The December Online Book Choice Is:

Moby Dick by Herman Melville

melville
Of the 3 principal authors of American Lit in the 19th century (Hawthorne, Melville, Poe), Melville was the writer for everyman; Poe, the father of the mystery/horror, Hawthorne, the chronicler of puritanical America.

Some of the best writing in the entire book takes place in chapter 9, Father Mapple’s sermon. The book is worth the read, even if you only make it to chapter 9. You will feel like you have been churched.

‘Shipmates, this book, containing only four chapters- four yarns- is one of the smallest strands in the mighty cable of the Scriptures. Yet what depths of the soul Jonah’s deep sealine sound! what a pregnant lesson to us is this prophet! What a noble thing is that canticle in the fish’s belly! How billow-like and boisterously grand! We feel the floods surging over us, we sound with him to the kelpy bottom of the waters; sea-weed and all the slime of the sea is about us! But what is this lesson that the book of Jonah teaches? Shipmates, it is a two-stranded lesson; a lesson to us all as sinful men, and a lesson to me as a pilot of the living God.

The book turns through typical subject matter at times, characteristic of epic literature; the biology of whales, usage of oil, history of ships, sailing, whaling, among other points, while weaving in the storyline of Captain Ahab’s mental illness and his taking of the ship’s crew with him into his madness.

‘They think me mad–Starbuck does; but I’m demoniac, I am madness maddened!’

And how the whiteness of the whale can contribute to that madness:

And when we consider that other theory of the natural philosophers, that all other earthly hues- every stately or lovely emblazoning- the sweet tinges of sunset skies and woods; yea, and the gilded velvets of butterflies, and the butterfly cheeks of young girls; all these are but subtile deceits, not actually inherent in substances, but only laid on from without; so that all deified Nature absolutely paints like the harlot, whose allurements cover nothing but the charnel-house within; and when we proceed further, and consider that the mystical cosmetic which produces every one of her hues, the great principle of light, for ever remains white or colorless in itself, and if operating without medium upon matter, would touch all objects, even tulips and roses, with its own blank tinge- pondering all this, the palsied universe lies before us a leper; and like wilful travellers in Lapland, who refuse to wear colored and coloring glasses upon their eyes, so the wretched infidel gazes himself blind at the monumental white shroud that wraps all the prospect around him. And of all these things the Albino whale was the symbol. Wonder ye then at the fiery hunt?

The hunt and gore of the whale slaughter can be a little intense. The anthropomorphization of whales in general (in the sense of practicing good or evil, rather than just exhibiting their whale nature) is an archaic tendency of writers back then, which may have been justification for some of the indiscriminate slaughter. The 19th c. reader would more readily relate to this book than a reader of our age, though it seems that Melville gives consideration to a future reader’s more sensitive ears.

Melville on the justification of the slaughter:

Though refusing, from conscientious scruples, to bear arms against land invaders, yet himself had illimitably invaded the Atlantic and Pacfic; and though a sworn foe to human bloodshed, yet had he in his straight-bodied coat, spilled tuns upon tuns of leviathan gore, How now in the contemplative evening of his days, the pious Bildad reconciled these things in the reminiscence, I do not know; but it did not seem to concern him much, and very probably he had long since come to the sage and sensible conclusion that a man’s religion is one thing, and this practical world quite another, This world pays dividends.

but then writing of the whale:

…how nobly it raises our conceit of the mighty, misty monster, to behold him solemly sailing through a calm tropical sea; his vast, mild head overhung by a canopy of vapour, engendered by his incommunicable contemplations, and that vapour–as you will sometimes see it–glorified by a rainbow, as if heaven itself had put its seal upon his thought.

You can download this amazing book from gutenberg.org here

The November Online Book Choice Is:

Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi

persepolis book jacket

Satrapi’s autographic (or autobiographix or graphic memoir: the language is still being worked out) is a snapshot of what life was like in Iran before, during, and after the Islamic Revolution, with a historical overview thrown in.

This autographic is worth the read, though it’s difficult to see why Satrapi wishes to justify her country when so much injustice is happening there, in this century and the last. This is from the introduction:
‘Since then, this old and great civilization has been discussed mostly in connection with fundamentlaism, fanaticism, and terrorism. As an Iranian who has lived more than half my life in Iran, I know that this image is far from the truth…I believe that an entire nation should not be judged by the wrongdoings of a few extremists.’

The basis of the 1979 Islamic Revolution was Iran’s rejection of the Shah and his western-backed support. Ironically, the western education and influences that Satrapi’s family and other Iranians enjoyed during the Shah’s rule were now outlawed. With no benefit of hindsight, Iranians traded a puppet Shah for an extremist government. Iran became a male-dominated theocracy and women became subordinate to men. Women were not oppressed under the rule of the Shah.

Depressingly, not much has changed since the 1980s. Sure, living in Iran is great if you’re a guy and you don’t question authority. For a woman? Here is a case in point: wearing the hijab has become a symbol of oppression instead of a modest Islamic custom. In Iran, within the last month, four women had acid thrown at them for not following the strict dress code. Their attackers are still at large and little progress is being made to find them. Link here for the news article.

The October Online Book Choice Is:

Cawdor by Robinson Jeffers

robinson jeffers
Educated in the classical tradition, Jeffers was a scholar and scientist, before settling on poetry for his living. He lived near Carmel, California and centered much of his poetry on the natural landscape around him. And these moments of natural beauty are what shine brightest in his work.

Jeffers based his narrative poem Cawdor on Euripides’ tragedy of Phaedra and Hippolytus; woman marries husband but falls in love with son. Before the requisite confusion can be resolved, Phaedra commits suicide and Hippolytus is killed. In Greek tragedy the gods are always inventing our doom: not so in Jeffers’ world:
‘…There is something within us knows our fates from the first, our ends from the very fountain; and we in our nights may overhear its knowledge by accident, all to no purpose…’

The backdrop of coastal California lends to the hardness and savagery of the poem. Life and death become intertwined and he moves with sure steps between the two. When describing the moments after death, Jeffers is particularly resonant:
‘…one might say the brain began to glow, with its own light, in the starless darkness under the dead bone sky; like bits of rotting wood on the floor of the night forest warm rains have soaked, you see them beside the path shine like vague eyes. So gently the dead man’s brain glowing by itself made and enjoyed its dream.’

As with all poetry, read it slowly, take it in. And if you are a fan of Cormac McCarthy, you will enjoy this poem. He was influenced by Jeffers work.

The September Online Book Choice Is:

The Normal Heart by Larry Kramer

link to pdf version

Screen Shot 2014-09-03 at 8.19.33 PM

Recounting the AIDS epidemic in New York during the mid 80s, this play is fairly angry in tone but succeeds in getting the point across about the devastation the disease was inflicting on the gay population. Most of the characters are frustratingly weak in the face of the epidemic which I found a little disheartening. I thought of parallels today of the Ebola crisis and how many Americans are paranoid about any Ebola victims being brought into this country. It seems to be the age-old fear of the segregationist. Instead of studying the disease and trying to find a cure, many would still rather treat the victim as a pariah and closet them away. This can only keep us all in ignorance. Better to see each other as fellow humans and not just statistics or news items. This line from Kramer’s play sums it up (and any group that’s been ostracized can be substituted) :

The only way we’ll have real pride is when we
demand recognition of a culture that isn’t just sexual.
It’s all there – all through history we’ve been
there; but we have to claim it, and identify who was in
it, and articulate what’s in our minds and hearts and all
our creative contributions to this earth. And until we do
that, and until we organize ourselves block by neighbor
hood by city by state into a united visible community
that fights back, we’re doomed.

This play is also available in book form here

The August Online Book Choice Is:

B. Traven’s The Night Visitor and Other Stories

‘The creative person should have no other biography than his works’.
Traven could be literature’s most overlooked author. His life was shrouded in mystery, with no information certain about his nation of origin. Possibly American by birth, Traven had many aliases. As Ret Marut, he was an actor and revolutionary in Germany in the early 20th century. After his arrests for printing inflammatory pamphlets, he fled to London, and then Mexico, where he settled in to writing as B. Traven. After the publication of The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, he worked with director John Huston during the filming of the movie using the alias Hal Croves. A few of his other short stories were filmed during this time as well. Traven died in March of 1969.
Some of Traven’s writing reflects the literary style magic realism. Interestingly, he has never been tagged as a writer of this genre, it usually being applied to Latin American authors such as Garcia Marquez or Allende. In this case it appears that a writer’s close proximity to the land, regardless of birth, could affect his writing style, a nice testament to the style that is magic realism, which is infused with the myth and the history of the land. Perhaps the technique of magic realism infuses the writer, rather than the writer employing the technique.
Traven’s narrative flows well; he’s a good read. Try the cycle of ‘The Jungle Novels’ for a glimpse into the oppression of the Mexican people during and after the Mexican Revolution.

Traven’s mug shots for illegally entering England.

Screen Shot 2014-08-09 at 8.47.33 AM

The July Online Book Club choice is:

True At First Light by Ernest Hemingway

This book (part-memoir, part-fiction) has some glimpses of good writing in it, but could have used a few more rewrites. That said, it is based on Hemingway’s ‘Africa manuscript’ and was published 38 years after Hemingway’s death by his son, who edited the final product. There is another edition of the manuscript entitled Under Kilimanjaro (published in 2005 by different editors) which won a literary prize.
The book gives a good impression of life on the African plain, and the blood lust (and arrogance) that European-born hunters felt when on safari during the mid-20th century. The prose wanders and is long-winded at times, but does enough to maintain interest.
Whether Ernest Hemingway would have approved of its publication is up for debate.

1024px-Ernest_Hemingway_Writing_at_Campsite_in_Kenya_-_NARA_-_192655
Ernest Hemingway Writing at Campsite in Kenya

Anniversary of World War I

Royal_Irish_Rifles_ration_party_Somme_July_1916
The Royal Irish Rifles in a communications trench on the first day on the Somme, July 1, 1916.
from Wikimedia Commons.

The library will have displayed a World War I showcase through the rest of the summer. Our colleague, Annie Quinto, has generously given permission to let us show some of her grandfather’s memorabilia that he had from his time of service in this war. Display is located to the right of the circulation desk.

Link here to The Atlantic’s photo essay series by Alan Taylor.

Link here to CNN’s article about language and WWI by Jonathan Lighter.

The June Online Book Club choice is:

The_goldfinch_by_donna_tart

This book won the Pulitzer Prize this year and seems to be on everyone’s ‘To Read’ list. The Washington Post’s book critic called it ‘disappointing.’ Do you agree?
Do American readers have a ‘lemming complex’ when it comes to reading certain books? Do you feel like you must read The Goldfinch?

Fair warning: this book has a waiting list at the library. Book club readers who have already read it and own it may consider donating their copy to the library.

Destruction of libraries = Destruction of civilizations

burned books
books that have become ashes at The National Library and State Archives of Iraq

link here to art historian and archaeologist Zainab Bahrani’s story:
http://documentjournal.com/no-50-amnesia-in-mesopotamia/

And check out the library’s copy of A Universal History of the Destruction of Books by Fernando Baez
https://salida.marmot.org/Record/.b28157254/Home?searchId=37712363&recordIndex=1&page=1&searchSource=local