#CBR6 Review #82: Moby-Dick by Herman Melville

Fun story: I read Moby-Dick for the very first time after I had jaw surgery in the summer of 2004. I was taking an American Literature survey that fall, and I wanted to prepare, especially because I would be pretty much confined to no strenuous physical activity with lots of free time (and sure enough, the most workout I could muster was carrying a stack of books from the library. I read 40-some books that summer alone, and watched countless movies in between my mom trying to coax me to eat something–anything. That was an awful summer).

And of course, since I’m a Hermione Granger, I read it again that fall when I took the class (although the whale cataloguing I skimmed). And, as I am sure happens in every single sophomore survey that includes Moby-Dick, someone in my class was convinced it was a thinly-veiled metaphor for homo.sex.uality. She dared me (for the record, I was not convinced, simply because the word “Dick” was in the title) to ask the professor if the novel was about homosexuality. So I, not wanting to be the pansy, brown-nosing goody-two-shoes, did just that. One of the women in class (now someone I am friends with and still in touch with) was furious at the time. The professor was an older, courtly gentleman, who taught his class old-school in the best way possible (he also had a wicked sense of humor and loved Gilmore Girls. I took his class the last year before he retired, and I loved every minute). He took my question with incredible grace and then moved on. Years later, when I told him I had asked the question on a dare, he thought it was hilarious (for the record, so did my friend). I am sure he was asked some variation of it without a trace of irony many times in his career.

Ten years later, I decided it was time for a revisit. And you know what? I loved it more than when I read it as a little sophomore in college. Not every soliloquy of Ishmael’s is fascinating, but Melville uses them to the fullest. He invokes classic epics, Shakespeare, and sea adventure novels in Moby-Dick to create a true American epic, one that uses symbolism and realism to make us question the nature of fate and evil in our own lives. It’s a long read (and I relied on audiobook for my work commute), but well worth it. If I ever teach an American literature survey course, I will teach Moby-Dick. And if, like Dr. Davis, I am asked that question, I will smile graciously and reply, as he did, “No, I don’t think so.”

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#CBR6 Review #81: The Diamond Age by Neal Stephenson

I am not–strictly speaking–a sci-fi reader. I had never heard of The Diamond Age until my sister recommended it to me. My sister is an awesome person. She has read so many books that I have recommended to her, including ones for my dissertation, that I thought it was long past time I returned the favor. So I picked up The Diamond Age.

It starts with a man named Bud who buys an illegal skullgun, beats a man, and is then sentenced to death. The novel then takes us to his baby daughter Nell, who grows up in a volatile home environment. Her mother, Tequila, finds boyfriend after boyfriend, many of whom are drunk, abusive, or perverted. Or all three. Her only protector is her brother Harv, a street urchin who one day filches a book for Nell off a man he and his gang rob. But it’s not just any book. Unbeknownst to Nell and Harv, scientist John Percival Hackworth has developed A Young Lady’s Illustrated Primer, an interactive text with multiple acting options, adventure, and information. Nell, of course, is the unintended reader of this copy. And this book will change her life, and those of all the others around her.

Nell is a fantastic character, and Stephenson does right by her. She is intriguing, complex and very human, which makes her coming-of-age an act of triumph. I liked the idea of reading being a powerful and interactive experience, and becoming a creator as you read. I liked that part a lot.

Stephenson is also a proficient worldbuilder. He develops a postmodern, cyberpunk, steampunk, neo-Victorian world and uses key terms (but not too many) to paint a world very different from our own.

So why does this book get three stars? I felt that that the story of Hackworth was not nearly as interesting. He’s a rather stagnant character, and I found myself wishing to read more Nell (or Miranda, the ractor who voices the Primer for Nell) when his parts came on. But what really irritated me was a certain orgy scene involving him. It just felt sort of cliched and lazy and didn’t really add to the parts that drove the plot home. I rolled my eyes for a long time (this sentiment is not limited to Stephenson, by the way. Somewhere in A Clash of Kings, I started yelling at GRRM and didn’t stop. I still have not cracked open A Dance with Dragons).

It’s overall a worthy book to read, and that scene might not bother you at all. I just got annoyed, is what I’m saying. But that does not denigrate the awesome character created in Nell.

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#CBR6 Review #80: The Children Act by Ian McEwan

Ian McEwan gets it. He understands the complicated nature of the human heart, the means by which we process love, loss, faith, loss of faith, life and death. His later novels are especially interested in human nature, not as an abstract concept, but as a reality. A solid, concrete, beating heart. And it’s to this material that he again returns with The Children Act.

The novel’s title is a pun of sorts, deriving both from The Children Act of 1989, and a short, declarative sentence. Fiona Maye is a judge in a family court. Her husband has asked her for one last fling, since she has turned away from him sexually. In her refusal, she finds her domestic life falling apart as she must make proclamations on the domestic spaces of others. It is in her court that she encounters a case upon which the novel turns: 17-year-old Adam Henry, a member of the Jehovah’s Witness, suffers from leukemia and must receive a blood transfusion in order for his treatment to work. He and his parents refuse the transfusion, but the hospital appeals to the court. The decision is Fiona’s. Does she honor the faith of a young adult? Or does she cite the law and his youth and inexperience to go against his wishes? The decision will come to haunt her.

There are echoes of other McEwan novels in the story of Fiona and Adam (two that come to mind most notably are Enduring Love and The Child in Time, which comprises a major part of my third chapter), but it’s the way he discusses faith and unbelief that still has me thinking. McEwan is neither dismissive nor accepting, but in his steadfast neutrality, the reader can examine his or her beliefs and ponder. And wonder.

As a person of faith, I felt challenged by this novel. In a good way. McEwan is an atheist, but he’s a steadfast believer in the beauty of the human experience, and it’s the multi-faceted glimpse at humanity that draws me into his novels again and again and again.

The ending is gorgeous and melancholy at once. I ended the novel with tears in my eyes, and there are tears welling up as I write this review. I do believe I will be haunted by this book in a way that McEwan has never haunted me before.

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#CBR6 Review #79: Dear Committee Members by Julie Schumacher

As an academic, I do enjoy poking fun at myself and my profession every once in awhile. Like any other profession, there is plenty about academia that is ridiculous/absurd/unfair/hilarious. I don’t particularly enjoy Kingsley Amis’s Lucky Jim (and I suspect that has as much to do with the sort of white-boyisms that populate the novel, and that Jim is kind of a twit), and I haven’t yet read any of David Lodge’s work (I hear The British Museum Is Falling Down is excellent, however). So it was a delight and a treat (and a bit painful) to read this short novel by Julie Schumacher.

Dear Committee Members is an epistolary novel about a professor of creative writing at a university. Jason T. Fitger is beleaguered by requests for recommendation letters from students, faculty, and administrators, his sense of failure, and the string of scorned women he has left behind (but immortalized in his novels. Seriously, bad idea, dude). The novel unfolds in a series of letters as Fitger tries to reconcile what he has left of his writing career, promote his promising graduate student’s novella (a bordello adaptation of “Bartleby the Scrivener”), and make his discontent heard in his letters. He is maddening, pathetic, irritating, and profoundly human all at once.

The novel is so very true, I could point to several faculty at all three institutions I went to and say, “Yes, you illustrate this trait very well.” “You would totally say this in a letter.” “Hm, I could see myself doing this.” Schumacher does an excellent job of balancing the grim and the absurd with a satiric eye and witty tone. It’s a Jane Austen expose of human nature within the academic system, and it rings true to life (both good and bad). If you are an academic, I especially recommend this to you, since the scenarios will likely ring true to something of your experience at some level. If you aren’t an academic, you will still enjoy it, though some of the inside jokes may not be as funny or painful.

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#CBR6 Review #78: The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton

Ever since The Luminaries was announced as 2013’s Man Booker Prize winner, I have been intrigued to read it. When I heard that Eleanor Catton, the author, was my age, I immediately felt depressed that I have not even finished my (about) 200-page dissertation, when Ms. Catton quadrupled my page count. The sheer size discouraged me from picking it up before now (and I felt rather foolish for borrowing this tome, thinking I would just have to return it to the library). And then I opened the book.


I’m a huge fan of complex and intricate Victorian novels by George Eliot and Charles Dickens. So it boded well that I found myself remembering and tracing the plots of the twelve men featured at the beginning of the novel. It’s hard to describe the plot without giving anything away, but a bare-bones teaser will do, I suppose: Walter Moody arrives at the goldfields in New Zealand ready to make his fortune. When he arrives at his hotel, he stumbles upon twelve men in a secret meeting, all determined to connect a series of strange events: alcoholic recluse Crosbie Wells has been found dead in his shanty near his goldfield; prostitute Anna Wetherell has tried to take her own life; and wealthy man Emery Staines has mysteriously disappeared. All the men suspect the unscrupulous Francis Carver to have orchestrated these events. How each man is connected to Carver, Wetherell, Staines, or Wells proves to be a complex mystery that torses on itself and recreates itself as the novel moves on.

This is exactly the kind of novel I live for: beautifully written, complex, engaging, and populated with interesting, flawed people. If you like novels like Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy or The French Lieutenant’s Woman, I can say that you will most likely enjoy this one a lot. It’s not a fast read per se, but one you make it through Parts I and II (the first half of the book), the novel really picks up speed (much like another favorite, Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell).

On a related note: this is exactly the kind of cinematic novel that would translate well to screen. I really think the BBC needs to get on it and film it RIGHT NOW. I already have my first casting choice for them:


See, you’d watch that.

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#CBR6 Review #77: The Tastemakers: Why We’re Crazy for Cupcakes but Fed Up with Fondue by David Sax

I love food. I like to talk about it, read about it, view it via cookbooks or shows, prepare it, and eat it. So I was highly intrigued by the Barnes and Noble display that featured David Sax’s The Tastemakers. Hmmmm, I thought. Just why are we so crazy about cupcakes and tired of fondue? (disclosure: I love a good fondue. Who doesn’t love a meal that consists of you dipping bread and fruit into gourmet melted cheese? Just saying)

David Sax expertly explains food trends and how they play out in culture, agriculture, economics, and politics. He discusses everything from the subtle influence of Sex and the City upon cupcakes, a new trend of apple that is trying to emerge from Canada, a strain of China Black rice that is surging in agriculture, and the food truck wars in Washington, D.C. And yes, he explains why fondue is no longer a “thing” (spoiler: the AIDS crisis was part of it). His writing is illuminating, informative, and witty. The book is an engaging piece of journalism, and I devoured it (almost literally, the prose *is* pretty yummy). In fact, I liked it so much, that my students and I will be reading an essay or two from this book this semester. This is a relatable book for an academic or non-academic alike, as there is much to think over and take in.

I know a lot more about food trends, and how different sociocultural or socioeconomic factors play into what we buy and what we eat. I am still (obviously) disappointed that fondue is apparently a fondon’t in this country (sorry for the pun–my friend C came up with it when she made a batch of fondue that didn’t turn out quite like it should have). But then again, I can always share my love affair with cheese with THIS lovely lady:


Sing it, Eunice.

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#CBR6 Review #76: The Maze Runner by James Dashner

So. I’ve heard all kinds of things about The Maze Runner, but until I realized there was a movie coming out, I didn’t feel an urge to read it necessarily. And then I saw the trailer, which left me a bit intrigued. And then I read the book very quickly.

I have no idea how or where to start, because I have a lot of complex feelings about the book. I guess a synopsis should come first, eh? Thomas wakes up in an elevator-like lift to be in the center of a maze, surrounded by boys, many of whom have been there for a few years. He has no idea how he got there, or why he is there, but something about the world seems vaguely familiar. He tries to navigate the world where terrifying Grievers roam the corridors of the Maze, and he tries to understand how to solve the puzzle, but in a short time a girl–the only girl–arrives with a cryptic message: she is the last one. The end is near.

As a story, I actually really enjoyed The Maze Runner. It’s an intriguing mystery–albeit unevenly paced and sometimes a bit maddening in exposition. I really wanted to know what happened and I was invested enough in the world to suspend my disbelief.

From a teacher’s perspective, though, I’m not sure how to go about recommending it. It’s actually quite violent for a young adult novel–especially in the way adolescent deaths and human experimentation are treated. It’s not a dishonest view of the needlessness of war, but there were some deaths that quite shocked me, especially when you think of them not as soldier deaths but those of teen boys. I think that’s what bothered me most. These are kids, after all. So I think there was an element of Lord of the Flies that kind of got under my skin.

I’m definitely interested enough to borrow the second novel from the library. We’ll see how I feel after round two.

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