Vagabond Librarian

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


reading culture

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

Blind Date with a Book

Picture of a book wrapped in newsprint with fake dating advertisement circled.

Blind Date with a Book campaigns have become popular at all sorts of libraries. The concept is simple: library members choose and check out a “mystery book,” read (or abandon) the book, and then provide feedback about whether they connected with or liked the book. The purpose of campaigns like this one is to encourage readers to explore materials they may not otherwise pick up. Regardless of how many times our parents have told us not to, we do often judge books by their cover. Which means that otherwise wonderful books sometimes languish on library shelves, looking more stuffy/staid/nerdy/corny than they really are.

The way in which different librarians approach the Blind Date with a Book concept is fascinating to me. Some librarians wrap the books all in brown paper, leaving you with a truly random choice. Some make it clear that the book is of a certain genre, or at a certain reading level. The librarians at my new library presented the books wrapped in personal ads–and had a wide range of genre and interests represented. They even included YA stickers on the choices from the Young Adult section, which I thought was quite clever. Hack Outreach has created a Pinterest Board dedicated to Blind Date with a Book displays where you can see a number of creative and visually appealing examples of Blind Date book displays, advertising, and occasions.

Picture of the cover of a novel called "The Forest" by Edward Rutherfurd.

Now, about my own Blind Date with a Book. It started well. I read the personal ads very closely and debated for probably longer than was necessary whether I should go for “epic with a dash of honor, deceit, and violence” or whether I should go for “mystery with a dash of sassiness, intrigue, and shock.”

I went for epic. My decision was partly based on physical characteristics–though I couldn’t see the book covers, I could see clearly that the mystery was just too short for me. When I unwrapped my choice, I found that my Blind Date was with a book I’d never seen before, with an author I hadn’t read.


Picture of the "Rate you Date" jacket sleeve that accompanied the Blind Date with a Book title.

The date started well. I was enchanted. The book was interesting, well written, and the story was off to a solid start. I felt like we were getting to know each other and it was going well. Then, the story changed, and I wasn’t quite as enchanted. This epic tale covers a number of generations in the same region of England and, though the writing was just short of amazing, I did not connect with the characters or their plight after the first story. By tale three, I was checking my watch and wondering if I should feign a headache. I excused myself for a few centuries, and came back to my date when it looked like we were approaching a historical event that might prove interesting. Sadly, that didn’t pan out.

While I found my Blind Date excruciatingly long, I wouldn’t call it a total loss. In fact, I may pick up another book by this author–I enjoyed his writing, and the story line I did connect with, I connected with in a big way. In the end, this is not a book/author I’d want to date again, but I wouldn’t mind linking up for a casual and brief coffee and a chat.

TURI KUMWE: We are Together


This summer, I took a Youth Services in Library Environments course that included a one-week residency at Syracuse University. In the class were the usual mix I’ve come to expect in my library & information science classes at the iSchool–a wonderful mix of students from around the country who represent a wide variety ages, backgrounds, and life experiences. The difference in this mix was that we were joined by four educators from Rwanda who are working to bring a reading culture to their country as part of a larger initiative called Vision 2020, which strives to transition Rwanda to a knowledge-based society . You can read a little more about our new colleagues in the Syracuse University News article Rwandan Students in Residency for Teacher-Librarianship Training.

As you can imagine if you have looked at even a few of my previous blog posts (and especially if you know me in any other context), this is exactly the kind of Change the World One Step at a  Time project that I am passionate about. The opportunity to gain an understanding of another culture, and to contribute in some way to help people develop their own culture that values reading as a foundation for enjoyment, enrichment, and knowledge creation is a project that will undoubtedly provide learning opportunities on all sides of the collaboration.

I am privileged to be in classes with my Rwandan colleagues again this fall and am looking forward to learning from them, as well as hopefully contributing in some small way to their goals. If you would like to explore a few articles and web sites about the current opportunities and challenges Rwanda faces in creating a culture of reading, please visit my Rwanda: Creating a Culture of Reading Pinterest board. If you are interested in helping by sharing ideas about libraries, education, literacy, reading, and strategies for increasing book accessibility (in Kinyarwandan and English) and the love of reading, please visit Wikispaces: Rwanda, Dream Big Read Big and become a member of our brainstorming and idea-sharing wiki.

In his introductory post for our summer course, one of my Rwandan colleagues explained the phrase he used to close his post, TURI KUMWE, meant “we are together.” I like that. And I like the new phrase I just learned, too…

TURACYARI KUMWE: We are still together.

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