Category Archives: Classic

The Summer Book by Tove Jansson

I am pleased to be part of the Spotlight Series, which is focusing this week on the NYRB Classics.  NYRB calls their classics  “an innovative list of fiction and nonfiction for discerning and adventurous readers.”  They also publish a Children’s Collection , which is how I first discovered them.

The Summer Book by Tove Jansson

Translated from Swedish by Thomas Teal.

NYRB Classics, New York, 2008

I own this one.

The Summer Book is made up of twenty-two brief chapters.  The story of the relationship between six-year-old Sophia and her Grandmother, spending summers together on a small island in the Gulf of Finland, is told in beautifully simple language.

Sophia is just discovering her independence, her Grandmother is realistic, wise and somewhat cranky.  Together they walk all over the small island, building an easy friendship, making boats out of  tree bark, discovering what has washed up onto the shore.  Grandmother carves animals out of driftwood and puts them in the magic forest. They build their own Venice.  In orbit around them, Sophia’s father works and putters, not speaking much, taking in the death of his wife, Sophia’s Mother.

One morning Sophia found a perfect skull of some large animal — found it all by herself.  Grandmother thought it was a seal skull.  They hid it in a basket and waited all day until evening.  The sunset was in different shades of red, and the light flooded over the whole island so that even the ground turned scarlet.  They put the skull in the magic forest, and it lay on the ground and gleamed with all it’s teeth.
Suddenly Sophia began to scream.
“Take it away!” she screamed “Take it away!”
Grandmother picked her up and held her but thought it best not to say anything. After a while Sophia went to sleep.  Grandmother sat and thought about building a matchbox house on the sandy beach by the blueberry patch behind the house.  They would build a dock and make windows out of tinfoil.  From page 16.

Jansson’s writing is deceptive, it is clear and precise, but contains a shimmering quality that I find ineffable.  The story is about loss, but a loss that is never spoken of, only felt in the depth of the language.   Jansson knew her characters  and expressed their deepest thoughts.

That’s strange, Grandmother thought.  I can’t describe things any more.  I can’t find the words, or maybe it’s just that I’m not trying hard enough.  It was such a long time ago.  No one here was even born.  And unless I tell it because I want to, it’s as if it never happened:  it gets closed off and then it’s lost.  She sat up and said, “Some days I can’t remember very well.  But sometime you ought to try and sleep in a tent all night.

* * * * * * * * * *

The nights were already long, and when Sophia woke up there was nothing to see but the dark.  A bird flew over the ravine and screamed, first close by and then once more far away.  It was a windless night, yet she could hear the sea.  There was no one in the ravine, yet the gravel crunched as if under someone’s foot.  The sheltering tent let in the night, as close as if she had been sleeping on the open ground.  More birds cried in various ways, and the darkness was filled with strange movements and sound, the kind no one can trace or account for.  The kind no one can even describe.
“Oh, dear God” Sophia thought “Don’t let me get scared!”  And immediately she started thinking about what it would be like to get scared.  “Oh, dear God, don’t let them make fun of me if I do get scared!”

From pages 80/82.

Tove Jansson, creator of the Moomins, has written a wonder book for adults and young adults.  The Summer Book is beautifully translated, and I would recommend it to anyone who enjoys a quiet, well-told story.  I appreciate NYRB Classics for publishing it,, and now that I have seen their full list of titles I have created quite a long wish list for myself!

For more great NYRB Classic reviews visit the Spotlight Series blog!

13 Comments

Filed under Classic, Review, Spotlight Series

Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons

Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons

Penguin Classics, New York, 1996

Borrowed from the library for the 1930s Mini Challenge.

The title of this novel has been floating around in my head for a while but I’m not sure where I first heard of it.  Just one of those English novels I should get around to reading.  I am very glad I did.

Flora Poste, orphaned at twenty, well-educated and left with little inheritance, decides to move in with unknown relatives.  These relatives, the Starkadders, live at Cold Comfort Farm, the name itself calling up images of somewhere dark and dreary.  The Starkadders suffer all sorts of upsets, grief, depression, over active imaginations and budding sexuality.  Flora, ever the modern woman, decides to bring order into this chaos.

If she intended to tidy up life at Cold Comfort Farm, she would find herself opposed at every turn by the influence of Aunt Ada.  Flora was sure this would be so.  Persons of Aunt Ada’s temperament where not fond of a tidy life.  Storms were what they liked: plenty of rows, and doors being slammed, and jaws sticking out, and faces white with fury, and faces brooding in corners, faces making unnecessary fuss at breakfast, and plenty of opportunities for gorgeous emotional wallowings, and parting for ever, and misunderstandings, and interferings, and spyings, and above all, managing and intriguing.  Oh, they did enjoy themselves!  They were the sort that went tramping all over your pet stamp collection, or what ever it was, and then spent the rest of their lives atoning for it.  But you would rather have your stamp collection.  From page 57.

Flora, bright, smart and very direct, observes the Starkadders and manages, seemingly effortlessly, through gentle manipulation, to get them all pointed in the direction of futures filled with happiness and light.  She also find herself dealing with an unwanted suitor.

It can not be said that Flora really enjoyed taking walks with Mr. Mybug.  To begin with he was not really interested in anything but sex.  This was understandable, if deplorable.  After all, many of our best minds have had the same weakness.  The trouble about Mr Mybug was that ordinary subjects, which were not usually associated with sex even by our best minds, did suggest sex to Mr Mybug, and he pointed them out, and made comparisons and asked Flora what she thought about it all,  Flora found it difficult to reply because she was not interested.  She was therefore obliged  merely to be polite, and Mr Mybug mistook her lack of enthusiasm and though it was due to inhibitions.  He remarked how curious it was that most Englishwomen (most young Englishwomen, that was, Englishwomen of about nineteen to twenty-four) were inhibited.  Cold, that was what young Englishwomen from nineteen to twenty-four were.

Gibbons is poking fun at a long line of British literary dramas from Wuthering Heights to the works of Thomas Hardy and D.H. Lawrence.  Her introduction takes great pains to explain her concern with Literature and she even marks what she considers her “finer passages with one, two or three stars”.  Filled with dramatic and over-wrought language,  all perfectly tongue in cheek, Cold Comfort Farm great fun to read.

This is the only book by Gibbons that my library carries, so I am on a search for more of her novels and short stories.

10 Comments

Filed under 1930s Mini Challenge, Classic, New Authors 2010, Review

Moby Dick Monday

Moby Dick, or, The Whale by Herman Melville

Tor Classics, New York, 1996

This book was mooched.

Moby Dick Monday is a read-along organized by Ti at Book Chatter.

  If we compare land animals in respect to magnitude, with those that take up their abode in the deep, we shall find they will appear contemptible in comparison.  The whale is doubtless the largest animal in creation.  Oliver Goldsmith – Natural History

It is done.  I have finished reading Moby Dick, or the Whale.  Ishmael has concluded his tale and Captain Ahab has met his match.  I am still amazed at the breadth and depth of this novel.  At 600 plus pages it is long and sometimes long-winded, but fully worth the read.  Melville’s writing is powerful and poetic, his discriptive language is visionary. 

From Chapter 111: The Pacific

     When gliding by the Bashee isles we emerged at last upon the great South Sea; were it not for other things, I could have greeted my dear Pacific with uncounted thanks, for now the long supplication of my youth was answered; that serene ocean rolled eastwards from me a thousand leagues of blue…

     To any meditative Magian rover, this serene Pacific, once beheld, must ever after be the sea of his adoption. It rolls the midmost waters of the world, the Indian ocean and Atlantic being but its arms. The same waves wash the moles of the new-built Californian towns, but yesterday planted by the recentest race of men, and lave the faded but still gorgeous skirts of Asiatic lands, older than Abraham; while all between float milky-ways of coral isles, and low-lying, endless, unknown Archipelagoes, and impenetrable Japans. Thus this mysterious, divine Pacific zones the world’s whole bulk about; makes all coasts one bay to it; seems the tide-beating heart of earth. Lifted by those eternal swells, you needs must own the seductive god, bowing your head to Pan.

At times I felt Melville was writing for the big screen.  I could imagine sitting in a hushed theater watching the Pequod rushing over a becalmed sea, chasing that white whale.  There is a film, made in the 1950’s, directed by John Huston and starring Gregory Peck.  I will have to watch it.

At times Biblical, at others Shakespearean, with dashes of humor and social criticism, Melville’s novel is a wonder.  And then, of course, there is the whale himself.

From Chapter 133: The Chase – First Day

Like noiseless nautilus shells, their light prows sped through the sea; but only slowly they neared the foe. As they neared him, the ocean grew still more smooth; seemed drawing a carpet over its waves; seemed a noon-meadow, so serenely it spread. At length the breathless hunter came so nigh his seemingly unsuspecting prey, that his entire dazzling hump was distinctly visible, sliding along the sea as if an isolated thing, and continually set in a revolving ring of finest, fleecy, greenish foam. He saw the vast, involved wrinkles of the slightly projecting head beyond. Before it, far out on the soft Turkish-rugged waters, went the glistening white shadow from his broad, milky forehead, a musical rippling playfully accompanying the shade; and behind, the blue waters interchangeably flowed over into the moving valley of his steady wake; and on either hand bright bubbles arose and danced by his side. But these were broken again by the light toes of hundreds of gay fowl softly feathering the sea, alternate with their fitful flight; and like to some flag-staff rising from the painted hull of an argosy, the tall but shattered pole of a recent lance projected from the white whale’s back; and at intervals one of the cloud of soft-toed fowls hovering, and to and fro skimming like a canopy over the fish, silently perched and rocked on this pole, the long tail feathers streaming like pennons.

A gentle joyousness—a mighty mildness of repose in swiftness, invested the gliding whale. Not the white bull Jupiter swimming away with ravished Europa clinging to his graceful horns; his lovely, leering eyes sideways intent upon the maid; with smooth bewitching fleetness, rippling straight for the nuptial bower in Crete; not Jove, not that great majesty Supreme! did surpass the glorified White Whale as he so divinely swam.

On each soft side—coincident with the parted swell, that but once leaving him, then flowed so wide away—on each bright side, the whale shed off enticings. No wonder there had been some among the hunters who namelessly transported and allured by all this serenity, had ventured to assail it; but had fatally found that quietude but the vesture of tornadoes. Yet calm, enticing calm, oh, whale! thou glidest on, to all who for the first time eye thee, no matter how many in that same way thou may’st have bejuggled and destroyed before.

At the time Herman Melville published this book, in 1851, few readers had any idea of what he had accomplished.  Most critics panned the book, calling it sad stuff, dreary, dull and ridiculous.  Of course, to have praise his novel would have given credence to his subversion of and challenges to manifest destiny, private enterprise and divine providence.  Melville died in 1891.  The few publications that mentioned his passing misspelled his name or the names of his books.  It wasn’t until after his death that people began reading and reviewing Moby Dick in a positive, constructive wat,  bringing to light a great American author and a great American novel.

I want to thank Ti for organizing this wonderful read-along. You can find the other readers by following these links:

Ti at Book Chatter

Jill/Softdrink of Fizzy Thoughts

Jill of RhapsodyinBooks

Dar of Peeking Between the Pages

Eva of A Striped Armchair

Wisteria from Bookworm’s Dinner

Sandra at Fresh Ink Books

Claire from kiss a cloud

3 Comments

Filed under Classic, Read-Along

Moby Dick Monday

This is a read-along organized by Ti at Book Chatter. The whale and I are taking a break this week.  You can join in with the other readers at:

Ti at Book Chatter

Jill/Softdrink of Fizzy Thoughts

Jill of RhapsodyinBooks

Dar of Peeking Between the Pages

Eva of A Striped Armchair

Wisteria from Bookworm’s Dinner

Sandra at Fresh Ink Books

Claire from kiss a cloud

1 Comment

Filed under Classic, Read-Along, Uncategorized

Moby Dick Monday

Moby Dick, or, The Whale by Herman Melville

Tor Classics, New York, 1996

This book was mooched.

Moby Dick Monday is a read-along organized by Ti at Book Chatter.

I’ve read another 60 pages or so and am still very happy with this book.  The more I read the more I want to learn about the author.

I do have a hard time with Melville’s descriptions of whale butchery.  I find it fascinating and appalling at the same time, knowing what the whaling industry did to cetacean populations.  Japanese whaling continues to decimate whales around the planet.  The Japanese Institute of Cetacean Research justifies whale hunting by population numbers but, according to many researchers,  here, here and here this claim is false.  The Japanese also hunt and kill Dolphins.  Watch The Cove, if you can.  I haven’t been able to watch it.

My favorite section this week comes from chapter 87.  I think that Melville once sat in a boat surrounded by a multitude of whales and had a similar experience.  Ismael’s description is overwhelming.  I found myself holding my breath as I read.  I wanted to be on that boat, watching those whales.

From Chapter 87: The Grand Armada

Now, inclusive of the occasional wide intervals between the revolving outer circles, and inclusive of the spaces between the various pods in any one of those circles, the entire area at this juncture, embraced by the whole multitude, must have contained at least two or three square miles. At any rate—though indeed such a test at such a time might be deceptive—spoutings might be discovered from our low boat that seemed playing up almost from the rim of the horizon. I mention this circumstance, because, as if the cows and calves had been purposely locked up in this innermost fold; and as if the wide extent of the herd had hitherto prevented them from learning the precise cause of its stopping; or, possibly, being so young, unsophisticated, and every way innocent and inexperienced; however it may have been, these smaller whales—now and then visiting our becalmed boat from the margin of the lake—evinced a wondrous fearlessness and confidence, or else a still becharmed panic which it was impossible not to marvel at. Like household dogs they came snuffling round us, right up to our gunwales, and touching them; till it almost seemed that some spell had suddenly domesticated them. Queequeg patted their foreheads; Starbuck scratched their backs with his lance; but fearful of the consequences, for the time refrained from darting it.

But far beneath this wondrous world upon the surface, another and still stranger world met our eyes as we gazed over the side. For, suspended in those watery vaults, floated the forms of the nursing mothers of the whales, and those that by their enormous girth seemed shortly to become mothers. The lake, as I have hinted, was to a considerable depth exceedingly transparent; and as human infants while suckling will calmly and fixedly gaze away from the breast, as if leading two different lives at the time; and while yet drawing mortal nourishment, be still spiritually feasting upon some unearthly reminiscence;—even so did the young of these whales seem looking up towards us, but not at us, as if we were but a bit of Gulfweed in their new-born sight. Floating on their sides, the mothers also seemed quietly eyeing us. One of these little infants, that from certain queer tokens seemed hardly a day old, might have measured some fourteen feet in length, and some six feet in girth. He was a little frisky; though as yet his body seemed scarce yet recovered from that irksome position it had so lately occupied in the maternal reticule; where, tail to head, and all ready for the final spring, the unborn whale lies bent like a Tartar’s bow. The delicate side-fins, and the palms of his flukes, still freshly retained the plaited crumpled appearance of a baby’s ears newly arrived from foreign parts.

I can not even imagine this huge gathering, I wonder if such an event happens.  I know Humpback whales gather in nurseries, do Sperm whales do the same?   I know a bit about Orcas and Humpbacks as we have them in the Northwest but know nothing about Sperm whales. Any whale scientists out there?

I am taking part in this adventure with others:

Ti at Book Chatter

Jill/Softdrink of Fizzy Thoughts

Jill of RhapsodyinBooks

Dar of Peeking Between the Pages

Eva of A Striped Armchair

Wisteria from Bookworm’s Dinner

Sandra at Fresh Ink Books

Claire from kiss a cloud

3 Comments

Filed under Classic, Read-Along

Moby Dick Monday

Moby Dick, or, The Whale by Herman Melville

Tor Classics, New York, 1996

This book was mooched.

Moby Dick Monday is a read-along organized by Ti at Book Chatter.

I have to say I am really enjoying this book.  I read bits of it in high school and college and had never thought to read the whole thing until last fall, when I mooched this wonderful edition.  Then the opportunity to join the read-along came up and I had to jump in.

After Ismael’s rather long winded description of  Moby Dick and the terrible havoc he has created in his wake and of the horrible chaos created by whales in general we begin to catch a glimmer of Ahab’s intentions.  This supposed whaling voyage is turning into something other than those who signed on expected.  The Captain’s obsession is becoming clear.

From Chapter 46: Surmises

To accomplish his object Ahab must use tools; and of all tools used in the shadow of the moon, men are most apt to get out of order. He knew, for example, that however magnetic his ascendency in some respects was over Starbuck, yet that ascendency did not cover the complete spiritual man any more than mere corporeal superiority involves intellectual mastership; for to the purely spiritual, the intellectual but stand in a sort of corporeal relation. Starbuck’s body and Starbuck’s coerced will were Ahab’s, so long as Ahab kept his magnet at Starbuck’s brain; still he knew that for all this the chief mate, in his soul, abhorred his captain’s quest, and could he, would joyfully disintegrate himself from it, or even frustrate it. It might be that a long interval would elapse ere the White Whale was seen. During that long interval Starbuck would ever be apt to fall into open relapses of rebellion against his captain’s leadership, unless some ordinary, prudential, circumstantial influences were brought to bear upon him. Not only that, but the subtle insanity of Ahab respecting Moby Dick was noways more significantly manifested than in his superlative sense and shrewdness in foreseeing that, for the present, the hunt should in some way be stripped of that strange imaginative impiousness which naturally invested it; that the full terror of the voyage must be kept withdrawn into the obscure background (for few men’s courage is proof against protracted meditation unrelieved by action); that when they stood their long night watches, his officers and men must have some nearer things to think of than Moby Dick…

…Nor was Ahab unmindful of another thing. In times of strong emotion mankind disdain all base considerations; but such times are evanescent. The permanent constitutional condition of the manufactured man, thought Ahab, is sordidness. Granting that the White Whale fully incites the hearts of this my savage crew, and playing round their savageness even breeds a certain generous knight-errantism in them, still, while for the love of it they give chase to Moby Dick, they must also have food for their more common, daily appetites.perquisites by the way… I will not strip these men, thought Ahab, of all hopes of cash—aye, cash. They may scorn cash now; but let some months go by, and no perspective promise of it to them, and then this same quiescent cash all at once mutinying in them, this same cash would soon cashier Ahab…

…For all these reasons then, and others perhaps too analytic to be verbally developed here, Ahab plainly saw that he must still in a good degree continue true to the natural, nominal purpose of the Pequod’s voyage; observe all customary usages; and not only that, but force himself to evince all his well known passionate interest in the general pursuit of his profession.

I love Melville’s ability, his skill at capturing Ahab’s disdain for his crew,  his megalomania.  With the first sighting of whales we learn more secrets, a hidden crew for another whale boat.  This one lead by none other than Ahab himself.  Here is where all of Melville’s experience of sailing ships and whaling comes through in his writing.  I don’t believe I have ever read such accurate an description of being in a small boat on a rising sea.  It was enough to make me nauseous.  The physical strength and stamina it took to hunt whales is something I find hard to imagine.

From Chapter 48: The First Lowering.

It was a sight full of quick wonder and awe! The vast swells of the omnipotent sea; the surging, hollow roar they made, as they rolled along the eight gunwales, like gigantic bowls in a boundless bowling-green; the brief suspended agony of the boat, as it would tip for an instant on the knife-like edge of the sharper waves, that almost seemed threatening to cut it in two; the sudden profound dip into the watery glens and hollows; the keen spurrings and goadings to gain the top of the opposite hill; the headlong, sled-like slide down its other side;—all these, with the cries of the headsmen and harpooneers, and the shuddering gasps of the oarsmen, with the wondrous sight of the ivory Pequod bearing down upon her boats with outstretched sails, like a wild hen after her screaming brood;—all this was thrilling.

Things become clearer and spookier, Melville’s language becomes beautiful.  I think that, so far, my favorite chapter is 51: The Spirit-Spout.

And had you watched Ahab’s face that night, you would have thought that in him also two different things were warring. While his one live leg made lively echoes along the deck, every stroke of his dead limb sounded like a coffin-tap. On life and death this old man walked. But though the ship so swiftly sped, and though from every eye, like arrows, the eager glances shot, yet the silvery jet was no more seen that night. Every sailor swore he saw it once, but not a second time.

I have to give thanks to Project Gutenberg for their great work. Their online text allows me to cut and paste these quotes. Trying to type in the text from my little paperback edition would be more than my eyes could handle.  Come back next Monday for more of the story.

I am taking part in this adventure with others:

Ti at Book Chatter

Jill/Softdrink of Fizzy Thoughts

Jill of RhapsodyinBooks

Dar of Peeking Between the Pages

Eva of A Striped Armchair

Wisteria from Bookworm’s Dinner

Sandra at Fresh Ink Books

Claire from kiss a cloud (will join us in 2010)

14 Comments

Filed under Classic, Read-Along

Moby Dick Monday

Moby Dick, or, The Whale by Herman Melville

Tor Classics, New York, 1996

This book was mooched.

Moby Dick Monday is a read-along organized by Ti at Book Chatter.

I’ve reached Chapter 41, where we learn about Moby Dick through Ismael’s wordy ramblings.  To get here I’ve read through Ismael’s descriptions of the Pequod and her inhabitants,  his learned monograph on Cetology, a lovely evening meal with explanations of seating arrangements and a lesson on Main-heads and Crow’s Nests.

There is no life in thee, now, except that rocking life imparted by a gently rolling ship; by her, borrowed from the sea; by the sea, from the inscrutable tides of God. But while this sleep, this dream is on ye, move your foot or hand an inch; slip your hold at all; and your identity comes back in horror. Over Descartian vortices you hover. And perhaps, at mid-day, in the fairest weather, with one half-throttled shriek you drop through that transparent air into the summer sea, no more to rise for ever. Heed it well, ye Pantheists!  From page 167/168.

Ah, the gentle rocking of this ship.

And to finally meet the infamous Captain Ahab.  I absolutely loved his calling together of all and sundry, the offer of the gold piece for the white whale and his sharing of  the grog.   I am rather astounded by Melville’s playfulness, his use of so many forms and tropes.  The whole scene on the deck in Chapter 40 had me giggling.

But there does seem to be a bit of dissention in the ranks, at least as far as Starbuck is concerned, and I wonder where this will lead to, if someone will end up strung up from the yardarm.  Listen to the two men’s thoughts.

Ahab from Chapter 37: Sunset

‘Twas not so hard a task. I thought to find one stubborn, at the least; but my one cogged circle fits into all their various wheels, and they revolve. Or, if you will, like so many ant-hills of powder, they all stand before me; and I their match. Oh, hard! that to fire others, the match itself must needs be wasting! What I’ve dared, I’ve willed; and what I’ve willed, I’ll do! They think me mad—Starbuck does; but I’m demoniac, I am madness maddened! That wild madness that’s only calm to comprehend itself! The prophecy was that I should be dismembered; and—Aye! I lost this leg. I now prophesy that I will dismember my dismemberer. Now, then, be the prophet and the fulfiller one. That’s more than ye, ye great gods, ever were… Come, Ahab’s compliments to ye; come and see if ye can swerve me. Swerve me? ye cannot swerve me, else ye swerve yourselves! man has ye there. Swerve me? The path to my fixed purpose is laid with iron rails, whereon my soul is grooved to run. Over unsounded gorges, through the rifled hearts of mountains, under torrents’ beds, unerringly I rush! Naught’s an obstacle, naught’s an angle to the iron way! From page 177.

Starbuck from Chapter 38:Dusk

My soul is more than matched; she’s overmanned; and by a madman! Insufferable sting, that sanity should ground arms on such a field! But he drilled deep down, and blasted all my reason out of me! I think I see his impious end; but feel that I must help him to it. Will I, nill I, the ineffable thing has tied me to him; tows me with a cable I have no knife to cut. Horrible old man! Who’s over him, he cries;—aye, he would be a democrat to all above; look, how he lords it over all below! Oh! I plainly see my miserable office,—to obey, rebelling; and worse yet, to hate with touch of pity! For in his eyes I read some lurid woe would shrivel me up, had I it. Yet is there hope. Time and tide flow wide. The hated whale has the round watery world to swim in, as the small gold-fish has its glassy globe. His heaven-insulting purpose, God may wedge aside. I would up heart, were it not like lead. But my whole clock’s run down; my heart the all-controlling weight, I have no key to lift again. From page 178.

I am thoroughly enjoying this read-along and can not wait to read what others think of this  whale of an American classic.

Ti at Book Chatter

Jill/Softdrink of Fizzy Thoughts

Jill of RhapsodyinBooks

Dar of Peeking Between the Pages

Eva of A Striped Armchair

Wisteria from Bookworm’s Dinner

Claire from kiss a cloud (will join us in 2010)



9 Comments

Filed under Classic, Read-Along