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Archive for April, 2022

As lockdowns dragged on in late spring 2020, Yiyun Li and A Public Space led a worldwide read-along of War & Peace, which they called “Tolstoy Together;” I wrote about it here. SInce then they’ve led other worldwide reads, now called #APStgeother, which culminate in a virtual conversation about the book. It’s been very interesting and enjoyable to participate in some of these (see my posts about Persuasion and Hue and Cry). This spring, two years’ into the pandemic, Yiyun Li was back, inviting the world to read Moby-Dick, a book she explained that she first delved into at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop with Marilynne Robinson and has read annually ever since. One helpful aspect of #APStogether is the plan: each author suggests a reading schedule for their selected work, which makes approaching a sprawling classic like Melville’s tale of the white whale much less intimidating. Moby-Dick took a month, and I found that the daily selections were easily read during my lunch breaks or in the evenings.

If you haven’t read Moby-Dick, you might still know something about it, such as the famous line, “Call me Ishmael,” that has spawned a million riffs. What you may not know is that this novel, now considered one of the greatest in American literature, was more or less a flop during Melville‘s lifetime. In his lovely celebration of the book, Why Read Moby-Dick, Philbrick explains that it sold only 3715 copies between its publication, when Melville was in his 30s, and his death at 72 (it had already gone out of print by that time). He credits the brilliance of the book as the secret to its longevity:

“Reading Shakespeare, we know what it is like, in any age, to be alive. So it is with Moby-Dick, a novel about a whaling voyage to the Pacific that is also about America racing hell-bent toward the Civil War and so much more. Contained in the pages of Moby-Dick is nothing less than the genetic code of America: all the promises, problems, conflicts, and ideals that contributed to the outbreak of a revolution in 1775 as well as a civil war in 1861 and continue to drive this country’s ever-contentious march into the future.”

Just as Starbuck, the mate on the whaleship Pequod, is unable to stop mad Captain Ahab’s relentless pursuit of revenge on the white whale, even though Starbuck knows it will bring danger to the ship and its crew, so America was unable to prevent the madness of slavery and racism from rending it. Philbrick notes, “As Starbuck discovers, simply being a good guy with a positive worldview is not enough to stop a force of nature like Ahab, who feeds on the fears and hatreds in us all.” Which makes this book, written in the 1850s, relevant in every age, including today.

Both Philbrick’s book and Li’s zoom discussion also touch on Melville’s writing. Philbrick notes, “In its willful refusal to follow the usual conventions of nineteenth-century fiction, Moby-Dick possessed the experimental swagger so many authors were attempting to capture in the years after World War I.” Li referred to the novel as “messy” (as does Philbrick) with no emphasis on a narrative arc, a book that contains what she called “a whole universe” that requires readers to “float along with Ishmael” as he digresses from the loose tale of Captain Ahab and the journey of the Pequod in search of Moby Dick onto a wide range of topics that are both factual and philosophical. Li noted that the book is “craftless” — and that this is an important lesson to writers, that a novel “doesn’t have to be finely crafted to be good.”

As he examines everything from the specific details of whaling to the mysteries of the human mind and spirit, Melville is often poetic, as in this line describing Nantucket: “one blade of grass makes an oasis, three blades in a day’s walk a prairie.” And philosophical, as in “Heaven have mercy on us all – Presbyterians and Pagans alike – for we are all somehow dreadfully cracked about the head, and sadly need mending.” He not only muses about death and the afterlife, but also revels in the minutiae of Ishmael’s here and now.

So, if you haven’t read Moby-Dick, give it a try. Read it slowly, a little at a time, and with a guide such as Yiyun Li or Nathaniel Philbrick to steer you through its turbulent seas. Find someone to read it with you, to talk it over. And enjoy!

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This is another book I downloaded from the library for my trip — Sanctuary: The True Story of an Irish Village, a Man Who Lost His Way, and the Rescue Donkeys That Led Him Home by Patrick Barrett (the man in the title) and Susan Flory (the writer who helped him tell his story). It’s not my usual fare, but I thought it would be a sweet travel book. As it turns out, I started it after I got back and as Holy Week began, with Palm Sunday commemorating Jesus riding into Jerusalem . . . on a donkey. So it was timely. Also, Barrett credits faith with saving his life (along with love and donkeys), so it turned out to be a pretty good choice for this week.

The book is a memoir, but Barrett also shares a good deal of information about donkeys. His parents founded The Donkey Sanctuary of Ireland, and Barrett grew up with donkeys. I had no idea that donkeys are as expressive as cartoons make them out to be: “When donkeys feel comfortable and safe with you, they’ll show you a thousand different facial expressions, but you have to watch closely because they come and go incredibly fast.” That’s just one of the fascinating facts I learned from this book. I kind of want to visit with some donkeys . . . .

As a child, Barrett also experienced difficulty learning (due to likely dyslexia and a condition that caused him to feel extreme empathy, taking on others’ feelings) and traumatic beatings in school. He started drinking at a young age and in his late teens joined the army and was deployed to Lebanon and to Kosovo with UN peacekeeping missions, where he experienced more trauma. And the “losing his way” in the subtitle really was the result of PTSD.

But, despite these difficult sections of the book, Barrett’s story is one of resilience, family and faith. The love of his parents and sisters, friends, children, and eventually, his “anam cara” or soulmate, Eileen, help him to survive and thrive. And even at his lowest points, Barrett still prays. He credits a nun who ran a “personal development course” for people interested in becoming counselors with really setting him on a new path with “new eyes” for himself and for the world. When he was about to quit, she brought his group together around him, and spoke “words of truth and goodness and love.” When it was over, Barrett could only say, “Marie, I’m cracked.” She told him “Those cracks can let the light in.”

Ok, maybe Leonard Cohen said it first, but it’s a powerful moment in Barrett’s life, and what makes this memoir interesting in addition to the donkeys is that he really shares moments of vulnerability quite vividly. Flory brings his story to life, but you get the feeling that it’s Barrett’s voice coming through, because he seems to be sharing his truth pretty openly. That might not be to everyone’s taste but right about now, I think we need more honesty, vulnerability, and faith. Whether your faith is in God, four legged creatures, or humanity (or a combination of these), you’ll find something to love in this book. I really enjoyed it, and appreciate Barrett sharing his experiences in hopes of benefiting others who are suffering.

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I read Black Buck on a trip, straight through in a few hours. It was everything I’m looking for in a good read: smart, entertaining, thought provoking, funny, both heart-breaking and uplifting, ultimately about love and full of Truth with a capital T. Mateo Askaripour quit his day job to write, which is super inspiring. This is his debut, and he notes it “was written just for Black readers, though white readers are welcome to ‘come along for the ride.'”

Black Buck opens with a note from the main character, Darren Vender, known as Buck. He tells readers he wants to teach us how to sell, but he particularly wants to teach Black people how to sell. To white readers like me, Buck says, “I want you to think of yourself as an honorary Black person. Go on, do it. Don’t go don blackface and an afro, but picture yourself as Black.” If you’ve been reading this blog for a while, you know that a) that’s why I read, to put myself into another life for a few hundred pages and try to learn something about being human from their perspective and b) I’ve been working on being antiracist and one way to do that is to try to understand the experiences of people of color from their points of view. So I appreciated this invitation.

Buck is a delightful narrator. He is honest about himself and his own foibles. He’s a lot like most of us — good at some things, bad at others, mostly kind but sometimes hard-hearted, a good son, boyfriend, and friend . . . except when he isn’t. Askaripour makes it clear when the novel opens that Darren is also someone with untapped potential; he’s 22, was a valedictorian at a magnet school for science, but he’s working in a Starbucks, moving up, but not really fully fulfilling the promise others saw in him as a teen. And still see in him: Rhett Daniels, the charismatic leader of a tech startup called Sumwun that aims to upend the mental healthcare world, recruits him one morning in the Starbucks.

Rhett is wealthy, successful, narcissistic, and from their first encounter, seems brash to the point of being somewhat unhinged. Initially, Darren isn’t interested. Pressured by his girlfriend and mom to at least hear about the opportunity, Darren, nicknamed Buck during his sales training week at Sumwun, ends up getting drawn into the tech startup atmosphere — the swag, the free food, the partying, and frankly, the success he enjoys in sales. But he is also aware from day one that there are no other Black employees at Sumwun, and that Clyde, the man who trains him, and others at the company expect him to fail. Rhett, however, believes in him, even seems to love him, and Buck is flattered. Who wouldn’t be?

As you can guess, this is just the beginning of the story. As Buck spends more and more time with his Sumwun coworkers (which reminded me of this great article on why workplaces should not call themselves a “family”) he spends less with his mom and girlfriend and friends he grew up with. As in any coming of age story, Buck faces some trials — some bad things happen in those relationships — and then he has to show what he’s made of. Some reviewers called this “formulaic” to which I would say, go read The Hero With A Thousand Faces by Joseph Campbell; human storytelling has patterns, which make storytelling and listening/watching a delight when done well, as it is in this novel. Anyway, in the process of realizing he could help a friend he nearly left behind in his precipitous climb to wealth and success, Buck ends up inadvertently starting a movement. Which, as sometimes happens in real life, makes him the target of some pretty nasty folks.

Anyway, I don’t want to spoil the plot for you by giving too many details, but I will say, what makes Black Buck uplifting even though it shines a light on all the excesses of capitalism, consumer culture, and gentrification, and the sins of racism, ableism, and other kinds of bigotry, is that Buck grows as a character. In the process, Askaripour examines the classic conflict of whether to take action against the forces of evil in our world with kindness or to fight fire with fire. His characters — and Buck is great but there are many terrific minor characters who advance the action in the story in different ways — make the social commentary happen, a la Jane Austen, which means you get so caught up in the story that it helps you understand the issues at hand. The ending is a bit wild, but unfortunately, probably not unrealistically so.

Ultimately, Black Buck is about a young man growing up in a world where inequity of all kinds stacks the deck against him and many of the people he cares about, who learns that what will really make him happy isn’t just doing well for himself, but being part of a community that can do well together. And that his own success will be richer for being part of something that helps others; Buck learns that there is no zero sum game when it comes to opportunity. (Yep, here is where I tell you again: read The Sum of Us by Heather McGhee). And as I mentioned, it’s also really funny, and a love story. If you’re looking for a good read, this is it. If you want something for your book club that is both a great deal of fun and also ripe for discussion, again, this is it.

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