Monthly Archives: April 2014

page 377 of 615 of Moby-Dick; or, The Whale

Here we get the, both true and pseudo, in which we learn every inch of the whale, every bone, every vertebrae, its eyes, small ears, and every other part. Yet this is a dead whale and we can learn nothing of its life. We can surmise all we want but even in pulling apart every atom of the monster we are no closer to understanding it than we are the bottom of a black hole.

How true this is for so many things.

page 347 of 615 of Moby-Dick; or, The Whale

“Speak, thou cast and venerable head,”

Now there’s an image, the mad captain speaking to the severed head of a whale asking it to give up its secrets.

That whole chapter (70) is stunning.

Fervent madness abounds with that Shaker, Gabriel.

There is much of sermons and beliefs, and Melville seems skeptical of it all. Perhaps listening to sharks feasting on whale carcass is enough to make man agnostic.

The Flame Trees of Thika: Memories of an African Childhood: Read from March 26 to April 28, 2014

Ever get to the end of a book and contemplate flipping back to the first page and starting all over again? This is a book whose world I just want to continue living in but, like the ending of a book, is a world that just doesn’t exist anymore. So much of the book, though it deals with people trying to start a new frontier life in Africa, is really about the ending of things, specifically the end of old Europe with the onset of World War 1.

Elspeth, in the last chapter, writes about how she realized, quite suddenly and with some fright, how strangely interconnected all things are in life. She blames herself for the death of Kate, not because of any direct fault of her own, but the indirect responsibility she had in the wounding of a buffalo. All of a sudden the rational world she felt so sure of was gone and now replaced with uncertainty. One could also quite easily see how people might then turn to superstition and folk magic to explain their place in the universe. Charms, sacrifices, ceremonies, all the ways of life for the native Africans don’t then seem so strange when we look at it through the lens of our own uncertainty in the scheme of the universe.

But this one death and this one series of events is, all the while, back-dropped by the war in Europe. Events there of a much larger scale were colliding and would claim the lives of millions of people who were caught up in events they could not foresee or control. Ian being the earliest example of a victim to circumstance.

The whole book is filled with the parallels of their lives and that of WW1: the irrigation trenches being filled with water mirror the trenches of the un-moving fronts, the tribal warfare parallels the conflict between nation states. In some ways the book is as much about what happened to the whole world at the beginning of the 20th century as it is about one young girls’ experience growing up in Africa with her pioneering and liberal thinking parents.

Elspeth makes a strong case for how the world should behave. She always details the solutions that people come up with be it how best to grow coffee in Africa, deal with tribal politics, or deal with some unusual neighbors – she is always looking for a way to make things work. And it’s no wonder because much of the world was totally breaking down.

But she never becomes sentimental about her experiences. Yes it is a very romantic setting and stunningly beautiful, but Elspeth is a realist who leans towards cautious optimism. The characters in the book earn all their emotions, and there is never any melodrama or silliness here. And a lot of how she makes this work is by seeing the world through such a young persons eyes. She only ever gets to see and hear snippets of what’s going on around her so she, like us, have to piece so much together.

This books great strength is that it takes us to that time and place, makes us empathize with this little girl and gets us to see the world for what it could be without ever cheating us emotionally. This is a brilliant story; one of the greatest books I have ever read. In fact, I place this book right alongside Sergey Aksakov’s “A Family Chronicle” as one of the finest pieces of writing ever published.

I absolutely adore this novel like nothing else I have ever read.

page 311 of 615 of Moby-Dick; or, The Whale

I wonder how much of the whaling industry you could replicate based solely from this book? Sort of like how much of Dublin could you recreate from Ulysses? Probably a good, fair amount.

I like how Ishmael has ideas for the improvement of whaling: give the harpooner less rowing to do so he can hit his mark better. He sounds like me complaining about how the giant corporation I work for SHOULD operate.

94% done with The Flame Trees of Thika: Memories of an African Childhood

Though she is still too young, it’s obvious she had some inkling of a crush on Ian. She used the image of not knowing when the pigeons breed as a nice way to hint at it. And because of her barely awakened feeling toward Ian that we feel his death all the more even though she herself does not seem much sentimental over it. I guess it’s that looking back that we get the feeling of loss more than at the time of it.

page 279 of 615 of Moby-Dick; or, The Whale

Ah, the description of Ahab in his cabin, the water still dripping off of him, his eyes fixed on the tattle-tale: madness! He’s like a thing come from the sea itself.

Sometimes I can barely comprehend his brilliant this novel is. I mean, it’s so far and away unlike anything I’ve ever experienced as to make it more than a novel, it’s like obsession itself materialized in ink and paper.

page 225 of 615 of Moby-Dick; or, The Whale


There are numerous passages in the Seven Pillars of Wisdom where Lawrence goes into microscopic detail of the environment – the sand, the rocks, the water, the clouds, the vegetation – that it can be forgiven to skim over those parts and back to the action. But they are written for a reason: to give texture to the story. That desert is what the Arab’s fought for and these whales are what Ahab fights with.

page 178 of 615 of Moby-Dick; or, The Whale

I love, love how each chapter builds upon the previous and sets up the next. Everything he writes is like a symphony, each word is a perfect note that compliments the next. I can hardly comprehend how brilliant this is.

Ahab’s speech to the crew, though famous on its own (I’m looking at you Star Trek VI), is like nothing else; like the voice of God commanding Moses to flee Egypt.

The freedom of the crow’s nest.

34% done with Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell

Doing this as an audiobook while I work some overnight shifts is just not a good idea. This book requires that I pay a bit more attention to it and also because so far nothing has happened. There has been some nice character development, albeit uneven at times, and I like that the author is taking her time, but by this point in War and Peace a major battle had already happened and their was a drunken bear scene.

page 138 of 615 of Moby-Dick; or, The Whale

Now that’s how you introduce a character!

I love his own romanticizing of whaling, how he talks about what oil is used to anoint kings as if to grease the machinery inside the royal head. And then he goes on to describe who makes up a whaling ship, how it’s run by white men but the harpooning all done by men from more exotic locales.

Sailing south from the cold to the warm seas. Beautiful and well written.

26% done with Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell

The scene with the rain ships was nice.

I wish the author was a little better at setting the place where events are happening. Most of the time I get a vague impression of what the surroundings are, but most of the time I feel a little lost. Maybe that’s only because of the writing style and that a lot is taken for granted, but still.

At least the characters are good and fun. Always something interesting.

page 104 of 615 of Moby-Dick; or, The Whale

The religious currents of the book are, though obvious, quite fitting. The whole island having been founded by Quakers lends whaling to a very religious zeal of activity. The parallels to Jonah, the sermon, Queequeg’s Ramadan, are all in keeping with the theme that has since become “obvious”.

Yet to see the book play out, to actually read it and experience it is quite unlike just knowing what the book is about.

page 73 of 615 of Moby-Dick; or, The Whale

It’s impossible to not get lost in the language of the novel. This isn’t just a book, it’s something more like an epic poem. I can’t get over how beautifully written this is!

Interesting contrast between the sermon (great sermon, too) and Queequeg saving the man’s life. Who is really a sinful heathen? Race issues are more complex than you would think, too.

The chowder! Smells like childhood; my home New England

page 34 of 615 of Moby-Dick; or, The Whale

I’ve never read Moby Dick; now is the time to remedy that.

I never knew that, at least so far, the book is so funny. For some reason I always imagined the novel to be sort of dry and serious. But that’s not the case. The book is overflowing with energy and good doses of humor. The entire scene of Queequeg in the bedroom is very funny and also menacing. A strange combination to introduce the character.

The Temple of the Golden Pavilion: Read from April 08 to 18, 2014

This novel introduces a disturbing paradox: there are many people in this world who, at the very least deserve our empathy yet to actually understand them would actually cause us despise them because how disturbed they are.

I kept thinking of people who commit mass violence, such as school shooters while reading this book. Typically the range of emotion from learning such a tragedy has occurred is first outrage, “Who would do such a thing? Why did they do it? What has the world come to?”. When we learn who the culprit was we can then put a face to the crime and we say the person is sick and evil and they should be put to death. We don’t see them as human, we see them as monsters who are sick.

But are they monsters? What if we were truly empathetic and tried to get to know these people. What would we discover then?

Unfortunately, I don’t think the answer is an easy one because while religious morality tells us to empathize with even the worst people, if we actually could know the minds of such disturbed people we would be even more disgusted and confused. All we might discover is this person who committed such a terrible act is, in fact, a terrible person.

And so how do you empathize for and with a person who is so totally far removed from the rest of humanity, who is so wrapped up in their own delusions, whose point of view on the world is so fractured that you just can’t even force yourself to want to care about them?

That’s the paradox I discovered because of this book and with the main character Mizoguchi. Mizoguchi is, putting aside his skewed interpretation of humanity, an otherwise rational person. Yet all of his otherwise normal thought processes stems totally from a decayed root that infects the entire tree. His actions, his motives, his opinions seem to make a sort of sense, but only in the context that he is basically a sick person. And everything he decides to do, all his planning and his final actions are because he is sick, because he doesn’t care one shred for humanity.

Mizoguchi does not love or does’t care about anyone. And so how do we empathize with him? That’s a real problem here because it makes for a very difficult novel. On the one hand Yukio Mishima, the author, is giving us an insight into the mind of a person beyond redemption but because Mizoguchi is beyond redemption we have a hard time even liking the novel. This novel is basically a physical manifestation of the character Mizoguchi, or to broaden the scope, the novel is the manifestation of all such people who commit these terrible crimes. And so how can we ever hope to like the book if we hate what the book is showing us? The book shows us true ugliness and so how do we respond to that?

This is a very difficult novel but it is fascinating in that it confronts head on the reality of empathy for another human being and how difficult it really is, or if it’s even possible with a person like Mizoguchi.

87% done with The Flame Trees of Thika: Memories of an African Childhood

I keep trying to stretch this book out because I don’t want it to end!

The chapters where she is away are like an Eden. She describes the difficulty the Dutch, and first Europeans came upon in such difficult country. No wonder the people who had already been living there a million years were so much more easy-going and not given to much innovation – it’s just too difficult. Better to just be at peace with the land

90% done with The Temple of the Golden Pavilion

He’s reading Crime and Punishment, but not THAT one – the Italian’s Cesare Beccaria. In that book, on suicide, it says “Mankind love life too well; the objects that surround them, the seducing phantom of pleasure, and hope, that sweetest error of mortals, which makes men swallow such large draughts of evil, mingled with a very few drops of good, allure them too strongly”.

Kill the Buddha, indeed.

81% done with The Flame Trees of Thika: Memories of an African Childhood

One of the more subtle things about this book I really enjoy is how much happens that you have to infer. Huxley, being just a child (though a clever one), is not party to all the important, grown-up conversation, but she can see the effects and she reads people better than most people expect a child can.

The image of the war coupled with her on the new farm and the digging of a trench is wonderful and sad, too.

80% done with The Temple of the Golden Pavilion

I still don’t understand Mizoguchi. He’s an odd duck and it’s a little stressful to hear his story because he seems so disconnected from anything I would consider normal. He’s a wonderful character, but it’s distressing, too.

There is a correlation to Crime and Punishment, but Dostoyevsky’s Raskolnikov was so rational that all his other actions made sense. Mizoguchi is nearly senseless; he’s a chaos. Disturbing,

65% done with The Temple of the Golden Pavilion

“If you meet the Buddha, kill him.” Seems like Mizoguchi might not take this advise in the way it was intended.

So many of Mizoguchi’s problems seem to come because of his problems with women; he’s impotent (verbally and sexually) when he’s with them, he’s actually caused a miscarriage, Father Dosen with the geisha causes his departure, his mom- everything seems to revolve around his inability to connect lovingly.

50% done with The Temple of the Golden Pavilion

Kashiwagi is a manipulative jerk. He’s arrogant, and he’s a bully, too. He’s a great character.

A lot of what happens to Mizoguchi is not apparently easy to analyze. He does not have a strong sense of self and he’s cowardly, too. His experiences don’t effect him oddly – he notices unusual things around him – but he’s also immature. He’s a difficult character to understand.

Everything happens around, not to him

40% done with The Temple of the Golden Pavilion

The Zen story of ‘Nansen kills a kitten’ is frustrating but also beautiful. A lot of it speaks to interpretation and the uselessness of interpretation. The monks argue but have nothing to say – why not just put your shoes on your head instead? I like this as a reminder of analyzing literature.

Kashiwagi is a great character. His POV is easily quite unique. He’s not likable but that makes him likable.

72% done with The Flame Trees of Thika: Memories of an African Childhood

Too bad more people aren’t like her father. It never occurred to Mr. Roos that the Africans knew perfectly well how everything works and that stealing the cattle would be quite easy just because the Europeans thought they were not smart enough.

So much smug superiority and outright racism – so much based on an idea of culture and ‘civilization’ like baking pies, and pianos.

Who’s the dummy now? Very funny.

30% done with The Temple of the Golden Pavilion

Mizoguchi is pretty much a sociopath and that means he’s almost perfect to be a Buddhist monk. His total lack of empathy looks, to others, to be a placid calmness, a zen-like state of being. Even his lack of humor could be explained away by his stutter. Nothing really effects him, except the ever growing importance of the Golden Temple in his mind. Everything good is in that temple because it is not in him.

69% done with The Flame Trees of Thika: Memories of an African Childhood

There is a real moment of magic when the leopard is killed and she touches its still warm body and remarks at how perfect an animal it is. Huxley is connecting the many worlds she lives in – the European, the Africa, and the world in-between the two: the spirit world. The story then goes on to show how this became a part of her growth: losing Sparkle, and the python, goat, and the pregnant woman’s fear.

20% done with The Temple of the Golden Pavilion

When Mizoguchi says things like:

“When people concentrate on the idea of beauty they are, without realizing it, confronted with the darkest thoughts that exist in this world. That, I suppose, is how human beings are made”, you both understand him and not, too. He’s a fascinating character.

You can really feel whatever it is inside of him build in pressure. He’s terrifying in how real he is.

This is brilliant!

61% done with The Flame Trees of Thika: Memories of an African Childhood

I love the story of how the eyes hyenas at night just beyond the campfire could actually be the eyes of a dead relative who wants to exact revenge for some wrong you did to them in life.

Interesting juxtaposition between the shipping of the piano (a bit of culture in an ‘uncultured’ land) with that of how Mr. Roos leaves dead meat hanging around to ward off flies and he engages in the low-cunning of leopard traps.

10% done with The Temple of the Golden Pavilion

This novel kept being recommended for me because of the novels Silence and Crime and Punishment.

This is a beautifully written novel. The scene with Uiko and the deserter is, as he compares, right out of an old painting.

You can immediately tell Mizoguchi is a bit ‘off’. He’s sort of full of himself but detached, too. How much of that is because of his stutter or the other way around seems to be central here.

56% done with The Flame Trees of Thika: Memories of an African Childhood

The analogy Elspeth uses about the hand mixer shows she has a much deeper understanding of how Africa works(ed) than most other Europeans. She understands (as does Tilly and Robin) that witchcraft lives right alongside medicine here. Africans have been ‘making the cake’ for millions of years just as Europeans have been making theirs and it’s all turned out just fine, even of the ingredients are different.

The Sheltering Sky: Read from April 05 to 07, 2014

I just can’t keep on with this book. I don’t like the characters one bit. They are all such very hateful people, very shallow in their behavior towards each other and naive in their analysis of themselves, and while I get the point of the book, I just don’t want to spend time with these characters. Maybe some people might find it interesting to discover why these characters are always so sad and laconic and dissatisfied with all life, but I do not care to find out. If I knew these people in real life I would avoid them at all costs (and I’m sure they would have nothing to do with me, either).

I wonder why Bowles felt the need to write this book? What was his inspiration? Whom did he imagine his audience to be? In some ways this book felt like it was birthed from the duty-bound anus of that hive queen insect whom resides in the basement of all 20th century college English departments and literary journals – a white-sticky, pulsating mass of mucus dripping portentousness whose juices are drunk, forcibly at first, to undergrads eager to please a professor who has it on for such things as plot and humor when he comes upon them in a book. In fact this book might be the near death blow dealt to English literature which has driven almost all people capable of reading onto other leisure activities.

This book is everything that is wrong with so many modern novels – it’s absolutely nonspecific in every way, it describes only semi-sentient bodies floating in a warm, thick cream in near weightlessness – no force acts upon the people in the book and they do not interfere with anything going on outside the confines of the pages. Everything is ‘sad’, everyone is ‘languid’, life is ‘meaningless’, and nothing is explained because it’s ‘art’.

Bullshit. It’s all bullshit. And I hate every word of it.

26% done with The Sheltering Sky

It’s interesting reading this alongside The Flame Trees of Thika. Both books are about white people in Africa, but whereas the Huxley’s in Thika are resourceful and hard-working, the people in this book are bored and lazy. No wonder the Huxley’s, though guilty of British superiority at times, see the Africans as actual human beings where here all they see is ugliness because they themselves are ugly.

51% done with The Flame Trees of Thika: Memories of an African Childhood

It’s funny that the harder the Huxley’s try to make Africa more like Europe the exact opposite seems to happen. They’ve actually resorted to rounding up cattle as hostage bargaining against witchcraft.

The concept of property, morality, and even how to treat animals is so different. From the Huxley’s POV is frustrating, but to the African’s it’s perfectly normal

She does a nice job of conveying this frustration

14% done with The Sheltering Sky

I’m really on the fence about this. Part of me feels like this could be another Brideshead Revisited – a novel full of ugly, terrible people with as many problems as they have money. But I am intrigued with this nevertheless. The writing is quite good and I get the feeling these characters will have their world unraveled exactly because of their entitlement.

I loved the story of the three dancers in the Sahara.

The Windup Girl: Read from March 31 to April 04, 2014

The most important thing a science fiction novel must be is believable, if it can do that then it can get away with anything else and The Windup Girl pulls this off wonderfully. Paolo Bacigalupi has created a future world, Thailand, so dense and teeming with life, with heat, and with mystery that you can almost smell this imagined city, feel the sweat on your body, hear the noise of the over-cramped city. This is a fully realized world that never once loses its internal consistency; everything that happens is a natural extension of the world Bacigalupi has created.

What most stuck me about this novel was how terrifying the actual possibility of this world he creates is. While we imagine we have total control over genetically modified seeds and crops, or no matter how certain we are that cloning is perfectly safe, Bacigalupi taps into that uneasy feeling we all have deep down that we’re not totally convinced we are masters of science. How do we know for certain that we aren’t creating something that could go horribly, horribly wrong? Whose to say that a real company like Monsanto won’t accidentally produce a strain of genetically modified wheat that winds up killing all the natural strains or infects some beetle that begins a plague? How can we really know all the possible consequences of our actions?

And this book is all about consequences and how each action effects another, seemingly unrelated action, how what one character does in an act of self defense can actually send an entire city into civil war. It’s a valid point to think about because it speaks of responsibility.

One of Bacigalupi’s great skills is in how he presents information in this world he has created. The names he’s given to the various blights, diseases, companies, and people feel absolutely genuine: blister rust, cibiscosis, calorie-men, yellow cards, white shirts, kink springs; Bacigalupi gets the feel of this future just right. He also draws on a lot of recognizable themes from other great science fiction stories: I could sense he was inspired a lot from ‘Blade Runner’, ‘Ghost In The Shell’, and the brilliant but little seen ‘Texhnolyze’, but that he’s also part of a new trend in science fiction to get away from urban American settings and make it a more global genre – District 9, Halo, and Junot Díaz’s short story ‘Monstro’.

This book is also part of another trend in science fiction where it takes its themes seriously to tell a story worth paying attention to: Ishiguro’s “Never Let Me Go’ and McCarthy’s ‘The Road’ both come to mind as stories that are warnings about our own future and, like any good sci-fi story, what it means to be human. And the final scene of this novel, the epilogue scene, is a wonderful scene where old meets new amid total devastation.

And though I am by no means an alarmist concerning the advancement of science, Paolo Bacigalupi makes a strong case for always siding with caution because you can never be to sure what trouble you might get yourself into. In that way this book is somewhat similar to Lovecraft’s ‘At The Mountains of Madness’ in that you better be careful about messing with a nature you do not fully understand or else you might unleash something so terrible as to never be able to go back.

This is a fantastic novel full of great ideas, beautiful imagery (Bacigalupi is a helluva writer in that regard), and terrifying possibilities. The book is a tad too long, but never dull and no opportunity is wasted to continue building the Thailand in this story.

89% done with The Windup Girl

I guess I’m a little let down that all the fantastic world building has to boil down to a “big conclusion”. Not that it’s bad – though the parallels to Ghost In The Shell, Akira, Firefly, and other genre mainstays is strong – I just think that the book could have been stronger had it gone down a more character driven path, especially for Kanya.

I feel like he forces his plot back on to predetermined rails too much

45% done with The Flame Trees of Thika: Memories of an African Childhood

The humor in this book is very subtle. As everything is from the POV of a child, we can see how silly a lot of the Europeans are. They sit around under a shade tree, poking sticks at ants, talking about nonsense as the Africans do all the work. They complain the African women do all the hard labor and they want to change the culture, but they have no idea what’s really going in.

“Civilized by Italians”

58% done with The Windup Girl

There’s a fantastic visual Bacigalupi creates as Anderson escapes during the White Shirt uprising. He describes how a whole gang of them beat a man with their ebony batons, blood splattering off the clubs and onto their clean, white uniforms. Then one of the white shirts glares at Anderson and you can feel the hate and the heat.

It’s a scene that’s happened around the world for real – military thugs. It’s scary.