Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Some December Reading

A High Wind in JamaicaA High Wind in Jamaica by Richard Hughes

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I'd started this book ten years ago, and though it was short, I couldn't finish it because I don't normally like the sea (or space) in fiction. More importantly, it was falling apart in my hands. Up to page 80 of my used copy was flaking away like a dry piece of fish (again, not a huge fan of the sea, in pagination). I discarded it.

Unfinished books cause one minute of anxiety for: (every year they're not finished) X (the number of hundreds of pages in the book) X (1 + the percentage of the book finished). A High Wind in Jamaica sat unfinished for 10 years. There are 200 pages. I had finished 10 percent of it.

So, 10 X 2 X 1.10 = 22. The book had caused me 22 minutes of anxiety, spread out in at least 98 different mind-bursts over the last ten years. Nine times a year, for 15 seconds each--and so a life passes--I remembered my small failure. Not much, but worth allaying.

Meanwhile, Joseph Conrad's Lord Jim is the pinnacle of what I'm calling the Anxiety of the Unfinished. Festering for 12 years. 400 pages. And I'd nearly completed it when I was asked to leave my senior year English Class on account of conduct unbecoming a preppy

At that point, I never read anything I didn't have to, so it remains nothing but a shelf-straining taunter, dog-eared up to the end, contemptible, contemptuous.

Lord Jim. Also about the sea. 12 X 4 X 1.95 = 93.6 minutes of anxiety (plus 7 minutes today). And I didn't know what was happening in it anyway! So, I'm unmotivated to go back in, and yet I know I will eventually, maybe after I've spent a full two hours of light anxiety thinking involuntarily about its tiny, annotated arial, its baffling story-within-a-story, and its troubling imperial undertones.

But, Lord Jim aside, A High Wind in Jamaica was the shortest remaining on the Modern Library 100, and I figured I could plow it in a couple hours, so it was low-hanging fruit (frutti di mare). Despite diminished expectations, I liked it very much.

It features children and pirates, but not silly caricatures of either. Hughes writes things like "One couldn't know the mind of a child" too often, but he does seem to understand the zaniness, seriousness, and preoccupation of his British-Jamaican characters as they're stolen away by rather kindly marauders.

I never really knew who the main character was, and the plot sometimes goes adrift, but the book taught me plenty about kid-mind (some sections are very much like Elizabeth Bishop's poem "In the Waiting Room," in fact).

There're also: an unbeatable earthquake scene and omnipresent British mannerisms, so on a scale from "Dub" to "Brick," I give it a "Jolly."

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