Review ~ Moby-Dick

Cover via Goodreads

Moby-Dick; or, The Whale by Herman Melville

‘Call me Ishmael.’

So begins Herman Melville’s masterpiece, one of the greatest works of imagination in literary history. As Ishmael is drawn into Captain Ahab’s obsessive quest to slay the white whale Moby-Dick, he finds himself engaged in a metaphysical struggle between good and evil. More than just a novel of adventure, more than an paean to whaling lore and legend, Moby-Dick is a haunting social commentary, populated by some of the most enduring characters in literature; the crew of the Pequod, from stern, Quaker First Mate Starbuck, to the tattooed Polynesian harpooner Queequeg, are a vision of the world in microcosm, the pinnacle of Melville’s lifelong meditation on America. Written with wonderfully redemptive humour, Moby-Dick is a profound, poetic inquiry into character, faith, and the nature of perception. (via Goodreads)

Why was I interested in this book?

I have a degree in literature, yet I had never read Moby-Dick. My reading in college was pointed toward pre-1800 and my reading for fun has been mostly post-1970 with a few exceptions. I have a wonderful huge gap to fill!

What Worked/What Didn’t Work

I decided this year to make an effort to point out what works/what doesn’t work in what I’m reading and, at the second review of the year, I’m stymied.

I didn’t know quite what to expect from Moby-Dick. Obviously, I knew this was a story about ill-fated obsession. I knew many of the names. I knew there were going to be long passages about whales and whaling, circa 1850. What I didn’t expect was just how odd of a tapestry this book is. There are adventure bits. There are poetical, metaphysical digressions. There is bawdy humor and Shakespearean soliloquies. And yes, a lot about whales and whaling.

The summary above kind of makes me roll my eyes because it plays up the “literature” aspects of the book. As a mostly genre reader (despite my degree), I think it’s those other things—all the boring reality, all the dirty adventure—that make Moby-Dick work. This novel is sort of a weird ride. Much like Shakespeare’s plays, especially if you’re reading/watching them for the first time, if you let the text carry you along, you get a sense of the thing. Will I read Mody-Dick again? Maybe. If I do, I’m pretty sure the next time would be a totally different experience.

Observation: The only writer I know of that “tastes” a bit like Moby-Dick (I won’t say Melville since I don’t know him well as an author) is Ray Bradbury.

Observation: Having read War of the Worlds and Moby-Dick nearly back to back, I get this sense that science was folded into literature more often in the past. Maybe this is a reflection of the times, maybe of the authors, maybe of the genres; I don’t know, but it’s something I enjoy.

Publishing info, my copy: Kindle/Pigeonhole, public domain, originally published 1851
Acquired: May 20, 2014
Genre:  According to Wikipedia: Novel, adventure fiction, epic, sea story, encyclopedic novel. I guess I agree.

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Generator Points Earned: 1
Generator Points Total: 5

Deal Me In, Week 37 ~ “The Daemon Lover”

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Hosted by Jay @ Bibliophilopolis
What is Deal Me In?

“The Daemon Lover” by Shirley Jackson

Card picked: Five of Spades
From: The Lottery and Other Stories

Thoughts:

“Dearest Anne, by the time you get this I will be married. Doesn’t it sound funny? I can hardly believe it myself, but when I tell you how it happened, you’ll see it’s even stranger than that…”

Unfortunately, we never hear about how it happened. Our protagonist, another female character that I don’t recall Shirley Jackson naming, begins this letter to her sister as she’s waiting for her fiancé, Jamie, to come for her so they can elope. She is nervous and wants everything to be perfect. Is her comfortable blue dress too severe? The alternative is an old ruffled print that seems too young for her. She is thirty-four years old, after all. No spring chicken, but she’s sure Jamie sees all her good qualities. Unfortunately, Jamie Harris never shows up. When he’s sufficiently late, our protagonist goes to where he says he lives (she’d never been to his place). She finds that he was a sublet tenant (maybe) who moved out the day (hours?) before. But she’s certain he’d been there that morning and tried to track his progress to to her apartment. He stopped to get his shoes shined. He stopped to buy chrysanthemums for her (an odd choice for his bride). But then, he went to another house, to a room in the attic, and will not answer the door…

This story can be read two ways and neither of them is comfortable. Since we, the readers, have never meet Jamie (he just left before we meet our protagonist), and no one our protagonist talks to ever quite knows who she’s talking about, it’s possible that this old maid (but with skills and talents and a nice apartment!) has made him up. Or maybe…everyone is humoring our protagonist. Or making fun of her. A thirty-four year-old woman in a ruffled print dress that is too young for her chasing down a some man in a blue suit? Well…haven’t you ever wondered if the people around you are just humoring you, or maybe even making fun of you, but you can’t tell for sure because maybe they really are telling the truth? And I wonder, is this a particularly female feeling? Or only the feeling of someone who has never really been “cool” or popular? (Am I tipping my cards too much to say that maybe this story isn’t comfortable to me because I still feel this way sometimes?)

After googling “The Daemon Lover” (sometimes called “James Harris”), I find that this is also the name of Scottish ballad about the Devil who lures away the wife of a carpenter after being away for seven years. Maybe our protagonist will meet Jamie again in her forties. Or maybe it’s all just been a devil’s trick.

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Review ~ The Sisters Brothers

Cover via Goodreads

The Sisters Brothers by Patrick deWitt

When a frontier baron known as the Commodore orders Charlie and Eli Sisters, his hired gunslingers, to track down and kill a prospector named Herman Kermit Warm, the brothers journey from Oregon to San Francisco, and eventually to Warm’s claim in the Sierra foothills, running into a witch, a bear, a dead Indian, a parlor of drunken floozies, and a gang of murderous fur trappers. Eli’s deadpan narration is at times strangely funny (as when he discovers dental hygiene, thanks to a frontier dentist dispensing free samples of “tooth powder that produced a minty foam”) but maintains the power to stir heartbreak, as with Eli’s infatuation with a consumptive hotel bookkeeper. As more of the brothers’ story is teased out, Charlie and Eli explore the human implications of many of the clichés of the old west and come off looking less and less like killers and more like traumatized young men. (via Goodreads)

I.

I’m going to start off by saying that I didn’t like The Sisters Brothers very much. This came as a surprise to me.

It’s a well-regarded book; in general, but also by reviewers I follow.  I like westerns, though I haven’t read that many of them. I like dark comedy. I didn’t think that my expectations were overly-high. I was definitely looking forward to some quirkiness. So, what’s the deal? I’ve spent a couple days trying to figure that out.

II.

I *did* like the voice. Eli Sisters’ narration evokes the time and the place. The first half of the book is part picaresque and part travelogue. It was Eli’s storytelling that kept me reading despite my reservations.

I did realize that I’m not much of a fan of picaresque novels. Actually, I haven’t read many of them. I don’t have anything against lower-class or below-the-law characters, but there is sort of an aggressive grayness to the characters and situations. For example, in the above blurb, seeing Eli and Charlie as traumatized young men is important to the narrative, but I’ve never found that lacking in the supposedly white-hat/black-hat westerns I’ve read.

III.

Eric and I have had some long talks about what makes good plot. If readers want to be surprised by a book, why do formulaic books work? How can you reread a book and still enjoy it? I think there’s a line that needs to be walked between being predictable and offering up the unexpected.

Honestly, at most points in The Sisters Brothers, I had no idea what was going to happen next. That’s not a bad thing. But even at the end, I didn’t know what was going to happen next. No. Clue. And that didn’t work for me. There was very little payoff for most of the quirky elements. I half expected an ending similar in style to The Departed, but no. Also, almost every event held the same weight. Crazy prospector with a chicken? Bead-stringing witch? Tooth powder? All are of seemingly equal importance to the narrative.

So, there it is. Now, on the plus side, I did finish this book and it’s given me a lot to chew on. That is worth something.

Publishing info, my copy: Kindle ebook, HarperCollins (Ecco), 2011
Acquired: Dec. 21, 2014, Amazon
Genre: literary western

Deal Me In, Week 31 ~ “Grandpa Clemens & Angelfish”

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Hosted by Jay @ Bibliophilopolis

“Grandpa Clemens & Angelfish” by Joyce Carol Oates

Card picked: Jack of Hearts
From: Wild Nights! Stories about the Last Days of Poe, Dickinson, Twain, James, and Hemingway

Thoughts: Did you know that in his later life Samuel Clemens had a club of honorary granddaughters? They were all girls between 10 and 16 years-old. It was called the Aquarium Club and the girls were “angelfish.” Supposedly, this was all very innocent and well chaperoned; an old man without grandchildren, who liked children, was giving these smart youngsters the opportunity to have a good time. But for us as an audience, it’s maybe a little odd.

Not surprisingly, this is the situation that Joyce Carol Oates uses for this story. Nothing technically improper happens between Clemens and his latest angelfish, but through the use of letters written between aging Clemens and, well, aging Maddy Avery, we’re shown how destructive this situation can be. You see, the Samuel Clemens of this story abruptly severs contact with the girls when they reach age 16.

Lots of themes of aging, obviously. From Clemens’ POV, he is in the twilight of his life and career. He’s having a hard time writing and he’s outlived his wife and his one of his daughters. The angelfish make him feel young. From Maddy’s side, she realizes that she’s more valuable as a girl than as a woman. Maybe only to Grandpa Clemens, but maybe to the wide world as well. As is usual for JCO, this is not a comfortable story at all.

 

Review ~ Yevgeny Onegin

This book was provided to me by Pushkin Press via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

Yevgeny Onegin by Alexander Pushkin, translated by A. D. P. Briggs

Cover via Goodreads

Eugene Onegin is the master work of the poet whom Russians regard as the fountainhead of their literature. Set in 1820s imperial Russia, Pushkin’s novel in verse follows the emotions and destiny of three men – Onegin the bored fop, Lensky the minor elegiast, and a stylized Pushkin himself – and the fates and affections of three women – Tatyana the provincial beauty, her sister Olga, and Pushkin’s mercurial Muse. Engaging, full of suspense, and varied in tone, it also portrays a large cast of other characters and offers the reader many literary, philosophical, and autobiographical digressions, often in a highly satirical vein. Eugene Onegin was Pushkin’s own favourite work, and it shows him attempting to transform himself from a romantic poet into a realistic novelist. This new translation seeks to retain both the literal sense and the poetic music of the original, and capture the poem’s spontaneity and wit. The introduction examines several ways of reading the novel, and text is richly annotated. (via Goodreads)

One of the first things that Briggs does, something that isn’t retained in the above Goodreads blurb, is revert to the more Russian version of “Eugene”—Yevgeny. He does this because, well, it sounds better. It has better rhythm. Try it out loud: Yev-gen-y On-e-gin.  There’s a rise and fall to that. Better than Eu-gene On-e-gin. But I got the feeling from Briggs’ introduction that if the Anglicized Eugene worked better that’s what he’d have used. That’s the style of his translation and that, he argues, is the most Pushkin way of translating Yevgeny Onegin.

Pushkin is the most highly respected of Russian poets, and he is so probably because he wasn’t high and mighty about the language. Briggs points out that the original novel length poem is written in a combination of high and low Russian with a dash of French. It’s written in iambic pentameter, but Pushkin made the rhyme scheme his own, but wasn’t a slave to perfect rhyme.  It’s Pushkin’s use of what works that almost gives the poem an English sensibility. This is what Briggs tries to bring out in his translation.

I’ve read other translations of Yevgeny Onegin. I have the Nabokov version, but it’s in one of the dusty boxes in my closet. I didn’t feel like digging it out, but I remember it feeling quite serious. The story *is* a bit grim, but Briggs’ light translation also makes it enjoyable. Pushkin is poking fun at the blazé, ball-going, dueling culture of Onegin’s world and is inviting us as readers to commiserate. Briggs’ translation is accessible and very readable. I recommend it.

Publishing info, my copy: ePub format, Pushkin Press, July 12, 2016
Acquired: April 2016, NetGalley
Genre: Poetry, Literary

Deal Me In, Week 26 ~ “Trial by Combat”

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Hosted by Jay @ Bibliophilopolis

“Trial by Combat” by Shirley Jackson

Card picked: Seven of Spades
From: The Lottery, and Other Stories

Thoughts: Since June 27th was “Lottery Day,” it’s seems appropriate that my story for this week is by Shirley Jackson.

I’ve just finished watching season six of A Game of Thrones. Obviously, this story is a different interpretation of “trial by combat” than what George R. R. Martin might present.

(This is from season 4, but a great "trial by combat" scene.)
(This is from season 4, but still a great trial-by-combat scene.)

Emily, a thirty-something whose husband is in the Army, has lived alone in the furnished room for six weeks. For the past two weeks, items have gone missing from her room. Small items—handkerchiefs, cigarettes, an “E” pin that she bought at a five-and-dime. She knows who the culprit is, Mrs. Allen who lives below her, and she knows what she will say when she confronts small, neat, older Mrs. Allen. Will she underestimate her foe?

So many of Shirley Jackson’s stories are “quiet.” Jackson easily captures those moments of indecision and deception that everyone has now and again. It’s that universality that make her stories realistic when they take a turn toward the weird.

Review ~ Frankenstein

Frankenstein by Mary Shelley

Cover via Goodreads

“I saw the pale student of unhallowed arts kneeling beside the thing he had put together. I saw the hideous phantasm of a man stretched out, & then, on the working of some powerful engine, show signs of life & stir with an uneasy, half-vital motion.” A summer evening’s ghost stories, lonely insomnia in a moonlit Alpine’s room & a runaway imagination–fired by philosophical discussions with Lord Byron & Percy Bysshe Shelley about science, galvanism & the origins of life–conspired to produce for Mary Shelley this haunting night specter. By morning, it had become the germ of her Romantic masterpiece, Frankenstein. (via Goodreads)

I first read Frankenstein in 1995. I was 20 years old and had just changed my college major from Biology to English. I read it in my first literature class and wrote my first paper about it.

At the time, I was very taken by the themes of responsibility. The creature’s big beef with his creator is that Frankenstein didn’t take responsibility for his creation. Basically, the creature is a disadvantaged son confronting his absent father. And I think that is the important “science” lesson that can be taken away from the novel: not that we shouldn’t be ambitious in our reachings, but that we need to be prepared to take responsibility for what we’ve done.

Twenty years later, it’s more evident to me that this novel was written by a young person. Shelley was 19 when Frankenstein was published. Her characters feel everything incredibly deeply. There is no joy or anxiety in half measure. And to me, now, it’s a little tiring. All Victor Frankenstein does for 90% of the book is run away. The creature takes a handful of interactions with people as reason to hate the world. The story seems to find fault in the Romantic connection of beauty and goodness, but also completely buys into it.

I read Frankenstein this time as part of a online class with some guided discussions. What interested me more this time around is why Frankenstein has remained in the public eye, more so than perhaps any other work of the period. (What other work from the early 1800s is averaging a movie adaptation a year in the past decade?) I think it goes back to something Michael Chabon mentions in Maps and Legends. When a story has gaps, we want to fill them. The biggest gap in Frankenstein concerns the creation of the monster.

It was on a dreary night of November, that I beheld the accomplishment of my toils. With an anxiety that almost amounted to agony, I collected the instruments of life around me, that I might infuse  a  spark  of  being  into  the  lifeless  thing  that  lay  at  my  feet.  It  was  already  one  in  the morning; the rain pattered dismally against the panes, and my candle was nearly burnt out, when, by the glimmer of the half-extinguished light, I saw the dull yellow eye of the creature open; it breathed hard, and a convulsive motion agitated its limb.

That’s it. Everything we think of when we think of the creation of Frankenstein’s monster is what’s been put there by other people. In the 1910 movie, it’s a sort of primordial soup and an incubator. In the 1920s, H.P. Lovecraft riffs on the story with Herbert West and his assistant grave-robbing and pumping bodies with chemicals. In the 1930s, it’s lightning and Tesla coils. In 2016, it could be a genetic engineering in a cloning vat.

The text also give the reader three separate stories: Walton’s (the first level of the frame story, a sailor seeking a northern route), Victor’s, and the creature’s. These narratives can be read in many different ways. Is Frankenstein a simple story about ambition? Or is it a moral tale about parental responsibility? Is it a critique of Romanticism? Or is it about the dangers of unrestrained scientific research? Is it a seminal Gothic novel or one of the first science fiction stories? It can be all of these things. That gives readers (and screenwriters, filmmakers, and viewers) the opportunity to play with basic aspect of the story in many different ways.

Publishing info, my copy: PDF, Lackington, Hughes, etc., 1818
Acquired: class download
Genre: literary, horror