Archive for January, 2013

The White Whale Redux

A few years ago, I finally read Moby Dick, finding it funny, tedious, strange, bewildering, annoying and occasionally profound. As I mentioned in a previous post, the first three chapters are a delight. After that, the pace slackens a bit, but not alarmingly so. Then there are some stretches where the reader is becalmed in a limitless sea, awaiting a breath of sense to move the plot along (a friend of mine literally flies into a rage at the mention of “The Folios,” the chapter wherein Melville categorizes whales, while in my opinion “Stubb’s Supper” is an abomination). Still. We press on.

Recently, I read Nathaniel Philbrick’s panegyric to Melville’s novel, Why Read Moby Dick. It is not surprising that Philbrick would feel the need to publish such a work, but why is it needed? Has anyone written “Why Read Ulysses?” or why read, fill in the blank of any classic you choose? Yet, in this case, it does seem warranted. Perhaps it is the circumstances of Melville’s life as a writer, his difficulties and insecurities, the lack of critical acclaim for a work into which he poured everything and for which he expected nothing but praise. I remember coming away with a horror of the butchery of whaling, faithfully recounted in every particular by the author; an appreciation of Melville’s knowledge of the sea and the seafaring life; and a respect for his vision of humanity, but also feeling by the end that I too had been a long time at sea and happy to return. Philbrick claims that he has read the book aloud many times, recommending that method of accessing Melville’s prose, so I decided to try an audio version for my long commutes to and from work. After 6 weeks, I ran out of renewals and had reached Chapter 66, “The Shark Massacre,” just a little over half-way home. The truth is, I was not sorry to surrender the packet of 19 CDs and pick up something different to enliven my driving time. For one thing, I was not a fan of the narrator. His voice detracted from the prose and distracted my listening ear. But, I now feel somewhat dissatisfied and disinclined to stop. We had just reached the rather horrendous, yet horribly compelling chapters where the first whale is captured and killed. The grim “cutting in” where the whale is rendered on the deck of the ship was Melville showing the civilized world just how they got the oil to light their lamps. It’s rather like Michael Pollan describing for us where our plastic wrapped chicken parts come from.

For profundity, as promised above, the chapter entitled “The Line” cannot be beat. Here Melville describes in great detail how the line that connects boat to harpoon and ultimately to the whale is brought forward from its tub at the rear of the boat to the bow and back again so that each oarsman is looped by a line that can at any moment be stretched taut by the might of a 3 ton leviathan.

the whale-line folds the whole boat in its complicated coils, twisting and writhing around it in almost every direction. All the
oarsmen are involved in its perilous contortions; so that to the timid eye of the landsman, they seem as Indian jugglers, with the deadliest
snakes sportively festooning their limbs…..the six men composing the crew pull into the jaws of death, with a halter around every neck, as you may say

This passage wonderfully sets up the soon-to-come episode when a whale is struck, the line whizzing out like taut lightning and the boat bucketing behind the surging beast through a foaming sea. But before that, Melville adds a philosophical note:

But why say more? All men live enveloped in whale-lines. All are born with halters round their
necks; but it is only when caught in the swift, sudden turn of death, that mortals realize the silent, subtle, ever-present perils of life.

And why read Moby Dick? That is why.


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It happens to be the 204th birthday of Edgar Allen Poe, born this day in 1809, in Boston (join The Poe Foundation to celebrate, today at 3:00 pm). The Writer’s Almanac starts off today’s segment with an excerpt from “The Raven,” which is of course well known to everyone, but, when considered with a fresh eye and ear, startles with its strangeness and dark lyricism. I recently had such an occasion for reconsideration when watching The Last Days of the Raven at the local library. This is an appropriately strange movie that stumbles around a bit attempting to combine the biographical and artistic threads of Poe’s short life. Brent Fidler’s performance as Poe rises to genius when Poe’s feelings for his stepfather mix with a manic retelling of The Telltale Heart where the lines of fiction and reality blur most chillingly, and especially when he recites “The Raven.” That alone makes the movie worth seeing.

Part of the library film night was to start a reading group of Poe’s works and Matthew Pearl’s novel, “The Poe Shadow.” Apparently, Poe was a gleefully harsh literary critic in whose footsteps I will not be following, but I rather wish Pearl were a better writer. I like his topics, but the plots seem so clunky and badly-constructed, the characters wooden and two-dimensional, the prose banal and repetitive. Still, I read his previous work, “The Dante Club,” and will probably finish this one so it’s not all bad. Just disappointing.

There’s a story in Lowell that Poe wrote “The Raven” while upstairs at the Old Worthen, and it is certain that he visited our fair city a few times as a lecturer on poetry. However, his visits to Lowell were in 1848 and the poem was written in 1845, so it’s probably just an urban myth. Too bad!

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The Tenth of December by George Saunders is confidently called “the best book you’ll read this year” by the New York Times! If you haven’t yet read a George Saunders story, the profile of this mind-bending yet humane and compassionate writer is a wonderful introduction to his worldview. His stories are so odd and unbalancing, set as they frequently are, in some dystopic, not-so-distant future where people and places are recognizable but more than a little skewed, and he uses that leverage to pull the characters, the reader, himself, all of us, up a notch, to a slightly higher level, where the view is better, the air a little kinder. But don’t get the wrong idea, these are not exactly feel-good stories. They are well-crafted, dark and humorous, and have a stinging way of bringing you closer to your own flaws but also forgiving you for them.

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Homage to Emily

After a one-year hiatus from blogging (having to do with a new job among other things), I returned in December to find some changes on WordPress, most notably new connections among other WordPress bloggers! I was surprised when a few bloggers seemed to find and like my posts. I’m not used to having anyone notice my blog, so assumed this was just spam, but as it turns out the WordPress base has become more of a community, with an infectious spirit of reaching out and supporting their fellow bloggers. I decided I should visit the blogs of those who “like” my posts and have been introduced to some intriguing writers that way. There is less aloneness now, less the feeling of sending one’s words into a void.

So far, my favorite new blogging comrade is Emily of The Matilda Project. A self-proclaimed Luddite, Emily’s quixotic mission is tear down Amazon virtual brick by brick and consign their Kindles to the fire, so to speak, as well as to visit and blog about the independent booksellers of London. Let’s make a list on why I like Emily:

1) First of all, I’m green with jealousy that she gets to live in London (my favorite city, see London Literary Moments). The next time I am lucky enough to be in London, I will have a bookstore theme to follow.

2) Second, while I do order from Amazon in a pinch, I agree about the evil of kindles, even moreso now than when I first wrote about them in 2009). The gift-buying problem is what I really hate; I went retro this year and bought books anyway as Emily proscribed (even before I knew about Emily!)

3) Finally, I love Emily’s mission and thought I would add a bookstore category and blog about interesting bookshops I might discover. One of the reasons I don’t feel too bad about my Amazon-buying is that there aren’t any independent bookstores around -my hometown has just a Barnes & Noble. However, I work in a small city that boasts an excellent independent bookstore, I’ve started ordering from them instead of Amazon, and it feels great! I am excited to follow in Emily’s footsteps and sing the praises of books and bookshops!

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More on Murakami

Since today is his birthday, per The Writer’s Almanac, I started thinking, again, about why I like his writing. Since 1Q84 was so weird and a lot of people hated it (not me!), the question has become more insistent. I agree, even for this author, it was a very strange book. Here is Murakami on his own writing:

“I write weird stories. Myself, I’m a very realistic person. […] I wake up at six in the morning and go to bed at 10, jogging every day and swimming, eating healthy food. […] But when I write, I write weird.”

I find that the weirdness juxtaposes with the down-to-earth, normal protagonist, usually a Japanese “everyman” (or occasionally “everywoman”) who is just trying to get through the day, to produce a hypnotic writing style that draws the reader along. Weird things happen (a giant frog enters his apartment and asks him to help save the world; there are suddenly two moons in the sky). The person just trys to deal with the situation in a calm and logical manner, the weirdness escalates – sometimes an epiphany is granted, sometimes not. In 1Q84, despite some bizarre sexual situations, many unanswered questions, liberal suspensions of disbelief, and a questioning of some of his choices, there was a moment at the end where Tengo and Aomame win through to a kind of grace. There is a realization that this world may also not be the “right one”; however, they will deal with it, just as they dealt with the two moons and all the other weirdness. And, in truth, any one of us can wake up one day with everything changed by some random twist or unforeseen circumstance, the equivalent of two moons, and the new reality, whether you believe in it or not, is where you must live. There was something beautiful about the ending. In addition, the book is a page turner, which is saying a lot when there are nearly 1000 of them!

Related Posts:
Murakami’s Latest – November 2011

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This is not the sweeping spectacle of a movie that one would expect and at the end, when I saw that the screenplay was by Tom Stoppard, I understood the more theatrical, fanciful choices (the surreal waltzing, the use of props and behind the scenes staging). With a revered classic that has already been adapted many times, it is fine to try something different, something that unbalances the viewer, and, most importantly, the essence of the story was not lost. Of course, if this movie is your first exposure to this work, you might be less impressed. In any case, I liked it. Perhaps this was in part due to the excellent casting, with Kiera Knightly a spirited and tragic Anna.  Vronsky was a self-centered, rather more foppish than dashing, shallow yet not unsympathetic clod, Karenin a rigid, dogmatic, yet decent fellow. Lenin and Kitty were excellent and, my favorite character, Stiva, was perfect. I will always remember my first Anna and Vronsky, but I’m not even sure which version I saw (1935 with Greta Garbo? 1948 with Vivian Leigh, 1961 with Claire Bloom? Or was it the 1977 BBC version with Nicola Pagett). In any case, I am wondering if Keira Knightley actually showed something new in her portrayal, with Anna less a victim of Vronsky’s persistence (and Karenin’s coldness) and something of her own reckless nature partly to blame. I sometimes like to blame Stiva for his part in triggering the events that lead to Anna’s doom, but for the first time I found myself thinking she is Stiva’s sister after all, and something of  his grasshopper nature may be in her. Too bad, she did not also get his careless insouciance, his conviction, that “things will come right in the end.”

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The Kreutzer Sonata

Anna Karenina-Random Thoughts On

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I’ve been pecking away at this one for awhile, one of the virtues of the writing being the way the book is separated into distinct sections, each one dealing with a different facet of the great powers leading up to their involvement in World War I. The differing persectives of anarchist, socialist, trade unionist, patrician, imperialist and others all combine to show the forces leading up to the train wreck of August 1914. The chapter on the United States’ descent into imperialism, entitled “The End of a Dream” when we betrayed our own notions of democracy and liberty by turning on the freedom fighters of the Phillipines in the interests of opening up new markets for our export trade was the saddest; the pre-war build up of nationalist sentiment in Germany, “Neroism Is In the Air” was the most frightening. The account of the Dreyfus affair in France was comprehensive and fascinating. The peace conferences convened at the Hague were pathetic and ridiculous but illuminated the root problems of the era. The struggle of socialists to reconcile the Marxist dictum of revolution with the desire of working people to work within the system to improve their present lot was excellent, culminating in the outbreak of war and the failure of the working class to spontaneously refuse to fight. I’m not sure how today’s historians view Barbara Tuchman’s account of the factors leading up to the Great War, but she is a wonderfully engaging writer. Her grasp of the situations and characters involved is all-encompassing, convincing and vibrant. Somehow, while waiting for our leaders to negotiate the fiscal cliff this New Year’s Eve, a book like this adds much-needed perspective on the follies of nations.

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