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.”

A Prayer for Owen Meany by John Irving

To be honest, felt a little pressure when I picked up A Prayer for Owen Meany to ponder it for this blog. Kim wanted to see what I thought about it in relation to The World According to Garp. Also, I’ve got friends who are seriously pissed about the apparent situation where literary people shake their heads at you if you say writers like John Irving or John Steinbeck (whom I adore) are among your favorite writers. That just felt like a lot of pressure.

(Note, for those following along in The Top Ten: Writers Pick Their Favorite Books, this one was 8th for Jennifer Weiner)

But, let’s set all that aside for a moment. Let’s get down to A Prayer for Owen Meany.  The story is told by a character named Johnny Wheelwright and relates to his memory of, and how he was changed by, his friend Owen Meany. Though most of the important events happen to, or involve, Owen, the story really centers (at least to me) on how this all effects Johnny.

Owen is a peculiar child, excessively small and possessing an extremely odd voice:

            In Sunday school, we developed a form of entertainment based on abusing Owen Meany, who was so small that not only did his feet not touch the floor when he sat in his chair–his knees did not extend to the edge of his seat; therefore, his lefs stuck out straight, like the legs of a doll. It was as if Owen Meany had been born without realistic joints.


            In Sunday school, when we held Owen up in the air–especially, in the air!–he protested so uniquely. We tortured him, I think, in order to hear his voice; I used to think his voice came from another planet. Now I’m convinced it was a voice not entirely of this world.

            “PUT ME DOWN!” he would say in a strangled, emphatic falsetto. “CUT IT OUT! I DON’T WANT TO DO THIS ANYMORE. ENOUGH IS ENOUGH. PUT ME DOWN! YOU ASSHOLES!”

However, Owen is far from meek. Indeed, he indeed becomes a most amazing individual:

            Directly opposite the Main Academy Building, the headmaster was getting into his camelhair overcoat; his wife, Sam, was brushing the nap of that pretty coat for him, and kissing her husband good-bye for the day. It would be a bad day for the headmaster–a FATED day, Owen Meany might have called it–but I’m sure Randy White didn’t have his eyes on the future that morning. He thought he was finished with Owen Meany. He didn’t know that, in the end, Owen Meany would defeat him; he didn’t know about the vote of “no confidence” the faculty would give him–or the decision of the Board of Trustees to not renew his appointment as headmaster. He couldn’t have imagined what a travesty Owen Meany’s absence would make of the commencement exercises that year–how such a timid, rather plain, and much-ignored student, who was the replacement valedictorian of our class, would find the courage to offer as a valedictory only these words: “I am not the head of this class. The head of this class is Owen Meany; he is The Voice of our class–and the only voice we want to listen to.” Then that good, frightened boy would sit down–to tumultuous pandemonium: our class raising their voices for The Voice, bedsheets and more artful banners displaying his name in capital letters (of course), and the chanting that drowned out the headmaster’s attempts to bring us to order.

            “Owen Meany! Owen Meany! Owen Meany!” cried the Class of ’62.

Owen may be small and have a strange voice, but he is indeed ‘fated’ to do great things. He is chosen by god, though perhaps not like you might think. Still, even though Owen is the one chosen and the book details his life minutely, the book is still about Johnny. Or rather, his observation of Owen and how Owen impacts his life and his faith in god.

Well, that’s all fine and good…but that’s all just summary. I suppose the real question, the question I feel all the pressure about mentioned above, is: what do I think?

Frankly, I liked A Prayer for Owen Meany a great deal. I think I may have even liked it better than The World According to Garp. It has a great story with great characters and great description. There is also a real touching pull to it.

However, personally, I still only liked it so much. It is still the style you should expect from Irving, and Irving is more of a maximalist than is my taste. A Prayer for Owen Meany just seemed thicker than it needed to be, and that made the pacing different than I would have wanted. It also seemed like there was a little bit of loose-end tying toward the end as opposed to natural development of events.

Of course, that’s all personal. It is still a good book, even if there were things I didn’t like about it. How’s that? I think I’ve managed to answer the people above about A Prayer for Owen Meany in a way that probably satisfies no one, other than perhaps me. I call that a job well done.

The Tin Drum by Günter Grass

Having previously read Cat and Mouse by Günter Grass, I thought I was prepared for The Tin Drum. Sure, The Tin Drum is a much longer work and I expected it to be more complex, but I was definitely in for a surprise. The Tin Drum and Cat and Mouse seem so different to me as to potentially represent two different authors. I can certainly see similar themes in both, but Cat and Mouse is just nowhere near as strange, as ambiguous, as modern. I could make something of Cat and Mouse. The Tin Drum…well, let’s just see what I manage to come up with.

(Note, for those following along in The Top Ten: Writers Pick Their Favorite Books, this one was 8th for Jim Crace, 6th for Michael Griffith, 10th for Allan Gurganus, 7th for John Irving, and 10th for Thomas Keneally.)

Even before I got to the bizarre journey that Oskar Matzerath makes through pre-WWII, WWII, and post-WWI Germany (a journey that I’m not entirely sure goes anywhere linear), the very first paragraph signaled the opening of a very strange book:

Granted: I’m an inmate in a mental institution; my keeper watches me, scarcely lets me out of sight, for there’s a peephole in the door, and my keeper’s eye is the shade of brown that can’t see through blue-eyed types like me.

So, we have a novel narrated to us by a mental patient. However, is he crazy, not crazy, or both? Should we trust him? He says fantastic things…but he seems so reasonable, so intelligent. Frankly, I can’t be sure whether to believe him, not believe him, or only partially believe him.

For example, he claims to have been born with full awareness. Supposedly, he heard his father at his birth say that he would grow up to be a grocer and thus decided never to grow up (beyond the age of three where he was to receive a tin drum from his mother). So that people don’t wonder why he doesn’t grow any bigger, he stages an accident:

It took me a minute or two to understand what the trapdoor to our cellar demanded of me. Not suicide, by God! That would have been too simple. But the alternative was difficult, painful, demanded sacrifice; and even then, as always when a sacrifice is demanded of my, my brow broke out in a sweat. Above all, no harm must come to my drum; I would have to carry it safely down the sixteen well-worn steps and place it among the sacks of flour to explain its undamaged state. Then back up to the eighth step, no, down one, actually the fifth would do just as well. But from there safety and credible injury could not be combined. Back up then, too high this time, to the tenth, and finally, from the ninth step, I flung myself down, carrying a shelf laden with bottles of raspberry syrup along with me, and landed head-first on the cement floor of our cellar.

Later, he decides to grow again and does at the exact same time that Kurt, either his son or his half-brother depending on whether you believe Oskar or not, throws a rock at Oskar’s head.

Is Oskar’s lack of growth, and subsequent growth, a result of his decisions as he says? Or, are both products of his respective incidents and only interpreted by him as his choice? Really, I can’t be sure. I kept going back and forth as I read and I still can’t make up my mind.

But, let’s consider the journey Oskar takes for a moment. He goes from drumming under bleachers to disrupt a Nazi rally to entertaining the troops, from youth gang leader to gravestone carver to model to famous musician, eventually to mental patient incarcerated for a murder he didn’t commit but took the rap for on a whim. What does this all mean? What possible linear course is found in the summation of all these things?

Man…hell if I know.

What I do know is that The Tin Drum is wild and fantastic:

With no plan in mind, I made myself understood on tin. I forgot all the standard nightclub routines. No jazz for Oskar either. I didn’t like being taken for a maniacal drummer by the crowd anyway. Though I considered myself a decent percussionist, I was no purebred jazz musician. I love jazz, just as I love Viennese waltzes. I could have played either, but I didn’t feel I had to. When Schmuh asked me to step in with my drum, I didn’t play what I could play, but what was in my heart. Oskar pressed his drumsticks into the hands of a three-year-old Oskar. I drummed up and down former paths, showed the world as a three-year-old sees it, and the first thing I did was harness that postwar crowd incapable of a true orgy to a cord, that is, I led them down Posadowskiweg into Auntie Kauer’s kindergarten, had them standing with their mouths hanging open, holding one another by the hand, turning their toes inward, waiting for me, their Pied Piper…. Beneath a night sky studded with fairy-tale stars, slightly cool, but seemingly made to order for the occasion, in the spring of nineteen-fifty, I dismissed the gentlemen and ladies, who carried on for some time with their childish nonsense in Altstadt and did not return home till the police finally helped them recall their age, social position, and telephone numbers.

Oskar has no problem stealing Jesus from a church, but torments himself as responsible for deaths to which he only bore a tangential relationship. He fully commits himself to something, and then just wanders off when it seems to no longer interest him. Between the oddities of the character, the non-traditional flow of the plot, and the complexity even in the sentence structure, I can only say that I am surprised to see this book come out of Germany in the late fifties. I would have expected, whether correctly or incorrectly, something much more stolid and traditional.

In the end, I may not fully know what to make of The Tin Drum. However, I do know that it is an amazing book. I guess that will just have to do.

One Hundred Years of Solitude-Gabriel Garcia Marquez

So, I’m pretty sure with this book, Dave and I have wrapped up Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s contributions to  The Top Ten.   And, I have to say that I am _extremely_ happy that I had the opportunity to read this book for our experiment/project.

The following authors listed this book in their top ten:

Lee K. Abbott, Russell Banks, Pearl Cleage, Edwidge Danticat (and I’ve never heard of them before but LOVE the name!), Chitra Divrakuni, Karen Joy Foyler, Michael Griffith, Alice Hoffman, Jim Harrison, John Irving, Wally Lamb, Ann Patchett, Francine Prose, Jim Shepard and Alexander McCall Smith.

I remember once, years ago, picking up One Hundred Years of Solitude and attempting to read it.  I made it maybe ten pages in and gave up.  I’m not sure why, though most likely I was in the midst of reading Dean Koontz novels or something and the writing style is definitely different from that.   So, when I picked it up again, I did so without fully knowing what to expect.  I had a little trepidation, one might say.  Halfway through the first chapter, my trepidation disappeared and the story consumed me.  The language is beautiful.  I liked this one better than Love in the Time of Cholera, this one had a bit more magic to it than Cholera did.

The story follows a family and intertwined with the family, a town, Macondo.  In fact, the state of the town usually reflects the state of the family and vice versa.  The founders of the family, Ursula and Jose Arcadio Buendia are the first characters we meet.  Marquez is genius at painting characters in a few strokes.  He then spends the rest of the story coloring them in, but even if he didn’t, you would feel that you knew the character completely from the beginning.  The following is one of the beginning things said about Ursula.  Her and Jose are arguing, he wants to explore and abandon the city that he founded.  She doesn’t want to leave.  He tells her that no one has died yet in the city, so you know it’s not a real city until someone does.

“Ursula replied with soft firmness ‘If I have to die for the rest of you to stay here, I will die'”.

The story follows the Buendia family from this time until a hundred years later.  Jose & Ursula’s two sons are Jose Arcadio and Aureliano.  Jose ends up having a child who is named Jose Arcadio, but called Arcadio, and then Jose runs off to not be seen for a few more years of narrative.  Aureliano stays and becomes a Colonel in a Liberal revolution.  Jose is…very well endowed.

“…the willful first-born who had always been too big for his age, had become a monumental adolescent.  One night, as Ursula went into the room where he was undressing to go to bed, she felt a mingled sense of shame and pity:  he was the first man she had seen naked after her husband and he was so well equipped for life that he seemed abnormal”.  Ursula speaks to a woman who knows how to read the future in cards and Ursula confides in her that she thinks it’s unnatural and the woman responds it doesn’t mean that at all, just that he’ll be very lucky.

Aureliano is a bit…psychic.  When he is born, he is born with his eyes wide open, and then examined everything with a “fearless curiousity”, then concentrated on the palm roof.

“Ursula did not remember the intensity of that look again until one day when little Aureliano, at the age of three, went into the kitchen at the moment she was taking a pot of boiling soup from the stove and putting it on the table.  The child, preplexed, said from the doorway, “It’s going to spill.”.  The pot was firmly placed in the center of the table, but just as soon as the child made his announcement, it began an unmistakable movement toward the edge, as if impelled by some innter dynamism and it fell and broke on the floor”.

I highlighted both sons’ traits here, because throughout the following generations, their names are used numerous times and a lot of their descendants carry either the huge genital size or the psychic intensity.

However, the trait that ties all of the generations together, is the solitude in which they live.  I’m not talking about the family as a unit living in reclusive solitude as a family.  I’m also not talking about someone who walls themselves in a room in solitude and never comes out (though some of the Buendias do just that either for parts of their lives or their whole lives).  I’m talking about each of them having distance from everyone else.  Marquez begins referencing it (that I noticed) in the second half of the book when he would talk about this descendant or that and would talk about them as solitary.  That they experienced this even in the midst of being solitary.  That they were able to not do this because of being in the midst of being solitary.

One Hundred Years of Solitude has a more fantastical feel to it than Love in The Time of Cholera.  Time doesn’t pass the same sometimes.  One of Jose Sr’s mentors, an old gypsy, dies and comes back.  Another character lives to be beyond 150 years old.  One character ascends to heaven just in the middle of a normal afternoon.  Things will happen that others say never existed.

There is so much more to this book than I have explained above, and it would take ten blog entries to go into detail into every nuance of Marquez’s story.

I loved it.  That sums up pretty much how I feel about this book.  When I started writing this blog entry, and was flipping through for the parts I quoted above, I had the temptation to begin reading it again.  Within 24 hours of finishing it.  I felt like I had gotten so sucked into it that I was missing major portions of the language and the descriptions etc.

I was really excited to see John Irving had picked it.  One of my favorite books of all time is Widow For One Year by him.  He had a new one come out this year, In One Person, that I finished reading the day before I picked up this book.  I thought it was beautiful, it sucked me in and when it spit me back out, it lingered for a couple of days, and still tugs at my conscience sometimes.

If you read no other book that I’ve talked about in here since May, read this one.  It’s a different pace than a lot of novels, but it’s a translation.  Find that pace, get into the book, and enjoy.



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.