Tag Archives: Moby-Dick

Whale song

Maybe you got flogged through Moby-Dick in high school and the experience left you scarred. Maybe you’ve seen one of the many film versions, which range from okay (John Huston’s version, undermined by the bizarre miscasting of Gregory Peck as Ahab), to hilarious (the John Barrymore version, in which the Cap comes to terms with his obsession and goes on to lead a happy life), to simply mediocre (all the rest). So how about having a parade of actors and writers read you the whole thing, chapter by chapter, on whatever device you care to use? How about listening to a chapter with China Mieville? Or maybe try a chapter with Benedict Cumberbatch, if only to get an idea of what he’ll sound like as Smaug whe the second Hobbit installment rolls out next Christmas? Believe me, you’ll be glad you gave it a try. Start here.

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Caro country

At the end of his Tuesday night speech at the City University of New York, Robert Caro pointed to his wristwatch and joked that he’d run over his allotted time, a trait that showed why “I always write thousand-page books.” Judging from the applause, I doubt many people noticed he’d gone into overtime — or even cared if they had.

The theme of Caro’s speech, delivered before a capacity crowd at the Leon Levy Center for Biography, was the importance of conveying a sense of place in writing biography. As the author of The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York, and the ongoing Brobdingnagian chronicle The Years of Lyndon Johnson, Caro certainly has the credentials to show how biography should be done.

Interestingly, when Caro illustrated the need for a sense of place he cited examples from fiction: Tolstoy’s description of the Battle of Borodino in War and Peace; Herman Melville’s account of a dead whale being systematically taken apart by whalers in Moby-Dick; and Dickens’ depiction of Miss Havisham’s house in Great Expectations, a mansion turned into a mausoleum for the hopes that died when she was jilted by her suitor. It served as a reminder that Caro is a contemporary of Tom Wolfe, Gay Talese, Norman Mailer, Joan Didion, and other New Journalism figures who brought literary techniques to their reportage, though I could hardly think of great books with less in common than The Power Broker and Miami and the Siege of Chicago, or Means of Ascent and The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test.

What Caro went on to demonstrate was the power of storytelling grounded in deep, painstaking research. Anyone hoping for a taste of the fourth and (Caro says) final Johnson volume went away disappointed: Caro concentrated on his time spent in the Texas hill country, where he got a feel for the loneliness, isolation, and poverty that wracked Johnson’s youth. Caro noted that when he started his Johnson research, there were already seventeen books about the controversial president, and he had read “Johnson grew up poor” so many times he thought he already knew most of what he needed. Only by going to the hill country and imagining what it would be like to live in a place where the essentials of life had to be dug, chopped, and hauled across miles of rugged landscape.

Particularly spooky was Caro’s description of how one of Johnson’s relatives made him get on his knees and thrust his fingers into the soil, by way of demonstrating the mistake that ruined the Johnson family’s fortunes. No matter where he dug, Caro said, he never found soil that was even deep enough to cover the length of his fingers. The land was beautiful, but the beauty was a veneer of easily exhausted soil over rock. Johnson’s father overpaid for his land, thinking he would grow crops, and so dragged the family into ruin. His son’s ruthlessness and drive, Caro explained, was rooted in that disaster.

Not all of this was new, and some of it has been offered by Caro at many other speaking engagements. But Caro’s storytelling skill rendered that irrelevant. To illustrate his theme of the need to convey a sense of place, Robert Caro spoke of New York City,Washington D.C., and the Texas countryside. But by the end of the evening, it was all Caro country, and I am eager to pay it another visit.

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Friday finds

I’m thrilled right down to the soles of my Buster Browns at the thought of the screenwriters behind the Olsen Twins movie New York Minute doing an adaptation of Moby-Dick. Aren’t you?

I’m even more thrilled at the thought of realizing my long-held ambition to see fungi firing their spores to the tune of the “Anvil Chorus” from Il Trovatore. Click here and let Carl Zimmer show you how to make that dream come true.

But at the end of the day, the biggest and best thrill comes from contemplating which of the warrior-theme bath gels I’ll take into the tub with me tomorrow morning. Jeff says the Charlemagne gel, which “offers the natural astringency of chestnut seed, totally conquers the citrusy, skin-softening properties of Caesar,” but he’s prejudiced — for an obvious reason.

Chris Offutt offers a handy guide to literary terms, such as “chick lit,” defined as “A patriarchal term of oppression for heterosexual female writing; also, a marketing means to phenomenal readership and prominent bookstore space.”

You might want to cover your ears — or, at the very least, hold your nose — as Scott McLemee sticks a long pin into a methane-pumped dirigible named Bernard-Henri Levy.  

Tim Lucas pays long and eloquent tribute to These Are the Damned, an overlooked science fiction film from the early Sixties that ought to be much better known. Lucas goes into great detail about the film’s thematic ambition and dark social commentary. I saw the film ages ago, when a hacked-up cut appeared from time to time on late-night television, and I can still remember the impact of its deeply disturbing conclusion. (Bird-dogged by Glenn Kenny.) 

On a related note, John Scalzi lists science fiction films that were made immortal by their music. Of course he lists 2001: A Space Odyssey, and while none of his other choices surprise, his arguments are sound.

Geoff doesn’t have to watch The Wire. He lives it. The fourth season, to be exact.

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