Posted by: Mish | July 29, 2010

Moby Dick

“Give me a condor’s quill! Give me Vesuvius’ crater for an inkstand! Friends, hold my arms! For in the mere act of penning my thoughts of this Leviathan, they weary me, and make me faint with their outstretching comprehensiveness of sweep, as if to include the whole circle of the sciences, and all the generations of whales, and men, and mastadons, past, present, and to come, with all the revolving panorama of empire on earth, and through the whole universe, not excluding its suburbs. Such, and so magnifying, is the virtue of a large and liberal theme! We expand to its bulk. To produce a mighty book, you must choose a mighty theme. No great and enduring volume can ever be written on the flea, though many there be who have tried it” (432).


The idea of venturing into Herman Melville’s infamous Moby Dick was extremely intimidating, but once started, the epic journey wasn’t nearly as bad as anticipated. There were times I couldn’t put the book down and stretches that dragged, but the short chapters, some only a page long, helped immensely. I surprisingly liked it a lot and the more I think about its intricacies the more it grows on me. I have no inclination to read it annually like a friend does, but can see myself reading it again- after enough time has passed.

Briefly put, the whale of a tale is about human struggle. It’s narrated by Ishmael, who joins a whaling crew to combat the “drizzly November” in his soul. Having sworn revenge on Moby Dick who made him legless, monomaniac Ahab brings his crew on a quest despite opinions and warnings.

“What is best let alone, that accursed thing is not always what least allures. He’s all a magnet! How long since thou saw’st him last? Which way heading?”

“Bless my soul, and curse the foul fiend’s,” cried Bunger, stoopingly walking around Ahab, and like a dog strangely snuffing; “this man’s blood-bring the thermometer!- it’s at the boiling point!- his pulse makes these planks beat!”

The Pequod’s diverse crew of characters include: domineering and obsessed Ahab, easy-going Ishmael, good-natured Queequeg, romantic and sensible Starbuck, nonchalant Stubb, and prickly-natured Flask. There is also a range of seamen from New England, foreign countries, and remote islands on board and off. They’re all distinct, but pretty archetypal.

Requiring determination, patience, persistence, Moby Dick isn’t something I would suggest to many. It wasn’t well received in 1851 either, only about 2,000 copies sold. I read it for an Infinite Zombies read-along thanks to Sarah, the Books of the Century Challenge, and because I really wanted to make a second attempt. As one who skipped the epic assignment years ago, I think teachers would do better with more student-friendly material. But now I can more clearly see why Moby Dick is often used in curriculums, studied by scholars, alluded to, joked about, dreaded, disliked, and discussed in great length. Melville’s masterpiece is truly one of a kind.

Berth of Thoughts and Quotes

It would have been easier to log the journey as I read, but hindsight is 20/20. Now I have a bursting berth of thoughts and lengthy quotes from the epic in which Melville warns:

“Out of the trunk, the branches grow; out of them, the twigs. So, in productive subjects, grow the chapters.”

“So ignorant are most landsmen of some of the plainest and most palpable wonders of the world, that without some hints touching the plain facts, historical and otherwise, of the fishery, they might scout at Moby Dick as a monstrous fable, or still worse and more detestable, a hideous and intolerable allegory” (205).

Moby Dick is full of philosophy, theology, history, and commentary. Philosophical subjects are debated, but no definitive answer given. The White Whale can be seen as either a god or a demon or Ahab as a hero or a villain. The central theme is whether to go with the grain or against it and to believe or not, towards which each character has his own reaction. The Cetology chapter about whales  is a humorous commentary on the study of knowledge and justified belief. Believing but refusing to submit to a higher power, Ahab says:

“All visible objects, man, are but as pasteboard masks. But in each event- in the living act, the undoubted deed- there, some unknown but still reasoning thing put forth the mouldings of its features from behind the unreasoning mask. If man will strike, strike through the mast! How can the prisoner reach outside except by thrusting through the wall? To me, the white whale is that wall, shoved near to me. Sometimes I think there’s naught beyond. But ’tis enough. He tasks me; he heaps me; I see him in outrageous strength, with an inscrutable malice sinewing it. The inscrutable thing is chiefly what I hate; and be the white whale agent, or be the white whale principal, I will wreak that hate upon him. Talk not of blasphemy, man; I’d strike the sun if it insulted me. For could the sun do that, then could I do the other; since there is ever a sort of fair play herein, jealousy presiding over all creations. But not my master, man, is even that fair play. Who’s over me? Truth has no confines” (167).

The epic dramatic tragedy varies from poetic prose to technical writing to a few scripted scenes with stage directions. The many detours are all part of Melville’s master plan. It’s a complex tapestry in which all the pieces, including the slow stretches, come together in a central whirlpool.

Melville’s use of symbolism is as rich and varied as the novel’s other elements, from whiteness, whales, and weaving to Ahab’s peg-leg:

“You would have thought that in him also two different things were warring. While his one live leg made lively echoes along the deck, every stroke of his dead limb sounded like a coffin-tap. On life and death this old man walked” (231).

and Queequeg’s tattoos, which are:

“a complete theory of of the heavens and the earth, and a mystical treatise on the art of attaining truth; so that Queequeg in his own proper person was a riddle to unfold; a wondrous work in one volume; but whose mysteries not even himself could read, though his own live heart beat against them” (455).

Nathanial Hawthorne said his friend couldn’t believe nor disbelieve in God. If Ahab reflects Melville’s disbelief, then Ishmael reflects his belief. I found Ishmael’s sermon-like tone amusing.

“Oh, man! admire and model thyself after the whale! Do thou, too, remain warm among ice. Do thou, too, live in this world without being of it. Be cool at the equator; keep thy blood fluid at the Pole. Like the great dome of St. Peter’s, and like the great whale, retain, O man! in all seasons a temperature of thine own. But how easy and how hopeless to teach these fine things! Of erections, how few are domed like St. Peter’s! Of creatures, how few vast as the whale!” (300)

“The weaver-god, he weaves; and by that weaving is he deafened, that he hears no mortal voice; and by that humming, we, too, who look on the loom are deafened; and only when we escape it shall we hear the thousand voices that speak through it. For even so it is in all material factories. The spoken words that are inaudible among the flying spindles; those same words are plainly heard without the walls, bursting from the opened casements. Thereby have villainies been detected. Ah, mortal! then, be heedful; for so, in all this din of the great world’s loom, thy subtlest thinkings may be overheard afar” (427).

In discussing spouts and halos, Ishmael says:

“He is both ponderous and profound. And I am convinced that from the heads of all ponderous profound beings, such as Plato, Pyrrho, the Devil, Jupiter, Dante, and so on, there always goes up a certain semi-visible steam, while in the act of thinking deep thoughts…glorified by a rainbow, as if Heaven itself had put its seal upon his thoughts. For, d’ye see, rainbows do not visit the clear air; they only irradiate vapor. And so, through all the thick mists of the dim doubts in my mind, divine intuitions now and then shoot, enkindling my fog with a heavenly ray. And for this I thank God; for all have doubts; many deny; but doubts or denials, few along with them, have intuitions. Doubts of all things earthly, and intuitions of some things heavenly, this combination makes neither believer nor infidel, but makes a man who regards them both with equal equal eye” (359).

Melville comments on society’s racial views, though to a lesser extent than other topics. He shows the ludicrousness of categorizing people by skincolour through the absurd and erroneous grouping of species of whales. In another chapter, Stubb warns a young crewman that “a whale would sell for thirty times what you would, Pip, in Alabama. Bear that in mind” (395).

Just because I found it amusing…While rambling about the glory of whaling, Ishmael alludes to St. George and the Dragon:

“which I maintain to have been a whale; for in many old chronicles whales and dragons are strangely jumbled together, and often stand for each other. ‘Thou art as a lion of the waters, and as a dragon of the sea,’ said Ezekiel; hereby, plainly meaning a whale; in truth, some versions of the Bible use the word itself. Besides, it would much subtract from the glory of the exploit had St. George but encountered a crawling reptile of the land, instead of doing battle with the great monster of the deep. Any man may kill a snake, but only a Perseus, a St. George, a Coffin, have the heart in them to march boldly up to a whale” (349).

Coincidentally, I picked up a children’s edition of Edmund Spenser’s legend the same week Moby Dick was bequeathed to me. I haven’t read it yet, but it’s a reminder to read the Faerie Queen in full.


More quotes that caught mine eye

“There are certain queer times and occasions in this strange mixed affair we call life when a man takes this whole universe for a vast practical joke, though the wit thereof he but dimly discerns, and more than suspects that the joke is at nobody’s expense but his own. However, nothing dispirits, and nothing seems worth while disputing. He bolts down all events, all creeds, and beliefs, and persuasions, all hard things visible and invisible, never mind how knobby; as an ostrich of potent digestion gobbles down bullets and gun flints. And as for small difficulties and worryings, prospects of sudden disaster, peril of life and limb; all these, and death itself, seem to him only sly, good-natured hits, and jolly punches in the side bestowed by the unseen and unaccountable old joker” (225).

“There is no earthly way of finding out precisely what the whale really looks like. And the only mode in which you can derive even a tolerable idea of his living contour, is by going a whaling yourself; but by so doing, you run no small risk of being eternally stove and sunk by him. Wherefore, it seems to me you had best not be too fastidious in your curiosity touching this Leviathan” (262).

“Is it not curious, that so vast a being as the whale should see the world through so small an eye, and hear the thunder through an ear which is smaller than a hare’s? But if his eyes were broad as the lens of Herschel’s great telescope; and his ears capacious as the porches of cathedrals; would that make him any longer of sight, or sharper of hearing? Not at all.- Why then do you try to ‘enlarge’ your mind? Subtilize it” (321).

“Look not too long in the face of the fire, O man! Never dream with thy hand on the helm! Turn not thy back to the compass; accept the first hint hint of the hitching tiller; believe not the artificial fire, when its redness makes all things look ghastly. To-morrow, in the natural sun, the skies will be bright; those who glare like devils in the forking flames, the morn will show in far other, at least gentler, relief; the glorious, golden, glad sun, the only true lamp- all others but liars!… But even Solomon, he says, ‘the man that wandereth out of the way of understanding shall remain’ (i.e. even while living) ‘in the congregation of the dead.’ Give not thyself up, then, to fire, lest it invert thee, deaden thee; as for the time it did me. There is a wisdom that is woe; but there is a woe that is madness. And there is a Catskill eagle in some souls that can alike dive down into the blackest gorges, and soar out of them again and become invisible in the sunny spaces. And even if he for ever flies within the gorge, that gorge is in the mountains; so that even in his lowest swoop the mountain eagle is still higher than other birds upon the plains, even though they soar” (404).

“Seat thyself sultanically among the moons of Saturn, and take high abstracted man alone; and he seems a wonder, a grandeur, and a woe. But from the same point, take mankind in mass, and for the most part, they seem a mass of unnecessary duplicates, both contemporary and hereditary” (441).

“This mysterious, divine Pacific zones the world’s whole bulk about; makes all coasts one bay to it; seems the tide-beating heart of earth. Lifted by those eternal swells, you needs must own the seductive god, bowing your head to Pan” (456).

“The mingled, mingling threads of life are woven by warp and woof: calms crossed by storms, a storm for every calm. There is no steady unretracing progress in this life; we do not advance through fixed gradations, and at the last one pause: -through infancy’s unconscious spell, boyhood’s thoughtless faith, adolescence’ doubt (the common doom), then scepticism, then disbelief, resting at last in manhood’s pondering repose of If. But once gone through, we trace the round again; and are infants, boys, and men, and Ifs eternally. Where lies the final harbor, whence we unmoor no more? In what rapt ether sails the world, of which the weariest will never weary? Where is the foundling’s father hidden? Our souls are like those orphans whose unwedded mothers die in bearing them: the secret of our paternity lies in their grave, and we must there to learn it” (464).

“When I think of this life I have led; the desolation of solitude it has been; the masoned, walled-town of a Captain’s exclusiveness, which admits but small entrance to any sympathy from the green country without-oh, weariness! heaviness! Guinea-coast slavery of solitary command!-when I think of all this; only half-suspected, not so keenly known to me before-and how for forty years I have fed upon dry salted fare0fit emblem of the dry nourishment of my soul!-when the poorest landsman has had fresh fruit to his daily hand, and broken the world’s fresh bread to my mouldy crusts…then, the madness, the frenzy, the boiling blood and the smoking brow, with which, for a thousand lowerings old Ahab has furiously, foamingly chased his prey-more a demon than a man!-aye, aye! what a forty years’ fool-fool-old fool, has old Ahab been! Why this strife of the chase? why weary, and palsy the arm at the oar, and the iron, and the lance? how the richer or better is Ahab now?” (507)

Posted by: Mish | July 28, 2010

Whiteness, Whales, and Weaving

Rarely have I come across a novel that permeates so much symbolism as Herman Melville’s Moby Dick.

In “the Whiteness of the Whale” chapter, Ishmael explains the mystical, nameless horror towards the White Whale. He describes associations with white: beauty, royalty, dominion, joy and gladness, innocence, honor, justice, purity, holiness, power, and its elusive quality that makes it more terrifying than blood’s redness. Ishmael believes terror is raised to the extreme when the hue’s elusiveness is separated from the “more kindly associations, and coupled with any object terrible in itself”. He states the “smooth, flaky whiteness” of the polar bear and white shark make them “transcendent horrors”. Melville writes of the polar bear in a footnote:

“It is not the whiteness, separately regarded, which heightens the intolerable hideousness of that brute; for, analysed, that heightened hideousness, it might be said, only arises from the circumstance, that the irresponsible ferociousness of the creature stands invested in the fleece of celestial innocence and love; and hence, by bringing together two such opposite emotions in our minds, the Polar bear frightens us with so unnatural a contrast. But even assuming all this to be true; yet, were it not for the whiteness, you would not have that intensified terror. As for the white shark, the white gliding ghostliness of repose in that creature, when beheld in his ordinary moods, strangely tallies with the same quality in the Polar quadruped. This peculiarity is most vividly hit by the French in the name they bestow upon at fish. The Roman mass for the dead begins with ‘Requiem eternam’ (eternal rest), whence Requiem denominating the mass itself, and any other funeral music. Now, in allusion to the white, silent stillness of death in this shark, and the mild deadliness of his habits, the French call him Requin” (190).

On the other side of the coin, Melville points out that “even blackness has its brilliancy; behold yon lustrous ebony, panelled in king’s cabinets” (394).

Preaching about sinning, the ship’s cook says:

“Your woraciousness, fellow-critters, I don’t blame ye so much for; dat is natur, and can’t be helped; but to gobern dat wicked natur, dad is de pint. 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” (288).

There are many lengthy stretches, but each has their purpose. In one of the chapters about whales, Ishmael says:

“You find him unbent from the vast corpulence of his dignity, and kitten-like, he plays on the ocean as if it were a hearth. But still you see his power in his play. The broad palms of his tail are flirted high into the air; then smiting the surface, the thunderous concussion resounds for miles…Out of the bottomless profundities the gigantic tail seems spasmodically snatching at the highest heaven. So in dreams, have I seen majestic Satan thrusting forth his tormented colossal claw from the flame Baltic of Hell. But in gazing at such scenes, it is all in all what mood you are in; if in the Dantean, the devils will occur to you; if in that of Isaiah, the archangels….I once saw a large herd of whales in the east, all heading towards the sun, and for a moment vibrating in concert with peaked flukes. As it seemed to me at the time, such a grand embodiment of adoration of the gods was never beheld” (362).

Following the supernatural line of thought, Ishmael ponders:

“The more I consider this mighty tail, the more do I deplore my inability to express it. At times there are gestures in it, which, though they would well grace the hand of man, remain wholly inexplicable. In an extensive herd, so remarkable, occasionally, are these mystic gestures, that I have heard hunters who have declared them akin to Free-Mason signs and symbols; that the whale, indeed, by these methods intelligently conversed with the world” (363).

Ishmael parallels weaving to life, saying:

“It seemed as if this were the Loom of Time, and I myself were a shuttle mechanically weaving and weaving away at the Fates. There lay the fixed threads of the warp subject to but one single, ever returning, unchanging vibration, and that vibration merely enough to admit of the crosswise interblending of other threads with its own. This warp seemed necessity; and here, thought I, with my own hand I ply my own shuttle and weave my own destiny into these unalterable threads. Meantime, Queequeg’s impulsive, indifferent sword, sometimes hitting the woof slantingly, or crookedly, or strongly, or weakly, as the case might be; and by this difference in the concluding blow producing a corresponding contrast in the final aspect of the completed fabric; this savage’s sword, thought I, which thus finally shapes and fashions both warp and woof; this easy, indifferent sword must be chance- aye, chance, free will, and necessity- no wise incompatible- all interweavingly working together. The straight warp of necessity, not to be swerved from its ultimate course- its every alternating vibration, indeed, only tending to that; free will still free to ply her shuttle between given threads; and chance, though restrained in its play within the right lines of necessity, and sideways in its motion directed by free will, though thus prescribed to by both, chance by turns rules either, and has the last featuring blow at events” (214).

While thinking about whaling, for sperm whales in particular, Ishmael cries:

“Oh! my friends, but this is mankilling! Yet this is life. For hardly have we mortals by long toilings extracted from the world’s vast bulk its small but valuable sperm; and then, with weary patience, cleansed ourselves from its defilements, and learned to live here in clean tabernacles of the soul; hardly is this done, when- There she blows!– the ghost is spouted up, and away we sail to fight some other world, and go through young life’s old routine again” (408).

Melville describes some of the symbolism, but also leaves readers to read between the lines- like with the shipmates’ different reactions to the doubloon, a higher power the colour of gold.

Posted by: Mish | July 27, 2010

Reviewing Books

Musing Mondays“Do you review books? If so, for who? If not, have you ever thought about doing so? Why, or why not?”

I hadn’t really considered blogging about books until a friend asked me to participate in a review forum. I figured if I was posting thoughts there then I might as well do so here as hard copy, the first review being in January of 2008 for DAW Books’ 1980 Annual World’s Best SF. (Was it really almost 3 years ago?!) The now inactive group was my introduction to the bookworms’ blogosphere.

My bookish posts are a mix of reviews, thoughts, and random tidbits. I write for myself and because I love discussing and sharing art. That others add to the discussion (and Dread Pile o’Reads) and camaradaries forged is a ginormous bonus.

Thank you.

Posted by: Mish | July 25, 2010

Good Morning, Vietnam

“It’s hot. Damn hot! Real hot! Hottest things is my shorts. I could cook things in it. A little crotch pot cooking. It’s so damn hot, I saw little guys, their orange robes burst into flames. It’s that hot!”

I said the above while talking with my dad about the 35°C/95°F weather and he started laughing. Another of our long-time favourite schticks is:

“Gooood morning, Vietnam! Hey, this is not a test! This is rock and roll! Time to rock it from the delta to the DMZ! Is that me or does that sound like an Elvis Presley movie? Viva Da Nang. Oh, viva, Da Nang. Da Nang me, Da Nang me, why don’t they get a rope and hang me? Hey, isn’t it a little too early for being that loud? Hey, too late, it’s 0600! What’s the ‘O’ stand for? Oh, my God, it’s early!”

It had been ages since I’ve seen Good Morning, Vietnam so it was nice to watch it fairly recently with friends. Written by Mitch Markowitz and directed by Barry Levinson, the 1987 drama-comedy is based on disc jockey Adrian Cronauer’s career and time in Vietnam. His humor, musical choices, and news reporting are popular with the troops, but not with his superiors.

The film is unavoidably serious. The comic relief reflects what Cronauer did for the troops’ morale. He believed that just because they were in a dire situation didn’t mean they couldn’t have a few moments of much needed laughter. His superiors disagreed.

Good Morning, Vietnam trailer

Good Morning, Vietnam is one of my favourite films with Robin Williams, the other being Dead Poet’s Society. Mainly known for stand-up comedy at the time, it’s one of his earliest dramatic roles. He was approached about the role specifically because of his humor, many of the radio sequences were impromptu improvisations. While watching it I was surprised to see Forest Whitaker, Robert Wuhl, and Bruno Kirby, actors I now recognize.

My recollections about the film blurred through the years, but I practically grew up with the soundtrack. Featuring the Beach Boys, Martha and the Vandellas, James Brown, Louis Armstrong, the Vogues, the Castaways, and several others, the album spans Rock n’Roll, Soul, Motown, and Jazz. My dad’s been cruising to its tunes and Williams’ schticks since I was a kid, and still is. I eventually bought my own copy of the album, which is currently in my car.

What’s your favourite Robin Williams role? If you’ve seen Good Morning, Vietnam, what did you think?

Interview about Good Morning, Vietnam and Dead Poet’s Society

Adrian Cronauer on the film’s accuracy

Posted by: Mish | July 23, 2010

Frankenstein: Ghost Stories and Soap Operas

“I saw the pale student of unhallowed arts kneeling beside the thing he had put together. I saw the hideous phantasm of a man stretched out, then, on the working of some powerful engine, show signs of life…His success would terrify the artist; he would rush away…hope that…this thing…would subside into dead matter…he opens his eyes; behold the horrid thing stands at his bedside, opening his curtains…”

The “waking nightmare” may have been the inspiration for Mary Shelley to set pen to paper in June of 1816, but other factors also contributed to Frankenstein‘s creation.

It was a dark and stormy night when Mary and Percy Shelley were stranded at Lord Byron’s rented villa along the shores of Lake Geneva. Mary saw the area as a sacred place of enlightenment because its visitors included Milton, Rousseau, and Voltaire. For entertainment they and John Polidori, Byron’s physician, read a collection of German ghost stories titled the Fantasmagoriana. In one of the stories a group of travelers share personal supernatural experiences so Byron then set a challenge for everyone to write a story. Mary was uninspired while Percy wrote “A Fragment of a Ghost Story”, Byron a fragment of an unfinished story, and Polidori began the first vampire story in English, “the Vampyre”. It was based off of Byron’s fragment and for awhile it was thought that Byron had written the story.

The group continued the following evening and Byron recited “Christabel” by Samuel T. Coleridge. Percy perceived Mary as the poem’s villain and ran out of the room, causing a scene and leading Mary to feelings of guilt that were later developed into novel ideas. The poets lost interest in the supernatural stories, but feeling that her ambitions and value were at stake, Mary persisted with Percy’s encouragement.

“My husband was, from the first, very anxious that I should prove myself worthy of my parentage, and enroll myself on the page of fame. He was forever inciting me to obtain literary reputation.”

Discussion led to Madame de Stael’s De l’Allemagne and “whether the principle of life could be discovered and whether scientists could galvanize a corpse of manufactured humanoid”. When Mary went to bed she had the “waking” nightmare and realized the next morning that she had found her story. She began writing the opening lines of Chapter IV of Frankenstein, “It was on a dreary night in November”.  She was eighteen at the time. The novel was finished in May of 1817 and published January 1, 1818.

Frankenstein‘s themes include abandonment, death, and loss, which Mary learned about at an early age. With the issues of science and playing G-d it’s also philosophical, her parents were intellectual and literary figures of the time. Mary’s and her mother’s lives sound like soap operas. It’s all pretty fascinating so…

Mary Shelley’s mother, Mary Wollstonecraft, had an abusive father who forced her to hand over an inheritance to pay his debts. Wollstonecraft slept in front of her mother’s door as protection when her father was drunk. After her mother passed away she left the family and worked as a lady’s companion and then as a teacher and governess before moving to London to try to make a living as a writer.

Wollstonecraft learned French and German and worked as a translator and a book critic. She became an important intellectual through her writing on political theory, women’s education, travel, and history. A Vindication of the Rights of Women made her famous. She traveled to France, participating in the intellectual arguments of the Revolution’s early days. As part of the ongoing debate about the proper position of women in society, Wollstonecraft argued in Vindication that women are not inferior to men, but inferior in their education and that if they could get good educations they would be more capable to make greater contributions to society.

Wollstonecraft fell in love with a married painter while in London. After suggesting to Henry Fuseli’s wife that she move in with them on a platonic basis, Fuseli was to have nothing more to do with her. She later met Gilbert Imlay, an American adventurer who was running goods into France at the time and had once swindled Daniel Boone in a land scam in Kentucky. A revolutionary, Wollstonecraft didn’t care that Imlay had no interest in getting married and moved in with him. Imlay left her before their daughter Fanny was born, but she followed him and demanded he return and take responsibility. Frustrated and upset, she tried to commit suicide twice.

When the violent Reign of Terror began in 1793 she went to England. In an attempt to get Imlay back she traveled to Scandinavia to try to recoup some money that was owed to him and wrote a book about her trip, Letters Written in Sweden, Norway, and Denmark. She eventually realized Imlay wasn’t coming back and returned to her literary life in London.

William Godwin, a prolific writer, radical, and anarchist philosopher who knew Wollstonecraft began courting her. She became pregnant and they decided to wed so the child would not be illegitimate, but bought separate houses next door to one another so they could maintain their independence. Having written about the abolition of marriage, Godwin was criticized for marrying. It was a happy marriage for the five months it lasted, Wollstoncraft died of fever ten days after giving birth to Mary. Godwin remarried when Mary was 4 so she and Fanny were raised together with their step-siblings, Charles and Claire Claremont.

Although Mary never met her mother she knew all about her and read Wollstoncraft’s works, often while sitting on her gravestone. Her life was shaped by being the daughter of two of the more famous and scandalous intellectuals of the time. Godwin was writing a biography of her mother during much of her early childhood. He intended it as a tribute, but it backfired. The biography not only tanked her reputation, but was also taken as proof that educated and politically aware women lost their morals and became promiscuous.

Many didn’t know that she had not been married to Imlay and Fanny was illegitimate or that she didn’t marry Godwin until after she was pregnant with Mary, traveled without chaperonage, and was mad and bad. Godwin may simply have been naive about the times, not realizing that the revolutionary years’ intellectual adventurousness was giving way to Victorian respectability. The end result was that Wollstonecraft’s works were judged not safe for decent women to read because her immodesty might communicate itself. She and her writing fell out of favor for several generations.

Mary grew up surrounded by discussions advocating free love and condemning the institution of marriage and private ownership of property. As a young teenager, she didn’t get along with her stepmother and was frequently shipped off to homes of other political dissenters where she learned to disregard the period’s social conventions.

Around the age of 16, Mary was introduced to Percy Bysshe Shelley, a radical acolyte of Godwin’s. Percy had been expelled from Oxford for writing a pamphlet called the Necessity of Atheism. After a short stay at home, the 19-year old eloped to Scotland with 16-year old Harriet Westbrook. After she declined to let him bring into their household his best friend, Thomas Jefferson Hogg, he abandoned his wife and child for London.

He found his way to Godwin’s bookstore where his radical politics found a match and he frequently visited the house. Percy’s welcome wore thin when his family tied up his inheritance and he couldn’t make good his offer of paying Godwin’s debts. By then Mary and Percy had been meeting secretly at her mother’s grave and they were in love. It was rumored that Percy may have been involved first with Fanny and that she was sent to visit relatives to get her away from him, which is when his attentions fell on Mary. For Mary, he was the the embodiment of her parents liberal ideals, including free love and open marriage. Acting on hypocrisy, Godwin tried to end the relationship and salvage his daughter’s reputation.

Godwin described Mary at fifteen as “singularly bold, somewhat imperious, and active of mind” and a month before her 17th birthday, she eloped to Europe with her 16-year old stepsister and 22-year old Percy. The runaways left behind Mary’s sister, unhappy parents, and Percy’s pregnant wife, but returned a few months later and rented a house in London. Fanny was ordered to stay away, but she visited them and tried to persuade Claire to come back. Mary and Percy were angry with Fanny for trying to get Claire to leave, the parents for not obeying them and staying away, and everybody was mad at everybody.

Mary in 1815 gave birth to a premature daughter who died after two months. Mary and Fanny reconciled for a time, despite the parents. With home relations worsening, Fanny begged to live with the Shelleys, but she was refused and eventually another big fight ensued.

Mary gave birth in January of 1816 and in May the three runaways with baby William traveled to Geneva to spend the summer on Lake Geneva with Byron and Polidori. The invitation came through Claire, who was a mistress to Byron, who was rumored to have had affairs with various women, men, and his half sister.

The tempestuous weather that brought about ghost stories and Frankenstein was due to the 1815 eruption of Mount Tambora in Indonesia. It was the largest since 180 AD, causing the highest fatality recorded of at least 71,000, and releasing such massive amounts of sulfur it created a climate anomaly world-wide. 1816 became the Year Without a Summer, northern Europe saw heavy rains and low temperatures while Maine saw snow in July and glaciers advanced in Switzerland. Sunsets took on an unusual colour from all the airborne dust and crops failed and livestock died, resulting in the 19th century’s worst famine. After losing his crops in Vermont, Joseph Smith moved to New York where he reported seeing an angel named Mormon.

Mary and Percy Shelley married in late 1816 after the suicide of Percy’s first wife. In 1818, they moved to Italy, where their second and third children died before Mary gave birth to her last and only surviving child, Percy Florence. In 1822, Percy drowned with his sailboat during a storm. A year later, Mary returned to England where she devoted herself to parenthood, getting Percy’s works published, and a career as a professional author.

Aside from the infamous Gothic horror, Mary’s works include the historical novels Valperga and Perkin Warbeck, the apocalyptic the Last Man, Lodore, Falkner, and several short stories. She also wrote biographical articles for Dionysius Lardner’s Cabinet Cyclopaedia and a travel book titled Rambles in Germany and Italy.

Like many people in her life, Mary was an intellectual and political radical. However, her opinions on social reformation differed from those of her parents or Percy. She argued the need for cooperation and sympathy, particularly as practiced by women in the family. She believed people should exercise political power, but feared that irresponsibility would lead to chaos, Victor Frankenstein and his creation being an example.

Mary was often ill during the last decade of her life, probably because of the brain tumor that took her life on February 1, 1851 when she was 53.


Seldom do I find a writer or a book’s background so fascinatingly interesting as Mary Shelley and Frankenstein. I’d have finished the book’s 200 odd pages now if it weren’t for the fact that I left my copy at a friend’s. Argh! So annoying!! One, it minimizes my participation in a read-along and two, I’ve been wanting to read the novel. Instead I’m stuck reading James Joyce’s Ulysses, which is also interesting, but that’s another topic.

Posted by: Mish | July 22, 2010

Bookish Podcasts

Booking Through Thursday button“Do you ever listen to book-related podcasts? If so, which ones and why? Or, of course, there’s the flip side … did you even know that such a thing existed?”

I have a low attention span for radio and audio books so I’ve only listened to a few bookish podcasts. The first was a few readings shared by Catherynne Valente of the Orphan’s Tales, for which she took apart and reconstructed folklore like Legos and is akin to Arabian Nights. Then there was a CBC radio podcast a friend shared with me, an interview with Neil Gaiman about Coraline and fairy tales. I’m glad I found it fascinating enough to transcribe because the radio station’s link expired. Most recently I listened to Patrick Stewart’s reading of H.G. Wells’ the Star. It was good, but I’ll have to re-read the short story with my own eyes to get the point.

Posted by: Mish | July 21, 2010

What Are We Doing?

Ship Breaker‘s release on May first couldn’t haven’t been more perfectly timed or eerie. Paolo Bacigalupi writes about a harsh reality where oil, regular weather patterns, and coastal cities have disappeared. The young adult science-fiction happens to be set in a future shanty town along the Gulf Coast. The story follows seventeen year old Nailer whose job is to scavenge scrap metal from beached oil tankers. When the daughter of a shipping company owner is found among wreckage, he’s faced with the decision of whether to kill her and sell her for parts or to help and trust her.

I’ve been trying not to add (too many) books to the reading pile, but after reading an interview with Bacigalupi about the Ship Breaker and the Gulf’s recent oil leak I couldn’t help myself. I wish I remembered where I came across the article. I’m not familiar with the author’s works, but have heard good things about the Windup Girl and recognize it in part because it was nominated for a Hugo Award.

If you’ve read anything by Bacigalupi, what did you think?

On a similar note, “What Are We Doing?” by Alexander James Adams paints a picture where:

“Our skies are now blackened by smoke and our oceans are burned. Our mountains are flattened and broken from above and below. Great words of concern have been spoken but very few deeds of true love have we to show.”

While hearing the new single’s first stanza prior to the chorus above, I chuckled in puzzlement. TV and technology are far from the faerie tale minstrel’s usual themes so I wondered where the folk song was going. Then I understood as it became more serious and angry with Adams asking:

“What are we doing with our cities so tall and laws so extending and our hearts still so small? What are we doing for the person we see? Do we crank up our earphones and turn on that TV? Our birds die of oil, our fish die of air, our water is poisoned, our forests lay bare, but we still wear our crystals and pray on bent knee and we still gladly kill you when you disagree. We’ve got what we want from this life, but what have we returned?”

For better or worse, what are we doing? The song reflects my own thoughts and frustrations so I’ll leave it at that.

Posted by: Mish | July 18, 2010

Insh’Allah & Merlin’s Descendants

When thinking about Lion’s Blood by Steven Barnes or the Merlin’s Descendants series by Irene Radford their soundtracks always come to mind without fail. I’ve been listening to Insh’Allah for inspiration while writing down my thoughts about Lion’s Blood, which is in the editing phase. Perhaps part of the writer’s block is that the book and its music are so intertwined that I have difficulty separating one from the other. In a sense it also feels right to share the music of Lion’s Blood prior to a review because that’s how I was introduced in 2002 to the rich world Barnes created.

Insh’Allah is a blend of Celtic and Mid-eastern music that sets the tone for the alternate history about slavery, faith, and love in the Islamic New World. Excerpted in the book are “Laddie Are You Working?” while working in the fields; “We Are Bound”, which is a sort of prayer among the slaves during their religious gatherings; “the Mushroom Song” for when poison is brewed; and “Deirdre’s Lament”. Those I first heard were the beautiful heart-wrenching “We Are Bound”, the creepy children’s song “Gruagach”, “Insh’Allah” for when a plantation owner’s son questions his actions and path, and “New Northwest” about seeking a new home and life. Although only asked to write a few Irish slave songs that could be excerpted for Lion’s Blood, Heather Alexander decided to create the sixteen-track album. The music varies from slow melodic songs to more upbeat tunes, including jigs. As usual there’s plenty of fiddling and percussion. In Insh’Allah‘s liner notes, Barnes wrote:

“If you are already a fan, welcome again to the heart of an extraordinary artist. If you are new to Heather, I envy you. I would give much to have never heard these songs that they might chill my spine for the first time. Stop reading. Listen now! The winds of another world are blowing: swords are drawn, bugles blow, lives are lost, freedom gained, hearts broken, an empire born. Can you hear it?”

“Laddie Are Ya Working?”

“the Mushroom Song” covered by Tricky Pixie

Merlin’s Descendants follows a different note, that of Radford’s fantastical historical fiction from the time of King Arthur to the New World’s independence. The thirteen-track album aptly captures its characters and themes, in its liner notes, Radford wrote:

“Music permeates the Merlin’s Descendants series. Music permeates my life. Heather Alexander has been a part of my music collection for many years. Collaborating with her on this album has brought a new dimension to the stories that my paltry words can only hint at.”

Among my favourites are the lively and flirtatious “Maiden of Spring”; the slow, melodic “Familiar’s Promise” about friendship and loyalty between a dog and its human; the fast-paced, percussive “Wild Hunt”; “Blood and Passion” about perception, truth, and unity; and the healing “Sacred Fire” written for a Catholic priest who is torn between beliefs and duty. Done in an olde bardic style of yore, “Priestess of Tryblith” is reminiscent of Alexander’s compositions for Mercedes Lackey’s Valdemar series and Andre Norton’s Witchworld in the early nineties. Instruments heard on Merlin’s Descendants include Alexander’s guitar and mandolin, pennywhistle, bodhran, other percussion instruments, and keyboard. The album is earthy, spiritual, and reflective of a time when Beltaine fires brightly burned and people frolicked around maypoles.

“Come My Lady”- closest to “Maiden of Spring”, which has been stuck in my head

“Familiar’s Promise” performed by Alexander James Adams

“Familiar’s Promise” has become a friend’s and my song. It was performed when I took him to his first Alexander James Adams concert and SF/F con, he’s been calling me Half-Cat for years (a play off my name in French) and after he jokingly said it should be my con name it became so, and I tend to be “the strong silent half of what we unify” who “doesn’t always speak but still understands”. Besides it’s beautifully fitting with lyrics such as:

“I will give you my heart if you give me your hand and it never will part while beside you I stand. Lay your hand on my head as the firelight dies and believe what I’ve said for this love never lies”.

Insh’Allah and Merlin’s Descendants are my favourite soundtracks written and performed by the one many refer to as “the Bard”. Aside from loving the music and stories they tell, they resonate and I’ve cherished the moments with both, as I have with a lot of her folk, filk, and Celtic rock music through thirteen years. Samples may be heard at the archival HeatherlandsMerlin’s Descendants was Alexander’s last book soundtrack before she retired in 2006 and named the faerie tale minstrel, Alec Adams, the heir to her legacy.

In the Moon in the Mirror‘s dedication, Radford said Alexander “is the only person who can filk herself and come up with a song that is as good or better than the original two. How many of you can catch a fly?” I couldn’t help but laugh when I surprisingly came across those words two years ago. She had been a dinner topic between Adams, his wife, and I that day so it was very timely.

In the liner notes of Merlin’s Descendants, Alexander wrote:

“I have learned much from her (Radford’s) words. It is a wish and a prayer of mine that humanity will be united with Magic, Music, and the Ministrations of Light. In Faerie Tongue I speak, ‘Let it be so’.”

Indeed, so mote it be.

Likewise I learned a lot from Alexander, from how to play the bodhran and face fears like stage fright (I have yet to jump from a plane) to unexpected answers and truths. She gave more than a lifetime of song for which my gratitude runs deeper than words. The least I can do is continue sharing the Bard’s magic and music.

The following last three song are inspired by skydiving, the fun fly catching song born from two songs Radford referred to, and one of my favourite fiddle tunes. The lighting is poor, but the sound is good.

“Pirate Bill and Squidly” and “Frog of Cambreadth”

“Blue Heron/Cranky Crawdads/Mittens on the Moon”

I posted the pirated tunes for the sake of this rambling because footage of solely Alexander is practically non-existent, but they will self-destruct after a few days. I try to share real videos of music or music posted by their artists, but my old concert recording has yet to be transferred from VHS. Besides, my respect for Alexander and her artistic endeavors cause me to heed such colourful, serious warnings as:

“Faeries will flee at your presence, ravens will poop on your head, and Tryblith will add you to his list of ‘special friends'” and “you will find camels in your bed, sand in your favourite food and two large Zulu warriors will setup camp on your front lawn.”

Posted by: Mish | July 16, 2010

Frankenstein to 2001

I caved and went into my favourite used bookstore because I had a few books to trade in and missed the place. They’ve managed to sell and/or cleanup enough that books weren’t tumbling down while I browsed and aisles were relatively clear.

I found what I was looking for, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. I started reading it last night on my Palm Pilot, but it seemed so wrong and I had the feeling I’d want a physical hard copy. Besides the purchased edition has an introduction by the author and knowing something about her life makes it and Frankenstein more interesting.

“I bid my hideous progeny go forth and prosper. I have an affection for it, for it was the offspring of happy days, when death and grief were but words which found no true echo in my heart.”

I also picked up Billy Budd and Other Tales by Herman Melville. At the beginning of my Moby Dick journey I asked for suggestions of other nautical works of fiction and Sarah responded with the novella Billy Budd, Foretopman. It made the reading list because she roped me into what was an enjoyable whale of a tale. Among the short stories is Bartleby, which I recently learned was Melville’s reaction to how poorly Moby Dick was received, therefore of interest. I can’t help but think that in some way it’s also reflective of his feelings about being a clerk out of necessity prior to turning to whaling. Joyce Carol Oates says in the introduction:

“Though imbued with a tragic vision as elevated as that of Sophocles and Shakespeare, Herman Melville was paradoxically a writer of romance, and not ‘realism,’ as the nineteenth-century sensibility would have comprehended it…The romantic-gothic sensibility, coupled with the habit of a somewhat didactic and discursive allegorizing, has made Melville difficult of access to many contemporary readers…The air of the strange, the uncanny, the dreamlike ‘not-real’ in Melville, even as the author goes to great pains to set down historical facts and dates is purposeful; for Melville’s imagination is always fixed to universals and not particulars.”

Last but not least, I came across Arthur C. Clarke’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. I’ve been meaning to read something by Clarke, but particularly this classic SF. Interestingly, it was written after Clarke collaborated with Stanley Kubrick on the 1964 movie. Besides it’s more than high time I read about Hal and Discovery‘s voyage to the solar system’s edge. In the introduction written in 1991, Clarke writes about outguessing the future so the movie wouldn’t be “obsolete” and “ridiculous” and the reason for setting it in 2001:

“The lunar landing still seemed psychologically a dream of the far future. Intellectually, we knew it was inevitable, emotionally, we could not really believe it…The first two-man Gemini flight (Grissom and Young) would not take place for another year, and argument was still raging about the nature of the lunar surface…Though NASA was spending the entire budget of our movie (over $10,000,000) every day, space exploration seemed to be marking time.”

I was good and didn’t come away with a stack, among which would have been: Isaac Asimov’s Foundation’s Edge and George R.R. Martin’s A Feast For Crows (I haven’t read the first books so don’t need the fourths in the series yet), Hit or Myth from Robert Asprin’s Myth Adventure series (can get the fun/ny book another time), three SF/F anthologies (I still have a few unread on my shelves), a photographic book about the New Amsterdam Theatre in NYC (fun to skim for a few minutes, not needed), and most likely several others if I didn’t purposefully make it a short visit.

Following my nautical fiction post yesterday, io9 shared their suggested sci-fi and fantasy reads for summer escapism. Mira Grant’s Feed, Paolo Bacigalupi’s Ship Breaker, and Ursula Le Guin’s the Word for World is Forest have been on my reading list. I may eventually add China Mieville, Cherie Priest, and Kazuo Ishiguro to the pile, but not yet. I enjoy Charles de Lint’s stories from time to time, but have read enough of them that reading a best of anthology would be unnecessarily redundant.

I couldn’t help but laugh and nod in agreement with the synopsis of the Word for World is Forest:

Tor is releasing a sharp-looking new edition of this Hainish novel, just in time to show us all where James Cameron really got the thematic source material for Avatar. Humans show up to colonize a lovely green planet and enslave the peaceful Athshean people. They fight back, but that’s the thing about paradise—once it’s gone, it’s never coming back.

Which books didn’t you recently purchase? What’s your suggested reading for summer?

Posted by: Mish | July 15, 2010

Hot Reading and Discussion

Booking Through Thursday button“Well, folks, I don’t know about where you are, but right here, it’s HOT. So … when you think about “hot reading,” what does that make you think of? Beach reading? Steamy romances? Books that take place in hot climates? Or cold ones?”

I’ve always brought what I was reading or wanted to read to the beach, lake, or river. Living in an area where it snows for six months, I’ve gotten more interested in nautical fiction. It gets me revved for the all too short sailing season and is a pleasant cool down during the four warm-hot months. After asking about nautical fiction at the beginning of my Moby Dick voyage, Herman Melville’s Billy Budd, Foretopman, Captain Maryatt’s Mr Midshipman Easy, and R.M. Ballantyne’s the Coral Island were recommended.

Linda Greenlaw’s modern maritime nonfiction All Fisherman Are Liars, the Hungry Ocean, and the Lobster Chronicles also made my reading list. Interestingly, Greenlaw is/was the only woman captain of a swordfishing boat along the US’s east coast, and she, the Andrea Gail‘s crew, and hellish sailing conditions were written about in the Perfect Storm by Sebastian Junger. I vaguely recall seeing the movie years ago, but would like to read the book.

On another note, last week’s Booking Through Thursday questioning prompt was:

“Do you have friends and family to share books with? Discuss them with? Does it matter to you?”

I have always had friends and family to share and discuss one book or another with so don’t know how I would feel if I didn’t.

There’s one friend in particular with whom I regularly talk about books, movies, music and everything else under the sun. We’ve been doing so since Nate joined my gaming group in ’97 and despite living on separate coasts. We share a lot of interests and frequently introduce each other to new things.

Our most recent discussion included George Orwell, Jane Austen, Isaac Asimov, and “Cat V”. I mentioned I’d like to read Pride and Prejudice and coincidentally Nate had just finished Sense and Sensibility. We agree that Avatar was good eye-candy but not much else and he warned that Avatar, the Last Airbender was really disappointing. I guess I’ll be watching it when it comes out on video. Nate still needs to see District 9 so we can have a more in depth discussion. Our separate discoveries of Blackmore’s Night came up while talking about music and Renn Faire, which is how Nate spends his summer. We certainly run the gambit during our conversations.

A few tunes by Blackmore’s Night:

“Way to Mandaly”

“Minstrel Hall” – More traditional

“Greensleeves” with a Firefly montage because Nate and I are Browncoats

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