Posted in Short Stories

Saul Bellow Week, Day 2 – Zetland: By a Character Witness

For Day 2 of Saul Bellow Week, I read his short story “Zetland: By a Character Witness”.  This one came in at only about 30 pages – a little shorter than “Him With the Foot in His Mouth”.


Very short on plot, the story sets out the childhood and early married life of Elias Zetland, an intellectual Jewish boy growing up in Chicago (I’m seeing a pattern, here).  The narrator is unnamed and only gives a slight clue as to his relationship with Zetland (or Zet as he calls him).  He seems to be a boyhood/adolescent friend who knows much about Zet’s life.

The usual early adulthood changes make up the plot.  Zet marries Lottie – a marriage neither family likes.  They move from Chicago to New York and Zet changes his mind about majoring in philosophy when he reads Moby-Dick.  Melville and Moby-Dick have been popping up in a lot of the stories I’ve been reading lately.

There is a light-hearted depth to “Zetland” that I’m finding is characteristic to the Saul Bellow stories I’ve read so far.  The depth comes from an obviously intelligent writer creating intelligent characters.  The light-heartedness keeps both Bellow and his characters from taking themselves too seriously.

As a native of Chicago, Bellow writes a little tongue-in-cheek as Zet and Lottie move to New York:

Zet and Lottie swam into New York City from the skies… They were in the East, where everything was better, where objects were different.  Here there was deeper meaning in the air.

I would (so far) consider Woody from “A Silver Dish” as the best example of Bellow’s characters – smart, but not wanting to follow the path set out for them by family or society. Perhaps Zet might come in second.

Posted in Non Fiction

In the Heart of the Sea

…as the survivors of the Essex came to know, once the end has been reached and all hope, passion, and force of will have been expended, the bones may be all that are left.

It’s taken me at least as long to read Nathaniel Philbrick’s In the Heart of the Sea as it took the crew of the whaleship Essex to survive being shipwrecked in the Pacific Ocean – which is approximately three months – and not everyone survived which is one of the more gruesome aspects of the book.


Philbrick writes a very readable non-fiction story and gives fascinating background into the whaling industry and the island of Nantucket that sparked the industry boom during the early years of the United States.  His details regarding the influence of the Quakers in this area shed more light on those “Quakers with a vengence” that owned the Pequod in Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick.  This connection to Melville’s novel prompted me to read Philbrick’s account along with the trailer to the upcoming film based on the book.

Based on published accounts by the surviving members of Essex along with letters and other documentation, Philbrick narrates the whaleship’s destruction by a sperm whale that to all involved appeared to aggressively attack the ship – something shocking to the crew members and other whalers of the time.  The struggle to survive pushed all of the crew’s morals and ideals to the limit and in some cases passed the limit.

According to Philbrick, this incident inspired Herman Melville, who spent time employed by whaleships, himself, to write Moby-Dick, his Great American Novel.  In the Heart of the Sea contains fewer details about Melville than I was expecting; however, I highly recommend this book to anyone interested in survival stories.

Posted in Short Stories

Herman Melville: Bartleby

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Herman Melville’s short story “Bartleby” gives the reader an odd relationship between employee and employer.  While I’m not sure this type of relationship exists in the real world (or at least not the 21st century real world), Melville makes the story work in a most memorable manner.


The story is narrated by the boss who hires Bartleby as a scrivener for his law office.  Bartleby gets his own little section of the office and before long is politely refusing to do anything requested of him.   In one of my favorite lines (of which there are many), the boss says “Nothing so aggravates an earnest person as a passive resistance.”  The story seems to ask who has more control and more power.  It’s difficult to point to the boss as the answer.

Bartleby embodies the power of this passive resistance.  By doing – or not doing – whatever he wants, Bartleby gives some sort of meaning to his life as strange as it may seem.  This throws the boss for more than one loop.  In spite of the philosophical edge to the story, I couldn’t help but appreciate the humor in the situation.  The poor boss can’t shake Bartleby – even right up to the end.  Something about the story kept reminding me of the movie Office Space.

I’m not sure the idea of passive resistance would be useful to me in my job or career; however, the occasional “I prefer not to” could be helpful in a lot of life situations.

The title of this story in my edition is simply “Bartleby”; however, I have seen other editions (as the one pictured) in which the story is called “Bartleby, the Scrivener”.  I’m not sure which is right but I’m wondering if this could be similar to The Great Hyphen Controversy of Moby-Dick. 

I think I have said this before but it’s worth repeating – Melville is a master.

My Deal Me In 2014 list can be seen here.  DMI is sponsored by Jay at Bibliophilopolis.



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 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 Books in General

Anyone for Forewords?

The Classic Club’s monthly meme for August poses an interesting question:  Do you read forewords/notes that precede many classics?  Does it help you or hurt you in your enjoyment/understanding of the work?

Right off the bat, I will have to say that I usually do not read forewords or notes.  I’d rather get right to the story and read it for myself.  In the case of many books, I tell myself that I will read the foreword or the notes after I’m finished; however, I typically am ready to move on to the next book by then.

I’m more likely to read a foreword if I recognize the author.  In a rare instance, I’ve actually read a foreword by Vladamir Nabakov for Charles Dicken’s Bleak House but still have not read Bleak House.  Here’s the beginning paragraph:

We are now ready to tackle Dickens.  We are now ready to embrace Dickens.  We are now ready to bask in Dickens.  In our dealings with Jane Austen we had to make a certain effort in order to join the ladies in the drawing room.  In the case of Dickens we remain at table with our tawny port.

After reading this, I couldn’t help but read the rest of it.  Maybe someday I will actually read Bleak House.

This year, I’ve read two books in which I have read the forewords/notes in small pieces as I was reading the book.  The first one was for Gone With The Wind (it was actually a preface – I’m sure there’s a difference).  It was written by South Carolina novelist, Pat Conroy.  I’ve enjoyed Conroy’s novels and his insights into Gone With The Wind were worth reading. The afterword to my editon of Moby-Dick by Denham Sutcliffe of Kenyon College helped immensely as I read what is shaping up to be my favorite book of 2013.

What is your opinion on notes and forewords for classic novels?  Have you read any that are especially memorable?

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.


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.