The OF Blog

Monday, January 25, 2016

Herman Melville, Mardi

Her name was Yillah.  And hardly had the waters of Oroolia washed white her olive skin, and tinged her hair with gold, when one day strolling in the woodlands, she was snared in the tendrils of a vine.  Drawing her into its bowers, it gently transformed her into one of its blossoms, leaving her conscious soul folded up in the transparent petals.

Here hung Yillah in a trance, the world without all tinged with the rosy hue of her prison.  At length when her spirit was about to burst forth in the opening flower, the blossom was snapped from its stem; and borne by a soft wind to the sea; where it fell into the opening valve of a shell; which in good time was cast upon the beach of the Island of Amma.

In the dream, these events were revealed to Aleema the priest; who by a spell unlocking its pearly casket, took forth the bud, which now showed signs of opening in the reviving air, and bore faint shadowy revealings, as of the dawn behind crimson clouds.  Suddenly expanding, the blossom exhaled away in perfumes; floating a rosy mist in the air.  Condensing at last, there emerged from this mist the same radiant young Yillah as before; her locks all moist, and a rose-colored pearl on her bosom.  Enshrined as a goddess, the wonderful child now tarried in the sacred temple of Apo, buried in a dell; never beheld of mortal eyes save Aleema's. (pp. 799-800, Library of America edition)
After the successes of Typee and Omoo, with their exotic locales and wondrous marvels, it might have been expected by contemporary readers that Melville's third novel, Mardi, might mine this rich narrative vein one more time.  At first, there were indeed some similarities to the first two novels, as the protagonist, Taji, accompanied by a fellow sailor, Jarl, have relieved a captain of one of his lifeboats, as they set sail for new adventures.  For the first third of Mardi, the tone and prose resemble that of his earlier works.

However, after a little over one hundred pages into this 654 page novel, the narrative shifts wildly into something that is much, much more complex than what any might expect.  As Taji and his companion begin exploring islands in the region, it becomes clear that these new discoveries are as much representations of philosophical ideals and political allegories as they are adventure tales.  Melville's prose shifts from a more expository form to a denser, allusion-rich style, with islands such as Dominora, Porpheero, and Vivenza representing divers nations and their world-views.

At the heart of this allegorical "world" narrative (the word "Mardi" means "world" in certain Polynesian dialects), lies the story of Yillah, whose origin is quoted above.  She is Taji's la belle dame sans merci, minus the cruel capriciousness.  She is an ideal woman, or perhaps it is better to say that she is the Ideal after which Taji quests, despite being haunted by the shades of those he has killed in the past.  There is a touch of Captain Ahab to his character, especially in the single-mindedness of his yearning to find Yillah, yet Taji's afflictions are not as clear-cut as those of Moby Dick's hunter.

Mardi requires a great deal of patience from the reader, as it necessitates a greater willingness to not just suspend disbelief, but also to parse the plethora of allegories to political and social customs.  At times, the reader will be rewarded for her efforts, as Melville certainly supplies several fascinating takes on literal matters of life and death, of love and desire.  However, there are also many troughs where the reader might find herself wondering if the author has lost his way and has been swallowed up in his tempestuous sea of words.

On the whole, Mardi is a rather uneven narrative.  The joins are at times quite visible, especially as Melville shifts from a straightforward action/adventure tale to a more metaphorical one.  Readers desirous of a linear plot might find themselves baffled by his chapters-long ruminations on certain points of philosophy, yet for those of us who find delight in being confronted with such passages, there are many gems nearly as valuable as those found in his magnum opus.  The Taji/Yillah quest, although not the only one found in the narrative (there are several ancillary ones, some of which dovetail into this central one), in particular is a symbolism-laden tale that leads the reader to consider the battle of Will and Fate, of Love and Desire, of Truth and (self) Deception.  The dream-like qualities of the latter half of the novel certainly bring these themes to the forefront.

However fascinating these themes are, they unfortunately are not always integrated well into the text.  The Yillah arc, for example, is introduced nearly 150 pages into the story and there is the acute sense of prior plot developments either being abandoned or otherwise reduced in seeming importance.  Furthermore, the chapters devoted to the relations between the fictitious islands at certain key times fails to impress upon the reader their full potential power.  Yet despite these shortcomings that make Mardi as much an essay and failure than a fully-realized achievement, it certainly is a novel that deserves multiple reads and careful consideration.  It may be no Moby Dick, but within its pages can be seen the evolution of thought that led to that masterpiece.  For those brave enough to engage it, Mardi can be the sort of challenging, mindblowing sort of fiction that is all too rare these days.  If only more "failures" were akin to it.

Sunday, January 24, 2016

Herman Melville, Typee and Omoo

In a primitive state of society, the enjoyments of life, though few and simple, are spread over a great extent, and are unalloyed; but Civilization, for every advantage she imparts, holds a hundred evils in reserve; – the heart burnings, the jealousies, the social rivalries, the family dissensions, and the thousand self-inflicted discomforts of refined life, which make up in units the swelling aggregate of human misery, are unknown among these unsophisticated people.

But it will be urged that these shocking unprincipled wretches are cannibals.  Very true; and a rather bad trait in their character it must be allowed.  But they are such only when they seek to gratify the passion of revenge upon their enemies; and I ask whether the mere eating of human flesh so very far exceeds in barbarity that custom which only a few years since was practised in enlightened England: – a convicted traitor, perhaps a man found guilty of honesty, patriotism, and suchlike heinous crimes, had his head lopped off with a huge axe, his bowels dragged out and thrown into a fire; while his body, carved into four quarters, was with his head exposed upon pikes, and permitted to rot and fester among the public haunts of men!

The fiend-like skill we display in the invention of all manner of death-dealing engines, the vindictiveness with which we carry on our wars, and the misery and desolation that follow in their train, are enough of themselves to distinguish the white civilized man as the most ferocious animal on the face of the earth. (pp. 149-150, Library of America edition)

Although more famous today for his 1851 novel Moby Dick, Herman Melville experienced his greatest commercial success during his lifetime with his first two novels, Typee (1846) and Omoo (1847).  Based in large part upon Melville's own experiences in Polynesia during the early 1840s, these two novels are a fascinating read nearly 170 years later for their detailed depictions of life on the Marquesas Islands and Tahiti just as European governments and missionaries were beginning their efforts to transform these islands and their inhabitants into "civilized" regions and cultures.

Typee is loosely based on Melville's month-long sojourn in the Taipi Valley of Nuku Hiva in the Marquesas during July-August 1842.  It is not a plot-driven novel; there is a thread detailing the first-person narrator's adventures from the time he deserts a whaling ship with a companion until he is "rescued" by another ship a four months later, but it is secondary to descriptions of the flora, fauna, and customs of the Taipi people.  Typee's narrative power resides in these depictions of native customs and habits and in their juxtapositions with industrializing Western societies.

Melville carefully balances out these "exotic" stories.  They do not exist merely to entice curious American and English readers into reading his narrative for titillating descriptions of tattooed women and their relatively licentious ways, but instead each chapter/scene explores how and why the narrator finds himself reflecting on how his own reactions (such as his initial visceral disgust at the tattooed leaders he encounters) are in a constant state of evolution the more he comes to know and (partially) understand the Taipi.  In some senses, there is an almost anthropological field study element to his writing, albeit one that serves mostly to provide depth to the adventure aspect of the novel.  Melville certainly digresses at times in his explorations of perceived differences in approach to life, sexuality, and societal customs, yet these digressions mostly serve to appeal to readers who might otherwise find the "adventures" here less swash-buckling than they might have desired.

Typee, however, is still at its heart a story of exploration and new experiences and on the whole, it succeeds at conveying the narrator's (and by extension, the author's) wonder at what he encounters.  It is a deeper, more ponderous work than most of the adventure novels of the late 19th century set in this region, but it also rarely fails to entertain as a narrative devoted to what then was a scarely-known region of the world for Westerners.  It is not without its difficulties –  the narrative style does take several chapters to establish its rhythm – but on the whole, it is still a vivid adventure that presages the more anthropological/social novels of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Omoo is a direct sequel that focuses more on the maritime aspect of exploration.  It continues Melville's exploration of Polynesian adaptations to European/American intrusions.  Similar to Typee, Omoo is not a mere fictionalization of Melville's experiences.  Rather it is an elaboration that meshes those recollections with other, secondary histories, creating a work that is substantially more fictitious than what it first appears to be.

There is more of a plot to Omoo, namely dealing with the narrator's experiences on a whaling ship after his "rescue" at the end of Typee and the crew's experiences after being jailed in Tahiti after a failed mutiny.  While Melville himself was put ashore in Tahiti in late 1842 after a mutiny failed, the account in Omoo is much more elaborate, devoting several chapters to discussing how life in Tahiti was changing under nascent French administration and how the natives were assimilating Christianity and European legal practices into their culture.  There is a more focused narrative here, concentrating more on how the sailors are dealing with their immediate situation, yet Melville still manages to weave in several examinations of societal change and cultural assimilation in a fashion that strengthens the narrative, feeling more unified than in Typee.

There are traces in both novels of the thematic elements that were later explored in Moby Dick, but here they are less prominent, as the adventure novel aspects are more front-and-center than in the later novel.  The prose tends to be less elaborate than in Melville's later works, yet there is still a sufficient level of narrative depth to make these two early novels worth reading not just for fans of Melville's later work, but also for those readers who enjoy reading adventures set in the South Seas.

Saturday, January 23, 2016

Beginning a new reading project

I have been busy the past three weekends, boxing up roughly 1500 books, magazines, literary journals, and CDs and moving them into a new shed that a cousin of mine built for this purpose.  It was interesting to have certain memories well up inside me in response to reading the spines of several of these books, but that perhaps is a post for another time (besides, after receiving half a foot of snow Friday, I have no desire to walk outside to take photos of the bins where these are now stored).

It is nice to have plenty of space now in my bedroom for doing exercise, but even more important, I have a much better reading space as a result.  I still have a little over 1000 books shelved there, divided almost equally between English and non-English language bookcases.  Two of my larger bookcases house my collection of Library of America volumes (nearly 160 out of 273 volumes to date) and after re-arranging them to form a sort of reading room space, I found myself reflecting last night on how I have only read maybe 1/5 of them in their entirety.

So I made a semi-resolution to read more of them this year and to write reviews of them, but after spending several minutes staring at them, trying to decide where to begin, I finally decided it would be easiest to just begin at #1 and read them in publication order.  Therefore, I began reading Herman Melville's volume of his three earliest novels (Typee; Omoo; Mardi) this afternoon, with reviews to follow (hopefully) over the next couple of days.

If I maintain this, I hope to put a serious dent into the unread volumes, and if I write reviews of individual novels/collections or of the volumes as a whole, then perhaps I'll be able to contribute something of value for others to read.  I hope to have enough reviews written by the end of the year to justify collecting them (and the ones I reviewed in previous years) into a separate blog devoted to collating these Library of America reviews.  Shall be interesting to see which writings move me and which move me to yawn.  I fear my reading squirrels, after nearly a year off, may be grumbling at having to emerge from their semi-hibernation in such a fashion.

Sunday, January 03, 2016

A few things I resolve to do in 2016

A couple of days late (having to work Friday combined with recovering from a mild bout of bronchitis), but I thought I'd post a few New Year's Resolutions here for people curious about such things (and for me to reference later in the year):

1.  To read more books than I did in 2015. 

2015 was a year I always intended to be a "rest" year when it came to reading.  I knew I was going to be resuming regular exercise in order to strengthen my core after my August 2014 back injury (gaining over 50 lbs/nearly 30 kg in less than six months due to the steroids I was taking then and my necessary lack of activity for much of two months), so reading 400+ books was never going to be feasible.  I thought perhaps 100 would be a reasonable goal, but then I found it necessary to rest at night instead of reading, just so I'd have enough energy to work out/walk/jog over 150 days of the past year.  I still have more to lose than the 45 kg (almost 100 lbs) than I did in 2015, so I expect my reading time will still be limited in 2016, but not to the extent it was last year.

2.  To translate at least one short story.

I actually translated three stories in 2015, but only one of which will be published (June-July 2016; details after the ToC for the Big Book of Science Fiction is released).  But there are some Spanish-language stories that I'd like to translate, even if it's more for practice and not for publication.

3.  To continue remaining distant from SF/F "fandom" circular arguments.

I just grew bored of these tired reiterations of minutiae that I just stopped using most social media in the summer of 2015.  At this point, I'm really a non-entity when it comes to purported online book discussions, so it matters little what I think about the argument du jour, right?  (Not that I expect many are reading this)

4.  To run a 5K race before my 42nd birthday in July.

I've planned for a year now to use 2015 to lose the steroid weight gain, with 2016 being the year designated for my first 5K competition (thinking 2017 might see me run a 10K).  Unless my bronchitis keeps me from training enough, I plan on running my first 5K in early April in a local race.  I just want to get it to a sub-30 time, with an ultimate goal of a sub-25 time by 2017.

5.  To become a more patient teacher and person.

I'm much calmer than I was in the past, but I still see room for improvement.

6.  To improve my reading comprehension in at least one language.

After all, I have this one illustrated book that I'd love to be able to understand (it's not available in English translation)

7.  To create something wondrous for someone else.

The specifics really don't matter, just as long as someone feels better for experiencing something with my assistance.  Perhaps it'll be seeing a mostly non-verbal student with autism using complete sentences and writing pads to communicate his emotions and desires, or maybe it'll be translating something and having someone remark that they were glad to have read that story. 

I would have added squirrel worship to the list, but that is an expectation from them, so I shall do that lest they decide to eviscerate me.

Thursday, December 31, 2015

Best of 2015: A year-end list devoted to a year of relative non-reading

2015 was easily my worst reading year in at least a decade.  I read only 41 books all year, 14 of which were 2015 releases.  It wasn't bad from a quality point, as I would recommend almost all of the new releases  to at least some people, but it is difficult to come up with a Top Ten that would reflect those works I thought were superior efforts.  So instead, here is a list of five works that stood out to me more than usual:

5.  Jesse Ball,  A Case for Suicide.

Ball is a talented writer and this novel was his strangest and most enjoyable one yet.

4.  Umberto Eco, Numerous Zero (read it both Italian and Spanish translation).

Not Eco's best work, but it's still one of the best historical/conspiracy theory novels that I've read in recent years.

3.  Kirstin Valdez Quade, Nights at the Fiestas.

One of the best short story collections I've read this year.

2.  Berit Ellingsen, Not Dark Yet.

I'm going to attempt a review of this haunting tale after I re-read it, as I think there were elements crucial to this moving story that I missed on my initial read.

1.  Kelly Link, Get in Trouble.

One of the finest short story collections I've read this year.


Hopefully 2016 will see the return of my reading mojo, or at least the return of my highly-trained Serbian Reading Squirrels doing the reading for me.  At least I had a good excuse this year, as I did devote the year to improving my physical fitness.  Now to get ready to run my first 5K in the springtime...

Thursday, November 12, 2015

So it's been a long time since I've blogged anywhere

I had fully intended to resume regular blogging this autumn after taking a hiatus of sorts to recharge my mental batteries.  But instead, a few things conspired to occupy my time:  having to study for two Praxis exams so I could add a special education certification to my quartet of certifications; working longer at work a few nights the past two months; being exhausted more than I expected after adding longer, more intense fast jog/running elements to my daily cardio (that and trying to do trail jogging for 2-3x/week, weather permitting, in addition to 5x/week track walking/jogging); and a sudden death in my family this week.

So when I was finally upgrading my ancient Macbook to El Capitan tonight, I noticed that two months had gone by without a post of any sort; the first time in nearly ten years that there was a month without a single post.  Amazing how out of practice I became at this.  So yeah, I'll be making a greater effort to not just blog, but to read/re-read books/stories/poems so I can have things to discuss here that perhaps cannot be found in any other singular location.  Might be a bit sporadic until the 30th (my second Praxis text is then; my first was this afternoon), but I'll really make an effort this time.

In the meantime, what all have I missed in recent months?  Some on Twitter were mentioning the aftermath of the World Fantasy Convention's decision to change the appearance of the WFA trophy from H.P. Lovecraft's stylized sculpture to something, anything else.  But what else is out there?  A brief glance at my blogroll seems to reveal that either more online reviewers are shuttering their sites completely or they are continuing to join large conglomerates.  Is this a mistaken impression or just the way things are trending these days when it comes to online discussions of books?

So if there are other things that I've missed since the summertime, feel free to fill me in.  Oh, and one final thing:  the reading squirrels are beginning to become rabid.  You've been warned.

Monday, September 07, 2015

Vera Caspary, Laura

The city that Sunday morning was quiet.  Those millions of New Yorkers who, by need or preference, remain in town over a summer week-end had been crushed spiritless by humidity.  Over the island hung a fog that smelled and felt like water in which too many soda-water glasses have been washed.  Sitting at my desk, pen in hand, I treasured the sense that, among those millions, only I, Waldo Lydecker, was up and doing.  The day just past, devoted to shock and misery, had stripped me of sorrow.  Now I had gathered strength for the writing of Laura's epitaph.  My grief at her sudden and violent death found consolation in the thought that my friend, had she lived to a ripe old age, would have passed into oblivion, whereas the violence of her passing and the genius of her admirer gave her a fair chance at immortality. (p. 5, Library of America edition)
American crime fiction of the mid-20th century has, due to chance or something else, been often viewed as a male-oriented literary enterprise, with hard-nosed detectives interacting cynically with a dark world.  Yet noir-style fiction was not the only strand of crime fiction and although men like Chandler and Hammett are lauded for their ingenious plots and intricate prose, women then, as they do now, also constructed some memorable crime fiction.  In the recently-released two-volume Women Crime Writers that covers eight novels written in the 1940s and 1950s, Sarah Weinman has chosen works that not only represent some of the best crime fiction of that era, but they also are stories that challenge reader preconceptions of what constitutes a crime novel.

The first novel in this anthology, Vera Caspary's Laura (published in book form in 1943 after an earlier seven-part serialization in Colliers), contains multitudes within its 181 pages.  It is not only an exploration of the titular Laura's apparent demise, but is also a shrewd look at how an independent woman in 1940s New York manages to maneuver her way through social landmines more insidiously planted than those that World War II servicemen faced.  Caspary goes to great pains to insure that Laura is no wilted (wilting?) flower.  In the various points of view presented over the course of the novel, she is neither saint nor whore, but instead something more complex and fascinating.

Caspary's use of these multiple POV perspectives serves not only to delineate Laura's complexities, but the other characters' biases and neuroses are also illustrated in a subtle yet powerful fashion.  This can be readily seen in the very first paragraph, as Waldo, an aspiring novelist of sorts and a former lover, presents a picture of himself that differs significantly from how he views himself.  This situational irony is repeated in other characters, such as Laura's former fiancé, Shelby, and how his rakishness contrasts with his professed love for Laura, or in how the detective assigned to her case, Mark McPherson, presents more personal vulnerabilities than he is aware of doing.

At times, these multiple perspectives can almost be distracting, as these secondary characters are just as flawed and fascinating as the emerging composite portrait of Laura.  Yet by the second half of the novel, Caspary has managed to weave a compelling plot out of them, especially when she introduces a plot twist that turns topsy-turvy our expectations of how this crime investigation is going to play out.  In hindsight, this development is not unexpected; there are several clues placed through the character narratives that foreshadow this development.  But once this twist is executed, the novel becomes more urgent in tone, with the prose taking on a leaner, more menacing character.  The final scenes feel as though they could have the inspiration to countless crime TV series episodes, yet there is more to them than just characters re-enacting struggles for love and understanding that were explored earlier in the novel.

Laura is a fascinating novel not just for how well Caspary explores the innermost motivations of her characters, but also for how adroitly she depicts the social milieu.  Laura is no innocent; she has had her fair share of sexual conquests.  She is in many ways a truly "modern" woman, with values that correspond to her desire to be independent and yet not "masculine."  Some critics see in her a quasi-autobiographical sketch written by Caspary, with their similar careers (advertising) and attempts to balance career and romance.  Despite whatever surface similarities author and creation might have, Laura's character and situation are appealing to readers who see in her inner conflicts a mirror of sorts for their own.  Waldo, Shelby, and McPherson might not be self-aware enough to see the hypocritical social attitudes they hold, yet Laura in contrast was very much aware of them.  She used them as much they attempted to use her and it is in this realization that makes Laura not just a page turner, but also a well-developed exploration of sexual identity during the mid-20th century.

There are few structural weaknesses.  The biggest complaint some might have is that as well-detailed the character discussions of Laura and her life and apparent death are, there are times where the narrative flow slows to a lazy meandering.  Occasionally the prose overreaches, most notably in reading Waldo's more grandiose proclamations, yet on the whole the writing not only supports the deepening narrative, it manages to deepen the tension, making it more palpable.  Laura may not be the "perfect" crime novel, but it comes close enough on occasion to make it a very good, entertaining read that will leave readers satisfied after a couple of hours.
 
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