Category Archives: Book Reviews

The last word he pronounced was…

Many individuals reduce books or movies to quotes that over time have become cliches. Publishers do this too. Penguin Classics starts its back cover of “The Heart of Darkness” with Kurtz’s last words of horror.

Quote repetition or scene reminiscing can lead some individuals to think they’re familiar with a book or movie–even if they haven’t read or seen it.

Mention, for example, “Deliverance” to someone who was a young adult in the 1970s. They’ll likely mimic the tune of “Dueling Banjos,” though they never saw the film.

To read “The Heart of Darkness” (1899) is to let Conrad’s character, Marlow, take you slowly up the Congo to the dim, muddy place that seems “of the first ages.” Taking the trip, you experience the full story’s richness and humor in addition to its culmination of darkness and horror.

The final words that Kurtz “cried in a whisper,” can be recited by many. Fewer can quote the only person with Kurtz when he spoke his last. What Marlow says at the story’s end is also remarkable.

After he blows out the candle and leaves the cabin (a whole year after), Marlow chooses to visit Kurtz’s mourning fiance. She knows that Marlow was the last one to see the man she loved. She pleads with him to tell her Kurtz’s last word.

When a character has to make a big choice–one they can’t go back on–that’s key to a good story. Marlow either needs to tell the fiance the truth, or he needs to make something up.

“It seemed to me that the house would collapse before I could escape, that the heavens would fall upon my head.”

That’s what Marlow feels…when he says to the fiance,

” ‘The last word he pronounced was–your name.’ “

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Sailing the Icy Passage below South America’s Cape Horn

“Our sails spread beyond the ship, rising in a pyramid and burying the hull in canvas, like what the whalemen call a Cape Horn-er under a cloud of sail.”

That 1835 passage was written by Richard Henry Dana, who at nineteen quit Harvard to serve on a merchant ship and record his seafaring experience. At the time, books about sailing were written by officers. Dana’s goal: Write the view that was missing–the sailor’s.

From Boston Harbor he set out on the Pilgrim, and like other sailors Dana took orders and climbed the masts, furling and unfurling the sails. When not on deck he was below, eating or sleeping in the forecastle. The quarters were dark, cramped behind the bow, and “before the mast.” The phrase came to describe being a sailor versus being an officer.

Aren’t sailors idle at sea? That misconception Dana clears up. “You’ll never see a man on board standing idle on deck, sitting down, or leaning over the side. The discipline of the ship requires every man to be at work, except at night and on Sundays.”

Dana describes the constant work, “steering, reefing, furling, bracing, making and setting sail, and pulling, hauling, and climbing in every direction.” He starts by detailing the four months sailing from Boston to California.

Getting there took so long because a ship couldn’t cut between the Americas (no canal through Panama). The only way to the Pacific: sail south over the equator, continue toward the Antarctic, then turn west into the icy passage below South America’s Cape Horn. There, sleet stiffened the sails and rigging, it glazed the masts and deck, and it froze the sailors’ faces and hands.

Despite the labor of sailing, Dana was awed by many sights. “There, floating in the ocean, was an iceberg of the largest size, an immense mountain-island, three miles in circumference and several hundred feet in height. The base rising and sinking in slow motion, the dashing of waves upon it, the thundering of the cracking mass, the breaking and tumbling of huge pieces, all this combined into true sublimity.”

Navigating the hazards paid off when the Pilgrim reached California’s coast. The ship floated into the Mexican bays of San Diego, San Pedro, Santa Barbara, Monterey, and San Francisco, where the agent sold the cargo of “everything from Chinese fireworks to English cart-wheels.”

Selling so much cargo at so many ports took more than a year. For sixteen months the sailors worked not only on the ship, but also on shore and in between. Upon entering each bay they dropped anchor, dropped boats, and rowed buyers back and forth. 

Separately, the sailors hauled what was received in exchange–animal hides that were large, heavy, and stiff as boards. From shore, each sailor carried one at a time on his head as he trudged through the surf to waiting boats. The sailors then rowed the filled boats back to the ship. By the time the entire cargo was sold, the sailors had carried and stowed fifteen thousand hides.

Two Years Before the Mast achieves Dana’s goal of giving the sailor’s view, highlighting the hard labor, strict discipline, dangerous work, and countering the romance. Dana writes of a fellow sailor who from high on a yard, fell into the sea and wasn’t recovered.

“At sea the man is near you, you hear his voice, and in an instant he’s gone, nothing but a vacancy shows his loss. There’s an empty berth in the forecastle, and a man wanting when the small night-watch is mustered. There’s one less to take the wheel, and one less to lay out with you upon the yard.”

That’s an example of the feeling Dana puts into his journalism. The sections with nautical terms were sometimes difficult to get through, but the passages with images and emotions kept me reading.

The return to Boston required the sailors to work just as hard, and Dana’s spirits rose as he neared the end of his merchant service.

“We were now to the northward of the line, and every day added to our latitude. The Magellan Clouds, the last sign of south latitude, had long been sunk, and the North Star, the Great Bear, and the familiar signs of northern latitudes, were rising in the heavens. Next to seeing land, there is no sight which makes one realize more that he is drawing near home, than to see the same heavens, under which he was born, shining at night over his head.”

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You Stand on Dead Men’s Legs

“You stand on dead men’s legs.”

So says Captain Larsen to his human find, the once drowning stranger now plucked from San Francisco Bay by the crew of The Ghost, a schooner starting for the coast of Japan to hunt seals.

The captain ordered his crew to lift the chance man from the freezing water only because they were short one. (The captain’s mate died onboard from a “debauch” the night before.)

The rescued man is Humphrey Van Weyden, who responds to Larsen’s questions of occupation by identifying himself as a “gentleman” who has an “income.”

The angered captain responds, “Who earned it? Eh? I thought so. Your father. You stand on dead men’s legs.”

Humphrey dismisses the abuse and asks to be put ashore.

It’s then that Wolf Larsen, as the captain’s known, refuses Humphrey’s request and commits to make him stand on his own legs.

“My mate’s gone, and there’ll be a lot of promotion. A sailor comes aft to take mate’s place, cabin-boy goes for’ard to take sailor’s place, and you…”

Thus Humphrey Van Weyden, gentleman, is impressed into service as “Hump,” cabin boy of The Ghost.

This is the setup for Jack London’s 1904 novel The Sea-Wolf. London pits Wolf and Hump against each other for an engaging tale on the sea and to explore whether humans have immortal souls.

It’s Van Weyden who tells the story. He shows Larsen both as a fierce captain of super-human strength who abuses his crew, and as a self-educated man (his state-room full of literary classics and scientific works) who’s curious but skeptical about the value of life.

During breaks in the terror and the hard work of sailing, Wolf seeks Hump to debate whether life is anything more than “particles of yeast…striving to devour each other.” Hump’s impressed by Wolf’s ability to reason and argue, but is unable to change him from “a man of whom to always be afraid.”

Wolf does have a weakness–he gets migraines. This enables two things: opportunity for Hump to save himself, and a gradual physical deterioration that presents an idea about life being more than the desire to devour.

Reading The Sea-Wolf I felt like I too was captive on The Ghost.

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Don Quixote’s Cartoonlike Humor

Ever see Fractured Fairy Tales? As a kid I loved watching the cartoon from the sixties. The five-minute episodes featured knights and damsels, kings and commoners in humorous parodies of stories for children. The shorts aired during morning programming for kids, but parents were the target of the writers. The show entertained with wit, often including touches of social and political commentary.

With similar humor and wit Miguel de Cervantes wrote Don Quixote. I recognized immediately its cartoonlike genre and short chapters, so I chose breakfast time for reading it. Like a kid who used to watch a cartoon before going to school, I smiled through an episode of Quixote before going to work. One hundred and twenty-five chapters gave as many escapes from adulthood.

The book’s characters fart, puke, cross-dress, get drunk, strike each other, flog themselves, and play adult practical jokes. It’s hilarious and juvenile but written for adults. Published in Spain in 1605, the book was so enjoyed that Cervantes wrote a sequel. Both are included in the 1885 English translation. Today it’s still funny and its social and political commentary still applies.

What’s funny is that fifty-year-old villager Quixote has read so many stories of chivalry he gets the notion he’s a knight. The age of chivalry has passed for a century, but Quixote dons heirloom armor, mounts a tired horse, and sets out for adventure.

Deluded by his obsession he takes innocent individuals for enemies, challenges them, then in cartoonlike violence delivers blows and receives them back. Sidekick Sancho Panza is unable to get his master to see what things really are. The lazy, simple, farm laborer accompanies Quixote on an ass, shares the consequences, and stays faithful for one reason: Quixote promises to win him an island to govern.

Quixote is mad, of course, and those who don’t yet know find out fast. In one scene a traveling entertainer makes Quixote special guest at his puppet show. During the performance, Quixote watches as a puppet knight and his puppet lover are chased by puppet horsemen. At this Quixote draws his sword and showers blows on the miniature mounted Moors.

In another scene, some who know Quixote’s madness have fun with it. A duke and duchess invite Quixote and Panza to their court for their own entertainment. The noble pair, as part of a long-running practical joke, convince knight and squire to mount a wooden horse with a peg in its head, and make them believe it’s flying them to a remote kingdom.

Cervantes strings a hundred such scenes together, moving character Quixote from beginning to end in a way that makes sense, holds attention, and entertains. There’s social and political commentary to think about or to let go. If you just want reading that brings back the feeling of juvenile cartoon-like fun, give Quixote a try.

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