Flotsam and Jetsam

4 books reviewed here, and from them you’ll get a sense of my odd taste in reading these days. No particular reason for it — each one spurred by happenstance, satisfying a yen, or whatever.

Lud-in-the-Mist, by Hope Mirrlees (1926, NYPL e-book). A character in one of Gaiman’s short stories mentions this book, and — mirabile dictu — it was available from the NYPL’s e-book collection. (I can’t say often enough how much I appreciate the NYPL’s e-book collection.) Lud-in-the-Mist is a town located at the confluence of two rivers, one of which flows out of Faerie and threatens the comfort of the townspeople. Then Nicholas Chanticleer’s son and daughter disappear into Faerie, and he must go after them. But this novel concerns so much more than just villainous fairies kidnapping wayward teens. It’s also about the qualities that reason lacks. At one point a doctor says to Nicholas, “I’d like to reason with you a little …. Reason, I know, is only a drug, and, as such, its effects are never permanent. But, like the juice of the poppy, it often gives a temporary relief.” Reason, of course, can be powerful, and not just as a drug to ease distress. But, Mirrlees’ story argues, a life that relies solely on reason is missing something critical to happiness. Faerie provides what’s missing. And for “Faerie”, read Art, Music, Literature — i.e., anything outside the realm of mere reason.

Mirrlees doesn’t shy from making startling pronouncements, such as “the real anchor is not hope but faith — even if it be only somebody else’s faith.” And this, at the conclusion of her story:

… the Written Word is a Fairy, as mocking and elusive as Wily Wisp [a trickster character in the novel], speaking lying words to us in a feigned voice. So let all readers of books take warning! And with this final exhortation this book shall close.

I can see why this is one of Gaiman’s top-ten novels.

M is for Magic, by Neil Gaiman (2007, NYPL e-book). These 11 short stories, one of which is an excerpt from Gaiman’s Newbery winning novel, The Graveyard Book, include a nursery rhyme detective story (à la Jasper Fforde’s DCI Jack Spratt series), a troll-under-a-bridge horror story, a con-man tale set in another world, a tale of alien invasion, and so much more: Horror, fantasy, science fiction — it’s all here.

In his Introduction, Gaiman says that writing short stories was “a great way to begin to learn my craft as a writer. The hardest thing to do as a young writer is to finish something, and that was what I was learning how to do.”

This may be a year of reading/re-reading a bunch of Gaiman (#WitchWeek2020, anyone?), so I’m happy to start with this collection.

Black Narcissus, by Rumer Godden (1939, NYPL e-book). This is one of those rare books that was successfully transferred to the screen. I’ve loved that film (1947, written, produced and directed by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger) since first seeing it in the 1990s, and reading the book just makes me more appreciative of what Powell and Pressburger accomplished. A brief summary of the novel: to establish a hospital and school, 5 nuns settle into an abandoned palace near Kanchenjunga in the Himalayan Mountains. The wind, the views, the sky, the mountains themselves (especially Kanchengunga) challenge the nuns:

The flimsy walls [of the palace] did not shut out the world but made a sounding box for it; through every crack the smell of the world crept in, the smell of rain and sun and earth and the deodar trees and a wind strangely scented with tea. Here the bell did not command, it sounded doubtful against the gulf …. And everywhere in front of them was that far horizon and the eagles in the gulf below the snows.

The nuns fail and, after less than a year, leave the palace for their convent in the city.

Godden, who grew up in Bengal and, as an adult, spent many years in Calcutta, doesn’t romanticize the hardships of life in this part of what is now Bangladesh, nor does she ignore the beauty. However, it’s clear that outsiders, particularly ones trying to adhere to an alien discipline, are doomed to either madness or despair. Near the end, the Sister Superior cries, “I couldn’t stop the wind from blowing!” There may be a lot of sexual tension in this novel, but for me it’s the wind that causes the most trouble.

With the Fire on High, by Elizabeth Alcevedo (2019, NYPL e-book). Emani is a single mom and an aspiring chef, living in Philadelphia. In her senior year of high school, she has to figure out what she wants for herself and her daughter, has to decide what to sacrifice and what to fight for.

In Emani, we find a young woman who masks her self-doubt with bravura and a no-boys-allowed regime. Her skills in the kitchen give her something to be proud of, with friends asking for favorite dishes. Then, when she signs up for a cooking class and finds that her intuitions don’t impress the instructor, she comes close to quitting, ready to give up on her dream to be a professional chef.

Acevedo skillfully takes us through Emani’s difficult senior year, providing insights into her history (her father lives in Puerto Rico, her part time job at the local burger joint is sheer torture, her baby’s father takes the child every other weekend) that make us root for her success. When it comes, it’s well-earned.

And that’s it. With luck, I’ll be back again in a month or so with some more highlights from my reading.

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“As the sun pulls away from the shore …

… and our ship sinks slowly in the west ….”

I finished Moby Dick more than a week ago, on my last night on the road home from a holiday family visit in Oklahoma. The wide horizons of the Midwest were behind me — ahead, the road through northern Pennsylvania, which crosses the Appalachian mountains and the Poconos, finally flowing through the Delaware Water Gap and into New Jersey. It’s a lovely drive, the road climbing steeply here and there, spanning rivers far below it, curving around hills and farms, dipping into valleys.

I make this trip 2 or 3 times a year, and my hours on the road are usually spent noting the familiar sites I’ve passed dozens of times: massive farmhouses, broken down barns, antique malls and car dealerships, billboards with a religious bent (JESUS IS REAL), billboards for local attractions (WORLD’S LARGEST GOLF TEE). It’s easy to see that prosperity is always just down the road from dereliction — as well as the other way around.

And while I was rolling along, just a few hours from home, I couldn’t help thinking about Melville’s ending. Nathaniel Philbrick, in Why Read Moby Dick?*, explains that one of the novel’s purposes is to reveal America’s mad dash towards the Civil War. As I write today’s post, it looks as though America is once again in a mad dash towards a new phase of annihilation. Never a comforting thought, especially given Melville’s lessons: only one member of the Pequod‘s crew survived their monomaniacal leader’s urge for revenge. More than half a million died in the Civil War (see The New York Times, 2 April 2012) — not as dire as the Pequod‘s fate, but still the bloodiest war in US history.

We have our own modern monomania to deal with — myths about our origins that mislead us, beliefs about the righteousness of our cause to support us as we move towards greater folly, expectations of happy outcomes despite past lessons.

It’s been a strange decade, aptly capped by this reading of Melville’s masterpiece. Despite being written more than 150 years ago, its ending is post-modern — not an ending at all, but instead a sudden, quiet cessation. It’s what T. S. Eliot predicted: “Not with a bang, but a whimper.”

Deep into Pennsylvania, I was sinking lower, going down with the Pequod.

And then, I remembered a line from a Spike Jones song (watch the video below to hear the whole thing). It’s the title/intro of today’s post. And Spike Jones is the type of thing that keeps me sane. Sure, I’ll read Moby Dick again in a few years. But Spike Jones (and NBC’s The Good Place — available on Netflix) are currently on heavy rotation. So, no worries. I’ve cheered myself up. And I’m keeping away from newspaper headlines for a while. Ignorance is, in this instance, bliss.

*I briefly discuss Philbrick’s book here.

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Happy holidays!

The Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs: Picture Collection, The New York Public Library. “Veselé Vánoce!” The New York Public Library Digital Collections

To all my readers: Happy holidays, and best wishes for a new year full of cheer, good books, successful completion of all endeavors, and safe travels wherever you may roam.

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Shore leave ends

Last night I finished The Secret Commonwealth (Vol 2 of Pullman’s follow-up series to His Dark Materials) and sent it back (virtually, and virtuously) to the NYPL. By now, another patient reader has begun this dark and compelling tale. I noted parallels to current events (I’ll reveal no more than that), and had a brief moment of “That too?!?” about three-quarters of the way through. But then I remembered that I’m doing something similar with my own WIP, and just let myself fall deeper into Lyra’s world.

This year’s NaNo theme is so much fun.

As for my WIP — writing is progressing well, but slowly, and I’ll be on forced hiatus (for a pleasant reason) for a couple of weeks. But I’ve mapped out all the remaining chapters, many of which are already drafted — so maybe this draft is 70% finished. What’s even more exciting, with the help of my daughter, I finally filled in the last plot-hole. It was a big one, so I’m greatly relieved to have that repair in place.

And now I can get back to Moby-Dick. But before I start the next chapter (#68, so I’m past the halfway point), I just want to say a few quick words about Ishmael as unreliable narrator. In my last post, I warned everyone to watch out, because he makes up things. His chapter on the crow’s-nest, for instance, sounds like academic research but is, in fact, mostly humbug. But Ishmael has a clever sense of humor about it all — a bit like winking at the reader, especially with his footnotes — and is easy to forgive.

As for those footnotes, read them. They’re important. Melville, as Ishmael, is building a complex picture of American ingenuity, a mix of barbarity and inventiveness. Whalers, over the centuries, have invented all kinds of gadgets to ease the task of strip-mining the ocean’s wealth — ambergris, spermaceti, oil, meat — but there’s no avoiding the brutality of the process. You can move it below deck, but it’s still a bloody, stinky, cruel, dangerous mess.

A long time ago, a friend returning from a year in Norway brought me a can of whale meat. I kept that can for years, an object lesson of a strange sort. By the time I got rid of it (about the mid 1980s, I think), it had evolved from an interesting piece of art into a terrible reminder of what living on this planet demands.

Dear readers: try to make good choices.

Posted in Adventure, Am reading, Am revising, Fantasy, NaNoWriMo, Seafaring, short stories | Tagged , | 7 Comments

Steampunk typewriter

I bet you’re wondering about the title for this post. Well, feast your eyes on this:

Poster by Georgia Lange, for NaNoWriMo 2019

Ooh, ooh! Let me give the prototype a test-run! Note that it can clock your typing speed, keep an eye on your verb tenses, and (I’m hoping) let you know when you’ve had a brilliant idea. Jean Lee, I’ll see if I can line one up for you as well.

Ok, putting that dream away for now.

NaNo progress: 16 days of writing, and I should pass the 50K mark sometime tomorrow. I’ll have “won”, but I won’t have finished, so I’ll keep writing until my plane takes off.

Meanwhile, as for Moby-Dick, I’ve hit a snag. Actually, a pleasant one, but I’m in a bind. I’ve been waiting nearly 3 months for a copy of Pullman’s Book of Dust, Vol 2,  and it came yesterday. If it were a copy I’d bought (whether virtual or analog), then I could easily set it aside and wait for a better, less busy moment.

But since it’s an ebook from the NYPL, I can’t, because it’ll disappear from my phone in 12 days, and if I put it back on hold, it’ll be another 3 months before I see it again. Oh, #FirstWorldProblems, why?

Sorry, Ishmael, Ahab, Moby-Dick, Queequeg, Stubb, Starbuck, et al. But don’t worry — it’s “see you later”, not “so long”. I’ll be back in a few days.

NaNo has posted an interview with graphic designer Georgia Lange here. Well worth a read. Turns out, a graphic artist’s process is similar to a writer’s.

Posted in Am reading, Am writing, NaNoWriMo | Tagged , | 5 Comments

Am writing, am reading, am really really busy

12 days into November, and I’m on track to finish NaNoWriMo well ahead of the deadline. It’s amazing how much I can accomplish when I have to.

The reason I have to: I start a 2½-week trip on 24 November, which will leave me with no spare time for writing, and probably little for reading.

Which is why, while cranking out the daily NaNo pages, I’m also barreling through Moby-Dick. I passed the 35% point a couple of days ago, and my interest and enjoyment haven’t flagged.

“Moby Dick”, Rockwell Kent, 1930, courtesy FalseArt.com

But I have to admit that I’m flummoxed about what to add to the massive amount of Ahab-and-the-white-whale commentary that’s collected over the past 168 years.

2019 being the 200th anniversary of Melville’s birth, of course the blog-iverse is crammed with readers sharing their first/second/nth experience of reading Ishmael’s ultra-detailed tale. I have nothing to add, except a slight warning to all: don’t let Ishmael’s voice of expertise fool you. He makes up sources and disagrees with experts. You’ll see. This in no way diminishes Ishmael’s believability when it comes to narrating the events aboard the Pequod — he misses nothing, and never hesitates to tell us all.

To end, I send you to a Moby-Dick themed website well worth a lengthy visit: CallMeIshmael.org, where Patrick Shea, composer, musician and teacher based in Brooklyn, has posted commentary and a new song for each chapter of Moby-Dick. Starting in 2008, Shea composed the songs at the rate of about one a day (although it took him much longer to record them for his blog). His comments provide not just a reaction to the novel, but also a genesis-tale for each accompanying song. The songs themselves range through several musical genres, with lyrics printed for us to sing along. (Shea’s song cycle pre-dates the premier of Heggie & Scheer’s opera, Moby-Dick, by just 2 years.)

That’s it for today. I’ll be back in a week with an update.

Posted in Adventure, Am reading, Am writing, NaNoWriMo, Seafaring | Tagged | 8 Comments

Witch Week 2019 ends

It’s been a great Witch Week, and many thanks to all who participated. Our theme for next year is …

… No spoilers here! You can read all about it at Calmgrove.

Happy November to all!

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