Adventures in Rereading: The Sixteenth of June by Maya Lang

Last year I reviewed Tenth of December by George Saunders on its title date; this year I couldn’t resist rereading one of my favorites from 2014 for today’s date (which just so happens to be Bloomsday, made famous by James Joyce’s Ulysses), The Sixteenth of June.

I responded to the novel at length when it first came out. No point in reinventing the wheel, so here are mildly edited paragraphs of synopsis from my review for The Bookbag:

Maya Lang’s playful and exquisitely accomplished debut novel, set on the centenary of the original Bloomsday, transplants many characters and set pieces from Ulysses to near-contemporary Philadelphia. Don’t fret, though – even if, like me, you haven’t read Ulysses, you’ll have no trouble following the thread. In fact, Lang dedicates her book to “all the readers who never made it through Ulysses (or haven’t wanted to try).” (Though if you wish to spot parallels, pull up any online summary of Ulysses; there is also a page on Lang’s website listing her direct quotations from Joyce.)

On June 16, 2004, brothers Leopold and Stephen Portman have two major commitments: their grandmother Hannah’s funeral is happening at the local synagogue in the morning; and their parents’ annual Bloomsday party will take place at their opulent Delancey Street home in the evening. Around those two thematic poles – the genuine emotions of grief and regret on the one hand, and the realm of superficial entertainment on the other – the novel expands outward to provide a nuanced picture of three ambivalent twenty-something lives.

The third side of this atypical love triangle is Nora, Stephen’s best friend from Yale – and Leo’s fiancée. Nora, a trained opera singer, is still reeling from her mother’s death from cancer one year ago. She’s been engaging in self-harming behavior, and Leo – a macho, literal-minded IT consultant – just wants to fix her. Nora and Stephen, by contrast, are sensitive, artistic souls who seem better suited to each other. Stephen, too, is struggling to find a meaning in death, but also to finish his languishing dissertation on Virginia Woolf.

Literature is almost as potent a marker of upper-class status as money here: some of the Portmans might not have even read Joyce’s masterpiece, but that doesn’t stop them name-dropping and maintaining the pretense of being well-read. While Lang might not mimic the extremes of Joyce’s stream-of-consciousness style, she prioritizes interiority over external action by using a close third-person voice that shifts between her main characters’ points of view. Their histories and thoughts are revealed mostly through interior monologues and conversations. Lang’s writing is full of mordant shards of humor; one of my favorite lines was “No one in a eulogy ever said, She watched TV with the volume on too loud.”


During my rereading, I was captivated more by the portraits of grief than by the subtle intellectual and class differences. I appreciated the characterization and the Joycean peekaboo, and the dialogue and shifts between perspectives still felt fresh and effortless. I could relate to Stephen and Nora’s feelings of being stuck and unsure how to move on in life. And the ending, which I’d completely forgotten, was perfect. I didn’t enjoy this quite as much the second time around, but it’s still a treasured signed copy on my shelf.

My original rating (June 2014):

My rating now:

Readalikes: Writers & Lovers by Lily King and The Emperor’s Children by Claire Messud (my upcoming Doorstopper of the Month).

(See also my review of Lang’s recent memoir, What We Carry.)

 

Alas, I’ve also had a couple of failed rereading attempts recently…

Everything Is Illuminated by Jonathan Safran Foer (2002)

I remembered this as a zany family history quest turned into fiction. A Jewish-American character named Jonathan Safran Foer travels to (fictional) Trachimbrod, Ukraine to find the traces of his ancestors and, specifically, the woman who hid his grandfather from the Nazis. I had totally forgotten about the comic narration via letters from Jonathan’s translator/tour guide, Alexander, who fancies himself a ladies’ man and whose English is full of comic thesaurus use (e.g. “Do not dub me that,” “Guilelessly yours”). This was amusing, but got to be a bit much. I’d also forgotten about the dense magic realism of the historical sections. As with A Visit from the Goon Squad, what felt dazzlingly clever on a first read (in January 2011) failed to capture me a second time. [35 pages]

Interestingly, Foer’s mother, Esther, released a memoir earlier this year, I Want You to Know We’re Still Here. It’s about the family history her son turned into quirky autofiction: a largely fruitless trip he took to Ukraine to research his maternal grandfather’s life for his Princeton thesis, and a more productive follow-up trip she took with her older son in 2009. Esther Safran Foer was born in Poland and lived in a German displaced persons camp until she and her parents emigrated to Washington, D.C. in 1949. Her father committed suicide in 1954, making him almost a belated victim of the Holocaust. The stories she hears in Ukraine – of the slaughter of entire communities; of moments of good luck that allowed her parents to, separately, survive and find each other – are remarkable, but the book’s prose, while capable, never sings. Plus, she references her son’s novel so often that I wondered why someone would read her book when they could read his instead.

 

On Beauty by Zadie Smith (2005)

This was an all-time favorite when it first came out. I remembered a sophisticated homage to E.M. Forster’s Howards End, featuring a biracial family in Cambridge, Mass. I remembered no specifics beyond a giant music store and (embarrassingly) an awkward sex scene. Howard Belsey’s long-distance rivalry with a fellow Rembrandt scholar gets personal when the Kipps family relocates from London to the Boston suburbs for Monty to be the new celebrity lecturer at the same college. Howard is in the doghouse with his African-American wife, Kiki, after having an affair. The Belsey boy and Kipps girl have an awkward romantic history. Zora Belsey is smitten with a lower-class spoken word poet she meets after a classical concert in the park when they pick up each other’s Discmans by accident (so dated!). All of the portraits felt like stereotypes to me, and there was so much telling, so much backstory, so many unnecessary secondary characters. Before I would have said this was my obvious Women’s Prize winner of winners, but now I have no idea what I’ll vote for. [107 pages]

 

Currently rereading: Watership Down by Richard Adams, Ella Minnow Pea by Mark Dunn, Dreams from My Father by Barack Obama

To reread soon: Heaven’s Coast by Mark Doty & Animal, Vegetable, Miracle by Barbara Kingsolver

 

Done any rereading lately?

27 responses

  1. You’re very good at re-reading. I would like to do more, but I have trouble getting through all my first-time-round books.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’ve made more of an effort with rereading this year than ever before; most years I only manage 2-3 rereads. My stacks are still mostly composed of new or new-to-me reads, but by sticking in the occasional reread every couple of weeks I’m making some progress through the shelf of potentials I set aside late last year.

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  2. The Sixteenth of June sounds rather lovely’ You’ve clinched the deal by comparing it to the King and Messud, both of which I loved.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’ve never been interested in reading Ulysses, but that’s not a problem: I’m culturally familiar enough with it to recognize some of the themes and incidents that Lang drew on. This happened to be a good companion read alongside the Messud.

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  3. If The Sixteenth of June compares well with the King then I shall definitely be looking out for a copy. I’m interested in your response to On Beauty. A librarian friend of mine disliked it so much that she put her copy on the counter for anyone who wanted it. As I trusted her judgment I’ve never got round to reading it.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I read On Beauty on a two-week loan from Hampshire Libraries way back when, and got this copy cheap from a charity shop a few years back, looking forward to a reread. I normally love a campus novel, and I must have enjoyed Smith’s arch style and commentary on race and class. But it didn’t work for me this time. I haven’t gotten on with Smith’s several most recent books, in fact, so it might be time to admit defeat with her. My copy has now gone into the Little Free Library.

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  4. Oh that’s interesting about On Beauty because I loved it when it first came out (I don’t remember an abnormal sex scene though!) and it made me re-read Howards End, too! I have not been keen on any of hers after this one either.

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    1. I remember loving the homage/pastiche element of this one when I first read it, and although I could see the start of it with the rapper character, it didn’t draw me in enough to see this through to the end. (SPOILER: Howard sleeps with the Kipps girl and she puts on a porn-level performance, including offering him, erm, another opening.)

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  5. Yes, as it happens! I re-read 780 pages of Dune this month for book group – I had planned to skim, but got involved and read all the way through again. I’m also currently re-reading Electricity by Ray Robinson as I just saw the film and wanted to compare. Both are brilliant.

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    1. That’s a big rereading commitment! I think my mother once had Dune for her book club, but she couldn’t get through it.

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  6. I’d never heard of this before but it sounds wonderful! I wish I reread more to be honest.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Trust me, I understand: It’s hard to fit in rereading when one is desperate to read so many new books, and the unread books from one’s own shelves!

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  7. I’ve not heard of this novel either but it sounds good. I really loved The Emperor’s Children when it came out. I have been rereading more this year than usual, since it helps me anxiety to revisit favorite books (and I’ve experienced a lot more anxiety than usual, not surprisingly!) Still, “more” rereading for me is 3 books so far this year, since, as you say, there are so many new and unread books!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I agree there’s something comforting about sitting down with an old friend of a book 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  8. Interesting re-reading experiences! It makes sense to me that the Foer suffered the same fate as the Egan, although I’ve not read the Foer for the first time. I read On Beauty as an undergrad and didn’t get on with it, and have actually been considering re-reading it to see if there was something I missed… but everything you say about it is basically what I thought about it first time round, so I probably won’t bother! I think Smith took such a huge leap forward as a novelist with NW and Swing Time.

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    1. NW is the only one of her novels I haven’t read. I did pick it up once and barely got 20 pages in. I have vague intentions to read it someday, but I can’t say I’m very enthusiastic.

      Liked by 1 person

  9. The Sixteenth of June sounds like one I should look out for. On rereading – I’ve been thinking about it a lot in the last few days because I’ve just finished Tim Pears’ West Country Trilogy, which I loved. I would begin again tomorrow for the quality of the writing etc but there are a few standout pieces which truly shocked me along the way (in a good way, I should add) and I am unlikely to forget them no matter how much time passes before I try reading again. So I’m wondering if – knowing these various unexpected turns of events – could I possibly enjoy the books as much again? My current decision is that the books are too good to set aside permanently and it may be interesting to experience them knowing what lies between their pages. That said, I can’t ever seeing them having the same impact again. Sadly.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. During this rereading project (ongoing, but concentrated in 2020), I’m interested to see if I can figure out the ideal period between reading and rereading. I’ve read one nonfiction book two years in a row and that was far too soon; it ended up being tedious on the second read. Most of the books I’ve been rereading have been after 10-15 years, yet I still very much enjoyed the Lang and that was only after 6 years — but it was more than long enough for me to have forgotten all the significant details, and the ending. I will keep tabs and see if I can come up with a hypothesis!

      I’ve not read any Pears yet, but I have one of his books on my summer reading stack: In the Place of Fallen Leaves, for its heatwave setting but also for the author’s surname somewhat tying into my food and drink theme for 20 Books of Summer. I’m looking forward to it.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. That is one of this most well-known books I think. The trilogy are his three most recent and may appeal to you because of their nature content. My guess is that I will reread them sooner rather than later. What you are finding with your rereading is interesting. I shall consider the time spans between those rereads I have done and what correlations there may be with the reading experience second time around.

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  10. Alyson Woodhouse | Reply

    I’ve always enjoyed re-reading, as I don’t think anyone ever reads exactly the same book twice. I also find that I am more likely to retain memories of the mood, tone or themes of a book over its plot, so the actual stories, and even the behavior of characters remain comparratively fresh for me when I am re-reading.

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    1. Definitely. I almost always forget most of what happens in a book. I might remember one or two incidents, and some character dynamics, but a lot can be fresh for me on a reread.

      Liked by 1 person

    2. Very good points, Alyson. And I agree with you. There are certain books I can reread several times and find new things on each occasion. The books I mentioned in my original reply to Rebecca, just above your comment, are definitely exceptions. I must try to get a review of them together and consider them further!

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  11. I love that you have been reviewing these two books on the dates which correspond with their titles! Do you have other candidates in mind for this too? (You don’t have to name the titles, in order to keep them a surprise!)

    It sounds like you and Zadie Smith are not a good match then. Have you also tried her essays, I wonder? My other question was whether you had, by chance, read the Forster novel in closer proximity to On Beauty on your first reading of On Beauty? I think the brilliance of On Beauty is the way it relates to, connects to, (Always connect!) Forster’s narrative. Even phrasing and structure, she got that so right.

    Also, I can’t believe you have the gumption to reread Watership Down. (And I can’t even say why that is without risking spoilers.)

    You know that I’m rereading some Carol Shields these days. I’m also rereading the first book in a science-fiction series by Vonda McIntyre, and a couple of childhood favourites (a summer thing for me). Like you, I’ve been doing more rereading this year than usual.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I don’t think I have a single other book title that mentions a date! Alas, as that would be a very interesting project. (An occasional commenter here is doing a project gathering books SET on particular dates.)

      I loved White Teeth at the time, though not as much as On Beauty on that first read (I had probably read Howards End just a year or two before at uni). I’ve read the earlier collection of her essays but failed to get into NW, her short story collection or her recent essay collection, so I think she and I have parted ways.

      It had been 27 (!) years since I read Watership Down, so my memory of it was zilch. Literally, rabbits in peril: that’s all I could tell you. I’m amazed at how gripping I found it as a child, because man, is it slow and detailed. So many nature descriptions, so many vocab words I couldn’t have known at age 9…

      Liked by 1 person

      1. buriedinprint

        Both would be interesting projects. Years filled with books.

        You must have been attending to the important parts when you were a kid, and now you’re attending to the important parts, but there are more of them.

        I remember thinking, when I finally did read it (as a full-grown adult, because I saw the film when I was about the same age as you read the book for the first time) that I wouldn’t enjoy the italicized and cultural bits, but they ended up being one of the aspects of the book I most enjoyed. Are you simply not enjoying it, or is it a matter of time to adjust your expectations? He has a couple of other books I’ve been curious about too.

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    2. I’m enjoying Watership Down well enough, but it has been very slow going. One chapter, or even just part of one, at a sitting. I’ll finish it sometime this year, but I’m not in a hurry.

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