Monday, June 14, 2010

Robinson Crusoe

I have read this and Moll Flanders now by Daniel Defoe, and while both are great adventure stories, they both suffer from the problem of where to end the story. They start somewhat at the beginning of a life (or rather, adulthood) and then end somewhere near the end, but not actually the end of the life. So are these actually Biographies as implied in the text of the books or are they Novels - made up stories possibly loosely based on actual persons or events.
Robinson Crusoe makes me question the veracity of several events related, most notably the cannibalism of the Caribbe tribe residents of the islands near Trinidad and the wolves of the Pyrenees. There is also the question of whether a man could live 25 years on an island by himself without going mad or dying of loneliness.
Like Homer's Odysseus which goes on and on about the roasting of the hams and leg quarters, quite a bit of this book is devoted to the trivia and minutia of raising of goats, growing of crops of barley and rice, digging of caves, storing of gunpowder and the ceasless xenophobia displayed by the main character. If you don't mind reading lengthy descriptions of these actions, it is quite an enjoyable book. One of the biggest turning points is when Crusoe becomes deeply religious; his conversion is profound and has a truth about it that transcends some of what has to be blatant exaggerations.
The biggest exaggeration has to be the cannibalism of Friday and others. Crusoe interprets the Caribbe's actions as just eating to eat, as though "eating mans" was just a delicious option to eating goats, deer, or pigs. If you read carefully, the Caribbes that engage in cannibalism clearly do so with ceremony: They go to a distant island to do it, only the men come, only a few people are actually eaten, those few people eaten are well chosen as the strongest of the enemy. In other words, this action fits with what is known about the cannibalism among other tribes, that it is ceremonial, symbolic, and represents taking the strength away from the enemy and consumed by the conquerers. It is not a regular dietary choice.
The second exaggeration ,that is just ridiculous, is the attack of the starving wolves in the Pyrenees mountains. Defoe writes of Crusoe facing 300 wolves all bent on attacking him and his party of twenty mounted men. At least it is acknowledged that the wolves were after the horses, and were not primarily preying upon people. Still, it is exceedingly unlikely that so many wolves would congregate in one place, attack in unison, or continue to attack despite a prior prey kill supposedly witnessed. Why end an interesting, plausible book upon this fairy-tale, wolf-bashing last stand is unintelligible to me.
Lastly, the end is not really the end. There is more material "fit for another book of this volume" hinted at, but told in a rush right in the last paragraphs. This is most probably a construct, like the preface, which is intended to make the book seem a biography rather than a novel.
In conclusion, unless you are really interested in survivalist mentality or religious conversions, this is not a book you want to spend a lot of time on. The cliff notes would suffice.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

No wonder everyone loves...

To Kill a Mockingbird, which I had never read until this past week. Its consistently at the top of the lists, and I can see why. Its great to read this book as an adult, because you understand all the nuances. But I can also see why kids would enjoy the book too: It has a little perry-mason-style courtroom drama, it has the creepy unknown neighbor angle, and it covers the ups and downs of siblings with a truth that crosses generational and gender- specifics.
And the downside, of course, is the attitude toward African-Americans (or People of Color, whichever is more preferred). It is a stark reminder of how even late in the 20th century there was still this black/white divide especially in the south, where the most obvious truths were blatantly ignored. It is horrible how people of color were treated. Thank goodness times have changed, and continue to change for the better in that respect.