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.
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!
Finally starting to tear into Ulysses. I’m finding it not nearly as intimidating as it’s made out to be. But there are many more pages to go. If you want to join me in the reading, check out the reading helps and plan.
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.
This book is nearly a decade old now. It ages well, though now what it says may not seem as immediately new and fresh as it once was. Still, I believe its diagnosis and treatment are just as relevant today as it was then.
Ultimately, as laid out in its introduction, this book (and the series of subsequent books which follow it), seek to lay out a fourth way (“third” ways are soooo 2008) “beyond a reductionistic secularism, beyond a reactive and intransigent fundamentalism, and beyond a vague, consumerist spirituality”. In this sense, this book is a great success.
Implicit in its prescribed antidote, this book offers the same diagnosis for each of the three problematic ways of existing in the world, despite their radically different orientations–a fundamental disembodying of the human person, as exemplified by their anemic relationship to practices, both communal and private.
To that end, the book outlines ancient historical and theological foundations to spiritual practices. A refreshing aspect of this is that his list goes well beyond the typical Evangelical “pray-and-read-your-Bible quiet time” approach to spiritual practices. There are treatments given to Christian mystical traditions often overlooked by contemporary American Evangelicals, especially when it comes to contemplative, apophatic, and negative theological traditions, wherein one experiences connection through the divine by stopping activity and cogitation to experiencing an emptying rather than a filling.
“Truth is identity between intellect and reality. A lie is a knowing and intentional violation of the truth.”
With these words,Judge Andrew Napolitano draws the battle lines within which he will fight for the rest of this book, Lies the Government Told You: Myth, Power, and Deception in American History. Unfortunately, though, these lines are where the book’s liabilities also fall.
The book goes through a series of principles on which the American mythos has been built and offers vivid anecdotes, data, history, and musings as to how the American government has not only fallen short of these ideals, but has codified and structuralized the outright denial of those ideals.
There’s a little something for every political stripe here. For example, the opening chapter, “All Men are Created Equal”, spends most of its time sounding like a Black Lives Matter treatise, recounting the views of slavery by the founding fathers, disillusioning the Lincoln-as-great moral-Liberator myth (arguing that Lincoln freed slaves more out of political calculus than genuine moral courage), and the systemic injustice of Jim Crow. In this, he talks like an activist trying to show how America has never been on the side of black humans. And yet, he ends the chapter by waxing away about how affirmative action is just one more version of “government sanctioned racism”.
I know it’s a little long for a quote, but I promise, it’s very worth your time:
Within Christianity, the masculine image of God is often defined in these terms of control, power and dominion. Much of the Christian faith, though, requires that men recognize their limitations and depend on God. We accept salvation through his son and sanctification by the power of the Holy Spirit. It is a faith where the last shall be first (Mk 10:31), marked by a life of service to others….
Consider the definition offered by John Piper: “At the heart of mature masculinity is a sense of benevolent responsibility to lead, provide for and protect women in ways appropriate to a man’s differing relationships” ([Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood] Piper and Grudem, 2006, p. 35). It is a definition that emphasizes leading, providing for and protecting women. But it offers no insight on how men relate to one another. Depending on your reading of this definition, it either smacks of male chauvinism or places greater value on women’s needs. No doubt well intentioned, it offers little guidance for men who are already confused, wounded and lost about their masculinity….
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.
Washington: A Life by Ron Chernow
2010, Penguin Books
Kindle / Paperback
Along with so many of you, I have spent the past year-and-a-half poring over the stories of our Founding Fathers in response to the musical Hamilton. I admit it: I know every song, every lyric, and I’ve been fascinated by the subtle nuances and references to historical details behind the lyrics. Complicating matters, I was steeped in these Wikipedia pages and (the amazingly comprehensive) Genius lyrics annotations all while there was a heated Presidential campaign going on.
All these factors came together to give me a new life-goal: to read a major biography on every President of the United States. And so I picked up my copy of Ron Chernow’s fantastic book Washington: A Life (for Hamilton fans, you may recognize Chernow as the author of the book on which the musical is based).
Appropriately, I finished the book this past Monday, President’s Day (previously celebrated as Washington’s Birthday). It’s the longest book I’ve ever read (weighing in at 905 small print pages), but easily one of the most enjoyable. Continue reading
“It has occasionally occurred to me when in [Washington’s] company, that if a stranger to his person were present, they would never have known from anything said by the president that he was conscious of having distinguished himself in the eyes of the world.”
—Bishop William White on Washington’s refusal to boast
Though the Constitution said nothing about an inaugural address, Washington, in an innovative spirit, contemplated such a speech as early as January 1789 and asked a “gentleman under his roof ”—David Humphreys—to draft one. Washington had always been economical with words, but the collaboration with Humphreys produced a wordy document, seventy- three pages long, which survives only in tantalizing snippets.
In this curious speech, Washington spent a ridiculous amount of time defending his decision to become president, as if he stood accused of some heinous crime. He denied that he had accepted the presidency to enrich himself, even though nobody had accused him of greed: “In the first place, if I have formerly served the community without a wish for pecuniary compensation, it can hardly be suspected that I am at present influenced by avaricious schemes.” Addressing a topical concern, he disavowed any desire to found a dynasty, pleading his childless state.
I’m currently reading Ron Chernow’s biography of George Washington, and it is astonishingly good (I believe the proper word is “magisterial”). In the book, I’m currently in the late 80s (the 1780s, that is), in the odd period after the War, but before he was drafted into Presidential politics. He’s having old friends visit him at Mount Vernon while he’s doing renovations after its long wartime neglect.
One of those friends was Washington’s first real biographer, David Humphreys–an aide of Washington’s during the War. He liked Humphreys so much that after the British defeat at Yorktown, Washington had him take the British flags from the fort and deliver them in person to Congress as the sign of victory.