Monday, 17 February 2020

Nothing to See Here | Kevin Wilson

Nothing to See Here made nine of the 'best of' lists as compiled by Kate at the end of 2019, with comments like 'laughed so hard', 'a most unusual story of parental love' and 'hilarious' leaping out at me everywhere I looked.

I was expecting a belly laugh or two, at least. But no. It was way too sad for that. Even though the story was told with a tender, light touch, and some of Wilson's phrasing and imagery was amusing, I couldn't bring myself to laugh at the plight of any of these loveless characters, all so desperate to find someone to love them and care for them properly.

From the Senator, who had the emotional life of a gnat, and ran for office simply because of family tradition, to Carl the body guard, who just did what he was told. Madison and Lillian, the best friends from high school, from vastly different backgrounds, but both with equally shitty parents. To the poor, poor ten year old twins, who could burst into flames when angry or upset, but not be harmed, who watched their mother kill herself and then got stuck living with their crappy grandparents, until their father, the Senator, finally brought them home.

But not really home. A house on the family estate that has been converted to withstand fire and be very private, where they could be looked after by Lillian discreetly, away from the public eye.

In some ways this is a story about parental love. Lillian's growing love for the twins gives her life meaning and purpose. Her own dysfunctional upbringing allows her to empathise with the twins, and once the bond is formed, makes her determined to turn things around for them. The twins, in turn, trust her because of her vulnerability. They can sense her desire to protect them (in a way she was not protected) against all odds. Madison has a similar relationship going on with her own young son, Timothy. Determined to do better than her own upbringing, but also determined to get ahead with a career and life of her own. She is able to spin a story at the drop of a hat, a valuable asset for a politician's wife!

As much as I enjoyed this book, and was utterly engaged in the story from start to finish, there was nothing hilarious about this level of human damage. There is humour in the set-up and the satirical gaze at politics, privilege and power. It's also amazing how quickly you accept that children can self-combust.

Nothing to See Here is an unforgettable book. It was the perfect choice for a mini-break weekend away. Mr Books and I can both recommend it; just don't expect to laugh.

Friday, 14 February 2020

Moby-Dick Chapters 101 - 110

I only have 35 more Moby-Dick chapters to write up and a handful of chapters left to read.
I'm going to miss these posts and my time with Ishmael. But the end is in sight. Soon Ishmael and I will part company, and I will have to find a new obsession!

Perhaps this is the post we will finally meet the White Whale?

Ch 101: The Decanter
  • Ishmael loves a good aside!
  • After our brief gam with the Samuel Enderby in chapter 100, Ishmael decides to give us a potted history of Enderby & Sons, 'the famous whaling house' of London, who have been in the business since 1775.
  • As it turns out, Ishmael spends some time on board the Sammy 'long, very long after old Ahab touched her planks with his ivory heel.' A reminder that whatever happens in this mad quest for Moby-Dick, Ishmael at least lives to tell the tale.
  • Ishmael philosophy - if you can get nothing better out of the world, get a good dinner out of it, at least.

Ch 102: A Bower in the Arsacides
  • The Arsacides are what we now call the Solomon Islands.
  • Ishmael tells us that his intimate knowledge of the internal world of sperm whales came about thanks to his ability to dissect cub Sperm Whales and also thanks to the (fictional) king Tranque of the Arsacides.
  • A whale once washed up on the beach, dead. 
  • After it had been skinned and the bones dried and bleached in the sun, they were 'transported up the Pupella glen, where a grand temple of lordly palms now sheltered it.' 
  • Ishmael returns to his weaving analogy - 
    • the industrious earth beneath was as a weaver's loom, with a gorgeous carpet on it, whereof the ground-vine tendrils formed the warp and woof.
    • Through the lacings of the leaves, the great sun seemed a flying shuttle weaving the unwearied verdure. Oh, busy weaver! unseen weaver!—pause!—one word!—whither flows the fabric? what palace may it deck? wherefore all these ceaseless toilings? Speak, weaver!—stay thy hand!—but one single word with thee! Nay—the shuttle flies—the figures float from forth the loom; the freshet-rushing carpet for ever slides away. The weaver-god, he weaves; and by that weaving is he deafened, that he hears no mortal voice; and by that humming, we, too, who look on the loom are deafened; and only when we escape it shall we hear the thousand voices that speak through it.
    • Ah, mortal! then, be heedful; for so, in all this din of the great world's loom, thy subtlest thinkings may be overheard afar.
  • He takes this opportunity to measure the dimensions of the whale and its bones. 
  • He then commits these measurements to a tattoo on his right arm, 'as in my wild wanderings at that period, there was no other secure way of preserving such valuable statistics.'

Ch 103: Measurement of the Whale's Skeleton
  • The chapter where Ishmael reveals the measurements that he had tattooed on his arm!
  • And where he discovers that no matter how much he measures, researches and gathers facts about the whale, he will never really understand it.
    • How vain and foolish, then, thought I, for timid untravelled man to try to comprehend aright this wondrous whale, by merely poring over his dead attenuated skeleton.
    • No. Only in the heart of quickest perils; only when within the eddyings of his angry flukes; only on the profound unbounded sea, can the fully invested whale be truly and livingly found out.

Ch 104: The Fossil Whale
  • Turns out Ishmael is also a dab hand at geology and fossils!
  • Is there nothing this man cannot do?

Ch 105: Does the Whale's Magnitude Diminish? - Will He Perish?
  • Two questions that Ishmael is unable to answer.
    • Has the whale increased or decreased in size over time?
    • Will the whale be hunted into extinction?

Ch 106: Ahab's Leg
  • Back to the story.
  • When Ahab returned on board the Pequod after his visit to the Sammy, he splintered his ivory leg. 
  • Which brings to mind an earlier accident that Ahab had with his leg, falling over one night, causing the ivory bone to pierce his groin.
  • Ahab calls the carpenter to fix the leg from the supplies of Sperm Whale jaw-ivory that they had accumulated on the voyage.

Ch 107: The Carpenter
  • The carpenter remains unnamed. 
  • He was his job - he did not seem to work so much by reason or by instinct.

Ch 108: Ahab and the Carpenter
  • Another chapter that reads like a play.
  • The carpenter opens with a soliloquy, followed by dialogue with Ahab.
  • Another reference to Prometheus.
  • The carpenter finds Ahab's talk about fire gods and Greek gods 'queer.'
    • He's just a carpenter, plain and simple, doing his job and not fussed with all these interpretations and literary references.

Ch 109: Ahab and Starbuck in the Cabin
  • Starbuck discovers that some of the oil casks are leaking.
  • Ahab, initially refuses to do anything about it.
  • Starbuck insists as much as he is capable of doing and leaves Ahab with,
    • let Ahab beware Ahab; beware of thyself, old man.
  • Ahab realises that to maintain the respect of the crew, he needs to attend to this problem, after all the oil is the reason for going out on a whaling ship in the first place.

Ch 110: Queequeg in his Coffin
  • Queequeg helps to empty the hold of the leaking oil casks and develops a bad fever.
  • He languishes on his hammock for several days and everyone fears the worst.
  • So much so, that Queequeg calls the carpenter to him and requests a coffin be made.
    • he had learned that all whalemen who died in Nantucket, were laid in those same dark canoes, and that the fancy of being so laid had much pleased him; for it was not unlike the custom of his own race, who, after embalming a dead warrior, stretched him out in his canoe, and so left him to be floated away to the starry archipelagoes.
  • But then he suddenly recalled a little duty ashore, which he was leaving undone; and therefore had changed his mind about dying: he could not die yet, he averred. They asked him, then, whether to live or die was a matter of his own sovereign will and pleasure. He answered, certainly. In a word, it was Queequeg's conceit, that if a man made up his mind to live, mere sickness could not kill him: nothing but a whale, or a gale, or some violent, ungovernable, unintelligent destroyer of that sort.
  • Another moment of rebirth or resurrection.

I'd love to hear about your progress through Moby-Dick and please remember to add any new posts about the book or Melville to the linky in the original post.

Extracts - Chapter 7
Chapters 12 - 16
Chapters 17 - 20
Chapters 21 - 25
Chapters 26 - 30
Chapters 31 - 34
Chapters 35 - 40
Chapters 41 - 44
Chapters 45 - 49
Chapters 50 - 60
Chapters 61 - 70
Chapters 71 - 80
Chapters 81 - 90
Chapters 91 - 100
Chapters 101 - 110

Wednesday, 12 February 2020

Middle England | Jonathan Coe

I do love the Costa Prize. It regularly throws up a new-to-me author or a book that I come to adore. The Costa folk have a happy knack of selecting engaging stories, quirky ideas and immensely readable books. There was a lot to love about the 2019 Fiction winner, Middle England.

Set in Brexit England, with a cast of characters that made previous appearances in Coe's two earlier books, The Rotters’ Club (2001) and The Closed Circle (2004). Although I hadn't read the first two books, I was able to jump straight into Middle England thanks to the in context flashbacks and remembrances of the main characters. These main characters were obviously much loved by Coe. They were written with such affection, that it was hard not to like them as well.

I would suggest that Coe's political view of the world basically coincides with my own, so even though I learnt a lot about the Brexit process and gained some insight into how it happened, my views were not challenged. The Remain characters were drawn sympathetically, but were also portrayed as being racist, sexist and/or homophobic. The genuine fear (of change, of the 'other', of difference) that many Remain voters feel, was never really brought forward and the many issues with the EU body politic were only briefly touched on. Perhaps the least sympathetic character, was young Coriander (she was always going to be difficult with a name like that!), the extreme left-wing militant who took offence at pretty much everything.

This all might sound a bit heavy and boring, but let me assure you, it was far, far from that. I had some genuine laugh out loud moments and was entertained from start to finish.

I particularly enjoyed the other serendipitous book moments that happened along the way.

Our English Lit character had a conference in Marseille, that turned into a mini-Count of Monte Cristo homage, culminating in a visit to the Ch√Ęteau d'If where Edmund was wrongly imprisoned in his story. I was very envious.

Half way through, most of our characters sat down to watch the Opening ceremony of 2012 London Olympics, which I had just read up on thanks to my recent read of The Tempest. I loved seeing it through the eyes of so many different people.

There was also a passing reference to McEwan's Saturday that coincided with me selecting it for my most recent Shelf Life post. I love it when my book worlds collide.

Middle England is infused with a very British nostalgia, a huge heart and a sense of increasing bewilderment. The politics of Brexit is made personal as this group of family and friends discuss, fall out and learn to live with each other's different view points and opinions.

I will definitely go back to read The Rotters' Club at some point; I'm curious to know how Benjamin and his family and friends started out. 

  • Ian Sansom suggested these books were “the closest thing we have to a contemporary middle-class, middle-England Dance to the Music of Time”.
  • John Boyne said: “Millions of words have been and will be written on Brexit but few will get to the heart of why it is happening as incisively as Middle England.
  • Costa Book Awards Fiction Winner 2019
  • 2019 nominee for The Prix Femina √©tranger

Monday, 10 February 2020

Moby-Dick - Chapters 91 - 100


Since my last post I've read a biography called Herman Melville - Mariner and Mystic by Raymond Melbourne Weaver. 

It was a fairly lacklustre, uninspiring bio in the end. It was a straight down the line linear look at Melville's life, as one might expect from a book first published in 1921. There was a lot of back story about his parents and grandparents and LOTS of discussion and quotes from his most well-known books. In fact, most of the information about Melville's life seemed to come from his South Sea books and his letters. A few letters that he wrote to Nathaniel Hawthorne were included as well.

Curiously almost nothing was said about his children, not even the suicide of his son, which obviously had a huge impact on the ageing Melville. There were also gaps about his father's financial and mental health problems, his strict Calvanistic upbringing, Melville existential and religious angst as he matured and the fact that he did actually keep on writing right up to his death, especially poetry. 

Perhaps a 1921 biographer didn't have the research techniques to hand that more modern ones do. Either way, it seems that Weaver did not dig very deep to write this particular bio. He was also very happy to insert his own opinions into the book. He judged the value of each Melville's books and completely dismissed anything that Melville wrote in his later life. This is what happened to Melville at the time - Moby-Dick (1851) and Pierre (1852) were not well received at all. However, modern researchers have now ascertained that the negative reviews were written and published by religious organisations unhappy with Melville's stance on Christian missionaries. They ridiculed his writing and claimed he was going mad. No-one questioned or challenged them, and no doubt, Melville felt that his concerns about Christianity in action, were confirmed by this smear campaign.

Weaver was a professor of English and comparative literature at Columbia University from 1916-1948. His book is credited with the Melville revival that began at this time, for which we (lovers of Moby-Dick) will always be grateful.

Apparently this was the first ever in-depth look at Melville's life, coming as it did after the 100th anniversary of his birth in 1919. Weaver had been asked to write a magazine piece to celebrate this milestone, which then developed into this book two years later.

Wikipedia sums up the book by saying,
Weaver presents Melville as a disappointed and disillusioned genius who rebelled against social convention and paid the price: "His whole history is the record of an attempt to escape from an inexorable and intolerable world of reality." Weaver praises Melville for establishing the South Seas as a suitable topic for literature and for his depictions of a sailor's sea-life, but saved his highest praise for Moby-Dick, Melville's "undoubted masterpiece." But Weaver saw the cold reception from critics as leading to the "Long Quietus," that is, Melville's withdrawal from engagement with literature. He characterized Melville's work after 1851 as inferior, sometimes even unacceptable.

It was an interesting read, but frustrating thanks to the obvious gaps and overt judgements. If anyone could recommend a more modern bio for me to try next, I would appreciate it.

But now, onto our chapters.

Ch 91: The Pequod Meets the Rose-bud
  • "In vain it was to rake for Ambergriese in the paunch of this Leviathan, insufferable fetor denying that inquiry." Sir T. Browne, V. E.
  • I was wondering when we'd get to the ambergris. Having read Perfume a number of years, where I learnt something about the importance of ambergris to the perfume industry, I knew it had to turn up eventually, like all bad smells do!
  • Naughty Stubb! Even though the Rose-bud has two fast-fish, seeing the potential for ambergris in one of them, Stubb scams convinces the unknowing French crew that the whales are poisonous and to let them go.
  • Stubb gathers six handfuls 'worth a gold guinea an ounce'.

Ch 92: Ambergris
  • More thoughts about the nature of ambergris and what it might mean for mankind.
    • that the incorruption of this most fragrant ambergris should be found in the heart of such decay; is this nothing?
  • St Paul in Corinthians: we are sown in dishonor, but raised in glory.
  • Ishmael defends the honour of whalemen and the cleanliness of whales.

Ch 93: The Castaway
  • Back to the action.
  • Young Pip the 'unduly slender, clumsy, or timorous wight' has an accident.
  • Not a comfortable chapter for a modern reader to read. Pip is an African-American and Melville uses the terminology of his times to describe Pip, who never really gets a chance to rise above the stereotype.
  • Before the accident, Pip is brilliant. He 'loved life, and all life's peaceable securities.' But after being lost at sea for a period of time, he is rescued 
    • but from that hour...went about the deck an idiot....The sea had jeeringly kept his finite body up, but drowned the infinite of his soul. Not drowned entirely, though. Rather carried down alive to wondrous depths....Pip saw the multitudinous, God-omnipresent....He saw God's foot upon the treadle of the loom, and spoke it; and therefore his shipmates called him mad. So man's insanity is heaven's sense.
  • Ishmael also gives us a hint of what's to come 'in the sequel of this narrative, it will then be seen what like abandonment befell myself.'

Ch 94: A Squeeze of the Hand
  • Probably the most famous chapter in Moby-Dick!
  • Squeezing lumps out of the spermaceti - 'it was our business to squeeze these lumps black into fluid. A sweet and unctuous duty!'
    • I squeezed that sperm till I myself almost melted into it; I squeezed that sperm till a strange sort of insanity came over me; and I found myself unwittingly squeezing my co-laborers' hands in it, mistaking their hands for the gentle globules. Such an abounding, affectionate, friendly, loving feeling did this avocation beget; that at last I was continually squeezing their hands, and looking up into their eyes sentimentally; as much as to say,—Oh! my dear fellow beings, why should we longer cherish any social acerbities, or know the slightest ill-humor or envy! Come; let us squeeze hands all round; nay, let us all squeeze ourselves into each other; let us squeeze ourselves universally into the very milk and sperm of kindness.
    • It's easy to see how modern readers can find this section to be homoerotic. But I doubt very much that that is how Melville, or other readers of that time, viewed it. Melville, via Ishmael is simply revelling in the joyous part of whaling. For Ishmael, those parts are the ones where he can go into a bit of a meditative state - whether it's up in the crows nest on a balmy sunny day or engaged in a repetitive task with his co-workers, that also happens to smell rather nice.
  • Ishmael finishes with the various cuts of whale.
    • White-horse - a wad of muscle - oily oblongs of flesh that go to the mincer.
    • Plum-pudding - part of the whale flesh
    • Slobgollion - an ineffable oozy, stringy affair, most frequently found in the tubs of sperm, after a prolonged squeezing, and subsequent decanting.
    • Gurry - a dark, glutinous substance which is scraped off the back of whales.
    • Nippers - a short firm strip of tendinous stuff cut from the tapering part of a Leviathan's tail.
  • Ishmael also warns us about the dangers to toes when working in the blubber-room - very sharp spades!

Ch 95: The Cassock
  • a very strange, enigmatical object...lying lengthwise in the lee scuppers - a whale penis!
  • the grandissimus is skinned like the pelt of a boa, turned inside out and stretched to dry in the rigging.
  • The top three feet of this pelt is then cut off, two slits for arm-holes are cut into before the mincer slips himself bodily into it.
  • Apparently this cassock, affords the mincer some form of protection as he works.
  • Melville compares the mincing bulwarks to a pulpit - perhaps one of the reasons many Christian groups were unhappy with this book. He also reminded them/us that penis icons were worshipped in ancient Judea.
    • Arrayed in decent black; occupying a conspicuous pulpit; intent on bible leaves; what a candidate for an archbishoprick, what a lad for a Pope were this mincer!
    • The reference to bible leaves, was a whaling term used to encourage the mincer to slice the blubber is thin as possible.
    • Google 'whale penis' if you'd like to see a more accurate depiction than the one below!

Ch 96: The Try-Works
  • The area of the ship designed to distil the whale blubber into oil. 
  • The furnace is compared to Ahab's heart.
    • the rushing Pequod, freighted with savages, and laden with fire, and burning a corpse, and plunging into that blackness of darkness, seemed the material counterpart of her monomaniac commander's soul.
  • I read this chapter during one of the worst weeks of the recent bushfire season. The smell of smoke was very real!
    • once ignited, the whale supplies his own fuel and burns by his own body. Would that he consumed his own smoke! for his smoke is horrible to inhale, and inhale it you must, and not only that, but you must live in it for the time.
  • Give not thyself up, then, to fire, lest it invert thee, deaden thee; as for the time it did me. There is a wisdom that is woe; but there is a woe that is madness.

Ch 97: The Lamp
  • Ishmael loves the whaling life & here he reminds us just how wonderful and lucky they are thanks to the amount of oil they have on board to light their lamps.
    • But the whaleman, as he seeks the food of light, so he lives in light.
    • A far more noble trade than a merchantman, who has to dress in the dark and eat in the dark, and stumble in the darkness to his pallet.

Ch 98: Stowing Down and Clearing Up
  • Fairly self-explanatory - once the oil has been casked and stowed, the ship is thoroughly cleaned in preparation for the next whale.
  • Ishmael compares this to life  - as we go through young life's old routine again. No sooner is one job completed, then the next one starts up.

Ch 99: The Doubloon
  • This is the gold doubloon that Ahab nailed to the mast when he challenged the crew to join him in his hunt for the white whale.
  • In this chapter the doubloon, and it's engraved images, are symbols seen differently through different eyes.
    • Ahab - sees all things Ahab - the firm tower, that is Ahab; the volcano, that is Ahab; the courageous, the undaunted, and victorious fowl, that, too, is Ahab; all are Ahab.
    • Starbuck finds a more religious significance in the coin - So in this vale of Death, God girds us round; and over all our gloom, the sun of Righteousness still shines a beacon and a hope.
    • Stubb would prefer to spend the coin than see it nailed to a mast! He uses an almanac to read the signs but decides that you books must know your places. You'll do to give us the bare words and facts, but we come in to supply the thoughts. In the end, Stubb's nuts out that the doubloon represents the life of man.
    • Flask sees nothing but a round thing made of gold.
    • The Manxman (the oldest man on the ship) uses the doubloon and the nearby horseshoe to predict when they will sight the white whale.
    • Queequeg takes it for an old button off some king's trowsers.
    • Fedallah makes a sign to the sign and bows himself.
    • Pip recites nothing but "I look, you look, he looks; we look, ye look, they look."

Ch 100: Leg and Arm ⦁ The Pequod, of Nantucket, meets the Samuel Enderby, of London.
  • The Captain of the Samuel Enderby is missing an arm, all thanks to Moby-Dick.
  • Ahab and the English Captain Boomer compare notes. 
  • He sees Moby-Dick as a noble great whale...the noblest and biggest I ever saw, is quite philosophical about the loss of his arm, and has no intention of trying to catch Moby-Dick again, 'ain't one limb enough?' Whaling is a dangerous business; no need to place oneself in the way of undue or unnecessary danger.
    • No more White Whales for me; I've lowered for him once, and that has satisfied me. There would be great glory in killing him, I know that; and there is a ship-load of precious sperm in him, but, hark ye, he's best let alone; don't you think so, Captain?"
  • Ahab agrees but 'What is best let alone, that accursed thing is not always what least allures. He's all a magnet!'
  • The contrast between the two is evident.

Only 35 chapters to go - we're on the home stretch now!

I'd love to hear about your progress through Moby-Dick and please remember to add any new posts about the book or Melville to the linky in the original post.

Extracts - Chapter 7
Chapters 12 - 16
Chapters 17 - 20
Chapters 21 - 25
Chapters 26 - 30
Chapters 31 - 34
Chapters 35 - 40
Chapters 41 - 44
Chapters 45 - 49
Chapters 50 - 60
Chapters 61 - 70
Chapters 71 - 80
Chapters 81 - 90
Chapters 91 - 100

Saturday, 8 February 2020

I Should Have Read That Book

Originally created by Beth @Books Nest, I Should Have Read That Book is easy to play and a perfect way to while away a rainy Saturday afternoon.


Link to the creator’s blog ( in your post
Answer the questions below
Thank the person who tagged you and link back to their post

The Questions:
  • A book that a certain friend is always telling you to read:
      • The Parisian | Isabella Hammad
      • A dear friend has been telling me to read this book for about a year now.
      • It sounds exactly like something I would love.
      • The only problem is, it's a brick of a book (576 pages).
      • One day, Libby, one day!
      • A masterful debut novel by Plimpton Prize winner Isabella Hammad, The Parisian illuminates a pivotal period of Palestinian history through the journey and romances of one young man, from his studies in France during World War I to his return to Palestine at the dawn of its battle for independence.Midhat Kamal is the son of a wealthy textile merchant from Nablus, a town in Ottoman Palestine. A dreamer, a romantic, an aesthete, in 1914 he leaves to study medicine in France, and falls in love. 
      • When Midhat returns to Nablus to find it under British rule, and the entire region erupting with nationalist fervor, he must find a way to cope with his conflicting loyalties and the expectations of his community. The story of Midhat’s life develops alongside the idea of a nation, as he and those close to him confront what it means to strive for independence in a world that seems on the verge of falling apart. 
      • Against a landscape of political change that continues to define the Middle East, The Parisian explores questions of power and identity, enduring love, and the uncanny ability of the past to disrupt the present. Lush and immersive, and devastating in its power, The Parisian is an elegant, richly-imagined debut from a dazzling new voice in fiction

    • A book that’s been on your TBR forever and yet you still haven’t picked it up:
      • The Devil's Pool | George Sand
      • I read my first Sand (Mauprat) twelve years ago with a great deal of delight and pleasure.
      • It hasn't been easy to find print copies of her other work, but this one has been with me for over a decade now, and still remains unread.

    • A book in a series you’ve started, but haven’t gotten round to finishing yet:
      • The Grand Days trilogy | Frank Moorhouse
      • Grand Days and Dark Palace were two of the books I regretted parting with during the big book cull of 2007.
      • I first read them in my late twenties and adored them and Edith and everything about her.
      • I reread GD in 2006 and found that somehow Edith and I had gone our separate ways.
      • But then in 2011, Moorhouse finally published the final book in the trilogy and I knew straight away that I wasn't done with Edith after all.
      • All three books are now waiting for me to reread (the first two), so I can finish the final book.

    • A classic you’ve always liked the sound of, but never actually read:
      • The Master and Margarita | Mikhail Bulgakov
      • I even have two copies of this book! 
      • Although it's my 2017 Vintage Russian cover with deckled edges that will stay with me.

    • A popular book that it seems everyone but you has read:
      • Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine | Gail Honeyman
      • Also fits the first question.
      • Libby has been trying to get me to read this one for over a year.
      • Please don't tell her, that I just can't.
      • I've tried to read it a few times, but I cannot get past the first page.
      • I'm bored by the writing and Eleanor straight up.
      • I have no desire to go any further.
      • And I'm completely fine about that!

    • A book that inspired a film/TV adaptation that you really love, but you just haven’t read it yet:
      • Game of Thrones | G R R Martin
      • I may never read these behemoths.
      • Mr Books has. And now, he's waiting, waiting, waiting for Martin to finish writing the final books.
      • He assures me that there is way more back story in the books, but I am not going to commit to reading this series until Martin has actually finished writing them ALL!

    • A book you see all over Instagram but haven’t picked up yet:
      • American Dirt | Jeanine Cummins
      • Nothing like (bad) publicity to boost sales and curiosity.
      • A brief run down of the controversy can be found here.
      • I was never going to read this book, too violent for my tastes, but it's fascinating to watch the book world eat one of it's own.

    • I first spotted this Book Tag at Theresa Smith Writes.
    • If you'd like to join in too, consider yourself tagged.

Thursday, 6 February 2020

Shelf Life #2

Photo by LAUREN GRAY on Unsplash

Shelf Life
 is a new personal meme to help me in my ongoing attempt to de-clutter my bookshelves.
It's more than a Marie Condo of my books though.
It's aim is to reflect, honour and let go as many books as possible.

Most likely, in the next 12 months or so, Mr Books and I will be on the move. The thought of packing up everything we own again, gives me the horrors.

Therefore as time permits, I will reassess the many, many READ books stacked on my bookshelves.
(The unread TBR pile is another story all together!)

The aim of Shelf Life is to let go those books that I know I will never read again and to give them a proper send off.

My assessment criteria includes:
  • Does this book spark joy?
  • Honestly, will I ever reread this book?
  • How and why did this book come to be on my bookshelf anyway?
  • When and where did I read this book?
  • What are my memories of this book?
  • Is this book part of a series, a signed copy or a special edition?
  • Do I want to pack and unpack this book one more time? Or several more times, during what's left of my lifetime?
  • If I were to let this book go, would I feel regret, remorse or relief?
The first shelf life started with a stack of Australian authors. This week, I've ducked down to the next shelf to let go (or not) some of my UK authors.

Saturday | Ian McEwan
  • My current relationship with McEwan is best described as complicated.
  • But back on the 9th Nov 2005, when I bought my copy of Saturday, our relationship was still more hopeful than not. Full of promise and anticipation.
  • Saturday was the book that changed this.
  • Except for the truly threatening, disturbing scene with the daughter during the home invasion scene, I remember nothing at all about this book.
  • It felt self-indulgent.
  • Curiously, my most recent read, Middle England by Jonathan Coe, mentioned Saturday in passing.
  • The only reason this book has travelled me with for 15 yrs, through three moves, is for the simple fact, that my hardback edition has deckled edges.
  • I LOVE deckled edges.
  • No more! Saturday and it's lovely deckled edges, will not get packed up and unpacked for a fourth time.

Where Angels Fear to Tread | E. M. Forster
  • Entered my life on the 25th October 1992.
  • This was in the middle of my E. M. Forster phase.
  • My E. M. Forster phase began in 1987 when I watched A Room With a View for the first (of many) times.
  • Over the course of the next 7 or 8 years, I read (and watched) all of his novels, except for The Longest Journey, I believe.
  • WAFTT was my least favourite.
  • No need to revisit this one.

Lady Chatterley's Lover | D. H. Lawrence
  • Okay, I may not be able to part with this one after all.
  • On the title page, I have inscribed my name, the date, 11th April 1991, and place of purchase - The Book Inn, Charing Cross Rd, London.
  • I was badly scarred from reading Sons and Lovers at school. One of the few school texts that I hated with a passion.
  • But in 1991, I was 23 and just starting out on my year of working and travelling around the UK and Europe, as young Aussies are wont to do at that age. 
  • Lawrence's 'naughty' book, complete with erotic cover obviously appealed to my emerging adult self.
  • In 2011 or 12, we saw an en plein air performance of LCL at Rippon Lea House in Melbourne. Full frontal nudity and 'implied' sex scenes were a feature of this particular production. Instead of being sexy, it felt rather awkward.
  • It made me realise how immature this story really is.
  • I may never read it again, but it's one of the few London books I have. I wish I could go back in time and tell my younger self to buy a copy of Middlemarch instead, or A Tale of Two Cities or A Room With a View. Something I would happily reread.

The Passion | Jeanette Winterson
  • As mentioned in my previous Shelf Life, an English high school teacher friend, changed the course of my reading life during the mid-90's. Another of the authors she introduced me to was Jeanette Winterson.
  • I acquired The Passion on the 22nd July 1995.
  • It utterly flummoxed me at the time. As well as astounded and amazed.
  • I had never read anything like it before.
  • Part history, part fantasy, part fairy tale, part magic realism.
  • Napoleon, Venice, food and the fate of women throughout history - all themes I love in a book.
  • But I wasn't sure if this was a writer for me, or not...until...

Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit | Jeanette Winterson
  • Purchased in Sydney on the 29th Dec 1996.
  • The most extraordinary and memorable fictional memoir I have ever read.
  • Great opening line: Like most people I lived for a long time with my mother and father. My father liked to watch the wrestling, my mother liked to wrestle.
  • A devastating read, that made me realise I would be reading anything and everything that Winterson wrote in the future.
  • Including her 2011 memoir, Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal, which revealed the bits from Oranges that were real and which were made up.
  • However, I've now read two versions of the same story, and do not need to reread either of them.

The Surgeon of Crowthorne | Simon Winchester
  • What a find this one was.
  • Picked up from the sale table in my local bookshop on the 11th May 2000.
  • I still talk about this book and what I learnt about the Oxford English Dictionary.
  • Subsequent Simon Winchester reads have not been so successful though.
  • I found Krakatoa too dry, A Crack in the Edge of the World meandered too much and by the time I tried The Map That Changed the World and failed to finish, I realised that except for this one book, Simon Winchester and I do not go together.
  • I'm too scared to read TSOC again, in case it alters my lovely memory of reading it the first time.
  • I will definitely be seeing the new movie, The Professor and the Madman, later on this month (unless the reviews are absolutely dog. Which is possible.)

That's five more books released into the wild, set free from my bookshelves, their memories committed to posterity here. Lady Chatterley, and all the wonderful memories of my time in the UK in 1991, will return to my bookshelf, safe for at least one more move!

Shelf Life #1
Shelf Life #2

Tuesday, 4 February 2020

The Feel Good Guide to Menopause by Dr Nicola Gates

I started reading perimenopause/menopause books back in 2015 after noticing changes to the way I was experiencing my body.

Five years later, I'm still waiting. Still wondering, and wishing it was all over.
Most of my friends seem to be there. Many of my friends didn't even know it was about to happen; it just happened. They were just suddenly done.

I read The Feel Good Guide to Menopause early last year and have been dipping in and out of it ever since. I'll be going along fine for months, then suddenly a weird phase or another weird symptom will pop up. I'll pull out this book, find the appropriate chapter and realise that I've simply ticked off yet another marker along the way. It would seem that I am determined, in my usual uber-conscientious way, to complete this journey by going through every single stage!

Dr Nicola Gates is an Australian neuropsychologist and psychologist, 'working with adults to improve brain health, cognitive function and mental wellbeing.' She has written an easy to read, stage by stage book. She focuses on the facts, health and hormones. She helps you to check your attitudes and smashes assumptions and myths. Sleep, sex and self-care are all covered as are all the various options available to women once they actually stop. I look forward to reading those sections more thoroughly one day!

If you're one of the lucky 10% that experienced no symptoms, then you can skip this book. For the rest of us, books like this (and Jean Kittson's more humorous one linked below) are a god-send. They save you from having to run to the doctor every single time you notice something odd happening. They help you to realise you're not alone or weird. And they help you to see that a positive, proactive attitude combined with a good dose of humour does actually help for some of it.

It can be rather frustrating to realise how little is still understood about this phase of a woman's life. So much of the information and advice is trial and error, often met with a shrug of the shoulders. It doesn't help that each women will have a completely unique experience.
Peri-menopause and menopause, are entirely unpredictable. The experience of our mothers is no guide either. The start and nature of our periods throughout our lives also has no bearing on their fluctuation and cessation.

Not knowing what will happen or when is a curious state of affairs when it comes to your body. Books like this give you back a little bit of control.

As an aside, the first chapter, entitled Her-story, was a fascinating insight into how religion and medical bias has kept the female experience in the dark for so long. It has only been in the last DECADE that serious research into hormones and hormonal changes in women has even occurred. With the time lag between research and practice to general public awareness, we are still years away from knowing what is really going on in the bodies of half the population! Part of Dr Gates aim in writing this book was to close this gap.

It's time to start talking ladies!

I can also highly recommend You're Still Hot to Me by Jean Kittson.

Sunday, 2 February 2020

Such A Fun Age | Kiley Reid

I had no intention of reading Such A Fun Age. The premise sounded mildly appealing/interesting:
When Emira is apprehended at a supermarket for 'kidnapping' the white child she's actually babysitting, it sets off an explosive chain of events. Her employer Alix, a feminist blogger with the best of intentions, resolves to make things right. 
But Emira herself is aimless, broke and wary of Alix's desire to help. When a surprising connection emerges between the two women, it sends them on a crash course that will upend everything they think they know – about themselves, each other, and the messy dynamics of privilege.

But really, I'm rather over the whole adulting trope with a world peopled by no-one but twenty-somethings and thirty-somethings. Yet it was hard to completely resist the buzz surrounding the release of this book.

It was everywhere.

Then a colleague read it and came back with a surprisingly good reaction, so I decided to turn Such A Fun Age into a lunch time read.

It's the perfect pick-up, put-down book, ideal as a holiday read or a complete change of pace between your usual fare.

While the dynamics were initially quite tantalising, not being quite sure in which direction this story was going to go, it quickly settled into a book about other people's self-made dramas. The only likeable characters were Emira, the babysitter, and the toddler, Briar. They had some genuinely awkward moments to contend with, but they just got on with life and didn't make a fuss. They didn't spend their time over-thinking every action and reaction, they just got on with having a mutually heart-warming and caring relationship.

Everyone else was pretty annoying. Alix and her friends were ghastly, Emira's friends were tiresome, the husband was a non-event, the children accessories and the boyfriend, Kelley was just creepy.

Class privilege, racial and gender issues bubbled away behind the scenes but were never really resolved. Perhaps there was more actually going on here that an American reader would pick up on, but I simply got weary of all the talk about clothes and hair and social media status. But maybe I'm just showing my age!

There was some interesting stuff about memories, personal bias and how we perceive ourselves compared to how others actually see us, but since no-one really rose above their stereotype it was hard to know what to make of it all. It's this more than anything that leaves me feeling disappointed. A world peopled by no-one but more people of the same age is ultimately dull and an unhealthy place to be. It felt much like watching an episode of a more ethnically diverse Friends.

Don't get me wrong. Reading this book was a tremendous romp and if I'd been lying on the beach as I did so, it would have been perfect! It's only as I've started to think about it more deeply to write this post, that I see how fluffy and flawed it is. But then, not every single book has to be high literature. Some books are just for fun, at any age.

Friday, 31 January 2020

Moby-Dick Chapters 81 - 90

Three more of these posts, and I will have caught up to my reading schedule! I had really hoped to read an authoritative bio about Melville during this time, but I can see the days, weeks and months slipping by...and here we are, suddenly, on the brink of February, with only 17 chapters to go.

Ch 81: The Pequod Meets the Virgin
  • Hmmmm, more religious symbolism to unpack here, Herman?
    • Back in chapter 78, Tashtego was reborn through the whale's head - a kind of virgin birth - and now we have a virgin ship. A ship with no oil and a ship full of inexperienced sailors.
  • The crew of the Jungfrau from Bremen, are shown to be naive about the rules of the sea and to be no match for the seasoned men of the Pequod when it comes time to chase down a pod of whales.
  • The death of this whale is a long and drawn out process, with success finally going to the crew of the Pequod.
    • For all his old age, and his one arm, and his blind eyes, he must die the death and be murdered, in order to light the gay bridals and other merry-makings of men, and also to illuminate the solemn churches that preach unconditional inoffensiveness by all to all.
  • What seems like good luck though, turns bad, when the whale starts to sink, rather than float. It eventually snaps the chains they had been using to hold it and disappears beneath the surface.
  • Meanwhile, those foolish young men from the Jungfrau head off to chase down another pod of whales, mistaking a pod of Fin-Back's for Sperm Whales - losers!
    • Ishmael enjoys mocking those more inexperienced than him a little too much sometimes.

Ch 82: The Honor and Glory of Whaling
  • Whalers as heroes once again. This time a mythological lens.
    • Perseus, St George, Hercules, Jonah and Vishnoo.
    • Any man may kill a snake, but only a Perseus, a St George, a Coffin [a Nantuckateer], have the heart in them to march boldly up to a whale.

Ch 83: Jonah Historically Regarded
  • Melville treats the story of Jonah as fact, just like the 'orthodox pagans' of ancient Greece and Rome accepted the stories about Hercules and Arion as fact.
  • Ishmael attempts to view the story of Jonah through a modern, scientific lens.
    • Knowledge or truth can be viewed in different ways (lens). It can also be seen differently from the viewpoint of different eras.
    • Melville's ability to switch perspectives is quite impressive - Father Mapple gave us the religious point of view about Jonah and now we get the pragmatic view.

Ch 84: Pitchpoling
  • Yet another way to kill a whale - javelin style, or pitchpoling - a skill that Stubb has refined.

Ch 85: The Fountain
  • Finally, we get to the most recognisable feature of a whale - his spout.
  • Like much of our knowledge about the whale, there is uncertainty and speculation. No-one knows for sure, people believe lots of different things and declare that their's is the correct way of thinking about whale spouts. Ishmael urges us to keep an open mind.
    • And so, through all the thick mists of the dim doubts in my mind, divine intuitions now and then shoot, enkindling my fog with a heavenly ray. And for this I thank God; for all have doubts; many deny; but doubts or denials, few along with them, have intuitions. Doubts of all things earthly, and intuitions of some things heavenly; this combination makes neither believer nor infidel, but makes a man who regards them both with equal eye.

Ch 86: The Tail
  • Guess what this chapter is about?
  • Ishmael is obviously a tail man. He waxes lyrical about the beauty, grace and power of the whale's tail.
    • Excepting the sublime breach—somewhere else to be described—this peaking of the whale's flukes is perhaps the grandest sight to be seen in all animated nature.
  • Yet, still, he laments how little he really knows about the whale.
    • Dissect him how I may, then, I but go skin deep; I know him not, and never will.

Ch 87: The Grand Armada
  • Another pod of whales, much bigger than previous ones, and therefore, called a grand armada by Ishmael.
  • The Pequod is sailing off the Javanese coast. They suddenly find themselves being chased/hunted by a Malay pirate ship.
    • Ahab to-and-fro paced the deck; in his forward turn beholding the monsters he chased, and in the after one the bloodthirsty pirates chasing him.
  • The chase has all the usual adventure heroics about it, until Ishmael reveals that the pod has a large number of mothers and calves.
    • The lake, as I have hinted, was to a considerable depth exceedingly transparent; and as human infants while suckling will calmly and fixedly gaze away from the breast, as if leading two different lives at the time; and while yet drawing mortal nourishment, be still spiritually feasting upon some unearthly reminiscence;—even so did the young of these whales seem looking up towards us, but not at us, as if we were but a bit of Gulf-weed in their new-born sight. Floating on their sides, the mothers also seemed quietly eyeing us.
  • Ishmael is still full of the excitement of the chase, but now, this reader in particular, was rooting for the whales.

Ch 88: Schools and Schoolmasters
  • According to Ishmael, whales travel around in two types of pods or schools.
    • One features an older male whale and his harem.
    • The other, is a group of boisterous young bucks prone to violence.

Ch 89: Fast-Fish and Loose-Fish
  • Time for a lesson in law on the high-seas - who owns what fish?
  • A Fast-Fish belongs to the party fast to it.
  • A Loose-Fish is fair game for anybody who can soonest catch it.
  • Fair enough!
  • But it wouldn't be Melville if this simple piece of law didn't turn into a chance to philosophise about the state of man and animal.
    • What are the sinews and souls of Russian serfs and Republican slaves but Fast-Fish...? What to the rapacious landlord is the widow's last mite but a Fast-Fish...? What are the Duke of Dunder's hereditary towns and hamlets but Fast-Fish? 
    • What are the Rights of Man and the Liberties of the World but Loose-Fish? What all men's minds and opinions but Loose-Fish? What is the principle of religious belief in them but a Loose-Fish? What to the ostentatious smuggling verbalists are the thoughts of thinkers but Loose-Fish? What is the great globe itself but a Loose-Fish? And what are you, reader, but a Loose-Fish and a Fast-Fish, too?

Ch 90: Heads or Tails
  • De balena vero sufficit, si rex habeat caput, et regina caudam. Bracton, 1.3, C.3.
    • Concerning the whale, it really suffices that the king should have the head and the queen the tail.
  • Ishmael provides as with a rather farcical example of this Fast-Fish law in action.
  • It seems that perhaps, the law is an ass instead!

I'd love to hear from you and please remember to add any new posts about the book or Melville to the linky in the original post.

Extracts - Chapter 7
Chapters 12 - 16
Chapters 17 - 20
Chapters 21 - 25
Chapters 26 - 30
Chapters 31 - 34
Chapters 35 - 40
Chapters 41 - 44
Chapters 45 - 49
Chapters 50 - 60
Chapters 61 - 70
Chapters 71 - 80
Chapters 81 - 90

Wednesday, 29 January 2020

Letting Go

Photo by Gena Okami on Unsplash

Sometimes a book or an author is just not meant to be.

We all make decisions about which books to read. When we browse through a book shop or a library, we make choices based on all sorts of personal reasons about whether we even pick up a book or not in the first place. Is it a book or an author we've heard of before or had recommended to us by a friend? Does the cover attract us? Even the section of the book shop or library that we gravitate towards dictates which books might find their way into our hands.

We pick up books, get a feel for them in our hands. We check out the quotes on the cover and read the back cover blurb. That is often enough to return a book to the shelf.

A few lucky books make it to the let's-read-the-first-page stage.

Not that many go any further though.

After 50 plus years of this reading life, I make all sorts of quick judgements and choices based on that first page. If the writing style isn't flowing for me, back on the shelf it goes. If the content isn't my cup of tea after all, back it goes.

Obviously, my mood on the day of browsing plays a huge roll in this process, which is why I highly recommend multiple browsing days! A book that doesn't appeal one week when I'm tired and grumpy, might be just the right thing a month later after I've had a restful weekend.

Then there are the books that after the first page, I'm still not completely sure about. I know from experience that some of my favourite books take a little while to get going. So a few more books, get the first chapter chance.

Working in an independent bookshop means that I can also give a wide variety of books the lunch time treatment, whereby a book has a whole half hour to hook me, or not, as I eat my sushi.

This is a little post about those books that got this far, but no further.

No matter how hard I try, Catch-22 is a book I simply cannot finish. I can usually get to about half way, laughing out loud and enjoying the odd-ball humour and irony, but then suddenly, I hit the wall and I've had enough.

Last night I tried to read The Year Without Summer by Guinevere Glasford. Given the awful summer we've had in NSW, I thought I would really connect to another year that was without summer thanks to the largest modern volcanic eruption. I gave it two whole chapters since she was writing a book from several perspectives, but I couldn't get going with it at all.

Isabel Allende and I do not go together. I've tried several times, mostly because her books fall under the historical fiction umbrella, my favourite genre. Most recently, I tried to start A Long Petal of the Sea, but I just couldn't. Her writing style keeps me at a distance and in this particular case, I could see the research showing in every single line.

Helen Garner's Yellow Notebook was another recent pass.

Like Garner, I wrote a journal for most of my twenties and thirties. It was a pretty angst filled journey as I worked out how to become an adult and live in the adult world. In amongst the emotional dross, were some interesting (most likely only to me) observations, commentary and personal milestones.
During a major upheaval in my life in my late thirties, I decided it was time to jettison the numerous journals clogging up my life office. They were not only clogging up my physical space, but they also felt like an emotional burden I didn't want to have with me any longer. But before I tossed them, I decided to read them one last time, looking out for any interesting, important, significant sections. I then typed these snippets up over a period of about a year. I'm in no way suggesting that I am a writer of Garner's calibre or experience, but my snippets look and sound just like hers in the Yellow Notebook.
I completely understand how it's an interesting exercise for the individual to go through this process, but I'm not so convinced that it's such an interesting exercise for the reader.
I ho-hummed my way to the 10% mark before passing it on.

One book that I did read all the way through, hoping to find some joy, was Graham Swift's upcoming book Here We Are. I adored his previous book Mothering Sunday so much that I would forgive him a multitude of sins, so I kept hoping that Here We Are would suddenly hit that mark. A couple of times when we went into the backstory of one of the main characters, I thought, ah-ha we're onto something here, but I never really got the purpose of the story or really engaged with any of the three protagonists. Sad, but true.

I'm currently trying out Blueberries by Ellena Savage as my lunch time read. It's not really grabbing me so far, but I'm prepared to give it one or two more lunch times before I decide for sure.

That feels better!

I can now let all these stories go.

I'm not saying you should join me in letting go these books. You might LOVE these books and authors or connect to these stories in a way completely different to me. And that's okay.
And that's why I love books and stories so much. 
There is something for everyone, to suit every mood or occasion. 

Have you had to let go a book recently?
How do you decide which books to continue with and which ones to leave on the shelf?

Monday, 27 January 2020

The Tempest | William Shakespeare

I wanted to read The Tempest at some point for two reasons. 
  1. I would like to read Margaret Atwood's Hag-Seed one day. But I have never seen any productions of The Tempest and don't really know the story very well.
  2. I have never read a play before that I had not already seen a theatre, movie or TV production of (I don't count seeing Return to the Forbidden Planet in 1991 at the Cambridge theatre, London, as I remember absolutely nothing about it!)

So I added it to my Classics Club List #2 and it came up during the last CC Spin.
I was curious to know how easy it would be to read an unknown play.
It was not.

Easy, that is.

I struggled to gather any information about the characters. I couldn't pick up any inflections, tone or tempo from the bare words on the page. I didn't know if the various speeches were meant to funny, sad or ironic. There were simply not enough clues for me to work it out on my own.

In the end I let the words just wash over me. I gave up trying to remember who was speaking to whom, except for Prospero, Miranda and Ariel.

Early on I picked up on the hag-seed reference to Caliban though,

Save for the son that she did litter here,
A feckled whelp hag-born.

and realised this must be the point of entry for Atwood's version of the story. But again, who was Caliban? I couldn't work it out from the text in from of me. 
Was he a hero or anti-hero, a bad guy or just misunderstood? Was he an 'other', a victim or villain, foolish, naive or tragic? 
Does he represent the natural world as being uncivilised? Or does he show up the civilised world as being cruel and domineering? Is he inhuman or beast, untamed or rebel, monster or noble savage? 

Perhaps, though, it is this very doubt and openness to interpretation that makes Shakepeare's plays so great. Caliban can be any or all or none of these things, depending on the reader, the director, the times or the lens.

This island's mine, by Sycorax my mother, 
Which thou takest from me. 
When thou camest first, 
Thou strokedst me and madest much of me, wouldst give me 
Water with berries in't, and teach me how 
To name the bigger light, and how the less, 
That burn by day and night: and then I loved thee 
And show'd thee all the qualities o' the isle, 
The fresh springs, brine-pits, barren place and fertile:Cursed be I that did so! 
All the charms Of Sycorax, toads, beetles, bats, light on you! 
For I am all the subjects that you have, 
Which first was mine own king: and here you sty me 
In this hard rock, whiles you do keep from me 
The rest o' the island.

The only thing I really gleaned about Caliban is that his mother was called Sycorax and she was banished to the island pregnant and unmarried. I'm not sure who the father was, but Caliban is certainly the quintessential bastard son. He was living on the island alone, when Prospero and Miranda arrived. They took him in, cared for him, used his knowledge of the island, then took offence when he wanted to make babies with Miranda ['Thou didst prevent me. I had peopled else this isle with Calibans.'] It would be very easy to view this play through a post-colonialism lens.

There is much speculation about the name Caliban. The predominate one being that it is an anagram of canibal (Spanish spelling) with more than a passing nod to Montaigne's essay Of Cannibal.

One of Caliban's most famous speeches (below) was the inspiration behind Caliban's Dream as performed by Sir Kenneth Branagh at the opening ceremony of the 2012 London Olympics.

Be not afeard; the isle is full of noises,
Sounds, and sweet airs, that give delight and hurt not. 
Sometimes a thousand twangling instruments 
Will hum about mine ears; and sometime voices 
That, if I then had waked after long sleep, 
Will make me sleep again; and then in dreaming, 
The clouds methought would open, and show riches 
Ready to drop upon me, that when I awaked, 
I cried to dream again!

Literary references also abound, with the most well-known one coming from Oscar Wilde, 'The nineteenth century dislike of Realism is the rage of Caliban seeing his own face in a glass. The nineteenth century dislike of Romanticism is the rage of Caliban not seeing his own face in a glass.'

The Tempest was first performed at Court in 1611 and was probably the last play written by Shakespeare.

My version of the play was an EMCP access edition PDF.

I'm not sure I will ever read an unknown play again. I'm obviously one of those people who needs to see a play to make sense of it. There is an art to reading a play that I do not have the skill to unpack.
The only real satisfaction I got from this one (besides spotting the famous quotes and making the Caliban/Hag-Seed connection) was the post-reading research.

Our revels now are ended. These our actors, 
As I foretold you, were all spirits, and 
Are melted into air, into thin air:
And like the baseless fabric of this vision, 
The cloud-capp'd tow'rs, the gorgeous palaces,
The solemn temples, the great globe itself, 
Yea, all which it inherit, shall dissolve,
And, like this insubstantial pageant faded,
Leave not a rack behind. We are such stuff
As dreams are made on; and our little life
Is rounded with a sleep.

Since writing this post, I've been thinking about and talking about which Shakespeare play is my favourite. Turns out it's harder to answer this question than I initially thought. Mr Books comes down on the side of A Merchant of Venice, which I do like a lot. But I tend to be a little more frivolous and romantic when it comes to Shakespeare and I'm leaning towards Much Ado About Nothing or Taming of the Shrew. But then again, I've seen so many different versions of Romeo and Juliet over the years, it feels like the play I know best of all.

But if I really had to pick a favourite, it might just be Macbeth.

Out damn spot and double, double, toil, and trouble.
Witches, the conniving Lady Macbeth and the guilty, tormented Macbeth.
Political intrigue, psychological angst and power struggles.
It all makes for great drama and tension.
The original why-dunnit.

What about you?
What's your favourite Shakespeare?

Saturday, 25 January 2020

Moby-Dick Chapters 71 - 80

It's time to climb aboard the SS Pequod once again to catch up on my Moby-Dick (mis)adventures. Despite a week of watery mishaps and visitors on the bridge, I've managed to stay abreast of my 4-5 chapters each week, however the blogging schedule is woefully aground.

Time to grasp the tiller firmly and head out into deep waters to see (sea) what we can see (sea). No more nautical puns I promise.

Chapter 71: The Pequod Meets the Jeroboam ● Her Story

  • I learnt something new in this chapter - every ship has it's own private signal by which other vessels can recognise it. I wonder if the Pequod's was a white whale?
  • Another prophet in the guise of (Archangel) Gabriel.
    • 'originally nurtured among the crazy society of Neskyeuna Shakers' (refers to the original Shaker community in north Albany who became known by the Native American name for the area. They believed in the second coming of Christ. They practised celibacy, communal living, confession of sin, egalitarianism, pacifism and charismatic worship (which is how they got their name apparently - Shaking Quakers!). New recruits were found by conversion and adoption of orphans. They were a Utopian gospel and preachers within their community could be of any gender, class or educational background.)
    • Another example of Melville fascination/suspicion/obsession with evangelical, prophetic religious sects (his strict Calvinistic childhood really messed with his head!)
    • And yet more discussions around fate and destiny, with Moby Dick as 'the Shaker God incarnated'.
    • 'Gabriel, ascending to the main-royal mast-head, was tossing one arm in frantic gestures, and hurling forth prophecies of speedy doom to the sacrilegious assailants of his divinity.'
    • His prophecy came to pass, with Macey's death by Moby Dick' tail, yet of these 'fatal accidents in the Sperm-Whale Fishery, this kind is perhaps almost as frequent as any.'
    • Is it prophetic or just the most likely thing to have happened in the circumstances?
    • 'his credulous disciples believed that he had specifically fore-announced it, instead of only making a general prophecy, which any one might have done, and so have chanced to hit one of many marks in the wide margin allowed.'
    • Ahab's letter from Macey's wife "Nay, keep it thyself," cried Gabriel to Ahab; "thou art soon going that way."
    • Prophecy or the most likely outcome of this chase?

Chapter 72: The Monkey-Rope
  • More lines and ropes and the things that bind us together, for good and bad.
  • And more information about 'cutting-in' a whale (see chapter 67).
    • The harpooner (in this case, Queequeg) is 'half on the whale and half in the water, as the vast mass revolves like a tread-mill beneath him.'
    • To keep him from drowning, he is tied, by a monkey-rope that 'was fast at both ends; fast to Queequeg's broad canvas belt, and fast to my narrow leather one. So that for better or worse, we two, for the time, were wedded.'
  • Stubb sends Aunt Charity's gift of 'ginger-gub' to the bottom of the sea.

Chapter 73: Stubb and Flask Kill a Right Whale; and Then Have a Talk over Him
  • An unusual event - the Pequod is commissioned to catch Sperm whales not Right whales.
    • the crew considered the Right whale 'inferior creatures'.
    • they had passed others schools of Right whales 'without lowering a boat.'
    • 'yet now that a Sperm Whale had been brought alongside and beheaded, to the surprise of all, the announcement was made that a Right Whale should be captured.'
  • What follows is a fairly graphic depiction of whale hunting - not for the faint-hearted.
  • An old sailing lore? - Flask informs Stubb -
    • 'that the ship which but once has a Sperm Whale's head hoisted on her starboard side, and at the same time a Right Whale's on the larboard; did you never hear, Stubb, that that ship can never afterwards capsize?'
    • But it turns out he only overhead Fedallah saying so and 'he seems to know all about ships' charms.'
  • Fedallah - 'the devil in disguise.'
    • 'the old man is hard bent after that White Whale, and the devil there is trying to come round him, and get him to swap away his silver watch, or his soul, or something of that sort, and then he'll surrender Moby Dick.'
  • The philosopher analogy - Locke on one side (the tabula rasa/blank slate idea) and Kant on the other (the world cannot by understood until we understand the limits of man's understanding!)
  • Mule analogy - the lowest of the low - beast of burden used by others - a symbol of victimisation?
  • Fedallah appears to have no shadow 'Ahab chanced so to stand, that the Parsee occupied his shadow; while, if the Parees's shadow was there at all it seemed only to blend with, and lengthen Ahab's'. 
  • The crew speculate about witchcraft.

Chapter 74: The Sperm Whale's Head - Contrasted View
  • A curious chapter all about the head of the whale.
  • Ishmael has a LOT to say about it's eyes and ears, jaws and teeth, in particular.

Chapter 75: The Right Whale's Head - Contrasted View
  • The Right whale gets an up close and personal, in particular, the spout-holes, his sulky, pouty lower lip, the hogs' bristles in his mouth, and his tongue.
  • Melville/Ishmael saves the best idea to the very last though as he compares these two whale heads with ancient philosophy.
    • The Right Whale as Stoic - earthly suffering is the reality to be submitted to with patience 'does not this whole head seem to speak of an enormous practical resolution in facing death?'
    • The Sperm Whale as Spinoza/Plato - 'I think his broad brow to be full of a prairie-like placidity, born of a speculative indifference as to death.' (Spinoza practised tolerance and benevolence. He viewed God and Nature as the same thing.)

Chapter 76: The Battering-Ram
  • A whole chapter devoted to showing us how it is possible for a whale to use it's head as a battering ram. Various sites suggest that this is something we should remember for later on down the track.
    The head this envelope, though not so thick, is of a boneless toughness, inestimable by any man who has not handled it. The severest pointed harpoon, the sharpest lance darted by the strongest human arm, impotently rebounds from it. It is as though the forehead of the Sperm Whale were paved with horses' hoofs. I do not think that any sensation lurks in it.
  • The chapter finishes with a warning tale about a 'weakling youth' who travels to Sais in Egypt in search of the Truth. Based on a poem called The Veiled Statue at Sais by Friedrich Schiller, the youth in question is utterly stricken by what he learns and never reveals it to anyone.
    • The lesson learnt is not to seek out the Godhead's truth; you have to wait for it to be revealed 'Let none/ Venture to raise the veil till raised by me.'
    • Another reference to Ahab's obsession with Moby Dick as a search for God/Truth.
What had been seen and heard by him when there
He never would disclose, but from that hourHis happiness in life had fled forever,And his deep sorrow soon conducted himTo an untimely grave....
'Woe to that man who wins the truth by guilt.'

Chapter 77: The Great Heidelburgh Tun

  • A chapter about whale oil.
  • A Heidelburgh tun refers to the vats in which wine is stored in Heidelburgh Castle.

Chapter 78: Cistern and Buckets
  • On the surface this is a chapter about how to extract oil from a sperm whale's head.
  • It's a dangerous business and Ishmael describes in detail 'a queer accident' that happened to Tashtego who had the misfortune to fall into the oil vat within the whale head - 'heedless and reckless' OR 'whether the place he stood was so treacherous and oozy' OR 'the Evil One himself' - fate, destiny or chance?
  • To make matters worse, the suspended whale head then tore free of it's hooks and fell into the sea with Daggoo 'clinging to the pendulous tackles, while poor, buried-alive Tashtego was sinking utterly down to the bottom of the sea!'
  • Thankfully Queequeg is around to save the day.
  • As the head slowly sinks, Queequeg cuts a hole in the side of the head, reaches in a pulls Tashtego out.
  • Melville gives us lots of death and rebirth images to unpack here. 
  • It's telling that this story of rescue and rebirth is given into the hand of the Pagan or non-Christian members of the ship. 
    • Did the Christians fall short here or are we meant to see that courage, renewal, rebirth and fellowship are not concepts unique to Christians, but universal acts that then have religious significance attached to them by the various religions?

Chapter 79: The Prairie
  • A lesson on phrenology as Ishmael tries to get inside the head of a whale.
  • He realises that this is an impossible undertaking - we can decipher hieroglyphs but not 'the simplest peasant's face in its profounder and more subtle meanings.'
  • Human and animal consciousness is a mystery.

Chapter 80: The Nut
  • More whale anatomy with a discussion on the brain and spine.
    • For I believe that much of man's character will be found betokened in his backbone. I would rather feel your spine than your skull, whoever you are.
  • The sperm whale may have a small brain but it is 'compensated by the wonderful comparative magnitude of his spinal cord.'
    • Brawn over brain; might over mind.
  • Foreshadowing - 'And that the great monster is indomitable, you will yet have reason to know.'

Phew! I hope that means we're done with the anatomy of the whale.
What I enjoy is how Melville is obviously preparing us thoroughly and intimately with the capacity and capabilities of a whale, so that whatever happens, we the reader, have realistic and plausible expectations and are fully prepared.

A surface reading about whale anatomy could be quite tedious, but my slow read is allowing me to see all the philosophy that Melville has packed into each chapter. It's not just an adventure story, but one that allows Melville to unpack his thinking about Christianity, politics and that state of the world.

Melville is a big picture guy who often gets bogged down by the details. He can also get sucked into the wormhole of his own thinking. His desire to know everything it's possible to know about his topic - his research, the spent uncovering all the information and facts to hand, reveal a man desperate to find the Truth. A truth that would not only give his life meaning and purpose, but a truth that could allow all of us around the world to live more peacefully and kindly and thoughtfully. Religion, as he knew it, was unable to provide that solace. Science and story telling became his way. He couldn't buy into the magic and miracles, but he was in search of a personal spirituality.

A complicated, complex man indeed.

I'd love to hear from you and please remember to add any new posts about the book or Melville to the linky in the original post.

Extracts - Chapter 7
Chapters 12 - 16
Chapters 17 - 20
Chapters 21 - 25
Chapters 26 - 30
Chapters 31 - 34
Chapters 35 - 40
Chapters 41 - 44
Chapters 45 - 49
Chapters 50 - 60
Chapters 61 - 70
Chapters 71 - 80