Moby-Dick, Cain and Joan of Arc in the New York Times

Three iconic figures and three books I want to read covered in the New York Times:

Kathryn Harrison reviews Nathaniel Philbrick’s recently released Why Read Moby-Dick?

Philbrick, whose “In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex” recounted the real-life inspiration for Melville’s shipwreck, wears his erudition lightly. He broaches the novel in quirky thematic fashion, with gracefully written compact essays on topics like landlessness, chowder and sharks. His voice is that of a beloved professor lecturing with such infectious enthusiasm that one can almost, for a moment, believe in the possibility of a popular renaissance for Melville. But convincing and beguiling though his slender apologia is (the whole of it taking up less than a quarter of the space allotted to the Norton Critical Edition’s appendixes), Philbrick doesn’t have an audience held captive in a classroom.

Still, his Bible metaphor applies in that not only is “Moby-Dick” a big fat book about the wages of sin and the elusiveness of redemption, but also one to which zealots return even as potential admirers push it away, put off by its size and its longtime residence on literature courses’ reading lists.

Robert Pinsky tackles Jose Saramago’s Cain

In a grieving but marveling spirit, Saramago remakes, from Cain’s viewpoint, not only the story of Cain and his parents and his brother but also — with Cain entering each narrative as a time-traveling participant — the tales of Abraham and Isaac, Sodom and Gomorrah, Lot’s wife, Lot and his daughters, Noah and his sons. The narrative veers drastically away from tradition and back toward it and then away again with radical aplomb. The effect is sometimes comic, but with a complex, outraged commitment far beyond parody. Comedy and boundless complexity: Saramago’s novels have been called parables, but they are not allegories.

Lastly, Sarah Towers explores Kimberly Cutter’s The Maid: A Novel of Joan of Arc

But, as Twain observed, pinning down the mysterious interior of this woman — imaginatively experiencing how she came to be — has confounded many a writer, including Twain. Far too often Cutter’s Joan (or “Jehanne,” as the novel has it) is flat, overexplained, fragmented: “She wept. Horrified. Weeping, furious at herself for weeping. Amazed how much the words hurt her. ‘How dare you?’ she screamed.” Many of the scenes are fragmented as well — in a novel of 287 pages there are 150 chapters, which boils down to less than two pages per chapter — so it feels as if Cutter, unsure how to embody Joan, is in a race to get to the end of the story.

To Cutter’s credit, it takes true Joan of Arc-ian boldness to attempt this oft-told story in the first place, and the reader certainly recognizes intellectually, if not viscerally, Cutter’s passion for her heroine. The ultimate problem is that Joan of Arc’s sublimity makes it incredibly difficult, like hitting a bull’s-eye from a great distance, to do her “divine soul” justice, to allow the fictional record to reflect the real woman with as much force and ingenuity as the historical one.

So there you have it. Three fascinating characters (whether that is Ahab or the whale in Moby-Dick) and three fascinating, at least to me, books. Have any of you read these book already? Do they seem as interesting to you as they do to me?

Kevin Holtsberry
I work in communications and public affairs. I try to squeeze in as much reading as I can while still spending time with my wife and two kids (and cheering on the Pittsburgh Steelers and Michigan Wolverines during football season).

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