Taking a break from Bad Poetry Week to help promote a work of much higher quality. BoyzNite from Xane J Fisher is now available on Amazon. It’s a short and compelling read, as I explain in the review I posted earlier.
Review by keighahr.wordpress.com:
American culture is famously obsessed with youth, and for that reason the story of Peter Pan, the leader of Neverland’s Lost Boys who never grow up, has become one of our most popular myths, despite its British origin. Xane J Fisher’s short story “BoyzNite” contains several allusions to Peter Pan, but the story is a critique rather than a celebration of this myth. Rather than uplifting and liberating, the quest for eternal youth is shown to be futile, and in the end, abusive.
The narrator, who remains anonymous until near the end of the story, is a mid-twenties law student who views the return to his father’s house in Washington state like a visit to a comfortably familiar bed and breakfast. He and his brother make arrangements with male friends from their youth, who do not have a single successful adult career among them, for a party. A friend texts a question about bringing girls; the narrator knows where this suggestion is headed, yet is too enamored with the thought of reuniting with his boyhood chums to heed his warning.
As the evening descends into debauchery, he attempts to flee, only to encounter another friend from middle-school, who forces him to confront his disgust, and realize that he and his friends have purchased their entertainment at the expense of ruined lives, from people who can’t afford to live a fantasy of eternal youth. The narrator’s shame feels genuine, but also somehow temporary, perhaps easily forgotten the moment he recovers from the hangover he will certainly experience the following morning.
“BoyzNite” moves at a brisk pace, and Fisher provides enough detail about the narrator’s background and home town of Piedmont to make the setting seem real. It is that rare gem of a story that is strongly moral without being moralistic — a highly entertaining and insightful work.
Author: Xane J. Fisher
Publisher: Royal James Publishing
Release Date: August 1, 2016
Law school wonder student Ian Peters chronicles his first night home for the summer in Piedmont, Washington. What starts with a pleasant drive up the Pacific Northwest Coast leads him into a night of self discovery, contemplative self-assessment, and ultimately the question of what kind of man does he want to be? Along the way, he reconnects with friends, family, and an old flame who changes his world forever.
What started as a typical night of partying quickly becomes BoyzNite.
A very interesting novel, embellished by an extremely good audiobook performance.
The Amazon miniseries, and my interest in alternative-history fiction, inspired me to download this title for a long holiday road trip. The genre is most effective when the premise is treated as background rather than the primary focus; “what happened?” and “how is this world different?” aren’t as interesting questions as “how are people in this world different?” and “what does this world say about our own?” Fortunately this novel doesn’t provide a detailed explanation of how the Allies lose the Second World War, leaving Germany in possession of the eastern United States, Japan ruling the west, with the Rockies forming a buffer between the two occupying empires (sorry, Britain and Russia, you get scant mention in this very American-centric novel).
What we have instead is a compelling portrait of California under Japanese rule. Asian culture is everywhere, affecting even the speech patterns of the conquered Americans. Yet American art and creativity fascinate the Japanese, a fascination not shared by the Germans to their east; a merger of American and Japanese culture seems to be forming, and helps lead to a conflict between the two remaining world powers. In this world, America’s military has failed, but its culture has come to its rescue; this imaginary world provides an interesting insight into the influence of American culture in our own world.
The Brilliance Audio performance by Jeff Cummings is first-rate. Cummings provides a distinct voice for each of the American, Japanese, German, and Italian characters, and even does well with the female characters. The quality of this reading makes the novel even more engaging.
Albert Camus’ “The Plague” is a much different work than his more famous “The Stranger.” While hardly uplifting — it’s about a city being quarantined due to an outbreak of bubonic plague, after all — the novel offers a far more positive view of humanity than we see with Meursault’s bleak (though fascinating) insularity. Exiled from the world, the characters in “The Plague” fight two battles; as they battle the disease which threatens their physical lives, they also struggle to defeat their isolation, to retain their connection to each other and their loved ones outside the city.
But it’s the narrative structure, more so than the characters or the plot, that makes “The Plague” so memorable. Up to the final chapter, the narrator appears to be an anonymous citizen of the city; as the plague ends and the quarantine is lifted, the narrator finally reveals himself as one of the central characters in the story he’s just told. The narrator’s identity comes hardly as a surprise, but the revelation casts his earlier relationship with the reader in a new light. His prior anonymity now seems like a deliberate attempt to keep distant from his readers, as if he’s been afraid to infect them with the spiritual plague that has been afflicting him. Or perhaps the narrator was more concerned with himself than his reader; perhaps talking about himself in the third person was the only way the narrator could think of himself as being human. However you choose to interpret the narrative structure, it seems a brilliant decision on Camus’ part.
I liked “The Stranger” for its fascinating character study and profound philosophical insights, but in my opinion “The Plague” is the more inspiring work.
Mark Kurlansky’s “Cod” is compelling for its subject matter alone. The near depletion of the cod fishing grounds in the northeast Atlantic is one of the great ecological disasters of the 20th century. Once a thriving industry that fed a significant portion of the world’s population, cod fishing is now severely limited in Canada and New England. Kurlansky’s book describes the technological advances that led to the overfishing of the region, as well as the devastating impact the restrictions have on the communities that had depended on cod fishing for centuries.
But what I enjoyed most about this book is the author’s literary style. I am a fan of non-fiction prose, and this is one of the finest books I’ve ever read in this genre. The demise of cod-fishing culture is described vividly, but without the weeping pathos you might find in an NPR broadcast.
It’s the recipes that make the difference. Each chapter has one, sometimes multiple cod recipes, and a lengthy appendix details how various cultures have flushed, cooked, and preserved the fish. Not that I plan to use “Cod” as a reference should the fish one day return to plenitude and I’m inspired to prepare a cod dinner at home for my family. The recipes don’t make “Cod” a cookbook, but rather serve as evidence for the ingenuity of the people who relied on cod for so long. “Cod” is a celebration of a versatile fish and a vibrant culture, written with the hope that both will return to their former glory.
Nathaniel Philbrick’s “Mayflower” is a relatively short, very readable history of Plymouth Colony, from its founding in 1620 to the end of King Philip’s War (a major regional confrontation with several Native American tribes) in 1676. The European colonization of America was filled with tension and conflict, and it is easy, perhaps necessary, to focus on one aspect of this confict when writing about this era. Philbrick argues there was a generational shift in attitude among both Europeans and Native Americans, cooperation and mostly peaceful co-existence in the early half of the centuries giving way to distrust and ambition in the second half. In other words, it wasn’t just a battle of Europeans against Native Americans — it was also, and perhaps more importantly, a battle between the original settlers/natives and their children.
There isn’t much new knowledge here — if you paid attention in high school during American History, much of what you’ll read will be very familiar — and the narrative voice, so important in literary nonfiction, is dry and analytical, making me appreciate Sarah Vowel’s “The Wordy Shipmates” even more. It’s always good to revisit our history, to replace the cliches and half-truths that have cluttered our brains with tidy if inconvenient facts, so in that regard “Mayflower” is a success, and I’d certainly recommend it to anyone interested in colonial America. However, it doesn’t bring literary satisfaction — it’s like enjoying a meal, but a week later not being able to remember what you ate, or even the name of the restaurant.
Glad I made the decision to read this book, rather than listen to it on the commute. Erik Larson’s “The Devil in the White City” is a masterful work of non-fiction, able not only to re-tell two compelling true stories, but also link them in a logical fashion.
Larson focuses on two men. Daniel Burnham, lead architect and driving force behind the 1890s Chicago World’s Fair, is depicted as brilliant and visionary, yet also maniacal and controlling. Plagued by natural and man-made disasters, constantly behind schedule and over budget, the World’s Fair depicted by Larson seems ever on the brink of failure, and when the Fair (dubbed “the White City” by the press) does open, its subsequent fantastic success is largely credited to Burnham’s genius and ambition.
Dr. H.H. Holmes is a genius of a different sort. One of America’s most infamous serial killers, Holmes operated a hotel just outside the World’s Fair, and Larson presents evidence (never brought into court — Holmes would be convicted and executed for murders committed outside Chicago) that Holmes used the hotel to lure dozens of young women to their deaths. While the author never shows admiration for Holmes’ act, the book does marvel at his ability to operate his “murder castle” and conduct numerous swindles for many years without being caught.
When faced with crimes as horrible as Holmes’, there are two likely but opposite reactions — either to question and attempt to understand how anyone could act with so much evil, or turn away and dismiss those actions as those of a monster. Larson chooses to question, and concludes that Holmes’ crimes are motivated by a warped desire for control, over his victims, over his world. It is the same maniacal desire, used for more noble ambitions, that drives Burnham to overcome overwhelming obstacles to build the famous White City of the World’s Fair.
I doubt I’d have been able to appreciate the complexity of this comparison had I only listened to the audiobook. Perhaps I need to restrict my commuting entertainment to light fiction, or works I’m already familiar with, and save the works that beg for analytical appreciation for regular reading.
There is an abundance of irony in “Ulysses.” Its notorious difficulty is a cause for at least two such points of irony:
The plot is remarkably simple. A university student and middle-aged advertising salesman go about their business on a pleasant summer’s day in Dublin at the turn of the 20th century. Many unremarkable things happen; there’s a funeral, a parade, a lecture; the salesman meets a young girl by the seaside, their encounter leading to a scene that somehow gets the novel banned in the United States for over a decade; the salesman’s wife has an affair; the principals have a surreal encounter in a brothel — and then everybody goes home. While it’s often difficult to figure out what exactly is happening in “Ulysses,” the truth is that there really isn’t that much that actually does happen.
The most infamous episodes are actually more accessible than most of the novel. During our junior year in high school, my classmates and I were assigned to read Melville’s “Billy Budd.” This being the 1970s, a decade of outspokenness (sometimes appropriate, many times not), we made our displeasure known to our teacher, who brushed off our complaining with an admonition — “you think Melville’s tough, that’s nothing compared to ‘Ulysses.’ It ends with sentences ten pages long!” (I get the feeling our teacher was assigned Joyce’s novel in college, and didn’t enjoy the experience.) She was referring to the concluding episode Molly Bloom’s soliloquy eight ginormous strings of associated words that can only by the largest stretch of imagination be considered sentences requiring over two hours to recite in that Naxos audiobooks I keep raving about. (Sorry, couldn’t resist.) This and the episode in the brothel are the two scenes I’ve seen most often cited to support the argument that “Ulysses” is difficult to the point of incomprehensibility. However, I find that once you accept that the surreal environment at the brothel, and learn to focus on Molly’s phrases rather than get hung up on her (lack of) punctuation — both scenes are very readable, certainly more so than the third episode, where I find that trying to follow Stephen Dedalus’ rambling thoughts is like a drunk man trying to read hieroglyphics while riding a motorcycle.
No honest analysis of James Joyce’s “Ulysses” can fail to address the novel’s notorious difficulty. Simply calling “Ulysses” a tough read does not do justice to the fact that difficulty is the novel’s distinguishing characteristic, that Joyce boasted his work contained enough mysteries to keep professors busy for centuries, that many readers find the book obscure, unfathomable, even frustrating. I’ve known people who’ve claimed to have understood “Ulysses” on their initial read — some I don’t believe, and of those I do believe, let’s just say I’m glad none have been elected to public office — but for the majority of us, I trust a comment I’ve recently heard: “You don’t read ‘Ulysses.’ You have to re-read ‘Ulysses.'” (I’ll have more to say about where I heard that comment in a future post.)
Aside from its sheer length (over 250,000 words, up to a thousand pages in some print editions, over 27 hours — twenty-seven! — in the Naxos audiobooks performance I’ve praised in previous posts), three qualities contribute principally to the novel’s difficulty:
Lack of chapter delineations. Call it a crutch, but what helps make reading a book, particularly a difficult book, enjoyable for me is knowing how many pages are left in the chapter I’m currently reading. But that’s an experience you don’t necessarily get with “Ulysses.” While Joyce admitted in his letters that his novel is divided into 18 distinct episodes, the initial print edition does not identify where each begins, and many subsequent editions have also kept out these delineations. It’s a structure that forces a difficult choice — if you can’t set apart an entire day to read the novel from start to finish, how do you decide where to stop for the day? After finishing the novel twice, I’ve decided that “Ulysses” is an elephant best eaten an episode at a time, and have resovled that my next reading will be with an edition which contains the retrofitted episode divisions.
Stream of conscious narration. Joyce wasn’t the originator of this technique, and he actually doesn’t employ it that often in “Ulysses” — but when he does, the effect is unforgettable unfathomable. Episode 3, the depiction of Stephen Dedalus’ thoughts as he walks along Sandymount Strand, has to make the short list of most obscure passages in English literary history. It either has to be read slowly, pausing to analyze each of Stephen’s thoughts before the text jumps to the next, or read quickly, with the goal of experiencing rather than understanding.
An apparent disdain for standard discursive representation. “Quotation marks should be used to indicate when characters are speaking in a novel,” you might say, and perhaps you think italics are needed to convey unspoken thoughts, and of course metadiscursive cues, those helpful “Dick said” or Jane thought phrases — these are conventions readers expect even in the most experimental of fiction. Sorry — not going to happen in “Ulysses.” The text jumps abruptly between third-person narration, direct character quotation, and interior monologue, sometimes within the same punctuated sentence, with little to no orthographic signposts indicating the switch. The effect is often disorienting — who is speaking, what’s the perspectice, what the hell is going on? You see this tendency towards unorthodox typography in Joyce’s earlier works — quotation marks seem to be a particular object of Joyce’s scorn — but in this novel it appears elevated to a point of pride.
So yes, “Ulysses” is a very difficult read. But is it worth the effort? That is the question I’ll exlpore in subsequent posts.
Last week I finished a task two months in the making — I read, for the second time, James Joyce’s Ulysses.
After my initial reading a few years ago, I posted a review which I now find almost embarassingly superficial, more of a confession of how overwhelmed I was by the novel than a serious attempt at analysis. (Did I really reference Alan Sherman? Yeesh.) My mistake back then was attempting to summarize my thoughts in one post, to get it all out at once. I’m going to take a different approach this time, spreading my analsysis over a series of posts. Not sure how many times I’ll write, or how much time will elapse between each — I’ll continue my daily fiction pieces, but also work in my analysis of Ulysses until I feel I’ve no more to say about it, at least for the time being.
For this first post, I’ll reiterate my one good observation from my earlier review. The Naxos Audiobooks recording of the novel is a valuable aid for people like me, eager to undertake this masterful novel but initimated by its infamous complexity. Joyce doesn’t make it easy for his reader (this will certainly be the topic for at least one of my analytical posts), but listening to the performance by readers Jim Norton and Marcella Riordan as I read helped dull some of its disorienting edge. If you’re at all interested in reading Ulysses, this audiobook is highly recommended.