Sophia’s #CBR5 Review #34: Moby Dick by Herman Melville

Moby DickI wasn’t even planning on reading Moby Dick. I picked up the book in desperation one night when I couldn’t sleep, thinking it would put me to sleep. I’ve read Nathaniel Philbrick‘s In the Heart of the Sea, which I loved, so I knew some of the background., but I was still surprised to find it actually readable, relatable, and sometimes even funny.

On the first page, Ishmael describes his need to be out on the ocean: “[W]henever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul, whenever I find myself involuntarily pausing before coffin warehouses, and bringing up the rear of every funeral I meet; and especially whenever my hypos get such an upper hand of me, that it requires a strong moral principle to prevent me from deliberately stepping into the street, and methodically knocking people’s hats off–then, I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can. This is my substitute for pistol and ball.” (3)

So I continued. I fear, though, that I did not do this giant of Classical literature justice. I managed to get about halfway through before feeling bogged down, distracting myself for months with other books, and coming completely away from Melville’s world, before forcing myself to buckle down and “get ‘er done.”

I’m pretty sure the basics of the plot are familiar to almost everyone. Ishmael, our narrator, is a sailor on the Nantucket whaling ship, the Pequod. The ship’s Captain Ahab has lost his leg to an aggressive, giant, white Sperm Whale and he is mad with his need for revenge. The story revolves around the Pequod’s adventures as they sail for years around the world’s oceans, searching for the vicious white whale. Ishmael also goes into great detail on every aspect of the different whales, as well as in-depth explanations of every aspect of whaling. There are also deep insights into human existence, and an abundance of creepy foreshadowing of the doom of the Pequod’s crew. The inexorable march towards their final days is especially haunting.

Click here for more quotes and the rest of my review.

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Ashlie’s #CBR5 Review #18: The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald

With the premiere of the movie this summer, I decided a reread of The Great Gatsby was in order. I had originally given it a three out of five on Goodreads, which I think was because whenever I read it, many moons ago, it didn’t make much of an impression. (I was an English major, so god only knows when I originally came across it.) I was also interested to see, with the benefit of time and age, if my opinion would change.

The Great Gatsby definitely stands the test of time and is a mirror into the past, the 1920s to be exact. Gatsby is more myth than man, a legend of fall tales and mystery. The narrator of this tale, Nick Carraway is equal parts casual observer, unwitting participant, and helpless bystander. His telling of Gatsby, and his downfall shows us the frivolity and invincibility of this time period, at least for those that were more fortunate. Self-awareness is at an all time low, and living for the moment is the trend.

“Everyone suspects himself of at least one of the cardinal virtues, and this is mine: I am one of the few honest people I have ever known.” This statement by Carraway is very telling to me. I think many of the main characters would believe this about themselves, and even acknowledge that they are honest about their dishonesty. The misfortune is that they can’t be honest about what they don’t know, which is the true nature of themselves, and of those around them, and this is ultimately the downfall of our title character.

I really enjoyed this read, though I’m not sure if this is due to only my opinion, or with the weight of acclaim. I recommend it as a solid read, and a novel that deserves the praise heaped upon on. On a personal note, I also recommend rereading novels that you previously read in high school and/or college. Trying to understand your own reasoning for highlighting certain passages is a mystery all it’s own.

bonnie’s #CBR5 Review #42: The Sound and the Fury by William Faulkner

Good. Night. What a rollercoaster I’ve been on! I’ve read Faulkner before (“A Rose for Emily” in high school and As I Lay Dying in college), but no one warned me that The Sound and the Fury would take up all my mental energy. I actually had to go find some study aids (a practice I strongly condemn to my students, who often just read the aids and skip the novel) to help me figure out what I’ve just read. And by study aids, I actually mean Wikipedia. My shame and confusion are high right now.

Let’s get to it: The Compson family is a mess. We know this, because the novel’s four parts give us slightly different perspectives on a similar set of events (not unlike the new season of Arrested Development). Part 1, taking place on April 7, 1928, gives us the inner workings of Benjamin Compson or Benjy, a cognitively-challenged man of 33 and the youngest sibling. Benjy’s experience is at once highly internal and highly visceral. He knows intrinsically what is happening around him, yet he cannot interact with the world as a stable adult. Benjy’s perspective is confusing, because he can remember an incident with his beloved sister Caddy when they were children or trying to elude his caretaker as an adult. It was very confusing.

Part II takes place on June 2, 1910, following Quentin, the oldest Compson child. Quentin is obsessed with Caddy’s sexual proclivities. And by obsessed, I mean Jaime Lannister obsessed. So. Creepy. Quentin is also deeply troubled and very gifted, so he’s been sent to Harvard to study. But he fritters away his time obsessed with Caddy, who’s gotten herself pregnant by someone.

Then we have Part III, taking place on April 6, 1928. Some major changes have occurred for the Compsons, which we see filtered through the third child, Jason, a truly despicable human. Jason is obsessed with Caddy’s daughter’s sexual proclivities. But it’s not the fun “I’m in love with my sister” that we see at play in Quentin. Rather, it feels a lot more like Black Snake Moan. Jason tries to beat his niece up and lock her in her room. He follows her in town when she’s with a boy. And he steals the money Caddy sends for her expenses. Did I mention this daughter is named Quentin?

Part IV takes place on April 8, 1928, and we thankfully get to hear no more stream-of-conscious from any of the family members. Rather, a third-person omniscient narrator tells us about these events, which starts to bring the book together. Dilsey, the faithful and elderly African-American servant, tries to hold the family together and prays for Benjy at church. Young Miss Quentin runs off with a guy in the circus and Jason unsuccessfully tries to follow them. Benjy gets upset when his caretaker Luster drives the wrong way around a monument.

I realize this all sounds crazy, and it kind of is. If someone were to ask me would I teach it, I probably would, but I’m not sure in what context or how to go about it. It’s a daunting read. I was not prepared for the kind of mental fortitude it would take, nor for the garbled stream-of-consciousness that would make up most of the narrative. I think Faulkner is a genius. I don’t hate stream-of-consciousness (in fact, Virginia Woolf is one of my favorite writers). I just have Feelings about this reading experience, and I don’t know how to make the words come out.

You can also read this review on my personal blog, The Universe Disturbed.

bonnie’s #CBR5 Review #41: A Farewell to Arms by Ernest Hemingway

I’ve only ever read The Old Man and the Sea, so I thought it was high time I started on some longer Hemingway. Good. Grief. Now I understand why he drank.

A Farewell to Arms focuses on Frederic Henry, who is in Italy fighting the German-Austrian Army during WWI, before the US declared their involvement. Henry meets Elizabeth Barkley an English (or Scottish?) nurse and embarks on a passionate affair. Hemingway juxtaposes the war and the relationship, showing how the stakes become riskier for Henry to become more involved with his comrades and his lover.

Hemingway’s quick, short sentences make up a terse style that fits perfectly when discussing war. The bursts of action are perfectly captured with this style, and it made me feel that I was with Lt. Henry on the front. I was prepared for it not to end well–it is Hemingway, after all.

I was not prepared, to have the world built up only to collapse completely on me. Damn you, Hemingway. I got invested, and then you had to tear it all down. I won’t say anymore, but I was pretty devastated by how badly it ended. I think it’s indicative of modernism just how bleak the world seemed after the War. I do recommend reading it, but just be prepared to be crushed.

You can also read this review on my personal blog, The Universe Disturbed.

bonnie’s #CBR5 Review #28: Mansfield Park by Jane Austen

Jane Austen is my jam, y’all. I started off my love affair with her at the tender age of 12 or 13, when Pride and Prejudice was featured on a Wishbone episode. Obviously, I owe a lifelong debt to PBS for this. I checked out P&P from the library and promptly devoured it. At 14, I checked out the entire anthology of her published works. Though I was definitely young, it was an experience I never forgot, and I spent my teen years slowly collecting all the novels for my personal library. As a young adult, I tried to cycle through all her novels each year–and though I’ve had to abandon that scheme for other unread books, I can discuss each work with great and vociferous animation. In short: Austenite to the bone. Thankfully, I will be able to incorporate Austen into my dissertation, and I had to read Mansfield Park for a class I am enrolled in this semester.

So, let’s talk about one of Austen’s most problematic novels. Mansfield Park chronicles the arrival of the queer, solemn, prudish Fanny Price from her humble home in Portsmouth to the grand estate in Northamptonshire, Mansfield Park, owned by Sir Thomas and Lady Bertram, her aunt and uncle. Brought up on their charity, she is encouraged by her other aunt, Mrs. Norris (and yes, she *is* catty!) to think lowly of herself and not to elevate herself above her “true” station in life. When Sir Thomas is called away to deal with his plantation in Antigua (and that small subplot has yielded all kinds of scholarship on abolition, post-colonial narratives, the slave trade), the young people start to test the boundaries of what is good, proper, moral, etc. A young pair of siblings–Henry and Mary Crawford–move into the parsonage next door, and the fun really begins. Mary is a sassmouth, Henry a cad, and the rest is history.

Fanny is often cited as the least favorite Austen heroine, but she’s my personal favorite. While she lacks the sparkle of a Mary Crawford, the outright evil deliciousness of Mrs. Norris (miaow! I mean really, J.K. Rowling hit the nail on the head with Filch’s cat), or even the witty vivaciousness of P&P’s Elizabeth Bennet, she is steadfast and resolute in her convictions. The only power a woman has in her social position is to say no–and say it she does, at a most crucial moment in the novel.

If you liked Pride and Prejudice, I’d suggest that you give Mansfield Park a try. Be prepared: it is vastly different. My husband did not care for it. I, however, treasure it and try to re-read it every year.

You can also read this review on my personal blog, The Universe Disturbed.

The Scruffy Rube’s #CBR5 Review #9: The Swerve, by Stephen Greenblatt

This is the final part of an extra long post on my personal website (The Scruffy Rube) that deals with how we are adapting and reusing classical stories in modern literature.

Few things have struck me as thoroughly this year as this line from the book The Swerve, by Stephen Greenblatt:  There are moments, rare and powerful, in which a writer long vanished from the face of the earth, seems to stand in your presence and speak to you directly, as if he bore a message meant for you above all others (p. 247).

Greenblatt is right of course, and in telling the story of Roman poet Titus Lucretius’ classic De rerum natura (On the Nature Things) he spins the tale of a long dead writer who seemed to have that effect on an entire generation of minds. From Montaigne to Shakespeare and all manner of other Renaissance intellects, this Latin poem captures a new way to see the world: where seeking pleasure is a virtue, the Gods are irrelevant, and mankind charts their own course through the world. Naturally, this challenge to the established order of the middle ages (and the church that dominated it) led to conflict–even though it was an agent of the church who brought the book back into prominence.

Throughout his writing, Greenblatt guides readers into this conflict by encapsulating a horde of complex ideas, philosophies and historical factoids. My father and father-in-law were both captivated by the men who found the book and re-introduced it to the world. Unfortunately, since I had taken a two-year long college course chronicling the connections between Lucretius’ philosophy, the Catholic church’s obstinacy, Shakespeare’s poetry and all the other writers from generations long gone, I couldn’t get past the feeling that I had already read the book’s spoilers. While the book might be more engrossing for those who are new to the lineage of great literature, there’s still something appealing for  everyone.

The context that helped Lucretius’ ideas to thrive are here again now: a corrupt church bureaucracy, accusations that self-seeking pleasure has loosened morals around the world, an increasingly secular society. But the real power of ideas isn’t what they are, the real power is that the ideas can matter to anyone and everyone. Reading the ideas of Lucretius, or Greenblatt, or any religious prophet can benefit you and your society. Encountering ideas on your own offers the opportunity to improve your life and the lives of others. It’s all a matter of how you use those ideas.

The Scruffy Rube’s #CBR5 Review #8: Frankenstein, by Mary Shelley

In amongst all these reimaginings, rebootings, continuations and adaptations that modern authors use to achieve “success” are the original stories themselves. How do the originals hold up when there’s when so many people are eagerly seeking a way to tell it in a new way?

For a merrily nerdy book club that my wife put together we recently read Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, a book that I had already read twice. I went into it, happy that we had a book I knew so well and glad that I could just trot out some old ideas and call it a contribution. But on my way back over the book I had to stop and look at the pages again.

Surely I had more to say than the few phrases that were already circling the drain in my head. Surely, I could make better points than my half-formed conjectures from my senior year of high school and sophomore year of college. Surely, I had noticed how the creature, the doctor and the captain of the ship all exhibit the same human doubts and fears, how they each crave community to give their individuality meaning, how they tell stories as their primary mode of communication.

But no, I had missed it all. And so, there I sat, reading it through for a third time, and what should have taken five minutes of refreshing took five hours. I couldn’t help but sit, amazed at the depth that I had missed twice before. Suddenly things that were old seemed new again. Proof that the classics can do just as well at inspiring us, as the retellings.