Call me Ishmael. One of the most famous first sentences in English-language literature. And yet, while most people know that Moby Dick is the name of a white whale and that he was pursued by one-legged Captain Ahab, how many have the courage to sit down with all 641 small-font pages and follow the ship Pequod round the globe?
I confess I didn’t. I needed the help of William Hootkins’ incredible audio recording (Naxos, 2005) to get me through it. It’s close to 25 hours long and it feels like I spent two or three months slowly listening to the dense prose, dipping into the Penguin Drop Caps edition when I had to return the audiobook to the library and wait for it to be available again.
I don’t think this book could be published today. We don’t have time for long sentences or exhaustive treatments of a subject. We deal in slogans and sound bytes. Who sits by the fire with family and reads aloud from a book when there are lifetimes of YouTube videos to watch?
So why does Moby Dick endure?
If you want to write a certain genre, you’ve got to read all you can in that genre, at least 100 titles, says Heather Sellers in Chapter by Chapter. So, I googled lists of best historical fiction and The Red Tent by Anita Diamant was on most of them.
It’s the story of Dinah, Jacob’s daughter by Leah, given only a chapter in Genesis 34. It’s a confusing account, since Shechem, son of Hamor, apparently rapes Dinah (no consent given?) but then takes her into his home, wanting to marry her. He is so desperate for her hand in marriage he agrees to Simeon and Levi’s deceitful condition that he and all the men of the city be circumcised. While Shechem and his men are recovering from the procedure, Simeon and Levi descend upon the town and slaughter every male and take the women, children, livestock and everything else for themselves. When confronted by their father Jacob about the trouble this has brought upon him, they justify their violence by saying “Should he have treated our sister like a prostitute?”
And that’s all we know about Dinah. So how did Anita Diamant write 352 pages in her voice?
When I was given the “R” title in the Penguin Drop Caps series I really had no idea what to expect. I was delighted by the rich azure cover, the cobalt page edges and the swirly gold cover initial embellished with an Indian motif, but all I knew about Salman Rushdie was based on an ad campaign in the Toronto subway system promoting some new book of his and the news that Muslim clerics had issued a fatwa against him. Because of the subway ads I assumed he was a Canadian writer. And because of the scary-sounding fatwa against his book The Satanic Verses I assumed he was promoting some kind of paganism that was offensive to Muslims.
Wrong and wrong again.
Would you read a book about the right to die by someone who committed suicide five years afterward? A colleague handed me this book as he was cleaning off his desk for the summer and said I’d enjoy it. Since I had loved his recommendation of Le gone du Chaâba by Azouz Begag, I decided to push past my initial distaste of the front cover (two naked figures—a child sitting on a woman’s lap—with stones for heads and black dots for navels) and my confusion about the back page description: “The story of a little Arab boy’s love for an old Jewish woman”. Love, like romantic love, I wondered?
But not three pages in, I was hooked. The characters, the setting, the first-person narration, the symbolism and the surprising ending make it obvious why this novel won the Prix Goncourt in 1975 for “the best and most imaginative prose work of the year”.
What a title. It scared me a little at first because I thought it would be about some kind of witches’ coven. Instead, behind one of the catchiest titles I’ve ever heard, is a story about mothers and daughters and about friendship and love.
The story wastes no time in getting to the inciting incident. Right on the third page we learn that Siddalee Walker, a theatre director, has spilled her soul to a New York Times reporter who writes that Vivi Abbott Walker, her mother, was a tap-dancing child abuser. Ouch. Vivi is so hurt she refuses to speak to Sidda for months. But the fact that one time Vivi did beat all her children, with her eldest daughter Sidda taking the brunt of the belt buckle, will not go away. Sidda has spent her whole life trying to make sense of this event and of her mother’s subsequent lengthy absence. However, thanks to the intervention of her three best friends, who with her compose the Ya-Ya Sisterhood, Vivi agrees to send her daughter a scrapbook she calls her Divine Secrets, and which Siddalee has asked for to help her prepare for directing a play about women and friendship.
In order to slow down my frenetic book-eating, I'm writing reviews of the books I read to better digest them. Bon appétit!