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.”

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Independent People by Halldór Laxness

Dave here again. I’m going twice in a row. No fear, though. Kim will take the next two weeks. Anyway….

It always interests me how important a work of literature can be to some people whereas to others it is completely unfamiliar. I do my best to step outside the American literary perspective tunnel, but I’d still never heard of Independent People by Halldór Laxness. It’s a crime too, being perhaps the most famous work of Icelandic literature in existence. It even got Laxness the Nobel, and this was still the first I’d ever heard of the book. Oh well, everything is unfamiliar until you encounter it, right?

(Note, for those following along in The Top Ten: Writers Pick Their Favorite Books, this one was 10th for Jonathan Franzen, 6th for Jim Harrison, 7th for Adam Haslett, and 2nd for David Means)

When I did hear about Independent People, I expected it to be a lot more like the sprawling epic myths or be a hardnosed tale of accepting a harsh way of life. There is some of that inside, but not like I expected.

Independent People focuses on Bjartur of Summerhouses somewhere in the late 19th century to the early twentieth century. After spending eighteen years slaving away for a local wealthy landowner, he finally manages to save enough to start a remote sheep farm on his own. It’s an extremely tough life, still taking another twelve years for him to pay off the farm, but this is how Bjartur wants things. He values an independent existence above all else:

Rosa, her eyes red and elbows muddy, was sitting on the turf mattress on the bed, gazing at the large, irresolute hands in her lap.

“Well, doesn’t it suite you?” asked Bjartur of Summerhouses.

“You don’t think I expected anything better, do you?”

“Well, there’s always one good thing about it: no one that lives here need slave all day long at housework,” he said, “and I always thought you had sense enough to appreciate your independence. Independence is the most important thing of all in life. I say for my part that a man lives in vain until he is independent. People who aren’t independent aren’t people. A man who isn’t his own master is as bad as a man without a dog.”

Bjartur values an independent life so much that he is willing to sacrifice almost everything. He’s willing to die, and willing to lose his wife (plural actually, two die) and children (including Asta, a child he loves but believes to be of another, though she turns out to be stubborn in his own image) to the conditions under which he lives. Still, at least he’s independent.

Or, is he? Doesn’t he still have to deal with the community, the wealthier people in the area, politics, and all that? Indeed, one of his own sons doesn’t think so:

He stood deep in thought, eyes fixed on the ground for greater concentration. “There’s always someone in the valley there who rules over you and holds you in his hand, he said at length. “I don’t know who it is. And though Father may be hard, he isn’t free. There’s someone even harder than he, someone who stands over him and holds him in his power.

She looked at him searchingly for a while, as if seeking to read in his mind how far he was capable of understanding. “You mean Kolumkilli?” she asked in a tone of cold jocularity. Perhaps she was just as puzzled by him as he by her.

“No,” was his reply. “There is something that never allows you any peace, something that makes you keep on doing something.”

He lets two wives and various children die or flee to America rather than bend from his harsh way of life. He drives his daughter Asta out. And for what? To be independent in a harsh landscape where he can barely eke out a living? If he sacrifices those he loves, even if he prospers, can it really be worth it?

Independent People is a lot more human than I expected, a lot more about what ends up being important at the end of things, because eventually it makes simple Bjartur face this question. Being an independent man may be a fine thing, but the price for what independence we can get may be too great. There are other things more important in life, and Laxness knows them.

I can certainly see why so many people adore Independent People. It’s a tremendous book and I can’t believe it’s taken me this long to find it. It might not be for me what it is for some others, but I’d never make that the only measure of what makes a great book.

Wuthering Heights. A Day Late and a Dollar Short.

Up until now, Dave has been leading the way with the written words on here.  I just had the original idea and Dave helped make it happen.

Now, the reason above that I say that I am a day late and a dollar short is that Dave and I decided we would post on Wednesdays.  It is now 9:07 p.m. CST Thursday.  So, the day late.  And to round out the saying, I’m usually a dollar short on something.

Now onto Wuthering Heights!  by Emily Bronte.

I have been looking at Wuthering Heights for years, as I own an old copy of my mother’s.  I love old books, so even though I had not read it yet, I kept it on the shelf.  I kept saying I’d be reading it soon.  So, when Dave & I began this, I figured it was the perfect opportunity.  It meant I had to read it right?  The following authors listed it on their top ten.  Denise Gess, Jim Harrison, Alice Hoffman and Sue Monk Kidd.  I haven’t read Gess or Harrison, but have read both Hoffman and Kidd, and can see why Wuthering Heights would be in their top ten.  You can tell the influence the book had on both of them and their writing.

I don’t know why I’ve avoided Wuthering Heights so long.  I’ve read Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre countless times.  I think I just have heard so much about it all my life that it was sort of like “eh”.  I wanted to write about what I have always been led to believe about Wuthering Heights, and the reality that is Wuthering Heights.  Some spoilers might follow for those of you that have not yet read this book.  I feel like though, since it was published over a hundred years ago, that I won’t be ruining too much.

Belief #1:  Wuthering Heights is the towering love story of Catherine & Heathcliff

Truth #1:  Wuthering Heights is a story about Heathcliff’s revenge on Catherine and those he feels wronged either herself or himself.  Heathcliff is an orphan found by Catherine’s father.  He is brought home and raised with Catherine, her brother Hindley, and the secondary narrator of the story (the primary narrator is a tenant of Heathcliff later whom Ellen tells the story to), Ellen Dean who started as a serving girl and then became housekeeper.  The father dotes on Heathcliff, and Hindley becomes jealous.  Catherine & Heathcliff become “thick as thieves” and are never far apart.  Then Catherine’s father dies.  Hindley becomes master of the house, and right away banishes Heathcliff to a servant’s role and makes Catherine & Heathcliff’s lives hell.  Time passes.  Catherine & Heathcliff spy on their neighbors, Isabella and Edgar Linton.  They are caught and Catherine twists/breaks her ankle and must rehab at the Lintons house.  Hindley sends his wife to make her into a little lady and separate her from Heathcliff.  More time passes.  Edgar begins courting Catherine.  Catherine decides to accept Edgar’s proposal even though her soul tells her no, that she should be with Heathcliff, but he is not a “gentleman” anymore.  She is telling Ellen this, and Heathcliff overhears.  He disappears for three years and mysteriously acquires a fortune.  He returns and Edgar & Catherine are married, and happy.   She dies after blaming him for her death.  He then sets about ruining her brother, her daughter, and Edgar.  He also, to spite the Lintons, marries Edgar’s sister Isabella who leaves him and has a son after doing so.  He ends up using his son in his machinations to further his revenge.

Belief #2:  Catherine & Heathcliff are romantic.  Sooo romantic.

Truth #2:  Catherine is a spoiled little brat.  In today’s world, she’d be that girl that would say to you (usually in a bar)that they say what they think, that they don’t care what people think.  Then they proceed to insult you.  Then when you get upset, they say they warned you that they do that.  That’s Catherine in a very simplified manner.  Heathcliff is a sadist, though he says it’s revenge he wants, he gets a sick enjoyment out of the pain and misery he causes those he is revenging.  In today’s world, he’d be that vision of George W Bush that people like to sustain that he was mad at Saddam because his daddy  didn’t soundly win in 92, so he manafactured stories about weapons of mass destruction and proceeded to annihilate Iraq and eventually Hussein.  That’s Heathcliff.

I did get a couple of surprises from Wuthering Heights:

Surprise 1:  I never had heard that it’s a slightly gothic ghost story.  At the beginning, the narrator (primary) is put up for the night in Catherine’s old room.  He commences reading some of her notes and books from when she was a girl.  He falls asleep and dreams that she is knocking at the window.  It’s actually a really creepy scene, I’ll quote;

“I must stop it, nevertheless!’ I muttered, knocking my knuckles through the glass and stretching an arm out to seize the importunate branch; instead of which, my fingers closed on the fingers of a little, ice-cold hand”.

Creepy!

Then the end of the book (which that part, I won’t spoil as I’ve left the second half of it pretty much alone for those of you that have put off reading it as well) is really quite creepy as well.

Surprise 2:  It is so much more complex than just a story about Heathcliff and Cathy.  As I noted above, it becomes a story about Heathcliff’s revenge.  This effects more than just him and Cathy’s love.  It is so much less about love and so much more about the ripples we can all have on one another’s lives.

Surprise 3:  It is different than most books from that era I have read.  It’s more complex and deeply layered than a lot of others, including but not limited to her own sister’s book, Jane Eyre.

Surprise 4:  I think I’d like to read it again, as some of the beginning can only be truly understood after you have read the entire book.

So that’s Wuthering Heights.  Next time, I promise to be both a day on time and hopefully a dollar taller.