Is Two Books A Haul? Sure, Why Not!

One of the prompts for the Blog Challenge Project is “Write a post about a recent book haul!” And that caught my eye, because fairly unusually for me these days, I have a recent book haul.

I say fairly unusually, which may surprise those of you who know how much I love to not just read books, but acquire and keep books. Like a lot of people who love reading, I also love having books. A full bookcase makes a place feel like home in a way that a house without my books in it just doesn’t.

But over the past few years, it’s been more and more challenging to indulge that pleasure. Buying books is expensive, especially with the mass market paperback in a death spiral. More vitally, I’ve moved twice in the past two-years-and-a-bit, and now that I’ve joined forces with my Special Friend, space is at even more of a premium. We share the bookshelves, and I still have a couple of boxes set aside in our storage space that are no less deserving of being shelved. Adding to the stack feels irresponsible and a little unfair of me.

So, most of my reading these days is of library e-books, which cost nothing, take up no space, and can go with me wherever my phone goes. Buying print books is a rare treat.

But the COVID-19 pandemic calls for a treat if anything does.

So yes, I took myself to Indigo, the online side of Chapters, Canada’s Barnes & Noble-equivalent national bookstore chain, and I placed an order.

For a whopping two books! At the same time!

Hey, by my current standards, that’s a haul.

And my order, happily, arrived last week.


Booooooooooooks! ūüėÄ

The Ghost Map: The Story of London’s Most Terrifying Epidemic — and How It Changed Science, Cities, and the Modern World, by Steven Johnson, and What Jane Austen Ate and Charles Dickens Knew: From Fox Hunting to Whist — the Facts of Daily Life in 19th Century England, by Daniel Pool.

Yes, both are works of non-fiction about the Victorian Era with extremely lengthy, self-explanatory titles that include a colon and an em dash. Coincidence is a funny thing, isn’t it?

Okay, yes, coincidence had very little to do with it; I’ve been wanting for some time to do some more research about London in the Victorian period — specifically, during the middle part of the 19th Century, Trollope rather than Dickens or Doyle. Pool’s book has been on my list of ones to read to help fill the gaps in my knowledge of the era for quite some time.

Johnson’s book serves that purpose as well, although its focus is obviously more narrow, but I was following some recent discussions of it on Twitter that made it clear that it’s both informative, engrossing and a deeply wild ride.

And come on, what better book to read right now than one that tells the story of human ingenuity, resilience, and eventual triumph in the face of a terrifying epidemic?

I’m already reading What Jane Austen Ate and Charles Dickens Knew, and it’s delightful. I’m looking forward to diving into The Ghost Map shortly.

What are you reading? Any book hauls lately?

Coming up next on the blog: Still no idea. I’m really playing this whole Blog Challenge Thing by ear.


2017: The Year in Reading

Obviously, I read. I read a fair bit. I mean, I don’t write because I hate the written word, or anything. But the ongoing discussions about diversity in reading, in reading more widely, in what we choose to read, and why, made me curious. I decided that a low-key project last year would be keeping better track of what I read.

And, having bothered to maintain a list, I thought it might be interesting to share it, too. If I’m going to use this process to think more about my choices, perhaps other people will find it useful as well.

So, here’s what I read in 2017! The list is in chronological order from most recent to earliest in the year. Shorter works — short stories, novelettes, webcomics, single issues of comics — aren’t included. Neither are re-reads, and neither are books I didn’t finish.

This isn’t a list of recommendations. All you can reasonably infer from a work’s presence on the list is that I was interested enough to try it, and that I completed it.

  • A Closed and Common Orbit, Becky Chambers (novel)
  • Change Places With Me, Lois Metzger (novel)
  • Vallista, Steven Brust (novel)
  • The Fifth Season, N. K. Jemisin (novel)
  • Empowered Vol. 10, Adam Warren (graphic novel)
  • Gluttony Bay (Sin Du Jour Vol. 6), Matt Wallace (novella)
  • Greedy Pigs (Sin Du Jour Vol. 5), Matt Wallace (novella)
  • Doom Patrol: Brick by Brick (Vol. 1), by Gerard Way/Nick Derington and Tamra Bonvillain (graphic novel)
  • Empowered Vol. 9, Adam Warren (graphic novel)
  • Skyfarer, Joseph Brassey (novel)
  • A Man of Shadows (A Nyquist Mystery), Jeff Noon (novel)
  • Sex Criminals Vol. 1: One Weird Trick, Matt Fraction/Chip Zdarsky (graphic novel)
  • Empowered Vol. 8, Adam Warren (graphic novel)
  • Empowered Vol. 7, Adam Warren (graphic novel)
  • Glitterbomb: Red Carpet (Vol. 1), Jim Zub/Djibril Morissette-Phan and K. Michael Russel¬†(graphic novel)
  • Kaijumax: The Seamy Underbelly (Season 2), Zander Cannon (graphic novel)
  • Kaijumax: Terror and Respect (Season 1), Zander Cannon (graphic novel)
  • Empowered, Vol. 6, Adam Warren (graphic novel)
  • Finder: Voice, Carla Speed McNeil (graphic novel)
  • Finder: Third World, Carla Speed McNeil (graphic novel)
  • Scaramouche, Rafael Sabatini (novel)
  • The Guns Above, Robyn Bennis (novel)
  • October, China Mieville (non-fiction, history)
  • Empowered Vol. 5, Adam Warren (graphic novel)
  • Empowered Vol. 4, Adam Warren (graphic novel)
  • Empowered Vol. 3, Adam Warren (graphic novel)
  • Empowered Vol. 2, Adam Warren (graphic novel)
  • Empowered Vol. 1, Adam Warren (graphic novel)
  • Borderline (The Arcadia Project), Mishell Baker (novel)
  • An Oath of Dogs, Wendy N. Wagner (novel)
  • Six Wakes, Mur Lafferty (novel)
  • Underground Railroad, Colson Whitehead (novel)
  • Amberlough, Lara Elena Donnelly (novel)
  • Beanworld: Hoka Hoka Burb’l Burb’l (Book 4), Larry Marder (graphic novel)
  • Moonshot: The Indigenous Comics Collection Volume 2, anthology (graphic novel)
  • The Vision: Little Worse Than A Beast (Vol. 2), Tom King/Gabriel Hernandez, Michael Walsh (graphic novel)
  • Buffalo Soldier, Maurice Broaddus (novella)
  • Another Castle: Grimoire, Andrew Wheeler/Paulina Ganucheau (graphic novel)
  • Mooncop, Tom Gauld (graphic novel)
  • The Vision: Little Better Than A Man (Vol. 1), Tom King/Gabriel Hernandez (graphic novel)
  • A Taste of Honey, Kai Ashante Wilson (novella)
  • Wonder Woman: The True Amazon, Jill Thompson (graphic novel)
  • Patience, Dan Clowes (graphic novel)
  • Gunnerkrigg Court: Refine (Vol. 5), Tom Siddell (graphic novel)
  • Gunnerkrigg Court: Materia (Vol. 4), Tom Siddell (graphic novel)
  • Gunnerkrigg Court: Reason (Vol. 3), Tom Siddell (graphic novel)
  • The Ballad of Black Tom, Victor LaValle (novella)
  • The Candidate: Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail, Noah Richler (non-fiction, political memoir)
  • Gunnerkrigg Court: Research (Vol. 2), Tom Siddell (graphic novel)
  • Gunnerkrigg Court: Orientation (Vol. 1), Tom Siddell (graphic novel)
  • Hammers on Bone (Persons Non Grata, Vol. 1), Cassandra Khaw (novella)
  • Monstress: Awakening (Vol. 1), Marjorie Liu/Sana Takeda (graphic novel)
  • Corporation Wars: Dissidence, Ken McLeod (novel)
  • The Dream-Quest of Vellitt Boe, Kij Johnson (novella)
  • Krazy: George Herriman, a Life in Black and White, Michael Tisserand (non-fiction, biography)
  • Wayward: Out From The Shadows (Vol. 3), Jim Zub/Steven Cummings, Tamra Bonvillain (graphic novel)
  • Wayward: Ties That Bind (Vol. 2), Jim Zub/Steven Cummings, Tamra Bonvillain (graphic novel)
  • Wayward: String Theory (Vol. 1), Jim Zub/John Rauch (graphic novel)
  • Amulet: The Stonekeeper (Vol. 1), Kazu Kibuishi (graphic novel)
  • Maddy Kettle and the Adventure of the Thimblewitch, Eric Orchard (graphic novel)
  • Lumberjanes: Beware the Kitten Holy! (Vol. 1), Noelle Stevenson, Grace Ellis/Brooke Allen (graphic novel)
  • Daytripper, Gabriel Ba/Fabio Moon (graphic novel)
  • Hunger Makes the Wolf, Alex Wells (novel)
  • Paper Girls (Vol. 1), Brian K. Vaughan/Cliff Chiang (graphic novel)
  • Black Panther: A Nation Under Our Feet (Vol. 2), Ta-Nehisi Coates/Brian Stelfreeze (graphic novel)
  • Black Panther: A Nation Under Our Feet (Vol. 1), Ta-Nehisi Coates/Brian Stelfreeze (graphic novel)
  • Ms. Marvel: Super Famous (Vol 5), G. Willow Wilson/Takeshi Miyazawa (graphic novel)
  • Ms. Marvel: No Normal (Vol. 1), G. Willow Wilson/Adrian Alphona and Jake Wyatt (graphic novel)
  • Idle Ingredients (Sin du Jour Vol. 4), Matt Wallace (novella)
  • SuperMutant Magic Academy, Jillian Tamaki (graphic novel)
  • I Hate Fairyland, Skottie Young (graphic novel)
  • Saga (Vol. 6), Brian K. Vaughan/Fiona Staples (graphic novel)
  • The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl: Squirrel, You Really Got Me Now (Vol. 3), Ryan North/Erica Henderson (graphic novel)
  • The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl: Squirrel Power (Vol. 1), Ryan North/Erica Henderson (graphic novel)
  • Infomocracy, Malka Older (novel)
  • Too Like the Lightning (Book 1 of Terra Ignota), Ada Palmer (novel)
  • All the Birds in the Sky, Charlie Jane Anders (novel)
  • The Stars are Legion, Kameron Hurley (novel)
  • My Father, the Pornographer, Chris Offutt (non-fiction, memoir)
  • The Flux, Ferrett Steinmetz (novel)
  • Tales of the City, Armistad Maupin (novel)
  • The Shadow of the Torturer (Vol. 1 of the Book of the New Sun), Gene Wolfe (novel)
  • Into the Fire (Samantha Kane Book 1), Patrick Hester (novel)
  • Aurora, Kim Stanley Robinson (novel)
  • The Witches of Lychford, Paul Cornell (novella)
  • The Ark, Patrick Tomlinson (novel)
  • Clouds of Witness (A Lord Peter Wimsey Mystery), Dorothy Sayers (novel)
  • Whose Body? (A Lord Peter Wimsey Mystery), Dorothy Sayers (novel)
  • Company Town, Madeline Ashby (novel)
  • Hounded (Vol. 1 of the Iron Druid Chronicles), Kevin Hearne (novel)
  • Every Heart A Doorway, Seanan McGuire (novella)
  • Waters of Versailles, Kelly Robson (novella)
  • Pride’s Spell (Sin du Jour Vol. 3), Matt Wallace (novella)
  • Sorcerer to the Crown, Zen Cho (novel)
  • Heroine Complex, Sarah Kuhn (novel)
  • An Accident of Stars, Foz Meadows (novel)
  • Hawk, Stephen Brust (novel)

Totals for 2017

  • 33 novels
  • 4 novel-length non-fiction¬†books
  • 12 novellas
  • 48 graphic novels

What did I learn from this process?

Well, I didn’t read as much prose as I hoped to, this year. After I started tracking my reading, I wondered if I could hit 52 books for the year, because that would be pretty cool. I didn’t, obviously, even being generous and counting novellas (and really, it would be more fair to count 2 novellas as 1 “book” for the purpose of this kind of tracking).

I was surprised at how little non-fiction I read, at least in book-length formats. I love non-fiction and if I’d guessed, beforehand, I would have said that I probably read rather more than that in an average year.

I did, however, read a lot more graphic novels in 2017 than I would have expected at the start of the year. And, you might notice that the first 23 items on the list are all prose. After that, graphic novels start appearing in large numbers. There were a bunch of reasons for that, the most important of which I’ll get into in more detail in my forthcoming Everything-I-Did-In-2017-Besides-Read post.

And clearly, I read a lot of genre? I mean, I knew that and it really isn’t a concern. I like plot, I like tropes, and I love my speculative and my fantastical. Still, there are only five works of prose fiction on that list that aren’t in SF&F (maybe four, depending on how you count Underground Railroad, which some have argued falls within a broad definition of speculative fiction and/or fantasy). This might be a good opportunity to expand my horizons.

An issue that’s both more important and immediately apparent to me is that I’ve been reading a lot of dudes. Like, a disproportionate and, to me, embarrassingly so, number of dudes.

And here is where the value of tracking and planning my reading becomes clear, because I strongly feel that I need to read more widely and inclusively. Especially, I need to read more works by women, and people of colour. I need to be more mindful, more open, and maybe set myself some variation on the Tempest Challenge for 2018, to force myself out of the box that results when I simply follow my preferred creators, subgenres, and books I hear about on Twitter and that happen to spark my interest.

And what didn’t I learn?

I didn’t track whether the books I read were in print or e-book, or whether I bought them or borrowed them from the library. I think that would be interesting information.

I know that my reading increased overall when I started using the Toronto Public Library’s ebook app and was able to download library books to my phone — it makes reading on my morning commute so much easier! On the other hand, all my graphic novel reading is in print, because I don’t read on a tablet and phones are not my preferred way to read graphic novels.

I don’t have a big pithy conclusion or a call to action. But I’m glad I tracked my reading in 2017. It’s something I plan to continue this year, and I hope it will continue to encourage me towards thought and care in my choices in 2018. If you tracked your reading last year, what did you read? And what did you learn from the process?

Coming up on the blog: Probably more looking back and looking ahead. And much more interesting stuff, too!

Three Words for 2016

I know, there are reasons to be wary of the New Year’s Resolution. They tend to be lots of fanfare, not much action — because it’s hard to change — and by the middle of January you’re back where you started, with an extra dollop of cynicism and shame on top. (And, to be clear, by you? I mean I.)

So I don’t do resolutions, anymore. Not exactly. But I do value the New Year as an opportunity to take stock, to review, to reflect. To set a new course, with updated agenda and goals.

I call this process my New Year’s Revolutions.

I’ve used different tools and approaches over the years. Some work better than others.

Last year, following the example of the inestimable Rachel Hartman, I went with one word to focus my year ‚Äď organize. And I did get a bit more organized, and as I mentioned in my previous post, I saw results.

This New Year, inspired by my wise friend Tanya Gulliver-Garcia, I’m setting my agenda for the year ahead using Chris Brogan’s Three Words.

I want to try this model, this year, because follow-through is always a challenge for me. I fall off the wagon, say to myself, “Well, that didn’t work!” and eat a box of metaphorical or literal donuts. So one thing I like about Brogan’s approach is that includes strategies. And I very much like the perspective of the three words as ‚Äúlighthouses‚ÄĚ, or compass points, things to keep in my mind, to always be moving towards, rather than a target for me to succeed or (more often) fail at hitting.

Three words, three guiding stars. Three New Year’s Revolutions.

After some reflection, my words for 2016 are: health, happiness, organized.

(Yes, this is a repeat performance for getting organized. I can always stand to be more organized.)

Goal Word: Health

Path 1 to the goal: Make time to exercise or be active every day.

Path 2 to the goal: Allow myself sweets and naughty food on one “free day” a week.

Path 3 to the goal: Prepare healthy lunches and snacks in advance for the work week.

Distractions: Being tired, stress eating, not making the time to exercise or eat right.

Steps to the path: Buy fresh salad greens and vegetables all the time, so I always have healthy lunches and snacks; prioritize getting enough sleep so I have energy and willpower; make and keep regular appointments with all my health care professionals.

The finish line: Exercising 5 to 6 times a week, fitting into my size 38 pants, replacing stress eating with working out as a coping mechanism.

What’s next: Increase strength and endurance; plan and prepare to do the CN Tower climb in 2017

Goal Word: Happiness

Path 1 to the goal: Make time to write every weekday

Path 2 to the goal: See friends at least once a week

Path 3 to the goal: Make my workday commute my reading time

Distractions: Being tired, wasting time on the internet, feeling stuck

Steps to the path: Start that new D&D campaign with my friends, playing at least once a month; turn off internet on my phone regularly; write on my lunch hours; always have a book with me during my commute.

The finish line: Having regular (weekly) social engagements and activities; finishing revisions to NOBODY’S WATCHING and COLD IRON BADGE and finishing the first draft of a NEW novel before the end of 2016.

What’s next: Being able to retire ‚Äúhappiness‚ÄĚ as a goal for 2017; getting my current writing projects out the door and move on to new ones; expand my reading to address some of the gaps in my knowledge and experience (like the classics, and poetry).

Goal Word: Organized

Path 1 to the goal: Check in with myself daily about what needs to be done, at home, and work, and for myself, both in terms of my goal words and in a more immediate day-to-day sense.

Path 2 to the goal: Check in with my awesome partner Sarah daily about how we’re both doing, about the kids, and about household needs.

Path 3 to the goal: Learn what needs to be done to keep our home well-stocked with everything we need and in good order, and act on those needs.

Distractions: Being tired; feeling incompetent; getting bogged down in anxiety and fear of doing the wrong thing.

Steps to the path: Make the first thirty minutes after the kids are in bed ‚Äúfamily check-in time‚ÄĚ; make lists of what needs to be done and review them as part of my daily processes; take quiet time daily, to think, process, and focus my mind.

The finish line: Clearing away all the ‚Äúold business‚ÄĚ, the things that need doing that I’ve left hanging for too long; having what we need at home and in our lives for ourselves and the kids, in a fair and equitable manner; being able to move forward with new goals and projects because the day-to-day is going so smoothly!

What’s next: Keep it up, because being fair, balanced and organized is an ongoing process.

Those are my three fixed stars, my goals for 2016: Increasing my health, increasing my happiness and being more organized.

What changes do you foresee making this year? What goals have you set, and what tools are you using to get there

Let me know. Maybe we can be part of one another’s revolutions.

Coming up next on the blog: I don’t know yet! I guess I need to, um, get organized?

History is not my nightmare: Chapter 2 of Ulysses

Chapter 2 of Ulysses doesn’t quite contain two of the book’s most-quoted lines.

In a novel not otherwise famous¬†for lending itself to pithy one-liners, two phrases (along with the celebrated conclusion, which is well-known but not exactly something you’d slap on a bumper sticker) are widely quoted:

History is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake.

God is a shout in the street.

But neither of them appears in the book. Not verbatim.

Both are pretty close to things that our protagonist, Stephen Dedalus, says to his employer, the conservative, Anglophilic, bigoted Mr. Deasy, master of the private school where Stephen teaches.

Oh, and contrary to an earlier assumption on my part? Not appearing in Ulysses at all is “Three quarks for Muster Mark!” which nobody understands and therefore inspired the name of a subatomic particle that nobody understands either. That one’s from Finnegan’s Wake.

“God is a shout in the street,” in particular, has been quite heavily compressed, compared to the source:

Stephen jerked his thumb towards the window, saying:

–That is God.

Hooray! Ay! Whrrwhee!

–What? Mr. Deasy asked.

–A shout in the street, Stephen answered, shrugging his shoulders.

Before you ask: the sound effects are the boys from the school playing field hockey outside. And no, Joyce doesn’t use quotation marks. Just those dashes. Yeah, there¬†are¬†reasons this novel has a reputation as being a challenging read, right?

Anyway, “History is a nightmare,” is quoted almost directly by comparison. But there’s an important difference.

–History, Stephen said, is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake.

It’s important, I think, that¬†in Ulysses, those words are clearly being spoken by Stephen Dedalus.

I’ll get back to Stephen and his nightmare in a moment; first, a review of what happens in this chapter, which, the notes tell me, is entitled ‘Nestor’.

Stephen’s at his day job, as a teacher in a small private school. He seems to be responsible for a variety of subjects¬†— Latin, history and math — so it may be the equivalent of homeroom. He clearly doesn’t care very much for the work, given that he needs to crib from the textbook himself, and is more amused than upset at one of his students cheating. He’s also keenly aware that, in contrast to his own money trouble, some of the pupils are from very well-off families. The disparity in privilege makes him disinclined to be much of a disciplinarian. Stephen seems to be lost in his own thoughts rather than in the classroom, but he’s present enough to know that allowing too much of a breakdown in order will reveal to the students how dependent he is on their — and their parents’s — goodwill, and he doesn’t want that.

When the boys head outside to play field hockey, one stays behind, Sargent, and it’s clear from Stephen’s internal monologue that he thinks the kid is, basically, dim, and an ill-favoured, unformed scrawny lump, too. ¬†Sargent needs¬†some extra tutoring, which Stephen provides, patiently if not especially helpfully. Watching Sargent struggle over the problems makes him reflect on mother love — it was established in Chapter 1 that his own mother has recently died, and he’s got a lot of guilt about it swirling around.

Sargent leaves to join the others, and Stephen meets with his employer, Mr. Deasy, to get his weekly pay. Deasy subjects him to a lengthy discourse on a number of subjects, including money management, religion, history, the diseases of horses, and how much he dislikes Jewish people. Stephen waits out most of this with restraint, and it’s clear that no matter how much some of it pains him, he considers putting up with¬†the older man’s smug meanderings to be part of the job. He does choose to respond, mildly, to a couple of points or jibes, which provide the chapter’s most famous quotes (or, you know, paraphrases). He also, although it’s in¬†his own ironic and passive-aggressive way, speaks up against Mr. Deasy’s anti-Semitism.

This is the most outspoken we’ve seen Stephen Dedalus be yet, towards someone who has some kind of privilege or power over him, and it makes me like him a lot more that it’s over Deasy’s bigotry.

There were hints of anti-Semitism in the previous chapter — from Haines, Buck Mulligan’s English guest. It’s interesting that the much more overt anti-Semitism here comes from Deasy, who’s presented as colonized to the very depths of his soul — thoroughly assimilated by the English, while claiming his Irishness must be respected on par with Stephen’s own. There are parallels being drawn between the Irish and the Jewish experience — two disestablished and long-oppressed people.

It’s clear that Mr. Deasy thinks of these meetings as his opportunity to match wits with his intellectual young employee; it’s equally clear on the other hand that Stephen, because he’s so desperate for money, is putting up with an asshole. Finally, Stephen gets his pay, promises to deliver a couple of letters Deasy has written to local newspapers to editors he knows (on the topic, happily, of the horse diseases, not Jewish people) and makes his escape as soon as courtesy allows.

In my discussion of Chapter 1, I noted that I was fonder of some of the people around Stephen Dedalus than of Dedalus himself. This chapter has turned that impression rather on its head, of course. Earlier, and right up until Mr. Deasy’s bigotry became all too clear, I found Stephen’s anger, resentment, sarcasm and passive-aggressiveness troubling. Understandable. Recognizable. ¬†But troubling.

For me — a privileged person — the claim that history is a nightmare was part of that. It conveys more than a touch of melodrama, of adolescent affectation. And, although Stephen Dedalus isn’t literally an adolescent, his life and relationships convey to me a very strong sense of arrested adolescence.

That’s something, interestingly, that both Mr. Deasy and Stephen Dedalus himself seem to recognize, for all that the former is clearly many years gone into full-bore Old Man With Opinions and the latter is so trapped inside his own head that it’s surprising he can find his way home.

Not Mr. Deasy, but I can understand why you'd think so.

Not Mr. Deasy, but I can understand why you’d think so.

They both, for all their faults and their inability to understand one another in every other way, grasp that Stephen Dedalus still doesn’t know what he wants to be when he grows up. So no, Stephen is not entirely grown up by my standards, and it was easy for me to be dismissive.

But then, this summer. The awful summer of 2014, a summer of blood and rage and old hatreds being played out in the streets.

This summer has been a terrible but effective reminder: That history is still, for a great many people, a nightmare from which they are trying to awake. History is a nightmare for people who are unable to escape the past, not only because they won’t let go of it, but because they’ve been bound to it by an oppressor.

Stephen Dedalus, in the words he speaks to Mr. Deasy, is also of course speaking to the reader. And in reminding me that history is his nightmare, he has forced me to confront exactly what it is that troubles me about him — and what that reveals about me.

He reminds me that I am the privileged, judging the disprivileged. The colonizer, judging the colonized. I am someone for whom history is not a nightmare.

And it occurs to me that Stephen Dedalus would have understood, very well, one of the most profound statements to emerge from this summer of protest: “I cannot believe I still have to protest this shit!”

 COMING UP NEXT: Breaking In interviews with Jim Ottaviani and Suzanne Church. Plus, an update on my writing!

Buck Mulligan is my kind of guy: Chapter 1 of Ulysses

The edition of Ulysses I’m reading is, as I noted a bit indirectly in my previous post, the Penguin Modern Classics Annotated Student Edition. I figured that a student edition would be ideal for a naive reader like me, plus it was the only one¬†available in the used book store when I went to go buy a copy.

And when Penguin tells you that they’re annotating a book, apparently they don’t mess around. This version — which is of a book that, keep in mind, is already upwards of 900 pages of the actual novel — has a lot of front- and back-matter. 89 pages of Introduction. 260 pages of end notes.

After some consideration, and an initial attempt to grapple with the Introduction and finding it unengaging, I essentially said, “Oh, the heck with it. Into the breach!” I skipped the rest of the Introduction, jumped right into Chapter 1 and read it mostly without recourse to the notes (except for the Latin, which I have no understanding of and knew was going to be significant). I read the notes afterwards, to see what I’d missed — the answer, unsurprisingly, was “rather a lot”.

My friend Rachel warned me before I started on this mad enterprise that I’d probably want to pick up a reader’s guide to Ulysses, and particularly recommended The New Bloomsday Book. Which, yes, I am for sure going to have to do. Because this is a very dense and rich book, and without some guidance I am going to miss some things, or possibly everything.

And the idea of a companion book appeals to me. While the notes in the Annotated Student Edition are very clear and thorough, I just don’t like end notes. When I’m reading a book, I want to continue reading it, not flip back and forth to and from and appendix.

But also, and more importantly, I have a feeling that my understanding of Ulysses will benefit from exposure to more than one interpretation. Because I’m already having some gentle disagreement with the Introduction and Notes by Prof. Declan Kiberd, and what they suggest I should think about Chapter 1.

Chapter 1 is entitled Telemachus, which of course continues Joyce’s deliberately paralleling of his novel with Homer’s¬†Odyssey, and specifically equates Stephen Dedalus, our protagonist for the first several chapters (I gather that will change) with Telemachus. Telemachus is the son of Odysseus, and as the Odyssey opens, he’s an increasingly frustrated but powerless young man with an absent father who’s losing everything his dad worked to build to¬†a gaggle¬†of moochers — who¬†are hanging around eating him out of house and home while scheming to marry his mother because¬†Odysseus is missing and presumed dead after the end of the Trojan War.

(Yes, Homer put it more eloquently. Go read the Odyssey for the details and the poetry — you should anyway, it’s one of the foundational texts of Western literature.)

Anyway, tangents aside, Stephen Dedalus is being explicitly equated with Telemachus, who suffers from not having his father around and is frustrated and desperate for a chance to prove himself. The text hints, and the notes explicitly tell me, that Stephen Dedalus has a father who is also not there for him, but for rather less admirable reasons.

There are disparities, though. All Telemachus needed was a little encouragement, via a visit from a god disguised as an old family friend (which, by the way, is where we get the word¬†mentor — the Odyssey is that kind of pervasively ingrained in our culture). Stephen Dedalus just seethes. There are a lot of images of bodily decay and rot in this chapter — the ravages of age and Stephen Dedalus’s rotting teeth and bile. And it’s clear that the bile and rot that he perceives all around him is mirrored in Dedalus himself. Not only physically, but in the seething poison of the anger that he keeps mostly in check, but lets slip now and again via passive aggressiveness and sarcasm.

All Telemachus’s unexpressed hatred is at his enemies. Stephen Dedalus seems to hate his friends, too.

The text, in other words, leaves it up to me whether or not I should like Stephen Dedalus, and leaves unanswered the question of whether and to what end the juxtaposition of Dedalus and Telemachus is echoic, ironic, contrasting, or some combination of those factors. The notes take a more direct approach. They certainly bear out the ambiguous view of Stephen Dedalus (in comparison with the novel’s upcoming other protagonist, Leopold Bloom) but they’re rather more direct about what I should think about everyone around Dedalus.

Specifically, the notes tell me that I’m supposed to disapprove of¬†Buck Mulligan, Stephen Dedalus’s friend and roommate. The problem with that is that currently, I like Buck¬†a lot more than I like Dedalus.

The novel opens with Buck, with Dedalus looking up a flight of stairs at his friend. The opening sentence of the novel, which is only slightly less famous than the last sentence, is “Stately, plump Buck Mulligan came from the stairhead, bearing a bowl of lather on which a mirror and a razor lay crossed. ”

This, it must first be noted, is an absolutely fantastic bit of writing. Those first four words — “Stately, plump Buck Mulligan” — give us so much information, so much character, so clearly, so economically. And the whole first chapter is like that. I mean, yes, it’s dense with references and allusions, but the prose itself is marvelous. It’s vivid, clear, direct. I gather that things get a lot more challenging going forward, but this first chapter was not only a pleasure to read, it was easy to read.

And, of course, it’s can’t be anything other than significant that this novel, famed for its use of symbols and imagery, opens with Stephen Dedalus literally looking up to Buck Mulligan. This makes the question of what we’re supposed to make of Buck particularly important. The notes tell me, quite clearly and leaving no real room for ambiguity, that despite them being peers, Buck is being set up as a failed model for Dedalus (much like Stephen Dedalus’s own father is a failed model for him). Buck, the notes tell me, apes English mannerisms while despising the English, schemes with Dedalus to get as much money as he can out of their English houseguest, Haines, while currying favour with Haines to his face. He is an archetype, Prof. Kiberd, states, of the colonized who apes the colonizer while despising him, and at the same time acts as an intermediary trying to enrich himself and simultaneously exploiting the colonizer (Haines) and his fellow colonized (Dedalus, and the elderly woman who sells them milk).

Now, I am clearly not going to be as sensitive to a reader of Joyce’s day to the issues of Irish nationalism and the different responses of individual Irish people to being colonized by the British (the novel, interestingly enough, is set in 1904, before Irish independence, but was mainly written after independence). But I also think that announcing Buck Mulligan up front to be — and to only be — an example of a particular moral failure, of being intellectually and ethically colonized is an example of a perhaps overly redactive view of the narrative.

To be clear, I am not someone who is opposed to literary analysis, to criticism, to using a particular prism to form and share a particular interpretation of a text. I think¬†that’s extremely valuable. It enriches our understanding of individual works of literature and of literature as a whole. My only caveat is that one critical viewpoint, no matter how brilliant, can’t and shouldn’t limit the process of reading, interpreting and engaging with a book myself.

Prof. Kiberd’s notes use his prism to focus on Ulysses as a response to different currents of thought in the interweaving streams of Irish nationalism and Irish literature. In that context, Buck Mulligan represents a negative element — one that decries overt colonization while seeking to profit from it, and decries the colonizers but has become indistinguishable from them. As Orwell wrote of pigs and men at the conclusion of Animal Farm, so are we to see Buck and the English.

This is obviously an extremely well-thought-out analysis based on a close reading of the text and consideration of its context. It would be ridiculous to suggest this interpretation is invalid, or valid but unimportant. And needing to consider and address this interpretation and how it relates to my own experience of the novel has already made reading Ulysses a more profound experience for me.


Look, I’m no James Joyce, and never will be, but I am a writer. And one thing I can say, as a writer, is that a character is never just one thing, not in a novel that’s any good. The academic and critical perspective, the process of analyzing a novel, tends to define secondary characters in particular in terms of their relationship to the central ideas of the novel. It is perhaps natural that an academic looks at a novel in terms of its thesis.

But a character is never only what they symbolize, or the representation of an¬†idea — no more than another person is only what they mean to you.

When I read Chapter 1 of Ulysses, when I encounter Buck Mulligan, I see a flawed young man, too impressed with himself and his own cleverness. Too willing to use the situation of Ireland and Irish people as a whole to justify his treatment of others. But also funny, intelligent, socially adept and active. And if he’s willing to take from others, he’s just as happy to give to them.

Indeed, this entire chapter hits me with a tremendous shock of recognition — the sense of seeing my own life and experience clearly and honestly expressed. That usually only happens in stories written and set in times and places much closer to my own — Microserfs is one example.

But I see rather a lot of myself in stately, plump Buck Mulligan, and I see in his life and his relationship with his friends Haines and the sarcastic, Jesuitical Stephen Dedalus a remarkably vivid portrayal of the life my friends and I lived as young people on our own for the first time. Sarcasm, jokes, intellectual wrangling for its own sake and to conceal our anxieties and pain. Living cash-poor and leaning hard on one another’s generosity. Loving one another, depending on one another, and at the same time resenting one another. Being totally enmeshed in the lives of¬†people who are your dear friends but who you aren’t sure you like very much.

That was my twenties in a nutshell, and it’s Buck Mulligan and Stephen Dedalus’s life too.

The point of this isn’t that Prof. Kiberd is wrong, that Buck Mulligan, because I like him and identify with him, can’t be colonized in his soul, or can’t be someone who exploits others. He can be, and I think he is. (And having written that, I find myself thinking about what that means in terms of own treatment of others, in my twenties and now).

But “colonized in his soul”, “negative example of Irish nationalism” — these aren’t, can’t be, all that Buck Mulligan is. He’s a person. A fictional one, of course, but no less a person for that. And like anyone, like all of us, he is more than what he means to Stephen Dedalus, or Prof. Kiberd, or to me.

Everyone contains multitudes, and no one prism can convey everything that we are.

Regardless of what we think of Buck Mulligan — stately, plump, vivid and complex Buck Mulligan — we leave him, going for a morning swim. It is Stephen Dedalus, our seething, bilious Telemachus, who we follow as he hurries off to his job. Spoiler warning: He isn’t forging in the smithy of his soul the uncreated consciousness of his race just yet.

Next on the blog: Chapter 2 of Ulysses. Plus, adventures in Twitter: What happens when you get retweeted by Neil Gaiman?

Bloomsday comes but once a year: Reading and blogging Ulysses

Today¬†is Bloomsday — the day when devotees celebrate the work of James Joyce, particularly his novel Ulysses (because the book takes place on June 16). This year, I’ll be participating in Bloomsday by embarking on a project: Reading Ulysses.

I’ve never read Ulysses. I’ve never read any James Joyce at all. Indeed, I’ve read very few modern (or modernist — Ulysses is both) literary novels. My formal education was mostly focused on the theatre, and my reading for pleasure and self-improvement has been¬†diverse but also pretty scattershot¬†— and in novels, skewed towards¬†my favourite genres.

So why a heedless leap into the treacherous waters of modern literary fiction? Why read a book that is over 900 pages of dense prose, literary and mythological allusions, extended sections that are stream-of-consciousness, all of it written in the idiomatic English spoken in the Dublin of a hundred years ago?

Well, heck, when you put it that way, why wouldn’t I read it?

Oh, actual reasons? Fine.


The Penguin Modern Classics Annotated Student Edition of Ulysses

“It is said, after all, that people reach middle age the day they realize they’re never going to read Remembrance of Things Past.”

Alison Bechdel wrote that in her brilliant graphic memoir, Fun Home. I don’t think there’s any point in disputing that I am, in fact, middle aged, but I’m not ready to accept my impending intellectual calcification with a shrug and a “Meh,” just yet, either. I have no guilt whatsoever about devoting some of my pleasure reading to things that are uncomplicated and fun, but there’s also something to be said for embracing a challenge. It’s been a while since I’ve read a book that really called for stretching my mental muscles, and that can be fun, too.

I’m also simply delighted by the idea of Bloomsday. The fact that there’s a day celebrated world-wide — by, to be fair, probably a pretty small number of people on balance — devoted to a thought-provoking, intellectually challenging work of literature fills me with happiness, and I’d like to be part of it.

Finally, the work of Joyce generally and Ulysses specifically are a sort of fault line in literature; the symbolic dividing line between the accessible, popular novels of the Nineteenth Century and the esoteric, literary, modernist (and later, postmodernist) novels of the Twentieth Century. That makes Ulysses a liminal work¬†— one that exists on the threshold between states —¬†and as I’ve mentioned before, I have an interest in creative works that occupy liminal spaces.

And, since I’m making a project of reading Ulysses, I’m also going to blog it. As I make my way through the book, I’ll share my progress and my thoughts here — probably about once a week, although I have no idea yet how much of Ulysses a week’s worth of thinking and reading will cover. Could be a chapter, could be a handful of pages. My friend Rachel Hartman reminded me today that Joyce himself said of Ulysses, “It took me seven years to write it, it should take them seven years to read.”

I do kind of hope it won’t take quite that long; I’m putting off reading The Goblin Emperor for this.

In any case, I hope you’ll join me on my odyssey. Please follow along as I progress through Leopold Bloom’s Dublin over the coming weeks. If you’re new to the book, like I am, you may be inspired to read along too — I’d like that. Or you may have already read it and have some insight you can share. In either case, please do comment and add¬†your responses, to Ulysses, or to my reactions to it.

Let’s begin now.

(Man, can you imagine a Disney long-playing record adaptation of Ulysses? That would be a very, very long-playing record indeed. But would Donald or Mickey play Leopold Bloom?)