Wednesday, December 1, 2021

Moby-Dick

Image credit: Penguin Books Aus.

 I’m not sure of there is a word that accurately describes the concept of a book, in the reading experience it affords, being as incredibly reflective (almost torturingly so) of its central narrative and setting. In the case of Moby-Dick, a monstrous tome celebrated as the ‘Great American Novel’, ‘reflective’ just doesn’t cover it. 

Narrated by the central protagonist, Ishmael, Moby-Dick chronicles an incredible sea voyage on the Pequod, a whaling ship captained by the maimed and monomaniacal Captain Ahab who is searching for the monstrous white whale that took his leg. Ishmael weaves an engaging and enlightening narrative, as he educates readers about the majesty of the whale, the work that goes into acquiring oil, skin, and meat, and the lunacy that overpowers man when an obsession takes absolute hold. 

Being a very wordy and lengthy tome in itself, Moby-Dick is most certainly not a venture to be entered into lightly. It requires determination and an unwavering commitment. But honestly, once that step is established, it’s one of the most incredible books! 

More than a high seas adventure story, Moby-Dick is a social and political critique, an encyclopaedia, a theological discussion, an allegory, and sometimes a humorous yarn. Its bulk is quickly justified by the sheer volume and complexity of the narratives, exposition, and philosophical ideas that lie between the front and back covers. But while it ominously sits on a shelf or bedside table; a monolithic monster in itself, it’s a truly incredible, engaging, and compelling reading experience that both challenges and rewards those brave enough to tackle it. 

Melville’s writing is superbly crafted, the voice of his protagonist is simultaneously dramatic, philosophical, biting, and whimsical, and the simplicity of the voyage narrative is proof that sole enjoyment is not to be derived from the destination, but the journey. 

Image credit: National Library of Scotland

While it’s a book that scares a lot of people, and like the white whale itself, often defeats readers by tossing them out of their comfort zone or dragging them into a wordy realm in which breath seems impossible, it is quite seriously a most incredible masterpiece of literature. An absolute unit and classic in the Great Literary Canon, the sense of achievement one experiences when closing the cover on it is immaculate. 

Author: Herman Melville, 1851

Published: Harper and Brothers (New York), 1851

Full Title: Moby-Dick; or, the Whale


Monday, November 22, 2021

James and the Giant Peach

 

Image credit: Penguin Books Australia

Today I have been in a bit of a strange place regarding books. For context, right now I am actually reading more than one simultaneously. the book I read when I’m out: on the train or walking to work, is Moby Dick. It’s a classic, but it’s definitely taking me some time. And then the book I read in the morning with my coffee and at night with my tea is the complete works of Edgar Allen Poe. Again, this is going to take some time for me to get through (it big). 

Today, my brain decided that the goal was to finish a book. Doesn’t matter what, just finish a book! So to the shelf I went and plucked off a thin, children’s classic (I’m a slow reader so doing a complete adult novel was out of the question if I was to satisfy my brain’s demands). Today I curled up and whiled away a portion of lockdown (writing from Sydney NSW for anyone reading overseas) by reading James and the Giant Peach.

This classic adventure story is about James Henry Trotter, a once happy little boy whose life turns to misery when his parents are killed by a rhinoceros, and he’s forced to live with his horrible aunts Sponge and Spiker. But one day an old man gives James some magic ‘things’ with the promise that marvellous things will happen. And they do. James accidentally drops the ‘things’ around the dead peach tree in the garden, which sparks an adventure of a lifetime, as the magic works on an earthworm, a spider, a ladybird, a grasshopper, a silk worm, a centipede, and a glow worm who all grow to large sizes and becomes James’ sailing companions on a giant, magically grown peach.

After reading Roald Dahl’s autobiographies Boy and Going Solo, I made a trip to the bookshop to broaden my Dahl collection because some children’s authors are just that good. Dahl not only came up with such glorious and original stories in which children are the heroes, he was a wonderfully clever writer whose stories, though easy to read, were never exclusive to a single aged audience. 

Image credit: Newyorker.com

In James and the Giant Peach there is metafictive humour, as well as funny little references to his other works, suggesting a bit of a joint Dahl-universe. The central story about having hope in hopeless situations as well as the brilliance of unlikely relationships is sweet and inspiring and I do believe that, not only do we need to raise kids on these books, but revisit them as adults once every few years. We all might be able to cope with the world better if we do. 

James and the Giant Peach is a tremendous little tale that holds enjoyment for everyone.

Author: Roald Dahl, 1961

Published: First published in the USA by Alfred A. Knopf Inc. 1961. First published in Great Britain by George Allen & Unwin 1967.


Saturday, November 13, 2021

Going Solo

 

Image credit: Goodreads
This week I continued on with the life of one of my favourite childhood authors, diving with him right into the madness and mayhem that was Greece, East Africa, and the Middle East during the Second World War. This week, we were Going Solo.

Picking up more or less where Boy left off, Going Solo chronicles Dahl’s life as a young man leaving England to work in Africa, joining the RAF when war broke out, and finally coming home again after three years abroad. Dahl recounts with great clarity exciting adventures in every chapter ranging from encounters with deadly snakes, to being in a plane crash, to being almost shot at a military road block. 

I found this book interesting for a number of reasons. 1) It tells a true story that is exciting, dangerous, and horrific. 2) It was slightly strange to read a book from an author I recognise as a children’s author, which is directed towards a more adult audience. While Boy still had this fantastic tone of innocence and childlike wonder, Going Solo really is a more mature recounting of Dahl’s life, both in narrative content and the way he frames those stories. 

Image credit: NPR

The danger and horror of many of the situations and environments is perfectly conveyed through blunt and simple prose, I do rather like the way that Dahl does not opt for long-winded paragraphs of exposition and description, but manages to get sufficient drama and emotion through short sentences and dialogue. Thanks to this, Going Solo is a reasonably fast read, giving you that accomplished feeling at the end of a book much faster. I thoroughly enjoyed it. 

Author: Roald Dahl, 1986

Published: Jonathan Cape Ltd (Great Britain) 1986, Farrar Straus Giroux (USA) 1986


Saturday, November 6, 2021

Boy

 

Image credit: Goodreads

Leaving behind the world of the fantastical and significantly dated literature, this week the book that I plucked off the shelf was a swift and glorious look into the childhood of one of my favourite authors: Roald Dahl. 

Simply entitled Boy, this book chronicles Dahl’s boyhood from kindergarten right through to his first job at the age of eighteen. Dahl regales readers with stories of mischief, fearsome authority figures, and chocolate, all of which inspired some of his greatest works. 

After the struggle that was Gulliver’s Travels, I was most definitely in the mood for easy reading for the next little while. And Boy proved to be exactly that. Reflective of its title, this is a short and sweet little autobiography that I particularly enjoyed, not merely because it’s the life of one of my all-time favourite authors, but because the book itself is a work of non-fiction that is targeted towards a young readership. While it tells true stories, it tells them in such a simple, yet exciting way that captivates and expertly paints vibrant images in the mind, making it just as engaging as a children’s fictional novel.

Dahl was one of the earliest authors I remember loving as a child. I can remember sitting up with my dad after dinner –this was just when I was getting a handle on reading, so 6-7 years old- and reading Matilda and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory out loud to him. The simplicity and childlike innocence with which he writes his novels is prevalent here in his autobiography and I was emotionally transported to that dining room table, reading to my dad. 

Image credit: American Library Association
Despite the simple prose, Boy is also a comparative reflection on the way things have changed, particularly travel, educational disciplinary routines, and medical procedures. Indeed there are some scenes in the book that are quite gruesome and horrifying, making me quite grateful that I did not grow up in the 1930s. 


From page one, Boy is a fascinating glimpse into the life of one of literature’s most celebrated and beloved authors. I am keen to open the cover of the next instalment: Going Solo

Author: Roald Dahl, 1984

Published: First published in Great Britain by Jonathan Cape Ltd. First published in the USA by Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1984

Thursday, November 4, 2021

Gulliver's Travels

Image credit: Pinterest

 It’s a strange truth that sometimes an experience can be marred (or improved) by the opinions you carry before venturing into the voyeuristic. If you think a film is going to be a certain genre and then discover it’s not, your initial excitement is gone and you have to readjust yourself on the spot. I had that very experience with my chosen book for this week: Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift. 

Written as a satirical travel novel, Gulliver’s Travels chronicles the fantastical adventures of Lemuel Gulliver as he, through various storms and travelling mishaps, becomes stranded in several strange and mysterious countries that the ‘civilised’ world has not yet discovered. First he lands in a country where the people are tiny, and then to a place where there are giants, he visits a floating city, is granted hospitality by necromancers, and spends some time living in a world where horses and not humans are the superior beings. The more Gulliver sees of the world, the more his belief in the superiority of his Country and fellow Englishmen is picked apart and reduced to a barely veiled contempt for his fellow man.

Gulliver’s Travels is one of those classics in literature that has been rewritten and re-imagined beyond count: as film adaptations, a children’s novel, political satire, and even a travel book. My first exposure was, indeed, as a children’s adventure story, and so as I was reading the original, I was completely thrown by the fact that it’s not a children’s novel at all. 

For a while I really struggled with this book, but after I managed to adjust the way in which I was reading it, I was able to properly understand and even enjoy the satirical way in which it’s written. The hero’s journey is probably one of the most interesting in literature, as it sort of flips the normal trajectory on its head and leaves Gulliver enlightened by his travels, but also unable to function back in his home world. Through various adventures and misadventures, Gulliver’s patriotism and love for his fellow man, which is quite strong as it survives the greater portion of the novel, gets eroded over the duration to hatred and contempt and there’s a tasty irony in the fact that he ends his adventures in a seemingly worse state than when he began them.

Image credit: Wikiquote

Swift’s unabashed debasement of the human species is interesting, and there’s a funny layer of irony in that he uses a lot of toilet humour/horror to illustrate his points – proving that humanity is not as progressively civilised as we believe ourselves to be. While the political aspect of the novel is somewhat dated, the overall satirical social commentary still packs a punch and the fact that all this is happening against a fantastical backdrop really makes the book stand out as a classic. 

Author: Jonathan Swift, 1726

Published: Benjamin Motte Jr. (London), 1726. Full titled: Travels Into Several Remote Nations of the World, by Lemuel Gulliver. 


Monday, October 18, 2021

And the Ass Saw the Angel

Image credit: Penguin Books Australia 

 There’s something to be said about the stranger surprises that life can give you. Having recently been on a bender of fantasy, science fiction, and spoopy horror, the next book that I picked up proved to be such a contrast to those other books that I do believe I got whiplash from it! Don’t get me wrong, I thoroughly enjoyed the book, but whoa I was not ready for how dark and different it was to everything I’ve gotten used to recently. This week’s book was And the Ass Saw the Angel by Nick Cave. 

The book chronicles the nightmarish and thoroughly depressing story of Euchrid Eucrow. Born mute and into an abusive family that lives on the junk-heaped outskirts of a strict and maniacally God-fearing town, Euchrid’s life is one long nightmare of abuse, persecution, and isolation. After his town suffers an unseasonal torrent of rainfall, the skies part and the sun appears again with the arrival of a foundling child left abandoned on a monument step. The town immediately adopts the child and declare her to be a Chosen of the Almighty. But Euchrid doesn’t see her that way and his descent into isolation and insanity increases, leading to disastrous consequences for them both.

The debut novel from Aussie rock artist Nick Cave, And the Ass Saw the Angel is a brilliant example of modern Gothic. Cave explores a number of social and literary themes that keep the mind whirring with thoughts and analyses including the ‘problem’ of the unreliable narrator (very Poe-esque here) as well as the exclusivities of zealous doctrinal lifestyles. We’ve got some Beauty and the Beast vibes going on at one point, and while there are some scenes that are described with (I think) unnecessary graphic and violent language and imagery, the prose itself is decadent, rich in imagery, and just that delightfully bit pretentious. 

Image credit: Wikipedia

Cave really manages to place you slap in the middle of this horrid, nightmarish Southern landscape (or traumascape if you will) and throughout the whole book I was completely blown away by how rich and incredible the imagery was. Confronting yes, disgusting most definitely, but still so vibrant and a real incredible example of the power of words. 

Honestly, it’s not for everyone. People with weaker constitutions for violence and gore or who just find that stuff needless and distasteful will be better off plucking something else from the shelf. But for anyone who is a fan of Gothic literature and interested to see its continued progression into the ‘modern’ age, I would recommend this!

Author: Nick Cave, 1989

Published: Black Springs Press Ltd 1989. Published by Penguin Books 1990. 

Wednesday, September 22, 2021

The Haunted Hotel

 

Image credit: Dymocks

After the various bouts of fantastical adventures I’ve recently been on, I thought this week’s book needed to be different; a real change of pace. And so I lovingly fingered the spines of my library for quite a while before I plucked this week’s choice off the shelf: The Haunted Hotel by Wilkie Collins. 

It’s a story about murder, madness, and memories that won’t rest… even in death. When the sinister Countess Narona marries Agnes Lockwood’s fiancĂ©, she takes him to live with her and her brother in a rundown palace in Venice. Whilst there, a servant mysteriously disappears and the husband dies. Years later the palace is turned into a lavish hotel that manages to draw the Countess, Agnes, and the dead husband’s entire family to it. As the Countess slowly descends into madness, Agnes and the family suffer from various strange events in one room of the hotel and soon an investigation is underway to find out what really happened to the late Lord Montbarry and his servant. 

 This is a delightful little ghost story that reads a bit like a Sherlock Holmes mystery. Deeply dramatic, but written in quite a nonchalant tone, The Haunted Hotel has everything you could want for a good afternoon read. 

Murder, mystery and madness flavour the story immensely as well as two heroines that are chalk and cheese in character and work to scare each other more than the ghost.

Image credit: GradeSaver
But perhaps what is best about this book is that it is left to the reader to determine the nature of the goings on and whether there is logic behind them or no. A Sherlock Holmes mystery minus the great detective, The Haunted Hotel is classically gothic in its sinister and mysterious central story, all of which is excitingly revealed in the climactic 'Fourth Part'. However, the book cleverly leaves off with a grand tie-up and characters are left with only their limited knowledge of the strange events to either dwell on or simply forget. Secrets are kept, horrors are hidden, and at the end of it all there is happiness and a tender little ending. 

Despite its seemingly dramatic content, I found The Haunted Hotel to be a really light and enjoyable read: engaging, filled with great imagery, and actually rather fun. Would recommend. 

Author: Wilkie Collins, 1878

Published: First published as a penny-dreadful serial series. Published in its entirety in 1889. This edition published by Penguin Group 2009.