I've always been curious about James Joyce's Ulysses (a.k.a. the greatest novel in the English language) and Finnegan's Wake (a.k.a. the greatest nove...moreI've always been curious about James Joyce's Ulysses (a.k.a. the greatest novel in the English language) and Finnegan's Wake (a.k.a. the greatest novel in made-up dream language). A beloved math teacher from high school raved about Finnegan, saying he read two lines a night--with a ruler and a Gaelic-to-English dictionary--and loved every word.
Still, it would seem reading Ulysses is not the sort of thing you just jump into -- rather you need to ramp up, to somehow gain a head of steam. My plan was to start off with Dubliners (a collection of short stories and Joyce's first published work) and proceed to Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, before tackling big U.
I just finished Dubliners and it felt like a prelude, so that was appropriate. An insightful and, at times, beautiful prelude, but somewhat sketchy in places. I found "The Dead", the final and fullest story, to be the most compelling. Like most of Dubliners, "The Dead" speaks through the voice of the disappointed, static and provincial lives of the Irish middle class and builds to a poetic moment of illumination in its last lines:
"His soul had approached that region where dwell the vast hosts of the dead. He was conscious of, but could not apprehend, their wayward and flickering existence. [...:] His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead."
Unlike some of the shorter stories in the collection, Joyce gives himself some room to flesh out his characters, from the awkward and priggish but generally likable Gabriel Conroy to Molly Ivors, an outspoken nationalist who embodies the fire and forward-thinking spirit missing from most of Joyce's characters. Mostly Joyce, unlike nearly all other Irish authors of his time, keeps his distance from the republican politics that burst into armed rebellion only two years after the publication of Dubliners; in these stories Joyce almost seems skeptical that the Irish have the will or the stature to throw off colonial rule.
Many of the other stories are also excellent, although not particularly cheerful. "Counterparts" is a queasy portrait of an actively self-destructing alcoholic clerk that seems to suck all the oxygen out of the room as you read it. "A Painful Case", "Eveline" and "A Little Cloud" all describe lives of isolation and unfulfilled dreams with an uncomfortable familiarity. Even in the shorter, sketchier moments Joyce is a clever writer with interesting things to point to: an idea, a bit of description, an acidic character description. Onward!(less)
A collection of 12 short stories from an incestuous gang of hip, young, mostly-British authors, edited by Nick Hornby. There are a few misses here, bu...moreA collection of 12 short stories from an incestuous gang of hip, young, mostly-British authors, edited by Nick Hornby. There are a few misses here, but they are outweighed by the hits, some of which are quite good.
The Mixed: Irvine Welsh's contribution was a fascinating mess - I don't think it quite worked in the end, but it was a fun ride. I wasn't quite sure what to make of Dave Eggers's typically experimental tale about the life and death of a dog, but I think I enjoyed it.
The Bad: Colin Firth is a great actor, and while his entry in the collection is a quirky, noble try, he should probably keep his day job. While I am a huge fan of Zadie Smith in general, her story was one of her weaker efforts. (less)
A very nice collection of short stories set in the world of Jonathan Strange Mr. Norrell (and one set in the world of Neil Gaiman's Stardust). They ar...moreA very nice collection of short stories set in the world of Jonathan Strange Mr. Norrell (and one set in the world of Neil Gaiman's Stardust). They are all mostly clever, entertaining, well-written if not terribly earth-shattering. A pleasant dessert course after the feast. The title story has some meat on it - it's a witty, feminist take on English magic and the character of Jonathan Strange himself - but some stories do seem like discarded footnotes from the novel.(less)
An enjoyable, readable collection of quirky short fiction, "think piece" non-fiction and other errata edited by Dave Eggers and a crack-squad of Bay A...moreAn enjoyable, readable collection of quirky short fiction, "think piece" non-fiction and other errata edited by Dave Eggers and a crack-squad of Bay Area high schoolers.
If you want free sample, one of my favorite pieces in the collection--"Rock the Junta" by Scott Carrier--can be read online here.(less)
You might worry that a book of unpublished story by a late, well-beloved author would be nothing more than a quick vault-clearing cash-in. (Insert Tup...moreYou might worry that a book of unpublished story by a late, well-beloved author would be nothing more than a quick vault-clearing cash-in. (Insert Tupac joke here.) But never fear, Look at the Birdie is no collection of juvenalia or sketchy first drafts; these are actual stories. The collection as a whole doesn't rise to the level of Vonnegut's classic works, and its easy to see guess why they were unpublished. In too many of the stories, the central irony or surprise is just a little too obvious, too underdeveloped. Ah, you say, I see where this is going. Is that all you've got?
But even the worst of the lot -- like the clumsy anti-Communist parable "Petrified Ants" -- is never boring. And there are a handful of gems, including "Fubar" (charming), "Ed Luby's Key Club" (a Coen Bros movie waiting to happen) and "Hello, Red" (where Vonnegut pulls a nifty head fake on the reader).(less)
George Saunders has been buzzed about so much recently that it probably seems a little bandwagony to give this short story collection five stars. But...moreGeorge Saunders has been buzzed about so much recently that it probably seems a little bandwagony to give this short story collection five stars. But too bad. I am not remotely qualified to place the author here or there in the pantheon of Greatest Living Writers or what have you, but neither am I going to do a damn thing to discourage that sort of irresponsible hyperbole. Tenth of December is fantastic and you should read it!
The obvious fellow-travelers are Kurt Vonnegut and David Foster Wallace, so if you like either of them you'll probably dig this too. In concept many of these stories shouldn't "work." They're gimmicky. Too schematic, too cutting. More than once I was reminded of the Coen Bros at their most misanthropic. And yet he manages to draw out -- in me at least -- this profound emotional response. I wondered when the last time it was that a book made me feel something quite so strongly. Have all previous books been medicated or wrapped in gauze? (OK, now I remember when: reading "The Third and Final Continent," the final story from Interpreter of Maladies.)
And the emotional response is not always a positive one. Most of these stories are pretty dark. There are several portraits of poverty and family dysfunction that make you hold your breath for pages. After a few of these I felt an urge to give my sleeping family members a kiss and count my blessings. He leads with humor and then sticks in the knife... but then he dresses the wounds at the same time. That despite the cruel satire he inflicts on his characters, there is also a deep identification with their struggles. As if he is actually laughing at himself, at some blunder, or misunderstanding, or foolishness he himself committed years before. Misanthropic and at the same time, sentimental, if that makes any sense.
The longest and best story here is "The Semplica Girl Diaries" which is a standard tale of class anxiety made volatile by the slowly revealed, and utterly bizarre, science fiction conceit lurking in the background. In contrast "Escape from Spiderhead" is exactly the sort of schematic sci-fi story that should feel tired and reductive, except that it packs a surprising wallop at the end. The final, title track of the collection inverts his usual pattern of light-then-dark and arrives at a moment of emotional catharsis that sums up the entire collection.(less)
Un breve libro de "cuentos de fantasmas" que se basa en los mitos y leyendas tradicionales nicaragüenses, tales como La Cegua y la Carreta Nagua. // A...moreUn breve libro de "cuentos de fantasmas" que se basa en los mitos y leyendas tradicionales nicaragüenses, tales como La Cegua y la Carreta Nagua. // A brief book of "ghost stories" based upon traditional Nicaraguan myths and legends such as La Cegua and la Carreta Nagua.(less)