Vagabond Librarian

Reports from the intersection of military life, motherhood, & librarianship.


Reading Choice

Book Review: Ulysses

I wonder if it is possible to write a rational book review of this notoriously difficult and consistently praised novel. The unique style of Ulysses does not lend itself to a standard issue review. I loved the brilliance and humor that shown throughout this work, but I loathed the overwrought cleverness that weighed it down. I appreciate how mind-blowingly revolutionary it must’ve been at the time it was written and that its structure and prose are still freshly innovative today.

I didn’t struggle with Ulysses the way I did on my first two abandoned attempts, which probably can be attributed to following a reading schedule and digesting each section one at a time. I decided not to explore any of the reading guides or summaries of the work prior to reading. I respect that a reader’s guide may have eased my journey through the work, but I was worried it would influence my reactions and detract from the experience of connecting to Ulysses as a unique reader. I found a stripped-of-all-notes, no distractions, unabridged copy of the book, and simply dug in.

I appreciate Joyce’s technique and experiments with style. I found his echoes of, and connections to, other literary works rather fun. I, in turns, enjoyed Joyce’s cleverness and found that cleverness eye-rollingly overdone. My greatest joy in reading Ulysses was finding the literary gifts sprinkled throughout, and encountering the passages in the work where a character’s stream of consciousness rang true in gloriously jumbled cadence. I found Molly’s segment absolutely brilliant in this regard, and was happy to close Ulysses with the feeling of exhilaration Molly’s thoughts brought with them.

My biggest disappointment in this novel is that I want to feel caught up in the undertow of a novel, especially one that deals in intimate point of view and stream of consciousness, but I just didn’t feel caught up in this as a whole work. I understand the fascination of literary scholars who spend decades plumbing the depths of Ulysses for treasure or working to solve the puzzles strewn throughout by Joyce. I am certain I will revisit individual sections of this work to deepen my understanding of them, but I don’t feel compelled to return to Ulysses as a complete novel.

Ulysses is a remarkable exploration of style and experiment in stream of consciousness, but I don’t know that I would go so far as to recommend it. For any friends with a desire to read Ulysses, I would say “Go for it!” and offer all the support they’d like as they work their way through it. To friends expressing a desire to wade into modernist literature, I would instead recommend picking up Faulkner, Eliot, Woolf, or Pound. My first choice is anything by Faulkner, whose writing I love, though I’m understanding of anyone who doesn’t connect with his world and style. The Sound and The Fury is my personal favorite by Faulkner, but Light in August is better on which to cut one’s teeth. Other enjoyable examples of modernist writing are The Waste Land by T.S. Eliot, Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf, and anything by Ezra Pound, who I think is a true craftsman. Alternatively, I’d recommend picking up the latest by George Saunders, who explores style, plot, and character in the strange and magical Lincoln in the Bardo, a novel which is uniquely structured and particularly fun to read–and doesn’t require additional guides, notes, or interpretations to understand.

Links to Further Explore Ulysses

Brilliant “Ulysses to go (James Joyce in 18 minutes, English version)” as told with Playmobil by Sommer’s World Literature to go

Salman Rushdie Recaps ‘Ulysses’ in 20 Seconds

Bloom (2003) Produced By Odyssey Pictures

I watched this film after completing my reading. I enjoyed how closely the film followed the dialogue of the book, though it is somewhat simplified in certain segments, which was no doubt necessary to fit this entire day into 113 minutes. I was glad I watched it after I finished the book, but I think it could be helpful to struggling readers to watch when they get bogged down a few chapters in. From IMDb: Adapted from James Joyce’s Ulysses, Bloom is the enthralling story of June 16th, 1904 and a gateway into the consiousness of its three main characters: Stephen Dedalus, Molly Bloom and the extraordinary Leopold Bloom. 

James Joyce’s Dublin: The Ulysses Tour (2007)

This documentary was more enthusiastically delivered summaries for each chapter than tourism video, though the narrator, Robert Nicholson, does present each segment on location in Dublin. Nicholson’s love of Joyce’s work, and of Dublin itself, make this a fun alternative to written summaries of UlyssesFrom product packaging: Although James Joyce spent much of his adult life in self-imposed exile from his native Dublin, the beloved Irish city retained a firm grip on his imagination, serving as the center of his literary universe. This documentary reveals that universe through a detailed tour of the city and the author’s favorite haunts. James Joyce Museum curator Robert Nicholson serves as the guide, sharing his extensive knowledge of the man and his works.

My Reader Response: Ulysses

Reader Response: Ulysses

I look forward to doing a book review for Ulysses next, but a Reader Response based on my margin notes felt more appropriate given the nature of the work. 

Okay so this may not be as bad as I remember I mean it’s just some dudes eating breakfast and borrowing money from each other and then Stephen going to work to teach history and there are some funny observations and connections so I wonder if we’ll follow Stephen more or get back to Leopold well it looks like we are sticking with Stephen for awhile and he seems so incredibly broody that I hope that this entire book isn’t just Stephen as a vehicle to showcase point of view stream of consciousness and Joyce’s cleverness because right now that’s what it feels like and I wish I wasn’t not drinking this month because this would probably be more fun to read if I were drinking a stout. Hallelujah we’ve been delivered from Stephen for a while we just caught up with Leopold who seems generally more likable though not totally nice which is good because nice-ness is often the kiss of death for an interesting protagonist and it is a nice change of pace that he is less broody as well though he is pretty concerned about that cheating wife even though he has a side girl of his own which is good for him but which he seems horrible at hiding or maybe he doesn’t want to because he’d like to blow things up and confront his wife but hasn’t got the stones to do it and anyway this doesn’t seem the kind of thing this book is interested in exploring because it is too pedestrian and not pedestrian enough at the same time for Joyce and I enjoyed the funeral scene and really hope this lankylooking galoot guy goes somewhere because I’d love this book to be more than just the wandering rambling thoughts of these guys written cleverly but I wonder maybe he will end up being one of those everyman type guys or maybe some kind of substitute for Athena appearing to Odysseus or maybe he is really just a random dude that sparks a thought for Leopold because this is stream of consciousness and this does not seem either like the kind of work in which there will be a mystery with a solution which is ok I suppose but if I am not getting a story or a plot I would at least like to find a character I care about in some capacity I mean these guys have their funny moments but if this is how boring most people’s inner monologue is all day I am glad I cannot read minds and am only privy to the clever bits they share out loud. And now they’re having sandwiches and I’m hungry and thinking sometimes these guys and the people around them are funny and I love following these random people around town because the writing and observations are clever but then I get to the pub and oh for godsakes this is like hanging out with people who think they are incredibly insightful and deep and they just aren’t and I cannot wait to find an excuse to get away from them. I need a break from these people.

Back on the shore to ease back into Leopold’s world and then on to the pub after an interesting bit of great writing I wish more of the book was like this but I suppose that part of the point of this modernist exploration in writing is to not be bound by convention but it is mostly just making me so thankful for authors who utilize consistent style and punctuation though I do really enjoy the play format as a brain break after the dense bit that preceded it and thought the question answer format was super clever but then we are back again to dense writing drunkenness and murky identities and money and poetry and free association still going precisely nowhere which I suppose is how most of our days rolled out and laid bare would seem.

We finally get to Molly and she deserves a sentence of her own as she is worth trudging through all of the overwrought meanderings in the rest except perhaps when I thought they would never stop droning on during the afternoon when they probably all should have just gone home and had a nap and I like that I got a bit of her story and it is wild to me that of all the characters her voice is the truest and has the most honest cadence and her recollections intertwined with her awareness of present sounds and feelings and sensations is truly brilliant and quite beautiful and I’m thinking wistfully if only all of the book had been as magical as Molly.

Reading the Hard Stuff

screen-shot-2016-12-03-at-8-35-53-amJust a few weeks ago, I had the pleasure of spending the better part of a school day engaging with students as they checked out To Kill a Mockingbird for their American Literature classes. Class after class of students commented as they checked out this classic work that they knew the book was going to be good when the pages were worn and the spine was taped up (see photo). It was a spot-on observation that made me smile. Some books checked out for class reading are returned to the media center looking untouched, and probably abandoned in favor of SparkNotes or Thug NotesTo Kill a Mockingbird is not one of those books. The copies of Mockingbird come back to the media center dog-eared and well-used. Mockingbird is the type of story that our students value most–a story that is relatable, and at the same time calls us out, makes us feel challenged, and inspires us to question our world view.

I was saddened this week to read The Associated Press article School District Temporarily Pulls Classics After Complaint  and to learn that Accomack County Public School System was temporarily suspending use of Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird and Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn after a parent submitted a complaint about the effect the language, particularly racial slurs, in these books could have on students. I appreciate reading about a parent coming forward to voice her concern at a school board meeting, which is an appropriate and effective forum for civic engagement. (Click here for audio of the  Accomack County, Virginia November 15, 2016 School Board Meeting) I am horrified, though, that the school system’s review process apparently includes suspending the titles in question while they are under review. Surely, there could have been some less drastic measure taken, such as offering an alternative text for this individual student while going through the process of addressing the parent’s concern.

I am a champion of reading choice. As a high school media specialist, that means I provide access to a wide diversity of information and stories. While the Accomack story centers around two classic works presented in the classroom, I am concerned as a parent and a librarian that a piece of valued literature could be so quickly “suspended” from use by students school wide after a single parent complaint. I want my son, who is in high school, to have the benefit of exploring challenging literature with a professional educator who will help him navigate the inquiry process spurred by his reading. Removing texts that are uncomfortable is contrary to that.

Stories are important. Especially the ones that make us uncomfortable. Words are important. And, the stories that resonate with readers do not shy away from words authentic to their time, place, and situation. Stories like To Kill a Mockingbird touch students by personalizing history. These stories also provide a platform for students to explore challenging topics, such as prejudice (historically and today), our country’s ongoing civil rights struggle, “fitting in” to society, failures of the justice system, and personal morality. We simply can’t afford to remove access to stories that help give students the context to grapple with complex issues.



Diversity in Literature

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s TED Talk  The Danger of a Single Story is an inspiring look at the importance of exposure to a wide range of stories that reflect ourselves and those around us.


To Kill a Mockingbird 

In my own high school media center, I can’t keep To Kill a Mockingbird on the shelfOur students check Mockingbird out to read for their English, they choose it for independent novel assignments, and they read (or reread) the book for pleasure.


 Roy Newquiest’s 1964 WQXR interview with Harper Lee in which Lee talks about her writing habits, her opinion of the film version of To Kill a Mockingbird, Southern people, and her book.

Jamie LaRue’s September 2016 School Library Journal article All Schools Need Book Challenge Policies

American Library Association 

The freedom to read is essential to our democracy. You can learn more about this topic in relation to librarianship by exploring the following links:

Intellectual Freedom Round Table

The Freedom to Read Statement

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