Sunday, September 25, 2011

Review: Stand on Zanzibar by John Brunner

This review is listed on, written by Joe Haldeman:
"A wake-up call to a world slumbering in the opium dream of consumerism; in the hazy certainty that we humans were in charge of nature.  Science fiction is not about predicting the future, it's about elucidating the present and the past.  Brunner's 1968 nightmare is crystallizing around us, in ways he could not have foreseen then.  If the right people had read this book, and acted in accordance with its precepts and spirit, our world would not be in such precarious shape today.  Maybe it's time for a new generation to read it."

When Stand on Zanzibar was recommended to me by a friend in GoodReads, I hadn't heard of it before.  I also hadn't heard of John Brunner.  This is particularly surprising considering my love of dystopian literature, and that is practically all he wrote, in slight variations.

It makes sense.  According to British Fantasy and Science Fiction Writers Since 1960, both John and his wife Marjorie were active in the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament starting in the late 1950s.  In the early 1960s they toured Europe and the United States with promotional displays, including poems, songs, and translations by John Brunner.

That may be one reason Brunner refers to Stand on Zanzibar as a "non-novel."  It is a portrayal of 2010 from the perspective of 1967-8, with the logical conclusion that he saw if we continued in the path we were on.  His 2010 is a land of information overload, omnipresent advertising, technological increases, overpopulation, and advances in genetic engineering that have led to bizarre body modifications as well as legislation about who may reproduce, and how much.  Some of it seems rather familiar. 

The (non)novel begins with chaos, a written portrayal of what information overload feels like that, and the reader is confronted with disjointed scenes that seem bizarre.  Eventually a narrative is formed out of the chaos, and the story ends up in Baninia, a country that is being set up to be led by artificial intelligence, just one more advance that has been made by 2010.  There are sections throughout the story that come from the writings of "Chad Mulligan," a sociologist, who ends up playing a key part in the story.  He is very specifically reprimanding the human race for giving up their privacy, for allowing technology to be too pervasive, and so on.  The greatest irony is that while his message may be important, it is lost in all the noise.

I got more curious about where Brunner was coming from.  I knew he only lived until 1995, when he died at WorldCon in Scotland, but that was a lot closer to 2010 than 1967 had been.  After some digging, I found an article written by John Brunner, from New scientist v. 138:1868, published 10 April 1993, two years before his death.

As to what inspired Stand on Zanzibar, he said:
"In 1966 it occurred to me to wonder how people would react, in an uncomfortably crowded future when they had painfully accepted the need for eugenic legislation to prevent children being born with transmissible defects, if scientists developed means to optimize the embryo so that any child could be an Einstein, a Mozart, a Helen of Troy, or whatever was flavour of the month."
He also talks about how corruption in government and fanaticism in religion has prevented the world from setting itself in a direction that would be restorative.  He actually predicted this in Stand on Zanzibar.  One of Chad Mulligan's writings addresses religion.
"In effect, applying the yardstick of extremism leads one to conclude that the human species itself is unlikely to last long."
Back to the article.  In other words, if Stand on Zanzibar had been his attempt at a warning, the world did not listen.

It ends with this:
"Science fiction used to be the most optimistic form of literature, apart from inspirational propaganda. That too has been taken away. I no longer believe in our glorious future among the stars. Too many of us are behaving too stupidly down here on Earth for those worn visions to be any longer credible. In consequence I don't write a lot of science fiction nowadays. I find I'm writing mostly horror."
Obviously, to Brunner, the future remained bleak, and humanity remained stupid.  It reminded me of a scene in the novel where Donald has accidentally caused a major riot, and is at the police station, waking up from being gassed.  The police chief is less than thrilled.
"I don't believe in God," said the captain. "I wouldn't care to believe in anyone who could make such a stinky lousy species as the one you belong to."
And later on, when SHALMANESER gets introduced (the artificial intelligence they hope to run a country with), Mulligan warns:
"They say he's as intelligent as a thousand of us put together, which isn't really saying much, because when you put a thousand of us together look how stupidly we behave."
Throughout Stand on Zanzibar, Brunner warns that we are getting in our own way.

For further cheery reading, check out this article in the Guardian, published in 2010, when the book is set.  It discusses how much of his vision of the future turned out to be accurately predicted. Even if we are past his future, the book is well worth a read.  You do have to be willing to give over to the reading "noise" that you may encounter, but it is thought-provoking for sure. 

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Reading Envy - To-Read Pile Edition

I am picturing the book I am envying other people reading right now.  I don't typically buy books when they are brand new, but since joining a few online book clubs and joining in on podcasts where people are always talking about new releases gives me major reading envy!

I already used my Audible credits downloading Ready Player One and The Night Circus, which I just finished a half hour ago (and was really great!). I'm not sure I'd tackle a Neal Stephenson book in audio format, although I hear Reamde is pretty accessible (in other words: not anything like The Baroque Cycle).

Still. I have books sitting around that are from the new books section at the public library (meaning I only had two weeks to start with), on loan from other libraries through interlibrary loan (and with short checkout periods, no renewals allowed), or books I need to read before I have a discussion.

Here is what is on my "must return to the library soon" pile:

 I won't even get into the to-read piles around my house.  Clearly I have plenty to read and do NOT need to buy Reamde.  What are you envying?

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

A Soliloquy to End James Joyce's Ulysses

(Disclaimer: A friend challenged me to review Ulysses in the style of Ulysses, and what better way than to mimic Molly's soliloquy, the last section of the novel? Forgive me, this may not actually work).

Yes because I really have been finished with the book for some time despite that I have not yet said anything about it probably because it is so overwhelming to try to summarize or sound half-way smartpantsed about without wanting to hold everyone back and say wait I think I need to read it over again at least the good bits but I'm not sure I can even remember what they are since they are embedded among so many other parts that really wouldn't make the good bits good if they weren't also there but how can I isolate them when they stuck out for silly reasons like the word fogfagcloud just making me start and say James Joyce! you are such a rebel and then thinking he probably wouldn't appreciate that the parts I appreciate aren't his grand sweeping attempts at intellectual comparison or historical sensibility but rather the characterizations of people who simply don't see enough to ever understand each other and persist in patterns well that's just life anyway and don't we all have our own at least the rest of us don't have authors following us around to report on our bodily functions and internal dialogue at least I would hope not but if that happened I think I'd prefer a life like Molly Bloom where the only time you see me I'm in a bed being waited on and possibly contemplating sordid activities that really I'm overdue for considering the circumstances and really who could blame me anyway since everybody has been proven to be so imperfect oh my water is almost gone and I will feel only slightly guilty sitting here at this restaurant in my writing group because I did pay for a salad that was vinegarcheesewater and it isn't as if there is a multitude waiting for my table anyway after all there are three of us all at our laptops looking very intently at our writing and although I had originally planned to outline a novel for once before going into national novel writing month for the sixth year I've never in my life planned ahead for something I'm writing so why should I start now after all I'm really a much better reader than writer even if I keep hearing interviews with authors where they claim that the reason they went into writing was because of their love for reading but I love books and that doesn't make me any good at it and I don't have any idea what should happen between an idea and its actual production and anyhow I'm not sure I'd ever want to really share anything I've written considering that I have no control over my characters and end up writing stalkerthrillers when I intended to write a love story or magicalfoodierealism when I wanted to write something postapocalyptic but that's okay since I can't go dark enough and without war and death postapocalyptic landscapes are just boring deserts anyway but I suppose that's better than a boring dessert isn't it funny how one letter can completely change a word now I wanted to talk about Ulysses which I now will only pronounce YOU-liss-ease since that is how the reader on the audio book says it and it is kind of like how half the faculty where I work say reSEARCH while I intentionally keep saying REsearch since I hate the idea that anyone would ever think I was pretentious but oh hey what other people think of me is none of my business right I love that sentiment but I have to keep saying it until I believe it but maybe I can at least say what I liked about YOUlissease because some of it has really stuck with me in the last week I loved the ending what a surprise since so much of the novel seemed to marginalize and whorify women no big surprise for a novel from that period but then hearing or reading or hearing the reading of what Molly had in her mind was good in the kind of way where you laugh in surprise at something that is great but unexpected and to hear her wander between talking about the size of male members and wanting to know why men want women to see them naked and what woman hasn't mused over the same silly part of life and isn't it an inside joke of sorts that all women share but to know it was written by a man who had seemed rather clueless up until then was a pleasant surprise and while I think he misunderstood how bodily cycles work because if it worked the way he was thinking she would have spent an entire week on the suddenchamberpot and it kept pulling me out of the narrative but that's okay because I think he really did such a surprising take and I wonder why I don't hear about it more except that I don't think many people actually make it to the end and maybe half the people who act as if they've read Ulysses really haven't kind of like that scholarly article I read that summarized a story and was so completely wrong to anyone who had read it and I wrote the editor of the journal what must have been their four hundredth e-mail about the matter and yet he sent me an appropriately shamefaced and apologetic reply but you never do expect scholars to do such blatant violations of academia and I hope that person was shamed out of the profession how could they ever teach their students anything if they are unwilling to do something as simple as read what they are writing about I'm not sure but I do know that James Joyce would never scrimp on scholarship since he felt the need to try to incorporate every bit of anything he has ever learned into the mighty tome of Ulysses and I'm certainly glad I read it although I do wonder how many times I'd have to go back through before I could ever feel like I remembered everything that was important and I'm so very glad I did it in audio form since listening to the streams of consciousness and soliloquy and random living fantasy worlds somehow settled into a more makingsensical form while I listened and that man that just walked by reeked of pot I hope he isn't driving that truck very far tonight you know I keep reading books that shame my lack of mythological knowledge but I just can't bring myself to sit down and read books on mythology despite being recommended volumes that look as if they are quite good because I've never been one to absorb information in encyclopedia form and so many authors have somehow internalized these characters and gods in such a way that they breathe with them create with them morph them into new and exciting beings while I'm still trying to figure out what is going on and Joyce is the only one who seems more enamored with the humans within the myth than the gods although really he is taking The Odyssey an epic poem and not really a myth I guess and I just had to turn my headphones down although I do love pop music from Scandinavia like Lykke Li I just keep listening to that one song over and over I guess the difference between some of my obsessive tendencies in music listening especially ooh and list making and Joyce's is that Joyce chooses to air his out by forming them into a narrative somehow and while I recognize the genius required in it is strikes me rather like some of the post-tonal music of the late 20th century where you can appreciate it on the page and admire the intricacies without wanting to hear it and is that just a delay in appreciation or is it really not worth listening to I feel you can argue either side and nobody really knows and nobody can win and whoops I just rocked out to the song forgetting people could see me and I suppose that is the danger of a soliloquy and Molly'd better be careful the end except of what comes next well now I have a billion books to read but I'm still drawn in by Dubliners and I wonder what my next mighty tome will be who knows if you've made it this far maybe you can offer a suggestion.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Skylark by Dezső Kosztolányi

There is something about reading in community that makes the depth of a book much greater than when I read alone.  When I saw the GoodReads group for NYRB Classics, I decided to join.  They are reading one book a month, and many of the members are "subscribers," meaning they're receiving a book or two every month anyway.  I am not so hardcore that I wanted to subscribe, besides not liking the idea of being sent a history book that I'd probably never read, oh the horror!  I have had good experiences with books put out by NYRB Classics, however - see my reviews of The Siege of Krishnapur and The Summer Book.

Skylark is the story of a Hungarian family with one adult daughter.  Unfortunately, the daughter they fondly refer to as Skylark, while loyal and hard-working, is terribly unattractive.  She has never had a serious suitor, although her parents have kept the money for her dowry set aside.  The main story in the book is Skylark leaving to go visit her aunt and uncle, and her parents have what turns into a very exciting week without their daughter around.

There are elements of this book that feel folkloric - the public crying, the walks through the town, the roles of children and their parents; all of this moves throughout the story with many unique townspeople in the background adding color.  The book is not very long to begin with, at 222 pages, but is also a quick read because of the flow of the writing.

As the story progresses, there are these moments where a scene seems pretty typical but all of the sudden a character will reveal a thought that is either profound or so incredibly honest that it is almost gut-wrenching. My favorite moment for this is when "Editor Ijas" is outside the Vajkays' home and reflecting on truly knowing other people,
 "He (Miklos Ijas) could see quite clearly before him the wretched rooms, where suffering collected like unswept dust in the corners, the dust of lives in painful heaps, piled up over many long years."
The Vajkays would never say they were unhappy, and they might actually be in denial about being so, and they certainly never acknowledge it to each other.  Their daughter being away for a while, disrupting their desperate routine, does illuminate how they have hidden themselves away from the life of the town.  It does not even appear that they needed to, especially if they would be willing to simply leave Skylark at home once in a while.

Skylark is also unhappy.  She hides it in strange ways, with strict frugality that only heightens her parents' connection of suffering and blame that they are not conscious of making.  The author shows the reader, in subtle and painful ways, that all three members of the Vajkay family are quite aware of how unhappy the other members are, but they persist in never mentioning it, or even offering comfort along these lines.  These are the moments in the novel that feel like they have so much truth to them.  I was amazed at how much I felt throughout the course of it. 

Unfortunately, it appears that this is the only novel by Dezső Kosztolányi that has been translated into English.  The NYRB Classics catalog has a few more titles that have been translated from the Hungarian, but I'm not sure how they compare. This was completely worth the read, and I'm still thinking about it a week later.

Friday, September 16, 2011

Ulysses Chapter 16 - Eumaeus

Two chapters in two days? I think I'm more inspired on the downhill climb. I actually read this chapter in the public domain edition on the Kindle instead of listening to the audio. I'm not sure if this chapter is just more straight-forward than the others, or if I'm finally getting the rhythm of Joyce, but I felt like it was fairly easy to read and that I didn't need much of it explained to me. It must be the former, because Joyce has no rhythm. Every section and chapter changes!

In Eumaeus, Bloom has led Dedalus from the brothel and they are looking for a cab, but finding none, are slowly making their way through late-night Dublin. They end up at a bar that serves them coffee, where they meet an alleged sailor as well as one of Dedalus's young acquaintances. I hesitate to use the word "friend" with Stephen, because even the people who would typically be his friends don't seem to do a very good job of it. In fact, Bloom learns throughout the conversation that Stephen hasn't had anything to eat in two days. Booze, yes. Food, no.

Throughout their conversation, which is refreshingly clear of prostitutes, visions, and play-acting, Joyce seems to be illuminating the differences between the two men. These seem to start with work ethic, where Bloom seems to think that your morality and ethnic/religious background shouldn't matter if you work hard, and Dedalus is still clinging to the beliefs he waxed poetic on in The Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man - artistry being priority one, or priority only, really, and despite the fact that he hasn't had any food to eat and doesn't have any place to stay, his belief in that idea is still dictating his actions.

I particularly love the interchange between Bloom and Dedalus on identity coming from work or something else.
"...I suspect, Stephen interrupted, that Ireland must be important because it belongs to me."
And then later on:
"We can't change the country. Let us change the subject."
Stephen is so entrenched in his beliefs, at this point he doesn't even seem interested in debating them with Bloom, who represents the older parental figure that he has tried so hard to get away from.

I've peeked ahead a bit, and it looks like Chapter 17 is a question and answer dialogue type section between Bloom and Dedalus, I think once Bloom has him back at his house. I'll probably read that in the print too, because it might be easier going. However, I also peeked ahead to Chapter 18, and it looks like a few run-on sentences make up the entire thing, so it will be back to the audio for the finish!

Thursday, September 15, 2011

The Circus of Circe - Section 15 of Ulysses by James Joyce

As this is a discussion of a chapter fairly deep into Ulysses, it may contain spoilers.

I'm certain half of what has been written about James Joyce has been written about the section called Circe in Ulysses. I don't even know where to start. In this point of the story, it is past midnight, and Bloom has followed Stephen Dedalus into the redlight district in Dublin, concerned because of how drunk he is. Somehow, despite never really being around him, he has declared himself his protector.

Then the crazy starts. There are actual events going on - he really does go into a brothel, the women there really do charge him for things, Stephen really does try to talk philosophy to two sailors who are going to beat him up, and Bloom really does end the chapter watching over Stephen's passed out body.

Most of the chapter, however, is focused on a swirling fantasy world, mostly in Bloom's head, but some of it belongs to Stephen as well. It is impossible to explain. Both the reality and the fantasy are thrown at the reader at the same time, and the entire segment is written like a play, with named speakers and actions in parentheses. In fact, this would be the most clear chapter in Ulysses (since most of it lacks any quotation marks or "he said-she saids") were it not for the simultaneous events. Hugh Kenner, on his chapter on Circe inJames Joyce's Ulysses: Critical Essays, includes a chart in the appendix that lays out what is actually going on alongside Bloom's vivid imagination. I pledge never to mock a scholarly chart or graph again!

Some of it is obviously fantasy, imagination, or daydream. For instance, all of the sudden, deceased people from Bloom's life, as well as younger versions of people he currently knows, show up for a trial of his character. It reminds me of the Wandering Rocks chapter, where Bloom is moving throughout the city and coming across a lot of minor characters; I believe most of them show up here, even the taxi driver. The trial and defense seem to serve the purpose of Bloom dealing with the guilt he has about various sexual deviances (in his view), and culminates in an exposure of his failings as a husband. Close to when he is leaving the brothel, he has this exchange (BELLO is really BELLA, but she changes genders during the daydream):

BLOOM: Ten and six. The act of low scoundrels. Let me go. I will return. I will prove...

BELLO: As a paying guest or a kept man? Too late. You have made your secondbest bed and others must lie in it. Your epitaph is written. You are down and out and don't you forget it, old bean.

Joyce, James (2009). Ulysses (p. 543). Public Domain Books. Kindle Edition.

I don't know how Ulysses ends, but I suspect Bloom may have made some kind of decision about needing to step up with Molly during this long night. I'm not sure. I guess that is what I hope, but I might be thinking along too modern of a vein. Instead, he puts all of that aside to deal with Stephen, who is so past drunk he is not watching out for his money or safety. He can still recite Yeats, though. At least he is well-educated.

What do the scholars say?  There is a deep-seated desire to compare this to other writers, I think to make it seem less inaccessible.  Blamires spends a lot of time in comparison with Shakespeare, Gilbert discusses Flaubert (a connection that means nothing to me at this point in my own scholarship), and Kenner manages to throw in Shakespeare, Flaubert, Eliot, and Dickens.   Not to mention the connection to the Odyssey, of course, one must never forget that, and Joyce certainly hasn't with his very obvious and frequent animal references, particularly equating the women to pigs.  Ah, thanks Joyce, pleasant comparison.

This section includes a touching moment where Bloom has a vision of his deceased son, Rudy, and he has been somewhat of an elephant in every room from the beginning.  It is not long to the end.  See you on the other side!

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Hoopsa! Boyaboy, hoopsa! - Chapter 14 of Ulysses

Episode (Chapter) 14 of Ulysses, Oxen of the Sun, is one of those ideas that sounded better in theory than in practice.  I'm pretty sure all authors struggle with these.  It comes right before a crazy-frenetic chapter that I'm excited to finish and talk about, but this one was a struggle.

On a very basic level, without the usual mythological references and literary timeline modeling, gives us the first time Bloom and Stephen Dedalus speak to each other in the novel.  They cross paths many times, and Bloom knows Stephen's father, but this is their first actual encounter.  Bloom goes to the hospital to look in on the friend who has been in labor for three days.  During this time there Dedalus and his friends have the kind of spirited discussion about issues of morality and ethics concerning birth that only men in their 20s who have never had to make decisions about people they care about can have.  Seriously, I don't always care much for Stephen. 

However, that wasn't enough for Joyce.  Oh, no.  He decided to use this chapter as a homage to the many styles of writing that come from his own literary heritage, from medieval religious texts all the way through to present day pentecostal revival (or is it just advertising? hard to tell) style.  I might mention that unless this is pointed out to you, it is impossible to know that this is what he is doing.  He had to spell it out to his own peers, and there are several letters that have lasted that allow current scholars to understand it.  Would it have been obvious if he hadn't ever done this?  I'm not sure.  In some ways, by this point in the novel, the reader has to have already given him or herself over to the wave of sometimes-ridiculous, sometimes-nonsensical, sometimes-baffling patterns.  I think it is even harder when you're listening.

It makes me think of my experience reading Moby Dick, actually, when I'd be reading along about Ishmael and his Polynesian bunkmate, when all of the sudden Melville would throw in a chapter on whale biology or the history of the harpoon.  I question my experience as a reader.  Is this greatness?  Is this what makes it a classic?  Or do books get categorized this way because people assume that something they struggle to read makes it "good?"  It is as if James Joyce wanted to encapsulate everything he loves about Irish history, mythology, current events in religion and politics, and his own education into one novel, while also writing in a way that nobody else ever have.  Well James, you win! 

I'm finally into "Circe," which is supposed to be the pinnacle of the entire work. 

Monday, September 12, 2011

2012: Around the World in 52 Books

Quiet Learning
Photo courtesy of abhisheksundaram on Flickr

One day I was glancing at the feed in GoodReads and noticed a group called 2012: Around the World in 52 Books. I clicked through and joined right away. It is a group that is committing to reading 52 books from 52 different countries in the year 2012. Some people are picking books that are set in certain countries, but I am going as far as to challenge myself to read a book about a place that is also by an author from that place. I felt like this would be a greater challenge with less likelihood that I'd be reading many authors I had read before.

Anyone who knows me knows how much I adore writing lists, so as you can imagine, I've enjoyed myself in the past few weeks. Some of the other readers in the group have long created shelves (tags, really) in GoodReads indicating the setting of a book, and their lists helped enable mine. There were various other tools I used, including Listopia and just some generic Google searching.

The list is still in progress, and you can covet it in two ways - my GoodReads shelf labeled for the challenge, or my Google doc. Hey, this blog is called Reading Envy, after all. You can envy my newest list, and I can envy all the books I won't get to that are on the list right now, to be weeded out later. I think I had 75 last I checked, and I'll want time to read other things too!

If you have any suggestions, I'd love to hear them. I'm really interested in reading books set in areas I don't know much about. There is a small list of countries I've deliberately excluded, because I feel like I've read a great deal from them (and surely will continue to do so) - USA, Canada, UK, Australia, and South Africa. There are some books on my list right now that don't fit my author-from-the-country criteria, but I haven't found a better option to replace it yet. There are also a few authors on the list whom I've already read (Houellebecq, Jansson), and I'm open to replacing them as well. I'll probably read Houellebecq's new novel regardless of the challenge, and I would welcome additional Finnish ideas.

This whole challenge has also impressed on me the usefulness of tagging books by location, and now have shelves in GoodReads that say "location-X." I'll be able to do that moving forward as well. Is it 2012 yet?

Sunday, September 11, 2011

All Hallow's Read

If you haven't yet heard of All Hallow's Read, suggested by Neil Gaiman, it is the new Halloween tradition of gifting another person with a scary book. You can do this on the night of Halloween, or the week itself. He encourages age-appropriate scary, but I remember how much my peers in elementary school loved a good scary story, and I'm thinking there is no age too early for a little bit of scary!

The nice thing about Neil Gaiman instigating such an event is the international buy-in, of course. There is an assigned hashtag in Twitter for people to follow what others are thinking and doing for #allhallowsread, where I've found some fun ideas already. Some people, like Rico on Worlds Without End, look like they are going the traditional route. I've seen quite a few mentions of H.P. Lovecraft, since of course his stories are in the public domain.

House of LeavesWhat would you gift another person? I really like the idea of House of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski, since that is one book that I read that scared me out of my mind, and I still think about it. Unfortunately for me, with the worst timing ever, I read it when I was house shopping, and I'm completely certain it fed into the most bizarre nightmares I've had in my life. As if house hunting isn't stressful enough, there is nothing like the thought that you might buy one and then discover it is growing on the inside....

House of Leaves is a conglomeration of styles of writing and weird tricks. In other books it might annoy me, but it really adds to the feelings of abandonment and confusion that the people in the story are feeling, and as long as you can wade through the first section, written like a dissertation or a research article, the rest moves a lot more rapidly. Sometimes there might only be one word on a page.

(If you are wondering about the blue.... I can't tell you.)

Friday, September 9, 2011

Figuring out Ulysses in Charts and Graphs

This image is from James Joyce's Ulysses: Critical Essays.  That book has a different scholar focusing on each chapter of Ulysses, and a lot of times I find they go so deep they may lose some of the forest for the trees. 

This is a great example of over-the-top analysis- the chart of where all the characters in Wandering Rocks are, and at what time.  I'm not sure it really adds much to the understanding of the chapter, as the reader is not living the book in the same time as the characters, but I loved how they made such an effort to include the chart, even putting in special fold-out pages.

Later on, the chapter including the Citizen has a listing of all the references and what they "might" mean. 

Charts! Graphs! Whatever it takes!

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Checking in on Ulysses

Photo courtesy of Laurie | Liquid Paper on Flickr
One of the useful elements of Kindle books is that it can measure your progress in percentage.  How depressing is it that three very long chapters later, I have only progressed another 5%?  I should quit looking.  It is slow going for sure. 

I'll divide my random thoughts by chapters!  At this point I have just finished reading Nausicaa.  I am also now pronouncing Ulysses as "YOU-liss-ease" in my head, thanks to the podcast I mentioned before.

I am certainly glad I read A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man prior to reading Ulysses, although I wish I'd read them closer together.  I'm also wishing I'd read Dubliners first too, as some of the minor characters in Ulysses are from those short stories.  While their backgrounds may not be crucial to understanding the main story in Ulysses, I feel like Joyce is working on the assumption that the reader at least is familiar with them.  Most of the time I am blissfully ignorant until one of the companion books schools me on what I missed.  I downloaded the public domain version and will probably read it after reading Ulysses, just to fill out the story a bit.  Reader beware!  If you've always wanted to read Ulysses, read everything else Joyce ever wrote first.  You might even want to tackle his letters, if you can find them, since apparently they are the inspiration for the letters Bloom himself writes!

Chapter 10: The Wandering Rocks
This is the chapter that I last wrote about, at only about 1/3 of the way in.  It spirals through a bunch of characters, and is supposed to feel like waves swirling around and crashing into rocks, maybe dangerous, maybe harmless, and I think Joyce succeeds here.

Chapter 11: Sirens
Bloom goes back into a bar, and we follow him on an afternoon shopping trip.  I think the whole chapter is pretty ironic because he is obsessing over his wife's lover AS HE IS BUYING STATIONARY TO WRITE TO HIS LETTER WRITING MISTRESS.  Whatever.  At the same time, I'm fond of the chapters that jump us into Bloom's head.

Chapter 12: Cyclops
I had to reference the companion books to understand this one, for sure.  There is an unnamed person "Citizen" who has a very staunch opinion about issues of homeland and nation, and clearly does not think Bloom should consider himself first and foremost "Irish."  I remember earlier discussions of the loss of the Irish language within Ulysses, and even in the time of the novel many of these concepts are starting to be popularly viewed as archaic.

The part that I really paid attention to was the discussion of love.  Bloom explains love as being the "opposite of hatred," and the citizen mocks him for his concept of "universal love," which starts in on a whole discussion of the many versions of love.  Some of it makes me think of Martin Luther King Jr., but perhaps Ulysses and King just share the same source material.

And then is this little sentence - "Off he pops like greased lightning."  I was in the car when I heard this, and I had a lyrical kneejerk response and shouted "Grease lightning, go grease lightning."  Completely irrelevant to anything, but I thought you might enjoy how my mind wanders as I listen to an audio book.

Chapter 13: Nausicaa
My original intent was to say I really enjoyed this chapter, that it felt like a break from the political/economic/religious commentary of some of the other chapters, but then all the critics disparage it and say Joyce intentionally wrote it like a fluffy womens magazine.  Hmm.  Maybe I like womens magazines.  It was refreshing to hear from a woman's perspective, as Joyce tends to stick inside of male heads.  Gerta is charming, in how she is focused on her ribbons, but can still tell the power that she has.

The language in this chapter, and in how Joyce can capture a moment within the moment, is so much better in audio than it would be read in print.  I dare you to try reading it in print without wanting to hear it out loud.  It is much more evident what is going on when you hear the section about the fireworks read aloud.  I was... surprised at how far Joyce took it.  Bloom is a little bit of a creeper, actually (I feel more compassionate toward him than that... we know from earlier chapters that he and his wife have not been intimate since their son died).  I wonder if anyone was bothered in the historical reading of Ulysses by the synchronous imagery of Gerta giving Bloom a peek and the Catholic ecstatic visions.

This chapter also includes some moments of misogyny that really stuck out.  The most memorable is when Bloom is ruminating about drunk husbands:
"Husband rolling in drunk, stink of pub off him like a polecat. Have that in your nose in the dark, whiff of stale boose.  Then ask in the morning: was I drunk last night? Bad policy however to fault the husband. Chickens come home to roost. They stick by one another like glue. Maybe the women's fault. ... Always see a fellow's weak point in his wife."
 Right, wives.  If your husband is out boozing, you must be the weak link!  Ha.

After Gerta leaves, Bloom is spent, also emotionally.  He starts reflecting back on the early days of romance between he and Molly:
"So it returns. Think you're escaping and run into yourself. Longest way round is the shortest way home."
 A fitting conclusion to the Nausicaa chapter, really.  I've peeked ahead and the next chapter is epic in length and coverage, but is the last one sitting in between the infamous Circe and my experience, so I'm going to get right on that!

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Man Booker Prize Shortlist

According to the Guardian, the shortlisted novels for the Man Booker Prize are:

It figures that they'd select the book I disliked most.  It really does seem like the judges were heavy on adventure stories this year.  I'm not surprised to see The Sisters Brothers, because it seemed really different for the list, but Snowdrops does surprise me a bit.  I feel like anyone who has read a book translated from the Russian about post-Soviet Russia has read a similar book, without the expatriate angle.  Perhaps that was the appeal.

The two books on the list that I haven't read won't be available until after the Man Booker Prize is awarded in October.  It doesn't seem fair, but maybe I'll squeeze them in.

Monday, September 5, 2011

Jamrach's Menagerie by Carol Birch

I've tried not to write any spoilers in this review, but it is definitely difficult to explain why I disliked it without them. Fair warning: this is slightly scathing.

Jamrach's Menagerie Jamrach's Menagerie by Carol Birch

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

This is one of those books where I really would like to know what the judges for the Man Booker Prize were thinking when they picked it over 100 other contenders to be longlisted for the prize for 2011. That's why I read it.

Parts of it have promise. The story starts with this young boy, Jaffy, who lives at the very edge of the Thames river, described uncomfortably well, in a way only rivaled by Stephen King. (Good but not good! It puts you there, in a way you would never want to be!) Jaffy has a run-in with a tiger and ends up working for Jamrach's Menagerie, thus the title of the book. To me, these were the interesting bits, unfortunately, they only took the first quarter of the book or so.

Then the author sends Jaffy off on a whale ship, partly to hunt down a "dragon" for the menagerie. Even this was okay, if a bit overdone. Quest! Whaling! The adventure of the sea! *yawn* (I sense that the Booker judges are craving adventure?) The hunt for the dragon was exciting, but I was starting to lose interest.  I don't want to spoil the last third of the book but it goes down a path I never wanted to experience.  When an author has to resort to such a level, I wonder if there was even a story to tell in the first place.  It seems like a cop-out.  READER BEWARE.

I wouldn't put this on the shortlist. I wouldn't have put it on the long list! I guess we'll find out tomorrow whether or not the judges agree with me.

Of the longlisted novels I read, and I only got through about half, I'd select the following for the short list:

Pigeon English
Far to Go
The Sisters Brothers: A Novel (even though I didn't like it, I expect them to)

That leaves space for two more! And who knows what I would say if I'd read the entire list.

Saturday, September 3, 2011

The Most Fun I've Had - Ready Player One by Ernest Cline

Ready Player OneMy blog suffers a bit from reader schizophrenia.  It is completely my fault, a reflection of the fact that I really do go back and forth between literary fiction and science fiction most of the time, with brief jaunts into poetry and short stories.  Sometimes science fiction can be quite literary (Ian McDonald is just one example), and sometimes literature can be quite fun (The Dud Avocado, anyone?), but sometimes it seems a bit strange, even to me.

So hang on to your hats.  From Ulysses and the Booker Prize nominees, I bring you a super fun book that you should read if you lived through the 80s, are any sort of gamer, or if you've been known to hang out in virtual worlds.  Nobody has to know.  You can read it in secret.  But if you'd identify with any of it, I think you'd have fun reading this book.

Actually, I listened to it, at 2x speed, because I usually enjoy Wil Wheaton as a narrator.  I found myself making up reasons to keep listening, and that's when you know something has caught my ear.  I'm not sure I'll remember the story's intricate details later on, but I don't need that from every book I read.  This was pure entertainment.  I almost wish it had come out at the beginning of the summer, because it would have been the quintessential beach read for the Geek. 

Booker Longlist Reading - Far to Go by Allison Pick

Far to Go: A Novel (P.S.)
I don't often seek out historical fiction.  Even when it is historical, I have noticed I tend to prefer it when the focus is on relationships or events on a small scale contrasted against the broader historical background.  I definitely don't want narratives of battles or wars or long descriptions of bodice ribbons.

I think that is why I connected so well to Far to Go.  It tells the story of secular Jews living in Czechoslovakia during World War II, from the perspective of their "gentile" nanny, Marta.  It focuses on the Bauer family as they try to comprehend what being Jewish now means to them as the Nazis invade and the Allies have so easily given up the region where they live.  It covers the kindertransport, and speaks to themes of religious identity and betrayal.  I'll admit that I got teary at the end, a power few books actually hold.  I think it is worth reading. 

If I had to guess, I would expect this to show up on the shortlist, which should be announced on September 6.  I have one more from the long list at home to get through, but I won't make it through everything by then.  (Go here to view the entire list). I read as fast as I could and requested as many books as I could locate in a library, but that does nothing for the three that aren't even available in this country yet.

I can't really talk about Far to Go without mentioning The Glass Room, which was on the shortlist for the Booker in 2009, a book I enjoyed. The characters in it didn't seem as personal, though. I think part of the point both authors are trying to make is to stress the wealth and social prominence of the people who would later die in concentration camps simply because of their ethnic or religious background. Both books I'm glad I read, and I hope you can learn as much as I did.