3rd read: beginning 03 september 13, for GR group read @ CBC Books - 5* rating (YAY!!)
man, this is a great book and i am so thrilled it held up during3rd read: beginning 03 september 13, for GR group read @ CBC Books - 5* rating (YAY!!)
man, this is a great book and i am so thrilled it held up during this third read for me. gibb is a fantastic storyteller and through her prose i could truly see, hear, smell and touch the places she created in this book - lilly's life in harare, her life in london were both so vivid.
this subject - ethiopia in the 70s, the government and it's abuses and deaths caused, the truth behind the famines - is something not truly well understood. through this novel. gibb brings us into a world we may not otherwise have been able to know or experience.
2nd read: for in-person book group, 2007 - 5* rating
1st read: @ time of publication, 2005 - 5* rating...more
this was my third time reading a complicated kindness and i think it gets better each time. the way toews captures the voice oLOVE THIS NOVEL SO HARD!
this was my third time reading a complicated kindness and i think it gets better each time. the way toews captures the voice of 16-year-old nomi is incredible. sure she's wise and precocious but she's also still a kid and toews gets her voice so right. i don't want to say too much here as one of my groups is about to do this read together.
it's a great novel to read over canada day long weekend....more
Amid all the quips and clever comebacks that fly through the halls of the dysfunctional English department at West Central Pennsylvania University inAmid all the quips and clever comebacks that fly through the halls of the dysfunctional English department at West Central Pennsylvania University in this novel, you find the reason for both all the antagonistic levity and the book's title. William Henry Devereaux, Jr., the story's narrator, states clearly:
In English departments, the most serious competition is for the role of straight man. Hank Devereaux, temporary department chair and determined wild card, revels in creating harmless chaos in his little corner of academia, and so rarely gets to play that coveted "straight man" role. He's a wisecracker who intentionally tries to hold the bad stuff in life at bay. He's a convincing, friendly point-of-view man, however, and his voice succeeds at drawing us into this hilarious, poignant novel of academe.
Continuing funding slashes have got rumours of staff cutbacks running rampant, and Hank's colleagues suspect him of having prepared a "list" that recommends who should get the boot, regardless of tenure. Hank hasn't, but it's not in his character to tell them if he has or not, and the English department threatens mutiny, calling a vote for a new chair.
That each and every member of the department should fear firing is not surprising, for paranoia is part of the academic game, and every person on staff has good reason for suspecting he, or she, won't make the grade. There's white linen-suited Finny, who outed himself just long enough to get divorced before reverting to claims of heterosexuality that no one believes, and who has a Ph.D. from American Sonora University, an institution that exists, so far as we've been able to determine, only on letterhead and in the form of a post office box in Del Rio, Texas, the onetime home, if I'm not mistaken, of Wolfman Jack.
There's nontenured Campbell "Orshee" Wheemer, the pony-tailed protofeminist who forbids books and writing in his classes (he uses taped TV sitcoms and makes his students turn in video cassettes for semester projects), who appends every use of the masculine pronoun in department meetings with "or she." There's aging prima-donna poet Gracie DuBois, whom every man in the college lusted over back when she was hired twenty years ago, now gone to fat; she's got a harassment suit in the works against Hank concerning his eternal wisecracking. There's meek Teddy Barnes, Hank's erstwhile best friend, who's been a little bit in love with Hank's wife for years; there's June, Teddy's wife, who is rumoured to be having an affair with Orshee. There's Paul Rourke, Hank's nemesis and neighbor, who's sworn never to laugh at anything Hank says. And then there's Hank, who hasn't published a book since his own hiring almost half his lifetime ago.
While he wrestles with this motley crew over department matters, Hank's got much more in life that demands his attention. His daughter, who has failed to inherit Hank or his wife Lily's love of language and writing, is in deep debt over her house (a copy of her parents') and on the outs with her unemployed husband. Hank himself is unsure whether or not he'd care if he got canned. Lily is checking out distant job opportunities, and Hank vaguely suspects that she's having an affair with his dean.
His adopted dog has developed enough self-assurance to "groin" everyone who visits. He worries that he's developing a stone -- as runs in the men in his family -- due to his having one hell of a time trying to pee. The biggest thing is perhaps his mother's informing him that the man he's tried hard not to think much about for most of his life, the father who deserted Hank and his mother for a succession of trophy graduate students, is going to be making a reappearance, perhaps for good, in their lives.
This novel of campus, family, midlife crisis and death threats against ducks bursts with humor and tenderness. Richard Russo has created characters who come quickly to colourful life. You won't want the story to end because you want to keep on seeing Hank Devereaux's world through his incomparable eyes. You will, however, be happy that you spent some time along with him for the ride.
Writing about regular people with regular lives is Russo's forte. His ability to turn the mundane or ordinary into nuanced stories is incredible. He also writes with amazing humour and wit. I laughed out loud reading this novel and give it 5 stars....more
(from Mark Frutkin @ Amazon.ca - which pretty much sums up how I felt) Joseph Boyden is a natural storyteller. Both the Native tales of the north and(from Mark Frutkin @ Amazon.ca - which pretty much sums up how I felt) Joseph Boyden is a natural storyteller. Both the Native tales of the north and the grim accounts of the war in France and Belgium have the ring of truth. His images can be subtly appropriate--raiders who go over the top are "eaten by the night"--and his characterizations are excellent, especially the three main players and Xavier's Canadian trenchmates. Eventually, Elijah seems to feed on the death all around him, becoming a "windigo," while Xavier begins to question the sanity of the war and his friend's growing madness, realizing "we all fight on two fronts, the one facing the enemy, the one facing what we do to the enemy." Not for the squeamish reader, this is a powerful novel that takes a new angle on a popular subject, "the war to end all wars."...more
This is a great book and I would recommend it for anyone with an interest in writing. There are so many writing prompts to help get the creativity floThis is a great book and I would recommend it for anyone with an interest in writing. There are so many writing prompts to help get the creativity flowing. Each chapter is its own exercise and each chapter has been contributed by a different published author. ...more
From Publishers Weekly: Brooks's luminous second novel, after 2001's acclaimed Year of Wonders, imagines the Civil War experiences of Mr. March, the aFrom Publishers Weekly: Brooks's luminous second novel, after 2001's acclaimed Year of Wonders, imagines the Civil War experiences of Mr. March, the absent father in Louisa May Alcott's Little Women. An idealistic Concord cleric, March becomes a Union chaplain and later finds himself assigned to be a teacher on a cotton plantation that employs freed slaves, or "contraband." His narrative begins with cheerful letters home, but March gradually reveals to the reader what he does not to his family: the cruelty and racism of Northern and Southern soldiers, the violence and suffering he is powerless to prevent and his reunion with Grace, a beautiful, educated slave whom he met years earlier as a Connecticut peddler to the plantations. In between, we learn of March's earlier life: his whirlwind courtship of quick-tempered Marmee, his friendship with Emerson and Thoreau and the surprising cause of his family's genteel poverty. When a Confederate attack on the contraband farm lands March in a Washington hospital, sick with fever and guilt, the first-person narrative switches to Marmee, who describes a different version of the years past and an agonized reaction to the truth she uncovers about her husband's life. Brooks, who based the character of March on Alcott's transcendentalist father, Bronson, relies heavily on primary sources for both the Concord and wartime scenes; her characters speak with a convincing 19th-century formality, yet the narrative is always accessible. Through the shattered dreamer March, the passion and rage of Marmee and a host of achingly human minor characters, Brooks's affecting, beautifully written novel drives home the intimate horrors and ironies of the Civil War and the difficulty of living honestly with the knowledge of human suffering.
This was a wonderful book that will stay with me for some time....more
i made it all the way to page 317 without crying...even though i felt like i could a couple of times earlier on. but page 317 did me in, the bastard!i made it all the way to page 317 without crying...even though i felt like i could a couple of times earlier on. but page 317 did me in, the bastard! heh. (i am not really a person who cries while reading - though grapes of wrath last week and this book tonight are turning me into a liarface on this front.) now, i am all teary and soppy, and i ugly-cried and i got the hiccups and i have to try and write something here that conveys how brilliant this book is to me. so how about this:
harper lee is so freaking amazing she will make you ugly-cry!
as with any of the classic novels i read and love - how do you review something so wonderful in a way that hasn't been said better by someone else already? i can't do it.
(i think this is the 5th time i have read this novel, but the last time was about 25 years ago, so it's been a while. prior to this re-read, most of my associations to this book were actually due to the film adaptation and gregory peck. (swoon!))
what struck me on this re-read most: that there are several moral centres in this story. often a novel will feature one character who provides a strong moral centre around which the action occurs or is reflected upon. with TKaM, we have several: atticus, of course; miss maudie; calpurnia; dill; heck tate; and boo radley.
the way lee established her characters and settings are stunning. it just all feels so astute and, not that i know any better, authentic. i could see everything she created (and no - not the movie edition, ha.) in my mind while i was reading. lee's observations on people and society are eerily good. i also enjoyed the moments of wit/humour she included.
i will join the chorus of millions before me who get sad over having no other works published by harper lee after TKaM. i sometimes wonder if it was just impossible to follow? sometimes i think maybe there are more stories she's saved until after she dies? but mostly, i spend an awful lot of time be thankful harper lee wrote this one book. thank you!...more
I found Vida's style to be sparse and very compelling. I read this novel in one sitting as I didn't want to interrupt the floI rate this book 5 stars.
I found Vida's style to be sparse and very compelling. I read this novel in one sitting as I didn't want to interrupt the flow. Vida raises big questions about identity, truth, belonging and connections to the past. In her acknowledgements, Vida states it was an essay she read that "made her curious about the kind of person who would see their past as unconnected to their present". This novel was the result of trying to answer that question. ...more
seriously. it's fantastic. it should be required reading for everyone.
here's the thing - i don't eat fish or other seafood. ever. i haLOVE THIS BOOK!!
seriously. it's fantastic. it should be required reading for everyone.
here's the thing - i don't eat fish or other seafood. ever. i have an anaphylactic allergy to shellfish and bivalves. as well, most other fish and seafood triggers some fairly bad reactions in my system. BUT...my husband could live on a mediterranean or portuguese diet and be happy, happy, happy. i am also a very curious person and i want to know what's going on in this world. i have a particular interest in eating in a socially and ethically responsible manner. for those reasons, this book was a must for me. i am just bummed it took me 5 years to get to it.
some of the information is not new. i have been making informed purchases of fish and seafood for many years. but a lot of the information was new. and fascinating. grescoe has a wonderful ability of delivering the facts and science in a very engaging and approachable way. the structure of the boo is fantastic. each chapter is like a little case study. a species is examined - the supply, the demand, the problems and the science - and explained. grescoe has travelled the world in researching this book and is clearly very passionate about the seafood industry and about the choices he makes for his diet.
yes -- it's a fairly doomed situation. but the book is also hopeful. grescoe included helpful resources and recommendations for how you can become a 'bottomfeeder'. it's better than it sounds. i swear!
my only wish (and it's my own damn fault!!) is that the book i just read was filled with 2012 information rather than 2007 stats. i don't know what's better or worse since then, but i am betting things have changed....more
oh for the love of humanity -- is there any family as hard done by as the joads???
the joads' humanity and hope in the face of utter hopelessness is inoh for the love of humanity -- is there any family as hard done by as the joads???
the joads' humanity and hope in the face of utter hopelessness is incredible and the way steinbeck conveyed this balance throughout the novel is brilliant. the man was a genius. but i don't really know what i could possibly say in a review that hasn't been said earlier and better by others? i think that even though the story was known to me before i actually read the novel, the thing that most resonated was the cruelty inflicted when people were removed from the farming equation, when the business, the industry became more important than the quality and integrity of human life. and since the horrible migration of farmers in the 1930s, we have progressed as a society in some ways but in other ways we have become utterly disconnected from what is important and necessary for a good life. steinbeck weaves fantastic social commentary throughout the grapes of wrath and these chapters were repeated slaps in the face. apparently, we haven't learned much at all, have we?
oh -- word of advice -- read the introduction AFTER you have read the novel. come back to it at the end of the story.
also -- steinbeck wrote this novel in six months. SIX MONTHS. (i am going to go and quietly break all my pens and pencils and shred all my paper and spend a little time shuddering in the fetal position over in the corner for a while. don't mind me.) he began in may, 1938 and wrote through october that year, when it was finished. four months after his wife typed it out, it was published in may of 1939. talk about efficient. ...more
Doing a re-read of the novel for the Seasonal Reading Challenge (Fall 2009). I loved this book when I studied it in high school, so it will be interesDoing a re-read of the novel for the Seasonal Reading Challenge (Fall 2009). I loved this book when I studied it in high school, so it will be interesting to see if I feel the same way about it now....more
From Amazon: "In Deafening, Canadian writer Frances Itani tells two parallel stories: a man's story of war and a woman's story of waiting for him andFrom Amazon: "In Deafening, Canadian writer Frances Itani tells two parallel stories: a man's story of war and a woman's story of waiting for him and of what it is to be deaf. Grania O'Neill is left with no hearing after having scarlet fever when she is five. She is taught at home until she is nine and then sent to the Ontario Institution for the Deaf and Dumb, where lifelong friendships are forged, her career as a nurse is chosen, and she meets Jim Lloyd, a hearing man, with whom she falls in love.
The novel is filled with sounds and their absence, with an understanding of and insistence on the power of language, and with the necessity of telling and re-telling our stories. When Grania is a little girl at home, she sits with her grandmother, who teaches her: "Grania is intimately aware of Mamo's lips--soft and careful but never slowed. She studies the word as it falls. She says 'C' and shore, over and over again. This is how it sounds."
After she and Jim are married and he is sent to war, he writes: "At times the ground shudders beneath our boots. The air vibrates. Sometimes there is a whistling noise before an explosion. And then, all is silent." When Grania's brother-in-law, her childhood friend, Kenan, returns from war seriously injured, he will not utter a sound. Grania approaches him carefully, starting with a word from their childhood--"poom"--and moves through "the drills she thought she'd forgotten…Kenan made sounds. In three weeks he was rhyming nonsense syllables."
A deaf woman teaching a hearing man to make sounds again is only one of the wonders in this book. Because Itani's command of her material is complete, the story is saved from being another classic wartime romance--a sad tale of lovers separated. It is a testament to the belief that language is stronger than separation, fear, illness, trauma and even death. Itani convinces us that it is what connects us, what makes us human."
This novel is so beautiful ~ the words, the sentences, the story, the flow. I rate this novel 5 stars....more
so freaking good. michael crummey's brain is the most awesome place and if i could take writing courses from anyone in the world, it would be him! manso freaking good. michael crummey's brain is the most awesome place and if i could take writing courses from anyone in the world, it would be him! man, oh man! crummy has this genius ability to create characters and scenes that just stun with their vividness. i love the way he uses place as a near-character too. everything i have ever read from him is evocative and gets right under my skin. his prose is fluid, beautiful and haunting. the stories he creates seem so real and knowable. and he has a crazy understanding of people that he brings into his writing - all of the big things and little things, the nuances and secrets, dreams and realities that make people who they are...he will expose them, in the process having you confront more about yourself than usually happens in reading a novel. and maybe more than you will be comfortable with. ...more
To begin reading Galore by Michael Crummey is to be invited into an epic novel of historical fiction that will compel you forward as you are overtaken by beautiful storytelling and fantastical events. For those who love to escape into their reading, this book will serve you well as it offers a true, unputdownable distraction from the reality of our more regular and everyday lives.
Galore was written over four years and is the third novel Crummey has set in Newfoundland. Born, raised and still living in the Canadian province that inspires his fiction, Crummey tackles some big themes in Galore. When asked about his newest novel, he responds by saying that "So much of Newfoundland's story seems tied up in…the unlikely resurrection after all hope has been lost. Loss and heartbreak and grief. Yes. And otherworldly resilience in the face of it. Rebirth. Wonder."
Sprawling wondrously over two hundred years, coming to an end during World War I, Galore tells the story of two connected families, the Sellers and the Devines, and two connected fishing communities in remote Newfoundland, Paradise Deep and The Gut (both fictional). Many events are addressed over the length of the story - love and loss, family, religion; folklore; times of feast and famine; births; deaths; traditions; the development of the fishing industry; unionization; a ghost; curses; a witch; medicine and the Great War. Phew! Given all this subject matter, Crummey successfully achieves the almost unfathomable in packaging this sweeping story of Newfoundland within just 350 pages.
Galore opens with two births in the outport village of Paradise Deep - one a grown man who has been cut from the belly of a beached whale and the other a new baby to a village family. Over the course of a few days, both appear to be closer to exiting the world than staying in it. The man, pale, bleached ("almost-albino") and stinking of rotted fish, is mute, naked and initially thought to be dead. However, showing weak signs of life, he is tended by the town's "witch", the Widow Devine, matriarch of the Devine family and grandmother of the new baby, as well as a gifted healer and midwife. The baby is also weak and struggling to live - coffins are built for both man and infant. The stranger, unconscious and uncommunicative, gives the town's people much to consider: Who is he? How did he get in the belly of the whale? The name debate, very early on in the book, is an example of the humor to be found in Galore:
"He come right out of the whale's belly", James Woundy announced, as if he had been the only one person present to see it. "As God is my witness so he did. Just like that one Judas in the Bible."
"Not Judas, you arse."
James turned to look at Jabez Trim. "Well, who was it then, Mr. Trim?"
"Jonah, it was. Jonah was swallowed by the whale."
"You sure it weren't Judas, Mr. Trim?"
"Judas was the disciple who betrayed Our Lord for thirty pieces of silver."
"And he was thrown overboard," James said. "That's how I minds it. Thrown into the ocean for betraying the Lord. With a millstone about his neck. And God had him eat up by a whale. To teach him a hard lesson."
"Jonah was fleeing the Lord God Almighty," Jabez insisted. "God chose him to be a prophet and Jonah had rather be a sailor and he ran from God aboard of a ship. And he was thrown into the sea by his mates to save themselves from a savage storm the Lord set upon them. And God sent a whale to swallow Jonah."
That's a fine story, Mr. Trim," James said. "But it don't sound quite right to my memory."
"Goddamn it, James Woundy. Do I have to bring out the Book and show you?"
"Now, sir, as I cannot read, I don't see how that would go far to clearing the matter up."
"Well you'll just have to take my word for it then," Jabez said.
Judah is the name reached in compromise. The infant is named Michael. And so the stranger and child are baptised, Paradise Deep-style, passed among the branches of Kerrivan's Tree (a scraggly apple tree that produces sour fruit) in an effort to save their lives in a manner more in keeping with the folkloric traditions of the community than the ritualistic manner of organized religion. The tree, carried as a sapling to the village from Ireland many years before, is thought to offer strength and protection to those woven through its branches. Judah and Michael, both improve after this ceremony and are born-again into the community.
Crummey has long thought of "the outports [of Newfoundland] as Old Testament landscapes, places where it's easier to believe in a vengeful and jealous deity than in the gentle Lamb of God. So the Old Testament is a big character in the novel." Indeed, along with the punishing landscape and unforgiving weather, many of the characters' names, Mary Tryphena, Lazarus, Absalom, Eli, Abel, Esther and Levi (to name a few), are pulled directly from the Bible; each one of them eccentric, layered and fully developed. Many are uneducated, rough and carrying generation-long grudges. These people can be almost as harsh and imposing as the setting in which they live.
While "galore" denotes plenty, abundance and wealth, this novel traces not only the good times, but the more frequent hard times as well. Newfoundland, perhaps more so than any other province in Canada, is unique. Cast out in the Atlantic ocean, this isolated island was born through the strength and resolve of settlers from Ireland and Britain and the native "bushborns". Existences were carved out on the "Rock" (a nickname for Newfoundland) through fishing, trapping, whaling and sealing - some years more plentiful than others. The winter seasons were long and bleak; people starving to death during the seemingly endless frozen months. Yet, amongst all of these challenges to survival are times of plenty and times of hope. The characters in Galore pull together, individuals and families working as one to ensure not only the survival of each other, but the continuity of their community for the generations who will follow.
04 April 11
Second reading of this novel and it was as strong and beautiful as the first time I read it in late 2009. I am working on a review of this book for BookBrowse so, unfortunately, can't go into great detail here just yet.
I will say this novel is epic, magical, perfect.
12 December 09
Following below, is, I think, the best review of this novel I have read. I posted it upon completing my first read of Crummey's story, sixteen months ago.
Galore opens with a group of people in the fictional Newfoundland outport of Paradise Deep, slaughtering a whale that has inexplicably beached itself. Young Mary Tryphena watches as the body of a man, pale and stinking, is cut from the whale's belly. Her grandmother, an old crone named Devine's Widow, defies the town oligarch, King-me Sellers, and has the man carried up the hill to prepare him for a proper burial.
The man, it turns out, is in fact alive, though he cannot speak a word. In the spirit of compromise and illiteracy, he is given the name of Judah. He never does utter a word, and he never loses his stench, but his presence ignites a spark in Paradise Deep that sustains the story for multiple generations.
Crummey's prose is flawless. He has a way with the colloquial that escapes many writers, an ability to make the idiosyncrasies of local speech an asset in creating an image in the reader's mind.
“They'd scaled the whale's back to drive a stake with a maul, hoping to strike some vital organ, and managed to set it bleeding steadily. They saw nothing for it then but to wait for God to do His work and they sat with their splitting knives and fish prongs, with their dip nets and axes and saws and barrels. The wind was razor sharp and Mary Tryphena lost all feeling in her hands and feet and her little arse went dunch on the sand while the whale expired in imperceptible increments. Jabez Trim waded out at intervals to prod at the fat saucer of an eye and report back on God's progress.”
I have, for example, never heard the word “dunch” in my life. But still I know what it means, and have even from time to time felt it in my own rear side. There are writers who can send you scowling for a dictionary, and writers who throw you laughing into language. I went to the dictionary only because of this review, and “dunch” wasn't there. It doesn't need to be.
I believe that books, or at least good books, have a voice. I'm not talking about narrators or characters or that sort of thing; what I mean is that the book itself feels alive and it has a personality and sound all of its own, independent of whatever other stylistic devices are at play within its pages. In this respect, Galore succeeds brilliantly. It's a book that will live in the minds of readers long after they've turned the final page.
Where Crummey's first two novels took one or more characters and placed them in a historical context that allowed readers to see both the characters and Newfoundland, which is how most historical novels work, Galore achieves a far more difficult effect. The characters, plot and setting have been fused, in that this book isn't so much about the people and the events and places that affect them as it is the folkloric sum of Newfoundland, and the characters, as individual and real and compelling as they are, are, for all their strangeness, archetypes, an odd and wonderful mash of biblical and pagan touchstones. It's an incredibly difficult task to make characters such as these work as human beings as well as elements of folklore, and Crummey does it with as much skill and grace as Gabriel Garcia Márquez does in One Hundred Years of Solitude , a novel very much the forebear of this book.
We eventually follow the descendents of young Mary Tryphena through the years, watch as Paradise Deep flourishes and flounders, see the ripples of events that happened years before, see history repeat and morph and repeat again. In Galore , the ghosts are real and the real people live as ghosts. Things that shouldn't happen do. You could, I suppose, call the book a sort of magic realism, though I'm not sure if that doesn't confine it in a way I'm not willing to do. There's something about the term “magic realism” that suggests that magic isn't real, and besides that, the magic that takes place in Paradise Deep isn't really magic, it's simply a part of the known world, like gravity or rainfall.
We have, in Canada, a handful of writers who are able, in the minds of readers, to define a place. While I've never lived in, or in some cases been to, the Miramichi, Comox Valley, Cape Breton or Montreal, I've read David Adams Richards, Jack Hodgins, Alistair MacLeod and Mordecai Richler. As a result, those places live as vividly in my imagination as many places in which I've spent more time and about which I know more factually. Perhaps even more vividly.
Michael Crummey is without a doubt one of Canada's finest writers. I won't thrust the mantle of the voice of Newfoundland on him, as he may well in the future write about other parts of the world, and I will be happy, as a reader, to follow him there. Throw a rock on the Rock, burning or not, and you'll hit a good writer (please don't actually throw rocks at writers, or anyone). But the Newfoundland that exists in my imagination – the one that may not be real and if it ever was real likely doesn't exist today – smells and tastes and sounds like Galore .
Steven Galloway is the author of "The Cellist of Sarajevo"....more
Well....I don't even know how to review this epic novel...so I will share a NYTimes piece, by Kathryn Harrison. This article ran only a few weeks agoWell....I don't even know how to review this epic novel...so I will share a NYTimes piece, by Kathryn Harrison. This article ran only a few weeks ago and though it addresses Nathaniel Philbrick's Why Read Moby-Dick?, she makes many observations and comments that I also shared during my read on Melville's novel.
It’s a hard sell Nathaniel Philbrick has undertaken in “Why Read Moby-Dick?” The novel’s plot has been recycled for decades, inspiring films, radio dramas, cartoons, comic books, a television mini-series, a couple of heavy metal albums, a music video and a rap rendition. How many potential readers approach the masterwork of Herman Melville without already knowing the story of Captain Ahab and the white whale? Any? And why would such an overly exposed audience embrace a work of such heft, especially as almost every edition carries the added weight of ponderous academic commentary? “Moby-Dick” would appear to be one of those unfortunate books that are taught rather than enjoyed.
But who knows how many teeter in the aisles of Barnes & Noble, both drawn and repelled by the promise of edification? It’s the historian Nathaniel Philbrick’s intent to give those uncertain consumers a gentle shove toward the “one book that deserves to be called our American Bible.” He wants “you — yes, you — to read . . . ‘Moby-Dick.’”
Philbrick, whose “In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex” recounted the real-life inspiration for Melville’s shipwreck, wears his erudition lightly. He broaches the novel in quirky thematic fashion, with gracefully written compact essays on topics like landlessness, chowder and sharks. His voice is that of a beloved professor lecturing with such infectious enthusiasm that one can almost, for a moment, believe in the possibility of a popular renaissance for Melville. But convincing and beguiling though his slender apologia is (the whole of it taking up less than a quarter of the space allotted to the Norton Critical Edition’s appendixes), Philbrick doesn’t have an audience held captive in a classroom.
Still, his Bible metaphor applies in that not only is “Moby-Dick” a big fat book about the wages of sin and the elusiveness of redemption, but also one to which zealots return even as potential admirers push it away, put off by its size and its longtime residence on literature courses’ reading lists.
It’s too bad. More capacious than ponderous, “Moby-Dick” has the wild and unpredictable energy of the great white whale itself, more than enough to heave its significance out of what Melville called “the universal cannibalism of the sea” and into the light. Melville challenged the form of the novel decades before James Joyce and a century before Thomas Pynchon or David Foster Wallace. Calling for tools befitting the ambition of his task — “Give me a condor’s quill! Give me Vesuvius’s crater for an ink stand!” — Melville substituted dialogue and stage direction for a chapter’s worth of prose. He halted the action to include a parody of the scientific classification of whales, a treatise on the whale as represented in art, a meditation on the complexity of rope, whatever snagged his attention. Reporting the exact day and time of his writing in a parenthetical aside, he “pulled back the fictive curtain and inserted a seemingly irrelevant glimpse of himself in the act of composition,” the moment Philbrick identifies as his favorite in the novel. Melville may not have called this playfulness metafiction, but he defied strictures that shaped the work of his contemporaries, including that of Nathaniel Hawthorne, to whom he dedicated “Moby-Dick,” calling it a “token of my admiration for his genius.”
Ahab doesn’t appear until the 28th of its 135 chapters. The vestigial plot is of the train-wreck variety. There is no conflict moving toward a crisis in “Moby-Dick” because the crisis is long past, the battle for the soul of the antihero won in a summary flashback made even more remote by the delirium that followed the castrating bite that took off Ahab’s leg. The one emotion returned to him is vengeance, Ahab now “shaped in an unalterable mould.” The die is cast; what’s left of the narrative is denouement, all the characters save the narrator, Ishmael, dragged inexorably toward destruction.
Philbrick reads the captain as a demagogue blinded by his profane quest. Ahab manipulates his crew into squandering both his investors’ funds and their own lives to satisfy his immoral agenda — piloting his ship toward a doomed conflict with a murderous, uncontrollable, unstoppable monster variously interpreted as nature, God, fate and, on a level particular to the history of the United States, slavery. “I’d strike the sun if it insulted me,” Ahab admits, supporting Philbrick’s suggestion that “instead of writing history, Melville is forging an American mythology.” Purer in his pride than a mere mortal, his grandness “plucked at from the skies, and dived for in the deep,” the captain is more Icarus than Tom Joad or Rabbit Angstrom. Melville’s America hurtles toward civil war, hobbled by slavery, as Ahab has been deformed by his first encounter with the evil that will drag him down to his death. His vision is both intimate, examining the intricacies of the tattoos on a savage’s leg and, sometimes, exalted.
For Ishmael, “a dreamy meditative man,” the vantage from the masthead “is delightful. There you stand, a hundred feet above the silent decks, striding along the deep, as if the masts were gigantic stilts, while beneath you and between your legs, as it were, swim the hugest monsters of the sea. . . . The tranced ship indolently rolls; the drowsy trade winds blow; everything resolves you into languor.” The description is what Philbrick calls a “little sidebar of miraculous prose, one of many that Melville scatters like speed bumps throughout the book as he purposely slows the pace of his mighty novel to a magisterial crawl.” But if the ship is becalmed or blown off course by one flight of fancy or another, each diversion is just a little stay of the end’s certain execution.
If light and life are composed of color, the whiteness of the whale is the “pallor of the dead” and “the shroud in which we wrap them.” The color is “the most meaning symbol of spiritual things,” Melville wrote, and “Moby-Dick” belongs as much to the 20th or 21st century as to the 19th. Fascism, the Holocaust, the threat of nuclear annihilation, terrorism — every failure of humanity can be projected onto the blank canvas of the beast’s unwitting head.
Melville sailed on whaling expeditions and understood well the crushing labor required to sustain America’s prosperity — to keep the whale oil burning in a rich man’s lamp — as well as the delicate maneuvering required to pilot a crew whose “demographic diversity,” as Philbrick calls it, predicted America’s future. Caucasians, Indians, African-Americans, varied islanders, all are, Melville wrote, “federated along one keel” of the “death-glorious” Pequod, a ship both “hearse” and “fading phantom.” A misdirected melting pot, it sails on, as Philbrick notes, under “a man divided, seared and parboiled by the conflagration raging inside him,” one who heedlessly sacrifices all those who have pledged their allegiance to him.
“The mythic incarnation of America: a country blessed,” in Philbrick’s words, “by God and by free enterprise that nonetheless embraces the barbarity it supposedly supplanted,” we are a nation, and a species, ever poised on self-destruction. “Listen to every word” Philbrick says of what might be read as a cautionary tale, betraying an optimism he cannot have drawn from Melville. After all, the ending he saw was unavoidable extinction.