Wednesday, April 22, 2009

What's So Great About Hawthorne: The Platypus Reads Part XXXII

"The Scarlet Letter" has always conjured up pictures in my mind of dull and trite high school "readings." I highly enjoyed literature class in high school, and there were very few books I didn't like, but there were a few that always left me scratching my head as to why they were included. I was always worried that somehow "The Scarlet Letter" would fall into that category. Unlike the rest of America, I missed out on this educational "rite of passage" due to a move in the middle of my junior year. So for years I was left wondering: what's so great about Hawthorne. After all, how interesting could a book about how mean and nasty the Puritans were and an affair be?

My interest was peaked, however, when I read "The Marble Faun" and "Young Goodman Brown" this past summer. I liked what I read. If this was Hawthorne, then I wanted more of it. That led to picking up "The Scarlet Letter" this past month.

I won't bother with details of the plot, since you probably already know. Instead, I'd like to say a few words about what I appreciated about the novel's style:

1. Hawthorne reads like Shakespeare. There's a heavy theatrical quality to "The Scarlet Letter" that I thoroughly enjoyed. Most of the scenes in the novel focus on extended dialogs between two of the characters and then passages of chorus-like exposition. I kept thinking how much fun it would be to adapt the work into a stage play.

2. Hawthorne is highly allegorical without writing allegory. Like Tolkien, I have a dislike of the genre and the "purposed domination" of its authors. Hawthorne packs his work with images that all carry a deep inner meaning without ever descending into the constraining one-to-one correspondences that are the halmark of allegory.

3. Hawthorne makes New England rich and interesting. America, as a young nation, does not have deep wells of experience to draw on and New Englanders are not noted as being particularly interesting or pleasant people. When they're known for anything at all its as kill-joys and skin-flints. In Hawthorne's work, New England becomes a rich land of mystery and depth suitable as a setting for high literary drama.

Maybe "The Scarlet Letter" wasn't the high-point of your high school experience, but if these three points catch your attention, then why not give it a second chance?

Thursday, April 02, 2009

The Platypus Reads: Part XXXI

Today's book is "Eifelheim," by Michael Flynn. Here's the down and dirty:

Aliens crash-land in 14th century Germany on the eve of the Black Death and are befriended by a reclusive scholastic.

What Flynn gets right:

The medieval worldview is presented in all its richness and Flynn renders Pastor Dietrich and his flock in a way that makes them feel three-dimensional and contemporary.

What Flynn misses:

Perhaps the sciences are a different story, but I kept thinking throughout the modern portions of the book that his academics don't speak or act like any of the academics I've known. I also have to confess a bias against Cliometrics. When I see a Cliometrician in a story, I have flashbacks to Jeff Goldbloom in Jurassic Park.

Closing thoughts:

If you like the middle ages or quirky sci-fi twists, this is your book. In spite of my dislike for the modern portions, I give it two thumbs up.