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The Ulysses Book Club

I’m so excited! We’re meeting tonight for the first session of our Ulysses Book Club! I’ve always wanted to read James Joyce’s great classic. Now I’ll finally get to read it in a book club with some intelligent, like-minded people. I got the idea from my friend, Eleanor Sweet, a retired professor of English Literature at a very important university. She recently joined another Ulysses Book Club. (Is it sweeping the nation?) Eleanor’s group read the book in 8 sessions, scheduled one week apart. That means her group read about 80 pages a session. Since we’re planning to read about 50 pages every 3 weeks, it should be easy!

Session One:

We more or less breezed through Chapters 1, 2 and 3. I must admit, it was tough going, but no one else said anything about it being difficult, so I kept my mouth shut and tried to enter the discussion.

I found the characters quite unsympathetic. Stephen Dedalus is a very young adult. He is quite self-absorbed. He had recently completed a Jesuit education, so references to Catholic theology and liturgy abound. Who cares? Also, there are many references to Shakespeare. I can understand his obsession with the Catholic faith, but why Shakespeare? Maybe I’ll understand as the reading progresses. And why are all the references to females sexualized? Every one of them is centered on naked women. Pisses me off, but this is a Great Book. Who am I to criticize or take offence?

Eleanor had suggested that we buy The Bloomsday Book, which is essentially a highbrow CliffsNotes for Ulysses. I immediately ordered a copy online upon returning home. I’m so excited that we’re actually doing this! I emailed a friend, Bob, who might join our group. I started my email describing our first session with, “We had a really good time!”

Session Two:

Perhaps we bit off more than we can chew. Our assignment this time was Chapters 4 through 7, a total of 78 pages, but who’s counting? We all admitted that this reading was too long for us, but we bravely plowed through it. Most of us now have bought The Bloomsday Book, which greatly helps us in figuring out what’s going on.

I am heartened by Eleanor Sweet’s encouraging email to me, in which she said that the copy of Ulysses found in Ernest Hemingway’s library had only the first twenty pages cut. That means that’s as far as he had gotten. I’m now at page 124. Did Ernest Hemingway have the right idea to abandon reading it?

Dennis and I are now publicly admitting to the group that we don’t like the book. The others in the book group seem to be in some sort of charmed trance. They love the book! Are they brainwashed? Amy suggests we read only 55 pages next time. She asks, “Is that enough for everyone?” There is relieved silence among the group. Dennis and I catch each other’s eyes and giggle a bit, surreptitiously.

Session Three:

This time we read Chapter 8 and 9. What a relief! Only 55 pages. I find I can read only about 3 pages an evening. After that, I want to do anything else, even housework.

I’m trying my best to enjoy Ulysses. After all, James Joyce is a great writer. Everyone says so. And who am I? A retired middle school mathematics teacher. I endeavor to get my interest up by looking up various words in the book. As a result, I entertain myself by finding out all about the history of “jujubes,” which was mentioned in the beginning of Chapter 8.

Jeanne and Irene are now listening to Ulysses performed on audiobook. They say it’s helped them enjoy the book.

Session Four:

I’m wonder if anyone else aside from me and Dennis dislikes the book. I searched Google to see if I can find any negative critical reviews of Ulysses. I found only one, from Virginia Woolf, in which she called Joyce’s writing “ultimately nauseating,” “underbred” and “pretentious.” I’ve concluded that James Joyce advocates have scoured the Internet somehow removing all other negative critical reviews of the book.

Jeanne, who claims she is still enjoying the book, has taken to calling Joyce’s writing “masturbatory.” Dennis asks rhetorically if this is like the classic Hans Christian Andersen tale, “The Emperor’s New Clothes.” I asked a Facebook friend, who is a retired college humanities professor, about it. She replied tersely that Ulysses was not among James Joyce’s most “efficient” works.

I’ve taken to putting Post-it notes on various passages as I read the book. They include, “Something’s wrong with him — he has no heart,” “This book is ‘Much Ado about Nothing’,” “Who Cares?” and “This is Sophistry.” I read these notes to the group members. Everyone seems to be angry at me. I’m not sure whether it’s because I hate the book, or if it’s because I suggested that we form the Ulysses Book Club in the first place.

Dennis has quit the group. He says he has had enough. Amy writes in an email, “Perfectly understandable decision; maybe the best one! Will miss you.” The bloom (no pun intended) seems to have come off the rose for Amy. I now suspect that she doesn’t like the book, either.

Session Five (final session):

My Post-it notes now include “So fucking what?” and “Useless drivel.” I wonder why the characters are drinking all the time?,” and “Why is Joyce so obsessed with Shakespeare?” Sandy and Amy think that having the chapters arranged like parts of Homer’s Odyssey helps them. After this experience, I never want to read any of the ancient Greek works. You’ll have to drug me, tie me up, and put me in a prison before I’ll do that!

I’ve stopped reading the book. I now read only The Bloomsday Book (a/k/a CliffsNotes), interspersed with short incursions into the current 73-page reading assignment. Life is too short!

Everyone else has trudged on and read the entire assignment. But now everyone (except Irene) hates Ulysses. Even Sandy (the one holdout who, until this session, said she “loved” the book) now hates it and won’t read anymore. Irene plans to finish Ulysses on her own. Our discussion of Ulysses now descends into discussions about sex, the Holocaust, and how the universe was formed. What fun!

Dennis has moved to Maine. His parting email comment was “Ulysses may not be meaningless but the torture one must endure to discover its meaning isn’t worth it to me.” I hope his move wasn’t because of the book club. I’ll miss him!

We’ve decided to read George Eliot’s Silas Marner next. I received an email from Irene a few days later, in which she reports, “I just finished Silas Marner. It never disappoints.

As published on HuffingtonPost.

Copyright 2017. Laurie Israel.

Laurie Israel

Laurie Israel

Laurie Israel is a founder of Israel, Van Kooy & Days, LLC, a law firm located in Brookline, Massachusetts. She combines a family law practice with estate planning, tax, mediation and collaborative law. Laurie is a former board member of the Massachusetts Council on Family Mediation and the Massachusetts Collaborative Law Council. Her writings include articles on divorce, mediation, marital mediation, and prenuptial agreements. You can find her articles on www.ivkdlaw.com, Huffington Post, and Mediate.com. She is the author of the forthcoming book The Generous Prenup: How to Support Your Marriage and Avoid the Pitfalls.
Laurie Israel

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