October: I read Moby Dick. What was I thinking?

I have to admit something a bit embarrassing: I have no idea where I’m at now on my 100 books goal. I know that I haven’t met the monthly quotas I set at the beginning of the year and I sense that I’ve lost too much ground at this point to recover. But I’m okay with it because I’ve read books this year that I probably never would have considered or even heard of; I’ve also read some that are so familiar they’re like old friends. October featured an eclectic mix of both.

sky

70. And the Ocean Was Our Sky by Patrick Ness

For his ability to build imaginative worlds that make poignant connections to the most universal and profound of human experiences, Patrick Ness has consistently been one of my favorite authors, period. I don’t even think of adding the qualifier “YA” because his books have appeal and relevance to any audience. He’s probably best known for the brilliant A Monster Calls and has had a vital role in the novel’s translation to stage and screen. My husband and I were lucky to catch the play this summer at The Old Vic theatre in London and still talk about what an incredibly moving experience it was; the audible weeping throughout the entire second act is a testament to Ness’ ability to strike the most poignant chords through any story. He applies this skill to an imaginative premise in And the Ocean Was Our Sky. The novella, gorgeously illustrated by Rovina Cai, reimagines Moby Dick from the whale’s perspective. As the title suggests, the world of this story is turned upside down, its ocean/sky patrolled by armies of whales at war with the ships of men trying to kill them from the deep “abyss” of land and sky. Echoing perhaps the most famous first line in literature, the novella’s opening “Call me Bathsheba” begins a lyrical exploration of Melville’s theme of consuming obsession but develops into a very Ness-esque struggle to recognize the heart and humanity (for lack of a better term) in those we’ve turned into our enemies. Like Ishmael, Bathsheba observes her Captain Alexandra’s life-defining quest to find the (white, of course) ship of the legendary Toby Wick. Along the way, her pod takes a human captive named Demetrius who helps lead them on but also challenges Bathsheba’s perceptions of men as ruthless, bloodthirsty villains. Like many of Ness’ novels, things are not what they seem. If we scratch beneath the surface of our assumptions and prejudices, he urges, we discover something unexpected, something that leads us to question our reality and in so doing, brings us closer to truth.

Moby

71. Moby Dick by Herman Melville

I honestly don’t know what possessed me to take on Moby Dick as part of this 100 books in one year quest. Perhaps subconsciously I think of this goal as my own white whale. More likely, after reading And the Ocean Was Our Sky, I felt a bit sheepish about having never read it. I could just hear the chiding, “And you call yourself an ENGLISH TEACHER?!” So, yeah. I read Moby Dick. It took me two whole weeks and is the reason I didn’t meet my quota for October. I wish I could say it was worth it. Like everyone else who’s never read it, I thought I had a pretty good idea of the story. But even knowing the characters and basic plot, it was not what I’d expected. My favorite part took place before Ishmael had even set sail with Captain Ahab’s crew aboard the Pequod, when he and Queequag were becoming bffs in Nantucket. Queequag’s hardly in it after that! To be sure, the novel includes some gorgeous descriptions of the whaling life. After they’ve successfully harpooned a whale and are all squeezing the sperm (blubber) to soften it, Melville gets downright erotic:

“Squeeze! squeeze! squeeze! all the morning long; I squeezed that sperm till I myself almost melted into it; I squeezed that sperm till a strange sort of insanity came over me; and I found myself unwittingly squeezing my co-laborers’ hands in it, mistaking their hands for the gentle globules. Such an abounding, affectionate, friendly, loving feeling did this avocation beget; that at last I was continually squeezing their hands, and looking up into their eyes sentimentally; as much as to say, – Oh! my dear fellow beings, why should we longer cherish any social acerbities, or know the slightest ill-humor or envy! Come; let us squeeze hands all round; nay, let us all squeeze ourselves.”

But the majority of the novel is just chapter upon chapter of whale jargon, sort of like the farming scenes in Anna Karenina only about 10 times more interminable. I don’t regret reading it but if I had my life to live over again, I probably wouldn’t. If you, like me, are troubled by some vague sense of obligation about reading Moby Dick, just let it go. You’ve already read the best part anyway (the sperm orgy excerpted above) so do yourself a favor and read a book you actually want to read.

wolf

72. American Wolf by Nate Blakeslee

Gray wolves in Minnesota and other western Great Lakes states were hunted nearly to extinction until the Endangered Species Act and reintroduction programs helped recover their numbers. That changed in 2011, when the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services removed endangered species protections for wolves. Though a federal judge overturned the decision in 2014, wolves are continually under threat; the Republican Congress under Trump has made numerous attempts over the past few years to allow wolf-hunting in the northern plains. This tension – the competing interests of politics, environmentalism, business, and tourism – is the central conflict of the Now Read This book club’s October selection, Nate Blakeslee’s wonderful American Wolf. With a cast of characters that include as many animals as humans, this book explores the thorny issue of wildlife conservation in Yellowstone National Park through the story of O-Six, an alpha female who became a media star. After gray wolves were reintroduced to Yellowstone in the mid-90s, the park became the only place to reliably see a wolf in the wild, and so wolf-watching became a popular tourist draw. Outside the park, however, local farmers and ranchers did not feel the same affection and admiration toward the wolves. Blakeslee has said the book started as an attempt to write a biography of a wolf, but American Wolf is much more than that. It doesn’t prescribe answers; rather, through the mirror of the long-running drama of the American West, it asks us to confront some fundamental questions about our relationship with wild spaces. What is our responsibility to the “natural world” and how has the meaning of that term shifted? To what extent are we accountable to the larger ecosystem? In the context of global climate change, these are questions that only become more urgent.

we'll fly away

73. We’ll Fly Away by Bryan Bliss

I’m in a Young Adult Literature book club that never meets. It’s sort of a running joke among a few of my teacher friends. We suggest books to each other, diligently read them, and then never get together to talk about them. But we have good intentions! THIS time we’ll really make it happen! We’ll Fly Away is the latest of our un-club selections. We got excited about it because it was long-listed for a National Book Award and its author, Bryan Bliss, is local to St. Paul. This gripping story pulls no punches as it describes the lives of teen best friends Luke and Toby, who, like many kids their age, are counting the days until they can leave their dead-end town and begin their own lives. The stakes are higher for them, though. Luke has to balance the responsibilities of caring for his younger siblings in the frequent absence of their mother (who has a predictable pattern of bringing abusive men into her children’s lives) against the demands of school and his state-championship wrestling career. Toby lives in abject squalor with his violent drunk of a father. Together, they plan their escape, often in the rusted out hull of an abandoned airplane they found in the woods as boys. The reader knows this does not happen from the first pages; Luke is on death row awaiting punishment for reasons that don’t become clear until the end. We’ll Fly Away is intense, heartfelt, surprising, and incredibly moving in its portrayal of the bond between friends who depend on each other literally, at times, for survival. Inspired by the author’s own experience having to witness an execution for his job as a small-town reporter, We’ll Fly Away explores issues beyond social class, challenging us to think about the effects of trauma and what conditions we place on forgiveness.

at last

74. At Last by Edward St. Aubyn

The final novel in the Patrick Melrose series, At Last, is, like the previous installments, bleak, acerbic, and frustrating, right up until the end. This novel takes place during the funeral for Patrick’s mother Eleanor and, like the gatherings of the previous books, the event serves as a vehicle for St. Aubyn’s cutting satire of class and privilege. Interrupting these scenes are flashbacks to Eleanor’s life with her husband David that confirm he is even more vile – if that’s possible – than Patrick’s memories painted him. The drama of the fourth book, Mother’s Milk, revolved around Eleanor’s attempts to will the vast majority of her fortune to the charismatic leader of a new age foundation she allowed to take up residence in her sprawling French villa. Midway through At Last, Patrick learns that his mother has not disinherited him completely; he has roughly $2 million coming to him, and after reading five books of Patrick engaging in what amounts to self-torture in reckoning with his childhood abuse, I think I am not alone in exhaling and audible “well thank CHRIST” when I got to that part. It doesn’t heal him, obviously. In fact, his reaction is rather underwhelmed. But the calm it ushers in feels like a sign of things to come, and the final scene is a satisfying goodbye to this embattled man and the completely fucked-up world in which he’s had to try to make his way.

A-Room-with-a-View

75. A Room with a View by E.M. Forster

Two things a lot of people probably know about me are my obsession with the Bloomsbury set, especially Woolf and Forster (I have a tattoo inspired by another of his novels on my bicep) and my long running crush* (now in its third decade) on Rupert Graves. My very first, fateful encounter with him was watching the 1985 Merchant-Ivory film starring Helena Bonham Carter, Maggie Smith, Denholm Elliott, and Daniel Day-Lewis. Rupert played Freddy Honeychurch, brother to Lucy (Carter), whose summer holiday in Italy begins a year of soul-searching conflict between freedom and desire on one side and the burdens of class and gender on the other. I’ve loved the film for years and when I finally got around to reading the novel, I found even more to savor. This, by the way, is always the case when a book gets the Merchant-Ivory treatment. While in Florence with her chaperone, a maiden aunt named Charlotte, Lucy meets Mr. Emerson and his son George, a pair who defer in no way to societal conventions. This is a source of embarrassment at times for Lucy, but it also tantalizes her with the possibility that she too might escape the tight corner she is painted into by the expectations upon her. She’s to marry Cecil Vyse when she returns to England, a man for whom she feels no affection and who seems likewise only interested in her to the extent that socially, she’s a step up for him, a good match. Of course, Lucy is in love with George Emerson and spends most of the novel getting herself to admit it. For fans of the film, there is much in the novel to enjoy; the characters are exactly as they are in the movie but even more layered and complex. I especially loved the descriptions of Lucy playing the piano. Her musical talent is meant to represent the vibrant life and sensuality humming beneath her genteel surface, and this comes through much more vividly in Forster’s prose. Even Freddy is more adorable in literary form. During the famous naked pond-bathing scene, he announces to his sister and mother, “I’ve swallowed a polly-wog. It wriggleth in my tummy. I shall die.” I mean, come on.  

rupert
Rupert Graves as Freddy Honeychurch in A Room With a View. Like 12-year-old me stood a chance against that.

*I sort of feel uncomfortable calling it a crush after all these years. I’ve had the good fortune to meet Rupert on a couple of occasions and he’s incredibly friendly, approachable, and willing to let people push him into pools for charity. More importantly, his wife Susie is brilliant and so funny and I have a mountain of respect for her so when I say “crush” I just mean that I think he’s a terrific actor and thoroughly decent human. Glad we cleared that up.

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