Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Ulysses and Other Adventures

I have lots to say about what I'm reading lately.

First, two books that seem to have been written with me specifically in mind: 1) William Shakespeare's Star Wars, by Ian Doescher, is a retelling of A New Hope in [largely] Elizabethan language, in iambic pentameter, WITH. SONNETS. "Red Six doth stand by." Star Wars and Shakespeare are two of my most favorite things - like, up there with chocolate lava cakes and sleeping - so that someone combined them in an intelligent, delightful way is a gift beyond price.

And 2), Gods Like Us, a history of movie stardom by Boston Globe film critic Ty Burr. I don't exaggerate when I say that this is a book I've been wanting to read since I was a junior in college, even though it was only published last fall. Among the hats it wears, it's a critical examination of celebrity, its history and development from Florence Lawrence up to the present day. The field of star studies, a miniature niche of film criticism to be sure, has fascinated me since before I knew it existed. This book feeds my need. It's lively and informative and I'm going to write him a fan letter when I'm through.

A couple of weeks ago, I plowed through The Things They Carried, Tim O'Brien's novel in stories about Vietnam. I have a weak constitution when it comes to art about Vietnam (my father is a vet), and I kind of wish that I'd been able to get through life without having to consume this particular piece of art. But I couldn't. And I read it. And I'm not sorry I read it, but it was somewhat an unpleasant chore, if a fascinating book.

Plus I read less than 50 pages of a book called The People of Paper and gave up. Not for me.

And I read Innocence, by Jane Mendelsohn, which is a late-YA fever dream of a novel. It was quick, and very beautifully written, and was wrapped around an allegory that is well worth contemplation by a large audience of smart young women. But I wanted more concreteness out of it, and I wanted a good deal less emotional wallowing. It, the tough time I had reading Spinelli's Love, Stargirl, and my utter indifference to a book called Chime by Franny Billingsley that was made much of, have forced me to consider (and worry over) the idea that YA no longer appeals to me as much as it once did. Which would be a real shame, if true.

Along with the stars (movie and Wars), at present I'm listening to an audiobook version of Ulysses, which I've never read. It was suggested to me at Esalen that listening to the audio version of this kahuna allows the listener an easier time with the language of the book than reading it. Although only one-seventh of the way through the book (three discs out of 22), I can wholeheartedly endorse this. I downloaded the Gutenberg text onto my e-reader so I could go over some of the passages I didn't quite understand, and I was amazed at how much more complex and obtuse some of the text seemed on the page, when I got the meaning easily enough in hearing it.

The version I'm listening to has been abridged (but I'm not sure that's such a bad thing) and is read by Jim Norton and Marcella Riordan, who are both totally astonishing. Norton has the larger part, and he sings and chants and meows and takes on brogues gamely. But Riordan arguably has the more difficult task: she reads the part of Molly Bloom, both throughout the regular text and for the long stream of consciousness section that closes the novel.

I may eat these words in the end, but at the moment I'm having the same reaction to Ulysses that I had to some of Dubliners: beautiful language, Joyce is obviously the Orson Welles of 20th century literature, but I have no idea why I should care about these characters or what happens to them. I admire it, but it's failing to move me or even involve me much except in little bits, here and there. How stark a contrast I find between it and The Sound and the Fury - which is stylistically almost a riff on Ulysses, but which held a lot more depth for me.

On a not-really-related note, I watched Julie Taymor's film of The Tempest last week. Some of my reactions to it were completely unexpected, i.e. I thought Russell Brand was amazingly good and Helen Mirren kind of dull and flat. (!!!) The MVP was definitely the costume designer. The Tempest is a weird play, and I've yet to find it as compelling as its ideas in any interpretation I've seen (although perhaps I've just been unlucky), so I can't blame anyone involved in this rendering for falling a bit short. They filmed it on Kauai, which the Bard may as well have had in mind when he wrote the play, and Taymor's idiosyncratic style was not at all misplaced. But it just didn't gel.

Ahead is Jincy Willett's book of short stories Jenny and the Jaws of Life. And some writer-type activities, too, a writer's "faire" at UCLA next weekend and some laborious revision. And classes starting. Yeah, that.

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