Here I Am

Tags

, , , , , , , , , , , ,

Hineni-Here I Am- appears in the Torah portion Vayeira, where God tests Abraham’s faith by asking him to sacrifice his son Isaac. It is how Abraham answers God when he asks for him; how Abraham responds to Isaac when he inquires why there are no sheep for the offering; and how Abraham answers when God tells him not to sacrifice Isaac. It is more than a roll-call. It, and this novel, are about defining our identity through whom “we are there for”.

The family in question is an upper middle class urban, Reform, U.S. Jewish family, that is dysfunctional, neurotic, caring, indifferent, passively aggressive, precocious, and agnostic. Jacob and Julia have reached middle-age. Their marriage has dissolved into friendship and then divorce. Their son’s Torah portion is Vayishlach, in which Jacob, the last of the patriarchs, is assaulted by God or God’s messenger. Jacob grabs the attacker and refuses to let go until he receives a blessing (Jacob means “heel-grabber” because he grabbed the heel of his older brother Esau, because he wanted to be the first-born son). The assailant asks Jacob for his name. God rejects it, changing his name to Israel, which means “wrestles God.”

The novel has a political element to it. Israel following an earthquake is avenged by its neighbors and Muslims world-wide, with only tepid support from the United States. Tamir, Jacob’s cousin, is visiting the U.S. with one son when the war begins. His wife and other son stayed in Israel, and his daughter is safe because of a school trip to Auschwitz. Tamir is the stereotypical brash Israeli risk-taker who confronts Jacob’s, and American Jews’ passivity. Mr. Foer has fun with stereotypes. A TV interview of an Israeli engineer after the earthquake is an example.

“Siegel: Can you give us your professional assessment of what’s going on right now?

Horowitz: My professional assessment, yes, but I can also tell you as a human being standing here that Israel has endured a cataclysmic earthquake. Everywhere you look there is destruction.

Seigel: You are safe, though?

Horowitz: Safe is a relative term. My family is alive, and as you can hear, so am I. Some are safer. Some are less safe.

Why the fuck can’t Israelis just answer questions?”

The novel is both funny and poignant. It raises challenging issues. Mourning the death of a  grandfather Holocaust survivor the rabbi asks,

“what can we say about Isaac Bloch, and how should we mourn him? There are only two kinds of Jews of his generation: those who perished and those who survived. We swore our allegiance to the victims, were good on our promise never to forget them. But we turned our backs on those who endured, and forgot them. All our love was for the dead.”

There is an implicit challenge to Zionism that is in part this legacy. “We choose to make life the ultimate Jewish value, rather than differentiate the value of kinds of life, or more radically, admit that there are things even more important than being alive.”

The Rabbi remembering Isaac Bloch conveys what Mr. Bloch had told him. “There are two things that everybody needs. The first is to feel that he is adding to the world. Do you agree? I told him I did. The second, he said, is toilet paper.”

The novel is above all about family: what each member wants and takes from life and each other and what he or she fails to ask or to deliver. At nearly 600 pages it is a very fast read, with the last two hundred pages being more uneven than the first 400. At times it uses explicitly pornographic language which some might find unnecessarily gratuitous. At first it seems out-of-place, but it does conform to the plot in an Anthony Weiner sought of way.

I have not read the author’s two other acclaimed novels to have a point of comparison: Everything Is Illuminated and Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close. This novel is engaging and entertaining, even if it is not great literature. It is worth a read. You don’t have to Jewish, but it can’t hurt.

Every Day Is For The Thief

Tags

, , , , , , , , ,

Teju Cole’s first book “Open City” was critically acclaimed winning the PEN/Hemingway Award and being a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award.  “Every Day Is For the Thief” was published in Nigeria in 2007, but was not published outside of Africa until 2014. It is a work of non-fiction treated as a work of fiction. It is unclear if it is autobiographical. It highlights certain events from a short-term return of a Nigerian citizen from the United States to Lagos. The narrator is a young doctor who has spent his adult life in the United States after growing up in an upper middle class family in Lagos. The title conveys the theme about living in Lagos in 2007: corruption is a way of life to survive. The focus is on the petty thievery not on the large-scale government/ big business corruption which is taken for granted. The narrator and his family all can afford the “tipping” that is common in emerging nations where income alone does not keep pace with the cost of living.

The computer fraud perpetuated from Nigeria (and many other countries) is pervasive in internet and other cafes. The fraud is illegal, and is known as “419” from the section of the Nigerian legal code that it violates. There is no meaningful prosecution, the police being more than willing to take a bribe to look the other way. Those active in this business are called “yahoo yahoo” or the “yahoo boys”. University students ply the trade. The author compares them to the uncouth human-like creatures (“the Yahoos”) that the horse-like Houyhnhnms confront in “Gulliver’s Travels”. It is funny that the company Yahoo is a tongue-in-cheek acronym for “Yet Another Hierarchical Officious Oracle” that with a unique identifier, enabled the company to get a trademark despite other companies named Yahoo. None seemed to recognize Jonathan Swift’s usage as did the Nigerians.

Like many African countries tribal differences still predominate as do ethnic differences in  other melting-pot countries. The author notes the role these warring factions played in the U.S. slave trade.

“There were constant skirmishes between Ijebus, the Egbas, the Ekitis, the Oyos, the Ibadans, and many other Yoruba groups. Some of the smaller groups might even have been wiped out from history, as the larger ones enlarged their territory and consolidated their power. The vanquished were brought from the interior to the coast and sold to the people of Lagos and to communities along the network of lagoons stretching westward to Ouidah. And they in turn arranged the auctions at which the English, the Portuguese, and the Spanish loaded up their barracoons and slave ships. Some of these inter-tribal  wars were waged for the express purpose of supplying slaves to traders. At thirty-five British pounds for each healthy adult male, it was a lucrative business.”

This novella is a quick interesting read. Given the seven-year difference between its 2007 African publishing and its 2014 publishing outside of Africa it would have been nice if there was a chapter that reflected Lagos today. As a work of fiction it might have been felt unnecessary, but with its patina of non-fiction, the author and publisher could have done it. It is still interesting recognizing its limited vista.

One Hundred Years of Solitude

Tags

, , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

“It had never occurred to him until then to think that literature was the best plaything that had ever been invented to make fun of people…”

The characters in Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s “One Hundred Years of Solitude” are apparitions that are caricatures. A multi-generational, extended family saga that envelopes Macondo, a fictitious town in a rural swamp in Columbia where progress intercedes to its detriment. A parody of revolutionaries and the government; the Church, the pious, and the depraved; it upends time. Magical realism, an abused description of varied meaning, is not only expressed through the myriad of stories. It is also the slaughter of thousands of residents by a foreign banana company and its government supporters that no one in Macondo can remember. This dream-like existence is protest literature. A strong supporter of Castro, the author suffered censorship and exile as a journalist in Columbia.

The novel is imaginative. Its crafted stream of consciousness with generations of characters with similar names that return to an ephemeral reality, can be confusing and exhausting. Fiction is reality in Macondo. The future of the town is revealed through taro cards, gypsies, and a parchment in Sanskrit and other codes which one of the characters tries to decipher. Two revolutionaries from Mexico, exiled in Macondo, even attest to the heroism of Artemio Cruz, a character in one of Carlos Fuentes’ novels. Mr. Fuentes reveres the author, but I prefer Mr. Fuentes’ literature.

“At the beginning of the road into the swamp they put up a sign that said MACONDO and another larger one on the main street that said GOD EXISTS. In all the houses keys to memorizing objects and feelings had been written. But the system demanded so much vigilance and moral strength that many succumbed to the spell of an imaginary reality, one invented by themselves, which was less practical for them,  but more comforting.”

The prose in this novel is third person narrative and in my view undistinguished. Despite the author’s predilection for sexual relationships that are unorthodox, to me the work is matriarchal. Women are mature and the men are little boys.

Having struggled through Moby Dick and to a lesser extent with this novel I am increasing dubious about Classics that are considered to be the “greatest” American, Latin American, or other literature. Reading is personal and is best left at that. I might make an exception for Shakespeare.

The Lost Civilization of Suolucidir

Tags

, , , , , , , , , , , , ,

The Lost Civilization of Suolucidir is an adventure novel about the search for a fabled city thought to be in Iran. The city is fictional and the author Susan Daitch may be playing with the reader because Suolucidir spelled backwards is “Ridiculous”.

I had high expectations after reading the first couple of chapters, partly due to the quotations from Karl Marx and Ambrose Bierce that introduced each. The first can be summarized that the present is the past disguised in support of revolution. The plot begins with an archaeologist Ariel Bokser’s search in the Black Mountains of Iran for this lost city as the Shah is being deposed. It begins the novel’s sweep from the Victorian period to the modern era, across the Middle East, Europe and North America. The premise is that there are lost maps and notes that may attest to the reality and site of this city. The second quote describes the characters and motivations.

“Ethnology, n: The science of different human races, such as knaves, swindlers, imbeciles, clots and ethnologists.”

The author is a native of Brooklyn, New York. She introduces one of its famous, if largely unknown past residents, Augustus Le Plongeon, who despite his photographic gifts, was ridiculed for espousing that a dethroned Mayan queen fled to Egypt. In the spirit of Le Plongeon, Bokser leaves his failing marriage and begins his quixotic archaeological journey under the financial sponsorship of a wealthy Brit with ulterior motives.

Part of the mystery is whether Suolucidir is a residence of the Lost Tribes of Israel, who either before, or because of the 722 B.C. invasion of the Kingdom of the Ten Tribes by the Assyrians became part of the Jewish diaspora. The Kingdom of the Ten Tribes were composed of Dan, Naftali, Gad, Asher, Ephraim, Manasseh, Issachar, Zebulun, Reuben,and Simeon. Otherwise referred to as the Northern Kingdom of Israel, having Samaria as its capital, it was separate from the Kingdom of Judah in the south, with Jerusalem as its capital. The latter fell to the Assyrians a few hundred years later. It has been debated whether the Lost Tribes existed and if they existed where each or all found a home.

‘They were supposed to dwell in unmapped and unmappable parts of the world. In the Babylonian Talmud the lost tribes of northern Israel were located in Kurdistan. According to the Jerusalem Talmud they were ‘across the Sambatyon River [the “Shabbat River”], enshrouded in cloud beyond the mountains of Darkness’ and ‘under Daphne of Antioch.'”

The novel briefly describes Mar Eldad Ha-Dani’s (Eldad Hadani) Lost Tribes story. A 9th  Century Jewish merchant who in his mind or in reality traversed Africa, the Middle East and Asia he believed that the Lost Tribes were not lost and that their descendants, who he claimed to meet, lived in different continents. The tribes of Dan, Asher, Naftali and Gad were in Africa, in what today would be Ethiopia. Ephraim and Manasseh were in the Arabian peninsula near what is Mecca. Issachar, Zebulun and Reuben were in Persia near Mount Paran, the locale for this novel. He does not relate where the tribe of Simeon’s descendants are.

Some consider this novel to be like the Indiana Jones novels, but this would be an exaggeration. It has some espionage and international intrigue: Russia’s, Germany’s and England’s interest in oil in Persia in advance of World War I. Its is a colonial novel and a Victorian novel of manners both in England’s exercise over Egypt and in its description of wealthy residents in a sanitorium in Germany on the eve of WWII. The latter, from a character development standpoint, was one of the better aspects of the novel. It also pulls together some of the storyline.

On the whole the writing is uneven. The author, who teaches at a local university in New York City, has had praise from Salman Rushdie and David Foster Wallace. There are glimpses of this in the beginning and the end of the novel, and in historical and religious references intermittently. On the whole, it is more of a commercial novel that may have been written either in fun, or with an eye toward Hollywood. It is published by City Lights Books, which is a small independent publisher. It does not list the author among its more notable authors on its website so I presume the novel was not a commercial success.

There is a serious writer here, but it is not showcased by this novel. If you are merely looking for an escape, it may serve that purpose.

“TAKE CARE, BEWARE… THEY TAKE YOU WHERE YOU WOULD NOT GO..”

Tags

, , , , , , , , , ,

Article II, Section 3 of the U.S. Constitution includes the so-called “faithful execution clause”. It provides that the President of the United States “shall take Care that the Laws be faithfully executed, …”. It is a Constitutional clause that has had minimal interpretation, and then mostly as a check on Presidential power usurping or ignoring constitutional laws passed by Congress.

The United States is a nation of laws, but initially the judicial branch was the weakest of the three branches. The scope of “Executive Power” has been unresolved since the founding of our Republic. The Vesting Clause of Article II, Section 1 of the Constitution arguably grants the President inherent “executive” powers that are not enumerated in the Constitution. Use of executive orders by the Presidents have been wide ranging and political. President Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation was an Executive order.

There is a long history of independent Executive branch authority in matters of foreign affairs beyond the enumerated powers shared with Congress under the Constitution or implied through the “necessary and proper clause” with respect to domestic authority. The Supreme Court reviewed some of this history in Justice Sutherland’s opinion in the 1936 case United States v. Curtiss-Wright Export Corp. (See 299 U.S.  304, 318-19). In that case under a Joint Resolution of Congress the President could order an arms embargo on exports from the U.S. to states involved in certain armed conflicts. The Bush administration used such inherent authority to detain alleged supporters of international terrorism (and for warrantless searches in the U.S. for foreign intelligence purposes). The Court never addressed the latter in the context of judicial interpretation of such executive orders under international law to which the U.S. is subject.

Presidential authority even in time of war has not gone unchecked. President Truman’s attempt to seize steel mills to avert a labor strike that would have interfered with the Korean War effort was rebuffed by the Supreme Court in Youngstown Sheet and Tube Co. v. Sawyer (343 U.S. 539) (1952).

The leeway granted the President to act unilaterally under the Faithful Execution clause depends on whether the President’s action or omission is ministerial in nature or discretionary. The clause has been interpreted most often in the context of ministerial acts under statutory law. President Obama’s Executive Order to not enforce the removal provisions of the Immigration and Nationality Act against certain individuals in the U.S. illegally, was overturned by the Court. Executive orders made by the President under executive discretion over foreign affairs have tended to invite less judicial review. The judicial branch tends to avoid political questions particularly if related to foreign affairs, in times of real or perceived crisis.

The President’s recent Executive Order temporarily banning immigration from certain predominantly Muslim countries that were already subject to enhanced individual immigration review, could raise an expansive interpretation of the Faithful Execution clause by seeking removal of judicial scrutiny based on the President’s inherent residual authority over foreign affairs. Such unilateral Presidential power would not be limited to immigration issues. This Executive Order was unusual because Presidents revert to such powers when Congress is averse to them.  Although it may be considered a mistake of a new Administration both in terms of execution and policy, it likely will be pursued either as a distraction or to expand Presidential authority where Congress has for generations ceded the field.

“The drafting history of the Take Care Clause at the Philadelphia Convention supports the natural reading that the text imposes a duty and a constraint. James Wilson, later an Associate Justice of the Supreme Court, introduced a draft dealing with the Executive that read in part: “It shall be his duty to provide for the due & faithful exec—of the laws.”121 The Committee of Detail altered this draft to read: “he shall take care that the laws of the United States be duly and faithfully executed.”122 The Committee on Style simplified that version, drafting the final form of the Clause: “he shall take care that the laws be faithfully executed.”123 Years after the Convention, Wilson explained that the Clause meant that the President has “authority, not to make, or alter, or dispense with the laws, but to execute and act the laws, which [are] established.” (see  https://www.law.yale.edu/system/files/area/conference/ilroundtable/ILR13_CDDavidDelahuntyJohnYoo.pdf )

This indication of legislative history undercuts any use of Executive Order to “make” law under the authority of the Faithful Execution clause. Constitutional construction, by activists and non-activists alike ebbs and flows. Should this this recent challenge to President Trump’s Executive Order get on to the  Supreme Court’s docket when the Court has 9 members it could present an interesting case. Given the timing, it is probably unlikely. Unless there is a conflict between the Circuits, the 9th Circuit’s ruling will likely go unchallenged as it would be upheld if the Supreme Court splits.

From a political and practical standpoint, it is unclear to me why this Executive Order has not been rescinded by the Trump Administration and then rewritten. Obstinacy in the face of practicality is not a virtue regardless of political persuasion.

 

 

 

 

The Strangler Vine

Tags

, , , , , , , , , , , ,

The word “thug” is derived from the Hindu and Irdu word “thag”, which in turn are derivative from the Sanskrit “sthagati” (to conceal). Their roots are Indian, describing a thief or swindler as early as 1300 A.D., and later an organization of criminals and assassins who purportedly from birth worship Kali, the Hindu goddess of death and destruction. Thug and the cult of Thuggee found its way into English usage through the British colonization of India, and the efforts of British Superintendent charged in the 1820s and 1830s with the eradication of these people who prayed on travels on the road. Revisionist history of the period, claims that the extent of this cult was exaggerated by the Empire to take and keep control of India by killing thousands of Indian. The author, M.J. Carter, claims that Mowgli in Rudyard Kipling’s “The Jungle Book” was inspired by Thuggee children. This is an interesting short history about the etymology of the word “thug” on npr.org. See http://www.npr.org/sections/codeswitch/2013/11/18/245953619/what-a-thugs-life-looked-like-in-nineteenth-century-india

“The Strangler Vine” is an entertaining and fast-reading novel that is loosely based on this Victorian period in India, as narrated by the hero, Lieutenant Avery, of the East India Company. He and a non-conformist Jeremiah Blake, a talented ex-Captain of the East India Company, are charged with finding a certain poet-novelist, Mountstuart, who has written a novel that is scandalizing an important Raj and the East India Company. They traverse India from Calcutta to Jubbulpore and back to Mirzapore, where the Company is ostensibly mobilizing to travel north with thousands of soldiers who would need to be fed by famine starving Indians. There is rough historical context, as this did happen in 1837-38 which lead to the so-called Afghan War during which the British were slaughtered while trying to depose an Afghan ruler that they presumed was encouraging the Russians to invade northern India. The author kindly provides a historical afterward and a glossary of the Hindi words that are generously sprinkled throughout the novel to instill a sense of place.

The novel is pure entertainment and has a touch of a Hollywood movie in both action and character. If you have higher literary or historical expectations you might be disappointed, but the author is only aspiring to entertain and to impart some knowledge. I was not disappointed.

Giraffe

Tags

, , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

I was in Prague last summer. It is a beautiful city. It is home to one of the best zoos in the world and I knew nothing about it. It is the second most visited place in Prague. If you view the website for the zoo it has pictures of free roaming giraffes and a history of the zoo. The history mentions nothing about the subject of J.M. Ledgard’s historical fiction debut novel “Giraffe.”

Mr. Ledgard is a journalist with “The Economist” who is a person with diverse interests and experience.  Born in the Shetland Islands and educated in England and America, as a political and war correspondent he has been posted to Czechoslovakia and East Africa, and is a supporter of Africa and environmentalism.

The  novel “Giraffe” uncovers the extermination of the largest herd of animals held in captivity. It occurred at the Prague zoo while Czechoslovakia was under Communist rule and was deliberately kept silent, up until this novel. There is no mention of it on the Prague Zoo’s website, even today.

For anyone traveling to the Czech Republic it would be a great companion as it blends, local geography, history and local culture with the story. There is an under-current of anti-Communism throughout the book, mostly from a social perspective. The Czechs are symbolically within their own zoo under the Communist rule.

The weakness in the novel is in the first two short chapters in which the author uses one of the giraffes as a narrator. Although there is a multiplicity of narration throughout the novel, each providing individual perspective of the same event, these first two chapters don’t work. A good editor should have noted this for a debut writer of fiction. The prose and plot apart from this are strong throughout. The writing and dialogue is clear and realistic. Minimal use of adjectives is consciously made.

The principal narrator is a scientist whose knowledge of hemodynamics and the biology of giraffes is imparted throughout the novel.

” I am more concerned … with the viscosity of giraffe blood, five time thicker than water, with a multiplication of crimson stars, in better distribution of oxygen, with jugular veins several centimeters in diameter, stoppered with one way valves, in such a way as to regulate the flow from the head when it is lifted from the ground. There are thirty-two giraffes here, each with a wonder net hidden from view. When a giraffe splays its legs and sets down its head to drink, the pressure on its cranial vasculature triples. The giraffe’s cerebral blood vessels are too thin-walled to constrict against it. But for the wonder net, the giraffe would collapse, as cosmonauts do when certain g-force is applied. It is the wonder net that keeps the living form of giraffes pushed up, even to resemble creatures from a world of lesser gravity. When the head goes down, its endless shunts and meanders spread elastically across the base of the cranium, absorbing the flow that rushes in through the carotid artery.”

From the ecological role giraffes play on the plains of Africa and their depiction in art and by historical cultures, to the social condition of life in Czechoslovakia in the 1970s, this novel bleeds information and perspective. The author later wrote a well-received novel “Submergence” which ranges from war, politics, espionage, to oceanography, with a venue in Somalia. It would not surprise me if the author has done work with MI6.

The author dedicates the “Giraffe” to the late Czech photographer and avant-garde film maker Alexandr Hackenschmied.

https://monoskop.org/Alexandr_Hackenschmied

This is a novel worth reading even if you are not traveling to the Czech Republic. For me this novel is an example of why I love my library. I go to it with a long list of TBR books and then discover something on the shelf I otherwise would never have read.

This book was a nice start for 2017.

 

Abahn Sabana David

Tags

, , , , , , ,

There is existential foreboding in Marguerite Duras’ “Abahan Sabina David.” Written in the 1970s, it was first translated into English in 2016 and published by Open Letter at the University of Rochester. Samuel Beckett’s style in “Waiting for Godot” comes to mind while reading this. It could easily be a play, and might be better as one.

Jewish persecution is facially at the heart of this ambiguous work which imagines a period after one state’s concentration camps followed by similar, but more individual, extermination by a communist state or organization. A Jew, Abahn, is being held by Sabana and David, a fallen communist, on orders of a presumed communist leader, Gringo, who intends to kill the Jew. The Jew is indifferent. His crime, if any, is questioning, although resentment of or competition to merchants might be a reason. David’s desire for Abahn’s dogs, who inhabit the surrounding forest, might be another. Persecution does not require a reason, only an excuse. They are joined by another Abahn, also a Jew, who questions the reasons for their involvement.  The Jews are likely used as a symbol of the universally persecuted.

The prose is sparse and cryptic. An example:

” Her gaze returns to the Jew.

‘This is the house of the Jew?’

‘Yes’

In the park, dogs bark and howl.

David turns his head, looks toward the park.

The howling dies down.

Its quiet again. David turns away from the park, back to the others.

‘You were sent by Gringo?'”

The New Yorker review says “Duras language and writing shine like crystals”

Translation by Kazim Ali must have been extremely difficult. This aside, I have no idea what this novel is about. For me it is not thought-provoking, just opaque. I read other reviews to see if I was being ignorant, but I found none that would explain what this work is about. This could be explained by existentialism, or the “new novel”, but in the end it left me empty. The good news- it was only 108 pages.

 

 

 

 

2016 Books and Authors Reviewed- With my favorites and disappointments

This year I read 39 books. Most were historical fiction, foreign fiction, or a combination of both. I also read a few works of non-fiction, ranging from biography, U.S. civil rights, financial history (2008 crash) and literary history (Shakespeare). Foreign literature included the following countries (England excluded): Australia; Canada; Chile; Estonia-Finland;France; Germany; India; Ireland; Italy; Kuwait; Mexico; Palestinian; Philippines; South Africa; Turkey; Zimbabwe. I struggled to read one literary classic Moby Dick- which accounted for no reviews in October.

As my favorites are different genres and invite no comparison, I will list them as highly recommended. My reviews of all 39 books are listed by month of review.

Highly Recommended.

The Road– by Cormac McCarthy. A classic of dystopian fiction. It is a writing lesson. A superb use of spare language.

The Night Circus– by Erin Morgenstern. A fantasy that absolutely delights. Outside of Neil Gaimen I have not read this genre. If there are more works like these I would definitely revise my reading habits.

My Name is Lucy Barton– by Elizabeth Strout. An accomplished writer of characters, this Booker Long-Listed novel is facially about a daughter-mother relationship, with serious undercurrents. For writers who want to learn understatement is impactful.

Authors I am an increasing fan of:

Nadeem Aslam

Kamila Shamsie

 

Great Debut Novel:

Beasts of No Nation by Uzodinma Iweala.

 

Disappointments:

The Ancient Minstrel by Jim Harrison.

Ways of Going Home by Alejandro Zambra

Moby Dick by Herman Melville.

2017:

I hesitate to make TBR resolutions as I am always finding and reading something not on my list. I likely will try another classic I have not read: Don Quixote; Crime & Punishment; or 100 Years of Solitude. I have been gifted The Christmas Tree Kid, which are Brooklyn, NY short stories by my neighbor Pete Hamill. I do want to read another novel by Peter Mattheissen, Margaret Atwood and perhaps short stories by Lydia Davis. As always, way too much to choose from and more keep coming.

Enjoy a peaceful New Year!

January

Purge by Sofi Oksanen. Foreign Literature (Finish-Estonian). Historical Fiction

Flood of Fire by Amitav Ghosh. Foreign Literature (India). Historical Fiction

Men We Reaped by Jesmyn Ward. Non-Fiction

The Quick and the Dead by Joy Williams. American Literature.

February

Jamrach’s Menagerie by Carol Burch.

The Road by Cormac McCarthy. Dystopian Fiction. American Literature.

The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern. Fantasy. American Literature.

The Story of My Teeth by Valeria Luiselli. Foreign Literature (Mexico).

After the Music Stiopped by Alan Blinder. Non-Fiction.

The Miniaturist by Jessie Burton. Historical Fiction

March

Tremor of Intent by Anthony Burgess. Spy Novel. British Literature.

Ways of Going Home by Alejandro Zambra. Foreign Literature (Chile).

Falling Man by Don DelLillo. American Literature

April

Dictator by Robert Harris, Historical Fiction.

A God in Every Stone by Kamila Shamsie, Foreign Literature (Pakistan).

Olivier & Parrot in America by Peter Carey, Historical Fiction.

The Bamboo Stalk by Saud Alsanousi, Foreign Literature (Kuwait/Philipines)

May

The Blue Between Sky and Water  by Susan Abulhawa, Foreign Literature (Palestinian)

Fifteen Dogs by Andre Alexis, Foreign Literature (Canadian)

The Year of Lear: Shakespeare in 1606 by James Shapiro, Non-Fiction.

June

The Letter Bearer by Robert Allison, Historical Fiction.

A Strangeness in My Mind by Orhan Pamuk, Foreign Literature (Turkey).

The Ancient Minstrel by Jim Harrison.

The Ghost Road by Pat Barker, Historical Fiction.

July

The Good Doctor by Damon Galgut, Foreign Literature (South Africa).

Honeymoon by Patrick Modiano, Foreign Literature (French).

August

Maps for Lost Lovers by Nadeem Aslam, Foreign Literature (Pakistan)

The Noise of Time Julian Barnes.

Noonday by Pat Barker, Historical Fiction.

The Collected Short Stories by Dermot Healy, Foreign Literature (Irish)

September

Alexander Hamilton by Ron Chernow, Biography.

The Maestro, the Magistrate and the Mathematician by Tendai Huchu, Foreign Literature  (Zimbabwe)

October

none

November

Springtime a Ghost Story by Michelle de Kretser, Foreign Literature (Australia)

Distant Light by Antonio Moresco, Foreign Literature (Italy)

A Whole Life by Robert Seethaler. Foreign Literature (Germany)

A Meal in Winter by Hubert Mingarelli, Historical Fiction.

Lunatics, Lovers & Poets by -a short story anthology

December

My Name is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout.

Beasts of No Nation by Uzodinma Iweala.

Moby Dick by Herman Melville.

The Whale

Tags

, , , , , , , , ,

In the New York Times Book Review Zadie Smith revealed that her father gave her a copy of James Joyce’s Ulysses before he passed away. He confessed he never read it. In turn, Zadie Smith wrote that she never read Moby Dick. It is not unusual. During a college tour a professor gave a short lecture called “The Whale”. He polled the parents attending, most of whom never read Moby Dick.

In England, Moby Dick was aptly published under the title, “The Whale”. There it was published in three volumes. The work is principally non-fiction. Melville reveals more than you might ever want to know about whale anatomy and the business and culture of whaling from the ancients to the 19th century. At times it is arguably a promotional brochure for whaling.

The story of Moby Dick, is at best, a novella within a much larger work of non-fiction. It was not a popular book at the time of first publication. It was not revered as a masterpiece of American literature until the early part of the 20th century. Taken as a whole I share the earlier view of the book. I lumbered, if not suffered, through it.

I read the edition with an introduction by Clifton Fadiman. It is his viewpoint that the book should not be read as a novel, but as a myth. It is not a story, but a myth of evil and tragedy. To him it is an un-Christian epic; the product of “unfaith.” First published in 1851, Melville imparts abolitionist and perhaps homosexual acceptance through the one or more of the harpoon savages: Queequeg, Tashego and Daggoo.

I do not share Mr. Fadiman’s point of view. Ahab is not inherently evil to me. He is revengeful and as many ship captains, dictatorial, yet fair. He is consumed, as was his Biblical namesake, by being the embodiment of God. His compassion toward Pip’s family and his soliloquy in the chapter “The Symphony”, nonetheless reflect human introspection about his life’s wasted pursuit. In the end he reinforces Ishmael’s fatalist opinion about the voyage that is life. It might be a Calvinistic viewpoint, rather than un-Christian.

Like the Bible the novel is replete with ambiguous symbolism. Is the Leviathan an embodiment of Evil or of God? “Now the Lord prepared a great fish to swallow up Jonah.”

Have mortals learned the lesson? Melville writes, “That same ocean rolls now; that same ocean destroyed the wrecked ships of last year. Yea, foolish mortals, Noah’s flood is not yet subsided; two-thirds of the fair world it yet covers.” Paradise Lost recognizes the whale as God’s greatest creation: “That sea beast Leviathan, which God of all his works Created hugest that swim the ocean stream.”

There are some who believe that the novel is a reflection of manifest destiny. The contrast between the endless Midwestern prairie and the Pacific Ocean, in the chapter aptly named “The Pacific” might lend scant credence to this, but for me it is not compelling.

The demise of the Pequod, like the Connecticut Pequot indian tribe, in part may have been based on the sinking of the Nantucket whaler, the Essex, by a whale in 1820. Melville drew from historical, scientific and literary resources in compiling this work.

For me Moby Dick would be more readable if the predominant non-fiction elements were exorcised and only the novella remained.