Ulysses: A Potato

11-idaho-potato.w700.h700One of the fun things about reading these books which come from another culture is that you can learn about the culture in ways you wouldn’t expect.  Yes, you can learn about the psychology of the people, their religious culture, system of justice, etc.

You can also learn about the potato.

To wit:

On the doorstep he felt in his pocket for the latchkey.  Not there.  In the trousers I left off.  Potato I have.

OH.  So you have your potato.  Duly noted.  You’re leaving the house for the day, but you have, you know, your potato.  Or A potato.  Maybe there are many.

There’s a very good chance that if you were reading this in its time, you might have nodded your head.  Of course, Leopold has his potato.  Why wouldn’t he?

But, to the modern mind, we can only say this:

What the hell was he doing with his potato in his pocket?

What the ever-loving hell.

Here’s the deal.  It was…or is…a thing.

If you google potato in your pocket, you find lots of helpful information and not one Mae West reference.  Right now, I’m working off botanical.com, which might or might be authoritative.

To carry a raw potato in the pocket was an old-fashioned remedy against rheumatism that modern research has proved to have a scientific basis.

See?  Potato I have.  It was a thing.  More…

Ladies in former times had special bags or pockets made in their dresses in which to carry one or more small raw potatoes for the purpose of avoiding rheumatism if predisposed thereto.

They had pockets sewn in their dresses TO HOLD THE POTATOES.  They carried ONE OR MORE raw potatoes.  Now, importantly, this wasn’t something you did for just anyone.  You had to be predisposed.  The ad would go like this:

“If you have a family history of rheumatism, ask your doctor if carrying a potato might be right for you.”

Now we have a chance to duck back and revisit that whole “scientific basis” thing.

Successful experiments in the treatment of rheumatism and gout have in the last few years been made with preparations of raw potato juice. In cases of gout, rheumatism and lumbago the acute pain is much relieved by fomentations of the prepared juice followed by an application of liniment and ointment.

All right, then.  So, the use of potato juice can impact rheumatism if ingested.  That has a scientific basis.  But there’s no basis cited for a potato in the pocket having a “scientific basis” for curative powers.

Point is, you can find something like that and drill down and learn something which is both interesting and essentially trivial and of no use in everyday life.  Problem is, in a book like this, where there’s about 10 references on every page with the same kind of depth, you might read around one chapter a year.  Compromises have to be made.

But not on the potato.

 

Pretender of Pretenders

IMG_SandymountStrabd1461Remember two posts ago…all the brave talk about how “hard ons should be gotten honestly or they shouldn’t be gotten at all” and how Ulysses is words on a page, nothing more?

In Joyce’s words…

Pretenders of pretenders, then and now.

So, as referenced in Barb’s post, chapter two was not unreadable.  In fact, it was mostly dialogue and actually was relatively easy to track.  It was Chapter 3 where the pretenders were exposed.

It’s rough.  Following Barb’s advice, I read the analysis in The New Bloomsbury first and then went to read the text.  This was not especially successful if by that you mean “not successful.”  So I was reduced to reading a section of TNB, then a section of the book, and then back and forth until I got to the end.

One of the problems is that the third chapter is entirely (or 98%) inside Stephen’s head, and Joyce means to capture what goes on inside someone’s head, which is a messy and distorted set of memories and associations climbing over one another on their to the surface.

The Chapter is named Proteus.  I did a little refreshing on my mythology.  Proteus was a proteus_589sea god who knew the truth but had to be captured before he would tell it.  To avoid capture, he was capable of changing his shape to other things…which gives us our current word, protean.

It’s a beautiful association with the sea.  Anyone who has watched the ocean has seen it take many forms and colors.  Joyce is as good as anyone at cataloging the many looks of the sea, ranging from grey to snotgreen.  It’s a wonderful way to capture the mysteries of the ocean.

Daedelus’ goal is nothing less than stripping down the mind’s processes to the bare studs in an effort to finally understand how the mind and the world relate.  He gets as far back to Aristotle’s theory of “forms.”

At one point, he’s trying to flip flop his perception, first “seeing” something as he’s “seeing” it, and then another viewing it as if it were an abstraction, like a painting.  (Have you ever done that?  Picture what you are looking at and wondering how it would look if it were painted, maybe by an early impressionist.  There are apps that do this, too.  See below).

He also questions the very idea of art:

You find my words dark.  Darkness is in our souls do you not think.

In other words, if a work of art is seen as dark, who made it dark…the creator or the viewer.

And we can see how perfectly Protean this all is.  The mind is ever-shifting, between what is seen and what is perceived, once it is filtered through our “soul, shamewounded by our sin.”  Yet truth is in there, but it must be captured first.  Good luck.

I don’t feel too bad about needing help.  I don’t know if it will be necessary for all the sections.  This is unlike anything else I’ve read.  However, beneath the allusions and the invented words and the relentless speed, there’s real genius.

Episode One: Eesh

SeapointSo, I’ve finished Episode 1, Telemachus.  Man, it was something else.  I had to read the section twice, with a quick reading of the Episode 1 recap in The New Bloomsday sandwiched in between.

This book earns its reputation for being hard to read.  Honestly, the first reading was like reading a book after all the words were dumped on the floor and slapped back together.  Very confusing and disorienting.  Barb joked by asking how many people were involved in the episode…when that’s where you are on basic facts, it isn’t going to be easy.  The problem is, I think I almost got into a fugue state as a reader–expecting things to be disorienting–but in reality, once you get oriented–once you look for the narrative and not the confusion–the story is actually more direct than it seemed.

So, I had gutted through.  The first section is 18 pages or so and it took me like three separate sittings to get through it.  If you want to call what I did getting through it.  I got to the last word.

Anyway, last night I picked up the New Bloomsday and read the summary of the episode–which is like five dense pages on its own–with the plan of starting episode 2.  Instead, just for fun, I read episode 1 again, and this time I read it like a normal 18 pages…in like 15 minutes, with flow and sense to it and I actually appreciated what people say about the book.  It was energetic and poetic and picturesque.  The use of language and metaphor is truly brilliant.  He can describe the changing sea landscape in more pitch perfect ways than I ever imagined could be done.  More on that later.

So this leaves me with two options.  One is to read the Bloomsday first and then the next episode.  Or, read the episode, and then Bloomsday and then read it again, which, as Barb points out, means I am going to read Ulysses twice.  She mentioned that it might get easier from here on in, now that I have cracked the code, that’s true, it might.

So, for episode 2 I’m going to try and do it the right way and read the text the first time in an uncoached fashion before reading the recap.  We’ll see.

One thing I did notice.  You absolutely have to read and focus on every word.  Lots of us scan/read, but that won’t work here.  The book requires your full attention because major changes drop in two words and in the flow of the narrative, without the signaling we have gotten used to.

On we go….

Summer Reading Project: Ulysses

dublin 1904So, we’re back!  It’s time for the annual reading project…where Barb and I read a very long book that is considered to be unreadable.

The first was War and Peace.  Next, Infinite Jest, followed by The Brothers Karamazov.  This year it’s Ulysses.

I’m not going to lie.  This is the one I am most nervous about.  Ulysses is famously unreadable.  Major authors and literary figures–from Philip Roth to Virginia Woolf–have found it impossible to finish.  JOSE LUIS BORGES couldn’t finish it.  Have you ever read one of HIS books?  When I see it compared to The Waste Land, which I found impenetrable in college, I begin to shudder.

In fact, I re-read the Waste Land as a warm-up last week and it didn’t fill me with confidence.

A moment ago I told Barb that Ulysses is just words on a page…but who’s kidding who?

Of course, it’s no coincidence that we are starting today since it is Bloomsday.  June 16th is literally the day that is captured in the book.

I was reading around trying to find advice on how to read the book. First, as a digression, I found that Joe Biden, Pete Buttererergieg, and Beto O’Rourke (listed here in reverse order of insufferability) have been praising Ulysses.  Which we are not in favor of.  We don’t want to be trendy.

Anyway, my reading found two types of advice on how to read the book.  The first is to have the book open, with a Ulysses-companion on one side and a reader’s companion of literature on the other.

The other is recommended here by British Labour Leader Jeremy Corbyn, who shows a touch for nuanced thought not seen during Question Time.  His advice:

But then “you stop trying to focus on the narrative and start just enjoying the vignettes”.

Or, just let the work wash over you, like a symphony or, more importantly, abstract art.  When you see this….

rothko

you feel what it makes you feel.  You don’t have to understand it.  And putting a bunch of academics between you and the work isn’t respectful of you, as a reader.

As delivered by Robert DeNiro in Analyze This, “a hard-on should be gotten honestly or it shouldn’t be gotten at all.”

Yes, I understand that Joyce has layered the work with a rich set of allusions that I’m likely not to catch.  That’s no crime…the only person to catch them all would have lived in Dublin in 1904.

So, my general practice is to read a section straight through, experientially.  Then, if you like, you can look back and see what was layered inside the section.  You just can’t read four words, look up the meaning and then pick it up again for another four words.  You won’t capture any of the famous rhythm of the book.

gablerWe picked the “Gabler Edition.”  This is a story in and of itself.  Apparently, previous editions of Ulysses contained a lot of mistakes, both from difficulty transcribing the original manuscripts and from Joyce’s lack of proofreading.  So Gabler decided to get a committee together and go through the whole thing line by line and fix what ended up being hundreds of mistakes.

At first, this was well received, but then there seems to have been a backlash about new mistakes being introduced, etc.  So far as I can see, knowledgable (let’s not say reasonable) people disagree, so we’re going to let it ride with Dr. Gabler.

One last thing.  The book is notable for being dirty and censored.  I hope I’m not too dense to find the dirty parts.  As Corbyn said:

You almost feel sorry for the censors who had to read and try and understand it, until they found something they deemed offensive.

No one said it would be easy.

So off we go.

Review: Power Ball

power ballIt is more or less a coincidence that I am following up a Bill James book with a Rob Neyer book.  Neyer is a James protege and a really good writer in his own right.  Truly enjoyed his book about going to every game at Fenway Park for a season, for example.

I picked up his new book, Power Ball, right around polar vortex time so I could read about something associated with summer.  As an English major, we were taught about framing tales, in which a story existed within a bigger story.  Hamlet and the Canterbury Tales are good examples.  Well, in this case, the framing tale is a very close following of one game–between Houston and Oakland.

This is not an original idea.  Daniel Okrent wrote a similar book called Nine Innings…and Neyer references it many times during this writing.  I will say that the Neyer book is pretty thin on paying off the concept of it being about one game…entire innings get summarized in just a paragraph.

That’s fine, though.  Because what you do get is a state-of-the-union address for baseball, except not provided by the Commissioner but by an outside party willing to point things out.

Neyer dives DEEP into modern baseball–launch angle, scouting, analysis, tanking, drafting, pitching…all of it.  It is an education, even if you think you’re a fan.

The most important takeaway is that the game is not in great shape.  Yes, TV money keeps coming in because all these sports networks need something to show in the summer.  But ratings and attendance are much softer.

Why?  Well, he notes a couple things I will call out.

First, because of the salaries, teams have a philosophy that they either want to win 90 or lose 90.  When teams are trading and slashing salaries, it gives the local fan little reason to watch a team that is either trying to lose or indifferent to winning.  Baseball doesn’t help by using the trade deadline to generate interest.  I saw an MLB Network segment on opening day last year that was “Buyers and Sellers.”

The other issue is the pace of play.  Baseball has focused on the time of games, which Neyer contends is a kind of target of convenience.  It’s relatively easy to fix.  But the larger problem, he suggests, is the lack of action during the game.  I would agree.

Who cares if you cut 8 minutes off a game time–and you can’t, anyway?  Most of the people left in the 7th inning.  What is killing baseball is the “two outcome” philosophy, which is a home run or a strikeout.  Less stuff happens.  There’s way fewer balls in play, fewer good catches, less baserunning, fewer close plays, stolen bases etc.  (Neyer provides evidence for all this).

Just as an example, I remember Adam Dunn coming up to bat for the Reds with two outs and a runners on base in a decisive situation.  Crowd cheering, people clapping.  Exciting.  Except he took six straight pitches, struck out, and walked back to the dugout.  Perhaps what the analytics said to do…but not what the fan wants to see.

When people like Neyer and John Thorn, baseball’s OFFICIAL HISTORIAN, see it this way, it seems like people would be interested.

There’s no irony lost on the fact that James and Neyer were at the vanguard of the intellectual revolution that lies behind most of these changes.  Neyer does offer a prescription…which involve pretty radical changes to the rules, but nothing out of scale based on baseball’s history.

This book is good, even given its flimsy frame.  If you care about baseball, it is “mind candy,” as advertised.

Review: The Man From the Train

So here’s the thing.

I don’t like true crime.

Except every time I read a True Crime book, I like it.  So go figure.

Like the Mardi Link books from up North.  Or The Adversary.  Or the Monster of Florence.  Darker Than Night.

No, I don’t like it.

I think the whole label thing is a distraction and unproductive.  Good storytelling is when the page turns.

Save that thought.

So, Bill James is mostly a baseball writer.  He’s famous for being a baseball writer.  He popularized Sabermetrics, which changed (and possibly ruined) baseball.  The reason he became famous while the other quants who had done much of the work didn’t is that the man writes like a dream.  He can write as a storyteller, as an explainer and as a persuader.  He could write about numbers and history.  His writing also has a conversational style–speaking right to you, essentially through a literary fourth wall–and an energy, passion and joy that were infectious.

Those original Baseball Abstracts were unforgettable.

Today, James works for the Boston Red Sox.  He has also indulged a new hobby…true crime.

So, I picked up The Man From the Train.  Co-written by his daughter, the book is the story of a serial killer who brutally murdered entire families with the blunt end of an ax in the late 1800s and early 1900s.  His nickname came from the fact that his crimes took place near trains…he would commit the murder and then hop on a train and skip town.

It’s a great story.  The details…even after all this time… are just shocking and captivating.  This is a truly evil individual.  In fact, depending on how tolerant you are of counting murders that are similar but not identical to the straight MO, he could be the biggest serial killer in US History.

Even using only the strictest definition, he’s one of the worst.

The book promises more than just storytelling, though.  It promises to solve the crime.

And a solution is proposed.  It hardly solves the crime, because such a thing is not possible at this point.  The proposed killer is a plausible solution–probably the most plausible–but a lot of suppositions and assumptions are supporting it and it’s just as likely that someone else no one ever heard of committed the crimes.

Let us not let that distract us, though.  It actually doesn’t matter who really did it.  The solution they found is impressive for the depth of research it took to find it and take it to its full conclusion.

Three things stand out.

First, the book is entertaining and educational.  Who cares if it over-sells the conclusion a little?

Second, the book reveals something about human nature.  Many of these murders occurred relatively near each other and they were sensational and made big news.  Yet, whenever one did occur, the idea that someone hopped off the train and killed this family more or less at random and certainly without any previous connection was unthinkable to authorities EVEN THOUGH IT HAD HAPPENED RECENTLY ELSEWHERE…possibly because it is so dark, evil and unthinkable that it is less threatening to find other solutions.  Because a killer like that is a mythological monster who puts everyone at risk.

And yet, just as the defense lawyer at Fyodor’s trial in The Brothers Karamazov says, there are these/this dead bodies and something has to be done about it.  So, the second thing was that the reason the crimes weren’t solved as they were happening was that everyone dismissed the real answer out of hand.

Much like me and true crime.

The third thing is the effect of the second.  If it wasn’t someone random, then it had to be someone with a connection.  Which (since we know it isn’t true), requires the shoe-horning of reality into fantasy.  It reminds me a little of the alternate theories that were created by astronomers during Copernican times to explain the obvious fact that the earth rotates around the sun–something everyone knew but couldn’t accept, for one reason or another.

Back in the Man From the Train, what happened in more than one community was a kind of mass hysteria where a town turned against a completely innocent man because that was the only solution available, once you eliminated the one that happened.  This mass hysteria was so strong that it kept even professional investigators from noting what was happening in other communities.  In one town, a whole human carnival came to visit, with a private investigator–a kind of sick Henry Hill type guy who maliciously prosecuted a man who was innocent in a patently obvious fashion.

The ability to mobilize a community behind fear and false facts should give us pause today.  Also, those who believe that privatizing government services is the way to go should read this book and see how it worked when the US had effectively privatized detective work.  (Those are bonuses).

So, with all that, who cares if the actual solution is more of a suggestion.  The story is entertaining and grimly absorbing.  The killer, whoever he was, was a cold, brutal killing genius.  The insights into human nature make the book a learning experience as well.

Review: The Dakota Winters

dakota wintersWhen we were in Ann Arbor a couple weeks ago, we went over to Nicola’s books.  (Literati, we’ll catch you next time.)  One of the things I like to do is go over to the Staff Picks section and see what’s there.  Buying and reading one of those books will tend to keep you out of ruts.

I don’t have a system.  I try to find some literary but not genre-y.  Which led me to The Dakota Winters by Tom Barbash.  The book isn’t about the winter in South Dakota.  It is about a family named Winters who live in The Dakota, and by that I mean THE DAKOTA, as in the place where super-rich people live and John Lennon was killed.

As readers of this blog know, reading about rich people is a guilty pleasure.  In this case, the head of the family is a Johnny Carson-like talk show host who had a nervous breakdown on the air and his family, including the main character, who has come home after catching malaria in the Peace Corps.

The book is set in the late 70’s in New York, so sort of before it got all cleaned up, and we all know what’s happening in the early 80’s at the Dakota.  And, our character gets to know John Lennon, going so far as to teach the great man how to sail.

A lot of the reviews of the book discuss this as a book that is a story of its time and place and I would definitely agree.  I found myself absorbed into the world of the book–much like Gentleman from Moscow.  It takes you to Hollywood, the 1980 Olympics, and, of course, The Dakota.

It is extremely readable.  The characters are strong, you root for them, and the whole thing unfolds elegantly and effortlessly in a way you have to admire.  The book is funny and not overwrought.  There’s emotion, but we’re not overdoing it or turning it into Anne Tyler.

The main thing that bothered me–and this was next to nothing, but not nothing–was some of the Lennon dialogue.  He’d be having discussions with a group of people and he’d say something, sort of out of the side of his mouth, like “just like Paul, on a power trip,” and it was jarring to me.  It happened three or four times, and it took me out of the moment for a second.

It just felt forced and artificial.  It’s entirely possible that you could never write fictional dialogue for John Lennon that would please me–I had a serious John Lennon phase in the 80’s–but I do feel like you could have gotten the same thing done with the story with Lennon never talking about the Beatles.

My feeling on this receded a little bit when I read the acknowledgments and saw the amount of research that Barbash did on Lennon to make the writing realistic.  He truly did his homework.  (In fact, if you should read the book, the sailing trip to Bermuda is real.)  Still, jarring is jarring.

Yoko is mentioned but never appears, FYI.

But that’s like four sentences.  The book is really enjoyable and smart.  There are good riffs (get it?) on stardom, mental health, family, redemption, etc.  And you get a free ride along with celebrities.  It’s a well-earned four stars from me.