Tuesday, July 31, 2007


I have been stuck under a cloud the last two days while trying to read Claire Messud's The Emperor's Children. A word of advice: do not try this at home. It is a depressing book about a side of New York that is not worth knowing if it in fact exists at all. Absolutely no lovable characters and no redeeming qualities. Avoid avoid avoid.

Saturday, July 28, 2007

Back to the Maytrees

I have found myself saying this repeatedly over the last couple of years:

Thank God for Julia Reed.

She is the brightest, most down-to-earth journalist/reviewer/public speaker; I will unabashedly buy Vogue magazine now because they have figured this out, too. Actually, I had never read her work until two years ago when I heard her speak about New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. She had recently settled in New Orleans, and her description of the place and people and circumstances was so alive and riveting that I became a devoted fan of hers right on the spot.

So today while reading book reviews in the NY Times I was so thrilled to come across her take on Annie Dillard's new book. Here is an excerpt - sorry for quoting so much in full, but she makes me laugh. Here she is talking about the quirky nature of Dillard's writing process:

"In both the writing and the miracle businesses, the problem arises when you can see how it’s being done, when you are conscious of wheels squeaking and neurons firing, trying their damnedest to “illuminate and inspire,” and Dillard can be especially susceptible. In her new novel, “The Maytrees,” a meditation on love set on Cape Cod from World War II to the present, there is some of the familiar straining, along with constant evidence of her energetic reading. The gang’s all here, including, but not remotely limited to: Diogenes, Tiresias, Plato and Aristotle; Blake and Kafka; Edwin Arlington Robinson and Robert Louis Stevenson; Vietnamese legend and prehistoric Aleuts; Wittgenstein, Galileo and, of course, Tolstoy. (When the subject is love, Levin must be summoned.)

She reads the dictionary, too. There are no mere ragamuffins in Dillard, only a “tatterdemalion”; the tone of a man’s calf muscle is, here, the “tonus.” It was heartening in a way to find that she had spelled “pauciloquy” wrong, but even in its correct form, the Oxford English Dictionary deems its usage “rare.” Rarer still is “epistomeliac” — I could find it nowhere but I did learn that an epistome is an appendage in front of the mouth in crustacea and certain insects.

Then there are the passages that not even the O.E.D. could help me with. “Falling in love, like having a baby, rubs against the current of our lives: separation, loss and death. That is the joy of them.” One character’s “alewife thoughts” include visions of himself “and others” who “roamed the world feeding or vaccinating people, palpating mastitis in zebus.” When Eudora Welty reviewed “Pilgrim at Tinker Creek” in these pages, she quoted one passage and wrote, “I honestly do not know what she is talking about at such times.” This, too, is a relief. I flip through my galleys of “The Maytrees” and find a half-dozen red question marks I made in the margins, bewildered and slightly irritated, but in good company at least.

The good news is that in “The Maytrees,” despite the big words and the name-dropping, despite remnants of what Welty called the “receptivity so high-strung and high-minded” on display in “Pilgrim,” there is also good old straight narrative and prose that is often, yes, breathtakingly illuminative..."

Anyway, it is always nice to hear one's skepticism confirmed. Reed seemed to love the book, too, despite its quirkiness: See her full review: "A Natural History of Love"

Friday, July 27, 2007

Harry and Ahab, Cont'd

Okay, back to Potter and eventually Ahab. But first a note on the epilogue. Necessary? I think so. I think the most important line in the book appears in the epilogue and conveys something that could not have been conveyed when Harry was 17, having just defeated Voldemort. Rowling confirms in these final pages that Harry is what is best in his mother in father, but he is not them. He has made his own path, and he can confidently tell his young son, Albus Severus, to do the same thing:
"Albus Severus,...you were named for two headmasters of Hogwarts. One of them was a Slytherin and he was probably the bravest man I ever knew" (758). When Albus expresses his fear that the Sorting Hat will place him in Slytherin, Harry says without hesitating or even letting his son finish his sentence: "-- then Slytherin House will have gained an excellent student, won't it? It doesn't matter to us, Al" (758). Rowling's final word here is that no one person is purely good or purely evil. James Potter was not perfect, neither was Snape, and, as we learn in the end, neither was Albus Dumbledore. It is simply a matter of the good outweighing the bad in each of us in terms of the choices we make. That's where the hope lies. I kept hoping against hope that Severus Snape was good all along, and he was. He was just good enough.

Ahab is a different bird altogether. Fearless in the face of death, yes. Fearful for his soul? No. This he describes repeatedly as already dead. A casualty or perhaps even a precondition of his job as whaling captain, as he explains to Starbuck: "Forty years of continual whaling! forty years of privation and peril, and storm-time! forty years on the pitiless sea! for forty years has Ahab forsaken the peaceful land, for forty years to make war on the horrors of the deep!...When I think of this life I have led..Here, brush this old hair aside; it blinds me, that I seem to weep. Locks so gray did never grow but from out some ashes! (385). And later after a close shave with Moby Dick, he repeats these same sentiments with even more conviction: "...I account no living bone of mine one jot more me, than this dead one that's lost. Nor White Whale, nor man, nor fiend, can so much as graze old Ahab in his own proper and inaccessible being" (403). His quest is one that seems to have been born out of something already dead, or some sense that the choice was never his to begin with. A cog in the wheel of American capitalism? I don't know. At the same time, is this idea of seeking out death in the jaws of Moby Dick in some way a rebellion? A way to feel most alive? Again, I don't know. I have got to read some criticism. He does give some tiny thought to the idea of being reborn through the experience of death as he muses on the ships new life preserver (fashioned out of Queegeg's coffin after Q miraculously and willfully rises from near death): "Oh how immaterial are all material things! What things real are there, but imponderable thoughts? Here now's the very dreaded symbol of grim death, by a mere hap, made the expressive sign of the help and hope of most endangered life. A life-buoy of a coffin? Does it go further? Can it be that in some spiritual sense the coffin is, after all, but an immortality preserver? I'll think of that. But no. So far gone am I to the dark side of the earth, that its other side, the theoretic bright one, seems but uncertain twilight to me (369).

For Ahab, it really seems to come down to the question of free will vs fate and his refusal to believe in choice: "Is Ahab, Ahab? Is it I, God, or who, that lifts this arm? But if the great sun move not himself; but is as an errand-boy in heaven; nor one single star can revolve, but by some invislbe power; how then can this one small heart beat; this one small brain think thoughts; unless God does that beating, does that thinking, does that living, and not I" (386).

And his crew simply follows along in the most slavish fashion. What is worse? To be Ahab, emotionally cut off from everything so as to sink his entire ship, or Starbuck, who knows that what is happening is wrong and yet watches it happen? This is the American epic? Back to Lear again: Fixed stars govern a life.

I'll vote for Potter any day of the week.

Thursday, July 26, 2007

On Approaching Death: Potter and Ahab

Shall we start with a little John Donne for kicks?

"Death Be Not Proud" (Holy Sonnet 10)

Death, be not proud, though some have called thee
Mighty and dreadful, for thou are not so;
For those whom thou think'st thou dost overthrow
Die not, poor Death, nor yet canst thou kill me.
From rest and sleep, which but thy pictures be,
Much pleasure; then from thee much more must flow,
And soonest our best men with thee do go,
Rest of their bones, and soul's delivery.
Thou'art slave to fate, chance, kings, and desperate men,
And dost with poison, war, and sickness dwell,
And poppy'or charms can make us sleep as well
And better than thy stroke; why swell'st thou then?
One short sleep past, we wake eternally,
And death shall be no more; Death, thou shalt die.

I had convinced myself that I couldn't possibly go back to writing about Moby Dick after jumping headling into Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, from which I finally emerged at 1:30 a.m. this morning. And then there was the angst about whether or not to write about Potter yet since so many people are still reading away. I am so grateful that I was able to stay in the dark as long as I did, sure that any second I would log on to email only to find some spam headline announcing what happened to Harry before I got to the final pages myself. I was spared this fate, thank goodness. Then it occured to me that I couldn't possible finish up any thoughts on Ahab without referring also to Potter: there are too many similarities in these epics, and having read them back to back I am jumping at the bit to write about them. So, reader, consider yourself warned: do not venture further in this entry if you do not want the ending of Harry Potter revealed just yet.

First, thoughts on Potter, as these are freshest in my mind. I just read a review in the New York Times by Michiko Kakutani that helped solidify some of my own thoughts on this last installment. Maybe not Rowling's finest writing - a bit clunky and almost uncertain in places. I remember thinking at one point when Harry et al were camped out in the woods that Rowling must have been procrastinating then, waiting for that stroke of plot genius that inevitably came. But honestly, who really cares about the writing?! It's good enough, and the ending was wonderfully satisfying in several ways. I will get to these. But first, back to Kakutani. She mentions the way that Rowling seamlessly weaves in references to other literary classics: Homer, Milton, Shakespeare, Dickens. She fails to mention Chaucer, whose Canterbury Tales are the most important literary reference in this final book, for Rowling's Tales of Beedle the Bard, and specifically "The Tale of the Three Brothers" is modeled after Chaucer's Pardoner's Tale. If I remember correctly, Chaucer's three characters set out to defeat death, but they find gold under a tree and become distracted by it. Their greed - and perhaps their hubris for believing they can conquer Death - ultimtaely leads to their destruction. It may be his best tale; it is certainly one of the eeriest and most prophetic.

Harry is faced with the same choice in the Deathly Hallows. Informed that the possessor of the Elder wand, the Invisibility Cloak, and the Resurrection Stone can conquer Death and thereby withstand someone as evil as Lord Voldemort, Harry has to decide whether or not to pursue these items (he already has the cloak) or continue on his search for Horcruxes. Dumbledore initially set him on the course of the Horcruxes, and he makes the difficult decision to stay the course, however alluring the possibility of beating Death might be. This decision determines his fate at the end of the novel. He not only gives up any desire to conquer Death, but he also makes the hardest decision of all: to accept his own death at the hands of Voldemort if it means saving the lives of those around him. This is of course the most heart-wrenching chapter in the novel, for Rowling places us in Harry's shoes so that we walk toward death with him. Harry's approach to what seems will be his tragic fate is his bravest act in his bravest hour, and it is what saves him in the end. He conquers Death (and Voldemort) by embracing it. He realizes, as Donne writes in the above poem, that in "one short sleep past, we wake eternally," and at his side to prove it are those who have gone before him: his father and mother, Sirius, and Lupin. As Dumbledore later tells him: "You are the true master of death, because the true master does not seek to run away from Death. He accepts that he must die, and understands that there are far, far worse things in the living world than dying" (721).

On that note, I have to run and make gazpacho. I'll publish the second half of this post in a bit...to be continued.

Sunday, July 22, 2007

Perfect Timing! See this week's New Yorker

I finally finished Moby Dick on Friday and haven't had a chance to post my thoughts on the ending yet. However, I just flipped through this week's New Yorker, and lo and behold there is a book review of Eric Jay Dolin's Leviathan titled "There She Blew: The history of American whaling" by Caleb Crain. How serendipitous!

Here is a link to the article:

"There She Blew"

Friday, July 20, 2007

Just for you, sis

Peanut the Cat

Melville's Lear and Poor Tom

Chapter 89: The Log and the Line

I've been been wondering for some time now whether to categorize Ahab as evil. As I mentioned below, I had developed a sort of sympathy for him, at least until a recent chapter when Starbuck was almost forced to kill him in his sleep for making insane decisions that could get the whole crew killed. Before this, it seemed like hunting the elusive white whale was no worse than hunting and killing all the other whales for oil that they encountered. And despite his obsession with finding Moby Dick, he had acquiesced to Starbuck's remonstrances on a few occasions. But then Ahab's monomania fully takes over: in the face of his crew's fears, he drives them straight into a typhoon and the Pequod gets struck by lightning (a serious pet fear of mine). Things are certainly getting dicey. Actually, now that I think about it, sounds like George Bush and Ahab have quite a bit in common.

I pause here to note that my cat Peanut is standing on my lap right now, intently staring at the screen. She is dying to know what is coming next. An incentive to figure out how to work this computer's camera.

I'm still thinking about the Melville/Shakespeare connection. Ahab, having dragged his crew into a miserable storm, seems to take on qualities of Lear. Really the similarities between the stories abound: Lear recklessly and selfishly divides his kingdom, which results in total chaos and loss of life. Ahab allows his selfish obsessions to lead his whole crew into dangerous territory (I am sure loss of life is just around the bend), and when the compass is electrocuted, he creates his own compass as Lear has created his own map of England: "'Look ye, for yourselves, if Ahab be not lord of the level loadstone! The sun is East, and that compass swears it!'...In his fiery eyes of scorn and triumph, you then saw Ahab in all his fatal pride" (358).

But it gets even better. Pip, the idiot boy who I thought was playing the role of the Shakespearean fool, suddenly morphs into Poor Tom, or Lear's banished son Edgar. If you remember, Edgar disguised as a beggar is the one character who finally gets through to Lear. In that famous stormy scene on the heath (having BBC flashbacks as I type this!) Lear's better nature surfaces as he tries to shelter Poor Tom. I believe he offers his own shelter to Tom, suddenly remembering that as king his job is to nurture and protect his people. Surely this principle duty would also apply to a whaling captain, although Ahab has gotten further and further away from it the longer they are at sea. But he demonsrates a glimmer of humanity when interacting with Pip, as if Pip calls him to reason (as fools often due in Shakes). Here he offers Pip the shelter of his cabin:

"...Oh, ye frozen heavens! look down here. You did beget this luckless child, and have abandoned him, ye creative libertines. Here, boy; Ahab's cabin shall be Pip's home henceforth, while Ahab lives. Thou touchest my inmost center, boy; thou art tied to me by cords woven of my heartstrings. Come, let's down.

What's this? here's velvet shark-skin," intently gazing at Ahab's hand, feeling it. "Ah now, had poor Pip but felt so kind a thing as this, perhaps he had ne'er been lost! This seems to me, sir, as a manrope; something that weak souls may hold by. Oh, sir, let old Perth now come and rivet these two hands together; the black one with the white, for I will not let this go.

"Oh, boy, nor will I thee, unless I should thereby drag thee to worse horrors than are here. Come, then, to my cabin. Lo! ye believers in gods all goodness, and in man all ill, lo you! see the omniscient gods oblivious of suffering man; and man, though idiotic, and knowing not what he does, yet full of the sweet things of love and gratitude. Come! I feel prouder leading thee by thy black hand, than though I grasped an Emperor's!

"There go two daft ones now," muttered the old Manxman. "One daft with strength, and the other daft with weakness..." (362).

Thursday, July 19, 2007

An Aside: The Maytrees

I'm still struggling with my final analysis of this one. Complex, beautiful prose...the characters were hard to grasp. I finished the novel without a full mental picture of either Maytree because at times her descriptions of them were purposefully contradictory or simply hard to conjure. Okay here's an example of what I'm talking about right on page 1 when Toby and Lou first meet:

"He felt himself blush and knew his freckles looked green. She was young and broad of mouth and eye and jaw, fresh, solid and airy, as if light rays worked her instead of muscles" (1).

Yes, I can picture this; perhaps it is that I cannot relate. So here's my question about this perplexing novel (also a sign that I cannot relate): I know it's set in the 60s, but I can't seem to wrap my head around the fact that Lou accepts Toby leaving her to raise Petie all on her own. Or that fact that she accepts his return with so much ease and grace. It just seems -- unsettling. Cannot find a comment about this in any of the glowing reviews I have read.

Obviously this one was thought-provoking. Highly recommend.

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Moby Dick: The Whaling Chapters

Aren't they all? The fifth consecutive person recently warned me about these so-called whaling chapters, but I can't figure out what might distinguish these from the rest of the chapters in the book. EVERY SINGLE chapter talks about whaling. By the way, I am now completely hooked on this book. No more need for laps around the living room after finishing a chapter. Despite my zeal, I've fallen behind on reading after having attended a lovely wedding at Sewanee and a teaching/technology conference in Memphis, both of which were wonderful in different respects. I was absolutely blown away by the technology conference, where I realized that I could not have started this blog a moment too soon. See Will Richardson's www.weblogg-ed.com.

Back to Melville:
My new favorite chapter is "The Try-Works," Chapter 66, although a close second is Chapter 64's "A Squeeze of the Hand," in which Ishmael describes the Lethe-like experience of preparing the whale sperm for the try-works. Whalers have to sit by tubs of this sweet-smelling whale sperm (aka blubber) and squeeze it through their hands to keep it from hardening. As he drifts off into euphoria he gets downright silly about his newfound love of whale sperm. In his own words: "Would that I could keep squeezing sperm forever!...In thoughts of the visions of the night, I saw long rows of angels in paradise, each with his hands in a jar of spermacetti" (273). I guess our 20/21st century equivalent would be getting slimed on Nickelodeon, or, less interestingly, getting a parafin treatment at the nail salon. I am sure someone out there has written about similarities between Whitman's "Song of Myself" and Chapter 64 of Moby Dick. Both seem to be a celebration of the body/soul/universe, albeit Melville's description is, well, humorous.

Anyway, back to the try-works. The prose just catapults here. I was surfing around for criticism on Melville while I was in Memphis, and I found out from another blogger that Melville first started reading Shakespeare while in the middle of drafting Moby Dick. If this is true, it is absolutely apparent in his prose. Stubbs even later seems to taken on the drunken porter role from Macbeth. And who will the fool be? I had to stop myself from reading the full blog review that I found because I didn't want to get ahead of my own reading, but for those of you who have in fact finished Moby Dick, check out the recent review on www.fictionmonkeys.com: http://fictionmonkeys.wordpress.com/2007/06/13/moby-dick-by-herman-melville/

I am sure there is a way to imbed these links...still learning! I appreciate the patience. Okay, enough of me. Listen to this glorious prose as Melville describes the try-works blazing at night:

"Here lounged the watch, when not otherwise employed, looking into the red heat of the fire, till their eyes felt scorched in their heads. Their tawny features, now all begrimed with smoke and sweat, their matted beards, and the contrasting barbaric brilliancy of their teeth, all these were strangely revealed in the capricious emblazonings of the works. as they narrated to each other their unholy adventures, their tales of terror told in words of mirth; as their uncivilized laughter forked upwards out of them, like the flames from the furnace; as to and fro, in their front, the harpooneers wildly gesticulated with their huge pronged forks and dippers; as the wind howled on, and the sea leaped, and the ship groaned and dived, and yet steadfastly shot her red hell further and further into the blackness of the sea and the night, and scornfully champed the white bones in her mouth, and viciously spat round her on all sides; then the rushing Pequod, freighted with savages, and laden with fire, and burning a corpse, and plunging into that blackness of darkness, seemed the material counterpart of her monomaniac commander's soul (281).

Does it get any better than this?! Read aloud for best affect.

Thursday, July 12, 2007

The Jeroboam's Story: Chapter 53

One thing a few people will tell you about reading Moby Dick is that Melville has a lively sense of humor. However, my understanding was always that that humor ceased around page 100; the story naturally goes downhill after Queequeg jumps in the bed with Ishmael. Not so! Here I am in chapter 53 laughing hysterically at Melville's description of a nutter on board the whaleship Jeroboam who reveals his true nature as soon as the ship is just beyond the port. Here is Melville's description:

" He had been originally nurtured among the crazy society of Neskyeuna Shakers, where he had been a great prophet; in their cracked, secret meetings having several times descended from heaven by way of a trapdoor, announcing the speedy opening of the seventh vial, which he carried in his vestpocket; but, which, instead of containing gunpowder, was supposed to be charged with laudanum. A strange, apostolic whim having seized him, he had left Neskyeuna for Nantucket, where, wtih that cunning peculiar to craziness, he assumed a steady, common sense exterior, and offered himself as a green-hand candidate for the Jeroboam's whaling voyage. They engaged him, but straightaway upon the ship's getting out of sight of land, his insanity broke out in a freshet. He announced himself the archangel Gabriel, and commanded the captain to jump overboard" (p. 217, c. 1949, Literary Guild of America).

Loving this stuff! The nutter has just pulled up to the Pequod and is addressing Ahab, so I have to scoot finish the chapter (all four pages of it). I incorrectly tend to fuse the narrator/author, but I guess the correct way to say this is that Ishmael narrates with a kind of ironic distance, and so the humor bubbles up to the surface just regularly enough. Even in the detailed footnotes.

Moby Dick: Day 3

Major accomplishment: I am officially halfway through the novel, having reached page 200 yesterday. That seemed like a goodplace to pause, celebrate, nap, and start this blog. My intent with this medium is to capture some of my ideas about the books I read before they float away. I've already let slip all the ideas and questions I had about the previous 200 pages of Moby Dick, although I am really piqued by the shift in narrative voice. I'm back to Ishmael again, but I'm hoping to hear more from the other characters by the time I'm through. It would be interesting to see what critics have written about Melville's shift in perspective.

I do have to say that so far I am a little disappointed in the descriptions of harpooning. What exactly is happening here? How on earth do these humans in small wooden boats capture whole whales? My illustrated edition is not cutting it either. Whaling has been on the bean lately as I just got back from vacationing in Martha's Vineyard. I decided if there was any good time to start Moby Dick (again) it was now, since I can now picture the initial setting a bit better.

Okay back to reading...they've just approached a giant squid and killed the first whale. Things are heating up.