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Moby Dick Readalong – Chapters 1-28

Whoa, there, guys. If someone had mentioned that Moby Dick was both hilarious, insightful, blasphemous, and beautiful, I would have picked this book up a lot sooner. All I’d really heard about Ishmael was that he was a long-winded, confusing narrator, but the truth is, I absolutely adore him.

I think a book like Moby Dick comes with a lot of preconceptions and I spent most of Chapters 1-10 unpacking them. Here’s a list of everything I knew to be true about Moby Dick:

1) Matilda read it at the end of Matilda, the movie.

2) The first line is “Call me Ishmael,” because that’s the line Matilda read.

3) It’s an allegory.

4) There was someone named Captain Ahab in it.

5) As ridiculous as this is, I may or may not have thought Ishmael and Captain Ahab were the same person. You know, he was just getting friendly at the beginning of the book. “Oh, don’t bother with that silly Captain business. Please, call me Ishmael.” Why thanks, Captain Ishmael Ahab, I will!

Here is what I now know to be true of Moby Dick:

1) Matilda read it at the end of Matilda, the movie.

2) The first line is not “Call me Ishmael,” it’s “The pale Usher– threadbare in coat, heart, body, and brain; I see him now. Was he ever dusting his old lexicons and grammars, with a queer handkerchief, mockingly embellished with all the gay flags of all the known nations of the world. He loved to dust his old grammars; it somehow mildly reminded him of his mortality.”

3) The religious metaphors and references are fascinating.

4) There is someone named Captain Ahab in it and he is Mysterious with a capital M.

5) Ishmael and Captain Ahab are most certainly not the same person.

All joking aside, I was not prepared for how much I would truly enjoy Moby Dick. It’s a fascinating novel so far, that has never felt too wordy, difficult or boring. Ishmael is a hilarious narrator, but Moby Dick is surprisingly beautiful. Take this passage for example:

Why is almost every robust healthy boy with a robust healthy soul in him, at some time or other crazy to go to  sea? Why upon your first voyage as a passenger, did you yourself feel such a mystical vibration, when first told that you and your ship were now out of sight of land? Why did the old Persians hold the sea holy? Why did the Greeks give it a separate deity, and own brother of Jove? Surely all this is not without meaning. And still deeper the meaning of that story of Narcissus, who because he could not grasp the tormenting, mild image he saw in the fountain, plunged into it and was drowned. But that same image, we ourselves see in all rivers and oceans. It is the image of the ungraspable phantom of life; and this is the key to it all. (3)

I found myself with highlighter ready, marking up every page with funny, beautiful or possibly important lines. I remembered why people carry a pen with them when they read in the first place. I know I keep repeating it, but I just had no idea. What other classics are sitting on my shelves that I haven’t picked up because I think they’ll be boring? If nothing else, the classics I have read recently have shown me that I love reading them. So why don’t I read more classics?

Anyway, back to Moby Dick. I am a fan of short chapters! And really, who isn’t? Is Moby Dick the first postmodern novel? I don’t know about that. Plot-wise, Herman Melville does a lot of interesting things, but I’m not sure the right word is postmodern. It’s difficult to really form any opinions after only 120 pages. There is still so much to come! They only just got on the boat after all.

I’m endlessly fascinated by the narrator’s religious opinions. I know that religion and religious imagery will play a large part in Moby Dick, but I don’t know how, exactly yet. I’ve managed to stay quite ignorant of the classics I haven’t read. I hate spoilers. I know some people don’t mind them, but I like to come into a story with nothing but myself. I prefer having no expectations. I mean, you saw the kind of expectations I had going into Moby Dick: they were almost all wrong. Anyway, I don’t know how Moby Dick is going to play out, though I imagine there’s a whale in there somewhere. All I do know is right now, our friend Ishmael says some very interesting things about religion. This is one of the most interesting quotes:

“All our arguing with [Queequeg] would not avail; let him be, I say: and Heaven have mercy on us all – Presbyterians and Pagans alike – for we are all somehow dreadfully cracked about the head, and sadly need mending” (79).

The relationship between Queequeg and Ishmael was also very interesting to me. It just never played out exactly like I expected it to. While there are definitely aspects of his portrayal that border on caricature, his description as a cannibal and a savage for one, he is also a very interesting character and Ishmael shows him genuine respect. Their relationship often leads Ishmael to discuss religion, and I fear that this may be his primary importance. I wonder if he’ll still be as important a character once Captain Ahab and the great white whale take over.

Moby Dick continues to be a very enjoyable read and it is never quite what I expected. I’m excited to keep reading and I’ll see you back here for a discussion of chapters 29-55 on January 19!

This Moby Dick readalong is being hosted by The Blue Bookcase. I will be updating this page with links to fellow participants blog posts this evening. 

A Moby Dick Readalong for Your Winter Blues

So when I posted my TBR Dare/Challenge post, I cheekily listed Moby Dick on there, thinking there was little chance I’d actually read it. But then so many people commented saying that they loved Moby Dick and that I should start of 2012 with that particular novel. Of all the books I listed, more people mentioned Moby Dick. Then it seemed to be everywhere. People were writing blog posts about it, saying how much they loved or hated it. Finally, I just decided that Moby Dick will be one of the first books I read in 2012. Someone (Jillian, perhaps?) pointed me toward the Conquering Moby Dick Readalong by The Blue Bookshelf and I’m thrilled to join in.

I’ve already started reading and let me just tell you, I love it so far! It’s so interesting and actually funny in some parts, though I’m not entirely convinced it’s supposed to be funny. Most of all, though, I love the narrator and his voice and I think there are some truly beautiful passages about the sea. I can’t wait to keep reading more. So if you think you might like to join in, the first post goes up on January 12! I know it’s soon, but I’m surprised how quickly I’ve been reading Moby Dick. We’ll see if I still feel the same way when I’m 200 pages in, but so far, so good.

Thanks for convincing me to read Moby Dick, y’all!

Kristin Lavransdatter, Sigrid Undset, Simone de Beauvoir

Kristin LavransdatterI am, unfortunately, very late to the Kristin Lavransdatter party.  I finished the first book a few weeks ago, but did not have any inspiration for what to post about.  The Wreath was a well-written medieval tale that made that the time period come to life unlike any book I’ve read.  I fell in love with the setting and enjoyed the story, but outside of that, I didn’t quite know what to say.

On Tuesday, inspiration struck during my literary studies class after we read and discussed “The Second Sex” by Simone de Beauvoir and it put a completely different spin on The Wreath.  More or less contemporaries, there are certainly similarities to be found.

But it’s an artist that I want to be, a woman artist, and not a pen-wielding lady.

Undset wrote those words in a correspondence with her friend.  I think she lived up to that.  Kristin Lavransdatter is nothing short of an epic, that not only brings into question what it meant to be a woman during medieval times, but what it meant to be a woman in the 20s.  I can’t speak for Undset, obviously, and her intentions, but whether the reflection of her own tumultuous, post-WWI Europe in the medieval was intentional or not, the similarities are impressive.  There are frequent references to the changing times in Norway that breeds an ominous tone throughout the whole first book.

But, the first thing that struck me about the novel was the sheer beauty of the description in conjunction with the simplicity of the language.

There were forest-clad mountain slopes below her in all directions; her valley was no more than a hollow between the enormous mountains, and the neighboring valleys were even smaller hollows; there were many of them, and yet there were fewer valleys than there were mountains.  On all sides gray domes, golden-flamed with lichen, loomed above the carpet of forest; and far off in the distance, toward the horizon, stood blue peaks with white glints of snow, seeming to merge with the grayish-blue and dazzling white summer clouds.  But to the northeast, close by – just beyond the pasture woods – stood a cluster of magnificent stone-blue mountains with streaks of new snow on their slopes.  (pg 13)

Though there is beautiful language throughout The Wreath, there is also a darkly ominous side to it.  I was surprised by that dichotomy that was present as soon as the first chapter.  The relationship between young Kristin and her father is lovely, but there is always that underlying knowledge that there is going to be the betrayal later on, that Kristin will go against her father’s wishes.  There is so much foreshadowing in the beginning of Kristin Lavransdatter.

Good days can last a long time if one tends to things with care and caution; all sensible people know that.  That’s why I think that sensible people have to be satisfied with the good days – for the grandest of days are costly indeed.  They call a man a fool who fritters away his father’s inheritance in order to enjoy himself in his youth […] But I call him a true idiot and fool only if he regrets his actions afterward, and he is twice the fool and the greatest buffoon of all if he expects to see his drinking companions again once the inheritance is gone.  (49)

At those times when one needs either prayers or advice one usually has no mind to learn or understand. (49)

There is a lot of mention of Catholicism and religion in this novel, but also of paganism.  More duality!  What stood out for me was the constant referral to woman as witch, or the “mysterious woman” that de Beauvoir talked about in “The Second Sex”.  Undset outright contradicts this assumption: “It could be that the woman knew more than was good for the health of her soul – and yet one should not forget that ignorant people often spoke of witchcraft as soon as a woman showed herself to be wiser than the councilmen”  (55).  

These “ignorant people” that Undset refers to are the “masculine hearts” of de Beauvoir’s essay.  She says:

Few myths have been more advantageous to the ruling caste than the myth of woman […]  Of all these myths, none is more firmly anchored in masculine hearts than that of the feminine “mystery.”  It has numerous advantages.  And first of all it permits an easy explanation of all that appears inexplicable; the man who “does not understand” a woman is happy to substitute an objective resistance for the subjective deficiency of mind; instead of admitting his ignorance, he perceives the presence of a “mystery” outside himself: an alibi, indeed, that flatters laziness and vanity at once.  A heart smitten with love thus avoids many disappointments: if the loved one’s behavior is capricious, her remarks stupid, then the mystery serves, then the mystery serves to excuse it all.  (1409)

Simone de Beauvoir wrote critically about it and Undset wrote it into her novel.  It did not necessarily seem to be Kristin that, thus far, has given anything to contradict the tendency for the representation of women in literature, but rather Aashild, her Erlend’s aunt.  I wonder if Kristin will continue to act this way or if she will change with the rest of the novel.

But what all of this boils down to is that I just don’t know what I think of Kristin and Erlend.  Yes, Kristin follows her heart and gets what she wants, but at what cost?  Is there irony here?  That for all of her forward-thinking, Kristin falls into the same trap as all the other women?  She frequently talks about how little she wants to be intimate with Erlend, but allows him to.  I’m really not sure how I’m supposed to think about this couple and I’m torn between believing that Kristin is an independent woman ahead of her time to thinking that she gave up one kind of servitude for another. If only she’d stuck with Arne!  He was the one and it ended in tragedy.

Now she felt that she had grown up from maiden to woman.  This was not just because of the passionate, secret caresses she had received and given.  She had not merely left her father’s guardianship and subjected herself to Erlend’s will.  Brother Edvin had impressed on her the responsibility of answering for her own life, and for Erlend’s as well, and she was willing to bear this burden with grace and dignity.  (159)

I’m not too worried, though, Kristin has plenty of time to prove herself as a strong woman as the story continues.  I’m looking forward to getting back to the medieval world of Kristin!

Thanks to Richard and Emily for hosting this read-along!  Other participants: kiss a cloud, She is Too Fond of Books, nonsuch bookpage 247, 5-squared, Rhapsody in Books, Save Ophelia, what we have here is a failure to communicate, Fizzy Thoughts, tuesday in silhouette, Life Is A Patchwork Quilt, This Book and I Could Be Friends.

See you again at the end of the month for Part II!

2666 Readalong – Part V: The Part About Archimboldi


Check out what my car mileage was!

I can’t believe we’re here!  The readalong is over and we have made it through the behemoth 2666 by Roberto Bolaño, all along the way sharing our ideas and interpretations and making it a better reading experience over all.  It has been an amazing time, and I don’t think I would have kept reading this book, let alone finished it and come to love it and, maybe, understand it, without all of your input.  I guess my point is: thank you!  Thank you to Steph and Claire for hosting, thank you for everyone for participating and making this an amazing experience.  I’m glad that we don’t have to give it up after this, I’m glad there’s more to come with the Kristin Lavransdatter readalong, for which I am very excited!  Now, on to the discussion:

The Part About Archimboldi

I have a confession to make.  After finishing this book last night, I realized that I made a huge mistake while reading this book.  I was reading it and trying to figure things out, to understand how everything was going to come together in the end.  I thought that all of the stories would somehow converge, that we would meet the critics again, that Amalfitano would make another appearance.  I was wrong.  This novel is more like a collection of events and the people that are affected by those events; their lives intersect, but there is no final conclusion where we see all of them together, where everything finally makes sense.  And though, when I finished, I was somewhat disappointed by that, I realized later on that no, this was perfect. This is a hyperrealistic novel and to have an ending like that would have been false.  It wouldn’t have rang true with the rest of the novel, because that is not how life is.  In this book, the lives are intersected in small ways.  I felt like we read the book backwards.  The Part About the Critics started us off with the mystery of Archimboldi and the mystery of the murders in Santa Teresa.  We are then introduced to two people who are impacted by the murders of Santa Teresa.  Then the murders themselves and finally Archimboldi and his story and connections.  The critics never find him, at least we never know if they do, because in the end it doesn’t matter.

About half way through the reading of The Part about Archimboldi I figured it out.  I realized I had been reading it incorrectly the whole time and then just let the last section take me along for the ride.

The beginning, Archimboldi’s childhood and his obsession with the ocean, was so wonderful to read.  I loved it.  It was filled with wonder, humor and beauty.  And of course, since this is 2666, tragedy.

“And who is that?” asked the former pilot.
“My son,” said the one-legged man.
“He looks like a giraffe fish,” said the former pilot, and he laughed. (652)

There is so much in this section about physical appearance and names and what, if anything, that means about who we are on the inside.  Archimboldi’s father is the “one-legged man”, his mother “one-eyed”.  Archimboldi’s own name has been changed.  Lotte defies all misconceptions about her age and learns Spanish over age 70.  Lotte, Archimboldi’s sister, thinks of him as a giant his whole life, and when they finally reconnect, she remarks that he isn’t a giant after all.

We know that Bolaño wrote this section at the end of his life and it’s interesting to read it with that in mind.  There is a lot of ruminations in this section about age and death and what it all means.  Then, further still, what does art say about the artist?  There were many times while reading 2666 that I thought that Bolaño’s voice was coming through and he was speaking about his own novel-writing process and his own concerns.

The book Animals and Plants of the European Coastal Region was stamped on his brain, and while he dove he would slowly page through it.  This was how he discovered Laminaria digitata, a giant seaweed with a sturdy stem and broad leaves, as the book said, shaped like a fan with numerous sections of strands that really did look like fingers.  Laminaria digitata is native to cold waters like the Baltic, the North Sea, and the Atlantic.  It’s found in large masses, at low tide, and off rocky shores.  The tide often uncovers forests of this seaweed.  When Hans Reiter saw a seaweed forest for the first time he was so moved that he began to cry underwater.  It may be hard to believe that a human being could cry while diving with his eyes open, but let us not forget that Hans was only six at the time and in a sense he was a singular child.

Laminaria digitata is light brown and resembles Laminaria hyperborea, which has a rougher stalk, and Saccorhiza polyschides, which has a stem with bulbous protuberances.  The latter two, however, live in deep waters, and although sometimes, on summer afternoons, Hans Reiter would swim far from the beach or the rocks where he had left his clothes and then dive down, he could never spot them, only fantasize that he’d seen them there in the depths, a still and silent forest. (641)

I really like that section.  I think it’s beautiful and Hans’s wonder comes through.

Hans said he didn’t know anything about his father.
“True,” said Halder, “one never knows anything about one’s father.”
A father, he said, is a passageway immersed in the deepest darkness where we stumble blindly seeking a way out.  (656)

This section as so fascinating.  Archimboldi does not know or claim to know his father, though he was raised by him.  And how true is it that no matter how well we think we know our parents, there is always something about them that surprises us, that we never knew before?

“They call me Benno after Benito Juárez,” said Archimboldi, “I suppose you know who Benito Juárez was.”

So who was Benito Juárez?  His most famous quote is: “Among individuals, as among nations, respect for the rights of others is peace.”  Sounds like a pretty cool guy.  But I have no idea about the reference.

That night, as he was working the door at the bar, he amused himself by thinking about a time with two speeds, one very slow, in which the movement of people and objects was almost imperceptible, and the other very fast, in which everything, even inert objects, glittered with speed.  The first was called Paradise, the second Hell, and Archimboldi’s only wish was never to inhabit either. (800)

I feel like this post is turning into nothing more than a collection of quotes I liked.  I’m okay with that.  Finishing 2666 made me want to get out the first book and start all over again.  I want to find everything I missed when I was trying to make those connections that don’t, ultimately, even exist.

I am intrigued by the final note in the book, in which it is said that Bolaño believed there were two centers to this novel.  The obvious, the murders in Santa Teresa, and one that is much less obvious.  I don’t know what the right answer is.  I don’t know what that center is.  Maybe it is mortality.  Maybe the center of 2666 is the idea of immortality and mortality and how, even authors or artists or criminals, who have left their mark on society, will die.  There is no cure for it. All the characters are faced with this painful realization at some point and only Archimboldi seems to approach it with grace.  The Critics, faced with the death of one their own, approach it with disbelief and a lack of concern.  Amalfitano essentially loses his mind at the thought of losing his own daughter, though it might not look like that at first.  Fate, thinking about the death of Amalfitano’s daughter who he is attracted to, decides to help her escape.  Lotte, faced with her own mortality, defies convention and learns Spanish and travels to save her son.

That night, during dinner, they talked about the crypt, but they also talked about other things.  They talked about death.  Hoensch said that death itself was only an illusion under permanent construction, that in reality it didn’t exist.  The SS officer said death was necessity: no one in his right mind, he said, would stand for a world full of turtles or giraffes.  Death, he concluded, served a regulatory function.  The young scholar Popescu said death, in the Eastern tradition, was only a passage.  What wasn’t clear, he said, or at least not to him, was toward what place, what reality, this passage led.

“The question,” he said, “is where.  The answer,” he answered himself, “is wherever my merits take me.”

General Etrescu was of the opinion that this hardly mattered, the important thing was to keep moving, the dynamic of motion, which made men and all living beings, including cockroaches, equal to the great stars.  Baroness Von Zumpe said, and perhaps she was the only one to speak frankly, that death was a bore.  General Von Berenberg declined to offer an opinion, as did the two general staff officers.

Then they talked about murder.  The SS officer said that murder was an ambiguous, confusing, imprecise, vague, ill-defined word, easily misused.  Hoensch agreed.  General Von Berenberg said that he would rather leave the laws to the judges and the criminal courts and if a judge said a certain act was murder, and if the judge and the court ruled it wasn’t, then it wasn’t, and that was the end of the matter.  The two general staff officers agreed.

General Entrescu confessed that his childhood heroes were always murderers and criminals, for whom, he said, he felt a great respect.  The young scholar Popescu reminded the guests that murderers and heroes resembled each other in their solitariness…. (681)

Look!  More giraffes!

Maybe I am reading too much into what was happening in Bolaño’s own life while he was writing this, but I think it might not be totally off base.  Maybe it’s not what Bolaño had in mind, but I’m certain it’s there.  All I want to do now that I have finished 2666 is start all over again.  I want to find all of the things that I missed.  I know that there is so much to this novel that I will never understand.  And that’s a hard thing to accept.  All I do know is that reading this book has changed me somehow, as a reader and as an artist, and I do plan on reading it again.  I’m hope hope hope hope hope hope that at some point in my life, some university I go to will offer a class on Bolaño’s work.  Maybe next semester is too hopeful?  Maybe the next?

What do you think the alternative “center” to this novel is?   What did you think of the ending?  Do you want to read more?  Were you less enchanted, or were you like me, feeling lost and lonely with Bolaño to go back to?

I’m really at a loss now that I have turned the last page and closed the cover on 2666.  I just can’t believe that it’s over.  I think there might be more for me to say, but I’m not sure.  Thanks to EL Fay, Claire, Steph, Frances, Richard, Gavin, Isabella & Jackie for participating and I’ll see you again in October with Kristin Lavransdatter!

Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4


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