Archive for December, 2009

A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man by James Joyce

Posted in Book reaction/review with tags , , , , , on December 31, 2009 by JonH

There are a few books that I consider a badge of accomplishment for finishing. Not because they’re boring and I have to chew through them at any cost (I have had some of those and they were quickly cast aside as you’ll soon see), but rather because I find them very dense with metaphor, allusion, and reference making them more difficult to read quickly. The slow pace is attributed to the number of times I have to reread passages while simultaneously consulting the notes that an editor has provided for assistance in wading through the dense underbrush and scrub of literary tropes and references. For me, this makes these books more of a rewarding endeavour and thus an investment in myself more than just merely entertainment.

Most of the books that I’ve encountered like this were in the context of university. The notches on my literary belt include Edmund Spenser’s The Faerie Queene (a 16th century epic poem that thankfully has nothing to do with homosexual cross-dressers), Thomas Nashes’ picaresque novel The Unfortunate Traveller (a satirical tale of debauchery and corruption that would make Idi Amin blush), Sir Philip Sidney’s The Old Arcadia (I’m still waiting for the sequel – the New Arcadia), Aphra Behn’s Oroonoko (a 17th century story of an awkward love triangle), and, of course, John Milton’s treatise on craps, Paradise Lost.

I subjected myself to others, like Thomas Pynchon’s Vineland, on my own time. I use the word “subjected” in the dictionary sense: “person owing obedience to another.” By this I mean I had to be obedient and do what the author demands of me (i.e. read the notes, reread passage, and some cases . . . consult Wikipedia).

All of James Joyce falls into this class; and frankly, being of Irish heritage, I’ve always felt that I needed to do my cultural duty and read something by him, so I started with Finnegan’s Wake. I skipped the introduction and dove right in. Here’s what was waiting for me halfway down the page:

The great fall of the oftwall entailed at such short notice the pftschute of Finnegan, erse solid man, that the humptyhillhead of humself promptly sends an unquiring one well to the west in quest of his tumptyteetumtoes: and their upturnpikepointandplace is at the knock out in the park where oranges have been laid to rust upon the green since devlinsfirst loved livvy (3).

This is the first page of the book. I’m already lost and have no idea what he’s talking about. It goes on like this for over 600 more pages. I don’t mean to parade my ignorance around, but I’m willing to bet that I’m not the only person that is completely lost when trying to read this stuff. I flip through the book. Nothing makes any sense to me. Then I go right to the start of the introduction. Sure enough, right there in the introduction by Seamus Deane to the Penguin Classic’s Finnegan’s Wake, was my warning:

“The first thing to say about Finnegan’s Wake is that it is, in an important sense, unreadable.”

Huh? The joke’s on me, apparently. The book is unreadable, but I tried to read it . . . this paradox troubled, but didn’t deter me. (Incidentally, I truly commend anyone that can spend the necessary time reading this 626 page tome and still walk away from it with their head screwed on straight and have something meaningful to say about it.)

So clearly, I decided that if I want to read James Joyce, this is not the place to start. (In my opinion, neither is his other tome Ulysses.) I needed something entry level to get my feet wet. Enter A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. I found a copy of it in a used book store for a $1.25. I borrowed the money from my wife and scooped the book up. I was determined to join the ranks of the dozens of people before me that had read the master. This was over two months ago and I just finished it yesterday. Now, I’m not a quick reader at the best of times, but two months? Most people would probably have given up. Not me, though. I persevere.

The book was actually pretty good. The main character, Stephen Dedalus, is in many ways a literary equivalent of how I imagine Joyce himself grew up. If I had to pigeon hole the story, I would say it’s like the prototypical coming of age tale, but about nine million times deeper.

He talks about beauty: “The Greek, the Turk, the Chinese, the Copt, the Hottentot . . . all admire a different type of female beauty. That seems to be the maze out of which we cannot escape” (226);
Farts: “Did an angel speak?” (250);
Sex: “Tell me, for example, would you deflower a virgin?” asks his friend Cranly. To which Stephen replies, “Excuse me . . . is that not the ambition of most young gentlemen?” (268);

And a few other things that all the early twentieth century kids thought about as they grew up: religion (specifically Catholicism and whether or not transubstantiation is real), identity (or why it sucks to be Irish), poetry (how best to woe young maidens), women (see previous note), parents (my how they change as you get older), friends (bums, the lot of them), limbo (unbaptised kids go there – oh wait, that was repealed), and hell (he writes on this to great extent).

In the end though Stephen’s main concern is “to discover the mode of life or of art whereby your spirit could express itself in unfettered freedom” (267). Damn straight James! That’s my goal too.

Now the book is done and I’ve marked another notch on my literary belt and I’m wearing it with pride.
So, in the immortal words of Joyce, “Mickmichael’s soords shrieking schrecks through the wilkinses and neckannicholas’ toastingforks pricking prongs up the tunnybladders. Let there be fight? And there was. Foght. On the site of angels, you said? Guinney’s Gap, he said, between what they said and the pussykitties.”

Yes James, yes indeed, between the pussykitties.

He gets me every time.

New-Age Man

Posted in Editorial with tags , , , , on December 8, 2009 by JonH

This article originally appeared in EFAN’s December 2009 newsletter:

What can a man do to support his wife or partner during pregnancy?

This question is often overlooked and sometimes difficult to figure out. For men, quite often, when we find out that our partners are pregnant we somehow delude ourselves into thinking it’s business as usual for us. Sure things will change when the baby is born, but for now it’s her body that changes, it’s her moods that swing, and she’s the one with the bizarre cravings, so the ball’s in her court, right? After all, besides going to the store for pickles and ice cream, rubbing her feet on occasion and picking up after himself, what more can a guy do?

On my website I posted the simple question above asking what a man can do to support his wife or partner during pregnancy. I said, “I’m sure that women have plenty of ideas, but we want to hear from the men. So guys step up and let us know what you’ve done or plan on doing to show your support.”

I received a number of answers, but the one that intrigued me the most was the following:

“It’s a long time ago for me, and the subject matter is a bit on the “new-age man” side, so I’m going to pass on this one. The obvious response should include helping out at home, etc.”

Fair enough, I appreciate taking a pass on a question when you’re not sure how to answer it, but the few lines the respondent did provide raised a few questions of their own.

The first thing was the term itself: new-age man. What does that mean? Is a new-age man the guy that tells everybody that he and his wife are pregnant and then does his best to avoid drinking beer and eating Cheetos when his wife is looking, but invariably turns into some sort of depraved salt addict as soon as she’s out of site, jamming orange puffy banana shaped cylinders of indiscernible matter into his mouth all the while washing it down with light beer?

Doesn’t sound too new agey – maybe a bit deceptive, though.

Is a new age man someone that will participate in bizarre empathy inducing experiments such as the hangover analogue? For those of you that don’t know, morning sickness has been described by some as analogous to a hangover. In this hypothetical scenario it’s suggested that to show men how crumby morning sickness can be you take him out, wine and dine him (excessively on the former), and then when he hits the sheets for what he thinks will be a night of blissful reprieve, wake him up countless times, so his sleep is less than restful. When morning comes get him up too early with a list of chores to complete, and watch him squirm the rest of the day as you shout, “welcome to morning sickness – not too pleasant is it?”

Sounds sadomasochistic, if you ask me. And that’s not new-age that’s eighteenth century France.

Man, I’m really spinning my wheels trying to answer what a man ought to do. Let’s explore the other question that’s implied by our respondent’s comments to see if that sheds any light on what men ought to do when their wives or partners are pregnant. His comment was “the obvious response should include helping out at home, etc.”

Huh? Even though I read this, my ears perked as I did. “Honey, now that you’re pregnant I’m going to clean up after myself,” I imagine a guy saying as he helps out at home. “You’re welcome,” he adds as his wife stares at him, arms crossed. Of course, helping out around the house is obvious, but, in my mind, it’s equally obvious that this is something that should be done all the time regardless of your wife or partner’s uh, er . . . state. So, obviously what’s obvious to some is not obvious to others. Therefore, equally as obvious is the fact that we should focus on what’s not so obvious when our wives are pregnant, and what’s not so obvious are things that she’s thinking about.

Hey! Maybe that’s what a new-age man is.

Maybe he’s a guy that falls somewhere in between word and deed. In other words, he doesn’t just put on a show for his wife while she’s there by saying “we’re pregnant” (word), he works a little harder than that; but he also doesn’t go to unrealistic lengths to try and assume some sort of idealized understanding of what a pregnant woman is experiencing (deed). He understands that she’s the one who’s pregnant. He’s not, but that doesn’t diminish his role, it strengthens it.

Maybe this kind of man is a guy that doesn’t just act on what he thinks is the obvious. He understands that what’s obvious to him may not be obvious to her (and vice versa), so he’ll take the time to talk and find out what she needs. That way instead of just helping around the house, rubbing feet, and picking up ice-cream and pickles (although, I’m sure all of that is still very much appreciated), he’ll also find out what she’s thinking about and what her concerns and stresses are and he’ll help to minimize those. Maybe she’s thinking about setting up the crib, painting the walls, hanging mobiles and making the baby’s room comfortable for feeding times; perhaps she’s been feeling stress having to coordinate the myriad doctor’s appointments with all of her other day to day activities (the least of which is housekeeping – things both people are responsible for); maybe she’s obsessing on the right carseat to buy, how they’re going to baby proof the house, and what to cook for dinner tonight because it’s her night to cook.

So rather than just doing the obvious, pops-to-be will dig a bit deeper and ask before things get too stressful for his partner, and I have no doubt that this would also be reciprocated.

In the end, a new-age man is proactive. He’ll do the obvious things and he won’t assume that his partner has everything she needs. He also won’t pretend to be what he’s not: pregnant.

The Fantastic Mr. Fox

Posted in Review with tags , , , on December 1, 2009 by JonH

Usually date night for my wife and me consists of eating dinner (either take out or home cooked) and then some sort of nap time followed by a nice quiet evening of repose in front of the tube sitting in silence eating potato chips or bonbons, whichever are closer at hand. But this time that wasn’t to be. No sir, we needed romance. This time my wife decided that we were going to do something different. She woke me up from my post sup stupor and told me we were going to a movie.

Alright! I thought. I love movies. My taste runs from Midnight Meat Train to Sexy Beast; from Fried Green Tomatoes to Star Wars. I didn’t know what was playing, but I’m pretty open-minded, so I was pretty excited about the idea of going to see one . . . that is until we got to the theatre.

We scanned the marquee and tacitly scratched each movie off as we went down the list: New Moon – holding out ‘til I see the first one; Ninja Assassin, 2012 – grounds for divorce if suggested; Old Dogs – too young; The Road – not romantic enough; The Men Who Stare at Goats and Pirate Radio – both start in an hour and we didn’t want to see a movie that badly.

That left us with Precious, and The Fantastic Mr. Fox.

I hate to say it, but even though my wife said that the reviews for Precious were good, I couldn’t bring myself to go see a movie that starred Mariah Carey. There’s something about that woman that gets on my onions. So that left us with The Fantastic Mr. Fox. So be it, I thought to myself. I have no idea what this movie is about, but let the romance begin. We grabbed our popcorn, settled into our seats, and I honestly thought to myself, “as long as you hold her hand she won’t be mad if you fall asleep.”

But as soon as the movie started sleep was the furthest thing from my mind. I was absolutely entranced by The Fantastic Mr. Fox. From the stop motion photography (the digging and eating scenes are hilarious) and the beautiful set designs to the rich character development and dialogue (watch how he and his lawyer argue) everything pulled me in.

The movie tells the story of a very charming and dapper fox (George Clooney) that has a penchant for living on the . . .er . . . wild side. The movie starts out with Mr. Fox and his wife Felicity (Meryl Streep) sneaking, somewhat acrobatically, into a farmer’s chicken coop to steal some chickens. They get the chickens, but without revealing too much about the plot, his wife asks him to give up his wild ways and settle down, which he does.

For a while.

A few years pass and Mr. Fox decides on one final job. He enlists the services of his friend the opossum, Kylie (Wally Wolodarsky) to formulate and carry out the plan with him. They don their bandit hats and set out to steal from each one of the three farmers, Boggis, Bunce, and Bean.

Suffice to say things get a bit out of hand.

The film has an all-star cast of voices – each perfect in helping to develop its character’s depth, but this is only a small part of the movie’s appeal. The movie’s appeal lies largely in the fact that it is a good story told well and at the end of the day what more can you ask of a movie? In the end, while it may not be exactly conducive to romance it is very entertaining and I wouldn’t hesitate to suggest it to anyone regardless of age.