A Second Look: Dubliners

Bridge over Liffey

I’ve read Dubliners by James Joyce three times. An upcoming trip to Ireland inspired my most recent read. I’ve viewed Dubliners as an easier way to read a classic; short, immersive stories. Also, a nice way to come out of the Hemingway jag.

I used to start my morning writing sessions by either copying lines of classic texts (The Sun Also Rises, The Great Gatsby, Wool) to learn about sentence structure or read Dubliners to hear the lyricism. If I read quickly, I often miss the poetry of the words, reading to find out what happens next. The wordplay is more noticeable on slower, closer reads, as is the tone and speech of the characters. I wonder how much of what they say and infer is lost to time, though… every story has references to specifics that are very Irish or locked in the early 1900s.

Joyce wrote this short story collection while away from Ireland and Dublin. He spent most of his adult life abroad. Which is striking, since Dublin itself is one of the main characters in the book. Each story contains specific references to streets and bridges, specific pubs, etc. Not to mention the overall tone and mood of the city. It’s crazy to think an author wrote so intently about a place yet choosing to live somewhere else. In my many author-ly fantasies, I picture myself living somewhere exotic for a few months under the guise of research.

A few things struck me on this third read. There are a few thematic constants in the stories. One is the overall tone… it’s a depressing read. Almost every character is poor and struggling for money while living in the city’s underclass. Poverty hangs over each story… the characters fight and scrape for punts and shillings. Characters like Lenehan in Two Gallants scam young women, old men expose themselves to young boys in An Encounter, and Mr Duffy in A Painful Case condemns a beau to a life of despair. Gray is used to describe the characters and the city itself.

Another constant is alcohol consumption. Not in a merry, where’s-the-craic sort of way, but how much trouble it causes. Each story has at least one character whose life is significantly worse because of drinking.

Finally, it seems none of Joyce’s characters can escape Dublin. Joyce set all of the stories in actual places in the city. One character, Evelin in, well, Eveline, is set to leave what seems like an awful home life, but finds she can’t board the ship to leave. The young, middle-aged and near-dead can’t get out of the city.

Dubliners was an easier read this time. The older conventions, styles and attitudes didn’t jump off the page at me. Maybe this is because of reading so much of others from that same time period? Or just an expectation grounded in experience.

Books of the Irish

Library at Trinity College

My family will visit Ireland this year. I’ve been to the old sod 3 times previously: in high school with my parents and brother, in my mid-twenties with my brother and cousins and with my wife before we had kids. Before the trip, I want to read Irish books, listen to music, and watch movies.

For a long time, I had a history of Ireland in my Amazon wishlist. Ireland, A History, by Thomas Bartlett, a Tyler Cowen recommendation. He called it one of the best histories of Ireland. And it’s a good read. The author navigates through the stories, myths, and facts of Irish history. Rather than trying to put together a pre-history of Celts and Druids, he states no one fully understands the first peoples and all they left were rocks with squiggles. Same with the myth of Saint Patrick. It’s an enormous book, and I’ve skimmed through parts… in the 1800’s, there was a back and forth with English laws and revolts and tighter and looser controls around Catholic Ireland. Luckily, Bartlett adds an introduction and analysis to his chapters, so I don’t have to get bogged down in unnecessary details. I’m on the Troubles now.

Ireland, A History takes care of the factual part of my immersion. I’m re-reading Dubliners by James Joyce, my favorite Joyce (I’ve never attempted Ulysses, although The Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man is on my to-read list). Dubliners is a great read and timely thrice over; it sets the scene for Dublin (we’ll spend a night in the capital), opens the ear to lyrical Irish prose and complements my latest Hemingway jag.

Two more books wait in the wings. Modern Ireland in 100 Artworks by Fintan O’toole, is another Cowen recommendation. One of Cowen’s themes is how artistic the Irish are, and not just in prose. I’m really looking forward to this one, as I’m trying to expand my appreciation for other forms of art as well. The last book is a re-read, McCarthy’s bar. A super fun, quick read about an American name McCarthy who tries to visit every bar with his name in the country. My brother also re-read this and recommended.

The other parts of my immersion is music. Growing up, my idea of Irish music was the Clancy Brothers, a folk-ish Irish band playing classic folk tunes and a favorite of my mother’s. I will include some Chieftans and whatever else my Irish pandora station will select.

Movies are the last bit squarely aimed at my children. I won’t bother to ask them to read gasp physical books. We’ve seen Waking Ned Devine so far; The Commitments, Michael Collins and The Guard on the list of re-watches.

Bookshelf Chaos

New Bookshelf
New Bookshelf

Last year, I built a new bookshelf for my office. When I redid my office a few years ago, we picked up these wonderful, plain, perfectly sized bookshelves my wife painted. I’d assumed I could buy more when needed. As my book collection grew and we got rid of shelves from downstairs, I required more space. Unfortunately, the retailer I bought them from doesn’t stock them anymore and I can’t find them online, anywhere. Amazing how hard to find unadorned, seven-foot shelves.

So I built my own. I previously built my desk and side tables using fantastic butcher block and black pipes. Rather than trying to match the other shelves, I matched this furniture.

Pretty simple to make. It’s two and a half feet high and the stacks on top are eye-level while at my desk. I pay attention to these books more than the books on my older, more traditional shelves. The bigger, bolder spines keep leaping back into my attention. And most of them don’t deserve the headspace. In fact, most of my favorite books are smaller paperbacks. This got me thinking about organization.

Aesthetically, organizing by size or color makes sense. I’ve seen this method used in a few bookshelves, in an online picture in a hyper-stylish room. I’m not wired that way. I’m not color blind, but colors and their combinations don’t jump out at me like they do for others. Arranging by size, however, would let me see smaller titles. For instance, I’m trying to find Dubliners by James Joyce… I believe my copy is a thin, white paperback. But I can’t find it amongst the larger books.

Organizing by size seems sterile. One of the nice things about a shelf of books is the lack of uniformity. There are two schools of thought. One is dusty, leather-bound volumes neatly arranged in a row. The other is the overcrowded NYC apartment with bookshelves crammed with different shaped and colored books. I don’t have any collections, we will default to the second choice.

A logical way to organize them is by author or topic. I have clusters of Hemingway’s, Mitchell’s, Gibson’s, Murakami’s, etc. … but they are exceptions. Most books and authors are one and done. And topics seem hazy and very open to interpretation… does a book of Poe short-stories go in a collection of literature, or short story collections, or horror (I don’t read horror, so probably not. But still)

We will default to grouping by type. Authors clustered together, books on writing, books on health and fitness, stoicism and meditation, etc, etc. Still , it should be fun. And help me find the books I want, and highlight better books. No need to look at cheap Tony Robbins books when I can think about Nabokov.

Addendum: should I continue to hold on to books I either didn’t like or didn’t read? There are three categories of books that I haven’t read on my shelves: books that were aspirational reads (like The Odyssey or The Origin of Species), books that I wasn’t ready to read but are probably quite good (Master and Margarita, Molloy), and books that are just bad (Million Dollar business, The Alchemist). The first two categories I might read or reference one day, but there is no excuse for holding on to the third category.

Hemingway’s Short Stories

Downed Tree in Big Indian Forest

As mentioned in my Now section, I read a collection of short stories from Hemingway, The Complete Short Stories of Ernest Hemingway, The Finca Vigia Edition. This was my first exposure to his shorter stories; previously, I read the novels.

The novels, like For Whom the Bell Tolls, Old Man and the Sea and especially The Sun Also Rises, are favorites. Hemingway has always been an approachable and fun read, especially when compared to other classics. My first exposure to modern American classics was my junior year in high school. We did Huckleberry Finn, The Sun Also Rises and The Great Gatsby. Another book, A Moveable Feast (I read it while traveling through France) was a fun read, but I didn’t connect with many of the references to the short stories.

As part of George Saunder’s Substack, we read a famous Hemingway short story, A Cat in the Rain, a quick story about an American couple in a hotel room in Italy. The wife spies a cat in the rain and tries to bring it back to their hotel room. Conversation with the husband and wife follows. In the Substack, we learned about Hemingway’s Iceberg method (I probably learned this in high school but had forgotten). This approach is the defining piece of real literature… not beautiful prose or amazing characters, but the subtle things happening beneath the surface. I remember being amazed as my junior-year teacher showed the symbolism and the true meaning between long passages of conversation.

Cat in the Rain inspired me to pick up Hemingway’s short stories. I haven’t gotten through all of them; I focused on the pieces that were mentioned repeatedly as classics. Works like The Killers, My Old Man, The Snows of Kilimanjaro. Three of them really stuck out: The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber, Indian Camp and Two-Hearted River. Macomber is damn fine Hemingway, set in an African Safari camp with two rich hunters and their guide. The dialogue, the way women are portrayed, the gossipy spousal cheating, the depiction of the violent hunts, the perspective of the lion were incredible examples of Hemingway at his best. And the title supports a fantastic arc. All of this in 23 pages.

Indian Camp moved me. A super short story about Nick Adams (Hemingway’s semi-autobiographical recurring character) visits a Native American settlement with his father. His father, a doctor, is trying to help a woman in labor. Written with short, declarative sentences, dialogue that sounds slightly off (Hemingway dialogue sounds funny to me, I assume because of the century between when the story was published and now), and Nick Adams as the limited and flawed narrator. The next short story I wrote, about a young boy living on an old landfill, is an homage to this style.

Two Hearted River contains vivid descriptions of the natural world, fishing, making camp. And more icebergs. The story is about the horrors of war and how truly damaged the young men returning from WW I feel. Nick Adams (again!) isn’t referred to as a veteran, but he hikes long distances with a full pack and relates to the world like a veteran would. There is a long passage about a swamp on the other side of the river that must relate to war, although I can’t fully understand it.

I’ve listened to a podcast about Hemingway as a companion to the stories. One True Podcast, a play on the old Hemingway line “Just write one true sentence…” discusses many of these short stories with various guests. The host is quite good, and it’s like a light version of an English Lit class. I’ve found that reading a story once, then listening to opinions/analysis of the story via the podcast or other online resource, then reading the story again is helpful. The stories are quick reads; this is a reasonable task.

Coming back to Hemingway via these short stories has been wonderful. They are quick dives into mastery. I now fall into the camp that Hemingway did his best work early on, these stories and his first real novel, The Sun Also Rises. I like some of his later work as well, but they don’t have the same crispness.

Old School

Flat section of trail on a rocky mountain

I recently read Ten Years in the Tub by Nick Hornby, a collection of his musings about books. Fun read, although there’s not much overlap between our reading. Still, his observations were interesting, and he is hilarious in the British-self-deprecating way. I had read none of his stuff since going on a Nick Hornby jag over twenty years ago. I was inspired by his description of certain books and authors… he really likes Dickens (I decided in ninth grade, while reading Great Expectations, that I didn’t care for Dickens… especially after learning he was paid by the word and invented entire characters and subplots just to increase his word count). So much so I may consider picking up a Dickens (Bleak House?). Another author he praises repeatedly is Thomas Wolff. I’d heard the name but wasn’t familiar with his work.

Based on Hornby’s writing and some quick internet research, two of his books topped the list: Old School and This Boy’s Life. I picked up Old School, a story about a private school in the sixties and the unnamed narrator’s journey. Immediately the reader is immersed in a New England private school for boys, with Masters and ties and leafy campuses. As someone who didn’t attend that type of school, I immediately picture the campus and boys from Captain my Captain.

Old School uses three author’s visits as scaffolding. Robert Frost, Ayn Rand and Ernest Hemingway are all scheduled to visit the unnamed elite boarding school where writing and writers are held in the highest regard. Hard to imagine, with the laser focus on STEM and hard studies now, a time when writing would have held such a prominent place in a school’s collective consciousness. Neither of the authors fare very well; Frost is a doddering old man with ponderous eyebrows, Rand is a nasty narcissist and Hemingway, a student favorite, receives backhanded and sideways praise.

Wolf does some interesting things. One, the narrator and the main character is unnamed. The narrator has secrets but reveals them indirectly, clever, but I asked if I had missed something earlier (I hadn’t). Another is his use of time. Most of the book takes in 1960-1961; the last section of the book fast-forwards ten years. He describe these years over a few pages to paint a picture of how life when for the narrator after school. The shift between real-time dialogue and descriptions to pages of exposition was notable, but worked just fine. Another case of rule-breaking. I’d like to go back and pay more attention to the transition and figure out what stylistically allowed Wolf to pull it off.

A delightful read, sandwiched in between Cloud Atlas and Hemingway short stories. Compared to its neighbors, it felt light, not to mention blissfully short at 195 pages. The emphasis on writers and notable authors from the middle of the 20th century made the read fun. Recommended, and look forward to reading more Wolf in the future.

A Collection of Misfits

Backyard River
A river runs through the backyard

I really enjoy reading short stories collections. They allow you to enter the author’s world and style, but with quicker, sometimes weirder, payoffs. Some of my favorites are multiple collections by David Mitchell, Neil Gaiman’s, Hemingway, Poe, and Nabokov.
The masters (Hemingway, Poe, Nabokov) collections are stories that appeared in magazines or other disparate sources, a fun and accessible way to read the works of the greats. I’ve never read a novel by Nabokov, but I have a sense of him and his writing from the short stories.
It’s the clever and inter-related short story collections that grab my attention. Mitchell is the best example; Ghostwritten, his first work, has common elements, like characters crossing from one story to another, or the actions and outcomes of one story directly influencing the other. Subtly, of course… the first time I read it, when it first came out in paperback, I missed most of the references. But it’s delightful to re-read, looking for the connections and the common threads. Cloud Atlas is similar, but the relationship between the stories is much more obvious and key to understanding the book, with its nesting-doll structure. As mentioned a few weeks ago, Neon Leviathan does something similar, stories set in the same post-apocalyptic world and character crossover.
These stories inspired me to consider a collection of mine. By accident, or lack of imagination, I had set a few stories in a similar world. None of them got any traction on their own, but together they may carry more weight. I enjoy having a common thread run through these stories.
In a perfect world, I’d get one or two of these stories published elsewhere, then release them as a self-published collection. I don’t have any illusions about finding a publisher for a set of short stories by an unknown author… it’s well known that short story collections don’t sell. I think it’d allow me to scratch an itch, work on something I thought was interesting (regardless of how viable it is, see early thoughts on how my tastes don’t align with what the industry likes) and learn self-publishing. Worry more about the writing than publishing.

George Saunders Story Club

Big Indian Park Snowy Stream
Big Indian Park Snowy Stream

I rotate through favorite authors. Readers of this website notice I mention often certain authors. Murakami and Mitchell in current reading, Stephen King for writing advice, and Hugh Howey and Neil Gaiman in both categories. Lately I’ve read a lot of George Saunders, especially his amazing book A Swim in the Pond in the Rain. He created a follow-up Substack to continue teaching.

Saunders, both in the book and Story Time with George Saunders, takes a short piece of literature and breaks it down. Not in a what-is-the-deeper-meaning sense, but more concretely. Why did the author do this thing? What are the questions he’s asking? The book and the continuing course are for writers, but they really make better readers. I’m blissfully unaware of the subtle things an author will do, like re-use images, subtly create a mood or an impression. Or, at least I was. One of GS’s methods is to read each piece at least twice; the first time just pay attention to your reaction. When were you curious? Interested? Bored? Then re-read and notice why you had these reactions. I’m thoroughly enjoying this approach.

As I mentioned before, GS is a huge fan of the editing process. His instructions are specific; edit and notice the parts that don’t work, and keep re-working them. Maybe dozens of times. While editing, notice themes and deeper meaning of the piece. The themes or takeaways are up to the reader, of course, but having a sense of what you are trying to say gives the piece direction.

Another key are what GS describes as pulses.

“A pulse might be a scene, but, really, it’s a unit of meaning. What makes a story a story is the way one pulse leads to the next, which produces that lovely story-feeling.

Each segment of the story should lead to the next… something like the “And then.. or of course, this happened” approach.

The biggest lesson is his examination of how much consideration goes into the descriptions and setup of each scene. An excellent author doesn’t just describe a character as they see them in their mind. Each detail either reveals something about the character, foreshadows, or ties elements of the story together. For example,

“He rose and—with the purple of his breeches, with his crimson cap tilted to one side, with the decorations hammered into his chest—cut the hut in half, as a banner cuts the sky. He smelt of perfume and the overwhelmingly sweet coolness of soap. His long legs looked like a pair of girls clad in shiny shoulder-length jackboots.” -Babel, My First Goose.

Every time I read and work through the exercises in GS’s posts, I feel a little closer to where I want to be. It certainly has made me a better reader; now I ask, what is the question the story is asking? Why do I care? What is the intent of this scene? Is it needed? Is this detail needed? Does it push the story forward? Hopefully, my output will reflect these lessons.

The Lion Tracker’s Guide to Life

Lion Tracker In the Wild

The Lion Tracker’s Guide to Life sat in my Amazon wishlist queue (fodder for another post) for a few years. I had heard the author, Boyd Varty on a lesser known podcast, put it on the wishlist but never purchased. Like many items in my wishlist, I forgot why it appealed to me. More recently, Boyd was on the Tim Ferriss show and I bought the book.

The first remarkable thing about the book is the size. It’s small, maybe only 3/4 the size of a regular book (5X7”, compared to the standard hardcover at 6X9”). And short at only 130 pages with generous spacing. I read it over three days, but one can read it cover to cover in a good afternoon. Interspersed are hand-drawn renderings of jungle animals and tracks, along with hand-written captions. Lion Tracker feels like a labor of love, something put together out of desire and need rather than commercial success. Unlike many books from well-known authors who drag one idea or concept out for 300 pages when a 2000 word web post would suffice.

Varty uses a classic device for the book. He describes, in loving detail, aspects of a track with two expert trackers. As different things happen along the trail, Varty reflects on how those lessons translate to his life. As an author, I enjoyed his seamless transition between telling the exciting and engaging story of the track with his larger life lessons. The track and his emotional journey crescendoed at the same point. One of my other favorite books, Born to Run, follows a similar path (a running race with the Tarahumara of Mexico – McDougall uses it to tell the story of natural running, the shoe industry, etc.). But Varty never wanders too far from the tracking story and keeps the reader engaged.

The two expert trackers in the story, Renias and Alex, are larger than life. Much like how a fiction author needs to create a backstory and pick scenes and dialogue to create a character, Varty gives his these two men a similar treatment. Renias is the wise leader with generations of tracker blood and knowledge. We learn his backstory but see his qualities as he actively tracks. It creates a vivid image of the two men. Varty’s respect and admiration for the two and of their profession is clear.

The Lion Tracker’s Guide to Life reminded me of another book, Death in the Tall Grass, also about tracking animals in the African jungle… yet wildly different. Death in the Tall Grass was about a big-game hunter as he tracks and kills different now-protected game, like lions and tigers and leopards. Tall Grass reflected a different age with different morals, and the authors are certainly very different. But they both lovingly and reverentially describe a world of the jungle and its inhabitants.

The Lion Tracker’s Guide to Life is a quick and engaging read. I thought about it long after I put it down. Varty tells a compact story with just enough background and exposition to hook the reader. I’d read only the active tracker story by itself. One of my favorite books of the last few years.

Like A Fine Leviathan

Mormon Trail, Phoenix

Noticing how stories work is like developing a nose for wine. When I first started drinking wine, I didn’t know how to describe the taste. Then, I learned about the finish (the last taste in your mouth), how to taste the sweetness, body, mouthfeel, smell. And recognized how my earlier meal or drink affected my taste and appreciation of the wine.

This allowed me to talk about wine to people in wine shops and sommeliers. When asked, I can tell them what we will eat with the wine, previous likes and dislikes, and characteristics that are show stoppers (dry wine with a less-than-smooth finish). I can describe what I prefer and why (Pinot grapes, smooth finish, not too sweet).

When I read the first few pages of Neon Leviathan, I couldn’t believe how different the writing seemed. Like wine, what I consumed previously mattered. As part of A Swim in the Pond in the Rain and accompanying online class, we read selections of the Russian masters and Hemingway. Prior, I read Murakami… literature. And, like having a drier wine after a sweeter one, Neon Leviathan seemed rough. For example, T.R. Napper commits a Scribophile sin of epic proportions; he tells instead of shows (gasp)

“Mister Nguyen… looking down at her with a studied grimness. Lynn stifled a sigh at the posturing.”

I can imagine the comments and redlines from my co-amateur editors for “studied grimness”. But… what is the objection? The mantra of show don’t tell is universally repeated, but I can picture Mister Nguyen and how he looked at Lynn (we learned earlier he was an older, fat, old-school crime boss). Can’t you see the how he looks at her? As I read, I constantly found lines and approaches that set off alarm bells… but they worked. In the correct context.

“Matter-of-factly, Eulalie said…”

Another example. This was from a tense exchange between a new employee and her boss. Another cardinal rule from the literature world is only to describe speaking with “said”, “asked” or “shouted”. But I can hear exactly how someone sounds in a matter-of-factly voice. Used sparingly, it enhances the visualization and reading experience.

You doesn’t need a deep knowledge of wine or understand its vocabulary to enjoy a nice Willamette Pinot Noir. But it helps when trying to find the right wine. Same with reading. I’ve struggled lately with finding the right writing style. If nothing else, I’m better at identifying what makes genre vs literature, or when the two overlap (Atwood, etc.). Which should help with submissions to publications.

*I enjoyed Neon Leviathan. Cool characters, good sense of the world, fun read.

Bold New Ideas

Orlando Soccer

What type writer am I? I can’t be a schlocky, low-quality pulpy guy or a literary writer, because of a lack of training, interests and personality. I have come back to the Hugh Howey space… interesting genre stories with subtle themes and messages. My head’s had gotten so twisted and turned, through experimentation with different writing and types of writing and endless advice that I lost sight of who I am.

The first two stories I wrote and published followed this idea. Unfair Advantage is a modern-realist story about fighting back and The Inspector’s Legacy is a post-apocalyptic story about making a tough choices. Hugh Howey’s writing, and his comments and thoughts on writing… he’s doing what I want to accomplish. His writing isn’t George Saunders or Margaret Atwood and his internal dialogue makes me wince. But he tells a compelling story with interesting characters. And he subtly infused the stories with themes and political opinions.

So where does this leave me? I’m having trouble finding a home for my completed stories (3 different pieces out to different publications). And I need to acknowledge where I am and what I can do, namely short genre stories. Which means I don’t have to adhere to all of literary writing’s rules… maybe an adverb or two isn’t the worst thing in the world. Make the stories and characters interesting, give them problems to overcome. And work on a set of stories in the same universe, much like David Mitchell. Have characters and world rules cross. Have a particular theme or idea for each story.

This path is warm and inviting. A collection of short stories. The stories will hang together… and each story can reveal a little more about the world, but still be a self-contained story.

And I’ll write it because I want to read it.