All About Whales! (oh, and Ahab…)

Moby-Dick

Title: Moby Dick
Author: Herman Melville
Genre: American Classic
Pages: 464
Rating: 3.5 of 5

To me, Moby Dick feels like an excellent novella that bloated into an unfocused novel. Melville lards on every “fact” and opinion about whales, whaling, and whalers that he can think of, moralizing as he goes. Some of it is relevant, some of it is interesting, some of it is disturbing, but the cumulative effect is to submerge the compelling main story in a sea of tangential boringness.

That said, I can’t think of a better portrayal of the destructive and contagious nature of bitterness, obsession, and vengeance than Captain Ahab and his crew. I won’t even try to analyze what (if anything or many things) the white whale stands for (ask Ron Swanson) since I think that Ahab’s prideful self-obsession and clearly expressed rage against God and nature are the main point.

Overall, this richly deserves its place as an American Classic, even if I wish Melville had saved 80% of his whales and whaling info for a separate non-fiction book.

(Also, I will be using this for my Classic About an Animal category over at the Back to the Classics Challenge 2021)

Right & Justice vs. Law & Lawyers

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Title: Bleak House
Author: Charles Dickens
Genre: Classic Fiction
Pages: 830
Rating: 4.5 of 5

Everyone loves to rip on lawyers, and Charles Dickens was no exception. Much of this book revolves around a lawsuit in the courts of chancery that has dragged on for generations, destroying lives through false hope in a system of law and lawyers that has little to do with right and justice. Dickens’ views on the English legal system are best summed up in this quote:

“The one great principle of the English law is, to make business for itself. There is no other principle distinctly, certainly, and consistently maintained through all its narrow turnings. Viewed by this light it becomes a coherent scheme, and not the monstrous maze the laity are apt to think it. Let them but once clearly perceive that its grand principle is to make business for itself at their expense, and surely they will cease to grumble.”

Dickens is in top form throughout the book: devastating social critique, politely sarcastic turn of phrase, absurd yet somehow familiar characters, heart wrenching tragedies, amazingly convenient coincidences, and all. In spite of the name, this isn’t Dickens’ bleakest book. He achieves a nice balance between sweet selfless heroes, well-meaning but foolish people, and loathsome villains. For the most part, this is the kind of book where (as Oscar Wilde’s Miss Prism would say): “The good ended happily, and the bad unhappily.” Some romantic situations may be a bit off-putting to modern sensibilities (e.g. guardian-ward & cousin-cousin), but they should be understood as a product of its era (and ended up playing out better than I hoped).

I highly recommend this book for fans of Charles Dickens. If you’re new to his work you might want to start with A Christmas Carol, David Copperfield, Great Expectations, and/or A Tale of Two Cities, but I’d say that this one comes in close behind those. (Also, I will be using this for my Classic by a Favorite Author category over at the Back to the Classics 2021 Challenge)

A Ghost Story?

This is a lightly edited re-post of a review from four years ago. Last week, my oldest daughter and I listened to the Audible version of this on our way to “Halloweekends” at Cedar Point, and it was every bit as good on second reading/hearing. (Also, I’ll be using it for my 19th Century Classic category over at the Back to the Classics Challenge.)

The Turn of the Screw

Title: The Turn of the Screw
Author: Henry James
Genre: Classic/Ghost Story?
Pages: 96
Rating: 5 of 5

I love an unreliable narrator, especially in a creepy story, and this classic novella hit the spot! The introduction (which seems like it is meant to be a framing story but the frame is never completed) is a bit long-winded but the first person account by a governess of her ghost-haunted employment is satisfyingly creepy. It’s a bit melodramatic, but that plays right into the ambiguity of the story.

The big question is: are the ghosts real or is the governess mad or is she a manipulative liar, or some combination of the above? I can’t decide whether the ghosts are meant to be real or not, but I’m pretty sure there’s something very wrong with the governess (who is the only person to ever acknowledge seeing the ghosts). Her paranoia, the way she jumps quickly to dramatic conclusions, the way she dotes on people she has just met and deliberately says things to get them “on her side,” and the way she is quick to cast the same people as villains if they cross her all remind me very much of a couple narcissistic pathological liars I have known. Whatever the case, if you like unreliable narrators in creepy stories (or just good creepy ghost stories for that matter) this is a must read!

If you’ve read this, what did you think? (My brother-in-law informs me that it’s just ghosts…but his only reasoning is that he doesn’t like stories where the ghosts aren’t real so he doesn’t want it to be anything else.)

As a bonus, here’s a picture of me, my oldest daughter, and our new photobombing friend at Cedar Point:

May be an image of one or more people, people standing, monument and outdoors

Two Creepy Reads

The Invasion of the Body Snatchers

Title: The Invasion of the Body Snatchers
Author: Jack Finney
Genre: Classic Sci-Fi
Pages: 224 (6 hours, 39 minutes Audiobook as read by Kristoffer Tabori)
Rating: 4 of 5

The otherworldly “what is going on?!” suspense of this book hits the exact tone that I like when I read a creepy story. Sure, everyone knows the gist of the story by now, and the “science” is a bit hokey and dated, but it can still ratchet up the tension if you take it on its own terms.

That said, one aspect of the story grated a bit, even if it was a “product of its era.” The protagonist’s leering, condescending tone toward women got old really fast (and the bored, macho tone of the audiobook narrator really emphasized it). At one point his love interest kind of calls him on it, but her overall demeanor goes right along with it.

Overall, if you want a quick suspenseful read and are willing to overlook a bit of B-movie style hokeyness and product-of-its-era casual sexism, this is worth your time.

Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus Audiobook By Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley cover art

Title: Frankenstein or the Modern Prometheus
Author: Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley
Genre: Classic Gothic
Pages: 222 (8 hours, 20 minutes Audiobook as read by Simon Vance)
Rating: 3.5 of 5

I know that this classic is widely lauded as a work of pioneering genius. I even understand why: we have the cool backstory of how the book came to be written, we have the hubris of Victor Frankenstein, we have the tragic “monster,” we have the question of who is to blame for the “monster’s” evil, and we have all kinds of other great themes and wonderfully gothic moral dilemmas. But for all that, I have a hard time appreciating this book. This is the third time I’ve read this, and it just annoys me every time no matter how much I want to like it.

Victor Frankenstein is such an absurdly overemotional, egotistical drama queen that he just makes me roll my eyes in disgust the whole time. He seems to spend most of his time swooning, languishing near death, and moping around because he’s just soooo overcome with emotion. He’s so self-absorbed that he can’t be bothered to tell anyone that there’s a powerful, murderous “creature” on the loose thanks to him…not even when it could potentially save people’s lives by doing so! Victor’s melodramatic twit act that morphs into vengeful monomania when there’s nothing left to lose is just too much gothic nonsense for me.

The OG

The Phantom of the Opera Audiobook By Gastón Leroux cover art

Title: The Phantom of the Opera
Author: Gaston LeRoux
Translator: Alexander Teixeira de Mattos
Genre: Classic Gothic
Pages: 260
Rating: 4.5 of 5

Early on in my first ever dating relationship I read this book aloud to my girlfriend. Last week we listened to it together as an audiobook as we drove up north to celebrate our 19-year wedding anniversary. Given that history, I’m a bit biased in favor of this book and have probably rated it a bit higher than I otherwise would have.

That said, The Phantom of the Opera deserves its iconic status. Leroux created a monstrous antagonist who is nonetheless truly pitiable. The Opera Ghost is a master manipulator with a sadistic streak, a pathetic backstory, and physical deformity far beyond something that could be hidden under the wimpy half-mask that makes its way into every portrayal since Andrew Lloyd Webber.

The plot and narration are almost laughably melodramatic at times, but if you roll with it and embrace the Gothic-ness, it’s a lot of fun (and even moving). Leroux throws in very occasional dry humorous comments that show he isn’t taking this completely seriously himself, while at the same time presenting it as a personally researched true story.

Translation-wise, I have only read the very Victorian, public domain version. I suspect (corroborated by a little online research) that this is probably the least accurate version, so one of these days I will have to try a different translation. Speaking of which, I will be using this for my Classic in Translation category over at the Back to the Classics Challenge.

If you enjoy Gothic fiction, this is a must-read. If you like Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical, you should give this original source material a shot as well. You get more complexity of plot and depth of characters with all the melodrama. And if you’re looking for something to do with your SO, reading this aloud worked out pretty well for us…

Two More Classics

I’ve completed two more books for the Back to the Classics Challenge 2021, and it’s time to review them!

Jamaica Inn by [Daphne du Maurier]

Title: Jamaica Inn
Author: Daphne du Maurier
Genre: Classic Potboiler
Pages: 352
Rating: 2 of 5

For me, Daphne du Maurier is very hit-or-miss. I greatly enjoyed the morally ambiguous psychological gothic-ness of Rebecca and My Cousin Rachel, but thought The Scapegoat was improbable to the point of eyerolling. Jamaica Inn was another miss for me. On the Gothic spectrum it is much closer to Ann Radcliffe than the Brontë Sisters.

The bones of the story aren’t terrible (orphaned young woman sent to live with her aunt and uncle [by marriage] discovers that Uncle Joss Merlyn and his Inn have a deservedly sinister reputation), but it was all so melodramatic. If there had been some sex scenes thrown into the instalove-with-a-rogue storyline I would have thought I was reading some hack Harlequin Romance, not a modern classic. Nevertheless, I will be using this for my Classic by a Woman Author category.

Chaka by Thomas Mofolo

Title: Chaka
Author: Thomas Mofolo
Translator: Daniel P. Kunene
Genre: Classic Historical Fiction
Pages: 192 (including translator’s introduction)
Rating: 3.5 of 5

This ended up being a very different book than what I expected. I thought that it was going to be a hero-worshippy fanboy account of King Chaka/Shaka’s greatness and glory like you usually get in historical fiction centered around a military hero or empire builder.

While there is some admiration for Chaka’s fighting prowess and the power of the Zulu nation, the overall story arc is of boundless ambition leading to insatiable brutality and tragic downfall. By the end, Chaka comes out looking more like Josef Stalin (or any other sadistic, paranoid, egomaniacal autocrat) than anyone admirable.

The narration of this tragedy feels as if you are listening to a folksy master storyteller who throws in occasional asides, explanations, rabbit trails, and editorial comments. I don’t know much about the real Chaka, so I couldn’t say how much liberty the author has taken with the story. However, I suspect that it has only a nodding acquaintance with the truth. There are many mythical elements (the translator interprets them as personifications of character traits), and the level of bloodthirstiness and brutality seem highly exaggerated. Overall, this was not unlike an over-the-top Shakespearian tragedy in the form of a folktale rather than a play.

I will be using this for my Classic by a BIPOC Author category.

Epistolary Meandering

Title: The Expedition of Humphry Clinker
Author: Tobias Smollet
Genre: Classic Epistolary/Picaresque Novel
Pages: 392
Rating: 3.5 of 5

This reminded me of a slightly less silly The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman. In both of them, the titular character is not the protagonist for the majority of the book (in this book, he isn’t even the narrator!), in both of them the plot is pretty minimal (though this book has a bit more), and in both of them the humor is a bit rude (Tristram Shandy more bawdy & Humphry Clinker more gross).

The plot (such as it is) follows the curmudgeonly (but good-hearted) Welshman, Matthew Bramble, and his household as they play the tourist from Bath up through parts of Scotland and home again. The story is told through letters from various members of the party, each with their own voice. Plot threads include acquiring a new servant (the eponymous Humphry Clinker), a secret romance, and a straight-laced old aunt’s desperate attempts to catch a man. The eccentric characters and ridiculous situations along the way are fairly entertaining, but there were places where it really dragged. I have the feeling that a more thorough understanding of the era and knowledge of the places they visit would make this an even more enjoyable book. Overall, not a bad read, but I can’t see ever bothering to read it again.

Also, I am using this for the Travel or Adventure Classic category over at the Back to the Classics Challenge 2021.

Classic Weirdness & Satire

The Back to the Classics Challenge is a fun incentive/excuse to mix some classics into your reading for the year (and there’s a chance to win $30 in books, so win-win!). It’s not too late to sign up if you’re interested…just click the graphic to the left. Anyway, I’ve finished two more books for the challenge, so time for a pair of reviews!

Through the Looking-Glass (AmazonClassics Edition) by [Lewis Carroll]

Title: Through the Looking Glass
Author: Lewis Carroll
Genre: Children’s Classic
Pages: 151
Rating: 4 of 5

A few years ago I read Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and was unimpressed. I found it obnoxious and shrill as the whole thing consists of Alice being rushed about and berated for being confused by the nonsensical world of Wonderland. The random nonsense level in Through the Looking Glass was about the same, but I enjoyed it a lot more. Alice’s imagining to herself was charming, the wordplay was a lot of fun, and who doesn’t love the poem Jaberwocky (to say nothing of the classic illustrations)? This classic weirdness is well worth reading.

The Way We Live Now by [Anthony Trollope]

Title: The Way We Live Now
Author: Anthony Trollope
Genre: Classic Satire
Pages: 800
Rating: 3.5 of 5

In this satirical novel, Trollope skewers late 19th century British high society. The sprawling story was originally published as a serial, and I think that Trollope couldn’t quite decide (or changed his mind partway through) about which character or plot thread was primary.

No matter which character of plot thread you follow, the overarching concern seems to be the manipulation of other people…usually for money, matrimony, or both. Trollope casts a cynical eye on mercenary marriages, feckless young men, and financial scandals.

None of the characters are pure as the driven snow (except for a couple of the young women who act like complete ninnies for most of the book). Few of the characters are sympathetic, but some of them are interesting. One character particularly caught my attention due to some similarities to a certain orange individual who shall remain nameless: a businessman much fawned upon because of his reputed wealth (despite rumors of past failed businesses and shady dealings) who enters politics as a conservative though having few real personal convictions.

Like a lot of satirical novels, the overall effect of the story arouses disgust more than amusement. Trollope doesn’t often demonstrate the witty turn of phrase that some satirists use to at least elicit a snort of derisive laughter. This makes parts of the book a bit of a slog, but overall it’s readable and insightful as long as you don’t mind a cast almost entirely void of sympathetic characters.

Catch Up with Mini-Reviews

My reading is starting to seriously outpace my reviewing, so it’s time for some mini-reviews (presented in order read):

Mistress of the Art of Death (A Mistress of the Art of Death Novel Book 1) by [Ariana Franklin]

Title: Mistress of the Art of Death
Author: Ariana Franklin
Genre: Historical Fiction / Serial Killer Mystery
Pages: 420
Rating: 2.5

This tale of a female medieval forensic pathologist provided interesting/disturbing details of King Henry II’s England (particularly in regard to anti-Semitism). The serial killer mystery element was horrifying and well enough constructed to keep my reading. However the constant center-staging of the hatefulness and/or foolishness of Christians, piggish misogyny of men, and superiority of our “free thinker” heroine became grating and preachy by the end (to say nothing of a fairly awkward romance).

Title: On the Road
Author: Jack Kerouac
Genre: Pretentious Modern Classic
Pages: 307
Rating: 1.5 of 5

I guess I can see why this would be considered a classic: it’s a window into the mind of “the beat generation,” and some of the stream of consciousness prose approaches the lyrical (or the pretentious, depending on your inclination). That said, I would have been perfectly okay with never having looked through that window into a world of drunken, drug-fueled feckless wandering interspersed with petty theft, promiscuous sex, adultery, bigamy and pedophilic lusting. (I am using this for my 20th Century Classic over at the Back to the Classics Challenge).

Title: Voodoo Histories:
The Role of the Conspiracy Theory in Shaping Modern History
Author: David Aaronovitch
Genre: History of Paranoia
Pages: 372 (plus indices etc.)
Rating: 4 of 5

Occam’s Razor states that, “entities should not be multiplied without necessity” (i.e. the simplest explanation should usually be preferred). David Aaronovitch applies this principle as he examines a number of popular conspiracy theories (The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, the Kennedy assassinations, the Priory of Sion, 9/11 Truthers, etc.). Along the way he explores the real-world impact of these theories and what leads people to believe in conspiracies. Some of his argumentation was a bit weak/incomplete due to the overview nature of the book, but overall it is a worthwhile read. The book was published in 2010, and I would love to see a sequel or updated edition to cover the lunacy of the last 10 years.

Veritas: A Harvard Professor, a Con Man and the Gospel of Jesus's Wife by [Ariel Sabar]

Title: Veritas:
A Harvard Professor, a Con Man and the Gospel of Jesus’ Wife
Author: Ariel Sabar
Genre: Investigative Journalism
Pages: 393 (plus indices etc.)
Rating: 4 of 4

In 2012 a Harvard professor caused a stir by unveiling a tiny, purportedly ancient papyrus fragment that contained the phrase  “Jesus said to them, ‘my wife…’.” In this book, journalist Ariel Sabar recounts his involvement in tracing the actual origin of the so-called Gospel of Jesus’ Wife. In the end, it is a tale of a scholar who valued ideological “truth” over objective historical truth. In my opinion, the author spent way too much time expounding the theory that Gnosticism vied with orthodox Christianity from the beginning, but overall this was a fascinating read.

Cynicism & Greed

Title: Père Goriot
Author: Honoré de Balzac
Translator: Burton Raffel
Genre: Classic
Pages: 384 (actual novel only 217)
Rating: 2.5 of 5

My first reading of a Balzac classic left me with mixed feelings about whether I ever again want to read anything from his large body of work. The writing is witty (but melodramatic), the characters are interesting (but detestable), and the overall plot rings true to life (but the seedier, morally repellent side of life).

The novel explores how love, both familial and romantic, can be exploited for personal advancement. It reminds me of C. S. Lewis’s essay on The Inner Ring (see also The Room Where It Happens from Hamilton). However, where Lewis warns against the compromises and moral corruption that come with obsessively trying to be part of the inner ring, Balzac’s characters simply take a c’est la vie attitude toward it. Balzac invites us along on the young Rastignac’s journey toward embracing this cynical approach to life. I’m half tempted to pick up another book or two from Balzac’s La Comédie Humaine to see what happens to some of these characters, but I have a hard time reading literature where such absolute moral bankruptcy is treated as par for the course.

The edition that I read contained about 150 pages of essays and analysis. Personally, I found most of them to be pretentious rather than helpful: the kind of essays where the author wants to talk about a pet theme, theory, or philosophy and finds a way to impose it on Balzac or his writing (eisegesis rather than exegesis as we would have said in biblical hermeneutics 101). If literary analysis is your thing, you may get more out of them than I did.

Overall, I’m glad I tried a new author but I don’t think he’s my cup of tea.

Also, I’m using this for my Classic by a New-to-You Author category over at the Back to the Classics challenge.