31 December 2009

12. H.M.S. Surprise by Patrick O'Brian

I stormed through this third book of the Aubrey series on my honeymoon, and I don't have it in me to write the review right now. But I'll get on it asap. And I'm into Book 4 already...

11. Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens

This Dickens guy is alright.

The Noble Evremonde brothers are bad. But Dr. Manette good, tries to help. But he feels bad. So he writes to the cops. The bad boy Evremondes block it and send him to jail. 18 long years go by.

His old assistant Defarge gets him released. Jarvis Lorry comes and gets him. Lucie, the Doctor's daughter, and Lorry bring him back to England. And they meet a young Charles Darnay on the ship. So helpful. So kind. So cute. It's LOVE! Darnay goes on trial. But is acquitted because this guy Carton looks JUST LIKE HIM!

The wine flows in the street like blood.

The end:
The strands of the web get tighter and tighter.

The Epilogue:
It IS a far, far better thing that he did.

10. Moby-Dick by Herman Melville

Another reading! And I'm'na have yet another in 2010 when I teach it (though I have not been counting books I have read, say, to teach year after year. Like, homw many times can I count To Kill a Mockinbird, or Macbeth, books I have taught every year for ten years. I practically have them memorized.).

But this time I read it for a grad class on HM. What a difference reading the book with a professor is. I see a lot more than I have ever seen, but there's still more to discover. Like seeing a whale, I guess, for just the fourth time.

9. Typee by Herman Melville

A travel narrative in the style of authors like Jonathan Swift and books like Utopia. Satirical. Critical of the Western worldview as saviors of the savage natives.

Tommo abandons his whaling ship when it lands at the remote Marquesa Islands. He lives among the natives, with the Typee tribe, for a few months and then escapes/leaves.

Recommended if you have someone else to talk to about the book, like me, say. But if you are going to read it in a vacuum of companionship, pick something else.

26 November 2009

8. Peter Simple by Frederick Marryat

It's hard to believe I haven't finished a book in nearly four years. It's hard to believe because it's simply not true, no matter what you hear on FOX "news." I have been reading. I'm teaching: Tale of Two Cities, one of my favorite books; The Crucible, which I can't really express how bored I am of it; and Hamlet, which is so good, especially on this second reading. And I'm taking a course on Herman Melville, but until now, we have read all things that I've already read: Moby Dick, Pierre, and "Bartleby the Scrivener." For next week we are reading something new to me, Benito Cereno, one of the Piazza Tales, along with Bartleby and Billy Budd. SO far it has a very Joseph Conrad kind of feel to it. And I'm getting married in about three weeks, so there is that. I'm counting on the honeymoon's sitting around to end 2009 with a mass reading spree.

But, I've invited you here to talk about this book, Marryat's Peter Simple, published for the first time in 1834. The copy I have is from Dean King's excellent "Heart of Oak" series (Dr. Dogbody's Leg was another.). I can't recall where I heard it, but I understand that Marryat inspired Patrick O'Brian to write (and whose model for Jack Aubrey was Thomas Cohrane, an actual British Navy man).

Peter Simple is the son of a curate and is considered the fool of the family. His Uncle, Lord Privilege, is a rich baron nearby. Circumstances (that I can't recall, and really aren't that important) force Peter's father to send him to the Navy. Lord Privilege hooks him up with a position that allows him to follow the path of an officer, as opposed to serving before the mast, with the men. When he arrives at his first ship his country boy naivete is taken advantage of by his new shipmates. Quite badly. They trick him into insulting the captain, get him on the wrong side of the First Lieutenant, and all other smaller kinds of hazing that the good-natured, and rightly-named Peter Simple takes in stride. You'z guys are just funnin'!

Eventually, and ever so slowly, Peter gets the hang of the Navy. He finds his Garth/Ted/Han Solo/Louise/Stephen Maturin sidekick character in Terence O'Brien and they team up for pretty much the rest of the book: they have a good and kind captain, they fight some sea battles, they are taken prisoner, have to escape, fall in love, and then O'Brien gets his own ship. After that they fight some sea battles, remmet their loves, are caught in a hurricane, and get taken prisoner, are released, and then, sadly they are separated. O'Brien is sent to the East Indies and Peter is made First Mate on the Rattlesnake with the ineffective weasel Captain Hawkins.

And so here we must pause for a bit of a breather to explain the subplot.

Lord Privilege is Peter's grandfather. He's old and grey and full of sleep and nods by the fire. Peter also has an uncle. The uncle is a regular old Worm Tongue and has ingratiated himself into the grandfather's trust. And so he, the uncle, does a little tinkering of the grandfather's will, leaving Peter's father nothing, and himself everything. This destroys Peter's father. And puts Peter at risk in the service, especially once he is assigned to the Rattlesnake, where the uncle's friend Captain Hawkins is the commander. But before that there is much letter writing back and forth to England, and even Ireland (O'Brien tries to help, too) and many setbacks and dark days. Peter goes through many, many troubles - he even has to sit through a Court Martial! But, as Hamlet says, "Foul deeds will rise,though all the earth o'erwhelm them, to men's eyes."

I'll leave the ending to you to figure out, of course, but if you have read much 19th C. Lit, you know there are a lot of happy coincidences and just-in-the-nick-of-timeses, and lots of karmic judgments to go around.

I definitely recommend you read it, especially if you're a Friend of Patrick O'Brian.

12 September 2009

NY Harbor School

I interviewed at the NY Harbor School three years ago. They offered me a job teaching Social Studies the day after 'Pequa gave me an offer I couldn't refuse (teaching English). I was convinced that NYC would not do the right thing and put them on Governor's Island. They were in Bushwick! It's about 40 minutes by subway from the Harbor.

The school, the principal, and Murray Fisher deserve recognition. Harbor School deserves the 10k. Can you imagine the dedication it takes to run a maritime-based high school that is almost an hour from the Harbor?

Vote early and vote often in this GQ poll.

7. Babbitt by Sinclair Lewis

A damning indictment of American conformity.

This was one of the best books I have ever read. The writing was sharp, fresh and interesting. Even though it was written in 1920, the problems facing George Babbitt are surprisingly modern.

Babbitt is a real-estate salesman and member of all the booster clubs and business associations in his town - think Elks and Rotary club and all that. But something is nagging his conscience. Facing the beginning of his middle age, his regrets begin to pile up. He yearns for a break out. But as his restlessness grows, so does the resistance from his community, putting a friction on his revolution.

I very strongly recommend this book. Lewis is a master as diagnosing the problems with too much commercialism. Unfortunately, he doesn't offer any solution, but maybe he thought that simply showing us the mess we're in would be enough for us to reform our ways. Obviously things have only gotten worse in the last 90 years, but that only makes the book more important now. Read it!

21 July 2009

6. Post-Captain by Patrick O'Brian

Book #2 in the Aubrey-Maturin saga.

This was a good book, despite the fact that there were fewer sea battles: this was more a good look at Aubrey and Maturin dealing with the politics of the Navy, falling in love, and riding the shifting sentiment of Society.

04 July 2009

5. Moby Dick by Herman Melville

My 3rd time through.

I got to teach it to my 12th graders, this time. Only one of them read the whole thing (out of 19).

And I'll be reading it again in the Autumn for a class on Melville.

If you haven't read it, you should.

4. Dr Dogbody's Leg by James Norman Hall

You may recognize Hall from his more popular book Mutiny on the Bounty.

This was a pretty good book. Set during the Napoleonic Wars, the ten chapters each explain how Dr Dogbody lost his leg. Some were better than others, but all were very entertaining. Dr Dogbody would make a great NPC! And I really want to go to a place like the Cheerful Tortoise, where Dogbody tells his tales. The stories are distinct, yet, the narrative is continuous: each night Dogbody's friends implore him to tell his story, and he pretends he won't. But eventually he yields.

Recommended if you like sea stories.

29 March 2009

Written in March

While resting on the Bridge at the foot of Brother’s Water

The cock is crowing,
The stream is flowing,
The small birds twitter,
The lake doth glitter
The green field sleeps in the sun;
The oldest and youngest
Are at work with the strongest;
The cattle are grazing,
Their heads never raising;
There are forty feeding like one!

Like an army defeated
The snow hath retreated,
And now doth fare ill
On the top of the bare hill;
The plowboy is whooping- anon-anon:
There's joy in the mountains;
There's life in the fountains;
Small clouds are sailing,
Blue sky prevailing;
The rain is over and gone!

-William Wordsworth

25 March 2009

3. The Light of Men by Andrew Salmon

Another book from the 50 Books Book Club, which, so far, has accounted for 2/3 of my 2009 reading. I do have some books in the works, and plan to have a late spring flurry. I will also preface this by saying that I have not read the other comments as I write this review, though I will once I finish this post. I will include links to Olman's review, so you can find the others.

This was a difficult book for me to get into. Though by the third chapter, when I thought I had it figured out, it picked up pace until it was clear that I didn't have it figured out at all. Then it kind of dragged while I got over my disappointment.

Set in a WW2 concentration camp, we begin with the arrival of a boxcar of new prisoners that includes our main character, Aaron. Unnaturally savvy and cagey about prison-camp survival, Aaron soon blends in. And then he begins to work his way up the unofficial/prisoner pecking order until he can earn a meeting with Kreuger, the prisoner who runs the prison-mafia.

Aaron promises Krueger access to some exceptionally valuable diamonds in exchange for a few favors. Deal in place, Aaron moves into the Jewish section of the prison. There he meets John, a evangelic Rabbi who wants to recruit everyone he meets for a Revolution against the SS.

As part of the deal with Krueger, Aaron is able to befriend and protect one of the newly-arrived prisoners, Sol Liebman. Why he wants to do this is unclear until about halfway through the book.

I have to say that I was not really what kind of book I was reading. I wasn't sure if I was supposed to be expecting some kind of WW2 survivor narrative, fictional or not, or some kind of alternate history. But when the first big reveal came, I have to admit to a certain level of satisfaction. I figured it was something like that. Aaron just knew too much about the camp, the prisoners, Sol, Krueger, and the real end of the war. So, I read on, and figured that I was reading some kind of alternate-reality story. But I had a sneaky suspicion I was being duped along the lines of "For the Love of the Game" which seems to be about baseball, but turns out to be a cheesy love story. Fortunately this fear was misplaced.

But when the real big reveal came, I have to admit to a certain level of disappointment. I didn't reject the idea with the now-legendary disdain that I rejected the warrior polar bears of the Golden Compass, but I have to admit that it was pretty, pretty, pretty close. Time travel was one thing. This was another. I'll just say that I felt like Ripley in Aliens and leave it there.

The end, then, was just playing out my hand and seeing how it all came together. I am glad I read the book, but it didn't offer me anything new. I feel like I have been in that concentration camp before. I felt like I had worked that black-market prison structure before. I knew the moves; I knew the reactions; I knew when to duck and when to jump.

Maybe I would have enjoyed it better with a little more clarification on the back cover. Even as I was getting deeper into the story, I just didn't care that much about the new prisoner's "mysterious agenda," or whether he was an "allied spy or a Nazi collaborator" (neither of these were alluded to in the text, either. Everyone just seems to accept Aaron for the cryptic he is.).

(And I also know what you are going to say, snobby-English teacher doesn't like anything written after 1969, but that's not it at all.)

04 February 2009

2. Lolita by V. Nabokov

What a book! Such great, fine writing. And English isn't even his first language! In the author's note at the back of my edition (more on this in a second) VN apologizes, saying, "My private tragedy, which cannot, and indeed should not, be anybody's concern, is that I had to abandon my natural idiom, my untrammeled, rich, and infinitely docile Russian tongue for a second-rate brand of English, devoid of any of those apparatuses - the baffling mirror, the black velvet backdrop, the implied associations and traditions - which the native illusionist, frac-tails flying, can magically use to transcend the heritage in his own way."

I find it infinitely interesting that the punning, and nicknaming, and playful experimentation with language is coming from someone who is not native to English (and so perhaps bored with routine constructions, etc) - like Joseph Conrad, one of the greats of English Lit, whose English wasn't even his second language.

So, let's get the reputation out of the way right off - the book is about a grown man, Humbert Humbert, sleeping with a 12 year old girl, Dolores Haze, or Lo, or Lolita. The book is also cited every single time a teacher crosses the line and gets with a student, especially if the teacher is a man.

Told as some kind of police statement, or a rationale for crimes committed, the book follows the adventures of Humbert as he explains the circumstances leading up to his meeting with Lolita, and her consequent two year long kidnap-and-rape roadtrip.

Humbert has the misfortune of renting a room in Lo's mom's house. Right from their first meeting Humbert feels an attraction for Lolita. She reminds him of his first child-lover, Valeria. And it seems Humbert has an eye for detail, and he pores over Lolita's body, in detail, over and over.

When Lolita is sent to camp her mother leaves a note explaining for Humbert and asking him to leave. Not able to break away from Lolita, Humbert decides he will marry the mother and then keep Lolita as a side project. Unfortunately the mother unit discovers Humberts journals and tries to kick him out of the house. On her way to mail some hastily written letters describing Humbert's perversions, Mrs Haze is run over by a car and killed (an echo of the Great Gatsby?).

Now Lolita is all Humbert's! How exultant he is! He can barely keep his composure. He rushes through the funeral and races to the camp to pick up Lolita, his Lolita. And for the next two years he keeps Lolita his prisoner and sex pet.

At first, in their very first physical encounter in the house as she is leaving for camp, Lolita makes the first move. She runs into the house and kisses him full on the lips. But even this has been built and stoked by Humbert by way of little "innocent" kisses and pets.

Then, when they are finally alone in the hotel room, Humbert drugs her in order to take advantage of her as she sleeps. But the pills are not strong enough and as he lays next to her, pretending to be asleep, she crawls over to him and jumps his bones. He is astonished.

Sometimes it was difficult for me to remember that she is 12-14 years old as the story progresses. He speaks of her in adult terms, and in our newspapers (and our webpages of "barely legal" porn) the term Lolita has come to mean young, but almost old enough.

But always before US is her childishness; she wants to ride her bike with her friends; she wants to go to dances and get sodas and hang out with her friends from the school play. But jealous Humbert won't have it and keeps her captive. He even apportions her allowance based on sexual favors and promises of loyalty! When he comes for her more than once in the night she says, "oh no!" but yet he persists.

The book, Humbert's road trip sex adventure, was published just a year after On the Road. I'm sure the Grown Ups thought the country was headed off a cliff.

Eventually Humbert and Lolita separate. And for good. She runs off with another child molester, this one a movie producer, and eventually she gets married. Humbert goes insane. When he comes out of it he tracks down Lolita and finds her a pregnant 17-year old. He gives her all of his money, and her mother's money, and asks her one more time to run away with him.

When she declines, he moves on with his mission to kill the guy who took his Lolita away from him. And this is what he iwnds up in jail for - this is the crime that compels him to write the story which is the book. All throughout he addresses us readers as members of the jury - as if we are to judge him. Are we to pass judgement on his actions, or decide a sentence?

I read an annotated copy and I think I would have missed out on a lot if I hadn't had the notes to accompany me on the journey. And not just for elaboration of the hundreds of puns in the book. More for the references that Nabokov is making on purpose:

1. the Haze house is 342. The hotel room where Lo and Humbert get together is 342. When he goes searching for Quilty after Lo is gone, he stops at 342 places.)

2. There's a lot of james Joyce in there, some of it direct and obvious (at one point HH actually uses the phrase "portrait of the artist as a young" (and I think he says pervert, but I can't find the quote now). Nabokov was one of Joyce's groupies (Nabokov considers Ulysses a masterpiece and Finnegan's Wake a piece of garbage. But more of that later.)

3. Quilty is there in the whole book. In my book's Notes he has his first reference on page 4. Clare Quilty's mistress is Vivian Darkbloom, an anagram of..wait for it...Vladimir Nabokov.

4. Edgar Allan Poe references galore (including Annabell Lee/Lo-lee-ta explanations and correlations).

There's tons more but we'll start there...

24 January 2009

1. Master & Commander by Patrick O'Brian

It was with a great deal of anticipation that I opened the first book of the new year, Patrick O'Brian's Master and Commander.

I have been reading sailing books, sailing magazines, sailing websites, and sailing stories for years now and have passed by many many references to O'Brian's books and each time I read mention of O'Brian's series I thought, I should get to those. I begin this year by beginning to get to them. The final push to finally pick them up was Olman's excellent review, here.

My anticipation and excitement was also mixed with some fear that I would be disappointed. To my great relief, I was not disappointed at all. As Olman says the writing is excellent. The descriptions of the sea, the sea battles, and the maneuvers are rendered poetically. I felt very drawn into the world. There were a few moments when I felt I had mismanaged the field of battle, so to speak, but that was a more lapse of my attention than O'Brian's description. Sometimes I wasn't sure where the wind was coming from, who was upwind/downwind, or even sometimes, the basic layout of the geography (in particular the battle where the go into that cove and fight under the guns on the cliffs).

I've also seen the movie about half a dozen times, so I couldn't help but picture Russell Crowe as Jack Aubrey, which is fine, since I find RC kind of studly. But I should shut up about this or it'll be what drives the comments instead of O'Brian. (The movie, by the way, covers some of the action in this book and some of the action in another.) (Also, check out the obvious use of plywood in the movie ship's captain's quarters, when Aubrey/Crowe is talking about how tough the Surprise is.)

More confusing to me than what happened at sea was what happened on land: who are all of these ladies, and what exactly is their relationship to the officers of the fleet? And who is hooking up and whose husband cares and doesn't, and so on. I could have used a bit more description or explanation about the political situation with the Royal Navy's upper crust and the social politics that always mean so much in these hierarchies.

One of the subplots I particularly enjoyed was the uneasy friction cause by the lack of communication between James Dillon and Commander Aubrey. Dillon is some kind of Irish ex-Revolutionary who, at one point, is tasked with going aboard an American ship in search of an escaped convict. Of course, the ex-convict is one of Dillon's former freedom fighters and so Dillon must choose between his official duty to the Navy and his homeland and former comrade. His plight very much reminded me of the cop in The Rising of the Moon. And it reminded me agin that we all have that decision to make: do I do what's good for me or what's good for the union? Or the relationship? Or the family? Or the team?

And so after his decision is made, Dillon can barely live with himself, and hates Aubrey for putting him in that position. It's also interesting, to me, that Aubrey only sent Dillon because he thought the mission was a waste of time, that, of course, there was no way the guy was going to be on the American ship.

I read this book solely with the aid of the internet and the good dictionary on my desk at work, but I highly recommend two companion books. I mean, you want to do it right, right? First is A Sea of Words, edited by Dean King (who also edits the Heart of Oak series of which you will be hearing more of very soon), and the second is the coffee table book Patrick O'Brian's Navy, edited by Richard O'Neill. This is great for getting a look at what the ships look like (good guys and bad guys). I also have a few sailing encyclopedias around that I looked at, but for the remaining 20 1/2 books I'll be relying on these two.

And, in an example of how things generally work out for me in the rest of my life, I was in San Diego recently, reading this very book while I was there. When i got home and had a more regular access to the internet I found out that the ship used in the movie version is docked in..wait for it...San Diego. We drove by it, saw it, marked it down as something to return to check out; then we ran out of time before we could get back. I thought it was a whaler or some merchant ship (all I could see from the driver's seat was miles of standing rigging) like those at South St Seaport or Mystic Seaport. I kind of feel like a dufus.

And like Olman has already told us, the writing is excellent. What amazes me about this, beyond the description, is the reality it represents. This kind of thing happened all the time. Ships would purposely try to line up next to each other so they could fire cannons at each other. Like the Redcoats lining up to fire volley after volley into lines of men across from them. I can't imagine the fear and the stress of the gunners and captains. They were tough. I get annoyed that my car won't warm up fast enough in the morning; these guys are firing cannons at each other miles and miles from home. I get stressed when my boss comes to observe a lesson about poetry I'm about to teach; these guys were prepared to board an enemy ship and take it over by rapier and pistol. And yes, sure, I was on a submarine once, and went far away, and would have done my damned best to sink any other submarine who messed with us, but, to me, firing a torpedo or two and then melting away into the great, big ocean is a little different than taking a huge man-of-war bristling with cannon and lining it up next to another huge man-of-war bristling with cannon to fire a whole mess of cannon balls at it. Yeah, just a little.

I leave you with this section from one of the fights:

"The first of the Desaix's shot whipped through the topgallant-sail, but the next two pitched short. There was still time for manoeuvre - for plenty of manoeuvre. For one thing, reflected Jack, he would be very much surprised if the Sophie could not come about twice as quickly as the seventy-four. 'Mr Dalziel,' he said, 'we'll go about and back again. Mr Marshall, let her have plenty of way on her.' It would be quite disastrous if the Sophie were to miss stays on her second turn: and these light airs were not what she liked - she never gave of her best until there was something of a sea running and at least one reef in her topsails.

'Ready about...' The pipe twittered, the sloop luffed up, came into the wind, stayed beautifully and filled on the larboard tack: her bowlines were as taut as harpstrings before the big seventy-four had even begun her turn.

The swing began, however; the Desaix was in stays; her yards were coming round; her checkered side began to show; and Jack, seeing the first hint of her broadside in his glass, called out, 'You had better go below, Doctor.' Stephen went, but no farther than the cabin; and there, craning from the stern-window, he saw the Desaix's hull vanish in smoke from stem to stern, perhaps a quarter of a minute after the Sophie had begun her reverse turn. The massive broadside, nine hundred and twenty-eight pounds of iron, plunged into a wide area of sea away on the starboard beam and rather short, all except two thirty-six pound balls, which hummed ominously through the rigging, leaving a trail of limp, dangling cordage. For a moment it seemed that the Sophie might not stay - that she would fall impotently off, lose her advantage and expose herself to another such salute, more exactly aimed. But a sweet puff of air in her backed headsails pushed her round and there she was on her former tack, gathering way before the Desaix's heavy yards were firmly braced - before her first manoeuvre was complete at all."

That's the stuff!

04 January 2009

2008: A look backward

Well, I just managed to exceed the 2007 total, but still didn't make 30, the goal I had in mind last January.

Looking back I see that of the 28 books, only six of them were of my own choice, and two were because I was teaching them (I don't count the other books I teach that I have read a million times, like Mockingbird, or Othello.).

I'm satisfied with what I read, but most of it was assigned and that's no way to live. I do like the mandate a class provides - a set list that must be read and deadlines - but I much prefer to live by interest-based choice.

Looking forward I am excited by what 2009 promises. I've started the Patrick O'Brian series (20 books plus another unfinished), a class on Herman Melville in the Autumn, and a group project among the book bloggers I know.

(We're reading Lolita by V Nabokov by 1 February. Then I'm posting my review here. Each participating blogger posts a review both on their own blog AND in the comment section of this blog. Then we'll have a conversation in the comment section. Please join us! Read this classic by 1 Feb and then post your review on your blog and here in the comments, on Sunday 1 Feb.)