A lovely autobiographical novel by an apparently neglected modernist writer. I am no expert on modernism, but his reminded me in parts of Virginia Woolf, particularly in three ways: the impressionistic early scenes in which Sinclair describes memories of being very young; the swift passing of time combined with descriptions of domestic life; and the struggles of an intelligent, talented woman trapped by the conventional thinking of her family and provincial neighbors. This is described as a story of a mother-daughter relationship, and it certainly is that, but I was surprised by how much it was also about Mary’s intellectual development and her rejection of Christianity—a very bold opinion to hold in the late Victorian era. The story is tragic in its depiction of how someone can be held down by the small-mindedness of those who are afraid of independent thinking, but Mary’s eventual triumphs are not to be dismissed, even if they come late in life. Because it is rather slow-moving, I would not recommend this book to everyone, but I thought it was beautiful.
How does one even begin to write a “review” of Moby Dick, especially if one has a particularly dubious history with this classic? (If anyone cares to read more about my “history” with this novel, feel free to visit my blog post: http://bibliocurio.wordpress.com/2013/07/11/on-readerly-identity/.) It has taken me a really long time to write this review because there is at once so much to say and nothing to say.
One of the many reasons I avoided this book after my initial negative reaction was my lack of interest in Ahab’s obsession with vengeance on Moby Dick. To my surprise, this story actually doesn’t take up much of the book. It is one of the only plot points in an otherwise rather directionless novel, so that must be why the book is described as the story of Ahab’s obsession with Moby Dick, and of course the book is held together with this thread. But I was surprised by how much time Ahab spends brooding in his quarters, and by how often this would happen: a ship would come by, Ahab would ask if they had seen the whale, they would say no, then he would just snort and them and disappear, after which the story of that ship would be told nevertheless. I’m sure this could be really annoying to some readers, but I enjoyed it. Similarly, there is a lot of Melville “philosophizing,” which apparently led to the book’s initial commercial failure. Among Melville’s many ruminations, my favorite was the assertion that all killing of animals is murder, and all humans cannibals. While there is no implication in the passage that people should not eat meat, there is a strong argument throughout the book that humans should certainly recognize the violence and sacrifice (both human and animal) involved in the eating and use of animal materials (including whale oil and sperm).
For me, Melville is at his best when writing humor (and yes, there is a lot of humor in the book) and really strange, ominous, gothic imagery. Some of the ominous moments that will stick with me from this book: the graveless tombstones of the many New Bedford sailors lost at sea, the Pequod ponderously moving along with the head of a whale strapped to either side of the ship, the sound of sharks bumping recklessly against the side of the ship in a frenzy of feeding on a whale carcass, the witchcraft-like ceremony in which Ahab solicits the sailors’ allegiance in killing Moby Dick. These moments convince me of Melville’s Romanticism, despite the modernist heteroglossia and mixture of genres that also make the book fascinating and challenging at once.
I feel that rating a book like Moby Dick is a somewhat ridiculous endeavor, and if it’s undertaken, should probably only result in either a one-star or a five-star rating: it should elicit only the strongest feelings. Even so, I’m assigning four stars, because even though I liked the book very much and am glad I read it, I have to admit that I balked every time I sat down to read a little, which means I am happy I read it but didn’t always enjoy the experience of reading it.
One of my favorite types of stories is when a personal trauma is situated within the context of a national or otherwise historical trauma. This is what I thought I would be getting with The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, but ultimately a meaningful connection between the past and present was missing. While this was an interesting novel, I felt it could have been a profound one if it had come together more. It is obvious that Noburu Wataya is somehow connected to the events of WWII and carries the sickness and violence of that period into the novel’s present, but this is frustratingly underexplored; it seems the main concept here was that this particular level of violence goes beyond human nature and is something that gets carried into the next generation, but for me, this is an unsatisfactory conclusion.
And if we are to believe that the women in Toru Okada’s life, many of whom are “defiled” by Wataya, are to represent the change Japan went through as a result of WWII, then I have another problem, which is related to what I felt was an underlying and somewhat subtle sexism in the novel: the women are all depicted as seductresses and described almost exclusively in terms of their attractiveness, sexuality, and fundamental brokenness, with Kumiko in need of rescue. To add onto it a tired trope of the nation represented by a woman’s body is more than annoying.
Instead of being about the rippling effect of historical trauma and violence, I think the connecting thread in this novel is more about the fragmentation of the self, the ways we are multiple “selves” contained in one body, and how in moments of trauma we can even dissociate from our own bodies or sense of self. The parts where the novel explored this idea through the stories of the fascinating characters other than Toru Okada were some of the best in the novel. The stories of Nutmeg Akasaka and Lt. Mamiya in particular were my favorite parts of the novel, and to a lesser extent, the stories of Creta and Malta Kano. (Unlike most readers, I did not love May Kasahara, who was unconvincing to me as a character.)
But the most fascinating threads were dropped by the end of the novel, and ultimately it felt like a mishmash of interesting short stories instead of a novel. For me, this simply did not come together as a novel. When one of the main themes is fragmentation, I am willing to accept the possibility that the overall lack of connection is deliberate, but I still can’t shake the sense that this could have been a more beautiful, moving, and profound book than I found it to be. If this review is confusing, it’s because I’m still working out my thoughts on this one. There is certainly enough interesting stuff in it to recommend it, and I did enjoy reading it.
At least a dozen different people have told me in the past few years how much they love this book. It lives up to the hype.
Early on, I described this novel to someone as a relentless onslaught of stories. I have never felt quite so assaulted by storytelling before—not because it was violent (though there will always be violence in stories) but because there were stories after stories after stories without much time for a breath, or a pause to insert a bookmark. More than any other book I’ve ever read, it strives to encompass everything about life: everything from personal intimacies and enduring grudges to the impact of war, imperialism, capitalism. There was something at first whimsical and amusing in the telling, but at some point it turns darker and secretive and damaged, like a fairy tale that taps into something old and terrifying but still strangely beautiful.
The loss of memory was one of the themes that was most meaningful for me: near the beginning of the novel, the town suffers through a plague of insomnia, during which one of the side effects of the lack of sleep is to forget everything, even how to perform everyday activities, while later in the novel, there is a collective loss of memory about exploitative and even murderous corporate actions, to the point that the events are erased even from the history books. This is a novel about, among other things, the ways we remember and the ways we forget.
Beyond the most obvious stylistic trait of the novel—of course I mean the use of magical realism—it reminded me of the work of Virginia Woolf and William Faulkner. Like Woolf in The Years or Orlando, Marquez is interested in the passage of time generally—which alternates between a breakneck pace and a molasses crawl—and in scope—the grand, sweeping gestures of time and trends. And like Faulkner, Marquez is interested in the cyclical, repetitive, backward looking, forgetful nature of time—as well as the self-destruction and slow decay of an aristocratic family. But none of this is to say that One Hundred Years of Solitude is really like anything else; it is, of course, an utterly unique work all its own.
Because of the sweep of the novel, it seems pointless to dwell on details, but for me, the most devastating of the stories were of those characters tragically drawn into the world of the Buendía family, such as Pietro Crespi and especially the first Remedios. But considering the endurance of Remedios’s name and daguerreotype, I feel justified in being haunted by her.
In my last post, I mentioned that I had a spotty and unusual literary education in high school.
Here is a short list of regularly-assigned high school classics I did NOT read in high school:
- The Great Gatsby
- Anything (ANYTHING!) by Jane Austen
- The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn
- A Tale of Two Cities (though we did read the vastly superior Great Expectations, so it wasn’t a total wash)
- Fahrenheit 451*
- The Grapes of Wrath*
- The Scarlet Letter (I did read this novel on my own during high school, or possibly even middle school, but it was not assigned. I was just a weird kid. I remember buying it from the Scholastic book club catalogue.)
- Heart of Darkness (when I finally read this–in grad school–I was surprised that it would ever be assigned in high school)
- Wuthering Heights
To be fair to my high school, I was never assigned any of these books in college, either–though I’ve always thought the college professors probably assumed we had already read them. Some of these I’ve read since then, on my own or in grad school, but I still have not read the ones with asterisks next to them.
After finishing college without having read The Great Gatsby and a few others, I felt like the foundation of my reading was lacking and decided to take a college class called–this was really the title of the class–”The Great American Novel.” And guess what was not assigned? Because the professor assumed we had already read it? Yeah, we read Tender is the Night, instead–which is fine, because I love that novel and probably wouldn’t have read it on my own, but what is a “Great American Novel” class without Gatsby? Then again, the professor was obviously not taking a traditional view of the course: he also didn’t assign Moby-Dick or The Scarlet Letter, but he did assign Tender Buttons, Michael Gold’s Jews Without Money, and This Side of Paradise. I’m really glad I read those books, but I still consider the class to have been falsely advertised.
Also, you guys: I NEVER READ ANYTHING BY JANE AUSTEN UNTIL I WAS IN GRADUATE SCHOOL. It boggles the mind.
I’ve been thinking that, after Moby-Dick (if I decide to read it), maybe I will re-read The Scarlet Letter, since even though I did read it, it was so long ago that I assume I would get more out of it as an adult than I did at thirteen. But it’s hard to tell. I think some books have a kind of expiration date; like, if you didn’t read On the Road in college or The Catcher in the Rye in high school, maybe it’s just too late. Personally I felt the same way about A Tale of Two Cities when I finally read it a while back. Whereas other novels age much better. I re-read Great Expectations a few years ago and was struck by its poignancy, particularly in the relationship between Pip and Joe, when all I had remembered was Miss Havisham and Estella and Magwitch–though those characters, too, were more complex when viewed from a mature perspective. And for all my whining about not having read any Jane Austen before graduate school, what a nice surprise it was when I finally did read it. I was aware of Austen in high school, but I was a total book snob with a delusional sense of myself as highly cynical (even though I was really quite romantic) and I had assumed Austen wrote nothing more than fluffy romances. What a delight to discover how funny she was. And would I have understood that humor when I was fifteen? I’m not sure, since I was obviously so busy taking myself too seriously.
To be honest, I have no interest in reading Steinbeck. But I am curious about 1984 and Fahrenheit 451–should I read those? Or is it too late? Does The Scarlet Letter for an adult reader? Should I make this the summer of reading and re-reading high school classics?
I’m in the middle of a book called Why Read Moby-Dick? Why I’m reading Why Read Moby-Dick? is more complicated than my usual decisions about reading. After all, Moby-Dick is at the heart of one of my favorite stories about myself as a reader.
On one level, I am simply reading Why Read Moby-Dick? as research; I was thinking about having this question (why read this book?) be at the heart of a book I’d like to write about Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, so I wanted to see how the author, Nathaniel Philbrick, went about structuring his book around this question. But if I’m being honest, what drew me to the book was the book that it’s about. I was curious about this book well before I even had an idea for my own. I semi-secretly want Philbrick to convince me to read Moby-Dick. You see, I’ve never read it. And I can’t decide whether I want to, since to read it would change my readerly identity.
To explain my ambivalence, we must travel way back to my high school years. Located in a small town in one of the consistently lowest-ranked states for education, my public high school was not the kind of place that provided a solid foundation for college, or lifelong reading habits, for that matter. My high school literary education was spotty and unusual and deeply formative.*
In eleventh grade, I was in an honors English class led by a lovable and eccentric teacher who, instead of assigning a book for the whole class to read, would personally select books and assign them individually. For example, one week, I would be reading Jane Eyre while my classmate would be reading Of Mice And Men.** And yeah, there’s a major length discrepancy there that did not escape my notice, but I decided to feel honored that my teacher assigned me long, older, sometimes difficult novels. He knew I would read them. I was a very good girl who did what she was told, but it was not just that: I loved reading more than anything, and I loved getting an ambitious assignment, and I really did love the novels. I credit him for introducing me to Jane Eyre, my favorite novel ever and the book that I most strongly identify with. (The only book I ever asked my husband to read was Jane Eyre, because I finally came to the conclusion that you can’t fully understand me if you haven’t read that novel. For the record, he liked it***, which is good because I am Jane Eyre. I know every girl thinks she is Jane Eyre, but, like, except for the Christianity and the fact that I grew out of masochistic obsessions with bad boys, we are seriously the same.) My high school teacher also assigned me The Sound and The Fury, and even though I didn’t understand half of it, I was in love. That book completely blew my mind, changed my understanding of what literature could be, possibly even set me on my very convoluted path toward graduate school (even though I didn’t study Faulkner in grad school). I still can’t believe he assigned The Sound and The Fury to an eleventh grader to read completely on her own, and I still thank him for doing it.
But then there was Moby-Dick.
Maybe after I read Jane Eyre he overestimated my love for lengthy nineteenth-century novels. Or maybe he just figured it was an important novel for me to read. But, dear reader, I could not get past the second chapter. I just hated it. I hated the writing style, I hated the fact that it was about whaling, I hated that there was not a female character in sight–I don’t even quite know what I hated, but I was not going to read it. My simple sixteen year-old brain clamored for a solution. Then I did something I never did before and never have done since: I cheated on the assignment and copied a synopsis from Cliffnotes. (Should I be admitting this publicly? What is the statute of limitations on high school cheating? Does this ruin my cred as someone who tries to help students avoid plagiarism?)
My teacher had a funny habit of making us read him our book reports instead of handing them in. When I was finished reading him my Cliffnotes synopsis, he looked me right in the eyes and asked, “Kristina, did you read this book?”
And to my shame, I boldly met his gaze and replied, “yes, of course I read it.”
If I read Moby-Dick, I can watch this incredible-looking movie: “Since the beginning of time, man has pitted himself against the power of the sea!”
Ever since then, Moby-Dick has been as much a part of my identity as a reader as Jane Eyre is, but it is the anti-Jane Eyre. It is the book I never read, the book I knew my teacher knew I didn’t read, the impetus for lying to my favorite teacher; it represented the only time I cheated in all of my many years of schooling, from kindergarten through doctorate. I have felt shame. But I have also felt a strange pride, a sense of rebellion for not reading it. I even made a habit of telling people that, as a general rule, I do not read novels by men that take place on a ship. (Now I don’t even remember what prompted me to make this generalization–was it the horrible Heart of Darkness, which I *did* read but hated? In any case, ask any of my grad-school friends and they will tell you: yep, Kristina does not read novels by men that take place on a ship.)
Because of my sordid history with Moby-Dick, I’ve vacillated between considering it a badge of dishonor and wanting to redeem myself by reading it. But now, after living in New England for so long, and having read and loved “Bartleby the Scrivener,” and having read and loved so many 19th century novels, I am starting to think I might be ready to change my identity and read a book by a man that takes place on a ship. Because maybe I’m tired of holding onto that kind of rule about reading.
What do you say? Anyone want to talk me into or out of reading Moby-Dick? Is it too late to read it now, or would I enjoy it more as an adult? Unfortunately, Nathaniel Philbrick is not succeeding thus far, so at this point I only have my own convictions as motivation. And is there a book (or books) that you think of as forming your readerly identity?
*More about my high school literary education in my next post.
**I have also never read Of Mice and Men.
***My husband’s favorite part of Jane Eyre was the part with St. John. I love him for that. I have never, ever, ever met anyone who liked that part best! When I asked him about it, though, he said he liked that he was still being introduced to new characters that late in the story. How great is that?
I put this novel on my “to-read” list after I read the story about Messud attacking a reporting for saying that she wouldn’t want to be friends with Nora, the main character of The Woman Upstairs. I was excited about Messud being angry about being asked a question that she didn’t think anyone would ever ask a male novelist, and figured that even if the book was bad, she deserved the extra purchases that her public frustration got her.
I stand behind the decision and Messud’s justified anger, but unfortunately, I didn’t love The Woman Upstairs as much as I had hoped. Though it has absolutely nothing to do with Nora’s anger, or my unwillingness to be her friend. In fact, I’m fairly certain that I am already her friend, or that I am her. After all, Messud begins with promise and enticement by having Nora suggest that, in fact, ALL women are angry and fed up at being, basically, servants to others. Unfortunately, Nora never really shows her anger, only talks about it. And since the entire novel is about everything that leads up to the episode that unleashes this fury, she doesn’t even do a lot in the way of being a sarcastic or scathing narrator, because in order for us to understand her anger, we must walk alongside Nora while she is in the height of her infatuation with her friend Sirena and her family, thereby spending most of the time with a character who is fueled by obsession and self-doubt, not anger.
All in all, the novel felt (like so many contemporary novels, it seems to me) slight. There was a lot of promise and only a little delivery. For me, it felt like a great idea for a short story that was stretched out too long, or a great beginning to a novel that got cut off too soon. Although there is some payoff near the end, the actual ending felt incredibly abrupt, like it should have just been the start of the rest of the novel. All this said, I did like it for Messud’s interesting commentary on the artist’s life, and whether or not one has to be ruthless to be one. Perhaps, in that sense, the ending is appropriate, since it leaves it up to the reader to decide whether or not Nora is actually angry enough now to be able to explore her art to its fullest.