Aldous Huxley on James Joyce

Ulysses is obviously a very extraordinary book. I mean---I don't know exactly why he wrote it because a great deal of Ulysses seems to me to be taken up with showing a large number of methods in which a novels [sic] cannot be written. I suppose it's a great book.... I mean, although there are splendid passages, I don't think it's a success as a whole.
Hear the whole thing yourself including discussion also of Proust and Hemingway.


Two astonishing novels you should imagine
me pressing into your open hands


So here's something I'm learning about myself. My favorite form of fiction is the short novel. Below I'll discuss two that are utterly excellent and are both about a woman coming into her own. Both are just stunning. Both have killing closings that left me literally short of breath.

027) Passing by Nella Larsen, finished March 18

Holy crap. What a book! So . . . wow. Why the heck hasn't this novel ever been given a decent cover?

Anyway, it's the 1920s. The two main characters are African-American women---culturally. Were you to pass them on the street and see their white skins dressed in finery, you would be unlikely to guess. They can pass as white whenever they like, and one has chosen to pass permanently. She has married a white man and abandoned her black past entirely until she happens to meet the other women at a fine hotel restaurant. Thus setting in place a certain tragedy.

Irene, the woman who stayed, seems more troubled by the risks the passer takes as she returns to Negro society than the passer does herself. And the difficulties and risks increase as time passes.

Until the tragic end. I thought I knew what was coming, having accidentally read half a sentence from the scholarly introduction, but boy oh boy was I wrong. It was in fact much more ambiguous and complicated and awful and wonderful and savory and disastrous than that half-sentences suggested.

The pain of these two women---so different yet so similar in origin---is one of the most emotionally evocative things I've read in some time.

And it gives me a new lens to think about the us of today. Where are these women? Do they still feel trapped?

In the film, do we have Amanda Seyfried play the passer, or do we hunt for someone with one drop of Plessy's blood?
maybe three weeks


026) Hangsaman by Shirley Jackson, finished March 17

Holy cow I love this book. My expectations were ill-defined but this book managed to exceed them anyway. Since all I've previously read of Shirley Jackson is The Lottery and One Ordinary Day, with Peanuts and Haunting of Hill House, I suppose I expected a thriller and mystery and murder and the supernatural and suchlike. The cover certainly encouraged that:

Or check out the back, especially that money quote from the Chronicle:

(Incidentally, for a look at other old covers of the book, see this post. Some of the newer covers are better. Like the current American Penguin or, my favorite although not the most accurate, the current British Penguin.)

Anyway. Utter nonsense. (Although the book was published in 1951 and so people may have had a true-life horror story in mind as they read it. Not so anymore.) But then, maybe that's just because I'm insane. Looking around a bit, it seems like people are reading protagonist Natalie as crazy whereas I recognize her thought processes as much like my own and therefore not strange or surprising in the least. Dangerous? Sure. But no more dangerous than crossing the street. She's refective and solipsistic and confused and constantly narrating. You know. Like George Orwell.

Anyway, you can view it as a suspense story if you like, but to me it's simply a terrific bildungsroman. And one from the underserved female pov. Seriously. This feels like a glimpse into the secret female mind, an inner sanctum to which I should not have been allowed*.

Natalie is 17 throughout the book. She moves from high-school senior to college freshman (and if you're wondering if I would teach this book the answer is YES). She experiences horrors slight and serious (very serious), but primarily she's stumbling through life trying to find out who Natalie is. Will she uncover the adult Natalie? Will she even survive?

And that's the suspense. I don't like the way the cover describes its suspense because it makes it sound like Silence of the Lambs when the story it's telling is much quieter, much more internal. And much more universal. Natalie is the 17yrold every[wo]man. I saw myself in her. I daresay you will too.

Press this book upon those who are young and lost.

Another marvelous aspect of this book is its depiction of 1951. This isn't the sockhop Fifties, but for a 17yrold, World War II is already ancient history. It's an era often skipped over when we imagine the 20th century, neither the distant past nor the burgeoning present. It's a foreign country easily mistaken for home. (Although it will, I think, to my students simply be ancient.)

One last thing: the novel ever explains the title. Here's the explanation. Good luck with it.


(comments after reading reviews online)

Although at first I was resistant to the is-Tony-real angle (and still am---aspects of it are tough to jive), I now find it rather compelling. Certainly something to consider closely on a reread.

I failed to mention that the trauma I hinted at seems to have largely defined the course of the novel. Should have done so.

I should probably read The Bell Jar to compare and contrast.

I agree that the final paragraph is utterly beautiful.

"Turning its pages, traces of Natalie stained my fingertips."

"it’s the kind of book that sends you searching immediately for other people’s ideas of what it is you’ve just read"

see also
under a month

Previously in 2014 . . . . :


Books, books, the magical fruit


025) Ghost World by Daniel Clowes and Terry Zwigoff, finished March 16

I'm going to start reading some screenplays of movies I admire that do some of the same things or dealw with some of the same themes and characters of my current screenproject. This is the first. Good stuff. I'm not sure I could have pictured it without having seen the movie first, though.
half a week


024) Hawkeye: L.A. Woman by Matt Fraction and some very talented artists, finished March 15

Okay. Moving with Kate to LA and forgetting about Barton entirely and letting Kate Kinsey Millhone it up (mostly unsuccessfully) made for one of the most human superhero stories I've ever read---even when it ended up being peopled by meat puppets.

A huge success. And the interplay of word and picture is a masterclass in what comics alone can do. Now I get why Scott McCloud wanted to include it in BMC.
one lying-in-bed


023) Hawkeye: Little Hits by Matt Fraction and a large number of artists, finished March 14

Okay. NOW I get it. The art is dynamic and simple and expressive and varied. The writing remains experimental but is getting more confident and, frankly, more successful. I appreciate this formal experimental bent, and Fraction's talents seem better applied here than they were in FF. I'm now a believer.
two days


022) Hawkeye: My Life as a Weapon by Matt Fraction and David Aja and Javier Pulido, finished March 12

Did I enjoy this book? Yes. Certainly. I get why people like it. The writing's clever, the plotting and panelling is clever, the colors are fun but understated. What I don't get is what makes this the greatest comic since like ever as I've been hearing. That I don't get. Sorry.
two nights

Previously in 2014 . . . . :


Is Santa real?


021) Does Santa Exist?: A Philosophical Investigation by Eric Kaplan, finished March 11

First, regardless of what Matt Groening says, Plato and a Platypus Walk into a Bar is a funnier book on philosophy.

Nice to get that off my chest.

As you may recall, I have at best an ambiguous relationship with Santa Claus. And so . . . and so I'm not sure why I even picked this book up. Maybe for therapy.

In brief, Kaplan starts by talking about how the Santa question drove a (parent-drive) wedge between his son and a friend. He then addresses the question of Santa's existence via logic, via mysticism, via comedy, via kabbalah.

Logic and mysticism get a thorough rundown (logic's is more thorough, but mysticism can get redundant, so we'll forgive this). His most intriguing argument is putting comedy on an equal philosophical footing with logic and mysticism, though I feel constrained to call the chapter a bit underdeveloped. For a couple reasons. First, he doesn't have as many experts to rely on to bolster his argument. Second, he bumps into a problem, sort of a corollary to Poe's law:
Kaplan's corollary: After establishing a humorous tone, it's impossible to tell if lesser humorous portions of a work are intended to be taken more or less seriously than the work as a whole.
For instance, he gives a long exegesis of the the Cheese Shop Sketch, claiming it "is obviously about the Holocaust and the destruction of European civilization in World War I and II" (143). Really? I mean, ha ha?
Anyway. I really did like the comedy section best. He makes a solid argument that laughter is how we resolve paradox. And he uses that solution to dig into the absurdity of the book's very existence.

As we're reading about comedy, I'm really loving this book and wishing there wasn't a three-page explication of a Sarah Silverman joke about licking a penis. I'm not sure I can fit that into a high-school curriculum.

He even manages to tie in the English-class definition of comedy:
Since ancient times, comedies have always ended in a wedding. This is because they are the formation of larger wholes---both between people and between warring subsystems within the self. (149)
(Maybe you have to read the book.)

Anyway. Kabbalah. As Kaplan will eventually explain, this is because these sorts of explanations are ultimately personal. And as an esoteric Jewish fellow, he's attracted to teachings from the Ari and friends. Stands to reason.

The problem is that the book was structured to make the comedy chapters the [philosophical] climax of the book, and so the next section on the unfamiliar, kabbalah, though it eventually (evehhhhhhntually) paid off, was at times a total drag.

Which is why I'm stopping here and not citing any other of my bent pages with Kaplan's explanation of what makes all this search for Santa ultimately personal:
I'm not really advocating that you take my mixture and swallow it. I'm just showing you how I did it so you can do it yourself. So my brain and my life have gotten to a place where I can more or less function by putting together these reflections oj logic, mysticism, comedy, and the kabbalah. If you're a half-Belgian, half-Pakistani lion-tamer atheist, I would expect your take on Santa Claus would include a mixture of Sufism, atheism, lion lore, and Luc Sante. I'm not saying I'm not trying to start a cult---of course I am. Cult leader is a great job, and anybody who had the chance to apply would be crazy not to. But you should start a cult too, and I'll let you be in my cult if I can be in yours.
That, I think, is the ultimate value of this volume. Not that it determines the existence of Santa (spoiler alert: he exists), but that it demonstrates the process of thinking (and feeling) (and laughing) through the process of deciding what Santa, or, rather, life, means.

And that's something high-school students would do well to grapple with. Jellied penises or no jellied penises.
two or three weeks


020) Babymouse #8: Puppy Love by Jennifer L. Holm and Matthew Holm, finished March 11

Aren't the Babymouse books fun? Manic and fun. Fast and manic and fun. And jampacked with added-value jokery.
mere minutes

Previously in 2014 . . . . :


Check yo'self


I decided to see where my gender breakdown is at the moment in books I'm reading (because):

Some of these colors are iffy (should Middlemarch be purple?) and this is limited to books I've read from in the last ten days but have not yet finished (I read way too many books at a time), but as a snapshot it feels accurate.

Oh. And I just realized I've forgotten a book I last read from eight days ago. (It's really good.)

Ah well. Close enough.


also a freaking awesome cowboy comic
a weird gamer novel
and stuff


019) The Book of Mormon, finished March 3

It took a long long long time, but we finally got the kids through the entire Book of Mormon. We used a mix of missionary free copies (including some from the 70s), triple combinations, and Grant Hardy's excellent reader's edition.

This time through took each kid from sounding out monosyllabic words to two of them reading just fine.

We made it through. We did it. We did it.


Time to start again!
literally years


018) Cow Boy: A Boy and His Horse by Nate Cosby and Chris Eliopoulos, finished March 1

Of all the graphic novels I've seen aimed at kids in recent years, this is one of the simplest, smartest, purest, and most complex. A young boy out hunting for his family, out to collect the bounty on each lousy one of them.

It also has some of the most original and accurate onomatopoeia and dialect I've read. You only have 20 months before volume two comes out, so get on it!


017) Wolf in White Van by John Darnielle, finished February 26

If I had read the author bio, I admit I would not have taken this home from the library. This does not say good things about me, that I'm skeptical of a novel because the author is a musician, but I suppose it's true. NY publishing is so hard to crack, so if you lead a critically acclaimed rock band, I have to wonder if that's how you got in. I mean---I would do the same thing, but still. I dunno. Maybe it's sour grapes.

Anyway, Darnielle proved competent. Good on him! And I found a lot to like in this book.

But ultimately, it's a bit of a groaner. I checked it out largely because the flapcopy made it sound curiously constructed:
Brilliantly constructed, Wolf in White Van unfolds in reverse until we arrive at both the beginning and the climax: the event that has shaped so much of Sean’s life. Beautifully written and unexpectedly moving, John Darnielle’s audacious and gripping debut novel is a marvel of storytelling brio and genuine literary delicacy.
Perhaps if I'd been sold the book by someone else, my final reaction would be more positive. Because yeah, it's sort of backward, and I suppose you could maybe call that moment at the end the climax, but I wouldn't. It's just the beginning. And we already knew what it was. And we already know why it is. It just hadn't been actually narrated yet. So, you know, whatever.

Other bits of puffery from that paragraph: BRILLIANTLY CONSTRUCTED (it was constructed, sure), BEAUTIFULLY WRITTEN (I guess so), UNEXPECTEDLY MOVING (maybe I missed that page?), AUDACIOUS (I guess because it had a teenager and a gun?), GRIPPING (um, no), MARVEL OF STORYTELLING BRIO (don't know what that means), GENUINE LITERARY DELICACY (yeah. . . . I'm not going to pretend this has actual meaning either).

So. I feel lied to. But that's not the novel's fault.

In fact, the novel has a lot that makes it pretty great. It might not be BRILLIANTLY CONSTRUCTED, but it does have nice layers of storytelling with the past and the present and the within-the-game. And I do think ending at the beginning was the right choice, but not because I was So Amazed but because it was necessary and where we'd been headed all along. I read the book because I was fascinated by the idea ending at THE BEGINNING AND THE CLIMAX. I might not have read it without that line of ad copy. But that line of ad copy also made me like the book less.

Anyway. It's a nice book. Although it spends too much time being clever, it was not so clever as to alienate me from the narrator who is a rich and interesting and unique and deeply etched character. He's the real reason to read the book. Everything else the flap tried to sell me on was ancillary and confused my reading of the book.

Dang it, copywriters!
about two weeks


016) Drawings II by Jake Parker, finished February 19

Another predictably fun to look at collection of Jake's work. If you haven't noticed, everyone has noticed him now.

Previously in 2014 . . . . :


“More than a ‘Subspecies of American Literature’:
Obstacles toward a Transnational Mormon Novel”


Although there's not much in Scott Hales new essay (published in The Journal of Transnational American Studies) that's not also to be found in his dissertation, it's a lot shorter than his dissertation and much easier to find. And I appreciate its simpler focus---in this case on the need for the Mormon novel to move beyond the perception of being purely American. He again talks about On the Road to Heaven, Salvador, Redemption Road, and Elders---each of which have their pluses and minuses, but which average out by the criteria presented here as, respectively, -, +, -, +.

I recommend the essay to you if you're jonesing for some good MoLit criticism. Here's a lengthy excerpt from the conclusion to get your whistle wet:
The challenge of the transnational Mormon novel seems to be how to avoid constructing utopian spaces that function simply as another form of colonialist expression that promotes what it understands to be “change” and “social betterment” transnationally while remaining sadly unaware of its own cultural assumptions and prejudices.

How is such avoidance possible, though, when most Mormon novels are being written by white American authors whose transnational ties are decidedly limited? David A. Shuler’s thoughts on historical colonialism, international development efforts, and Mormon expansion into developing nations offer some possibilities with application to transnational Mormon novels. As Shuler notes, “implement[ing] change in a cross-cultural relationship is challenging and can even be dangerous,” particularly when “the environment and context within which we initiate change . . . is different from our own and is unfamiliar, or worse, unknown. . . . the best way for Mormons—or any people—to promote change in the lives of others is to “recognize and respect agency” and be “aware of [personal] motives, predispositions, and areas of ignorance.” As Shuler observes, “We must be aware of our impositions, meaning how our cultural values may differ from others we try to help, and how forceful we are, or can be, in influencing their ideas and actions and ultimately their lives. We should question our methods and our assumptions, including any change [to] orthodoxies that have not been humbly and thoughtfully challenged” (281–82). In their efforts to imagine transnational Mormonism and promote global betterment, therefore, Mormon novels must reflect constantly on their cultural work and the kind(s) of transnational Mormonism they construct and promote through utopian spaces. Furthermore, they must be mindful of the ways they depict and appeal to non-Western Mormons, whose “cultural values” and “Mormon” identities may be radically different from the values and identities of American Mormons. They must be aware also that giving voice to the Other—including the Mormon Other—is always a problematic endeavor. Utopian spaces, after all, are experimental constructs where ideas for social betterment are culturally determined and often ephemeral. What might function as a utopian space for one people might be dystopian for others.

To be sure, it is altogether likely that the next one hundred years of Mormon literature will better reflect the recent international growth of the LDS Church,particularly the experiences of those who have grown up in the Mormon faith in international settings and transnational situations and better understand the needs of their various regions and cultures. . . .

Accordingly, the Mormon novel will likely remain little more than a “subspecies of American literature” if it long resists or overlooks seeking after these “shared kernels of humanity” and continues to present transnational landscapes as America’s foil, a place where American missionaries go to be tried and tested before they return home with honor.
Of course, this just makes me more anxious for Scott's analysis of City of Brick and Shadow.

But it also makes me think about my short story "The Great Mormon Novel of the 21st Century" and wonder whether it's a step towards the transnational novel Scott's imagining or mired in the Americentricity we hope someday to grow out of. As the author, my opinion of the story is irrelevant. What matters is what the story actually does for readers.

So! To encourage that conversation, for the next month (until April 7), you can download "The Great Mormon Novel of the 21st Century" from Smashwords for free with the following coupon: TH84W.

I don't mind if you hate it. That's okay. (Of course, you're welcome to like it as well. That's perfectly fine.)

So while I may be sad to be a boring white male American Mormon writer. Where are all the Mormon writers who are different on at least three of those other four points? Why are they so hard to find?

In the meantime, I suppose you're thtuck with what you've got. . . .