BOOK REVIEW: Moby-Dick, by Herman Melville

BOOK REVIEW: Moby-Dick, by Herman MelvilleTitle: Moby-Dick; or, The Whale by Herman Melville
Published by Modern Library
Published: October 18th 1851
Genres: Classics, Fiction
Pages: 896
Format: Trade Paper
Source: Purchased
Goodreads

First published in 1851, Melville's masterpiece is, in Elizabeth Hardwick's words, "the greatest novel in American literature." The saga of Captain Ahab and his monomaniacal pursuit of the white whale remains a peerless adventure story but one full of mythic grandeur, poetic majesty, and symbolic power. Filtered through the consciousness of the novel's narrator, Ishmael, Moby-Dick draws us into a universe full of fascinating characters and stories, from the noble cannibal Queequeg to the natural history of whales, while reaching existential depths that excite debate and contemplation to this day.
The Modern Library Classics edition contains original illustrations by Rockwell Kent.
Introduction by Elizabeth Hardwick.

 There are certain queer times and occasions in this strange mixed affair we call life when a man takes this whole universe for a vast practical joke, though the wit thereof he but dimly discerns, and more than suspects that the joke is at nobody’s expense but his own.

What can I say about Moby-Dick that hasn’t been said already? If you would have told me several years ago that I’d read this book out of pure curiosity rather than out of obligation for an assignment or something, I probably wouldn’t have believed you. It’s been on the peripheral to-read list forever simply because it’s considered one of the greatest American novels, and I probably would have read it just for that alone, but after discovering some of the history behind the novel and about the author, I had to read it for myself.

From the beginning, I was drawn into Ishmael’s recount of his adventures in pursuit of the great white whale, drawn into Ishmael’s deep friendship with Queequeg (to the point of me asking myself is this actually happening several times, especially when Ishmael and Queequeg lounged in bed with legs thrown over each other’s), and drawn into Captain Ahab’s nautical quest to dominate a perceivably indomitable whale.

I can just imagine Ishmael scribbling this narrative out on the ship by oil lamp, during the drudgeries of the day-to-day ship life. Technically, he probably didn’t, if you really want to get into semantics, but the idea of a man in that white-hot writing groove writing about whales and ship life and Ahab’s history and all of the things one does on a ship in the middle of a vast ocean is more thrilling than I could have ever imagined it to be.

And, honestly, I think I read it at a pertinent time in my life. Had I read it before I learned the history of the narrative, the novel, the American novel, religion and its function in the American novel, the personal lives of Melville (and by extension Hawthorne), and postmodernism (and one can argue whether or not this novel is considered postmodern, but it’s different than anything else I’ve read from the time period and knowing how postmodernism works in a literary setting adds to my own consumption and enjoyment of the novel on some level because its lucidity is very much like James Joyce’s style), I probably wouldn’t have appreciated it as much as I do now. It’s a hefty novel, a undertaking, but it’s so incredibly worth it.

BOOK REVIEW: Giovanni’s Room, by James Baldwin

fbmreview

BOOK REVIEW: Giovanni’s Room, by James BaldwinTitle: Giovanni's Room by James Baldwin
Published by Penguin Books
Published: 1956
Genres: Fiction, Classics
Pages: 150
Format: Mass Market
Source: Purchased
Goodreads

Baldwin's haunting and controversial second novel is his most sustained treatment of sexuality, and a classic of gay literature. In a 1950s Paris swarming with expatriates and characterized by dangerous liaisons and hidden violence, an American finds himself unable to repress his impulses, despite his determination to live the conventional life he envisions for himself. After meeting and proposing to a young woman, he falls into a lengthy affair with an Italian bartender and is confounded and tortured by his sexual identity as he oscillates between the two.
Examining the mystery of love and passion in an intensely imagined narrative, Baldwin creates a moving and complex story of death and desire that is revelatory in its insight.

 People who remember court madness through pain, the pain of the perpetually recurring death of their innocence; people who forget court another kind of madness, the madness of the denial of pain and the hatred of innocence; and the world is mostly divided between madmen who remember and madmen forget.

Giovanni’s Room, by James Baldwin, follows a brief episode of David, an American living in Paris who is desperately trying to figure out who he is, to himself and to the world. David meets Giovanni through an old man’s acquaintance, and he goes home with Giovanni. In poetic, lyrical language, Baldwin explores the nature of love juxtaposed with David’s idea of love. David’s idea of love clashes with his expression and exploration of love, which eventually culminates in an emotionally heart-wrenching separation.

I’ve often seen this book on lists of best gay novels, but this novel goes beyond a stark black-and-white view of homosexuality. Baldwin explores bisexuality in both David and Giovanni and how each of the two men come to terms with their emotions. David is presented as rather cool and logical, succumbing to his emotions but logically pilfering through them after. Giovanni’s behavior appears to be purely emotional and irrational at times, contrasting against David’s eventual cool behavior to Giovanni. Giovanni is that character who wants to live life to its fullest, no matter the cost to himself or anyone else. David is the sort of character that will risk it, but not too much, because David, in the end, is one who preserves himself above all else, even if it means giving up love.

David, unlike Giovanni, has a plan, knows his role back home in American society, and cannot deal with something so “extra” as a male lover. His fiancée Hella is off traveling in Spain, presumably with her own lovers, and her return to David is his savior on the horizon, a means by which he can escape back into a comfortable, unquestioning existence.

This novel not only about gay/bisexual love, but about the complexities of the emotion all together.

This short novel is heartbreakingly beautiful and tragic and should be on your reading list if you’ve not yet read it.

BOOK REVIEW: The Sign of Four, by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

fbmreview

BOOK REVIEW: The Sign of Four, by Sir Arthur Conan DoyleTitle: The Sign of Four (Sherlock Holmes, #2) by Arthur Conan Doyle
Series: Sherlock Holmes #2
Published by Penguin Books
Published: March 6th 2008
Genres: Fiction, Classics
Pages: 153
Format: Trade Paper
Source: Purchased
Goodreads

A dense yellow miasma swirls in the streets of London as Sherlock Holmes and Dr Watson accompany a beautiful young woman to a sinister assignation.
For Mary Marston has received several large pearls – one a year for the last six years – and now a mystery letter telling her she is a wronged woman. If she would seek justice she is to meet her unknown benefactor, bringing with her two companions.
But unbeknownst to them all, others stalk London’s fog-enshrouded streets: a one-legged ruffian with revenge on his mind – and his companion, who places no value on human life...

 ‘The division seems rather unfair,’ I remarked. ‘You have done all the work in this business. I get a wife out of it, Jones gets the credit, pray what remains for you?’

‘For me,’ said Sherlock Holmes, ‘there still remains the cocaine-bottle.’ And he stretched his long white hand up for it.

I’m making an effort to read every one of Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories because (gasp) I haven’t yet. A Study in Scarlet is a strange miasma of events, traversing from foggy, gaslit London to the wild American west that disconnected me as a reader. The Sign of Four reminded me much more of the traditional Sherlock Holmes story. I do think Conan Doyle’s strength as a writer is the short story, but this novella is an engaging read through Victorian London.

In The Sign of Four, Mary Morstan has received one large pearl a year for the last six years until she receives a mysterious letter revealing that she is a wronged woman. She visits Holmes and Watson to get to the root of the mystery. Watson falls in love with Morstan over the course of the narrative (nearly instantaneously, I might add), and Holmes finds the greatest pleasure in keeping his mind active, away from boredom. The blatant racism and misogyny (however authentic to the time in which it was written) is difficult to read in today’s times and that certainly takes away from some of the enjoyment of the story for me.

However, the appeal of Sherlock Holmes still remains. Watson’s a sharp narrator who is consistently challenged by Holmes’s charming arrogance. With enough action to keep you glued to the page as the narrative propels itself forward, it’s always a pleasure to see how Doyle manages to bring it all together, however messily or neatly.

BOOK REVIEW: The Garden Party and Other Stories, by Katherine Mansfield

fbmreview

BOOK REVIEW: The Garden Party and Other Stories, by Katherine MansfieldTitle: The Garden Party and Other Stories by Katherine Mansfield
Published by Penguin, Penguin Classics
Published: 1922
Genres: Fiction, Classics
Pages: 159
Format: Trade Paper
Source: Purchased
Goodreads

Innovative, startlingly perceptive and aglow with colour, these fifteen stories were written towards the end of Katherine Mansfield's tragically short life. Many are set in the author's native New Zealand, others in England and the French Riviera. All are revelations of the unspoken, half-understood emotions that make up everyday experience - from the blackly comic 'The Daughters of the Late Colonel', and the short, sharp sketch 'Miss Brill', in which a lonely woman's precarious sense of self is brutally destroyed, to the vivid impressionistic evocation of family life in 'At the Bay'. 'All that I write,' Mansfield said, 'all that I am - is on the borders of the sea. It is a kind of playing.'

I am trying to be better at reading short stories, and I saw a blurb about Katherine Mansfield’s short stories on Alice’s blog, so I checked it out and thought I’d be interested too! I enjoyed all of the stories. Some stories fell flat for me, but I thought this was a very well-rounded collection. My favorites were “The Garden Party,” “The Daughters of the Late Colonel,” and “The Singing Lesson.”

Mansfield’s short stories read like impressionist paintings. I think they need to be looked at, examined, and mulled over for a bit before the meaning settles in. I finished the book about a couple weeks ago, and I’m still thinking about the stories.

In “The Garden Party,” the Sheridan family is in the midst of preparing for the titular garden party. During the set up of the party, the family finds out that their working class neighbor, Mr. Scott, has died. Laura, the daughter in charge of setting up the party, wonders if the party should be canceled out of respect for the death of their neighbor, but none of her family agrees and the party goes on. The story explores the differences between class and the awareness of class differences, the illusion created by the upper class to avoid dealing with certain realities, and the roles of life and death in day-to-day activities.

In “The Daughters of the Late Colonel,” two sisters are figuring out what to do with their lives after their father’s death. He was their only real relation as their mother died many years ago, and he was possibly one of the only stable men in their lives. The sisters have very little grasp on reality and how to exist in day-to-day life. This is shown through their inability to tell the cook how they want their fish cooked because they’re so used to decisions being made for them and their lives dictated by others. They are both so far removed from reality that when they try to think about what to do with their future, they forget what they are even speaking about in the middle of the conversation. It’s a terrible, haunting look at what happens when women aren’t allowed any agency over their own lives.

“The Singing Lesson” is about a teacher, Miss Meadows, who is engaged to a man five years younger than her. Basil, her fiancé, has written to her before the story begins calling off their engagement, and Miss Meadows enters the school that morning incredibly upset. Basil writes that their “marriage would be a mistake” and that he “love[s] her as much as it is possible for [him] to love any woman” because he is “not a marrying man.” The language in this convinces me that Basil is homosexual or confused about his sexuality and that he is doubting his convictions because he later sends Miss Meadows a telegram saying to disregard his letter and that he has “bought [a] hatstand,” again using language that symbolizes phallic imagery. It’s clear that Miss Meadows is unaware of her future husband’s sexuality, and her mood changes significantly when she receives that telegram because her future is secure again. The title itself evokes the symbolism of a bird in a cage, that women are pretty things to be caged and possessed, and that men ultimately control a woman’s fate and can change their minds at will with no repercussions to themselves. Both Basil and Miss Meadows are trapped by society’s expectations and both are forced to “sing out” what they’ve been taught.

I really enjoyed this collection, and I’m looking forward to reading more by her and by Modernist writers. If you enjoy Modernist and feminist writings, I think you’ll enjoy her work!

The Delicate Art of No; Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen

fbmreview

The Delicate Art of No; Pride and Prejudice by Jane AustenTitle: Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen
Published by Penguin, Penguin Drop Caps
Published: December 12th 2012
Genres: Fiction, Classics
Pages: 416
Format: Hardcover
Source: Purchased
Goodreads

A is for Austen. Few have failed to be charmed by the witty and independent spirit of Elizabeth Bennet in Austen’s beloved classic Pride and Prejudice. Elizabeth’s early determination to dislike Mr. Darcy is a prejudice only matched by the folly of his arrogant pride. Their first impressions give way to true feelings in a comedy profoundly concerned with happiness and how it might be achieved.

You must give me leave to judge for myself, and pay me the compliment of believing what I say.

As a forewarning, this review of Pride and Prejudice will be entirely personal in nature, meaning I’ll be referencing the book’s plot and its parallels to something that recently happened to me.

This is one of my favorite books of all time, and I tend to reread it once every year or so because reading it makes me happy. This year, I read it right in the midst of all of the Valentine’s Day marketing and goopy, lovey stuff. I don’t particularly read much in the “romance” genre, and Jane Austen is about as traditionally romance-y as I get. Every time I’ve reread Pride and Prejudice, it resonates so much more with me because Austen can paint with such skill these true-to-life renditions in her cast of characters, and because two hundred years later, people like Jane Bennet, Caroline Bingley, Fitzwilliam Darcy, Elizabeth Bennet, and Mr. Collins still exist.

Read more