More from Moby-Dick…

I’m slowly making my way through Melville’s Moby-Dick and enjoying it very much.  I like the way Melville made each chapter relatively short and, while a plot does exist, many of the chapters could be read by themselves and stand alone.

In Nathaniel Philbrick’s book Why Read Moby-Dick? , he emphasizes the American aspect of the novel.  As I’m reading about the exotic Polynesian Islands along with characters like Queequeg, the pagan cannibal, I can easily forget that Melville has written an American novel.  While Ishmael is narrating his sea travels, Melville frequently has him refer to definitively American geography and landscape such as Cleveland, Buffalo (the city), the mountains of Virginia, the Great Lakes, the Great Plains and buffalo (the animal).  One of my favorite chapters so far (chapter 54) is “The Town-Ho’s Story (As told at the Golden Inn)”- just to clarify, the “Town-Ho” is the name of a ship.  This ship deals with a previous sighting of the White Whale, Moby-Dick; however, one of the more interesting details to me involved the Canallers  aboard the ship – those men who went from working on the Erie canal to being whalers in the South Seas.  Melville, through his storyteller, describes the Canal and the land around it with a realistic but poetic pride; but the passage that I thought the most telling spoke of the transformation of American occupations along with the change in religious ideas:

…to many thousands of our rural boys and young men born along its (the Erie Canal’s) line, the probationary life of the Grand Canal furnishes the sole transition between quietly reaping in a Christian corn-field, and recklessly ploughing the waters of the most barbaric seas.

The above painting is on the cover of my copy.  It’s entitled “Peche du Chachalot” by Ambroise Louis Garneray.  Over the course of several chapters Ishmael determines that very few artists are able to do justice to a whale.  He decides that this is probably a result of the difficulty of seeing a whale in it’s entirety.  While the French made up a very small portion of whalers compared to the American and British, Ishmael indicates that French artists were able to best capture whaling action.  He suspected them of being tutored by Americans or British.

Meanwhile, Ishmael has become only vaguely acquainted with Captain Ahab and his vengeful purpose for The Pequod.  

Oscar Wilde: “The Fisherman and His Soul”

Oscar Wilde’s short story “The Fisherman and His Soul” marks the first work I’ve ever read by Wilde.  I’m sure there are literary critics somewhere whose ears would be burning if I described Wilde as a little – well – wordy, but that’s what has first popped into my head.

The fairy-tale style story gave me a feeling of “been there, done that”.  A fisherman falls in love with a Mermaid but must get rid of his soul in order for her to love him (because mermaids don’t have souls).  The fisherman makes his way to a Witch whose well-dressed Master (I could here him saying “Pleased to meet you, hope you guess my name”) forces the fisherman’s soul to leave.  For this first part of the story, I continuously conjured up visions of Robert Johnson going down to the Crossroads or a Georgia resident named Johnny taking part in a fiddling contest with otherworldly beings.  Now I realize that Oscar Wilde didn’t rip off the pop culture references I’ve mentioned because he came before they did (this story was published in 1891).  Apparently, making deals with our souls is a common theme among art.

The Collected Oscar Wilde (Barnes & Noble Classics Series)

The unusual aspect of the story and what made it a little more interesting, but more wordy also, came when the fisherman’s soul became it’s own character traveling all over the world and annually calling up the fisherman to try to get him to take him back.  The Soul traveled to exotic locales such as India and the Middle East. His/it’s travels sounded apocalyptic in nature as though it were something from the book of Revelation in the New Testament:

‘There are nine gates to this city, and in front of each gate stands a bronze horse that neighs when the Bedouins come down from the mountains. The walls are cased with copper, and the watch- towers on the walls are roofed with brass. In every tower stands an archer with a bow in his hand. At sunrise he strikes with an arrow on a gong, and at sunset he blows through a horn of horn.

As far as short stories go, this one took me the longest to finish.  It could have possibly had something to do with my schedule this week ( a little busier) or it could have had something to do with too many words.  I read this story online here and I thought the little scroll bar to the right would never get to the bottom of the page.  For any Wilde fans out there, don’t despair, I haven’t given up on him, yet.  I still have two more of his stories in my Deal Me In project and The Picture of Dorian Gray is on my Classics Club list.  He’s still got a few more chances.

“The No-Talent Kid”

I’ve grown to like George M. Helmoltz, Kurt Vonnegut’s fictional Lincoln High band teacher.  He knows who he is and knows who he isn’t.  He goes for the gusto within these limitations -and usually gets it!  I’m only basing this observation on two stories that include Helmholtz, both contained in Vonnegut’s collection Bagombo Snuff Box.  If there are more, I look forward to reading them.

In Vonnegut’s “The No-Talent Kid”, Helmholtz tries to pass this view of life on to Walter Plummer, his C Band clarinet player who likes to challenge the A Band members.  Plummer eventually understands Helmholtz and they both help each other get what they want.  The wheeling and dealing between the high school teacher and his student amused me.

As in the other Helmholtz story I read, “Ambitious Sophomore”, the light enjoyment gained from reading this story is  just as much a testament to Vonnegut’s brilliance as some of his stories that have more of a social commentary attached to them.  I found this paragraph interesting as it gave a small inkling of Vonnegut’s World War II background:

While members of the C Band dropped out of the waltz, one by one, as though  mustard gas were coming out of the ventilation, Mr. Helmholtz continued to smile and wave his baton for the survivors, and to brood inwardly over the defeat his band had sustained in June, when Johnstown High School had won with a secret weapon, a bass drum seven feet in diameter.

Perhaps Mr. Helmholtz had been in the army during World War II?

“When I Knew Stephen Crane”

I have found it difficult to write about single essays.  I end up simply wanting to say “read this”.  However, at online-literature.com (which is where I found the pictures below), I found an enlightening essay written in 1900 (Stephen Crane died in 1900 at the age of 29) by Willa Cather about her previous interaction with Crane.  I believe she was writing for a newspaper in Lincoln, Nebraska, when he showed up in town waiting on money to be wired to him.  He stayed around town for a few weeks and she got to know him a little.

Willa Cather

Stephen Crane

He was disheveled and extremely skinny.  It seemed he had already written The Red Badge of Courage but had not yet really taken the literary world by storm.  At the time that Cather met him, he was 24.  She had the sense he knew he would not be living a long time.

For anyone interested in artists interacting with other artists, especially ones that are no longer living, this essay is a gem.  My favorite passage described what she thought was the purpose of their relationship:

Men will sometimes reveal themselves to children, or to people whom they think never to see again, more completely than they ever do to their confreres. From the wise we hold back alike our folly and our wisdom, and for the recipients of our deeper confidences we seldom select our equals. The soul has no message for the friends with whom we dine every week. It is silenced by custom and convention, and we play only in the shallows. It selects its listeners willfully, and seemingly delights to waste its best upon the chance wayfarer who meets us in the highway at a fated hour. There are moments too, when the tides run high or very low, when self-revelation is necessary to every man, if it be only to his valet or his gardener. At such a moment, I was with Mr. Crane.

But I won’t continue explaining the essay, I’ll simply say “read this”!

A Heartfelt Thanks…

As April 14 – 20 is National Library Week, I wanted to once again give my heartfelt thanks to the Boone County Public Library of Northern Kentucky.

Thanks for the great selection of books both new and old.

Thanks for the friendliness and willingness to help that characterize all of the library staff with whom I interact.

Thanks for the programs conducted by BCPL such as Money Matter Meals (the meals are free!), the Friday Night Concert Series, the tons of programs for kids of all ages (my kids especially enjoyed “Dr. Who” night),  movie nights.

Thanks for bringing local authors to my attention through discussions with the authors, book signings and the One Book One Community of Northern Kentucky.

And last but not least, thanks for all the great bookmarks!

Check out the website of a wonderful public library right here!

Two Tales of the South Seas

While much of Jack London’s more famous work is set in the North, he has a body of work set in the South Pacific, also.  I recently read his short story “On The Makaloa Mat”.  The story uses a device that I’ve found in many short stories:  in the present time, one character tells another a story that took place in the past.  As with most devices, sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t.  With this story, Bella, a woman in her 60’s tells her sister, Martha, about the men with whom she was involved in her youth.

Both women are partially Hawaiian and London goes to great lengths to indicate what percentage of Hawaiian blood makes up these two ladies as well as other family members.  Bella’s story contrasts and sometimes conflicts the cultural divide between the “haole” or white man and the Hawaiians.  (A thank you to Jim who pointed out what “haole” meant in a comment he made on this post). Bella’s husband, George Castern, is a frugal, hard working white man who is pulling himself up by his bootstraps on an Hawaiian farm.  The apparent true love of Bella is Hawaiian Prince Lilolilo.  While Castern is gone for a few weeks, Bella is the guest of Prince Lilolilo at a progress – a long party or celebration.  She is asked to sit on the Makaloa mat – a place for a guest of honor.

In much of London’s work, his ability to describe natural landscapes and natural elements captures his brilliance. In the case of this story, I found it interesting that he describes the women, themselves, in very similar fashion to the way he describes landscapes.  And he manages to do it in very tastefully!

While I’ve read and posted about Jack London frequently since I started blogging, I haven’t posted about another South Seas writer, Joseph Conrad.  When I was in high school, I had to read Heart of Darkness – as I remember finding it rather difficult to get through, I’ve never bothered reading anything else by Conrad.  However, “Freya of the Seven Isles” was recommended to me (another thanks to Jim) and I’m very glad I read it!  

The story takes place during the Dutch control of the Indonesian islands.  While Freya is the focus of the story, Jasper Allen, a British merchant with a rebellious reputation (at least to the Dutch) fascinated me the most of all the characters.  He is madly in love with both Freya and his ship, the Bonito.  While he knows the difference between the two, they are both intricately linked to his plans for the future.  He dreams of carrying off Freya as his wife to live with him on his ship.  Freya, just as much in love with Jasper, needs to deal with her clueless father who has misgivings about Jasper because of his reputation with the Dutch.

The story spins into tragedy of Shakespearean proportions with personal jealousies and international politics taking its toll on the characters.  From a literary standpoint, this is probably the best short story I’ve read this year.  I remember learning in high school that Conrad wrote in English as a second language (as did Jack Kerouac).  Perhaps that is the reason his writing style has a certain freedom about it – not a willy-nilly freedom, but a freedom of a train on the right track.  More Conrad stories are going to have to be on my agenda for the future.

“The Blue Hotel” by Stephen Crane

A Swede, an Easterner and a cowboy walk into a hotel in Stephen Crane’s “The Blue Hotel”.  Card games, accusations of cheating and fighting ensues.  Patrick Scully, the owner of the hotel, attempts a certain level of civility in a Wild West version of “the customer’s always right” – but it doesn’t last long.

The scene moves to a saloon where more fighting occurs.  A small amount of philosophizing happens among the Swede and a gambler.  Later, the Easterner and the cowboy find themselves sitting around a campfire discussing the events of the evening and how a small incident snowballed into something worse.  This time, it’s the Wild West version of the Butterfly Effect.

I’ve heard that Stephen Crane was a precursor to Ernest Hemingway and some of the same themes of Hemingway’s stories can be found in this story; however, this story doesn’t really compare to most of Hemingway’s.  If one is a huge fan of Stephen Crane, I would recommend this story (but a huge fan probably would have already read it).  If one is just starting out with his work, I would recommend “The Bride Comes to Yellow Sky” which I’ve posted about here, or perhaps his more famous work The Red Badge of Courage which I still have not read.

Incidentally, this is the second story I’ve read in a row that takes place in Nebraska (Fort Romper to be exact).  I wasn’t sure whether Nebraska counts as “West”, but it’s west of where I live and the style of this story had a western feel.