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  • Writer's pictureRussell Magee

January Reads

A list of the books I read and what I thought of them.

Moby-Dick or, The Whale by Herman Melville

This 1851 sixth novel by American novelist and short story writer Herman Melville is a work of epic grandeur and significance, whose well-established legacy within the annals of American letters truly stands alone. The novel, set in the first half of the 19th century, begins in New Bedford, Massachusetts, where narrator Ishmael, discontent with his work life and seeking a sense of adventure, plans to sign up for a whaling voyage. At an inn before he sets off, he meets Queequeg, a tattooed cannibal from Polynesia, whom despite fearing him at first, he eventually befriends. After heading to Nantucket, the two find board on the Pequod, a sailing vessel the home of about thirty seasoned sailors and headed by the indomitable Captain Ahab. Mysterious in behavior, severe in demeanor, Ahab sets forth his ship from the New England coast in search of the elusive White Whale, also known as ‘Moby Dick,’ a massive, albino sperm whale, which, years ago, clashed with Ahab in a great conflict and bit his leg off, now replaced with an ivory post. Sailing eastward across the Atlantic, then south and around Africa toward the Indian Ocean and into the Pacific, the whalemen hunt many a pod of whales, killing a few for their oil and meat, and encounter several other ships from various ports and with various destinations along the way. All the while, Ahab, his eyes set on only one objective, slowly begins to descend into madness, dragging his men with him toward an almost certain demise. What ensues is the quintessential sea expedition, a story of man upon the vast, open expanse, in whose rushing waters flow a slew of metaphors, allegories, and fantastic scenes, all of which surge forth, at the end, into an enormous eddy of epiphanic edification.

It was only a matter of time; taking up a novel of this caliber, whose form, content, and subsequent reading experience entail odysseys of similar magnitudes, was only ever inevitable, and now, after spending nearly three weeks with its glorious 625 pages, engrossed and bewildered, I find it an incredible challenge to describe my thoughts on the novel and convey the power with which I was unflaggingly besotted. Critic James Wood wrote of the novel: “In Moby-Dick, Herman Melville nearly touched every word once, or so it seems. Language is pressed and consoled in that book with Shakespearean agility. No other nineteenth-century novelist writing in English lived in the city of words that Melville lived in; they were suburbanites by comparison…For in writing Moby-Dick, Melville wrote the novel that is every writer’s dream of freedom. It is as if he painted a patch of sky for the imprisoned.” Melville, in this novel, has constructed “Noah Webster’s Ark,” a pun, too, of his own creation and one especially apt given the work’s verbal, religious, and of course, nautical affinities. And those affinities spur innumerable allegorical readings, doubtless one aspect contributing to its magnificence and superlative reputation: ascribing how much or how little meaning to whom or what is only a part of the reading process, of which no two readers will share the same. One will see the universe in the eyes of the White Whale, its elusiveness limning epistemological impossibility and the limits of scientific inquiry; another will see spirituality, a benevolent deity perhaps, or something evil, a harbinger of destruction hellbent on wreaking havoc; a more religious reader will recognize the biblical books of Jonah and Job; and another still will find sympathy with the whale, seeing nothing more than an innocent animal, unaware and indifferent to the worries of men. And this is but a fraction of a reading of a fraction of the novel; the intricacies and interpretations are endless in the novel that, at various points, takes the form of a straightforward, plot-driven narrative; an encyclopedia, replete with footnotes, some which span multiple pages and cover topics from science and nautical exploration to economics and carpentry; a play, with stage directions and asides inserted neatly into dialogue; long-winded yet exciting sermons, speeches, and jeremiads; and frequent musings on life, religion, philosophy, history, memory, life, and death. And the fact that such formal variation occurs over the course of 135 short chapters and an epilogue alludes to both the novel’s exciting readability and the virtuosic craft of the writer. It’s a novel that I couldn’t put down, as I had expected it to be, and of course, it is one that I cannot wait to read again and again. While I like to inaugurate the new year with a classic work of literature, I worry I may have set the literary bar too high for all the works which will follow, as surely few others can and will compare.

I wrote an essay wherein I explore the literary ties between Melville's Moby Dick and Darren Aronofsky's new drama The Whale, which was published by The Decadent Review. Feel free to check it out:

The Outrun by Amy Liptrot

This 2016 memoir by Scottish writer Amy Liptrot not only depicts the trials and tribulations which pave the road to recovery from addiction but paints the power and beauty in reconnecting with both nature and one’s native home. Hailing from a small, rural town in Orkney, an archipelago in the Northern Isles of Scotland, Liptrot grew up on the coast, on a farm with several animals, with her older brother, her father who struggled with bipolar disorder, and mother whose religious piety bordered along zealotry. Eager to escape the remoteness of her small-town childhood, she moved to London, where began a decade of sheer debauchery. Partying became her life, and alcohol her constant companion. Though exciting at first, as the years followed, Liptrot, unable to hold down neither job nor relationship, saw that she was beginning to slip under the waves of addiction. Undergoing treatment, she decided to leave London and return home to Orkney, not only to further distance herself from the life which fomented such a devolution, but also stave off the impending depression that constantly loomed at the edge of conscious, threatening to undo all her progress made. But back in Orkney, Liptrot discovers a different world than the one she had grown up in: she becomes enthralled in nature, in history, in the folklore of his native country; in animals, studying seabirds with wildlife researchers and playing the role of midwife for lambing ewes. She moves into a small cottage on the island of Papay, home to less than a hundred residents, where she hones a burgeoning interest in astronomy and begins to take her writing more seriously. All that ensues, all Liptrot’s accomplishments and strides in self-discovery at the edge of the world, occur against an addiction looming invisibly in the offing, and the result is a moving story of reunion, with both one’s self and the world at large.

I read The Outrun over the course of a weekend, starting on Saturday morning and turning the last page on Monday morning, completely enthralled and turning the pages unwittingly all the while. Billed as a book about one woman’s experiences overcoming alcoholism, this aspect of the memoir seemed secondary to the journey of self-discovery and reconnection at the heart of the book, which itself seemed secondary to what I found most striking and, don’t hate me, intoxicating about the book: Liptrot’s wondrous proclamation for the power found in the natural beauty at the northern edges of the world. In this light, it reminded me of Lidia Yuknavitch’s The Chronology of Water which I read years ago, whose literary emphasis and form seemed to offset a tale of impossible struggle. While imbued throughout the length of The Outrun are flashbacks to scenes pre-treatment, which lend a certain strength and solemnity to the present, it is Liptrot’s incredible eye for describing nature that I loved the most. Landscapes of such pristine, untouched nature entice the reader, pulling them into the text by appealing to a certain primitive predisposition, an ancestral tendency toward earthly delights. Liptrot taps into such proclivity, painting scenes of nature that range from oceanside vistas with sea-sprayed, rainbow-refracted rocky crags looming above the northern waves lapping at the shoreline, to pastoral idylls of bucolic greenery swaying under gusts of the Orcadian wind, rendered in glorious, tempered detail, setting her prose somewhere between poignant and poetic. And that she manages to thread connection upon connection, metaphor upon metaphor, into such natural depictions, for me, elevated the novel into a new light. Also, she makes multiple references to Moby Dick throughout, which of course I enjoyed; I love happy literary coincidences like that. Both The Outrun and The Chronology of Water are getting film adaptations with the former slated for release later this year.

The End of Loneliness by Benedict Wells

This 2016 fourth novel by German-Swiss novelist Benedict Wells poignantly captures how childhood tragedy affect one’s life in adulthood, as well as the many unexpected obstacles and events which pave the road to reckoning. The novel follows narrator-protagonist Jules, the youngest of three kids whose parents die in an unexpected tragedy while they are young children. Jules, with his siblings, Marty and Liz, is sent to a boarding home to live and receive an education. Often an object of bullying from the older boys, Jules does manage to find light within the all-encompassing darkness that is life in the wake of his parents’ death: he befriends a young girl named Alva. The two become inseparable, progressing through the grades together, and remaining friends into late adolescence, until another tragic event occurs which propels them down different trajectories. Over a decade passes before Jules and Alva meet again, and when they do, Jules learns that she has married and is living in Switzerland. Her husband is a famous writer, whose work Jules has long been familiar, and he and Alva invite Jules to stay with them for a while. During Jules’s visit, which extends for a duration longer than planned, the feelings which Jules and Alva shared while growing up begin to return. What ensues is a story of love born out of tragedy, where issues of morality and relational complications arise, both of which contribute to a portrait of life tinged with intimacy, love, and pain.

The book won the 2016 European Union Prize for Literature, the Ravensburger Verlag Foundation Book Prize, and it was longlisted for the Dublin Literary Award. It was also the first of Wells’s books to be translated into English and published two years after its initial release. I forget exactly how I came across it, though I know its cover caught my eye; but I know I picked it up because of John Irving’s quote emblazoned on the cover: “The End of Loneliness is both affecting and accomplished–and eternal.” Unfortunately, I did not find the novel to be as ‘affecting and accomplished’ as I had hoped to. The novel deals with some of the very hardest emotions and psychological effects to portray, mainly grief and trauma; and as the list of works which succeed in portraying such things is incredibly short, so it wasn’t a huge surprise that I come across a novel that does fall into that successful category. It was the prose that, for me, lacked the strength to support such heavy themes, which very well may be a matter of translation; however, the events which stir the emotionality of the novel into effect seem to arise suddenly and without much rise and resolution, which for me weakened them. Moments meant to be big appeared small given the surrounding support provide by characterization and detail. But the novel wasn’t a total loss–the second half recaptured my attention, especially since I gleaned elements reminiscent of André Aciman’s work and even shades of D.H. Lawrence amid the structure of the plot. Though, in the end, the novel fell quite short of my expectations.

Blindness by José Saramago

This 1995 novel by Portuguese author José Saramago is an unflinching, exhilarating, and at times, horrific excavation into the extremes of human survival in the wake of devastating debilitation. In an undisclosed city, sometime during the latter half of the twentieth century, an epidemic of ‘white blindness’ descends upon the population. One man sitting at a stop light is struck blind, plunged into a sea of ‘milky whiteness’ as he explains. Soon, the man who helps him return home, as well as his doctor, and more and more others are also blinded, leading the city’s government officials and medical organizations, believing it to be contagious, to declare a state of emergency. The blind, who include the first blind man, a doctor, a woman with sunglasses, a boy with a squint, and an old man with a black eyepatch, are rounded up and forced into quarantine in wards of a former mental asylum. Soon, hundreds of internees are confined, guarded by armed military officers and unable to leave. Deprived of proper sanitary conditions and medicine, and with a scarcity of food, the prisoners must resort to violence to survive. Factions are formed–one of which, comprised of the utmost depraved, degenerate rogues, hijacks the food supply, and begins demanding payment in exchange for rations–first of valuable items and currency, then of people. As tensions skyrocket and the confined grow desperate, arguments, fights, and even deaths ensue, but amid the ever-growing chaos, there are still those who strive to maintain order, who hold onto the waning sense of humanity which the world seems so hellbent on stripping away. The result is a novel which unravels the delicate threads of society, shattering the frail veneer of civilization to reveal a portrait of inhumanity in the advent of global catastrophe.

The novel was cited by the committee of jurors who awarded Saramago the 1998 Nobel Prize for Literature, and it’s easy to see why. I truly cannot remember the last time I’ve come across a novel so exhilarating, so suspenseful, and so compelling as this one. I read it in three days, completely and utterly captivated. The summary I’ve provided above barely scratches the surface to this story; there are more layers that I cannot even begin to outline, layers which not only delve into the sheer tragedy and debilitating experience of losing one’s eyesight, but also: the science of social interactions and group psychology; the logistics of negotiation and compromise; capitalism and economic exploitation; class relations and otherness; power and prejudice; savagery and animalism; tyranny and authoritarianism; food processing and resource allocation; and, of course, the mechanisms of survival, desperation, and the nature of evil. And while said thematic elements, by their own account, elevate the novel into a new level of mastery, it is the form and stylistic decisions of Saramago’s craft which, for me, made for such an incredible reading experience. His prose consists of long, meandering, run-on sentences, reminiscent of Thomas Bernhard or László Krasznahorkai, with dialogue devoid of quotation marks, interchanges inserted into single strings of sentences with commas and capital letters acting as the main markers of attribution. Also, there are no proper nouns; nothing is named–characters, places, streets, stores, nothing. Narration zooms in and out of the characters’ minds and into scenes, then back again–a Woolfian sensibility–blurring the lines between straightforward description and the perceptual subjectivity of a specific character. And with dictional and syntactical bounds remaining more or less within the accessible and conventional, all these stylistic aspects swinging towards the experimental, work to produce an eerie sense of disorientation which mirrors all that the characters experience. It’s a wonderful, impressive feat of imaginative, artistic, and literary construction. Intellectual, enthralling, devastating, Saramago’s Blindness is one I am sure to remember forever.

Heart Songs and Other Stories by Annie Proulx

This 1988 first collection of short stories by American author Annie Proulx paints a portrait of life in Chopping County, Vermont, a fictional small blue-collar town wedged into the forested slopes of Northern Appalachia, whose many rugged and roughneck denizens, after a hard day’s work, cap their evenings with a bottle of whiskey and a round of stories. The seeming simplicity of rural life belies a history, a strangeness, a darkness, which persist across generations of the townsfolk, manifested in their personal tales: a long-standing rivalry comes to head at the start of hunting season; an unlikely friendship is forged out of fortuitous circumstances; a widowed farmer remarries but soon finds himself in a world of trouble; a husband pursues his dream making a living as a musician, but at the expense of his unhappy wife; a seasoned grouse hunter takes on an apprentice whose shooting abilities never exceed inferiority. Eleven stories in all, Proulx reveals the rites and routines of small-town life, beneath which lurks a certain American sensibility for the simple, the natural, the trusted and true.

Working within a writerly tradition whose roots run back to William Faulkner, Flannery O’Connor, and Sherwood Anderson, Proulx now sits among great names like Larry McMurtry, Breece D’J Pancake, Barry Hannah, William Gay, Ron Rash, Russell Banks (who just passed away this month) and of course, Cormac McCarthy, authors whose works fall under the wonderfully grimy umbrella of “Grit Lit,” though I’ve also seen her work described with the label “Hillbilly Noir,” which, though pejorative, I think seems to evoke an accurate picture of the world she creates. Proulx’s characters are the marginalized, the underrepresented, the, in many ways, cast away and forgotten. Her settings are the seedy and dilapidated, dusty and rundown, small, backwoods boroughs isolated from society and situated solely within nature–nothing but trees and rocky crags to be found for miles outward. And yet, the world contained therein, the intermingling lives so seemingly stripped away from and of life itself, envelopes and intrigues just as it repels and confuses. Proulx paints a side of humanity outside the humanity which most are familiar with, shedding light unto the “abject,” to use a Kristevan term. But the result is somehow beautiful in its dark way; there’s a subtle levity and humor to the pervasive rough and rugged, a soft edge to the hardness, and in those short moments of light amid the dark do Proulx’s characters truly shine. Beyond that, her descriptions of nature stand next to the best, invoking the transcendentalists with her metaphors and casting a new light, or perhaps shadow, unto the natural world. Fantastic set of stories.

So Long, See You Tomorrow by William Maxwell

This 1980 sixth and final novel by American editor and author William Maxwell is at once a murder mystery and fictionalized memoir–a masterful hybrid and wild tale. Remaining nameless, a man recounts memories of his childhood, flashes of a youth spent in the aftermath of a murder which shocked his small, rural Illinois hometown just after the turn of the twentieth century. A man named Lloyd Wilson was shot to death, and the likely culprit is the father of unnamed hero’s best friend, a boy named Cletus. Their friendship was subsequently stripped apart, a split which permanently marked both boys. Now, fifty years later, our narrator strives to reconstruct the events which led up to the climactic event, fluctuating from the facts recovered through periodicals and old newspaper clips to the anecdotes and details of his own household–familial dynamics, how his father worked often, and his stepmother helped raise him, how they moved from one house to another, and eventually to Chicago, how enmeshed he grew into his hobbies, etc. But his search for the truth, and inevitable rumination on the past, ultimately pulls him back into the history of his hometown, into the singular affair which, though buried beneath a legacy of pain and despair, once comprised a love story for two, and yet another of devastating heartbreak for one. What unfolds is a tale about memory, regret, love, betrayal, and the complicated webs of interpersonal relations woven between them, the reverberations of which ripple across the tides of time.

It won the William Dean Howells Medal, as well as the 1982 National Book Award, and was also a finalist for the 1981 Pulitzer Prize. Michael Ondaatje wrote of the novel, “This is one of the great books of our age. It is the subtlest of miniatures that contains our deepest sorrows and truths and love–all caught in a clear, simple style in perfect brushstrokes,” and about the author, John Updike wrote, “Maxwell’s voice is one of the wisest in American fiction; it is, as well, one of the kindest.” This short book, spanning 135 pages, is damn powerful. I read it in one day, captured by Maxwell’s writing and the sheer breadth of the characters–each is so meticulously formed, with their own voice, perspective, and personality; to paint such breadth and depth of character in so few words is truly an achievement. I had had my eye on this short novel for a while; Maxwell is a name I had known regarding his affiliation with The New Yorker, of which he was the fiction editor for nearly 40 years. So, it’s unsurprising that many of the greats have spoken highly of him, and his legacy among American letters certainly persists. But this short novel, his most well-known, sheds an entirely new light unto his career. There’s so much packed into this short book–conflicts of love and indifference, the meaning of fate and the concept of free will, and I personally couldn’t help but hear notes of the book of Job at various points as well. This is definitely one that I can see being taught in a college English course, just from its sheer interpretative potential.

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