Reading ‘Ulysses’ requires a heroic effort

In honor of Bloomsday, today’s column is about James Joyce’s “Ulysses,” which I recently read.

To update the column, a handful of us are either meeting at my friend Dustin’s house, or taking in the Bloomsday event at Westwood’s Hammer Museum. If you’re curious to know more, the “Ulysses” Wikipedia entry is a good introduction, and this piece from The Economist on why the book matters, and why you really do have time to read it, is short and entertaining.

Incidentally, I have to point out that the book has references to Leopold and Molly Bloom’s previous apartment on “Ontario terrace,” and there’s also a reference to “upland hay.” Nothing about the goddess Pomona, though.

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Reading Log: May 2013


Books acquired: ”The Adventures of Solar Pons, Vol. 1,” August Derleth; “The Baker Street Letter,” Michael Robertson; “Granddad, There’s a Head on the Beach,” Colin Cotterill; “Inside Benchley,” Robert Benchley; “Scoop,” Evelyn Waugh; “Will in the World,” Stephen Greenblatt; “A Tramp Abroad, Following the Equator and Other Travels (Library of America),” Mark Twain; “Woe is I,” Patricia O’Connor; “The Slide,” Kyle Beachy.

Books read: ”The Omnivore’s Dilemma,” Michael Pollan; “Ulysses,” James Joyce; “Boogers are my Beat,” Dave Barry.

Three may be the fewest number of books read in a single month since I started writing these monthly blog posts. Then again, “Ulysses” could have been a month all to itself, representing the single most complex book I’ve ever read, and three weeks of solid reading. It was 650 nearly incomprehensible pages. “The Omnivore’s Dilemma” was very readable, but it was 450 pages. Two tough picks in a row.

“Omnivore” is all about where our food comes from. Pollan visits an Iowa corn field, follows a steer to a Kansas feed lot (where it eats Iowa corn), can’t get a tour of a slaughterhouse but describes the process, then eats a McDonald’s meal, the ultimate end product. He also visits organic farms, some industrial, some not, and also tries to construct a meal entirely out of items he gathers himself, including a wild pig he hunts and kills. Eye-opening and dismaying, and highly recommended.

“Ulysses” may end up the subject of a column. It’s the famous novel about a single day  – June 16, 1904 — in the life of some Dubliners, mostly Leopold Bloom and Stephen Dedalus, and every single thing that happens to them, is said to them or that runs through their minds. You might say it’s the ultimate celebration of the common man, except that the common man can’t read it, Joyce’s prose being notoriously dense and, at times, completely unpunctuated. So, “Ulysses” is easier to admire than to love, and at times easy to hate.

The point is, I can now brag for the rest of my life that I’ve read “Ulysses,” and that’s  nothing to sneeze at.

I read “Omnivore” because the Upland Library chose it for the library’s first community read. “Ulysses” I bought in 1998, from the Montclair Borders, when it was named the best novel of the 20th century by Time magazine; I read it now because a friend challenged me to read it by June 16. He’s not even halfway through, which may mean I’m a sucker.

I might have stopped there at two books for the month, but I had six days left after finishing “Ulysses” and decided to squeeze in something short and unpretentious. You can’t get much more unpretentious than a Dave Barry collection with “boogers” in the title. I’d put this one in the middle range of his books, with some of his shtick growing tiresome, for me at least, but with enough surprises to be enjoyable. “Boogers” may have come from Amazon shortly after publication in 2003.

Thus, three books for May. Not a great number, but they added up to a somewhat more weighty 1,350 pages. I’ll return to more sensible books in June.

You’ll notice from my list up top that I bought a lot more books last month than I read (sigh). All nine came from various St. Louis bookstores. So, have you read any of my three books, or my nine purchases? More importantly, what did you choose to read in May?

Next month: I read some of my oldest unread books.


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Reading ‘Ulysses’


This might be a preview of my next Reading Log, provided I can finish the darned book. That would be “Ulysses” by James Joyce, which clocks in at 644 pages and is famously hard to read. It’s about the unheroic lives of a bunch of Dubliners on one day: June 16, 1904. It’s been called the best novel of the 20th century (and a lot of other things).

A friend, and a bunch of his friends, are trying to read it by June 16, which is known to fans as Bloomsday, after protagonist Leopold Bloom, and my friend invited me to join them. He’s planning a dinner party that night — the menu of which had better not feature kidney and liver, two of Bloom’s dietary mainstays. (I think he’s going to make corned beef.)

This was the encouragement I needed: I bought my copy 15 years ago (the receipt is inside, showing that I bought it at Borders in Montclair on July 24, 1998) and never had the nerve to read it.

I’m up to page 220, after nearly a week of dedicated reading (and a couple of weeks of nibbling prior to that). Have you ever read it, either by choice or for a class? Tried to read it? Thought of reading it?

I can see why it’s famous, although I’m admiring it more than loving it.

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Reading Log: April 2013

Books acquired: ”Gather Yourselves Together,” “Ubik: The Screenplay,” Philip K. Dick; “Beginning to See the Light,” Ellen Willis; “Diners,” John Baeder.

Books read: “The Early Worm,” Robert Benchley; “The Columnist,” Jeffrey Frank; “The Best of Jack Williamson”; “Over the Edge,” Harlan Ellison; “The Planet of the Apes Chronicles,” Paul Woods.

Welcome back, book nerds! Time for another installment of my monthly series of what books I read the previous month. As predicted here last month, April saw me back to my usual five books, as opposed to the 22 super-slim volumes (almost an oxymoron) that I read in March.

My 2013 total is now an even 40. While that would seem to put me on track to read 120, 80 seems more likely, given that I’ve read all the very short books I own and that there are some longer books I want to get to this year (including a complex one for June).

My April books have one thing in common: They were purchased at the same store, Powell’s Books in Portland, Ore., in the course of visits in 2007 and 2010. Powell’s is a book-lover’s mecca, four floors and one city block of books, both new and used. I’ve been thinking of another trip to Portland but have felt sheepish because not only don’t I need any more books, I haven’t even read all the ones I’ve bought in that very city. Reading those would make me feel better about buying more.

What I read this time was, in the order listed above, a solid collection of Benchley’s humor essays, a very funny novel about a blowhard Washington columnist, a best-of story collection spanning 50 years (1928-1978) by a SF grand master, a so-so story collection by Ellison and a book about my guilty pleasure, the Planet of the Apes series.

I was embarrassed to buy it, of course. I do have that much self-awareness. As I opened it up, three years later, to read a few pages each night at bedtime, I thought, why am I reading this? Why would I spend a month of my life reading about Planet of the Apes? But I stuck with it, soon loved it and almost wish it were longer.

Best book of the month, though, is “The Columnist,” which pulls off the neat trick of being narrated by someone who’s clueless (the classic unreliable narrator) and yet still imparting all the information we need to judge him by.

I had 10 Portland-purchased books left to read and now I’m down to five. Not sure when I’ll get to those, as I have other things right now I want to read, but at least I’ve read all the ones from my first visit and cut the total in half.

Your turn. What have you been reading? Surely nothing about the Planet of the Apes.

Next month: Three or four random books, one of them from a library.

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World Book Night

Tuesday is World Book Night, when you can visit participating stores and pick up a free book. The goal is to put books in the hands of people who don’t or rarely read books.

At Rhino Records in Claremont, the only Inland Valley store that I know is taking part (there doesn’t seem to be a list), you can get Ray Bradbury’s “Fahrenheit 451.” The store will have 20 copies, available for the asking from 4 p.m. until closing time at 9 p.m. If they’re out, a few single copies of other books will be available.

Also, all books at Rhino will be 10 percent off during those same hours. Trying to make up for a dearth of bookstores in Claremont, Rhino has 1,200 books in stock, new and used, from literary fiction and graphic novels to novelty books and music bios.

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Reading Log: March 2013

Books acquired: “Waging Heavy Peace,” Neil Young; “Dylan: The 5 Minute Visual Bob-ography,” Roy Gyongy Fox; “The Swerve,” Stephen Greenblatt.

Books read: “The Accordion Repertoire,” Franklin Bruno; “The Pearl,” John Steinbeck; “The Cat’s Pajamas,” Peter De Vries; “Selected Poems,” e.e. cummings; “Kafka Americana,” Jonathan Lethem and Carter Scholz; “Adventures in Pet Sitting,” Michael Arterburn; “From Bauhaus to Our House,” Tom Wolfe; “Anguished English,” Richard Lederer; “The Elements of Style,” William Strunk and E.B. White; “My Shorts R Bunching: Thoughts?” G.B. Trudeau; “How to Kick the War Habit,” T. Willard Hunter; “Leaves of Grass” (1855 Edition), Walt Whitman; “The End of the Tether,” Joseph Conrad; “Ask the Dust,” John Fante; “An Education: The Screenplay,” Nick Hornby; “Our Town,” Thornton Wilder; “Dave Barry Hits Below the Beltway,” Dave Barry; “Housekeeping vs. The Dirt,” Nick Hornby; “The Rock Snob’s Dictionary,” David Kamp and Steven Daly; “Candide,” Voltaire; “Dylan: The 5 Minute Visual Bob-ography,” Roy Gyongy Fox; “The Mezzanine,” Nicholson Baker.

I can look at the spine of any unread book on my shelves and within a minute be mad at myself that I haven’t read it. There’s even less excuse in the case of some of my slimmest books, the ones that could be read in a couple of days, or even in an afternoon. So in March, I gathered up all the latter and read as many as I could, which turned out to be 22.

Low-hanging fruit, as far as my unread books go, and it was high time I went for it. All these books were 200 pages or less, usually quite a bit less. Other than two on my nightstand that I read over the course of the month, none took me longer than three days. For the first 11 days of March, assisted by a staycation, I read a book a day, everything from the top of the list above through Willard Hunter’s book.

It was an interesting experiment and it accomplished what I’d hoped, which was to clear some of the most obvious books from the unread category. Twenty-two books — or, more accurately for this blog’s purposes, 21 1/2, as I read the other half of “The Cat’s Pajamas & Witch’s Milk” in February — is far too many to discuss here. “Our Town” and “Housekeeping vs. The Dirt,” a collection of book reviews, were among my favorites. Feel free to ask in the comments section if any title above strikes your fancy.

Continue reading

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Reading Log: February 2013


Books acquired: “Readings,” Michael Dirda.

Books read: “Angry Candy” and “Strange Wine,” Harlan Ellison; “Witch’s Milk,” Peter De Vries; “Smith on Wry,” Jack Smith; “The Hunger Games,” Suzanne Collins; “A Moveable Feast,” Ernest Hemingway.

Pardon my tardiness in bringing this monthly nerdfest to you on the 12th, but staycation intervened. (If you’re the type who skip my Reading Logs, then my putting this off until mid-month ought to merit a chorus of thanks.)

For February all my books had titles involving food or drink, or lack of same. What inspired it was noticing that the recent acquisitions area of my bookshelves had “A Moveable Feast” and “The Hunger Games” side by side. Heh. That got me wondering if I had other books with related titles, and I did, enough for a month of reading.

That meant two books by Harlan Ellison, whose oeuvre I’m working my way through. “Strange Wine” is from 1978, “Angry Candy” from 1988. Like most story collections, they’re inconsistent, but I liked both, with “Candy” being the better of the two.

Had everyone but me read “The Hunger Games” by now? It was almost comically compelling and readable. They should make a movie out of it. Oh, wait.

You likely haven’t read the out of print “Smith on Wry” from 1970, a collection by the late L.A. Times columnist, but I love his humorous essays about his family, his neighbor, himself and goings on about town. This one also has his first encounter with Mr. Gomez, the subject of his next and most celebrated book.

Hemingway’s memoir of his days as a poor, struggling writer in Paris, “A Moveable Feast” pays tribute to the city and strips away a lot of the myths he’d built up around himself (while creating new ones, naturally). Candid, generous, funny and surprisingly warm. (In retrospect, Dylan’s “Chronicles” seems partly inspired by EH’s approach here.) This “restored edition” is evidently closer to Hemingway’s wishes than the version his widow compiled in 1964.

Finally, De Vries’ “Witch’s Milk” is a short novel that was turned into a movie, “Pete and Tillie,” with Walter Matthau and Carol Burnett. The book is comic and tragic both, a De Vries specialty.

I ran out of time to read the other half of the De Vries book, “The Cat’s Pajamas,” so the official reading count for this month is 5 1/2 books. (I’ve since read it. Next month you’ll see the book cover and spine again and another 1/2 a book in my count. Math is hard.)

Where and when did I acquire these books? Hemingway’s was bought, appropriately, at Paris’ Shakespeare and Co. on the Left Bank during my vacation last year. “Angry Candy” was bought used at Logos in Santa Cruz maybe eight years ago. “Hunger Games” was a birthday gift last year. Smith’s book was bought used at, I think, Bookfellows in Glendale about four years ago. “Witch’s Milk” was found used at Powell’s in Portland, Ore., in 2007. And “Strange Wine” was bought new somewhere in the Midwest, likely at a Waldenbooks in Mattoon, Ill., circa 1982. I read nearly half of it at the time. This time I read it from start to finish. Three decades later, its pages give off a fine bouquet, like wine.

Have you read any of the above — a likely possibility in the case of “Hunger Games,” certainly — and what have you been reading?

Next month: Lots of very, very short books. Plus “Cat’s Pajamas.”


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Reading log: January 2013

Books acquired: “The Accordion Repertoire,” Franklin Bruno.

Books read: “Around the World in 80 Days,” Jules Verne; “We’ll Always Have Paris,” Ray Bradbury; “The Brazil Series,” Bob Dylan; “Slouching Toward Bethlehem,” Joan Didion; “Holy Land,” D.J. Waldie; “America (The Book),” Jon Stewart and The Daily Show; “On the Road,” Jack Kerouac; “Icons of the Highway,” Tony and Eva Worobiec; “Exile on Main Street (33 1/3 series),” Bill Janovitz.

Welcome to my first Reading Log of 2013! This is the monthly feature where I track the books I read the previous month and you share your own reading habits, as well as reacting to anything I’ve read, generally if you’ve read it yourself or have meant to. What I’m reading is, almost without exception, books from my own collection. It’s rare that I read anything current. I like fiction, science fiction and related genres.

Seemed like a good idea to remind us all what this is all about as well as to welcome newcomers who wonder if this is a book review column. It’s not. It’s simply that I’ve accumulated an embarrassing number of books over the years. This begins Year 5 of my intensive effort to reduce my backlog. Tracking my reading by month encourages me to keep going, as well as providing a haven for fellow book lovers to gab.

I know I read differently because of these Reading Logs. If I weren’t grouping books by month, or sharing what I was reading for that matter, my book-by-book choices would be different. If I didn’t have an end-of-month deadline, I’d read fewer books, too. But there is an element of entertainment and performance here, and frankly, with several hundred unread books around the house, virtually all of them of interest, it’s kind of all the same to me which ones I read when. And so, some months I gather books with a loose connection, if only in my own mind.

Such was the case in January, when I read books that at least purported to be about places and/or travel. One benefit was that all six of my bookcases were represented this month. If left to my druthers, I might sit in my room and read only sci-fi. The fact that this grouping in effect forced me to read the Didion and Kerouac books, which I’d owned for close to a decade, was another plus. (The first essay in Didion’s book is about a 1964 murder case in Alta Loma, and I feel better about myself for having finally read it.)

You don’t want to read commentary about nine books, do you? Especially after this preamble? To take them in the order listed up top, there was a comic adventure novel about a bored Englishman who bets he can circumnavigate the globe at a then-breakneck pace; Bradbury’s last book of stories; a book of paintings by the songwriter; a classic book of 1960s essays, many about California; a poetic memoir about Lakewood, Calif.; a satirical look at American history written as a mock textbook; a novel of Beat generation America; a book of photos of theaters, diners and the like from the western U.S.; and, finally, a song-by-song look at the Rolling Stones album “Exile on Main St.”

My favorites of the above would be “Slouching,” “America,” “Icons” and “Exile.” Verne’s book, by the way, I began reading on the bullet train between London and Paris on Feb. 24, 2012, and put down almost immediately. Yes, it took me almost 11 months to read a 200-page book. It didn’t grab me, needless to say, its characters being so broad, but I read a chapter every now and then, determined to finish. I read the whole thing on my Kobo e-reader but, reloading the text simply for a photo seeming impractical, I used my paperback copy for the photo.

As always, your comments are encouraged. Next month: books with food titles. Yum!

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