christie: The Mysterious Affair at Styles

20)  John Buchan : The thirty nine steps

21)   P G Wodehouse : Bill the Conqueror

22)   P G Wodehouse : Aunts aren’t Gentlemen


The rest are books that I have heard about and wanted to read, but never really got around to.

23)   Jane Austen: Lady Susan

24)   James Baldwin: Giovanni’s Room

25)   Ray Bradbury: The Martian Chronicles

26)   Wilkie Collins: The Moonstone

27)   Daniel Defoe: Robinson Crusoe

28)  Charles Dickens: Tale of two Cities

29)   Charles Dickens: The Old Curiosity Shop

30)  Sir Arthur Conan Doyle: Lost World

31)   F Scott Fitzgerald: The Great Gatsby

32)   John Irving: A Prayer for Owen Meany

33)   John Irving: The World According to Garp

34)   Marcel Proust: Swann’s Way

35)   Yates, Richard: Revolutionary Road

36)   Elizabeth Gaskell: North and South

37)   Edgar Allan Poe: The Murders at Rue Morgue

38)  William Shakespeare: Two gentlemen of Verona

39)   William Shakespeare: Julius Caesar

40)  Wallace Stegner: Crossing to Safety

41)   Thornton Wilder: Our Town

42)   Virginia Woolf: To the Lighthouse

43)   Virginia Woolf : Mrs Dolloway


The thing about any list of classics (one that irks me a little bit) is that it is nearly always filled with works of fiction. So to remedy that, the rest of my choices are all essays, memoirs and other forms of non-fiction. I have read bits and pieces of these books over the years, but I have never experienced them as complete books.

44)   William Hazlitt: Table Talk

45)   Charles Lamb: Essays of Elia

46)   Joseph Addison and Richard Steele: The Coverly Papers

47)   Allen Bennett: The Uncommon Reader

48)  Ernest Hemingway: A Moveable Feast

49)   Michael de Montaigne: Essays

50)  John Steinbeck: America and Americans

51)   Mark Twain: A Tramp Abroad

52)   Virginia Woolf: The Common Reader

This is by no means a final list. It will change; there will be additions and subtractions. I may find a couple of writers that I like so much that I end up reading all or most of their books. I may thoroughly dislike a couple of books that I am now intrigued by and I may abandon them altogether….

For now this is the list of classic books that I want to read over the next few years.

The Classics Club

As I mentioned in an earlier post (Revisiting the Classics) I have been reading King Solomon’s Mines by H Rider Haggard. I’m only a few chapters into it, but I’m enjoying it thoroughly. And I can’t help thinking that I want to read more of these books.

A few years ago, I bought a whole bunch of classics, thinking that these are books I want to read again and get to know properly. They have sat on my bookshelves since then, untouched, sharing space with the Children’s Classics versions of themselves.

I wanted to read them, I still do, but I simply haven’t picked them up. There are just too many other books to read. I hear about something new every day and I am always adding to my collection of books…

It has become obvious that I will not read any of the classics that I want to read, unless I make a conscious decision to do so. And when I say classics, I’m not talking only about the books that I read as a child.

There are others that I have long been curious about, books that I have heard a lot about, but never read, like The Common Reader by Virginia Woolf, The Martian Chronicles by Ray Bradbury, Giovanni’s Room by James Baldwin, A Prayer for Owen Meany by John Irving and many, many others.

These are all books that I want to read, but I just don’t seem to think about them when I’m trying to decide what to read next and I can’t help feeling as though I’m missing out…

A fellow blogger recently told me about The Classics Club,

This is a online community intended to inspire people to read and blog about classic books. You can join the community any time you want. All you have to do is commit to reading at least 50 classics over the next five years. Which books you choose is entirely up to you. The idea is to make a list of 50 books (or more if it suits your fancy) and read them alongside whatever else you normally read.

Now I have never been one to force myself to read a book. I read books because I enjoy them, not because I want to learn something or because I want to prove something. I am not fond of reading challenges and lists of “must read” books. They make reading feel too much like work.

But this is a list I want to make and read my way through. There is a long list of books on the classics club website that you can choose from, but there is no need to select titles only from that list. You can add and subtract as you wish so long as you keep to the fundamental goal of reading classic literature.

Fifty books over a five year period is just ten classics a year in addition to everything else I want to read. That is perfectly doable. And it is nice to be part of a community that values good writing. It is, after all, the quality of writing and the universality of a story, an idea or a character that makes a book a classic. 

I have been working on my list since yesterday and I will put it up here as soon as I’m done. If any of you want to join in, please let me know.

Review: Mr Darcy’s Diary by Amanda Grange


This is yet another reworking of Pride and Prejudice and it is the best that I have come across so far. It is,  as the title says, Mr Darcy’s diary. It is his side of the story and because it is told in the first person, we get to see and hear his thoughts as well as his words and actions. The original tells you nothing at all about Darcy’s thoughts, so this required quite a bit of imagination and I think Amanda Grange pulled off very convincingly.

There is a lot of the story in Pride and Prejudice that happens off screen, as it were…Wickham’s attempt to elope with Georgiana, Darcy’s attempts to find Wickham and Lydia, Lady Catherine trying to convince Darcy to give up Elizabeth and most importantly, Darcy’s change of heart as he begins to realise just how badly he had behaved while proposing to Elizabeth…all of these scenes are fleshed out here. And done well, at that.

Unlike Austen, Amanda Grange does not stop at the point when Darcy and Elizabeth get married. She gives us a look at their life in Premberley, their life as a couple which I liked quite a bit. There is also a surprising and an entirely satisfying new pairing.

But I found myself wondering as I read this if it could be a stand alone novel, if someone who hadn’t read Pride and Prejudice could read this and understand all of the goings on and get a flavor of the original. Honestly, I don’t think so. It works well as a companion volume, it is complimentary to the original, but it cannot stand alone.

Amanda Grange has been very faithful to Austen and she has not deviated from the original except to make a couple of small additions. The characters are much the same, though I think she softened Darcy a little. Both the language and the tone of the narrative recall the original…

I have one complaint, though. One of the things that made Pride and Prejudice so special was the character of Elizabeth Bennett. She is so vividly written. She gets a bit lost in this book. We hear a lot about Darcy’s admiration for her, but we only hear her in the dialogue which she has with him or someone around him and that is just not enough to paint the vivacious picture of her that Austen did.

Nonetheless, it was a thoroughly enjoyable read.

Revisiting the Classics

I read a lot of classics when I was a kid…all in abridged children’s editions and I loved them. I knew they were abridged and I had a vague notion that I would read them, properly, the way they had been written, once I grew up.

I never did. My kids are reading those books now. I was sitting with them yesterday as we went through a stack of books, both new and old as I helped them pick their next read…My son was looking through King Solomon’s Mines and Robin Hood while my daughter picked 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, all books that I have read and loved and largely forgotten.


King Solomon’s Mines is the only one I remember with any clarity. Not surprising, considering how many times I read it as a kid. It is a marvelous story and one that I am keen to revisit. Thanks to Project Gutenberg, I got myself a copy of the book in less than ten seconds (I will never cease to marvel at this).

So it is time to see if the story still holds the same magic for me that it did back when I was a wide eyed ten year old reading breathlessly wondering what on earth was going to happen next.

Flashback Friday : Persuasion by Jane Austen


Flashback Friday is a meme hosted by Bookshelf fantasies  focusing on showing some love for the older books in our lives and on our shelves. 

The book I have chosen to celebrate this week is Persuasion by Jane Austen. I love Jane Austen and her books to the point of craziness.

I have read all of her books several times over the years. Most people say that Pride and Prejudice is their favorite. It is the first Austen that I read and I like it a lot, but I like Persuasion more.

It has a lovely set of characters, some sensible, some ridiculous. A heroine, Anne Elliott, who at twenty-seven is older, smarter and wiser than the rest of Austen’s heroines. A hero, Captain Frederick Wentworth who is charming, sensible and strong willed.

The story goes somewhat like this:

Eight years before the story begins, Anne and Fredrick Wentworth meet and fall in love. They even get engaged, but Anne’s family does not approve and she is persuaded to end the relationship. A decision that she regrets deeply in the years that follow.

Eight years later they meet again. There is contrition on her side and wounded pride on his. Throw in a couple of young girls who are determined to marry Captain Wentworth and Mr Elliot, Anne’s cousin who insists on wooing her and there is plenty of drama before they find their way back to each other.

This is a love story, but it is so much more than that. The book is beautifully written. It is prose at its best. There is a fluidity and an ease in the writing that is charming. The characters are nicely fleshed out and if some of them seem like caricatures, that is only because they are intended to be.

The thing about Austen’s books is that they are not just romance, there is satire here and a faithful depiction of the society and customs of her day, combined with a commentary on the same.

Persuasion is Austen’s last published book and it is her best. There is plenty of satire and ridicule here, but there is a lot of warmth as well. It is a beautiful book and one that will stay with me forever.

Daily Trivia : A Tale of Two Cities

A Tale of Two Cities was first published in serial form on this date ( April 30th ) in 1859. It appeared in the first issue of a new weekly journal, All the Year Round, which Dickens founded himself.

A Tale of Two Cities was on the front page of the first issue, and thanks to Dickens’ popularity, it sold 125,000 copies. Dickens was so encouraged by its success that he also serialized Great Expectations in the journal, beginning in December of 1860.

Dickens published All the Year Round until his death in 1870. After that time, his son, Charles Dickens Jr., took up the reins, editing the journal until 1895. During its 36-year run, it featured the work of Anthony Trollope, Wilkie Collins, Edward Bulwer-Lytton, and several others.

A Tale of Two Cities begins in the most intriguing fashion:

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way …”

I haven’t read Moby Dick…

I’ve tried, but I never could read that book. It bothered me a little, just like it bothers me that I haven’t read War and Peace, never tried to even. I don’t like Dickens. I haven’t read Thomas Hardy or Henry James. I didn’t like Middlemarch, I hated Wuthering Heights and I found it very hard to read James Joyce.

These are all great authors and wonderful books. But I haven’t read them or if I did, I didn’t like them all that much. The first big issue for me, I think,  is that I’m not particularly fond of fiction, which does not of course, explain why I am fond of Jane Austen, Aldous Huxley, Marcel Proust, Conan Doyle, Stevenson or even P G Wodehouse, for that matter.

I think it is a matter of personal taste. While it is important to me that a book be written well, that alone is not enough. A book may have a lot of literary merit, but I cannot read it unless I actually like some of the people in it it. This is true for biographies as well. If I do not particularly like the person or the people that a book is about, I’m going to find it tough going.

That may not sound like a very mature way of looking at it, but the way I see it, if I am not enjoying a book, I see no reason whatsoever to keep reading it. And I will certainly never read a book just so I can say I have read it.