Wednesday, December 30, 2015

MOBY DICK by Herman Melville

Inspired by the movie In the Heart of the Sea, I decided to read this classic that was not required reading at my high school.  I thought this novel would be more about a marathon battle between man and nature, like Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea, but a lot longer.  However, I kept reading and reading and waiting for the big white whale to show up, but Melville kept me in suspense for 400+ pages.  The bulk of the book is actually a history lesson, describing whales and whaling to the nth degree.  Not that that’s a bad thing.  I actually found the anatomy of the sperm whale and its comparison of size, weight, and characteristics to a right whale to be fairly interesting.  Then we have the specifics on how a whale is harpooned from smaller boats and lashed to the side of the ship, where sharks swarm to get a piece of the action.  The biggest butchering task is the decapitation of the sperm whale, since the head contains the valuable spermaceti oil.   I also learned that a storm can disrupt the behavior of a compass needle.  There’s not a lot of action or character development, if you ask me, but the central character is Captain Ahab, who demands that his crew vow to hunt and destroy Moby Dick, the big white sperm whale who is responsible for Ahab having lost a leg.  Ahab’s singular mission is a mad obsession, as his thirst for revenge clouds his judgment, putting the welfare of his ship and crew at risk.  The occasional encounter with another ship breaks up the monotony of several years at sea, for both the crew and the reader.  When the captain of another ship comes requesting lamp oil, Stubb, the 2nd mate, mistakes the captain’s lamp-feeder for a coffee pot.  Stubb tells the 1st mate, Starbuck (what a familiar name!), that the visiting captain must be OK if he’s come to make coffee.  Who knew that the guys who started the ubiquitous purveyors of coffee were Moby Dick readers?

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

THE YELLOW BIRDS by Kevin Powers

Private Bartle, age 21, and Private Murphy, age 18, are U.S. soldiers in Iraq in 2004.  Murphy is sort of a fragile runt, with Bartle as his assigned protector, and Bartle has foolishly promised Murphy’s mother that he will see that her son returns home safely.  We know early on that Bartle, the narrator, will have to renege on that promise.  We also know that Bartle suffers tremendous guilt regarding Murphy’s fate after he returns to the U.S.  The author keeps us in suspense until the end of the novel when he finally discloses the circumstances of Murphy’s death.  The chapters leading up to this finale alternate between the seemingly ineffective gunfire exchanges in Iraq and Bartle’s inability to cope with life after his return to the States, spent in a drunken stupor.  For both Bartle and Murphy, the war is a baffling exercise in futility, but Murphy in particular starts becoming unglued, having witnessed his sergeant murdering civilians and having watched a fellow soldier die in combat.  As the sergeant puts it, “You’ve got to stay deviant,” and Murphy is much too sensitive to survive emotionally or physically in such a gruesome environment.  To me, this is not so much a buddy novel as it is a story of an innocent young man and his slightly-more-mature reluctant bodyguard.  Both Murphy and Bartle make bad decisions with devastating consequences, but we can chalk Murphy’s mistakes up to his delicate nature.  However, Bartle, as our narrator, is the more sympathetic character, and we willingly forgive his transgressions, given the traumatic circumstances.  I’m not in a position to judge how authentic Bartle’s voice is, but it seemed pretty real to me—maybe a little too real.

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

THE HUSBAND'S SECRET by Liane Moriarty

In Australia, Easter is in the fall.  It also seems to be a time of upheaval for three women there.  Cecelia discovers in the attic an envelope addressed to her that she is to open after her husband’s death.  He is very much alive and out of town, and Cecelia’s fingers are twitching to break the seal.  Tess finds that her husband Will and cousin Felicity are in love with each other.  In fact, Tess and Felicity are so close that Will and Felicity suggest that Felicity just move in with Will and Tess and their son Liam.  Duly appalled by this notion, Tess, with Liam in tow, takes off for her mom’s house, where she reignites a passion for an old flame, Connor Whitby.  Finally, we have Rachel, whose son and daughter-in-law plan to move to NYC, taking Rachel’s beloved grandson Jacob with them.  Rachel’s daughter Janie was murdered when Janie was a teenager, and Jacob is just about the only bright spot in Rachel’s lonely life.  Obviously, these three women’s lives are going to collide sooner or later.  This novel is very readable with lots of tension, although I have to say that I guessed the contents of the mysterious letter.  To me, the most obvious theme in the novel is that of instant karma, or “what goes around comes around.”  Vengeance also plays a role, but, as is the case in real life, it sometimes causes collateral damage.  Even so, none of the evildoers escape scot-free; they suffer unexpected consequences.  The subject matter here is quite serious—betrayal, grief, guilt.  However, some of the characters’ issues, such as Tess’s “social anxiety,” seem superfluous to the story.  I have mixed feelings about the epilogue, which has some staggering revelations and what-if scenarios.  I felt that the author had tied up all the loose ends pretty neatly, but the epilogue just emphasizes how our lives hinge on chance events that can result in relentless suffering or exceedingly good fortune.

Wednesday, December 9, 2015

BEASTS OF NO NATION by Uzodinma Iweala

Agu is a young boy in a war-torn African country, who becomes a soldier to stay alive.  His narration in his version of English struck me as sounding very authentic, but it is a little unusual.  He endures some horrific abuses and is more than just an observer in numerous atrocities against innocent civilians, but his biggest problem is his conscience.  He tries to rationalize to himself that God will forgive him for all the people he has killed because he is performing his duties as a soldier.  The only way that he can assuage his guilt and suffering is to focus on the past—his previously carefree childhood—and on his hopes for a future as a doctor or engineer.  These thoughts, especially his dreams for the future, contrast sharply with the agony that is his current life, serving as the companion and bodyguard to the Commandant of his unit, while sacrificing his innocence to the Commandant’s whims.  I can’t imagine the impact of these types of experiences on the psyche of an adult, much less a young boy.  His deep emotional scars could spur him to great achievements, or they could be so debilitating as to inhibit his ability to have a normal life—whatever that is.  First, though, he has to survive, and, if nothing else, the kid has the will to live and is prepared to make the necessary compromises. 

Wednesday, December 2, 2015

BIG STONE GAP by Adriana Trigiani

In a small Virginia mining town in 1978 lives a 35-year-old pharmacist named Ave Maria Mulligan.  Ave is still grieving the loss of her Italian mother, when her lawyer gives her a letter from her mother, recounting past events that she had never shared with Ave.  This shocking new information throws Ave for a loop, while at the same time explaining her chilly relationship with her father.  Though single, Ave has two significant men in her life.  One is Theodore, a teacher who Ave describes as her best friend.  The other is Jack, a miner who proposes marriage to Ave, with unfortunate results.  Ave Maria is a big-hearted leading lady whose only problem seems to be a lack of sense when it comes to matters of the heart.  Ave lives vicariously through fortyish Iva Lou, the bawdy and vivacious bookmobile driver, who seems to have enthusiastically bedded most of the single men in town.  This novel doesn’t have a lot of tension or tragedy, and the humor is pretty homespun, but it has its charms.  The cast of characters is diverse, with no real villains, with the possible exception of Ave’s greedy aunt.  Even Elizabeth Taylor, who comes to town with husband John Warner during a campaign tour, behaves like the regal star that she was, tolerating with good humor the small town’s lack of sophistication while admiring its generous spirit.   This is not the kind of book that grabbed me and didn’t let go, nor do I think I will remember the plot details for very long.  However, reading it was a pleasant enough way to pass the time.