In February, We Will...

... be reading French literature with o. from Délaissé. We don't know what we'll read yet, except that it might be time to give that Zola guy a chance. In an ideal world, one of us would also get to practice her rusty French and try to read stuff in the original. In the real world, that will probably just result in frustration and possibly tears.

... be joining the Social Justice Theme Read hosted by Rachel. Most of our social justice education came from the internet and we're very, very grateful for it, but we're at that point where we want to pursue some of the topics we feel strongly about more systematically. So we're very much looking forward to this event.

... be fighting melancholia and laziness and Pasternak-inspired feelings about this month. Spring, come faster.

The Lectory is Open

We're on Facebook and we'd like to invite you to join us there! Our page is called The Lectory, and it's a place where we'll share snippets from what we read, book news and all sorts of bookish things that catch our eye on the intertubes, all without having to choose between staying within 140 characters or writing a proper blog post.

Why the "lectory"? It would have made sense to call our page the same as our blog, but we're currently in love with the old-fashioned word "lectory" and with the idea of a cozy (if virtual) reading room, so there you have it. This is our reading room, that's a taste of it below, feel free pull up a chair and join us!

Finnegans Wake in Rhymes and Images

I was going to write some more on Anthony Burgess' Joysprick, because there were a lot of interesting tidbits in it, but then I found something so much better and Burgess will have to wait. You see, I was amused by the limerick-y advertisements Joyce wrote to promote some of his "Work in Progress" fragments from Finnegans Wake (he started to publish such fragments in 1927 and Finnegans Wake came out in 1939). For example, for the 1931 British edition of the fragment called Haveth Childers Everywhere, Joyce wrote:

           Humptydump Dublin squeaks through his norse,
           Humptydump Dublin hath a horriple vorse,
           And, with all his kinks english
           Plus his irishmanx brogues,
           Humptydump Dublin’s grandada of all rogues.

And for the 1930 edition of the Anna Livia Plurabelle fragment, he wrote:

           Buy a book in brown paper
           From Faber & Faber
           To see Annie Liffey trip, tumble and caper.
           Sevensinns in her singthings,
           Plurabelle on her prose,
           Seashell ebb music wayriver she flows.

These were meant to be dust jacket blurbs, but they apparently puzzled the publicity department of Faber & Faber (or Feebler & Fumbler, as Joyce called it). According to Richard Ellmann, they only used these blurbs in a publicity release and prefixed them with a statement of their puzzlement and Joyce's explanations of what the fragments were supposed to mean. (Which, by the way, didn't make Joyce very happy.)

So, amused by this story and determined to share it with you, I took to the internet to see if there are any pictures of these early Work in Progress books. And I found something exponentially better. I don't know if you've already seen Stephen Crowe's project to illustrate Finnegans Wake, but if you haven't, check it out right now. It is amazing. His drawings make me want to drop everything and start reading Finnegans Wake (from which I only read fragments) just to be able to enjoy all of them as much as I do the ones I recognize. I posted one of his images here to give you a sample of this project's awesomeness. I'm not sure about the copyright implications, but if you click on the picture, it takes you directly to his site, where you should go and admire the whole series.

Illustration to Finnegans Wake by Stephen Crowe

Review: Catcher in the Rye by J. D. Salinger

Have you ever read a book that you liked, but that at the same time made you want to shout, "Stop! Stop being so annoying, damn it!"? Well, that was Catcher in the Rye for me.

In the beginning of the book, Holden’s voice brought humor, but by the middle of it, I was already screaming – well, not out loud – "Grow up, you annoying little pest!" Every time he overestimated his younger brothers, I wanted to throw the book at the wall (I know, I’m a bad reader). On the other hand, I could understand Holden’s desire to remain a child. I think anyone could relate to that wish to remain innocent and naïve.

I also liked Holden’s sister, Phoebe, and the way she criticized him and pushed him to do better. Phoebe seemed to be the only person throughout the book that Holden really loved. His love for his little sister is shown when he wants to run away and refuses to take her with him, deciding to go home with her. Although Phoebe is six years younger than her brother, she seems the mature one and she becomes Holden’s guide towards adulthood. I liked Phoebe better than Holden, but that might be just my dislike for whiny brats kicking in.

Here is my favorite quote from the book, said by Mr. Antolini:
Among other things, you'll find that you're not the first person who was ever confused and frightened and even sickened by human behavior. You're by no means alone on that score, you'll be excited and stimulated to know. Many, many men have been just as troubled morally and spiritually as you are right now. Happily, some of them kept records of their troubles. You'll learn from them — if you want to. Just as someday, if you have something to offer, someone will learn something from you. It's a beautiful reciprocal arrangement. And it isn't education. It's history. It's poetry.
That was the most important message I took from the book and the thing that put Holden's problems into perspective. And for all that the main character was annoying, I'm glad I read this book.

Review: The Portrait of a Lady by Henry James

The Portrait of a Lady is a Victorian (or perhaps modern) novel that chronicles a few years of the life of a young American woman, at the end of the nineteenth century. The book follows the heroine from her departure from America as a promising young girl with a great desire to see and experience the world, up to the moment when the marriage she has since contracted reaches a sharp crisis. The ending doesn't touch on how she intends to address this crisis and remains open. Her story spans half of Europe and is entangled with those of her family members (Ralph, Mrs. Touchett), her suitors (Warbuton, Goodwood) and her American and European friends (Henrietta Stackpole, Madame Merle). During the five years covered in the book, she inherits a fortune, turns down marriage proposals, gets married, loses friends and uncovers dark secrets.

This is the first James novel I've ever read, and my expectations were pretty high, obviously, since I hang out with a coblogger who is this committed to James. Luckily, The Portrait turned out to be an even better reading experience than I had hoped, and now I love it (well, maybe unluckily for the readers of this blog, because how much more entertaining would this place be if there were a flame war about James going on among the contributors?).

The Portrait is one of those books that strike the perfect combination of width and depth. Henry James manages to balance an extended cast of characters (and the logistics of their travels and financial situations) without losing sight of their inner life. While reading, the eagle-eye view of characters and their movements is secondary to the intense experience of intimacy with them, and it isn't until you try to retell the story for someone else's benefit that you realize how attentively they are coreographed, and how a large picture of the world is formed from the glimpses the characters offer. 

In a Nutshell: Dickens vs. Joyce

Presented without comment, because it's eloquent and right.
If, in real life, we met Mr Micawber in a dark room, we would know it was Mr Micawber from his peculiar tropes; Bloom in similar circumstances we would not know. Only if we were granted the power to enter the minds of fictional characters, in some literary man's heaven where they had become as real as the blessed saints: would we know we were savouring essential Bloom. Indeed, It is difficult to imagine any of Dickens's characters. as possessing minds as opposed to pieces of simple psychological clockwork: Bloom has little other than that endless inner flow.
--from Anthony Burgess, Joysprick: An Introduction to the Language of James Joyce

Proust on Reading as Friendship

Friendship, friendship in respect of individuals, is no doubt a frivolous thing, and reading is a form of friendship. But at least it is a sincere form, and the fact that it is directed at someone who is dead, who is not there, lends something disinterested, almost moving to it. It is a form of friendship freed moreover from all that makes other forms ugly. 
                                                                                --Marcel Proust, On Reading
On Reading is a charming little essay that Proust wrote as an introduction to his translation of John Ruskin's Sesame and Lilies. It is remarkable in that it sets out to cut reading down to size, but still manages to make it look so damn appealing in the process. To sum up his argument: no, books are not your intellectual life, they are at most the nudge that sets that life in motion. They are not the end of the road, they are perhaps not a part of the road at all, but only your desire to walk it. Reading doesn't give you the truth; it gives you the impulse to figure out the truth for itself. It's not a substitute for thinking and, seeing how it's really just a means to an end, one shouldn't fetishize it. I happen to agree with all of this, but, at the same time, I admit one is hard pressed not to slip into "reading is the best thing since sliced bread" mode, when faced with paragraphs like the one I quoted above. Luckily, that paragraph is wrong.

Turning Over a New Leaf

A blogger we used to read once said that the hardest thing about blogging was picking it up where you left off after an extended absence. Since that was their last post on any topic, we tend to believe they were right. So we're not going to do that. Instead, we'll take advantage of the new year to start afresh and announce some changes to our blog.  

The first and most important is that we now have two new contributors, Ashlee and Iris. Iris is our resident physicist-in-training, but also a very careful and empathic reader that can talk hours about fictional characters' motivations. Ashlee is our resident irreverent teenager who is just now starting to discover that (some of) the classics are fun. She takes no bullshit, though, so the classics will have to live up to their reputation if they're to impress her. Needless to say, we are very happy that these two decided to join our blog. We needed the infusion of enthusiasm and we see great conversations about books in our future.

The focus of our blog will slightly change as well. We're still reading and discussing the classics, but we will expand our reviews to (explicitly) include literary fiction in general, and we are planning some forays into various types of genre literature as well. To give us some structure and motivation, starting in February we'll have a general theme every month (modernism, feminism, all-the-other-things-that-are-awesome-ism) and we're going to try to at least partially reflect the theme in our readings/posts. 

That's about it. We hope you had two very productive months and that 2013 is treating you well. Oh yes, and please check out our spiffy new dropdown menu. It may not look like much, but it took two days of sweating and swearing to build it, so we have to show it off.

Regular posting will resume tomorrow.