When I added Moby Dick to my 2011 reading list, I had no idea just how much work it would be to read. And it really did feel like work. While a fascinating book, it is not an easy read. The language is heavy. The imagery is layered. The detail and description lead to information overload.
But it is a beautiful novel. And that is despite the fact that the whole goal of the main characters is to hunt down and kill a whale, which is not exactly endearing.
Moby Dick is narrated by the sailor Ishmael, on his first whaling voyage. He sails aboard the Pequod, commanded by Captain Ahab. It quickly becomes clear that there is something not altogether right about Ahab. He is scarcely seen by the crew, and not at all before they leave port. He is gruff and reclusive. He wears an ivory leg to replace the limb that was bitten off when he was attacked by the ferocious white sperm whale, Moby Dick. Ahab’s voyage is funded under the pretence of being a whaling voyage, but he soon reveals his real plan: to hunt down and kill Moby Dick, and have his revenge.
But if this was really just a book about killing a whale, I would never have read it. It was so much more. In writing Moby Dick, Melville uses an odd mix of metaphor, symbolism, stage directions, soliloquies and more to tell the story, while examining concepts of good and evil, class, social status, race and sexuality (among other references I probably missed). This was a book you had to read slowly to really see what he was trying to say, and you would have to read it numerous times to get all that you could out of it. I am not sure I have that in me.
Favourite chapters/moments include: Ishmael meeting and sharing a bed with Queequeg; Ahab making the sailors swear an oath to kill the whale; the soliloquies of Ahab, Starbuck and Stubb, following the oath; “The Whiteness of the Whale” – beautiful yet ominous; the personal stories of the carpenter and the blackmith; and of course the dramatic ending.
Moby Dick was an amazing read, and an intense and thrilling story. Well worth the investment of time if you are feeling ambitious.
The novel is full of famous and not so famous quotes, many of which honestly left me breathless. I would love to list them all here for you, but will leave you with one:
“Yea, foolish mortals, Noah’s flood is not yet subsided; two thirds of the fair world it yet covers.”
Paperback: 656 pages
Publisher: Oxford University Press
First Published: 1851, Harper & Brothers Publishers, London
In my introductory post, I included a list of books I planned on reading in 2011. Chris Benjamin’s Drive by Saviours was on that list. To date, I have had more visits to this site as a result of searches for this novel than any other topic other than Barney’s Version. There were fewer people searching for Jane Eyre and Water for Elephants. I’d call that impressive.
As our book club choice for May, Drive By Saviours inspired the longest and arguably most interesting discussion we have had in a long time. I’ve been a member of the same book club for years… eight or nine I think. We’re pretty laid back. We discuss the book for an hour or so, drink wine, and conversation fades into discussion of work or children or annoying things our husbands did.
Wednesday night we got of course a few times, but kept coming back to the book.
There’s a lot to discuss about Drive By Saviours. I’ve read a few books lately where it seems nothing really happens (and that can be OK) but with this one SO MUCH happens. Honestly, one member who came for discussion despite not reading the book* kept stopping us for clarification. “Is this all in one book? How is that even possible? Let me see that, the writing must be TINY.”
Drive By Saviours is about two men, Mark, a social worker in Toronto, and Bumi, and illegal immigrant from Indonesia, working off his debt in a Toronto restaurant. Mark’s life is not living up to his expectations. Mark feels he ought to have saved the world at least twice now, and that his super-hot girlfriend should be nicer to him (sarcastic, yes, but Mark is a character who is supposed to annoy you so I feel justified). Bumi escaped a life sentence in Indonesia for crimes he did not commit, but left his family behind, and is dealing with loneliness and obsessive-compulsive disorder.
Mark and Bumi meet on a TTC bus, and develop an unlikely friendship. Mark decided fixing Bumi’s life will finally make him happy – but of course nothing is that simple or easy.
Along the way Mark reconciles with his estranged sister, proposes to and breaks up with his girlfriend, develops a crush on a lesbian, and tries to save Mexican migrant farm workers. We also learn of Bumi’s childhood: inventing new technologies for fishing, his father’s alcoholism, being torn away from his parents and sent to residential school, reading banned literature, getting a friend killed, and eventually being charged with murder.
No wonder Meghan thought we were talking about three or four different books.
You see parallels between Bumi’s young life in Indonesia and Mark’s unhappiness now in Toronto. Bumi was an intellectual reading communist and western literature, discussing change and revolution at a café, yet not doing anything to make it happen. Mark bemoans his inability to help people, yet is so self-absorbed he ignores the few clients he has left. He complains about the administration and paperwork, and then talks himself into a promotion to assistant manager. You will want to shake the arrogance out of both of them. Of course, Bumi’s life does that for you. Eventually, it seems Mark might have woken up to this as well.
Opinion was spilt on the merits of the book, but came down on the positive side. Two of us (myself included) thought it was fantastic. Others enjoyed it, but found the complex plot overwhelming. Another thought it was altogether too political and trying to teach too many lessons at once. “It’s a Fibre One book. 42% of your recommended daily intake of social justice!”
Admittedly, when the migrant worker issue was introduced I briefly thought the same, but it came back to the main story before my opinion was clouded too much.
Drive by Saviours was beautifully written, and on more than one occasion I stopped to reread a passage that was particularly striking or touching. I think Benjamin is trying to teach us something, or many things, but they are things we ought to know, and he does so through a wonderful story.
Paperback ISBN: 9781552663691
Publication Date: Sep 2010
* We are very laid back. Didn’t read the book? No problem. Come. But bring wine, and expect spoilers.
The Year of the Flood opens in Year Twenty-Five, after the Waterless Flood has destroyed most of mankind and dramatically changed the face of the earth. The story is narrated alternately by two surviving women: Ren, a young dancer in a high-end strip club, and Toby, high-ranking member of God’s Gardeners, who is barricaded inside the luxurious AnnYoo spa.
Neither woman has any idea how many other survivors are out there, if anyone at all. Both are running short on supplies and not sure what to do next.
Much of the wildlife we are familiar with is long since extinct, but this new world is full of strange, sometimes frightening gene-spliced life forms: rakunks – the large striped cross between skunks and raccoons, which thankfully lack the smelly spray; the Mo’hair sheep designed specifically to grow human hair for wigs; and the frightening liobams – a lion/lamb blend, designed by a religious extremist group who were tired of waiting for the biblical prediction that the lion would lay down with the lamb, and decided to do it themselves.
The first half/two-thirds of the story is told though flashbacks in the lives of these two women, revisiting the years leading up to the Waterless Flood. Toby and Ren are desperately trying to make sense of this new world, and the circumstances that brought it on, and examine the last twenty or so years of their lives to figure it out. Much of the story revolves around God’s Gardeners, their beliefs, and their way of life. Later, storytelling shifts into present tense, Ren and Toby reunite (they knew each other through the Gardeners) and help each other to survive their new and often violent reality.
I was interested to see that “Year Twenty-Five” did not mean “twenty-five years since the flood” as the flood seems to have happened somewhere in year twenty-four or twenty-five. It is not clear when or how the new counting began, and there are a few references to years in the 20th century, in a casual way that implies it was not so very long ago.
My overall impression of the novel is that I was blown away. Atwood had created a frightening and violent new reality – but a reality that wasn’t too much of a stretch from our current circumstances. In fact, Atwood refuses to label books like The Year of the Flood and Oryx and Crake as ‘science fiction’ as she insists nothing happens in her books that could not happen ‘in real life.’ Which of course just adds to the horror.
My only criticism is there was a bit too much of the Gardener’s theology for my taste. Every few chapters, we were treated to a sermon from Adam One, the Gardener’s leader. The sermons always revolved around a saint’s day, and the significance of the celebration (there were some great saints, by the way: Saint Terry Fox may have been my favourite). It’s not that I don’t see the relevance to the rest of the story. The Gardeners knew what was coming, and their whole theology was designed to prepare people for it. It is no coincidence that so many Gardeners survived. I just have to be honest and say that I found the sermons and accompanying hymns to make for very dull reading. Luckily, these passages were never more than a few pages.
Readers of Atwood’s Oryx and Crake might remember the Gardeners. You might even remember Ren and a few of her friends. I did not, at least not right away. In the final chapters it became more obvious. You see, what I didn’t realize is The Year of the Flood is a continuation or retelling of the story from Oryx and Crake. A side-quel, if you will. I think I remember hearing this when the book was first released (September 2009), but I had forgotten it by the time I finally read the book (last week).
excuses explanations as to why I didn’t really get as much as I should have from the book:
- I read Oryx and Crake immediately after it was released in 2003. I received it as a gift from coworkers, when in the hospital recovering from surgery. I read a lot of books in the hospital that year. While I remember general story lines and whether or not I enjoyed these books, I remember almost no details from any of them. Something to do with pain killers affecting long-term memory.
- A friend had borrowed my copy and removed the paper book jacket, so I was reading the plain hardcover version, minus the jacket – which likely clearly states the link between this and the previous novel.
While The Year of the Flood can certainly be read as a stand alone novel, you can’t try to read it as a stand alone novel if you have already read part one. My fuzzy memories of some of the characters, and the Gardeners from Oryx and Crake sometimes caused confusion. I obviously cannot blame Ms. Atwood for this. But I do plan to reread both at some point, to gain greater appreciation for both stories, and her purpose in writing it from such different perspectives.
Hardcover: 448 pages
Publisher: McClelland & Stewart; 1 edition (Sep 8 2009)
If there is a theme to my reading in 2011, it is a rush to read books that have been on my list for ages, before they are ruined by Hollywood. I am a book-to-film skeptic. I understand that they are two different art forms and I must expect changes during a conversion. I get that. I have just never found a film adaptation that was better – or even as good as – the book it is based on. I’m sure the same can be said in the opposite direction too, though books based on films are far less common.
Regardless, that has almost nothing to do with the following review, except that I first bought Water for Elephants as a gift for my sister-in-law for Christmas 2009. It looked fantastic. I figured I’d probably end up borrowing her copy when she finished, or buying myself another copy, and I’d have it read by spring. Didn’t happen. I was in school and working and reading other stuff for book club. I have a very long to-be-read list. This was just one more.
Then I cringed upon hearing the film was being made and learning who was cast. I hate reading a book when I know what actor has been cast for each role, because I cannot put it out of my head and thus can’t decide for myself what that character looks like, which really is half the fun of reading.
So I rushed out to buy myself a copy and read the book as quickly as I could before anything else was ruined.
The good news: nothing could ruin this book. It was fantastic. Well researched. Well written. Well developed characters. Well, well, well.
Quick synopsis: Jacob is studying to be a vet at Cornell. He is suddenly orphaned, left destitute, and does not sit his final exams. Then he accidentally runs away with the circus. Then he meets Marlena. Cue some glitz, glamour, sex, violence, murder and mayhem under the Big Top. And a Polish speaking elephant. Many years later, 90 (or 93) year old Jacob tells his story from a nursing home.
The bulk of the plot occurs in 1931, through flashbacks or dream sequences. Jacob and Marlena fall in love. They train Rosie (the elephant) to be a star. They protect her from August’s cruelty. They make other friends along the way. And then the whole circus falls apart in a dramatic ending.Yet, the pieces of the narrative that really stick with me are the scenes with Jacob as an old man, frustrated with the limitations of his body, and with the world’s assumption that his mind must be similarly limited as well. Here we see a different, empathetic side of the stereotypical cranky old man. And he is extremely endearing.
Most of us will never join a circus. But most of us will grow old. It is this side of Jacob that makes him such a great character: an old man, sad for what he has lost, but reflecting with joy and pride on all that he did and accomplished, and the people he loved.
Also: Saw the film yesterday. All things considered, a pretty good adaptation. The idea of pairing Reese Witherspoon with Robert Pattinson seemed ridiculous, but it worked. He makes a much better vet than vampire. Not as good as the book of course, but I would never expect that.
I’m trying something new, and participating in the Spring Carnival Blog Hop. It’s a chance for book bloggers to help promote one anther, find new favourite blogs to follow, and reward our readers.
From Mat 1 to 8, visit the participating blogs for your chance to win great book prizes. I am giving away a $20 gift card to your choice of Chapters.ca or Amazon.com.
To enter, leave a comment below telling me what you are currently reading. I am enjoying The Year of the Flood, by Margaret Atwood, and also still reading Moby Dick. Also, it isn’t required to enter, but please consider following me by email, RSS or on Twitter.
Good luck, and check out the other blogs participating, for great reviews and more chances to win.
Have fun hopping!