Category Archives: literary

“Moby Dick; or The Whale” by Herman Melville

“Moby Dick; or The Whale” was one of the novels on the 501 list that I anticipated reading with pleasure. After all, it’s one of the Great American Novels and it opens with one of the most recognisable lines – “Call me Ishmael”. When originally published in 1851 it met with mixed reviews and now I can see why.

It’s a sailor’s tale of a sperm whale hunting voyage around the world on the Pequod, captained by Ahab. As Melville spent 18 months aboard a whaling ship the nautical elements of the tale ring true. The cast of characters on land and at sea are varied and believable. Yes there’s a few salty old sea-dogs but few stereotypes and the dialogue, even when veering into slang and accents is always readable and entertaining. The most compelling character is Captain Ahab himself, a man driven to dangerous extremes in his desire for revenge on the whale which took his leg on a previous hunting trip.

What I hadn’t expected, however, was the amount of the novel which takes place on land (as Ishmael wittily describes his need to go to sea as a cure for his depression and befriends an exotic harpooner), the sheer length of novel which would pass before we meet Ahab, or the fact that in a 514 page novel (in my ebook edition) that it would only be in the final 20 pages that we would cross paths with Moby Dick himself who was inspired by various real encounters with aggressive bull whales.

As the voyage proceeds the ship encounters various dramas such as a typhoon off Japan, the increasingly deranged behaviour of the captain, the daily danger of their trade, and a series of meetings with other ships who have encountered the white whale. Their increasingly awful stories serve to underline the insanity of Ahab’s vendetta which doesn’t abate even when they meet a ship burying the whale’s latest victim.

Melville shows considerable skill with language and I loved the chapters which he wrote as scripts. So when I, finally, reached the last twenty pages and the whale, I thoroughly enjoyed the ending.

Did I enjoy this classic? Yes and no. The drama of the core story was excellent and his beautiful and varied use of the English language was a joy to read, however it was a struggle to finish and when I mentioned this to other keen readers I found many who started it but gave up. Incorporating so much detail on the anatomy of the whale and the means of hunting it slowed the pace terribly and rendered large sections of the novel dull.

I can happily read long novels of this period bu does anybody really care anymore exactly how the harpoon rope is made, stored and coiled? I love travel stories, I adore anything to do with the sea and I am interested in wildlife and social history of this period but every time he headed off on another lengthy aside filled with references to obscure books about whaling I could feel the life draining out of me. Yes, some of it was fascinating and perhaps at the time of publication it exposed the dangers of whaling to the fishermen (not to mention the poor whales) but overall, despite the brilliant writing, I did not enjoy this novel.

(Read June-July 2013)


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“Austerlitz” by W.G.Sebald

This novel was not to my personal taste. However that didn’t stop a slew of literary authors and experts putting it on their book of the year list when it was published. He was often cited as a potential winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature. I may be wrong. They may be wrong. Ultimately you’ll have to decide for yourself. However I can give a rough idea of what sort of book it is.

The story follows a young Jewish boy called Austerlitz who is evacuated from war-torn Europe in 1939 on a KinderTransport. When he arrives in Britain he is placed with a strict Calvinist Welsh couple who raise him without telling him about his past. When he’s fifteen and both his foster parents die, he discovers his real name but even then he blocks all memories of his origins from his mind. Much later in life he unravels his past and tells his story to the narrator of the novel, a friend whom he sees infrequently.

Sebald writes lovely prose and some of the images he creates in the book are haunting. He takes memory as his theme and explores it throughout the book. Of course memory is disjointed and patchy by nature, and so is the narrative. Austerlitz’s life story is found out in spurts and out of chronological order, and that’s how it’s presented to the reader. I liked his surprising use of black and white photos throughout the book. Austerlitz is a keen photographer as well as an architecture and art professor, so Sebald includes many snaps the character takes as he travels around Europe for work, leisure, and while hunting his past.

Who would like this book? I think lovers of literary fiction will find much here to enjoy. Sebald was clearly trying something a bit different. Lovers of architecture will enjoy Austerlitz’s observations. Those interested in the KinderTransports will find some items of interest, although this is not a historical novel, he clearly did his research.

Why didn’t I enjoy it? Ultimately despite the quality of the writing I was overwhelmed by descriptions and observations which for me didn’t bring me closer to the character or to his story. I felt the book stopped abruptly rather than having a proper ending. There was very little about Austerlitz’s interaction with other people – he finds his former babysitter but there’s no indication of his feelings there or towards his birth parents. We don’t even find out why or how he eventually lost the only woman who ever tried to become close to him. Even the narrator and Austerlitz barely connect. I just couldn’t get to the heart of Austerlitz.

(read February 2012)

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“Herzog” by Saul Bellow

Did you know that when an author wins the Nobel Prize for Literature, as Saul Bellow did in 1976, they don’t win for a single book, but rather for the body of their work to date? With that in mind, I did wonder while reading “Herzog” (published 1964) was my taste amiss?

The core of “Herzog” is the man himself, a Jewish professor living in America and trying to find balance in his life after his wife Madeleine leaves him for his best friend. He achieves this goal through compulsive letter writing to family, friends, and people he has never met, some living, and some dead. The structure of the book and the tone at times reminded me of Joyce’s “Ulysses” (a positive point in my opinion), but at other times it simply dragged through page upon page of Herzog’s (Bellow’s?) ideas on philosophy.

Now don’t get me wrong, I enjoy philosophy, but I don’t like it plonked in huge chunks (c. four pages) in the middle of a fiction book. That is not subtle and it is boring.

For me, the portions which engaged my imagination and interest were the short sections dealing with Herzog’s childhood, but because I didn’t empathise with the adult Herzog, I had little interest in his love affairs and arguments with his allies and enemies. Thankfully, at times the writing was fantastically detailed and evocative which made reading this book bearable.¬† I loved when he described using a public payphone that¬† – “when he got it, was humid from the many mouths and ears that had used it.”

I am sure that Bellow has many fans, and clearly his writing was good enough to earn him many awards during his career, but for me, “Herzog” has put me off trying any more of his fiction.

(read Spring 2011)

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“Beloved” by Toni Morrison

This is a classic example of why I am reading the 501 books on this list. It’s to find new authors that I would otherwise have been unlikely to unearth. I had never heard of Morrison’s work, despite her winning the Nobel Prize for Literature, but I’m glad I have.

First published in 1987 and running to 324 pages in my paperback edition, this is the story of slaves and ex-slaves (both freed and runaways) in the mid-1800s in the USA. Such a subject could become worthy beyond belief but she manages to make each character behave in believable ways according to their background and traits. There’s Sethe, the core character, who has run away and when caught is forced to commit a horrible crime for the best of reasons. There’s Beloved, her daughter, who obsesses with her mother. Denver, her other daughter, who matures and grows throughout the tale. Baby Suggs, a charmismatic freed slave and outdoors preacher caught my imagination, and there’s also the men in Sethe’s life – Halle, her husband, and Paul D the man who wants to save her by convincing her that she herself is her own “best thing”. There’s a full cast of secondary characters too, all of whom will stay in my mind for some time.

That’s the thing with a good book, it stays with you and informs how you see something in your world from then onwards.

This book would be ideal for a book club as it’s extremely well-written (verging on an eloquent poetry of language in places, but never losing sight of the storyline) and brings up many potential points for discussion about the nature of freedom and the choices women (and men) have to make during their lives.

If you’ve never read her work – try it, I doubt that you’ll regret it.

(read December 2010)

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“Felicia’s Journey” by William Trevor

My local library has come up trumps again, this time with “Felicia’s Journey” published in 1994 by Irish writer William Trevor. The book won a few prizes, including Whitbread Book of the Year.

The eponymous Felicia, an innocent Irish countrygirl, pregnant by a thoughtless young army squaddie, ferries across to England in search of her lover. Instead she strays into the path of the sinister, flawed, and damaged Mr. Hilditch who was memorably played by Bob Hoskins in the film of the book in 1999. I watched the film when it was released and when I noticed the title on the 501 list, I immediately pictured Mr. Hilditch because he’s such a compelling character. You don’t want to look into his eyes, and yet he draws you in.

The novel tells a deeply sad tale. This is not an escapist read. With a vague memory of the movie’s ending in mind (more than a decade later) it made all the foreshadowing even more downbeat and scary. However, I was surprised to find a substantial story beyond the movie’s endpoint as I recalled it. It certainly didn’t transform into “and they all lived happily ever after” but yet it seemed much more satisfying because it made perfect sense considering the characters’ personalities and lives.

If a novel can be a song lyric, this one is “all the lonely people” from “Eleanor Rigby” by the Beatles. Worth reading for the brilliantly subtle and involving character studies. This one would make me seek out more books by the talented Mr. Trevor.

(read April 2010)

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