The voyage so far

As promised, here’s the first of what may be several updates on my tour of books set on water in honor of Herman Melville’s 200th birthday. Initially I had planned to make these reviews brief, but, well, you know … ideas.

The voyage has been easy running so far, starting with a couple of old favorites from Holling Clancy Holling (1900-1973), writer and illustrator of books that combine history, geography, infographics, full-color illustrations and story to fascinate any reader who isn’t thrown by details.

And to honor the author of the extremely detailed Moby Dick, what could be more appropriate?

Seabird (1948) takes us through 4 generations of a family of sea captains. The dynasty begins in 1832 (HCH provides a handy chronology at the end), when 14-year-old ship’s boy Ezra carves Seabird from walrus tusks, with coral eyes, amber beak and slate feet. 60 pages and more than a century later Ezra’s great-grandson Ken is a pilot who carries Seabird as mascot on every flight.

Along the way, in penciled sidebar illustrations, HCH informs us about whaling — the various species of whales, the gruesome business of “cutting in”, whaleboats and harpoons, try-works, oil lamps, even scrimshaw have sidebar moments (did you know the term for carving ivory is “scrimshandering”?). But not just whaling gets this treatment: masts, spars and rigging; the evolution of coral atoll; 49ers prospecting for gold in California; bridges; arctic wildlife. It’s a glorious read.

And then there’s Paddle-to-the-Sea, HCH’s “lessons” on the geography and economy of the Great Lakes. At the tail end of winter, a young man near Lake Nipigon in Canada carves a wooden “paddle person” and sets him atop a mound of snow; when the melt begins, Paddle-to-the-Sea will head down hill to a stream that takes him to a pond that empties into a small river — and so on and so on. Through the five Great Lakes, and despite two near disasters (a sawmill and a forest fire), Paddle-to-the-Sea eventually makes his way to the Atlantic, and not just by water. At one point he’s carried by dogsled, at others on board sailboats and freighters. People rescue him and then return him to the water. A copper plate on his base (for ballast) provides these people a place to record where he’s been found. His journey takes 4 years, and by its end, the young man who carved him is loading his canoe when he overhears news of his paddle-person’s successful trip. Fitting and satisfying.

Finally (for this post), I’ll include a bit about Sena Jeter Naslund’s Ahab’s Wife: or, The Star-Gazer (recommended by Lizza Aiken, to whom I send grateful thanks). There is much to admire in what Naslund has done here, turning Melville’s massive tale of masculine fury on its head and shoving Ahab aside to a minor role. Famous people (Emerson, Hawthorne, Margaret Fuller, Henry James) mix with Melville’s characters (Starbuck and Ishmael play important roles here), as well as others created to populate Una’s world — a mostly feminist, progressive, and enlightened cast that includes a gay judge, a gay artist, a dwarf, an escaped slave, Unitarians, Quakers, and Universalists, not to mention women baking pies, sewing quilts, knitting socks, watching for their seafaring husbands’ ships, and wielding ivory dildos (no joke — you can find these for sale online).

157 chapters. 667 pages. All crammed to the gills with Una’s story. Born to poverty (emotional as well as financial) in a one-room house on a patch of Kentucky bottom-land, at 12 she moves to a happier and more love-filled life at a New England lighthouse, where she meets the two men who set her on the next stage of her journey. Disguised as a boy, she follows them aboard a whaler, they’re shipwrecked (stove in by a black whale), rescued and eventually taken to Nantucket aboard the Pequod. Yes, that Pequod. Not exactly a “meet-cute”, but it’ll do.

Marriage, wealth, a child, and widow-hood follow, but Ahab plays only a minor role here — Una is the center of this story, and with Ahab mostly absent, we find out about life for those women waiting in port. For Una, it’s a life full of intellectual challenge and spiritual enlightenment — the opposite of what the whalers undergo as they chase ambergris and whale oil. Abolitionists, Transcendentalists, amateur astronomers, artists and armchair philosophers give Una plenty to think about, and her own moments alone, watching the sea and sky from her widow’s walk, help her piece out a happy acceptance of who she has become. At one moment she contemplates chopping off her right hand (guilty of cannibalism during that fateful shipwreck), but she says, no. There is plenty of good work left for that right hand to accomplish, as atonement for the horror on the sea.

Moby Dick (Photo by Culture Club/Getty Images)

Thus Una’s yearning to do good counters Ahab’s all-consuming desire for revenge. No doubt, the contrast of feminine and masculine is Naslund’s goal here. Don’t get me wrong. This isn’t about women vs men. Plenty of Naslund’s male characters show feminine behavior, and a few women (including Una herself) make masculine moves. Instead, Naslund seems to be analyzing models of how we respond to what happens to us. Ahab’s final letter to Una (found by Ishmael and much later recited to her) includes this passage:

Moby Dick! When I top thee, THEN, let my punishment begin, for I embody the great Lie: Hate, revenge, my wounds — they are greater than Love.

Yet Una, just a bit earlier, starting anew after losing her husband and then her house, rejects such negative thought:

Where we choose to be, where we choose to be — we have that power to determine our lives. We cannot reel time backward or forward, but we can take ourselves to the place that defines our being. The idea abides with me like faith. I will be happy to return to this place where domesticity marries the cosmos.

There were moments in this novel that made me cringe (the Dickensian coincidences, the obvious reaches for links to Moby Dick), but overall it’s a comforting (if lengthy) antidote to the harsh world Melville gave us. Often, Una, while watching the night sky, feels herself one with all creation — made of stars, our atoms circle eternally through the universe, and we are always with our loved ones.

Next up: a nostalgic cruise through England, taking in 3 books set on rivers.

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Sea Fever

Wreckers Coast of Northumberland, JMW Turner (1833/34), Yale Center for British Art

Matching my current reading focus is John Masefield’s “Sea Fever” (quoted here, in full, from The Poetry Foundation’s website):

I must go down to the seas again, to the lonely sea and the sky,
And all I ask is a tall ship and a star to steer her by;
And the wheel’s kick and the wind’s song and the white sail’s shaking,
And a grey mist on the sea’s face, and a grey dawn breaking.

I must go down to the seas again, for the call of the running tide
Is a wild call and a clear call that may not be denied;
And all I ask is a windy day with the white clouds flying,
And the flung spray and the blown spume, and the sea-gulls crying.

I must go down to the seas again, to the vagrant gypsy life,
To the gull’s way and the whale’s way where the wind’s like a whetted knife;
And all I ask is a merry yarn from a laughing fellow-rover,
And quiet sleep and a sweet dream when the long trick’s over.


Ernest Shepard, 1908

But then so also does this quote from The Wind in the Willows: “Believe me, my young friend, there is nothing — absolutely nothing — half so much worth doing as simply messing about in boats.”

I’m not a sailor — too prone to mal de mer — but I like the idea of heading out for an adventure on the sea, and thus my theme for this year’s reading list (coinciding, as I wrote previously, with Melville’s 200th anniversary). Since that post, I’ve added to my list: Kenneth Grahame’s classic paean to life on the water, plus an obscure novel called Ahab’s Wife (had to get Moby Dick into this somehow), plus To Say Nothing of the Dog, Connie Willis’s time-traveling tip-of-the-hat to Jerome K Jerome’s wonderful Three Men in a Boat. To say nothing of Swallows and Amazons (forever!).

I’ll keep you posted.

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Sea cruise, baby!

JMW Turner, Snow Storm – Steam-Boat off a Harbour’s Mouth, 1842 (de Young Museum)

No need to get excited. I plan to travel virtually, in honor of Herman Melville’s 200th birthday. Over the next few months I’ll be aboard stories set on ships (with perhaps a rowboat or two) that will take me up rivers, across oceans, and through canal locks.

While the blog-o-meters clock pages conquered in Moby Dick (worth it!, says this 3-time reader; it’s nearly time for my 4th voyage aboard the Pequod), I’ll be cruising through some shorter works, including other dark tales from Melville, along with several of his progeny: Joseph Conrad, Eva Ibbotson, RL Stevenson, Holling Clancy Holling, and Julian Barnes. I’m indulging myself with several re-reads, but there will be some first timers as well (I’m looking at you, Lord Jim and Billy Budd).

I have no master plan or goals (other than to be entertained), and I make no promises to report much beyond what I’ve read — although I’ll allow myself to encourage (or discourage) any who wish to follow in my wake.

Meanwhile, I’ve committed to joining Lory’s appreciation of Robertson Davies @ ECBR, and of course Chris @ Calmgrove and I will be planning something exciting for this year’s WitchWeek in October (only 6 months away? Yikes!).

And also meanwhile, my 2018 NaNoWriMo project, a dystopian sci-fi thriller that’s currently challenging my knowledge of bitcoin mining, is filling my days with procrastinative research.

Finally, here’s a very young Dick Clark setting the tone for my next few months:

Posted in Adventure, Am reading, Classic, Fiction, History | Tagged | 7 Comments

In Welsh hills

Another review to add to Paula Bardell-Hedley’s Wales Readathon. Chatwin’s novel of 20th century life in the Black Hills of Wales wasn’t in my TBR pile for this month, but it called to me from the pages of Anthony Bailey’s travelog, and I couldn’t resist.

On the Black Hill (1982), 249 pp.

Twin brothers Benjamin and Lewis Jones, born in 1900, are the main characters in this novel, but Wales also has a starring role.

In other words, this book isn’t just about Benjamin and Lewis, it’s about their world, including the land and all the oddball characters who enter, leave, and often re-enter many years later.

Let’s start with the land. The twin’s parents settle on a farm on the border between Radnorshire and Herefordshire. From the crest of the nearby Black Hill, you can look westward over Wales, or eastward over England, and despite centuries of living on this border (or perhaps precisely because of it), there is heavy distrust of “the English” in the local community. Victoria is still Queen of England when Benjamin and Lewis are born; when they turn 80, two world wars have barely touched the land around them, yet Radnorshire itself has been subsumed into the British county of Powys (“the English” at it again). The political dance doesn’t register in the lives of the Jones twins. As farmers, they see only the yearly cycles — “foddering” the livestock; mucking out sties, coops and barns; planting and harvesting, shearing and lambing — the daily toil that keeps them tied to the land, yet they never want to sever those ties.

Penkerrig (detail), Thomas Jones (1742-1803), Birmingham Museums and Art Gallery

Winters are cold and dark, driving some to a form of madness. Benjamin’s and Lewis’s father suffers an extreme form of what we now call seasonal affective disorder, becoming surly and violent, resentful of hardships, neighbors, and even his own wife’s education. Then spring changes everything:

a breeze was ruffling the net curtains; a thrush sang in the pear-tree; pigeons were burbling on the roof, and patches of white light wandered over the bed-cover.

Summer and autumn show their colors, sounds, and scents as well, and anyone considering the life of a farmer might want to read this. No one should be surprised to learn how hard that life is, but the rewards come in unexpected ways. For Benjamin, it’s the joy of helping a ewe during lambing. For Lewis its working the land — at first with horse and plow and then later with tractor and combine.

If you’ve ever tried to follow sheep trails when hiking in any part of England, you’ve seen how they branch, veer off, rejoin, run parallel, stop suddenly, clamber down steep hills, and meander so much that you wonder why more sheep aren’t lost. Chatwin’s stories of all the people around the twins are like those sheep trails. Meg the Rock’s mother is murdered, and Meg’s placed on a neighboring farm. We see her at moments over the years — seriously ill, tending wild animals, befriending a lapsed Buddhist, attending a harvest festival. One member of a wealthy family appears at just the right moments to help Mary Jones or her sons. The twins’ sister Rebecca marries an Irishman and moves to North America; several decades later her daughter appears with hopes of inheriting the family farm. The twin’s father feuds with a neighbor, Tom Watkins, and Watkins, many years later, gets revenge at an auction, even though he has long been gone and the father long been dead.

The southern part of the Grwyne Fechan valley in the Black Mountains, Wikipedia

The book always comes back, however, to Benjamin and Lewis. As children, if one is hurt, the other suffers the pain. As adults, they fall ill if separated. The two grow to be different without growing apart. As adults, Lewis wants to modernize, but Benjamin hates spending the money on equipment. He’d rather buy land, even though they haven’t the manpower to take care of it. Lewis is outgoing, Benjamin shy and reluctant to leave the farm. The brothers’ only true rifts are over women (Lewis wants a wife, but Benjamin can’t tolerate the idea and sabotages all Lewis’s attempts).

Chatwin’s writing is lovely, full of pinpoint descriptive notes: “The farmhouse at Lower Brechfa lay in a very windy position and the pine-trees around it slanted sideways.” “… a hollow hidden among rowans and birches, where water whispered over a rock and there was a bank of grass cropped close by sheep.” “The beast-house had not been cleared for years; the layers of dung had risen four feet above the floor, and the heifers scraped their backs on the roofbeams.”

There’s no real plot here — no quest to complete or mystery to solve. But because of this, it’s more like real life. This means there’s also no “happy ending”, but there are endings, some of which make you think, “Ok, there is balance in the universe.”

A quick look on the internet has revealed that Chatwin’s novel was adapted for film in 1987, with Welsh actors playing the major roles, and exterior scenes filmed in Wales, including several in the small town of Crickhowell. The search now begins for a copy of that film. [UPDATE: 2 minutes later: yep, it’s on Youtube]


NB: This is a reposting of my review from 8 September 2013, updated with a few new comments and corrections after a third reading of the novel.

Posted in Am reading, Dewithon, Fiction, Historical fiction, Wales, Wales Readathon | Tagged | 7 Comments

Super-Tramp!

No, not the 1970s prog-rock group (although their song, “Take the Long Way Home” may be apt for what will become obvious reasons).

For this month’s Wales Readathon, Book Jotter has selected William H Davies’ Autobiography of a Super-Tramp as our shared reading. Davies’ book chronicles his years tramping around England, the US, and Canada in the 1890s — hobo campgrounds, jails, freight yards and trains, kind-hearted women and harsh railroad guards. Book Jotter will be posting weekly updates, with opportunities for others to join the conversation.

It isn’t too late to participate. Head here to find out more. And if you’re interested, you can find various online (and free) editions of the book here.

Posted in Am reading, Dewithon, History, Travel book, Wales Readathon | Tagged | 4 Comments

I want to go to there

A Walk through Wales, Anthony Bailey (Harper Perennial, 1992), my first contribution to BookJotter’s Wales Readathon. I reviewed Bailey’s book back in 2010 for my other (now defunct) blog, so some of what follows is shamelessly cribbed from that post.

Some travel books relieve me of the desire to take a particular trip: Jack Hitt’s tale of walking the Camino de Santiago (see my review here) is one example. Fiction often produces similar effects: books by Eva Ibbotson and Ann Patchett have convinced me that a trip up the Amazon won’t appear on any future itinerary of mine.

But in the case of books about places I’ve already visited, my response invariably is to start planning a trip that retraces the author’s route, and right now I’m trying to figure out if October is a good time (weather-wise) to hike through Wales.

On a rainy spring day, Bailey begins his walking tour on a pier, next to a Victorian pile “clad in terracotta, with hexagonal chimneys, gargoyles, and a castellated clocktower”, and heads into the valleys and hills north of Cardiff. Within just a few days, he has reached a fairly rough trail in the Brecon Beacons, the line of mountains that run almost horizontally across the southern half of Wales. At one summit, he writes:

A hazy sun shone. To the south I had a view over the reservoirs almost to Merthyr. The upper faces of the mountain resembled old light-green velvet, very thin and worn. On the north and east sides Pen-y-Fan fell away in almost sheer drops. I stood for a few minutes a little way back from the north edge, rocking slightly from the strength of the wind that hit the scarp and came over the top…. This wind … felt high, but, as in a sailing boat or open plane, it made you feel as if you were in motion. The air, the wind, was blowing solidly toward Pen-y-Fan, and the earth, the mountain, the summit of Pen-y-Fan, was turning through the wind.

Other challenging trails reward Bailey with equally expansive views (when the rain lets up) of meadows and bog heaths, hills and long valleys leading to the sea — the wild terrain that produces slate, peat, coal, and sheep.

As we travel with him, we learn history, geography and biography — something armchair travelers expect in such books. But most interesting to me were the conversations he had with people he met along the way, farmers and housewives, festival singers and hotel owners, gatekeepers at castles and toll booths, all with stories of only local importance that, nevertheless, when assembled by Bailey, create a fairly full portrait of this lovely country.

Bedivere casts Excalibur into Lake, illustration by Aubrey Beardsley for Thomas Mallory’s Le Morte d’Arthur, 1894.

Bailey is a sailor, novelist, historian, and critic, with books about JWS Turner, sailing the Outer Banks, life in a New England village. In this tale of a coast-to-coast trek that takes him through two of Wales’ national parks, he helps readers understand how history and myth play out in the Wales he saw during his travels — King Arthur, Owain Glyndwr, Dafyd ap Gwilym, King Offa, the Welsh language itself are all topics he wanders through, examines carefully, and then considers as he hikes up the next hill.

Bailey has no political or ecological axe to grind, especially as an Englishman in some very anti-English parts of Wales. He does occasionally bemoan the loss of farmland to caravan parks, and can’t help noticing the military jets screaming their way above the otherwise quiet countryside. He also understands Welsh resentment of the English, who in the 1980s and 90s were buying up property in Wales, thus raising housing prices above what most Welsh could afford. Nearly 30 years later, the future of the Welsh language seems a bit more secure, but what about the future of Wales itself in an era of Brexit and widening income gaps? As I was reading Bailey’s final pages, the Welsh Assembly joined with the Scottish Parliament to ask that Brexit be postponed.

Bailey ends as he began, on a pier, his back to the city behind him (this time it’s Bangor). In his final words, I hear a sigh of contentment mixed with regret: I can go home now (smiley face); my trip is over (frowny face). As a sailor, he understands this feeling well:

I felt like a lone sailor at the end of a voyage, wanting to go ashore and yet dreading the loss of independence and the cessation of onward movement; looking forward to going back home but knowing it would involve having to live with the urge to set off again.

Posted in Am reading, Dewithon, Wales, Wales Readathon | Tagged | 14 Comments

Dewithon 2019

I’ve lined up my options for Book Jotter’s 2019 Wales Readathon, which starts in just 1 day:

William Davies’ Autobiography of a Super-Tramp is the shared reading for this year’s event, so it’s a must. A Walk Through Wales, by Anthony Bailey, will be an easy add-on because it’s so short. That leaves the other three, which are hefty choices.

Happy is the reader with many options!

Posted in Am reading, Dewithon, Wales | 1 Comment