acquiring, collecting, reading, adapting

Month: November, 2013

Review: Moby-Dick

Moby-Dick by Herman Melville
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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: 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.

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Review: The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle

The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle
The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle by Haruki Murakami
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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.

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