ULYSSES Readalong Book 9: Scylla and Charybdis

March 23rd, 2015

scylla

EDITED TO ADD: this was not a fine moment for me as a reader, or as a moderator. I resorted to one of the least mature reading criticisms of them all, one that I typically deplore: (whiny voice) *it was HARD. I didn’t LIKE it.*

Welcome to Ulysses, b1tch. Why do I think I’m doing this? For enjoyment? No, for pleasure, which is that complicated mix of enjoyment and almost pain when I am pushed to my limits and made to WORK, to think, to LEARN.

Also, because I told a lot of other people I would and it would be lame to quit.

I apologize for being so flip in the post below. BUT I’m going to leave it up, because it is a valid, if not valuable and if childish, response.

After going through the notes, and reading an online analysis, and re-reading, I was actually delighted by all the Hamlet talk, by Stephen’s comparison of Penelope and Ann Hathaway and by extension Will and Odysseus, and his theory that Shakespeare identified with the ghost because Ann had an affair with one of his brothers, both of whose names were villains in his plays. I also appreciated the contrast between the “don’t consider the context” school of criticism versus the “reading way too much biographical material into a work of art” rock and hard places.

And, in a clever turn of the “Titular Line” concept, Joyce calls out to his chapter Scylla and Charybdis:

Between the Saxon smile and yankee yawp. The devil and the deep sea.

END OF EDITED ADDITION

***

Soundtrack to today’s chapter: “Wrapped Around Your Finger” by the Police, since it names Scylla and Charybdis.

Comment here or on Twitter with the hashtag #TCUlysses

I feel like a bad moderator, but I did not enjoy this week’s reading. I felt good about last week’s book 8, felt like I understood it and enjoyed the time in Bloom’s head. This week, though, we’re back in Stephen Dedalus’ head, and I don’t like it there.

Stephen’s something of a self-satisfied intellectual ass, and he and the others spent the book discussing Shakespeare and Aristotle and Plato and the intellectual wanking exhausted me. I wanted to run into the room, kick them all in the shins and run out again in a childish bid to bring them back to earth.

I read book 9, then read SO MANY PAGES of Gifford’s notes on the book 9, then read the summary and analysis at Schmoop.com, and I’m not sure I have much more to offer you than:

Stephen and some of his friends sit around and pontificate on theories about Shakespeare.

I’m a Shakespeare geek. I love Shakespeare and enjoy nerdish discussions about who wrote the plays, and who was the model for which character. I did not enjoy them here, though. Stephen and the others lack a humor, lack the earthy realism of Shakespeare (and Bloom) that allows me to connect to the plays, their author, and dicussions about them.

What I believe we’re supposed to take away is that both intellectualism and earthy realism are important, that art can (and should?) be based from life, and that Stephen is trying to figure out how to make art based on life. (Hint: get out of your head.)

What did everyone else think?

Join us next week on 3/30/15 for Book 10: The Wandering Rocks. The schedule for the rest:

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 weeks to read the very long section 15 which we’ll spit into three chunks)
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!

For reference, here are the past posts:

Ulysses readalong week 1, books 1 and 2
Ulysses readalong week 2, books 3 and 4
Ulysses readalong week 3, books 5 and 6
Ulysses readalong week 4: book 7
Ulysses readalong week 5: book 8

EVERYTHING I NEVER TOLD YOU by Celeste Ng

March 21st, 2015

I read Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng just before its match in The Morning News Tournament of Books. I’d read great things about it, and was looking forward to it. It opens with the arresting sentence:

Lydia is dead. But they don’t know this yet.

which put me immediately in mind of another famous first novel about a dead girl, The Lovely Bones. Like that book, this one is about how the family deals with the aftermath, and what they do and don’t know. As you can tell from the title, it’s about what isn’t said, and it was frustrating as this conflict escalated because of the number of times a characters almost said something, or thought about hugging someone and didn’t. That wasn’t what made me want to put the book down, though. It was the author’s decision to use an omniscient narrator, and how too often, that narrator intruded. Here, the father has just read the autopsy report. He’s a historian, so he isn’t the one who flowers up the prose, that’s the narrator, who distracted me here:

He learns the color and size of each of her organs, the weight of her brain. That a white foam had bubbled up through her trachea and covered her nostrils and mouth like a lace handkerchief. That her alveoli held a thin layer of silt as fine as sugar. (p. 69)

What I appreciated about the book, though, kept me going and I’m glad I did. I liked this insight into racially mixed family in the 70’s and the silent and not-so racism they endured on a regular basis. I also appreciated the dilemma of the mother, trapped by ongoing pregnancies in a pre-pill era into abandoning her plans to be a doctor.

And in the end, when the family does start talking and hugging, it was all the more satisfying for all the lack that went before.

BLESSED ARE THOSE WHO WEEP by Kristi Belcamino

March 19th, 2015

weep

Up front disclosure: Kristi is a friend so I would say lovely things about Blessed Are Those Who Weep no matter what. Fortunately, she creates engaging characters and is a spinner of ripping plots, so it is easy to say good things about the book.

I received a free advance review e-copy, but I think it evaporates in 30 days, which is fine because by then I’ll have my own copy that I pre-ordered from BN.com for my Nook reader. You can also pre-order it at Amazon for your Kindle or other reader. It will be available on April 7, 2015.

Blessed Are Those Who Weep: A Gabriella Giovanni Mystery is the third in the series, after Blessed Are the Dead, and Blessed Are The Meek. This book can stand alone, but I do recommend going back to read the first two in order to better get to know the characters, because they’re one of the many joys of this ongoing series. This book is set in 2003, several months after the previous one.

Gabriella is a crime reporter for a San Francisco newspaper, and has a hot Irish cop boyfriend named Sean Donovan. The two of them are having a rough patch, though, after some recent trouble I won’t divulge. We don’t get into that, though, until after the riveting opening scene, which I could describe but will quote instead because I think it’s terrific. When I heard Kristi read this aloud recently, the noisy bar became pin-drop quiet, and throughout there were gasps of horror.

At first I think she is a doll. Sitting there so still on the floor in her pink dress, chubby legs sticking out from her diaper, big black eyes unblinking, staring at something I can’t see. A ribbon hangs loose in her hair. Something that looks like chocolate is smeared around her mouth and one cheek.

The front door is only open wide enough to frame her small body in the dim light. I can’t see the rest of the room.

“Mrs. Martin?” The words echo in the silent apartment. At my voice, the baby turns her head toward me in what seems like slow motion. Even though the apartment door was ajar when I arrived, something stops me from pushing it open more. My hand hangs in the air, frozen. The rhythmic drip of a faucet is eerily loud. And something smells funny. Off. A smell I recognize but cannot place. A smell that increases my unease.

“Are you in there Mrs. Martin? It’s Gabriella Giovanni from the Bay Herald. We spoke yesterday.”

Silence.

As if my voice has flicked a switch, the child moves and talks, babbling. “Mamamama, Maaamamama.” She picks something up. Something floppy and pale and long. Something with short red fingernails. An arm.

A wave of panic rises in me as I figure out what I smell. (p. 1-2)

That baby, crawling among the dead bodies of her family, becomes a lifeline for Gabriella, who was already having a tough time emotionally before she stumbled on that crime scene. The baby’s father is in the army and deployed abroad. As Gabriella works to piece together what happened, she begins to suspect the father isn’t as far away as he seems. Those around her think she’s crazy, and given what she’s gone and going through, she might be. It’s an uphill fight for her to keep searching for answers to keep that baby safe, and one that builds until the very end. She goes up the chain of command in the military, into a sex club, a dojo, and by the end of the book has figured out how these all intersect.

One of the pleasures of this book and the ones that precede it, is that Gabriella is both endearingly and sometimes frustratingly real. This is no picture-perfect top model cruising around in her convertible, solving mysteries without breaking a nail. Gabriella, or Ella to her loved ones, stumbles in her heels, wears the wrong outfit to a crime scene, and (usually) eats baguettes and pastries with gusto. She has a day job and has to work for a living. Here, she’s also depressed and making bad personal decisions, the kind that make me want to give her a shake and yell, “Snap out of it!” She’s being passive-aggressive with her boyfriend, ducking calls from her mom, and cancelling her therapy appointments. Gabriella is realistically flawed and human, and I truly enjoy spending time with her, even when she’s in a sorry state, as she is for much of the book. As with all the books, we get to see Gabriella’s Catholic faith and symbols throughout, and spend time and eat vicariously at the bountiful table of her Italian grandmother.

I enjoyed the story as well as the characters, and tore through this book in under 24 hours. It has a tremendous need-to-know-what-happens factor, both for the baby and for Gabriella. I’m very much looking forward to the next book in the series, and to seeing what Gabriella is up to in the future.

You can pre-order the book at Amazon here
At Barnes & Noble here
And find it on Goodreads here

You can find Kristi on her website, Facebook, or Twitter.

ULYSSES readalong week 5: book 8

March 16th, 2015

laestrygonians

Welcome back to the Ulysses readalong! You’re still here, right, reading along? Because that’s why I’m here, because I told a bunch of people I was going to do this and blog about it, and even though it’s really hard and sometimes boring, I know it’s really good for me, and I’d feel lame if I quit.

You can comment here, or on Twitter with the hashtag #TCUlysses.

So, here we are, book 8, subtitled in Joyce’s notes as The Laestrygonians, which is a really fun name to say. For those of you who read The Odyssey with me (and aren’t you glad you did? Me too.), the Laestrygonians were the giant cannibals that Odysseus and his men encountered. Appetite is echoed throughout this chapter in the theme of hunger, but was particularly explicit when Bloom goes in the first diner, The Burton, and is repulsed by all the eating.

Before that was one of my favorite passages, though:

A warm human plumpness settled down on his brain. His brain yielded. Perfume of embraces all him assailed. With hungered flesh obscurely, he mutely craved to adore. (168)

*whew* *fans self*

This section is mostly Bloom’s stream of consciousness, wandering around hungry, but then switches to the conversation of others as he leaves the pub towards the end. In this chapter we see again that Bloom has an enormous capacity for empathy. Given how earthy and randy his thoughts are, I was shocked and saddened to learn that he and Molly haven’t had sex since poor little Rudy died ten years ago.

Finally, I liked this insight about the chapter from the site Schmoop:

As Bloom wanders around town, his thoughts are constantly linked to his surroundings. Different storefronts in Dublin make his mind race from one thing to the next. When we read the scene where Bloom leads the blind stripling (young man) across the street by his elbow, we might think of this as what Joyce is doing for us. After all, most of us are not in Dublin. We can’t see what the words are referring to and have only the language to guide us: we’re blind. And Joyce, as he leads us on this grand tour of Dublin, is a great deal like Bloom, gently leading us – the blind stripling – through a city that we cannot see.

What did everyone else think?

Join us next week for Book 9: Scylla and Charybdis, the proverbial rock and a hard place. The schedule for the rest:

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 weeks to read the very long section 15 which we’ll spit into three chunks)
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!

For reference, here are the past posts:

Ulysses readalong week 1, books 1 and 2
Ulysses readalong week 2, books 3 and 4
Ulysses readalong week 3, books 5 and 6
Ulysses readalong week 4: book 7

REDEPLOYMENT by Phil Klay

March 14th, 2015

Redeployment by Phil Klay was last year’s National Book Award winner, and a contender in a match next week at The Morning News Tournament of Books–it goes up against Silence Once Begun on 3/17/15, and since I am apparently the only person who liked that book, I expect Redeployment to take the match handily.

I picked up Redepoyment after I stopped in the middle of All the Light We Cannot See. After I read several disappointing books in a row, especially ones that are gushed over elsewhere, I often doubt my book compass and if I will ever love again. I immediately engaged with Redeployment and its writing, so it was good to be back in a loving mood again. The emotion, dark humor, punch-y prose and immediacy of it all were such welcome contrasts to what didn’t work for me with All the Light We Cannot See that I felt like hugging Redeployment, which is odd since it’s hardly a warm, fuzzy book.

We shot dogs. Not by accident. We did it on purpose, and we called it Operation Scooby. I’m a dog person, so I thought about that a lot.

Instead, it’s a series of stories told by various narrators in Iraq. Some are stateside, some are in Iraq, some are soldiers, many are not. The multiplicity of views of war were one of my favorite things about the book.

For me, though, the momentum ran out at about 2/3 through the book during one of the longest stories, “Psychological Operations.” I can’t tell if it’s a criticism of the book, or simply my reading experience but by this point, the drama and immediacy of war had worn off, and I just wanted it to be over, yet I was in the midst of a long story, with 3 more shortish ones to go. At 288 pages, this is not a long book, but by the end it felt like it. I feel like an immature reader, one who whines that “it was too long.” Perhaps that’s one of the powers of the book, that it immerses you so much in the cloud of war that I was nauseated and exhausted and crabby by the end, which was the tip of the negative iceberg for most characters in the book.

DEPT. OF SPECULATION by Jenny Offill

March 13th, 2015

I read Jenny Offill’s slim, experimental novel Dept. of Speculation in one fell swoop. Immediately upon finishing, I read it again, and admired and enjoyed it even more.

The novel is written (mostly) from the perspective of a woman who is sometimes “I”, “she,” or “the wife” depending on how difficult or painful the memory is. It’s written in tiny bite-size morsels, so many of which are perfectly condensed gems of truth that my fingers twitched to underline them. I could probably simply underline the whole book.

I borrowed it from the library, though, so I restrained myself. But when (not if) I get my own copy of this book, I can’t guarantee I won’t, even though my husband G. Grod despises marking up books. But I am so unabashedly in love with some of the sentences in this book that I want to highlight them, quote them, put them up on a pedestal. This is the book I keep mentioning to people, made my husband read before I returned it, keep quoting from, like this:

But now it seems possible that the truth about getting older is that there are fewer and fewer things to make fun of until finally there is nothing you are sure you will never be.

I read this one aloud to my husband:

Also she signed away the right to self-destruct years ago. The fine print on the birth certificate, her friends call it.

And this one too:

Advice for wives circa 1896: The indiscriminate reading of novels is one of the most injurious habits to which a married woman can be subject. Besides the false views of human nature it will impart … it produces an indifference to the performance of domestic duties, and contempt for ordinary realities.

I could go on, but then I’d be quoting the whole book, and you should just go out and read it. Caution, though. It is weird. This is not a conventional book or easy read though you can finish in under two hours. The little bits, though, add up to a beautiful, if sometimes painful and sad, whole. I highly recommend it.

(So imagine my disappointment when Victor LaValle, an author I admire, and whose Big Machine is one of my all-time favorite Tournament of Books discoveries, picked another book over Dept. of Speculation in today’s match. Noooooo! All these books I didn’t care for win, and then the first book that comes up that I love goes down? So sad.)

ALL THE LIGHT WE CANNOT SEE by Anthony Doerr

March 13th, 2015

Another top-ranked contender in this year’s Morning News Tournament of Books, Anthony Doerr’s All the Light We Cannot See seemed like a sure thing for me to like. It made most of last year’s Best-Of lists, was a National Book Award finalist as well as one of the New York Times 10 Best Books. It was historical fiction set in WWII, like one of my favorite books in recent years, the similarly lauded Life after Life by Kate Atkinson.

And yet. And yet. Not only did I not connect with this book, as I read more of it, I became increasingly annoyed and exasperated. It is told mostly from the alternating perspectives of Marie-Laure, a blind girl who leaves war-town Paris for the walled city of Saint-Malo, where her uncle lives, and Werner, a scrawny but brilliant German orphan whose savant-like facility with radios earns him a spot in a Nazi Youth prep school where he witnesses terrible brutality. Because, Nazis.

Scattered among the Marie and Werner chapters are some from other perspectives, including from the big bad Nazi guy who becomes obsessed with tracking down a legendary, allegedly curses diamond that Marie’s father (a museum security/lock expert) had been entrusted with.

The segments are short, so it was not a difficult book to read. Hindering me, though, we some sentences that completely threw me out of the narrative. Most critics and readers praise Doerr’s lovely prose, but sometimes for me I stumbled over what felt like “darlings”: overly crafted sentences that drew my attention to the sentence, and away from the story. For instance, after a bombing, blind Marie Laure has to make her way downstairs to the kitchen by herself:

A cookbook lies facedown in her path like a shotgunned bird. (101)

The simile felt clumsy–I had to think about it, and decided I didn’t care for it, then wondered why such a visual simile was in this section about the blind girl who couldn’t even see the book anyway, much less that it looked like a shotgunned bird. And, now that I’m thinking about it, no it didn’t, because the book would have been intact, where a shotgunned bird (as opposed to a wounded, dead, or stunned bird) would have been torn apart.

I maintain that I hate that simile even more, now.

Another:

Through three arched windows, dawn sends a sheaf of hallowed golden rays. (138)

Why hallowed? The adjective stopped me in my forward progress, wondering why it was there. I found no reason, other than it might sound pretty.

As I trudged on, I was struck by what I saw as the books complete lack of humor. The characters did love one another but they never joked, they never made humorous observations. Everyone was a serious character: the blind girl, the orphaned boy genius recruited into Nazi Youth even though he’s not evil, the evil Nazi obsessed with some object who IS evil. I didn’t connect with these characters, or find them compelling. They bored me, even as I surmised what the outcome would be for each of them.

I wondered whether to continue. As with The Paying Guests, I was not enjoying it. But did I want to finish it anyway, to see if it got better, or so I would have my own full-formed opinion of why I didn’t like it, when so many others have?

Reader, I put it down. Skipped ahead to the ending, which proved out the suspicions I’d had prior to the halfway mark–who lives, who dies, who succeeds, who fails, and what happens to the diamond.

At the Tournament of Books, All the Light We Cannot See won its first match, and is up against the similarly underwheming-to-me Paying Guests, and whichever wins will go up against David Mitchell’s Bone Clocks (which I didn’t love either.) or Marlon James’ A Brief History of Seven Killings. I’m tentatively rooting for the latter, because I haven’t yet read it, I already bought it, and it’s by a non-white author who happens to live in my city. He recently wrote about how he got to Minneapolis from Jamaica for The New York Times.

THE PAYING GUESTS by Sarah Waters

March 11th, 2015

Finally, I get to read Sarah Waters, I thought to myself when her latest, The Paying Guests, made the Morning News Tournament of Books shortlist this year, plus I had it in my library request list early enough that I could get it before the Tourney began. When I went away to a writing retreat last weekend, it was the only physical book I took with me.

Alas, I never connected with it. The novel is set in post WWI London, and about a daughter and mother whose genteel poverty forces them to take in merchant-class “paying guests” (not, gasp, lodgers) to their stately house in order to pay the bills. There is crossed loved, and forbidden romance, secrets and lies. Crime, and punishment. Yet somehow, the book never connected with me, never made me NEED to read it. I could easily have put it down, and didn’t because it was the only book I’d brought and I wanted to form my own opinion before it came up in the tourney, which is tomorrow.

The meticulous research, and even the carefully drawn characters and setting are all skilfully done. Yet I always felt a bit bored, and never cared as much as I wanted to about the characters, even when I thought I should. I do still hope to read her other books, which I’m assured by other readers are more fabulous than this one was.

Taking Real Breaks from Writing

March 10th, 2015

Another nugget that stayed with me from my writing workshop and retreat with Dani Shapiro at Kripalu last weekend was about the danger of taking fake breaks.

Shapiro recalled how earlier in her life, when she’d get hit a writing wall, she would stop writing and take a cigarette break, during which her mind would wander, and after which she’d go back to the page. She noted how one of her old teachers used to say she did some of her best writing in the bathtub, and how it took her a long time to realize she didn’t mean it literally, but in the sense of being away from the page or the ‘puter and letting the mind wander where it will.

The danger in our hyperconnected lives is that we no longer take real breaks. If we step away from the writing, it’s to check email, or Facebook, or Twitter, or something similar. We’re not taking a break and resting. We’re just doing something else.

As I wrote about in the post on a pre-writing meditation, the “trick” to focusing on writing is to write. Sit with the page, not hare off after this pretty shiny blinking beeping light or that one.

As Shapiro noted, often we are at our most distractible when we are on the verge of getting at some juicy, challenging bit of truth. If we don’t give ourselves the out, if we can practice being attentive, and leaving those other activities for other times, we are much more likely to write, and perhaps to write less suckily.

In the wake of the retreat, I’ve taken several apps off my phone, and have thus reduced my distractions a bit. I still am emailing on my phone, as well as getting on this or that other site online. Instead of those, today, I took breaks by doing laundry, which is a straightforward enough task that it allowed my mind to wander for a bit.

I have a lot of bad habits to break, and a lot of good ones to practice, slowly. Thinking of them as fake breaks, though, makes them easier to avoid. Or want to avoid. Progress, not perfection, right?

A Short Meditation Exercise for Writing

March 10th, 2015

Well, this morning I already messed up one of the things I “learned” at the writing retreat led by Dani Shapiro I attended last weekend at Kripalu.

The class was on meditation and writing, and was a good mix of both. One of the best meditations of the weekend I took away was one Shapiro said she’d gotten from cartoonist author Lynda Barry. Get a paper and pen. Set a timer for two minutes (Shapiro recommended and I agree that the Insight Timer app is great). Make a dot in the middle of the paper, then draw the tightest spiral you can around it, always trying to make it as close as possible to the earlier lines without touching, because it’s like the game Operation, you’ll get electrocuted. (side note, current versions of the game play laughter when you touch the sides, not a nasty buzz. I think I prefer the buzz rather than the mocking.)

When the timer goes off, set it for 5 minutes. Turn to a new piece of paper (Shapiro recommends keeping a journal to do this exercise every day, and doing facing pages for it). Make a four section grid. Label the sections: Did, Saw, Heard, and Doodle.

Think of seven things you did, saw or heard within some set of time (24 hours or the morning or whatever) and fill in those with words. Then, when you have seven of each, start to doodle in the final square. Stop when done, and go right to writing.

That last bit is the important part. GO RIGHT TO WRITING.

Do not check email, Facebook, twitter, etc. Do not make coffee, go to the bathroom. START TO WRITE.

That’s the part I didn’t manage this morning. But when I realized it, I came right here and started to write. (To my credit, my ego insists that I add that I did: have a proper brekkie, gets boys on bus, do yoga, chant, and meditate before doing the spiral/quadrant exercise.)

There are so many things I let distract me from writing. Email and twitter and facebook are seductive because they SEEM like writing. But they’re empty calories. Fine in moderation, but not good to snack on continually. I’ve taken Twitter and Facebook off my phone, so that’s a start.

ULYSSES readalong week 4: Book 7 Aeolus

March 9th, 2015

freeman

Welcome back to the Ulysses readalong! Just one long book this week rather than two short ones, and I enjoyed having only one style to manage, though this week’s style was a head turner. Remember, you can comment here or on Twitter with the hashtag #TCUlysses.

Book 7 is called Aeolus, a reference to the king in The Odyssey who gives Odysseus a bag of wind that gets him within spitting sight of Ithaca, at which point he takes one of a couple inconvenient naps. His men speculate on what’s in the bag, decide it’s treasure, and it blows them backwards to Aeolus’ place, who will no longer help them because they’re obviously cursed (or, stupid. Take your pick.)

In Ulysses, the bag(s) of wind are in the newspaper room, and can refer either to the shifting winds of news, or to the back and forth of the men who work there. This is a visually arresting chapter, interspersed with headlines taken from the men’s discussion rather than Bloom’s imagination. The book begins and ends with Nelson’s monument.

Bloomian aside: I may get myself a little bar of lemon soap and keep it in my purse to be periodically surprised by how lovely it smells.

Stephen, with new boots (the ones from Mulligan at the bottom of his pants?) comes into the office where he’s doted upon and puts forth Deasy’s foot and mouth letter, which the paper will publish. Not so the Keyes ad that Bloom is trying to get in. Once again, we see Bloom on the edge of a group, the excluded observer.

I was delighted many times by the words this week. A few of my favorites (pages from Vintage edition):

McHugh murmured softly, biscuitfully to the dusty windowpane. (123)

Hush, Lenehan said. I hear feetstoops. (128)

The loose flesh of his neck shook like a cock’s wattles. An illstarched dicky jutted up and with a rude gesture he thrust it back into his waistcoat. (136-7)

His mouth continued to twitch unspeaking in nervous curls of disdain. (138)

I have often thought since on looking back over that strange time that it was that small act, trivial in itself, that striking of that match, that determined the whole aftercourse of both our lives. (140)

The former is from Stephen’s inner monologue, not Bloom’s and is overdramatic in the style of Dickens and others (and not true).

Stephen, his blood wooed by grace of language and gesture, blushed. (140)

The book finishes with a long anecdote, “the parable of the plums” about two virgins climbing Nelson’s monument, eating plums and throwing down the pits. This, like much of the book, seems to be about how much English occupation of Ireland sucks. Stephen refers to Nelson as “the onehandled adulterer” which amuses the others.

I don’t quite get how people would climb this. Inside, like Statue of Liberty? Or, it’s a parable and didn’t really happen and important because it’s an English statue in the middle of Dublin, which would so upset people that the IRA would later blow it up?

97i/21/irnd/7088/36

Gifford’s Ulysses Annotated says that the epithet is because Lord Nelson lost an arm in an unsuccessful battle and later had an affair.

My favorite note from Gifford this week was on Antisthenes, from the amusingly titled section “SOPHIST WALLOPS HAUGHTY HELEN SQUARE ON PROBOSCIS. SPARTANS GNASH MOLARS. ITHACANS VOW PEN IS CHAMP.”

McHugh comments that Stephen reminds him of Antisthenes, who

wrote a book in which he took away the palm of beauty from Argive Helen and handed it to poor Penelope. (148-149)

According to Gifford, Antisthenes apparently argued (the work has been lost) that

Penelope’s virtue made her more beauitiful than Helen , whose virtue was somewhat less solidly demonstrated.

Snerk.

And that’s all I have for book 7. Sorry for the delay in posting. Had a little detour this morning to Urgent Care after 11yo Drake slipped and fell on ice that looked like a puddle, and earned the dubious distinction of the first broken bone in the family. He is doing well now, though, and insists that it sounds worse than it is. He hasn’t tried to sleep or remove his shirt, though. We’ll see how tonight goes.

Reminder: we meet back here, same bat time, same bat channel, on Monday 3/16/15 to discuss Book 8 Laestrygonians. For all you who didn’t read The Odyssey, the Laestrygonians are the giant cannibals, so it will probably not be boring, and starts off with these delicious words:

Pineapple rock, lemon platt, butter scotch. (151)

The schedule for the rest (never too late to join–we’re only at page 150!)

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 weeks to read the very long section 15 which we’ll spit into three chunks)
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!

For reference, here are the past posts:

Ulysses readalong week 1, books 1 and 2
Ulysses readalong week 2, books 3 and 4
Ulysses readalong week 3, books 5 and 6

Imperfect Notebooks

March 6th, 2015

I began to write about the writing and meditation workshop/retreat I took at Kripalu Center last weekend, and realized I might have to edit it into bite-sized chunks. Such an unpleasant word, chunks, no?

I’ll start with the problem I made with which notebook to take with me on the retreat.

My husband asked what notebook I”m going to take because there was a really cool German Leuchtterm one that Warren Ellis tweeted about, here.

leuchtterm

Some commenters said it wasn’t good for fountain pens, which I use, because they bleed through the paper of the Leuchtterm. Those commenters instead liked the Rodia large webnotebook at Levenger, here

rodia

Ooh, orange, I thought. I love orange. I spent quite a lot of time shopping for journals, time I might otherwise have been reading, writing or keeping house. Eventually, I selflessly decided not to spend $35 or anything at all and I’d just take a regular pad of paper or the current journal I’m writing in and don’t love but it still has space.

Aren’t I a writing-retreat martyr, and selfless and frugal to boot?

Snerk.

But then I had a writing date at Barnes & Noble and thought I’d just take a quick peek at the journals and see if that had the one I’d passed on a couple times with the leather cover and labyrinth pattern. They didn’t, but while I “just peeked” I saw a super pretty one with green plaid.

I LOVE PLAID! I thought. IS THIS A SIGN?

Then, I saw the cherry blossom one, and I had to grab a stool to reach up and get it and oh, my, it was lovely with a leather cover made in Italy, and cherry blossoms which I love EVEN MORE THAN PLAID and that MUST certainly be a sign, right?

cherry_blossoms

I showed my friends, who said to buy it, and emailed my husband asking if he thought it was OK if I buy it for my birthday and he said:

“If you must.”

which of course means no, but I was going to do it anyway and my friends said, do it! You’re going on a retreat! Plus, I felt he was just being snarky because he wanted me to buy that one that Warren Ellis recommended.

On the way out of the store, something unexpected happened. I put the cherry blossoms back on the self, said goodbye and maybe someday but not that day, and walked out.

Once again I felt very proud and selfless and frugal. When I got home, my husband was not nearly impressed enough by my self sacrifice. He never is.

The next day I spelunked in the house and my office for what paper/notebooks I already had that would work beyond the one I’d already thought of. You know, just in case I had another.

I found eight. EIGHT. One unopened one would have been perfect, but instead I took another I was midway through, and didn’t take my fancy fountain pen, and just a cheap Field Notes ball point, and guess what?

IT WORKED OUT GREAT.

You totally guessed that, didn’t you? So did the retreat. But more on that later.

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.

Edited later to add:

After re-reading, I was struck particularly by the number of allusions to flowers in ‘The Lotus Eaters’. The first time I read the chapter I thought Bloom was having an affair of the flesh, but he’s only exchanging naughty letters. I also thought that the bath at the end of the chapter was taking place, not something he was thinking about. I am glad for the notes to set me straight on what is actually happening versus what is only being thought about.

Poor Bloom, who is figuratively cock-blocked by McCoy, first from reading his sexy letter and then from ogling the woman across the street.

In ‘Hades’ I was most struck by the whiplash point-of-view shifts. We go from Bloom interacting with this friends, to his stream of consciousness, to people talking about him, and in and out again. This echoes Odysseus’ trip to Hades, when he was swarmed by ghosts of the dead, and finally had to run away from the many, many voices clamoring to tell their story. I wondered: why does Martin Cunningham always get referred to both by first and last name?

I find the last sentence curious. Taken out of context it sounds positive:

Thank you. How grand we are this morning.

But since Bloom is repeating John Henry Menton’s snubbing words of him (leaving Bloom ‘chapfallen’ rather than crestfallen, wonderful wordplay), it’s a sad, bitter twist of sarcasm to a chapter that had some humor, but a great deal of sadness for Bloom: thinking of his father’s suicide, his father’s dog Athos (a mirror of Odysseus’ dog Argos), his dead son Rudy, his friend’s anti-Semitism and exclusion of him. Yet Bloom, unlike Stephen Dedalus (who is seen in passing from the carriage window by the men including his father Simon), who seems more weighted with depression, though with far less baggage than Bloom has. Bloom, to me, seems as if he was float, like his languid floating flower at the end of ‘The Lotus Eaters’ and his memory of the image of a person floating in the Dead Sea.

For the reading of Ulysses in general, this approach is still working for me:

1. read chapters quickly for big chunks of events.
2. skim the notes in Gifford’s Ulysses Annotated in order to get a sense of the bigger picture but not the tiny bits of Dublin street furniture like who really existed where, and what things were actually in the paper.
3. read the summary of the chapters at schmoop.com
4. re-read the chapters more slowly.

This is time consuming and multi-stepped, but the read->research->re-read has me feeling as if I’m sorta kinda getting it which is actually pretty exhilarating.

How is everyone else feeling? Exhilarated and floating, or weighed down? What is your reading pattern and is it working for you?

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.