One Book, One New York

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Americanah was recently announced as the New York City “community read” for spring 2017. Events have been scheduled across all five boroughs to encourage discussion around Adichie’s award-winning “love story of race and identity.” A reader’s guide can be found here.

I’ve loved this idea since its February launch—and will not only be participating, but forcing numerous friends and family members into taking part as well. Feel free to join us, in action or in spirit. Happy reading!

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James Joyce: #31 A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, #2 Ulysses, #73 Finnegans Wake

Buckle up, friends. Put on your helmet and your kneepads. Duct tape yourself in a cocoon of bubble wrap, strap on some pillows, and pray to Jesus, because this won’t be just a bumpy ride or a Fourth Dimension roller coaster.

This is the literary apocalypse.

Before we heave ourselves into the word-pit of fire, let me introduce you to Mr. James Augustine Aloysius Joyce. Born in Dublin in 1882, Joyce was the eldest of ten children and evidently had something to prove. His first book, Dubliners (1914), is a collection of short stories; he followed it up in 1916 with the semi-autobiographical A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. His next novel was Ulysses, whose 1922 publication marked a pivotal moment in the modernist literary movement. Finnegans Wake (1939) would be his final work—his magnum opus and his death sentence—and would take him 17 years to write (and re-write, and re-re-write).

Joyce’s career was groundbreaking, and rule-breaking, and then some. In Portrait, he splashed around in the literary techniques he would eventually plunge into: stream-of-consciousness digressions, interior monologues, and unapologetic realism. Portrait tells the coming-of-age story of Stephen Dedalus, a heavily flawed student-turned-artist whose behavior alternates between hedonism and strict religious devotion. Stephen serves as an alter ego to Joyce, an allusion to the mythological Daedalus, and, eventually, the tormented Telemachus of UlyssesOdyssey-inspired cast.

Are you still with me? Great! Now, hold on tight.

A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man is a tough read. It takes itself very seriously, drifting in tone between poetry and sermon. It’s stuffy at the best of times, and inscrutable at the worst.

And it’s fucking child’s play—quite literally—next to Ulysses and Finnegans Wake.

Joyce’s final projects took decades of his life, and probably decades off his life. Ulysses and Finnegans Wake are gorgons among books: many-headed, dreadful to behold, legendary, immortal—but not quite invincible. But when I say “not quite invincible,” I mean it would take—has taken—is taking—an army to defeat them.

We’ll tackle Ulysses first.

In a 1956 interview, William Faulkner had this to say about Joyce’s most famous novel:

You should approach Joyce’s Ulysses as the illiterate Baptist preacher approaches the Old Testament: with faith.

A “day in the life” portrait of one Leopold Bloom, Ulysses is a mashup of fragmented thoughts, actions, feelings, memories, and dialogue, collectively intended to mimic the disorganization of the mind. Each episode corresponds to an event in The Odyssey, and each character to one of Homer’s.

Stylistic experimentation further complicates the narrative: In a chapter about music, for example, Joyce opens with a kind of “overture” composed of phrases from the text to come. Sounds such as a tapping cane and jingling car keys lend rhythm to the passage. In another chapter, Joyce’s voice follows the evolution of the English language from Latinate prose to Elizabethan, Gothic, and even American slang styles, among many others.

If I had to make one and only one complaint about Ulysses, it would be that Joyce determinedly prioritizes innovation and novelty over reader appreciation. In other words, it often feels as if Joyce would rather be misunderstood than understood—that he’d rather perplex than entertain—out of a sense of intellectual superiority. But why choose between respect and popularity when you’re talented enough to earn both?

As a form of protest, I have decided not to fear or love him. Instead, I vow to maintain a stubborn indifference.

Last up, we have Finnegans Wake—the most impenetrable book on The List by far. Regularly cited as the most difficult/challenging/inaccessible novel ever written, Finnegans Wake would be exactly as (in)coherent read backward as forward. (And, knowing Joyce, reading it backward may actually be reading it as intended.)

So what is Finnegans Wake about? According to Samuel Beckett, it is “not about something, it is that something itself,” an assessment that manages to be as pretentious as it is unhelpful. Michael Chabon offers nine different interpretations of its subject matter, ranging from “nothing,” “everything,” and “Hell if I know” to:

Recurrence, figured through the heavy use of recurrent initials (HCE, ALP), recurrent digits (1132, 566), recurrent imagery (giants, towers, heaps, and mounds), recurrent characters from jokes and literature (a Russian general who gets shot in the ass, Swift’s Vanessa), recurrent historical figures (Parnell, Napoleon, Saint Patrick), recurrent dyads (Adam and Eve, Mutt and Jeff), trinities (the Trinity), quartets (the Evangelists) and duodectets (jurors, apostles), recurrent snatches and snippets of balladry, recurrent garbled quotations from Swift, the Duke of Wellington, Mark Twain, etc.

and/or:

Joyce’s helplessness in the face of language, his glossolalia, the untrammeled riverine flow of words and wordplay in which James Joyce plunged, and swam, and drowned; the compulsive neologism that echoes, typifies, and indeed in a clinical sense accounts, genetically, for the schizophrenia—at times characterized by uncontrollable bursts of surprising and beautiful utterances—that afflicted his daughter, Lucia, and led to her eventual institutionalization.

He is possibly right on all counts, or equally wrong.

Recurrence and wordplay, at least, are well-established fixtures of Finnegans Wake, though the latter is more immediately apparent than the former. Nearly every word on every page is corrupted, complicated, or translated into something new or else. The puns come fast and furious; literary allusions abound; onomatopoeia gets a nod; and obscurity of meaning is less a product than a method. In fact, many layers of meaning can be dug out of every word and sentence. William York Tindall, author of A Reader’s Guide to Finnegans Wake, dissected the protagonist’s surname, Earwicker, thus:

In it Ear (or time) is combined with wick (village or place, from Latin vicus). Place is space. A union of [Earwicker’s sons] the twins (Shem, time; Shaun, space), Earwicker is time-space. Ear suggests Eire and wicker suggests Ford of the Hurdles (made of wickerwork) or Dublin; hence Earwicker could mean a dweller (wicker) in Dublin, Ireland. In a pub time-place becomes “Time, please!”

Um, OK. Moving on.

Once drafted, each passage was deliberately convoluted, then mutilated further with every revision. “Universal history” became “manyvoiced moodmoulded cyclewheeling history.” “River” became “riverrun.” Historical figures and events were layered over Joyce’s own characters and their actions, and the whole narrative rendered in stream-of-consciousness.

I know, I know, you’re dying to read an excerpt. But didn’t anyone ever tell you to be careful what you wish for?

The following paragraph appears on page 100:

Achdung! Pozor! Attenshune! Vikeroy Besights Smucky Yung Pigeschoolies. Tri Paisdinernes Eventyr Med Lochlanner Fathach I Fiounnisgehaven. Bannalanna Bangs Ballyhooly Out Of Her Buddaree Of A Bullavogue.

And here’s what Tindall made of it:

“Achdung! . . . ,” a confusion of tongues as at Babel, not meant perhaps to be understood. Such confusions are also a comment on the difficulty of communicating. The present instance, a mixture of pig-Danish, pig-Gaelic, and pig-English, seems to mean this: Attention! The Viking king visits beautiful young girls. Three somebodies adventure with the giant foreigner in Phoenix Park. But banana Anna bangs the ballyhoo out of her buddy. (Bally is Gaelic for city.)

So glad to have that cleared up, aren’t we?

I can guess what you’re thinking. The whole book can’t be that bad, right? I obviously selected the toughest excerpt I could find to strike terror into your stout heart, didn’t I? Well, let’s try a little experiment. I’m going to flip to a random page and type what I find there:

Ah now, it was tootwoly torrific, the mummurrlubejubes! And then after that they used to be so forgetful, counting motherpeributts (up one up four) to membore her beaufu mouldern maiden name, for overflauwing, by the dream of woman the owneirist, in forty lands. From Greg and Doug on pour Greg and Mat and Mar and Lu and Jo, now happily buried, our four! And there she was right enough, that lovely sight enough, the girleen bawn asthore, as for days galore, of planxty Gregory. Egory. O bunket not Orwin! Ay, ay.

SO THERE.

The book, notably, features words and expressions from sixty languages, many of these tortured into puns alongside their English comrades. The title itself is a pun:Finnegan’s Wake” is a 19th-century Irish ballad about the wake of Tim Finnegan, who died falling off a ladder—or so his mourners believe. Joyce performed some grammatical sleight of hand (well, OK, he removed an apostrophe) and left us with Finnegans (plural noun) Wake (verb).

This is, of course, fitting, as Finnegans Wake is most often summarized as a dream narrative—a single night inside the mind of Earwicker (who may also, or alternatively, take the form of a Mr. Porter). The abandonment of plot, character development, and other traditional narrative structures is more easily justified within this context… but no easier on the reader.

My take? Finnegans Wake is a long game of Mad Gab, but a lot less fun. It’s Dr. Seuss, but a lot less cute. It is, in the words of one illustrator, “like trying to read while drunk.” No doubt, it changes your perspective on literature—not in some lofty, intellectual way (at least, in my experience), but insofar as it makes every other book seem elementary by comparison.

But most of all, finding myself on the other side of Finnegans Wake, I’m convinced that it’s not meant to be read—it’s meant to be studied. Joyce reportedly said that his goal was “to keep the critics busy for 300 years,” and we’re well on our way. For his Reader’s Guide, Tindall consulted numerous reference books and sat down with grad students at Columbia “in the belief that a committee, reading the text, talking it over, and bringing to it a variety of languages and learning, might do more with the book than I alone.” Decades of research and hundreds of researchers are bound to have both under- and over-analyzed this infamous mad-sterpiece.

Cyclical in nature, the book ends with the first half of a sentence and begins with the end of it. Joyce says on page 120 that the “ideal reader suffering from an ideal insomnia” would make his way through “the Wake

a full trillion times for ever and a night till his noddle sink or swim.

To that I say:

Re-Joyce? You’re dreaming.

Are They Three of the Greatest Books of All Time?

A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man: Yawn.

Ulysses: Stretch.

Finnegans Wake: Faint.

Favorite Quotes:

A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man:

A certain pride, a certain awe, withheld him from offering to God even one prayer at night, though he knew it was in God’s power to take away his life while he slept and hurl his soul hellward ere he could beg for mercy.

One single instant was enough for the trial of a man’s soul. One single instant after the body’s death, the soul had been weighed in the balance.

I am not afraid to make a mistake, even a great mistake, a lifelong mistake, and perhaps as long as eternity too.

Ulysses:

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.

With thee it was not as with many that will and would and wait and never do.

He heard in a profound ancient male unfamiliar melody the accumulation of the past.

Once by inadvertence, twice by design he challenges his destiny.

Finnegans Wake:

Hohohoho, Mister Finn, you’re going to be Mister Finnagain! 

There is comfortism in the knowledge that often hate on first hearing comes of love by second sight.

And into the river that had been a stream (for a thousand of tears had gone eon her and come on her and she was stout and struck on dancing and her muddied name was Missisliffi) there fell a tear, a singult tear, the loveliest of all tears (I mean for those crylove fables fans who are ‘keen’ on the pretty-pretty commonface sort of thing you meet by hopeharrods) for it was a leaptear. But the river tripped on her by and by, lapping as though her heart was brook: Why, why, why! Weh, O weh! I’se so silly to be flowing but I no canna stay! 

Where in the waste is the wisdom?

Read: 2014; 2016; 2017

Not a Literary Post, But a Necessary One

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Well, the unthinkable has happened. The United States has elected reality TV star Donald Trump as our next president, following an unconscionable, hate-filled campaign that has turned us from an international laughingstock into an international nightmare.

Even if you voted for Trump in spite of his ignorant, bigoted rhetoric, and not because of it, it’s important to understand the message you have sent to family, friends, neighbors, and strangers across the country:

that you will tolerate both incompetence and abuse in your leader(s),
that you accept a nationalist and backward-looking ideology,
and that you are willing to overlook, among other things, Trump’s:

  • total lack of government or military experience
  • total lack of policy knowledge
  • half-assed and ever-shifting platform
  • refusal to release his tax returns
  • unabashed pride in avoiding federal income taxes
  • support for military torture and war crimes
  • attacks on Latinos
  • attacks on Muslims
  • attacks on immigrants
  • attacks on Jews
  • attacks on African Americans
  • attacks on the disabled
  • attacks on veterans and their families
  • attacks on women
  • boasts of committing sexual assault
  • actual sexual assault/harassment accusations from at least 10 women
  • encouragement of the “birther” movement questioning Obama’s nationality
  • fraudulent university and foundation
  • rejection of common sense gun control measures
  • business failures large and small
  • diverse personal hobbies, including bullying and belittlement
  • threats to the Constitution and the peaceful transfer of power
  • incitement of political violence, and
  • lies, lies, and more lies.

What’s left to say? Apparently all of Trump’s ridiculous masculine posturing worked. Apparently Trump’s violations of nearly every Christian value didn’t cost him many votes among white evangelicals. Apparently Trump’s supporters truly believe an elitist multi-billionaire will be the champion of the working class despite his long history of cheating them. Apparently even facts, from climate change to crime statistics, are irrelevant these days.

If you voted for Trump, know this: Your vote feels like a “fuck you” to everyone Trump has alienated during his campaign. It feels like a personal, to-my-face “fuck you” as a woman, and to my husband as an immigrant. It feels like 48% of the nation saying “You don’t matter.” It feels like hearing you insist that this is your America—a white supremacist patriarchy through and through—and that we’re not welcome here.

It feels like fear.

Please, please prove us wrong. Until then, Donald Trump may represent you—but he does not represent me.

I wanted to end this post on an uplifting note, because many of us could use one right now. And I couldn’t find anything more inspiring than this Monday-night Facebook update from George Takei, legendary actor and activist:

Many fans have written asking for some words of advice, solace, or perhaps even hope as we find ourselves here, the night before the election. Indulge a fellow of my more advanced years, and permit me to convey some perspective and to expand upon a theme I have spoken of before. From where I stand, progress may be painful, but in the end, the forces of reason, compassion, and equality always prevail. Yes, we will win.

When I was a boy of four, my family and I were interned for years inside barbed wire prison camps because we happened to look like the enemy who had bombed Pearl Harbor. Today, Japanese Americans are a proud part of our national heritage, and we were the first to stand with Muslim Americans after 9/11 to decry calls for racial and religious profiling. We came from a dark place, but we remember, and we carry a bright torch. Tolerance and acceptance will flourish in America. We will win.

When I was a young man, in many states I could not by law even marry a Caucasian because of strict anti-miscegenation laws. Today, after decades of struggle to gain recognition and equality, for both biracial and same sex couples, I am legally married to my gay, white, male spouse, Brad. What once was the love that dare not speak its name can now shout itself freely from the chapel. Love and understanding took root across the land, and young people today can be with whomever they were destined to love. We will win.

I marched with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. during an era where the most basic rights of association, voting and participation in civil society were denied in Jim Crow America. But Dr. King inspired and reminded America of its promise. And while we still have far, far to go, I am always amazed that I lived to see the election of our first African American president. The road to true equal rights and justice is not, and has never been, an easy one. But despite its many twists and turns, we will continue to march along it. We will win.

From Selma to Stonewall, Seneca Falls to Standing Rock, the history of America is often forged in a crucible of conflict and courage. Today, it is no different. We may face setback, or we may face triumph, but the direction will remain clear so long as our vision and our convictions do. You need only take measure of the passion of America’s youth—more cosmopolitan, more diverse, more rooted in science, more aware of their responsibilities as stewards of this Earth than any generation before them—to regain confidence in our national future. Look to them. We will win.

So tomorrow, as our nation at last finishes the most wrenching election in recent memory, I cast my own vote with both an eye to our past, where we have already overcome so much, and an eye to our future, where so much promise remains. We will vote, we will get through this. We will win.

#ThanksgivingBooks

Remember #BoozyBooks last month? Well, today Twitter got its game on with #ThanksgivingBooks.

My personal favorites:

Much Ado About Stuffing (Barnes & Noble)

A Thousand Splendid Spoonfuls (Emily Ancinec)

Something Pumpkin-Flavored This Way Comes (mammaf)

A Farewell to Diets (Kathryn Elliott)

Life of Pie (Bridget)

Eat, Eat, Eat (Barnes & Noble)

GET IT???

Happy Thanksgiving-Is-in-One-Week Day, and happy reading!

The Best #BoozyBooks Tweets from Last Friday

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This is not me. Unfortunately.

Of all unholy trinities, books, booze, and wordplay might be my favorite. So let’s just cut to the chase(r):

(Un)Remembrance of Things Pabst

The Hunt for Red Oktoberfest

Fifty Shots of Grey Goose

Are You There God? It’s Me, Margarita

Bridget Jones’s Daiquiri

Last of the Mojitos

Beer and Loathing in Las Vegas

The Hungover Games

Pint and Prejudice

Here’s the full feed, in case you missed it. I don’t know about you, but most of these books sound delicious.

Happy reading (and boozing)!