ULYSSES Readalong week 3, ch. 5 & 6

March 2nd, 2015

Welcome back, fellow fearless Ulysses readers!

I was away for a long weekend at a yoga/writing/meditation retreat, so while I read 5 & 6 once, I don’t yet feel up to commenting much on them.

Book 5: The Lotus Eaters. Leopold Bloom wanders around, gets mail under an assumed name, Henry Flowers, and sits in a church.

Book 6: Hades. Bloom and Dedalus and others are in a coach on the way to Dignam’s funeral and Bloom muses about death and dying.

I’m off to read the notes before giving them a second read. Wilson Varga also suggested on Twitter checking out Joseph Campbell’s commentary in this: https://t.co/ZQ4NT5Bgnc.

What did everyone else think? I like spending time with Bloom, and think Joyce tried to scare us off with the esoterica of book 3.

THE BONE CLOCKS by David Mitchell

February 26th, 2015

I read David Mitchell’s latest, The Bone Clocks, for one of my books groups and for the Morning News Tournament of Books. I really enjoyed and was impressed by the other books of his I’ve read, Black Swan Green, Cloud Atlas, and The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, so I was looking forward to it.

The beginning of the novel, featuring the narration of 15 year old Holly Sykes, drew me in immediately, and I was excited to be along for what felt like a wild ride.

Each segment was narrated by a different character as it moved forward in time. Also, for Mitchell fans, many of the characters from other books make appearances, some short, some long. The Vulture interview with Mitchell about the book contains a chart, which I enjoyed nerding out over.

mitchell-atlas

Alas, I felt it blew up in the penultimate section with over-the-top bizarrity that required way too much ’splaining. Then, exhausted from having made it through that section, I hoped for a relaxing denouement (say, the savasana to a difficult yoga class) and instead got a whole new section, whole new slew of characters, whole new world, with more ’splainin’. The last section could have been a book unto itself.

I felt very tired when I got to the end of the book, rather than satisfied. Still, glad I read it and I still intend to go back and read all his books. I love the universe he’s crafting.

PAIN, PARTIES, WORK: Sylvia Plath in New York, Summer 1953 by Elizabeth Winder

February 26th, 2015

Pain, Parties, Work: Sylvia Plath in New York, Summer 1953 by Elizabeth Winder was a suggestion from my friend Amy at New Century Reading because we were reading The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath for one of our book groups.

It was a fast, interesting companion to The Bell Jar, the fictionalized account of Plath’s summer of ‘53, in which she interned at Mademoiselle during June, followed by a suicide attempt and hospitalization.

Winder contacted the other women who interned and worked with Plath that summer, interviewing them about their experience. She also gives background on the time.

Part of her intent was to show that Plath was not just a dour depressive, but also a young woman who enjoyed dating, makeup, fashion. Beyond this, though, what I appreciated was that the other women expressed the same insecurities and feelings of having to put up a front that Plath related in her novel, and hearing from the people who inspired the characters in the novel.

That none discussed their doubts, that they assumed everyone else was just having a grand time of it and felt at ease and enjoying the ride, was perhaps the most toxic element to this particular kind of noisy loneliness.

What didn’t work for me was the format of the book. It seems to ping pong between being a biography of Plath, but sometimes written in a breezy style of a women’s magazine with highlighted text boxes and lists. Also, she uses quotes from Plath’s journals to head chapters, and the quotes are out of time with the period she discusses, and her book jumps ahead and back in time.

The parts of the book, such as the interviews with the other guest editors, were detailed and helpful. The other parts, where Winder goes out on a limb with statements like that Plath would have made a great fashion editor, or the chapter with a “dictionary” of some of Plath’s favorite things, were less successful.

I would not take this as the only biography of Plath, but as a companion to the novel, I found it illuminating.

THE BELL JAR by Sylvia Plath

February 25th, 2015

The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath is another one of the books that I’m kicking myself for not reading earlier in life so I could have been re-reading it as I went along. It’s a thinly fictionalized account, in which bright but not wealthy Esther Greenwood goes to a magazine internship for a month, works and parties, returns to the suburbs of Connecticut, loses touch with reality, attempts suicide and is institutionalized.

Part of why I think I avoided it was a perception of it as a depressing book. While it is about depression, and there are many dark parts, I don’t think it’s so much depressing as honest. Brutally honest, at times, and with a nasty streak of racism and ignorance of privilege in it, but often funny and wise.

I took a deep breath and listened to the old brag of my heart. I am, I am, I am.

Often dismissed as juvenilia, or an immature portrait of girlhood, I found it a fascinating work of art depicting struggles of class, sexism, and coming of age that continue to resonate all these decades later.

EL DEAFO by Cece Bell

February 25th, 2015

El Deafo by Cece Bell was awarded a Newbery Honor this year, a rare occurrence for a graphic “novel.” It’s not really a novel, though, more a memoir in the spirit of Smile and Sisters. Like those books, this one is charmingly drawn with a winning narrator who struggles, in this case with deafness and especially her experiences in school and with friends. Both my sons and I tore through this book and enjoyed it a great deal. It’s well deserving of the Newbery Honor.

THE QUIRKS: WELCOME TO NORMAL by Erin Soderberg

February 25th, 2015

I read The Quirks: Welcome to Normal by Erin Soderberg aloud to my boys, who are 9 and 11 years old. We’re part of a parent/kid book group that will be discussing the third book in the series next month. This is the first book in the series.

The Quirks have just moved to a new town, Normal, Michigan. There are three kids in the family, twins Penelope and Molly and their younger brother Finn. They live with their mom, Bree and their grandparents. Everyone in the family has a quirk. Finn is invisible, and Penelope has magic to make her imagination come to life. This causes more than a little trouble for the kids, which is why they’ve had to move so much.

The positives and negatives of each quirk (and Molly’s seeming lack of quirk) are explored, as well as the different relationships in the family. This is a short, cheerful middle grade novel with cute illustrations, silly and fun to read aloud.

ULYSSES Readalong week 2, ch 3 & 4

February 23rd, 2015

leopoldmolly

(image from the 1967 film, the re-release reviewed here)

Hello, fellow Ulysses readers. You still with me? I’m not sure I am still with me. I read books 3 and 4, pushing through, fighting sleep, feeling like I understood maybe one word in 100, and those were the ones about snot, boobs, ogling, and poop.

And yet, and yet, I will not give up.

I will edit and lengthen this entry once I do some more research, but for now, let’s get this discussion started.

Chapter 3: Stephen walks on the beach, thinks a lot, and sees a dead dog, then leaves a booger on a rock.

Chapter 4: We meet our protagonist, Leopold Bloom, who is a man who likes his brekkie, and even better, takes care to make a good brekkie for Molly, who is still abed. He likes to eat organ meat, and is kinda pervey, as we learn when he follows a woman out of the butcher shop in order to ogle her. The chapter ends with him having a bowel movement.

Seriously. It is very clear why people give up on this novel. BUT I WILL PERSEVERE. There is lovely language, poetry, but if it doesn’t mean anything, or doesn’t mean anything to me, is it worth it?

Help me to understand, kind readers. What did everyone else think?

EDITED TO ADD: I have now skimmed the Gibbons annotations for 3 and 4, re-read the chapters, plus read the summaries and analyses (starting here) of them at schmoop.com. I feel guilty about the latter, as it seems like it’s cheating, as it’s a Cliffs Notes-y site, and yet, I enjoy their commentary and learn from it, so it floats my boat. Like Wikipedia, though, I take it with grains of salt–I have found some errors in it.

What I’ve learned about book 3: Proteus. Like the god it’s named for, this is a slippery chapter, and Stephen’s mind can’t hold onto one thought for very long. For this entire book, he walks on a beach and thinks. He does not visit relatives, he just imagines what would happen if he did, and what they would say about him. He does not visit a man named Egan, he remembers spending time with him in London. In short, Stephen is brilliant, easily distracted, lonely, isolated, and up in his head.

My favorite line of poetic prose was

These heavy sands are language tide and wind have silted here.

I think this is iambic heptameter, with alternating stresses, which is why it was fun to repeat aloud. (I had a crap American education in English, it was really light on poetry.)

Book 4, Calypso, stars the hero, Leopold Bloom, who is Jewish and Irish and fears his Molly is having an affair. He’s an earthy guy. The book starts:

Leopold Bloom ate with religh the inner organs of beasts and fowls.

Leopold is a funny guy. He talks to his cat, ogles the neighbor girl, worries about his daughter, and does not keep kosher, witness his pork kidney. Unlike Stephen, Leopod (or, Poldy), is whimsical and clever, but not intellectual, and attached to bodily, not theoretical things. The chapter ends with him having a bowel movement, and it was apparently this, not hot sex scenes, that were part of the outrage and accusation of obscenity when it was released. Also in this chapter, we get the first mention of a potato at 4.73 (57:2), which Gibbon’s notes:

A talisman, symbolic of the continuity of life and, in Jewish tradition, a central dish in the ritual meal after a funeral. The potato is also a reminder of the staple food of the Irish peasant and of the potato blight that triggered the famine.

As in books 1 and 2, we continue to see themes of Irish independence, Dublin “street furniture” (or myriad details about Dublin at the time), and anti-semitism.

Book 3 threw me for a loop this week, but I feel back on solid ground again after the Bloom chapter. My approach of reading, skimming annotations, re-reading, and supplementing with summary and analysis feels like a good one, if time consuming. But then, no one ever said it would be a quick read.

Sorry for lateness of edited post. Hope this helps/entertains.

THE GOLEM AND THE JINNI by Helene Wecker

February 20th, 2015

I knew I’d be reading Helene Wecker’s The Golem and the Jinni as soon as I read a review, the glowing one in Entertainment Weekly. Golems? Like in Michael Chabon’s The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay? Jinnis? Like in A.S. Byatt’s The Djinn in the Nightingale’s Eye? Religion? Myth? Sign me up.

It took me rather longer to get to this book than I’d thought, but then, loyal readers know my dance card is pretty full with far too many book groups. So when one of them chose this, then, bam, it moved to the front of the queue.

I really don’t want to summarize too much of the book. If it sounds good to you, go read it. It’s full of delights. Not just the aforementioned religion and myth, but history, mystery, romance, tragedy, villains, more. It is peopled with characters and crowded with subplots like a Dickens novel. Like Dickens, it’s dense, and sometimes the momentum lags, but I loved spending time with these characters and watching them all change and grow (or not).

On a cloudless night, inky dark, with only a rind of a moon above, the Golem and the Jinni went walking together along the Prince Street rooftops.

I found it lovely, provoking, and very rich, my esteem for it growing after I was finished with it.

Updated Post: Adam by Ariel Schrag

February 19th, 2015

A few weeks ago I read and posted about Ariel Schrag’s Adam, one of the contenders in this year’s Morning News Tournament of Books. The book made me distinctly uncomfortable. Most of the characters were unlikeable, so it wasn’t necessarily pleasant to spend time with them. Adam is a 17yo horny boy, not especially sensitive or insightful. Unlikeable characters isn’t a deal-breaker for me, in fact it’s normally a pet peeve, because unlikeable characters can make for great books. But Adam, both the book and the character, are almost goad the reader into judgment, by being unkind in ways that are resolutely un-PC. Adam and his sister call each other ‘retards.’ One Jewish character complains about the Hasidic landlord in racist terms. Many of the members of the GLBT community (set in 2006 in the book) are shown as small minded, or mean, or ignorant, or ugly, or smelly. The last straw for me was when Adam, who had been “passing” as trans in order to date a girl who said she didn’t like cis-gendered men, basically gets away with his lie consequence free.

The book bugged me, and as I sometimes do with a book I especially don’t like, I went looking for reviews and interviews with the author, to better understand both the book and my reaction to it. And, as sometimes happened, what I learned changed how I felt about the book. Part of what bugged me about the book was how resolutely un-PC these characters were, which was even more shocking because, aside from Adam, they were GLBT and part of an already-marginalized group.

Turns, out, that was Schrag’s intent. She wanted to show the GLBT community, warts and all, pulling back the curtain on them to show that, hey, they’re just like everybody else: dumb silly jerks some of the time. Not all of the time. Some of people’s criticism of the book centers on the unlikeable, badly behaving characters. Yet there is one character that behaves consistently well throughout, and all the other characters may act badly a lot of the time, but they also behave well sometimes.

After reading the interviews and further consideration, I like Adam the book (not the character) a lot. It was funny, and sometimes brutally honest, and featured a whole cast of GLBT characters and just one straight white guy, and there just aren’t enough books with that kind of diversity out there.

It still nags me that Adam’s story arc was something of a white-male fantasy. Schrag notes in one of the interviews that some readers felt he should have been “punished” for his lie. While it is uncomfortable, I think the discomfort is part of what is unique and interesting about the novel, and once I sat with my weird feelings about the book and examined them, I appreciated the book more in retrospect.

Here, the interviews I read:

http://nymag.com/thecut/2014/07/ariel-schrags-unexpected-summer-love-story.html

http://www.bookslut.com/features/2014_07_020745.php

THE ODYSSEY by Homer, and a picture book, too

February 18th, 2015

odyssey1

I’ve been blogging about The Odyssey for months, but given what a big reading project it was, I feel it deserves its own recap.

Quite simply: everyone should read this book. So much of what we read and enjoy as art, so many of the myths we have internalized so completely we don’t just believe them to be true, we reflex them to be true, (HT Rebecca Goldstein, The Mind-Body Problem), are from this epic. And it is not hard to read. In fact, in Robert Fagle’s translation, and Sir Ian McKellan’s audio version of it (also available on Youtube), it’s not only accessible, but also flat-out enjoyable.

I skipped the intro, read the text, then the after-stuff, then went back to the intro, which sent me from liking to loving the book. I wish I’d used the name-pronunciation guide at the end earlier, as some wrong ones are now ingrained (I don’t think I’ll ever be able to pronouce Nausicaa properly–naw SI cay uh, apparently).

I followed my reading of Fagles’ translation by reading a version aloud to my boys, 9 and 11.

odyssey-kids

The Odyssey (Graphic Classics) retold by Gillian Cross), illustrated by Neil Packer. We read it over several nights, and my own prior reading of the original was invaluable in pointing out things of interest as we went along. Packer’s art is distinct and intriguing, not kiddy-cutesy at all, and was also a point of discussion as we went. Cross did soften the book some (e.g., said they didn’t kill ALL the suitors!) and I wished for more direct lifts of Homer’s own compelling words, but overall we had a great time reading this together.

ULYSSES readalong, books 1 and 2

February 16th, 2015

faulkner-ulysses

Whose idea was this Ulysses readalong? I don’t think it was mine. I think somehow I just got swept up in someone else’s idea, ‘Yeah, let’s read Ulysses, what a great idea!’ and then made a schedule because I was avoiding something else, and told people about it, and got some friends interested, and now here I am, on the first date of the schedule, committed to writing something about Ulysses.

In the words of Anastasia Steele, she of the blockbuster weekend, Holy crap, people.

I started to read. Lo, and behold, what people told me was true: IT’S HARD!

I clutched my head and moaned. What did I sign up for? I’m no English major. I was a business major as an undergrad! Marketing, for heaven’s sake. I’m in no way qualified for this. WHAT WAS I THINKING?

And then several kind people on Twitter assured me, in large friendly letters: DON’T PANIC. Just read. Appreciate the words. Don’t fret about what you don’t know. It will be legion. Don’t get lost in annotations. Joyce meant it to be difficult. But he also meant it to be funny, and naughty, a riff on Homer’s Odyssey, and on Hamlet as well. I just finished The Odyssey, and found it not just accessible, but a thumping good read as well. I know Hamlet. I CAN DO THIS!

I read the first two books, then skimmed the annotations so as not to drown in them, then waited a few days, and read the two books again. The language is beautiful, the allusions plentiful, and the humor bawdy. Here, there is treasure, if I can brave the dragons Joyce planted throughout this deliberately challenging, boundary-pushing work of art.

I’m unsure how best to post about the books as we read them. Summarizing them would be long, and has been done elsewhere. I found the summaries of the books at Schmoop to be decent and readable: Book one: Telemachus and Book Two: Nestor.

Instead I’ll try super-short recaps, and what I noticed and appreciated. Let me know if this works, or or you want more, or less, by chiming in with comments. Comments don’t appear immediately. I have to moderate them so we don’t get slammed with spam.

buck-mulligan from http://ulyssesseen.com/

Book One, Telemachus. Just as The Odyssey starts off with Telemachus rather than Odysseus, Ulysses begins with Stephen Dedalus rather than Leopold Bloom. He’s living in a tower with two men, Malachi “Buck” Mulligan, and Haines (which means ‘hate’ in French). It’s not long before we get the famous ’stream of consciousness’ for which Ulysses is known:

Stephen bent forward and peered at the mirror held out to him, cleft by a crooked crack, hair on end. As he and others see me. Who chose this face for me? This dogsbody to rid of vermin. It asks me too. (p. 6 Vintage 1990)

Book Two: Nestor. Stephen is off to work as a teacher. The headmaster, Mr. Deasy, is an anti-semite and know-it-all who thinks he has the solution to hoof-and-mouth disease. Deasy is unpleasant, yet the last sentence of the book is about him, and poetic and lovely:

On his wise shoulders through the checkerwork of leaves the sun flung spangles, dancing coins. (p. 36 Vintage 1990)

Who is reading along? Introduce yourself in the comments, or tweet along with the hashtag #TCUlysses. TC is for Twin Cities, where this discussion starts but I hope is not limited to.

What did everyone else think?

Schedule:

2/16/15 discuss and tweet sections 1, 2
2/23/15 discuss and tweet sections 3, 4
3/2/15 discuss and tweet sections 5, 6
3/9/15 discuss and tweet section 7
3/16/15 discuss and tweet section 8
3/23/15 discuss and tweet section 9
3/30/15 discuss and tweet section 10
4/6/15 discuss and tweet section 11
4/13/15 discuss and tweet section 12
4/20/15 discuss and tweet section 13
4/27/15 discuss and tweet section 14
(3 week break to read the very long section 15)
5/18/15 read, then discuss and tweet section 15
5/25/15 discuss and tweet section 16
(extra week to read the longer section 17)
6/8/15 read then discuss and tweet section 17
6/15/15 discuss and tweet section 18
6/16/15 Bloomsday!

ULYSSES Resources

February 10th, 2015

We haven’t even begun the discussion of James Joyce’s Ulysses (that starts Monday 2/16), and already there are tons of resources kind people are recommending.

You can follow along on Twitter with the hashtag #TCUlysses (the TC is for Twin Cities)

A general article on How to Read Ulysses:

http://biblioklept.org/2010/06/16/how-to-read-james-joyces-ulysses-and-why-you-should-avoid-how-to-guides-like-this-one/

A key to chapter-less editions of Ulysses:

http://11ysses.wordpress.com/2012/01/29/18-nameless-episodes-of-ulysses-a-new-key/

A user-friendly free annotated edition of Ulysses from Columbia University:

http://www.columbia.edu/~fms5/ulys.htm

The annotations are adapted from Gifford’s Annotated Ulysses (notes only, not the text), which most regard as the standard, with additional notes from Harry Blamires’ New Bloomsday Book

A free audio recording, helpful for pronunciation:

https://archive.org/details/Ulysses-Audiobook

Infinite Ulysses, here, which might be putting together a giant crowd-generated online resource, but I’m not sure I’ve got the details of the project right but in any case, looks really cool:

http://www.infiniteulysses.com/

Other recommended resources:

James Joyce’s Ulysses, a study by Stuart Gilbert

Allusions in Ulysses by Weldon Thornton

Ulysses on the Liffey by Richard Ellmann

Reading Joyce’s Ulysses by Daniel R. Schwartz

The New Bloomsday Book by Blamires

The Chronicle of Leopold and Molly Bloom
Joseph Campbell’s Mythic Worlds, Modern Words

ODYSSSEY Readalong, Books 19-21

February 4th, 2015

legobow

Welcome back to the penultimate entry in the Odyssey readalong. Thanks for joining me!

What did everyone else think? You can comment below, or tweet with the hashtag #TCOdyssey.

The pacing this week again reminded me of that of a soap opera. Since they have to tell a long story, slowly, everything is drawn out and repeated a number of times. This week’s segment took 3 books to show us basically these:

1. Penelope talks to the disguised Odysseus, she’s about to give up.
2. Odysseus schemes with Telemachus on how they’ll take care of those nasty suitors.
3. Odysseus meets said challenge then rips his disguise off to reveal: I’m back!

Book 19: Penelope and her Guest. Penelope asks to talk to the beggar. He talks to her, tells her he saw her husband, then goes on to tell a pack of tremendous lies, since that’s apparently part of the required skill set for a hero.

His old nurse washes his feet, notices his thigh scar, and nearly spills the beans to Penelope. Odysseus, rather harshly IMO, hushes her and swears her to secrecy.

Book 20: Portents Gather: Zeus makes noise with thunder, which foretells the suitors doom. AGAIN. Taunting of the beggar ensues, along with a hurled cow hoof, which Odysseus ducks.

Book 21: Odysseus Strings His Bow. Doesn’t that sound like a naughty euphemism for something else? Telemachus sets up 12 axes for an arrow to go through. The suitors try to handle Odysseus old bow; they’re too weak. They make excuses. Odysseus tells the old nurse to herd all the women upstairs and lock them in and not pay any attention to smash-n-crash noises from downstairs. After much back and forth, plus some more inevitable taunting, Odysseus takes up his bow, Zeus sends another peal of thunder as a sign, then Odysseus shoots an arrow through all 12 axes, then gives a sign to Telemachus and….

Yes, Book 21 ends with an ellipses, and Book 22 is Slaughter in the Hall! Woo hoo! Finally, those weaselly suitors will get what’s been coming to them for the entire book.

I was trying to find the company logo that showed an archer shooting through a bunch of axes. It’s for TSG, and I saw it when we watched X-Men: Days of Future Past last weekend. Which was decent, but that’s about all I can give it. Here’s the link to the logo, which commenters savage for inaccuracy of shooting, the axes, and on and on.

Join us next week for the slaughter, and for the final installment of Homer’s Odyssey. Then gird your loins and grab your bookmarks, because this Odyssey readalong has been but a prelude to the next big read:

ULYSSES.


Previous Posts:

Odyssey readalong schedule link

Week one books 1-3: link

Week two books 4-6: link

Week three books 7-9: link

Week four books 10-12: link

Week five books 13-15: link

Week six books 16-18: link

SILENCE ONCE BEGUN by Jesse Ball

February 4th, 2015

Silence Once Begun by Jesse Ball is another contender in this year’s Morning News Tournament of Books.

It’s a short, sharp hyper-modern, hyper-meta novel. It’s narrated by a character named Jesse Ball, one who has suffered a painful breakup with a woman, and who goes on to become interested (or perhaps obsessed) with an old crime case in Japan, in which an accused man refuses to speak or proclaim his innocence even in the lack of no physical proof of crime.

One has the impression that one can know life, actual life, from its simulacrums by the fact that actual life constantly deceives and reveals, and is consistent in doing so. (4)

Part of why this novel worked for me was my recent listening binge of Sarah Koenig’s exhaustive look into Adnan Syed’s old case on the podcast Serial. (I highly recommend Serial. It’s an engaging story, and pairs extremely well with jigsaw puzzles.) I found spooky reverberations between the fictional case in the book and the actual case of the podcast.

Ball the character starts by interviewing the family of the accused, Oda Sotatsu. This is followed by details from the trial and interviews with the prosecutor and a prison guard. The next section is an interview with a woman who was in some way involved with Sotatsu. The final section is an interview with a man who was involved as well. Throughout I found wonderful sentences and images:

In the front apartment a light was on and people were moving back and forth, their inaccessible lives casting off something like the light that settled on them.

I felt tempted then to believe, as I always do, that the people inside were happy, that they knew things I did not know. (171)

The reader’s picture shifts with each new bit of information as it accumulates and either expands or contradicts what went before. There is more than a little here of Rashomon’s different people telling different tales about the same thing. There is also the chill, distant, weird modernism that I experienced when I read Haruki Murakami’s Wind Up Bird Chronicle, as well as echoes of Kafka. As such, it’s not emotionally engaging. But as a novel that pushes the against a conventional idea of the novel, I found this a fascinating read, one that reminded me of a past Tournament of Books contender, HHhH.

THE WITCH’S BOY by Kelly Barnhill

February 3rd, 2015

The Witch’s Boy by Kelly Barnhill was a selection for one of my ever-expanding book discussion groups, the one for parents and kids. At 372 pages, it was a long read-aloud, one that I didn’t quite finish before the discussion. In order to finish it, my two boys, 11 and almost 9, and I took turns while the others were eating, driving, doing a puzzle, and more, so it became a fun endeavor for the three of us.

The book starts off with sadness, so this is not light fantasy for kids. There is a dead child in the first, very short chapter. But there is also a living one, the witch’s boy of the title, Ned. This is his story, as he struggled to live with the blessing and burden that his mother bestows on him with all good intentions. The story switches among many characters, including Ned’s counterpart, Aine (pronounced ANya), the bandit king’s daughter. There are sentient stones, insubordinate magic, a good queen with bad relatives, a bad king of Duunin (pronounced duhNIN), strange legends about how scary the forest is, and much more. This book is chock full of great characters and images and ideas, and rolls along at a ripping pace through to the end, which we all three found rich and satisfying.

ADAM by Ariel Schrag

February 3rd, 2015

One of the candidates in this year’s Morning News Tournament of Books, Adam by Ariel Schrag has a grabby hook: Awkward teen boy passes as a female-to-male transsexual in order to bed the girl of his dreams. It’s a promising book that got swamped by its problems well before I even got to the end.

Adam, our titular main character, is far too much of an ass, or a seventeen year old boy, take your pick, to be rightly called a hero or protagonist. He strikes out with the girls at home, his so-called friends ignore him, and he decides to spend this summer with his sister a lesbian who isn’t out to their parents. Once in NYC, he lets himself be sucked into the orbit of his sister’s LBGT community and gets a crash course in how complicated biology, desire, sexual and gender identity are. While the book often feels info-dump-y, there aren’t many books out there featuring the trans members of the LBGT community, so I was hopeful for this one to explore rarely ventured-into territory.

Please forgive me if I get a little crude in language–the book is graphic, so talking about it kind of needs to be too. For a book about the rainbow of sexuality, everyone in it is hyper obsessed with dicks; this book is weirdly phallo-centric. For all its appearance of pushing boundaries, it seems to reinforce them, instead.

A willingness to tell a story about a marginalized and misunderstood group goes wrong when the main character, a cis-gendered white male, lies in order to get a lesbian girl, especially a girl who is so thinly characterized as to be little more than a sex object for him. And he gets away with the lie again and again! Then, to add insult to injury, the story goes to a really disturbing place: the white-male hope that all a lesbian needs is a hot throbbing dick in order to come around to the “right” team.

I feel like this is an important book to add to our awareness of the myriad ways people are different from one another. Yet the book seems to double back on its promise and become a white male’s fantasy. The world doesn’t need more of those.

Edited to add: I did some further reading and thinking on Adam, and came to some different conclusions, which I wrote about here, so don’t just read THIS post, but both.

MILO: STICKY NOTES AND BRAIN FREEZE by Alan Silberberg

February 3rd, 2015

My 11yo son got Milo: Sticky Notes and Brain Freeze from his school library. After he finished, he said I should read it, too, so I did. Alas, I don’t think I liked it as much as he did.

13yo Milo is starting a new school yet again. At first he seems like a normal kid, but we slowly learn his mom died a few years ago of cancer and the ghost of her lingers, while the dad tries to deny it by getting rid of her stuff and moving around. The text is interspersed with cartoons of Milo and his feelings.

Milo’s development is sweet, the illustrations charming, and the unfolding of his memory of his Mom touching. What didn’t work for me was Milo’s voice, which sounded more like eleven than thirteen to me, and the stereotypical mean/pretty girl Milo has a crush on. Also, the subtitle was odd, given a lack of sticky notes in the book. Yes, there are notes left on his locker but they did not feel connected to Milo’s story (the brain freeze from regular slushies was less of a reach). Like the humor in the book, the subtitle didn’t quite work for me.

This said, both my 11yo and my soon-to-be-9 year old sons really enjoyed it, and there was lots to like.

ZEALOT by Reza Aslan

February 2nd, 2015

Reza Aslan’s book Zealot was already selling very well before he went on Fox News and went talking head to talking head with their “religion correspondent” who clearly hadn’t read the book, and had one question that she repeated with only minor iterations for about ten minutes: who gave you, a Muslim, the authority to write a book on Jesus?

Aslan’s responses to her singular question all hit their mark: he’s a scholar with multiple degrees, one needn’t be a practicing anything to write about anything else (e.g., men write about women, and Christians write about everyone else), he’s always been interested in the politics of the time, and more.

I finally got around to reading the book on my own. Aslan is currently a professor of writing, and the book is a well constructed page turner, with end notes for each chapter. He makes the less scholarly but more readable choice of not numbering his notes, but rather bunching them up at the end. The book is divided into three parts. The first is about Jesus as one of many claimants to the messiah mantle. The second is how that would have been treasonous in and of itself:

If one knew nothing else about Jesus of Nazareth save that he was crucified by Rome, one would know practically all that was needed to uncover who he was, what he was, and why he ended up nailed to a cross. His offense, in the eyes of Rome, is self-evident. It was etched upon a plaque and placed above his head for all to see: Jesus of Nazareth: King of the Jews. His crime was daring to assume kingly ambitions. (155-156)

These first two sections are the strongest, though Aslan is perhaps too ready to discard Jesus’ potential teachings of peace. After reading many reviews by many authors, there is a consensus among Biblical scholars that in the third section, Aslan oversimplified the post-crucifixion landscape into a polarized duality of Paul’s evolving religion vs. James and the Jews. While it makes for an alluring narrative, most scholars agree that it was far more complicated than that.

This book is an accessible, enjoyable foray into Biblical history. It excels when it shows, in accumulating layers, what parts of the stories we know so well are more or less likely to be true, and why. For example, the sign over his head, when I questioned myself why I believed it to be a joke and not a serious allegation of the authorities, it was due to, please forgive me, that movie they showed every year at Easter time in the 70’s when I was growing up. For any faults this book might have, what it does best is shine a light on my beliefs making me question many of the things I’d taken to be true. It’s a good starting point if you want to know more, but shouldn’t be taken, pardon the pun, as gospel.

THE EMPEROR OF ALL MALADIES by Siddhartha Mukherjee

February 2nd, 2015

A choice for my women’s book group, Siddhartha Mukherjee’s Emperor of All Maladies, a “biography” of cancer, had been on my TBR list since it was published in 2010. It was on most of the best-nonfiction lists at the end of the year. Better late than never, I suppose.

I see why this received so much acclaim. It’s huge, meticulously researched, and endnoted. it’s an exhaustive history of the disease, from ancient times through the present, and of the rocky road of treatments.

My main takeaways were that doing a book on “cancer” was perhaps too big of an undertaking for anyone, as the author makes it clear that there are SO MANY different types of cancer, and so many differing treatments, that speaking of one monolithic thing is savagely reductive. Some cancers are very treatable, others still elude solutions other than palliating the patient’s decline. I liked his paraphrase of Tolstoy’s famous line:

Normal cells are identically normal; malignant cells become unhappily malignant in unique ways. (452)

The problem with an exhaustive book, though, it that it’s also exhausting. While Mukherjee is a skilled writer, and his book often reads like a crime thriller with cancer as the villain, the sheer length and number of statistics became wearing over its 500+ pages. Also, he would also skip back in time, and not be crystal clear on the time shift, which I found confusing. A few times I tried to listen to it in an audio version while working on a jigsaw puzzle, but this didn’t work. The statistic-heavy text did not translate well as an audio experience.

I learned a lot from this book, enjoyed reading it, and was intrigued, but a narrowing of the scope and more clear timelines would have improved the reading experience for me.

Get ready for the ULYSSES readalong!

January 29th, 2015

ulysses2

The Ulysses group readalong is happening! Read and tweet from February to Bloomsday (June 16) 2015, and I’ll blog about it here. We’ll tweet with the hashtag #TCUlysses

Twin Cities readers can celebrate when we’re done with a meetup at Anchor Fish and Chips. (I wouldn’t be opposed to weekly meetings there, either, though my cholesterol might.)

2/9/15 Start Ulysses which has 18 parts of various lengths

2/16/15 discuss and tweet sections 1, 2= 32 pp
2/23/15 discuss and tweet sections 3, 4=29 pp
3/2/15 discuss and tweet sections 5, 6=40 pp
3/9/15 discuss and tweet section 7=29pp
3/16/15 discuss and tweet section 8=28pp
3/23/15 discuss and tweet section 9=30pp
3/30/15 section 10=31 pp
4/6/15 section 11=31pp
4/13/15 section 12=45pp
4/20/15 section 13=31pp
4/27/15 section 14=37pp

5/4-5/18/15 read, then discuss and tweet section 15 (150 pages in my ed.)

5/25/15 discuss and tweet section 16=44pp

6/1-6/8/15 read then discuss and tweet section 17 (65 pp in my edition)

6/15/15 discuss and tweet section 18=37pp

6/16/15 Bloomsday!

Group meetup and celebration to follow at the Anchor Fish & Chips in NE Minneapolis.

I’ve never even attempted this behemoth–too intimidating. But I’m ready to give it a go, and looking forward to the support of a group while reading. Let me know if you have questions. I hope you’ll join us.