Posted in Short Stories

Herman Melville: The Piazza

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My gut instinct tells me that Herman Melville’s short story “The Piazza” will end up being my favorite short story from my Deal Me In 2014 project.  I chose it when I drew the Ace of Spades this week.  My Deal Me In 2014 list can be seen here.  DMI is sponsored by Jay at Bibliophilopolis.

Last year, I read Melville’s classic novel Moby-Dick and was swept away by his tale of Captain Ahab’s pursuit of his white whale nemesis.  In the novel, Melville always took me by surprise when he would mention something specifically American – such as  comparing a whale’s stomach to the Kentucky Mammoth Caves.  The international aspect of the story was so compelling that I sometimes forgot I was reading an American author and an American novel.

Herman Melville

Even with no sea adventure, “The Piazza” has a similar effect; however, it’s almost the opposite.  An unnamed narrator (Melville, himself, perhaps)moves to a secluded home on a New England mountainside.  Immediately,  he remedies the problem of a non-existent piazza.  The majority of the story takes place from this new piazza as the narrator views the landscape surrounding his home.  He doesn’t simply describe his surroundings but imagines them through the lens of his well-read and well-traveled mind.  Much of the American characteristics of this geography gets melded together with the South Seas, Shakespeare, Homer and Milton.

At one point, his eye catches a small house on another mountainside.  I loved his musings as he notices it:

…the first peep of a strange house, rising beyond the trees, is for all the world like spying, on the Barbary coast, an unknown sail.

When the New England weather ceased being advantageous in viewing the cottage, his thoughts go this way:

…wishfully I gazed off towards the hills; but in vain.  Either troops of shadows, and imperial guard, with slow pace and solemn, defiled along the steeps, or, routed by pursuing light, fled broadcast from east to west – old wars of Lucifer and Michael; or the mountains, though unvexed by these mirrored sham fights in the sky, had an atmosphere otherwise unfavorable…

The narrator eventually leaves his piazza for a small trip that results in an unusual encounter, but this story will continue to amaze me for the manner in which I was whisked into someone’s world simply by the imaginings of his landscape.  Melville is a master.

 

Posted in Books in General, Short Stories

Second Anniversary and some favorites…

Today is the second anniversary of my blog!  It’s been a fun outlet for all of my reading and I’m looking forward to what 2014 will bring.  It’s always been difficult for me to pick favorite books or stories, but there have been a few that stand out over the past year.

My favorite short story is J. D. Salinger’s “DeDaumier-Smith’s Blue Period” and it would also rank up there as the funniest story I read this year.  William Trevor’s “After Rain” was a very close runner up as favorite and F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Camel’s Back” was a close second for funniest.  A few honorable mentions would include Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “Feathertop”, Willa Cather’s “The Enchanted Bluff”, Salinger’s “The Laughing Man” and Kurt Vonnegut’s “Ambitious Sophomore”.

William Trevor and George Eliot are the winners for favorite “new-to-me” authors with Margaret Mitchell and Mark Helprin being next in line.

Picking a favorite novel has proved to be a harder task but I’ll go with Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick which I finally read after it sat on my shelf for a very long time. And finally, here are a few quotes from the past year that I enjoyed:

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.

-Ishmael in Melville’s Moby-Dick

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.

-Willa Cather on meeting Stephen Crane in her essay “When I Knew Stephen Crane”

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, where strange shapes of the unwarped primal world glided to and fro before his passive eyes; and the miser-merman, Wisdom, revealed his hoarded heaps; and among the joyous, heartless, ever-juvenile eternities, Pip saw the multitudinous, God-omnipresent, coral insects, that out of the firmament of waters heaved the colossal orbs.  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; and wandering from all mortal reason, man comes at last to that celestial thought, which, to reason, is absurd and frantic; and weal or woe, feels then uncompromised, indifferent as his God.

-and Melville again from Moby-Dick

Posted in Poetry

…much to my literary chagrin…

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Over a year ago, when I put together my list of short stories for my 2013 Deal Me In Project, I picked a few stories from a collection that I have called Stories and Poems for Extremely Intelligent Children of All Ages.  In glancing through the table of contents, I discovered “The Bell Tower” and “The Portent” by Herman Melville.  At that time, I had not read much by Melville so I thought I’d choose both of these for my project.  I read “The Bell Tower” earlier this year and have been looking forward to “The Portent”.

So this week, I chose the Ten of Spades which corresponded to this remaining Melville story.  Much to my surprise and my literary chagrin, I find the story in my book and discover that it is actually a poem – a very short poem.  In scanning through the table of contents, I had simply assumed that Melville only wrote prose.  Obviously, I was wrong. I have nothing against poetry, I’m just not quite as into it as I am prose.  I debated about choosing another story to replace this poem but decided I would just go with it.

Herman Melville

Another confession:  I didn’t know what the word “portent” meant so I looked it up.  It means “omen”.  The poem itself appears to stand as a warning.  The speaker of the poem directs their words to the Shenandoah river.  I immediately think American Civil War when I think of the Shenandoah.  As I read further,  a name jumps out several times – a name that gives no doubt to the Civil War backdrop of the poem.   In speaking to the famous river, the poet refers to a dead body saying:

So your future veils its face,/Shenandoah!

As I did a little research, I found that Melville wrote a number of poems about the American Civil War.  If they are as good as this one, they could be worth reading.

Even though this wasn’t what I was expecting when I chose the title, I’m glad I read it.  Feel free to read the poem yourself.  It’s takes approximately 20 seconds to read.  You can find it here.

Posted in Non Fiction

The Pastor: A Memoir by Eugene H. Peterson

Eugene Peterson is probably best known as the author of the widely popular (and, in some circles, controversial) version of the Bible called The Message.  While I haven’t read much of his work, although I have read The Message some, I happened to pick up his memoir and read his introduction.  In it, he referred to William Faulkner, Anne Tyler and Herman Melville.  My first thought was “Ah, a religious dude who likes literature, I might have to read the rest of this.”  So I did.

The Pastor: A Memoir

I enjoyed his ability to keep spiritual ideas from being simply maxims, platitudes or clichés. He covered three areas that I found most appealing as he described his journey from childhood to college and on to his vocational life as a pastor of Christ Our King Presbyterian Church in a suburb of Baltimore, Maryland.

First, his childhood in rural Montana during the depression gave his life “sacred space” in his words.  His father built a log cabin in the side of a glacier several miles from their home to which his family continues to vacation even today.   He describes the importance of this homeland:

But wherever I went, I always ended up here.  This was the geography of my imagination:  the sighting of a pygmy owl in feathered silence pouncing on a field mouse on Blacktail Mountain, the emergence through spring snow of the first avalanche lilies in Jack’s Meadow, surprising a grizzly bear, the iconic beast of these mountains, on the Garden Wall trail.  Holy ground, sacred space.

Next, while he went to college and did graduate work in New York City (significantly different from Montana), he coached a church basketball team and in the process, ran into a number of artists who didn’t much care for church but hung out at his church, anyway.  The idea that these artists considered their trade a vocation was a new idea for him.  They would be staying along this artistic path regardless of whether they made money or not.  He also noticed how they were not afraid to embrace a certain ambiguity of life – a mystery:

The artist has eyes to connect the visible and the invisible and the skill to show complete what we in our inattentive distraction see only in bits and pieces.

And finally, he takes a scene from Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick and applies it to his pastoral life.  In Melvilles’ novel, when chasing a whale the ship’s crew continuously rush around grabbing the oars and working in a frenzy to get the whale in the right position.  All except one: the harpooner.  This person sits quietly and still among the chaos waiting for the right moment to release his weapon.  Ishmael, Melville’s narrator, puts it this way:

To insure the greatest efficiency in the dart, the harpooners of this world must start to their feet out of idleness, and not out of toil.

Peterson explains his application of Melville’s idea this way:

Melville’s harpooner found company in my imagination with Jesus’ metaphor that feature the single, the small, and the quiet – salt, leaven, seed – that have effects far in excess of their appearance.  Our culture publicizes the opposite: the big, the multitudinous, the noisy.  Is it not, then, a strategic necessity that some of us deliberately ally ourselves with the quiet, poised harpooners, and not leap, frenzied, to the oars?

Peterson writes in a manner that feels comfortable.  I got the feeling I was having coffee with him.  He only briefly discusses what lead him to write The Message.  He spent some of his time while a pastor as a professor, also.  The pastor vocation; however, always seemed to be what he was “meant” to do.  When once asked what he liked about being a pastor, his reply was “the mess”.  Through the stories he retells of the people he has met and with whom he has interacted over the years, the reader understands “the mess” in a more positive light than one might first think on hearing the term.

 

Posted in Fiction

Melville’s Billy Budd

Billy Budd, Sailor

In fervid hearts self-contained, some brief experiences devour our human tissue as secret fire in a ship’s hold consumes cotton in the bale.

Herman Melville’s small novel Billy Budd, Sailor, published posthumously in 1924, stands as his second “masterpiece”.  With his first being Moby-Dick, Billy Budd resumes some of the same themes.

Melville presents Billy Budd, the newest sailor on the Bellepointe, as the epitome of Innocence.  In stature and demeanor, Billy is like a Greed god, he is Adam Before The Fall. He is liked immediately by all – well, almost all.  John Claggart, the ship’s master-at-arms takes a dislike to Billy.  The exact reason for this hatred is never completely revealed, but as Billy portrays Innocence, Claggart portrays Evil.

Their clash ends first for Claggart and as a result an intense moral dilemma unfolds as Billy is court-martialled.  The fact that neither Evil nor Innocence appears to win in this drama gives the sea story a haunting ambiguity as the narrator relays the details of Billy’s trial and the results.

For some reason, the narrator’s style reminded me of the narrators on the old police television shows – serious and to the point.  While the ship’s captain talks to Billy in confinement, the conversation is given to the reader “as it might have happened”.  In other words, the narrator doesn’t know for sure.  I thought this was an interesting twist Melville brought to the story.

The story-line also brought to mind Albert Camus’ existential novel The Stranger.  I don’t know Melville’s philosophical persuasion, but he definitely grapples with life’s meaning and grapples with it in a big way.  And as I read more of Melville, I’m finding that there is no better place to grapple with life’s meaing than on a ship in the middle of the ocean.

Posted in Fiction

Some Final Thoughts on Moby-Dick

When I read F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby in my tenth grade English class, I remember that the narrator, Nick Carraway, intrigued me more than Jay Gatsby.  So much so that, when my teacher indicated that Gatsby was the protagonist of the novel, I almost wanted to disagree.  From a literary standpoint, yes, Jay Gatsby is the central figure of the novel – his name is in the title; however, the person’s eyes through whom I saw Gatsby’s story weighed more heavily on my mind.  Since then, I’ve found myself frequently fascinated with the side-kick character.

As I have finally finished Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick, I ponder the situation in which Captain Ahab finds himself, seeking vengence on a white whale while seeming to shake his fist at God.  Though Ahab’s story may be powerful and his King Lear-esque monologues make him one of literature’s great protagonists, I couldn’t help but continue to go back to the opening line of the novel:  “Call me Ishmael”.  Ahab is seen through Ishmael’s eyes and I cannot help but let this narrator take over my thoughts on the novel.

Moby-Dick

Nathaniel Philbrick, in his short book Why Read Moby-Dick, referrs to Ishmael as an agnostic.  I’m not sure what the official definition of an agnostic is; however, if it’s someone who seems to sail comfortably through the oceans of both faith and doubt, then that would describe Ishmael.  As I’ve stated in previous posts, he sees the “believer” and the “infidel” with “equal eyes”.  I was not sure that I would enjoy some of the chapters in which Ishmael explains the biology of a whale or the process by which his colleagues obtained oil from the whales they caught.  But Ishmael (or Melville) fits these into his story with such ease and uses them to display his thoughts on life in general, that they ultimately became some of my favorite chapters. I especially enjoyed his comparison of a whale’s stomach to the Kentucky Mammoth Caves.  And just as Ishmael starts the novel; he finishes it – alone.

Philbrick points out the poetry Melville uses in his prose as one of the author’s greatest strengths.  One of my favorite passages contains Ishmael’s thoughts on the almost drowning of his shipmate, Pip.  Pip ultimately keeps his life but loses his sanity:

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, where strange shapes of the unwarped primal world glided to and fro before his passive eyes; and the miser-merman, Wisdom, revealed his hoarded heaps; and among the joyous, heartless, ever-juvenile eternities, Pip saw the multitudinous, God-omnipresent, coral insects, that out of the firmament of waters heaved the colossal orbs.  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; and wandering from all mortal reason, man comes at last to that celestial thought, which, to reason, is absurd and frantic; and weal or woe, feels then uncompromised, indifferent as his God.

This is one novel that I already feel warrants re-reading.  I think it would be interesting to read it’s chapters individually and randomly.

On a side note, apparently this novel has caused a minor literary controversy over the decades.  The question to hyphenate or not to hyphenate has stirred some debate.  What I would call literary purists seem to feel that the title of the novel should be hyphenated while referring to the name of the actual whale should not.  From what I’ve read, it seems Melville hyphenated his original edition for the title but did not hyphenate the whale’s name throughout the novel.

You learn something new everyday.

Here are the other posts I’ve written about Moby-Dick.

Why Read Moby-Dick

Call me…intrigued

More from Moby-Dick

Ishmael on Religion

Posted in Books in General, Fiction, Non Fiction

Summer Reading Plans

It may not  be officially summer, but with Memorial Day weekend behind us, I started thinking of what I will potentially be reading for the next few months.

Herman Melville’s Moby Dick has taken me longer than I had planned.  I am on page 506 out of 536.  Look for a final post within the next few days.

Non-fiction tends to always be a little scarce on my reading list so I am going to start out the summer with two non-fiction titles that I’ve wanted to read for a while.  One of them is Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking by Susan Cain.  Over the last year, this title seems to pop up frequently.  As I’ve heard that Cain’s focus tends to be introverts in the business world, I’m very curious about what she has to say.

The other non-fiction title I have on my list is The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin.  This book is perhaps the book that has been recommended to me the most that I still have not read.  I also thought it would coincide well with our family vacation to Philadelphia and New York City in about a week.  I’ve heard nothing but good things about it.

The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin

Starship Troopers

It’s also time for my third annual summertime Heinlein/Hemingway match-up.  I started this tradition inadvertently during the summer of 2011 prior to blogging.  A friend of mine recommended Robert A. Heinlein’s novel The Moon is a Harsh Mistress and my then book club The Indy Reading Coalition had selected Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises as our book for June of that year.  I didn’t think anything of it until last summer (2012) when I read Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land just before rereading Hemingway’s For Whom The Bell Tolls.  It was then that I decided to do the same thing this summer.  My plan is to read Heinlein’s Starship Troopers and reread Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms.  I’m looking forward to both of them.

A Farewell to Arms

I also want to finish Flannery O’Connor’s short story collection A Good Man Is Hard to Find and Other Stories and read Kurt Vonnegut’s collection Welcome to the Monkeyhouse.  

I could possibly throw in a newer book such as Khaled Hosseini’s And The Mountain’s Echoed.  I enjoyed his novel The Kite Runner a number of years ago.  I want to at least read one of Salman Rushdie’s novels this year.  The summer might be a good time to do that.  Midnight’s Children is the one I’ve got my eye on.

As usual, the best-laid reading plans can change in an instant, if a different book catches my interest.  We’ll see how the summer plays out.  How about you?  What are your plans for reading this summer?

Posted in Fiction

Ishmael On Religion

I’ve found Ishmael, Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick narrator, to have a wonderfully playful irreverence toward religion.  It’s interesting how often he encounters various beliefs, philosophies and worldviews.  I think his irreverence comes from simply calling things like he sees it.  He sums it up so well by saying “I cherish the greatest respect towards everybody’s religious obligations, never mind how comical..”.

Early in the novel, Ishmael finds himself having to share a bed with Queequeg, a pagan cannibal.  While he becomes fast friends with his sleep mate, it’s not without observing Queequeg’s meditation to his baby-god-idol Yojo.  Ishmael concludes this observation with one of the more famous and one of my favorite quotations from the novel, “Better sleeping with a sober cannibal than a drunken Christian”.

In his initial interview with Captains Peleg and Bildad, the owners of The Pequod, the eventual temporary home for Ishmael, he wheels and deals with these Quaker men who put up a tough fight in determining his salary.  He has some fun with the Captains’ manner of speaking using a plethora of ‘Thees’ and ‘Thous’ and finally refers to them as “Quakers with a vengence”.

When The Pequod meets with the ship Jeroboam, Ishmael encounters a man who considers himself the Archangel Gabriel.  Ishmael isn’t surprise by the delusions of this man as he was “nurtured among the crazy society of Neskyeuna Shakers.”  Fear of disease keeps the crew of the Jeroboam from boarding The Pequod; however, the Captains of each ship attempt to have a conversation while the ships are lined up next to each other.  The waves and the wind make the ships’ ride a little choppy as well as the Captains’ conversation.

About the time that I’m laughing out loud at the various religious situations Ishmael encounters and his reactions and comments to them, he opts to become serious about his own religious ideas and his interest in whales in a paragraph that I think will become one of my favorites:

And how nobly it raises our conceit of the mighty misty monster, to behold  him solemnly sailing through a calm tropical sea; his vast, mild head overhung by a canopy of vapor, engendered by his incommunicable contemplations, and that vapor – as you will sometimes see it – glorified by a rainbow, as if Heaven itself had put its seal upon his thoughts.  For, d’ye see, rainbows do not visit the clear air; they only irradiate vapor.  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.

Posted in Fiction

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.  

Posted in Fiction

Call me…intrigued

Call me witty.

Call me wise.

Call me philosophical.

Call me believer.

Call me infidel.

Call me sarcastic.

Call me observant.

Call me Ishmael.

I’ve started reading Melville’s Moby Dick and I think Ishmael will become one of my favorite characters.  So far, I think he is the best side-kick/narrator I’ve experienced since Nick Carraway in The Great Gatsby.  I say “since” because I read Gatsby a long time ago and am just now reading Moby Dick.  I realize that the chronological order in which the two novels were published is reversed.

In the short amount of time I’ve been reading the novel, I’ve come across some great quotations by Ishmael.  Such as this one in which he comments on the hypocrisy of those who try to paint money in an evil light:

But being paid, – what will compare with it?  The urbane activity with which man receives money is really marvelous, considering that we so earnestly believe money to be the root of earthly ills, and that on no account can a monied man enter heaven.  Ah! how cheerfully we consign ourselves to perdition!

Here’s one that I think I will be quoting often:

Better sleep with a sober cannibal than a drunken Christian.

As a whaler, he’s familiar with the dangers of the job but seems to take it in stride (methinks):

Yes, there is death in this business of whaling – a speechlessly quick chaotic bundling of a man into Eternity.  But what then?  Methinks we have hugely mistaken this matter of Life and Death.  Methinks that what they call my shadow here on earth is my true substance.  Methinks that in looking at things spiritual, we are too much like oysters observing the sun through the water, and thinking that thick water the thinnest of air.

Look for more posts about this novel.  I’m on chapter 9 out of 135.  The chapters are short by most standards, though.  I’m looking forward to the rest of them.