Tenth of December
Random House, 2014
This was my first foray into the mind and writings of George Saunders and it was fantastic.
Yes, I am a little late to the Saunders bandwagon, as his writings have racked up awards, and the audiobook production of his first novel Lincoln in the Bardo had a 166-person cast including the voice work of the other short story writer I feel embodies a similar casual-yet-earnest linguistic style, David Sedaris.
Regardless, Tenth of December, was the collection that put Saunders on the map, and deservedly so; it ought to be everyone’s starting place for his work.
The book is a short story collection, but an odd one. The stories in both theme and at times setting bleed into one another fairly seamlessly, with a generally consistent narrative voice throughout. In lesser books, this would cause confusion and make the entire collection feel like a homogeneous blob; but here the distinctions come from plot and character. The stories are darkly hilarious. He’s never “cute” funny, but existentially so.
Yesterday marked the beginning of Advent 2019, a period of time which the Christian Church has historically set aside to meditate on Jesus’ coming into the world at Christmas. It’s usually a time of reflection, meditation, and preparation, leading up to the full-on celebration that is Christmas.
To help focus us in this time, people at my church designed a prayerbook built around the women named in the genealogies of Jesus in the gospels: Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, Bathsheba, and Mary.
You can find downloadable and and web versions of the prayerbook here. Or, if a direct link is easier: PDF / EPUB / MOBI (Kindle) / Web.
Different people put together the daily prayer liturgies, reflections, art, poetry, and seasonal meditations, so there’s variety and depth for those that appreciate and connect with such things. Though it is a product of a particular church congregation, it is put together in such away that anyone, anywhere could engage with it and benefit from it. So download and share it widely and sit with it deeply. We all hope it will be a useful way to stop, reflect, and connect during this season.
I have a very dear, long-time friend who is open about being on the autism spectrum. This has given him the gift of seeing the world and its details in beautiful ways, allowing him to do what Emily Dickinson implores of us, to “tell all the truth but tell it slant.”
Below is a text message he sent me this morning that, with his permission, I’ve turned into a poetic form for you to enjoy. (When I asked him, his exact reply was “You go ahead, Paul!”) Continue reading
Frank Budgen’s illustration of Proteus from James Joyce and the Making of Ulysses
Well, I made it through the chapter that’s famous for keeping people from progressing further through James Joyce’s Ulysses. And boy, let me tell you: this chapter is a trip.
The narrative of the chapter is incredibly straightforward. Stephen Daedalus walks down a beach on his way to drop off a letter. Along the way, he sees a dead dog on the beach, watches a gypsy couple meander towards him with their dog sniffing and exploring, and then he either imagines or witnesses the recovery of a dead body from the water. That’s it.
And yet, in these pages we find an intoxicating writhing of language in its theme, content, style, and technique. The chapter becomes more like a sense memory, larger than the sum of its parts, but also hazy in its exact contours.
Stephen & Proteus
As I wrote a couple of days ago, I’m blogging my way through James Joyce’s Ulysses, trying to give a layperson’s perspective on the chapters in an attempt to demystify it a bit. I previously wrote about Chapter 1, and how it’s incredibly straightforward. However, in Chapter 2, I’m starting to see the subtle storytelling shifts that he book is known for.
I’ve known that Chapter 3 is the sandtrap that gets a lot of readers stuck. It is a full-blown stream-of-consciousness sensory overload in the mind and perspective of Stephen Daedalus. Every thought, observation, and fantasy run together in a constant flow.
Well, I’ve done it. I’ve finally started Ulysses by James Joyce. I’ve done a deep dive into preparatory materials, I’ve talked to those that have taken this journey before, and I’ve read the books that inform the background of this one. And now that I’ve jumped in and finished the first chapter….
I’m feeling pleasantly over-prepared.
As part of my current deep dive into James Joyce’s magnum opus Ulysses, I attended much of the Bloomsday celebrations at The Rosenbach Museum and Library. They live-streamed the entire thing, which you can find on their Facebook page, but I want to post here my favorite part. And no, you don’t have to have read ANY of the book to understand or enjoy this. Also, there aren’t really any “spoilers” of the plot. Ulysses isn’t really that kind of book….
Anyway, here are the performances of the last two chapters–the “Ithaca” and “Penelope” sections, specifically. The first is narrated in a Samuel-Beckett-ish question-and-answer format, like a religious catechism, and it is hilarious. The second is the end of the book when, for the first and only time, the main characters wife, Molly Bloom, takes over the narration as we enter her stream of consciousness while she tries to get to sleep. The performance of Drucie McDaniel is powerful, moving, funny, and poignant. You owe it to yourself to watch this in full. Happy Bloomsday!
The Remains of the Day
Vintage Int’l, 1989
Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day is, as the Amazon product page calls it, “universally acclaimed”. It won the Booker prize the year of its release, and no less a pedigree than Anthony Hopkins and Emma Thompson graced the screen in its film adaptation. I personally received recommendations for this book from people that both know me well and whom I greatly respect for their taste in literature.
Imagine my surprise, and the depth of my self-doubt and questioning of my own aesthetic inventory, when I read this book and really, really despised it.
This Summer, some friends of mine and I will be reading through James Joyce’s Ulysses–a mid-century modernist juggernaut that’s considered by many to be the greatest novel in the English language–and I want to invite all of you to join us. Feel free to pass this post (and its accompanying Google Doc) to anyone and everyone you think might be interested. You can purchase the book here.
The Bloomsday 2019 Kick-Off
Ulysses is at it most basic level, about one 24-hour period on June 16th, 1904 in the life of Leopold Bloom. For book nerds, that calendar day has subsequently been dubbed “Bloomsday”. Here in Philadelphia, there is a library and museum called The Rosenbach which has one of the only complete manuscripts ofUlysses, handwritten by Joyce. Every June 16th they throw a massive day-long block party celebrating Irish culture and James Joyce.
Our little reading group will begin on Bloomsday 2019, and we invite anyone in or near Philadelphia to come to The Rosenbach to party. We’ll then read through the book and, for those interested and able, we’ll occasionally meet in various Irish cafes and pubs around Philly to talk about the book. I’ll also try and blog a bit through the book here.
If you want to be added to an email list for info on the readings and meetings, you can do that on this form. You need not be in the Philadelphia area to join us.
And my person
But it is.
Take your shoes off
Set down your suitcase
And hang your jacket
Enjoy the fire; enjoy the tea
Rock the chair, back and forth
That’s all you can do right now.
Your items will still be there when it’s done.
the mud will be dry, they’ll feel like new
to aid you on your way
is not all that important, frankly
take it or leave it
it doesn’t do much
Not of flesh nor will of man
But of heart by will of Him.
Deep within a shot was cast and burrowed in the bow
The fine line of ecstasy and horror homoousion‘d among
Obedience was found on worthy lips, blessing bestowed for ages come.
Yet the blessing’s joy was found as a bell in the mist,
Meaning: it was not.
Until the rocks came.
it is time
to think about Christ
I keep putting it off.”
Longing and lusting
Raging and seizing
I feel far, Lord.
But I know you’re here. I know it.
It’s the nature of the matter; a matter of nature, I suppose.
Perhaps only now I feel at the deepest existential depths:
“I believe! Help my unbelief!”
We all have those pieces of art–be they movies, books, music, what have you–that upon first exposure we fall in love. We turn the last page or exit the theater or concert hall certain that this will surely be added to our list of favorites and long-held companions. Yet, how many times do we say this and a year or two down the road someone mentions that very piece of art and we find ourselves thinking, “oh yeah, I did read that, didn’t I?” or “I had forgotten how much I loved that album!”
So often we get swept away in the immediate experience of something skipping upon the waters of our soul, leaving little ripples and echoes dancing in its wake. But these dimples and dapples merely play on the surface for a time, returning once more to their source, leaving the waters ultimately undisturbed–the liquid plane unbroken; the deepest depths untouched.
There are other times, however, that we encounter a piece of art–or rather, it encounters us–and we are changed. It transcends mere rankings of “favorites” and “Top 10s” and weaves itself into our fibers. We do not critique and assess it, so much as it sizes and weighs us. The surface tension is broken and we are plunged beneath, staring humanity’s unvarnished truths in the face. And in so doing our own humanity is enlarged, a spaciousness expands in our souls, and we feel more human–even as our foundations are shaken.
John Steinbeck’s 1952 magnum opus, East of Eden, is just this kind of piece of art. It’s the kind of book people say they will read “someday”, only to read it and wish “someday” had come a lot sooner. So if you haven’t read it. Do so. Start today.