The Human Comedy by William Saroyan

The Human Comedy

The Human Comedy

William Saroyan (Adult Fiction)

In a small town in Ithaca, California, during World War II, there lived the Macauley family—Mrs. Macauley and her four children: Marcus, Bess, Homer, and Ulysses.  Marcus is serving in the army, Bess is attending college, Homer is determined to be the fastest telegraph messenger in the West, and young Ulysses, who at four years old, is enamored with everything in his very small world.  The Macauleys are workers, dreamers, and God-fearing folks who are living each day to its fullest while trying to find their own particular place in the world.  For Homer, it’s a time of hurdle races, playing catch, and riding his bike, but with the war and the grim news printed on each incoming telegram, he’s finding it increasingly difficult to put off manhood any longer.

This novel was billed as a coming-of-age story, but it truly is so much more.  With its short chapters—almost vignettes—The Human Comedy gives us a humorous and bittersweet peek into the lives of the citizens of Ithaca.  The elderly telegrapher fearing retirement, the son fighting in a war that he doesn’t understand, the town simpleton with a naïve heart of gold, a young boy with big dreams and ambitions, the teacher trying to impart a sense of civility and kindness into her students.  All of these wonderful characters’ stories are stitched together to form a tightknit community that mourns their fallen, cheers their heroes, comforts their sick, and opens their doors (and hearts) to strangers.

The Human Comedy is considered semi-autobiographical as many of the novel’s characters and situations are based on real-life people and events from Saroyan’s childhood.  Like Homer, Saroyan was a second-generation Armenian immigrant who lost a father quite early in life and worked as a telegraph messenger while a teenager.  Interestingly, The Human Comedy began as a screenplay written by Saroyan, but while Metro Goldwyn Mayer was filming the movie, Saroyan decided to turn his screenplay into what would become his first novel.

One of the novel’s youngest characters, Ulysses, gains great pleasure and satisfaction from the simplest things.  He often runs alongside the train as it travels through his town, waving to its occupants who always ignore our young man.  On one occasion however, a black man sees Ulysses and returns his wave while shouting, “Going home, boy—going back where I belong!”  The Human Comedy is a story of love, loss, decency, humanity, and kindness, but most of all, it is a story about home and the people we are blessed to call family.

Rating: 5/5

*Book cover image attributed to www.goodreads.com

 

Pudd’nhead Wilson by Mark Twain

puddnheadwilson

Pudd’nhead Wilson

Mark Twain (Adult Fiction)

Thomas Paine once said, “Titles are but nicknames, and every nickname is a title.”  Whichever you choose to use—title or nickname—one thing is for certain and that is Mr. David Wilson has got himself a doozy.  David Wilson is a lawyer and a newcomer to Dawson’s Landing, a slaveholding town on the Missouri side of the Mississippi River.  Since irony is apparently lost on the good folks of Dawson’s Landing, Mr. Wilson’s first (and last) attempt at humor falls somewhat flat and results in the people thinking their newest citizen is a fool; therefore, it is only reasonable that they give him the equally fitting nickname of “Pudd’nhead”.  Fortunately, what Pudd’nhead lacks in comedy he more than makes up for with fads.  He has a penchant for palmistry and finger marks and is so enamored with the latter, he goes all around town collecting as many as he can from anyone he meets.  Little does he know how useful these marks will prove to be when a case of mistaken identity, a series of robberies, and a brutal murder will ultimately point to the fact that perhaps Pudd’nhead Wilson isn’t such a fool after all.

Pudd’nhead Wilson is part murder mystery, part social commentary, and part psychological study of nature versus nurture.  Combined, it’s a humorous and thought-provoking story of good intentions, broken promises, honor, love, and the ultimate price of sin.  Twain gives us a story of two babies—one free and one slave—who were switched at birth and grow up according to their station in life.  The slave is bound to his master while the other is bound by his uncle’s and society’s expectations.  Twain also delivers one of the most infuriating and insufferable characters ever to grace the written page (honestly, you just want to reach in and give him a good wallop).  Our young Tom, who has been given every privilege imaginable, is crass, spoiled, smug, selfish, ungrateful, untrustworthy, and cowardly.  If ever there was a character truly deserving of a comeuppance, it would be Tom.

Mark Twain was born in the slave state of Missouri and slavery was a central theme in his writings.  However, Pudd’nhead Wilson doesn’t focus so much on slavery as it does on two men and how their lives are ultimately determined by the cradle in which they sleep.  A simple switch and both lives are irrevocably changed forever.  One man is given everything only to squander it away while the other is given nothing, but makes the most of what little life has to offer.  Pudd’nhead Wilson is a commentary on grace versus greed, dignity versus disgrace, and affection versus apathy and Twain delivers it all masterfully.  But of course, Mark Twain would know a thing or two about fools.  After all, it was he who gave us the quote, “It is better to keep your mouth closed and let people think you are a fool than to open it and remove all doubt.”  Oh, if only Pudd’nhead had known.

Rating: 5/5

*Book cover image attributed to www.goodreads.com

 

 

 

Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress by Dai Sijie

Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress

Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress

Dai Sijie (Adult Fiction)

It was in early 1971 when two “city youths”—ages 17 and 18—were banished to the mountain known as the Phoenix of the Sky.  Boyhood friends, they were to be re-educated as part of Chairman Mao’s Cultural Revolution in China.  If they were fortunate, they would be reunited with their families after two years.  But they were not the offspring of average parents.  Instead, their parents—professional, respected, educated—were classed as enemies of the people, and their chances of release currently stood at three in a thousand.  So, the two spent their days laboring in the paddy fields, working in the mines, or carrying human and animal waste on their backs.  But one fateful day, their village headman sent them to the district of Yong Jing.  That journey would culminate with the princess of Phoenix Mountain, a miller, and an author named Honoré de Balzac.

Dai Sijie himself was re-educated and spent between 1971 to 1974 in the mountains of Sichuan Province.  His experiences undoubtedly gave this novel its authenticity, depth, and richness.  I knew very little of Mao Zedong’s 10-year movement to preserve Chinese Communism through the cultural eradication of capitalism and tradition.  Needless to say, the results were disastrous: economically, politically, and societally.  Sijie gives us a glimpse of the isolation, fear, and hysteria suffered by those who were sent away through the eyes of our 17-year old narrator (unnamed) and his 18-year friend, Luo.  When the two come across a hidden collection of translated Western classics, their worlds expand as they are introduced to the foreign feelings of lust, jealousy, revenge, and honor.  Matters are further complicated when they share these novels with the local tailor’s daughter, the Little Seamstress.

I truly enjoyed this book and found it as light and airy as a basting stitch.  It read like a well-crafted fable and the scenes were sewn together seamlessly.  It was a delightful read that reinforces the idea that the written word is often just as powerful suppressed as it is unleashed.  Albert Einstein said, “A little knowledge is a dangerous thing.  So is a lot.”  Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress reminds us that once a book is opened, so is the mind and when the mind is opened, the heart takes flight.  Perhaps for this reason alone, there are still those in the world who wish books to remain closed.

Rating: 4/5

* Book cover image attributed to www.amazon.com