Keeping Up With The Penguins

Reviews For The Would-Be Booklover

Category: American

Moby Dick – Herman Melville

Here at Keeping Up With The Penguins, I think we’re on a bit of an American classics kick. My next selection from The List came in the form of an excessively dog-eared Penguin Classic edition of Moby Dick, once belonging to my husband. (I can’t believe I married a heathen that defaces books in such a manner, forgive me.)

Moby Dick - Herman Melville - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Moby Dick was published in 1851 and – like all of our favourite classics – it was a complete commercial failure, out of print by the time of Melville’s death 40 years later. It wasn’t until the 20th century that it gained a reputation as The Greatest American Novel Of All Time (Suck It Hawthorne, No Takesibacksies). The story is based on Melville’s experience as a whaler in the 1840s, and appears to draw from the story of an actual boat that tragically sank (the Essex, in 1820), and an unrelated albino whale called Mocha Dick (which was killed in the late 1830s). So, the story practically wrote itself, by the sounds…

It kicks off with the narrator, Ishmael, meeting his exotic lover friend Queequeg in Nantucket, and they seek to go a-whaling together. (There’s a lot of veiled homoeroticism, but I think you’re supposed to ignore that.) They end up aboard the Pequod, with a mysterious one-legged Captain Ahab that you don’t see much for the first couple hundred pages. Once he appears, however, he has them all just sail around the world, bumping into other ships and asking them if they’ve seen Moby Dick, the infamous white whale that bit off his leg.

The book is over 600 pages long, and 235 pages go by before anyone actually sees a whale. So how does he fill in the time? Well, Melville takes it upon himself to teach us all about whales. The etymology of the word “whale”. The history of all the whales (and I mean history – it starts with Genesis). An amateur taxonomy of whales (unfortunately for Melville, it doesn’t really hold up with the hundred and fifty years of scientific findings that followed). See, being that it was published in the middle of the 19th century, a reader couldn’t simply Google the terms with which they weren’t familiar, so Melville took it upon himself to write entire Wikipedia entries into the book itself.

He maybe takes it a bridge too far at times. I mean, he does a whole chapter on Things That Are Both Big and White. It doesn’t move the story along at all, it’s like he’s just sharing some fun facts.




When we get around to some actual narrative, Captain Ahab goes more and more nuts, pistol-whipping his employees and insisting that he can kill the unkillable white whale with a glorified sharp stick fashioned for him by a carpenter on board. To be honest, I almost preferred Melville’s tangential rambling chapters on whales to the actual narration of the story; action scenes bore me in movies, they do even less for me written down, and Melville writes so beautifully (when he feels like it) that I quite enjoyed his seemingly endless descriptions of all things big, white and whale-like.

Still, as Captain Ahab got increasingly pissed off, so did I – it got to the point where I had a couple hundred pages to go, and I started to wonder how much more there really was to say about whales. We’d already covered their shape, their skin, their spout, whether or not they can smell. We’d discussed whales in history, whales in religion, whales in art, whales in folklore. At that point, what stone possibly remains un-turned? What’s more (less than a hundred pages to go now), are they ever going to find this fucking Moby Dick creature? Maybe Melville was being super-meta, and his reader’s terminal wait for a resolution was meant to echo the experience of the whalers on board the Pequod waiting for Moby Dick to emerge. That’s clever, and all, but come onnnnnnnn.

Just as I decide I’m ready to throw the book across the room, there’s an absolute ripper of a storm, and the crew is ready to mutiny but Ahab gives them the old what-for and insists they press on (the guy is a study in the sunk-loss fallacy). Finally, finally, on page five hundred and ninety-fucking-five (only a couple dozen pages from the end), we actually lay eyes on Moby Dick!

Hold the champagne, though, because the boat promptly sinks and everyone dies. WTF, Melville?!

The book was originally published without an epilogue, which completely changes the story. The epilogue as it stands in all editions today reveals that not quite everybody dies; Ishmael floated away on a coffin-turned-life-raft and got picked up by another ship. So, without that bit, the whole thing seems to have been narrated by a perish sailor. The narrators back in the day got all mad at Melville for “breaking” the rules of fiction and narration. Wouldn’t they all absolutely shit if they could see them mess we’ve made of them today?

Initially, I really liked Melville’s style of writing, his rhythm, but I quickly learned that you can’t get too comfortable. He experimented with style and rhythm throughout, sometimes sounding like Shakespeare, sometimes sounding like a biology textbook, sometimes just making shit up on the fly. He did a lot of whacky things with narration and perspective. He writes for pages about an oil painting. He uses words like “abstreperously”. He shares some amazing pearls of wisdom, like “ignorance is the parent of fear”, and “better sleep with a sober cannibal than a drunk Christian”. But the best moment, no question, was his actual unironic use of the world “whelmed”, which excited me (a dyed-in-the-wool child of the ’90s) no end.

Can You Ever Just Be Whelmed? 10 Things I Hate About You - Keeping Up With The Penguins

I liked that there was no one over-arching ThemeTM constantly smacking you over head (a la The Scarlet Letter – Melville was miles ahead of his buddy Nathaniel Hawthorne, in my opinion). Reading Moby Dick is more like panning for gold, sifting out slivers of wisdom and brilliance and insight. There are some chunks of “search for truth”, and “perception is deception”, but on the whole there’s a lot going on and you can take from it what you will.

One minor 21st century critique (I can’t help myself, I’m sorry): there were precisely two female characters. Both of them appeared in the first 120 pages, and from there, nada. Only one of them had any actual dialogue. Once the ship sailed, it sailed on any hope of gender balance. I had unconsciously half-expected the white whale itself to be female (thinking that’d be a nice little piece of gender commentary maybe, a ship full of men chasing after a mythical female beast), but we were denied that also. So, don’t bother with Moby Dick if that bothers you.

Sexist narratives and tangential writing aside, I was very pleasantly surprised. I’d expected Moby Dick to be heavy and impenetrable and sure, it’s wordy, but it’s engaging and funny and brilliant. I enjoyed it. I can’t put my finger on exactly why I enjoyed it, other than it was just fun. I stop short of putting Moby Dick on our Recommended list, because I’m not sure you can enjoy it without patience and a sense of humour. If you’ve got those, and you want to learn a fucktonne about whales, dive on in because Moby Dick is perfect for you.

My favourite Amazon reviews of Moby Dick:

  • “I enjoyed it, but it has hundreds of pages describing the whaling experience.” – John McDaniel
  • “It may be a classic, but it’s a boring classic.” – Cindy M. Downs
  • “The book is fantastic, but the page numbering is not correct.” – Brodi
  • “I was told this was about fishing. It’s not. Because a whale is a mammal.” – Joe Octane
  • “I SURE HOPE YOU ENJOY LEARNING ABOUT WHALES!!!! Listen I read this book hoping to get a pretty good story hoping to see some of the solidarity in man by reading about his voyages in water hoping to relate to some of the struggles from being solely focused on obtaining a certain goal etc. But honestly good Lord! I swear 85% of this book is various lessons on whaling the origin of whales, whale distinction, whale body parts, whale sperm, different color whales. Oh my goodness the book starts off quick with the appearance of Queepeg you think ok we might have something here but NO! this book drags on and on and on. Gets off topic ALL of the time. The majority of this book is about how Ismael feels and about whale parts. And when Moby Dick does show up AT THE END OF THE BOOK Captain Ahab vs Moby Dick was as big a mis-match since the Super Bowl between Denver and Seattle. IT was anticlimactic some people might get this book but please don’t put me down as one. SAVE YOURSELF THE TIME AND ENERGY READ THE OLD MAN AND THE SEA A MUCH BETTER BOOK” – Pen Name

 

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As I Lay Dying – William Faulkner

As promised, inspired by Cheryl Strayed in Wild, I went ahead and picked up As I Lay Dying by William Faulkner for my next undertaking from The List. I’d scored a copy for the princely sum of $4 – that secondhand bookstore bargain bin strikes again!

As I Lay Dying - William Faulkner - Keeping Up With The Penguins

My husband chuckled with glee when I told him this one was next. Apparently, I was going to be “so confused”! Well, fortune only favours the brave.

William Faulkner won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1949, and As I Lay Dying is widely regarded as one of the greatest American novels of all time, so plenty of people far smarter than me seem to think that it’s very good. Apparently, he wrote it in six weeks while working night shifts at the local power-station, and didn’t change a word of it after the first draft was completed (what a show-off).

I’m not sure if I was “confused” per se, but a genealogical table (a la Wuthering Heights) sure would have come in handy. Unfortunately, this edition didn’t include one, so I took the liberty of creating one myself…

See, As I Lay Dying is narrated by no fewer than fifteen different characters over the course of 59 chapters, so that’s a bit much. Luckily, the name of each character was used as the title of each chapter in this edition, so that was very helpful. Faulkner virgins should definitely use the guide above to keep track, because I’m going to break the story down as best I can and it’s fucking convoluted (scroll up to review the chart as often as you need).

So, we kick off with a woman (Addie) laying in bed, dying. Seems about right. And her eldest son (Cash) is building her coffin right outside her window, where she can hear. And the whole family is arguing about whether that’s cool or not. And they’re trying to figure out whether they can get $3 together in time to bury her. Then she dies, and everyone’s upset. The youngest son, Vardaman, catches a fish. You following so far?




The story goes on to follow the death and burial of Addie, as described by various members of her family and other hangers-on. They carry her coffin from their bumfuck-nowhere town to some other bumfuck-nowhere town, telling themselves and each other over and over again that it’s “what she would have wanted”. They almost lose her coffin a couple of times, because the rains come and the rivers get fucking hectic in that part of the world. Cash breaks his leg, Darl burns down a barn, Jewel wants to bail on the lot of them because they’re fucking mental, Dewey Dell tries to buy an abortion at a corner store, and Vardaman just wonders what the hell is going on, all the while firmly believing that the fish they caught is actually his dead mother. Papa Anse ends up taking Dewey Dell’s abortion money to buy new teeth, and marrying the woman from whom he borrowed a shovel to bury his first wife. And… um, the end?

It’s all a bit weird, sure, but that didn’t turn me off. I was actually really touched by the description of the family electing to lay Addie top-to-bottom in her coffin, so that the wedding dress they buried her in could flare out and not get crushed. I mean, that’s really sweet (if a little morbid), right? Another highlight was the chapter narrated (posthumously) by Addie herself; it was captivating and beautiful. For me, it puts to rest any argument as to whether it is possible to write from the perspective of a gender or creed that is not your own. Faulkner deftly and skilfully captures the lived experience of a poor woman trapped in a shitty marriage and a small town. I doubt I’ll read As I Lay Dying in full again, but I’ll re-read Chapter 40 on many occasions, I’m sure of it.

“In the afternoon when school was out and the last one had left with his little dirty snuffling nose, instead of going home I would go down the hill to the spring where I could be quiet and hate them.” – Addie

Prepare yourself, though: the further in you get, the more Faulkner’s writing sounds like drunk texting. That’s my tl;dr summary of As I Lay Dying: Faulkner drunk texts the death and burial of a Southern woman with a crazy family. I would recommend As I Lay Dying to people who are already familiar with Faulkner, and/or like their stories short and weird.

My favourite Amazon reviews of As I Lay Dying:

  • “…. Faulkner is NEVER light reading, if this intimidates you, save your money, don’t buy this book and don’t leave a useless review of this fine work.” – Dennis
  • “Incomprehensible. At least for the first 1/3, after which I stopped reading. I am sure literature majors love trying to figure this one out, but eventually I had the epiphany that I want to actually enjoy novels – go figure.” – Thor Albro
  • “I did not like the languages written in the book.” – Bob
  • “It took me looking at clifnotes to understand the character relationships and the time skipping back and forth. I was a confused.” – JenRebekah

 

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The Catcher in the Rye – J.D. Salinger

Because I’m a masochist, I chose another 20th century stream-of-consciousness novel for the next read. I picked up a never-read copy of The Catcher in the Rye at my favourite secondhand bookstore, from a stack of identical perfectly-preserved copies – assumedly donated by some closed store or failed online retail venture. An auspicious beginning, no?

The Catcher in the Rye - JD Salinger - Keeping Up With The Penguins

J.D. Salinger’s 1951 novel was originally published for adults, but has since (apparently) become popular with adolescent readers for its themes of teenaged angst and alienation. I say “apparently”, because I’m not sure that anyone’s actually asked the adolescents; sure, there’s around 1 million copies sold every year, but I’m pretty sure most of those are mandated reading for high-school book reports. How I myself managed to escape that particular rite of passage is beyond me…

(The book’s also quite popular with murderers, as it turns out, so there’s that.)

The Catcher in the Rye has received basically endless critical acclaim, and also has the honour of being the most censored book in U.S. high schools and libraries throughout the sixties and seventies. Reasons for censorship include its frequent use of vulgar language, sexual references, undermining of “family values”, encouragement of rebellion, promotion of drinking, promotion of smoking, promotion of lying, and promotion of promiscuity. This excited me to no end! My apprehension about its style aside, any book that undermines so-called family values is one that I can get behind.




Straight off the bat, I actually liked the narrator (Holden Caufield). He’s a bratty, rebellious teenager with a tendency towards profanity, tangential thinking, and wild exaggeration. Salinger’s characterisation was superb; it sounded like the diary of a teenage boy, you’d believe one had written it. I spent a lot of time wondering why I found The Catcher in the Rye so much more gripping and so much less annoying than My Brilliant Career. All I could come up with was the gender differential: characters that sound exactly like the type of person you know are so much less confronting than characters that sound exactly like the type of person you are.

Be warned: The Catcher in the Rye is mostly internal monologue – not a whole lot of plot. You just follow this wayward kid around new York for a few days while he drinks and smokes himself into oblivion (and chickens out of losing his virginity to a prostitute). You find out, on the final page, that he’s relating this story to you from the confines of a psychiatric hospital. Not that it’s a shock twist in the end or anything like that; you kind of get the vibe that this kid is bonkers right from the outset.

Holden’s got some interesting insights, though, and I laughed out loud more than once:

“So, I don’t know about bores. Maybe you shouldn’t feel too sorry if you see some swell girl getting married to them. They don’t hurt anybody, most of them, and maybe they’re secretly all terrific whistlers or something. Who the hell knows?”

I was surprised by how much I enjoyed The Catcher in the Rye, given my initial reservations about its style and the shell-shock of Mrs Dalloway (and, if I had to compare, I’d say that Mrs D was far more likely to make me want to kill someone, so all those murderers who loved Catcher should probably have read a bit more broadly).

Still, I’m not sure I’ll bother going back for seconds. I’d recommend The Catcher in the Rye to anyone who wasn’t forced to read it in high-school – you’ll probably enjoy it all the more for having avoided it for so long, as I did.

My favourite Amazon reviews of The Catcher in the Rye:

  • “DISCLAIMER: I only made it into the first bit of the book. There might’ve been some amazing twist I never reached, but I couldn’t bring myself to continue, it was just so boring. The interactions take forever and say almost nothing at all, and when they do get a point across, it’s a depressing point.” – Jesse Gibson
  • “I’ll be honest, I’m not sure if the author knew this or not, but the teen in this book does quite a bit of drinking and I’m pretty sure it’s illegal to drink under 21. Now sure, we’ve all done it but does that make it right? Maybe. So I guess the real question here is, should we lower the drinking age? I don’t know. Ask JD Salinger.” – JACOB AND SUMMER
  • “Spoiler alert!! Book is not about a baseball player stuck in a giant loaf of bread.” – solomon glowitz

 

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In Cold Blood – Truman Capote

OK, folks, let’s jump forward a century or so. My next Keeping Up With The Penguins undertaking was Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood, published in 1966 – the first “novelistic true crime book”… probably.

In Cold Blood - Truman Capote - Keeping Up With The Penguins

No one could ever accuse Capote of not putting in the hours: the masochist spent six years researching and interviewing and generally sticking his nose where it didn’t belong, taking literally 8,000 pages of notes, before finally sitting down to write In Cold Blood. Yeah, it’s one of the highest-selling true crime books in the history of publishing, and yeah, it’s bloody brilliant – but still. What an overachiever.

(His hard work didn’t exactly pay off as far as he was concerned. Despite an absolute avalanche of critical acclaim, Capote was reportedly hugely bummed that it never won a Pulitzer. He was desperate to top his buddy Harper Lee, who won the Pulitzer for To Kill A Mockingbird. Male egos, I tell ya!)

So, here’s the deal: Capote reads a piddly piece in The New Yorker about a well-liked Kansas family getting merked in this weirdly motiveless and clueless crime. He figures that’s a good enough basis on which to pack up and ship off to a country town you’ve never heard of – dragging Harper Lee with him, no less! – and figure out what the fuck went down.




He sets the story up in a really eerie way, with super-intimate descriptions of the lives of both the victims and the perps. You learn everything about their love lives and their pets and their phobias and how often they change their underpants. The story’s not a “whodunit” per se, in the sense that you know who dun it right from the outset – he weaves the stories of the killers and the victims together, and tells them side-by-side. You also kinda figure that the bad guys must get caught eventually (because it says so on the back of the book). I guess it’s more a “whydunit” (I call the trademark on that): why this family? How did they become the targets? What did the killers get out of it? Was it worth six lives?

You’d think the arrest would be the climax, but that comes in out of the blue only two-thirds of the way in. You get to watch the bad guys suffer through the prisoner’s dilemma, and finally divulge all of the gory details (tl;dr summary: they rocked up expecting to find a safe with ten grand inside, got pissed off when they couldn’t find it, argued about whether to rape the daughter, then neutralised all the witnesses by blowing their faces off with a shotgun, they scored about forty bucks for their trouble). Capote follows their imprisonment, their trial, their endless appeals and – ultimately – their executions.

You’ll really get out what you put in with In Cold Blood. It can be read as a conservative defence of capital punishment (taking the bad guys’ eyes, just like Jesus would do), or as a scathing leftie indictment of the U.S. incarceration system (every single criminal character is a recidivist of some sort, having left jail only to return a short time later). In that regard, it’s really artfully done. Unsurprisingly, though, you do kinda have to take off your journalistic-integrity hat. It doesn’t read anything like a non-fiction book: it reads as a novel. So, inevitably, there are endless questions as to its veracity, and I don’t think there can be any doubt that Capote was pretty liberal with the ol’ creative license.

I would wholeheartedly recommend In Cold Blood (as long as you’re not a kill-joy that takes things too seriously and gets mad when Capote takes some liberties with the truth). I’ll definitely read it again. Chilling, but fascinating!

My favourite Amazon reviews of In Cold Blood:

  • “It was a cold dud.” – Old Crow
  • “If you’ve already read it, you know how good it is. If you haven’t, I hate you for still getting to read it for the first time.” – Clint Pross
  • “Despite the fact that I bought this on the recommendation of a stupid jerk who acted like I hung the moon until one day he suddenly broke up with me the day after I’d been awake all night in the ER with a sick kid… OVER THE PHONE, NO LESS… WTF?!… it’s a really good book. You can’t blame Capote that there are terrible humans in the world, even if he did write about them really well. Maybe my boyfriend recommending a book about a gruesome family execution should have tipped me off. I dunno. You live, you learn. But yeah, good book.” – Jess

 

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The Scarlet Letter – Nathaniel Hawthorne

I got my toe wet with The Hunger Games, and now I’m diving into the pool with a proper classic. The Scarlet Letter was published in 1850 – an instant best-seller, though in its first fourteen years, Nathaniel Hawthorne made only $1,500 from its release. It was one of the first mass-produced books in America.

Reading the introductions to the classics is very important: the good ones really do provide some excellent context (and make you feel less stupid, because you know what you’re in for ahead of time). In this case, it turns out Hawthorne’s maternal ancestors were tried in New England on the charge of incest; among other things, they were sentenced to appear at the village church on the following lecture day with signs bearing the word “INCEST” pinned to their caps. So, it’s hard to imagine where he drew his inspiration…

The Scarlet Letter: A Romance” proclaimed the first page. This sounded promising (I’m a sucker for books with dirty bits). Alas, save for a couple of references to clandestine trysts and being held against a bosom, I was left wanting.

So, we kick off with a 60-page character sketch of all the fellows that ran the Customs House. The narrator bitches them out pretty hard (calling the other blokes “wearisome old souls, who had gathered nothing worth preservation from their varied experience of life” – burn!), and I heard it caused issues for Hawthorne upon publication – but he said fuck-the-haters and published as-is anyway, good on him. Anyway, it takes a while to link this chapter to the story itself: 60 pages (of pissing and moaning) in, the narrator finally finds a piece of red cloth with an A stitched into it, and we’re off to the races!




By “off to the races”, I do – of course – mean “let’s see how many ways Hawthorne can show and tell us that he hates the Puritans”. I was expecting this novel to be some kind of statement on the oppression of female sexuality, or at the very least a “romance” as the cover page styled it. In reality, it’s a 300-page rant about how much the Puritans suck. I’m really not sure what Hawthorne was thinking about his target market. I mean, anyone who reads this and feels vindicated already agrees that the Puritans need to get in the bin. And it’s not like Lyle Shelton’s going to pick this up and think “By golly, good point!”.

(And holy crap, Batman – long sentences abound! I’m a fan of the generous use of the comma and semi-colon, but old mate Hawthorne needs to learn to finish a thought. 14 lines without a full stop? I barely manage that after six coffees.)

The protagonist, Hester Prynne, is a bad bitch who had the audacity to get herself knocked up while her husband was lost at sea, and she does not give a fuck that this is all the tea for the girls in town for years. She refuses to give up the name of the baby-daddy, even with a bunch of idle ladies-who-lunch standing around talking about how their husbands should have executed her. She was pretty much the first ride-or-die chick. And she is ready to dismantle the patriarchy and smack the Stockholm syndrome right out of all the women who are slave to it:

“As a first step, the whole system of society is to be torn down, and built up anew… woman cannot take advantage of these preliminary reforms, until she herself have undergone a still mightier change.”

– Hester Prynne (Bad Bitch)

We find out pretty quickly that the town’s minister is the one who got her into this mess, and I don’t mind saying it’s not exactly a shocking Vader-esque paternity reveal. Even if I hadn’t encountered the spoilers in the introduction: (a) he’s the only male character to be examined thoroughly since we left those old-timers back at the Customs House, and (b) it just fits so neatly into Hawthorne’s vendetta against the Puritanical church. Of course there’s a sordid underbelly! Hell, the foundation of the Church was a woman’s fib about the paternity of a kid born in a barn. In its original context, yes, The Scarlet Letter’s plot “twist” might have been shocking, and the symbolic fuck-you to conservative religion might have seemed a little more subtle, but in this millennium I’m not sure it would even warrant a spoiler warning.

There’s a lot of hand-wringing and chest-clutching from Hester and Minister Baby-Daddy, especially once Hester’s long-lost husband returns from sea and starts doctor-ing under an assumed name. Their dramatics seemed kind of quaint, Hubby really didn’t pose much of a threat: he just sort of hung around for seven years, and showed no balls at all. No stabbings. No ratting them out. And yet Hester’s wailing about how “herbs would turn to poison in his hands”. Smh…



Hester and Minister Baby-Daddy hatch a cunning secret plan to sail away together, but Long-Lost Hubby thwarts them by getting himself passage on the very same boat. Not to be outdone in dramatics, Minister Baby-Daddy gives the town one final (excellent) sermon, concluding with a confession of his great sin to the entire town, and then he dies (very dramatically) in Hester’s arms. Well, fuck, says Long-Lost Hubby: according to the conclusion, he brooded over being upstaged for about a year or so, before topping himself and leaving a considerable fortune to that little shit Pearl.

(Oh, yeah, the kid! “Pearl”. A nosy pain in the arse from the beginning. She wouldn’t stop asking questions and running amok, the absolute worst. Do not want.)

The themes of The Scarlet Letter are pretty common and timeless; it’s not hard to see why it’s been adapted for the stage and screen a few million times. It’s a good one to talk about at parties, but the way in which it’s written isn’t all that engaging (God, Hawthorne needed an editor to add a few full stops). I probably won’t read it again, but you should give it a go if you’re into an old-timey Gilmore Girls.

My favourite Amazon reviews of The Scarlet Letter:

  • “Did this for school. It was awful. Luckily, I got it for free since it’s so old. But now that means I can’t burn it. That being said, I did like it as a digital download, and that really helped with reading since looking up words is so easy.” – Kyle
  • “I find Hawthorne descriptive to the point of tedious. I believe writers got paid by the word in his day, and it certainly seemed so in the beginning of the book…” – Cynthia D. Feeney
  • “Shipped on time and reads like a book” – Claude Womack

 

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