It’s Bloomsday….what else is a book nerd to do?

james joyceWell, it’s that time of year where the book nerds start their summer reading project. This year: Ulysses by James Joyce. (Previous projects include, War and Peace, Infinite Jest and Brothers Karamazov.)

I am actually pretty excited to read this. I was a bit of a James Joyce fan girl back in my university days. (I may have had a poster of Mr. Joyce on my wall. My book nerd blood runs deep.) I was trying to think back to why I was enamoured with him and his writing. I think it has something to do with the fact that it was different from anything else I had ever read. The short story “The Dead” and his novel “A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man” were to me, at the time super cool. They were a different style. And I felt pretty literary, to be honest. I remember reading “The Dead” in high school and my mind exploded. It was just so good and so different. I am a bit afraid that it was easier when I was younger to have an open mind about reading his stuff. At my advanced age I have expectations of how a book should be, and might not be able to go with the flow. However, I do have confidence in the fact that this book has been around for a while and people are still reading it, so it can’t be THAT bad, right?

As BJ mentioned in his post the book has been in the news lately, being referred to by political figures lately as favourite books. BJ’s right, we don’t want to be thought of as being mainstream. (But, if it’s good enough for Pete Buttigieg, it’s good enough for me!)

After we decided this was our book for the summer, I found a Facebook group: Keep Calm and Read Ulysses. I asked for some advice on how to read it, and got a wide variety of responses. (27 of them, to be exact.) They ranged from: “Read Portrait of an Artist. And Dubliners. Familiarize yourselves with Irish political history. Read the Iliad and the Odyssey” to “Just jump on in.” I am going to go with the jump on in suggestion.

BJ was spot on in his blog post when he compared this to experiencing art – just let it wash over you. I love looking at a Rothko – I have no idea what it means, but I just know it’s something I like. So I am going to be awash in Leopold Bloom….wait, that didn’t come out right.

So as the Facebook group says…let’s Keep Calm and Read Ulysses!

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….


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.

Brush with Infinite Jest


So BJ and I went over to Ann Arbor for a nice lunch and to visit one of our favourite bookstores (that’s Literati if you are wondering, and I would highly suggest you seek it out if you are in the area).

Picture if you will: We are at lunch and can’t help but overhear the two young women who are at the table behind us:

“Some people say that Infinite Jest is over-wrought writing, but I just think that David Foster Wallace was using language as an analogy.”

Wait…what. We both were like…THEY ARE TALKING ABOUT INFINITE JEST!!

First, we found someone who actually read Infinite Jest (other than BJ and I). And second, someone, a real-life person, who actually liked it. It’s like I found big foot, the loch ness monster and a unicorn all in the same place.

Let me confess something right here, I am an introvert by nature and I don’t seek out conversations with people…never mind strangers. But, this was an opportunity that I couldn’t pass up. I told BJ I was going to go over to their table and ask some follow up questions….and he looked a bit like this

say what

I will admit, it was a bit unconventional, but how many chances to you get to talk to a unicorn…I mean someone who has read Infinite Jest.

Luckily, they were pretty chill and happy to talk about literature. I started by confessing that we overheard their conversation and that I pretty much hated Infinite Jest. I did get two nods of understanding on that point. So I asked, why they liked it.

Their response was interesting – basically it boiled down to a couple of things:

  1. Trying to read Infinite Jest as a novel will lead to disappointment. If you approach it in small essay type chunks that is a better approach.
  2. The “story” is an allegory for other things – so it’s not the story itself but what it represents.

I get both of those things. I also admitted that I do think DFW is a brilliant writer, but more of a sprinter writer and not a marathon guy.

I respect their view and found it helpful. But here is the thing for me – when I read I want it to be an escape from my day-to-day drudgery – I want to either be transported or informed. Infinite Jest did neither of those things for me. It was tedious and irritating. Which I don’t find an escape in, since it’s kind of like my regular life.

There is a teeny-tiny part of me that has considered re-reading it to see if I might have a better understanding of it. But here is the thing, life is too short to waste on books that irritate you. So unless I run out of reading material, or I am stranded on a desert island with a copy if Infinite Jest – I don’t see myself trying to crack the code.



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.

Review: American Emperor

american emporerSo, as you might have gathered by now, we’re big Hamilton fans.  We went in November to Chicago to see the show and we’ve both listened to the soundtrack about 950 times.  Can sing all the words.  Etc.

So a co-worker loaned me this book (American Emporer by David O. Stewart) about Aaron Burr, mostly after he shot Alexander Hamilton.  It’s excellent and recommended.  Difficult as it might be to believe, Burr’s life was even more tormented and treacherous after the duel than his life was before shooting Hamilton.

Truly, it’s a Shakespearean Tragedy.  When you get to the end–when his grandson dies and then his beloved daughter dies in a shipwreck on her way to see him for comfort–within days of each other–you’re seeing a life in complete collapse.

We actually heard some of this story when I was in middle school.  We did one of those long-term projects that centered on Blennerhassett Island–a Marietta-area island in the Ohio River that was owned by a rich family (eponymously) and was the location of much of the intrigue.

Stewart captures this perfectly.  It was an idyllic island, beautiful, self-sufficient, wealthy…and then…

Into this Eden slithered Burr.

The Blennerhassetts were no revolutionaries.  They were innocents who were duped by the flattery and persuasion of Aaron Burr–eventually losing everything.  (You can visit the island today, including their mansion.  It is a West Virginia State Park).

Maybe the most interesting thing about the book, though, is that it offers another linkage between books–in this case, The Brothers Karamazov.

So, Burr was put on trial for treason, which history shows us he was 100% guilty.  Much like Dmitry, who was put on trial for a crime for which he was 100% not guilty.

Beyond that, both trials were public spectacles, with huge rooms filled with spectators and more people following the trial in the newspapers.  And in both cases, an all-star team of defense lawyers battled a group of competent but overmatched government bureaucrats.

But the most important difference was that neither trial was actually about what it was supposed to be about.  In Dmitry’s case, he was convicted because there was a dead body and somebody had to be responsible, and he was the only one available to do that.  The arguments were not about whether he did it, but whether his actions afterward were the actions of a man who did it.  Whether it fit with the patterns of before and after.  Or whether there had been a packet of money or not.

But the trial did not turn on whether or not he actually killed his father.

My view is that Dostoyevsky was telling us that the as pure as ideals like justice might be, their translation into human life is naturally flawed.  He made similar observations about the Church.

Burr’s trial was similar.  The actual battle was over a bizarrely bad indictment written by prosecutors, the Framer’s very narrow definition of treason and the fact that Chief Justice John Marshall could not stand his cousin, President Thomas Jefferson.  The drama spun on this, while Burr’s guilt sat in the middle like the eye of a storm.

This is an era of our history that I was less educated on.  In fact, Chernow’s Grant biography combined with this one suggests that we might have been over-taught on the wars and under-taught on the aftermath.  Just one thing to illustrate.  Following the Revolution, there had been a bunch of secession crises in the US, including in New England.  The idea that the West might secede–as Burr dreamed of–looks a little less delusional in the right context.

Beyond all that, this is a great story told well.  To answer the inevitable question, not sure there’s a rap musical in this.  But there is a tragedy–for the stage or film.  Recommended.