James Joyce, to read or not

The name of author James Joyce will undoubtedly crop up on most Ultimate Book Lists with the book cited, Ulysses.

First serialised in an American journal from March 1918 to December 1920, it was published in its entirety in 1922. Regarded as one of the most important works of Modernist literature, Ulysses is approximately 265,000 words in length,  and uses a lexicon of 30,030 words (average count for a novel is 80,000-120,000 words).

As a tribute to the significance of this book, Bloomsday is celebrated annually on June 16 in Dublin and elsewhere. The day was invented in 1954 on the 50th anniversary of the events in the novel.

This book is not for the feint-hearted. To actually start and finish Ulysses for many readers, would be like taking medicine for some ailment: you know it’s good for you, it’s difficult to take, but you’ll be better for having made the effort!

I have glimpsed into Ulysses but have not made the effort to complete the task so, in no way, can venture to express an erudite opinion or even give you an idea about its structure and meaning.

Here’s the thing though, when the name James Joyce crops up in relation to Ulysses I am fearful that any other texts by him are completely overshadowed and then consequently overlooked by readers.

This is a shame.

I have read Joyce’s, The Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man which was written prior to the Ulysses tome and published in 1917 after having been serialized from 1914 to 1915.

This semi-autobiographical novel, tells the story of Stephen Daedalus and his ‘awakening’ as he questions and rebels against the Catholic and Irish conventions that have imbued his life.

Now while there is a lot to discuss about this book in terms of its style and themes, to do this justice would involve a much lengthier piece than warranted by my blog.

So, where to now?

You may have noticed that I’m working backwards through Joyce’s collection and so we come to his short stories, published in a book titled Dubliners–these stories are sublime and EVERYONE should read them.

Interestingly, Joyce submitted this book 18 times to a total of 15 publishers from about 1905 and was finally published in 1914 after many stops and starts.

Dubliners depicts the Irish middle class during the time that Irish nationalism was at its peak. This search for national identity put Irish history and culture right in the epicenter of various converging ideas and influences.

The stories are written and presented to show the progressive journey and gaining of wisdom from childhood, through adolescence and then maturity. Or in the abstract, the progressive gaining of knowledge from a state of harmony that leads to conflict or epiphany and then reintegration with that you may have been trying to escape.

These are the stories as presented:

The Sisters–After the priest Father Flynn dies, a young boy who was close to him and his family deal with it only superficially.

An Encounter–Two schoolboys playing truant encounter an elderly man.

Araby–A boy falls in love with the sister of his friend, but fails in his quest to buy her a worthy gift from the Araby bazaar.

Eveline–A young woman abandons her plans to leave Ireland with a sailor.

After the Race–College student Jimmy Doyle tries to fit in with his wealthy friends.

Two Gallants–Two con men, Lenehan and Corley find a maid who is willing to steal from her employer.

The Boarding House–Mrs. Mooney successfully manoeuvres her daughter Polly into an upwardly mobile marriage with her lodger Mr. Doran.

A Little Cloud–Little Chandler’s dinner with his old friend Ignatius Gallaher casts fresh light on his own failed literary dreams. The story reflects also on Chandler’s mood upon realizing his baby son has replaced him as the centre of his wife’s affections.

Counterparts–Farrington, a lumbering alcoholic scrivener takes out his frustration in pubs and on his son Tom.

Clay–The old maid Maria, a laundress, celebrates Halloween with her former foster child Joe Donnelly and his family.

A Painful Case–Mr. Duffy rebuffs Mrs. Sinico, then four years later realizes he has condemned her to loneliness and death.

Ivy Day in the Committee Room–Minor politicians fail to live up to the memory of Charles Stewart Parnell.

A Mother–Mrs. Kearney tries to win a place of pride for her daughter, Kathleen, in the Irish cultural movement, by starring her in a series of concerts, but ultimately fails.

Grace–After Mr. Kernan injures himself falling down the stairs in a bar, his friends try to reform him through Catholicism.

The Dead–Gabriel Conroy attends a party, and later, as he speaks with his wife, has an epiphany about the nature of life and death. (At 15–16,000 words this story has also been classified as a novella)

The language and style used by Joyce in his short stories describe Dublin in a natural and realistic way. He doesn’t use exaggeration in his prose to create an effect, instead he presents his characters and setting in a simple way with close attention to detail.

Let me share a few examples of this sublime prose to show how Joyce paints a powerful picture by the use of a few simple words:

From The Sisters:

He began to puff at his pipe, no doubt arranging his opinion in his mind.

From Eveline:

SHE sat at the window watching the evening invade the avenue.
Her head was leaned against the window curtains and in her
nostrils was the odour of dusty cretonne. She was tired.

From Two Gallants:

THE grey warm evening of August had descended upon the city
and a mild warm air, a memory of summer, circulated in the
streets. The streets, shuttered for the repose of Sunday, swarmed
with a gaily coloured crowd. Like illumined pearls the lamps
shone from the summits of their tall poles upon the living texture
below which, changing shape and hue unceasingly, sent up into the
warm grey evening air an unchanging unceasing murmur.

From A Mother:

After a swift struggle of tongues Mr. Holohan hobbled out in haste.
The room was silent. When the strain of the silence had become
somewhat painful...

From Grace:

A pale, oval face came forward into the light. The arch of its fair
trailing moustache was repeated in the fair eyebrows looped above
pleasantly astonished eyes. Mr. Fogarty was a modest grocer.

From The Dead:

A fat brown goose lay at one end of the table and at the other end,
on a bed of creased paper strewn with sprigs of parsley, lay a great
ham, stripped of its outer skin and peppered over with crust
crumbs, a neat paper frill round its shin and beside this was a
round of spiced beef. Between these rival ends ran parallel lines of
side-dishes: two little minsters of jelly, red and yellow; a shallow
dish full of blocks of blancmange and red jam, a large green
leaf-shaped dish with a stalk-shaped handle, on which lay bunches
of purple raisins and peeled almonds, a companion dish on which
lay a solid rectangle of Smyrna figs, a dish of custard topped with
grated nutmeg, a small bowl full of chocolates and sweets wrapped
in gold and silver papers and a glass vase in which stood some tall
celery stalks. In the centre of the table there stood, as sentries to a
fruit-stand which upheld a pyramid of oranges and American
apples, two squat old-fashioned decanters of cut glass, one
containing port and the other dark sherry. On the closed square
piano a pudding in a huge yellow dish lay in waiting and behind it
were three squads of bottles of stout and ale and minerals, drawn
up according to the colours of their uniforms, the first two black,
with brown and red labels, the third and smallest squad white, with
transverse green sashes.

Gabriel took his seat boldly at the head of the table and, having
looked to the edge of the carver, plunged his fork firmly into the
goose. He felt quite at ease now for he was an expert carver and
liked nothing better than to find himself at the head of a well-laden

“Miss Furlong, what shall I send you?” he asked. “A wing or a slice
of the breast?”

I have given you a much larger snippet from this last story in Dubliners as it is my favorite. This scene particularly, is rich with imagery and nuance as Joyce presents his view that life in Dublin is flat, grey and unfulfilling — the centre of the living dead.

Without going into detail, the protagonist, Gabriel experiences an epiphany and comes to realise that the future is inextricably bound with the past. There is a unity between the living and the dead that allows for an acceptance and more importantly, an appreciation of life in Dublin and the richness it holds from its nationalism, religious conviction and its own individual language.

Have you enjoyed those snippets? Are you encouraged to read Dubliners?

I hope so.

Finding yourself in a Thomas Hardy novel

I can almost feel tear drops forming ready to splash down on my keyboard as I contemplate the content of this blog.

Every year our Book Group aims to cover one classic. Last year Jacob’s Room by Virginia Woolf gave some of our ‘clubbers’ absolute grief to read but all (well most…) agreed it was worth the effort in the end.

This year’s classic has not been named as yet, but Thomas Hardy (you will find much loved Folio Society editions of his books on my bookshelf) remains one of my favorite authors of all time.


You might ask why I love his work so much when it is viewed by most who encounter this prose as being intensely pessimistic?

Hardy, who really considered himself as a poet at heart, wrote about and explored tragic characters who were struggling against their passions and social circumstances.

While I strongly believe I’m an optimist who can find beauty in the minutiae of life, the human condition with all the complexities and idiosyncrasies that Hardy captures in his novels really does resonate with me.

Hardy says ‘The business of the novelist is to show the sorriness underlying the grandest things, and the grandeur underlying the sorriest things’ and this he does with stunning skill.

I have read most of Hardy’s novels at least twice. The first read takes you (or it did me) on that spiral trajectory down to a place of sublime sadness and despair about the world he has chosen to depict.

The second reading has me repeating ‘if only…’ as you encounter each crossroad in the journey of the characters. You already know and feel the pain of each choice made and its consequence. It makes me want to jump through the pages of the book, grab the poor soul about to make the indifferent choice and heed them a warning, ‘don’t do it, don’t do it!’

Fortunately though, for all of his pessimism and his revealing of how flawed humanity is, Hardy writes beautiful prose.

Look, for example, how Hardy writes about his protagonist, Michael Henchard in The Mayor of Casterbridge:

His measured, springless walk was the walk of the skilled countryman as distinct from the desultory shamble of the general laborer; while in the turn and plant of each foot there was, further, a dogged and cynical indifference personal to himself, showing its presence even in the regularly interchanging fustian folds, now in the left leg, now in the right, as he paced along.

Who’d have thought that you could gain so much insight to a character just from the way his gait is described!

And another example, this time from Hardy’s tale about Gabriel Oak and Bathsheba Everdene in Far from the Madding Crowd:

The maltster, after having lain down in his clothes for a few hours, was now sitting beside a three-legged table, breakfasting off bread and bacon. This was eaten on the plateless system, which is performed by placing a slice of bread upon the table, the meat flat upon the bread, a mustard plaster upon the meat, and a pinch of salt upon the whole, then cutting them vertically downwards with a large pocket-knife till wood is reached, when the severed lump is impaled on the knife, elevated, and sent the proper way of food.

Oh, okay, one more–this time from Jude the Obscure:

There was a quiver in his lip now and after opening the well-cover to begin lowering the bucket he paused and leant with his forehead and arms against the framework, his face wearing the fixity of a thoughtful child’s who has felt the pricks of life somewhat before his time.

Powerful prose!

No discussion about Hardy would be complete without reference to his most tragic heroine, Tess of the d’Urbervilles. In this devastating depiction of seduction, love, betrayal, and murder the human condition is laid bare and this is where the tears become BIG, gulping, SOBS!

At the denouement of this harrowing tale Tess asserts:

‘It is as it should be’, she murmured. ‘Angel, I am almost glad–yes, glad! This happiness could not have lasted. It was too much. I have had enough; and now I shall not live for you to despise me!’

She stood up, shook herself, and went forward, neither of the men having moved.

“I am ready’, she said quietly.

Tess, oh Tess, oh Tess, what a morbid sense of resignation.

John Durbeyfield’s epiphany (his suggested family lineage), experienced in the first few pages of this book seemed to set Tess’s fate in motion and lead to her ultimate destruction.

Evil has been the winner, or not?

This is where you can decide if you have found yourself in a Thomas Hardy novel.

Has Hardy passed a non-redemptive sentence on the world by writing of Tess’s demise?

I think not. Hardy has, with subtlety, shown a glimmer of hope:

One of the pair was Angel Clare, the other a tall budding creature–half girl, half woman–a spiritualised image of Tess, slighter than she, but with the same beautiful eyes–Clare’s sister-in-law, ‘Liza-Lu’.

As soon as they had strength they arose, joined hands again, and went on.

Cry, sob and feel Tess’s pain, but only for a scant moment, then perk up and look to the future and all that it promises.

What makes a book good

“It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.

However little known the feelings or views of such a man may be on his first entering a neighborhood, this truth is so well fixed in the minds of the surrounding families, that he is considered the rightful property of some one or other of their daughters.

Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen, published 1813

Pride and Prejudice would have to be in the Top 10 of my all time favourite books.

Now I know that Jane Austen is not everyone’s ‘cup of tea’, in fact, some would argue that the premise in her books is like a ‘storm in a tea cup’. Compared to the bigger external issues that can be dealt with in literature, that may be so. We mustn’t ever forget though, that if you are IN that ‘tea cup’ the storm can be frighteningly real!

If you are not familiar with this classic, it examines both internal and external conflicts: the negative societal pressures and our internal biases that lead us to make mistakes. Elizabeth and Darcy have to overcome these before they can allow themselves to fall in love and marry.

Although written to depict life in the early 19th century, modern interest in the book has resulted in a number of adaptations and an abundance of novels and stories chaneling Austen’s memorable characters or themes.

This brings me to a book we recently read for book group.

(Honestly, it should have been one of those night’s that I had another engagement!)

A little bit of background first though.

Some books our group had covered prior to this were: Bereft by Chris Womersley, Snowflower and the Secret Fan by Lisa See, Jasper Jones by Craig Silvey.

I’ve read and enjoyed gentle novels such as 84, Charring Cross Road by Helen Hanff and The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows. I quite like though, what I call ‘gritty’ or ‘edgey’ books but the consensus was that a ‘softer’ book was required for the upcoming book group meeting.

The book chosen was The Girl in the Steel-Capped Boots by Loretta Hill, published in 2012.

I could almost feel Jane Austen turning in her grave as this new author tried to ‘channel’ Austen’s Pride and Prejudice premise.

Firstly, there are plenty of references throughout the book to places and names that invoke Jane Austen, e.g. Wickham, Bath.

The protagonists Lena and Dan are poor facsimiles of Elizabeth and Darcy.

This is how Lena describes Dan at first acquaintance:

‘…if only tall, dark and obnoxious…That’s what Barnes Inc staff called Dan Hullog – Bulldog. Apparently, once he got it between his teeth, he didn’t let go – a perfectionist with impossible standards. Apparently, he had an overly critical eye and a penchant for finding the tiniest flaw in anything.’

Sound familiar with how Mr Darcy is considered a:

‘…fine, tall person, handsome features, noble mien” but then ‘…he was discovered to be proud, to be above his company, and above being pleased…having a most forbiding, disagreeable countenance, and being unworthy to be compared with his friend.’

And then the similarities with the initial interactions between Lena and Dan:

‘She walked over to the bicep-building machine and perched on its worn vinyl seat. Dan went back to ignoring her.

Can you conjure up the ball scene in Pride and Prejudice where Darcy chooses to ignore Elizabeth as a dance partner.

Lena is portrayed as an educated (but with question marks over her qualification) city girl sent to outback Australia to prove her worth. As a female engineer in this environment, she is considered second class. Much the same as The Bennett’s social standing in their community, not quite good enough.

Both books develop the internal and external conflict to arrive at the same conclusion, both sets of protagonists are able to move beyond their pride and prejudice.

Elizabeth is accepted by Darcy and others (except Lady de Burgh) as someone worthy to share his life.

Lena is accepted as a qualified and capable engineer by Dan and others and is able to feel comfortable that she has fairly earned her degree.

Ahhh, isn’t that lovely.

I could make other comparisons between the characters and events in each book, but I think you get my point.

Both authors, using the same premise have resulted in books that to my reading pleasure are vastly different.

Jane Austen, using the society mores in which she has grown up in, uses rich and witty language to create a text that engages me as a reader.

Loretta Hill, using her own experience as an engineer in the Pilbara, failed to excite me with her language and scene depictions.

I do consider Pride and Prejudice to be a good book.

I do NOT consider The Girl in Steel-Capped Boots to be a good book.

Opinions and reading pleasures are personal.

What makes a book good? What do you think?

Nb.A quick search of reviews for the latter book will show you that there are plenty of others who loved the book. Just not me.

What books to read

There have been lots of lists compiled over the years declaring the Best 100 books you should read before you know what…

When I check my completed reading list against these, I find that I have read over 50 on some lists, only about 30 on others and so on it goes.

Some of the lists are compiled purely by numbers of books sold, some by their literary value, but the truth is they are all some one else’s opinion.

Look for a moment at this list of the best 100 novels compiled by the BBC. It can be intimidating to compare your reading efforts! I, for example have read 48 of the books on this list.

1. The Lord of the Rings, JRR Tolkien
2. Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen Yes
3. His Dark Materials, Philip Pullman
4. The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Douglas Adams
5. Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, JK Rowling
6. To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee Yes
7. Winnie the Pooh, AA Milne Yes
8. Nineteen Eighty-Four, George Orwell Yes
9. The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, CS Lewis Yes
10. Jane Eyre, Charlotte Brontë Yes
11. Catch-22, Joseph Heller Yes
12. Wuthering Heights, Emily Brontë Yes
13. Birdsong, Sebastian Faulks
14. Rebecca, Daphne du Maurier Yes
15. The Catcher in the Rye, JD Salinger
16. The Wind in the Willows, Kenneth Grahame Yes
17. Great Expectations, Charles Dickens Yes
18. Little Women, Louisa May Alcott Yes
19. Captain Corelli’s Mandolin, Louis de Bernieres Yes
20. War and Peace, Leo Tolstoy Yes
21. Gone with the Wind, Margaret Mitchell Yes
22. Harry Potter And The Philosopher’s Stone, JK Rowling
23. Harry Potter And The Chamber Of Secrets, JK Rowling
24. Harry Potter And The Prisoner Of Azkaban, JK Rowling
25. The Hobbit, JRR Tolkien Yes
26. Tess Of The D’Urbervilles, Thomas Hardy Yes
27. Middlemarch, George Eliot Yes
28. A Prayer For Owen Meany, John Irving
29. The Grapes Of Wrath, John Steinbeck Yes
30. Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland, Lewis Carroll Yes
31. The Story Of Tracy Beaker, Jacqueline Wilson
32. One Hundred Years Of Solitude, Gabriel García Márquez
33. The Pillars Of The Earth, Ken Follett
34. David Copperfield, Charles Dickens
35. Charlie And The Chocolate Factory, Roald Dahl Yes
36. Treasure Island, Robert Louis Stevenson Yes
37. A Town Like Alice, Nevil Shute Yes
38. Persuasion, Jane Austen Yes
39. Dune, Frank Herbert
40. Emma, Jane Austen Yes
41. Anne Of Green Gables, LM Montgomery Yes
42. Watership Down, Richard Adams
43. The Great Gatsby, F Scott Fitzgerald Yes
44. The Count Of Monte Cristo, Alexandre Dumas
45. Brideshead Revisited, Evelyn Waugh
46. Animal Farm, George Orwell Yes
47. A Christmas Carol, Charles Dickens Yes
48. Far From The Madding Crowd, Thomas Hardy Yes
49. Goodnight Mister Tom, Michelle Magorian
50. The Shell Seekers, Rosamunde Pilcher
51. The Secret Garden, Frances Hodgson Burnett Yes
52. Of Mice And Men, John Steinbeck Yes
53. The Stand, Stephen King
54. Anna Karenina, Leo Tolstoy Yes
55. A Suitable Boy, Vikram Seth
56. The BFG, Roald Dahl Yes
57. Swallows And Amazons, Arthur Ransome
58. Black Beauty, Anna Sewell Yes
59. Artemis Fowl, Eoin Colfer
60. Crime And Punishment, Fyodor Dostoyevsky Yes
61. Noughts And Crosses, Malorie Blackman
62. Memoirs Of A Geisha, Arthur Golden
63. A Tale Of Two Cities, Charles Dickens Yes
64. The Thorn Birds, Colleen McCollough Yes
65. Mort, Terry Pratchett
66. The Magic Faraway Tree, Enid Blyton Yes
67. The Magus, John Fowles
68. Good Omens, Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman
69. Guards! Guards!, Terry Pratchett
70. Lord Of The Flies, William Golding Yes
71. Perfume, Patrick Süskind
72. The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists, Robert Tressell
73. Night Watch, Terry Pratchett
74. Matilda, Roald Dahl Yes
75. Bridget Jones’s Diary, Helen Fielding
76. The Secret History, Donna Tartt
77. The Woman In White, Wilkie Collins
78. Ulysses, James Joyce
79. Bleak House, Charles Dickens Yes
80. Double Act, Jacqueline Wilson
81. The Twits, Roald Dahl Yes
82. I Capture The Castle, Dodie Smith
83. Holes, Louis Sachar
84. Gormenghast, Mervyn Peake
85. The God Of Small Things, Arundhati Roy Yes
86. Vicky Angel, Jacqueline Wilson
87. Brave New World, Aldous Huxley
88. Cold Comfort Farm, Stella Gibbons
89. Magician, Raymond E Feist
90. On The Road, Jack Kerouac
91. The Godfather, Mario Puzo
92. The Clan Of The Cave Bear, Jean M Auel Yes
93. The Colour Of Magic, Terry Pratchett
94. The Alchemist, Paulo Coelho Yes
95. Katherine, Anya Seton
96. Kane And Abel, Jeffrey Archer Yes
97. Love In The Time Of Cholera, Gabriel García Márquez Yes
98. Girls In Love, Jacqueline Wilson
99. The Princess Diaries, Meg Cabot
100. Midnight’s Children, Salman Rushdie

But here’s the thing: towards the end of this list, there are 5 books by Terry Pratchett.

Who exactly is Terry Pratchett? I’ve never heard of him.

Wiki reveals: Sir Terence David John “Terry” Pratchett, OBE (born 28 April 1948) is an English novelist, known for his frequently comical work in the fantasy genre.

Oh, that makes sense. The fantasy genre is not one I enjoy. You’ll notice that I haven’t ticked off The Lord of the Rings, or the Harry Potter series (although I did enjoy the movies). My almost 12 year old loves this genre, but not me.

I struggled to read The Hobbit while at school but have never even been tempted to pick up The Lord of the Rings Trilogy.

What about all those other fabulous books that are not on the list:

The Fountainhead by Ayn Rand

The Book Thief by Markus Zusak

Cloudstreet by Tim Winton

The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini

The Great World by David Malouf

Villette by Charlotte Bronte

The Tree of Man by Patrick White

…and the list goes on.

Reading is about the individual, you and me, because we all bring different knowledge and experiences to the process.

But here’s the absolutely BEST thing about Book Groups, we are encouraged to read books we may not have chosen on our own. This can help broaden our own appreciation and actually contribute in a meaningful way to our overall reading pleasure.

So what is the ultimate Best Book List? It is an amorphous entity.

You need to find the ultimate Best Book List for YOU.

It’s going to be fun to construct my list and I’d love to hear about the books on yours.

There are still so many aspects of reading books to discover.

What makes a book good?

Why do I like one book over another?

Should I read all books by an author I like?

The journey continues.

P.s. By the way, I think it’s perfectly fine for you to have another ‘engagement’ on the meeting night if your Book Group is reading a book that is just not you.