Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Hatchet and a heads up

now finished:
Hatchet by Gary Paulsen
After the Second Sex: Conversations With Simone de Beauvoir by Alice Schwarzer

now reading:
En el tiempo de las mariposas by Julia Alvarez
Some presidential biographies
Lots of feminist history stuff

Just thought I'd drop in and see what's happening around the ol' Literary Supplement since I finished The Whale a couple weeks back. The very next thing I did was read, like, the shortest book ever, but also a tale of man vs. nature, namely, the intermediate-level Hatchet. The reason for reading it was simple: I had owned a copy of it for years and never read it, and someone just bought it from my listings on Half.com, so I had to read it really quick before shipping it off to the buyer. I liked it. I can actually say I learned a few things about surviving in the wild, should I ever need to. I suppose the kids today read it and ask why he didn't call his mom on his cell phone. Sigh.

Reading Hatchet also prompted me to examine how many Newbery Medal-winning books I have read, total. (Hatchet is not actually a medal winner, but was a "Newbery Honor Book," and that insignia on the cover is what inspired me.) I was disappointed that my total was a mere ten. Ten! That's pitiful! Of course, reading all of the Newbery Medal winners is one of my on-again, off-again projects, along with reading all the Pulitzer Prize winners and reading a biography of every U.S. president in order to see where we went wrong (a project started during the Dubya administration, obviously). But I tend to read other things instead of just blazing through one of these projects. I'm thinking it might be time to start a blazing.

I would feel so accomplished! But I always stop myself by saying, "But there's so much else I want to read!" So then I don't get all of those books, read, either. Might as well just read all the Pulitzers and then worry about what's still around. I would make an exception for a few books-about-to-be-released-as-movies-that-will-get-nominated-for-Oscars because those can't be delayed, but other than that, I think I need to blaze through my projects. And then think up new projects!

The only other sticking point is that I have to do a lot of reading in my research for one of my writing jobs right now, but because the subject matter is so interesting to me (feminism) I keep picking up books like Betty Friedan: Her Life and American Womens' Activist Writings, An Anthology, 1637 -2002, both of which are right in front of me now on my desk, and wanting to read them in their entirety instead of just dipping in and out of them for research. And so it goes.

I am really behind on the presidents, though. Pre-Tajikistan, I totally fell apart on that front and now I am just scrambling to finish Old Tippecanoe so I can be all caught up to my Presidential Reads group on Goodreads, a group I randomly found when I was 4/43* of my way through the project and decided to join because they were right up my alley, or I was right up theirs, or something. Only they don't get as distracted from their project as I do.

And don't even get me started on the fact that another Goodreads group I follow is about to plunge into Atlas Shrugged ... and I recently put it out there to the universe that I had started and not finished Atlas Shrugged, and was almost convinced that I need to re-read it...

Read, read, read, read, all I want to do is read! Why do so many other things take my time?

*And I'm actually - surprisingly - not saying that because I don't count Dubya as a president (which, I don't) but rather because there have been only 43 presidential-like peeps in the White House. It really bugs me when people say Obama is the 44th president. It's not like I'm going to read two bios of Grover Cleveland. There have been 44 presidencies, but there have been only 43 presidential-like peeps. Focus, people.

Friday, June 11, 2010

One Did Survive the Wreck

now finished: Moby Dick by Herman Melville

Hurrah! I am so happy to have done it. I have conquered The Whale. I do not know what my problem was in high-school and twice in college. I would also say I don't know what my problem was when I originally launched my re-re-reading this past March/April, but I kind of do know: a)I had way too much reading and research to do for way too many things, including some time-sensitive work deadlines and b)I clearly was meant to pick it up after returning from Tajikistan instead. I mean, you know, if you're into the whole fate thing and all that.

Herman, my buddy, you rock. Think of me as putting my hand over my heart while I talk to you this way, Herman. You rock and delight my soul and I am sorry I couldn't find it in my stupid self to appreciate you sooner.

"Here's food for thought, had Ahab time to think; but Ahab never thinks; he only feels, feels, feels; that's tingling enough for mortal man! to think's audacity. God only has that right and privilege." - p. 613

I love Ishmael's whimsical rants. I love the philosophy. I love his traveling soul and I love, love, love that the world eventually came to see - as it so often does, after they leave us - the brilliant piece of art this Herman person created.

Why we can't recognize artists' genius during their lifetimes (hi, Vincent!) remains unknown. Another thing we can't seem to recognize in our or anyone's lifetimes is the damage we are doing to our planet. Melville-as-Ishmael has many Moby Dick moments in which he waxes philosophical about the ocean, and in the wake of the gulf oil gushing tragedy, some of it was quite striking. The sea is a "terra incognita," he writes. "Columbus sailed over numberless unknown worlds to discover his one superficial western one." (p. 298) He also notes that many disasters befall us mortals when we take to the sea, and yet we continue to do so. I loved that:

"...however baby man may brag of his science and skill, and however much, in a flattering future, that science and skill may augment; yet for ever and for ever, to the crack of doom, the sea will insult and murder him, and pulverize the stateliest, stiffest frigate he can make; nevertheless, by the continual repetition of these very impressions, man has lost that sense of the full awfulness of the sea which aboriginally belongs to it." -p.298

Oh, prophet Herman. However much in the future our science and skill may have augmented, you're right - we're all just pretty pathetic when we think we have really figured out how to conquer our planet. And why do we want to conquer it anyway? I don't know, Herman. I wish I could tell you it was all in the name of travel, fuel for flights to see this wide world, but unfortunately, Herman, I think too many people are drilling and consuming just so they can keep on going in circle in their own little insular lives, while further alienating themselves from the life in the land that gives this petroleum bounty. I don't understand it either, really.

The "great shroud of the sea rolled on," indeed.

Wednesday, June 09, 2010

Actually, you really should touch that rope-yarn

now re-re-re-reading: Moby Dick by Herman Melville

Oh, Ahab. Oh my.

Ahab, Ahab, Ahab, my friend. You had me - you really did. You were tough, and surly, and kind of dark, but you really had me. I could totally dig your ferocity, your dedication, and your commitment to a quest. I kind of liked your brooding, mysterious ways. I really liked how much you knew about the ocean, and whaling, and the fun characters from islands all over the place who peopled your ship. I was even a bit jealous of the way you had spent most of your life traveling the world instead of languishing in Nantucket.

But now - now being p. 579 in my edition - you have lost me. With your despicable "Touch not a rope-yarn!" you sent Captain Gardiner on his way and refused to help him look for the lost boat with his 12-year-old son. Sure, sure, them's the breaks in this whaling industry. Captain Gardiner knows it, too, and was tough enough to bring his son along and teach him the ways. And who knows? Maybe they will find the missing sailors even without you and the Pequod. But Ahab! You even said it: now you have to forgive yourself. While a bird of prey swoops in to snatch your hat and drop it in the sea.

You are so totally doomed, old man.

Tuesday, June 08, 2010

"How wondrous familiar is a fool!" muttered Ahab

now re-re-re-reading: Moby Dick by Herman Melville

You may recall that one of my new favorite hobbies is reading the 1-star and 5-star reviews on Goodreads. The non-extreme reviews on there just aren't as interesting. But the 1-star reviews of crap like Twilight or The Almost Moon? Endless entertainment! Yesterday, I checked in with some of the love and hate for The Whale, and I observed the following:

1. The five-star people need an editor. Seriously. Their reviews are, on the whole, looooooong. Just because the book you loved is long and rambly, your Goodreads review does not have to be. Trust me on this.

2. The one-star reviews for the most part were flawed! Seriously. I found a few where there was just a straight up difference of opinion, and I totally accept that. But many of them stated things that weren't quite right! For example, one person's review says: "you only read (and I'm not exagerating) like 50 pages of actual story, and the rest is biological documentation," but that is not true. The "biological documentation" of the whales comes and goes (and I think most of it is hilarious - but that's another point entirely), but that person is totally exaggerating, even though she cannot spell exaggerating.

I am now on page 538 of Moby and I am so delighted by Melville, and so sad I can't meet him and tell him he's awesome and hang out with him. Let me give you a real example of what Melville does, lest you be dissuaded by inaccurate reviews on Goodreads. In Chapter 17, "The Ramadan," when Melville-as-Ishmael waxes philosophical about religion? He says that rather than arguing with Queequeg one should let him be, because "Heaven have mercy on us all -- Presbyterians and Pagans alike--for we are all somehow dreadfully cracked about the head, and sadly need mending." So that's a digression that's too boring and philosophical for you, oh 1-star reviewer? Really?

Yeah, and all these digressions about whaling? That's another popular complaint - a lot of people even say they read the book "but skimmed through some of the whaling parts," which, ewww. Then you did not, my friend, read the book. But here's an example of a "whaling part," from chapter 94, in which Ishmael talks about the blubber-room, where the spade man stands barefoot on a sheet of blubber chopping it into portable pieces:

"This spade is sharp as hone can make it; the spademan's feet are shoeless; the thing he stands on will sometimes irresistibly slide away from him, like a sledge. If he cuts off one of his own toes, or one of his assistant's, would you be very much astonished? Toes are scarce among veteran blubber-room men." - p. 458

Dude, Herman is funny! Moby Dick is a whimsical, profound work of genius. It occurs to me that in all my questioning of myself as to the genre of the Cuba book I have written/sort-of-almost finished, I should have long ago realized it's kind of like Moby Dick. All personal-voyage-quest-fiction-yet-fact-invented-character-narrator and stuff. I can only wish that my book will end up half as awesome. Wait, who am I kidding, an eighth as awesome. A hundredth.

You get my drift.

Read Moby Dick, people!

I also recommend it to people who liked Infinite Jest. I suspect a lot of Infinite Jest readers have already read Moby Dick -- I mean, you don't get to be an Infinite Jest reader by just succumbing to the endless 40% off crap the big retailers shove down your throat all the time -- but you know, for those others like me who maybe blew off Moby Dick once or twice three times in high school and college English (major) classes but still grew up to be real-live readers and thus ended up reading Infinite Jest first. Infinite Jesters will think nothing of the length of Moby so they won't be overwhelmed, plus they clearly are a lot who appreciate a digression or two. And they will be delighted to see how very Herman-like our boy DFW is. Was. Is?

Bonus, for law school-like peoples: there was a whole bit about a fast-fish or a loose-fish and to whom either belongs. It was totally all first-day-of-Property-ish when a fox, a duck, and a whale walk into a classroom...

It's going to be over soon. I can't believe I'm going to finish soon! It really has me in the mood to read more fabulous classic novels instead of going back to presidential bios.

Friday, June 04, 2010

Mobying Along

now re-re-re-reading: Moby Dick by Herman Melville

I have just about given up on having any sort of discussion about Moby Dick whatsoever on this here blog. Normally I would say this is my fault, but it's not as if there was really a discussion happening before I abandoned paused my reading of The Whale anyway.

Now on page 332, I am really in the stretch of what I like to think of as Herman's "Wheeee!" phase, in which he's like, "Whales! Ships! ooooh, a little philosophy thrown in the mix." You've got Queequeg clutching the rope and whale, mates flying through the air, swarming sharks, and all sorts of little tidbits about life on the seas. Plus a crazy cult-like wacko who visits from another ship just long enough to foretell Ahab's doom. Amateur. Ahab's doom is so totally long since foretold.

I think I'm going to be able to read a lot again this weekend. Yay!

Thursday, June 03, 2010

Private Idaho and Insular Tahiti

now reading: Moby Dick by Herman Melville

Meant to be? Perhaps it's a little soon to be using that phrase, always a favorite of mine. But it certainly seems beyond fortuitous that despite my best efforts to launch my re-re-reading of The Whale in March, and then April, I would really be best able to plunge into it now, after from my voyage to Tajikistan.

Upon returning from the other side of the world, I came home, took care of a few re-entry tasks, and then headed with Brian to his family's vacation home on Lake Michigan. I picked up Moby, a month neglected, and read those first paragraph words that I thought I had understood before:

"It is a way I have of driving off the spleen, and regulating the circulation. Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul; whenever I find myself involuntarily pausing before coffin warehouses, and bringing up the rear of every funeral I meet; and especially whenever my hypos get such an upper hand of me, that it requires a strong moral principle to prevent me from deliberately stepping into the street, and methodically knocking people's hats off -- then, I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can." - p. 3 (which is really page 1, it's totally one of those)

I have such a literary crush on Herman-as-Ishmael. And seriously, could he put it any better? I sit here thinking about him and I get a sad little rush as I think about what he would have had to say about airplane travel. Not that I would want it to take away from what he has given us about the ships and the sea and the whaling voyages. I just kind of want him to live twice, I suppose, to grace us with his philosophy about our 20th/21st century times as well. We are so damn lucky - all of us! But, I've said this before. Those of you who complain and bitch and moan about the companies that fling us around the globe in mere hours aren't worthy to even open your mouths about higher powers.

Sitting there on the sands of Lake Michigan, I re-re-re-re-read the 100+ pages of Moby Dick I had accomplished in the spring, with only a bit of skimming, and then I pressed forward, totally in the right place and mental space now to read it all. What a wondrous thing it is, this classic novel.

I think the entire process of reading it might be worth it for Chapter 58 alone. "Brit" is one of Herman's philosophical bits, with some explanation about the ocean all wrapped up nicely with a statement about humanity. He has quite a few chapters like this coming fast and furious in this section of the book. This is the one in which he thinks about the "universal cannibalism" and "eternal war" going on in the sea, then compares it to the human being, in whose soul "lies one insular Tahiti, full of peace and joy, but encompassed by all the horrors of the half-known life." - p. 299

I loved this so much that I just sat there and re-read the chapter. Brilliant, Herman. Seriously.

I spent a lot of time in both Turkey and Tajikistan talking with fellow travelers who understand my need to galavant about the world. As Herman/Ishmael rightly points out in the beginning of the book, our time is short, and every funeral ought to serve as reminder that the time to travel is now. And shut the !@%* up about the airlines already -- maybe once you've handled a whale-line from the line tub you'll get over yourself and your carry-on baggage.