Briefly noted: ‘A Skeleton Key to Finnegans Wake’

“They lived and laughed and loved and left.” 
― James Joyce, Finnegans Wake

James Joyce is my favorite author, most especially his novels Ulysses and A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. With a minor in English, it was only natural and expected that I would study both of these books in school. School didn’t assign Finnegans Wake; perhaps they saved it for English majors and those working on a masters or doctoral degree. Or, perhaps the faculty was scared of the book.

I love the book, possibly for the language and the historical and cultural references and its endless puns and other humor. I also love chaos, and because of this, I suggest that people reading it for the first time should just go with the flow, setting aside worries or concerns about what it all means for a subsequent journey through the masterpiece.

If you want help, there’s help out there. If you want industrial-strength help, one option is Roland McHugh’s Annotations to Finnegans Wake. If you want getting-started help, then the 1944 A Skeleton Key to Finnegans Wake by Joseph Campbell, Henry Morton Robinson, and editor Edmond Epstein will save most of your sanity. Before this book was published, I don’t think readers–or English department professors–thought it was possible for anyone to understand, much less explain Finnegans Wake.

Publisher’s Description: “Since its publication in 1939, countless would-be readers of Finnegans Wake — James Joyce’s masterwork that consumed a third of his life — have given up after a few pages and dismissed it as a ‘perverse triumph of the unintelligible.’ In 1944, a young professor of mythology and literature named Joseph Campbell, working with poet Henry Morton Robinson, wrote the first key or guide to entering the fascinating, disturbing, marvelously rich world of Finnegans Wake. The authors break down Joyce’s abstruse book page by page, stripping the text of much of its obscurity and serving up thoughtful interpretations via footnotes and bracketed commentary. A Skeleton Key was Campbell’s first book, published five years before he wrote his breakthrough Hero with a Thousand Faces.”

In her June 2018 MythBlast| Mythic Mavericks essay on the Joseph Campbell Foundation website, Leigh Melander writes that “For years I have been intrigued with what I perceive as a particularly Celtic sensibility, an ability to dance on the knife’s edge between insight and nonsense, tragedy and comedy, sacred and profane. Not to say that only those of Celtic antecedents have this ability, of course, but there seems to be a profound and specific love for this dance in Celtic myth, story, and literature.”

An apt phrase as the foundation celebrates James Joyce this month, the man–whom I believe–knew how to dance on that knife’s edge. Skeleton Key, says Melander, “Has lasted as the bedrock unlocking of Joyce’s profanely sacred nonsensical insights for generations of scholars and readers.” To be sure, more intensive books have been written in the last 74 years to help readers decypher the the enigma people perceive in this novel, but Campbell’s and Robinson’s work is a sound first step to breaking the code.

Susan G. Hauser wrote in her her “‘Finnegans Wake’ Breakdown,” in Salon that “We had come to realize that reading Finnegans Wake without assistance was akin to crossing the Sahara without a camel.” That’s not a surprising assessment inasmuch as some of the purported best critics in the known universe proclaimed before the ink was drying on the novel’s first edition that it was unintelligible, and later, that it is “the greatest book that nobody’s ever read.”

Hauser says that the group of friends who came together to read, discuss, and understand Joyce’s novel “Began with the same resolute spirit displayed by Stephen Dedalus at the end of ‘A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.’ We felt we were doing a noble and brave thing, though we never dared to compare ourselves to the Wake’s first readers. To our mind they were just as courageous as the first people who ever tried eating lobster.”

Perhaps you should read Hauser’s article before you try reading Finnegans Wake. If you are brave–and not one of these people who tends to ask “what’s the worst that could possibly happen?”–and decide to tackle the Wake, you’ll probably order a copy of Skeleton Key after reading the first several pages.

Blind luck might suffice, but I doubt it.

Malcolm R. Campbell

Campbell is the author of the magical realism Florida Folk Magic Series of novels that includes Conjure Woman’s Cat” and “Eulalie and Washerwoman.” Coming soon, the final novel in the trilogy, “Lena.”

 

 

Review: ‘Newberry Sin’ by C. Hope Clark

Newberry SinNewberry Sin by C. Hope Clark
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Readers of C. Hope Clark’s Carolina Slade Mystery Series (“Low Country Bribe,” “Tidewater Murder,” and “Palmetto Poison”) didn’t see Ms. Slade for several years while the author was working on her Edisto Island Mysteries. It’s a pleasure meeting Slade again in “Newberry Sin.”

Newberry has a potential murder, a truckload of motives and prospective suspects, and, of course, enough sin to require the use of oven mitts while reading this mystery. Slade and her petty boss are in town for a radio show when a local man dies under suspicious circumstances. Even though USDA investigator Slade befriends a potential confidential informant, her boss–who has a grudge against her–assigns a less-experienced investigator to the case and orders Slade to stay away from Newberry.

Slade is a somewhat less self-assured investigator in this book than in earlier stories. She has good reason to be. Her boss assigns her nothing but administrative assistant duties, there are emotional issues at home and conflicts with her boyfriend, and the looming reality that she will probably be fired if she follows up on her informant’s constant pleas for help. This mix results in a somewhat muddled approach to the case at the outset, and she makes a few mistakes that don’t help.

However, readers of “Newberry Sin” will discover a deeper, more complex Slade in this novel as she wrestles with personal and chain-of-command issues while trying to sort out who might have killed whom and why. The book starts out at a high pitch and never slows down. Every page brings a new revelation or incident that clearly shows Newberry will get worse before it gets better.

Slade doesn’t want to become one of the casualties or let the bad guys get away with whatever they’re trying to do to a nice town (except for its contagious gossip).

I wanted to savor this novel for a week or so, but I couldn’t because the plot made me feel like I was riding a bat out of hell with no brakes. Slade seems to have a similar opinion.

I received a free ARC (advance readers copy) of “Newberry Sin” in exchange for an honest review.

My 2012 review of “Low Country Bribe” is here.

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Malcolm

Review: ‘Beasts of Extraordinary Circumstance’ by Ruth Emmie Lang

Beasts of Extraordinary CircumstanceBeasts of Extraordinary Circumstance by Ruth Emmie Lang
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The first sentence of the publisher’s description sounds like a writing prompt: “Orphaned, raised by wolves, and the proud owner of a horned pig named Merlin, Weylyn Grey knew he wasn’t like other people.” Going back to the Romulus and Remus myth and wolves appearances in fairy tales, the notion about a young boy growing up amongst wolves is old and filled with so much symbolism that it’s almost archetypal.

As a writer, I like playing “what if?” So, it would be interesting to hear that Lang stumbled across such a writing prompt and wondered what would happen if she made a serious attempt to create an engaging story out of it. “Beasts of Extraordinary Circumstance” is definitely engaging. It’s also beautifully written. However, in a recent interview with “Library Journal,” Lang said the story arose out of an idea about an adept beekeeper, and I don’t see it as a spoiler to say that Weylyn knows a lot about bees.

This is a nearly wonderful debut novel. It’s been praised in reader and editorial reviews that are well deserved. Lang has great promise as a successful author, but I hope that in subsequent novels, she develops a stronger focus. The story is told through multiple points of view, some more relevant than others. While this approach serves to make Weylyn more mysterious, it also introduces us to some characters that don’t have recurring or important roles to play. This dilutes the book’s focus because, in spite of the truths the weaker of these characters have to offer, we have no reason to care about these people or to appreciate their intrusion into the story.

The book is billed as magical realism. That’s probably the “proper” genre for it. However, the book is more of a mythic story or fairy tale because the its realism is weak–and it shouldn’t be. While Lang’s wont for Weylyn to drift in and out of other people’s lives is realistic and well handled, the wolves–and to some extent, the bees and other critters–are unrealistic. Weylyn knows what he knows about wolves and bees from his own unique talents and experiences. Yet, the wolves and bees are present in the story when Weylyn isn’t involved and their actions need a stronger basis in fact-based truths about how they would interact “in real life” with people who aren’t magical.

The lack of realism reduces the impact of the novel’s magic. The extraneous characters muddy the novel’s focus and keep readers forever at an arm’s length from Weylyn. I liked reading “Beasts of Extraordinary Circumstance,” but was distracted by the missing components that could have made it a much stronger story.

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Malcolm

Malcolm R. Campbell is the author of contemporary fantasy, paranormal, and magical realism novels and short stories. His most recent magical realism novels are “Conjure Woman’s Cat” and “Eulalie and Washerwoman.”

Review: ‘Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stane’

Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stane (Scots Edition)Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stane by J.K. Rowling
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This buik is a joy tae read fur o’ tis inventive ‘n’ sprightly translation intae standard Scots by Scootlund leid expert Matthew Fitt. Some fowk say it’s mair fin than Rowling’s Sassenach edition. Ah gree. Th’ wurds fair jump aff th’ page. If ye dinnae speak Scots, dinnae fash yersel aboot it. Maist Sassenach speakers wull be able tae figure it oot, mibbie wi’ a bawherr o’ hulp fae an online translator. “Harry Potter ‘n’ th’ Philosopher’s Stane” is mair fin that a barrel o’ doolies (goblins. )

Thare is plenty o’ cantrip ‘ere fur Harry Potter’s mukkers.

–Malcolm

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Review: Jane Harper’s ‘Force of Nature’

Force of Nature (Aaron Falk, #2)Force of Nature by Jane Harper
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

When the Bailey Tennants accounting firm takes two employee groups into a rugged Australian mountain forest for an annual weekend of “team building,” the men’s group returns ahead of schedule and the women’s group straggles back to civilization late, injured, scared, and in a fighting mood, indicating that its working together skills need more attention. The group is also missing the bossy, opinionated Alice who apparently wandered off and got lost; statements from Lauren, Beth, Bree and Jill about just how that happened are vague and contradictory.

Federal Police Agent Aaron Falk (who first appeared in Harper’s “The Dry” in 2017) and his partner Carmen are pulled into the investigation because Alice has been providing them with evidence of the company’s illegal activities. Aaron and Carmen can’t help but wonder who, if anyone, discovered there was a whistle blower in their midst. And then, too, a serial killer used to call those mountains home.

Harper deftly handles the storyline by alternating her chapters between the present day investigation and the prior day-to-day troubles of the women’s group on the trail. In the here-and-now-investigation chapters, Falk, the local police, and the rangers find a tangled web of possibilities about what might of happened to Alice. Is she still alive?

In the up-close-and-personal chapters showing a women’s group starting a normal hike into the wilderness and then trying to find its way out alive, readers see that tensions, tempers, and mistakes are worse than police suspect.

Everyone, including Falk, has a past that complicates their reactions to the majestic wilderness. Falk carries memories of his father’s lonely hikes in those isolated mountains and wishes the family’s past had played out differently. Each of the women not only has personal and professional issues with the others in the group, but is distracted by unsettling family problems that keep pulling their focus away from making sensible decisions in a setting where terrain and weather always have the upper hand. So much for creating a cohesive team.

Harper clearly knows how to tell an exciting story and keep her readers guessing about what really happened until the final pages of the aptly titled “Force of Nature.”

Malcolm

Malcolm R. Campbell is the author of contemporary fantasy, paranormal, and magical realism short stories and novels.

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‘American Trinity’ – Devastating perspectives about how the West was won

American Trinity: Jefferson, Custer, and the Spirit of the West, by Larry Len Peterson, Sweetgrass Books (August 1, 2017), 728 pages.

How did we “win” the west?

Our legends, movies, and novels present derring-do accounts of triumphs over a wondrous, yet dangerous environment; perseverance against inhospitable weather; heroic families and individuals undergoing multiple hardships in a search for the promised land; and surviving battles with rustlers, gunslingers and Indians.

Our high school history books presented Manifest Destiny as the the holy grail of America’s consciousness facilitated by soldiers, missionaries, and heroes who–sanctioned by reason, wisdom, and the Almighty–kicked the snakes out of Eden and made it accessible to pioneers, family farms, and continental commerce.

The focus of this well-researched, scholarly and accessible book comes from Peterson’s statement in the preface: “I have been haunted by the question: who were we and who are we as Americans and a nation? I believe a nation is defined by the people who create its history, and they are remembered by the authors who write their biographies. Reflecting on that era and all its symbolic meaning, I’ve wrestled with explanations to make sense of why the Indian’s way of life was destroyed and what authority justified it.”

The short answers to “what authority justified it,” which are presented in his broad-in-scope book that carries readers deep into the past for information, are religion, disease, the principles of the Enlightenment, European colonization, Social Darwinism, and military force.

American Trinity was named Best Nonfiction Book of 2017 by True West magazine.

From the Publisher: “American Trinity is for everyone who loves the American West and wants to learn more about the good, the bad, and the ugly. It is a sprawling story with a scholarly approach in method but accessible in manner. In this innovative examination, Dr. Larry Len Peterson explores the origins, development, and consequences of hatred and racism from the time modern humans left Africa 100,000 years ago to the forced placement of Indian children on off-reservation schools far from home in the late 1800s. Along the way, dozens of notable individuals and cultures are profiled. Many historical events turned on the lives of legendary Americans like the “Father of the West” Thomas Jefferson, and the “Son of the West” George Armstrong Custer – two strange companions who shared an unshakable sense of their own skills – as their interpretation of truths motivated them in the winning of the West.”

From reviewer Stuart Rosebook, “Truewest Magazine”: “Readers will quickly discover that the strength of Peterson’s American Trinity’s is in the depth of his research and personal introspection throughout his 725-page book. As Peterson states in his Preface & Acknowledgments: “The American Trinity is older and bigger than the American West. It is the story of the grand sweep of human experiences and their eventual influence on white racist attitudes toward Native Americans. History is important. When there is no knowledge of the past, there cannot be a vision of the future.”

Peterson, in the words of his editor, writes Jim Cornelius in “Frontier Partisans,” set out to “challenge views without demanding that you change yours.” He is not grinding an ideological ax – but he is facing up to some difficult history. A man of deep faith, Peterson wrestles with the role religion played in justifying conquest and the stripping of culture away from native peoples. A doctor and a man of science, he grapples with the use of ‘scientific racism’ to rationalize oppression.”

We think we know the west from watching “Bonanza,” “Gunsmoke” and “How the West Was Won.” The reality of the west and why we were drawn there as a young nation is much deeper and wider than TV serials and movies suggest. That reality not only prompts us to ask our ancestors “what were you thinking?” but prompts us to reassess what we’re thinking now.

–Malcolm

 

 

 

Review: ‘Madame ZeeZee’s Nightmare’

If you’re taking a dance class and its members find out you’re a writer and ask you to write a murder mystery about the class, what will you do? I happen to know author Pat Bertram has been taking a dance class or two or three and that her friends thought such a novel would be a real hoot.

That said, I’m surprised that Pat’s publisher didn’t put a disclaimer at the beginning of the novel that claimed “No dance class members were killed during the writing of this book.” But, Pat and her publisher Indigo Sea Press threw caution to the winds, so one wonders where the fiction begins and the truth ends–and vice versa.

The result is a very readable hoot.

When the students at a small town’s studio class find out that one of them is an author, they think it would be fun for her to write a novel about their classes in which one is killed and everybody else is a suspect. A superstitious person would know such games lead to real trouble; so would anyone who suspects the fates have a dark sense of humor. But they don’t stop to think about consequences. One of them even volunteers to be the victim. The rest of them talk about motives and murder methods.

But then somebody dies and the book thing is no longer a game. Suffice it to say, the cops are not amused by the book idea and think the writer is the killer. In this dandy mystery, everyone has a secret, a reason for covering it up, and a possible motive. The characters are well developed, the introspective protagonist wonders if she inadvertently set the stage for a murder by agreeing to write a murder mystery based on the dance class, and the cops tell her that in real life, most amateur sleuths and up dead or worse.

Readers who love mysteries will enjoy this book. Writers who write mysteries will consider being more careful when pretending to kill off their friends in a novel. And those who’ve been thinking of taking a dance class will see the story as a cautionary tale.

Pat (More Deaths Than One, Daughter I Am) has, with Madame ZeeZee’s Nightmare, written another compelling story.

Malcolm