Monday, December 31, 2007

Radcliffe Wrapup

So why did I read Finnegans Wake? Lots of answers to this, really. For bragging rights. For street cred as an English teacher. To finish one huge chunk of my reading list project, which I started years ago. Because it was a challenge, and I love a challenge. So I could speak intelligently about Joyce without dissembling. Because it is a work of genius (and ego, and penis, but also genius). Because it was fun. Because it was there?

Why did I read all the books on the Radcliffe list? Some of the same reasons. Before I started my reading project, I had never read any Hemingway, Faulkner, Woolfe, Cather, Vonnegut, or James, among others. Keep in mind, this is after I graduated from college and was halfway through graduate school. Keep in mind, I read constantly and always have, and consider myself a literate person. Keep in mind that my goal has always been to teach English. You can see that those gaps in my exposure to literature were not small ones.

Here is where it all started in the year 2000. Holy shit, have I really spent seven years on this project so far? Insane. (Well, it's not like I wouldn't have been reading anyway.) Really, it's been fantastic. Although some of the books on this list gave me physical pain (Atlas Shrugged, anyone?) there are so many amazing books and authors on here that I never would have discovered otherwise. Here are some lists of the list for you.

Ten Books I'd Kick Off the List
This is purely based on my own personal taste, not on what I think "should" be on the list. Here are 10 that I simply didn't enjoy.
1. Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand
2. Women in Love by D.H. Lawrence
3. Look Homeward, Angel by Thomas Wolfe
4. Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys
5. Lord Jim by Joseph Conrad
6. An American Tragedy by Theodore Dreiser
7. Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck
8. The Jungle by Upton Sinclair
9. The Satanic Verses by Salman Rushdie
10. A Passage to India by E.M. Forster

Runners up included (as much as I love James and Wharton) both The Bostonians and Ethan Frome, as well as Rabbit, Run, Heart of Darkness, The Wind in the Willows, and The Naked and the Dead. A lot of my issues with these books is that I couldn't get past the misogyny (like Women in Love) or that I don't think they have aged well (like The Jungle). Also, I apparently don't like books about India, as A Passage to India, Kim, and both Rushdie books were on my shortlist. I also don't like allegories much, since I also shortlisted The Old Man and the Sea and The Lord of the Flies. Nice to know these things about myself.

My Personal Top Ten
What are the ten best books on this list? The ten best books in literature. Crap, this is harder than picking the ten worst. I want to include Finnegans Wake just because it is such a genius book, but it's the opposite of accessible, willfully obtuse, and I think that's a strike against it. We'll call it number eleven.

1. Portrait of a Lady by Henry James
2. All the King's Men by Robert Penn Warren
3. Beloved by Toni Morrison
4. Lolita by Vladmir Nabokov
5. The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway
6. Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut
7. The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton
8. Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf
9. Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh
10. Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier

Runners up were books I've loved for a really long time (White Noise, A Clockwork Orange, Catch-22) some classics that I'm sure you all know and love that I'm just going to take as read because otherwise this list would be impossible (The Catcher in the Rye, The Great Gatsby, To Kill a Mockingbird) and a couple of great American novels (Go Tell It on the Mountain, the Grapes of Wrath). Honorable mentions also go to The Maltese Falcon, A Separate Peace, In Cold Blood, The Wings of the Dove, To the Lighthouse, and Death Comes for the Archbishop. Also, it killed me to cut Franny and Zooey, which I love more than Catcher in the Rye, and which you should all read.

Not on the Radcliffe list, but would have made this even harder? The Remains of the Day and, of course, Pale Fire.

So there you go. Feel free to take a gander at the Radcliffe list and let me know what you've read, what you loved, what you hated, and whether you agree with me or not!

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Friday, December 28, 2007

Finnegans Wake (by James Joyce)

Fuck yeah!

(Er, more later. Is it too early to open some champagne?)


A Skeleton Key to Finnegans Wake (by Joseph Campbell and Henry Morton Robinson)

My hat is absolutely off to these two, the first to really extract a throughline from a book that is, at first glance*, utterly incomprehensible. I still have no idea how they did it. When I was reading their framework and then turning to the applicable passage in the book, I could sometimes barely extract a word or a phrase that enabled me to say, "Oh yes, that's where they got that."

(*I typed "at first glass" which is so totally Joycean; I will have to save that for a poem.)

I think Joyce himself did a lot of explaining, when the Wake was published, about the characters (which is how you know HCE and ALP's real names, which aren't even in the book anywhere with 100 percent accuracy as far as I remember) and about his sigla (the symbols that signify the characters in their various forms, which, again, are not in the book for the most part). That's the most frustrating thing about Joyce; would it have killed him to include some of this incredibly vital information IN THE TEXT ITSELF? Like the chapter titles in Ulysses. Sometimes it's like he wants to remove any possibility of comprehension, and that seems like needless ego.

Anyway, I read a critic somewhere or other who said that the Skeleton Key is reductive in the worst way, that it's the lowest common denominator version of Finnegans Wake that does a disservice to people who read it. That's ridiculous, really. First of all, anyone intelligent enough to read the Skeleton Key (which is in itself not easy) and make it through the Wake will obviously see that there's far more in the text than the Key can possibly cover. But it's absolutely essential (at least it was for me) to know which characters turn into which other characters, the basics of what's happening, who's talking, and what it all means.

However, it certainly doesn't negate any of the other interpretations of the book. This critic seems to think readers will swallow the Key whole and cease to think for themselves, but that's ludicrous. I have a great example from today, where the Key translates "...little eggons, youlk and meelk, in a farbiger pancosmos. With a hottyhammyum all round." into "ham and eggs for all." Of course that's reductive, and it has to be, or else the Key would be twelve times as long as the Wake. But I enjoyed extracting my own meaning from the text; for instance, I took "little eggons, youlk and meelk" to mean that our lives ("you" and "me") are "little eons." And I'm sure you can read a hundred other things into those two short sentences.

So, my point is, thank god for the Skeleton Key, because without it, I wouldn't have been able to read Finnegans Wake at all. Obviously it was a starting point in Joyce scholarship, and I take it in that light. I look forward to reading more recent scholarship, but I tip my hat once again to the men who gave critics everywhere a place to start.


Thursday, December 27, 2007

Page 601

I don't want to get too confident, here, but I'm on page 611 and there are only 628 pages in the book. I think I might even finish it tomorrow (three days to spare)! I have to say, though, I felt incredibly obtuse today.

I'm reading the final part of the book, and it is basically the ending/beginning of the cycle. Just for a bit of background, the book is essentially about cycles. (You may know that the book ends in the middle of a sentence, and the book opens with the end of that sentence, so the whole book is a big cycle.) In this part of the book, part four, the cycle has ended--but at the same time is about to begin. (There are references to Vishnu, who is dreaming, and whose dream is the universe, which ties in so beautifully with dreams, another huge theme of the book.) In addition to the theme of cycles and dreams, the book has countless examples of places where there are layers upon layers upon layers of meaning, often in just a single word or portmanteau word.

So knowing both of these things, and basically understanding them for the past 600 pages (and full year of reading) you will know why I felt kind of dense when I realized that the "wake" in Finnegans Wake is not only the awakening of the book's dreamer (in some interpretations) and the vigil that is alluded to in the song ("lots of fun at Finnegan's Wake"), but also refers to the events of the book taking place IN THE WAKE of Finnegan, who is the primordial father figure. Since everything has already happened and is about to happen, it all comes in the wake of Finnegans fall, which is man's primitive fall, etc. etc.

Okay, typing this out, I don't know if it makes any sense at all. But trust me, I should have figured this out about 550 pages ago.


Last Night at the Lobster (by Stewart O'Nan)

Another very very fast read (a novella) but a delightful little character study. It's about the last night at a Red Lobster that is closing; it's really about the manager, Manny. Although I would have enjoyed the relationships and secondary characters to be fleshed out a little more, I still loved the mood and feel of this. It's very familiar to people who have worked in food service or retail (I worked at Starbucks for three years; my sister was a server for many years and I spent a lot of time at her restaurant.) I actually found Manny's stickler attitude somewhat annoying by the end, but it felt very real to me. The relationships didn't resonate as much as they should have; possibly it was that the two primary women in Manny's life didn't come to life for me as characters. So, not perfect. But still recommended.

Saturday, December 22, 2007

We Have Always Lived in the Castle (by Shirley Jackson)

Recommended by jen fu, yay! I was impressed first of all by how extremely well written it is, with an impressively simple precision of language, and wonderfully strange characters. I wasn't sure if the ending was supposed to be a twist; it wasn't particularly surprising but it's still chilling and wonderful. I don't want to say too much and give it away. It's a quick read but really well done. If you liked "The Lottery" (Jackson's famous short story) you might be even more impressed with this!

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Born Standing Up (by Steve Martin)

I love Steve Martin. I decided a few years ago that if I could grant immortality to five famous people, he would be one of them. (Basically I realized I would be extremely depressed if any of the following people died: Steve Martin, Dick Van Dyke, Bea Arthur, David Bowie, and [sniff] John Ritter.) Anyway, I adore Steve Martin. I am a huge fan of his films (especially L.A. Story, Bowfinger, and Three Amigos) and his writing (especially his novellas); less so of his standup, which this book chronicles. And yet it's still written in perfect Steve Martin style; wry, dry, impeccable.

I should get this on audiobook, assuming he reads it. It would be fun to listen to him describe his standup act and re-enact some of his comic bits, as opposed to just reading it on the page. But even reading it on the page is delightful. I love the comedy anecdotes (he mentions the song that inspired L.A. Story) and his Disneyland memories. It's just a delightful read, that's all. Thanks to Ian who gave me this book for Christmas!

The House on Mango Street (by Sandra Cisneros)

Suggested by Sony as a potential text for my class next year, and currently the front runner. (It fits all the criteria I had for the book and also meshes very nicely with my nonfiction choice.) It's an incredibly quick read (probably took me about an hour), and is deceptively simple and easy to understand, yet it's layered, poetic, relatable... perfect. I'm already excited about teaching it.

I am kind of tempted to write an erudite analysis of it here, just to see if any students next year Google the book title and then plagiarize my post. Irony!

Monday, December 10, 2007

Tears of the Giraffe (by Alexander McCall Smith)*

Second book in the No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency series, on audiobook. Read by the same reader who did the first book. I liked it just as much, although I thought some of the plot twists at the end were a little too neat, and the central mystery and major conflicts were each too easily solved. (For instance, that business with the maid.) Okay, maybe I didn't like it just as much! I did still enjoy it though, and right away I tried to buy the third one, except iTunes doesn't like me. But there were charming vignettes (such as engagement ring shopping and the story of the orphans) that kept me interested. I'm definitely hooked on the series, and will get the next one ASAP!

Sunday, December 09, 2007

Eleanor Rigby (by Douglas Coupland)

I tend to read all of Coupland's stuff and enjoy most of it (I hated Microserfs, sorry everyone), so I picked up Eleanor Rigby in a used book store. I'd never heard of it, but I figured the odds were on my side. And I did enjoy it, although I don't quite buy the ending; Coupland's characters do tend to behave in ways that normal people never would behave. I guess that's what you're getting yourself into, reading his stuff.

The thing is, today I was on call for work and I am also sick with a cold/flu type thing. I read a big chunk of Finnegans Wake and once I'd maxed out on that, I switched to this book. I guess all I've done today is read, because I just realized I started Eleanor Rigby this morning (and finished it) and I got to page 554 of Finnegans Wake.

This hasn't told you anything about the book. Well, it's good--not too crazy, and not too implausible. The depiction of the main character and narrator--spinsterish, lonely--is spot-on. I wish Coupland had just kept the events of the book smaller and more realistic. Except then he would be a completely different writer.