The Shadow-Line

The Shadow-Line, A Confession
by Joseph Conrad
Edition:  Oxford World’s Classics, paperback
My overall rating:  5 out of 5 stars.  Recommended.

A young merchant officer finds his career taking an unforeseen turn, when he is suddenly promoted to becoming captain of his first ship.  What he doesn’t know is that its last captain died a deranged man; and the ship’s second-in-command, Mr Burns, is still haunted by the memory. And when the voyage starts to go very wrong, the new captain realises he must fight something different than physical hardships, if he is to lead the ship safely to port.

This is the third story by Conrad I’ve read, and maybe even the best.  It is only about 130 pages long and very readable, but Conrad’s signature style–full of eerie atmosphere, eccentric characters, and intense narration–was strong from start to finish.  At the same time, The Shadow-Line has a very youthful narrator with an entirely different “voice” than Marlowe (the narrator of several Conrad books).  Another thing that impressed me was the perfect flow of narration, which covered a lot of time but didn’t feel rushed or abrupt.  And he could depict each setting very clearly and poignantly, without wallowing in superfluous description.  I don’t agree with everything he says, but Conrad’s writing style is pure genius, in my opinion.

This book feels like a portrait of one event in the narrator’s life.  The title would confirm this–the “shadow-line” refers to the “line” which a person crosses as they go from youth to “grownup”.  This is the overall focus of the book, but unlike similar books, I wonder if there might be something else underlying this story.  There is certainly a strain of mystery–and even ghost story–in the whole thing, especially in the characters–what it is that Captain Giles leaves unsaid, what made the ship’s former violinist-captain go crazy (and no, it wasn’t the violin-playing, lol), what kind of person the ship’s steward really is, etc.  This is the brilliant realism of The Shadow Line…some things we’ll never find out.  

Another theme (foreshadowed again by the title) is the power of guilt.  Without describing this subplot, I will say that it’s very well-written.  I don’t get the impression that the narrator was self-pitying, and he didn’t run away from his responsibility. 

I loved the bittersweet ending, too.  Unlike Heart of Darkness, which ends in as much mystery as it began, the ending of Shadow-Line felt complete, and the themes of the story were pretty clearly defined.  So not only being a short, page-turner read, I think The Shadow-Line was a very worthwhile one.

The Master of Ballantrae

The Master of Ballantrae
by Robert Louis Stevenson
Edition:  Dover, paperback
My overall rating:  3.8 out of 5 stars

Charming, conniving, cruel, yet loved by almost all who know him, James Durisdeer is the oldest son of a Scottish nobleman, and destined–as he believes–for a life of fame, success, and power.  Against others’ wishes, he leaves his estate and sets out to become a soldier, only to find that his immoral and wasteful lifestyle leads him to ruin.  He takes out his anger on his younger brother, through whom James means to drain the Durisdeer estate of its wealth.

But apart from James, this book is as much about Henry Durie, who is the younger brother and the more responsible of the two.  Like Guy Morville, Gregor Samsa, and Frodo Baggins, Henry is an upright young man with a strong sense of duty, a person whose consistent goodness is just as consistently persecuted by evil.  Unlike saintly Sir Guy and stoic Frodo, however, Henry is more of an average guy, who heart is torn between hatred, brotherly love, and the seeming impossibility of forgiving his enemy.

This was a very strange book, in that its purpose is not easily defined, that the narration and settings vary vastly from one chapter to the next, and, too, for the fact that the ending was rather anticlimactic.  Was Stevenson trying to make a statement, tell a memorable story, and/or portray character traits of people he had met?  I don’t know.  I was struck, though, by Henry’s love, which (within the realms of his sanity) ultimately overpowered all his suffering and bitterness.  Even James’s charisma and tenacity, which made it to the end of the book, can’t hold a candle to Henry’s noble character.

In summary then, it was a rather depressing book, but in some ways worthwhile.  On the other hand, there was a lot of profanity, and the book wasn’t particularly page-turning, so I wouldn’t give it a higher rating.

The Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka

Edition:  LibriVox audiobook (public domain).  This was read by David Barnes, who also recorded Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde.  His reading style is easy to listen to (not too slow or too fast or anything), and I highly recommend it. 
My overall rating:  5 out of 5 stars.  This would probably be on my list of must-read’s.

One morning, as Gregor Samsa was waking up from anxious dreams, he discovered that in bed he had been changed into a monstrous verminous bug.

When I first considered reading The Metamorphosis, I had mixed feelings about it.  I had heard it was a classic, and I knew the basic plot.  But was it just going to be another one of those dark, melancholy, speculative books with little or no definite meaning?  It’s a short book (the LibriVox recording is only about 2 1/2 hours long).  I decided to give it a try and listen to it in the car, on my way to and from school.

The opening sentence above is, I think, far more interesting than a plot summary would be.  Also interesting is the fact that the title of the book is not what you think it is.  In other words, we’re never told how Gregor became an insect, nor is his “insect self” the focus of the story.  The real “metamorphosis” in the story isn’t about him at all.

Gregor never changes, but the story brings out his character, in lieu of character development.  From start to finish, he comes across as being a very ordinary young man, except for one fact; and that is his extremely selfless, forgiving love for his parents and sister.  Before and after becoming an insect, Gregor puts his family first.  At times he actually forgets his own problems; and instead he dreams of recovery and returning to work to support them, as he had dutifully done before.  He does not constantly pity himself.  In fact, he feels guilty, as if all their problems were a result of his own actions.

I think it is amazing (if not genius) how Kafka was able to take an idea which sounds silly and yet write a very serious and poignant story around it.  Really, though, the focus of the story is not the most unusual aspect (Gregor turning into an insect); but rather, the book is about how people treat Gregor, and each other.  If I were to describe the plot in detail, it would be giving too much away; what I will say, however, is that what this book portrays is very true, disturbingly so. The Samsa family represents a callous, self-centered attitude, something which is selfish even when it is seems to be doing good.  Gregor, innocent though he is, has to pay for it.

The thing to remember is that this isn’t just fantasy.  These kinds of things, in essence, really can happen.  It is a depressing story, as I had expected it would be; but its message is so true that I think it’s definitely worth reading.  Especially in a world where, unfortunately, people often take a very careless view of human life.

You know you’ve been reading too much Moby-Dick when…

…you glance at a shopping list and, for a split second, read one of the headings as “Whale Fishery”.  What it actually says is “Whole Foods”.

Years ago, when I first tried to read this book (and stopped halfway), I thought it was the most boring classic I’d ever read, as well as one of the hardest books I’d ever read.  The plot is pretty simple–an insane captain sets out to get revenge on a whale.  The book, however, happens to be over 600 pages long.  It alternates between telling the story and talking about whales, with whole chapters that read like encyclopedia articles with author’s commentary.

Surprisingly enough, though, this time I like it.

The writing style is very interesting.  It’s first-person, but the narrator is able to tell the reader practically as much as third-person narration does.  Sometimes the narrator tells the story like any other author, with even comic relief.  Other times he goes on for chapters about whaling, and whales, and his thoughts.  And, every time he changes the subject, he usually starts a new chapter.

The narrator himself is really annoying.  I mean REALLY annoying.  Why is it that, with all his self-righteousness of being fair and unbiased, he would still seem to be prejudiced towards certain kinds of people?  I especially disliked his attempted ironic comparison of the Quakers’ pacifism and their whale-hunting.  I think it goes without saying that there’s a big difference between killing a person and killing a whale. 

As far as Captain Ahab goes, the book brings out his sanity more than the movie version does.  There was, for example, an interesting subplot that shows how scheming he could be; I also get the impression that, before he lost his leg, he seemed to be a pretty normal person.  I’m going to have to watch the film again, but these seem to be a couple of the differences between the book and the film.

In any case, Starbuck is my favourite character. He is a rational character amidst “the madness of crowds”. 

“‘Vengeance on a dumb brute!’ cried Starbuck, ‘that simply smote thee from blindest instinct! Madness!'”

Now, I’ve seen the 1956 version (a good movie, by the way), so I know how the story is going to end.  But the thing about Moby-Dick, is that it’s almost like a mystery.  In some ways, it’s more suspenseful than a mystery, because it’s not a story I can completely understand.  And it’s not like Lord of the Rings, either, where you can keep finding the answers to your questions–I don’t know if that’s possible with Moby-Dick.  It’s just really complex…an extraordinary book which tries to explain every little thing to the reader, and yet leaves me with nearly as many questions as before.

Something which I only learned recently is that a true-story whaling accident was part of the inspiration for writing Moby-Dick, and it just so happened that I had already read a book about it.  The Wreck of the Whaleship Essex is an eyewitness narrative written in 1821 by Owen Chase, who was the second in command.  It’s a must-read in my opinion, an amazing survival story.  Even if I hadn’t ended up reading Moby-Dick later on, I was glad to have read Chase’s book first. I always prefer reading a book written by somebody who was actually there; and these days, whaling stories may not be as glamorous as pirates and Royal Navy books, but they’re nonetheless a fascinating part of American history.

Catriona

WARNING:  Contains Kidnapped spoilers!!!

Catriona
by Robert Louis Stevenson
Edition: Polygon, paperback
My overall rating:  4 out of 5 stars

The last chapter of Kidnapped was very nearly a complete, happy ending: Alan Breck was soon to escape to freedom in France, and David Balfour outwitted his selfish uncle and finally came into his inheritance.  David’s story is far from finished, however; with the Appin Murder trial impending, he feels it his duty to speak on James Stewart’s behalf, and it’s not an easy mission, especially when he can’t even be sure that the most powerful man who could help him–the Lord Advocate–is trustworthy.  David’s own position, as a witness of the murder, is also precarious.  Still only a teenager and overwhelmed by all of this, he strives to work his way through a scheming world, become a gentleman, and win the love of beautiful grey-eyed Catriona Drummond.

My thoughts:  Stevenson considered this book to be one of his best, if not his best.  I humbly disagree, but I did think it a very good book, and a must-read for anyone who loves Kidnapped.

In the first part of the story, we have David trying hard to be shrewd and grown-up, while at the same time torn between self-interest and working to free an accused (but innocent) man from execution.  I think David is more likeable in this book, because, in many ways, the troubles David encounters in Catriona are much worse than those in Kidnapped, and the ways he faces them are (usually) very admirable, especially since he has no one else to look up to for help.  I really liked this first half of the book–there was plenty of danger, adventure, and some suspense; and Stevenson’s elegant but vivid writing is an excellent example and standard for authors today.  I was skeptical about this book, but it turned out to be worthwhile and highly interesting; the scheming characters were very irritating, the Scottish dialogue wonderful as always, and I think my new favourite character was Charles Stewart (coincidentally, Alan Breck’s cousin).

Alan Breck fans, prepare to be disappointed.  There was very little of him in this book.  I expected that, but it really is too bad.  In addition, when he is in the book, his character seems to be written only half-heartedly, and he doesn’t seem like quite the same Alan that one remembers from Kidnapped.

Now for the reason I gave it just 4 stars: part 2 of the book is less than wonderful.  It’s like a romance story from a guy’s point of view.  Of course, I like old-fashioned romance stories, and I like the idea of one being written by a guy from a guy’s perspective, but at times it was just too agitated and dramatic for me.  Catriona was likeable enough at first, but both she and David got really annoying.  It was kind of disappointing, particularly because it had the potential to be poignant and unique.  As it was, it turned out to be rather cliche.

The ending is pretty good.  Complete?  Well, sort of.  Actually, I could see many sequels and/or prequels to Kidnapped & Catriona.  Why not a whole saga?  But first, one would have to acquire Stevenson’s confident historical tone, or at least his brilliant Scottish writing style.  And that would be very, very difficult.  😉