Bill Murray Reads from Huckleberry Finn

This is absolutely brilliant.  For way too many years, I failed to give actor/comedian Bill Murray the credit he deserves for so thoroughly mastering his craft.  But the older the man gets, the more I appreciate him.

So you can imagine my surprise at how moving I find his characterization of the character Jim from Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn.  This reading at a NYC Barnes & Noble bookstore happened way back in 1996, a good while before I was giving Murray credit as anything more than just another Hollywood funny man. Boy, was I wrong.

Listen to this…and stay with it, because you are going to be enthralled before you know it:

John Green’s Crash Courses on Literature…Take a Look

In another case of “better late than never,” I stumbled upon John Green’s “Crash Courses on Literature” a couple of days ago (sadly, it appears that John has not added new courses to the 24 on YouTube since some time in 2014).  I’ve only watched a couple of them, but I can tell you that even if you already know a good bit about what John is speaking on, the mini-lessons are fun to watch.  Dang…wonder why he gave up on them.

Anyway, here’s an example that will also lead you to the rest of the Crash Course videos.  This is one of two lessons on Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein:

In Dubious Battle

Published in 1936, John Steinbeck’s In Dubious Battle reads like a snapshot from the period in American history during which workers were perhaps at their lowest point ever.  They were suffering greatly because of low wages, an overabundance of unemployed workers willing to work for next-to-nothing wages, and employers who were only too happy to take advantage of the tragic economic situation of the day.  But by actively recruiting workers, union organizers were placing their own lives and those of the workers in jeopardy.  The battle was on, dubious though it may have been.
And along came John Steinbeck to tell the world about it because as he said in his 1962 Nobel Prize for Literature acceptance speech:
            “The ancient commission of the writer has not changed.  He is charged with exposing our many grievous faults and failures, with dredging up to the light our dark and dangerous dreams for the purpose of improvement.”
And, perhaps more in this novel than in anything Steinbeck had written previously, In Dubious Battle does precisely that.
To his credit, Steinbeck exposes both sides for what they are.  On the one hand, employers (fruit growers in this case) are shown as exploiters of the working poor, commonly hiring desperate workers and then callously tossing them away in favor of cheaper labor as soon as the opportunity presents itself to do so.  On the other, union organizers are exposed as the Communist tools they are, men even willing to get workers killed or maimed if that will somehow advance “the Cause.”  In fact, the organizers hope to provoke deadly violence directed at workers in order to fire up the men enough to keep them walking the picket lines. 
The book’s two main characters are Mac and Jim.   When Mac, a veteran union organizer, senses something special in new recruit Jim, he decides to bring him to the apple orchards where fruit pickers are facing an devastating cut in their daily wages.  Jim is a true apostle of the cause and, as Mac teaches him the organizing techniques that work best, Jim aches to be more directly in the cause – and constantly implores Mac to “use him.”  At one point, after suffering an injury that leaves him somewhat out of his head, Jim somehow manages to take over the strike, a change that makes Mac very nervous:
            Jim said softly, “I wanted you to use me.  You wouldn’t because you got to like me to well.”  He stood up and walked to a box and sat down on it.  “That was wrong.  Then I got hurt.  And sitting here waiting, I got to know my power. I’m stronger than you, Mac.  I’m stronger than anything in the world, because I’m going in a straight line.  You and all the rest have to think of women and tobacco and liquor and keeping warm and fed.”  His eyes were as cold as wet river stones.  “I wanted to be used.  Now I’ll use you, Mac.  I’ll use myself and you.  I tell you, I feel there’s strength in me.”

In Dubious Battle may not be one of John Steinbeck’s most popular or highly acclaimed novels, but it is a powerful one, one that deserves to be read today because it offers such a clear look into America’s not too distant past.


Pride and Prejudice

Jane Austen struggled to get Pride and Prejudice finally into print.  Finding a publisher was not easy (she even considered self-publishing), but she did not give up.  During the years the manuscript sat on her shelf, she reworked it and changed its title from First Impressions to the even more plot-descriptive Pride and Prejudice.  Now, 200 years later, that novel is still one of the best known, and best loved, books in the world.  

Mr. and Mrs. Bennet live with their five daughters in Longbourn, a Hertfordshire town in which nothing is more important to young ladies and their mothers than making the right match.  A man with a fixed annual income is a must, but even better is a handsomeman with an annual income.  And the highly competitive (if a bit scatterbrained) Mrs. Bennet is ready to start marrying off her daughters.  This is, in fact, to her husband’s dismay, all the woman thinks about. 

However, the Bennet girls, beautiful as most of them are, face some stiff competition in their little town, and when a military troop makes temporary headquarters there, the game is on.  But it is when two wealthy young men take up temporary quarters in one of the county’s most spectacular homes and, at the same time, a foolish young preacher comes courting the girls that the fun really begins.

Pride and Prejudice, considering its age, is remarkably easy for today’s readers to read and enjoy.  Austen’s witty dialogue and her writing style work as well today as when the book was first published, ensuring that the novel will continue to entertain readers for many generations to come.  It does not hurt, too, that Elizabeth Bennet, the second of the Bennet daughters – and Austen’s personal favorite of all her heroines – is one of literature’s most memorable characters.  Elizabeth, though, is surrounded and supported by a whole cast of characters that interact perfectly to make Pride and Prejudice the very special book that it is. 
There are the wealthy (Misters Bingley and Darcy and their sisters), the super-wealthy (Lady Catherine), the foolish (Mr. Collins and Mrs. Bennet, in particular), a scoundrel (Mr. Wickham), the rest of the Bennet sisters and their long-suffering father, and a town filled with friends and rivals.

New readers are likely to be surprised by how much fun Pride and Prejudice is, but this is precisely the reason so many re-read it on a regular basis.  Jane Austen wrote romantic comedy before there was such a thing.  She was way ahead of her time stylistically, especially when it comes to dialogue, and it all comes together beautifully in Pride and Prejudice.  This one is not to be missed.

Moby-Dick Big Read, Chapters 57-63

Moby-Dick Big Read, Chapter 57 Illustration

The early chapters of this seven-chapter section of Moby-Dick are largely devoted to explaining more of what goes on in the typical whaling ship of the period.  Chapter 57, for instance, is devoted to the various carvings on whale teeth and rendering of whale images that the sailers devote so much time to during the crew’s downtime.  Chapter 58 describes sailing through a yellow sea of brit, the “minute, yellow substance upon which the Right Whale largely feeds,” and Chapter 60 details the make-up and proper handling of the line tied to the harpoons that bind a wounded whale to the small boat chasing it.

That chapter (“The Line”) is a reminder of how dangerous a job these men were taking on for so little pay.  Probably because I recently watched a film version of Moby-Dick, I find that coiled rope line to be one of the scariest aspects of nineteenth century whaling.  A man unlucky enough to get in the way of that whiplashing rope (only 2/3 of an inch in diameter, according to Melville) could easily lose an arm, a leg, or even be cut in half.

In Chapter 59, Ishmael describes the excitement on board ship when it appears that Moby-Dick has finally been sighted.  Eerily, when the four chase boats get close enough to see what is ahead of them, the creature turns out to be “the great live squid, which, they say, few whale-ships ever beheld, and returned to their ports to tell of it.”  No, this is not going to end well for our boys.

Chapter 61 (“Stubb Kills a Whale”) is the one that rips all associated “glory” from the whaling process and paints it in terms that make it all seem so very real – and so gruesomely bloody.  I doubt that anyone can read the following paragraph without be a bit horrified at the picture of a harpooned whale’s final moments:

“And now abating in his flurry, the whale once more rolled out into view; surging from side to side; spasmodically dilating and contracting his spout-hole, with sharp, cracking, agonized respirations.  At last, gush after gush of clotted red gore, as if it had been the purple lees of red wine, shot into the frightened air; and falling back again, ran dripping down his motionless flanks into the sea.  He heart had burst!”

As expected, George Cotkin’s  Dive Deeper: Journeys with Moby-Dick offers interesting observations and speculations regarding this section of Melville’s masterpiece.  Perhaps, because of the paragraph I quoted just above, what strikes me most, however, is Cotkin’s explanation of the evolution of nineteenth century whaling techniques into those of today.  Today’s whalers have the tools that allow them to harvest whales rather than hunt them and hope to actually take 5% of the ones they chase.  Simply put, the whale does not stand a chance of escape today once it has been chosen for harvesting.  (The need for whaling is beyond me, but I am willing to listen if someone wants to argue a pro-whaling case.  Just comment, below, and we’ll begin the conversation.)

With an exception or two, the Big Read narrators do an exceptional job on this group of chapters.  One female reader, however, sounds as if she is reading from inside a hollow pipe, and another one reads so slowly and methodically that I felt much as Ishmael must have felt just before he fell asleep high up in the crow’s nest – leaving Stubbs’s whale to be spotted by men on deck the Pequod.  My “soul” almost escaped my body while Marcia Farquhar droned on…and on…and on…

The Lizzie Bennet Diaries

Ashley Clements is Lizzie Bennet

OK, this looks like fun.  Are you ready for a modernized, vlog-style (video log) retelling of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice?  Don’t be too quick to write it off, because the sample episodes I’ve watched are quite clever…and funny.  

Each YouTube episode runs somewhere between two and five minutes in length – and the good news is that this thing started almost a year ago, so you won’t have to wait for new episodes to be posted for quite a while.  (I think, based on what I see at that there are 78 episodes to this point.)  Heck, this thing even has a few of “spin-offs” – and, from what I gather, some of the “characters” participate in various social media outlets – to its credit, so Jane Austen fans should be set for a while.

Per, Wikipedia, these are the spinoffs:

The Lydia Bennet

This spin-off of The Lizzie Bennet Diaries chronicles the adventures and mishaps of the youngest Bennet sister, Lydia. The blog is only maintained whenever Lizzie and Lydia are separate from one another and Lydia cannot appear on the main blog. Lydia begins the videos when Jane and Lizzie are staying at Netherfield. Lydia goes to live with her cousin Mary (Briana Cuoco), who at first is unhappy with Lydia’s presence but the two bond as friends. Lydia resumes the blog when Lizzie is visiting Charlotte and has several adventures with Mary and Jane. After Lizzie and Lydia’s fight in episode 73, Lydia uses the blog to vent her frustration at Lizzie as well as chronicle her adventures while Lizzie is at Pemberley, including a trip to Las Vegas on New Year’s.

[edit]Maria of the Lu

Charlotte Lu begins her new job at Collins & Collins. Her younger sister Maria Lu (Janice Lee) begins a video blog to record her internship with the company.

[edit]Collins and Collins

Mr. Collins’s company produces instructional videos in the series “Better Living with Collins and Collins.” The first, and currently only, video in the series is “Troubleshooting your Illumination Regulator,” in which Maria Lu shows how to operate a light switch and how to fix potential problems with light switches. The second and yet unreleased video in the series is called “Changing Bulbs: A One-Person Job.”

To get you started, here’s Episode 1.  The dedicated website has a link to “catch up on the story from the beginning,” that will save you a bit of time searching for the individual episodes.

Moby-Dick Big Read, Chapters 41-47

Chapter 46 Illustration by Wiebke Siem

I got so caught up in the holiday rush that it’s been six weeks since I last mentioned the Moby-Dick Big Read project.  I have only managed to squeeze in seven chapters (41 pages) since the week before Thanksgiving, so my “continuity” is a little weak at the moment – and now I have to hope that access is to the audio chapters remains available long after the project is officially finished.  The current chapter is number 110, so I am now 67 chapters behind with little chance of ever catching up.

I cannot think of a better companion book to Moby-Dick than George Cotkin’s Dive Deeper: Journeys with Moby-Dick.  Cotkin has a way of bringing up points, questions, and issues that often appear to have very little to do with Melville’s plot but, upon reflection, offer valuable insights and theories that few readers are likely to otherwise come up with.

For instance, Cotkin has been pointing out for a while just how fascinated Melville was by the racial issues of his day.  Now, in Chapter 41 (“Moby Dick”), Cotkin wonders whether or not Ishmael himself may have been a dark-skinned man.  Based on what we know about Ishmael and his sympathy for, and understanding of, black men, the idea is not all that farfetched, bit of a shock though it is.

Chapter 42 (“The Whiteness of the Whale”), for instance, is largely devoted to Melville’s understanding of the “symbol of whiteness” and the “variety of associations that the color white has possessed throughout history.”

Cotkin’s Chapter 44 explores the influence of Moby-Dick on the following generations of writers who used the novel as a role model in their own quest to write the “Great American Novel,” Norman Mailer being only one of many who did so.

Chapter 45 (“The Affidavit”) in which Melville seems determined to prove that his whale creation was entirely capable of sinking a whaling ship, is one of my favorites so far.  Our narrator first tells of three first hand experiences he has had with whales escaping after having been harpooned, only to be retaken by the same harpoonier as much as three years later.  He also adds a story or two about whales known to have purposely rammed a whaling ship until it began to take on water, effectively making his case that what he describes in the novel is based upon reality, not fantasy.

And, finally, in Chapter 47 (“The Mat-Maker”) a sperm whale is spotted…and the chase is on.

Interestingly, my favorite reader from this section of the book is poet and novelist Anthony Caleshu.  I say “interestingly” because Caleshu manages to skip one entire paragraph of the chapter and fails to come back to a footnote of more than half a page in length.  He also flip-flopped a couple of names given to recognizable whales, but none of the errors would be noticeable except to those reading along.  Despite his oversights, Caleshu’s cadence and enunciation still make him one of the better readers to this point.

Moby-Dick Big Read, Chapters 33-40

Chapter 35 illustration by Robert Fearns

Chapters 33-40 of Moby-Dick total 36 pages and conclude at page 179 of my Library of America edition of this classic novel…still no sighting of the big guy, himself, however.  Chapter 41 is titled “Moby Dick” and Chapter 42 is called “The Whiteness of the Whale.”  Will Moby Dick make an actual appearance then?  Well…

These chapters are largely introductory ones in which the hierarchy aboard the ship is explained, beginning with the high status of the “harpooneer,” “a class unknown of course in any other marine other than the whale fleet.”  The status of the harpooning class is rather obvious when one considers that the success of the entire three-year voyage largely depends on having competent whale-stickers on board.

After contrasting the living arrangements of the men and their officers, Melville describes the ship’s three mast-heads, high perches manned by whale-spotters in two-hour ships during daylight hours almost as soon as whaling vessels leave port.   According to our narrator, an ordinary sailor will spend the equivalent of “several months” at the mast-head over the course of a long voyage.

The reader also learns in this section of the book of the regimented hierarchy of the “captain’s table,” a table in which the officers are served in order of rank – including the quantity of food they can expect to receive.  Melville sets the scene this way: “Over his ivory-inlaid table, Ahab presided like a mute, maned sea-lion on the white coral beach, surrounded by his war-like but still deferential cubs…They were as little children before Ahab…”  We also get a peek at the contrast between what happens at the Captain’s table and the atmosphere at that same table when the harpooneers use it for their own meal.  Let’s just say that the young serving boy seriously fears that, if he is not careful, he might just become part of the cannibals’ meal.

Up on the quarter-deck, Captain Ahab gives his crew the kind of charismatic pep-talk that few would have expected from the usually reticent captain.  By the end of Ahab’s tirade, all but a handful of those on board (mostly of the officer class) are more than willing to risk life and limb to help the captain avenge the loss of leg to the great Moby Dick.

Dive Deeper (by George Cotkin), my companion piece to the novel, uses these chapters to offer another set of interesting insights into Melville’s themes, the influence of Moby-Dick on generations of writers, and Melville’s conscious effort to transform the novel into something more important than a money-maker.  The country’s struggle to survive the slavery issue – and race relations, in general – are, according to Cotkin, “resounding themes in Moby-Dick,” something obvious even to a reader like me who often struggles to identify “theme.”

More surprising, is Norman Mailer’s revelation of how greatly he patterned his first novel, The Naked and the Dead, after what he “stole” from Moby-Dick: “I was sure everyone would know.  I had Ahab in it, and I suppose the mountain was Moby Dick.”

I am particularly fond, this time around, of the reading offered of Chapter 34 by Charlie Phillips.  Mr. Phillips has a pleasant, and surprisingly easy to follow, Scottish accent that works very well for this chapter about the captain’s dinner table.  Here’s a YouTube video of what I believe is the correct Charlie Phillips as he explains his studies of Bottlenose Dolphins off Scotland’s west coast…and a link to the chapter itself.

Chapter 60 was just released today by the Big Read people, so I am rapidly losing ground.  My four-month project to read Moby-Dick and Dive Deeper together is starting to look more like a six-month project.

Moby-Dick Big Read,Chapters 26-32

Laura Ford illustration of Chapter 26

Melville uses chapters 25 and 26 to introduce readers to other key members of the Pequod crew and to applaud the qualities of the working class.  As George Cotkin points out in Dive Deeper, Melville also makes clear his allegiance to the Democratic Party of his day by heaping praise on President Andrew Jackson.  Both chapters are entitled “Knights and Squires.”  (See illustration to the left.)

Captain Ahab finally makes an appearance in Chapter 28, a chapter appropriately titled “Ahab.”  Ishmael has grown more and more apprehensive in anticipation of finally meeting the captain, but the man has remained in his cabin so long that Ishmael no longer expects to find him on deck at the beginning of each new day.  For that reason, he is very startled one morning actually to find the man himself standing there:

 “…so soon as I leveled my glance towards the taffrail, foreboding shivers ran over me.  Reality outran apprehension; Captain Ahab stood upon his quarter-deck.”

The chapter is particularly well read by Anthony Wall, whom I believe to be an award-winning BBC producer.  Good readers make all the difference.  I find myself becoming irritated with those who read the words as if they deserve no emotional input from the reader, and by those readers who continually flub their lines by skipping words or reading them out of order.  The good readers, however, are a joy.

 Then in Chapter 29, “Enter Ahab, to Him Stubb,” as Ahab hurls personal insults at one of his officers, it becomes clearer what the captain’s state-of-mind is as the voyage begins.  In explaining Ahab’s tendency to pace the decks in the wee hours of the morning, Melville makes an observation that shows how little the sleeping habits of old men have changed in the last 150 years, “Old age is always wakeful; as if, the longer linked with life, the less man has to do with aught that looks like death.”  I can attest to the truth of that one.

Chapter 30, “The Pipe,” sees Ahab toss his beloved pipe overboard as he dedicates himself exclusively to the task at hand: taking his revenge on the white whale that snatched his leg from him.  Anything that distracts him from that task by giving him pleasure or by soothing him has to go.

Chapter 31 is a rather strange chapter during which Stubb shows how dismayed he still is by his confrontation of Ahab by describing a disturbing dream he had following their run-in.

And, finally, Chapter 32, “Cetology,” is a long one in which Melville discusses every type of whale likely, or unlikely, to be encountered during the voyage.   The narrator displays a good understanding of the various classes and families of whale as known at the time, but comes down hard on the side of those who consider the whale to be a fish, not a mammal. The length of the chapter could make for a rather tedious reading experience, but Big Read reader Martin Attrill makes quick work of it while managing to keep it all interesting.

Moby-Dick Big Read, Chapters 20-25

Chapter 24 illustration (untitled) by Ann Hamilton (2002)

Chapters 20-22, “All Astir,” “Going Aboard,” and “Christmas Day,” respectively, finally see Ishmael and Queequeg on the open sea as they begin what they hope will be a successful three-year whaling adventure.  Everything required for the journey is now on board the ship, having been topped off by the little extras personally carried aboard by Captain Bildad’s sister, known as Aunt Charity.  Charity owns a share of the ship and its profits and has more than “charity” in mind.  She wants this voyage to be a successful one as much as Ahab and his crew want it.  And so, on a cold and icy Christmas day, the voyage has finally begun.

George Cotkin notes in Dive Deeper that Bulkington, a respected whaler first encountered by Ishmael at the Spouter Inn,  has Chapter 23, “The Lee Shore,” to himself.  Admittedly, this is a very short chapter, but because it is the last mention in the book of Bulkington, scholars believe that Melville must have had bigger plans for the character at some stage of plotting Moby-Dick.  Some, in fact, believe that he was to be the book’s central character before Melville decided to place Captain Ahab in that role.

Fiona Shaw

Chapters 24 and 25 (“The Advocate” and “Postscript”) are interesting because of the spirited defense that Ishmael offers of the history of whaling and the good character of those who pursue that occupation.  Cotkin uses his own notes to these chapters to share history of a different nature: that of Led Zeppelin drummer John Bonham whose most famous drum solo is part of a song titled “Moby Dick.”  As Cotkin says, “Alas, neither Ahab nor Bonham was able to vanquish the demons that haunted them.”  I am learning quickly that Dive Deeper is full of such surprises – and not at all the dry read one might, at first glance, expect.

My favorite reader from this group of chapters (and it is a close call because this is an outstanding group) is Irish actress and stage director Fiona Shaw who reads Chapter 25.

Moby-Dick Big Read Project, Chapters 16-19

Illustration for Chapter 16 by London artist Alison Turnbull

Chapter 16 (The Ship) and Chapter 18 (The Mark) introduce two memorable characters: Captains Peleg and Bilbad.  These two elderly Quaker gentlemen are in charge of the Pequod while she is in port being readied for the upcoming three-year whale hunt which Ishmael and Queequeg hope to join.  Even though they share the same religion, and responsibility for preparing the whaler for the voyage, the two men are very different in temperament.  One is rather pious – and stingy.  The other often offends his old friend with colorful language and outrageous behavior but is more generous in allotting profit-shares to the crew.

In Chapter 18, Ishmael brings Queequeg back to the ship, as he promised the captains he would, so that Queequeg can be added to the ship’s roster.  The old men have immediate misgivings about adding a heathen like Queequeg to the crew, but eagerly sign him up after quick display of the islander’s harpooning skills.

Chapter 16 reader, Chad Harbach

Chad Harbach, Chapter sixteen’s reader, made a big splash last year with his debut novel The Art of Fielding, a novel about college life and relationships as seen through the eyes of several members of the school’s baseball team – an excellent novel.  His delivery of this long chapter is delivered in a rather deadpan, but easily followed, tone.

George Cotkin, in Dive Deeper, notes that Melville named his whaling ship after the Pequot Indians, the first American Indian tribe to be targeted for extermination by settlers of the New World.  Is Melville telling his readers that the Pequod is as doomed as its namesake tribe?  It will not be the last such hint from Melville before the ship finally leaves port to meet its destiny.

Chapter 17 (The Ramadan) offers another glimpse of Queequeg’s religious beliefs – beliefs Ishmael claims to respect, in one breath, and make light of in the next.  Try as he might to be openminded about such an alien culture, Ishmael struggles mightily to achieve his goal.  Ismael, however, displays his true feelings about his new friend when he frets that Queequeg cannot possibly survive the rigid, stationary posture he assumes for an entire day of Ramadan fasting.

Chief Ko-Towatowa

Chapter 19 (The Prophet) offers the next hint of a bad ending for the Pequod, and all associated with her, when an old sailor confronts Ismael and Queequeg as they leave the boat – and again the next morning when they return to board the vessel.  Ishmael, already filled with doubts about the mysterious Captain Ahab he still has not seen, does not want to hear it.  But his efforts to run off the old man are in vain, and he cannot help hearing things that make him even more uneasy about the captain than he already was.  Ominously, this mysterious prophet (as pointed out in Dive Deeper) shares a name with the biblical prophet Elijah, giving added weight to what he has to say.

The drawing of New Zealand Chief Ko-Towatowa, on the right, is thought by some to be an inspiration for Melville’s Queequeg.  It was used to illustrate an 1845 book pertaining to a “voyage of exploration” conducted by an American ship a few years earlier.

(You will notice that I do not make reference to readers of Chapters 17-19: Warren Cole, David Coslett, and Mark Sealey, respectively.  Even though these names do not seem to be particularly common, I have been unable to determine which person by those names are working on this project.)

Moby-Dick Big Read, Chapters 13-15

Chapter 13 art by New York artist Alexis Rockman

“We cannibals must help these Christians.” – Queequeg, Chapter 13

Chapter 13 (The Wheelbarrow) is one in which Melville uses humor to make a point about cultural differences and how anyone can be confused by those differences.

Mama Tokus

Ismael and Queequeg are making their way to Nantucket in search of a whaling ship whose crew they can join together.  Soon after they board the packet schooner that will carry them there, an unfortunate fellow makes the mistake of ridiculing Queequeg’s appearance within range of the cannibal’s hearing.  Queequeg, justifiably offended by the man’s rudeness, proceeds to teach him a lesson he will never forget – and then wins his eternal gratefulness.

Melville has Queequeg tell Ishmael two stories that vividly illustrate the kind of foolishness that can happen to a person immersed in a culture not his own.  The first recounts Queequeg’s reaction to the first wheelbarrow he ever set eyes on; the second is about a white man attending a wedding on Queequeg’s island.  Our cannibal, it seems, is a very wise man.

This chapter is wonderfully read by Mama Tokus, a British singer/poet who breathes real life into Melville’s words.  She does so well with the reading, in fact, that I plan to learn more about her soon.

Nathanial Philbrick

Chapter 14 (Nantucket) sees our newly minted friends arrive in Nantucket, a city which in Ishmael’s mind is still the most important whaling city in the world.  Ishmael is still impressed with this “ant-hill in the sea,” but as George Cotkin points out in  Diving Deeper, Nantucket is already past its prime and will never again be what it was.

This short, two-page chapter is read by Nathanial Philbrick, the American author who won the National Book Award in 2000 for In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex.

Chapter 15 (Chowder) describes the Nantucket lodging that Queequeg and Ishmael snare for themselves – an inn that serves a quality and quantity of clam and cod chowder that a hungry man should not be reading about.  The innkeeper’s wife is in charge of The Try Pot inn upon their arrival, but she is more than a match for Queequeg, insisting that he leave his harpoon downstairs as she allows no weapons in the sleeping quarters.  Before retiring for the night, in anticipation of finding themselves a whaling ship in the morning, the pair order bowls of both chowders for their breakfasts.

Sadly, I cannot determine which Peter Burgess reads this chapter, too many legitimate possibilities, but he does not sound British.

Moby-Dick Big Read, Chapters 10-12

Stephen Fry

The bonding of Queequeg and Ismael continues in Chapter 10 (A Bosom Friend), as the two formalize their new friendship by sharing a smoke on the cannibal’s tomahawk pipe.  After a hug, Queequeg declares them to be “married” and insists that Ismael accept half the cash in Queequeg’s pockets.  No fool, he, Ismael hesitates only a moment before doing so.

Chapter 10 is read by one of my favorite actors (and writers, as far as that goes), Stephen Fry.  I looked forward to Fry’s reading, and my only disappointment is that the chapter, at only four pages, is one of the shorter ones in the book.

Neil Tennant

Chapter 11 (Nightgown) finds our pair of fast friends back in the sack, relaxing side-by-side in the hotel one last time before they begin their great whaling adventure,  George Cotkin, in Dive Deeper, puts forward an interesting theory that the close relationship of the two fictional characters is based on the real life relationship of Melville and Nathaniel Hawthorne.  As Cotkin puts it, “Melville fell for  Hawthorne as hard as Ishmael swooned for Queequeg.”  Hawthorne’s influence on Melville certainly had a positive impact on the style and content of Moby-Dick; without their friendship Moby-Dick may have been a very different novel – one long forgotten by now.

The reader of this chapter is Neil Tennant – but which Neil Tennant?  My hunch is that this is the singer/musician who found fame with The Pet Shop Boys, rather than the South African philosopher/college professor.

Witi Ihimaera

In Chapter 12 (Biographical), Queequeg reveals detail about his life, including how and why he left his home to become a harpooner.  The cannibal expresses  disappointment that the Christian world has failed to live up to his expectations and hopes to learn many useful things that he could bring back to his people to make their lives easier.  Now, instead, he feels “unfit” to claim the “pure and undefiled” throne of his father until he is able to cleanse his soul .  Dive Deeper relates the religious philosophy expressed here by Queequeg to Melville’s own misgivings about Christianity.

New Zealand author Witi Ihimaera’s Maori accent makes him the perfect reader for this chapter.  Too, Ihimaera, the author of the 1987 novel The Whale Rider (made into a successful movie fifteen years later), is not unfamiliar with whales and the whaling culture.

(It is not too late to experience the Big Read for yourself.  The website links directly to iTunes where the series can be subscribed to for automatic downloading of each daily reading for your later enjoyment.)

Moby-Dick Big Read, Chapters 5-9

Chapter 5 (Breakfast) finds Ishmael at a group breakfast, sharing a table with his fellow-boarders, Queequeg among them, at the Spout Inn.  Ishmael seems to be the only one of the whalers willing to be himself and not worry about what others think.  As a group, these whalers appear to be a shy bunch, content to eat their breakfast rather quietly before hitting the streets of New Bedford one last time before going to sea.  Queequeg, in the meantime, uses his harpoon to spear food from nearby platters or to drag distant platters closer to him.

Musa Okwonga

“Breakfast” is read in great style by Musa Okwonga whose twitter account describes him this way: “Poet, sportswriter; author, musician; journalist, broadcaster, communications adviser.  BBC, ESPN, MSN, FT, The Blizzard, The Independent and more.”  Okwonga does a bit of everything, it seems.  He can be followed on Twitter here.

In Chapter 6 (The Street), Ishmael is amazed by the variety of humanity he finds on the streets of New Bedford, the current whaling capitol of the world.  The way he sees it, Queequeg does not stand out in this crowd and, in fact, is just one among many strange characters wandering the city.

Big Read Illustration, Chapter 6

Chapter 6 is read by Mary Norris, but I am, embarrassingly, unable to determine exactly “which” Mary Norris that might be.  I suspect it is the Irish Mary Norris who has been describing her horrible experiences in St. Joseph’s Orphanage, a facility run by the Catholic Church in Killarney, Ireland.  But, I’m only guessing.

It is in Chapter 7 (The Chapel) that Ismael’s spirits become a little subdued by all the reminders inside the church of lives lost to the very pursuit he is about to embark upon.  There are numerous commemorative plaques scattered throughout the little church but, alas, few bodies to match them since all of those being memorialized were lost at sea, never to be seen again.

This chapter is read by Keith Collins, another of those rather generic names from which I can not comfortably identify the actual narrator.  This is turning into my one complaint about the way the Big Read is being presented.  Capsule biographies of the readers would be a huge help to listeners located outside the U.K.

Chapter 8 (The Pulpit) really puts The Whaleman’s Chapel into perspective as it describes the unique pulpit from which the famous Father Mapple preaches his Sunday sermons.  Rising high above the church’s whaling congregation, and modeled to look like the prow of a whaling ship, this pulpit gives Father Mapple the perfect spot from which to reach his audience.  And, as described in the next chapter, a Father Mapple sermon is quite an experience.

Simon Callow

“The Pulpit” is read by Nick Atkinson and, again, I’m having to guess just which “Nick Atkinson” this really is.  I see two possibilities: Nick Atkinson, the Australian actor, or Nick Atkinson, the British rock band singer.  Your guess is probably better than mine.

Chapter 9 (The Sermon) is really something to hear.  Melville has written a barnburner of a sermon for Father Mapple and Simon Callow delivers it to perfection.  I found this chapter to be one where it is best just to put the book down and listen to Callow deliver the sermon “live.”  He did a beautiful job.  Of course, Simon Callow is one of the most respected British stage and movie actors around, and very easily identified.

Dive Deeper covers a good bit of ground related to Chapters 5-9, including a real-life model, Methodist minister Edward Thompson Taylor, upon which Father Mapple is likely to have been based.

Included is this interesting observation about Melville’s view of theology, as expressed in Moby-Dick:

“The cosmic joke that hits hard in Moby-Dick is not about whether there is a God.  It is about why such a God should be so distant or mean-spirited.  Does this deity take perverse pleasure in joking with the lives of so many poor souls?  This may be the ‘ultimate secret’ that Melville’s humor seeks to reveal.  Or, maybe the point is that the joke is on us?”

I am particularly looking forward to hearing/reading Chapter 10 because it is read by one of my favorite multi-threat talents, the great Stephen Fry.  What a shame Chapter 10 is only four pages long!

Moby-Dick Big Read, Chapters 3-4

I’m four chapters into the Moby-Dick Big Read and still very impressed with the quality of the production and the talent of the readers.  Listeners will, of course, enjoy certain readers more than others for a variety of reasons.  Myself, to this point, I prefer the first reader (the only female of the four) to the others.  I’m noticing, surprisingly, that readers do tend to skip words or transpose them fairly often.  Perhaps, that stems from an intentional attempt to make the first-person narration sound more conversational, or maybe, these are simply mistakes not considered worth the effort of re-recording for 100% accuracy.  I suspect the latter.

At fifteen pages, Chapter 3, “The Spouter Inn,” is one of the longest in Moby-Dick, and I’m willing to bet that it will be the funniest.  This is the chapter in which Ishmael finally sees Queequeg face-to-face after much anticipating and worrying about his appearance at the inn until after midnight.  It does not help that he is already in bed and only gets a good look at the “cannibal,” when Queequeg finally lights a candle while preparing for bed.  Panic and terror are the order of the day on the parts of both men.

Chapter 4, “The Counterpane,” is Ishmael’s rather strange account of waking up next to the cannibal whose arm is “thrown over me in the most loving and affectionate manner.  You had almost thought I had been his wife.”  Diving Deeper devotes two full pages to the “homoerotic intonation of the relationship” between Queequeg and Ishmael – most of it recounting the life story of the first scholar officially to call attention to something readers had been wondering about for years.  This scholar, Newton Arvin, one of Truman Capote’s sexual partners in the 1940s, lived a rather tragic life during which he fought a losing battle to hide his sexual preferences – and to hold off the depression caused by so much stress and worry about being exposed.  Arvin died in 1963 of pancreatic cancer, long after he split with the much younger Capote.

The next few chapters are short ones of two-to-four pages each, so I will soon experience a variety of new readers.  I’m hoping for another woman-reader to be added to the mix.

Moby-Dick Big Read: Try It, You’ll Like It

In another wonderful case of serendipity, Susan – over at You Can Never Have too Many Books – posted yesterday about the online reading of Moby-Dick being sponsored by The Guardian newspaper.  Over the course of the next few months, 135 different celebrity readers from the U.K. will read the entire book, one chapter per night, until it is all done.  I’ve already made it through the first two chapters and can report that I am very impressed with the experience.

I call this a serendipitous event because just a few days ago I received in the mail the Library of America Melville volume that includes Moby-Dick – plus, I was already planning to read the novel before the end of the year because of a Moby-Dick-related book I received a while back from Oxford Press called Dive Deeper.  That book, by George Cotkin, centers around a chapter-by-chapter look at Melville’s most famous novel, offering insights into the author’s thinking, the historical period, and the book’s key plot points.  In other words, it is an excellent companion piece to the novel, but as part of a three-way reading of the novel, it is already proving to be a step beyond “excellent.”

I find reading along with the online-narrators and immediately reading the corresponding sections of Dive Deeper to be an effective way to enjoy the novel and, rather painlessly, ensure a deeper understanding of the work than I would have otherwise ever attained.  Serendipity, indeed.

I encourage you to follow the link back to Susan’s place and, from there, to the Guardian article to get all the detail about the project, how it came about, and who some of the readers will be.  Those of you wanting to get a quick sample of what it all sounds like can jump from here to the Moby Dick Big Read site directly.

The book’s first two chapters (a total of 10 pages) are largely scene-setters in which Ishmael introduces himself and explains why he wants to return to the sea.  By the close of the second chapter, he has found cheap – very cheap- lodging for the night in New Bedford’s Spouter-Inn where he will share the bed with an unusual roommate called Queequeg.

Two insights I gained from Dive Deeper:  1)  Going to sea is Ishmael’s antidote to the kind of depression that makes people suicidal, and 2) The preacher in the black church Ishmael accidentally enters in the heavy fog of the evening is perhaps patterned on Frederick Douglas who was in New Bedford at the same time Melville was there.

Robinson Crusoe

Robinson Crusoe is one of those books I first read as a kid in junior high school – and I still remember my excitement about the great adventure it described.  The funny thing, though, is that during that first reading the moral of the story went right over my head.  It is only now, having re-read the book as an adult, that I see that Crusoe’s hard-earned spiritual transformation from godless man to believer might just have been Daniel Defoe’s main point.  While I was being thrilled by Crusoe’s battles with pirates and cannibals, and his struggle to survive from one week to the next, an equally important story was happening inside Crusoe’s head. 
Most everyone knows the basic plot of Robinson Crusoe: a young Englishman, seeking adventure, goes to sea and eventually, after already having escaped from Barbary Coast pirates, finds himself stranded on a desert island where he manages to survive for 28 years by avoiding the cannibals who use the island as their private picnic grounds.  Crusoe finally makes his way back to England, but only after doing battle with both the cannibals and a group of mutinous sailors who stumble upon his island.  No boy-reader would argue with a story like that one.
Daniel Defoe
But most of the “action” happens before Crusoe is shipwrecked and during the last two years of his stay on the island.  In between, are the years Crusoe spends salvaging necessities from the shipwreck and figuring out how to manufacture items that he is unable to find on the ship before its remains wash away forever.  The brilliance with which Crusoe was able to make the most of everything he carried ashore intrigued me on my first reading of the novel (and I probably enjoyed that aspect of the book even more than I enjoyed the battles Crusoe was involved in, truth be told) but I do not recall being overly impressed by Crusoe’s belief that small “miracles” were being worked on his behalf by a god he, early on, barely believed existed. 
By modern standards, this is not a politically correct novel, but it should not be judged by modern standards.  That a three-century-old novel can still appeal to modern youth is remarkable, and Robinson Crusoe should be appreciated as a snapshot in time, a novel reflecting the racial and political attitudes of its day.  Recommend Crusoe to an early-teen-reader of your acquaintance and watch what happens.
Rated at: 4.0


Tame by today’s standards, Summer, Edith Wharton’s most sexually explicit novel, probably shocked more than a few readers when it was first published almost 100 years ago. That it is also one of only two novels Wharton placed in a rural setting makes Summer even more unique among her novels.

Charity Royall is bored with her little North Dormer community and only works as the town librarian so she can save enough money to escape the life she endures there. She cares little for books and is perfectly willing to allow them to self-destruct on the shelves while she daydreams about a more exciting existence. But, as it turns out, her fate will be forever linked to the little library.

Lucius Harney, a young architect, has come to North Dormer to visit his aunt and to study and sketch some of the old homes in the area. When he wanders into the library one day in search of a book about the old houses, Charity is smitten with him and unknowingly sets the course that will alter the rest of her life. It is the start of a relationship that, even though it begins innocently, is best kept from the prying eyes of the town gossips. Charity knows that her guardian, Lawyer Royall, the man who did a better job of raising her before his wife died than after, would never approve the match – and that there are those in town who would relish the opportunity to tell him about it.

Secrecy, though, requires privacy, and privacy often leads to a degree of intimacy that results in tragic consequences for the unwed. Only after Harney returns to his life in New York, does Charity realize that she is pregnant – and on her own. As Wharton makes clear, a woman of this period facing Charity’s dilemma had few options: illegal abortion, being sent away to have the baby in secrecy, running away in shame, or perhaps the unlikely luck of finding a sympathetic man willing to marry her.

Charity moves from desperation to despair when she realizes how limited her choices have become and that the life she was already unhappy with has been forever changed, and that change being for the worse. As she moves from one poor decision to the next, at times risking her very life, one is reminded of how greatly American mores and values have changed in the last five decades.

Summer, even though it was governed by the stricter limits of its time on language and theme, is a memorable portrayal of what it was like for a woman to be “in trouble” during the first half of the 20th century. That it still can have a strong impact on the reader today leaves one wondering why it was not more of a sensation when first published. Edith Wharton fans should not overlook this fine novel.

Rated at: 4.0