Moby-Dick by Herman Melville

Do I even need to discuss the plot behind Moby-Dick by Herman Melville? Is there anyone who doesn’t know about Ishmael’s observing Captain Ahab’s overwhelming obsession to bring down the white whale? Does anyone (both the large number who haven’t read it but still know it and the somewhat fewer who actually have read it) not recognize the opening line: “Call me Ishmael?” I really feel this is one book that really doesn’t need a whole lot of discussion.

But, let’s talk about whaling a bit:

In connection with this appellative of “Whalebone whales,” it is of great importance to mention, that however such a nomenclature may be convenient in facilitating allusions to some kind of whales, yet it is in vain to attempt a clear classification of the Leviathan, founded upon either his baleen, or hump, or fin, or teeth; notwithstanding that those marked parts or features very obviously seem better adapted to afford the basis for a regular system of Cetology than any other detached bodily distinctions, which the whale, in his kinds, presents. How then? The baleen, hump, back-fin, and teeth; these are things whose peculiarities are indiscriminately dispersed among all sorts of whales, without any regard to what may be the nature of their structure in other and more essential particulars. Thus, the sperm whale and the humpbacked whale, each has a hump; but there the similitude ceases. Then, this same humpbacked whale and the Greenland whale, each of these has baleen; but there again the similitude ceases. And it is just the same with the other parts above mentioned. In various sorts of whales, they form such irregular combinations; or, in the case of any one of them detached, such an irregular isolation; as utterly to defy all general methodization formed upon such a basis. On this rock every one of the whale-naturalists has split.

(For those following along in The Top Ten: Writers Pick Their Favorite Books, this one was 3rd for 3rd for Paul Auster, 2nd for Russell Banks, 5th for John Banville, 8th for Andrea Barrett, 7th for Bebe Moore Campbell, 4th for Michael Chabon, 4th for David Anthony Durham, 4th for Jim Harrison, 8th for Adam Haslett, 3rd for John Irving, 7th for Norman Mailer, 9th for Bobbie Ann Mason, 1st for Patrick McGrath, 9th for Joyce Carol Oates, favorite at age 25 for Richard Powers, 7th for Francine Prose, 10th for Ian Rankin, and 9th for Louis D. Rubin Jr.)

Vivid portrayal of the slipperiness of good and evil, depiction of all consuming vengeance, the arrogance of man, the indifferent power of nature, a detailed portrait of whaling, there are so many functions going on in Moby-Dick. Everyone seems to know of it. Of those who have actually read it, the camps are fiercely divided. Some adore it, some hate it, and some hate it so much that they despise that others adore it and insist it shouldn’t be considered a classic.

But, let’s take a minute to talk about whaling:

In one of those southern whalesmen, on a long three or four years’ voyage, as often happens, the sum of the various hours you spend at the mast-head would amount to several entire months. And it is much to be deplored that the place to which you devote so considerable a portion of the whole term of your natural life, should be so sadly destitute of anything approaching to a cosy inhabitiveness, or adapted to breed a comfortable localness of feeling, such as pertains to a bed, a hammock, a hearse, a sentry box, a pulpit, a coach, or any other of those small and snug contrivances in which men temporarily isolate themselves. Your most usual point of perch is the head of the t’ gallant-mast, where you stand upon two thin parallel sticks (almost peculiar to whalemen) called the t’ gallant cross-trees. Here, tossed about by the sea, the beginner feels about as cosy as he would standing on a bull’s horns. To be sure, in cold weather you may carry your house aloft with you, in the shape of a watch-coat; but properly speaking the thickest watch-coat is no more of a house than the unclad body; for as the soul is glued inside of its fleshy tabernacle, and cannot freely move about in it, nor even move out of it, without running great risk of perishing (like an ignorant pilgrim crossing the snowy Alps in winter); so a watch-coat is not so much of a house as it is a mere envelope, or additional skin encasing you. You cannot put a shelf or chest of drawers in your body, and no more can you make a convenient closet of your watch-coat.

Personally, I do look up to Moby-Dick quite a bit. The action parts are layered and gripping. I see all kinds of things in them and am on the edge of my seat. The whaling parts do make the book a real slog to get through, but I see functions those perform as well. The picture it gives of that way of live, the long time building up just to tear down in a single moment, I can see it…though I can also understand why so many get so angry about this book.

But, let’s talk about whaling just a bit more:

I know of only four published outlines of the great Sperm Whale; Colnett’s, Huggins’s, Frederick Cuvier’s, and Beale’s. In the previous chapter Colnett and Cuvier have been referred to. Huggins’s is far better than theirs; but, by great odds, Beale’s is the best. All Beale’s drawings of this whale are good, excepting the middle figure in the picture of three whales in various attitudes, capping his second chapter. His frontispiece, boats attacking Sperm Whales, though no doubt calculated to excite the civil scepticism of some parlor men, is admirably correct and life-like in its general effect. Some of the Sperm Whale drawings in J. Ross Browne are pretty correct in contour; but they are wretchedly engraved. That is not his fault though.

I mean, Melville does take a while to get around to things. He has a marvelous story and wonderfully developed characters, but it is a long walk to get there. Everything is so meticulously laid out. Still, I think there is something in that. He spends so long making everything so concretely there, then he smashes it all in one quick second. Personally, I’m still a fan and I still respect the hell out of Moby-Dick.

Note: before this went live, I came across a Simpsons’ quote I just had to pointlessly add:

Homer: What kind of example would I be if I didn’t take revenge on things?
Lisa: Dad, you can’t take revenge on animals. That’s the whole point of Moby Dick.
Homer: Lisa, the point of Moby Dick is, “Be yourself.”

Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert

For this time, I chose to read Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert.  This is another one that as a voracious reader, I probably should have read previously, but never have.  I’m glad I finally did however though as I have to say, I adored it.  The “hype” about it is definitely deserved.  This isn’t always true of books hyped in the last decade (The Davinci Code springs to mind).

Madame Bovary was actually listed on quite a few authors top ten lists.  Russell Banks, Julian Barnes, Bebe Moore Campbell (which I might have to read her as my last middle name and my last name are Campbell Moore), Philip Caputo, Peter Carey, Michael Cunningham, Margaret Drabble, Mary Gaitskill, Denise Gess, Michael Griffith, Kathryn Harrison, John Irving, David Lodge, Thomas Mallon, Valerie Martin, Erin McGraw, Claire Messud, Lorrie Moore, Reynolds Price, Alexander McCall Smith, Lee Smith, James Salter, Scott Spencer, Barry Unsworth, Anthony Walton and Meg Wolitzer all listed it on their top ten lists.

Madame Bovary is a novel about a narcisstic woman, centuries before narcissm was recognized as a mental illness.  The story begins by following Monsieur Bovary as he studies to become a physician.  Then his mother (who is overbearing and cloying imo) arranges a marriage for him to an older woman who has money.  Charles Bovary finds marriage to her quite hard.  He has a patient whom he fixes a broken bone for, who has a daughter.  Enter Emma into the story.  Charles finds solace by going to the farm and having a small innocent flirtation with Emma.   Old, miserable first wife dies.  Charles moons about until Emma’s father basically pushes him into proposing marriage.  Emma says yes.

Emma almost immediately regrets it.  Numerous times throughout the story, Flaubert writes in feelings Emma has for Charles.  They’re always tinged with disgust.

Emma has always been looking for sweeping feelings, and feels that nothing else will do for her.  She first was swept away by religious feeling in the convent her father had her at.  Then she was swept away by the joy of living in the country with her father and being the “lady” of the house.  Then she is swept away by Charles’ wedding proposal.  Then she becomes swept away by a ball held by nobility and a dance with a Viscount (this is where the disgust she has for Charles really starts showing).  Then she has a nervous breakdown and Charles moves her to a new location.  She is swept away by passion for a clerk there.  Then he leaves.  Enter guy #2, who is quite the womanizer smooth talker.  Guy #2 goes away, enter back in clerk.

Emma is never satisfied with what she has.  She always believes she needs better.  She borrows money from one of the storekeepers who constantly is pushing it at her, as well as playing on her need to have the best.  It eventually becomes a game of borrowing to pay and refinancing notes.  This is what ultimately gets her into trouble.

It was weird.  I both recognized Emma and loathed her.  I found her both familiar and foreign.  At times I wanted to throw the book, yelling at her “Omg, get over yourself and look at your husband who ACTUALLY LOVES you, idiot”.  At other times, I found myself nodding and seeing why she felt a certain way.

I think one of the things that makes this one of the top ten novels I’ve read with the most authors listing it, is it’s universality.  It’s written over 250 years ago, yet the characters remain fresh.  We all have known Emmas.  We’ve all known Charles.  We’ve all known some of the more minor characters who pop up and propel the narrative around Emma, such as the blowhard pharmacist.  I definitely would reread this novel (after a few years to let the narrative chain of events fade), as I think it’s one that could be rediscovered again and again.  It did remind me a little of Anna Karenina, but much easier to read.  Flaubert doesn’t digress into tens of pages on some side character or a description of fields and farming.  Flaubert is a much tighter author, he paints a picture of the characters and their surroundings, the events and the consequences of the events with vivid brush strokes, but stops short of overlayering.

I highly encourage you to read this book if you never have.  While reading it, make sure to focus on the characters.  In today’s entitlement age (the whole idea that all of us deserve the very best and so we get into credit debt beyond belief), we all know Emmas or are Emmas.