enitharmon: (bookrosie)
Never Let Me GoNever Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Kathy H, a simple and likeable woman of 31, tells in a "talking heads" style monologue of her life so far, and in particular of her adolescence at Hailsham, a seemingly happy boarding school somewhere deep in the English countryside.

Kathy's style is of an everyday sort, artlessly constructed by the author to show her ordinary humanity. Her vocabulary is limited, her story repetitive and discursive; she's the sort of chatty young woman you might bump into any day of the week in Tesco or, in the course of her actual job, sitting over a coffee and doughnut in some impersonal motorway café as she flits her lonely way around the country. But, as we gradually learn, Kathy, her friends and her world are far from ordinary. The truth drips out little by little. Hailsham teaches its students to be creative, but not how to cope with life in the outside world. The nature of the terrible destiny planned for these children, carefully isolated from the everyday world outside, emerges only partly for them; a rumour here, a slip of the tongue there, now and then a glimpse of something far off. By the time Kathy, once a caring and compassionate child, is telling her story she has accepted her fate and is resigned to it.

Early in Kathy's narrative I wanted to give her a good slap and tell her to get to the point, but she never really does. The pace never changes, there are no great crises and no great climactic moments. It breaks all the rules of formula fiction. And yet to condemn Kathy's story for its humdrumness is to miss the point; it's carefully crafted that way to bring out the true horror behind it in the most chilling way possible.

What kind of book is this anyway? Ishiguro makes no attempt to present any scientific basis of what's going on or to place it in any real way in our world, but that just makes it more achingly plausible. Children brought into the world with one particular purpose in mind, people who by class or caste are detached from civil society and give prescribed roles, nevertheless have a fundamental need for love and belonging and those who – no, we who have been outsiders can recognise the inevitable conflict that results. On one level this is fantasy; as allegory its premise can be extended to any number of isolated and excluded groups and ring with terrifying truth.

Does it work? Hell, yes! It's a long time since I read the last pages of any book through a film of tears. There are books you can't put down and there are books you eventually have to walk away from for a while to catch your breath. And maybe to spin it out for a little bit longer just as Kathy, alone now in the world, tries to defer the moment when she will walk away quietly to her fate.

Gobsmacking. Top marks all the way; a sure future classic and a Brave New World for our time.

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Sharp ObjectsSharp Objects by Gillian Flynn

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I was looking for a shabby little shocker. There's nothing wrong with a shabby little shocker of course (the term was first applied to my favourite opera after all), especially when one has been indulging in richer fare and wants to vary one's literary diet. This one was just shabby though.

Perhaps I'm being unfair. It's a first novel by the author. It takes on serious themes close to my heart, emotional abuse by a parent first and foremost. It's the first appearance in fiction that I've seen of that bizarre and rather sinister disorder Munchausen's Syndrome by Proxy (MSP); this is not entirely a spoiler as I picked it up early on although it wasn't mentioned by name until later.

Everybody in this book is emotionally damaged. Maybe it's their environment; it takes place in the "boot-heel" of Missouri (I learned some US geography in the course of reading, a curious appendage at the bottom of Missouri separates Arkansas from Tennessee for no obvious reason) in the heart of rural Appalachia where the only industry is the huge pig factory owned by the protagonist's mother. The protagonist herself, a not-very-good journalist on an also-ran Chicago paper, has been sent to her home town to cover the murder of two adolescent girls. The result is something between Cold Comfort Farm (without the laughs), the Addams Family and Green Acres. Some shocking things happen, but the whole fails to shock. It's a long way from the white-knuckle ride I'd rather hoped for.

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DisgraceDisgrace by J.M. Coetzee

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The disgrace of the title is the state former university professor David Lurie has resigned himself to when he loses his post after an affair with a student. Or maybe the disgrace of his daughter Lucy after the violent attacks on father and daughter on Lucy's rural smallholding where David has been finding a sense of peace. Perhaps, too, it's the disgrace of the white people of South Africa, struggling to find their place and face the consequences in the inverted world where generations of oppression have been broken and a whole new set of rules apply.

It's a long fall from David's comfortable and cocksure world of Romantic poetry and easy sex. He loses everything: his looks, his creativity, his reputation, his family. That's the price of his redemption. Not surprisingly this is a bleak and disturbing book. But it's never a dull one. It's deceptively easy to read and yet in a compact 220 pages it packs a devastating punch.

I'm conscious that what I've just written is a very shallow review of what is a deeply complex book. I think that may be because it's left me reeling somewhat. It's not the hard, dense read that one might expect from something that addresses just hard, dense issues, and perhaps that's part of its genius. Yet I don't know why it flowed so easily. It's got a scattering of gratuitous foreign: Italian, German, French, something that might reasonably be Xhosa. It's protagonist is distinctly unlikeable; he is emotionally frigid, arrogant, smug, contemptuous of the women he exploits without regard for the personal consequences for them. He is oblivious to his own flaws and to how they are perceived by those around him. In middle age he still wants to make moral decisions for his grown-up daughter. And yet Coetzee had me rooting for him by the end. Perhaps David Lurie deserved his fate, however much one might want to give him a good slap (but what he actually gets is far worse and far more cathartic). Yet he approaches his fate with quiet resignation, becoming like the subordinate people of the old order. Only once he has been stripped of everything can he be at peace with himself.

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Fever of the BoneFever of the Bone by Val McDermid

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Another enjoyable if routine romp in the world of Tony Hill the emotionally-damaged psychologist and feisty detective Carol Jordan. Somebody is picking off apparently random teenagers by grooming them on a social networking group and then luring them to a messy demise. DCI Jordan is forbidden from consulting Dr Hill by her new Chief Constable and in any case Tony has been summoned to another part of the the country on an apparently unrelated case. But will they be able to work their magic together?

I have to say that, on the basis two pieces of information both available to Carol Jordan, I'd accurately done my own bit of profiling before much more than a hundred pages were up, but it took another 400 pages for Tony and Carol and her team to come up with a denouement. I have a strong sense that the author is hoist with her own petard; she intended Tony Hill to be a one off in The Mermaids Singing and by her won admission she'd said everything there was to know about Tony in that first book, but it's this series that brings the money in via television. The feeling of strain here is palpable. The dark and disturbing goings on of Mermaids is missing; our killer doesn't do torture but rather gives the victims a painless death before mutilating them. The focus is less on the murders and much more on the interactions and relationships between the investigators, and there's a clear leaning towards the much gentler Lindsay Gordon lesbian romance mysteries. There's a heart-warming if unconvincing subplot for Tony Hill, who feels more and more like an awkward extra in his own series, and there's a forgettable cold case to be resolved without adding anything to the whole. The whole caboodle is about 250 pages too long and I'm sure this is more a reflection of the marketing department's demands than Val's qualities as a writer.

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Woodcutter, TheWoodcutter, The by Reginald Hill

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Reading the last couple of Reg Hill's Dalziel and Pascoe books has left me wondering, has the old boy lost his touch? Hill has such a delicacy of touch in his writing that a slight loss of it doesn't mean that the results aren't a terrific read but as I reel somewhat and pause for breath on finishing The Woodcutter then I can only say that in any case the answer is a resounding NO!

This standalone novel is a tour-de-force. In so many ways it's unlike anything else he's attempted. For one thing there are very few laughs in it; it is dark, sometimes harrowing, but never for a second less than gripping, and beautifully written. The descriptions of the Lake District, where much of it is set, are worth the five stars alone, but that's not all.

One Hill signature is present; the literary allusions are all over it. There's more than a hint of Wuthering Heights about it but it's from fairy tales and ballads that it draws its energy. A poor woodcutter's son going out into the world to make his fortune and gain the hand of the rich man's daughter sets the framework, but this is Reg Hill and what comes after isn't for the faint-hearted nor for those who can't follow a dizzying assortment of characters, all of them tangled up in the same intricate web, and none of them with straightforward motives. And of course, there's a sting in the tail.

Only one problem. I never really warmed to the enigmatic central character. Maybe I'm not supposed to, but more likely it's in myself. Alva, the other central character, would have something to say about that no doubt.

One thing is clear in the end. It's a parable about the greed and materialism of our selfish modern world. And it's against them. Now there's a surprise!

Thoroughly recommended.

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Executive OrdersExecutive Orders by Tom Clancy

My rating: 1 of 5 stars

Reading this was entirely an exercise in reading something that lies way outside my comfort zone. Why is it outside my comfort zone? Well, it's not aimed at me for a start; I'm a woman, and I'm not American. I knew what I was taking on; it's a thriller, by a mega-bestselling author who specialises in a particular kind of macho, flag-waving, Budweiser-swilling, big-dick, patriotic, all-action Americana. There's nothing wrong with that, of course, if the writing's good and knowing that I had every opportunity to avoid reading it in full knowledge of what it was. And besides I don't always conform to type. I love the spy thrillers of John le Carré and while your standard Action Movie leaves me cold (Bond films in particular because actually I'm quite fond of Fleming's original Bond books) I do have a big soft spot for The Dirty Dozen for reasons I've never fully understood. So, I was determined to see this one through.

Anyway, the premise of this 900-page doorstop is something like this. CIA spook and alleged family guy Jack Ryan becomes President by accident after a Japanese airline pilot flies a 747 into a packed Capitol (yes, really!) wiping out both houses of Congress, the Supreme Court and a goodly part of the Washington establishment. Yes, it's a Tea Party wet dream! Meanwhile, in another part of the forest, the demented leader of Iran takes advantage of the situation to take over Iraq and launch an invasion of Saudi Arabia with the wildly improbable cooperation of both India and China. And to complicate things, also attempts to kidnap the president's younger daughter and start an epidemic of haemorrhagic fever amongst America's car salesmen (you feel like shouting "Yay!" at that point)

Ok, it's fantasy stuff (Le Carré always has the ring of authenticity, not least because he was a real spook while Clancy was an insurance salesman) and that's fine if it's well-written. The big problem is that it's appallingly badly written. To be fair, Clancy knows his stuff about military hardware and he's obviously done his homework about life in the White House; in fact those are the most interesting bits although still a poor substitute for The West Wing. The rest is just dismal. Violence? I wish there was some. For great stretches nothing happens at all except digressions on Clancyan hobby-horses like why the US tax system needs reform. There's no humanity; we keep being told how much President Ryan loves his family but we never see any evidence; he never takes time to read his youngest a story, or play with his son, or have conflicts with his teenage daughter. In fact by the end of the 900 pages we know hardly any more about the children than we did at the beginning. There's the endless pauses while the author stops to explain some trivial point to his braindead readership (hey, naval parlance still talks about a ship 'steaming' even though a modern ship's engines don't do it that way, isn't that amazing, tell Ripley's Believe It Or Not at once!) Foreigners, of course, are meekly compliant and admiring (Russians, would you believe?) or sinister, devious, comic-book villians (Gadzooks! My master plan has been foiled again by those pesky Americans!).

Worst of all, though, is the sickly sentimentality of it all. The triumph of Mom's Apple Pie, beer and franks at the Ball Game and the Grand ol' Opry, with the mean streets of South Central LA and West Baltimore kept well out of the way in the Free Speech Zone. Hell, they love their President so much there's not a whisper of a protest even when the unelected President Ryan overrides the constitution to impose a ban on crossing state lines. I can think of one president who'd be glad of a tiny fraction of the cooperation from his truculent nation. And no, I'm not being unpatriotic: the US is a foreign country to me, I'm an alien there (I've been told as much in no uncertain terms) and owe no allegiange to Old Glory.

Ok, it was an experiment, and I'm glad I read it. But I don't think I'll be going back that way any time soon.

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I posted the attached thoughts in Another Place. What do you think?

Now read on )
enitharmon: (bookrosie)
Others have published lengthy reading lists for the month. I have to say I completed nothing in February, because I went off the boil and distracted by other things. Those reading my posts and emails in other parts of the Net may have been anxious that my "Currently Reading" item in my customary sig has referred to this title for ages. It is, after all, only 178 pages long; a characteristically short and intense McEwan title. Ian McEwan, after all, began his career as a writer of exquisite short stories. The truth is, I read the first couple of pages ago but then set it aside and got on with other things

Anyway, I finally read it this weekend. It's short, it's an easy read, and it's a return to an earlier McEwan style. It couldn't be more different from Atonement, but what it does remind me of is McEwan's screenplay for The Ploughman's Lunch. Everybody here is thoroughly unpleasant; the scheming husband of the late Molly Lane and three of her former lovers: a self-obsessed composer, an ambitious newspaper editor, and the Foreign Secretary. They play a bizarre and increasingly ruthless game with each other, and while what happens at the climax can be predicted by any reader paying attention, you need to wait until the very last line to see the full picture.
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In today's Guardian, Mark Lawson is pretty much on the money as usual. He's talking about the artificial distinction between crime (and other 'genre') fiction and mainstream, or 'literary' fiction.

Contrary to what some people seem to think, I am not against genre fiction. I read plenty of it myself, after all, but I do distinguish between good crime fiction and bad crime fiction, in the same way that I distinguish between good and bad fiction. One thing that I am against, or perhaps it's just that I feel so very sad about it, is the way some people read nothing else but what's in their own particular niche, whether it's crime, scifi, chick-lit or existentialist angst. It's a bit like living on beans on toast every day. I'm rather partial to beans on toast occasionally, by the way. There was a time when I was a regular contract worker (in the heady days before IR35) when the desk I was assigned to seemed always to contain a discarded scifi book in a distinctive livery of green and red.) Bookshops don't help, when they ghettoise all the fiction. Instead of putting all fiction on one set of shelves, in author order, every genre has its niche, so readers are shielded from anything that varies from their diet. I'd like to see everything together, then there'd be the added bonus that I'd be able to find what I want straight away, so long as I know the author's name.

The extreme example is of those who do nothing else but read the same book or series of books over and over again. Advocates of Harry Potter argue that it gets teenagers reading, but in too many cases it doesn't start them on an exciting journey through the world of reading, it starts them reading it all over again when they have finished.

In a comment to Mark Lawson's piece, 'londonlibertarian' expresses precisely the inverted-snobbish idea that I find so annoying:

"Literary fiction, unless it tells a story that makes you want to read on, can be very disappointing.
I really am not interested in any fiction that 'illuminates the human condition' unless it also makes me want to know what happens next, and why."

Meh! There's a cult of 'storytelling' these days. I wince whenever any author is described as a 'consummate storyteller'. For me it conjures up a rather fey young man with a beard and green plastic sandals. Me, I love to wallow and delight in magic woven with language. One reader's pageturner is my book whose pages you skate over because most of the words on it are redundant or predictable. It's a bit like the supermarket battery chicken pumped up with water and phosphates to make the gullible think there's more there than there really is. Give me the book that, when my attention has wandered for a moment, quickly lets me know I've missed something!
enitharmon: (bookrosie)
Arthur & George by Julian Barnes. First published 2005

The creator of the world's most famous literary detective takes up a case of his own. George Edalji, a Birmingham solicitor, son of a Scottish mother and an Indian father who was vicar of an inward-looking farming-and-mining parish in Staffordshire, has been the victim of a grotesque miscarriage of justice, convicted and imprisoned for the mutilation of horses in his home village.

This is a fictionalised account of real events, but it carries the distinctive narrative imprint of Julian Barnes. It's meticulously researched, playful, swinging from funny to deep outrage. There's much more than a piece of detective work, anyway. That only takes up about a third of the book. It's a work of biography - a brief biography of George Edalji and a more detailed one of Arthur Conan Doyle. Biography is not normally one of my favourite literary forms, but this was engrossing. It's also an outing for some of Barnes's pet themes; the complexity of love and its effect on the people tangled in its web (like Doyle, his invalid wife and his lover), and Doyle's interest in spiritualism is a shoo-in for his fascination with death and what follows.

And then, whenever any writer, let along one as clever and methodical as Julian Barnes, writes a period piece, you have to ask why? And, more pertinently maybe, why now? Perhaps it comes as a shock to find an Indian as an Anglican vicar, not in a big city but in a quiet semi-rural village. An Indian, too, who is, despite his dog-collar, perceived as a 'Hindoo', which he never was in any case, and judged accordingly. He and his dark-skinned children are "not a right sort", the don't fit in. They are persecuted to the point of gross injustice by the establishment. And then there are the establishment figures, covering up their failings, "burying" an unfavourable report by publishing it quietly on the eve of a public holiday. That could never happen these days. Could it?

We're only three weeks into January so it's way too early to start thinking about the best read of 2008. The nature of the project means that the competition is likely to be fierce, but I'd be surprised if this wasn't a contender come December.
enitharmon: (bookrosie)
K is for Killer by Sue Grafton. First published 1994.

For several years now I've been working my way slowly through Sue Grafton's series with the alphabetical theme featuring California PI Kinsey Millhone. They are unashamedly formulaic works, some have been highly enjoyable and some have misfired so far.

This eleventh in the series is a rather limp entry, and the weakest I've read so far. I'm imagining Sue Grafton regretting signing up for twenty-six titles and wondering what the hell she's going to do for the next fifteen. I get the sense of going through the motions. The ending feels rushed and unconvincing, and I don't feel any sympathy for anybody involved.

There's another tiresome feature of these series books; every one of them seems to have to explain everything in Kinsey's life all over again, so we have to be reminded once again of Kinsey's landlord Henry the eccentric retired baker (even though for the first time he is absent from this book) and Rosie the obstreperous keeper of a dodgy eaterie who, now I come to think of it, is also largely absent from this episode. Since these permanent minor characters are a lot of the fun and colour in the Alphabet books their absence from this one was keenly felt.

Lack of enthusiasm meant that I've made a meal of a short and easy book. Still, I'm assured that the series does get better so I'll press on!
enitharmon: (bookrosie)
A nice easy one to kick off with - 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea by Jules Verne. First published 1870, first English translation 1872.

A rollicking-good fantasy adventure with the deranged Captain Nemo and his submarine Nautilus on a tour of the world's oceans in search of, well, do we ever really find out? Short and easy to read.
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I haven't done a reading challenge before but in 2008 I'm setting myself the task of reading one novel from each decade beginning with 1801-1810 that I've never read before. Not necessarily in order. The first decade looks like being the hardest: seems to be a choice between Maria Edgeworth and Walter Scott, unless anybody knows better!
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The first time I visited New York City in 1986, I stayed in the Milford Plaza on Eighth Avenue at (I think) 45th street, and in the evenings I ate and drank in the small cafes and bars that littered the area. I never felt all that uptight, no more so than I did in much more salubrious areas. It was only after I returned to Britain that I read in a guide book that the most dangerous part of midtown was "Eighth Avenue, north of Times Square." Now, I have no way of knowing whether thatr advice was accurate or not, but the point is that once I read it, panic set in. The conclusion I drew was that places and things are only dangerous when somebody tells you they are.

Why are people scared of Ulysses? I don't doubt it's because they have heard it said over and over again that it is difficult, and therefore scary. And probably dangerous. Nobody's going to pretend it's easy going, for sure. In one or two places the language comes close to impenetrable, but those sections are not long ones. Most of Ulysses is written in perfectly orthodox prose. It's not a cosy story and it doesn't give up its secrets easily. Even after my second reading I'm pretty sure I've done little more than scratch the surface of its complexity and I know I missed a lot. Does it matter? No, not at all. Like another Modernist piece published in the same year, The Waste Land, it is full of complex and often obscure detail and many, many puzzles. But you don't have to grasp the meaning of The Waste Land to feel a thrill at reading

And I will show you something different from either
Your shadow at morning striding behind you
Or your shadow at evening rising to meet you;
I will show you fear in a handful of dust.

Well, I do anyway. And then you have a whole lifetime to explore it and discover new things. So it is with Ulysses. You don't have to know everything about it to find it funny, sexy, disturbing, revealing, and compellingly readable, which it is, provided you don't take on too much at once and get verbal indigestion. Is it, as some charge, a piece of clever-dick showing off? A work of intellectual masturbation by a man who looks down on the common hordes? Far from it. The really difficult stuff is what Joyce places in the head of Stephen Dedalus. Stephen represents the young James Joyce, and it's a far from flattering portrait. Middle-aged Joyce knew damned well what a pain in the arse he was when he was younger. What's more refreshing is the celebration of the ordinary Dubliner in a city both cosmopolitan and parochial, people portrayed with affection for all their lack of heroism; the lack of heroics in a book with a heroic title is of course a heavy irony. Leopold Bloom has many human failings, but ultimately he is likeable, and there one really magical moment, when Bloom stands up to the bullying Citizen. Bloom isn't Jewish in the strict sense, but when taken to task he doesn't deny it; he stands withe the oppressed people.

Anyway, before I get carried away and produce a third-class offering to the Ulysses exegesis industry, I'll just say that I enjoyed reading it again, I found lots of new stuff in there, I'm glad I was challeneged, I shall read it again one day (but not soon), and that it towered above any other book I read in 2007.
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18. Penelope

Penelope: wife of Odysseus, mother of Telemachus, faithful to Odysseus throughout his twenty years away at the Trojan War and elsewhere despite the attentions of many suitors.

"... O and the sea the sea crimson sometimes like fire and the glorious sunsets and the figtrees in the Alameda gardens yes and all the queer little streets and pink and blue and yellow houses and the rosegardens and the jessamine and geraniums and cactuses and Gibraltar as a girl where I was a Flower if the mountain yes when I put the rose in my hair like the Andalusian girls used or shall I wear a red yes and how he kissed me under the Moorish wall and I thought well as well him as another and then I asked him with my eyes to ask again yes and then he asked me would I yes to say yes my mountain flower and first I put my arms around him yes and drew him down to me so he could feel my breasts all perfume yes and his heart was going like mad and yes I said yes I will Yes."

Molly Bloom lies awake in the small hours of the morning, beside the feet of her sleeping husband, astonished that he has not only broken the ten-year drought in their sex life but also asserted himself by demanding that she bring him breakfast in bed in the morning. Her thoughts wander around her fling with Blazes Boylan (not altogether satisfactory) and about her girlhood, in Gibraltar as daughter of a military family, sexual encounters past lovers and suitors, about how Leopold Bloom courted and caught her, about his strange ways and habits, about how she knew he was in love with her, about how she accepted his marriage proposal. And with an explosive self-induced orgasm, she accepts that her Poldy isn't such a bad old stick after all.

I had intended to finish this on Christmas Day, but in the end I deferred it for a couple of days because I know from past that one needs to take a good long run at this forty-odd page breathless single sentence and take it all in one go. It sounds horrendous but actually it's no more impenetrable, in fact a good deal less so, than the ramblings of those denizens of the Internet who feel that rules of spelling and grammar are beneath them (but who fall sadly short of Joyce's mastery of language). Molly is far from stupid but she is also a straightforwardly sensual soul - musician to the core - who loves easily and who loves to be loved. Why does Joyce do it this weay? Well, it tells is a great deal about Molly and how she ticks. Until this last tour de force we've heard Molly referred to by others many times but have seen nothing of how she sees the world. It's also a passage that falls only just short of outright pornography. The sensuousness is exacerbated and it never falls into the trap of tackiness, as a straighforward narrative is bound to do. By obfuscating it might also put of would-be censors for a while, especially tjose who condemn without trying to understand. Ultimately, though, it's all terribly affirming and it ends as it should, on a climax. One never forgets Ulysses. And so we come to


and also the


So, I got there, and it wasn't so terrible! I'm going to put together some afterthoughts for a concluding journal entry, but meanwhile if just one reader of these commentaries, who has previously been put off this extraordinary and utterly unique novel by its fearsome reputation, discovers its delights then I will feel vindicated.
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17. Ithaca

Ithaca: a city in upstate New York, seat of Cornell University. Also, an island in the Ionian Sea, home of Odysseus, where his wife Penelope remained faithful for the twenty years Odysseus was away despite being surrounded by suitors.

"What suddenly arrested his ingress?
The right temporal lobe of the hollow sphere of his cranium came into contact with a solid timber angle where, an infinitesimal but sensible fraction of a second later, a painful sensation was located in consequence of antecedent sensations transmitted and registered."

Leopold Bloom and Stephen Dedalus arrive at last at Bloom's house at 7 Eccles Street. This is the moment that Bloom pats his pocket and realises that he never did get his latchkey from his other trousers in the morning. He has to effect a break-in via the basement. Inside, he takes Stephen to the kitchen. They drink cocoa, and talk. Stephen declines the offer of a bed for the night. They urinate together in the garden, then Stephen leaves. Inside once more, Bloom bangs his head on an unexpectedly rearranged sideboard. All the furniture has been rearranged. The books on the bookshelf have been rearranged. Bloom reflects that they are no longer a safe place to keep secrets. The place is full of evidence of Blazes Boylan's visit. Bloom broods in depression. He contemplates escape to the country, perhaps he contemplates suicide. At length he goes to bed, moves his pillow to the bottom of the bed, and wakes Molly by kissing her buttocks. The experience is arousing; he hasn't been aroused in the marital bed since the death of his son nearly eleven years later. The episode ends with a big black dot. How shall we interpret that?

The episode is written in a long series of questions and responses using formal language. Does it work? Yes, most definitely, and I'm damned if I don't sense that James Joyce really enjoyed writing it. Or maybe it was that after all these years of work he could finally see the end in sight. For all the faceciously high-flown wordiness it races by and yet it's packed with pathos. This is a master of words in action who knows exactly what he is doing. The effect is to detach the reader from the scene unfolding, and it's right that it should be so, because this is a moment of intimacy. To be right in there, first with Bloom and Stephen building their male bond, to be consummated by taking a piss side-by-side in the yard, and then with Bloom in his misery, would be just too intrusive. Bloom's introspection may be just what he needed, however. Having plumbed the depths of despair, he recalls the strength he found during the day. Maybe it's a new beginning?
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PART THREE: THE NOSTOS (It's Greek for 'homecoming', apparently)

16. Eumaeus

Eumaeus: a servant of Odysseus's in his home in Ithaca, and the first person Odysseus meets on his return home. Eumaeus does not recognise his master but gives him food and shelter all the same. He also receives Telemachus on his return and Telemachus, too, does not recognise his father.

"-- At what o'clock did you dine? he questioned of the slim form and tired though unwrinkled face.
-- Sometime yesterday, Stephen said.
-- Yesterday, exclaimed Bloom till he remembered it was already tomorrow, Friday. Ah, you mean it's after twelve!
-- The day before yesterday, Stephen said, improving on himself."

Stephen is still groggy from his assault by the squaddies and very, very drunk. In the interval between episodes, he seems also to have had a major falling out with Buck Mulligan. Bloom is concerned to get him home but first he takes him to the cabman's shelter at Butts Bridge to sober up with coffee and something to eat. On the way Stephen encounters 'Lord John Conley', a deadbeat, and to Bloom's irritation gives him half a crown. In the shelter Bloom attempts to get Stephen to drink some seriously bad coffee and eat a brick-like roll. They meet a drunken sailor along with other nocturnal types. They talk. Bloom tries to persuade Stephen of the need to get a job. Deciding that getting Stephen back to Sandymount is out of the question, he invites him home with him.

You can tell that we're winding down now. It's the small hours of the morning and apart from the whores, only the bottom-feeders of Dublin are abroad. It's quiet and creepy and it shows. Not much happening, lots of atmosphere. Nice little cameos of Dublin low-life, and a bond is formed between the father who has found a son, and the son who has found a father. As we shall see, this is the last stretch of conventional narrative in the novel.
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15. Circe

Circe: A sorceress, daughter of the sun god. She invited Odysseus's men to a feast and fed them magical herbs and potions that transformed them into pigs. Odysseus himself was forewarned. He and Circe became lovers, and Circe helped him to return to Ithaca

"THE HONOURABLE MRS MERVYN TALBOYS: (Unbuttoing her gauntlet violently) I'll do no such thing. Pig dog and always was ever since he was pupped! To dare address me! I'll flog him black and blue in the public streets. I'll dig my spurs in him up to the rowel. He is a wellknown cuckold. (She swishes her huntingcrop savagely in the air) Take down his trousers without loss of time. Come here, sir! Quick! Ready?
BLOOM: (Trembling, beginning to obey) The weather has been so warm."

Leopold Bloom, now concerned for the well-being of his friend's son, follows Stephen and his friends to the red-light district. In a surreal sequence, he buys a pig's kidney and a lamb's trotter from a pork butcher just as it closes, suffers an abdominal cramp, and ends up feeding the offal to a shape-shifting dog. He is apprehended by the watch and subjected to a form of trial by a series of apparitions, in which he is charged by a number of respectable women with writing them letters of a masochistic nature, and he is confronted with numerous sexual . This may be a reference to the letter he has lately written to the anonymous Martha Clifford. Other apparitions confront him with his sexual infidelities. He finds Stephen in Bella Cohen's brothel, where the hallucinations continue. Bella subjects him to ritual humiliation involving cross-dressing and role-reversal. Stephen, who is very drunk indeed, confronts an apparition of his dead mother. Unable to cope, he breaks a chandelier with his walking stick. Uproar ensues: Bloom gets Stephen out of the way while he confronts Bella, and suddenly the passive-submissive Bloom is assertive and roles are reversed. Out in the street Stephen is attacked by two English squaddies. Bloom intervenes, and assumes full reponsibility for getting Stephen home safely. He is rewarded with an apparation of his dead baby son, Rudy, aged eleven as if he had lived.

And so we come to the great climax of the novel, in which Leopold Bloom is confronted with his life and his weaknesses, but also his virtues, and rediscovers his inner strength (which we've had a glimpse of once before. In terms of the number of pages, Circe is easily the longest episode of the novel, running in at a tad over 100 pages in my edition. On the other hand, its unusual style (it's written in the form of a play script, with copious stage directions) means it's a lot less dense than some of the passages that have gone before and it fairly rattles along. Not that it should be raced through; Joyce leaves plenty of little details in to make sure you are paying attention. Watch that stray dog, it's a different breed every time it's mentioned. In fact, this applies to the whole novel, but this section in particular is the place where lots of small and apparently inconsequential details dropped earlier on. A good example being the mysterious potato. When Bloom is putting his breakfast together and preparing to go out to buy a kidney, he pats his pockets and says enigmatically to himself, "potato I have." If you like me, you think 'how weird' but then forget about it. But now, 400 pages later, we discover that Bloom really does carry a potato in his trouser pocket; an old, hard, shrivelled one that his mother once carried as a talisman and which he now carries in her memory. He's quite distressed, in his quietly unfussy way, when Zoe Higgins the Yorkshire whore tries to take it off him. Ulysses is like that, full of tiny details that appear to be insignificant at first but later help to build up this rich tapestry of life. As long as you've been paying attention before, this episode is funny, moving, horrific, disturbing, uplifting and utterly readable. And it also brings us to the

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14. The Oxen of the Sun

Oxen of the Sun: the cattle of the sun-god Helios, which neither breed nor reduce in numbers. Odysseus is warned to leave them unharmed if he wishes to return safely to Ithaca, otherwise his ships and his crew will be destroyed. His crew disobeyed his order while he slept.

"And sir Leopold sat with them for he bore fast friendship to sir Simon and to this his son young Stephen and for that his langour becalmed him there after longest wanderings insomuch as they feasted him for that time in the honourablest manner. Ruth red him, love led on with will to wander, loth to leave."

Let us go to Holles Street, thricely and in a strange mixture of Gaelic and Latin. There, at numbers 29, 30 and 31, we find ( and can still find) the National Maternity Hospital. Leopold Bloom drops in for news of Mina Purefoy who, Bloom has learned from his old flame Josie Breen earlier in the day, has been in labour for two days with her ninth child. At last he meets Stephen Dedalus who is drinking with Buck Mulligan and other medical students. They are all squiffy, and none is more so than Stephen. Bloom feels the need to take his friend's wayward son under his wing. The baby - a boy, Mortimer Edward Purefoy - is finally delivered safely. The students and Stephen, with Bloom in tow, adjourn to a nearby pub where all but Bloom get ratarsed.

WHEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEE! AAAAAAAAAAAAARRRRRGH! After the fireworks (both literal and sexually figurative) of the previous episode, Joyce now treats us to the most spectacular display of verbal pyrotechnics of the novel so far. And what a show! It's hard going, mind, at least at the beginning and end. In the middle some parts at least aren't so bad. We kick off with an enigmatic mantra: Deshil Holles eamus, repeated three times. What the fuck? Well, I did Latin at school so I recognise eamus as 'let us go'. Holles is the name of a street; it's been mentioned before as the birthplace of Leopold's lost son Rudy. Deshil? Digging around suggests that Deshil is Gaelic, meaning either 'street' or 'to the south' or 'to the right' depending on which reference you find. Anyway, it's not as erudite as is seems. From there, while nothing much happens on the ground and the wanderer is resting from his travels, we are taken on a tour through the history of literature through a series of parodies. Parodies of what is a matter for deeper study, but we start with something that looks like plainchant, moves on through alliterative poetry in the Anglo-Saxon style - the language of Beowulf - through mediaeval Romance, a bit of King James Bible, something that might be Fielding or Defoe (or both), eighteenth-century political satire, something erudite like the proceedings of a learned society, until the baby is finally born in the comfortable style of a Victorian novel. Everything is opaque and formless at the beginning of the sequence, but gradually recognisable elements emerge from the chaos and coalesce into more and more familar forms until the baby is born with great clarity. There's a parallel, then, with the development of the foetus into a real baby. I couldn't help thinking, too, of the possible cinematic counterpart of this episode, the psychedelic sequence of 2001: A Space Odyssey, and of whether this was Stanley Kubrick's inspiration. After the baby is born and the party stagger on to te pub, the language fragments and degenerates again, turning into something that might be, in part at least, the street slang of Edwardian Dublin filtered through the addled thought processes of a bunch of students now as pissed as parrots. It all hangs together in the end but it's bloody hard work.
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13. Nausicaa

Nausicaa: a princess, daughter of King Alcinous. Odysseus admires her greatly and her father offers to let him marry her, but nothing comes of this. Alcinous provides Odysseus with the ships that finally take him home to Ithaca.

"And then a rocket sprang and bang shot blind and O! then the Roman candle burst and it was like a sigh of O! and everyone cried O! O! in raptures and it gushed out of it a stream of rain gold hair threads and they shed and ah! they were all greeny dewy stars falling with golden, O so lovely! O so soft, sweet, soft!"

We're back on the beach at Sandymount, where Stephen Dedalus passed the time lost in thought in the morning, but now it's getting towards sunset. (Maybe we're taken aback that the sun is setting before nine in Dublin in June, but then we recall that in 1904 there was no daylight saving time.) Three young women are whiling away the time. Edy Boardman has a baby in a pram with her, and Cissy Caffrey has charge of her boisterous four-year-old twin brothers. The third, the beautiful Gerty McDowell, who we have seen fleetingly before, has evidently been jilted by one Reggie Wylie and now dreams of meeting her ideal man but for some reason doesn't think this can happen. At the same time, Mass is being said in a nearby church. Gerty notices a man sitting on a rock - maybe the same rock that Stephen pissed on in the morning, though the tide has been and gone since - who is watching her. She flirts with him at a distance. She drops hints to her friends that it's getting late. She would like to be left alone. Gerty sends Cissy to ask the man the time. The man takes his hands from his pockets (but doesn't take his eyes off Gerty) to look at his watch but it has stopped. Darkness falls. Mass comes to an end. The flirting continues. A display of fireworks begins. Cissy, Edy and the children get up to move on to a better view. Gerty stays where she is, flirting ever more outrageously, leaning backwards ostensibly to see the fireworks and flashing first her legs and then her knickers at the man, whose hand is firmly in his pocket. A Roman candle rises and bursts in the air in a blatant mutual orgasm for Gerty and the man. Gerty gets up and limps after her friends. That's her problem, she's lame. Leopold Bloom (for it is he, and yes, I believe this is indeed where Private Eye got the phrase from), reflects on life, sex, how his watch stopped at the time Molly would have been unfaithful with Blazes Boylan, and whether he will see Gerty again. He starts to write a message for her in the sand but gets no further than I AM before thinking better of it. A cuckoo clock in the priest's house announces the time: nine o'clock. Bloom is a cuckoo, perhaps, and even a cuckold, it's the same word, really.

Well, here we are. This is the notorious bit; the one that stopped Ulysses's original serialisation in its tracks, the chapter that launched a thousand obscenity trials. The first description of cyber sex in literature. Whatever will the servants think? Not only sex, but self-abuse. And a floozy who's no better than she ought to be. With Mass being said within earshot too. Tut! No wonder God punished her by making her lame. It's sordid, or it's just the most gloriously explosive sex scene. Take it as you will. The pair of them, outsiders both, are fully aware of what's going on and I don't feel any sense of exploitation on either side. The erotic charge beats anything in Lady Chatterley anyway. But also, you sense that after a rotten day for both of them, things are about to take a turn for the better. For Bloom in particular, there seems to be a new optimism.


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