Milchtoast

Chronicles of a writer abroad

Recent adventures in reading

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It hit me that I haven’t bored you to tears blogged about books in a while. And since I went through quite a few this summer, here are my thoughts on a few of them…

First up: Moby Dick, by Herman Melville.

When I discussed David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas, I cautioned that reading it entailed an investment of time and effort. Well, this is true of Moby Dick to a further degree. This novel numbers 822 pages – it’s the kind of book that begins to cut off the circulation to your hands as you’re holding it up while reading in bed (can anyone else relate to this problem?).

To be fair, though, the version of Moby Dick that I checked out of the library is, as I mentioned once before, replete with delightful illustrations. The last books that I can recall having elements illustrated for me were in the (much beloved by me) Nancy Drew mystery series.

However, even with the illustrations, the book could stand to lose some weight. I can only imagine what a modern day literary agent or editor would tell Melville: “Love the story, but you’ve got to trim the fat!” I feel for Melville; editing down words eked out over weeks and months is painful. But revisions would have done it some good, I think. The book’s architecture often differs from that of a novel – Melville is too methodical sometimes, as if he’s writing a manual rather than a story. For example, chapter 21 is spent not at all advancing the plot, but merely introducing a character and telling you all about him. Chapter 22 is devoted to a second character, and Chapter 23 to a third. Modern-day authors can’t get away with this – they have to weave character development and action together.

Melville, thinly disguised as Ishmael, his protagonist, also gives a 27-page treatise on whale classification, which made me forget I was reading a novel and begin to wonder why I was spending my evening poring over the minutiae of cetology.

Confession: I didn’t finish the book. But I had fun wading around in it, and I may try it again someday, so that I can absorb more beautiful and true sentences like this one: “In this world, shipmates, sin that pays its way can travel freely, and without a passport, whereas virtue, if a pauper, is stopped at all frontiers.”

Next, I read Freedom, by Jonathan Franzen. This, too, is a tome — five hundred and some pages, but I lapped it all up eagerly. Franzen is an author that not everyone enjoys; some find him too preachy, others think him too cruel, still others are annoyed by the fact that he always writes about the American midwest.

But I adore him. I love hearing his biting and sarcastic voice in my head as I read. He does pick things and people apart pretty brutally, but he so often gives me that click of recognition. “Her drawers were unopenably stuffed,” he writes, and I feel as though he might be one of the people who lives across the street and is able to see into my apartment. He’s writing about me! I think. Or someone very real and flawed like me, anyway.

And check out these powers of description as he paints a scene in New York:

“A pair of fur-coated ladies ballsily appropriating a cab that Casey had hailed outside Bloomingdale’s. Tres hot middle-school girls wearing jeans under their miniskirts and slouching on the subway with their legs wide open. Cornrowed ghetto kids in ominous jumbo parkas, National Guard troops patrolling Grand Central with highly advanced weapons. And the Chinese grandmother hawking DVDs of films that hadn’t even opened yet, the break-dancer who ripped a muscle or a tendon and sat rocking in pain on the floor of the 6 train, the insistent saxophone player to whom Joey gave five dollars to help him get to his gig, despite Casey’s warning that he was being conned: each encounter was like a poem he instantly memorized.”

But back to the preachy thing — Freedom is, at its core, an argument about overpopulation and its effects on the environment. Some will find it too dogmatic. It was okay for me – I enjoyed the pull of the polemic and the need to keep my intellectual defences up as I read. If you haven’t read Franzen previously, though, may I suggest that you begin with The Corrections — it is equally long, but its theme of family life in the late-20th century is more universally relatable and probably not so divisive. But you still might find him mean-spirited and insulting, so don’t say I didn’t warn you.

And one more: The Mysteries of Pittsburgh, by Michael Chabon

This is Chabon’s first book, written in 1988 (he’s since gone on to win a Pulitzer and a number of other prestigious awards for his later works). I read an interview in which he said that Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby was a strong influence on the book. And it is apparent: as in Gatsby, the book also takes place over the course of the summer, and it deals with the way in which people are mythologized in the eyes of their friends and enemies. It also seems something of a love letter to Pittsburgh, a city I once contemplated living in, and I love books that make me feel almost as though I’ve been to the city. On the whole, though, I suggest you read or re-read Gatsby before reading this.

What have you been reading lately?

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4 thoughts on “Recent adventures in reading

  1. Maybe I should read Moby Dick again, especially that chapter on cetology! I can’t remember if I finished it either …

    Michael Ondaatje’s The Cat’s Table is my next read!

  2. I’m waiting for the Library to let me have the latest Cynthia Harrod-Eagles tome. The last in a series of wide-ranging novels about a family from the 1600s through to post- Second World War (or WW2 as Charley Farquharson would say). So both Ken and I are working our way through Stuart McLean’s Vinyl Cafe stories, nothing that taxes the brain as you can see :).

  3. This is a bit of a fluffier read than the ones you’ve mentioned, but I’m enjoying it nonetheless. I’m reading Robert Penn’s “It’s All About the Bike: The Pursuit of Happiness on Two Wheels”..it’s a bit of a history about the bicycle and what makes a good one, neat places the author has cycled through, etc. I’ve accidentally turned into a bit of a bike enthusiast the past year, cycling to work, to the grocery store, just around the neighbourhood. I’ve been surviving without a car or public transit (though I do take the bus from time to time) since moving to the UK and my bike is one of my new best friends. A short read, but interesting!

    • Thanks for that recommendation, Laura! It sounds interesting — I enjoy biking, too, especially here where you can be into the countryside in minutes. I may have to check it out!

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