Moby Dick: the Fin-ish

I did it.  Actually two weeks ago, but I thought I’d give myself time to think up something to say.    Didn’t work.  I got nothin’.  Except, yay, me! for finishing it.   I finally get the line about the whaling chapters – how it would be good if it weren’t for the whaling chapters.   Ha!   It wouldn’t be anything without whaling chapters.   Though I could live without 1)  Bad pictures of whales in existence 2) good pictures of whales in existence 3) the list of whales known at the time.   Though all in all, good digressions outweighed bad.


Photo by Jenny Dean

I didn’t find Moby Dick that bad.  Once I buckled down and gave it serious attention, it’s quite readable most of the way and in the beginning even funny.   Is it the greatest American novel as many claim?   Mmm, I dunno.   It certainly seems to make a fine coatrack for many interpretations – the whale is God, Ahab is man destroying the environment, I don’t know what-all.   Melville himself thought it a blasphemous book, so maybe the whale is God.   I don’t know.   It could be a lot less significant than that.   Ahab says stuff that I believe counts as blasphemy.   I’m not really into that so you’ve got to be pretty blatant for me to pick up on it.   It has some weird passages which for some people I think make the book.

I would like to say something interesting about Moby Dick, something to give you a clue as to whether you would like it or not.  Or something amusing.   Or clever.   I think the first third or so when you meet Ishmael and Queequeg and get their different takes on various things and interactions is more enjoyable than the rest.    Ishmael’s voice sort of disappears for the most part and Queequeg does too.   Ahab and his men become more central and they aren’t all that interesting.   Ahab in particular has but one thought. Of course, that’s the major point of the novel, but other peoples’ obsessions are almost always tedious and Ahab’s is no exception.

Hangsaman – RIP IX Book I

My first read for Readers Imbibing Peril IX is Shirley Jackson’s Hangsaman which, as Francine Prose writes in her foreword (though I never read forewords before only afterward), is a weird book.   Naturally, you might be thinking, that’s why you read it for R.I.P.   But even for a weird book, it’s a weird book.  It was only her second novel and I think she was still honing her craft and experimenting.   It’s third person narration that reads like first.   You never leave Natalie’s, the 17 year old college student, perspective.   You know at least partly what she’s thinking from the beginning as she has an interior dialogue with an imaginary detective grilling her like she’s the femme fatale in a Bogart movie which runs concurrently with her interactions with her family.   So you know from the get-go that this is a strange chick.   Why she’s so strange is never made clear.   Very little is ever made clear, actually, so if you like things tidied up at the end, skip this one.


I love this cover which makes you think she’s being chased by evil nuns.   There aren’t any.

In the first part you meet Natalie and her family who while disagreeable in a number of ways, seem to be fairly normal.   Her father’s a pompous academic, her mother’s a disillusioned alcoholic, and her brother’s mostly not there.   The formality they live by is alien to me, but that could be because the novel was published in 1951.   Then again, there may be families today who live like strangers in the same house.   But we have to bear in mind this is all seen through the filter of Natalie’s worldview, which is alternately like she just recently landed on the planet and knows almost nothing and extremely perceptive and analytical.

And all the time I’m reading this I’m wondering how much of Shirley Jackson there is in Natalie.   And her mother.   And how much of her husband in the father whose name is Arnold Waite.   [Dan Kois in Slate wrote "it's the kind of book that sends you searching immediately for other people's ideas of what it is you've just read." Yes.   Yes, it is.]   In Googling Arnold Waite and Stanley Edgar Hyman (Jackson’s husband) to try to figure out if anyone wrote about the similarities, I stumbled on Arthur Edward Waite who wrote magic books and co-created the Rider Waite tarot deck which is one of the most common around.   The other character who reminded me of Stanley (and the reason I was Googling this was I read the biography too many years ago to remember) was Arthur the English teacher at the college Natalie goes to.   Arthur’s a real piece of work – married a student, continues to engage with current students inappropriately, is disgusted by his wife’s drinking, yet makes pitchers of martinis and leaves them at the house all ready to drink.

Natalie’s father walks around the party he’s hosting with his arm around some young thing while her mother is stuck in the kitchen trying to make sure there’s enough food to feed everyone.   Arnold never knows how many he’s invited.  She tries at one point to warn Natalie about marriage and what’s in it for the wife.  The same theme comes up in the second part where Elizabeth, Arthur’s young wife who should still be a student, says coldly to a sanctimonious former classmate of hers “Have you ever scrubbed a floor?”   One of the messages in this book is that it doesn’t matter how smart a woman is, how well she does in school, how intellectual she is, she’s going to end up scrubbing floors unless she’s rich.   Fortunately that has somewhat changed in 63 years, but not nearly enough.    Stanley was described in one place (I don’t know where, sorry) as “never doing anything practical if he could help it.”   He had a sweet deal – taught, flirted with students, collected stuff, threw parties, generally had a good time, while Jackson got to do everything to take care of the kids, the house, chauffeur him around, and squeeze in her writing where she could.   She apparently dealt with this by being a lousy housekeeper and some serious self-medication.   I don’t blame her in the least.  Is there anything less interesting than scrubbing a floor?

But I see I’m really off-topic.  As you can tell, that resonated with me.   As for the rest of the book, it is alternately highly readable and obscurely bizarre.   You never know if anything is real.  The whole third section revolves around her friendship, the only one, with a girl in the college whom she actually likes and enjoys spending time with – a girl as strange and outcast as herself.  They seem to pose a united front against the snobby, conventional, and cruel girls of the college and you think perhaps Natalie will be all right now she’s found this friend, or perhaps like Leopold and Loeb they will bring out the worst in each other and become even less fit to survive in the world.   It’s impossible to say because you never know how much is real and how much is Natalie’s imagination.

If you only read one Shirley Jackson, go with Hill House or We Have Always Lived in the Castle – she’s surer of her craft, still telling the story of awkward social misfits and strange semi-supernatural goings on, but they are written by a woman who was a master of her craft at that point.   Hangsaman though is possibly more interesting because it’s not polished and offers what I believe is a window on her own unhappiness.   No idea what her husband thought of it.   To me it reads like a double indictment of him as a person and of herself for falling into the trap, but it was 1950, that was a woman’s life and there was no use complaining about it.  If you didn’t marry, you were a failure.   If you did, you cooked and scrubbed and took care of the kids and if there was any time leftover you could scribble your little stories.

Book the First complete

House of the Seven Gables Readalong

Thanks to Michelle at Castle Macabre for hosting this readalong which fits perfectly inside of R.I.P. IX which I’d already signed up for.

gothic sept button

I’ve wanted to read this since I visited the house or what might be the inspiration for the house at age 12, maybe?   I’ve read the Marble Faun and Rappacini’s Daughter which I mostly liked and, of course, The Scarlet Letter, which I think I mostly didn’t.   Fine writing marred by puritanical outlook is my assessment so far, but I’ll give him another shot for the fine writing and I like a good readalong.

I wish I’d managed to finish Moby-Dick before starting this, but I think I’ll still finish Moby.  Only about 80 pages left.   The interesting thing is that Hawthorne and Melville were friends and met while Melville was writing Moby-Dick.   Hawthorne wrote Seven Gables shortly after they met.  So it seems appropriate to read them almost together.  I’ve started both Seven Gables and Hangsaman so I’m plunging into Peril with great abandon.   The description of the house is not all that much like the house they say it was based on, except for the gables.   The book talks about the upper floors overhanging the lower ones, diamond pane windows and ornamented with quaint figures.


Its whole visible exterior was ornamented with quaint figures, conceived in the grotesqueness of a Gothic fancy, and drawn or stamped in the glittering plaster, composed of lime, pebbles, and bits of glass, with which the woodwork of the walls was overspread.  On every side the seven gables pointed sharply towards the sky, and presented the aspect of a whole sisterhood of 
edifices, breathing through the spiracles of one 
great chimney.  The many lattices, with their small, diamond-shaped panes, admitted the sunlight into hall and chamber, while, nevertheless, the second story, projecting far over the base, and itself retiring beneath the third, threw a shadowy and thoughtful gloom into the lower rooms.  Carved globes of wood were affixed under the jutting stories.  Little 
spiral rods of iron beautified each of the seven peaks...
.... NOT!

I would love to see an artist’s depiction of the house based on the description in the book.   It sounds spookier and definitely gaudier.   But still the story’s off to a good start.   Hope I can stick with it.   It is, of course, much easier to read Shirley Jackson.   In fact, it’s difficult to stop reading Shirley Jackson.  Hangsaman focuses on 17 year old Natalie, who’s leaving home and heading for college in 3 weeks.   Natalie has very peculiar coping mechanisms for dealing with her life at home which seems to be rather hellacious to her for reasons that aren’t entirely clear to me.  I can’t help wondering how much like Shirley Jackson’s life the Waite’s family life is.   I seem to remember them hosting academic parties.   It reads something like I remember their life from her bio, but it was so long ago I can’t be sure.

Yesterday was the first anniversary of this blog and I meant to write a post marking the occasion and summing up the year and all that, but I didn’t, and I’m not going to because I think there’s a reason I didn’t except to say that I think this blog has really kept me reading.  Well, this blog and others’.   Reading other peoples’ blogs and joining their readalongs and ‘thons has kept it all interesting.  Reading can be a lonely enterprise especially when you read something kickass and no one you know in real life pays any attention.  You can post it and hope to find someone whose life will be enriched a little as yours is by finding new books to read or just being entertained by their observations even when you don’t want to read the book in question.   Here’s to every blogger I’ve read and everyone who’s read me this year — thank you all!   Hoping for another enjoyable year!

R.I.P. IX are go – yay!

I was worried because Readers Imbibing Peril Signup hadn’t appeared and I’m feeling kind of keen to read something creepy.    But it is up now and I’m signing.   Luckily we can’t sign in blood over teh interwebs.   



You can sign up too by clicking the pic of sad (dead?) Lavinia.   Just read 1 – 4 books of some spooky, creepy, horrific, eerie, or mysterious nature.   Almost anything counts.   Christie, Poe, Stephen King, Shirley Jackson, etc. etc. etc.   Sadly the group read is Haunting of Hill House which I just read for R.I.P. VIII, so I think I’ll skip that, but I might give Hangsaman a go.   And I’ve never read Lovecraft and always meant to read Poe, Christie’s standard for me.   A Bram Stoker could be fun.    The possibilities, if not endless, are vast.   There are also short story and movie goals if you like.   Join us!   Join us!  [Cue scary music]


Peril the First:

Read four books, any length, that you feel fit (the very broad definitions) of R.I.P. literature. It could be King or Conan Doyle, Penny or Poe, Chandler or Collins, Lovecraft or Leroux…or anyone in between’

during the months of September & October.    


Whale-balls for Breakfast –

don’t forget.  

Stubb, who lead the boat that killed the first whale of their voyage, has peculiar and very specific ideas about how to harvest a dead whale.    In addition to pickling the fins and sousing the flukes, he must have a steak from near the tail immediately, and if it’s rare, it’s overdone.  He chastises the cook for this and then orders him to preach to the sharks in the water eating said whale too noisily.   Fleece the cook puts up with this nonsense and duly lectures the sharks.

You is sharks, sartin; but if you gobern de shark in you, why den you be angel; for all angel is not’ing more dan de shark well goberned.

Fleece missed his calling as a preacher, I think, though the sharks paid him no mind.  


As you can see from the foregoing, this is a surreal book.   I was supposed to report some chapters ago, but then, I was supposed to have read them last June.   I decided to try and make an all out attempt to finish Moby-Dick and have that off my To Do list.   Mysteries are fun, but the White Whale is a classic and will, in addition to fulfilling a couple of my increasingly-unlikely-to-be-finished challenges, allow me to have an opinion about Moby-Dick and love it, hate it, or shrug about it, I won’t have only half-read it.    We learn in chapter 36 about 150 pages in Captain Ahab’s obsession.  Starbuck at least has the nerve to tell him he’s nuts.   I’m thinking that leaves 400 pages of tracking this damn whale.  The book then goes into some strange chapters written like a play.   Ishmael does not stand aloof.  “A wild, mystical, sympathetical feeling was in me; Ahab’s quenchless feud seemed mine.”  


But now I’m a hundred pages further on and quite a mishmash it is, too.   Some of it a normal, well-told story of life aboard a whaler, but then there are odd chapters which were really unnecessary.   Does anyone need to know which pictures of whales in 1852 were the bad ones?   Or the good ones?   Whales suffered as much as lions, probably more, from being depicted by people who had no idea what they looked like, but is it important to list them in this book?   I think not.  Although someone has helpfully gathered them together on the internet, so if you get to this chapter, it might amuse you to see the pictures discussed

At any rate, it may seem absurd, when it’s taken me since the beginning of June to read this far, to imagine I can finish it in a weekend burst of reading, but shush, if I don’t believe it, I’ll stop again and I really would like to get through it.   

Unexpected Night

So, in a failed effort to finish another book during the Bout I focused on Unexpected Night by Elizabeth Daly, the first Henry Gamadge story.   I found it while looking for books worried I was going to finish all the Christies.  This now seems unlikely or at least not imminent.   I’ve slowed down a lot on my Christie intake, but I’m glad I found Henry Gamadge if this one is anything to go by.   Daly’s an American who wrote in the 40s and 50s.  Supposedly one of Christie’s favorites.   Gamadge is an expert in old books, inks and papers apparently although in this one he’s on vacation in Maine.   He meets a family in which the young man is about to come of age and inherit a fortune.   This is a great relief to the family because he has a terrible heart condition and could drop dead at any time.   He has his will all made out and ready to sign…  but then they find his body at the bottom of the cliff and the will is missing.


Henry Gamadge is an appealing detective, not too eccentric.   I sometimes think both with Gideon Fell and Gervase Fen that the personality of the sleuth overwhelms the story.   The plot here seemed fair to me.  Though I gotta admit the tendency to try to sweep aside certain behaviors as harmless eccentricities did get to me after a while.  I thought afterward I ought to have guessed parts that I didn’t.  Felony & Mayhem seem to be rereleasing all the Gamadge books.   I’m sure I’ll read more of them.

The Man in Lower Ten, also: Bout of Books Day 6

The Man in Lower Ten was recommended by an Edwardian book site (or perhaps just an Edwardian site) as a good introduction to Mary Roberts Rinehart, better than The Circular Staircase or The Bat.   I don’t know if it was better, but it was a great intro to MRR.   She’s a fun writer with a plot that moves along and characters that are interesting, also a fairly adorable romance.   



The man in lower ten – a berth on the Washington Flyer from Pittsburgh – is supposed to be attorney Lawrence Blakely returning with evidence in an important case to Washington, but someone gets there before him.   Someone impossible to rouse.   So Blakely opts for lower 9 instead and wakes to find the man in lower ten was murdered and his own clothes have been stolen.   Not only that, but there is highly incriminating evidence pointing to him!    Before the conductor and an enthusiastic amateur detective can make any headway there’s a terrible crash and few of the passengers are left alive.   Does this get Blakely off the hook?   Who was the man and who murdered him?   Who stole Blakely’s clothes?   And what happened to the evidence Blakely was supposed to be guarding?   Rinehart’s lively tale answers all these questions and a host more.  It’s almost hard to believe this was written in 1906, the pace is quick, the writing is lively, only the fact that when the electricity is out they only have matches to light their way really reminds you when the story is set.   I’ll certainly be reading more of MRR, even if the others aren’t as good.

And now, with one day and a couple hours left in BoB, I’m not sure what to read next.   I won’t read two whole books.   I forgot I was spending the better part of three days seeing an old friend, but that doesn’t mean I shouldn’t read something this last day, does it?

Idle thoughts on books and movies. Some new, but mostly old.

Phinnea's Book Blog List

Idle thoughts on books and movies. Some new, but mostly old.


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