Melville in Love: A Ruinous Endeavor



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Melville in Love, written by Michael Shelden, is a reexamination of Herman Melville’s arduous struggle to write a bestselling novel—one which could restore his insufficient bank funds and enable him to remain in his beloved Berkshires. The book was Moby Dick, written in 1851, at the height of Melville’s obsession with his Berkshire neighbor, Mrs. Sarah Morewood. Herman Melville became entranced with Morewood at first meeting—not uncommon, given that Mrs. Morewood was a flirt and men often fell hard for her beauty, independence and forthright attitude. However, as Shelden very adroitly shows us, Melville’s passion led to his ultimate downfall. He risked close personal relationships, money, and critical acclaim chasing life with a married woman he could never be with openly.

Shelden refers to Sarah Morewood as Melville’s muse and even suggests that one or two of her children may have been fathered by Herman Melville. Their secret, longstanding affair was undiscovered by contemporaries and modern critics alike until author Michael Shelden put the pieces together. Shelden does an admirable job of showing how the lovers used amorous messages hidden in literary references to express their passion. This is demonstrated in the marked copy of John Dryden’s Poetical Works Melville sent to Sarah, highlighted in Melville in Love. Sarah behaved similarly, once donning a costume reminiscent of Aunt Tabitha, a Tobias Smollett character, foul-mouthed and sex-obsessed, for a party she once hosted.  Herman and Sarah knew family, friends and community members would not be savvy enough to pick up on literary references, though some, such as neighbor Dr. Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr. and publisher Evert Duyckinck may have wondered at the nature of their relationship.

The world, as a whole, was fooled however. The main focus remained on Herman’s writing, which had become disappointing. Readers never warmed to the story of Moby Dick and Melville’s following novel, Pierre, had readers and critics alike thinking he’d gone insane. In fact, as Shelden shows us, the novel was, in fact, a veiled portrait of the romantic relationship wreaking havoc on his personal life and sending the writer into depression.

Shelden has done an excellent job of relating the scandalous story and proving its’ truth. He implements knowledge of other notables’ research, as well as factual evidence from the lives of Melville’s friends and community members to make a logical case for the ruinous affair. Shelden leaves the reader with a renewed interest in Herman Melville, and if not personal respect, at least admiration for Melville’s fervor, in regard to emotion and determination. The literary world can be thankful to Michael Shelden for uncovering the true man and circumstances behind one of the greatest novels ever written. His expose gives us a richer understanding of the phrase “lust for life” and allows a clear vision of how ambition drives the human race.


The Girls: Rough and Resonant

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The Girls, by Emma Cline, is disturbing, offensive and gritty. It’s also bold and cruelly realistic. The main message of the novel seems to be the abuse and neglect females suffer from all angles—the men who are supposed to take care of them, other females expected to befriend them and the world they live in that offers little power to combat the inevitable disappointments. I understand and respect Cline’s point of view and admire her for writing a story that throws all that dirty laundry smack in the reader’s face, unapologetically. I can take the oppression; however, sometimes the graphic sexuality and casual drug use repelled me—perhaps as Cline may have intended.

The much publicized, must-read of the summer is certainly provocative. The Girls delivers on drama with a teasing narrative. High voltage characters are juxtaposed with meek, mild-mannered types. This technique provides the reader with clarity regarding the emotional turmoil of the main character, Evie, a young woman struggling to find herself and assemble the fragments of her self-worth. While it may be a stretch to consider The Girls entertaining, in the usual sense, given the dark themes and plotline, I do think the book is a valuable read. Emma Cline’s storytelling is engaging and will hit a nerve with many women. I also found the book thought-provoking and honest. An original novel invested with arresting ideas.










Charlotte Bronte, A Fiery Heart Indeed

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Claire Harman’s biography of Charlotte Bronte, entitled Charlotte Bronte: A Fiery Heart, leaves an impression on the reader. After finishing the book, I felt like I’d learned things I didn’t previously know about the reknowned British author, but more importantly, I felt almost as though I knew her—her life’s events and the times she lived in became familiar to me, as I read. I also came to understand Charlotte Bronte’s motives as a writer and where her creative inspiration originated.

It’s Harman’s deft interpretation of research and accessible writing style that lend her work this clarity. Relevant detail and enlightening storytelling also make for stimulating reading. For me, this biography illuminated Charlotte Bronte and showed her in a new light. It’s only fair to note that this image includes facets that are less than desirable, such as her immature love for her mentor, Monsieur Heger; extreme stubborness, illustrated in her quest to see her first novel, The Professor, published after it had already been rejected twice, and the unforgettable mental picture of a petite, heavy-browed spinster with missing teeth. I am glad to know all these things about Charlotte, as well as the good. I appreciate Claire Harman’s commitment to presenting a well-rounded portrait, based in reality, that leaves Ms. Bronte’s status as a literary icon intact.

The Battle for Room 314, Reality Check

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The Battle for Room 314 is a must-read for anyone contemplating a career in teaching high school or junior high students–particularly those with a romantic notion of saving inner-city kids and changing the world with their passion. As Ed Boland realized early on in an attempted career switch, it’s not as easy as it seems. Boland relates his experience teaching history in the New York school system honestly, allowing the reader to see his frustration, pain and doubts. Not that the book is an entirely negative view of the profession. It’s not.  By the end of the book, I felt the author had made the only sane decision he could, deciding to return to his previous career in fundraising.  However, he grew personally from his difficult experience battling for students’ attention and efforts, and not surprisingly, their respect. And Boland did make connections and influence some students. Each reader needs to ask him or herself, however, at what price did those successes come?  As a trained secondary school teacher, who student taught in an inner city school and has a few years of substitute teaching under her belt, I commend Ed Boland for writing a brutally honest look at teaching. The questions included at the end of the book are thought-provoking and necessary–they will surely be helpful to those who consider them before launching themselves into the arena of public education. Interesting and emotionally touching, The Battle for Room 314 will be a satisfying read for just about anyone, those who are familiar with the business of teaching, as well as those who are quite content doing something else.

Miller’s Valley, A Quiet Study in Humanity

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Miller’s Valley, by Anna Quindlen, is a quiet gem, exploring family relations, attachment to home and the ways in which life actually doesn’t change us, as much as we might like to think. I enjoyed reading this novel immensely. It felt like Quindlen understood where her characters were coming from and that they were solidly based in reality. Her handling of the human experience, especially when we feel threatened, is deft. As a reader, I never questioned the motivations of any of Quindlen’s characters. They respond to and revolve around one another like every family you’ve ever met. Additionally, the plotting is strong. Throughout, the reader fears the eventual flooding of the valley, forgetting to keep an eye out for dangers more imminent, that provide the dramatic twists in the story. At the conclusion, one is left with a luminous, somewhat haunting image. One that satisfies and offers insight into what is important in life and the choices we make. Highly recommended.