My plan is to tackle two sets of books that seem unrelated to one another and to figure out by Labor Day how to hold both of their universes in my head at once. First, the novels of Henry James: I became enthralled, a few years ago, by The American Scene, but knowing James through his nonfiction is like knowing the Beatles through their films. I’ll begin with Roderick Hudson.
The other stack has been growing for many years—the history of Eastern Europe, where I’m traveling in August, and the fate of its Jews. Possible connections to James: his famous disparagement of Lower East Side immigrants and his efforts to aid the British against imperial Germany in the last year of his life. Other than that, there is simply the coincidence of my interest in both. That has to mean something. Timothy Snyder’s recent and controversial Black Earth: The Holocaust as History and Warning seems like a good place to start.
“I’ve put in so many enigmas and puzzles,” James Joyce once said of Ulysses, “that it will keep the professors busy for centuries arguing over what I meant.” Certainly Ulysses has kept me busy, off and on, for two years, but I have no regrets: The more time you devote to it, the more satisfying it is. Ulysses is not only the most capacious novel I’ve encountered, but also one of the most comical. Still, given its density and difficulty (what, for instance, is the meaning of “Thalatta! Thalatta!” on the fourth page?), one needs assistance, and I’ve been comforted and enlightened by a trio of celebrated guides: Don Gifford’s Ulysses Annotated, Hugh Kenner’s Ulysses, and Richard Ellmann’s Ulysses on the Liffey. (For sheer pleasure, one shouldn’t neglect RTE Radio’s dramatized full production of Joyce’s epic from 1982.) As summer descends, I hope to begin Ellmann’s biography of Joyce, a book of great beauty, depth, and insight.
’Tis the season for debut short-story collections written by women. I recently finished a galley of Amie Barrodale’s You Are Having a Good Time. Just when the detriment of modern technology to contemporary relationships began to feel like a tired subject, Barrodale hit me with a totally bizarre new take. An unorthodox therapist, a mysterious woman named Koko, and an aggressive tailor are just a few of the characters who make this one of the strangest, most colorful, and ultimately unforgettable books I’ve recently read. I have faith that Helen Oyeyemi’s What Is Not Yours Is Not Yours and Fiona McFarlane’s The High Places, which also explore diverse landscapes and characters, will raise similar questions about the nuances of interpersonal relationships.